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.”

Minimalist Writing Devices, #2: Kindle Fire 7 Tablet

By Gene Wilburn

I was determined not to make any Black Friday purchases this year, but my resolve melted when Amazon offered a sale price of $50Cdn, approximately $30US, on its diminutive, discontinued, 16GB Kindle Fire 7 ereader/tablet. I’m a tablet junkie with a soft spot for minimalist writing devices that goes back to my days of writing on a Palm Pilot. Small, I learned, could be not only beautiful, but also portable and productive.

And so, despite my resolve, I clicked the slightly more expensive ($70Cdn) 32GB version of the device into my shopping cart and checked it out. Two days later it arrived.

On its own, the Fire 7, about the size of a thin paperback novel, makes a fine ebook reader and a minimal Internet browser — nice, but unexciting. However, like the wardrobe in the Narnia books, the device harbours a secret — a passageway that can lead to new vistas. 

In short, the Kindle can be upgraded to include the Google Play Store, which opens up the limited Kindle to a much broader selection of apps than Amazon intended, including Gmail, Chrome, and the writer’s friends, Google Docs and Microsoft Word — apps that Amazon does not make available through its own App Store. (Although not illegal, it should be noted that this upgrade is not officially sanctioned by Amazon, who would prefer you to remain within their gated ecosystem.)

All that is required is that you download four Android programs and run them in sequence, following “Option One” of Chris Hoffman and Craig Lloyd’s excellent instructions on How-to Geek.

With the Google Play Store installed, the Kindle Fire 7 punches above its weight, morphing into a kind of digital David that isn’t afraid to take on Apple’s Goliath, the iPad. (Spoiler Alert: an iPad it’s not, but the Fire’s chutzpah might amuse you.)

Specifications 

Compared to my ancient Palm IIIc, the Kindle Fire 7 Is downright luxurious. Running a modified version of Android on an ARM CPU, it comes equipped with an earphone jack, MicroSD card slot (providing up to 128GB additional storage), front and back cameras, microphone, speakers, USB charging slot, Wi-Fi adapter, Bluetooth support, wireless printer support, and apps from Amazon store. It has a smallish 7-inch, 600 x 1024 pixel screen in 16:9 ratio. It also offers Alexa for voice commands. 

The front and rear cameras are good enough for Zoom meetings and taking casual snapshots, but by today’s standards the camera resolution is minimal — 2 megapixels on the rear camera and even less on the front camera.

The Fire 7 is small and lightweight, easily slipping into a jacket pocket, tote bag, or purse. Larger than smartphones and smaller than an iPad Mini, it’s a ready-to-go device that is easy to carry around.

The Writing Experience

Because the Fire 7 is larger than a smartphone, I found it easy to type on the virtual keyboard in vertical position. Turning the device to landscape position offers an even larger keyboard, at the expense of seeing less on the screen. The device offers word suggestions that you can tap for completion, saving keystrokes. However, it has a mind of its own and will sometimes change a word after you hit the spacebar. If you hit the backspace key immediately, your original word is restored and it stops changing it. It’s something you have to keep an eye on. This word-substitution quirk only occurs while using the built-in virtual keyboard.

Many writers will prefer to work with an external Bluetooth keyboard for faster typing speed. The Fire 7 connected easily to both my BT folding keyboards. It’s more efficient to use an external keyboard and I preferred it on the Kindle virtual keyboard when practical.

To prop up the Kindle Fire while typing, I purchased a case for the unit with a textured back and a “kickstand” to hold the tablet in landscape mode. This works very well, and with no virtual keyboard taking up screen space, the typing window in Google Docs is pleasant to work in.

I generally find that the virtual keyboard is most useful for jotting down ideas, outlining a topic, or writing short passages where typing speed isn’t as important. It’s also useful in editing completed drafts. An external keyboard, of course, allows you to flow at faster speeds.

Speed of Device

The Kindle Fire 7 is no speed demon. It’s akin to driving an old rear-engine VW Beetle — it gets you there, but leisurely. When I return to my iPad Mini I feel like I’ve stepped into a high-end BMW. This is not a device for the impatient, but it’s solid and dependable. Web pages in particular take awhile to fill and refresh, but I’ve experienced no particular sluggishness when using Google Docs.

Battery Life

The battery life of the device is so-so. I’d estimate I’m getting 4-5 hours of active usage, which is better than many laptops, but not as good as other tablets. In the evening, when I’m using the device to access social media or ebooks, I frequently plug in a 6-foot charging cable to charge the device and save battery life. It recharges back to 100% fairly quickly.

Bottom Line

To say the least, it would be challenging to find a cheaper writing device. Costing 1/10th of the price of an iPad, it’s been a fun purchase, despite a few quirks. That said, this model has been officially discontinued. The next best price is on the Kindle Fire HD 8, a device I tested and can readily recommend. It’s faster, with better battery life, almost identical in size with the iPad Mini. It, too, can be upgraded to side load apps from the Google Play Store.

Still, if you see a Fire 7 for sale, and love small but workable writing devices, the Kindle Fire 7 Is a bargain.

________________

Gene Wilburn is a retired Canadian IT professional who frequently writes on technology topics. His website is located at http://genewilburn.com

SongNet: Building a Private WiFi LAN

SongNet: Building a Wireless Private LAN with a Raspberry Pi and a pocket router

By Gene Wilburn

Songnet

Overview

There are times when you meet with a group and want to share documents in common, but your meeting place doesn’t have WiFi Internet access. It could be an informal classroom situation, a regular meetup group, or, as in my case, two music-jam/singing groups.

In one of my groups we use Dropbox for sharing electronic versions of lyric and chord sheets. In the other we use Google Drive. These work well enough when there is Internet access, but often the places we meet to set up and play don’t have WiFi available.

Dropbox and Google Drive also have two disadvantages: every time a new member joins the group, we have to set them up with Dropbox or Google Drive and Google Docs apps for sharing. Even worse is helping them make local copies of the lyric sheets on their tablets for offline access.

This was technically challenging for some members, not to mention that it requires each member to personally update their local storage regularly. In order to create a more user-friendly experience I put together a solution that I’ve dubbed SongNet.

It occurred to me, as I’m certain it must have occurred to many others, that a nifty solution would be to create a small private wireless LAN, or Intranet, that could be set up in the meetup venue room, creating a private hotspot that could be accessed by any device that members preferred, whether it was a smartphone, tablet computer, or laptop. The only required app is a web browser.

Equipment Needed

The gear needed to set up a private local wireless LAN has been around for some time and you might even have some of this in your parts bin.

  • A router that also serves DCHP addresses
  • A Raspberry Pi computer or equivalent

I focused on small size and portability by selecting the following three pieces of hardware:

  • Raspberry Pi Zero W Linux computer
  • TP-Link TL-WR802N Wireless N300 Travel Router
  • High-performance 32GB MicroSD card

Any Raspberry Pi model with a built-in or external USB WiFi adapter would work. I acquired the TP-Link travel router from Amazon for around $35 Canadian. Because the MicroSD card holds the operating system, the web server, and the web contents, I wanted one with plenty of storage and one that is as fast as possible. I selected a Samsung EVO Select 32GB microSDHC UHS-I U1 Memory Card with Adapter from Amazon for around $12 Canadian.

Setting up Raspberry Pi

The first order of business with the new MicroSD card is to set it up so it can boot the Raspberry Pi. Using the SD adapter that comes with the MicroSD card, put the card into an ordinary SD slot of a Windows, Macintosh, or Linux computer download NOOBS and add the NOOBS files to the MicroSD card, following these instructions and the ones that come with the download.

