We can put an end to imperial units

“In metric, one milliliter of water occupies one cubic centimeter, weighs one gram, and requires one calorie1 of energy to heat up by one degree centigrade—which is 1 percent of the difference between its freezing point and its boiling point. An amount of hydrogen weighing the same amount has exactly one mole of atoms in it. Whereas in the American system, the answer to ‘How much energy does it take to boil a room-temperature gallon of water?’ is ‘Go fuck yourself,’ because you can’t directly relate any of those quantities.” Wild Thing by Josh Bazell.

I have not read Wild Thing, and I do not have any idea about who Josh Bazell is, but I love this quote. It brilliantly summarises how superior the International System of Units (i.e., the modern form of the metric system) is to the system of imperial units, as shown in the following illustration:

Visual comparison of metric and imperial units

Yet, nowadays…
Read more…


  1. One may argue that calorie is not a unit of the metric system. In the International System of Units, which is an evolution of the metre-kilogram-second (MKS) system of units, which in turn is a variant of the metric system, both mechanical and thermal energies are measured in Joule. However, in the centimetre-gram-second (CGS) system of units, which is another variant of the metric system, the thermal energy is measured in Calories. Therefore, I would still consider Calorie as one of the units of the metric system, although not of the International System of Units. Besides, I do not think Josh Bazell aimed at being scientifically rigorous, so I would excuse him for not clarifying which variant of the metric system he refers to.

Do not let social networks destroy your social skills

You see them every day. People at restaurants, bars, pubs, clubs, or even private parties, constantly looking at their mobiles… Rather than living their lives, they are validating their lives on social networks. They share their current location, tag their friends, upload pictures of their meals (rigorously altered with some cheap filter), and, since they are already on it, answer messages and leave likes and comments here and there. You name it. All this when they could mingle with the people around them.

Seriously, folks, social networks are are destroying your social skills. Do not let them win. Tonight, turn off your mobile. Spend a night out with the people you really love, talk to them, laugh with them, exchange positive vibes in a way that is possible in the real world only. That is socialising. The rest is just a surrogate of it.

The sad story of the vCard format and its lack of interoperability

I have tried to reach the zen of address book synchronisation for many years. However, I have always experienced that some contact information, especially instant messaging and social networking addresses, gets lost or corrupted during the synchronisation.

The most adopted format for representing contact information is the vCard, whose last version is the 4.0 (see IETF’s RFC 6350, 2011), while the most adopted protocol for accessing contact information is the CardDAV (see in the IETF’s RFC 6352, 2011), which is based on the vCard format. Hence, I performed a little empirical study of the actual interoperability of the vCard format.

First, I defined a sample contact:

Joe Bloggs
+44 20 1234 5678
1 Trafalgar Square, WC2N London, United Kingdom
Skype: joe.bloggs
Twitter: @joebloggs

Second, I added this contact to four different address books:

Third, I exported each of the address books to a vCard file.

Fourth, I created a sample vCard file based on the vCard format 4.0.

Finally, I compared the exported vCard files and the sample vCard file among each other. The differences between these files blew my mind.

In the following, I show these vCard files and discuss the properties which are not interoperable. Note that I stripped the irrelevant properties and rearranged the remaining properties to make the comparison easier.

Sample vCard file

FN:Joe Bloggs
TEL;TYPE="cell,home";PREF=1:tel:+44 20 1234 5678
ADR;TYPE=home;PREF=1:;;1 Trafalgar Square;London;;WC2N;United Kingdom

The specification of the vCard is kind of shocking. Believe or not, it does not support social networking addresses yet. Even worse, it supports constructs which are not interoperable, namely grouped properties and non-standard properties.

Grouped properties are properties prefaced with the same group name. They should be grouped together when displayed by an application. I will show examples of grouped properties later.

Non-standard properties are properties defined unilaterally or bilaterally outside the standard. They may be ignored by an application.

Hence, I was forced to represent the Twitter address by a non-standard X-SOCIALPROFILE property:


Apple Contacts (version 7.1)

FN:Joe Bloggs
TEL;type=CELL;type=VOICE;type=pref:+44 20 1234 5678
ADR;type=HOME;type=pref:;;1 Trafalgar Square;London;;WC2N;United Kingdom

The vCard file exported by Apple Contacts is only partially based on the vCard format 3.0 (see IETF’s RFC 2425 and RFC 2426, 1998) and its extension for instant messaging (see IETF’s RFC 4770, 2007).

The web address is represented by a standard URL property grouped together with a non-standard X-ABLabel property:


This issue can be solved by changing the type of the web address from “home page” to “home”. This leads to a vCard file where the web address is represented by a standard URL property:


The Twitter address is represented by a non-standard X-SOCIALPROFILE property:


Cobook (version 1.1.6)

FN:Joe Bloggs
item2.TEL;type=VOICE:+44 20 1234 5678
item3.ADR:;;1 Trafalgar Square;London;;WC2N;United Kingdom

The vCard file exported by Cobook is only partially based on the vCard format 3.0. With the exception of the name, all the contact information is represented by either grouped properties or non-standard properties.

