June 22, 2010 | categories: Pcs

I was talking to Sirupsen on MSN on the subject of simplicity a few days ago. We both agreed that we liked simplicity, yet when we were giving examples, it became clear that we certainly didn't even have the same definition of simple.

The biggest contrast came when we discussed Linux distros. I used Ubuntu as an example of simplicity, while he used Arch. Two very different distros both in their aims and their implementation. One of Arch's main stated goals is even simplicity. Yet Arch certainly wouldn't count as simple under my definition. And Ubuntu wouldn't count as simple under his.

So, what exactly are these two different, often conflicting, views of simplicity? They're technical simplicity, and usability simplicity. Arch's, technical, simplicity, involves having less. Less done for you, less to install, less to go wrong. But this doesn't nessecarily lead to a simpler user experience. Some of the things they cut out, drivers for certain wireless cards, a GUI, etc are now going to need to be manually installed. Perfect for people wanting total control, not very good as far as an easy install goes.

Arch's simplistic plain website
Even their website shows minimalist simplicity.

Ubuntu on the other hand is aimed around user simplicity. It's as close to "Press the big buttons" as Linux gets. However, all this user simplicity involves a compromise on the technical simplicity. While it's much easier for the user, the average Ubuntu install has quite a bit more in it that the average Arch install. Some of it is the stuff that you would install anyway - the GUI, a browser, etc. However, it also has three package managers - one GUI, two CLI. The average user won't know about the two CLI ones until they are told about them, so they don't bloat the user experience, but to the technical simplicity crowd, this must seem very wasteful, especially one compared to one on Arch (just pacman). Other things, like the network settings, are done using GUI config tools. And sure, CLIs are normally more efficient, but anyone who says editing wpa_supplicant is easier than the settings panel of wicd or NetworkManager is just bluffing.

This article probably shows that I do prefer the Ubuntu emphasis on simplicity of use, rather than technical simplicity. It is possible to have both, but for the most part, that magic of "it just works" takes away from the technical simplicity. Sometimes they align: Twitter is a good example of something that everyone agrees is simple. But other times, like the Linux distros, they don't. So, which do you prefer?

[EDIT: Arch vs. Ubuntu is just an example. I'm not deliberately picking on Arch again (unlike last two times), but it just happened to be an easy example]

The problem with tech "is dead" hysteria

May 01, 2010 | categories: Pcs, Gadgets

It seems every week there are people claiming that yet another area of computing is dead. IE6, Windows, netbooks, desktop apps, the list goes on. Yet 9 times out of 10 these proclamations are very premature. Because while power users normally use the latest and greatest of everything, ordinary users don't. Ordinary users don't use n-1 either. Ordinary users use whatever was on their computer when they got it. Fine. Most people know that.

But then the problems start. How old is an old computer? One that came with Windows XP? (and these are non-technical users -they are using Windows) I'm sure most reading this would agree that that is an old computer. No one would use anything older than that, surely?

People actually still use this.

Think again. As someone who regularly fixes the computers of "non-computer people", I frequently encounter PCs running Windows XP SP1, Windows ME, and even Windows 98. These are users who can't run the newest versions of apps. Or the versions before them. Or often even the versions before them. Surely they'd buy a new computer then? Nope, they're still happily using that copy of Office 2000 they were given with the PC. Now, I will admit that "computers needing to be fixed" is obviously going to highlight the older ones still hanging around more than just picking some at random, but it can't invent old computers out of thin air, either.

So what happens when their computer goes up in smoke? Well, first they send it to their computer nerd friends, or a PC repair store. If it's still irreparable without extra money, they will buy a new one, and that's one less old computer for us to deal with.

So, a new computer nowadays will come with Windows 7 preloaded. And despite all the new features, the basics of Windows usage haven't changed much since Windows 95. The start menu button might be circular, but it's still in the bottom left. The text names off the programs in the taskbar have been replaced by pictures. The windows are a bit rounder and more colourful. Nothing that would trip any of us up.

But then... We have those like my dad. He "can't understand this Vista stuff", coming from XP. He still uses an old, slow Windows XP laptop over the new Windows 7 desktop. I managed to finally move him away from IE6 to IE8. He still misses IE6's "easiness". His average use pattern consists of MS Word, Facebook and Outlook Express. He did an ECDL course as part of his job. ECDL for those who haven't done it, is a computer course that teaches MS Office, Windows and IE.

