Announcement: The Super Secret Squirrel Project Revealed!

For about a month now, I’ve been working on something kept mostly secret. Something very exciting that will hopefully change my life. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for years, but for some reason I never did. Until now.

Let’s get to it.

Announcing: SilverPen Publishing LLC

SilverPen Publishing is now an actual company. After tons of research, a lot of brainstorming, and meeting with both an accountant and an attorney, I have everything in place for SilverPen to become a reality. It’s not just publishing, though we’re doing that too. SilverPen is a full service technical writing, training, and consultation provider.

Learn more about SilverPen Publishing.

Announcing: echo linux

The first ongoing project published by SilverPen is echo linux, a site for news, reviews, and how-tos about technology in general and Linux in particular.

I’d been looking for a site for which I could write, someone else who would give me articles and opportunity. I couldn’t find one, so I decided to make it.

Learn more about echo linux.

Announcing: Kickstarting a book!

And the culmination of all this is that I am writing a book about gaming on Linux. I’m pretty stoked about this, since it is something I’ve been interested in and am passionate about. I have created a project on Kickstarter to help fund this, so check that page out. Even if you can’t support me financially, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter to get periodic updates and announcements about the book.

Check out my Kickstarter project.

No Squirrels Were Harmed

Got a question? Want to know more? Just comment below!

Linux vs. OS X? Why are we even talking about this?

I read an article recently on ZDNet about 10 things Linux does better than OS X which was accurate, insightful, and altogether correct. It was also pretty damned irrelevant.

You don’t have to go far on the Internet to find what we like to call a “fanboi” or “zealot,” defending their chosen pile of software against all comers. I don’t know if it’s because people are insecure in their choices or because they are trying to convince themselves, but a lot of writers on the ‘net will take up arms if you choose to use a software package different than their chosen avatar. This is nowhere more prevalent than when it comes to operating systems.

To be fair, you don’t see many Microsoft Windows zealots because, let’s face it, there’s not much to defend there. They’ve got 80% or more of the personal computer market, and while their OS isn’t great, it gets the job done most of the time. Those who use it don’t really need to say anything to defend their software, they just have to point at the numbers.

But Apple and Linux certainly have their fans, of the mouth-foamy type, and it boggles my mind. I don’t particularly like Microsoft Windows, but I can see where it is sometimes necessary, and the same goes for the other operating systems. I love Linux and it’s a great OS, and I’m really enjoying using OS X on my MacBook.

An article like the above-linked 10 things Linux does better than OS X can be helpful when deciding which OS to run, but the problem is that articles and opinions like these are usually held to be normative. That is, they are trying to say, “Here are ten things that Linux does better than OS X, therefore Linux is better than OS X.” It’s absurd.

The truth of the matter is that different jobs call for different tools. If I was a construction worker, hitting a nail with OpenOffice.org would fail. If I was handling very sensitive data that needed to be kept secure, yeah Linux would be best. But if I needed to work with advanced spreadsheets in Microsoft Excel 2007, Microsoft Windows would be the only operating system for me.

Personally, I was looking for high battery life, a good writing program, and a lightweight notebook, which led me to the MacBook. I recognize that Linux has some superior characteristics, but not for what I needed. I don’t need the most secure operating system ever, it doesn’t affect my writing one way or the other if my OS is open source, and the abundance of software available for Linux doesn’t make a difference in this case. It didn’t have Scrivener, so it was out.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. You’ve got to use the right tool for the right job, so a better article might be, “Given X, here’s the best OS and here’s why.” That is, of course, if you can be bothered to wipe the foam away from your mouth and say something worthwhile.

Why I bought an Apple Macbook

macosxdesktopsmall

Looking back, I’m not sure why I was so anti-Mac once upon a time.

Oh wait, yes I am. Because they were expensive, not as functional, and didn’t bring enough to the table to justify the investment.

Enter the new Macbook

When I saw the video detailing the changes and updates in the body and design of the new Macbook, I salivated. The way they put the laptop together was very cool, and between hardware changes and the standard integration of OS X, it looked like it ran very well indeed. “If only it was around $1200 instead of $1800,” I said. “Then maybe I could justify such an extravagant piece of machinery.”

