Archive for the ‘Computing’ Category

Opera, the Absolute Final Farewell and This Time I Mean It

January 24, 2020

I have been a fan of the Opera browser since you had to pay $30 to run it on the PC. Looking back, that had to be almost as soon as it was publicly available, in 1996 — over twenty years ago. Then, five years ago, things turned pear-shaped. It went from being cutting edge (inventor of multi-tab browsing, speed dial) to derivative (rebadged Chrome) to Linux unfriendly (no updates in two years) to Chinese-owned (with links to China’s Intelligence Service). I haven’t used it for a couple of years.

Now, it’s sunk even lower, opening a predatory payday loan operation in some of the poorer countries of Africa, and dropping 80% of its value in two years.

I might do one more essay, when it files for Chapter 7.

Upgrading my wife’s computer

March 8, 2019

We are not a cutting-edge family. Yes, we have more computers-per-room than most, and yes, we install patches as they arrive, but we don’t buy new ones very often, and we tend to hang on to one version of an OS until forced to upgrade. For example, we bought a new System76 Sable all-in-one for my wife four years ago, and we ran Ubuntu 14.04 on it until last weekend. And thereby hangs a tale.

It was getting to the point that the PC was acting funny, and it was having trouble talking to the printer — all the pages came out blue, so maybe it was sad — and I decided to bite the bullet and install an upgrade while she was away on a four day AKC judging trip.

So first, I backed stuff up, just to be sure. I backed up the /home directory, and then I backed up the /usr directory. This took all day. Why? Not sure. My LAN would start out transferring data at 12MB/s, then slowly slow to a slow 300KB/s. I thought it might be fighting with the TV or one of the other PC’s for packets, but unplugging stuff didn’t help. I finally got everything transferred to our NAS drive and decided I’d look into the speed problem later.

The next day, just for suspenders and belt safety, I followed the instructions for backing up Firefox, Thunderbird, and Opera (yes, she still uses Opera). Time to upgrade!

Not so fast, Babbage. The original install is old enough that the Software Updater doesn’t show an <Upgrade> button any more. It just gives a message box saying that updates for 14.04 ended two years ago. I tried various paths (System Settings, Toolbar/Software, …) but they all ended with the same less than helpful message. It did have an <OK> button, but didn’t have one that said <Not OK>. To the Interwebs!

It seems I have to go to Software & Updates and change my Updates settings to have it check and install new updates immediately. Didn’t work. Also, while fiddling around with it, I managed to put 18.04 on the Ignore list. To the Terminal!

When all else fails, you can always type the commands directly into a terminal window. The trick is to find out what to type. A half hour or so of wandering through the various forums gave a command that looked like it might be what I wanted. Sure enough, it opened up the repository and downloaded the update. Another half hour of watching the terminal scroll all the thousands of files that are part of Linux, it was done. I rebooted, and found I had myself a new, clean, fully updated Ubuntu 14.04. WTFO?

OK. Stay calm. Steady, the Buffs. Let’s try the Software Updater again.

As my brother would say, Yreka! It has an <Upgrade> button! I click, and away it goes. Another half hour of watching install messages scroll up faster than I can read, a simple reboot (typing in her password for the 800th time), and now it’s really done.

As an added bonus, nothing got overwrit. I don’t have to backfill on her various browser accounts. All her other software seems to be in place as well, although the Mahjong game she plays seems to have different rules and interface.

One noticeable difference between hers and mine is that her version of 18.04 is running Ubuntu/Gnome 3 while my three year old Wild Dog with Ubuntu 18.04 on it still has Unity. I presume that has something to do with the update cycle, and I must say I think that Unity works more like I think.

All’s well that ends well. Now I just have to think of a way to get myself a new PC.


Memories of my Youth: Happy trails to you

September 18, 2018

Signal vs Noise has an interesting essay on software that gently, or not so gently, nudges you in the direction the developers want you to go. Like uploading all your contact data to Facebook.

I used to use a similar tactic in the warning messages I wrote for a database application I developed.

If you press OK, I will THROW AWAY all this data, which could hinder your research and limit your chances of getting into grad school. Are you sure you want to do this?   ok  CANCEL

The limits of algorithms

July 19, 2018

Every now and then, my Twitter feed throws up a warning about the content of an incoming tweet. It looks something like this:

[This media may contain sensitive material. Your media settings are configured to warn you when media may be sensitive.]

The trouble is, these warnings are based on some sort of image processing algorithm, what you might call a primitive AI. Very primitive. Here’s a screenshot* of what triggered my latest warning:

Only sensitive if you are a vegetarian

The algorithm also lets through some pretty NSFW images, but I won’t show you those. Get your own tweet stream.

*Today is the “Day of the Ox” in Japan, and the poster is saying that they are going to eat beef today. Actually, you are supposed to eat eels.

Firefox Fail 3

November 18, 2017

Further findings. Here is the earlier stuff.

I am creeping up on the openings limit, and it looks like the new ReloadEvery addon has …. infelicities.

Key question for my cyber lifestyle, How many tabs can I have in the process of opening at one time? We’ve seen that 23 is too many.

This morning I did 4, 5, 6, and 7.  Prior tabs, or linked pages, from earlier opens were still open when I did the next one, except for the last. Everything went well until I hit seven tabs (all comics, Doonesbury, BC and the like). Doonesbury opened, then blanked when the next one in line did, then nothing worked. Reloading didn’t work. I tried opening a new tab from [New Tab], and it crashed and gave me a crash report. Then I could reload Doonesbury. Conclusion: 6 is max for comics, which means I have to limit my intake. Sorry, Devil’s Panties, you are consigned to the single tab directory. Now, the other tab-sets were all news and such, so comic feeds might be handled differently.

The new ReloadEvery addon (recommended replacement by FF), looked like it was going to work well. But it seems to have a problem when reloading if the server wants to reauthenticate or something. Not a problem with manual reloads, nor with the auto reload of the past, but I got a 404 on Twitter, and a blank tab on McClatchy when I went to a 15min reload. Manually setting the reload time to 10 minutes has worked. So far. The trick seems to be to get your reload time inside the reset cycle for the server. Ten minutes is pretty much the lower limit on what I’m willing to accept on Twitter. Otherwise, it just keeps scrolling, and if I wanted a scrolling feed I’d go to a different website. Most other pages I don’t reload, or I manually reload. OK, maybe a election night stream, or the webcams in Spokane when the weather is bad on a school night. The downside is, I have to set the 10min by hand, and I have to keep checking back to see that it took and is holding. Just more of my production time soaked up hand-holding the browser.

So, the much vaunted FF57 performance increase only seems to work if you don’t use it too much. Earlier versions of FF were pretty snappy if you only opened five tabs simultaneously.

Firefox Fail 2

November 17, 2017

Quick follow-up on yesterday’s essay on Firefox 57.0.  The good news is, I found a couple of workarounds. The bad news is, the important workaround didn’t work. And I remain convinced that the marketing department pushed for a linear model across platforms.

Firefox 57 seems to work best when feeding single tabs, and keeping a list of the most recent ones, so you can pop back to them at will. This is the sort of behavior you would likely value on a phone or a phablet, or even a tablet — anything with limited screen real-estate. What they gave up was the ability to open a lot of tabs at once, and then knock them down like ducks in an arcade. Instead, you plod through your bookmarks, one at a time. Assuming you hit the same pages each day, the most recent approach might be useful. I work with lots of tabs across dual screens (and Chromium in the background, for special tasks), and it doesn’t do much for me.

Herewith, the other results.

The big thing for me was multi-tab Speed Dial pages. There’s a Speed Dial replacement in the Addons, and it works great as a Speed Dial, but it broke other stuff. Case in point: once I had implemented it, it always opened up when I clicked on the New Tab [+], and once it was open I couldn’t copy/paste an address into the URL bar. It wasn’t  on the Speed Dial, so Speed Dial wouldn’t process it. I guess (I didn’t try) I could have pasted into an already open page and see what happened then. Another example of Mozilla building for a narrow linear approach to browsing. Minor issue: the tab for the Speed Dial was always labelled Speed Dial, not Speed Dial Start or maybe just Classes or any of the others. I had to click on it to see what it was.

Dropping back to stock 57.0 dropped me back to a single New Tab with 12 panes for favorite, well, recently-used-unless-pinned, pages. And there’s no way to edit it. Your choice is to pin or not pin or delete. And if you delete, FF fills in with the next page in line (AKA next most recently used). So all you can do is keep deleting and hope that something will turn up. I’m sure I can bump up that 12, if I look around, but 50 is probably too many. As an aside, I’m still irritated because I’d just finished building a new Speed Dial with all my medical, insurance, and chemotherapy links. All gone (OK, if I remember the name in the URL I can start typing and maybe get it back).

I found Customize, that will let me put icons on the toolbar and move others around. So now I have Reload back where my hand wants it to be, and I have the Bookmarks pulldown icon to lead me straight there and a book-shaped icon to let me view history and saved bookmarks. Well, the bookmarks it shows are the most visited, AKA recently visited (as in, it lists a 404 screen that I don’t remember hitting more than once).

I tried again this morning to see if there was any improvement in FF performance on many-multiple tabs on a clean restart, and the the answer was Not only no, but not-even. Not only did a multi-tab load (23) die, it brought down any other tabs that were open and loaded. Making breakfast, coffee, and a quick weigh-in on the Wii, didn’t resolve it. All I got was flashing black or white pages. Stuff was there — I could see the link on mouse-over, but it was behind a curtain. I suspect it has something to do with how FF loads the rented banner ads — even when there’s only one tab open, the page will flash, in a messing with your graphics card sort of way, when it’s loading, or reloading WordPress after a [Save Draft], or following a link.

And once I had crashed it with many-multiples, it did the same thing with any new loads, so the whole session was borked and I had to restart. As a follow-up, after some tedious experimentation (thanks, Mozilla), it looks like the maximum number of tabs that can be opening simultaneously is 5-6. So all I had to do is break my morning reading into 5×5 bookmark subdirectories (News, Comix, Concentrators…) and open them one batch at a time.

For the FF57 supporters who say the tradeoffs were to get better performance. Well, I never needed blinding fast screen loads. With that many tabs open, I expected slowdowns. I do see much increased speeds and smaller memory footprints, so far. Back in the day (October) is wasn’t unusual to see FF soaking up 2GB of RAM and having to restart the browser. Of course, a click on the [Startup] Speed Dial tab and I would be back in business.

A quick check gives me the impression that the memory usage problem has been solved. FF57 started out using about 340MB with six tabs open. Running a CNN newsfeed (YouTube) or a Smithsonian video article (Facebook) bumped that up to 370MB, which dropped back down to 340MB, when closed, then climbed up to 400MB while I am editing this, not sure what the driver is, maybe the revision pool. Still, even Thunderbird is taking up more memory now. Is the tradeoff worth it? We’ll see. I have lost a lot of functionality, and I am still irritated that they didn’t ask, but I think I can learn some procedural workarounds that will give me 75% of what I want, at only a 50% increase in time spent. Yay.

So, as far as I can see, there are no good browsers left. I don’t like the way Chrome does things, and the way it really wants to be Google-centric. It’s on my tablets (except for the even-worse Amazon browser), but that’s as far as I go. Chromium is a somewhat better version, but I still find it clunky. Opera is a rebadged Chrome, with Chinese Intelligence links; Safari is a different God on a different mountaintop, and you use IE or Edge at a threat to your immortal soul.

And they wonder why us old folks keep saying the world is going to Hell.

Firefox Fail

November 16, 2017

So, I come downstairs, it’s 5AM, and I want to do my morning quick surf and maybe fill out a few Found On Webs before getting a start on the day. Firefox needs a restart.

Now, I tend to leave FF open all the time, with one or two tabs on the left hand screen (FoW and other stuff), and six tabs on the RH (gmail, calendar, etc). Usually, a restart will bring them all back. If not, I have a six speed dial tabs, one of which is [Startup], and has all of them in one place. A quick right-click/OpenAll and I’m back in business.

