Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Wait just a minute

In perusing Technorati today I came across a link to one of my posts on Boycott Novell (BN). Normally I tend to ignore such linking since you can be praised as well as flamed, and I have both a sensitive ego and remarkably thin skin. But I read the BN post anyway. Both the tone of the post and the content rubbed me the wrong way. Let me quote the (small) relevant part of the BN post:
Bill Beebe has been a SUSE user and blogger for years. He explores other territories too and he is not happy about the Microsoft/Novell deal, assuming the fact that he once added BoycottNovell to his blogroll means anything.
Let's start with the tail-end of that comment. Yes, I did have a link to Boycott Novell. It stayed up for a number of months, and then earlier in February I removed it. I've been an occasional reader of BN since its creation, and from the beginning I've felt it to be on the fringe with regards to a number of its conclusions. It's the fringe aspects of its interpretation of the facts with regards to the Microsoft/Novell deal that kept me from listing it from the very beginning, and it's those same aspects that eventually led me to remove it. Don't get me wrong. I certainly have no love for Microsoft. I've had a ring-side seat to every questionable deal Microsoft's been involved with since its inception in the mid 70's, starting with young Micro Soft's shot across the bow with Bill Gate's open letter to hobbyists.

Microsoft's relation to the software market has always been mixed at best. In the early days Microsoft was primarily good for the market. At a time when it cost large sums of money to individually purchase an operating system (Unix), then the TCP/IP stack, as well as a C compiler, it was a breath of fresh air as well as a financial relief to find an alternative in MS-DOS and Windows for Workgroups, as well as the low cost (comparatively speaking) of Microsoft's development tools. I remember that period with great fondness and remember having a lot of fun, along with many others who also bought and used Microsoft. The high-point of the period came in 1995 with the release of Windows 95. That year I drove north to Atlanta and Spring Comdex, and participated in the release party held there. I got to rub elbows with some of Microsoft's best and brightest as well as see Brad Silverberg. For the next five years until the release of Win2K I felt that, even if I didn't care for Microsoft's tactics, I could use their software with confidence that it was the right solution. It was unencumbered, such that I could install multiple copies on more than one computer. And the only computers I installed such copies on were the ones I had at home, the ones I hacked on and used to learn about Microsoft's software and underlying technologies. For business uses outside my home they were fully purchased and licensed.

Many of today's critics (especially the younger ones) tend to forget just how bad Microsoft's 'victims' were during the 90's. A prime example is Netscape Navigator. When it was first released it did little more than render HTML pages. There were a number of competitors in the market at the time before Microsoft became involved. Netscape, in a move that would later be used against it by Microsoft, allowed their browser to be downloaded from their FTP sites without having to pay for it. I remember the controversy that caused at the time because of the negative impact on the other smaller competitors. I also remember other controversial acts, such as unilateral introduction of new tags into HTML to support new features Netscape was coming up with. Of course, the W3C was (and continues to be) a weak and useless standards body, and the web community then as now complained and put up special pages that followed the W3C standards that wouldn't render properly in the Netscape browser. But the most controversial act Netscape committed was the release of Navigator 4. It was buggy. It was slow. It crashed more often than any other browser out there. And it came with its own implementation of Java, that itself was slow and wasn't totally compliant and could not be switched out with Sun's Java implementation. With the release of Navigator 4, Netscape drove me (and many others) straight into the arms of Microsoft and Internet Explorer 4. And we never looked back.

But after Win2K, and certainly starting with WinXP, Microsoft's overall corporate tone turned dark and ugly. What had been beneath the corporate surface was fully exposed, primarily by the fight and conviction with the Justice Department over Microsoft's monopolistic practices, a fight that continues with the EU. That ugly tone continues with how Microsoft treats its end users with the 'phone home' registration that Microsoft says is to combat piracy of its software. Now, I'll admit that based on the literal interpretation of one purchased copy/computer, I'm guilty of pirating Microsoft software. That's because in order to minimize my expenses I was taking the one copy of Windows that I did purchase and putting it on two other home machines, specifically to build up a little network of Windows boxes (since the network is the computer) and to do Windows network hacking. But that practice stopped with WinXP. I have only one legal copy of WinXP on my home systems. Any other copies came pre-installed on the systems (the Gateways) that were purchased by the company I work for, and are used for company purposes. If I want hack or otherwise investigate open standards on my on I do it with Linux. The lone WinXP legal installation is there for testing and to play some games. Otherwise I boot into Linux (Ubuntu 7.10 on europa). I use Microsoft these days only because there is no other practical choice for me, not because I want to.

