Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Archive for the month “August, 2006”

Boys and their toys: my own Porsche

Two days ago I sat behind my wife’s computer, only to be disgusted by her mouse within seconds. She still had an ancient piece of hardware. Personally I use a marble trackball to prevent serious RSI problems. No my wife needed a decent mouse as well and off I went to the Media Market. The mouse was easy: a 1600 dpi laser mouse for 20 euro. But then I noticed the store was packed with bargains. Hence, I went home with a LaCie Porsche design 250 Gb external harddrive as well. This expanded my current 200 Gb to an interesting 450.
The drive was formatted NTFS so I was curious how Ubuntu would handle it. Without so much as a hickup. The disk was mounted automatically with full rights. The speed is incredible. I hardly notice a difference with the internal drives.
Did I need the extra 250 Gb? Nope! I can’t even use the drive for an alternative OS, since my box doesn’t support USB boot. I will use it for backup purposes, but to be honest… it’s just a toy 😉

It's all eye candy, I know, but it is so cool!

After installing Compiz/Xgl I was already flabbergasted. It’s not just the cool screen effects, though they are a lot of fun. It is also the clarity and brightness of the screen fonts. Stunning is the right word.

There were a few problems though. Programs like VMware and VLC got glued to the top menu bar and Wine and Crossover didn’t want to start up anymore. A Google search revealed the ‘problem’. Not really a problem, but apparently the Ubuntu repositories play it save with Compiz and do not offer the most recent builds. It was suggested for Wine to work properly to get the latest DEB package.

In order to do that I had to add this site to the source’s list: dapper. Once I had done that, the upgrade icon started to blink and I could download the right set of packages. It did not proceed without a glitch, but it did work. Once the install was completed compiz did not work, so I choose to go for a reboot. Yes! It worked again and nothing appeared to be broken. Untill I tried to move a windows to another location. More cool effects as you can see in the screenshot.

It looks like the application window is made of rubber band. It absolutely not useful, but it looks neat. 


Compared to the former compiz install I also noticed a difference in the ALT-TAB and the rotating cube. The rotating cube has the Novell logo on the top and bottom side (sorry, couldn’ t make a screenshot of that one). The cube also drops backward a little before rotating.

The ALT-TAB is slightly improved. It nows gives the application icon and the name of the program as well.

The problems with VMware and Wine are gone. I can move the VMware windows around and Wine fires away like nothing happened.

Like I said before, it is all eye candy, but when I compare it to the Vista eye candy it is less obtrusive, less buggy and way less irritating. Functional? Nah, but a great way to show off Linux and Ubuntu.

Ubuntu eyecandy beats Vista

After the X-disaster I was reluctant to fool around with the graphics department. But what is the use of a powerful graphics card ifyou are not going to squeeze everything out of it. First I used Easyubuntu to install the nvidia driver. That appeared simple enough till I noticed the message that the install could not be completed. It required a manual edit of the driver section of Xorg.conf. After a few days of playing around that didn’t reall pose a challenge anymore. It was nice to see the nVidia logo pop up during reboot.

But I wanted more. I wanted the Xgl/Compiz candy. A Google search with Ubuntu Xgl nVidia brought me to a great step by step walkthrough. It seems daunting, requiring the command line and edits of various files. But it simply works. Period.
The first reboot did not seem to deliver an improvement. On the contrary, all screen fonts were very grainy. I played around with the screen resolutions, decided on another reboot (force of windows habit). Then my jaw broke.
Oh man. What clarity. So sharp. Then I tried out the wobbly windows, the rotating cube, exposure, the alt-tab Vista style. Unbelievable. This made my day.

Ubuntu update problems solved

ln one of my RSS feeds,, there was a confirmation of the problems with the X update of Ubuntu. Apparently it wasn’t an incompatibility problem with the nVidia driver. Ubuntu seems to have fixed the problem now. Still, for a distribution that has gained a lot of traction for it’s ease of use and accessibility for new Linux users this is a very serious faux-pas. The article mentioned that the solution was to install and older version of X. True, and maybe that is fine for the experienced user. For the newbie such a solution is out of reach. It’s an incident, of course, but an incident that proves that no matter how easy and fast the default install have become, Linux still has a very steep learning curve with a lack of accessible and simple to use diagnostic and problem solving tools.

Rest and Spiritual recuperation

I tried to do nothing today. No work, no projects, no social obligations. just relaxation and a stack of spiritual food in the form of magazines. I did not completely succeed since I did do some maintenance work on my website. But that was it.

