Category Archives: Technology

To save the planet, this is what we have to do everywhere, all the time.

A huge amount of energy is spent going to the store. The grocery store, the hardware store, all the stores. The amount of energy spent to get an object to the store for you to buy is big, but this process is on average highly efficient. A train can hold a lot of objects, and pushing a train down the tracks is highly efficient. Also, we will hopefully eventually be running trains entirely on a combination of electricity delivered to the train indirectly, batteries, and bio-fueled generators on board. Delivering object for you to buy at the store is already efficient, but it will become more efficient with a relatively small number of (big) step.

But then everybody leaves their home and drives various distances to various stores. When I was a kid, there were two grocery stores in our neighborhood. One had no parking lot, the other had room for about five or six cars, but nobody drove to either one. We used those two wheel carts you drag along to the store (or laundromat). When you get to the grocery store, you fold the cart up and hook it to a push car, then, when you pack up your groceries, they go in that two wheeler and you drag it home. Everybody did that all the time. It was strange to drive your car to the grocery store.

I remember when my parents started to drive to get groceries. Instead of going to the store on foot (or more likely, sending one of the offspring to the store with a list), they would drive out to the edge of town to a large warehouse discount store that had sprung up, like a Cosco. Oddly, large suburban style grocery stores emerged, in my world, after these edge-of-town discount store. My parents would drive the station wagon out there, spend all day, come back and and fill the freezer and cupboards. Maybe once every six weeks. In between times, for milk and other perishables that you can’t freeze, it would be walking to the A&P. So that was all pretty efficient.

But today, tens of millions of Americans get in a car and drive a few miles to pick up some object or bunch of objects at the stores. The energy spent to do that is large. The total amount of energy we spend going to the store to get objects is probably less than the total amount of energy spent to get objects from producers (via warehouses) to stores, but not by as much as you might think.

One way to solve this is to not go to the store in a car and by an object. Order it on line. The delivery will be more efficient. Or, in some cases, go to the store on foot, bike, or public transit, get your your stuff in a big pile, and then have the store deliver it to your house. And, have all the delivery done by electric vehicles charged with energy produced without fossil carbon.

I envision a future in which we abandon mail boxes and replace them with small rooms with an indoor and outdoor access, some insulation and modest climate control, a place to put frozen stuff, refrigerator stuff, other stuff. That’s where the grocery store delivery service drops your stuff.

Or, if you are in need of new flat packed furniture, Ikea:

In a couple of years, if you buy a Malm bed at Ikea in Brooklyn and opt for delivery, Ikea will probably drop it off in an electric truck. The company is transitioning to zero-emissions delivery in New York, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Paris, and Shanghai by 2020. By 2025, Ikea aims to do the same for every store worldwide.

“Climate change is no longer just a threat, but it’s a reality,” says Jesper Brodin, CEO of Ikea Group. “We see how that impacts our business, our customers, and our coworkers more or less everyday . . . We want to be a leader, and take action, and speed up our plans.”

The company had announced earlier this year that it would shift to zero-emissions delivery by 2025, but now plans to work more quickly in key cities.

But where do you get one of those nice delivery receiving futuristic mail boxes with the climate control?

Here you go:

Do Not Upgrade To The New Chrome! Yet.

The new Chrome browser by Google, Chrome 69, is probably an important improvement in browser functionality, look and feel, and security. But, as you might expect, the first version available for general users is buggy, perhaps very buggy. I would wait a little while for the bugs to get all hunted down and exterminated. How long? A week or two should do it.

What is new in the new Google Chrome 69 Browser?

Continue reading Do Not Upgrade To The New Chrome! Yet.

The United States Space Force

Finally, we are getting a Space Force!

Now is our chance to chime in on how the Space Force should be organized and what it should do.

I have the following suggestions.

First, make no mistake, the Space Force is to fight off new alien invasions, and to find, root out, and kill any and all aliens from previous alien invasions. I know, I know, most people believe there are no aliens, or if they are out there somewhere in the Universe, they are not going to invade us. But those unbelievers tend to be Democrats, and the Space Force is a Republican idea. So, my first suggestion is to put aside any equivocation. USSF is our first line of defense against aliens. Own it.

