Must-have Extensions for a Chromebook

Submitted by jonny dover on 15 May, 2013 - 10:43

This guide is for those who are using a Chromebook without having installed another operating system (Chrubuntu or Ubuntu via Crouton); that is, you're using Chrome OS. These extensions are pretty useful all the time, though, so check them out!

StayFocusd

When you're using a web browser as your only application, your needs change and your consumption of the internet changes as a result of the OS you're using. For instance, if you're trying to write something in a traditional OS, you go to your word processing application and write it. If you're on Chrome OS you're going to have a tab for your word processor amid a sea of other tabs vying for your attention. You can cut down on distractions with StayFocusd, which you can configure to give a limited amount of time to distracting websites (naturally, I have mine set up to only allow a few minutes each day on Facebook, but anything you habitually flip over to can be put on the list. They even have an option intended for Reddit users which makes it so that when you click through a link on your blacklisted site, browsing the new site counts against your time). It's really been helpful for me as I've brought my daily use of Facebook from probably 45 minutes a day down to less than 5.

Vimium

Your OS probably allows for quite a few keyboard shortcuts, and so does Chrome OS. Some of the web applications you'll be using have their own keybaord shortcuts, like Google Docs. But enabling some really powerful keyboard shortcuts across the entire browser requires using an OS-specific tool like AutoHotKey or Autokey or Automator. How about bringing some handy new ways to manage your browser to the keyboard with Vimium. Particularly if you're using one of the older CR-48s whose trackpads are supposed to be sub-par, you'll be thankful for the way you can almost entirely give up using a pointer. As a fan of tiling window managers myself, Vimium is crucial to my being able to work efficiently on Chrome OS.

OneTab

This one is the raison d'etre of creating this list in the first place. Chrome OS should simply not be run without using this extension. Here's why: Chromebooks are intentionally a bit lacking in the hardware department because the software is so light. That's why we get the amazing price. But because the hardware (specifically, I'm talking about RAM) is lacking, Google had to build some rather overzealous memory management into Chrome OS, so you'll find that if you have more than 5 tabs open, tabs will be suspended when they haven't been used for a bit and then reloaded once you go back to them. For the most part this doesn't cause any problems because Chrome OS can remember your place and it tends to maintain your text input into forms, but in the case of any "infinite scroll" web applications like Twitter, the reload will bring you to the very "top" of the page, which can interrupt you in an exceedingly annoying way.

OneTab lets you limit this by having one tab that backs up the tabs you aren't currently using. Rather intuitively, it puts all your Tabs into One. This cuts down significantly on RAM use and makes it so that you can click away from your Twitter tab without it getting reloaded and losing your place. It also prevents the small time delay it takes to reload your suspended tabs AND keeps your performance speedy because your memory isn't tied up on tabs you aren't currently viewing. It essentially puts you in control of memory management rather than letting Chrome dictate how it's done. If you take anything away from this list, take OneTab. I wouldn't run a Chromebook without it.

Using Crouton on the Samsung ARM Chromebook (Series 3)

Submitted by jonny dover on 19 April, 2013 - 13:07

I took the plunge a while back of buying the Chromebook from Samsung.

For $250 USD I got to get a machine that rivals the Macbook Air in weight, size, form factor, and battery life.

Lots of people think that the trade-off is that you have a "crippled" operating system--Google's Chrome OS--whose only software is the browser. I think there's an argument to be made that it isn't as crippled as people have made it out to be, but I'm leaving that aside for now. Let's talk about the Crouton script and how it makes this machine truly unstoppable.

I don't want to get into a bunch of tech gobbledy-gook in this article about what chroot is or what it does or how Crouton works from a fundamental level. I'm more interested in building a quick guide for getting your *ubuntu install set up once you've completed the (incredibly easy!) instructions at the link to Crouton above.

Now that you've hit the developer switch that allows you access to the shell, and now that you've run crouton and followed the prompts, and now that you've got your new OS installed, you'll probably notice a few things:

1) This is completely awesome,
2) While the ARM repositories are surprisingly comprehensive, they don't have some software, including, unfortunately, Adobe Flash, and
3) Tap-to-click only works intermittently.

You're entirely right about 1)! No argument here. But 2 and 3 are a bit less awesome. The good news is that those problems are easy to solve and I'm showing you how below.

There is a guide here to help you install Flash which is close to doing the trick! But in the time between when that guide was written and now, the version of Flash used in Chrome OS has changed, so if you grab the libpepflashplayer.so from your Chrome OS install, Chromium in your chroot won't be able to use it. This is because nobody's maintaining the Chromium ARM packages, which is a shame, but there's an easy workaround. I'm going to use the guide from SuccessInCircuit (thank you!) and aggregate all his great work to form a fully functioning, current guide. This means I'm plagiarizing SuccessInCircuit, who again I can't credit enough. But this way you won't have to bounce between multiple articles, so I think it's useful enough to re-use SIC's work.

