State of my toolchain 2018

Back in mid-2016, about two years ago, I did a run-down of my personal productivity stack – essentially a ‘State of my Toolchain’. After almost 2 years, it’s time to provide an update and see what’s changed.

Main laptop

My Asus N76 17.3″ laptop is still going strong as my main workhorse; but its days are numbered. I’ve had to rebuild a couple of times now after hard disk drive sectors have failed, so it’s a matter of time before it’s forced into retirement – but at nearly six years old, it’s had a good run.

So the question becomes – what replaces it? I’ve always been very happy with the ASUS gear I’ve had over the years, but the Zenbook range doesn’t seem to have that much in the way of high end GPU specs – which I need for both gaming and machine learning stuff. On the other had, the RoG range doesn’t seem to have good battery life; although that really isn’t a major consideration.

Enter System 76. I hadn’t heard of these guys until some of my linux.conf.au and Mycroft AI mates mentioned them, including this kick-ass video.

https://youtu.be/TcWVKqeF0MY

After doing some asking around, folks seem pretty happy with them, but the downside is that they’re costly; especially with the poor $AUD exchange rate – and then on top of that you have to pay import duty. Might have to see if the $AUD/$USD exchange rate improves.

Mobile laptop

My Asus Trio Transformer TX201LA is still going strong as a mobile laptop; the battery life isn’t great but having the Android & Linux combination on one device has come in very very handy. I’ll be hanging on to this until it dies – and then I’m very interested in one of the newer Transformer models.

Mobile phone

Two years ago I was using the LG Nexus 5X but unfortunately it was victim to the Bootloop issue. Now I have a Pixel, and it’s brilliant. Right size, great battery life, and great bluetooth and NFC support. And yes, I often use it with with headphones.

Wearables

With Pebble being acquired by Fitbit and subsequently sunsetted, I needed to find a new smartwatch. My Fitbit flex was also degrading, so it was a natural choice to go with the Fitbit Ionic – essentially combining two wearables – fitness and watch – into one. I’ve been incredibly happy with Ionic – I was skeptical at first, but the battery life is long – about 3-4 days and the reminders to move are useful. The range of applications is limited, but the key feature – of passing notifications from my phone to my watch – works well.

I’ve found that over time, my smartwatch is very definitely part of my toolchain – it’s no longer a nice-to-have extra – it’s a tool that I regularly check and rely on.

Quantified Self

My Fitbit records and stores a lot of data about how active I am, however I’m still using RescueTime and BeeMindr to help with day to day productivity and long term goals. RescueTime gave me a great deal on a premium upgrade (big ups, guys!) and I’m using the “focus” features a lot – which prevent you from using time-wasting websites like Facebook for a period of time. RescueTime also continues to deliver great visualisaitons that help to see where you’re spending your time.

rescuetime-usage-2017
My RescueTime logged time by category for 2017

Headphones

Plantronics Backbeat Go 2 Bluetooth headphones were great, but being an idiot I left them in a hotel room while travelling. I replaced them with the Jabra Rox – the magnetic earbuds are great for not losing them, however I’ve struggled to use the “wings” to get a good fit.

My Logitech H800 is still going strong. Great headphones.

I did splash out on some Plantronics Backbeat Pro bluetooth headphones that have noise cancellation for concentrated, focused work in noisy places – like co-work spaces. They’re great – 20-odd hour battery life, and they really do cancel out a lot of distracting background sound. My one niggle with them is that the ‘active off’ feature – which pauses music when you take them off – activates with movement, like walking around the house or getting up off a chair.

Streaming Media

With Pandora moving out of the Australian and New Zealand market, I needed to find another streaming music provider. Spotify was an easy choice because of their cross-device support – including a native Linux desktop app. On the plus side, Mycroft AI has a Spotify Skill that, due to API restrictions, is only available with Spotify Premium accounts.

Input devices

My keyboard, graphics tablet and presentation pointers haven’t changed in two years, but I did back Sensel Morph on Kickstarter, and have started using it, but because the Linux driver isn’t great (yet), it tends to work better under Windows. I’m hoping that the Linux support matures in the future.