I click for restart. FF goes away. …  …  …  Nothing. No problem. I click on the new icon (looks more like a goldfish) and I get an error. Can’t find a file. I click on the New Tab symbol. Can’t find website. I look at the new, modern toolbar. No bookmarks symbol (there’s one to bookmark a page), no speed dial symbol. There’s only the old + New Tab symbol, and when I click on that I get what looks like a speed dial page but is really a list of things it thinks I should be interested in. Where’s my speed dials? How do I find my bookmarks? Well, at least the Library’s still there.

Hello, Library? OK, it’s that stack of books in the RH corner. Click on it. Menu with a bunch of stuff I’m not interested in (recent websites), but it does say bookmarks. Click on it.  Umm, same-o stuff. Even longer list of websites I have visited but am not interested in right now. Just like the New Tab page. Ah! Down at the bottom of the Bookmarks menu is a Show All Bookmarks, AKA the old Library.

Before I go further, let’s see what I can find out on the Mozilla site. Hmmm. People seem upset. The Speed Dial feature seems to have disappeared. You can get it back, it says here, by doing the FF equivalent of editing the Registry. Two quick Booleans and we’re good. Ummm….no. The edit was easy. The result, unimpressive.

Let me tell you about me and Speed Dial. I fell in love with the idea when Opera invented it a decade or so ago. On FF, I have roughly six Speed Dial tabs — General, School, Systems Administration, Anime, Startup, Japanese. I use them the way some people use bookmark tags. SysAdmin, for example, has my modem access, and ISP web pages, NAS link, etc. Startup has the ten pages I want to have open whenever I sit down at FF. Overall, I have roughly fifty pages that I can get to that way. Not any more.

The new RegEdit SpeedDial has only one tab, and it seems to have been filled in by a random selection from, you guessed it, pages I’ve looked at recently. Mozilla seems to have lost my fifty pages for me.

I have the Library open to the bookmarks screen. It took me three clicks to get there. It represents a third window that FF has open — two screens and the library. I obviously am going to have to reorganize things so that my bookmarks directory looks more like my old speed dial.

So, is there an alternative? Doesn’t seem so. The Pocket feature seems to be a way of organizing pages that I’ve, well, looked at recently, such that I can get to them on my cell phone. Type the web page name into the URL bar? That’s the Mozilla recommendation, but it won’t open multiple tabs for me.

The second problem is, this new versiion didn’t even improve what functionality is there. I will admit that I stress FF pretty heavily. I have a bookmark folder titled MorningPapers, that has 23 pages in it, and I’ll start out by right-clicking and telling it to open all in tabs. It complains, but it does it. No longer.

When I open up all my morning papers, FF just gives me blank screens. Maybe white, maybe black. If I roll my mouse around I can see links, so the page has loaded, but FF hasn’t seen fit to display them. Probably issues with how they are handling inserted ads.

What it looks like is Mozilla has opted to support people with a very linear lifestyle. They want a few pages, they want to look at them one at a time, and they want them available everywhere. If the world had started out on cell-phones, all browsers might look like this. To my mind, this is a step backwards. It’s like the browsers of the 90’s, only with synch.

My main complaint is that Mozilla didn’t seem to ask anyone about this. Someone down in their design spaces, or maybe marketing, decided it would be a good idea to go after the trendy young executives and their phablets, and that’s what they did.

I’m not going to ragequit Firefox. Not yet anyway. There’s really not much else. Chrome? Chromium? That’s about it, and then we’re down to Mosaic. I’ll work on this for a while, seeing if I can get used to the new idiosyncrasies (like, which window gets the new tab when I hit a bookmark in the library, how many tabs can I open at once without it hanging, etc), and then we’ll see.

Meanwhile, if someone wants to fork Firefox into Tanuki 1.0, I’ll give you a look.

Penalty for forgetting your password: Part 4 and final (we hope)

August 20, 2016

The final transition went smoothly. Sortof.

The original SSD turned out to be well secured, by a set of screws and a plastic strap on the bottom of the case. It was the PRO model, while the spare that’s replacing it is the EVO model (Samsung 256GB 850PRO vs 850EVO). The main difference being that the PRO will have a longer service life. However, I expect both of them to be obsolete before ever I get close to their fail dates.

The SSD is on the floor

The SSD is bolted to the floor of the case

It was but the work of an hour for me to unscrew the four screws, ungrommet the rubber grommets, and replace the old SSD with the new one and regrommet and rescrew everything. OK, so not all the screws went back through the grommets, and I had to tape one in place. But it’s back together, and it works.

Unfortunately, the original SSD detected that it had been moved to a new PC or something, and demanded a password, which I don’t of course have. I can’t think of anything that I haven’t backed up onto the NAS or already imported (Firefox even kept my four speed dial tabs, with all the dials), so when I get a spare moment I’ll load something new on the PRO, maybe Mint Linux.

Penalty for forgetting your password: Part 3

August 17, 2016

Almost done.

Turns out, the file transfer process was the easiest part. Copied the contents of my home directory to the NAS, thence to the new SSD. Dug down into the .mozilla and .thunderbird directories and copied the .default folders to the NAS. Then copied the .default contents to the .default folders on the new SSD.

That’s it. All my in-the-cloud stuff now available. gMail and Amazon know who I am. Some housekeeping left. Mostly setting up the speed dial on Firefox. Some new installs, like DropBox.

Later today I’ll swap the SSD’s.

Penalty for forgetting your password: Part 2

August 16, 2016

Nothing is ever easy.

So, right after finishing the first article in this unintentionally long-running saga, I dashed into the sun room, where MJ keeps her plants and I keep my other spare computer stuff, grabbed up the box with the 256GB SSD in it, and …. say, that feels a little light. Oh, empty. I wonder where the drive is?

It’s not like the old days, where you could spot a 256MB hard drive sticking up out of a stack of old boots. These new guys are small enough to slide into your shirt pocket and still leave room for a smartphone, key-holder, and sunglasses (as long as they’re not Oakley Gaskans). It could be anywhere.

[some hours later] Oh, right, it’s in my other spare computer. I remember now, I put Mint 16 on it last spring, as a test. My main spare computer has two HDDs in it, so I unplug one and plug in the 256. Have to be careful, ’cause it’s just hanging from the cords, and has a tendency to rattle against the fans.

Let’s try something new. Download Mint 18. Install (Linux installs are so easy, just make sure to tell it to install on the 256SSD and not the 750HDD). Umm can’t install bootloader. Check online. Others have had this problem. Download Boot Repair. Runs fine, dumps a lot of error messages, throws up in it’s mouth, gives me a link to an error log, says to be sure to install the bootloader by hand on sda 750GB. [I’m compressing about six hours of reinstalls here, including a switch to Ubuntu].

750GB? A quick trip inside the PC and I return with a handful of cables rip’d untimely from that mother’s slots. Now the only drive is the SSD.

Power cycle. Re-install. Linux installs are so easy. Fifteen minutes and we’re up and running.

Next step, the dreaded file transfer process.

Opera, the Final Farewell

July 18, 2016

So the company wasn’t worth what they thought it was. In fact, it’s only worth half of the original asking price. Nonetheless, a Chinese consortium now owns the browser and the name. I’ll be surprised if anybody outside China continues using it.

It was a fun couple of decades there. I’ll miss you.

Fun with RSS

June 14, 2016

As I said in an earlier post, I recently dropped the Opera browser after almost 20 years of having it as my primary. Now, I am using Firefox for my browser, with Thunderbird as my RSS feed reader.

When first installed, every time I clicked an RSS link in Thunderbird, it would open a tab in Firefox, and then jump to that tab. If I wanted to continue my screening I had to <Alt-Tab> back to Thunderbird. Every. Time. It was tiresome, but acceptable.

About a week ago, something happened. Not sure what (there was a solar eclipse, but that was back in March; maybe it was the Gotthard tunnel). I certainly hadn’t touched the settings for either Thunderbird or Firefox. Suddenly, whenever I clicked on a link, a tab in Firefox would open up, but I would stay on Thunderbird! Interesting. At first I was irritated, because I didn’t know if the click had taken or not. After a while, I learned to trust the click, Luke, and my screening sped up (I’m following over 100 RSS feeds).

A day or so ago, equally unheralded, the behavior switched back. When I clicked on a link in Thunderbird, it would once again open a tab in Firefox and immediately jump there. It was like running into an old flame. I was once interested, but I’d moved on. What to do? To the Googlemachine!

Mozilla Help wasn’t much help, at first. Pretty much all their articles were superbasic (left click to open a set of menu choices...) or superunbasic (this has been noted as a bug in build 120.386.297.4323, a simple code edit and recompile will solve the problem until the next dot release…). It wasn’t until I’d actually typed in the text of my question, instead of just key words, that it gave me anything useful.

The behavior is the browser’s fault. To fix it in Firefox you have to edit the config file using About:config. I don’t want to release any spoilers, so your best bet is to read the original article, which includes hints for Chrome as well. Sorry IE users — you are SOL, but you knew that anyway.


June 13, 2016

Professional networking site LinkedIn has just been bought out by Microsoft. The deal was for $26.2billion.

If you’ve read this blog very long or very often, you know I am a long-term skeptic of Microsoft, in a from Hell’s depth I stab at thee sort of way. They are monopolists and bullies, and they are technologically not all that great and have had to borrow from Open Source. Their criminal acts killed competing browsers and operating systems, and their funding of bogus lawsuits attempted to kill the Open Source world itself — and they laughed about it and patted themselves on the back. Under new leadership, their Windows X malware update campaign shows they have not changed at all.

I don’t know what their plans are for LinkedIn, but whatever they are, they are not good for the tech community. There’s not much I can do about it, but what I can do is drop my LinkedIn account, which I did this morning.

At last report, LinkedIn had 433 million members, although there’s no indication of how many are active. Now, $26.2billion / 433million = $60 per member, roughly. So I can’t say I did them much damage, but I did my best, and I hope they like their new $26,199,999,940.00 purchase.

UPDATE: I find that LinkedIn has 106 million active members, which are worth about $250 each. So my dropping out has done four times the damage I thought it would. Well done, FoW, well done.

I wish I had a daughter, so I could forbid her to marry him.”

Changing up is hard to do

March 25, 2016

Switching to a new computer is always a chore. There’s mail and files and passwords and bookmarks and so forth, to bring over. If one is moving to a new OS, there’s new idiosyncrasies to find and work around, and old idiosyncrasies to bemoan the loss of. Fortunately, modern times have made things easier than in the past.

I’m moving from a six-year-old System76 Wildebeest to a System76 Wild Dog. Faster chip, more cores, bigger RAM, SSD drive for the OS. If you remember from my Kicking and Screaming series, I ended up dumping Ubuntu for SUSE Linux about two years ago. With this new purchase I’m back to the Big U, Ubuntu Linux, UL. Not totally happily (I still miss my slideshow screen saver), but there.

The changeover has taken most of Spring Break, but that’s ’cause I’m lazy, and don’t like late night debugging sessions any more.

FILES: Easy. Copy from the old to my NAS, then from the NAS to the new. Interesting hiccup — not all the directories brought their contents with them. No great problem. If I find one that is empty, that I want to not be empty, I go back to the ‘beest and recopy that one directory. As long as I keep the old machine stuck in a corner but attached to the network, I should be OK. Right now it’s sitting in the closet, plugged into the plugs that the box with the OS-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named was using. Don’t worry, I disinfected them first.

It does make me wonder how many of my backups are real and how many are empty folders with a note that says “IOU 10MB”.

eMAIL: Easier. All my stuff is in the cloud these days. My ISP automatically forwards to gMail, and most of my other mail is gMail.

