Older blog entries for mbanck (starting at number 43)

The other day, while "travelling Deutsche Bahn", I read an article in the venerable Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. To my slight surprise, it included a link to some government document in form of a tinyurl.com URL - (http://tinyurl.com/cr8qso). As I had no internet acccess at the time I read the article, I had to defer checking out the link to some later time. Then I began to wonder how stable those URLs are compared to the stability of the link they service and of the newspaper article itself. The description of the link would probably allow for some targetted google searching, but is it not the responsibility of the newspaper to allow their readers to research the link in a couple of days, months or maybe years? Does tinyurl.com maybe have an enterprise feature where they guarantee long-living links to newspapers and similar customers?

Over the Easter holidays, I finally did a bit of real programming again, adding some quantum chemistry related C++ code to OpenBabel and Avogadro. I added support for molecular vibrations to the NWChem and Molden file formats, as well as writing support for the MOLPRO input and output formats mostly from scratch. The latter was something I wanted to do for a long time, as I have been almost exclusively using MOLPRO for my Ph.D. over the last couple of years. The event which sparked my interest was the addition of animated vibrations in the Avogadro 0.9.3 release on April 1st, something I considered one of the last missing features in Avogadro in order for it to be useful as a general purpose quantum chemistry visualization app.

Once I had started coding, I decided to also do contribute to the visualization of molecular orbitals in Avogadro. So far, it was required to have formatted Gaussian or Q-Chem checkpoint files (both seem to use the same format, but you do not usually have those around) or Mopac2000 logfiles (Mopac2000 is non-free, unlike Mopac7, which is in Debian). My patch adds support for reading orbitals from MOLPRO logfiles on top of that. It has to be said that rendering molecular orbitals (while a bit unintuitive from a GUI perspective) is really impressive in Avogadro, thanks to the work done by Marcus Hanwell. See for exampe this picture for a Povray rendered molecular orbital exported by Avogadro.

If I manage to find some more time, I would like to (i) move the basis set and molecular orbital parsing code to OpenBabel, where it rightfully belongs and (ii) enhance and unify the OpenBabel quantum chemistry input file export code, so that they can be used by Avogadro directly. Right now, Avogadro reimplements a GUI and code for exporting an input file for each supported quantum chemistry package (Gaussian, Q-Chem, GAMESS and Mopac2000, currently).

My experience with LapStore's used-ThinkPad warranty repair service

My ThinkPad T40 arrived back from warranty repair today (well, actually yesterday, but I had to run off to the Gnome-2.26 release get-together in Munich so I did not have time to open the box then). I bought it used roughly two years ago at LapStore when my R51 had died. I had bought the R51 new with a one year IBM warranty but unfortunately within two years the graphics chip with got damaged and would freeze the notebook after a couple of minutes. I then decided that I do not really need a new notebook anymore, and opted for a used T4x series (there were no used X40s available at that time).

I chose LapStore because they offered a one-year "Garantie" (guarantee? warranty?), which was rather unusual for used notebooks - at best, you would get a one-year "Gewaehrleistung" which is the promise to fix things which were supposedly broken already by delivery. Even better, one could optionally extend the warranty to two years, which I did. The notebook they sent was in pretty good condition (apparently a business out-of-warranty return) and I put in my R51's hard disk, the ipw2100 WLAN card and the RAM (unfortunately, I realized too late that the keyboard and the CDRW/DVD drive do not fit).

I was pretty happy with it (and LapStore in general, I recommended it to a couple of friends since, and e.g. my current flatmate bought a T42 there a while ago as well) until the fan started dropping out and making weird noises by the end of 2008. So just before the end of warranty, I sent it (after removing hard disk, optical drive and battery) in to LapStore to see how their service is. I also mentioned a clear bright spot on the display (apparently some fatigue, you see it often mentioned in ThinkPad eBay descriptions) and a crack in the palmrest between the cursor-right key and the hard disk slot. When they sent a mail that the ThinkPad had arrived at their site, I also followed-up via mail that the "indestructible" keyboard caps stickers they used to mod a Scandinavian(?) keyboard into a German one were pretty much destroyed by now and would also need servicing.

