blarg?

A Patriotic Curb

It’s small, just a start, but the world doesn’t work this way yet and I think a lot more of it should. PatchCulture.org is live. Might work, might not. I’m hopeful.

Version 0.1, and I solicit your opinion.

Another first draft. I’ll likely revise this later, but here it is. Is this coherent? I can’t tell anymore, I’m tired.

Lock Bolt

“I’m a guy of simple taste. I enjoy dynamite, gunpowder, and gasoline. And you know the thing they have in common? ”

“They’re cheap.” – The Joker

So, funny story: a large, wealthy and thoroughly entrenched institution suddenly finds itself threatened, at first just incrementally but soon really, existentially threatened, by a loose association of small groups who’ve sprung up seemingly out of nowhere. These little competitors are small, they’re tiny and pretty green, but they’re smart and focused and just a little too nimble. Loosely coordinated and taking advantage of cheap tech and pervasive communication, somehow they’re punching way above their weight class and, worse, they’re sharing information about what works and what doesn’t. And that so fast that it ultimately doesn’t matter if they individually succeed or not – failures are just as informative as victories, and fighting any one of them means tipping your hand to the rest. Borders mean nothing, and their tactics are evolving faster than that large, entrenched institution and its large entrenched processes can turn its head to look, much less keep up.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

You can bet that by the time an idea floats to the cusp of popular culture it’s been quietly stewing for some long time on the fringes, waiting for that moment that the unthinkable becomes inevitable. And right now, here in the death throes of the 20th century, rolling a brand-new F-22A into service costs $142,000,000 dollars and takes a more than a year, but a smart teenager can wire a GPS up to an off-the-shelf autopilot for less than a $100. And shipping is free.

It’s too early to know for sure, but it seems to be the nature of our time that it is always either too early to be sure or far too late to belabor the point. But don’t get your prognosticator’s merit badge for waffling, so I’m going to call it. The defining new truth of the twenty-first century is this:

War is cheap.

In the history we’ve still got on record, there have been two big ideas about what constitutes the indivisible atomic value of human society. One model, with its roots in the Code of Hammurabi and embodied in the Magna Carta, says that it is the single individual; the unitary person has rights that even the Crown cannot arbitrarily abridge. The other idea, embodied in the Treaty of Westphalia that effectively ended both the Thirty Years’ War of the Holy Roman Empire and the Eighty Years’ War for Dutch independence from Spain, codifying the idea that power in a society is not to the people, person or even to the Crown, but to the indivisible State.

And there’s nothing there about small, loosely-assembled groups of people driven by a common ideology. Nothing codified as rights or erected as limits, nothing but a wide open world where a handful of smart, driven people with an idea that’s bigger than they are can be very nearly unstoppable.

This is hardly news, and hardly new. It’s been true for centuries; but what’s gaining wide acceptance now is that in a world dominated by those other models, this isn’t some arbitrary way to collaborate. It’s a defense mechanism, an offensive tactic and a shortcut, all in one.

In the political realm, all of this adds a lot of tension to the relationship between the State and the Individual. The details depend on where you are, but time was the State secured its borders and provided the Individual with a degree of security and autonomy, and in return was well-served by the Individual having an ideology roughly but usefully aligned with the continuance of the State and just generally behaving themselves. But suddenly we’ve got this new agitator on the scene, the Small Group. And the State not only doesn’t really have a mechanism to deal with that but worse, the actions it can take make the more reflective Individuals really nervous, because they impose on the individual’s personal sovereignty in frightening ways. And if the State is going to start doing that, says the Individual, um, do you still want my support? What’s in it for me? And the small group, if it’s making that individual’s life better in some incremental way, just gained itself some friends, maybe even some participants.

“Journalism is a gun. It’s only got one bullet in it, but if you aim it right, that’s all you need. Aim it right and you can blow a kneecap off the world.” – Warren Ellis

But if we’re talking about wars on the business or culture front, it gets even better; big organizations don’t exist by the consent of the governed, merely by the participation of the people buying in, and all of a sudden the people who bought in last year have dozens or hundreds of alternatives this year, and money and attention is moving around in ways that seemed impossible not long ago. But those big organizations have had a long time to get cozy with the State and get to pull the politicians they’ve bought aside, hold their well-greased hands and say, my goodness, can you believe the temerity of these people? Now, you know I can’t make laws, little old me, and I don’t have any sort of the monopoly on the application of force within this country’s borders, but I sure know you do! And maybe you could help me out here? I’ll show you my quid pro if you show me your quo.

