FAQ Index:

-News, thoughts, updates and information

-Homepage of my music projects

Video Game Reviews
-Reviews of games I've played

RPG Resources
-Campaign information, character sheets etc.

Elcalen's Homepage
-Products of my creative interests: poetry, music etc.

Popful Mail Paradise
-A fansite about the Sega CD game Popful Mail


Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Going Home

Well, after bitching about Mac OS X's shortcomings for a long while, I finally took the plunge and installed GNU/Linux on my MacBook. (Why it took this long was mostly because I didn't have that USB disc to backup my stuff, until now.)

In case anyone is wondering why, let me reiterate. The reason is twofold.

1. Ideology. I'm a devoted supporter of the free software movement. While Mac OS X utilises many open source components, and as a Unix system is fairly compatible with a large number of free software applications, it is still a proprietary system, and many of Apple's policies I just can't agree with.

2. Functionality. While Mac OS X is a certified Unix system, it's focus is on its own desktop environment, which doesn't intergrate perfectly with the Unix core, its command line interface or other Unix software not tailored for OS X. GNU/Linux systems (and probably most other Unix-like systems as well) are much more configurable, use the standard X Window System and are generally more 'whole', not suffering from an identity crisis as OS X is.

Debian GNU/Linux was the obvious choice, as I said before. Installing it on a MacBook isn't exactly a trivial matter, but following instructions on Debian's wiki page it wasn't actually too difficult, even though on the first try I ended up with kernel panic and had to do it all over again. In the end it booted without problems, though, and most features work fine pretty much 'out of the box'. (I still have a small partition with Mac OS X as a backup, and because a pure Debian system apparently still has some issues.)
There's still plenty of configuring to do, of course. The touchpad works, but needs tuning. I haven't been able to figure out how to get custom settings to work yet. And I haven't got wireless yet. It seems that this would require upgrading the kernel to a newer version, which is something I've never done before.

I might have been worried that I'd grown too accustomed to OS X's eye candy and convenient features. Well, I installed KDE 4, and it has certainly softened the blow. It looks pretty, and has pretty much all the desktop and window management features of OS X, such as a grid view of all the virtual desktops. And a slideshow mode for my many wallpapers.

For now, I'm just happy to be back home in a proper free software *nix.

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Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Procrastinating with OS Woes

Still got that flu. Mostly it's just an annoying cough, with a slightly runny nose thrown in. I haven't been sleeping very well either. And I have to go to class tomorrow and speak. Great.

I've really started to yearn for a proper free software operating system again. I've used Mac OS X for well over a year now, and the magic is slowly beginning to wear off. I've written before about its flaws from a Unix user's perspective (just look at the posts labeled Mac OS X). Toss in the ethical problems of proprietary software, and I'm really starting to turn against it. OS X had its attractions, much of which were just simple eye candy. But free software systems aren't that far behind. Just look at these features in KDE 4.

Debian GNU/Linux would probably be my top choice. It's undoubtedly the best GNU/Linux distribution I've used so far. A great package management system with a huge software library is one of it's best features. And it's also more devoted to the GNU philosophy than some other distributions.

But installing a GNU/Linux system on a MacBook is no trivial matter. I need to find out more about how well it actually functions. I certainly couldn't even try it without making a complete backup of all my stuff, for which I would need a USB hard drive, which I just don't have the money for at the moment. Which leaves me kind of buggered. Not happy at all.

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Friday, 7 November 2008

Taking in Applications for the Position of the Next iTunes

I've written before about my love/hate relationship with iTunes. I keep my eye out for potential replacements, but the choices are very few.

Amarok 2 is one of the players that could have potential, but it's been developed on GNU/Linux. I read recently that it is possible to get it running on Mac OS X, so I thought I should maybe give it a go. Well, I did, and it didn't do me much good.

There's no official Mac installer yet. The only way to install an unstable version is with the KDE 4 Mac environment. Which was Problem #1. Installing KDE wasn't really difficult, but it meant I had to install a gigabyte's worth or more of packages, much of which I probably have very little use for. But I did it, and Amarok started up fine, albeit it took a moment to start. The UI looks interesting.

