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About touchscreens

This is your future speaking. If you’re lucky, you will grow old. When you get there, your skin will be drier. I’ve had Death-Valley-Desert-dry skin my whole life, and it only gets more so.

Guess how touchscreens react to very dry skin?

They don’t.

It can take me three or four swipes or taps on a phone, after breathing on my fingers to make them moister, before anything happens. By then, because I’m frustrated, it’s usually the wrong thing.

So, what am I saying? That touchscreens don’t work for a whole large part of the population. A part which is getting bigger, not smaller.

Now picture that kind of not-working in a car. You’re driving. The last thing you want to do is study a screen with stupid icons on it. And when it doesn’t turn on the A/C or close the windows, you have to study it again. When you look up, the two tons of metal you’re in are bearing down on a lane closure sign that the car is ignoring because, hey, it’s not moving. (I know. They’ll fix that someday. But then we’ll just move on to the next AI idiocy.)

That doesn’t even get into the topic of tactile feedback and muscle memory and how necessary they are to maintain situational awareness when driving. All those levers and buttons and knobs and steering wheel and pedals allow you to use a different part of your brain for control of the car so that your eyes and ears and frontal cortex are available for the unexpected. It’s called human factors engineering. The electric car makers ought to try it sometime.

Right now I have an old car. So old, you open the windows with one of those little hand cranks. My relationship with my phone is bad enough that I’ve often thought I should give up and get myself a cocktail sausage to use as a stylus. Then I imagine trying to run a car with a cocktail sausage.

Koreans wearing gloves in winter, using sausages on their phones.
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I’m a writer. Not a spy.

I’ll come out with it: I’ve written a bunch of books. Most are just straightforward feel-good stories. (I like feeling good.) One is about how to govern so it interferes with feeling good as little as possible.

Besides not being a spy, I’m also allergic to salesmanship. So all I do with my stuff is post it on my website, and throw it on Amazon and the Nook where they make me charge a dollar. A little independent isn’t allowed to post free books. (Yes, I know about Smashwords. I have conscientious objections to the Terms of Service. And, yes, I have COs to Amazon’s TOS too, but I’m only pure mostly. Being really pure is too much work.) In case you’re wondering why the Nook, it’s because when I started doing this, that was a thing. That gives you some idea how much time has gone by. So I’m thinking of putting my books on a few more sites — Kobobooks sounds like a good one — and today I heard about Oyster.

Oyster seems like an interesting idea. You pay a subscription of $10/month and can read as many books as you have time for. A visit to the web site gives you about five ways to reach the “Join” page and no links to any actual information. Did I mention that I hate pushy selling? So I didn’t like being pushed to join and went searching for more information. Wikipedia pointed to an article in the NYTimes. There, as with every new thing in recent times on the web, it turns out that yes, this is just one more business looking to turn users into gold.

(I find myself agreeing more and more with Maciej Cegłowski and wishing that I still saw new technology with wonder instead of an automatic feeling of dread.)

But what astonished me was this:

[A writer] interacts extensively with her fans on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Goodreads, YouTube, Flickr and her own website. … But having actual data about how her books are being read would take her market research to the ultimate level.

“What writer would pass up the opportunity to peer into the reader’s mind?”

Well, I would. I’d feel revolted. Just as I would if I caught an author peering over my shoulder, saying,

“Aha. You liked that bit, did you?”

No, not anymore.

Sometimes I feel like the only one left who feels put off at the thought of going around and sniffing people’s underwear.

Stop the world. I want to get off.

And, no, I won’t even try to publish anything on Oyster.

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Those unnecessary Golgafrinchans? They settled here.

It’s obvious, after reading this article giving a platform to Tyler Cowen. (If you want a bit of background on the Golgafrinchans, the quotation is below.)

I make vague flailing motions to defend against Teh Stoopid out there, so I don’t actually know who Tyler Cowen is. But nothing lasts forever. So now I know which are the jobs of the future.