I assumed that they would service the fan (which looked like a clear-cut warranty issue to me) without arguing, but probably not the display and palmrest (and did not know whether they got the mail about the keyboard stickers), so when they sent another mail two days ago that they sent the notebook back without asking further questions, I became worried about what happened at all.

So, long story short, I was totally positively surprised when I opened the box today and read:

"Aktion: L├╝fter, Display, Palmrest und Tastatur getauscht"

(action: fan, display, palmrest and keyboard replaced)

The replacements are still used parts (and the keyboard is still not a real German one, but one with new stickers on it), but they basically changed my almost-totally-broken-will-fall-apart T40 back into a almost-as-good-as-new T40. (not sure whether that is positive or negative, but they also forgot to remove the service-hard disk they put in to test things, I guess I will send it back to them)

So all in all, I am very much impressed by their service. I would have expected this kind of service from IBM/Lenovo if I had a manufacturer warranty, but not from some random sell-used-ThinkPads shops on the net. I can now even more strongly recommend LapStore as the place to buy good notebooks. Certainly you can get cheaper prices at some eBay stores, but you do not get real warranty then and what about the service?

I recommend geting a T42 - I believe the T43 is inferior to it and the T40s and T41s don't have "LapStore Garantie" anymore. You can get them without operating system and can customize the hard disk, memory and optical drives - unfortunately you cannot downgrade those, which is my only gripe with them.

Yesterday evening, I mistyped my GPG passphrase a couple of times. I wasn't very worried back then and didn't try further, after all I was at a pub before and had one or two beers.

Today, I wasn't able to correctly type my GPG passphrase, either. At this point, I got a slight panic. I don't have my GPG passphrase written down anywhere, didn't make up any mnemonics for it and I wouldn't be able to easily write it down anyway - it just flowed naturally through my fingers until today. In fact, I couldn't even tell how many characters/digits there are exactly. Maybe once or twice a month I would make a typo, but always get it right on second attempt. And now, from one day to the other, my fingers just couldn't remember anymore.

I literally tried hundreds of times, with different characters and character combinations, but once I started thinking about what my passphrase might be, I couldn't just type it in sub-consciously anymore. After a while I became really worried - are these the first signs of Alzheimer or something? I even tried doing something else for a while as a distraction and then suddently jumping back at the keyboard, hoping the magic would return into my fingers when they got taken by surprise.

A couple of hours and countless retries later, I suddently typed in the correct passphrase once. Luckily, I was even able to reproduce it after a couple of more retries! However, it took me another five minutes to figure out what was the problem, now that it seemed natural to correctly type my passphrase again. In the end, it turned out my fingers forgot to capitalize a letter.

Opensync updates

Some time ago, Opensync-0.38 got released, and it is now available in experimental. The evolution-data-server and the Opie plugins are now available again, as well as the new tomboy (in NEW) and a rewritten google-calendar/contacts plugin. The google plugin requires the new libgcal, which I have just uploaded to NEW.

Unfortunately, kitchensync is still not ported to latest Opensync-0.3x (and got dropped for KDE4.2), so one still needs to use the command-line msynctool program. Also not ported are the (KDE3) kdepim and the currently under development Akonadi plugin. Other important plugins missing for 0.38 are the Windows Mobile, Blackberry, Palm and IRMC plugins. I tried to suggest making 0.38.x point releases including more ported plugins, but it seems development is turning towards 0.39 already, and yet some more API changes were done, this time mostly removing unnecessary interfaces, which should be a good thing in the long term. Some other good news is that there are now weekly IRC meetings of the Opensync developers, so there should be steadier progress towards Opensync-0.40 from now on. Unfortunately, I was mostly absent during all of the three meetings so far.

Along with Opensync-0.38, libsyncml saw a new major release 0.5.0 which should fix lots of bugs and provide better support for mobiles. However, lots of problems with syncml were due to bugs in the wbxml2 library. Michael Bell has hopefully found the most critical ones and I have uploaded a new wbxml2-0.9.2 to unstable today which I hope will get into lenny soon. The main problem with wbxml2 over the last year was a unresponsive/MIA upstream; however, recently wbxml2 maintainership got tranferred to the opensync project and moved to its Trac. Michael Bell has been fixing most of the outstanding issues and is currently preparing a 0.10.0 release, so this project should be back on track now.