Voice Assistant

Would I like an always-on spy listening device in my house? Hell no.

Would I like a useful voice assistant that doesn’t save what I say to sell me advertising and invade my privacy? Hell yes.

Which is one of the reasons I went to work for Mycroft AI. But I digress. As part of my role, I do a lot of testing and documenting for the Mark 1 hardware – and I have three of them around the house. They’re solid little units with microphones that are better than I expected for RPi-based devices.

One thing I did need to get for working with the Mycroft Mark 1 was a new set of torx hex keys – the ones I had didn’t have a long enough handle to disassemble the Mark 1.

We also have a build of Mycroft for Raspberry Pi – Picroft – that needs a microphone and speakers. For this I got  a Jabra 410 – it’s much better than I expected for a mid-range omni-directional USB microphone.

For Picroft I also need some Micro SD cards; my key learning here has been that cheap Micro SD cards will cause you pain and misery and suffering and segfaults. Don’t use cheap Micro SD cards. You’re better than that.

Internet of Things and Home Automation

My bevvy of LIFX light bulbs continues to grow; I really like the range. I did have an issue with their LIFX Z light strip; one of the three strips that was delivered didn’t work, but it was covered under warranty and they shipped me a replacement. One of my favourite integrations here is with Google Home; I can turn off my bedroom light using the power of my voice.

I’ve also been hacking around with some Ruuvi tags; I want to spend more time on these, they’re pretty cool as sensors.

Software

My software stack hasn’t really changed in two years – I’m still using LibreOffice, with Firefox and Thunderbird, and Atom Editor. In particular,  LibreOffice Draw is becoming my go-to tool for diagrams and process flows. Scribus, Inkscape and GIMP are still top in my toolbox too. The new version of GIMP is much smoother.

Gaps in my toolchain

Even with all these great tools, I’m still missing a few components from my overall stack.

  • Visual Git Editor – The range of visual editors for Git on Linux is limited. I tried GitKraken but didn’t like it much. GitHub for desktop doesn’t yet have an official Linux build; I tried to install the shiftkey fork, but couldn’t figure out how to install it.
  • Better internet – my internet is connected at about 6Mbps down, 1Mbps up. It’s slightly faster than two years ago. It’s usable, but very slow. If I have to download or upload a large image – which I often have to do for work – I have to plan ahead. Oh NBN. I simply don’t have the words.

 

Have I missed anything? What do you use?

linux.conf.au 2018 Sydney – A little bit of history repeating

This year, linux.conf.au 2018 headed back to Sydney, where it hasn’t been held since 2007. This year I skipped quite a few sessions due to having Linux Australia duties and tasks to do, and because the heat and humidity were exhausting. Thankfully, the videos by Next Day Video were released very quickly, so I’m spending “Week 2” of linux.conf.au catching up!

On reflection, several themes came through.

  • Volunteers, volunteering and volunteer labour – There are several free software and opensource organisations across the world, and they’re all vying for volunteer contributions. Moreover, the volunteer base itself is ageing; we’re getting older and having children and families and other family responsibilities – we simply don’t have the time to contribute that we once did. At the other end of the demographic curve, younger people don’t have the same passion and ‘fire in the belly’ for free and open source software. In one sense, that’s a product of the success of the free and open source software movement – because it’s been normalised; but on the other hand this leaves us with a gap in the ‘compelling-reasons-to-join-a-free-and-open-source-project’ list. As a concrete example, during the opening of linux.conf.au, no less than three organisations – Open Source Initiative, Free Software Foundation, and Code Club Australia – did a shoutout for volunteers. At the same time, Linux Australia – the auspicing body of the conference – had fewer nominations to its board than open vacancies. I want to be clear: The Organisers and Volunteers of linux.conf.au did a phenomenal job. They were dedicated, professional, resilient and awe-inspiring. As individuals, and as a conference team, amazing. Systemically though, open source has some major issues to address to avoid burnout, and worse, resentment.
  • Infrastructure-as-code continues to gain maturity – As more and more devices become internet-connected, and we’re managing more and more devices, we need better orchestration. We’re seeing this manifest in container-all-the-things, in MQTT for unified messaging and in our approach to IoT hardware and open hardware. Standards however remain a barrier to interoperability and greater maturity in code-based orchestration, as outlined brilliantly by Kathy Giori.
  • Open source touches many disciplines – the range of Miniconfs available this year sent a strong and undeniable message – free and open source software, hardware and practices are touching many disciplines. Art, genomics, games, galleries, libraries and museums (GLAM) – Linux and open source touch each of these in fundamental ways. Personally, I’m delighted to see this cross-pollination happening in our communities. Together, we do better.

