Why email will never be Free…

Hello! This blog is not dead and neither am I. It’s been a long while since I’ve written anything here and the site is starting to look a bit abandoned. I’ve been seriously busy with what I refer to as ‘life stuff’ over the last few months and my ‘tech-time’ has been a bit squeezed, so I haven’t had much to write about. I’m now getting back into the swing of things and starting to think of stuff to write about.

Email. We all use it. It works, right? Well for the most part. It’s probably one of the most used and simplest forms of digital communication available today. Shame it’s so horribly complicated then.

My major task over the last couple of weeks has been getting my new server set up so that it hosts my own email and provides accounts for members of my family. I’ve actually been doing this on and off pretty much since I got the server, but with the release of CentOS 6 I decided to cut my losses and upgrade sooner rather than later.

So I set out installing Postfix and Dovecot, following the instructions on the CentOS wiki pages. I managed to get through all the configuration of Amavisd, ClamAV and Spamassasin and I installed Roundcube for webmail access. Then I started thinking about adding users for my family and came to the decision that I didn’t want to add shell users for every email account, so I would modify my set up to incorporate virtual users and domains. After following a dead end of setting this up using plain text files (which turns out to be more fiddly to administer than shell accounts) I settled on using Postfix.admin with a database based system. Then there were my adventures with sieve, managesieve and Roundcube, which turned into a whole afternoon of getting nowhere.

Now my gripe here isn’t with the software. Far from it, all the previously mentioned software is excellent. Nor is it even with the documentation, although that is lacking in some areas, usually a quick web search will find you a useful forum post. No, my problem here is that I had to do all this in the first place in order to set up a Autonomous Free Software based mail system.

Given that I did this partly for the fun of it (yes I appear to like the pain of making tea), this isn’t really a problem for me. When I changed over my DNS everything pretty much worked, but I’m not your average user. Now, I know there are things like iRedMail, which can automate all this stuff and if I hadn’t wanted to learn how a mail system works I probably would have tried it. However, I’m skeptical as to the reliability of such a system.

This brings us to the crux of the problem. Email is too complicated! Think about all those disparate components I listed above, each of which is developed separately and has to interact seamlessly in order for the system to keep going. If one breaks, you’re screwed. I think this is probably worse in a iRedMail based system as the administrator would have no expertise in the inner workings of the system.

This leads me to my actual point (finally!). This is why people use Gmail, Hotmail, etc. It’s not because they would otherwise have to provide their own hosting, it’s because these services make it easy. I think what I’m basically asking for is “WordPress for email”. Something I can just unpack point it at a database and go, without having to know an what an RBL is. Yes, this wouldn’t be as easy as Gmail, but Blogger or Tumblr are easier than self-hosted WordPress and there are still tons of WordPress blogs out there. It would put Free Software based email within the reach of the ordinary computer literate person.

My fear is that the Free Software community treats email as a largely solved problem. We have loads of great software, which works for those of us with beards. However, until we make it easy to use, simple, cohesive and pretty, email is destined to languish in the land of the non-Free.

Syncing: How can it be this difficult?

OK, prepare for a rant.

I’ve been looking at ways to sync data across multiple systems. Basically I’m looking for something that can sync contacts, calendars and tasks across multiple devices. Ideally, this would be between a couple of desktop systems and my Android phone (preferably with a web interface for the rare occasions I’m without either). I don’t need to sync email due to using IMAP and the excellent clients available for it nowadays (personally I use Thunderbird 3.1 and K9 Mail).

Now I bet you’re screaming at me: “Why don’t you just use Google Contacts/Calendar/Tasks?”. Well currently I am, but in my ongoing quest to replace as many of these things with Free Software implementations, I was wondering what else I could use. Basically, the answer is that there isn’t anything that satisfies my requirements. There are lots of solutions which will do part of this, but nothing that will do everything. Having said that, I’m not against putting multiple components together to make a system that suits me better – in fact this is probably the best way to go about it. Probably the best project I’ve looked into is Davical, which seems to have the calendaring down, but web interfaces and Android support are a problem.

I guess what I’m really wondering is why isnt’ there some nice web application I can install that does all of the above, has connectors for popular platforms (i.e. Thunderbird and Android) and is Open Source? I mean really? I don’t know why this isn’t solved yet! How difficult is it, compared to say web apps like WordPress or Drupal? (I’m kinda hoping that I’ve missed something like this and some helpful person will step out of the Internet woodwork and point me in the right direction).

