Saturday, 1 August 2020

Using a cheap fitness tracker ...

When I joined the herd and bought myself an iPhone, I discovered that I'd become reliant on using the Samsung health app on my old Galaxy to track my bike rides and cross trainer sessions, and what's more Apple's equivalent app was not nearly as sophisticated.

So I bought myself a $30 no name Chinese fitness tracker that let me track work outs, bush walks, bike rides and so on, as well as measuring heart rate and blood pressure. The tracker came with a nice little app that interfaced with Apple health, which was pretty cool.

So, for the last few months I've used it purely as a fitness tracker for workouts and bike rides. It's certainly not the jazziest, but it does the job, and the data it records is not too different from what I got out of my old phone, so we'll say it's accurate enough - a reasonable indication rather than clinical grade data.

And then, a couple of weeks ago my watch broke. Actually the story's more complicated:

About a year ago my old trusty Seiko died, like never to go again died. So I took to wearing a minimalist black plastic Swatch I'd bought for travel and rough stuff as my everyday watch. And as always happens with plastic watches, the strap died long before the watch did.

The simple solution was to get a replacement strap and the poky tool to get the pins out, but this of course all took time, and in the interim I used a $10 unbranded army style watch I'd bought off ebay a couple of months ago.

Well $10 watches are fine - some I've bought for everyday use have lasted two or three years. This one wasn't one of them. It stopped and the battery wasn't easily replaceable.

So this left me without a watch. Now I live in rural Victoria and the nearest town with any decent watch shops is in NSW and inaccessible due to the COVID-19 border closure. The local pharmacy has some overpriced shiny no name watches, and that's about it.

So I held my nose and bought a watch from Amazon. Stupidly, I failed to notice that they were shipping the watch from Canada, so instead of being without a watch for two or three days, it was potentially two or three weeks.

Now, I still like a watch to know the time, so I decided to start wearing my fitness tracker all the time.

And that was quite interesting - turned out that I was more active than I thought I was, and that my resting heart rate and blood pressure were lower than I thought. The latter being of interest as I've always had blood pressure at the high end of normal, and doctors periodically like to give me the healthy lifestyle speech as a consequence, and don't want to hear when I tell them it's probably genetic, and that when I regularly ran 10km it was still the high end of normal.

But I digress. What was it like in daily use?

Surprisingly good - battery life was good, running for three or four days without having to be charged - which was a blessing because the charger clip - basically a large USB crocodile clip with two prongs that need to be positioned just so, was incredibly fiddly to use.

Basically it told the time. Features like vibrating when you got a new mail message were less useful - the screen really was too small to read, and of course you have to be in bluetooth range of your phone - like you can  hear your phone ping.

I suppose if you had your phone on silent in your bag when you were in a meeting, or else somewhere noisy like a train station it would be a useful feature, but for me, less so. I didn't test how well it's claimed ability to start and stop your music play list or remotely operate your phone's camera worked.

The heart rate and blood pressure monitors use the standard flashing light technique, which meant that you had to have the band pretty tight to get a decent reading.

Other than that, it did the job - and did it well. My major gripes were (a) it was IP27 rated, and not fully waterproof - something to bear in mind nowadays when we're all scrubbing our hands so much, and (b) the device was designed to be worn on the inside of the wrist, rather than the outside.

However, these aren't major criticisms. I came away quietly impressed how well a $30 fitness tracker worked in daily use. In fact it did the job so well that it's not clear to me why you would use one of the more expensive named brand  models unless you were engaged on a serious training regime...

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Which linux should I run on an old netbook?

I was always a fan of the netbook concept – small format, low power and highly portable machines with a decent keyboard to type on.

In the days when I used to go to interstate meetings, I often used to take a netbook in preference to my bulky 15 inch Mac laptop, and travelling – for years we used a netbook in preference to a full size computer.

Good enough for online banking, travel journaling, uploading photos, emailing and the rest. It’s no surprise that I still take a 2011 vintage Macbook Air with me when I go travelling – robust, light, reliable, and so much less hassle to unpack, put through the scanner, repack.

However, the market disagreed with me as to the superiority of netbooks, and while the netbook had a final flourish as an ‘ultrabook’, by 2013 the concept of the netbook was pretty much dead. The iPad had eaten the netbook’s lunch and tipped the waiter on the way out.

The reasons as to exactly why this happened are complex, but a lot of blame lies with the consumer sentiment. The original Eee netbook was a linux based machine which was pretty efficient at extracting the maximum from a low powered machine with relatively little in the way of memory or storage.

Unfortunately, most people preferred Windows over Linux. Due to the extra costs incurred due to licensing windows, manufacturers tended to cut corners using lower cost processors and installing less memory in machines.

Some also tried to produce low cost models to compete with the iPad – unfortunately in trying to compete they often ended up with an underspecified device.

Microsoft didn’t help by offering a cut down (restricted capability) edition called Windows 7 starter to netbook manufacturers at a lower price.

Windows 7 starter was only 32 bit, and would only use a maximum of 2GB memory.

Even so, some machines came with only 1GB, and were pretty slow as a consequence. Upgraded to 2GB they were reasonable, but not fantastic.

Ultrabooks used to be a bit better specified with better processors and capable of running a 64bit operating system. However, while upgradeable, a lot shipped with only 2GB of memory.

Now none of this would matter, most netbooks have long ago been sent to the recycler, or shoved on the top shelf of the book case in the study and left to gather dust.

Except that now, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, all sorts of old machines have been pressed into service as second computers, computers for the kids, and so on.

And netbooks have, on the whole, been found wanting.

Most of the 32bit machines can accept a maximum of 2GB RAM – and remember that these are ten year old machines. Finding suitable (recycled) memory can be hard, assuming you have the technical skills to identify the right sort and install it. Equally so for the older 64 bit machines.

The obvious solution (to me at least) would be to install a version of Linux that works well on old machines with minimal memory and processor power.

Rather than anything exotic, I would go for an out of the box version that provides you with a set of standard tools that lets you do real work:

  • an office suite – usually Libre Office
  • an email client – which if you use Gmail, effectively means Thunderbird
  • a modern web browser compatible with online banking – usually Firefox
Having a modern web browser also means that you can use online services such a Google Docs, and services such as Evernote or OneNote that are not available on linux, but provide a web client.

Just to muddy things, there’s a problem – the two dominant desktop distributions of linux, Ubuntu and Linux Mint, have recently stopped distributing 32bit install sets meaning that you are either locked into an old version, or that you have to go elsewhere.

So where to go?

Just for fun I decided to look at some 32 bit only installs and see what they were like. My choice is completely arbitrary, I simply picked some that were mentioned online as suitable alternatives:

  • BunsenLabs linux – the ‘official’ successor to CrunchBang
  • CrunchBang plus plus – another Crunchbang successor
  • Lubuntu – the last major Ubuntu project to offer a 32 bit distro
  • Bodhi linux – wonderfully eccentric and non standard

BunsenLabs Linux

I actually use this on my old MSI netbook with 1GB of RAM. Installation was relatively straightforward, and running the ‘extras’ post installation script installs Libre Office 5 and a few other applications.

BunsenLabs linux running Libre Office (and the screenshot tool )

Strangely it doesn’t come with a mail client but this can be easily rectified – thunderbird installs and works well.

The interface uses OpenBox which is fairly austere, but is efficient and does the job:

Bunsen Labs default desktop

Where can I get it:

Crunchbang plus plus

I didn’t test this on a real machine, instead I used virtualbox and built it on my test machine.

From my install notes:
- debian derived like the original crunchbang and bunsenlabs linux
- uses old text installer as in debian and early versions of ubuntu
- reasonably fast to build
- runs an update script on install to update software and install extras
- install script prompts for printer support, java runtime and libre office install
- if you do not install libre office left with abiword and gnumeric for office apps
- also prompted if you want to install extra development tools
- very similar to bunsenlabs and the original crunchbang, but perhaps not so polished
- does not install an email client by default
- startup and shutdown are old-school verbose, which may appeal to some

What does it look like?

Crunchbang default desktop

Extras install script

and running abiword ...


The only reasonably mainstream ubuntu project to support 32bit. Actually that’s a bit of a lie. The official Lubuntu site distributes a 64-bit only version.

However there’s also an unoffical site, that continues to distribute Lubuntu 19.10, the last 32 bit version. This was the version I installed and tested.

Again I used virtualbox and built it on my test machine.

As with all things ubuntu, one boots the live cd image and then clicks on install:

The installer is nicely graphical and after a reboot one ends up with a very clean looking desktop

All the standard applications, including libre office, come pre installed:

Where can I get it:

Bodhi Linux

I last looked at Bodhi Linux back in 2015, when I used a pre rolled images from
This time however I built it from scratch using my test machine, using virtualbox.

This was the smallest cd image to download and the quickest to install:

bodhi default desktop

The reason why the small image and quick install was that no applications are installed by default leaving you to install applications on a case by case basis. For fun I installed abiword to test the install process:

and once installed:

all pretty standard, but means that installation of applications could be a pretty tedious exercise. Fine for building a lighweight system, but not ideal for where one wants to just install a system once and get on with what you’re doing.

Where can I get it:

But I’ve got a 64-bit machine ...

As I’ve said above, there are also some ultrabooks out there, some with only 2GB RAM and Windows 7, and a fee others, which have been upgraded to 4GB RAM, as seen in this screen grab from eBay:

Given that you might want to upgrade them to linux, especially if you have a Windows 7 machine – which distro should you choose?

Basically, you can choose anything, you could even deploy the 64bit version of one of the 32 bit distros mentioned above, or you could try something more mainstream, but with a lighter weight window manager.

If you want something well supported, your choices come down to the Linux Mint XFCE version – Ulyana – or Xubuntu.

Technically, there’s not a great deal to choose between them – both are built on an Ubuntu 20.04 core and use XFCE as a window manager.

I use Xubuntu on a lot of my linux devices, and can report that its fully featured, easy to install and robust.

I’d never played with Linux Mint before now, so I built a version on my (Xubuntu) test machine using virtualbox.

Everything just worked, and the installation process was very ubuntu like. Without having done any extensive usability testing, I came away with the feeling that perhaps Mint was slightly more user friendly, but as always your mileage may vary.

Xubuntu …

Mint …

and what it looks like in VirtualBox …


If you’re looking for a second machine, try and pick up a 64bit device, even if it’s short on memory – at the very least you should be able to run something like Xubuntu or Ulyana, which will both give you a good user experience and ensure that you can get stuff done without worrying overmuch over support.

Some packages, eg Notable, don’t provide a 32 bit version. Using a mainstream distribution should ensure that everything stays working and up to date.

If you’ve no alternative than to use a 32 bit machine, it’s a bit more tricky. Of the distributions reviewed above Lubuntu 19.10 is undoubtedly the best in terms of support but personally I would go for one of BunsenLabs or Crunchbang Plus Plus due to their low resource use overhead. Be aware though that some of their software repositories may not be as up to date as Lubuntu’s. Also as 19.10 is the end of life 32bit version of Lubuntu, it may not be an ideal choice if you wish to use the machine for more than a few months.

As for Bodhi Linux, my view is that it’s definitely one for the enthusiast, and really only a tenable choice if you want to teach yourself about Linux internals rather than simply trying to get stuff done ...

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

How I added a Xubuntu partition

Below are a set of notes I made while adding a Xubuntu partition to my Windows 7 machine.

They are my rough working notes - use with care!

How to add a Xubuntu partition to a Windows 7 machine

This is not a guide it's a note that I wrote as reminder to myself. 
It is not a definitive set of instructions. 
As always your mileage may vary.
Playing with partitions can be destructive and you may lose data or 
brick your machine if things go wrong. 

Think carefully before doing this and make sure you have a backup of your data

Assess your machine

I have only done this on machines with a traditional hard disk - 
this has not been tested on an SSD based machine
  • check the size of the existing hard disk
    • you will probably need between 75 and a 100GB to make a usable Xubuntu partition for useful work. If you just wish to use it to run a quick start web browser and a basic editor 50 to 75GB may be enough
    • check the amount of data currently used by windows. To give yourself adequate headroom double it for the partition size
    • thus if you have a windows machine with a 300GB disk, and you have used a 100GB, you would give 200GB to Windows and 100GB to Xubuntu
    • Do not reduce the size of the Windows partition below 75GB
  • check that you can boot your machine from a usb device and the bios is not locked in some way
    • Dell machines usually require you to press F12 when the Dell logo appears during startup
    • Lenovo thinkpads usually prompt you to press Enter during startup
    • use Rufus to make a bootable volume - Rufus can be downloaded from
    • slightly outdated documentation on using Rufus
    • download the Xubuntu 20.04 LTS iso file from
    • using a blank USB drive (minimum size 8GB) use Rufus to write a bootable USB stick
    • on the machine that you intend to install the partition, boot from the USB stick
    • verify the stick contents pass self test and the system boots into the Xubuntu environment
  • click on Try Xubuntu and check basic functionality
    • check the mouse works
    • check the keyboard works
    • check wi-fi works (you will need your wi-fi password)
      • performance may be slightly slow, especially program load as you are running off a usb stick
    • reboot the machine

Installing Xubuntu

  • power cycle and boot your machine from the USB stick
  • click on Install Xubuntu
  • answer the questions to specify keyboard etc
    • procedure detailed at

  • specify the partition table size by dragging the slider to adjust the sizes in line with what you originally decided
  • answer the scary questions about whether you really want to do this
  • wait while xubuntu resizes the partitions
  • continue the installation process
  • remove the boot media and reboot
  • Boot into Xubuntu and check everything works

    • check the mouse works
    • check the keyboard works
    • check wi-fi works (you will need your wi-fi password)
    • reboot the machine

    Boot into Windows and check everything works

    • run chkdsk when prompted
    • log into windows when prompted
    • check everything still works
    I found I had to reinstall OneDrive and do a resync - unsure if this was due to repartitioning the disk or if it was broken anyway
    • you’re now done - enjoy (remember you may need to install additional applications and configure printing on your Xubuntu install)

    Monday, 15 June 2020

    Adding a Xubuntu partition to a production Windows 7 machine ...

    Windows 7 was in many ways an admirable operating system, but one of its major problems was its slow startup and shutdown times,

    On a desktop computer, this didn't matter much, basically you never bothered to reboot them unless necessary  and then a restart or planned shutdown was an excuse for an extended coffee break or informal meeting. However on a laptop being used as a portable machine it was a pain - while there were tricks like Alt-F4 to force a quick shutdown when running for a flight, startup was always tedious - I've lost count of the number of times I've spent making polite conversation to people while my laptop booted.

    Windows 10 is much better - faster startup, faster shutdown, and no irritating mandatory updates at inappropriate moments.

    Well, the old Thinkpad X230 I bought a couple of years ago is still stuck on Windows 7 due to its role as a backup machine for the Dow's Pharmacy documentation project, and is probably not worth upgrading to Windows 10, given that I always intended it to become a linux machine after the end of the project.

    Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 lockdown, I've lost nearly three months, and instead of being finished sometime around the end of winter, January next year looks more realistic.

    The machine is quite a nice machine to work with in an extended session but a pain for a quick looksee operation due to the slow startup time.

    After my success making a dual boot work machine, and given that the disk was only about 25% full, I decided to sacrifice around 100GB of the unused space to make a Xubuntu partition - I could probably have made it smaller if I had to, but I had the space anyway.

    The idea was to build a quick boot partition and add a minimal set of applications to allow for work in a quick startup/quick shutdown situation.

    This isn't an original idea. HP to name but one, used to sell laptops where you could boot into what they called Quickweb - a minimal web based environment to allow you to check email etc.

    So, to do this I used the repartioner in the Xubuntu installer to shrink the windows partition, and did a vanilla install of Xubuntu - this gets you Firefox, Libre Office, Thunderbird, and the Ristretto image viewer in the box - essentially all you need to do useful work.

    To this I added Focuswriter for quick distraction free writing, ReText for MarkDown editing, and Notable as a way of grouping together notes.

    I didn't install printing and I reckon that material can be uploaded or downloaded from OneDrive/Google Drive/iCloud as required via a web browser.

    Making the Xubuntu partition just worked. Utterly unexciting.

    Shrinking the Windows partition also worked smoothly. As always, it wanted to run chkdsk afterwards to verify the volume integrity - which it passed with flying colours.

    The only problem I found was that the OneDrive widget had gone stupid on me and required to be reinstalled - whether due to my shrinking the partition or some other cause I don't know, and this then required a massive resync with the cloud instance - all 64 GB of it - which took several hours.

    Painful, tedious but ultimately a fairly straightforward mechanical process.

    However, in the end it was worth it - I still have an alternative machine to keep working with should disaster strike the project machine, and I also a have quick start linux based machine to get work done in these boring half hours waiting for trains that never come ...

    Friday, 5 June 2020

    Notable ...

    When I built my Xubuntu machine for research I suggested installing Standard Notes as a notes management application.

    I didn't install it at the time but yesterday I started a little project on the Yelverton case to track its coverage through newspapers of the time.

    I'd forgotten how sparse and featureless Standard Notes was without a paid subscription, so much so that it was useless to me. I guess I could have used CherryTree, which I've used in the past, but instead I though I'd try Notable, which has a feature list similar to that of CherryTree back in 2017 when played with it, but with one important addition - MarkDown support.

    For some people this might well be a hindrance, but given that I usually use MarkDown when writing notes to give myself some semi structured text, to me it's an advantage.

    There's also a windows client, meaning that if you add Google drive support to both your Xubuntu and Windows machines you can share the database between the two machines.

    I havn't played with it extensively yet, but from a bit of work I did yesterday, it's looking good ...

    Sunday, 31 May 2020

    Making a wordcloud for the Waterloo Bridge mystery

    Remember wordclouds?

    A few years ago they were incredibly popular as a way of visualising the key themes in a document.

    Just for fun, and out of curiosity, I decided to use the accounts from the Mount Alexander Mail of the murder and the inquest to pull our the key themes.

    There's nothing special about using the Mount Alexander Mail - they had more or less the same syndicated reports as other newspapers, but the OCR'd text in Trove was among the cleanest.

    For the wordcloud software I used the IBM java wordcloud package - the same one as I used some years ago, and which I'd forgotten was (a) tortuous to install - for some reason my Xubuntu machine did not install OpenJDK 8 as a default (b) needed  some modifications to the startup script to work on Xubuntu, but I got there - you can see the results from working with the defaults stopwords file at the top of this post

    I then 'borrowed' a stopwords list from a nineteenth century literature research site, rather than using the default, and came up with a slightly different wordcloud:

    I don't think you actually learn much from either wordcloud, other than the stories were concerned with bones, blood, the bag, and the clothes, but it was a fun exercise for a wet and blowy Sunday afternoon ...

    Thursday, 28 May 2020

    Coronavirus, lockdown, and old machines

    Earlier today, the ABC had a post about the difficulties poorer families encountered while trying to homeschool their kids during lockdown.

    Naively, one might have thought using older hardware with a lower demand operating system might be a help to them.

    Not really, while it's true that using Linux and LibreOffice would give you a low cost and licence free environment, and given that most online schooling is is web based, it should be a no brainer.


    There are costs associated with moving to linux. The first, most obviously is that not everyone has the technical skills to install linux onto an old machine, and ideally you need a decent internet connection.

    In fact you need someone to do the install for you.

    Consider, if you've only got a 10GB a month data allowance the 1.5-2GB download is a big chunk of your monthly allowance.

    And remember, if you are renting, and on benefits, as so many people are now, an extra $60 a month for even a basic NBN package is a lot of money, and you may be worried about being able to pay for it over the 24 month contract term.

    And surprisingly, a lot of people get by with a phone or an ipad on a monthly cellular contract. One of the reasons that the queue's at Centrelink offices were so long with people filing claims was not only that the system was over capacity, but also the public libraries had been closed - a lot of people rely on the public machines when they need to do something that needs a keyboard.

    When I've been doing some research in a public library I've always been amazed at how well used these public access machines are - now I know why.

    And of course, there's the question of ongoing support - people will need support. Things go wrong, and sometimes people simply won't have the knowledge to to work round a problem.

    There needs to be a support framework.

    And also some commitment from the educational system. Telling kids to put their work in an excel spreadsheet or word document isn't helpful.

    The teaching materials need to be product agnostic. By all means tell them that if they use LibreOffice they need to save that essay in docx format for upload, or export the spreadsheet as xlsx from Google Sheets, but don't tell them they should be using particular software packages.

    Of course, this requires that teachers, educators, and support staff have to be familiar with a range of software and environments, which means training, which probably isn't going to happen any time soon.

    But we should take a look at what actually happened during the great home schooling experiment, and think very hard about what we can do to end the digital divide.

    It doesn't have to be expensive. It doesn't need a lot of shiny new kit. But it does need some careful thought.