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The “Windows”-fication of Gnome

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USB drive context menu in Nautilus

For a while I have been puzzled why Nautilus doesn't allow me to simply unmount an USB pen drive from the context menu. The only options I could see for USB pen drives was - eject and safely remove drive, which was puzzling on its own as them meant the same to me.

Selecting "eject" or "safely remove" drive does the same thing for USB drives - it unmounts the drive and powers it down. To mount it again, you will have to physically detach it from the USB socket and attach it again.

This trips up several things - it doesn't allow me to remain in GUI land for any use case involving simply unmounting the volume but not detaching it. Applications like gparted, unetbootin, palimsest which I use frequently cannot access the device after it has been "safely removed".

The only GUI way to simply unmount but not detach the USB device seems to be either using gparted or palimsest itself. While I can do that, it seems silly why I would need to open a different application to do something so basic in an Unix system - unmount filesystems, something which we have always been able to do from the earliest of desktop environments.

After ignoring the issue for months(probably years), I decided to find out why the UI was the way it is. And I found this Gnome bug and this one which gave me all the answers.

Here is the gist of the bug:

  • eject is meant for unmounting and removal of media from CDROM like devices. Unlike "unmount" which works only on a single volume, "eject" will unmount ALL volumes on the devices so that it can be removed physically. However, since USB pen drives sometimes advertise their nature as removable, Gnome cannot find out if the device is really removable or not. So this option is made visible for all USB pen drives. On pen drives, it does the same work as "safely remove" it seems.

  • safely remove is meant for unmounting the media and powering off the device. Using this on USB attached CDROM devices will end up shutting down the CDROM drive in such a way that it would only come back on after a reboot. So, this option will NOT be shown on CDROM drives. It would however be shown on pen drives.

  • unmount: Now this is the most outrageous thing I found in the bug. The opinion of the developers was that this option would be confusing for the users (especially when they are already confused between the previous two options), and therefore removed completely from the UI. In the words of a developer on the bug:

We could also nuke the "Unmount" option and just tell people to use a terminal instead for doing that (or Palimpsest). I don't know if that's screwing over existing users too much though (I'm personally fine with it).

I think what the developers are missing is this - using the GUI is not just for dumb/less technical users. It is also a productivity enhancement for power users! Opening a terminal, finding out the mount point and unmounting volumes can always be done from the terminal, but why should a historically common operation be removed from the GUI which lets us power users get our work done in two clicks? In this particular case, there is already a dead simple way for non-technical users - there is an eject button right next to the device icon!

I am really worried that soon the desktop UI will get so dumbed down that it will be quite unusable for power users on it.

DNS Resolver Changes in Ubuntu Precise (12.04)

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One of the first things that irked me after my Precise installation was how DNS suddenly seemed slow. I normally use dnscache for local DNS caching and while setting it up this time, I noticed that oddly, 127.0.0.1 was already setup as my name server. Netstat told me that this was handled by DNSMasq for some reason. No worries, I thought, and I setup dnscache on 127.0.0.2 instead. I added the IP to the prepend nameserver option in /etc/dhcp/dhclient.conf and clicked on the NetworkManager applet to reconnect to my wireless (to trigger DHCP again).

Nothing happened. /etc/resolv.conf continued to have the mysterious 127.0.0.1 as usual. Something had changed and I started looking for answers on the web. I found a very detailed explanation for the DNS resolving changes in Precise 12.04 in this blog post by Stéphane Graber. Apparently, /etc/resolv.conf is not just completely "taken over" by resolvconf, but NetworkManager as well. There are some good reasons for this, but for my personal requirements, I can ignore those reasons right now. I like to have a say in the DNS server configuration on my system, and there doesn't seem to be a good way to preferentially use my DNS servers. On top of this, the default DNS configuration on Precise is a non-caching one (for otherwise valid security reasons). Uh huh. NO. dnscache rules. It's simple and to the point.

An additional look at this post by Mikhail Esteves with some trial and error, got me an easy solution.

It turns out that NetworkManager (NM) doesn’t care about any DNS based configuration in /etc/dhcp/dhclient.conf as long as /etc/NetworkManager/NetworkManager.conf has a line saying dns=dnsmasq.

