13 November 2013

Last (blog) Post

I published my first blog post on RandM Thoughts on 18 February 2006. This is my last post. Henceforth, I will concentrate my various blogging activities in a single blog, Transformative Explications. All of the posts from RandM Thoughts have now migrated and merged with those from an earlier incarnation of Transformative Explications and will continue to be made available at the new location.

If you have been following this blog via an RSS feed, or if you’ve just found one of my posts through a search engine, or if you are specifically trying to track down Randy Metcalfe in order to find out what he is up to these days, I invite you to join me at Transformative Explications.

There you will continue to find my infrequent musings on technology, open source software and more. Plus you’ll find posts about literature and creative writing, which, after all, is really what I’m most interested in.

My thanks to everyone who visited this blog over the years and to those who contributed to it through their comments.

Randy Metcalfe

15 September 2013

Google Nexus 7, 2nd generation

I had one of those heavy birthdays last week. The kind of birthday that prompts your spouse to purchase you something geeky and electronic to make you smile and possibly not feel quite as old as you are. (Isn’t every birthday like that?) On this birthday, after some advance negotiations (“I’m not getting this unless you tell me you will definitely be happy with it”), I received the recently released second-generation version of the Google Nexus 7. And yes, I am very, very pleased with it.


For a long time I hesitated between the iPad mini and the Nexus 7. My wife got an iPad a couple of years ago and has been delighted with it ever since. About eight months ago her father got an iPad mini and he too has been delighted with it. And since cost, on this one occasion, was no bar (these heavy birthdays really do only come around rarely) I could easily have gone with the iPad mini. But everything I’d been reading about the new Nexus 7 suggested that it was more than equal to the challenge of the iPad mini. Plus, I was a bit concerned that we were getting painted into a corner here with our iMacs and the iPad; perhaps it was time to branch off into a different paradigm with an Android device (well, actually it’s probably the same paradigm, just a different company/environment). Then there was the much-vaunted beauty of the new Nexus screen. And finally, even though someone else was buying this for me, there was the cost difference, which here is about one hundred dollars. And that does mean something.

Choice made, heavy birthday survived, now it’s time to report on the joys (or not) of actually using the Nexus 7. Reader, I can safely say that it is wonderful.

The set-up of the device was painless. I found the apps I was looking for in Google Play, initially adding them to a wish list until I was ready to begin installing them. I’ve got the apps you might expect, I suppose: Facebook, IMDB, BBC News, LinkedIn, Dropbox, CBC News, Skype, Twitter, Flickr and more. There are a few apps I have installed based on recommendations from across the net. For example, Duolingo, which is a language-learning app, turns out to be fabulous (it is available for the iPad as well). I’m sure I will find lots more in time, but I’ve got enough to be getting on with.

One thing that was expected was how easy the move to Android is if you’ve already been enjoying a variety of Google products. Gmail, Drive (Google Docs, as was), Maps, and such just work the way you would expect. The browser is Google Chrome, which is fine with me. And there are apps for Google Earth, your Gmail contacts, and for Google+ (for which I’ve yet to find a real use).

Of course one of my goals for this device was to use it for reading e-books and other e-materials. To that end I purchased a subscription to The New Yorker magazine through Google Play Magazines. The subscription cost was reasonable and I’ve got to say that the magazine looks great on the device. It is easy to navigate, easy to read, and it has lots of additional multimedia content. I figure this will get me in the habit of reading on the device and that will make the move to reading books here easier. To that end I have added the Overdrive media app, which is what our public library uses. And of course there is also Google Play Books should I wish to purchase any e-books (though I’m so stingy it will take a great deal to break down my reservations on that).

Mostly I’m just having fun with my new Nexus. I still have a bit of a learning curve ahead, no doubt, but that’s no bother. Oh, and one last thing, my Nexus 7 is now housed in a nice Snugg case/cover. I guess I’m set.

14 March 2013

Not so much moving on as being pushed – after Google Reader

Back in July of 2012, Google announced that its much-loved customizable homepage, iGoogle, would be shutting down in November of 2013. Along with others, I searched the heavens for further signs of the end times—a rain of toads, a column of fire, dogs and cats living together. Nothing. Apparently it was just a commercial decision by a large corporation that could no longer see a financial advantage in sustaining the iGoogle environment of widgets and gadgets and whatnot. Not a lot of ad revenue in widgets, I suppose (at least not the ones I was using).

Today, Google has announced that Google Reader—its RSS feed reader—will be shutting down in July 2013. I’ve checked the heavens and once again it appears this is just a corporate decision. Well then.

I’ve never loved Google Reader. It was only ever functional. When I would come across an RSS feed that I wanted to keep track of, I would “subscribe” to it in my Google Reader. It provided a means of grouping one’s RSS feeds, labelling them in a common fashion. But that was never truly useful since Google Reader’s user interface was never convenient for a quick scan of RSS items.

