Retiring as a Debian developer

This is a repost and update of my retirement letter sent privately to Debian last month, July 10, 2016. At that time I received many notes of appreciation and good wishes which I treasure. Now, I’d like to say goodbye to the broader Debian community and, as well, indicate which of the cleanup items have since been addressed in strikethrough style and with annotations. Also, I’d like to stay in touch with many of you, so I have added some comments oriented towards those of you who are interested in doing that after the letter.

When in 1995, on a tip from a friend, I installed Debian on my 386 at work and was enthralled with the results, I could not have foreseen that two years later, friends I had made on channel #debian would nudge me to become a Debian developer. Nor when that happened did I have any idea that twenty years later, I’d consider Debian to be like family, the greatest free software community in the world, and would still be promoting it and helping people with it whenever I could. Debian quietly, unexpectedly became a part of what defines me.

My priorities in life have changed over that time, though. I have shifted my attention to things that are more important to me in life, such as my family, my health and well-being physically and spiritually, and bringing all I can to bear on the task of preserving our local wilderness areas and trails. In the latter area, I’m now bringing all of what Debian has helped shaped me to be to the table, launching some ambitious projects I hope will bear fruit in the coming years, and make a measurable contribution to help us hang onto our precious natural preserves where I live.

Unfortunately, as I’ve poured more time and energy into these things, I’ve increasingly not been giving my packages the care they need. Nor do I have any roles or goals now for any of the Debian projects I was previously involved in. So, after much careful deliberation, and as much as it pains me to say it, it’s time to retire as a Debian developer. It has been a great privilege to work with you, and to meet many of you in New York at Debconf 10. I plan to be around online, and will continue to take an interest in Debian, lending a hand when I can. Thanks for all of the fun times, for all that I’ve learned, and for the privilege to make awesome things with you. I’ll treasure this forever.

So much for the soppy bits. 🙂 Now, business. These things remain to clean up upon my departure, and I’d appreciate help from QA, and anyone else who can lend a hand. My packages are effectively orphaned, but I haven’t the time to do any of the cleanup myself, so please speak up if you can help.

  1. Debian Jr.
    • O: junior-doc. The junior-doc package has been awaiting an overhaul by whoever revives the project since I gave it up years ago. I’m still listed as maintainer and that should be changed to Debian Junior Maintainers <debianjr-maintainers@lists.alioth.debian.org> if they want it. Otherwise, it is orphaned.
    • I should also be dropped from Uploaders from debian-junior, the metapackages source. Fixed in git.
  2. Tux Paint. This is a very special package that deserves to go to someone who will love it and care for it well. There are three source packages in all:
    • O: tuxpaint
    • O: tuxpaint-config
    • O: tuxpaint-stamps
  3. O: xletters. This is a cute little typing practice game and needs a new maintainer.
  4. XPilot is co-maintained by Phil Brooke <pjb@debian.org>, so he should replace me as Maintainer. Phil said he’ll pick up xpilot-ng and will also look at xpilot-extra.
    • xpilot-ng
    • O: xpilot-extra (recently removed from testing due to my neglect, and not co-maintained by Phil; it’s unclear if anyone really uses this anymore)
  5. GTypist is co-maintained by Daniel Leidert <dleidert@debian.org> and should replace me as Maintainer.
  6. My ruby packages. A group of packages that I brought into Debian as dependencies of taskwarrior-web, which I never completed. Maybe they’ll be useful in and of themselves, and maybe not. In any case, they are maintained by pkg-ruby-extras-maintainers, but I’m the sole developer in Uploaders and should be removed: Fixed in git.
    • ruby-blockenspiel
    • ruby-parseconfig
    • ruby-rack-flash3
    • ruby-simple-navigation
    • ruby-sinatra-simple-navigation
    • ruby-term-ansicolor
    • ruby-versionomy
  7. Debian Live stuff: I am listed in Uploaders for live-manual (fixed in git) and debian-installer-launcher (fixed in git) and need to be removed.
  8. O: eeepc-acpi-scripts. The defunct Debian EeePC project has just this one package. Recently, the mailing list was asked about its status, and it was recently NMU’d. To my knowledge, nobody from the original team remains to take care of it, so it needs a new maintainer. I should be removed from Uploaders, and since the Debian Eee PC Team no longer exists, it should be removed as maintainer. It is effectively orphaned unless someone speaks up.

There are also some Alioth projects / lists that are defunct that I’ll need to talk to the Alioth admins about cleaning up in the coming days. One of these is <debian-eeepc-devel@lists.alioth.debian.org> and since it is still listed as the maintainer of eeepc-acpi-scripts, that needs to be sorted out before the list can be closed.

