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How is it doing that?

December 15th, 2009 13 comments

Just about everything that I’ve ever read about media playback on Linux has been negative. As I understand the situation, the general consensus of the internet is that Linux should not be relied on to play media of any kind. Further, I know that the other guys have had troubles with video playback in the past.

All of which added up to me being extremely confused when I accidentally discovered that my system takes video playback like a champ. Now from the outset, you should know that my system is extremely underpowered where high definition video playback is concerned. I’m running Debian testing on a laptop with a 1.73 GHz single-core processor, 758MB shared video RAM, and a 128MB Intel GMA 900 integrated graphics card.

Incredibly enough, it turns out that this humble setup is capable of playing almost every video file that I can find, even with compiz effects fully enabled and just a base install of vlc media player.

Most impressively, the machine can flawlessly stream a 1280x528px 1536kb/s *.mkv file over my wireless network.

As a comparison, I have a Windows Vista machine with a 2.3GHz processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 512MB video card upstairs that can’t play the same file without special codecs and the help of a program called CoreAVC. Even with these, it plays the file imperfectly.

I can’t explain how this is possible, but needless to say, I am astounded at the ability of Linux.




On my Laptop, I am running Linux Mint 12.
On my home media server, I am running Ubuntu 12.04
Check out my profile for more information.

Phoenix Rising

December 12th, 2009 3 comments

As we prepare to bring The Linux Experiment to a close over the coming weeks, I find that this has been a time of (mostly solemn) reflection for myself and others.  At the very least, it’s been an interesting experience with various flavours of Linux and what it has to offer.  At its peak, it’s been a roller-coaster of controversial posts (my bad), positive experiences, and the urge to shatter our screens into pieces.

Let me share with you some of the things I’ve personally taken away from this experiment over the last three-and-a-half months.

Fedora 12 is on the bleeding edge of Linux development

This has been a point of discussion on both of our podcasts at this point, and a particular sore spot with both myself and Tyler.  It’s come to a place wherein I’m sort of… afraid to perform updates to my system out of fear of just bricking it entirely.  While this is admittedly something that could happen under any operating system and any platform, it’s never been as bad for me as it has been under Fedora 12.

As an example, the last *six* kernel updates for me to both Fedora 11 and 12 combined have completely broken graphics capability with my adapter (a GeForce 8600 M GS).  Yes, I know that the Fedora development team is not responsible for ensuring that my graphics card works with their operating system – but this is not something the average user should have to worry about.  Tyler has also had this issue, and I think would tend to agree with me.

Linux is fun, too

Though there have been so many frustrating moments over the last four months that I have been tempted to just format everything and go back to my native Windows 7 (previously: release candidate, now RTM).  Through all of this though, Fedora – and Linux in general – has never stopped interesting me.

This could just be due to the fact that I’ve been learning so much – I can definitely do a lot more now than I ever could before under a Linux environment, and am reasonably pleased with this – but I’ve never sat down on my laptop and been bored to play around with getting stuff to work.  In addition, with some software (such as Wine or CrossOver) I’ve been able to get a number of Windows games working as well.  Linux can play, too!

Customizing my UI has also been a very nice experience.  It looks roughly like Sasha’s now – no bottom panel, GnomeDo with Docky, and Compiz effects… it’s quite pretty now.

There’s always another way

If there’s one thing I’ve chosen to take away from this experiment it’s that there is ALWAYS some kind of alternative to any of my problems, or anything I can do under another platform or operating system.  Cisco VPN client won’t install under Wine, nor will the Linux client version?  BAM, say hello to vpnc.

Need a comprehensive messaging platform with support for multiple services?  Welcome Pidgin into the ring.

No, I still can’t do everything I could do in Windows… but I’m sure, given enough time, I could make Fedora 12 an extremely viable alternative to Windows 7 for me.

The long and short of it

There’s a reason I’ve chosen my clever and rather cliche title for this post.  According to lore, a phoenix is a bird that would rise up from its own ashes in a rebirth cycle after igniting its nest at the end of a life cycle.  So is the case for Fedora 12 and my experience with Linux.