[M]achines are [getting] smarter than you, … [so] The good jobs will be about branding. They’re all about figuring out how to get other people’s attention[.] …

[Expanding on the smartness of machines:] [R]oads will change so driverless cars can use them, and we’re not ready for this mostly. I think it’s a big, big plus, but in some ways, the world will look uglier and feel stupider. It’s a bit like those help menus. You can do everything right by pressing all the buttons.[Ed. note: Yes, I’ve noticed that. The help menus always have all the options you need. There’s never any missing information. You never wind up going in circles around the phone tree.] It pisses people off. [Really?] It still gives you overall better service and a cheaper product than the old system of hiring operators. [Hahahahaha. Come on. Now you’re just being silly.] …

[Interviewer notes] In the book you also discuss a future artificial intelligence app that might recommend things in the social or romantic realm, like the optimal time to kiss someone on a date.

[Mr. TC responds]: My guess is that will be half the people. The people who listen to the machines, they’re going to do better. They’ll have a better chance of being happily married. They’ll choose better dates. They’ll kiss at the right time or whatever it is the machine tells you. They’ll have better portfolios. They’ll have better diets. … So you don’t have to necessarily be great at reading the tea leaves once you’re attuned to the machine.

And yet, a few paragraphs earlier, he said psychology was the only talent where people still excelled. Now, barely minutes further into the future by the end of the article, people are too stupid to know when to kiss without an app to tell them.

They pay him for this sort of flapdoodle, apparently. At the top of the article it says “Foreign Policy Magazine named Tyler Cowen #72 in their list of the ‘Top 100 Global Thinkers.'”

Imagine if FP Mag is right. May God have mercy on our globe.

Golgafrinchan history, from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:
The two space travellers show up on a ship, and the Captain explains what it’s all for.

“I mean, I couldn’t help noticing,” said Ford, also taking a sip, “the bodies. In the hold.”

“Bodies?” said the Captain in surprise. …

Ford licked his lips.

“Yes,” he said, “all those dead telephone sanitizers and account executives, you know, down in the hold.”

The Captain stared at him. Suddenly he threw back his head and laughed.

“Oh, they’re not dead,” he said. “Good Lord, no, no they’re frozen. They’re going to be revived.”

Ford did something he very rarely did. He blinked.

Arthur seemed to come out of a trance.

“You mean you’ve got a hold full of frozen hairdressers?” he said.

“Oh yes,” said the Captain. “Millions of them. Hairdressers, tired TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, public relations executives, management consultants, you name it. We’re going to colonize another planet.”

The Hitch­hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about the planet of Gol­gafrin­cham: it is a planet with an an­cient and mys­te­ri­ous his­tory, rich in leg­end….

[A] de­scen­dant of one of these ec­cen­tric poets … in­vented the spu­ri­ous tales of im­pend­ing doom which en­abled the peo­ple of Gol­gafrin­cham to rid them­selves of an en­tire use­less third of their pop­u­la­tion. The other two-thirds stayed firmly at home and lived full, rich and happy lives until they were all sud­denly wiped out by a vir­u­lent dis­ease con­tracted from a dirty tele­phone.


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Broadcom wifi, Nvidia graphics, and suspend on LinuxMint Debian testing/squeeze on an HP Ideapad S12

This is a notes-to-myself post so that the next time I need this info, I have some idea where to find it.

Broadcom wireless

Followed primarily the instructions on the Debian wiki:

sudo apt-get install firmware-b43-lpphy-installer

Installs everything nicely. Reboot for new settings to take effect.

But it still didn’t work. Solved here: In /etc/network/interfaces, comment out everything except “auto lo” and “iface lo inet loopback”. “allow eth0 hotplug” can also stay.
(All the other wireless-related lines were to fix other *old* problems….) If you haven’t futzed with that file in the dim, forgotten past, you’ll probably be fine with just the debian wiki instructions.

Nvidia graphics

Started in debian wiki:

Find out exact model of graphics card and check debian wiki links to lists of cards and which commands to use:
sudo lspci -nn | grep VGA
(S12 has Nvidia ION (Geforce 9400 M))

# aptitude -r install linux-headers-$(uname -r|sed ‘s,[^-]*-[^-]*-,,’) nvidia-kernel-dkms
“This will also install the recommended nvidia-glx package. DKMS will build the nvidia module for your system.”
However, there was no xorg.conf.d directory as implied under “X server configuration file”
So did not make a /etc/X11/xorg.conf.d/20-nvidia.conf file as suggested.

