How Did I Get Here?

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Yeah, well. When you find yourself wedged head down in a narrow, cobweb-filled space between ceiling and roof tiles, you do tend to take stock of your life.

I was laying a cable to the satellite dish; a second one, so that we could record one channel while viewing another. But the original run had been put in when the house was far from finished. All is buried now behind stud partitions and under layers of insulation. My only choice was to to squeeze into the little triangular storage space at the side of the attic room, crawl along its length until I reach a gap that slopes down to the eaves, through that to where the slates meet the top of the stone wall…

Except the sloping part is way too tight. I probably could worm my way down it, but worming back up in reverse might be a different story altogether. One with the headline “Skeleton Discovered”.

Luckily though, I see a literal way out. Light shines dimly in through a knothole in the fascia board. Thanks to a slight stiffness in the cable, from where I’m lodged I can maybe feed it through – and from there run it along the front of the house, hidden by the gutter. It’s a matter of a few feet, but in the claustrophobic location it feels as tricky as in-flight refuelling.

Why all this death-defying effort? It’s not like there’s so much good on television you need two channels of it at once. Ludicrously perhaps, it’s mostly because I came across a decent satellite card that was almost too cheap not to buy, about a quarter the price of my original one. Admittedly, that was a much nicer job. It can pick up Saorview, and comes with a fully-featured Windows remote control. The remote (and software) with the cheap card are more novel than useful, but that didn’t matter. It picks up satellite channels – even HD ones – perfectly well, and can be controlled seamlessly by Windows Media Center. (Or MythTV if you like.) The result is just an easy-to-use entertainment system, one that doesn’t intimidate parents or children. All the cleverness happens behind a pretty blue interface that anyone can use to surf, record, and pause TV.

I hope Microsoft aren’t in the process of quietly dropping Media Center. In Windows 8 it’s an extra you have to buy, and even then you can’t boot directly into its television-friendly interface but still have to go via the screen of tiles. Yes, when Microsoft has an idea nothing gets in the way. Your phone, your tablet, your desktop PC has to have a touch interface. Even your television on the other fucking side of the room has to have a touch interface. That’s vision taken to the point of obsession. But it would be a terrible shame if they gave up on Windows Media Center just because its face no longer fits. In its quiet way it’s one of the best things they’ve done, with possibly the nicest EPG of any satellite/cable/PVR device. It takes a bit of trouble and/or experience to set it up just right, but you can get all the channels you actually want into one manageable menu, and banish all the porn and religion to the outer darkness.

Perhaps the worst-designed part is arranging the order of your channels, which has to be done painstakingly with the arrow keys of the remote. Here is where a touch interface – or just drag and drop – would be a good idea. But no, this is a home entertainment or “10-foot” interface, so everything has to be done via the remote.

I think we’re zoning in on the problem here, aren’t we? It’s not bad interface design per se. Microsoft make some great interfaces, and probably research human-machine interaction more than anyone else in the world. It’s when a design orthodoxy takes over. This one is for remote controls. This one is about touch and touch only. As if letting us plug in a mouse or boot straight to the desktop would mean abject failure. It must be PURE. And so we actual users have to find ways to get around all the convenience they invented for their ideal users.

Why not have devices designed to be used from whatever distance, by whatever means, that we want to use them?

Roll Your Own Operating System 1

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Before Linux (Photo credit: quapan)

Where did Linux come from? Strange as it may seem, its roots extend back to ’60s Counterculture. Not a lot of computers in the Haight-Ashbury of course. In those times the only place a young person was likely to access hardware was at university, and it was on campuses that experimentation with drugs and social non-conformity met the sort of person who doesn’t have a lot of friends but is really good at mathematics. Strange things developed out of this cross-fertilisation. Like, to a large extent, the Internet. It was the beginning of Hacker culture.

In this period one of the leading computer operating systems, on campuses and increasingly in industry, was Unix. It was interestingly designed and well-suited to the networked style of computing that was beginning to emerge, seeming almost a little anarchistic in itself. But it was still an expensive, licensed corporate product. A few brave (and possibly slightly high) young souls decided that, hey, they were programmers. They could make something just as good themselves.

