The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown)

Posted on 9th May 2009

For quite sometime now, I like others I've seen on various forums, have got really irritated with one aspect of the colour scheme used on Linux when doing a directory listing. If you have the colour scheme enabled and haven't changed any settings, then likely as not, if you have any directory that is world writeable, then you probably won't be able to read the text.

When designing websites, it is common practice to use high contrast colours, as you want the site to be readable, and not cause headaches among your readers as they try to understand what you've written. Recently I was investigating some high contrasting colours, and found some good websites that explain what I mean.

With this in mind, why on earth would anyone think that blue text on a dark green background would be easily readable. Unless you get close to the screen and squint!

On Linux systems there is a application called 'dircolors' and if you're lucky enough on RedHat based systems, you even have the '/etc/DIR_COLORS' configuration file, so it is possible to try and figure out what needs to be changed. However, until now I've never manaed to find the offending attribute to change. After a lot of searching this morning, I finally found a site that explains all the short form and long form keys, and additional colours that can be used in the colour scheme, beyond the 8 foreground and 8 background colours. Even better it even explains the effects available. In most places only bold is mentioned.

So in the event anyone else has had the same problem with their directories disappearing before their eyes, take a look at Configuring LS_COLORS by David Newcomb. It turns out the offending key is OTHER_WRITABLE (or ow in LS_COLORS format). I've now set mine to something much more sensible (bold white on a blue background), and it's much much easier on the eyes :)

File Under: design / linux / usability

Déjà Vu

Posted on 27th January 2009

Recently there has been a very strong reaction to a news story regarding a woman who bought a Dell laptop that came with Ubuntu preinstalled. Now until Jono's personal post, I hadn't heard about it, but after reading Jono's reaction, I decided to look into it further.

Unfortunately for the woman in question, her name is now so tightly tied to this news story, should a future employer ever search for her name, it's not necessarily going to put her in a good light. However, the same is true of the many reactionary members of the Linux and Ubuntu communities who responded to the story, and later blog posts by the news reporter. There are reactionary people in every community, whether it involves computers or not. Even though many are accutely aware that these reactionaies are a small portion of a community, and rarely represent the true community, unfortunately they by their very nature are the first to react and often shout the loudest .

In this particular news story though, there are a couple of elements to the story that don't quite ring true. Firstly, the woman claims that she accidentally ordered the laptop with Ubuntu pre-installed. Now, although Dell were very vocal about the fact they were going to offer Linux distributions on their laptops, unless you specifically search or ask, the default install is still Windows. It takes a concious effort on the part of the buyer to choose Ubuntu on their site. That's not to say she didn't somehow accidentally select the wrong operating system, but it does seem rather odd that she wasn't aware she'd done it.

Secondly, the woman claimed that she dropped out of classes for two semesters, because she couldn't install Microsoft Word (which was unfortunately implied as being a necessity for the course) or connect to her ISP. Take a moment to read the first part again. She dropped out of classes for 6 months because she couldn't get her laptop to work correctly. Personally I can't believe that she never sought help or advice from the college, friends or classmates. Ignoring the fact that Ubuntu wasn't for her, why did it have to drag on so long before she went to a news reporter to stir up a lot of bad feeling? And following on from that why go to a news reporter at all, other than to make a name for yourself? Personally I'm inclined to believe that struggled for a couple of weeks trying to sort this out, then got frustrated and thought talking to the local news channel might resolve it quicker. I'm assuming of course, but would you really wait 6 months before deciding to complain?

In this type of case the fault usually lies in one of two camps. Either Dell for not exchanging the laptop for one with Windows installed, or the woman for not contacting Dell soon enough to try and resolve the problem. Reading the story it would seem the woman did contact Dell and was told Ubuntu should work fine. Without know the exact details of the conversation, I'm inclined to say the fault lies with Dell for not replacing the laptop with a Windows install. In the UK, and I would assume the US has something similar, all online retailers must replace or refund within a set time period and product that does not meet the buyers expectations, regardless of reasons.

Had Dell replaced the laptop, without trying to convince her of the virtues of Ubuntu, this would have been a non-story. Instead it's created some very negative press for all concerned. The news reporter has since followed up the original story and after initially seeming to generate some positive feedback, settled to generate more bad press. It really is sad that news stories such as this don't get more accurately reported, but hey modern journalism is all about sensationalism, so it shouldn't be a surprise. But what saddens me much more, is the fact that so many first reactions have been to name call, harrass and belittle their percieved opponents.

