Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why Linux continues to languish

There's an interesting comparison on CNN Money between the Apple MacBook Air, the Everex Cloudbook, and the Sony VAIO Tz 298N. Cost wise the Sony was at the top at nearly 4 grand, while the Everex nailed the low end at $400. A nice order-of-magnitude cost spread there. I'll let the Gentle Reader find out on their on what the writer's favorite machine was, but it wasn't the Cloudbook:
The Cloudbook, which uses a Linux-based operating system called Ubuntu, was the runt of the litter.

Booting the machine up was dog slow, and the keyboard felt mushy and cheap. It could stall for minutes at a time, and all programs on it required a certain level of patience. The Cloudbook is designed to offer basics such as e-mail and the web, and the price is nice. The performance isn't.
With the exception of the keyboard, that pretty much sums up my experiences with Nokia's 770 web tablet (which I was dumb enough to buy). I can excuse the 770 (somewhat): based on Debian (as is Ubuntu), it was (under) powered by a 330 MHz ARM-based processor and 64MB of on-device memory. The Cloudbook, by contrast, ships with 512MB of memory (eight times the 770) and a Via C-7M clocked at 1.2GHz (roughly four times the 770, based on raw clock speed). Oh, and the Cloudbook comes with a 30GB hard drive, which just blows away the minuscule 128MB of flash built into the 770.

Yes, I know, the form factors are radically different, and they're separated by two years between their releases. But the same problem, pitiful performance, and they fact they both run a derivative of Debian, ties the two machines together.

And for the record, the OS on the Cloudbook is gOS V2, which is based on Ubuntu 7.10 and Enlightenment 17.

But that still doesn't hide the fact that when you give a Linux-based machine, specifically a high-profile portable (or ultra-portable) machine to someone outside the Linux faithful, that they invariably zero in on the lack of performance. I know that Linux can be very performant, because I run it all the time on Gateway notebooks and desktop machines, the same hardware that runs Windows. But in all those cases where I'm reasonably satisfied I picked and matched up the hardware and the distribution. The closest I have to the Cloudbook is rhea, which also has 512MB of memory and a 30GB hard drive, but the processor is an old (four-year-old, 32-bit only) AMD Athlon XP 2500+ 1.8 GHz processor. And the whole thing runs Mandriva 2008.1, and runs it quite well.

But that's just me, and I'm not selling DIY systems with Linux installed (although, at times I wish I were just to make sure it's done right). Instead, we have major manufacturers going for the lowest dollar possible machines and sticking Linux on them. And the whole combination, cheap lowball hardware plus free Linux, gives a very poor Linux experience, providing further ammunition to Linux's detractors and competitors. And that's something that the Linux community had better start paying close attention to. Business users read articles from business publications, and when they cover technology, like this one did, and they ding a Linux-powered machine, like this one did, then that makes the selling of Linux powered machines that much harder. And that reputation, deserved or not, continues to impede the widespread adoption of Linux on the desktop (and I'm including portables in this) and further infuriates the vocal but clueless Linux desktop evangelists, driving them to further heights of vocal cluelessness.

And you wonder why Redhat really wants no part of this whole mess.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

europa gets an upgrade

I let the dust settle a bit after Ubuntu 8.04's initial release last week before making any decision about upgrading europa. Europa was running Ubuntu 7.10, but Sunday I went on ahead and upgraded to Ubuntu 8.04. I did this not because I've changed my mind about Ubuntu, so much as I had a morbid curiosity about how it would work after an upgrade.

And it was an upgrade, not a clean install. I surrendered to laziness and clicked on the upgrade manager's upgrade button. It took about two hours total to download over a gig of upgrades and to perform the installation of the new content. When it was finished and rebooted europa under 8.04 was almost indistinguishable from europa under 7.10.

During the installation I kept my ATI drivers, and even installed the current latest, 8-4. I also discovered, after the installation, that 3D desktop effects were still borked, so I went looking yet again for the cause. I may have found the reason for failure not only for Ubuntu 8.04 but also for 7.10 as well, but I'm not sure.

The solution to making 3D work was to clean up the Compiz manager wrapper script (/usr/bin/compiz). Starting at line 30, I had to modify COMPIZ_BIN_PATH, PLUGIN_PATH, and COMPIZ_NAME per the instructions for 7.10 (!) at the unofficial wiki location. I'm now wondering if my problems with the latest ATI drivers under 7.10 were due to the bugs in the wrapper script rather than a mis-match between the ATI driver and the version of Xorg used with Ubuntu 7.10. Because when I corrected the script 3D desktop worked when enabled.