The name of this project was GNU. (Standing for GNU is Not Unix. What else?) Like Unix, GNU was designed not as a single giant program but as a whole bunch of little ones, each with its task to perform. A lot of progress was made, but the project long lacked its most vital component: The one central program that organises all the others, known as the kernel. Until, that is, 21-year-old Finnish student Linus Torvalds created one for his own amusement. When the two projects were put together, a complete operating system was born. Purists to this day refer to it as “GNU/Linux”, but plain Linux does for the rest of us.

Don’t make the mistake though of thinking of Linux as an inferior imitation of Unix made by hippies. It’s true it was modelled closely on Unix. In one sense it is Unix; its commands and structures are much the same and a person who knows one can use the other. The difference is that Linux is devoid of any patented or proprietary technology, and so can be copied, changed and distributed freely. This openness has allowed countless people to improve the code – everyone from oddball geniuses just showing off to giant corporations motivated by the bottom line. The only rule is that if you make modifications you must give your work back to the community. This Open Source philosophy has allowed Linux to mushroom in capabilities and refinement, leaving the Unix it once emulated far behind.

This freedom has also led to the huge number of “distros”, as they are called. Linux comes in several major versions, and almost countless minor. Though let’s be careful to be clear about this – they are not different operating systems in the sense that Windows and Mac OS are different. They’re all broadly compatible, the differences reflecting variations more in philosophy than technology.

Nonetheless the sheer breadth of choice may be off-putting at first. Don’t let it worry you, the day is not long off when you’ll believe passionately that one of them is far better than all the others. But that doesn’t matter now (and to be honest, it won’t matter a hell of a lot then either) – what we care about is where to start.

 

Linux For The Normal

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Whatever else, Linux these days is beautiful. Screenshot of Kubuntu 11.04 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s all very well, but why would you – an ordinary person with no particular ideological bent or business need – want to use Linux? Obviously if you’re reading this you’ve already got a perfectly good computing device of some sort. It will have an operating system from Microsoft or Apple or Google that you’ve spent time – perhaps years – getting to know. You may have spent a lot of money on software that won’t work with anything else. Why would you even dream of starting over with a whole new system?

I admit, this applied to me too. Now and again I would install Linux, marvel for a while at how all that great stuff was available for free, and immediately go back to the system I paid money for. Not because it was better, but because I knew it better. This catch-22 of not using Linux because you don’t know it and not knowing it because you don’t use it could go on indefinitely, always keeping you from taking that last step over the threshold. Unless and until a situation arises where nothing but Linux will do. And this is what happened to me recently.

Twice in fact.

The first case was a family member who’d acquired a PC with no working hard drive. He could’ve bought a copy of Windows for about €100. But why? He didn’t need Windows in particular, hadn’t spent years learning its little ways. If he was going to get to know one system, it might as well be the one that wouldn’t keep asking for money. On top of this his main reason for getting the computer was to go online, and for that Linux could not come more highly recommended. Viruses that attack it are too rare to seriously worry about, and it is designed in such a way that if one did get on it could do little harm. So we resolved to set him up with Linux.

And there was my own case. As I was telling you earlier, I recently built a system with more memory in it than you could conceivably shake a stick at – 16GB. However, the ordinary 32-bit version of Windows can’t make use of anything like that much. Just as bigger cities need longer phone numbers, you need a modern 64-bit operating system if you want to call up a serious amount of memory.

And here’s an annoying thing, there is no Windows upgrade path to the 64-bit version. So adding RAM can mean you have to buy a whole new license. For about €100.

Or you give Linux a go, and never pay for software again.

Hmm.

So there are people in some quite ordinary situations who could save considerable money by using Linux. And needless to say, it has other advantages apart from low cost and security. It’s also the most customisable, flexible system. There’s so much sheer choice in fact that it can seem a little intimidating at first, so next time out I’ll talk about where to begin.

Linux Crisis?

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It even runs on some washing machines

Linux – it’s like a shark or an iceberg. Most of it’s below the surface but it’s moving fast and you really ought to know about it.