Reading the pieces of the story that I have, and more specifically some of the replies, I agree with Jono. Community is about communication, and more specifically education, and not rude and offensive comments. I cannot even comprehend how these people ever thought their replies were in any way helpful. Flamewars are a waste of time and effort on all sides, and usually only serve to let the most reactionary fall into carefully laid traps. The original story now appears to have been taken down, possibly due to the overwhelming amount of hits it has received from around the world. However, the reporting itself had all the hallmarks of a trap. There were inflamatory accusations and inaccuracies, so it wasn't a surprise to discover that it got the reaction it did. Thankfully some of the replies were from well reasoned people, who did try and point out the inaccuracies, and better inform the news reporter and readers of places to find more out about Ubuntu. But the overwhelming weight has been negative and does Linux, Ubuntu and Open Source no favours.

Ubuntu is a great operating system, and has helped to advance the Linux desktop perhaps more than any other in recent years, but it isn't for everyone. In this story, the woman obviously isn't as familar with a Linux desktop as she is with a Windows desktop. I have no doubt that she could use it, but change is difficult for most people, and having learnt how to use Windows, this woman just didn't want to learn something different. Did she deserve the derision for that point of view, certainly not. And what about the perception of the Linux, Ubuntu and Open Source communities to those who are not part of them? I doubt any of them will be closer to giving any flavour of Linux a try.

In all likelihood, had this woman been able to get some reasoned advice early on, and maybe even had some technical support to get her online and using Open Office to create her Word documents, she could quite easily have been converted. Instead the reactionaries have alientated her, and only served to reinforce the wrong impression that the Linux community still has a lot of growing up to do. I doubt Linux or any Open Source community is ever going to be rid of these reactionaries, but I do wish they would realise that they do themselves, and the communities they apsire to represent, a considerable disservice.

It will be interesting to see if Jono covers these unwanted elements of communities in his new book, Art of Community, as while we all have wanted help and advice to building a community, it would also be useful to suggest ways to restrain those that might otherwise unintentially put it in a bad light. "A chain is only as strong as it's weakest link."

File Under: community / linux / opensource / rant

A Means To An End

Posted on 15th October 2008

Recently I was pointed at a blog post, entitled "8 Unix Tricks You Didn't Know". Although 7 I did know, there were 2 entries that I felt I could extend. I sent the author of the blog a mail, so hopefully he may add them (I don't have a Moveable Type, Live Journal or Vox account ... I know, I'm so unhip! ... so cannot add a comment). In the meantime, I thought I'd add them here, and include a couple of extra tips that I use regularly.

Firstly, for entry 6, an addition to the '+' syntax, you can also write something like 'vi +' (without any number after the '+'). vi then will open the file and immediately start on the last line of the file. This is extremely handy when editing a large file that you wish to edit from the end.

Secondly, for entry 8, while the method described works when you only editing one file, and in fact will work with any control character (change Ctrl-M to Ctrl-I and it will remove tabs), but if you have several it can be a bit labourious. An alternative is to install the 'sysutils' package and use 'dos2unix' command line program. I use this all the time to ensure that any file that could potentially have been edited in a Windows environment is sanitised for Linux.

So those were the ones that were already listed, but there another couple of tips that I use, that I am occasionally surprised to discover that others don't. So I thought I share them here. These two are specifically aimed at monitoring:

'tail -f filename'

'tail' lists the last few lines of a file (you can specify how many or use the default of 10). By adding the '-f' option the tail will continue to display lines from the file, that are freshly written by other applications. This is especially useful when watching output files, such as log files.

'watch "command"'

I only came across 'watch' in the last year or so, and now use it all the time. It takes a command line argument and repeats the command every 2 seconds. Instead of repeatedly typing the command you want (or Up-Arrow/Return if you use your command line history), 'watch' will do that for you. A common one I use is 'watch "ls -altr | tail"', particularly in my apache web logs folder, so I can see which websites are being looked at most recently, and more importantly, quickly spot when something has been written to an error.log file.

Speaking of the history file, you might not be aware of the Ctrl-R history search feature in bash. On the command line enter Ctrl-R and then type a sequence of characters. bash will then attempt to auto-complete the command you have previously used. I particularly use this when trying to remember what the IP address is of the server I waht to SSH to.

