Slack vs IRC isn’t going anywhere

If, like me, you indulge in a bit of schadenfreude then the Slack vs IRC debate is the trainwreck that keeps on giving. It’s now a perennial feature of LCA hype and recently it’s been occupying public timelines on GNU social too.

The trouble of course is that everybody’s right. By now most people understand pretty clearly the strengths and limitations of each system. A popular theory appears to be that if you talk about these facts enough you will eventually sway people to your preferred choice. Somehow that never happens. This failure injects fresh urgency because if you don’t reach a consensus there might be two chat rooms instead of one, a true calamity.

Really it’s about feels. And that’s not a bad thing. The reality that technical arguments are often about values is a common impediment to community understanding. I’ve written about it before with regard to free software. The schadenfreude comes in because so often FOSS communities pride themselves on putting technical capabilities foremost in their decision-making. It doesn’t always work.

It is beyond question that IRC is the more FOSS-friendly solution. It’s a 100% open protocol with free implementations available for all parts. While you can turn on the IRC feature of Slack it’s also an important part of free software culture that you don’t depend on or propagate closed source software by using or promoting it.

Equally it is beyond question that Slack is friendlier to non-technical users. It may be straightforward to log in to IRC but that’s not enough these days. Modern chat users demand consistent state across multiple devices and complete scrollback without having to maintain a TCP connection. Serious IRC users, myself included, use some fairly ugly hacks to get around it, whether that’s a screen session, a bouncer or IRCCloud. Some people like push notifications too but that’s a can of worms I’ll leave closed for now.

That’s the crux of it: shall we prioritise FOSS values for the success of free software, or ease of use so as not to alienate non-technical people? It’s not a technical question at all and it’s difficult to answer.

Free software being the uncompromising beast it is, the most straightforward solution would be different free software that solves the same problems that Slack does. If you’re prepared to admit that IRC might nudge people away from the four freedoms then it’s worthwhile to look at possible alternatives like Matrix. Some LCA delegates are already trying out the Freenode integration with some success. Personally I find it’s not smooth enough just yet but it has a lot of potential.

Similarly, those pushing the Slack agenda would do well to be aware of the free software ethos. Reading Richard Stallman’s essays is a thought-provoking experience whether or not you agree with him. Free software and even open source have a strong basis in his ideas and it’s important to understand why people think this stuff is important. But if someone tells me they find IRC slightly shitty I concede their point.

Where does that leave us? Nowhere! Let the games continue!

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Being ready for damp and dark cycling

A year ago I finally started riding my bike to work, 6.5 km each way. I thought my fitness would be the biggest problem, but no, being organised was harder. Suddenly I needed to worry about clothes and the weather. It was a drag for a while but now I love it. It’s the fastest and cheapest way to get to work and I’m not affected by traffic or late buses.

Rain is the trickiest thing. I can’t just show up to work soggy. On the other hand if I was scared off every time Hobart had a forecast of “showers” I’d never ride my bike. Driving or catching the bus doesn’t help much though—I still have to walk at least ten minutes. That’s plenty of time to get wet shoes even if I have a raincoat or umbrella.

The solution is to be ready for rain at all times. I think I have it figured out now, so here are some tips.

Things on the bike

Panniers — Having decent-sized bags on the bike is critical. I can stash my bike repair kit and lock with heaps of room left over for a change of clothes and lunch. You can buy properly waterproof ones but I didn’t bother. Even in heavy rain my cheap panniers keep things mostly dry. Backpacks are worth avoiding. They’re a great way to get a sweaty back.

Fully charged front and rear lights — When I started I had single-LED lights. This continued until I had drivers wind down their windows to tell me that I was hard to see. Terrifying. After a couple of upgrades I’m using a DING light on the front and a taillight with 5 red flashing LEDs. It gets dark when it’s raining hard and my DING needs charging at least every few days. I make an effort to keep the battery full.

Well-adjusted brakes — My rim brakes are terrible when they get properly wet. I have to yank them really hard to get the same amount of braking I do when they’re dry. As they get worn down I have less and less travel so every couple of months I need to crack out the allen key and adjust them. Otherwise next time it rains I won’t be able to pull the brakes far enough to stop.

Bike lock — It’s not really important for the weather but I find a lock super handy if I suddenly decide I want to stop somewhere before or after work.

Things at work

Dedicated shoes — I keep a reasonable pair of shoes at work. I change into them when I arrive and change out when I leave. I can be rained on both morning and evening but these ones stay dry.

Extra socks — Having at least one pair of socks at work or in my pannier is crucial. If it’s raining I can change into dry socks when I arrive. If the same thing happens on the way home it’s okay because I have more socks at home. During hot weather I might get sweaty feet on the way to work so again the spare socks come to the rescue.