BROWSERS: I already said how I’ve dropped Opera. I make up for the lack by opening a second Firefox window in the L/H monitor. Once I get my old motor responses under control it should work fine. UL doesn’t offer Chrome as a download, but it does offer Chromium, so po-tay-to / po-tah-to. Haven’t felt the need to try Vivaldi yet.

BOOKMARKS: A work in progress. Both FF and Opera let you export them as .html files, so I did that, and imported them into the new FF. Now, my only problem is that I have a thousand or so bookmarks what need organizing. That and the fact that the way FF organizes bookmarks is to me counter-intuitive.

RSS FEEDS: I really liked Opera’s RSS feature, part of Opera Mail (which I didn’t use). So now I’m not using Thunderbird as a mailer, so that I can use the T-Bird RSS feature. How’s that working out? Kirai Janai — I don’t dislike it. At least, not enough to go scrounging for alternatives. It is a little feature-thin, however. For example, both Opera and T-Bird show the topic folders down the side, and if you click on one it shows you the contents as a collection of subject lines. However(,) that’s all that T-Bird offers. Opera would let you click on the Feeds folder and see all the feeds in one list — great for cleaning up the previous nights take. Or you could click on a topic folder and it would unfold to show you all the feed sources — the Cooking folder would let you click on the Alton Brown feed and just see his messages, etc. One can approximate this by going into a folder and sorting on source. That works if it’s just one contributor (Hi, Alton!), but in the News folder, I find that the feed from The Week has half a dozen contributors. In addition, every now and then it seems to not want to update the feeds. It’s a little irritating, but one perseveres.

PASSWORDS: FF keeps its collection of website passwords in a json file buried down in its directory tree somewhere. Copy that over and one has all one’s passwords back.

SPEED DIAL/TAB GROUPS/RELOAD EVERY: Areas that Opera pioneered, of course. I have found plugins that more or less duplicate the functionalities. But duplicating functionalities is one thing, one then has to functionalitize them. In my case, I had to recreate my five tab groups and all the speed dial settings for each. What worked for me was to just open the old speed dial on the closet monitor and read off the URL for each panel while typing it in to the new one. Since I’d already brought over my passwords and things, FF knew right where to go.

Overall, I think I am happier with UL than I was with SUSE, and of course, I have a nice new silver box to play with. I’ll keep you informed.

Opera Browser: The Long Farewell 6

March 21, 2016

I think we’ve finally come to the end of the road. Earlier this week I took delivery on my new PC, a System76 “Wild Dog”, a big, silvery box with enough bells and whistles to keep me happy for a while. I am currently in the throes of moving all my stuff from the old PC, and for the first time this Century, I’m not going to install Opera on a new computer.

I have found it’s easy to move bookmarks from Opera and Firefox on one machine to Firefox on another — just export as .html and import into the new browser. I find it’s just as easy to move the RSS feeds from Opera. In this case, I am importing to Thunderbird — Firefox has an RSS feed functionality, but they want to implement each feed as a “live bookmark”, and don’t give you a way to delete individual notifications.

I am long since past using T-Bird as a mail client. Everything I do these days is in the cloud — it all gets forwarded to gMail. Mind you, I haven’t tested the POP server forwarding on the new machine, but it should work. What I’m using T-Bird for is an RSS feed reader, to replace the Opera functionality.

So far, there’s good news and bad news, and not so bad news. The good news is, the 355 links for the RSS feeds came across OK and are working fine. The bad news is, all the old RSS notifications have disappeared, all 13,413 of them. So I’m starting over on the new machine. The not-so-bad news is that I still have the old PC fully operational, and will keep it plugged in on my desk for a few months while things shake down.

I do have one on-going problem though. I’ve been used to running two or three browsers on my machine. Opera on the left hand monitor for the news, Firefox on the right for school stuff, Chrome in the background for other things. I suppose I could run Firefox in two different windows. Or see if Vivaldi is ready for prime time.

Or I could dig around and find my old copy of Mosaic.

Opera Browser: The Long Farewell 5

February 11, 2016

Opera continues to recede into irrelevance. I’m finding my Linux version incompatible with more and more websites (the latest being Penny Arcade), to the point where I’ve built a new folder in Firefox for links that don’t work in Opera. The only reason I still use it is that it has an excellent RSS feed reader — better than Firefox, better than any of the standalone programs I’ve tried.

The latest in the Operatic saga is an offer from a Chinese consortium, including the odious antivirus firm Qihoo, to buy it for 50% more than it’s worth. It’s not clear if they want it for the technology, for their rolodex, or for the espionage possibilities.

Opera Browser: The Long Farewell 4

August 11, 2015

My Opera browser has become less and less compatible with more and more websites, until I find myself reduced to using it as an RSS reader.

Even Opera doesn’t like Opera anymore. Their revenues are down, even counting the more (one cannot say highly anymore) popular mobile browser. A recent report says they are considering a sale of the company. So this time next year, Opera may be a brand and a logo, but no longer a browser. My guess is that Opera will go the same way FoxPro did — bought out and abandoned as a brand and a product, with its components included in Microsoft Access.

Akregator: Not quite ready for prime time

June 26, 2015

There’s two reasons I haven’t dumped Opera altogether. First, is their RSS feed (part of their email function). It is still the best I have found. Second, is the fact that FirefoxOnLinux is in some sort of bunfight with JavaScript, and many things (like buttons) don’t render properly. Until both these are fixed, I’ll be using Opera for RSS and structured browsing. Let’s talk about RSS feeds

RSS (officially, Rich Site Summary, more often Really Simple Syndication) is a tool that notifies subscribers whenever a web site is updated. Why would you want to use something like that? Well, it’s a more compact and asynchronous way of keeping track of a lot of infrequently-posted websites than is, for example, Twitter, even though many people use a tweet-stream as an RSS replacement. Let me go over my approach to managing my information workload.

  1. There are some sites that update essentially once a day, like Slate. To see what’s on Slate, or APOD, or the Aviation Herald, I keep their links in a folder titled “Morning Papers”, and I open everything in that folder once a day.
  2. Other sites update weekly, or biweekly, or they may update daily but are such that I don’t need to see them every day. So I have another folder, titled “Daily”, and in that are subfolders “Monday”, “Tuesday”, etc. If Girl Genius updates MWF, then I have a link in each folder. On Monday, when I’m done with the Morning Papers, I open all the links in the Monday folder and read the latest Girl Genius cartoon, and catch up on the news from Bury St. Edmunds. BTW, the last time I looked, Firefox won’t let you do this — you have one link to a website, and if you save a link to a new folder, it moves the link from the old folder.
  3. Still other sites update continuously — Fark, or Reddit, for example. I know there will be something new whenever I go there, and I don’t want to be bepestered with notifications. There’s not many of those, so I can keep them in yet another folder, or even in my Speed Dial.
  4. Finally, there are sites that update irregularly, or seldomly, or that I’m only interested in aperiodically — Eureka Alert, Cooking sites, sites carrying the latest news on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I put those sites in my RSS feed, and I get notified whenever they update. Eureka Alert will do an 80-entry data dump a couple of times a day, Buffy, not so much.

Opera runs its RSS reader via the Opera Mail function. As with a good email client, you get to organize thing sin folders, you get a list of subject lines, and you get a look at the first paragraph or so of the update. Often, you get the full text.

But we’re trying to say farewell to Opera, remember? Unfortunately, it turns out there’s not a lot of good RSS readers out there. Firefox, for example, wants to put every RSS feed into my Favorites bar. That is OK for the first twenty or thirty, but I have over a hundred 345.

So, what else is available? Check back up on the Subject line. Akregator is a KDE based RSS feed for Linux. It has the same look and feel as Opera, but can show you more of the message, actually, the whole web page, and is reasonably easy to work with.


Nice, clean layout. Pity about the 7,000 messages

Nice, clean layout. Pity about the 7,000 messages

There are three things wrong with Akregator: one bug, one feature, and one deal breaker.

The bug is that it will often reload a feed item that I’d already deleted. Not sure if it’s AK’s fault, or if the website is doing something funky with its xml. In any event, I’ll delete an item, and then come back the next day to find it reposted as unread. It’s easy enough to delete them, but I have to keep a running list of previously screened titles in my head.

The feature is that it doesn’t show you how many feed items you have hanging around. It shows you the number of unread items, next to each feed folder, with a total at top, but not the number of ones you’ve glanced at and left hanging about for later. Nothing in the documentation or the forae about it.

The deal breaker is the fact that it will reload the entire RSS feed set upon reboot, sending me, just for e.g.’s, from 27 unread items to over 7,000 unread items. Now, it may be that this is an artifact of the archiving feature, and that the solution is to tell it to just delete all feed items on closeout. So that I only lose the ones I’m really interested in.

Life is too short.

I’m sliding sideways, from OpenSuSE to Mint Linux sometime this week — I have the desire, I have the new SSD, I have the latest download, all I need is the gumption. Maybe there’s something over on that side of the world. Maybe Vivaldi will get their act together.

Android Fail – 2015

April 25, 2015

One of the key principles of user interface design is that you don’t make things harder for the user without a good reason. Google seems to forget this at times.

Android 5.0/Lolicon is the latest release of the Android operating system. It just installed on my Samsung Galaxy last week, and I’m still learning my way around it. A number of features have changed, but most of the changes are neutral — a slightly different way of doing X, that doesn’t interfere with how I use X. Except for one thing.

Under the version of the OS that came with the phone (KitKat, I think, or maybe KlondikeBar), you had an icon you could control phone sound with — default mode was on, one tap was vibrate, two taps was mute, and three brought you back to on. Mute stopped all sounds except for alarms, so if you wanted to use the phone as an alarm clock, you swiped down to get the icons, and tapped twice for mute. Once your alarm had roused you, you could do a swipe-and-tap (while saying wingardium volumosa, or something) and you’d be back in business. With Loli, that all changed.

Under the new system, mute means mute. No sound. All silent. If you want to hear your alarm, you set it to on, and you get to hear everything — alarms, email notifications, phone calls, everything. Fortunately, there is a workaround. Of sorts. You can go into Priorities, and tell the phone to only let certain alerts through at certain times of day or night. Unfortunately, it has to be the same times for every day. So, if you want to go to bed at 11PM, that’s when it switches to Priority mode. If you want to stay up late one night, you have to re-set it. If you want to go to bed early, re-set. Get up late, re-set. And so forth.

On the bright side, doing the re-sets might be annoying, but it’s also difficult. You see, sounds are controlled in Settings, which is an icon on page three in your applications list. Or you can hold down the Sound icon, which will change the mode for you, and then switch to the Sounds page. That’s where you control the sound from. But not the Priorities, sorry. Priorities are accessed only through the volume control rocker button on the left hand side of the phone. Hold the rocker down with one hand (the volume setting will change), and up pops another menu, with a typical settings-gear-icon on it. Tap the icon and it brings you to the Priorities Interruptions page, where you set your priority days and times. This, I find, only applies to things like email notifications. The swipe tones the phone makes (like when you wake it up in the morning) still sound loud and clear. So, you can no longer use the phone as a discrete flashlight if you get up at 3AM to go … get a drink of water.

Meanwhile, back on your phone, you can still swipe down and hit the Sound icon to switch to priorities-vibrate mode whenever you want less of an interruption. All done with your quiet time? Tap the icon to move to mute, and then again, to sound on.

Oh, did I mention that changing the mode to mute will turn off Priorities, and you will have to do the whole volume-rocker re-set thing again? Yeah.

You know what would have worked better, Google? Making the Sound icon a four tap system — on, vibrate, mute (with alarms), dead silent. And not throwing away my Priorities status just because I hit mute.

Mr. Lincoln’s Computers

April 1, 2015

Rare photo shows Mary Todd Lincoln turning the crank on an early information storage system, used to hold the Confederate Order of Battle Operations Listing. It’s a well-known fact that, given their constantly changing brigade structure and penchant for naming units after (often short-lived) commanders, even the Confederate generals were not always sure how many men they had in the field. Abraham Lincoln reportedly said that, thanks to these machines, the Union usually had a better idea than the Confederates.


