Ubuntu losing its way?

As you can probably tell, I’ve been a fairly ardent supporter of Ubuntu Linux for several years now. I run it on all my machines here at home, and on several machines at work, including my primary workstation, a Lenovo X201 laptop.

It’s served me really well; every six months a new release has brought me a better, more reliable alternative to Microsoft’s Windows, with better support for my hardware, better pre-installed applications, and better usability.

It’s been so good that I’ve been able to eschew the IBM standard Windows software stack, and avoid the rather slow-to-evolve Redhat-based desktop that IBM has been promoting amongst it’s more technical community. Living on the bleeding edge with Ubuntu has been surprisingly easy.

Sadly, with the last couple of releases, that has been changing. Ubuntu seems to be going it’s own way, with a new graphical user interface (GUI) called Unity. Adopting it seems to have involved a lot of changes for changes sake. We’ve suddenly had the window controls moved from the right to the left. Now the window controls aren’t on the window at all – they’re on the top panel. And it’s design looks like something designed by a 6-year old with a set of crayons.

It might work well for people on a touchscreen netbook or smartphone who want to do nothing more challenging than check their email, but on my laptop, which is often docked to multiple high-resolution monitors, where I want to have a couple of dozen windows open at once, well, frankly it’s an unproductive mess.

I’ve tried to change my way of working. To adapt. But it just isn’t possible to do what I need productively. It just doesn’t work. I’ve also tried Gnome Shell, which is the other readily available GUI in Ubuntu 11.10. And it’s just as bad, probably because it’s very similar to Unity.

So with a heavy heart I’m getting ready to move on. The trouble is, what to? Gnome and KDE are both mired in the same “innovative new desktop metaphor” game as Unity. Which only leaves me with some of the niche desktop environments like LXDE, XFCE, CDE or maybe even Enlightenment. LXDE or XFCE are my most likely choices – they’re both similar to the old Gnome 2 desktop in ethos, but nowhere near as polished in their implementation.

Or my other option is switch back to Microsoft Windows 7, or to move on to Apple.

It’s not my preferred option, but I need my computer to work. It’s a tool, not a philosophical or religious debate; I need to be productive, to satisfy my customers, to earn money to pay the bills.

Think Bike

Rant on:

Exhorting all the other road users to look out for you does not mean you can ride like demented lunatics, ignoring all the rules of the road.

Frankly, if you are going to thread between three lanes of near stationary traffic on the motorway at (I estimate) 80+ mph then don’t come crying to me when you get killed when you run into the back of some poor car driver who was swapping lanes and never saw you coming.

On the drive to London this morning, and the drive home this evening I didn’t see a single motorcyclist travelling with the flow of traffic. They were all threading through the traffic at well over the speed limit. Idiots. All of them.

Face to face with Karmic Koala

One thing that does irritate the heck out of me with the new Karmic Koala release of Ubuntu is the new “face greeter” that Gnome have introduced with version 2.28. This shows up when you boot your system as a list of users that you might like to login as, with a customisable icon next to each. You then have to click on one of these entries with your mouse before an input field opens up for you to enter your password into, allowing you to login.

Although the screens are pretty, it’s nowhere near as convenient or as fast as being presented with an input field into which you just type your userid and then your password. It’s also almost identical to the login process that Windows XP introduced a few years back, which I always felt (perhaps uncharitably) was designed for people who couldn’t remember their userid, and needed a little picture instead.

Anyway, me being me, I want my login process back the way it was thank you.

However, the GUI that Gnome have provided to customise the login screen is somewhat deficient in this area, despite a bug report asking for some improvements. You can either have the “face greeter”, or you can select a userid to be logged in automatically without any user interaction (optionally after some time-delay). And that’s it.

