Goodbye Overdrive, Hello Libby

By Gene Wilburn


For some years now I’ve been using Overdrive Media Player as my ebook reader and audiobook player for books and audiobooks borrowed from the public library. Overdrive is on my iPad, my MacBook, and my wife’s iPad. Between us we must have listened to or read several hundred borrowed library books. We like and enjoy Overdrive and, for our purposes, it’s an ideal library companion.

Recently, though, we learned that Overdrive (the company, based in Cleveland, Ohio) is replacing Overdrive Media Player with a different client app called Libby. In fact, they’re set to pull the plug on Overdrive Media Player by February, 2023. It’s no longer available in the various App Stores. Given that we’re now living on borrowed time, we added Libby to our tablets and laptops to get used to it, preparing ourselves to leave the Overdrive app forever.

It’s a truism in the software world that users don’t generally like changes to their interfaces, or having to switch to a different product. Word users balked at the “ribbon menus” of later versions of Word, and few Word users have switched to Google Docs or LibreOffice Writer. When you’re comfortable with an app, changes are painful. And so it was as we moved to using Libby.

The Overdrive interface is clean, neat, and tidy.

Overdrive Bookshelf Interface

Whereas Libby is expansive, not as neat, and very chatty.

Libby Bookshelf Interface

Of course beauty, being in the eye of the beholder, means that what one user likes, another wouldn’t. You can never please everyone, but on the whole I can move into Libby without overt trauma. Almost.

However, I’ve found two flaws in Libby.

Libby Doesn’t Allow You to Copy Text

I must say I was shocked when I discovered that you can’t copy and paste text from ebooks in Libby. This is something I do a lot in Overdrive, copying passages to my Notes app for research purposes, or quoting an opening line or paragraph when talking about an interesting book on Facebook. This, for me, is a serious deficiency.

Libby Doesn’t Support More Than One User Per Library Account

The reason why this might be a problem is simply this: Sometimes family members share the same Library card. For example, my wife and I live in the city of Mississauga, Ontario, adjacent to the city of Toronto. We each have a Mississauga Public Library borrowing card, but having previously lived in Toronto, we missed the larger selection of resources from the Toronto Public Library system. This we solved by purchasing a single extramural reader’s card for TPL. At a cost of over $100 per year, we didn’t feel we could each could afford one, so we share a single library account.

When we use Overdrive, we can each download books and ebooks from the library and our borrowings don’t get confused. If we’re reading the same book or listening to the same audiobook, our individual Overdrive apps keep our position locations discrete, which is great because we obviously don’t read or listen to the same book at the same pace.

Libby synchronizes its bookshelf automatically across devices, meaning that our separate reading locations get updated to whoever is farther along in the reading or listening. Then if one of us returns to a previous location, it resets it for the other one. Relocating your place, especially in an audiobook, is a painful experience.

Unfortunately, there is no setup mode in Libby that allows you to turn off synchronization, making it work more like Overdrive.

Better Font Sizing in Libby

Aside from those two problems, Libby is pleasant to use and, like Overdrive, allows you to choose your reading font, size it for your eyes, and choose between white, sepia, or black backgrounds. Black is especially good for reading at night. Both offer a timer to switch off your audiobook after a certain number of minutes, say 60 minutes, which is a godsend if you fall asleep while listening. You don’t have as far to backtrack.

One thing that has bugged me for years about Overdrive is its too-coarse adjustments of font size. I frequently hit that condition where the font is ether too small, or too large, with no steps in between. Libby has much finer font size adjustments. I can always seem to find that just-right “Goldilocks” font size when I’m reading on Libby, which gives Libby the edge for me on ebooks.

Looking Ahead

For the most part, I don’t anticipate great difficulty adjusting from Overdrive to Libby. I still prefer the clean, terse Overdrive user interface, but Libby is easy to use and is probably a better interface for new library users.

Overdrive (the company) only needs to fix two deficiencies: The ability to copy text from ebooks, and the option to turn off synchronization. If they can do that, I’ll give Libby full marks. Until then, it’s an app that just misses being great.


Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT specialist..

Fedora 36 Linux: First Impressions

By Gene Wilburn


Fedora GNOME Interface

When I started using Linux in the early 1990s, my first distro was Slackware, followed soon after by Red Hat. Eventually I discovered Debian Linux and it quickly became my favourite, especially after Red Hat evolved into an enterprise company.

Along the way I tried Ubuntu Linux and Linux Mint and liked both, partly because they were part of the Debian family of distributions. Over the years I’ve watched them become easier to use and more polished. I run the latest Linux Mint on my desktop machine.

Even so, I enjoy trying out different distributions to see what they offer. Of course, Linux is Linux, no matter which distribution — under the hood they pretty much all do the same things. Where they differ the most is in packaging systems, method of installation and maintenance, and the user interface.

