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.

    Building a Xubuntu machine for research

    Earlier this month I posted about building a Xubuntu based machine for fieldwork.

    At the time it was difficult to get hold of suitable machine machine - basically all the reasonable second hand machines hand disappeared due to either working from home, or with kids having to be home schooled, the need for people to get a cheap extra second machine.

    However, I manged to get hold of an old Dell E6320 ( i5, 4GB RAM, 500GB HDD) for a little under two hundred bucks, that I reckoned would be powerful enough to run R to do some (very simple) text analysis to establish the vocabulary used in Victorian murder reports, and OCRfeeder to take pdf's of Victorian murder reports and extract the text.

    I decided I needed a newer machine because while capable, my old Inspiron did grind a little when asked to do anything serious.

    An odd hobby to be sure, but fairly harmless.

    The machine arrived yesterday. In practice a little bigger than I imagined - lesson learned, don't go on the screen size, go on the sizes from an old review - and slightly more battered than ideal, but everything worked and the screen was nice and bright.

    I'd previously made myself a bootable Xubuntu USB stick for my initial experiments on my old Inspiron, so I used that.

    First problem - I couldn't change the boot volume from the internal hard disk to the USB stick. Most Dell's I've installed linux on you just need to hit F12 once the Dell logo appears, and after a few seconds you end up in the boot selection menu.

    Not this one. I tried holding down F12, which works on some manufacturers, I even tried an external keyboard to check if the key was faulty. I ended up resorting to Google. It turns out that on the E6320 (and some similar machines) you need to rapidly tap on the F12 key during startup until a message in yellow appears in the top right hand corner, and then you end up in the device selection menu.

    After that, installation was basically the case of following the bouncing ball. The machine had come with Windows 7, and I decided to keep a small Windows 7 install just in case I ever needed to run some windows only software.

    The Xubutnu installer included a nice graphical partitioning tool to let you keep your existing Windows install. The default was to split the disk half and half, which would give each more than enough, but I decided that as I only needed a small windows install to go for a 25:75 split between Windows and Xubuntu. On a 500GB hard disk this gave Windows a more than reasonable 120GB.

    Everything just worked. Well except for the trackpad, which was a little slow and draggy. Strangely the little joystick thingie on the keyboard worked as well as an external mouse.

    As it was a $5 mouse from the office supplies store solved the problem.

    Software install was fine, network support was fine - it took me a couple of hours at most, including the F12 problem, to end up with a usable machine:

    Sunday, 24 May 2020

    Researching the Waterloo Bridge mystery

    I've recently blogged about the 1857 Waterloo Bridge murder, but I thought I would summarise how I researched the post:

    My initial search was some fairly dumb searches using Google and Wikipedia - usually if it's a well known case such simple searches turn up articles and books about it - this time I drew a blank so I moved on to Welsh Newspapers online which is free to search, and which turned up a number of  reports from the period.

    Unfortunately, Welsh Newspapers is not the easiest to print articles from - it operates more like a virtual microfilm viewer than anything else, meaning that is so long or multi column such that you can't easily do a screen grab using Snip'n'Sketch, you have to resort to taking notes on a second device such as an ipad, which is a bit silly.

    This time, I didn't do that, I repeated my search using the State Library of Victoria's historic newspaper databases, and printed out the relevant articles. I also used the print to One Note feature in Windows to save them to One Note as well in case I ever needed to go back to them.

    Printing the articles wasn't the whole of the story - I then worked through the articles, taking notes and summarising as I went.

    As it was a nice, sunny, late autumn afternoon, I did this sitting outside on the deck and used my MSI netbook for the task.

    The MSI has a very nice keyboard to type on, which is why I keep it around, but is distinctly underpowered for 2020 with only 1GB of RAM and a 2012 vintage Atom processor.

    That said it runs BunsenLabs linux perfectly well, and using ReText, it's highly responsive - add in two or three browser tabs and a running mail client it does grind a little, but for most writing purposes it's fine, and considerably nicer to work with than an ipad or my old Alcatel Android tablet and keyboard combo.

