Sunday, February 15, 2015

ENIAC and I ...

You may recall that a few years back Margo bought herself a little Samsung N150 netbook, the "Wave of the Future!" or whatever: an admittedly pretty, but horribly under-powered thing imminently destined to be made redundant by tablets (the "New Future of Computing!") and full-fat phones with 10" screens or whatever. (So pretty, in fact, that I think it's only since it got tossed into the pile of "junk we might as well bring with us anyway, it might come in useful some day" that the protective plastic film came off it.)

(Incidentally, she just got herself an HTC Desire, which I personally find so bloody huge as to be unusable. I mean, whatever happened to the days when you could get a phone that would slip comfortably into your hip pocket, without fear of snapping it in two if you bent over, and which you needed to charge once a week if you talked a lot?

I sometimes feel that we've regressed somewhat, back to the time when your "portable" phone and associated battery pack was the size of a small sewing machine. Also, I feel a right dick holding up what feels like an A5 notepad to my ear ... but I digress.

While I'm digressing, we had a friend who'd kitted himself out with one of the first car phones, all those years ago. Good thing he had a Range Rover: he didn't really need a trailer for the batteries. Although it was a tight fit for two in the back.)

Anyway, despite the fact that Jeremy was not allowed within a five-metre distance of the thing, one day the screen did a Tennyson and crack'd from side to side anyway and it got slung into a box and came down here with us to The Shamblings™ where it led a quiet life in the dark until recently, when I had occasion to take one of my laptops - one of the pair with self-destructing disk drives - in to the local computer shop at L├ęzignan to have the fan looked at (for the CPU was getting up to 80°, which would be handy if I wished to fry eggs but is a bit hot for a computer) and thought I might as well take it in as well to see if they couldn't replace the screen.

The guy looked at it dubiously, and did the sucking of the teeth and the sighing of gloom, but promised to see what he could do ...

One week and 95€ later she was back, which was very convenient because Margo would rather like to have her laptop more or less permanently up in her office but still have something downstairs to browse the web of a morning (I told you, The Daily Fail and suchlike over her morning coffee) and that we could plug in to the big 27" Viewsonic monitor in the evenings for a gross-out session of Hawaii Five-O or whatever. So as I had at some point zapped the installed version of Windows 7 Starter Edition (have I ever mentioned that you just don't seem to get the installation DVDs these days?) I "just" had to download some version of Linux to get her fit for purpose.

That turned out to take a bit longer than I'd expected. I read up a bit on it, in between checking up on security bulletins to see if I needed to rebuild a kernel for Cla-Val to block some gaping security hole in their gear, and thought I'd try Mint with Cinnamon, which everyone agreed was a nice, lightweight system suitable for installation on a gruntless processor ...

Downloaded that, made a bootable thumb drive with it, installed it: so far so good, it worked. It even latched onto the WiFi here without my even asking: this was promising. Then I plugged it into the Viewsonic. OK, then I had to go into the system setup, ask it to check for a second screen - she found it, and up it came in glorious 64-colour 800x600 resolution. But it worked.

"Fear not!" I thought, "I have but to diddle with the parameters, and all will be well, and we shall be able to watch 'Death In Paradise' tonight" ... sad to say, it was not to be. I set the screen resolution to the native full-colour, 1920x1080, and lo! it changed - and then, 30 seconds later, reverted. I finally worked out that it was displaying a dialog box asking me to confirm the changes and that this dialog box was being displayed on the built-in screen at a location suitable for a 1920x1080 screen, which sadly made it invisible.

Eventually I also worked out the keyboard shortcuts required to confirm an invisible dialog box (in this particular case, hit "Alt" twice to get its attention, then "Tab" three times, then the "Enter" key on the numeric keypad - if you're interested) and did so, and it did indeed work. Sort of.

Because for some reason, running the external monitor at full resolution slowed things down to the point where you'd click on an icon, or on a button in a dialog box, and three minutes later something would happen. This is not what I would personally call a reasonable response time, so it was back to the drawing board.

I happen to like Fedora - mainly because for me, it just worked - so I thought I'd give that a whirl. Download, make another bootable thumb drive, install ... first thing you cannot help but notice is that the install screens just do not work on the small screen of a netbook. Trying to select the keyboard layout, for instance, causes a popup list to appear with the various layouts in it: unfortunately, only half of that list is visible, but the scroll bar seems to have a mind of its own and reckons stubbornly that what you see is what you've got so it does nothing. All you can do is bang hopelessly on the down arrow key - which will change the selected line but will, crucially, not bring it into view - and press "Enter" when you feel it's more or less in the right place.

After a couple of goes I got it to recognise the timezone as Paris and - I thought - the keyboard as French, and let it carry on installing: it chundered on for a while, cheerily told me that installation was complete, and would I please reboot. So I did, and it asked me to log on, and as I hadn't created a user I just tried to log on as root with the password I'd supplied ... after the third fruitless attempt I actually noticed that the date and time were displayed in Magyar, and that this probably did not bode well for the keyboard layout.

I had also downloaded Mint with Mate, and at that point I'd nothing to lose by trying that (I mean, apart from an hour's time faffing about, but I'll bill that to someone, one way or another) so I made yet another bloody thumb drive and let it install and - without, I must admit, too much optimism - took it downstairs.

Oddly enough I had to tell it to connect to the WiFi but - to my stunned-mullet surprise - when I plugged in the monitor it came up, straight away, native resolution and no noticeable delays. Not more than you'd expect from an Atom processor. The only tweak I had to make was setting the external display to be on the left side, because that's how it physically is and I see no point in straining my brain more than necessary.

Strange, but true. Go figure. Now I just have to work out why it is that the Adobe Flash player dies regularly, for that does little for the viewing experience. (Alright, I know, it dies because it is, in fact, Adobe Flash player and therefore a piece of shit. But still ...)

I know I said something at some point about how, sometime soon, the almonds would blossom and then, eventually, the wild plums (not feral prunes) would follow: got it wrong. Under normal circumstances this is indeed what happens but as it happens this year the plums are out first, enjolivating the roadside.

And incidentally, I could not but notice at the market that the first Spanish strawberries of the year have made their appearance. I shan't be buying any: I am not really one of those who abjure and abstain from any fruit that is not in season and grown locally, nor do I knit my own yurt out of farm-sourced sustainable yoghurt, but I must admit that I do like my fruit to have a bit of flavour.

And although every year it's the same thing - hope springing eternal wrestles bitter experience to the ground - I hope I shall be able to resist for just a little bit longer. At least until they start to smell, at which point I will be unable to hold out. (Do they, I wonder, make aerosols with strawberry smell in them, like they do ones with "new car" aroma? Bound to be a market out there.)

Forewarned, they say, is forearmed: I shall thus let you know now that Jeremy is headed off to NooZild on or about March 12th, for an indefinite stay. We must head up at the end of the month to remove him and all other superfluous junk from his apartment before he hands the keys over: then we come back down here with the junk and enjoy the pleasure of his company for a week or so before tearfully decanting him onto the TGV, hoping that he will not manage to miss the flight out of Charles de Gaulle.

If you need another reason to avoid Christchurch, that's where he's heading. Just saying.

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