Fire and motion

On Identity and Brand

skyshot_250.jpgThe icon to the right is the avatar I've been using for the past five years.  Before that, I'd been using an icon made from a photo we called the nose-biter.  I think you can figure that one out.

Ever since I started using avatars, I've really liked the idea that my online friends could identify posts by me quickly.  I make it a point to try to use the same avatar at different sites, and I try to use an avatar that's somewhat distinctive.  A couple of the things I liked about the old avatar was the predominance of the color blue, and that I wasn't doing a traditional head shot, but that it still suggested me by my physical appearance.

I got the itch to make a new avatar, but I had a few guidelines in mind.  I'm only getting older, so I'm even less interested in having to see my own mug head-on at the social sites I visit.  In opposition to that, I still want my online friends to have at least a rough idea of what I look like, and I want the new avatar to be reminiscent of the old avatar.

pixel_art_watermark_256.pngThis time I was going to take a crack at a pixel-art version of myself.  I'm a fan of Andrew Gleeson's artwork, and decided to take inspiration from his style.  With any luck when my friends see my new avatar, their favorite chiptune song will spring to mind, and they'll recall good times playing fun, simple video games.

I managed to retain the field of blue as the negative space around my head.  And my head still only takes a small fraction of the space.  It manages to be a straight-on head shot that suggests my physical appearance without actually being a photo of me.

I think I can live with this for a while. Let's see how it goes!

Choosing a Cloud-based Backup Solution

Here's a comparison of some potential cloud backup solutions. I'd like to backup some desktop application settings to the cloud, user content from all the members of my family, and content from our mobile devices. It seems like every member of my family has different tastes in music, and we can't stop taking videos and photos.

backup-cost-comparison-2013.gif

Dropbox

Dropbox is a great tool, and it solves the problem of storing user content in the cloud. And it's free for the first 2 to 18 GB. (That's why the Dropbox line is blurry. The amount you get for free depends on what you do for them.) But it becomes $10.00 a month after that up to 100GB. and then more after that. And it doesn't backup certain non-Dropbox directories.

Microsoft SkyDrive offers a handy comparison of similar services, and it compares favorably in many cases. But all the services have similar drawbacks with regard to which media get backed up, and how media is shared or not shared across different accounts, each of which has to be paid for individually. By the way, you can check your current Google Drive storage here.

iCloud

For the members of the family that have iOS devices, we could backup to iCloud for free, up to 5GB. I really like that the backups would be effortless. But 5GB isn't very much for our photos, videos, and music nowadays. If we need more space, we could upgrade an iCloud or more, and our devices could share iClouds, but each cloud caps out at 55GB, and who would share which clouds? If our devices share clouds, would they have to sync the same media? That's not really what we want, and it doesn't help me out with my PC backup.

Dreamhost Backup

As a customer of Dreamhost, I get a free-for-the-first 50GB backup plan. That's quite decent. I'm using it already to backup my desktop. I love that the backup is done via rsync over ssh. It's flexible, smart, and encrypts my data on its way to the server in the cloud. But it's a single server in the cloud, and as such, it's a single point of failure. After the first 50GB, it's $0.10 per GB per month.

That's great for the desktop so far. But it doesn't help with the heldheld devices unless I have them sync to the desktop, and then have the desktop sync to the cloud. That'd require user action, and that's a point of failure.

DreamObjects

Dreamhost offers high availability space (data is replicated three times, with immediate consistency) in the cloud for effective prices of under $0.07 per GB for developers. As an early adopter, I got in at a promotional rate. For the first 10 GB, DreamObjects isn't the cheapest solution, but after around 60 GB, then DreamObjects becomes a great solution based on price.

DreamObjects don't transfer via ssh, so if I want to encrypt my data, I have to do it myself. For data that doesn't need encryption, I can use boto-rsync which is like rsync. (Note that I linked to a fork that includes the "--exclude" argument.) For data that needs encryption, I'd do it with duplicity.

Of course, it's got the same problem as Dreamhost Backup. It doesn't help with the heldheld devices unless I have them sync to the desktop, and then have the desktop sync to the cloud.

The Final Solution

You can't beat free. And you can't beat automatic. While simpler is better, and just choosing one solution would be the simplest, for a cheap developer like me, a hybrid solution looks the most attractive.

Everybody who's got iOS devices will backup the most important type of media that fits into 5 GB per iCloud. After that, we'll have to manually sync our handheld devices to a desktop, and that'll sync with DreamObjects. While I dislike that there'll be a manual step in getting some data into the cloud, I do like that this backup is device independent, and completely within my control.

