Saturday, 20 February 2021

Boot order on a dual boot windows/linux machine

 Department of the bleeding obvious this one.

You might remember that a few months ago I added a linux partition to my old Thinkpad while it was still on Windows 7.

Now, on a dual boot machine, linux always installs itself as the first option in the boot manager script. 

This didn't really matter as windows 7 was no longer supported and was no longer going to receive any updates.

What's more, when ubuntu and its derivatives install updates they always do an os-probe and check what operating systems are on the machine, and rewrite the options in the boot menu appropriately, always putting ubuntu as the first option.

And this all worked well as long as I left the windows partition on Windows 7.

However,the time came when I couldn't delay an upgrade to Windows 10 any longer, so I upgraded the Windows 7 partition to Windows 10.

And not unnaturally, Windows 10 wanted to download and install updates in the background, along with its habit of doing a reboot or two while doing an unattended update.

Obviously, if the first, ie default, option in the boot menu was Ubuntu (or indeed anything other than Windows 10), it would get stuck half way through its update.

Not a good thing to have happen.

The solution is of course simple - always have windows as the default operating system, and remember to change it back after any linux updates ...

Thursday, 18 February 2021

RSS and the Facebook lockout

 Australia woke up this morning and discovered Facebook had blocked access to  news sites as part of the ongoing dispute with the federal government over paying for news content.

The major providers of news, after their initial scream of annoyance, started advocating that you download each of their individual applications so you could follow news coverage.

There is however another way.  After all, you may not wish to clutter your phone or tablet with apps, or you might prefer to work on a laptop or desktop, or just simply want a single application to view content from a number or sources.

You may recall that I recently posted about my continued use of a rss reader.

Most of the major news providers, eg 9news, The Age, the SMH, ABC news, and SBS continue to provide RSS feeds - there are probably other major players in Australia who also continue to provide RSS feeds, as do most overseas news providers, for example RNZ in New Zealand, NPR in the States and the BBC.

Now the RSS reader I use is Inoreader. There are others out there that do the job but I've settled for Inoreader.

I choose to subscribe, but there is a free plan, that gives reasonable functionality, including the ability to post stories and save them to evernote, one note or pocket.

More importantly, as well as the web client, there are iOS and Android applications besides the web client.

I have used both the iOS and Android app on tablets, and they work well. The web client works well in both Chrome and Firefox, and can be used on a Mac, Windows, or Linux desktop, as well as inside of Chrome on a Chromebook.

It's probably easiest to build your list of subscriptions from a web browser, but the subscription list is shared between the web client and the apps, meaning you only need to do this once.

While GoogleNews and MicrosoftNews aggregate news content the content is curated algorithmically and you have no control over the sources, and as a friend of mine has commented, you might not want to read just what Microsoft or Google consider worth of your attention.

Using an RSS reader allows you to curate your own news sources.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Why I still use RSS

 RSS, really simple syndication, was the poster child of content delivery in the naughties.

Today, other than podcast distribution, not so much.

And increasingly, sites, even when they provide something that looks like a blog, don't provide an RSS feed of the content.

And there aren't that many RSS feed readers around, and a number of packages that used to include an RSS feed reader no longer do.

So why do I continue to use RSS and pay good money to subscribe to a feed reader application?

The answer's pretty simple.

I live on the dark side of the world, in rural Victoria in Australia.

The blogs and news sites I'm interested in, usually ones dealing with archaeology and history, are mostly based in either the UK or North America. This means that, during Daylight Savings we're 11 hours ahead of London, 16 ahead of the east coast of the USA, and as for California ...

The net result of this is that when people post interesting things to their blogs or websites I'm hopefully tucked up in bed listening to the possums dance the fandango on the roof.

Using an RSS feed reader means that when I wake up, I easily scan all the feeds I follow for overnight updates in a single webpage rather than checking a whole lot of different sites with different update times. Alternatives, such as twitter, which thrive on immediacy don't really cut it - your immediacy is my 3 am.

In such circumstances the decoupling between time of posting and time of reading that RSS provides is crucial - think of the death of William IV:

On 20 June 1837 William IV of England died and Queen Victoria became, well, queen. No one in Sydney knew this until late October 1837 when the James Pattinson sailed into Sydney Harbour bringing news of a change of management.

This meant that people in Sydney had been toasting 'William IV, our sailor king' long after the old boy was in his box in the crypt of St George's chapel in Windsor.

The time lag seems inconceivable to us, used as we are to doomscrolling every press release and update, but to people then it was quite normal - they got the news of William's death and state funeral, and Victoria's accession all together in a set of newspaper reports in a single October morning, rather than spread out over several days.

And just like news of William IV's demise using RSS to follow events let's me compare reports and follow the story. No it's not immediate, but a lot of the time there's not much value in immediacy, it's what has happened that's the most important thing.

Simples, yes ?

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Extending our wifi

 There's an annoying NBN commercial which pretends to be giving helpful advice about installing your wifi router, which includes the advice to put the access point in  central location close to where it will be used the most.

