Thoughts on The Man in the High Castle

Thoughts on The Man in the High Castle

I had never heard about this book until I saw trailers for the Amazon show. I must say I am impressed. This book falls in the genre of alternate history/high concept asking ‘what-if’. This particular book asks the question what if the Axis powers won the second world war. The way PKD takes the readers through the journey of answering that question is particularly gripping. The world building that takes place almost throughout the book is very vivid and well described. The setting is the America who lost the war and has now been divided to be ruled by the Nazi Germany and Japan.

The characters are human, that is to say there are no heroes just ordinary people going through an extraordinary life. On one hand, this makes them a little bit relatable, I think but also hard to care about on the other. That could also have been caused by the lack of a fleshed out villain. Sure the Nazi party fills in the role of the ‘big bad’, but it does not play an active part in the story rather is just present as an artifact of the setting. There is one more nitpick, something that threw me off initially. It is that the prose describing the character’s thoughts is a bit jumpy. The sentences are broken, sometimes a single word. I found that jarring and interesting later, thinking that this may have been done to convey the speed of thoughts. This may be a minor spoiler although it is presented pretty early in the book, there is also a plot thread about a book which describes what-if the Allied powers had won the war. The way this is handled is particularly interesting and thought provoking.

Overall, this was a great read and was incidentally my first read on the Fire tablet. I would recommend this book to anybody who is into speculative fiction and the history of the second world war.


Thoughts on Spectre

Thoughts on Spectre

Spectre, the 24th entry in the James Bond film series, is most likely the last Bond film starring Daniel Craig as the suave super-spy. After the serious tone of the previous three Craig starrers, this movie takes a much lighter note. Seriously, at one point the movie had Q (played by Ben Whishaw) telling Bond: “I told you to bring it back in one piece not bring back one piece”. That is probably one of the goofiest things I’ve heard at the movies all year. In some ways this feels like a homage to the Bond movies of yore with a lot of over the top action sequences set in beautiful locations all over the globe. I grew up watching Pierce Brosnan playing the character in movies that had ludicrous plots, great action sequences, beautiful women and goofy one-liners. So, when I watched Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond in Casino Royale, although that super serious, dark and broody Bond was not what I was expecting, I definitely enjoyed it. And over the next two movies the tone kept getting darker and more personal culminating in the awesome Skyfall, which is my favourite Bond film. After the doom and gloom of Skyfall, Spectre’s light-heartedness seems like the logical way to go. And it works out very well.

The movie starts out with an explosive chase sequence set against the backdrop of the beautifully shot Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico City. It turns out he had been trying to track down an assassin that he got to know about from a video message from the late M. His investigations lead him to the evil organization SPECTRE spearheaded by Franz Oberhauser, played chillingly by the ever-villainous Christoph Waltz, all the while being chased by the imposing Dave Bautista and picking up some romantic interests along the way. Monica Bellucci is back wooing Bond again as a not-so-grieving widow. And Lea Seydoux as the Bond girl Madeleine is a delight to watch. She plays the character with a confidence and steeliness that I haven’t seen in many Bond girls from the past. The other thread of the plot has the new M, played by Ralph Fiennes and the rest of the MI6 team, fighting against C, played by Andrew Scott, to keep MI6 and the 00 program being relegated into irrelevancy. The movie even slightly touches upon the current real-world issues of surveillance and privacy invasion.

But the real delights in the movie comes from the very well realized and stunningly shot action set-pieces as Bautista’s Mr. Hinx chases Bond relentlessly through narrow urban streets, snow covered peaks and train coaches. While the train fight sequence is a definite nod to From Russia with Love, the helicopter sequence in the snow covered peaks of Austria felt like an acknowledgment of GoldenEye’s introductory sequence. Daniel Craig also seems to have taken a page out of Sean Connery’s and Roger Moore’s cool, confident and one-liner spouting Bonds. His take on the character now seems to have come full circle, starting off as a wounded, fragile and grounded Bond and now settling down as the self-assured and larger than life character that we have seen and loved so many ties before. The theme of personal Bond stories that started with Casino Royale also draws to a close in this outing as Bond discovers secrets from his past. I think this is a very fitting farewell to Daniel Craig’s Bond.

I understand the host of mixed reviews this movie has been getting. After the grounded approach of the previous three movies, Spectre can sometimes feel like a remnant from another era. And that can be either good or bad, depending on perspective. Personally, I loved the movie. The only complaint I have is that I felt Christoph Waltz didn’t get enough screen time. But when has any amount of Christoph Waltz screen time felt enough.

