Devices Science and nature

A quantum computer did something a classical computer just can’t do

Quantum computing still seems to be at a pretty early stage. At the same time, it looks like it has the potential to do truly remarkable things. In at least one case, it did something a classical computer just can’t feasibly do:

But that seriously understates what’s going on here. Every calculation that’s done on a quantum computer will end up being a measurement of a quantum system. And in this case, there is simply no way to get that probability distribution using a classical computer. With this system, we can get it in under 10 minutes, and most of that time is spent in processing that doesn’t involve the qubits. As the researchers put it, “To our knowledge, this experiment marks the first computation that can only be performed on a quantum processor.”

Ars Technica

For more, read the full article “Paper leaks showing a quantum computer doing something a supercomputer can’t | Ars Technica“.

Image credit: DWave 128 chip by DWave, licensed CC BY 3.0

Devices Writing

Multilingual keyboards can be tricky

Here in Israel we have people who speak Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, and English (just to name more common languages). Keyboards sold here tend to have at least English and Hebrew layouts to cater for what are probably more typical requirements.

When I bought a new keyboard and mouse for our daughter (I went with a Logitech K120 cabled keyboard and mouse combo), I managed to buy a keyboard with English, Hebrew, and Cyrillic layouts.

Multilingual keyboard
English, Hebrew, and Cyrillic layouts on a keyboard.

I don’t speak Russian, so I don’t have a need for the Cyrillic layout. I’ve been using my daughter’s keyboard this morning, and having the extra Cyrillic layout is a little too confusing for me.

Featured image credit: Juan Gomez on Unsplash

Applications Coding Devices

Giving a 2011 MacBook Air new life with Linux

I bought my wife a 11″ MacBook Air in 2011. It’s a Intel® Core™ i7-2677M CPU @ 1.80GHz (four core) laptop with 4GB of RAM. Over time the battery became less effective, and started to swell. We eventually removed it early last year, before it burst.

That left my wife with her MacBook Air that she had to use when connected to main power. It had also become pretty sluggish between macOS updates, and general cruft accumulation so it took forever for the device to boot up, and perform simple tasks.

My wife recently left her job, and we bought her (formerly) work Lenovo laptop for her to use as a personal machine. This left her MacBook Air gathering dust in a corner of the apartment.

An available option

I’d wanted a personal laptop for my non-Automattic projects, and was building up the courage to buy a new machine that I’d install Linux on. I decided to see if my wife’s laptop would suffice, instead.

I first reset the device, and poked around a bit in macOS. The laptop is past the support cut-off for the current macOS version, so it was running High Sierra (I think). It worked ok, but it felt pretty slow.

Setting it up

I’ve also wanted a Linux laptop to geek out on, so I took a leap, and wiped the drive completely (I was actually planning to configure dual boot, but couldn’t work this out), and installed Pop!_OS by System76 on it.

I installed a couple of my preferred apps such as Sublime Text, Sublime Merge, Dropbox, and so on. I also switched my shell over to ZSH (with Oh My ZSH), installed Conda as my main Python distro/option, and even figured out how to run Jupyter Lab on the laptop.

Of course I also installed the app for Linux testing too.

The laptop still seemed a bit sluggish initially, and it looked like all the processors were maxing out. I also couldn’t work out how to make the dock appear in a more convenient way, and how to add other bits and pieces to my desktop to improve my experience.

I then switched the desktop environment to the MATE desktop, and it seemed to help. For one thing, MATE is better suited to older hardware, and it has a bunch of indicators and widgets that you can customise. I liked it, but I still preferred the overall aesthetic of Pop!_OS.

I also realised that the reason why the laptop was so sluggish was because Dropbox was being Dropbox when it started up. It eventually released its death grip on the processors, to a degree.

Getting used to a different environment

My one big adjustment has been moving from my glorious 15″ Macbook Pro screen where I spend most of my time, to a teeny 11″ screen. On the other hand, I do like the much smaller form factor for mobility.

The laptop is small enough that I may even be willing to take this with me on work trips so I have a personal device for movies (assuming I can get them onto the device, legitimately), projects on longer flights, and so on.

The immediate challenge to all of that is that this machine doesn’t have a battery. I’ve found a solution for that, though. iFixit sells an after market battery for this model for about $75. That’s certainly cheaper than buying a new laptop (assuming it works).

Other than that, it’s also taken me a while to figure out how to do otherwise routine things in Linux. I’ve found ways to customise my experience of the desktop using things like GNOME Extensions, and other apps and utilities.

Mostly, though, I use Sublime Text for my writing and coding (I know VS Code is what all the cool kids are using, I prefer Sublime for now, and it loads really quickly), Firefox as my main browser on this laptop, and I have my terminal pretty much set up with my various extensions.

More of the similar for other home uses

My experience with this laptop has reminded me why I much prefer a Linux computer for home. Our daughter uses a really old desktop PC that’s running Ubuntu 19.04. The PC is a Core 2 Duo with 3 or 4GB of RAM.

