Archive for the ‘Software’ Category

K-k-k-kipling

There’s a Monty Python sketch about a man who says the letter “B” instead of the letter “C” (‘the letter C?’ ‘yes the letter B!’. The solution is for him to say the letter “K” (‘what a silly bunt’). All the time I’m toying with Kubuntu this sketch comes to mind. I may of course be straying back into my annoyance of the naming of everything Linux. (kedit, konqueror, etc)

As I write this I’ve installed the latest version of Kubuntu on my main machine which has an AMD graphics card and two 4k screens. It’s a little bit of a faff to get scaling right. I’m not a great fan of using a global scaling factor since it just seems to use up screen real estate as if I’m using a 1440 or 1080 screen, but some judicious font changing (which was quite easy) means my aged eyes can read what’s on the screen. A nice trick to get a bottom panel on both screens (a quick Google) ends up with a better result than Windows (IMHO).

I’ve also been sidetracked by a hosting change, so I think I’m going to aim for the next LTS base as a full cutover (i.e. Mid April next year). What “full cutover” means is I guess changing the default boot of my PC to Kubuntu. I’m lucky enough to have both the time and resources not to rush this – for example a standalone SSD for the Kubuntu install – and so far sharing a data drive between Linux and Windows hasn’t caused either to barf. It’ll also give me a chance to try a version upgrade experience before committing.

The Hunt for Red October

No, not really the old Sean Connery/Alec Baldwin subsea adventure, but the search for a Linux distribution that could possibly replace Windoze as my day to day workstation platform. I’m not planning on the exhaustive evaluation of, say, the “top 20” Linux distros, but I have been weeding the criteria down.

(1) I don’t really want to be delving into the weeds of the operating system. For example I don’t ideally want to be compiling my own binaries. I do have a technical background, and I want to be able to see more than Windoze shows me, but I do have a life. I expect this will discount Arch-based distros and others that need a lot of customisation.

(2) Speaking of customisation, I’d like the desktop to be reasonably familiar but I’m not averse to doing SOME work to get to what I want. After all, I’ve tinkered with the desktop in Windows for years already. However, I’m not in the mood to install tons of extensions. As you might guess this is tending me away from Gnome-centric distros. I started with plain Ubuntu (20.04 LTS) for example, then moved on to Ubuntu Mate, which I preferred, but would still require quite a lot of messing. I’ve never used a Mac in anger, so simple things like windows close buttons on the left have me reeling. I also have large screens, so having what amounts to a split task bar (yes, I know they’re called “panels”) isn’t working for me.

(3) It probably goes without saying, but there are some applications that I’ve come to depend on, some of which don’t have direct Linux equivalents. I also have some that DO have direct counterpoints, and it would be nice to find those already in the distro. So I liked the look of KDE Neon, but it is relatively light on pre-installed apps. The slightly less bleeding edge Kubuntu does come with more pre-installed, and Firefox, Thunderbird and Libreoffice are on my list. It’s become my favourite so far. I’m sure there will be more discussion of this later.

(4) I’d love to find some new features and functions, or simply some improved methods. For example my current backup and synchronisation tools leave something to be desired. I’m also very optimistic about KDE Connect for combining my mobile phone with the desktop – very easy to set up in the first place (compared with the Microsoft “equivalent”).

I’m more or less resigned to using Wine for a few apps, but if anyone can find a straightforward way of importing 25 years of financial transactions into an alternative tool to Quicken2000 I’ll be all ears. I’ve tried many of the Opensource alternatives, and I think I’m just too old to attempt Gnucash 🙂

Finally learning a new language

Having promised myself that I’d pick a new skill during the period of passivity occasioned by the pandemic, I eventually started a concerted effort to get a new programming language under my belt. Like a lot of people my age I started life with BASIC, in my case via a batch service when I was at school followed by typing programs in labriously on an Amstrad CPC-464 and hoping they were saved by the tape machine afterwards. I carried on with BASIC on an RM 380Z while at college – principally to produce fixture tables for our hockey team.

Once I moved into the world of work I picked up FORTRAN for my first job as a trainee actuary – principally used in the valuation of pension funds using a sophisticated underlying suite originally running on a Pr1me mainframe, subsequently replaced by an IBM 4341 and a rapid conversion to VS/Fortran under VM/CMS. At that point I changed jobs and REXX became my lingua franca and has remained so for the 35-plus subsequent years. Yes, I’m not really a programmer, just a dabbler. REXX has probably encouraged a certain laissez-faire attitude. It has no form of data typing (actually it’s dynamic), very freeform syntax, and not very many native instructions. It’s original purpose was a scripting language for IBM’s VM operating system, and for the purposes I’ve used it, it’s been more than adequate. My main use currently is to produce the (static) web pages that represent my list of amateur orchestras in the UK.

