Dream Reader: The Beginning.

I stumbled over my own feet as I hurtled, half running, half staggering towards the tree line. I couldn’t hear my pursuers, but I knew that that was just a matter of time, and while I was here, in the open I was in danger.

My legs pumped, driven by adrenaline, but still the trees seemed to edge towards me agonisingly slowly. Maybe I wasn’t hearing them because my head was filled with the sound of my panting and the thrum of the blood pumping.

How had it come to this? I wasn’t a bad guy. I hadn’t killed anyone. But still men in uniforms would be massing to find me as soon as they realised that I wasn’t home.

I began to run through the process in my head even as I continued my hell for leather sprint for the woods. They would arrive at the apartment. Not getting an answer they’ll have had to wait for clearance before battering the door down. That would have given me a few minutes.

Having swept the little apartment and realised I wasn’t hiding in a cupboard they will have gone for my tech. I’d been ready for this. The whole system was set up to cover my tracks, and as long as they had waited for back up the system would have cleaned itself up. Every user account sanitised, the plan had been to return the machine to tabula rasa. I hoped the data scrub was as thorough as I’d planned, otherwise others would be in danger too. Of course I wasn’t going to make it easy for them. The blank accounts were password protected, the discs encrypted.

After that, they would start looking for me. Of course, the street cams would help them with that. Ever since big data became a reality everyone was followed wherever they went. Everything from face recognition to gait analysis had meant that a citizen could be found even if they had left their smart kit at home. To try and evade the cameras I’d been living a lie for the last year. Every time I left home I had a small stone in one shoe. It was just enough of an irritant to make me walk a little oddly. I hoped it would be a big enough change to put the system off. Today I’d left the house in normal shoes, both feet comfortable and ready to run. I knew that once the auto-track came up blank they would start the more arduous process of pulling the files, watching me when I hit the street, tracing me from one camera to the next. It had been busy, I hoped that I’d blended in.

Suddenly my mind was back in the present. The trees were finally closing around me. At first I kept up the same pace. At the edge the trees were thin and I would easily be seen from the open ground. I needed to get deep into the brush. I only started to slow down when the dry foliage began to push back, Newtonian reaction hindering my headlong thrust.

I stopped, leaning against a tree. My breathing was ragged, and suddenly loud in this quiet place. As my heart began to slow and my panting receded I strained to hear any activity. I had no idea what my next step was going to be, where I could go. I could scarcely believe I’d managed to get this far.

And then I heard it. Apparently the drones were much quieter than the planes which used to traverse the sky before the end time. Now there wasn’t anywhere for planes to go, so the drones were the only flying objects that the city still had. And they were the sole preserve of the Goverment and Military.

It sounded quite a long way away, and looking up the trees were dense. I was probably in danger of stepping into a clearing if I made a run for it. I would be better either staying put or moving slowly. I decided to keep on moving, carefully looking at the trees ahead. The burning in my legs and the constriction in my throat were soon forgotten as I kept advancing. Now was the time to think beyond simply going on the run. I had to draw up a plan, and soon.

The drone was getting closer now, its engine note steady and ominous. Turning to try and locate it I took my eye of the path and suddenly tripped. As I arced towards the ground I saw the culprit, a thin wire across the path. Even as I slammed into the ground, I heard two people break cover and move to each side of me. Initially neither of them spoke, then the one on my right knelt on the space on my back between my shoulder blades. The one on the left leant forward and whispered “They’re very close. Come with us and don’t say anything”.

I was in no position to argue as I felt the cool plastic of cable tie handcuffs close around my wrists. Then I was picked up with apparent ease and placed back on my feet. Now I could see I was between two people of my height, though the one who had held me down was almost comically stocky. Before I could take in anything more I was pushed away to one side, deeper into the woods. The combination of panicked running and having just fallen bodily to the floor had left me disorientated and I had no idea where we were in relation to where I had entered the trees. But my companions seemed to know exactly where they were going.  And within a few minutes they stopped me in a small glade. I made as if to talk before the smaller of the two men held a finger to his lips. Concentrating on the one man I didn’t notice until it was already too late that his companion had a small syringe. It stung as he jabbed me in the leg, but I didn’t have any time to react. I suspect I collapsed like a rag doll.

