Wading Back Into Freelancing

At some point around the end of 2019 I made the decision to wind-down the freelancing side business and focus on something different for a while. Unfortunately, that "something different" turned out to be just more time spent working for the day job. While this did result in earning more money than I would have through freelance contracts, the range of work was not nearly enough. One of the many things that I've come to enjoy when working with clients is learning of new ways to solve common problems, and codifying that in some sort of system, digital or otherwise. Last year was a wash for so many people, but 2021 is looking up. I've already had two former clients reach out to carry on with some projects, and I'm putting out feelers for more projects to see what opportunities might exist. Despite always feeling there's never enough time, I cannot help but feel the need to create new things that reduce friction in people's lives. It's pretty much the only thing I've ever been remotely capable of.

Working on the side often comes with a number of pros in the long run and cons mostly up front. There's the need to register a business with the government1, hire the services of an accountant twice a year, hire a lawyer within 90 days of registering to go over various legal expectations, obtain licenses and permits, and track financial data. All the things I grew tired of doing when freelancing last time. However, I do plan on being a little smarter about the legal requirements this year by making use of a company in town that specialises in these tasks for small businesses. I'll let the experts do what they do for a reasonable fee so that I can do what I do for slightly more than I used to charge … mainly because of the fees.

What I hope to achieve with this new foray into freelancing is a sense of accomplishment. While there are a lot of benefits to working with teams of smart people around the globe, I much prefer working with small businesses. People are just as focused on solving problems, but there's much more attention paid to efficiency and effectiveness. If something takes a little bit longer to get right, then the time can usually be accommodated with a small entity if it means saving money in the long run. I appreciate this approach a great deal and, by working with a smaller number of people, it's much easier to get answers to questions. Getting information from a company with 5 employees is much easier than a department with 50.

Of course, I do worry that I might once again bite off more than I can chew. As the years go by this body is much less forgiving of all-nighters. Perhaps some hard rules will need to be put into place again, like I did five or so years ago when it became taboo to look at anything with a glowing screen past a certain hour. If I force myself to put everything away — including the phone and tablet — by midnight, then it should be relatively easy to get into bed before 1:00am. With six hours of sleep every night, I generally wake feeling refreshed and ready to go the next morning.

This is wholly dependent on whether I can earn some freelance contracts, though. Right now everything is still in the early stages of discussions with former and potential clients. Once someone agrees to get started, then I'll put in the legwork to re-register Matigo Solutions with the local and federal governments.

  1. If I earn more than $2,000 per year, I will need to declare it on my income tax statements and collect tax from domestic clients.

Retired from the Help Desk

At the end of November I started to interact on the AskUbuntu Q&A site to help people solve problems they were having with my preferred distribution of Linux. Over the course of 112 days I answered 461 questions, earning 6,339 points and 42 badges. Looking at the monthly rankings, I took the number one spot for December 2020, January 2021 and February 2021. Clearly there were people who found my answers useful. Yesterday night, however, I pulled the trigger to delete my profile and forfeit everything that I had invested the time and energy into.

AskUbuntu Profile Summary

The first question people would naturally ask is "why?", likely expecting to hear about some sort of interpersonal drama or some other common reason for walking away from a community. Given that AskUbuntu is a Linux-focused community, and many Linux communities are not particularly known for having their arms wide open1, this might be the immediate assumption. However, aside from a couple of notes dropped in comments, there was almost zero interaction between me and the long-standing members who have been answering questions for years. The problem that I faced was this: I'm not patient enough to do Help Desk work.

Some of the question that people have asked over the last 100 days on the site have been genuinely interesting and have received some incredibly enlightening answers. I've learned far more about the Grub boot loader this year than at any point in the past. I've seen the correct method of asking someone for more details to answer a question. And I've even taken some of the criticism of my answers to heart to ensure that solutions are provided with supporting links to the documentation whenever possible. Despite my short tenure as AskUbuntu, I feel as though my technical writing has become a little more complete as a result, which will hopefully be reflected in all future documentation that I write. So, while there were a great number of positives, there was a recurring negative that had me questioning why I wanted to invest a few minutes of free time every day on something that wasn't of my own creation: the contemptuous self-defeater.

