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Future Studies and Pandemics

In the mid-2000s I attended courses in Future Studies at the University of Hawaii. Jim Dator, one of the founders of Future Studies in North America was there, and he had some useful, if soft, methods for going about understanding different futures.

This is relevant to the latest pandemic because it is one of the few ways to get a grip on the possibilities that are unfolding in front of us. The future is, after all, unpredictable by definition. However, one can become sensitive to certain scenarios.

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Fortune and Cowsay

Fortune is a pseudo-random quote display, based on formated text file(s) and strfile(s).

The runtime is available via apt install fortune, and then it is a matter of:

  • Deleting current fortune files
  • Creating one or more new fortune files
  • Running strfile FORTUNEFILE to generate the .dat file
  • Invoking fortune perhaps with cowsay in the /.bashrc or other context, such as:
fortune | cowsay

The runtime is /usr/games/fortune and the data files are in /usr/share/games/fortunes

For more detail about fortune, see this discussion.

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Linux distributions and desktops

The LMDE3 installation I had done 18 months ago was in need of a refresh. This was based on Debian 9, so I thought Debian 10 would be a good place to start. Unfortunately, the newest release breaks my laser printer, so I've looked at continuing with Debian 9 (aka oldstable) for the forseeable.

In the course of my efforts recently, I've tried:

  • Debian 10 (breaks printing)
  • Arch (couldn't install network drivers)
  • Manjaro (failed to load OS on boot)
  • CB++ (could not see network devices)
  • Debian 9 + LXDE (working)
  • Bunsenlabs Hydrogen (Debian 9) (initial install ok, just too bloated and complex)
  • Bullseye (Debian 11) Alpha 1 with LXDE (working nicely)

Bullseye has the advantage of being testing which is a combination of stability and new development. It is not clear to me the process of going from testing to stable in terms of the so-called freeze. The idea is to remain in testing indefinitely, however that is possible.

On distributions...

Once one realizes the way the distributions are made, it seems to me to come down to getting close to a major distribution, so that one has a lot of options on software to install. The main choices are: Debian, Fedora, Arch. Fedora has a bit fewer options, in terms of applications available, than Debian and Arch. Ubuntu is derrivative to Debian, but its distribution cycle does have some advantages. However for someone taking responsibility for which repositories and how to use them, then it makes the most sense to stay close to the original source. Debian warns about mixing repositories and creating a franken-distribution, but if one sticks closely to stable-backports and extends based on limited application needs (especially those with few dependences), then it should be possible to have a good experience.

There is a bit of work, because one does have to upgrade from one release to another, but it is not so bad because of backports and taking place every 2 years or so. In any case Debian seems to be the primary distribution source of import.

And desktops

When it comes to desktops, a minimal approach can be quite freeing. It seems that the newer, or ongoing distributions have issues regarding maturity/stability and resource requirements. So, projects such as Gnome, Cinnamon, KDE are bloated and require a bit of resources, and projects such as XCFE and Mate are a bit frozen in their development (perhaps just a personal preference). The LXDE desktop is a bit of fresh air, since development has largely stopped. Openbox, the window manager for LXDE is basically a finished product. This is the kind of platform one really needs to stop somewhat needless development. (Though there is some development needed which is neglected, such as newer monitor connection support.)

Openbox and LXDE

Openbox and LXDE are a great learning tool when used together. In order to configure or make changes, one learns where various settings are, and what applications control what functions. For example, changing the default filemanager from pcmanfm to nemo one also learns (besides various gnome settings and a symlink) how to install and configure a wallpaper-setting application (hsetroot), as well as startup applications to run the wallpaper setup script on login.

Essentially, openbox and lxde were set up with simplicity and modularity in mind, unlike monolithic desktop environments. Even though these tools are a bit old and few resources are going into them, swapping out the various components is both possible and relatively straightforward. Along the way, one learns how the the linux desktop works in a hands-on approach.

Crunchbang no more

Just as when the crunchbang project ended, the same can be said of crunchbang successors (cb++ and bunsenlabs) that these projects are not better than vanilla Debian (plus one's choices of desktop components). For this, openbox and lxde (and perhaps lxqt) live on as useful tools.

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Migrating WordPress to Github Pages

I've recently become a victim of extortionists who were able to gain access to my website database. Unfortunately my last backup was about 2.5 months previously. Instead of paying the 0.04 bitcoints (maybe 600 USD?), I've kissed most of the content that I will lose, goodbye. Oh well. Can't give into extortionists.

Regardless, I need off of WordPress as it makes me too much of a target. It is time to move to a static site generator / flat file site. I've previously tested out Grav, but found it really not very stable. I'm now considering Github Pages and then adding additional functionality through Jekyll/Ruby and some kind of shopping cart option (with Stripe as the payment processor).