But the State is now in a hell of a pinch, because everyone, and I mean everyone, knows that our BigOrg friends haven’t really been doing right by anyone but themselves for years. And these new guys, whatever else you can say about them they’re not BigOrg, and people seem to be digging that, and you know we’re all about the consent of the governed here, and maybe we can do something, and maybe we can’t, but we’ll see. So let’s make a bunch of noise and do something half-assed that looks like it might work; we might as well be showing our cards to all those new players we don’t know about yet, but hey. That’s what BigOrg asked for, right? Even if it makes people angry enough that our small group now has a dozen new members, a thousand new friends and a ton of sympathy, that’s what they wanted and that’s what they’re going to get. Right in the neck, says the State, just like we did.

Macro Penny

This doesn’t end well if your small groups are gangs or terrorist cells, because by and large nobody likes being shot or blown up. But if we’re talking about Internet Startups, Artistic Collectives, whatever, and the broad outlines of the playbook are pretty much the same. Get some driven people together with a shared vision. Then it’s just cellphones and laptops and somebody in front of them who can wind them up and point them in one direction. When the internet is your lever, wherever you’re standing will do just fine.

The vision, brains and drive are the keys now, the limiting factor. The vision to see a niche you can own is expensive. The drive and talent to build what goes into that niche, that’s expensive. The rest, cpu, storage, connectivity, you know what they have in common? They’re cheap.

There’s so much in the world that needs changing, fixing an improving, and making a world where the big organizations are afraid of small ones, that’s more than just tactics and shortcuts. That’s a strategy, short-circuiting too soon to be sure and getting to too late to dispute it that much faster. The big organizations will push back, they have to. But it won’t ultimately matter. Listen, learn and move.

You’ve noticed how a lot of people are starting to say this sort of thing? You might have read something like it somewhere else on the internet recently.

Yeah, that’s pretty much how that works.

More Token Macro

Some places you can get the Amazon Kindle, and some fun facts about them!

  • The Aland Islands. Fun fact: the Aland islands have an estimated population of just over 27 thousand people.
  • Botswana. Fun facts: About 40% of Botswana’s citizens live below the international poverty line of $US 1.25 per day. Approximately 70% of the country is covered by the Kalahari Desert.
  • The Democratic Republic Of The Congo. Fun fact: The Second Congo War, ongoing since 1998, is sometimes referred to as the “African World War”. In the eastern Congo the prevalence of rape and other sexual violence is described as the worst in the world, and the Second Congo War has been the deadliest conflict of any kind since World War II, resulting in the deaths of over 5.4 million people.
  • The Federated States Of Micronesia. Fun fact: There are more than six hundred islands in Federated States of Micronesia, several of which are artificial.
  • Nauru. Fun fact: covering just 21 square kilometers, Nauru is the smallest island nation in the world.
  • Sao Tome and Principe. Fun facts: about 140 kilometers apart, these two islands make up Africa’s second-smallest country.

Some places you can’t get the Amazon Kindle, and some fun facts about them!

  • Antarctica. Fun fact: Penguins can’t read.
  • Pitcairn Islands. Fun Fact: Population: 50.
  • Sudan. Fun fact: it’s a war-torn hellhole.
  • Canada. Fun fact: We are home to some of the worst, most lethargically uncompetitive telecommunication companies and cultural institutions in the modern world.

You Are Interrupting My Fun Again

Rattling this out quickly before it escapes me; this is going to be part of a larger thing I’m writing but I’ve got some friends who will need this soon. So for now, two things.

First of all, bedtime: in the first six to eight weeks, they’ll sleep, wake up and poop wherever and whenever they want. Which isn’t easy, don’t get me wrong – they’ll need to be fed and held at all hours of the night, which is grinds you right down – but it’s also uncomplicated. Feed me, burp me, change me, hold me, that’s about it, but it’s 100% on their schedule, not yours. If it’s any consolation, you probably won’t remember this part all that well. If you did, vividly, then you probably wouldn’t have any more; selection pressure is home to some perverse incentives, and this is one of them.

