Life with Linux: The series

Life with Linux: On the Road

Since my last entry on this topic two weeks ago, I’ve had the chance to bring my work Lenovo Thinkpad T400 running Ubuntu Linux 9.04 on a few business trips. I’ve also done a few tweaks, added a few apps, subtracted a few apps, and generally lived with this environment as my primary working environment.

The net? Very capable, very functional, very modern, very doable.

On the application front, I added the Zim desktop wiki, decided it didn’t fit my needs, and then removed it. One of the nice things about Linux compared with Windows is it doesn’t have a registry that gets bogged down with all sorts of junk as software comes and goes. Nevertheless, I think if there is an unneeded application that is on your system that is not a prerequisite for something you do want, get rid of it.

In Ubuntu, this means going to the Applications > Add/Remove menu item or the more advanced System > Administration > Synaptic Package Manager. Don’t clutter up your system with stuff with which you experiment and then don’t use. You can always add it back in later. By that time it will probably be at a higher version, more functional, and less bug ridden.

I installed the Doomi Adobe AIR-based todo list manager but then started playing with the online Remember The Milk system. I still have both of them available and will play with each of them some more, when I remember to do so. Remember The Milk is extraordinary in the number of services and Web 2.0 add-ons and extensions that support it.

For fun I installed MIT/GNU Scheme. Speaking imprecisely but with great affection, Scheme is a flavor of Lisp that is known for its consistency, elegance, and value in teaching computer science, though many schools have switched to Java. In a perfect world, we’d all be programming Scheme, but we’re not, and I digress.

Before I left for the last trip I took, I swore that I would not install any updates while on the road. Then I started to have some stability problems with an application and decided that I would go ahead and put the newer software on my machine. While I try not to do anything to mess up my computer while I’m away from my home office, I did it on that trip for two good reasons:

  1. I’ve never had any problems after doing a regular update on a Linux system.
  2. I was surrounded by some of the smartest Linux people in the IBM Corporation.

The general population might take more solace from the first reason than the second, but the second was pretty cool for me. For all of us when it concerns Linux, we are not alone. Got a browser? You can get help.

Finally, in an earlier installation of Ubuntu on this machine, I followed one of the well-documented ways of getting the newest version of the FireFox browser on this machine. Some things never seemed quite right after that, though I could never really pinpoint anything in particular. When I reinstalled Ubuntu I stayed on Firefox version 3.0.12. I can wait for 3.5 to be part of the distro in a couple of months.

Also See: Life with Linux: The series

Upgrading from Windows XP to a Linux desktop

According to Walter Mossberg over at the Wall Street Journal, the best way to upgrade from Microsoft Windows XP to Windows 7 is to backup your data, wipe your machine, and then reinstall your data.

But how will Windows users transition their current computers to the new Windows 7? While this latest operating system stresses simplicity, the upgrade process will be anything but simple for the huge base of average consumers still using XP, who likely outnumber Vista users. It will be frustrating, tedious and labor-intensive.

According to Mossberg, Microsoft is suggesting that you might just want to go ahead and buy a new computer with Windows 7 preinstalled.

First, you should always have your files backed up somewhere, either to an external hard drive or via software like JungleDisk that uses Amazon’s S3 service. You should do this whether or not you are doing an upgrade. No one is going to cry for you if you lose months or years of documents, photos, or music if you chose not to save them off your computer’s hard disk. Go and do it now, I’ll wait …

Join the Linux Foundation

If you are going to wipe your hard drive, but before you pay a dime for Windows 7, try a Linux desktop distribution. If you don’t like it, what’s the worst that’s going to happen? You spent no money other than for a burnable CD or DVD, a little time, and you just have to wipe your disk again before installing Windows 7.

Here are some resources:

Linux Distributions

There are even more if you want to do the research and find the perfect one for you.

“Getting Started” Information

Tips

  • If you are thinking you might get off Windows, start using the Firefox browser today. If you do move to Windows 7, you might even stay on Firefox.
  • Use the Firefox XMarks extension to save your bookmarks off your computer. It makes restoring your browsing environment a lot easier.
  • You are not going to hurt your computer hardware by trying some Linux distributions.

Caveats

  • There is no iTunes for Linux, though there are other options for playing your music. Now is a great time to make sure you have your music in MP3 format. Make sure it is backed up.
  • If wifi is important to you, make sure it works with the Linux distro(s) you try.
  • Make sure you can print to your printer.
  • If you have “interesting” hardware attached to your pc, make sure it works with your chosen Linux distribution. For that matter, make sure there is a Windows 7 driver for it before investing in that operating system.

Wooden screens: Starting construction

In my previous entry on this topic, I talked about how I was building two new wooden screens to put on windows on a second floor sleeping porch. In this entry I’ll discuss how I started putting them together.

First off, I decided that I would use “1 by” stock for building the frames. This means that the wood, pine in my case, is “1 inch” thick, although by convention it actually 3/4 inch thick. I wanted the width of the pieces in the frame to be as close to 1 7/8 inches without wasting a lot of wood. That is, I was willing to go with a slightly narrower piece if it saved wood and money.