At this point, I could not see myself continuing my tenure with the Fedora operating system.  For a Linux user with my relatively low level of experience, it is too advanced and too likely to brick itself with a round of updates to be viable for me. Perhaps after quite a bit more experience with Linux on the whole, I could revisit it – but not for a good long while.  This is not to say it’s unstable – it’s been rock solid, never crashing once – but it’s just not for me.

To that end, Fedora 12 rests after a long and interest-filled tenure with me.  Rising from the ashes is a new user in the world of Linux – me.  I can say with confidence that I will be experimenting with Linux distributions in the future – maybe dipping my feet in the somewhat familiar waters of Ubuntu once more before wading into the deep-end.

Watch out, Linux community… here I come.

Categories: Dana H, Fedora, God Damnit Linux, Linux Tags:

A Tale of Two Fonts

December 10th, 2009 3 comments
Hey, where'd my text go?

Hey, where'd my text go?

I set my system font to Dingbat, which worked perfectly in every application except for Open Office. The strange part is that the font worked just fine in all of the other programs that I have installed. Silly OpenOffice.




On my Laptop, I am running Linux Mint 12.
On my home media server, I am running Ubuntu 12.04
Check out my profile for more information.

This… looks… awesome!

December 8th, 2009 No comments

Looks being the key word there because I haven’t actually been able to successfully run either of  these seemingly awesome pieces of software.

Amahi is the name of an open source software collection, for lack of a better term, that resembles what Windows Home Server has to offer. I first came across this while listening to an episode of Going Linux (I think it was episode #85 but I can’t remember anymore!) and instantly looked it up. Here is a quick rundown of what Amahi offers for you:

  • Currently built on top of Fedora 10, but they are hoping to move it to the most recent version of Ubuntu
  • Audio streaming to various apps like iTunes and Rhythmbox over your home network
  • Media streaming to other networked appliances including the Xbox 360
  • Acts as a NAS and can even act as a professional grade DHCP server (taking over the job from your router) making things even easier
  • Built in VPN so that you can securely connect to your home network from remote locations
  • SMB and NFS file sharing for your whole network
  • Provides smart feedback of your drives and system, including things like disk space and temperature
  • Built-in Wiki so that you can easily organize yourself with your fellow co-workers, roommates or family members
  • Allows you to use the server as a place to automate backups to
  • Windows, Mac & Linux calendar integration, letting you share a single calendar with everyone on the network
  • Implements the OpenSearch protocol so that you can add the server as a search location in your favorite browser. This lets you search your server files from right within your web browser!
  • Includes an always-on BitTorrent client that lets you drop torrent files onto the server and have it download them for you
  • Supports all Linux file systems and can also read/write to FAT32 and read from NTFS.
  • Sports a plugin architecture that lets developers expand the platform in new and exciting ways
  • Inherits all of the features from Fedora 10
  • Finally Amahi offers a free DNS service so you only have to remember a web address, not your changing home IP address

FreeNAS is a similar product, although I use that term semi-loosely seeing as it is also open source, except instead of being based on Linux, FreeNAS is currently based on FreeBSD 7.2. Plans are currently in the works to fork the project and build a parallel Linux based version. Unlike Amahi, FreeNAS sticks closer to the true definition of a NAS and only includes a few additional features in the base install, letting the user truly customize it to their needs. Installed it can take up less than 64MB of disk space. It can (through extensions) include the following features:

  • SMB and NFS as well as TFTP, FTP, SSH, rsync, AFP, and UPnP
  • Media streaming support for iTunes and Xbox 360
  • BitTorrent support allowing you to centralize your torrenting
  • Built-in support for Dynamic DNS through major players like DynDNS, etc.
  • Includes full support for ZFS, UFS, ext2, ext3. Can also fully use FAT32 (just not install to), and can read from NTFS formatted drives.
  • Small enough footprint to boot from a USB drive
  • Many supported hardware and software RAID levels
  • Full disk encryption via geli

Both of these can be fully operated via a web browser interface and seem very powerful. Unfortunately I was unable to get either up and running inside of a VirtualBox environment. While I recognize that I could just install a regular Linux machine and then add most of these features myself, it is nice to see projects like that package them in for ease of use.