1) Start up Ubuntu. Use Chromium to download this version of libpepflashplayer.so.
2) Start a terminal and do
sudo cp /path/to/libpepflashplayer.so /usr/lib/chromium-browser/plugins/
3) Still in terminal, enter:
sudo gedit /etc/chromium-browser/default
This should open up gedit with the "default" file. In the default file, there should be a line that says: CHROMIUM_FLAGS=""
4) In gedit, edit the CHROMIUM_FLAGS="" line so that it looks like:
CHROMIUM_FLAGS="--ppapi-flash-path=/usr/lib/chromium-browser/plugins/libpepflashplayer.so --ppapi-flash-version=11.3.31.518 --ppapi-flash-args=enable_hw_video_decode=0,enable_stagevideo_auto=0,enable_trace_to_console=0"
5) Save and exit gedit.

You can also use mousepad or kate or any other text editor instead of gedit. Restart Chromium and there you are! It's an outdated version of Flash, but it does the trick. I still recommend using the Youtube HTML5 Trial to watch your videos on Youtube because Flash isn't hardware-accelerated so it stutters a bit where HTML5 video doesn't seem to do that. Flash is also a bit of a battery drain so I actually wrote a script to toggle whether Flash is enabled or disabled on Chromium (but it's a) ugly as sin and b) for another post).

Now you've got Flash! What about enabling tap-to-click on a permanent basis and making it so that you never want to leave your beautiful chroot home again? This is actually way easier. From the issue on Github, you can see that you can consistently enable tap-to-click by doing a bizarre ritual whenever you launch your *ubuntu. Instead of
sudo startxfce4 do sleep 5; sudo startxfce4 and then move to another tab with a regular web page in it before the chroot OS launches 5 seconds later.
Update: The new version of crouton enables tap-to-click by default. See instructions to upgrade your chroot at https://github.com/dnschneid/crouton. You'll now find that tap-to-click is enabled, which means that your Macbook Air-alike, with a full-fledged desktop OS, with a staggering array of free desktop software available, with instant-on capability, which only cost you $250, has all the bells and whistles! There's a reason Chromebooks are #1 on the Amazon Best Selling Laptops list: it's because they're totally freaking sweet, do everything that other computers do, just as quickly, and cost next to nothing. Have fun!

A few thoughts on "Envisioning a Post-Campus America"

Submitted by jonny dover on 25 February, 2012 - 16:51

In reading Envisioning a Post-Campus America, I was pretty excited at a lot of the crystal ball gazing. The ramifications of a true replacement for college as it stands now are truly amazing and hold remarkable promise. That said, I take issue with a few assertions.

"2. Online education will kill the liberal arts degree. Let's not have the same dismal discussion of whether liberal arts degrees are awesome or useless. The important aspect for this discussion is that what they teach is hard to test efficiently. There's enormous variation in grading of, say, English papers, and even if it were easier to standardize, that grading requires hours of expensive labor."

The rest of the article does this as well, but particularly here is an implication that there will be nothing but such college-replacements in the future. Slow down! Right now we have a pretty vibrant ecosystem of educational vehicles, none of which is "killing" the others. Traditional colleges will have a part to play, even after the Glorious Educational Revolution heralded by MITx. You may as well assert that community colleges are killing universities, or that internships and apprenticeships have killed certifications.

The liberal arts degree might not be the most relevant to professional life (as I mentioned in my last article), but it is pretty relevant to inner, personal life. I dare say we could call it a shortcut to wisdom. And I think it's fair to say there will always be a place for that.

"We might see much of academia revert to an amateur past-time, as it was in the 18th and even the 19th century."

No, we won't. We will never see that again, because the people who were those part-time amateur scientists don't exist any more. As Bill Bryson noted in his truly excellent book At Home, those guys were almost exclusively county clergymen, who had two incredibly important advantages when it comes to amateur pursuits: they had oodles of money (collecting tithes from their parishioners had a way of adding up), and they didn't have to do much for it (many parsons barely even bothered to show up on Sundays, much less expound properly on their faith). The people of the modern age who happen to have those two enormous advantages--the wealth to pursue science and the time to devote to that pursuit--are people like Paris Hilton. I'm not seeing our current rich and idle kicking out quite the jams of botanist, geologist, and Darwin mentor John Henslow.

"e-future"

No.

"Would it be good for society as a whole? I tend to think that it almost always is when things get cheaper. But we will have to rethink how we fund important research, and quite possibly, about what the engines of mobility will be for strivers who start out in the bottom quintiles."

Can't agree more there, although it's worth pointing out that it's a little more obviously good in this case because it's an unequivocally good thing that's getting cheaper. This transformation could bring those issues--which are entirely surmountable in the first and not really actually addressed in the present in the second--but it's not like, say, cheaper cars, where increased mobility is good and increased pollution is bad. An educated populace is the key to having a better world. No need to waffle here.

Relevance in Higher Education

Submitted by jonny dover on 11 February, 2012 - 11:51

Last night, I watched the livestream of the first half of the TEDx presentations at Arizona State (sorry, second half, but it was dinner time with my wife, which clearly has primacy). It was fascinating. The topic was of vital importance and very personal to me: Disrupting Higher Education.