Second, do incorporate a scientist high up in the chain of command. Time and time again, we have seen either aliens or home-grown monsters (usually as a result of nuclear radiation in the sea or someplace) get way ahead of the US Military because military commanders are bad at listening to scientists.

The senior scientist, and his attractive 20-something daughters, and the other more junior scientist or perhaps journalist on whom the daughter is sweet, should not be ignored! We should know this by now!

Third, the USSF should be in the business of separating children from their parents. None of this liberal namby pamby nice guy shit. When you get an alien child away from its parents, you do NOT reunite them. That is just asking for trouble.

Fifth, even though the USSF will diligently search for, find, and kill all existing aliens from previous invasions, it is ESSENTIAL that their technology be preserved and studies. As sure as The Doctor’s favorite expression is “Sorry” and his second favorite expression is “Run!!!” we will need that technology to fight future aliens.

Fourth, do not eschew or fail to respect the space forces that exist already in other countries. Just as American intelligence services have a “special relationship” with British intelligence, the USSF should develop and nurture a special relationship with Torchwood.

And speaking of special relationships, the USSF should have liaison with the secret service. It is not uncommon for aliens to masquerade as high level politicians, or to seduce them in other ways.

The creation of the United States Space Force is a great idea, an idea whose time is come. But I think it is very important to not pretend it is something other than it is. It is an idea to win the hearts and minds of the 21% of the United States population who believe in aliens, and were abducted by them one or more times. I worry a little about the 2% of Americans who believe they are aliens. But in any law enforcement or military operation, there are always a few who just won’t go along with the rest.

The Marines have “Semper Fidelis.” The Army has “This We’ll Defend. The US Air Force says “Aim high, Fly-Fight-Win.” And the Navy’s motto, and they just got this motto last year, is “Forged by the Sea.” (I’ll bet you thought it was “not just a job, but an adventure,” but no, you were wrong if you thought that.)

The motto of the United States Space Force? I’ll go ahead and suggest “Klaatu barada nikto,” but you should feel free to suggest your ideas below.

And finally, this shall be the United States Space Force uniform:

Kids Learn Coding with Scratch Cards

First, in case you don’t know, “Scratch” is a programming language and environment.

Its mascot is a cat, of course, but the name “scratch” supposedly comes from the use of scratching by disk jockeys. Scratch was first developed at MIT back in the early 2000s, and has advanced considerably since then. You now see the basic format of this language either duplicated or mimicked in many different environments.

Scratch can be an online langauge or you can run a stand alone version, but the former is easier and better. To get started, go here and follow instructions.

If you want (your kid or you) to learn scratch fast, you may want to consider getting the cards produced by No Starch Press. You can get ScratchJr Coding Cards for ages 5 and up, or the much more advanced Scratch Coding Cards for kids 8 and above.

The idea is simple. You put the stack of cards on your desk next to the computer, which is tuned to the MIT Scratch site. Then you try out the stuff in the cards. By the time you are done you (or your kid if you step aside and allow access to the computer) will be pretty good at scratch programming.

I used the 3 year and above cards with Huxley, and we are about to start on the 8 and above cards, although he is very advanced and we are likely to skip past the first several.

By the way, Scratch runs on the web so you can access it from any sort of desktop or laptop computer including Chromebooks,a nd there are iOS and Android versions. It runs on the Kindle Fire as well.

Elon Musk, Tesla, pasta, and the questionable nature of stocks and the free market.

Apropos the current startling developments with respect to Tesla and Musk (he tweeted he may have Tesla go private at $420 a share, above current prices), I have some thoughts I’ve been meaning to eventually get out there for comment and critique. I wonder, suspect, that what I’m thinking is related to the idea that Tesla going private is a good thing for the company and its customers, and for the cars themselves. The following scenario is what I suspect (but do not know) happened in relation to a well known company that I will anonymize here by using a different name. I’ll call it “Pastas.”

