Blog : Posts tagged with 'computers'

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Hello, Operator

In which we consider switching OS


Right, that’s enough of politics. For now, at least, until something else pops up and ires me.

Back onto even shakier ground, so far as quasi-religious strength of feeling goes. I’m having doubts. About my operating system.

Back in about 1998 or so, I installed Linux on my PC. There was one big reason behind it: Microsoft Word 97. Word 97, as far as I can remember it, was a horribly bug-ridden release; in particular, when you printed out a long document, it would skip random pages. I was due to write a 12,000 word dissertation, with long appendices and bibliography,* and I didn’t trust Word to do it. I’d had a flatmate who had tackled the same problem using Linux and LaTeX, so I went down the same route. Once it was all set up, and I’d written a LaTeX template to handle the university’s dissertation- and bibliography-formatting rules, everything went smoothly. And I’ve been a happy Linux user ever since.

Now, I’m not going to move away from Linux. I like Linux, I like the level of control it gives me over the PC, and the only Windows-only programs I use run happily under Wine. What I’m not sure about, though, is the precise flavour of Linux I use.

For most of the past decade, I’ve used Gentoo Linux. I picked up on it about a year after it first appeared, and liked what I saw: it gives the system’s installer a huge amount of control over what software gets installed and how it’s configured. It does this in a slightly brutal way, by building a program’s binaries from scratch when it’s installed; but that makes it very easy to install a minimal system, or a specialist system, or a system with exactly the applications, subsystems and dependancies that you want.

There are two big downsides to this. Firstly, it makes installs and updates rather slow; on my 4-year-old computer, it can take a few hours to grind through an install of Gnome or X. Secondly, although the developers do their best, there’s no way to check the stability of absolutely every possible Gentoo installation out there, and quite frequently, when a new update is released, something will break.**

I’m getting a bit bored of the number of times in the last few months that I’ve done a big update, then find that something is broken. Sometimes, that something major is broken; only being able to log in via SSH, for example, because X can’t see my keyboard any more.*** It can be something as simple as a single application being broken, because something it depends on has changed. It turns “checking for updates” into a bit of a tedious multi-step process. I do like using Gentoo, but I’m wondering if life would be easier if I switched over to Ubuntu, or Debian, or some other precompiled Linux that didn’t have Gentoo’s dependancy problems.

So: should I change or should I go stay? Can I be bothered to do a full reinstall of everything? What, essentially, would I gain, that wouldn’t be gained from any nice, clean newly-installed computer? And is it worth losing the capacity to endlessly tinker that Gentoo gives you? I’m going to have to have a ponder.

UPDATE: thanks to K for pointing out that the original closing “should I change or should I go?” doesn’t really make much sense as a contrast.

* The appendices took up the majority of the page count, in the end, because of the number of illustrations and diagrams they contained.

** Before any Gentoo-lovers write in: yes, I am using stable packages, and I do read the news items every time I run “emerge –sync”

*** I was lucky there that SSH was turned on, in fact; otherwise I’d have had to start up and break into the boot sequence before GDM was started.

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New World

In which FP jumbles the letters up


K was digging through her boxes of zines last night, hunting for something, and came across one she thought I’d find interesting. She passed it over. It was The Dvorak Zine – “changing the world, one keyboard at a time”.

I’ve heard of the Dvorak keyboard before. It’s a keyboard layout specifically designed to make typing quicker, and easier to learn. I’d never bothered, though, to investigate it, and find out what the layout actually is. The zine, though, is cunningly designed. The back page is a keyboard map; you prop it up on your desk and start typing away.

I’m not a proper typist. I’ve never learned to touch-type. My typing is pretty fast for someone who can’t type; but really it’s nothing more than very fast two-finger typing. As a result, it’s riddled with mistakes, and I spend more time going back and correcting what I’ve done than it takes to type the words in the first place. The Dvorak keyboard, though, seems specifically designed for touch-typing – and, looking at keys that type different letters to the letters printed on them would just be far too confusing for me. So, I thought: an ideal opportunity. Why don’t I learn?

So, this morning, I set the zine up on my desk, and switched the keyboard mode over. Put my fingers on the home keys, and started typing: one letter at a time.

It was slow, of course it was. But, as promised, it was surprising how quick it was to pick up. Within a couple of hours, it was quicker to type without looking at the keyboard map than to use it. This might actually work.

To be honest: I haven’t used it to type this. I did want to get something productive done today, so after 3 hours or so of Dvorak typing I switched back to the traditional layout. I don’t want to lose my ability to type the old way, after all: we don’t have a Dvorak typewriter and we’re unlikely to find one. I’m very pleased with how quickly I’ve been able to pick Dvorak up, though. What mostly slows me down is: like most people, I think in terms of words rather than letters. I seem to mostly type using my muscle memory of whole words and word fragments. Switching to Dvorak, I can easily remember where all the common letters are and which finger to use for them: but then I have to spell each word out in my head to type it. Training myself to type in words, without thinking about the spelling, will take some time.

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Lost terminology

In which a word is snappy but fails to catch on


Jargon changes over the years; bits of it get picked up, some bits become mainstream, and some wither away.