Then I looked at the page on Apple’s site and discovered that the base Book was sitting at $1299. That was almost reasonable, I thought, and I began considering it more seriously. I’ve been thinking about getting a new laptop for around two years now, and my old lappy was originally purchased in late 2003 or early 2004. It weighs around 6.8 pounds and currently gets around 30 minutes of battery life, so you might consider it more of a desktop replacement than a true mobile computer. I didn’t use it much anymore because it just wasn’t that useful for my purposes.

Continue reading

To be honest, Liches make me a little queasy

I see a deep sorrow in Arthas's eyes; a quantifiable longing for bananas.
I see a deep sorrow in Arthas's eyes; a quantifiable longing for cuddly puppies and kittens.

I finally received my copy of the new World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King last night and set about installing it on Linux. Even though I got home pretty late last night, I wanted to at least give it a try, and since the installation and patching only took about 30 minutes, I went ahead and created a Death Knight.

My first impressions were…. *drool*. The opening video is stunning, and I was anxious to get rolling. After configuring my appearance, I began my demented existance.

As I continued playing, however, my apprehension grew. I’m the sort of guy that, when I play Knights of the Old Republic, I’m invariably a light-sided Jedi. It makes me uncomfortable to slaughter people for no other reason than my own self-advancement, and I don’t delight in rampant carnage… unless they be Stormtroopers. Even the Horde on World of Warcraft are billed as misunderstood, noble, and generally decent people. They take care of their own, and if anything can be said about their actions, it’s that they had little choice but to fight for survival.

But the Death Knights… they’re just plain evil. You start out serving the Lich King, and one of your first tasks is to go into a town and slaughter the inhabitants. You’re specifically ordered, in fact, not to worry too much about the guards, but to focus on chasing and cutting down the civilians because that will strike greater terror into the hearts of the Lich King’s enemies.

I’m going to keep going with my Death Knight, because I’m assuming you eventually break away from the Lich King to join your respective faction (Alliance or Horde) and things return to normal after a while. But these opening quests so far have just made me just a little uncomfortable.

How to install Wrath of the Lich King on Linux

You have your shiny new expansion, but you (quite understandably) don’t want to shell out another $90 for a crappy operating system to play it. No problem, says I, because WotLK is Cedega Certified!

Unfortunately, while the game works pretty well, installation does not, and you’ll quickly encounter a bug in the Death Knight starting quests that will prevent you from advancing along that quest chain. No worries, though; just follow these simple instructions and you’ll be up and running in no time.

Installation

First, you need to mount the DVD properly. I use Ubuntu, which means I have Gnome, so I use Nautilus as my file manager. After inserting the DVD, you’ll need to open your file manager (Nautilus in my case) to unmount the DVD. You should see Lich listed in the left navigation bar: right click on it with your mouse and choose Unmount.

Now, open a terminal window and type in the following line. You’ll need to modify userid and insert your own userid (what you use to log in). You may also have to modify the cdrom0 point if you use something else; you can check this by browsing to /media in Nautilus or the terminal.

sudo mount -t udf -o ro,unhide,uid=userid /dev/scd0 /media/cdrom0/

Now you can open Cedega and install as you would normally, just using the Install button. However, when the Cedega installation window pops up, notice that it wants to put WotLK into its own folder. You need to change this so it installs into the folder in which you already have World of Warcraft. Edit this, then you’re ready to proceed with the install.

Installation and patching should proceed smoothly and normally from here. Now it’s time to play!

Setting the OpenGL flag

Personally, I don’t like playing with OpenGL. Maybe it’s just my system, but I get some bugs with it, most notably that WoW doesn’t close when I quit the game, it crashes. Despite this, there are a few quests that glitch out on Linux, and you need to use OpenGL to get through them.

When playing as a Death Knight, this is most notable when doing the quest involving the Eye of Archerus. Your screen will go all solid colours, though you can still see the UI, so you can’t very well proceed with the quest. This is due to the Death Effect and Full Screen Glow, but just disabling those options in WoW doesn’t resolve the problem.

There are two steps to setting the OpenGL flag.