So, there was this food emporium called Pastas. The idea was to specialize in Pasta, since everybody loves Pasta, and to provide a range of options of pasta at a good price. You would go to a counter to order the pasta, but someone would bring the food to your table, along with a napkin-wrapped set of silverware. When you were done eating, they would bus your table for you. This placed Pastas clearly outside the normal range for fast food, yet in the same comfortable (and fast) ball park.

Over time, Pastas stock went up, as more and more stores were open. People buy the stock because it is going up. This investment fuels more franchises, advertising, other development. The value of the company goes up because its numbers look good, and that adds to the value of the stock itself, because people want to buy it.

Eventually, every strip mall and commercial zone in America that can have a Pastas, almost, has one.

When stores were being added, income streams were being added. Earnings went up because of this, plus, because an older franchise can have a higher profit margin than a brand new one. But once the market was saturated with stores, the income stream could not grow that way any longer. This caused the value of the stocks to stop going up as much as they were. Instead of always going up, a lot when the overall market went up, a little when the overall market went down, Pastas stock now went both up and down. And every time it went down, there was the stock market equivalent of a stern look. News report: “Pastas stocks have gone down for the first time since the company did yada yada” and that sort of thing.

Pastas needed to increase its own value somehow to keep stock holders happy, else they put Pastas stock in their “sell when you need the cash to buy into the Next Big Thing” category. But most of the previous increases were from opening new stores, and all the stores that could exist, pretty much already existed. There had to be other ways to increase value.

Note: At this stage, everybody loves Pastas. No stores are closing. There are no layoffs. The restaurant continues to do well, people buy lots of Pastas product (pasta), vendors and employees get paid, etc. Everything is just fine. The only thing that is off is the value of the stock, stabilizing or dropping slightly, not because of a change in inherent value of the company, but because the company had filled its space.

Everything is just fine but one thing: The stock market does not understand that the store has value, and needs to see earnings increase — not just stay the same but go up — or they don’t hold the stock.

So, what does Pastas do?

In order, roughly:

1) Stop bringing silverware and napkins to the table. One might think this would make very little difference, but it saves money because it saves a measurable bit of time. It is also one less thing for employees to get right, so one can spend less time training.

2) Stop clearing tables. This saves even more money for similar reasons.

3) Reduce quality of some of the ingredients if it saves money.

4) Reductions in pay to employees, or slowing down raises, or less training.

As these or similar steps are carried out, the earnings go up because costs go down. Not by a lot, but enough to stop the bleeding.

As this sort of thing happens, Pastas starts to decline in quality. No longer to people say,”Hey, this new place is great, try it out.” People keep going to eat there, sure, but only out of habit and because while quality has gone down, it is tolerable.

Over time, a measurable number of customers become annoyed when their local Pastas gives them a dose of extra bad service, and are less inclined to go there.

The number of customers stops increasing, which offsets the small gains from increased stinginess. The number of customers who walk away and come back less frequently or not at all goes up, which exacerbates the problem.

Earning drop. Stockholders, believing as they do in the perfection, wisdom, and sanctity of the Free Market, don’t understand that the real reason the value of the stock drops is because of their prissy irrational behavior. They blame it on — well, whatever excuse they can think of that does not incriminate themselves. More stocks sell. Value drops. Pastas starts to cut its losses any way they can. Eventually, Pastas, a good idea well done, disappears from the American landscape, cast aside by the invisible, and brainless hand of the Free Market. Pastas is gone, having died of its own success.

But the cause of death isn’t only success. What really killed Pastas is the fact that it was a publicly owned company.

Perhaps something like that is why Musk wants Tesla taken out of public ownership.

A neat trick to secure your home from invaders

First, get an Amazon Echo. You probably already have one, but if not, you’ll need it.

The Echo has this thing called “skills.” A skill is a bit of software that provides the device with some sort of ability. (see for example this post on a math-building skill.)

Once you have the Echo, install the Away Mode skill. You can get it here.

Once installed, Away Mode allows you to tell your Echo to play a long and involved audio of actors playing out various scenarios. If the volume is correctly adjusted, potential home invaders will hear this as conversations happening inside the house, and say away.