This done, remove the MicroSD card from the adapter and insert it into the Raspberry Pi and boot it, connected to a monitor, external keyboard, and mouse. When it boots, choose to install which version of Raspbian you prefer. I selected Raspbian (not Raspbian Complete or Raspbian Minimal). When that’s done, reboot the Raspberry Pi and follow the prompts for resetting the password to one of your choice and selecting an active WiFi network. More prompts will follow for updating the files. This takes awhile.

The Raspberry Pi Zero has so little RAM (512MB) it strains to run the graphical desktop environment and the GUI is a significant drain on system resources, so we want to eliminate it from regular use once we’re set up. We also want to activate the SSH server in order to log into the Raspberry Pi when it’s “headless” — that is, unattached to an external monitor or keyboard.

To so this, open a Terminal application and type the following:

$ sudo raspi-config

This brings up an easy-to-follow, character-based menu.

raspi-config-1

Select 3 Boot Options and press Enter.

Next Select B1 Desktop / CLI and press Enter.

raspi-config-2

Then select B2 Console Autologin hit the TAB key and press OK.

raspi-config-3

What this does is deactivate the GUI desktop environment from loading automatically, presenting you instead with a console screen with user pi already logged in. Should you need to boot up the GUI for any reason, when you’re attached to an external monitor, type the following at the Command-Line prompt:

$ startx

The next step is to activate the Raspberry Pi’s SSH server so you can log in from other machines using an SSH client:

raspi-config-4

Put the cursor line on P2 SSH then tab to Select and press Enter.

raspi-config-5

On the next screen tab the cursor to “Yes” and press Enter.

raspi-config-6

Setting up the web server

Next, in a Terminal window or at the console, type the following commands to set up the directories to prepare for installing the web server.

$ cd /var
$ sudo mkdir www
$ sudo mkdir www/html
$ sudo chmod -R 755
$ sudo chown -R pi

Because the Raspberry Pi Zero W is a minimalist Linux computer, I elected not to use the fully-featured Apache2 web server. Instead I opted for the simpler Webfs, a lightweight web server that is more than sufficient for serving static pages such as song lyrics.

To install webfs on the Raspberry Pi, type the following commands in a Terminal or at the Console and follow the prompts:

$ sudo apt update
$ sudo apt upgrade
$ sudo apt install webfs

In order to add content, we need to know the IP address of the Raspberry Pi. To find this out, type the following:

$ ifconfig

And look at the IP address for wlan0, the WiFi adapter. The IP address is the set of numbers just to the right of inet, in this case 10.0.0.10.

ifconfig

We can first test this by opening a Terminal on a Macintosh, Linux, or Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL2) computer and typing:

$ ssh -l pi 10.0.0.10

or whatever your IP address is for the Raspberry Pi. Answer yes to accept the security credentials and if all is well you should now be logged into the RPi.

To populate the Raspberry Pi’s web site, we turn to another command-line utility called rsync. Go to the directory where your lyric sheets are stored on your Mac or PC and type the following in a Terminal window:

$ cd Lyrics (or whatever your directory name is)
$ rsync -avz * pi@10.0.0.10:/var/www/html/

Of course you use your IP address rather than the 10.0.0.10 for my Raspberry Pi. Then you can watch as the files transfer to the Raspberry Pi’s web directories.

To test the site, first log onto SongNet (password: singalong):

songnet-select

Then open a browser and point it to the IP address of the Raspberry Pi: e.g.,

http://10.0.0.10/

You should see an alphabetical listing of your song sheets. Webfs by default allows directory listing, which, if you don’t mind scrolling, may be all that’s needed for your site. The web listing will look something like this and you simply scroll and click on the song you want to see:

plain

If you know some HTML and want to create your own index.html page for the site, log into the Raspberry Pi and type the following:

$ sudo nano /etc/webfsd.conf

Go to the line that reads

web_index=""

And change it to

web_index="index.html"

Because Webfs defaults to port 8000, it’s also preferable to set the port to the standard 80. This too is located in the webfsd.conf file. Go to the line that reads

web_port=""

And change it to

web_port="80"

Save the changes and reboot.

$ sudo shutdown -r now

Because my groups have accumulated a very large number of files, I wrote a Perl script called buildIndex.pl that pretties this up by putting an Alphabet Selector at the top of the lyrics page and Anchors within the listing for quicker access. It also looks nice.

listing

Setting Up the Router

Following the instructions that come with your router, log into the router using a browser. The first thing to do is to set the IP address of the LAN (Local Area Network). Choose a network IP range that is different from the one you have at home to assign what is called a “non-routable IP” range, which is a set of numbers set aside for LANs that are not connected directly to the Internet. To make typing the addresses easy, I set my router to a 10.0.0.0 network, subnet 255.255.0.0.

router-1-lan

It’s important that the Raspberry Pi have a fixed IP address or the system won’t work. You can do this in one of two ways. One is to use the RPi’s graphical interface to log onto the portable router hotspot and follow the menus to manually assign a fixed, or static, IP address. Another way to do this is, if your router permits it, is to put the MAC address of the Raspberry Pi’s WiFi adapter in the router itself and have it automatically assigned by the router:

router-2-macip

Users of SongNet need to type this IP address into their browsers to access the songs, so I chose to assign the address 10.0.0.10 for ease of entry.

DHCP

One of the critical functions of the router is that of a DHCP server that serves dynamic IP addresses to the users of the network. When they log into SongNet they get a 10.0.0.X address that connects them to the system. This is handled in the router’s DHCP section where you set aside the range of IP addresses that are available. In this case the addresses from 10.0.0.100-199 (100 addresses) have been made available.

dhcp

 

Test Out the System

Now that it’s all put together, it’s time for a test. Disconnect the travel router from the Internet by removing its ethernet cable, disconnect the Raspberry Pi from its external monitor and keyboard, and put the router and RPi together in a room and plug them in.

At this point it’s necessary to use your tablet or computer’s WiFi setting to join SongNet.  I assigned the password singalong for joining SongNet.

songnet-select

Now open a browser and enter:

http://10.0.0.10

This should show you (and everyone logged in) your songs and allow you to select them for display.

Finally, before you unplug the local WiFi network to carry it or put it away, you should shut down the Raspberry Pi properly. To do this SSH into the Pi and type the following:

$ sudo shutdown -h now

Give it a minute to finish closing all its files then it’s ready to tote to the next gig.

Minimalist Writing Devices, #1: Lenovo C330 Chromebook

By Gene Wilburn

lenovo

Until recently I’d shied away from Chromebooks. They didn’t seem like real computers to me and for the price of even the basic ones, you could often pick up a used laptop with more overall functionality. I have several programs, such as Photoshop and InDesign, that require a high-end computer and I use both MacOS and Linux computers for these heavier-duty computing needs.

What softened me to the possibility of using a Chromebook was my iPad. It changed the way I used the Web. Between the iPad and the advent of reasonably-priced cloud storage, I began using the iPad more than my laptop computers, especially for writing. I went from being a touch typist to a single-finger poke typist on the iPad’s virtual keyboard. Occasionally I augmented this with Bluetooth keyboards and the combination of an iPad with a wireless keyboard made me wish for something along the same lines but in a single, integrated unit, similar to but not expensive like the Microsoft Surface.

