01 June 2005

New mobile phone

I mentioned in yesterday's post that I'd had a visit to a dentist and an eye specialist. Both of these people are in Townsville, a city about 4 hours' drive from where I live. Eric and I drove there on Monday morning, and we stayed two nights, doing some shopping on Tuesday morning. I managed to find all sorts of odd items that I couldn't find closer to home, and I also managed to not spend huge sums of money. (Several times when we make these medical trips I end up buying something expensive, like a new car... but not this time.) I did, however, get a new mobile phone. Mine was 7 years old and didn't have a USB connector to enable me to use it as a modem with a computer that doesn't have a serial port (like the laptop I'm using for travel); nor did it have outgoing SMS message capability, which I've been finding the occasional need for over the last year. Because I travel a lot in areas where the only mobile phone connection is CDMA, my choice of service provider is limited to one: Telstra. So, upon finding a Telstra store, I popped in for a chat. I was not surprised to discover that explaining my internet requirements was a challenge. The phone store staff (several of them) kept assuming I wanted to get email (or view websites) on the phone itself, despite my repeated statements that I did not want to do that -- I wanted to use the phone to connect my computer to the internet, just as I would connect it to a fixed phone line at home. Eventually I was able to extract enough information to choose a phone that would do what I wanted, despite the best efforts of the helpful staff. Fortunately the rest of the process was easy: switching my phone number from the old handset to the new one. They didn't have the required USB cable in stock, but they did order it for delivery to my home address. As soon as it arrives, I'll see if I can get it all working.

31 May 2005

Medical news -- all good

Last week I had a routine medical checkup, including the usual blood tests, and I'd delighted to report that all the numbers were good. I got a printout that included the results of previous tests going back about 5 years, and could see that some numbers had improved, most had stayed about the same, and only 1 or 2 had worsened, but not enough to worry about. Yesterday I had an appointment with a periodontist to do some "scaling and root planing" on several teeth. On the basis of my x-rays, he'd scheduled two sessions, and the description I was given on the phone sounded ghastly. The reality turned out much better. First, my teeth and gums were in better shape than he'd thought from the x-rays, so a one-hour treatment sufficed; and second, the treatment wasn't nearly as bad as I'd been led to expect. It wasn't even painful without a local anaesthetic, just uncomfortable. Today I had a checkup on my eyes (routine follow up to cataract surgery several years ago) and the specialist said all was well, in fact better than she'd expected. She's been concerned that I might develop retinal problems, but there's no sign of anything wrong. That's a relief! So all of that, along with my chiropractor's enthusiasm about how well I'm doing, and the fact that I feel great, means that I'm a happy camper! Now to get my walking distance and speed up to that of some 80-year-olds I know, and I'll be bloody fantastic!

28 May 2005

Installing Ubuntu Linux

Today I successfully installed Ubuntu Linux on my new laptop. It was so easy! The only complication I ran into was understanding the choices on the partitioning menu. I had two partitions pre-done on the new laptop, and was intending to use the larger one for Linux. I'm sure I would have been better off with only one partition and letting Ubuntu take care of everything. Anyway... the choices were in geek-speak, and even with my Unix buddy Eric helping, we weren't sure which choice was the appropriate one. So we tried several; fortunately the wrong choices returned error messages (instead of doing something awful to the existing paritions) and by matter of elimination I eventually stumbled on the correct choice. After that, I had no problems at all. The laptop was connected to our ethernet network, so Ubuntu helpfully offered to download updates and install them, which it did without a hitch. It also detected the modem, the wireless card, and the wireless network, though it refused to connect to either of them. I suspect I need to do something else to enable that... a question for another day. The rest of the day went quickly as I explored things and installed programs. I enjoyed the beautiful brown Ubuntu interface -- as well as the really cool screen savers!

27 May 2005

My new laptop arrived today!

After the hassle of getting the order approved, I've been watching the Dell website with considerable interest as my laptop moved rapidly through the stages of being built and shipped. The estimated date for delivery was early next week, worrisome because we'll be away for three days, but to my astonishment it was delivered today! Eric's new Mac has been delayed, so now he's into computer envy, and worried that his might come while we're way next week. The new computer promptly found our wireless network as well as being happy with the ethernet connection. Good start! I spent several hours doing the things I do with any new computer, starting with muting the sound and then trying to remember where all the things are that I need to change to make WinXP look like something I want to use, not its "web look" interface that I hate. Tomorrow I'll install Linux.

