Igor Bubelov
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2020

Notes ยท Jan 5, 2021

TL;DR

What a rough year!

I managed to avoid getting infected with COVID-19, but I had my share of medical issues during 2020. They weren’t dangerous, but some were annoying and stressful as hell. Having a good health insurance is extremely important, especially if you live in a foreign country. I had to stay in hospital for one night after being bitten by a dog, and the bill was about $4,500. A decent insurance plan costs about $1,000 a year in Thailand so its very much worth it.

My travel plans were ruined by COVID-19, and my only option was domestic tourism. I spent a few weeks on a road trip through Thailand, and it was a very pleasant experience.

I continued moving to open source software, and it works pretty well for me so far. The future of open source software looks bright, and I’m more excited about it than ever. I also published my own open source app which I’ll keep improving during the next year. It’s both a feed reader and a podcast player, and it has become my main source of news.

I had plenty of free time this year, and it allowed me to think more deeply about many things, including work. I got more picky when it comes to taking new projects. I used to assume that pretty much any job is productive and valuable for society, so I was never too picky as long as there were enough money on the table. Looking back, I think it was a mistake. Some jobs are good, some jobs are evil. Evil people and evil companies never admit their nature, so it’s important to do a due diligence unless you want to contribute to something that harms the world instead of improving it.

I don’t have any exact plans or goals for the next year. 2020 was full of uncertainty and who knows what’s coming next. I guess I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing and see what happens.

Do your duty, come what may.

Road Trip Through Thailand

Thailand attracts lots of foreigners every year and that’s why people tend to overestimate its reliance on the flow of international tourists. COVID-19 travel ban certainly hurts some businesses but not as hard as a casual observer may assume. Thailand generates about 10% of its GDP from tourism and about 40% of this sector actually comes from domestic tourism and not from foreign arrivals.

I’m not as obsessed with travel as some of my friends, but I do enjoy long car trips. Some people enjoy driving, but it’s actually the only thing I don’t like about travelling by car. The real benefit of using a car is the ability to explore places which are far from the major transport hubs and tourist hotspots. It gives me an opportunity to see things from a different angle. Such an experience tend to be more real and unpolished, it’s hard to get it when you travel by plane or public transport.

Thai roads are reasonably nice. The country itself isn’t too big, and the population density is high, which makes it impossible to get lost even if you’re completely unprepared for a long trip. There are plenty of gas stations everywhere, and they have pretty much anything that might be necessary to travel with comfort.

Open Source

My first operating system was Windows, and I loved it. Not that it was good, there were simply no alternatives. What else could a kid use? Using Linux requires pretty deep technical knowledge and using macOS requires a lot of money. It was true a couple of decades ago, and it’s still true nowadays.

Later in my life, I’ve got some technical skills and curiosity to try Linux. My first attempts to use Linux failed miserably, but I was able to use Ubuntu a few years later when I got my first programming job. This job also improved my finances, so I was able to afford a MacBook and try macOS. It worked really well for me, mostly because the only things I needed to run were a Java IDE and a Chrome browser. That’s a pretty good deal, really. You get everything you need, wrapped in a polished user interface.

It’s clear that I was motivated by pragmatic reasons. I didn’t really care about open source software or replaceable hardware until my new MacBook started to fall apart. It may sound like an impulsive rage-quit, but at some point I just gave up on MacBooks and ordered Dell XPS 13 which is known to play nice with Linux.

Switching to Linux wasn’t easy, but it’s one of those things which are unpleasant at the beginning but hugely rewarding in the long run. When it comes to graphical user interfaces, most of the Linux programs are generations behind Windows and macOS, but the thing is: even the best GUIs are less productive than command line interfaces. Terminal is an endless source of productivity, and once you get used to it, there is no way back.

As you can see, there is a pragmatic case for open software and replaceable hardware but it’s not the whole story. What does it mean to “own” a computer? Do you own yours? Those kinds are questions are well addressed by Richard Stallman and if you don’t know much about this guy and his ideas, you should probably listen to a few of his speeches. I’m not going to repeat all the main FOSS talking points, but I’ve been thinking a lot about individual sovereignty in the recent years, and I believe that not being able to fix your hardware or inspect your software is a thing we absolutely shouldn’t tolerate. You don’t own a thing if you’re discouraged to look inside and see what it does. That’s the main reason why I use open source software and recommend it to other people.

Work

I had a lot of time to think about work and ethics this year. My reasoning work was always pretty simple: if a prospective employer agrees to pay me well, I’m ready to write some code. I also believe that’s how most people choose where to work, at least the ones who’re fortunate enough to have a choice.

Of course, I have my personal blacklist of shitty companies, and I don’t know what kind of desperate person would consider working at Facebook, to name one example. What really changed during this year is the size of that list. Our time is limited, our productivity is finite, and it’s important to choose wisely where our contributions go.

