A Geek With Guns

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Some Thoughts After Moving from macOS to Linux

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It has been two weeks and change since I moved from my MacBook Pro to a ThinkPad P52s running Linux. Now that I have some real use time under my belt I thought it would be appropriate to give some of my thoughts.

The first thing I’d like to note is that I have no regrets moving to Linux. My normal routine is to use my laptop at work and whenever I’m away at home and use another computer at home (because I’m too lazy to pull my laptop out of my laptop bag every night). The computer I was using at home was a 2010 Mac Mini. I replaced it with my old MacBook Pro when I got my ThinkPad. I realized the other day that I haven’t once booted up my MacBook Pro since I got my ThinkPad. Instead I have been pulling my ThinkPad out of its bag and using it when I get home. At no point have I felt that I need macOS to get something done. That’s the best testament to the transition that I can give. That’s not to say Linux can do anything that macOS can. I’m merely fortune in that the tools I need are either available on Linux or have a viable alternative.

I’m still impressed with the ThinkPad’s keyboard. One of my biggest gripes about the new MacBooks is the ultra slim keyboards. I am admittedly a bit of a barbarian when it comes to typing. I don’t so much type as bombard my keyboard from orbit. Because of this I like keys with a decent amount of resistance and depth. The keyboard on my 2012 MacBook Pro was good but I’m finding the keyboard on this ThinkPad to be a step up. The keys offer enough resistance that I’m not accidentally pressing them (a problem I have with keyboards offering little resistance) and enough depth to feel comfortable.

With that said the trackpad is still garbage when compared to the trackpad on any MacBook. My external trackball has enough buttons where I can replicate the gestures I actually used on the MacBook though and I still like the TrackPoint enough to use it when I don’t have an external mouse connected.

Linux has proven to be a solid choice on this ThinkPad as well. I bought it with Linux in mind, which means I didn’t get features that weren’t supported in Linux such as the fingerprint reader or the infrared camera for facial recognition (which is technically supported in Linux but tends to show up as the first camera so apps default to it rather than the 720p webcam). My only gripe is the Nidia graphics card. The P52s includes both an integrated Intel graphics card and an Nvidia Quadro P500 discrete graphics card, which isn’t supported by the open source Nouveau driver. In order to make it work properly, you need to install Nvidia’s proprietary drivers. Once that’s installed, everything works… except secure boot. In order to make the P52s boot after installing the Nvidia driver, you need to go into the BIOS and disable secure boot. I really wish there was a laptop with an discrete AMD graphics card that fit my needs on the market.

One thing I’ve learned from my move from macOS to Linux is just how well macOS handled external monitors. My P52s has a 4k display but all of the external monitors I work with are 1080p. Having different resolution screens was never a problem with macOS. On Linux it can lead to some rather funky scaling issues. If I leave the built-in monitors resolution at 4k, any app that opens on that display looks friggin’ huge when moved to an external 1080p display. This is because Linux scales up apps on 4k displays by a factor of two by default. Unfortunately, scaling isn’t done per monitor by default so when the app is moved to the 1080p display, it’s still scaled by two. Fortunately, a 4k display is exactly twice the resolution as a 1080p display so changing the built-in monitor’s resolution to 1080p when using an external display is an easy fix that doesn’t necessitate everything on the built-in display looking blurry.

I’ve been using Gnome for my graphical environment. KDE seems to be the generally accepted “best” desktop environment amongst much of the Linux community these days. While I do like KDE in general, I find that application interfaces are inconsistent whereas Gnome applications tend to have fairly consistent interfaces. I like consistency. I also like that Gnome applications tend to avoid burying features in menus. The choice of desktop environment is entirely subjective but so far my experience using Gnome has been positive (although knowing that I have a ship to which I can jump if that changes is reassuring).

As far as applications go, I used Firefox and Visual Studio Code on macOS and they’re both available on Linux so I didn’t have to make a change in either case. I was using Mail.app on macOS so I had to find a replacement e-mail client. I settled on Geary. My experience with Geary has been mostly positive although I really hate that there is no way, at least that I’ve found, to quickly mark all e-mails as read. I used iCal on macOS for calendaring and Gnome’s Calendar application has been a viable replacement for it. My luck at finding a replacement for my macOS task manager, 2Do, on Linux hasn’t been a positive experience. I’m primarily using Gnome’s ToDo application but it lacks a feature that is very important to me, repeating tasks. I use my task manager to remind me to pay bills. When I mark a bill as paid, I want my task manager to automatically create as task for next month. 2Do does this beautifully. I haven’t found a Linux task manager that can do this though (and in all fairness, Apple’s Reminder.app doesn’t do this well either). I was using Reeder on macOS to read my RSS feeds. On Linux I’m using FeedReader. Both work with Feedbin and both crash at about the same rate. I probably shouldn’t qualify that as a win but at least it isn’t a loss.

