Saturday, February 25, 2012


 One neat aspect of our new ISP - Free! - is that their default setup not only provides a secure wifi network in the house, but also bleeds off a bit of semi-public Freewifi hotspot from each "box".


Having opted to provide that service (probably not very helpful out here in the sticks) I get a password which allows me to log in to all the other (3 million?) Freewifi hotspots throughout France.

What a good idea!

Parting thot: "A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?" - Albert Einstein

Friday, February 24, 2012

Free ! - by Name, if not...

I must have had my first taste of internet around the turn of the century.

Using an ISP called Oreka which had the strange business model of offering free internet access,
even including free telephone time!
But limited to 4 hours per month.
For a family of 6...

Internet access was a tense affair then, with forward planning, gurgling modems, stop-watches, instant deconnection as soon as you had what you wanted on the screen & Excel charts of accumulated time per person.
Not suprisingly, Oreka soon bit the dust.

Next, we used Liberty Surf, which was initially also free, but later merely cheap.
Libertysurf was taken over by Tiscali, which was then taken over by Alice, taking us with it at each step.
Still at the low-cost end of the market, we have been paying 29.99€/month for unlimited amounts of something we simply could not do without these days.

Now Alice has been taken over by Free! (the exclamation mark is theirs, not mine).
Not sure how you can get away with a name like that, without doing what it says on the packet, but free they are not.

I expected them to simply roll Alice into Free &  force us to bigger & better offers (TV etc) which we don't want, and it was a pleasant surprise when they only pushed gently, saying we could stay with Alice (for how long?) or switch to Free for the same price.

So, for the same 29.99€/month, they have just sent us a new "box" (ADSL modem/router/wifi) with twice the speed of the old one.
They also sent a pair of PowerLine plugs & a set-top box for TV, with Hard Drive & Remote Control, which does not cost us anything if we don't use it - which we won't & said we wouldn't when we signed up.
The waste seems criminal.
And we get a free mobile phone subscription with 60 texto's & 60 min call-time per month.

I can't see what they get for pushing us to switch.
But they obviously know better than me, as they are worth 5.2 billion (5200000000) Euros on the stock market & I am not.

So I will just grin & bear it.

Parting thot: "My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate." - Thornton Wilder

Sunday, February 12, 2012

From Dogpile to Duckduckgo...

After treating my PC to a slimming course with Lubuntu & a bit of muscle-building with extra RAM, I felt up to giving it an internal spring-clean.

Not that it is spring here yet -  12 nights in a row with temperatures between -8°C & -13°C.

One of the areas obviously needing a clear-out was browser bookmarks.
My bookmarks are well organised, but who needs 3500 bookmarks?

Like clearing out the attic, this exercise  brings back long-forgotten memories & it is only too easy to get side-tracked into re-opening chapters from way back when.

One area I didn't expect to reminisce over was the folder of Search Engines.
For the last 5-10 years (seems like always) I have almost exclusively used Google & had forgotten what came before.
But in my folder, I found all my previous favourites, like Copernic, NorthernLight, AltaVista, Lycos, LookSmart, Webcrawler, WiseNut, AllTheWeb, Go, MetaCrawler and of course the inelegantly named but effective DogPile.
More surprising was to find that most of these are still working, though probably just as fronts for Google, Yahoo &/or Bing.

I still find the performance of Google, particularly, to be amazing.
But I get more & more uneasy about their ubiquity.
I suspect their excellent motto "Don't be Evil" may be going the same way as Ubuntu's "It Just Works"...

I use Google's Blogger & Picasa photo-handler & Google Maps because they meet my needs best, but I don't really want to live in a Google bubble any more than I wanted an AOL bubble years ago.
So I am now using the ludicrously-named Duckduckgo as my main search engine.
The comments about "track" & "bubble" on their front page, maybe over-done,  do give food for thought.

But Google is only a click away - for the tricky stuff, where it is still best.

Parting thot: "It's better to be uninformed than ill-informed." - Keith Duckworth

Sunday, February 5, 2012


My "new" PC dates back to 2004, when it proudly boasted Windows XP, an AMD Athlon XP processor running at 2.15GHz, 256MB RAM & a 120GB hard drive.

If you are not totally gripped by the opening line, you should really just skip this post - see you later, I hope!

After a couple of years, I started to dabble in Linux, using Ubuntu which is probably the most user-friendly way to start.
Back then, their brilliant slogan was: "Ubuntu - it just works!"
For some reason, they don't use that any more...