My test computer for experimenting with distributions is a Lenovo Thinkpad E431 i3 laptop, introduced in 2010. It contains 4GB RAM and 500GB of hard disk. Not a speed demon, but it has plenty of memory and storage, and is supported by all the Linux distributions I’ve tried.

Using this laptop, I took a look at the no-nonsense Fedora 36 Workstation. Fedora is sponsored by Red Hat and is characterized as a “bleeding edge” distribution, continuously introducing the newest versions of applications. It is popular and has a large support community.

Installation

After loading the Fedora .iso file onto a stick disk, I booted it up on the Thinkpad and asked it to install to my hard disk. The installation procedure worked but was less explicit about what was going on than, say, an Ubuntu installation.

The only confusion I encountered was in letting it know it could blow away the existing Linux Mint and use the entire hard disk. There is less feedback than I’m accustomed to, and it was unclear to me whether I had set it to delete the existing partitions. It turned out to work fine, but I prefer the feedback I get with an Ubuntu-family install.

First Look

After Fedora booted up for the first time, it displayed the latest GNOME user interface, which left me wondering what to do. There were no docks or panels on the screen. My first hurdle was how to access stuff. I tried clicking at the corners and clicking on the background screen, to no avail. Then I pushed the Windows key, which led me to the dashboard, or “dash” as it seems to be called. From the dash I could launch selected software or invoke a full screen of installed apps, similar to Launchpad on a Mac.

I’ll never understand why most distributions, including Fedora, do not include a Terminal app in the initial dashboard. That’s always the first thing I need to use.

Fedora Workstation is highly integrated with GNOME and is configured to present an uncluttered screen, leaving most of the screen available to applications. I like this approach, especially when working on a restricted screen such as a laptop.

From apt to dnf

Instead of the apt command-line tool of the Debian variants, Fedora uses dnf for command line management of software installations. Fedora packages are .rpm files rather than .deb files and Fedora supports both Snap and Flatpack, which are increasingly used for software distribution. Fedora differs from Debian-based distros in its security mechanism. Ubuntu-family distros use AppArmor while Fedora uses SELinux.

In practice, switching to dnf is straightforward for an experienced Debian user.

In Debian distributions, you might install a software package such as btop by typing

sudo apt install btop

In Fedora you would type this instead

sudo dnf install btop

The two systems are similar enough that transitioning from apt to dnf presents no particular challenge.

btop

Changing the Look & Feel

Although I find the GNOME interface interesting and slick, I couldn’t get comfortable with it, so, in the great Linux tradition, I added my favourite GUI, Cinnamon, as an alternate GUI with the simple command

sudo dnf install cinnamon

and, upon completion, Fedora installed the Cinnamon option. This significantly increased my comfort level.

Cinnamon User Interface with Menu and Task Bar at the Bottom

Bottom Line

I give Fedora 36 highest marks: It’s a great distribution. I suspect, though, that it’s a better Linux for experienced users than beginners. For those new to Linux I think Ubuntu or, particularly, Linux Mint, makes a better choice.

If you want to use a solid, leading edge Linux, and have a bit of Linux experience, Fedora is one of the top choices.


Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT professional.

Enough with Subscriptions Already!

By Gene Wilburn


Photo by Samantha Gades on Unsplash

These days it seems as if every vendor of every product has jumped on the “service as subscription” bandwagon. While this might be good for vendors, providing a steadier income stream, it’s reaching a breaking point for customers. Worse, it’s often nothing more than a greedy money grab.

$18/Month to Warm Your Derrière

BMW has recently introduced a monthly subscription fee of $18US a month if you want access to the vehicles’ heated seats. Other car vendors are implementing a monthly subscription fee for remote-start key fobs.

“Earlier this year, Cox Automotive conducted a survey of 217 people who intend to buy a new car over the next two years. Only 25 percent said they’d be willing to pay a monthly or annual fee to unlock a feature in their vehicle. The remaining 75 percent said piss off. [my emphasis]

Well, you might say, luxury car owners can afford subscriptions like seat warmers. Not so fast. GM expects its in-car subscription services on its automotive lines to generate nearly $2-billion this year, which will reach as high as $25-billion by the end of the decade.

Remember, this is beyond the base price you pay for your family automobile, and it’s not just aimed at luxury cars.

How Much Monthly Streaming Services Cost in Canada

The following prices were what I could confirm as Canadian prices. U.S. pricing tends to be slightly lower.

Netflix Canada: $9.99 / $15.49 / 19.99 depending on the plan
Crave: $9.99 for mobile devices, $19.99 for all platform
HBO (ad-free): $19.35
YouTube (ad-free family plan): $17.99
BritBox: $8.99:
Hulu (ad-free): $11.99
Wondrium: $20.00 (lower with quarterly or annual plans)
Spotify: $9.95
Amazon Prime: $9.99
Cable or Fibre Plan: $50 (for basic package)

Depending on how many streaming services you subscribe to, you could be pushing $150 per month. It wasn’t so bad when there was just Netflix, but everyone jumped on the bandwagon, diluting the offerings on each service so that you’d need them all if you are a serious movie and TV buff.