What was useful, however, was the fact that I could take an output feed from Google Reader—a conglomeration of all the RSS feeds to which I had subscribed within Google Reader—and feed it through an iGoogle gadget so that my entire set of RSS feeds would appear on my homepage in abbreviated form (just the feed title). I have no interest in reading the vast majority of items that appear in my RSS feeds. I just scan through the titles of the items and when I find one for which I would like to see the full content, I just click on it. Simple. When I’m done I mark all of the items “as read” and they are whisked away leaving me with a nice clean, empty, Google Reader gadget on my iGoogle homepage waiting for the next batch of items when they arrive.

I don’t suppose I am a big user of RSS feeds. I have 76 feeds currently in my Google Reader. Collectively they produce between 150 to 200 items in my Google Reader gadget on my iGoogle homepage per day. Of those, I probably look at maybe 10 or 15.

But now my need for finding a viable replacement for my iGoogle homepage just moved from “pending” to “urgent”. (Not panicky urgent, just ordinary urgent.) I already know about a few alternatives, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking that I should just do my own thing, probably within a Drupal installation on a site I already use.

Change comes to all of us, with or without heavenly signs. I just don’t enjoy being chivvied.

30 January 2013

Producing Open Source Software by Karl Fogel (revisited)



It seems years ago now since I first read Karl Fogel’s Producing Open Source Software. That’s because it is. The book, made available at producingoss.com in 2005 and published by O’Reilly in 2006, was one of the first to offer an accessible and thoughtful look at how to run a successful free software project. Back in 2005 and 2006, that was something I was keenly interested in, not least because I was working for OSS Watch at the time.

Time passes. Things change. Even the world of free and open source software changes over time.

I was delighted to learn recently that Karl Fogel is setting about producing a revised and updated edition of Producing Open Source Software.  What’s more there is an easy way that interested individuals can help this project come to fruition. Karl has posted his project on Kickstarter, which is a funding platform for creative projects. Check out Karl’s video on his project page. And then consider making a small contribution to help kickstart the project. It’s a great opportunity to make a small contribution to the ongoing success of free and open source software.

Plus, just as with the first edition, the new edition will be released online under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike licence so it too will be freely available to read and share with others everywhere and anywhere.

Very much looking forward to the new edition of Producing Open Source Software.

08 September 2012

Distribution Upgrade -- Ubuntu 12.04.1 LTS

My ageing laptop (2007 Dell Inspiron 1520) has been around the world, literally. It served me well in Kathmandu and Bamako, London and Paris, and even here in Waterloo. A couple of years ago I replaced the keypad. But otherwise it has been rock solid. In the past six months, however, it has developed numerous ailments that probably signal its end time. For example, there is now a constant high pitched whine coming from the hard drive, which I'm sure can only be heard by canines, Superman, and me. More significant, however, is the emergent power conflict such that I can no longer run the laptop plugged into the mains. Doing so automatically leads the screen to very shortly black out.  So I am forced to use the machine solely on battery power. And even the battery is now a bit long in the tooth and drops its power rapidly and inconsistently.

Still, it's been a good machine and I've learned a lot with it. But one thing I'd never done was an Ubuntu distribution upgrade. In the past, whenever I wanted to move up to a never version of Ubuntu, I would burn a disc and install the distribution from the disc, entirely wiping out what had previously been on the hard drive. On a whim today I thought I would attempt a direct distribution upgrade. Could my machine manage it with its dodgy battery, high pitched whine, and travel stickers from Nepal?

Yes, it can!

It was touch and go. I started up the machine and went quickly to the software updater. I already knew that Ubuntu 12.04.1 LTS was available for upgrade, so I immediately clicked on the button for distribution upgrade. Then I ignored all the warnings about how long it might take (it said it might take hours) and that I should definitely not attempt it without being plugged into the mains (but hey, what could I do? It's not risk taking when it is your only option.) I then stepped back and crossed my fingers.

Sure, crossing your fingers is probably not best practice for techies, but then it's long been clear that I'm no techie. Initially the laptop claimed to have almost 2 hours of battery life left, and the upgrade was estimating that it would take over 3 hours to download and install everything. But what are numbers, eh? Soon enough the download speed picked up (I had plugged directly in to my router to optimize my throughput). Of course the battery time took a dive as well. After about 30 minutes the laptop was claiming to have just over an hour's worth of battery left, but the upgrade was by then estimating that it needed only slightly less than an hour more.

I should have filmed the sequence because over the next hour the battery jumped down and then up and likewise the estimated upgrade time went up and down. It was like a high (or slow) speed action thriller. In the end, the upgrade completed with less than five minutes to spare on the battery.

Of course the battery life vs upgrade time drama is not really all that significant. Much more important is the fact that the upgrade appears to have gone through perfectly. Even my crappy wireless card continued to work post upgrade. Well done, Ubuntu!