    The finished notes were then transferred to my Windows laptop via dropbox, converted to Word, and inserted into OneNote.

    Not the most elegant workflow, but one which I found to be the best given the various constraints (and the sunny weather)!

    Friday, 22 May 2020

    Books and deliveries in a time of coronavirus

    Almost two months ago now I wrote about the problems of ordering books from overseas, given the near total disappearance of international flights.

    While there is still a surface mail service with packages sent by sea, in reality most small packages are normally sent by air, but the absence of flights has led Australia Post for one to suspend its international economy service, and warn that standard rate packages may be sent by sea.

    What happens to economy rate packages in transit from overseas is anyone's guess. Different postal organisations may have dealt with mail differently. Given that most of my books in transit originate from the UK I did check the Royal Mail's website, which was singularly unhelpful.

    However, it's more complex than it first appears - companies often outsource their delivery services to fulfillment companies who then use different countries postal services to send the mail on.

    I've had packages posted from Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands, despite having been ordered from bookshops in the UK. And I'm guessing that different postal authorities may be handling matters in their own way. But what we can say is that the post will be delayed.

    As a result we are living in a nineteenth century style world of uncertainty. Packages trapped in the shutdown will undoubtedly arrive, but when and by what route is anyone's guess.

    Letters (should anyone still need to write by hand) will take between four and five weeks, and yes. occasionally there are documents that need to be signed and returned, rather than scanned and emailed. As I say, we have returned to nineteenth century style isolation.

    However, there are signs that the mail is beginning to move again. About a month ago, I ordered a book from Blackwell's in Oxford. It arrived today courtesy of Jersey Post.

    I have a couple of books that I ordered earlier in April that have yet to arrive. Having received one item, I'm now confident the others will arrive (eventually).

    Sunday, 10 May 2020

    Xubuntu, fieldwork and deja dup ...

    Yesterday afternoon, having failed to find a suitable machine for linux experimentation, I got out my elderly Dell Inspiron 1545, and tried updating it from Ubuntu 18.04 to 20.04.

    I tried to do this manually from the command line with the do_release_upgrade command, which insisted that I had to upgrade it by first going via version 19.x.

    Well, I got as far as a working version 19 and gave up - basically spending two hours doing a command line upgrade is incredibly boring.

    But just before I gave up, I noticed that Ubuntu had acquired an inbuilt backup utility that lets you backup to Google Drive, among other targets.

    So, this morning, I downloaded the latest version of Xubuntu - I went for Xubuntu, despite its quirks because I really don’t like the default window manager in Ubuntu, and upgraded the Dell to Xubuntu 20.04. This only took about 20 minutes as the installer realised that there was already an working older install of Ubuntu and only upgraded those things that it had to.

    Unfortunately, one of the things it doesn’t install is Deja Dup, the backup utility, but once you realise what the damn thing’s called, installation is utterly straightforward.

    Download, select what directories you want backed up, schedule your first backup, and away you go.

    It’s important to realise that this is a backup - it’s an encrypted backup of some directories on your machine, not a way of syncing a directory with your Google drive. There are some products that cost money to do that, and various magic spell solutions involving rsync, but there’s no easy to use synchronisation product.

    However, what it does mean is that you have got a copy of these important documents backed up in case of disaster.

    Now, one of my use cases for a linux machine is for a minimal travel and fieldwork machine - you have your writing tools of choice installed, perhaps a notes manager like Standard Notes, copies of anything important downloaded and cached locally, and otherwise the machine is pretty content free, except for work in progress.

    The idea has always been that such machines tend to be older, tend to be used offline some of the time, and are to some extent disposable.

    And, as I used to tell students - the data on them has cost more in terms of time and effort to generate than the machine, and in the case of fieldwork, may be irreplaceable. After all, in normal times you can get a basic machine for fieldwork for a couple of hundred bucks.

