Wednesday, February 15, 2017

My Chromebook Experiment

How's that webby thing workin' for ya?

It's been only a year since I wrote up my early impressions of working with a Chromebook. I was giving it a serious chance, because there were so many things to like -- simplicity, convenience, security. And I tried to stick with it partly due to the dangling carrot of being able to run Android apps on it someday -- a carrot that so far continues to recede in front of my nose.

But in the end I'm signing off. I bit the bullet and replaced it with a Dell XPS 13 running (initially) Windows 10 and (soon coming) Linux. Not till I dived into the new machine did I really appreciate how much I'd been chafing under the restrictions of Google's webcentric tool.

What Happened?

So what happened? A list of things.

After my initial disappointment at not being able to take full advantage of Dropbox, I used Zoho for writing until I ran into too many sync issues and formatting questions. Once I had to resort to restoring an earlier Dropbox copy when my latest edits failed to save. Bad!

Plus, if I used LibreOffice to open one of the documents that I'd edited in Zoho, it would ask me if I wanted to use Open Document Text format when I saved it, revealing that Zoho's ODT was somehow not the same as LibreOffice's. One of the ODT viewers on my phone and tablet would refuse to open the files, too, probably for the same reason. Not good.

When Even Linux Fails

Then I lost my ability to boot up the Crouton version of Linux. It simply stopped working after a Chrome update and I was unable to get it to run again. This revealed what a weak link in the chain this solution is. It's too small a project with too few developers to make it robust. Unlike a  normal Linux distribution that will install on practically everything from a Raspberry Pi to the largest super-computer, Crouton is at the mercy of the underlying Chrome platform which may shift without warning. And it's not possible (at least at my skill level) to do a true dual-boot installation of Linux due to the way Google has locked down the platform. It's almost like trying to install it on a Mac.

Add to this the minor annoyances, like having to buy a third-party app to be able to access my remote desktop at work, and the non-standard keyboard missing the delete, pageup and pagedown keys. And that's worse than it sounds when you're used to using them to jump around and edit lots of words.

I started to ask myself, if Microsoft tried to sell me this (like their RT version of Windows for netbooks on Arm processors), would I bite? And the Chromebook limitations go much further than the ones on RT.


Then there's the issue of planned obsolescence. Google put out the word that they will only guarantee support for 3 years after a Chrome device was first introduced. Too bad if you made your purchase two years into the product cycle. I've never liked the way Mac hardware becomes day-old toast every year when the new models come out, and this rubbed me the same way. Down here on the street, we are right to expect a five to seven year life cycle to our hardware. My wife is still happily using an HP laptop from 2011, and the end of its life might be the eventual demise of Windows 7. Even then there could be a lightweight Linux distribution in its future.

The final decision came when I realized I was thinking about replacing the Chromebook with a higher end model from Dell that was going to cost about as much as the XPS laptop. For the same money, it was a no-brainer.

The Plunge and the Future

So I've plunged back into the mainstream. Ahh ... 128 gigs of solid state drive instead of 32, eight gigs of RAM instead of four, a standard keyboard, illuminated even, a Dropbox that works again, and the full version of LibreOffice at my beck and call.

The idea of running everything from the web -- like the ancient days of client/server computers and terminals -- is still an interesting one, and it will probably continue to evolve and improve. Google has promised that all new Chromebooks will be able to run Android apps (though maybe not older ones like mine), which will make them a lot more useful. Beyond that, they're developing a whole new operating system (yikes!) that proposes to merge the features of Chrome and Android and eventually run on all devices including desktops.

From the other end of the spectrum, Microsoft is pushing Windows to become ever more mobile and webcentric. Soon they will collide in the middle. But I'm not sure I'd put my money on Google in this confrontation. One of the advantages of both Android and Chrome is their reliable Linux foundation. If Google throws out that baby with the bathwater then they may find themselves sailing on a ship as leaky and fraught with bugs as the SS Windows.

But to me it's all about striking the right balance. It's wonderful to be able to open a Dropbox folder anywhere and have my files available. Not wonderful when they're inaccessible because you're offline, or when you can't edit them because your software is also online.

So much computing power can be put into such a small package now that there's no reason not to do most tasks "locally" while mirroring data to a cloud resource. Right now that's the best of all possible worlds, regardless of your platform of choice.

Speaking of platforms, I'm even having some fun with Windows 10. But that's for another day.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Homage Au Bob

Becoming a grand old man of American letters ...

Celebrating the canonization of someone who has long been deified might seem a bit anticlimatctic to those of us who came of age in the era of Bob Dylan, but it's nonetheless welcome. The awarding of the Nobel placed the definitive stamp of history on our favorite troubadour, who is still out there, daily challenging every assumption about him.