But that brings us to Problem #2. I haven't explored it much yet, but from the little I did, it seems this version still has too many problems for normal use. First of all, I couldn't resize the window. Which was annoying. More importantly, while playing a file on my hard drive appeared to work, making a library of my music didn't. This was actually noted on the KDE 4 Mac site, but, not familiar with Amarok's terminology, I wasn't sure what they meant. This makes its use very limited, and certainly means it's no competition for iTunes yet.

Until they release an official stable version for OS X, I'm buggered. There's a player called Songbird also available for OS X, which I maybe should try, but it looks like it's still somewhat a work in process and I'm not sure if it's as feature rich as Amarok.

In case anyone's wondering what my beef with iTunes is: it's proprietary software. As simple as that.

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Monday, 1 September 2008

The Curse of iTunes

Since I started using a Mac about a year ago, I've grown very accustomed to iTunes, almost dependent. There's a lot to speak in favour of it. It looks pretty. It's easy to use. It has lots of handy features.

But there's just one major issue. It's not free software.

Apart from Mac OS X itself, iTunes is almost the only piece of proprietary software I use on a daily basis. There are a handful of proprietary Mac applications I use occasionally, like iDvd, but iTunes is the only one that's a major part of my life.

If there was a free software solution that could replace iTunes, I'd be happy, but I haven't found one yet. Since iTunes is free to download anyway, I don't see why Apple doesn't just make it truly free. Perhaps there are issues involving the use of the iTunes store, but I don't really see why making the software open source should have any bearing on it.

And while we're at it, I don't see what's keeping Apple back from making Mac OS X free software in its entirety. They've taken huge and important steps in making parts of it free and utilizing free software tools, but when they wrap it up with a proprietary interface, what's the point? It should be all or nothing when it comes to freedom. Certainly many GNU/Linux distributions, like Ubuntu, and other OSs have proven how successful free software can be. If money's the only issue, they can still sell versions, convenient installation DVDs with additional support, documentation etc, to people who want such things. Or just put up hardware prices slightly.

Corporations. They try sometimes, but they just don't get it.

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Monday, 25 August 2008

This Is What Comes Out of Being a Hippie Nerd

It's funny how very different, but equally geeky, interests sometimes come together. I spent a lot of time last weekend setting up an environment for producing PDF natal charts (i.e. horoscopes) with LaTeX.

The first step was to get Astrolog working on my Mac. Astrolog is an old, but powerful command line astrology tool. Because of its age, it doesn't work on Mac OS X out of the box. I had to manually compile it after making a few changes to the makefile and sources. Google was a big help in getting it to work. I had to leave out X support, but I can live without it.

Next I discovered a LaTeX package for typesetting nice looking wheel charts, called horoscop. I think I actually first run into it while googling for info on how to get Astrolog to work on a Mac. What's more, the package is made by Matt Skala, the author of Bonobo Conspiracy! It uses Astrolog (or alternately Swiss Ephemeris) to calculate data for the charts.

Of course there were more obstacles to overcome. To get the most out of horoscop, I needed to install a font for astrological symbols. Installing fonts for TeX, if you've never done it before, is not entirely unlike trying to reach Mt Doom through a maze of orc-infested mountains. It involves copying certain files into the right places, editing certain configs and running certain commands. The problem was finding the right places for the files and the right config to edit, but in the end I had a working font.

Now I could proceed to work on a LaTeX template to draw a good looking chart with all the information I want. This took a lot of tweaking and learning about the features of the package. I'm pretty happy with the version I have now.

Astrology is a fairly recent interest for me, I've only been looking into it since last spring, more or less. Honestly, I've barely gotten started, and I've got a long way to go before I'd try to interpret anyone's birth chart.

I find astrology fascinating. No, I don't really literally believe that arbitrary positions of distant rocks or balls of gas affect peoples' lives. Like with Tarot, the symbols communicate with one's subconscious. It's the process of interpretation that really counts, not what is interpreted. And of course it also gives me an excuse to satisfy the nerd in me by playing around with LaTeX and other cool software.

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Friday, 1 August 2008

What Is This Thing Unix, Anyway?