Fedora 23 Workstation

Fedora 23 Workstation

What!? Two posts in a single day! That has (almost) never happened! Yes, in keeping with my promise in the previous post, here’s my thoughts on the new Fedora 23 Workstation release.

Fedora was the first Linux distribution that I ever used; Fedora 7 it was, I believe. I was in the first year of college and one of our CS profs asked us to put Fedora in our new college provided HP Laptops(on which we had already installed Windows XP, of course). The image was hosted on the college network. I downloaded it, went back home and got to work installing it, excited to find something new. Of course, at that point of time I didn’t know anything about installing Operating Systems outside of Windows XP. So, over the course of the installation procedure, I was appalled to find out that fedora had blown my XP partition to kingdom come along with all the data I had. The whole fiasco was my fault, of course, but I couldn’t help cursing at the Fedora developers. After that I was using Ubuntu for a long time (started with 7.10 if i remember correctly) and then I moved on to openSUSE making pit stops at Arch Linux and some Fedora versions along the way. Actually before installing Fedora 23, I was using openSUSE 13.2 and had upgraded to openSUSE Leap with KDE Plasma 5. But Plasma 5 is not yet at the stage that I want it to be and I suffered quite a few glitches, crashes and annoyances. So I started looking for a GNOME distro, which led me to Fedora 23 Workstation. Okay enough rambling, lets get this beast of a review/impressions started.

A disclaimer before I start – this is not going to be a review or how-to in the traditional sense. I am just going to document my experience of using F23 over the past few weeks; things that nagged me and things that I liked. I downloaded the Fedora 23 Workstation 64-bit image via torrent and proceeded to install it on my Acer Aspire V5-573G.

Fedora 23 uses a (GTK3 based?) Anaconda as its installer. It is a very good looking setup program and differentiates itself from other OS installers by being non-linear in nature. By non-linear I mean that once you launch the installer, it throws you into a screen which can be basically considered a hub. From this screen you can launch other screens for changing your keyboard setup, setting up time zone, creating a user and setting up your partitions. You can do all this in any order you like. While I didn’t have any problems with this, I can understand how new users might find this a bit wary. Something like Ubuntu’s installer which takes you through all the same screens one after the other is likely to be much more conducive to the people new to Linux. But then again, both the distributions seems to have very different target audiences. While Ubuntu is almost universally agreed to be the newbie distro, Fedora with its Workstation version over the past few releases has been targeting the developer user base. The only complaint I have with the install process is with regards to the partitioner, which seems plain confusing at times. Case in point: Before installing Fedora, I had a dual-boot setup comprising Windows 10 and openSUSE Leap 42.1 installed with the BtrFS for the root directory and a /data directory where I had mounted my NTFS data partition to be shared between Windows and Linux distros. Now anaconda showed me all my openSUSE partitions grouped together under the banner “openSUSE”. Under this group also listed was my /data partition and this data partition was listed again under the “Windows”(or “other”?) group. Since I had decided to replace openSUSE with Fedora, I deleted all the openSUSE partitions and created / and swap partitions for Fedora. But I was stumped for a few moments as I couldn’t decide what I should do with the /data that was still showing under openSUSE. If I deleted it, would it just remove the mount point or delete the entire partition? If I kept it, would I be left with some remnant of openSUSE in the installation e.g. the GRUB menu or somewhere else? I realized that would not be the case, since I was removing the entire openSUSE partition and GRUB wouldn’t find it when it scans for installed operating systems. The installation went smooth after that and sure enough, I didn’t find any remnants of openSUSE. The point is I realized this but new users may not. They might get confused and end up deleting their data and whatnot. What could be done to improve this is to group only the OS related partitions(say the / and /home partitions) under the OS-name banner and keep other custom created partitions separate. One other thing that might add to the usability of the partitioner is if they can provide a graphical display of the partition structure like Ubuntu and openSUSE do. That will definitely add to the feedback process from the system to the user regarding their actions.

After the installation process completed, I rebooted my PC and was greeted with a black and white GRUB screen. The fedora GRUB correctly detects my Windows installation to be Windows 10 and titles it as such unlike openSUSE which thought it was Windows 8. A very minor observation but very important to the usability perspective nonetheless. Fedora 23 comes with GNOME 3.18 which is the latest and greatest GNOME release. I had been a GNOME user when I started using Linux, then moved to openSUSE/Arch Linux + KDE 4 when GNOME started shipping on GNOME Shell and Ubuntu started shipping Unity. Back then I found GNOME Shell to be too unstable and feature-less and Unity, well frankly, I found Unity to be boring. So, coming back to GNOME after all these years, I am pleased to say that I love it. It is stable and properly usable out of the box, although I did add a few extensions. I never completely understood the what Activities were meant for in KDE4, but I should say I really like the Activities workflow in GNOME probably because the entire shell is based around it instead of just being an extra. You press the Super(Windows logo) key(or you could just click on the top left corner where it says Activities)to land into the Activities overview screen to get an OS X Expose like view of all your active windows.

