Bag of Spoons
Just off the A1(M)

Thu, 26 Feb 2009


I've been considering recently whether I should use Gmail as my primary email application. I've used other web mail in the past, starting with Rocketmail that, I think, was taken over by Yahoo. I still have a Yahoo account, but only really use it for their Groups, especially Freecycle. I managed to get a Gmail invitation soon after it started via a site where people were passing on their spare invitations and was able to get my standard user name. The service was innovative when it started and has gained many features. I've not exploited all of them, but then I've been using it as a secondary account.

My main account is on this domain. I use Kontact to access it, but have used Thunderbird in the past. There is web access via SquirrelMail, but it's clunky compared to Gmail. I set up Gmail to access this account and it works quite well for that. I can make it use my mail address for outgoing email too, so my Gmail address is almost redundant. This is how I handle email when not at home. The down sides are that my outgoing emails are only on the originating system and there can be a delay before Gmail picks up new mail. There also might be issues with handling encrypted email on Gmail, whereas Kontact does GPG nicely. Not that I'm doing much encryption as few of my contacts use it.

Of course Gmail is not totally reliable. It was down for a couple of hours this week. That's not a big issue with my low volume of email and my own server has been down on occasion. Generally I would expect Google to maintain pretty high reliability. They can afford massive redundancy in hardware. They also do pretty good spam filtering.

When I got my new phone I was wondering how to synchronise my calendar and contacts with either my PC or Google. This was just as Google announced Activesync functionality. I've used that and it generally works. I had been using their calendar for a while so that I could see it from work.

So what reasons are there to not use Gmail and how do I make the most of it?

[22:07] | [Internet] | Comments | G

Great music

Here's the latest from the lovely Lobelia. I've been following her and her amazing bass-playing husband Steve Lawson for a while now and have seen them twice live. They are making wonderful music outside the mainstream music industry and relying on fans and friends to spread the word. They both deserve to be better know.

You can stream or download these tracks from her new album, with more to come soon.

[13:43] | [Music] | Comments | G

Sat, 14 Feb 2009

More Intrepid

I've had a week with Kubuntu 8.10 now. Most stuff is working, but there are still a few issues.

I've not investigated the memory card issue too much, but did find that I had to manually mount a CD, so perhaps the auto-mount is not working. Previously in Konqueror I had a view of storage devices via the Services tab, but that now says Protocol not supported. The Home tab doesn't work either. Could this be due to old settings?

I can use the binary nvidia driver it insists on starting up in 1920x1440, which is too high for my old 19" CRT. The strange thing is that I only have to open the Display settings screen for it to flip to 1280x1024. I don't even know where the resolution settings are stored. xorg.conf used to have all this, but these days there is very little in the file. I'm also getting a few graphical glitches where icons to not appear or windows are temporarily corrupted. This is annoying, but I can sort of live with it.

I've been trying to get my printer working. It's an old Canon i455 that has never had a free driver. I can print using a driver for a different Canon, but the quality is limited. Years ago I bought Turboprint (which I bought years earlier for my Amiga). That was working fine before the upgrade, but now I can't get it to output anything. I've tried various settings with no success.

I found this week that I could not stream from in Amarok. I was using the old 1.4 version and apparently turned off the protocol that used. So I managed to install version 2. That looks very different and didn't use the old settings, so I had to set things like my podcasts up again, but streaming is working again. There are a few things I don't like about the new Amarok, but it's still the best music listening application I've used. I'm reviewing what podcasts I will subscribe to. I like geeky stuff. There's so much choice out there. The new SpokenWord site looks like a good resource.

I'd heard good things of the game World of Goo and today found out that this is a demo for Linux. I grabbed the deb file, installed and it ran fine. It's a puzzle game that involves building structures of 'goo' to reach goals. I think the kids will like it and I may have a play too. The graphics are nicely organic.