3D Desktop Still Not Good Enough

Unfortunately, I had to eventually disable the 3D desktop on this machine just like I had to under Mandriva 2008.1 Gnome on rhea. The effects worked in and of themselves but there were bad interactions with other OpenGL applications, such as Google Earth, Nasa's Java WorldWind libraries, and video playback. I eventually turned 3D desktop effects off to use those applications. This strongly hints (to me) that there are still some serious bugs in the upstream Compiz manager and tools, because I see the same problem on two separate machine, one with nVidia (7600GS) and one with ATI (Radeon X1950). At this point I don't have enough cycles to go looking for answers.

First Impressions
  • Firefox 3 Beta 5 works much better than Firefox 2. There is a noticable and much welcomed difference in performance between the two. In addition, all my plugins, including CookieSwap and Greasemonkey now work. Unfortunately I had to install oldbar to get rid of the ugly double-line URL bar that's been forced upon us. Another annoyance is the download window. It doesn't have a clear button on it; I have to right-click the properties on the pane and select clear from there. What a pain.
  • I downloaded and installed Netbeans 6.1. The new release hasn't been pushed out to the repositories; they still have 6.0.1. It, too, is faster, especially on startup. It runs with Java 6 Update 10 beta, which is also not in the repositories but installed by hand. But everything seems to be running well.
  • As I mentioned above I'm using the current latest ATI video drivers, 8-4. During the upgrade and while trying to make 3D effects live with my OpenGL apps, I put a plain xorg.conf in place and re-ran 'aticonfig --initial' against it to get rid of all the cruft it had accumulated under 7.10. Didn't make a bit of difference.
  • All multimedia continues to work. Not one thing broke.
  • Gcc is at release 4.2.3, which is a Good Thing.
  • I attempted to build and install the latest kernel (2.6.25). I built it using the config found under /boot, and even went so far as to install the modules. But when I compared the directory structure of /lib/modules/2.6.24-16-generic with /lib/modules/2.6.25, I noticed a lot of differences between the two, especially the directory structure. For example 2.6.24 has an ubuntu folder. It's no problem installing 2.6.15 side-by-side with 2.6.24 and just adding another entry to grub, but I think I'll research a little more before I try to boot europa with 2.6.25. I at least need to install the fglrx driver in 2.6.25 to take advantage of my ATI card. I found it under 2.6.24-16-generic, but it's not where I would have expected to find it. Oh well. Another weekend/very-late-night project.
  • Qt4 libraries in the repostories are up to 4.3.4, which is another Good Thing.
I'm keeping europa running Ubuntu and rhea running Mandriva. Each acts as a guard against the other, especially when I have strange and peculiar things happen.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Personal milestone: I'm now MSOffice free

I finally got around to flushing MSOffice off of my home systems. It was an old copy of Office 2000 which I'd picked up at the time I'd also picked up one one and only copy of Windows 2000. I replaced it with OpenOffice 3 Beta (DEV300 M7), which has been in the news for a few months now. My office is seriously considering it as a parallel alternative on both Macs and Windows XP systems in order to better allow the creation of proposals and white papers across multiple authors, a task that we've discovered MSOffice doesn't seem to be all that good at. The original MSOffice installation would stay because the company has a site license for Office Standard.

If there is a hole in the OpenOffice suite it's the lack of an equivalent to Visio. Microsoft didn't develop Visio, they bought it. For personal use OpenOffice is more than adequate, especially when I need to share documents between Windows and Linux on dual-boot machines.

This makes the second major open application I've switched to that is supported by Sun. The first is NetBeans (now at 6.1 RC1). I also use Java 6 pretty heavily, and come to think of it, now that Sun owns MySQL, I find I'm using another Sun application. I've been keeping an eye on Open Solaris/Nevada/BeleniX as well. I'd like to think I could use Nevada in place of Linux, but I have no desire to find the necessary hardware drivers, or more importantly, do without hoping that they'll appear. Perhaps at some point in the future OpenSolaris will be mature enough to use on modern hardware, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

The latest Linux distribution releases are all carrying OpenOffice 2.4.0. It would be nice of distributions would make OpenOffice 3 available when it's finally officially released, rather than make you perform a complete version upgrade to get the latest OO. I wonder if Mandriva will allow that to happen.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Duct tape makes you smart.

