Monthly Archives: December 2010

The last windfall of 2010

One of the nice things about a hobby like this one, is that I am rarely at a loss for new toys. Sometimes I just mention what I do in my spare time, and people practically throw their junk at me.

That was the case earlier this week, and this was the result.

An offhand remark about putting old computers to use, and a Toshiba Dynabook Satellite J12 is mentioned as a castaway. It’s quite a nice machine as you can see, with no exterior damage and a clean surface all around.


In fact, the only visible shortcomings were a small nick in the lower center of the screen, and one missing foot.

The irony of those two points being, the nick was in fact just a smear and washed clean … and the weight of the system prevents the computer from rocking across the missing foot. So no loss on either point.

The guts are working great too. If you didn’t check the specs page, this has:

  • A 2.5Ghz Mobile Celeron, which will be lambasted by all the techy types out there for being slow and underpowered when compared to its Pentium equivalent. I can’t tell any difference;
  • 512Mb of PC2100, which is more memory than I will ever ever need;
  • A knuckle-busting 30Gb 4200rpm hard drive, which I promptly replaced just as a general principle. Now in place is a leftover 60Gb 7200rpm hard drive that is much quieter;
  • The video card is an Intel 852GM, which seems acceptable even though I haven’t tried out any real graphic-intensive stuff yet;
  • Intel e100-driven network port. My favorite brand;
  • Four — count ’em, four USB2.0 ports, two side and two rear;
  • A working battery; and
  • a CDROM, standard connections for a machine of this age, and — best of all — a floppy drive. What’s life without a floppy drive? :mrgreen:

In all seriousness though, the real draw for this machine was its external condition, a relatively giant 14.1-inch XGA screen and a speedy network port.

It’s been a while since I have had anything larger than a 12-inch screen to look at, and this is very clean and very crisp. Sure, it’s only 1024×768, but I really don’t care much for more refined resolutions. This is plenty.

When it was shown to me, I did my best to try and convince the owner to keep it, and it backfired slightly. After I talked it up as a clean and sharp computer, the owner said she would like to get a small sum for it.

Which of course, was way beyond the actual value of the machine. I understand sentimental value, but I had to remind her that the price she was putting on it was higher than a new netbook.

So in the end, we agreed on about US$60, which is probably high but I can spare it and she felt better to get a little something for it. I always feel guilty telling people that the machine they bought new for more than US$1000, six years ago, is just a yard sale special now.

So far I’ve tried Linux Mint Debian on it, as well as Arch Linux and a very quick test run with Slitaz. I can’t find anything to complain about, unless it’s the fact that I already have too many computers.

And now, let’s see … how can I put this one to use? 😐

mplayer and screen, in a fight to the death

Edit, 2011-01-01: I should probably apologize at this point, because a clean and default reinstall made this problem disappear. Apparently it was a problem with my system configuration, somewhere. Sorry for the false alarm. 😳

It took me long enough, but I finally ran aground on that quirk between screen, mplayer and the framebuffer in Arch Linux.

I’ve had people e-mail me or leave questions here asking how to get around screen’s stranglehold on the framebuffer.

For the uninitiated, you can duplicate this … behavior … by building an Arch system, forcing it into a non-default framebuffer dimension, starting screen, then starting mplayer.

Just be prepared to cut the power on your machine, because mine locks completely each time.

Outside of screen though, mplayer seems to be working fine. It will even seek out the framebuffer on its own, without the -vo fbdev flag, and play a movie normally.

But as for fixing that lockup … ?

To be honest, I don’t know. I need to experiment a little more. Right now the only way I know to get both screen and mplayer working well together is to include Xorg.

I know what you’re thinking: You’re thinking, “What … ?” It’s nutty, but if I start screen in a terminal emulator from within X, then start mplayer from there, I can force mplayer to the tty1 on the framebuffer.

Which is so completely bizarre as to be absolutely unuseful. I’ve heard of some wacky solutions to weird problems, but that is not a solution. Heck, that’s not even an option. But what can I say: It works.

And when I think about it, it does lend itself to a few interesting permutations. … 😈 Stay tuned. … 😀

jn, a journal notebook tool

I have a relative “newcomer” application to share with you today. I mentioned a few times that I knew about a journal application that existed, but didn’t have permission to share it. I do now, so … here’s jn:

Ben Winston has come up with a very simple, very straightforward bash-driven tool that concatenates a journal file with an entry. No fancy gimmicks or wild-and-crazy triple-function Swiss-army knives.

