Free broadband? Zen and the art of internet maintenance

The Labour promise to give me free fibre broadband doesn’t fill me with joy. You know what they say about offers that sound too good to be true.

My ISP is Zen Internet. It isn’t the cheapest but its speed and stability are good given that I’m still on ADSL and live rather far from the exchange.

But probably the best thing about Zen is that you can speak to someone who is actually at Zen instead of India. A couple of weeks ago my connection slowed down dramatically in the evenings. I phoned Zen and they reset my connection, which brought things back to normal. They called back twice on different days to check that all was still OK.

Do you think Labour’s nationalised internet  will do the same? Do you really like the thought of your broadband being a state monopoly?

 

 

WordPress and Serendipity Compared

Which is the better blog platform, Serendipity (s9y) or WordPress (WP)? I’d been a confirmed s9y advocate for a long time, in fact since 2004, when I switched to it from WP because WP had eaten my database. I was happy with s9y for many years, but in the last year or so I got the impression that it was beginning to show its age. There seemed to be fewer posts on the forums and the promised upgrade was taking its time to appear (though it now has); there had been few if any new plugins or themes.

I decided to start a new blog on WP and see how I got on. This is now what I use for all new posts (although the previous blog is also available as well). I thought it would be worth while to summarise the main differences I’ve found between the two platforms.

Upgrades

As I already mentioned, upgrading is sluggish on s9y. On the other hand upgrades of WP (both the main software and plugins) happen quite frequently, which is reasonably reassuring from the security point of view.

Appearance

There is a huge number of plugins and themes for WP – far more than for s9y. Actually, I’m all for plainness and simplicity so I don’t need most of these things but it’s still good to have them available.

Adding and editing posts

Here WP definitely has the lead. In s9y either you are viewing the blog in the way that a visitor would or you are logged in as administrator. Admittedly you can see a preview of any post you are writing or editing, but once you save it and return to viewing mode, that’s it. If you belatedly spot a typo in what you’ve just saved you have to login again as administrator. This can be quite annoying.

In WP, in contrast, you can combine both modes quite easily. Once you have logged in you can both see the entries as a visitor would and also edit them via a number of buttons on the top line. These allow you, for example, to add a new post, edit an existing post, or edit a static page (e.g. the frontispiece). All these things, and others, can be done without logging in again. This is a more flexible arrangement and allows consieerably faster working.

Getting help

There’s a vast amount of documentation for WP on the internet so it’s almost always easy and quick to solve problems or get answers to questions. For s9y there is practically nothing apart from the forums on the s9y website. In the past I’ve had good and quick responses here from helpful people, for which I’m grateful, but activity now seems to be declining steeply, which to me suggests a shrinking user base.

In conclusion

Regrettably (because, no doubt absurdly, I have a lingering sense of loyalty to s9y) I have to say that for me there’s really no contest; WP is now the way to go. If it were possible I’d migrate all my content from s9y to WP but it isn’t so I shall have to continue to run two blogs in parallel.

New feature in OpenBSD

OpenBSD has introduced a new utility in the most recent version (6.6 – now in -current). This is sysupgrade, which makes upgrading the system even more painless than it was previously.

sysupgrade downloads the necessary files to /home/_sysupgrade, verifies them with signify(1), and copies bsd.rd to /bsd.upgrade.

sysupgrade by default then reboots the system. The bootloader will automatically choose /bsd.upgrade, triggering a one-shot upgrade using the files in /home/_sysupgrade.

This is brilliant. I do upgrades to -current about once a week. Previously I had to reboot with a new bsd.rd and connect to a mirror to do the upgrade. Downloading the files took some time (more than 20 min) during which the computer was not available for work.  Now I just run sysupgrade and everything happens automatical. I can continue to use the computer while the files are being downloaded, after which the system reboots with the new upgrade. This is a major advance in ease of use – congratulations to OpenBSD!

Incidentally it also works for upgrading -release versions; it knows whether you are using -release or -current.

 

Vim – how to avoid hjkl confusion in Insert mode

 

 

Are you a Vim user? Do you like to use the hjkl keys to move the cursor in Normal mode, like me? If you do, perhaps you’ve experienced the annoyance of forgetting that you are in Insert mode, only to find something like hhhhh or kkkkk appearing on the screen instead of the expected cursor movement. I have to admit that this still happens to me, even after many years. How can it be avoided?

