Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ubuntu PPA Problem - Reason for Concern?

With the release of Ubuntu 9.10 late last year Canonical introduced PPAs, which is short for Personal Package Archives. A PPA allows anyone that has signed the Ubuntu Code of Conduct to easily distribute software they have packaged to Ubuntu users. This revolutionary idea allows those who do not have the capability to establish their own repository to easily provide package updates to their users. Want the latest version of Openshot or PiTiVi? Then simply add a PPA to your system that packages up to date versions of these softwares and you will be set to go!

The problem with this system you ask? There is namely one issue: Canonical does not review any of the packages that are uploaded to PPAs. Because of this adding software from various PPAs wily nilly in reality is more dangerous than installing software on Windows. I say this because not only are you giving root access to the software upon installation, but also every time you run a system update from then after. Meaning even if a PPA provides trusted packages at first, this could change later on.

While it has not happened yet (as far as I am aware), I feel it is only a matter of time before some form of malicious code makes its way into a PPA that is used large scale. If you are comfortable with having software installed on your system from many different sources - that is your own choice (one of the many great things about FOSS). However, if you always need the latest up to date software maybe it is worth considering a rolling release distro such as LMDE or Chakra.

What is your take on this? Am I just blowing hot air and worrying for nothing or could having piles of PPAs on your system cause a potential risk down the line?

~Jeff Hoogland

Friday, November 26, 2010

T-Mobile "4g" Failure

"4g" is very hot-button advertising term with mobile Internet providers in the United States right now. Sprint, Clear, and now T-Mobile are all advertising various forms of "4g" networks. What exactly qualifies as "4g" you ask? According to the ITU Radio Communication Sector the definition of "4g" is as follows:

"A 4G system is expected to provide a comprehensive and secure all-IP based solution where facilities such as ultra-broadband (giga-bit speed such as 100+ MiB/s) Internet access, IP telephony, gaming services, and streamed multimedia may be provided to users."

By this definition, none of the before mentioned companies actually have a "4g" network. Sprint and Clear offer "WiMax" networks and T-Mobile really has "HSPA+". Both of these types of networks current max out around 10MiB/s - falling far short of the denoted 100+MiB/s required of a true "4g" network.

Currently advertised on the front page of T-Mobile's website is


That small text at the bottom you ask? It states the network is really HPSA+, also known previously as "3.5g". Between October and November of this year (2010) T-Mobile rolled out HSPA+ in a good number of new towns around the United States. So while their network isn't really "4g" this faster "3g" connection is now more readily available than before.

Something T-Mobile hasn't advertised quite as much as their larger, faster network is that, without notifying any of their customers, in October they cut the amount of data each user is allowed per-month from 10gb down to 5gb. In case you didn't know your "unlimited" data plan from T-Mobile has a limit to how much data you are allowed at "4g/3g" speeds each month. Once you go beyond this limit the service to your hand held is cut down to "2g" for the remainder of the month. So while T-Mobile's HSPA+ is on par speed wise with Sprint's WiMax network, with Sprint you will enjoy your fast mobile internet as much as you want - while with T-Mobile you are decently limited.

At any rate, even though I love my N900 I think it is time I start looking into "4g" hand-helds with Sprint.

~Jeff Hoogland

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wayland VS X - Some Perspectives

The Linux world has been very talkative for the last few weeks with the news that Ubuntu plans on switching from the classic X server to Wayland for it's graphics environment. For those who are still unclear as to what exactly Wayland is, here is a quote from their homepage:

"Wayland is a protocol for a compositor to talk to its clients as well as a C library implementation of that protocol. The compositor can be a standalone display server running on Linux kernel modesetting and evdev input devices, an X application, or a wayland client itself. The clients can be traditional applications, X servers (rootless or fullscreen) or other display servers."

For those still unclear as to what Wayland is supposed to be doing after reading the above quote - essentially Wayland helps a compositor, such as Compiz or KWin, work with applications running on a computer. It can run on top of an existing display server, such as X, or act as the display server itself (and run X inside of itself similar to how OSX does).