16 May 2005

Not impressed with Dell's customer service today

When I bought my current Dell laptop a year ago, there was a problem with the order (the website failed to complete processing it), so I had to phone their customer service and get it sorted out. I was very happy with the service I got; it was fast and polite, and I could understand the accent of the person serving me. Today's experience was far less positive. After checking the website each day for several days to see if the order was being processed, and finding no record of my order at all, I had to phone today. (The web site says that once one's credit card payment is approved, then the order will be listed online. The fact that it wasn't there suggested a credit card problem... possibly I'd typed something in wrong.) So I phoned and listened to the recitation of "to do x, press 1; to do y, press 2, etc" twice without finding a choice that seemed to fit my problem. I finally picked something that sounded logical, and listened to music and advertisements for a long time before a person answered my call. Alas, the person's accent was almost unintelligible to me (I assume from the accent that the help desk is somewhere in India), but after I explained my problem, he said he was the wrong person to be talking to, and he would transfer me to the right person. After another long wait I got a different person (with a slightly more comprehensible accent) who also insisted he was the wrong person for me to be talking to, but he would transfer me to the right person. Another long wait (good thing it's a toll-free number, and I was prepared with a cup of tea and some snacks), and I got a woman who I could actually understand... who first said that she was the wrong person for me to talk to -- at which point I said rather sharply that I had been transferred twice and was getting a bit tired of this. She then claimed that all was well with my order even though it wasn't listed on the website. I argued, and insisted that she check the status of my order. She seemed aggrieved to have to go to that effort (being the wrong person for me to talk to), but apparently she did, because... Well, golly gosh, what a surprise -- my credit card payment had not been approved. Why not? I inquired. Don't know, but I'll fix it, she said. So there was something wrong, I said, and isn't it good I asked you to check? Mumble, mumble was the response. An hour or so later, my order is listed on the website, just like it should have been 4 days ago. I hope that call was recorded for purposes of quality control and training, like the recorded message at the beginning warns you it might be.

13 May 2005

Buying a new laptop

After two days of trying to talk myself out of it, I ordered a new Dell laptop. It's an Inspiron 510M with a 15-inch display and lots of goodies in it. It's too heavy, but lighter than my current one. I checked online forums to see if it's compatible with the latest version of Ubuntu Linux; all indications are good, so I'm encouraged. I don't want to cope with tricky setups on my first foray into Linux. I can do command line, but I really don't want to be bothered. I also ordered an optional power pack with an airline connector (among other bits). I've been really annoyed at Dell that they changed the power input socket on their Inspiron laptops; I haven't been able to get a tip for the Igo Juice power pack (that I bought several years ago) to fit the power input on the Inspiron 1150 I'm using now. I hate waiting for gadgetry to arrive...

11 May 2005

Computer envy strikes again

Eric decided to buy a new Macintosh, so I got computer envy and started seriously reading the Dell advertisements in the computer section of this week's Australian (newspaper). Even though my current laptop is only a year old and is working fine, I'm looking for excuses to buy a new one. Let's see... the wireless card in the old one doesn't work with our home network; the card is too old. Never mind that a new wireless card would be way cheaper than a new computer with a built-in modern card. Hmm... I need a bigger drive so I have plenty of room to install Linux on a dual boot and keep all my Windows programs as well as installing Linux ones. That's a better excuse, though I could replace the drive in the old laptop. I need more memory... again, I could put more in the old laptop.

Ah! Got it... I'm nervous having only one computer... what if it breaks down? Now that's a good one... FUD is great as an excuse for doing what you want to do in the first place.

