Thursday 8 September 2011

Dedicated Wallpaper Screen - everyone should have one!

There are all sorts of reasons why a person might need cheering up. Luckily, there are also all sorts of ways to cheer yourself up. For example, there are books which make me laugh out loud no matter how down I'm feeling - which really does make the black cloud go away, at least for a while.

One which I can really recommend is to collect all of your favorite photos, and have a second screen on your desk which shows you a randomly changing selection of them. They don't have to be pictures that you've taken yourself, of course, but there's something especially cheering about seeing places you've been, cool things you've done, happy times you've had...

It occurred to me a while ago that you could easily hook up a screen like this, to a superannuated computer. Gee, you could even build a little desktop gadget with a screen and a microprocessor... then of course before I could do anything about it, Philips brought one out. They were rapidly followed by a bunch of no-name Chinese products with an extra twist - they contained a virus that infected your computer as soon as you connected them. Neat trick. I had an actual Philips one, which was malware-free but not explosion-free. One day I noticed that it was a funny shape, and when I took it apart the internal lithium-ion battery had exploded, with enough force to bend the solid metal frame. It has never been quite the same since, and anyway there's no longer room for it on my desk.

At the same time I bought the picture frame, I started assembling my favourite pictures - the same ones as in my Flickr account, with the addition of some family pictures that I don't particularly want to share with the world at large. I found a wallpaper changer that worked well for me, and whenever my computer was idle, they'd scroll by in front of me. It was great, but there's one problem: if I'm not actually using the machine, I'm probably not looking at it. And if I am using it, of course, the wallpaper is invisible under the clutter of a dozen windows.

Fast forward to my new Linux system. At the same time I bought it, I also bought a new monitor. There was nothing wrong with the old one, except a broken stand elegantly patched up with cable ties, but the new one has more pixels, and bigger is always better (n'est-ce pas?). So, I suddenly had a spare large format (1600 x 1200) monitor, and thanks to a superhuman feat of tidying, a space for it on my desk.

It took me a while to get round to making this all work, though. There are people who have had multi-monitor systems for years, but I've always preferred to have a single large one - hence the present 1920 x 1200 display.

It seemed obvious to me that I would need a second graphics card, so off I went to Fry's and bought a low-end one, a Realtek HD5450. I've got used to how well Linux deals with new hardware, so I just plugged it in and expected it to work. My optimism was misplaced, however. I'm running a recent version of Linux (11.04, Natty) and all the bits weren't in the right place, fixed with a bit of googling. No matter what I did, though, the system only used the built-in graphics on the motherboard.

A bit more googling showed me how to change the BIOS setup so it would use the new card - but then it would only use the new card. There was no way to get it to use both of them at once.

There was a seriously heart-stopping moment in the middle of all this. There was one BIOS setting that resulted in a psychedelic display as the system booted - a patchwork of constantly changing colors. Eventually the system came up normally - but how could I change the BIOS settings again? It seemed for a short while as if the only thing to do would be to buy a new motherboard! Luckily, unplugging the new card magically made everything work again.

In the end the solution was simple. You can run two monitors off the same graphics card, just plugging them into two different sockets. And I didn't even need the new card - thank you Fry's for an extremely liberal return policy.

It still wasn't completely over, though. Convincing Linux to run both displays wasn't at all obvious. Not only did I have to tell both Gnome (the desktop system) and the monitor drivers, but I had to do it in the right order - otherwise one undid the changes to the other. The X-windows configuration had to be changed manually, using the magic command "sudo dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg". Somehow this reads your mind, figures out what you're trying to do, then generates the corresponding xorg.conf file.

Finally I had it all working. Still not there, though. The "wallpaper" monitor is to the left on my desk. But Gnome wants to put everything on the left screen, unless you've explicitly moved it to the other one. There's a box you can click to make a different screen primary, but it only has a limited effect. Luckily, most X apps remember where you last put them, so it's just a question of "training" the apps you use most. Every now and then, though, I click on something, and can't understand why nothing has happened. Then I look at the wallpaper screen, and it's over there. So I call it, "here Fido", over it comes, and another app has got it figured. (Well, actually I drag it with the mouse).

And what a constant pleasure it is, to see all these pictures of things I've done and places I've been. While I've been typing this, I've had...
  • the tiny landing strip in the remotest part of Baja California, whwere we went whale spotting
  • a beautiful, moss-clad waterfall in the Oirase Gorge in northern Japan
  • a still-life composition of freshly caught fish in the market in Cap Breton, France
  • several shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, taken from different aircraft at different times, including the ones taken while flying under it in the heli
  • a visit to Potsdam, Germany in 1986, when it was still East Germany, with just a single smelly Trabant visible in the whole of a huge plaza
...and of course lots more. The screen in the picture at the top is showing a public footbath at Sakurajima in the very southern tip of Japan. What a visual feast!

Monday 5 September 2011

Memorable Meals #1: The Governor's Lunch, K, Japan

A few years ago my then-employer decided to open a development centre in Japan, and asked me to take care of making it happen. As a confirmed lover of Japan, I was delighted to do it. It was initially going to be quite small - and as it turned out, it has stayed that way - so the initial office was in central Tokyo, in one of the sales offices. But at the time, there was talk of expanding to something much bigger, maybe hundreds of engineers, and of opening a second office later on, outside Tokyo. This led to an invitation to one of the Japanese provincial towns, where the prefecture had established an advanced research centre for computer science. I'll be discreet about the actual place, just like in Japanese (and Victorian) novels, and call it K.

As a consequence, I was invited with our Japanese country manager to visit the town and its research centre. Also on the agenda was lunch with the Governor of the prefecture (roughly the equivalent of a US state).

There was a lot involved in setting up our operation, and I was in Japan for three weeks. Luckily we were able to work things so my wife came over with me, and we rented a very nice apartment in the Aoyama district of Tokyo. That's a story for another time, but meant that we both went along to K. We took the train, starting with the Shinkansen (bullet train) line from Tokyo out towards Niigata on the Japan Sea coast. It was February - Tokyo was cold, around freezing. The train trundles through the Kanto plain for about an hour then suddenly plunges into an enormous tunnel, over 20km long.

When it came out, we were quite unexpectedly in a true winter wonderland, with huge banks of snow beside the tracks and enormous snowflakes falling gently to ground. We changed to another train, which followed the valley for a while, then plunged into another giant tunnel. At the other end it was still snowing and we thought we must be high in the mountains still - until we saw the sea. Something I know now - but didn't then - is that the Japan Sea coast gets huge amounts of snow - tens of metres are common, even at sea level. The journey continued along the coast, past small fishing towns and villages, still in falling snow. I love travelling by train in Japan, and this was perfect. By the time we arrived at K it was dark.

The next morning, the day of the lunch with the Governor, was fine, though cold. Isabelle went out shopping and sightseeing - the town has a famous park dating back to the samurai era. It was really bitterly cold and there was snow everywhere.

The lunch was very nearly a disaster before it even started. The country manager was horrified to see me on my own. "Where is your wife?" he asked, shocked. It turned out that she was expected at the lunch too - which was a surprise to me, since in Japan business is entirely conducted between men. Women in the professional workplace are treated as honorary men, but families remain unknown even to colleagues who have worked together for decades. Luckily I managed to track her down - thank goodness we both had rented Japanese cellphones. We snatched her up in the main shopping street, in a kidnap scene from a bad movie.

The restaurant could have been anything from the outside, but once inside we realised that it was an extraordinary place. It had been there literally for centuries, since the days of samurai warlords. It's the kind of place that foreigners just never see, that you see on Japanese soaps when the political bosses get together to fix something behind the scenes. Being Japan, there is absolutely nothing ostentatious or showy about it, everything is in the details.

We took our seats around the table - or rather, non-seats. The Japanese tradition is to sit cross-legged on woven grass mats, or tatami. However even the Japanese find this uncomfortable, and increasingly you find an invisible hole under the table where you can put your feet, as you sit conventionally on the edge of the tatami. In this case, it was even heated to keep our feet warm. Each place had a menu card, and ours had been translated into English. The polite conversation began. It was difficult - we had a translator, but it's difficult to be spontaneous when every remark has to be translated. In addition to the Governor, there was also the head of the research institute that we would visit in the afternoon.

I came close to making a big mistake. There'd been a program on the television the previous night about the railway that used to run to a nearby rural town, very nostalgic with shots of old people coming home from the market, interviews with schoolchildren trying to make a museum out of the station. By way of trying to make relevant conversation, I mentioned it. What I couldn't know was that another nearby long rural line was about to close, no doubt the reason the program had been shown. Rural railways are a very emotional topic in Japan - they were being built until relatively recently, in fact this one only opened in 1964, and the Governor had heard more than enough about the topic lately. The language barrier came to our aid as he defended the decision to close the line.

Every dish was exquisite, served with charm and elegance. They were all delicious. At a refined meal like this, there are numerous dishes, all served separately and cleared before the next one arrives. That's unusual in Japan, where it's more common to bring most dishes at the same time, and the notion of a western-style course is much more fluid.

Well, there was one dish that caused us some difficulty. The Japanese name is "konowata", pickled entrails of sea slug. Remarkably, you can reuse the sea slug afterwards - its entrails grow back again, a useful evolutionary trait as it turns out. Luckily for us, it is astoundingly expensive, about $50/kg, which means we only got a tiny amount of it. It was the centrepiece of its course, but could be readily swallowed without touching the sides.

There were 15 dishes in total, each served on a special plate or dish which no doubt has some traditional significance. Beer and sake were served throughout, though we drank very little considering what was in store for the afternoon. Finally the meal came to an end and, after the usual polite formalities and much bowing, we went out into the snow.

It's unlikely I'll ever experience another meal quite like that one. The evening meal, in a hotel with the heads of some local computer companies, was utterly unremarkable. The next day we returned to chilly Tokyo, by plane this time, but the memories of the Governor's Lunch will be with us forever.