After that, at about the two month mark, bedtime changes and you’ve got to work for it; baby’s starting to see things, to realize there are things and people in the world, and want to look at them and play with them. You should approach it like a science for sure – make a theory, test it, make another – but expect that a successful plan will work for about two weeks and then just stop for no obvious reason.

After that the kid outgrows it and you need to figure out the next thing. It’s a process, and nothing works every time; keep calm and carry on. Either way, starting the bedtime routine when the kid is tired is too late; aim to be finishing your bedtime routine then, not starting, or your cranky, overtired baby will be very angry with you.

Playmat

Second, even if you’re planning zero renos or other house modification at all, do these three things:

  1. Put a dimmer switch in the baby’s room, to give you enough light to see by without waking up the kid.
  2. Put a plastic mattress cover under your own bedsheets, because the kid will be in there with you at some point, and
  3. If you have the means, replace the toilet seat(s) on the baby’s floor with the slow-settling ones that don’t slam down.

Other than that, if they aren’t diapered up don’t put them down on anything you can’t clean with a hose, ever.

Good luck, folks. Anyone who’s got anything to add to this, jump in with the commenting.

Caught!

Feet: I Have Them

So people keep saying babies are super smart and whatever, but I tell you that is just empirically not true. I’ve asked Maya a bunch of questions in the last few weeks, and she has yet to get any of them right. And here’s the kicker: the answer to every single one of those questions? “Maya”.

It’s not like I’m digging out the original Trivial Pursuit cards and asking her about the Cuban missile crisis here. When I say “who’s a sleepy girl”, “who’s walking” or “who needs to use the potty”, I’m not exactly fishing for “Che Guevara” or “Robert McNamara”, you know? But here’s a picture of a typical response, which is pretty much just burbling and trying to put her toes in her mouth.

Well, what can you do.

Moar Hydrant

mhoye The terrible thing about being this awesome is that it’s hard for people to fully appreciate it when I make it look so easy.

I spent part of last week getting my office out from under the catastrophic failure of our three ostensibly-redundant AC units in the server room. They’re water-cooled units that were all fed, very much to my surprise, from a single cold-water pipe that some baboon in the basement of our building broke. When I got to work Wednesday morning the server room had spiked to 43C, showing no sign of going anywhere but up, and about a quarter of my precious machines had already shut themselves down in self-defense.

We recovered from that mess with a little bit of luck, some nontrivial effort and a ton of advance planning done months ago; we did it a lot faster than anyone thought we could, and I’m proud of it. Still, it revealed a few gaps in our disaster-management and -recovery processes that need to be addressed. We were even lucky enough that the only immediate equipment failure was a single drive in an unused raid set, which was a tiny stroke of luck, and none of the machines that shut down to protect themselves were near the core of our dependency tree, which was huge. But the cold hard fact of the matter is that an orangutan turning the wrong valve seven floors away got quite close to paralyzing my company, and the orangutan found that valve before we did.

We’re going to solve the hell out of that problem, make no mistake; we are going to solve it so hard it’ll be walking funny for months. And ending the week with the personal thanks of my CEO felt pretty good. But this little vignette brings me, circuitously, to the thing I really want to talk about.

Every couple of months, somebody writes an article about how terrible their IT departments are for not letting them install whatever they want, how IT is just there to hold them back and not let them have any fun, and mostly that’s because IT is lazy and doesn’t feel like catching up, much less keeping up, with these shiny modern times. Even my friend David Eaves recently referred to a “distant IT overlord” in an otherwise well-aimed post recently, much to my chagrin.

First off, just to be clear let me tell you this: I would love to be a Distant IT Overlord. Love it! But as it stands users keep coming to my office with their needs and questions, and despite my best efforts (starting all my conversations with “no”, answering questions with “cut the baby in half” or “shoot the hostage”, you know, the usual) I still seem to end up actually trying to actually help them get their jobs done.

