December 06, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Leaving Earth

Leaving Earth, designed by Joe Fatula, is a game of the exploration of the solar system for 1-5 players.

December 06, 2016 09:00 AM

December 05, 2016

Steve Kennedy

Canon EOS 5D Mark III - The Guide to Understanding and Using Your Camera

This post should have been published a LONG time ago.

O'Reilly are known for their computing books, but they also do technology on other subjects through Rocky Nook. Here's a review on the Canon EOS 5D Mark III - The Guide to Understanding and Using Your Camera from Paul Clark (a professional photographer).

Having worked through the EOS range from 40D, 50D, 5D2 and now to the 5D3, this book has unlocked many things I thought I already knew about Canon digital cameras, even before we get to the new features of the 5D3. It's usefully laid out - in part, going through each menu feature much like the manual does, but adding a lot of When and Why to the How of the manual's basic descriptions. For the first time I really understood what the stopping down preview was all about, and some of the Live View functions. As well as the feature dissection, the book also goes into great detail on some of the really complicated areas that benefit from a chapter to themselves. Focus, and in particular the 5D3's sophisticated autofocus settings are really well explained. I suspect that the actual range of functions is so vast and complex to set up that in the field one would hardly ever have time to do more than a couple of familiar settings, but it's nice to know what's on offer anyway.

The illustrations are clear and plentiful, and the text very readable. I'm a big fan of the style, but if I could pick out one area for improvement it would be a stronger steer towards "what really works" for different shooting scenarios - e.g. which of the many options on focus point selection might work best for a particular settings, or what three custom settings should be the shooter's priority when preparing. There are a few of these "opinions and tips", such as whether the Rate button really offers any value, but there's always room for more in a book like this.

Overall: excellent.

Next time publishing will be in a more timely manner.

by Steve Karmeinsky ( at December 05, 2016 03:27 PM

Roger Bell-West

3d printer notification system

How can I tell when the 3D printer has finished a job, without going down to the cave where it lives and checking it?

December 05, 2016 09:01 AM

December 04, 2016

Roger Bell-West

The Praxis, Walter Jon Williams

2003 space opera, first book of Dread Empire's Fall. The Shaa subjugated the galaxy, binding all the races they met – including humanity – under their universal philosophy, the Praxis. But ten thousand years later, the last Shaa has chosen to die.

December 04, 2016 09:03 AM

December 03, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Boku dake ga Inai Machi

2016 seinen manga adaptation, 12 episodes: AniDB, vtt "Erased" and "The Town Without Me". Fujinuma Satoru sometimes slips back in time to just before a life-threatening accident, which lets him try to correct it. When his mother is murdered, he finds himself thrown back to eighteen years earlier, when he was in elementary school and someone was killing his classmates.

December 03, 2016 09:03 AM

December 02, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Sarah Caudwell

1981 mystery, first of Caudwell's Hilary Tamar series. A young barrister, Julia, is taking a tour in Venice; she gets a gorgeous young man to bed, and a few hours later he's found dead, stabbed, with her copy of the Finance Act next to the body.

December 02, 2016 09:04 AM

December 01, 2016

Roger Bell-West

November 2016 Trailers

Some trailers I've seen recently, and my thoughts on them. (Links are to youtube. Opinions are thoroughly personal.)

December 01, 2016 09:00 AM

November 30, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Rivethead, Ben Hamper

1991 autobiography. Hamper writes about his life working on the GM factory floor in Flint, Michigan.

November 30, 2016 09:04 AM

November 29, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Blindspot, season 1

2015-2016 police procedural, 23 episodes. A woman is found in a bag in Times Square: she's alive, naked, totally amnesiac, and covered with tattoos. The FBI investigates.

November 29, 2016 09:02 AM

November 28, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Overture to Death, Ngaio Marsh

1939 classic English detective fiction; eighth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Miss Campanula was killed by a booby-trapped piano, but was she really the intended victim?

November 28, 2016 09:01 AM

November 27, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Pyramid 95: Overland Adventures

Pyramid, edited by Steven Marsh, is the monthly GURPS supplement containing short articles with a loose linking theme. This time it's wilderness adventures and travel in a fantasy, or at least low-tech, setting.

November 27, 2016 09:00 AM

November 26, 2016

Andy Smith (

Supermicro SATA DOM flash devices don’t report lifetime writes correctly

I’m playing around with a pair of Supermicro SATA DOM flash devices at the moment, evaluating them for use as the operating system storage for servers (as opposed to where customer data goes).

They’re flash devices with a limited write endurance. The smallest model (16GB), for example, is good for 17TB of writes. Therefore it’s important to know how much you’ve actually written to it.

Many SSDs and other flash devices expose the total amount written through the SMART attribute 241, Total_LBAs_Written. The SATA DOM devices do seem to expose this attribute, but right now they say this:

$ for dom in $(sudo lsblk --paths -d -o NAME,MODEL --noheadings |
    awk '/SATA SSD/ { print $1 }')
    echo -n "$dom: "
    sudo smartctl -A "$dom" |
      awk '/^241/ { print $10 * 512 * 1.0e-9, "GB" }'
/dev/sda: 0.00856934 GB
/dev/sdb: 0.00881715 GB

This being after install and (as of now) more than a week of uptime, ~9MB of lifetime writes isn’t credible.

Another place we can look for amount of bytes written is /proc/diskstats. The 10th column is the number of (512-byte) sectors written, so:

$ for dom in $(sudo lsblk -d -o NAME,MODEL --noheadings |
    awk '/SATA SSD/ { print $1 }')
     awk "/$dom / {
        print \$3, \$10 / 2 * 1.0e-6, \"GB\"
    }" /proc/diskstats
sda 3.93009 GB
sdb 3.93009 GB

Almost 4GB is a lot more believable, so can we just use /proc/diskstats? Well, the problem there is that those figures are only since boot. That won’t include, for example, all the data written during install.

Okay, so, are these figures even consistent? Let’s write 100MB and see what changes.

Since the figure provided by SMART attribute 241 apparently isn’t actually 512-byte blocks we’ll just print the raw value there.


$ for dom in $(sudo lsblk -d -o NAME,MODEL --noheadings |
    awk '/SATA SSD/ { print $1 }')
     awk "/$dom / {
        print \$3, \$10 / 2 * 1.0e-6, \"GB\"
    }" /proc/diskstats
sda 4.03076 GB
sdb 4.03076 GB
$ for dom in $(sudo lsblk --paths -d -o NAME,MODEL --noheadings |
  awk '/SATA SSD/ { print $1 }')
    echo -n "$dom: "
    sudo smartctl -A "$dom" |
      awk '/^241/ { print $10 }'
/dev/sda: 16835
/dev/sdb: 17318

Write 100MB:

$ dd if=/dev/urandom bs=1MB count=100 > /var/tmp/one_hundred_megabytes
100+0 records in
100+0 records out
100000000 bytes (100 MB) copied, 7.40454 s, 13.5 MB/s

(I used /dev/urandom just in case some compression might take place or something)


$ for dom in $(sudo lsblk -d -o NAME,MODEL --noheadings |
    awk '/SATA SSD/ { print $1 }')
     awk "/$dom / {
        print \$3, \$10 / 2 * 1.0e-6, \"GB\"
    }" /proc/diskstats
sda 4.13046 GB
sdb 4.13046 GB
$ for dom in $(sudo lsblk --paths -d -o NAME,MODEL --noheadings |
  awk '/SATA SSD/ { print $1 }')
    echo -n "$dom: "
    sudo smartctl -A "$dom" |
      awk '/^241/ { print $10 }'
/dev/sda: 16932
/dev/sdb: 17416

Well, alright, all is apparently not lost: SMART attribute 241 went up by ~100 and diskstats agrees that ~100MB was written too, so it looks like it does actually report lifetime writes, but it’s reporting them as megabytes (109 bytes), not 512-byte sectors.

