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
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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
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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
2 COMMENTS


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
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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 Birmingham.pm 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
2 COMMENTS


Say Goodbye

Posted on 18th July 2008

Tomorrow will be the start of the last ever LUGRadio Live. Tonight Open Source and Linux enthusiasts will descend on Wolverhampton, to mark the beginning of a farewell party that is set to be remembered for a long time. The party starts at The Hogs Head in Wolverhanmpton city centre, with about 30 or so people already confirmed, and many more likely to turn up.

According to Chris, the Britannia is now full, and by all accounts pretty much everyone staying there is attending LUGRadio Live :) The final Live And Unleashed recording will be tomorrow night, with another party after it. The final day of the conference is likely to be a bit of a sad day. I'm doing my talk first thing on Sunday morning, so hopefully there won't be too many sad faces in the audience.

It's going to be sad to see the show finish, not least because I've met some great people because of LUGRadio, and been inspired on several occasions. The crew and community behind LUGRadio and the live event, are superb and deserve tons of credit for putting on one of the best Open Source events in the UK. I'm hoping that it becomes an inspiration for others, preferably LUG groups, to come up with an annual event to continue the community's desire to meet up in real life.

I shall be taking photos over the weekend, so expect to see a further post, hopefully next week, with all the best sights from the whole weekend. I'm looking forward to the weekend, but it'll also be a little sad to think that this is the end of an era.

File Under: conference / linux / lugradio / opensource / wolverhampton
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A Farewell To Kings

Posted on 30th June 2008

The guys over at LUGRadio have just released the latest edition of the show. They also reveal a rather big announcement, in that LUGRadio Live Live & Unleashed will be the last ever show by the team. This also mean that LUGRadio Live in a few weeks time, will also be the last ever LRL. I'm gutted as the show and event has become a staple part of my life for the past 5 years. As I knew the guys before they started the show, I was fortunate enough to be a fan from the very first show. And from such humble beginnings it's been amazing to see what the team have created. It is a credit to everyone who has been involved in LUGRadio, and the whole community that has built up surrounding both the shows and the events, that they have played a notable part of promoting Linux and Open Source. The quality of guest, discussion and inspiration has been excellent. It has always been fun and entertaining, but it has also strived to educate and pass on their passion for the projects, and communities they have introduced us to.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to play even a small part of the experience, and it has always been a joy to listen to the shows. I shall miss them. I'm fortunate in that I live not too far from the guys, so hopefully I will stay in touch and see them at Wolves LUG events in the future. But I will miss the all the LUGRadio Live events, where I get to meet so many other Linux and Open Source enthusiasts from around the UK and the World. Thanks guys, it's been a blast.

File Under: community / conference / linux / lugradio / opensource / wolverhampton
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Mr. Self Destruct

Posted on 12th June 2008

Picked up a useful procmail tip the other day, and thought I'd help to promote it here. See Filtering mail with procmail for more details. As I hadn't done a cleanup of my backup mail files for some time, I was using up 1.5GB of disk space for messages that had already been processed. Most of the mails were spam, which have since been deleted. However, figuring out which files to delete is awkward as they all get named using the format of 'msg.XXXX', where XXXX is a random set of alphanumeric characters. This little tip, collates all the days mail into a single file, thus making it much easier to delete archives. I can now set up a cron job to delete month old archives once a month and keep my disk space at a more manageable level.

#
# Used for keeping a backup of each days mail.
#
BACKUP=$MAILDIR/backup
TODAY=`date +%d-%m-%Y`

#
# Save a copy of each email received into a file of the form
# '~/Mail/backup/dd-mm-yyyy'.
#
:0 c:
$BACKUP/$TODAY

File Under: backups / email / linux
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When Space Invaders Were Big

Posted on 10th April 2008

A friend pointed this post out to the WolvesLUG a little awhile ago, and it got me thinking. Firstly it annoyed me that this guy managed to be taken to task for asking something that is often a very basic question from new recruits to the Linux way of things. When told that there are a selection of varieties, potential new users are often overwhelmed to understand what they should choose, so asking what the differences are is not an unreasonable question. The answer isn't easy and in this case the guy was asking for pros and cons of each system to best analyse what would work for him. That's something most rational Linux users understand. However, the extremists do no-one any favours. Mark-Jason Dominus once posted an article at perl.com, entitled Why I Hate Advocacy, which extremists would do well to read.