Unix-ish is a good word for it. You can add to your journal with the editor of your choice, and you view your existing journal with less, the omnipresent pager application.

The “installer” — which really just adds a line or so to your .bashrc file for ease of startup — is adjustable on several points, so you can change the location and name of your journal, if you want.

And beyond that, it relies only on bash and your editor and the amount of space you have available on your drive. How you use the results, and how you arrange your diary are up to you.

Ben said he’s been looking for input on this, and if you have ideas or would like to help him improve it, his contact information is in the tarball.

And I know that in the midst of this holiday season, you have lots and lots of time on your hands. Don’t you? 😀

Back to Openbox

I became a little disenfranchised with my pretend Windows XP Classic desktop almost a month ago, and switched gears slightly.

Soon afterward I realized my disappointment with the desktop was rooted in IceWM, and not just in the theme I had built up around it. So I’m back to Openbox now.

And because I was feeling a little nostalgic, I put that together to mimic a desktop I was using about four years ago, also at Christmas. The machine has changed, the distro is different, but the look is similar.

I still have a little bugs to iron out, here and there. I haven’t relied singularly on Openbox for the better part of a year, and there are some shortcuts and configurations to learn.

And it has been even longer since I tinkered with conky. I know: What I have there is rather primitive, compared to what it can do.

But this will suffice for now, and should keep me fairly busy over the next few days. My real-world obligations peak today and then I should be able to coast into a nice, long, well-deserved end-of-year holiday. And I have a few things planned. 😈

Stay tuned. 😉

Rationalizing a CLI lifestyle

It’s Christmas, so I suppose I should make sure I’m not taking things for granted, and should explain up front why anyone would want to live life at the console.

After all, you’re defying three decades of technological advances in doing so. You’re thumbing your nose at conventional computer dogma, which says no more effort should be applied than your forefinger and wrist.

And people don’t think in terms of text any more. Computing has evolved from the old days of “dir” and “run” and people need icons and buttons and sliders and shiny clicky things.

Words — even abbreviated ones — are interlopers, in the modern world of the visual computist. We sense images, we don’t sense words. We think in terms of ideas and scenes, not categories and descriptions.

And let’s be honest: Using all ten fingers is an inordinate amount of work, when one will suffice. Point, click, and be done.

And my rebuttal to all this is … I have none.

Nope. Not a word. Not a syllable. Not even a bemused grunt. 😐

Mostly because it’s genuinely not necessary for me to explain it. I do this because I can, and it makes sense to me, and because I have the resources and like the way it affects my life.

If it doesn’t appeal to you … oh well. Don’t lose sleep over it.

Do I think it’s the right way? Yup. Do I think you should do it too? Yup. Do I expect that you will? Nope. Do I care if you don’t? Nope.

Not for a second.

I appreciate it if you try it, or if you find some part of this personal quest uplifting, or if you feel a sense of kinship over something as cold and heartless as a flashing cursor.

But you and I are not on the same journey. I don’t know you. Your life is separate from mine, and what you need or desire or love is worlds apart from me.

I still suggest you try it though. If it appeals to you, I suggest you continue. I don’t expect you will like it though, so it doesn’t break my heart if you don’t.

Like I discussed a long time ago, your way of using your computer is right for you. Note the excessive use of the concept of “you” there.

Do your own thing. Make your own rules, follow your own dreams, chase your own goals and set your own limits. Don’t allow my harebrained experiences to interfere with the way you live your life.

Of course, if they do, and it changes things for you … well, then we were both lucky, weren’t we?

Happy Christmas! :mrgreen:

Is a BSOD on a bus … a BuSOD?

I wish I had a picture to prove this, but on the other hand, it’s something so common as to be expected any more.

I was riding a city bus last night and noticed a new digital signboard that displayed the destination and fares at the front of the bus. Much like ones in airports or terminals — an LCD screen with scrolling text and large-print numbers.

And no sooner had I finished looking at it, and noting my stop and the fare due, and thinking this was probably an improvement for older passengers with poor eyesight … when the screen flickered, and went to a blue screen of death.

Like I said, something like that is so common that maybe I don’t need a picture after all. Personally I’ve seen BSODs and error messages in airports and restaurants, even in doctor’s offices or factories.

The first of the two things that ran through my mind on the bus last night, as people openly wondered what their fare would be, was, “I should have expected that.”

I should have realized that a digital sign board would probably run some backdated underpowered version of a Microsoft product, and by logical extension, would be prone to failure. It’s just the law of the land.