  1. You need to add the following line to the config.wtf file. This file can be located at:/home/userid/.cedega/World of Warcraft/c_drive/Program Files/World of Warcraft/WTF
  2. SET gxApi “opengl”

  3. Set the -opengl flag in the Cedega shortcut, as pictured below:
  4. Click to enlarge

Conclusion

You should now be good to go. After the Eye of Archerus quest, I promptly disabled OpenGL and removed that line of code from my config.wtf. It’s good to know that there’s a solution for this Death Effect bug, and I may have to use it again (especially if it crops up when the Death Knight dies and becomes a zombie that can keep fighting), but if I can avoid OpenGL, I will. It just doesn’t seem as fast or as stable as D3D to me.

Happy gaming, and suffer well!

Like a truck in a tunnel

FedEx happened to deliver our new DSL modem while I was home for lunch yesterday, so I got it hooked up and working, much to my delight. Particularly exciting is that I installed the new version of Ubuntu on Friday, but had been unable to install any additional software or really configure anything like I wanted because we lacked an Internet connection. I’ve now reorganized all of my bookmarks, downloaded and installed all of the programs I wanted, and reconfigured WoW just how I like it. I feel at peace, like the satisfaction that follows a job well done or a puzzle completed. Everything is tidy and in its place, and I am at rest.

After finally finishing the re-setup around 8 p.m., I had dinner and returned to not doing the schoolwork I should be. This new book I picked up from the library last week is surprisingly good, and I have become immersed in the idea and world it presents. Also exciting is that I can now write from home once again, rather than having to take my laptop to a coffee shop or the church. Saturday should be a good fiction day 🙂

Ubuntu 8.04 on the Asus EEE PC

A couple of weeks ago, a faculty member brought her Asus EEE PC (pink, as she often pointed out) to our Help Desk, asking that we connect it to our university’s wireless network connection. I fiddled with it for a few minutes before coming to the conclusion that, quite simply, making it work on our wireless wasn’t worth the time it would take right then. The version of Xandros that ships on the EEE is very stripped down, to the extent that I couldn’t find a tool with which to acquire and install software. Not only could I not get the Madwifi drivers I’d need to make the Atheros card handle the level of security we require, but even if I could, there were no tools to compile the drivers.

There were two solutions open to me. The first was to get the drivers and recompile the kernel with them (after somehow getting the kernel build files onto the EEE), which would probably have taken 2-4 hours, all just to get wifi to work. The second option was to install a different distribution of Linux on the device. This solution might take equally long, but it was more guaranteed, might take less time, and would probably only have to be done this once. For future installations, a procedure would be codified and setup would therefore take a lot less time.

Thus, we begin. The Asus EEE doesn’t have a CD-ROM drive, so we could either do a netboot installation, pulling the ISO from a network drive, or we could do the installation off a USB jumpdrive. The EEE’s BIOS handles booting from removable devices, so I decided to give that a go.

Crucial Stats:

Asus EEE PC 4G (4gb SSD) with webcam
Lexar 1gb JumpDrive
Ubuntu 8.04 Desktop Edition for x86, 32-bit edition
Linux Kernel: 2.6.24

Instructions originally from the Ubuntu Community Wiki:

Converting an Ubuntu ISO to a Jumpdrive

The first key to this process is having a computer with the version of Ubuntu on it that you want to install to your target machine. This can be particularly troublesome if you are beginning your first ever installation of Linux on the EEE, and therefore don’t have another machine to use as your base. If that’s the case, my sympathies; I don’t have a solution for you. You can try to download the image to your EEE and do this process from there, but it probably won’t work. I initially attempted the ISO-to-Stick process from OpenSUSE and it failed. The instructions recommend using Ubuntu if you want to turn your jumpdrive into an installation of Ubuntu, so that’s what I recommend as well.

I was intending to put Ubuntu 8.04 on my laptop anyways, so I downloaded the ISO last Thursday and burned it, then installed the operating system on my HP zv5000. Now that I had a working install of Ubuntu, I could proceed to make my jumpdrive an installation device.

The first step is to install syslinux

sudo aptitude install syslinux

Insert the USB device you want to use for the installer. A few seconds after plugging in the USB device run the dmesg command or sudo fdisk -l (I prefer this method, myself) to find device it was assigned. The rest of the instructions refer to /dev/sdX1, remember to replace X with your device location. This changes from distro to distro, so don’t assume that your device is named the same as it has been in the past.