Implementation Details

From a Linux box, or from an OSX command line, it's even easier than this. But if you're installing into CygWin, assuming you have easy_install installed, here are some installation notes for boto-rsync:

$ easy_install pip
$ pip install boto_rsync

A boto-rsync command to DreamObjects looks like this:

$ boto-rsync -a "public_key" -s "secret_key" \
  --endpoint objects.dreamhost.com \
  --delete ~/dir-to-backup/ s3://bucket/dest-of-backup/

And for Duplicity, you'd need to have installed both librsync1 and librsync-devel from CygWin first. Then:

$ pip install httplib2 oauth
$ curl -L http://goo.gl/VBVmB \
  > duplicity-0.6.21.tar.gz
$ tar xvzf duplicity-0.6.21.tar.gz
$ cd duplicity-0.6.21/
$ python setup.py install

A duplicity command to DreamObjects looks like this, after you've configured a .boto file with your credentials:

$ env PASSPHRASE=yourpassphrase \
  duplicity ~/dir-to-backup/ \
  s3://objects.dreamhost.com/bucket/dest-of-backup

Finding an RSS Feed Reader to Replace Google Reader

As soon as the shuttering of Google Reader was announced, I went on the hunt for alternatives. I've researched various options, both self-hosted and cloud-based. I've tested them all in parallel for over a week, and have come to a tentative conclusion.

Your time is precious, here's my decision so far: My absolute favorite is selfoss. It's fast, minimal, and looks beautiful in both desktop and mobile formats. It happened to be very easy to install, and had no trouble taking in my OPML file, and it already had the right keyboard navigation keys configured. It mostly worked correctly right out of the box.

There were two settings I changed in the config.ini file:

homepage=unread
auto_mark_as_read=1

That sets up the behavior I prefer. I want the site to always start with a list of unread content, and as I navigate around, I like the articles to be automatically marked as read.

Did it say it was minimal? Oh, it is. Gloriously so. And a bit too much. It makes for a very consistent reading experience because it strips away the effect of almost all HTML elements. No embedded videos, many pictures are not displayed, all text is displayed at one size and one weight.

That won't do for me. I want to see a little CSS beautification in my reader. Whitespace between paragraphs and seeing all the video and images is important to me. I need to know when the images are there. So I made some minor changes to the codebase.

  1. Removed elements like strong, b, em, i and p, from the strip-all-style part of public/all.css.
  2. I used this technique to remove elements from simplepie's strip_html list. I allowed iframe, object, param and embed in spouts/rss/feed.php for embedded videos.
  3. I turned off safe and whitelisted the embedded video tags in the htmLawed object in helpers/ContentLoader.php.
  4. Finally, I made this change from ref= to src= in helpers/ViewHelper.php.

Having made the changes above, now the feeds in my selfoss reader retain some rudimentary style and properly display video and images.

selfoss.gif

Now that's much better. This is a selfoss installation that I can live with.

As for the runner-ups? I liked Tiny Tiny RSS a lot. But it was slower loading and responding. And the visual presentation for desktop mode wasn't as nice. There's too much clutter. Its mobile version is not supported, but ttrss-mobile is awesome. Install it into /mobile for the easiest experience. Finally, remap they keys j and k to next_article_noscroll and prev_article_noscroll with a plugin.

If I were forced to go with a 3rd party cloud-based product, I'd probably choose Feedly. It's relatively fast and minimal. After that, it's a toss-up between NetVibes and The Old Reader. I didn't pay NewsBlur to see how they'd perform with a moderately large OPML. I'm looking forward to seeing what Digg comes up with.

And as for local desktop clients? They're not in the running. I need my feedreader to be current on any screen I happen to login to.

Finally, some suggest using Twitter as Google Reader's replacement. I enjoy "dipping into the stream" as it were in Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. But I need a tool that'll save articles from my favorite friends and content creators too.

I hope you may find this helpful. If nothing else, it'll serve to pinpoint the state of the art in early 2013 for keeping track of content online.

Faulkner and Bukowski on Creativity

zenpencils_bukowski.jpg

It delights me to no end that William Faulkner and Charles Bukowski see eye to eye on the issue of creativity. They don't exactly say the same thing, but they both make similar claims when it comes to the perfect setup for creativity. I first read Bukowski's poem, "air and light and time and space," as brilliantly illustrated at Zen Pencils. The poem follows below, but please be sure to see the interpretation at Zen Pencils.

