Friday, September 14, 2012

Far from alone with the Nexus 7

Michele has sent through a couple of really nice links to cases of people finding the Google Nexus 7 as robust and functional -- and downright excellent -- as I do.

Here is a serious tech writer -- Mitch Wagner -- using his Nexus as a laptop while attending the IBM Smarter Commerce 2012 Global Summit last week. Good company.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, here is a wonderfully eccentric instructable for hitching a Nexus 7 up to a PS3/Xbox 360 controller for mobile game playing.

More good company.

While Google is on about making money as much as anyone else, the hardware they get involved with encourages development work, various kinds of machine hacking, and rich possibilities for workarounds.

We need more of it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Fun with a Dell Latitude D600 running Ubuntu

While I'm not a total technological klutz I do a fair impersonation most of the time. But one thing I love to try and do is keep old gadgets and machines running.

Not long after the Dell Latitude D-600 came out in 2003 Michele gave me one she had received in a rewards scheme. It was a lovely gesture and I appreciated it hugely.

The only trouble was that from Day 1 the machine had problems. People who don't like dogs the way I do might say it was a dog. Running Windows XP, it crashed, overheated, and generally behaved very badly. We re-installed XP, but to no avail. It would do some of the things it was supposed to, albeit slowly, laboriously.

I cherished the machine as a gift, but it was just sad that it never really performed.

When the first Asus eeePC netbook came out I got one -- my first taste of Linux. I liked it a lot and when I got the second and then third gen Asus netbooks (running XP, as they did, but with bigger hard drives) I would partition the drives and drop Linux on as well -- in the form of Ubuntu. A nice, elegant OS running around 700 megabytes. The machines always seemed to cruise when running Ubuntu.

So, I began to wonder what might happen with the Dell if I ran Ubuntu. What happened was that it stopped crashing. This was back in the days of Ubuntu 7 or 8. It ran well. So I decided to just abandon the Windows OS completely and repartitioned the drive to just run Ubuntu. All of a sudden printers synched beautifully and I was looking at a new -- although by then chronologically rather old -- machine.

In recent years I upgraded through Ubtunu 9 (a favourite), 10 and 11.

The other day after getting back to Mexico at the end of summer I fired the machine up and it said there was a new upgrade, did I want to try it. In the past I have usually created a CD ROM or a thumb stick and installed the upgrades by booting from the ROM or stick. This time I decided to try upgrade right off the download on the web. We are talking Mexico City here, on a slow wireless connection. The stuff came down at between 30 and 60 kps, and the whole job took around 5 hours from starting the download to completing the install. In retrospect I wondered if I might have done better using an ethernet connection rather than wireless, but I maybe should have thought about that earlier. In the event the wireless did the job.

It was great, EXCEPT with the upgrade that I had real trouble getting the wireless to work. In fact, it could not pick up a signal from the same wireless modem it had downloaded the upgrade from. Weird, I thought. I ran it on an ethernet connection and it was fine. Not fast, but at least as good as my more recent machines could manage on wireless.

Meanwhile, I was gearing up to come over to the house in Coatepec. In the downstairs office I have been running a 1998 IBM Thinkpad (on XP Service Pack 1 -- I said I liked keeping old stuff alive) as a printing mule. The specs are so primitive it can't even take Service Pack 2. I had reluctantly decided to retire the faithful old thing with dignity, and it would join the ranks of the old Toshibas and e-Machines that still boot up running Win 95 and 98 respectively. And the Dell Latitude was designated to take over. So I brought if over here with me.

I found that it would pick up the wireless signal here -- slightly less congested infrastructure in Coatepec than Mexico City. It picked up the signal on the upstairs base station much better than the downstairs one. Not flash, I'd say at best comparable to how it ran in Mexico City when it was downloading the new OS. Much slower on the other modem downstairs. It would lose the link and reconnect. I could send email messages. So, in Mexico City I couldn't work the wireless at all after the upgrade, and with a slightly better link over here I could at least get something going upstairs.

Just for fun I wondered what would happen if I plugged in the modest TP Link High Gain USB adapter I had got a few months back. I didn't know if it would run on Ubuntu, and most of the info I could find online said it wouldn't work. But most posts referred to Ubuntu 8 through 10. Because of the weird experience of the wireless function deteriorating with the latest upgrade I thought there was nothing to lose by at least having a shot.

I was wanting to work in the bedroom, which is at the far end of the house from the upstairs base station, and the signal was pretty weak. I slotted the adapter in and it showed a green light, so I disconnected the connection I had and went for the strongest one showing - the USB bus adapter.

What happened was beyond belief. All of a sudden this modest ADSL connection was flying as fast as the cable connection we have in New Jersey. I pulled a couple of music albums down off Amazon cloud in no time at all. The high gain adapter is getting a much better result than with the other machines we have tried it on (running Windows 7 -- a laptop and a netbook). I couldn't believe what was happening.

Right now I have this old modest Dell laptop which will turn 10 next year running about as well as I need a machine to run for most of the things I do most of the time. Not bad for free (open source) software. Not only does Ubuntu keep this machine with its old specs on the road. It has got it flying, and even somehow syncs with a wireless USB high gain adapter I haven't seen anyone else report having got to work in Ubuntu.

It makes me wonder about all those poor slow old machines we see in some of the schools we work and teach in, labouring along trying to run XP and Vista. I wouldn't mind betting that a good proportion of them would get up and run if the tech administrators would let some of the students drop some decent open source software onto them. It wouldn't even be a budget item. And you don't need any significant expertise to do it. After all, if I can do it who can't?

