What Jonathan Did Next

Jun 29, 2015 / 0 comments

While I mentioned last September that I had failed to be selected for an H-1B and had been having discussions at DebConf about alternative employment, I never got around to elaborating on what I’d ended up doing.

Short answer: I ended up becoming a law student, studying for a Masters in Legal Science at Queen’s University Belfast. I’ve just completed my first year of the 2 year course and have managed to do well enough in the 6 modules so far to convince myself it wasn’t a crazy choice.

Longer answer: After Vello went under in June I decided to take a couple of months before fully investigating what to do next, largely because I figured I’d either find something that wanted me to start ASAP or fail to find anything and stress about it. During this period a friend happened to mention to me that the applications for the Queen’s law course were still open. He happened to know that it was something I’d considered before a few times. Various discussions (some of them over gin, I’ll admit) ensued and I eventually decided to submit an application. This was towards the end of August, and I figured I’d also talk to people at DebConf to see if there was anything out there tech-wise that I could get excited about.

It turned out that I was feeling a bit jaded about the whole tech scene. Another friend is of the strong opinion that you should take a break at least every 10 years. Heeding her advice I decided to go ahead with the law course. I haven’t regretted it at all. My initial interest was largely driven by a belief that there are too few people who understand both tech and law. I started with interests around intellectual property and contract law as well as issues that arise from trying to legislate for the global nature of most tech these days. However the course is a complete UK qualifying degree (I can go on to do the professional qualification in NI or England & Wales) and the first year has been about public law. Which has been much more interesting than I was expecting (even, would you believe it, EU law). Especially given the potential changing constitutional landscape of the UK after the recent general election, with regard to talk of repeal of the Human Rights Act and a referendum on exit from the EU.

Next year will concentrate more on private law, and I’m hoping to be able to tie that in better to what initially drove me to pursue this path. I’m still not exactly sure which direction I’ll go once I complete the course, but whatever happens I want to keep a linkage between my skill sets. That could be either leaning towards the legal side but with the appreciation of tech, returning to tech but with the appreciation of the legal side of things or perhaps specialising further down an academic path that links both. I guess I’ll see what the next year brings. :)

I should really learn systemd

May 21, 2015 / 0 comments

As I slowly upgrade all my machines to Debian 8.0 (jessie) they’re all ending up with systemd. That’s fine; my laptop has been running it since it went into testing whenever it was. Mostly I haven’t had to care, but I’m dimly aware that it has a lot of bits I should learn about to make best use of it.

Today I discovered systemctl is-system-running. Which I’m not sure why I’d use it, but when I ran it it responded with degraded. That’s not right, thought I. How do I figure out what’s wrong? systemctl --state=failed turned out to be the answer.

# systemctl --state=failed
  UNIT                         LOAD   ACTIVE SUB    DESCRIPTION
● systemd-modules-load.service loaded failed failed Load Kernel Modules

LOAD   = Reflects whether the unit definition was properly loaded.
ACTIVE = The high-level unit activation state, i.e. generalization of SUB.
SUB    = The low-level unit activation state, values depend on unit type.

1 loaded units listed. Pass --all to see loaded but inactive units, too.
To show all installed unit files use 'systemctl list-unit-files'.

Ok, so it’s failed to load some kernel modules. What’s it trying to load? systemctl status -l systemd-modules-load.service led me to /lib/systemd/systemd-modules-load which complained about various printer modules not being able to be loaded. Turned out this was because CUPS had dropped them into /etc/modules-load.d/cups-filters.conf on upgrade, and as I don’t have a parallel printer I hadn’t compiled up those modules. One of my other machines had also had an issue with starting up filesystem quotas (I think because there’d been some filesystems that hadn’t mounted properly on boot - my fault rather than systemd). Fixed that up and then systemctl is-system-running started returning a nice clean running.

Now this is probably something that was silently failing back under sysvinit, but of course nothing was tracking that other than some output on boot up. So I feel that I’ve learnt something minor about systemd that actually helped me cleanup my system, and sets me in better stead for when something important fails.

Stepping down from SPI

May 18, 2015 / 0 comments

I was first elected to the Software in the Public Interest board back in 2009. I was re-elected in 2012. This July I am up for re-election again. For a variety of reasons I’ve decided not to stand; mostly a combination of the fact that I think 2 terms (6 years) is enough in a single stretch and an inability to devote as much time to the organization as I’d like. I mentioned this at the May board meeting. I’m planning to stay involved where I can.

My main reason for posting this here is to cause people to think about whether they might want to stand for the board. Nominations open on July 1st and run until July 13th. The main thing you need to absolutely commit to is being able to attend the monthly board meeting, which is held on IRC at 20:30 UTC on the second Thursday of the month. They tend to last at most 30 minutes. Of course there’s a variety of tasks that happen in the background, such as answering queries from prospective associated projects or discussing ongoing matters on the membership or board lists depending on circumstances.

It’s my firm belief that SPI do some very important work for the Free software community. Few people realise the wide variety of associated projects. SPI offload the boring admin bits around accepting donations and managing project assets (be those machines, domains, trademarks or whatever), leaving those projects able to concentrate on the actual technical side of things. Most project members don’t realise the involvement of SPI, and that’s largely a good thing as it indicates the system is working. However it also means that there can sometimes be a lack of people wanting to stand at election time, and an absence of diversity amongst the candidates.

I’m happy to answer questions of anyone who might consider standing for the board; #spi on irc.oftc.net is a good place to ask them - I am there as Noodles.