I saw the first episode of Burn Notice on the USA network late last night, and I fell in love. Granted, it was shot last year (2007); as usual I'm always the last to find out about the good stuff. It was fast-paced with never a dull moment and filled with lots of humor.

The action started from the beginning, where we see freelance agent Micheal Weston (Jeffrey Donovan) get the crap kicked out of him when he can't transfer $750,000 into a Russian mobster's Swiss account in the middle of Nigeria, because a burn notice has been issued against him. Surprise, surprise, surprise! After the beating, as Micheal is being led out of the building where his beating took place, he tricks his two guards into leading him into a bathroom ("lots of hard surfaces") where he proceeds to beat the crap out of them. One thing quickly leads to another until he's back on a plane (yes, a prop-driven plane) headed back to his old home town of Miami and even more adventures with none other than his old buddy Sam Axe (Bruce Campbell).

The big reason I tuned into Burn Notice at all was because of Bruce Campbell. I've been watching Bruce since the first time I saw him in Evil Dead 2. From there I sort of tracked him through Darkman, Army of Darkness, Escape from L.A and all three Spiderman movies, as well as Brisco County Jr and the various episodes of Xena he appeared in. To me he's just fun to watch, especially as an ex-Navy SEAL. He's at his sarcastic best in this role.

Hard-core violence freaks won't appreciate this show. This isn't Miami Vice. There's too much humor and what blood and violence there is is incidental. The body count was a remarkable 0 in the first episode.

Best line (out of many good lines) and the title of this post:
I'll take a hardware store over a gun any day. Guns make you stupid. Better to fight your wars with duct tape. Duct tape makes you smart.
You need to see the episode to enjoy where and why this was spoken.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Sifting through the aftermath

It's been several days since I installed Mandriva 2008.1 Open on top of Ubuntu 8.04 beta. And it's been interesting. Here's what I've experienced so far:
  • I installed the Gnome version. I thought about installing the KDE version, but I've grown so used (i.e. numb) to Gnome and have been with it so long that I reflexively installed Gnome yet again. I guess I can attribute that unwillingness to switch away from the tried-and-true (no matter how bad, and no, Gnome is not that bad) to all those years of Redmond behavioral modification.
  • Installation went well and fairly fast. I have no hard numbers with regard to time, but based on my experiences it went faster than an equivalent installation of Ubuntu. Part of this can be attributed to Mandriva's simpler process (i.e. fewer steps). This is neither better nor worse than Ubuntu, just different.
  • In order to get 1600 x 1200 resolution I had to hack the xorg.conf file's mode lines, adding that resolution to the list of usable resolutions. I tried to do it with nVidia's X Server Settings application, but trying to use the X Server Display Configuration displayed a blank window with the notice "Unable to load X Server Display Configuration Page..." I have no idea why. Fortunately System | Preferences | Screen Resolution Preferences worked after adding the new resolution I wanted.
  • The Mandriva theme is a very pleasant alternative to the Ugly Brown Ubuntu themes. I even lived with it unaltered for a time, before I changed the window borders to the Zune theme. And the login screen, well, it's certainly not hideous. I have no driving need to replace it.
  • After installation, I was presented with the opportunity to fill out a questionnaire, which I did. After finishing the questionnaire I was dumped to a command prompt. I waited and waited, and then finally gave the box the basic three-finger restart. When it came back up the second time it ran the graphic desktop. This was a one-time behavior that has not re-appeared.
  • It's nice to have my old buddy root back again. I really missed the little guy. Ubuntu had shooed him away, and Mandriva invited him back.
  • Software management is via one tool named ... er, Software Management. Mandriva is RPM-based, but that shouldn't be held against it, especially with Software Management. So far it seems as easy as Synaptic and the repositories seem as rich as those underlying Debian/Ubuntu.
  • Mandriva Linux Control Center is complete and nicely laid out. My one and only complaint is that it doesn't have a search box to help look for possible functions/applications within itself. I've had to go hunting for several tools, such as Configure Graphics for Compiz. Speaking of Compiz...
  • Compiz is easy to set up. In fact, under Hardware | Configure graphics, you have three choices; no effects, Metisse, and Compiz Fusion. I have no idea what Metisse does, but I did enable Compiz. Unlike current Ubuntu enabling/disabling Compiz requires a log out and back in again, like in the early days. Ubuntu (7.10 and 8.04) does not. With Ubuntu, if you select Compiz then you get it immediately if the hardware and drivers can support it. And if it can't you find out immediately as well.
  • Compiz, while enabled, seems to have some minor quirks of its one. Clicking on menus or active parts of the desktop sometimes takes two consecutive mouse clicks, instead of one. And you can see the first one cause the menu/text to briefly appear, then disappear.
  • I had the machine lock up twice with System Monitor (which I have running on the upper panel) showing CPU usage of 100%. I was able to determine via top that it was evenly split between X and imwheel. One of the two times System Monitor showed swap space usage at 100% as well as CPU usage at 100%. I had to reset the system the second time to get it back, and when it came back I turned off 3D desktop effects. Since turning it off, I've had no more issues.
  • With 3D desktop effects disabled resource usage is lower than Ubuntu under the same set of circumstances. Both memory and swap space usage are lower by about 10%. One of my reasons for trying Mandriva was its support for the Eee. The Eee is a constrained system similar to rhea, but rhea is a bit beefier. My desktop has a more powerful processor and graphics card, but the memory on the box is 512MB.
  • Again with 3D desktop effects disabled, performance is quite crisp. It's on par with Ubuntu, and I can't really tell the difference. I can say that with 3D effects enable that Mandriva is a bit slower than Ubuntu (that is, before Compiz functionality died with an Ubuntu update). I believe this to be more an issue with Compiz rather than Mandriva.
  • It takes fewer steps to set up multi-media on Mandriva. Applications that need codecs, such as Totem, now pop up a dialog allowing a choice between GStreamer codecs or commercial codecs via Fluendo. I kept choosing GStreamer, and managed to get nearly everything running except DVD playback. In the end I turned (as always) to VLC and libdvdcss2. With the exception of Linux Mint, Mandriva's provided the best multi-media experience of all the distributions I've installed to date. Oh. It automatically installed the nVidia driver and didn't force me to explicitly enable its use nor read me the riot act about what Dire Consequences Awaited Me if I did.
So far, outside of the lockups, Mandriva One seems to be delivering an overall good to excellent experience. I've been able to easily install all the packages I've need to build CLARAty + ACE/TAO + CppUnit (gcc/g++, make, OpenSSL devel, cvs, tcsh...). How long Mandriva will stay installed I have no idea. But as long as Mandriva doesn't tick me off the way Ubuntu did then it can stay indefinitely.

