My feather crock pot (how we will cook in the future)

This is an interlude from my normal blog themes.  Just a little bit of physics tells you, I think, how we will cook in a future in which energy is electric and a bit more precious. It seems in North America “retained heat cooking” and induction cookers are both exotic, but they are less so in some other places.

First, my stove, which looks normal, is not so normal in these parts. It’s an induction stove, in which electric energy is transferred directly to the metal of a steel or iron pot through electromagnetic induction, rather than inefficient conduction (most electric stoves) or convection (gas stoves).   This allows both for high power and high efficiency,  has all the tuneability and responsiveness that would otherwise make gas attractive, is fueled by renewable electric power, and is surely the only sensible way to cook.

However, this post is not about how much I love my induction stove in general.

It’s about how ridiculous another aspect of cooking equipment is for most tasks: we cook with thin-walled pots which lose heat nearly as fast as you can put it in. It turns out that “heat” is not a magic substance which you must continually add to make something cook (i.e., much of cooking does not involve endothermic chemical reactions). Rather, it is a state variable (temperature) which for many purposes must merely be maintained for cooking to happen.

Consider the cooking of beans and beany soups, for which it is now de rigeur to buy an electric crock pot.  Here’s my improvised version using just an induction stove.

Step 1: add beans and water to pot


Step 2: bring to boil (just)


With a 2.5kW induction stove, that takes just a few minutes even with a big pot.

Step 3: insulate bottom and top of pot

med_DSC02574.JPG med_DSC02575.JPG

Step 4: add a vapour barrier to protect your fancier insulation


Step 5: Pile on the down / sleeping bags etc


Step 6: Leave overnight ….

Presto! Here’s the result next morning:


The beans stay hot, so the beans stay cooking. It’s that simple.

That’s all. Yummy beans ready to eat with a total of 6 minutes of power use.

One more thing… Now here’s where the induction stove comes in. For most purposes, there is nothing special about the boiling point for the cooking process, so that 90°C is about as good as 100°C (if you don’t need violent convection, like for keeping pasta from sticking to itself).

But if I want to keep it right near boiling, I can. If I take out one (or both) of the cork pads underneath the pot, I can actually leave the stove on (the lowest setting is sufficient, clearly!). The electromagnetic energy passes through the cork without losses (heating), and no heat is coming through the glass, so the only hot thing is the pot itself.
And it stays very close to the water temperature, which is no more than 100°C, a safe temperature for cotton and even nylon.


For cooking which needs more monitoring, our pots of the future could still be heavily insulated around their sides. Using modern electronic cooking technology, this would not pose any trouble such as fire risk.

“Safety second” liability clause: don’t really leave it on unattended for 8 hours. And if you do, take out both cork pads, so that the induction stove’s safety sensor can tell if the pot gets dry and hot.

And a reality check: none of this matters in the big-picture energy scene at the moment — we just need to stop our driving and flying and leaky buildings — but such “hot box” cooking is probably a part of our all-electrical future, and already very useful in less affluent societies.

Posted in Cooking, crock pot, Energy | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Ubuntu 13.04 and 13.10 (updated for 14.04 and 14.10) on Lenovo X230/X230-Tablet convertible tablet

If you consider yourself a user, not a tinkerer, the number one rule of running GNU/Linux is not even to try it except on hardware that others have already tried with complete success. (Do not buy a laptop, desktop, or server thinking that you will be able to work around any hardware compatibility challenges.)

At McGill we are offered a subsidised laptop from a menu of two options: a Lenovo X230 packed with Microsoft software and bundled with its docking station, or a Macbook Pro.  I was not very interested in the former until a glance at the  googlewikiweb suggested that things had changed since I had last checked, and that Ubuntu now animated the X230-tablet well out of the box, and with no remaining hard-to-solve issues. So I got one.

Alas, that web-research of mine was rather hasty and people’s written claims optimistic.  Despite the long-time existence of the highly-tuned Emperor Raven, the X230Tablet and Ubuntu turn not to love each other yet, and I have not got all the key features of this hardware working properly. Nevertheless, it’s usable as a laptop.

