Lucy B

A software engineer, amateur photographer, role-player, sci-fi reader and roller derby fan. Generally, a geek. Currently living in Manchester.

Learning the Arch Way

For much of the last decade I have shunned “advanced” Linux distros, like Gentoo, Slackware and even Debian. Instead, I have mostly just used Ubuntu – on desktops, laptops and even servers (although not phones, not yet). I have done this not because I found it too difficult to install these other distros, but because I grew bored of spending my time administering a system, rather than getting on with things I considered to be more important. I’ve also spent a fair bit of time in the last ten years introducing Linux to newcomers and found that it was far better to be able to point to a working system that they to could setup.

So, when I bought a small, low-powered laptop recently, I naturally thought of Ubuntu or another Debian derivative, like Crunchbang. Something quick and easy to setup, just like always. Why then did I chose to install Arch? Well, I’m not quite sure. Maybe after all this time I needed a new challenge, maybe I wondered what I was missing out on, or maybe it was just peer-pressure. Initially, I felt guilty for turning to a distro that from the outside seemed elitist and would potentially alienate less technical users, but the truth is I’ve grown quite out of touch with the Linux community and it’s been some time since someone looked at my computer and asked how they could do that too.

Arch has been around for a surprisingly long time now. It’s a disto that advocates simplicity and choice, but it also seems to pride itself on its difficulty. In the long list of Linux distros, it seems to sit somewhere in between Debian and Gentoo.

Installing

Once I’d successfully installed Arch on my new laptop, I wrote down my experiences and some initial thoughts, and emailed them to a friend. I was feeling quite stupid at first – I’d gone through the process mostly-okay, and then realised that I’d have to start it all again if I wanted an encrypted disk (an absolute must on a laptop). The beginner’s guide does mention this, but it’s a very small comment that’s easy to miss in the noise and it wasn’t in the section I’d expected. From what I can see, you should expect to go through the install process a couple of times on your first go..

I also made my life more difficult by chosing to install Openbox and setup the desktop environment myself. Afterwards, I found a useful blog post, which goes through the steps to setup a desktop system running Openbox and that would have saved me quite a few hours of trial and error.

To navigate all the wiki pages, to evaluate the options for different pieces of software took too much time that I would rather have spent doing something more interesting. I’m never going to get excited by compositing engines, wallpaper managers, etc, and having a meta-package for an Openbox desktop to pull in all the little bits I needed would have been so very helpful and time-saving. From what I can tell, it’s would also be in keeping with the Arch Way. This is now something on my todo list, but sadly it’s a rather long list. I’ve since found the Arch Openbox wiki page, which I think I read through at the time, but like many of the pages it’s more of a reference than a beginner’s guide or walk-through. In general, I found that it was all too easy to get lost in the morass of pages.

In writing up my experiences (read: complaints) to a friend, I realised the root cause of many of the struggles I’d had – that Arch is not Debian. I know this sounds obvious, but in truth, the biggest issue I had was in adjusting to the different way of doing things – different approaches and culture – and instead expecting things to work in the same way.

The Arch wiki is extensive and very useful, but it doesn’t hold your hand and it’s not always correct. At times I found myself having to read three pages at once to get all the information I needed and I missed important bits as a result. Lesson learned, do not install if you’re not in a position to fully read the rather complicated wiki and expect to make some mistakes. The experience has resulted in a new post-it note being stuck to my monitor – RTFW (read the fine wiki).


Setup chosen:

  • LVM on LUKS
  • /boot vfat (required for UEFI compatibility), / and /home ext4 with a 4GB swap.
  • Desktop: LXmanager, Openbox:
    Tint2 (everything I need in a task bar), Nitrogen (wallpaper management), Compton (transparency and extra shiny), Conky-Lua (looks awesome, but is also useful), LXTerminal (simple enough but with the features I want), PCManFM (also runs in the background for dbus support)
  • Gesture control: touchegg (partially setup)

The Arch Way

The Arch Way is to give users a choice. As a result, it includes non-free software alongside free software, equally. Unfortunately, it doesn’t easily provide a way to see the license details of what you’re about to install. I’m not asking for a long pointless EULA, just a way of seeing the license (or at least the free/non-free status) when I’m viewing the results of pacman or yaourt -Ss. Having lots of options is not a choice, a choice is only a choice if it’s informed.

Similarly, I’m never going to be interested in boot loaders, login managers or wallpaper providers. I really like the Ubuntu approach of having sensible defaults – by all means provide details to the user to allow them to learn about the alternatives and to do something different instead, and that’s certainly one of Arch’s strengths, but don’t force users to evaluate every choice.

I think this is where the Arch Way and I depart somewhat, and some of the ways in which I prefer Debian and Ubuntu’s approaches.

Conclusion

Since doing the install I have found out about Archbang. It looks promising and would certainly have made things easier, although I’m glad that I went through all the steps manually, as I do feel I’ve learned (and re-learned) a lot as a result.

I’ve found Arch to be simple and flexible. It is fast, although I’ve not done any tests or comparisons, so I don’t know if it’s faster than a basic Debian install. So far, I really enjoy using it, although whether that will last I don’t know.

