Mac Switching update, Sun 18 Sep

I returned the Apple Pro keyboard yesterday, and came away with a new Microsoft Digital Media Pro keyboard instead. Now, the MDMP is very much NOT my first choice of keyboard. It has extraneous buttons up the wazoo, and it has a hateful little “zoom” slider on the left hand side, which eats into the space available for actual keys. The keys are just a fraction too small, and the click action is more of a spongy “zonk”.

What I want is a bog-standard, commodity 105-key keyboard, with the Insert/Delete/Home keys arranged HORIZONTALLY (rather than in a space-saving vertical configuration), as few extraneous “media” buttons as possible, and a USB connection. Can I have one? Fuck no. I can have all of the above with a PS/2 connection, or with a bluetooth wireless configuration, but not with USB. PS/2 is useless because I want to use it with the entirely PS/2-free Mac Mini, and bluetooth is useless because WHY WOULD I WANT TO SPEND TWICE AS MUCH ON A KEYBOARD JUST SO I CAN CHANGE ITS BATTERIES ONCE A MONTH? I’m baffled by the proliferation of wireless keyboards and mice. What the fuck are you going to do with that 10m range? You’ll need a pair of binoculars to read the text you’re typing.

What I would really like is my old MS Internet keyboard, only with a USB connection. No can do. PS/2 only, and unfortunately it doesn’t work with the PS/2-to-USB adapter I bought. So I’m stuck with this butt-ugly, oversized monstrosity instead. If anyone has any recommendations for alternatives, lay them on me. Please.

The keyboard’s saving grace is that it made me install Microsoft’s Intellitype and Intellipoint keyboard/mouse driver software in order to make it work with the Mac. And the Intellipoint mouse software includes an option to override the Mac’s default mouse tracking behaviour for my MS Intellimouse, which was one of the problem points I wrote about on Friday. Mouse tracking now behaves in the same way as it does on my Windows box, and it’s lovely. I found it hard to believe just how much irritation this relieved in a single stroke.

Thanks to a comment from Dave, I found the area in System Preferences to allow me to tab to controls other than just text boxes and lists, but it doesn’t seem to work. Hmm.

Some miscellaneous further notes:

  • The Pogue book arrived, and I’ve worked through the first chapter. Looks like a winner.
  • I’ve got to the point where I’ve moved the Dock from the default bottom of the screen to the left, and have set it to automatically hide. That way, it fits in roughly the same conceptual slot as the Start menu on Windows.
  • I love the Column layout in Finder.
  • I hate only being able to resize windows with the gripper in their bottom left-hand corners.
  • I’m starting to get used to the idea of just “throwing” the mouse up to the top of the screen to hit a menu, rather than pick it out carefully. Fitts’ Law rocks.
  • James pointed me in the direction of Library/Keyboard Layouts to allow me to remap keys. I’m going to need this, because Apple has the ” and the @ keys reversed from what I’m used to, and from what my keyboard actually tells me. Very annoying. (What alternate keyboard layouts are going to do to my typing when we move to the Netherlands, I dread to think.)
  • I’ve started importing photos into iPhoto. Very nice. The only thing I’m a bit concerned about is the disk space consumed by keeping a copy of both the original and the manipulated version of you rotate or otherwise twiddle with a picture. 80GB is not a lot of space. If the Mac sticks, a hard disk upgrade may be on the cards some time next year.
  • I haven’t tried moving my iTunes library from the PC to Mac yet…that’ll the later this week.
  • Also on the to-do list: get a local install of MySQL and Movable Type up and running.

I still haven’t fallen in love with OS X. In fact, I’m finding myself disproportionately annoyed with all the little things that don’t work the way I want them to, which is causing me to miss out on the joy of the bigger features. I had a really bad week last week, and the grumpiness is still upon me.

Breathe in, breath out.

Martin’s Annual Linux Experience 2002 — wrapping up

Martin's Annual Linux Experience 2002Well, it looks like this year’s Linux Experience is drawing to a close. It’s been over a month since I switched my primary desktop to SuSE Linux 8.1, which is the longest I’ve ever held out. But it’s time to go back to Windows now.

It’s been an interesting month. I’ve learned a lot about setting up and configuring Linux, and the programs that run on it. My Perl has gone from rusted-away back up to passably acceptable. And I’m much more familiar with editing Apache’s httpd.conf files. And all this for an initial outlay of about £30! I reckon I’ve probably had more enjoyment out of that money than I get out of most £30-£40 games I buy. So it hasn’t been a waste of time by a long shot.