Every reference I can find says that Total_LBAs_Written is the number of 512-byte sectors, though, so in reporting units of 1MB I feel that these devices are doing the wrong thing.

Anyway, I’m a little alarmed that ~0.1% of the lifetime has gone already, although a lot of that would have been the install. I probably should take this opportunity to get rid of a lot of writes by tracking down logging of mundane garbage. Also this is the smallest model; the devices are rated for 1 DWPD so just over-provisioning by using a larger model than necessary will help.

by Andy at November 26, 2016 04:43 PM

Roger Bell-West

A Case of Spirits, Peter Lovesey

1975 historical detective fiction; sixth of Lovesey's novels of Sergeant Cribb, policeman in Victorian London. Two thefts during séances conducted by the latest fashionable medium attract the attention of the police, but when the next séance ends in a death, mere spiritualism is clearly not the only deception going on.

November 26, 2016 09:04 AM

November 25, 2016

Mark Goodge


I was idly browsing some clickbait linked to on Facebook by a friend of mine, and came across this one:


It made me stop and think. Because there are two completely different messages here, and yet both are really, really important.

The first is the positive one. Your value is in what you are good at, not what you are bad at. If you compare yourself with other people based on what they are good at, you will always feel second best. If you’re trying to be what other people are, you will never succeed. But if you’re aiming to be what you are, then nobody else can match that. Be Ben Carson the neurosurgeon, not Ben Carson the politician. Be you.

The other point is the negative. Expertise is not fungible. Just because someone is good at one thing does not imply they will be good at another. In particular, the political opinions of pop stars are of no more value that the political opinions of the person who works at the next desk to you. The political opinions of a successful and wealthy businessman are no more likely to be right than the opinions of your drinking partner in the pub. Make your own choices, and don’t get sucked in to the cult of celebrity. Listen to Ben Carson’s thoughts on medicine, but don’t listen to his opinions on politics. Ditto for whoever you consider your heroes in music, sport, business, art, religion, science or whatever. Celebrate people for what they are good at, but don’t make the mistake of believing that they have any greater insight into the things outside their métier than you do.

by Mark at November 25, 2016 11:12 PM

Roger Bell-West

November 24, 2016

Steve Kennedy

Tide, now washing the web

Tide, the on-line business account has now moved into beta. The app can be downloaded from Apple's App Store and it's now possible to access Tide through the web (through it ties into the mobile app and certain things will be authorised through the app).

Tide is a new kind of business account designed for small businesses, it's incredibly easy to sign up (takes under 3 minutes), you immediately get a sort code and account number and you can set-up sub accounts too (so say one is your main business and one for consulting). A card arrives a couple of days later which can be used in ATMs, stores and on the web to pay for things.

As posted before there's an invoicing part of the app and the template can be customised with your logos etc and then if it gets paid, it will tie the payment to the invoice, if it isn't paid, the invoiced person can be automagically reminded from time to time.

All transactions can be tagged (like Sales, Loan, whatever) so easy to see what's happening with your money.

If you haven't signed-up, do it now.

p.s. there are no bank charges as such, though some transactional fees will be taken (like in future when accepting card payments through the app).

by Steve Karmeinsky ( at November 24, 2016 05:42 PM

Geek? Get some cheap ebooks

There's a deal on at the moment at Hummbebundle, you can pay what you want (starting at $1), but paying more unlocks more books.

The basic bundle contains: -

  • Unix in a Nutshell, 4th Edition
  • sed & awk, 2nd Edition
  • lex and yacc, 2nd Edition
  • Learning the bash Shell, 3rd Edition
  • Linux Pocket Guide, 3rd Edition

Increasing to $8 gets you: -

  • bash Cookbook
  • Classic Steel Scripting
  • Learning GNU Emacs, 3rd Edition
  • Unix Power Tools
  • Learning the vi and Vim Editors, 7th Edition
  • Bash Pocket Reference, 2nd Edition
  • Learning Unix for OS X, 2nd Edition

And then for $15 you further get: -

  • Essential System Administration, 3rd Edition
  • TCP/IP Network Administration, 3rd Edition
  • DNS and BIND, 5th Edition
  • Network Troubleshooting Tools

The are all O'Reilly books, DRM free and come as Mobi and ePub.

Useful arsenal of tools and for $15, a real bargain.

by Steve Karmeinsky ( at November 24, 2016 01:12 PM

AliveCor Kardia band for Apple Watch

AliveCor make things that can read your ECG (EKG) and they've now released the Kardia band which is an Apple Watch strap.

It's easy to install, just press the release buttons on the underside of the Apple Watch, slide the original straps out and insert the Kardia Band ones (the sensor band goes into the one at the bottom of the Watch).

The watch rebooted after the sensor strap was inserted, but it came back fine.

You need to have the Kardia app installed and register an account, then make sure it's installed on the Apple Watch.

Running the app on the phone doesn't do much (it's designed to work with other AliveCor products). Opening the app on the watch then gives you the option of recording an ECG. It's best to have your hand resting somewhere and not moving much (there are options in the app to select which region you're in and whether you're in a 50Hz or 60Hz mains area).

The sensor strap has two sensors, one underneath the strap and one on top. Say the watch is on your left hand, lay that flat somewhere and place the right hand on to it and your finger on the top sensor. Hit record (well you'd probably do that before, you're given some time before a reading is taken) and a countdown timer starts, stay as still as possible until it finishes. After the reading is taken is does some calculations and you can scroll through your ECG and the watch app tells you if it's normal or not (couldn't test the not normal reading) and you can save the results.

It's possible to allow another user to use the app, but the watch needs to be placed on them.

The band costs £99.00 direct from the AliveCor site in both 388mm and 42mm versions. It's a nice quantified self device to have, but expensive and unless you have a heart problem, don't know if really worth it and have to wait to find out how it affects battery life of the watch.

by Steve Karmeinsky ( at November 24, 2016 11:56 AM

Intel Genuino 101

Well there seems to be a bit of a battle going on in Arduino land, so some of the boards are now known as Genuino (outside of the USA). This board, the 101, is produced by Intel and has a Curie processor (Quark architecture) and a 32bit ARC CPU (not ARM, this is a CPU based on the Argonaut Risc Core - remember Argonaut Software and Jez San), they're both clocked at 32MHz and are 32bit.

Though the board will act like a 'standard' Arduino and can be completely driven through the Arduino IDE, it actually runs an Intel Real Time Operating System (RTOS) that Intel has open sourced and is available through their download centre. When the IDE compiles the code it will do the right things and put the right bits on the correct core.

The 101 should support most UNO and Zero shields, though it's a 3.3V board (though Intel say it will tolerate 5V boards). It's powered either through a dedicated 5V socket or through the USB port. It's NOT microUSB but the older chunky USB B socket.

As well as the 2 cores, there's also a 3 axis accelerometer and 3 axis gyroscope so the board can sense it's spacial direction and movement and it also supports Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) meaning it can do things like become a beacon or talk to your phone.