Embarrassing, I know! I keep pushing for those little changes in the decor that could make all the difference, like a moat around the office or having some random intern’s severed head hoisted on a pike by the server room door, but we never seem have the budget. Maybe next year.

These articles are invariably, and tellingly, written by people with no IT background at all. Which is OK, that’s most of us, but they’re also written by people with no idea what the implications of their demands might be, and no real interest in finding out. Some of that, as Eaves notes, is cultural and deeply ingrained, but I think he only gives the barest nod towards the reasons those attitudes exist and (surprisingly, from a veteran negotiation and policy wonk) to the idea that there’s an actual culture there, and hence an understanding to be had and if we’re patient and a bit lucky some common ground to be found.

I like to think that I understand a part of it, so I’d like to lay some of it out for you here. This isn’t to garner sympathy; I’m not going to claim that my job is harder than yours, and I know there’s a lot of people in IT who just have no business interacting with other humans. I’m even a little unhappy that this discussion always ends up with the Us V. Them tone they always seem to. But to some extent that is inevitable; in any company, the IT department is ultimately responsible for the well-functioning and continuity of the company itself, not the well-being or ease-of-use of the individual user or even the individual project, and that stance can be inherently problematic.

Which is not to say that everyone in IT is going to ascend bodily into heaven, sure, but we spend our days wrangling complicated, frequently opaque systems subject to an obscene variety of unsavory threats. The consequences of a misstep can be fierce and doing your job just right often means nobody ever notices, a fact that can warp your perspective a bit.

But it’s not that we don’t love you, users. Honestly, we do. We hate a lot of these things you complain about as much or more than you do, but the laws of physics and economics look very different in the server room than from your home office.

The canonical example is, why can’t I have more storage space? Why do I have to limit myself to five hundred megabytes on the network drives, why do I need to clean my mailbox out so often when I only have a few hundred megabytes of mail in it, how come you’re always asking us to delete our old mail when I can go down the block and buy a terabyte of drive space for a hundred bucks?

The short answer is that our equipment is really expensive. Our drive space, for example, costs somewhere between fifty to one hundred times what yours does, and it’s lot more complicated than just “buy a drive and plug it in”. And that fifty-to-one-hundred not an exaggeration; that one terabyte is four SAS drives, which cost about 15x what you think they should on their own. And they need drive bays on the NAS to live in, that may or may not be there. Will we be able to just spin that drive up or would we need to rebuild the array? Can we dynamically resize those partitions? Maybe not. And do you have several spare terabytes of extra space on the tape backup system, for redundant offsite copies? Do we even have enough slots in the tape robot to put more of those tapes into it? How many times can we add drives before we need to reconsider the amount of power coming into the server room? Buy enough of those, and do we need another UPS to power them all when the building power browns out? What do those cost?

That’s the process, and it sucks, but it’s also the only way any of this can be made to work reliably at all. Our gear doesn’t cost that much for no reason; it costs that much because having our whole company sitting on their thumbs with no email costs so much more. What does this change force us to also change, and what does that cost? Maybe a lot, and if we don’t have the budget for all of it we can’t do the first bit and we end up saying no. So we say we can’t give you an extra gigabyte of space on the mail server because it’s too expensive and you go back to your office thinking those guys in IT are a bunch of goddamn lazy cheapskates. And I understand, ’cause that’s sure what it looks like.

But that extra terabyte of drive space might not solve the real problem; the mail you want to save. Did you know that Exchange data stores can only be a certain size before performance starts to seriously degrade? Yeah, it surprised me too. You can set up multiple stores to keep those numbers down but it’s recommended you do that across different storage devices, so we need new servers for that, and then we need new OS licenses and CALs and if it seems like I’m saying it never ends that’s because it’s pretty much like that. These weird, seemingly arbitrary restrictions are all over the place (Microsoft, I’m looking at you) and working with and around them is definitely nontrivial.