Self-defeaters are people who create their own problems. We all do this from time to time, but it becomes a bit much when the person who is seeking help derides solutions, refuses to provide information, then hurls insults. For the final two weeks on the Q&A site, this was pretty much everyone who had a question I could offer support on. The Help Desk — and just about any support job — is often a thankless task. For every dozen hostile people there will be one who thanks you2. Again, this is to be expected. However, looking at the number of hours that have been invested in providing the 461 questions and seeing how 318 of them had responses like "Didn't work" without any details3, or "Oh, I'm using Mint BTW, LOL", or never received any follow-up, I have to ask if my time wouldn't be better used blogging … or working on 10C … or maybe doing client work again.

Well, last night, I decided to start doing client work again when not working on 10C or blogging. However, just like everyone else on the planet, I'm still very much constrained for time. By keeping the profile on AskUbuntu, I would always be tempted to go back and answer a few questions here and there, sinking time into a potential solution that has a very high probability of receiving radio silence back from the person who asked the question. By deleting the profile and forfeiting everything that has been earned over the past four months, I can leave the site aside and invest my limited time into things that may prove more beneficial in the long run. This year I need to upgrade some of my server equipment and buy some software licenses for newer versions of tools that I use regularly. These things cost money, which means my focus should be on earning revenue. AskUbuntu, while an interesting place to learn more about the OS that I have relied on for over a decade, will not contribute anything towards these objectives.

Maybe when I will be a little less impatient after retiring. Until then, my time on the Help Desk will need to remain limited.

  1. This is usually a misconception that is played up in the tech press. Many Linux-focused communities are genuinely great with people who will bend over backwards to help strangers solve problems. The various "dramas" that get reported on often contain too many superlatives, which misrepresents the people, the communities, and the disagreements within or between them.

  2. The ratio that I've seen on AskUbuntu is closer to 4:1, which is pretty darn decent for a Q&A site

  3. I understand that not every solution I offer is perfect. But, if something doesn't work, at the very least provide an error message, or part of a log, or something that is actionable. Two words is not any way to drive out a solution from a stranger on the Internet.

Do I Want to Do This Again?

After the boy went to bed I did something I've thought about doing for ages: I spoke into a microphone for reasons other than work. There was a time many years ago when I couldn't stop working with audio files, be it creating, editing, or publishing. However, the boy came along and I moved into a global role at the day job. With more responsibilities than I could shake a stick at, all I could do was to focus on the people and things that needed the most attention. My hobbies had to take a back seat … for many, many years.

That said, this coming April will see some changes. They boy will be entering his second year of kindergarten and I'll be working on some very different projects at the day job. There should be, perhaps for a brief period, some free time at some point during the week to relax, unwind, and enjoy some of the pastimes that have been set aside.

This is assuming that I would like to get into them again.

s2e02 - Do I Want to Do This Again?

Ten Years of Crises

Ten years ago today, at 2:46pm local time, one of the biggest earthquakes in recent history hit the northeastern coast of Japan and shook the country so hard it could be felt almost a thousand kilometres away. A few hours later a massive tsunami rushed to shore along a massive amount of that same coast to subsume the buildings, objects, and people who could not — or would not — get to higher land. Entire townships were swept into the ocean as the waters receded, leaving scarred land littered with ruined equipment, debris, and death. More than 10,000 aftershocks have been recorded in the decade that has passed since The Great Tohoku Earthquake, and more take place every day. However, despite the depth and severity of this wound, the people of Tohoku — and the rest of Japan — have persevered, rebuilt, and carried on.

Five Years later, at 01:25am on April 16, 2016, Kumamoto was delivered a similar disaster. Just like the one in Tohoku, buildings were toppled, infrastructure destroyed, and entire villages cut-off from resupply for weeks. Because this one struck in the middle of the night, many of the casualties that took place were the result of falling objects and furniture. The quake was followed by hundreds of aftershocks and heavy rains, making rescue and repair operations far more difficult. However, despite the depth and severity of this wound, the people of Kumamoto — and the rest of Japan — have persevered, rebuilt, and carried on.

Aside from these two large earthquakes, the country has seen an incredible amount of destruction and pain brought on by smaller quakes, increasingly powerful typhoons, floods, and — recently — fires. Every six months there is another disaster in the news. However, despite these wounds, people have persevered, rebuilt, and carried on.

