How about a Gaim of talking Pigeon?

Today, getting increasingly tired of the incoherent User Interface in Gaim 2.0 release candidates, I fetched the recently uploaded release 2.0.1 of Pidgin (same software, different name; the result of a trademark dispute) from Debian/unstable and built it against Stable dependencies.

First impressions: excellent harmonization of the behavior between supported protocols, thanks to a new user status handling that is common to all protocols, coupled with unified a icon theme. Overall, this feels much more consistent in everyday use and it serves to blur the distinction between protocols to maintain the focus on the conversation taking place.

However, two major annoyances:

  1. The old behavior of stealing focus, every time a tab pops open, is still there. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRGH!
  2. Extremely tiny fonts in the conversation window and trying to make them inherit the default system font size via Pidgin's built-in GTK plug-in simply fails.

Conclusion: libpurple may be technically amazing, but Pidgin really is in desperate need of a complete UI overhaul.


Almost there: granny-friendly PDF writing

One aspect of Ubuntu that I really enjoy is the sheer amount of constructive feedback a maintainer gets about the usability of their packages. In my case, CUPS-PDF [1] [2] has been a landmark example of how beneficial this feedback can be:

See, one long-standing goal at Ubuntu has been to include the capability to generate PDF documents "out of the box" and regardless of which Desktop Environment is used. Many people considered that CUPS-PDF would be an excellent tool, but various technical issues prevented this from working in a security-conscious way. Once that issue was taken care of, someone pondered how the PDF queue could be automatically created at installation time?

It turns out that we're almost there: with the upload of version 2.4.6 into Debian today (which should propagate into Ubuntu within a few days), only one configuration step remains: the selection of a PPD driver. Everything else is automatically detected and configured by CUPS itself. Kudos to our friendly upstream, Volker, for implementing this driver magic in his back-end code! Enjoy!


Bidding farewell to 32-bit computing

A number of recent events reminded me of how much time has passed since I started using Linux. Among these, the retirement of several 32-bit CPU architectures from the list of supported platforms on Debian and Ubuntu.

The first architecture to fall was m68k. Release Managers at Debian proposed to drop support for m68k after Sarge, which indeed happened: Etch was released earlier this month and, for the very first time in Debian history, without m68k support. Granted, a number of dedicated developers are working on porting the GNU toolchain to Coldfire (an embedded platform that supports about 80% of the m68k instruction set) and good chances are that they will succeed but, let's not fool ourselves: m68k is gone.

Around the same time, Ubuntu dropped support for PowerPC, just before releasing Feisty. Granted, there is still some PPC64 hardware being manufactured, but this is on the server side and thus getting farther away from the desktop market that constitutes Ubuntu's core business. Of course, given the plethora of 32-bit PPC hardware in circulation, in the form of second-hand Power Macs, the platform still has some lifespan left but, again, let's not fool ourselves: PowerPC is gone too.

And now, a message sent to Debian mailing lists suggested that, as of Linux kernel 2.6.21, support for 32-bit SPARC was broken and, due to an insufficient developer interest for maintaining the GNU toolchain, 32-bit SPARC was likely to be dropped for the Lenny release. Yup, we really cannot fool ourselves: support for 32-bit architectures really is gone.

Not surprisingly, my own computer collection has followed a similar trend: this morning, my beloved PA-RISC host left for the home of a happy computer hobbyist who had won the online auction on it. My Atari TT030 is likely to follow a similar route fairly soon. Ditto for the exotic Atari Stacy sitting besides it ...and let's not mention the huge stack of Pentium II and K6 desktop hardware sitting in the corner.

Looking back, I'm glad to have shared so many brilliant years with 32-bit hardware. The variety of CPU architectures and hardware designs was quite a learning experience. This being said, life goes on and my current needs are fully covered by my Linutop and by my aging ThinkPad.

Thank you for all those years, 32-bit computers. Enjoy a well-deserved rest in bit heaven.


Adventures in Business Setting

One funny thing about being a foreigner is the linguistic choices people make when communicating with me. Case in point: my new job at Artec.

This being Estonia, there's a plethora of languages to choose from: Estonian, obviously, but also Russian, English and Finnish. Russian is possible because 30% of Estonians are ethnic Russians (or related Belorussians and Ukrainians) whose ancestors were relocated during Soviet times. Russian also remains strong as a language of trade, especially among the older generation, while English tends to replace it for the younger generation. Then, Finnish is widely spoken in Northern Estonia, because of Tallinn's proximity to Helsinki and despite Southern Estonian being linguistically closer to Finnish.

People's choice, whenever discussing work-related matters with me, varies accordingly: some prefer to use English while, for others, Finnish comes naturally. Then there's a handful of older collegues who feel uneasy speaking either English or Finnish, so they address me in Estonian, placing special care on clearly articulating every word and on speaking at a slower pace than normal (to Finnish ears, Estonian essentially sounds like Finnish on fast-forward and with unusual choices of vocabulary).

I have yet to see anyone try Russian with me, although a few people have noticed that I get the overall idea, just as long as they articulate clearly and speak slower than normal. Then again, our ethnic Russians are so well integrated that they speak Estonian all day long, even among themselves, and I have been able to observe the same pattern everywhere I've been in Estonia. From that perspective, I think that Russia's claims about "oppression of ethnic Russians in Estonia" are greatly exaggerated.