I needed to have this day off. I needed the time for building up my own spiritual strength. Reading the Bible, studying key principles, meditating on my relationship with God, Jehovah, are vital element of my life. But I have learned that even a life filled with spiritual activities can drown out that time for myself. At one point you start to wonder why you are so emotionally tired. So, that is why I take a day like this, to prevent exhaustion.

It always makes me think of Ferris Bueler’s day off. Every once in a while you have to stop and look around. Get out of the routine and focus on what is really important.

Tonight I could conduct a small bible study group. We were discussing the role of angels in our lives. It is fascinating to see how the bible describes our heavenly brothers, serving our god as well. I love doing these groups, to dig deeper in the bible and make it alive and practical for us today. I feel privileged to serve the congregation in this capacity. And the day of rest and spiritual recuperation served me well. Without wrecking a Ferrari. 😉

Freespire to take over Toys-R-Us?

Once upon a time there was a Linux distro that wanted to be Windows. It wanted to be Windows so bad that it called itself Lindows. And it made a promise to all his friends: ‘One day you will not see the difference between me and Windows anymore’.

However, Windows did not play nice and Lindows had to rebranded into Linspire. Harding out free copies has always been part of the companies’ strategy, especially since it wants to make money on a subscription based access to free software. Freespire is a continuation of that strategy. This time the distro come loaded with some proprietary parts like MP3 and flash, for which Linspire paid the licensing fees. Does that make for a good contender on the desktop?

The install is very fast. It was finished in 10 minutes, which resulted in a complete KDE desktop. During the install you see the how and why of Freespire. The freedom of choice, including the freedom to use closed source proprietary software and components in Linux. Well, not much argument there, since I am a pragmatist when it comes to Linux. I do want to listen to my legal MP3 files and visit websites including those that lean on flash or java.

Freespire comes with a free signup for CNR, the click and run warehouse of Linspire. Free as in trial, free as in ‘feel free to look around’. CNR is a subscription based repository with some commercial software like CrossOver office thrown in for good measure. The icon to sign up is already in the panel. A panel which I found to be cluttered by the default install. Anyway, signing up with CNR is supposed to be easy. You fill in the details, get an email for verification and…. then you get the message that the password is incorrect. You know, the password they just send you.

I am not going to bore anyone with tech specs. They are okay. Freespire is a solid Linux distribution based on Debian. Like Ubuntu, it comes with a decent selection of applications. A KDE desktop with all it’s pro’ and con’s. Freespire wants to impress it’s own look and feel to the desktop and that is the big turn off for me.

I did not move to Windows XP for years because I absolutely detested the color scheme. Think about it. Why do toddler’s toys have those very bright primary colors? Try putting a toy with soft tones next to it. When you are that young you grab for bright and shiny. I was offended by XP and now Freespire has a desktop filled with primary colored icons, consistently, even in CNR.

Beyond those feelings I don’t see much that is compelling to encourage peple to swith to Freespire. Actually, it is a disappointment to see how little progress has been made since the Lindows days. If you compare that to Suse or Fedora, if you see Ubuntu next to Freespire, then there appears to be almost nothing. Why would anyone actually pay for the CNR subscription?

When thinking about I Freespire an analogy popped in my mind. It is like a drag queen dressing up like Jadzia Dax. Raven dark hair? Check. Stale blue eyes? Check. Gorgeous body in a standard Star Fleet uniform? Check. Would you go out with the drag queen? Heck no! Freespire is still trying to be the free Windows (well, a cheaper version). In the end it is not convincing nor easy enough to be a Windows desktop replacement. And as a Linux distribution there are too many great contenders with a better look and feel and with free repositories. But it could still be the toddler’s distro of choice. Wow, imagine the market. Your First Computer preloaded with Freespire at your local Toys-R-us.

More screenshots can be found here

An "I am going to ditch Ubuntu" moment

This is one of those ‘I am going to ditch Ubuntu’ moments. After following the suggestion to update X, I don’t have a graphical interface any more. This is totally unacceptable. I don’t have the time to start looking for a solution. I have a good idea where to look: a conflict between the update and the nVidia driver. But I am in the middle of a lot of work and can’t spare the time to figure out exactly what the problem is and how to solve it. I took the ‘easy’ route.

Simply put, I used Knoppix to salvage the /home folder, followed by a reinstall of Ubuntu. This way I can work again tomorrow and get VMware back during the day. By copying the right folders back into the new /home folder Thunderbird, Firefox, Gaim, Konversation and Rythmbox will be on the move again.

But these are not the things that are supposed to happen. No newbie is going to continue with Ubuntu in this way. For the geek it is only X that is broken, but for the GUI oriented the OS has become worthless. Just when he only followed the update advisory. Oh, and he wouldn’t understand a thing about the errorlog. I am not giving up, but this was a waste of my time.