[21:23] | [Computer] | Comments | G

Sat, 07 Feb 2009

Intrepid explorer

After must procratination I finally got my main PC running the latest release of Kubuntu Linux, 8.10, AKA Intrepid Ibex. I could have attempted an upgrade, but my system seems to have built up a few issues over the last couple of years and I hoped that a fresh install might resolve these by undoing anything I might have messed up in the configuration.

I prepared by backing up the whole system to my USB drive and making notes of things like the drive partitions and the user names. I booted off the install CD and used that to get a desktop to check that everything looked okay. From there it was a matter of running the install which asked a few questions about language, location and partitioning, then a matter of minutes later I was rebooting into the new version. I kept my data and home partitions, so most of my settings have been preserved. Email and other apps required no set-up.

I hadn't been able to use the proprietary nvidia driver for a while, but now my hardware was detected and I was prompted to install it. My kids will be happy that they can play 3D games again. I've got some cool 3D desktop effects to play with.

This upgrade moves me from KDE3 to V4. This is a radical reworking that will take some getting used to. The system menu works differently, with a scroll bar! I've not found all software where I expected it to be, but there is a search. The main panel needs some tweaking to fit my needs and the fonts seem larger than they should be. I need to read up on what has changed.

I've been installing the various software I use. Adding the Medibuntu repository gave me Skype and Google Earth. I've also installed the non-free Flash, but I need these to operate with the family. I need to set up MythTV again if I want to record TV.

Mostly it is doing what I need, but I have encountered a couple of issues. I can't seem to read SD cards with my reader and the Bluetooth adaptor I was using before with my phone is not working either. I've seen a few people mentioning the latter on the forums.

My webcam still works with Skype and Cheese. I also tested my Zoom H4 audio recorder/interface that had issues before and it worked fine with Audacity. Perhaps this will encourage me to do some multi-tracking at last.

Overall I'm glad that the install went so smoothly and happy that it fixed a few of my issues. I just hope that I can resolve the couple of issues above. I'll be trawling the excellent Ubuntu Forums for answers. A Stack Overflow style site might make it easier to find solutions to specific issues as the forms can get clogged with long threads and duplicate questions.

[21:54] | [Computer] | Comments | G

Tue, 03 Feb 2009

New phone

After much procrastination I finally bought myself the phone I had been considering. The price on ebay was too good to turn down. My old phone was falling apart and it's about time I got a bit more up to date. This is my first 'smartphone' and the first with Bluetooth or Wifi. These open up a few possibilities, but may involve further expenditure.

I don't expect to use mobile internet too often. On my Virgin PAYG plan I can get a day's access for 30p, but I don't expect that will be very quick. I've tested it with my home wifi and web pages load fairly fast. Usability is more of a problem. Entering URLs and navigating pages takes a lot of button presses. I may well be missing out on some tricks to improve this. Wifi is available in lots of places now, but cost seems to vary widely. I can imagine that I may want to check email if I'm away from a PC for an extended period and perhaps look something up on the web, but have managed without so far. Let's see how tempted I get to use it.

Bluetooth creates other opportunities. I often listen to podcasts in the car by burning them to CD. I had been considering a new radio that would take flash memory, but I know there are some that can stream via Bluetooth. That may be more versatile and give me hands-free. Obviously I don't want to be fiddling with tiny phone buttons too much whilst driving. I expect to use the phone to listen to music and other audio in other places. I shall need to get a Micro SD card for this. They seem incredibly cheap these days. I'll have to use the included headphones for now as they use a mini-USB connection for which there does not seem to be much in the way of adaptors for standard 3.5mm connectors. Someone blogged about his experiments in getting around this, but he eventually gave up on the phone, partly due to noise issues. I'm hoping the noise is not bad enough to stop me using the phone instead of my old PDA. Part of the reason for getting this phone is so that I don't need to carry multiple devices.

The phone runs Windows Mobile 6. There's plenty of software for it, but I need to find some basic applications to suit my needs. Those I anticipate so far are:

I'm not looking to spend a lot on software, but am willing to pay a few quid for the right application.

