Saturday, October 23, 2010

NanoWrimo Logo

I may be taking on the NanoWrimo again this year.  Already got some notes together on several characters and a basic idea behind the driving force of what might charitably be called a plot.

And of course, my heart is with the people over at the Typewriter Brigade, who are signing on to pound their 50,000 words out on manual typewriters this year.  I may follow suit.  Haven't decided.  A laptop (preferably a disconnected one) is just such a handy device for organizing the notes, keeping characters and setting straight, etc.  But that doesn't mean I can't leave those digitized notes off to the side and pound out the actual draft on one of my beloved old machines.

If I do this, it will by my third time through, and my fourth novel.  I hit the 50,000 word mark both in 2002 and 2004, but the only time I've actually completed a story, instead of just a word-count, was sometime in 2007, where I hit 90,000 words, and I didn't do it in November, nor did I complete it in one month.  That one was a lot better than the first two, though, and I learned the persistence required to finish it from those previous Novembers.

Perhaps this is the year that I come up with something worth finishing, revising, and submitting.  Time will tell, I suppose.

But November is not the time to consider such things.  November is the month to put out eight double spaced typewritten pages every day until you have a stack 200 high.

I found an image that captures the spirit of the month quite nicely, and capped it off with my new favorite slogan.

I think that sums the project up rather nicely, don't you?

Kubuntu Installation

The Wife laughs at my obsession with Linux Distributions. As I'm changing out my desktop wallpaper or re-arranging my applets for the hundredth time, she'll say, "Linux is like home decorating for boys." Why not get some real work done instead of making the screen look pretty? But then again I could ask her the same thing about the furniture in the living room.

Came home for my middle of the day break from work (They call it a "split shift" but I call it "Two days for the wages of one.") and ended up spending hours--hours!--in putting Kubuntu on the desktop, configuring applications, getting the layout just the way I like it. I should have taken a nap, and now I'm facing the ordeal of a six-hour closing shift with very little sleep. Not entirely sure how I'll be getting through it, but I suppose we'll find a way. Adrenaline and coffee, most likely.

Oh, but the Kubuntu. It looks amazing, like it just brought the old computer into the "latest generation" of computer technology. Transparent, window effects, shiny, glowing, fresh, and surprisingly intuitive. Like Windows Vista could have been, if it didn't bog much newer machines down into a tub of molasses.

For such a flashy and attractive Desktop Environment, Kubuntu actually runs rather well on an old P4 with no dedicated graphics card. There's a little hesitation on opening applications, but once they're up, they're up. And I much prefer the overall feel of this desktop environment to the Gnome I was running before. Text displays crisper and smaller, which satisfies me on some strange control-freak level, and I can actually make use of this vast monitor's screen space with various windows, etc.

Strangely enough, the whole package downloaded and installed right from the standard Gnome desktop in about ten minutes. One quick re-boot and I was there. The joy of messing about with all these operating systems and desktop environments is it feels like getting to use a new computer every few days, without spending a penny. (The rest of those lost hours went to the "home decorating" phase.)

I have now spent some time with all the major Ubuntu flavors (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, and the small and strikingly efficient newcomer Lubuntu) as well as a lot of lesser-known alternatives (Slitaz, Puppy, Damn Small Linux, the craptacular Xandros that came with the Asus Eee). Ubuntu, in it's incarnations, seems to have most of the bases covered, at this point. Every one I try, I like better than the last. Except for esoteric applications (extremely old hardware, custom built solutions to uncommon problems, etc.) it's various flavors seem to do what your "average" hobbyist/user with a little patience and a willingness to experiment would expect it to do, usually with delightful style.

All this distro-hopping has made me start to wonder a bit just what Ubuntu is. Before I started sailing Linux waters, I always assumed an operating system was a whole shiny package. It was, you know, the part of the computer that wasn't made of plastic and microchips but wasn't consumer software from a shrink-wrapped box, either. I assumed that the desktop environment was an integral part of an operating system, since it gave you handles to drag your windows around and icons to click to launch your video games.

But here comes Ubuntu, which is an operating system, I think, but it's not really, it's just a "distribution" of Linux. And you can have a text-only install of Ubuntu (just like DOS before the Windows came along) or you can load it up with your choice of window manager (Gnome, KDE, XFCE, LCXD) to turn it into one of it's derivatives (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu). Or you can go a whole 'nother route, skip the Ubuntu piece, and build Linux into something completely different like Red Hat, Slitaz or Slackware.

Oh yeah, and the Ubuntu code was all built up by some company called Canonical which is controlled by a man named Mark Shuttleworth, who was one of the first people to pay Russians to go to space as a tourist. (I thought his name was a joke but was apparently, mistaken.) His team built the Ubuntu distribution on top of another distribution called Debian. I'm not sure if Debian's still another layer in the cake or just something that's to the side, at this point. It becomes rather confusing. And just what this Canonical company gets from developing all this software is also unclear to me.