I don't know how many more months this laptop has in it. But till the end of its days it will happily stay an Ubuntu machine.

27 July 2012

After iGoogle

I have been using iGoogle as my personalized homepage for more than five years. I have recommended it to people who also now use it. So I was disappointed to learn at the beginning of July that Google intends to “retire” iGoogle on 1 November 2013.

I suppose I don’t do a great deal with iGoogle. For me there have always been two key widgets: the Google Bookmarks and Google Reader widgets. I have a tidy set of links that I like to have available to me at all times. And I’m a bit old-school (if a non-techie can be ‘old-school’ about something techie) in that I prefer to gather the rss feeds of news sites and blogs that I enjoy and read them in one handy location, i.e. my homepage. Less essential widgets (for me), but still useful, are the French and German Word-Of-The-Day widgets from Transparent Language and the small Google Translate widget. I also use a weather widget that keeps me updated on the state of the rain (or sun) in Oxford, London, and Toronto, but that is only looked at periodically.

One reason that iGoogle has been so convenient is that I often cycle between a variety of browsers, computers, and operating systems. My iGoogle homepage, however, stays constant whether I am using Firefox or Safari or Chrome, or PC, Mac, or Linux.

Another reason for iGoogle’s convenience is its robustness and (in an environment of rapid change) stability. More than five years is a long time these days. And, yes, maybe I’m getting settled in my ways. But still…

Google notes that in the current era of modern mobile apps, “the need for something like iGoogle has eroded over time”. But not for me. My need for it remains exactly the same as when I first started using it more than five years ago. I don’t use “mobile” devices. I use desktops and laptops. I use a web browser. Am I the last one who works this way?

Unfortunately none of the alternatives that Google suggests are terribly convenient. Yes, I could use tabs in my browser for the Google Bookmarks web page and the Google Reader web page, and likewise for Google Translate and other widgets I use daily. But have you looked at the Google Bookmarks web page? Or the Google Reader web page? They are very user-unfriendly, at least a compared with the straightforward way their data is dealt with in my current iGoogle widgets.

As I see it, at the moment, there are two possibilities for how I will organize my daily web use after iGoogle’s demise. I will either have to go with a pre-packaged solution, such as NetVibes. Or I will have to set up my own personalized homepage on one of the domains I manage. Neither is ideal.

I, perhaps na├»vely, like Google. I like most of Google’s family of tools (Gmail, Reader, Bookmarks, Calendar, Maps, Docs [now Drive], etc.). And I liked iGoogle.

13 February 2012

What would you do?

The Internet is vast and contains multitudes. It may not need any more content. And yet…

I have been doing a bit of online consolidating. I’d call it Spring cleaning if the temperature hadn’t dipped to -11c yesterday. I now have one fewer web-hosting accounts. Already I feel a bit lighter. But I’ve still got this blog, on which I infrequently consider matters technological and (perhaps) ontological (as when I start ruminating on my personal identity online). I’ve got another blog, Transformative Explications, which has settled into my place for writing about what I’m reading and, sometimes, what I’m writing, again infrequently. I’ve got a domain and some web space for a static frontispiece website for my consultancy. And this year, as a bit of an experiment, I have been active over on LibraryThing posting reviews of each book I read. I draw a feed of those reviews into my Transformative Explications blog.

My Twitter account remains empty. Am I unable to render my thoughts into 140 characters? Or do I not have thoughts worth even those few characters? The truth is that I have not yet thought of a sensible use for the stream of characters that might ensue if I began “tweeting” frequently, or infrequently. One person I follow on Twitter is forever witty and wise. I would (and do) follow her blog and Facebook status updates as well. Another person I follow is just a touch self-important (yes, even in less than 140 characters!). I’m fascinated, even though it feels rather like watching a train wreck. Somehow I don’t see this as the right forum for me.

Yes, of course, I have a Facebook account. I also have a Google+ account. I contribute to them each about the same, i.e. not at all. The Facebook account, however, does keep me in touch (in that tangential way) with a number of relatives and more distant friends with whom I otherwise would have no contact at all.

And that brings us to the unused domain name I have on my hands, along with sufficient web space to do pretty much whatever I would like with it. But what does the Internet need? (Or what do I need?)

I put that question to a few of my friends. Being my friends, a number of them suggested that I use that location on the Internet to post some of my fiction. Well, really, what did you expect them to say? That’s why I call them my friends :-)  There were also a few other excellent ideas, at least one of which I’m actively thinking about, though to be honest it would be better if I simply offered to set up that site for the person who suggested it.

Now I’m prepared to open up the question to a wider audience (or smaller, depending on the actual reach of this blog). Suppose, you have an unused domain name, and the wherewithal to set up a blog, or CMS, or what have you. What would you do with that space? What content would you set about creating? And how would you go about thinking about this question?