Drunken Nights

Alcohol has this weird property of removing interlocks that keep you getting in touch with your feelings. If you’re in a happy mood, that’s good, I guess. It will lift your spirits even higher.

But if the feelings you’re hiding under the mat are darker, it unleashes a weird paranoia upon yourself. Makes you worry about the least reasonable things. Makes you loose yourself thinking things over and over again.

I am in weird state in my life. I feel accomplished, full, happy. But I am also wounded. There is no point of hiding that. I am afraid of opening up, sharing a piece of my psyche with one, because of the high probability of getting hurt again. So I put on this persona: the strong-character guy, who has it all figured out.

Truth to be told I am fairly settled down. But there are aspects of my life I still do not understand or even begin to comprehend. Sometimes I get glimpses of clarity and vision. I get a Tweet of happiness and genuine smile. Its funny how people you haven’t even met yet have so much affect on you. And because you are armed with that faint hope of happiness (I am talking about another level of happiness now), it brings out the best of you. You reject offers from beautiful, equally drunken, girls because that hope reinforces who you truly are.

A logical romantic, stuck between the fabrics of reality and hope.

And then, as I am considering a leap of faith, I run into a brick wall.

Reality, unfortunately, has a weird way of getting to you faster than you can enjoy your short-lived fantasy. Sometimes the trigger is just a drunken night out with friends, that releases the pin from the grenade. It lifts the barrier of logic into your feelings, and lets it scrutinize them with harsh criticism. A kind of cruel and absolute logic than a helpless romantic cannot possibly bare. Spreading despair again and a newfound coldness.

In the end, I am stuck just with my logical self.

Alone.

Life is all about having a Plan B.

I haven’t blogged for a long time. Not because I do like blogging anymore, but I felt full with my life and this was not something missing. Until last month.

She came home after work to tell the me that something was missing from our relationship, that she sees other men and feels things that she is not feeling with me anymore. That she does not feel free, and she wants to explore the world again.

At that point my world partly collapsed. This has happened before in our almost 7-year relationship, and I always had in the back of my mind that something like this would happen again. Unfortunately, it has. Two days ago she packed her things and headed for a hostel. She ended it.

There goes my Plan A. Two days have passed, and I need to start putting together a Plan B. 

The first part towards recovery is to comprehend and accept that it has ended. Unfortunately for me I cannot find closure the way this has ended. I cannot understand completely the reasons why this has ended. We were so happy. I do not have a solid reason that I can accept for closure. However at this stage, a post-mortem analysis will not help at all; I do not find it wise to get stuck into the ‘the why’ loop. I need to accept that this has ended, and … move on.

What I find the most difficult to part with is not her absence. We lived some great moments together. I barely remember any sad moments and I am grateful for that. The most difficult thing to part with is the plans we made together about our life. About future kinds, and plans to travel. About were we’d build our future home. You do not only share a past with someone, you share the future as well, because you dreamed about it together. It makes the loss even greater.

A few years ago I promised myself I wouldn’t blog about my personal feelings anymore. It makes me feel weak. However, I recently learned that great people should confront their feelings. I am glad I have this space to vent out, silently.

Life is all about having a Plan B. Because Plan A rarely succeeds.

XFCE + Gala + Plank = WIN

I made my switch from Mac OS back to Linux almost a year ago. I’ve drifted between Fedora and Ubuntu, realizing again that the Linux desktop is still rough on the edges. Overall it has improved enormously: compositing window managers, no more tearing, serious effort to make everything functional yet beautiful. However you still fill the discord of open-source desktop software, especially in terms of usability and complexity.

This is one of the reasons why I always liked XFCE. Simple, elegant & functional. However, I found it lacking behind Unity & Gnome 3 in terms of the fancy Window Manager tricks such as hot-corners, ,expose-alike window management and window snapping (which I found enormously helpful and functional).

Then I’ve discovered Elementary OS. It is essentially a Linux distribution, build on top of Ubuntu, albeit with a different target. They want to make everything beautiful & functional. They forked Gnome 3 and created what is called the Pantheon desktop. I’ve tried their latest beta 2, and I was impressed. Almost everything looked excellent and worked by default with no effort from the user. You can read more about ElementaryOS and their targets on their website. I am pretty sure that this would be my favorite Linux distribution when it reaches its final form.