Vim experts advise that you should stay in Normal mode most of the time; it should be the default. I agree, and I do try to remember to do this.  Another idea, which I’ve tried in the past, is to make key mappings such as Alt+h and Alt+l in Insert mode to move the cursor. Of course, you still have to remember which mode you are in unless you make the same mappings for Normal mode. But then you’ve lost the simplicity of the default one-key hjkl, which was the main reason to go down this route in the first place.

The solution I’ve adopted is based on <https://stackoverflow.com/questions/7614546/vim-cursorline-color-change-in-insert-mode>. Here is the code I’m using in .gvimrc with a dark colour scheme (Murphy).

set cursorline
autocmd InsertEnter * highlight CursorLine guifg=white guibg=grey25
autocmd InsertLeave * highlight CursorLine guifg=white guibg=red
set guicursor+=n-v-c:blinkonO

This gives a light grey cursor line in Insert mode which stand out on the dark background but not too starkly. (The last character in the bottom line is a zero.)

Insert mode

In Normal mode the cursor line becomes red.

Normal mode

I use the default cursor, which is block in Normal mode and 25% in Insert mode. Both are white; I’ve set the Normal mode cursor not to blink.

I find that this set-up acts as an effective reminder of which mode I’m in.

Spectrwm – minor annoyance solved

One of the commonest things I do in Spectrwm is swap two windows (Main to Stack or vice versa).  This is done instantly with Mod+Return. But a minor annoyance is that the focus doesn’t follow the swap.

Suppose you have two windows open, A in Main and B in Stack, and the focus is on A. After the swap the focus is still on A but this is now in the Stack. I usually want it to be in Main, which now contains B. I can achieve this with Mod+m, which alternates the focus back and forth between the two windows. This is OK but can become annoying if I do it a lot since it’s easy to miss-type the m.

For a time I solved this by setting the pointer focus to “follow” instead of the default, but this wasn’t ideal; it required me to keep the pointer always in the left side of the screen and occasionally the display got messed up and needed fixing with Mod+q.

The solution I’ve adopted now is to remap Mod+Space (quick and easy to type) to give me focus_main. By default Mod+Space cycles between vertical, horizontal, and full-screen layouts, but I hardly ever need to do this. I’ve mapped Mod+v and Mod+z to give me vertical and horizontal layouts in case I do need to change them; for full-screen I use Mod+e.

Here are the entries in .spectrwm.conf.

bind[focus_main] = Mod+space
bind[layout_vertical] = Mod+v
bind[layout_horizontal] = Mod+z

i3 and Spectrwm compared

Introduction

I’ve long heen an enthusiast for tiling window managers and have blogged about them previously. I last used i3 a number of years ago (perhaps version 4.11). At that time I said that I liked it but preferred Spectrwm. Now i3 is at version 4.6 and its popularity seems to be expanding, so I thought it was time to give it a fresh look to see whether I still prefer Spectrwm. I find I do although i3 is certainly impressive.

Here I summarise what seem to me to be the main differences between the two WMs. Obviously this is a subjective comparison but I shall give the reasons for my preferences.

Community and support

Here i3 has the clear advantage. It has a large user base and lots of online support (mailing list, IRC etc.), which makes it easy for newcomers to get help.

For Spectrwm this element is pretty much lacking. It has good documentation but there isn’t an online community of the kind that i3 enjoys. But it is still maintained; the most recent version (3.2.0) was released in Sept. 2018, and you can chat with the developers at OFTC channel #spectrwm.

Winner: i3

Design differences

The main way in which the two WMs differ is in how they arrange their tiled windows (both offer floating windows if wanted).

Spectrwm is similar to Dwm and Xmonad. The first window appears in the ‘master’ area on the left of the screen; subsequent windows are created in a stacking area on the right.

Spectrwm screenshot
Spectrwm screenshot

This isn’t as rigid as it may sound. You can work in any window you have open, whether it is in the master area or not.

i3 doesn’t have the concept of a master area. It places its windows either side by side (horizontally) or one above the other (vertically). All the windows are of equal status.

i3 screenshot
i3 screenshot

Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages.

i3 can produce more complex patterns than Spectrwm; you can mix vertical and horizontal windows in the same workspace, as shown above. Spectrwm can’t do this; the windows are either horizontal or vertical but not both in the same workspace.

However, in i3 you have to decide which layout, horizontal or vertical, to use before you create a new window, and as far as I know you can’t alter this later without deleting and recreating the windows concerned. In Spectrwm  you can alternate between these layouts on the fly with Mod + Space.

