Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

Ubuntu on Dell: Good and Evil

Posted by Russell on June 20, 2007 at 4:39 p.m.
For Father's day, I've been helping my dad get Ubuntu working on his new laptop (a Dell Latitude D420). Getting Ubuntu configured has turned out to be surprisingly painless, especially compared to Windows XP.

My dad had originally hoped to buy a machine with Ubuntu pre-installed. Unfortunately, getting Dell to actually sell you a computer with Ubuntu is more or less impossible. My dad isn't the only one to come to this conclusion. HP and IBM have a similar approach; they make a big deal of offering Linux pre-installed on their hardware, but it's only offered on a tiny and undesirable subset of their products, and the sales department will do everything possible short of hanging up on you to prevent you from buying one. So, he gave up and bought the machine he wanted, figuring he'd postpone his switch to Ubuntu.

After a failed attempt to restore his Windows XP installation from backups on is old computer, reinstalling XP from the provided CD turned out to be a neigh impossible task. With no drivers for any of the hardware (even the USB bus), once the OS was loaded, we couldn't think of a way of getting the drivers onto the disk so they might be installed. The machine uses a USB CD drive, so without the USB bus drivers, you can't even burn a CD with the drivers. The needed drivers are probably somewhere on the XP install CD, but there's no way of getting them.

So, we figured we'd give Ubuntu a shot after all. The process could hardly have been more painless. The only shortcomings of the Ubuntu install process are legally imposed and have easy workarounds -- fetching the Broadcom firmware for the wireless card, for example. After completing those chores, the machine Just Works.

My dad is a smart guy, so I wasn't worried about the "normal" sorts of troubles in switching to Linux. When you switch to a new OS, there is a reasonable expectation of effort required to learn the new environment. He'll figure out how to use the the software and OS features on his own. I was worried about poor hardware support. My dad can figure out how to install software and use it without my help, but it'll be a while (if ever) before he would consider compiling his own kernel to fix a hardware issue. It's not reasonable to expect someone who is switching to a new OS to repair it and learn it simultaneously.

Fortunately, all of the headaches I was fearing seem to have been addressed. It suspends and resumes without complaint, you can join wireless networks (including encrypted ones) from a nice little drop down menu. The network menu lets you switch between an ethernet connection and a WiFi connection if both are available. The Add/Remove Software application is intuitive and easy to use. No indoctrination into kernel compilation and command line tools is immediately necessary.

So, our assessment is that Ubuntu is, so far, much more user friendly than Windows. An inexperienced computer user would have a better chance of getting Ubuntu installed correctly than Windows. On this hardware, it wouldn't be all smooth sailing, but it's pretty close. If you're experienced enough to know the definition of words like "partition" and "firmware," then it's a piece of cake.

It's a shame, really, that Dell won't sell Ubuntu on this machine. Ubuntu is slick, snappy, easy to use, and it makes their hardware look good.

My dad's only complaint so far has been, "Yuck. This brown color is ugly. How do I change the color scheme?"

Non-Odious DSL

Posted by Russell on June 13, 2007 at 5:50 p.m.
Well, now that Speakeasy has been acquired by Best Buy, I'm going to give up on it. I had such high hopes, but now I feel like an asshole for ever recommending them. The customer service has been rude and unhelpful (to my mother, no less!), the installation was painful, it's overpriced, and the actual service is miserably slow. And by slow, I mean like dial-up slow.

One thing I liked about dial-up service was the profusion of choices. There were dozens, and in some places, hundreds of ISPs. The ISPs offered lots of features and competitive prices. Now, the "choice" usually boils down to :

  • Your friendly local cable monopoly, or
  • Your friendly local telephone monopoly
Not unexpectedly, we pay high prices for crappy service. The monopolist providers cheerfully spy on us on behalf of quasi-legitimate entertainment cartels and clearly illegal government programs.

I want my choices back. There are a lot of smallish local DSL providers in LA, like Pacific Online and LA Bridge. Has anyone out there had any experiences (good or bad) with smaller DSL providers?


Posted by Russell on June 07, 2007 at 11:41 a.m.
My dad bought me a GPS unit for my birthday! I suppose my chronically poor sense of direction is becoming legendary, and upon hearing that I plan on visiting Mimi while she's studying in Beijing, he decided that I would probably need some help getting around.

In truth, I actually don't have a bad sense of direction. I have a bad sense of timing. I usually know exactly where I am going and how to get there, but I often don't realize where I am in time to make the right turns.

