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Sticky: Becoming mobile-friendly

There's currently a lot of excitement among web designers about Google's announcement that they will penalise sites that don't work well on mobile devices. I've decided I need to comply with this although with less than total enthusiasm. Nearly all my pages now meet Google's new criteria (the only exception is my cycling pictures.)

The disadvantage of the change is that if you read my pages on a desktop or laptop the lines will be long (unless you adjust the width of your browser, of course). Perhaps I should have alternatives for people who are using those devices, though that would mean more complication and difficulty in maintaining both alternatives. And the variety of ways that web pages can be viewed has increased enormously, so it isn't possible to cater for all of them. Probably it's no longer a good idea to specify the width of one's lines as I did previously.

I'd be grateful for feedback on this.

Sticky: Changes to the blog

There has recently been a major update of the software I use for this blog (Serendipity). In the process of upgrading I had problems with the (pretty old) frontend theme I was using previously, hence this new one. It's plain and functional, which I like.

More important, it will now, I hope, be easier to search and navigate the blog. I'm particularly pleased to have the list of tags in the right-hand margin. I tend to come back to certain topics over the months and years but up to now I didn't have any easy way of linking posts on the same theme together. Now I have. I've already made a start on setting this up and I intend to increase the links in the future.

FreeBSD as desktop

I've been using OpenBSD as a desktop for the last 7 months and have been pretty satisfied, although I still have ArchLinux as well. (Please see OpenBSD as desktop for details.) The choice of OpenBSD may seem a little eccentric, since most people who try a BSD for this purpose choose FreeBSD. I did install FreeBSD myself about 18 months ago but I encountered various difficulties and gave up after a week. But now I've had another go and this time my experience was much better. Perhaps this is because there is now a new version of FreeBSD (10.1) or because I'm more familiar with BSDs in general after using OpenBSD for a time.

Whatever the reason, I'm enjoying using FreeBSD in this way. I hope what I write here may be useful for any Linux users who are thinking of exploring the BSD world. I include some comments on the differences among FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and Arch.

To start with, I'll say what I want in a desktop, which may be different from what a lot of other people want. This will help to explain why I find the BSD idea attractive. In a word, it's KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid), which is also the motto of ArchLinux.

What I want in a desktop
Perhaps I should have said "What I don't want in a desktop". I don't want Gnome, KDE. or any other desktop environment. I don't want complicated window managers either, with lots of widgets or decorations. My window manager is spectrwm; if I wasn't using that it would probably be dwm or ratpoison. If you are looking for more fancy stuff you probably won't use any BSD, although I'm sure that both FreeBSD and OpenBSD can provide it on request.

My hardware
Currently I'm using Thinkpad T60s with 2GB ram. These are 32-bit machines, which means that they won't run either PC-BSD, but FreeBSD and OpenBSD are fine. (Even if PC-BSD did run on 32-bit machines I wouldn't use it, because it installs a desktop manager by default and that isn't what I want.)

Installation of the base system is easy, although not quite as easy as for OpenBSD. Unlike with OpenBSD you are not offered the option of installing X, but this is easily done later via the packaging system (see below). Throughout, I relied on the excellent FreeBSD manual, available on line or you can download it to your system. This documentation is well-known for its high quality and I found it to be even better now than when I last encountered it in version 10.0.

Now you can install X and anything else you want, using the new and improved packaging system (pgk). This is much easier than installing everything via ports, which is what I did previously, although ports are, of course, available if you want them. Sound worked out of the box.

So far, so good, but I encountered a few difficulties setting things up as I wanted them. You will note that most of them concern third-party applications and not FreeBSD itself.

1. Blank black screen on exiting X
Af first when this happened I thought I needed to do a hard reset using the power button. Then I found I could reboot by typing the command in the (invisible) terminal, although I couldn't see anything on screen. The real solution to this problem is to put this line in /boot/loader.config:


2. Entering "Sleep" when lid is closed
This worked out of the box for me wth OpenBSD but it seems to be a problem in FreeBSD, to judge by the discussion on the Net. I found that it was enabled for me with this line:

sysctl hw.acpi.lid_switch_state=S3

To make it happen on boot I inserted the line in /etc/rc.conf.local. I think some machines may need something other than S3, and the command may not work for all machines.

