Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Now for Something Different - Android on my Laptop

HP Slatebook 14 will come with Android
To be perfectly honest, I take little interest in tablets and smart phones and their operating systems.  If one day I own one, that might change.  I had heard of Google's Android phones and tablets, but last week when I randomly came across an old article explaining that Android is available to be installed on laptops, I couldn't help but to be curious.

I did some investigation to find out that laptops are currently being put on the market with Android.  So, I headed over to the site for the Android X-86 project, downloaded the ISO and I was off to the races.

Background - My Experience with Tablet Operating Systems

When my wife bought a new laptop with Windows 8 on a year and a half ago, I realized very quickly that I was not a fan of the new app-based start screen.  To me it looks clumsy, disorganized and in general very visually unappealing.  This surprised me from Microsoft.  (This was also one of the final steps to push me towards Linux, but that's a different story.)

Windows 8 - Bulky and visually unappealing
I also guessed that part of what Microsoft was doing was making an operating system suitable for/based on the smart-phone/tablet OS concept.  To begin with, this gave me a dislike for the idea in general.

Later, however, I tried some netbook-oriented desktop layouts, which basically work on the same visual concepts, without the focus on web-apps.  For example, Kubuntu's netbook remix has a very similar layout concept to that of Android.  In fact, while I'm not a fan of Kubuntu/KDE's visuals in general, I did like the netbook remix because of this; I probably would've gone with that, except that it was noticeably slower on a netbook than Xubuntu/XFCE.

Also, even though I focused on learning the command-line in Linux, Ubuntu's Software Center get me used to the idea of a web-store for apps.  By the time I dove into Google Play on my newly installed Android OS, it no However longer seemed foreign and awkward.

A laptop with Android
Advantages of Android on a Netbook

Although I have not dived very deep into Android and I have not customized the desktop as much as I would like, I have found some real advantages, including these:

  1. It's Very Lightweight and Fast - Android was designed for smartphones and tablets which are not high-powered machines.  Therefore, it works extremely well on the light-weight netbooks like my Acer Aspire One.  Anyone who has installed a Linux distro will notice that the ISO downloads and sets up in Unetbootin really quickly.  Installation is also the fastest I've tried (except for Puppy Linux, perhaps.)
  2. It's Visually Ideal - Smartphones and tablets have small screens, and Android's layout was set up accordingly with large icons and quickly accessible full-screen navigation instead of traditional menus.  It's also a very nice looking desktop.
  3. There are Many Apps Available - Google has ensured that Android is well-provided for in Google Play, not only with ultra-light smartphone apps, but also with a number of fully functional programs like Chrome. (I was actually surprised to see that Chrome was not the default.)
  4. It's Linux - Most Android users don't know that it's Linux.  That having been said, the experience, as I see it, is un-Linux-like; for example, you can't just go into a terminal window and use the commands that seem to work in just about every other Linux distro.
Some Disadvantages/Problems

First of all, I assume that the new laptops that come with Android installed have fixed any problems to make it run ideally on a laptop.  But installing it as I did, I've found the following issues:

  1. Screenshot doesn't work - The ones on this post are borrowed from other sites.
  2. Mouse function is touchscreen-style - Instead of being able to click and drag to highlight text in a web browser, for example, you have to click and hold until it hightlights a section, at which point you can use the cursor or arrows to change what's selected.  Scrolling in any app is dragging the screen rather than clicking on an arrow/scrollbar or using arrows.  This isn't really a "problem" but it takes getting used to.  It would be perfect for a laptop with touchscreen.
  3. Some apps won't run in the background - For example, three Grooveshark music player apps I found (not to mention the website) stops working as soon as you navigate to a different app or even the desktop.  I think you can find apps that especially indicate that they keep running, but this point is a nuisance since some apps (like music apps) are useless if they don't run in the background.
  4. The screen saver flickers on and off.
  5. Dual booting is tricky to set up - If you've dual booted before, the process is quite different.  For someone just trying to rescue an old netbook for easy web access this wouldn't be a problem.  For anyone else, these instructions from Webupd8 work perfectly.
The Android X86 installation screen
There may be solutions to these issues.  As for installing and having a fully functional desktop without having to fix and adjust first (a point in which most Linux distros I've used excel) there needs to be some improvement.  However, it is a very lightweight, fast and visually appealing operating system.  While I probably wouldn't use it for myself, once some of the glitches are worked out, I would consider installing it on a netbook for someone else - especially someone who's already used to using a smartphone.  It's definitely a huge improvement on the monstrosity called Windows 8 which instead of becoming slimmer and sleeker seems to me to be bulky and awkward - both visually and in usage.  Android is sleek and well-designed in both aspects.

