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Author: Hari

WordGrinder – a distraction free open source word processor

WordGrinder – a distraction free open source word processor

A long time back, when I was writing a novel[1], I discovered WordGrinder, a console word processor that’s designed to string prose together without any distraction. In the creator’s own words:

WordGrinder is a word processor for processing words. It is not WYSIWYG. It is not point and click. It is not a desktop publisher. It is not a text editor. It does not do fonts and it barely does styles. What it does do is words. It’s designed for writing text. It gets out of your way and lets you type.

The author wrote it to have something to write novels on.

Source: http://cowlark.com/wordgrinder/index.html

In my experience WordGrinder is quite as effective as advertised. I certainly managed to grind out many more chapters using WordGrinder than using LibreOffice Writer. There’s something strangely relaxing about typing away into a black console screen without menus, toolbars, widgets, context menus and other GUI distractions. Sadly my novel remains incomplete to this day, but that’s my own fault, not WordGrinder’s.

A screenshot of XWordGrinder on my Debian system

While WordGrinder is deceptively simple to use, just below the surface tucked away in a useful menu, it does expose features like semantic markup[2] and basic character styles[3]. Though WordGrinder uses a native format which cannot be opened by normal text editors, you can export your document to a bunch of useful formats for further processing, formatting or printing. In a way, WordGrinder is reminiscent of old DOS-based word processors like WordStar, but with modern semantic markup to allow clean document structuring. The best part is that, there’s really no learning curve — WordGrinder’s entire feature list is accessible from the menu and can be explored within a few minutes.

WordGrinder is still actively developed — the first release was in 2007 — thirteen years ago! The latest version, 0.8, released on 13th October 2020, not only has bug fixes, but new features as well. There is also a Windows version, though the application was originally developed on Linux. For a one-man open source project, that is quite impressive.

  1. sadly incomplete, long abandoned now[]
  2. heading levels, lists, paragraphs and more[]
  3. bold, italic and underline[]
Collabora Office – a full fledged LibreOffice port for mobile devices

Collabora Office – a full fledged LibreOffice port for mobile devices

A while back, I searched for a decent Office suite for opening and editing documents on my iPad and found Collabora Office, a full-fledged port of LibreOffice for Android and iOS / iPadOS. This is one of the few Open Source office suites for mobile devices around and one of the few that are almost as functional as desktop equivalents — most mobile office suites I’ve found are (a) not open source, (b) feature-limited, (c) not free and/or (d) ad-supported in their free avatars.

You can see from the screenshot that Collabora is LibreOffice, with minor caveats[1] and tweaks for the touch screen. In fact, it features the traditional desktop UI, complete with menubar and toolbar rather than a mobile-centric one, making it highly familiar for experienced LibreOffice users.

A screenshot of Collabora Office running on my iPad

I often make slight edits/modifications to documents within Collabora on my iPad when I cannot be bothered to open my laptop. One minor issue that I found is that the on-screen iPadOS keyboard doesn’t seem as full featured as with native Apple software[2]. With a compatible physical bluetooth keyboard, it might be possible to compose longer documents conveniently.

I’m surprised that Collabora Office doesn’t appear to be popular enough to merit an entry in most top-10 office suite lists for mobile devices that you can find with a simple internet search.

  1. Collabora features the equivalent ports of LibreOffice Writer, Calc and Impress, which I guess is enough for most of us. LibreOffice Base and a few other components of the full LibreOffice desktop suite are conspicuously missing.[]
  2. for example, missing auto-capitalization of the first word in a sentence, unable to type full-stop with two spaces and not working properly with some language keyboards like Tamil Anjal[]
My fascination with the Civ-style 4X genre has waned

My fascination with the Civ-style 4X genre has waned

I have always been a big fan of Civ-style 4X games. I’ve played Civilization III, V, VI and FreeCiv for countless hours in the past, roleplaying historical national leaders trying to build that supreme civilization to dominate all other civilizations and the ultimate empire to conquer and destroy all other empires. If you’ve never played 4X games before and you’re tempted to start now, be warned that they can be extraordinarily addicting and can eat up your life without your realizing it.

For more, search for “why Civilization games are addicting” on the internet. There’s plenty written on that subject.