Instead followed guide of proxima-centauri on lmde forums,
BUT left out “nvidia-kernel-dkms nvidia-glx” since those already installed. “build-essential” was already installed on my system.

sudo apt install nvidia-kernel-dkms nvidia-glx build-essential nvidia-settings nvidia-xconfig

When done, execute nvidia-xconfig in terminal.
sudo nvidia-xconfig

Then blacklist:
sudo echo blacklist nouveau > /etc/modprobe.d/blacklist-nouveau.conf

Then reboot for settings to take effect.

Some VGA resolution weirdness during bootup, but once booting is complete, looks fine.


Debian wiki says “hal” package conflicts with power management and isn’t needed anyway. Uninstalled, but still doesn’t suspend.

Then tried the following script of John Dias and brocktice to unload all usb modules and now it works. First ran lsmod (list modules) to see which usb drivers were active on my system (ehci_hcd and ohci_hcd).

Saved the following to /etc/pm/sleep.d/20_custom-ehci_hcd, then substituted “ohci” instead of “ehci” and saved to /etc/pm/sleep.d/20_custom-ohci_hcd

# File: "/etc/pm/sleep.d/20_custom-ehci_hcd".

case "${1}" in
echo -n '' > $TMPLIST
for i in `ls /sys/bus/pci/drivers/ehci_hcd/ | egrep '[0-9a-z]+\:[0-9a-z]+\:.*$'`; do
# Unbind ehci_hcd for first device XXXX:XX:XX.X:
echo -n "$i" | tee /sys/bus/pci/drivers/ehci_hcd/unbind
echo "$i" >> $TMPLIST
for i in `cat $TMPLIST`; do
# Bind ehci_hcd for first device XXXX:XX:XX.X:
echo -n "$i" | tee /sys/bus/pci/drivers/ehci_hcd/bind

Did not unload any other modules or do anything else. Note that the output of /var/log/pm-suspend.log made me think that 99video and 98video-quirks was somehow at fault, because they were suspended/resumed right at the sleep/wake point. But no. Apparently not.

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You are for sale (and that’s okay?)

You might as well be a cake of soap on the shelf at the store. The supermarket is “free” for the soap. The soap isn’t paying to be there, and you’re not paying for the web for the same reason. You’re the product.

If you mattered at all you’d be getting a cut of the proceeds.

Google made $60,000,000,000, 60 billion, sixty billion-with-a-b, last year. Eighty eight percent of that is estimated to be from advertising. You are the eyes that advertising is buying. Are you seeing royalties from Google for your essential role in this? How about from Dataium ($2 billion profit per year)? Or BlueKai, Acxiom, or Omniture (now part of Adobe)? How about Splunk? (Don’t you just love the cool, we-juggle-at-the-office names?) Or any of the hundred other hidden internet tracking companies all making profit off you?

In an article about a company that wants to sell people vaults for their personal data, “Fatemeh Khatibloo of Forrester Research said consumers want to know when data about them is collected and stored and by whom, and how it is used.” The Wall Street Journal has a list of how many trackers are planted after visits to common web sites. Dozens. Sometimes hundreds. How many of them do you even know exist, let alone what they collect and how long they store it?

What you want matters as much as what the cake of soap wants.

We’ve lost control over our own lives so completely that most people’s only response is to apply the pragmatism of the damned and ask “Whatchya gonna do?”

I don’t know what to do either. Tactics are never my strong suit. All I really have is one long bellow to SMASH THE BASTARDS.

However, I do know what we should do. We should get our rights back. We should get recognition of the fact that our information is part of our selves. Just as we have the right to control what’s done to our bodies, as in the ancient right of habeas corpus, likewise we have the right to control what’s done to our information. (Also some other posts: 1 and 2.)

Nobody can track you without your explicit consent, and only for the explicit purpose you agreed to. And when you want to revoke the permission, they have to expunge their databases.

Yes, I know that’s so far from current reality as to be ridiculous. But that only speaks badly for current reality. It doesn’t change what’s true.

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The cloud bait and the Chromebook

Shoes on a powerline; supposed to be the mark of drug pushers nearby.


There’s excitement about the Chromebook Pixel. It has a good screen. It’s light. It’s Google.

Then there’s this:

[T]he Chromebook Pixel comes with … 32 GB of space …, and if 32 GB isn’t enough room for you, the company also throws in 1 terabyte, or about 1,000 GB, of space through its Google Drive service.

