Saturday, October 29, 2016

Open computing milestone @ Plymouth University

Although I knew a couple of people at Plymouth University who had got Linux onto their standard work-issue PCs ('PLYMDESK'), they'd done this without knowledge of the university's IT services. This had required some ingenuity, as these machines general don't boot from DVD or USB, and the BIOS is password protected. If you ask for the password, you're usually told you can't have it (I was).

So... I thought I'd see if I could get Linux onto my work machine with the full knowledge of IT services, through their official support systems. Long story short... I could! An IT guy came and changed the boot order so the machine would boot from the DVD drive. I then installed Ubuntu 16.04 (with dual boot to Windows 7) on the machine myself with no difficulties. 

Plymouth University don't provide tech support for Linux as a desktop environment (only for Windows 7, plus OS X for a minority of use cases), so I'm on my own in that regard, but that's OK. It still feels like an important milestone for increased acceptance of open computing at the University.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Command line world

When I started using computers regularly (around 1983), there was only the command line. You typed in commands, and you got text in response. By 1998, through some combination of Xerox, Apple, RISC OS, and Windows, I (and most of the rest of the world) was doing everything with a graphic user interface. Psychologists were writing at the time how GUIs were a much better way to interact with computers.

For some tasks, they were right, and GUIs certainly reduce 'entry cost' for most tasks, leading to nearly everyone now being a computer user. But, for research, is often worth trading a slightly higher entry cost for a longer-term increase in power, speed, and a reduction in errors. By about 1998, I ended up doing analyses in Excel that I would previously have done in BBC BASIC and, while that felt like progress, it turned out to be a bit mistake.

Excel is not a good way to pre-process or analyze data. The chances for human error are great, and most operations require substantial clerical effort. Data and analysis are not kept separate, making it hard to document, reproduce, and reuse analyses. The same goes for SPSS, at least if you use the GUI rather than syntax.

In 2012, R got me back into command-line data analysis, and it's fantastic. But it goes way beyond this. The additional insight was to use an operating system that has a proper command line interface. This means Apple OS X, or Linux. Then, pretty much anything you do on a computer (other than the directly artistic e.g. illustration) can be done better, faster, and with less errors, using the command line interface ('terminal') rather than the GUI. As ever, getting started on task X with the command line takes longer than with a GUI, but for any task you do more than about once a week, the time invested quickly pays off.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Update on eBay

After about a month of email arguments with eBay about their apparent policy of profiting from criminal activity, something unexpected happened - not only did they refund my seller fee (something they had said repeatedly they would not do), they also returned the amount of money the item sold for to my bank account. So, the buyer got a refund, but I got the (now broken) item back, and the amount I sold it for. Financially, this is a good outcome for me, and I do thank eBay for their (eventually) generous response - but I still won't be using eBay or PayPal again, because this wasn't really about the money. The problem remains that criminal activity is not only condoned, but also rewarded, in their business model.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Mutt e-mail client

I think this one may only appeal to programmers, but I've just switched to the mutt e-mail client, and it's great. It's a text-based email reading and writing program that runs in a terminal window. I find it's a lot faster way to deal with email than the webmail or Outlook-like mail clients I've been using since about 1998. In a way, it's like a really powerful version of the old pine client from the 90s.

The reason I say it may only appeal to programmers is that it takes a while to set up initially, involving writing some configuration files and setting up two other programs (offlineimap and msmtp). But it's worth it in the long run and, also, msmtp looks like a great way to automate the sending of email -- something I think could save a bunch of time with university admin jobs.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Open Letter to eBay: Your policies protect criminals, and you profit from it.

Dear eBay,

I have reported a crime to you. Not only are you ignoring this, and refusing to take ation as a company, you are also withholding the information I require to pursue the matter legally myself. Pointing me to your 5000 word legalese user agreement may or may not cover you legally but it makes not one bit of difference to the ethical and moral issues here.

You have a system that allows criminals to prosper with no possibility for redress for their victims. The simple recipe for the criminal is as follows:

1. Ensure your postal address is not your residential address and, ideally, use an incomplete name (e.g. A Smith, rather than Mrs. Annabel Smith).

2. Buy something on eBay, preferably expensive and easy to sell.

3. When it arrives, report it as 'not as described' and wait for the seller to accept a return.

4. Send back an empty box.

5. eBay gives you, the criminal, a full refund, essentially completing the theft on your behalf.

6. The seller can't make a small claims court claim against you because they don't have your full details, and eBay will help you get away with your crime by refusing to give the seller your contact details.

7. eBay will also charge the seller their normal fees, hence profiting from your crime. Apparently, that's OK if you're an international tax-avoiding mega-corporation.

So, eBay, if what you are telling me is that this is how your business is intended to operate, then we're done here. If, however, anyone in your organization has the smallest chance of thinking this is an immoral way to act, then please pass this case on to them for their consideration

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Hello Libreboot Thinkpad X200

 Libreboot logo
When it comes down to it, laptop hardware basically hasn't improved for normal research use since at least 2009. A 2009 Thinkpad X200 has a 2.4GHz dual-core processor (Core 2 Duo) and 4GB of RAM.  The GMA X4500 HD graphics is also fine for most research purposes. The 13-inch screen is 1280x1024 pixels, which is fine. Not quite as beautiful as a Mac Retina screen, but very usable. And a docking station, gives you a DisplayPort to connect an external monitor for desktop use.

And, my god, these X200s are cheap - less than £100 used. And parts are readily available and easily replaced. I bought one in great condition for £80 including a charger, added a new 9-cell battery for £40, and an SSD for £50, and it runs Linux just as well as my 2-year old Macbook Pro (before it was bricked by a criminal).

But, the very best thing about them, is that you can add Libreboot - a fully free and open-source BIOS that disables the worrying Intel Management engine on all recent Intel machines and allows for a fully encrypted hard drive (including /boot). So, basically, much more secure, as well as free as in freedom.

Although, I'm now thinking that I might go even further, and build my own laptop, possibly something based around Novena.

And goodbye Apple, too

So, this one's a bit more subtle. The reason I was selling the Macbook in the first place (see earlier post) was that it's basically a massive pain in the ass trying to run Linux on Apple hardware. The EFI boot system is non-standard, the retina screen is poorly supported, and the wirless card does not have a free driver. It's a shame in a way, because Apple hardware is beautiful, and really robust. But Apple, in the end, are not a hardware company - they are an 'experience' company - they want to sell you the hardware, software, and services package, and they don't want to give you the freedom to go things the way you want to.

So, give up on Linux, or give up on Apple hardware? Not a hard decision really. I don't want an operating system that requires I have an AppleID. I don't want an OS that thinks it knows what I want better than I do. And, even for the hardware, the price premium you pay is ludicrous - see next post.

Goodbye eBay, PayPal.

Recently, I sold a 2 year old MacBook Pro in good condition on eBay. The seller raised a fallacious case that it was not as described, and I reluctantly accepted a return. When the item was returned, it was a brick - would not boot. Upon opening the back, I discovered that the seller had taken out the 512GB SSD and replaced it with a 128GB SSD. It also seems likely, although I am not sure, that the logic board was changed as the Thunderport ports were misaligned on return.  So, basically, the seller is a criminal.

I raised a case on this basis. eBay awarded the buyer a full refund. And, to rub salt in the wound, they charged me a total of £81 on top of that (reimbursement fee, return postage). So, now I not only have a laptop I can't sell, eBay feels it's OK to make a healthy profit from me being a victim of crime!

So, that's it for eBay. And also Paypal - a payment system that makes it far too easy for criminals to benefit from this kind of fraud.