Ecommerce on Github Pages

Jekyll Themes

Functionality Needed

  • Themes
  • Random quote
  • Shopping cart
  • Breadcrumb
  • Categories / tags
  • Sitemap.xml
  • Robots.txt
  • Cookie notice
  • Favicons
  • Header/footer scripts
  • Last modified timestamp
  • Sidebar
  • Lazy loader
  • Lightbox

Note that I run dozens of plugins, but they are all done to get the above working properly.

Jekyll Plugins

Plugins for Jekyll only work on Github Pages if they are whitelisted.

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Onyx Boox Nova Pro

The Onyx Boox Nova Pro is a popular 7.8" eNote device with grayscale e-ink Carta screen, and a Wacom touchscreen layer, under mobius and glass. The hardware includes USB-C, an on/off/sleep button and a back button, along with bluetooth and wifi.

The main advantage, though still a bit incomplete, is the ability to read and write in e-ink. Reading is good support for ebooks and pdf, and writing is in an app as well as a scribble function and a side-note function. Scribble only works on pdf, while sidenote works on ebooks and pdfs.

Where to Purchase the Onyx Boox Nova Pro

It is a mistake to buy an Onyx Boox Nova Pro from anywhere but the Boox site, since support is not provided by Boox when bought through third parties. In addition, currently the Boox shop includes a set of accessories for the Nova Pro (including a cover) at no additional charge.

Reviews and their Limitations

Unfortunately every review we've seen is basically a reviewer checking off boxes rather than coming from actual use that is anywhere close to real use cases. Facts of this nature are only found on certain forums, if that. This is a challenge because the feature set is far from complete and recent updates (on the Onyx Boox enote devices) have made some changes to basic functionality (for good and ill).

Physical Specifications and Usability

A 7.8" device is compared with the original 6" paperwhite, which is our previous model that held up for 7 years of use. While some might compare with other premium ebook readers, that shows that the real difference is the Wacom layer and note-taking ability.

By comparing with the Paperwhite, it indicates what a difference a generation makes in terms of not only a screen, but the interaction functionality that is very different now (and we believe will be different again once voice recognition expands to reach the level of interactivity that e-ink + wacom currently provides in the Nova Pro. Truly effective voice control (that is affordable) may reach devices at about the same time as truly effective and affordable color e-ink devices.

Compared with the 6" paperwhite there is over 32% more screen available, not to mention the significant difference with the Nove Pro 300ppi display at 1872 x 1440 px.

The weight difference is 275g vs. 213g. Significant, but the flat aspect hides some of that weight. Dimensions are 196.3 × 137 × 7.7 mm vs. 169 x 117 x 9.1 mm. The Nova Pro is thinner, and about 3 cm taller and 2 cm wider.

Unfortunately the pen, which works fine, doesn't have a great feel (complete plastic) nor an elegant way to stay attached to the main device. Cues should be taken from Microsoft for what it has done with pen attachment (and pen technology in general).

Actual Usability

The heart of the matter comes down to a few issues with this device:

  • orientation / rotation, and
  • sidenote / scribble

When dealing in the real world, one has to take account of actual use cases. For example:

  • Reading a pdf, and marking up a page
  • Reading an ebook, and marking up a page
  • Reading a pdf, and adding notes to the document
  • Reading an ebook, and adding notes to the document

The care in which how the user is able to perform these actions, and have full expected functionality falls short, in several ways:

  • Ebooks cannot have markup on a given page
  • When in the sidenote functionality, the menu for the document is unavailable and a landscape orientation imposed (both with ebook and pdf)
    • This means in order to access any menu/functionality for the document, one has to exit out of sidenote first.
  • Sidenote for a pdf, makes the document into a thumbnail on one side of the screen (essentially unusable) by zooming out, and pinch-and-zoom is not available.

Orientation / Rotation

Orientation cannot be set properly except in a few options, for example landscape for reading an ebook. However, some third-party orientation apps might work. We prefer Rotation Control Pro which runs $2.99 USD but is blissfully removed from advertising.

In general, this is not a problem in the sense that sidenote changes to landscape, if one is used to portrait. Landscape is useful when having two-column layout in being very reader-friendly. However, when reading PDFs the best thing is to have it be portrait and full-page sized. There are various settings available to get the pdf displayed as one prefers.

For viewing and annotating pdfs, the Nova Pro is quite good. PDFs do still appear a bit small, but they are legible, and a decent pair of reading glasses helps. One can definitely see how a 10.3" display will go the extra step toward making e-ink pdfs truly effective.

Sidenote Limitations

Sidenote is a landscape orientation with the ability to shift around orientation. The problem is that the only menu bar available is for the sidenote, and not the book itself. Sidenotes are affixed to the book rather than a page (unlike the scrible function available for the pdf viewer).

Note Limitations in General

There have been improvements for how notes are stored, synchronized, and accessed, however some basics are needed from a philosophic approach: Notes should be available

  • on pages they are made on,
  • in books they are made in, and
  • as collections themselves (metadata implicit and tagged).