Preparing the Flash Drive using isotostick.sh

The easiest way, which also works with the Desktop installer, is to use the isotostick.sh script from http://www.startx.ro/sugar/. To make things as easy as possible, place the ISO and the script in the same folder. Use the following commands to download the script, make it executable, and run the script.

wget http://www.startx.ro/sugar/isotostick.sh

chmod u+x isotostick.sh

sudo ./isotostick.sh ubuntu-8.04-desktop-i386.iso  /dev/sdX1

Be sure to replace /dev/sdX1 with the partition name of your USB stick found in the previous section. You will see some “operation not permitted” errors when the script tries to copy the symlinks for /dists/stable and /dists/unstable. This is because fat16 file systems do not handle symlinks, but it will not cause any problems. This process will take some time and it won’t look like anything is happening, but be patient. If you desire feedback, open up Nautilus and browse to your removable device. You can refresh the view to see how much free space is left, which should shrink rapidly as the script runs.

Now you can boot from the USB stick and install Ubuntu just like if you had booted from the Desktop CD. I prefer to partition the hard drive to have /home on a separate partition, and chose to do so in this case. With only a 4gb drive, you don’t have a lot to work with, so I looked at my laptop to see how it had turned out. The root files had used approximately 2.9gb of space, so I gave 3.3gb to root and 600mb to /home. This left about 400mb for the installation of programs and about 90mb of swap space. That’s less swap then is recommended, but with 512mb of RAM, I figured it’d be OK. The device has reportedly been working fine for the last week and, when doing nothing more than checking email or running Skype, I think it will continue to work fine.

Instructions originally from the EEEUser Wiki:

Ethernet and Wifi

While it doesn’t always occur, you may notice that your Ethernet connection does not work on first boot. I’m not sure why this is, but the solution is simple: unplug the device, turn the device off, remove the battery for about thirty seconds, plug the battery back in, and turn the device back on. I imagine this resets something in the BIOS (maybe there’s not a separate BIOS battery?) that was keyed specifically to Xandros, and after resetting it works in a more default manner. Probably how it should have to begin with.

For wireless internet, we still have to install the Madwifi drivers, it’s just a lot easier than with Xandros. Enter the following commands in order, waiting for each step to finish before continuing (of course):

sudo apt-get install build-essential
wget 'http://snapshots.madwifi.org/special/madwifi-ng-r2756+ar5007.tar.gz'
tar zxvf madwifi-ng-r2756+ar5007.tar.gz
cd madwifi-ng-r2756+ar5007
make clean
make
sudo make install
reboot

Your wifi should now work as advertised, even with more advanced forms of PEAP authentication. Be aware that, due to the low power spec of the EEE, its wifi antenna is not very strong. Using the same operating system, sitting side-by-side, I had my laptop and the EEE. My laptop had a connection of 90% to our wireless while the EEE was hovering between 40% and 55%. Not twenty yards away, it was barely 35%.

Built-in Camera

The built-in camera (in the versions of the EEE that have one) works right out of the box with Ubuntu. The strange thing is that, despite the fact that Ubuntu 8.04 has the drivers necessary for the camera, it is not turned on in BIOS. At some point, slip into BIOS (I think it’s F12, but my memory’s hazy on that one; just keep an eye on the splash screen when you reboot sometime) and turn it on. It’s easy to find and easy to change. After that, you can test the camera by installing Cheese and playing around with it.

I was pretty impressed with this little camera. Good picture quality, and it picked up motion pretty well. If you move too fast, though, it overwhelms the tiny processor (900mhz usually) in the machine, so be careful or you’ll lock it into processing for a few seconds before it can catch up. Ubuntu’s stable enough that we never crashed it with the processing, but we did have it freeze a few times while it churned away at drawing the images.

Conclusion

Ubuntu 8.04 runs very well out of the box on the EEE PC, but you will often run into window-size issues. Some of the menus and windows don’t scale down well, and you’ll have them spanning down below what the EEE displays. For instance, when we setup the WPA2Enterprise connection for our wireless, the button to connect was way below the bottom of the screen and only accessible via hotkey (alt+o).

However, the EEE works surprisingly well when connected to peripheral devices, and I used a USB keyboard, mouse, and a VGA monitor on it with great success. With a 19″ LCD monitor, the EEE was able to push a resolution of 1280×1024. My memory’s hazy on the matter, but I seem to recall that the advanced graphics did not work on it (like wobbly windows or cube turning) but other, standard operations ran just fine. OpenOffice.org was usable in Web view (print view extended the document off the screen to the right), Firefox was perfect, and Skype fit on the screen without a problem.

