Monday, October 31, 2005

Traitor to the penguin

So, my non-geek gf has been using Ubuntu so far, and liking it - she likes KDE, and she likes the way it doesn't take 10 mins to boot up, unlike XP.

But Ubuntu just released Breezy, and we're both very unimpressed by the upgrade procedure. What the hell is it doing, downloading every single package on her system again, with the same version that is already on there?? And then after hours of pointless downloads, failing right at the start. That's just not impressive.

So she wants to try something with a better upgrade path. Gentoo fits that bill, of course, as it never has a new version. But she doesn't want to use Gentoo, and I can't say I think it'd be a good idea.

So I suggested the OS that inspired the Portage system, and handed her my FreeBSD install CD.

I personally was unimpressed with FreeBSD. The installation was a particularly lousy one, taking me hours to get anywhere with, and finally leaving me with a non-functional BSD because it won't accept my USB keyboard.

But it worked fine for her, and we left it installing KDE overnight. It did the whole download fine, but we haven't tried actually running it yet.

Hopefully, it'll work out, and she'll have a nice, low-maintenance KDE-based computer.

But she's doing it without Tux!

I would say the Devil made me do it. But I'm too knowledgeable for that.

So: the Daemon made me do it ;o)

Friday, October 28, 2005

How sad & geeky is this?

So, I noticed that my Firefox bookmark sidebar at work (XP) was using a much smaller font than my FF at home (Linux). And it was an ugly little font, too. It wasn't so bad when I was using a 1024x768 res, but with a 1280x1024. . .

So I went into the display manager and told it to use the next font size up. Which worked, but also reset my custom colour theme to the default - to cut down on glare, I've toned down the colours. The toolbars are dark grey, and the default background is a pale blue rather than glaring white. It's just easier on the eyes.

So, I had to get a bit more in-depth with the settings to turn it back to my desired colours. And I noticed a font option - use "ClearType" instead of "Standard".

Hmm. . .

So I switch to Clear Type, and suddenly. . . all my fonts go anti-aliased! All the annoying grainy-ness vanished into smooth curves.

So: Just how much of a geek do you have to be in order to derive pleasure from the fact that you can now use anti-aliased fonts on your XP workstation?

(If you're not enough of a geek to understand the difference, allow me to clarify: Non-aliased fonts are just plain black & white, so tend to appear pixellated when you have angles and curves:

while anti-aliased fonts use mixed shades to make the fonts look much smoother and less grainy:

I think you can probably appreciate the difference from these comparisons. You can also see the shade of blue-purple that I use instead of white as my default background :o)

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Something completely different...

I really must try to get back to learning Python.

I've tried to learn other languages in the past, but never gotten anywhere. Python is the first one I've ever read howto's and so forth, understood them, and been able to apply them to write simple code.

So I got an O'Reilly book on it, to try and learn enough to be able to write a few apps.

I did great for the first few chapters, but then it started getting harder, and I needed to invest more time & energy, so it kind of petered out.

But I keep coming across things that I want to do, and knowing that I could do them if only I could actually write code. For instance, I have a bunch of data I want to process at work. I know exactly how to do everything: What objects I'd need, what logic, etc. The thing is, I don't know how to translate it into actual code. And it's getting frustrating. I keep finding new and interesting things that I'd like to try. But I can't.

So I've 'borrowed' a pad from the stationary cupboard, and I'm going to go back over the book, make notes, do examples, and do my best to learn the language. I'm sick of being a non-coder.

I have a bit of diving kit that I want to code an interface for - the manufacturers supply a guide for it, so it should be easy enough. And I want to do some Window Manager stuff - I've even discovered there's projects out there to have WMs entirely based on Python. How cool would that be? Even FVWM can't match the customisability that writing my own WM could bring.

I've got to get back into it. I really have.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

My heart bleeds

A new law in Peru makes it illegal to buy software that prevents use of competing products.

i.e. Microsoft have just become illegal in Peru. For public use, anyway.

Tragic, eh? :)

Monday, October 24, 2005

Handheld choice

The GP forum had a thread the other day, sparked off by somebody doing a comparison of the PSP and the up-coming GP2X. He concluded (amazingly enough for a GP post) that the GP2X was the better of the two.