Update 16 April

AdamW in the comments mentioned drakx11 / XFdrake as another way to manage desktop resolution. You can find that under Control Center | Hardware | Set up the graphical server. Sure enough it has a complete list of all usable resolutions for the Sony E400, up to 2048 x 1536. I didn't know it was there or I would have tried it.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

No more Ubuntu

Well, after several updates, I find that rhea's Ubuntu 8.04 beta has developed the following little 'quirks':
  • Compiz, which has worked so smoothly on this platform since upgrading the video card to an nVidia 7600GS under Ubuntu 7.04, no longer works. The simple graphic desktop works just fine, but with Compiz selected none of the windows have a border, and none of the other features seem to work. When CompizConfigure Settings Manager is brought up (from the command line, ccsm) it has had everything removed except General, and that only has one entry.
  • In an attempt to see if it was anything in my local environment (i.e. home directory), I attempted to create a new blank account. So I started System | Administration | Users and Groups (users-admin), and discovered that it would no longer allow me to either create new users nor to modify any existing accounts except my own. Turns out that something has changed in the binary so that it runs with degraded permissions, even if run as root. In fact, the link to start users-admin is simply users-admin, while in Ubuntu 7.10 (on europa) the command string is 'gksu users-admin'. So what happened there? Who the hell knows anymore? I got around the problem simply enough by running useradd from the command line, but hell's bells, what is happening with quality (QA) that working applications and functionality are breaking between updates, and less than two weeks before the full release of 8.04 LTS?
I'm not the only observer of Ubuntu's deteriorating quality. In googling around I found this entry from December 2007 titled "Ubuntu Innovates Excuses":
For all of the cool things that Ubuntu has done, their lack of quality control is astonishing and baffling. They’re better at innovating excuses than actually responding to bug reports. This is the latest fun example, “Bug #145805 in aumix, https://bugs.launchpad.net/ubuntu/+source/aumix/+bug/145805 “. The binary Aumix package was built incorrectly for Gutsy, so it doesn’t work. Rebuilding it from sources fixes it. So does the crack Ubuntu team leap into action? Yes, but not to fix it….
This, of course, is almost identical to my experience with K3b. I had to rebuild K3b from sources (as well as install all the support runtime and developer libraries) in order to get the full functionality I was used to in earlier versions of Ubuntu as well as from openSUSE. I didn't bother to report it as a bug because a number of others already had, and it turned out that Canonical decided it wasn't worth fixing for Ubuntu 7.10.