I went to the local lumberyard and looked at 1 x 6 pine. Since I’m planning to paint these screens, it did not have to be clear pine without knots. By convention, a 1 x 6 is also less wide that 6 inches, though you need to check the wood you are buying to see exactly how much less. In my case, the width was 5 1/2 inches. Each piece of 1 x 6 x 8 (feet) pine was about $6, and I needed three of these.

Diagram of screen frame

The width of the blade on my table saw is 1/8 inch. So if I cut each 1 x 6 into 3 equal strips, these strips would be (5 1/2 – 2 * 1/8) / 3 inches wide. That is, 1 3/4 inches wide. Close enough.

One of the windows looks like the image displayed and the other is wider with the piece in the middle centered horizontally. Each frame is 46 inches high. The narrower one is 54 3/8 inches wide while the wider one is 72 5/8 inches.

I used my chop saw to cut the different pieces of wood to the proper lengths and then glued them up on the extension table of my table saw. Ideally I would have another table, but I know the saw extension table is flat and square. I used Gorilla Glue and one 3 inch drywall screw at each junction.

It’s important not to overbuild such things. The screens will be kept in a fixed position with no flexing or torquing. The glue is extremely strong and waterproof. I worked my way around the screen, gluing and screwing each corner, and then I let the glue set. Ideally I would have done the entire frame at once, but I wasn’t in a rush and this ensured that everything stayed square.

Gluing up the frame

After the frames were put together I let them dry for several days, which coincided with my taking a business trip. Earlier today I brought the frames upstairs and test fitted them in their windows. Even though I measured the previous screens, it turned out that my new frames were an 1/8 inch too high. So I brought them back down to the basement, set up a guide, and used my hand circular saw to trim them. The fit was fine after this adjustment. Always check for fit BEFORE you paint.

Each frame got a good sanding with palm sander and then I brought them outside to prime the knots. Knots can bleed sap and discolor a paint job, so I used shellac-based Zinsser B-I-N spray-on primer. Here are the two frames drying outside:

The frames with knot holes primed

Next up I’ll prime the entire frames, paint them white, put on aluminum screening, make some trim molding, cut and install that, and then install the screens.

Kindle curmudgeoning

I was over at Amazon today looking at technical books and thought “these are really expensive, if they are much cheaper in Kindle form I might be able to justify the price of a device.” As I’ve said before, I like books, real physical books. I like libraries. I hope to someday have a private library with floor to ceiling bookcases, a fireplace, an oriental rug, comfortable leather chairs, and a big oak library table in the middle.

It’s not the same for me to imagine the bookcases empty and just a Kindle sitting on the table.

That said, technical books are a pain. They are expensive, often large and heavy, and go out of date as new programming languages and libraries come along. For this reason I tend to just use online free references.

So I might be willing to pay money for electronic versions of such tech books if they didn’t cost so much. I had assumed that like most of the fiction books on Amazon, the tech books would be $9.99. I was shocked to see that they were often only a few dollars cheaper than the printed versions.

Forgetting for a moment the economics of the publishing industry, the tech books are not cheap enough for me to justify buying them in electronic form and possibly buying a Kindle. So I’ll continue to buy a few of them when necessary; store, recycle, or give away the old ones; and continue to try to use free online resources.

Getting back to the economics, I know tech books have smaller audiences than, say, The Da Vinci Code, so greater overhead, and so on. My point here is not that they should necessarily be very inexpensive, but rather that their digital versions are not cheap enough to also justify buying a Kindle.

Some recent site stats

It’s been a while, but from time to time I publish some stats on how sutor.com is being accessed, courtesy of Google Analytics. In a nutshell: a lot of Firefox, a lot of Windows, respectable Linux, and Chrome is now on the map. The percentages are all with respect to the site hits in the last 31 days.

Browsers
1. Firefox 50.37%
2. Internet Explorer 32.82%
3. Safari 7.67%
4. Chrome 3.96%
5. Mozilla 2.08%
6. Opera 1.89%
7. SeaMonkey 0.63%
8. Konqueror 0.18%
9. Camino 0.11%
10. Mozilla Compatible Agent 0.11%
Operating Systems
1. Windows 71.32%
2. Linux 15.14%
3. Macintosh 12.67%
4. iPhone 0.34%
5. (not set) 0.20%
6. iPod 0.14%
7. SunOS 0.09%
8. Playstation 3 0.03%
9. SymbianOS 0.03%
10. Android 0.02%
Browser and Operating System
1. Internet Explorer / Windows 32.82%
2. Firefox / Windows 32.19%
3. Firefox / Linux 12.46%
4. Safari / Macintosh 6.74%
5. Firefox / Macintosh 5.60%
6. Chrome / Windows 3.83%
7. Mozilla / Linux 1.83%
8. Opera / Windows 1.52%
9. SeaMonkey / Windows 0.47%
10. Safari / Windows 0.36%

Life with Linux: More apps

I’ve been working on tuning the Linux installation I have on my work Lenovo Thinkpad T400, and it’s time to add a few more applications. I’ll break them down by category.

User Interface

One feature I really like on OS X for the Mac is the ability to change the desktop background at regular intervals. Evidently KDE 4.3 can do this, but Ubuntu 9.04 uses GNOME as the default desktop manager. When I looked around the web, I found a number of possible solutions, though some of the sites with code were missing. That is, I didn’t immediately find anything that looked like it would just work all the time and was current.