Unfortunately I found Elementary too young to use it as my everyday distribution, especially with many features lacking from the default provided applications. So I decided to try and merge the best things from Elementary that I loved with a lightweight and stable existing desktop environment: XFCE. I googled it, others have thought of it too.

I installed Xubuntu 13.04, one of the best XFCE distribution out there, and I added Elementary OS PPA on the system, so I can easily install the goodies without the need of compilation.


sudo apt-add-repository ppa:elementary-os/daily
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install gala dconf-tools plank switchboard switchboard-plug-pantheon-shell

Gala is Elementary OS Window Manager. It is based on Mutter, and it is stable and works very well with XFCE. I did not have any issues with it the last week. Plank is a very simple elegant dock, also very stable. Lastly switchboard is the control panal from Elementary, you need it so you can easily configure Gala’s hot corners and Plank, without the need of messing with configuration files etc.

Once you have everything installed you’ll need to replace XFWM with Gala. Fire-up a terminal and:


cp /etc/xdg/xfce4/xfconf/xfce-perchannel-xml/xfce4-session.xml ~/.config/xfce4/xfconf/xfce-perchannel-xml/xfce4-session.xml
nano ~/.config/xfce4/xfconf/xfce-perchannel-xml/xfce4-session.xml

xfce+gala+plank

You’ll need to replace all instances of “xfwm4″ with “gala”. Logout & login and voila! To auto-start Plank just add it in “Application Autostart” under “Session and Startup” of XFCE Settings.

There is also a nice Youtube Video that explains the process, and shows off some of XFCE + Gala magic.

Overall I found it to be butter-smooth, fast & fluid. Perhaps the best Linux desktop I had so far. I can’t wait for Elementary’s final release!

Compiling DOCSIS utility for Linux

DOCSIS is a small utility used for compiling binary configuration files for DOCSIS-compliant Cable modems. While this has no use to the average user, it takes some skill to get it compiled under Linux.

The actual utility source-code is available from the project’s website here: http://docsis.sourceforge.net/. Before trying to compile, make sure you have the following packages installed in your system, because it won’t complain during the ‘./configure’ stage:

bison, flex, libfl-dev, libsnmp-dev

Under Ubuntu just install via apt-get:

sudo apt-get install build-essential bison flex libfl-dev libsnmp-dev

And then proceed with the usual:

./configure

make

sudo make install

That’s it!

The tales of a (lucky) traveller

I was scheduled to fly out of Manchester Airport on the 18th of December with the Cyprus Airways flight CY 507 to Paphos. The flight was scheduled for 11:10 AM, BST.

Being on time is crucial for this flight. Being just 15 minutes late, the queue fills up with students carrying 10 suitcases each, causing a menace in the check-in desk. So I woke up at 6, adjusting for the not so favorable weather conditions. The previous night was snowing quite heavily.

I opted to drive to the Airport, as I figured trains would have significant delays I cannot directly control due to the strange weather conditions. The roads were clean enough, however, the salt on the road in combination with light rain sometimes made it difficult to drive behind trucks. As the 3rd lane of the highway was still closed from the snow, overtaking was kinda tricky, but we survived that.

On my way to the airport, I was listening to BBC Manchester for any road incidents updates. The reporter said that the M6 highway was closed from Junction 30, and passengers had to sleep in their cars during the night. Apparently the heavy snow made it impossible for them to move, and they’ve got stranded in their cars. Hopefully, my exit was just 2 miles before this whole mess. The remainder of the car journey was mostly uneventful, with just a bit of snow on the way. Of course, caution was advised, as the roads were still icy and couldn’t drive with more than 50-60 mph. My luck has just started working its thing.

At the airport terminal was already a mess. Huge queues, long delays. I used my executive club membership to bypass the queues for my flight, so I just spent less than 20 minutes waiting for check-in. However, I still witnessed the stupidness of Cypriots, trying to carry their whole wardrobe back to Cyprus. Not only that, they are unforgivably rude about that as well. But thats a subject of another blog post.