The majority of people, if they’re aware of it at all, probably think of Linux as the non-commercial alternative to Windows or Mac favoured by people who use computers less to get things done than because they actually enjoy it. Which is a shame in a way, as it gives a wholly wrong impression of its significance. Linux is so much more than an operating system for nerds. Indeed you probably use it yourself, every day. Each time you visit a website the chances are good that you’re talking to a computer running Linux. Smart devices in your home like satellite boxes and DVRs, even TVs now, use Linux. If you have an Android phone, that’s based on Linux. Governments are adopting it, and it is far and away the favourite operating system for the world’s most powerful supercomputers.

So it should be surprising that on the workplace desktop – still the biggest, most visible, and most lucrative computer market sector – it runs a very distant third. How come?

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Linux conquers the supercomputer (Author/Wikimedia/Top500.org)

Counterintuitively, because it’s free. After all the PC is not ruled by Windows and Mac OS because they’re cheap. Rather it’s because people can make money out of them. Huge ecosystems of supporting industries have grown around these computing platforms – software, hardware, services, training, maintenance, publishing – in no small part because there was a key partner there offering support and leadership.

How do you make money out of a system no one owns? With whom do you form a partnership? How can you be sure, when no one’s in charge, that it’s going to develop in a direction that will suit your business? It’s tricky.

Unless of course you take a leadership role yourself. It seems the best way to make money from Open Source Software like Linux is often to step up and be that key player. This is what Google did with Android, making it the world’s most popular phone OS. Or Red Hat, whose version of Linux is one of the most successful systems in the server sector. Each brought their own business model; Google of course is ultimately selling advertising, Red Hat its expertise and support.

If anyone is going to turn Linux into a household – and an office – name it is surely Canonical. This is the power behind Ubuntu, the most popular and user-friendly desktop version of Linux so far. And their vision doesn’t stop at the desktop – nothing worthy of the name could these days. In recent weeks they’ve launched Ubuntu editions for tablets, phones and TVs. It seems they plan to have devices running their software in every major market sector.

Ubuntu TV – It’s a lot like Windows Media Center except for the giving money to Microsoft part.

It’s an extraordinary ambition, and if they can pull it off then Canonical/Ubuntu will be up there with the big girls, sitting proudly alongside Google, Apple, and Microsoft. But can such a fabulous commercial edifice really be built on open foundations? So much of Linux is being developed by people who work for competing organisations – or who aren’t being paid to do it by anybody.

Indeed community disenchantment may already be starting to show. Ubuntu is no longer flavour of the month. Once hugely popular with the sort of Linux user who doesn’t actually want to reinvent the wheel but just needs something that can be installed and maintained with the minimum of fuss, Ubuntu – and its slightly geekier sisters Kubuntu and Xubuntu – drove all before it. No longer; the flavour now is Mint.

This is a different Linux variant (or ‘distro’, to use the jargon). Indeed it’s very much a variant of Ubuntu, just with Canonical’s more commercial ideas stripped out. (This ‘forking’ is perfectly legal in the OSS world – in fact it’s the whole idea. Ubuntu itself is based on the well-respected Debian distro.) Mint’s popularity though was given a huge boost when Canonical introduced their ironically-named Unity interface.

Some of the resentment of this was silly. Unlike Windows or Mac where the graphical user interface is part and parcel of the system, much of the beauty of Linux is that you can choose – even create – your own. For some however it’s a cause. There have long been two main Linux desktop camps: Gnome and KDE. Ubuntu had been on the Gnome side, so its defection – to a third camp of its own invention yet – was seen by many as betrayal.

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Ubuntu’s Unity desktop, with its great big finger-friendly icons (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More seriously though, Unity is very clearly a touch-orientated interface. As the name suggests, it’s meant to be similar on all types of device. Rather like Windows 8 this makes it less efficient – or put it another way, more annoying – for users stuck with an old-fashioned mouse. And as Linux tablets barely even exist yet, that means pretty much all of them. For the first time, Canonical were allowing their commercial vision to degrade the user experience.

But that was as nothing compared to the next change. A feature of Unity is that you can find a file or application by typing its name in a search box. If what you type isn’t on the computer, the newest version of Ubuntu continues the search on the Web – specifically, to Amazon.com.

“Crochet Patterns not found. Do you want to purchase Crotchless Pants?”