Systems Expo 2008

As the last years, Debian was offered a booth at last week's Systems expo here in Munich again. However, this year the Free Projects area was not organized by Rosa Riebl from C&L publishing, but by Wolfgang Drotschmann from LinuxTag e.V.. This made some things a bit more difficult, e.g. we did not know our exact booth number until a couple of days before the expo and the small conference programme was made up in an ad-hoc fashion after the expo started, but in the end most things worked out fine in some way or the other. While the booth (a demo-point, really) was as big (or rather small) as last year, there was much more space around the booth this year (something which seemed to apply to all of Systems), so things did not get too crowded even when a handful of visitors approached the booth at once. Also, the visibility was much improved as our demo point was visible by strolling visitors this year (last year, our demo point was just facing the wall).

As nobody else stepped up, I had to organize the booth again. Fewer people than last year were around; only Robert Grimm, Arne Wichmann, Franziska Lichtblau, Johannes Wiedersich, Andreas Barth and I were able to commit to staffing the booth; other people were busy over the week or moved away from Munich since last year, like Robert Lemmen or Wolfgang Lonien. Luckily, we still had the computer the GNOME project donated to us last year, and I took a TFT, keyboard and mouse from the university along. This year, I decided to not show up for the booth build-up the day before Systems starts. On the one hand, I had made the experience that there is not much one can do then anyway, and would have to put the computer/TFT into the central locker room overnight anyway. On the other hand, there was as always a very low attendence in the first few hours of the expo so building up the booth in the morning turned out to be no problem. The Credativ people again provided us with merchandise (due to some miscommunication on my part the package had to arrive directly at the expo, but in the end I was glad about this as I had enough trouble carrying the computer and TFT to the expo). This year, thanks to Credativ, we were able to provide some t-shirts for the first time, something quite some visitors had requested over the years. Besides t-shirts, we had some swirl stickers and the popular Debian keychains provided by Joerg Jaspert through Credativ.

In the end the booth mostly consisted of the computer (demonstrating Lenny most of the time) and some A4 sized Swirls I had printed out the day before. From Wednesday on we were able to provide Lenny Beta2 CDs as well thanks to Johannes Wiedersich who organized them. Initially, I asked ADR whether they would produce some CDs for us again as they did last year, but they did not bring the appropriate hardware this time. But thanks to Johannes we were still able to provide interested visitors with CDs through LSK. In the end, we ran out of most t-shirts at some point on Thursday and managed to sell the two remaining Lady shirts on Friday. All the other merchandise was gone by the end of the show as well so the way back was not that difficult, even more so as Andreas Barth helped me carry the computer to the subway and my car.

The days I was at Systems (first and last day) the attendance was rather low, so not that many interesting discussions happened. Almost everybody who stepped by knew Debian already and the majority was using it themselves as well, at least on their servers. Those people were also really quite happy, we rarely heard much critizism, even after asking people for some. The most frequently asked question was undoubtly "when will Lenny release?", followed by "do you have that cool t-shirt in L or XL as well?". Overall it was a pretty good experience, albeit slightly stressful organizing it. In any case, this was probably the last time I had to do this as the Systems organizers announced they will rethink their concept and there will be no Systems 2009.

OpenSync update

To give some update on the state of OpenSync in Debian, I have uploaded libsycml-0.4.7 to experimental a couple of days ago. This is significant in sofar as a lot of development and bug-fixing (mostly by Michael Bell) happened for this release, as well as some committment to maintaining an API and at least responsively versioning the library. In order to use libsyncml-0.4.7 with OpenSync, a newer libopensync than 0.36 is needed; however, current OpenSync trunk has seen a lot of changes in plugin handling and plugins need to get ported to the new API.

So I uploaded the last known-working revision of OpenSync along with corresponing revisions of the file-sync and syncml plugins, the vformat module and a rebuild of msynctool to experimental for now. I did not have the time or energy to migrate/upload the other plugins yet, and as it seems that OpenSync-0.37 will only ship with ported file-sync and syncml plugins, it might not make much sense. I also took over maintainership of the related wbxml2 package, and upload a patch by Michael Bell which seem to fix a lot issues people are having with SyncML.