This is really no difference than how annotations work, in that they are tied to given pages or locations as well as books themselves.

In addition, some kind of ocr should also be available across all notes in their various locations.

Limitations on the Navigation Ball

The Navigation Ball is helpful functionality, but it is limited in what its five menu items can be. For example, home is not an available option, nor is the Library (though Notes are). Also, just the simple ability to call up the top menu which is available at home but not within any given document.

Menus Menus Menus

A huge amount of the trouble one currently encounters in the Nova Pro has to do with menus, when and how they are available (and how they are not). Basic navigation usability is really key and boy does it hurt when it isn't worked out well.

Copy and Paste across Apps

Copy and paste does work accross apps including the native local apps and Android apps. This is very useful in the use case where a chat app such as Telegram is used to store/send bits of copied text.

Synchronization with Syncthing

Syncthing android application works fine on the Boox Nova Pro.

Navigation Tips and Tricks

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Domain Registrars, DNS, VPS, Hosting

Simplicity is a wonderful thing. For the domain name game and hosting services, there are two kinds of simplicity:

  • A single, monolithic simplicity - aka all-in-one
  • A set of modular simplicities - aka best-of-breed

At this stage in web hosting, domain name registration, and DNS service offerings, the second form of simplicity is the preferred approach to dealing with domain registration, DNS service provision and hosting service providers.

Three Services - Three Service Providers

The current approach we take is to manage service providers at each level of service provision: domain registration, DNS services, and hosting providers. In addition to hosts (actually, unmanaged VPS or cloud services), there are application providers (SAAS/Cloud Apps), such as Google Apps for Domains (including the venerable Gmail/GoogleMail as well as their cloud/web-based office suite).

Domain Name Registration

  • They register and manage the domain nameserver pointers (NS records) that are registered with the 13 top level DNS servers
  • The customer indicates and can change which nameservers to use, based on who the preferred DNS service provider is
  • Cost is approximately $10-35/year/domain (depending on TLD), with per year or multi-year registration
  • Our preferred Doman Name Registrar is currently Porkbun, though I tend to change these every few years when service levels decline and prices increase.

DNS Service Provision

  • They manage the servers and record entries which point to various services that are hosted at various addresses, including email, web, ftp, jabber, etc.
  • The customer can create and change all the various entries to point to different servers or service providers depending upon what application hosting services they have with service providers (email, web, etc.)
  • Costs should run about $5/month on average, for around 10-20 domains
  • Our preferred DNS service provider is DNSmadeEasy which is $ 60 USD/year for 25 domains (even cheaper for 10 domains), and $1.95 per domain thereafter.

Application Hosting Service Providers

  • They manage one or more of the servers which offer particular services, and provide client management interfaces
  • At this level, each application can be considered a unique offering which then uses the best-of-breed approach at a finer level, which enables the use of individual service providers for each service needed, such as email, web, application development, etc.
  • The customer then can individually manage the configuration and content delivered by each given application
  • Cost is from $0 to $200/year depending on service.
  • Our preferred email, chat and cloud-based document sharing and collaboration service provider is a roll-your-own system based on Syncthing, iRedMail, AWS SES, AWS Lightsail, and if needed Amazon Workmail.

Unmanaged VPS Provision

  • AWS is our current VPS of choice, especially Lightsail.
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Microsoft – What it is Good For

Microsoft has gone through a lot, and I've been with them for quite a long time, on and off. I became a MCSE in 1998, with a focus on Web, SQL and Exchange server. At the time we were in the battle for the backoffice, which was vs. Novell and Oracle, mainly, but also Linux in general. The competition was sanctimonious and off-putting, not to mention insulting. Microsoft for us was a way to get control over powerful computing that gave value to organizations and those of us who needed to get work done.

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So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Review

This book is badly in need of an editor. That is not surprising as it appears to be a collection of blog posts, but the redundancies and useless repetition truly get in the way of the important points. Also, stylistically the first person voice is also a bit pedantic. Agreed, the author points out that the book is in manifesto form, but there are fine manifestos without such glaring flaws (The Communist Manifesto being a good example).

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Syncthing = Dropbox & GDrive Alternative


Google Drive (GDrive) and other cloud storage alternatives such as Dropbox and Microsoft Ondrive all have the serious drawback of keeping one's information in a third party cloud repository. Privacy and security are generally compromised this way, even when paying for storage (as opposed to having an advertising model, which is worse in many ways).

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Pandoc, Markdown, XeLaTeX, EPUB

EPUB documents are essentially a kind of html document as a collection of files which are zipped, and include html, css, images, and some XML pages. There are several ways of organizing these, but the most straightforward is one html document for each chapter (or section), a set of images organized in a subfolder, and a few metadata files regarding the collection. An epub document can be even simpler, and consist of a single html file, no images, and a few metadata files.

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