Nothing wrong with the advice, except that, short of rewiring, you need to put your router within a patch cable's length of the NBN box, which in turn is plugged into what was originally your master phone socket.

Fine if your master socket is in the middle of the house. Ours isn't, it's at the front of the house, because that's where the phone socket went when it was originally installed. The patch box on the outside still has a Telecom Australia logo on it, it's that old.

Now, our house is an 1890's weatherboard cottage with a modern extension on the back.

Originally there was an extension socket in the extension but that was plastered and tiled over when we remodelled the kitchen and built a sitting and TV area on the back of the extension.

This all happened before we had the NBN, and had a Telstra ADSL connection. The old Telstra ADSL router happened to produce a pretty powerful wifi signal so everything worked, even though the unit was at the 'wrong' end of the house.

We did have a bit of ethernet run down from the study at the front of the house to the sitting area, and we connected the internet TV decoder to the wired ethernet. The wireless signal was a bit attenuated so I bought one of these $10 no name wireless repeaters from ebay to allow us to surf the web while watching TV.



When we changed to the NBN and changed ISP's that meant a new router, but everything basically kept on working the way it had.

As a solution, this worked reasonably well.

Except for one problem. The studio.

The previous owners had converted the double garage into a teenager's retreat, even to the extent of putting in a nice timber ceiling and a TV antenna. What they didn't put in was the internet, and neither the wireless repeater or the router provided much of a signal.

We don't use it as a teenager's retreat, in fact J uses it for oil painting, and I store bikes in there.

Rather than use a sketch book, J quite often uses a drawing program on her iPad for the preliminary sketches when working things out so having a wireless connection would be useful.

It would also give me a place to bugger about with old computers and Linux if we had wifi in there.

So, how could we get wifi in there?

Well, there were a number of possible solutions that didn't involve running cables:

1) Reconfigure my old TP-link router that I installed as a backup to our flaky ADSL when we lived in Canberra - obviously we wouldn't need the 3G failover, but plugged into the ethernet connection it could act as a repeater.

2) Install a powerline ethernet connection in the study, plug the other end of the connection into the old TP-link router and locate the router in the studio

3) Use a wireless extender.

Well, scenario #1 would almost certainly have worked. When we lived in Canberra, I could get a signal in the driveway, but having previously had some trouble with the internet tv box and hubs - essentially it likes a direct connection to the router, I decided to leave this to last.

Scenario #2 might have worked. Everything I've read says that it works best if both devices are on the same circuit. The house and the studio are on separate circuits, meaning the signal would have to find it's way via the power box, and to add to the fun, we have our old overflow fridge in the studio.

Again, everything I've read suggests having fridges and microwaves on the same circuit as you powerline ethernet is a bad idea.

Nothing I read said it wouldn't work, but I didn't have a lot of confidence in this solution.

So scenario #3 looked to be the best. The simplest solution seemed to be to put a second no name wireless extender as close to the studio as possible. That worked, but the signal was pretty attenuated and not reliably usable.

So I was looking at going to scenario #1 when I found a guy on ebay selling refurbished Netgear EX2700 wireless extenders for around the same price as the no name units - under twenty bucks including shipping. The Netgear units have a good reputation, and for comparison, the current model costs around a hundred bucks, bought from the usual suppliers.

I suspect the unit had been sourced from China, as the one I received had a Chinese style flat two pin plug and a safety sticker in Chinese.

Nevertheless, when plugged into an international adapter, it powered up and configured nicely, and produced a pretty good signal downstairs in our sitting area,  out on the back deck and a reasonable one inside the studio, good enough for me to stop there.

Moral of the story - if you are in the market for a wifi extender, do your research first. The cheap no-name ones certainly do work, but if you want a serious boost, you do need one of the brand name devices, but as I found, refurbished units can be as cheap as the no name units.


Friday, 29 January 2021

It's alive! restarting the Dow's Pharmacy project ...

 Way back in the winter of 2017 I started as a volunteer with the National Trust, documenting the contents of Dow's Pharmacy in Chiltern.

It was, and still is a fairly large and complex piece of work, and it's taken me longer than I thought it might.

However, by March of last year, it was about 80% done and I was expecting to be done by Christmas, so much so that I was even having preliminary discussions about new projects.

Then of course we went into lockdown due to the pandemic and that was more or less that.

I did ask if I could keep on working one day a week during lockdown, but HR said no for a number of reasons, meaning all I could do was kick my heels and fiddle about with family history.

I'm happy to report that the project's not dead, and even beginning to twitch a little. I've had a positive discussion with the Trust's collection manager about restarting the project.

I don't yet have a date, and they still need to come up with a Covid safe workplan, which given that social distancing in the old pharmacy will be a challenge, but I can see the project restarting in time for a Christmas 2021 finish ...

Monday, 11 January 2021

Upgrading a dual boot Windows 7 and Linux laptop to Windows 10

 Back in June, I added a linux partition to my old Windows 7 thinkpad.

The machine was still, and remained, on Windows 7 as a backup machine to my documentation work of Dow's Pharmacy.