After purchasing some last-minute gifts, I headed for the gate. Just minutes before the previous flight coming from Cyprus, the airport closed for incoming flights due to bad weather. It snowed for 15-20 minutes, enough to divert 2 inbound flights to neighbouring airports. Luckily, the Cyprus Airways flight just made it through!

Before boarding time, it started snowing heavily again. The airport personell told us that if this continuously for another 20-30 minutes, the flight would be cancelled. And when she said that, it just stopped snowing.

When it was time to board, the lady first called the back rows. A few smart-pants Cypriots, sitting in the front rows, tried to board the plain. The airport personell told them 3 times to back-off and let passengers sitting at the back go onboard first. Of course, demonstrating our national stupidity, they did not comply, forcing her to tell them “You are boarding the plane last”. And she did not let them to board the plane, until everyone else was boarded. Funny and childish, but I guess it pissed them off to the necessary degree.

Just after sitting in the plane, the pilot announced that due to delays in the airport, 40 of the passengers did not make it in time through security, and we had to wait for them. It took them about an hour to get back in the plane. However, waiting for an hour for them to get to the gate, meant that the plane has frozen in the sub-zero temperatures. We had to wait for the airport personnel to spray anti-freeze on the plane, so it can take-off.

We had to wait for over 2 hours for the crew to spray our plane, and the waiting time was killing us. It could start snowing again while we were waiting, or for the crew to run-over their allowed work time. As IATA forces a limit on how much time a crew can work, and we were rapidly closing that limit.

Hopefully, we got sprayed, and we were on our way back home. After a 3-hour delay, we were on our way.

About half an hour before the plane was to land to Paphos airport, the captain made an announcement that the plane would instead land to Larnaca airport. The reason was because too many planes of Cyprus Airways were trapped in foreign airports due to adverse weather conditions, and they needed the plane in Larnaca for the next flight to go on.

Some Paphians tried to take-over the plane, yelling and making a fuss about the development, and blaming the captain. Once again, the Cypriot spirit was flourishing, when everyone should be thanking the crew for not just saying “we are not flying, our hours are up”. During the panic, I also heard some lovely questions from some of the passengers: “Would our bags go to Paphos or to Larnaca?”. Aw well. For me landing in Larnaca meant that I would save 1 hour more of driving, so it was a win-win situation.

The author would sincerely like to thank the Cyprus Airways crew on that flight from Manchester for making everything possible to get us back home safely. This means one thing for Cyprus Airways: the employees are doing their best to keep the company going – its the politically-driven management that messes things up badly.

nginx and WordPress

I just moved my weblog from a shared-hosting provider because it was getting laggy into my private Xen VPS at Linode (shame-less referral link is included :)). I decided to move away from Apache due to its heavy memory usage, and use Nginx instead. nginx (pronounced “engine X”) is a lightweight, high-performance Web server/reverse proxy and e-mail (IMAP/POP3) proxy, licensed under a BSD-like license. Its memory footprint is much less than Apache and the performance is much better as well.

I’ve setup nginx & PHP running as fast-cgi following this guide from the Linode community documentation (an excellent resource I might say).

In order to get it working with the WordPress, I needed to translate mod rewrite rules to work with nginx, so my fancy permalinks would work. I used the following config for that:

location / {
root /home/websites/andreas.louca.org/public_html;
index index.html index.htm index.php;
try_files $uri $uri/ /index.php?q=$uri&$args;
}

The try_files directive will check if the file exists first. If it exists (like an image file) it will serve that directly. If it doesn’t, it will pass that as an argument to WordPress’ index.php. As simple as it gets!

Hope this helps someone!

Drobo FS

Being a geek, I always wanted to keep my data safe, because I went through equipment failure quite a few times. I used to backup everything to CDs and then later to DVDs, but that isn’t practical anymore with the amount of data we generate nowadays. So I moved to external hard-drives, weekly backing up the “important stuff”.

