SReview and pandemics

The pandemic was a bit of a mess for most FLOSS conferences. The two conferences that I help organize -- FOSDEM and DebConf -- are no exception. In both conferences, I do essentially the same work: as a member of both video teams, I manage the postprocessing of the video recordings of all the talks that happened at the respective conference(s). I do this by way of SReview, the online video review and transcode system that I wrote, which essentially crowdsources the manual work that needs to be done, and automates as much as possible of the workflow.

The original version of SReview consisted of a database, a (very basic) Mojolicious-based webinterface, and a bunch of perl scripts which would build and execute ffmpeg command lines using string interpolation. As a quick hack that I needed to get working while writing it in my spare time in half a year, that approach was workable and resulted in successful postprocessing after FOSDEM 2017, and a significant improvement in time from the previous years. However, I did not end development with that, and since then I've replaced the string interpolation by an object oriented API for generating ffmpeg command lines, as well as modularized the webinterface. Additionally, I've had help reworking the user interface into a system that is somewhat easier to use than my original interface, and have slowly but surely added more features to the system so as to make it more flexible, as well as support more types of environments for the system to run in.

One of the major issues that still remains with SReview is that the administrator's interface is pretty terrible. I had been planning on revamping that for 2020, but then massive amounts of people got sick, travel was banned, and both the conferences that I work on were converted to an online-only conference. These have some very specific requirements; e.g., both conferences allowed people to upload a prerecorded version of their talk, rather than doing the talk live; since preprocessing a video is, technically, very similar to postprocessing it, I adapted SReview to allow people to upload a video file that it would then validate (in terms of length, codec, and apparent resolution). This seems like easy to do, but I decided to implement this functionality so that it would also allow future use for in-person conferences, where occasionally a speaker requests that modifications would be made to the video file in a way that SReview is unable to do. This made it marginally more involved, but at least will mean that a feature which I had planned to implement some years down the line is now already implemented. The new feature works quite well, and I'm happy I've implemented it in the way that I have.

In order for the "upload" processing and the "post-event" processing to not be confused, however, I decided to import the conference schedules twice: once as the conference itself, and once as a shadow version of that conference for the prerecordings. That way, I could track the progress through the system of the prerecording completely separately from the progress of the postprocessing of the video (which adds opening/closing credits, and transcodes to multiple variants of the same video). Schedule parsing was something that had not been implemented in a generic way yet, however; since that made doubling the schedule in that way rather complex, I decided to bite the bullet and (finally) implement schedule parsing in a generic way. Currently, schedule parsers exist for two formats (Pentabarf XML and the Wafer variant of that same format which is almost, but not quite, entirely the same). The API for that is quite flexible, and I'm happy with the way things have been implemented there. I've also implemented a set of "virtual" parsers, which allow mangling the schedule in various ways (by either filtering out talks that we don't want, or by generating the shadow version of the schedule that I talked about earlier).

While the SReview settings have reasonable defaults, occasionally the output of SReview is not entirely acceptable, due to more complicated matters that then result in encoding artifacts. As a result, the DebConf video team has been doing a final review step, completely outside of SReview, to ensure that such encoding artifacts don't exist. That seemed suboptimal, so recently I've been working on integrating that into SReview as well. First tests have been run, and seem to be acceptable, but there's still a few loose ends to be finalized.

As part of this, I've also reworked the way comments could be entered into the system. Previously the presence of a comment would signal that the video has some problems that an administrator needed to look at. Unfortunately, that was causing some confusion, with some people even thinking it's a good place to enter a "thank you for your work" style of comment... which it obviously isn't. Turning it into a "comment log" system instead fixes that, and also allows for better two-way communication between administrators and reviewers. Hopefully that'll improve things in that area as well.

Finally, the audio normalization in SReview -- for which I've long used bs1770gain -- is having problems. First of all, bs1770gain will sometimes alter the timing of the video or audio file that it's passed, which is very problematic if I want to process it further. There is an ffmpeg loudnorm filter which implements the same algorithm, so that should make things easier to use. Secondly, the author of bs1770gain is a strange character that I'd rather not be involved with. Before I knew about the loudnorm filter I didn't really have a choice, but now I can just rip bs1770gain out and replace it by the loudnorm filter. That will fix various other bugs in SReview, too, because SReview relies on behaviour that isn't actually there (but which I didn't know at the time when I wrote it).