When I made the switch this year, I did expect to keep running some Windows apps. I thought that I would probably end up using VMWare to set up virtual Windows machines, but that didn’t work out. In fact, I think it’s going to end up the other way round. There are some Linux programs that are just too useful to give up. Our web host (EZPUblishing runs Linux servers with Apache on them. It would be really useful to be able to mirror that environment locally more effectively than I can with Apache on Windows. So my plan is to set up a stable Linux environment in a virtual machine. I can then use the VM as a local development server on our home network.

Overall, converting back to Windows is not going to be too much of a problem, because I hadn’t completely zapped my hard drive, and was using grub to multi-boot between Win and Lin. The main difficulty I’m running into is email. When I set up KMail, I set it up to use the maildir mailbox format, rather than the standard mbox format. KMail happily imported my Windows mail from Outlook Express, but going in the other direction is proving to be more difficult.

If I had my mail in mbox format, I could suck it into Mozilla mail in a snap. I could even import it into Outlook Express via the Eudora import filter, because Eudora uses the mbox format. But maildir? Uh-uh. Not a hope. I can’t even find a tool that will easily convert mail from maildir to mbox on Linux. The only thing that seems to do the trick is a widget that comes with qmail, but of all the Linux software I’ve installed and configured over the last month, qmail takes the biscuit for being the most difficult. And I’m not sure I can be bothered.

It looks like the simplest way is going to be the most time-consuming: KMail allows you to have both maildir and mbox formatted folders running at the same time. So I can create a new parallel mbox filing structure to mirror my maildir folders, and then copy messages from one to the other. Slow, laborious, annoying…but simpler than sodding qmail.

I find myself sad to have to go back to Windows. The XP desktop looks a little bit cold and plain now. KDE felt ragged at times, but it also had that little frisson of adventurousness–a sense that something strange, but maybe pleasant lay behind the next mouse click. Windows, I know inside-out, and it holds few secrets for me. But on the other hand, it also holds the joys of TextPad and Paint Shop Pro, and a faster version of Opera. It means a more productive me.

Linux will still be around, though, even if it is just in a Virtual Machine I fire up when I need it. And going on past experience, it’s only a year until the 2003 Annual Experience rolls around…

Microsoft: Why not?

Martin's Annual Linux Experience 2002I called Julian on Monday evening for a chat. We hadn’t spoken for a while, so we had a lot to catch up on. But instead we mostly talked about Microsoft, Linux, and why I’m choosing one over the other.

The conversation came at a good time. Julian disagrees with a lot of what I’ve been saying about Microsoft, and it’s useful to hear the opposite side of the argument. I enjoy writing this blog because it forces me to put all of my vague, incoherent thoughts and feelings into structured sentences, paragraphs, and arguments. (Or, at least, I try to.) By writing about my feelings, I come to understand them better. The only problem is that writing is a solitary activity, and it’s very easy to get locked into a train of thought, and ride it round and round in self-reinforcing circles.

Continue reading “Microsoft: Why not?”

Linux, cursors, and bacon

Martin's Annual Linux Experience 2002The week before last, Linux was starting to get me down. I just wanted stuff to simply work, rather than to have to do work to make it work. I got a lot of the gripes off my chest by moaning about them here on Sunpig, though.

The following evening, I nuked my SuSE install, put on Mandrake 9 for an hour or two, and went straight back to SuSE again. Seeing Mandrake made me realise just how much I had learned about SuSE since the start of October, and how much I would have to relearn to get as fluent with Mandrake. Not as much effort as moving from Windows to Linux, but it would still be infrastructural work, when my aim was to get started on the higher-level stuff.

(Reinstalling SuSE felt like a relief, which was odd, as I had just spilled my guts complaining about it. But that rant had also clarified for me the reasons I was persisting with my Annual Linux Experiment, and that was because I find it too hard to stomach Microsoft’s business practices. Moving to Linux is not easy in the same way that going vegetarian isn’t easy. After a couple of weeks, you start to get these cravings for bacon…)

After that I was fine again for a while. I was happy with my new-found conviction. Thomas C. Greene wrote an article in the Register on how to improve your fonts in Linux, and that helped a bit. (They still don’t look as good as they do in the screenshots, but they’re okay.) I got Apache installed and running–yay–and started doing some work on Movable Type.

It was while I was doing this that the next niggle jumped up: In Kedit (and every other KDE application) the cursor blink rate was very slow. And worse than this, the cursor would continue to blink while I used the cursor keys to move through a document.

