Laptop Rejuvenation

I’ve owned my MacBook for about 18 months now, which is coming close to a record for me. I was looking at replacing it with a new laptop — preferably something running Ubuntu that doesn’t totally look like ass. I started looking and saw things I liked from both Dell and System 76 (I really wanted to like Zareason, especially given that they’re local, but System 76 kills them on pricing).

But then I looked closer at the Wikipedia article on MacBooks, the System Profiler on my machine and just what I was paying for. It was then I realized that my MacBook already has a Core 2 Duo T7200, as well as 802.11n support. With most of the economical Dell options still using T5xxx series processors (with it’s 2MB L2 cache, compared to the T7200’s 4MB), it became clear I was mostly investing in more RAM and a larger hard drive. A quick look showed I could take my system from 1.5GB RAM to 4GB for $50[1]_ and could go from the 120GB stock hard drive to a 320GB model for $100. And with the extra drive space I could comfortably run Ubuntu as my primary operating system, retaining the Mac OS X partition until I have all the apps replaced.

So that was my task for yesterday. Unfortunately things didn’t go quite as well as planned. When I put the new hard drive in and tried to power things back on… nothing. No chime, no video, no spin up. Nothing. Sigh. I managed to get an 8 AM appointment at the Apple Genius Bar, but I was pretty bummed about it last night. This morning, however, things turned out OK. Not fantastic but OK.

Brian, my assigned Genius, suggested that the problem might be the “top case” — literally the top of the case, containing the keyboard and power switch. After pulling it off and putting on a new one, things fired right up. So another $150 later, all is well.

Brian was actually really nice and helpful about the whole situation (almost making me regret calling Apple the “corporate asshole du jour” on Saturday, but not quite). As I write this I realize how strange it is that I consider this a surprising exception. Next up: Ubuntu installation and configuration.

[1]I had one 2GB SODIMM already lying around in my Eee PC.
date:2008-08-11 09:49:42
tags:apple, macbook, service

Brief thoughts on Microsoft + Apache Foundation

I’m late with this (typical these days), but at OSCON a couple weeks ago Microsoft announced they’re supporting the Apache Foundation. Bruce Perens has an editorial in Datamation about what the angle may be. Bruce posits that the primary motivation is publicity. That Microsoft has realized open source is here to stay and sees the Apache license as the lesser of a crowd of evils. That all makes perfect sense to me.

I have to admit, however, that my first thought to hearing the news was “who cares?” I’ve realized lately that Microsoft has become completely irrelevant to my day to day life[1]_. We don’t use Windows on our servers at work. I don’t run Windows on my work (Ubuntu) or personal (Mac OS X) laptop. I don’t use Microsoft Office on either machine. The people at work who use Windows (a minority) are pretty much on their own. And when I heard Microsoft had released a new version of their Office CC licensing plugin (as noted in the CC blog) my response was an enthusiastic “Eh, ok; good for them.” So from my [probably myopic] perspective, Microsoft is last year’s news, a has been, and Apple is the corporate asshole du jour.

So while I’d like to think I’m right and that this is just a corporate behemoth in its death throes, Bruce is probably right; it’s probably too early to count them out.

UPDATE Another perspective on the announcements from Michael Tiemann of the OSI board.

[1]Well, not completely; shopping for a new laptop I still have to consider how willing I am to pay for an operating system I won’t use.
date:2008-08-09 20:23:44
tags:apache, license, microsoft, open source

Ubuntu Netbook Remix on the Eee PC

Last year when Asus released the original Eee PC 7xx series, a colleage and I made a lunch-time trek to Central Computers down the street and each picked up a 701 with 4 GB SSD and Linux. The stock distribution is Xandros based. That’s great since Xandros is Debian based itself, but not so great since it seemed configured specifically to resemble Windows in many ways. Progress, right?

Shortly after purchasing my Eee I installed eeeXubuntu on it. This configuration actually worked pretty well. Combined with an additional 4 GB of storage in the form of an SD card I carried the Eee with me as my sole computer for a week in Europe in January. Upon my return, however, the Eee saw less and less usage. In retrospect I’m not sure that the decline had anything to do with the Eee at all — all my non-work computing declined dramatically during the first half of the year. The small form factor of the Eee still called out for use, so I dabbled with it periodically. One weekend I tried installing a Sugar shell (successfully, for some definition of success, I guess). Another I tried updating my eeeXubuntu installation from 7.10 to 8.04, without success (disk space issues). When I saw Ubuntu Netbook Remix, I decided I wanted to try that on the Eee. The combination of a focused, single window user interface and specialized launcher seemed like a good combination for the space constrained display.