To fix all this, do the following steps and the system behaviour changes to as it was previously before Precise. To summarize:

  1. Comment the line dns=dnsmasq in /etc/NetworkManager/NetworkManager.conf

  2. restart NetworkManager (sudo restart network-manager)

  3. 127.0.0.1 is now free to be used by dnscache. Configure dnscache to use this if you had modified the listening IP earlier

  4. Put your preferential DNS servers in /etc/dhcp/dhclient.conf using the line prepend domain-name-servers 127.0.0.1;, and they will be added at the top of the name servers in /etc/resolv.conf

  5. Reconnect to your network link to trigger DHCP and you are ready to go!

Ok, I must confess, all this didn't really make DNS resolution on my system much faster :) - turns out my stupid ISP Airtel was responsible for most of it ( I am currently FUP-ed right now, and network is really weird in this state).

Essential Qualities of an Athlete

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… and relevant to anybody who is a competitive arena - be it career, work, etc.

When considering the stature of an athlete or for that matter any person, I set great store in certain qualities which I believe to be essential in addition to skill. They are that the person conducts his or her life with dignity, with integrity, courage, and perhaps most of all, with modesty. These virtues are totally compatible with pride, ambition, and competitiveness. — Sir Donald Bradman speaking at his induction into The Sport Australia Hall of Fame, 1985

(Via Rahul Dravid's speech at Sir Donald Bradman Oration, 2011)

Why We Keep Lying to the Sales People

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Seth Godin puts it quite eloquently:

People lie to salesmen all the time. We do it because salespeople have trained us to, and because we're afraid. … Of course we don't tell the truth–if we do, we're often bullied or berated or made to feel dumb. Someone who chooses not to buy from you isn't stupid. They're not unable to process ideas logically, nor are they unethical or manipulated by others. No, it's simpler than that:

Given what they know and what they believe, the prospect is making exactly the right decision.

Time the insurance and investment folks bugging us 24x7 get that in their heads.

The Pale Blue Dot

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The Pale Blue Dot

You might need to dust your laptop or desktop monitor to see this one clearly. You see a tiny dot in the photo above? In the middle of that light colored line? That is Earth, how it looks from the edge of the solar system. This famous photograph, that I discovered only today is called the Pale Blue Dot (actually it is the representation of earth in the photo that they are talking about here, but you get my drift).

In early 1990, Voyager 1 spacecraft, after almost 12 years of its launch, was leaving the Solar System and was at a distance of 6 billion kilometers from Earth. It  was instructed by NASA at the request of the noted astrophysicist Carl Sagan, to turn its camera around to take one last photo of Earth before it was lost forever. The reason behind Sagan's request was less about the astronomy and more about giving mankind a bit of a perspective about their existence.

And this is why, I think everyone should be asked to contemplate this photo at least once, if not occasionally to get a sense of their place in the Universe.

In Carl Sagan's words:

Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. … Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. … It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

(If you want, you can actually hear him say the full text of the excerpt on Youtube)

A life changing perspective, if there ever was one.

Ubuntu’s Ongoing UI Meltdown

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I kept reading and reading Mark Shuttleworth's post of how Ubuntu plans to replace menus with something called HUD display. And all I could do is take deep sighs.

To summarise, in the new "advanced" Ubuntu releases, instead of clicking the traditional menus, you have to type in a few words in a special screen every time, and select from a drop-down which pops down.

12.04 HUD concept (From Mark's post)What is the problem that they are trying to solve? - Well apparently, it is an awful nightmare to navigate deeply nested menu structures, and therefore, somewhat like the way you access history in the latest Firefox or Chrome browsers, you search the app menu text, and get what you want in a few keystrokes.

I cannot even start thinking about how all this can go wrong, and I am terribly afraid that I might sound like an old stooge who doesn't like changes by saying this (comes from using Linux for quite a few years). But here is why I think this is a big problem:

Now as Mark himself has admitted, one of the first big problems with all this is app functionality discovery. What does this mean? Well, for anybody other than frequent users of an app, how do you search for something if you don't whether it exists? If you are using a word app, for example, other than the very basic of formatting options, how do you know what other formatting options are offered by the app? Earlier, you used to browse through the menus to see that, but the biggest problem with the HUD is that, well, it doesn't want you to browse. You can only search for exactly what you want.

