Monday, March 31, 2008

Is Ubuntu Really More Secure Than Mac / Vista?

At the Pwn to Own competition (link to story above), participants were awarded money and prizes for hacking into various operating systems, and Ubuntu came out as the winner over Mac OSX and MS Vista. While some people are shouting from the rooftops, I'm not jumping for joy, and I'll tell you why in a minute.

First, let's look at the competition rules. The original rules stated that the winner must use a 0-day exploit on a machine with only default software installed. I think this requirement was as fair as you can get, but it still left some operating systems with more software to exploit than others had. I believe the order would be Ubuntu with the most, Mac coming in second, and Vista with the least. As I said, though, I don't think you can really get more fair than that. Any additional software would just invite argument.

The really good news is that all three systems survived. No one was able to break into a default system using only the supplied tools. I'm not surprised, either. OS security has come a long way since XP and OS 9. We can all be happy that the Internet will probably be a much safer place in a couple more years.

Because no computers had been cracked, the rules were relaxed to allow visits to web sites. The Mac fell within two minutes. I think this is a wake-up call to Mac fans who believe that their platform is secure. I will state it more clearly for Mac fans visiting my site: your OS is a ticking time bomb -- get your shit straight while your relatively small market share still protects you.

Honestly, I was surprised that Vista wasn't first. Yes, I expose my anti-MS feelings. Still, I've said many times that Vista seems to be a secure system. The complaints people have with it are the result of getting used to XP's broken security. In fact, Vista never fell. No one ever had an exploit for it.

Finally, to move things along, contestants were allowed to install popular add-on software. What was popular was decided by the judges, so it's difficult to say whether this portion was fair or not. Vista fell due to a flaw in Flash. That's certainly popular, so there should be no complaints, but I wonder whether the exploit would work on Linux versions of Flash.

So Ubuntu was left standing, the apparent winner. And the crowd rejoiced. The blogosphere resounded with choruses of how great Ubuntu is.

I say it's all BS.

The real problem comes down to the requirement for a 0-day expoit. Open source has to win in this situation. There are tons of reported flaws in Ubuntu ... so many that fixing them all in a timely manner is difficult. This is the same reason that Microsoft sponsors then parades around research on the number of exploits in various operating systems. MS gets to hide any vulnerabilities that they don't want to report, while open source operating systems have everything out in the open.

Because they're all out in the open, how are you going to get a 0-day on the software? It's possible, but much less likely than getting one on a system where bug reports aren't encouraged or public.

Don't get me wrong. I think that having everything out in the open is great and pushes vendors to fix their problems. Security issues get fixed really quickly in Ubuntu (other issues ... not so fast). When you start including the non-main packages, though, things slow down more, but being able to look over the source code and search bug databases makes "all bugs shallow." How do you expect to get a 0-day exploit on code which thousands of people have pored over before you?

I love Ubuntu. I have a blog on it. This competition still doesn't mean shit.

Let's have one without the 0-day requirement, and then we'll see who the real winner is. My money's on OpenBSD.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Changing the Configuration Situation in Linux

If you're a fairly experience Linux guy, you'll be able to wander around in /etc and find the configuration file you need with no problem. The common ones rarely change position and the formats have stayed relatively stable for years. The first time you run into a configuration file for a program, it may take a little while to work with. You may even need to open the manual on the program to find where the configuration is located in the odd instance where the location isn't obvious. Most use some kind of plain-text shell configuration, but plenty write in XML these days, too, and the comment syntax varies. That's nothing mind-blowing, but it's kind of a pain.

What if the configuration for every program were (Unixly) available in a comprehensible directory structure, kind of the way /proc and /sys work now.

You've got a kernel panic? Try:
echo 2 > /proc/sys/net/ipv4/route/gc_elasticity
echo 1 > /proc/sys/net/ipv4/route/gc_interval
echo 131072 > /proc/sys/net/ipv4/route/gc_thresh

I's that easy to change the kernel's runtime configuration.

Tip: Echoing something into /proc/cpuinfo won't actually give you a multi-cpu setup on your rig! ;)

What if finding out the root filesystem type was available at system/filesystems/rootfs/type? The configuration information for your default site in Apache might be located in daemons/apache/default/.

Does it sound interesting? While I'm on the fence, it's certainly intriguing.

Well, that's the proposal from Markus Raab that appeared on's XDG mailing list today. Elektra is the vehicle that's supposed to make this all possible, and he's pushing it for inclusion into the Freedesktop specifications. The upside for this is that the configuration information is not limited to /etc level stuff: if the spec becomes reality, KDE, Gnome, XFCE and other compliant window managers and desktop environments could be configured, too. What to change the current user's wallpaper?

kdb set currentuser/desktop/background "/usr/share/wallpapers/1.jpg"

Does that remind you of GConf? Yeah? I was sure it would. I don't see any real difference, except that we're abstracting out the entire configuration for everything on the machine. GConf has enough detractors that I doubt it's going to pass.

