25 June 2015

Brown-bag technology

My nerves must be shot. Or maybe I'm just too sheltered.

The other day I happened to overhear a television newscast on a television a few rooms away. The news involved events that probably represented, for some very real people, the end of the world -- but the news presenter, who was no doubt no worse than most, rushed through the details with a loud, glib, superficial presentation that just got on my nerves, and I had to get away. I think I'm becoming allergic to the commercial culture. It's just as much a commentary on me and the aging process as on the world around me.

Seven years ago, when I bought a Sony Vaio laptop to take with us to Russia, I wrote here about how even the process of turning it on for the first time drove me nuts, as I had to endure all the bloatware and trial software (some deeply entangled into the system, such as the antivirus virus-ware). That's why I installed Ubuntu Linux on that shiny and expensive new Sony computer, altering the partitions and probably voiding the warranty.

That computer is now nearing retirement, and I don't want it to fail when I'm far from home, so I just bought its replacement. The Sony's hardware took a lot of punishment over the years and served me well; based on my experience with this Vaio and its predecessor (another Vaio, which cost nearly $2,000 in 2004 dollars!), I was sorry to find out last year that Sony went out of the laptop business.

This time, I decided to spare myself the annoyance of bloatware and conversion, and shopped for a laptop computer whose original operating system was Linux-based. To my surprise, they almost don't exist, at least not from known-brand companies building their own products. Dell is one of the few exceptions, selling Ubuntu laptops both at the low end (that's me!) of their laptop range as well as at the high end. Their Ubuntu laptops are not exactly prominently featured on their Web site, but you can find them by going to this page or by searching for "Ubuntu" on the site.

New Dell computer (left) and faithful retiring Sony Vaio, getting acquainted.

This Dell Inspiron 14, 3000 series, Ubuntu Edition, was the first laptop I ever bought sight unseen, but I had found a very helpful review by Jim Mendenhall online. Thanks to this review, I skipped the "create a restore disk" in the startup process, but more about that later. First, I want to describe the wonderfully anti-glamorous packaging that the computer came in:

Brown bag -- that is, box....
That's it! The laptop came suspended in the box between those two baffles. The "quick start" guide assumed that the operating system was Windows, but since its two-pages-plus-diagram said nothing that wasn't obvious, that didn't really matter at all. In case I'd forgotten that a new laptop needs power, there was a delightfully simple picture on the plastic sleeve around the laptop.

When I turned it on, Ubuntu did its little dance as Jim Mendenhall describes, collected my name and location, and then asked me whether I wanted to pause the setup at that point to make a recovery disk. I couldn't imagine why I would need one so soon; I hadn't done any customizing or adding files, and if the computer was going to need recovery so early in its career, I was going to send it back! And if the operating system seems unsatisfactory later, or I replace the hard drive with a solid state drive as recommended by many, I will replace Ubuntu with Linux Mint, the operating system I now have on my old Sony Vaio, and which I already have on a flash drive.

The startup process lasted less than five minutes. I could have begun working right at that point -- the computer came with LibreOffice (word processing, spreadsheet, slideshows), photo-viewing and cataloging software, a music-library and player program, a media player, and Chrome browser, among other basic items. But I decided to see how many updates had been released for Ubuntu since the version installed on my laptop was published ... and that update process, on our relatively slow Internet connection here, took over an hour. Oh, well, by the time it all ended, the battery was nearly charged.

Then I began customizing. All of the programs I've listed below can be added for free and by anyone; no special Ubuntu or Linux or geek knowledge is required, thanks to the Ubuntu Software Center program that comes with the operating system.
  • Gimp, for editing photos
  • VLC media player, which accepts a wider range of formats than the built-in player
  • Filezilla, for uploading files to the service that maintains our Web site
  • Skype
  • Firefox browser
  • Dropbox (from the Dropbox Web site)
  • Grsync, for easy transfer of files from our external hard drive to the laptop's hard drive, and later for syncing folders between the laptop and the external hard drive
  • Audacity, for editing audio files
  • Handbrake, for handling and converting video files, adding subtitles, etc.
Other customizations were easy to do from the settings menus -- for example, getting a Cyrillic keyboard and other Russian-language enhancements, and putting my own wallpaper on the desktop.