The tech specs are

Operating Voltage3.3V (5V tolerant I/O)
Digital I/O Pins14 (of which 4 provide PWM output)
PWM Digital I/O Pins4
Analog Input Pins6
DC Current per I/O Pin20 mA
Flash Memory196 kB (though on-board 384KB rest for RTOS)
SRAM24 kB (80KB on-board again rest for RTOS)
Clock Speed32MHz
FeaturesBluetooth LE, 6-axis accelerometer/gyroscope

So altogether a nice little Arduino (sorry Genduino) which is pretty fast and pretty compatible.

Pricing varies considerably on-line and it's available from around £16 all the way up to £35, and its available in a variety of kits.

by Steve Karmeinsky ( at November 24, 2016 11:37 AM

Roger Bell-West

Project Orion, George Dyson

2002 non-fiction: George Dyson, son of Freeman, recounts what can be told of the history of Project Orion, a plan to propel spacecraft with nuclear explosions.

November 24, 2016 09:00 AM

November 23, 2016

Roger Bell-West

The Longest Day

1962 war, dir. Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki and others: IMDb / allmovie

The tale of the D-Day invasion in 1944, with a literal cast of thousands.

November 23, 2016 09:04 AM

November 22, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Slight Mourning, Catherine Aird

1975 detective fiction; sixth of Aird's novels of Inspector Sloan and Constable Crosby. Bill Fent, local landowner, died when his car hit another at a notorious corner… but he'd have been dead before morning anyway, from the poison in his system.

November 22, 2016 09:02 AM

November 21, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Steampunk Rally

Steampunk Rally, designed by Orin Bishop, is a game of racing bizarre inventions… or a card-drafting, engine-building game that uses a racetrack merely as a way of keeping score.

November 21, 2016 09:04 AM

November 20, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Mr Campion and Others, Margery Allingham

1939/1950 collection of short mystery stories featuring Albert Campion.

November 20, 2016 09:04 AM

November 19, 2016

Roger Bell-West

MythBusters 2016 season

2016, 10+2 episodes. If you're reading this you probably know what MythBusters was about, or you can go and find out.

November 19, 2016 09:02 AM

November 18, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Last Bus to Woodstock, Colin Dexter

1975 detective fiction; first of Dexter's novels of Inspector Morse. Two young women wait for the bus out of Oxford one night; one goes to hitch a ride, and her dead body is found the next day.

November 18, 2016 09:01 AM

November 17, 2016

Roger Bell-West


Grifters, designed by Jake Tlapek and David Fulton, is a hand-building game of crime syndicates for 2-4 players.

November 17, 2016 09:01 AM

Zoe O'Connell (Complicity)

Mainstream media attacks on trans healthcare (Again)

There was hand-wringing piece in the Independent yesterday about an Essex pharmacy that provided a journalist with HRT. It’s so bad and on so many levels that I felt it worthy of mentioning here specifically. However, this is hardly an isolated incident – the media have a very long history of trying to scupper trans healthcare, including David Batty’s persecution of doctors practicing trans medicine and past efforts by the BBC, similar to this one, to shut down entirely legal sources of medicine.

Turning back to the Indy piece, sources such as the pharmacy they mention are often a lifeline for people who can’t get medication in any other way. Even having had to wait, sometiems years, to get help many people subsequently find their GPs refuse to prescribe drugs because it goes against their religion, even when recommended by a specialist. Or they live somewhere where they can’t access specialist care without long journeys – there is no Gender Identity Clinic anywhere in Wales, for example. (Fortunately, there are moves afoot to remedy that particular problem)

This isn’t due to a lack of evidence of the effectiveness of health care – research has shown that blocking health care for those seeing transition is extremely dangerous, with the suicide attempt rate for those unable to access services at around 50%.

The Indy also plays up the risks of HRT, which if you believe the tone of the article must be incredibly dangerous, and state that it shouldn’t be “used unmonitored”. However, amongst the long-term-transitioned trans women I know of who have been able to find a stable supply via cooperative and responsible GPs, none are being monitored – because the real world risk for most people is not high enough to make it worth the GP’s time. Progynova is even an over-the-counter medicine in some countries, such as Spain.

In case you’re wondering, the side effects list of an over-the-counter drug in the UK such as Ibuprofen includes difficulty breathing, vomiting blood, stroke, liver failure, heart failure and heart attacks. If there’s a lesson here, it’s “don’t read the side effects list on the leaflets”.

Finally, the headline cites “Fears of ‘DIY transitioning’“. DIY transitioning is exactly what people have been doing for decades because the press and medical establishments have a long history of making it as hard as possible to access treatment.

To be clear, having to defend grey market medication is a far from ideal situation to be in. But it is disingenuous to harp on about the “dangers” of these sources, while ignoring the effects of cutting off that supply. And trawling forums for “exclusives” like this is terribly dangerous and will just force desperate people further and further underground, where they’ll end up being taken advantage of or finding sources of supply that are really dangerous. I imagine many people will be wary of asking for help on that particular Reddit forum after it was cited by the paper.

by Zoe O'Connell at November 17, 2016 08:45 AM

November 16, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Dying Fall, Judith Cutler

1995 mystery; first of Cutler's novels of Sophie Rivers, a teacher in a sixth-form college in Birmingham. Finding one of her students stabbed to death in the lift is bad enough; when her best friend dies in a way that seems plausibly accidental except to people who knew him well, Sophie knows she'll have to look into the situation herself.

November 16, 2016 09:04 AM

November 15, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Kono Subarashii Sekai ni Shukufuku o

2016 fantasy manga adaptation in 10 episodes: Anidb, vt "Konosuba: God's Blessing on This Wonderful World!". Kazuma the shut-in dies in a traffic accident, but a goddess allows him to return to life in another world.

November 15, 2016 09:03 AM

November 14, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Enter the Saint, Leslie Charteris

1930 thriller, second of the Saint series. In three loosely-linked novellas, the Saint takes on a succession of criminals.

November 14, 2016 09:03 AM

November 13, 2016

Roger Bell-West

GURPS Steampunk 1: Settings and Style, Phil Masters

The original GURPS Steampunk was published in 2000: both GURPS and steampunk have moved on since then. This first of what's planned to be a new series of PDF supplements does not replace that book, but "updates and extends" the GURPS treatment of this genre.

November 13, 2016 09:04 AM

November 12, 2016

Sean Cardus

Adventures in homebrewing: Dirty Daemon

Today’s a day of firsts:  The first time I’ve used a yeast starter, the first time I’ve used Star San, using my new immersion cooler and the first time I’ve followed a recipe I’ve customised.

The main change was to down-scale the boil to around 10 litres, with a top-up in the fermentor – The main adjustments made were to the amount of hops required to maintain the required flavour.

My recipe, which I think I’ll call Dirty Daemon, was based on a Zombie Dust clone written by skeezerteezer on  You can find my version of it here.

Here’s some pictures of my brew day:

Heating the water to around 65 degrees Steeping the grains for an hour Time to remove and drain the grain bag Bring to a roiling the boil Almost finished, you can just about see one of the hop bags floating around Using my new immersion cooler to get the wort down to around 20 degrees Yeast pitched and put in the brew fridge to ferment.