Of course if I come up with a solution I’ll be happy to share it. If anyone has any tips, please comment below.

Note to TVNZ: Astrology is BS

This morning TVNZ ran a story on their ‘Breakfast’ TV show about how the signs of the Zodiac are out of date due to the wobbling of the Earth on its axis (a phenomenon known as ‘precession’ – incorrectly referred to in the article as ‘procession’).

This story is based as they rightly say on actual scientific evidence. However, what they forgot to mention is that there is no credible scientific evidence for the efficacy of Astrology. I’ll quote Ivan Kelly (an outspoken critic of Astrology) on the subject:

[Astrology] has no relevance to understanding ourselves or our place in the cosmos. Modern advocates of astrology cannot account for the underlying basis of astrological associations with terrestrial affairs, have no plausible explanation for its claims, and have not contributed anything of cognitive value to any field of the social sciences.

So, it is irrelevant as to the actual number of star signs in existence because they have no bearing on anything whatsoever. The tacit acceptance of the truth of Astrology by TVNZ undermines their credibility as a news organisation (it should be noted that its not just TVNZ running this story, as a quick Google Search will show). The story also contained a couple sentences stressing the reality of the phenomenon of precession which, although true, has the effect of subliminally linking this very real phenomenon with the pseudo-scientific practice of Astrology.

The professor currently proposing this (Professor Parke Kunkle) comes from the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, which I’m not sure is a hugely authoritative institution on Astronomy. I don’t even know if Professor Kunkle is actually an Astronomer or whether he has been incorrectly labelled as such by the media (he may be an Astrologer rather than an Astronomer). Given that I can’t find any staff information on the MCTC website I’ll have to leave this open (of course he could be a well meaning skeptic pointing out that Astrology is wrong! It would be typical media incompetency for them to get the wrong end of the stick).

I’ve also put in a complaint to TVNZ on the subject via their feedback form, I’d encourage you to do the same:

I take issue with your recent report on ‘Breakfast’ regarding a 13th sign of the Zodiac in which you tacitly accept Astrology as fact and link it to a real scientific phenomenon without any clarification of its status of unsubstantiated pseudo-science. I refer you to my blog posting on the subject for more of my thoughts: http://blog.webworxshop.com/2011/01/18/note-to-tvnz-astrology-is-bs

Of course, I’ll report back if I get a response. I’ll just leave you with a quote from a great Astronomer, Johannes Kepler:

God provides for every animal his means of sustenance – for an astronomer he has provided astrology.

On Language/Platform Restrictions…

Editorial Note: I know I said I was going to have a Kiwi Pycon Roundup, but I’ve been really busy recently. I’m now going to wait until the conference video/audio is posted then I can give a proper roundup and post people to the talks I found particularly interesting.

OK, today I’m having a rant. This isn’t going to be an ill conceived rant about a company, like my last one. This one is about something of a general feeling that I’ve been getting recently. I want to talk about what I call Language/Platform restriction (I’m open to a better name). This can best be described by taking an example, the best of which is Android.

So, you want to develop an Android application, but you’ve got no experience in this area. So what do you do? You head over to the Android Developer site and read some of the tutorials and documentation. To your dismay you find all the code is in Java, but you’re a Python programmer. There doesn’t seem to be any way to use your favourite language on Android, despite everyone claiming that Android is an open platform.

Granted, this example is a little contrived. The chances of any developer not knowing that Android is a Java only platform are pretty small. This isn’t even my own experience as I’m pretty good with both Java and Python (though Python is my favourite). I guess my point is that developers have preferences over which language they like to use and that these preferences seem to be being largely ignored.

Now, Android does have a working Python implementation as part of the SL4A project, but this is very much a scripting environment not an application development environment. There is no native access to the Android APIs that are required to develop a fully fledged application. Also, in my opinion its usefulness as a scripting environment is limited by the lack of a Free Software cron equivalent, to run scripts automatically.

Lest you think I’m picking on Android, this problem isn’t specific to that platform. It’s also present on The Web. “Oh No!”, I hear you cry, “The Web is an incredibly open platform, you can use any language you want!”. In some ways this is true, on the server side, yes you can pretty much use any language you want (I’ve never seen any web apps written in assembly, but I’m sure it’s possible). The client side is another matter though.