Jim Mendenhall is right -- the hard drive is this laptop's weak point. It's not slower than my old Sony Vaio, but it's also not as much faster as I expected from seven years of presumed technological progress. Well, if it drives me crazy, I'll do what the bloggers suggest and replace the hard drive with a solid state drive. The smaller capacity wouldn't bother me; we don't use our laptops as archives anymore.

The display is also not as good as my Sony Vaio's display. Sony was famous for its gorgeous displays, and that is one thing that has not deteriorated on my veteran Vaio. But, honestly, I really only notice the difference in quality when they're side by side. Otherwise, the Dell's display seems excellent to me.

Despite having a larger footprint, the Dell is lighter and a lot thinner. Well, for one thing it doesn't have an optical drive for CDs and DVDs. That's not a problem -- we practically never use them anymore. If we need something that's only on a CD or a DVD, we have an external drive we can plug in. The Dell is also far quieter than the Sony, whose aging fan rasps away whenever I'm putting any sort of load on the system.

In the past, I've been very particular about keyboards, which is the reason I normally wouldn't even consider buying a laptop by mail. This Dell keyboard isn't as luxuriously responsive as the Vaio's, but it's acceptable. Also, in recent years I've taken to putting laptops up near eye level to help my posture, and therefore using an external keyboard most of the time, so this factor isn't as important as it once was. I don't like the Dell's touchpad, especially the integrated mouse buttons that are activated by pushing down on the sides of the touchpad. That seems to me to be a weak spot in a lot of economy computers these days, but again I'm almost always using an external mouse with my external keyboard. So, it's not a big regret.

The USB ports (2 USB version 2.0, one USB 3.0) have firm grips, and I like the solid feel of the display hinges. Overall, this new laptop seems very well built for an economy version.

All in all, it's great to see a reasonably-priced non-geeky Linux computer on the consumer market.

Update, October 1, 2015 ... crisis and recovery.

It is understandable that the attack at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has generated an enormous amount of agonized reflection among white Christians. A lot of it seems to be either self-flagellation, which I sometimes find disempowering, or dominated by impersonal we-must rhetoric. In this midst of all this flood of words of wildly varying helpfulness, I was glad to find these reflections from Lynn Gazis-Sax.

If I never see another swastika or Confederate flag, that would be too soon for me. But I also appreciated David D. Flowers writing about Flags of the Heart. We as a community confronting pervasive racism, elitism, and objectification, may desperately want and need a symbolic victory. Go for it! Get rid of that racial wallpaper, as Jon Stewart named this ancient embedded symbolism of which that flag is an example. But I am still haunted by the virus of sin that goes undetected by our righteousness. "War is not the answer," says the Friends Committee on National Legislation; and I agree when it comes to carnal warfare with outward weapons. But the Lamb's War goes on until we are victorious over our own willingness to put condemnation before discernment. (This is aimed at me as much as anyone!)

I downloaded my own PDF copy of the encyclical on "care for our common home" by Pope Francis, and am about a quarter of the way through it. I honestly can't understand where the vociferous criticism comes from. So much of Francis's rhetoric is invitational, at times even lyrical. Why can't his critics engage with the substance of what he says, even where they don't agree, rather than trying to diminish his credibility? (That is a rhetorical question!) Since I've not finished reading it yet, here are some good comments from someone who has.

Sean Guillory (Sean's Russia Blog) interviews Joy Gleason Carew, associate professor of Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville, and author of this (PDF) article, "Black in the USSR: African diasporan pilgrims, expatriates and students in Russia, from the 1920s to the first decade of the twenty-first century." A fascinating article and podcast.

"Stranger in a Strange Land." Charlie Musselwhite at the Waterfront Blues Festival a few years ago. I'm in the audience that you can occasionally glimpse in the video. Next week at this time, I hope to be at this year's Festival for three out of the four days. If I manage to post anything here next Thursday, it won't be much!

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