3. Fetchmail
I use fetchmail to collect mail from my ISP. In FreeBSD I got error warnings about certificates being incorrect, although the mail still arrived. The solution is given in the fetchmail man page: use these switches to eliminate the error messages:

fetchmail --sslproto 'SSL3' --sslcertck

4. PrintingFreeBSD is the larger organisation and this means that it has more third-party software ported to it.
My printer is a networked Brother HL5250DN. In OpenBSD printing worked fine with CUPS. In FreeeBSD I set up CUPS without problems and a test page was printed, but I couldn't get lpr, lp, or lpq to work. This seemed to be because of a conflict with the native BSD printing commands, but stopping the BSD daemon didn't help. After a day's fruitless eperimenting I followed the example of another FreeBSD user I found on the Net: I gave up on CUPS and installed apsfilter. I then got good printing, using the generic Postscript driver.

Here is my /etc/printcap.

# APS1_BEGIN:printer1
# - don't delete start label for apsfilter printer1
# - no other printer defines between BEGIN and END LABEL
# APS1_END - don't delete this

5. Lyx on FreeBSD
I use Lyx a lot, for witing books and papers and for making slides with Beamer. When I loaded a Beamer file to edit it, Lyx complained that beamer.cls and anumber of other files weren't on the system. I therefore installed the packaged texlive-texmf, which provides the necessary files. But even after reconfiguring Lyx it still complained that the files were not there. After more on-line research I found I needed the tex-formats package as well. (It provides pdflatex.)

Arch is said to be the most BSD-like form of Linux. I don't think there is any strong reason to switch from Arch to any kind of BSD. But if you like the idea of a stable core comprising more than just the kernel, there is something to be said for the BSDs on philosophical grounds.

One reason you might want Linux is to be able to use Flash, which is needed to see or hear programmes on BBC TV and radio. It isn't available for OpenBSD and although it apparently can run on FreeBSD, that is under Linux emulation and I haven't tried to set it up. Flash is notoriously liable to security risks and it seems to be being phased out in many places, although unfortunately not at the BBC. Moreover, Adobe are no longer supporting Flash for Linux so it's getting increasingly out of date there.

In practice, I find I use Flash less and less, even on Linux; for the most part I use get_iplayer to download programmes and that works on the BSDs just as well as on Linux.

Skype is another program that works on Linux but not on the BSDs, although I think it can work on FreeBSD under Linux emulation. But Skype, like Flash, has major security flaws and, anyway, I hardly ever need to use it. But I do keep at least one machine with Linux on it just to run the occasional instance of Skype and Flash.

Arch is a rolling release, so the numerous packages it offers are always up to date - "bleeding edge". OpenBSD, in contrast, has relatively few packagers and its packages (and ports) are usually a little old. This may not matter to you, but I've found it can be a problem when I want to edit a file that was made on a different machine using a more recent version of Lyx or Libreoffice. FreeBSD has a larger number of developers and packagers and its packages are consequently more up to date. It also has more packages than does OpenBSD, although I haven't found this to be very important in practice.

The strengths and weaknesses of both systems are very similar. There is a difference in how it feels to use them, although this is rather hard to articulate.

Neither FreeBSD nor OpenBSD are particularly newbie-friendly. I don't mean that they are hostile to newcomers, but neither do they make any effort to attract them (especially not OpenBSD), and asking elementary questions jn the mailing lists that could be answered by reading the documentation or googling doesn't go down well. (The DaemonForums are a better place for beginners to hang out.) In this respect they are different from the Linux mailing lists, although even in those there are variations: the Ubuntu forums have many more beginners' questions than do the Arch forums, for example.

The OpenBSD lists are particularly austere. Most of the people who post there are advanced users or are discussing topics that are of interest mainly to developers. There is relatively little that is relevant to the end user or the desktop. FreeBSD seems to be broader in its range, although even do much of the discussion is pretty technical. Anyone who is happy using Arch should feel at home in FreeBSD.

I like all three systems a lot and use them all. I shall continue to use FreeBSD along with the others for the next few months and see how I get on.