I'd like to carry some data around including contacts and calendar. Ideally these would be synchronised with my main databases. I have this information in Kontack on my Linux box, but have been tending to use Google Calendar so that I can access it elsewhere. I've heard that it is possible to synchronise some Google apps with WM6. In fact I am tempted to switch fully over to Gmail rather than just using it to poll my main account for access away from home. I could still use my personal domain as an address. Are there any downsides to just using Gmail?

Having just used simple phones in the past I'm a bit lost in this new world. I've not really kept up with developments in how people use their mobile devices. So what can I have fun with that will not break the bank?

Finally, here's a group shot of the phones I've used over the last 10 years or so, starting with my first, bulky Motorola.

Phone family
[21:49] | [Gadgets] | Comments | G

Tue, 13 Jan 2009

Compromising freedom

I try to use open source software and open standards as much as I can. I try to persuade others to do likewise, but I end up using various proprietary systems anyway. I think that nearly all of those are so that I can participate in social networks.

I use Skype to communicate with family and colleagues because it has become the default for VOIP. I know there are open VOIP platforms, but I don't have time to support family in setting them up and my work colleagues are unlikely to change.

Can we expect sites like to go open source? Others, such as Facebook, are even less likely to as it would enable others to compete on features.

This post was inspired by this article about using rather than Twitter. The quote from ESR is choice. I'm on both because some people I want to follow are only on Twitter. only has a small fraction of the Twitter user base. That doesn't stop me having some great discussions there. I'd love to drop Twitter, but don't want to lose that part of my social network. So practicality triumphs over principle again.

[21:02] | [Internet] | Comments | G

Mon, 12 Jan 2009

Recycling everything

We've been recycling to some extent for many years. It used to be just newspapers and bottles to the local 'banks', but for a few years now we had a household collection that takes cans, some plastics, paper and card. Last year we found that we could take drink cartons to a local dump for shipping off somewhere to be recycled. So our black bin for stuff that goes to the landfill wasn't getting so full. At the end of last year we got little brown bins for food waste. That should make for a less smelly bin. We try not to waste food, but the kids and the cat don't always eat everything.

Today we get a brochure from Bedfordshire County Council to say that the green bin scheme is being extended to take a lot more materials including foil, plastic bags, drink cartons, textiles and most plastic packaging. This is great news, assuming that they really can find outlets for it all. I've heard that waste paper prices are very low these days. They don't specify what happens to it all and their web site doesn't have any new information. Still, if it reduces the need for landfill and raw materials it has to be good. I'll be interested to see how much goes in the black bin in future.

The downside is that it makes our new set of 3 stacking bins we just bought slightly redundant. They can still be used for glass and for collecting stuff that goes in the green bin.

I've been getting rid of some stuff on Freecycle to try and clear the house of unused junk. There's still more. Books and DVDs will go to charity shops. It might be nice to get some money for some of it, but most is not worth much. Putting it on evilbay is too much hassle.

[21:53] | [Environment] | Comments | G

Sat, 03 Jan 2009


I've read just about everything by Neal Stephenson. His books are pretty geeky and that's what I like. This one is different in that it is set on another planet, but it's not that alien. Civilisation there has split between the general populace and orders of monk-like 'Avout' who cut themselves off in their 'Concents' (monasteries) for powers of 10 years to study science, philosophy etc, but with little 'modern' technology. Their long-term thinking has chimed with the Long Now Foundation who helped to launch the book.

The story follows a young avout through various adventures as his stable lifestyle is disrupted by world-shaking events. It's a fun adventure, but is seriously stretched out by lots of philosophical discussion. Some of that went over my head. By the time I got to the end I had lost track of who some of the characters were, but I may do better on a second read. The book includes a useful glossary for the many words he has made up and some appendices expanding on thought experiments mentioned in the story.

I enjoyed the book. It could have been shorter, but at least he managed a better ending than he usually does. I would recommend working through his earlier books before tackling this one.