In practice I hardly ever need the complexity that i3 offers because I seldom have more than two or three windows open in any one workspace. On the other hand I prefer the working window to be on the left of the screen; this is easy to achieve in Spectrwm, simply by swapping the stacked and master windows with Mod + Return. Swapping two windows is possible in i3 but more complicated (you have to change the “mode”).

Winner: Spectrwm

Altering the size of the windows

In Spectrwm you can increase or decrease the size of the master area by pressing Mod + l or Mod + h. I find this extremely useful. In i3 you are encouraged to use the mouse to alter the size of windows, which is quite fiddly. I prefer to use the keyboard whenever possible; there is a way of doing this in i3 but it’s not very straightforward (change the “mode”).

Winner: Spectrwm

Miscellaneous

A peculiarity of i3 is that instead of using the vi key bindings (hjkl) for movement it uses jkl; by default. This annoys me . You can of course change it, but then you have to find an alternative for Mod + h which by default is used to set the horizontal window layout. This seems an unnecessary and eccentric complication.

Winner: Spectrwm

Available commands

As far as I can see, all the commands that i3 offers are also present in Spectrwm apart from those that are i3-specific . On the other hand, a useful feature of Spectrwm that I don’t think is present in i3 is the option to “iconify” a process, which means that it is no longer on-screen but doesn’t stop working. For example, suppose you start mplayer or mpv in an xterm to play some music. If you iconify the window the music will continue playing. When it finishes or if you want a different piece you simply un-iconify the window to make the changes. This command is also useful if you want to start a second browser temporarily or compile a large program.

Winner: Spectrwm

Conclusion

As you can see, for me Spectrwm comes out on top for all comparisons except community support.

Making this analysis of the differences between i3 and Spectrwm has been a useful exercise. It’s shown me why I prefer Spectrwm. But I don’t want to knock i3; it’s an excellent tiling WM and deciding which is better comes down to personal preference and priorities.  Newcomers to the world of tiling WMs would probably find it easier to use i3 initially because it allows for more hand-holding. But even if that’s your case I’d suggest trying Spectrwm later as well.

Fortunately experimentation is easy. Both i3 and Spectrwm work well out of the box with their default settings; perhaps the only immediate change that may be needed is to assign the Windows key (Mod4) as modifier in place of Alt (i3 has a wizard which offers you this choice as part of its setup process.) Anyway, both have configuration via plain text files so there is no need to learn a new programming language in order to configure them.

Mutt not weeding headers

Mutt has the command ‘h’ to hide (weed) most of the headers in emails. After an upgrade to 1.12.0 I found this wasn’t working. I emailed Stuart Henderson, the maintainer of the Mutt package for OpenBSD. He thinks this is due to a change in the code of the new version of Mutt. He advised including these lines in .muttrc:

ignore *
unignore From To CC Subject Date Reply-To Organization X-Mailer User-Agent Organisation Organization Priority Importance Mail-Followup-To

This makes ‘c’ work correctly. Thanks, Stuart.

Note added 31 May: Stuart has sent me a link which explains how the problem arose (https://gitlab.com/muttmua/mutt/issues/144). The change appeared in 1.12.0 but has now been reversed in 1.12.1 so the above lines are no longer needed.

KISS – A computer odyssey

Introduction

In a recent post on misc@openbsd.org Ingo Schwarze, an OpenBSD developer, wrote as follows.

I waste time whenever i have to select anything from any kind of menu, select any icon from any kind of iconbox or desktop background, select any file or directory from any file selection dialogue, or have to click any icon in any dialogue box.

I prefer typing commands and use as little menus, clickable icons, selection lists, and dialogue boxes as possible because it is faster, simpler, and requires less looking at the screen.

My feeling exactly. I favour the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle in computing, although it took me a long time to realise this fully. But looking back I see it’s a continuing trend.

MS-DOS to Linux

I got my first PC in 1992 to replace an Amstrad PCW, if anyone remembers that. The PC came with MS-DOS and Windows 3.0, which was replaced almost immediately by Windows 3.1. I didn’t upgrade. I didn’t see much point in Windows and continued to use DOS until, at some point in the 1990s, I began to experiment with Linux. After an initial unsuccessful attempt to use Slackware I tried Red Hat and got on better with that.

I knew nothing about Unix at this stage; in fact, I still knew very little about computers in general. But I was beginning to enjoy the intellectual challenge they offered and that was what drew me to Linux. At this time it was pretty much entirely reliant on the command line, but this wasn’t a problem for me because I was used to it from DOS and in fact preferred it. But the lack of word processors was a different matter.

