Defenestration


"I bought some batteries but they weren't included."
- Steven Wright

Odd how one thing leads to another. For example:

Kapitano wants to make some music. He's got the software, but only a rather run down and obsolete laptop to run it on. However, he knows lots of tricks for speeding up Windows - probably the most important of which is to cut out all the unnecessary junk.

The problem with cutting out junk is, sometimes you're not sure whether something's really junk. You might need it later, or it might look useless but be vital in some oblique way for some task.

For instance, although everything needed for USB devices seemed to be left in, any USB storage device caused a crash whenever it was plugged in. A rather frustrating mystery.

Now, one way to neaten up and streamline Windows is to have largely self-contained programs - or self-contained versions of programs which usually aren't. In other words, portable applications.

Some you can download, but there's also software for taking an ordinary application and making it portable. It does this by taking a snapshot of your system before installation, and one after, then finding the differences and bundling them all into one file.

Sounds good. Unfortunately it only works reliably when installing onto a clean operating system. So you can either reinstall Windows every time you want to make a portable application...

...or you can use a virtual machine. This is a simulation of one computer, running on another computer. And yes, you can run a simulation on the simulation if you really want to.

You set up your virtual machine, install Windows and the portablising software on it, and install your application with it running. Then copy the resulting program onto your real computer and reset the virtual one to convert another program.

However, this is done in a slightly clunky and one-size-fits-all way. The better way to do it is to compare the two snapshots, work out for yourself the best method, and design an installer program to do it - for which you need to learn the scripting language.

This is the point I'd got to before discovering why USB devices crashed the laptop. It wasn't anything I'd cut out, it was the driver for the USB camera. It messed up all the others. Gah.

However I reckon there is a way to make it work. I just need to set up a virtual machine and make a self contained version - so it'll only mess everything else up when I'm running it.

And then I can make some music.

Fenestration


"I can levitate birds but no one cares."
- Steven Wright

There is a theme to this post.

I've spent the last month cutting up my OS.

Windows XP is around 650MB on the installation CD, expanding to about 1.3GB when you install it on your hard disk - and that's before you install any software. But the core of XP is 85MB expanding to around 200. Approximately two thirds is useless most of the time, and if you can work out which bits of that two thirds is useful to you...you can cut out the junk and get a small, fast, efficient, asesthetically designed and useful system.

If you can work out which bits you need for your software. That's the difficult bit. That's the bit you need six spare days a week for a month for.

I spent most of Saturday installing Windows for someone else.

I get to work generally one day a week, filling in for teachers who are absent/sick/on holiday/doing something better/teaching somewhere else, which suits me just fine. I get just enough to live on, and plenty of free time for things like...um...well, see above.

Like all modern schools, it has computers. And like all schools, it has students who enjoy messing them up. Engineering students don't generally spend their mental effort working out ways to mess up the lathe, veterinary students don't think it's cool to induce seizures in dogs, but students of everything like to see how they can fuck up other people's computers.

Computing students are no exception. They're just better at it.

So, every year after the summer rush, the school computers get sluiced out, reformatted and renewed with reinstalled Windows. This year it was slightly different in that:

(a) It took a day instead of a week
(b) It was done properly by some one who knew what they were doing, and
(c) I put some security in this time

It seems no one had previously thought of using passwords.

So, having spent seven hours (one for each computer) installing Windows 2000, Windows XP and (hack, spit) Windows Vista...I could happily spend the rest of my life never again seeing a yellow bar creeping across a blue screen.

People have never put their laptops on their laps. Laps were designed for dogs, not computers.

Occasionally they put them on tables on trains, or on conveniently raised rocks doing work "in the field" (in fields, anyway), or on the ends of beds, but mostly laptops go on desks. They were originally meant to be portable adjuncts to desktop PCs, but they wound up replacing them.

Nowadays if you're a serious user, you have one laptop on your desk for work, a smaller one in your bedroom for internet and games, and an even smaller one for going on the road. Palmtops, they're sometimes called. Except they don't go on palms either.

And you transfer data between them using USB memory sticks. Everyone's got several memory sticks - one lost under the bed, one lost in a drawer somewhere, one left in a taxi, and the one on your keychain you haven't lost yet.

You can also run software from a memory stick. There are "portable" versions of many (perhaps most) popular programs, designed to be small and self-contained. And this has had one rather surprising but extremely welcome effect....