Thanks again, and see you around!
Ben

Stay in touch

For those of you who would like to stay in touch, here are some ways to do that:

  • Follow my blog: http://syn.theti.ca
    If you already do that, great! If not, welcome to my blog! For the past couple of years you may have noticed a decrease in technical content and increase in local trails and conservation oriented posts. You can expect more of the latter.
  • Say hi to me on irc: SynrG (also SynrGy) on irc.oftc.net (irc.debian.org) or irc.freenode.net.
    I still intend to hang out and offer support when I can, just no longer as a developer. Channel #debian-offtopic on either network is a good place to catch up with me socially.
  • Follow me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SynrG
    For better or worse, a lot of the trails and conservation folks hang out here, and many of you in the Debian community are already my Facebook friends.
  • Look for my Bluff Trail posts on their site: https://wrweo.ca
    Providing tech support to this organization is where much of my time and energy is going these days. I post here once in a while, but do most of my work behind the scenes as a volunteer and, newly this year, as a board member.
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Collaborative editing, the missing Vim feature (pentadactyl + etherpad?)

Do you wish, like I do, you could edit collaboratively in Vim? This feature is number 10 on the Vim voting page, so it seems I’m not alone. How about Pentadactyl coupled with any of the existing web-based collaborative editors, such as Etherpad? OK, so it’s not quite Vim, and there are some rough edges to this particular pairing, but I’m finding it’s good enough for my needs. It even gives me a Vim-like editing experience while other participants use the default Etherpad editor.

Yes, I know about whiteboard.debian.net, but for the past three years I have been using a single instance of Etherpad with my family to maintain a shopping list to which we all make contributions. First of all, that’s not a Debian activity, so to make the switch, I’d need to make a personal clone of the service for our personal use. But more importantly, we find Etherpad features such as colours for different participants and the timeline are just too useful to give up on. On the other hand, the less the web editor interferes with your web browser’s default textarea behaviour, the easier time Pentadactyl is going to have. Indeed, I asked on #pentadactyl @ irc.oftc.net about some problems I was having and I was told flat out that Pentadactyl does not work with graphical web editors. So, you may wish to use another web-based collaborative editor for this reason. That being said, I did learn a few things about helping Pentadactyl get along better with Etherpad, so if you would like to try it yourself, read on.

The key to getting started was to enter ‘text edit mode’ within the textarea with <C-t>. For the most part, this behaves like Vim ‘normal mode’. I am still learning, but many basic motion and editing keys behave just as they would in Vim. Fantastic!

However, the moment I tried to :undo I hit my first problem. Using the latest release version of Pentadactyl (1.0rc1 at time of writing), pressing "u" to :undo produced no visible result. I tried the latest daily build as well, and only saw a marginally more helpful "Node not found" error message displayed in the status area. But it turns out you can use ‘passthrough mode’ to use the textarea’s own undo. Just :tmap u <C-v><C-z> and we’re back in business again.

I’m still experimenting with this setup, so the jury’s still out on whether I’ll stick with it, or whether the remaining incompatibilities between Pentadactyl and Etherpad will drive me nuts. But it looks promising. Clearly, judicious use of :autocmd to always start in ‘text edit mode’ and bind that undo key whenever I enter the site will help make the experience even better. If you try it out yourself, I’d love to hear how things went for you. Or if you have found an even better solution that works for you, do share.

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The children of Debian

Who are the next generation of Debianists? Are they all still coming to us out of different OS backgrounds, or do we now have the significant beginnings of a home grown generation, born and raised in Debian-using families and now making their voices heard?

I hope that Debian Jr. will encourage this kind of generational growth of the project. When recently I rewrote the guiding principles of Debian Jr., my vision was a Debian that children would identify as their own. I expect they will be eager to add their own ideas as they grow up with it. It was pointed out to me today that there is some evidence that this is already happening (thanks for the link, Matthew Wilcox).

As for my own kids, ages 16, 15, 12, 9 and 5, only the oldest have ever used some system at home other than Debian1. They all comfortably use our Debian systems daily, discussing regularly with me what they need. This leads to filing bugs and patches on their behalf2, and inspires further development of the Debian Jr. project.

So, in at least this sense, the children of Debian are already contributing members of Debian, if not voting members. The ideas of families are improving Debian for everyone. As the project grows, I expect the ways in which families will change Debian will be more significant, not only technically but also in Debian’s character.

1 Before we started using Debian in 1995, the family system was a VT-420 terminal connected to the Solaris system running our community freenet. At that time our kids would sit in my lap and play at typing into pico for their amusement.

2 For instance, I was pleased to discover the other day that my egoboo patch was accepted. That was a direct result of my kids asking me to make it work for them.