Very rarely have natural disasters affected the people I know personally. Reiko and I were living just outside of Tokyo when the big one hit ten years ago, and the resulting chaos1 made a return to the Tokai area a priority. Nozomi was so terrified by the constant shaking of the ground that she stopped eating for almost a year, requiring us to force-feed her so that she'd have something in her stomach. We were lucky, though. We managed to get through the challenges, find a new home, rebuild, and carry on. Many others — particularly domesticated animals — did not have the same opportunity.

Disasters are generally things that we try to forget. Who wants to remember pain? But after getting through 3/11 "inconvenienced but unscathed", I've approached the annual commemorations a little differently. The anniversaries are often presented as a way to remember those who lost their lives, their loved ones, their homes, and their livelihoods. While this is all very true, this is also a good time to remember the people who are still here with us. The people who went to the aid of others. The people who offered a stranger a brief bit of normalcy in the confusion2. It's important to remember those who left before us, but it's just as important to remember the ones who were there … and still here.

  1. To be fair, chaos in Japan generally means "empty store shelves and long lines everywhere".

  2. After the stores started opening up after 3/11, Reiko and I went to a grocery store to collect some supplies. There wasn't any running water anywhere and there was none to be purchased for any price. Nozomi refused to stay home alone out of fear of another quake, so I had to hold her in my arms just about every minute of the day. As dogs are not permitted in grocery stores even during the best of times, I stayed outside the shop while Reiko went in. There were two men in their 50s sitting on a bench and consuming a 6-pack of beer at a remarkable pace despite being well before noon. Nozomi and I sat next to them and we chatted about a bunch of things while people scurried around us in an attempt to secure resources. They offered me a can, which I accepted, and for a brief period of time we sat in our own bubble of normalcy despite the chaos around us. Reiko eventually emerged from the grocery store with a 2-litre bottle of water — no idea how she managed to get one — and some zero-prep food that could be had at anytime without water or electricity.

A Photo From the Future

A couple of nights ago, shortly after reading some classic Mr. Men stories before bed, the boy picked up a photo and asked me an interesting question. Young children often ask a number of interesting questions that adults never think about, but this one was rather unique in that it was the first time the boy showed an understanding for the fluidity of time.


Is this photo from the future?

Being four, he does have a rough concept of time. He knows that things happened before and that we live in the now and that we can enjoy long visits to the park in a few days. This question was looking well beyond days and instead at decades.

The photo in question is this one here, of my father and step-mother. The picture was taken maybe a year or two ago and has been on a bookshelf next to my bed since we received it. The boy has never met anyone from my family in person, though he does make an appearance during the occasional video call.

Dad & Henri

What I found interesting about the question, aside from the implications that come with a greater degree of temporal awareness, is that the boy could likely see some resemblance between my father and I and showed an understanding that we age with time. By looking at a picture of my father, seeing a resemblance, and having an understanding that the person in question was older, it seems logical to assume that the photo could be from the future. A four year old child knows we can have pictures of the past, so why not also of the future?

Dad, Henri, and I in Princeton, NJ

This second photo was taken almost exactly three years ago when I made the one and only trip to North America since moving to Japan. Yeah, I look a bit like my father, but I look a lot more like my mother … who I do not have any pictures of.

A Better Pastime

Last week the boy had his very first stage performance at school. As one would expect, this sort of thing gives parents a number of reasons to be less cautious with spending, particularly when that money spent can result in better-quality photos and videos. At the tail end of 2016 we picked up a Canon Kiss x7 DSLR with two lenses with the expectation that we would be taking lots of pictures of a new person as he grew up. This has proven to be a great investment as the image quality from this single-purpose camera is far superior to anything that I've seen from a cell phone1, but taking distance shots in a dim room — let alone an auditorium — has always been disappointing. The EFS 55-250mm macro lens that came with the camera is just not up to the task. So, with the purse strings loosened a bit, Reiko authorised the purchase of a prosumer-grade lens: a Sigma 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM.

