In 2005, having long been disillusioned with a succession of nasty products from Microsoft’s OS Team, I was running Mandriva Linux, the odd-ball child formed after the merger of Mandrake Linux (a French distribution) and the Brazilian Connectiva Linux. Well, Mandriva was struggling; though they tried hard to put polish on their desktop, they were coding with interpreted languages [primarily perl-GTK] and with the hardware of the day it was pretty sluggish. Then a friend introduced me to ubuntu Linux 5.10, “Breezy Badger”, and I haven’t really looked back since. Until recently, that is.

Mark Shuttleworth, the backer of ubuntu and Canonical, it’s commercial support company, has done amazing, incredible things: not just for ubuntu, but for Linux as a whole. It was Shuttleworth who took the concept of the 6-monthly release cycle for OS versions and made it mainstream, Shuttleworth who brought us the concept of “LTS – Long Term Support” releases; Shuttleworth who took the functional but ill-fitting individual parts of the Linux ecosphere and made them play nice, in a sweetly polished distribution: ubuntu.

So what happened? Well, weird stuff, really. A couple of years ago Mark decided that he didn’t like existing graphical desktops, and announced that ubuntu would drop the GNOME desktop in favour of a Canonical/ubuntu-developed alternative called Unity. If he’d done it when Unity was properly ready, I don’t think there would have been any push-back, but the first few releases were primitive and broke often. It’s getting better, but this was the first sign that Mark wanted to “go his own way”. Recently, there have been two more significant developments. Firstly, back in September last year, Mark announced that searches that user put to the “Dash” [a super-powerful command line] would now be sent to Canonical’s servers and then shared with initially Amazon, but possibly others. Second, he announced that Canonical are giving up on the Wayland graphical toolkit that underpins Unity [which as recently as 2010 was the best thing…] and is replacing it with something to be called Mir, which will be developed by Canonical.

In one sense, I applaud Mark for his courage and his vision and his willingness to put a vast amount of his own cash on the line to further his technical aspirations for the ubuntu distribution. On the other hand, I was deeply concerned by these recent choices: the “Dash” escapade because he does not seem to understand that no matter how harmless “Amazon” might be [and they’re not] Governments the world over will demand access to his aggregating infrastructure, and through it have a form of “remote access” to whatever any ubuntu user types into their Dash command line. Big Brother can definitely watch you, on your own machine… But perhaps more relevant to me: there was already Wayland, and there are others. Did we really need to iterate the N+1 problem and spin up yet another Linux desktop/GUI system, or would it have been better to work with Wayland and sort out the issues that Shuttleworth perceived? [ I suspect that the answer is tied to Mark’s desire to get ubuntu deployed on both Tablets and Mobile phones.]

Anyway, what to do? Stick with ubuntu and hope for the best, or go do something else? Enter Mint. Mint Linux is a relatively new but rapidly growing new distribution which is based upon … ubuntu. The key thing is, it doesn’t have Unity, the Dash… and it doesn’t spy on it’s users. Put another way, it contains all the best bits of ubuntu [which are, frankly, awesome], without any of the scary bits.

I had a couple of challenges getting Linux Mint to work on my main machine [a couple of partitioning issues, sound on web videos took a little tweaking] but it’s sweet, stable and very snappy. I’ve tried 2 variants, one with KDE and one with the lightweight xfce desktop. Both are slick, clean and very easy to use.

What’s not to like?

“If Only” (II)

And here we continue the occasional series of posts covering more screw-ups from Apple…

Today the postman delivered a new Audio CD: “Dead & Born & Grown” by The Staves. Never mind the fact that some complete numpty had sellotaped shut a *limited edition signed copy* cardboard/paper CD sleeve [which promptly ripped, of course]…

I loaded the CD into my Mac Mini optical drive, and uploaded the content into iTunes. Fine, except connecting one of my iPod Classics to the Mac for a transfer resulted in me getting an all-too-familiar error message: “The file xxx cannot be transfered to the iPod “Car” because the file is the wrong format.” Went looking, only to discover that a total of 7 tracks were mysteriously “defunct” in iTunes.

