Blog : Posts tagged with 'IT'

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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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Administrivia

In which FP cuts out the junk


I’m getting very bored of the amount of junk email I get. Mostly to my specialised “message board posting” email addresses, which never get any real mail anyway; so they’ve all been rolled over and new addresses created. Result: incoming spam down by about half overnight. Hurrah! If you did have any email addresses for me which were just message-board-name@this domain, then delete them, cos they won’t work any more.

And so, having done that, I had spam for dinner. It seemed apt.

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Grump

In which things tend to go wrong in groups


Why do things happen together? Why do bad events congregate, and bad things happen at the same time? Why do unrelated things all break, and why is it always the Most Important People who break things.

Like on Friday at work; when the Managing Director’s daughter’s laptop needed fixing; then, the MD’s email became corrupt enough to crash the email server; then, a Very Important piece of software, without which we do not get paid, lost its internal databases to file corruption. All unrelated machines, unrelated events. There’s no way any of them are connected, I’m absolutely sure about that, so why did they all happen together?

Especially when, on Saturday morning, H’s laptop bluescreened itself and then refused to boot. Checking its disk for errors resolved things,* but not before H had had a major panic that the whole machine had died. Oh, and then, H’s DVD player decided to spit out loud white noise instead of any audio it was supposed to be playing. The last few days have left me tired, stressed, and annoyed at the slightest little thing, because it feels as if every piece of hardware around me is set to attack.

* apparently resolved things, at any rate. I am wary of what may have caused the original bluescreen.

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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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We love enthusiatic amateurs

In which there’s work to do, to take our minds off disgusting art


Today, the boss spent the afternoon over at our warehouse. It’s fifty miles away, so it does at least keep him well out of our hair, with no risk of him suddenly popping down to find me and Big Dave playing poker,* or The Good-Looking One From Accounts skiving behind my desk.**

Right after he left to come back over to Head Office, one of the warehouse staff phoned:

“Your boss was on my computer for ages fiddling about with stuff. And now it doesn’t work.”

Oh, hurrah. That was the rest of the afternoon gone, then – working out just what he’d done. I realised what he’d been trying to do; and had to work back from there to sort out what he actually did.

Ah, well. To change the subject: have you ever been browsing the web and thought: why the hell would anyone want to do that? Tonight I came across: spermcube.*** It’s all in the name of art, apparently. If you want to know more reasons why it’s a bad idea – other than just “ewww” – read this.

* for our collection of spare computer case screws. I reckon I’m about 15% up on him at the moment.

** if she kneels next to my chair, and the door is shut, you can’t see her through the window.

*** link via Rod Begbie, who I remember being a prolific Sinisterine back in the day

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Masochism

In which FP goes back to BASICs


No, I’m not a masochist.

I take a strange, geeky, masochistic pleasure, though, in making things hard for myself. In doing computer-based things the long way round. In solving the problems that are probably easy for some people, but hard for me. In learning new things just because it’s a new challenge.

Today, I was wrestling with a piece of Basic code in an Excel spreadsheet. I’ve not touched Basic since it had line numbers,* and I barely know any of it. I forced myself to work out how to do what I wanted in it.** It was mentally hard work, and meant a lot of looking back and forth to the help pages, but I got it done in the end. It might not be written in the best way, the most efficient way, or the most idiomatic way.*** But doing it was, strangely, fun.

* this is geek-speak for “a long long time ago”.

** or, rather, what the consultant I was assisting wanted.

*** for non-geeks: every computer language or system has its own programming idioms, which fit certain ways of programming particular problems. Someone used to language A will, on switching to language Z, often keep on programming in language A’s style even if this produces ugly and inefficient code in the other language.

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Friday

In which things are uncompleted


We had a computer that was working fine. We switch it off. We move it. We plug it in. And it doesn’t work. At all. So dead, there’s nowhere to start looking for what to fix. God knows how we killed it.

Things I meant to do and didn’t this week:

buy clarinet reeds
write more blog posts
finish designing Symbolic Forest tshirts
book my upcoming holiday
do more on my secret DIY project

Things I did do:

buy a new bag.

So, at least I’ve done something.

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Fssst

In which we have fun with compressed air


Life has many simple pleasures.

One of my favourites at the moment: cleaning keyboards. Take one can of compressed air, hold can and keyboard at arms’ length, push the nozzle, and be amazed as a huge cloud of dust* is blown before you. FSSSST. FSSSST. It’s great fun, it really is.

* and biscuit crumbs, if it’s mine.

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Have you tried turning it off and on again?

In which things are true to life


New Channel 4 comedy series The IT Crowd starts tonight; being a big geek, of course, I had to watch it.* And, overall, it’s rather good.

So far I’ve only seen the first episode, and I think you have to give the first episode of any new series a little leeway. It takes a lot of time to make sure the characters are all properly introduced, after all. Nevertheless, it seems to hold up rather well.

In writing this, I’m trying not to take the easy route and start comparing it to Father Ted. It’s written by one of that show’s writers, it has a similar production style, and it has a central trio of characters. Moreover, both have a small kernel of darkness which is occasionally revealed. It might not be as gloomy and despair-filled as, say, Peep Show, but the darkness is there.

Of course, the main reason I like the show is probably the comedy of recognition. The writing isn’t particularly technical, but they do have a ZX81 lurking in the background.* Not to mention the Perl Camel stickers and Flying Spaghetti Monster posters scattered around the set.*** I don’t get beaten to a pulp by the non-technical staff on a regular basis, but only because they think I’d probably enjoy it. And, of course, there is that stalwart technical advice of IT staff everywhere. “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”

* You can get the first couple of episodes from the official website, in case you’re wondering how I’ve already managed to watch it.

** Unlike my own, modern, up-to-date IT office – our last 1980s computer in service was retired last summer, and the last one on the spares shelf was sent off to long-term storage a few weeks ago. Scarily, I’m not joking here – until last summer one department did rely on a mid-80s PC running MS-DOS 3 and with Windows 1.0 installed on it

*** Update, 4/2/06: another thing I’ve noticed in the background of the set: a poster of Hokusai’s Great Wave at Kanagawa

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