Saturday, July 28, 2012

Really the Biggest Albatross Crippling Ubuntu and Mint

I'm an old Unix guy. Unix worked. When I saw the opportunity to blow away Windows junk with Linux, I jumped at it thinking it would be a simpler, more reliable OS. In the '90s that was a correct assessment. Now, Linux distros are continuously chasing new features and thus becoming bloated with partly-working software. I'd prefer to find an OS where attention is paid to quality.

In the late '80s I taught intro CS on Macs, and they were utter crap. Cooperative multitasking? One-button mice? Give me a break. A former colleague used to say that a computer user's intelligence is directly proportional to the number of buttons on his mouse. I realize, as did he (I think), that the generalization doesn't hold, but copying and pasting in Windows is really clumsy due to the 2-button mouse limitation, and it's hard to imagine a Mac being any better. Of course, Macs still use one-button mice, and my early-learned disdain for Macs survives, though without any actual Mac usage in the past couple decades.

I've been married more recently than I've spent more than 10 minutes using a Mac.

Is Solaris any better? The word on the street suggests not, especially since Sun got bought out. How about BSD? I want the system to be invisible and let me do my work. I guess I want SunOS 4, but not really...

Audio Working (Today); Maybe Popping Mint & Ubuntu from Active Stack and Pushing them to Used Stack

Audio is working today on my Linux Mint 13 64b system, which is a pleasant surprise. It's been stuttering the last few weeks, and after much Googling it appears to be a known problem with PulseAudio, one of Linux's several albatrosses. As soon as I read speculation that it would be fixed in Mint 14, I spent a little while pondering OSS, but I have work to do, and clearly the Ubuntu/Mint flavors of Linux are not cut out for that. Is it time to go back to Debian? My recollection was that, as of a few years ago, Debian mostly worked. Or do I try out Arch Linux?

The biggest albatrosses around Ubuntu/Mint's indistinguishable necks? Unity and Gnome Shell, and the notion that we're more interested in crippling desktop and laptop computers to look like smart phones than in, again, actually getting our work done.

Corporate Culture Wars

Starbucks, J.C. Penney, Oreo, and now Amazon (or Bezos anyway) have stepped forward in favor of gay rights, and apparently seen no negative impact on their sales. Chick-fil-A, on the other hand, came out against gay marriage and is seeing business consequences, to the extent that they now seem to be backing off. What is one to think? That there are many more supporters of gay rights than opponents, or that the supporters are better informed or have more disposable income than the opponents? That the opponents, e.g., Chick-fil-A's COO, are quicker to abandon principles in favor of money? Probably there isn't really much to be gathered from this.

Here is Chick-fil-A President and COO Dan Cathy's statement that sounded tremendously ignorant. From CBS News:
I don't think I'll ever understand all the energy expended by some to take away other peoples' dignity. And I don't think anyone is shaking fists at god. OTOH, I think Rahm Emanuel probably went a bit far in his sweeping pronouncement of what Chicagoans do not believe.

I will not be taking part in any Chick-fil-A boycotts; no need: I never go there anyhow. UMBC unfortunately opened one on campus, and it is unbelievably bad. They have nothing that tastes like chicken.

I might, OTOH, patronize a Chick-fil-A Wednesday as Santorum suggests: "Oh Chick-fil-A, you have such good chicken sandwiches." Of course, we would both know that's not true.

Finally, Steven Colbert weighed in on the issue:

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Chrome as Nagware

Now whenever I start Chrome, it asks me to sign in to the browser. Why? It's a browser, not an OS. Apparently this will let me sync my bookmarks, history, and settings on all my devices: "With Chrome's sign-in feature, you no longer need to fret about your bookmarks or apps being "stuck" on one computer." Who's enough of a dweeb to fret about this stuff?

Different machines have different characteristics, so maybe I want different settings. Maybe I want different bookmarks, history, and apps at home and at work. Maybe I want to try out a setting or an app, but not spread it across all my systems until I decide I like it. Maybe an app is stealing data. Do I want it spread across all my machines quickly and automatically?

I think this is a feature that some people will want. But the way Google is going about it, nagging us to log in every time we start the browser, apparently with no setting to disable the request, feels coercive. And when a corporation attempts coercion, I worry about ulterior motives.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A sign of the times

Firefox's US English spell checker doesn't come pre-loaded with the word 'bookstore.' They still exist, really.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Stop the Regressives

A short video from Robert Reich.

Teaching Networking?

Guido Appenzeller and Nick McKeown have a great pair of TCP congestion animations at

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Think Stratford!

Drove past a billboard this morning entering Catonsville from the west on 144, and there was a billboard that this morning stated "The Stratford! Stratford University, Baltimore." Who the heck are they? Visiting their web site, it's clear they are not accredited by a regional accrediting body, so credits from Stratford University won't transfer to a real university, so their students are largely throwing their money away.

Why do people give shysters like this their money? Interestingly, they provide very little info online. That in itself should be a red flag.

Monday, July 9, 2012

If it walks like global warming and it quacks like global warming...

Over the weekend, track on the DC Metro's green line kinked causing a derailment, a plane sank into the melted tarmac at Washington National Airport, and east-bound lanes of US 50 east of DC buckled, closing the highway.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Amazon Cloud Reader: Almost Useless

This morning I wanted to look something up in an e-book that I had previously read and archived on my Kindle. Rather than download it to the Kindle, re-read small portions of it, and then put it back in the archive, I figured I could just use the Amazon Cloud Reader. I opened the book, and tried to search the book. No joy. ^F just does a find on the visible portion of the book, and there are no other search controls.