Google Contacts (15 November 2012)

FN:Joe Bloggs
TEL;TYPE=CELL:+44 20 1234 5678
ADR;TYPE=HOME:;;1 Trafalgar Square;London;;WC2N;United Kingdom

Google Contacts does not support social networking addresses natively, so I was forced to add them as URLs.

The vCard file exported by Google Contacts is only partially based on the vCard format 3.0 (see IETF’s RFC 2425 and RFC 2426, 1998).

The colon in all the URLs is unnecessarily escaped.

Similar to Apple Contacts, the web address is represented by a standard URL property grouped together with a non-standard X-ABLabel property:


I guess this is because Google Contacts specifically targets Apple Contacts when exporting to a vCard file. This issue can be solved by changing the type of the web address from “Home Page” to “Home”. This leads to a vCard file where the web address is represented by a standard URL property:


The Skype address is represented by a non-standard X-SKYPE property:


The Twitter address is represented by a standard URL property grouped together with a non-standard X-ABLabel property:


Memotoo (15 November 2012)

FN:Joe Bloggs
TEL;HOME;CELL:+44 20 1234 5678
ADR;HOME:;;1 Trafalgar Square;London;;WC2N;United Kingdom

The vCard file exported by Memotoo is only partially based on the vCard format 2.1.

The Skype address is represented by a non-standard X-SKYPE-USERNAME property:


The Twitter address is represented by a non-standard X-TWITTER property:



Given the results of this study, it is not surprising that the import/export of vCard files as well as the synchronisation via CardDAV do not behave as expected most of the time.

Common contact information such as email addresses, telephone numbers, postal addresses, web addresses, and instant messaging addresses can be represented in two ways: using standard properties, or using standard properties grouped together with non-standard properties. The second way is currently used by Apple (and other vendors targeting Apple); it is unnecessary, prevents interoperability, and promotes vendor lock-in.

Other common contact information such as social networking addresses are not supported at all.

So what should be done? Here is my suggestion:

First, the IETF should remove grouped properties and non-standard properties from the specification, since open standards should promote interoperability and prevent vendor lock-in. Second, the IETF should add social networking properties to the specification. Third, the IETF should provide an official validator for vCard files. Finally, the vendors should implement the last version of the vCard format, and they should do it right.

Update 22 November

I have shared my concerns in IETF’s vCardDAV mailing list. You can follow the thread here.

Why I abandoned GNU/Linux on the desktop

I have experimented with GNU/Linux in dual boot with Windows from 1997 to 2000, and I have had GNU/Linux only installed on any of my computers, both at home and at work, since 2001. I have changed distribution relatively often—3 years with Red Hat (now Fedora), 2 years with Mandrake (now Mandriva), few weeks with SuSE (now openSUSE), 1 year with Slackware (don’t ask…), 3 years with Gentoo, few weeks with Debian and 6 years with Kubuntu—but I have not changed desktop environment that much—1 year with FVWM ’95 (those were the days…), 1 year with Enlightenment, 1 year with GNOME 1, and 12 years with KDE.

I have been a loyal KDE user, contributor and advocate since the release of KDE 2.0. I have donated 100 EUR to the KDE e.V. organisation each year since the announcement of the “Join the Game” campaign. Last but not least, I acknowledged the KDE community in my PhD thesis (at the end of the Preface, page xi). This was just in case anybody wonders about my credentials as a GNU/Linux and KDE user…

Unfortunately, KDE does not satisfy my needs anymore, and I was forced to look into other solutions. This post attempts to explain why I came to this decision, and I hope that the GNU/Linux and KDE communities will perceive this as a constructive critic.

KDE 4.0 was released before it had reached feature parity with KDE 3.5. This is because KDE developers intended KDE 4.0 as a technological preview aimed at developers, testers and early adopters only. However, the majority of KDE users did not understand that, which is legitimate considering that .0 means at least feature complete in any other project. As a consequence, many KDE users (including Linus Torvalds) found themselves with a desktop environment which was just half-baked, and eventually ditched KDE.

I expected KDE developers to adopt a more conservative release strategy in future major (point) upgrades, but apparently, they did not learn any lesson. In fact, KDE 4.4 was released together with a new version of KAddressBook which was rewritten from scratch and based on the Akonadi storage service. The new version introduced several regressions compared to the previous version shipped with KDE 4.3. As a consequence, once again, many KDE users found themselves with a half-baked KDE PIM suite, and eventually ditched KDE.

This time also my frustration started to mount. I wrote two verbose posts on the KDE forum to question this release management and propose a system of bounties for bug fixing. These two initiatives triggered a lively discussion in the community, but in the end, nothing happened.