Right now, Arch feels like that new friend in your life, fresh and exciting. But Ubuntu feels like home, it’s friendly and dependable. I’m still gutted that the ten year anniversary of Ubuntu passed me by at the end of last year. I suppose it’s too late for me to throw it a party.. but Arch at least, has rekindled a fire within me that I thought had almost gone away.

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2012, The Year In Review

So, another year over and a another reflection on what has been achieved (or not).

Things I’ve done this year

  • A single LARP
    • Victoriana. It was great fun and I can’t wait for this year’s game, although it’s probably a good thing that it’s not until September, as I still have lots to make for it.
  • Dress-making
    • I did enjoy this, but I didn’t like the deadline, the amount of work required, and more than anything I found I’m just not interested enough in clothes. Although, no doubt I’ll find it a very useful skill at times.
  • Underground Tour
    • This was really interesting and ticked off an item from my 101 list.
  • Fire marshalling
    • Technically, an ‘Evacuation Marshall’. I failed to step back quick enough when someone came around work looking for volunteers. So far though, we’ve only had a couple of evacuations, and as a bonus I get to shout at students.
  • First-aid
    • I was fortunate to get onto the work provided ‘First-Aid at Work’ course over the summer. This means I am first-aid qualified again for the next couple of years. The downside is that I have to be on-call for first aid incidents at work every four weeks.
  • Gardening
    • We have achieved a small garden. At one point it had tomatoes, strawberries, thyme, rocket, spinach and sunflowers. However, it was a terrible year for ripening fruit, so there was very little to eat and foolishly I didn’t make the most of the leafy veg when it appeared, so overall very little got eaten, except by the slugs.
    • I grew three Sunflowers for the Turing’s Sunflowers project. Sadly, I wasn’t able to count the seeds, mostly due to slugs, but it turned into a nice little photography project. More about it here.

Travel

I’ve put this into a separate section, as I’ve done a fair amount of travelling this year, with Paris being the highlight by far. It’s an amazing and friendly city, with so much to see and with a fantastic hotel to come back to at the end of each day (27th floor, woo!).

I missed not going to Centre Parcs last year, but I’m hopeful that a trip will be organised this year (and before anyone asks, I’m far too lazy, um I mean busy, to do it myself).

Technology

  • New phone
    • My contract expired and I kept running out of space on my old HTC Desire, so I now have a very shiny One S and a cheaper monthly bill.
  • New monitor
    • This has been an absolute necessity for editing photos and it has made a huge difference. Chris now has my old monitor with its slight blue colour cast.
  • Aftershot Pro
    • For the first time in many years, I’ve actually purchased a piece of software. I’m really pleased with it so far. It’s lacking a few features compared to Darktable, but its rendering of raw files, especially the shadow areas is much better. It’s also very fast and lighter on resources, and I can still use Darktable for the occasional photograph.

Photography

This is probably the biggest and most time consuming thing I’ve been involved with this year (as everyone who knows me has no doubt noticed).

Thanks to Ste Manns, I was given the opportunity to help out on a couple of studio photo shoots this year, where I had lots of fun and learned a huge amount about many aspects of photography.

I’ve started studying again, with a course by the Open College of the Arts. As a result I’ve:

I’ve also completed the 52 weeks project. The full set of photos are here:

52 Weeks

A couple of the photos were featured by the Guardian in the Flickr group, which I’m really pleased about. Also, a few of my sunflower photos were chosen for the Turing Sunflower gallery at MOSI and Manchester Art Gallery. I’m not sure yet whether I want to continue with another 52 weeks project this year or do something different..

Aims for 2013

Get fitter

I’ve not really done any regular exercise since moving to Denton. I want to get into a regular running routine this year and work my way up to 10km (I don’t think that will happen this year, but it’s a long term aim). The British Army Fitness book is lying around waiting to be read, and having had a brief look through, it seems to be just what I need.

Finish the Art of Photography

My progress has been much slower than I would have liked on this course. I really want to get my head down properly and finish it this year.

Travel

This year, Chris and I intend to visit Berlin. I would also like to visit a few other places (maybe as part of an extended German holiday). It would be nice to go back to Bletchley Park and London, and well, most places I’ve been this year, as well as exploring new ones.

What else?

I’m not sure what else I want to achieve this year, there’s a few smaller items, but generally it would be nice to see people more often and maybe do more table-top or LARP (but nothing too time-consuming or expensive or requiring too much kit, so this seems unlikely).

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Turing’s Sunflowers

This year marks one hundred years since the birth of Alan Turing, and in Manchester especially, there are lots of activities happening to celebrate the anniversary. I’m taking part in one such activity, along with thousands of other people and the Manchester Science Festival.

Before his death, Turing studied the growth of plants, as part of his research into morphogenesis. He noticed a tendency for seeds in flower heads to be arranged in a Fibonacci sequence, but never had enough data to prove this fully. So the Manchester Science Festival have designed a crowd-sourced experiment involving sunflowers to finish his work. This should help our understanding of how plants grow.