Software Subscriptions

And then there’s software. Adobe has always charged plenty for its software but, in recent years, seems to have found the subscription model more profitable. As a photographer, I purchased its last sales-based package of Photoshop CS6. Unfortunately, CS6 apps no longer run on my current Macs so the only option, if I want to continue to use Photoshop, is to subscribe to it for $9.99/month.

I did for a short while. Photoshop is more polished and better than ever, but is it worth over $100 per year to rent it? I’m not a professional photographer, and, being retired, my budget simply doesn’t stretch that far for a hobby. So I unsubscribed and purchased Affinity Photo outright. It’s a pretty fair substitute, and cost me a one-time $40, on sale.

As a writer, I’ve looked at software such as Ulysses. I use Markdown editors most of the time, and Ulysses is a very nice product, but is it worth $50/year in perpetuity (with probable increases in the subscription price along the way)?

We’re talking Markdown here, an open-source format. Any free Markdown editor does the job nicely, thank you.

Then there’s Microsoft Office. $79.00 per year for the personal edition, and $109.00 per year for one to six people (Canadian pricing). In a misleading sleight of hand, they put a “Buy now” button for the subscription, rather than the more honest “Rent now.”

If you need pure Microsoft, there’s no evading the cost, though the excellent open-source LibreOffice suite is free, as are the Google office modules like Docs and Sheets if you’re a student or a casual user.

It happens at the low end of software too. I’m amazed at the number of iPad utility apps from the App Store that only give you a free trial period, then charge you forever with a monthly subscription fee. Even for a calculator app.

The Bottom Line

No single subscription sounds terribly out of line, but the cumulative cost of subscriptions-as-service is an insidious trend for anyone on a low-to-moderate fixed income.

The bottom line is that many of us simply can’t afford to play this game. Or are unwilling to.

I’m booked solid. I will not rent any more software, streaming services, or automotive services, and I know I’m not alone. We simply can no longer afford it. I’m already deciding which services to drop.

Oh, yeah, what about Medium? I enjoy reading what Medium writers have published so I will probably continue to subscribe. But my loyalty is thin. If the price increases, I’m outa here.


Gene Wilburn is a Canadian writer, photographer, and retired IT specialist.

Math For An Aging Brain

A Personal Essay

By Gene Wilburn

In my 76th year I decided to re-engage in the study of math. It’s important for seniors to keep their brains active, and entire books have been written about the plasticity of the brain and the desirability of keeping it stimulated. Yet one tires of a daily round of crosswords, sudokus, and Solitaire.

Even so, why math? Partly it’s because math fascinates me with its precision, logic, elegance, and beauty. Plus, math is hard. Hard, but not unreasonably hard. It requires effort, which is the point of studying it. Math is also open ended—you can grow with it, taking it as far as your ability allows. This makes math a progressively stimulating brain exercise. There’s always something new to challenge your thinking.

To put my relationship with math in perspective, some background is in order. Before immigrating to Canada and becoming a Canadian citizen, I grew up in the U.S. at the time the former Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik I, the first man-made orbiting satellite, in 1957. This triggered a call for a new generation of scientists and engineers.

President Ike and the Republican Party (which in those days was pro science) highly encouraged students to study science and engineering —today called S.T.E.M. studies —to catch up with the Russians and to usher in a new scientific and technological era. The transistor had been invented, television was transitioning from black-and-white to colour, rockets were sitting, and sometimes exploding, on launch pads, and exciting things were afoot. I wanted to be part of it.

Being an impressionable teen who, though tall, played basketball rather poorly and baseball even worse, I decided I’d become an engineer rather than pursue my childhood fantasy of becoming a sports star. I wasn’t sure, exactly, what engineers did for a living, but I owned a pair of engineering boots and thought them grand. In my naïveté I imagined that any profession where wearing them was considered de rigeur was the profession for me.

And so I began the math studies of a typical university-bound high schooler of the day: algebra 1, plane geometry, algebra 2, analytic geometry, and a mishmash of precalculus, including trigonometry, functions, slopes of lines, and limits . I was a solid B+ student, decent but plodding.

Off I went to university, slide rule dangling from my belt in a leather holster. I spent my first year flailing away at calculus, chemistry, engineering drawing, and vector analysis  and doing poorly in all of them. The only class I liked, and excelled at, was English Composition.

In a life-changing epiphany, it occurred to me that I could switch majors to English, which I did, and for which I’ve been grateful my entire life. I changed abruptly from S.T.E.M. studies to the Humanities, and I couldn’t have been happier. Literature, philosophy, history, French language, art, and music became my focus. I didn’t miss mathematics at all —then.