If we restrict ourselves the technologies which make up “The Open Web” (basically ignoring Flash and Silverlight), we really only have one option: Javascript. Now, Javascript has historically been a complete mess. Granted it’s getting a lot better with HTML5, but it still kinda sucks. It doesn’t have any proper OO (please don’t offer up that “a function is an object” crap, as a sorry excuse). It’s still pretty low level, certainly compared to Python and it seems to be “the language which syntax forgot”.

This worries me. It actually worries me more than the Android situation. The reason for this is that I think The Web is going to be the main application delivery platform going forward and that Free Software needs to seize on this to create a suite of Free cloud applications, just as we have for the desktop. However, the lack of a choice of languages puts me (for one) off.

There have been efforts to port Python to the browser, specifically Pyjamas and Skulpt. There are problems with both these implementations. Pyjamas is too tied to its own application framework (which come from Google Web Toolkit) and it basically ends up bringing desktop like application programming to The Web. Maybe this isn’t a bad thing, but it seems to miss the full potential of The Web. Really what we need is something that takes advantage of all The Web’s APIs, but without having to use Javscript. Skulpt, although initially promising, does the compilation from Python to Javascript on the client side, thus multiplying the overhead in doing so by the number of clients (granted its distributed, but it still seems wasteful when this only needs doing once).

I should also take a minute to mention Google’s Native Client plugin. Although its not really part of the standard Open Web technology suite, it is trying to expand beyond what Flash and Silverlight offer. Basically it’s a way to run native x86 code inside a web application and expose methods through a Javascript API. You can potentially run anything in there. There are some continuing efforts to port Python to this platform, but I think this is the wrong way to go too. It’s not really intended to be a full runtime, its more like a sandboxed version of ctypes for Javascript.

In both these situations (Android and The Web) the best option is for native support for other languages to be added directly to the underlying virtual machine. However, this doesn’t look like it’s going to happen any time soon, so we might need some other solutions. Pyjamas and Skulpt have demonstrated that it’s certainly possible to compile Python to Javascript so I think that’s a low hanging target. I haven’t seen anything more promising than SL4A for Android yet, and porting dynamic languages to run on Dalvik strikes me as much harder (given the static nature of Java).

Throughout this post I’ve kind of focussed on getting Python to run on other platforms, but what I’ve said pretty much goes for Perl, PHP or any other language. If anyone has any thoughts on this topic, or details of other projects I should check out, please get in touch. My main fear is that we’re going to end up with a situation where there is not choice of programming languages for any given platform and that some of the best languages will be left out in the cold.

Why This Apple Fanboyism Really Hacks Me Off!

Firstly, I apologise if this article isn’t particularly well thought out or well worded. I just wanted to get this out there. Secondly, in the interests of keeping my blog clean, I’ve slightly censored some of the language I would have used. I’m sure you can use your imagination to fill in the blanks!

Is it just me or has there been an increasing amount of Apple fanboyism around recently? This is really beginning to annoy me. Principally, because I just don’t care. Apple are completely irredeemable in my eyes, they are worse than Microsoft, but no-one seems to see this, whatever they do!

This is really hacking me off in the Open Source media, particularly on podcasts (I’m looking at you Shot of Jaq!). Frankly, I don’t give a <censored> what Apple are doing, or what they might do in the future. I don’t listen to Open Source podcasts for this.

Then there’s Ubuntu, which seems to be moving closer and closer to the Mac in terms of looks (this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but why can’t we be more inventive?). The Ubuntu community seems to be going
this way too. In a recent episode of the Ubuntu UK Podcast the words ‘the Mac just works’ were uttered. Hello! So does Ubuntu! (of course I can only speak from my experience, but I rarely if ever have problems).

As a solution to this growing epidemic, I propose a simple test which you should use if you are tempted to praise Apple in public, particularly in the Open Source media.

Simply answer the following five questions:

1. Name five pieces of Open Source software that Apple have contributed to the community.

2. Would you buy an iPhone over a Nexus One? Seriously?

3. Is the iPad even an original idea? (clue: No.)

4. If the Mac is so great, why is it so damned hard to use? Why can’t it be configured to work they way I want?

5. Do you like DRM? Apparently, neither does Steve. Slightly hypocritical, don’t you think?

If you can’t answer these simple questions in Apple’s favour, KEEP STUM!