The biggest change for me has probably been moving from VMWare Fusion to Virtual Machine Manager, which utilized libvirt (and thus KVM and QEMU). Virtualizing Linux with libvirt is straight forward. Virtualizing Windows 10 wasn’t straight forward until I found SPICE Windows guest tools. Once I installed that guest tool package, the niceties that I came to love about VMWare Fusion such as shared pasteboards and automatically changing the resolution of the guest machine when the virtual machine window is resized worked. libvirt also makes it dead simple to set a virtual machine to automatically start when the system boots.

One major win for Linux over macOS is software installation. Installing software from the Mac App Store is dead simple but installing software from other sources isn’t as nice of an experience. Applications installed from other sources have to include their own update mechanism. Most have have taken the road of including their own embedded update capabilities. While these work, they can usually only run when the application is running so if you haven’t used the application for some time, the first thing you end up having to do is update it. Lots of packages still don’t include automatic update capabilities so you have to manually check for new releases. Oftentimes these applications are available via MacPorts or Homebrew. On the Linux side of things almost every software package is available via a distro’s package manager, which means installation and updates are handled automatically. I prefer this over the hodgepodge of update mechanisms available on macOS.

So in closing I’m happy with this switch, especially since I didn’t have to drop over $3,000 on a laptop to get what I wanted.

Written by Christopher Burg

November 21st, 2018 at 11:00 am

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Artisan… Headphone Jacks?

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Remember the good old days when you could plug the same pair of headphones into your phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, television, and stereo without the assistance of dongles? Then Apple decided to show the world its “courage” by removing the near universal headphone jack and many other device manufacturers started following suit. One of the companies that followed suit was Essential. Simply removing the headphone jack wouldn’t be enough for me to mention that company specifically but the solution it announced is worth mentioning:

So if you really, really want to use wired audio, you can fork over a $150 for this accessory. That price seems just a bit excessive considering the entire phone has had fire sales for $250 and $224.

The Essential Phone is compatible with the usual headphone jack dongles, so this add-on is being pitched as an artisanally crafted accessory for the discerning audiophile. The company says the “limited edition” accessory is “handcrafted” and made from “100% machined titanium.”

And you thought the title of this post was pure mockery. Nope. Essential actually is advertising its headphone adapter as being an artisan head crafted” headphone jack. Will this be the accessory that turns the failing company around? I wouldn’t be the farm on it.

While I understand the market for luxury goods in general, I don’t understand the market for luxury electronics. Electronics tend not to stick around too long. A cellphone is generally upgraded every few years. Unless Essential makes a guarantee that this headphone adapter is going to be compatible with all future phones (considering the company’s financial situation it’s optimistic to believe the company will release another phone) this accessory will likely be obsolete in the near future. Why spend $150 for an accessory for a $250 phone when the entire kit will be disposed of in the near future? Buying artisan cellphone accessories seems as stupid to me as buying artisan water. You’re just going to piss out the water later in the day so why spend extra for it?

Written by Christopher Burg

November 20th, 2018 at 10:30 am

More Fun than Watching Election Results

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Form what I gathered on Facebook, most people were watching the election results last night. I decided to have fun instead.

Korpiklaani, one of my favorite folk metal bands, played at the Varsity in Minneapolis last night. They played a fun show and, being Finnish, didn’t waste our time by talking about American politics. I couldn’t have asked for a better election night.

Written by Christopher Burg

November 7th, 2018 at 11:00 am

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Jumping Ship

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I’ve been running Apple computers for more than a decade now. While I really like macOS, anybody who knows me knows that I’ve been less than enthusiastic with the direction Apple has taken on the hardware front. My biggest gripe with Apple hardware is that it can no longer be serviced. My 2012 MacBook Pro is probably one of the easiest laptops that I’ve ever worked on. The entire back pops off and all of the frequently replaced parts are readily accessible. Part of the reason that I have been able to run that computer since 2012 is because I’ve been able to repair or upgrade components when necessary.