Last night I found and started to use Wallpapoz. It seems to do the trick. For each of your workspaces, you can define a set of images to be used as the background wallpaper. Then you tell it how often to change the wallpaper. Make sure you set up the daemon if you don’t want to manually restart the application every time you reboot. A fix regarding the instructions on doing this on Ubuntu 9.04: do it via System > Preferences > Startup Applications. Wallpapoz is an open source application (GPL v2) written in Python.

Evidently development has stopped, but it works. Even though this has a better user interface than most, this whole idea and execution should be easier. Ideally, a future version of GNOME should just include it.

Update: Since I wrote this original entry I’ve started using Wallpaper Tray. It’s a wallpaper/background switcher for GNOME that sits in one of the panels. For Ubuntu, install via Syntaptic, then right click on the GNOME panel, choose Add, and then pick it out from the bottom of the list. Once installed, you can right click to set a schedule for changing the background. There are other options as well.

Backup

I use JungleDisk. I keep the primary copies of files, documents, music, and photos on my desktop iMac, but by using JungleDisk I can access them from anywhere in the world. I could also use JungleDisk to backup my file on the Linux machine, though I don’t do that now.

JungleDisk works by being an interface to Amazon S3 online storage. Therefore you’ll have to get an appropriate Amazon account. The JungleDisk website has all the information you’ll need. The JungleDisk software is not open source.

If you are using your Linux machine for work, you may have online storage backup tools available. Check around.

Text Editing

For simple editing, the gedit application works just fine and is builtin. It’s what you get under Applications > Accessories > Text Editor. I’m underselling gedit when I call it “simple,” because there are many plugins available for it that extend its functionality. Make sure you look under Edit > Preferences to see what you can do. For example, I always turn on display of line numbers.

Die hard Unixy types might prefer emacs or vi, and those are just builtin. I was always more of a vi kind of guy and to this day if I turn off my brain and just try to edit I can recall many of the commands. If I think too hard about it, I’m lost.

Eclipse is available for installation via Applications > Add/Remove. Eclipse is open source. [David Carver in the comments notes that it would be best to get Eclipse from eclipse.org as the version in the Ubuntu repository is out-of-date.]

I mostly used Komodo open source editor since it is a full text editor and has modern support for many programming languages. It also suits my frequency of coding, which is not very often. Komodo is open source.

Also see: Life with Linux: The series

Wooden porch screens: The setup

We have several porches around our 1820 Federal style house, and no two of them are the same. Off the driveway we have an entrance porch, which I largely rebuilt last year (photo), and above that is a classic sleeping porch. Before the days of air conditioning, sleeping porches allowed you to catch the breezes all night while you were protected from the weather and the bugs. That meant some sort of screening.

Our sleeping porch has screened windows on two sides, with a movable screened window tucked between a chimney and the house on a third. It’s a pleasant room with a stained beadboard ceiling.

Sleeping porch - inside

A couple of years ago I was painting that side of the house and I took down two of the wooden screens. The wood had gotten punky in some areas and the screens needed to be replaced. I decided that I would rebuild the screens completely and let the old ones sit outside.

In this photo, the window with the missing screen in on the right. The windows themselves are about 15 feet (± 5 meters) up in the air.

Sleeping porch - outside

In the meanwhile, I found a good use for one of the screens I took down:

Old screen as garden gate

That’s not the permanent garden gate, but it will do for now.

Over a few entries to follow this one, I’ll show how I’ll build the wooden frames for the new screens, prime and paint them, install new aluminum screening, make and attach new trim molding, and then put the new screens in place on the porch.

Next: Starting construction

Life with Vegetables: The mid-July garden

I’m taking today off as a vacation day, so among the other odds and ends I’m doing I decided to capture a photo update of the state of the vegetable garden, new this year. I previously discussed the garden in May and June, with photos as well.

I’m growing two tomatoes in Topsy Turvy planters on the porch off our kitchen. They’re doing quite well size-wise compared to when I planted them, though they have flowers but no fruit. That’s not too surprising, since the outside tomatoes also do not have fruit.

Vegetable garden in July, 2009

Here are a few close-ups of some of what’s growing this year.

Snap peas:

Vegetable garden in July, 2009

Rather pretty purple flowers on green beans:

Vegetable garden in July, 2009

One of the first zucchinis:

Vegetable garden in July, 2009

Corn, an early variety:

Vegetable garden in July, 2009

Flowers on a cherry tomato plant:

Vegetable garden in July, 2009

The first cayenne pepper:

Vegetable garden in July, 2009

Zooming out a bit, we have from front to back: onions, lettuce (2 kinds), carrots, and green beans:

Vegetable garden in July, 2009

Zooming out a whole bit and going upstairs, here’s the full garden:

Vegetable garden in July, 2009

Life with Linux: Installing Adobe AIR and TweetDeck

Update: After I did this entry, TweetDeck fixed their webpage so that the Adobe AIR installation now works for Linux, or at least for Ubuntu. If for some reason it doesn’t work for you, you can use the instructions below.