A screenshot from one of my games in Civilization V

However, over the last few years, my interest in 4X games (and gaming in general) has actually diminished mainly because there is something vaguely repetitive about them. These days, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, I find plodding through “one more turn” more of a chore. Since the set of technologies to be researched, units and buildings to be built and paths to win tend to be more or less fixed, any new element of gameplay doesn’t seem to add enough depth to relieve the tedium — there is nothing really new to discover when playing the same game as a different civilization. Also beyond a point in any particular game (mostly after the exploration stage where discovering the map is a big motivation), it becomes quite impersonal and boring because your “Civilization” is ultimately nothing more than grinding a bunch of stats with pretty graphics. Yes, you can go to war with enemies, there is diplomacy which adds some interest, you can explore multiple paths to victory, but even those aspects becomes boring and repetitive after a while[1]. In short, I rarely find any motivation to play through a full game and increasingly find myself playing less and less.

Having said all that, do bear in mind that even during the peak of my interest I was not really more than a casual gamer; never a deliberate, calculative player in the mould of a hardcore fan; rarely experimented with fine-tuning game settings; never played multi-player against human opponents and rarely played at higher difficulty settings against the AI to challenge myself.

I don’t know, maybe I’m rationalizing my loss of interest in computer games in general though strategy and simulation games have always interested me more than any other genre. Ultimately it’s probably a good thing that I don’t feel like wasting several hours a day on Civilization any more.

  1. Yes, over the years Civilization games have found a bunch of new ways to keep players engaged, but ultimately it boils down to grinding stats[]
The era of use and throw

The era of use and throw

In the last twenty or so years, things have changed a lot when it comes to consumer durable goods, particularly electronics. We’ve seen the transition from the fat CRT television sets to ultra-thin LED TVs. From analog to digital. From metal to plastic (and increasingly cheaper plastic at that). Even in the last decade or so, a lot has changed. For example, smartphones no longer come with removable/replaceable batteries — they are soldered into the devices, making it much harder to get battery replacements. The shift from desktop PCs to laptops to smartphones (and tablets) is a case in point. Even earlier in the day of analog electronics, repairing devices was the norm. Over time, it has become an increasingly rare exception.

In the past, when a component of your desktop system failed, you simply replaced that part alone[1]. There was a thriving market for replacement parts. Laptop parts aren’t so easy to replace, and with mobile phones and tablets it’s almost impossible to repair or replace individual components. Well, it is possible to “repair”, but the cost of the replacement components makes it a better (wiser?) option to buy a new device. You can see the same trend in almost every other household gadget. Things aren’t being made to last — they’re being made to be replaced once every few years and the environmental and social costs are heavy. Notice how most electronic gadgets, even the more expensive ones, come with a measly one year or, at best two years of warranty. And there is almost no incentive to repair old devices out of warranty — just chuck them away and “upgrade”. I notice that there are fewer and fewer technicians who offer repair services at reasonable prices — maybe it’s just not a profitable business any more or maybe the products aren’t designed to be repaired[2].

It’s not that technological advancements have made repair harder than replacement as much as the manufacturers would like us to believe. There appears to be a deliberate movement away from reliability, repairability and build quality:

That scarcity is by design. Manufacturers don’t want you to fix that broken microwave or air conditioner; they want you to buy a new one. Some even send cease-and-desist letters to people who post repair information online. Back in 2012, Toshiba told laptop repair tech Tim Hicks that he needed to remove 300 PDFs of Toshiba’s official repair manuals from his website, where he was offering the information for free. To avoid being sued, Hicks complied, and now fewer people have the guidance they need to repair Toshiba laptops.

Source: https://spectrum.ieee.org/green-tech/conservation/why-we-must-fight-for-the-right-to-repair-our-electronics

Not just in electronics: occasionally, when I get my hands on an old household item, even something as trivial as a plastic bucket made years ago, it seems almost amazing how the build quality has deteriorated in recent times. It seems that manufacturers now have made build quality and longevity a “premium feature”, to be paid for through the nose, rather than to be expected in any product.

  1. in fact, assembling a desktop computer was and still is an easy project[]
  2. I suspect that the latter has contributed to the former[]
Blockchain domains for a censorship resistant Internet?

Blockchain domains for a censorship resistant Internet?

Most of us associate blockchain technology with cryptocurrencies and I guess that’s the most visible use of that technology today. However, while doing some reading on cryptocurrency-related technologies, I found that blockchains can be used for a lot more than that. Wikipedia defines blockchain as

a growing list of records, called blocks, that are linked using cryptography. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp, and transaction data (generally represented as a Merkle tree).

Yes, records that can store any data, including cryptocurrency, so the potential is limitless. Since each record’s hash and timestamp is stored in the subsequent record, this makes tampering with records well nigh impossible. A distributed, public blockchain makes it impossible for any one entity to claim ownership or delete the blockchain. Anyway, a description of the full technology behind blockchain is available in many sources including Wikipedia, and this is not my place to elaborate on that. Do read this brief but non-techie introduction to blockchain for more.