On a trip to Wet Yorkshire the other day, I started thinking: there’s one piece of jargon which I think it’s a shame didn’t get picked up. It’s Charles Babbage‘s term mill, which he used to name something that was, for him, a new concept: a machine which would carry out arithmetic calculations according to a sequence of instructions. Today, we’d call it a computer CPU; but there isn’t really any better term for it other than that awkward three-syllable abbreviation. I’d much rather be talking about the newest Core Duo mill, or Athlon mill; it rolls off the tongue. A twin-mill machine sounds much snappier than a dual-processor one. If you look at one under a microscope, it even looks vaguely like the giant mechanical grids of 19th-century looms,* just like the mills Babbage was originally alluding to. Is there any chance of the word making a come-back? Probably not; but it would be nice if it did.

* I was tempted to take up “loom” and segue into a Doctor Who discussion, but that reference would be too geeky even for me.

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Computers bite

In which blood is drawn


No, really. Computers bite. I don’t think I’ve ever opened one up and not received at least one cut somewhere on my hands, even if it’s just a small one. Computers always bite, and the cut on my right forefinger at the moment is painful and very annoying.

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Grumble grumble

In which we have problems


Well, in addition to not being able to find any of the Christmas presents I want to buy in the shops; the computer has started misbehaving. It crashed in the middle of an update, and hasn’t been working right ever since. For those of you who have been on the internet since the early 90s: I’m posting this using the text-only browser Lynx. because it was the only one I could get working quickly whilst getting the rest of the machine back on its feet.

So if anything in this post looks a bit strange, that’s because I can’t really see what I’m doing, because the text-entry widget in Lynx is a bit…

The Plain People Of The Internet: So what was the explanation for all those other posts looking a bit strange, then?

Me: Har har.

More whining posts tomorrow; or if I’m in a good mood, I’ll tell you about the pantomime I went to see.

Update: Although Lynx lets you create posts in WordPress, it doesn’t seem to like you editing them. Grrr, again.

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Predictive

In which we thank people and skim over a few other things


Well, I was glad Gordon Brown did take my hints on a couple of things.* I’m just disappointed that he didn’t single out blue cars for rebates.

Thanks to everyone who commented on Tuesday’s whining post, both on the site and privately. I’m still doomed, though. More on this to come soon, I’m sure, along with musings on those people who leave their abusive partners, only to go back to them a few months later. When they could easily find some much nicer people who aren’t abusive,** if they wanted.

Current small reasons to feel pleased with myself: I’ve managed to completely avoid watching anything at all to do with the Commonwealth Games, even though one of the medal-winners is a teacher at my old school. Hopefully I’ll manage to keep avoiding it until all the fuss is over again.

Current small reasons to get pissed off: the computer keeps crashing, usually at the most inappropriate moments. I know what the problem is: a very obscure bug in the disk controller driver which very few people have come across, and nobody seems to know the cause of.*** Bah.

On the other hand, I do have a large box of biscuits on my desk at the moment. But not for long, I suspect. Hurrah!

* although, to be fair, everyone else in the country had already vaguely guessed the road tax changes.

** ie, me, or Big Dave

*** it only comes up if you have a Promise SATA disk controller, a Maxtor SATA disk, and are running one of some Linux 2.6 subversions. But not all – the problem apparently disappeared in one revision of the driver, only to come back in the next.

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More photos

In which we go back to Imperial Russia again


Following on from last Wednesday’s post, here are some more photos by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, reassembled in colour form to go on my computer desktop.

These aren’t exactly the versions I made for my desktop. There didn’t seem to be much point. I seem to have an unusually-shaped monitor,* so wallpaper files that are useful to me probably wouldn’t be much good to any of you. Moreover, Prokudin-Gorskii’s originals aren’t a suitable shape to fit any sort of computer monitor at all.

In any case, none of these photos are in perfect shape. Most have imperfections, which come out as brightly-coloured blotches in the final version, making all the human subjects look like paint-factory workers. There tends to be a faded band at the top and bottom of each shot, which, when coloured, gives you a red fade at the bottom of the picture and a blue fade at the top. Re-cropping each picture helps avoid the worst damage on each.

I have no idea what most of these pictures are, but I still love playing with them and looking at them. I find the Prokudin-Gorskii pictures fascinating, as you can probably tell.

Town prospect Dredger More religious art People posing Boat and railway

* Most computer screens have an aspect ratio of 4:3. Mine, on the other hand, is 5:4, unless my calculator is being flaky.

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Ringing the changes

In which we look at Imperial Russia


It being the new year, I decided to spruce up my computer with a few new desktop backgrounds. I already have a background-randomising program which picks a new one at random every evening;* but there’s only so many backrgrounds on the computer, and they’ve not been changed for a while. So, I went to look for more.

I ended up going back to something I found on the net a few years ago: the works of S M Prokudin-Gorskii, a Russian photographer of around 100 years ago who invented a camera-and-projector system which could take and display colour photographs, storing them as three-part black-and-white colour separations. Because his work is now public-domain, you can find it all over the web; but I originally came across him on this site.

The known surviving works of Prokudin-Gorskii are in the Library of Congress; and, being in the public domain, they’ve all been scanned and put on the web, with the original black-and-white plates in very high resolution. It’s a really easy job to download some, and assemble them into a single colour image.** So, I now have some nice colour photos of Tsarist Russia for my desktop background. It’s a bit of a change from the previous moody black and white photos of the Scottish Highlands. Here’s a few examples:

Laboratory Signals to shipping An Orthodox religious artefact

* Being a big geek, I mostly wrote it myself.

** The main problem – if you’re using the hi-res images – is having enough computer memory. The minimum time it takes me now is about 10 minutes, but most of that is sitting and waiting for my computer to catch up with me. The final image will be just under 3600×3300 pixels in size, which is rather square compared to a computer screen, so it will need to be cropped a bit

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