Category Archives: Linux

Servers, blogs and freedom

Notice anything different? Yes, my blog has a new theme and a slightly concatenated address, but you probably wouldn’t even realize that since I blog about once per year… No, the real changes are under ze hood!

A couple of weeks ago my little Mini-ITX based computer in my closet that acts as my file and web server decided that it didn’t want to start anymore. I panicked at first because I had not performed a full data backup in ages, but thankfully it turned out that the hard drive — the Mother modem if you will — was still working perfectly, so I was able to plug it into another old computer I had lying around.

Young FrankensteinOne really cool thing about Ubuntu Server (and indeed Linux in general) is that it happily continues to run almost regardless of what hardware change around it. Taking out the Mother modem and plugging it into another computer is a bit like taking out the brain of a human and planting it into another body. My new temporary server continued to tick without even the slightest hiccup (albeit way slower on this charmingly clunky 256 MB RAM monster).

With the data backup taken care of, I decided that I’m done tinkering with my own server for now. It’s too much hassle and the risks are too high that if something breaks, you have to spend a considerable amount of time trying to get things back up again. For my modest purposes (a file server for music and movies, and a web server for my blog) it simply wasn’t worth paying for new hardware and going through the trouble of restoring it. Instead, I decided to tackle my two small needs separately:

  1. The blog — I needed a place to host my blog.
  2. The files — I needed a way to access my movies and music on my network to use in XBMC hooked up to my home cinema.

1. The blog

For the blog, I could either host it for free at e.g. wordpress.com, or I could pay a service provider to host my own custom install for me. The former would be free, but the latter would give me more flexibility. I decided on something in between: I’m using wordpress.com to host the blog for free, but I’m paying them to connect my old domain djst.org to it. This is why the address of this blog had to change from djst.org/blog to simply djst.org, because the domain hosts nothing but the blog now. Old permalinks from djst.org/blog/* magically continues to work though — except specifically djst.org/blog, which randomly shows an old blog post from 2006 about a new kitchen table (oh the memories!).

One thing that really impressed me with WordPress is its export and import feature. After getting my Frankenstein server up and running again, I was able to export all posts, pages, comments and categories into one single xml file and then I could just create a blog on wordpress.com and import that file on there. Within a minute, all of my posts and their related tags and comments were living in a new home.

But what about all the uploaded images that go along with the posts? Well, it turns out that the import script automatically fetches all references files in blog posts and uploads them to the new blog location too (though I had to make sure that the old blog was publicly accessible for it to work, which took me a couple of import attempts to get right).

Another thing that impressed me was wordpress.com’s forum support. I had a couple of questions there and one volunteer named tandava108 always provided answers within the hour. Getting a quick response when you’re having a problem or a question is such an important aspect of customer support, so wordpress.com should count themselves lucky to have someone like tandava108 in their forums (just like we are really lucky to have awesome superheroes like cor-el, madperson and jscher2000 in the SUMO forum).

My temporary Frankenstein server with its guts exposed.

2. The files

This one was easy — all I had to do was to plug in an external hard drive to the USB port of my router and voilà, I had wireless access to music and movies again. If you’re curious, I’m using a Netgear WNDR3700v2 router and the configuration process was very straightforward. I’m not too happy about that router for other reasons, btw, but that’s another story.

I must say that it’s a relief to not have a server to worry about anymore. My nerd/hack level has gradually decreased over the years, but it wasn’t until the server broke down that I realized just how little I needed one these days. It feels great to know that I don’t have to worry ever again about my blog getting lost due to a server meltdown.

Random UX change for the sake of… change?

If you’re making a highly visible change in the operating system UI that affects every running application, it seems fair to ask that it’s done for a good reason and that there is empirical data that supports it. Or, if no empirical data is available, that the change is made to make the transition to your OS smoother for users of competing OSes.

The new placement of window controls in Ubuntu 10.4 (beta)

This is why Ubuntu’s recent change to move the window control buttons to the left side of the window in the latest beta confuses me, because it appears that a chance has been made for no real purpose whatsoever other than a vague hint that it’s preparations for “some innovative options” on the now empty right side. But those experiments won’t start until version 10.10, due out in October 2010.