Today I successfully installed Ubuntu 8.04 and the Netbook Remix on my Eee.

The steps were actually pretty straight forward:

  1. I installed Ubuntu 8.04 using a USB stick. When it came time to select tasks, I didn’t select anything to get a minimal installation.
  2. Added the repository and installed a kernel with Eee-specific customizations.
  3. Added the Netbook Remix repositories and fired up aptitude. At this point I just picked my way through the packages in the ubuntu-desktop task, picking those I wanted. In particular I omitted things related to Bluetooth or CD support (since I have hardware for neither).
  4. Installed the ume-launcher and other Netbook packages.

If these instructions seem a little thin it’s because I mostly just followed the instructions of others, both found in the excellent Eee User wiki.

I’m heading to OSCON next week so I’m going to play with the installation this week to determine whether I can use it as my sole machine for that trip.

date:2008-07-13 20:39:53
tags:eee pc, netbook remix, ubuntu

Strong Security for Everyone!

I received some press-release-spam this week that I actually didn’t mind. TrustBearer Labs, a home-town startup has released their new OpenID provider, TrustBearer OpenID. What makes this interesting is that it utilizes their browser-based authentication hardware support to instantly provide strong, token-based security to any OpenID enabled site (application?). Their browser software is interesting in and of itself — cross platform (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux), cross browser (Safari, IE, Firefox), and capable of interfacing with USB smart card readers and authentication tokens. This is a great demonstration of what open standards really allow — innovation that benefits everyone who utilizes the standard.

date:2008-02-15 09:34:49
tags:fort wayne, openid, smart card, Software, standards

Heading to PyCon

I’ve spent the first part of this week in San Francisco for some face time with the rest of the Creative Commons staff and participating in what I believe are our first all-staff meetings [1]. This afternoon I’m flying to Dallas for PyCon 2007. The program looks really strong this year, and I’m looking forward to a few days of what you could almost call a vacation. A really, really geeky vacation.

My goal is to blog the sessions I attend, but that’s been my goal every year and I usually end up doing about 25%. We’ll see just how well it works this time around.

[1]“All-staff” including San Francisco, Berlin, South Africa, Boston, and (of course) Fort Wayne.
date:2007-02-22 14:11:54
category:conf, geek, pycon2007

A Feisty MacBook

After the HP woes (which are incidentally ongoing, and if they didn’t make me so persistently pissed and angry I might actually write about them) and a nice tax refund check have caused me to go notebook shopping. After some looking I decided on a Black Macbook. After picking it up from Sweetwater, I promptly set about getting Linux loaded on it. I had done some looking before purchase, and knew the process wouldn’t be exactly seamless. It ended up being easier than expected in some areas and harder in others.

I primarily used the Community MacBook instructions from the Ubuntu wiki. Some brief notes on deviations when installing Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty) Herd 3 on a new Macbook[1]_:

  1. You can skips steps 6 and 7 completely. When you reboot after the installation completes you may receive an error message when selecting Linux. Just reboot, and select the rEFIt boot option to “enter rEFIt shell”. You’ll see the “do you want me to fix the MBR?” message; select Yes, reboot and you’re up and going.
  2. The wifi chipset on the newest MacBook (and perhaps MacBook Pros) is currently unsupported by MadWifi (bug report). However, ndiswrapper is able to wrap the Windows driver just fine. One report I read said to use a DLink driver. That worked for the most part, but caused intermittent kernel panics. Switching to the Lenovo driver, as described here [STRIKEOUT:resolved that problem] improved the situation. (update 20 Feb 2007: the Lenovo driver is better, but still causes a kernel panic when I connect to a particular network; not sure what’s up with that)
  3. The latest Feisty kernel (2.6.20-8) seems to bork the keyboard and trackpad. I just set grub to use 2.6.20-6, and all is well.
  4. Speaking of grub, you don’t seem to actually have keyboard support in grub… not sure what’s going on with that, since it works just fine in rEFIt.
  5. Getting the double/triple-tapping to work on the Trackpad requires loading the appletouch module before usbhid. Not being one to really crave fucking with initrd, I just wrote a little script and installed it as /etc/rc2.d/S03appletouch. It’s a bit of a blunt instrument, but I fully expect that it’s just a temporary fix until things are fixed upstream:

<pre>#! /bin/sh /sbin/rmmod appletouch /sbin/rmmod usbhid /sbin/modprobe appletouch /sbin/modprobe usbhid </pre>

Overall it makes a great Linux notebook: sleep and hibernate work out of the box, the sound is good, and the battery life is pretty decent too. Oh, and it’s pretty. Always important.