But life is strange, taking unexpected turns. In the end, against any reasonable probability, I became a kind of engineer after all. Propelled by a deep fascination with personal computers, I self-studied my way into the field of Information Technology, learning the skills needed to undertake a new profession: programming, database design, networking, web design, and infrastructure management. Over the years I’ve worked in IT, variously, in a cultural agency, a government department, a small business operation, and a large financial organization, all in Toronto. It has been an engaging and satisfying career.

Now, as I enter what are sometimes referred to as the “Twilight Years,” I find myself re-attracted to the study of math, though not with any specific goal in mind other than keeping my brain supple  by challenging myself with problem solving that transcends crosswords and sudokus.

With this goal in mind, I ordered a widely-used university textbook on precalculus. My god, I thought, can a math textbook really cost $170? How do today’s students afford them? The sticker price caused my senior’s fixed income to stutter. At least the graphing calculator app I selected for my iPad was free.

Ever since the book arrived, I have attempted to learn at least one new concept each day, or to work on an existing set of math problems until I get them right. Speed is not an issue. Slow and steady is the path.

Not that math study has so far helped me remember why I’m standing in the pantry, staring at the food shelves, or trying to recall what day of the week it is, but gradually, almost imperceptibly, I sense that my memory is improving. This is anecdotal, to be sure, but when I mentioned to my family doctor that I was reviewing math, he was delighted to hear it and encouraged me to continue, saying that he wished more of his senior patients would engage in a similar pursuit.

I’m aware that the study of math is the last thing in the world most seniors would want to undertake. Too many of them have had unpleasant experiences with it during their school years. Nor is the study of math something you can readily share with family or friends. People are impressed if you tell them you made a hole-in-one playing golf yesterday, or even if you finished under par, but they’re not perceptibly eager to hear that you successfully solved and graphed a dozen polynomial nonlinear inequalities.

Studying math is a solitary pursuit, almost a meditation on the nature of numbers. What distinguishes my study today from my studies as a young student is that there are no deadlines or exams. I can take my time. But I no longer wear engineering boots; they’ve been swapped out for fuzzy house slippers.


Greppy: A Lightweight Perl/PHP Website Search Engine Based on Grep


GNU Grep

My friend and colleague Mark mentioned to me recently that one of his clients was interested in having a search engine on their website and did I have any ideas?

The scenario was this: the site is an informational site, with monthly updates and is hosted in the AWS cloud. It runs in a minimal instance of Linux, with only 1 GB RAM and very tight storage. It’s not an e-commerce site. Was there something small and lean enough to serve?

Mark and I had once worked together on a project for a different client where we installed Apache Solr to build a sophisticated search engine for large amounts of data, but Solr would be massive overkill for the site in question.

GNU Grep to the Rescue

As I thought about a solution for this small site, I immediately thought of grep, the open-source search utility with a long Unix heritage that can absolutely rip through text files to search for words or phrases and show them in context. All it needs are some text files to aim at.

The site in question has a large number of PDF files and HTML files. What, I thought, if copies of these were converted to plain text files and placed in data directory where grep could rapidly search through them? Text files could substitute for the usual inverted index of search engines and, at the same time, have a much smaller footprint on the system. The client wasn’t looking for fancy searches.

Similarly, grep doesn’t need much memory to run in. Furthermore, a lightweight website search engine based on grep could be built with a few day’s programming and testing. After getting the go-ahead to start programming, I invoked vim and began building a simple system.

Building the Text Database, or Index

I knew I’d use Pandoc to convert html files to plain text, but I needed something to convert the PDFs. I discovered the command-line utility pdftotext that is part of xpdf-tools in Linux. (For MacOS, Homebrew installs the utility when you install xpdf.) Between these two, pandoc and pdftotext, I had to tools for building a text database.

To that end, I wrote a batch-processing script in Perl, buildindex.pl that takes the results of a find command that selects all the PDF and HTML files on the site, and processed them through pandoc or pdftotext, putting the resulting text files into a collective data directory called textdata. The script also checks an exclude.txt file that can used to exclude directories that contain private information.

Embedded Filename Metadata

GNU Grep is not a fully-featured search engine, but with a little help from the GNU ls command I was able to prepend the date of last creation or update (mtime format) to the filename so it could later be sorted into most recently updated work to display at the top of a search.