It looks like the yeast starter is doing it’s job – Just a couple of hours after pitching the yeast, there’s a big krausen forming on the top – You can just about make it out in the last pic.  Fingers crossed for the next 2 weeks 🙂

by Sean at November 12, 2016 06:48 PM

Roger Bell-West

Cast in Order of Disappearance, Simon Brett

1975 detective fiction; first of Brett's novels of Charles Paris, ageing actor. A friend and occasional lover of Charles's has been dumped by her current sugar daddy, and she asks him to return some compromising photographs. But getting in touch is going to be something of a challenge.

November 12, 2016 09:02 AM

November 11, 2016

Sean Cardus

Adventures in homebrewing: Building a stir plate

I’m planning to brew another batch of beer this weekend, however this one has a much higher estimated Starting Gravity (1.063) than any I’ve made in the past.  Most of the advice I’ve read suggests that making a yeast starter would be a good idea.

The most efficient way of making a yeast starter would be to stick the starter on a stir plate.  “Proper” stir plates can cost anywhere from £50 to over £200!  So, I set about making my own on the cheap.

Armed with the following parts from Amazon, I set to work:

Remove all the rubber feet and then the mesh grills from the fan.  Re-attach 2 of the feet to what will be the “bottom” of the fan on opposite corners & squeeze the lot into the project box.  Glue a couple of magnets to the fan, noting the polarity so the sides facing up oppose each other – Double check with the stir bar to ensure it’s attracted to both magnets at once.

Squeeze the fan into the project box, the 2 rubber feet will hold it in place. Glue a couple of the magnets to the fan, directly opposite each other.  Note the polarity, the sides facing up should oppose each other!

Push the fan into the box, but not too far – You want it so the magnets will spin just below the plastic lid without rubbing or getting caught on the ridges.  Snip a little notch in the plastic on the base & lid of the box to let the cable through and screw the lid on.  With luck powering it up will get you the following:

Test successful!  I've got my own Wizard of Oz whirlpool! Boiling some water with DME Flask, temperature probe, stir plate and flask at the ready! It works!

My starter should be ready for the weekend, when I’ll be giving my Zombie Dust clone a shot…

by Sean at November 11, 2016 03:20 PM

Liam Proven

Why I don't use GNOME Shell

Although the launch of GNOME 3 was a bumpy ride and it got a lot of criticism, it's coming back. It's the default desktop of multiple distros again now. Allegedly even Linus Torvalds himself uses it. People tell me that it gets out of the way.

I find this curious, because I find it a little clunky and obstructive. It looks great, but for me, it doesn’t work all that well. It’s OK — far better than it was 2-3 years ago. But while some say it gets out of the way and lets them work undistracted, it gets in my way, because I have to adapt to its weird little quirks. It will not adapt to mine. It is dogmatic: it says, you must work this way, because we are the experts and we have decided that this is the best way.

So, on OS X or Ubuntu, I have my dock/launcher thing on the left, because that keeps it out of the way of the scrollbars. On Windows or XFCE, I put the task bar there. For all 4 of these environments, on a big screen, it’s not too much space and gives useful info about minimised windows, handy access to disk drives, stuff like that. On a small screen, it autohides.

But not on GNOME, no. No, the gods of GNOME have decreed that I don’t need it, so it’s always hidden. I can’t reveal it by just putting my mouse over there. No, I have to click a strange word in the menu bar. “Activities”. What activities? These aren’t my activities. They’re my apps, folders, files, windows. Don’t tell me what to call them. Don’t direct me to click in a certain place to get them; I want them just there if there’s room, and if there isn’t, on a quick flick of the wrist to a whole screen edge, not a particular place followed by a click. It wastes a bit of precious menu-bar real-estate with a word that’s conceptually irrelevant to me. It’s something I have to remember to do.

That’s not saving me time or effort, it’s making me learn a new trick and do extra work.

The menu bar. Time-honoured UI structure. Shared by all post-Mac GUIs. Sometimes it contains a menu, efficiently spread out over a nice big easily-mousable spatial range. Sometimes that’s in the window; whatever. The whole width of the screen in Mac and Unity. A range of commands spread out.

On Windows, the centre of the title bar is important info — what program this window belongs to.

On the Mac, that’s the first word of the title bar. I read from left to right, because I use a Latinate alphabet. So that’s a good place too.

On GNOME 3, there’s some random word I don’t associate with anything in particular as the first word, then a deformed fragment of an icon that’s hard to recognise, then a word, then a big waste of space, then the blasted clock! Why the clock? Are they that obsessive, such clock-watchers? Mac and Windows and Unity all banish the clock to a corner. Not GNOME, no. No, it’s front and centre, one of the most important things in one of the most important places.


I don’t know, but I’m not allowed to move it.

Apple put its all-important logo there in early versions of Mac OS X. They quickly were told not to be so egomaniac. GNOME 3, though, enforces it.

On Mac, Unity, and Windows, in one corner, there’s a little bunch of notification icons. Different corners unless I put the task bar at the top, but whatever, I can adapt.

On GNOME 3, no, those are rationed. There are things hidden under sub options. In the pursuit of cleanliness and tidiness, things like my network status are hidden away.

That’s my choice, surely? I want them in view. I add extra ones. I like to see some status info. I find it handy.

GNOME says no, you don’t need this, so we’ve hidden it. You don’t need to see a whole menu. What are you gonna do, read it?

It reminds me of the classic Bill Hicks joke:

"You know I've noticed a certain anti-intellectualism going around this country ever since around 1980, coincidentally enough. I was in Nashville, Tennessee last weekend and after the show I went to a waffle house and I'm sitting there and I'm eating and reading a book. I don't know anybody, I'm alone, I'm eating and I'm reading a book. This waitress comes over to me (mocks chewing gum) 'what you readin' for?', I've never been asked that; not 'What am I reading', 'What am I reading for?’ Well, goddamnit, you stumped me... I guess I read for a lot of reasons — the main one is so I don't end up being a f**kin' waffle waitress. Yeah, that would be pretty high on the list. Then this trucker in the booth next to me gets up, stands over me and says [mocks Southern drawl] 'Well, looks like we got ourselves a readah'... aahh, what the fuck's goin' on? It's like I walked into a Klan rally in a Boy George costume or something. Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet here? I read, there I said it. I feel better."

Yeah, I read. I like reading. It’s useful. A bar of words is something I can scan in a fraction of a second. Then I can click on one and get… more words! Like some member of the damned intellectual elite. Sue me. I read.

But Microsoft says no, thou shalt have ribbons instead. Thou shalt click through tabs of little pictures and try and guess what they mean, and we don’t care if you’ve spent 20 years learning where all the options were — because we’ve taken them away! Haw!

And GNOME Shell says, nope, you don’t need that, so I’m gonna collapse it all down to one menu with a few buried options. That leaves us more room for the all-holy clock. Then you can easily see how much time you’ve wasted looking for menu options we’ve removed.

You don’t need all those confusing toolbar buttons neither, nossir, we gonna take most of them away too. We’ll leave you the most important ones. It’s cleaner. It’s smarter. It’s more elegant.

Well, yes it is, it’s true, but you know what, I want my software to rank usefulness and usability above cleanliness and elegance. I ride a bike with gears, because gears help. Yes, I could have a fixie with none, it’s simpler, lighter, cleaner. I could even get rid of brakes in that case. Fewer of those annoying levers on the handlebars.