This unasked-for advertising feels a bit like an invasion of privacy. The building of it right into the operating system feels a lot like a kick in the teeth to the non-commercial ethos that engendered Open Source.

Making money in itself is not the problem. Google, Red Hat, even that old devil IBM make a lot of money out of Linux. Where I think Canonical sail close to the wind is in identifying themselves with Linux more closely than any company before. Independent computing creatives will resent it deeply if they come to be perceived as dupes – or worse, minions – of a commercial giant.

There are two questions here really. The first it whether Canonical/Ubuntu can maintain the goodwill of the wider Open Source Software community. The second is whether they can realise their vision without it. Perhaps they can, but I think it would be a minor tragedy if they did.

One thing over which there’s no question though: Open Source Software can continue without Ubuntu.

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Next time I’ll talk about why you should try Linux for yourself: Because it’s fascinating, informative, educational – and could save you heaps of money.

Galaxy Note With Ice Cream Sandwich 3

Android 4.0 is of course an OS designed to work equally well on phones and tablets, and one of the chief features of the Note is its huge, tablet-like screen. So let’s have a look at the advantages of holding your phone sideways.

For a start, landscape mode is a great fit for a GPS device that has Google Street View!

This brings a whole new meaning to the term SatNav.

The included calendar app, S Planner, looks particularly fine on its side.

As does the updated Gmail client. Missing from the inbox view are buttons to scroll through mail. After a confounded moment, you realise that this is now done by swiping. Which is nice. The look is cleaner now. Especially when you choose to write a new mail…

How’s that for stripped down?

But making fullest use of gestures is the beta of Chrome for Mobile. It may not be quite stable yet (the main reason this post is late…) but even allowing for that it’s still better than any other mobile browser around. It’s in the “deck of cards” view that gestures really come into their own. You can use two thumbs to leaf through the page previews, a far faster way to find what you want than clicking on tabs.

I’m beginning to wonder if this really is the best mobile browser interface after all – and not the best interface of any browser, ever.

Androids And Sunshine

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Again an incredible day. Not hot exactly, maybe about 18C. The sort of temperatures you can wear as little as you like in, yet walk around all day without breaking a sweat. Comfortable weather. Relaxed weather. Sexy weather. I sat by the canal and contemplated my navel. Then I contemplated my friend’s navel. Hers was best.

But back to Android. I’ve had more than a week to get used to the world’s leading smartphone OS. How am I feeling?

Still a little irritated, to be honest. But that’s not really Android’s fault. I’m asking a lot of it – in essence, I want this phone in my pocket to do almost everything I carry a PC around for now. The major exception would be complex Photoshop work for finished drawings, that really would be overambitious, but I hope to be able to do most of my spontaneous sketching, as well as all the online stuff of course. And some serious text editing, such as this.

As I was saying earlier, I was spoiled for mobile blogging with the Nokia N900. By its excellent desktop-like browser, but also its hardware keyboard. I am getting to like using Swype though, the text entry method where you trace from letter to letter on the keyboard. It is very good, but there are one or two things Android really, really misses badly.

Like Ctrl+z.

To my shock and astonishment, there its no universal command in Android for “undo”. And undo is something I use a lot. A lot lot. On every keyboard I’ve owned, the Z is always first to wear off. So its absence is deeply disorientating. And painful. I was writing this column yesterday, and accidentally hit the “select all” option. How to undo that? I try the Android “back” key, as conceptually back is a little like undo.

Only – and this is a mistake I’ve made many times in my first week – instead of hitting the back button in the bottom right corner, I hit the return key on the keyboard, immediately above it. Which overwrites everything with a new blank line.

So I… Wait, I… There isn’t anything I can do. Two wrong key presses, and I’ve consigned an hour’s work to oblivion. Crap.

That ain’t good enough, Android. As there is no undo feature in the OS, entering text into a Web page becomes extremely hazardous. (A browser has no undo feature, as it assumes one exists in the OS…) Of course an individual app can have the facility, but guess what? The WordPress one doesn’t.

So until Google fix this shit I need a new approach. I found two. The first was a custom keyboard that also has undo functions. That means doing without Swype unfortunately, but it may be the solution for some special purposes. Or if you don’t happen to like Swype anyway. The one I’ve tried is called Programmer Keyboard, a lovably OTT solution that gives you a full 101-key desktop board on your phone!

