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Before the flood

Yesterday I watched the above documentary on National Geography Channel, it is a good piece of work and it alerts to very pertinent issues, that have been in the agenda for many years/decades. Yet, we haven’t been able to overcome lobbies and established interests, that maintain the status quo and their “money machines” running with disregard for future consequences. Something we already know for sure is that there is no going back and we will pay the price. Now, the question that remains is “what will the price be?”.

You should watch it, I definitely recommend it. It reminded me of another great documentary called “Home” (You should watch it too), released in 2009 (dam, 7 years and we are still stuck) that is less focused on climate change and addresses mankind’s impact on the planet specially on the last 100 years.

I really hope that we can start seeing real progress soon.

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Random Bits

Blogs, web feeds and the open web

As I already published before (twice), I’m a big supporter of an “ancient” and practically dead technology, at least as many like to call it, that still can be found in the Internet. It is the RSS, a very useful standard that is one of the foundations for publishing content to the Web in a open way (the way it initially was supposed to).

Today and following a recent blog post of Seth Godin, about reading more blogs and teaching a way to easily get their new content, I want to get back to the subject and address a few thoughts I have on the matter. Without publicizing a single solution, I want to explore and extend a few points made in that article.

First, I want to start with a basic explanation of how it works, at least for the user. The basic idea is that content creators, being professionals or hobbyists, along side with the content displayed on their website, also publish some structured file that is not supposed to be read by humans, with information about that content (and sometimes with parts of that content). The usefulness of these files, is that other entities can watch them and get a linear view of what was published over time. This way people that want to follow or consume that content can use cool little apps, that track their favorite authors and let them know when there is new stuff, along site with other features, such as keeping track of what you already read.

RSS
RSS Logo

If you check for the icon shown above, you will find it in many websites, this is hugely used in many areas from newspapers to blogs, from postcasts to itunes, etc.

Overall It is used broadly and it lets people do cool things with it, however (this is where I start to converge on the topic of Seth’s post) most big players don’t have an interest in an open web and slowly, over time, they started dropping support for it and undermining its usefulness, because they want people to publish and consume content only inside their platform, locking everyone’s content to their services. Two examples are given, Google and Facebook, but I’m sure there are others.

There are many benefits of following your favorite authors using these feeds, such as:

  • You control the content that you read. Lets face it, letting any middleman manipulate what kind of information you have access to is never a good thing, and it is not uncommon.
  • You are not stuck with a single interface where the content is lost overtime. You can choose your app and organize the content your own way.
  • Clear distinction of what you already read and what you didn’t.
  • Even if the content gets taken down, you might have your own copy. There is no risk of a service going out of business and everybody losing all they content.

One thing I’ve been seeing more often, is many people writing such nice content but their blog or platform does not expose RSS feeds (like this one). This saddens me because I do not remember every good source, if I can’t add it to my feed reader, I will often forget to check for new content. It is relatively easy to add it, most systems support it, and if it is a custom one there are plenty of libraries available to help you with that.

I comprehend the need to make the person visit the site in order to monetize the content, in these cases there is always the option to only add to the feed the title and a small excerpt, the reader will follow the link to reach the remaining of the content.

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Random Bits Technology and Internet

Log based analytics are still useful

A long time ago, most of the modern website analytics software made the shift from relying on server logs to use client-side code snippets to gather information about the user, in this last category we can include as examples Google Analytics and Piwik. In fact, this paradigm allows to collect information with greater detail about the visitors of the website and gives developers more flexibility, however this can also be seen as the website owners imposing the execution of code on the user’s computing device that goes against his will and undermines his privacy (some people go as further as putting it in the same category as malware). Log based analytics software, last time i checked, is seen as a museum relic from the 90s and early 00s.

However, as have been explained in a blog post named: Why “Ad Blockers” Are Also Changing the Game for SaaS and Web Developers and further discussed by the Hacker News community, we might need look again to the server-side approach, since the recent trends of using Ad blockers (which have all legitimacy, given the excesses of the industry) can be undermining the usefulness of the client-side method, given that most of the time the loading of the snippet and the extra requests that are required are being blocked. This is why server side analytics can be very handy again, allowing us to measure the “Ghost Traffic” as it is called in the article.