    Not that you intend to lose them, but they’re the machine that gets bounced around in the back of the truck, or taken to some reasonably grubby location. Security checks at airports tend not to be a problem - on the very rare occasions I’ve been asked about a machine, the fact it’s a linux machine excites curiosity more than anything.

    I previously used suggest to keeping everything crucial in a directory and religiously backing up the contents to a USB stick, and then uploading the contents of this work directory to some cloud storage - basically the same model that I follow with the Dow’s  Pharmacy documentation project, but having an automated utility like Deja Dup simplifies matters and means you can be assured that your data will be backed up on a regular basis automatically, and given that it keeps the old backups for a designated period, means that you can backtrack if you accidentally delete some crucial files.

    Saturday, 9 May 2020

    Lockdown, linux and refurbished machines

    Recently, I've been looking for a refurbished laptop to use as a linux machine.

    Not a chance. The WFH (Working From Home) scenario that we've all been pushed into in the last couple of months has meant that all the decent units around the $200-250 mark have disappeared off the market.

    I suspect that this has been driven more by schools moving online more than anything else and that's triggered a sudden rush to buy anything reasonable that does the job.

    Not that there aren't machines for sale, but they're obviously from the bottom of bin, eight nine years old, and believe it or not, I even saw one of offer with Windows Vista Business for around $150!

    A couple of months ago, before the lockdown, you could get something reasonable - say around six years old with  a smallish hard disk and Windows 7 for for about $200 - but not at the moment.

    So, I'll wait - I have some other old machines to play with ...

    Thursday, 7 May 2020

    22 years of the imac G3

    The register had a post this morning that it was 22 years to the day that Apple released the iMac G3, the machine that arguably saved Apple from going under.

    I had a couple of these machines, but never as OS X machines:

    One, a genuine 1998 G3 iMac, I got given as I was known to enjoy experimenting with extending the usable life of redundant hardware by installing linux (otherwise known as buggering about with linux on old machines), the other I actually bought from a government disposal site for a few dollars.

    Both were useful, and I actually used the original old G3 machine as my main desk machine for a couple of years.

    But of course, what killed it was the lack of mainstream linux support for the PowerPC architecture.

    Yes, even now you can still get distros that work on old PowerPC Macs, but most of these are purely volunteer supported - nothing wrong with that - and a little rough around the edges due to the need to reverse engineer support for Apple's varying mix of hardware and boot environments.

    Most work well, but sometimes there needs to be a bit of goat sacrifice involved to get it to run, and that's not really suitable for a production environment. It's no use extending the life of hardware if your support costs go through the roof by having to cosset machines - they're machines, not cats.

    Without a reliable, easy to install version, it wasn't tenable to advocate to people that they extend the lives of older iMac hardware by installing Linux.

    So, I moved on, and the machines went to the recycler. But I still remember them with affection. Definitely fun ...

    Tuesday, 21 April 2020

    Router fun (again)

    Until yesterday, our internet has been holding up well. Apart from a strange glitch most mornings between 0730 and 0800 when it would go away for a minute or two, it's been really good.

    And the glitch is probably the result of some traffic management on the part of our isp.

    Yesterday was different - while the raw network speed was fine the service during the daytime was not as good and the internet radio kept buffering and dropping out - a sure sign of network congestion.

    Yesterday, of course was the first Monday of school in Victoria, and given that the schools are still closed due to Covid-19, that meant the first day of the mass experiment in online learning by the school system, which of course will inevitably impact our network performance, with all the kids logging on from home and doing whatever they do.

    So, no internet radio yesterday, but performance was good enough in the evening to watch an episode of Unorthdox on Netflix.

    We were up late this morning so it wasn't until just before nine when I tried the internet radio for the news.

    I wasn't too worried when I woke it up out of standby the internet radio said 'network disconnected'. Occasionally it does that anyway, and telling it to rescan and connect fixes the problem. Very rarely I have to power cycle the box, and do a network reconfigure, and after that it's fine.