But those brake and gear levers are useful. They help me. So I want them, because they make it easier to go up hills and easier to go fast on the flat, and if it looks less elegant, well I don’t really give a damn, because utility is more important. Function over form. Ideally, a balance of both, but if offered the choice, favour utility over aesthetics.

Now, to be fair, yes, I know, I can install all kinds of GNOME Shell extensions — from Firefox, which freaks me out a bit. I don’t want my browser to be able to control my desktop, because that’s a possible vector for malware. A webpage that can add and remove elements to my desktop horrifies me at a deep level.

But at least I can do it, and that makes GNOME Shell a lot more usable for me. I can customise it a bit. I can add elements and I could make my favourites bar be permanent, but honestly, for me, this is core functionality and I don’t think it should be an add-on. The favourites bar still won’t easily let me see how many instances of an app are running like the Unity one. It doesn’t also hold minimised windows and easy shortcuts like the Mac one. It’s less flexible than either.

There are things I like. I love the virtual-desktop switcher. It’s the best on any OS. I wish GNOME Shell were more modular, because I want that virtual-desktop switcher on Unity and XFCE, please. It’s superb, a triumph.

But it’s not modular, so I can’t. And it’s only customisable to a narrow, limited degree. And that means not to the extent that I want.

I accept that some of this is because I’m old and somewhat stuck in my ways and I don’t want to change things that work for me. That’s why I use Linux, because it’s customisable, because I can bend it to my will.

I also use Mac OS X — I haven’t upgraded to Sierra yet, so I won’t call it macOS — and anyway, I still own computers that run MacOS, as in MacOS 6, 7, 8, 9 — so I continue to call it Mac OS X. What this tells you is that I’ve been using Macs for a long time — since the late 1980s — and whereas they’re not so customisable, I am deeply familiar and comfortable with how they work.

And Macs inspired the Windows desktop and Windows inspired the Linux desktops, so there is continuity. Unity works in ways I’ve been using for nearly 30 years.

GNOME 3 doesn’t. GNOME 3 changes things. Some in good ways, some in bad. But they’re not my ways, and they do not seem to offer me any improvement over the ways I’m used to. OS X and Unity and Windows Vista/7/8/10 all give me app searching as a primary launch mechanism; it’s not a selling point of GNOME 3. The favourites bar thing isn’t an improvement on the OS X Dock or Unity Launcher or Windows Taskbar — it only delivers a small fraction of the functionality of those. The menu bar is if anything less customisable than the Mac or Unity ones, and even then, I have to use extensions to do it. If I move to someone else’s computer, all that stuff will be gone.

So whereas I do appreciate what it does and how and why it does so, I don’t feel like it’s for me. It wants me to change to work its way. The other OSes I use — OS X daily, Ubuntu Unity daily, Windows occasionally when someone pays me — don’t.

So I don’t use it.

Does that make sense?

November 11, 2016 02:54 PM

Sean Cardus

Adventures in homebrewing…

I’ve recently got back into brewing beer at home again and have made the switch from doing simple pre-made extract kits to following & adjusting extract recipes.  A few weeks ago I brewed my first extract beer, following a friends recipe for an American IPA.  It’s turned out quite nice!

I’ve posted the recipe & source here

Here’s a few pics from my new setup and the brewday (click for fullsize)…

Built a brew fridge from an old spare fridge. The InkBird digital temperature controller and a load of gaffer tape Testing the temperature controller Steeping the grains Hops at the ready Irish moss, sugar and yeast - Ready! Boiling away at last Time to ferment Fermentation temperature set and working Fermentation complete, time to cold-crash Bottled up and ready to condition A crappy label for a tasty beer A crappy label for a tasty beer

Next up: A clone of Zombie Dust IPA…

by Sean at November 11, 2016 02:00 PM

Liam Proven

More of the same -- a rant copied from Facebook. Don't waste your time. ;-)

I'm mainly putting this here to keep it around, as writing it clarified some of my thinking about technological generations.


You're absolutely right, Jim.

The last big advances were in the 1990s, and since then, things have just stagnated. There are several reasons why -- like all of real life, it's complex.

Firstly, many people believe that computing (and _personal_ computing) began with the 8-bits of the late 1970s: the Commodore PETs, Apple ][s and things. That before them, there were only big boring mainframes and minicomputers, room-sized humming boxes managing bank accounts.

Of course, it didn't. In the late '60s and early '70s, there was an explosion of design creativity, with personal workstations -- Lisp Machines, the Xerox PARC machines: the Alto, Star, Dandelion and so on. There were new cutting-edge designs, with object-oriented languages, graphical user interfaces, networking, email and the internet. All before the 8-bit microprocessors were invented.

Then what happened is a sort of mass extinction event, like the end of the dinosaurs. All the weird clever proprietary operating systems were overtaken by the rise of Unix, and all the complex, very expensive personal workstations were replaced with microcomputers.

But the early micros were rubbish -- so low-powered and limited that all the fancy stuff like multitasking was thrown away. They couldn't handle Unix or anything like it. So decades of progress was lost, discarded. We got rubbish like MS-DOS instead: one program, one task, 640kB of memory, and only with v2 did we get subdirectories and with v3 proper hard disk support.

A decade later, by the mid-to-late 1980s, the micros had grown up enough to support GUIs and sound, but instead of being implemented on elegant grown-up multitasking OSes, we got them re-implemented, badly, on primitive OSes that would fit into 512kB of RAM on a floppy-only computer -- so we got ST GEM, Acorn RISC OS, Windows 2. No networking, no hard disks -- they were too expensive at first.

Then a decade after that, we got some third-generation 32-bit micros and 3rd-gen microcomputer OSes, which brought back networking and multitasking: things like OS/2 2 and Windows NT. But now, the users had got used to fancy graphics and sound and whizzy games, which the first 32-bit 3rd-gen OSes didn't do well, so most people stuck with hybrid 16/32-bit OSes like Windows 9x and MacOS 8 and 9 -- they didn't multitask very well, but they could play games and so on.

Finally, THREE WHOLE DECADES after the invention of the GUI and multitasking workstations and everything connected via TCP/IP networking, we finally got 4th-gen microcomputer OSes: things like Windows XP and Mac OS X. Both the solid multitasking basis with networking and security, AND the fancy 3D graphics, video playback etc.

It's all been re-invented and re-implemented, badly, in a chaotic mixture of unsuitable and unsafe programming languages, but now, everyone's forgotten the original way these things were done -- so now, we have huge, sprawling, messy OSes and everyone thinks it's normal. They are all like that, so that must be the only way it can be done, right? If there was another way, someone would have done it.

But of course, they did do it, but only really old people remember it or saw it, so it's myth and legend. Nobody really believes in it.

Nearly 20y ago, I ran BeOS for a while: a fast, pre-emptive multitasking, multithreaded, 3D and video capable GUI OS with built-in Internet access and so on. It booted to the desktop in about 5 seconds. But there were few apps, and Microsoft sabotaged the only hardware maker to bundle it.

This stuff _can_ be done better: smaller, faster, simpler, cleaner. But you can't have that and still have compatibility with 25y worth of DOS apps or 40y worth of Unix apps.

So nobody used it and it died. And now all we have is bloatware, but everyone points at how shiny it is and if you give it a few billion kB of RAM and Flash storage, it actually starts fairly quickly and you only need to apply a few hundred security fixes a year. We are left with junk reimplemented on a basis of more junk and because it's all anyone knows they think it's the best it could be.