Fortunately, one thing I am not going to do in Beijing is drive. I'm not particularly worried about the drivers in Beijing, though. I spent many years driving in Boston on a daily basis, so the belligerence, recklessness, carelessness and stupidity of other drivers is something I've grown expect. Rather, I refuse to drive in Beijing because cars are rolling legal time-bombs. Almost every aspect of a normal automotive experience is intimately tangled with litigation, prosecution and/or the potentiality of litigation and prosecution. Automobiles are pretty much the only means by which a normal person can accidentally break the law. It's practically inevitable, in fact.

So, I'm sure as hell not going to risk driving a car in a country that doesn't have an independent judiciary. I don't care how careful or how reckless the drivers are. It's much more likely that you will make a mistake leading to an accident than for someone else to randomly hit you, especially over a short period of time. So, if I wind up in court, I'd prefer it weren't a kangaroo court.

Anyway, the GPS unit is a Garmin nüvi 660. Evidently Costco had a fantastic deal, because when he offered to buy me a GPS system, I suggested something much less extravagant.

The device is actually quite friendly for Linux users. When plugged into a USB port, the device simply shows up as a (rather large) mass storage device. The "interface" consists of a bunch of folders into which you may put stuff (e.g., MP3s, audio books, images, et cetera). If you wish to upgrade the firmware, you just plop the firmware file into the right directory and reboot the device. It also works as a standard Bluetooth hands-free unit, and has a very, very good speaker phone. So, if you have taken the trouble of making Bluetooth hands-free units work on Linux, then the nüvi 660 will work fine.

Garmin also helpfully placed the manuals on the device as searchable PDF files. It's a good idea; if you have the device, you have the manuals too. I think this is probably the future of technical documentation and bundled software. Why not just integrate a flash drive into the device? The cost of a 128 MB of flash and a USB interface could barely be more than the cost of printing and distributing manuals and CDROMS (never mind the extra cost of technical support for when those items are lost).

The only downside of the nüvi 660 is that there doesn't seem to be a way of pulling real-time GPS data off of it. When you connect by Bluetooth, it will always show up as an audio device. When you connect by USB, it always shows up as a mass storage device. There doesn't seem to be a way of telling it to be a serial GPS. I may be incorrect on this point, but I have not yet found an option that would make this possible. It is already a pretty sophisticated device,though. I don't see why Garmin couldn't add that functionality in a firmware release...

Percy Julian on NOVA

Posted by Russell on June 02, 2007 at 7:43 p.m.
In February, NOVA aired a program about Percy Julian, which you can now watch online. Julian was a chemist who invented synthesis processes for a number of medically important compounds (e.g., cortisone). He also developed processes for economically synthesizing various human hormones from vegetable sources, like Mexican yam and soybeans.

Julian's discoveries were crucial in synthesizing affordable birth control medications and treatments for arthritis. He also blazed a path into academia and the physical sciences for African Americans.

If you're looking for a good story, go watch the NOVA program.

eBook reader

Posted by Russell on June 01, 2007 at 6:57 a.m.
I had a chance to play with Sony's eBook reader (a.k.a. the PRS-500) at Borders Books today. I was surprisingly pleased with it. It is a comfortable size and shape for reading prose, and the device is thin but not flimsy. If I read a lot of fiction for a living, I would buy one of these devices immediately.

The transition when you "flip" the page produces a very strange visual effect. Imagine you are looking at a page of text, and then someone spills a few blobs of ink on the page. The ink spreads out and covers most of the page, and then fades to reveal the next page. It takes about a second. After you press the next-page button, there is a one second delay before the computer wakes up and starts the re-draw process. So, it's about two seconds to flip the page. It's no slower than it takes to flip a page on an ordinary book, so I don't think it's a drawback.

Also, the screen does not look at all like paper. It looks like a light-gray plastic card printed with darkish-gray text with a matte finish. Although it doesn't have the look-and-feel of paper, the readability is just as good. Or, at least its as good as a paper printed with same color scheme. It's very similar to newsprint.

If I were going to use an eBook reader extensively, I would probably need more than one. The size of the screen is good for reading prose, but it is not appropriate for many other kinds of reading. Newspapers, textbooks and scientific papers really need a larger display area. These works are not meant to be digested linearly; the reader is encouraged to wander among the main body of prose, figures, tables, equations, and their respective captions. You need a display area at least as big as US Letter (8.5" x 11") or A4 (210mm × 297mm), and probably bigger. I would really need a 6" x 9" reader for casual reading and a 18" x 27" reader for serious work.

It would also be of great utility to be able to write on these devices. I can live without handwriting recognition, as long as there is a convenient way of filing and organizing my scribbles.

The eBook Reader is the first Sony product that has tempted me since I declared my Sony Moratorium. Nevertheless, at $350, plus overpriced DRM infested books, it's way outside my budget for this sort of thing.