Pants and top (temporarily) — Nobody at work seems to care if I wear the same pants and top Monday-to-Friday (and really I’m only wearing them 8 hours a day so it’s not so bad). Often I’ll leave them in a drawer starting Monday afternoon and take them home on Friday. That’s less stuff to take with me on the bike. I do wear a new shirt each day though.

Deodorant — Self-explanatory.

Things I wear

Dedicated shoes for commuting —  I have a ratty old pair of sneakers and they can get as wet as they like. It doesn’t matter. I have dedicated shoes at work and another pair of shoes at home. Those stay dry. If I wasn’t using the sneakers for this purpose I’d have thrown them out a long time ago so I guess I’m being good for the environment.

Lightweight raincoat with waterproof pockets — In cooler weather I wear this every day regardless of the forecast. Not only am I ready for surprise rain, it acts as a wind-break which is really nice when it’s chilly. Zip pockets are great for my phone, wallet and keys because I have quick access to them and I can be sure they’re safe from water. I feel kind of sophisticated whipping out a handkerchief while stopped at red lights but maybe that’s just me.

Safety vest — My raincoat is black so I wear this over the top to stay visible. Bright flashing lights are nice but I can tell you that when it comes to being seen by drivers a fluorescent vest makes all the difference. Cheap and highly recommended. If I’m riding somewhere in the evening I’ll often throw it over the top of whatever else I’m wearing.

Fluorescent shirts — In warmer weather I ditch the raincoat and wear brightly coloured shirts instead. This means I have to take another shirt with me for work but it’s worth it. If by chance it rains I might get a bit damp but at least I have a change of clothes.

Thermal top — In really cold weather a shirt plus a raincoat isn’t enough. The thermal top helps but if I misjudge it can also make me sweaty, even on cold days. On the bright side it tends to absorb the sweat so if I’m wearing it underneath my shirt the shirt is still okay. I just have to take off the thermal top when I get to work.

Gloves — If I ride in less than 5°C the circulation disappears from my fingers and it’s very painful. Padded gloves fix it. Highly worthwhile.

Quick-drying shirts — My trip to work is mostly downhill but sometimes I sweat a bit. Sometimes I wear a sports shirt made out of material that breathes well so sweat evaporates quickly. I’m not stinky, I promise. It just means I have to take less stuff with me because I can wear the same shirt all day.

Quick-drying shorts — I have a couple of pairs of shorts that I wear year-round before changing into something else at work. It doesn’t matter if they get rained on because they will be dry enough by the next time I need them. Usually the top part is protected from rain by my raincoat so I can use it as a makeshift shammy to dry the rain off my exposed arms and legs before I put on my jeans.

Now I’m in the habit it’s not too hard to keep all this organised. Every day I ride, which is around 90% of the time, I get the satisfaction of not using my car and not spending $5+ on bus tickets. Life is good. Hopefully these ideas are useful to somebody someday.

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S.A.T. Kongreso 1947, Århus

While travelling through Scandinavia I’ve popped into a couple of libraries and searched their catalogues for Esperanto literature. Since it originated in Europe my theory is that I’m more likely to find something here than I am in Australia.

That search turned out fruitful at Århus’ very swanky waterfront library DOKK1, after spending some time negotiating with their Danish computer system. Hiding in their archives was the book from Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda’s 1947 Esperanto conference in Århus. Weighing in at 37 pages of Esperanto, it welcomes the delegates, outlines the schedule for the six days and provides various practical information and context about the city.

S.A.T. has held a kongreso every year since 1921 with the only exception being the years of World War II. This made the 1947 event particularly special as it was the first year that they were able to recommence. The opening address notes that there are still difficulties preventing delegates from some countries travelling and emphasises the need for greater international understanding after the atrocities they just witnessed.

SAT Aarhus cover

SAT Aarhus opening

SAT Aarhus city SAT Aarhus schedule

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A visit to the ecovillage

Suderbyn Ekoby from street

On my birthday this year I was living at Suderbyn, a permaculture ecovillage on the Swedish island of Gotland. I chose not to mention my birthday as they were so dang nice I figured they would make a fuss. (Later I learnt that they typically celebrate birthdays together with a fika, i.e., coffee and cake.)

I hadn’t visited an ecovillage before and I only knew a couple of things from their website. I knew that they were around a dozen people who share their food and come together for lunch every day. I also knew that this month they’re building wind turbines and hosting a construction course with an expert in building Piggott turbines.

A tight-knit community with an interest in home-grown renewable energy sounded awesome so I applied to stay as a volunteer, meaning that I contribute work for cheaper board. The expectation is the same as for residents: four hours per day Monday to Friday, plus attendance at meetings. Ideally visitors would come for several weeks or months. I didn’t have that long so happily they made an exception to let me stay for four days.

At the end of that stay moving into an ecovillage isn’t yet on my to-do list. It was lovely and I could live that way for sure but it’s nothing to rush in to. I could stand to be more vegetarian though. I don’t think I would ever avoid meat when it’s available but it’s sensible for all kinds of reasons to get good at eating well without it. Suderbyn has some fine cooks and as a vegetarian community they’re not missing out. As I write this on the ferry I’m eating shitty nachos and really I’d prefer more of today’s vegan lunch.