…[O]f course, you’ll need an Internet connection to access those files. You get the 1 TB of storage for only three years. After that, you’ll have to pay $50 a month to keep it.

Did you hear that? $50 a month. $50 a month. $50 a month.

Do you know how much a 1 TB hard drive costs right now? About $90. That’s for the whole thing. Not per month. Not even per year. Three years from now, they’ll probably be going for about $25.

That might seem fine. You get your three free years, buy your cheap drive, and come out way ahead.

Except that transfer speeds matter if you want to move all that stuff to your nice new drive. If after three years of uploading photos and video clips you had all of 100 gigabytes stored in the GOOG’s cloud, then at a 500Kb effective download speed it would take about 650 hours, or about one month, to download it all to your own drive. Calculate it for your own situation here.

The US was supposed to have an average broadband speed of 6.7 mbps in early 2012. That’s 837Kb of data per second. My own service right now is supposed to be giving me over 1Mb per second, but that only happens occasionally. 500Kb is a good day. Evenings and weekends it can slow down to dialup modem speeds. That would, of course, make the downloading take that much longer.

(On the other hand, if you live in Japan or South Korea with a regulated broadband industry, you may get 1Gbps tranfer speeds or more and none of this applies to you. It’d take you only minutes to get your stuff.)

So, there you are, faced with babysitting a download for weeks or suddenly forking over $50 a month. How many people will go, “Oh crap. I better pay this month and figure out what to do about it next month”? Enough to make it a lucrative business model? You bet.

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If you don’t control it, you don’t own it

Now can we start refusing to be cattle instead of customers?

Instagram says it now has the right to sell your photos – CNET News:

Under the new policy, Facebook claims the perpetual right to license all public Instagram photos to companies or any other organization, including for advertising purposes, which would effectively transform the Web site into the world’s largest stock photo agency. One irked Twitter user quipped that “Instagram is now the new iStockPhoto, except they won’t have to pay you anything to use your images.”

These services are “free” the same way the supermarket is free for the bar of soap. You’re the product. Of course it’s “free.” The real tell showing your place in the scheme of things is that nobody is offering you a cut of the (huge) profits. If you were an actual human being, you’d have a right to part of them for your contribution.

But you have no rights. It’s all subsumed under property rights. Whoever is making money has the right to trample your privacy, copyrights, free speech, and whatever else suits their bottom line.

You know what? That doesn’t work and can’t work because it ends in total absurdity. Some rights have to take precedence over others or they all become useless. Human rights have to come before property rights. If they don’t, I could kidnap people for a slave farm and there’d be nothing they could do about it because they’re my property, which is more important than anything else. And anybody else could do the same to me. There would be neither human rights nor property rights for anybody. Everything would be lost. If human rights come first, property rights are secure within their proper limited sphere.

Religion is another example. Freedom of religion must be secondary to freedom of speech, movement, and basic human rights like self defense. If it isn’t, then my religion could be to kill your religion. There would be neither human rights nor freedom of religion for anybody.

As I said, getting rights in the wrong order ends in absurdity. It ends in no rights, not even the one usurping the top spot.

If we had a real government, instead of our captured kleptocracy, our rights to our own work would be clear in law, and we wouldn’t have to worry about losing control to some piker holding us up at a chokepoint.

Instagram expropriating people’s cat pictures seems like a picayune thing to get worked up about. But it’s yet one more symptom of an inversion in the correct order of rights. They have no right to do that because money cannot cancel basic rights to your own work. There’s no law against corporations making money, certainly. That’s what they’re there for. But not at the price of trampling more important rights. And that’s not a small thing at all.

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I, for one, welcome our new robotic overlords

So long as they’re this much fun.

Not otherwise.

Related: Swarm of flying robots: I want.

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I hate MarketSpeak

I am so fed up with marketers, I can’t tell you. What brought on this particular fit was some nonsense quoted on the BBC.

The article is discussing a rule that’s gone into effect in the UK, requiring web sites to let users know about all the cookies they plan on storing and asking users’ permission to do it.

In other words, it’s opt-in, not opt-out. Needless to say, practically nobody opts in. Cue the moaning of the marketers in 3 …, 2 …, 1 …

“Plain and simple – this will kill online sales.”