10 May 2005

Resurrecting an old computer (perhaps)

Today I didn't feel like doing anything I should be doing, so I looked on my low-priority list and found "see if the old desktop computer works". I bought this machine in late 2001 and it went through 2 main boards in rapid succession and then (after the warranty had expired) developed more faults, like refusing to start -- an apparent hardware problem. I speculated that it might be heat-and-humidity related, since I've mostly attempted to use it during the summer. Today I tried to start it and it booted up and ran for a few hours before quitting. I booted it again, with the same result. I then took the sides off so I can see whether the CPU fan is failing, or something else semi-obvious is happening -- it failed again while I was out taking my evening walk, but the CPU fan was still going fine. Tomorrow I start pulling out boards and doing other boring diagnostic stuff. Whether we get it working or not, it's going out -- either to a good home (preferably in a drier climate) or to someone to use for spare parts. I suspect that in a less humid climate, it would run fine. A former neighbour had an old computer that gave her endless trouble while she lived here, but after she moved to Canberra (which has a very dry climate) two years ago, her computer worked perfectly.

09 May 2005

Success at last -- I can upload files to OOo

After months of intermittently attempting to gain access to the OpenOffice.org website (specifically to the Documentation Project's pages), I finally succeeded. The route through the SSH and CVS labyrinth was tortuous and marked by misleading or incomprehensible (to me) instructions, obscure software problems (at my end and theirs), and delays due to my travels, other priorities, and inconsistent Internet access. My frustration at this difficult process was not helped by the comments from several people that "it's not a difficult system to use" and the implication (even if unintended) that I must be unusually incompetent to be having so much trouble. Fortunately I was supported by others who agreed that the instructions were confusing; that it wasn't just me. And yes, the system is easy to use, once I got everything working. It was getting it working in the first place that was the problem. The first barrier (not identified for several weeks, and then only by accident) -- I needed to be a "member" of the project before anything would work. I didn't realise I wasn't a member until someone mentioned that I wasn't on the membership list. The what? The "How to Help" section of the Doc Project's home page says nothing about becoming a member; it only says to join the mailing list and view the task list. A closer inspection of the page reveals an item in the lefthand navigation bar: "Membership". Click on that and you get a membership list, prefaced by a line in very small type that says: "If you were registered and logged in, you could join this project." Ok, so I could join. Why might I want to? No indication; presumably the viewer is supposed to know. If you look under "Get help?" diligently enough, and know the right questions to ask, you can find quite a bit of information... but if you don't know that you need to know something, you aren't given many clues along the way. Is this the equivalent of the secret handshake? Sometimes I think so. Once that was cleared up and I was given the appropriate "project role" (Developer), I ran into the problem of "I'm following the instructions but it's not working". Much diagnosis later, I gave up and installed a different set of software and started the process again, helped this time by someone giving me a link to some well-written instructions that I could actually understand and follow. The combination of good instructions and different software seemed to do the trick, but one last hurdle was in store... for a week or 10 days the servers wouldn't let me in. At least one other Australian was having the same problem, so I was reassured that it wasn't just me. At last I am at home on a fast connection, and the problem at OOo's end is allegedly fixed, and -- by golly, it all worked! And as easily as everyone said it should. Incredible.

08 May 2005

AODC - Melbourne

Unpacking after the last trip was hardly worth the trouble, as we were heading off to Melbourne on Tuesday for me to attend the 8th AODC (Australasian Online Documentation and Content Conference) being held at the Hilton on the Park hotel. This is the second AODC I've attended, though I was a vendor at one before than. Last year I was a speaker; this year Eric and I ran a bookshop one day and I attended sessions the other two days. The bookshop was organised by Sue Woolley of Monarch Computing Services, who has gathered a selection of books on technical-writing related topics, many self-published or from small press in Australia. I had several books in the collection, so was highly motivated to help out. The conference was informative and enjoyable, with good food (morning and afternoon tea and lunches) complementing the good talks. The organisers include Joe Welinske, who runs the WritersUA conferences in the USA, and Tony Self of HyperWrite in Melbourne. Evenings were, of course, social events, including the popular "Uncle Dave's Trivia Night" featuring Dave Gash of Hypertrain dot Com.

03 May 2005

Goodbye to Joh Bjelke-Petersen

Former Queensland Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, died on 23 April at the age of 94. He was Premier for 19 years, from 1968 to 1987, including the time I lived in Townsville, North Queensland (1974 to 1977). In the early and mid 1970's he was (in)famous for not tolerating dissent; many protesters -- of many issues -- were arrested during his time in office. I wasn't one of them, but I easily could have been, given my involvement in feminist and environmentalist issues at the time. Joh did a lot for modernising the state and making it a place attractive to investors and business, but much of that involved selling off prime bits of coastline, approving development in environmentally sensitive areas, and other things many of us found distressing. And, no surprise, eventually he and many members of his cabinet were found to have been taking kickbacks. (Not that this makes him all that unusual.) His funeral was today. I was delighted to read that protestors had turned out for the occasion.