Attempts at moving these people from their preferred apps is futile. They learned how to use one program, and they're going to continue using that one. You won't get them using OpenOffice, which is as close to MS Office as you'll get without being it, so trying to get them to use iWork, for example, is futile.

Now, moving aside from my dad, and keeping with the Apple theme,  let's look at a device that has spawned a lot of "is dead" articles: the iPad. Depending on who you ask, the iPad will be responsible for the demise of everything from the netbook all the way up to the entire personal computer industry. But on it's release, the device was woefully underpowered for any heavy usage. But then a theory came about: The iPad wasn't for us, the heavy computer user, it is for the average Joe. After all, it is far simpler, so should be easy for people who aren't good with computers to use, right? Wrong. As I've already mentioned, the difference between XP and Vista are enough to confuse some people.

It's certainly less different than this, but apparently, everybody is going to use these.

Even apart from that, do you really think those people looked at the iPad and thought anything more than: "Oh, another gadget"? A significant amount of people I know won't use anything other than the "dumb" Nokias. Why? Because that's what they've always used, and that's what they are used to. Because of this, if you try and sell the iPad to them as like a computer, they won't want it, because it's not Windows. If you try and sell it to them as like a phone, they won't want it, because it's not Nokia. If you try and sell it to them as an middle device, they won't want it, because they'll see it as an expensive unneeded gadget. The fact that Apple had to impose a two iPad per customer limit during pre-orders shows exactly who is buying them, and the amount of Apple fanboys and gadget nerds, even when combined, is still finite.

Oh, and you can play WoW and The Sims on netbooks. You can't do that on an iPad. Those two games have a very large number of players, many of which use their computer for little other than those games and Facebook.

Yet people still use these, and even older models.

Let's look at another "is dead" example, that of desktop apps. The apparent killers here are web apps. After all, if you look at my typical day's computer usage, it includes Google Reader, Gmail, Brizzly, Google Calendar, Pidgin, Vim,  Eclipse, Rhythmbox - Oh, look, the last 4 are desktop apps. Desktop apps with no web app of equal quality to match them. And, they're not likely to reach it for some time. Even Joe Hewitt, who quit iPhone development, believes it to be better than web development. I wonder how much time and effort it would take to recreate programs like Photoshop, or Visual Studio in the browser. The best online image editor I could find, still doesn't achieve feature parity with Paint.NET, which it is obviously inspired by. Google Docs and what I've seen of Office Web Apps don't reach the features of OpenOffice, never mind MS Office on the desktop.

Huge Progress? Undeniably. Equivalent to a desktop app? Not at all.

Another problem with web apps is the web designers' old enemy, IE6, which is also allegedly dead, yet still has 20% of the market share. Where is it coming from? Those users with Windows 98, ME and 2000, who actually can't upgrade (even to Firefox, or Chrome). And of course, corporations who won't upgrade anything without everything being tested and examined three times over.

Some of these users have even been reached by the messages many web designers are putting on pages telling IE6 users to upgrade. I got asked by one teacher who has been seeing these more and more, how he would go about upgrading his browser. The computer ran Windows ME. I had to give the advice that he would need to buy a new computer. I hate telling people that, because most of them don't want to spend €400 on a new computer, unsurprisingly.

I could just search the web for tech "is dead" posts, and go on through this for every widely used technology that's been said to be dead, but people reading this would get bored around 2000 words in, with only one fifth of things that have been said to be dead covered. But these few examples should hopefully remind people that tech doesn't just die and go away that easily.

Arch follow up post

April 24, 2010 | categories: Pcs

So, after a few weeks of using Arch, I've gotten my system to the state that I don't want to reinstall it instantly. So this post is a list of problems I've encountered and what I did to fix them for anyone who has these problems again.

The first problem I came up against was during installation. To install, I needed wifi, and to use the wifi, I needed some drivers from the AUR, and for the AUR, I needed an installed system with wifi. My wireless card is a Broadcom BCM4312 which needed the wl driver. #archlinux led to a user which advised me to use the latest testing version which supported the card.

Of course, the card still needed the b43-firmware, which had the same catch-22 issue. The solution was to finally load the firmware onto a flash drive, and copy it onto the system while running the LiveCD (and it had to be a LiveCD, for some reason, it wouldn't work running from USB).

That done, I installed away, and had to repeat the process to get wifi on the installed system.

My next problem was the screen resolution was stuck at around 1152x864 . The problem was solved by using this guide from, of all places, Ubuntu. After that, I had the problem where scrolling things had all the pace of a dying snail. Turns out the answer was that I shouldn't have listened to all the people saying radeonhd was as good as the fglrx driver. It wasn't anywhere near up to the job on my ATI Radeon HD3650. To install the fglrx drivers, see this guide on the Arch Wiki. That fixed the scrolling issue straight away.

My next issue was the installation of Wine. To install from the AUR you need the bin32-wine package on x86-64. Of course, at the time of installation (not sure if it's still true), the lib32-jack problem, on the AUR, is set up wrong. I had to edit the pkgver and pkgrel variables in the PKGBUILD to match that listed on the AUR itself.

My experience with Arch Linux

April 09, 2010 | categories: Pcs

So, I've been using Arch Linux the past few days, after reading Sirupsen's post on it. He was quite positive of it, and he'd pointed out Vim to me, so I was prepared to take his advice again. Besides, what with the upgrades, downgrades, beta versions, etc, my Ubuntu installation was pretty much a wreck at this stage, and needed to be reinstalled anyway. And the last x64 disc I had was for 8.10. Which would mean upgrading three times in the space of a week, which I wasn't very inclined to do.

And that brings me on the the first issue with Ubuntu - the whole updates system. The fact that you have to reinstall your system every few months, or get stuck with old versions of software like Firefox and Wine, is a major nuisance, especially on a 1 meg connection, where a system update is 5 hours just for the download. (On that subject, I'm finally getting a 3 meg connection sometime in the next 2 weeks. Yay!). This unsurprisingly defeats the point of a package manager, and has led to me to forgo it altogether for certain software like Firefox, and Eclipse with their own updating systems outside it's control. So, hearing one of Arch's main goals of having a rolling release with the latest programs constantly sounded like a pleasant escape.

Another point that Ubuntu has always given me a problem with, is that of bloat. A default install of Ubuntu contains GIMP, OO.o, Firefox, Evolution, Empathy, Ubuntu One, Orca, etc., etc. Evolution, Firefox and Empathy all get instantly uninstalled in favour of other programs, GIMP is a good example of horrendous UI, and OO.o, while not bad, certainly could be improved. But Arch and I have very different ideas of bloat. I consider those bloat. Arch considers things like automated wifi config bloat. So while I'd like a minimalistic Linux, Arch goes too far and is completely spartan. To put it another way, Ubuntu is like a rented house full of furniture, some of it rather dated, my ideal would be an empty house, and Arch is a pile of bricks.

But then there is installation. A fresh install of Ubuntu, provided you have the latest ISO, is a 20 minute process. Most of it is relatively automatic, and it _usually_ just works. Unless you do something stupid like sudo apt-get remove evolution-*, which somehow removes GNOME, but hey, you can remove the wrong package on any distro. Arch on the other hand, is a much more involved process, requiring manual editing of at least 10 config files, requiring you to seemingly psychically know details about modules, and which kernel version has what for which device. The one in the downloads page would not work for me because I need to install over wifi. Turns out, I need drivers which aren't there. They are there in kernel 2.6.32, which is in the version of arch with the download link on the forums, not the download page. Oh, and on top of that, I need firmware, which is not on the disk, instead I have to stick it on a USB stick and copy it over before installation.

Part of this is the reality of what Arch is. It's a geeks for geeks distro, much like Linux as a whole used to be. Nothing wrong with that, except it's at a level beyond what I'm able to deal with. For example, I was trying to set my resolution the other day. The advice I got was "Read man xorg.conf". As I remarked on Twitter the other day:

man xorg.conf makes the rather amusing assumption that you already know loads about both and the internal workings of your monitor...