The batch script populates the textdata directory with files that look like this:

1645031851dot0563837700dot_99_news_99_2021_April_Newsletterdotpdf.txt
1645031852dot5724170650dot_99_news_99_2021_August_Newsletterdotpdf.txt 1645031853dot9364470210dot_99_news_99_2021_February_Newsletterdotpdf.txt
1645031855dot7164861080dot_99_news_99_2021_January_Newsletterdotpdf.txt 1645031857dot1805182550dot_99_news_99_2021_July_Newsletterdotpdf.txt
1645031858dot7045517160dot_99_news_99_2021_June_Newsletterdotpdf.txt
1645031860dot2525857010dot_99_news_99_2021_March_Newsletterdotpdf.txt
1645031861dot6606166090dot_99_news_99_2021_May_Newsletterdotpdf.txt
1645031862dot7166397880dot_99_news_99_2021_September_Newsletterdotpdf.txt
1645460076dot2987186510dot_99_shift_99_ShiftHappensdotpdf.txt

Breaking this down, the initial part of the saved text file — 1645460076dot2987186510 — is the date in mtime format.

The word dot indicates an initial dot (.) in the relative pathname, and every _99_ represents a forward slash (/) in the original pathname. The added new file extension is .txt.

This metadata allows the search program to quickly reconstruct the path back to the original document, and to replace .txt with the original extension name.

The Search Module

The client’s website is powered by PHP, so that is the language I used for the search module.

A search form module, searchform.php, prompts for a search term or phrase, which is then passed to the main search program, search.php. The search.php script, in turn, calls on grep to do the search and stores the results in an array that is then reverse sorted. Looping through the array, the search script reconstructs the full path and original extension of the filename, turning it an <a href> HTML link.

To make the results easier to read, search terms found in the results are highlighted in red, to make them stand out in context. Overall appearance is controlled in HTML with an embedded CSS style sheet.

The results, reflecting the song lyrics in my test site, look like this:

Context and Word Boundaries

To refine the search somewhat, the searchform.php file offers two checkboxes. The first allows the searcher to search on whole words and phrases, or do stem searching. In a whole word search, the default setting, the word “train” for example would find instances of “train”, “Train”, or “TRAIN” as a whole word surrounded by spaces or by punctuation. A stem search on “train” would find “train”, “Train”, or “TRAIN” as well, but also things like “trains,” “training,” and “restrain.” This is sometimes useful as an option.

The second checkbox specifies the amount of context surrounding the search term. The default is up to 90 characters on either side of the term. Unchecking the box results in a context of three lines of text: the line before the search term is found, the line it’s in, and the line following.

Batch Processing

To keep the search index, or text data directory, in sync with the information on the site, the buildindex.plscript uses brute force. It deletes everything in textdata/ and rebuilds it from scratch. What this lacks in sophistication it makes up for it in efficiency. It takes no more than five minutes to rebuild the index for the entire site, which can be run manually when needed, or run as a cron job at desired times.

Bottom Line

To our delight, this lightweight, batch-oriented search engine is speedy, and is well suited to the needs of the client. In honour of grep, we named the search system Greppy.

Greppy follows the Unix philosophy of using existing discrete utilities combined together to process text files. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.

To make this engine available to others who might have a use for it, it is available here at Github.


Gene Wilburn is a Canadian IT specialist and technical writer

Antix Linux


antiX Linux: A Lightweight Speedster

antiX Linux Screenshot

antiX (pronounced “antics” not “anti-X”) is a lightweight Linux distro designed to run on minimal PC hardware, or “live” on a stick disk, similar to LXLE, Lubuntu, Linux Lite and others. AntiX Linux is based on Debian but proudly describes itself as free of systemd — a newer and widely used system startup environment that some Linux gurus dislike.

Two things immediately caught my attention about this distro. Despite being lightweight, it includes major software such as LibreOffice and Firefox. It uses the snappy IceWM as its default windows manager along with the Rox file manager. I’ve always liked IceWM so I decided to give antiX a whirl on my sandbox computer: an older Lenovo Thinkpad laptop with Intel i3 processor, 4GB memory, and 400GB HD — not exactly minimal, but not particularly fast either.

Installation

Installation is easy. The installation process has a somewhat different look and feel compared to Ubuntu-derived distros but it asks most of the same questions.

During installation it prompts for two different passwords, the user password and the root password. It’s possible to create a user with no password at all, which may be convenient for some users. I chose to create a user password to keep it in line with my Ubuntu and Mac systems.

Once installed, antiX presents an attractive IceWM environment with a bold wallpaper and an app called Conky that displays a number of runtime stats including current time, uptime, CPU, disk, and connection usage. Conky can be switched off via the Desktop menu if you find it distracting.

The IceWM menu is invoked from the start button in the lower-left hand corner of the screen, à la Windows, but it can also be invoked from anywhere on the desktop with a right-click of the mouse. IceWM has dozens of contributed schemes you can try out to subtly alter the appearance of the desktop environment. I particularly liked the metal 2 look.

The only app I found wanting in the initial setup is Rox file manager. Finding it too primitive for my taste, I installed PCmanFM ($ sudo apt install pcmanfm) and added it to the menu’s Personal tab for quick access.