There are a couple of problems I see with this redesign:

  1. The Ubuntu layout is not just about switching from right to left — it’s introducing a completely unique layout never before seen in an OS. See how the Close button is still on the right side of the button group while the buttons were moved to the left side? This means that neither Windows nor Mac OS users will benefit from the change, as both user groups will have to relearn things here.
  2. The actual icons/symbols on the maximize and minimize buttons are also completely different from both Windows and Mac OS.  While Windows uses a horizontal line to represent minimize, and a square box to represent maximize, Mac OS uses colors instead (yellow to minimize, and green to maximize/zoom). Again, this means that neither Windows nor Mac OS users will benefit from the Ubuntu change, which uses some stylish arrows instead (pointing up to maximize and down to minimize). The icons make little sense (isn’t maximizing more about changing the size of the window, rather than the direction? does minimizing a window always move it down — what if your task bar is at the top like I have it?). To make it even more bizarre, once a window is in a maximized state, the icon for restoring the window looks like the actual maximize button in Windows 95/98/Me/2000/XP/Vista/7.

Ubuntu’s design lead Ivanka Majic tries to explain why the changes were made, but fails completely. She instead lists some questions they were asking themselves without providing any answers:

- Why do Mac OS and Windows have the buttons where they do?

- What was the functional reason behind the Mac OS choice (or the Windows position for that matter)?

- Why, when most application menus are top left should the window controls go top right?

- Why, when we read left to right is the most destructive action first?

So, what are the answers? Given that I haven’t seen any, allow me to guess:

  1. Mac OS and Windows have different conventions.
  2. I don’t think there were any serious usability studies behind either of the choices.
  3. Why not?
  4. Because it’s the most common action on a window?

It’s things like this that makes me skeptical of so-called usability experts when they think they can get away with changing things for the mere sake of change, without any evidence whatsoever that it’s a change for the better.  Majic ends her blog post about the window control button placement by indicating the true reason why they went for a completely unique arrangement:

Personally, I would have the max and min on the left and close on the right.

Update: My insanely sharp colleague Jennifer Boriss writes about this topic more elegantly from a user experience expert perspective.

Ubuntu is old, most of the time

One thing that I really don’t like about Ubuntu is that, by default, it doesn’t automatically upgrade popular software releases until a whole new version of the operating system is released. This means that right now Ubuntu 9.10 (the latest stable release) is still running Firefox 3.5.8 and OpenOffice.org 3.1.1, when the latest versions are 3.6 and 3.2, respectively.

I can definitely understand why such a policy simplifies maintenance on older releases, allowing the developers to focus on the upcoming release, but why can’t they just change this policy at least for the most popular desktop programs?

The way they do things today is annoying and makes Ubuntu feel old-fashioned. Is there another Linux distro that has a better software upgrade policy that I can switch to instead, or am I stuck having to upgrade software manually and store the programs in my home folder?

Nokia N900 impressions

I’ve been using the Nokia N900 for a couple of weeks now and I have both good and bad things to say about it. To give you an idea of what I’m comparing with, my previous phone was a Nokia N95. Here’s my list of impressions:

Pros

  • The screen is pretty good, and I rarely have a problem clicking on links and buttons using my thumbs. The fact that it’s resistive feels like an advantage in this incredibly cold Swedish winter. Next to a Nexus One, however, it’s obvious that the color reproduction could be better.
  • The Mozilla-based MicroB browser really is awesome. Scrolling and zooming is so smooth and quick that it feels like surfing on the iPhone, only this time you’re using the real web. By far the best web browsing experience I’ve had on a mobile device.
  • The fact that I can use it to call VoIP, Skype, Gtalk, and regular cellular networks is amazing.
  • The Conversations application seamlessly integrates IM and SMS in an intuitive manner.
  • The media player handles almost anything you throw at it after installing a few extra software packages.
  • Great synchronization with Exchange-based mail services (e.g. Zimbra, which Mozilla uses).
  • Nice multiple desktop solution (though lacks useful widgets).
  • Battery life is impressive in active use such as in a phone call. Though see the standby time below…
  • The “one-click” (actually a few clicks) publishing of both photos and videos to services like Facebook and Flickr is really neat. Though see below about the camera quality…
  • It really is fun to use it. And it’s open source! And it can run Firefox!