This may not sound like much. So the cursor blinks slowly, so what? It doesn’t stop you from editing documents, it doesn’t mean that the cursor isn’t there–it’s just blinking slowly. Right?

Argh. Sometimes it’s the little things that make the difference between satisfyingly usable and mind-bogglingly frustrating. Because this isn’t as little a thing as it seems. If you write a lot (code, prose, whatever), you get very used to moving about a document with the arrow keys or control key combinations rather than using the mouse to reposition the cursor. It’s much faster to keep your hands on the keyboard, look up, and arrow-key the cursor to a new position that it is to move your hand to the mouse, find the mouse pointer on screen, move the pointer, click, then reposition your fingers on the keyboard. Not only is it slower because it takes more actions, I seem to remember some research that showed that different areas of the brain are active when you use the mouse and the keyboard. So your brain has to switch tasks as well. Not efficient.

Back to slow-blinking cursors: when the cursor blinks “off”, it is invisible. It is invisible for a significant fraction (more than half) of a second. During this fraction of a second, I can make several keystrokes, and move the cursor several times with an arrow key. But while the cursor was invisible, I didn’t know exactly where it was in the text.

Actually, the slow blink rate only masks the real problem. The real problem is that the cursor’s blink status really should be set back to “on” whenever you press a cursor key. This way, it is always visible when you’re arrowing through a document, regardless of the blink speed.

But could I find an option in KDE to change the blink rate, or the blink behaviour? No. Damn.

So I could guess that I’d got the cursor in the right place, and start typing again. This didn’t always work, and resulted in me having to go back and re-edit. Or I could wait whenever I reckoned that the cursor was roughly in the right place, wait for it to reappear, and then reposition if necessary. Or I could use the mouse to reposition the cursor.

All of these options are significantly slower than the way I’m used to writing. And because it was taking longer to go back and fix typos, or edit sentences, I found myself losing track of thoughts, and getting distracted. The speed at which I coded and wrote slowed down by much more than the amount of additional time it took to move the cursor.

A bit of Googling around found me a couple of newsgroup postings from people who were complaining of the same problem, but without any useful follow-ups. Non-KDE applications (XEdit, emacs) didn’t appear to have the same problem, so it looked like a KDE thing. Although I hadn’t installed it, the SuSE disks come with the Gnome desktop, so I tried firing it up. And lo, cursors in gEdit (and other Gnome apps) behave normally!

I could just use gEdit in KDE–even though it’s a Gnome app, the Gnome libraries are all installed, and KDE will quite happily fire it up. But I’d just got used to Kate, and gEdit doesn’t show a list of open files on the left hand side of the window. (There may be a plugin that provides that feature, but I couldn’t see one.)

As it turns out, some deeper searching through Google revealed that the cursor blink rate is not set by KDE, but by the underlying Qt libraries. And in fact, there is a little utility called qtconfig that allows you to set the cursor blink rate. Yay!

Setting the cursor blink rate to a low value (I’ve got it at 50ms at the moment) is almost as good as having it behave properly, i.e., resetting blink status to “on” at every keystroke.

Ah, but is there a way to make this happen? Well, it appears so. According to the changelog for Qt 3.0.5, Trolltech have fixed this version to “Reset blink timer when receiving a keypress event to keep the cursor visible during navigation.”

So…all I should have to do would be to upgrade my Qt libraries to version 3.0.5, right? Hmm. According to the YaST tool, I already have version 3.0.5 installed. Why, then, are my apps not behaving in the manner described? Dunno. But I’ve got the horrible feeling that solving this is going to involve grabbing the source for both Qt and KDE, and rebuilding both of them.

All this effort for a simple cursor blink. I’m craving bacon.

Linux: why?

Martin's Annual Linux Experience 2002I’ve been running with SuSE Linux 8.1 for just under three weeks now, and the niggles are definitely setting in. They were there from the start, really, but I was enjoying the challenge of dealing with them, finding workarounds, and tweaking the system.

But perpetual fiddling palls. I don’t own a computer so that I can spend all my time messing about with its innards. I do like to do some actual work on it every now and then. (“Work” includes simple stuff like browsing the web and email, as well as more serious projects.) It’s a question of content: do you love a tool for its own sake, or for what you can produce with it? Do you buy an Xbox because of its spiffy hardware, or do you go with the PS2 because it has the games you want to play?

So let me take a look at what I can do with Linux, versus what I normally do with Windows:

Continue reading “Linux: why?”