Oh, really? Seems to me online sales grew from nothing to huge before all this tracking crap got under way.

But British Telecom has the solution. Revert to opt-out with this clever little bit of marketspeak:

The cookie settings on this website are set to ‘allow all cookies’ to give you the very best experience. If you continue without changing these settings, you consent to this – but if you want, you can change your settings at any time at the bottom of this page.

“To give you the very best experience”? “To give you the very best experience”?!

Is the feel of all those cookies tracking me supposed to make me all warm and fuzzy and less alone in the world?


They’re not talking about me, and they know it. The “you” having the “very best” experience is the advertiser paying the web site’s bills.

So, here’s the PlainSpeak change that’s needed: “The cookie settings on this website are set to ‘allow all cookies’ to provide us with the most revenue.”

There. Fixed that for ya.

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What is wrong with this picture?

I’ll admit it. I have an axe to grind with search engines, and there’s a rant coming about them Real Soon Now. But the following just cries out for immediate carping. Via Groklaw – Digging for Truth, Volokh and Falk (pdf) on the topic of free speech protections for search engines:

…search engines are speakers. First, they sometimes convey information that the search engine company has itself prepared or compiled …. Second, they direct users to material created by others, …. Such reporting about others’ speech is itself constitutionally protected speech.

Third, and most valuably, search engines select and sort the results in a way that is aimed at giving users what the search engine companies see as the most helpful and useful information.

My beef isn’t (at least not here) about whether or not a private company making money through speech has the same protections as an individual expressing a political opinion. I want to draw attention to the framing. “[S]earch engines select and sort the results in a way that [aims to give] users what the search engine companies see as the most helpful and useful information.”

That’s what the search engines say they do. That is accepting their version of their actions without question.

The most elementary detective principles suggest it’s dumb not to at least ask, “Who benefits?” Pretending it’s a given that the user benefits is either foolish, lazy, or propaganda, or all three.

Search engines are private companies. Their first loyalty is to their own profit. They have to put effort into service to the users; it’s a cost. If other businesses are anything to go by, it will be minimized to the extent compatible with retaining enough users to make a profit. The profits come from ads. The first priority of search engines will be getting clicks on ads.

There. That’s not even difficult or tedious to figure out. It’s about three steps in all.

More important, it’s vitally relevant to how many free speech rights must be granted to search engines. If they’re in this to push the boundaries of human knowledge, why, then, give them every right there is. That would mean the least regulation for the search companies, which would suit them just fine. If they’re in this to push ads, then maybe we shouldn’t be quite so laissez-faire about allowing them to rank results however they please. They’d make less money. Is it any wonder they’re so publicly convinced they have only the interests of the users at heart? Is it stranger that very intelligent people swallow the bait, hook, line, and sinker, and then create erudite reasoning about constitutional law out of it?

Sorry, folks. GIGO.

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Swarm of flying robots: I want

Continuing my must-have vehicles series … fleets of tiny drones flying in formation in a lab. I think about fifty or so would be just the right amount to fly around the house while I cackle wildly. (But, wouldn’t you know, the first thing everyone says is, “Military applications!”)

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In the must-have vehicles series

There is, at long last, a worthy addition to the field of flying cars, ice sailers, alien electric three-wheelers, dune jumpers, and lawn chairs.

Behold, the sphere chair.

Seat atop a self-balancing sphere that somehow rolls the occupant forward. Not sure how. And what happens when you brake?

Segway, eat your heart out.

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The anti-SOPA blackout that was

Almost more interesting than who participated was to see which sites mealy-mouthed their way around it. (Yes, Mr. Twitter, I’m looking at you.)

Big thanks to Wikipedia and Reddit for leading the charge.

Of course, Congress has only put the crap in a drawer for a while, and plans to bring it out again for their paymasters as soon as they think they can get away with it. Joe Brockmeier says the real message should be that we need more and more consistent awareness of what Congress is up to. I say that they make it much too difficult on purpose. They don’t want oversight. It just gets in the way.

Which leaves open the question of what we do next time they try to pull these stunts. And the next time. And the next time. And the time after that. We can’t keep on blacking out because then it would cease to be a protest and become a way of doing the “content” controllers work for them.