November 11, 2016 11:30 AM

Roger Bell-West

World Service Pi

My wife likes to listen to the radio at night. But Radio 4 is getting increasingly annoying (even I notice this; I don't listen to the speech, but I do pick up the vocal intonations, which over the last couple of years have become increasingly aggressive even when the subject is not one that would seem to deserve it) and the World Service is preferred.

November 11, 2016 09:04 AM

November 10, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Earth Flight, Janet Edwards

2014 young adult science fiction, third in the Earth Girl trilogy. Jarra is Handicapped, unable to leave Earth for any of the colony worlds where most of society now happens, but she's also a famous hero. Which means she's now become a symbol, both for those who want to bring the Handicapped more into society and for those who resist that trend.

November 10, 2016 09:04 AM

November 09, 2016

Roger Bell-West

SpringCon 22 October 2016

Back to this small quarterly boardgames convention in Watford. With images; cc-by-sa on everything.

November 09, 2016 09:04 AM

November 08, 2016

Roger Bell-West

My Drunk Kitchen, Hannah Hart

2014 non-fiction. Hannah Hart, youtuber, shares recipes and her philosophy of life.

November 08, 2016 09:03 AM

November 07, 2016

Roger Bell-West

The X-Files season 10

2016, 6 episodes. FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully continue to look into strange occurrences.

November 07, 2016 09:01 AM

November 06, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Death in a White Tie, Ngaio Marsh

1938 classic English detective fiction; seventh of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Someone's blackmailing London's high society as the Season begins, and Alleyn asks a friend who moves in those circles to look into it; murder will be done.

November 06, 2016 09:02 AM

November 05, 2016

Roger Bell-West

GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 3: Born of Myth & Magic, Peter dell'Orto

This third Dungeon Fantasy Monsters book deal with monsters of known mythic origins, and expands on the popular "magical mistakes" category of monster.

November 05, 2016 09:01 AM

November 04, 2016

Roger Bell-West

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Alan Bradley

2011 historical mystery; fourth in Bradley's series about Flavia de Luce, young amateur sleuth in 1950s Britain. As Christmas approaches, Buckshaw is let to a film crew who'll be making The Cry of the Raven, starring the famous Phyllis Wyvern. But not all of the company will be leaving again.

November 04, 2016 09:00 AM

November 03, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Essen 2016

In mid-October I went once more to Internationale Spieltage SPIEL, or "Essen" as it's generally known in the boardgaming world.

November 03, 2016 09:00 AM

November 02, 2016

Jess Rowbottom

Album Reviews & Coverage

Three weeks to go until the album launch gig (got your tickets yet?) and a little pile of press coverage has come in – mostly positive, the odd bit of “yeah she dropped the ball at that point”, but generally damn fine. Colour me pleased!

Let’s start with Tom Newton at Yorkshire Evening Post, who said in his review:

“This is a time capsule of an artist bringing life and light to not only their own experiences, but that of others. Personal yet accessible, tongue in cheek but with a stiletto firmly on the dancefloor, The Bleeding Obvious’ debut feels like a passport to a happy land.”

SleepingBagStudios in Canada wrote a generally positive track-by-track breakdown:

“Great depth, great ideas that are truly unique and a genuinely professional approach to making these songs spring to life with charisma, charm and real character.  Green light to this project – The Bleeding Obvious have certainly created authentic & entertainment with all kinds of new ideas for your ears to absorb.”

Indie music blog JamSphere had some nice long words to say:

“There’s great depth here, fantastic dance tracks, majestic melancholy and just brilliant pop music with a theatrical flavor that fits almost as well into today’s scene as it would have done 2 decades ago – and sometimes even more than that if you take into consideration retro tracks like “You and I (Always Fighting)” and “Not Dead (Yet)”.”

Another music review blog Beach Sloth Records wrote another track-by-track breakdown, albeit short and sweet, and had this to say about the whole thing inadvertently comparing it to an album by my favourite band:

“Reminiscent of Saint Etienne’s “So Tough” the way the songs unfurl is quite extraordinary. Narratives form throughout the album, of love, loss, and a sense of purpose. The hope that ties together the entire album serves as its greatest unifier, for it helps to further emphasize the warmth of the arrangements.”

Laundry Day Records wrote a review for their blog The Spin Cycle, making the suggestion:

“Upbeat in nature, the bass and drums pulse and sway, then snap back tight to the groove. Fun, smart lyrics, and full of class, this record is one you’ll want to leave in the car for those long drives, or in your kitchen for late night dance parties.”

Alongside the reviews, RidingsFM in Wakefield were the first non-Internet radio station to play a track (Splendid! in this case) and made The Bleeding Obvious their act of the week. Really pleased with that, most of the reviews have been outside the UK so it’s nice to have something close to home.

In terms of chatty stuff, I did an interview for LE Review Club where I talked about what made the album tick, how come the orchestra collaboration came about, what my favourite song on the album is, and what you might expect at the aforementioned launch gig. Finally there was a Q&A with On:Yorkshire Magazine where you get to find out what my musical indulgence might be.

You can preorder the album in digital format on iTunes and Amazon, and if you prefer physical media (vinyl or CD) or FLAC you can preorder a copy on Bandcamp.

Oh, and here’s a video – the final track on the album…


by Jess at November 02, 2016 12:52 PM

Roger Bell-West

The Collapse of Western Civilization, Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes

2014 science fiction. A nameless scholar of the Second Chinese Republic looks back from the year 2393 on the Penumbral Age that brought western civilisation to its close.

November 02, 2016 09:01 AM

November 01, 2016

Roger Bell-West

October 2016 Trailers

Some trailers I've seen recently, and my thoughts on them. (Links are to youtube. Opinions are thoroughly personal.)

November 01, 2016 09:00 AM

October 31, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Artists in Crime, Ngaio Marsh

1938 classic English detective fiction; sixth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. At an informal residential art school, the model has been murdered – by a method all the students had talked about some days before.

October 31, 2016 09:01 AM

October 30, 2016

Roger Bell-West

YSDC Games Day 5

Fifth in this series of one-day conventions in bustling metropolitan Baildon (suburban Bradford). All images are cc-by-sa.

October 30, 2016 09:00 AM

October 29, 2016

Roger Bell-West

A Red Herring Without Mustard, Alan Bradley

2011 historical mystery; third in Bradley's series about Flavia de Luce, young amateur sleuth in 1950s Britain. A missing baby, an assault on a Gypsy (sic) fortune-teller, and a murder in Flavia's own home will all turn out to be connected.

October 29, 2016 08:04 AM

October 28, 2016

Roger Bell-West

Thirsty Meeples October 2016

Back to the boardgame café again, on my birthday. There may have been beer beforehand. With images; cc-by-sa on everything.

October 28, 2016 08:02 AM

October 27, 2016

Roger Bell-West

The Mystery of the Yellow Room, Gaston Leroux

1907 mystery. Mlle Stangerson, daughter of the famous scientist, locked herself into her bedroom… then came the sound of a struggle, shouts of "Murder", and gunfire. When her father broke down the door, she was seriously injured and the only person there – and the window-bars had not been moved.

October 27, 2016 08:00 AM

October 26, 2016

Steve Kennedy

Ring your bell, ring your Oi

Another day, another Kickstarter project. This time it's a bicycle bell made by Australian firm Knog who seems to make a variety of bike accessories (lights, locks, computers, toolsets) and now bells.