I'll update the details on my book list. The concept has been expanded to include a CD of music that the avout would use in their ceremonies. Not sure I'd listen to it for fun.

I'm not sure what I will read next. We have various books that I've not read yet, but I also have some magazines that I've not got around to reading. I spend far too much time trying to keep up with all the interesting stuff on the web. We are being overwhelmed with data. Even if you filter out the crap there is still too much for any one person to deal with, even within a limited field.

[15:11] | [Review] | Comments | G

Mon, 29 Dec 2008

Gadgets on Linux

A couple of family members got new MP3 players for Xmas. They don't need loads of GB of storage and the budget was tight so I picked out the Samsung U4. It offers 2GB of music plus an RDS radio in a very compact unit. A plus point was support for OGG Vorbis. The problems started when I plugged it into my PC to upload some music. It doesn't use the usual UMS storage protocol. I did get a 'USB Imaging Interface' in Konqueror, but it seemed to be read-only. A bit of research revealed that it uses Microsofts MTP instead.

Someone suggested Gnomad2 might support it. Indeed it did, but could not handle playlists for OGG in the version available from the Ubuntu repositories. I thought things were going to get complicated when something led me to find out that Amarok has a driver for MTP built in. It was merely a matter of adding a new media device and I could simply mark music for transfer then just synchronise. I'm sure I can teach the family how to use that and then they can manage their own music. Another victory for open formats and open source.

To supply them with some extra new music we made use of the Amazon MP3 Store offer of £3 of free music over Xmas. When they first opened I thought it would be unusable due to requiring software to download the music, but they support multiple Linux distributions. The software was easily installed and worked perfectly. I've held off from buying much downloadable music due to most having DRM, but there seem to be multiple stores offering MP3 files now. Prices vary a lot. Some albums are available for as little as £3, but others cost almost as much as a CD. Bit rates of 256 or 320kbit should give adequate quality. I can see myself buying more music like this. I like my CDs, but accept that they generally stay on the shelf once they have been ripped. Downloads can be considered greener too.

We still gained more bits on plastic in the form of several new DVDs and Wii games. Downloads do not fulfill all digital media requirements yet. I've seen some sites saying you can download Wii games on your PC to burn to DVD for a fixed fee. I doubt that these are at all legal.

There is plenty of music available to download, legally, for free. The problem is in finding the good stuff. Via subscribing to a band member's Youtube feed I was alerted to a free EP by Jo Webb & The Dirty Hands. Despite the song titles these are not covers, but are some great slices of pop that I have been enjoying. I may well buy their upcoming album. I also plan to buy some more music by Steve Lawson soon.

[19:11] | [Gadgets] | Comments | G

Mon, 22 Dec 2008

All I want for Xmas...

I'm not totally anti-Xmas, but I do feel that it has turned into a commercial event rather than its origins as a mid-winter family festival (I don't go for the Christian aspects). The result is mountains of crap that will end up in land-fill before the next year ends. I've tried to reduce my personal impact by asking for either second-hand/charity gifts or contributions to my guitar amplifier fund. I've also managed to make one present myself. I'll try to do more for next year. My kids will still get a pile of toys, but I would hope that these will get well used. I've tried to get some that use rechargeable batteries as I dislike having to buy lots of disposable ones.

Some of the family may not agree totally with my sentiments, but I'll just try and do my bit to make Xmas a little greener, as I do with many aspects of my life.

On a different topic, I watched V for Vendetta last night. I thought it was a very intelligent film that happened to include some nasty violence. It was a twist on the 1984 scenario and very British for an American film, even though the two leads were not Brits. I've not read the comics, but I understand from the IMDB FAQ that it diverges a lot from the original stories. I've read very few of that sort of comic, but would like to if I find the time. I'm currently deep into Anathem that involves a bit too much philosophical discussion. I'm hoping the action will pick up before the end.

[12:01] | [Environment] | Comments | G

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