In the mean time, I'm definitely going to keep fiddling around with it to see what's possible.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Arch Linux - Having Some Fun

The Arch Linux installation boot screen
Last Wednesday, I shared a few considerations I think people should make before trying Arch Linux.  The most important of these is that if you're going to dive in, I would say you should go in ready to have fun with it; i.e. be prepared to try a lot of different programs, see if you can set stuff up "the hard way," experiment with new desktop environments, try building your own, etc.

And, of course, as I said last time, you will break things.  You will break things to the point that you can't figure out how to fix them and start all over again; rather than stressing out about that, let that be a part of the fun!

These are some of the things I had fun with.


The fstab file - to tell your computer where to mount each partition
Installing Ubuntu or Mint is easy; it's supposed to be easy and largely hands-off.  That is a good thing.  Had that not been the case, I probably would've given up on Linux when I first tried.

When installing Arch Linux, you have to do everything manually, from installing sudo to setting up your wireless network, to telling it which mirrors to use.  If you do what I did, and make Arch an experiment rather than trying to depend on it as your main operating system to begin with, this is tonnes of fun because you get to learn a lot about how Linux works.  Some things I learned included how audio and internet are set up.

This is also where I learned what fstab is (/etc/fstab/) and how to edit it to tell Linux which partitions to mount when it loads.

The X window system, in which other desktops run
I also learned what the X graphic environment is, and what it looks like when there is no pretty desktop environment installed over it.

Installation could go quickly if you follow the guide and all goes well.  But I found it was the ones that went wrong in some way or another - and ended eating up hours of my time - where I learned the most.

There are several steps to the installation where I just follow the guide, and I don't get them yet - but that will come with time.

As I pointed out last time, this guide on how to install Arch Linux is good to have open beside you on another computer.

Desktop Environments

One thing I've used Arch for is to install and test-drive various desktop environments, such as Gnome, Sugar, KDE, LXDE, Enlightenment, OpenBox, etc.  You can also do this in Ubuntu or any other distro, but since I've reserved Arch as my experimenting distro, I do it here.  That way, I keep Xubuntu clean and tidy for work and every day use.

Also, since Arch is so clean and smooth-running, it gives an excellent way to test these at their best performance.

Gnome in Arch Linux
The guide I mention above offers this as the last step.  But, as the writer says, if you stop at that, you've missed the point.  At the very least, testing various desktop environments is a good next step.

Personalized Desktop Environments

For me, this one is quite fun.  I started off by following this guide on creating a custom DE, adapting it for Arch (it's for Ubuntu.) I discovered that Compiz actually includes a wallpaper manager, so it is not necessary to install another one.  I used Emerald for the window  decoration, which looks really nice, sort of metallic and transparent.

Even though Compiz is not light-weight and is typically associated with rather resource-hungry desktop environments (Ubuntu, for example, in which the Unity desktop is plugin for Compiz,) I found this combination to be fast and very responsive; Compiz includes enough features that you don't have install much else.

For a dock, I installed Cairo-dock, which has a very Mac-like look to it, is very visually appealing and has a lot of useful plugins and applets.

Again, all of this could be done in Ubuntu, but in addition to the points mentioned above, the excellent documentation for Arch make it easier to do things and work out any problems that turn up.

Arch with Compiz and Cairo-dock
AUR and Building from Code

While Arch has fewer applications in its official repositories, it has a huge number of applications in the Arch User Repositories (AUR.)  From the angle I'm taking here (i.e. the challenges of Arch are fun,) this has two advantages.

One is that it makes many more programs available to choose from.

The other is that you learn to build from code.  You download compressed .tar.gz files ("tarball",) decompress them with tar -xvf, compile them (usually make, ./config and makepkg) and finally install with pacman -U.  When you first try this, it is truly a pain and headache.  There are always dependencies, and some have to be downloaded from AUR and compiled; sometimes dependencies have dependencies, and you loose track of where you were.

But in the process, you learn a little more about how installing packages works "behind the scenes," and after you do it a few times, it's not all that hard.

See https://wiki.archlinux.org/index.php/AUR, and note especially the section on installing packages.