To test the camera before the boy's performance, I took a number of shots at night after everyone was in bed. A photo of a living room lamp came out crystal clear despite being more than 6 metres away. Words on a thermostat could be zoomed into and read with ease from five metres. In areas of even more shadow, the lens captured enough light to take a relatively-good shot of some toys under a table. Things were looking good, but I wanted to try something interesting to see just how far the camera could get a clear shot.

I wanted a good, clear picture of the moon.

A quick image search online for pictures of the Earth's moon — or moons of other worlds in our solar system — will reveal millions of pictures, many with remarkable image quality, excellent colour balance, and near-perfect framing. These shots are all well and good for desktop backgrounds, but I wanted a photo that I took. Since I was a young boy I've always wanted a telescope. My parents couldn't afford to buy one, given there were five kids who needed food, clothes, and other necessities, and when I started earning money my priorities had changed to investing in computer equipment. However, times have changed. While the Sigma 100-400mm lens is not technically a telescope, it does have some pretty good range.

So off to the park I went, camera in hand, to take some pictures of our nearest celestial neighbour. This is one shot that I managed to grab with everything in automatic mode:

The Moon — Automatic Settings

Not a bad photo for an amateur holding a big lens in his hands rather than with a tripod. Not a great one, either. I needed to learn how to take pictures of bright objects at night.

Over the course of a couple days I read a number of photography and astronomy blogs to see how novices and professionals captured images of our moon. Patterns emerged. I quickly discovered that the first photo could never have been great because the ISO level was all wrong, as was the aperture, and the shutter speed. What I needed to do was this:

  • go all manual with the settings
  • set the aperture to f/11 or f/16
  • set the shutter speed to 1/100 or 1/125
  • set the ISO to 100
  • use a tripod2

My earlier attempts with automatic settings had all of these numbers wrong, which resulted in a large number of completely black photos with a solid-bright disc in the middle. The one semi-decent shot from the first night was just sheer luck.

So, armed with a little more knowledge, I went out to the park again tonight to see what sort of pictures could be acquired. This was the result:

Another Moon Shot

This isn't bad. Nor is it great. There's a lot of pollen and other pollutants in the atmosphere tonight. That said, this is a step in the right direction. Progress. Hopefully, by continuing to hone my skills with the camera and various lenses, I'll be ready to start taking pictures of really distant objects with a proper telescope in a couple of years when the boy starts showing an interest in planets, asteroids, nebulae, and more.

  1. Mind you, I don't know how far the image quality has come on premium phones in the last few years. They could be at near-DSLR level by now, knowing Apple, Sony, and Samsung.

  2. Subsequent trips to the park at night involved a tripod. That said, the lens is really heavy. A different mount to offset the new balance-midpoint will be needed in the near future.

Four Cans of Coffee

A common New Year pastime that people of all ages enjoy in Japan is kite flying. The tradition goes back centuries and, while people rarely build their own anymore, the distinctive sounds and bright colours of the simple wind catchers always draws a crowd. Not wanting to be left out, the boy asked if he could also fly a kite.

Sure. Why not?

A pair of yellow and blue kites were bought from the nearby mall and we made our way to a moderately empty baseball park where there was ample space and a good bit of wind. After a little bit of setup, we had flight! The sound of laughter and delight filled the park as a young person ran around, eyes to the sky, enjoying a simple pleasure that required zero glowing screens, LEDs, or batteries. The fun went in for at least twenty minutes, and I was capturing the moment with an old phone and even older set of eyes.

And then the crying started.

It took a second to see what happened, but the boy had lost his grip on the thread handle, meaning the kite was now travelling due North with zero resistance. A moment later it stopped travelling away from us but continued to buck and twist like an animal who was momentarily free, then once again constrained. The plastic handle was snared by a tree branch several meters above our heads. There was no escape for the kite anymore.

There was, however, a problem. Japan has a terrible habit of putting utility poles everywhere and running wires to and fro. Because the branch that held the kite was too thin to hold the weight of anyone older than 5, and because the height was much too high to send a five year old, we needed a way to recover the untamed sail before it wrapped itself around some wires. I tried using a makeshift hook that could wrap itself around the string lead to pull the kite to safety, but this proved to be futile. Within a matter of minutes, a brief lull in the wind sent the kite whirling around not one, not two, but four wires than ran from the utility poles to houses across the street; power and phone.

It was time to depend on the professionals.

