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My personal little “cloud” May 24, 2011

Posted by CK in Internet, Productivity, Software.
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Here it is, and it works perfect:

  • You will need a VPS or a home server. I’m using the wonderful, fan-less Shuttle XS35GT with a small SSD, as it is also my HTPC
  • A Linux distribution. I very highly recommend Mint 10 if you’re using the XS35GT so that you get a working audio + wireless and a stable XBMC, otherwise you may wish to use an LTS release like Ubuntu 10.04 or Mint 9.
  • An installation of eGroupware, to use its addressbook and calendar modules with its GroupDAV and SyncML synchronization facilities. You can easily install eGroupware using the deb repository provided on the project’s site.
  • Thunderbird, Lightning and the SOGo connector to support GroupDAV. Make sure you don’t use the “SOGo Lightning” extension; at least for me it didn’t work. Then subscribe Lightning to the eGroupware calendar and addressbook. Don’t bother with TODO items, unless a flat list is your thing.
  • A SyncML application to synchronize your phones. My Nokia E71 comes installed with one, while on an Android you can use the wonderful Synthesis client. Synthesis offers clients for additional platforms, but I only tried the one for Android.
  • The amazing Tracks application for GTD. It takes some effort to install, but it is totally worth it. You can also subscribe Lightning to various views of Tracks exported calendars. I’ve subscribed only to the one for due items, so that they appear with deadlines in my calendar. There are also two mobile applications to sync with Tracks, one for the iOS and one for the Android. Unfortunately the latter doesn’t work yet with Tracks 2.0, but it looks like it’s only a matter of time before it does.
  • …and, finally, Mindtouch Core (DekiWiki) as my data sink. There’s also a for-pay version, but I’m using the free/open-source one, which is fine. It’s also installed via a deb repository. I guess others may prefer some other platform, but for me Deki is perfect.

Then, your router set to post its address to DynDNS/No-IP or a similar service, and some CNAMEs in your domain to point to the hostname you have chosen (or simply the address of your VPS). All three services (Mindtouch, Tracks, eGroupware) are powered by Apache2, on virtual servers over HTTPS.

The data is yours!

PS: Special thanks to Yannis for suggesting to use eGroupware instead of SOGo+Funambol. A great improvement, indeed.
PPS: I only accept IaaS to fall under the term “cloud computing”, hence the quotes in the title.

Steve, I won January 15, 2011

Posted by CK in Mobility, Productivity, Software.
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After spending a considerable amount of time (yes, George, I know) looking at my options and trying various ways to synchronize desktop PIM data with my Nokia E71 phone, I eventually managed to make it work. It wasn’t piece of cake, and it requires running on my laptop some additional services, which I would not otherwise run. But it works. The main problem to deal with, is understanding your options. I tried many different setups with various combinations of Kontact / Evolution / Thunderbird+Lightning / Funambol / SOGo / OpenSync / SyncEvolution. Some of them appear to work for some people, but none worked for me in complete. Some that worked partially were

  1. Evolution + SyncEvolution + Funambol, but unfortunately Evolution was giving me so much pain re: my IMAP severs, that I just couldn’t stay with it;
  2. Thunderbird + SOGo connector + Funambol, but after creating TODOs and events I could not edit them anymore (this is a known bug, which remains unresolved).

Eventually, what worked for me was a combination of Kontact, Citadel, Groupware Sync server (customized Funambol release) and the Funambol SyncML client on the phone (although Nokia’s native client is used underneath and would apparently work directly if I tried it). This setup works almost out of the box (well that’s sort of a euphemism, admittedly); if you want to reproduce it, here’s how to do it:

First, install Citadel. This acts as a bridge between Kontact and Funambol, using GroupDAV on one side, and a Funambol connector on the other. Kontact is a full GroupDAV implementation, and so is Citadel. The alternative is eGroupware, but Citadel’s being fully open with no "upgraded" versions was the key factor to try it first. I never tried eGroupware eventually. The installation of Citadel (from source, as I could not find a Fedora package) was smooth and just happened. Configuration was, more or less, painless.

