Figuring Stuff Out

Archive for February, 2007

Selecting your Tux

Posted by Mike on February 28, 2007

Despite the title to this entry, this post is actually pretty gender neutral. I’m making a ?clever? pun on the official mascot for Linux (he’s the cutesy looking penguin off on the side there). Tux the Linux Penguin I’ve been trying to figure out how to go about describing my current ‘big’ project without writing a most un-blog-like long essay on the subject, so I’ve decided to to break it up into smallish digestible sections. Today will involve a discussion of the first step in the journey to true geekiness. Selecting your flavour of tux, your distro.

Yeah, one of the first things you’ll notice when you start looking into this whole Linux thing is that Linux users love the jargon, distro for instance is short for distribution. Linux is not one operating system like Windows or OS X, at least not from the perspective of users like you and me (only the most super geeky of the geeks will ever deal with it at the kernel level). Linux is released as a kernel, which is used as the basis upon which a distro is built. There are hundreds of distros of Linux that all aim to work for different types of users or types of use or levels of expertise or lots of other things. Each distro is maintained by a group of people who release updates for it at some type of interval (only a very few can be said to be updated regularly). These updates are sort of like the ones that OS X and Windows get (which can also come at pretty irregular intervals). The only way to figure out which brand of Linux is for you, is to look around at the various distros and try to decide which one you think sounds like a good fit. With that being said I feel I can suggest a few likely candidates that you might run into.

Ubuntu: This is the distro that I am currently using for my server (you probably want the Desktop version). It’s free to download (of course, all Linux is free by default, they may offer toUbuntu’s logo let you buy professional support though, which may not be such a bad idea if you are going to make Linux your sole operating system and aren’t used to it) and designed to be easy to install. Once you boot from your disk (I’ll explain that in a later post) you should be met with a nice graphical installation screen that will walk you through the steps of installing your ubuntu system. The entire point of the Ubuntu project is to make Linux a viable choice for non Linux geeks, once it’s on your computer you’ll have a nice spiffy GUI to work with and after learning the few differences in interfacing that exist between Linux and OS X or Windows you’ll be off to the races (you probably won’t ever even have to look at the command line if you don’t want to). The bonus obviously being that you are no longer tied to a proprietary system and nearly every application you could possibly want will be yours for $0 (this is also true of all Linux distros) Here are two good guides to things you should do and apps you should install as soon as you have ubuntu installed.

OpenSuse: is also designed by a big well organized group (Novell in the case) with an eye towards creating a Linux environment that non-geeks can feel comfortable in. OpenSuse is a free version of Suse, which Novell sells with a few extra bells and whistles aimed at corporate and network users, but you can buy technical support for it if you want. It sports an even nicer GUI for getting onto your computer and is also designed to be a pretty easy transition from either of the big two OS’s.

Knoppix (click on the American/British flag at the top left to go to the English version): is an option for those of you who are really unsure about Linux. The two distros above are designed to be simple, but you still have to go through the process of putting them onto your hard drive (which has the potential to wipe whatever else you have on there if you aren’t careful, always always back up everything you don’t want to lose before you try to install something like a Linux distro). Knoppix allows you to run a full Linux distro right off the CD, you can play with files and get used to the interface but it won’t make any major changes to your hard drive and once you take it out your original OS will come right back up. This is obviously not a great permanent solution but while you are trying to get your bearings it’s not a bad start.

Gentoo: This distro is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from those mentioned above. Traditionally this made you start at the most basic level of an Gentoo logoOS (remember I mentioned the Kernel earlier?), they’ve gotten a little more user friendly since those days (there’s even a live CD like Knoppix available now) but if you choose to install this thing you are going to be investing a lot of time and energy, and the possibility of failure remains very real. I would suggest that you give this one a pass if you are looking for a distro to put on your main computer (there’s just to much room to screw it up), but if you want to learn a lot about Linux and Unix and your computer and networking and everything else that we will talk about on this blog it’s a great way to do so (although frustration and rage will also probably be your constant companions during the process). Other than the learning process involved in getting this set up, and keeping it set up, there are a number of features in Gentoo that appeal to power users (including the most common one, that it will make your system run faster)

Well that’s probably more than enough for now. If you are interested in trying out Linux make sure to shop around and read lots of guides before you make the plunge with any one distro. Also if you want to jump ahead and start installing one make sure to read up a lot on the process of partitioning your drive (as it’s where most of the risk in installing a new operating system resides), especially if you are going to try to keep your original operating system on your computer.

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Posted in Gentoo, knoppix, Linux, open source, Operating Systems, Suse, ubuntu | 1 Comment »

Launchy!

Posted by Mike on February 26, 2007

Hello,

Still working on a post about my Linux server project but I thought I would fill the time by describing a neat little app for windows that some of you may like, Launchy. (download it here) It’s an open source app (meaning you can get it and run it for free, and fool around with the code if you feel so inclined) that allows you to access all kinds of functionality on your (windows) computer with a few key strokes.

After you install Launchy it scans your start menu (and any other drives or folders you would like it to) and creates an index that allows you to quickly open up applications simply by pressing the ‘alt’ and ‘space’ keys at the same time and typing in what you want. I’m putting together a quick demo movie that will go up soonish. What’s really cool is that it learns what you want the more you use it, so now all I have to do is type the letter ‘f’ and I can open up firefox. If you are reasonably familiar with, and have a somewhat organized, file structure you can also quickly work your way into the target folder that you would otherwise have to click through lots of intervening screens in Explorer to get to. It even lets you do calculations or launch searches in various web directories amongst other things.

launchy in action

For each individual task this really doesn’t represent a super big savings in time, and if you don’t want to take the time to learn how to use it it’s really not a big deal. But I must say that I like being able to get to nearly anything on my computer without having to take my hands off the key board (that mouse is just soooooo far away, seriously, I’m looking at it right now off about a foot to my right and dreading the idea of having to reach over there to press publish in a few minutes ). It’s actually vaguely like a return to the command line, although you are still accessing it through a pretty GUI.

Oh well, back to work I suppose…

Update – If you want to try a similar piece of software for the Mac that looks even slicker (and is also free), Quicksilver seems to be the way to go.

Posted in application, command line, Mac, Operating Systems, Windows | 1 Comment »

Picking Apples

Posted by Mike on February 24, 2007

Man, I think coming up with clever titles (at least ones that I think are clever) is going to be the hardest part of maintaining this blog. This post is going to be a wrap up on the experimenting I did with getting Nancy’s MacBook running smoothly. I didn’t get to try all of the tips in the articles I linked to below (a lot of them really didn’t have much to do with Nancy’s problem, and the others involved paid products).

The first thing I did was clear Limewire off of her system, I’m not sure about the Mac version but it’s a system hog on Windows and there are torrent programs that have way better selections with far less bloat.old mac versus PC ad This led to an interesting quandary for me as I had never removed a program from a Mac before. I spent a good 15 minutes rooting around looking for the uninstall program and told Nancy that just dropping the program in the trash bin was not going to do it. After giving up and searching around on the Internet for a bit I discovered that, for the most part, Nancy was right. It seems to be the case that programs can be effectively erased by simply dropping them into the trash can. A quick spotlight search after doing so revealed that some related files were still hanging around in various places though, so I dropped them into the can as well. Perhaps you more advanced Mac users can tell me if I missed something, but if getting rid of programs is that simple colour me impressed.

Next up I tried the command line trick for forcing the computer to do the file system maintenance that Nancy normally misses when her computer is off at night (the instructions are here under the heading Save Disk Space. This involved a little bit of work in the terminal, but it was dead simple so even the most computer phobic of you should have no problem with it. There are instructions on the page for getting to your terminal and if you just type the command that they give you word for word everything should be fine (this article also mentioned that keeping the install file that you originally download will generally give you a proper uninstall program, I think that would make me feel more confident so I would recommend you put them all into a folder). Finally I went into the disk utility and had it repair the permissions (instructions can also be found at the above link).

Well that’s all I got done. Some of you have provided some really interesting thoughts on the matter already though. A few of you mentioned sad sad tales of logic boards and hard drives going toast. Perhaps Nancy I will try to convince her to take her baby into a Mac service store to get it checked out soon (she’s in study mode for a research methods exam right now, so I doubt she’ll be making the trip before Monday afternoon). There was also a very interesting point made about the relative ease of reformatting a hard drive in OS X with the ‘archive and install‘ feature, think we’ll still make a backup on separate media of all the things she’s especially partial to, but it might not be a bad solution if she still has trouble.

I’m not sure if Nancy has noticed any improvement or not (I keep meaning to ask and then forget) so perhaps she can let us know in a comment, if anyone else thinks I missed something obvious and/or major, I probably did, please feel free to let me know about it.

Update – There have been two pieces of software recommended in the comments section that both sound really good to me.  The first by Dan K was Monolingual which lets you clear off all of the many languages that OS X supports which will save you a lot of space with no noticable loss.  The other is Anacron recommended by MJ which runs drive system maintenence sweeps automactically (thereby allowing you to avoid the command line stuff I described).  These both seem like programs worth trying.  I’ll have a new post up about my current ‘big’ project in the next day or so…

Posted in command line, Mac, Operating Systems, troubleshooting | 4 Comments »

Ride the Rocket!

Posted by Mike on February 24, 2007

OK, I’m going to diverge from my stated focus of technology briefly to describe a short experience I had yesterday on the subway.  While riding to my practicum on the Bloor line a bit of an altercation broke out quite near me.  It seems that a youngish guy had his feet up on the armrest of a seat that an oldish guy was sitting at.  I’m not sure what had gone on before as I was in the self-contained land of the headphones, but I noticed the oldish guy push the feet of the youngish guy off the chair and the youngish guy respond by throwing a really hard jab into the oldish guy’s temple.

As both guys stood up another guy jumped into the middle and kept them apart, about a minute later someone had the presence of mind to push the yellow emergency tape.  Luckily the train was very full, I get the impression that the youngish guy was far from done and the oldish guy would not have stood a chance.  As luck would have it we were stopped at Christie Station with the doors open, so after it was pointed out to the youngish guy that he had just hauled off and punched a guy in the head in full view of about a hundred people he slowly wandered off the train before the officials got there.

Judging from the responses I saw and the way the oldish guy handled himself once I started paying attention, I would guess that the youngish one had been doing most of the provoking leading up to the punch as well.

In my time here in Toronto I have, personally, seen very little violence.  There are plenty of homeless people in my neighbourhood and more than a few drug dealers, but, for the most part, people seem to be able to keep their disagreements reasonably civil in most of the parts of town I hang out in.  I must say though, that it’s kind of disconcerting to see something so minor as a foot on a chair in the subway turn into a fight.

Posted in no tech, semi-structured thoughts | Leave a Comment »

My first search string!

Posted by Mike on February 23, 2007

Another short one this morning. Sometime yesterday I had my first visitor from a web search engine. I’m really digging the dashboard on this WordPress software, not only does it give me a count of how many of you brave souls have actually come to my site but it also provides nifty little details like the search terms that people used to wind up here.a search string that led to my blog It seems that in my case the phrase that brought my first web search visitor was “how do I power down the ubuntu command line?” Unfortunately for that brave soul I haven’t actually written anything about that particular subject yet. Luckily it’s something that I know, so I’ll rectify that situation right now (to little to late perhaps). To completely shut-down the system type ‘shutdown’ and press enter, if you just want to leave the console in the GUI type ‘quit’, alternatively if you just want to log out as your current user name type ‘logout’, and viola question answered. Perhaps someone else will be helped out by this little post, or they can check out this handy resource on basic commands.

Posted in command line, Linux, Operating Systems, ubuntu | 1 Comment »

Lots to do

Posted by Mike on February 22, 2007

So I fooled around with Nancy’s Mac yesterday but I’ve got lots to do today for various projects so my follow up thoughts won’t go up until sometime this weekend. I’m still interested in any of your thoughts on other fixes that can be tried though. Have a good day everyone.

-Update- just came across this great little article on the Mac v PC debate I sort of skated across in the last post and thought I’d point to it.

Posted in Mac, Operating Systems, semi-structured thoughts | 3 Comments »

Biting the Apple

Posted by Mike on February 20, 2007

Well here it is, my first project. It’s kind of a mini-one, and it’s not actually for me (ack! more evidence that I might actually make a good librarian) but my friend Nancy (hmm, perhaps my claims to altruism were premature, although she will read this which will probably negate the negation of my altruism..) has been complaining that her Intel Macbook has been acting up as late. I’m not now, nor have I ever been, a Mac user, I’ve played around with the Imac at my school a bit, and I remember playing with a Mac one of my aunts had in the mid 90’s, but expert I am not.

I’ll give a brief description of Nancy’s troubles now, so that you all know what I’m getting myself into. The main symptom she has identified is that her Mac refuses to fully shut-down. It doesn’t happen all of the time, but it’s enough to be frustrating and we all know that the ‘hard-shutdown’ is not factory recommended. On top of this, she’s been noticing that things seem to have gotten sluggish in general with her new(ish) toy.

If you’ll allow me an aside, and let’s face it you have no choice in the matter, this strikes me as interesting when one takes into account the claims of OS X’s inherent superiority to Windows. Let’s be clear here, I’m not a Microsoft fan, XP has an enormous number of problems, requires all sorts of maintenance, is much more vulnerable to attack (although I think its market dominance makes it a much more worthwhile target), and is no where near as pretty as OS X (I’ve not used Vista at all so I can’t comment on it). It seems to me though that one of the reasons a lot of people buy Macs is because of the impression that they are easier to use and maintain than PC’s (think about the latest Mac commercial campaign if you don’t believe me). The fact of the matter is that all computers need maintenance, even the all mighty Mac, if they are going to run efficiently, just like they all need security to do so safely. That’s it, I’ve probably peeved off any random Mac Fanboys who happen to drop by this post (I’m pretty sure the Mac people I know are all reasonable enough to not tie any of their sense of self-worth to the brand of computer that they use), so I’ll put off more rambling on the Mac for another post.

With this in mind, I took to the mean streets of the Internet to see what tips and tricks there might be. As a side note, I’m still not sure how I’m going to present the various resources I want to present on this blog. For today I will do it in one long list with comments beside each, let me know what you think of this approach in the comments (I like comments)

First up is a series of three articles about maintaining the general health of your Mac. They seem pretty useful (I’ll do another post after I’ve actually tried these things), if a bit dated. A number of the suggestions rely on fairly expensive -from the point of view of a student anyway – pieces of software, which is a minus. Still, it was written for OS X and I’ll try all the freeware solutions and general stuff. In an interesting pre-note, I came across a link to a study published by Google people on failure in trends in hard-drives, in which they (and let’s face it, if they know about anything it’s hard-drives) basically poo-pooed one of the recommendations made in these articles. It seems that SMART (self monitoring facility) is really not a great indication of when a drive will fail (still it’s probably better than nothing and it’s free so I’ll probably wind up slapping it on Nancy’s system anyway).

This is not a tutorial so much as a recommendation for a little piece of software that, much like power toys for Windows, makes it easier to play with the settings on your Mac. Sadly, the link in the actual article is outdated and leads to nothing, but a quick Google search revealed that the product is still available free here (I have no idea if it’s Open Source, I doubt it but free as in beer is pretty sweet too). There’s not much I can say about these links in advance, but I’ll give me impressions about the tool in the follow up post that I’ve already promised (I actually caught the typo in this sentence, but I like that it makes me sound like a pirate so I’m leaving it in).

This next article is another short blurb that focuses on protecting users from potentially malicious widgets that they could unknowingly put on their dashboard. I’m not sure if Nancy has installed any widgets, but I’ll probably set it up because it will let me play with the automator app on the Mac and I like to play with things.

One more article from the Macobserver site. This one includes a bunch of short tips to pep up OS X (or keep it peppy). It sounds like Nancy already stuffed her book full of RAM, but some of the other recommendations look like they might be worth a shot.

In light of the last posting I made it seems only appropriate that I should take advantage of OS X’s having been build from UNIX to go into the command line and try some scripts that have been recommended on the above sites. These four articles represent a primer on interacting with the Console in OS X and, since I will be playing with someone else’s computer, I think it’s probably a good idea that I take a fairly close look at what’s included here (I promise I won’t do anything nuts Nancy).

This is set up like a FAQ but it has a section on OS X troubleshooting that looks like it might be useful (and will give me more stuff to do in the Command line, I’ll be careful).

This is yet another guide to fixing up the disk in OS X, I like to have lots of sources though (I guess that’s what comes from years and years of essay writing).

Sometimes bulletin boards have useful things to say (I’ve been learning this more and more while working on my Linux box) and this is a conversation about someone who sounds as though they are having a similar problem to Nancy. A couple kind souls have left comments that might help (although I am hoping that a disk format will not be neccesary).

Finally I have an interesting article that came up while I was Googleing Nancy’s problem. It seems that there was a bug in the MacBooks that was causing them to randomly shut down, Apple has released a patch so it will be worthwhile to ensure that she (along with you other Mac folks) have gotten this thing onto your computer, I would imagine it was automatically downloaded and installed but it’s always worth checking.

OK, that is the list as it stands. I’ll do some follow up after the fact. If any of you Mac experts have any tips, tricks, or warnings before I delve in I’d love to hear about them in the comments. Oh yeah, I guess seeing as this is the first post I’m making to an actual audience I should say welcome.

Posted in command line, Mac, open source, Operating Systems, troubleshooting | 3 Comments »

Command Line Woes

Posted by Mike on February 19, 2007

The project I’m currently working on is turning the old pentium III that I grabbed from my parents into a webserver using Ubuntu’s server distribution. I’m a big fan of using what’s shiny and new – as long as you forget about the 6 year old computer – so I’m using 6.10 Edgy Eft (they sure do have cute names). Perhaps the defining feature of ubuntu server (at least from my perspective) is that it has no GUI (graphical user interface for those not in the know) so absolutely everything I want to do has to be negotiated from the command line. I’ve had to go into the command prompt in Windows to do really simple things a few times before, and I fooled around with a few desktop distributions of Linux before I came up with this latest hare-brained scheme, so I have a little bit of experience communicating with a computer in text form. The last time I worked in an exclusively command line environment though, was DOS in the early 90’s on my Dad’s 386, and I only really knew enough to start up games.

The command line is an interesting beast, some people seem to swear by it while others argue that in most cases it is unnecessary (and that includes some certified computer geeks). I think I’m going to wind up coming down somewhere in the middle. I made early attempts at setting up my pIII as a web server using the GUI version of Ubuntu and Suse, but due to the system’s limitations I generally wound up smasing into a wall with the programs or somehow breaking the GUI. Since I switched over to the server, the only mistakes have been the result of my misunderstandings, which generally stem from tyring to use tutorials I find on the web to closely (I’ll explain that more in a later post). I think perhaps I’m starting to get a slightly better handle on how things work and have taken out what appears to be a very helpful book for a person in my situation from the library, those techie books sure aren’t cheap.

I doubt I’ll ever fully qualify as a true command line geek, but hopefully this experience will at least enable me to gain a slightly better understanding just what’s going on ‘under the hood.’

Posted in command line, Linux, Windows | 6 Comments »

Hello world!

Posted by Mike on February 17, 2007

Well here it is, my first post on this new blog. I figure that today I’ll just let you all know what the plan is with thing, we can actually start getting down to it soon. Basically my goal will be to explore the possibilities and hacks and other neat stuff that can be done with technology and scripts and such these days. My plan is to pick a project and keep you all up to date with my efforts in getting it done. I’ll post regular updates on my experience and links to as many turorials and helpful websites as I can find on the subject while I’m at it. Hopefully the more techniologically savvy folks in the audience can provide their advice and guidance along the way as well.

It’s been pointed out to me that this is actually a very “librarian” like course of action for me to take. Those of you who spend enough time with me in class know that I quite often claim not to be much of a “librarian type,” well perhaps I was wrong. Still, let’s not forget that I’m looking to get something out of all this myself (namely the advice of the more expert types who might occasionally read this blog).

There are a number of projects that I’ve picked out for the next few months (some of which will have to wait until I’m making some money with which to buy the necessary pieces), unfortunately Battlestar Galactica is about to start so I’ll leave off by just mentioning a few of the neato projects I want to pursue: setting up a webserver on the old computer I grabbed from my folks, fooling around with setting up samba on the same box, and using the aforementioned webserver to host this blog (this is probably only a temporary home).

Posted in semi-structured thoughts | Leave a Comment »