Screenshot from 2015-11-28 13-04-14.png

Here you can start typing to search for an application you wish to launch and you are presented with a filtered list of installed application. Also, if the application is not installed you are presented with matching applications from the repositories, clicking on which will open GNOME Software allowing you to install it. NEAT! The whole process feels very intuitive, slick and snappy aided in no small part by the fluid animations of Windows moving about, search results popping up and the like. There is also the Edge Tiling feature popularized by Windows 7. I guess it is now a part of all major Desktop Environments. One gripe I have about the GNOME UI is that there is no Minimize button be default. Looks like they never added it back once they removed it back in the early days of GNOME Shell. I agree that since there is no taskbar, it is now of little use. But seeing as all other environments and OS’s have this feature, they should keep it even if it just pushes the current backward into the stack. See, I still use Windows very frequently, as do a lot of other users I’d wager. Coming from there and booting up GNOME, I find myself moving my mouse to the top right and finding no Minimize button. I find this a bit jarring. Not having a maximize button is okay with me as I can maximize windows by double clicking the title bar and this is how I do it in other environments as well. Of course, it can be easily fixed by using the bloody brilliant GNOME Tweak Tool.

Fedora comes with the usual repertoire of LibreOffice, Evolution, Videos, Rhythmbox, Shotwell etc. that you find installed by default in a myriad of other distributions.

Screenshot from 2015-11-28 12-47-57.png

The first thing I did after booting into Fedora was install the GNOME Tweak Tool. I don’t understand why this is not installed by default. This application allows you to install gnome extensions, apply new themes and some general tweaks(like adding a minimize button!) with simple clicks. This is useful for beginners and power users alike and every GNOME distribution should ship this by default.

Screenshot from 2015-11-28 13-22-13.png

Also I installed Fedy from here, a really nice post-install tool which makes installing non-free codecs, microsoft fonts, google chrome, steam etc. a simple one-click affair. Cool stuff!

Screenshot from 2015-11-28 13-24-32.png

And now, a list of miscellaneous tweaks, additions, deletions, observations, likes and dislikes that I made from my usage.

  • I removed Rhythmbox and installed GNOME Music in its stead. Somehow, I feel Rhythmbox doesn’t really gel well with the GTK3 look and feel and GNOME Music was enough to cater to my Music listening needs.
  • I removed Shotwell and installed GNOME Photos. I will concede that I did just to get the complete GNOME feel 😛
  • I installed Bumblebee along with the proprietary NVIDIA drivers from here. I did run into an issue where I installed just the 64-bit bumblebee libraries and Steam was refusing to start. It turns out Steam needs the 32-bit libraries to work. So, I installed the multilib bumblebee stuff and it got fixed.
  • Installed the Inconsolata and PT fonts.
  • Also installed GNOME Todo, Calendar, Transmission and Builder.
  • Installed the below extensions from
    • Messaging Menu
    • Chat Status
    • Removable Drive Menu – make life so much easier if you are switching between external drives
    • Media Player Indicator – A must have extension for me.Screenshot from 2015-11-28 13-51-22.png
    • User Themes – Need this to install new GNOME-Shell themes.
    • Battery Percentage
  • As I mentioned earlier, I use a DATA partition to share stuff like Music, Videos and Pictures between Linux and Windows. So, usually I automount my data partition at boot-up on to a folder called /data with rw options. Then I would create symlinks of the folders from the /data location to my home folder. Previously, I used to edit the /etc/fstab file to accomplish this. This time I used GNOME Disks to do the same. Screenshot from 2015-11-28 13-55-39.pngSo basically, you open Disks select your partition, click on the gears icon, click Edit Mount options and you will be presented with the above screen.
    • Switch off Automatic Mount Options, check the Mount at Startup and Show in User Interface boxes.
    • Add the options

      uid=<your user id>, gid=<your group id>

      You can get the ids by running

      cat /etc/passwd | grep <your username>

      I would love to be able to get this information somewhere from the GUI, say the Users section in the Settings app.