27 April 2005

Brisbane and Anzac Day

Monday was Anzac Day. Dawn procession of soldiers old and young, and lots of family members and others. We didn't attend; not our thing. Back in the late 70's and early 80's, I was part of a feminist protest group who attempted to march each year "in memory of women raped in war". We were, of course, not welcome, but we gathered quite a bit of media attention, especially if the authorities started arresting the protesters. We went to the airport in a taxi (no shuttle buses on weekends or holidays). Upon paying the fare (less than $20), I remarked to Eric that this confirmed my contention that the taxi driver who had taken us from the airport to the hotel the previous weekend had deliberately taken a roundabout route and thus overcharged us by quite a bit. I had failed to confront the driver at the time, and forgot completely to take his number so I could report him to the taxi authorities. Instead of going directly home, we were staying two nights in Brisbane. We couldn't get a cheap fare out of Canberra that would connect to a flight to our home airport, so we decided that rather than spending just one night in Brisbane, we'd make a shopping trip out of it as well. The weather that afternoon was most pleasant, so after checking in to our hotel (the Soho, on Wickham Terrace, Spring Hill), we strolled down the hill to the Queen Street Mall -- full of people enjoying the day, as we were -- and ate a huge meal at the Sizzler's restaurant, where I enjoyed not only the salad buffet, but this time the dessert bar. (Apple crumble with soft-serve ice cream is not recommended for low-carb diets any more than pancakes are.) On Wednesday we set out again, visiting Silk Road, the "adventure outfitters" where I buy my good hiking boots. Eric needed a lightweight jacket to replace his silk one, which is literally falling apart; he found one there on sale. Then we walked around downtown Brisbane a bit more before gorging ourselves once again at Sizzler's. Thursday we flew home.

25 April 2005

Conflux -- Canberra Science Fiction Convention

This weekend Eric and I are attending a science fiction convention, Conflux 2, being held at Rydges Lakeside Hotel in Canberra 22-25 April. We're impressed by the turnout (around 200 attendees), more than many Australian National Conventions manage to attract, even when held in much larger cities. I confess that I didn't attend much of the con itself, being busy with other things, but I did catch up with several old friends. Eric says the con was well run and had interesting discussions. I enjoyed the disco -- the one time of the year when I endure loud music and do a bit of dancing (free-form). The weather was very pleasant for the time of year. I lived in Canberra for 10 years, so I know that late April can vary from cold and wet to sunny and reasonably warm (around 21 C -- cool by my standards, now that I live in the tropics). One day Eric and I took a walk along part of the shore of Lake Burley Griffin. As I commented on how much the lakeshore had changed from my memory of it, I realised that I moved away from Canberra 17 years ago! (How time flies...) More about the Lakeside Hotel: I wasn't at all surprised to find that the lighting in the room was woefully inadequate, and the one comfortable chair was nowhere near any light, nor was space available near a light so one could move the chair. On the plus side, the buffet breakfast was quite good, and not a bad price if one chose the book-in-advance option for breakfast ($15 vs. $22 if you didn't book in advance).