Lincoln also credited his computers, as the girls who cranked the handles were called, for helping break a number of Confederate codes. “We never would have figured out how tightly they wound their paper strips around the coding pencils without the help of these fine women”, he said. Other triumphs included determining exactly which edition of Ivanhoe the Confederate government used as the basis for their unbreakable ‘book codes’.

Standing Desk 2

March 4, 2015

In my first installment, I mentioned at the end that balance might be an issue. It is. There’s two problems. First, at full height, the VariDesk frame is cantilevered well forward of its stowed position, such that most of the load is no longer over the desk, but is hanging out in open space (I have the additional handicap of setting the 24″ legs on a 20″ desktop). Second, my rollaround computer desk was designed with a pull-out keyboard shelf. That’s because there’s no place to put your feet if you tried to use the keyboard directly on top of the desk. And that means you have to pull the VariDesk an additional twelve inches or so forward of where it wants to be.

I did that, and found that the whole frame got very tippy when I did so. As in “whoa, let’s push this back”.

As Lenin might say, what is to be done? There are several options. The first one, rapidly rejected, was to buy a new computer desk. The fuss and bother and drivings about were bad enough that I relegated that idea to the Last Resort folder.

Another possibility was to drill holes in the quarter-inch thick steel frame and screw the frame to the desk. Probably the second-best idea, and the second-worst inconvenience.

C-clamps on the back wouldn’t work, because there’s no room for them when the VD is in it’s stowed position. That leaves some sort of extension to the front of the desk to support the legs. If the legs had been the width of the desk apart, it would have been easy — an L-shaped shelf-holder would work — but as it was, there was no place to attach a support, other than on the front of the 1″ thick desktop itself.

Or on the top. The cleanest solution would be to buy a slab of quarter-inch plywood big enough to hang over the edge of the desk, screw it on, and stick the VD on top of it as if it was made for it. But plywood is expensive, and I was looking for a more minimalist solution.

Like, suppose you put a slab of plywood on the desk, and then cut away all the plywood that wasn’t actually holding stuff up. And suppose you substituted a steel plate for the remnant of plywood, on account of as how it was both thinner and stronger. To the Hardware Store!

Support Plates

Support Plates

Three trips later (did you know bolts came with both coarse and fine threads?) I had two lumber beam connector plates bolted to the desk, with the VD sitting atop them. It was still a little bouncy, so I went back (fortunately it’s less than a mile away) and bought longer bolts and some very large washers. The washers hooked over the edge of the base plate, and the bolts — two on the front side of the plate and two on the back side — went through the desk and held everything in place. To give myself some additional peace of mind, I stuck an old UPS that I was going to recycle on the bottom shelf of the desk, to supply some additional weight on the back side of the Center of Gravity.



This kind of setup undoubtedly voided my warranty, is probably dangerous, and certainly isn’t something that a sane person should try at home. If you try it, and your child gets crushed, well… post something on your Facebook page and I promise I will tag it with a Like.

Standing Desk 1

March 1, 2015

I’m typing this while standing up. My feet hurt. My back hurts. There’s a pain in my left leg just above the knee, and a tingle in the nerves of my right thigh. Obviously, I have things to learn about standing desks.

I decided to get a standing desk a month ago. That was about a year after my body decided it had fulfilled its evolutionary duties and could now coast downhill to retirement. My weight went up, my blood pressure went up, my aches and pains went up. This, despite the fact that I eat healthy, have no more than one or two bottles of wine at dinner, walk half a mile to class/meetings five times a week, and average an hour and a half per school day on my feet, lecturing. When the weather is good, most of the Summer and parts of the Fall and Spring, but none of the Winter, here in the NENW, I put in an additional two miles per day in walking. Doesn’t help. Or, no longer helps. I don’t mind the thought of me retiring, but I’d prefer that my body didn’t retire first.

Considering that I spend probably ten hours per day at the computer — in a little one-Starbucks/high-scabland town like Cheney, there’s not much else to do — anything I can do to increase my activity level there should be worthwhile. Yes, I’ve got a treadmill, The Imperial Walker, and yes, I’ve tried working on a laptop while walking, but it just didn’t work out. For one thing, I had trouble figuring out where my lap was.

Enter the standing desk. Reportedly, they give most of the benefits of a walking desk, while being much cheaper and more compact. Of course, cheap is relative. Amazon carries a motor operated, dual-surface, multi-monitor, medical workstation for $12,000, and a crank-adjustable work desk for $4500. I wasn’t that unhealthy, so I settled for a $350 VariDesk Pro Plus: a spring-operated, desk-mounted rig that was wide enough to take my two monitors. Ordered it last month, got it last week, put it up last night.

The way we were

The way we were

Here’s my original setup. Two monitors on a twenty-year old rollabout computer desk. Keyboard almost in my lap. Room at the top for my books and speakers. Room at the bottom for my UPS and NAS. The screen and keyboard to the left are for my Windows machine, which I bought to run school software on but otherwise keep in the closet. We won’t speak of it again.

Adding the standup feature was simple. (more…)

Opera Browser: The Long Farewell 3

January 27, 2015

Just in time, as the old one fades there’s a new Opera on the horizon. It’s called Vivaldi, and it’s the creation of Opera’s founder, Jon von Tetzchner. Right now the only Linux version is Fedora, but they promise to change that Real Soon Now. I suspect this “Technical Preview” was rushed out to steal some mindshare from Microsoft’s forthcoming Spartan browser.

Meanwhile, I’ve downloaded the Windows version and will be playing around with that. There’s no screenshots here, because The Reg article has enough of those.

So far, it looks OK. I mean, it’s a browser. I haven’t had time to test out many of the features. The deal-killer for me will be the RSS feed. In Opera, RSS is integrated with Mail, and they haven’t implemented that yet.

Definitely not an

Definitely not an “O”

Video Game Violence

November 9, 2014

Let me start by saying that this article won’t change anyone’s mind. The kind of people who obsess over this kind of thing are not the kind to take kindly to having their kind of world view challenged by these kinds of facts.

C.J. Ferguson, at Stetson University, in Florida, did a simple study* of the correlation between real world youth violence vs video game violence, using historical statistics. Earlier studies were lab-based, forcing subjects to both play violent video games and take psychological tests, and many came to the conclusion that the more they did this, the more violent their experimental subjects became.

Here’s the key graphic.

A good example of non-causality

A good example of non-causality

The correlation is negative (R = -0.85). Based on this, one could claim that video game violence actually reduces youth violence. After all, if you’re at home playing games, you’re not out on the street, getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.

Of course, since correlation does not necessarily imply causation (although, as Randall Munroe says, it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’) we can’t necessarily claim that video games reduce youth violence. What we can say is that the doomcriers theory fell at the first fence, that violent video games, in general, demonstrably do not, in general, increase youth violence.

*In case the link rots, here’s the full citation: Ferguson, C. J. (2014), Does Media Violence Predict Societal Violence? It Depends on What You Look at and When. Journal of Communication. doi: 10.1111/jcom.12129

Opera Browser: The Long Farewell 2

September 15, 2014

As I wrote last May, the Opera browser was, even then, a mere shell of its former self. It would appear that the decline continues.

Last week I bought a Windows 7 PC. Go ahead and snicker. The fact is, there’s a lot of stuff I have to do for work that can only be done on Windows, and I didn’t want to spend time fiddling with various virtual machines and emulators. Naturally, I keep it in the closet, with just the screen and keyboard showing. Also naturally, I downloaded Opera (24.0), because that’s what one does. The hope is that the Win version is still a decent product.


The Help/About is as bad as the Mac version. Three paths – to the .exe, to the cache, and to the ‘profile’, whatever that is. But given that I rarely need the paths, I shouldn’t really complain. Except.

The old ‘Hit F12 for site preferences’ functionality is gone. Now I have to dig through the various settings to set the ‘exceptions’ for a website. This makes Opera no better than any of the other browsers.

In the past, Opera would treat each tab individually, even if multiple tabs were looking at different pages of the same site. If I was on a page with lots of fine print, I could hit +++ until I could read the text.* If I had another page from the same website open (e.g. comparing products on Amazon), it wouldn’t be changed. This was good, because not all the tabs needed enlarging. Now, all the tabs from a given website get enlarged or reduced, whatever my preferences are.

Finally, a really cool Opera feature was the “reload every x minutes” function. This was particularly useful for Twitter, but it would help track any other site that refreshed its content rapidly. Now, that’s gone. Right-clicking the page lets you ‘reload’. Anybody can do that. Even Lynx would let you do that.

I suspect these ‘features’ are the result of Opera abandoning Opera and becoming a re-badged Chrome clone. I’ve got nothing against Chrome. Well, their bookmark system is ugly, but so is Firefox’. But if I wanted to run Chrome, I’d do that.

Fortunately, Opera 12 for Linux still retains the old ways. But word is, they’re working on Opera 25 for Linux. I won’t be upgrading.

* This is personally important to me. It used to be I didn’t have to hit + at all. Then my eyes started to deteriorate and I had to hit it six or seven times. I got computer eyeglasses and all was well, except that my eyes have continued their decline, and now I have to hit + six or ten times, even with the glasses on. I suspect I’ll be getting cataract surgery next Spring.

Pruning the Feeds

July 29, 2014

I like RSS feeds. They fill an ecological nich that none of the other social media can. Let me put it this way. There are sites that update pretty much daily — Slate, for example, or McClatchey — so if you check them once a day, you know what they have. Those, I put in a “Morning Papers” folder, for reading with my breakfast oatmeal. Then there’s sites that update continuously — Fark, or Reddit — and all I have to do is check in periodically. I put those on my speed dial for when I’m bored. Yes, a lot scrolls off the page between readings, but any individual item that I miss has a fairly low impact. At longer timescales, there are sites that update weekly, or twice a week. These go into the “Daily” folders, one for each day of the week. But suppose there’s a site that updates at longer intervals, or irregularly, or that has information you’d rather not miss due to scrolling, what then? That’s where an RSS feed comes in. If Girl Genius is late this week, or MegaTokyo is finally getting an update, or EurekAlert is pushing out 80 science press releases at a whack, they all show up in the feeds. Twitter isn’t a solution, due to noise and the scrolloff factor. Tumbler or Facebook are just places one can host a differently-enabled blog. So the feeds are important.

As a result, part of my OS upgrade travails involve updating my RSS feeds. One reason I still have Opera hanging around is because it’s such a good RSS feed manager. While I couldn’t find any information on migrating the feeds, I managed to find Opera’s feed index file on the old drive, and copy it over to the new, but (as with many cloning experiments) something went wrong with the details: all the feeds show up on the Manage Feeds panel, they just don’t do anything. I’ve had to convert the old file by hand, clicking on a feed, copying it to the “Add Feed” dialogue, and saving it. When I was done I deleted all the old feeds. This was a tedious way to do things, but it worked. Finally.

The experience might be described as Internet archaeology, sifting through the websites to see what has changed and what hasn’t. For example, there are blogs that have just dropped from sight, not updated for years. Sometimes the feed is still active (I get old articles), and sometimes it isn’t (I get a blank). And sometimes it points to articles that are no longer hosted where it says they are.

Sometimes, I know what happened to them. Perhaps there’s a screen making a formal announcement of closure, or maybe the last entry is a farewell. Or maybe I know from other sources. Sometimes the reasons are sad. A few examples:

AaronsWeb — a techno blog which hasn’t had an update since late 2012. This is understandable, because it was maintained by Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide at the instigation of the U.S. government, in January of last year.

Baghdad Burning — A description of life in Baghdad during the American occupation, from 2003-2007. Riverbend, a young Sunni woman, and her family left Iraq in 2007 and she made one update post that year, and another in 2013. As interesting as I found her writing, the life of a resettled refugee is less dramatic than life in a war zone. Her posts have been collected into two books, which I’m thinking of buying.