And it also gives me the other thing I really miss from Android – arrow keys. Oh but you can select things with your finger! Yeah, or the letter next to the one you want, and then the one the other side of it, and then the line below… Gimme arrow keys.

A better approach though is to avoid composing the text in the page or app altogether, by using a proper text editor. The one I’m trying – and liking – is called Jota. (Pronounced “iota” rather than “jotter” apparently; I have no idea where the developer is from.) This has all the essential editing tools, for both writers and coders, even in its free version – and that includes multi-level undo.

Oh, and you can put arrow keys on its toolbar too. People, we have a winner.

Windows 8 – First Impression

I.Doubt.It - installing untried, unstable software so that you don't have to. Not that you ever had to.

It’s like being a year into the future – probably more, the way these things tend to go. I’m writing this on a computer running Windows 8, the OS that is meant to get Microsoft back to the forefront of personal computing. On Windows 8, the complex and resource-hungry operating system of the past will be pushed into the back seat. The front end of your PC is going to be more like a… well, more like an iPad. More like a phone, or other lightweight browsing device. The main “Metro” interface is attractively tiled with little apps to do the little things you probably spend the larger part of your time doing. A basic browser, games, Twitter client, news feed reader, Facebook app, that sort of thing.

I have to preface my remarks with a caveat: It is not a fair test by any means. This is what Microsoft calls a Developer Preview, and it’s being released now, long before its ready even for beta testing, to give programmers a better idea of the forthcoming look and feel. Nonetheless I can start with unreservedly good news. This really does seem to be the lightest that Windows has been for some time. The spec of this computer is dated (1.2 GHz single core processor and 1.5 GB of memory), merely adequate for XP, yet XP’s great-granddaughter seems to run as well if not better. In the past I’ve used this or fairly similar hardware to test the betas of both Vista and Windows 7, but this pre-beta is more immediately impressive than either.

There aren’t a lot of other obvious changes from 7; perhaps the most notable is that the “ribbon” from Office is now in Windows Explorer. Version 10 of IE on the other hand is refreshingly clean and simple – and frighteningly fast. But of course we’re mainly here to get to grips with that weird new interface. Microsoft says it requires a multi-touch screen, but I’ve been getting by with pen input or just a mouse – Metro provides a scrollbar when needed. Presumably there are multi-touch gestures I’m missing out on. Indeed my first impression was that some such two-fingered salute must be a vital part of the interface, because for the life of me I could find no way to get those cool little apps to shut once I’d opened them.

That was when l discovered perhaps the strangest aspect of the future Windows: These apps are not meant to close. They stay suspended in the background, ready to spring back to life from wherever you left off. Which means of course that they use memory while they’re suspended, and I wonder how much they will be allowed to squander before something is done about it. Presumably the oldest will eventually be shoved onto the hard disk. If you’re desperate for memory right now you can kill them from a new-look Task Manager, but that seems a bit ad hoc.

To use the new “Metro” interface, you need to discover a couple of gesture controls that might not be immediately obvious: A stroke from either the top or bottom (with the mouse, a right-click) brings up a sort of context menu / taskbar in any app. A stroke inwards from the left edge (or touching the edge with the mouse) swaps between the two most recently-used apps – one of which can be the desktop – and most important of all, a stroke from the right (or bringing the mouse to the bottom left corner) opens the replacement for the old Start Menu. This though could hardly be more different. It holds just five icons, the main one returning you to the tiled Metro interface – which of course is the real replacement for much of the Start Menu’s functionality. Here you will find shortcuts to “traditional” application programs as well as the new apps.

Weirdly though, I found the lightweight Metro interface a little sluggish and unresponsive compared to Windows 8 proper. Pen input, smooth as silk otherwise (I’m writing this using the handwriting recognition and it works astonishingly well) is jerky in apps. Perhaps it makes too much demand on my Centrino-era graphics hardware. But if it’s still a little rough, it’s also surprisingly usable and interestingly different. Tomorrow, if you’re good, I’ll tell you how to start using Windows 8 yourself.