Or, at least it's amusing until it means you are stuck looking at a display that looks like crap because it's stuck at 1152 x 864, when it's native resolution is 1440x900. Further asking only get the advice "Look under Modes". Well, here is the an excerpt section of Modes in man xorg.conf:

Mode "name"
This is an optional multi-line entry that can be used to provide
definitions for video modes for the monitor. In most cases this
isn't necessary because the built-in set of VESA standard modes
will be sufficient. The Mode keyword indicates the start of a
multi-line video mode description. The mode description is ter-
minated with the EndMode keyword. The mode description consists
of the following entries:
DotClock clock
is the dot (pixel) clock rate to be used for the mode.
HTimings hdisp hsyncstart hsyncend htotal
specifies the horizontal timings for the mode.
VTimings vdisp vsyncstart vsyncend vtotal
specifies the vertical timings for the mode.
Flags "flag" ...
specifies an optional set of mode flags, each of which is a
separate string in double quotes. "Interlace" indicates
that the mode is interlaced. "DoubleScan" indicates a mode

Mode "name" This is an optional multi-line entry that can be used to provide definitions for video modes for the monitor. In most cases this isn't necessary because the built-in set of VESA standard modes will be sufficient. The Mode keyword indicates the start of a multi-line video mode description. The mode description is ter- minated with the EndMode keyword. The mode description consists of the following entries:
DotClock clock is the dot (pixel) clock rate to be used for the mode.
HTimings hdisp hsyncstart hsyncend htotal specifies the horizontal timings for the mode.
VTimings vdisp vsyncstart vsyncend vtotal specifies the vertical timings for the mode.
Flags "flag" ... specifies an optional set of mode flags, each of which is a separate string in double quotes. "Interlace" indicates that the mode is interlaced. "DoubleScan" indicates a mode

This is not helpful! horizontal timings? dot clocks? All I want to do is change the resolution. man pages are for advanced technical details, not basic user information. And the wiki, their other reference, is in varying parts as unashamedly complex as these man pages, or only covers the optimal scenario, lacking any middle ground. On the other hand, Ubuntu provides this page, which explained far, far more. Also, while doing this process, I was informed I shouldn't use GNOME because it's a bloated, buggy, desktop environment, in the opinion of several members of #archlinux . Despite working fine for me for the last while. I'm looking for help, not conversion! I wonder what they think of KDE or Windows then...

On the subject of not helpful, here is the recommended way to install a package not in the default repos for pacman in Arch, and believe me, that is a lot of packages.

  1. Go to
  2. Download the PKGBUILD
  3. Possibly make changes to the PKGBUILD
  4. Open a terminal to the folder containing the PKGBUILD
  5. Run makepkg -i

Does this sound tedious and repetitive to you? Certainly does to me, so many members of the Arch community have built helpers to automate this, such as Clyde, as mentioned by Sirupsen the other day. But apparently this isn't the Arch way. So to install wine, I use sudo clyde -S bin32-wine. But, the AUR has the wrong version of one it's dependencies. Here's what #archlinux thinks of those.

Macha, you should really read about abs and aur and stop using any aur helper

Another area where I want a simple solution, and they go for the most spartan one possible. Ok, not the most spartan, I could compile it and place it in the directories myself, but really, a 5 step process for EVERY package, and each of it's dependencies? As opposed to sudo apt-get install foo, or sudo clyde -S foo. Why is this better?

I want to like Arch. I admire it's aims of being up to date, and simple. But I just can't. It's not for me, and on the final release of Ubuntu 10.04, I will be going back to Ubuntu on this laptop. I hear they've dropped GIMP now, and worked on getting it to boot up faster, too...

You know, I kind of liked Vista

February 21, 2010 | categories: Pcs
Still doesn't make this any less funny.
<Snakeman^Engineer> Do I sense some hatred towards Windows Vista originating from your direction?
<Chrysalid^Revenge> Oh no, not at all
* Chrysalid^Revenge stands up in a medieval recitation pose
<Chrysalid^Revenge> "OS X for the Mac users, pretentious in their coffeeshops
<Chrysalid^Revenge> Gentoo for the nerd-lords in their mother's basement
<Chrysalid^Revenge> XP for the everyday user, bound to muck around with bloody settings and registry values they should damn well leave alone
<Chrysalid^Revenge> Then Vista from the Dark Lord behind his desk
<Chrysalid^Revenge> In the Microsoft office, where crappy programming is performed
<Chrysalid^Revenge> One OS to eat your RAM, One OS to spy on your digital media
<Chrysalid^Revenge> One OS to screw them all, and in frustration bind them
<Chrysalid^Revenge> In the Microsoft office, where crappy programming is performed"
<Sectoid^Authopsy> Whoa!
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