Do I have any bright ideas on tactics? Of course not. I’m terrible at tactics. But we need something that hits the four large music producers, five Hollywood studios, four multinational record labels, six global publishers, and their henchmen in Congress where it hurts.

A selection of screenshots from the day: Read more »

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The SOPA strike

As many of you already know, websites will be going dark tomorrow, Wednesday Jan. 18th, to protest the SOPA/PIPA bills in Congress.

These bills supposedly protect intellectual property. In reality, they protect the profits of a few megacorporations at the price of, literally, damaging the internet irretrievably.

They rely on methodology which is trivial for hackers to circumvent. (For instance, Google is blocked? Just use instead.)

They break domain name security (pdf).

They enable competitors, malicious people, the government, indeed anyone, to shut down any site because they make site owners responsible for all infringement on a site. That means someone could leave a comment containing a copyright infringement, report the site, and the whole site would be shut down. No court orders are necessary. Good luck getting someone on the phone to appeal the decision.

Actually, as of the last news I heard, SOPA had been removed indefinitely. Only the Senate version, PIPA, is currently on the active list, due to be voted on Jan. 24th. But many of us want to be sure that our concerns about these absurd bills are understood, that PIPA is also stopped, and that SOPA doesn’t re-emerge as soon as the House leadership thinks they can get away with it.

The blackout is going ahead to demonstrate how the internet would look if sites were blocked willy nilly. I’ll see you again on Thursday because so far we still have our free, open, and unblocked internet and I can say that with confidence.

If you’d like to keep it that way and you’re in the US, call or email your Congresscritters!

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Tablet, schmablet

(This started life as a comment over at Suburban Guerrilla, when it occurred to me that it’s really a post.)

Update, Jan 22, 2012: At SCALE 10x, I had a chance to see a couple of the late, lamented HP Touchpads running WebOS. They’re beautiful! They don’t have the idiotic virtual keyboard described below. They respond to taps properly, even when done by me. HP are a bunch of idiots for cancelling that thing instead of just pricing it realistically.

An iPad started it, but this is really about tablets in general. I’ve been using computers since the 1970s, when we had to do stat programs on punch cards and use Job Control Language. I l-o-o-o-ve computers (although not those JCL mainframes, to be honest), and I’ve always jumped on each new thing as it came along. I’ve had to face the fact that I’m a gadget freak.

Except tablets. They seemed pointless. Portable TVs, basically. Mobile-type things like checking contacts, phoning, music, or web surfing I can do on my phone without needing a ten inch pocket to carry it. Then I had to use a tablet yesterday because my local hospital has gone all iPad for their check-in procedures. Twenty questions that would have taken seconds on paper took about five minutes.

The legendary touchscreen takes forever to respond to a tap. (I have very dry fingers.) I needed an “a.” Tap … tap, tap … tap, tap, tap, tap, mash whole top of finger down and hold. Get a “z.” Start over. Breathe on fingers so they have some moisture on them. Tap. Tap, tap, tap, — tap! Finally, an “a.” And so it went. If I had a tablet, I’d need to carry a sausage to operate the stupid thing. commuters using cocktail sausages to tap their phones because they're wearing gloves in winter But my shortcomings were only the beginning of the problems. I needed an “@.” Tap special characters key for different keyboard, get the one character, tap key for a-b-c keyboard, tap-tap-tap out a few letters, tap special characters key for different keyboard, tap out two numbers, tap key for a-b-c keyboard, etc., etc., etc. What a total and absolute pain. And this is what everyone is raving about? I’d get frustrated just entering a password, forget writing a message. The bitsy keyboard on my Nokia N900 is easier to use (and I am not good at using it).

The graphics are okay, so as a portable TV it would work except that you have to hold the thing all the time. Hold one hand behind your back while you use a computer to see how it feels to use a tablet, unless you’ve already trained yourself on the things. (Yes, I know you can get stands, but that’s a workaround, not good design to begin with.) And one more thing. You want the screen tilted up for visibility without neck contortions and you want the screen flattish for input without shoulder and arm contortions. That’s a problem.

I know there are lots of much more coordinated people than me out there. And also people with more normal skin. But, believe me, tablets are worse than useless for some of us.

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Fools and their money

Fools and their money are said to be soon parted, so Google must think that if they make fools of their customers, they’ll get the money.

