Posted on October 6, 2008 by rodney
Crash in the subway

I recently played a CD which was scratched and skipping, making a tick tick tick sound out of tempo with the music. So I applied toothpaste to the affected area and it fixed the skipping.


While on bike tour, my mobile phone charger stopped working. This was because of the way I kept it with the wire wrapped around it. So I attacked it with a knife, made it good again, then taped it back together with gaffer.


My laptop died last week. I won’t go into the reasons why, but to fix it, you must open the laptop, find a small chip, wedge something (e.g. cardboard/small rubber feet/a coin/chewing gum/etc) on top of the chip, then put the laptop back together.

Terrific. In summary, nice easy household solutions, lots of fun, especially the knife bit. Unfortunately, in the world of software it’s not possible to apply Macguyver fixes/the FBH and there are far more problems.

For example, I have been plagued by a problem with Wordpress where it would sometimes spawn thousands of web requests back to itself. I had the Apache “MaxServers” variable set too high, so this caused the server to run out of memory and basically puke. I found out that the 1000’s of requests were caused by a buggy footnotes plugin ((it makes footnotes like this)), of all things!

Actually, Wordpress is a continuing source of pain because once you have it, you must upgrade it every time someone finds a security problem, and that seems to happen every other week.

I had major problem with one upgrade, because they decided to support UTF-8 and other encodings for the database tables, and in the new config file it was set to UTF-8. Nothing mentioned in the upgrade notes that the old default was latin1. So all special accented letters got munged in the upgrade process, and I couldn’t get them back even after deleting the offending lines from the config. At this point it was too late to go back to the database backup I made.

Speaking of character sets, I sent an e-mail to a friend asking him to mail something to my address in Poland. I made the mistake of writing the e-mail in a correctly functioning unicode capable mail client, and using all the special characters necessary, encoded in UTF-8. Unfortunately his client was not so good, being some dodgy webmail rubbish probably being viewed through some dodgy rubbish web browser defaulting to ISO-8859-1 (latin1 again). So it was mailed to “ul. Ścinawska, Wrocław.” But it got through alright – the posties weren’t defeated by technology.

Most problems are caused by software. My GPS fell off the bike at 50km/h and rolled down the hill. It’s scratched up but it still works, apart from a really annoying and completely unrelated software problem which causes it to freeze, and you just need to wait for the battery to go flat, which takes 24 hours if it’s fully charged. Since I upgraded the firmware however, the device now only occasionally powers off instead of freezing – a welcome improvement. It’s not too bad though, my phone is much worse in this respect.

I suppose you’re wondering where this is going… well nowhere really so I think I’ll stop listing the many ways in which I have been thwarted by technology and focus on the positive.

For some reason my Internet has been slow for the last 3 weeks… like 30KB/s or less. Then two evenings ago it just got literally 10 times faster. Incredible! So I did that “apt-get dist-upgrade” I have been waiting so long to do on my laptop which I had just fixed with a piece of cardboard. Of course, the software distribution being Debian unstable, the upgrade of course totally hosed everything, requiring an hour or so fiddling around putting the pieces back together.

I want to include a success story, so I have to say it is Git and rsync. Git helped me merge together my diary, notes file, and todo list, which due to bike tour were partially updated in 3 separate locations. And rsync with its algorithm helped me escape the nightmare of partially uploaded photos done with that dodgy windows internet explorer FTP client rubbish which uploads the files in random order, and often stops uploading files halfway through. So yay. I’m sure no-one cares, but yay.

Now to the real subject of this blog post.

Everyone knows about the iPhone, but perhaps not everyone knows about the OpenMoko Neo FreeRunner. This is a mobile phone which runs almost entirely free software. Even the hardware design is released under a free license, so anyone who has a spare factory can make them. It’s an incredible project, and I have been looking for some Internet capable smart device, so OpenMoko seems perfect.

Except that the phone is somewhat underfeatured in the 3G or even EDGE department, it costs about the same as an iPhone, and the software barely works, not even for calls and text messages. If I ever owned one I would be forever fixing its problems. Its lure is that all the software is free: if it breaks you get to keep both pieces, and you are free to fix the problem yourself, and you don’t need to be Macguyver to do it.

The temptation to get this gadget is terrible… a tormentation in fact. But if I bought one it would probably be my worst IT procurement decision ever. I don’t know what to do.