    Well this morning, I might as well have waved a rubber chicken over it - nothing would make it connect, however briefly.

    So I went up to the study to log onto the network router to see if there was a problem, and I noticed that our multifunction Epson was complaining about not having an IP address, and the FujiXerox laser printer on my desk was saying it was offline.

    So I logged into the router and looked at the connected devices, and  guess what, a lot of them, the less used mainly, had no ip addresses including the FujiXerox printer and the Epson printer.

    I suspected a DHCP problem, but all the DHCP settings looked fine. So, being an engineer at heart I reset the box to wipe all the configuration information in the box and return it to the factory defaults.

    This actually is more of a hassle than it seems, as our network is named after our previous Telstra ADSL connection, as when they installed our solar panels, the installers hard coded the SSID and network password of our then network connection into the power system's diagnostics module.

    So, no matter how much I might like to name our network 'purpledishwasher', TelstraE730FB is what it has to be.

    Resetting is a hassle. The admin password is ridiculously long and in an almost impossible to read minature font on the underside of the router, and the default network password makes those autosuggested by chrome look almost simple.

    So much so that the first time around I stuffed up the admin password so many times (I'd actually written it down wrongly sometime previously in my network configuration notes) that I locked myself out of the router and had to start over.

    The second time I was more successful, logged in, and changed the passwords to the Telstra ones and everything sprung back into life - well except for the internet radio which was still choppy and buffering, but which at least this time could see the network.

    I'm guessing that whatever process in the router that responds to DHCP requests had just given up and died for reasons unknown, but I don't really know. It's been about nine months since I last did a reset, so I guess it just got tired of servicing requests.

    And it's not just the internet radio - J was trying to watch some artwork videos on pastel techniques on her iPad this morning and they were equally choppy ....

    ... and later this afternoon after school was finished for the day, I tried the internet radio again, and guess what? - it worked perfectly, suggesting that the buffering and choppiness earlier today was due to network congestion.

    [update 22/04/2020]

    ... and today the internet radio worked perfectly for well into the school day. QoS ? traffic shaping? Or? I'm guessing that the people who manage traffic etc for the NBN have tweaked things just a bit to cope with the extra school traffic ...

    Monday, 20 April 2020


    There's as stoush going on at the moment about the (Australian) government's proposed contact tracing app, which I'll call Track'n'Trace or TnT for short.

    Now, I've been retired for four years so I don't normally comment on technical stuff any more, except on rare occasions, as I'm out of the loop.

    When the app was first announced my original thought was 'bugger that'.

    Having worked in Canberra I don't have a high opinion of some of the government's IT initiatives - over specified and under resourced, and at the mercy of the electoral cycle.

    My objections are twofold - one as the Annika Smethurst case has shown, there are parts of the government that want to increase snooping on citizens, and two, access to the data and the abuse by some of the police of the special powers granted under the lockdown regulations.

    As J falls into the 'at risk' category due to a chronic health problem I have absolutely zero intention of breaching the lockdown regulations, and if anything we've been more careful than necessary with me usually doing the mailbox and supermarket run alone. However what I do not want to do is be dobbed in by my phone if I inadvertently get too close while queuing.

    I've now changed my mind on this.

    The government has said that they'll now put the code out there for public review and publish their own security audit. This of course doesn't stop them misusing the data, but if they publish their protocols around the data and its use that's probably good enough.

    The other thing is that as Scott McNeally is once said "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it."

    Apple and Google to name but two, routinely capture location data - how else do you think applications such as Google Timeline work - and this data has been used to show the reduced amount of commuting going on. 

    Shopping centres, department stores with their free wi-fi, all know about you and when you visit.

    Phone companies can find your approximate location on the basis of which cellphone tower you're using, and can, in busy areas use triangulation to work out a rough location. 

    Now the government has said that the application won't have a geolocation capability, but it does record your phone number.