Consequently picking another language to learn has exposed my somewhat homespun approach until now. I’ve decided not to stray too far from what I know, and take on Python. I’ve started out by following the edX course “Computing in Python”, and it’s been an education! I did think of simply trying to understand how to replicate my REXX efforts into Python, but decided that it would make more sense to understand properly how Python works. Next week I’ll be looking at “Data Structures”…

The problem with *inux

I’ve finally started semi-seriously testing out whether a move to a non-Windows operating system will work out for me. I’m trying out various flavours on my old PC to see whether I can replicate my normal usage, in other words whether I can run enough of my regular applications and find alternatives for others. I’m also immersing myself to some extent in the culture by listening to a number of podcasts for at least a year or two of back-issues. One is the fairly mainstream Ubuntu podcast, the other so far is the rather more eclectic Late Night Linux.

I’ll comment in the future about my own findings, but for now I just wanted to make the obvious remark about THE MAIN PROBLEM. Which is of course the plethora of variants of the basic desktop(s) which causes decision paralysis. While I get that choice can be a wonderful thing, we’ve definitely wandered into Schwartz’s Paradox, where more most definitely is less. I could speculate as to WHY there are so many variants, I could even rail at the extraordinary amount of duplicated work, but suffice it to say that having in excess of 250 “active”¹ versions of basically the same operating system is a recipe for confusion, patchy adoption and ultimately irrelevance.

In case you’re wondering, I’ve started with two Ubuntu variants, Ubuntu desktop itself (LTS version 20-04), and Ubuntu MATE2 version 21-04. Both are competent desktop environments, neither has crashed on me yet, but I wouldn’t expect them to on a ten year old Intel-based PC with no esoteric hardware. My slightly newer main machine has an AMD graphics card and a reasonably new processor along with NVMe storage and other bits, so we’ll be looking forward to that!

1. according, at least, to Distrowatch

2. and don’t get me started on the male gamer-nerd naming tendencies

Brave New World

Since the last post I’ve barely played at all. Not just through lack of people to play with, but more relevantly because I lost a crown on one of my front maxillary central incisors. With all the virus-inspired chaos going on, and the fact that it wasn’t really an “emergency” I didn’t get it fixed for a few months, but the fix turned out to be only temporary (the crown post had snapped in two). So now I’m half way through the brave new world of implant surgery, and will not be playing for ANOTHER few months. I could probably attempt playing on the temporary teeth by now, but I want to give the implants the maximum time possible to heal properly so that they really do become a “permanent” solution. And since there’s very little group playing going on this is as good a time as any.

It’s rather taken the impetus off my transcribing too, though I had started on the Brass Quartets by Ramsöe which look like they’ll fit really nicely on a wind quartet (no french horn), and I’ll get back to them eventually. It coincided with another Brave New World, which was attempting to use MuseScore in a semi-serious way as opposed to my usual Sibelius poison. This has been mixed in results. Actually inputting notes was straightforward, but getting the page layout correct was very non-intuitive, and drove me slightly batty. Oh, and the fact that the program crashes at start-up every other time. I’ve also gone for my first new PC in 10 years, and have still not bitten the bullet and escape from Windows. Sibelius is one of the main reasons for that, so I’ve either got see whether I can get it working under Wine, or else convert wholesale to MuseScore. Expect some reports eventually. Meantime, I’ve published the first two Ramsoe transcriptions here and here

Maybe I have some time now – hah!

After a break of a smidgen over two years, I’ve reached a point where I may have some more time, and could possibly start putting some thoughts down again. I’ve retired from the “day job” at IBM, and am starting to fill the yawning chasm(!) of time with other things – mostly at this stage spending some more time on what I used to do outside of work anyway. Bassoon playing is top of that list, and I’ve already relaxed into playing during the day more regularly – I’d hesitate to call it practise – and responding to the periodic notes from Tom Hardy’s London bassoon list requesting fillers-in and deps. The last couple of weeks has seen rehearsals for Beethoven 9th Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Dvorak’s “The Golden Spinning Wheel” and the 7th Symphony of Prokofiev in addition to my regular playing at the Bushey Symphony Orchestra.

I’m also planning the next two or three brews in my re-found brewing hobby, I expect there’ll be more of that to come. I’m using an automated machine to produce the fermentable wort from the base grains and hops – frowned on by some, again I’ll talk about that later too. So far I’m happy to say I haven’t brewed anything I couldn’t drink (that’s 10 batches of “all-grain” beer as well as some kits to get me started), and some have actually been rather good (IMHO, of course).