The faculty member reported getting right over three hours of battery life with Ubuntu 8.04 installed.

It’s not a device I would likely buy due to the tiny keyboard (I use my laptop mostly for writing), but it’s certainly handy, sleek, and can get the job done. And yes, it does run Linux.

Ubuntu 8.04

Ubuntu 8.04 is the latest offering from Canonical and part of their every-six-months release schedule. More importantly, it is the latest Long-Term Service (LTS) version of Ubuntu, which carries with it support for two years. This potentially makes Ubuntu more appealing to enterprise users, and offers home desktop users a more stable, better guaranteed experience.

I have installed Ubuntu on both my laptop (HP zv5000) and my home desktop (homebrew built using components from NewEgg) and used it for a few days now. I am also installing Ubuntu Server in a virtual machine for a webserver, and though the installation process is significantly different, operation of the distribution is similar. So, let’s dive right in.

Installation

Ubuntu 8.04 Desktop Edition featured an installation process very similar to the previous two versions released by Canonical, with one small but pleasant change. Previously, Ubuntu loaded by default to a Live CD, and from within this Live CD (which took a significant amount of time to load depending on the amount of RAM you had available and how fast your computer was), you could install the operating system. I’ve always enjoyed having the flexibility of being able to see if all of my hardware works before installing the operating system and, of course, being able to browse the web and get on with my life during the installation process. Nevertheless, when I am doing the install on a second computer and already know the hardware is compatible, there isn’t necessarily a reason for me to take the time to load a Live CD.

Ubuntu now has an option to install on the original menu, which is a nice addition. Prior to reaching this, however, a very long box (wrapping into multiple columns) appears so users can select the language they prefer. Considering that a lot of Ubuntu’s focus is on improving the user experience and the polish of the distribution, such an obtrusive and ugly design for a language picker at the front-end really surprised me. It felt tacked on and ill-considered.

Once inside the installation, the user is walked through partitioning and the settings the operating system needs. A new interface for selecting the time zone has been added to Ubuntu 8.04, where hovering over a section of the map zooms in to that section, rather than clicking to zoom in. I’m willing to cut this feature some slack because it scrolls well and is fairly accurate, but it still annoys me, if for no other reason than that it is unexpected. In attempting to move the cursor to North America, I first zoom in on Africa, an unintended response. Such occurrences should be minimized, and I felt like this addition was unnecessary and a little distracting.

8.04 seems to install and run faster than 7.10 did by a fair margin, and I don’t think the installation on my laptop took more than about 14 minutes. As usual, the user is prompted to press Enter to restart at the end of the installation, and the CD-ROM drive is ejected, which I always felt was a nice touch.

First Impressions

The login page has been dressed up a bit, and a new desktop background added as the default with some artwork of a Heron (due to the code name of version 8.04, which is Hardy Heron in keeping with the naming scheme of Canonical). Initial load was quick, and Gnome was exactly what I was used to and expected. After using Linux Mint for the last several months, I was a bit disappointed in returning to vanilla Gnome, but it still fits with my usage philosophy better than KDE. I practically live within the web browser, so I want my OS and UI to get out of my way and let me work on what I wish, rather than having to deal with everything else.

When you log into 8.04, you’re presented with nearly the same Ubuntu we’ve had for the last six versions. Don’t expect much of a change until version 8.10, and maybe not even then. It’s functional and fast, and that’s enough for me for now. If you want beautiful flashiness (and I do), install Compiz and the Avant Window Navigator.

Drivers

Because I installed this the day it released, there were no updates, which was a pleasant surprise. I had gotten used to having dozens if not hundreds of updates on a fresh install (both in Linux and Windows) that being done immediately upon reboot was really nice.

One of the complaints I have heard (and somewhat share) about Linux is the requirement for an Internet connection, and broadband is implied in that statement. I knew that software installation would be difficult the first few days after release because all of the hosting servers would be hammered by the masses attempting to procure the same software, but I was unaware how very much relied upon that connection.