These are totally realistic scenes. For example, there is a book club meeting where everything except the book is discussed. It runs for 6 minutes. There is a guy planning a podcast about himself, an emergency PTA meeting to discuss fidget spinners, and a couple having a breakup while also watching TV. In other words, your life.

USA In Space 2.0

The next era of Humanned Space Flight will involve NASA trained astronauts leaving the Earth in space ships designed and built by two private corporations, SpaceX and Boeing.

Time to re-read The Man Who Sold The Moon by Robert Heinlein. But I digress.

Today NASA announced the crew of astronauts to be trained for these missions. They will be going to the International Space Station. They are Sunita Williams, Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley and Eric Boe.

KDE Window Behavior

I usually do nothing fancy with my windows. I open them. Later, I close them. In between, I may maximize them or unmaximize them. I move them around the screen.

The two fancy things I do are: 1) “Maximize” a window onto a portion of a screen using drag magic of some kind (most Linux desktop environments have this) or b) tell a window to move itself to a different workspace.

Most, nay, all, desktop environments have a larger set of fancy window behavior control than this. The whole idea of controlling, or even having, windows in which software runs, is fundamental to the *Nix environment, and Linux is the modern and most widely used version of *Nix. But I think it is possible that KDE has the mostest and bestest of these abilities.

For example. You can right click on the top bar on the window and pick “more actions” from the context menu. This gives you “move,” “resize” and such, which you have access to in other ways. GBut it also gives you check boxes to “keep above others” or “keep below others” which is very hand when your multiple monitors start to fill up with stuff because your workflow has gone fractal.

Burrow deeper and you can get to “special window settings.” This allows you to control behavior of a particular window in very detailed and even scary ways. You should probably not do any of this, but you should have a look.

In between these two cantos of configuration, you can find “Windows Manager Settings” in the window title bar context menu. This allows you to mess with windows decorations, screen edges, desktop effects, etc. You can get to all this via other configuration tools, but this is a handy way to make adjustments on the fly while you are actually using software.

One thing you may want to adjust here is when and how windows become translucent. I never used that feature before, and having the windows become semi-translucent when being moved is the default in KDE. I think people like this because it is a quick and dirty way to see what is behind the window. I find it a bit disconcerting because I sometimes am still reading what it is a window while I’m moving it. I wonder if there is a way to make a window go translucent optionally. Probably. OK just checked, there is.

A key feature you will want to adjust is active screen edges and corners. Here you can turn on or off features that maximize, either to a full screen or a “tile,” the window you drag to an edge. This allows for quarter tiling. Right now I have the ability to mazimize a window by dragging the title area of the title bar to the top middle of a screen, to tile over the left or right half by dragging it to the appropriate side edge, or quarter-tiling the window by dragging it to a corner. It is a bit funky when I drag towards the second monitor … can get confused as to which monitor to tile the window on.

Windows. Not just for Windows any more. Never were, really.

Linux KDE Menu and Launcher Options: The Best

Buddy Hackett once said, “As a child my family’s menu consisted of two choices: Take it, or leave it.”

On your computer desktop, you often have multiple choices ON your menu, choices of recent documents to open, applications to open, system features to configure, or an option to shut down your machine or log out. Gnome, Mate, and many other desktops have a default menu built in. You can change the menu by installing alternative software. In the case of Mate and some other Gnome alternatives, the desktop comes with the “new and improved” sometimes called “advanced” menu that isn’t the default, and isn’t really an option … you have to fiddle to find out about it, mess around to make it install, then when you run it, you may run into trouble if it crashes. The version Mate supplies, in my experience over several years, crashes regularly.

The KDE Linux Desktop is a step above Buddy Hackett’s home life. Out of the box, you get three distinct options for what kind of menu you like. One of the main reasons people chose different desktops is how the desktop offers the user access to applications, documents, etc. In the old days, a multi-level menu was common. Then, the fancier menus were invented, sometimes called launchers, that would typically open with a list of favorites, or commonly used, software, and possibly recent documents, and a search function to find your things. Eventually, the full fledged dashboard, or “hud,” was invented. This is where the entire screen (or one monitor’s screen if you have multiple monitors), opens up with a bunch of icons and stuff. And, as noted, which of these approaches a given desktop environment was designed around often determined which desktop people liked to use.