On communities, volunteering and volunteer labour

“A division of labour in free software” – Molly de Blanc, Free Software Foundation

Molly’s talk used the results of different surveys of opensource communities to show visually that labour in free software is gendered, ageist, and that these schisms also apply to what is considered technical and non-technical work. The implications of these findings are that these patterns are repeated without intervening action, such as having quotas on leadership boards. Importantly, anecdotal data shows that we still value technical work over important non-technical work; people still justify their non-technical contributions to an opensource project by emphasising the technical contributions they do make.

This resonated strongly with me; as the leader of an organisation that turns over around $AUD 1 million a year – Linux Australia – there are a number of skills I need to have – budgeting, strategic communications, strategic and operational management – and of course, the ability to be an efficient administrator. None of these are technical skills; yet, as the leader of a technical organisation I am expected to have a strong grasp of technology issues. Even in a non-technical role, you’re not allowed to be non-technical.

https://youtu.be/6NDB2VFYlfg

“Dealing with Contributor Overload” – Holden Karau

Holden Karau is a core contributor to the Apache Spark project, and this war story and guidance was learned the hard way – when the project became so big that contributors were significantly overloaded. She provided a number of strong pieces of guidance for dealing with contributor overload, including:

  • Developing a contributor pipeline to allow users of the project to become contributors, and in time, core committers
  • Not ‘raising the bar’ for changes and requests because these have very unattractive downsides such as making the contribution pipeline harder and paradoxically increasing the contributor workload by increasing questions and requests for assistance.
  • The power of having clear roadmaps which make it clear what the core project is, and is not going to do, so that people can either start their own project, or plan around it. The Roadmap also helps guide contributions, and show how smaller tasks contribute to larger milestones.
  • Focussing on committer productivity – such as better tools to merge changes, making it easier to review changes, and more tests – can have significant long term dividends. Imagine what a 1% productivity increase would mean across say 10-20 committers? 50 committers? 100 committers?
  • Creating safe spaces to ask questions and contribute without being mocked – people who feel safe to fail are going to commit more.

https://youtu.be/BempWfBkvs8

 

“Burning Down the Castle” – Daniel Vetter, Intel (previous graphics kernel maintainer)

Daniel’s talk was an eye-opener. As a previous graphics kernel maintainer, Dan has seen a whole range of poor behaviours that contribute to maintainer burn-out, rage-quitting and other unproductive outcomes. His talk advocates for a kinder, gentler approach to maintaining a technically elite community.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BB0luXmuo3g

 

“Mirror, mirror on the wall: testing Conway’s Law in open source communities” – Lindsay Holmwood

Lindsay provided an outline of Conway’s law of organisational communication patterns, and the concept of mirroring – the mapping between the organisational structure and the supporting technical structures for communication. Strong mirroring leads to strong ownership – you are led to the actors who own a system. Using an overview of the empirical literature on organisational development and he explained how organisations try to solve the problem of communication – using different structural strategies. But mirroring works poorly in unstable environments – those undergoing radical change and innovation. This has led to the rise of structures like guilds. These theories are then applied to open source to show that shifts away from the ‘core’ of an open source project can indicate a decline in the project itself. This necessitates a need to build a pipeline – again the pipeline – of people moving closer to the core in their contributions.

This talk was intense – but the key takeaway was that the way we design organisational structures has a significant impact on organisational outputs and long term organisation success. This is of particular importance for projects that are scaling up significantly; poor choices during scale up will lead to poor productivity later in the project’s lifecycle.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYkh1sAu0UM

 

Orchestrate all the things. With code.

