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Time to get serious

Filed under: Engineering — mgrusin at 3:41 pm on Saturday, December 30, 2006

I’ve been more and more inclined to get away from Windows, for reasons I won’t go into here (that’s a post for another time). To this end, and spurred on by the need to replace my trusty but failing Toshiba laptop, I purchased my next laptop with Linux in mind.

I can’t totally chuck Windows; I own too much expensive software that requires it. But I would like to start using Linux for my day-to-day chores and try to migrate my larger tasks as I can. I was also seriously considering an Apple laptop (nice hardware and software), but eventually decided to vote for neither Windows nor OS-X and put my faith in the teeming (hopefully not ‘unwashed’) masses of open-source programmers. I always did like the underdog.

The machine: a Lenovo Thinkpad T60p. The good: almost everything, particularly the workstation-class graphics card, built-in DVD burner, and great screen. I would have liked to have gone with a smaller model, but those have been stripped down in the name of minimum size and power consumption, and I would have had to give up all of the above.

The bad: The keyboard feels great, which is nothing to sneeze at. But the layout is, in my opinion, nonoptimal. In my world, the Toshiba keyboard layout is about as perfect a thing as you’ll find, particularly the “home pgup pgdn end” column on the right side. The Thinkpad sadly doesn’t have that column, but what’s worse is that the delete key has been exiled to a small editing bank at the top right, way out of home-finger range. This is a key which I use nearly as much as the backspace, and Toshiba wisely put it next to the arrow quad where you can hit it in a millisecond. I knew the Thinkpad had this layout going in, and decided to adapt to it because the rest of the machine is so tight, but the lack of ergonomics is a little annoying. (I’ll have to look into remapping some of the keys…)

Also bad: the current state of desktop Linux. Nobody would like Linux to take off more than I, but frankly right now it’s a mess. I chose Ubuntu Linux, based on its reputation as an extremely user-friendly distribution. However I found out firsthand that the current version has many irritating problems such as broken laptop features like suspend/resume (some of which were working properly in older versions). Not to mention that the community documentation is highly fragmented, with lots of people advising lots of different ways to get it all working. I eventually patched things together enough to get most (not all) of the laptop features running, and the desktop with Beryl is flat-out gorgeous.  But I can’t imagine a “normal” person attempting this, nor can I imagine what will happen when they release the next version (do you upgrade on top of your patches and hope the patches don’t break the new software, or erase everything and start over with the new version, followed by another round of broken features and manual patches?)

I do appreciate the work the Ubuntu folks have put into making the desktop environment gorgeous and useful right out of the box – something sorely lacking from some other distributions I’ve used. But I may still chuck it and try loading Gentoo, which I’ve used before for server projects but never for a desktop. I do know that Gentoo has top-notch centralized documentation, and that the package system is extremely robust. I’m just not looking forward to the usual fiddling trying to get it looking and running well.  I’m getting too old for that nonsense.
The structure of Linux and Xorg still seem a bit fragile for mass consumption, but I think that’s a local architecture problem and not a symptom of open-source development. Architecturewise, I think Amiga and BeOS were on the right track (tight kernels and APIs based on the KISS principle); it’s too bad they were steamrolled by Microsoft and their own poor business decisions. But as I said, that’s another post.

I’ll write again as things progress. Happy 2007!

Ho Ho Ho

Filed under: Ephemera — mgrusin at 11:42 am on Friday, December 22, 2006

When I was growing up in suburban southern California, I had to go see Santa at the local mall every year. I remember dreading that event, trying to get out of it, and the mounting horror as you got closer and closer to the front of the line, hearing the shrieks of terror from the children before you…

Which is why I was delighted to find this collection of photos people had sent in of the same situation. It’s fun to laugh at now, but it does make me wonder – do parents really not get how scary this is for a kid? Or worse, do they realize it all too well?

Happy holidays everyone, and best wishes for 2007!

Storm

Filed under: Space — mgrusin at 11:20 am on Friday, December 22, 2006

Big solar flares caused a space weather storm a few days ago. The Kp index got up to 8; if it had gotten to 9, aurora would have been visible from Boulder (40 degrees north latitude). As it was, people saw great displays as far south as Ohio.

Spaceweather.com is a good clearinghouse for such things; they even have a phone service that will call you in the middle of the night if something is worth getting up for. But for the real data, nothing beats the Space Environment Center at NOAA.