So these are just a few of mine. I'm sure there are plenty of others that other people use too. It's reminded me that I really ought to add Linux Server Hacks and Linux Server Hacks, Volume Two to my Christmas wishlist :)

File Under: computers / linux

Living After Midnight

Posted on 22nd July 2008

So finally after several hours of trawlling through the 2,044 photos that I took over the weekend, I finally got down to the 744 that I'm going to publish here now. There are a few more from the video finale, that I'll post once the video is online and I can link to it. In the meantime, please enjoy.

Oh and there's a video in there too :)

File Under: community / conference / linux / lugradio / wolverhampton

Running Free

Posted on 22nd July 2008

The previous post was just a teaser, here follows a longer more indepth writeup of the event that is LUGRadio Live UK 2008.

This last weekend was supposed to be the last LUGRadio Live. Thankfully the 4 Large Gents have since been persuaded otherwise. It was still a sad weekend though, as the podcast is now at an end, and I've thoroughly enjoyed listening to all the presenters of the last 5 seasons (I've been listening since episode 1) discuss various aspects of Open Source, and all the interviews and guests they've had. I completely understand why they've called an end to the podcast, but had felt we would losing an even bigger opportunity if they didn't continue with LUGRadio Live (or something like it). I spoke to Jono after Live & Unleashed and he confessed that the organisation for the event these days has been made much easier thanks to having a great crew, so there really wasn't that much of an excuse not to do it again next year. I for one am looking forward to it.

So what happened this year? On Friday night there was the pre-event party at The Hogs Head. Food was laid on, and pretty much half the pub was taken over by LRL attendees. I met Jayne, who I've briefly met before at a WolvesLUG social meeting, who turns out to be a close friend of one of Nicole's best friends. Now some would probably say it's a small world, but as you shall see later in this post, it's even smaller than that! The party went on well into the night, but after midnight I headed back to the hotel. The others meanwhile attempted to get into the Revolution Vodka Bar (who turned away around 30 Linux geeks ... with money to burn ... because one of them had trainers) and Reflex (it was shut), before heading to Jono's local the Gifford. It turns out that not many of the geeks were quite so into the Rock music playing as Jono, but at least it was serving beer.

The following morning JJ and I headed over to the venue to drop the projector off for the Atrium stage, and bring along the flyers for the nutsacks. Originally we'd been asked whether we wanted to do a stand for the exhibtion, but due to lack of time to arrange anything, we elected to simply create a thank you to the guys with a special postcard. JJ and I added the postcards to the already prepared nutsacks, and gave the rest to the crew who were in the middle of packing the rest. We then made our excuses and headed back to the hotel to lead The Britannia Breakfast Club (Greasy Spoon Edition) to the Adam Sweet recommended Top Nosh Cafe. Thanks to Adam for recommending it, as it really was great food and excellent value for money. While we were there, Peter Cannon (fellow WolvesLUG member) and his daughter came in for breakfast. I don't get to see Pete very often these days, so it was good to see him.

As I had stated on the secret crew wiki, that I would be bringing my camera (as always), when we got back to the venue, I set about photographing some of the setup. The queue was already getting around the corner, so there was alot of anticipation in the air. At this point we all thought it would be the last one, so it was quite interesting to note that everyone was in a very positive mood. Even those that had been considerably drunk the night before. The crew were all busy and the Atrium was a hive of activity. As Ron, together with Dave Morley, was a crew boss, it meant he wasn't going to get much chance to photograph very much. Thankfully, his daughter, Steph (also known to WolvesLUG as BabyRon), was also given photo duties and got to use Ron's camera. This meant that between the two of us we should be able to cover pretty much all of the event.

Doors opened and the mass hoard descended on the exhibition stands. Once things settled down, they then started to take their seats for the big opening. As the familiar theme rolled out of the speakers, a huge cheer welcomed Jono, Aq, Adam and Chris to the stage. Video cameras were rolling and shutters were clicking at a rate of knots. LRL 2008 UK was finally here. For those that may have been before or at least heard reference on the show to Chinny Raccoon, will probably be not surprised in the least that he featured again this year. However, perhaps not quite as he has been featured in previous years. With a big announcement from the guys, Chinny bounded out from side of stage and did a circuit of the atrium taking in all the photo opportunities, something that was to continue throughout the weekend. And so with introductions over, the talks began.