This carries on from my previous post. I don't think anyone that might stumble upon my blog (if indeed anyone does) will really be interested in this stuff, but what the heck.

I have a MacBook. The operating system it runs is called Mac OS X. But I don't really think of myself as a Mac OS user. I'd rather identify myself as a Unix user. It might come as a shock to some old-school Mac users that the modern Mac OS is, in fact, a UNIX® system. The graphical user interface is so, well, Mac that a casual user might not even be aware that beneath the surface lies a powerful core operating system, the roots of which go at least as far back as 1970.

So what exactly is Unix, anyway? There's no one official Unix or one official user interface to Unix, like there is for Windows. The Unix system branched quite early on into many operating systems developed by different commercial and academic groups, and also spawned clone systems like GNU/Linux. The design philosophy of all the competing Unices has remained very similar, though, and the systems are quite compatible with each other (there are certain standards that all certified Unix systems must comply with, and which non-certified, so called Unix-like systems, like GNU/Linux systems, generally also comply with). The command prompt, the place where hardcore Unix users are most at home, is the portion that has probably remained the most constant (from a user point of view).

But in the modern world few of us are happy with just a text console. The vast majority of software today is graphical. Now, most of the various Unix systems have adopted a version of the X window system as their graphical interface. This makes porting software from one Unix to another fairly easy. Mac OS X, however, has it's own graphical interface, although it is possible to install an X server as well and run X applications side by side with regular Mac apps. There's nothing wrong with the Mac OS X interface as such. Quite the contrary, it is a very usable system and looks good too. However, there exists a certain dualism that separates the graphical environment and the Unix core, as I mentioned in my previous post. Much of this is to do with the way Mac OS X handles most native applications, which are distributed as ready to use bundles. The binaries and support files are contained within a single app package and not in the usual Unix file hierarchy. This means you can't easily run OS X apps in the normal Unix fashion, using just the application's name as a command at the command prompt.

So how can we make Mac OS X act and feel more like a real Unix, which it's supposed to be? Reclaiming the command prompt is pretty much the only way. There are a few simple commands that make life in a terminal window much more pleasant. The 'open' command is crucial. This is the bridge between the command prompt and OS X's app bundles. Since Linux and other Unix systems don't usually have a similar command (as you can run the application using it's name), it is easy for a newcomer to OS X to miss it. I did, for too long. You can also use Quick Look from the command prompt with a little tool called 'qlmanage', which is handy, though not as crucial as 'open'. MacPorts is an important tool and source of Unix software, even if it's software selection isn't complete and many ports are outdated versions. Obviously you'll want a proper text editor, like Emacs or vim. (If you use an app bundle version, make sure you make it the default app for plain text files. That way you should be able to open it with the 'open -t' command, even with files without a '.txt' extension.)

I still haven't figured out if it is possible to get Finder to see Unix system folders and hidden files. While in most cases it's more convenient to browse and manage them in a terminal, it would still be nice. Any ideas? Any more ideas about better approaching OS X in a Unix fashion are also appreciated, if anyone with experience of such things actually happened to read this.

Well, this grew into another really long post with no real purpose. Mostly I guess I'm just organizing thoughts that have been going through my mind during the past week, not really expecting anyone else to be interested in this.

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Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Because No Man Is Truly Happy With Just One Unix

I've been trying out VirtualBox on my MacBook, more for fun and exercise than any real need. VirtualBox is a virtualization application that allows one to run another operating system on top of the original in a virtual machine.

I started out with Debian 4.0 (the current "stable" release). The installation process went surprisingly smoothly, but I soon remembered why I've always used the testing or unstable versions. I fully appreciate the need for a well tested stable release for many users, but there should be some kind of limit! "Antique" would be a better title than stable (it's still got Emacs 21, for crying out loud). So I proceeded to install another virtual machine with the testing release, and, once satisfied it worked OK, removed the first machine.

It runs reasonably well on my Mac. Of course it hogs some resources, but not as bad as I might have expected. Not something I'd want to have running constantly, but good enough to use occasionally if I need some app available for GNU/Linux but not for OS X. Of course the installation eats up a few gigs of disk space, but I'm not running out just yet. The Mac keyboard is always an issue. In Gnome I got it to work quite well, but I'm not sure how to configure it to work with other WMs or in a console. (The trouble is the special symbols usually typed with the ALT key on Macs.)