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Video hub: Why stream at all?

In response to Home video hub on a shoestring, Justin asked, “Why not just stream the media over cifs/nfs/sshfs?”

Why indeed? Well, as my fellow amateur Internet broadcaster Justin Zeigler (coincidentally of the same first name) observed, “some people mistake the unix way as doing things the oldest way possible.” There are niceties streaming video solutions provide that are much better suited to solving my particular problem.

Streaming puts the burden of handling different codecs and providing material at a bitrate the client systems can handle on the server. Remember, I said my client system is underpowered and the network I’m delivering across is wireless B. These constraints make streaming video the ideal solution.

Now, if I only wanted to stream the music videos and other material designed to deliver over the Internet, I’d be fine with a remote filesystem. But DVDs and mythtv recordings are too demanding on my little laptop’s resources to work at all.

But, just to make sure, I tried both sshfs and nfs today. Sure enough, I could stream a Quicktime music video from sshfs just fine. However, neither sshfs nor nfs could deliver the material from a mythtv recording fast enough for the client to keep up. I tried both vlc and mplayer, and both were so stuttery they were unplayable. I gave mplayer a larger buffer (32K) which cleaned up the first few seconds of play while the player read from the buffer, but after that, it started stuttering again. And this was with only one floor of separation between the WAP and the laptop, to make sure I had a solid connection.

Clearly, Videolan’s ability to transcode on the fly and stream over the network is a great convenience to me. I suppose I could do a file-to-file transcode and then read the resulting file from sshfs, but I don’t find that nearly as handy as the streaming solution. So I’m sticking with Videolan, as I find it the easiest to use, most elegant solution to delivering a broad range of video material from our powerful hub system to our less powerful client system.

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Home video hub on a shoestring

In our family, we have centralized all our best entertainment technology in a single system, a white box amd64 with PVR, 3D graphics, 1G, a 21” monitor, DVD burner and VCR. A number of older, far less capable systems have always surrounded this “hub”. A K6-2/400 with a less-than wonderful ATI Rage IIc graphics card presently serves as my wife’s system, and my PII/300 laptop roams the house on wireless B.

This has always been the model for our home network, dating back to the late 90’s when the hub in our cramped apartment was a P/100 delivering sound through a $30 pawn-shop stereo to two main rooms, and the satellite node in the family room was a DEC VT-420 on a long serial cable. So, house-wide delivery of sound has always been possible. But doing the same for video remained unsolved until just this weekend.

Kudos to the Videolan team for making it possible. A number of years ago, I recognized their vlc player was ideal for playing DVDs on my K6-2, handling the job with less CPU and less frame drop than other alternatives at the time. Not too long afterwards, though, we upgraded our hardware so saving CPU cycles was no longer an issue, and switched to other players to take advantage of features they offered over vlc.

But a recent email from a friend brought me back. This friend asked if I had seen a certain Linux documentary video he had found. I hadn’t, and was intrigued. But since the hub was tied up by the kids at that moment, I figured I’d try watching on the old PII laptop. I didn’t really think it would work, but remembering how well vlc did on my other old hardware, I gave it a try. It worked! No frame drop at all.

Buoyed by that victory, I recalled that I had downloaded the Debconf 6 DVD ISOs some days ago, but had not yet been able to watch them. You probably can guess why … yup, the single hub system, the only one really capable of doing a good job displaying video, was pretty much always tied up by various other family members.

Now, I knew there was no way I could get those DVDs onto the laptop, as it has no drive and only a 4G hdd. Nor was I willing to go to the bother of ripping individual tracks to transcode and send over one at a time. But I then recalled that vlc, as well as being an excellent standalone player, is primarily the client for a streaming video system. So I set out to learn how to stream video.

Back when I was first introduced to Videolan, I knew there was a server program, vls. I had a quick look at that and was overwhelmed by the wide variety of possible MRLs and codecs, and a bit mystified as to which magic spells were needed to make it stream to the laptop.

It then occurred to me I had probably plunged in too quickly, and should back off and go look for more docs than just the man pages. Sure enough, they have plenty of excellent docs, leading to the discovery that the vlc gui itself has easy to use Wizard and Open dialogs to set up streaming. With that sorted out, I was streaming in no time.

At this point, I was delighted to discover that I could successfully stream a 1024 kbps mp4 stream across wireless B form the basement to any other room of our two-story semi. And ever since then, I’ve been having great fun with the family, trying a wide variety of other video sources lying around: music videos, home videos made by friends, TV shows recorded from the PVR, DVDs direct from disc, and yes, finally, those Debconf 6 ISOs.

I tell you, it’s like Christmas come early! Thanks, Videolan. You’ve made my week.

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