Thursday, 9 October 2008

The dark side

Steven Taylor is considering going dual-boot. For better or worse, I think Ubuntu is probably the best choice for a newbie these days, although my last lenny install was surprisingly painless (except for the whole “MacBooks have very funky partitioning” issue which I’ve never really been able to resolve to my satisfaction).

Friday, 30 May 2008

Nothing is ever simple

Reading CRANberries this morning I remembered that I’d never gotten around to packaging Amelia for Debian. So I dutifully filed my ITP and got to work on adapting the package to build with Debian, which thanks to Dirk’s hackery on R support in cdbs was pretty easy—copy over the debian directory from my Zelig package, update the copyright file, fix up the control file, update the Debian changelog, fix a lintian warning or two (FSF address in the copyright file), and it’s basically done.

Then I discovered that Amelia also throws in a couple of Tcl/Tk libraries. One, BWidget is already packaged, so all I had to do was delete the copy that’s installed by the Amelia package and add a dependency on it. The other is Combobox, the exact license of which follows:

completely, totally, free. I retain copyright but you are free to use the code however you see fit. Don’t be mean.

Yay. I get to play license negotiator again. I really love creating extra work I really don’t need for myself…

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Letting go of my baby

I just added two new developers to the reportbug project on Alioth, Sandro Tosi and Y Giridhar Appaji Nag, who seem to be enthusiastic about working through the big backlog of bug reports and wishlist requests associated with the package. Since my Debian-related interests are largely elsewhere these days, mostly focused on R stuff that has a more tangible relationship with my research (and by extension my future job mobility and/or tenurability) and a few other infrastructural things in Debian (primarily LSB support and printing), I think this is a good development overall. But still, when you’ve been hacking away at something for almost nine years it’s hard not to develop a bit of a sentimental attachment to it. I still plan to be doing some hacking away at reportbug, but hopefully the new blood can take the lead in terms of day-to-day maintenance while I work on some of the desperately-needed code refactoring issues with the software.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Principals, agents, and Debian

I’ve noted in the past that Debian has deliberately enshrined in its constitution some rather serious principal-agent problems. By and large this isn’t a bad thing, since there isn’t the consensus within the Debian community to support the “benevolent dictator for life” model of decision-making—if you want that, well that’s what Ubuntu and Daddy Warbucks is for. But it does mean that sometimes the caca hits the fan when a Debian project leader does exercise his powers, as our now-former DPL did earlier this week just before the end of his term of office (by my estimate, just over one hour and 27 minutes before). John Adams would be proud. So we have three related issues in my mind:

  • As a matter of general principle, lame-duck DPLs shouldn’t be making appointments. This issue is ameliorated somewhat because DPL delegations—unlike “midnight judges”—can be revoked at any time, but it strikes me that whatever legitimacy a DPL has from the developers evaporates once a new DPL-elect has been designated. I can only speculate why this happened in this case, so I won’t bother.
  • Second, while Debian has a very strong tradition of developer sovereignty, with many aspects of the project being self-organized rather than originating with appointments from upon high, it seems to me that certain aspects of core infrastructure can’t be managed in this way.
  • Third, the appointment does little to relieve the excessive concentration of power in the core of Debian; if anything, Anthony Towns’ apparent resignation in the wake of Jörg’s appointment worsens the situation. Ensuring there is proper vetting of people with access to important infrastructure is important, but at the same time I find it difficult to believe that there are only a half-dozen or so Debian developers who are trustworthy enough to be system administrators, account managers, or archive maintainers (several of them occupying overlapping positions). That, rather than a lack of technical tools, has been a problem of note within Debian since, oh, the days of my youthful vigor within Debian (which are long since past).

In any event, congratulations to all the new Debian developers—and I’ll avoid pondering for too long why one person’s appointment to an unrelated group would suddenly break the logjam of developer application approvals.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

debtorrent 0.1.4 is out

I’ve been trying out Cameron Dale’s debtorrent, a BitTorrent-based package distribution system for Debian packages, for the past few days, and while it’s been a bit rough around the edges it has worked quite well so far. Cameron has just made a new release which promises better performance all-around; I haven’t had a real opportunity to test the performance yet here, except I can say that apt-get update is markedly faster in this release.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

Etch is out

Debian 4.0 is now released. There are definitely a couple of ugly reportbug issues that made it into the release (primarily in the Unicode and memory use areas), but I don’t know whether or not a fix for those will be allowed in to the first point release.

