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From Samsung Note 3 to Note 9

I bought a Samsung 3 in 2013, and used it relentlessly for the next six years. That's a long time, but thanks to the now-banished feature of a replaceable battery, I was able to prolong its life by three years longer than other phones simply by spending fourteen dollars on a new battery when the original one began failing! Finally this year, the GPS started to fail and it seemed time to upgrade. Here's what I won, and here's what I lost by going to a new device: Continue reading "From Samsung Note 3 to Note 9"

Linux in 2001: as good as it ever got

SuSE Linux 8.1

So, in a bout of nostalgia, I laid hands on an old DVD containing SuSE Linux 8.1 pro and installed it in a VM, and have been using it all week. I last installed this OS in about 2001 on a Compaq Presario with 128MB of RAM and a 20GB hard drive.

It's unusable in a couple of ways: websites are mostly https these days, and this OS doesn't have the certificates or the cyphers to make the modern WWW work. But other than that, it's a pretty great experience. Thinking back on the last 17 years of Linux, I'm thinking this is as good as it ever got: Continue reading "Linux in 2001: as good as it ever got"

The bus to Kazancis

The more time I spend in Ethiopia, the more I like it, and the more it draws me in. Even after a decade in sub-Saharan Africa, this is something new and different. And though Ethiopia outside the capital is truly a different world, Addis reminds me an awful lot of Managua, another place I called home for many years.

Maybe it's that familiarity that led me so effortlessly into adventure.

I had traveled across town for a meeting, and back out on the street found the local bank machine wouldn't accept my card; stupidly, I'd set out in the morning without drawing some cash at the hotel. And out on the street I had no access to wifi, so my phone was useless to call for a ride. I hailed a few cabs, all of whom roundly refused to carry me for the cash I had on hand. What to do? Continue reading "The bus to Kazancis"

Threading

image of fence post, drawing by Randall Wood

Threading my steps along

that stone-strewn way I missed

the breathless luminescence of

cactus flower, hovering among

the spines.

Neither did I glance

up from my path in Time

to glimpse the newly

washed faces in radiant grin.

But weaving

through the litter over

scarred earth I thought

as I bent to the ground,

Why do I see only sadness?

-- Esteli, 1998

Mynahs by Morne

Bulbul, Mauritius

We left Mauritius in December of 2010, thinking it was as far as we'd ever traveled, and that we were leaving a piece of paradise, never to return. So I was shocked to find myself there again only eight years later. It's as far as I remember, but when you reach a destination at the end of many, individual jumps, it seems farther. Continue reading "Mynahs by Morne"

The Sands of Hargeisa

Hargeisa, Somalia

It must have been around late 2014 after a full nine years in West Africa: I was deathly bored of the continuous struggle to invest in the governments of poor places while remaining infinitely wary for the fraud and misuse that comes with the pleasure of spending another people's money. I desperately wanted to leave the donor business. "Also," I told Ericka, " if I don't get out of this sector, some day I'm going to find myself on a plane to Somalia or something."

So the irony wasn't lost on me when I boarded a plane for Hargeisa just a few years later. Continue reading "The Sands of Hargeisa"

Addis Ababa

Addis

I'd been predisposed to hate Addis. I knew the hills outside of Addis were green and beautiful, and a friend who had worked there frequently told me Ethiopia itself was wonderously beautiful. "But not Addis," he added. Fair enough, few emerging market capitals are what you would call lovely. But a popular travel writer characterised the place as filthy and rutted and festering, and that's the image I braced myself for as I arrived.

Instead, Addis was pretty interesting. Continue reading "Addis Ababa"

Nairobi

I first visited Nairobi in 2007 with Ericka. Coming off a week-long safari, we needed to find someplace to spend the night before flying onward, and found a mid-range hotel on the edge of town closest to the airport, where we spent an awful, noisy night listening to the adjacent bus terminal and sweating on questionable sheets. Morning came soon enough, and we hoofed it out to Jomo Kenyatta airport and got on with our lives. No metropolitan center can compete with the magic of one's first visit to the Masai Mara or Samburu National Park, but Nairobi was a necessary evil to that trip, not a destination.

Two years later we passed through on the way to the Seychelles, and stayed with friends in an upscale, gated community burgeoning with diplomats and expat aid workers. The houses were lovely, with manicured green gardens sparkling under the tropical sun, and their shaded interiors whispered of hard woods and cool evenings. But the traffic we experienced getting across town to our friends' house! It was shocking.

I found myself in Kenya a third time ... and then again ... Continue reading "Nairobi"

Trackball Nirvana

Kensington Orbit

Sometimes, you are just drawn to a technology or a tool, there's no explanation, and there's no going back. That's the way it was with me and trackballs: I'd only had a laptop for a few months when I discovered trackballs, decided it was my cup of tea, bought one, and have been using them exclusively ever since. In that time – almost fifteen years, at this point – I have used a lot of different trackballs. Each one is almost great, but missing one thing. This is the story of my quest for trackball nirvana.

