Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Flush with alacrity

One from the archives ... I wrote this in August 2009, lost it, and found it again this morning.

I very much enjoy reading the weekly Economist news-magazine - every issue invariably contains at least a few very interesting and informative articles on finance or politics, less dumbed down than any of the local media choices I enjoy living in The Land of the Free (Though Uninformed).

Every year I try to get away for a couple of weeks to my family's vacation property, a tiny log cabin on a remote lake in British Columbia, Canada. It is completely rustic - the nearest cell tower is some 30 miles away, nearest utility of any kind is 10 miles away, running water happens when the guy with the bucket is wearing sneakers, and those who like to think of their country as the "Home of the Brave" have never braved our outhouse.

It was therefore with interest and a certain bemusement that I, sitting on my throne in the woods, was reading "Face value - Flush with ambition" - Economist, July 25 2009, page 66 - about the Neorest, a high-tech Japanese toilet from Toto, which "... hides odours and plays sounds like running water or birdsong to drown out embarrassing noises," for a mere $5000.


And I got to thinking: if Toto, an industrial powerhouse in Japan, could get their collective heads out of their, um, homeland long enough to see the opportunity provided by wilderness vacations, what could they offer the remote camping crowd? Birdsong I already have: a flock of loons, whiskey jack, chickadee, woodpecker, and hawk so far this morning. In fact, if the Japanese and Whoopi Goldberg are willing to plonk down $5K for these things, perhaps I can just rent out my facility with real, not artificial, birdsong.

Though I'd have a little more trouble with hiding odours and a heated seat. Maybe Toto's engineers could solve those problems together: somehow capture the various gases and run them through a small efficient burner to heat the seat? If they could do that without singeing something important, I'd pay for it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Eyestrain and desktop colours

Maybe I'm getting old.  Ok, I know am getting old, proven by my kids insistence on having a birthday celebration for me today.  Also proven by that non-topical digression, I suppose.

As I get older, I'm having a little more trouble with eyestrain when using my computer. I've been in front of my monitor rather a lot over the past few weeks, and my eyes hurt. At least part of the problem is large white windows, so I've been fiddling with trying to invert my desktop colours ... white text on black gives me a lot less strain than black text on white.

But it is hard. Easy enough on the surface, but the Devil is, as they say, in the details. 

Desktop background, menu background and text, popups, text frames (like terminal windows) ... a lot of stuff is easy, just requires some attention to detail.

Even web browser colours were solvable, albeit non-optimally. In Firefox I could choose white text on black, but the pages still displayed white. I had to go the extra step of overriding the page's colour choices. Now I have white on black, but I've lost any shading the page author may have wanted to apply to a section.

And that hasn't helped HTML display in Thunderbird ... there I am currently getting white text on white background for HTML messages, which is a little rough for reading. Thunderbird doesn't present the same option to override a page's colour choices, perhaps because it isn't a web browser. Still, it gets plenty of HTML. and that HTML apparently has colours.

Even this editor I am working in now, writing this blog ... I'm in a lovely white-on-black screen, typing merrily away, but most the buttons at the top of the editing window are pure black, the little images don't show up. Most ... the "Media Browser" image shows up, and the pulldowns for Styles etc, but all the rest of the little boxes, all black.

Somehow I think this entry will be published without any special formatting or links.

What we need is some way for the user to specify colours for the broad range of situations that come up in all the content he views. Letting me override background and text colour isn't sufficient ... I also need a way to specify alternate background colours for sidebars, and for computer code boxes, and for table row highlighting, and ...

In fact, that's the problem - there are as many kinds of background as there are pages. Maybe not quite, but there are lots.

In part because there is no standardization. If I author a page with a table, and want to shade alternate rows of the table for separation, is there any standard name for that span? Will such a row on my page have the same style as a similar row on your page?

So me the poor user would need to separately override two styles for the same basic concept.  That sucks.

Where is the pretty UI that lists the styles I'm viewing or have viewed, lets me group them, and override portions, for example, override the colours while leaving font and size alone? Rules-based partial style overrides, similar to .mailfilter rules? Hmmm.

Or maybe something exceedingly clever that would let me click one checkbox to remap colours (for everything except images) to the opposite side of the colour wheel (0xFFFFFF- value).

Saturday, April 24, 2010

My pet's name is too short

Sure, passwords are a necessary evil. And given passwords and fallible human memory, password reminders are also necessary.

