Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

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...

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...
The State of Linux Distros

Sep 10, 2013 GMT

In the middle of a discussion about whether the number of Linux distributions was declining, I suddenly realized that I didn't need to rely on my own power of observations. For years, Distrowatch has been summarizing the characteristics of distros and making the results available in an easily searchable database. The point of the site is to help users choose a distribution, but the information works just as well as a description of the current state of distributions -- not just their actual numbers, but also such facts as their purposes, the desktops they include, and the distributions they are based on.Of course, this information is only as good as the categories Distrowatch provides. In...
caliber: a battleground for function versus form

Aug 30, 2013 GMT

Because of my experience with graphic design, I like to think that an application's layout matters as much as its design. However, the release last week of calibre 1.0 challenges my outlook. As a regular user, I'm pleased to see this milestone, but it's definitely a triumph of features over design.Calibre is one of those comprehensive applications that I associate with what's best in free software. Its development goal appears to be to place everything you could possibly need to deal with ebooks into a single window. Not only does the project add drivers in a matter of weeks for new devices and firmware releases, but it also includes a comprehensive list of options for every task....

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