Sunday, August 19, 2012

A tablet I can actually use!

    A couple of years ago, when Apple released the iPad 2, I bought one.   At the time, I had an original iPad that I'd bought second hand.  I needed it for work, since I support primarily apple products in a company that uses Macs for all of their workstations, over 400 of them at present.   Executives there all have ipads, as do many of the employees.  The company still, even today, won't provide I.T. with one, so I spent my own money on it.

    I used the iPad 2 for a few months, but ultimately sold it and bought a eeePC netbook.  At home, I'd switched from Mac to Linux, and the netbook was FAR more useful than the iPad.  Also, I grew tired of having to restart the iPad every couple of weeks due to it acting up in some strange way.  (sidebar, Apples iOS devices are built on top of the HFS+ filesystem, which is very broken and corrupts files regularly.)

   I was very happy with the netbook, excepting for portability.  A slim tablet is just more convenient to slip into a bag, or carry with you to a coffee shop, diner, or to travel with.   I still wanted a tablet for that convenience, but being a tinkerer and linux user, I have to have openness and reliability.

    All of those facts in line, I was very happy to see Google release the Nexus 7, and snapped one up.  It fits the bill PERFECTLY!   It's smaller seven inch size is ideal.  Convenient to carry, easy on the wrists for long reading or gameplay periods.  Googles android in it's native form, not hobbled by some carrier or companies crapware piled on top of it.  Quad core CPU in the nVidea tegra three chip is really fast, and the one gig of RAM gives the OS plenty of room for speedy app switching.

    This weekend I took it traveling and found it to be excellent and useful on the road.  We were going deep into a state park forest for some fishing, far from cell service and full of twisty little roads.  A new feature of google maps in the latest android, is offline maps.  You can download areas of the maps to the device ahead of time.  This, along with the built in GPS proved very useful while finding our way through the park.

    Back at the hotel, on the provided wifi, it made quick work of the usual fair.  Checking email, posting some trip pics to facebook, catching up on the news, finding interesting places to visit in a strange city, etc.

    The voice dictation has improved to the point of star trekishness spooky in it's accuracy and speed.  It no longer requires network access, residing completely on the device for nearly instant recognition of spoken words with very little post editing required.

   One final point...   At the $199 price, you could buy two of these and some software for the same price as a single iPad!  I give it a big thumbs up.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Drifting back.

 I'm sitting here trying to remember what it was like, so many years ago, when I was young. I might as well try counting the trees on the other side of a misty pond at twilight. Memory, like that mist, is fogged and indistinct.

I've ignored my cell phone all day. I should just turn it off. Occasionally it calls to me, a desperate beepity boop blip sound that alerts to new email, txt, calendar event, etc. A small electronic baby, crying for attention, waving it's little balled up fists electronically, calling to my mind. A mind that has been trained by a couple of decades of ever increasing information and communication, to respond.

I can't keep my attention on any one thing for very long. Always distracted by that little rectangular infant. So I've ignored it today. Trying to remember, what it was like back through that misty fog....

There was the telephone. That's it. A Bakelite brick sitting on a desk, or mounted on the wall with that long tangled cord hanging almost to the floor. It was a heavy mechanical construction, quite the beasty. Actual copper wires connecting it all the way, on poles, for blocks and blocks or miles, to an even bigger monster at the phone company. I saw one of those switches once. Rows and rows, taller than a person, of relays that turned these rotary switches. Dozens of stacks of them, wires wires and more wires snaking around them, connecting each other and adjoining racks.

The phone itself, under the Bakelite shell, was made with brass, steel, and iron. Screws connecting the metal parts and the iron base. Wires, a rotary spring loaded relay with numbers on the front and a dial with finger holes over the numbers. You would actually put your finger in the hole, and rotate the dial, loading up the spring. When you released it, the spring would rotate it back, against a mechanical break to keep it slow and steady. It would short the wires in intervals, the same number of times as the numbered hole you put your finger in.

Now, this is the mind boggling part. Each time it shorted the wires, that caused one of those relays back at the phone company to turn a step. Electronically, through the pair of copper wires that went all the way between your house and the phone company. By dialing the phone number, you were rotating these hundreds of switches, to connect your pair of wires, to the pair of wires of the other persons phone at the number you dialed. Boggle

Also in the phone, was the bell. No little sampled sound being reproduced through a speaker. Real Metal Bells. With a hunk of steel between them that was suspended on a stiff wire that passed between two eletromagnets. A pre-steampunk beauty that was. The bells were sometimes chromed and shiny, but usually just steel half spheres with rust spots already forming. But they made noise! Loud ringing sounds that you could hear even if you were at the other side of the house, in the shower with the water running and the door closed.

Those electromagnets were being swung with a 40 volt AC current being sent down those copper wires. Once you picked up the phone, putting the load of the speaker and microphone in the handset on the wires, a relay at the phone company would make the final connection between your pair of wires and the calling parties pair of wires, with a dc current applied to the wire.

This is a very very clever thing. The condenser microphone in your handset presents a varying resistence as it picks up audio, you know, your voice. Your microphone is wired in series with the speaker on the other end, so your voice varies the current, reproducing the sound in the speaker.
Vise Versa for the other end, and you two can talk naturally, simultaneously, just like face to face.