Nextcloud

I continued using Nextcloud and it became much more polished this year. It keeps my files and contacts, manages my photos and fetches all the interesting news and podcasts for me. It also has a decent project management functionality, and I use it to collaborate with other people on different projects.

Nextcloud has a great potential and practically no competition. It’s the easiest way do replace Dropbox and/or Google cloud services such as Google Photos, and I’m planning to write a detailed guide on how to set it up and running.

F-Droid

Most people think that every mobile phone has a single app store. iPhones have App Store and Android phones have Google Play, right? This is not entirely true for Android, by the way. Yes, Google Play has a huge market share, and it’s practically a monopoly, for various reasons, but no one really stops you from using alternative app stores.

F-Droid is one of those alternatives. In fact, “app store” isn’t the best name because all the apps listed there are free and open source. In Linux terms, it’s a software repository. It’s still pretty niche, but there are a few killer apps which make it very attractive.

One of those apps is NewPipe. NewPipe is YouTube done right. It uses YouTube database, but it cuts ads, and it also allows you to play videos in the background. Some people might say that it’s unethical to “hack” YouTube but doing unethical things to unethical companies is not a big deal in my book.

Open Source and Smartphones

I use Android and create Android apps because it’s the most open mainstream platform on the market. That doesn’t mean I like it, it just means I dislike it less than the other options.

What I would really like is to be able to run a fully open source OS like Linux on my smartphone. Android uses modified Linux kernel, but it’s not a real Linux. I deeply respect people who try to make Android more open like the folks from LineageOS, but it seems like a pointless battle against a hostile platform. Google doesn’t want Android to be fully open, and it controls this platform so there isn’t much we can do about it.

That said, Android is still the only game in town, but times are changing. I’m pleasantly surprised how fast Pinephone moved from the idea to a functional device selling worldwide. Using a Linux phone as a daily driver is closer to reality than ever, and I believe it could happen by the end of 2021.

RSS and Atom

I stopped using social networks a couple of years ago, and I never looked back. Social networks are full of bullshit and self-promotion and this kind of content doesn’t really resonate with me. I get it, some people want to know what’s up with their closest friends, but the thing is, most of the people we get constant updates from via the social media are not our close friends. Using a social network feels like being a guinea big in some kind of social experiment in human deception.

I get most of the news from RSS and Atom feeds. It’s so much better this way. The closest thing to this experience is Reddit. I was addicted to Reddit for quite a while, and it felt much better than other mainstream social media, probably because it was built around certain topics and not people, so it was much easier to find something interesting.

Vanilla CSS

Many modern websites are bloated and slow for no good reason. One of the trends of this year is our collective admission that complexity and bloat are real issues. The stuff that we make is getting more and more complex, and the more complicated it gets, the less we understand how it really works and how to make it work better and faster. That’s the main reason I migrated this website to vanilla CSS. I don’t want to contribute to ever-increasing complexity, and I believe that we need to focus more on simplifying our tools and approaches.

Regulation

I usually have a libertarian stance on most of the questions but regulation isn’t one of them. I believe that markets don’t really need interventions in the long run but certain interventions may speed up our progress and prevent some serious issues. In other words, although government interventions do not drive the progress, they can speed it up. That’s why I’m very pleased with the recent anti-thrust activity of the US regulators. There is no doubt that big tech companies are abusing their power and hurt the consumers. They must be stopped. We need to punish them for anti-competitive behaviour, and we need stronger privacy protections.

The only purpose of business is to sell us stuff that makes our lives better. Competition makes sure that consumers get good stuff at reasonable prices, and the entrepreneurs get their well-deserved rewards. Without competition, there is no reason for entrepreneurs to create good stuff and there is no limit on the rewards, that’s why we should not allow companies to destroy competition.

Self-Hosting

I spent the last three weeks of this year on a road trip, and I left all of my servers at home with no human maintenance. I was worried that something would go wrong, and I lose access to some of my services till the end of my trip, but I was pleasantly surprised that everything worked like a charm.

Self-hosting can consume a lot of time in the beginning but once you figure out how to do it, you start to get all the benefits without spending much of your time on maintenance.

Economics

It’s a common belief that markets can detach from underlying economies, so the price of financial assets may not reflect their fundamental valuations. We saw a huge drop in stock valuations during this year, but it quickly reversed and 2020 turned out to be one of the best years for stocks.

How can a rational market be so volatile and uncertain? Let’s take Bitcoin as an example. It dropped to $3,000 in Spring but it rose to $28,000 in December. What changed? Those are hard questions, and no one knows the answers.

There are voices that attribute the rise of Bitcoin price to hedging against inflation and stock price declines, but I don’t see any evidence for that. On the contrary, Bitcoin price collapsed exactly when the stock price did, so it didn’t protect investors from the decline in stock valuations. Can it protect people from inflation? In theory, it might. In practice, we have no idea.

In my opinion, both stocks and bonds are severely overvalued, and it might prop up the price of gold, bitcoin and any other assets which are out of grasp of central banks during 2021.