But what I thought next is what someone, in a bus company office somewhere, should have thought: Why in the world, in this day and age, would anyone use Windows for something like that?

I’m preaching to the choir and I apologize for that, but the underlying logic is what I want to approach here.

Let’s install a computer display to show the fares for our bus lines.

Let’s pay money for an operating system for those displays.

Let’s pay money for an operating system with a hideous track record and an established reputation for failure for those displays.

And if things go wrong, the driver can solve things while on the road.

Which is what happened last night. Passengers asked how much was due, the driver either told them or consulted a tattered paper list. And then the bus rolled on.

With an LCD frozen on a blue screen. Once again, thanks Microsoft. And for the bus company … do your homework next time. 🙄

One pleasant surprise, for 2010

I am going to go back on a promise today, but only by the tiniest bit. I mentioned earlier this week that I had no intentions of publishing a “best of” list for console applications for the year.

And that’s still true, although I do have one that has surprised me more than others, and I think it’s worth a note of praise.

It’s cmus, just to break the suspense. I first tried it almost exactly a year ago, and dismissed it for personal use just because I don’t really care for applications that “manage” my music.


cmus, on Debian

And that is also still true. But cmus won points this year for being able to handle music playback on an exceptionally slow machine, while operating under duress.

Which is to say, operating at the same time as rtorrent, while it seeds and manages a considerable list of files. That may not be impressive for most people, but it is to me.

Almost every audio tool I’ve tried to date has failed, since the overall speed of the machine just isn’t enough to keep up with the demands of the software and the environment.

And that’s not a terrible shortcoming. I don’t think less of them because they’re a teensy bit heavier. They’re still light as a feather, compared to the prevailing behemoths of audio playback. 😯

And really, it’s very rare to find someone who relies on a 133Mhz Pentium to do two things at once. Or one thing at once, now that I think about it. 😐

But cmus does its job without blinking … although I feel obligated to mention that during heavy traffic or exceptional workload, the skipping and stuttering does return.

I expect as much. I know enough to realize that there is only so much I can demand of machines of this era. Beyond that, I invite disappointment.

But for being a clean application that does a great job with old machines — even if it does “manage” my music 🙄 — I say cheers. A gold smilie for the cmus staff: 😀

Worth repeating: nethogs

The end-of-the-year press is upon me, so I have less and less time in the coming week to experiment. As a post for today, I’ll mention nethogs — sort of again, since Parka mentioned it first in a comment last week.

There are a bazillion console network monitors available in Linux systems, and I’ve seen a lot of them. It’s nice to find one though, that will sort its display by process.

That means you can usually see the program that is specifically accessing the network interface. It’s a subtle, but impressive effect.

Beyond that, nethogs but has a sprinkling of options that will affect the output in a way you might like. Take a look and see if it appeals to you.

Two down, +/- 398 to go. … 😯

Quick note: The second bundle

I only have time for a short note today, and since I mentioned the first one, I should probably mention the second one too: There’s a second Humble Indie Bundle in the offering.

I bought the first one and I will probably buy this one too, particularly because the games this time look more appealing than the last one. If I dare say that out loud. 😉

And please: You could be giving part of your money to a charity. Don’t pirate a penny from an organization that could potentially help a kid. It’s just not cool.

There will be no apps “best of”

If you’re waiting around for a “best applications” for 2010, I want to nip that rumor in the bud, right here and now. There will be no such animal posted on this site this year.

The quick and dirty distro recap I put together last week was a special punishment that I incurred when I lambasted someone else’s list, for being trite.

But a list of applications is not forthcoming, so don’t sit at home, alone, in the dark for hours on end, smacking the F5 button. Here’s why:

  1. Most of the applications I use date back well before 2010. I’ve got software on this machine that hasn’t been updated in five or six years, and I still rely on it every day. When did it first start? I haven’t checked.
  2. I don’t track applications by their development dates. I’m more interested in when I discover them, and sometimes I show up so late for the party that all the fun is already over. It’s almost embarrassing.
  3. And even if I did follow inceptions and development, the start and finish dates for many applications are rather fuzzy. Things evolve, fork and fizzle down to nothing in the course of months or years, only to be reanimated at a whim. And then putter away at a whim again. 🙄

If you really really want to know what I would suggest for software, I can point you at this page.

The stuff that’s there is stuff I use daily, whether it’s a simple console clock or a terminal multiplexer or a full-fledged e-mail client.

What year were they made? When did they start? Well … I don’t know if that’s important. They’re important to me in the here-and-now. 🙂