All in all, the past year-and-a-bit has seen a lot of development for SReview, with multiple features being added and a number of long-standing problems being fixed.

Now if only the pandemic would subside, allowing the whole "let's do everything online only" wave to cool down a bit, so that I can finally make time to implement the admin interface...

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Freenode

Bye, Freenode

I have been on Freenode for about 20 years, since my earliest involvement with Debian in about 2001. When Debian moved to OFTC for its IRC presence way back in 2006, I hung around on Freenode somewhat since FOSDEM's IRC channels were still there, as well as for a number of other channels that I was on at the time (not anymore though).

This is now over and done with. What's happening with Freenode is a shitstorm -- one that could easily have been fixed if one particular person were to step down a few days ago, but by now is a lost cause.

At any rate, I'm now lurking, mostly for FOSDEM channels, on libera.chat, under my usual nick, as well as on OFTC.

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Twenty years of Debian

Ten years ago, I reflected on the fact that -- by that time -- I had been in Debian for just over ten years. This year, in early February, I've passed the twenty year milestone. As I'm turning 43 this year, I will have been in Debian for half my life in about three years. Scary thought, that.

In the past ten years, not much has changed, and yet at the same time, much has. I became involved in the Debian video team; I stepped down from the m68k port; and my organizing of the Debian devroom at FOSDEM resulted in me eventually joining the FOSDEM orga team, where I eventually ended up also doing video. As part of my video work, I wrote SReview, for which in these COVID-19 times in much of my spare time I have had to write new code and/or fix bugs.

I was a candidate for the position of DPL one more time, without being elected. I was also a candidate for the technical committee a few times, also without success.

I also added a few packages to the list of packages that I maintain for Debian; most obviously this includes SReview, but there's also things like extrepo and policy-rcd-declarative, both fairly recent packages that I hope will improve Debian as a whole in the longer term.

On a more personal level, at one debconf I met a wonderful girl that I now have just celebrated my first wedding anniversary with. Before that could happen, I have had to move to South Africa two years ago. Moving is an involved process at any one time; moving to a different continent altogether is even more so. As it would have been complicated and involved to remain a business owner of a Belgian business while living 9500km away from the country, I sold my shares to my (now ex) business partner; it turned the page of a 15-year chapter of my life, something I could not do without feelings one way or the other.

The things I do in Debian has changed over the past twenty years. I've been the maintainer of the second-highest number of packages in the project when I maintained the Linux Gazette packages; I've been an m68k porter; I've been an AM, and briefly even an NM frontdesk member; I've been a DPL candidate three times, and a TC candidate twice.

At the turn of my first decade of being a Debian Developer, I noted that people started to recognize my name, and that I started to be one of the Debian Developers who had been with the project longer than most. This has, obviously, not changed. New in the "I'm getting old" department is the fact that during the last Debconf, I noticed for the first time that there was a speaker who had been alive for less long than I had been a Debian Developer. I'm assuming these types of things will continue happening in the next decade, and that the future will bring more of these kinds of changes that will make me feel older as I and the project mature more.

I'm looking forward to it. Here's to you, Debian; may you continue to influence my life, in good ways and in bad (but hopefully mostly good), as well as continue to inspire me to improve the world, as you have over the past twenty years!

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Dear Google

... Why do you have to be so effing difficult about a YouTube API project that is used for a single event per year?

FOSDEM creates 600+ videos on a yearly basis. There is no way I am going to manually upload 600+ videos through your webinterface, so we use the API you provide, using a script written by Stefano Rivera. This script grabs video filenames and metadata from a YAML file, and then uses your APIs to upload said videos with said metadata. It works quite well. I run it from cron, and it uploads files until the quota is exhausted, then waits until the next time the cron job runs. It runs so well, that the first time we used it, we could upload 50+ videos on a daily basis, and so the uploads were done as soon as all the videos were created, which was a few months after the event. Cool!

The second time we used the script, it did not work at all. We asked one of our key note speakers who happened to be some hotshot at your company, to help us out. He contacted the YouTube people, and whatever had been broken was quickly fixed, so yay, uploads worked again.