This article was first published in May 2014. It was updated with two new models in April 2018. Continue reading "Trackball Nirvana"

This isn't fun anymore

Angry guineapig courtesy of angryapps.net

This isn't fun anymore.

There was a time when the web was new, and you could wander among countless troves of information, read articles, browse products and services, purchase things, explore: all in relative privacy.

Soon adverts started tracking you, thanks to cookies: if you looked at a fancy mattress at an online store, you could be pretty sure you'd be seeing adverts for that mattress and similar mattresses for the next couple of days. Still, you were the only one using that browser and computer, so it was annoying but not dangerous.

Then smartphones and web platforms came around, and software-as-a-service provided by some of the same companies that want to sell you that mattress. ... Continue reading "This isn't fun anymore"

Shut your Pi-Hole

I first heard mention of the Pi-Hole project on Hacker News, and was instantly intrigued. Pi-Hole is a system that, when installed, turns your Raspberry Pi device into a local, caching DNS server. You install it alongside your router/modem, redirecting all DNS requests to your Pi instead of your ISP-provided DNS server. And it routes all requests for known advertisement sites straight into the bit bucket. Results: no advertisements, ridiculously faster web browsing, and potentially a lower risk profile where trojan-laden malware is concerned. Pi-hole relies on the open source DNSMasq project, which I'm still learning about. But it's magic, as far as I'm concerned.

I had a Pi sitting aroundthat was only being marginally put to use, so I thought I'd give it a try. Wow, what an impact.

Installation was dead simple: assuming you've already got the light HTTP webserver installed (lighttp), it's a simple curl-bash script away. The install ran effortlessly. I provided the Pi's static IP address, and adjusted my Verizon modem/router to get its DNS addresses locally. Everything suddenly got faster. Continue reading "Shut your Pi-Hole"

Ssezibwa Falls

Ssezibwa Falls

You could find it halfway between Kampala (the capital and our home), and Jinja, the famed source of the Nile: Ssezibwa Falls, a lovely little waterfall and an easy day-trip out of town. So Christmas morning after the kids had opened presents, we bundled children and dog into the car and sauntered out of town to check it out.

Turning off the highway, we followed a dirt track through fields of sugar cane, down across an irrigation channel, and further down into a little forest, a grove of Eucalyptus and hardwoods, a glade I suppose. And we saw it. What a gorgeous waterfall. The water appeared out of nowhere, rounding a last-minute bend in the river. And then it dropped from about 100 feet, churned in a fast spinning pool, and poured forth in a stream that immediately divided to swallow both sides of a little island. The two streams rejoined a few dozen meters afterwards in a shady, little forested spot, and then disappeared out of sight as it headed down to Lake Victoria.

Continue reading "Ssezibwa Falls"

The Chromebox

HP Chromebox

So, to start with the conclusion, our main household machine is now a Chromebox, and it's working out. It's not perfect, but it's way better than our previous situation, which was a Mac. Read on.

The "family" computer has been a Mac since 2004 or so, and for those years there was no question about it: nice hardware, nice software, user friendlly, and a generally useful, productive, well-conceived tool that allowed us to buy printers, scanners, and do the sort of things you usually can't do easily or quickly with Linux. I had a G3 Powerbook, then a gorgeous all-in-one that suffered due to international transit, and we've had a Mac Mini since then. The first Mini we bought in about 2010 and it was fast and useful and good. Until it wasn't. Continue reading "The Chromebox"

The Jakarta Train

As you travel through life and across the Earth, some things stick with you, and some things are lost. I lived and worked in Boston for two years and can't remember a single street name. I studied at Cornell for four years and can't remember the names of buildings I visited every day. But I remember this instant vividly, and think about it frequently. It has become a part of me.

I'd traveled to Indonesia alone, and had landed only hours ago, toting nothing but a huge, wheeled trunk carrying my belongings, and a camper's backpack with the rest. I spoke good Bahasa Indonesia but was a fish out of water otherwise: disoriented, traveling for the first time ever, and in a country so non-Western as to be totally confusing in ways you'd never experience on your first excursion to a place like Spain. I'd gotten myself from the airport to the train station only to be told I couldn't travel with the trunk, which was too heavy and would block the aisle.1 They gave me the address of a freight forwarder, and suggested I take the Jakarta inner city rail across town to get there. OK ... Continue reading "The Jakarta Train"

Bongoyo Island

Off the famed Swahili coast are a number of sand-swept islands and islets that provide the gorgeous, natural backdrop for so many adoring "Swahili Style" coffee table books. You'd know Swahili style if you saw it: rough-hewn furniture from dark woods like Moringa and ebony, a touch of safari in the canvas accoutrements, bits of colored glass, and a color scheme composed of whites, turqouise, and dark, wooden colors. And if you're spending your days at the business end of a computer in a modern, American office, the Swahili coast really is a change in lifestyle that can repair a bruised soul.

If you've been living in Africa for a decade though, Swahili style starts to seem a little put on, a little "created" a little "invented for the tourists". Continue reading "Bongoyo Island"