A very high level overview of both methods can be described like this:

Client-side:

  • Pros:
    • Lots of information
    • Easy to setup
  • Cons:
    • Extra requests and traffic
    • Can be blocked by browser extensions
    • The use of a third party entity raises some privacy concerns.

Server-side:

  • Pros:
    • Cannot be blocked,
    • Does not pose a privacy concern since it only records the requests for the website “pages” made by the user.
  • Cons:
    • Less detailed information,
    • If the server is behind a CDN, not all requests will hit the server.

The main issues with the use of log based tool is that they look ancient, some haven’t seem an update for a while and can take some work to setup. Nevertheless, they definitely can be very useful in order to understand the extent of the usage of blockers by visitors and even for the cases when we just need simple numbers. It also puts aside the privacy discussion since it only monitors the activity of the servers.

That’s the case of this blog, I do not run any analytics software here (because I do not see the need given its purpose) and when I’m curious about the traffic, I use a very cool tool called GoAccess, that goes over the nginx logs and generates some nice reports.

Give it a look, perhaps you don’t need Google Analytics everywhere or its results might not be as accurate as you think, specially if your audience has a significant percentage of tech-savvy people.

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Random Bits

0 A.D: a pleasant surprise

When I was younger, I remember being a great fan of real-time strategy games, specially those based of history. One of the main reasons I was really happy when I’ve got my first computer, was that from that moment i would be able to play the first “Age of Empires” game, which my dad bought together with the computer. During months I saved 100% of my allowance, just to be able to buy the first expansion pack the “Rise of Rome”. In the years that followed, I’d also bought the second version of the game and its expansion pack, spending countless hours playing them.

More than a decade after, which I went through without playing games (or at least on a regular basis), I’ve decided to find some RTS of this genre to play. Since the Age of Empires series do not run on Linux based operating systems, I had to start looking for similar alternatives. I didn’t took long to find the first contender, which is called 0 A.D., the game is open source and from the contents shown on the website it looked just what I was looking for.

In the game you can choose between 8 factions/civilizations from the ancient times (the website says that on the final release there will be 12), each of them with special characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. The Idea is that these civilizations should have had their peak between the 500 B.C. and 500 A.C., leaving many more contenders in the waiting list to be added to the possible choices.

The game is in 3D, where you have control over the camera and you can adjust it to the best angle on any given situation. The graphics look pretty good turning the game into a nice experience. Other aspect that I really liked is that even tough there are specialized units, many of them can assume roles on both worlds (the military and the civilian) which opens a whole range of possibilities.

According to the development team the game is still on “alpha”, or in other words it’s “far from completion”, however it already is playable both on single and multi-player (during the few hours I’ve spent playing it I didn’t found any annoying issue).

So if you like this kind of games give it a try, the official page of the game, where you can download the last version, is play0ad.com. On Debian (testing) you can use apt since the repositories are up to date.

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Random Bits Technology and Internet

Managing secrets

A few hours ago, I published a small article on Whitesmith’s blog about sharing and managing secrets, inside a software development environment. At first I dig a little into this problem that is very common and later I explain how we are addressing these issues. You can check it through the following link:

Managing Secrets (www.whitesmith.co/blog/managing-secrets/)

I mention some tools on the article that are very interesting in this area, but a more detailed analysis or walk-through was left for a future post as we get more familiarized with them.

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Portugal Random Bits

Democratizing the Eurozone

Yesterday one of the most influential figures of this year’s European political scene visited Portugal. I was totally unaware of the event but thanks to the reddit’s community I was able to discover the video of the talk given by Yanis Varoufakis at the University of Coimbra. It’s a long video but I can assure you it is worthy of your time, both the lecture and the discussion that followed.

The issues addressed and discussed in the video are very pertinent and, independently of your political views, deserve to be object of reflection and broader discussion in order to solve the current state of affairs in Europe.

P.S.: Mr. Varoufakis lecture only begins on minute 00:40.