So what will I turn to next? Mandriva 2008.1. I've downloaded and burned live CDs for both the KDE as well as the Gnome desktop and taken them both for a spin on rhea. And both of them booted clean and ran the Compiz desktop off the live CD on rhea. So we'll give Mandriva a test run on rhea, the test system. And in the mean time I'll keep europa as Ubuntu 7.10 until openSUSE 11 gets a little further along. But no more Ubuntu, and that means no more derivatives of Ubuntu either.

Update

One of the commenters commented that I had updated over 7.10. No. Not this time. I documented how I had to do a fresh install to get sound to work (Ubuntu 8.04 Beta: A second install). I was working with a fresh install of the beta, and just accepting and installing the updates as they came in. I learned the hard lesson not to update over 7.10. I had to do a complete re-install of 7.10 over 8.04 alpha because (surprise!) an update for 8.04 completely trashed the entire system, to the point it wouldn't even boot. Which is a shame, because upgrading from 7.04 to 7.10, even prior to 7.10's release, never caused this much trouble.

Links
  1. Bug fixes? Why would we bother to ship bug fixes?
  2. Editorial: Open source is not about love
  3. Fixing bugs: how distributions react

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Ubuntu 8.04 Beta: 16 + 38

As of today it's just 16 days until Ubuntu 8.04's official release.

As of this morning rhea was delivered another 38 updates. Updates have been arriving on a regular basis, far more than just 38 at times. But today, as I was perusing the release notes for some of the items updated (on the Changes tab on Update Manager) I came across this cute little listing for the kernel updates (to 2.6.25-15.27):
[Alan Stern]

* usb-storage: don't access beyond the end of the sg buffer
- LP: #204922

[Mario Limonciello]

* Enable Reset and SCO workaround on Dell 410 BT adapter

[Tim Gardner]

* Enable CONFIG_E1000 in the i386 virtual image.
- LP: #205646

[Thomas Gleixner]

* x86: tsc prevent time going backwards

[Matthew Garrett]

* Fix framebuffer fonts on non-x86 platforms
Since there is no change number involved I can't dig into the details, but I sure would like to know what "SCO workaround" really means. I would have liked to have a SCO workaround years ago. I think the whole world would have liked a SCO workaround.

What's also of interest is the version numbers on the current crop of Gnome updates. Many are sporting 2.22.1 version numbers, while the updates to Nautilus sports a version of 2.22.2. These are indeed new upstream versions. The current overall Gnome version number (via System | About Gnme) is 2.22.0. So I'm curious what version of Gnome that 8.04 will officially ship with.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

A hard time with Ubuntu 8.04

It's still officially a beta at this point and I've been religiously applying the updates when they show up. Fortunately, this time around, none of the updates have forced me to reinstall Ubuntu like I had to the last time. But that still doesn't mean the adventuring is over. No, not by a long shot.

Where do I start? Let's begin with the missing menu link to displayconfig-gtk, otherwise known as "Screen and Graphics Preferences." The application, which was first noticed with Ubuntu 7.10, can be found under 7.10's System | Administrative | Screens and Graphics. But not, it would appear, on Ubuntu 8.04. It had migrated to Applications | Other for a while, then in the last update, it simply disappeared from any of the menus. Even looking in Gnome's very week menu management tool "Main Menu" (under System | Preferences) doesn't turn it up. There are times when applications, such as Gnome's Control Center (which is also under System | Preferences) are just turned off.

The tool is still available from the commend line, but it's gone from the Gnome menu system. In any event, neither Screen and Graphics Preferences nor Screen Resolution (under System | Preferences) are capable of properly setting up screen resolution, at least not on rhea. I'm still using the quite capable nVidia X Server Settings tool (installed via Synaptic and located under System | Administration). I'm curious to see if the two Gnome tools will be cleaned up in time for the final release. I sure hope so.