Compared with XP, Ubuntu in those days was a mixed blessing.
Philosophically, I am all for the 'Free & Open' aspect, especially compared with the Microsoft near-monopoly, with all that implies.
That is reason enough to try it & to stick with it if possible.
Practically, some things worked better, others not as well.
Particularly, back then, it was a real struggle to get WiFi, Scanning & Printing to work well & reliably.
Generally, you had to expect to put in quite a bit of time & effort to keep things ship-shape, which for an enthusiastic retiree was not a problem.

One continuing issue which cannot be ignored is the 6-monthly upgrade process, which usually involves a very long download, quite a lot of little improvements & possibly some real disasters, like being unable to boot at all...
Actually, you can choose to avoid or defer this trauma by opting for the 'Long Term Support' cycle, where you only need to upgrade every 3 years.
But then you need to make a 3-year jump instead of a 6-month jump.

Over time, XP on my PC got slower & slower.
I still have XP (for sentimental reasons & as a life-belt & because it can still print photos fractionally better when really necessary).
But when I switch to XP, I know I may as well go away for 20 minutes while the anti-virus etc does its stuff, during which time the PC is nearly frozen.
And that is after an upgrade to 512MB RAM (OK - I know that is laughably small today, but read on).

Over that same time, Ubuntu has got better & better.
Particularly it handles WiFi & Scanning & Printing acceptably & without too much fuss, though maybe not quite up to the standards provided by Canon & co for Microsoft.
An incidental but decisive advantage is that Linux does not need any anti-virus (don't ask me why not), which frees up a lot of my PC's little brain & muscles for real work.
So Ubuntu went from strength to strength - until the last upgrade.

There seems to have been a change in direction from 'above' (read millionaire Mark Shuttleworth, to whom all praise, at least before the latest course-correction).
Instead of "It Just Works", Ubuntu now seems to want to take on Apple & co (my interpretation, I don't know).
Their latest Desktop, called Unity, appears to be aimed at Smartphones & Tablets, rather than old desktop PC's.
Probably it looks "cool" & probably it has no end of visual effects, including transparent rotating cubes & wobbly windows or whatever.
But it is too complicated for my old PC which gets automatically downgraded to the "2D" version by some invisible hand, with no arguing.
The 2D version maybe still looks "cool"-ish (I wouldn't judge) but it is "ergonomically-challenged" in my humble opinion.

I spent a solid week beating my head against Unity, in which time I found it really locks out a lot of old habits, like click-to-open menus & user-customizable launchers.
Nearly everything you do requires several clicks plus typing in a search bar.
All the usual activities seem to need more actions & more personal memory, like "what was that application called, so I can ask for it?" instead of just picking from a list.

So, after a week, I decided to revert to the previous desktop style, now called Gnome-Classic.
That is another very good point about Ubuntu - you can keep the latest updated software, but choose the interface you use it with.
Gnome-Classic was nearly as good as my previous Gnome, but not quite.
In addition, I was noticing more & more that the PC was beginning to slow down in Ubuntu like in XP a few years back.
Open too many browser windows at once & it would grind to a near halt.
I reckoned it was time for another RAM upgrade (to 1GB) & ordered one.
It has not arrived yet.

In parallel, I started looking at other options, and found (I knew but had never investigated) that there are several "flavours" of Ubuntu, suitable for different users.
You can have it as Xubuntu, Kubuntu, Edubuntu etc.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the all-singing, all-dancing but power-hungry & unergonomic Unity, there is a thing called Lubuntu.
Its motto could be, but isn't "Keep it simple, stupid".
It is aimed at the older PC & maybe at the older PC user, but they are too kind to say that.
It uses about half as much RAM & less processor time, so that everything works much faster on small-brained PC's.
It is more flexible for personalization, but (negative point) less user-friendly in its customizing tools.
A bit like stepping back in time in the Linux world.
After a week fiddling with Lubuntu, my PC is now as frisky as new, or better.
It should be a star by my standards, with its upcoming memory boost.
It looks & functions the way I want it to & I am a happy bunny again!

Of course, I could just fork out 500€ on a new PC & play with Windows 7 & Unity, but where is the challenge in that?

Parting thot: "So busy cutting through the undergrowth, we do not realize we are in the wrong jungle." - Stephen R Covey (7 habits)