Finally, there is a program called "Yaourt" (which you have to download and compile from the AUR) which does all of this automatically.  Once you've installed Yaourt, you can use it just like pacman.  I recommend using Yaourt from the get-go so when all you want to do is install Compiz, you don't spend hours just installing it.  But now and then, I would do it the long & hard way just to get to know the process.  You'll have to do this at least once (plus one dependency) to install Yaourt anyway.

The terminal wifi-menu option
Some Challenges - Icon Themes, Network Indicator

Building a custom desktop has its challenges. For example, there is no icon theme and some little things don't work automatically, like the network indicator in the indicator applet in the panel/dock.  If you install a desktop environment like Gnome first, it will automatically use the icon theme and other settings.  However, if you install only a custom desktop to begin with (from the command line, at the end of the installation process linked above) they won't be there.

I have not yet figured out how to make them work. This is not a problem because they don't effect functionality (networks can be detected and connected to easily from the command line, it just doesn't look as "pretty") and I don't depend on my experimental Arch desktops for daily use.

Finally (and most importantly) they give me more things to figure, and more fun to look forward to in the future.


It would be entirely reasonable to set up a permanent installation of Arch with my favourite DE, XFCE (which is what Xubuntu runs.)  There would probably be advantages like this, such as slightly snappier and lighter running, and rolling updates.  In the future, maybe after experimenting with it for a while, I would consider this.

But the bottom line is that I'm entirely happy with Xubuntu without any complaints.  For now, I'm happy to use Arch as my fun distro for experimenting, building, breaking and learning.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Our Newly Canonized Pope Saints!!

What a wonderful gift to the Church that these two saints are now officially recognized as such.  In heaven, in the presence of Christ, they will certainly be praying for us, and bringing us many blessings.

Saints John Paul II and John XXII, pray for us, bless us and intercede for us to Christ our Lord!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Linux Round 2: Do You Dare Try Arch Linux?

In my initial delving into the world of Linux, I settled on Xubuntu as the best distro for my usage (and for my computer,) and then learned how to adapt it for a netbook and customized the program suite.
Since then, I've spend some time on and off experimenting with other Linux distros.  So far, in my still very limited knowledge, I have come to 3 conclusions:

  1. Xubuntu is still the best for me - For my day to day usage, I continue to use Xubuntu pretty much as I set it up a year ago, with only very minor modifications.
  2. I would recommend Linux to pretty much anyone - It comes in so many shapes, sizes and versions, many of which are completely usable "out of the box" (i.e. without any modification) that most people will find a version that will not only meet all of their needs but also be visually appealing.
  3. Linux is lots of fun - For people who simply want a more functional alternative to Windows, find a good distro, and stick with it. For others, there's lots of fun to be had with trying out different desktops, modifying visuals, adapting to your needs, figuring out what's going on behind the visual facade of a monitor, etc.
Arch Linux - The Real Thing!

As for this last point, one of my ongoing side projects after settling on Xubuntu has been fiddling around with Arch Linux.

If you've been around the Linux world for any time, you've probably heard that Arch is one of the best distos out there, with very clean code, no software clutter, no unnecessary processes eating up your computer's resources and completely customizable, so you make it exactly what you want it to be.  Many experts will rate it 10/10 at the top of the Linux distos available.

As far as I can tell, all of this seems to be true.

Compiz Cube
So far, of programs I've tried in different distros, they seem to work faster and be more responsive in Arch.  For example, just last week I tried setting up the Compiz cube workspace selector for the first time. On my little netbook, in Arch it worked flawlessly, spinning around through the workspaces without any noticeable distortion, etc.  In Ubuntu, it felt like it was too much for this light-weight computer and the screens ended looking twisted in the transition process.

Pacman, the program used to install new programs on the computer, is also amazing.

But ...

When I was 4 years old, I saw my two older brothers riding around on their bikes without training wheels.  Before I would get onto my new bike, I insisted that my dad take the training wheels off.  I returned home scraped and bruised and still wobbly on my bike, but with my pride completely in tact, knowing that I could ride a bike the way my older brothers did, without those training wheels that little kids have to use.

With Arch, there are no training wheels ... or helmet
I think my experience with Arch Linux has been a similar one.

Besides all the praise, anyone reading up on Arch will quickly also find the warnings that you have to know what you're doing.  This is true.  I read these warnings too, but in my typical fashion, I decided to jump right in, just to prove (to myself) that I could do it - and I can tell you, I've had my share of scrapes and bruises, not to mention that I am a far cry from being good at this yet.

