The Danish Syndrome or why heavy is evil

I have a fetish for statistics, numbers, formulae and technological manipulation.
What this means in practice is that I do online courses to master the intricacies of statistics  and R and spend a significant part of my working day juggling (well, wrangling) Excel. Today, I assisted an extremely competent colleague in converting spreadsheet data into a format where Excel would eat it. Small wonder that it was not easy – it was a weird date sorting… bug, I would say, but I am sure some would call it an eccentric feature. So I had dates defined as, say, 50810 to represent 05-08-2010 – the result of an automated data set from one of our systems and the addition of a pinch of Excel magic insisting that 050810 made no sense as a figure, so – 50810.
Which would not be converted into a date.
I converted the dates by asking Excel to add a 0 if the number only had 5 digits, harvest the first two characters with =LEFT, a hyphen, then the middle two with =MID, then a hyphen and ’20’ and finally the last two with =RIGHT. So, 05-08-2010. After that, no challenge.

Not exactly graceful.

It was the equivalent of trying to do origami by cutting paper and sticking the parts together with duct tape.

I wonder why I get so frustrated with the heavy-handed approach. Is it just because of training teaching us patterns instead of manual approaches? Is it because I am from a small country where maximalist solutions are frowned upon? Or is it simply a case of personal aesthetics?

Update on Slackware

From the under-staffed Department of Updates, I should note that I have expanded my page on Slackware a bit – I thought it would be useful to write down what I do post-install to make it usable, to lighten the load of it a bit and to make it prettier.

A bit of standard Slackware in there, and some general distribution goodies.

Digital hoarding

I sometimes feel that I have the online equivalent of people who just shop to have stuff. I have an archive of articles I need to read – print to PDF just to be sure – if I had not deleted hundreds of hours, I would have podcasts to fill this year and the next.

I download Linux ISOs and feel I should keep them because someone may drop by who would need the latest Opensuse, Fedora, Slackware, Arch, Frugalware et cetera.

I find Youtube videos – documentaries, shows and movies I want to watch. I download them just to be sure.

If I focused entirely on all the stuff I have pulled down and have stored, I would be occupied for a month.

I was considering getting a new hard drive – my latest Thinkpad came with the 60 gig drive that was the default when it was new.  It may just be a good idea that I do not.

Richard Feynman: The pleasure of finding things out

The people who have been reading this place pretty much from the start will remember that I did a review of the Richard Feynman biography; I would like to share a brilliant talk by Feynman – it is an interview from the BBC published by The Science Foundation. It is longer than your average Youtube video, but Feynman is so intelligent, charming and uncompromisingly scientific in his mindset that this is a good view.

The file is available for download here.

FSF Free Software Awards 2012: Jonathan Nadeau

The FSF announced they were receiving nominations for the Free Software Awards 2012.
I have sent the following nomination of Jonathan Nadeau:

 

I nominate Jonathan Nadeau for the 15th Annual Free Software Awards.
Jonathan has put great effort into promoting and advancing the efforts towards accessibility on GNU/Linux systems. The FSF will know him for this effort as part of his internship - http://www.fsf.org/about/interns/2011/jonathan-nadeau.

Jonathan has repeatedly stressed the importance of this effort as part of the Free Software ecosystem in particular and technological infrastructure in general. As a natural consequence of his focus on Free Software, he has worked with Trisquel GNU/Linux on this.

He has been the driving force behind establishing the Accessible Computing foundation – http://accessiblecomputingfoundation.org/ – for the purpose of promotion, fundraising and to serve as a rallying point for debating the implications of the issue.

Talks like his very powerful presentation at Ohio Linux Fest – http://frostbitemedia.org/node/156 – show his dedication, his humor and an always positive approach to this challenge, mixed with a firm belief that these efforts could change the lives of people all over the world as an example of how free software can help people overcome their challenges and help them provide for themselves.

The nomination of Jonathan Nadeau for this award is also a nomination of the ACM – and of Free Software as a driving force for freedom.

Sincerely,
Morten Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejér

Open source snobbery or why awesome is almost, but not quite enough

So I have a dilemma with what I use as my computing platform. It is a silly thing, but I suspect that others experience a similar thing, and that makes it something worth considering. It is a technical issue mixed with, or undermined by, aesthetics.

I have been a Linux user for a number of years – in various incarnations. I started out as a Red Hat user – back then I dual-booted between Windows and Red Hat, partly because getting a working internet connection was a challenge. I changed to Mandrake Linux which was impressive enough to let me change entirely. After that I tried out a large number of Linux distributions as well as variations of the BSDs. I settled on Slackware with Slackware 10.0 and enjoyed the Slackware philosophy: You can set up this system to do and be anything. I learned to rewrite the boot scripts, recompile the kernel to only support the hardware I owned but do that well. It was a great satisfaction.

However, with my two most recent laptops, both Thinkpads, I have experienced difficulties with wireless as well as power management. It seems they have the same issues with suspend, and the wireless connection is consistently dropping. The first aspect I have found an explanation for and solution to, but not the latter.
As a result, I have had to leave Slackware and look elsewhere for the most fitting system   for this old X32. And this leads me to an embarrassing problem with making an appropriate choice.