On the photography side, it looks like I’ll be starting a little project close to home, as part of the Gravestone Photographic Resource, which looks like a worthwhile endeavour. We’re just checking whether our local churchyard has already been documented elsewhere before spending hours poring over the stones and getting images of them for posterity.

Finally, for now, a slightly longer term project as part of my UK Amateur Orchestras website. One of the features of the site is a mapping of the amateur ensembles listed on the site, which is currently built using Google Fusion Tables. Google have announced the “turn down” (i.e. termination) of this feature for later in the year, so I have to work on an alternative. I’ve mostly avoided the more complex mapping API in Google up to now, so I’m looking for alternatives. Since all of the entries have data for location (both UK postcode and lat/long) I’m hoping this won’t be too onerous, but I’m contemplating that a bit of coding might be necessary. Which brings us back to the SOFTWARE! I have no excuses left now to learn a rather more web-facing language than my trusty REXX, which carried me through 35 years of work. Python seems to be the least onerous alternative, so time to get learning…

First signs of salvation

So my search for offline web design tools mentioned before went down a number of blind alleyways. I re-acquainted myself with a number of tools that I’d used in the past, which don’t seem to have moved on from the past. They mostly failed in a number of ways – unable to import existing pages seems to be one of the real Achilles’ heal for many of them.

Then I discovered a class of tools called “prototyping tools”. These were much more like it. Again none of them do all that I’d like in a way that I’d like, in fact a lot of them are in alpha or beta state with some functions missing. However, they do enable very rapid building of pages while leaving them free to tweak. Also, there are a lot of them based on the Bootstrap framework which ticked a very big box for me.

So where I am at the moment is trying out Pingendo for an extended period, and so far it does most of what I need. Imports existing pages – check. Quick to add sections and see what the result is – check. Easy to copy and paste from one page to another – check. A little flakiness on occasions – check 🙂 (mostly exhibited as not being able to save a page, it tries to save it as a css file rather than html). Definitely a good start, and I have a feeling that if the Bootstrap 4 supporting version works well I’ll be using it to update the various pages I manage. Yes there are lots of other prototyping tools, and I’m sure I’ll try them too at some point…

B***** to WordPress

Well, that was a relatively short-lived project (see “Drinking the Kool Aid” below). I converted my personal website to WordPress run on my own hosting provider. I even started hosting a friend’s site (for the estimable Swakeleys Home Guard Club ) using the same mechanism. It wasn’t long before I discovered one of the challenges of self-hosting WordPress. All of those scripts are quite vulnerable unless you really keep your eye on the ball with updates and only using really trusted plugins.

I didn’t and I couldn’t. And within weeks both sites were tampered with, and effectively brought down. Backing up and restoring proved to be ineffective too, and in the end I ran out of time to fix it and reverted to (mainly) static sites. I feel bad since I did in fact lose data in my zeal to try and fix it, and in the end it was mostly my fault. But I would consider myself reasonably savvie, (30+ years in enterprise IT), and the number of moving parts meant keeping it under control proved daunting. I’m sure it can be done, and should I try again then I’ll take a bit more time to understand the potential risks. I can also appreciate the business model of Weebly, Wiz, GoDaddy and all of the others, to make this truly “simple”.

In the meantime, back to hand-coding the pages, albeit with some help from Bootstrap, with my fingers burned, but fortunately no serious economic consequences.

Anyone know of a good – STANDALONE – web page editing tool, without too high a learning curve?

Drinking the Kool-Aid®

I suppose it had to happen. I’ve been tootling a while here with a WordPress blog for a while, so it was perhaps only a matter of time before I took a bit more notice of the software that was enabling this. I discovered that it’s an open source framework that’s expanded to form a mid-strength (my interpretation) web content management solution. Not only that but the hoster I chose a while back for my other sites provides all of the right tools to run up an instance in a trice. I even have a NAS that can install it too, so I started there with a local version, discovered it was quite easy to use, and within a week I’d converted one of my sites entirely to WordPress. It is of course very different to the old version of the site – converted is probably not the the right word. I copied some of the old data into the new framework, tried a few templates, found one I like and there we go.

So, for the record I’m using the Radix theme which allows me free rein to use the Bootstrap framework I’ve been happy with elsewhere, and the site is very much a testing ground before I attempt to take on a proper job with the amateur orchestras site. Next step for that site is to try some form of database, but I may need a day or two 🙂

Oh, and is there a blog on the personal site too? Well, sort of. It’s called “Latest Bit Of Kit” and it’s where I add small snippets about gizmos and doo-dads I’ve bought and tried. You can find it here.

It’s as I feared (or maybe hoped)…

…no-one is reading these words:

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Perhaps it’s time I should advertise.