However six months on, we're still in a hiatus because of the ongoing covid-19 emergency, and I'd reached the point where I really couldn't delay upgrading the Windows 7 partition any longer.

So yesterday I upgraded it.

I was a bit apprehensive about doing so as I could imagine various scenarios where the Windows 10 upgrade process and the linux boot manager had an argument, but I needed have worried, it just worked.

It's an open secret that in most cases Microsoft will still allow you to update from Windows 7 to Windows 10 for free providing you have a legitimate Windows 7 install.

I did two things outside of the standard upgrade procedure before starting:

  • I used Grub Customizer to make Windows the default operating system to boot, so that when the system rebooted during the upgrade process it wouldn't need manual intervention to select Windows.
  • I used the Magical Jelly Bean KeyFinder (seriously) to find my Windows 7 license key in the registry, as some comments I'd read suggested that occasionally the upgrade process requested that you re enter the license key. As I'd bought the machine second hand, the Microsoft license key sticker on the base had of course disappeared.
Other than that I just followed the bouncing ball. 

The whole process took about three hours, but at the end I had a working Windows 10 install. 

(When I was researching how to do this I couldn't find any sensible posts on the subject - I've since found one on the Microsoft Community website, but you do have to register with Microsoft if you don't already have a Microsoft account)

As it's on a old thinkpad with a spinning disk, it's not the fastest, but it works, and does the job...

[update 12 Jan 2021]

After the upgrade grub, the Linux boot manager, still labelled the new Windows 10 system as Windows 7. This didn't affect booting the Windows partition but was unaesthetic - I like things to be right.

Rerunning the Grub Customizer to change the boot priorities back to Linux first fixed this - the grub customiser does an os-probe and rewrites the boot menu by default.

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Technology and me in 2020

 Every year or so, I write a little report on how my use of technology has changed.

This year has been, shall we say, different from preceding years - here's how things have changed since 2019.

The successes

The new laptop I bought back in 2019 continues to deliver as does the Thinkpad Yoga, which has turned out to be a useful second machine, even though I have not used it as extensively as I might have in a normal year. 

The same can be said of my old Thinkpad - adding a linux partition increased its usefulness during lockdown, but honestly I've not been using it as frequently as I might have been if Dow's Pharmacy documentation project was not in covid-limbo.

However, it's being on Windows 7 is increasingly a pain and I might look at upgrading it Windows 10 after all.

The undoubted success is my Huawei mediapad - excellent battery life, good screen, etc. I've ended up using it more than I expected and not just for viewing images of old documents - a genuinely useful purchase.

Hanging in there

My chromebook, which went end of life back in March 2019 continues to soldier on, even if it does grind a bit on occasions.

I'd probably have replaced it by now, but with lockdown, shortages and inflated prices it simply didn't make sense to do so while it still worked.

Likewise, I still have my 2011 vintage MacBook Air which still makes an excellent travel computer, especially since I replaced the battery. However, like the chromebook, it will have to be replaced sooner or later, probably by a lightweight Windows 10S machine.

While I took a load of old tablets to the recycling, I hung onto my various old netbooks and laptops that had linux installed on them. In time I need to rationalise the stable, but the time is not yet.

Despite my purchase of the Mediapad, the ipad mini and keyboard combo continues to grow in usefulness as a note taking machine, not that I've been anywhere much to take notes, but it's the ideal size to have on the sofa while reading something.

Domestic technology

2020 opened with smoke and bushfires, and the situation was so dire that I resorted to buying an air purifier. Apart from its slightly odd internet setup it worked well and did the job. So far, we havn't needed it this year, except for a weekend when the fire mangement people did some back burning.

Like everyone, we've watched a lot more TV this year, and our Fetch box with its extra channels and easy access to Netflix certainly eased the ennui of lockdown. Apart from some glitches in April at the start of lockdown, our network connection held up well through everything.

Sometimes I think that I'm the only person in Australia not to have used Zoom. Facetime yes, Skype yes, Zoom, no. However my partner in crime has made extensive use of it for everything from art workshops and life drawing to yoga classes, so much so that I ended up tracking down a good quality refurbished laptop for her principally for zoom sessions from her art studio and when lying on the loungeroom floor for online yoga.

Software and operating systems

It's still basically the Microsoft ecology. I've almost stopped using OS X totally, and even when I use my MacBook Air, I basically use it as if it was a highend chromebook, albeit one with a few extra editing tools installed.

Strangely, my use of linux came back a bit when I wanted to experiment with some things, including a half built omeka installation to showcase some of the Dow's project work. Half built because the second lockdown in Victoria caused me to lose momentum a bit and since then the Trust has invested in a new corporate repository and asset management solution.

I still haven't taken my old Inspiron to the disposal centre, I have xubuntu installed on it and sometimes the slightly larger screen comes in useful when playing with image editing software, much in the same way that my old hopelessly out of date 2008 vintage imac with its 21" screen can be incredibly useful when looking at digitised documents.

In the ideal world I might replace both of them with a decent refurbished desktop and dual screen solution, but for the moment I'll continue to make do ...