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Random Bits

Multimedia tools for Linux

Convincing someone to try and adopt a Linux based operating system is a hard task, not because these systems are hard (nowadays) or don’t offer enough functionality, but mainly because when people learn to use a certain system/product and it already is engrained in their workflow changing is hard.

I’m certain this is the main line of thinking for many companies, when they offer their products for free to students during college. After that period switching to something else feels like a waste of time (even without addressing the non interoperable file formats that chain the users even more).

In the field of software development we don’t notice this as much, since many of the tools we use for the majority of the tasks (programming languages, compilers, editors, debuggers, etc) are already open, cross-platform and there are lots of alternatives and competition. In many other areas this doesn’t happen. For a long time there is this notion that free software doesn’t offer “alternatives” with enough quality that could rival with widely established proprietary and expensive products in areas such as photo editing, vector graphics, video editing, 3D modelling, CAD software, sound editing, etc.

So in this post I will try to aggregate a list of open-source multimedia tools and other non-free software that can run on Linux machines, that could be used by 75% of the users, instead of relying on expensive software, for common and basic tasks. I’m not saying that it covers all the use cases and that it fit for everyone, but I’m certain that it fits the use cases from amateurs to some professionals, and can save them a “few” bucks.

All of the following examples can be installed in different operating systems, since adapting to new interfaces and work-flows is the most difficult part, so people can try first, change gradually and eventually move to a free operating system without losing any productivity.

(I’m open to new suggestions, since, as it is expected, I’m not aware or tried everything that is out there)

Gimp | Image Editing | gimp.org

Krita | Illustration | krita.org

Inkscape | Vector Graphics | inkscape.org

Kdenlive | Video Editing | kdenlive.org

Lightworks | Video Editing | lwks.com

Natron | Video Composing | natron.fr

Blender | 3D graphics and Animation | blender.org

Audacity | Audio Editing | audacityteam.org

Ardour | Audio Editing | ardour.org

Scribus | Desktop Publishing  | scribus.net/

Synfig | 2D Animation | synfig.org

Darktable | Photography | darktable.org


Updates:

13/11/2015 –  Added two more projects

18/08/2016 – Added one more project

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Random Bits

European Copyright Madness

After seeing many countries applying taxes to storage devices (as it will happen in Portugal from the 1st of July on) to compensate copyright holders (I’m still trying to understand how they will know which one, and not fill the pockets of some opportunist) the news today gave me one more prof that we are heading in the wrong direction. Here is the EFF news article:

European Copyright Madness: Court Strikes Down Law Allowing Users to Rip Their Own CDs

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Random Bits

Folding@Home

Recently I’ve started “folding” again, to give a small contribution to science and research on important topics such as Alzeimer’s disease among others (as the above video shows). After 2 previous failed attempts (the old computer could not handle it), I’m currently on my longest streak and have just completed the first 100 work units. I know that many people would like to contribute to a project like this but simply don’t know of its existence. So sharing is important.

With almost 15 years, the project continues to thrive and the performance of the overall system continues to grow, mostly pushed by the advances of technology, because the participation, as Wikipedia shows, is far from its peak of 450k processors in 2011. During its existence the team responsible for the project was able to publish 118 scientific papers, based on the results obtained by the collaborative work done by all personal computers that joined the network. It is a visible amount of work that is certainly important in humanity’s continuous fight against these diseases.

The project maintains a leaderboard with stats of its users and teams, making it somewhat fun to see your performance and to compare with others (Portuguese fellows come on and join the team). Contributing is relatively easy and cheap, so i challenge you to start. If you have interest to know what kind of work is being done at the moment throughout the network, the project publishes that information in their website.

To make it easier to see your progress without having to open other programs or websites, I’ve made a simple plasmoid to give you that information.

fah-plasmoid screenshot
Screenshot of the current version of fah-plasmoid

So if you are a KDE4 user (one version for Plasma 5 is coming out of the oven soon) you can get it here. It isn’t complete yet, since I’ve done it quickly while learning about KDE development, but it is usable.

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Random Bits

Laura Poitras’ CITIZENFOUR Awarded Oscar for Best Documentary in 2014

Laura Poitras’ CITIZENFOUR Awarded Oscar for Best Documentary in 2014 by EFF