But it is a time for rejoicing nonetheless, especially when paired with the election of our new Debian Project Leader for the next year, Sam Hocevar, in a pretty darn close election—Sam was preferred to Steve McIntyre, my top preference, by just eight net ballots.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

My DPL vote

Here’s how I voted for Debian project leader:

[ 3 ] Choice 1: Wouter Verhelst
[ 3 ] Choice 2: Aigars Mahinovs
[ 3 ] Choice 3: Gustavo Franco
[ 3 ] Choice 4: Sam Hocevar
[ 1 ] Choice 5: Steve McIntyre
[ 3 ] Choice 6: Raphaël Hertzog
[ 2 ] Choice 7: Anthony Towns
[ 3 ] Choice 8: Simon Richter
[ 4 ] Choice 9: None Of The Above

For the uninitiated, Debian uses the Schulze method of vote counting (a Condorcet method) to decide its elections based on ranked ballots cast by Debian developers. In English, my preference order was McIntyre > Towns [the incumbent DPL] > (any other candidate) > (nobody).

Thankfully, another candidate withdrew from the election, saving me from having to cast a ballot ranking nobody ahead of a candidate for the second consecutive year.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

An allegory for our times (particularly in Debian)

On my flight from St. Louis to Denver today (not my final destination, mind you), I had the distinct displeasure of sitting right in front of three or four half-loaded idiots on their way to some sort of ski vacation in Colorado, who engaged in the following obnoxious behaviors, among others:

  • Repeatedly hitting the flight attendant call button.
  • Using the word “fuck” liberally in conversation, usually 3–4 times per sentence.
  • Having an extended discussion of airplane crashes.
  • Asking the flight attendant repeatedly if they could smoke aboard the aircraft.

While their level of obnoxiousness probably didn’t rise to the level at which I would have supported them being hogtied by an air marshal, hauled off to Gitmo, or forcibly ejected from the aircraft at altitude, in large part because my in-canal earphones and some additional volume on the iPod effectively muted them for about 3/4 of the flight, I can’t imagine I would have put up much of an objection to any or all of these actions—and idly contemplated taking such actions myself.

Saturday, 3 February 2007

PDF hacks

From this Ars Journals post on compressing PDFs in OS X (advice that only works in limited circumstances, I might add) comes a description of pdftk, which of course turns out to already be in Debian even though I was completely unaware of it before. I’ve been using pdfjam for similar functionality—I’ll have to find out if pdftk does better.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006


Iceweasel has (finally) replaced Firefox in Debian unstable, not that the differences—beyond the 1.5 → 2.0 transition, which happened at the same time—are all that noticeable.

Sunday, 10 September 2006

The first law of Internet email

Any email message containing the phrase “this is not meant to be a flame” inevitably is a flame.

Monday, 14 August 2006

reportbug gaining interfaces

After what charitably may be two years of stagnation, reportbug is gaining a couple of new interfaces soon. Probably the more high-profile effort—and the one that’s closer to primetime—is Philipp Kern’s “Summer of Code” project to add a Gnome2 interface to reportbug, which should be hitting the experimental distribution soon.

Meanwhile, I’ve started fiddling with the urwid library and have made startlingly rapid progress constructing a UI with it, even though I am still getting the hang of the widget system… some widgets just refuse to go inside other widgets in ways that are not completely obvious to me, leading to strange runtime exceptions that are hard to debug. In any event, before it hits the mirrors, there’s more stuff to be done—most notably, the bug tracking system query interface (I haven’t even started tackling that yet) and figuring out how to suspend the urwid session to launch an editor that may want to use the console. On the latter point, I may go back to running each dialog as a separate session, which would also give me the console log back.

Thursday, 9 March 2006

My secret life as a Condorcet voter

As of this posting, I am one of 290 Debian developers who have thus far bothered to vote on the first General Resolution of 2006, which will state Debian’s position on the GNU Free Documentation License and decide whether (and under what conditions) GFDL-licensed documents will be allowed in Debian’s “main” distribution.

My sense is that the spirit of the Debian Free Software Guidelines is most consistent with the interpretation embodied in Amendment A—I seriously doubt the Free Software Foundation will go after people who distribute GFDL-licensed documents on DRMed media and the “transparent formats” issue is probably a non-issue in practice, judging from the distinct lack of interest by the FSF in going after people who violate the GPL’s “you must make source available for three years” rule, but the invariant sections rule is clearly non-free and cannot be ignored.

Unfortunately (or, fortunately, depending on your perspective) this means Debian users will not have access to most of the documentation that uses invariant sections—primarily those documents distributed by the FSF themselves. On the upside, it will at least spare our users from having reams of Richard Stallman’s political rants foisted upon them and their hard drives in exchange for the privilege of having the Emacs manual available.

So, anyway, here’s how I voted, since it will be public at the close of the vote anyway: 2143—or, in other words, Amendment A [GFDL allowed if invariant sections not used] > Original Resolution [GFDL not allowed at all] > Further Discussion > Amendment B [anything GFDL'd goes].