Saturday, September 01, 2012

A sad-funny (funny-sad??) mehPad story

A couple of days I read a story in the New Zealand Herald online about a motivational speaker making a trip to the US and wondering if she could avoid lugging a laptop and, instead, settle for taking her mehPad. The story is the kind of thing that spawns Kiwi Jokes across the Tasman Sea, but it is instructive and can be found here.

The author wanted to work on some serious writing whilst OS and had done some prior preparation -- she'd loaded some material to be worked on to google docs -- and had carried a $140 keyboard custom manufactured for the tablet to get the keying work done. But it had all come rather unstuck. She discovered she couldn't work with google docs offline, and the hotel internet was so slow it precluded working effectively online. Frustrated by the experience the author advocates traveling with a laptop to avoid this kind of inconvenience.

What is sad-funny/funny-sad here, from my perspective, is how easy it is to overpay for something that can be got so very much cheaper and may, in fact, work a whole lot better.

Which brings me to yesterday.

Michele had kindly bought me a bunch of music and stored it on her Amazon Cloud for me to pull down. Yesterday was the day. The internet is pretty narrow band here at the apartment in Mexico City, even though I am on a so-called high speed connection. Just not enough pipe. It's north of dial up, but a lot of the time if you can download a meg a minute it is as much as you can hope for.

So I was into the downloading. I had the high gain aerial booster running on the machine, so I was getting the optimal signal possible. I could not afford to just dedicate the internet to music downloading, however, because I had a lot of emailing to get done. Yet I could not get another web site to open on the machine. Nor could I get email to open on my Chromebook, which is usually pretty ecological when it comes to bandwidth. The music was taking it all.

I tried my last shot, the Nexus 7 tablet with its email apps. Bingo. There was just enough to pull it down. The trouble was that some of the urgent emailing called for serious keying -- not the touch screen keyboard stuff. Even with the brilliant spelling and grammar anticipation of the Nexus -- remember we are talking a machine whose 8 gig version retails for $199 here, and that runs andoid (which the mehPad people are trying to litigate out of viability, and it is not so hard to see why) -- the keying was a pain in the nethers.

As it happens I had an old USB keyboard lying around, a raggy thing that had cost maybe $10 a decade ago. I popped the usb adapter into the Nexus and hitched up the old keyboard. I was flying. Instant sync, no problems. I hammered away getting the work done, and another workaround was achieved -- very economically.

Of course, there is a whole lot more that pertains directly to the experience of the NZ author of the woes depicted earlier. For example, the $2.99 Office app that enables you to word process, create presentations and create spreadsheets off line. And that you simply upload into Google Docs as and when you want to and have an internet connection. Plus, as I mentioned a week or two back, the same usb connectivity (with a $2 adapter) lets you plug in a thumbdrive or a card slipped into a usb adapter and access documents and/or stream music and video. The app for accessing the files on the external drive costs another $2.99.

So, last night I began wondering just how far could I push this Nexus toward an approximation to most of the computing I do? This is how it looked.

Basically, I had sat the Nexus on the laptop riser on my desk. Behind the riser lurks a powered USB hub -- just a small, light, simple hub with 4 usb ports. I plugged that into the adapter running from the Nexus. One port supports the wireless mouse and wireless keyboard. Another takes the thumbdrive that lets me access all manner of files. If I don't want to run bluetooth speakers I can just jack wired speakers into the Nexus (which I did after taking this photo, but enough tomfoolery is enough). That still leaves 2 usb ports .....

That basic Android Nexus 7 tablet with $6 of apps and a $2 usb connector does everything and more that the author in our story required, for around 25% of the cost of the mehPad and exhoritant keyboard. If traveling I am sure it'd be easy to borrow a usb keyboard from a hotel if you didn't want to carry one. Of course, for $35 you can have the bluetooth keyboard in a leather stand case that you'd carry the Nexus in anyway, when traveling. That would leave the adapter free to take a mouse if you so wanted.

And if you wanted to go the whole hog, you'd just drop a small, lightweight, powered USB hub into your carry on, and you have all you need for computing life-on-the-road for a diverse range of purposes.

That alone would hook me on android.

Don Vincente's Daughter: A collection of short stories by John Parkyn

I was thrilled to get a message yesterday from my ex pat New Zealand friend, John Parkyn, who has lived in Morelia, in the Mexican state of Michoacan since the mid 90s. John said his new book, a collection of short stories titled "Don Vincente's Daughter" had just been published in New Zealand by Oceanbooks.

This is a real thrill for me personally because for more than a decade now I have watched John work his Latin American inspirations into his writing, bringing it into conversation with his previous life experiences as a New Zealander who had long worked in editorial roles at the country's largest newspaper.

John wanted to be a writer in the full-fledged liberal arts sense of being a writer. Meeting and marrying Bety had taken him to Mexico, where writers are cherished, and with abundant time at his beck and call John turned his attention to writing and publishing -- particularly, short stories -- as a vocation.

I have seen many a story unfold, and have read and commented on numerous drafts. But above all I have had a rich glimpse of what it is like to be a writer, as distinct from being some kind of academic who happens to write books (which has been my own experience). I have loved watching the way John settled into his routines of writing for some time most days, but then having/taking the rest of the day to smell the roses.  Watching the move from typewriter to word processing, and observing the deep changes and shifts in worldview and practices entailed by that move. And watching the shift from a deep and total commitment to print as the default medium for a book to the idea that a book can, indeed, be and live electronically.

John has a rich array of plots and triggering events and has brought these to lively life in his book. He is now thinking about the steps to come, beginning in a few weeks with a trip back to New Zealand for a series of book launches and to catch up with friends and fellow authors over there.

Have a great trip, John, and all the best for the success of "Don Vincente's Daughter". I look forward to seeing plenty more in the years ahead.

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