Hardy Heron

I upgraded to the brand new version of Ubuntu, Hardy Heron, on Saturday. I didn’t upgrade in the usual sense – I actually took a backup of my data and did a complete reinstall. This seemed like a sensible decision, as it’s now three years since I installed Ubuntu, and my hard drive probably bore the evidence of my learning curve, much as a learner driver tends to cause a degree of damage to the clutch of the car that they learn to drive in.

Why I did a full reinstallation

There were a couple of other advantages to doing a complete reinstallation. Firstly, it allowed me to set up my partition table so that `/home` is stored on a separate partition. You can also do this with an existing installation, but it’s easier when you’re doing a fresh one because resizing partitions is quite slow, whereas deleting and recreating them is very quick. Having `/home` on a separate partition then makes it even easier to do complete reinstallations in the future.

Secondly, upgrading Ubuntu tends to take quite a few hours. If you have changed any configuration files (eg `smb.conf`) then you will be prompted whether you want to keep your version, discard all changes, or attempt to merge the two. However, these prompts come up while you are performing the upgrade, rather than all in one batch at the start or end, so you have to sit in front of the computer (or, at least, keep checking up on it) during the upgrade process. However, installing Ubuntu from scratch is remarkably fast. You download the ISO image (700MB), burn it to a CD, and then run the installation from that disc. The installation took about 15 minutes on my computer, and after filling in the initial configuration screens, the main portion of the installation program ran without needing my interference.

The downside

The downside to performing a complete reinstallation is that you lose all of your customisations. Application-specific settings are stored in your home folder, so those are easy to import. For most applications, I am taking this opportunity to start with a fresh profile – exceptions so far being Mozilla Thunderbird (with its hundreds of megabytes of archived mail) and Deluge, my Bit Torrent client (with all my RSS feeds). However, you will invariably lose system-wide settings.

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I first installed Ubuntu, I had to go through a number of hoops to enable the thumb-button on my mouse, and the multimedia keys on my keyboard. It seems that sometime in the last three years, this functionality was neatly integrated into the base distribution, and I discovered to my joy when reinstalling that it was all detected and configured in a totally fuss-free fashion. So instead of having all sorts of redundant hacks and tweaks to make my hardware work, it should now be handled in the simplest and most reliable way possible. It also gives me the opportunity to see how far things have come.

Configuration files

The only configuration file that I’ve had to modify has been `xorg.conf` (of course). For some reason, Ubuntu still can’t detect my 19″ Sony SDM-HS95P (I blame it on a poorly-supported video chipset) so it sets me up at 800×600. I expected nothing less, which is why I held onto a backup of my `xorg.conf` so that I could paste in the relevant lines. Maybe `displayconfig-gtk` could have done the job, but I didn’t bother to check. Incidentally, as far as I can see, there’s no way to run `displayconfig-gtk` from the Main Menu (unless you use the Menu Editor to make it visible in the “Other” submenu as “Screen and Graphics”).

Any trouble?

When I tried setting a static IP, the network connection disappeared altogether. This was fixed by manually restarting the networking daemon with `sudo /etc/init.d/networking restart` but I felt that this should have been done automatically.

I also found that trying to set a workgroup caused the `/etc/hosts` file to be broken in such a way that sudo would no longer work (I’d get the error `unable to resolve host`). Here’s a thread on ubuntuforums.org that contains a solution, but for now I have just left the workgroup blank.


I have to admit, there aren’t any particular features in the new version of Ubuntu that I’ve been waiting for with baited breath (except perhaps Firefox 3), but I like to be using the latest and most well-supported version (assuming that it’s stable, of course). I also think that the new Wubi program (which allows you to install Ubuntu within your Windows partition) is an incredibly cool concept, though it doesn’t affect me personally.


Hacking Moto

So, if you watch my linklog, you’ll notice that I recently installed [moto4lin][] on [Ubuntu][] so that I could hack my [Razr][].