I usually run my laptops between four or five years. I’ve been running that MacBook Pro for six years. I was ready to upgrade last year but Apple had no laptops that appealed to me so I decided to wait a year to see if the situation would improve. When Apple announced its 2018 MacBook Pro line, it had everything I hated. All of the components, including the RAM and SSD, are soldered to the main board. Since the MacBook Pro line can no longer be upgraded, I’d have to order the hardware that I’d want to use for the next four or five years, which would cost about $3,2000. Worse yet, when something broke (all components will fail eventually), I’d have to pay Apple an exorbitant fee to fix it. And if that weren’t bad enough, the 2018 MacBook Pro still has that god awful slim keyboard. While Apple has attempted to improve the reliability of that keyboard by included a rubber membrane under the keys, typing on it is, at least in my opinion, a subpar experience.

I also have some concerns about Apple’s future plans. One of my biggest worries are the rumors of Apple transitioning its Macs to ARM processors. ARM processors are nice but I rely on virtualized x86 environments in my day to day work. If Apple transitioned to ARM processors, I wouldn’t be able to utilize my x86 virtual environments (virtualization turns into emulation when the guest and host architectures differ and emulation always involves a performance hit and usually a lot of glitches), which means I wouldn’t be able to do my work. I’m also a bit nervous about the rumors that Apple is planning to make app notarization mandatory in a future macOS release. Much of the software I rely on isn’t signed and probably never will be. Additionally, building and testing iOS software is a pain in the ass because even test builds need to be signed before they’ll work on an iOS device (anybody who has ran into code signing problems with Xcode will tell you that resolving those problems is often a huge pain in the ass) and I don’t want to bring that “experience” to my other development work. While I would never jump ship over rumors, when there are already reasons I want to jump ship, rumors act as additional low level incentives.

Since Apple didn’t have an upgrade that appealed to me and I’m not entirely comfortable with the rumors of the directions the company maybe going, I decided to look elsewhere. I’ve been running Linux in some capacity for longer than I’ve been running Apple computers. Part of my motivation for adopting macOS in the first place was because I wanted a UNIX system on my laptop (Linux on laptops back then was a dumpster fire). So when I decided to jump ship Linux became the obvious choice, which meant I was looking at laptops with solid Linux support. I also wanted a laptop that was serviceable. I found several solid options and narrowed it down to a Lenovo ThinkPad P52s because it was certified by both Red Hat and Ubuntu, sanely priced, and serviceable (in fact Lenovo publishes material that explains how to service it).

Every platform involves trade-offs. With the exception of Apple’s trackpad, every trackpad that I’ve used has been disappointing. The ThinkPad trackpad is no different in this regard. However, the ThinkPad line includes a TrackPoint, which I’ve always preferred as a mobile mouse solution to trackpads (I still miss Apple’s trackpad gestures though). There also isn’t a decent to do application on Linux (I use 2Do on both iOS and macOS and nothing on Linux is comparable) and setting up Linux isn’t anywhere near as streamlined as setting up a Mac (which involves almost no setup). With that said, I usually use an external trackball so the quality of the trackpad isn’t a big deal. My to do information syncs with my Nextcloud server so I can use its web interface when on my laptop (and continue to use 2Do on my iPhone). And since I chose a certified laptop, setting up Linux wasn’t too difficult (the hardest part was setting up nVidia’s craptastic Linux driver).

The upside to the transition, besides gaining serviceability, is first and foremost the cost. The ThinkPad P52s is a pretty cost effective laptop and I found a 20 percent off coupon code, which knocked the already reasonable price down further. Since neither the RAM nor the SSD in the P52s are soldered to the main board, I was able to save money by buying both separately and installing them when the computer arrived (which is exactly what I did with all of my Macs). In addition to the hardware being cheaper, I was also able to save money on virtualization software. I use virtualization software everyday and on macOS the only decent solution for me was VMWare Fusion (Parallels has better Windows support than Fusion but no serious Linux support, which I also require). Fedora, the Linux distribution I settled on (I run CentOS on my servers so I opted for the closest thing the included more cutting edge software), comes with libvirt installed. After spending a short while familiarizing myself with the differences between VMWare and libvirt, I can say that I’m satisfied with libvirt. It’s better in some regards, worse in others, and pretty much the same otherwise (as far as a user experience, underneath it’s far different).