    • Change the default mount point to whichever directory you want to mount your partition, /data for me.
    • Click OK and you are good to go.
    • Then I created symlinks from /data partition to my home directory by running commands similar to:

      ln -s /data/Documents /home/sayak

      Dolphin has this feature where if I right-click drag a folder to another directory, it asks me if I want to create a link. I would like to see something similar implemented in Nautilus as well.

  • Suspend and Resume seemed to work just fine. But I couldn’t find any option to put my system into Hibernate mode. If anybody knows how to do it, I would really love to know.
  • I was pleased to find that Videos now has the option to enable a plugin which allows you to download subtitles from the app itself. This is one feature that makes SMPlayer(on Linux) and PotPlayer(on Windows) my favourite video playback applications.
  • Another gripe regarding the GNOME’s UI design. It seems that as part of GNOME 3.16, the developers overhauled the file copy dialog. Now when you’re copying a file you get a tiny circle at the top right section of Nautilus’ header bar. This circle fills up with black as the copy operation progresses.
    Screenshot from 2015-11-28 16-07-00.png
    If you click on the circle, you get more details as in the shot below.
    Screenshot from 2015-11-28 16-07-05.png
    This looks pretty sexy if you are working in Nautilus all the while the file is copying. But if you are working on a different application during this operation you would have no way of knowing the progress other than alt-tabbing back to Nautilus. This has been talked about before by others as well and the solution seems to be taking this dialog off of Nautilus and placing it in the top right System Status menu, similar to KDE and Unity. This will make sure that the progress notification is always visible to the users.
  • A new feature that arrived with GNOME 3.18 and one that I like quite a bit is the Google Drive integration. So, if you’ve added your Google account via the Online Account configuration section in the Settings Panel, you will find that the file manager now has a section with your gmail ID and a network icon on the left side. Click on it and you can access all your google drive stuff from here.
  • One thing that is missing and is useful for laptops is auto-brightness dimming when you lose power and you system is running on battery. On that note, I have also installed “tlp” which has been known to improve battery life on laptops. With tlp installed, my laptop gave me a run time of almost 5 hours on battery. It included watching an hour long episode of Doctor Who and listening to music on speakers while writing this review. Heck, I had even booted up my CentOS VM for a few minutes.
  • While on the topic of VM’s, I would like to say that Boxes is a potentially great tool. Although it needs some more polishing to become something I can recommend without any reservation. I have set up two Virtual Machines using Boxes, one for openSUSE Leap and other for CentOS 7. The setup was a breeze especially the one for CentOS 7. As soon as I selected the CentOS 7 iso, Boxes gave me the option to set up a preconfigured VM, asking me just for the username and password I would like to use. Once I provided those details, Boxes started the install procedure automatically. Next thing I knew there was a notification at the top of my screen saying CentOS box is ready to use. It didn’t ask me for anything else. I was like – WOW! May be this is something to do with the Fedora and CentOS relationship. I would definitely like to see similar features for setting up other, at least major, systems like openSUSE, Mint, Ubuntu and Debian. But everything was not peaches while using Boxes, there were times when I would launch Boxes and it would not show any of my two VM’s. I would need to relaunch the application for the VM’s to show up. Also, if I select an ISO from my NTFS drive for setting up a VM, the application fails and shows the error: “Box Creation Failed”. Wonder what’s going on there.
  • Another complaint relates to the update management. This is handled by GNOME Software’s Update module. Most of the time Software doesn’t show any available updates even if I manually hit the Check for Updates button. But then I go and do a

    sudo dnf update

    in the terminal or check for updates in Yumex, and I can see a whole bunch of software updates just waiting to be installed. I am not sure if there is some filter in Software that strips out some updates from the result list or something else is at work here, but it sure is weird.

  • Touchpad Issues – My laptop came with an Elantech touchpad. When I installed and booted Fedora for the first time the touchpad was very jumpy, to the point that I was unable to properly close any window. I just couldn’t aim for the X button. I didn’t run into this issue in openSUSE Leap KDE. It could be a regression in the new 4.2 kernel series, though that’s just me speculating. I searched for this issue in google and came across the below fix in Ask Fedora.

    dnf install xorg-x11-drv-synaptics
    cd /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/
    ln -s 50-synaptics.conf 99-synaptics.conf

    Also, tap to click doesn’t work in the log in screen. If anybody knows a solution to this problem, please feel free to let me know.

In conclusion, I will say that Fedora 23 Workstation has been working really well for me. This is probably the most polished Fedora release I have ever used. Looks like their approach of focusing on three core products is working out quite well for them. I am really satisfied with this. The only thing I miss from openSUSE is the YaST control center. Oh Well! Maybe I should give Leap with GNOME a try.


Until next time!