I was intrigued by an announcement from Google in the fall of 2017 that they would soon upgrade ChromeOS to allow it to run both Linux and Android apps concurrently with ChromeOS apps on their Chromebooks. Linux is my favourite operating system and Android apps are pretty much identical to the apps on my iPad. It was beginning to look very interesting.

Deciding to take the plunge, I found the Chromebook unit that had the specs I was looking for in the Lenovo C330: 4GB RAM and a 64GB eMMC drive, plus extras that I thought of as gravy, such as a touch screen and a 180 degree pivot of the LCD panel. At roughly $360 Cdn, it seemed reasonably priced.

Setup and Experimentation

The first thing I did when the machine was in front of me was hold it up so I could check out the whereabouts of the I/O ports. On the left side, facing the machine, is one USB-C slot which the power supply uses but which can be shared with other peripherals. One USB3 slot for backward compatibility plus an SD card slot. Nice touches these. The right side of the unit has a mechanical volume control, on/off switch, and an earphone jack. Did you hear that, Apple? An earphone jack! A lot of us still have good wired headphones we’re satisfied with. It’s a real courtesy to customers to not expect all of us to upgrade to USB-C devices in one fell swoop. Kudos to Lenovo.

I opened the lid and feasted my eyes on the keyboard. An honest, full keyboard with all the keys exactly where I want them. Wide shift keys, easy-to-hit Enter key, full-size numeric keys, and a set of arrow keys at the bottom right, underneath the right shift key. The keys are coated in a kind of plastic that feels slightly rubberized. Response is on the soft side, but so far I have not witnessed any sign of keyboard bounce. Speaking as a writer, the Lenovo keyboard passes muster. It’s not as good a feel as my Macbook Air (old style non-butterfly) keyboard, but given the difference in price level, the Lenovo keyboard holds its own.

As I was about to turn on the unit, I paused momentarily for a big breath. I’d never before in my life ever used a Chromebook and had no idea what to expect, other than its reputation for ease of use. When it booted into the Chrome logo it asked the same kinds of setup questions you get on any tablet, such as network and password. It assumes you have an email account with Google. That’s mandatory, I believe, so I put in my Gmail ID name and password, and it began the setup, already familiar with my profile. There was the usual keyboard question, defaulting to US keyboard but I chose the Canadian-English spell checker. Boom, it was done. Installed and ready to go. Anything else you want, visit Settings and help yourself.

Naturally the default browser is Chrome. It went straight to my Gmail account and right into my Google Docs documents and folders. Seamless.

I studied my way through Settings next. I tested the Bluetooth adapter on a BT speaker and a pair of BT headphones and they both checked out fine. The only disappointment for me was that I didn’t see anything about Linux. I then guessed, rightly in this case, that ChromeOS wasn’t up to date so I updated it, rebooted, and this time in Settings, there was a new Linux section, with Install Linux as an option. It warns that this is still in beta, but I’ll take a beta Linux over no Linux any day.

When it finished installing Linux I opened the Terminal app. After a few seconds wait as things initialized in a KVM (kernel virtual machine), a beautiful Linux system appeared, at the command line. It turned out to be pure Debian, the latest version of Debian at that, which delighted me. I’ve been a Debian Linux fan since the mid–90s. I used Apt to update Linux and now both ChromeOS and Linux were up to date.

Android Stuff

The desktop of ChromeOS has a bottom panel called the Shelf that contains an icon for the Chrome browser, Gmail, YouTube, and Play Store. Play Store is where you find Android apps. I’ve populated my Chromebook with some of the same apps I use on my iPad: iA Writer (a writer-oriented Markdown editor), Netflix, a File Manager utility, Dropbox, Snapseed, Great Courses, plus a few more. Each, so far, has worked as expected. An Android app, such as iA Writer, has access to that same shared Downloads folder that is shared by ChromeOS and Linux, meaning you could edit the same document from three different operating systems, which I did out of sheer curiosity.

One of the noticeable things about using Android apps is that the fonts are not as crisp as you might like. The fonts have a slightly fuzzy, artificial look, unlike the well-formed ChromeOS native fonts. This is not a show stopper but it makes the Chromebook more of a Grade B tablet when running Android apps. I would not care to read an ebook with the Android fonts.

Linux Subsystem

For me the Linux subsystem (still in beta) is the jewel in the crown of the Chromebook. As mentioned, the default installation is based on Debian GNU/Linux, and there are hints that other distributions of Linux might be offered sometime in the future. Oddly the Chromebook default Downloads directory does not appear in my /home/gene personal space. Instead it’s mounted at /mnt/chromeos/MyFiles/Downloads. To make this more convenient I immediately made a symlink to that from inside my personal workspace with:

 $ ln -s /mnt/chromeos/MyFiles/Downloads/ Downloads

At this point the system was ready to easily share files among the three operating systems.

I used the Debian Apt utility to update Linux and install certain pieces of software to try. Among my downloads were Gedit, Wordgrinder, Joe, Emacs, Pandoc, and LibreOffice. All worked well, though there was occasional background screen flashing when using Gedit. I experimented with writing a bash script but could not get the system to chmod my file to an executable, even using $ sudo chmod a+x filename. It appears that the basic ChromeOS file system is mounted with a ‘noexec’ flag and at this time I haven’t yet figured out if this can be changed. The good news is that the shell script can be run as $ bash scriptname.

I installed and tried out a couple of different standard Linux terminal programs, Gnome-terminal and Konsole, and unlike the default terminal they can be launched in multiple instances either in separate windows or in tabs. The default terminal can only handle one thing at a time and there are no tabs for additional instances. What it does have, however, are better looking fonts.

There are occasional glitches in the Linux subsystem. Once in awhile, if I’d switched between environments several times while using Linux, it would lose its pathing and respond with “command not found.” When I closed the terminal app and opened it again everything returned to normal.

At a user level, the Linux subsystem generally works well, but I wouldn’t try any development in the environment, at least not at this point in its evolution. All the Linux utilities I tried worked normally, including the many text utilities.

I gave the Linux subsystem a serious workout by installing LyX and all its TeX and LaTeX components. It took four tries. The subsystem crashed three times, once with a segmentation fault, requiring me to shut down and restart the entire Chromebook each time, but it picked up each time where it left off after the previous try. Eventually it finished and I was able to run LyX and preview a typeset document. Not bad, but the Linux subsystem is not yet what I’d call robust. At this point it’s best to think of it as Linux Lite.

Choosing the Best Writing Editor

As a writer who is also a techie I’ve usually eschewed word processors. I like working with text files because they’re non-proprietary and there are many good utilities that work with them, but, like writers everywhere, I often need to italicize the title of a book or movie or a record album and sometimes I want to boldface a word. I also want to put hyperlinks in my text that point to places on the Web. To handle this, in plain text, I use the excellent Markdown system of notation.

My go-to editor for the past couple of years has been iA Writer, which comes in Windows, Mac, Android, and iPad versions. It’s a text editor wrapped around Markdown, making it easy for writers to use, and it has a first-rate HTML export function built in. It’s uncluttered and has a focus mode and a night mode that allows the writer to concentrate on the writing rather than the writing environment. The Android version is similar enough to my Mac and iPad versions that I suspected it to be my editor of choice on the Chromebook.

I’m also addicted to Linux text editors and as long as I was setting up shop anew on the Chromebook, I gave them a spin, using them with Markdown. I tried a number of console editors, including the very basic word processor called Wordgrinder, Joe, which has WordStar/Borland style keyboard shortcuts, and my favourite console editor, Vim, with stands for Improved Vi. These all work flawlessly in the Linux subsystem, and they’re light on resources. Occasionally, when I’m feeling exceptionally brave, I dabble with Emacs.