In each case I checked the track properties, discovering that iTunes had unilaterally decided to amend/edit the song location information, pointing the database entry to a completely nonsense location. I was able to tweak each of the 7 entries, and so far everything seems OK. But there is clearly a bug in iTunes, if it can magically go about editing partial file details for random songs, just because it wants to.

A once-flawless technology from a once-reliable company is falling apart before my very eyes. Anyone know of a good FLAC player? Sigh…

“If Only” (I)

Last weekend my iTunes software [running on a Mac] and my iPad both decided that they needed software updates. Both were quick and simple procedures. Then things started to go wrong in a big way.

The iPad unilaterally decided that it was no longer going to play the 20 “Digital Copy” movies that I’d bought through “Triple Play” box sets. I tried to access the source files via iTunes, but was told that they were of the wrong format. Everything played perfectly if invoked directly from the OS/X Finder utility. In iTunes, random albums started to delete their artwork, while other random songs refused to play, again telling me that the files were the wrong format. One album lost all it’s tracks when they mysteriously vanished. (The library is on a RAID 5 NAS box, which passed integrity testing, and which has no errors. I *know* I did not delete those files…) Finally, iTunes keeps telling me that there is a problem with my iPhone. I don’t own one, and never have.

So I called Apple support and asked them how I could re-install iTunes safely. Happy to do it, but I could find no clear instructions on their web site for a Mac OS/X installation. I was cheerfully told that they could help me for the princely sum of £29.95 for a single fix, or £69.95 if I would like to buy a year’s worth of support. Or I could pack up all the gear and book a 20 minute slot at a Genius bar in a store miles away…

At which point I explained that the issue had been caused by *Apple* pushing 2 new software releases (iTunes and iOS 6) on to my kit over the weekend. It *had* all been working fine, until *they* broke it. No dice. So I pointed out that a court of law would probably say that what they were doing – a remote “wipe” followed by charging me to fix the problem – counted as a form of racketeering – a digital equivalent of charging me “insurance”, if you will. At that point I started to get passed up the chain of command. Over 2 hours I was passed through a total of 5 different people [in fairness, that was 2 calls: I spoke to 2 on the initial one, and the second person offered to call me back and didn’t… the second call I stayed on the line, refused a call-back and had to negotiate with 3 managers before I got put through to a tekkie]. In the end I was handed off to a lady with a US accent who spent 20 minutes guiding me through the peculiarities of iTunes config files, and which XML libraries need to be deleted to trick the software into thinking it was a clean installation. Even then, bless her, she made a few errors and I had to correct her statements.

We got there in the end, by which point I’d decided that the “IO” in iOS 6 stands for “If Only”, as in, “if only this worked…”

I am *hugely* disappointed with Apple’s attitude towards a problem which they caused.

(Consumer) loyalty is a hard-won thing, and in this post-Jobs era of iPhone Maps scandals, and iOS 6 woes, they seem only to happy to throw it all away. I can’t help but wonder if this is a blip or a turning point…


Clifftop Stroll

So, a glorious, sunny Sunday in August… not a bad time for a stroll along the coast, to see what’s going on. And, of course, further excuses to play with the new Panasonic lens…

Panasonic DMC-GX1 with Panasonic-Lumix 7-14mm f4.0 UWA Lens

Oh, and difficult though this might be to believe, these 6 images are not tweaked for colour or contrast. There is something about this 7-14mm lens which does remarkable things with clear blue skies… Perhaps it’s part of the lens coating? Whatever, I like it!


No, not an abbreviated version of the lyrics from Jeff Wayne’s “War of the Worlds”, but the acronym apparently given to ‘ultra wide angle’ lenses. The arrival of a Panasonic-Lumix 7-14mm [14-28mm equivalent in “35mm parlance”] made it rather obligatory to go and threaten the local scenery with the pointy end of this new toy.

On the whole it’s nice to work with: light, reasonably robust feel, quick to focus, and not bad at picking out detail when so asked. On the other hand, for £800, it should be all of that and more… that’s “L” Series money for something made of plastic… Too early to tell, other than to acknowledge that it’s actually rather nice to work with…