But I am inclined to like them, since it all seems to work despite my not-understanding. It's a tribute to the engineers at every level, that they make it simple enough for a dilettante like me to have so much fun and get so much done with their efforts.

What does become clear from all this messing around is how modular all these operating system pieces are. The different window managers all look remarkably different, but all it takes to change them up is switching out a few packages from the Ubuntu Software Center. If you're clever, or you read the right on-line tutorial, you can do this with a few keystrokes at the command line. There are even tools out there for grabbing all the bits you like from the various distributions, pre-loading it with the open-source applications you prefer, stamping your own name on it, burning it to a CD and calling it your own. The Creative Commons license will even let you charge money for it, which is a nice touch, since it gives you the incentive to add a bit of value in the form of installation and training. (Maybe this is what Canonical is after?) The only thing you can't do is tell the person who buys it from you that they can't turn around and do the same thing.

# # #

Hmm... If I spend more time procrastinating than I do writing, perhaps I should reconsider where my priorities lie. Then again, these are all just hobbies, so it's not like I have to worry about making a living from either of them. That's the freedom that comes from working a full-time job. Then again, if somebody did want to offer me some money...

Which would you rather pay me for? Turning your old computer into a fantastic new Linux machine, or telling you a story?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Old People's Houses

There is a Sadness when you visit an Old Person's house and you can date the moment at which they stopped engaging with the world. It is the date on the top magazine of the stack by the easy chair, or on the bookshelf of sun-faded paperbacks. It's the date on that first page with the library of congress information, the ISBN and the rest of the numbers. It's the last important book they read, the Pulitzer Prize winner from 1967, or 1974, or 1988. It's the shelf full of James Michener, or James Clavell, or Norman Mailer. This marks the point at which they have not only given up on acquiring the new, but have ceased to trouble themselves with unloading the old.

These old people typically have newer things in their house than these artifacts. Usually the television is less than a few years old, and the microwave might be battered although it's certainly not antique. They might even have a gleaming stainless steel refrigerator with an ice-maker and dispenser built into the door. But you can tell their heart is not in these things. Most likely some child or grand-child or social worker has stopped by, said, "Oh Harold, you can't possibly go on living with this old thing in your home," and taken it upon themselves to arrange delivery and installation of the replacement. And the Old Person likely shrugged and said, "sure, I suppose so," and sat looking over the top of his bifocals with a battered paperback in his hand, a bemused expression on his face, while his caregiver fussed and grunted to attach co-ax and AC power and argue with utilities over the phone.

If it's a good natured Old Person, he perhaps said to his caregiver, "You like to read, do you? Why don't you take this copy of Shogun with you? Maybe you'll enjoy it. Don't mention it, it's the least I can do."

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Lure of Retro Computing

I want to get Lubuntu working on the old 2000 Sony Vaio, make it a streamlined, stripped-down, responsive old toy.  It won't go online without an ethernet cable, which makes it perfect for distraction-free writing. The silly thing is, though, that it runs Windows XP just fine, it's running it fine right now, with OpenOffice and everything that I need, and not going online with it keeps it pretty well free of viruses. Stripping it down to a lightweight package with Abiword/Gnumeric is really counter-productive, since I could be diving in and writing novels on it right now.

But then again, there's the productive writing angle, and then there's the fun of messing about with unorthodox operating systems and seeing how they play with old hardware, and pretending these are both part of the same pursuit is a bit disingenuous.

I've got that Asus Eee netbook, too. My reading in bed computer, almost three years old already but working great, going strong. The small keyboard’s not much of a hindrance; I actually like the minimal feel of it. And the small screen lends itself to a certain degree of focus. It will go online, but it won’t stream YouTube videos without burping along, and I can forget all about watching Hulu on it or looking at any pictures in high resolution. I could have been content with just that, but no, I had to go and purchase a Pentium 4 desktop for $120 from a guy who saved one from the dump and dropped a new hard drive into it. And why didn’t I just get one from the dump myself? Well, because the guy got to it first, the price was reasonable, and I feel good supporting that guy’s lifestyle of local-salvage-and-survive. Of course, that same day, Staples had a great deal on a 22” widescreen LCD monitor to pair with it, so now I’ve got a massive screen dominating my otherwise uncluttered desk that’s constantly calling out to me with uses for its vast tracts of screen real-estate.

These stupid conundrums, I spend hours obsessing over them, when friends of mine might be levelling up their World of Warcraft characters or fragging bots in first person shooters. Or raising children and doing the other suchlike things that adults are supposed to be doing with their time.

All these machines, built for communication. I strip them down and prune them back. Too much communication makes me nervous. Why should we share our dinner plans on Facebook and post our bowel movements on Twitter?  Just because there's an app for that?

