RIP Jack Tramiel

A couple of days ago Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore and subsequently responsible for Atari’s home computer renaissance in the 1980s passed away.

I grew up during the home computer boom of the 80s. My first machine was a Sinclair ZX81, but that was replaced by a Commodore Vic-20. But it was my next computer, an Atari ST, which was perhaps the first machine I really fell in love with. I worked throughout my 6 weeks school holiday in order to save the £260 it cost, and although it has since been re-housed (using a hacksaw on the motherboard in order to fit it into a 19″ rack case!) I still have it sitting next to me now.

For day-to-day use it was replaced by an Atari Mega STE, then an Atari Falcon. I even have an Atari Jaguar which still sees occasional use for games of Tempest 2000. Ultimately, through using MiNT on the STE and Falcon, I was able to gain my first serious experiences with a Unix command line interface… which led directly to my switch to Linux in 1995 (and which I’ve been using ever since).

From games to music to programming, Tramiel’s Atari was behind most of my hobbies during the late 80s and early 90s. Rest in peace, Jack, and thanks for all the good times.

The League of Extraordinary Hypocrisy

So it would seem that DC comics are creating a prequel series for the seminal 1980s work, “Watchmen“. I’m not going to discuss whether or not this is a good thing, but rather consider the quotes on that page from the original creators of Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Let’s deal with the quote from Dave Gibbons first:

“The original series of Watchmen is the complete story that Alan Moore and I wanted to tell. However, I appreciate DC’s reasons for this initiative and the wish of the artists and writers involved to pay tribute to our work. May these new additions have the success they desire.”

Now compare that with the quote from Alan Moore:

I tend to take this latest development as a kind of eager confirmation that they are still apparently dependent on ideas that I had 25 years ago. […] I don’t want money. What I want is for this not to happen. As far as I know, there weren’t that many prequels or sequels to Moby Dick.

Hmmm… this is the same Alan Moore whose League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series is based almost entirely on characters created by other people (most of them far more than 25 years ago), and which includes Moby-Dick’s Ishmael in the first volume. The same Alan Moore whose Lost Girls puts a pornographic twist onto other writers’ characters.

So, Mr Moore, why is it okay for you to use other people’s creations in your own work, but when it comes to somebody creating stories based on your own characters you want it “not to happen”?

And with that news I shed a tear

As I come to the end of another day wrestling with code in an effort to get it to run in Internet Explorer 8, I find this post about some real world statistics from a large UK healthcare site.

Internet Explorer accounts for 55% of the numbers…

With 47% IE8 is the most used browser, followed by IE7 with 24% and IE6 with 19%. IE9 only accounts for 10%.

So 55% of visitors are using IE, and 90% of those are on an old version. If people really must continue to use Windows XP (and I appreciate that sometimes there isn’t a choice), then please at least switch to a different browser… you know, one from a vendor who hasn’t abandoned support for your platform like Microsoft has. Until you do, your just helping to hold the web back for everyone else.

Ain’t That A Shame

…is just one of the songs from 1955 what would now be out of copyright in the US, if it weren’t for the retroactive changes to copyright law that have taken place since then.

The list of other works that, under the terms that applied when they were created, should now be in the public domain includes numerous classic films, books, paintings and songs. This article lists some of the most notable.

On the plus side, at least James Joyce’s works are now out of copyright in the EU.

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Open Educational Resources for Typography

Typography is an art form all of its own. It combines aesthetic and stylistic concerns with elements of ergonomics, cultural history and science. While most of us happily plod along with a few basic fonts in our arsenal, the right typography can transform words significantly. The letter forms in a font can carry meaning and evoke feelings which can reinforce or even subvert the words themselves.

I find typography to be a fascinating part of the graphic design process. Which is why I have thrown a few dollars in to support the Open Educational Resources for Typography project on Kickstarter. Although it’s now been fully funded, there’s still a week to run so it’s not too late to make a contribution to help them out. I’m looking forward to receiving my PDF next year, and hopefully learning more about this hugely difficult subject that we all take for granted each time we turn on a computer, read a book or notice a sign.

A Decade of Free Museums

There’s an article running on the Guardian’s website written by former Culture Secretary Chris Smith to celebrate 10 years since he put the necessary motions in place to remove the entry fee from many of Britain’s museums and galleries. For me the most important part is from the very first paragraph:

…free admission is all about giving everyone, no matter what their means, the chance to see the greatest works of art, science and history that our nation has.

I’m a firm believer that culture and education should be accessible to all, regardless of their financial status. It’s also why I love The Proms and Shakespeare’s Globe – although they’re not free, they both offer the chance to see world-class performances for as little as £5.