Groklaw — a superb resource that has ceased updating last year because the owner, PJ, could no longer stand to have her e-mail read by NSA.

Creating Passionate Users — a vibrant, insightful resource maintained by Kathy Sierra. In 2007 she was set upon by trolls, who made the usual hateful remarks, including death threats, and decided not to put up with their shit.

Those last two I will keep, in my Inactive folder, checking in periodically, just in case something wonderful happens.

There’s a large number of websites (mostly anime and comics) where the author declared a brief hiatus to [get married, get a job, take finals, recover from a medical condition,…] and then disappeared, never to be seen again. Sometimes they are comics that halted in mid-story. Sometimes there are comics that halt in mid-story, with no explanation. As for the anime, I’ve been reading reviews and commentary for about ten years now, and most of the dropped blogs were ones that started back during the ‘golden age’, which peaked about the time I found it. My guess is that the authors grew up and moved on. Maybe that will happen to me someday as well.

On my old machine I had an estimated 400 websites I was tracking via RSS feed. It’s easy to fall behind with that kind of a workload, and I had something over 13,000 unread messages. Not exactly unread. Read the titles and the summaries and said “I’ll save this and come back later”. And of course I never did. Much like those comics.

Having done a fairly intense triage, I am now at less than 300 websites (including a few I added), and just 500 unread messages. Most of the sites dropped essentially dropped themselves, by being inactive for two years or more. Others were ones that had changed format too much. One anime site was now mostly vid clips, and I’m not interested in vid clips. Another tech site had covered itself with popups and mouseovers.

What sites am I following now? Well, embarrassingly, the largest group (20%) is anime related sites, followed by comics (15%). Next comes work-related MIS and technology sites at 14%. A full 10% of the sites are currently inactive. The rest are things like cooking, news, politics, and gardening.

Kicking and Screaming into the Future: Part 4, the Journey Arrives

June 29, 2014

Well,here we are in the future, and it’s not as bad as I feared. That’s not to say that it’s great.

TL:DR Summary for this Series: if you have to do a full install to upgrade your OS, then buy a new hard drive and install it there. You’ll have to redo all your bookmarks and passwords anyway, and the old drive can act as an archive.

As part of my build-a-little, test-a-little approach to life, I dug out an old Linux box to try some installs on. How old? Thirty-two bit old. Ethernet port doesn’t work old. It already had OpenSUSE on it, from needing to run some simulation software that didn’t like Ubuntu’s version of Java. I plugged in my new TB drive and installed the latest version of SUSE (“Software und System-Entwicklung“, meaning “Software and systems development”, it’s foreign). That’s when I was reminded that it was a 32-bit system. I won’t go into all my trials and tribulations — reading about someone else’s OS installs is as bad as watching them happen. Suffice it to say I that over the course of the last 48hrs I’ve done five OS installs on two different machines.

The final installs went easy. First, I moved my new drive to my production machine. Did you know that some PC power cable builders alternate the direction of the notches on their daisy-chained plugs? First one has them pointing down. Second one, three inches along on the cable, has them pointing up (as if you were going to install the drive upside down) and you have to rotate the already-short cable to attach them. Just thought I’d mention that. Then I installed Ubuntu 14.04 from disk. Then I had a fight with the boot loader over which drive to boot from.

It turns out I like U14 even less than I like U12. The icons are obnoxious. It forces Thunderbird on you. It … I can’t remember all the reasons. The reason being, it took me about ten minutes to decide to dump Ubuntu for OpenSUSE*. Two hours later, and I have an operating operating system.

OpenSUSE isn’t perfect. They let you log in as root instead of forcing sudo on you, a dangerous practice. Their fonts are too small. The KDE desktop organizer is a little funky. The way one finds applications to run is also odd. The screen saver settings aren’t cooperating, so it still blanks out after five minutes. I have not yet tried to get the mailer working. I still have to install Chromium. Anki doesn’t have a version of their flash card software for OpenSUSE like they do for Ubuntu, so I’m using the browser version (and have installed the desktop version on my Windows machine).

On the other hand, Firefox works, and Opera (except that they’re not using the latest Flash plugin), and I can see the old drive, so it was a trivial matter to copy all the files over to the new Home folder. The user interface has a nice retro-unix feel to it, with grey pulldowns and raised check boxes and radio buttons that show a black dot when selected. Takes me back forty years.

Complete with chameleon mascot

Complete with chameleon mascot
(click to embiggen)

* I decided not to go with Mint, because they’re a Ubuntu variant, and I wasn’t sure what baggage that would involve.

Kicking and Screaming into the Future: Part 3, the Journey Pauses

June 25, 2014

While we are writing wamilditing waititors waiting for the new drive to arrive, let’s take a spin through Ubuntu 12.04 and see what’s what.

First of all, I’m not a fan of the new iconic toolbar. I can see why you need it — it saves vertical screen real estate, but a sidebar really demands icons. I just don’t like it.

Second, I deplore the trend towards auto-extend menus that pop up the instant your cursor tip runs across them. If I make a big, sweeping move from the R/H screen to somewhere on the lower L/H side of the L/H screen I’m sure to fire off three or four menus enroute, end up blocking the place I wanted to click. It reminds me of HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy:

For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as the technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch-sensitive – you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same programme. Douglas Adams HHGG

Speaking of programmes, I fixed the sound issue — I had patched the headphone output into the mic input so I could collect anime OP and ED songs. Somewhere on U10 there was a setting that let me hear the music as well, but I can’t find it on U12. Hopefully it’s still there.

I’m also not happy about the move away from Evolution, and the associated decay of my mail client. I’m not trying to fix stuff right now, but I may be forced into Thunderbird mail when I go to U14. Until then, I’ll just have to put up with U12 sticking almost all my mail in the fake spam folder, and marking it as read. Evolution has also gotten flakey about demanding that I use a contacts email address when it finds one. If I want to send an email to, say,, and all I have in the contacts list is, then it will not let me type that, unless I put a space after the @ sign, type the address, and delete the space. On the other hand, it’s no longer sticking egregious commas into some of my addresses. It used to be that if I typed and hit [Tab] it would come out as old,, with an error message about old not being a proper address.

I severely dislike Gnome’s decision to save the planet by turning off my monitor screens when I’m not active, instead of letting me run my 10GB collection of Earth-, Space-, and OldNavy- porn photos as a screen saver. I know we don’t need such things any more, but they provide mild entertainment for when I’m in the room but not at the keyboard. I’m sure there’s a slideshow app that will do the same thing, when I click on it. I’m also sure that turning off the monitors will save zillions of dollars in power, globally. But damnit, I want to make that decision! I don’t want some faceless collective to do it for me.

Finally, there’s something now wrong with my keyboard function. Every so often, the cursor makes a break for the top of the page. I had to retype the previous paragraph twice, and correct the first sentence three times, because the cursor did a top-pop while I was typing with my head down. It is not my hardware — happens on both a wireless and a straight USB plugin keyboard. Happens in various browsers (although it seems worst in Opera…sigh). It’s quite a sight to see, when it dashes to the top of my RSS feeds –14000 unread messages.

Also, the system now does not recognize the [left-shift-@] keyboard combo. I first encountered this in Evolution, when typing an email address, but it turns out it’s true across all almost all applications — text edit, Firefox (gmail recognizes it in the search bar, not in a text box), LibreOffice. In addition, it doesn’t recognize the [Page Down] key on when browsing. [Spacebar] works, [Page Up] works.  I suspect it’s a Java issue, but again, am not going to mess with things until U14.

And if U14 continues to be a mess, then there’s always Mint or OpenSuSe. I mean, if I have to do a totally new install, with all the reconstruction pain that implies, I might as well try something new.

Kicking and Screaming into the Future: Part 2, the Journey Continues

June 21, 2014

After a short stop in our non-stop journey to the future, we proceeded to move onward and upward, from Ubuntu 12.4 to 14.04.

Not so fast, cowboy.

So, it turns out (you’ll see that phrase a lot in this set of essays) that everything did not go smoothly with the online upgrade. How do I know?

First, is the calm silence, broken only by the hum of the fan. No beeps, boops, or blats. In fact, no audio. At all. Played around with some of the settings, to no avail. That’s OK, I’ll wait ’till I get the 14.04 upgrade installed, and then I’ll worry.

Second, no 14.04 install. I tried the quickie online upgrade route, the one that went so well for 12.04, and it failed at the setup stage. Something about not being able to calculate the install and maybe it was unresolved dependencies, but maybe it was non-Ubuntu software. Update manager says no problems with dependencies, and there’s not a lot of stuff that I’ve gone out and dug up on my own. The Opera browser, maybe. AnkiDeck for my flashcards. Not much else. I suspect that something went wrong with the 12.04 upgrade. Not horribly wrong, but wrong enough.

So, what is to be done?, as Lenin would say. Having looked at the Ubuntu Upgrade forums leading entry “I upgraded my machine and now I have this problem”, it looks like I’m back to downloading the new OS, burning it to disc, and doing a fresh install. For the Windows snickerers, this is much like going from XP to Win8. The question is, how to do it?

The reason that’s a question is that I’m a cautious suspenders and belt kindof guy. I’d rather not end up with a blown 14.04 install and no machine. OK, the other reason is, I’ve been thinking of upgrading my hard drive anyway. So, I’ve just now ordered a new TB drive from Amazon, and when it comes (end of the week), I’ll plug it in and install the new OS on it. If something goes wrong, I just change the boot order back.

Sounds like a plan. Time for bed.

Kicking and Screaming into the Future: Part 1, the Journey Begins

June 20, 2014

I severely dislike upgrading my operating system. There’s so much at stake and so much that can go wrong that I put it off as long as possible. Longer, even. Herewith a brief account of how I got from There to Here. In the future.

I bought my present Linux box from System76 about four years ago — two generations of Moore’s Law. It came with 8GB of memory and a 2.67 quad core chip running 64-bit Ubuntu 10.04LTS. Not a screamer, but good enough. The biggest change from today’s boxen is that now the cpu’s are running 25% faster. Of course Ubuntu is now at version 14.04LTS. The easiest way to get from 10 to 14, it says here, is via online update to 12.

I started by backing up my stuff. Turns out, I’ve got a lot of stuff, and not a lot of places to put it. I pay for 100GB on DropBox, so that’s the first step. Of course, I’ve got a lot more than 100GB of stuff, so I can only put part of it up in the cloud. That was the plan, and the plan worked. Sortof. You see, your ISP (mine is Centurylink) only promises you fast downloads. Uploads go at a tenth the speed, if that. A day later, DropBox was still trudging through my collection of EarthPorn landscape photos, what I use for my screen saver. I also have a NAS with a fair bit of space on it, so the rest of the files go there. That solved the problem, and I didn’t have to move stuff over to my Windows box, or to MJ’s machine, or resurrect my external drive enclosure.

Came Der Tag, and I opened the Update window and clicked on the “12.02 is available” button. After a bit of palavering, it told me that it would take about 9 hours at my current DSL download speeds. No, half an hour. Sorry, five hours. And so forth. As bad as Windows. It ended up taking only about two and a half hours. Roughly. At one point it popped open a modal dialog box the instant I left the room and sat there awaiting my return, so the timings are somewhat estimated.

After the download came the install. Since all the software was on the PC, and it wasn’t pulling packages from hither and yon, the displayed two-hour install time was pretty accurate. Towards the end, it asked me about keeping old or installing new versions of config files. I told it to install new files, except for GRUB, where I told it to keep the old one, silly old me.

Install was done and reboot was run and …. there I was, looking at a black screen with a blinking cursor. Did I mention I hate upgrading my OS? I tried the old “hold down [right-shift] at the precise 3-second interval” trick. That gave me a black screen, the words “Loading GRUB”, and a blinking cursor. My guess is that the old GRUB config file confused it.