And we’re on a budget, and the economy is in the toilet. And you want, but your department never seems willing to foot the bill, curiously. And it doesn’t help when we do things like check timestamps or file sizes just to see what our actual usage looks like, and find out that the reason you need more drive space is that you won’t delete your mail from 2002 (that you haven’t touched since 2004; yes, I can check that) or get rid of that pirated .ISO you’re saving or the porn or MP3s that shouldn’t be there anyway. Because (and this happens all the goddamn time) first of all, if you’d just done a little housecleaning you’d have plenty of room, and second now that I’ve seen that I need to talk to HR. And if it comes to that I guarantee that the story that gets around will be that you made a simple request to IT for a bit more drive space and the Distant IT Overlords had you escorted to the curb. That’s not what’s happened, sure, but in the absence of respect fear works just fine.

And, and and. And all of that is most basic example I could think of, and I’m still glossing over the uglier technical bits.

The most amazing thing about all this is that it’s not only possible for me in IT and you in userland to hold hands and find our way through this thicket together, but it’s possible to do it remarkably well; user expectations can be managed and met, networks can be disciplined and machines secured, management can be made content and all of that done while the organization grows and IT cooperates with users in nurturing it along. But it can’t happen case-by-case, and it can’t happen without resources that may be more scarce than you realize.

So here’s the thing: if you want more disk space or a new browser or anything from IT at all that isn’t a correctly-functioning version of the status quo, don’t ask me for it. Not because I don’t care, and don’t want people to have nice things, but because IT can’t do what you want for individuals users, for free. Go to your managers, and their managers, and my managers. If you have management onside then your problems are my problems, but more importantly I will have things like budgets and project milestones and all these things we need to make changes to a complex environment without boning the entire thing.

Sure, it will take time. But if your argument is compelling (modulo the resources it requires) you will either get what you want, or have a clear understanding of why it’s not going to happen. But you need to step back from the hardware far enough to understand that any complicated system is ultimately political; it’s about negotiating, weighing resources against priorities and carefully crafting plans towards possible futures.

You also need to step back from the hardware because it’s not your hardware, it’s mine, and you don’t know how it works and I’m possessive and don’t touch it. Which is to say that yes, in addition to being political it’s also personal, and you’re going to have to sell your idea.

Which is all to say, help me help you. I know, the Other Kind of IT Guy is out there, and he’s a bit of a dick, but he’s relatively rare and a management issue too. But if you sneer and think this simple and that I should just let you do whatever you want, that tells me enough about what you think of me and my job that you’ll have a hard time convincing me I should help you out.

And that guy we had to escort out of the building? Yeah, don’t be that guy. I’ve got my Distant IT Overlord boots right here.

Retro On Retro

Just recently a colleague had their drive die on them; these things happen, and it wasn’t much of a hassle to reimage a new drive. She’d even backed up her bookmarks, but in this modern age it turns out that’s not good enough. There’s a lot more to the modern browser experience than that; a hoard of passwords you probably don’t remember for sites you occasionally visit, searchable browser history going back months. Your personal Browser State, that Firefox’s clever caching and their extraordinarily useful new toolbar at the top there have made more and more valuable. Your web-browsing experience (right now, believe me) being actively mediated by a handful of ambient-information butlers that you barely notice until they’re gone, not quietly doing their thing in the background on your behalf. Losing all that, or trying to duplicate that experience on another machine, can be a huge pain in whatever orifice you’d pick last. She’s still missing that, and it pains me to watch that happen.

It doesn’t have to be like that, though. Have you heard of Weave? I don’t think a lot of people have, but it’s really slick: it will bundle up your browser state in a neat little package and back it all up to a server at Mozilla (though you can set up your own if you like) and when your machine goes sideways or if you just start using a different one and want your past back, there it is.

It’s all nice and cross-platform too; browser state is about half of my working environment now, so getting my new Mini set up just so was pretty much painless. You need a current-ish version of Firefox to make it work, but you should have that anyway. Take the time to set it up, it’s absolutely worth it.

Hoodie, Yo

I suppose you notice conversations like this a little more often once you’ve got a kid of your own, but I thought I would remark on it. I hear it from parents and nonparents alike, and it seems very strange to me that anyone could look at one these flailing little wads of helpless protohuman charged to our care and say that they don’t understand why they’re so upset. I mean, you don’t have to like it, sure, it’s inconvenient and frustrating and liable to leave you half-deaf in one ear and more than a little heart-rending. But it seems to me that saying you don’t know why your child is upset is mostly about signaling to other adults that you’ve really truly fulfilled your role as a parent as best you can and that the rest of it is the kid’s fault and there’s nothing you can do.