It sure would be a different Linux world, though, wouldn't it?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Gnome Needs Plenty of Improvements, but ...

Gnome Needs Pleanty of Improvements, but making it KDE won't help anything. That was my opinion after reading 9 Improvements Needed in GNOME, linked above. The author seems to have completely missed the underlying philosophy of Gnome.

"Make simple, sensible defaults and hide the complexity from the user."

Sure, lots of people disagreed with that philosophy when it started way back at the beginning of Gnome 2, but the developers have been consistent about it. The critiques of KDE's bloated configuration menus bounce off of Gnome. On the other hand, KDE users tend to feel Gnome is too restricting. I think that's what's happened to Mr. Byfield here. His critiques are:
  1. Gnome needs a font manager. It has one, but it's not installed by default. KDE has one.
  2. Gnome needs a multiple-item clipboard. It has one, but it's not installed by default. KDE has one. (Notice a theme?)
  3. Better graphics for games, like the graphics in KDE's Kolor Lines.
  4. A better file manager with multi-pane and more configuration options, like KDE's Dolphin or Krusader.
  5. Gnome's division of Preferences and Administration is confusing and should be more like KDE's Control Center. I kid you not. Really. Wow.
  6. More choices in Preferred Applications, with all the Nautilus mime types included.
  7. Better access to GConf.
  8. Remove Mono. Use C.
  9. Remove Epiphany. Use Firefox.
OK. I actually started to blush for the guy by the time I reached point #5. He obviously wants Gnome to be KDE. He wants all the developer and advanced stuff installed by default. He misses the point of Gnome. Default Gnome is really designed to be a basic desktop with a single, default applicatio for everything. The advanced options aren't even in Preferences: you have to load up GConf-Editor and know what you're doing to screw it up. That's why there's no easy access to GConf. "Make simple, sensible defaults and hide the complexity from the user."

I can't believe the point about KDE's Control Center, since this is the area where KDE seems to get the most criticism. People call it overly-complicated and difficult to navigate. Finding the setting you need to change is virtually impossible as a new user.

The point about Mono is highly contested. Gnome seems to feel that they are in no danger of patent litigation (well ... no more than any other software project, I guess). I'm leary of Microsoft and their tactics, so I understand people's trepidation. Replacing it with C, though, is just so Gnome 1. Most apps use bindings for Python or Mono or something else. He missed that turning point somewhere.

Finally, about Epiphany. His major critique is that few people use it, so it should be removed. Gnome has been trying hard to get a Gnome-based browser in use for some time. Now that Firefox 3 is using GTK and the GTK dialog, they'll probably have an even more difficult time. I, however, doubt that Firefox is going to start using the Gnome Virtual Filesystem so that I can access Nautilus-mounted stuff. If you use all Gnome apps, then these things work. If you mix Gnome and GTK apps, they don't. Whatever. It's a minor point and I'll give him Firefox if he wants it.

The other eight points are sheer lunacy, though.

Ubuntu Misconceptions

I read a blog about someone disliking Linux (it's linked above). The About page describes him as being a kid, so I don't want to be too rough on him, but the blog entry contains so many factual error (not differences of opinion) that I just can't let it sit. I posted an answer for him, but since his story will probably be read and believed by his peers, I'm really worried. Here's the summary:

Problems that plague every Linux and make Linux inheritably bad. Hardy is mentioned several times.

1) The file hierarcy sucks.

There's nothing like Spotlight or Windows Search.

The filesystem is incredibly confusing, so that you can't find your files. Includes screenshot of "/" filesystem.

2) Drivers suck. You only have two choices -- install Linux on something you already bought or buy it pre-installed. I can't install Linux because it doesn't have SATA drivers.

3) RTFM and "Write it yourself" responses from the Linux crowd. Linux users are smug and generally jerks.

4) Application installation is difficult. Some stuff is available in repositories, but if you need a special version of software, you're going to need to download SVN and compile it. This kind of problem doesn't exist on Windows or Mac.

5) The desktop environments are incompatible. You can't run KDE apps in Gnome. There are too many distributions. The community need to get together and make one distro to rule them all with one desktop envirionment.

My response (I wrote this before I knew that he was a teenager -- I should have been gentler):

This HAS to be a troll, right?

1) The filesystem. Your files are stored in /home/(your user name). Inside that directory (by default in Ubuntu since 7.10) are:

That’s it. Nothing more. Damn confusing, isn’t it? When you open a file browser, you go to your user directory, NOT the one you showed. There are also very convenient links to these user diectories in the left sidebar. The normal user NEVER needs to go where you showed, nor would it be easy for them to go there. People don’t go wandering through the Windows system files, either, if they know what’s good for them.

The default applications store your files in the appropriate place … by default. They manage it for you. The photo manager tags everything. The music manager uses artist/album. Even the video player has search.

If you want to find a specific file, you use something like the deskbar applet, which will search for file names or by full-text. It also handles dictionary lookups, web searches, application lauching, and many other things. These indexed file searchers (now trackerd and Beagle before that) have been installed by default since 6.10. You need to look harder, like in Accessories under “Search tool” or in the notification area, where a little magnifying glass is waiting for you.

2) Drivers. I won’t argue with you about a lack of Linux drivers except to say that any modern desktop distribution has SATA support. Every one.

You have a third option when getting a computer. Ordering one built to your specifications with known working hardware. This is the route I take and I NEVER need to do any post-installation work on drivers. It takes more work, though, and I can understand your issues with drivers, especially for printers and scanners.

3) Problem with community. You’re in the wrong community. Some, like Slackware, are more aligned with hardcore geeks. The Ubuntu forums FORBID responses like the ones you refer to, though I do want to say that finding jerks on the Internet is not limited to the Linux camp, nor even computer OSes or technology. Anonymity brings out the worst in most people. Welcome to the Internet.

4) Compiling from source. This problem is no different than on OSX or Windows. If the program is packaged for you, you can install it easily. If it isn’t, you’re generally out of luck unless the source code is released, in which case you’ll have to compile it yourself. I recently read about how to compile wget for Mac OSX.

You can complain about the availability of proprietary programs on Linux, and I will agree with you, though OSX seems to suffer a lot of the same problems. If fact, I’d venture to say there are fewer choices for Mac than there are for Linux.

5) Incompatibilities. Granny will never find that her KDE app can’t tun in Gnome because it can. All the major desktop environments follow the specifications at, meaning that they can communicate with each other. Before that, though, they STILL didn’t have the problem you describe, so I don’t even know where you are getting it from. Window managers will run whatever you give them and don’t care about what libraries the program uses. For example, Amarok (a KDE app) is one of the most popular post-installation add-ons for Ubuntu (a Gnome distributution). The two have a slightly different look and feel, and I don’t like to mix and match because I don’t want extra libraries. Both Cocoa and Carbon apps work(ed) in Mac OSX. This is no different.

Now I realize that you’re unhappy with Linux. That’s your deal. I’m not trying to change your mind or jump all over you. Before you start putting out a bunch of false facts, though, try doing just a little bit of checking on them.

As I said in my first line, these assertions are so wrong on so many levels that I don’t even think you tried.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Difficulty in Creating the Easy Home Network

My home has a lot of computers, if you consider seven for a two-room apartment a lot. Getting everything to work together isn't as easy as it should be, and that's what I'm going to discuss in this post.


Obviously, getting an easy solution to network /home with a single sign-on for services is desired, but the kind of thing you don't even see in small businesses. Why? It's just too hard to set up. My attempts at LDAP have been hit-and-miss over the years. Sometimes, everything works, but most times, either I can't successfully set up the OpenLDAP server or the clients don't get configured correctly. It has been made easier in the last couple of years by things like the Samba/LDAP Installer script, but I've even failed with that, on occasion. Let's not even get started talking about adding Kerberos to the mix.

There are a couple of bright spots on the horizon, though. The Fedora Directory Server looks good, but I'm not into compiling major software for my computer and trying to keep up-to-date with patches. eBox is another promising project, including an LDAP setup by default along with its other services.

Yeah, and there's Samba-ng acting as an AD server. I'll get into Samba in the next session.

Still, I sit with seperate /etc/passwd files on each of my computers. Oh for the days when I just ran thin clients and everything worked without any setup at all!

Since Ubuntu Home Server wants to make my life easy, I'm asking them to have a pre-configured LDAP-Kerberos setup for me, administered via web. Include a single package for clients to install to reconfigure.

File Sharing


Why doesn't there seem to be a beter choice than Samba? NFS needs to be mounted. FTP is ugly. I'm generally left with Samba so that I can move my shares around and still have my gal figure out where they went. There should be a better way. Right now, I use Samba to share documents. WebDAV would probably be a better choice for that. I'll look into it.

Since a lot of the stuff I share comes from the server doing double duty as a BT server, I have permission problems. I solve those by forcing read/writes as the www-data user. That's an ugly way around the problem, but it works.

The desktops with Hardy Alpha still can't easily add a Samba share by right-clicking. Sure, everything looks like it works, but it doesn't, and I still need to go into the smb.conf file and edit everything manually just like I did eight years ago.

Audio Files

I serve audio files using -- gasp -- Samba and DAAP. I added mt-daapd (now Firefly Media Server) to my setup a couple of years ago, and it works transparently with Rhythmbox. There are no hiccoughs. No errors. Nothing. OK, well ... once in a blue moon the daemon exits without notification. :P Except for that, it is the perfect method. The files on the server get shared and can be dragged and dropped into a personal music collection or onto a protable music player. Beautiful and easy.

This is my new standard for file sharing, which bring us to ...

Video Files

Last weekend, I decided that sharing my video should be as easy as my audio is. Now that I have the BT server, the gal's Naruto collection, and my Miro setup, sharing videos has become more important than it was last year.

And we're still stuck using ... you guessed it ... Samba.

Well, in the Wikipedia entry for Firefly, it states that the server can share video. It can. I got that undocumented feature activated by searching for an hour through their forums. It turns out that mp3_directory can take multiple arguments and that they can include video. I wouldn't have guessed that from the variable name.

The only problem is that Firefly shares them all in one batch. It doesn't separate audio from video, which is OK for iTunes, I guess, but I don't use it. Rhythmbox now has an extra 2000 entries which are useless unless you want to listen to the soundtrack of the movie.

I could have dealt with that, since I use genres and artists to select my music anyway, but there is no video player which handles DAAP. VLC says it does, and it has a "Bonjour" service discovery item in the playlist, but it doesn't detect anything, even though RB sitting behind it has the full listing. Nothing. No players. I was WAAAY disappointed.

"Well," said I, "there has to be another way!" There is, of course. uPnP is a security nightmare of a protocol which shares video well. I'll admit that I knew nothing about before last night except the name, that it was a Microsoft deal, and the whole router reprogramming scandal it caused. There are quite a few uPnP servers in the respositories, including MediaTomb, GMediaServer, and uShare. I tried them all out for sharing my Miro content, and they appeared to share well, but I ran into a problem with clients again. VLC promised again, but disappointed ... again.

Finally, I busted out a copy of Geexbox and installed it behind Xubuntu on a laptop. It booted, recognized the share, and played the content with no problem. Hurray! The TV-out on the laptop doesn't work, though. I found no other workable options.

So, Mr. Ubuntu Home Server man, this is what I want from you on the file-sharing front:

  • A nice document sharing system, set to share /home/Documents and user homes. I don't care what it is, but it would preferably use Avahi for auto-discovery. Samba? Fine, just make sure it actually works without digging through the text file to figure out what's broken. WebDAV would probably be good, as long as it's tied into the directory server.
  • Firefly Media Server installed by default and set to share /home/Music. There needs to be a method to write to the directory, as well, since we'll have to fill that up. Name the server "DAAP Music Server" or something informative.
  • Since uPnP sucks so badly, let's have a second instance of Firefly sharing /home/Videos (notice how I'm sort of following the XDG specification, here?) so that music and videos don't get all muddled together.

Beautiful, but now I need some way to deal with these services on the desktop.

  • RB will do for music.
  • We should really have a Nautilus plugin for the document sharing system and for DAAP. If users don't install/activate the plugin, then nothing will happen. With the plugins, though, these services automatically appear in the sidebar. DAAP offers an HTTP address for files, which can be clicked and played.
  • Totem needs to be able to play these files. It should already play the files using "Open Location," so there needn't be any modifications, but let's test it just to be sure.
  • It would be really nice if there were an additional plugin alongside the local search and YouTube (WTF?) plugins to detect DAAP shares. Originally, I thought this would duplicate the functionality of Rhythmbox's DAAP, but then I realized that Totem already does that for music in a small way, anyway. When you open a music file in Nautilus, Totem plays the file so we can state that Totem is for playing single files or browsing, while RB is for music management.

Printer Sharing

CUPS is great, but the web administration interface sucks. I hate using it, kind of the way I hate Webmin's interface. (That's another great backend program with a terrible frontend, by the way).

What do I need from Ubuntu Home Server? Not much. Just make sure sharing is on.


I used to think I wanted a jabber server. I don't. Empathy and Pidgin both have Avahi services to automatically discover the folks on your network. They work really well, too.


  • Throw in a Jabber server authenticating from the LDAP, just in case I change my mind.


UHS has this as a bullet on their wiki. Get real. Do you know how many times I've installed groupware on my servers? More than you'd think. Do you know how many times my household has used it? Never. That's right. Never. I was installing phpgroupware back before they were 1.0 (oh, wait ...). They are putting together UHS, not USBS. Groupware for a small business is important. It's not for home users. Drop it.


While I'm at it, let me tell tham to make UHS integrate well with Ubuntu -- you know -- like MS did with its products and Apple did with its? Make everything work well together in a completely Ubuntu environment first, then start worrying about the mixed ones. Make all that stuff magically happen when you run an all-Ubuntu household, and people will love you.

And I want a pony. A pink one!

Go ahead. Fire away.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

How do you check if your webcam is working properly?

The thread I link to has some common ideas, mostly involving installing applications which use the camera. You don't have to go that far.

The easiest way to check that it's working properly without installing anything is to run gstreamer-properties from ALT-F2 or the terminal. On the "Video" tab, look for the "Default Input" section and click "test." You should see the webcam's video output.

Also, now that Cheese is installed by default on Hardy, you can use that application. If it goes away in Hardy+1, though, you can still use GStreamer.

The smallest computer in the world!

Holy cow! I want one. No, it doesn't/won't/can't run Ubuntu.
Picotux website

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Introducing Ubuntu's Default Web Browser, Firefox 3.0

Are you new to Firefox?

If you've never used Firefox on Windows, read this section to learn about how it may differ from Windows XP's default browser, Internet Explorer 6. If you are familiar with Firefox, you can safely skip to the next section, What's new in Firefox 3.0?

The Philosophy behind Firefox

Firefox tries to be a small, secure browser which follows the standards for the World Wide Web while still having the features that most people expect. It includes a pop-up blocker, a password manager, a download manager, and anti-phishing measures by default. Just about any other feature you want can be added through extensions and plugins. Firefox can even be extended enough to become a full-fledged music or video player.

Overview of the Application

As you can see in the screenshot, Firefox is quite similar to Internet Explorer 6 (IE6), which you're probably familiar with.

The main difference you'll notice between the two browsers is that Firefox uses tabs to organize your browsing. You'll no longer need to have fifteen different windows full of various web pages and pop-ups. Firefox stops virtually all pop-ups by default, and you can keep all your desired web pages in a single window with 1-15 tabs. If there is only one web page in a given window, the tab bar hides itself automatically.

There is a location bar which is used to show you the address of the web page you're visiting. It has two additional features when compared to IE6 -- one-click RSS feed subscription and a quick bookmark link. Use the RSS feed button to keep track of changes on a web page which changes often. The bookmark called "Latest BBC Headlines" is an example of this kind of RSS feed. The quick bookmark link allows you to save a few clicks over going to the Bookmarks menu.

Next to the location bar is the search bar. There are quite a few search engines installed by default, and many web pages will let you add more searches quickly by looking in the quick search drop-down menu for "Manage Search Engines."

There is also a bookmark toolbar which allows quick access to your most commonly used pages. By default, this toolbar has bookmarks, for your home page, a tutorial about Firefox, your most used and most recent bookmarks, and BBC headlines. You can add more by creating bookmarks and putting them in the Bookmarks Toolbar Folder.

What's new in Firefox 3.0?

If you've used Firefox before, you'll want to know how version 3.0 differs from 2.0.

It's significantly faster, having undergone some real architectural changes. The back end now uses a transactional database, too. What does that mean for you? It means no data loss to passwords, bookmarks, etc. if an application crash or power outage occurs. Memory use is also down, with the browser's memory leaks having been largely plugged. You can now leave Firefox on for longer without slowing your system down.
* Reliability: A user’s bookmarks, history, cookies, and preferences are now stored in a transactionally secure database format which will prevent data loss even if their system crashes.
* Speed: Major architectural changes put foundations in place for major performance tuning which have resulted in speed increases in Beta 1, and will show further gains in future Beta releases.
* Memory usage: Over 300 individual memory leaks have been plugged, and a new XPCOM cycle collector completely eliminates many more. Developers are continuing to work on optimizing memory use and reducing fragmentation.

There's a new, resumable download manager which is much easier to use than previous versions and which makes finding those files simpler. Password can be saved at any time, even after a successful login, by using the information bar.

Firefox has a completely revamped bookmark and history engine which makes organizing and finding your favorite sites a lot easier. Tags have been added to the traditional folders, making putting bookmarks in multiple places possible. You can also now add a bookmark for the current page by simply clicking the star located in the location bar.

And that location bar is more powerful in other ways, too. Typing the name or tag of a page you have visited recently or bookmarked some time ago will bring it right up for you to choose from.

The toolbar contains smart bookmarks with your most visited pages, recent bookmarks, and recent tags. Since people tend to visit the same places again and again when researching, smart bookmarks ease getting to those pages.

There have also been numerous improvements in security, making phishing and other misdirection more difficult.

Extending Firefox

You can add a lot of functionality to the basic Firefox browser, making your surfing experience that much better. There are hundreds of extensions and plugins available from the Mozilla website, but Ubuntu packages quite a few and makes it easy to add them system-wide from the Synaptic Package Manager.

Available extensions

  • Greasemonkey: There are quite a few scripts which will reformat web pages for you, e.g. adding a delete button to GMail or threading comments in a non-threaded forum. The scripts need to be added separately after the extension is installed.
  • Web Developer: Web developers need testing tools for various screen sizes and varying levels of browser fuctionality. This extension gives the developer those tools.
  • Sage RSS/Atom feed reader: If you want a more sophisticated RSS reader than Firefox's default Smart Bookmarks, this extension is for you.
  • Beagle: Some people use Beagle indexing to search their documents. Ubuntu uses a different program called Tracker, so this extension likely won't be very useful to you.
  • Image Zoom: You can easily enlarge the pictures on a web page by using this extension.
  • Live Headers: If you need to look at the conversation between your browser and the Web server, this extension will help you do that.
  • Scrapbook: With this extension, you can save pictures, web pages, or web clippings for later. This is especially useful for people who blog regularly.

Available plugins

  • Launchpad: Launchpad is Ubuntu's bug-tracking and project management space. You can get easy access to it through Firefox using this plugin.
  • Adobe Flash: If you want to play Flash games or watch online videos, you'll need this plugin. If you visit almost any Korean web page, the entire site will use it.
  • Gnash: This is a free alternative to Adobe's Flash plugin. It works for some things, especially videos, and has full support for everything below Flash 7. Flash 8/9 are only partially supported. If you run a 64-bit system, this may be the best option for you.
  • Java: You can view Java applets in a browser window with this plugin.
  • Acrobat Reader: Ubuntu has a great default PDF viewer called Evince, but it lacks some of the more advanced features of Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you want to view advanced forms in your browser, you can install this. I'd recommend waiting until you find out that you actually need it, though, because Acrobat Reader is significantly slower than Evince.
  • Noscript: If Javascript gets you down or slows down your computer too much, you can selectively turn it off using this plugin.
  • Totem: You can view movies like Quicktime and DiVX using this plugin.
  • VLC: If you prefer VLC over Totem, you want this plugin instead of the previous one.
  • Ubufox: This plugin is installed by default and adds Apt URL functionality, making writing HowTos a lot easier. When I say "Click the link to install," I'm telling you to use this plugin.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Is Canonical Being Tricky?

I got a message on the forums (back in December, though I didn't see it until today):

Hi there

Thanks for your response to my post ( titled "My (first round of) Ubuntu 7.10 experiences.

I'd be interested to read your previous rants on the topic ! Are they available in a public forum ? I looked at the rest of the ubuntuforums without finding your posts ...

If Canonical are making a point of using pre-LTS releases as a crash-test, that's an interesting strategy to pursue. But it's a stupid one if they're not going to communicate it to end users, and ever more stupid if they're claiming that every release is as good as every other !

Would be interested in your thoughts / experiences ...

My response to this is:


Sorry that I haven't visited the forums in a while and missed this message. I wasn't ignoring you.

Canonical isn't misrepresenting anything. If fact, their release names show a lot about the releases.
  • Warty Warhog was the first release and had quite a few warts
  • Dapper Drake was the first LTS and showed that it put it's best foot forward.
  • Edgy Eft was a quick release after Dapper and was on the edge, with a lot of broken stuff
  • Gutsy Gibbon put all the cutting edge features they could into the release to iron out the problems before the LTS
  • Hardy will stand up to torture over time

It looks like Hary will be a good release. There aren't that many new features and things are looking great, even though it's still Alpha.

Update Multiple Machines Without Killing Your Bandwidth

If you're like me, you've got a few computers sharing a home network. Mine happen to bo all Ubuntu, so we've got a lot of redundant downloading of updates going on. I've typically used apt-proxy to solve this problem, but it's not as straightforward to set up as it should be and all the clients need to have their proxies modified. Not a PITA, but much more difficult than Apt-ZeroConf.

As the name implies and the sparse web page illuminates, Apt-Zeroconf uses auto-discovery of other similarly-configured clients on your network and pulls packages from their package cache instead of downloading from a mirror, saving you a lot of bandwidth. It's only at 0.41 now, but it appears to wok well in my limited testing of it.

Visit the web page to install it. You can download the .deb or add the reposiory to your list if you want to stay current. There are no screenshots and no need for any configuration on your part. Just install and it should be working in the background and ready to go.

Thanks to a comment on Ubuntu Brainstorm for pointing me to this package!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Moving Completely to Hardy

I have been using a virtual machine for testing Hardy (8.04 LTS) since January, but I needed to spend a lot more time getting acquainted with the system, so I've moved one of my computers which is non-essential, but which I use all the time, over to it. Consequently, my Howtos and suggestions from this point forward will refer to Hardy in particular, though many of the concepts will, of translate to older vesions of Ubuntu.

Put Your Best Chat Buddies on Your Panel

So you've got a couple of people that take up 95% of your chat time. Maybe they're your teammates. Maybe they're your best friends. For me, it's my gal. Whoever it is, you probably start a conversation with them this way:
  • Click on the notification are to bring up your chat client list of who's online.
  • Check whether he or she is online.
  • Double-click on your chat buddy to initiate a conversation.
  • Click on the notification area again to minimize the buddy list because you really don't need to stare at it all the time.

Wouldn't it be nice to take these four steps down to a single, one-click method? You can, but you'll need to be using the Empathy client, which may not suit all of you. Since you're probably using Pidgin, let's install Empathy from the repos. You'll also need the Empathy Megaphone applet. You can click the links above to install the application and applet automatically.

Once you install Empathy, you'll need to install connection managers for any IM protocols you'll be using. The linkified list is here, to make it easy for you:

Once you configure Empathy to connect to your Jabber, GTalk (really also Jabber), or MSN network, you can add the Megaphone applet to your panel. Right-click on the panel and choose "Add to Panel...." Choose the Megaphone applet and click "Add." Repeat this for as many contacts as you want to appear on the panel.

You'll find a configure-style icon on your panel.

Click on that and you'll be asked to choose a contact for that applet to watch.

Choose your contact, and the applet will tell you if he or she is off-line

or online.

If your friend or team mate is online, just click on the applet to start a discussion. One-click goodness is yours!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Office Suite Dilemma on Ubuntu vs. etc.

Let's face it, the office suite options on Ubuntu aren't as good as they should be. (I'm going to talk mostly about word processing here.) has most of the features anyone needs, but it is big -- really big -- and slow. It's leaps ahead of Star Office 5.0, OO.o's predecessor when I used it years ago, but OO.o moves forward relatively slowly and is notorious for having very little community contribution. Most of the new code comes from inside Sun. It uses the ISO standard ODF file format by default.

Gnome Office

Gnome Office has some good, fast applications, but they aren't well integrated, and it doesn't sport anything for presentations. The word processor, especially needs more features to be a competitor, but that isn't likely to happen because Abiword prides itself on being small and agile with fewer features. It's also fairly stagnant, with the last major release in 2005. That's almost dead in terms of active, free software. There's a developer release which promises good stuff like collaboration, but .... Stagnant doesn't mean that it won't do what you want, but you had better not want good interoperability with MS Word. Abiword saves in its own XML format by default and doesn't include ODF format compatibility, but there is the OpenWriter plugin for that.


KOffice is a big up-and-comer and is small and light, but it doesn't fit well into straight Ubuntu. For Kubuntu fans, though, you can expect it to fill your needs once the move to KDE4 is complete. It uses the ODF file format by default. Install the koffice package to take a look at it.


The new guy on the block is IBM's Lotus Symphony. It is a fork of so it's just about as big and slow as its brother, but it has gotten some UI upgrades like a tabbed user interface (oddly reminiscent of Start Office's combine workspace). ODF and MS Word compatibility are as good as the original.

Google Apps

Then there's Google Apps. What can I say about it? "I have a love/hate relationship with Google Apps." The online collaboration is great. There's nothing to configure -- nothing to set up. Features are added every month. The wiki just came on line as Google Sites, making collaborative documentation a whole lot easier. Since I live in Korea, I have unlimited access to fast, dependable Internet service: that takes away one major headache that many people have. Though the suite's online, it's not really much slower than (meaning "both could be faster and I would be much happier").

The only drawback is that the documents in Apps are really just HTML. The editor is really just a WYSIWYG HTML editor, not much different than the one I'm typing this blog into. That means everything gets confused fairly often and I find myself doing a lot of typing in straight HTML to clean it up. There's no real placement of stuff. Let's face it, HTML has a lot of drawbacks as a document format. Because the interface is in my browser, I find I can't use CTRL-b for bold. Import and export supports a lot of formats, but the exports have been of limited quality til now. Probably the best way to use something like Google Apps is to do online collaboration and take the final draft document offline for final editing to make it look pretty. There's an OO.o plugin which makes this fairly painless.

Overall, Google Apps offers a lot of core functionality: Mail, Calendar, Chat (including group chat), Word Processor, Spreadsheet (though limited), Online Presentations (viewable in real-time over the Internet), and now collaborative wikis. If your organization needs real collaboration and has a substance-over-form kind of atmosphere, Google Apps may be a road to bliss for you. Just make sure to keep a couple of licenses for full-featured office suites to handle spreadsheets, flashy presentations, and documents which need real formatting.

Within two years, I expect Apps to make great leaps forward and fill most of its current holes. I'm betting on it as my default office suite (though I still do most of my lengthy writing in Lyx and Latex).

What's your preferred office suite on Ubuntu? Why? Did I leave anything out?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

PII 300 128MB Revisited

As you may have read from my previous blog, I tried installing several different versions of Ubuntu on a Windows 98-era laptop with little success.

Well, I went on vacation and came back fresh, and decided to have a go at it again, this time with more flexibility. Since I had actually enjoyed the experience of gOS 2.0 except for a lot of the broken links, I decided to try Enlightenment (e17) on it's own, IceWM, and XFCE4, show them to my friend, and let him decide which he felt most comfortable with.

I could have gone with an server disk and a minimal CLI system to start with, but I didn't have a current server disk, so I got a net install disk
(of hardy) which weighs in at 9.5MB. That way, my ISP wouldn't get any angrier at me than it already was for the ~500GB of bandwidth I used last month. I only had to download the most recent packages available.

I did a basic installation with a command line interface only, then added icewm-experimental. IceWM is an extremely light desktop, meaning it doesn't do anything for you either. I used it five years ago for thin clients. It loaded really quickly on the old machine and changing it to an XP theme made it look familiar for my friend.

I also added some extra repositories for e17 and installed that. It looks pretty and still is quite snappy on the machine.

Finally, I installed XFCE4 from the repos. I figured that I would show the three to my friend, starting with the lightest and fastest, going to the slowest, then let him choose. Since he had limited needs for the computer, he only wanted a browser, MSN chat, and some word processing. I chose Opera from the repos for the browser. It has the lowest memory requirements of any full-featured browser. Since he wanted to do web cam (translated: web sex) via MSN, I gave him aMSN. The Logitec camera worked out of the box with it. Abiword, while not feature-full, was the only real choice for word processors given the system.

I also decided that he might want to play some music or video later, so I installed VLC and Audacious. Audacious is a fork of Beep Media Player, which is an offshoot of XMMS. Beep wasn't available in the repos, so I went with Audacious. It didn't, however, work. I couldn't get it to actually start playing any file, including .wav files. VLC, however, will play both video and sound files, so I just took off Audacity.

When he looked it over, he liked IceWM because of the XP theme. When he looked at e17, he didn't really feel any different about it. XFCE4 failed to start up the session for some reason. It didn't matter. We decided on IceWM, but when he said that he might want to use a USB key later, I got a little worried about automount. I figured e17 would be more likely to have some of that functionality, so I sold him on it.

I took the laptop back, re-themed it to 23oz, set up the bottom shelf with quick launchers and a window list so that he didn't get lost, removed IceWM and XFCE, tested it, and gave it back to him.

I realized too late that I really should have taken another video. It looks sharp, works about as quickly as my Sempron 2800+ with 1GB running straight Ubuntu, and was completely free.

The other two lappies weren't able to be fixed, but I added a USB Ethernet adapter to the one with the broken LAN. I'll install a system similar to my friends on the good one, switch out the hard disks, and repeat.

Two laptops for free. What the hell?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Comparing the Big 4 Operating Systems

I recently went to Thailand on vacation (which is where I registered the new domain -- Google checkout didn't like Korea) and I strolled through the magazine section reading the computer stuff. I used to be pretty involved in the OSS movement in Thailand before it collapsed, so I still like to keep up on what's going on there when I visit. By the way, LinuxTLE 9 is out and based on Ubuntu 7.10.

There weren't nearly as many computer magazines as there were a few years ago. I don't know if this correlates to fewer people interested in computers or to a higher penetration of high-speed internet making them obsolete. Anyway, the one magazine that I did find had a cover story comparing the BIG 4 -- XP, Ubuntu, OSX, and Vista. I scooped that one up to take a gander. The article was in Thai, and my Thai is a bit rusty, but I made it through and will tell you what I saw based on memory.

The comparison looked at four factors and gave an overall score, each of these being represnted by one to five bars on an EQ-like layout. The factors were:
  • Network security
  • Local security
  • Driver availability
  • Ease of use
Let's look at them individually.

  • Network security: 2
  • Local security: 2
  • Driver availability: 5
  • Ease of use: 3
  • Overall score: 3

  • Network security: 5
  • Local security: 2
  • Driver availability: 2
  • Ease of use: 3
  • Overall score: 3

  • Network security: 5
  • Local security: 4
  • Driver availability: 3
  • Ease of use: 4
  • Overall score: 4

  • Network security: 5
  • Local security: 5
  • Driver availability: 3
  • Ease of use: 4
  • Overall score: 4
I don't have any problems with the assessment of XP. I think that's probably pretty accurate. Fairly poor security and sometime confusing to use but supporting virtually everything produced in the last 7-10 years. I'm confused, though, by the rest of the entries.

Ubuntu got understandably poor scores on driver availability and ease of use. While I don't agree with the ease of use score, Windows users find going to a new model difficult. Ubuntu is nice and consistent if you use the default applications (and is even more consistent if you change some non-Gnome apps to Gnome apps). The problem that I have is the extremely low score for local security. Is this due to users having default read access to other user's files? Ubuntu and OSX have virtually the same security model, yet OSX got four bars while Ubuntu got 2. Hmmm.

OSX got a high score for usability, which is supposed to be its strong point, I guess. Based on my
reasoning for the low Ubuntu score above, though, the high score for OSX doesn't make sense. The article didn't seem to give any explanation for either score, but I have noticed a lot of pirated OSx86 disks and OSX application sections in the software malls, so OSX might be hot in the Thai nerd world right now.

Vista got good security scores. I'm not going to argue about this: I think the security model for Vista looks good on paper, but I haven't really seen any studies on it. Its low market penetration when compared to XP combined with being a much tougher target makes it less attractive for exploit than XP right now. Wait another couple of years and this situation will work itself out. We'll see what chinks lay in the armor then. The score that I found odd was the ease of use score of four. I thought that was the big complaint about Vista -- the daily use. Could someone enlighten me on this. Again, the magazine article was strangely light on the rationale.

Overall, of course, they recommended OSX and Vista. It being Thailand, I didn't notice them mentioning buying Apple equipment for OSX.

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