I have sometimes fantasised about writing. I can imagine that seeing something you have written is immensely exciting. But it is also scary. I wrote the above as it felt like something I could get behind putting on paper. At this point it says nothing about what the crimes are that mean the protagonist needs to be on the run. I read a lot of dystopian fiction when I was a teenager and young adult, and I guess that is sort of where it is going. A lot of the books I read then have dated quite badly. The worlds of 1984 and Brave New World for instance have some features which we would recognise (mass surveillance and high levels of psychotropic drugs), but lots that haven’t come true. There is always the space for dystopia fiction which draws on the societal state when the story is written. The mass surveillance of the 21st Century is something that we buy into, often entirely voluntarily, but most people would be shocked by how much we share, and what the risks are. Maybe a story called 2041, a world where the computers look after you every need, often meeting it before you have really realised it was a need at all. What are the risks.

I think the younger me reader would have liked this. And I hope they would have wanted to read the rest.


Linux vs. Windows – Another Linux Success Story.

When I was purchasing my home laptop, I chose a Dell. One of the reasons that I liked the Dell store was the way that I could choose a system and then tweak the requirements as needs be.

As I was running through the options, things like processor, memory and disc size, I remember deliberately choosing not to have a webcam at all.

The reasoning was simple. I was planning to use Linux at least part time on this new computer, and add-ons like webcams were, I thought, difficult to use, or poorly supported. If I didn’t bother having them then I wouldn’t need to fiddle to get them working.

Now, spool forward three or four years. My daughter got a book for Christmas which boasts ‘Augmented Reality’, requiring a simple program install and a webcam. So I borrowed a webcam from work (we have it for those occasions when interviewers want to Skype) and took it home.

Obviously the ‘AR’ software only runs on Windows or Mac, so we booted the laptop into Windows, plugged in the webcam and waited while Windows did its thing.

It is worth noting that Windows 7 does an excellent job of detecting the device and installing the drivers, but it took an inordinately long time to do so (more than 5 minutes, less than 10). But once it was done, it worked very well.

When I got to work this morning I decided to try an experiment by plugging the webcam into my desktop machine running Linux (its a Mac, but it dual boots into Linux because, well, I like it like that!).

I plugged it in, then started up ‘Cheese’, the webcam program where you can add weird and wonderful effects to you images. I then selected ‘Preferences’ and was able to switch between the computers built-in webcam and the USB webcam straight away (with no apparent drivers required).

Now I have a horrible feeling I will need to buy a webcam for home…

Teething Problems Mostly Solved.

On my work desk I have two computers.  I probably don’t absolutely have to have two, but I think that being a computer officer I can probably justify it!

One is a 27″ iMac. It is huge, and the display is lovely.  I have issues with it that I will probably document somewhere one day.  But it is a thing of beauty, and it is so large that it certainly gets the attention.

Next to it is a pretty standard PC. I bought it with Windows 7 installed and it still has the ability to run Windows if you select it from the startup menu, but by default it boots up in to my preferred Linux distribution.

Nowadays that preference lies with Crunchbang.  This is a relatively recent choice, and may change again one day in the not too distant future.  For a long time I was a devotee of Gentoo, but I had problems with Gentoo (once again, I will write about that one day) and Crunchbang got my notice and my devotion!

Based on Debian, and using Openbox as its window manager, Crunchbang is pretty light (especially when compared to Windows) and positively flies on the i3 processor that this PC has.

However, while I have been running Crunchbang on my laptop for a while, the initial installation on the desktop PC still lead to some head scratching.

By default Openbox relies on a pop-up menu appearing when you right click the desktop.  This works well (though the menu has to be edited manually via a text file when adding new entries). But I am afraid that I like to have a start/task bar at the foot of the screen.  I know that relying on it is a bit Windows centric of me, but it is what I find myself most comfortable with!  The good news is that the packages for this are all available easily within the Synaptic package manager, and a quick visit to add in Xfce4 packages and I have a working taskbar.

Another useful system is the Conky monitor.  This is an infinitely customisable widget that can be embedded in the desktop and can display whatever information you select.  In the first instance I chose to use the configuration file that I had for my laptop.  This displays system information (hostname, date and time, uptime), Processor information (system load on the individual cores), Network speeds (upload and download rates as graphs), Top processes (the first five entries in Top), Memory (memory usage), Disc usage (root, home and tmp), Last.fm (last 5 tracks, but this is only up to date if I use a Last.fm aware music player or sync my iPod) and Disc in/out.

I also have a conditional section that only displays when the MPD player is active!

I did a bit of tweaking of the interface when I copied the configuration file across to my desktop. The main ones initially were to do with colour. On my laptop a lot of the backgrounds are light, so I use dark text, on the desktop the opposite is true.

However, there was one problem that persisted.  The conky window that displayed was ‘on top’ of all other windows.  That meant that a full screen program would be ‘under’ the conky display, effectively hiding the minimize/maximize/close buttons.

The problem was eventually fixed by changing the line:

own_window_type override


own_window_type desktop
And restarting conky.