And that’s more than a little unsympathetic. I don’t always know for sure why Maya’s upset, and sometimes can’t think of what else to try to calm her down and yes, that’s difficult as hell. But let me put two scenarios to you:

  1. You are at the tail end of your first day in a foreign city, the first you’ve ever visited and one you are immediately in love with. The people are beautiful even though you don’t understand a word they’re saying, the sights and smells made unnaturally vivid by the sheer unhinged novelty of this brand-new place. Everything, the art, the food, the words, the ebb and flow of the world around you is so completely new that at the end of that first day you’re lying in bed practically vibrating. Everything you’ve experienced washes over you and you try almost desperately to assimilate it, to soak it all in, and you’re so excited that tomorrow is coming that it’s impossible to get to sleep.
  2. You are at the end of a thirty-six or fifty-two-hour work day, being driven like a pack mule by whatever desperate emergency demands that kind of heroism. Routine fatigue is long gone, and now you literally cannot remember a time that your shoulders weren’t piercingly sore, that your eyes didn’t feel like they’d been sanded raw. You lie down feeling like your tendons are sawing on your bones but you’re still saturated with adrenaline, the only thing that’s kept you on your feet for the last twenty-four hours. You lie there, your pulse pounding away in your skull, and despite the crushing fatigue you’re still so wired up you can barely close your eyes.

Being a baby is both of those things at once about every four hours.

You’d cry too, frankly. So would I.

Zoom!

From H. P. Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains Of Madness, we have Exhibit 1:

And now, when Danforth and I saw the freshly glistening and reflectively iridescent black slime which clung thickly to those headless bodies and stank obscenely with that new unknown odour whose cause only a diseased fancy could envisage—clung to those bodies and sparkled less voluminously on a smooth part of the accursedly re-sculptured wall in a series of grouped dots—we understood the quality of cosmic fear to its uttermost depths. It was not fear of those four missing others—for all too well did we suspect they would do no harm again. Poor devils! After all, they were not evil things of their kind. They were the men of another age and another order of being. Nature had played a hellish jest on them—as it will on any others that human madness, callousness, or cruelty may hereafter drag up in that hideously dead or sleeping polar waste—and this was their tragic homecoming.

From Ars Technica, “IBM takes on Google with new webmail, calendaring solution“, Exhibit 2:

Google has put a lot of effort and money into developing and marketing Google Apps as an inexpensive, easy-to-administer webmail, calendaring, and productivity solution. It has a new competitor in the shape of IBM, which is trying to beat Google at its own game. Big Blue announced LotusLive iNotes, a new e-mail service priced cheaper than Google’s offering. [...] Many of us have used or are familiar with LotusNotes, a product that, despite its interface quirks, is a solid e-mail, calendaring, and collaboration solution. IBM is counting on the cachet of the Lotus brand to distract IT types from the allure of Google Apps.

The “cachet of the Lotus brand”, you say?

Good luck with that.

Grating

As many of you know my hypocrisy is boundless, cavorting around the landscape like an exuberant fratboy with something poorly thought through to prove. It is the slightly too young, slightly too drunk Ernest Hemingway of hypocrisies, full of an exuberant joi de vivre, slightly manic and from time to time would like to know what you’re looking at, buddy. So when I said a while back that you should not buy any new computery widgets between now and November or so, I meant you shouldn’t buy any computery widgets between now and November. It should be clear that I was going to do basically whatever I felt like doing regardless.

If that didn’t come across at the time well, come on, pay attention. I’m right over here.

I’ve been jonesing for a netbook for some time now, and I finally caved when I came across an HP Mini 1116nr for $200, and thought what the hell. Keyboard, screen, likely pretty moddable if I feel like banging my head against that particular desk again, sure. I know it’s going to come with XP, and I know that means I’ll have to install Linux on it, and if nothing else it will entertain the hell out of Kev to see me get back on that treadmill again. But for a knockaround microlaptop with a passable screen and a keyboard, that I don’t worry too much about hurting? Sure, why not. Here we go.

Now, that’s not entirely accurate; what I’ve actually wanted all this time is to be able to pair an bluetooth keyboard with an iPhone, but Apple’s ongoing douchebaggery on that front has so far proven intractable and nothing says second-rate or second-choice like HP’s consumer hardware so why not, here we go.

It’s definitely far and away the cheapest laptop I’ve ever bought and, wow, super-tiny. And now that I’ve scraped off all the ugly stickers, it doesn’t look half bad either, at least until a human touches it. I’m still getting used to a keyboard that’s about 85% of nominal and not superbly well-suited for my fat hands, but it’s got pretty good tactility, so I rate it an OK. The trackpad is this dumb, tiny little thing with seams in confusing places, but I’ve been so well-spoiled by the Macbook Pro’s multitouch for almost a year now that anything else is just about unusable. There’s not much grounds for fair comparison there, so I just turn it off and plug in a mouse.

The Ubuntu 9.04 Netbook Remix I installed in place of XP is turning out, much to my pleasant surprise, to be a remarkable improvement over my last experience with a graphical Linux userland. Power management works properly, a significant improvement over “not at all”, and even though I’m actually using it to check my email and download things the wireless drivers have resolutely refused to lock the whole machine up so far. Better still, there’s no VGA- or DVI-out on this thing, so I don’t need to get that set of hopes back up to be crushed again.

Which is all awesome, don’t get me wrong, and a huge improvement over the last time I saddled up to get stomped at the linux-on-laptop rodeo. It’s still Ubuntu, though, and Ubuntu is still Linux, so in comparison to modern operating systems it’s still pretty heartbreakingly bad.

One example of several so far is that if I spin my mousewheel around and then stop it the webpage keeps jumping around long after I’ve stopped the spinning wheel. It’s a lightweight machine, so it’s clearly buffering those signals somewhere as it tries to keep up, but OSX and Windows are both smart enough these days to do what I clearly want rather than what I specifically asked for and stop the scrolling when I stop spinning the wheel. Linux, well, it’s still Linux. It’s not one big thing anymore, which is nice, but it’s still lots and lots of little ones. Even so, I haven’t tried getting it to make sounds yet and I don’t think I’m going to even bother. Who knows what sort of mess they’ve made out of this year’s ground-up audio-subsystem rewrite, but I’m trying really hard not to look or care.

And the colour schemes and rampant themeing, jeebus. Guys: we all poop, I know, it’s a part of the human condition, I understand, but in terms of a default palette there are so many better options.

FInally, the hardware is just classic HP consumer design. The few things they do well and the distressing number of things they continue to be mind-blowingly dumb about are right here on incomprehensible display. The glossy rim around the screen looks great until you touch it, and there’s no lip or catch to make it easy to open up. The mousepad has a little seam on the side that pretends its a scroll wheel, but with the mouse buttons to the side of it you can’t tell if you’re trying to scroll or just rubbing a mouse button ineffectually if you’re not looking directly at it.

There’s two USB ports, an SD slot, one “Mini Mobile Drive Port” and one “Expansion Port”, and I bet those last two sounded like awesome ideas in some board meeting somewhere. The “Mobile Drive Port” turns out to be a recessed and customized USB port with a loose plastic cover that you can only plug HP-made stuff into, and would have been far better as a third regular usb port.

The “Expansion Port” bit just floors me; I’m sure this sounded good in the meeting (where I’m sure the word “monetize” came up) but they must have put a lot of engineering work into something that no human will ever use, and that does the same job that a $20 USB hub would do better on another port. If they’d dropped this and the Drive Port thing, and put in, say, a second SD (or, better, universal card reader) slot and another standard USB port, rethought the mousepad a bit and added a little more thought to the trim, this thing would be killing the netbook segment right now. But they’re HP, so they didn’t do any of that, and now it’s selling for about half price.

The price is the real saving grace here, and it’s a nice screen. It’s just a shame to see yet another PC manufacturer churning out something cheap and only OK that could have been great with just little bit of good taste and foresight. I’m happy with it for what it is, but it’s a solid reminder of why I’m glad I’ve switched to Macs.