I found out later that this is actually a normal thing if you don't use your API quota for 90 days or more. Because it's happened to us every bloody year.

For the 2020 event, rather than going through back channels (which happened to be unavailable this edition), I tried to use your normal ways of unblocking the API project. This involves creating a screencast of a bloody command line script and describing various things that don't apply to FOSDEM and ghaah shoot me now so meh, I created a new API project instead, and had the uploads go through that. Doing so gives me a limited quota that only allows about 5 or 6 videos per day, but that's fine, it gives people subscribed to our channel the time to actually watch all the videos while they're being uploaded, rather than being presented with a boatload of videos that they can never watch in a day. Also it doesn't overload subscribers, so yay.

About three months ago, I started uploading videos. Since then, every day, the "fosdemtalks" channel on YouTube has published five or six videos.

Given that, imagine my surprise when I found this in my mailbox this morning...

Google lies, claiming that my YouTube API project isn't being used for 90 days and informing me that it will be disabled

This is an outright lie, Google.

The project has been created 90 days ago, yes, that's correct. It has been used every day since then to upload videos.

I guess that means I'll have to deal with your broken automatic content filters to try and get stuff unblocked...

... or I could just give up and not do this anymore. After all, all the FOSDEM content is available on our public video host, too.

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On Statements, Facts, Hypotheses, Science, Religion, and Opinions

The other day, we went to a designer's fashion shop whose owner was rather adamant that he was never ever going to wear a face mask, and that he didn't believe the COVID-19 thing was real. When I argued for the opposing position, he pretty much dismissed what I said out of hand, claiming that "the hospitals are empty dude" and "it's all a lie". When I told him that this really isn't true, he went like "well, that's just your opinion". Well, no -- certain things are facts, not opinions. Even if you don't believe that this disease kills people, the idea that this is a matter of opinion is missing the ball by so much that I was pretty much stunned by the level of ignorance.

His whole demeanor pissed me off rather quickly. While I disagree with the position that it should be your decision whether or not to wear a mask, it's certainly possible to have that opinion. However, whether or not people need to go to hospitals is not an opinion -- it's something else entirely.

After calming down, the encounter got me thinking, and made me focus on something I'd been thinking about before but hadn't fully forumlated: the fact that some people in this world seem to misunderstand the nature of what it is to do science, and end up, under the claim of being "sceptical", with various nonsense things -- see scientology, flat earth societies, conspiracy theories, and whathaveyou.

So, here's something that might (but probably won't) help some people figuring out stuff. Even if it doesn't, it's been bothering me and I want to write it down so it won't bother me again. If you know all this stuff, it might be boring and you might want to skip this post. Otherwise, take a deep breath and read on...

Statements are things people say. They can be true or false; "the sun is blue" is an example of a statement that is trivially false. "The sun produces light" is another one that is trivially true. "The sun produces light through a process that includes hydrogen fusion" is another statement, one that is a bit more difficult to prove true or false. Another example is "Wouter Verhelst does not have a favourite color". That happens to be a true statement, but it's fairly difficult for anyone that isn't me (or any one of the other Wouters Verhelst out there) to validate as true.

While statements can be true or false, combining statements without more context is not always possible. As an example, the statement "Wouter Verhelst is a Debian Developer" is a true statement, as is the statement "Wouter Verhelst is a professional Volleybal player"; but the statement "Wouter Verhelst is a professional Volleybal player and a Debian Developer" is not, because while I am a Debian Developer, I am not a professional Volleybal player -- I just happen to share a name with someone who is.

A statement is never a fact, but it can describe a fact. When a statement is a true statement, either because we trivially know what it states to be true or because we have performed an experiment that proved beyond any possible doubt that the statement is true, then what the statement describes is a fact. For example, "Red is a color" is a statement that describes a fact (because, yes, red is definitely a color, that is a fact). Such statements are called statements of fact. There are other possible statements. "Grass is purple" is a statement, but it is not a statement of fact; because as everyone knows, grass is (usually) green.

A statement can also describe an opinion. "The Porsche 911 is a nice car" is a statement of opinion. It is one I happen to agree with, but it is certainly valid for someone else to make a statement that conflicts with this position, and there is nothing wrong with that. As the saying goes, "opinions are like assholes: everyone has one". Statements describing opinions are known as statements of opinion.