The default terminal app is Roxterm. It seemed quite decent but it crashed on me when I moved my .profile file to .bashrc. It was also not exporting my customized $PATH statement. So I installed LXTerminal ($ sudo apt install lxterminal), which is also lightweight and fast, and configured it to be my preferred terminal application. LXTerminal interpreted my .bashrc file perfectly.

Next up was Dropbox, which I use to share my writing and scripting files across my computers. It requires installing the Dropbox daemon via the Synaptic package manager, a simple task. You choose Nautilus-Dropbox from Synaptic. Rest assured it doesn’t install Nautilus dependencies.

All my writing is done in Markdown plain-text format so I installed Ghostwriter, a dedicated Markdown editor. In line with Markdown, I installed Pandoc for converting Markdown files to other file formats. I use TeX/LaTeX for typesetting which required the installation of Texlive and, in my case, LyX, a graphical document editor to accompany LaTeX.

Likewise, I installed Sigil, an Epub creator and editor for producing nice-looking ebooks, and, not finding Gimp on the system, I installed that too.

Missing Utilities

One thing that never works well for me in Linux is a laptop’s trackpad. Unlike the slick trackpad drivers on a MacBook, Linux trackpadding ends up shooting me all over the screen so I end up typing things in the wrong paragraph — not something that makes a writer happy. To fix this problem I prefer to switch off the trackpad entirely and use a wireless USB mouse instead.

There is no simple way to do this in antiX. You have to issue the command synclient TouchpadOff=1 to switch the trackpad off. Because I usually forget how to invoke this command I created two .bashrc aliases:

alias padoff='synclient TouchpadOff=1'
alias padon='synclient TouchpadOff=0'

allowing me to switch off the trackpad by typing padoff, a command I can remember, at a terminal prompt.

The antiX Control Panel offers no visual support for a laptop’s power management. An Internet search tipped me off that some antiX users install xfce4-power-manager to set power levels for both plugged-in and battery options. It brings in very little of the xfce4 environment, keeping the distribution light. Using XFCE Power Manager I was able to easily adjust my Thinkpad to switch off the screen when the lid is closed, and to go to sleep after a certain timeout. This greatly improved the Thinkpad’s battery life.

Okay, But What is This?

I’m impressed at the way antiX Linux adds new programs to the IceWM menu. Painless. Except for one weird exception.

I’ve lately been using an open-source, Markdown-based note-taking app called Joplin across all my computing platforms — MacOS, iOS, and, of course, Linux. I hoped that I could type $ sudo apt install joplin, but this wasn’t in the repositories for antiX.

This took me to the Joplin site where I downloaded the Linux file Joplin-2.5.10.appimage. Neither antiX nor I had ever seen this file extension before. An Internet query explained that it was a self-contained Linux program (“container?”) with all the dependencies included. After setting the permissions of an AppImage file to execute, you can double click the app in a file manager to launch it. AntiX certainly had no built-in way to deal with an AppImage package, nor any way to add it to the menus.

To make it simpler for me to use, I placed the Joplin AppImage file in my $HOME/bin directory and created a symbolic link to it called joplin. Since I nearly always have a terminal open, this allowed me to launch the program simply by typing “$ joplin &”.

Bottom Line

To be honest, antiX Linux made my day. It’s not often I find myself highly attracted to a new distro, but I enjoy antiX so much I’m going to keep it as the default Linux on my Thinkpad laptop. Due to its speed and lightweight interface, it’s easily one of the top distributions to consider for aging computers. In fact, my Thinkpad has never run better. It’s made a believer of me.


Gene Wilburn is a tech writer and essayist with more curiosity than time.

Back to Bash


How to Make MacOS More Linux-like

Up-to-date Bash shell in MacOS

One of the great things about MacOS is its command line, a terminal onto a Unix-derived set of utilities that are available for free. All you have to do is issue the following command in a Mac’s Terminal application to get a full set of them.

% xcode-select —install

Apple’s official name for these is Xcode Command Line Tools. If you’re used to a Unix-style command line, you’ll feel right at home. Well, almost.

If you come from a Linux background, you will find the tools a bit … lacking. The problem is that many of them are out of date. Apple doesn’t put a high priority on keeping them current. Another problem is that many of the utilities are derived from BSD rather than GPL Linux repositories, which means that they’re not as feature rich as their Linux counterparts.

For years, Apple made Bash (Bourne-Again Shell) its primary CLI, but even though this is Linux-like, Apple installs a very out-of-date version of Bash. The reason for this is that Apple, being a proprietary company, doesn’t like the very open GPL licensing of Bash and other Linux utilities. As a result, Apple has recently switched to making Z Shell (zsh) its default shell program, leaving an obsolescent Bash for those who might need it for Bash scripts that might not work in zsh.

There is nothing wrong with Z Shell. It has a few features that are better than Bash, such as slick directory changes, but Bash users who prefer to stick with Bash and prefer a more Linux-like command-line environment may wish to return to Bash.