My preferred way of interacting with Twitter is via the TweetDeck application, which is built using Adobe AIR. That means to use TweetDeck, you have to first install Adobe AIR. On my Mac, everything just sort of worked from the TweetDeck main page, but nothing happens as far as I can tell when I click the Download button on the website while I am on Ubuntu 9.04 Linux in Firefox. Here’s how I made it work.

First up, TweetDeck complained that I didn’t have an up-to-date version of Adobe Flash. I did, having installed it earlier via the Applications > Add/Remove app. So I ignored this warning.

Next I went to the Adobe website and downloaded AIR. I don’t know where your browser downloads are saved, but I put mine in a directory called Downloads. I brought up Places > Home Folder from the top menu bar and navigated to my AIR installation file, AdobeAIRInstaller.bin. The “bin” part was a tip-off that this file was supposed to be run as a program, but I needed to tell Linux to allow that. So I right clicked on the file and chose Properties and the Permissions tab. I checked “Allow executing file as program” and closed the dialog box.

Next I opened a terminal session and navigated via “cd” (change directory) to my installation file. I double checked via “ls” (list directory) that the installer was present, and then issued the “./AdobeAIRInstaller.bin” command. (Do not forget the leading “./”.) The installer then took over and I had Adobe AIR installed.

Install Adobe AIR

From here it was easy. I went back to the TweetDeck website, clicked Download, and Adobe AIR took over and installed TweetDeck.

Update: For installing on 64 bit versions of Ubuntu and other Linux desktops, see these instructions from Adobe. When I used it there was a typo near then end. The line

$ ./AdobeAIRIntaller.bin

should have been

$ ./AdobeAIRInstaller.bin

Also see: Life with Linux: The series

Life with Linux: Up and running, and changing the look

In the previous entry on this topic I did some basic personal customizations to my Ubuntu 9.04 Linux installation on my Lenovo T400 laptop. As I left it, I was about to install the IBM internal software layer that contains things such as Lotus Notes, SameTime, and Symphony. That went very well except for two problems, both of which were my fault:

  • I thought the VPN software I had on a USB storage key was up-to-date, but evidently it was backlevel and didn’t work. Thus I initially could not connect into the IBM network from my home office. Getting and installing the latest VPN software worked perfectly. For some reason I don’t remember, I rebooted after I installed this.
  • When configuring an essential application, I could not connect into the IBM network. Slightly before panic set in, I remember that I had rebooted but had not restarted the VPN. Once I did so, everything worked well.

At this point I loaded up the machine with data saved elsewhere: I replicated my personal Lotus Notes mail to the laptop, used FileZilla to download the contents of my sutor.com website, and again used FileZilla to FTP over my saved documents from my desktop iMac.

So now I have a fully functional Linux laptop that I can use for work. Indeed, I’m using it right now to create this blog entry in WordPress, while also using Lotus Notes and Lotus SameTime.

There are a few more applications I want to install and I also want to change the look away from the default Ubuntu theme. I’ll save the former for later and now talk about the appearance.

I’m more of a “blue” guy that a “brown” guy, so I changed the Ubuntu GNOME desktop theme to Clearlooks. Go to System > Preferences > Appearance and click on the Clearlooks theme on the Themes tab. The decoration around your windows will immediately change. Choose a different theme if one of the other suits you. Other themes are available for download from various places around the web. Just make sure the theme you install is usable with your version of Ubuntu and GNOME. You can get the version information under the System menu.

Ubuntu themes

Next I want to change the screen wallpaper. I really like the images available at Interface LIFT. If you find an image you like on the website, click on a Select Resolution list, choose the size you need (mine is 1440×900), and then click Download. This brings up the image in your browser. Right click, choose Save Image As and put the image someone convenient. I put mine in the Pictures directory. I like to do this separate step rather the Set As Desktop Background option, since I tend to collect a lot of wallpaper images so I can change them frequently.

Now go back to System > Preferences > Appearance and click on the Background tab. Click the Add button and then find and open the image you just downloaded. You’ll now have a new background.

One final flourish: I like to change the menu bars to be about 50% transparent so I can see that beautiful background I just downloaded. To do this, right click on the top or bottom menu bar and click Properties. Next click Background and then the Solid Color menu item. Move the slider bar toward the right to make the bar more transparent (that is, less solid). I park mine somewhere in the middle. Now repeat for the other menu bar.

Ubuntu revised desktop

Next up: Life with Linux: Installing Adobe AIR and TweetDeck

Also see: Life with Linux: The series

Life with Linux: First customizations

By the end of the last entry, I had installed and updated a basic, vanilla Ubuntu 9.04 Linux desktop on a Lenovo T400 laptop. There was nothing about the installation that was special to the hardware or to how I wanted the environment to be. I’ll now start customizing, and this is ahead of installing the Open Client software layer we use inside IBM.

Some of the things I do are minor, some more involved, and all are related to the way I like to work.

When I did the basic installation, Ubuntu put up a pop window saying that one or more proprietary drivers were available for the machine. Typically this is either for the wifi card or for the graphics adapter. To see what was available, I went to the System > Administration > Hardware Drivers menu entry. After searching for available drivers, the system told me that there was an ATI/AMD proprietary FGLRX video driver ready to be activated. It stated

This driver is required to fully utilise the 3D potential of some new ATI graphics cards, as well as provide 2D acceleration of newer cards.