22 April 2005

More notes from the OOo MiniConf

I wish I had taken more photos. The scene outside the lecture halls was as I had expected: hundreds of people typing away on laptops, taking advantage of the wireless connection that was provided to attendees (some ethernet connections were also available). Every powerpoint (including those in the lecture halls) had a multi-outlet powerboard attached, often daisy-chained to other powerboards, allowing many people to recharge their laptops. In come contrast was the situation at the hotel where we're staying, Rydges Lakeside. Choices there were modem dial-up, ethernet (at extra cost, $50 for a week, the most economic option when staying more than a day or two) and wireless (neither convenient nor affordable). I chose to pay for ethernet, despite discovering that the one ethernet outlet was next to the television set, on the opposite side of the room from the desk -- too far away for my cable to reach; and when I borrowed a longer cable from the hotel, theirs didn't reach either. Closer inspection revealed that quite a long cable was behind the TV, carefully coiled and tied so it was both out of the way and impossible to stretch across the room to put the connector in a convenient spot. My choices were to cut the cable tie or move the desk (finding a store with a suitable connector wasn't a choice at the time). Note to self: add an ethernet cable connector to the travelling communications kit. (I wrote a detailed complaint about this on the hotel's feedback form.) On Sunday, when searching for some place open for an evening meal, we happened upon the Pancake Parlour on Alinga Street and took advantage of their early-bird two-course special. Very tasty, though not at all good for those of us on low-carb diets! On our way out, we spotted a man typing on a small notebook computer with a wireless card. We struck up a conversation and learned that the Pancake Parlour had free wireless (we learned later that this was very new).

21 April 2005

Ubuntu 5.04 works on my laptop!

The Linux conference was handing out some of the first available (anywhere) CDs of Ubuntu Linux V5.04. The set included one live CD and one installation CD, so I promptly tested the live CD in my laptop. I was delighted to find that it came up with no trouble at all and recognised the display screen -- unlike the previous version (reported in my blog entry of 30 March). Upon discovering this, I lept up and shouted "YES!" -- much to the amusement of everyone else. I had brought my old laptop with me to give to Ian Lynch to take to Daniel Carrera. Daniel's preferred Linux is Ubuntu, so I tested the live CD on the old laptop and it worked perfectly too. Smiles all around that day! (I added a set of the CDs to the collection of stuff going with the laptop, but left full installation as an exercise for the recipient.) I haven't yet been able to get the communication devices working under Ubuntu (more accurately, I'm not sure how to do that), but I haven't spent much time on it. Several people have suggested that a full installation is more likely to work if the live CD doesn't, so we'll see how that goes later.

20 April 2005

OpenOffice.org MiniConf Downunder

After only three weeks at home (during which I failed to catch up with the accumulated snail mail, among other things), I set off on another trip. This one is relatively short: only 11 days, and all within Australia. I'm starting in Canberra with the OpenOffice.org MiniConf, associated with linux.conf.au. The Linux conference runs from Monday 18 April through Saturday 23 April. The first two days are for a series of miniconferences, of which OpenOffice.org is one.

This conference is quite different from the RegiCon in San Diego, because it has no associated trade show; it's all talks, held in lecture halls at the Manning Clarke Centre, Australian National University. So I had no place to display and sell my collection of books about OOo. In fact the conference did not allow book sales, on the grounds that they had an official bookseller. This argument would have been more convincing to me if the bookseller had actually been there during the two days of the miniconf (they didn't show up until Wednesday) and if the bookseller had any books on OpenOffice.org on display (they didn't). Not to worry... I displayed my books on a table outside the OOo lecture hall but did not sell them. Lots of people expressed interest in the books, and no one from the linux conference came by to complain.

The talks ranged from case studies of companies switching to Linux and OpenOffice.org, to macro programming, to discussions of the work of the OOo developer community, and much more. I gave my talk on technical and academic writingusing OOo.

A highlight of this conference for me (as in San Diego) was the chance to meet people whom I knew only from email and the lists, and the chance to talk more with Ian Lynch about his INGOTS (International Grades in Office Technology) certification scheme, which is expanding rapidly from its UK base into other countries. After hours we retired to a nearby pub and continued socialising until far too late; an important part of any conference!

30 March 2005

Linux on laptops

As a preliminary to installing Linux on at least one of my computers, I've been testing live CDs, with varying degrees of lack of success. Both of my working computers (as distinguished from the various non-functioning machines lurking around here) are Dell laptops. The "new" laptop is an Inspiron 1150; the "old" laptop is an Inspiron 2500. On the new laptop, the Ubuntu live CD worked fine, with one exception: it refused to recognise the display screen and so ended up displaying at 600x480, not a resolution that lends itself to getting any work done. Next I tried a Linspire Five-O beta IV live CD. This recognised the screen and displayed beautifully, but refused to work with my ethernet connection, thus preventing me from communicating with the internet. (I was trying out the CD at the Desktop Summit, so a Linspire tech was on hand to spend some time trying to diagnose and fix the problem. Possibly a fix went into the next iteration of Linspire Five-O, but I haven't been able to test it.) On the old laptop, the Ubuntu live CD refused to load at all, freezing completely only a seconds after starting to load. The Linspire live CD loaded, generating some error messages along the way, then at the point of setting up the time, date, and location, it appeared to go into an infinite loop, thrashing the hard drive for over an hour until I got tired of waiting and turned off the machine. Some research on the Web reveals several people claiming to have successfully installed a Debian distro on the 2550, but I'm not ready to tackle a full install yet. Next I'll try a Knoppix Live CD and see how that goes. I've downloaded the ISO but haven't burned it on a CD yet... stay turned for further developments.