My usual response to this kind of infelicity is to pop over to the Ubuntu Forums and dig around. None of the posts in the “Installations & Upgrades” forum quite covered it, so I posted a query. Six hours later (those guys are good) I had my answer — Boot Repair Disk. This is a free utility that you download, burn to disk, and use to boot your ailing PC. It has an autofix tool that fixes you right up. It almost took longer to download than it did to update.

So, here we are, at the first stop on our non-stop trip to the future. I’m going to play with 12.04 for a day or so, and then do an online upgrade to 14.04. I mean, the worst is over, and what could possibly go wrong?

The perils of computer laziness

June 7, 2014

Ubuntu updates regularly, but does provide LTS (Long Term Support) for versions that come out in even-numbered years. So, rather than updating the OS annually, it’s possible to wait a couple of years, and update with the new LTS. For servers, LTS is four years. For desktops, I guess it’s only two.

In any event, I’m still running Ubuntu 10.4, and the rest of the world just moved on to 14.4. Given that, it’s not surprising that the latest security patch (Linux has been bepesterd by them of late) broke my copy of 10.4. Broke it as in “the mouse and keyboard don’t work and I can’t open or change any files or even log in”.

This, of course, at the start of the weekend before finals, and half an hour before my formal blood pressure check (it was a little high).

The problem turns out to be fixable — hit [shift-escape] [right-shift] on bootup, pick the older kernel from the Grub menu to get in, then edit the Grub defaults to always boot from that kernel. This, of course is a stopgap until I can get the end-of-term chores out-of-the-way.

It took me about two hours to get things sorted out. The first hour I was thrashing around on my own, trying the original install disk and so forth, and the second hour was a more methodical combing through the Ubuntu Forums. Well, OK, there was also an additional half-hour of trying to hit [shift-escape] [right-shift] at the exact millisecond I was supposed to — my twitch muscles weren’t twitching too well. You see, since it’s a Linux-only box, I’ve turned all the Grub menus off, so there’s no indication of when I should twitch and no delay to allow me to do it.

Turns out that I wasn’t the only one with this problem, and there was a certain amount of forum snarking at us for not updating on schedule. But updates are fraught with their own problems, problems I was too lazy to want to encounter. Turns out, that was a mistake.

So, come mid-June, I’ll be installing 12.4 on my machine, and then 14.4 on both mine and MJ’s. And next time? I’ll be upgrading to 16.4.

UPDATED: to correct the key you should hit. Not sure how that happened, except that I had a fight with WordPress’ html interpreter over whether or not I could use <> as delimiters and that distracted me.

Opera Browser: The Long Farewell

May 16, 2014

I have been a fan of the Opera browser since you had to pay $30 to run it on the PC. Looking back, that had to be almost as soon as it was publicly available, in 1996 — almost twenty years ago. I have put Opera on every computer I’ve owned this century — Linux, Mac, PC; desktops, laptops, netbooks, tablets… As soon as I got an Android phone, I downloaded Opera Mobile. Opera never had more than 3% of the desktop market, but it made major inroads into mobile, particularly in Europe.

It was always a cutting edge application. For example, Opera was the first browser to provide tabbed browsing, back in 2000, and Speed Dial, in 2007. Then, too, the Norwegian development team seemed to have a bit of a sense of humor. When Microsoft, in one of their periodic episodes of insanity, started deliberately sending Opera users to broken pages, the Opera folks retaliated by translating all Microsoft web pages into …bork…bork…Swedish Chef English.

One of the things I particularly liked was the easy access to advanced and site-specific settings. I’m not real big on flashy displays on websites. Mostly, I go to a site for information, not entertainment or an intrusive sales pitch. I tend to run with everything turned off — cookies, plug-ins, JavaScript, flash, etc. Of course, that breaks a lot of the web, but if I come to a website that needs, say, JavaScript, and I think it’s worth it, I can hit F12, click on “Site Preferences”, and I’m there. Other browsers require you to drill down through multiple layers of menus.

Sadly, a once-great company seems to be abandoning its roots. A year ago, they stopped development of their mobile app, chosing to rebrand Chrome, instead. On the desktop, they seem to have quietly abandoned Linux. One of the co-founders, Jon von Tetzchner, has broken a three-year silence to say that the company had gone to crap.

Earlier this week I upgraded my office Mac to Mountain Lion — it won’t support One Trick Pony. I then upgraded Opera. In the process, it threw away all my bookmarks. That’s not a disaster, because I don’t bookmark a lot of stuff in the office (they frown on, and I do back up my bookmarks. Now under the old version of Opera, if you went to Help/About, it gave you nine lines of directory entries, telling you were it kept your files. Under the new Opera, I had three: where was (in applications, duh), where the cache was, and one other, equally useless bit of information.

The latest version of Opera for PCs and Macs is Opera 21.0.14 (released yesterday), for Linux, it’s 12.16, released almost a year ago to update a version first released two years ago. Opera for Linux no longer works with many websites, even with everything turned on, and I’m losing more websites every day.

So, the time has come to pull the plug. I’ll be using Firefox on the Mac and the PC, with Chrome for when I want to run a different browser in a different window. I’ll probably limp along with Opera on the Linux machine, because I still have over 100 RSS feeds there, but more and more of my time seems to be spent on Firefox and Chromium. It’s too bad. Even now, I like the Opera interface. Its method of handling bookmarks seems more intuitive than Firefox, and I didn’t have to download a stupid plugin to get the Speed Dial to work.

And now Mozilla is taking Firefox to the dark side by adding DRM. I guess I’ll have to switch back to Mosaic.

Diffie and The Troll

November 26, 2013

Not a rock band.

Whitfield Diffie is something of a legend in the public key crypto field — best described as an obscure corner of an otherwise arcane art form. Recently, he was brought down to West Texas to testify as an expert witness in a patent trial: Newegg vs patent troll TQP Development. TQPD was claiming that Newegg violated their patents on combining SSL with the RC4 cipher. As in any patent trial, much of the discussion revolves around prior art, in this case of public key encryption, and whether or not the patent was a valid one. My take on this whole game is that the US Patent Office examiners are incompetent bureaucrats, mostly concerned with getting their quotas filled, and so the only real examination of patents these days is in court.

There ensued a soon-to-be-classic exchange, which appears in almost every word cloud in the blogosphere this week:

“We’ve heard a good bit in this courtroom about public key encryption,” said Albright. “Are you familiar with that?”

“Yes, I am,” said Diffie, in what surely qualified as the biggest understatement of the trial.

“And how is it that you’re familiar with public key encryption?”

“I invented it.”

Diffie’s testimony was so powerful that Newegg rested its case, without calling a witness on potential damages. That, as it turned out, was a bad idea, since the troll-friendly folks of Marshall, Texas (who have turned exploiting our broken patent system into a cottage industry), decided that the patent was good, and Newegg had infringed it, to the tune of $2.3million. Newegg is, of course, appealing.

But that’s not what makes this case interesting to me. What makes the case interesting is what’s revealed by TQPD’s attempts to discredit Diffie. They raised the issue that he didn’t really invent public key encryption in 1976, that the invention was made by Ellis and Williamson between 1969 and 1975. Diffie countered that their work was circulated in a secret memo in GCHQ (the UK equivalent of NSA), and that nothing was made public until after Diffie’s presentation at a world-wide conference. I draw two conclusions from this:

1. NSA and GCHQ are no friend of the Internet. They are willing to keep techniques hidden for almost a decade, techniques that, when independently invented, turned out to be critical for the development of Internet commerce. Corollary: Nothing that NSA and GCHQ says about the Internet can be trusted.

2. As with most things in the software field, when the right time comes, a problem and its solution will be in the air, floating around, discussed in universities and tech companies around the world. If not Ellis, then Diffie. If not Diffie, then someone else (who didn’t know what to do with it and sold it to TQPD). Corollary: The idea of awarding a patent for the solution to a problem that is obvious to the skilled practitioner, once that problem comes into focus, is ludicrous.

Testing Lenovo – Conclusions

September 18, 2013


At first glance, the similarities are not all that obvious, but look closer…


The Lenovo Helix / Win8 combination tries to be all things to all people, thereby saving none. It’s too heavy to be an ultrabook. It’s too cramped to be a production laptop. The best description I can come up with is that it’s an overweight tablet with an under-featured docking station.

The niche that this is designed to fill is, I think, a very narrow one. Someone who doesn’t want a desktop/Nexus combination, with their information kept in the cloud. Someone who wants the mobility of a laptop but who uses a tablet often enough that they are willing to give up some laptop features in order to have a convenient combo.

Our school has done a pretty good job of providing us with in-classroom PC’s, hooked up to the usual array of projectors, document readers, cameras, etc. When I’m in one of those rooms (and the classes I teach require a room that has that technology), all I need to bring is a thumb drive. If I do need to bring my own PC (because it’s got special software on it), the projector plug is VGA, not HDMI.

I have a decent, if elderly, Mac workstation in my office (with SuSe Linux running in VBox), and all the Linux computers I need at home. I have no requirement to schlep a computer from place to place, and I suspect most of my colleagues don’t, either. A couple of years ago, when I did need to carry a computer around with me, a netbook provided all the power and features I needed.

I’m returning this early, to give a laptop aficionado a chance at it.

This is the last of three entries on a Lenovo Helix evaluation unit I borrowed from the school. The Introduction is here, and the Closer Look is here.

Testing Lenovo – A Closer Look

September 17, 2013

This is the second of three posts, evaluating a Lenovo Helix that I borrowed from school. The Introduction is here, and the Conclusions will be here, once I conclude them.

Interface Choices
The Lenovo Helix offers a range of options for interfacing.

– In addition to the trackpad,  which I talked about yesterday, there’s also a thumbstick in the middle. This moves the cursor around, but it doesn’t scroll.

– There’s also a stylus, like on the Nintendo DS, for use when the mouse, fingerpad, or thumbstick just won’t do. When I had problems with an app losing focus for no good reason (see below), I found that the stylus worked well to press buttons and such. I wonder how long it will take people to lose the stylus. And no, the NIntendo DS stylus is not a suitable replacement. Neither is a ballpoint pen, even with the tip retracted.

– In addition to the trackpad and thumbstick and stylus, it’s a touchscreen, so you can move around simply by dragging your fingers on the screen. This scrolls the screen, but doesn’t move the cursor. It does let you reposition the screen until the point of interest is underneath the cursor. A tap is as good as a click, assuming the screen responds to your taps. It doesn’t always, and I’m not sure if it’s because my fingers were too dirty or too clean.

Keyboard Choices
The keyboard is reasonably well laid out, with big letters, well suited to professorial eyes. It being a laptop, the keys are too small, too close together, too shallow, with zero ergonomic value. There appears to be several varieties of soft keyboard. There’s a nice big one that pops up when you log in from the tablet. There’s one that you access by clicking on the keyboard symbol on the toolbar. Except that that isn’t a keyboard. It’s a ‘freckled eggs’ style handwriting recognition app (“Curly bits, spiky bits, all joined together. Yep. Handwriting. I’d recognize it anywhere.”). The real soft keyboard is found by (1) swiping from the right screen to get the “charms” (2) selecting the “Search” charm (3) Typing in the name of the app you want ….hang on, that won’t work…(3b) swiping through the list of apps until you find the On-Screen Keyboard (under ‘O’, not ‘K’, in column 4 of 5). Be careful not to swipe too close to any of the other app logos, or you’re likely to find yourself arguing with your Helix about your stock portfolio.

Once you find it, the soft keyboard, sorry, On-Screen Keyboard, works pretty well. I was even able to touch type with it, and it felt more comfortable than the actual hard keyboard.