Because although Windows looks superficially neat and modular, with different separate programs plugged into the operating system, it isn't. Each program is densely intertwined with the Windows core, and the various "extras" you need for the more advanced software - things like DotNet, Visual BASIC, Visual C++, Java, DirectX, Network drivers, sound and video drivers, codecs, QuickTime etc etc.

In other words, it's a tangled mesh of overlaps and interdependencies which no amount of pruning and housekeeping entirely unwinds. In other words, it's a freaking mess.

But portable software isn't messy. You plug it in, run it, and unplug when you're finished. It's clean, simple and sensible. It's what Windows should have been.

And there's absolutely no reason why you can't install it permanently on your hard disk. So that's what I've done.

With a cut down 300MB Windows installation - half of it just for networking - and the same again for DotNet, Visual C++ etc etc, and 2GB of portable-but-permanent software, my antiquated laptop is now a recording studio, video edit suite, graphic design lab, office and browser...and it runs twice as fast as desktop PCs that are supposed to be twice the speed.

Now I've just got to remember what I wanted to do with it.

Watch the Skies


Making a timelapse film of the clouds. How hard can it be? Just point a webcam out of the window, attach it to a laptop that's not needed for anything else, and press "Go".

That's after you've spent two nights failing to the laptop to recognise the webcam, and your mother has spent an afternoon and some powers of lateral thinking after you've given up. And after all that, you find the sky is not so much cloudy as a uniform wash of pale grey.

Last week I did one day of teaching, covering for a sick colleague. This week another day for another one. In both cases after two hours of sleep following a night of drunken debauchery. But hey, that's what Sundays are for.

Actually I'm not sure my colleagues are ill that often - I think they're off trying to find work somewhere better. Either that or they had fun Sundays too.

In any case, I had a very pleasant one-to-one with a cute Swiss lad who plays electric blues guitar. Which meant I gave a lesson in music theory and American blues icons masquerading as one on vocabulary.

Oh, and the school have come up with a cost-efficient solution to the problem of students putting viruses on the classroom computers. If a teacher is ill one day, they call up their friendly neighbourhood substitute teacher, and if the entire class bunks off - which they often do - he spends the lesson reinstalling Windows and putting in security.

There's a piece of laminated paper blutacked to each classroom door, informing us that if any student is more than ten minutes late, we're to send them to the "student room" for quiet study. It's next to the notices telling students they must speak English at all times, and put the chairs on the tables at lesson's end.

If we followed the instructions, we'd have nothing but empty classes and I'd fix the computers in no time.

Tony recognised me, for the first time ever. He was being "moved on" from outside a shop by the manager. Earlier the police had done the same from the beach - and given him a piece of paper to prove they'd done it.

I gave him the coins in my pocket, but what he really wanted was company for half an hour, so I sat and listened while he drank his cider.

He'd spent eight years in the army, eventually serving in Basra - "cleaning up the mess left by the yanks". He says he tried to avoid shooting people if he could. Soon after he was posted, four fellow soldiers were killed when an American helicopter fired a missile on their jeep by mistake. He doesn't like Americans much now.

When detoxing he gets flashbacks to that time - the noise of gunfire, the fear of mines and the whole sense of hopelessness. Eventually he snapped and started shouting at a superior - "What are we doing here? What's this for?". He was put in solitary confinement ("The Greenhouse") for two months and discharged.

Now he's afraid he's going mad, but insists (correctly) that he still has self-respect and people who care about him.

Snappy


Okay. On the one hand I'm back online (fingers crossed) after a week of stressed late nights and disgruntled early mornings. I've finally got this dratted computer working perfectly (fingers and toes crossed).

On the other hand I'm so sick of the sight of it I don't want to go near it for a week.

So...I've found another challenge. A few years ago my mother found a laptop in a skip. It has a 3GB hard drive, 128MB of RAM, and runs (I think) around 250MHz. So you can see why it was in a skip. But mother nursed it back to health, and now it's just waiting to perform some task that only a hopelessly obsolete computer can do.

A few years before that, Mother invested a whole UKP20 in a digital camera. It has space for 26 "high resolution" pictures - 320x240, the same resolution as YouTube, only dimmer and granier. It's chief selling point was that you could carry it in your top pocket.

Yesterday I stumbled upon a tiny program that took snapshots from your webcam - every second, 5 minutes, day, or whatever. And you can see where this is going can't you?

