Archive for January, 2009


My new(ish) Linux laptop

I recently traded a fully-loaded ThinkPad T40-series laptop for a 12″ Toshiba Portege M200 tablet.  I’ve been so pleased with Linux on my HP Mini-Note that I wanted a faster Linux laptop.  I was ideally eying the Toshiba M400, as it is a dual-core tablet with DVD drive and Intel video, my favourite under Linux, but the M200 was available and is close enough.

The machine is a Pentium M 1.8GHz, so it’s no slouch.  It now has 1.5GB of RAM, a 120GB HD, a 32MB NVidia 5200 video card drives the 1400×1050 12″ tablet screen.

The machine weighs just under 5lbs.  It’s light, but not terribly so.  Despite the machine’s age, I still seem to get about 2.5-3 hours on the battery.

The high-res screen is fantastic.  The Nvidia card seems to drive it adequately, though I wish it were an Intel integrated card, as the binary Nvidia driver was a problem for me when plugging the laptop into a projector.  Nvidia’s software tries to do far more than the stock Gnome software.  If the projector is decent, the result is great flexibility.  However, the ancient projector I was trying to use didn’t adequately report supported resolutions to the graphics card and I was stuck with a 640×480 display.  Given enough time, I could probably have sorted this out.  Instead, I gave up and used the Mini-Note.

I have installed Ubuntu 8.04.1 on this machine.  It seems to work perfectly.  Upon first install, the tablet features didn’t work.  I installed wacom-tools and followed this guide and used this forum post to modify my xorg.conf file and now all is well.  I have since tweaked the xorg.conf file to add right-click and eraser as well as lighter pen sensitivity.  My xorg.conf file is here.

The guide linked above provides a rotate script.  I have modified it slightly by taking out the key remappings, as they interfered with the software keyboard.  The script works perfectly and keeps the wacom tablet in-line with the screen rotation.  (Hardy’s grandr applet does not.)  I have added three launchers on my gnome panel:  A link to rotate left, a link to revert to normal orientation, and a link to Ubuntu’s excellent “onboard” on-screen keyboard.

M200 Screenshot in portrait mode

M200 Screenshot in portrait mode

The tablet works perfectly in The Gimp.  I’ve tried stand-alone Wacom tablets before, I much prefer the ability to write directly on the screen.  It feels incredibly natural.  I’ve only had the M200 for a couple of weeks and haven’t had too much time to play with the Wacom tablet, but I love it so far.  It’s a truly refreshing way to interact with the computer.  Having drawn on the screen for a few minutes, I couldn’t imagine doing so any other way.

My bass!  Drawn on the M200

My bass! Drawn on the M200

Other cool tablet software include Xournal, a nifty on-screen writing program similar to MS Journal.  (I think.)  Another potentially useful piece of software is CellWriter.  It reads your handwriting and turns it to type.  Unfortunately, as you can tell by my screen shots, my handwriting is terrible, so CellWriter doesn’t exactly work for me.  Such is life.

All-told, this is a really nifty laptop.  I image I’ll keep my eyes peeled for a deal on an M400.  I think I like the tablet enough for that and the rest of the laptop seems quite good.  A dual-core CPU with VT extensions would be a real boon for running VMWare images, but the M200 will certainly do the job for now.


Beautiful web design

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time these days learning about graphic design and typography.  It’s fascinating stuff.  Since heading down this path, I’ve found a couple of absolutely beautiful examples of web design.  In particular, Jason Santa Maria‘s article on the “Death Throes of Print” and Mandy Brown’s “this is a working library.”  Both offer simple but striking pages that just beg to be read.  Not only that, they don’t fall back on Flash and other proprietary technologies and render well on even the most basic of browsers.

If print is indeed in it’s death throws, one upside is that graphic designers and typographers are turning their attention to the web.  The results are striking.


Neuros OSD: The most interesting Linux device I hadn’t heard of

It has been fun to watch what interesting Linux devices make it to market.  From Corel Computer’s long-dead NetWinder to the Linksys SNLU-2 and HP’s Linux-based Media Vault NAS devices, to say nothing of Motorola’s once-famed Linux phones, the OS shows up in all kinds of odd devices.

One device I hadn’t caught when it was released in late 2006 was the Neuros OSD.  It wasn’t until I hit page 16 of the Ars Holiday Gift Guide that I learned of the Neuros OSD’s existence.  And what an interesting and odd device it is.