My adventuring didn't end there. No, it continued on with trying to find an alternative to the stock GDM login screen. And I guess the Gnomes took that moment to punish me for my blasphemous complaining.

The latest variant of that eternally butt-ugly login screen has now crossed the line into hideous, as in an absolutely hideous pink. For a while it was decorated with little pastel swirls echoing the same design motif seen on the heron wallpaper (and which I assume were meant to be stylised feathers), but they were (thankfully!) removed in the last update. Now we're left with that hideous shade of pink. Butt-ugly I can ignore (I've had lots of desensitization under Windows), but with hideous I draw the line. The hideous login screen had to go.

And so, suitable motivated, I went into my old selection of GDM screens and started to load them one by one. Now the way to change this graphically is via the Login Windows Preferences applet under System | Administration. It just so happened that this applet was also 'turned off' in the last update, and I had to use the Main Menu applet to turn it back on. You can run it from the command line (gdmsetup), but the whole idea of a GUI is that your tools have graphical front ends. In fact when you run these tools from a shell you get the pretty graphical front end. Why not have them in the menus?

So, with nautilus looking in my GDM collection and the Local tab on Login Window Preferences selected, I proceeded to drag and drop about a half-dozen packages that I felt sure would work and look tons better than what was the default. As it turned out, two of the packages would not work, and one of them would so hose GDM that I couldn't log into the graphical system. Which was an opportunity to learn about the peculiarities of Ubuntu and how it differs from other distributions.

Of the two GDM themes that caused me grief, the one that completely hosed GDM was RedmondLogin. We will pause for a moment to contemplate the irony in the theme name ... In any event, it is to me quite disconcerting that an older (and I assume out-of-date) GDM theme would so hose the GDM login that you couldn't reach the graphic desktop. I guess it's too much to ask for robust error recovery in an application that is as important as GDM. I've seen instances where GDM would throw up a default Debian login, but this is the first time that GDM was so hosed that after issuing an "I'm crashing and I can't get up" little dialog, that the only thing it could do was sit there staring out with a blank screen and the arrow mouse cursor.

Well, I'm an old experienced hand at Unix and other Linux distributions, especially X, and I've crashed X desktops in the past and lived to tell the tale. So it should be simple for me to fix, right? Wrong.

First of all, I quickly discovered that using init to bring down the X server won't work with Ubuntu. Some nameless genius decided that every run level from 2 to 5 will bring up the X desktop. In other distributions, such as Redhat and openSUSE for example, the X desktop is started at runlevel 5. Runlevel 3 is for multi-user command line, while runlevel 2 is reserved for single-user mode. The start of any X desktop recovery is therefore to drop down to runlevel 3 and start looking at the configuration files. But not this time. What's more, the same nameless genius decided to remove inittab. Perfect. In fact I discovered that Ubuntu comes up in runlevel 2, and it was at one point of this meandering I renamed /etc/rc2.d/S30gdm to /etc/rc2.d/disableS30gdm. There was no real need to do this, but I felt an irrational sense of superiority in being able to make the damn machine boot up without the graphical desktop.

It was at this point in my smug sense of superiority that I manually started X (startx) and attempted to remove the Redmond GDM theme with Login Window Preferences. Except it refused to start because ... the GDM daemon process wasn't running. That's right. The configuration applet needed the GDM login daemon process running in order execute and to read and write the GDM configuration file, the same configuration that was pointing to a bad GDM login theme, that was in turn stopping GDM from properly executing in the first place. Must of been the same genius behind the runlevel changes who came up with this little architectural design.

In the end, my back against the proverbial wall, I finally broke down and used man (man gdm) at the command line to get a clue. How utterly gauche. I discovered under /etc/gdm a file named gdm.conf-custom. You won't find this in the man entry. The man entry points you to /etc/gdm/gdm.conf. But once I got into the GDM configuration directory and opened gdm.conf-custom, I was able to find the entry (under section [greeter]) and to remove all lines pointing to my custom selection. I then re-enabled gdm in rc2.d, rebooted rhea, and was greeted with the original but working and still hideous stock GDM login screen.