In a wonderfully ironic twist, on the evening after the announcement the new laureate was to perform in -- of all places -- Las Vegas. When is the last time you heard Vegas and Nobel Prize in the same paragraph? But surely after all these years such a radical juxtaposition of images is what we should have learned to expect.

And so Dylan has finally become what we always knew he would be, the grand old man of American letters, much as Allen Ginsberg (another Dylan fan) followed in the wake of Walt Whitman. Alas, if only Jack Kerouac had lived so long.

Just last year I wrote about Dylan's latest project, Shadows in the Night, where he put together yet another unorthodox band to give his treatment of material from the American songbook frequented by the likes of Frank Sinatra. And in case you're wondering what he's done more recently, there's a sort of sequel out in the form of Fallen Angels, featuring more of the same material, but with the backup sound tweaked a bit to make it stronger. I'm pretty sure it's safe to say that we'll never catch him putting out consecutive albums that actually match.

What's next? Stay tuned for Blame It On Rio, soon to be released, featuring a song list that hearkens back to the bard's early period of the 60s as recorded live in Brazil in 1990. One's head spins.

Let me just leave you with this final thought, my own perspective on what it's like to have reached this point in my life and have so far to look back...

Remembering Bob

They’re playing Bob Dylan in the bank --
nice cocktail piano bar version,
the Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind --
but as the jazz guys used to say,
it don’t blow, man, it just don’t
make it, you might as well do it
on an accordion like Lawrence Welk,
and I know what it really means
is we blew it. No matter how many roads
we walked down the answer never came,
Baby Blue, and it’s all over now.

Down at the mall it’s 101 Strings
doing Mr. Tambourine Man --
will you play a song for me?
Will you make me a new one, one for now,
grab me again with your rusted iron voice
in the jingle jangle evening of the soul?
But Oh! Mama! it’s a Nelson Riddle medley:
The Times They Are A-Changin’
and a Hard Rain’s a-gonna fall.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

No Br-Exit

Time for another modest proposal…

So Britons have Brexited, and all hell is breaking loose. My thoughts are with you 48% of UK voters who have had your EU citizenship canceled without your consent, with no way back in. What’s a person to do? But never fear, I have a modest proposal for you.

Of course, for some of you, there are actions to be taken. Scotland may vote its independence in order to join the EU on its own, finally achieving the lasting European alliance it has searched for after centuries of struggle against its long time foe to the south. And in Ireland the unthinkable may happen as the North re-unifies with the South to form a free and monolithic Irish state (within the EU) -- again, after centuries of struggle against the imperious English. This could be the biggest thing since the re-unification of Germany. I hear some of you in England are even trying to get Irish passports.

Dire consequences are being predicted for the remainder of poor old England (and poor old Wales, seemingly too wedded to the status quo to contemplate divorce). The pound crashes, poverty ensues, and the brain drain commences as the young and cosmopolitan intelligentsia flees for distant shores in search of greener pastures.

It’s easy to imagine a shift in public opinion if the worst occurs, but it will be too late. After causing all this disturbance, England will not be welcomed back to the EU fold in the imaginable future. Not to mention, if they have started a trend and the whole alliance unravels, there may not be an EU to come back to. Now what’s an entire country to do?

Here’s my proposal. One word: Statehood.

I know this might not sit well with some, including the Monarchy, but England has a big resource to fall back on in the form of its former colonies across the water. We’ve got money, a kick-ass army, a space program, Hollywood, the Internet, and -- if truth be told -- a global empire. Wouldn’t you love to be part of that?

True, you might have to give up a few things, such as socialized medicine. But according to us, that was bad for you anyway. You’ll just have to learn to pay up when you get sick. And there’s a language barrier to be overcome, but in time you might learn the proper distinction between football and soccer. We can agree on “fridge,” but “tele” is not negotiable. It’s clearly TV.

So, with these hurdles out of the way, the path is clear for England to apply for statehood in the US of A -- which brings us to one final obstacle. As with any merger between giant multinational corporations, there’s a name and identity crisis to deal with. What’s the new combined entity to be called?

I’ve got a modest proposal for that, too, and it comes from the mind of a great English author, so there should be no objection from that side of the negotiations. Henceforth, the United States of America, in recognition of the fact that it extends beyond the sphere of the Americas, will be known as “Oceania.” And the country formerly known as England will be renamed “Airstrip One,” in recognition of its role as an important airline hub on route to Europe and Russia. I realize George Orwell predicted this for 1984, but better late than never.

Of course, there’s one possible snag. The US could elect Donald Trump by a margin of 51% to 49%. In that case, all bets are off. We’ll have enough problems of our own. Canada, is that door still open?