Then, I created a new KDE standard calendar resource from within System Settings, using GroupDAV and connecting to the local Citadel server. This bypasses akonadi, which has plenty of problems to solve, and is used immediately within Kontact (KOrganizer). Works like a charm. Following that, there was the biggest challenge: Going through akonadi for contacts. Unfortunately, KAddressbook cannot bypass akonadi; using a GroupDAV-based contact store must necessarily go through it. Until I managed to get it right, I had to fight with data store inconsistencies and delayed synchronization, disappearing contacts, and the like. Eventually it worked, when I created the new akonadi addressbook resource via KAddressbook and, before inserting any contacts, I set (via "Folder properties") an "Interval check time" of 2 min, "Local cache timeout" of 5 min. Apparently the exact values are semi-random and don’t play an important role, but it is (I guess) important to deactivate ""Inherit cache policy from parent". Based on the set up described above, contacts are always synchronized without problems, albeit with a delay of up to 5 minutes.

Having completed all that, it was time to install the Groupware Sync server, which was as easy as it gets. It knows where to find the local Citadel installation, and the built-in users are created automatically based on Citadel accounts. So not much more to do on this side either.

The last step was to install the Funambol SyncML client on the phone, and set it up. After some trial-and-error, I got it working. One of the things I had to do was to change the Funambol server’s port from 8080 to 80. As I am not running any other services on that port, it’s ok for me. I guess that eventually it would also work with 8080, if I would commit some more time to figure out the correct settings on the phone.

To make sure there’s a clean start, I removed all contacts and calendar entries from the phone — they were outdated anyway. The Funambol client has an option to do that very easily. Then I chose to synchronize everything, and, voila! My Kontact addressbook and calendar entries made it on the phone.

While using it I found out that addressbook entries are not synchronized when the default phone of the contact is a cell phone number (apparently a bug, it’s ok if it’s declared as a land line), and also that contact photos are not sync’ed (who cares). Perhaps these would be ok with eGroupware, but I’m not interested to change only because of that. Citadel’s appalling web interface? Yes, that could make me switch.

The result is much more important for me than simply synchronizing my PIM data. It means that, to a large extent, I am now safe from lock-in. I am running my PIM using an open integrated solution (Kontact) on an open desktop (KDE) and an open platform (Linux), so I’m safe enough on this side. Citadel is GPL as well, and Funambol is also open source (not sure about the exact license). All are running on my own infrastructure, and the data remains with me. On the phone side, I can use anything with a SyncML client available — and apparently, there’s one for most of the interesting phones/platforms out there. So I could simply switch to a different phone & OS, without caring too much about PIM synchronization. Which is, honestly, a blessing.

I’d love to hear if this article solved similar problems for you, so just leave a comment if you find it useful!

The story so far November 3, 2010

Posted by CK in IT, Productivity, Software.
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So here’s the summary of my linux@laptop adventures so far:

I started with Kubuntu, which as it turned out, after some kernel upgrade would not suspend to RAM/disk correctly. For a laptop, this is a no-go apparently, so after I realized that others also had the problem and that it would not be solved any time soon, I decided to give other distributions a chance.

I tried OpenSUSE, but after installation it wouldn’t even start. Without wasting too much time on this, I moved to Fedora 13; and it worked. It installed without problems, booted without problems, suspended without problems. After upgrading to the latest packages, I faced a common issue with newer Nouveau drivers, which wouldn’t work any more. By then, I had already found out about rpmfusion, which includes Nvidia drivers to install at the click of a mouse. Smooth.

Having solved the basics, I started using the system on a day-to-day basis. I thought I’d give a try to Gnome after a few years of faithfully discarding it, only to realize I was very much correct in doing so. Maybe Ubuntu has done a good job in its customizations, I don’t know, but the vanilla flavour in Fedora is ugly and unintuitive. Whoever disagrees, I would like them to walk into the shoes of a gnome-illiterate user and try to make changes such as setting date format to DD/MM/YYYY (instead of MM/DD/YYYY). I’m not interested in changing the whole system locale for that (and let’s forget about the fact that a linux apprentice knows nothing about locales). KDE, on the other hand, just works, and makes full sense when configuring and using it.

Where Gnome shines, is certain applications such as Evolution. It just rocks, especially when compared with Kmail. With the latter I had plenty of problems while using it with IMAP, but moving to disconnected IMAP was a game changer and Kmail now works quite well. In addition, Kmail failed to notify me while one of my IMAP accounts would not authenticate due to a server-side problem. The result was that for 4 days I would not get email there, thinking I was just not the recipient of any. This could have very bad consequences, for reasons irrelevant with this post. In any case, I would have already switched to Thunderbird or Evolution, but I want to have a desktop-wide addressbook that I can sync with a phone in the future, so I’m giving Kmail some more time and one more chance. In addition, Kontact is really nice in its entirety.

One more thing to mention in the “email” category, is spam detection. The default with Fedora/KDE/Kmail, is using SpamBayes, which would leave quite some spam in my mailbox even after some (admittedly, not too much) training. I then installed/tried SpamAssassin, but integration with Kmail was poor and spam would not be moved out of the mailbox even if marked as such. Eventually I went with Bogofilter and am happy to have done so, it works like a charm and improves a lot with training.

The, browser wars commenced. The default of Konqueror is slow and outdated in comparison to other browsers. I tried switching to the webkit kpart, which improved things a lot but didn’t solve many of the various problems such as random crashes. I really insisted, due to desktop integration, but at some point I just gave up. I made Firefox my default browser, and I’m very happy to have done so. Yesterday, I decided I can’t rely on Konqueror even as a second browser (I always keep 2 around). So for the first time, I decided to give Chrome a chance. So far I was resisting, mostly due to my concerns about Google. I must admit, the thing is *fast*. Although I haven’t switched to it as a main/default browser, I have been tempted to do so. In any case, it now serves as my alternative browser, should I need to test something without cleaning up cookies, or if Firefox does not work properly with some site.

Finally, when it comes to every-day usage, Office applications deserve a mention. Being realistic, I had to be able to run MS Office. I’m not interested in booting up virtual machines for this purpose, so I tried CrossOver for Linux. It works beautifully, and did not have a single problem so far. Well done.

PS: The Ubuntu font is amazing. It is my main desktop font.

The linux-on-laptop experiment October 13, 2010

Posted by CK in IT, Mobility, Personal, Productivity.
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Eight months ago, I made a pledge: My next laptop would be running on some Linux distribution. Exclusively. At the time, I received various comments, incl. a user satisfaction curve that foresaw disaster. Yesterday evening the pledge became a reality, and it remains to be seen if the curve will also become one.

After also advising with Ubuntu’s “certified hardware” list, I went for a Dell Latitude E6410. The laptop itself is quite fine, but of course from a design point of view there’s nothing to compare with the Macbook; the latter wins hands-down. Having said that, who cares.

Installing Kubuntu 10.10 from a CD was pain, to some extent. The problem apparently has to do with the graphics card, and it took me some time before I find the respective bug report. Thankfully, there was also a seemingly simple solution which worked perfectly well. Eventually Kubuntu installed and (almost) everything worked fine out of the box. I’m quite impressed with how polished it is, and I am mostly impressed with the new default browser, Reconq. It’s dead-simple and, being webkit-based, it renders fast and without problems.

The only problems I currently have are a non-fully-functional trackpad (smart scrolling doesn’t work), and lack of thermal sensor information — which I understand is a problem with Dell and Linux across the board. I can live with both. All of wifi, bluetooth, camera, graphics*, audio, power management (suspend to RAM/disk), etc, work fine. I haven’t tried the fingerprint sensor.

Overall, I’m very happy with my choice, although it’s certainly too early for safe conclusions (and I still regret that I paid for all that MacOSX software which I now put aside). I’ll keep you posted how it goes.

Update (already): Rekonq doesn’t like WordPress. My post was sent in half. Time for the fox.

Onyx Boox 60, update May 24, 2010

Posted by CK in IT, Mobility, Productivity.
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I’m loving it.

After a week of using it, I haven’t regretted the purchase at all. PDF compatibility is spectacular, so the main criterion is fully covered. The screen performed very well under all circumstances, even strong daylight (although, it would be nice for dim-light reading if it would be slightly brighter). Reflections are marginal and definitely not an issue. Controls are very intuitive, and the software covers for everything. The touch screen works very well, accurately and is very responsive for e-ink. Judging from other e-readers I’ve seen, this one is definitely in the fast lane. As regards the size of the screen, which is quite small, if you are reading in landscape mode and zoom to selection, it’s totally fine (at least by my standards). Portrait just doesn’t work for normal PDF papers (which is my main use case), especially double-column is completely unreadable. Finally, the included case is very nice indeed, good quality and holds/protects the reader beautifully.

The only thing that needs to be fixed, is to memorize screen offsets when leaving a document. Although not a major problem, it’s a hassle to re-adjust margins every time.

I also experienced a crash within the week, but I assume the firmware is still maturing. Not a problem, really.

Plastic Logic’s Que December 13, 2009

Posted by CK in Mobility, Productivity.
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For the last few weeks, I’ve been contemplating about buying an ebook reader. Seeing the Kindle ad every time I was visiting Amazon, certainly helped a lot. The truth is, I’ve collected a large amount of books and papers over the last few years, and I’ve only read a small percentage of them. There are two important reasons: Lack of time, and the fact that I don’t like carrying books around — my backpack is already very heavy with the laptop et al. Although the problem of time would not be solved, an electronic reader would certainly help as regards the mobility of reading material.

The price of Kindle is now at $US 259, quite attractive indeed, and the approaching Christmas made the temptation stronger. Although I arrived twice at the checkout screen, I eventually decided I should do some more research. I’m glad I did. Kindle’s support for PDF is unfortunately suboptimal (granted, PDF’s static nature doesn’t help to deliver the reading experience that Amazon has achieved for its own digital format), and all my reading material is PDF-based. Especially for papers this is a problem; I’ve read many reports saying that the conversion to Kindle’s native format leaves a lot to be desired when formulas and tables are involved.

So I set out to find something better for reading PDF documents. I don’t care about wireless delivery and the such. Eventually I found that the offerings of Irex are currently the closest to what I need. A choice between 8.1” and 10.2” displays, native PDF support and a touch screen you can use for notes and annotations! Nevertheless, the price is just too large. The cheapest product costs 540 euros, which is more than double the price of Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and basically pretty much anything else there exists out there. Also, they all are quite heavy, apparently (430g for the Iliad, more than half a kilo for the Digital Reader).

So I kept searching, and stumbled onto a product still unreleased, but about to be officially presented (on Jan 7): The QUE, by Plastic Logic. This is brand new technology, and the QUE is the first product to feature it. This video from All-Things-Digital made me drool; the device is super-thin, apparently very light, and the display seems to be at least on par with everything else. I hope they price it reasonably too!

A nice facility for your small projects October 18, 2009

Posted by CK in IT, Productivity.
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Many times I have to use some version control system (VCS) for small, limited-duration projects such as scientific papers, proposals, etc. More often than not, this is a problem to arrange when people from different organizations are involved. Setting up some VCS repository usually means that either you have to ask your administrator to deal with it for you, or you have to do it and you are not too fond of granting access to external collaborators to your VCS server, or there may exist some other sensible reason. For such cases, there exist a number of VC facilities on the internet, that offer free access and repositories up to some point, then if you need more disk space, more users on your repository, etc, you have to pay a monthly subscription. They deal with all the complexity, take backups for you, provide you with easy access and management interfaces, etc.

In my search, I found plenty of nice such facilities with varying degrees of free access and other features. Eventually, I ended up using Project Locker, on the grounds that it was the only such system to offer secure access in its free version. Project Locker offers Subversion and Git repositories.

Overall, I can highly recommend it. The 500 MB of free storage are not too much, and maybe you’ll find more elsewhere, but at the end of the day even if it’s double, it’s only a matter of time before you hit the limit and you have to pay. So even if you get e.g. 1GB elsewhere, it’s not a big deal. There’s a maximum of 5 users for your repository, you get redundant RAID and nightly backups, unlimited bandwidth and number of projects, etc. For me, it was of great importance to have SSL access, and as I said this was the only facility to offer it in the free version. The administration interface is also more than ok. I wasn’t ecstatic about it, but it works perfectly well, offers all the functionality and security functions that I need (e.g. add collaborators just with their email address, without a need to sign them up), and in general I have no complaints.

So perhaps something to consider for your next paper or other short collaborative task.

PS: If you are planning to sign up with them, perhaps you can be so kind to include me as a referral source so that I get a few free MBs 🙂 You’ll need my email address, which you can find e.g. here.

Mendeley 0.9.4 with LaTeX support September 30, 2009

Posted by CK in Productivity, Software.
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After a long a tiring day, my RSS reader brought me some great news. Mendeley‘s latest release now supports LaTeX. One more interesting new feature: Automatic library backups and easier restoration of backups.

RSI April 16, 2009

Posted by CK in Miscellaneous, Personal, Productivity.
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Due to lots of text writing recently and bad posture while doing that, my somewhat forgotten RSI pain paid me a visit. The neck is still ok (which is strange :-)), but I’ve been unkind to my lower back and, most of all, my hands are in very poor shape. Burning, pain, numbing sometimes, the whole extravaganza. I already have an ergonomic keyboard and the mouse is on the left side for years (although I’m right-handed) as my left hand is in better condition. So now what?

A doctor is probably a next step, but until then, there’s a few things which will hopefully help.

  1. I raised the chair. Having the chair at its lowest point, meant that my hands where not straight but in a rather wrong position, and that I would typically almost lie on the chair instead of sitting on it.
  2. Raising the chair meant that my laptop’s screen was too low now. I do have already a stand for it, but I had to raise it somehow. The keyboard’s box was an excellent solution to this. I think the current position of the laptop in relation to the height of my eyes is now even better than what it used to be.
  3. Third and perhaps most important. I got myself some software to remind me to take breaks. For the Mac, I could find a free one (Time Out) and a commercial one (MacBreakZ). Although Time Out seems very very decent and almost just as useful, there is one thing in MacBreakZ that makes (for me) a huge difference: It suggests specific exercises for every break, taking into account your condition and your usage patterns. Even if the exercises are the same for everyone, I already found they were good for me today, and really enjoyed taking the breaks. So eventually I bought it and highly recommend it for others who wish to do something for their RSI-related pain.

S60/E71: Setting the record straight January 6, 2009

Posted by CK in Mobility, Productivity, Software.
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In my previous post I ranted about the Nokia E71 and its operating system, S60. Although I’m still not happy, but I realised I was unfair in some points.

Starting new applications, calling people quickly and the menu: This phone offers voice commands on steroids, as I found out. Just press a key (or the key on your bluetooth headset) and talk. No training, no configuration, it just calls the person whose name you say. Even if it’s in the phone catalogue *in Greek*. Quite impressive. Also, new apps can be started with one of the various shells circulating around. I am currently evaluating Handy Shell and it looks quite ok.

Choosing a specific WiFi access spot for all operations is not possible (or I still haven’t found out how), but it’s not needed either. If you’re constantly on the move, it makes sense to be given the option. So that’s ok.

The keyboard: It seems that everyone’s getting it wrong, even the ones who used to get it right. I don’t know why, if it’s done once it should be done always, right?

Contacts: They *can* be categorised. Contact groups exist, but they are buried in the list of contacts themselves. Not too intuitive, but having good search functionality makes up for it: I can search using latin characters and the Greek contact names come up based on the mapping of QWERTY to Greek letters.

The one, single problem that does exist, cannot be overcome and raises a wall for me, is the lack of TODO categories. I think I will sell the phone for this reason only. How on earth is that possible on a phone like this in 2009?