"–you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,
something has always been in the
way
but now
I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
place, a large studio, you should see the space and
the light.
for the first time in my life I’m going to have
a place and the time to
create."
 
no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
or
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on
welfare,
you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown
away,
you’re going to create blind
crippled
demented,
you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
back while
the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,
flood and fire.
 
baby, air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses
for.

Then I read the following interview with William Faulkner in which he has the following choice quotes:

The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.

and

The writer doesn't need economic freedom. All he needs is a pencil and some paper. I've never known anything good in writing to come from having accepted any free gift of money. The good writer never applies to a foundation. He's too busy writing something. If he isn't first rate he fools himself by saying he hasn't got time or economic freedom. Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes.

That was taken out of context and you should read the rest of the interview. Faulkner didn't say that writers don't have any needs. But he does agree with Bukowski that if we're spending our time fussing about the art and not making our art, we're just fooling ourselves.

Illustration by Gavin Aung Than, used with permission.

Happy Birthday, Me. I got you Vim!

I used to play NetHack. The keyboard keys it uses to navigate your player are the same screen navigation keys for the editor vi. So I've always been able to make do with vi and its successor, Vim.

I've recently decided to give Vim a serious look, since it's still ubiquitous after more than 20 years, (I find myself having to ssh to remote computers more often then I expected), and I have really smart, productive colleagues who use it everyday. Somehow, it has stood the test of time. Vim is one of those tools that increases in value exponentially if you invest the time to become proficient in it.

So, in the grand tradition of giving myself strange intangible gifts like giving myself data portability a couple of years ago, this year, I decided to invest some time in Vim.

I'm still new to it, but I've tasted the change in mindset that happens as you get better and better at Vim. It feels like you're programming the act of text editing, and I mean that in the best way possible. (This is coming from a guy who spends his free time programming cron jobs.)

Time for a screen shot of what Vim looks like for me when I'm working on a shell command. Click on it to see it at full size.

gvim_ide.png

There are three "windows" in the image above. The window on the left is a tree-view of the files on disk. That window is managed by a script called, NERDTree, and it's usually closed. I only open that when I need to look at another file. On the right are two windows, one above the other. The larger one is on top, and is the "main" window that hosts the main buffer that I'm actively editing. The smaller window on the bottom is an "output" window, that prints out the results of the script I'm editing whenever I run it.

That image represents an iterative workflow where I edit (possibly multiple buffers) in the biggest window, hit <F5> to run the script, and see the output displayed in the window below. It's a workflow that works well for small scripts.

There are a few things about that window that I'd like to point out:

One:The line numbers are relative to the current position of the cursor. This is really handy because Vim's normal mode commands work nicely with line number counts. The line numbers change automatically to absolute line numbers when the window loses focus. That's accomplished by this bit in my .vimrc file:

autocmd FocusLost * if &relativenumber | set number | endif
autocmd FocusGained * if &number | set relativenumber | endif

Here's a great explanation for why to switch between relative and absolute line numbers in vim.

Two: There's a very subtle light gray column at column 70 in the image. Usually it's at column 80, but I bumped it in to take the screenshot. That column helps remind me to keep my code lines short.

Three: There are a few plugins doing work behind the scenes. You can see one called powerline just under the main window. Powerline is a very handy status line. What you can't see in the image are other plugins like taglist that help when one is developing code. Vim also support syntax completion.

Four: Vim is very customizable, and it sometimes needs it. For example, I like the behavior from setting smartindent, except when it un-indents the # character to the first column of the line. In Python, the # character starts a comment, and I want it to remain in the column in which I put it. Here's what I've added to my .vimrc file to fix that issue:

set smartindent
autocmd FileType python  inoremap # X<c-h>#

Boo that Vim doesn't always do what you want out of the box. Yay that it always can be fixed to work the way you'd prefer.

Five: Vim lets you continue to undo actions from your previous sessions with the file, if you like. Isn't that an awesome option to have? If you want it, the option to set is:

set undofile

Far better than what I've written here, I strongly recommend Steve Losh's article, Coming Home to Vim. He's got a lot more experience with Vim, and he makes a compelling case for it.

It's a work-in-progress, but I'm willing to share what I've got so far in my .vimrc file. You'll see that I customize far more than I mention here in this article. Once it's stable, I may maintain it in a repository at github.

Newer Entries » « Previous Entries


Feeds