“MQTT as a Unified Message Bus for Infrastructure Services” – Matthew Treinish

This was an excellent talk by Matt Treinish, who outlined the reasons behind the design of MQTT, which was originally designed for sensor telemetry. He goes on to show there are different levels of quality of service for the broker. An excellent introduction to how MQTT can be used as a unified messaging bus – as used in FireHose.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6xN6S407Xc

 

“What does the buyout of @arduino mean for #openhardware?” – Kathy Giori, IoT at Mozilla

I was truly disappointed not to be able to make it to Kathy’s presentation, as it came about partially because of a tweet I’d sent out to #lcapapers in mid-2017 – and which Kathy shouted out to me for. Thank you, and apologies for not being there in person.

Giori provided an overview of the corporate history of Arduino and how it’s now consolidated under one company; lamenting the drawn-out legal process that led to this point.

She continued to outline some of the challenges in licensing for open hardware and how manufacturers are being cheated by lower-quality knock-offs; with those same manufacturers then expecting the original author of open hardware / open software to provide ongoing support. This led to a discussion on the different levels of openness in open hardware, and the pros and cons of each.

Concluding the talk, Kathy provided an overview of the Mozilla Web of Things project, which is attempting to bring some standardisation and streamlining to the very fragmented IoT and open hardware space. There are competing standards, competing platforms, and the piece that I didn’t realise was that this is actually inflating costs for consumers. Because individual companies need to make hubs and supporting infrastructure for “their” range of IoT hardware, this means each endpoint device – light bulb, sensor, thermostat and so on – is quite expensive. Mozilla is seeking to have stronger interoperability in this space by creating the ‘Web of Things’:

“The “Web of Things” (WoT) is the idea of taking the lessons learned from the World Wide Web and applying them to IoT. It’s about creating a decentralized Internet of Things by giving Things URLs on the web to make them linkable and discoverable, and defining a standard data model and APIs to make them interoperable.”

If anyone can drive this, Mozilla can, but my personal feeling is that they’re going to come up against significant corporate interests in doing so – at a time when their own corporate mis-steps (Mr Robot, anyone) have significantly backfired. I live in hope.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2ltqoAqJbY

Cross-pollination, because together we do better

“The Future of Art” by J Rosenbaum

This was the mind-blowing talk of #lca2018 for me personally. Academic and artist J Rosenbaum took us through their research, which sits at the intersection of machine learning, neural networks and the production of art.

J’s talk started with an overview of machine learning projects, such as Botnik and Janelle Shae, and moved on to underscoring the collaboration between human and machine in generative art.

The future is not man versus machine  – the future of art is man with machine.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTT2mq692JQ

 

“The Knitting Printer” by Sarah Spencer

Again a brilliant intersectional talk by Melbourne-based hobbyist and knitter, Sarah Spencer, in which she provides an introduction to knitting machines, and provides a breakdown of how she reverse engineered a hack to a 32-bit knitting machine to be able to get images from her computer to the knitting machine.

Massive respect, @chixor.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6k15pdFTsA

 

“Wearing access: a story about open collections, a sewing machine and the nation’s secrets” – Bonnie Wildie

Bonnie’s talk, from the OpenGLAM Miniconf, was very much a hidden gem of the conference. She talked about the concept of redaction art, created from files that have been redacted – and remixed. Bonnie even turned the redaction art into a dress, which opened up a conversation on the politics and power of what we wear. Dress and costume become media for subversion. Much awesome.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XhTzE67HrhE

VALATechCamp 2017: Libraries as the vanguard of digital literacy

Libraries have played a vital role in shaping society for thousands of years. From the library of Alexandria – which preserved ancient knowledge, to the American Library of Congress – which facilitates access to political and historical records, to the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre, which actively engages a post-industrial community – the role of the library is evolving.

Coupled with the rise of digital technology, the move of services to e-delivery models and new personal threats in the form of cyber-attacks, libraries are now standing as the vanguard of the most important skill our citizens will have in the 21st century: digital literacy. It is fitting then that VALA – an independent not-for-profit organisation that aims to promote the understanding of information technology within libraries and the broader information sector – sought this year to run an event at the intersection of GLAM – galleries, libraries, archives and museums – and technology.