Video Performance
The LH plays video reasonably well. I loaded up Crunchyroll in my browser and went after a random episode of Girls und Panzer. The display was clean and the video played smoothly at any frame rate my DSL could handle. The sound was a little tinny. The gorilla glass screen had lots of glare.

Fondleslab Mode
I took the screen/tablet off the keyboard to use as a tablet in bed. My first experience was not encouraging.
– could not maintain wireless contact with my wireless DSL, two rooms and one floor away. I note that my Nexus had no problem.

– touch screen had sensitivity issues. I was running a self-quiz app (Anki cards), and when my finger would approach a button, the app would lose focus. Had to tap the center of the app window to get it to refocus, and that often didn’t hold. Finally gave that up and switched back to the Nexus.

– Input options are not clear. Sometimes I get a soft keyboard. Other times I get that freckled eggs handwriting app.

I tried again the next day, in a chair in a room next to the AP. Say, 20ft away and not quite line of sight to the wireless DSL. Worked, sortof.
– Maintained wireless contact OK, but couldn’t access Internet at times. Might be a DSL or ISP problem, but the LH doesn’t seem to deal with a flaky connection as well as, say, my Nexus.
– Screen was not as sensitive as the night before, but after a while I had the same ‘lost focus’ problems

I also tried it outside, about 60ft away from the AP. I did this by first standing under the AP and making sure it had a good connection, then walking out to a shaded area in my back yard, where I like to sit in the evening with my Nexus during that one week of the year when it’s not too hot, too cold, or too skeetery. This week it’s too hot, but I persevere.

– Held the Internet link for a while, but ended up dropping it.

– Fingerpointing worked for a while, and then the app started losing focus again. Using the stylus worked fine, but you could tell it was expecting me to do something more exciting than just clicking a button with it.

– Glare in the shade wasn’t much of a problem. I held it in portrait mode, with one end in my lap and the other rotated up to my face. Solved the glare problem, and brought the fonts closer.

– The tablet got warm, but not uncomfortably so. I was never afraid that my salient features would catch fire.

Conference Report
My college holds an offsite all-hands conference the week before school starts every year. I took the LH along to see how it performed in that setting. The answer was just as mixed as its structure.

– It connected to the local wireless just fine, and held the connection all day.

– Battery life was good. I started with a full 6-hour charge, and six hours later I still had three hours left. Partly that was because it was in sleep mode some of the time, and partly because I didn’t make any great demands on it — LibreOffice for notes, and gmail to send them to the secretary.

– Using it in tablet mode got very tiring after a while. And using it in my lap caused glare problems.

– I tried using the stylus for handwritten notes, but quit after one too many freckled eggs. On the other hand the soft keyboard, properly sized, was relatively easy to touch type on. Relatively is, of course, relative, and it was never as comfortable as a real, ergonomic keyboard.

Spousal Input

My wife used the LH briefly, in tablet mode, for light surfing and playing a couple of online games. She had problems with it being sometimes unresponsive in touchscreen mode, and slow in responding when using the stylus. It was heavy, and needed propping up. If there was a problem, it wasn’t always clear it was the hardware, the OS, or the browser. She prefers the Nexus.

Testing Lenovo – First Impressions

September 16, 2013

This is the first of three parts. Here’s Part 2  , and Part 3 .

One of the fun sides to my job is that I get to test out new equipment that the U is considering. I recently was given a Lenovo Helix Ultrabook. It’s a reasonably light (3.8lb) for a laptop, but heavy for an ultrabook. The screen rotates, and is removable, to become a tablet.

In some ways, I’m not the guy to be reviewing a rig like this. I’m not a fan of laptops. For one thing, I’ve used a full-sized ergo keyboard for so long that it’s actually painful to type on a laptop for any length of time, and I’ve lost the ability to touch type on one. I don’t have Serina Williams fingernails, but mine are long enough that they catch on a laptops keyboard. For another thing, I’m not a Windows fan, and I’m particularly not a Win 8 fan. I know. Deal With It. I’ll try to avoid egregious beatings-up of Win 8 here, except as needed to discuss how it’s implemented on this platform.

I pounded on the Lenovo for most of a long weekend, and also loaned it to my wife to use at home, to get her impressions. I’m going to break this review into three parts: First Impressions, Closer Looks, and Conclusions. I didn’t test everything, because I’m not a testing lab, and I didn’t try out the various features for long enough to get used to them, because iiadesu — don’t wanna. So, let’s get started.

– The full rig is solid feeling, but a little heavy. It’s more like our old MacBook Pro than a MacBook Air.

– The docking assembly is also solid. Easy to use lever to undock, clicks in place solidly on re-dock. However, the black backplate of the dock, and the black bezel of the tablet, and the black docking clamp are all… black… and can be hard to see when docking. Similar complaints can be made about the dark grey port labels on the black background. That’s part of this whole exciting industrial design approach, where “Every time I press one of these black controls, labelled in black on a black background, a little black light lights up black to let me know I’ve done it.” Other that that, the dock sits open to the elements, and looks to be a fine collection tool for dust, dog hair, cheetos, and small owls.

– The trackpad had typical trackpad jitters. Had to sit there carefully moving my finger around like I was some kid toying with spilled milk from his breakfast cereal. To keep the pointer where you pointed it you have to lift your finger straight up. The slightest sideways force makes it slip off the target and you no longer have focus. Corner clicking on the trackpad required a firm finger — a simple depress often didn’t work, which means the pointer is even more likely to drift. Point-with-finger/Click-with-thumb would also pull the cursor off focus. Point and click is really a two-handed job. My wrists and forearms ached after the shortest sessions.

–  It came with IE and Office 2013 already installed. IE opened up with a multi-tab-set of Lenovo ads. Quickly installed Firefox, and from there installed LibreOffice. This will all be overwritten when they re-image it, but I don’t plan to evaluate the hardware and the OS and the software.

– The default screen fonts were extremely hard to read, even with my PC glasses on. I changed settings and Win8 wanted to restart. Where do I restart? Go to card deck. User logo has a ‘sign out’ option. Signing out brings me back to the splash screen. I see that it’s 4:30 in Seattle, very useful to know. Clicking on that screen reveals the login screen, and that screen has the power button. Seriously Win8?

– I decided to RTFM and see if there was a better way to power cycle. Finally found the on-board Lenovo manual. First thing was a page that told me I’d get cancer if I handled the power cord. Not much on power cycling, ’cause that’s a Win8 issue regardless of the hardware. Went on the net and opened the Microsoft knowledge base, which gave me a smarmy message about never needing to turn it off because it goes to sleeps and that’s just as good. If it’s so damned good, why don’t the instructions tell me “now, let your little PC sleep for a while, so it can learn all those new fonts.” After digging for a bit, it turns out there’s a preferred way to do it. Stroke your way to the right corner of the desktop to get the options sidebar. Then stroke your way to the bottom to get to the ‘Settings’ option. You know, the one that lets you change the way your computer does things. Stroke your way to the bottom of that, and click the power button icon. Seriously.

– restart brings up ‘Lenovo solution center’ to tell me that two unidentified devices are not installed. Thanks, Lenovo. I was sure there were more unidentified devices than that I hadn’t installed. Probably NSA virtual malware.

– There are two USB ports on the back, plus a power port and a video port for a monitor, which I didn’t test*. As an aside, the Helix is evidently designed to use wireless as its primary connection. Hardwired connection to an ethernet requires a USB2Ethernet dongle, which I didn’t have. From the pictures on the web, the dongle doesn’t have a USB port of its own, so when you use wired ethernet you lose one of your two USB ports. Given that I very often want to use three USB ports (for USB keyboard, mouse, and thumb drive), this design decision puts us at a -2 portcount.

*However, I note that it uses a MDP2HDMI cable, which means the VGA links on most of the University projectors are not compatible

Tomorrow, we go into greater detail on how the Lenovo Helix does its job.

Happy Birthday Ethernet

May 22, 2013

This May seems to be the month for decadal anniversaries. The Ethernet protocol turns 40 today. It started out running on coax cable that was about the size and stiffness of a garden hose, with the pressure on, and gave only 10MB/s throughput. Now, it’s up to gigabit speeds over twisted pair. Not only is it incomparably faster, but you don’t have to worry about your drop-ceiling ….dropping… if you have a long run of it across a room.

As the article says, it’s not every technology that can claim to be cutting edge, 40 years later.

Only Connect

February 27, 2013

Two months almost to the day from when the trouble started, it appears to have been fixed. Short form: it was the DSL modem…plus.

To summarize (the deets may be found via the Only Connect tag). In mid-December, our connection started acting wonky, and our mail clients could only receive, not send. CenturyLink came and did their best — whole house filter, dedicated DSL line, lots of activity at the back end. Some problems were fixed, others (email), not. After a week of work, including having techs spend hours in the house, they went away, beaten and confused. They said they tought it might be an ethernet port configuration issue…which, for various reasons, was just silly.

We limped along with workarounds (get mail via the mailer, reply via gMail…). I kept poking at the problem as time allowed, building logic trees of things I’d tried — it’s not a LAN wiring problem because my wife’s macbook works fine through the same switch/cable that her PC does. Her PC talks to the network printer fine, so her cable to the switch is OK…etc.

Finally, I borrowed a DSL modem from the university. It didn’t totally fix things, but it fixed enough for me to go back to CenLink and ask for a new one. They sent it via UPS and it was here within 24hrs. How’s that for service? Half an hour on the phone with their internet folks getting things set up (it was being cranky about passwords), and everything seems to work. I’ve been able to sign into my sites, MJ has been able to do our online banking, and email works all ’round.

The repair guy had tried a modem off the truck earlier, and it hadn’t helped, so we swapped back. I’m thinking there were multiple problems, like with the house wiring and maybe a config at the Central Office, and we fixed those after we tried the modem. The old modem hadn’t failed, it was just flaky, and however the Win and Mac boxen talk to things, they must be a lot more forgiving than Linux. So that accounts for the OS issues.

One remaining problem is that my wireless AP doesn’t seem to recognize the new modem. I can log on to the wireless, but if I type in a webpage, I get an immediate ‘can’t find server’. It’s prbably a simple configuration issue, and in any event it’s not a real problem, because the new router has a wireless capability, it’s just not positioned optimally for the house. It just barely works in the bedroom, for example, and not at all in the back yard. Since I don’t plan to sit in the back yard with my Nexus and a glass of Piesporter Goldtröpfchen until, you know, the snow melts enough to find the deck chairs, I’m going to give up on that until Spring Break.

Only Connect

December 27, 2012

Thursday, December 27th
Over the weekend I posted another query on the Ubuntu Forums, and this time got an answer. Not on what might be wrong, but what might be a useful diagnostic. As a result I downloaded wireshark, a packet sniffer program, and got some captures of failures. Things run fine, then suddenly there’s a whole bunch of bad packets. It’s definitely logon associated, since I don’t see many bad packets when just surfing.

Also brought a new (refurb) computer online — Win7 with IE9. Funnily enough, it doesn’t have a problem.

Thursday still another CenLink guy came, stayed about three hours. He’d also been working from the central office side, changing ports and such. Got things to work on his XP laptop. Went back to office. He called later and said his techs thought it might be an ‘ethernet port config’ issue. I doubt this because it’s on so many different machines.

So, that’s my status. For blogging and banking I’m reduced to using Windows. For email, I can still receive on Evolution, and sometimes send. Fallback is gMail.

MJ is in somewhat worse shape, because she’s got a lot of groups and stuff she mails to. Right now, she still gets mail through Thunderbird, plus she’s got CenturyLink Webmail open on the U12 PC to handle replies, and she’s been getting the old Apple laptop re-synched for her trip next week.

I’ve looked into alternative ISP’s, and have been told they’re worse than CenturyLink. At least CenturyLink was willing to try.