But, as with my bike, I can now say I did it.

Starting With Arch - A Checklist

First of all, I will repeat the warnings: if you are new to Linux and looking for that ideal distro to suit your needs, don't even try Arch - for now.  My prediction is that it would drive you away from Linux.

I am not the one to give advice here, since I am so new to everything, but I would suggest the following as prerequisites:

  • You know how to dual boot.
  • You know how to configure and fix Grub, the program that boots your operating system, at least using an online guide if necessary.
  • You have another computer available at any time to look up instructions or how to fix what you've broken. (You will break things.)
  • You've customized some a more user-friendly distro (Ubuntu, Mint, etc.)
  • You've (successfully) fiddled around with configuration files (not the visual GUIs that make it easy, but the actual file.)
Dual Booting and Grub

I recommend knowing how to do this as the first necessity because it allows to have your stable distro on one partition, and then have another distro "in the works" on another.  This way, if your desktop is still under construction and not yet what you need it to be, or you break it (again, you will break it) your computer is still usable for day to day usage in your main distro.

You don't really have to know how to do this, but more importantly know where to find it.  This is where that second computer is very important.

For dual booting, see this guide for dual booting linux and Windows. (A very similar process can be applied to dual booting Ubuntu and Arch Linux.)

This guide explains how Grub works and how to do basic repairs.  This one tells you how to make Grub give you a menu after installing Windows.  Generally speaking, if you add a second installation, Linux distros will set up Grub to give you a menu, but it's good to know what to do when something goes wrong.

The first time I tried dual booting, the new distro simply loaded right after the boot and I was worried I had lost my main, customized Xubuntu installation with all my files. They were backed up, but at that time, the idea of going through it all again was not very appealing.  As it turned out, I just had to fix Grub.

If you are comfortable dual booting and fixing Grub, then knowing how to modify and customize is less important since it allows you to go back to your main distro at any time or scrap what you've done and start from scratch.

Finally, A Few Tips

Again, I'm far from being an expert, but sometimes tips from someone who is just going through the learning process can be more helpful than those from someone who knows it so well that they think it's easy.  So, if you decide now is the right time to try Arch, do the following:

Use a How to Guide - A Necessity

When people say it's an absolute necessity to have a how-to guide to set up Arch Linux, they really mean it's a necessity, as opposed to a good option to make it easier; without the guide, you'll boot Arch, get a command line and have no idea what to do next.  If you remember some terminal commands from Ubuntu, let's say, it's likely none of them will work since you haven't installed the programs yet.

Arch Linux has its own installation guide but I prefer this one from Whitson Gordon at Lifehacker.  Here, you will need a second computer so you can read the guide as you install.

Have a Wired Internet Connect

Whitson recommends this, but on my first go, I decided to try using a wireless connection anyway.  I spent several hours digging deeper and deeper into the Arch Linux documentation (which is excellent and exhaustive, by the way) until I finally got it working.  With a wired connection the second time, it was working in 2 minutes.  Once you have the installation set up, it's very easy to set up wireless.

The ArchBang installation boot screen
Start Off with Arch Bang

Arch Bang is a variation of Arch that comes fully usable with a visual desktop environment (Openbox) and all the basics you need to begin.  For example, networks, sound and video card are all set up; in Arch you have to do these yourself.  The boot disk also guides you through installation, including setting up Grub.

Once you have it installed you can try installing other desktop environments, etc.

It doesn't give you the full Arch installation experience (= more in depth knowledge of Linux and plenty of headaches) but it does give you a way to get used to installing and customizing Arch ahead of time and ease into the process.  More than once, I've thrown away an unsuccessful attempt at doing what I want in Arch, and doing in Arch Bang first to get a better idea of where I'm going wrong.  I later go back and try it from a new installation of Arch.  You can also get used to using Pacman, Arch's superior package manager (to install new programs) and the online documentation (which is the same for Arch Linux and Arch Bang.)  I suggest this is a good way to start, before trying to install Arch from scratch.

Have Fun and Try Lots of New Things

If all you want to do is install a good distro on your computer, and use it that way for the next 5 years, I would say there's little point to going to Arch.  For me, that's what Xubuntu is.  Yes, it's very stable, clean and fast, but I wouldn't say it's worth going through the rather longish learning process for that. It is worth it, though, for lots of experimentation and fun.