I like the older machines because I feel they’re not being wasted; I can ask of them everything they can give and use them to the fullest. This is what K. Mandla speaks about when he says he is not a computer minimalist. He’s a maximilst, getting the most out of ten-year old laptops he pays $20 for. And there he is, building, researching, and publishing online (which is a more elegant description of what we do than “blogging,” which is perhaps the most unfortunatly coined term of this last decade) all from the command-line. Whether this makes him any more effective or productive as a writer and journalist is up for debate, but it seems to me he gets a pretty decent load of fun out of the proceedings.

Unlike Mandla, I'm not ready to go back to command-line-only. I've been tempted by the challenge of it, but climbing the learning curve of Unix commands and Vim keyboard shortcuts is a fun exercise that I’ve embarked upon a couple of times, but repeating that exercise enough to comfortably compose a letter without going online to reference tutorials and man-pages starts to make me feel that maybe I am wasting my time, a little. There’s enough distraction-free text editors out there for Linux that I can re-create the feeling of austerity and still wave my mouse around when I want to put something in italics or copy and paste.

Don’t think I haven’t considered getting that old 1980 IBM PC, which has no graphics card, out of my mother’s attic and re-acquainting myself with the keyboard shortcuts of WordPerfect whatever point whatever that I loaded onto it, back in the day, with my buddy's mother's boss's stack of 5.25" floppies. The thing boots in seconds and will output to the dot-matrix printer in near letter quality, provided I can scare up a ribbon and a carton or two of tractor-feed paper. If I bring that thing home, though, I’ll get open-source ambitious and lose a couple of weeks trying to load up a stripped down version of Linux through those 5.25” drives, and then I'll be diving right back into the morass of text editors and obscure, out-of-date printer driver installation. Is there any way to sauter a USB port onto a 30 year old motherboard? Getting anything I write off of that old thing would be a significant challenge.

And now I'm toying with the idea.  But if I have to find a place to put that hulk of a machine, I’ll have to get rid of one of these bulky typewriters (probably the Selectric) which call to me, nightly, from beneath their dust-covers. They want me to type something, anything, and they seem to be unaware of the cruel truth that I’ve run out of things to say.

All these computers are four years old, at least (and the typewriters are 40 years old, at least) so it’s not like we’re one of those families that goes around scooping up the latest gadgets and sending last years models off to India and Africa for recycling and reclamation. The problem is that despite whatever planned obsolescence is built into them, they persist in working just fine. Throwing them away doesn’t feel right, but it’s not like we can sell them, either, given that people would rather finance an iPad with their credit card (”It’s like buying a computer with no money down!”) then make do with something that still gets the job done, something they could have second-hand for twenty bucks.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Dusted off the roller-blades (once we found them, hanging behind the winter coats in the closet) for a skate along the canal. We bought two pair of these things about eight years ago because we were living so close to such a nice, smooth paved trail, and it seemed a shame not to try them out.  I've used mine about a dozen times over the years.  The Wife tried it once or twice and decided it wasn't for her.  

Funny, how life was eight years ago, when we'd invest a few hundred dollars sports equipment just to try something out.  

They demand a vigorous sort of exercise, these rollerblades; it’s not so easy to have a leisurely adventure with them as it is when bicycling or walking. And they limit where you can go. Long, smooth stretches of pavement are best, and the trails had better be isolated from cars, and they’d better not slope more than a degree or two from the horizontal. You have to carry a pair of shoes along with you if you hope to venture far from the path, and this is on top of the helmet and other protective gear you should have on.

It’s a very first-world leisure activity, rollerblading. It requires a great deal of infrastructure.

Still, we had a good time and I got a good workout while we were at it. The Wife stuck with her vintage bike, of course, as it’s got a pair of brand-new whitewall tires on it and they needed breaking in. The sun was out, the air cool, the wind light. We watched a man land a 12 lb. striper and then toss it back into the water. We spent a good 15 minutes sitting on a park bench, watching the passage of a 30’ sailboat and a 60’ fishing vessel. The fishing boat was remarkably loud with its diesel engines. I wonder if those fishermen keep earplugs in all day, and what the world sounds like to them when they get home and go ashore?

On the way back we found we had the breeze in our face and a slight hill to climb, so by the time we got home I was out of breath and happy we hadn’t gone further before turning around. Time was I could skate all the way to the southern mouth of the canal and back with a lit cigar clamped between my teeth. It seems, perhaps, I’ve let myself go a little.

My own freebie bike needs a new tire. Once that’s taken care of I’ll probably favor that over the rollerblades. It’s easier to zip into town and pick up library books and drink a cup of coffee on the bike. But it felt good to get some use out of these silly old shoes with the wheels on them. When I’m in the mood for jogging, and then remember how much jogging hurts my knees, I’ll just might pull them out again.