Administrative Note

I have just noticed that WordPress is being a bit over-aggressive with its spam filters. Consequently, several comments have been incorrectly blocked.

I have now released these, so if you suddenly see a reply to an old comment now you know why.

The family IT support is in

One of the pros — or cons, depending on how you look at it — of everyone being at home is that when any of the kids has a computer problem, I am unavoidably available. Today we had problems aplenty.

We got the boys some cheap Dell laptops some time ago, installed Ubuntu on them and set them going. The point has now been reached when, for all three boys, these laptops are being used primarily for school work (or school related activities). So running out of disk space is a serious problem.

Today, one of the laptops ran out of disk space.

My first reaction was to ask how many webcam videos and screen recordings they had been making, but it turns out that the problem was deeper than that — too many old packages clogging up the disk drive. I found the commands necessary to clean up these packages easily enough and set about some vastly overdue laptop maintenance.

This is when the fun began. When I tried to use apt-get autoremove to free up some disk space, it told me that it couldn’t do that because I had some broken dependencies. When I tried to fix these, it told me it couldn’t do that because I didn’t have enough disk space.

And it all started looking a bit painful and the boys quickly learned that IT support largely involves copying and pasting error messages into your search engine of choice and then doing the same back into the terminal.

Everything is now resolved and I have promised to keep a closer eye on the boys’ technology. On the plus side, I now know how to manually remove old kernels in Ubuntu.

It’s Alive!

Many years ago,I found myself in possession of a Nokia N810 internet tablet. With it’s smaller screen and pull-out keyboard, this is what tablets looked like before tablets were a thing, and I spent many a happy (or frustrating) hour trying to connect to a WiFi hotspot long enough to send a email.

Of course, everyone uses Android now and, after Nokia crashed and burned back in 2011, my phone could increasingly do everything the N810 could do, and then some, and I found myself using it less and less. Eventually, the battery started dying on me and the device ended up in a drawer.

More recently, I discovered Battery Champion, a site that sells batteries. Batteries for everything, including the N810, so I thought I would see if I could revive the device.

I now have the tablet up and running and, in many ways, it feels like looking back at a future that never was. Nokia devices have always been well engineered and they were certainly well placed to dominate the emerging smartphone and tablet spaces. It was only through management incompetence that they managed to lose their lead.

The world has moved on, of course, and it is probably inevitable that a device built in 2008 will feel a bit clunky now. The keyboard certainly proved to be a big surprise. It’s a physical keyboard that slides out which sounded like a great idea back in the day, but I found myself really struggling to use it. The keys are too small and painfully unresponsive. In fact I was intending to write this post on the N810 but after two paragraphs, the keyboard got the better of me.

It’s slow, too, compared to modern devices. This, I think, is more a reflection on the way in which websites have become so much more bloated over the years rather than on the device itself. Indeed, watching any page load is a revelation in terms of just how many calls to external sites and services are made.

The battery life, on the other hand, is still impressive. It can go up to ten days between charges which, combined with the fact that it is compact enough to fit into a pocket, gives the N810 a level of portability that the manufacturers of more modern tablets can only dream of.

Of course, all of the software on the tablet is about a decade out of date. And, with this device being no longer supported, many of the repositories are no longer available so upgrading it — if possible at all — will be something of a challenge.

And if I do manage to find some reasonably current software, I will then need to figure out a use for it.

Manjaro: First Impressions

After last week’s minor crisis, I ended up switching from openSUSE to Manjaro on my PC and so far I am really liking it.

The first thing that struck me was just how nice it it makes my desktop to look at. It may sound like a trivial thing, but if you are going to sit in front of a screen for a couple of hours, then having something easy on the eye to look at does make a significant difference. A lot of attention has clearly been paid to the look of this operating system, not just in terms of the artwork but also the theming and the design — so much so that I am using smaller fonts now than I was, which frees up even more space on my desktop.

Manjaro comes in several desktop editions and, being a long-term Gnome user, I stuck with what I know. There are a couple of extensions installed by default and, having become very used to the vanilla Gnome experience, I immediately switched off the Arc menu.

I am a little more ambivalent about the Dash to Dock extension, which moves the dashboard out of the overview screen and displays it as a permanent dock. It’s not annoying me, but I’m not entirely convinced it’s adding any benefit either. I have kept it switched on for now, but may deactivate it later.

And so to the applications and I am reminded, once again, just how easy it is to add email accounts to Evolution. Enter an email address and password, and you’re done. As with everything else, the fonts and icons have been selected for maximum readability, making it almost enjoyable to answer angry emails.

I’m not so impressed with Lollypop, the default music player, as it’s not much fun to navigate. So this has gone to be replaced with Exaile, my music player of choice. As for as this type of application goes, I have not seen anything that comes close to Exaile. It has the slickest user interface I have seen and this comes with the killer feature (for me) of dynamic playlists. I start it, seed it with a couple of songs and it will continue to select similar songs until I press stop.

Exaile isn’t available in the standard Manjaro repositories, but it is available in the AUR because, with Arch Linux (on which Manjaro is based) everything is available in the AUR. Using this repository comes with a warning, but the Pamac package manager makes it frighteningly easy to do so.

Overall, I am very happy with Manjaro and can see myself using it for quite some time to come.

The Grub menu, which caused me all my trouble in the first place, is still a bit of a mess but I’ve learned my lesson and will never touch this again. Well, not until after Christmas, anyway.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

And I have very little knowledge.