This is definitely something that I will be looking more closely at in the future; you know once these pesky exams are finished. In the mean time if anyone has any experience with either of these I would love to hear about it.

[UPDATE]

While publishing this, the folks over at Amahi sent out an e-mail detailing many new improvements. Turns out they released a new version now based on Fedora 12. Here are their notable improvements:

  • Amahi in the cloud! This release has support for VPS servers (Virtual Private Servers).
  • Major performance and memory improvements, providing a much faster web interface and a 30% smaller memory footprint.
  • Based on Fedora 12, with optimizations for Atom processors built-in, preliminary support in SAMBA for PDC (Primary Domain Controller) with Windows 7 clients and much more.
  • Completely revamped web-based installer.
  • Users are more easily and securely setup now, the with password-protected pages and admin users.
  • Brand new architecture, with future growth in mind, supporting more types of apps, and more importantly, bring us closer to supporting Ubuntu and other platforms. Over 100+ apps are working in this release out of the gates!

It all sounds great. I will be looking into this new version as soon as I have a moment to do so.




I am currently running a variety of distributions, primarily Linux Mint 17.
Previously I was running KDE 4.3.3 on top of Fedora 11 (for the first experiment) and KDE 4.6.5 on top of Gentoo (for the second experiment).
Check out my profile for more information.

Coming to Grips with Reality

December 8th, 2009 No comments

The following is a cautionary tale about putting more trust in the software installed on your system than in your own knowledge.

Recently, while preparing for a big presentation that relied on me running a Java applet in Iceweasel, I discovered that I needed to install an additional package to make it work. This being nothing out of the ordinary, I opened up a terminal, and used apt-cache search to locate the package in question. Upon doing so, my system notified me that I had well over 50 ‘unnecessary’ packages installed. It recommended that I take care of the issue with the apt-get autoremove command.

Bad idea.

On restart, I found that my system was virtually destroyed. It seemed to start X11, but refused to give me either a terminal or a gdm login prompt. After booting into Debian’s rescue mode and messing about in the terminal for some time trying to fix a few circular dependencies and get my system back, I decided that it wasn’t worth my time, backed up my files with an Ubuntu live disk, and reinstalled from a netinst nightly build disk of the testing repositories. (Whew, that was a long sentence)

Unfortunately, just as soon as I rebooted from the install, I found that my system lacked a graphical display manager, and that I could only log in to my terminal, even though I had explicitly told the installer to add GNOME to my system. I headed over to #debian for some help, and found out that the testing repositories were broken, and that my system lacked gdm for some unknown reason. After following their instructions to work around the problem, I got my desktop back, and once more have a fully functioning system.

The moral of the story is a hard one for me to swallow. You see, I have come to the revelation that I don’t know what I’m doing. Over the course of the last 3 months, I have learned an awful lot about running and maintaining a Linux system, but I still lack the ability to fix even the simplest of problems without running for help. Sure, I can install and configure a Debian box like nobody’s business, having done it about 5 times since this experiment started; but I still lack the ability to diagnose a catastrophic failure and to recover from it without a good dose of help. I have also realized something that as a software developer, I know and should have been paying attention to when I used that fatal autoremove command – when something seems wrong, trust your instincts over your software, because they’re usually correct.

This entire experiment has been a huge learning experience for me. I installed an operating system that I had never used before, and eschewed the user-friendly Ubuntu for Debian, a distribution that adheres strictly to free software ideals and isn’t nearly as easy for beginners to use. That done, after a month of experience, I switched over from the stable version of Debian to the testing repositories, figuring that it would net me some newer software that occasionally worked better (especially in the case of Open Office and Gnome Network Manager), and some experience with running a somewhat less stable system. I certainly got what I wished for.