I’ll leave it to other reviews to cover the X230T hardware. It’s nifty, especially with its docking feature, but is not lightweight. Here I will recount what I have done to install Ubuntu 13.04 and where I got stuck.  I am entirely wedded to GNU/Linux (ie, it’s all I know) and this is my new primary desktop/computation/teaching machine, so I just want it to work. I don’t enjoy the fiddling, but I think I’ve had to fiddle already with this hardware.

My hardware configuration

I have the X230 Tablet with the 500GB conventional hard drive, 16GB of RAM, and the docking station.  In my office, I am usually using an extended desktop between the laptop and an external monitor which is oriented in portrait mode for easy reading of PDFs.  I have an external Wacom Bamboo pen/finger graphics tablet.


Generic installation and personal setup

The initial installation of 13.04 and 13.10 from USB media both worked smoothly and took only a few minutes (wow!).

I began by doing an update and installing some of my basic software:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade
sudo apt-get install nautilus-dropbox lyx ipython autofs python-pandas python-rpy2 git htop meld auctex linphone tmux curl icedtea-7-plugin inkscape virtualbox-guest-additions-iso wine banshee virtualbox gimp feh libreoffice-java-common chromium-browser cifs-utils smbclient sudo apt-get install muse-el cheese xournal vlc python-pip pdftk
sudo apt-get install ssh

Some non-apt python packages I need:

sudo pip install pysal
sudo pip install svgutils

Some things I need for my email client: (I find Ubuntu’s latest version of offlineimap buggy, so I downloaded Debian’s copy of an older version (6.3.4) which seems to work.)

sudo apt-get install dovecot-common alpine offlineimap dovecot-imapd gnome-schedule curl

At McGill I set up campus printing.

I also changed my account settings for auto-login coupled with auto-screen-lock upon login.

X230(T) particulars: tablet, rotation, etc

So many things work beautifully out of the box in 13.04, it should be noted, like wifi, camera, touch and pen inputs in standalone laptop mode, basic display across one external monitor, fan throttling, one of the two screen rotation buttons, audio, volume keys, sound output mute, etc. (But in 13.10, display via external projectors did not work properly!)

There are lots of trails on the web (Active Rotate, tabuntu, tablet-screen-rotation-support, Magick-rotation, a “rotation how-to”, …) to different packages and custom scripts for setting up rotation buttons or automatic sensing of going into tablet mode.

A basic problem is that mapping of finger inputs, pen inputs, and graphical display are all separate. So each can be mis-rotated or mis-located.

Our minimal goal is to get the display and inputs to notice when we swivel the display into tablet mode (or back again), and when in tablet mode to: (1) turn off the trackpad (which otherwise goes beserk from being touched by the back of the screen), (2) bring up a virtual keyboard for character input, (3) rotate the screen to portrait mode (to start with), and (4) rotate the pen and touch input maps.  Other things would be nice, like having the tablet rotation mode buttons working to go between landscape and portrait when in tablet mode, and so on.

I think the right way to go in mid/late 2013 is to install Martin Ueding’s think-rotate package:

sudo -s
add-apt-repository ppa:martin-ueding/stable
apt-get update
apt-get install think-rotate

At this point, features (1) through (4) all work fairly nicely, as well as automatically undoing them when I swivel out of tablet mode.  This also makes the little red button/light next to the undocking lever work to initiate electronic disconnection. [Edit: actually, they do not work well enough even with this best option. Further fixes and/or tweaks (or an alternative) may be necessary before being usable; see remaining problems, below.]

There is a one-time setup required for training some applications about the eraser on the back of your stylus:

  • Gimp (if you use it) needs to be told that there is an eraser on the back of the stylus. This is as easy as going to Edit->Preferences -> Input devices, and and turning the eraser input device from “Disabled” to “Screen”. For both the X230 stylus and my external Wacom tablet, the pressure sensitivity of the eraser works immediately.
  •  Similarly, if you use Inkscape, use File->Input Devices, and change the settings from “Disabled” to “Screen” for your stylus(es) and eraser(s).

14.04 and 14.10: As seems to be the norm for the first year of each recent distribution from Ubuntu, when I installed 14.10 I had too many problems to recount or to suffer. Occasionally I updated it and tried again, but problems only gradually disappeared. By late February 2015 I find it usable (indeed, excellent, except for all the stuff listed below) and similar in performance and problems to 14.04. Also typical of recent versions from Ubuntu, updates have remained frequent for the LTS and they sometimes break things for a while.  

Remaining problems

  1. The keyboard backlight does not work! This is a major drawback given the new hardware features of the X230T (no above-screen headlight). For instance, the following does nothing for me:
    echo 255 > /sys/devices/platform/thinkpad_acpi/leds/tpacpi\:\:thinklight/brightness
  2. Horizontal (two-finger) scrolling is not offered on the touchpad settings in Ubuntu anymore. I’m not sure why not, but this command deals with that forever:
    gsettings set org.gnome.settings-daemon.peripherals.touchpad horiz-scroll-enabled "true"
  3. However, how do I accomplish the same thing for 2-finger scrolling on the touchscreen?
  4. Sometimes when I dock at work, it does not jump automatically into my proper extended desktop configuration.  I have a command line alias to force it there quickly (using xrandr) for these occasions.  (Seems no longer a problem under 14.04, 14.10)
  5. When I boot at work, the touchscreen is mapped to the extended desktop, not to the screen it’s on! The pen is okay.   I dealt with this by adding the following to the alias mentioned above. It tells the pen to map itself to the same area used for the internal display:
    xsetwacom set "Wacom ISDv4 E6 Finger touch" MapToOutput LVDS1

    Ideally, that alias would be tied to a docking event, automatically.

  6. Cursor movement is not entirely smooth when driven by the trackpad. This didn’t bother me until it was pointed out, but it really ought to be fixed. There’s a workaround at (Problem unchanged on 14.10; workaround not yet tried.)
  7. Also, two-finger scrolling from the touchpad isn’t smooth: (Problem unchanged on 14.10; workaround not yet tried.)
  8. What about all the multi-touch gestures you might imagine would be available?  For instance, I’d certainly like to be able to switch between my virtual workspaces/desktops using two (or more) finger swipe on the Desktop.  And I’d like to be able to bring up menus of workspaces or of applications with, say, a four-finger tap. How can I get these things working?  Maybe start here??
  9. Tablet mode: Also, when in Tablet mode, Unity’s auto-hiding “launcher” side bar doesn’t come up when the cursor approaches the edge. That is debilitating, especially without any multi-touch gestures to use (well, a workaround at least to access all desktops is to use Super-s on the virtual keyboard to show all the desktops).  I think I’d like to be able to set the Launcher not to auto-hide when switching to tablet mode, and to turn auto-hiding back on when leaving tablet mode. [Update: this is now possible, and incorporated as an example customization, in think-rotate] (I have not bothered trying tablet mode under 14.04, 14.10)
  10. Tablet mode: When moving a window from one desktop to another by dragging it to the edge (against the edge resistance which helps offer a resize-to-half-screen behaviour), I don’t find it possible to move only one to the right or left; instead, it always moves many desktops at once.
  11. Tablet mode:  Actually, the think-rotate functionality seems flakey and may get confused as to which direction the swivelling is going. It might be nicer to find a way simply to set one of the rotate buttons to do all the changes when pressed, rather than triggering automatically. [This problem has disappeared with recent think-rotate updates]
  12. Tablet mode: The stylus cursor does not always match up well with the stylus’ position in tablet mode.
  13. [SOLVED] The fingerprint reader does not work at all. On earlier Lenovo models (like T410s) it did work. Update: a driver has been released. Do this:
    sudo add-apt-repository ppa:fingerprint/fprint  
    sudo apt-get update  
    sudo apt-get install libpam-fprintd libfprint0 fprint-demo gksu-polkit fprintd  
    sudo pam-auth-update  

    The lines above (enter them one by one) end in a command that will require you to swipe your index finger 5 times in a row, to train the system. The penultimate line will also require you to confirm the suggestion.

  14. Under 14.04 and 14.10, closing the lid to send the laptop to sleep only works sometimes. This can lead to dangerous overheating and battery usage if you’re closing it to put into a bag or leave for a while. I’ve tried BIOS updates, etc. 
  15. Worse, even telling the computer to shut down is not reliable. Some of the time, it will automatically reboot (immediately) instead of shutting down. Similar bad consequences to the sleep problem.
  16. Since I  have the fingerprint reader working nicely (I prefer not to type passwords in public), there is one remaining problem. Most of the time after waking from sleep, the machine is hung for ~20 seconds claiming to be waiting for a fingerprint (, though the fingerprint reader is not activated (in fact, while waiting, the fingerprint reader seems unavailable even if I switch to a tty session to log in there). After that, it eventually goes to asking for a password (whereupon I press enter, and get the option of the fingerprint) .
  17. I replaced my hard drive with a solid state model (MX100) which apparently is not compatible with the tlp package (power management). I got spontaneous complete hard drive failures until I removed tlp (both 14.04 and 14.10).
  18. There is a 10-20 second delay in the effect of using the brightness toggle function keys.
  19. Some more general Ubuntu-related software problems:
    1. Under both 14.04 and 14.10, I get spontaneous unity settings daemon crashes which sometimes make all my hotkeys stop working.
    2. Under 14.04, banshee crashes as frequently as every 5 minutes.

I believe these problems (not the 14.x ones) are all similar on 13.10. There were other problems (bugs) that I experienced in the initial release version of 13.10, such as failure to twin display across the laptop and an external projector, but they seem to have been resolved.

Conclusion and comments

This machine should NOT be certified as compatible with Ubuntu until the most basic hardware features (such as backlight, tablet transformation, behaviour with external displays), which make the X230T what it is, are taken care of by the distribution. I hope by the next LTS they have invested in the details for all the higher-end models they can.  They probably ought to know from Tesla as well as numerous other business models that rolling out first on the flashier end of the market is good for uptake.

Remember that Microsoft’s profits are aided by countless person-years of work at all the hardware companies, every year, every release, helping Windows work with their hardware.  I do hope one day those hardware firms will have reason to distribute their efforts a little more broadly.  In the mean time, I hope that this page may help for a period to collect and maybe address remaining problems for Ubuntu on the X230T (though it is already a discontinued/outdated model within two months of writing this blog).

Posted in GNU/linux, hardware, Lenovo X230 Tablet, McGill University, software, Ubuntu | 16 Comments

Printing (PDF) to uPrint printers at McGill from GNU/Linux

It’s been six months since I notified McGill ICS of an update for their page on using the campus uPrint service from GNU/Linux.

They haven’t updated anything, so this is to explain how to do it. This change is relevant only to Ubuntu 13.04 and later versions,  and maybe other flavours. For details and discussion, see this bug discussion.

Also, below, I treat the question of how to print to uPrint, once it’s set up. This is all easy and shorter than this whole blog post.

So, for Ubuntu 13.04, bring up a terminal (with Ctrl-Alt-t) and type the following lines, one by one (you’ll be prompted for your password the first time):

sudo echo "BrowsePoll" >> /etc/cups/cups-browsed.conf
sudo restart cups-browsed

That’s it.  Now you can print to any uPrint printer on campus… though not, unfortunately, from your printer dialogue. Update: By May 2014, this enabled printing from printer dialogs (careful, though; it defaults to one-sided.). (To test whether the above has worked, type “lpstat -p” in a terminal. You should see a list of some printers.)

The hints below are for printing from the command line. When I first got this working GUI printing to Uprint was not working. When I want to print something, I make sure it’s in PDF format. I then use a terminal; e.g. for file myfile.pdf, I type:

uprintpdf myfile.pdf

and that’s it.