    I'm sure that geolocation or no geolocation capability these clever people at the Signals Directorate can match up the data if they really want to, and to be honest, unless you're suspected of nefarious activities they probably don't want to and don't have the time or inclination. 

    A degree of paranoia and mistrust is sensible, but if you use any location based service you can be tracked anyway, what's the difference?

    So I've swung 180 degrees on this. Yes, with appropriate safeguards I'll use the TnT app, and yes, the moment the lockdown restrictions are ended I'll delete it.

    I don't totally trust the government over it, but balancing the risks versus the benefits, the benefits probably come out a little bit ahead on this one ...


    There's two relevant articles on the web this afternoon, one (unfortunately paywalled) from New Scientist on the Oxford TnT adoption study, and one from the Irish Times on the French app and their controversy around its rollout

    Wednesday, 15 April 2020

    Banks, phone calls, and security (again)

    Nine years ago, I blogged about the scenario where someone calls you purporting to be from a bank and asks you for some security information before they'll tell you why they are calling.

    Well, I had the same scenario again last night.

    A very nicely spoken person, probably Indian by his accent, called me and said he was from a bank I no longer have an account with.

    My phone did show that he was calling from a Melbourne number, but phone numbers can be spoofed, as we know, and with so many people  working from home at the moment, someone isn't necessarily calling from their office.

    So when he asked me for the month of my birth to prove I was who I said I was I asked him to first of all prove that he was from XYZ bank.

    (I wasn't particularly concerned about giving out my date of birth - it's out there in the public domain, along with my full name, in fact both are pretty useless as identity verification questions - my driver's licence number, or passport number would be much more secure.)

    So I asked him to tell me what the last three digits of my customer number was - this is different to my account number, and is something that only the bank and I should know.

    He of course, said he wasn't allowed to tell me this, but he did offer to send me a text with a number to call him back on.

    Well this didn't really address the security problem, numbers can be spoofed, and nowhere in the process would he have told me a secret that only he and I could know.

    So I declined and hung up.

    I suspect he was probably genuine, and calling to ask me why I had closed my account, but nowhere did he, or could he, tell me anything to prove he was genuine ...

    Monday, 30 March 2020

    Second hand books in a time of coronavirus

    I'm known for spending more money than I really should on second hand books, most of which I buy online from large overseas bookbarns.

    While I'm happy to buy locally, many Australian second hand dealers  don't have the stock, and if they do are hamstrung by AustraliaPost wanting the better part of ten bucks to post a second hand copy of Wuthering Heights, which probably only cost around five bucks to start with.

    While I usually use AbeBooks, the bookshop consolidator, to search for books,  most of the books I buy come from either World Of Books, Kennys, or

    Some do come from other resellers, such as reuseabook, who don't have their own storefront and process their sales via Abe Books.

    Well the disruption of international air traffic has played havoc with ordering books from overseas. Orders quite often come a circuitous way posted via Sweden or some other country whose postal service charges low fees to send books, often on the basis of  'it goes when there's space for it' when an international mail container isn't quite full.

    So, sometimes a second hand book might take a few days to get to Australia, or it might take a month.

    Well, for the moment the world's changed. There's not a lot of spare airmail capacity, and even regular services are impacted (eg I'm a dual UK/Australian citizen, which means I have two passports. My UK passport came due for renewal a couple of weeks ago. You used to have to send your renewal paperwork and old passport to the High Commission in Canberra, but these days you have to send it direct to the UK Passport Agency in Liverpool.
    Using International standard tracked airmail it took two weeks to get there - when J went through the same exercise last year it only took two week from start to finish for them to renew her passport, including send it there and the Passport Agency sending back the new one.)

    Not surprisingly, items from overseas sent low priority are taking forever to arrive. In fact World of Books have shut their Australian site - typing into the browser search bar confusingly redirects to their UK rare books site. Their Australian site is still there - replace en-gb with en-au in the full site url, and hit return - this should take you to the Australian website ( where they advise that their Australian business is suspended.

