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Blast from the Past: Create a GTK+ application on Linux with Objective-C

March 15th, 2017 No comments

This post was originally published on December 8, 2010. The original can be found here.

Note that while you can still write GTK+ applications on Linux using Objective-C as outlined in this post you may want to check out my little project CoreGTK which makes the whole experience a lot nicer 🙂


As sort of follow-up-in-spirit to my older post I decided to share a really straight forward way to use Objective-C to build GTK+ applications.

Objective-what?

Objective-C is an improvement to the iconic C programming language that remains backwards compatible while adding many new and interesting features. Chief among these additions is syntax for real objects (and thus object-oriented programming). Popularized by NeXT and eventually Apple, Objective-C is most commonly seen in development for Apple OSX and iOS based platforms. It ships with or without a large standard library (sometimes referred to as the Foundation Kit library) that makes it very easy for developers to quickly create fast and efficient programs. The result is a language that compiles down to binary, requires no virtual machines (just a runtime library), and achieves performance comparable to C and C++.

Marrying Objective-C with GTK+

Normally when writing a GTK+ application the language (or a library) will supply you with bindings that let you create GUIs in a way native to that language. So for instance in C++ you would create GTK+ objects, whereas in C you would create structures or ask functions for pointers back to the objects. Unfortunately while there used to exist a couple of different Objective-C bindings for GTK+, all of them are quite out of date. So instead we are going to rely on the fact that Objective-C is backwards compatible with C to get our program to work.

What you need to start

I’m going to assume that Ubuntu will be our operating system for development. To ensure that we have what we need to compile the programs, just install the following packages:

  1. gnustep-core-devel
  2. libgtk2.0-dev

As you can see from the list above we will be using GNUstep as our Objective-C library of choice.

Setting it all up

In order to make this work we will be creating two Objective-C classes, one that will house our GTK+ window and another that will actually start our program. I’m going to call my GTK+ object MainWindow and create the two necessary files: MainWindow.h and MainWindow.m. Finally I will create a main.m that will start the program and clean it up after it is done.

Let me apologize here for the poor code formatting; apparently WordPress likes to destroy whatever I try and do to make it better. If you want properly indented code please see the download link below.

MainWindow.h

In the MainWindow.h file put the following code:

#import <gtk/gtk.h>
#import <Foundation/NSObject.h>
#import <Foundation/NSString.h>

//A pointer to this object (set on init) so C functions can call
//Objective-C functions
id myMainWindow;

/*
* This class is responsible for initializing the GTK render loop
* as well as setting up the GUI for the user. It also handles all GTK
* callbacks for the winMain GtkWindow.
*/
@interface MainWindow : NSObject
{
//The main GtkWindow
GtkWidget *winMain;
GtkWidget *button;
}

/*
* Constructs the object and initializes GTK and the GUI for the
* application.
*
* *********************************************************************
* Input
* *********************************************************************
* argc (int *): A pointer to the arg count variable that was passed
* in at the application start. It will be returned
* with the count of the modified argv array.
* argv (char *[]): A pointer to the argument array that was passed in
* at the application start. It will be returned with
* the GTK arguments removed.
*
* *********************************************************************
* Returns
* *********************************************************************
* MainWindow (id): The constructed object or nil
* arc (int *): The modified input int as described above
* argv (char *[]): The modified input array modified as described above
*/
-(id)initWithArgCount:(int *)argc andArgVals:(char *[])argv;

/*
* Frees the Gtk widgets that we have control over
*/
-(void)destroyWidget;

/*
* Starts and hands off execution to the GTK main loop
*/
-(void)startGtkMainLoop;

/*
* Example Objective-C function that prints some output
*/
-(void)printSomething;

/*
********************************************************
* C callback functions
********************************************************
*/

/*
* Called when the user closes the window
*/
void on_MainWindow_destroy(GtkObject *object, gpointer user_data);

/*
* Called when the user presses the button
*/
void on_btnPushMe_clicked(GtkObject *object, gpointer user_data);

@end

MainWindow.m

For the class’ actual code file fill it in as show below. This class will create a GTK+ window with a single button and will react to both the user pressing the button, and closing the window.

#import “MainWindow.h”

/*
* For documentation see MainWindow.h
*/

@implementation MainWindow

-(id)initWithArgCount:(int *)argc andArgVals:(char *[])argv
{
//call parent class’ init
if (self = [super init]) {

//setup the window
winMain = gtk_window_new (GTK_WINDOW_TOPLEVEL);

gtk_window_set_title (GTK_WINDOW (winMain), “Hello World”);
gtk_window_set_default_size(GTK_WINDOW(winMain), 230, 150);

//setup the button
button = gtk_button_new_with_label (“Push me!”);

gtk_container_add (GTK_CONTAINER (winMain), button);

//connect the signals
g_signal_connect (winMain, “destroy”, G_CALLBACK (on_MainWindow_destroy), NULL);
g_signal_connect (button, “clicked”, G_CALLBACK (on_btnPushMe_clicked), NULL);

//force show all
gtk_widget_show_all(winMain);
}

//assign C-compatible pointer
myMainWindow = self;

//return pointer to this object
return self;
}

-(void)startGtkMainLoop
{
//start gtk loop
gtk_main();
}

-(void)printSomething{
NSLog(@”Printed from Objective-C’s NSLog function.”);
printf(“Also printed from standard printf function.\n”);
}

-(void)destroyWidget{

myMainWindow = NULL;

if(GTK_IS_WIDGET (button))
{
//clean up the button
gtk_widget_destroy(button);
}

if(GTK_IS_WIDGET (winMain))
{
//clean up the main window
gtk_widget_destroy(winMain);
}
}

-(void)dealloc{
[self destroyWidget];

[super dealloc];
}

void on_MainWindow_destroy(GtkObject *object, gpointer user_data)
{
//exit the main loop
gtk_main_quit();
}

void on_btnPushMe_clicked(GtkObject *object, gpointer user_data)
{
printf(“Button was clicked\n”);

//call Objective-C function from C function using global object pointer
[myMainWindow printSomething];
}

@end

main.m

To finish I will write a main file and function that creates the MainWindow object and eventually cleans it up. Objective-C (1.0) does not support automatic garbage collection so it is important that we don’t forget to clean up after ourselves.

#import “MainWindow.h”
#import <Foundation/NSAutoreleasePool.h>

int main(int argc, char *argv[]) {

//create an AutoreleasePool
NSAutoreleasePool * pool = [[NSAutoreleasePool alloc] init];

//init gtk engine
gtk_init(&argc, &argv);

//set up GUI
MainWindow *mainWindow = [[MainWindow alloc] initWithArgCount:&argc andArgVals:argv];

//begin the GTK loop
[mainWindow startGtkMainLoop];

//free the GUI
[mainWindow release];

//drain the pool
[pool release];

//exit application
return 0;
}

Compiling it all together

Use the following command to compile the program. This will automatically include all .m files in the current directory so be careful when and where you run this.

gcc `pkg-config –cflags –libs gtk+-2.0` -lgnustep-base -fconstant-string-class=NSConstantString -o “./myprogram” $(find . -name ‘*.m’) -I /usr/include/GNUstep/ -L /usr/lib/GNUstep/ -std=c99 -O3

Once complete you will notice a new executable in the directory called myprogram. Start this program and you will see our GTK+ window in action.

If you run it from the command line you can see the output that we coded when the button is pushed.

Wrapping it up

There you have it. We now have a program that is written in Objective-C, using C’s native GTK+ ‘bindings’ for the GUI, that can call both regular C and Objective-C functions and code. In addition, thanks to the porting of both GTK+ and GNUstep to Windows, this same code will also produce a cross-platform application that works on both Mac OSX and Windows.

Source Code Downloads

Source Only Package
File name: objective_c_gtk_source.zip
File hashes: Download Here
File size: 2.4KB
File download: Download Here

Originally posted on my personal website here.

Blast from the Past: My Search for the Best Audio Editing Software

March 8th, 2017 No comments

This post was originally published on October 6, 2010. The original can be found here.


Lately, I’ve been doing some audio recording. In addition to a couple of podcasts that I work on, I occasionally like to record my own musical compositions. While there seems to be no shortage of high-end audio editing applications on either Windows or Mac, the situation on Linux is a bit more sparse. Faced with some frustration, I went out and downloaded a number of linux-based audio editors. I used Wikipedia to find the software in the tests below, and following are my totally subjective and highly biased reviews of each.

Each piece of software was used to edit some raw recordings from a podcast that I have been involved with lately. This source material is almost 100% spoken word, with some music and sound effects sprinkled throughout. It’s important to note these details, as your needs may vary drastically depending on the type of audio project that you’re working on.

Audacity:

The Audacity Project is kind of the Linux standard for non-professional audio editing. It was the first application that I tried to use, mainly because I was familiar with earlier versions of the program that I had once used back in my Windows days. Audacity includes a great number of features that make it ideal for post-processing of any audio project, including a wide array of effects, some great noise generators, and a few analysis tools that make it perfect for cleaning up your finished file before publication.

Audacity audio editor with a demo project loaded

Audacity audio editor with a demo project loaded

Unfortunately, I found that it lacked a usable GUI for editing podcast material. In particular, it seems to be missing the ability to edit a single track in a multi-track project without unduly affecting the other tracks.By default, if you use the selection tool to grab a portion of audio that ought to be deleted from one track in the project, it seems to delete that portion of audio from all tracks in the project.

I found this out the hard way when I played back the master track that I had assembled my finished podcast on, only to find out that significant portions of the audio had mysteriously gone missing at some point during the editing process.

To make matters worse, I closed the application, lost the undo record for the project, and had to start the editing process from the beginning.

This lack of GUI polish also exhibits itself in the way that you can interact with the audio tracks themselves. Unlike in most DAW solutions, a portion of audio that has been clipped out of a larger track cannot seemingly be moved around in the project by clicking on it and dragging it across the stage with the mouse. At least I couldn’t figure out how to do it, and ended up relying heavily on my cut, copy, and paste functions to edit my project. This is a poor way to work on a project of any kind of complexity, and makes projects that rely on audio loops a pain to assemble.