29 March 2005

Keeping fit and healthy

Seven weeks in the USA has played havoc with my health and fitness program, mainly because I'm not at all disciplined about exercise and finding the right food. So I weighed in yesterday morning at nearly 5 kg more than when I left home on 1 February. Yike! (I knew the scales would give me bad news, because my left knee hurts whenever I go above a certain weight, and it's been hurting for the past couple of weeks.) Over the past two years, I've become a big enthusiast for the low-carbohydrate diet, and I've lost around 18 kg (nearly 40 lb) by severely restricting my intact of bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, and similar items. Fortunately, I like meat, chicken, fish, vegetables, and fruit, so a low-carb diet isn't a big change from my normal eating habits. Unfortunately, the past few weeks have been spent in hotels or at events which provided a complimentary "continental" breakfast which was mostly carbs. I am not sufficiently disciplined to skip the included breakfast and pay for an omelette or something suitable, so I'm paying for it now. Then there's the exercise factor. Exercise is boring, so at home I've built some into my daily routine. On weekdays, I get at least one good walk, because we don't get mail delivery where we live, so we have to go to the Post Office to collect our mail. This involves walking down about 180 steps and another 100 metres to the PO, then back up 180 steps. Usually we (Eric and I) combine that walk with a stroll along the beachfront (a pleasant place), to make the walk longer. In addition to the trip to the PO, we try to take at least one other walk each day, usually in the evening, again along the beachfront. Did I mention we live in the resort town of Airlie Beach, one of the gateways to the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia? It's a lovely spot. Here is an aerial view of the town and this is the view from my balcony.

28 March 2005

Home again!

I've just returned from a 7-week trip to the USA, during which I attended two conferences (at which I was a speaker) and two science fiction conventions, spent a day acting as a judge in the Society for Technical Communcation's International Online Communication Competition, visited my mother and various friends, and racked up what felt like a zillion miles on airplanes. I enjoyed the individual bits of the trip, but collectively it was long and tiring, and I sure am glad to be home again! The trip started with the OpenOffice.org RegiCon North America, part of the Desktop Summit, held in Del Mar, just north of San Diego, California. I spoke on "Technical Writing using OpenOffice.org" and spent most of my time staffing the OpenOffice.org booth, along with Daniel Carrera, Ian Lynch, Ryan Singer, Jason Faulkner, Adam Moore, and some other volunteers whose names I failed to write down. We answered many questions, passed out CDs, displayed the draft user guides for OOo2.0, and sold some third-party books on OOo1.x. Some photos are here. The trip ended with the WritersUA Conference (UA = User Assistance) in Las Vegas, Nevada, at which I spoke on "Strategies for Editing and Reviewing Online Help".

After a day to recover from the trip home (36 hours door-to-door from the hotel in Las Vegas to my place in Airlie Beach, Australia), I immediately got busy again with OOoAuthors, editing and writing parts of the OOo2.0 user guides. This is a really exciting project, about which I'll have more to say later.

27 March 2005

Committing bloggery

Yes, I've been sucked in to yet another time-consuming project. This blog is for random notes about my websites, OpenOffice.org, technical editing, travel around Australia, science fiction, and anything else I feel like raving on about. Join me at your own risk. I don't expect to post on any schedule, especially since my internet access is intermittent. When at home I have always-on broadband (ADSL), but when I'm travelling (and I travel a lot), I'm usually limited to dial-up and often have only a mobile phone for access. One's perspective on internet use is quite different when using a mobile phone (at 14.4 kbps), let me assure you!