Fortunately there’s a way to enjoy the best of both worlds — the lovely MacOS graphical interface that can run programs like Office 365 and Adobe products, as well as having the latest utilities from the Linux side of things.

Meet Homebrew

The secret is Homebrew, which calls itself “the missing package manager for MacOS.” If you know how to use the apt-get utilities from any derivative of Debian Linux, such as Ubuntu or Linux Mint, you will be very comfortable with Homebrew.

You first need to install Homebrew into MacOS, which you do using the Mac’s existing command-line tools by typing

% /bin/bash -c "$(curl -fsSL https://raw.githubusercontent.com/Homebrew/install/HEAD/install.sh)

If you’re running an Intel Mac, Homebrew will put up-to-date open-source utilities in /usr/local/bin. If you’re running one of the new Apple M processors, the utilities will be placed in /opt/homebrew/bin.

Homebrew installs with the latest version of Bash. On my M1 Macbook Air, Bash is version 5.1.8. The version Apple ships is 3.2.57.

One final step is required to use the tools more conveniently. You need to add the path to the new utilities to your PATH environment. You do this by updating your ~/.bash_profile settings. Open .bash_profile in the editor of your choice and add the following line for Intel Macs

export PATH=/usr/local/bin:$PATH

or for M-based Macs

export PATH=/opt/homebrew/bin:$PATH

Type $ source ~/.bash_profile and your pathing will be set and you can run the utilities from the command line and get the right set.

Switching to Bash as Default Shell

Setting Homebrew’s Bash Shell as the MacOS Default

To make Bash your default shell, Open Terminal -> Preferences and add the path your system needs to boot Bash. For an Intel Mac this would be /usr/local/bin/bash and for a Silicon Mac /opt/homebrew/bin/bash .

Adding and Removing Applications

Homebrew doesn’t stop with just the utilities. Many of the applications that are available in Linux are also available to the Mac. For instance, if you needed to do some PHP development on your Mac, you could type

$ brew install apache2 php

Or

$ brew install ngnix php

You then have the latest general release of both the web server and of PHP (PHP 8 by default).

You can remove applications just as easily, e.g.,

$ brew uninstall ngnix php

And you can keep all your apps and utilities up to date by occasionally typing brew update followed by brew upgrade if there are updates to be applied. Notice how parallel the usage is to Linux apt.

If you run Apple silicon, most of the Homebrew utilities have been recompiled for the M processor. The utilities and apps that have not been recompiled run in Rosetta2, and they run about the same speed they do on Intel Macs. The M-compiled ones really zip along.

With your Mac now more Linux-like, you can add your favorite languages in the same way, e.g.,

$ brew install python3

Homebrew takes care of all the dependencies.

Using Brew

Brew Usage

Anyone who has used apt-get in Linux will feel right at home with these parallel Homebrew commands.


One last tip. If you would like a really attractive Bash interface with color coding and built in alias like ll for ls -l and la for ls -a, grab the contents of the default .bashrc file from Ubuntu or Linux Mint (or probably any distro that uses Bash as its default shell), and paste it into the top of ~/.bash_profile on MacOS and it transforms your environment from plain jane to Linux cool.

The synergy the Mac gets from these ‘Linux’ utilities and applications will take your command-line computing to a higher level.


Gene Wilburn is a computer generalist, tech writer, essayist, and photographer.

Full-Frame Photography on a Budget: Buy Used

Used Nikon D610 and 3 used lenses

By Gene Wilburn

For someone who cut their photographic teeth shooting with 35mm film cameras and lenses, full-frame digital cameras feel like a homecoming.

It’s not just the impressive image quality that comes from a full-frame sensor—it’s the instincts for the focal lengths you grew up with. A 24mm lens is 24mm with no crop factor. Not 38mm equivalent as with APS-C sensors, nor 48mm equivalent as with M43 sensors. 24mm, the real thing. The same for 50mm, or 85mm, etc. It’s a familiar world with a long and deep history that echoes back from the days of the earliest Leicas.

For someone on a restrained budget, however, full-frame can be a stretch financially. The latest cameras are dazzling things, most often mirrorless, frequently with image stabilization built into the camera body, and superb features, including tilt and swivel LCD panels for convenience when composing shots. Yet if you’re willing to move away from the leading edge of digital photography, you’ll discover that there are interesting deals to be found at the trailing edge.

The Trailing Edge

Think of the camera market as a kind of comet moving through time. The latest and greatest products form the bright head of the comet, its leading edge. The comet is then followed by a long tail, the trailing edge of discontinued models from the most recently discontinued to older models, stretching all the way back to film gear from the last century.

All along the way are deals to be had, for cameras don’t stop working because they’re discontinued. There are full-frame cameras from a relatively short while ago that were great cameras at the time but are now discontinued. Used ones in good shape have lots of service left in them, and they sell far below the price of the latest models.