My first and foremost question to the change to Wayland is why? Well according to Mark the "why" is the following:

"we don’t believe X is setup to deliver the user experience we want, with super-smooth graphics and effects

To each their own. The wonderful thing about FOSS is choice - my question this: If desktops such as Enlightenment can achieve an elegant, fluid desktop while using X, why can't Unity? My next concern about using the Wayland project is if it is ever going to actually fully get rid of X. Mark states that they plan to keep backwards compatibility with all X applications. While backwards compatibility of this sort is something that is very necessary, I some how doubt this going to be accomplished with out keeping parts (if not all) of X around. If this is the case - what is the point of adding Wayland into your graphics layer in the first place?

The last part of Wayland that is a large cause for concern is lack of closed source video driver support. As a free software advocate I know FOSS drivers are ideal (and they are advancing rapidly) but as of yet they do not offer anywhere near the performance of their closed source counter parts. In fact as of today the only open source graphics drivers that support any form of decent 3D acceleration are for Intel chip sets. While I recommend taking anything you read on Phoronix with a grain of salt - their claim that nVidia has no plans to support Wayland in their closed source driver sounds about accurate. As for ATI? Their Linux driver support has historically been worse than nVidia - so I wouldn't hold my breath here either.

As with most things only time will tell if Ubuntu's (and Fedora's) transition to Wayland will be a success (or a death sentence) for the respective distros. In the mean time want to give Wayland a try? Well, currently it is barely functional and only works on a limited amount of hardware. That means, in addition to all the concerns above, a good deal of time, funding, and man power is going to have to be invested in Wayland just to make the project functional for a desktop operating system such as Ubuntu.

Personally, I think this announcement is premature and we won't have a functional "Wayland only" display server on a main stream distro for several years at least. What is your take in the situation? Do you think the change was necessary and how soon will it come?

~Jeff Hoogland

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Announcing Bodhi Linux

You may have noticed the blog has been rather quiet the last couple of weeks, this is because I have been working on a project. Last month I posted details about an E17 LiveDVD I was working on that was modeled after PinguyOS. It weighed in at a 1.4 gig download that was jam packed with every application you might ever use. It was also slightly crude in some aspects (such as the Enlightenment desktop it contained was compiled and installed from source).

What this DVD accomplished was teaching me the ins and outs of working with Enlightenment on Ubuntu and building a remastered disc. The result? Today I would like to announce a project I have been working on with the help of a small team:



Bodhi is a minimalistic, Linux distro that uses the Enlightenment desktop. By minimalistic I mean Bodhi comes as a 350~meg download and only includes the following pieces of software by default:
  • Enlightenment
  • Firefox
  • LXTerminal
  • Elementary Nautilus
  • Synaptic
  • RemasterSYS
The Bodhi is built from an Ubuntu 10.04 minimal disc, but you will notice it does contain some Ubuntu 10.10 features. Backported via the Bodhi Repository, are the 2.6.35 kernel and the newer Ubiquity installer. Also enabled by default are the Ubuntu partner repository, Medibuntu, and GetDeb.

This is the first release of Bodhi and it is of alpha quality. This is a work in progress and I am looking for feedback on what is done so far (so if you are expecting something perfect go elsewhere). As I am the only one developing the disc itself there is currently only a 32 bit version built and you can get it as a download from our downloads page. If you would like more information on the project check out our about page or stop by #bodhi on Freenode IRC.

Cheers,
~Jeff Hoogland

Monday, November 15, 2010

Silence is greater than Misinformation

A little bit information is a dangerous thing.

This is one of my favorite quotes. Odds are you have all met someone to whom this statement could apply. That person who just started using Linux and thinks it is the be all, end all to all the problems in the (computing) world. Or that friend who just built their first computer from scratch and suddenly knows everything there is to know about putting hardware together.

Countless times I have gone seeking help on various message boards or chat rooms and more times than I care to count I received down right bad or misinformed answers. Now to date none of the "help" I have found was intentionally viscous, but a few times I realized the information I was being given was not relevant (or was hurtful) to the goal I was trying to accomplish. I am not trying to say that you need to be an expert to help someone with a problem they are having. Just please, if you are not 100% sure of the information you are providing - let the person know this! At least this way if the information turns out to be faulty the person was warned instead of being caught by surprise.