On first boot, the Restricted Drivers Manager will usually appear to prompt the user that “restricted” drivers are available to them if they would like to install the drivers. Usually, these are video drivers provided by ATI or nVidia, so the user can check the box next to the driver they want and it will be installed. These video drivers are often required for any 3D effects, such as the flashy features Ubuntu offers (which I prefer to manage through Compiz) or the ability to play more advanced games, and are considered “restricted” because they are closed source. Unfortunately, they also require download.

Not only do they require download, but Ubuntu 8.04 has to check against the server and make sure the drivers are available before it will prompt you to download them. I knew I needed the drivers, but the dialog wasn’t appearing because the servers were responding so slowly.

Of course, once I did get them to install, everything ran flawlessly. Linux is so borin^H^H^H^H^Heasy these days. No other drivers were necessary on either computer.

Audio/Video

Ubuntu tries its best to stay pretty legit/free, and tenaciously clings to the philosophy of Open Source. It hasn’t gone as extreme as Debian, but it does not install very many non-free components by default.

That’s all fine and well, but when I took my laptop home on Friday and discovered that my DSL modem had died, it quickly degenerated into a more frustrating experience than it needed to be. Now, not only could I not access anything like I normally would, but none of the videos on my computer worked anymore. Ubuntu doesn’t install any codecs for AVI (the most prevalent container for my video files) or MP3s by default, and though it’ll download and install them pretty easily with a network connection, I found myself lacking.

When I did get to a location with Internet, I thought I would go to YouTube and make sure it worked. Flash has been a problem on Linux in the past, but with improvements in recent years (and Adobe releasing their player for Linux), matters have gotten better and better. When I went to YouTube, Firefox informed me that I needed to install a Flash player and I was given three options: Gnash, Adobe, and one I didn’t recognize and don’t recall.

I’ve been seeing Gnash around for the last year or so (I only started using Linux as a desktop OS at that time), but I hadn’t tried it, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. And after installing it, for whatever reason, YouTube failed to work. So, I went back to the page in an attempt to get Firefox to prompt me to install something again and went ahead with Adobe. Except that didn’t work either.

Turns out that 1) Gnash doesn’t work with everything and 2) Gnash and Adobe conflict with each other, or at least they did in this instance. Once I uninstalled Gnash, the Adobe player worked just fine. This is often one of the main criticisms of Linux: It simply offers the users too many choices. There are thousands of open source applications, so how is a user to know which is the best for their needs? Often, trial-and-error is the best solution, and that’s not really a solution at all. It’s all fine and well for me, but users less familiar with the myriad programs available will have a harder time with it.

Why can’t we just get MPlayer (with SMPlayer as the front-end) installed by default? Seriously.

Software in General

I’m not going to talk about every package that Ubuntu comes bundled with, but there are a few that jumped out at me.

Software Sources

I was pleased to discover two things about the Software Sources panel for Ubuntu. The first is that 8.04 only selects by default sources that maintain LTS versions of software. This means that new, beta, or less-supported versions will not be installed or updated-to, and my operating system will remain stable. The second is the ability to “scan for best sources,” where Ubuntu will select the best mirror from which to get software. Unfortunately, this feature fails entirely when all of the servers are overloaded (as they were on release day), but the feature is still appreciated.

Web Browser

There has been a lot of criticism of 8.04 including Mozilla Firefox 3 Beta. I understand that a lot of my regular extensions won’t work in it, which would probably cause me to uninstall the web browser and revert to Firefox 2. However, I haven’t gotten around to extension installation yet (due to my DSL not working at home), but just using Firefox 3 vanilla has been a pleasant experience. At the very least, I can see why Canonical would include the beta of version 3 in this release. Since 8.04 is a long-term service release that is good for three years, you want software that’s going to be around for a long time. Installing a browser version that is going to need to be upgraded to an entirely different version number in a matter of months doesn’t hold with the long-term vision of 8.04. Therefore, Canonical chose to go with version 3 of Firefox, even if it is a beta, because it is already proven and stable and, this way, users don’t have a version change in mid-stream, so to speak.

Also, I don’t know if it’s just me, but the spellchecking feature of Firefox has never worked for me in Linux. The words might be underlined in red, but I can’t right click on them and get spelling suggestions… until now. This feature now works properly in Ubuntu 8.04 with Firefox 3.

Email

C’mon, Evolution? You install Firefox, why not Thunderbird? I always ditch Evolution and install Thunderbird first thing (when the servers aren’t crippled, anyways), yet Evolution is always there on fresh installs. I can’t foresee a time when it will be worth using, so I stick with Thunderbird.

Word Processor

The version of OpenOffice.org included with Ubuntu 8.04 is the fork from Sun Microsystems. As such, it does not include the Novell patch to make it work with Microsoft Word 2007 documents. Nevertheless, it’s not that difficult to add such functionality; for more information, see the third reply in this forum discussion on the subject. I’ve used this on previous versions of Ubuntu with positive results, so I’d expect it to work here as well.

For the record, OOo looks like it can open .docx files by default, but it lacks an option to save as .docx. Since Office 2007 can open .doc files, this should cover most occasions.

If you’ve never used OOo, you should give it a try. I’ve been using it for years, and my wife started using it about a year ago and has grown quite comfortable; she prefers it over Office 2007 these days, at any rate. Of course, another alternative (though not for the faint at heart) is LaTeX, which I prefer for longer works. Versions of LaTeX are available through the Synaptic Package Manager.

Bittorrent

Ubuntu 8.04 brought Transmission in for Bittorrent. YMMV, but I wasn’t terribly impressed. It’s alright, I suppose, but the features are minimal, not centralized or organized well enough, and overall I just wasn’t satisfied. Thankfully, Azureus is available through Synaptic. Transmission is superior to btlaunchmany, the old default bittorrent client, but it’s not something I’d want to use on a daily basis.

System Manager

The System Manager has gotten a nice redesign, with more useful graphs and layout. I usually add System Manager to the bar at the top of my screen, and that display hasn’t changed any, but the graphs have been beautified within the manager itself. The rest is the same as standard Gnome, and likely will be until version 8.10. System Manager is one of those utilities that is hard to improve upon because it’s just a functional, practical feature, but I appreciate the changes they’ve made in this iteration.

Key and Encryption Management

FINALLY. This feature has been in Gnome for a while now, but the program (called Seahorse) has always been inaccesible save through the terminal. It had a GUI and everything, but a menu launcher had never been added by default. If you’ve ever wondered how to change your master password, this is the place and it is now available under Administration. Seahorse is a really, really nice utility, and I’m excited to see it on the menu. Suddenly, people who had no idea how to even change their password are doing it without having to be shown.

Synaptic Package Manager (and whatever other software you might want)

Still fast, still brilliant. Software installs quickly, cleanly, and is easy to administrate. In particular, installing postfix on Ubuntu Server was a surprisingly pleasant experience, but I’ve always been pleased with Synaptic in general. Something to note is that variations on Ubuntu have now been made packages and therefore can be modularly plugged in and out as desired. Edubuntu is now just a package to plug into Ubuntu, so you can install it through Synaptic. The same goes for different desktop managers and Mythbuntu and Ubuntu Studio (for TV recording and audio/visual work, respectively). Nothing compares with Synaptic in my experience.

Final Features

Just a few last things to mention. First, I’ve been pleased with this version’s power management utilities. They’re simple and straightforward, and the feedback they provide is really helpful. My laptop had a large glass of Kahlua spilled on it a few months ago, and the battery was damaged and now has very low (35%) capacity. The operating system displayed a dialog upon first boot notifying me that my battery was damaged or old because its capacity was so low. I’d never seen a message like this on any operating system, and I was impressed with the feedback.

Suspend/hibernate has been a problem with Linux for a while. I’ll write tomorrow about installing Ubuntu 8.04 on an Asus EEE PC, where suspend/hibernate did not work, but they do work (albeit slowly) on my HP zv5000. Still, I prefer to either turn my computer off or just lock it, rather than suspending it, so this has always been a non-issue to me.

Dual monitors are easier than ever to configure with this version, and I was duly impressed with the utility in 8.04. Note that this only really works well with nVidia cards or Intel integrated graphics. My work machine has an ATI and it has always been a pain to get my dual monitors to work right (until I perfected my xorg file, which I just make sure to keep backed up). I need to try it with more than just the EEE, but it’s a huge step in the right direction compared to previous screen management.

Last Thoughts

Ubuntu 8.04 is a stable, full-featured, and really pleasing distribution that is wowing a lot of people, especially with additions like Compiz. Installation was quick and efficient, the operating system is solid and well usable, and I’ve been thoroughly pleased with the entire experience. Reliance on network servers rather than having drivers available locally can be a pain, and an optional driver disc would be a nice feature that I’d like to see Canonical offer in the future. Nevertheless, keeping the image under 700mb is an impressive feat for such a full-featured distro, and I can respect that.