Suderbyn Biogas Dome

On my first day one of the residents taught me to mix cement and I helped concrete the entryway to their “dome”. It’s a project to build a greenhouse with a small-scale biogas digester inside it. The aim is that plants can be grown inside using the liquid nutrients from the digester and the digester itself can be fed with organic waste, outputting usable methane. The whole thing will be powered by an 800-watt wind turbine outside. Nobody’s sure how well it will work yet but it’s really cool and built entirely by volunteers.

Another day I simply shovelled materials from place to place. The most interesting material was the compost from their toilets. They leave it for a couple of years to decay and I am pleased to report that the end result is fairly pleasant, having the appearance of finely chopped pine bark. That went onto hügelkultur garden beds that will be used next season. All good exercise.

On my last day the construction of wind turbine blades began. I helped as we measured and cut the blades from a rectangular section and proceeded to cut them into blade shapes mostly using a drawknife. Nothing’s changed since high school—I’m still terrible at woodwork.

Välkommen till Suderbyn

The word “permaculture” is in Suderbyn’s full name so even though I’m on roughly the opposite side of the planet it’s not surprising that when I say “I’m from Tasmania” there’s a 50% chance that someone will say “oh like Bill Mollison?” Bill and David’s work on permaculture sure went global. I’m only familiar with the broad outlines but I’m motivated to read more about it.

My understanding of permaculture so far is that you use principles from the natural world as inspiration for sustainable human activities. Suderbyn had many examples. One of their ponds served multiple purposes, both storing water and reflecting more sunlight onto the main house. They closed the loop of human waste by using composting toilets, the compost ultimately being used on the garden. They used crop pairings to deter weeds and rejuvenate the soil without the need for pesticides or fertilisers. (Note that organic gardening like this is a good idea for more sophisticated reasons than “GMO/chemicals are scary”.)

Suderbyn has been around for eight years and they’ve built up extensive communal facilities in that time. I didn’t take many photos. It felt like a strange thing to do, being a visitor in someone else’s home. More interesting to me in any case is the way they maintain a community that means they continuously improve and build their new ideas.

Anyone who’s spoken to me at length in the last year likely knows that I’ve been heavily influenced by John Michael Greer, an American who writes about ecology and the impending end of the industrial age. (Fair warning to link-clickers: some complain that his writing is pompous and verbose. It kind of is, but I don’t mind.) I first learnt about ecovillages through this fellow and frankly he gave me a bum steer. His broad conception of ecovillages is middle-class people hoping to establish an isolated community where they can escape to carry on in more or less the same level of comfort when shit hits the fan. The folly of such a plan is not hard to demonstrate and I didn’t question it.

His saying “collapse now and avoid the rush” sums up the more sensible alternative—if you reduce your needs now, particularly by using fewer resources and by choosing technologies with lower complexity and energy inputs, you will not only reduce your contribution to the problem but also be better prepared for a time when these things are no longer available or are prohibitively expensive.

It turns out that Suderbyn, an ecovillage, is the finest example I have seen of exactly what he proposes. Although they use their own produce where they can their priority is not being cut off from the outside world. They are trying to close the loop on waste cycles, reusing water, recycling voraciously, and sharing living areas such that everybody is using much less energy. They are also eagerly experimenting with new technologies for localised energy production that could be replicated in communities across the world.

These technologies fall under the banner of appropriate technology, a term derived from the intermediate technology espoused by the economist E.F. Schumacher. Originally intended as a solution for helping underdeveloped countries to build local industry, the idea is that people should be able to meet their needs using tools and equipment that individuals can afford without the need for capital-intensive factories. The name is carefully chosen to be different from “the old ways are better”. It’s not so much about how new the technology is but how sustainable it is and how accessible it is to the average person.

When the twin pincers of fossil fuel depletion and climate change bite hard it is reasonable to expect that capital markets and globalised manufacturing may fall in a heap. Should that happen, widespread availability of appropriate technology—technology that can be built, maintained and used by local communities—will be very helpful in cushioning the impact.

When I look at Suderbyn I see a group of people who have collapsed before the rush. They’re not isolationist—they’re very deliberately a part of the wider world and in a positive way, sharing their projects and knowledge. There is still much more that they can do. But by modern standards their needs are modest and their environmental impact is low. They have the skills, tools and resources to transport themselves, produce food and build things. Most importantly they have cultivated a sustainable community of people where members are happy most of the time and have the opportunity to develop themselves and the village. I’m grateful for my time there. It’s an injection of positivity into an otherwise depressing situation.

"Tuly", the small electric dumptruck used for transporting materials around Suderbyn

“Tuly”, the small electric dumptruck used for transporting materials around Suderbyn

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