And Microsoft's quality has decreased since 2000. My favorite Microsoft operating system of all time has to be Windows 2000. It was certainly more polished than either Linux or Apple's OS 9 at the time. The only reason I used Linux was because it was dirt cheap and I could install it on my existing dirt cheap IBM PC clones. I was already beginning to want an alternative to Microsoft, and saw that alternative more in Linux than in Apple. I didn't even think seriously about Sun, even though I'd been working with Sun hardware and software since 1996. Apple was expensive and proprietary, Sun even more so. I was a father of two trying to earn a living and stay current with my profession by working with the tools on my own time with my own funds, so I was driven by economic necessity to purchase what I could afford. And at the time that was Windows and Linux running on x86. But in the years since 2000 Microsoft has become increasingly expensive and invasive, to the point where, for economic as well as ethical reasons, I look far more heavily to Linux than I do to just about any other software solution.

I tell this story to document some of my history and to try and give you a flavor for my philosophy towards Microsoft. Hyperbole aside, Microsoft is not the devil incarnate. Microsoft did a lot of good, especially in helping the industry grow into what it is today. There was (and continues to be) cheap personal computers for me to run Linux on specifically because Microsoft did whatever it took to get its operating systems and tools on every computer being manufactured. Microsoft recognized early on that people want consistency and familiarity, especially at the man-machine interface. Microsoft provided that, first with DOS, and later with early Windows. That familiarity and ease-of-use helped to drive sales of personal computers, especially from vendors who were willing to sell inexpensive systems. I remember the day that Dell (then PC's Limited) and Compaq started to sell systems with DOS installed. That was hailed as a great advance at the time, and it was. Before then you bought your PC, then pulled out your DOS disks and installed it on your hard drive, followed by Windows. With DOS already installed your new computer became another appliance; hook up the monitor and printer, plug it in, and turn it on. Yes, you still needed to install Word Perfect (followed by MS Word) or other productivity applications, but an important psychological barrier was broken and the computer was a lot more approachable. And it only helped PC sales to grow.

The continuous shrill cries of outrage from BN (and Groklaw and others) have grown pointless, and after hearing them repeatedly they really annoy the hell out of me. Microsoft has won the desktop wars. The final victory came in 1995 with the release of Windows 95. Trying to push Linux on the desktop is another example of trying to fight the last war, the one you lost. The only competition against Windows these days comes from Apple, and they behave as badly at times as Microsoft. Apple is winning market share because of their fanatical attention to design, detail and quality (something that Microsoft forget and Linux never seems to have learned), and a lot of that market share is coming at the expense of Linux and Linux users (existing and potential). For example, half the users in the local Orlando SPARTA office are devoted Mac users. Before they were Mac users they were equally devoted Debian Linux users. And Cory Doctorow not withstanding, they are quite happy with their choice of Mac. Real measurable Linux adoption isn't on the classic desktop and it never will be. Real adoption is in non-PC arenas, primarily in embedded applications such as cell phones and portable multimedia devices. If Linux does appear on a PC it's on a very low-end system or on high-end systems installed by geeks like me. I know the lay of the OS land and where the traps are and have no concerns about Microsoft entrapment. I am as picky about my choice of Linux as the overall choice of Linux over Windows, and use the same technical criteria for judging Linux as I would for Windows. I use Ubuntu as an alternative to openSUSE right now because, in my not so humble opinion, 10.3 was a disaster primarily from a usability as well as a technical standpoint. But because I had such a long streak of satisfaction with openSUSE (and SuSE before that) I am looking forward to openSUSE 11, with a strong desire to go back to it if it turns out to be good improvement over 10.3. And that's in spite of the Novell/Microsoft deal.

As for the future, I'd appreciate it if Boycott Novell would go away and leave me alone. I respect their collective right to write what they believe concerning Novell and Microsoft, and I tend to agree with a lot of the facts. But their interpretation of those facts leaves me uneasy and cold, and I want it on the public record that I no longer support their conclusions or their web site.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

It figures

In an earlier post I documented my experiences upgrading to the latest ATI/AMD drivers on my Ubuntu 7.10 installation. I noted that AIGLX was not working. Now I think I know why.

I check up on the Unofficial ATI Linux Driver Wiki about once per week, in particular the section that has to do with installing the video drivers on Ubuntu, in the forlorn hope that some new information will be added that helps me use the full capabilities of the X1950 Pro card on this system. This morning I found this new little gem of a note under Method 2, right beneath the section title:
Note: The newest 8.455.2 does not enable DRI using gutsy. It needs a more recent X.org for this, but 2D does work. "(II) fglrx(0): driver needs X.org 7.1.x.y with x.y >= 0.0"
DRI is needed for AIGLX, which is needed for Compiz without XGL. And right now I don't have Compiz. Lovely. I guess I must have missed that note earlier. It's probably been there all along.

