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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.

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]

Anne Atkins on the Virgin Mary

Anne Atkins has often figured in these pages for her Thoughts for the Day. In her latest offering she was talking about female role models; she mentioned several, concluding with the Virgin Mary. She poured scorn on the sentimental representation of Mary we find in school Nativity plays and then went on to produce her own version of Mary that was equally remote from the facts. Mary, we were told, was "a girl of extraordinary learning ... profoundly versed in the history of her race and faith." I can't imagine how Ms Atkins arrived at this remarkable estimate of Mary's educational attainments, for which there is no evidence in the canonical literature. We know, in fact, almost nothing about the historical Mary, but we can hardly suppose that this peasant girl became a bluestocking.

Book review: Hornblower in the West Indies, by C.S. Forester

Hornblower is the hero of many of Forester's historical novels of the navy. In this book he is a rear-admiral, serving as Commander-in-Chief of the British Squadron in the West Indies. He is also now Lord Hornblower and regards himself as an old man, although in fact he is only forty-five. He is glad to have obtained employment, now that Napoleon has been defeated at Waterloo and is confined to St Helena, but he misses his wife, Barbara, at home in England. [More]

Book review: Winter Quarters, by Alfred Duggan

The narrator of the story is a Gallic nobleman who was captured by the Parthians while fighting as a mercenary for the Romans, He is now being used by his captors to lead patrols against hostile tribesmen. With the onset of winter he is confined to quarters for the next four months, and decides to dictate his life story to a friend so that his son can read it later. He calls himself Camul, but he doesn't want to reveal his full name for fear that it would be used to cast spells on him.

He was born in the Pyrenees. A close friend, called Acco, killed a bear that was sacred to the goddess, Pyrene. Her resultant enmity made it essential for him to leave his homeland as an exile, so the two friends decide to join the Roman cavalry. Camul hopes to return home after some years, but Acco knows he will never do so. Throughout their travels they feel pursued by the goddess, who appears under different names in different places. [More]

Linux, OpenBSD, FreeBSD

The Debian users' list currently has reams and reams of posts, mostly furious, about the change to systemd. A switch to BSD is quite often suggested as an escape route but that wasn't my reason for thinking about it. I've got used to systemd on Arch, and although I don't find it better than sysvinit I can live with it. But I like the BSD philosophy. The notion of having the system as an integrated whole rather than a lot of bolted-together packages as in Linux is attractive.

That's why a year ago I installed FreeBSD, with mixed results. The ports system didn't work too well and for this and other reasons I decided to stick with Linux. Recently I had another go with the new version of FreeBSD (10.0), hoping it would be better, but it was if anything worse. Getting X to work was particularly annoying; I did get it running more or less as I wanted it but each time I tried to close it or change to a text terminal it locked up the computer and I needed to do a hard reset. The reviewer on Distrowatch reported problems with X too.

(Why not try PC-BSD, you ask, since that is FreeBSD for the desktop? Because this would install a desktop environment (Gnome, KDE etc.) by default, which I don't want. I'd need to mess around a lot to get things as I want them, so why not start with native FreeBSD?)

I hadn't thought too much about OpenBSD because I supposed it was only of interest to people running servers. Then I chanced to read this article in Distrowatch. It suggested that OpenBSD can, in fact, be useful as a desktop, at least if you don't want anything too fancy (that's me). So I decided to try it out.

OpenBSD was probably the easiest OS to install that I've ever tried. By simply following the defaults (except to install the uk keyboard) I found myself, after about 15 minutes, with a working system including X. Everything else worked as expected too, including sound, which is often something you have to struggle with in Linux.

Installing third-party applications such as Firefox was equally easy. OpenBSD does have ports via a scheme borrowed from FreeBSD, but you don't need to use them since all the ported stuff also exists on OpenBSD as packages, and you are encouraged to use those instead of ports. (You only need ports when you want to modify a supplied program.) I found that nearly everything I wanted existed as a package so getting my system into order was pretty easy.

At this point I was even contemplating installing it on all my machines. But of course nothing is ever as simple as it seems at first.

Possible drawbacks with OpenBSD
1. Some of the packages are somewhat out of date. In this respect OpenBSD is different from my preferred Linux distribution (Arch), which is a rolling release giving you rapid updates of all the packages you have installed. Having slightly older versions of things doesn't usually matter, but sometimes it does: e.g. I needed to modify some files made with a later version of Lyx under Linux and these were incompatible with the older version in OpenBSD.

2. Updating OpenBSD itself is different from what you might expect. There is an offcial "-release" every 6 months, in May and November, from which you can upgrade your system. There is a "-stable" branch which only gets serious errata and security fixes; you have to compile this yourself from source and there's nothing new. There is also a "-current" branch, in which the developers post their new code. This is updated frequently both as code and as "snapshots". There are differing opinions about the desirability of using this. You can read dire warnings about the possibility of finding yourself with an unusable or even unbootable system, but plenty of people do use -current on production machines. I've now done several upgrades on two machines (using snapshots, not compiling from source) and there have been no problems. I'll post details of how I did this shortly though it may have to wait until my wrist heals.

3. Some things I want simply don't work on OpenBSD. One of these is the BBC iPlayer, which requires Flash. There is no Flash for OpenBSD and most people who use the system don't want it anyway because of safety considerations. A possible way round this is to use get_iplayer, although unfortunately the BBC seem to be trying to sabotage this valuable program and there is no guarantee that it will go on working indefinitely. Skype is also not available for OpenBSD. It might be possible to get it to work via Linux emulation but I think it would be difficult. I've compiled a few things myself (qsf, sitecopy).

4. My flatbed scanner (Epson Perfection v330) needs proprietary software that isn't available for OpenBSD. So I brought back my Epson Perfection 1650 from abroad and this works out of the box with the sane backend. Incidentally, I think this now-superseded model is a better scanner than the v330.

5. To get round these and similar difficulties it would seem logical to install OpenBSD and Linux on the same machine and dual boot, but although this is technically possible it's a lot harder to do than you might expect. You are probably better off using at least two machines rather than attempting to dual boot.

6.. Finally, if you want to use OpenBSD you have to be willing to learn a lot of new things. (You might say that's a feature not a drawback since it helps to keep your brain alive!) At first glance OpenBSD is quite similar to Linux but on closer acquaintance numerous differences appear. The OpenBSD folk pride themselves on their documentation and are right to do so, but you need to read it carefully and do a lot of googling rather than ask newbie questions on the mailing lists, which are a lot more technical in tone than those of most Linux flavours. (DaemonForums may be a better place to ask beginners' questions.) Absolute OpenBSD (2nd edition) by Michael Lucas (ISBN-13 978-1-59327-476-4) is certainly worth getting if you decide you want to run OpenBSD regularly on one or more machines.

I like OpenBSD a lot and want to use it as much as possible, but I need to have Linux as well, for the reasons I've described. I have 4 laptops (all Thinkpads of various kinds, mostly bought from Ebay). My desktop has just broken so I'm using the laptops exclusively. At present these are running the following systems and they are kept in sync with unison.

Thinkpad Z61M: OpenBSD

Thinkpad T42: Debian Wheezy (for my wife to use when she goes abroad).

Thinkpad T60: OpenBSD

Thinkpad T60: ArchLinux