Ubuntu migration: mission accomplished

Today I finalised the migration to Ubuntu. Moving the Thunderbird profile folder to it’s new .mozilla thunderbird location took care of all the mail boxes. Then came the boring part: adding all email accounts with their incoming and outgoing servers. And it stayed boring. because I also configured Rythmbox for my podcast subscriptions and my USB mp3 player. Boring number 3 was configuring Mobipocket for all the RSS feeds in the VMware Windows box. But if is all done, completely.

There are but a few applications that still require Windows. My old pocket pc needs Activesync and Mobipocket for all the newsfeeds. For now I haven’t found a replacement for PocketDivX, a nice program to compress videofiles for your pocket pc. My fitness training program won’t run under Linux or in a virtual windows box. And, yes, I still keep Microsoft Office, Dreamweaver and Fireworks close at hand. For now the document conversion is not perfect enough to allow seamless cooperation on the same document from Word to Openoffice or Abiword.

Cogito ergo sum

Now that I have come into the habit of writing in my blog, I also find an urge to write about core ideas that shaped my thinking over the years. Ideas I discussed with colleagues, students, trainees and others over the years.
The first idea finds its roots with Descartes. ‘Cogito ergo sum’, I think therefore I am. For me that means the ultimate starting point. Doubt everything except your own existence as proven by your ability to think, to observe, to analyse and to prove. But also doubt any ideas your mind brings up, challenge them and make sure they are empirically sound. Only accept what can be proven.
How often do I see projects and efforts go lost because the people working on them just followed their experience and training without realising that the world has changed around them. I see policymakers, politicians and others act on data that is biased, gathered by using instruments that were never meant for use outside a narrow context. Data and statistics start to build a reality of their own. When the model becomes more important than reality, the great lie commences.
I push student and trainees to look what seems obvious, to challenge all theories and methodologies they have learned and verify them with real life, not statistics. And time and again they find the flaws and fallacies. They learn that what they have learned suits the profile of a white affluent, middle class. They learn that what has been taught is woefully inadequate for a multi-ethnic society, for a modern society with a variety of family structures, social economic circumstances and with complex belief systems interacting with the notion of individual freedom. Not surprisingly the students’ feelings are mixed once they realise this. Doubt, anger, frustration. But most embark on their new careers knowing they have much to learn, that they should challenge everything, not the least of which, themselves.
Cogito ergo sum

Balancing Acts

I have a life plan.

You know, a plan that is promoted by self-help gurus like Anthony Robbins, Jim Rohn and Stephen Covey. I was surprised to see Covey’s time management principles integrated in the therapy that helped me deal with my burn out problems. I knew them already, but I did not expect their application in serious Dutch psycho-therapy, where self- help methods certainly does not enjoy the same status as in other countries.

I like the programs, because they have a positive outlook on life. They try to convince you that the future, your personal future. is not determined by chance but by choice. Your past and your circumstances, with all the limitations they impose, are starting points on which to build your chosen destiny. I don’t always agree with the strong focus on material success, but nothing prevents you or me to choose other goals. And it is refreshing to see an attempt at integrating spiritual values in your endeavors in the public domain.

Unfortunately, that positive outlook, the notion that you are not a victim of circumstances but a master of your own future and the advocacy of the public spiritual is not widespread where I live. No, people prefer a more down to earth, realistic approach to life. Needless to say we have few visionaries, people who dare to dream big. Entrepreneurship isn’t big either. That is sad actually. I know I don’t have what it takes to be a true entrepreneur, but it doesn’t stop me from trying to build a business of my own. Since I started that attempt I became more aware of risk analysis, focusing on opportunities, balancing costs versus benefits and taking calculated risks. Not just in business, but in all aspect of life. It enriched my life. So much so that I feel entrepreneurial skills should be an integral part of the school curriculum.

I remember a talk with the title ‘Is it a stepping stone or a stumbling block?’ It was based on the scripture that says that for the righteous one there is no stumbling block. Simply put, the road of life is littered with rocks. Some big, some small. But whether a rock is a stumbling block or a stepping stone doesn’t depend on the rock. That is a result of choice, of what we allow it to be. The rocks could be anything, people, health, work issues. Anything that we could use as an excuse for us not meeting our goals. And you would find tons of people agreeing with you as well. Yet the saying goes that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But that is only true if you make the deliberate decision to use the rock as a stepping stone, to rise above adversity, a stepping stone towards your own chosen goals. That would be complicated if you don’t have those goals firmly in mind with the personal dedication to achieve them.

I have a life plan.

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