What I did find interesting one extremely interesting application of blockchain technology – effectively permanent domain names that can be associated with a crypto wallet[1] serving websites that are stored permanently on the InterPlanetary File System or similar distributed peer-to-peer file storage protocols, effectively making censorship hard to impossible. Getting started seems to be easy – Unstoppable Domains, one such provider of blockchain domain names (with the .crypto and .zil domain extensions) has reasonably simple instructions on how to get started with hosting such websites. You can also use the Ethereum Name Service to purchase .eth domains[2]. I don’t claim to understand how all of this works, but I can sense the potential of such technologies.

The biggest downsides, as far I can understand, with this newly emerging technology are:

  1. Blockchain domains are independent of the regular DNS that powers the world wide web. Currently you cannot just type a blockchain domain name in any regular browser and expect it to resolve, the exception being Opera which can resolve .crypto names natively. Naturally your website will be unavailable for discovery on search engines and people will need to install a browser plugin to view your domain, effectively severely limiting your potential audience.
  2. Once you put content on IPFS, it cannot be deleted, ever. By its very nature, IPFS is about permanent storage. On the other hand, normal websites can be deleted from a single location (your web host), though search engines/archivers might have cached (portions of) your website. The legal and ethical challenges of such content permanency[3] is also huge.
  3. With current technology it appears that only static files can be served through the IPFS, and so naturally you cannot host dynamic sites like blogs or CMSes which run on PHP or host any web applications that require any dynamic server-side technologies.
  4. On a more non-technical note, the very legality of cryptocurrencies and cryptographic enabled blockchain technologies in many parts of the world is a huge grey area, especially with regulators keen to assert their authority over all content and transactions on the Internet. Now that is bound to have a more chilling effect on adoption than any technological hurdle. Governments hate strong cryptography because encryption effectively makes it harder to monitor and regulate online activities.

To my mind, the above limitations are quite non-trivial and it appears that, the main use of blockchain domains at present is providing simple human readable alternatives to long cryptocurrency wallet IDs.

  1. owned effectively for life by the person possessing the private key – these domains can also be used in place of the Wallet Id in cryptocurrency transactions, and in fact, this application seems to be the primary use case for blockchain domains[]
  2. note: I have not been paid for by anybody to post these links or advertise these services[]
  3. for example you cannot effectively take down websites infringing copyrights or containing illegal content[]
There are no real online shopping deals

There are no real online shopping deals

The Indian festive season is here. Online shopping sites offer “up to 40% / 50% off” along with mouth watering credit EMI offers and want you to loosen your purse strings… And all the time, I’m still waiting for that elusive item[1] that is genuinely discounted at 40%.

Most, if not all, of the online deals even by established players seem to be big scams. To my knowledge any shopping site that offers “up to 40% off” or “up to 50% off” rarely offer any items with even bona fide 25% discounts and only a few items above the 10% range. 5-7% discounts seem more common and if you’re lucky, there’s a bank offer with 10% off[2]. The actual 40% off used for marketing purposes is mostly on clothing (branded and unbranded) which is grossly overpriced anyway[3].

The other big issue with discounts I’ve found is that online stores frequently quote old MRPs to show inflated discounts on items that have already dropped in price. This “oversight” is frequently the case with electronic items, where manufacturers often drop the maximum retail prices of existing models when a newer model is released. A price drop by the manufacturer is not a discount and in any case selling the product above that price is an offence. And I don’t know why, but it’s not trivial to get official information regarding current prices of older models from manufacturers. More often than not, older products are pulled down from the official website, and even if still sold, there is no price information available. Getting this information must be possible[4], but probably requires quite a bit of digging and persistence. I doubt whether they will make it easy anyway because revealing the price information in black and white will make it easy for consumers to calculate the real discount and not the discount that is marked by the retailer.

My suggestion then: ignore all these deals. Don’t go by the marked discount on the product but consider whether you really need the product and that it’s is worth paying for from your own perspective. Yes, the sweet deal may end in the next 3 hrs 45 mins and 32 seconds, but don’t be surprised to find the same deal still valid for another “12 hrs” the next day.

  1. with a clearly marked and verifiable current Maximum Retail Price[]
  2. of course, subject to a maximum limit which makes it much less generous for higher priced products[]
  3. speaking of clothing, even in physical retail stores, that 40% off item is always something nobody really wants[]
  4. I’ve not tried e-mailing manufacturers yet[]
Why mobile games are usually so awful

Why mobile games are usually so awful

Try installing any random game on your Android phone or iOS device and chances are that the game sucks. More often than not, the game is severely curtailed in its free avatar and requires you to make micro payments to advance further into the game. And most likely the “game currency”[1] cannot be earned enough in-game and usually require to be bought using real currency. Even paid games suffer from this to some extent, in the sense that you usually pay mainly to remove ads and enable some content, but unlocking more content/levels require further micro payments. Over the years, this mechanic seems to have become the de-facto norm for mobile games. In “free” games, on top of such crippled gameplay you also get annoying in-game ads interrupting every few minutes that simply takes away any sense of immersion. And then, of course, you have the problem of “games” that are not really games but pure-and-distilled crappy spyware.