As I was trying to photograph all the speakers, I didn't get the chance to sit an listen to all the presentations, although there were a few I did manage to engineer sitting pretty much all the way through. I saw most of Bruno's "Baguette on Snails" talk, and was suitably impressed by the amount of thought that had gone into the presentation, including the progress bar having an ASCII art snail moving along it. Bruno is LUGRadio's equivilent to José Castro in the Perl community, both have a great sense of humour and can present talks like this with an absolute straight face. The amazing thing though was that Bruno had actual working code!

I also sat through the Gong-A-Thong, and while at other conferences, these kind of short 5 minute talks, usually have a bit of preperation, and an underlying message, here they are very much a get up on stage and talk about whatever comes to mind kind of thing. Some can pull it off, others can't. I'm not going to name names, but I did think some of the talks would have been much better had they had a much clearer message to convey to audience. However, the Gong-A-Thong is not really about the speakers, it's now about who is brave enough to don a pair of pants and parade about on stage. It hadn't been revealled who was going to take to the stage this year, although some did have some interesting suggestions. As the two specially recruited LUGRadio security advisors took to the stage, and the Rocky theme reverberated around the atrium, the one ... the only ... Chinny Raccoon entered from the rear of the courtyard. Except, it was Chinny Raccoon with just head, hands and feet ... and ... well ... see the photos! Once finally on the stage, the head was removed and MrBen was unveiled to the cheering crowd. It was a great start, and throughout it all MrBen played up to the role. Despite a dire warning should his wife or daughter get to see the photos, flickr proved too irresistable, and Heather was already asking why the costume had disappeared by the end of the day.

The final talk of the day I got to watch, was MrBen's "Supporting World Domination". It was an interesting talk, if only for the fact that he'd taken a step back and looked at what the Linux or Open Source community actually was, and how to reach those better that previously we perhaps haven't considered part of the community. The users of Open Source software are just as much a part of the community as those who post on forums and mailing list and submit bug reports. They help to spread the word, just by using the applications. However, what if they get stuck? How do we help them? We all know how posting a newbie type question is likely to get you ripped to shreads for daring to enter the realm of "real users", but don't they deserve to be given the support, after all we've persuaded them to use Open Source software in the first place? MrBen's idea is to enable an app that can be clicked and automatically put that user in contact with an expert, who happens to be online and willing to answer their questions. As it's just an idea there is no code, or plan, but nonetheless it made for some interesting thoughts.

Then it was time to record the final episode of LUGRadio Season 5, Live & Unleashed. If you weren't there you'll have to wait for the broadcast to hear all the discussion, but it was fun to have Chinny holding up the aplause sign and watching Jono and Aq try and figure out whether New Zealand was further away than Sydney, Australia! It is :) Now I mentioned at the beginning about it being a small world. Well it turns out that Keith White, who I know from Coventry LUG and Birmingham LUG, worked on a project at a University in New Zealand 3 years ago. One of the guys working there just happened to be the eventual winner of LUGRadio furthest travelled, Robin (I think?) from New Zealand! He has been over here to see some music festivals too, but engineered the trip so it coincided with LUGRadio. Now that's a small world. To end the last ever LUGRadio recording, there was cake. Steph had made a special LUGRadio cake for everyone, and after the first set of photos, it got cut up for everyone. I think Aq had the priviledge of having the first piece :)

After that it was time to find more food. After waiting for Mez to finish crew duties, our plan was to meet up with the Birmingham LUG guys at Spice Avenue. As I knew where it was, I wasn't too worried, about finding it. Mez had invited Miia along too, so we headed off to catch up with the other guys. When we got to the restaurant, none of the Birmingham LUG guys were there, but we were hungry so sat down to eat. Mez later found someone's number and called them to discover that Birmingham LUG had got lost and just walked into the first Indian restaurant they'd found! Oh well.

When we got back to The Lighthouse, we found the party in full swing. A little later the Karaoke session got under way. Personally I'm not into Karaoke at all, but I'm quite happy for others to have a go. Sarah from Skynet did an awesome version of Crazy, Neuro was most excellent with Ring Of Fire, Jono, Aq, Matt P Revell (I did amuse me to hear the compere prounouncing it Revel as in the sweets) and Chris all got at various points to sing a variety of tunes. Goaded by her mother (Josette from O'Reilly) and the rest of the Bytemark crew, I suggested Sylvie and Nick sing ABBA's Take A Chance On Me, despite the protest it took all of about 2 seconds to run for the microphone. They were both egging to do it again by all accounts too! The Bytemark guys got up, then the Skynet folks (doing a splendid version of A Fairytale Of New York) and in amongst them were a host of others, including Milesteg doing a couple of Neil Diamond numbers. The party was still going strong, but feeling tired I headed back to the hotel. After all I had to speak first thing in the morning.

I head back to the Lighthouse in the morning and waiting for the introductions. With those out of the way, I went to set up my laptop for the talk. Unfortunately my laptop wasn't in a very good working state, and apache ended up locking up, meaning I couldn't use the webserver version of my talk. Not a big deal, but I ended up using the slides I'd used in Chicago for YAPC::NA. It was only later I realised that I could have used the LRL prepared slides. Never mind, it only meant the title screen was wrong and the two extra slides I had for the talk weren't shown. However, the talk did appear to go down very well, with several interesting questions, and one person even got one of my quiz questions right. Alas I had forgotten the prizes, so I've taken his business card and will be sending him a poster this week. He did have to live in Sydney, Australia though didn't he! It was a decent crowd too, which was nice. I was a bit wary of how many would turn up, as it was the first talk of the day and Sunday is usually the quieter day of LRL. So thank you to all who came along. It was also probably the best presentation of that talk I've ever given too.

Following on from me was Agostino Russo (the "Wubi" guy), who I'd met the previous night in the bar. It was a shame that he was against the Mass Debate as I would have liked to have seen his talk. As it was I shot round the other rooms to quickly photograph the other speakers, then sat in on The Mass Debate. Sometimes the debate generates some interesting discussion, but this time around it wasn't anything that particularly motivated me. I did think there were some good arguments about why major distributors should NOT sync their release cycles though.

Next talk I mostly sat through was Matthew Garrett's "Power management that works". Matthew has spent a lot of time considering how power management works, and has largely come to the conclusion that (I'm paraphrasing) "why are we asking the user?" And he's right. A lot of the questions asked of the user make no sense, when the machine itself is intelligent enough to figure out how you are using it, and can set the right power setting appropriately. I didn't catch all the questions asked, but I would be interested to know some of the suggestions he had for better power management, especially when trying to conserve battery power on a plane.

Final talk of the day for me was Neuro's "How Second Life works, and how much we rely on Linux and Open Source". I've been aware of Second Life, but it's never been a game that has ever interested me to play. Because it happens in realtime, unless you're in the game constantly then you're not going to be able to take advantage of much of the game experience, at least that's how it seems to me. Plus I've never really been that bothered by MMORPGs anyway. It was interesting to see what some had done with the medium though. However, part way though Neuro's talk, Jono rushed out from side of stage, with Chinny Raccoon standing atop a sack-truck, holding a placard stating "FURRIES FOR JUSTICE", and headed across the cobblestones and headed for the door. It was funny, and I'm sure Neuro saw the funny side of it too, despite interrupting his talk.

After a few minutes all the talks wound up, and everyone headed back into the Atrium. The guys then began the final session of the day, the thank yous, prize givings and goodbyes. Someone won an Asus EEE PC from Linux Emporium, lots of Tuxs and Tshirts were given away (thanks for mine guys, much appreciated), Mrs Ron got a bottle of wine for feeding the crew, and the guys gave away the artwork that Chris Hayes had orchestrated as part of his Collaborative Art project on his exhibition stand. With the final goodbyes having been said, it was time to pack away. Once the majaority of people had headed out, we gathered Chinny, the crew and the guys together to get some photos done. Tony also had some great ideas for the final scene of the film he was planning to wrap up the event. So we took plenty of photos then too. I'll not reveal those yet, as it'll be worth waiting for the video.

This year was a blast. I had great fun, chatted to some great people, took loads of photos and generally just had a thoroughly enjoyable weekend. Thanks go to the crew and the gents for organising everything, you all did a stunning job ... again. And I look forward to LRL 2009. Till then... goodnight :)

File Under: community / conference / linux / lugradio / wolverhampton

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