Fortunately they provide a command line tool which allows you to customise many, many characteristics of the Gnome environment, called gconftool-2. And after some digging around it turns out that there are some settings related to the login panel (also known internally within Gnome as “gdm”) which can be adjusted using this tool, including one setting which disables the new “face greeter”. So if you, like me, don’t like this new behaviour, simply open up a terminal and type (on a single line) :

sudo -u gdm gconftool-2 --type bool --set /apps/gdm/simple-greeter/disable_user_list 'true'

The result still isn’t exactly the same as it used to be, as the login screen now comes up with a single button, labelled “Log In”, which you must click before being given the old, familiar password/userid entry field. Which is also deeply annoying, as this breaks a fundamental of user interface design, namely why ask the user to press a button when there are no other options available? Just take them to the next decision point in the process. Fortunately, a bug has been opened against Gnome to fix this, so hopefully we will see it resolved, but whether it will be in time for the final release of Karmic Koala Ubuntu is another matter entirely.

End of statutory sick pay

It turns out that when I went onto long-term sickness, the government started paying a contribution towards my ongoing salary, reducing the amount that IBM has to pay me. This is Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) and is funded from my national insurance contributions. From my perspective, it’s completely transparent – my salary continues to be paid according to the terms of my employment, ie, I get some time on full salary, then a further period on a reduced salary, before (if it was eventually necessary!) being retired under long term sickness terms.

However, it transpires that SSP only lasts for 28 weeks, and in my case, will run out for me at the end of this month. At that point someone on long term sick leave would normally become eligible for various other benefits which essentially “take over from the SSP”. They must be applied for via Jobcentre Plus, who front the governments Department for Work and Pensions. So, to ensure that I don’t end up being overpaid/taxed etc, IBM requested that I apply for those benefits, and notify them of the amounts that I receive so that they can keep my pay and tax affairs straight within their payroll department.

Which all sounded simple enough. And immediately shows that I’ve never had any dealings with the UK benefits system before. I had absolutely no idea about how wrong I could be.

I started off by looking up the nearest Jobcenter Plus on Google Maps, which is in the local town, and drove in to present myself. It turns out to be the entire ground floor of a very large building, all decked out with little cubicles for people to have their meetings in, just like a modern bank. Except the it’s completely deserted. I am the only “customer” in the place. The staff are clustered together chatting. When I break in, I am then politely informed that they can’t do any of this for me in person. Instead I have to phone their helpline, which they give to me on a little pre-printed sheet.

I resist the urge to say anything I might later regret, and leave.

So I drive home, and call the helpline, on a nice freephone number. And I then spend nearly 40 minutes on a crackly phone line talking to someone about all the possible benefits that I might be entitled to, and they open an “account” for me with Jobcenter Plus, and initiate applications for all these unlikely sounding benefits on their computer system. And then I sit back and wait for the paperwork to arrive. Which it has been over the last few days, in dribs and drabs, a piece at a time, each in it’s own first class envelope.

The interesting thing from my perspective is that I know from a quick look on the benefits website that I am not entitled to the vast majority of the benefits that the lady on that original call seems to have signed me up for, as I earn too much, and have too many savings. And this is despite the fact that she asked me how much I earned & how much savings I had right at the start of our call. However, having now been sent applications for these benefits, they are clearly expecting me to fill them all in. Which other than being a waste of time, would perhaps be OK, if it were not for the fact that the application forms seem to typically be quite lengthy, and they want to know in great detail about all my and my wife’s personal & financial circumstances. They also want original proof for everything; birth certificates, share certificates, savings accounts, proof of house ownership, proof of employment and salaries, outgoings, dependant children, inside leg measurement, etc. Apart from the fact that I don’t have a lot of that stuff readily to hand, frankly, I don’t feel comfortable sending it all off to them in the plain brown (prepaid first class) envelope that they have provided.

Talk about leaving yourself wide open for identity theft and fraud, let alone the concern over it just getting lost somewhere.

So I decided to talk to the regional benefits office that is in charge of my “account”, which is based in Southampton, with a view to clarifying which benefits are actually worth spending any time on (I think there is only one, the “Earning Support Allowance”), and cancelling the rest. They have their own 0845 number, but no geographic number, which is deeply annoying to start with. It means I have to pay each time I call them rather than having the costs absorbed by my included free “geographic” minutes. And then, when I call that number I am connected to an Interactive Voice Response system, which forces you to pick an appropriate department to talk to. Except no matter which department I select, all their operators are permanently busy. At which point rather than queuing me up to wait for the next operator to become free, the system then terminates the call. In short, they have been completely impossible to contact during the last two days, despite my calling them whenever I’ve passed my study.