Ardour:

Where Audacity is suited more towards hobbyist recording setups, Ardour aims to be a professional audio solution that is capable of competing with mainstream software like ProTools. It is a fully featured audio suite that can allegedly do most everything that you may require, but as such, can also confuse the hell out of first-time users with its complicated GUI and lengthy manual.

Granted, this is hardly a slight to the project, because it really isn’t suited to my needs. It is a pro-level audio environment that can be used as the centrepiece to a full recording studio or stage

Ardour wants sole control of my audio interface

Ardour wants sole control of my audio interface

show. If you just want to edit a podcast, it may not be the tool for you. As such, if the GUI seems challenging and you find the documentation to be long-winded, you may just be using the wrong tool for the job.

The biggest issue that I had with this piece of software was getting it to run at all on my machine. It uses JACK to attach itself to your audio interfaces in the name of providing a perfect sampling environment that doesn’t get slowed down by having to share the interface with other pieces of software.

Unfortunately, this means that in order to use it, I had to quit all other processes that are capable of generating sound, including this web browser. This is a pain if you are trying to run Ardour in a multi-application environment, or need to reference the internet for anything while working.

After reading the introductory documentation and adjusting the settings in the startup dialog for about 15 minutes, I simply gave up on Ardour without ever managing to get into a workspace. It seems to be far too complicated for my needs, and doesn’t seem worth my time. Your mileage may vary.

Jokosher:

From the moment that I started reading about this project, I like the sound of it. Jokosher is a multi-track recoding and editing environment built on top of Python and GStreamer that was

Jokosher may look cartoony, but it may be exactly what you need for small projects

Jokosher may look cartoony, but it may be exactly what you need for small projects

created by a podcaster who was unsatisfied with the audio editing tools that were available on Linux. The application focuses on being easy enough to use that non-technical people like musicians can pick it up and get their ideas down with minimal hassle. Think of it as Garage Band for Linux.

Indeed, just as the website promised, I was able to get a working environment set up in a matter of minutes. The editing tools allow for splitting the audio, grabbing it and moving it around, and non-destructively editing multiple tracks at the same time (I’m looking at you, Audacity). The GUI also has a beautiful polish to it that, although a tad cartoony, really makes the program look and feel simple. For editing something like a podcast, I’m not sure that this application can be beat.

The only issue that I encountered in my short time using Jokosher was with its support of LADSPA plugins. These are free audio plugins that can be used to apply effects to the different tracks of your audio project. When I tried to use them from within the application, it instructed me to download some from my repositories. Upon checking Synaptic, I saw that I already had a number of them downloaded. Even after installing more, the program did not seem to pick them up.

All in all, this project lived up to its hype, and I will most certainly take some time to break it in, and may write a more in-depth review once I get used to it. If you’re doing podcasting, you owe it to yourself to check this app out.

In Conclusion:

Each of the three applications that I tried to work with while writing this piece deserve your respect. The underlying audio framework of most Linux systems is a veritable rats’ nest of subsystems, platforms, daemons, plugins and helper applications. I would wager a significant amount of money on this situation as the reason that we don’t have ProTools and its ilk on our platform of choice. I’ve done a little bit of work with GStreamer, and even it, as perhaps the prettiest and best supported of all audio libraries on the platform, left me scratching my head at times.

When choosing audio software, it’s important to keep in mind that you need a tool that’s uniquely suited to your project. Since I’m editing podcasts and fooling around with drum loops and samples of my guitars, Jokosher does just about everything that I need and more. I may use Audacity for post-production, or to record my source audio (simply because I haven’t tried recording in Jokosher yet – I know that Audacity works), because it falls somewhere in between a simple editing tool and an advanced platform. Ardour, meanwhile, is probably suited towards the more hard-core audio engineer slash system administrator types who are so fanatic about recording quality that they are willing to sacrifice an entire box for running their DAW software. It’s simply more power than the majority of hobbyist enthusiasts really needs.

Blast from the Past: Vorbis is not Theora

February 24th, 2017 No comments

This post was originally published on April 21, 2010. The original can be found here.


Recently I have started to mess around with the Vorbis audio codec, commonly found within the Ogg media container. Unlike Theora, which I had also experimented with but won’t post the results for fear of a backlash, I must say I am rather impressed with Vorbis. I had no idea that the open source community had such a high quality audio codec available to them. Previously I always sort of passed off Vorbis’ reason for being regarded as ‘so great’ within the community as simply a lack of options. However after some comparative tests between Vorbis and MP3 I must say I am a changed man. I would now easily recommend Vorbis as a quality choice if it fits your situation of use.

What is Vorbis?

Like I had mentioned above, Vorbis is the name of a very high quality free and open source audio codec. It is analogous to MP3 in that you can use it to shrink the size of your music collection, but still retain very good sound. Vorbis is unique in that it only offers a VBR mode, which allows it to squeeze the best sound out of the fewest number of bits. This is done by lowering the bitrate during sections of silence or unimportant audio. Additionally, unlike other audio codecs, Vorbis audio is generally encoded at a supplied ‘quality’ level. Currently the bitrate for quality level 4 is 128kbit/s, however as the encoders mature they may be able to squeeze out the same quality at a lower bitrate. This will potentially allow a modern iteration of the encoder to achieve the same quality level but by using a lower bitrate, saving you storage space/bandwidth/etc.

So Vorbis is better than MP3?

Obviously when it comes to comparing the relative quality of competing audio codecs it must always be up to the listener to decide. That being said I firmly believe that Vorbis is far better than MP3 at low bitrates and is, at the very least, very comparable to MP3 as you increase the bitrate.

The Tests

I began by grabbing a FLAC copy of the Creative Commons album The Slip by Nine Inch Nails here. I chose FLAC because it provided me with the highest quality possible (lossless CD quality) from which to encode the samples with. Then, looking around at some Internet radio websites, I decided that I should test the following bitrates: 45kbit/s, 64kbit/s, 96kbit/s, and finally 128kbit/s (for good measure). I encoded them using only the default encoder settings and the following terminal commands:

For MP3 I used LAME and the following command. I chose average bitrate (ABR) which is really just VBR with a target, similar to Vorbis:

flac -cd {input file goes here}.flac | lame –abr {target bitrate} – {output file goes here}.mp3

For Vorbis I used OggEnc and the following command:

oggenc -b {target bitrate} {input file goes here}.flac -o {output file goes here}.ogg

Results

I think I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t tell you to just listen for yourself… The song in question is track #4, Discipline.

Note: if you are using Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, or anything else that supports HTML5/Vorbis, you should be able to play the Vorbis file right in your browser.

45kbit/s MP3(1.4MB) Vorbis(1.3MB)

64kbit/s MP3(2.0MB) Vorbis(1.9MB)

96kbit/s MP3(2.9MB) Vorbis(2.8MB)

128kbit/s MP3(3.8MB) Vorbis(3.6MB)

Blast from the Past: Installing Gnome Do with Docky on openSUSE

January 19th, 2017 No comments

This post was originally published on September 28, 2009. The original can be found here.


Before I switched to Windows 7 for my laptop, I used a a dock software called RocketDock to manage my windows and commonly used desktop shortcuts. I liked being able to see my whole desktop ever since I found a good wallpaper site. Back when I rolled Ubuntu, I installed this application called Gnome Do. It’s a Quicksilver like program that just works. However, the newest feature of Gnome Do that I loved was its Docky theme. It puts a dock similar to RocketDock on the bottom of your screen, and integrates it’s OS searching features right into the dock.

I decided to install the application from YaST, the default system administration tool. It indexes a fairly large number of repositories, and it did have Gnome Do. A few minutes later I had the app running, but unfortunately the version was way out of date. Gnome Do is on roughly version 0.8.x, and YaST gave me 0.4.x.

So off I went trying to find a .rpm for Gnome Do that would install. I was met with a lot of failure, with a ton of dependencies unable to be resolved and so on. Next I tried the openSUSE file from Gnome Do’s homepage, but for some reason the servers were down and I was unable to install that way either.

Frustrated and not knowing what to do next, I decided to hop on IRC and see if anyone in #SUSE on irc.freenode.net could help me out. They told me about this service called Webpin. There I found a .ymp [which is an openSUSE specific installer file like a .deb or .rpm] for Gnome Do, and a ymp for Gnome Do’s plugins. Downloading and opening the files installed the programs without any problems. The last step I had to take to enable Docky was to install compiz and enable desktop compositing. After that, a quick trip to Gnome Do’s preference dialog allowed me to use the Docky theme, and I was up and running!

Blast from the Past: Linux Media Players Suck – Part 1: Rhythmbox

December 30th, 2016 No comments

This post was originally published on May 5, 2010. The original can be found here.


The state of media players on Linux is a sad one indeed. If you’re a platform enthusiast, you may want to cover your ears and scream “la-la-la-la” while reading this article, because it will likely offend your sensibilities. In fact, the very idea behind this series is to shake up the freetards’ world view, and to make them realize that a decent Winamp or iTunes clone need not be the end of the story for media management and playback on Linux.

This article will concentrate on lambasting Rhythmbox, the default jukebox software of the GNOME desktop environment. Subsequent posts will give the same treatment to other players in this sphere, including Banshee, Amarok, and Songbird (if I can find a copy that will still build on Linux). If you’re a user of media players on Linux, keep your own annoyances firmly in mind, and if I don’t mention them, please share in the comments. If you’re a developer for one of these fine projects, try to keep an open mind and get inspired to do better. A media player is not a hard thing to build, and I do believe that together, we can do better.

For the remainder of this article, please keep in mind that I am currently running Rhythmbox under Kubuntu 9.10, so you’ll see it rendered with qt widgets in all of my screen shots. This doesn’t affect the overall performance of the app, but leads nicely into my first complaint:

  1. Poor Cross-Platform Support: There are basically two desktop environments that matter in the Linux world, GNOME and KDE. Under GNOME, Rhythmbox has a reasonably nice icon set that is comparable to other media players. Under KDE, the qt re-skinning replaces those icons with a horrible set of mismatched images that really make the program look second-rate:
    Isn't this shit awful?

    As you can see, these icons look terrible. Note that there isn’t even an icon for ‘Burn’ and the icon for ‘Browse’ is a fucking question mark.