Any negatives one might have with Ubuntu are usually nitpicks that are relatively minor and don’t take a whole lot away from the distro as a whole. I’ve read criticisms that Ubuntu 8.04 doesn’t bring anything new and exciting to the table, but I argue that that’s not the point. A long-term support release should be perfecting the features introduced in the last few years, not bringing something new and potentially unstable to the distribution. It needs to be solid, and Ubuntu 8.04 is. My own complaints with Ubuntu 8.04 are negligible compared with the benefits it brings, and I’m excited to see where the distribution goes in the future. I’ll likely keep version 8.04 on my computers for quite some time, but version 8.10 promises to be very exciting, if somewhat less stable. 8.10 won’t be LTS, though, so who can blame them?

Ubuntu For The Soul

Thursday was fantastic, and not just because I got home from work half an hour early (especially since I only came home early due to working through lunch). The new release of Ubuntu, code named Hardy Heron and version 8.04 of this Linux distribution, was released yesterday. It is an LTS (long term support) version of Ubuntu, which means it is very stable and full-featured, and I got to spend a lot of time playing with it yesterday.

I hope to have a couple of write-ups on the operating system next week. For one, I installed Ubuntu on an Asus EEE PC, which necessitated making my jumpdrive into bootable installation media. The second is that I installed it on my laptop, and I think I’ve got it working well enough (which is to say, it works perfectly!) to take with us on Sunday morning when April and I go somewhere to write before church.

I want to write a general review of the OS, so I’ll put that on my tech blog next week. In the meantime, I have a ton of fiction work to do over the weekend, and I’m really looking forward to diving into that on Saturday. I need to acquire the GURPS books tomorrow so I can reference them regularly.

Giddy is an apt word for me right now. Today was challenging and fun, and I got to help a teacher who will be showing open source software to her education students in the fall using the machine I set up. I feel like we’re moving in the right direction.

The death of the LUG

I looking into the local Linux Users Group a few months ago, going so far as to join their mailing list and contribute via email a bit. I read up on LUG meetings and the various groups around the country, and much to my chagrin, discovered that I’m about 15 years too late. It seems that the groups are not just waning, but mostly gone. The ironic bit is that the tool which grants Linux its popularity and proliferation is the same that strangles its face-to-face groups.

Once upon a time, LUGs would meet to swap disks, install new distros, ask questions and troubleshoot each others’ problems, and socialize with those who shared one’s interests. With the Internet (particularly high-speed services such as DSL and Cable), however, we no longer need such face-to-face interaction to meet those needs. Questions can be posted to listservs, forums, and chat rooms, and along with the rise of wikis, we can find what documentation we need quickly and easy. I’d like to blame Google because it’s cheap and easy, but there are myriad reasons the LUGs have died.

This topic only comes up because I was required to join some listservs last week for Banner. I’ll receive a digest (presumably daily) of the discussions occurring around a variety of topics related to Banner and the four specific modules I signed up for. The Internet’s a wonderful thing, but it certainly allows us to abstract ourselves from humanity to the n’th degree quite easily. A listserv is more interaction than reading a static webpage, but it strikes me as even less than emailing a person directly; the listserv is faceless and easy to ignore. It certainly differs from calling, or walking down the hall to talk to a person, or going to a conference to discuss these matters.

It’s not like there’s anything to do about this trend, and I don’t necessarily consider it a bad thing. Personally, I prefer the convenience and instant-response of most web applications; if I need information, I search for it and find it. My quest is more dependent [now] on my own abilities and determination and less on whether someone is willing to get with me or not. I don’t have to go anywhere to find the information I need; it’s already out there. The catch is that someone, somewhere, has to have done the work to make it available.

We are, in a sense, more interconnected than ever before; more reliant on one another providing what knowledge they have so that we might find it. Instead of a LUG of 20, we have millions to whom we can potentially go for help. Yet this connection is so abstracted that we are in danger of forgetting that humanity exists outside the walls of our offices and homes. When do we draw a line and just go to the park for a while, or spend time with our old friends?

Hopefully before we spend more time waxing philosophical about these subjects than we do engaging Life.