Liz Dwyer gave a succinct summary of many of the exciting developments in education within the past two years or so, which was helpful in terms of the Big Picture: things are changing. Education is becoming decentralized and the advent of the Internet is lowering costs and pedagogical techniques really are, finally, being dragged into the 21st century; hands-on learning (at least in terms of computer programming) is finally scalable and students are freer now than ever before to customize their education and get what they need out of the myriad choices now available. We're making progress.

What really struck me, though, was Dale Stephens' talk. He mentioned the huge disconnect between the university experience and, well, everything else. I tweeted: Fellow former Hendrixer @dalejstephens points out the righteous disconnect b/t college and real life. Great talk, Dale. #TedX #ashokaux. I meant "righteous" in the Bill and Ted sense of scale, rather than "righteous" in the sense that the disconnect is correct or virtuous.

As I mentioned, Dale and I went to the same college. He dropped out in his second semester and qualified for a Thiel grant, then started UnCollege. I got my degree in Psychology--the most common major--and went about things in what I guess is considered The Usual Way.

I did really well in college: I got top grades, graduated with honors, and got a phenomenal score on my Comprehensive Exams. I was in Student Senate and was an editor for the school newspaper.

And when I got out into the world I was completely and utterly lost.

I spent three years doing meaningless office work. It had no point whatsoever, in the way that only government work can be pointless. I hated everything about it but never once saw a way out. Work is only part of your life, I told myself. It was a way to finance your *real* life, which took place in your off hours. How heartbreakingly disingenuous. What an awful, horrible, hurtful lie.

Finally, happily, I was hired for a weekend anchor position at a radio station. It was a complete revelation--a career didn't have to be a commitment to a lifetime of awful drudgery. I found the seed of what would become my life's work. Communicating information to people was rewarding, and I pursued it at the radio station, then at a newspaper, and finally at a scholarly journal where I found that education, especially on technical subjects at an advanced level, was what I could devote my whole being to.

I stumbled on what made me happy, and I'm thankful every day for it, but I have to wonder about those three meaningless years I spent; how did I go from extremely successful college student to underpaid cog?

The answer lies in the disconnect. I was amazing at college and utterly unprepared for life. The only thing about college that helped me professionally was working at the student newspaper, which was so tangential to my education that I didn't even think to try to apply it to my life. The emphasis was all wrong.

Keep in mind here that I've got the most common major in America and I was a top notch student at a fairly prestigious school.

Maybe this is an argument about the use of liberal arts in an increasingly specialized professional world, but I think it's an argument about whether education is actually achieving its end goal. My education at Hendrix was amazing and enlightening and I am quite literally a better human being for it (knowing about the Fundamental Attribution Error will change your life for the better and help you forgive and give you an enormously improved ability to know and love your fellow man despite his faults) but I don't think it should come as a surprise to anyone that writing papers and taking tests primarily prepares you for writing more papers and taking more tests.

At TEDx, Desh Deshparde and Michael Crow echoed this sentiment: the value of an education should be its impact on the world. The substance of education should be impacting the world. You learn to do things by doing them. Your curriculum should revolve around doing stuff. That's why I needed another bachelors-degree-granting chunk of time to get adjusted to being out of school.

The economic incentives of going to college are too great to ignore for now; employers rely too heavily on a degree as a filter. But with MITx on the horizon, along with current efforts from Khan Academy, the Saylor Foundation, Udacity, and some of the material from Stanford, that will hopefully change. We'll get an education customized to our passions without burying ourselves in mountains of debt, and the proof of an education will finally be in the pudding of what you do.

Disrupting Higher Education--and educating employers about the new educational landscape--can't come soon enough. My thanks go to Arizona State and Ashoka for an extremely thought-provoking program.

on the success of 'surrogates'

Submitted by jonny dover on 9 July, 2011 - 20:23

I am not a fan of science fiction. Too often it is used in this Jetsons way where a regular, fairly boring story is told and the sci-fi part is there as the background. Thanks to nanotechnology or brainwave scanning or whatever device, we get to have a protagonist with super powers, or there is a threat constructed for humanity that arises from a misuse of technology. These stories fail, and they fail because science fiction is used as a crutch. It's one of any number of ways that the story can be executed. You could just as well tell most science fiction stories in Flintstones fashion, or with a wizard taking the role that technology plays.

Happily, this is not the case with Surrogates. This movie finds its technology integrated into not only the core of the narrative, but the core of what this particular piece of art means. It holds a mirror up to us, encouraging meditations on what it means to be human and what it means to relate to our creations. It asks questions that are vital to our very understanding of who we are. It is through these that it succeeds not only as a film (because that is surprisingly easy) but as a piece of art. One ponders about the nature of his interactions with the world itself. While there are some ham-handed foreshadowings, the story is a profoundly thoughtful one. I dearly love it.

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