    This extends to the CD burning and help features too. They rely on programs like gnome-help and brasero to work, but don’t install them with the media player, so when I try to access these features under KDE, I just get error messages. Nice.

    Honestly, who packaged this thing?

    This is just plain stupid. Every package manager has the concept of dependencies, so why doesn’t Rhythmbox use them?

  2. The Player Starts in the Tray: Under what circumstances would it be considered useful for a media player to automatically minimize itself to the system tray on startup? It doesn’t begin to play automatically. The first thing that I always do is click on the tray icon to maximize it so that I can select some music to start playing. Way to start the user experience off on the wrong foot.
  3. Missing Files View: This one is just plain stupid. Whenever I delete a file from my hard drive, it shows up under the ‘Missing Files’ view, even though my intent was clearly to remove the file from my library. Further, I use Rhythmbox to put music on my BlackBerry. Whenever I fill it with music, I first delete the files on it. Those files that I deleted from my mobile device? Yeah, they show up under ‘Missing Files’ too, as if they were a legitimate part of my library! So this view ends up being like a global garbage bin that I have to waste my precious time emptying on occasion, and serves no useful purpose in the mean time. Yeah, I deleted those files. What are you going to do about it?

    Seriously, why the hell are these files in here?

    As you can see, I’ve highlighted the fact that Rhythmbox is telling me that these files are missing from my mobile device. No shit.

  4. Shared Libraries that I can’t Play: So we’ve known for awhile now that Apple broke the ability to connect to iTunes via the DAAP protocol, and that it’s not possible to connect to a shared iTunes library from Linux. If that’s the case, why does Rhythmbox still show these libraries as available? And how come it shows my library under this node? Why would I listen to my own shared library? Finally, I’ve found that even if I’m running Rhythmbox on another machine, I still can’t connect to my shared library. This feature seems to be downright broken – so why is it still in the build?
  5. The GUI and Backend are on One Thread: I keep about half of my music collection as lossless FLAC files. When I want to rip these files to my portable media device, they need to be converted to the Mp3 format. Turns out that Rhythmbox thinks it appropriate to transcode these files on the same thread that it uses to update its GUI, so that while this process is taking place, the app becomes laggy, and at times, downright unusable. Further, the application doesn’t seem to give me any control over the bitrate that my songs are transcoded to. Fuck!
  6. Lack of Playlist Options: Smart playlists in Rhythmbox are missing a rather key feature: Randomness. When filling the aforementioned mobile device with music, I would like to select a random 4GB of music from my top rated playlist. But I can’t. I can select 4GB of music by most every criteria except randomness, which means that I get the same 600 or so songs on my device every time I fill it. This is strange, because I can shuffle the contents of a static playlist; But I cannot randomly fill a smart playlist. Great.

    If you have a device that has a small amount of memory, this feature is essential

    It’s funny; I really want to like Rhythmbox, but it’s shit like this that ruins the experience for me

  7. Columns: What the fuck. Who wrote this part of the application? When I choose the columns that are visible in the main window, I can’t re-order them. That’s right. So the only order that I can put my columns in is Track, Title, Genre, Artist, Album, Year, Time, Quality, Rating. Can’t reorder them at all, and I have to go into the preferences menu to choose which ones are displayed, instead of being able to right-click on the column headers to select them like I can in every other program written in the last 10 years. This is just ridiculous. I know that the GTK+ toolkit allows you to create re-order-able columns, because I’ve seen it done.

    This is just so incredibly backward. I mean, columns are a standard part of the GTK+ toolkit, and I've seen plenty of other apps that do this properly.

    Why, for the love of God, can’t these be re-ordered?

  8. The Equalizer is Balls: No presets, and no preamp. So I can set the EQ, and my settings are magically saved, but I can only have one setting, because there doesn’t appear to be a way to create multiple profiles. And louder music sounds like balls, because I can’t turn down the preamp, so I get digital distortion throughout my signal. It would be better to just not have an equalizer at all.

    I mean, it works. But...

    I mean, it works. But…

  9. Context Menus Don’t Make Sense: Let’s just take a look at this context menu for a moment. There are three ways to remove a song from a playlist. You can Remove the song, which just removes it from the playlist, but not from your library or your hard drive. Alternatively, you can select Move to Trash, which does what you might expect – it removes the song from the playlist, the library, and your computer. I’ve got a problem with the naming conventions here. The purpose of Remove isn’t well explained, and confused the hell out of me at first. In addition, when browsing a mobile device that you’ve filled with music, the GUI breaks down even further. In this case, you can still hit Remove, which seems to remove the song from Rhythmbox’s listing, but leaves the file on the device. So now I have a file on my device that I can’t access. Great. The right-click menu also has the ability to copy and cut the song, even though there is no immediately obvious way to paste it. For that functionality, you’ll have to head up to the Edit menu.

    The right-click context menu

    I’m starting to run out of anger. The 10,000 papercuts that come along with this app are making me numb to it.

  10. No Command Line Tools: Now, normally, this wouldn’t bother me too much. A music library is something that’s meant to have a GUI, and doesn’t generally lend itself to working from the command line. In this case however, command line access to Rhythmbox would be really handy, because I’d like to set up a hot key on my keyboard that will skip songs or pause playback. Unfortunately, there’s no way to do that within the software, and it doesn’t have any command line arguments that I can call instead. Balls.

There you have it, 10 things that really ruin the Rhythmbox experience. While using this piece of software, I felt like the developers worked really hard to build something that was sort of comparable to Apple’s iTunes, and then stopped trying. That isn’t good enough! If we want to attract users to our platform of choice, and keep them here, we need to give them reasons to check it out, and even more to stick around. If I say to you that I want to have the best Linux media player, you tend to put the emphasis on the word Linux. Why not just make the best media player? GNOME is on at least half of all Linux desktops, if not more. Why hinder it with software that gives people a poor first impression of what Linux is capable of? Seriously guys, let’s step it up.

 

Help out a project with OpenHatch

December 27th, 2016 No comments

OpenHatch is a site that aggregates all of the help postings from a variety of open source projects. It maintains a whole community dedicated to matching people who want to contribute with people who need their help. You don’t even need to be technical like a programmer or something like that. Instead if you want to lend your artistic talents to creating icons and logos for a project, or your writing skills to help them out with documentation – both areas a lot of open source projects aren’t the best with – I’m sure they would be greatly appreciative.

So what are you waiting for? Get connected and give back to the community that helps create the applications you use on a daily basis!

Blast from the Past: An Experiment in Transitioning to Open Document Formats

December 16th, 2016 No comments

This post was originally published on June 15, 2013. The original can be found here.


Recently I read an interesting article by Vint Cerf, mostly known as the man behind the TCP/IP protocol that underpins modern Internet communication, where he brought up a very scary problem with everything going digital. I’ll quote from the article (Cerf sees a problem: Today’s digital data could be gone tomorrow – posted June 4, 2013) to explain:

One of the computer scientists who turned on the Internet in 1983, Vinton Cerf, is concerned that much of the data created since then, and for years still to come, will be lost to time.

Cerf warned that digital things created today — spreadsheets, documents, presentations as well as mountains of scientific data — won’t be readable in the years and centuries ahead.

Cerf illustrated the problem in a simple way. He runs Microsoft Office 2011 on Macintosh, but it cannot read a 1997 PowerPoint file. “It doesn’t know what it is,” he said.

“I’m not blaming Microsoft,” said Cerf, who is Google’s vice president and chief Internet evangelist. “What I’m saying is that backward compatibility is very hard to preserve over very long periods of time.”

The data objects are only meaningful if the application software is available to interpret them, Cerf said. “We won’t lose the disk, but we may lose the ability to understand the disk.”

This is a well known problem for anyone who has used a computer for quite some time. Occasionally you’ll get sent a file that you simply can’t open because the modern application you now run has ‘lost’ the ability to read the format created by the (now) ‘ancient’ application. But beyond this minor inconvenience it also brings up the question of how future generations, specifically historians, will be able to look back on our time and make any sense of it. We’ve benefited greatly in the past by having mediums that allow us a more or less easy interpretation of written text and art. Newspaper clippings, personal diaries, heck even cave drawings are all relatively easy to translate and interpret when compared to unknown, seemingly random, digital content. That isn’t to say it is an impossible task, it is however one that has (perceivably) little market value (relatively speaking at least) and thus would likely be de-emphasized or underfunded.

A Solution?

So what can we do to avoid these long-term problems? Realistically probably nothing. I hate to sound so down about it but at some point all technology will yet again make its next leap forward and likely render our current formats completely obsolete (again) in the process. The only thing we can do today that will likely have a meaningful impact that far into the future is to make use of very well documented and open standards. That means transitioning away from so-called binary formats, like .doc and .xls, and embracing the newer open standards meant to replace them. By doing so we can ensure large scale compliance (today) and work toward a sort of saturation effect wherein the likelihood of a complete ‘loss’ of ability to interpret our current formats decreases. This solution isn’t just a nice pie in the sky pipe dream for hippies either. Many large multinational organizations, governments, scientific and statistical groups and individuals are also all beginning to recognize this same issue and many have begun to take action to counteract it.

Enter OpenDocument/Office Open XML

Back in 2005 the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) created a technical committee to help develop a completely transparent and open standardized document format the end result of which would be the OpenDocument standard. This standard has gone on to be the default file format in most open source applications (such as LibreOffice, OpenOffice.org, Calligra Suite, etc.) and has seen wide spread adoption by many groups and applications (like Microsoft Office). According to Wikipedia the OpenDocument is supported and promoted by over 600 companies and organizations (including Apple, Adobe, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Novell, Red Hat, Oracle, Wikimedia Foundation, etc.) and is currently the mandatory standard for all NATO members. It is also the default format (or at least a supported format) by more than 25 different countries and many more regions and cities.