When Apple introduced Time-Machine, things got a lot easier. Just plug an external hard-drive, and Time Machine takes care of the rest. However, the way time-machine works, it saves multiple versions of the same file (that’s good, in case you need an older version) but it takes much more space than a regular backup. Therefore, I was forced to migrate to two external hard-drives: one for my time-machine backups, and one other hard-disk for keeping the rest of the data that did not fit (or I didn’t want to keep) in my machine’s disk.

My configuration so far was an 750GB hard-disk (via USB2) for Time-machine backups , and one 1TB hard-disk (via Firewire 800) for large media files. 750GB for my documents/data backup was sufficient — it kept my data for 6 months. I also backup important stuff (coursework, source code, etc.) on Dropbox, so I always have those synced on the web and on multiple machines around the globe (US, UK and in 2 locations in Cyprus).

However, I am unable to backup twice photos and videos I took, because of the size. My iPhoto library weights approximately 40GB, as it contains hi-def videos and RAW picture files from my DSLR. Finally, backup up my laptop was inconvenient, since the time-machine volume was physically connected to my iMac, therefore I barely backed it up.

So I decided to move to a NAS solution to keep my data safe, have the ability to access it from the network. I looked at a few solutions, from building my own little machine to multiple NAS offerings. Finally, I settled with a Drobo FS from Data Robotics. While the initial price-tag was quite high, approx. £500, the overall functionality well worths its money.

It offers 5 SATA bays, where you can install any brand/size SATA sard-disk you want. Mix & match. Then, the Drobo using the so-called “BeyondRAID” technology manages the storage. It aggregates the hard-disks together offering a bigger volume, with some space reserved to withstand 1 HD failure, or two with the optional setting. Its dead simple: just put the hard-disks in. Setting this thing up took me 10 minutes. Drobo provides visual indicators on its chassis regarding the current disk health (Green for OK, Red for bad next to each slot) and how full the NAS appliance is.

It is connected to my home network via Gigabit ethernet, and the user can manage it via the Drobo Dashboard. The application automatically detects any drobo connected in the same network, no fuss no settings to configure. You can create volumes, shares and adjust user/group permissions using the Dashboard application as well as manage more advanced settings such as notifications if something goes wrong. Excellent!

Regarding performance: to be absolutely honest I was expecting this thing to perform a little bit better. I am getting approx. 25-30 MB/sec write speed and 30-35MB/sec read speeds. Given that thing uses something similar to the RAID technology and a modern hard-disk can spit up to 100MB/sec of throughput I was expecting that this thing can saturate a Gigabit link (approx. 128MB/sec without calculating TCP/IP overhead) or worst case scenario half of it.

Finally, the thing I liked the most: DroboApps. Drobo gives you access on the machine via SSH, and you have the option to install applications on the NAS device. This comes really handy: Torrent application, Firefly (Firefly serves digital music residing on the Drobo FS to the Roku Soundbridge and iTunes), FUPPES (FUPPES is a free, multiplatform UPnP A/V Media Server with DLNA support. — serves media to my PS3). I also cross-compiled PHP CLI interpreter for it so I could run some home-automation scripts on it. Neat.

This gadget perhaps its one the best appliances that are not Apple-made, given its beautiful design and ease of configuration. I am glad I finally got it — it saved me from a huge stack of external hard-disk drives.

First impressions with iPhone 4!

Just got on my hands the new iPhone 4. First impressions:

  • AMAZING display. Never seen anything like it before.
  • Much more thinner. It also feels more solid in hands. The glass filling is amazing
  • The new camera takes impressive pictures. Its not an SLR, but it beats most of point-and-shoot out there

For those needing to cut their SIM, I used this template to do it. It is really easy, but you have to be careful not to over-cut the plastic.

A sample 720p Video: here

A few sample pictures from its camera (to be updated on the fly as I take more) – Click for full size:


iPhone Pictures:


Lancaster University in the elite top-10

The last few years Lancaster University has been expanding rapidly. New buildings, more staff and better infrastructure. I’ve been here for 4 years now and the campus is continuously expanding, old buildings are either demolished or renovated and it feels like the university standard is getting better and better.