I thought I'd try a comparison of my own, against the PSP and the iPod, both of which are possible contenders. It is, of course, heavily biased: It's a list of why I've pre-ordered the GP2X instead of an iPod or PSP, not about why anybody else should.

Price: GP2X.
The PSP is not much under £200, and the games & movies are expensive. The video iPod is over £200. The £130 I paid for my GP2X (and a few accessories) makes it the clear winner, even without including the free games.

Screen: GP2X
The PSP screen is bigger, but less suitable for emulating old games. I believe an emu-sized screen on the PSP will actually be effectively smaller than on the GP2X. The iPod's screen is smaller than either, of course.

Batteries: GP2X
Generic AAs or proprietary batteries? No-brainer.

Media: GP2X
Okay, the iPod is designed to be a media player. But the screen is tiny & it's not a handhold-friendly shape. It doesn't support Ogg out of the box, but it does support DRM. I'm not using iTunes, and I'm not impressed by some MP3s. I ripped my CDs to Ogg, which neither of the others do.
The PSP screen is possibly better for movies, but you have to consider *what* movies: Sure, you can buy mini-DVDs, but I'm damned if I'm going to buy my movies twice. The GP2X supports Xvid and DivX movies right out of the box, so I can easily rip my DVDs to .avi files, dump them on a generic memory stick, and play them. Can I do this with a PSP? No.
Essentially, they might be better for the RIAA and the MPAA, but the PSP and the iPod are not so good for the consumer. I'm not paying more money to buy DRM-encumbered copies of media I already own.

Games: GP2X
Yes, the PSP certainly has better 3D graphics.
So what? It's people valuing graphics over gameplay that have turned the industry into what it is today - I haven't bought a computer game in years.
I started playing Doom in 1995, in something like 320x240 res. Now I have Doom 3. The difference? It's still a FPS, it just looks prettier. I actually prefer playing Doom 2.
There are far too many games that are the same rubbish that's been around for over a decade with better graphics, none of which really appeals to me.
A great game with crappy graphics is a great game.
A crappy game with great graphics is a crap game.
All the PSP offers over the GP2X games is prettiness. It can keep it. The games for the GP2X were all designed when playability was the only criteria, and graphics were an afterthought. That's why they're still played today. (And that's why I've been complaining to my GF that I'm stuck on a Dizzy Egg game. . . )
Not to mention the difference in price: Expensive vs. free.
Oh, and then there's the number of them: Via emulators & GPL'ed games, the GP2X has access to hundreds, maybe thousands. Far more than the PSP has.

Functionality: GP2X
Simply put: The GP2X is totally open, and runs Linux. Every piece of software available for Linux is therefore potentially available for the GP2X, free of charge. And porting is encouraged, unlike the PSP where you have to downgrade the firmware just to allow homebrew software.

Storage: GP2X
Okay, the iPod has gigs and gigs to play with. However, I only have 3GB of music in total. All the rest of the space would be a waste of time. True, some movies might not fit well onto the generic SD cards, but I'm not actually planning on watching full-length movies. I'm thinking more about half-hour comedy shows, maybe a Wallace & Grommit film at most. The GP2X has plenty of space for my needs, the iPod is overkill, and the PSP is proprietary.

That's about all I can think of. I think it explains why I'm buying an obscure handheld like the GP2X, rather than the more well-known alternatives. I've left out performance issues, as that will have to wait until the GP2X is actually released - it's impossible to say how the dual-CPU architecture will work until then.

I'll end with a wish-list of what I'd like to see in a hypothetical GP3:

Completely ambidextrous: Hold at any angle, it detects how it's held and rotates the screen display if necessary/desired.

Four buttons (red) on each side of the screen (grey). A joystick (blue) on one side, and a trackball (blue) on the other. A button on each corner (red)

A fairly wide touch screen that can either be used completely, or can section-off the sides so they can show what the keys are designated as.

I reckon that this would give huge potential for controls of games: The trackball could emulate a mouse for FPS controls; the orientation-detecting could make for some pretty good driving game controlling (rotate the whole handheld like a steering wheel); and having lots of buttons is of course always handy. The touchscreen could enable good text-input like on a PDA, either via handwriting recog. or a virtual keyboard.