All joking aside, the parties responsible for this version of Ubuntu, labeled LTS for Long Term Support, really need to think long and hard about this release. When I compare my recent experiences with those of 7.04 and 7.10, the earlier releases were far more satisfying to me than this current release. I started using Ubuntu with 7.04 alpha 3, and I've been using it since. This is the first release where I've had to re-install (an actual downgrade from 8.04 alpha back to 7.10). This is the first release where I've experienced continuous crashes, primarily in nautilus and compiz.real. This is the first release where older features are either broken or missing from the graphic menus (the notable exception being Control Center, which disappeared from the menus in 7.10). It's the first release where something as innocent as installing a package caused the system to not boot into the graphic menu. In short, Ubuntu 8.04 has some serious quality issues that need to be addressed, and I don't see them being addressed before official release in late April. I would certainly like to be proven wrong, but I'm not going to bet on it.

Update 6 April

I had forgotten this comment from Thom Holwerda's review of 8.04 beta on OSNews:
For an LTS release, [they] better start fixing these random crashes - this is the buggiest Ubuntu beta I have ever used. And I used them all.
There was a comment about Firefox 3's address bar, which I totally agree with and has been echoed by just about everyone who has reviewed Firefox:
The beta comes with the latest test version of Firefox 3.0, and for the life of me, I hate its new address bar. When you enter an url, it will, as usual, give you a drop-down list of possibilities, taken from your browsing history. This works just fine on any browser, but for Firefox 3.0, they went a little overboard. Each entry in this menu is now two rows of text, with one showing the name of the webpage, and the other showing the url. This gives for a very crowded menu, which shows fewer possible urls in the same space than the previous menu. I really find it obnoxious to use.
I couldn't agree with him more.

Update #2: 6 April

After reading a long forum thread on mozillaZine about the pros and cons of the new location URL bar, I found the location of yet another Firefox add-on (oldbar 1.2) that re-creates the Firefox 2 "old bar". After installing the add-on the "new bar" is at least looking (mostly) like the "old bar". There is this interesting caveat in the add-on's description:
Note that the underlying autocomplete algorithm is the Firefox 3 algorithm, not the Firefox 2 algorithm. oldbar only affects the presentation of the results.
So we're back to the old look, but not the old behavior. You know, the last time somebody made a unilateral UI decision like this that you couldn't remove was back when Microsoft gave us ribbons on Office 2007. Granted the changes were considerably more extensive, but Microsoft was crucified for making the change in the first place and not giving long-time users the ability to go back to the old menu system. I guess dictatorial aspirations among coders isn't limited to just Microsoft. No, go look at the kernel devs...

Links

Thought for the Day

Those who do not understand Unix are condemned to reinvent it, poorly.
Henry Spencer (Usenet signature, November 1987)

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Not even worth pwning

Just as I had wondered when I read the headline about how Linux was the last OS standing, confirmation comes this week from the gal who oversaw the contest and whose company put up the cash prizes. This comment is choice:
"It was actually a lack of interest" on the part of the PWN to OWN contestants, Forslof said. "[Shane Macaulay's] exploit would have worked on Linux. He could have knocked it over. But [the contestants] get a lot more mileage out of attacks on the Mac or Windows," she continued.

"Linux, it is what it is. The code is a lot more transparent. But vulnerabilities for Mac and Windows, those are the ones that are going to get the press," Forslof added.
Translation: Ubuntu (Linux) is as flawed as Windows and Mac OS X, but its greatest flaw is that it's just so damn boring.

I wonder if this is also an indirect slap to the faces of folks like RMS and others who keep preaching the way of GPL and how sinful it is not to be one with GPL. I know I get tired of hearing it.

Oh. And for those of us who keep hammering about Windows' lack of security, this equally interesting quote:
"The sheer amount of difficulty [he had] exploiting that Flash vulnerability shows that Microsoft has started to make it more difficult for the bad guys," Forslof said when asked to draw some conclusions from PWN to OWN.

"Some of [Microsoft's] defense-in-depth strategies put a kink in the exploit. Everything is breakable, everything is exploitable, but what we'd like to do is narrow the group of people who can do it by making it harder for them," Forslof said.
The question I have is just how much the security bar has been raised. Was it hard because there have been real advances in security, or because there aren't enough Vista boxen out there yet to make it economically worthwhile? I certainly hope that the easy days of pwning legions of Windows boxen for massive bot nets may be coming to an end. If it is, then it's about time.

What really matters

I 'write' mostly about my software experiences, and the majority of those 'experiences' about Linux. What little else I write about is a smattering of issues when the real world seems to intrude into my little world. I come across as pre-occupied and spoiled by an American middle-class standard of living that many in the world will never see.