Next up: the elections for Debian Project Leader, featuring a smorgasbord of seven candidates.

Wednesday, 16 November 2005

Deliberately enshrining principal-agent problems

If you think the executive has a hard time controlling the bureaucracy it nominally heads, or that the Supreme Court has difficulty keeping the 9th Circuit reined in, just remember: these principal-agent problems could be worse. In the case of the Debian project’s constitution, much worse.

Friday, 23 September 2005

My name in print

My first real publication (broadly defined) in political science is now officially “forthcoming”; while it’s only a short piece in The Political Methodologist, the biannual newsletter of the Society for Political Methodology, I figure you have to start somewhere. It’s a brief overview of Quantian, a “Live Linux” DVD that’s geared toward use by social, behavioral, and natural scientists.

My co-author and Quantian’s developer, Dirk Eddelbuettel, has the current version of the piece up at his website, for the morbidly curious. The article probably will appear in the Fall 2005 issue, whenever that emerges.

Wednesday, 8 June 2005

Another Debian upgrade PSA

If your attempts to connect to your PostgreSQL database from psycopg fail with a missing socket error after upgrading from Debian sarge to etch or sid (as I inadvertently did yesterday), add "host=localhost" to the DSN string. Apparently the Unix domain socket was disabled in the default configuration, so database connections must now go through TCP/IP. This may affect other database adapters too.

Thursday, 2 June 2005

I knew I forgot something

Somehow I managed to forget all about implementing lsbinstall when I uploaded LSB 3.0–1 for Debian to sid last month. Grrr…

Wednesday, 4 May 2005

Is it just cold in here?

Good news for Debian fans: the archive freeze in preparation for release has taken place. If all goes according to plan, Debian 3.1 will be out by the end of the month.

Thursday, 21 April 2005

DPL Interview

There’s a pretty interesting and far-ranging interview by Rob Levin of the new Debian Project Leader, Branden Robinson, up at Levin’s blog. While Branden and I don’t agree on many things politically, he’s a great guy in person and a damn good developer, and I think he’ll make a great DPL. Of course, I would say that to rationalize my #1 rankings of him on at least the last two ballots! (þ: Linux Weekly News)

Friday, 15 April 2005

Bizarre disclaimer of the day

I can appreciate the value of this Debian package to the fairer sex, but I have to admit the disclaimer is pretty amusing:

NOTE: This program is not a reliable contraceptive method. It does neither help to prevent sexual transmision diseases like AIDS. It is just an electronic means of keeping track of some of your medical data and extract some statistical conclusions from them. You cannot consider this program as a substitute for your gynecologist in any way. [emphasis mine]

I think if you’re the sort of person who would confuse a computer program with the Pill, a condom, or a gynecologist, the disclaimer really isn’t going to help you very much.

Friday, 4 March 2005

I Ubuntu, You Ubuntu

I somehow managed to end up with a bastardized Debian unstable/Ubuntu hybrid on my laptop that seems to be working fairly nicely; oddly enough, my original intent was to get Evolution Exchange working again with the Millsaps mail system, but that doesn’t seem to have happened. Except for some minor annoyances, mostly having to do with Ubuntu’s decision to make Python 2.4 its “default” Python, I think it’s pretty nice… particularly the ability to run the GNOME 2.10 prerelease and the X server and xcompmgr for nifty drop-shadows on my windows (the fade effect was too annoyingly slow on my laptop, so I ditched it).

So, basically, Ubuntu is Debian without the FUBAR release process and without me as a maintainer, which I see as two mostly-positive changes.

Tuesday, 8 February 2005

Setting up SMTP AUTH support for Earthlink under Debian

I had to assemble this from multiple sources (including here)… so here’s everything you need.

Thursday, 24 June 2004

Print it

My latest little project for Debian is an automatic printer setup tool, built from lots of the bits and pieces I’ve developed for Foomatic-GUI. Details here on debian-devel. Short instructions:

Add this to /etc/apt/sources.list:

deb ./

Then do (as root):

apt-get update; apt-get install printconf

Success or failure reports would be greatly appreciated.

Friday, 18 June 2004

My head hurts

I know I’m a fan of Condorcet voting, but this is a ridiculously confusing vote, even by Debian standards.

I guess I’ll vote 2145376, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to explain 2145376 to anyone else on the planet.

Friday, 28 May 2004

If in doubt, tunnel through port 53

Now, this is an interesting (if somewhat scary) hack:

nstx allows you to pass IP packets via DNS queries. This allows you to use standard network protocols when otherwise only DNS would be available.

Color me impressed.