Just a few thoughts. . .

Friday, October 21, 2005

Why not Windows?

I don't like Windows. And not because of the usual "It's buggy, it's insecure, it's overpriced" reasons. Or not just because of them, anyway. Even if Windows were released free with the best, most secure code ever written, I still wouldn't want to use it.

Why not?

It's mostly, I think, the fact that a Windows computer always feels like somebody else's. It's like borrowing a friend's car - you might adjust the seat and move the mirrors, but aside from these tiny changes, you can't do anything. You can't replace the radio, respray the bodywork, or make any other real changes.

Think about it: What can you change on a default XP installation? You can move the taskbar to one of the other edges. You can choose one of two themes. You can add things to the taskbar. You can change the wallpaper.

What if you don't want a taskbar? Or what if you want TWO taskbars? What if you want more than one menu to be available from the taskbar(s)? What if you want the window toolbar to be at the side instead of the top?

Those are trivial in Linux. Good luck getting them to work on Windows.

The Windows GUI is pretty good at its job. But there's a lot I don't like about it. Can I edit it? No. Can I skip having it at all, and run a different one? No. At best, I can run another GUI on top of the existing one. And even then, the normal GUI comes straight back at the tap of the Win key or Alt-Tab.

I never use IE. Can I uninstall it? I want more functionality in my login screen than just a place for names and passwords to be entered. Can I have it? I want to use my own icons instead of the dull Windows ones. Can I?

Nope. I can't escape the Windows logo or the look-and-feel of a Windows computer. It's a perpetual somebody-else's-computer, and that somebody is Microsoft.

There's too much I can't change, too much that I don't want & have to have, and too much that I want but can't have. Even with all the third-party enhancements in the world, I couldn't get Windows to work the way I wanted it to. My Linux computer, however, works exactly the way I want it to. It runs only the specific software I want it to be running, it looks exactly the way I want it to look, it acts the way I want it to act.

My Linux computer is *my* computer. Not Linus Torvalds', not RMS's, not anybody. It's *mine*.

A Windows computer, I borrow from Microsoft and obey their rules.

Since I pay for the hardware it runs on, I'll install an OS that lets me actually keep my computer for myself.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Web icons

You want to know a pet peeve of mine?

Web pages that don't have an icon.

I didn't care when I was restricted to using IE for most of my browsing, since IE has lousy support for the little icons that appear next to the URL - it only shows them if you bookmark the site, and even then it only shows them IN the "Favourites" list.

But now I can use Firefox the whole time. And it is my habit to have my bookmarks visible as a sidebar at all times. So I no longer like websites not having one of those little icons, as it spoils the look of my sidebar :o)

And it's not like it's hard to do it. When I first went in search of a guide to doing it, I was expecting to have to jump through all sorts of hoops. Instead, I found there are two main ways of doing it, and they're both laughably easy.

The first method is based on the fact that the little picture was originally there to pretty up your "Favourites" menu. It worked simply enough: Create a small (16x16 pixels) icon file named "favicon.ico" and put it in your web page's root directory. Ka-ching, every favicon-supporting browser will automatically look for this file. No coding necessary, the file just has to exist to be used.

The downside is, most common graphics packages don't do .ico files. So you might not be able to use the first method.

But that still leaves the second method, usable by anybody: You save your little 16x16 image as a PNG or GIF file - in fact, I've even seen an *animated* GIF file used as a Favicon.

The downside is, browsers only look for the favicon.ico files. So this approach needs some code to be placed in your web page. No big problem, all you need is to locate this inside your <HEAD> tags, and you're away:

<link rel="shortcut icon" href="favicon.png" />
<link rel="icon" href="favicon.png" />
<link rel="shortcut icon" href="favicon.png" />

The above example assumes you used a PNG format and called it "favicon.png", but you could use "wibblenertz.gif" for all it matters - so long as the icon is present in your web directory, and called whatever the code says it is, it'll work.

As easily as that, you have a little icon that will show up in any decent browser beside your URL, and in most others in your list of bookmarks.

Innit marvellous?

Worry for 1+1=2

There's a story over on Groklaw that covers a new patent ruling - apparently, they've approved being able to patent simple mathematical formulae.