While I certainly prefer open source drivers, this is a good one to install, so I clicked the Activate button. It took longer than I thought to download and install the driver, several minutes. I needed to restart the system after the driver installation, which I did. There were no video issues when the system came back up.

Next up is to customize the top menubar. Some people like one bar (like Windows) and some like two (like the Mac, with the bar on top and dock on bottom). I happen to like two. This is what the left side of the top menubar looks like before you do anything:

menubar

If you right click on the top bar, you can choose Add to Panel. From there you can select Application Launcher. This allows you to add a one-click icon for any app that is already in the Applications menu system. If you want to remove an icon, right click it and choose Remove From Panel. If you uncheck Lock to Panel then you can drag and drop the icon elsewhere on the bar. It might take several attempts to nudge it to exactly where you want it to go.

Here is my menubar after I’ve removed the Evolution envelope icon (don’t use it), moved the help icon way over to the right (not shown), and added launching icons for a text editor (gedit), a command line terminal (love, love, love it), a screen shot app (used for these images), and a calculator.

menubar

As an aside, I wonder why the GNOME English menu text capitalizes “From” but not “to”. Strange.

Next up is to add a directory where I’ll put the files I download through the browser. I’ll call it, cleverly enough, “Downloads.” Click on the terminal session icon to get a command line. The command “ls” lists the file and directory currently present in my home user directory. The “mkdir” command makes a directory. At the end of the following note that I check again to see the file listing, just to make sure that I didn’t misspell anything.

menubar

Of course, you can also add directories via the File Browser application if you don’t want to use a command line. Access that via the Places menu item.

After this I started up the Firefox browser and made my personal customizations, and I won’t detail those here since you’ll want to do whatever works for you. Last week I listed the Firefox addons that I use. I particularly find XMarks very convenient as I move from system to system.

Next I added some applications I like to use. You can do this by selecting Applications > Add/Remove. If you are doing this for the first time, the system will ask if it can update its list. Allow it to do so, and give it your password when requested.

The applications are grouped into collections called repositories and these are further grouped in ways labeled in the top center of the Add/Remove Applications window. Poke around and see what you need or might like to try. Think of this as a candy store of free (as in zero-cost) software, because that’s what it pretty much is. For example, under Third party applications you can get Adobe Flash and Adobe Reader. I recommend the Office and Games categories, the former for so-called productivity software and the latter for anti-productivity software.

Note that one application I find indispensable is the FileZilla FTP Client. There is some oddity that will not let you install it from the Applications > Add/Remove software. You can find and install it from System > Administration > Synaptic Package Manager. Synaptic is a more fine grained way of installing software packages, but this behavior with FileZilla is just a bug, in my opinion.

Finally, I installed the IBM Open Client layer. This is internal to the company, so I won’t describe it here, but IBMers can ping me for the URL if they need it. You know where to find me.

Next up: Life with Linux: Up and running, and changing the look

Also see: Life with Linux: The series

Life with Linux: Simplifying and starting over

Ok, so yesterday I talked about dual booting Fedora and Ubuntu. Last night I played a bit with the multi-boot situation, looked at some upgrade options, learned more than I wanted to know about the grub boot loader, and generally thought about the situation.

This morning I blew away everything on the hard disk by repartitioning it and installing Ubuntu 9.04 only. It is this that I will work on optimizing. I did not choose a distro like Mandrake or Gentoo because I need to have one on which our IBM internal tools are supported.

Clearly what I’m doing is chronicling my experiments with Linux on the desktop. Sometimes I may reverse direction, back things out, start over, give up on things that once seemed promising but didn’t pan out, or else keep what has turned out to be just the right configuration or software.

This doesn’t scare me since I have done tens of Linux installations through the years. So much of what I do is on the web or in the “cloud,” in a general sense, that it doesn’t take me long to switch to a new version or a new distro. It just takes a few hours and that’s not long to spend to get a better setup or learning more about the latest versions. I don’t recommend this approach to everyone, but it’s how I work.

I did not go with the virtualization approach here since I know from experience that I rarely if ever switch from a desktop Linux to another once hosted on the first.

My restart effort began by my putting the Ubuntu 9.04 CD in the Lenovo T400 laptop and rebooting. I answered a few questions and in about 15 to 20 minutes I had a sparkly new operating system on my machine. After I rebooted, I went into the System > Administration > Update Manager menu and checked for updates. There were many, I installed them, and I rebooted. At this point I had a vanilla but up-to-date Ubuntu installation.

Basic Ubuntu desktop

Next, I’ll do some customizations.

Also See: Life with Linux: The series

Life with Linux: The basic situation

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve used Linux on the desktop on and off for many years. For a long time I had dual boot Linux and Windows machines until a couple of years ago when I bought an iMac. Then I had a dual boot laptop with Windows and Linux, then just Linux, and then I got a MacBook Pro.

Macs are sweet. Ignoring the cost and “not open source” issues for the moment, they are the nicest machines I’ve ever used. As many have said, Linux needs to aspire to the usability and elegance of the Mac design, and not try to copy what Windows looked like at the beginning of the decade.