The Oi bell is different from other bells, it's circular and fits around the handlebars (it's easier just to look at the picture).

The bell materials available are aluminium, brass, copper, and black (though only copper and brass seem to be available at the moment) and it was also available in Titanium via Kickstarter.

It comes in two sizes, small and large - fitting 22.2mm and 23.8 to 31.8mm handlebars respectively.

The chime is quite pleasant and the design is definitely different.

It's available to buy on-line for €19.99 through the Knog site

by Steve Karmeinsky ( at October 26, 2016 06:55 PM

Kobo Aura ONE eReader

Kobo have been making eReaders for a while, but have never quite got the market penetration (compared to their book selling rival).

The Aura ONE is a nice unit. It's bigger than the competition (the screen is a 7.8 inch Carta display with a resolution of 1872 x 1404 at 300ppi). It weighs 226g. So it's about the same size as a paperback book and weighs about the same (195.1 x 138.5 x 6.9 mm). It charges via microUSB and battery life is up to a month (varying by usage of course). The display is backlit and it has a light sensor which will adjust the colour of the front light to suit ambient surroundings (and time of day, so it will reduce the blue content at night - which can potentially affect sleeping technology called ComfortLight PRO).

Several standard book formats are supported, including the most popular ePUP, ePUP3, PDF and MOBI. It can also display several image formats and comic book formats (CBZ and CBR).

The main new feature however is the water resistance, it can survive getting wet (IPX8 i.e. an hour in up to 2 meters of water). If reading in the bath is your fancy, this is the reader for you (or even in the shower, though that's less practical). It's probably usable on a beach too, though salt-water tends to mess things up really badly if it does get into the electronics.

When plugged into a Mac/PC it appears as an external USB disk and books can just be dropped on to the device. Once unmounted (ejected) the books are 'processed' and put into the library ready for reading. Trying both a ePub and MOBI version of the same book (O'Reilly tech book), though the Kobo would read both, the MOBI version caused the Kobi to become very sluggish and reacting to page changes or going back 'home' took a while. The ePub version reacted quickly without problems. PDF's were sluggish too and caused various bits of the screen to flash as pages loaded and moved between bits of the screen.

If you have an account on the Kobo store, it's easy to download a book, just find the one you want, tap on it and it will download.

It's also possible to borrow books from your local library (assuming there's still any left in your area) using the Overdrive service. All you need is a library card and books can be requested. You'll be warned (3 days) when the book needs to be returned, then you can re-request it if you haven't finished it. The list of libraries is available here.

Assuming you stick to ePubs it's not a bad eReader and being waterproof is a nice feature. It's a shame MOBI/PDF aren't handled better.

The Kobo Aura ONE is available on-line for £189.99 which is a lot cheaper the Amazon's top of the range eReader, but a lot more expensive than their basic ones, though it's bigger and more book like. Oddly the Kobo site doesn't have availability at the moment.

by Steve Karmeinsky ( at October 26, 2016 06:34 PM

Roger Bell-West

Kobo warranty service

Well, everyone has a terrible customer service story.

October 26, 2016 08:03 AM

October 25, 2016

Roger Bell-West

The Fashion in Shrouds, Margery Allingham

1938 classic English detective fiction; tenth of Allingham's novels of Albert Campion. Georgia Wells, actress and femme fatale, attracts men like moths. But somehow, just as they start to get troublesome, they seem to die. Is Georgia less silly, and more dangerous, than she appears?

October 25, 2016 08:04 AM

October 24, 2016

Liam Proven

Playing "what if" with the history of IT

Modern OSes are very large and complicated beasts.

This is partly because they do so many different things: the same Linux kernel is behind the OS for my phone, my laptop, my server, and probably my router and the server I'm posting this on.

Much the same is true of Windows and of most Apple products.

So they have to be that complex, because they have to do so many things.

This is the accepted view, but I maintain that this is at least partly cultural and partly historical.

Some of this stuff, like the story that “Windows is only so malware-vulnerable because Windows is so popular; if anything else were as popular, it’d be as vulnerable” is a pointless argument, IMHO, because lacking access to alternate universes, we simple cannot know.

So, look, let us consider, as a poor parallel, the industry’s own history.

Look at Windows in the mid to late 1990s as an instance.

Because MS was busily developing a whole new OS, NT, and it couldn’t do everything yet, it was forced to keep maintaining and extending an old one: DOS+Win9x.

So MS added stuff to Win98 that was different to the stuff it was adding to NT.

Some things made it across, out of sync…

NT 3.1 did FAT16, NTFS and HPFS.

Win95 only did FAT. So MS implemented VFAT: long filenames on FAT.

NT 3.1 couldn’t see them; NT 3.5 added that.
Then Win 95B added FAT32. NT 3.5 couldn’t read FAT32; it was added in 3.51 (IIRC).

Filesystems are quite fundamental — MS did the work to keep the 2 lines able to interwork

But it didn’t do it with hardware support. Not back then.

Win95: APM, Plug’n’Play, DirectX.
Later, DirectX 2 with Direct3D.
Win95B: USB1.
Win98: USB2, ACPI; GDI+.
Win98SE: basic Firewire camera-only support; Wake-on-LAN; WDM modems/audio.
WinME: USB mass storage & HID; more complete Firewire; S/PDIF.

(OK, NT 4 did include DirectX 2.0 and thus Direct3D. There were rumours that it only did software rendering on NT and true hardware-accelerated 3D wasn’t available until Windows 2000. NT had OpenGL. Nothing much used it.)

A lot of this stuff only came to the NT family with XP in 2002. NT took a long time to catch up.

My point here is that, in the late ‘90s, Windows PCs became very popular for gaming, for home Internet access over dialup, for newly-capable Windows laptops which were becoming attractive for consumers to own. Windows became a mass-market product for entertainment purposes.

And all that stuff was mainly supported on Win9x, _not_ on NT, because NT was at that time being sold to business as a business OS for business desktop computers and servers. It was notably bad as a laptop OS. It didn’t have PnP, its PCMCIA/Cardbus support and power management was very poor, it didn’t support USB at all, and so on.

Now, imagine this as an alternate universe.

In ours, as we know, MS was planning to merge its OS lines. Sensible plan, the DOS stuff was a legacy burden. But what if it wasn’t? Say it had developed Win9x as the media/consumer OS and NT as the business OS?

This is only a silly thought experiment, don’t try to blow it down by pointing out why not to do it. We know that.

They had a unified programming model — Win32. Terrified of the threat of the DoJ splitting them up, they were already working on its successor, the cross-platform .NET.

They could have continued both lines: one supporting gaming and media and laptops, with lots of special driver support for those. The other supporting servers and business desktops, not supporting all the media bells and whistles, but much more solid.

Yes it sounds daft, but this is what actually happened for the best part of 6 years, from 1996 and the releases of NT 4 and Win 95 OSR2 until Windows XP in 2002.

Both could run MS Office. Both could attach to corporate networks and so on. But only one was any good for gaming, and only the other if you wanted to run SQL Server or indeed any kind of server, firewall, whatever.

Both were dramatically smaller than the post-merger version which does both.

The tendency has been to economise, to have one do-everything product, but for years, they couldn’t do that yet, so there were 2 separate OS teams, and both made major progress, both significantly advanced the art. The PITA “legacy” platform went through lots of releases, steadily gaining functionality, as I showed with that list above, but it was all functionality that didn’t go into the enterprise OS, which went through far fewer releases — despite it being the planned future one.