Overall, I don’t regret a thing, and I intend to keep the testing repositories installed on my laptop. I don’t usually use it for anything but note taking in class, so as long as I back it up regularly, I don’t mind if it breaks on occasion; I enjoy learning new things, and Debian keeps me on my toes. In addition, I think that I’ll install Kubuntu on my desktop machine when this whole thing is over.  I like Debian a lot, but I’ve heard good things about Ubuntu and its variants, and feel that I should give them a try now that I’ve had my taste of what a distribution that isn’t written with beginners in mind is like. I have been very impressed by Linux, and have no doubts that it will become a major part of my computing experience, if not replacing Windows entirely – but I recognize that I still have a long way to go before I’ve really accomplished my goals.

As an afterthought: If anybody is familiar with some good tutorials for somebody who has basic knowledge but needs to learn more about what’s going on below the surface of a Linux install, please recommend them to me.




On my Laptop, I am running Linux Mint 12.
On my home media server, I am running Ubuntu 12.04
Check out my profile for more information.

Successfully completing a school semester with Linux

December 5th, 2009 10 comments

For those of you who have read my profile, you know that I’m finishing up my math degree. More specifically, I’ve just finished lectures for my last term as an undergraduate student of statistics. One of my main fears about switching to a different operating system was that it would disrupt my studies. Fortunately, this fear was unfounded – in fact, I can confidently say that Linux actually made my school experience much easier and smoother than it would have been had I stuck with Windows Vista or XP.

As a statistics student, I obviously work with numbers. Some courses, such as those dealing with experimental design, have fairly simple mathematical procedures (Note: these usually follow not-so-simple justifications for the procedures). Normally I’m given a small data set and told to carry out an Analysis Of Variance (ANOVA). Since the mathematical work in these assignments is pretty straightforward, I like to carry it out in Excel, or some equivalent. Thankfully, OpenOffice.Org Calc works just as well as Excel and uses essentially the same syntax and commands, so I managed to switch between programs rather seamlessly.

Some of my other assignments require more complicated procedures (and occasionally more complicated ANOVAs), so I have to use R, which is basically a very powerful statistical tool. In Windows XP, I found that adding libraries and updating R could occasionally be a difficult process – my roommates can verify that as a consequence, I often go months without updating my programs. In Mint, there were no such troubles – installing and updating libraries is as easy as opening Synaptic and clicking a few times. Linux also provided some less important benefits, such as not having to alter every slash in a filepath to make sure that R can actually find the file. I’m guessing this has something to do with the difference between a backslash and a frontslash.

Other programs like Do, which I’ve reviewed, and Kate, my preferred text editor, make life so much easier. When I’m working, I usually have several data sets open, and I frequently have to jump between folders to access images, old code, old solutions for reference, etc. Kate simplifies things by letting me have several text files open in one window at once, so I can make better comparisons between data sets or summary tables. This is especially important for when I have data sets that are so large that viewing them in R in the terminal would be ill-advised (tip: don’t try to view anything longer than 1000 lines in terminal). Thanks to Do, I can quickly flip between several folders without ever having to move my hands off of the keyboard. In particular, this comes in handy when I need to reference some old solutions for an obscure-but-suddenly-desireable mathematical quality.

I haven’t done too much writing this term aside from updating my resume, so I won’t dwell on the various word processors. In my opinion, if the word processor can create a decent looking resume – it did, by the way – then it should suffice for any other purpose. I’ve also tried out a few other math programs (eg., gnuplot), but I haven’t used them enough to give a reasonably well-informed opinion. However, the fact that I could install them and try them out with absolutely no effort on my part really speaks well for Linux Mint.

After a long, gruelling term, I can confidently say that I benefitted academically from using Linux Mint. Along with everything I’ve mentioned, Linux has provided less direct benefits, such as faster load times and fewer restarts, which make getting started on an assignment or project easier. Despite having a few bugs ranging from annoying (I really wish Do would load on startup consistently) to catastrophic (oh my god why did my desktop shift what is going on), I will probably have some distribution of Linux running on my machine when I switch to Windows 7, if only to run R and some other math programs. If you like to do any sort of math on your computer, I recommend you give it a go too.

Categories: Free Software, Linux Mint, Sasha D Tags: