New Slashdot Look

My favourite technology news website Slashdot has revealed a new look and feel. Unfortunately, I can't say how long the look has been up because I get Slashdot newsletters in the email and usually don't actually go to the site. But now that I have seen it, I like it. Things look more organized and the sidebars and individual posts are better defined than they were before and the site looks far more professional now. Though I must say, I wish they had chosen a lighter colour scheme, maybe with a few blues or greens. One thing that recently struck be about Slashdot is that even in this day of news services like Digg and Reddit, Slashdot manages to remain the electronic Mecca for many thousands of technophiles, without any of the "community" features that newer news services provides. I guess it just goes to show that if you are competent and good at your job, you can do without bells and whistles. More later.

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Experimental Computer Interfaces

    Here's the dirt: the computer as we know it has been around for around 15 years. But in that time, and digital computers have been around since the 1970s. In that time the way we interact with our computers has stayed more or less the same. Type in stuff using a keyboard, and more recently use a mouse to point, click and drag. Despite the massive leaps in other areas of computer technology, these things have pretty much stayed the same. Wireless devices and trackballs may seem different, but they really are just variations on the same theme.

    But how exactly would you interact with a computer if you're not going type in commands or use a mouse? The first thing comes into mind s of course Star Trek stlye voice interface. But this isn't nearly as simple as it sounds. Not only is the technology far from being suitable for daily use, there are a number of practical difficulties. Firstly, do you really want to be talking to your computer all the time? Can you imagine how incredibly noisy it will be in offices with everyone talking all the time? And just think about how impossible it will be to carry on a converstion with your spouse while checking your email. So voice intefaces might be cool for "computer, microwave my food NOW" but you wouldn't want to use it all the time. (Besides, no sane programmer would dictate all his code)

    So, if we're not going to use our mouths to get our work done, we'll just use the next best thing, namely, our hands. Remember the holographic computer interface from Minority Report? Looked cool right? Well, here's the news, a company is actually making something quite similar. Now that could be quite nice, not to mention fun (a bit like dancing i suppose) and you probably would get a fair bit of exercise as well, with moving your arms about like that. But then again there are practical problems. Seriously, how many of us would give over one of our walls to a souped up computer screen? And standing up and doing a weird dance, just to put out a blog post? No thanks. It might be good for specialized things, like movie editing where it would be great to drag and join various segments quickly, but not really for everyday use. And besides, the electricity bills that would bring up would make it prohibitively expensive. 

    The fact of the matter is that the keyboard mouse combo is really a damn good way to inerface with your computer. And you really can't get a way of putting down information that is more efficient than typing it out. Sure you can save it as an audio or video file, but editing them really isn't the easiest thing in the world. So is the keyboard here to say? Not so fast! While we've been all out checking the hip and cool and futuristic interfaces, there's been something that's been staring us in the face, literally: the computer screen. Look at this way, the main parts of our interface are the screen, the mouse and the keyboard.So why not roll them into one? The touchscreen! Sure the tablet PC and Microsoft's Origami ave flunked pretty badly, but that doesn't mean the concept is bad. Imagine a screen built into your tabletop, which can be raised to a small angle. Most of the time it acts as a normal screen, you simply use your fingers to find your way about (the details of navigation will be dependent on the software). When you need a keyboard, the bottom third of the screen is taken over by a transparent onscreen keypad, and the best thing is that the since the keyboard is software based, you could easily change it for different purposes and maybe make specialized keypads for gaming, graphics work oreven blogging. And you can say goodbye to moving your eyes up and down from the screen to your keyboard and no more moving your hand from the keyboard to mouse every once in a while. 

    If you have any other ideas, tell me about it and I might feature it. 

Book Review: Beginning Ubuntu Linux

I’ve come across numerous Linux books since I started using Linux about a year ago. From what I’ve seen Linux books generally fall into two categories: Firstly, books that are about specific distros (Mandrake, Red Hat, SUSE etc.) and books that are about general Linux topics (like BASH scripting, networking, security). For people who are beginning Linux, it’s the first category that is most useful. Most such books are about the popular distros. In the past they have included the likes of Red Hat and SUSE. Recently Ubuntu Linux has joined the ranks of the popular and mass user distros, and Beginning Ubuntu Linux is one of the first books written specifically to give a helping hand to people who are beginning their Linux journey with Ubuntu. And that includes people like me.

This book is different in many ways from other similar books that I’ve come across in the last year; in fact in seems to be as different from other books as Ubuntu is from other major distros. The back of the book says that the book is “Written for newcomers to Linux, yet comprehensive enough to appeal to even seasoned users”. And they are quite right about it. The book does not just cover how to get Ubuntu installed and running, it also takes a good look at the common applications that any computer uses: office and mulitmedia programs, internet software and even some slightly more advanced topics like making backups, networking with other computers, making sense of the Linux filesystem and optimizing your system for better performance.

Most Linux users, especially new users today are exiles from the world of Windows and for them adjusting to the Linux world can sometimes be a challenge. This book accepts the fact that most of it’s readers will be coming from Windows and will need a helping hand figuring things out. The two most important questions asked by any Windows exile are: “Can I use my favourite Windows programs in Linux?” and “Do I have to type in a lot of weird commands?”. This book anticipates these questions and makes a determined and sincere effort to gently introduce the Linux newbie to Linux equivalents of comon Windows programs and also to the weird and wonderful thing that is the command line. I especially liked the chapters devoted to the intricacies of the BASH shell, and even though I’ve spent a good deal of time at the Command Line, I still learnt a new trick or two.

But of course do actually get the most out of the book, you have to have Ubuntu installed on your computer. There is an in depth guide to installing Ubuntu, which holds your hand through the whole process and even helps you through the often confusing process of partitioning and also tells you what to do if you run into one of the common errors. it then goes on to take you on a tour of Ubuntu’s GNOME desktop and helps you set up your hardware and get connected to your home network and the Internet. There are also sections to guide you through conecting scanners and cameras and using USB storage devices and installing graphics card drivers. There is also a section on installing a firewall and securing your computer (which includes an introduction to the user system in Linux).

The book is replete with screenshots, which make sure that the user encounters no confusion while installing and configuring her or his system and the layout is clear and simple. But what impressed most about the book is not how well it guides the new user, but that the book begins with an extensive account of the history of Linux and the free softare movement. And it is one of the few books that I have encountered that give due credit to both Richard M. Stallman and Linuz Torvalds acknowledges the part played by the FSF and GNU software. The book ensures that only will a reader become an adept Linux user, she or he will know about the people and the ideas behind Linux and understand appreciate the differences between Free and proprietary software.

In the end it all boils down to this: is it really worth paying $39.99 for this book? The answer is yes. If you’re a new Linux user, this book will certainly save you a lot of time scouring forums and documentation for solutions to simple problems and answers to common questions. Even if you’re reached the stage when you can manage linux without too much of a fuss (like me) you can still hope to learn a good few things from this book. And thanks to the spirit of humanity and free software, you also save bandwidth charges because this book comes with a complete, no-strings-attached copy of Ubuntu on CD. If you’ve been hearing about Linux, but have been waiting for someone to hold your hand when you take the plunge, just get this book and get wet!

Puppy Linux 2.0 released

    Seems to be distro party this month. Not only has my favourite Linux Distro ubuntu come out with it's newest release, my current operating system and favourite LiveCD, Puppy has also released a new version. Although this doesn't feature many visible changes like Ubuntu does, there's been a lot of work done under the hood and some parts have been rewritten from scratch. So go ahead and give it go, don't worry about bandwidth, it's just 70MB. I haven't given it a try yet, but I will soon.

Ubuntu 6.06 Dapper Drake released

Ladies and Gentlemen, it's the 1st of June 2006 and right on schedule, Ubuntu 6.06 has been released! This is certainly the most anticipated Linux Distribution release this year, and with good reason. This release makes a significant improvement over earlier versions and also sports a new, beautiful graphical look and feel. One of the biggest complaints about earlier versions was that the default Ubuntu look was, well, a bit ugly. Look's like the developers have paid heed, and while the desktop is still GNOME, the colour scheme is now orange, not brown, and has a new graphics engine, which is full of animations and shine and polish. This release is also important as it comes with an extended support period. Uptil now, each release would receive patches and security updates for 18 months. Dapper Drake will get them for at least five years. This is part of the push to give Ubuntu a greater presence in enterprise. Now, enough said. Go look at some screenshots and when you're done with that, go and download the CD, or if you're willing to wait a month, order free CDs.

Web Storage review: the World Wide Hard Drive

Running a computer without a hard disk isn't easy, especially when it comes to file storage options. But a proliferation of new Web 2.0 options has made it a lot easier to keep your files stored and organized online without needing specialized software or a technical knowhow. Web storage options fall into basically two categories: storage centric and sharing centric. it's obvious that if you're looking for a hard drive replacement, storage centric is the way. There are a whole host of services for you to try out, here's a short list: AllMyData, Box.net, eSnips, Freepository, GoDaddy, iStorage, Mofile, Mozy, Omnidrive, Openomy, Streamload, Strongspace and Xdrive.

Now, not all of these are suitable for the purpose of a hard drive free system. For example, Xdrive's free version gives you 5GB of space, but lasts only for a month. For me, paying for storage is not something I'm ready to do at the moment. Then there is AllMyData, which brings ideas from file-sharing to web storage: you get webspace only if you give a part of your own hard drive for others to store their files on. Not only can i not use this service, but I don't think storing your data on computers that aren't dedicated to file storage is a good idea. Streamload on the other, takes the word "storage" very literally. Everyone gets a whopping 5GB of space for free, but there's a catch, your bandwidth is limited. In the free version you can only download 100MB a month. So it's good if you want to stash away your whole hard drive, but doesn't quite cut it for a hard-drive-less machine. I'm currently using a service called Openomy, which gives a free 1GB of storage and uses a simple tag system to organize your files.

The leader of the pack, in my opinion and for my needs is Omnidrive. It gives you 2GB of space, with no bandwidth or file size restrictions and has an open API, allowing you to integrate it into your applications. But what takes the cake is a technology which allows you to open, edit and save back a file to their system, without actually downloading it onto your hard drive. This is a great feature to have if you've lost your hard disk. I haven't tried it out yet, because it's still in private beta, but one of their support staff got back to me after i asked for an invitation and told me that i'll get an invite in a few days. I'll check it out then and i sure hope it lives up to expectation.

There is one more storage option that deserves mention: Gmail. For many people Gmail's huge 2.5GB inbox is far too much for just simple email. There are a number of tools out there that allow you to use your Gmail account to store files. However I wouldn't recommend this unless you're desperate or just can't help experimenting. It's not that I doubt the quality of the tools, but rather that Google has been known to make random changes to it's code internally and one of those changes might break the tools you're using, And why go to all that trouble when there are far simpler and more reliable options out there? But if you are interested in Google's file system, then go take a look at this article. Hope this has been informative, and if know about anything that can aid my quest for hard-drive free computing, do leave a comment.

Storage Strategies for a Hard Disk free computer

I now have my hard-drive less computer fully functioning with everything including music, document processing and the internet. Now that all that is done, the next obvious question is: How am I going to store all my files? Now the first solution would be simply to burn your operating system of choice onto a multi-session CD and store your files onto that CD itself. Of course this method has its obvious limitation. A CD will only hold about 700 MB of data, and even if you use a very small operating system like Damn Small Linux or Puppy Linux, you still won't be getting more than about 625MB to store your stuff. Sooner or later you are going to need more space. So what comes after a CD? Why, the DVD of course! Writable DVDs today easily carry upwards of 5GB and that should be enough to last you a very long time. But the cons of using writable DVDs if the price factor. DVD burners and blank DVDs are still both more expensive than the equivalent CD technology and writing data to a DVD needs specialized software and can be more frustrating than simply moving files around on a hard disk. However DVDs would be a very good option if you're going to be reading more frequently than you will be writing to them. That means that they are a very good way to store your music collections. Even large music collections shouldn't require more than 2 or three DVDs to store.

    If you're looking for a media solution that is easier for everyday use, you could take a look at external storage devices, namely USB keys and external Hard drive. Though these devices are almost as comfortable to read and write to as a normal hard disk, there is a major cost factor. You could easily a new 80GB hard drive for the price of two or three 1GB USB keys, and shelling out on an external hard drive really doesn't make sense unless you regularly need to lug dozens of gigabytes of data around the country.

    So where does leave us? It leaves us with our last option for the day, and the one that might just be the best: Internet storage. in the good old days, Internet storage meant FTP, nothing less nothing more. Well, it aint the good old days anymore, it's the even better new days. Web storage is now far easier than it was in the past, especially with the emergence of Web 2.0 technologies. This article on TechCrunch should get you started. I think that web storage is enough of an important topic to deserve its own post, so just wait a few hours till tomorrow and I'll have it up! If you have any ideas for a hard-disk free computer, please comment about it.