Figuring Stuff Out

Getting up and Waddling

Posted by Mike on March 11, 2007

Back to the main project at hand, selecting and installing a Linux distro on your computer.

But first a little self-congratulation, in an earlier post I crowed about my first search string but felt bad that my blog had not been helpful in solving the problem that my searcher was aiming to fix. As penance I posted up the command for exiting the command line in Ubuntu. As luck would have it, it seems that another poor soul found the process for getting out of Ubuntu a little confusing and came to my page in search of help today, hopefully he found the post in question and got some help.

Now that I’ve described a couple distros, the obvious question would be: “Why would I ever want to use Linux?” To be honest it’s a good one, but there are a number of good answers. Apart from the obvious Microsoft hating answer (which I don’t buy), the best reason is that it is free, in both senses of the word. This is not the place for a discussion of the open source philosophy, but let me say briefly that not only do you not have to pay any money for Linux, or most of it’s many many applications, you also are allowed to do anything you want with the code that runs it. For the non-coder geeks out there this is probably not super important, you likely don’t want to change the behaviour of your operating system substantially and might be a little scared at the very idea (I certainly was).  There are other reasons though.

Depending on the Distro you use, you will learn a lot about how your computer works and slowly but surely become much more able to fix problems as they arise (it’s been nice to have access to an old computer that I don’t mind having to wipe out from time to time).  This strikes me as a really good reason for more people to get on board with Linux.  Working with OS X and Windows is great, they both take care of most of the difficult stuff of running our computer and look pretty good doing it. The problem is though, that when something goes wrong (and really it’s just a matter of time) most people are basically helpless.  Fooling around with the settings and building your own system (even in the straightforward and user friendly environment that Ubuntu presents) just arms you with a few more tricks up your sleeve when the bottom falls out.

OK, enough of that.  Another post will follow close behind this one with details on actually moving forward on the installation process.


Posted in Linux, open source, Operating Systems, semi-structured thoughts | Leave a Comment »

Heads Up

Posted by Mike on March 4, 2007

Or eyes up I suppose. I just put up a new page, called Mac Hack Roundup, on this blog that contains all of the best tips and apps I accumulated from my own research and the suggestions of my visitors. This is how I plan to deal with all of the projects I undertake here, keep on blogging while it’s going on and then take the cream of the crop and put it in a static page that you can check out anytime (which hopefully saves you having to go back through old posts searching for the app that sounded good 3 months ago). Hope it helps

Posted in semi-structured thoughts | Leave a Comment »

What’s an Ontology?

Posted by Mike on March 3, 2007

I’m not actually going to answer that question, largely because in my field it’s highly confusing (and somewhat debatable). Instead I mean to write briefly about a rather old essay posted by a guy named Clay Shirky (he’s a little famous in some circles). I’ve come across this article a few times for various assignments I’ve done here at school and it’s always been one of my favorites (I would wager that even those of you not doing library school will find it at least a little entertaining).

Aside from his lively prose Shirky’s article centres on a topic that I have developed a keen interest in over the past two years, namely user tagging. There are a lot of competing terms for describing this phenomenon , but it seems that folksonomy has won the day (despite being completely inaccurate) over the next closest rival, democratic tagging (also completely misleading). If all of that sounds like Klingon to you, and you are not an even bigger Star Trek geek than I, perhaps a quick jaunt over to Wikipedia would be worth your while.

Any-who, Mr Shirky basically argues that days of the professionally created and maintained thesaurus (controlled terms, taxonomy, ontology) are quickly coming to be numbered. He uses a number of arguments, some more convincing than others, to prove this. In puttering around Google though I found a couple well crafted counter arguments to Shirky. I’m not at all negative about the potential of folksonomy, in fact I think that ignoring it or dismissing it is an enormous mistake, but to argue that it will wipe out all the old ways is foolish. Just like overly enthusiastic predictions were made that automated indexing would render human practitioners obsolete have proven false, the rise of folksonomy just represents another tool in the shelf for organizing information.

Posted in library stuff, semi-structured thoughts | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Mike on March 1, 2007

This is to cool.  A web-app blog that I frequent has pointed out a new effort by conservatives to strike a blow against the Liberal Web Media (or something like that) by setting up the Conservapedia (I don’t know if this is a one month early April Fools thing or not).  Leaving aside the insanity of creating an encyclopedia for the sole purpose of representing a particular political point of view, there are some really funny articles in it.  This one for instance is a fantastic example, it seems pretty dry until you get to the last little bit and then you really just have to ask yourself: “What the Hell?”

It’s no Wookiepedia but look around a little and see if you can’t find any other examples kookieness…

Posted in semi-structured thoughts | Leave a Comment »

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.

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


Posted by Mike on February 26, 2007


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 »