What bugs me are predefined challenge questions for recovering forgotten passwords.

You've seen them. "Please supply answers to the following questions: 1) What is your mother's maiden name? 2) What was your first school? 3) What was your first pet's name?" etc.

So there I was, creating a profile at a newspaper's site, and got this response to one of my challenge answers:
Please correct the following error(s) before proceeding: Password must contain at least one character that is not a letter.
Enter name of your favourite pet. Response must be between 6 and 9 characters long.
Come on, folks. My first pet's name is only 5 letters long. My bad, I know, but when I was 5 I wasn't thinking about password strength as I chose my pet's name. All I was looking for at the time was a name short enough that I could finish calling him before bed time.

It is your predefined challenge list that is forcing me to use my pet's name, and now you won't accept my pet's actual name .. what do you want me to do, make one up? And then forget what I made up?

What if my mother's maiden name is 'Wall', is that ok? Or would I have to get her to legally change her maiden name?

Please, let me make up my own challenge questions, and let me put off explaining password strength to my kids for another few years. Maybe once they're walking.

Ok, in the interest of accuracy, my kids are in fact walking. But this was funny, and I hope it made my point.

Friday, April 23, 2010

After Upgrading, or why I still use Gentoo

Another blogger commented on Gentoo being "bleeding edge", and told a story of how his system didn't perform all that well when he chose builds from unstable.

Yep, that happens.  I used to use Debian extensively, and switched to Gentoo a while back. I still have one Debian box around here somewhere, but I use Gentoo on the 4 or 5 others.

For me, the switch to Gentoo was predicated on not being able to find prebuilt .debs for all the packages I wanted to install simultaneously. I mean, sure, I could find this deb, or that deb, or the other deb, scattered about various archives, but they each depended on different versions and patches of other base packages and, as a result, couldn't be installed on the same system. Same problem but worse for fedora. Success with these distros seems predicated on wanting to build a system that does the same combination of things that someone else wants and has built some binaries to do.

By contrast, with Gentoo you use a combination of flags and the world list to specify what the box is for, and it builds all your packages from source, taking into account everything else you already have installed. Thus it neatly sidestepped the problem I was having with prebuilt packages.

I also wanted to build a home security gateway on a low power box (an analyst friend comment that it used less power than her toothbrush), with little ram, that runs a weird cpu, and gentoo is really good at that, allowing me to fine tune what packages I want installed, and even cpu architecture and compile flags and such to make it as efficient as possible on my tiny system.  There's little chance I would have found debian packages prebuilt for that system.

So for me, Gentoo has done a lot of what I need.

So far as installing packages from unstable ... well, that used to be painful for me as well with Debian. Gentoo is no worse.

But the underlying pain that Chip expresses is that Gentoo is indeed a bit bleeding edge, and yeah, requires a little fiddling and a bit of devil-may-care when upgrading.

An issue I've encountered with Gentoo is "there is no way to get there from here."  A common example is trying to upgrade the udev package and either hotplug or lvm packages - whichever one you try to upgrade first, won't work. Upgrade udev first and the new udev isn't compatible with old hotplug. The opposite order, same problem.

I've even run into a case in which a new install on a clean box fails because 2 packages each depend on the other. C'mon, that's plain wrong.

There are scads of cases of this, examples are all over the gentoo bug system.

There are a couple of workarounds that can help. One, which is appropriate if the packages will build fine but might not work or have just not been listed as working together, is to build those packages without dependencies to get the right versions in place, then rebuild. Another workaround is to tune USE flags (another way of tuning the dependencies) to get the packages in place, then return the USE flags the way you want and rebuild.  If you're feeling particularly frisky, you can uninstall the existing udev, hotplug or lvm2 and then reinstall them, so there are no incompatible older versions in the way.  And hope you don't have any problems along that patch that require a reboot.

Sometimes these work, sometimes they don't. I can understand why many folks wouldn't use Gentoo for a business-critical system. Or even a business-useful one.

Me .. well, my wife's TV runs on Gentoo. She's still my wife. :)

The saving grace for me has been Gentoo's ability to create a binary package from your running system.  Certain key packages, I create binaries before I emerge a new version, and if things don't work I can return to that version, including my config settings, easily, even though it may not be supported in the distro any more.  This isn't very practical for a wholesale kde upgrade, but for some packages like postfix or shorewall or even mythtv-* ... when I've really needed to back out an upgrade, it has worked fine.