On a whim, however, I decided to try Chromebook’s featured editor, which is Google Docs. I’d used Google Docs occasionally to store information, but I’d never taken it seriously as a writing tool. I was surprised at how much I liked it, not least because the fonts are excellent and easy on the eyes. I wrote a few paragraphs then tested its various export formats. All were very good except for one quirk when it saves output to a plain text file. In text files it puts two blank lines between paragraphs where I only put in one while I’m typing.

Not being too sure about Google Docs, I asked writers in the “Canada Writes” Facebook group if any of them used it and what they thought about it. I got back several replies from writers who say they use it nearly exclusively and have found it to be stable and excellent for all their writing, including client work. That was enough to convince me it was worth a try and this review is my first piece written in Docs. I suspect Google Docs will become my main editor.

Conclusion

In the short time I’ve owned the Lenovo Chromebook C330, it’s become my favourite writing machine for drafting stories. It’s also a pretty decent machine for listening to music or watching streaming video. To be honest, other than seeing that it works, I don’t make use the feature that allows me to fold the viewing screen back 180 degrees. I already own an iPad which I greatly prefer as a tablet.

For the most part, the Chromebook is a writing machine with the side benefits of being a very good web browser and Gmail viewer. I use the Linux terminal to run utilities on text files, and to SSH (encrypted remote login) to my other Linux and Mac computers.

It has met my expectations and then some. Overall I’d give it high marks in the bang-for-the-buck department. At $360 Cdn, it’s a bargain, and a writer’s delight.

Waiting for Gestalt

Waiting for Gestalt

By Gene Wilburn

Gestalt (ge STALT). A word meaning, roughly, when the brain perceives with clarity that the whole of a system is greater than the sum of its parts, and everything clicks into one awareness. One can have a gestalten moment. But can one achieve a gestalten existence?

When I was coming of age intellectually at university in the early to mid 1960s, there were a number of explorations of the mind making the rounds. Existentialism, the sometimes bleak philosophy that arose strongly in Paris after the Nazi occupation at the end of World War II, was alive and well. Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus were still publishing and there was something compelling in the message that you’re responsible for who you become, creating a personal integrity in the face of the meaninglessness and absurdity of the universe. This is, of course, an over simplification.

Along with the primary existential philosophers came “Theatre of the Absurd,” a literary form of existentialism, perhaps best seen in the play by Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, in which “logical construction and argument give way to irrational and illogical speech and its ultimate conclusion, silence.” [Wikipedia, “Theatre of the Absurd”]

Another prevailing line of thought came from the field of psychology, in the form of Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” with “self actualization” at the top of the pyramid. In its wake people were self actualizing all over the place, or at least that’s what they professed. It certainly launched a full-blown pop psychology business and fuelled New-Age-style thinking before “New Age” had even become a word.

A different branch of psychology, from Germany, had earlier in the century introduced Gestalt Theory, a holistic psychology that seemed to imply that if you could attain a gestalt with yourself and your environment, you could flow through it with understanding, and perhaps appreciation, in the way that listening to a symphony is an experience that transcends the individual notes of the musical score.

Looking back on this fifty years later, I think existentialism has held up rather well, especially when augmented with a generous helping of late Roman-style stoicism. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs still has a sound feel to it, though there is a sense that Western society, as a whole, has slipped down the pyramid a bit in this era of anti-enlightenment, anti-science populism.

But the one that still teases my mind is gestalt theory. At the turning of each decade I’ve been waiting for that gestalten moment when everything would click into place and I would reach an understanding — “Because something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?” [Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”]

The problem is, how does one achieve gestalt when everything keeps changing?

The Impact of the 1960s

I emerged from the 1950s like most boys who had reached their teens by the start of the 1960s, interested in cars, playing basketball, grooving to the week’s Top–10 radio, and thinking about going to university after high school. In other words, I was as cookie-cutter naive as one could be.

It was the folk music era which, in my relative isolation, I took to be the music of the Kingston Trio, Limelighters, Chad Mitchell Trio, Burl Ives, and that new group on the radio, Peter Paul and Mary. It was when I heard Joan Baez sing a couple of old ballads like “Barbara Allen” I began to perceive a different kind of folk music that was less slick and more personal. Back then it was just music I liked. Later it would change me.

My intellectual life began when I went to university where I first majored in engineering. It was a tough study, but I was getting by, being moderately good at math and logic. There was, however, a problem. I enjoyed learning folk music more than studying STEM subjects and the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs left me questioning what I was doing. I bought a guitar, learned a fistful of chords, and learned to sing and play the songs that were haunting me.

My taste in folk music had also led me to discover the Weavers, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and a rich vein of black blues singers from Big Bill Broonzy and the Rev. Gary Davis to Mississippi John Hurt. I loved all these voices of the people.

I couldn’t square my study of engineering with my awareness of what was happening. The civil rights movement in the American South highlighted the inappropriate treatment of black people. President Kennedy had been assassinated, then Martin Luther King, then Robert Kennedy. There was a strange, unpopular war being waged in Vietnam.

Things were changing, blowing in the wind, as it were, and the gestalt of the time was changing with it. I switched my major to English and my minor to French, and began studying literature with its plays, novels, poems, and essays. In French classes, we frequently read the existentialists Sartre and Camus. I studied philosophy, social history, and art history. I met and became friends with dozens of like-minded individuals, some male, some female, some straight, some gay, a few who were black or hispanic, all of whom shared a passion for literature, art, philosophy, and music. I had found my people.

Something happens to your mind when you embrace the Humanities — something that comes as a series of epiphanies that raises your consciousness into new realms of thought and feeling resulting from contact with the great writers, poets, playwrights, philosophers, artists, and musicians of all eras. It’s intoxicating and exhilarating and, as Thomas Wolfe proclaimed in the title of his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again. You’re changed.

You reach for a higher kind of gestalt, the gestalt of the modestly well-educated. You begin to read the New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Le Monde, The Times (London), The Guardian, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, The Globe and Mail, and university quarterlies. You listen to folk music, cool jazz, classical music, and opera. You see Verdi in the same tradition as Shakespeare, and taste the richness of Old English in Beowulf and the delightful Middle English of Geoffrey Chaucer.

It’s a heady experience, all in all, but the question always arises: what are you going to do with all this when you head out into the “real” world?

One Pill Makes You Larger, and One Pill Makes You Small

For one gestalten period it seemed as if the world had changed. The war in Vietnam was vigorously opposed, campus radicalism was on the rise, and hair got longer. The folk music I’d grown up with was woven into a new kind of rock music and the voices of Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young filled the airwaves, along with new bands like the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and Frank Zappa.

Alan Watts taught us about Zen, the tarot deck came back into fashion, and decorated VW vans filled with flower children with headbands, victory signs, peace medallions, and bloodshot eyes were common sights.

Among the reading favourites were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Catch–22, The Vedas and The Upanishads, The Teachings of Don Juan, The I Ching and The Whole Earth Catalog.

Everyone was for “getting back to nature” and many communes were started, mostly ending in failure, and from the broadway musical Hair to massive rock concerts, it was assumed that the Age of Aquarius was upon us. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz described it as an “explosion of consciousness.”