Obviously, with a domain name like mine, that's a worry - but I'm pretty sure I can claim prior art on 1+1=2 ;o)

Obviously, you've got the doom-and-gloom brigade predicting the end of the world due to patents - innovation will be impossible, or go to other countries while ours collapse, blah, blah.

Me, I think they're guilty of the common failing that people have in predicting the future - they assume that current trends will continue indefinitely.

Here's the thing: They never do.

Patents are already silly. They're getting sillier. More and more things are becoming impossible to do without violating a patent. While bad patents are abstract "this could happen if" things, nobody cares. But it's starting to impact on people's lives already, and it's only going to get worse.

Take Blackberry's being unable to send email because of a patent claim. This infringes on the lives of thousands of workers. This isn't an abstract, this is a very obvious "Patents are screwing things up". As more and more examples get more and more in the way, the demand will get ever-greater to sort out patents. The pro-patent lobby is currently able to say "More patents are good" because no ill-effects are apparent. When they become apparent, no excuses will be accepted: The patent system will be revealed as broken, and there will be no choice but to sort it out.

In the meantime, enjoy the irony of the big pro-patent companies being hoist by their own petard as they are themselves blocked from doing things because other people have gotten silly patents first :o)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Work, bloody work

I work for a pharmaceutical company. We get animal-rights protests outside occasionally - we do have testing on rodents going on at this site. (Nothing to do with me, I work in the human trials area.)

They claim that we should stop testing drugs on animals, and use humans instead. What they think vetinary medicine should be tested on is anyone's guess. But I'm doing my part! I donate blood for research purposes. Half a litre over a 3-month period.

Or 400ml in one morning. And unlike the blood service, they don't just leave gravity and venous blood pressure to do the work. Oh no, they get right in there with syringes and actively suck it out of you.

Today, they used 20 syringes, and a needle that could have been used as a ballpoint pen. I got two lousy chocolate biscuits, and then back to work I came.

Still, I'm sure it's worth it for the satisfaction of knowing that I helped them get new medications onto the market.

The £100 tax-free bonus I'll be getting in time for Christmas is, of course, of no relevance at all.

Universal theme

Finally got around to it!

I use FVWM as my window manager. I also use GTK-based apps like Firefox and Gaim. I also use a few QT-based apps like Skype and KDEgames.

I long ago switched to a GTK theme that matched my FVWM decorations, but yesterday I finally located the app. that let me fiddle with QT's settings - most importantly, it swapped from the dreadful default font to the anti-aliased Bitstream that I use for everything else.

So much better now! Skype actually looks vaguely nice with small, curvy letters replacing the big, grainy ones it always had before.

GTK theme, QT config., and FVWM are all now working nicely together. Yet another minor niggle is gone for good.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


So, I got an email asking me about software install in Linux - specifically, he wanted something that "allows me to install software by double clicking an executable file and then locate a folder where I want to install the software in"

So, I wrote an answer, and then decided to put it here as well. So:

Here you'll run into problems. This is one of those places I highlighted in the article - Linux does things differently. Not badly, just differently. You don't download an installer via your browser, save it to your desktop, and double-click it to install it.

Instead of downloading a new installation program every time, you have one piece of software called a "package manager", and you do all installs via this one piece of software.

For example, when I installed the Firefox web browser on a Windows PC, these were the steps:

- Use Google to find out where to download Firefox from
- Go to
- Navigate to the "download" page
- Download the installer
- Double-click on the installer
- Tell the computer where to install the software. *Most* of the software will install here, however, it's important to remember that some of it goes elsewhere. (Installing to a USB disk & then trying to run the software on another Windows machine will illustrate this)

That's a typical enough Windows install, and it's an easy enough process. It's actually possible to do something very similar in some Linux distros, at least sometimes, however, the 'proper' way to do it is via the package management software. Installing Firefox on a Linux computer therefore consisted of:

- Open package manager
- Highlight "Firefox"
- Click "install"

Job done. And done with fewer steps, in fact, than in Windows.

Now, this doesn't allow you to specify where the installation happens. But there's a reason for that - in Linux, there's really no need to. After all, why does anybody want to install to a specific place? It makes it easy to find (most of) that software's files, and it make it easier to remove it if necessary.