Anyone else ever experience an issue such as this when trying to find technical help on the web?

~Jeff Hoogland

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

HOWTO: Manually set GDM Background and GTK Theme

My search for a new display manager ended me back at GDM after several long hours of searching. I was a bit tired of GDM's bland default brown background and the Clearlooks GTK theme so I deiced to change these. After much searching around I only found links describing how to change these options through GUI tools. I did not want to install an application to accomplish these two simple configuration changes - luckily I didn't have to and neither do you.

To change these keys we will not be editing configuration files in a text editor, instead we will simply use the gconftool-2 to set the values we want. To set the GDM background run the following command in terminal:

sudo -u gdm gconftool-2 -t str -s /desktop/gnome/background/picture_filename /path/to/pic

For example, if the background I want is one of my shared backgrounds called "background.png" I would set it as such:

sudo -u gdm gconftool-2 -t str -s /desktop/gnome/background/picture_filename /usr/share/backgrounds/background.png

The GTK theme your GDM uses is set in a similar manner:

sudo -u gdm gconftool-2 -t str -s /desktop/gnome/interface/gtk_theme ThemeName

You can see what GTK themes are install on your system by looking in your /usr/share/themes directory. For example to set your GDM to use the Crux GTK theme you would run the following:

sudo -u gdm gconftool-2 -t str -s /desktop/gnome/interface/gtk_theme Crux

Enjoy your new GDM background and GTK theme!

~Jeff Hoogland

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Fusion Linux 14 - Distro Review

Fedora is one of those Linux distros I have always wanted to love. It is sponsored by one of the top FOSS supporting companies in the world, it has strong principals in free standards, and yet somehow every time I get around to installing a new Fedora release it is just enough of a hassle that I end up removing it from my computer and reinstalling some form of Ubuntu. This is why Fusion Linux sparked my interest. Fusion Linux aims to to for Fedora what distros such as Linux Mint, PinguyOS, and Zorin did for Ubuntu. It aims to alleviate much of the messy setup work that is required to get a fully functional desktop operating system out of Fedora. It does this by preinstalling useful applications and codecs, including Adobe Flash and Sun's Java. It does all this while remaining 100% backwards compatible with Fedora.

For this review I will be using the latest release of Fusion Linux, which is their beta release based on Fedora 14. This version comes in a hefty 1.6gigabyte download, a bit large compared to the 700megabyte CD sized distros such as Linux Mint, but not too much larger than Pinguy and Zorin. The first thing you will notice when booting up Fusion (and I did a double take when I first saw it) is that their icon is a hotdog with legs...
According to the Fusion Blog this logo is really more of a funny place holder and they are looking for a graphics designer to create a real icon for the final release of Fusion 14, personally I think it gives the disc some unique personality.

Upon booting the operating system you are presented with a gnome desktop that largely resembles Linux Mint:

This isn't a bad thing though, for those coming from a Windows environment this setup will feel familiar. In fact, the menu you see in the lower left hand corner is the Linux Mint menu! Right next to this menu there are launcher icons on DockXBar for Chromium and terminal.

Also present on the desktop is the wonderfully useful "autoten" script. The autoten script allows for easy installation of extra packages on Fedora, you can see that many of the applications from this script come preinstalled on the system:

The reason Fusion has such a large download size is evident when you take a look at it's default software selection. It is a sizable list:

Accessories
  • Calculator
  • gedit
  • Geany
  • Gnome Do
  • Gnote
  • Parcellite
  • Take Screenshot
  • Tracker Search Tool
Games
  • Abe
  • Alien Blaster
  • Blob Wars: Metal Blod Solid
  • Chromium BSU
  • FooBillard
  • Frozen Bubble
  • Glaxium
  • PySol Fan Club Edition
  • Teeworlds

Graphics
  • Blender
  • F-Spot
  • Fotowall
  • GIMP
  • Inkscape
  • PhotoPrint
  • Picasa
  • Scribus
  • Simple Scan