At the start of this year, I laid my hands on a new PC and ended up installing openSUSE Tumbleweed on it. As Linux distributions go, it’s a pleasure to use although I haven’t had much time to tinker with it. Until yesterday.

One, incredibly trivial, issue I have had with openSUSE is that the boot menu is really bland — just a list of available operating systems on a plain black background. So I started playing around with GRUB themes, because who doesn’t want a nice picture for the couple of seconds it takes me to hit Enter.

There is a reason why I usually avoid tinkering with stuff like this on weekdays and, inevitably enough, I broke my boot partition. This, in plain English, means that my PC is now unable to start and I have what amounts to a large brick sitting on my desk.

All is not lost, though, as I happened to have been looking at Manjaro over the weekend and, therefore, had a bootable USB stick. With this I was able get into the PC and take a backup of my Home folder. So all of my data is safe. Unless the cat gets at it, of course.

So tonight I shall be mainly trying to get Boot Repair to clean up my mess for me. And if all else fails, I will install Manjaro.

I am tempted to switch to Manjaro anyway. Doing so would let me get at the Arch AUR, which I do find myself missing on occasion. Additionally, Manjaro is really pretty.

Five Things #13

The Devil Buys Us Cheap and the Devil Buys in Bulk by M. Bennardo is a morality tale about unearned money.

Helen Claire Hart argues that we should lift the ban on asylum seekers seeking work.

Kieren McCarthy at The Register looks at the creative accounting that helps Apple get away with charging an unjustifiable mark-up on repairs while also claiming to make a loss.

Funk’s House of Geekery looks back at Tank Girl, the movie.

Susan D’Agostino talks to Barbara Liskov, the architect of modern algorithms.

Five Things #9

Between the Dark and the Dark by Deji Bryce Olukotun is a powerful story about hard choices and the potentially calamitous consequences of failing to recognise cultural differences.

Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci came up with a radically different bridge design to connect the city of Constantinople with its neighbor city Galata. Now, researchers at MIT have proven that his bridge would have worked.

Daniel Crown looks at Hnefatafl, the board game at the heart of Viking culture.

Dean Burnett explains, scientifically, why “Edgy” comedy can get fu*ked.

And finally, Nick Barlow reviews the various parties’ prospects in the upcoming UK general election and concludes that things are far too volatile to give predictions about what the result of the election might be.

Five things #6

“But who’s the real freak – the activist whose determination has single-handedly started a powerful global movement for change, or the middle-aged man taunting a child with Asperger syndrome from behind the safety of their computer screens?” Jennifer O’Connell asks why Greta Thunberg is so triggering for certain men.

Jesse Singal discusses Dave Chappelle, political correctness and cancel culture and argues that we should recognise the elitism of the Super-Woke.

David Spiegelhalter discusses the importance of statistical literacy, and plugs his book a couple of times. The book is The Art of Statistics and I do plan on reading it once the paperback edition is published.

As Rambo: Last Blood arrives on the big screen, Mark Harrison looks back at Son Of Rambow and the joys of DIY filmmaking.

And finally: Happy birthday COBOL. 60 years old this month and still surprisingly popular. There’s hope for me yet.

Five things #5

“T. K. hates a lot of things, but at the moment, it’s how she becomes the #1 target during dodgeball at gym. Everything changes, however, when she discovers that she has the ace ability to direct spherical objects — and she makes her classmates pay! But her powers are made for more than petty revenge, as she soon discovers while on a family vacation.” How to Move Spheres and Influence People is a short story set in the Wild Cards universe.

In Arctic Siberia, Russian scientists are trying to stave off catastrophic climate change by resurrecting an Ice Age biome complete with lab-grown woolly mammoths. Welcome to Pleistocene Park.

“The space between fiction and reality is where economic bubbles take shape.” Brent Goldfarb and David A Kirsch explore The economics of bubbles.

Going back a few months, Salman Rushdie discusses what Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five tells us now.

And finally, Antergos Linux is dead, long live EndeavourOS. Antergos was my main operating system for several years — I keep meaning to take a look at how well EndeavourOS has picked up the baton of being a newcomer friendly introduction to the occasionally painful world of Arch-based distributions.

Welcome to Tumbleweed

At the start of this year, I treated myself to a new PC. The first thing I do with any new PC is to scrape Windows off it and replace it with some variation of Linux, and this time I ended up going with openSUSE Tumbleweed.

I like openSUSE: it’s an unflashy and very solid distribution that reliably handles whatever demands I make of it. It comes in two flavours, Tumbleweed being the rolling release version and I’ve been hooked on rolling releases ever since I tried Sabayon way back in 2010. With a rolling release, you never need to reinstall or upgrade your operating system because the constant stream of updates keeps you completely up to date.

And so to Monday evening when a whole bunch of updates came down the pipe, including a fair bit of Gnome-related stuff. So I updated everything (which, I should note, is always a reliably quick process) and, to check that everything was still working as expected, I rebooted my PC.

At which point, this popped up on my screen.

Tumbleweed_Welcome_Screen
Welcome to openSUSE

Obviously, this is not my first time using openSUSE but the welcome screen is a nice touch. It’s a very friendly way of pointing you towards the documentation you are likely to need as well as where to find help if you need it. It’s also very consistent with my experience of openSUSE to date: friendly, helpful and (if I uncheck that ‘show on next startup’ option) completely unintrusive.

And I love the pirate gecko.