Cons

  • This thing is heavy! I thought my N95 was heavy, but this is significantly heavier. It definitely feels like a solid device, for better or worse.
  • The camera is actually worse than the 3-year-old N95 camera in a number of ways: terrible colors in low light, terrible metering, light leaks making the subject in focus appear washed out, and the field of view is narrower than the N95 camera. In comparison, here’s a photo taken by the N95. Both are 5-megapixel cameras.
  • The standby time is a joke. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but sometimes I can just keep the phone in my pocket during the whole day and it will discharge in less than 8 hours. I first kept all accounts logged in (Skype, VoIP, Jabber), but have since then compromised a bit and only keep Jabber online. Still, the battery isn’t impressive.
  • The horizontal layout is annoying most of the time. When I’m out and about, it feels awkward that I can’t use the phone with one hand. I understand the “handheld computer” legacy (I even owned an N810), but feel that my typical use is much more like a regular smartphone than a portable computer. Ideally, all applications should support both layouts.
  • The keyboard, while certainly better than the N810, is still not really good. It’s too easy to click on the wrong keys, and there’s no auto complete feature that can detect (and correct) common spelling mistakes.
  • The auto suggest feature only shows one suggestion, so 90% of the time it’s not suggesting the word you want and as a result you end up ignoring the suggestions altogether.
  • The physical unlock switch is only comfortable to use when in horizontal layout. It’s nearly impossible to reach with one hand if you just want to make a quick call.

Bye bye Mac, hello again PC!

If I appear to be slower to respond to e-mail lately, it’s because my two-year-old MacBook Pro broke down last week, leaving me without access to my local data. It started with some occasional graphical glitches (see video) but it only took a few days until the computer wouldn’t boot anymore. Interestingly, during this gradual fail, the rEFIt boot menu that normally allowed me to start Linux suddenly disappeared. The first time it disappeared, I could restore it by resetting the PROM memory, but now it’s just gone.

Tiger trying to fix my computerMacs are weird in so many ways. You can’t just install Linux and expect it to work — you have to install additional software like rEFIt just to boot into another OS than Mac OS X. Furthermore, you can’t just plug a USB stick in and boot from it. In short, Apple is the very definition of locked down proprietary technology and it annoys the hell out of me.

I’m sick and tired of Macs and I’ve decided to even out the remarkably unbalanced Mac/PC ratio at Mozilla by getting a PC as my next computer. I’ve also decided to give in to my passion for Linux and use it as my full-time OS from now on.

While I’m waiting for my new computer to arrive, I’m writing this from Sofie’s little 12″ PC running Ubuntu. It works like a charm, but I am definitely not as productive as I was with my own computer. I sometimes have to let go of the computer for a few minutes so Sofie can check her mail — after all, I’m the one borrowing her computer. However, the biggest reason why I’m not as productive as I was before my MacBook broke is that I don’t have access to my local data.

Two things I’m a lot more dependent on than I ever thought:

  • The local address book of Thunderbird
  • The local AwesomeBar data of Firefox

I’m working on getting a Linux Live CD (Sofie’s laptop doesn’t have a CD burner) to boot up my MacBook and transfer all my local data to this computer so I can resume full productivity speed again.

Nokia N810 — First Impressions

I finally gave in and bought a device that I can’t really justify because of a real need; it’s just that the “Me wants!” factor was too high to resist it. Overall, it’s a very cool device that allows me to do pretty much all of the stuff I normally do in front of a real computer, but without the bulk of a full-scale laptop that forces me to sit upright, lighten up an entire room, and listen to an increasingly intense fan (which is not an option when my workaholic withdrawal symptoms kick in in the middle of the night).

When you spend lots of money on small things you don’t really need, there is a pretty high risk that you end up being a little disappointed in the end. In this case, I’m somewhat disappointed about a few details, but it’s not as bad as it might sound in this blog post. Read on for the details.
Here’s a list of stuff that annoys me about the N810 so far:

  • The UI is too small to be comfortably used with your fingers. You are more or less dependent on the stylus, which means you have to use two hands. They’ve made some things unnecessarily small, such as the numeric soft keypad displayed when the unit is security locked. It uses only 1/4th of the full size of the screen for the digits, forcing you to aim with the top of your finger to get the pin code right.n810.jpg
  • Scrolling web pages is unnecessarily difficult. There are three methods of scrolling web pages, touch-and-grab on the web page itself, using the scrollbar, or holding down the down arrow key. All three methods have their own quirks:
    • Touch-and-grab: This is the method that in theory should be the most useful, since it’s both intuitive and simple. However, the device doesn’t quite deliver; sometimes the system mistakes the grab with a click, taking you to another page (which on this slow device takes a few seconds, since you have to stop loading that page, and then click Back, and then wait a little longer for the previous web page to reload). Other times the grab turns into a text selection instead. Lastly, just as the regular Linux build of Firefox, you can’t scroll over a Flash object.
    • Using the scrollbar: This method would have been a good alternative to the touch-and-grab method if it wasn’t for the fact that the scrollbar is tiny and at the very edge of the screen. The problem with this is that the frame around the screen is bulky and makes it hard to reach the edge of the screen with your thumb. In non-fullscreen mode it works reasonably well because of the added border around the browser window, which places the scrollbar at a more reachable location. Maemo team: why not use the same thick scrollbar as in the Chat and Mail applications?n810scroll.jpg
    • Holding down the arrow key: This is a slow and unpredictable way to scroll the page. The scolling continues for a good while after you release the button, and if you don’t hold it down long enough, the scroll action turns into a “select first link on page” action instead, instantly taking you to the start of the page again.
  • Typing on the keyboard is hard. The keys don’t have any space between them, which makes it hard to “feel” where your thumbs are on the keyboard. Also, it increases the risk of pressing more than one key at the same time. Finally, the qwerty row  is too close to the screen edge, making it hard to use it with your thumbs.
  • Typing on the screen is harder. For some reason, the large, finger keyboard doesn’t pop up when you tap a text box with your finger, despite the claims in the help documentation. Instead, a tiny stylus keyboard appears, which is impossible to use with your thumbs. If the stylus keyboard option is disabled, you have to click a text box with your thumb circa ten times before the big keyboard appears.
  • The mail app is completely useless. It failed miserably with both my mozilla.com and Gmail IMAP accounts because its performance doesn’t scale if you have more than a few hundred e-mail messages in your inbox. It doesn’t matter if you specify that it should only download 25 or so e-mails; it keeps loading an additional 25 old e-mails every nth minute and eventually their poor Ordo(n^4) algorithms start eating up the precious resources. Webmail ftw!

That’s it, I think. My list of negative impressions. I won’t mention the fact that it’s slightly buggy in general and crashes from time to time, because I expected that and generally has no problems with beta quality software (since I’m a software developer myself).

Overall, I really like this device despite its shortcomings. The Mozilla-based browser MicroB really helps me feeling right at home. The battery life is impressive — at least if you make sure a program hasn’t got stuck in an endless loop, keeping the CPU at constant 100% utilization.

Webcam for Linux/Mac/Windows?

I’m looking for a webcam that works in Windows, Mac, and Linux. My basic requirements are:

  • Not too bulky
  • Not too pricy
  • Must work in Linux

Any recommendations? Oh, and are there any programs that work with webcams in Windows/Mac/Linux as well?

Testing Ubuntu 7.04

Just installed Ubuntu 7.04 on two different Dell laptops. So far, I’m impressed:

  • It’s the first Linux distro ever where desktop effects (compiz) works out of the box and without major problems.
  • It was helpful enough to point me out how to enable mp3 support when I tried to double-click a song on Sofie’s desktop.

However, none of the two new features were problem free. The problem with compiz happened because during the Live CD session, a notification area icon asked me to install a restricted driver for the graphics card, which I happily did. For some reason, though, the downloaded driver didn’t end up in the installed system, but the xorg.conf changes to use “nvidia” did. The result was that the gdm wouldn’t start and I was left with a horrible error message about a missing driver. Thankfully, I’m a bit of a geek (no shit?) so I just changed xorg.conf to use the “nv” driver, started gdm, and then installed the restricted driver using the notification icon again. Ubuntu devs, you might want to fix this bug!

The other problem I had was when totem asked me about mp3 support. I selected the corresponding option to enable mp3, but for some reason I had to check the very same checkbox three times in order for it to stick. Don’t know what happened there and I’d rather not install Ubuntu again to find out.

All in all, I’m very happy with the new release. It looks very polished with the desktop effects, and after making my own modification of the default desktop background (changed it to a blue shade instead of brown) and then changing the theme to Glossy, it looks really slick.

Ubuntu 7.04 Screenshot with custom background