Alan Turing is well-known for his work in computing and for his part in code-breaking activities during the second world war. However, he also made contributions to other fields, including biology, where he looked at morphogenesis. This is the study of the processes that cause an organism to develop its shape; from the structure of a single cellular organism, to the arrangement of cells in a larger organism and even the structure of flower heads.

People are taking part in the experiment all around the world and at the end, the seeds from the thousands of sunflowers will be counted and recorded. The results will be announced during the Science Festival in the autumn.

I’ve documented the growing process of my three sunflowers from seed to flower..

Now, all I have to do is keep fighting off the snails until the sunflowers have finished flowering and the seeds can be counted.

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Chocolate Review: 65% Dark with Sea Salt, Rabot Estate

This is a very pretty bar, with simple, understated packaging that belies the complex and mature Hotel Chocolat treat. It’s one of the few chocolates grown on their own estate in St Lucia and its rarity adds to the luxury. Tasting reveals a dark, burnt flavour with a fruity undertone. It only has merest hint of sea salt that complements the chocolate very well, but might be disappointing if you are more used to Lindt’s saltier offerings.

Overall, another excellent offering by Hotel Chocolat. A mild, dark chocolate to sit down and savour. Just ignore the fleur de sel claims on the label.

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Turning Thirty

I’m not sure what most people do once they turn thirty, but so far I’ve returned from a holiday abroad, (joint-) hosted two house parties, been to the zoo, explored the hidden depths of the city, started a (admittedly small) garden, learned dressmaking, discovered how to fight fires, been to a live-action role-playing event and signed up for a university course.

I wouldn’t mind but its only been a little over two months. At least I think I know why I’m so tired now..

I’ve got some annual leave coming up and plan on spending at least some of it getting some rest!

Now to go enjoy the sunshine..

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Why I Take Photos and what Next?

For a while now I’ve been pondering the question of why I take photos. I don’t mean snapshots, I mean the thousands I’ve taken of birds or flowers or landscapes or museums. The ones that are pre-planned or taken as part of a day out. The ones that take hours to process in full, and may, if I’m lucky, get one or two views on Flickr. Surely there are more interesting and productive things to do with my time?

Well, I’ve come up with a few points of what photography means for me and why this (self-indulgent) hobby is important in general.

First, why do I take photos?

1. To make the ordinary seem extraordinary
Photography provides an opportunity to take a mundane object and make it look special. It also gives an excuse for looking at the world through a fresh set of eyes rather than walking blindly through the everyday. It forces us to actually look.

2. To remember
I have a terrible memory. Photography records things better than I ever could and means that I can look back on events with (near) perfect detail.

3. Creativity / beauty / art. Instantly.
I’ve tried learning to draw and I’m not bad, but it’s hard work and very slow. With photography, you get instant feedback and an instant result. Okay, so it may take hours to achieve and need processing afterwards, but it feels more immediate than other art forms.

4. Expanding knowledge.
You have to understand the subjects you photograph. For example, I’ve learned more about birds since I started photographing them than in the 29 years prior. Partly, this is by identifying the species after photographing them, but also partly by observing the birds, their behaviour and researching their habitats, so I can be in the right place at the right time.

Less personally….

Photography, and indeed art in general, often seems self indulgent to me. A bit of a waste of time, when there are other, more useful things potentially to do. But aside from simply being nice to look at, photos can have a positive impact on the world around us in many ways. For example:

1. Increase awareness (wilderness protection, endangered animals, deforestation, wars and famines, etc).

2. Inform us (medical, space, Google street view, weather, traffic, wanted posters, etc).

3. Help give a voice to the overlooked.

The purpose of this self-examination has been to think about what I’m doing, why and what I’m going to do next. It was triggered by realising that I have only a matter of weeks to apply for a higher education course before the tuition fees become prohibitive. I’ve not been in any rush to get back into studying, but I always figured I would do one day. After some research and consideration I have enrolled on a degree course in photography at the Open College of Arts. It’s a distance learning course, with, I think seven modules, each taking around a year to complete. The first module, ‘The Art of Photography’ is designed to get everyone up to speed on the subject and is a good standalone module, so even if I decide not to continue afterwards I will still have gotten something out of it. It’s also possible to gain a certificate or diploma if I decide not to go for the entire degree, which I have to admit at this stage is fairly likely.

I’m hoping this will provide me with more of an aim when taking pictures and mean that I can achieve something with this hobby.

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Venturing into the Archives

I’ve been sorting through old photographs recently and found a few that I am quite proud of.

My first camera was a small, red Snappit, rather like this. I managed to take these photos with it, on a family holiday to Cornwall in 1988 (I was six years old) :

Cornwall 1988

Looe Harbour 1988

I’m not sure what camera I used to take these, but they were taken in 1989.

Giraffe at Longleat

School Trip

It’s strange looking through old film images. There’s a warmth and comfort about the photos that even the best Instagram filters can’t match.

Anyway, I’ll be posting some more recent photos soon!

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