I’m now in a dual laptop situation where I have the MacBook Pro where everything I need just works, and I have a Lenovo T400 which is just Linux. My plan is to use the T400 a lot for work, knowing that I can fall back on the MBP if I have a problem. To make life even more interesting, the T400 is a multiboot machine which has several flavors of Linux desktops. I could have just stuck to the Mac, but I really want to push on desktop Linux. I want to encourage others to move to desktop Linux. I need to know personally what it can and cannot do before I recommend it, at least with a straight face.

Note that most people moving to a Linux desktop would be doing it from Windows, not a Mac. I have no need or desire to run any flavor of Microsoft Windows for work. I put in my time, and life is short.

I’m going to be primarily focused on running two distros, Fedora and Ubuntu. I may add a third, but my first requirement is that I be able to run my IBM applications, including Lotus Notes (email etc.), SameTime (instant messaging), and Symphony (word processing, presentations, and spreadsheet). With these two I plan to switch back and forth to put them through their paces, trying to shape each system into a truly comfortable working environment. There is no question that I have everything on the T400 that I need to do my job.

Therefore I’m going to focus on what I need to do to tweak, upgrade, or otherwise customize these two distro installations to make them as nice to use and look at as possible. I’ll chronicle the fun I have here from time to time (and hope that I am more diligent to the task than when I’ve said that other times). One caveat is that I won’t always be sure which features on the machine are part of the base distribution, versus what was added by the IBM customizations. So I’ll try not to criticize Fedora, say, until I know it’s really its fault. Ditto for Ubuntu.

At the moment I’m backlevel on Fedora (10) whereas I’m right at Ubuntu 9.04, the latest. I’m looking into getting on Fedora 11 if I can do so without screwing up my environment with its IBM customizations.

Today’s Linux Desktop Tips

  • The ThinkPad has both a trackpoint as well as a touchpad. When I first moved to a MacBook, the touchpad drove me crazy, though I got used to it. Now back on the ThinkPad, I keep accidentally hitting the touchpad, causing odd behaviors. I turned off the touchpad from the BIOS: press the ThinkVantage button when you get the first logo screen after booting, go into the BIOS, choose Config, choose Keyboard/Mouse, and then disable the touchpad. Alternatively I could disable the trackpoint, but I’ll try this for a while.
  • I like nice wallpaper on my machine. The nicest I’ve found is at InterfaceLIFT.

Also See: Life with Linux: The series

Firefox extensions – will they work in 3.5?

So Firefox 3.5 is out and I’m looking forward to trying it, but I can wait. Why? I use a number of extensions and I don’t want to be without them. Courtesy of the Extension List Dumper extension, here are the addons that I now use.

There really should be an easy way within Firefox to see which extensions you are now using will work or have upgrades for the most recent version of the browser. Is there an extension for that?

Also see the CNet story “Firefox add-ons: Which work in 3.5?”.

Also see the Mozilla Firefox add-on compatibility report.

Update: I decided to move to v 3.5 on my iMac/OS X but will stay on v 3.0.11 on my Lenovo work ThinkPad until the latest version is officially supported in the Ubuntu repositories. That way I can get experience with the new version while not abandoning my working environment.


Application: Firefox 3.0.11 (2009060308)

Operating System: Linux (x86-gcc3)

Total number of items: 9

Webcast: Migrating from Solaris to Red Hat Linux on IBM Systems

IBM will be hosting a webcast on said topic on Thursday, June 25, at 1 PM ET.

The webcast description is:

Interested in migrating from Solaris to Linux on IBM Systems, but concerned about technical gotchas in custom code and shell scripts? What you don’t know can matter, particularly when it comes to migrations. Fortunately, IBM has extensive experience in Solaris to Linux migrations, and can help you find potential hot spots and mitigate them easily.

Join us for a technical discussion led by the Linux Technology Center. We will cover key technical considerations when migrating. In particular, we will discuss how to use IBM’s Solaris to Linux Migration Assessment Toolkit, which provides automated shell script checking and C/C++ code analysis for common issues when migrating from Solaris to Linux.

Click here to register.

Upgrade Saturday

Effective January 1, 2010, this site does not use Drupal and instead uses only WordPress.

It was raining pretty hard this morning, so I had to delay some of my plans for outside work. Instead, I turned to doing some much needed website updates and upgrades. Here are some notes from that.

First, a couple of the open source tools, FileZilla and Komodo Edit, had upgrades available, so I installed those. Of the two, Komodo has the more automatic process, though I still think the FileZilla message about “installing the upgrade whatever way you installed the original” is pretty honest and funny.

WordPress logo

Next it was on to WordPress for the blog support. I’ve been updating the plugins fairly regularly as I see the notices about those whenever I need to approve a comment. WordPress 2.8 became available a few days ago so I decided to install it. I watched the little video the WordPress folks prepared and decided to go for it. Normally I try to wait for the x.y.1 release, but I felt bold.

After backing up my files and the database, the automatic upgrade for WordPress itself went fine. Once 2.8 was in place, three plugins then wanted to be upgraded, so I did that. The WP-DBManager plugin, which does database backups and restores, then started to put messages on every page about an .htaccess file needing to be moved into my backup-db directory from the plugin directory. The only problem was that there was no such file in the plugin directory. After forcing FileZilla to show hidden files (via the Server menu), I found an htaccess.txt file. So I downloaded this, put it in the backup-db directory, renamed it to .htaccess, and the warning messages went away. Now, presumably, my database backups are not publicly accessible.