I'm sure this problem has been going in since January with the first driver release of the year. What is annoying to me is that Ubuntu 7.10 doesn't have X.org 7.1, it has 7.3. Since the note quotes an xorg log message, I grepped for the same message in my log to see if it was there. Sure enough:
wbeebe@europa:~$ grep fglrx /var/log/Xorg.0.log | grep "driver needs"
(II) fglrx(0): driver needs X.org 7.1.x.y with x.y >= 0.0
wbeebe@europa:~$
Of course, you can't easily tell (or I can't easily tell) what version of Xorg I'm using. Here's what Xorg (xserver) tells when queried about its version:
wbeebe@europa:~$ Xorg -version

X Window System Version 1.3.0
Release Date: 19 April 2007
X Protocol Version 11, Revision 0, Release 1.3
Build Operating System: Linux Ubuntu (xorg-server 2:1.3.0.0.dfsg-12ubuntu8.3)
Current Operating System: Linux europa 2.6.22-14-generic #1 SMP Tue Feb 12 07:42:25 UTC 2008 i686
Build Date: 18 January 2008
Before reporting problems, check http://wiki.x.org
to make sure that you have the latest version.
Module Loader present
wbeebe@europa:~$
Again, how lovely. Notice how the version returned from X/Xorg differs radically from the 'official' Xorg version numbers on all the distributions. I'm sure the Windows apologists are about ready to whine 'Why don't you go back to WINDOWSSS?" Because, dear children, the ATI drivers on Windows XP SP2 are as screwed as the ones for Linux. I'm still running with 2007's 8.37.6 release under WinXP because anything later royally screws up DirectX 9c. I haven't tried the 2008 driver series because installing and uninstalling drivers and then testing is every bit as convoluted and painful on Windows as it is on Linux.

In other words advanced video hardware support on Windows and Linux suck equally bad.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Alpha spotting: Ubuntu 8.04 Alpha 5

Ubuntu 8.04, a.k.a. Hardy Heron, Alpha 5 hit the wires late Friday evening. I downloaded my copy around 8pm Orlando local time (EST). After super and kitchen duty I sat down and ran the release around the four systems I have at home to see how it worked.

It's definitely an alpha, and a very raw alpha. Unlike my experiences with 7.04 and 7.10, the testing of the 8.04 alphas has been much rougher, so rough in fact that I probably won't upgrade to 8.04 until the final release. And that's assuming that openSUSE 11 is another disaster like 10.3 was.

The four test computers consist of two desktops and two notebooks. All the computers are 32-bit, and only one, the M685 Gateway, is a dual core (Intel Core Duo). All the computers run Linux, and three of the four dual-boot between Windows XP SP2 and Linux. The notebooks dual boot between WinXP and openSUSE 10.2, and the desktops run Ubuntu 7.10. All operating systems are running with the latest patches from their respective suppliers.

Boot Up

Initial Screen

When you first boot into Alpha 5 you're presented with a confusing menu that is spread all over the screen. It took me a few confused seconds before I realized I was being asked for my native language. This is an excellent idea, but the implementation is so poor. It lies on top of the boot menu, which you can see 'sticking out' from underneath the language selection menu. The default selection is English. Off to the left you see a 30 second timer running down to 0. For a user with any experience it didn't take long to figure it all out. However for a newcomer with no Ubuntu experience this is going to cause some degree of confusion, to the point that the 30 second timeout will run out before they make a selection. This might work fine for English speakers but not so for others. I sure hope they fix the presentation of this menu before release, because it's a real mess right now.

Graphic Bootup

X1950 Pro (desktop), Go 7800), and on the much older desktops My four computers each have four different video cards: nVidia 7600GS (desktop), ATI/AMDATI/AMD Mobility X700 (M680 notebook), and nVidia GeForce Go 7800 (M685 notebook). Only the M680 with the X700 boots Ubuntu 8.04 Alpha 5 into a fully functional desktop. By fully functional I mean with correct resolution (in this case 1680 x 1050) and with full effects (Compiz) enabled. Ubuntu failed with a black screen on the M685 (GeForce Go 7800), came up in failsafe mode with the 7600GS (800 x 600) and in very high resolution (1920 x 1440) but with effects disabled on the X1950 Pro. That's right. Based on my admittedly small sample of video hardware that's been released in the last three years, only one of the systems worked at full capability.