Now, the whole point of a package manager is that it keeps track of installations for you, so using the package manager to install negates most of the need to keep track of the files. And the Linux filesystem hierarchy pretty much negates the rest - If I want the global config files, I'll look in /etc, if I want my personal config files I'll look in /home, and if I want the executable, I'll look in /usr/bin, and so on. Between my package manager and myself, we know where all the files will go, so there's no advantage in having them all in one place. Quite the contrary, in fact.

So: Admittedly, if you're browsing the web, find a cool bit of software on a web page, and want to install it, then just clicking on the "download" link of the page you're already on makes it seem like the installation is simpler the Windows way. But IMHO, the minor extra effort that you may have to go to to install something the Linux way is negated by the way the package manager will install it for you, keep track of the install for you, and also download any other pieces of software you may need before you can use the software.

Finally, if you have a real, pressing need for the software to go into a specific place, then you *can* do this by compiling it from source and specifying an install in a different place than the default. But that's a very specific and unusual need that a newbie is unlikely to have.

So: Installing software in Linux is, in my experience, certainly different from Windows, but in no way is it inferior. Quite the contrary - it's simpler and better managed, and coupled with the Linux filesystem hierarchy putting files in predictable places is a superior system all-round.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Hey, cool!

A new release of Vim - the improved Vi editor.

And they've got a decent one for windows on their site, instead of the crappy one I've had to put up with at work.

Wooo, maybe I can finally learn to use Vi as well as I want to - now I can use it at work as well as home!

How to make IE suck even more

Let's face it, IE isn't the best-loved browser in the world. You wouldn't fund a two-page spread in the Times advertising IE by asking for donations - you'd barely get a "Use IE" in the local free advertising rag.

But people should appreciate what they've got. So if you're an IE user, or know somebody who is, then I thought you would like to know that, no matter how bad it may be, there are always people who have it worse.

To start with, let's take bookmarks. Let's imagine an IT department that finds out that there's a handy feature that hides bookmarks that aren't used for more than a few days. Then let's imagine that their users have many bookmarks for things like the monthly timesheet, and helpful information resources that are also used regularly, but infrequently. Let's imagine how much these users appreciate all their bookmarks vanishing because they don't use them every day.

Next, for security reasons, let's make it impossible for our users to install *any* plugins or toolbars on their PCs. Imagine how happy the users will be, secure in the knowledge that they can't install anything that will block pop-ups and pop-unders, or give them a searchbar.

For further security, let's switch off IE's ability to remember passwords for the user, so they have to remember dozens of passwords for all the different web interfaces they need to use to do their job.

Let's make the default start page the company intranet, a page that nobody ever actually looks at.

And then, lastly, let's make it impossible for the users to change *any* of these settings. For security, of course.

Ahh, the thrill I used to get every time I browsed the Web at work. The surge of adrenalin as fury ate away at my job satisfaction.

The joy of discovering the Portable Firefox project and finding out that it worked perfectly.

You can't imagine the relief. Bookmarks that stay where they're put. Popups that never appear. Adverts erased from the web. Navigation through mouse gestures. Passwords without typing. It was like going from night into day.

And that's the biggest reason that I love Firefox!

Friday, October 14, 2005

Money money money

Well, I added Google ads to this blog. Why not, when they make it so easy? It's nice & unobtrusive, and I had to turn off my advert blocking to actually see it :)

Unlike most ads, I don't object to Google - they're simple, not obnoxious, and usually relevant to the page I'm visiting. If you have a problem with seeing them, here's how to get rid of them forever:

Get Firefox!

Add the following lines to your userContent file:
iframe[src*="googlesyndication"] {
display: none !important;

Open Firefox with the new file, and Google ads will be gone forever.

Or, you could click on them occasionally, and make me happy ;o)

A DRM thought

Was reading about Blu-Ray and HD-DVD earlier. There was mention made of the added DRM they'd support - big whoop.

Now, when it comes to DVDs, I don't much care about DRM - I don't want to burn copies of any of my DVDs, so I can mostly ignore DRM considerations.