1. It’s OS associated. Win7 works. Two flavors of Ubuntu, and one Fedora, don’t. My Nexus 7 has problems.
2. It’s not just an OS issue. I can’t believe I’m the only Linux user in this college town, but they haven’t had any other complaints. So it’s local to me, or CenLink’s configuration for me.
3. It’s not browser associated. Four different browsers have failed.
4. It’s not the DSL modem. We swapped it out and the problems continued, so we swapped it back.
5. It’s not something mundane like distance to the Central Office. I couldn’t hit it with a baseball from my back yard, but Willie Mays probably could.

My guess is that it has something to do with how the secure links handshake. Windows and Google are evidently more relaxed about how they do things.

Only Connect

December 21, 2012

Friday, December 21st
Different guy this time. Brought his own laptop. Said he’d been working at it from the Central Office end using our user ID and was having the same problems. Left at two, came back at 3 and stayed until a search party arrived looking for him at 5. Poor guy was just a gap-filler from up near Colville.

He swapped out some lines in the house, to put the DSL on its own filtered line. Helped a little. Long weekend ahead, because the phone pholks get off Christmas Eve/Day

Only Connect

December 20, 2012

Wednesday, December 19th

The telco crew was out here surprisingly fast, less than 24hrs. They checked the wiring into the house and found a worn spot just below the box. We couldn’t do anything that day, because the wire went into a section of the garage that was piled with stuff. They went away, and I went to work.

Thursday, December 20th

They’re back, and it was the work of half an hour to splice in a new run of line from the box to a suitable point inside. Did a phone check, no static. Problem continued.

Another CenLink guy came around noon and left at 2. He was on the phone a lot. Voice on the other end saying “I don’t know what to tell you”. He was on the phone so much his charge depleted. Luckily, he was seeing the same problems I was, only moreso, on both his setup at the office and his WinXP laptop. He said the problem isn’t local, which may or may not be true.

Only Connect

December 18, 2012

Tuesday, December 18th

No joy. Called the CIH again. Spent almost an hour on the phone with them. They were surprisingly helpful, given their limited technology. They said they heard a lot of scratching on the line, and suggested I contact the telephone side.

Note: The browser timeout problem appears on my U10 box with Opera, Chromium, and Firefox; on MJ’s U12 machine with Opera and Firefox, and, now, our backup WinXP box with IE7.

Note: General browsing is fine. Downloads are fine. Crunchyroll anime streaming is fine.

Only Connect

December 17, 2012

Monday, December 17th
Not only is there an email problem, but there’s a website logon problem as well. A number of sites that I go to have logon protocols of various levels of security. The problem is, I keep getting server timeouts, but not on all of them and not all the time. WordPress is a problem, as is Twitter, and FlashcardDB and FaceBook. Sometimes WordPress won’t even give me the login screen. No problems with gMail or the EWU systems. Note: the campus is only a couple blocks away, but the actual routing is done somewhere in Oregon, so all of my data gets electronically schlepped five hundred miles or so to go down the street.

Called the CenturyLink Internet Hotline. They had me point our mailers at a different server. Didn’t have any suggestions about browsers.

Posted a query to the Ubuntu Forums. No answer so far.

Only Connect

December 14, 2012

Friday, December 14th

On the morning of December 14th, a day that shall live in infamy, our CenturyTel email went down. No problem. Happens often. Usually comes back within hours or even minutes. I mention it to MJ so that she doesn’t think it’s something she did.

Well, it’s sort of working. We get email fine. We can’t send well. What’s that mean? I use Evolution mailer on Ubuntu 10, MJ uses Thunderbird mailer on Ubuntu 12. Same problem for both. Can get email OK, but hangs when it tries to send. About 85% of the time it times out. If I leave it in the outbox, it might get sent later, no guarantees. MJ’s problem is, she can send an original message, but not a long one, and she can’t reply.

U.S. Economic Growth 1750-2050 Part 1

September 25, 2012

There’s a paper over at VoxEu* which postulates that US economic growth is coming to an end.

The paper is deliberately provocative and suggests not just that economic growth was a one-time thing centred on 1750-2050, but also that because there was no growth before 1750, there might conceivably be no growth after 2050 or 2100. The process of innovation may be battering its head against the wall of diminishing returns. Indeed, this is already evident in much of the innovation sector.
Robert J. Gordon, 11 September 2012

I have some issues with this, but not because of a knee-jerk “that can’t happen to US” response. It obviously can and must happen, if only because of thermodynamics. Our ability to provide energy to our global economy is going to hit a wall sometime in the next 300-400 years. I’m not talking about peak oil, I’m talking about some combination of having to cover the earth in solar panels vs raising the surface temperature to the boiling point.

On the surface, Gordon makes an interesting case: that we’ve already cleared the technological low-hanging fruit, so that future productivity gains will be harder to come by; meanwhile, structural issues in US society add additional headwinds that will help drag our performance back down to colonial levels.

I guess my initial problems with this paper stem from three issues: he’s given up on the computer revolution too soon, he’s ignored some new technology that will have a major impact on productivity, and he’s identified a start point, but not an end point for the productivity drop.

First, the computers. No. First, the technology. Technology always takes longer to have an impact than its inventors realize. As I tell my students when we talk about bringing new technology into a firm, assume that it does exactly what the vendor says it does; what else has to work in order for it to be successful? My favorite example is frozen food. Clarence Birdseye invented flash freezing of food in 1922, but frozen food didn’t become an American staple for over thirty years. What happened? What else had to work? Refrigerated trains for distribution, glass topped freezer displays in the general store for sales, home refrigerators with freezer compartments in place of ice boxes. It always takes longer. Computers are a post-WWII phenomenon, and general purpose business computing really only started with the IBM 360 in the 1960’s. Fifty years later, we are just on the verge of ubiquitous computing — as Cory Doctorow says, a hearing aid is a computer you stick in your ear, and a car is a computer you sit in.

As for new technology, I see nanscale engineering and 3D printing as game changers that will have major impacts on how things are done. Nanoscale materials, so far, are giving us self-cleaning cloth, paint, and glass; medical drug delivery techniques, and new ways of embedding computers. 3D printing will let us have the cost advantages of mass production combined with the customization potential of the job shop — single unit mass production. Are these advancements equivalent to building the railroads across the West? Probably not, but we won’t know their true impact until, say, 2050.

Third, Gordon claims his ‘headwinds’, about which more anon, will bring US productivity back to colonial levels before that date, 2050. But he doesn’t say what might lie on the other side. The structure of US society isn’t going to freeze at that point, and some of the drags on productivity (such as old folks like me) will be starting to ease up (OK, die off) by that time.

Now, he has an interesting graph, possibly the best labeled and easiest to understand of the lot, showing the change in actual and predicted levels of GDP per capita in constant dollars, 1300-2100.

GDP/capita 1300-2100 Source: Gordon, CEPR Policy Insight No 63.

What makes the graph compelling is that it’s a classic S-curve, headed for a rolloff at about $90K/capita sometime shortly after 2100. What makes the graph less than compelling is that there’s no indication we are actually past the inflection point, and until one passes the inflection point there’s no sure way of predicting what that upper bound will be.

Next week, I’ll address some other issues. Like, does it matter? Is it good news?

Did I say next week? I meant “Next time I have a chance to work on this”.

* A web portal operated by the European Centre for Economic Policy Research

Droid X Power-Off Issues – Update on the Update

May 12, 2012

So, it looks like Motorola has finally fixed failed in their purported attempt to fix the ‘independent power on’ problem.

When the OS upgrade came out, I thought it was fixed. So did everyone else. I tried it a couple of times and it worked — when I powered it off, it stayed that way. Then, this week, I started noticing a few hits on the topic here.

I hadn’t been paying much attention, because I’ve been using the phone as an alarm clock (Passing of Time is a much nicer way to wake up, and why don’t alarm clock makers add an mp3 option?), and so rarely turn it off. Last night I did, and five minutes later it came back on. In another month or so I’m elegible for a phone upgrade with Verizon, and I think I might just go with a non-Motorola model.

Microsoft Strikes Again

May 10, 2012

As I have been forced to admit on a number of occasions, I still have a Win XP machine. It’s a refurbished Dell Optiplex, and I keep it around because there are some things that can only be done on a Win box. This is deliberate. It’s called vendor lock-in, and the civilized world moved past that idea sometime in the last century.

I keep the WinBox religiously updated and patched, and run an active AV program. It has, so far, met my simple needs. Until today.

Last Tuesday was, of course, Patch Tuesday, a day most sysadmins prefer to spend under their beds. As usual, there was a monster download, and as usual, it required a reboot.

Reboot, wait, get a flash of the Win logo and Intel logo and the BIOS instructions, get a flash of the Win XP logo and progress bar. Then all is blackness. Monitor still getting a signal. HDD chattering its little heart out. Nothing on the screen.

Reboot doesn’t help. Power cycle doesn’t help. Reboot with f8 doesn’t help (subliminal flash of the boot choice screen with the choice bar near the bottom, then nothing). [insert several hours of increasingly frustrated efforts]. Nada.

Interestingly, the printer function still works, and I can print from my Linux box to the printer attached to the XP machine. So it has something to do with the display.

So, I broke out a more modern monitor than the one that came with the Optiplex (both are VGA, though). And it works. Why doesn’t the other one? Who knows? If one were given to conspiracy theories, one might think that Microsoft has found a way to trash older setups, so that we will all be forced to move to a new computer with Win 7 (or even Win 8, AKA Vista 2). You know, in their proud “the job isn’t done until Lotus won’t run” tradition.

Either that or they just don’t care.

Two hours out of my life that I won’t soon see again. Thanks, Microsoft. You’re a princ.

Droid X Power-Off Issues – Update on the Update

April 23, 2012

UPDATE: So, it looks like Motorola has finally fixed failed in their purported attempt to fix the ‘independent power on’ problem. At least, that’s what everybody says. They pushed out the 15MB 4.5.621 update at midnight. I tried it once and it worked.

UPDATE ON THE UPDATE: I tried it again, and it didn’t work. Idiots.

Google’s Ad Algorithm

November 25, 2011

Robert X Cringely has, in the past, written about Google’s search and advertising algorithms. Other search engines, like Bling, are trying to slide into the market by designing better search tools. Cringely says it’s not the search algorithm that’s making Google all its money, it’s the ad-matching algorithm. Google reportedly has a higher click-through rate than other companies because its algorithm does a better job of matching user interests to ad content. Not always.

My Intro-To-MIS class has its own gMail account, and I am always emailing back and forth with them on various class topics. For some reason, the topic mix (which ranges across all dimensions of MIS in business) has caused the Google ad algorithm to decide that the products I’d find most interesting are those produced by….drumroll….SCO

Yes, SCO. That SCO. The essence of all that is evil in the world SCO.* My gMail page is dominated by companies offering SCO products. Well, a company. This, despite the fact that if I were caught in a trap that could only be opened by using a SCO product, my first question would be is gnawing off my foot an alternative? The Google algorithm obviously has a major flaw.

Buy SCO Unix & Unixware 7
SysIntegrators sells & supports all SCO UnixWare 7.1.4 Operating Systems. Learn more.

The other funny thing is that the SCO web page for SysIntegrators, the company placing the ad, was last updated in December of 2009. According to the Groklawtimeline (thank you PJ), that’s two years after SCO lost their case against IBM and Novell, found out they didn’t own Unix, burned up most of their money in lawyers fees, told the Utah judge they didn’t need to sequester the rest to pay Novell because they weren’t about to go bankrupt or anything — then switched to New Jersey and declared bankruptcy. Evidently, SI is cruising on autopilot, because I doubt that anyone has spent any money on new Unixware licenses since then. As I recall, SCO only earned about $50K in license fees the year they declared bankruptcy. Why SI are continuing to advertise the product line (and pay money to Google) is as much a mystery as the Google ad algorithm.

*Did you know there was a company in San Francisco who said in their recruiting announcement that if your resume showed you had worked for SCO after the start of the lawsuit, you shouldn’t bother to apply for a job with them.