But I don’t think it’s enough to see great works of art; it’s important that people have access to the tools they need to produce their own creations – whether artistic or otherwise – and the opportunity to learn how. It’s why I’m excited about the possibilities offered by the Raspberry Pi – a real computer for as little as $25. It’s why I’m a huge advocate of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). And it’s the reason that my webcomic is created entirely using the FOSS program Inkscape, and why I make the Inkscape source files available for download in the hope that people can learn something from them.

Free museums and galleries, or cheap theatres and concerts are wonderful, but a raft of cheap or free (and Free) software and hardware will mean that some of those visitors will become more than just consumers of culture. They’ll become creators.

Bring back the GNOME 2 Clock applet

One thing I missed from my previous list of gripes about Ubuntu 11.10’s interface was the loss of the GNOME 2 clock applet. It fell through the cracks, not because I’m happy with the replacement, but rather because my list was long enough already and it wasn’t the most pressing issue.

But I was reminded of how flexible and useful the GNOME 2 clock applet is by Monty Taylor’s post on the subject.

I don’t need information about multiple timezones as there are only a couple of people overseas that I’m in regular contact with. I can do the maths on my fingers, or Google for their local time if I need to. But those approaches both interfere with my workflow and distract me from the task in hand. With the GNOME 2 clock it just took a single click to check their local times, or to bring up a handy calendar.

It’s a minor thing in isolation, but the fact that Monty’s post is titled “Death by a thousand cuts” is no accident. The move to Ubuntu 11.10 brings with it lots, and lots, and lots of these minor things. Each one is a slight annoyance in isolation, but when combined they can quickly become too much for a user to take.

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Joe Consumer has the Same Unity Problems as Me

The recent Ubuntu Developer Summit included a session on Canonical’s user testing of Unity and Ubuntu. Have a read of the results over on OMG! Ubuntu! Here’s my favourite bit from the introduction:

Although a small number of testers are used in the qualitative testing, they are selected very specifically to best demonstrate the target audience of Ubuntu. They are a mix of Windows and Mac users who spend at least 10 hours a week on a computer. They tend to know how to download music, attach peripherals and other fault sedate computing affair [sic].

Perhaps this is one caveat in the data accrued thus far: the focus has been with “Joe Consumer” representatives and not those more advanced or all ready [sic] familiar with Linux.

So the testing isn’t aimed at more advanced users, or those already familiar with Linux. I’d count myself in both those groups. Yet interestingly the main issues they found with with Unity and the Dash were exactly the same as my complaints. Okay, my list also add a few extra techy issues, but for the main part my problems with Ubuntu 11.10 aren’t due to me being an ‘advanced user’ who is ‘already familiar with Linux’ – they’re the sort of problems that affect even Joe Consumer.

The article tries to put a positive spin on the results, but I can’t help feel that in producing a system which elicits similar complaints from both Joe Consumer and advanced users, Canonical may have managed the incredible task of uniting geeks and noobs into one coherent unified group, bound by the issues they face using Ubuntu these days.

Unity indeed!

Piracy: Not just about price, but availability

Here’s an interesting read from the Open Rights Group about the (lack of) availability of UK films as legitimate digital downloads.

The short summary version of it is that many British films are not legally available to download in the UK – and if they are, it’s often at a price that is comparable to buying it on DVD, but for a lower quality version.

I’m pleased to see that they also included figures that exclude iTunes (which result in even more dismal numbers): as a Linux user I don’t have access to iTunes at all, so my choices are even more limited. Unfortunately history suggests that even if the availability lessons of this report are heeded, the results will only practically be available to Mac and PC users.

Why I’ll be skipping Ubuntu 11.10

My normal desktop machine runs Ubuntu 10.10. I decided to skip 11.04 because the UI changes introduced were, quite simply, downright broken with my particular dual monitor setup. A few days ago version 11.10 (Oneiric Ocelot) was released, so I decided to give it a spin to see if it was worth upgrading to.

By “give it a spin”, I mean that I have run it in a virtual machine, and live from CD. I’m using the latter to write this post. I haven’t done a full install to my machine so it’s possible that some of the problems I’ve seen are a side-effect of running it “live”. But most of the problems I’ve faced are fundamental UI issues which would certainly affect a real installation as well.

I started out writing a wordy description of each of the issues I found, and how it affected me, but I realised I was going to be typing for a very long time. So I’ve decided to just list the obvious issues I’ve stumbled across so far as little more than bullet points (albeit wordy bullet points). I might expand on some of these in future posts.


General Issues and Annoyances

  • No Focus Follows Mouse option
  • No option to “shade” the window when double clicking on the title bar
  • No “Show Desktop” button for getting to files and folders on the desktop when you’ve got windows open and covering them
  • The Nautilus toolbar has been neutered to the point of just being a location bar with a search button. Any other options require a keyboard shortcut or a trek up to the menu at the top of the screen.
  • The four default workspaces are arranged as a 2×2 grid. I prefer a 1×4 linear arrangement so that I only have to bind keys for moving left and right, and don’t need to maintain a mental map of the workspaces locations. I couldn’t find a way to change this.