[moto4lin]: http://www.ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=56253&highlight=moto4lin
[ubuntu]: http://www.ubuntulinux.org/
[razr]: http://www.motorola.com/motoinfo/product/details/0,,69,00.html

The primary reason for doing this was that the external screen would display my service provider’s icon. This, to me, seemed like a bit of an imposition – why should I be forced to advertise their product? I’ve already bought it – what more do they want? Blood?

So I created a 96×80 GIF image called cl.gif and uploaded it to the phone, overwriting the existing file in /a/mobile/system/ – worked a treat.

I then went to town getting rid of all the preinstalled crap that had been marked as read-only, and hence undeletable from within the phone’s menu.

Here’s where it gets interesting, because to give the user the impression that this crap isn’t taking up shedloads of space, the phone has been programmed to subtract the mass of this crap from the total space displayed when you request a memory report.

Linux – One Year On

Today marks the one-year anniversary of my long-awaited switch from Windows to Linux. Though it was not an overnight transition, it’s much easier to put a date on commencing the metamorphosism than completing it.

I always try to be very careful around the subject of Linux advocacy, because if you say too many positive things about it, then people will fall under the misconception that it’s a good substitute for Windows. And it’s not, but it is a good alternative, if you’re willing to face the learning curve.

Some things worked right out of the box (eg USB, all essential hardware at a basic level), some things required a little bit of effort (eg wireless networking, multimedia keys on the keyboard, optimal screen resolution), some things just never ended up working, but I got over it (eg lack of read-write support for NTFS, lack of support for Lexmark printer, burning audio CDs takes twice as long), and some things still bug me a little to this day. For example:

  1. Games – I’ve tried Cedega, and did actually manage to install Max Payne using it, but when I tried to play the game, it hung. The closest that I came to a satisfactory gaming experience under Linux is nethack. It would be nice if I didn’t have to reboot every time I wanted to play a game.
  2. Video – Nothing seems quite as slick as Windows Media Player, I’m ashamed to say. I find myself occasionally having to load certain WMV files in gxine because they won’t play in VLC. I’m sure that this is conquerable, if I just spend the time on it. Additionally, for some reason the menus in build 0.8.4 of VLC are borked, and I can’t access the playlist. I’m currently using 0.7.0, but apt keeps trying to upgrade me to 0.8.4 again.
  3. …while we’re talking about apt: it’s a fantastic tool, and it really simplifies installation and upgrading, but it has downsides. For example, Firefox 1.5 is not available in the repositories for the current version of Ubuntu – only 1.0.7. This means that if you want 1.5, you need to install it yourself. It’s not a terribly simple process, but it is well-documented here.

But conversely, some things happen so much more smoothly than before, it’s unreal. I’ve found myself writing shell scripts and python programs to automate tasks that I would previously have done manually, like correcting ID3 tags on MP3 files, and transferring photos from my camera to the computer.

I’ve heard people describe Linux as having a steep learning curve, but as your skills improve you realise that it doesn’t obstruct you from doing the things that you want to do. The only limits upon what you can do, and learn, are the limits of your willingness.

GNOME or Fluxbox?

I currently have two window managers installed on my computer: GNOME (which is the default with Ubuntu) and Fluxbox. I installed Fluxbox because I found GNOME to be just a little bit too heavy on the features, and I quite fancied the idea of starting with something really lightweight and then just finding ways to add the particular features which I needed.

I’ve been using Fluxbox as my default window manager for about a week, with some success. I’ve managed to resolve a good number of my gripes, but a few things still are outstanding.

  • Samba – I haven’t yet tried connecting to one of the shared folders on the other computers in the house, but GNOME makes this insanely easy. We shall see.
  • Delete – The graphical file manager for Fluxbox is called Rox, and is quite sleek. However, I’m having difficulty getting used to it for a number of reasons, the biggest of which is that if you highlight a file and hit the “Delete” key on the keyboard, it does nothing. Ctrl+X is the shortcut for deletion, and I can’t figure out how to change this. Yet.
  • Trash – On a related note, Rox doesn’t have a Trash folder. There is, I believe, a plugin available to do this, but I consider this to be something that can reasonably be expected to be in the base package.
  • Toolbar – My GNOME toolbar contains a nifty little workspace pager, and a system monitor that shows small histograms of recent CPU usage, memory usage and network usage. Again, I haven’t found equivalents in Fluxbox yet.
  • GAIM – Minor one: I’m not receiving sounds from GAIM in Fluxbox, which means I can’t tell when someone has IMed me, unless I keep the conversation window in view. Which defeats the whole virtual desktop idea.
  • Shutdown – the main menu doesn’t have a shutdown option – just an “Exit” option, which takes you back to the login screen, where you can shutdown. I think that this is reasonably easy to add (something along these lines with a little bit of this), but again, it’s surprising how much you take these kinds of things for granted in more polished window managers.
  • Bluetooth – GNOME is pretty slick when it comes to transferring photos from my phone to the computer. Haven’t looked into this on Fluxbox much, but it isn’t leaping out at me.
  • XMMS – A very scratchy itch, this one. When I right click on XMMS in the taskbar and move it to another workspace, the playlist window stays behind, and there’s no way to send it along without closing XMMS, switching to the destination workspace, and opening XMMS from there.

That’s the entire contents of my list.

I’ve got config fatigue now, and so I’ve set GNOME as my default again for a little while. When the time feels right, I shall go back and see if I can strike some of these items off the list. Rest assured that as and when I nail them, I’ll leave an update here.


Things that make you go “Ah, poor little fella…”

So I was in the garden, weeding furiously, pulling up these things with leaves and little blue flowers and two-foot roots, and it’s all going nicely. I’d grab the base of the plant with my nice thick-gloved hand, and tear the leaves off. Then, with my narrow hand-spade (or whatever it’s called… Graybo! Help!) I’d dig around the stump to a depth of about six inches, so that I could grab the top of the root and pull that long pale-green tapering snake out of the soil. Highly satisfying.

Then it starts to spit a little.

“Just a touch of rain,” I think to myself, “I can soldier on through this minor inconvenience.”

Tear, dig, tug.

Tear, dig, tug.

And then…

Little worm comes to the surface for the lovely water. I perform the tear…

“Poor little guy. Here, let me help you.”

I gently scoop him up with my hand-spade and deposit him safely in an area that I’d already cleared.

“Oh, and your friend. Sorry to split you up like that.”

Worm number two joins his buddy. Then I see that I left their girlfriends behind.

“Yeah, I can carry two of you at once. Hop on.”

Another worm transfer. Oh crap. There’s still more of them.

I decided at this point that I didn’t want to spend the rest of the day driving the worm minibus, and retired to the worm-free safety of my computer.

Speaking of worm-free operating systems, the latest release of Ubuntu Linux (5.04, Hoary Hedgehog) is a beaut. Amongst other things, the new GNOME (2.10) is much snappier than the previous version. And I can get on with converting my WMAs to MP3s at last (in process as we speak).

*Originally posted here*


Installing Linux

I have been meaning to switch to Linux for a long, long time now. The first time that I attempted to do anything about it was about three years ago, when I obtained the Mandrake 8.2 installation CDs (I had to order them through the mail, as I was still on dialup). The installation went okay (apart from the fact that I got confused when partitioning the hard drive, and ended up leaving a megabyte of free space on the Windows partition instead of a gigabyte (or something like that)) but when I got to first boot, there were two deal-breakers.

It didn’t detect my modem, and it didn’t detect the soundcard built into the motherboard.

The absence of the latter wouldn’t have been a problem, but the fact that I couldn’t get onto the Internet meant that trying to fix these two problems seemed like an enormous undertaking.

Of course, when I realised that my Windows partition was now unusably crowded, I had to reformat the whole thing. This put me off of switching to Linux for a few years, and I decided to make do with Windows for a while. It’s not perfect, but at least it works (or appears to, at least).