Thoughts from a thoroughly modern machine

After I got back from India, my desktop computer went into meltdown. This was Nigel Dunn’s old machine, which I took over after he went to Australia, and it gave me excellent service for over two years.
   I wasn’t prepared to go and buy a brand-new machine, but having made the plunge, I’m glad I did. The installation went rather well and the only major problem was Wubi and Ubuntu, which, sadly, did not do what was promised. The installer failed, the boot sequence either revealed Linux code or a deep purple screen, and the time I spent downloading a few programs to sample was wasted (not to mention the two hours of trying to get Ubuntu to work). Shame: on principle, I really wanted to like it.
   Funnily enough, everything on the Microsoft end went quite well apart from Internet Explorer 9 (the same error I reported last year), which then seemed to have taken out Firefox 9 with the same error (solved by changing the compatibility mode to Windows XP). Eudora 7.1 had some funny changes and would not load this morning without fiddling with the shortcut, Windows 7 forgot to show me the hidden files despite my changing the setting thrice, and there were some other tiny issues not worth mentioning. But, I am operating in 64-bit land with a lot of RAM, DDR5s on the graphics’ card, and more computing power than I could have imagined when, in 1984, my father brought home a Commodore 64, disk drive, printer and monitor, having paid around NZ$100 more than I did on Tuesday.
I could have gone out and bought the computer last week, after the old machine died. But there’s the whole thing about New Year. The focus was family time, preparing food and pigging out for New Year’s Eve (January 22 this time around), and New Year’s Day is definitely not one for popping out and spending money.
   Which brings me to my next thought about how immigrant communities always keep traditions alive. You do have to wonder whether it’s still as big a deal “back home”: I was in Hong Kong briefly en route back to Wellington, and you didn’t really feel New Year in the air. There was the odd decoration here and there, but not what you’d imagine.
   It’s the Big Fat Greek Wedding syndrome: when the film was shown in Greece, many Greeks found it insulting, portraying their culture as behind the times and anachronistic, while they had moved on back in the old country. The reality was a lot more European, the complainants noted.
   And you see the same thing with the Chinese community. People who would never have given a toss about the traditions in the old country suddenly making them out to be sacrosanct in the new one. Maybe it’s motivated by a desire to transmit a sense of self to the next generation: in a multicultural society, you would hope that youngsters have the chance to pick and choose from the best traditions from both their heritage and their new nation, and carry them forward.
Windows XP VM
A retro note: I love Fontographer 3.5. So I put it on a virtual machine running XP. Fun times, courtesy of Conrad Johnston, who told me about Oracle VM Virtual Box.
   I also found a great viewer, XnView, to replace the very ancient ACDSee 3.1 that I had been using as a de facto file manager. (Subsequent versions were bloatware; XnView is freeware and does nearly the same thing.) I’ve ticked almost all the boxes when it comes to software.
   Because of the thoroughly modern set-up, I haven’t been able to put in a 3½-inch floppy as threatened on Twitter. Fontographer was transferred on to a USB stick, though I have yet to play with it properly inside the virtual machine. Both the Windows 7 and virtual machines are, in typical fashion, Arial-free.
   Although I have seen VMs before, I am still getting a buzz out of the computer-within-a-computer phenomenon.
To those who expected me to Tweet doom and gloom from my computing experience last night, I’m sorry I disappointed you. My posts about technology, whether written on this blog or on Twitter, are not to do with some belief in a computing industry conspiracy, as someone thought. The reason: to show that even this oh-so-logical profession is as human as the next. Never, ever feel daunted because of someone’s profession: we are all human, and we are all fallible. Sometimes I like reminding all of us of that: in fact, the more self-righteous the mob, the more I seem to enjoy bringing them down to a more realistic level, where the rest of us live. We’re all a lot more equal in intellect than some would like to think, and that assessment goes right to the top of the political world.

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8 thoughts on “Thoughts from a thoroughly modern machine

  1. I hope you don’t mind if I summarize what we had discussed by tweets:

    Dual-booting just doesn’t seem intuitive to me- by my research, and by my own experience. Most how-to guides I read recommended installing Linux alongside Windows (as Windows pretty much likes to be first) on the same drive. As as I told you- it just IS complicated.

    I must admit this about the UNIX world (this includes Linux, BSD, and the core of Mac): it’s not terribly intuitive either. I do have to use the command line now and then. (It is NOT the same as the old MS-DOS command line, although, thankfully, I didn’t learn a lot of Windows command line stuff.) I do chuckle looking at recent Mac guides on the command line– well, Mac’s Darwin kernel means they are using a UNIX file system– so I can recognize the commands many times.

    Now… I have to tell you, Jack, that Apple has got its own secret black box, proprietary stuff. It DOES make things user-friendly for non-codemonkeys, but for those of us that want to pick things apart (to rearrange to our satisfaction), it’s frustrating.

    I am not sure what Linux must do to fully break into the mainstream. Canonical, Novell, and Red Hat are trying very hard, but… well, that’s a post unto itself.

  2. Which brings me to my next thought about how immigrant communities always keep traditions alive.

    I remember talking to a Scottish teen from Glasgow by way of a MMO I play. He thought that how we in the U.S. cling to culture from the British Isles (especially Scottish stuff) was strange, although we’ve been doing so for over a century now.