The Neuros OSD is a small, solid-state, silent ARM-based Linux “computer” that is completely Open Source, from software to hardware.  Not only that, the company has already integrated user-generated code, a way to view and search YouTube video, into firmware updates.

Neuros OSD

Neuros OSD

The Neuros OSD, referred to simply as OSD for the remainder of this post, has a composite/S-Video in and composite out, an ethernet port, and a boatload of media readers, but what does it do?  Record and play video.

At the heart of the OSD is the ability to play into the device and record it straight to MPEG4.

I connect a DVD, VHS, LaserDisc, and Wii into a cheap passive switch into the OSD which is then plugged into my TV and stereo.  When not actively in use, the OSD goes passive and just sends video/audio through to my TV and stereo.  When I want to record something, I just hit record and either save to a USB drive or over the network to a Samba share.

For the most part, the device works perfectly.  Certainly recording, while obviously in real-time, works prefectly.  Unlike most of the DVD recorders on the market, it simply ignores copy protection, making an almost perfect digital copy of whatever passes through it.

The OSD has record presets for TV, PSP, iPod, and many other devices.  Videos recorded by the OSD can play on pretty much any video player.  For me, it is a perfect way to finally archive and backup our old VHS tapes.  My wife and I have many movies that we occasionally watch but don’t do so often enough to repurchase on DVD.  (Assuming you can even find some of them on DVD.)

In addition to recording, the OSD can play back videos over the network.  I’m not a fan of downloading movies for both ethical and time reasons, but I do occasionally rip a movie in Handbrake to watch later.  These videos play perfectly on the OSD.  The original firmware had a pathetic UPNP browser.  This has been removed from the current firmware, which is good because it worked just well enough to frustrate me, but not well enough to be truly usable.  UPNP is great and I wish that the OSD properly supported it, but better to leave it off entirely than to have a half-baked implementation.

As an Open Source device, people have written plugins for the OSD.  Neuros has even bundled a rudimentary but quite functional YouTube viewer into the device.  Other apps include a very slow picture viewer and basic MP3 player.  Honestly, I don’t find these particularly useful, but I do find the terminal and telnet server handy.  The OSD is open through-and-through.  In the true open source spirit of release early and often, they release firmware patches quite regularly.  Neuros even replaced the programming interface after the OSD’s initial release.  The latest releases of the firmware are based on the QT toolkit, which the company hopes will make for easier development in the future.

The new OS version runs slower but is far less buggy than the non-QT version.  While the UI isn’t the fastest, performance for both recording and playback are fluid.

Overall, the OSD interface is plain but functional.  Don’t expect any fancy effects, don’t expect an Apple-like attention to detail, but you can expect to play with it for a few minutes and be comfortable with the interface.  I’ve seen much worse UIs in consumer devices, I’ve seen better.

I’ve had the OSD for a month or so now.  I don’t use it every day, but I have already used it to digitize much of our VHS collection, and it has worked well as a simple set-top player for our videos.  The OSD isn’t perfect:  The UI is a bit slower than I’d like and lacks attention to detail.  It also isn’t HD.  This isn’t a problem for me, but I could see it bothering some people.  Still, these are minor quibbles for one of the most interesting Linux-based consumer devices that I’ve seen.


Fantastic NYT article on Mark Shuttleworth and Ubuntu

The New York Times published a great three-page story on Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical and Ubuntu a few days ago.  It definitely deserves a read.

It’s great to see serious articles like this in such a mainstream publication.  I have to say, Ubuntu certainly has done much to bring Linux to the people.  Even if Mark’s great efforts here are “just” philanthropy, he has clearly shown what can be done with desktop Linux.

I’ll admit that, as a more or less full-time Mac laptop user between 2003 and 2007, I had pretty much given up on desktop Linux.  That was before Ubuntu raised the usability bar to show people what they can expect from a desktop-oriented distribution with real dollars behind it.

Linux is a disruptive technology with the potential to shake up the entire computing industry.  Mark Shuttleworth has shown that such a technology needs proper seed money, time, and continual effort to provide real competition to the major desktop players.  I hope that his ongoing efforts pay off in the long-term and provide him with yet another Thawte-like hit.  In the meantime, I very much appreciate everything that he and his crew have invested thus far.  It is a breath of fresh air to have a professional, high-quality Linux desktop release that rivals Mac and Windows.  Others, notably Corel, Xandros and Lindows have come close but Ubuntu is the first version of Linux to do so in the spirit of Open Source development.  Ubuntu does so inclusively, without cost to end-users, without serial numbers, activation codes and other artificial market segregation that have plagued previous Linux desktop efforts.