Search for “why are mobile games so bad” on the internet and you’ll find that this is a popular sentiment.

From my perspective, the answer is this – there is no market for serious gaming on mobiles because budget to mid-range mobiles are usually underpowered, and mobiles are not ergonomic enough for serious gameplay. High end mobiles which make somewhat decent gaming possible are expensive enough to be a niche market. Most casual gamers are not going to shell out big money for mobile games[2] and mobile game developers probably cannot make enough money to justify developing high-end games, which would only work on the expensive devices anyway. The bigger problem, is that, being primarily touch-operated devices, mobile games have to keep the input and interactivity simple and basic while many serious games require complicated inputs, including keyboard interactions to be ergonomic enough for sophisticated gameplay.

What is more surprising in my opinion is that, there is no real popular open source eco-system for mobile software (including games) similar to the desktop open source software eco-system that developed around Linux. You can be productive in a desktop system with entirely open source software on an open source operating system (Linux) not having to deal with any crapware/adware/spyware, but no such popular open source app eco-system exists for Android that I am aware of.

  1. coins or gems or whatever that are required to unlock higher levels of gameplay/mechanics/content[]
  2. serious gamers who almost never play mobile games simply won’t care[]
Sarcastic LinkedIn?

Sarcastic LinkedIn?

I usually don’t pay much attention to spam notifications from LinkedIn in my mailbox, but this one caught my eye. Yay! I have all of 1 new view and my “work and accomplishments” are being recognized.

Is this LinkedIn’s way of being sarcastic about my lack of activity on that site? To be honest, I’ve not ever done anything on LinkedIn other than create a profile years ago and add a few contacts. I’m sure there are lots of people whose work is recognized on LinkedIn but I’m not one of them, that’s for sure.

What happened to the sub 5 inch Android phone market?

What happened to the sub 5 inch Android phone market?

smartphone

Is it just me, or are there other smartphone users who’d prefer a device that can be held and operated on one hand and a thumb?

Is there no market for such Android phones that you can operate from one hand? It appears that there are very few small form factor Android phones on the market these days. There are no decently specced models that are less than 5.5″ that I can find online. This is simply annoying because not everybody wants a large screen[1]. For me, and I suspect for a lot of people, operating a phone with two hands is an ergonomic issue. Even my Nokia 2.1 (which is a 5.5″ model) is hard to operate with one hand alone for some tasks. I frequently find myself switching the phone to my left hand to use the right forefinger for touch operations. On the other hand, my old iPhone 5s which its 4″ screen is still a delight to hold and operate. Yes, the keypad is too small, but still usable at that size. I think the 4.7″ to 5″ form factor is ideal.

I do understand the need for large screen smartphones, since some people want to use their phone as a mini tablet (especially with the monster sized 6.7″ screen phones), but surely there must be users who just want to conveniently hold the phone and operate it with a thumb. Besides smaller phones fit snugly into the trouser pocket.

The other issue with larger screens is that they draw more battery power and drain even powerful 4000+ mAh batteries in a short duration. So manufacturers have to stuff the phone with more powerful batteries just to get the same charge duration. I also find the overall weight of larger phones to be an issue.

Maybe the trend will once again change and soon we’ll have reasonably sized smartphones once again. In the meantime, the still somewhat pricey older iPhone 7 and 8 (with 4.7″ screens) seem to be the only options in the sub 5″ smartphone category.

Edit: There is a list of current 5″ smartphone models compiled by digit.in. And yes, the iPhone 7 is at the top of the list.

  1. some of us use phones as phones, not as video-watching devices[]
A Brand New Start

A Brand New Start

After a long time, I’m starting over. In 2005, I started blogging with WordPress and eventually moved to my own custom-made PHP blogging platform. But now, I feel the time has come for me to start afresh, because the old harishankar.org has become a bit too unwieldy to maintain. Also, using a standard software like WordPress will ensure that the script is kept updated with the latest PHP security requirements. Since this *is* a new start, I’m planning to write a lot more, apart from sharing my usual artwork.

Over a period of time, I noticed that I just didn’t get motivated enough to write more. I think this new start should definitely help find some focus.