But I *do* like to have the ability to rip DVDs on my computer - mainly because I have a GP32, and will soon have it's successor, the GP2X, both of which have movie playing facilities.

However, they have a 3.5" screen that's ~320x240 pixels, and are limited to stereo. A movie ripped for that sort of screen is not going to be too wonderful on a HD screen, nor will stereo impress on a Dolby Digital sound system.

The thought occurs that if they made the next-gen movies really tough to crack, but had a smaller, unprotected, do-as-you-like-we-don't-care, non-HD copy of the movie with a soundtrack limited to stereo ALSO present on every disc, then I wouldn't actually give a stuff about the DRM measures. I could watch the DRM'd movies on my DVD player no problem, but still have copies of that movie on my GP2X for when I'm out & about.

It'll never happen, I know, but it's was a thought I had about the whole sorry DRM mess - instead of trying to make an uncrackable DRM, which will never happen, they could just make it not worth anybody's while to crack it: If you can still copy a movie as much as you like, just with a slightly lower quality picture & soundtrack, then most people would be happy with that.

Vista screenshots

I've seen a few pix of what Vista will look like. Enough to know it's horrible - but then, I thought the same about XP, so no surprise there. I still use the Classic look: It may not be pretty, but at least it's not hideous.

So: Is it just me, or does anybody else get the impression that Microsoft finally latched onto the "Transparency is a cool feature" idea (After Linux and Apple have had it for ages, of course) but have no actual clue on how to use it in a particularly useful way?

See some screenshots if you haven't already

I mean, how does having the toolbar give a blurry impression of the window underneath improve the looks or the functionality? Are people really going to spend all the money on the high-quality monitors and graphics card Vista is going to require, just so they can have a blurred desktop?

Transparency for things like drop-shadows around windows are great - they add a real 3D quality that makes it much easier on the eye. And transparency in things like icons can be helpful, as you don't get glaring inconsistencies when you change the background colours.

But really - what does the Vista (Aero?) approach of turning the top of every window into a blurry mess really contribute to the look&feel? It looks like it was designed by a newbie who discovered a new toy and shoved it into every thing he could think of, instead of a professionally-designed, commercial desktop.

What a waste. . .

Well, that wasn't TOO painful

Jolly good, got FTP to my site working - only took about five attempts. Silly me not noticing that I had to include the part in the username.

*mutter mutter*

This isn't the first blog I've kept - there was a generic 1+1=2 blog, that I just couldn't be bothered to keep up because no bugger seemed to read it. There's another one on a different topic that I still add to, tho as far as I know, no bugger reads it. And now there's this one, which is quite likely to also go unread. Also, I tried not to be overly-geeky in the original blog, because it wasn't a "for-geeks" blog. Well, it wasn't aimed at anyone, really. That's probably why it faded away.

This has "Linux" built right into the URL, so if you're not a geek. . . well, you should have known better!

Why am I starting it, therefore?

Because every day for the last week, and many other days, I've been bored out of my skull at work. So this is something mildly more constructive than rechecking all my bookmarks every five bloody minutes.

Plus, my website's just started to get lots of visits (starting at a manic 31,000 hits a day on Satruday, dwindling to a steady 2,000 now, at the ned of the week) after a link was shoved to the *Linux is not Windows* page so there *is* actually a chance that it'll get read.

Note that this blog won't replace the website. Some people say "If you want to get a message across, say it in a blog". I don't. I say "If you want to get a message across, put it in a nice web page that people can link so /other people/ can discuss it in blogs". It's just a difference in style.

And style is what a lot of writers online don't have. I don't mean to boast, but I'm a better writer than many of the people who are publishing on the web at the moment. It's been a long-standing hobby of mine. I have many bits & pieces on, with pretty high reviews. I have a couple dozen emails of complimentary feedback on my Linux web pages, and (as far as I know) people still use my diving website as a reference for numerous topics. All this makes me fairly confident in saying that I can write pretty well. And since RSI is no longer a concern, courtesy of Peter Egoscue, I might as well indulge that hobby and write some stuff. And here it is. Woo!

Now, off to look for some Firefox extensions to make the whole thing easier - I'm sure there must be some by now. . .


Let's just see if this thing works, then. . .