Shipping my belongings across the globe

Mar 31, 2015 / 0 comments

I previously wrote about tracking a ship around the world, but never followed up with the practical details involved with shipping my life from the San Francisco Bay Area back to Belfast. So here they are, in the hope they provide a useful data point for anyone considering a similar move.

Firstly, move out. I was in a one bedroom apartment in Fremont, CA. At the time I was leaving the US I didn’t have anywhere for my belongs to go - the hope was I’d be back in the Bay Area, but there was a reasonable chance I was going to end up in Belfast or somewhere in England. So on January 24th 2014 I had my all of my belongings moved out and put into storage, pending some information about where I might be longer term. When I say all of my belongings I mean that; I took 2 suitcases and everything else went into storage. That means all the furniture for probably a 2 bed apartment (I’d moved out of somewhere a bit larger) - the US doesn’t really seem to go in for the concept of a furnished lease the same way as the UK does.

I had deliberately picked a moving company that could handle the move out, the storage and the (potential) shipping. They handed off to a 3rd party for the far end bit, but that was to be expected. Having only one contact to deal with throughout the process really helped.

Fast forward 8 months and on September 21st I contacted my storage company to ask about getting some sort of rough shipping quote and timescales to Belfast. The estimate came back as around a 4-6 week shipping time, which was a lot faster than I was expecting. However it turned out this was the slow option. On October 27th (delay largely due to waiting for confirmation of when I’d definitely have keys on the new place) I gave the go ahead.

Container pickup (I ended up with exclusive use of a 20ft container - not quite full, but not worth part shipment) from the storage location was originally due on November 7th. Various delays at the Port of Oakland meant this didn’t happen until November 17th. It then sat in Oakland until December 2nd. At that point the ETA into Southampton was January 8th. Various other delays, including a week off the coast of LA (yay West Coast Port Backups) meant that the ship finally arrived in Southampton on January 13th. It then had to get to Belfast and clear customs. On January 22nd 2015, 2 days shy of a year since I’d seen them, my belongings and I were reunited.

So, on the face of it, the actual time on the ship was only slightly over 6 weeks, but all of the extra bits meant that the total time from “Ship it” to “I have it” was nearly 3 months. Which to be honest is more like what I was expecting. The lesson: don’t forget to factor in delays at every stage.

The relocation cost in the region of US$8000. It was more than I’d expected, but far cheaper than the cost of buying all my furniture again (plus the fact there were various things I couldn’t easily replace that were in storage). That cost didn’t cover the initial move into storage or the storage fees - it covered taking things out, packing them up for shipment and everything after that. Including delivery to a (UK) 3rd floor apartment at the far end and insurance. It’s important to note that I’d included this detail before shipment - the quote specifically mentioned it, which was useful when the local end tried to levy an additional charge for the 3rd floor aspect. They were fine once I showed them the quote as including that detail.

Getting an entire apartment worth of things I hadn’t seen in so long really did feel a bit like a second Christmas. I’d forgotten a lot of the things I had, and it was lovely to basically get a “home in a container” delivered.

Moving to Jekyll

Jan 21, 2015 / 0 comments

I’ve been meaning to move away from Movable Type for a while; they no longer provide the “Open Source” variant, I’ve had some issues with the commenting side of things (more the fault of spammers than Movable Type itself) and there are a few minor niggles that I wanted to resolve. Nothing has been particularly pressing me to move and I haven’t been blogging as much so while I’ve been keeping an eye open for a replacement I haven’t exerted a lot of energy into the process. I have a little bit of time at present so I asked around on IRC for suggestions. One was ikiwiki, which I use as part of helping maintain the SPI website (and think is fantastic for that), the other was Jekyll. Both are available as part of Debian Jessie.

Jekyll looked a bit fancier out of the box (I’m no web designer so pre-canned themes help me a lot), so I decided to spend some time investigating it a bit more. I’d found a Movable Type to ikiwiki converter which provided a starting point for exporting from the SQLite3 DB I was using for MT. Most of my posts are in markdown, the rest (mostly from my Blosxom days) are plain HTML, so there wasn’t any need to do any conversion on the actual content. A minor amount of poking convinced Jekyll to use the same URL format (permalink: /:year/:month/:title.html in the _config.yml did what I wanted) and I had to do a few bits of fix up for some images that had been uploaded into MT, but overall fairly simple stuff.

Next I had to think about comments. My initial thought was to just ignore them for the moment; they weren’t really working on the MT install that well so it’s not a huge loss. I then decided I should at least see what the options were. Google+ has the ability to embed in your site, so I had a play with that. It worked well enough but I didn’t really want to force commenters into the Google ecosystem. Next up was Disqus, which I’ve seen used in various places. It seems to allow logins via various 3rd parties, can cope with threading and deals with the despamming. It was easy enough to integrate to play with, and while I was doing so I discovered that it could cope with importing comments. So I tweaked my conversion script to generate a WXR based file of the comments. This then imported easily into Disqus (and also I double checked that the export system worked).

I’m sure the use of a third party to handle comments will put some people off, but given the ability to export I’m confident if I really feel like dealing with despamming comments again at some point I can switch to something locally hosted. I do wish it didn’t require Javascript, but again it’s a trade off I’m willing to make at present.

Anyway. Thanks to Tollef for the pointer (and others who made various suggestions). Hopefully I haven’t broken (or produced a slew of “new” posts for) any of the feed readers pointed at my site (but you should update to use feed.xml rather than any of the others - I may remove them in the future once I see usage has died down).

(On the off chance it’s useful to someone else the conversion script I ended up with is available. There’s a built in Jekyll importer that may be a better move, but I liked ending up with a git repository containing a commit for each post.)

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