The challenge is therefore:

* To find a version of Windows that'll take up, say, 200MB instead of the usual 1.3GBs. Luckily, I spent the last week developing one.

* Put it on the "skip machine", with the "pencam".

* Find something to take a timelapse film of!

Update: After two nights of (very slowly) installing various flavours of Windows and trying to coax the USB port into life...I think I'll use the other spare laptop instead. The one with 768MB of RAM and the 2GHz processor. The one that works.

One of the Windows flavours was my own reduced version of 2000 - reduced from 360MB to 60. Sixty megabytes will give you a fully functional operating system with no software and no internet.

Compare and contrast with DSL - which I've mentioned before and which Aimee reminded me about. 50MB, giving you internet access, browsers, wordprocessors, a spreadsheet, image editing and more. Hmmm.

So I'm going to give it a go. Watch me as I take a deep breath, hold my nose, screw shut my eyes and dive in.

Still here, just having network problems


...quite a lot of them. And other computer-related troubles.

So I'm mostly offline at the moment. Enjoy the silence.

Kapitano Makes a Cup of Tea


video

Eyes and Ears


I'm not going to go blind after all.

Yes, today was my checkup at the eye clinic. Last year it was "You have a severe astigmatism that'll only get worse and probably cause glaucoma which'll likely blind you by the time you're fifty and there's no way to stop it."

Now it's "Your eyes are exactly the same as last year so there's no new degeneration so if you do develop glaucoma it'll start when you're eighty. So we don't need to see you again. Bye."

My right eye is still a bit rubbish, but (a) it hasn't got any more rubbish and (b) my left eye is wonderful! So that's nice.

New Scientist. A weekly magazine of popular science that I read avidly as a teenager. It introduced me to virology, set theory, chaos theory, and some really weird cool stuff about using quantum physics to make unbreakable cyphers.

Now I get to peruse it again, ever since Mother switched her subscription from Time Magazine - on the grounds that Time had become full of neocon cheerleading instead of actual news.

Unfortunately, New Scientist is also now full of drivel. Recently there was a front page article on why the human brain is the most complex thing in the universe - an intriguing notion, until you ask what it means. There is a pretty rigorous definition of complexity in biology, and another quite different one from information theory that could (perhaps, in principle) be applied to the universe. But probably not.

It's a little like saying "Chocolate cake is rich, and so is the Hilton Hotel, so the chocolatiest cake in the hotel is a multibillionaire".

This week, there's a brief article on why men with wide faces are violent. Read that again before going on, just to make sure you got it right.

Testosterone in puberty causes the facial bones to widen, and men to become aggressive - the more testosterone, the wider the face and the more aggression. Aggressive people are violent, so...yeah.

And the fact that the researchers saw some stocky teens "aggressively" playing video games confirms it. Yes, they said that.

They also say it applies to short and small men too - though presumably accept the line that testosterone increases height and muscle mass.

Still, nevermind. Testosterone also increases testicle size (except when it does the opposite, as a sports supplement), deepens the voice (though that's actually more a matter of cartilage structure in the neck), and increases sex drive, which is why men with squeaky voices don't commit adultery. So I've read.

Oh, small detail: If you're going to talk about aggression as a measurable trait in psychology, try not confusing it with the colloquial connotations of the word. That way, you might not talk complete gibberish.

I have now sat up for four nights in a row listening to science fiction podcasts. I've redescovered Ted Chiang (who writes excellent short stories once in a blue moon) and John Varley (who wrote one of the best and three of the worst novels of my childhood) on StarShipSofa. Plus Mike Resnick (who makes sensitive types cry) and Charles Finlay (who makes dumb types nod sagely) on Escape Pod.

I once read that there are now so many Star Trek episodes, films, books, and audios around that someone could literally spend their entire life watching, reading and hearing Star Trek. And given the uncounted thousands of fan-written stories on the net - divided into gen, het, slash, HC, PWP and other impenetrably named subgenres - there's enough for the afterlife too.

I'm not sure I could fill my whole life with the horror of Pseudopod, the various genres of Varient Frequencies or the complete books of Podiobooks...but I'm happy to have a rich supply of bedtime stories. Before I have breakfast and go to bed.

I'll start making tea tomorrow.

An Announcement


Coming soon: Kapitano Makes a Cup of Tea.