The differentiating factor between facts and opinions is that facts are universally true, whereas opinions only hold for the people who state the opinion and anyone who agrees with them. Sometimes it's difficult or even impossible to determine whether a statement is true or not. The statement "The numbers that win the South African Powerball lottery on the 31st of July 2020 are 2, 3, 5, 19, 35, and powerball 14" is not a statement of fact, because at the time of writing, the 31st of July 2020 is in the future, which at this point gives it a 1 in 24,435,180 chance to be true). However, that does not make it a statement of opinion; it is not my opinion that the above numbers will win the South African powerball; instead, it is my guess that those numbers will be correct. Another word for "guess" is hypothesis: a hypothesis is a statement that may be universally true or universally false, but for which the truth -- or its lack thereof -- cannot currently be proven beyond doubt. On Saturday, August 1st, 2020 the above statement about the South African Powerball may become a statement of fact; most likely however, it will instead become a false statement.

An unproven hypothesis may be expressed as a matter of belief. The statement "There is a God who rules the heavens and the Earth" cannot currently (or ever) be proven beyond doubt to be either true or false, which by definition makes it a hypothesis; however, for matters of religion this is entirely unimportant, as for believers the belief that the statement is correct is all that matters, whereas for nonbelievers the truth of that statement is not at all relevant. A belief is not an opinion; an opinion is not a belief.

Scientists do not deal with unproven hypotheses, except insofar that they attempt to prove, through direct observation of nature (either out in the field or in a controlled laboratory setting) that the hypothesis is, in fact, a statement of fact. This makes unprovable hypotheses unscientific -- but that does not mean that they are false, or even that they are uninteresting statements. Unscientific statements are merely statements that science cannot either prove or disprove, and that therefore lie outside of the realm of what science deals with.

Given that background, I have always found the so-called "conflict" between science and religion to be a non-sequitur. Religion deals in one type of statements; science deals in another. The do not overlap, since a statement can either be proven or it cannot, and religious statements by their very nature focus on unprovable belief rather than universal truth. Sure, the range of things that science has figured out the facts about has grown over time, which implies that religious statements have sometimes been proven false; but is it heresy to say that "animals exist that can run 120 kph" if that is the truth, even if such animals don't exist in, say, Rome?

Something very similar can be said about conspiracy theories. Yes, it is possible to hypothesize that NASA did not send men to the moon, and that all the proof contrary to that statement was somehow fabricated. However, by its very nature such a hypothesis cannot be proven or disproven (because the statement states that all proof was fabricated), which therefore implies that it is an unscientific statement.

It is good to be sceptical about what is being said to you. People can have various ideas about how the world works, but only one of those ideas -- one of the possible hypotheses -- can be true. As long as a hypothesis remains unproven, scientists love to be sceptical themselves. In fact, if you can somehow prove beyond doubt that a scientific hypothesis is false, scientists will love you -- it means they now know something more about the world and that they'll have to come up with something else, which is a lot of fun.

When a scientific experiment or observation proves that a certain hypothesis is true, then this probably turns the hypothesis into a statement of fact. That is, it is of course possible that there's a flaw in the proof, or that the experiment failed (but that the failure was somehow missed), or that no observance of a particular event happened when a scientist tried to observe something, but that this was only because the scientist missed it. If you can show that any of those possibilities hold for a scientific proof, then you'll have turned a statement of fact back into a hypothesis, or even (depending on the exact nature of the flaw) into a false statement.

There's more. It's human nature to want to be rich and famous, sometimes no matter what the cost. As such, there have been scientists who have falsified experimental results, or who have claimed to have observed something when this was not the case. For that reason, a scientific paper that gets written after an experiment turned a hypothesis into fact describes not only the results of the experiment and the observed behavior, but also the methodology: the way in which the experiment was run, with enough details so that anyone can retry the experiment.

