Sunday 30 March 2008

Ubuntu uh-oh

Uh oh, it's happened again. Upgrade fever strikes. You see, my laptop is an AMD64, and it struck me that I was running a 32 bit OS. I've flirted with 64 bit before with XP 64, and the benefit just didn't justify the hassle of getting things working. That said, it also struck me that if I was ever going to install the 64 bit version, it would be an awful lot easier to do it now, whilst I was still in fairly virgin territory, than a year down the line when reinstalling everything would be a PITA.

So, deep breath, quick read of the Ubuntu forums to make sure I wasn't diving in to a complete mess, and off we go with downloading the ISO - it's times like this that an employer's huge bandwidth and a 1Gb USB stick come in useful.

Nothing to report from the install step (apart from the DUH moment of taking 20 minutes to figure out why GParted is complaining that I haven't selected any root partitions), and soon we're off and running. My old friend, the wireless, is back to haunt me, but I'm a veteran now, and it's less than 30 minutes before it's working using the Restricted Driver Manager.

The most remarkable thing about the 64 bit version is that it's pretty unremarkable. Apart from the well documented lack of Flash for 64bit Firefox - which is easily remedied - everything works as you might expect. There's no great shakes as far as performance goes, at least not in day-to-day use, but I get a warm fuzzy feeling knowing that those extra 32 bits in my CPU, which until now have been sitting idle, waiting for the day when they'd be called into action, are now busy helping out.

I promise that I'm at the end of upgrades and installations now. Not least because the other half is getting a bit bored of finding everything has changed yet again.

Saturday 22 March 2008

Ubuntu upgrade

No sooner is Ubuntu up and running than I spy that the beta of Hardy Heron is available. I've finally got a nice stable system, I've found all the bits and pieces I need, I've customised it just nicely. There's no point in upgrading for the sake of it, is there? Errm, well yes actually, there is - because I can!

Thankfully, Ubuntu's update manager works pretty seamlessly - select your updates, click install, away it goes. For anyone not familiar with Linux, installation of software is (by default, at least) from centralised Ubuntu package servers, which means a) no hunting round the net for compatible downloads, and b) a damn big download pipe. It's one of the few places on the net where I actually get some use out the bandwidth I pay for. For Hardy, the total download was around 780MB, taking a mere 20 minutes. It wasn't all that long ago when I'd wait that long for a single MP3. The installation itself was pretty straightforward too - should the distribution be about to overwrite config files that you may have changed manually, it'll pop up a window allowing you to do a diff and check out the differences, then either accept one of the versions or try and do a merge. An hour or so later, Hardy is installed and ready to go.

Admittedly there's nothing incredibly exciting about Hardy, the most noticeable change for me being the inclusion of Firefox 3 beta 4 as standard. This is a pretty bold move by Ubuntu - unfortunate in that a significant number of my add-ons (Foxmarks, Gmail Manager, All-in-One gestures) aren't yet compatible. However, Hardy does also bring with it a new Screen Resolution app, which may go some way to assuaging my complaints about getting the basics right. It's nice to know that the Ubuntu community is taking my opinions seriously.

The worst sin commited was the sudden non-workiness of the good old wireless card, and the fact that the ndiswrapper solution that did the job last time failed to revive it. With a bit more poking around, I resorted to retrying the kernel's b43 restricted driver and b43-fwcutter package, which also didn't work until I downloaded the updated 4.80 firmware from Suddenly, a flash of light and the wireless card is on. Hooray! Unfortunately though, still no actual sign of a network connection, with ifup reporting errors whenever I tried to bring up eth1. In a wireless-less mire, and sick of going over the same web pages, I was about to give up when a random webpage pointed me at using dmesg to examine the kernel ring buffer. This threw up a whole lot of interesting information, showing that the wireless card was being seen but also being disabled. It also included a helpful line that pointed out that there was still a need to actually press the button on the front of the laptop to enable the wireless. Despite the light already being on, I thought there was no harm in it - and whaddya know, wireless, pure sweet digital-air goodness. As an added bonus, it also appears to be rock-steady, certainly a lot more stable than it was under Gutsy (or Windows for that matter).

Today's last deposit into the bin of knowledge - another thing that stopped working was my configuration for tapping the corners of the touchpad to go back/forward when browsing. I had the synaptics driver set up (in /etc/X11/xorg.conf) to send events 6 and 7 from those taps, which worked with Gutsy. The simple, but ultimately confusing, solution under Hardy was to change this to events 8 and 9. Ours is not to reason why, but it works.

Wednesday 19 March 2008

Ubuntu upwards

I could bang on about getting a wireless card with a Broadcom 4318 chipset in an Acer Aspire going under Ubuntu, but frankly it's a well covered subject already to which I can lend little insight (hint - you need this [Ubuntu forum login required] and this, and I had to modify /etc/network/interfaces to add a gateway route to, my router, when eth1 is brought up). Besides, if I'm really honest, it was largely luck rather than judgment that did the trick.

It's been a week or so now since I booted Windows - or am I legally obliged to call it Windoze now? - and I'm not sure I miss it. If I have to score points, the consistent use of oversize fonts by Linux applications irks a little bit, it makes me feel like I'm missing out on screen real estate. Like I said before, I like things dinky. But at least most of them let you change that, just a shame the defaults are a bit clunky. Anyway, I've gone for MgOpen Modata 8 as a system wide font, which compensates slightly and I'm pretty happy with how it looks. The subpixel rendering is nice, Cleartype has never looked good on my laptop screen. Combine with "Glider" controls theme and the Whiteglass pointer scheme (still not sure why my "insert text" pointer has to be so damn thick - just give me 1 pixel wide dammit!), and all in all it's looking pretty sexy, sexier than Windows ever did anyway.

Talking of fonts, one application that doesn't play ball is Amarok, but I suspect that's because it's a KDE app doing it's best to keep up in a GNOME environment. Regardless of that small quirk, Amarok is really quite nifty as a music library organiser and iPod syncer. On Windows, iTunes was just horrible - slow, freeze-prone, sometimes hard to fathom. Oh, and "Gapless Playback Analyser"? Stop that. No really, stop it. Just when you think iTunes is finally getting it together, the bloody Gapless Playback Analyser kicks in and suddenly every mouse click takes 20 seconds. I suspect it works great if you've got 200 files on your local disk, but with 8000 songs on a NAS, it's no fun. On the other hand, you could use Windows Media Player - but if you want to sync your iPod, you'll have to shell out for dopisp, and even then it doesn't support podcasts. I'm sure there's probably other software out there, but I never found it. Well, now I've found Amarok, and it does a good job. No fuss, things just make sense, and it doesn't bork my ipod, which is a bonus. Plus it kindly went away and grabbed a whole ton of album covers, which is nice.

Let's finish with some music - I have Plenty

[Edit: That Amarok font problem - sorted by installing kcontrol, which basically works for all KDE apps. Amarok now looks as sexy as everything else. Consider me pleased]

Sunday 16 March 2008

Ubuntu underway

Hey, a second post! Bonus.

This week has seen my reintroduction to Linux. My previous incursion into such territory was having Mandrake installed on an old desktop, and it wasn't a wholly pleasant experience. Not wholly unpleasant, but not enough to convert me. The desktop went a couple of years ago to be replaced by a laptop, and I haven't seen fit to reinstall a Linux distro since. It was just a bit too much work, a little bit slow and clunky. But, in a fit of adventurism, assisted by the absence of wife and child, I dug out an Ubuntu live CD I downloaded months ago with good intentions, and decided to give it a whirl. Heretoforth springs my considered thoughts on the subject.

Ubuntu wants to project an image of being easy to use - "Ubuntu just works". No better test of such a thing than to get it installed. I have a certain fascination for the concept of the live CD, which will let your average Joe Punter try out a distro without having to install anything. If only more software would let you do that before it stamps it's size 9's all over your lovingly ordered hard disk and sticks it's chocolate covered fingers in your registry. So you try the live CD, and when you've tried it, and liked it (hopefully), you hit the button that says "Install" and away you go. Alarmingly, this is exactly what I did with Ubuntu, and it really just worked. Admittedly repartioning your disks isn't something your gran would want to do, but the tools were there to do the job without fuss for anyone of reasonably sound mind. Also admittedly, I was rather hoping it would just work, because being a cowboy I didn't bother with the tiresome business of backing up my data. I like that little frisson when the progress bar stalls and the screen blinks - it's sky-diving for nerds. End result, 20 minutes later, the machine reboots, Grub pops up, and we're off. Handshakes and whiskies all round.

The Ubuntu desktop is instantly familiar if you've ever been near a Linux distro before. On the downside, it's in 1024x768, which may as well be 320x200 for all I'm concerned. I like dinky. My laptop can manage 1280x800, and damn it that's what I want. But I can forgive Ubuntu for not knowing that, and there's a handy Screen and Graphics item in the System menu, so it's a quick change. Oh, apart from it's not - there's no option for 1280x800. Suddenly memories of the same thing on Mandrake come flooding back, and my enthusiasm for Linux is slightly dimmed. It's slightly tempting to say that if Linux is to make it as a mainstream desktop OS, this sort of thing has to work out the box. But who are we kidding? The whole point of Linux is that it isn't a mainstream desktop OS, it's an OS for nerds. If your gran started using Debian, it would kind of defy the point.

So let's just admit that here - you use Linux because it's not straightforward. When you see that your choice of resolution isn't in the list, a small trickle of excitement ensues. And when you finally trawl Google and get to type sudo dpkgs-reconfigure -phigh xserver-xorg and press Enter to accept the defaults on lots of obscure options, you are a l33t h4x0r. Of course, this all has it's limits. No-one wants to spend 5 hours on this stuff. That's reserved for the wireless card, and is, of course, a whole other story...

(to be continued...)

A New Hope

So look, here's the deal. Yes, it's another random, spectacularly normal, person setting up a blog. No, it's probably not going to get updated very often. Yes, there's a reasonable chance that you'll come back in a year and this will still be the only post on here. No, I'm not expecting anyone to read it. All of which sounds like a pretty bad basis on which to start a blog, but allow me to explain.

There's a long tail of blogs out there that were founded on exactly that basis. I've never done the numbers, but I suspect - no, I know - that for every regularly updated, well written, widely read blog, there are 100 that were a wet Sunday afternoon diversion and now sit abandoned, a Christmas puppy that finds its way to the dog's home before New Year's Eve.

The thing is, like those puppies, just because they're in the dog's home, doesn't mean they're useless. Blogs mean different things to different people. It's true that there's an awful lot of mundane cruft out there, but blogs, even those abandoned, are also realising the potential of the internet to be a big bin of knowledge. Blogs sweep up that knowledge that isn't worth knowing, or at least not in the collective sense. No-one needs a wikipedia article about StackOverflowError in java.util.regex.Pattern, or quirks in Weblogic's servlet implementation but when you come across that problem, it sure is useful information.

And that leads me here. I've taken an awful lot from other people - fixes, workarounds, walkthroughs, or just plain advice - and it seems to me that maybe I should get off my butt and put something back in that bin of knowledge. Sure, it might just all go to waste, but perhaps one day, someone will be trawling the 85th page of their Google search on some weird error they've seen, and my blog will give them just a hint on how they might solve it. Job done.

As a side effect, it's also just a useful exercise in writing. I don't do enough of it and I should do more. You never know, I might even improve with time.