    Kennys have sent all their staff home and are not processing orders. They do say the'll process any outstanding orders when things are back to normal. (Just to add to the confusion around deliveries, I've just received a book ordered from them 10 days ago and sent via normal post - as always your mileage may vary)

    Thriftbooks, the big US second hand reseller still claims to be posting orders to Australia, but Australia Post is suggesting that mail to and from the States may be delayed by up to four weeks. Given that often Thriftbooks use a logistics company to ship by the lowest cost route, I'd guess that any order would take six to eight weeks.

    A lot of companies seem to have told AbeBooks they can't ship to Australia at the moment, so a search for something - Wuthering Heights is a good example, there's a zillion second hand Penguin editions out there - will bring up a lot of smaller second hand resellers, some of whom might not have fully realised the dire state of international mail.

    Incidentally BookDepository often turns up in AbeBooks searches showing the price for the book bought new through them (the fact that AbeBooks and BookDepositiry are both owned by Amazon may have something to do with this).

    BookDepository of course have both an Australian and a UK warehouse, and unless you read the order confirmation carefully, you're never quite sure where an item will ship from. Currently, items shipped from the Australian warehouse are taking, at most, a day or two longer (I live in country Victoria and their warehouse is in Melbourne, so you may find that, if you live in another state, especially one that's imposed extra quarantine checks, that things take noticeably longer).

    Items shipped from the UK are taking longer, much longer - Bookdepository are currently suggesting items will take an additional ten to fifteen days - which in reality probably means the best part of a month.

    Suddenly e-books seem a very attractive alternative ...

    [update 06/04/2020]

    Coincidentally, the ABC has published a report on what's happening with the mail due to Covid-19. Find it at

    Sunday, 1 March 2020

    Using an end of life Chromebook

    Twelve months ago my Chromebook went end of life,

    As it was one of the Exynos based models, I didn't have the option of loading an alternative OS, so I decided to procrastinate until things broke.

    As there's some security exploits out there for older versions of Chrome I havn't used my machine for anything sensitive like online banking but otherwise I've carried on as before.

    Now basically I use my Chromebook in bed for the following:

    • read my email
    • check twitter
    • use inoreader, my preferred rss reader
    • reading online news sites - ABC, Guardian Australia, The Age
    • a  bit of Google Docs
    • a bit of blogging
    so far, nothing has told me I'm out of date or wildly insecure, which means I've got at least an extra 12 months out of the machine, which is not too shabby given that the downwards drift in the value of the Australian dollar over the last twelve months has pushed up the cost of replacing the device.

    So I intend to continue as I was - procrastinating with a purpose. I'll let you know when things start to break ...

    Saturday, 15 February 2020

    The costs of citizen science

    Way back in 1984 I started on my first proper job after graduate school, working for an environmental science field centre.

    I was paid, not a lot, but enough to get by on.

    There were graduate students working there who had a bit of funding, some people on internships who got a little bit of money for survey work and so on.

    However, most of the basic overheads were paid for, so other than rubber boots and army surplus parkas, going to work didn't really cost anyone anything, other than a personal copy of a plant reference book or a better headtorch.

    Fast forward to the present day.

    I'm now retired and working happily as a volunteer, documenting artefacts for the National Trust.

    This actually costs me something to do, buying rubber gloves, bits and pieces to aid the documentation process, such as extra usb sticks and gizmos to read sd cards.

    It's not a lot, and there's a degree of crossover with what I spend on my hobby of family history, so I'm happy to spend the money because I enjoy what I'm doing.

    Treat it as a hobby and it's much the same as what J spends on art materials, a cost of doing something you find fun and enjoyable. If instead, I enjoyed breeding orchids, recording old churches, or censusing bats, there would still be an overhead.

    And then there's the all the other things that go around it, my office 365 subscription, really to pay for cloud storage of my digitised materials, evernote subscription, replacement printer cartridges, a wordpress account, and a few other memberships.

    Now, I'm in the fortunate position of being able to afford to do this.