When it comes time to replace that, I’ll probably give her one of the new Raspberry Pis with an external drive for storage. The current version is just incredible for what you’re paying. This review will give you a pretty good idea:

The new board comes with a four core AMD processor that, I think, is pretty comparable to the MacBook Air’s 2011 processor, up to 4GB of RAM, and runs on USB-C power. The 4GB model costs around $50 to $60, and the main challenge is actually getting your hands on one.

A Raspberry Pi would probably be a decent upgrade on what she has at the moment, and she could continue doing everything she’s been doing (Minecraft, browsing the Web to school sites, general school research, Google Drive, YouTube, Spotify) just fine.

I’d be very tempted to get one for myself one day, if I could come up with a decent plan for how to travel with it, and use it productively on the road. The biggest challenge would be a screen of some kind, I imagine.

So far, I like this

So far, I really like what I have. I’d like to get some other apps going, such as AutoKey for text expansion, and Albert for easier app launches, web searches, and some of the tasks I use for on my work laptop.

For the time being, though, this Linux-driven MacBook Air is proving to be a pretty good choice.

Featured Image: Unleash Your Potential Robot by Kate Hazen at System76, licensed CC BY SA

Devices Mobile Tech

Folding smartphones remind me of the old Nokia Communicator devices

These new range of folding smart phones are really interesting (I really like the idea of a device that opens up to reveal a larger, tablet-size screen). At the same time, I can’t help but think of the Nokia Communicator series devices from over a decade ago. Take the Nokia E90 Communicator, as an example:

I was really excited about these devices back then. The new folding phones seem to be a v2.0, in a sense. I wonder if these will become more commonplace or, like the Nokia Communicators, remain pretty rare due to factors like price, and form factor.

Just on the use case for these new folding phones, Dave Lee has a great take on this that echoes some of my thinking, albeit not from the perspective of a gaming device:

Featured image courtesy of Samsung

Devices Useful stuff

Switch your family to Ubuntu Linux, it may be less confusing than Windows

As my family knows, I clearly prefer Linux over Windows, and if we didn’t have the option of using macOS computers, we’d be using Linux, likely Ubuntu.

With that in mind, I enjoyed Simon Frey’s post “How switching my parents over to Linux saved me a lot of headache and support calls“, partly because I switched my mother over to a Linux machine briefly, a couple years ago –

As I am a happy Linux user for over a decade now, I asked myself if it would be a good idea to switch my parents away from Win 10 to a GNU/Linux (I will call it only Linux during the rest of the post. Sorry Richard 😉 ) based system.

I did that and now 2 years later I still think it was a good idea: I have the peace of mind, that their data is kinda safe and they also call me less often regarding any technical issues with the system. (Yes, Win 10 confused them more than Ubuntu does).

Simon Frey

Sure, Windows comes typically comes preinstalled on computers you buy at your local retailer. At the same time, it’s worth opting for something different for various reasons. Simon’s post nicely explains his approach to switching his parents over.

I especially like how he first acclimated them to alternative apps that they’d use on Ubuntu while still using Windows –

Try to not overwhelm them with to much new interfaces at once. Use a step by step solution.

So first of all, keep them on their current system and help them to adapt to FLOSS software that will be their main driver on the Linux later on.

I know a few people in my family who could do everything they need to do with Ubuntu installed on their computers (and likely have far fewer issues, too).

Image credit: A Screenshot of the Latest Ubuntu Desktop (Ubuntu 18.04 LTS) by Mrsinghparmar, licensed CC BY-SA 4.0

Design Devices Miscellany Photography

Colourful computer history

I love James Ball’s colourful photographic history of computers.

These machines are grossly under-powered compared to the devices we use today. Still, they’re a wonderful reminder of how far we’ve come, and what lies ahead for us in technological terms. This Telefunken RA770 (circa 1970) is one of my favourites:

Via The Stylish & Colorful Computing Machines of Yesteryear by Jason Kottke

Devices Mobile Tech

My Fitbit Charge 3 arrived!

My Fitbit Charge 3 arrived a little sooner than I expected. 😁

Setup was pretty quick. I first had to install an update through the app on my phone, charged it for a bit, and then put it on.

I’ve been wearing it almost constantly since I received it (I take it off when I shower, even though it’s waterproof), and I really like all the data it gives me about my daily activity, sleep patterns, and even reminders to get up and move around more during my day.

I really love how I haven’t needed to charge it every day. I’ve been wearing it for about six days, and I’m on 41%.

Devices Mobile Tech Wellbeing

Counting the steps till my Fitbit Charge 3

I’m looking forward to receiving my Fitbit Charge 3 in a week or two. I don’t do any intensive activities but I like tracking things like steps.

Having an activity tracker that will help me track other metrics will give me a great view of my general health.