Take my own case. I wanted to get back into full frame after having once owned a Nikon D610 DSLR, an intermediate-level body. I sold it when I was downsizing but soon had seller’s regret. So I scoured eBay and found another D610 advertised as being in “mint” condition. You have to be careful buying a camera unseen, but if you check the seller’s feedback you get some idea of how reliable they are.

I ordered my used D610 body from a camera seller in Japan. It meant a bit more spent on shipping and duties, but when the camera arrived it was immaculate. Cost: $675 USD. For $200-400 more I could have purchased a fine D800 body, but as an amateur photographer, I didn’t need all its features.

I knew I wanted a macro lens for it and for years I’ve been a distant admirer of the legendary Tamron Di 90mm macro lens. I found a “mint” one in Nikon mount from another Japanese vendor, for $200 USD.

I already had a 50mm f/1.8 Nikon lens so I had the middle ground covered. What I needed was a wide angle. From my experience with my iPhone (28mm equivalent) I knew I wanted something a little wider, so I located a good-condition Nikon 24mm AF-D lens for $150 USD.

My total base cost was just over $1000 USD for a full-frame camera plus two “new” lenses. Not bad considering a Sony a7C sells new, body only, for nearly $2000 USD and its lenses are expensive.

Recycling at its Best

I’m not a professional photographer and don’t need all the (lovely) bells and whistles of the latest models. And as a retiree on a fixed income, I have to be careful with my spending, so the prospect of recycling some of the slightly older, used gear is financially appealing.

It’s also a nice feeling to give a good used camera a new home rather than allowing it to sit idle on a shelf.

Buying used, as long as you’re careful about it, represents recycling at its best. As you can see from some of the photos I’ve added to this article, all taken from plants in our gardens, I’m a happy camper, very pleased to be photographing with my used gear.

Are You a Dark Mode or a Light Mode Person?

Are you attracted to the Dark Side?

Recently many apps and desktop backgrounds have sprouted a “dark mode” option or theme, reducing the amount of white light that strikes your eyes. It’s a welcome option in Kindle Reader, Apple Books, and Overdrive Media, giving respite to tired eyes especially in the evening when the greatest eye fatigue sets in and the ambient light is more subdued.

Dark mode is now making its way into writing apps, such as my go-to editor, iA Writer, and I, for one, am delighted (pun intended). For long-haul ebook reading and for writing, I prefer dark mode, finding it causes me less eyestrain than light mode.

Dark mode isn’t something new, though. It was a previous age’s standard.

A Little History

If your memory goes back to the 1980s or earlier, you may remember that computer monitors, and terminals before that, had a black background with white, green, or amber characters. This was in the age of command-line MS-DOS, CP/M, Commodore, TRS-80, and other PCs of the era. When colour computing became an option, screens were often dark blue, with white letters — classic WordPerfect colours. Dark mode has a long history.

Things changed abruptly, in 1984, the original Macintosh computer (and Unix workstations before the Mac was released), introduced a graphical, windowed environment. Soon Microsoft Windows followed, and the new white background with dark letters became de rigeur, proving ideal for desktop publishing and word processing.

We’re now used to seeing our work as a kind of virtual paper with black letters on a white background. This has been the standard for so long that the dark mode had largely been forgotten, other than for command-line users, many of whom adjust their terminal emulation colours to white on black.

The Dark Way

Some changes are the result of fads and it’s become stylish suddenly to sport dark mode backgrounds. Apple has taken this a step further by introducing wallpapers that change mode from light to dark depending on the time of day. Whatever the reasons, dark mode has again become popular, especially among computer geeks.

Gizmo China ran a poll in 2020 asking which do you prefer: Light Mode or Dark Mode? Approximately 78% of the 562 participants preferred dark mode, 11% preferred light, and 11% preferred “scheduled mode” — light mode during the day and dark mode in the evening.

Which is Better?

“Better” is a subjective term, of course, and for many of us “better” is simply what we’re used to. There have been some studies on this and the answer seems to be “it depends.” When ambient light is high, as it often is during the day in a well-lit room, light mode is easier on the eyes because the pupils are contracted and black on white is easier to see. In the evening, though, when the light begins to fade and the ambient light is less strong, our pupils dilate more and white on black is easier to read for many users. “Scheduled mode,” which you can set up in Apple’s Books app, for instance, is an ideal balance.

As far as I know, no one has done an informal study on whether dark mode conserves battery life on a laptop. It should, for the simple reason that black on the screen indicates LCD pixels that are switched off, and a lot of laptop battery power goes into powering the screen. In light mode, most of the pixels are drawing full power.

With these factors in mind, it might be worthwhile for you to “visit” the dark side to see if it works for you. The only right answer to the question of which is better is this: “Your eyes, your call.”