Reiko called the power company who sent a pair of technicians out within an hour. As one would expect, the trapped kite had attracted a lot of attention and some boys from the neighbourhood were taking an interest in the operation. Fortunately there were no complications. The kite was returned, broken from the wind and with many sections of string in tatters. The boy was upset because his new toy couldn’t fly anymore. Reiko and I were relieved, because we weren’t asked to pay for the completely preventable rescue operation.

As a token of our appreciation, though, we did offer the two technicians a small reward for their efforts: four cans of coffee. Hopefully they could enjoy them while driving to their next mission.


In the final weeks of November last year I decided to once again re-join AskUbuntu as part of an attempt to "give back" for all the good that Ubuntu Linux has brought me over the years. 150 questions were answered over a period of five weeks, resulting in 2,100+ points, a slew of badges, and a couple of seasonal hats. The majority of the interactions were productive and people would sometimes build on my answers, allowing me an opportunity to learn more about the platform that has played an important part of my digital toolkit since 2005. Being the sort of person who tends to look for patterns, a couple of things stood out that seem to be incomplete with the popular distribution.

AskUbuntu Statistics

Linux has often been portrayed as a niche operating system that caters towards the technologically interested, but there are an increasing number of "normal people" who see the value in having something that does not come from Apple or Microsoft on their computers. What this means is that people from all over the globe are installing Linux on machines that were generally designed to be platform-specific devices; running MacOS if it were an Apple, or Windows if it were anything else1. While the various Linux distributions have made great strides in ensuring hardware compatibility, certain gaps continue to be a problem.

The first is networking. On any given day, there will be several people asking their very first question on AskUbuntu saying something along the lines of:

I just installed Ubuntu on my computer and the WiFi doesn't work. Help!


I plugged a USB WiFi dongle into my computer, and Ubuntu doesn't see it. Help!

After a bit of back and forth, the community can generally work out what a person needs to do to get their machine up and running on a wireless network. The steps can sometimes be incredibly easy, consisting of changing a setting in the BIOS or editing a file, or ridiculously complicated, requiring a person clone a Git repository and compile a driver from source before installing it manually. These are hardly great experiences for anyone, including the development teams that have invested thousands of hours to get device compatibility to where it is today. Believe me when I say that setting up a fresh Linux installation used to require an entire long weekend!

However, this shows that there is still a bit of work that can go into this one area, most likely via an application written by someone outside the main distributions. The required functionality would be pretty basic:

  1. scan the machine for network devices that are using the wrong driver or have no driver at all
  2. suggest the best drivers based on the device chipsets
  3. do the necessary work to get the drivers installed

This application would need to allow a person to also download all the necessary driver files alongside the main app so that a person with no network connection at all could get online in short order. The "problem" would be keeping up with all the various unofficial driver resources that have sprung up on GitHub, BitBucket, and other places to service devices that use RealTek and some less-common Broadcom chipsets.

Does something like this already exist? It's certainly a possibility. I have not seen it, though.

Another common issue seems to involve video drivers, with Nvidia hardware being the most-common devices cited. People report all sorts of issues and often receive suggestions that involve changing kernel settings, updating the bootloader to include various modes, switching drivers from community to proprietary or vice versa, and the like. Just like the WiFi issue, this isn't something that people should have to think about. There must be a way to automate the fixes to a certain degree as there are a limited number of video cards available2. Could an auto-detection & configuration tool be built that would work alongside the device discovery code that exists in the operating systems? Most likely, and it would be well-received if it could alleviate the stress a lot of people who are new to Linux feel when technical problems like these inevitably arise.

The third most common issue that I've seen is with people messing around with Grub, the bootloader, and losing the ability to load Windows or some other operating system that is also installed on their computer. This could be solved by making an image of the bootloader and writing it to a USB stick, ideally the same one that has the Ubuntu installation files. Then, when someone messes something up so badly they need to fix it, they can restore from backup. The Ubuntu Live environment does have a bootloader repair tool, but it does not always restore a bootloader to what it was, instead repairing it based on information it finds scattered across the system. The most common complaint is when the bootloader repair tool only restores access to one operating system because the other resides on a separate storage device.