For this to work, however, you need to find out your short McGill username (7 characters?) and put the following into (at the end of, for instance) your ~/.bashrc file, replacing MUSERNAME with your short user name:

uprintpdf() {
# 2012 Nov. This works nicely to print black and white to UPrint at McGill.
echo "Uprinting" &
pdftops "$1" /tmp/draftManuscript$$$!.ps
echo lp -U MUSERNAME -d mcgill-mono -o sides=two-sided-long-edge $2 $3 $4 /tmp/draftManuscript$$$!.ps
lp -U MUSERNAME -d mcgill-mono -o sides=two-sided-long-edge $2 $3 $4 /tmp/draftManuscript$$$!.ps 

Note that the above printer name (mcgill-mono) is found from running:

    lpstat -p

Update May 2014

As of May 2014 or earlier, McGill’s IT page says CUPS 1.6 and 1.7 (the latest) are not supported, and that they’re “working on a solution” for GNU/Linux users. However, it still works for me, although the printer names recently changed from having an underscore to a hyphen, which hung me up for a while!

Update April 2015

Still works in Ubuntu 15.04, though the hyphens turned back to underscores in the printer names(!).

I’ve shorthand for printing color and for the rare cases when I need to print single sided, so altogether, my .aliases includes the following (tab complete will find them if you type uprint and hit tab):

echo " I'm guessting the following only needs to be done once:"
echo "cupsctl "
echo "cupsctl Browsing=On"
echo "sudo restart cups-browsed "
echo "sudo service cups restart"
echo " and thereafter, lpstat -p gives :"
lpstat -p
echo "------------------"
echo "The above should read:"
echo "printer McGill-color is idle. enabled"
echo "printer mcgill-mono is idle. enabled"
echo "printer uPrint-Mono-Popup is idle. enabled"
echo "------------------"
echo "Printing options are (lpoptions -p mcgill-mono):"
lpoptions -p mcgill-mono
echo "------------------"
echo "To print:"
echo "lp -U [McGill Short Username] -d [printername] [filename] "
echo "where printername is the name of the printer as seen from the lpstat command; use either McGill-color or McGill-mono only."

#Yes, the following three bash functions should be combined!
uprintpdf() {
# This works nicely to print black and white to UPrint at McGill.
echo "Uprinting" &
pdftops "$1" /tmp/draftManuscript$$$!.ps
# mcgill-mono becomes mcgill_mono again in Ubuntu 15.04 !!
echo lp -U MUSERNAME -d mcgill_mono -o sides=two-sided-long-edge $2 $3 $4 /tmp/draftManuscript$$$!.ps
lp -U MUSERNAME -d mcgill_mono -o sides=two-sided-long-edge $2 $3 $4 /tmp/draftManuscript$$$!.ps 
uprintpdfcolor() {
echo "Uprinting color" &
pdftops "$1" /tmp/draftManuscript$$$!.ps
echo lp -U MUSERNAME -d McGill_color -o sides=two-sided-long-edge $2 $3 $4 /tmp/draftManuscript$$$!.ps
lp -U MUSERNAME -d mcgill_color -o sides=two-sided-long-edge $2 $3 $4 /tmp/draftManuscript$$$!.ps 
uprintpdfsinglesided() {
echo "Uprinting SINGLE SIDED" &
pdftops "$1" /tmp/draftManuscript$$$!.ps
echo lp -U MUSERNAME -d mcgill_mono -o sides=single $2 $3 $4 /tmp/draftManuscript$$$!.ps
lp -U MUSERNAME -d mcgill_mono -o sides=single $2 $3 $4 /tmp/draftManuscript$$$!.ps 

Update June 2015

The saga sadly continues. After over a month of not being able to print at all at work once again (oh, pining for the 1990s…!) and finding no solutions, I today noticed that the printers are back, albeit with new names again. Now I have UPrint_Colour_Popup and uPrint_Mono_Popup.