This is not the first time I've had these problems. I've been complaining that all the distributions have had video problems since late last year, starting with Fedora 8, Ubuntu 7.10, and openSUSE 10.3. They are regressions and they can all be traced back to the up-stream changes in Xorg. Earlier releases of these distributions (Fedora 7, Ubuntu 7.04, and openSUSE 10.2) had no issues. We're now testing the next cycle of releases, and once again Fedora 9 alpha and openSUSE 11 alphas exhibit the same video card problems that Ubuntu 8.04 currently exhibits. Somebody somewhere better start paying attention to this, because I'm not the only one documenting this. These are the kind of problems that drive people nuts and away from Linux and back to Windows.

I did manage to get the M685 to boot in failsafe mode after deciphering from the cryptic comment on the boot screen (after language selection) to press F4. Sure enough I got a little menu that allowed me to select failsafe graphics, and I was able to boot the system.

Networking

Hardwired networking seems to work, but wireless does not. On both notebooks I can set them up to use my wireless home connection and they'll indicate they are connected and have an excellent signal. But try to use them (Firefox) and you don't get anywhere. This is a regression from alpha 4, in which wired and wireless networking worked just fine. The M680 has an Intel PRO 2200BG wireless chip set and the M685 has an Intel PRO 3945ABG chip set. They work flawlessly under both WinXP and openSUSE 10.2.

Miscellaneous

The default wallpaper is certainly a welcome change from the defaults of the past. It's nothing to change it after installation, but the selections of the past have left a lot to be desired in my not so humble opinion. And again I'm not the only one to complain about the human theme. And speaking of themes, how about adding Nodoka as an option, if not the default? Introduced with Fedora 8, I like it so much that I've got it installed on my Ubuntu 7.10 systems.

Maybe it's the fact I couldn't connect, but I'm not too crazy about Firefox 3. I've tested beta 3 on Ubuntu 7.10 so I have had some exposure to it. But after having nearly all my plugins blocked because there are no current updates, I've begun to develop a strong resistance to moving to Firefox 3, a resistance similar to what I have for Internet Explorer 7. Right now Firefox 2 works just fine and all my Firefox plugins work just fine, thank you very much. I'm now waiting for the final release of Firefox 3 before I even consider a move. I'll test it on Ubuntu first before I even show it to my Windows installations.

Unlike the Ubuntu 7.04 and 7.10 alphas, the Ubuntu 8.04 alpha series is very rough and should not be installed without very careful consideration. Two strong reasons (at least for me) to consider moving up right now is kernel 2.6.24 and gcc 4.2.3. If you're a hacker this is probably a decent platform to target because of Ubuntu 8.04's native support for these two key features. But if you've the capability you've already stepped up to 4.2.3 and kernel 2.6.24 under 7.10 anyway. If I were to install 8.04 the first thing I'd do is 'sidegrade' Firefox by installing version 2 side-by-side with version 3, and just using version 2 for all my day-to-day work.

One more observation. I slapped the ISO binaries onto my thumb drive as I documented earlier and booted 8.04 alpha 5 off the thumb drive. This makes three consecutive releases I've been able to do that (7.04, 7.10, and 8.04). Ubuntu Live (and the derivation distro Mint Linux) is the easiest distribution to transfer to thumb drive.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Wikileaks - 88.80.13.160

Nothing to really report here, except in support of free speech I'm posting the IP address and an easy link to Wikileaks: 88.80.13.160. It's a shame that a corrupt bank in the Cayman Islands (Julius Baer Bank and Trust) found a stupid judge in California (US District Judge Jeffrey White) to try and block access by getting Wikileaks domain registrar (Dynadot) to remove the account from its server and to prevent it from being transfered to another registrar.

Hell, before this broke out I didn't even know who or what Wikileaks was. Now I've got another spot on the web to go and browse. And what a collection! Good bit of work there guys! If you thought to stop Wikileaks and to hide that incriminating information with this tact then you were sadly mistaken.

Linux on a stick part 3: Ubuntu 7.10 'simplified'

Silly me. After reading about syslinux it suddenly dawned on me I was still making it too hard to transfer Ubuntu 7.10 LiveCD from CD to thumb drive. The key difference is copying all the files in the isolinux directory on the Ubuntu LiveCD to the root of the thumb drive, and renaming isolinux.cfg to syslinux.cfg. So here are simpler instructions for creating a bootable Ubuntu Live Thumb Drive under Linux.
  1. If you don't have an Ubuntu 7.10 Desktop LiveCD handy then download the ISO. If you do have it handy (you installed from the CD-ROM) then just drop it in the CD/DVD drive on your computer. If you've downloaded the ISO then open a terminal window and mount the ISO:

    sudo mount -t iso9660 -o loop /[location-of-iso]/ubuntu-7.10-desktop-i386.iso /mnt

  2. Insert a USB thumb drive into a conveniently empty USB port on your Linux computer. It should automatically mount. I'm going to use the same Cruzer Micro I used for Linux Mint 4. For this experiment I removed Linux Mint. USB drives are mounted under /media, and can be named /media/disk or /media/[volume-name]. For this example the thumb drive's volume name is LINUX, so it automatically mounts under /media/LINUX.

  3. Copy the following files from the Ubuntu media to the thumb drive. This works for either the mounted ISO or the CD-ROM. If you've got the CD-ROM mounted you'll copy from /media/cdrom. If you've mounted the ISO you'll copy from /mnt. Regardless the mount point the file system under either is identical:

    cp -R [mount-point]/.disk /media/[usb-volume-name]
    cp -R [mount-point]/casper /media/[usb-volume-name]
    cp [mount-point]/isolinux/* /media/[usb-volume-name]

    The last copy copies the files from the isolunux directory to the root of the thumb drive.

  4. We're going to use syslinux to add a boot loader to the USB thumb drive. It's doubtful you would have installed syslinux by default. If the syslinux package isn't installed and you're doing this from Ubuntu (or an Ubuntu-based distro) then use synaptic or apt-get to install it. You'll also wind up installing mtools (a dependency) along with syslinux.

  5. Rename isolinux.cfg (now in the root of the thumb drive) to syslinux.cfg.

  6. Use syslinux to install a boot loader onto the USB thumb drive. To do this you're going to have to unmount the USB drive. Before you do this find out what the USB device name is. This is different from the mount name, and you need the device name for installing syslinux. Open a terminal and type the following: mount | grep media. On my system it returns the following:

    /dev/sdb1 on /media/LINUX type vfat ...

    where the (...) are additional configuration flags and information. You want the device name, which is the first item (/dev/sdb1) on the line. I know this is my thumb drive because I gave it the volume name LINUX. Once you have that information unmount the USB thumb drive by typing 'sudo umount /media/[usb-volume-name]' in the same terminal window. Again in the same terminal window type 'sudo syslinux /dev/[usb-device-name]' and it will modify the boot sector of the USB thumb drive and place the file LDLINUX.SYS in the thumb drive's root. At this point you're done.
Plug the thumb drive into a system that can boot from a thumb drive, reboot, and watch Ubuntu 7.10 boot into 'Live' mode, complete with technicolor boot menu. You can even install from it if you like. The creation of a bash script to automate this process is left as an exercise for the reader :)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Linux on a stick part 2: Ubuntu 7.10

After some thinking and further reading on the net, I finally figured out a fairly simple way create a bootable Ubuntu 7.10 LiveUSB stick. And all under Linux. Here are the simple details I came up with to set up and configure a very minimal Ubuntu 7.10 Live USB thumb drive.
  1. If you don't have an Ubuntu 7.10 Desktop LiveCD handy then download the ISO. If you do have it handy (you installed from the CD-ROM) then just drop it in the CD/DVD drive on your computer. If you're using the downloaded ISO, open a terminal window and mount the ISO:
    sudo mount -t iso9660 -o loop /[location-of-iso]/ubuntu-7.10-desktop-i386.iso /mnt/iso
  2. Insert a USB thumb drive into a conveniently empty USB port on your computer running Linux. It should automatically mount. I'm going to use the same Cruzer Micro I used for Linux Mint 4. It really doesn't matter if it's clean or not, but for this experiment I did remove Linux Mint. You just need about 800MB of free space. USB drives are mounted under /media, and can be named /media/disk or /media/[volume-name]. For this example I've given my thumb drive the volume name LINUX, so it would be automatically mounted under /media/LINUX.
  3. Now copy the following files from the Ubuntu media. This works for either the mounted ISO or the CD-ROM. If you've got the CD-ROM mounted you'd copy from /media/cdrom. If you mounted the ISO you'd copy from /mnt/iso. Regardless the mount point the file system under either is identical:
    cp -R [mount-point]/.disk /media/[name-of-usb-drive]
    cp -R [mount-point]/casper /media/[name-of-usb-drive]
  4. We're going to use syslinux to add a boot loader to the USB thumb drive. It's doubtful you would have installed syslinux by default. If the syslinux package isn't installed and you're doing this from Ubuntu (or an Ubuntu-based distro) then use synaptic or apt-get to install it. You'll also wind up installing mtools (a dependency) along with syslinux.
  5. Add the following syslinux configuration text file (named syslinux.cfg) to the root of the USB thumb drive. It will contain the following two lines of text:
    DEFAULT /casper/vmlinuz
    APPEND boot=casper initrd=/casper/initrd.gz ramdisk_size=1048576 root=/dev/ram rw quiet splash --
  6. Use syslinux to install a boot loader onto the USB thumb drive. To do this you're going to have to unmount the USB drive. Before you do this find out what the USB device name is. This is different from the mount name, and you need the device name for installing syslinux. You can easily find it by typing the following in a terminal: mount | grep media. On my system it returned the following:
    /dev/sdb1 on /media/LINUX type vfat ...
    where the (...) are additional configuration flags and information. You want the device name, which is the first item (/dev/sdb1) on the line. I know this is my thumb drive because I gave it the volume name LINUX. Once you have that information unmount the USB thumb drive by left-clicking on the thumb drive icon on the desktop and selecting unmount. In a terminal window type 'sudo syslinux /dev/[device]' and it will modify the boot sector of the USB thumb drive and place the file LDLINUX.SYS in the thumb drive's root. At this point you're done.
Plug the thumb drive into a system that can boot from a thumb drive, reboot, and watch Ubuntu 7.10 boot into 'Live' mode. You can even install from it if you like. The creation of a bash script to automate this process is left as an exercise for the reader :)

Background

Some of the information, particularly the syslinux.cfg contents, came from CustomizeUbuntuLive. The directions actually call for fewer files, but I discovered through trial and error that for 7.10 you need a few more than what was originally called for.

There is also a link to a page on the openSUSE wiki that shows how to create a bootable openSUSE 10.3 on a thumb drive from a running openSUSE system. If I hadn't been so idiotic as to completely remove my original openSUSE 10.3 installation and replace it with Ubuntu 7.10 I could test this. The directions are far more elaborate but the results are actually closer to a fully usable Linux system on a thumb drive. Well, there's always openSUSE 11...

Update

Just for grins and giggles I mounted the Hardy Herron (8.04) Alpha 4 ISO, copied over the same files, and then booted it up again. The test system (the Gateway M680) came up with visual effects enabled. All in all it was a cleaner method for testing Ubuntu without having to burn one test coaster after another. After all, those alpha and then beta CDs wind up going in the trash and some landfill here in Florida.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Linux on a stick

Preamble

WARNING: Long-winded post ahead.

Florida's weather during the winter is ideal; moderate temperatures, low humidity, light breezes, and plenty of sun. This past weekend was no exception. It was, in point of fact, glorious. Most normal human beings are drawn to the outside like moths to a flame when it gets as good as this, and will find any reason to spend as much time outside as possible.

I, however, being the ancient geek that I am didn't spend all my time outside. Oh, I washed cars and raked up leaves and mowed (yes, my green growing yard in February) and walked Max I don't know how many times. But I also ran errands, worked some inside chores, and wrote some code for a project between chores. When I got tired of all that I, for shear entertainment, installed Mint 4 Linux on a Sandisk 4GB Cruzer Micro.

Rationale

The capacity of USB thumb drives are rising dramatically while their price has been dropping just as dramatically. I purchased, for no more good reason than I wanted one, an 8GB Cruzer Micro from Office Depot the end of January. The cost at that time was a mere $60. Then, over this past wonderful weekend I read ads for 2GB and 4GB Cruzer Micros from a number of local merchants. The 4GB model was selling for around $20. I was hooked. So between some of those errands I snuck into an Office Depot and purchased a 4GB model (the 2GBers were down to $12, but I wanted more capacity and that $20 bill was burning a hole in my pocket). With stick clutched firmly in hand, I finished my other errands and then headed back home.

Preparation

I've always wanted Linux on a thumb drive ever since I heard about it. These days you can get it pre-installed from Mandriva on a 4GB thumb drive, or you can follow a number of how-tos devoted to creating your own. I followed the reasonably easy directions for installing Mint on a USB stick on Pendrivelinux. They have instructions and tools for a number of distributions besides Mint, and they even have their own Debian-based image that you can dd to a thumb drive under Linux.

The Pendrivelinux tool and directions for Mint, however, are for creating a Mint thumb drive under Windows. That's right, Windows. I had toyed with the idea of creating a bootable Ubuntu thumb drive using directions from the same site, but after comparing the Ubuntu directions with the Mint directions, I opted for Mint. The Ubuntu directions were complicated and long. And being tired at the end of the weekend I wasn't in any mood to follow complicated (and possible incorrect) directions. Yes, I was lazy.

The Pendrivelinux directions tell you to download the Mint ISO and save it somewhere on your hard drive. Well, I had more than enough space to actually put it on the 4GB stick, and I already had the ISO, having downloaded it when it was first released and burned it to CD. So I plugged the Cruzer Micro into my Linux system and prepared to transform it.

It should be noted at this point that 4GB and 8GB Cruzer Micros come infested with U3 'smart' software from U3.com. This software is meant to empower the user (under Windows) to save data and install other software onto the stick. You can read all about the wonders of U3 Launchpad on their site. But I look on Launchpad with the same disdain and loathing I hold for any junk software that automatically starts and installs itself without my permission on my system. Or at least that's what it appears to do. I find its executables on my hard drive and entries for it in the Windows registry, all because I plugged in an infested thumb drive.

Yes, I know you can stop it automatically running by pressing the left shift key. After you've been rudely surprised by it the first time. Come on folks. Autorun should be an opt-in feature, not an opt-out feature. In any event you can remove it permanently from the drive with a utility provided by Sandisk itself. And that's what I did. Unfortunately the utility leaves the partition table in a mess. If you don't believe me, run the removal utility and then look at the drive under Linux's fdisk. I used Linux tools to clean it up. I suppose the next time I get a U3-infested thumb drive that I'll let Linux wipe the infestation off the drive first.

Installation

Normally the directions given by Pendrivelinux are sufficient for anyone to install it correctly with just one try. I, however, super-genius that I am, complicated matters far more than needed, and in the process it took me three attempts before success smiled upon me. And here's how.
  1. I've installed Wine under Ubuntu. I figured that Wine should be able to run the executable and scripts necessary to prepare and build the thumb drive. I figured wrong. I've never had particularly good luck using Wine to do Real Work, and I thought it would be a bit embarrassing to have to use Windows to build a Linux thumb drive. But I was eventually embarrassed.
  2. I then went back to my Windows notebook and re-ran the Pendrivelinux tools on real Windows. They ran, but at step 6 of the instructions, where it says to copy all files to the pen drive, it really means all files and folders. I'm quite literal about things, sometimes too literal.
  3. The third time was fast, and after moving all files and folders to the root of the thumb drive and running makeboot.bat in step 7, I had a bootable thumb drive.
Operation

It's amazing how fast Mint can run off the thumb drive. Its performance is almost indistinguishable from a hard drive. No delays are encountered like they are when running from a CD or DVD. And the installation icon is still on the desktop, allowing you to install it from the thumb drive if you so desire. While in Mint I enabled wireless, ran the "Bourne Ultimatum" DVD from the now-empty DVD drive, and in general did everything that Mint allows you to do without having to install any other software into Mint. In spite of the self-inflicted problems I now have a much better appreciation of Mint.

Distributions installed on USB thumb drives are a great and cheap way to sample what's out there. The thumb drive gives you an opportunity to really hack with the software without having to install it to a HDD. And if you're not overly smart like I am, the directions are actually easy to follow.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Linux Notes: Latest ATI graphics drivers installed

I'm now running with the latest ATI/AMD Linux drivers, 8.02. You can go to the Ubuntu Gutsy Installation Guide and use Method 2 to install them. I've been installing pretty much every release that's come out, especially all of this year's (2008).

First, the 'bad' news. Starting with 8.01, released in January, AIGLX support is broken. AIGLX experimental support was introduced in 8.42.3 back in November. I installed it then and had issues with that driver and my video card, an ATI X1950 Pro. There were conflicts between OpenGL applications and the Compiz desktop. As a consequence I never bothered to run the fancy desktop. But every time I updated the drivers I tried to enable the visual effects (Compiz) to check if the situation would get any better. In never did. Now, starting with 8.01, any attempts to enable visual effects fails.

Which, frankly, is fine by me. Everything else works flawlessly with the latest drivers, including OpenGL and movie playback. In fact, these drivers have provided the highest levels of performance I've seen so far on my Ubuntu system. Using a very simplistic example, glxgears runs about 5,000 frames/second on my system with 8.02 installed. Booting into a live CD, such as the latest PCLinuxOS Gnome Edition, and then running glxgears produces only 500 frames/second. That's a full order of magnitude difference in performance between the 'free' Xorg radeon driver and 8.02 under Ubuntu. I'll trade that increase in performance for a lack of Compiz functionality any day. As another example, I can play two movies simultaneously (one with VLC, the other with totem) and chew up only 25% of the processor load on my system. I'd be lucky to get that level of performance with just one movie on a stock installation. And of course Google Earth runs smooth as silk.