Do not mistake this evolutionary scenario for an ordered list of betterness. All three methods have their benefits, and different people will prefer different methods.

You can have any of these three paradigms with pretty much any standard Linux desktop environment, but you will probably have to install, tweak, and mess with software that may not be reliable.

Or, you can use KDE and have all three paradigms as easily accessible, built in, well optimized, maintained options.

The KDE Application Menu looks like this:

KDE Application Menu

You click on the dotty-looking thing on the lower left, and out pops the usual top level menu. There can be three levels in total. You get quick access to power-off or log out, recent applications or documents, and you can alternatively add recent contacts. Note that there is a search window.

The KDE Application Launcher looks like this:

Sorry, this may be a bit hard to see, but in real life it is totally readable. (Also, I think you can configure the transparency option of the various transparent things in KDE). This shows favorite software, which is configurable. Note that I’ve not configured mine, were I to do so it would have a very different list. Just start typing when this launcher is visible, and you are now searching for software. See those partly visible icons along the bottom? They are normally totally visible (my screen shot is imperfect). They are “favorite,” “application,” which is basically the multi-layered menu but a bit different, “Computer,” which is places, “history” and “Often used,” (not currently configured) as well as the non-removable button to shut down the computer. You can pick among these choices, have all, none, or a subset.

If you chose as your “menu” option the “Application Dashboard,” you get this:

This takes up the whole screen, and gives you this giant icon-rich borwsing for stuff experience. Note the menu-ish list on the right. and, you can search by just typing. This is a bit like the Ubuntu Unity dashboard.

Each of these items is very configurable. This is an example of the configuration menu for the Application Menu:

You chose which menu-launcher-thingie method you want to use by right clicking on the menu doohickie in the lower left and chosing “Alternatives.” Then you pick one and chose “switch.” Easy. Looks like this:

This is what is built in. You can do all sorts of other things to enhance your menu-application experience. I suggest you don’t. Stop fiddling with your computer and get to work. But the nice thing about KDE is that you have three highly configurable approaches to finding your applications and recent files, which are built in, maintained, and not broken. This separates KDE from most or possibly all of the other possible Linux desktops.

There are two other ways to get to your applications. One is to hit alt-F2 or the hot key or Krunner, which is a simple one line window that pops up. You can run apps from this, and do a lot of other things as well. The other is to put an icon for your commonly used software on the panel (menu bar, whatever you want to call it) which is probably along the bottom of your screen.

Me? I put the icons for the five or six most commonly used apps on the panel. I’m not sure if I want the application launcher or the multi-level menu to be the default, but I’ll only rarely use it. That makes me think I’ll go for the multi-level menu. When I use the menu to find an app, I’ll appreciate the organized traditional hierarchy to help me find it.

KDE Icon Magic (Linux)

In some Linux desktops, what you get is what you get when it comes to desktop icons.

You can usually specify if you want network locations or storage devices shown as icons, or maybe a trash can, shown, but not much else. This is where Linux looks stupid compared to at least some earlier versions of Windows and the Mac, where you can do more with icons.

But in KDE, icons are very very configurable.

(See this post for a short diatribe on why you should try KDE even if you haven’t considered it lately … I myself am a recent convert to this particular desktop.)

In KDE, you can right click on the desktop, then chose “icons” on the context menu.

You can then arrange the icons horizontally or vertically on the screen.

You can align them to the left or right of the screen.

You can sort them by the usual sorting criteria.

You can specify sizes, ranging from “tiny” to “huge.”

And you can lock them. When unlocked, you can move them around.

The images shown here are exemplars of some of these options, in various combinations.

Using KDE

I’m pretty sure the very first Linux desktop I ever used was KDE. I didn’t realize that it was actually a bit painful until I later discovered Gnome. I switched to Gnome because it worked better for me, and seemed to use fewer resources.