Tomorrow I'll share some of the things I've tried in Arch.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Springtime - New Life Arises from Death

This year, Lent started off cold and snowy, with bare trees and everyone feeling like winter just wouldn't come to an end.  As Lent continued, the snow began to give way, the earth began to thaw, and little green sprouts pushed their heads up through the piles of dead plant life from the fall and dirt piled up from the winter snow.

Around the middle of Lent, our family planted some sunflower seeds inside - one of the clearest reminders that new life rises out of death; a plant, having dried up and died, leaves a dry seed as a reminder of its death.  We buried the seeds, seemingly dead, in the ground in hope that new life would come.

In the Roman tradition of the Church, there has existed a strong idea that the Feast of the Resurrection is closely tied to the arrival of spring and the new life that it brings out the death seen in winter.  In fact, many great theologians, from St. Ambrose to Pope Benedict XVI, have believed and given great strength to the idea that Christ did in fact rise from the dead on March 25, the same day he was conceived, and the same day that God created the world - all great signs of hope and new life.


Now, only 3 days for the celebration, even the 10-foot piles of snow have receded, green grass has pushed up through the matted brown grass of the fall, and tulips and daffodils are just about ready to bloom and celebrate the greatest event of all history with the world.

Just about all the sunflower seeds we planted have sprouted and many have grown a few inches tall.

The world (or at least the part of it where we live) is just about to burst with new life, proclaiming the new life that Christ brought us in his death and resurrection.

Here are some more pictures of our sunflower plants:

 These are the egg carts we planted them in just until they germinated:

The transplanting process:

The wagon I use to take them outside to get some direct sunshine on warm days:

Monday, April 14, 2014

Lent in Linwood Ontario

When I gave up Facebook for Lent, I intended to spend some of the saved time to be more regular in my blogging again.  Now, less than a week before Easter, I'm finally getting my first blog post up!

While, despite my best intentions, some of that time was used in the very intriguing (but perhaps not so fruitful) activity of fiddling around with Linux again (this time with ArchLinux,) we've also had a very fruitful and and focused Lent.

Another Traditional Mass

Our priest gave us the wonderful gift of another special traditional Latin Mass (i.e. Extraordinary Form) for Ash Wednesday.  This was my second and I am sure it will not be my last.

A Visit From the Bishop

Two weeks ago, His Excellency Bishop Douglas Crosby of the Diocese of Hamilton visited our parish.  We had a few minutes to chat. Most importantly, as our priest let us know the week before, Mass with the bishop is the church in its fullness - another wonderful gift!

A Silent Lenten Retreat

A week ago this weekend our parish had its first weekend retreat (12 hours on Saturday and half a day on Sunday.)  It included prayers in the form of the rosary, silent prayer times, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. We had a 4 part video series by Father William Casey - an amazing speaker! His topics included the Eucharist, prayer, repentence and God's commandments.  Very clear, to the point and simple advice to follow.

This evening I am driving to our cathedral for the Chrism Mass, and - God willing - I will be going to a TLM Mass for the Easter Vigil.  (There's one in Toronto - I still have to double check the schedule.)

Right now I'm using a computer desktop that's "under construction" so the pictures will have to come later!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

"The Handsome Frog" - The Gift of a Story!

On Friday, while we were away at the church, a friend who had been visiting decided to stay at the house until we got back.  In the mean time, her 12-year-old daughter wrote a story for us.  What a wonderful gift a story is, especially when it's written just for your family!

Here's a picture of the page, with the text typed below:

The text (there are a few slips, but I'll leave it exactly as she wrote it):
Once upon a time there lived a frog, his name was James.  James lived in a pond filled with lily pads and dragonflys fly over him.  And he could always see the sunrise and the sunset.  Theose were his most favourite things to do sit and watch the sun.
James loved to eat flys big ones in July, August.  Sometimes he even made fly salad.  His favourite season was summer he loved to play tag with his Best friends and go swimming.  His very Best friends name was Albert.  James and Albert always wanted to look their best in a good way, not to put anybody down but they always thought it was good to be handsome.

Sometimes they would go shopping together.  Usually it is the girls that go shopping but they didn't care what other frogs thought they just did what they felt was right.  "So it doesn't matter what other people think of you, you just got to do what you feel is right"!

Hope You Enjoyed This Story!!
I don't think I'll be rushing off to go shopping, but certainly not because of what other people think!