… but printing to them only worked fine for a while (June 2015), then seemed to work in the sense that jobs claimed to have been submitted but then nothing arrivee at the Uprint printer (July 2015), and then nothing worked at all, i.e. no printers are available /visible in CUPS (30 July 2015). I’m so embarrassed for my university and/or operating system….

Update April 2016

In February of 2016, I wrote the following to the McGill IT support people:

Hi. As a GNU/Linux user on campus, I’ve dealt with a steady stream of ever-new problems from Uprint over the last years trying to carry out simple printing.

Several months ago, Uprint stopped printing in grayscale for me and it stopped knowing what letter sized paper is.
I’m finally submitting a report about this, and to make it simple, I’m using one of NCS’s GNU/Linux machines: the Apollo server.

I copied the attached file (ungzipped) (it’s also in my home directory on Apollo) to two distinct names to distinguish the jobs below, and then issued the following commands on Apollo:
$lp -U mymcgillid -d mcgill_mono

request id is mcgill_mono-4 (1 file(s))

$lp -U  mymcgillid -d mcgill_mono -o media=letter

request id is mcgill_mono-5 (1 file(s))
The result is identical for the two jobs: (1) They fail to print initially, but come up with “Action needed” prompts, saying that the paper size is unknown. I have to choose a paper size and orientation from one of the paper supplies, manually. Then, (2) the job comes out in colour instead of mono.
These are not even the only problems I am having at the moment, but they are perfectly reproducible so I’m bothering you with them. It would be great to have this kind of basic functionality back.

The testpage, by the way, is a standard letter-sized test page from Hewlett Packard; I didn’t make it.


and 10 days later, having received no acknowledgement, I added:

In addition, many (longer) jobs simply fail to print. I arrive at the printer, go through the rigmarole described [above], and then the job looks like it’s about to print but hen it changes its mind and does “Overwriting” “Deleting” and the job disappears without a trace.  I’m attaching an example of such a file.
It’s been 10 days since I asked for help on this.


They responded, kindly saying that they were “escalating” the issue.  I’ve heard nothing since.

Posted in GNU/linux, McGill University, software, Ubuntu | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Asus Eee PC X101CH review: Very Poor

No matter what positive characteristics this netbook may have, the biggest negatives are sufficient for me to conclude: do not buy this machine.

My point of comparison is just one machine, an HP Mini 1116NR from nearly three years ago. I have recently shattered its screen by dropping it, but for what I paid, it’s the most remarkable computer I’ve owned.

Starting with the non-negotiables on the Asus Eee PC X101CH:

  1. The power connector is impossible cheap and fragile. It’s an old-fashioned cylindrical conductor but only about 3-4 mm wide (tiny) and therefore wiggly and weak. It already has a serious connection problem, and I have to constantly check that the indicator light says it’s well connected.
  2. The keyboard is horrid. People have figured out how to fit a good keyboard on a netbook-sized space, so why provide a bad one? The right shift key is half sized, which I might learn my way around, but the keys don’t respond easily and my error rate (mostly missed letters) when touch typing on this machine is too high. It’s still very difficult after weeks of using it.
  3. The hard disk also makes the most dog-awful noises: really loud clicks and pops when it wakes up and  at random times for no reason I can tell.  Since I have the netbook in part to take to seminars and meetings, this is completely unacceptable.

Those three are deal-breakers for me. Other than them, all I can do is to compare with my years-old HP mini. It had a 16 GB SSD (solid state) drive rather than the 320GB noisy and slower and less robust drive that the X101CH has. I’m a huge fan of the SSD’s speed and lack of fragile moving parts. Although no features of the X101CH are better than my old netbook, it is slightly bigger overall, and so it doesn’t fit in my camelbak for running to work.  Interestingly, the HP mini was cheaper three years ago than the X101CH today. Moore’s law has forsaken me in this market. Indeed, these days I often find zero netbooks offered with SSDs.

I do like the “VGA” graphics connector built in to the X1010CH. On my old netbook, I had to buy an extra dongle to connect to external displays.


The only other problematic differences I’ve experienced is in support for its hardware. The graphics card does not have open specifications and so open-source operating systems have had a hard time supporting it.

Ubuntu 12.04 and Ubuntu 12.10 on the X101CH

As of November 2012, Ubuntu 12.10 is a complete failure on this machine. After a long time waiting (from what I understand) 12.04 gained support for the graphics chip, and installing 12.04 with a network cable handy worked perfectly for me (sound, mousepad, display, sleeping, etc) — with a few exceptions:

  • The resolution provided on an external monitor is only 1024×600, the same as the built-in display.  This is awful; my old netbook provided a full-resolution extended desktop over two monitors. Worse, after an update (?), external monitors are completely unadjustable and only 3/4 of the desktop is visible on any external display.
  • Also, while the touchpad’s two-finger scrolling feature works, I’ve not been able to to get it to be sensitive enough to be comfortable.
  • Lastly, the brightness controls do not work. There are only two levels, it seems, and neither is very dim.
Posted in GNU/linux, hardware, Ubuntu | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

iClicker under GNU/Linux

Electronic “clickers” are personal wireless transceivers carried by every student in a lecture hall and are used for in-class feedback and assessment in teaching. At McGill, we have just switched to a new clicker system that is all about integration with Microsoft Powerpoint. When attending the new faculty welcome session with the Provost and others, a demonstration of this system failed and ended when Powerpoint crashed. There is some ability (TurningPoint Anywhere) with that system to do general overlays, but the company has now bundled that software with the main Windows/Mac packages, so it’s impossible to install under Wine.  I’ve given up for the time being.

In any case, back at UBC we used iClickers, and I am reposting my very old notes (which were on a static html page) here so that people may add their wisdom.  Note that I never got iClicker working under GNU/Linux natively, either: I used a virtual machine (under GNU/Linux) running Microsoft OS to give my lectures.

I’m teaching a course at UBC with the iClicker. iClickers are a radio transceiver system that allow lecture-style classes to include real-time individual feedback and assessment. But until mid/late 2009 (according to the manufacturer), the interface on the lecturer’s side only supports Microsoft and Apple operating systems. In the mean time, what can be done for Linux-wielding lecturers?

The following are currently being tried. Please send me infos if you have some. The second one, using Virtualbox, seems to work for me. To use this would mean I would use a PDF viewer or other display software inside Windows to give my presentation, as well as to run iClicker. That way, the iClicker panel can overlay the talk.

  • Wine: Use the api “wine”. Well, you can download MSVBVM60.DLL and put it in ~/.wine/drive_c/windows/system. Then the iClicker application will work fine. But Wine simply doesn’t support USB (!), so there’s no way to connect to the iClicker hardware. (one old ref:
  • Virtualbox. Install the non-open-source version (which comes with nice USB support) of Sun’s miraculous “Virtualbox” software. You can do this just by adding an extra software source repository in Ubuntu. Then add a single line to your /etc/fstab to make your usb ports available to vboxusers. Use a Microsoft operating system inside VirtualBox. Now, in setting up USB interfaces in VirtualBox, I can see the iClicker. Now everything seems to run (software, no initial complaints about missing the iClicker). But the interface was very flakey, at best, under Win2K. Under Win XP it seems to work fine… mostly. I’m not sure if the remaining problems are there under Windows, too? The fwd/back selection on the instructor’s clicker didn’t do anything, and the “show correct answer” sometimes needed to be pushed twice to advance the highlighted response.
  • Write a driver… Here’s one stuck attempt:
  • [2012 update] and now there’s a successful attempt by Jason Siefken. This is a command-line interface, only. Jason said:

    For including a screen-capture, “ lists that if you have ImageMagick installed, you could run

    import -window root -resize 400×300 -delay 200 screenshot.png

    to take a screenshot. This could be set up in a shell script to take a screenshot, then start the poll. It’s also worth noting, I haven’t yet tested on a large class (only with the small number of clickers I brought home) so I would encourage people to test it before depending on it. “

I am also in the process of developing a LyX environment for iClicker questions in beamer presentation (LaTeX). If you’ve already made progress on such a thing, please contact me.

Posted in GNU/linux, McGill University, Microsoft, software | 2 Comments

How-to: Alpine and maildir (and offlineimap (and GMail)) — no more maildir patches!


If you think non-graphical email clients are  efficient or otherwise desirable, and want offline access to your email, this post describes a step forward.  In particular, it describes the set-up of offline-accessible mail through the Alpine (formerly Pine, shortly Realpine) email client under (Ubuntu/Debian) GNU/Linux.


Finally, I think we can move beyond the dreaded “maildir patch” problems associated with Pine/Alpine/Realpine since it became fully open-source.  I would, ultimately, like to see the setup of alpine / mutt / emacs / etc email clients be as easy as GUI clients, at least for those who want a pretty standard setup. For instance, in my case, I want Continue reading

Posted in Alpine, GNU/linux, software, Ubuntu | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

McGill University firmly embedded with Microsoft

This is the nearly incredible story of how one of Canada’s great universities has become such a buttress of the Microsoft monopoly that it cannot even provide for a new faculty member the normal ability to send and receive email.

I will shortly arrive as a new faculty member at McGill University.  In academia, email is still a primary form of communication and collaboration.  I feel that a university email address is part of my professional face in representing the university. Nevertheless, I don’t demand much from the university in the way of email support.

In fact, all I want is Continue reading

Posted in Academia, GNU/linux, McGill University, Microsoft, software | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Annotating PDFs in GNU/Linux

After years of waiting for a top-quality open source PDF editor/markup tool, and being baffled why they don’t exist… I’ve given up.  What I’ve settled on for the moment performs rather well:

At a command line, I type

pdfedit <pdffilename>

You can download my pdfedit, which is a file in my ~/bin folder (which is on my path). It relies on closed source Windows software (!agh!); see, installed in Wine. Continue reading

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Bounties for Gnome (Compiz?) window behaviour improvements

Back in 1993 on the student computer network at MIT  it seems we had window managers (I used vtwm.gamma) and broadcast instant message systems (zephyr, ridiculously customisable)  running on Unix(es) that still compete  very favourably with features offered today by what people mistakenly consider to be recent inventions.

Anyway, the GNU/Linux world has sensibly settled in part on a compromise interface, Gnome, which behaves nicely but is not very customisable. Or is it?  Here are some things I will happily PAY YOU to implement or tell me how to set up.  Propose a price if you know how to solve one or more: Continue reading

Posted in Gnome, GNU/linux, software, Ubuntu | Leave a comment

Tied selling of Windows O/S with computer hardware in Canada: a complaint to the Competition Bureau

To follow up on my recent victimization by the “Microsoft Tax”, I filed a complaint with the Canadian Competition Bureau, the federal agency charged with investigating anti-competitive behaviour. I think I understand their response, which I’m including below, but there may be other routes within the Competition Act on which to base a complaint.

And of course, my posting the letter from the competition bureau here does not mean that you should not write your own to them! Bureaucracies change, and voices may even add up. Their (in places absurd) response reflects only one legal and economic interpretation.

Dear Mr. Barrington-Leigh:

In your complaint to the Competition Bureau you indicated that on some unspecified date you purchased a Lenovo ThinkPad notebook computer with Microsoft Windows operating system (“Windows O/S”)pre-installed.  Before you purchased the computer, the retailer informed you that the computer would not be sold without Windows O/S in it.  After you purchased the computer you removed Windows O/S andreplaced it with a different, compatible O/S, namely Linux Ubuntu.  You were then able to use your computer for its intended purpose without any problems.  Subsequently you contacted the retailer,requesting a partial refund on the purchase price of the computer in compensation for not using the Windows O/S on your computer.  They refused. Continue reading

Posted in GNU/linux, Microsoft, software | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments