Writing 101: Unlock The Mind.

I signed up to do this years blogging 101 and writing 101 sessions on the web. And here I am.

The first writing assignment: Just Write.

Where do you start? There is a Monty Python sketch where writing is a spectator sport complete with an excitable crowd and breathless commentary. But writing obviously isn’t something done in front of an audience. It is done in your head. With an audience of one, and they are, in all likelihood your  worst critic.

The cursor flashes. Inviting you to press the keys. Taunting you with how little it has moved. But what can you put down on screen.

And does the screen help or hinder? On a screen the ability to go back, to tweak, to massage or to procrastinate are almost limitless.  The promise of being able to change not just the words, but the font, the colour and the page size can mire a user in options.  This is why when I am really trying to write, not blog, I go off-line and start writing in a system that doesn’t support those fripperies.  When talking on this subject I can wax lyrical about an old word processor ‘WordPerfect 5.1’. It had a lot going for it. It ran in DOS, so when you were using WordPerfect that was all you were using, there weren’t any other programs available to flip back and forth to. The screen when you opened a document was almost entirely blank, with just a single line of text in the bottom right hand corner which provided a word and line count. Finally, you could mark things as being of a particular style (heading, body etc) but the text on the screen changed only slightly. You weren’t invited to make judgements about the space taken up on the page, that was for the program to worry about. The point was to write words. The words would be processed into a document later, but the words came first.

Other media suit different processes. A diary or a record of thoughts and feelings might feel more natural if it is in your own handwriting, which might change to reflect your moods. Adding doodles, exclamations or scribbles give an insight into something in parallel to the words, just like non-verbal communication matters when it comes to talking with real people. But there are issues with this type of document. I read a comment once about how writing in a notebook feels like a supremely audacious action. Taking a pristine, beautiful piece of paper and saying ‘I’m important enough to defile this paper, what I do to it matters more’. I find the action of posting blog entries easier as the paper that is defiled is electronic, essentially limitless, and somehow no-one expects blogs to matter anyway.

That is all I have to say about this. Writing is something I want to do, and would like to be better at. I am aware of some of my flaws, but I think practice will highlight a lot more. I think writing, editing and learning from the process is important.


Linux To The Rescue.

One of my common post types is a big up for Linux, but I can’t help feeling that this one is worth it.

Here at work I was presented with an old, battered laptop whose owner had schlepped around the world with it. It was refusing to start, and the request was to help extract important data before it became inoperable forever.

In the early stages I got lucky and managed to get the computer to boot successfully into Windows. However, the success was short lived, and the system froze, displaying a classic blue screen of death.

The next approach was to try and clone the data from the system using CloneZilla. I created a bootable USB stick, restarted the machine and began cloning the partitions. Unfortunately the two important partitions kept on throwing errors on particular sectors and stopping the cloning process in its tracks. And as the system discs were all using NTFS I wasn’t able to attempt any kind of on-the-fly repairs.

In the end, I got a live CD version of a low resources Ubuntu (Lubuntu, using the LXDE window manager) and booted the system with that. The boot process was seamless and the window manager started without a problem. I then used the command line and some Linux know-how to mount the Windows hard drive and an external hard drive provided by the user. Then it was just a matter of finding the data that the user wanted saved and copying it using the normal file system manager.

It has taken a while. The USB interface on the machine is slow, and data reading from the hard drive seemed sluggish, but it has worked well, and all of the users data is now safe.

It is worth noting that when I say ‘Linux know-how’ then it makes it sound simpler than it was. I realised this when the user asked whether it would be possible for me to tell her how to mount the discs if she needed to do. I started to explain the process, then realised (prompted by the way her eyes were glazing over) that while it is obvious to a long term Linux user it might as well be in a foreign language to a new user. Worse than that, when I tried some Google-Foo I wasn’t replete with good explanations that way either. I’m not sure if this is a failing of my Google-Foo or a gap in the otherwise excellent on-line documentation.

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…

Always Fiddling… Fortunately Rome Isn’t Burning.

I’ve written a couple of times about the fact that when I use Linux my window manager of choice (currently) is Xmonad. It has been for a while, but that doesn’t mean it has to continue being the choice, if something comes along.

I have also talked about my one bugbear with Xmonad. It is less convenient when I use my laptop as the function keys need an extra button to be pressed. It ends up being a two handed job changing screens. I was looking to find a way of changing the function keys to avoid this problem, and ended up reading about i3, another tiling window manager.

Installing it on my Linux machine was, as ever just a matter of using ‘aptitude’, and it only took a minute. Then simply log out, and set the session type.

As with most of the tiling managers, when you log in the screen is blank, apart from a simple status bar at the bottom of the page. I managed to run a script which I have to set the keyboard layout, screensaver etc.  But then I couldn’t work out how to do anything else!

I found the following page, so I’m going to give it another go. The cheat sheet can be found here.

Making ScrobbleThis work on Linux Mint.

I have been a long time user of Last.fm. I like the idea of social music, and I have regularly looked at making my iPod report my music listening to the Last.fm site.

This process goes by the name of scrobbling (no, I don’t know why!), and there are a few methods of scrobbling listed on the Rockbox website, but I was particularly interested in finding a command line version of the same as I was thinking about having the scrobbling process run automatically when my iPod was connected (a subject for another day).

I found a simple Python script here:


The download is small, and installation the work of moments. However, it didn’t run straight away. I also needed to do the following:

1) Install the Python module for communicating with Last.fm. On my Mint box this was achieved using:

sudo aptitude install python-pylast

2) Running the command scrobblethis followed by the path to the scrobble log produced an error about a module not being found in the file log.py. A little google foo showed that some users with the same error message had fixed it by changing the import command in log.py from:

import common


import st.common

In my case however the import already read:

import st.common

So I added another line

import common

which seemed to fix things.

3) The last stage was to modify the local configuration file to include my username and password for Last.fm.

Once these things were done the process of uploading the scrobble file was just a matter of the command:


One advantage of this script (over some of the online scrobblers I have tried) is that the log file is automatically deleted when the upload is complete.

Realtime On-Desk Monitoring Goodness.

My occasional quest or project to get my desktop Mac working with Linux continues when appropriate. One of my issues with the Mac has been that it has been so slow, especially when you consider the ‘power under the hood’. As this was the case I thought it was important to monitor the system load in normal usage. The best way to do that on Linux is http://conky.sourceforge.net/.

Conky is almost infinitely customisable, but it isn’t always trivial to get the look and feel that you are after. I wanted a transparent set of functions in the right hand side of my desktop, indicating such useful information as the load on each processor (as a graph and a constantly updating figure), the top ‘top’ processes and available disc space.

This is what I have at the moment:


It fulfills my requirements and looks pretty good to boot.

When I was creating the configuration file I took much of the inspiration from the version that I have on my laptop. But initially it left me with a non-transparent window (black background, or, alternatively, it was transparent but all of the icons from the rest of the desktop disappeared.

The solution in my case was to enable the built-in compositing for the xfwm4 window manager. I don’t appear to be able to use full blown Compiz compositing (it won’t play with my graphics card), but the compositing in xfwm4 is able to support a bit of transparency for windows and multiple desktops, and makes both the icons on the desktop and Conky visible at the some time.

With A Roar.

Well the behaviour of Linux on my Mac seems to be fast, but at times confusing. After some googling there was some indication that the problem with a lack of sound might be headphone specific. Sure enough, unplugging the headphones meant that I got sound (when this first happened it was a YouTube video at full blast). There doesn’t seem to be much logic to the thing, clicking mute and unmute on the various sound devices seems to lead to the sound working.

Unfortunately this isn’t really of much use to me. I share an office with others, and I don’t think they would appreciate either music or YouTube videos while we work. The effort continues.