I guess it comes down to a perception of hierarchy. Plainly, everyone will agree that Slackware is a distribution for Linux users who know their way around the basic Linux system, simply because if you don’t, you are not going to get an installation that is usable.
What this means is that Slackware is an endgame distribution. If one looks at the mailing lists, people have been using Slackware for ages, and people who end up with Slackware are going to stay there.
However, if you have to become a refugee from Slackware, the original Linux distribution, it is going to be an extremely ambivalent process. Because you already made it all the way.

I am using Fedora 16, the Lxde respin. And actually, this is a lovely distribution. It is lightweight, it is up to date, it will do the nice things you want without too much customisation. However, it goes through a lot of stuff before it is ready to log in, and I have no way of gettng a feel for the system. And it gives the distinct impression that one is not supposed to. A lot of stuff works automagically on this system, and it does seem a bit sensitive to tampering. I should not neglect to mention that one can get quite spoiled using a system which will do a lot automatically compared to a distribution where one has to do a lot of work before using it will be smooth and simple…

Now of course, the most marketed hobbyist distribution is Ubuntu. But that is a mainstream beginners’ distribution with a questionable approach to community and going for the mindshare. Leaving aside that Gnome3 and Unity will not run on my hardware, Ubuntu simply does not appeal to me. While Linux Mint is considerably more appealing visually and when it comes to functionality – I just downloaded their new Lxde release, and it works quite well – but I always get bugs with these Ubuntu derivatives, and somehow a couple of lines of terminal output will always peek out. If one is running an OS where this is intentional, that is not a problem, but with these, it just looks sloppy. I can also choose to see it the way that they can’t be bothered to support the older hardware I have chosen to buy. This does not make it more appealing.

Recently, I have installed Chakra and Arch – they both had some boot issues I could not track down. They would boot, but they would be probing the hardware for so long that it was pointless. I tried FreeBSD, GhostBSD and PC-BSD – they give a strange boot freeze error. The Red Hat Enterprise/CentOS/Scientific Linux family will not accept my machine because it has to go with PAE – which my CPU does not. Since this is an older machine, I am not even going to attempt to make Gentoo play on it. It would take me a week to build a usable system on this old iron. Dragora, while interesting as a Free-as-in-freedom-FSF-approved take on Slackware, simply won’t give me a good X.org implementation.
I mention these because they are respectable systems. Arch, FreeBSD and RHEL are distributions for technologists. Fedora gets a few bonus points as a member of the Red Hat family with a healthy dose of community.

Long story short, I feel a bit like a phony, and the more I use this, I feel less of the feeling that made me happy about running an open source craftsman’s OS. For the time being, I will stick with Fedora. I have Debian Live sitting on a USB stick next to me – Debian is a respectable community tool. A bit of work would be needed to really get into it. When I used Debian way back, it seemed very elaborate, but powerful.

The quest continues…

Newsbeuter – RSS reader with good podcast features

I have recently become aware of an RSS reader called Newsbeuter. It is quite different from the tools I usually use for the task, so some observations are in order.

RSS – Really Simple Syndication – is a way of getting updates about a site or service. I use RSS feeds for two distinctly different things.
First, I use the feeds for site updates, which I do for two reasons. One is for friends and people I know and respect who update their weblogs and the like, or magazines. It is good to be on top of things. The other side of that is that I receive updates to software I use, applications like Uget, for instance, which I package for Slackware.
The second major thing is podcasts & podiobooks. Ever since we got a dog and I had to walk endless miles with him – and later on with our son – I have been listening to a lot of podcasts and podiobooks. The latter is an audiobook released as a podcast – as in chapters released one by one.

Now, there is a truckload of RSS readers. The principles are simple – an RSS file is basically an XML file. But the application is done differently. For my particular purposes, most programs for the task have been a frustrating acquaintance. Until recently I was using the plugin Newsfox with Firefox, but I have discovered an even better tool: Newsbeuter.

Newsbeuter screenshot

Newsbeuter video
Newsbeuter video



As you see, there are two sides to using Newsbeuter as a podcatcher – there is the main Newsbeuter interface, and if you are going to download files from it, you enqueue them for download and access the Podbeuter application (which is packed with Newsbeuter). Podbeuter will work as a download manager.
To be honest, Podbeuter is really very good – as a download manager. Frankly, if I could find a way to push download links to Podbeuter, I would use it as my main download manager for all other kinds of files, too! In the background, it uses Curl for the download.
Newsbeuter is quite well-documented at the website documentation section, but primarily you will need the files config and urls, which I put in ~/.newsbeuter:

Config – here is my config file:

# Newsbeuter config file.
# To be placed in ~/.newsbeuter or ~/.config/newsbeuter
always-display-description	true
auto-reload			yes
browser				firefox
cleanup-on-quit			yes
download-retries		10
download-timeout		20
refresh-on-startup		yes
reload-time			10
download-path			~/Downloads
max-downloads			2

Is is probably fairly self-explanatory, but I go into the reasons for the setup in the video.

– and of course the urls file. You can  probably guess what it contains. Here is my urls file – basically just a link list.