Unity screenshort by MethodDan on FlickrI see the HUD as a great complementary navigation system for the desktop - one in which both menus and HUD exist. But Mark's post suggest that they plan to replace the menus completely with HUD. Apparently, they are trying very hard to save some pixels, which sort of make some sense in a tablet, but is completely bewildering for a desktop - desktop and laptop resolutions are both only getting higher every year. And that is an indication of the underlying problem with Ubuntu:

Ubuntu sees a future where desktops and laptops are a minority, where most people are essentially consumers using a tablet. And Ubuntu is therefore, putting all its bets on that future. For people who don't have hardware or form factor to match that future Ubuntu is moving on to, things are going to be increasingly difficult. Because of this onslaught of tablet oriented desktop experience, many people are moving to other Ubuntu variants like Kubuntu and Xubuntu, which might be the right directions for people like me to take. And I find all this as terribly sad, as I used to really like the distro.

Ubuntu on a tablet

To end my rant, I want to bring up another question that nobody in the commentators on that blog post seem to be asking:

Someone mentioned there about how is the HUD going to find out the intent of the user? If in the word app example I mentioned before, the user has selected a region of text and want to increase the font size, is he expected to search for "larger font"  or "bigger font"? Semantically there are the same, but the app will have only one of these options in the menu. So without the facility of browsing the menus, how is the user to guess what is the right variation of their intent to search for?

Mark's reply was that (to paraphrase) "Yes, that is a valid problem, and we need to add semantic variation and fuzzy search to fix that problem".

But the really important point to ask Mark is WHY? Why is the desktop trying to figure out how the user wants to use the app? Isn't that the app's job? Who is in a better position to determine the synonyms and semantically equivalent variations of the menu items - the desktop or the app? Making the desktop trying to do this on behalf of all the apps out there is the really fundamental mistake of this whole approach. It will always be doing a bit of a disservice to the app developers. All the effort put in by app developers to confirm to a menu driven world is being forced into a non-menu paradigm.__ Somewhere something is going to give.

Ideally, if you have apps cooperating with desktops like Unity, they should provide all the variations of their menu items. But till Ubuntu comes up with a way for apps to do that, and apps start supporting this Unity specific feature (and we all know how likely that is to happen in the near future) we are rushing into a period of extremely frustrating user experience.

(Photos by: Mark Shuttleworth, Dan Lynch, Elizabeth Krumbach)

Creepy Data Mining by Retailers

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Pregnant How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did

As Pole’s computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.

Scary! And people called the Gmail ads intrusive! (Photo by Janine on Flickr)

Microsoft’s Existential Threat

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Very interesting point made out by this blog post by Patrick Rhone, about how Microsoft's core business faces an existential threat: MS office on Flickr

Microsoft for many years had convinced the world that, in order to get “real work” done, you needed Office. … Then, she explained, the iPhone came. There was no Office. People got things done. Then the iPad came. There was no Office. People got things done. Android came. People got things done. All of those things that they, just a couple of years ago, were convinced they needed Office to do. They got them done without it. And thus, the truth was revealed. … Like the curtain finally falling from the Wizard of Oz to find just a small, frail, man pretending to be far more powerful and relevant than he really was. Microsoft’s biggest miss was allowing the world to finally see the truth behind the big lie — they were not needed to get real work done. Or anything done, really.

And that will be what ultimately kills them. …

Via Gruber.

Amazing High-def Images of Earth From Outer Space

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Flickr has published two amazing high-def photos of earth from one of NASA's earth observing satellite - Suomi NPP. The photos are created by joining several high def photos and joining them together, as explained here.

Most Amazing High Definition Image of Earth - Blue Marble 2012

Eastern Hemisphere - Blue Marble 2012

The original photo on the left of the western hemisphere is available on Flickr with a resolution of 8000x8000 or 64 megapixels! (link to the original, beware of the size!) To top even that, NASA made available the second image of the eastern hemisphere on Flickr with a resolution of 11500 x 11500 or 132 megapixels! (link to the original, beware of the size!)

Credit: All photos and info from NASA Goddard Photo and Video.