Internet
  • airsnort
  • aLinkCreator
  • aMuleGUI
  • Chromium Browser
  • Empathy
  • Firefox 4
  • Net Activity Viewer
  • Thunderbird
  • Transmission
  • wxCAS

Office
  • OO.org Writer
  • OO.org Calc
  • OO.org Impress
  • OO.org Draw
  • Project Management
  • PyRoom

Sound and Video
  • Audacious
  • Audacity
  • Audio CD Extractor
  • Brasero
  • Cheese
  • Gnome MPlayer
  • gtk-record My Desktop
  • K3B
  • Miro Internet TV
  • Movie Player
  • Pitivi Video Editor
  • Rhythmbox
  • VLC

System Tools
  • autoten
  • Fusion Icon
  • Gparted
  • LiveUSB Creator
  • System Monitor
  • Terminal
I only have a few comments about the selections Fusion Linux makes. First, is that there are two applications installed for several tasks including Brasero and K3B for burning CDs and Firefox and Chromium from webrowsing. While I am on the topic of Firefox, I would like to mention that Fusion ships with the beta 6 version of Firefox 4. This is a good thing, the beta is fairly solid and much better than firefox 3.x. I personally have been using it for several months now without issue. The installer for the live disc is the same one Fedora itself uses, so while it is not as friendly as Ubuntu's installer it is more than functional.

Also present is a wonderful selection of FOSS games that should keep most children (and some adults) entertained for a good long while. What is lacking from this application list you may notice is that there is no IRC client installed by default. The only issue I had with the software was that upon installation the system already had broken packages. Running yum update with the --skip-broken argument allowed the system to upgrade just fine though.

To finish on a good note I would like to mention I used my T101MT Asus tablet as my test computer and 100% of the hardware was functional with out any extra configuration! This is fantastic compared to the amount of work it takes to get the tablet to function under Ubuntu 10.04 (it has gotten better under Ubuntu 10.10, but it is still not 100% functional OOTB)

Overall Fusion Linux is a fantastic distro and for any beginner (or someone that doesn't want to deal with setting up Fedora) I would highly recommend Fusion Linux.

~Jeff Hoogland

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

I am a Linux Geek (and Proud of it!)

I came to a realization this morning:

I am a Linux Geek.

What finally brought me to this realization? Well, it all started last night. You see I was looking for a new display manager to use on my netbook, GDM has been getting bloated and I was looking for something a bit more trim. I came across SLiM in my various searches, but after giving it a try I decided it was not for me. It was late, so after uninstalling SLiM I went off to bed leaving my display manager search for another day.

As I was running out the door this morning I quickly shutdown my netbook down and threw it into my backpack, playing with display managers was one of the last things on my mind - it was a busy day! When I got to lunch I pulled out my netbook to check my email quickly only to discover the system was hanging at the Pinguy E17 boot splash. This was odd, I hadn't had my system randomly deiced to stop booting since I started using Linux. First things first, I did a cold shut off and waited for it to power back up again - after five minutes at the boot splash (that I normally see for 10 seconds, fast SSD) I concluded the system was not about to boot up.

So I started thinking "What did I change to cause this?" - and that is when it hit me. The system wasn't "randomly freezing" I had caused it to start freezing! After I uninstalled SLiM - I never set GDM to be the default display manager again. Not a problem, the flash drive I keep on my key chain is boot-able. I loaded the live environment, mounted my internal drive, and then ran dpkg-reconfigure gdm in a chroot environment and set GDM to be the display manager again. I restarted the system and this time around I saw my boot splash for a few seconds as normal and my system was starting up as it should.

Something that at one point would have taken me hours to figure out (and odds are would have required a few forum posts) I had resolved in minutes. I may not look like what we often type cast as a Unix Geek


But then, I don't think many of us do. It is 2011, Linux users come in all shapes and sizes today. If anyone asks me I will tell them:

I am a Linux Geek - and I am proud of it!

Have you ever come to this same realization about yourself? If so, what caused it?

~Jeff Hoogland