Sometimes that may mean spending a large amount of money just to be able to run the experiment (most people don't have an LHC in their backyard, say), and in some cases some of the required materials won't be available (the latter is expecially true for, e.g., certain chemical experiments that involve highly explosive things); but the information is always there, and if you spend enough time and money reading through the available papers, you will be able to independently prove the hypothesis yourself. Scientists tend to do just that; when the results of a new experiment are published, they will try to rerun the experiment, partially because they want to see things with their own eyes; but partially also because if they can find fault in the experiment or the observed behavior, they'll have reason to write a paper of their own, which will make them a bit more rich and famous.

I guess you could say that there's three types of people who deal with statements: scientists, who deal with provable hypotheses and statements of fact (but who have no use for unprovable hypotheses and statements of opinion); religious people and conspiracy theorists, who deal with unprovable hypotheses (where the religious people deal with these to serve a large cause, while conspiracy theorists only care about the unprovable hypotheses); and politicians, who should care about proven statements of fact and produce statements of opinion, but who usually attempt the reverse of those two these days :-/

Anyway...

mic drop

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SReview 0.6

... isn't ready yet, but it's getting there.

I had planned to release a new version of SReview, my online video review and transcoding system that I wrote originally for FOSDEM but is being used for DebConf, too, after it was set up and running properly for FOSDEM 2020. However, things got a bit busy (both in my personal life and in the world at large), so it fell a bit by the wayside.

I've now also been working on things a bit more, in preparation for an improved administrator's interface, and have started implementing a REST API to deal with talks etc through HTTP calls. This seems to be coming along nicely, thanks to OpenAPI and the Mojolicious plugin for parsing that. I can now design the API nicely, and autogenerate client side libraries to call them.

While at it, because libmojolicious-plugin-openapi-perl isn't available in Debian 10 "buster", I moved the docker containers over from stable to testing. This revealed that both bs1770gain and inkscape changed their command line incompatibly, resulting in me having to work around those incompatibilities. The good news is that I managed to do so in a way that keeps running SReview on Debian 10 viable, provided one installs Mojolicious::Plugin::OpenAPI from CPAN rather than from a Debian package. Or installs a backport of that package, of course. Or, heck, uses the Docker containers in a kubernetes environment or some such -- I'd love to see someone use that in production.

Anyway, I'm still finishing the API, and the implementation of that API and the test suite that ensures the API works correctly, but progress is happening; and as soon as things seem to be working properly, I'll do a release of SReview 0.6, and will upload that to Debian.

Hopefully that'll be soon.

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Software available through Extrepo

Just over 7 months ago, I blogged about extrepo, my answer to the "how do you safely install software on Debian without downloading random scripts off the Internet and running them as root" question. I also held a talk during the recent "MiniDebConf Online" that was held, well, online.

The most important part of extrepo is "what can you install through it". If the number of available repositories is too low, there's really no reason to use it. So, I thought, let's look what we have after 7 months...

To cut to the chase, there's a bunch of interesting content there, although not all of it has a "main" policy. Each of these can be enabled by installing extrepo, and then running extrepo enable <reponame>, where <reponame> is the name of the repository.

Note that the list is not exhaustive, but I intend to show that even though we're nowhere near complete, extrepo is already quite useful in its current state:

Free software

  • The debian_official, debian_backports, and debian_experimental repositories contain Debian's official, backports, and experimental repositories, respectively. These shouldn't have to be managed through extrepo, but then again it might be useful for someone, so I decided to just add them anyway. The config here uses the deb.debian.org alias for CDN-backed package mirrors.
  • The belgium_eid repository contains the Belgian eID software. Obviously this is added, since I'm upstream for eID, and as such it was a large motivating factor for me to actually write extrepo in the first place.
  • elastic: the elasticsearch software.
  • Some repositories, such as dovecot, winehq and bareos contain upstream versions of their respective software. These two repositories contain software that is available in Debian, too; but their upstreams package their most recent release independently, and some people might prefer to run those instead.
  • The sury, fai, and postgresql repositories, as well as a number of repositories such as openstack_rocky, openstack_train, haproxy-1.5 and haproxy-2.0 (there are more) contain more recent versions of software packaged in Debian already by the same maintainer of that package repository. For the sury repository, that is PHP; for the others, the name should give it away.

    The difference between these repositories and the ones above is that it is the official Debian maintainer for the same software who maintains the repository, which is not the case for the others.