Ubuntu, and most other popular distributions, have done a remarkable amount of work to make Linux a better, more polished system today than at any point in the past, but there's still a good deal of work to be done. It will be interesting to see if any of the issues outlined above are tacked in the near future … and that first one seems like a nice little challenge for me to pick up in the spring if it hasn't been solved by then.

  1. I'm excluding the Chromebooks for now, as that's a topic for another day.

  2. Yes, we're talking thousands, but it is still a finite number that involves a limited number of chipsets.

The Other Side

After what seems like an eternity, the world is at long last starting a new calendar year. Many of the same issues that made the past twelve months frustrating and unbearable continue to plague us but, with the clock striking midnight to mark the beginning of 2021, our optimistic hopes for the next 365 days can seem plausible … at least for a while.

Optimism is what powers hope. Hope is what enables people to work through the various unwelcome challenges that life throws our way, generally by setting some goals; no matter how small. For me, there are a number of goals that I will aim to achieve before the clock strikes midnight to ring in 2022. These include:

  • publishing a book on digital textbooks and their role in geographically distributed education
  • laying the foundation to become an official Ubuntu Member
  • changing employers

The first two items have seen some consistent work since November of last year and are starting to show dividends. Time will tell whether these will continue to generate positive interest from the global community. The third is something I've been talking about "forever" but is becoming more of a critical issue. There are some great people at the day job who I genuinely enjoy working with, but there are just too many compromises that need to be made in order for me to carry on. This isn't an ideal situation for anyone involved, so moving on seems logical.

There are other hopes for 2021, of course, including the health and safety of my family and friends around the world, but these cannot easily be turned into goals.

Either way, we've made it through to the other side. Yes, there's still a lot of stress, frustration, and anxiety. Yes, there are a lot of people taking advantage of the chaos that is winding its way through communities around the world. Yes, we will all have a big mess to clean up in the very near future. That said, we're 12 months closer to completion than we were a year ago. This is something to be optimistic about.


The "Word of the Day" screensaver that comes built into macOS is a lovely distraction at times. Every 24 hours there is another list of words that cycle on the screen, complete with a phonetic spelling and definition. A lot of times the selected words are ones I've known for years and occasionally new ones pop up. For reasons that are not exactly clear to me, I try to use these new words in messages and conversations that day as it's an effective way of naturally building a lexicon. Every so often I get the feeling that this practice is something a lot of people around the world ascribe to as well. A few weeks back the word "loquacious" scrolled across the screen and not a day later was an article on a well-read news site with that very same word. Coincidence? Perhaps. If it happens once. But it doesn't. This is something that I see time and time again. Not a week goes by when one of the less-common words selected for display in "Word of the Day" doesn't make an appearance elsewhere in my reading. This is a good thing, too. What better way to reinforce newly acquired language than to be exposed to it again in an Anki-like manner?

One of today's words was, as the title of this post suggests, "magniloquent". This adjective means to use high-flown or bombastic language; bombastic meaning high-sounding but with little meaning. A lot of people would probably associate magniloquent speech to that of a politician or a person who simply likes the sound of their own voice. Heck, I could be accused of speaking magniloquently during a number of recent meetings at work. Yet, when I think about the word a bit more, something different springs to mind: text-based media.

Perhaps I've just become more aware of grandstanders and soap-box preachers since leaving Twitter in 2014, but it does seem that a great number of articles online are replete with an excessive number of adjectives that are used to inflate the significance of a topic beyond what might be considered excessive. This isn't limited to any particular group or people with certain ideologies. It's everywhere. In an effort to get our ideas across the void and into other people's minds, we've had to turn the volume up to eleven. This means exacerbating the issue of bombastic writing with superfluous terms and locutions, obscuring our ultimate objectives with turgid euphemisms that give us the appearance of being intellectually on par with the likes of Martha Nussbaum, René Descartes, and Alan Watts.

Very few of us could ever hope to be so cognitively gifted; and fewer still would actually want to be.

Still, it's nice to watch the words scroll past and use them to make sentences in our head, sentences we say out loud, and sentences we put to text. Sometimes we'll use a word wrong. Sometimes we'll learn the correct meaning of a word. Sometimes we'll pick up something new. And if that new word gives us a reason to pen an archetypal article or blog post, then so be it.