I also gained a few things on the hardware side. The P52s has two USB-C and two USB-A (all USB 3) ports. My MacBook Pro only had two USB-A ports and the new MacBook Pros only have USB-C ports. All of my USB devices use USB-A so I’d need a bunch of dongles if I didn’t have USB-A ports (not a deal breaker but annoying nonetheless). In addition to being a very good mobile keyboard, the P52s keyboard also has a 10-digit keypad, which no Mac laptop currently has. Like USB-A ports, the lack of a 10 digit keypad isn’t a deal breaker in my world but its inclusion is always welcomed. If that weren’t enough, the keyboard also includes honest to god function keys instead of a TouchBar (as somebody who uses Vim a lot, the lack of a physical escape key is annoying).

My transition was relatively painless because I keep all of my data on my own servers. I didn’t have to spend hours trying to figure out how to pull data off of iCloud so I could use it on Linux. All I had to do was log into my Nextcloud instance and all of my calendar, contact, and to do information was synced to the laptop. The same was true of my e-mail. In anticipation for my move I also changed password managers from 1Password to a self-hosted instance of Bitwarden (1Password is overall a better experience but it lacks a native Linux app so I’d have been stuck with moving to a subscription plan to utilize a browser plugin that would deliver the same experience as Bitwarden). Keeping your data off of proprietary platforms makes moving between platforms easier. Likewise, keeping your data in open standards makes moving easier. I primarily rely on text files instead of word processor files (I used Markdown or LaTeX for most formatting) and most of my other data is stored in standardized formats (PNG or JPEG for images, ePub or PDF for documents, etc.).

Although I won’t give a final verdict until I’ve used this setup for a few months, my initial impressions of moving from macOS to Linux are positive. The transitions has been relatively painless and I’ve remained just as productive as I was on macOS.

Written by Christopher Burg

October 30th, 2018 at 11:00 am

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Potential Service Interruptions Tomorrow

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Comcast, my ISP simply because there are no other ISPs in my area, has informed me that they are planning to “upgrade” equipment in my area so my Internet may go down more frequently than it usually does. If you can’t reach this site tomorrow, blame Comcast.

Written by Christopher Burg

October 29th, 2018 at 10:30 am

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Special Delivery

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I’m assuming these bombs that everybody is taking about are newsworthy because they were mailed instead of launch from a drone.

Written by Christopher Burg

October 25th, 2018 at 11:00 am

Is Facebook Private or Public

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Is Facebook private or public? This is currently being hotly debated, even in libertarian circles where Facebook was by and large considered private up until it silenced a large number of libertarian-leaning groups and pages. I believe that in order to debate this topic, the definitions of public and private must first be established.

What distinguishes a private entity from a public one? I would argue that the characteristic that most distinguishes a private entity from a public one is whether or not you’re allowed to stop participating in it. If, for example, you stop participating in the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), you will likely be awakened some early morning by the sound of men with guns breaking down your door. If you’re lucky, they’ll kidnap you. If you’re unlucky, they’ll summarily execute you.

What happens if you stop participating in Facebook? You stop participating in Facebook. That’s it. No men with guns will kick down your door and kidnap or execute you.

Since participation in Facebook is voluntary, I will continue to argue that it is a private entity. Even if it does collect user information for the expressed purpose of selling it to government agencies (as many self-proclaimed libertarians have been arguing as of late), it’s still private because you’re not being cohered into participating in the information collection (until the IRS’s information collection).

Written by Christopher Burg

October 23rd, 2018 at 10:30 am

Spreading Democracy

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When referring to communicable diseases, it’s common to say that they’re spreading.

Considering that, I think the phrase “spreading democracy” is particularly apt.

Written by Christopher Burg

October 9th, 2018 at 11:30 am

Getting Married

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My wedding is this weekend so my time is focused on that. Regular updates will resume beginning next week.

Written by Christopher Burg

September 26th, 2018 at 10:00 am

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9/11

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Today is 9/11.

Although all of us who experience 9/11 swore we would never forget, many of us have.

So let us all take a solemn moment to remember what happened on September 11, 2001. Let us all remember the release of Slayer’s God Hates Us All album.

Written by Christopher Burg

September 11th, 2018 at 11:30 am

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