I am really glad and proud to see Lancaster joining the top-10 Universities in the UK, amongst or even surpassing some other “older players”.

Some links:

While Lancaster is not a Cambridge yet, the University has managed to surpass other older institutions such as UCL, Imperial and Kings. This also shutters the belief that you have to be an old University to dominate the top-10, since Lancaster managed to join the elite 10 in less than 50 years.

Patet omnibus veritas

Thoughts on Apple

I’ve been meaning to write this post sometime now, but I didn’t find the time to do it. Apple is a remarkable company — it went from oblivion to surpassing Microsoft’s market capitalisation, mostly due to the guidance of its CEO, Steve Jobs. However, what makes Apple significant is not their cash flow, nor its stock price (although this is an important factor when it comes to other things). What makes Apple significant its their ability to innovate and deliver amazing, polished products to the market.

First, take a look at the contraction quality of their computer hardware. The MacBooks have been remarkable machines, right from the beginning. My first Mac was a 1st-gen Macbook Pro, the first Intel machines that came out from Apple. When I held that laptop in my hands, and felt the sturdiness of the hardware, the great feeling of the aluminium I thought to myself “Wow, what the hell I was using before?”. You can’t even compare Macbooks with Dell/HP and others when it comes to build quality and beauty.

Then comes the OS. The remarkable Mac OS X. All of my life I grew up cursing Windows and their bluescreens. At some point, I also switched to Linux, but the hardware integration was so terrible, that it was even worse than the bluescreens. The difference between Apple and Microsoft when delivering new versions of the Operating System is that Apple introduces new features in the OS, like spotlight, Expose and so on, whereas Microsoft, most of the times, they just change the icons (see Windows 98 to ME, or 2000 to XP). People isn’t just looking at the icons, as it seems, they also care whats going on beyond that. Their OS is so well integrated with the hardware, that when you think about Windows it feels like a nightmare (n.b. I do not know if the situation with Windows 7 improved this area). You don’t get that with any other vendor.

With Apple’s entrance into the mobile market, lots of people came to criticise the company and how it handled the delivery of new features, both in hardware and in the OS. To me, the iPhone was the best phone I ever had. The huge gallery of applications, the multitouch, the best mobile browser and the excellent integration of other sensors in the interface (accelerometers etc.) is simply amazing. Let me ask you this: how do you browse the internet with your Blackberry phone? Still on WAP-alike pages eh? How about applications? Thought so. Sometimes I hear stupid arguments about competitor’s features like: well, my Nokia had multitasking 4 years ago. Well, how slow your phone was when you had 2 applications running? Now I think of it, what kind of applications you used to run back then? Or they compare Blackberry’s battery life with the iPhone’s. The only thing that your blackberry does through out your day is receive emails in a crappy mail client, you can’t do anything more on that thing. You can’t even browse the web on that thing (future browsers they may release will be considered when they release them). Let alone the smaller touch-less screen.

Having multi-tasking on small, embedded devices is a really hard thing to do. Hard, not because of the technology to multitask applications, but how to do implement it in a way that won’t suck up memory and make everything slower. Android and iOS 4 does this correctly. The rest implementations are just lazy and bad. I won’t go on and comment on their new brilliant display, neither the inclusion of a bunch of new sensors in the phone. And yes, I also know about the 3G video calling feature that many phones had from 4-5 years ago. But, have you ever tried video calling? *IF* it works, the quality is simply terrible. The video is continuously breaking and its low-res. Of course, iPhone 4 quality remains to be seen, but if it is the same as the one they showed in the presentation its going to be amazing. Nothing compared to what we ever seen before in a commercial phone.

Finally, the best thing about Apple, is when they deliver a new feature, it is actually working, the way it was supposed to be. It might not be as advanced as we would like (see the camera app, it just gained digital zoom in the latest iteration of the OS), but at least it works properly. To me, working according to specs is more important than breaking occasionaly and delivering “some more” advanced features.

Apple makes mistakes as well, everybody does. But that doesn’t stop their products from being awesome.