The Application Launcher

  • On my dual screen setup the launcher is always over to the far left of the leftmost monitor – which is a long way to go if I’m working at the right of the rightmost one. At least with 10.10 I was able to add extra launchers or even a whole application menu to the Gnome panel wherever it suited me (I’ve got two application menus, one on each monitor).
  • The conflation of launcher and task manager means that clicking on the launcher icon for an already running app brings that app to the front – it doesn’t launch a new instance. If you want to launch a second Nautilus window or another terminal – both perfectly reasonable requests – you have to middle-click on the launcher icon. But that’s not exactly discoverable; where is the context menu option to launch another instance?
  • I’ve got plenty of screen space; I don’t want the launcher to auto-hide, but it seems that I have no choice.
  • When testing 11.10 in Virtualbox with Ubuntu in a window, the auto-hiding of the launcher can make it very difficult to regain access to it when the mouse moves to the left of the window. It’s better than it was in 11.04, but could still more easily be solved by letting me turn off the auto-hide option. I suspect the same issue would cause problems with remote desktop use.


Problems with the Dash

  • The Dash application launcher appears to have four launcher icons with limited customisation options. Only one of those would I use regularly – why can’t I change the other three to launch whatever I want (e.g. replace “View Photos” with a launcher for Inkscape or Chromium – rather than just a different photo viewer)
  • The keyboard shortcut for opening the Dash isn’t obvious. If you press ALT on the Unity launcher bar, the other launchers get a number associated with them as a keyboard shortcut, but not the Dash. It turns out that it’s bound to the Windows key, but nothing tells you that, you just have to guess. I haven’t found a way to change this, which is a problem given the lack of a Windows key on my keyboard (1984 vintage, with buckling spring keys – far better than the squishy membranes that pass for a modern keyboard)
  • “More Apps” in the Dash gives an uncategorised list that’s essentially useless. You can apply a filter to limit by categories, but that entails an additional click for browsing through each category. At least with the old “Applications” menu, browsing through all the installed applications – by category – was simply a case of moving the mouse.
  • The Dash uses its own UI widgets including “window” buttons which don’t match your chosen theme, and a scrollbar which is only a couple of pixels wide, and sometimes doesn’t respond at all.
  • If you do apply a filter, then close the Filter panel, there’s no indication that the filter’s even applied, which can leave you wondering where all your apps have gone.
  • Do I really need to see “Apps available for download” all the time? With icons the same size as my installed apps? This just distracts me from the visual target I’m actually looking for. If you must include something like this, use much smaller icons aligned to the bottom of the window. Non-installed apps are not as important as my installed ones, don’t give them the same visual priority.
  • The Dash has room for at least three rows of icons. Why do I get one row of installed apps, one row of downloadable apps, and some blank space? Why not show me some more of my installed apps instead?


The Menu Bar

  • My screen is wide enough to easily accommodate both the title of an application and its menu bar – so why does the menu have to be positioned so far to the left that the app name has to fade out beneath it?
  • For that matter, why not show the menu all the time – faded a bit until you mouse over it, if necessary – so that I can see the destination for my mouse moves before I start moving.
  • Of course all this would be a non-issue if I were allowed to turn off the unified single menu and return to the days of in-window menus. Believe me, I’ve got enough screen space for that. But Canonical would prefer to save me a few vertical pixels in each window instead, whether I want it or not (FWIW I have the same issue with the single menu bar on a large-screen Mac; it works well on the smaller screens of old, but is far less efficient when your mouse has to perform a rodent marathon across a large desktop.


There are other issues, but already this is sounding like a whiney list of gripes, so I’ll stop there. The fact is that a lot of these issues don’t need to exist, if it wasn’t for the arrogance of Canonical’s design team and their vision for how a desktop should operate. I don’t want a return to the days of a thousand and one configuration options, but the choices they’ve made increasingly seem aimed at small screens, netbooks, phones and tablets. Are desktop users with large screens really so much of a dying breed that decades of user interface choices can be thrown out so easily?

And I’m aware that some of these issues can be “solved” via hidden configuration options or by downloading additional software. But if you focus on that, you’re missing the point entirely. It’s not that I want every possible configuration option exposed (that’s what drove me away from KDE in the past), it’s that I want at least enough flexibility to be able to set up my launchers and documents where I want them on my computer without having to resort to searching the web for solutions.

I’ve been using Ubuntu since the first release, but increasingly I think 10.10 will be my last. I’m prepared to hang on until 12.04 – the next long term release – to see if things improve, but in the meantime I might just go and grab some other live CDs to give Gnome 3.2, KDE, XFCE and some other options a try…