After a search (powerful idea, no?) of the Kindle help forums and learning there is no search, I sent Amazon customer service a query in case there really was, but no.

So how could a text-based application, like an e-reader, possibly be shipped without a search function? How could Amazon possibly make this omission? Really, how could they consider the Cloud Reader ready to ship without a convenient way of searching a book?

How can an organization that did such a great job on the Kindle do such a poor job on the web-based stand-in?

Mate 1.2 Missing Crucial Scrollbar Functionality in Linux Mint 13

In Mate 1.2 on Linux Mint 13, the arrows at the tops and bottoms of scrollbars are sometimes present, and sometimes not. It seems to vary from application to application, suggesting it could simply be a bug rather than an egregious usability screw-up, but it is probably both. Having had similar problems with recent versions of Gnome, I figured someone had probably figured out how to fix this. Here's the trick (copy and paste as a single line):

sudo aptitude purge liboverlay-scrollbar-0.1-0 liboverlay-scrollbar-0.2-0 liboverlay-scrollbar3-0.2-0 overlay-scrollbar

Clearly overlay-scrollbar is screwed up. Oddly, this was removed from Linux Mint 12, but somehow snuck back into Linux Mint 13.

Thanks to MartinVW and LewRockwellFAN at

As an aside, it appears that this scrollbar crap is intentional. The following is from a posting elsewhere on "Ayatana scrollbars":

Overlay Scrollbar – The overlay scrollbar, or the Ayatana Scrollbar, is a feature designed to solve a non-existent problem. According to the official description, it was designed to “improve the user’s ability to focus on content and applications” and to “ensure that scrollbars take up no active screen real-estate” thereby “reducing the waste of space and distracting clutter that a traditional scrollbar entails.” That is pure nonsense. It just creates more problems than it solves. In fact, it does not solve any problem, because as stated earlier, there is no problem to solve, as far the scrollbar is concerned.

Aside from making you “look” for the scrollbar before you can use it, it creates an inconsistency in the system because some applications, like Firefox, will have the traditional scrollbar, while native Ubuntu applications will have the overlay scrollbar.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Linux Mint 13 PulseAudio Stuttering

[ Note added 2012-07-17: the below was only a temporary fix. 13 days later, PulseAudio is stuttering again, with a vengeance. For now I'm watching this thread. ]

Recently my 64b desktop developed a bad stutter. I originally thought it was a rhythmbox problem, but it turned out to be a PulseAudio problem. The fix is here--thanks to MRA2011!

In emacs or a lesser editor open /etc/pulse/, change this line:
   load-module module-udev-detect
to this
   load-module module-udev-detect tsched=0

Then restart PulseAudio,
   pulseaudio -k

Recent/Current Power Outages, Central Maryland Edition

I was just without power for 4 3/8 days, and given the heat, this wasn't great. Others had it worse though, since I never lost water, I didn't have much food in the refrigerator and freezer, and I was able to go to work to recharge my laptop, use the Internet, and be in AC for the hottest periods. A few thoughts on being temporarily without electricity:
  1. LED flashlights and lanterns are wonderful. In my 5 nights of blackout, none of my flashlights ran out of juice. Also, I have a Rayovac LED lantern which went strong through the whole thing.
  2. A battery-powered radio is a must. I have a Sangean PR-D7 with 6 NiMH AA cells. When plugged into the wall it keeps the batteries charged. Even at the end of the outage, after several hours of use, it was reporting a full charge.
  3. NiMH batteries are great. I'd hate to be one of those out searching for batteries during the outage. Searching for breakfast was enough trouble.
  4. Being able to keep my cell phone charged was a major plus. For the first day or so after the storm, the Sprint cellular network was having it's problems and at least one 911 service in northern Virginia was reportedly not accepting calls from cell phones, but having phone service is important. I have a Goal Zero 19006 Guide 10 solar charger, which provides plenty of power for my cell phone and my Kindle.
  5. Candles should be saved for more extreme situations. Last night out on a walk I noticed a house in the neighborhood burning candles. This seems dangerous to me, and with minor preparations entirely unnecessary for just a few days without power. Of course, with no way of charging batteries, eventually candles become a natural choice, but why mess with fire before you need to?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Foreshadowing a Tea Party Future

I'm approaching 3 days with no electricity, which isn't such a big deal (some people also lost water--bigger deal), but it does get one thinking. It's hard to deny that the future holds more of these longish-term outages than we are used to:
  1. The US is not maintaining current infrastructure: electricity, water, transit, sewer, etc.
  2. The US is moving much more slowly than, say, Germany, on modernizing the electrical grid.
  3. The fossil fuel industry lobby has a strong enough sway on politicians and Fox "News," especially now that there is no limit in this country to how much a corporation can give to a political cause, that a significant portion of the US public still hasn't figured out that global warming is happening and that we are largely to blame. This follows the patterns of the tobacco lobby, the evolution debate, and the Copernican revolution.  Powerful forces repeatedly oppose science and the public interest.
So, as the infrastructure continues to decay and the weather becomes more harsh, more of us will be spending more time with fewer utilities. Couple this with the growing wealth of the very rich and the shrinking middle class, and the US appears to face serious challenges.