    I'm also by no means unique in doing this, since I've retired I've met amateur astronomers, former professional botanists, historians and so on who are doing good work for the fun of doing so.

    Other people of course, may not be so fortunate and find it difficult to pursue citizen research despite being well qualified to do so.

    I don't have an answer to the funding conundrum, but as there is increasingly less and less state and federal funding for humanities research and simple observational scientific research, such as recording plant and animal species as they recolonize bushfire damaged areas, it's inevitable that 'big' research is going to be more and more dependent on low level citizen research volunteer efforts.

    But I do have a suggestion. Most people who carry out citizen research are members of a local field studies group, history or archaeological society (by the way, I'm not).

    If we had a citizen research body that people could register their projects with via accredited local bodies such as history societies, we could perhaps have the citizen research body negotiate small discounts with suppliers.

    That way no money changes hands, but these modest costs might help see a project through to completion, as well as getting the data out there.

    No more daily tweet summary

    For longer than I can remember I've used the services of to post a daily twitter summary at 12.43 Australian east coast time to where else, twitter.

    No more.

    I've been running in freetard mode, using a basic account to provide a daily summary of the most popular tweets of both myself and the people I follow.

    As I've said elsewhere, I started using twitter as a way of sharing interesting snippets with my team, colleagues and indeed anyone who wanted to follow me. Over the years my feed has changed from being focused on digital preservation and archiving with a bit of classical and medieval history thrown in for amusement, to a mixture of material about history, cultural repatriation and a smidgin of technical stuff - especially after I retired and no longer had a team of people.

    The thing came about because some people asked me if I could post a summary every so often, and I was too lazy to write a script to do it for me, and what's more, added value in picking other popular posts from people I follow.

    So I started pushing out an automated daily summary using their service.

    Well, all good things come to an end.

    For perfectly understandable reasons, the people have recently started being less generous as regards what you got with a basic (free) account, and I didn't want to pay for a pro account.

    I suppose if I had my own consultancy and more importantly, it made money, I could have claimed a pro subscription as marketing, but I don't, so I havn't, and being genuinely retired I have no external lines of funding to tap.

    As an aside, this is a little commented on problem with volunteer working (or if you're grand citizen research) - everything from my blue nitrile gloves for handling artefacts at the pharmacy to my Office 365 subscription comes out of my own money. I don't begrudge a cent of it, after all, it helps keep me sane, but there are limits as to what I can reasonably afford.

    So, the long and short of it was that when you looked at what you got from the new basic plan it wasn't worth continuing.

    I did think about compiling a weekly summary, but rejected that idea - explorator is better established and does a better job, and I'm not sure if I can deliver the commitment required.

    So that's it, I'll still keep tweeting about the stuff that interests me, but there will be no more 12.43 summary carefully timed for an Australian lunch break ...

    Tuesday, 21 January 2020

    Just for fun, I built another linux box this morning ...

    It was wet this morning, and I was feeling fidgety, so I decided to replace the Xubuntu install on my MSI netbook.

    Truth be told, I was never a 100% happy with Xubuntu on the netbook - it always seemed a little slow. If it hadn't been for the fact that development was ceasing for Crunchbang about the time I upgraded it from Windows 7 Home to Xubuntu, I'd probably have gone for Crunchbang.

    I've really not used it over the last three or four years, which is a bit of a pity, as the keyboard is pretty nice to type on, so I thought I might I might try installing something a little less resource hungry than Xubuntu.

    Well, I didn't feel about agonising overmuch about which distro to go for, I decided on BunsenLabs linux, which was what Crunchbang recommended moving to after development ceased.

    So, first of all see if it works - I downloaded the appropriate iso and wrote it to a USB stick with Rufus, booted the netbook with it. As always with live systems booting from a USB it was a little slow to start but once running, appeared to be pretty good.

    Since there wasn't anything of value on the netbook I went for the 'nuke and reinstall' option where it wiped the disk and installed BunsenLabs Linux in a fresh install.