The good news is that it seems all of the new features for a 0.40 stable OpenSync release have been finished according to the roadmap , most notably a common plugin configuration system and the machinery for a migration path from 0.22 to 0.40 configurations (plugins still need to support/implement that I believe), so no more big API changes are expected and the focus will be on bugfixing and plugin discovery from now on. This means developers will be able to start porting their plugins to the 0.40 API once 0.37 is out and front-end authors can start to take a look at the architectural changes which were made to facilitate their jobs.

My hope is that conduit will be able to leverage the OpenSync technology and introduce a solid GUI for this (as kitchensync does for KDE), making syncronization finally work on the desktops.

From the Debian packaging point of view, I have been mostly on my own now for the last couple of months. However, I recently registered an Alioth project in order to maintain the packages in a subversion repository (I have not yet decided whether it is worth importing the 0.22 packages targetted at lenny), and people who are interested in helping should contact me.

4 Mar 2006 (updated 4 Mar 2006 at 11:38 UTC) »
FOSDEM 2006

This year, the days before FOSDEM were the stressful ones, as I got to organize accomodation. Initially, we wanted to have similar appartments as last year, but by the time I was less busy at uni to actually look into it, most of them were already booked, so we had to put up with a youth hostel instead. The positive sides of this were the much lower expenses and a location in the city centre, making us actually look at Bruxelles a bit in detail this time.

"Us" were the Hurd people, including Martin "earliest Hurd adopter present" Michlmayr. I got to FOSDEM by car again, picking up Marcus Brinkmann, Neal Walfield and Olaf Buddenhagen on the way in Cologne. Finding the youth hostel seemed to be pretty hard as we just had a street address and a map without street names, but we managed to find it pretty quickly to my great surprise (driving around in Bruxelles usually ended up being a complete disaster over the last years). After a strange encounter with a Guillem Jover lookalike in front of the hostel, we met the other guys (Thomas Schwinge, Marco Gerards, Stefan Siegl and Ognyan Kulev) and had a discussion about Neal's and Marcus' plan to move to a persistent system.

After dinner, I met the other Debian people in the Roi d'Espagne and hat some longer chats with Jeroen van Wolffelaar, Rob Bradford, Martin Michlmayr and Jordi Mallach, who I finally met for the first time and who did not cop out of FOSDEM this year as usual... The pub is getting more and more crowded each year, all the hackers barely fit even though they opened the balustrade this time as well. It was great to see everybody again and have a few beers. Martin and I then managed to find the way back to the hostel by foot.

We had no developer room, and no talks in the Debian room either, so FOSDEM was a pretty relaxed event this year. I met some more familiar faces like Noel Koethe and Andreas Mueller and listened to a couple of talks, most notably Richard Stallman's and Jeff Waugh's keynotes and Hanna Wallach's talk about FLOSSPOLS. Stefan Siegl also managed to get GNU Mach working for both my 3Com PCMCIA NIC and my Orinoco PCMCIA WLAN card, confirming his title as Hurd "hacker of the month".

On Saturday evening, we (at this time, Guillem Jover, Gianluca Guida, Bas Wijnen and Jeroen Dekkers had joined) had dinner with the french Hurd guys (Manuel Menal, Marc Dequenes, Richard Braun, Arnaud Fontaine and others) in an italian restaurant. At 10:40 PM, the waiter told us in a rather unfriendly tone that they would close at 11 and presented us with the bill, along with handing out the menu again so that we could look up our share. By the time the bill arrived the french part of the table (at 10:55 PM), the guys were pretty surprised by this whole business and complained loudly that they did not have a dessert yet and insistent on having one. After some more minutes of discussion, the waiter gave in and served their desserts, after which each of them paid his share with his carte bleue. I believe we left the restaurant around 11:30.

On Sunday evening, we had dinner again (the french guys had left Bruxelles already) and then drove back to Germany after having desserts and coffee in a bar. We left Bruxelles at around midnight and arrived in Duesseldorf at 2:30 PM, so we were glad that Neal offered us to stay at his place. We had breakfast the next morning with him and Isabel and then I proceeded to drive back to Frankfurt in the early afternoon.

FOSDEM rocked, as usual. After being with the Debian crowd for the first three years or so, and mostly sticking with the Hurd crowd last year, I think I managed a pretty good balance between the two this year. This will not have been my last FOSDEM.