Thank you Mr. Shuttleworth.



Feel like fiddling with Grub, usplash settings and more?  Check out StartUpManager.

sudo apt-get install startupmanager

Once installed, it is available under:

System -> Administration -> StartUp-Manager

It’s very easy to use.  Certainly simpler than changing symlinks in /etc/alternatives. 

It’s nice to find packages like this.  It’s another indicator that desktop Linux is indeed maturing.


Ubuntu network keyring

In Ubuntu Hardy, I am always prompted for my keyring password to join a saved WPA wireless network.  While not terribly secure, there is a workaround for this in:

System -> Preferences -> Encryption and Keyrings

Full instructions here, use with caution.


Palm isn’t dead yet!

Palm, makers of the venerable Palm Pilot and newer Windows CE-based smartphones, dropped a bombshell at CES yesterday as they announced their Palm Pre.

The Pre uses their new Linux-based “WebOS”.  Every app is apparently made using HTML, CSS and JavaScript.  I must say, it looks spectacular. 

Welcome back, Palm.  As an owner of a drawer full of Palm PDAs, I have to say it’s nice to have you back.

Check out some early videos and postings:


Linux ext3 undelete: It is possible

Okay, just a quick one here:

In ext2 (the old default Linux filesystem) there was an undelete.  It was OK and mostly worked.  Then ext3 came along.  ext3 is great.  No more forced fsck on boot, wonderful.  But, filesystem changes made undelete an impossibility.  This was a design decision, it was written on the Internet, it must be true.

Or so I thought.

It turns out that Carlo Woods had the magic combination:L  Lots of time and a never-say-die attitude. The result:  He figured out how to undelete files on an ext3 filesystem!

I’ve tried it, it works.  It was by no means straightforward and certainly isn’t an easy task, but it works.  Yippee!

And before you ask:  Yes, you really do have to read most of his page to get your files back. 😉


Nifty ssh tricks

I’m a sysadmin.  I use SSH all the time.  Lately I’ve been relying more and more on a couple of very nifty and very different SSH-related packages available through standard Ubuntu repositories for some time now.  The packages are: ClusterSSH and sshfs


sshfs, as the name suggests, is a filesystem view of an ssh connection.  That is, you can mount directories over ssh and treat them as though they are local filesystems.  sshfs uses fuse, so you need a relatively new kernel.  Anything from late 2006 or newer ought to do.

To install:

sudo apt-get install sshfs

To use:

sshfs username@host:/path/to/mount /mount/point/on/local/filesystem

Once mounted, you can cd to /mount/point/on/local/filesystem and voila, there are your files!  I used to use Konqueror’s fish:// for this all of the time, but this only worked with KDE apps.  sshfs is a much better general-case solution.  It seems to work pretty much flawlessly for me.

Next up, ClusterSSH

ClusterSSH was originally designed to ease the administration of clusters of Linux computers.  It uses PerlTK and Expect and can be used to simultaneously command multiple machines, with the added option of being able to take control of individual systems whenever needed.

To install:

sudo apt-get install clusterssh

To use (Basic case):

cssh host1 host2 host3 host4

Running this will open five windows:  Four terminals and a small command window.  To run the same command on all machines, click in the command window and type something.  To take command of a single machine, click in the terminal window for that machine.

You can define machine groups and perform other more advanced tasks with ClusterSSH.  Once installed, check out the man page for more details.  If man pages scare you, try this.

And that’s it for round one of my nifty ssh tricks.



Ubuntu Linux has included a package for a few releases now that guesses what you mean when you type a command.  It’s a great idea, especially for new users.  However, it bugs me.  Every time I make a typo the system pauses for a second while it tries to figure out a package that could solve my carelessness. 😉

Today I got tired of it.  At least on my little HP Mini-Note.  It’s not exactly a speed-demon at the best of times, and anything to help it along is worth doing.  So, if Ubuntu second-guessing you is getting you down, fix the problem by running:

sudo apt-get remove command-not-found

Problem solved.