Not to be outdone, and potentially lose their position as the dominant office document format creator, Microsoft introduced a somewhat competing format called Office Open XML in 2006. There is much in common between these two formats, both being based on XML and structured as a collection of files within a ZIP container. However they do differ enough that they are 1) not interoperable and 2) that software written to import/export one format cannot be easily made to support the other. While OOXML too is an open standard there have been some concerns about just how open it actually is. For instance take these (completely biased) comparisons done by the OpenDocument Fellowship: Part I / Part II. Wikipedia (Open Office XML – from June 9, 2013) elaborates in saying:

Starting with Microsoft Office 2007, the Office Open XML file formats have become the default file format of Microsoft Office. However, due to the changes introduced in the Office Open XML standard, Office 2007 is not entirely in compliance with ISO/IEC 29500:2008. Microsoft Office 2010 includes support for the ISO/IEC 29500:2008 compliant version of Office Open XML, but it can only save documents conforming to the transitional schemas of the specification, not the strict schemas.

It is important to note that OpenDocument is not without its own set of issues, however its (continuing) standardization process is far more transparent. In practice I will say that (at least as of the time of writing this article) only Microsoft Office 2007 and 2010 can consistently edit and display OOXML documents without issue, whereas most other applications (like LibreOffice and OpenOffice) have a much better time handling OpenDocument. The flip side of which is while Microsoft Office can open and save to OpenDocument format it constantly lags behind the official standard in feature compliance. Without sounding too conspiratorial this is likely due to Microsoft wishing to show how much ‘better’ its standard is in comparison. That said with the forthcoming 2013 version Microsoft is set to drastically improve its compatibility with OpenDocument so the overall situation should get better with time.

Current day however I think, technologically, both standards are now on more or less equal footing. Initially both standards had issues and were lacking some features however both have since evolved to cover 99% of what’s needed in a document format.

What to do?

As discussed above there are two different, some would argue, competing open standards for the replacement of the old closed formats. Ten years ago I would have said that the choice between the two is simple: Office Open XML all the way. However the landscape of computing has changed drastically in the last decade and will likely continue to diversify in the coming one. Cell phone sales have superseded computers and while Microsoft Windows is still the market leader on PCs, alternative operating systems like Apple’s Mac OS X and Linux have been gaining ground. Then you have the new cloud computing contenders like Google’s Google Docs which let you view and edit documents right within a web browser making the operating system irrelevant. All of this heterogeneity has thrown a curve ball into how standards are established and being completely interoperable is now key – you can’t just be the market leader on PCs and expect everyone else to follow your lead anymore. I don’t want to be limited in where I can use my documents, I want them to work on my PC (running Windows 7), my laptop (running Ubuntu 12.04), my cellphone (running iOS 5) and my tablet (running Android 4.2). It is because of these reasons that for me the conclusion, in an ideal world, is OpenDocument. For others the choice may very well be Office Open XML and that’s fine too – both attempt to solve the same problem and a little market competition may end up being beneficial in the short term.

Is it possible to transition to OpenDocument?

This is the tricky part of the conversation. Lets say you want to jump 100% over to OpenDocument… how do you do so? Converting between the different formats, like the old .doc or even the newer Office Open XML .docx, and OpenDocument’s .odt is far from problem free. For most things the conversion process should be as simple as opening the current format document and re-saving it as OpenDocument – there are even wizards that will automate this process for you on a large number of documents. In my experience however things are almost never quite as simple as that. From what I’ve seen any document that has a bulleted list ends up being converted with far from perfect accuracy. I’ve come close to re-creating the original formatting manually, making heavy use of custom styles in the process, but its still not a fun or straightforward task – perhaps in these situations continuing to use Microsoft formatting, via Office Open XML, is the best solution.

If however you are starting fresh or just converting simple documents with little formatting there is no reason why you couldn’t make the jump to OpenDocument. For me personally I’m going to attempt to convert my existing .doc documents to OpenDocument (if possible) or Office Open XML (where there are formatting issues). By the end I should be using exclusively open formats which is a good thing.

I’ll write a follow up post on my successes or any issues encountered if I think it warrants it. In the meantime I’m curious as to the success others have had with a process like this. If you have any comments or insight into how to make a transition like this go more smoothly I’d love to hear it. Leave a comment below.

This post originally appeared on my personal website here.

 

Blast from the Past: Top 10 things I have learned since the start of this experiment

December 9th, 2016 No comments

This post was originally published on October 2, 2009. The original can be found here.


In a nod to Dave’s classic top ten segment I will now share with you the top 10 things I have learned since starting this experiment one month ago.

10: IRC is not dead

Who knew? I’m joking of course but I had no idea that so many people still actively participated in IRC chats. As for the characters who hang out in these channels… well some are very helpful and some… answer questions like this:

Tyler: Hey everyone. I’m looking for some help with Gnome’s Empathy IM client. I can’t seem to get it to connect to MSN.

Some asshat: Tyler, if I wanted a pidgin clone, I would just use pidgin

It’s this kind of ‘you’re doing it wrong because that’s not how I would do it’ attitude can be very damaging to new Linux users. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get help and someone throwing BS like that back in your face.

9: Jokes about Linux for nerds can actually be funny

Stolen from Sasha’s post.

Admit it, you laughed too

Admit it, you laughed too

8. Buy hardware for your Linux install, not the other way around

Believe me, if you know that your hardware is going to be 100% compatible ahead of time you will have a much more enjoyable experience. At the start of this experiment Jon pointed out this useful website. Many similar sites also exist and you should really take advantage of them if you want the optimal Linux experience.

7. When it works, it’s unparalleled

Linux seems faster, more featured and less resource hogging than a comparable operating system from either Redmond or Cupertino. That is assuming it’s working correctly…

6. Linux seems to fail for random or trivial reasons

If you need proof of these just go take a look back on the last couple of posts on here. There are times when I really think Linux could be used by everyone… and then there are moments when I don’t see how anyone outside of the most hardcore computer users could ever even attempt it. A brand new user should not have to know about xorg.conf or how to edit their DNS resolver.

Mixer - buttons unchecked

5. Linux might actually have a better game selection than the Mac!

Obviously there was some jest in there but Linux really does have some gems for games out there. Best of all most of them are completely free! Then again some are free for a reason

Armagetron

Armagetron

4. A Linux distribution defines a lot of your user experience

This can be especially frustrating when the exact same hardware performs so differently. I know there are a number of technical reasons why this is the case but things seem so utterly inconsistent that a new Linux user paired with the wrong distribution might be easily turned off.

3. Just because its open source doesn’t mean it will support everything

Even though it should damn it! The best example I have for this happens to be MSN clients. Pidgin is by far my favourite as it seems to work well and even supports a plethora of useful plugins! However, unlike many other clients, it doesn’t support a lot of MSN features such as voice/video chat, reliable file transfers, and those god awful winks and nudges that have appeared in the most recent version of the official client. Is there really that good of a reason holding the Pidgin developers back from just making use of the other open source libraries that already support these features?

2. I love the terminal

I can’t believe I actually just said that but it’s true. On a Windows machine I would never touch the command line because it is awful. However on Linux I feel empowered by using the terminal. It lets me quickly perform tasks that might take a lot of mouse clicks through a cumbersome UI to otherwise perform.

And the #1 thing I have learned since the start of this experiment? Drum roll please…

1. Linux might actually be ready to replace Windows for me

But I guess in order to find out if that statement ends up being true you’ll have to keep following along 😉

 

Blast from the Past: A lengthy, detailed meta-analysis of studies of GNOME Do

December 5th, 2016 No comments

This post was originally published on November 23, 2009. The original can be found here.


GNOME Do is a fantastic little program that makes Linux Mint a very comfortable experience. At first glance, GNOME Do just looks like a collection of launchers that can be docked to your window, with a search function attached for completeness. What stands out about Do, though, is that the search function offers a lot of versatility. Through Do, I can launch programs, mount and unmount drives, bring up folders, and execute a variety of actions through the plug-ins. I’ve found that it saves me a lot of mouse movement (yes, I’m that lazy) when I’m working on assignments. In less than two seconds, I can call up Kate to start up my data entry, start up R in terminal, open the folder containing all of my data, and start a conversation in Pidgin. Best of all, since the search function can be called up with the Super+Space key combination, I can do all of this without ever having to switch windows.

I also find that Do helps to clean up the clutter on my desktop. I’ve got it set up as the Docky theme on the bottom of my screen. Since I have no need for the panel, I’ve got it set up to autohide at the top of my monitor. This means when I have something maximized, it legitimately takes up the entire monitor.

What a beautifully clean desktop.

What a beautifully clean desktop.

Adding or removing programs to or from Do is a cinch too – it’s as simple as dragging and dropping.

Unfortunately, it’s not all great

Like every other Linux program, Do saves time and effort. Like every other Linux program, Do also costs time and effort in the bugs that it has. The most frustrating bug I’ve had so far is that Do simply disappears on a restart. It runs and in a manner it “exists” since I can resize it on my desktop, but I can’t actually see or use it. Apparently this is a known bug, and I haven’t been able to find a decent solution to it. It’s especially unfortunate because Do provides so much convenience that when it doesn’t work properly, I feel like I’m reverting to some primitive age where I’m dependent on my mouse (the horror!)

Notice how the cursor is cut off? In reality, it's a resizing cursor, used to resize an invisible panel. It technically does work since after I reboot I find that GNOME Do inadvertently takes up half my screen.

Notice how the cursor is cut off? In reality, it’s a resizing cursor, used to resize an invisible panel. It technically does function, since after I reboot I find that GNOME Do inadvertently takes up half my screen.

Regardless, I’d recommend Do for anyone who can install it. When it works, it’s great for saving you some time and effort; when it doesn’t, well, ’tis better to have loved and lost….

 

Blast from the Past: Open formats are… the best formats?

December 2nd, 2016 No comments

This post was originally published on January 17, 2016. The original can be found here.


Over the past few years there has been a big push to replace proprietary formats with open formats. For example Open Document Format and Office Open XML have largely replaced the legacy binary formats, we’re now seeing HTML5 + JavaScript supplant Silverlight and Java applets, and even the once venerable Flash is on its deathbed.

This of course all makes sense. We’re now in an era where the computing platforms, be it Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X, Android, iOS, Linux, etc., simply don’t command the individual market shares (or at least mind shares) that they once used to. Things are… more diversified now. And while they may not matter to the user the underlying differences in technologies certainly matter to the developer. This is one of the many reasons you see lots of movement to open formats where the same format can be implemented, relatively easily, on all of the aforementioned platforms.

So then the question must be asked: does this trend mean that open formats are the best formats? That is obviously quite a simple question to a deep (and perhaps subjective) subject so perhaps it’s better to look at it from a user adoption perspective. Does being an open format, given all of its advantages, translate to market adoption? There the answer is not as clear.

Open by example

Let’s take a look a few instances where a clear format winner exists and see if it is an open format or a closed/proprietary format.

Documents

When it comes to documents the Open Document Format and Open Office XML have largely taken over. This has been driven largely by Microsoft making Office Open XML the default file format in all versions of Microsoft Office since 2007. Additionally many governments and organizations around the world have standardized on the use of Open Document Format. That said older Microsoft Office binary formats (i.e. .doc, .xls, etc.) are still widely in use.

Verdict: open formats have largely won out.

Audio

For the purposes of the “audio” category let’s consider simply the audio codec that most people use to consume their music. In that regard MP3 is still the absolute dominant format. While it is somewhat encumbered by patents you will hardly find a single device out there that doesn’t support it. This is true even when there are better lossy compression formats (including the proprietary AAC or open Ogg Vorbis) as well as lossless formats like FLAC.

Verdict: the closed/proprietary MP3 format is the de facto standard.

Video

Similarly for the “video” category I’ll only be focusing on the codecs. While there are plenty of open video formats (Theora, WebM, etc.) they are not nearly as well supported as the proprietary formats like MPEG-2, H.264, etc. Additionally the open formats (in general) don’t have quite as good quality vs size ratios as the proprietary ones which is often while you’ll see websites using them in order to save on bandwidth.

Verdict: closed/proprietary formats have largely won out.

File Compression

Compression is something that most people consider more as an algorithm than a format which is why I’ll be focusing on the compressed file container formats for this category. In that regard the ZIP file format is by far the most common. It has native support in every modern operating system and offers decent compression. Other open formats, such as 7-Zip, offer better performance and even some proprietary formats, like RAR, have seen widespread use but for the most part ZIP is the go-to format. What muddies the waters here a bit is that the base ZIP format is open but some of the features added later on were not. However the majority of uses are based on the open standards.

Verdict: the open zip format is the most widely used standard.

Native Applications vs Web Apps

While applications may not, strictly speaking, be a format it does seem to be the case that every year there are stories about how Web Apps will soon replace Native Applications. So far however the results are a little mixed with e-mail being a perfect example of this paradox. For personal desktop e-mail web apps, mostly Gmail and the like, have largely replaced native applications like Microsoft Outlook and Thunderbird. On mobile however the majority of users still access their e-mail via native “apps”. And even then in enterprises the majority of e-mail usage is still done via native applications. I’m honestly not sure which will eventually win out, if either, but for now let’s call it a tie.

Verdict: tie.

The answer to the question is…

Well just on the five quick examples above we’ve got wins for 2 open formats, 2 closed/proprietary formats and one tie. So clearly based on market adoption we’re at a stand still.

Personally I’d prefer if open formats would take over because then I wouldn’t have to worry about my device supporting the format in question or not. Who knows, maybe by next year we’ll see one of the two pull ahead.

This post originally appeared on my website here.

 

Alternative software: Midori Browser

October 30th, 2016 No comments

In my previous post I spoke about how the Linux platform has an incredible amount of alternative software and wrote a bit about my experiences using one of those applications: the Konqueror browser. I decided to stay in the same genre of applications and take a look at another alternative web browser Midori.

Midori is an interesting browser whose main goal seems to be to strip away the clutter and really streamline the web browsing experience. It’s no surprise then that Midori has ended up as the default web browser for other lightweight and streamlined distributions such as elementary OS, Bodhi Linux and SliTaz at one time or another. It is also neat from a technical perspective as portions of the browser are written in the Vala programming language.

So what does it look like when you first launch the browser then?

Sigh... Another alternative browser that shows an error on first launch...

Sigh… another alternative browser that shows an error on first launch…

Midori itself is a very nice looking browser but I was disappointed to immediately see an error just like the first time I tried Konqueror. To its credit however I’m almost certain that this error is a result of me running it on Linux Mint 18 – and thus missing the Ubuntu related file it was looking for. So really… this is more of a bug on Linux Mint’s end than a problem with Midori.

Poking around in the application preferences shows a commitment to that streamlined design even in the settings menus. Beyond that there wasn’t too much to note there.

Browsing The Linux Experiment

Browsing The Linux Experiment

So how does Midori handle as a web browser then? First off let me say that it does remarkably better than Konqueror did. Pages seemed to render fine and I only had minor issues overall.

The first issue I hit was that some embedded media and plugins didn’t seem to work. For example I couldn’t get an embedded PDF to display at all. Perhaps this is something that can be fixed by finding a Midori specific plugin?

Another oddity I could see was that sometimes the right fonts wouldn’t be used or the website text would be rendered slightly larger than it would be in Firefox or Chrome for example. For the slightly larger font issue it’s kind of strange to describe… it’s as if Midori shows the text as bolded while the other browsers don’t.

I figured that as a lightweight, streamlined browser it might be a decent idea to quickly see memory usage differences between it and Firefox (just to give a baseline). At first the results showed a clear memory usage advantage to Midori when only viewing one website:

Browser Memory Usage
Firefox 144MB
Midori 46MB

However after opening 4 additional tabs and waiting for them to all finish loading the story reversed quite substantially:

Browser Memory Usage
Firefox 183MB
Midori 507MB

I have no idea why there would be such a difference between the two or why Midori’s memory usage would skyrocket like that but I guess the bottom line is that you may want to reconsider your choice if you’re planning on using Midori on a system with low RAM.

Finally if I had to give one last piece of criticism it would be that even as a stripped down, streamlined browser Midori still doesn’t feel quite as fast as something like Chrome.

Other than those mostly minor issues though Midori did really well. Even YouTube’s HTML5 playback controls worked as expected! I might even recommend people try out Midori if they’re looking for an alternative web browser to use in their day-to-day computing.

How to easily forward Firefox (PC & Android) traffic through an SSH tunnel

March 29th, 2015 No comments

Say you are travelling, or are at a neighbourhood coffee shop, using whatever unsecured WiFi network they make available. You could either:

  1. trust that no one is sniffing your web traffic, capturing passwords, e-mails, IMs, etc.
  2. trust that no one is using more sophisticated methods to trick you into thinking that you are secure (i.e. man in the middle attack)
  3. route your Internet traffic through a secure tunnel to your home PC before going out onto the web, protecting you from everyone at your current location

which would you choose?

VPNs and SSH tunnels are actually a relatively easy means for you to be more secure while browsing the Internet from potentially dangerous locations.

Making use of an SSH tunnel on your PC

There are many, many different ways for you to do this but I find using a Linux PC that is running on your home network to be the easiest.

Step 1: Install SSH Server

Configure your home Linux PC. Install ssh (and sshd if it is separate). If you are using Ubuntu this is as easy as running the following command: sudo apt-get install ssh

Step 2: Make it easy to connect

Sign up for a free dynamic DNS service like DynDNS or No-IP so that you know of a web address that always points to your home Internet connection. To do this follow the instructions at the service you choose.

Step 3: Connect to tunnel

On your laptop (that you have taken with you to the hotel or coffee shop) connect to your home PC’s ssh server. If you are on Windows you will need to get a program like PuTTY. See their documentation on how to forward ports. On Linux you can simply use the ssh command. The goal is to forward a dynamic port to the remote ssh server. For instance if you are using a Linux laptop and ssh then the command would look something like: ssh -D [dynamic port] [user]@[home server] -p [external port number – if not 22]. An example of one would be ssh -D 4096 user@example.com -p 4000

Step 4: Configure browser to use SSH tunnel proxy

In your browser open the networking options window. This will allow you to tell the browser to forward all of its traffic to a proxy, which in this case, will be our dynamic port that we set up in step 3. Here is an example of my configuration for the example above.
If you don’t feel awesome enough doing the above graphically you can also browse to “about:config” (without quotes) and set the following values:

  • network.proxy.proxy_over_tls
    • true
  • network.proxy.socks
    • Change to “127.0.0.1” with no quotes
  • network.proxy.socks_port
    • Change to the SSH Tunnel Local Port set above (4096)
  • network.proxy.socks_remote_dns
    • Change to true
    • Note: you cannot actually set this setting graphically but it is highly recommended to configure this as well!
  • network.proxy.socks_version
    • Change to 5
  • network.proxy.type
      Change to 1

Step 5: Test and use

Browse normally – you are now browsing the Internet by routing all of your traffic (in Firefox) securely through your home PC. Note that this doesn’t actually make web browsing any more secure beyond protecting you from people in your immediate vicinity (i.e. connected to the same insecure WiFi network).


What about Android?

Just like the PC you can also do it on Android even without root access. Please note that while I’m sure there are a few ways to accomplish this, the following is just one way that has worked for me. I’m also assuming that you already have an SSH server to tunnel your traffic through.

Step 1: Install SSH Tunnel

The first thing you’ll want to do is install an application that will actually create the SSH tunnel for you. One such application is the aptly named SSH Tunnel which can be found on the Google Play Store here.

Step 2: Configure SSH Tunnel

Next you’ll want to launch the application and configure it.

  • Set the Host address (either a real domain name, dynamic DNS redirector or IP address of your SSH server) and port to connect on.
  • You’ll also want to configure the User and Password / Passphrase.
  • Check the box that says Use socks proxy.
  • Configure the Local Port that you’ll connect to your tunnel on (perhaps 1984 for the paranoid?)
  • I would recommend checking Auto Reconnect as well, especially if you are on a really poor WiFi connection like at a hotel or something.
  • Finally check Enable DNS Proxy.

Step 3: Connect SSH Tunnel

To start the SSH tunnel simply check the box that says Tunnel Switch.

Step 4: Install Firefox

While you may have a preference for Google Chrome, Firefox is the browser I’m going to recommend setting up the tunnel with. Additionally this way if you do normally use Chrome you can simply leave Firefox configured to always use the SSH tunnel and only switch to it when you want the additional privacy. Firefox can be found on the Google Play store here.

Step 5: Configure Firefox to use SSH Tunnel

In order to make Firefox connect via the SSH tunnel you’ll need to modify some settings. Once you are finished the browser will only work if the SSH tunnel is connected.

  • In the Firefox address bar browse to “about:config” with no quotes.
  • In the page that loads search and modify the following values:
    • network.proxy.proxy_over_tls
      • true
    • network.proxy.socks
      • Change to “127.0.0.1” with no quotes
    • network.proxy.socks_port
      • Change to the SSH Tunnel Local Port set above (1984?)
    • network.proxy.socks_remote_dns
      • Change to true
    • network.proxy.socks_version
      • Change to 5
    • network.proxy.type
        Change to 1

Step 6: Test and browse normally

Now that you have configured the above you should be able to browse via the tunnel. How can you check if it is working? Simply turn off the SSH Tunnel and try browsing – you should get an error message. Or if you are on a different WiFi you could try using a service to find your IP address and make sure it is different from where you are. For example if you configured Firefox to work via the SSH tunnel but left Chrome as is then visiting a site like http://www.whatismyip.com/ should show different information in each browser.

This post is a complication of two posts which originally appeared on my personal website here.

CoreGTK

January 28th, 2014 2 comments

A while back I made it my goal to put together an open source project as my way of contributing back to the community. Well fast forward a couple of months and my hobby project is finally ready to be shown the light of day. I give you… CoreGTK

CoreGTK is an Objective-C binding for the GTK+ library which wraps all objects descending from GtkWidget (plus a few others here and there). Like other “core” Objective-C libraries it is designed to be a very thin wrapper, so that anyone familiar with the C version of GTK+ should be able to pick it up easily.

However the real goal of CoreGTK is not to replace the C implementation for every day use but instead to allow developers to more easily code GTK+ interfaces using Objective-C. This could be especially useful if a developer already has a program, say one they are developing for the Mac, and they want to port it to Linux or Windows. With a little bit of MVC a savvy developer would only need to re-write the GUI portion of their application in CoreGTK.

So what does a CoreGTK application look like? Pretty much like a normal Objective-C program:

/*
 * Objective-C imports
 */
#import <Foundation/Foundation.h>
#import "CGTK.h"
#import "CGTKButton.h"
#import "CGTKSignalConnector.h"
#import "CGTKWindow.h"

/*
 * C imports
 */
#import <gtk/gtk.h>

@interface HelloWorld : NSObject
/* This is a callback function. The data arguments are ignored
 * in this example. More callbacks below. */
+(void)hello;

/* Another callback */
+(void)destroy;
@end

@implementation HelloWorld
int main(int argc, char *argv[])
{
    NSAutoreleasePool *pool = [[NSAutoreleasePool alloc] init];

    /* We could use also CGTKWidget here instead */
    CGTKWindow *window;
    CGTKButton *button;

    /* This is called in all GTK applications. Arguments are parsed
    * from the command line and are returned to the application. */
    [CGTK autoInitWithArgc:argc andArgv:argv];

    /* Create a new window */
    window = [[CGTKWindow alloc] initWithGtkWindowType:GTK_WINDOW_TOPLEVEL];

    /* Here we connect the "destroy" event to a signal handler in 
     * the HelloWorld class */
    [CGTKSignalConnector connectGpointer:[window WIDGET] 
        withSignal:@"destroy" toTarget:[HelloWorld class] 
        withSelector:@selector(destroy) andData:NULL];

    /* Sets the border width of the window */
    [window setBorderWidth: [NSNumber numberWithInt:10]];

    /* Creates a new button with the label "Hello World" */
    button = [[CGTKButton alloc] initWithLabel:@"Hello World"];

    /* When the button receives the "clicked" signal, it will call the
     * function hello() in the HelloWorld class (below) */
    [CGTKSignalConnector connectGpointer:[button WIDGET] 
        withSignal:@"clicked" toTarget:[HelloWorld class] 
        withSelector:@selector(hello) andData:NULL];

    /* This packs the button into the window (a gtk container) */
    [window add:button];

    /* The final step is to display this newly created widget */
    [button show];

    /* and the window */
    [window show];

    /* All GTK applications must have a [CGTK main] call. Control ends here
     * and waits for an event to occur (like a key press or
     * mouse event). */
    [CGTK main];

    [pool release];

    return 0;
}

+(void)hello
{
    NSLog(@"Hello World");
}

+(void)destroy
{
    [CGTK mainQuit];
}
@end
Hello World in action

Hello World in action

And because Objective-C is completely compatible with regular old C code there is nothing stopping you from simply extracting the GTK+ objects and using them like normal.

// Use it as an Objective-C CoreGTK object!
CGTKWindow *cWindow = [[CGTKWindow alloc] 
    initWithGtkWindowType:GTK_WINDOW_TOPLEVEL];

// Or as a C GTK+ window!
GtkWindow *gWindow = [cWindow WINDOW];

// Or even as a C GtkWidget!
GtkWidget *gWidget = [cWindow WIDGET];

// This...
[cWindow show];

// ...is the same as this:
gtk_widget_show([cWindow WIDGET]);

You can even use a UI builder like GLADE, import the XML and wire up the signals to Objective-C instance and class methods.

CGTKBuilder *builder = [[CGTKBuilder alloc] init];
if(![builder addFromFile:@"test.glade"])
{
    NSLog(@"Error loading GUI file");
    return 1;
}

[CGTKBuilder setDebug:YES];

NSDictionary *dic = [[NSDictionary alloc] initWithObjectsAndKeys:
                 [CGTKCallbackData withObject:[CGTK class] 
                     andSEL:@selector(mainQuit)], @"endMainLoop",
                 [CGTKCallbackData withObject:[HelloWorld class] 
                     andSEL:@selector(hello)], @"on_button2_clicked",
                 [CGTKCallbackData withObject:[HelloWorld class] 
                     andSEL:@selector(hello)], @"on_button1_activate",
                 nil];

[builder connectSignalsToObjects:dic];

CGTKWidget *w = [builder getWidgetWithName:@"window1"];
if(w != nil)
{
    [w showAll];
}

[builder release];

So there you have it that’s CoreGTK in a nutshell.

There are a variety of ways to help me out with this project if you are so inclined to do so. The first task is probably just to get familiar with it. Download CoreGTK from the GitHub project page and play around with it. If you find a bug (very likely) please create an issue for it.

Another easy way to get familiar with CoreGTK is to help write/fix documentation – a lot of which is written in the source code itself. Sadly most of the current documentation simply states which underlying GTK+ function is called and so it could be cleaned up quite a bit.

At the moment there really isn’t anything more formal than that in place but of course code contributions would also be welcome!

Update: added some pictures of the same program running on all three operating systems.

Hello World on Windows

Hello World on Windows

Hello World on Mac

Hello World on Mac

Hello World on Linux

Hello World on Linux

This post originally appeared on my personal website here.

An Ambitious Goal

August 1st, 2013 3 comments

Every since we announced the start of the third Linux Experiment I’ve been trying to think of a way in which I could contribute that would be different from the excellent ideas the others have come up with so far. After batting around some ideas over the past week I think I’ve finally come up with how I want to contribute back to the community. But first a little back story.

A large project now, GNOME was started because there wasn't a good open source alternative at the time

A large project now, GNOME was started because there wasn’t a good open source alternative at the time

During the day I develop commercial software. An unfortunate result of this is that my personal hobby projects often get put on the back burner because in all honesty when I get home I’d rather be doing something else. As a result I’ve developed, pun intended, quite a catalogue of projects which are currently on hold until I can find time/motivation to actually make something of them. These projects run the gamut of little helper scripts, written to make my life more convenient, all the way up to desktop applications, designed to take on bigger tasks. The sad thing is that while a lot of these projects have potential I simply haven’t been able to finish them, and I know that if I just could they would be of use to others as well. So for this Experiment I’ve decided to finally do something with them.

Thanks to OpenOffice, LibreOffice and others there are actual viable open source alternatives to Microsoft Office

Thanks to OpenOffice.org, LibreOffice and others there are actual viable open source alternatives to Microsoft Office

Open source software is made up of many different components. It is simultaneously one part idea, perhaps a different way to accomplish X would be better, one part ideal, belief that sometimes it is best to give code away for free, one part execution, often times a developer just “scratching an itch” or trying a new technology, and one part delivery, someone enthusiastically giving it away and building a community around it. In fact that’s the wonderful thing about all of the projects we all know and love; they all started because someone somewhere thought they had something to share with the world. And that’s what I plan to do. For this Linux Experiment I plan on giving back by setting one of my hobby projects free.

Before this open source web browser we were all stuck with Internet Explorer 6

Before this open source web browser we were all stuck with Internet Explorer 6

Now obviously this is not only ambitious but perhaps quite naive as well especially given the framework of The Linux Experiment – I fully recognize that I have quite a bit of work ahead of me before any of my hobby code is ready to be viewed, let alone be used, by anyone else. I also understand that, given my own personal commitments and available time, it may be quite a while before anything actually comes of this plan. All of this isn’t exactly well suited for something like The Linux Experiment, which thrives on fresh content; there’s no point in me taking part in the Experiment if I won’t be ready to make a new post until months from now. That is why for my Experiment contributions I won’t be only relying on the open sourcing of my code, but rather I will be posting about the thought process and research that I am doing in order to start an open source project.

Topics that I intend to cover are things relevant to people wishing to free their own creations and will include things such as:

  • weighing the pros and cons as well as discussing the differences between the various open source licenses
  • the best place to host code
  • how to structure the project in order to (hopefully) get good community involvement
  • etc.

An interesting side effect of this approach will be somewhat of a new look into the process of open sourcing a project as it is written piece by piece, step by step, rather than in retrospect.

The first billion dollar company built on open source software

The first billion dollar company built on open source software

Coincidentally as I write this post the excellent website tuxmachines.org has put together a group of links discussing the pros of starting open source projects. I’ll be sure to read up on those after I first commit to this 😉

Linux: a hobby project initially created and open sourced by one 21 year old developer

Linux: a hobby project initially created and open sourced by one 21 year old developer

I hope that by the end of this Experiment I’ll have at least provided enough information for others to take their own back burner projects to the point where they too can share their ideas and creations with the world… even if I never actually get to that point myself.

P.S. If anyone out there has experience in starting an open source project from scratch or has any helpful insights or suggestions please post in the comments below, I would really love to hear them.

Installing Netflix on Kubuntu

July 27th, 2013 4 comments

The machine I am running Kubuntu on is primarily used for streaming media like Netflix and Youtube, watching files off of a shared server and downloading media.

I decided to try to install Netflix first since it is something I use quite often. I am engrossed in watching the first season of Orange is the New Black and the last season of The West Wing.

Again, I resorted to Googling exactly what I am looking for and came across this fantastic post.

I opened a Terminal instance in Kubuntu and literally copied and pasted the text from the link above.

After going through these motions, I had a functioning instance of Netflix! Woo hoo.

So I decided to throw on an episode of Orange is the new Black, it loaded perfectly…. without sound.

Well shit! I never even thought to see if my audio driver had been picked up… so I guess I should probably go ahead and fix that.

This isn’t going well.

July 26th, 2013 No comments

Today I started out by going into work, only to discover that it is NEXT Friday that I need to cover.

So I came home and decided to get a jump start on installing Kubuntu.

I am now at a screeching halt because the hardware I am using has Win8 installed on it and when I boot into the Start Up settings, I lose the ability to use my keyboard. This is going swimmingly.

So, it is NOW about 3 hours later.

In this time, I have cursed, yelled, felt exasperated and been downright pissed.

This is mainly because Windows 8 does not make it easily accessible to get to the Boot Loader. In fact, the handy Windows made video that is supposed to walk you through how EASY, and user friendly the process of changing system settings is fails to mention what to do if the “Use a Device” option is nowhere to be found (as it was in my case).

So I relied on Google, which is usually pretty good about answering questions about stupid computer issues. I FINALLY came across one post that stated that due to how quickly Windows 8 boots, that there is no time to press F2 or F8. However, I tries anyway. F8 is the key to selecting what device you want to boot from, as you will see later in this post.

What you will want to do if installing any version of Linux is, first format a USB stick to hold your Linux distro. I used Universal USB Loader. The nice thing about this loader is that you don’t have to already have the .iso for the distro you want to use downloaded. You have the option of downloading right in the program.

After you have selected you distro, downloaded the .iso and loaded it onto your USB stick now is the fun part. Plug your USB stick into the computer you wish to load Linux onto.

Considering how easy this was once I figured it all out, I do feel rather silly. If I were to have to do it again, I would feel much more knowledgeable.

If you are using balls-ass Windows 8, like I was, the EASIEST way to select an alternate device to boot from is to restart the computer and press F8 a billion times until a menu pops up, letting you choose from multiple devices. Choose the device with the name of the USB stick, for me it was PENDRIVE.

Once you press enter (from a keyboard that is attached directly to the computer you are using via USB cable, because apparently Win8 loses the ability to use Wireless USB devices before the OS has fully booted…at least that was my experience).

So now, I am being prompted to install Kubuntu (good news, I already know it supports my projector, because I can see this happening).

Now, I have had to plug in a USB wired keyboard and mouse for this process so far. This makes life a little bit difficult because the computer I am using sits in a closet, too far away from my projector screen. This makes it almost impossible for me to see what is going on, on the screen. So installing the drives for my wireless USB devices it a bit of a pain.

However, the hard part is over. The OS is installed successfully. My next post will detail how the hell to install wireless USB devices. I will probably also make a fancy signature, so you all know what I am running.

Come on, really?!

July 25th, 2013 3 comments

So it is 9:40 PM and I started my “Find a Linux distro to install” process. Like many people, I decided to type exactly what I wanted to search into Google. Literally, I typed “Linux Distro Chooser” into Google. Complex and requiring great technical skill, I know.

My next mission was to pick the site that had a description with the least amount of “sketch”. Meaning, I picked the first site in the Google results. I then used my well honed multiple choice skills (ignore the question, pick B) to find my perfect Linux distro match.

After several pages of clicking through, I was presented with a list of Linux distributions that fit my needs and hardware.

See, a nice list, with percents and everything.

This picture has everything... percents, mints, Man Drivers...

This picture has everything… percents, mints, Man Drivers…

So naturally, I do what everyone does with lists.. look at my options and pick the one with the prettiest picture.

For me that distro was Kubuntu. It has a cool sounding name that starts with the same letter as my name.

So I follow the link through to the website to pull the .iso and this pops up.

Fuck Drupal

God damn Drupal!

I have dealt with Drupal before, as it was the platform the website I did data entry for was built on. Needless to say, I hate it. Hey Web Dev with Trev, if you are out there, I hope you burn your toast the next time you make some.

So, to be productive while waiting for Drupal to fix it’s shit, I decided to start a post and rant. In the time this took, the website for Kubuntu has recovered (for now).

So, I downloaded my .iso and am ready to move it onto a USB stick.

I’m debating whether I want to install it now or later, as I would really like to watch some West Wing tonight. I know that if I start this process and fuck it up, I am going to be forced to move upstairs where there is another TV, but it is small 🙁

Well, here I go, we’ll see how long it takes me to install it. If you are reading this, go ahead and time me… it may be a while.

An Experiment in Transitioning to Open Document Formats

June 15th, 2013 2 comments

Recently I read an interesting article by Vint Cerf, mostly known as the man behind the TCP/IP protocol that underpins modern Internet communication, where he brought up a very scary problem with everything going digital. I’ll quote from the article (Cerf sees a problem: Today’s digital data could be gone tomorrow – posted June 4, 2013) to explain:

One of the computer scientists who turned on the Internet in 1983, Vinton Cerf, is concerned that much of the data created since then, and for years still to come, will be lost to time.

Cerf warned that digital things created today — spreadsheets, documents, presentations as well as mountains of scientific data — won’t be readable in the years and centuries ahead.

Cerf illustrated the problem in a simple way. He runs Microsoft Office 2011 on Macintosh, but it cannot read a 1997 PowerPoint file. “It doesn’t know what it is,” he said.

“I’m not blaming Microsoft,” said Cerf, who is Google’s vice president and chief Internet evangelist. “What I’m saying is that backward compatibility is very hard to preserve over very long periods of time.”

The data objects are only meaningful if the application software is available to interpret them, Cerf said. “We won’t lose the disk, but we may lose the ability to understand the disk.”

This is a well known problem for anyone who has used a computer for quite some time. Occasionally you’ll get sent a file that you simply can’t open because the modern application you now run has ‘lost’ the ability to read the format created by the (now) ‘ancient’ application. But beyond this minor inconvenience it also brings up the question of how future generations, specifically historians, will be able to look back on our time and make any sense of it. We’ve benefited greatly in the past by having mediums that allow us a more or less easy interpretation of written text and art. Newspaper clippings, personal diaries, heck even cave drawings are all relatively easy to translate and interpret when compared to unknown, seemingly random, digital content. That isn’t to say it is an impossible task, it is however one that has (perceivably) little market value (relatively speaking at least) and thus would likely be de-emphasized or underfunded.

A Solution?

So what can we do to avoid these long-term problems? Realistically probably nothing. I hate to sound so down about it but at some point all technology will yet again make its next leap forward and likely render our current formats completely obsolete (again) in the process. The only thing we can do today that will likely have a meaningful impact that far into the future is to make use of very well documented and open standards. That means transitioning away from so-called binary formats, like .doc and .xls, and embracing the newer open standards meant to replace them. By doing so we can ensure large scale compliance (today) and work toward a sort of saturation effect wherein the likelihood of a complete ‘loss’ of ability to interpret our current formats decreases. This solution isn’t just a nice pie in the sky pipe dream for hippies either. Many large multinational organizations, governments, scientific and statistical groups and individuals are also all beginning to recognize this same issue and many have begun to take action to counteract it.

Enter OpenDocument/Office Open XML

Back in 2005 the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) created a technical committee to help develop a completely transparent and open standardized document format the end result of which would be the OpenDocument standard. This standard has gone on to be the default file format in most open source applications (such as LibreOffice, OpenOffice.org, Calligra Suite, etc.) and has seen wide spread adoption by many groups and applications (like Microsoft Office). According to Wikipedia the OpenDocument is supported and promoted by over 600 companies and organizations (including Apple, Adobe, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Novell, Red Hat, Oracle, Wikimedia Foundation, etc.) and is currently the mandatory standard for all NATO members. It is also the default format (or at least a supported format) by more than 25 different countries and many more regions and cities.

Not to be outdone, and potentially lose their position as the dominant office document format creator, Microsoft introduced a somewhat competing format called Office Open XML in 2006. There is much in common between these two formats, both being based on XML and structured as a collection of files within a ZIP container. However they do differ enough that they are 1) not interoperable and 2) that software written to import/export one format cannot be easily made to support the other. While OOXML too is an open standard there have been some concerns about just how open it actually is. For instance take these (completely biased) comparisons done by the OpenDocument Fellowship: Part I / Part II. Wikipedia (Open Office XML – from June 9, 2013) elaborates in saying:

Starting with Microsoft Office 2007, the Office Open XML file formats have become the default file format of Microsoft Office. However, due to the changes introduced in the Office Open XML standard, Office 2007 is not entirely in compliance with ISO/IEC 29500:2008. Microsoft Office 2010 includes support for the ISO/IEC 29500:2008 compliant version of Office Open XML, but it can only save documents conforming to the transitional schemas of the specification, not the strict schemas.

It is important to note that OpenDocument is not without its own set of issues, however its (continuing) standardization process is far more transparent. In practice I will say that (at least as of the time of writing this article) only Microsoft Office 2007 and 2010 can consistently edit and display OOXML documents without issue, whereas most other applications (like LibreOffice and OpenOffice) have a much better time handling OpenDocument. The flip side of which is while Microsoft Office can open and save to OpenDocument format it constantly lags behind the official standard in feature compliance. Without sounding too conspiratorial this is likely due to Microsoft wishing to show how much ‘better’ its standard is in comparison. That said with the forthcoming 2013 version Microsoft is set to drastically improve its compatibility with OpenDocument so the overall situation should get better with time.

Current day however I think, technologically, both standards are now on more or less equal footing. Initially both standards had issues and were lacking some features however both have since evolved to cover 99% of what’s needed in a document format.

What to do?

As discussed above there are two different, some would argue, competing open standards for the replacement of the old closed formats. Ten years ago I would have said that the choice between the two is simple: Office Open XML all the way. However the landscape of computing has changed drastically in the last decade and will likely continue to diversify in the coming one. Cell phone sales have superseded computers and while Microsoft Windows is still the market leader on PCs, alternative operating systems like Apple’s Mac OS X and Linux have been gaining ground. Then you have the new cloud computing contenders like Google’s Google Docs which let you view and edit documents right within a web browser making the operating system irrelevant. All of this heterogeneity has thrown a curve ball into how standards are established and being completely interoperable is now key – you can’t just be the market leader on PCs and expect everyone else to follow your lead anymore. I don’t want to be limited in where I can use my documents, I want them to work on my PC (running Windows 7), my laptop (running Ubuntu 12.04), my cellphone (running iOS 5) and my tablet (running Android 4.2). It is because of these reasons that for me the conclusion, in an ideal world, is OpenDocument. For others the choice may very well be Office Open XML and that’s fine too – both attempt to solve the same problem and a little market competition may end up being beneficial in the short term.

Is it possible to transition to OpenDocument?

This is the tricky part of the conversation. Lets say you want to jump 100% over to OpenDocument… how do you do so? Converting between the different formats, like the old .doc or even the newer Office Open XML .docx, and OpenDocument’s .odt is far from problem free. For most things the conversion process should be as simple as opening the current format document and re-saving it as OpenDocument – there are even wizards that will automate this process for you on a large number of documents. In my experience however things are almost never quite as simple as that. From what I’ve seen any document that has a bulleted list ends up being converted with far from perfect accuracy. I’ve come close to re-creating the original formatting manually, making heavy use of custom styles in the process, but its still not a fun or straightforward task – perhaps in these situations continuing to use Microsoft formatting, via Office Open XML, is the best solution.

If however you are starting fresh or just converting simple documents with little formatting there is no reason why you couldn’t make the jump to OpenDocument. For me personally I’m going to attempt to convert my existing .doc documents to OpenDocument (if possible) or Office Open XML (where there are formatting issues). By the end I should be using exclusively open formats which is a good thing.

I’ll write a follow up post on my successes or any issues encountered if I think it warrants it. In the meantime I’m curious as to the success others have had with a process like this. If you have any comments or insight into how to make a transition like this go more smoothly I’d love to hear it. Leave a comment below.

This post originally appeared on my personal website here.

The apps of KDE 4.10 Part I: Rekonq

April 6th, 2013 No comments

It’s been a while since I’ve used KDE, however with the recent rapid (and not always welcome) changes going on in the other two main desktop environments (GNOME 3 and Unity) and the, in my opinion, feature stagnation of environments like Xfce and LXDE I decided to give KDE another shot.

My goal this time is to write up a series of quick reviews of KDE as presented as an overall user experience. That means I will try and stick to the default applications for getting my work done. Obviously depending on the distribution you choose you may have a different set of default KDE applications, and that’s fine. So before you ask, no I won’t be doing another write up for KDE distribution X just because you think its ‘way better for including A instead of B’. I’m also going to try and not cover what I consider more trivial things (i.e. the installer/installation process) and instead focus on what counts when it comes to using an operating system day-to-day.

Rekonq

The default web browser in the distribution I chose is not Konqueror but rather its WebKit cousin Rekonq. Where Konqueror uses KHTML by default and WebKit as an option, Rekonq sticks to the more conventional rendering engine used by Safari and Chrome.

konqueror_4_4_2

This is not Rekonq, it is Konqueror

Rekonq is a very minimalistic looking browser to the point where I often thought I accidentally started up Chrome instead.

This is Rekonq

This is Rekonq

From my time using it, Rekonq seems to be a capable browser although it is certainly not the speediest, nor does it sport any features that I couldn’t find elsewhere. One thing it does do very nicely is with its integration into the rest of the KDE desktop. This means that the first time you visit YouTube or some other Flash website you get a nice little prompt in the system tray alerting you of the option to install new plugins. If you choose to install the plugin then a little window appears telling you what it is downloading and installing for you, completely automatically. No need to visit a vendor’s website or go plugin hunting online.

Like most other KDE applications Rekonq also allows for quite a bit of customization, although I found its menus to be very straightforward and not nearly as intimidating as some other applications.

The settings menu

The settings menu

I did notice a couple of strange things while working with Rekonq that I should probably mention. First off while typing into a WordPress edit window none of the shortcut keys (i.e. Ctrl+B = bold) seemed to work. I also found that I couldn’t perform a Shift+Arrow Key selection of the text, instead having to use Ctrl+Shift+Arrow Key which highlights an entire word at a time. At this time I’m not sure what other websites may suffer from similar irregularities so while Rekonq is a fine browser in its own right, you may want to keep another one around just in case.

Browsing the best website on the net

Browsing the best website on the net

While I haven’t found any real show-stoppers with Rekonq, I still can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing something. I don’t know how to describe it other than I think I would feel safer using a more mainstream web browser like Firefox, Chrome or even Opera. But like any software, your experience may vary and I would certainly never recommend against trying Rekonq (or even Konqueror). Who knows, you may find out that it is your new favorite web browser.

Categories: Free Software, KDE, Linux, Tyler B Tags: , ,

Using Linux to keep an old work PC alive

November 19th, 2012 1 comment

A couple of years ago I helped a small business convert their old virus infected Windows XP computer into a Linux Mint 11 (Katya) Xfce. This was done after a long time of trying to help them keep that machine running at a half-decent speed – the virus being the last straw that finally had them make the switch to Linux. Amazingly, well maybe not to the Linux faithful but to most people, this transition not only went smoothly but was actually extremely well received. Outside of a question or two every couple of months I have heard of no issues whatsoever. Sadly Linux Mint 11 has recently reached its end of life stage and so the time has come to find a replacement.

The Situation

When I said this was an old Windows XP machine I wasn’t kidding. It sports a speedy (sarcasm) 2.4Ghz Intel Pentium 4 processor, 512 whole megabytes of RAM and an Intel integrated graphics card. With specs like those it is pretty obvious that the only two real considerations (from a technical standpoint) are low resource requirements and speed. I’d be tempted to jump to a more specialized distribution like Puppy Linux but the people using the machine are A) used to Linux Mint already and B) expected a familiar, fully featured operating system experience.

Where is Linux Mint today?

Linux Mint 13 has recently been released (including an Xfce version) based on the latest Ubuntu 12.04 stable release. This makes it an ideal candidate for an upgrade because it is something already familiar to the users and will be supported until April 2017.

The following are the steps I took, in no real order, to setup and configure Linux Mint 13 Xfce for their use:

Pre/During Install Configuration

  1. Encrypt the home directory
    Because this is a work computer and will be storing sensitive financial information I configured it to encrypt everything in the home directory. Better safe than sorry.

Post Install Configuration

  1. Install Google Chrome
    I removed Mozilla Firefox and installed Google Chrome for two reasons. First Chrome tends to be, or at least feel, a little bit snappier than even the latest version of Firefox and as I mentioned above speed is king. Secondly, unless something changes, Google’s Chrome (not even Chromium) will be the only Linux browser that will continue to get Adobe Flash updates in a straightforward and easy way for the user. UPDATE: ironically the only issue I found with this whole install related to Google’s embedded Adobe Flash. For some reason the audio on the particular version ran at double speed. This is apparently a known issue.
  2. Install Rhythmbox
    I also removed Banshee and installed Rhythmbox instead. This was done not because I consider one better than the other (or even that these two represent the only options), but simply because the users were already familiar with Rhythmbox. They use Rhythmbox to listen to streaming Internet radio.
  3. Remove unnecessary software (Pidgin, XChat, GNOME Mplayer and Totem)
    Not because they are bad applications, they just simply weren’t needed. I kept VLC because it can pretty much play all audio-video.
  4. Add Trash can to desktop and remove Filesystem icon
  5. Remove all but one workspace
  6. Install preload to speed up commonly used packages on startup
  7. Configure LibreOffice
    The goal of this step is to set up LibreOffice in such a way as to make it use less memory while still keeping most of the functionality. In order to accomplish this I changed the number of undo steps from 100 to 30 and disabled the Java components.
  8. Change screensaver to blank screen
    This looks more professional and uses less memory.
  9. Spin down hard drive when possible
    While I was at it I also went into power management and had the system spin down the hard drives when possible. This configuration had nothing to do with performance, in fact spinning down the drives can slow access to files, but was done because they often just leave the PC running 24-7 and it is not in use at all during the night. I’m sure this will save them a couple of cents per year or something.
  10. Disabled unused startup services like Bluetooth
    The machine doesn’t even have a Bluetooth radio.
  11. Set it so that inserting a removable drive causes the system to open a window for browsing the contents
  12. Change the system tray clock time format from 24 hour time to 12 hour time.
    This was a user preference.
  13. Set updates to be downloaded from best available server

  14. Install Microsoft fonts (i.e. ttf-mscorefonts-installer)
  15. Install 7zip, rar and unrar
    You never know what kind of random archive formats they might need to open so it is better to support them all.
  16. Change login screen theme
    The default login screen is nice but it isn’t the most user friendly. I opted to install the Mint Pro (MDM) theme from GNOME-Look.org.
  17. Install all updates
  18. Run Grub boot profiler to speed up the boot process
    If you’re not aware of this it is a great trick. Essentially once you have everything installed (driver wise at least) you do the following:
    -Modify /etc/default/grub and change the line GRUB_CMD_LINE_LINUX_DEFAULT=”quiet splash” to GRUB_CMD_LINE_LINUX_DEFAULT=”quiet splash profile”.
    -Then run sudo update-grub2 and reboot.
    -The next reboot might be slower but once the machine comes back up simply edit that file again and remove the “profile” text. Your computer will now intelligently load drivers as the hard drive head travels across their location, instead of in some other arbitrary order which can actually shave a couple of seconds off of your total boot time.

How did it turn out?

Surprisingly well. The machine isn’t a speed demon by any stretch of the imagination but it does perform its simple tasks well enough. It remains to be seen if the computer will make it to the next long term release of Linux Mint Xfce, or even if it will be able to run it at that time, but for now the users are happy and that is what matters.