After that first reaction, I started to think about why I chose the distributions I did. I tend to use Debian for my servers and Ubuntu when I need a desktop. I also use Windows XP, as that is the default install on my work laptop (I haven't been able to get Ubuntu running on it, but that's another story). But how did I come to settle on those two, Debian and Ubuntu, as my prefered platforms?

Over the last 10 years or so I've tried a variety of flavours of Linux distributions, and they all seem to have something going for them, but there is not really one that manages to be the panacea. Personally I consider that a good thing. My knowledge of Linux came from my long standing experience of Unix System V. I began working with Unix in 1985 when I started at Coventry University (Lanchester Polytechnic as it was then), and carried on with it when I went to work for GEC Telecommunications. At the time it did the job of teaching me the command line, C, network programming among other things. But it was all command line based. In one of the modules I studied at Lanchester Polytechnic, we specifically covered Operating Systems and looked at several different ones that were available back then. We were then tasked with writing our own OS. Being a big fan of curses at the time (as I was writing games such as battleships and othello with it), I persuaded my team to look at an interactive OS, rather than a command line based version. We got marked down because we couldn't print out our results on a line-printer, unlike everyone else's command line based systems. At the time it really pissed me off that the lecturer could be so ignorant of different ways of thinking. I didn't have enough knowledge to design or write a proper desktop OS, but I could see a benefit to having one. A year or so later, I got to see a copy of Windows 1.0. It planted a seed for a number of people that the interactive desktop did have a future.

Until Windows 3.11 was released, I was still working on command line based OSs, including Unix, VMS and the OS (whose name I've long forgotten) that ran on Pyramid workstations. I started to use Windows, but found it annoying. It hid away far too much from me at the command line, when I just wanted to get the job done. That has pretty much carried on throughout every Windows release. It has got better in many respects, but sometimes the command line can get right to the heart of the problem. I still use the Windows command line virtually every day.

The benefit of the Linux desktop is that I can have the desktop, but easily drop to the command line when I want to and have the full power of the OS at my disposal. My first experience of Linux was in 1998 using Debian, however not as a desktop, just as a server. I can't remember which desktop I actually tried first but around 1999, I went through Red Hat, Slackware and Mandrake, coming back to Debian. Possibly due to familiarity. Later I was given a works laptop with Red Hat on it, and stuck with that for quite some time. The actual desktop was originally KDE, but having tried Gnome ended up sticking with that instead. I do remember trying Enlightenment at some point, but it didn't last very long. In September 2000 I installed the newly released Potato from Debian as a desktop. I have to say it was rather nice. It worked without too much hassle and looked nice. I ended up sticking with it for quite sometime.

The brick, an Toshiba Satellite, stuck with me until 2006 when work finally gave me a company laptop. Understandably they weren't too comfortable with me using a personal laptop on the company network. It did get a few comments in later years, but it travelled with me to all my early conferences. At home my 3 servers were all running Debian, 2 of which running with Gnome desktops. At the end of last year Akira finally gave up after many years of service and has now been decommisioned. I now only run one headless Debian server, with another powered off to use in emergencies.

When Ubuntu surfaced I was toying with the idea of using Red Hat, or more accurately Fedora Core. I did try Fedora Core for a few weeks, but I think the Debian way had just got too comfortable, so gave Ubuntu a try. For ease of install and use, I found it much better than Fedora Core at the time. A couple of years ago I installed SUSE 10 on my works desktop, and despite a few learning curves, it didn't seem too bad. However, as time progressed and security updates, as well as general software, were needed, the system seemed to become more and more unstable with each patch. It would occasionally lock or crash, so after a particularly annoying crash, I started with a new install of Ubuntu.

The biggest win for me with Debian/Ubuntu is the deb packaging system. It occasionally had problems with dependencies, but for the past year or so, I haven't had any issues either upgrading the basic version, or with a complete dist-upgrade. Ubuntu now has more and more restricted drivers to enable laptops to just work, and Synaptic is just one of the best repository search engines I've ever had the pleasure of using. Gnome has a nice desktop feel and the layout works for me. However, this is still all just personal preference. I can't remember anything, development wise, that didn't work on one and not the other. Paths sometimes can sometimes be a bit confusing, as all the distros have their own conventions, but on the whole you get used to them.

Maybe if I'd have started with Red Hat, SUSE or Mandrake, and really got into the mindset I would still be using that distro today. I also think the fact that there are differences is a positive part of the Open Source movement, as each distro has a unique style and identity that fits some and not others. However, that does make it difficult to provide a new user with the right information to make the right choice for them, as in the end we all have a personal slant on our view. Anyone trying to make an informed choice is probably best to try all the major distros, and see how they fair installing, configuring and using. LUGRadio recently tried this, and although it wasn't the perfect test, it did go a long way to try and understand what worked for each member of the team. If you have the time to invest I would recommend trying at least Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, Fedora and Mandriva as desktops, and include Debian if you want a server based OS. If you really want to go hardcore then Gentoo might be of interest, but it really isn't recommended for a new user.

One thing the LUGRadio boys spotted during the installation, was how often the distros can ask some very confusing questions, that even experienced users could even have problems with. This is perhaps part of the nature of Linux, that it isn't (at the moment) ready for a complete handover to the uninitiated. However, with more feedback and better refinement of the options and questions, I do think we will get there. Interest in Linux as a desktop is continuing to grow and we're going to see more and more posts (like the one that started this post) by people wanting to discover what will work for them. I'm hoping the extremists will burn themselves out, more of the LUG members will get to provide a more reasoned view, and maybe even more articles will appear in more mainstream computing press that will help to give a balanced view of the differences.

So if anyone does ask you to give them a idea of the differences between the Linux distributions, please try and give them a flavour of why you choose what you did, but not to the expense of them experiencing the right distribution for them. This thread on PerlMonks is more in keeping with that idea, and gives several general hints and tips why you might choose one platform over another.

File Under: computers / linux / opensource
1 COMMENT


Hot For Teacher

Posted on 11th March 2008

After last week's post about the Asus EEE PC, I thought it worth mentioning a local company (to me) in Redditch who got featured on last Wednesday's Bromsgrove Advertister. Elonex have released the first laptops for under £100 in the UK. The laptop, called The One, like the Asus EEE PC is aimed at the education market. However, I can also seeing it being a very attractive purchase for anyone wishing to buy a cheap laptop, so that they can use to browser the web, edit documents, manage their photo collection and play music. Particularly if they aren't too interested in the details and wouldn't classify themselves as a technical user.

It sounds an ideal purchase for kids to learn how to use a computer, as they are not power users and are unlikely to notice the slightly slower of the 300MHz processor. It's often annoyed me that PC and laptop manufacturers heavily promote the processor speed, how much RAM they have and how many Gigabytes their hard drives are. However unless you're playing top end games or getting a million hits a day on your web server, you rarely need that much power. In fact the user is often the blocking point, as browsing the web and editing documents rarely find the local computer maxed out on CPU, Memory or File IO. DanDan's laptop is not much faster and he happily plays flash games, although admittedly he is using Firefox on Ubuntu, so is less encumbered with bloatware that you find on every Windows machine now.

If the current trend of cheaper laptops for kids and the education market keeps going, I think a number of the major manufactures may want to re-evaluate some of their offerings. While there will always be a demand for high spec machines from developers and businesses, I can imagine that the home market will start to see a shift in it's desire to buy something more affordable and reliable. As such I see Linux and Open Source featured more and more as a viable alternative to Windows. The Linux desktop may just get a notable share of the lucrative market that Microsoft have held onto for so long.

File Under: computers / education / laptop / linux / opensource
1 COMMENT


Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?

Posted on 20th February 2008

LUGRadio Live 2007

LUGRadio Live 2007

LUGRadio Live UK dates have been announced as the weekend of 19th/20th July.

At the moment the guys are busy preparing for LUGRadio Live USA, so expect more details for the UK event after next month. The US event will be the first time the LUGRadio experience will have been seen on such a major scale outside of the UK. The guys seem suitably excited and I'll be keen to discover if the American event has the same manic and mayhem feel as the UK event. The UK event is very definitely about getting the Linux and Open Source communities together, to hopefully provide an opportunity to meet and greet with fellow developers or just people you meet on IRC or the forums. It doesn't have that corporate feel is much more laid back, thus having a much more social nature about it than many traditional conferences. Not to diminish the value of the talks and presentations, but the atmosphere is much more conducive to discussion, questions and feedback than more formal events. For me that has perhaps more value as I like to get feedback and ideas from others and some more corporate events often don't encourage that atmosphere.

In the meantime, if you're in the US and can make it to the West Coast over the weekend on 12th/13th April, checkout LUGRadio Live USA2008 and try and get along to The Metreon, San Francisco. As a tempter, watch the video trailer created by Tony Whitmore, AV coordinator for the UK event.

I shall be at LUGRadio Live UK, although whether that's as a speaker, attendee or member of the crew remains to be seen. I'm thinking of submitting my Understanding Malware talk, but seeing as it's about an hour long, and I definitely DON'T want to be on the main stage, I'm hoping the guys will agree to hiding me in a smaller room. They guys always manage to put me up against big names (Mark Shuttleworth and Chris Di Bona for the last two years), so this might be my chance to steal some of the audience back for the little guy ;)

As I don't specifically talk about Linux stuff, but more general Open Source stuff, I've often felt a bit of an outsider as a speaker. The Malware talk is again not about Linux specifically, and some aspects are not Open Source (for justifiable reasons), but the content, particularly for anyone interested in understanding what malware is and eager to gain some very basic hints and tips to protect your inbox, it's ideal. Seeing as most of the attendance for LUGRadio are knowledgeable Linux people, I'm hoping the talk will be of interest to a wide variety of people. I've now done the talk twice, for Leicester LUG last week and Coventry LUG last night. Both presentation went down very well and generated lots of interesting discussion afterwards. Seeing as some of these guys are very clueful sysadmins and developers, as a benchmark, I think the LUGRadio audience will love it. We'll see ;)

The UK event will be returning to Wolverhampton University Student's Union, the venue for the 2006 event. Personally I liked the Lighthouse, the venue for 2007, but I know the guys got heavily criticised for a variety of issues, that meant they had to reconsider the venue for the 2008 event. The SU venue is smaller than the Lighhouse too, which might cause some problems, as I can see the event getting a bigger attendance this year. For the past 3 years the attendance appears to have been increasing anyway, but in the last year, I am noticing more and more articles, blogs and posts about LUGRadio. I just hope there is enough space for everyone.

BTW if you're attending LUGRadio Live USA2008, please take a camera and post your photos publically. My site always gets a lot of hits for LUGRadio, and I'm sure the thirst for photos for the US event will be just as popular.

File Under: conference / linux / lugradio / opensource / security / spam
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Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)

Posted on 30th January 2008

A few weeks ago, some colleagues of mine sat an LPI 101 course on Linux. A couple of years ago I took the 201 course and although the course itself was fine, the exam at the end provided me with no confidence in anyone, who would put that they had passed an LPI exam on their CV. I have heard of others being critical of the LPI exams, so I know I'm not alone. Many of those on the recent course had an understanding of a Linux based operating and had used it as basic user. However, the reports coming back were not good. One attendee had trouble trying to install a copy of Red Hat and ended up having to abandon 3 different machines, thus wasting a good portion of the first day. Considering this is a 101 level course, I really don't see any point in teaching someone to install a distro. In a few cases some had already done this on their home machines, but for the majority at work the boxes are already preconfigured and setup by a dedicated team who build our testing and production environments. Aside from that, every major distro installs differently, and has vastly different configuration tools, so why bother?

The recent course wasn't taught by the LPI, but it was meant to follow their course outlines. It was very obvious that in some areas the course notes were out of date. In this day and age four years is a long time. Four years ago who had heard of Ubuntu? While that might not be a problem when you're explaining things like top, grep, locate and many other tools that have been around for a long time, but it does get ridiculous when you have to memorise the command line options to lpr (which I haven't had any reason to use in over 15 years!). It also doesn't help when the course notes are written for SUSE and you're trying to install Fedora Core.

When I took the exam an actual question was "Who writes the official Linux documentation?", who cares? The answer was 'The Linux Documentation Project', which I'd never heard of and have never referenced since. Another was along the lines of "How do you find what command line tools are available for what you want to do?". The answer they wanted was 'apropos', and again I've never used it, and had never heard of it before the exam. The answer I provided in the comments was "I use Google". I took issue with the examiners about these sort of questions as they are pointless and have no bearing on whether I know my way around a Linux distro. I can well imagine some could memorise all the command line options to various tools and scrape a pass and still have no clue about how to configure a distribution.

Certification is a dodgy concept and only serves to line the pockets of the examining body. With badly presented courses and exams like those of the LPI, they serve only to fail the examinee by teaching very little that they can actually use in their workplace. In truth I don't believe I've used anything I learnt in the 201 course I did, apart from understanding better how to compile a kernel. I have heard that Red Hat certification is worthwhile, and seeing as we use RH8 or RHEL5 at work, then that would likely be a better course to apply for, but I suspect the cost may be an inhibiting factor. Having said that, you also get what you pay for.

I would be intrigued to meet someone who actually values the LPI exams and can prove that they are worth taking. Since a very highly skilled Linux system-admin and programmer (you rarely find someone proficient in both those skills) that I know, failed to get near 100% in the exam, I don't have any faith in any accreditation bestowed by LPI.

File Under: exams / linux / rant
1 COMMENT


A Light In The Black

Posted on 5th January 2008

Now that I'm looking to another year of the Birmingham.pm World Tour, with visits to a number of UK LUG and Perl Monger groups, LUGRadio Live (UK not US), the UKUUG Spring Conference in Birmingham, YAPC::NA and YAPC::Europe, as well as possibly a few European Workshops too, I need to start think what I'm going to present. I like the fact I can go to Linux based groups and conferences and talk about a variety of Perl topics, as although I might not be an expert, I know enough to give an introduction in several areas at least. But for more Perl specific technical events, I really need to stick to what I know.

The problem is that I feel I've done enough with CPAN Testing, Phrasebooks and Selenium for the time being, and it does get a bit boring for both me and the audience if I'm repeating myself every year. I may do some update on CPAN Testing, as there are likely to be changes in the coming year, a lot of which is being worked on currently, but what else is there that I could present that would be of interest to somebody?

One talk subject that has crossed my mind has been to do something like 'Labyrinth - A Perl Success Story'. It's been commented a few times that within the Perl community we talk a lot about the possibilities (particularly with frameworks) rather than getting to the finished product. While Labyrinth might not be for everyone, it might possibly be something that works for some, and as a consequence might interest people who have been asking me what it is and why I wrote it. However, although it is related to web and content management it isn't the next Catalyst or the new Jifty. You might be able to draw similarities between them all, but there are also many differences. Labyrinth isn't a framework as such, it's not meant for high-availability websites, and it also doesn't have the large development team knocking out code and fixing bugs that the others have. It's just me. But it might have just enough functionality and usability for someone to pick it up and get a site running how they want it to work, without having to understand the magic internals of frameworks like Catalyst and Jifty. I wouldn't be talking about the internals anyway, as I would prefer to give examples of how I solved problems and interesting asides that led me to learn something new about web design. I'm just not sure enough people would find it that interesting.

Further topics that come from the guts of Labyrinth, and are things that I have been keen to see how other people solve the same problem, are user input validation and content output correction. At the moment Labyrinth handles these within the same codebase, and it works rather well. However, it seems rather the wrong thing to do, to present a talk where the code to do the job isn't on CPAN and is embedded in another system. As a consequence I've been thinking about abstracting the code out of Labyrinth and releasing it separately. It might make for an interesting discussion and may provide people with an reasonable example of how they can use one solution to treat their input and output.

I've also started thinking about doing a short talk along the lines of "My Favourite CPAN Modules". A number of people have done this in the past and at one London.pm meeting several years ago, Leon presented one that got me looking up a few modules I'd not really heard of before. It's probably a talk better aimed at local group technical meetings and maybe a Workshop if appropriate, but I've also been thinking it might be better to actually to structure several talks of this style, but with a theme. So one talk would be "The Web Edition" and feature several modules useful for website development, another "The Test Edition" feature several useful Test modules, and perhaps also "The Mail Edition" with a selection of useful email modules. I've made an attempt at this style of talk before, but got too involved with the mechanics, when really all you need is a quick flavour of what the module can do, with enough references for you to go and find out more yourself.