Over all I'm quite happy. But your mileage may vary.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Alpha spotting: Ubuntu 8.04, Fedora 9, openSUSE 11

A trio of alpha releases have hit the virtual streets; Ubuntu 8.04 Alpha 4 February 2nd, Fedora 9 Alpha 1 the 5th, and openSUSE 11 Alpha 2 the 8th. And, yes, they are indeed alphas.

Ubuntu 8.04 Alpha 4, Hardy Heron

The most mature of the early releases. I've burned and booted both Ubuntu since it's been my experience that the KDE version of Ubuntu (Kubuntu) is the weakest KDE distribution I've ever experienced.

Ubuntu booted on every machine I could throw it at. To me this underscores a high overall level of professionalism with regards to its development as well as a good level of maturity at this point in time with the distribution. It is my belief that, even if the release is an alpha, that it should at least successfully boot into the graphical desktop on every machine that the current production release works on unless explicitly stated otherwise. Ubuntu has successfully booted on all my hardware since Alpha 1, and it has exhibited this capability since Ubuntu 7.04.

My only concern with Hardy Heron is the version of the included ATI/AMD graphic card drivers. The drivers appear to be based on the ATI 7.10 release. These are the first ATI drivers to have 'experimental' AIGLX support. This now duplicates the same feature found in the nVidia drivers, and removes the need for Xgl. Unfortunately, in my testing, there are still issues with running the Compiz desktop with other OpenGL applications on Gutsy Gibbon with those drivers. You can run one or the other, but not both. I'm currently running with the 8.1 version of the ATI drivers.

Although you can find more information as to what's new on the Ubuntu wiki, there's really nothing driving me to step up to 8.04 at the moment. Gutsy Gibbon with the latest ATI drivers gives quite the performance boost with my ATI 1950 card. And no, I don't have Compiz enabled. In fact, with the latest drivers installed Compiz is now broken on Gutsy Gibbon and can't be enabled. That's no problem for me, as I can easily live with the current desktop.

Fedora 9 Alpha 1

Fedora 9, as did Fedora 8, comes stumbling out of the development gate and onto my systems. It quickly became evident that Fedora 9 Alpha 1 would not boot to the graphical desktop on any of my systems that contained an ATI graphics chip. If they contained an nVidia graphics system then they would come up - slowly. I downloaded and booted both live ISOs, both the Gnome and KDE 4.

Call it testing fatigue, but I am tired of Fedora's lack of quality compared to the rest of the distributions. For me the high point with regards to releases occurred sometime around Fedora Core 6 and Fedora 7. Fedora 8, in spite of its fancy wallpaper and theme, has many fundamental problems, driven in large part by its groups desire to provide 'unencumbered' alternatives to many drivers, codecs, and other alternatives such as IcedTea as a replacement for Sun's Java Developers Kit, or JDK. Please. IcedTea has been going on for so long, in various forms, that the whole OpenJDK effort is about to be OBEd by Sun's making Java GPL compliant. And isn't this what the purists wanted all along? So why do I have to have IcedTea/OpenJDK shoved down my throat via Fedora 9? I don't, and I can thank my lucky stars for alternative distributions that provide 'true' Java from Sun.

This will be the last time I both Fedora. The only good thing to come out of Fedora 8 was the Nodoka theme, which I have long since installed on Ubuntu.

openSUSE 11 Alpha 2

All alpha versions of openSUSE 11 have booted without issue, just like Ubuntu. Yes, they have alpha teething problems, but at least these latest releases reach an operational level stable enough so that those problems can be observed and reported.

I've booted both the Gnome and the KDE 4.0.1 live CD versions, and I've been favorably impressed. Even though the KDE version has a number of issues, once up and running I've been suitably impressed by KDE 4 that I'm actually looking forward to openSUSE 11. I'm especially eager to see what progress the KDE version will show in Alpha 3, due mid-March. There are some serious issues in KDE 4 (which I'll talk to in a later post), but they shouldn't be that hard to fix.

Where's the pretty pictures?

I thought about wasting bandwidth with lots of screen shots, but there are already so many out there now that it would truly be a waste of bandwidth. I'll certainly include them in the future to illustrate an important point, but there was no need to this time.