Book review: The Enlightenment, by Anthony Pagden

The term "Enlightenment" refers to a period in European history from roughly the middle of the seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth, during which radical changes in thought occurred that had a profound influence on politics, philosophy, science, and religion. But there are major disagreements among historians, not only about the dating of this event, but also about its significance. Was it a time of liberation, when ways of thinking that had blocked progress for centuries were cast aside, or did it bring about an over-reliance on the intellect and on reason and lead to a loss of moral certainty caused by the erosion of religious faith? Pagden's subtitle makes clear that he is favours the positive view. So do I, but I have to say that I was disappointed by this book. [More]

Speak as you spell?

This morning a BBC political correspondent, Norman Smith, pronounced "hyperbole" to rhyme with "sole" instead of "holy". I haven't heard this one before. One which I do often hear is "trope", which seems always to be pronounced to rhyme with "hope" instead of "dopey". (In any case, however you pronounce it, "trope" seems to me to be a pretentious usage that is probably better avoided in most cases.)

Book review; Neanderthal Man, by Svante Pääbo

Pääbo is famous for having shown that modern humans outside Africa interbred with the Neanderthals. Here he tells the story of how this discovery came about. Although the book is primarily an account of this work, it is also partly autobiographical and includes some excursions into the author's personal and emotional life. [More]

Writing Greek in Linux and BSD

Writing Greek text is quite difficult in Linux and BSD, especially if you want all the accents, breathings etc. used in Classical Greek. But I've found an easy way to do thjs via your browser (Firefox in my case). Simply point the browser at Type Greek. You can type your Greek text here and then cut-and-paste into Lyx or Libreoffice.

Book review: Do No Harm, by Henry Marsh

Henry Marsh is a neurosurgeon who has headed his department at a London hospital for many years and has worked in the Ukraine to help set up neurosurgery there. In this book he provides an extraordinarily vivid account of his work and its emotional impact both on himself and on his patients and their relatives. The book consists of a large number of short chapters, each of which tells a story usually linked to a particular kind of brain abnormality. Some chapters are autobiographical and tell us about events in Marsh's own life and how he came to study medicine and become a neurosurgeon.

Patients, Marsh says, invest their doctors with superhuman qualities as a way of overcoming their fears when undergoing surgery.

The reality, of course, is entirely different. Doctors are human like the rest of us. Much of what happens in hospitals is a matter of luck, both good and bad; success and failure are often out of the doctor's control. Knowing when not to operate is just as important as knowing how to operate, and is a more difficult skill to acquire.


Book review: The Big Fat Surprise, by Nina Teicholz

This book covers quite a lot of the same ground as Gary Taubes's The Diet Delusion, although with different emphases. Another similarity is that Teicholz, like Taubes, is a science journalist. This may give professional researchers who disagree with her an excuse to dismiss her conclusions, but she has undoubtedly done her reading of the original material with great thoroughness and she has interviewed a number of the best-known people in the field. More

Book review: How I Killed Pluto, by Mike Brown

Before reading this book I hadn't thought much about whether Pluto should be classed as a planet and the question seemed rather trivial, but Mike Brown does a good job of explaining why it matters. He is an astronomer who specialises in the study of the outer part of the solar system where Pluto resides. Following its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 it was accepted as the ninth planet, although its orbit was odd and it was very small. Could there be other planets even further out? [More]

Oliver Sacks on his cancer diagnosis

Oliver Sacks has written about his diagnosis with terminal cancer in the New York Times. He finds himself in agreement with David Hume, who in a similar situation accepted it with equanimity. His mood, he tells us, is one of detachment though not indifference.

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

He tells us he has completed an autobiography, to be published in the spring, and several other books are nearly finished. Something still to look forward to, then.

Book review: Dawn Wind, by Rosemary Sutcliff

This is a historical novel set in Britain in the fifth century. The Romans have left and Saxons have occupied much of the southern half of the country. The British have just fought their last great battle against the Saxons, close to Aquae Sulis (Bath), in which they have been decisively defeated. One of the few survivors is Owain, a fifteen-year-old boy who was wounded in the arm and struck unconscious, so that he missed most of the fighting. He finds the bodies of his father, a British nobleman, and his brother, and then sets off north for Viroconium (Worcester), where he hopes to rejoin whatever British forces still exist. As he leaves the battlefield he is accompanied by another survivor, a war hound, whom he names simply Dog. [More]