I still need something more concrete for LUGRadio and the YAPCs, but at least I have some ideas to work with now. If anyone has other suggestions, please let me know.

File Under: community / conference / labyrinth / linux / perl / yapc
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Back On The Chain Gang

Posted on 2nd January 2008

First day back at work. I was dreading it a little as on the Saturday before Christmas my laptop screen broken and was unusable. I could plug it up to an external monitor, but that isn't all that useful to have sitting on your lap. Thankfully the laptop is under warranty, so our IS guys are going to send it back. In the meantime I've got a new chassis.

The laptop is a Lenovo R61, and although it's a wide-screen, I have finally got used to it. However, the biggest disappointment has been trying to get Linux, specifically Ubuntu and Fedora, running on it. I've given up for the time being, but I plan on having another go at some point. I've seen someone else with Ubuntu running on it, so it is possible.

Yesterday Nicole's laptop (a Dell Inspiron 1501) also suffered problems. The touchpad failed to respond and seeing as there is no other mouse pointer type device on it (apart from plugging in my USB mouse), it was a bit difficult to actually do anything apart from shut it down. I was expecting to be able to use CTL or ALT keys in combination with other keys to get access to the administration tools (this is Ubuntu 7.04). While there probably is some key combination, it wasn't obvious and I didn't have internet access to find out.

I opened up the laptop and couldn't find anything wrong with the touchpad itself, so put it all back together (plus a bit of cleaning) and it worked again. However, the sigh of relief was short lived. The touchpad now works but the onboard wireless now doesn't. I can't tell whether the mini-card or the antenna is at fault, and have now discovered that the side panel where a regular PCMCIA card goes is acutally an ExpressCard slot.

Seeing as a wifi ExpressCard costs over £50, I'm not sure whether to shell out for a new mini-card (about £20) or a USB wireless adapter (less than £20). Seeing as the Broadcom mini-card seems to be having a lot of problems keeping hold of the network, I think the USB wireless adapter might be the better bet.

When I bought the laptop originally, it was going to be mine to use at conferences and work on various Perl projects. After it arrived the annoyance of it being a wide-screen meant Nicole got it all for herself. I've learnt a few lessons from the purchase and is one of the reasons it's taken me so long to fork out for another.

DanDan got his very own laptop for Christmas, and last night was the only one fully working in the house. Considering it was the lowest spec of the three, it's stood up quite well. He's pretty good at navigating to his games sites and doing some basic admin stuff. It's got Ubuntu installed and yes Perl is on there too, but I think it'll be a while before I get him programming.

Looking at the Ubuntu WifiDocs pages it would seem the USB wireless adapter isn't as easy a choice as I thought it might be. Still it has to be better than another temperamental Broadcom card.

File Under: computers / laptop / linux
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Video Killed The Radio Star

Posted on 7th July 2007

Today is the first day of LUGRadio Live. Well actually it could be considered the second day, as many of the attendees were assembled in Wolverhampton last night. I had to miss the festivities last night, so I'm hoping I can make up for it tonight :)

Several local user groups will be attending, so I'm hoping to see a lot of familiar faces. I'll be taking lots of photos, and this year I hope to have them online soon after the event, not nearly a year later!

File Under: conference / linux / lugradio / opensource
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The Real Me

Posted on 13th June 2007

I've had to turn down a fantastic opportunity today. One of the LUGRadio presenters isn't able to make the recording of the show tomorrow, and Aq contacted me to see if I'd be up for being a guest presenter. I'm gutted as they've been meaning to get me on the show for a while, and now would have been an ideal opportunity to plug YAPC::NA and YAPC::Europe.

Not sure who isn't able to make it, but as Adam Sweet is now a regular, they can't call on him to be their stand-in guest any more :) Hence why my name cropped up. Hopefully they manage to recruit another member of the WolvesLUG massive, but I'll definitely be up for another chance to stand in. Hopefully, I haven't scotched my golden opportunity.

File Under: linux / lugradio / perl / technology
NO COMMENTS


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