Things could have gone differently. It’s hard to imagine now, but it’s entirely possible.

If IBM had committed to OS/2 being an 80386 OS, then its early versions would have been a lot better, properly able to run and even multitask DOS apps. Windows 3 would never have happened. IBM and MS would have continued their partnership for longer; NT might never have happened at all, or DEC would have kept Dave Cutler and PRISM might have happened.

If Quarterdeck had been a bit quicker with it, DESQview/X might have shipped before Windows 3, and been a far more compelling way of running DOS apps on a multitasking GUI OS. The DOS world might have been pulled in the Unix-like direction of X.11 and TCP/IP, instead of MS’s own in-house GUI and Microsoft and Novell’s network protocols.

If DR had moved faster with DR-DOS and GEM — and Apple hadn’t sued — a 3rd party multitasking DOS with a GUI could have made Windows stillborn. They had the tech — it went into Flex/OS but nobody’s heard of it.

If the later deal between a Novell-owned DR and Apple had happened, MacOS 7 would have made the leap to the PC platform:

(Yes, it sounds daft, but this was basically equivalent to Windows 95, 3 years earlier. And for all its architectural compromises, look how successful Win95 was: 40 million copies in the first year. 10x what any previous version did.)

Maybe Star Trek would have bridged the gap and instead of NeXT Apple bought Be instead and migrated us to BeOS. I loved BeOS even more than I loved classic MacOS. I miss it badly. Others do too, which is why Haiku is still slowly moving forward, unlike almost any other non-Unix FOSS OS.

If the competing GUI computers of the late 1980s had made it into the WWW era, notably the Web 2.0 era, they might have survived. The WWW and things like Java and JavaScript make real rich cross-platform apps viable. I am not a big fan of Google Docs, but they are actually usable and I do real, serious, paying work with them sometimes.

So even if they couldn’t run PC or Mac apps, a modern Atari ST or Commodore Amiga or Acorn RISC OS system with good rich web browsers could be entirely usable and viable. They died before the tech that could have saved them, but that’s partly due to mismanagement, it’s not some historical inevitability.

If the GNU project had adopted the BSD kernel, as it considered, and not wasted effort on the HURD, Linux would never have happened and we’d have had a viable FOSS Unix several years earlier.

This isn’t entirely idle speculation, IMHO. I think it’s instructive to wonder how and where things might have gone. The way it happened is only one of many possible outcomes.

We now have effectively 3 mass-market OSes, 2 of them Unixes: Windows NT (running on phones, xBoxes and PCs), Linux (including Android), and macOS/iOS. All are thus multipurpose, doing everything from small devices to enterprise servers. (Yes, I know, Apple’s stopped pushing servers, but it did once: the Xserve made it to quad-core Xeons & its own RAID hardware.)

MS, as one company with a near-monopoly, had a strong incentive to only support one OS family, and it’s done it even when it cost it dearly — for instance, moving the phones to the NT kernel was extremely costly and has essentially cost them the phone market. Windows CE actually did fairly well in its time.

Apple, coming back from a weak position, had similar motivations.

What if instead the niches were held by different companies? If every player didn’t try to do everything and most of them killed themselves trying?

What if we’d had, say, in each of the following market sectors, 1-2+ companies with razor sharp focus aggressively pushing their own niches…

* home/media/gaming
* enterprise workstations
* dedicated laptops (as opposed to portable PCs)
* enterprise servers
* pocket PDA-type devices

And there are other possibilities. The network computer idea was actually a really good one IMHO. The dedicated thin client/smart terminal is another possible niche.

There are things that came along in the tech industry just too late to save players that were already moribund. The two big ones I’m thinking of were the Web, especially the much-scorned-by-techies (including me) Web 2, and FOSS. But there are others — commodity hardware.

I realise that now, it sounds rather ludicrous. Several companies, or at least product lines, destroyed themselves trying to copy rivals too closely — for instance, OS/2. Too much effort trying to be “a better DOS than DOS, a better Windows than Windows”, rather than trying to just be a better OS/2.

Apple didn’t try this with Mac OS X. OS X wasn’t a better Classic MacOS, it was an effectively entirely new OS that happened to be able to run Classic MacOS in a VM. (I say effectively entirely new, because OS X did very little to try to appeal to NeXT owners or users. Sure, they were rich, but there weren’t many of them, whereas there were lots of Mac owners.)

What I am getting at here, in my very very long-winded way, is this.

Because we ended up with a small number of players, each of ‘em tried to do everything, and more or less succeeded. The same OS in my phone is running the server I’ll be posting this message to, and if I happened to be using a laptop to write this, it’d be the same OS as on my PC.

If I was on my (dual-booting) Win10 laptop and was posting this to a blog on CodePlex or something, it’d be the same thing, but a different OS. If MS still offered phones with keyboards, I’d not object to a Windows phone — that’s why I switched to a Blackberry — but as it is Windows phones don’t offer anything I can’t get elsewhere.

But if the world had turned out differently, perhaps, unified by FOSS, TCP/IP, HTML, Java and Javascript, my phone would be a Symbian one — because I did prefer it, dammit — and my laptop would be a non-Unix Apple machine and my desktop an OS/2 box and they’d be talking to DEC servers. For gaming I’d fire up my Amiga-based console.

All talking over Dropbox or the like, all running Google Docs instead of LibreOffice and ancient copies of MS Word.

It doesn’t sound so bad to me. Actually, it sounds great.

Look at the failure of Microsoft’s attempt to converge its actually-pretty-good tablet interface with its actually-pretty-good desktop UI. Bombed, may yet kill them.

Look at Ubuntu’s failure to deliver its converged UI yet. As Scott Gilbertson said:

Before I dive into what's new in Ubuntu 16.10, called Yakkety Yak, let's just get this sentence out of the way: Ubuntu 16.10 will not feature Unity 8 or the new Mir display server.

I believe that's the seventh time I've written that since Unity 8 was announced and here we are on the second beta for 16.10.

And yet look at how non-techies are perfectly happy moving from Windows computers to Android and iPhones, despite totally different UIs. They have no problems at all. Different tools for different jobs.

From where we are, the idea of totally different OSes on different types of computer sounds ridiculous, but I think that’s a quirk of the market and how things happened to turn out. At different points in the history of the industry _as it actually happened_ things went very differently.

Microsoft is a juggernaut now, but for about 10 years from the mid ‘80s and early ’90s, the world completely ignored Windows and bought millions of Atari STs and Commodore Amigas instead. Rich people bought Macs.

The world still mostly ignores FreeBSD, but NeXT didn’t, and FreeBSD is one of the parents of Mac OS X and iOS, both loved by hundreds of millions of happy customers.

This is not the best of all possible worlds.

But because our PCs are so fast and so capacious, most people seem to think it is, and that is very strange to me.

As it happens, we had a mass extinction event. It wasn’t really organised enough to call it a war. It was more of an emergent phenomenon. Microsoft and Apple didn’t kill Atari and Commodore; Atari and Commodore killed each other in a weird sort of unconscious suicide pact.

But Windows and Unix won, and history is written by the winners, and so now, everyone seems to think that this was always going to be and it was obvious and inevitable and the best thing.

It wasn’t.

And it won’t continue to be.

October 24, 2016 04:36 PM