When looking at the blog after the upgrade, I noticed that the links on the left hand side were not being displayed. I checked to make sure the My Link Order plugin was current, which it was, and then deactivated and reactivated it. This fixed the problem, but only after a little web research didn’t turn up any other likely culprits. Incidentally, I restored the recent comments listing in the right hand column of the blog. These somehow went away when I switched to the new theme.

Drupal logo

After the WordPress half of the site and my lunch was finished, I turned to Drupal. The Administrative console had been warning me that I needed to upgrade from version 6.10 to 6.12 for quite some time but I hadn’t gotten around to it. Frankly, upgrading between Drupal upgrades is a pain in the neck, no matter how much I like the software (and I do, very much). It is far too manual a process. Nevertheless, I got the new code, made sure my customizations and additions were copied over, and installed the latest. Once everything was on the site, I ran the upgrade script, and I was done.

We need to get a point with all this type of software where these is a one button upgrade process. WordPress is pretty much there, but other software providers should follow their lead. Let me say, though, that I am very appreciative of all this fine open source software and the thousands of hours put into my developers. It’s truly beautiful, elegant stuff.

Postscript: After I installed WordPress 2.8, I read that version 2.8.1 will soon be available. One of the big bugs it will fix is in the automatic upgrade process. Evidently it can delete the wrong files if something goes wrong. This did not happen to me, but you might want to wait if you are nervous about it and you might have to manually reinstall some of the core files from the source file installation set.

Advancing a culture of IT openness

I’m going to go out on a limb here and quote a sentence from Wikipedia’s entry (here today, changed tomorrow, changed back the next day) on aspects of culture:

the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group

What might this mean for you when we think about openness in IT?

First and foremost, I believe it says that an understanding of the value of and a preference for truly open standards must be both part of the policy of and inherent in the common practices of an IT organization. Technologists and IT administrators must live, breathe, think and reason in terms of open standards. They should feel repelled by dictated or faux-open specifications that were developed without balanced community involvement and innovation.

Second, a culture of IT openness must support the idea and use of open source software on a level playing field with traditional proprietary software. I understand that this is not enough for many people, but if we could get more IT users, especially governments at all levels, to give explicit parity to open source, we will have made huge strides.

At that point we can compare apples to apples, so to speak, when we look at software from different providers. Yes the TCO (total cost of ownership) models will vary, but ultimately the right software with the right services, if any, at the right total cost should win.

Openness in procurement models, again especially for governments, should further help people understand where software is being chosen on its merits and where, unfortunately, lock-in is being perpetuated by previous policies that helped extend market dominance at the cost of innovation, competition, and lower costs.

In a culture of IT openness, leaders in the organization set the tone and example for others to follow. Yes, they help to develop the policy but it is their personal commitment to openness that makes that core to the ways their organizations operate. Policy may spell out the details, but examples lead others to the appropriate behavior and, yes, cultural acceptance.

A culture of IT openness looks to the applications and use of information in the future, and does not keep us stymied by poor, closed practices of the past.

My dinner with Zemlin (podcast)

Ok, it wasn’t dinner, but it was a podcast of Jim Zemlin, Executive Director of the Linux Foundation, and me talking about current trends around Linux.

In this episode of Open Voices, Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin talks with newly appointed VP of Linux and Open Source at IBM Bob Sutor. They cover IBM’s current support of Linux, the origin of that support, and the hotspots Bob sees in the Linux and open source market today. Highlights include conversation about cloud computing, Linux on the desktop, ODF, and the growth of the Linux community.

Listen to the interview or read the transcript in the Open Voices series at the Linux.com website.

Our visitor shows her face

This week my son and I completed putting up a fence around our new vegetable garden. This was in response to some critter or other chewing off the leaves on several tomato plants. The morning after I posted the previous blog entry, the tomatoes were fine, but something had started chewing on the sunflowers.

garden fence

By this point I no longer suspected a rabbit or a groundhog. As we returned home the evening after we partially installed then fence, around 9 pm, a deer walked across the yard, sniffed the fence, and then started munching on some nearby plants. We watched her for about ten minutes, and when I got out of the car to shoo her away, she ran back into the woods, chased by a very large fox. (That’s another reason why I’m not suspecting rabbits so much anymore.)

The next morning, she returned, a bit further back in the yard. This is by no means the first time we have had deer in the back yard; I’ve seen groups as large as eight running around the lawn near the woods. However, since we had not seen them much recently, we assumed they had moved moved on.

garden fence

This doe was not at all shy. I walked closer and closer to her as I was taking photos and she didn’t seem to care much. In fact, after this next shot, she looked me right in the face and started walking toward me. I decided it was time to go indoors.

garden fence

I’m hoping the fence holds, though I may need to resort to some other measures when the vegetables get taller. I’ll tackle that next month when and if it becomes an issue. I know some people have put a single line of what is essentially an electric fence around the top of an existing fence. I really don’t plan to do that, though motion-activated lasers keep coming to mind as a solution.

New individual memberships in the Linux Foundation

Become a Lnux Foundation Member

For several years now I’ve thought about getting an individual membership in the Linux Foundation but, to be honest, I could never quite figure out how to do it. Now the Foundation has revamped the process and the benefits of becoming an individual affiliate in the organization.

Amanda McPherson explains it in her blog entry “How You Can Protect Linux and Get YourName@Linux.com”. She explains, in part:

While we have had an individual membership program since the launch of the Linux Foundation, it’s been somewhat limited in both its impact and the benefits it gives to users. Starting tomorrow that will change. We will announce an expanded individual membership program that will help us promote and protect Linux while delivering tangible advantages to those who wish to support the Linux community’s cause. Most notably, members will receive their own linux.com email address that will showcase to the world — and potential employers — their support for Linux.

Your support goes a long way in enhancing, promoting and protecting Linux for generations to come. But your membership also will connect you with the information, tools and events needed to advance your career and stay current with the platform. We realize altruism only goes so far, so the membership pays for itself with just the LinuxCon, training or O’Reilly discount below. (Your employer may even pay for your membership given the savings on events and training.)

To sign up, go to http://www.linuxfoundation.org/about/join/individual/join. The cost is $99 a year.

I just joined.

Half a fence

As I have reported on previously, I’m doing a vegetable garden for the first time in several years. Everything was in the ground by the end of May, and it’s clear that I’ll be battling weeds all season. This is normal and especially expected this season since it’s the first time the soil has been tilled in a long time.

Like many gardeners, I get to share what I plant with the local wildlife. I wasn’t sure what measures would be necessary to prevent this, though I now the extent to which they consider my tomatoes the basis for a midnight snack. The first photo is Exhibit A.

Mostly eaten tomato plant

While it could have been a deer that did this, I suspect it is more likely a rabbit or the new groundhog that has moved into the backyard after he heard about my garden (I suspect he saw it on Craigslist somehow). A couple of other tomatoes were munched, but neither to this extreme. I’ll be replacing this plant with a new one, a grape tomato, that I picked up this morning.

I was hoping not to do this, but I’ve opted for putting a fence around the garden. Yesterday I bought 150 feet of vinyl coated steel fencing (20 gauge) and some fence posts. Since I already had eight posts in the garage, I just needed six more. Unfortunately, the ones I had were seven feet long and I bought some that were six feet long. Nevertheless, it sort of works. Last night my son and I (great worker, that William) installed the fence around the left side of the garden and temporarily put a section up to completely enclose that section. Tonight or tomorrow night we’ll take down the temporary run and wrap the fencing all the way around the right side.

New fence, partially installed

For a door I will either use a short section of fencing or, more likely, a large wooden screen from the basement. The latter is sturdier and will be easier to move around over the course of the gardening season.

How did I attach the fencing to the posts? I started by using the metal tabs on the posts, banging them in with a hammer. The problem with this is that the tabs rarely line up exactly with the wires in the fencing. I first put up the older posts, all of which had tabs. When I got to put up the interior, new posts I discovered, horror, that they didn’t even have tabs, just metal bumpouts to help keep the fencing in place. This was my second mistake with purchasing these posts, which suggests that making buying decisions quickly during lunch isn’t always smart.

It then occurred to me that a much better way of attaching the fencing would be to use plastic cable ties, the ones that zip up and lock in place. They are cheap and strong, and worked marvelously well. Once William and I started use them, the job sped up considerably.

You can find cable ties in the electrical section of your local home center. Alternatively, you can get them online. I was surprised to find a retail site dedicated to them. There’s a website for everything, evidently.

Irises

Finally, the irises are now in bloom here in northwestern New York State. Here are some near the driveway next to the porch I built a couple of years ago.

Moving from Solaris to Linux

Through the years I’ve worked on a lot of different flavors of “UNIX,” starting back when I was in college and then continuing on through graduate school and work. While there have been differences, a tremendous amount of knowledge and number of skills were easily transferred.

Should you be interested in moving from Solaris to Linux, here are a few resources that will give you an idea what it entails:

The goal of this IBM Redbook is to provide a technical reference for IT systems administrators in organizations that are considering a migration from Solaris to Linux-based systems. We present a systems administrator view of the technical differences and methods necessary to complete a successful migration to Linux-based systems, including coverage of how those differences translate to two major Linux distributions: Red Hat Enterprise Linux and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server.

The book is designed primarily to be a reference work for the experienced Solaris 8 or 9 system administrator who will need to begin working with Linux. It should serve as a guide for system administrators that need a concise technical reference for facilitating the transition to Linux.

“Linux on the Desktop”

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned some of the news articles coming out of a Freeform Dynamics study sponsored by IBM, but I neglected to post a link to the report itself. Here it is:

“Linux on the Desktop: Lessons from mainstream business adoption”

From the introduction:

The Microsoft Windows based desktop has been a fact of life in the mainstream business environment for so long now that it is often just accepted as a given. Some organisations, however, have been actively exploring and indeed successfully deploying alternatives, and the Linux based desktop is one of these. Based on candid ‘warts and all’ feedback from over a thousand experienced adopters, we take a practical look at the use of desktop Linux in a real world business context.