Enter: #VALATechCamp

The event aimed to help librarians and associated professions ‘level up’ on emerging technology, and inspire people to continue their technical learning journeys. By all accounts, it was a strong success.

Talk highlights

There were several excellent presentations at #VALATechCamp, and these were my personal highlights.

Ingrid Mason (AARNet) – Infrastructure, research and innovation as components of digital literacy

Ingrid’s presentation was pitched perfectly for the audience, and challenged us to think about the concept of infrastructure literacy as a subset of digital literacy – the ability to understand how pipes, and bytes, and bits all fit together, thus providing a Rosetta stone for the seemingly arcane languages used by technologists. This has touchpoints with initiatives such as Skills for the Information Age, which is a rubric of technical and related skills for professional development in technically-driven organisations. Reflecting on this more however, we almost need something like ‘SFIA for ordinary people’ – some form of syllabus which imparts basic digital and infrastructure literacy. Ingrid’s talk was very well received by the audience, due both to her conceptualisation of the topic and the empathy and warmth with which she was able to deliver it.

Athina Mavromataki (Melbourne Library Service) – Defence Against the Dark Arts – Cryptoparties in Libraries

Athina’s engaging and energetic presentation highlighted again the role that libraries play in imparting digital literacy, as she recounted her experience in delivering knowledge on personal privacy and encryption through running Cryptoparties at the Melbourne Library Service. It was refreshing to hear from someone who is self-admittedly not a “techie” – and the challenges faced by explaining concepts like privacy and encryption to people who have only a basic understanding of computers. Again, this made me reflect on the digital divide and digital inclusion – digital literacy is now required because of the push toward e-services by government and other service providers, but personal digital literacy – the ability to safeguard one’s own privacy in a digital environment – is not emphasised. Thus, the digital divide not only disadvantages people because of the barriers it creates in accessing services, it also entrenches disadvantage because only the skilled will be able to protect themselves against new threats.

Natasha Simons (Australian National Data Service) – Unpacking persistent identifiers for research

Natasha, who is well-renowned for her work on DoI – Digital Object Identifier System in Australia – presented on the different schemes for persistent identifiers for research artefacts – journal articles, datasets, and ‘grey literature‘. The challenges here mirrored those of other archiving and referent systems – what happens if the auspicing organisation no longer exists? From an open data viewpoint, what struck me here was so many different competing standards – some auspiced by government, some by corporate interests such as publishing houses and others by NGO bodies – who are reliant on member funding to operate. As an international community, we still have a long way to go in negotiating, adhering and nurturing international open standards – but with someone of the calibre of Simons in the mix, there’s strong hope for the future.

Linux Australia Diversity Scholarship

With thanks to my colleague, Sae Ra Germaine, Linux Australia was able to partner with VALA to provide a Diversity Scholarship. As with many other areas of life – employment, social mobility, access to education and healthcare – Indigenous, regional and remote Australians have poorer digital literacy and participation in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – than the non-Indigenous and urban population [1]. A diversity scholarship is a small step towards providing additional opportunities to help address the digital divide. Through a rigourous selection process, Wiradjuri man Nathan Sentance, Project Officer at the Australian Museum, was selected as this year’s Diversity Scholarship recipient. Nathan will be able to share his learnings from #VALATechCamp with his broader community.

 

 

Concluding thoughts

In conclusion, I was left with the impression that libraries and the broader GLAM sector are realising that while their core remit – that of preserving, facilitating access to, and engaging communities around knowledge – remains valid and pertinent, the ways in which those services are delivered is rapidly changing, concomitant with the wave of digital transformation. Just as libraries of yore helped citizens become literate, librarians are now the vanguard of digital literacy, and events like #VALATechCamp are providing a sorely-needed arsenal.

Further information

#VALATechCamp on Twitter

#VALATechCamp programme

Footnotes

[1] Chubb, I. (2014). Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future. Office of the Chief Scientist, Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from http://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/2014/09/professor-chubb-releases-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-australias-future/

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