    Well, that didn't work - the installer claimed that it couldn't find the cd and bombed out - something pretty crucial to the install process.

    Turns out that Rufus by default writes the disk image in iso mode, and BunsenLabs wants the image written as dd image.

    Now when I did this back in the early twentyteens, I always wrote my bootable usb sticks using dd.

    Lesson learned, Rufus does have an option for writing a dd style image and second time around the install worked perfectly.

    As always, booting the machine for the first time involved that moment of uncertainty when, after a screen of startup messages it sits there with a blank screen, but then suddenly it leaps into life. Thereafter startup is pretty fast, and after login you're into the fairly austere default openbox desktop:

    The install is fairly scant as regards applications, and strangely does not come with an email client (thunderbird works fine, you just need to install it - the Synaptic package manager is included, or else you can be old school like me using sudo apt-get install package and then using the menu editor to add it to the desktop.)

    The browser is firefox, and it has a little bit of trouble with the smaller netbook screen size, but it taking it out of full screen mode solves that problem.

    As I'm envisaging the machine as primarily a writing machine, the only other applications I added were focuswriter and retext for producing documentation.

    And that was about it, I didn't even bother about setting up printing as I'm envisaging either emailing material to myself or using the web based uploader to put things on One Drive ...

    Sunday, 19 January 2020

    Yesterday, I built a linux machine ...

    It might seem strange, but it's been five possibly six years since I installed any variant of linux on a real machine, the last being my old MSI netbook.

    However,  yesterday I installed linux onto my old Dell laptop - and I do mean old - embarrassingly so, it dates from 2010.

    I reckoned that installing linux was the best way of wiping it prior to disposal.

    Ubuntu now comes with a snazzy graphical installer rather than the old text based one that I was familiar with so I decided to simply follow the bouncing ball and do a standard install.

    I wrote myself a live USB stick on a windows machine with Rufus, plugged the old Dell into a power socket and booted it from the USB stick.

    First time around it offered to automatically partition the disk to allow me to keep my Windows 10 install by creating an 8GB partition for windows and the same for Ubuntu.
    I thought I'd try installing it as a dual boot machine as a test, as my old second hand thinkpad is still on Windows 7.

    While Windows 7 is now off support I still need a windows system on that machine  (or more accurately a couple of Windows applications OneDrive and OneNote) for the Dow's pharmacy documentation project I'm working on, and I thought it might be useful to run a second supported  operating system on the machine.

    So I let the installer suggest the partition sizes - remember I was experimenting to see how good or otherwise the new installer was and was simply following the defaults.

    I thought the suggested partition sizes  were perhaps a little optimistic given that Windows 10 typically takes about 16GB, but I went with them out of curiosity, even though a full install of Ubuntu desktop is said to need something between 12 and 15GB.

    As I expected, the install crapped out at the end of the process having filled the Ubuntu partition.

    Lesson learned - I'd say give both Ubuntu and Windows around 25GB each. On a machine with a 128GB SSD that might be a bit generous if you have a lot of data, but if you've 256GB or more of local store I don't see you having a problem doing this.

    I didn't actually repeat the exercise or test to see if Windows 10 still booted with its squeezed partition, truth be told I had other things to do that evening than play with partition managers, so I simply repeated the install process, but second time around went for the 'nuke everything' option.

    This worked perfectly - in about forty minutes I had a working Ubuntu machine, and what's more one that ran reasonably well - which was gratifying given the age of the hardware.

    To allow me to play with it a little, I revived my Ubuntu One account, added livepatch support, installed a couple of extra application - kate and focuswriter and added a printer, configuring my FX Docuprint 115w as a Brother HL-1050, set up mail and firefox syncing.

    My plan is to use it for a few days to play about with, including the Gramps genealogy package whose lead development platform is linux to see how things go.

    Once I've finished playing my plan is to reinstall linux, perhaps a pure Debian install this time and set it up with a single default user before taking it for disposal as e-waste ...