  • The vscodium repository contains the unencumbered version of Microsoft's Visual Studio Code; i.e., the codium version of Visual Studio Code is to code as the chromium browser is to chrome: it is a build of the same softare, but without the non-free bits that make code not entirely Free Software.
  • While Debian ships with at least two browsers (Firefox and Chromium), additional browsers are available through extrepo, too. The iridiumbrowser repository contains a Chromium-based browser that focuses on privacy.
  • Speaking of privacy, perhaps you might want to try out the torproject repository.
  • For those who want to do Cloud Computing on Debian in ways that isn't covered by Openstack, there is a kubernetes repository that contains the Kubernetes stack, the as well as the google_cloud one containing the Google Cloud SDK.

Non-free software

While these are available to be installed through extrepo, please note that non-free and contrib repositories are disabled by default. In order to enable these repositories, you must first enable them; this can be accomplished through /etc/extrepo/config.yaml.

  • In case you don't care about freedom and want the official build of Visual Studio Code, the vscode repository contains it.
  • While we're on the subject of Microsoft, there's also Microsoft Teams available in the msteams repository. And, hey, skype.
  • For those who are not satisfied with the free browsers in Debian or any of the free repositories, there's opera and google_chrome.
  • The docker-ce repository contains the official build of Docker CE. While this is the free "community edition" that should have free licenses, I could not find a licensing statement anywhere, and therefore I'm not 100% sure whether this repository is actually free software. For that reason, it is currently marked as a non-free one. Merge Requests for rectifying that from someone with more information on the actual licensing situation of Docker CE would be welcome...
  • For gamers, there's Valve's steam repository.

Again, the above lists are not meant to be exhaustive.

Special thanks go out to Russ Allbery, Kim Alvefur, Vincent Bernat, Nick Black, Arnaud Ferraris, Thorsten Glaser, Thomas Goirand, Juri Grabowski, Paolo Greppi, and Josh Triplett, for helping me build the current list of repositories.

Is your favourite repository not listed? Create a configuration based on template.yaml, and file a merge request!

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Extrepo GitLab update

Earlier this month, GitLab B.V.'s package signing key expired, requiring them to rotate their key. This means that anyone who uses one of their packages needs to jump through a number of manual hoops to update their apt key configuration, which is an annoying manual process that also requires people to download random files from the Internet -- something extrepo was written to prevent. At least they're served over https, but still.

I didn't notice until today, but I just updated the extrepo metadata to carry the new key. That means that if you enable one of the GitLab repositories through extrepo enable, you will get the new key rather than the old one. On top of that, if you had already enabled the repository through extrepo, all that is needed for you right now to pull in the new key is to run extrepo update.

While I do apologise for the late update, hopefully this should make some people's lives a bit easier.

And if GitLab B.V. reads this: please send me a MR to the repository next time, so that we can make process be done in time ;-)

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Married!

If you read this post through Planet Debian, then you may already know this through "Johnathan"'s post on the subject: on the 29th of February this year, Tammy and I got married. Yes. Really. No, I didn't expect this to happen myself about five years ago, but here we are.

Tammy and I met four years ago at DebConf16 in Cape Town, South Africa, where she was a local organizer. If you were at dc16, you may remember the beautifully designed conference stationery, T-shirts, and bag; this was all her work. In addition, the opening and closing credits on the videos of that conference were designed by her.

As it happens, that's how we met. I've been a member of the Debconf video team since about 2010, when I first volunteered to handle a few cameras. In 2015, since someone had to do it, I installed Carl's veyepar on Debian's on-site servers, configured, and ran it. I've been in charge of the postprocssing infrastructure -- first using veyepar, later using my own SReview -- ever since. So when I went to the Debconf organizers in 2016 to ask for preroll and postroll templates for the videos, they pointed me to Tammy; and we haven't quite stopped talking since.

I can speak from experience now when saying that a long-distance relationship is difficult. My previous place of residence, Mechelen, is about 9600km away from Cape Town, and so just seeing Tammy required about a half month's worth of pay -- not something I always have to spare. But after a number of back-and-forth visits and a lot of paperwork, I have now been living in Cape Town for just over a year. Obviously, this has simplified things a lot.

The only thing left for me to do now is to train my brain to stop thinking there's something stuck on my left ring finger. It's really meant to be there, after all...

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