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A Quiver of Fountain Pens (Reviews)

quiver full of pens

Happiness is a good pen, smooth paper, the right ink, and time to write.

In 1989 I began writing regularly in a journal. That same year, it occurred to me that the experience would be even nicer if I were to use a fountain pen. I think it's kind of like saying, "hey you know, I should try crack cocaine." First I had one pen, then I had two, then I had many. Some people collect watches, some people collect fancy cars. My collection suits my personality and is conducive to frequent relocation to exotic locales around the globe. Here are some reflections on the many, lovely writing instruments that have brought me pleasure over the years. Continue reading "A Quiver of Fountain Pens (Reviews)"

Easiest Upgrade Ever

File partition diagram
File partition diagram

Success stories are boring. But writing only about difficulty fills the published world with information that only provides half the picture. I keep reading stories about how Linux isn't good enough as a desktop, with endless nitpicking about UX (user experience) choices. Boring: how did we manage to produce so many UX experts over the past decade (criticism of the Linux desktop used to at least focus on matters of substance).

Anyway, here's a data point:

It was time to update a Linux system to newer versions of the software. I backed up my machine and prepared to wipe and restore. Inserted the newer version of the distro, and began the install process. The installer saw that my system had been set up with a separate partition for /home and offered to update only the other partition. I accepted. Fifteen minutes later, I had a new and updated desktop, where effortlessly and to my astonishment, all my stuff was unscathed. Specifically:

All settings, bookmarks, shortcuts, keystroke configurations, SSH keys, configuration files. All colors, fonts, and style configurations. All custom dictionaries and edits to spell-checking files. Everything.

It was effortless and impressive and easy. And damned quick, for that matter. Every Windows upgrade my employer has ever delivered me resulted in a near total loss of everything that matters to me, like bookmarks. Yes that's probably because they're brute forcing an image on my machine. But when that's what you're used to, the pleasure of sitting down in front of an upgraded computer that has retained all your hard-earned stuff is remarkable. Point goes to Linux.

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 MP3 Player

The year is 2021, and I was thinking about getting a device to play my music collection. I had simple requirements:

  1. It must be Internet-connected, so it can receive arbitrary firmware updates that risk bricking the thing “in the name of security”
  2. It must use that connectivity to regularly upload information of its choosing, without informing me or telling me what information, to whom it is being sent, or how that information will be used.
  3. It must be a vendor-tied device, that works only/exclusively with that vendor's own music catalog, purchasing system, hardware, and software. It must be crippled to the point of frustration or uselessness if the user tries to use any other system, software, or device with it.
  4. It must work only with my personal music collection; my wife must be obliged to buy her own device, so it can be managed with as tight a fist with no risk of any music co-mingling, sharing, or other shenanigans.
  5. It must play only music that has been verified and/or purchased from that vendor. If the user tries to listen to music obtained from any other source, channel, or platform, it must refuse to play it, or insist on specious “authenticity” checks that scare me into doing the right thing, which is of course, buying only from the one-approved vendor mentioned above. For bonus points, said authenticity checks should allude to but not specify various reporting scenarios or device-crippling scenarios that appear scary as hell and not worth the risk.
  6. Eventually, a mandatory firmware upgrade should render the device useless despite the hardware being in good shape. For example, the firmware update should require a partner software on my laptop to also be upgraded, which is impossible on my existing hardware. This scheme requires me to buy a new fucking laptop in order to update the laptop software so I can apply the firmware upgrade to the device, which probably also results in a slower, more frustrating user experience that suggests I should also buy a new device.

Instead, I bought this sweet little Chinese-made device that simply allows me to install and listen to my enormous collection of digital music. Wait, the Chinese manufacturers are supposed to be the bad guys, right? Right? Continue reading "The MP3 Player"

Mageia Linux 8: So Much to Like

In 2001 when I first ditched my Win98 install and turned to Linux, Mandrake and SuSE were about neck-and-neck in the competition to be the most user-friendly consumer Linux distribution, with niceties like good installers and hardware detection. RedHat was the other “Big One” but was already more associated with corporate and server infrastructure, in my opinion.

I went with SuSE for many years, and then began playing the field. But in early 2016 I bought a new laptop and needed a reliable Linux distro to put on it, and Mageia – the heir/successor to Mandrake then Madriva – was what I installed. And it stayed on my machine for about two years, where it was a loyal friend that served me well.

You don't hear much about Mageia these days (2021). The Ubuntu/Debian derivatives kind of ran away with the world's attention, and to be fair, the Ubuntu family is a cinch to install, has a huge package repository, and offers overall a good user experience. In my case, I went to Linux Mint long ago and don't regret it. But Mageia has something I sorely miss elsewhere, the Mageia Control Center (MCC), which manages superuser tasks like package installs, system updates, firewall, and network connections, in a comfortable, graphic format. So it's always puzzled me that this distro doesn't get more attention than it does.

I installed the February 2021 version of Mageia this week, because I wanted a solid KDE desktop with no muss or fuss. OpenSUSE, God bless it, is somewhat of a mess in my opinion (and it was my first love). Ubuntu has rough edges. Other good KDE distros like Neon or KaOS aren't my cup of tea (KaOS for example, doesn't install anything not based on QT, so goodbye emacs, gkrellm, claws-mail, and a lot of other things I love). So I installed Mageia. Continue reading "Mageia Linux 8: So Much to Like"

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"

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

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"

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"