KDE 4.9 was released one month ago. There are still many small nuisances with it, especially with the KDE PIM suite. And do not blame me or the packagers, please. Try to access an IMAP e-mail account with an unstable Internet connection: in the best case, Akonadi will spam the KDE notification system with connection error messages, which will eventually crash KNotify; in the worst case, Akonadi itself will crash. Try also to synchronise contacts and calendars with Google or any other well known social network: if you manage to make it work, consider yourself lucky if you do not have any loss of information.

Despite these years-old bugs, KDE developers keep spending resources on applications the world could probably do without, like the Rekonq browser and the Calligra office suite. Sometimes I ask myself if KDE developers use these applications for real, and apparently, the answer is that some do not: as you can notice in the official screenshot for the KDE 4.9 release, some prefer Chrome and LibreOffice over Rekonq and Calligra, which is not surprising at all. I often read complaints about the lack of resources to maintain the KDE project. Why not focusing on fewer applications of higher quality rather than more applications of questionable quality then?

I tried to look into other distributions and desktop environments, but the situation seems to be even more tragic. Let us have a look at the top ten distributions on Distrowatch:

And these are just ten distributions out of hundreds, as well as just seven desktop environments out of tens—among which I cannot resist mentioning Trinity, which is a fork of KDE 3…

Am I the only one thinking that this fragmentation is beyond ridiculous? The developers of these distributions and desktop environments are spending massive amounts of resources to develop redundant software and compete on a mere 2% of market share. Why not focusing on fewer distributions and desktop environments of higher quality rather than more distributions and desktop environments of questionable quality then?

Maybe there is a question of ego, or maybe there is a problem with the bazaar itself. But the fact remains: GNU/Linux has missed all the chances to become a mainstream desktop operating system, and I do not want to use a niche operating system anymore. This was a difficult decision, and I am sorry for that, but I need something that just works, and I need it now.

So long GNU/Linux, so long KDE, you served me well.

My new desktop operating system? Mac OS X. Do I love it? No, I hate it at times, but I will come back to that another day.

How to blow 1.6 million EUR

The University of Smallville needs to build a new student centre. The centre will offer services to students such as programme enrollment and exam registration and will provide a new auditorium, library, swimming pool, gym, etc.

On the 14th of September 2006, the University Board decides to initiate a project called MegaCentre for the new student centre, to which it allocates half a million EUR. The University has, among others, a Department of Architecture, a Department of Engineering and a Department of Facility Management. One might expect that the University Board would assign the management of MegaCentre to one of these Departments. On the contrary, however, the University Board assigns the management of MegaCentre to the Student Affairs Centre. The Student Affairs Centre forms a working group composed of a project leader, a project co-leader, a technical leader and two co-workers. Again, one might expect that someone from the Department of Architecture, Engineering or Facility Management would cover one of these roles. On the contrary, however, all members of the working group, except for the technical leader, belong to the Student Affairs Centre. The project leader and co-leader do not have specialist educations in architecture or engineering. The technical leader of the working group has an education in engineering but does not belong to the University. The working group spends more than one year and half a million EUR planning MegaCentre.

On the 13th of September 2007, the working group presents the plans for MegaCentre to the University Board. According to these plans, the construction of the building will be assigned to the external construction company Nonchalant, which guarantees the use of state-of-the-art construction techniques. Moreover, once the building comes into service, the maintenance will be assigned to the Department of Facility Management. The University Board accepts the plans and allocates an additional 0.9 million EUR to the project. Nonchalant spends more than one year on construction of the building, on completion of which it presents a bill of 1.1 million EUR.

On the 4th of February 2009, the building is inaugurated with due ceremony, after which it enters into service. Unfortunately, faults in the building’s design immediately become evident, with problems such as poor insulation, a leaky roof, an unreliable alarm system and poor handicap access, to name but a few. Both employees and students soon become frustrated. Again, one might expect that the working group of MegaCentre would demand Nonchalant to honour its contractual agreement, repair all faults and pay any necessary fines for damage caused. On the contrary, however, the working group simply allows the Department of Facility Management to deal with the faults as they see fit. The Department of Facility Management hires construction workers and assigns them to the repairs and alterations. The construction workers do what they can, but after one year many design issues remain unresolved. The head of the Department of Facility Management, who has an education in engineering, decides to perform a thorough evaluation of the building. On doing so, he discovers that the building is constructed with obsolete rather than state-of-the-art techniques, and that these would not guarantee minimal safety in the event of a natural disaster. Finally, he concludes that it will be necessary to reconstruct the building from scratch using appropriate techniques.

On the 29th of April 2010, the head of the Department of Facility Management presents the evaluation to the University Board. At this point, the University Board finally acknowledges that severe action must be taken and sues Nonchalant for damages, excludes the Student Affairs Centre from the project, hands the management of MegaCentre to the Department of Facility Management and fires the employees responsible for public money wasted hitherto.

Do you find this story unbelievable? Well, now replace the name Smallville with Bergen, MegaCentre with EksternWeb and Nonchalant with Bouvet, and reread it here.

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