I have an irresistible vision of another large room somewhere with the staff all chatting to one another, while a couple of phones are always left off the hook in a corner somewhere.

And the most galling thing of all is that our tax pays for this ridiculous system. God help us.

American healthcare reform

I’ve been watching the discussions in the media and on the internet (such as this somewhat one-sided website) around President Obama’s attempts to reform the US medical system with considerable dismay. As many of you know, I’ve spent quite a lot of time in America over the years, and like any country there are aspects of it that I like, dislike, love, and hate. One of the things that falls squarely into the latter category is the disparity in quality of life between the haves and the have nots, and particularly how this affects the ability to get access to healthcare.

I’ve known people in the USA go through periods of their life where they were struggling to pay their basic living expenses, being forced to borrow money to take their sick child to see the doctor. The safety net appears to be set so low that to all intents and purposes it doesn’t exist.

And now we have right-wing American politicians and media drawing largely factless and unfavourable comparisons, based on carefully chosen examples from the UK healthcare system. Needless to say, as someone who has had their life saved by the UK healthcare system, I find this rather galling.

So let me state my view of the current American system; from what I’ve seen, if you have private healthcare, or are rich enough to self-fund, then you can have immediate access to the most expensive (usually perceived by Americans as “the best”) treatments that are available anywhere in the world. If you don’t have private healthcare or money then your chance of getting anything beyond the most basic emergency room cover is minimal.

Whereas in the UK, we all pay a proportion of our income towards central provision of healthcare, which is provided free of charge at the point of demand. If anyone in the UK is ill they can see a doctor free of additional charges. If their condition requires referral to a clinical specialist (as mine did) then that again is provided free of charge, as are any further treatments that are required.

If you want to access private medical care in the UK then you can; you can self-fund or take out private medical insurance. You still pay for the NHS, but you can “top it up” if you want. In general that means you get much faster access to non-critical medical procedures, you get to choose your care-team, and you get to stay in a private room rather than a general ward. You may or may not get to spend more time with your care-team.

Is it worth it? Depends on your perspective. In my case the radiotherapy, surgery, post-operative care, and chemotherapy, not to mention the many years of subsequent diagnostic follow-up work that are needed to ensure on going health would all have been provided to me free of charge on the NHS.

In my case I used my private medical cover to fund my radiotherapy, purely because it simplified the scheduling of the treatments. It didn’t provide the treatment any faster, or provide any different treatment. I had my surgery under the NHS because the complexity and length of surgery was such that I wanted the treatment carried out in a hospital with 24-hour access to surgical staff – not the case in a private hospital. My post-operative complications meant that had I chosen to undertake the surgery privately then the private hospital would have transferred me back to the NHS anyway – they don’t do long-term care, as it breaks their business model. I’m now doing my chemotherapy privately, purely for convenience – the treatment and timing is identical, but the scheduling of each of my IV sessions is much more flexible, and the surroundings for the 5 or 6 hours I spend undergoing the infusion are much more pleasant.

But perhaps most telling of all, back in 2000 (the last time a ranking was produced) the UK NHS was rated 18th in the world by the World Health Organisation, whereas the USA only managed to get to 37th place. The most recent 2009 data from the WHO Statistical Information System shows that healthy life expectancy is 72 in the UK, but only 70 in the USA. And life expectancy is 80 in the UK versus 78 in the USA. So you have a longer healthy life in the UK, and then our healthcare system keeps you going longer in infirmity. And that’s despite healthcare spending per capita in the USA being nearly 3 times that in the UK ($6714 vs $2784), and this not taking into account the skew of spending across the US population.

But it seems that fat cat politicians and media moguls the world over never like to let the facts get in the way of a good bit of spin…