I never left Gnome, but Gnome left me. I won’t go into the details here, but as most Linux users know, Gnome 2.x was the high point of that particular world of Linux desktops (see THIS POST for definition of term “desktop”). With the demise of Good Gnome, mainly caused by Ubuntu (a distribution I otherwise have a great deal of respect for), I poked around among the various Gnome 2.0 desktop alternatives. Among them eventually emerged Mate, which at first, I thought was great. I used it as my main desktop for several years, until just recently.

But Mate had two major flaws. The first flaw was an attempt to simply everything. Mate never made an application to be part of its own desktop environment, but rather, it took old Gnome applications, then broke them slightly or failed to maintain them (but the Mate project developers did rename them all, to take credit for them, and add confusion). The second flaw was not fully maintaining the parts of the desktop environment it was responsible for, or fixing basic problems. For example, it has always been true that most people have a hard time grabbing window boundaries with their mouse in Mate. To fix this you have to go down into configuration files and manually change numbers. That is a bug that should have been fixed three years ago. I can only assume that the maintainers of Mate don’t have that problem on their particular desktops.

Among the main functions of a maintained desktop environment is keeping basic system configuration tools clean and neat and functional, but Mate messed that up from the beginning. I vaguely remember that an early version of Mate left off the screen saver software, so in order to have or use a screen saver, you had to install the old Gnome screensaver. The configuration and settings capacities of the Mate desktop are distributed across three or four different applications, at least one of which you have to find out about, find, install, and learn to use yourself, just to carry out simple functions. Basic categories of settings or configurations are distributed among these applications in a haphazard way. To do basic things like change the desktop appearance or mess with screen savers, etc, you have to be a power user.

But I thought Mate was still better than KDE partly because KDE was so strange. For one thing, single clicking in KDE was like double clicking everywhere else in the universe. Yes, you could reconfigure that, but it is still strange. The nature of the desktop, of panels, or widgets, of all of it, was just a little odd for me. Everything felt a little funny.

But over time, KDE did two things that Mate did not do. First, KDE continued to maintain, develop, improve, debug, make more efficient and powerful, all of its software. Instead of key software components going brain dead or not being maintained, or losing functionality like in Mate, KDE software got more powerful and more useful. At the same time, the software, and the overall desktop environment, got slicker, cleaner, more like the old Gnome 2.0 in many ways, and leaner, and less strange (single clicking is no longer a default!).

In the old days, it was probably true that Gnome used fewer of your computer’s resources than KDE. But the most current versions of Gnome and gnome like alternatives such as Mate probably use about 25% more resources than KDE out of the box. And, KDE out of the box is more configurable and overall more cool than Mate and many other desktops.

Here’s the key thing. When I first started using Linux, the feature I fell in love with was the workspace switcher, allowing one to maintain a number of virtual desktops, each with various things open on them. This is how I organize my work. It isn’t all that systematic, but in a given day, I’ll organically end up with all my stuff related to one project on one virtual desktop, and another project on a different virtual desktop. Gnome and gnome variants actually moved away from this standard. You can still have virtual desktops in current Gnome, but they are not there by default. Mate still has them by default, but I don’t trust Mate maintaners to maintain that.

But it is easily done in KDE, and with extra (mostly unnecessary) perks. In the KDE desktop environment, I can have the desktop background be different on my different virtual desktops on my desktop computer. Which sits on my desk. I can have other things be different on the different desktops. For me, this doesn’t do much because, as noted, my virtual workspaces evolve organically over time frames of hours or days. But someday, I may want a special desktop configured all special for some special purpose.

A couple of months ago, I had some problems with Mate. I uncovered an important and easily fixed bug. I told the maintainers about it. They told me to screw off. So I told them to screw off, and I started to explore other desktop environments. After realizing that they had been too rude to me, the Mate maintainers, to their credit, did fix the bug and tried to make nice. But I had already moved on. It did not take me long to get KDE up and running and configured as I like. And, I’ve hardly explored all the cool stuff it can do.

But I am exploring it now, and I’ll keep you posted.

See: KDE Icon Magic

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