How else to explain their new Chrome OS laptop?

If you buy the thing straight up, as a consumer, the cheapest one will be $349. That’s for a machine whose hardware equivalent can be had for around $170.

It runs only Google applications on Google servers. That’s something you can do on any computer any time. Except that on a normal computer you can also run other software if you want.

The “chromebooks” have wifi. The high end Samsung model, for $499, also has 3G (i.e. cellphone) connectivity. With a two year contract with Verizon, Slashdot says 100MB of data per month is included. That some 3.3 megabytes per day.

The proud boast about the chromebooks is that they don’t access the Web, they are the Web. They’re cool and cloud-based and everything that’s done on them uses connection bandwidth — wifi at home, work, or the cafe hotspot, 3G otherwise. If all you did was use the machine for a while when away from wifi, if you worked on some photos, or played a game, or worked on a newsletter, or checked a news site with a few flash ads, you’d reach the limit pretty fast. So there’s yet another hole to pour money into.

You could, of course, use some of those Google apps in offline mode. But, um, you can use any computer in “offline” mode, and you can do it cheaper, faster, and better.

Google, after making a big deal out of using open source, is moving toward totally locking its chromebooks down. It’s working on tying the OS to the firmware. That prevents installation of another Linux-based OS on the chromebook. Depending how Google restricts the operating system, it could prevent you from installing anything at all on the computer.

Note that Chrome is a (somewhat crippled) Linux operating system. If one Linux OS runs on a netbook, many other flavors will too. Something like Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and some others, are no scarier these days than Windows (or Chrome). Plus they let you run whatever software you want. To Google, that is obviously a bug, not a feature.

Google is also offering a special for business and education. For low monthly payments — the cheapest is $20 per month for three years — you have a wonderful $170 netbook for $720. Such a deal! Assuming a $349 price, that’s only an effective annual interest rate of 27%. Hurry, before this never to be repeated offer ends! The only catch is that they’re selling in lots of ten or more, so individuals can’t get the deal.

What’s supposed to make it attractive to institutions is that Google will provide support. Really? Has anyone ever seen Google support any of their products? Anyone? Nexus customers? Google is also making a big point of how you’ll have no viruses. That has nothing to do with Google. That’s (currently) a feature of Linux. Once it’s a bigger target, more crackers may try to attack it, but for now viruses are not a problem for Linux users.

What makes me want to scream is that it is easy as pie to have all of the benefits with none of Google’s red, blue, or yellow zip-tie handcuffs. If you’re able to pay $350 for a laptop, there are some quite good ones out there. If you’re willing to pay $500 — the price of the Samsung chromebook with wifi and 3G — there are some very good ones. My personal favorites at the low end are the Lenovo S-series Ideapads, both for build quality and hardware specs, but there are plenty of others too. (No, I have no relationship with Lenovo except owning three of their laptops.)

If you want a fast, virus-free Linux operating system on the machine, it’s as simple as downloading a desktop “live CD” file from Linux Mint or Ubuntu. (For Ubuntu choose the second option in the dropdown menu, the Long Term Release, version 10.04 Lucid. More stability and less upgrading.)

To make a LiveUSB (=bootable USB) use Unetbootin (Windows or Linux) or Startup Disk Creator (under the System, Administration menu in Ubuntu Linux). You’ll need a USB with at least 2GB of space. Downloading the file and installing it on a USB are as hard as the process gets.

After that, plug the USB into the netbook, start up the machine, and test drive the new operating system. There’s a desktop icon if you want to install, which lets you follow on-screen instructions. You can put the new OS next to the old one (“dual boot”) or replace it. It takes about fifteen or twenty minutes. That’s it. You’re done.

More software is available for free with one-click installs from repositories. They work like app stores, except that the idea is a free community to which everyone contributes what they can. Some people program, some answer questions on the support forums, and some do nothing at all. It’s up to you. The quality of the established software, like Firefox or LibreOffice, is often better than the equivalent commercial products. (There are tens of thousands of people contributing to the open source projects, most in small ways, but it adds up.)

So don’t be suckered just because Google uses bright primary colors. They stopped being a bunch of nice guys who don’t wear ties long ago. Now they’re just guys who don’t wear ties. They’re after your money. Spend it on yourself instead of them.

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