It’s sometimes said that if you remember the 60s, you weren’t really there. My own memory of the time is patchy, with psychedelically-coloured gaps and an enduring sense of mysticism. But, like many, I didn’t see how it was sustainable. In the words of the Jefferson Airplane, “You are the Crown of Creation / And you have no place to go.”

The Origin of Species

The flower-power era couldn’t last, of course, because someone has to pay the bills. I trimmed my hair, picked up a degree in library science, and took a job. Through sheer good fortune I ended up as Head Librarian at the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto. It was there that I began hanging out with ornithologists, palaeontologists, mammalogists, geologists, mineralogists, ichthyologists, and entomologists, as well as archaeologists. It has shaped my thinking to this day. I had encountered the gestalt of scientific thinking and research.

One of the curators, a palynologist (one who studies modern and ancient pollens) challenged me with the question: “Have you read Darwin’s Origin of Species?” Being a lit major, I hadn’t, so I decided to give it a go.

What surprised me the most was how clear Darwin’s Victorian prose was. I was mesmerized by the concept of “descent with modification” or as it came to be known, “evolution.” Shortly after reading Origin, a new volume by Stephen Jay Gould passed through the library — a collection of essays entitled Ever Since Darwin. I gave this a read and subsequently read every book of essays Gould produced, culled from his monthly column in Natural History.

As a newly-minted amateur naturalist and birder I became hooked on reading science books written for the general public. The 60’s mantra “all is one” took on a philosophically material interpretation when I studied how the universe started, how suns ignited and planets formed, and how, on this one we call Earth, life sparked and evolved, going through great periods of diversity, extinction, more diversity, more extinction, and so on, leading eventually to a group of suddenly sapient simians. As Carl Sagan pointed out, we are made from the remnants of star dust, and every living thing on the planet is related.

My readings in science and science history led me to reaffirm the existentialist theme that life can be heaven or hell, but human beings mean very little in the face of the universe. I shed any last remnants of religion. Materially, we are bodies that live and die, each of us randomly sorted into different situations, different cultures, different countries and it’s these things that shape our sense of who we are.

There are people for whom science is enough. To paraphrase Darwin, there’s a grandeur to this concept of life and its descent with modification through time and its tangled branches and the sudden bursts of evolution that Gould referred to as “punctuated equilibrium.” This is a gestalt that most naturalists come to feel through their observation of life’s many remarkable species.

But is science alone enough to sustain the human spirit, or psyche, that je ne sais quoi that some people call a “soul”? Perhaps, and perhaps not, depending on the individual. What science does, for me, is to throw into relief all the amazing works of mankind, from art, history, philosophy, literature, and music to the increasing technological achievements that accompanied the industrial revolution.

By the time I had begun to assimilate this naturalistic view, information technology was picking up the pace. Television, radio, newspapers and other media shaped us and moulded us in ways that perhaps only Marshall McLuhan could sort out. But that was merely a preface of things to come: the computer revolution.

Bits, Bytes, and Qubits

From the late 70s onward the computer revolution picked up momentum until it reached nearly Biblical proportions: “And in that time a great change came across the land” [my paraphrase]. Computing became personal, portable, and profoundly ubiquitous.

Like others, I joined the revolution, pivoting my career from librarianship to Information Technology (IT). From the earliest whimsical days that included an ad in Byte Magazine for dBase II, entitled “dBASE II vs The Bilge Pump,” to the corporate adoption of personal computers as strategic tools in the workplace, to the computer (aka smartphone) in one’s pocket or purse, a virtual Pandora’s box of consequences was unleashed.

My work involved setting up workstations, email servers, database servers, storage servers, web servers, and firewalls, with a little programming tossed in for spice. I enjoyed decades of computing projects and by the time I retired, in 2006, the industry had progressed from 8-bit personal computers such as the Apple II, to 64-bit powerhouses running Microsoft Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android, and a few dozen lesser-known operating systems. Smartphones and tablets had become almost a birthright.

Computing begat digital photography, streaming audio and video, automobile electronics, appliance electronics, social networks, and, with lesser success, self-driving cars. I now listen to streaming music, watch streaming videos, and get my news and opinion pages from the Internet.

On another level, machine learning (ML) has grown and penetrated the Internet to such a degree that one can examine a product on Amazon and see ads for it within hours on Facebook. Privacy has suffered. The Internet, invented for the purpose of sharing scientific information, developed a dark side, the extent of which is still being assessed — surveillance, phishing attacks, the hacking of personal information, and possibly enough manipulation to sway elections.

The pace is still swift and the increasingly successful bids to harness Quantum Computing (whose basic unit of information is called a Qubit) will likely bring unforeseen changes. Nothing stands still.

End Game

“You can’t stop the future. You can’t rewind the past. The only way to learn the secret, is to press play” ~ Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why

In my retirement, I’ve once again become a student. I read incessantly, both fiction and nonfiction, I take the occasional online course, and I think, if not profoundly, at least genuinely. It aids thinking to have a philosophical framework to compare one’s thoughts to, and I continue to find the challenge of existentialism worthwhile for this. It’s an honest philosophy, derived from the human spirit looking at an irrational and uncaring, absurd, universe and deciding to carve out a personal meaning for being human. It’s a difficult challenge (never underestimate existential angst) but it’s more open and honest than clinging to a derived set of values, liberal or conservative, from those around us.

I’m beginning to understand why Camus used the story of Sisyphus to highlight the challenge. In the Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a huge boulder to the top of a hill. Every time he reached the top, the boulder would roll back to the bottom and he was required to repeat the procedure, for eternity. “Camus claims that when Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate, he is freed to realize the absurdity of his situation and to reach a state of contented acceptance. With a nod to the similarly cursed Greek hero Oedipus, Camus concludes that ‘all is well,’ indeed, that ‘one must imagine Sisyphus happy.’” [Wikipedia, “The Myth of Sisyphus”]

It would be neat and tidy, at this final stage of my life, to wrap up my thoughts with a pretty bow attached, but I’m unable to do so. There have always been random elements in our story that change the story itself: a colliding meteor, a world war, an economic depression, climate change, the overthrowing of the monarchy and aristocracy, the re-establishment of a wealthy set of plutocrats, the place you were born, the family you emerged from, the schools you attended, the number of freedoms, or lack thereof, of the prevailing government, and, not least, who you fall in love with. It is difficult to piece all this together into a holistic understanding. I am, in my final years, still waiting — waiting for gestalt.

 

Why Use Linux?

Why Use Linux?

By Gene Wilburn

I’m astonished at how seldom anyone asks me “Why use Linux?” It’s as if, outside the realm of computer techies, Linux is unknown or feared. So let me start with an introduction.

Think of your computing device operating system as a vehicle of transit, say a car that takes you to where you want to go. Now think Smart Car. Now think driverless Smart Car where you simply sit inside and tell Siri, or James, or Hobnob where to take you. This is the model of modern operating systems, especially those for tablets, such as iOS from Apple and Android from everyone else except Microsoft. They are attempts to make your trip devoid of challenges or problems and both Windows 10 and MacOS try to do this, not entirely successfully. The design goal of user friendliness and ease of use is good, but it’s only one way of looking at operating systems. The problem with this model is that some of us like to do our own driving, and we like a standard gear shift so we can control the ride ourselves. If you’re like this, then there some things about Linux that might appeal to you.

The standard way to introduce Linux is to say something like “Linux, or GNU/Linux as it’s sometimes known, is a multiuser, multitasking operating system that runs on a broad variety of Intel and AMD processors.” That’s a mouthful and it doesn’t do much to tell you what Linux is. So, think DOS, or if you back go far enough, CP/M. You got around and did work by typing commands directly into your computer. Before Windows (and Mac and OS/2) that’s how you communicated with your computer and launched programs. Like driving a stick shift.