The telephone was pretty neat, eh? But also, it was the ONLY interruption from outside that came into your space. And not very often either, maybe two or three times in a day. The rest of the time was yours. Your mind could focus on a single task, uninterrupted, free. I was way more productive back then, when I was young.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ubuntu 12.04 and Unity

Ubuntu 12.04 – all in!

Well, I've decided to give Ubuntu's Unity GUI an honest look. I had already updated both my netbook and desktop machines to 12.04, but had installed MATE for use as my GUI.

My reasons for installing MATE, were my years of comfort with Gnome 2.x. I had a configuration I was happy with. Just the right little additions and behaviors to fit my way of working. MATE allowed me to hold on to those preferences. MATE is still a little buggy though, and has caused me a bit of grief on the netbook especially. Overall, it was close to what I was used to from gnome 2.3 up to Ubuntu 10.10.

I decided to spend a little time with the new Gnome 3. I had looked at it before, but I was not in the right frame of mind to give it a fair shake. This time, I cleared my mind of my old habits, and approached Gnome 3 as something new. No expectations of how things should work. I discovered that Gnome 3 was actually not terrible. In fact, it struck me as clean, if not a bit to simplified. I learned a bit about it, discovered the common shortcuts, and some inconsistencies.

The experience with Gnome was not bad, and I decided I could live with using it on my working machines. Well, what about Unity then? Ubuntu is built by default around their Unity GUI. I suppose that if I'm exploring these new desktops, I should give Unity a good look as well.

Years ago, heck, a decade ago!, I switched from Windows XP to an eMac running OSX 10.4. Coming from the Windows world into mac was like stepping into an alien environment. Everything was strange a different, yet it all fit together so well. The Apple GUI was clean and shiny. All the parts reflecting an attention to detail that was consistent throughout the interface.

Unity has that same feel. The impression it gives, is of a carefully designed product, throughout. Ubuntu does not feel like a hobby OS stitched together by a collaborative effort of pale computer nerds, not by a long shot! Ubuntu with Unity feels like an expensive commercial product.

I'm going to talk a little bit about a few of the features of Unity that I think I will quickly become dependent on and miss on other desktops. First up, the HUD.

The HUD, Heads Up Display, is a search tool for menus. We've all been here before, you're in an application, working away, and you need a certain function. You can't remember which menu that function is under, so you waste 20 seconds or more digging through menus looking for it. This is where HUD comes in. A single tap of the 'alt' key brings up a search field, where you can start typing the name of the menu item you're looking for. Below the search field, a list begins to populate as you type, with hits on that keyword, prepended with the path to that item.

As an example, in GIMP, if I start typing “crop” into the HUD, I get a list of items like so:
Tools > Transform Tools > Crop

Once I train myself to use HUD, I can see it becoming a time-saver in some larger applications like Libre Office Writer or Calc. I often find myself searching menus in those apps for a function.

Ubuntu One, Canonicals free cloud service, has grown up a bit in this release. The settings panel is cleaner and more comprehensive, and the speed of syncing files is much improved over the earlier versions.
I have two work computers, a large home desktop machine, and a eeepc netbook. Using Ubuntu One, I sync the contents of my documents and desktop folders. This just works wonderfully. As an example, this blog entry was something I worked on over a few days, sometimes at home, and sometimes on my lunch break at the day job. I'd open the file, work on it awhile and then close it. No matter if I was home on the desktop, or elsewhere on the netbook, I always had the current edit of the file.

Other times, I might run across some media or image that I want to use later. I would simply drop in on my desktop, and the next time I sat down at the other computer, the file was there. Very handy.

One design element of Unity that I have mixed feelings about, is the placement of menus in the bar at the top of the screen. Just as on the Mac's OS, all application menus will be place in the top of the screen. On my netbook, this is not so much of a problem since it saves on screen real estate. Application windows have more space for content. However, on my desktop with a big 24” hi-res monitor, this results in a LOT of mouse milage.

The app menu placement is implemented through three little programs, so simply removing them will cause the menus to again be place on application windows. The one line shell command to accomplish this is as follows.:

sudo apt-get autoremove appmenu-gtk appmenu-gtk3 appmenu-qt
Doing this on my desktop but not on my netbook allows me to get the best out of unity in both cases It's the one thing I enjoy most about a linux desktop, customizable, completely. At work I use a Mac as my primary workstation and I am responsible for nearly 400 Mac workstations. Apple makes the decisions about how their GUI looks and works, you have little choice. The Lion upgrade went a long way to slowing me down at my job. Lots of frustration and verbal grumbling over that.

There are only two 'bugs?' that I have yet to resolve with Unity. One being multiple desktops don't automatically switch when you switch focus to apps on other desktops. Example: I leave Gwibber on a second desktop.. If I go to the notification menu and notice a new message there, and click on it, nothing happens. In my mind it seems that the desktop should slide over to Gwibber.

The other is probably a configuration setting somewhere that I've yet to find. On my desktop, tapping the super key does not bring up the menu, nothing happens. This machine was upgraded from 10.10 to 11.04 to 11.10, finally to 12.04. I suspect there's some crumbs still hanging around that I have to clean up. Any suggestions?