29 Oct 2005 (updated 29 Oct 2005 at 19:51 UTC) »

Systems 2005

Another year, another Systems. This year, however, sadly the first time without Jens, so organization was harder than usual. C&L again provided an Open Source area where we had a booth along with GNOME, KDE, the several BSDs, PostgreSQL and some smaller Open Source projects. As we were not able to build up the booth on Sunday already, there was only a pretty bad location left on Monday, facing towards the wall. Roland Stigge provided a huge 1,5 by 1,5 metre Debian swirl banner, which we mounted in the vicinity of the (too small for that) booth. Michael Ablassmeier brought a Shuttle PC and a TFT display so we could show visitors around the Debian desktop and point them towards further information on the internet. Credativ again kindly shipped posters and flyers. We sold the former and distributed the latter to passing visitors. Unfortunately, Credativ did not receive any LinuxTag DVDs this year, and we were unable to obtain some from other people (apparently they are spared for LinuxWorldExpo in Frankfurt next month, though most visitors there should know Debian already I guess), so we only had about 30 DVDs, which were left from the pack I took back from LinuxTag myself. We sold those for 2 EUR, and later distributed some shiny new Breezy CDs the GNOME booth acquired on Thursday and had some Sarge CDs pressed at a nearby CD production booth which we sold for 2 EUR as well.

After some initial doubts on whether we would be able to properly man the booth, it turned out that the local Debian community was enough to guarantee presence except for Friday morning. Michael Ablassmeier, Erich Schubert, Simon Richter, Roland Stigge and Rene Engelhard manned the booth besides me. So we were in the fortunate position that we had two people at the booth most of the time while shuffling around personnel, while most other booths were operated by the same one or two people throughout the week.

This year, almost all people I asked (I usually offered a flyer and asked "Do you know Debian already?" to all passing visitors, unless they quickly tried to run through our territory) knew about Debian at least somewhat, and surprisingly many people said they had Debian installed and were happy with it. Thanks to the Sarge release and the almost-official amd64 archive (the respective lack of which were by far the most prominent questions last year), we had almost no recurring questions to answer; probably the most frequent question was about Ubuntu and our relationship with it, but those were pretty scarce and I expected much more of that. Likewise, only very few people were unhappy about Debian (far outweighed by the happy bunch), and most of that seemed to be due to specific technical issues rather than any general reservations about the Debian development or community processes. Most of the remaining questions were pretty specific, e.g. people having issues installing Debian on their hardware or trying to do some exotic stuff.

To summarize, it was a nice having a booth again and getting in touch with visitors and users. I did not see much else of Systems this year due to being busy with university as well, but I do not think it would have been worth it anyway. Murray Cumming and Joerg Kress (who were managing the GNOME booth) helped me dismantle the booth and carry back the hardware and leftovers on Friday evening and we decided to have dinner together at a nice pub in Munich.

On Saturday, 30th July, my friend and fellow Debian Developer Jens Schmalzing tragically passed away. When I learned about his death, I was shocked and have been mourning him ever since. Jens was not very publically active in the Debian community (he preferred to do work rather than discuss), nor did he attend Debian conferences or international events like LinuxTag, but he was an important part of our local Munich Debian Community. He frequently organized meetings, even back at the time when we met only very irregularly. He also co-organized the real-life Bug-Squashing-Party in Munich last year (providing rooms at his university institute, besides others) and represented Debian at local Linux events like Linux-Infotag Augsburg or Munich's Systems.

For me personally, Jens was also a friend, my Debian advocate, and one of the first Debian Developers I met personally. He perhaps also was the Debian person I met most frequently and we phoned each other occasionally or met privately, e.g. when we made the LaTeX layout of the Debian Flyer for LinuxTag 2002 (which later on got used for other events as well), when he managed to install Debian GNU/Linux on my (or rather my dad's) Apple Mac SE/30 and when we drove together to Linux-Infotag Augsburg last year show-casing FAI and Debian-Installer.

As he did not show up for the last few local Debian meetings, I was about to phone him to see whether he was fine. Now, I will never be able to do so again. Instead, I will remember the nice times we all had together with him during the various Debian meetings in beer gardens or pubs. My best wishes go to his widow and his three little sons.

Jens, you will be missed.

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