Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

My Wesnoth addiction

Oct 31, 2013 GMT

Except briefly for a review, I haven't installed Steam. Nor have I had a Windows partition for games for over a decade. It's not that I dislike games -- to be honest, the problem is I like them too much. I have a hard enough time keeping PySol, GNU Backgammon, and Kajongg from eating up most of my work hours without installing more elaborate diversions. But worse of all is Battle of Wesnoth, which could occupy days at a time, if I let it.You wouldn't think Wesnoth was so potentially harmful, just to look at it. It's turn-based, not real time, and its two-dimensional might have been state-of-the-art fifteen years ago. But its strategies are both easy to learn and challenging to master,...
Why is interest in free office suites declining?

Oct 25, 2013 GMT

While I was getting serious about free software in 1999, GNU Parted appeared. I immediately assumed that it would mean the end of the market for proprietary partition editors, and I was puzzled at first when it didn't. Fourteen years later not much has changed, according to a Forrester Research survey on the adoption of Microsoft 2013, which suggests that the interest in free office suites like LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice has declined 8% since 2011.Or, to be exact, that is what one report of the survey is saying -- I don't have the $2500 necessary to view the original survey. However, assuming the report is accurate, in a 2011 survey, 13% said they would consider free office suites...
Analyzing Ada: Who wrote the notes attributed to Ada Lovelace?

Oct 15, 2013 GMT

Ada Lovelace is a hero of women in computing. Crediting her as the first computer programmer, her admirers defend her fiercely against detractors who question her accomplishments, pointing out the misogyny that lurks behind the attempts at debunking. However, so far as I know, nobody has attempted to challenge the detractors directly by comparing known samples of Lovelace's writing against the Notes that are her claim to fame.The issue concerns Lovelace's translation and annotation of Luigi Menabrea's transcript of a lecture delivered by Charles Babbage at the University in the early 1840s. With Babbage's encouragement, Lovelace added seven highly technical notes labelled A to G. The most...
Ubuntu, Knee-Deep in the Big Muddy

Oct 07, 2013 GMT

"We were knee-deep in the big muddy, And the damn fool said push on"- Peter Seeger by way of Dick GaughanCriticism gives you two main choices: either you can learn from it, or ignore it and keep on with what you are doing. Sadly, with the introduction of Smart Scopes on to the dash, Ubuntu 13.10 is mostly opting to ignore criticism, pushing ahead with changes that few seem to want and violating Unity's original design principles in favor of contradictory new ones.The criticism began just over a year ago, when Ubuntu announced that it would be adding Amazon search results to the dash. Since these results would be enabled by default, the move immediately raised concerns about...
The not-so-unchanging desktop

Sep 30, 2013 GMT

Imagine someone who last used a free desktop environment a decade ago. If you sat them down in front of a modern desktop, how long would they take to feel comfortable using it? Probably under ten minutes -- which might lead you to the erroneous conclusion that the desktop hasn't changed much recently.Admittedly, Unity might take them a little longer. KDE might, too, until they realized that while the organization had changed, the basic features hadn't. But with the other five or six major desktops, they would notice more eye-candy and more consistency in design. They might miss the classic menu whose sub-menus spill out over the desktop, but they'd have little trouble recognizing or using...
Why I Changed My Mind About GNOME

Sep 26, 2013 GMT

I'm a confirmed KDE user. I have seven desktop environments installed virtually or on my workstation's hard drive, but I spend most of my time in KDE. However, in the last year, a strange thing happened: I started using GNOME more.This was the last change that I expected. Ever since GNOME 3.0 was released, I've complained about the overview mode, which seems better suited to a mobile device than a workstation or a laptop. I've complained, too, about how it restricted users by such features as automatic management of virtual desktops. Most of all, I've complained about GNOME's slowness to respond to user criticism, or even to acknowledge it, and the defensiveness of its designers.I still...
Styling

Sep 13, 2013 GMT

I'm constantly bemused that the same people who spend hours getting a small code feature right frequently can't be bothered to learn how to use a word processor correctly. This attitude is so widespread that a disturbing number of new features in free office suites seemed designed to cater to this attitude, giving people what they want while condemning them to much greater effort than a little education in styles and formatting would.Why should this matter? Consider the way that most people use a word processor like LibreOffice's Writer. Whenever they want to change the default formatting, they select part of the document – for example, a paragraph or a page -- and then apply the...

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