Then I proceeded to other experiments, mostly for the fun of it, and because, for some reason, I find myself very interested in the Unix scene in its entirety. I tried installing FreeBSD, without success. After a couple of attempts and various errors I gave up. Then I tested OpenSolaris. This installed quite painlessly. It's a bigger resource hog than Debian, though. I'm also not sure about its available software. I took a quick glance at the graphical package manager, and the packages listed there were very sparse. Of course I don't know if I was using it correctly. I won't be keeping it on my Mac, as Debian runs better and surely has a better software selection.

If I had another machine, I might seriously consider trying another Unix-like OS on it, such as a BSD variant. Mac OS X is a great OS in many ways, but it has its cons as well. It is a Unix system of course. I'd never have bought a Mac if it wasn't. It's a commercial product, however, even if its core is Open Source. Also, the integration of the Unix core and the top-level graphical interface (what most people think of as Mac OS) could be much better. App packages are inconvenient to run from a command prompt, and don't by default see many parts of the Unix system, such as hidden files and certain system folders that Unix users are used to tampering with. Also, software installed in a more Unix-like fashion, from source or via tools like MacPorts, usually need the additional X-server to run (when graphical), which (in my experience) has a tendency to be unstable in some cases. (This was true at least for the MacPorts version of Scribus, which seemed to suffer from frequent crashes. I've never had trouble with it on other platforms, so the only cause that comes to mind is OS X's version of X.)

On the other hand I like all the convenience and eye candy of the OS X interface. If only I could make it work better with and more like the *nix tradition I'm used to...

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Saturday, 22 March 2008

The Beauty of Trackers

I'd forgotten how much I love trackers and tracker music. I've just been spending some time playing old tunes by Skaven and trying to re-learn the ropes of tracking.

There have been and still are countless different trackers, of course. Two, though, rise high above all others: Impulse Tracker and FastTracker. Most traditional trackers of today follow in the footsteps of one or the other. IT was the one I used when I first got into trackers in the late 90s, and it still makes me feel very nostalgic. (Schism Tracker is probably the best choice on modern platforms for that perfect IT experience.)

The tracker I'm using at the moment is called MilkyTracker. Unlike most trackers I've used over the years, it is based on FastTracker 2 rather than Impulse Tracker. Which means having to re-learn the interface and shortcuts and stuff. But, frankly, I've been absent from tracking for so long that it'd take a while to get back into the swing of it whatever tracker I used. So far I'm quite happy with it, although I'm yet to do any actual composing.

The Mac isn't necessarily the ideal platform for tracking. There isn't a plethora of software available, and the ports that exist often have issues because of the differences between Mac and PC keyboards (particularly OS X's use of function keys can be a pain). I once tried a port of Schism Tracker (my first choice of trackers for some time), and couldn't get essentials like file loading and saving to work because of the function keys. But so far I have not encountered issues in MilkyTracker that couldn't be fixed with little changes in OS X's keyboard settings.

Although I've dabbled with trackers featuring more modern technology, such as software synthesizers, it is oldschool trackers (like MilkyTracker) that make me happiest, even if the sound they produce is often somewhat crude and old-fashioned. Just looking at the interface makes me all warm inside.

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Monday, 24 December 2007

Testing... One Two Three...

It's been a while, once again. Nothing new. Ben comes and he goes. Right now I'm setting up an environment for writing and publishing these pages directly on the web server. This'll make updating easier. But there's one or two hiccups still. Except future updates sooner than a year from now.

As for news, there's not much. My adventures in the world of operating systems took a new turn, as I bought a new MacBook last summer. I've been very happy with it, and Mac OS X, for the most part. No, it's not exactly all Free Software, but it's a hell of a better than Windows. And being a Unix system, OS X is quite compatible with much of the Free Software scene.

Update: I think I've got the hiccups pretty much sorted out. As a Christmas bonus I've added a new episode of my Kin of Cerberos RPG campaign, as well as two new video game reviews, Guilty Gear and Viewtiful Joe.

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