    It’s a very interesting observation, Jack, and I do see a number of examples, for sure.

  3. Jak, thank you. I’m very grateful for the summary.
       As you’ve read on Twitter, I managed to get Ubuntu 10 going, and I rather liked it. However, updating that screen driver took hours as there was terminal-level coding to be done to get me signed in as root and to finish an X session. Further updates to Ubuntu meant that I had to repeat the exercise (albeit more quickly as I had learned the procedure).
       I imagine a good deal of this is down to experience but I was glad to get back into Windows. While I really enjoyed the experience, and studying the design and typography of the interface was the highlight, Mac and Windows just seem that much more intuitive to me.
       Still, it is speedier, and I even managed to customize the interface to resemble something closer to what I wanted, too. The level of customization is greater and that was a boon. Even the Liberation Sans typeface family is lovely and I am sorely tempted to program in a font substitute into the Windows registry so it displays instead of Verdana (although I like Verdana, too). (I also put on Dalton Maag’s Ubuntu family, which didn’t come as standard in v. 10.)

  4. You’ve summed up pretty much the state of Linux now, even on flavors (distributions) that are designed to be more user-friendly. There often comes a time to work that command line, and the community usually speaks CLI so they don’t have to explain multiple times for the multiple GUIs (Gnome, KDE, Unity, LXDE, XFCE, Fluxbox, etc.)

    By the way– what GUI are you using? My preference still is with GNOME, and version 2 at that, although Ubuntu is moving towards an environment called “Unity”, which I am guessing is a little more in line with how Mac OS arranges things. (The default for Ubuntu 11 onward is Unity– Linux Mint is working on alternative otpions.) I tried KDE (some analytical types like it more)– but didn’t like it. mostly because KDE is NOT intuitive. I also tried a few others, but not enough to be worthy of mention.

  5. The crazy thing is the frequency with which I have to go into the terminal. That really takes me back! If there is one thing putting the majority off, I would venture it’s that. I am, however, steadily getting used to keying in eight keystrokes just to get quotation marks and ellipses: unlike most people, the ASCII ones and typing three dots don’t work for my pedantic nature! The em dash and accented characters, however, are far simpler, and entering them is more logical than even on the Macintosh. So there are some tradeoffs here and there.
       Like you, I activated Gwibber, which is not too bad, though I still prefer to go on-site to do my updates. When you have a few thousand folks on either service, it’s easier to manage it that way.
       I’m on Gnome as well. I took a screenshot here of what my desktop looked like after I set everything up. I’ve added a few things today—the open-source Flash player was as buggy as heck so I went to Adobe (which also necessitated some terminal keying!) but, otherwise, this is still what I am looking at:

       I like the speed, and the overall UI. Typographically (in terms of default fonts) I think it’s right up there: the later freeware fonts that come with it are excellent. I can see myself booting Ubuntu up if I expect to do only web-based things, since that is what is common on all systems. I have the Gimp, so I imagine I could do some graphic work in Linux. But in terms of productivity, I am still tied to things like Eudora, which would see me return to Windows to do the basic nitty-gritty of my routine. WordPerfect remains my word processor of choice since the coding there remains superior and more logical than anything else on the market, including Open Office, despite it having its roots in the 1980s.
       Still, thank you for inspiring me to get into Linux as I am, overall, enjoying my time with it. The only other times I had fiddled with it was on the server (we have run Apache for a long time, nearly a decade if not more) but I could always cry for help to Rackspace if I messed things up or if it looked too technical. Before then, we had Linux at the law library—but remember this is going back nearly 20 years and it was not very user-friendly!

  6. Jak, worked it out through experimentation though one page gave me a clue about double quotation marks.

    Ellipses: compose . .
    Open single quote: compose < ' Close single quote: compose > ‘

    Why this isn’t recorded anywhere online (and I searched for ages) is beyond me.

  7. Codecs and media formats have always been a mixed bag. swfdec (open-source Flash) has been buggy for a long time. Most everything I have read has suggested going to Adobe’s proprietary version.

    Java is a changing story– when it was still run by Sun Microsystems, advice was to go with that for optimum compatibility, compared to the open-source version. But with Oracle’s takeover– well, it really seems Oracle has screwed over the open source world hard. It’s my understanding that Sun’s Java 6 has been merged into OpenJDK, and no one seems to be recommending Oracle’s forays into version 7.
    Then there is the fork of Open Office called “Libre Office”, which I think was simply done to pull away from Oracle.

    I can see myself booting Ubuntu up if I expect to do only web-based things, since that is what is common on all systems.

    Did you find out about Splashtop/Express Gate? See, I think that is what would be ideal. 2 second boot, take care of your web stuff with the embedded Linux, then boot into Windows 7 for the heavy tasks.

    As far as productivity: well… my weakness is pretty much lack of money to shell out for software. I know that commercial solutions– most all limited to Windows or Mac– are much more powerful. But when I am limited to freeware, shareware, and open source, Linux meets most of my needs. I found a recipe manager very, very quickly when I was working on a church lady cookbook, and as our budget was drastically low (we were essentially self-publishing from scratch), it worked. I still don’t know how it would have gotten done if I hadn’t taken that project on.

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