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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 Friday Distro

For a few months in 2014, I had fun reviewing one Linux distro every Friday for, a tech site to which I was a regular contributor. Generally what I would do is visit, choose a distro, download, install, and run it in a virtual machine, and explore for a bit. Sounds unadventurous, but after years of using the same Linux distros and FreeBSD regularly, it was a bump out of my comfort zone to see what else was out there. It was also a spectacular opportunity to explore some of the innovative approaches being pursued. Here are some of my reviews, with links to the Pipedot original (where you'll find the embedded links).

Can't believe a full year has gone by since I posted the Selokang article. 2016 has been something else. Continue reading "The Friday Distro"

Paean to the Mix Tape

mix tapes rule

When I hear “stream” I think of piss.

You’ve got streaming audio, cloud repositories of millions of tracks, probably from more artists than you’d have time in a lifetime to fully appreciate, much less listen to a single time. This is as good as life gets, isn’t it? Any song you want, on any device?


After spending nearly a decade in a warehouse, a box of old cassette tapes and my old Walkman arrived on my doorstep. Even a decade ago cassettes were old technology, but I hadn’t gotten around to sorting and discarding them before moving overseas, and then they were forgotten. So suddenly, in 2015, I found myself sitting before a stack of mix tapes made as early as 1987. Some worked perfectly well, others were squealing messes that went straight into the trash. And let’s face it, in the age of digital media, the audio quality was truly degraded. I wouldn’t go back to the cassette era for any price.

But the mix tapes … wow. There’s no equivalent today. Continue reading "Paean to the Mix Tape"

Review of the Happy Hacker 2 Keyboard

It's hard to imagine a better day-to-day keyboard to put in front of a serious work computer. The Happy Hacker keyboard skips some of the novel innovations of other alternative designs, and focuses instead on two simple things: keeping as many useful keys as possible as close to the hands as possible, and relocating Control and Escape to positions useful for Emacs and Vim users. But those two things alone make this a super-natural keyboard to use for extended periods. Continue reading "Review of the Happy Hacker 2 Keyboard"

Rant mode: ON

It's been a day of crappy user experience with software. The only known remedy for such state of affairs remains unchanged over the decades: ranting about it on the Internet. Rant mode on.

Hey Skype, your shitty code brings my relatively decent Android almost to a crawl. When I quit your app, I want you OFF, dead and buried! You don't have permission to continue running in the background, sucking the cycles out of my processor and making everything else slow to a crawl, too. Microsoft, quit means quit!

Hey Tapatalk, if your software doesn't install easily and cleanly on my forum, I won't install it at all. Imagine the privileges of access I am granting you to a server I'd like to remain unhacked. Those are privileges I don't give up lightly, and when your stupid plugin fails to install correctly the first time, I get suspicious and reach for /dev/null. Oh, and if your forum keeps forgetting my login? Fuck you. I'll forget you in a heartbeat. Stop being clever and fix your code. Continue reading "Rant mode: ON"

Review of PC-BSD 10.1

I've been a fan of PC-BSD for a long time, because it takes the pain out of installing FreeBSD on a desktop computer, but it's been rapidly gaining features of its own that enhance the Unix desktop. I installed PC-BSD 10.1 and gave it a test-drive, and it's going to stay installed for a long time (and will be good company for my FreeBSD/FreeNAS storage server and my FreeBSD VPS. Yes, I'm a fan.) Continue reading "Review of PC-BSD 10.1"

New gopher on the prairie

gopher image courtesy of Oklahoma Farm Report

The year was 1992 or so, and on the front counter of Cornell's Ag & Life Science Library was a terminal that offered easy access to all sorts of resources and information, including weather (useful in Ithaca, where morning sun could turn to 8+ inches of snow by afternoon on any given winter day), sports scores, and more. Some of those services were offered using gopher, a cross-system information system that disappeared when something called the World Wide Web overran it with a more compelling interface, graphics, and a less menu-driven approach. I got used to using it, and grew to like it. Continue reading "New gopher on the prairie"

An Open Letter to Barnes & Noble Bookstore

An Open Letter to Barnes & Noble:

Greetings. I've been a customer since I first decided to take the plunge and enter the world of digital books (e-books), and I made a conscious decision to buy from Barnes and Noble over Amazon for two important reasons: First, your epub format is an industry standard usable on a wide variety of devices when the books are unencumbered by DRM, and second, your web interface allowed me to download copies of my purchased books to my desktop for archiving and backup.

Two years later, I'm back to Amazon. Why? Continue reading "An Open Letter to Barnes & Noble Bookstore"

The TypeMatrix 2030 Ergonomic Keyboard

TypeMatrix keyboard

On a lark, I decided to give the TypeMatrix keyboard a try, having passed it up earlier in lieu of the Totally Ergonomic Keyboard. At a hundred bucks, it was a low-risk gamble, and I am ever-more curious about interesting, innovative, or just curious keyboards. Someday we'll look back on the age of keyboards as a novelty that betrays our technological unsophistication, but that age isn't here yet, and for the moment we are still largely glued to our keyboards, so why not experiment?

Off the bat, a few observations: Continue reading "The TypeMatrix 2030 Ergonomic Keyboard"

The Truly Ergonomic Keyboard (TEK): Review

TEK keyboard

When you've bought your third expensive keyboard it's time to admit you have a fetish. Or that you spend most of your day glued to the business end of a computer. Or both! But face it: if you spend a lot of time writing, a decent keyboard is worth more than its weight in gold, for reasons of efficiency, health, and comfort alone.

I was in the mood for a keyboard built around a linear (not-staggered) layout, and a few reviews of the TEK ("Totally Ergonomic Keyboard") made it seem appealing. So I bought one and have used it for the past couple of weeks. Here are my conclusions, and a few notes of comparison with the Kinesis Ergo keyboard, which I also like and use daily. Continue reading "The Truly Ergonomic Keyboard (TEK): Review"

Backing Up FreeNAS to an external hard drive

I love this little device: it's an iXsystems MiniNAS running FreeNAS 9.2, with tons of disk space, RAM, fast network connections, all on a low-profile device that uses precious little energy (30W). Nice! And having all my important stuff on one box not only gives me the freedom to screw around with my desktops but simplifies and centralizes the work that goes into backing up my information.

It's tempting to be lulled into security by a hefty NAS running the ZFS file system on RAID-6. Yes you've got some redundancy and a resistant file system. But RAID is not backup - a mistake too many make. And here I ran into some trouble. FreeNAS gives you tons of options for transferring zpool datasets around, and since it's networked you can rsync your heart's content to other systems, but what if you just want to back the stuff up to a hard drive locally? Like an external, USB hard drive? Turns out, there's a way, but it requires a bit of Unix-foo.

Fortunately, this is FreeBSD, so lots of things are possible. Continue reading "Backing Up FreeNAS to an external hard drive"

Backing up a MySQL database to individual text files

The situation is as follows: you have a MySQL database that backstops your blog, and you'd like to output each database entry as an individual text file. Not as strange an idea as it seems - maybe you'd like to output whatever edits you made to already-published articles, maybe you'd like a bunch of text files you can use as a backup in case your relational database kicks the bucket. Whatever the reason, anyone who's ever written a blog will agree that significant time and effort goes into writing, and the risk of losing all that text is formidable and vaguely hair-raising.

Here is a script I put together that goes through every entry in a blog's database, and outputs the text to a file whose title is created from the data and the name, with dashes, like this:

Continue reading "Backing up a MySQL database to individual text files"

The borked backup: a tale of database disaster

angry bear

This is a story with a happy ending, eventually. It’s the tale of how Google and some script-fu saved my bacon. There’s a moral, too: don’t be stupid, and you’re stupider than you think you are. That was my case, anyway, when a bear mauled my database.

I was running 4 websites on FreeBSD 9.0, and after two years of upgrading, it was time to upgrade the system to FreeBSD 10.0. That was an upgrade with some risks, and in my case, it went poorly. The system had been getting quirky anyway, so I figured it was time to just wipe it clean and install FreeBSD 10 fresh. I had downloaded to my local machine a full set of backups, so I was ready to go. As the new machine came up, disaster struck. Continue reading "The borked backup: a tale of database disaster"

Making Communities, Breaking Communities

Pipedot logo

The online world of the World Wide Web is, in some ways, shattering into individual walled gardens hosted and jealously guarded by corporations who shepherd users into the controlling comfort of apps and single sign ons, and recoup their investments via advertising and datamining. The editorial by Doc Searls in the June 2014 edition of Linux Journal crystalized it for me: the Web as we know it is evolving in a way that benefits those corporations, and those corporations benefit again by trading free entertainment for users' data. There are other problems too, like the filter effect of people being enabled to more stringently than ever select what information they want to be exposed to, and technologies like the Google search engine, that strengthen that effect to the detriment of contrary view points. So much for the Internet being a new era of universal enlightenment and sharing.

But this melancholy point of view takes shape while reflecting on what I do on-line, and with whom, and that brings me to the subject of on-line community. Continue reading "Making Communities, Breaking Communities"

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. Continue reading "Trackball Nirvana"