Everybody has been feeling the pressures of higher prices: higher gas (petrol) prices, higher food prices, higher prices when you get your power bill in the mail; higher prices just about everywhere these days. And so you trim expenses and cut back here and there and then you start to complain or listen to others complain about the same issues. And gradually you develop the insular attitude that you're being put-upon, that the world is unfair, and you can't understand why. No. The world is not fair. But it's a lot more unfair outside the U.S. than within.

What follows is a very small sampling of the far greater problems that so many others in this world face.
  • Consider the story that appeared January 31 about Haiti's poor eating mud cookies. The rising cost of food hits the poor outside the U.S. far harder than anyone here in the U.S. The poor Haitians make 'biscuits' from dried yellow mud and water, salt, and vegetable shortening or margarine. These 'biscuits' have become a replacement staple for those who can't even afford a plate of rice because food has risen in cost 40% due to hurricane damage. With such an example of dire poverty in Haiti and other areas around the globe, what right have we in this country to complain?
  • On the subject of food, the BBC reported March 17 on the Egyptian army's added task of producing and distributing more bread in order to avoid food riots and minimize shortages in the poorer neighborhoods. Outside of mentioning certain contributing facts, such as corruption in the system and that the "army and interior ministry control numerous bakeries normally used to supply bread for troops and police", one fact really stood out: the price of wheat has more than tripled since last summer on international markets. When you're living on the sharp edge between living and starving, who can afford such a price increase for a basic staple?
  • As if droughts and wars disrupting farming and distribution are not enough, a report was released March 5th by the UN News Centre concerning the spread of a virulent wheat fungus rust strain spreading from parts of east Africa and Yemen on up through Iran. Other countries at risk include Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia suffered crop losses in 2007 from the rust. The long-term goal to solve this seems to be to develop more rust-resistant strains, but one reason this is so potentially devastating to so many is that there is very little (if any) variety in the wheat population.
  • CNN, in a March 25 article, also reported on rising food prices world-wide. The article touched on Haiti again and the harsh lack of food that many Haitians face. What was more interesting were the reasons behind the reason of higher prices. Major economies, specifically India and China, have ever larger populations with growing appetites for richer foods, such as beef. When you eat beef, you eat an animal which has been grain feed (this also includes poultry, at least in this country), so the impact on grain is far greater than if it is only eaten by humans. Further, with laws in many countries mandating the use of ethanol to to supplement gasoline for our SUVs, the need for grains (corn in particular) is even greater, driving up the cost of raw materials even further. And that just attracts further speculation in the commodities markets like blood in sea attracts sharks, adding further to higher prices.
  • The BBC reported April 1 that India had imposed an export ban on all varieties of rice except Basmati, and the export price of Basmati has been raised to $1,200/tonne. All this to bring under control the soaring cost of rice. According to the BBC the "problem is an international one, as global rice stocks have reached a 25-year low." No reason is given why.
  • Turning away from food problems, the CNN reported today about refuges in Somalia. The report highlighted the plight of 250,000 refugees fleeing from Mogadishu, and living in huts made of little more than sticks and bits of cloth. With attention riveted by the genocide in Darfur, it's easy to loose sight of other trouble spots in Africa. But the camp outside Mogadishu is called "largest concentration of displaced people in the world."
There is so, so much more out there than this; just read the on-line news sources or google for the topics. There's an unfortunate tendency with too many Americans to pull in their horns and ignore such problems. It's too easy for us to say "What can I do?" and keep living rich. Rather than give up there is a lot more I can as an individual; truly cut back and give it to others who need it far more. I am reminded of a high-school student named Mark Schultz, a fellow high-schooler who was big, but not fat. He was a big, nice, easy going guy in the marching band. We graduated, went our separate ways, and then about two years later (1974) our paths crossed again at a place I was working while in college. He'd lost a considerable amount of weight. I asked him what had happened, and he told me how he'd discovered first hand how the rest of the world was a lot less well off then he. So he'd cut back on his life style and given that portion to others in real need. He benefited personally and spiritially and others had benefited due to his generosity.

The world is a lot worse today than it was in 1975, especially with population and regional fighting. It's time to for me to not just remember Mark but to act like Mark. I've been comfortably (too comfortably, unfortunately) charitable in the past, but a lot more is needed of me now than every before.