Linux and word processors

My practical reason for using a computer was as a writing tool for books and articles. In my Amstrad and DOS days I’d had a word processor called Protext which I liked, but it wasn’t available for Linux. In fact, there weren’t any real word processors for Linux at the time; you pretty much had to use either Emacs or Vim. I tried both and eventually settled on Vim. Some people disliked it because it is modal (you have to alternate between Insert mode to write the text and Normal mode to modify it), but that didn’t worry me because Protext is also modal.

I still use Vim all the time, even though there are now plenty of word processors and similar programs available to me. The only one I have any use for is LyX, which I’ve used to produce seven books, but even there I usually write my text first in Vim and then paste it into LyX for final editing before printing.

Desktop environments and window managers

Together with the switch to Linux I also began to use the graphics mode, and that led me to explore the world of desktop environments. KDE and Gnome intrigued me at first but gradually I realised that I didn’t need or want either of them. Eventually I settled for a simple stacking window manager, IceWM, and was happy with that for a long time, until I tried tiling window managers. Since then I’ve been sold on them; nothing would persuade me to go back to a stacking WM. My favouring tiling WM, as I’ve explained elsewhere, is Spectrwm. (See my previous blog for details.)

From Linux to OpenBSD

I’d long had a curiosity about the Unix philosophy and I tried out FreeBSD, a couple of times, but found it rather frustrating and always went back to Linux. Then I tried OpenBSD, simply from curiosity. Over a period of about six months I became completely hooked, and four years later I still am.

The transition from Linux to OpenBSD was probably easier for me because the Linux distribution I was coming from was Arch, which is often said to be the most Unix-like version of Linux. I very much doubt I shall change my operating system again. Ths Unix philosophy  is based on KISS and that’s what suits me.

Conclusion

Looking back now over almost 30 years of messing about with computers (and doing some proper work with them in the process, obviously!) I see that there has been a gradual but quite definite progression towards simplification and minimalism.  I know that at least some other people have had a similar experience. If that’s your case I hope you may find these jottings of interest.

A taste for minimalism in computing probably reflects a more general attitude to other things in life. I’ve written a post about that as well.

How to make a sitemap.xml for a medium-sized site & edit it with Vim

Revised 21 June 2019

Sorry if you’ve come here because of the title; I’ve had to delete most of what I’d written because it’s no longer correct. It was based on using a site (Online Sitemap Generator) where you can make a large sitemap.xml for free (though you are encouraged to make a small donation).   I’d used it for about a year on and off and was reasonably happy with it, although I did need to edit the files quite extensively, which was the point of the post.

Things have now changed at this site; I get a lot of errors  when I try to make a sitemap.  The resulting file is unreliable so I’m no longer using the site.

I haven’t been able to find another site which offers free sitemaps for more than 500 entries. My book reviews page has almost 600 reviews so that’s no good to me. I’d be willing to pay a reasonable amount occasionally but the charges I’ve found on-line are more than I’m willing to pay on a recurring basis considering I don’t get any income from my reviews.

For the moment my solution for the book reviews page is to keep the last good sitemap I obtained and add new entries by hand. This isn’t a problem as I don’t often write more than one review a week at most.

For WordPress I’ve installed a plugin which provides a sophisticated sitemap.xml system which seems to be working well (google-sitemap-generator.4.1.0).

 

 

 

 

How to avoid problems with Vim undo & redo

Starting with Vim 7.0 this brilliant editor introduced a more powerful set of commands for Undo and Redo, using an undo tree. Being lazy, I didn’t fully get to grips with this and as a result didn’t really understand what I was doing. At times I accidentally deleted text I’d just writtenjjjk and then couldn’t recover it.

I knew the previous version of my work had to be there but I didn’t know how to get it back. After a time I realised that when things seemed to go wrong the solution was usually to use ‘g-‘ and ‘g+’ to go hack and forth in the undo tree.  But this was a bit hit & miss.

If you have had a similar experience here are a couple of useful site where things are explained clearly; Undo and Redo and Using Undo Branches.

Finally, thanks to a third page I now know why I occasionally deleted work I’d just done and couldn’t recover it. See Recover from accidental Ctrl-U. This explains why it happens  and provides a way to recover the deleted text. Better still, it tells you how to prevent it happening in future. Short cut for the impatient:  put these lines in .vimrc:

inoremap <c-u> <c-g>u<c-u>
inoremap <c-w> <c-g>u<c-w>