Now, lest I misrepresent it, Linux too has a graphical, windowed interface — several of them to choose from actually — and they’re very nice and modern and you can set up a Linux computer for a non-techie and they can work it just fine that way. I use it that way myself most of the time. But the real draw of Linux lies under the hood, or behind the command line prompt, which is usually a plain, little dollar sign: $. From here you can do just about anything, including driving yourself into a brick wall at high speed, if you’re not careful. But then, you’re a careful driver, right? And behind that dollar sign lies a computer techie’s dream.

So what’s so special about Linux, then? Two things: it’s based on Unix, and it’s free.

Unix

Linux derives, ultimately, from Unix, an operating system that emerged from the Bell Labs in New Jersey and launched on January 1, 19701. Unix pioneered many of the modern operating system concepts, like hierarchical directories, utilities that did one thing, and one thing well, and a way to string the utilities together using pipes and redirection. You may remember DOS commands such as mkdir for “make a directory” (today most people call them “folders”) and cd for “change directory.” These commands were “borrowed” from Unix but were a pale imitation of the real deal.

Furthermore, Unix was the proving ground for the mouse, the graphical interface (before the Macintosh), and before that, and more importantly, the Internet. Email was invented and standardized in Unix, as was the TCP/IP network protocol that the Internet runs on. The Web was invented on Unix too. To put it mildly, Unix has been a foundational technology in the history of computing. The problem with Unix was that it only ran on mainframes and minicomputers, as shared multiuser systems. The techie’s dream was to have a personal Unix that could run on an inexpensive Intel and AMD PCs. But Unix required expensive licensing and was not built for the Intel architecture.

FSF, GNU, and BSD

There were three or four projects that were begun in the hopes of creating a free Unix workalike, free from licensing fees, and free from corporate rule. An influential programmer, Richard Stallman, set up a project to recreate all the Unix utilities with no reference to the original source code so it could be used and legally distributed for free. He called it the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and later, GNU (GNU’s not Unix — a recursive acronym). GNU was delaying building a kernel (or auto engine) for the last piece of work.

Meanwhile another group was striving to release a BSD (Berkeley Systems Division) Unix derivative using both the GNU and the Berkeley utilities to create a Unix-like OS for the Intel 386 processor. They actually did a smashing job at this, but ran into a licensing dispute with the University of California, Berkeley, about free distribution. FreeBSD, as it came to be called, was, and still is, an excellent Unix-like OS and if they hadn’t been forced to hold back until the dispute was settled, I might now be advocating FreeBSD instead of Linux. Unfortunately, it missed its prime window of opportunity. Nonetheless, there are a lot of web sites today running on FreeBSD which is admired for its dependability and stability.

Linux

But fate intervened, and a young computer science student in Helsinki, Finland — Linus Torvalds — took another project called MINIX (an experimental Unix-like OS for the Intel 286) and started rewriting the kernel to work on the 386, the first genuinely 32-bit CPU from Intel. To say the least, he succeeded, then he and his colleagues around the world added the GNU Unix utilities and his friends dubbed the package “Linux” in his honour. Linus is still the head of Linux kernel development, though he now does it from sunny Silicon Valley.

The early days of Linux were typified mostly by character-based consoles, like logging in to a PDP-11 Unix computer except right on your own PC. There were several “Linux distributions” (flavours) like Slackware (still available), Debian (still available and the progenitor of all the Ubuntu distributions), Red Hat (before it went commercial), Caldera (no longer with us), and SUSE (still popular in Europe). In addition the “little Linuxes” began to appear—distributions like Damned Small Linux that ran on minimal or even embedded systems.

As Intel processors became faster and more powerful, Linux added windowing interfaces based on another free project, the X Window Consortium. From this sprang most of the modern Linux graphical interfaces that have names like Gnome3, Mate, Cinnamon, KDE, IceWM — there are literally a few dozen graphical interfaces to choose from, some of which are designed to run on minimal (e.g., old) hardware.

Because it was developed for the PC, Linux quickly acquired device drivers for most of the peripherals of the day: network cards, printers, faxes, external hard disks, scanners, mice, trackpads, speakers, and, more recently, Bluetooth and WiFi adapters. In other words Linux had all the joy of Unix plus all the practicality of a personal computer. A personal Unix. What is most notable about all of this is that it is the result of programmers who cared enough to devote their free time to working on Linux drivers and other free software projects. This was the birth of what is now called the Open Source model.

ASCII (Text) Files

I think it’s fair to say that no other operating system uses ASCII2, or text, files to the extent that Linux/Unix does. Perhaps you remember the early days of DOS and Windows when you might have an autoexec.bat and a config.sys file in your boot directory to customize your system for your use when you started your PC. And when Windows programs frequently had a corresponding .ini text initialization file to create a profile for how a Windows program should start and run.

This is the Unix style, and Linux is set up with all manner of text files that instruct the system how to boot and what to run when it does. And many programs, such as the vi or emacs editors have startup files that are “hidden” files with names like .vimrc or .emacs. The dot at the beginning of the file name makes them invisible unless you invoke a list command that displays them, e.g. ls -a.

The beauty of ASCII files is that they are easily readable, easily edited, and, perhaps as importantly, easily searched. Linux/Unix has excellent, time-honoured facilities for searching text files either for file name or contents. Linux editors abound, from the traditional vi and emacs editors to simple editors like nano or writing-oriented editors like Focus Writer. There’s an editor for any style or personality. Many are oriented to programming, with syntax colouring and parenthesis, brace, and bracket matching to assist programmers, but there are authors who use these editors for writing articles and books. The SF author Neal Stephenson, for instance, mentioned in an interview that he uses Emacs on Linux for all his writing and I believe I’ve heard that Cory Doctorow uses Emacs as well.

Linux currently sports a sophisticated office suite called Libre Office (also available for Windows and Mac), but the true heart of Linux lies in its text files. For things like advanced formatting of print material, PDFs, or ebooks, the traditional Unix approach has been to put instructions on what to do right inside the text file, totally visible with nothing hidden. Think permanent Reveal Codes if you recall WordPerfect 5 for DOS. This is called a markup scheme, and is used for traditional typesetting programs such as troff or LaTeX. This has also led to the development of a simple writer’s markup scheme called Markdown and is the scheme I use for all my writing, including this essay3.

When your files are text files, some things become much easy to do in Linux. For instance, to keep my essay writing in some semblance of order, I internally title my essays as Essay001.md, Essay002.md, Essay003.md, etc. (.md for Markdown) and to see what they’re about I know that each essay has a title line as its first line. To get a snapshot of my work I can use the Linux utility head that shows only the first x lines of a file, 10 by default. (There is a corresponding tail command.) I only need one line, so my command in my Essay directory is:

$ head -1 Essay*.md

Which produces:

==> Essay001.md <== 
# Paradoxes and Temporal Displacement

==> Essay002.md <== 
# Flowers from Algernon

==> Essay003.md <== 
# Where's Walden?

==> Essay004.md <== 
# A Musical Interlude

==> Essay005.md <== 
# Whatever Happened to Ecology?

==> Essay006.md <== 
# Of Melancholy I Sing

[etc.]

Slick, no? It’s a trivial example of what you can do from the command line, but it illustrates the principle of Linux tool use. It starts out with, hey, I’ve got a problem to solve. How do I see the first line of all my essay files? Then I think about what tools are available. Well, head should be able to do that and a quick check on the manual (man) page tells me how to limit the display to one line. This is a form of computing, using the tools for something you want to solve.

There’s much more I could do with my essay files from the command line. Using sed (stream editor) I could make global changes to all the files with one command, say substituting the word real for actual, for example, or removing the spaces around em-dashes. If I were a novelist, I could change a character’s name globally if I decided to rename a character after several chapters into the work. There is nearly always a solution, often more than one, to solve a problem. Of course you need to know what the tools can do before you will think of using them, but that comes with the territory of learning the environment, and if you’re technically inclined, it’ a fun study.

Development Tools

Linux is also the home of server applications, such as Postfix for an email server, Apache or Nginx for a web server, not to mention database servers, repository servers, FTP servers, firewalls, and the like. You can create a test website on a Linux box then test it from other PCs and tablets on your home network before committing your work to a live, external web server. Want to work with a content server like WordPress? You can set this up to work in your Apache web server and get to know it and its plugins and do your testing locally rather than risk fiddling with a live website. Linux is a web developer’s friend.

But the jewels in the crown are the programming environments Linux provides, from the amazingly able Bash shell and interpreted scripting languages such as Perl and Python all of which are normally a part of every distribution. To that you can easily add C, C++, Java, LISP, Haskell, and any of a few dozen specialty languages. Naturally this might not appeal to a casual user, but think kids. The more exposure to Linux and its programming environments they get, the more prepared they will be to pursue technical training and study.

Scalable Knowledge

One of the side benefits to learning Linux is that you can log into just about any Unix or Unix-like computer on the planet and feel at home with the environment. This includes machines as tiny as a Raspberry Pi that might be used in a robotic installation, or a supercomputer cluster at a research centre. A survey in 2017 indicated that the top 15 supercomputers in the world were all Linux clusters. Most of the Cloud is based on Linux as well. You can switch easily between your personal Linux PC and a remote console for a Linux system located in Amazon Web Services (AWS) or another cloud provider.

And if you should end up working in the financial sector, as I did for a few years, you’re already right at home in IBM AIX, HP/UX, and Solaris systems that might be operating as Oracle servers. In other words, Linux knowledge is extensible and scalable — you only need to learn the basics once and you’re set for life. Command-line knowledge is stable and enduring.

Rescuing Old PCs

Most of us enjoy using the latest and fastest computers we can acquire and, in an age of graphical programs and the increased demand they make on resources, fast and powerful is good. However, in a text oriented environment, say writing, you don’t really need all that speed and power. The world is full of abandoned PCs and laptops that have quite a bit of life in them if turned into Linux machines.

For instance, I rescued a Dell Mini system with an Atom processor this year. It only has 1GB of memory and a slow HD, but it’s a nice little portable unit for a writer, and a great system for a kid to learn Python on. While most of the major distributions of Linux run best on fast gear, there are distributions created specifically for machines with fewer resources. On the Dell Mini I installed Xubuntu, a stripped-down, lightweight version of the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution. The Mini runs surprisingly well on it. Another friend had a low-resource laptop that was totally swamped by Windows 10, so I installed Lubuntu on it, an even lighter version of Ubuntu and it fuctions well as a browser for the Internet and it runs Libre Office well enough for occasional use.

Even if you’re not a writer, you can use a rescue PC to serve as a music and multimedia server for the house. Or, of course, a development web server. Or just as a machine for learning about computing, from the command line up.

Modern Applications

What I’ve sketched out here in very brief detail is the use of Linux as a traditional Unix box, with command-line richness and tools galore. For a tech-savvy person, this aspect of Linux is like owning a filled treasure chest. But there are also many modern, graphical open-source programs, or applications, available, from sound recording to animation to photo editing. They’re often not quite as slick as the commercial programs available for Mac or Windows, but they’re free of cost and you’re free (that is, it’s legal) to share them with others. These applications tend to be very good, with constant updates and improvements. Above all, Linux gives you choices. If you don’t want to pay Adobe $10US a month to use the current versions of Photoshop and Lightroom, you can use the free Gimp or Darktable apps that provide at least 80% of the same functionality, if not more.

Here’s maybe a surprise. If you’re not an Apple or Windows camp follower, you may already be using Linux without even realizing it. The Android operating system for smartphones and tablets is a Linux variant. If you have a Roku or similar device, it’s probably running Linux under the hood. The same goes for your router. Embedded Linux is widely used in commercial products. Linux may be used in your fridge, your car, or your TV set.

So let me conclude by saying that there are many reasons for wanting to use Linux, though I’ll be the first to admit it’s a best fit for people with a technical bent. If you’re so inclined, you’ll find it puts the computing back into computing. And I’m just geeky enough to think that it’s way more fun than Windows or even MacOS4. And did I mention? It’s free.


  1. uppercase UNIX is a trademark name. The computer industry usually uses the spelling Unix to include both UNIX and all UNIX-workalike operating systems such as HP/UX, Solaris, AIX, FreeBSD, Linux, etc.
  2. ASCII is short for American Standard Code for Information Interchange. Today it’s more accurate to say UTF8 as part of Unicode encoding but it doesn’t come as trippingly on the tongue.
  3. If you’d like to know more about using Markdown, I have written a free small e-monograph on the subject called Markdown for Writers.
  4. Technically, MacOS is a BSD Unix derivative OS but has been modified in untraditional ways by Apple. It’s still a Unix system at the command prompt, but is never as up to date on utilities as Linux or FreeBSD.

 

Slide Rule (I)

slide-rule

Autumn 1959.

I’d never been truly inspired by a teacher until I entered high school (Lyndon, Illinois) and got Mr. Buikema for general science and algebra.

He was a newly minted teacher from Northern Illinois University at Dekalb. With his blond crewcut, dark horn-rim glasses, and enthusiasm for science and math, he epitomized the collegiate, scientific look of the late 50’s. Not to mention he was a fan of the Kingston Trio, my favourite music group, and he had built his own Heathkit amp which he connected to an AR-3 speaker (this was before stereo). I idolized him.

I liked science and enjoyed his lab, but what really excited me was his algebra class. I’d disliked arithmetic because it was so boring, but algebra — it was a new language, the beginnings of real mathematics. I was hooked. The symbolic notation and equations appealed to me from the start. Factoring seemed intuitive and beautiful. I loved story problems of the type “if Train A is going west at X miles per hour, and Train B is going east at Y miles per hour, etc., how far will each have traveled when they pass each other.”

One day while we were working on our algebra exercises, Mr. Buikema pulled a slide rule from his leather briefcase to do some grade calculations. I was smitten. I’d heard of slide rules but I’d never seen one up close, much less met anyone who knew how to use one. The slide rule, or “slipstick” as it was affectionately called, was the icon of science and engineering. Wernher van Braun, the German, then American, rocket scientist was photographed using one.

After class I asked Mr. Buikema if they were hard to learn, and he said if I picked up an inexpensive one, he’d teach me how to use it. The next week my Mom bought me a plastic 10-inch slide rule for $1.99 at Walgreens. It had the most-often used scales and while it lacked the precision of an engineer’s metal or laminated bamboo slide rule, it was more than adequate as a learning tool.

Mr. Buikema taught me how to do multiplication, division, squares and cubes. It was my first calculating machine, and I loved its elegance and what would be called, a half century later, its geekiness. To my delight I found I could use the slide rule effectively in solving physics problems, calculating forces on an inclined plane, and velocities of objects in motion.

I had joined the Space Age.

El Capitan Collateral Damage

el-capitan

“Almost 1 second remaining,” said the progress bar for installing El Capitan aka Mac OS X 10.11, but I should know better. Over ten minutes since I last checked and the cheery but inaccurate message remains on the screen. Finally it changes to the oxymoronic “Almost 0 seconds remaining” before finally getting on with being installed.

It would have been better if I hadn’t seen the message at all, at least on Marion’s Macbook Air. Marion, for good reasons that I won’t go into here, uses her Macbook as a Windows computer. She started out to use the Macbook as a Mac, but for complex reasons, it didn’t work out for her, so I set up her Macbook as a Boot Camp dual boot computer.

Every so often, just to keep the Mac side up to date in case she ever needs it, I would boot it up as a Mac and install updates and changes. I’d already installed El Capitan on my Macs and liked it so I upgraded Marion’s Macbook in good faith.

The problem came when we tried to boot back up the Windows half of the computer. Uh oh. It wouldn’t boot Windows. A search through Google revealed that others were starting to report the same problem, in the Apple Support forums. There was no reply from anyone at Apple but users were complaining that El Capitan dinged the Windows partition somehow and there was no fixing it. Moving back a release to Mavericks didn’t help because the damage was already done.

Marion is a heavy computer user and is especially busy right now preparing materials for the annual art show at the Cawthra Seniors Centre so I had to do something to get her back up and running. My first thought was to reinstall Mavericks and create a new, fresh Windows instance using Boot Camp Assistant. To do this I had to make an ISO file of the Windows 7 boot DVD and put it on a stick. Then the installation started. It didn’t get far because when Windows tried to boot, it failed on a critical driver Apple had forgotten to sign: appleSSD.sys. Search as I might, I couldn’t find a working solution. I tried some but they didn’t work for me.

So, going for broke, I created an ISO file for El Capitan and put it on a boot stick. I had to blow away the entire Macbook drive in order to reformat it for El Capitan. Boot Camp Assistant wasn’t able to delete the Windows 7 partition.

I thought perhaps I’d try Boot Camp Assistant under El Capitan, but when I got to the point of trying, it said I needed Windows 8 or higher, otherwise there were some tech files available on how to install Windows 7. By this time I had worked the problem for over 24 hours and was feeling a bit testy, so I looked for an alternate approach.

I installed Parallels for Mac v. 11, then installed Windows 7 into Parallels, then began to restore Marion’s data files, a long job. Fortunately we kept up to date backup but it takes a long time to restore.

So far, Parallels seems to be working, but it hasn’t been put to any hard work yet. Fingers crossed that it works out okay. If it doesn’t, I may have to purchase a copy of Windows 10 to install on the machine, trying Boot Camp again.

All in all, 48 hours of fix and restoration, with minimal sleep. El Capitan is causing some serious collateral damage for some users and the snag hasn’t even hit the news yet. Let’s hope word gets out there and doesn’t trip up more users into an experience like mine. The irony is that, in general, I really like El Capitan. Ah, the joys of computing.

Linux on a Mac (I’m Back)

Ubuntu Linux on a Mac//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Here it is, almost fall, and I find myself missing the chance to jot some notes and observances into Silver Bullets. So, I’m back, and to start off with I’ll tell you what I did this summer.

My main tech project was to set up a new Linux server for testing some web pages Marion and I have been working on. We wanted to test out various options of setting up a WordPress site, including experimenting with different WordPress themes, without doing so in a live environment.

My friend, Mark Dornfeld, mentioned that he’d had good luck with Oracle’s VirtualBox on his Mac in terms of hosting Windows, so I thought I’d look into VB as a Linux host on my Mac Mini, primarily because the Mac Mini has 16GB of RAM and plenty of disk space.

So, installing VirtualBox was easy. I planned to install the desktop version of Ubuntu Linux and work up the server elements: Apache, MySQL, PHP, and WordPress. Unfortunately I hit a glitch with screen resolution. The instance of Linux sensed a 1024 screen but only gave me a 640×480 window to view it in. I couldn’t even scroll to the buttons of the graphical interface.

So, I came in the back door. I blew away the desktop installation and installed Ubuntu Linux Server in its place, turning into a LAMP (Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP) server with only a character console. I then added back the graphical interface with

$ sudo apt-get ubuntu-desktop

Voila! A nice 1024 screen with everything working. It fits nicely on the Mac Mini’s new 27″ Dell monitor.

Next, getting WordPress installed and tested. That proved straightforward. We’re now testing out a new website for Marion’s art and genealogy.

Other than that, it’s been a quiet summer packed with a lot of reading and a touch of writing, but very little photography. Oh, and I turned 70. That was a bit sobering.

Setting up Shop: Which Linux to use?

ubuntu-kde
Ubuntu 12.10 x64 with KDE Desktop

Eleven (11!) installs in 10 days. That’s how things worked out when I got my new Dell Vostro 2520 laptop and experimented with the operating systems I wanted to work with for the next while. Due to some mistakes on my part, I occasionally blew away things I meant to keep and sometimes experiments worked out badly, like when I tried to zero the MBR (master boot record) so I could get a cleaner menu install. My backup didn’t write back properly. At least 4 of the reinstalls were related to accidents.

The other deletes and installs occurred as I worked through distros to see which ones might be of most use in my computing and writing projects. In truth, they were all, aside from the requisite Windows install, good for projects, but some of the distros had too many rough edges or lack of support to be useful in writing for a beginner’s audience.

The first OS to go was PC-BSD. I was personally fond of it, but it was a bit too wide of the mark when it comes to writing about Linux. It also had driver issues. When it wouldn’t go wireless after installing the latest Belkin USB WiFi stick I had to give up on it. BSD is a great OS but perhaps not at a desktop level.

In its place I tried Fedora. I was initially impressed with Fedora, but the more I worked with it, the less I understood it. The interface (Gnome 3?) totally confused me and, compared to Ubuntu, I found overall documentation lacking. So Fedora was sent to the bit bucket.

Next up, Linux Mint 14 with the Cinnamon interface. Wow, I thought. This is the distribution for me. I really liked its aggressively modern approach of providing the best possible desktop for a user coming from Windows. It even offered software like Picasa.

I was getting along great with Linux Mint until I tried to set up my networked Laserjet 1300 printer. I’d done this before in other operating systems with no trouble, but Linux Mint gave me nothing but. After doubting myself and going in circles with the setup menus I began to suspect Linux Mint itself. I did some googling and, sure enough, there were others with the same problem and, worse, the problem went all the way back to Linux Mint 12. This did not bode well. I then discovered that Google had dropped development for Picasa for Linux some time ago. It seemed to me to be a kind of dishonesty to be featuring abandoned software up front, so I decided that for all the good things I saw there, Linux Mint, too, would go to the bit bucket.

By this time I realized that the one distribution I could reliably count on over and over was Ubuntu. I’d even started warming up to the Unity interface. Not to mention that I have a choice of Gnome, KDE, Xfce, and others should I go off Unity. So I deleted the current Ubuntu partition and reinstalled Ubuntu into the lion’s share of the hard disk, leaving only Windows 7 and Ubuntu as a dual-boot machine.

I set up my networked printer with no troubles, using exactly the same menus that were presented to me in Mint. The thing about Ubuntu — it just tends to work, and I appreciate the rich amount of documentation.

So, this machine is literally leaving boot camp and is now ready for action.