[1]This is going on my blog and not my site because I imagine this is something of a moving target. Ubuntu 7.04 Herd 4 is already out, and I imagine lots of work will be done in the next 6 months. Your mileage may vary.
date:2007-02-19 17:55:46

Give Me an SDK or Give Your Product Death

Yeah, I know it’s not nearly as catchy as the Patrick Henry original, but then what is? That Patty knew how to turn a phrase.

But what I’m referring to is the Apple iPhone, announced this week at MacWorld in San Francisco. Does it look cool? Absolutely. Will I buy one? Hell no. At least not right now.

See, I love me some red-hot tech gadgetry. I am more than willing to plunk down US$600 for a sweet gadget. But lately my phone purchases have hinged on one thing: what can I write for it? My Nokia 6620 was purchased because I could run Python on it. My Blackberry 8700 because I had been doing some [STRIKEOUT:J2ME] phoneME work and really liked their developer tool set. And that’s my biggest beef with the iPhone: no third part apps that aren’t cleared by Apple[1]_. OK, it’s really my second biggest beef — no user replaceable battery? Morons.

But I think that the lack of openness will be a huge blow to iPhone sales. Now, perhaps they’ll still be huge, and maybe huge is enough. But if the phone runs OS X[2]_ and you give developers an SDK, you suddenly make the device that much more valuable. Sort of a software-platform-network effect. And that could make your sales gi-normous.

My favorite bit of FUD regarding this decision? Pope Steve’s comment to MSNBC:

“You don’t want your phone to be an open platform,” meaning that anyone can write applications for it and potentially gum up the provider’s network, says Jobs. “You need it to work when you need it to work. Cingular doesn’t want to see their West Coast network go down because some application messed up.”

So first, if Cingular’s network can be brought down by an application on a single handset (or even a few hundred or a few thousand handsets), they have bigger problems. They are, as they say in the biz, fucked. Second, if it could be brought down, why hasn’t it been, given that many mid to high end handsets have support for loading 3rd party applications?

And finally, yes, I do want an open platform. And I don’t intend to purchase a handset that can’t deliver that. And a replaceable battery.

[1]I think I’ve seen some reports that there will be no 3rd party applications what-so-ever. However, in this New York Times article, Jobs says, “It doesn’t mean we have to write it all, but it means it has to be more of a controlled environment,” which leads me to believe that there will be some sort of “Works with iPhone” certification program. A program that probably won’t be free.
[2]Or at least a stripped down OS X stack.
date:2007-01-12 09:10:49

Fonts and Planning with Emacs 23

Lately I’ve become enamoured with Emacs planner-mode which allows me to use Emacs to maintain task lists and schedule information in a psuedo-wiki-like environment (courtesy of Emacs Muse). In particular I’ve been using the planner-timeclock to track what projects get my attention and when. Of course its not 100% accurate — I still often forget to “clock in” when starting to work on something — but I think I’ll be able to get some useful information from it.

This weekend, however, I managed to screw up the fonts in Emacs. They were never great, but I’d managed to get them to a state where they didn’t kill my eyes or take up half the screen. As I started to poke at the problem this morning, I ran across the prospect of using Emacs with XFT fonts. More poking and I found a source for .debs of updated emacs-snapshot packages. Your mileage may vary, but I found, like other people in the comments thread, that the dapper packages actually work better on Edgy than the edgy ones. So after installing the packages I had lovely anti-aliased font support, but alas, planner-mode broke. So to save anyone else in this situation (ha!) some grief, you need to grab planner and muse from source when using them with Emacs 23 on Ubuntu 6.10. The “latest” tarball links in the Emacs Wiki work.

date:2006-12-18 08:50:43

24 Hours with the Sony Reader

Right, I know I promised I would tell a story about deploying software based on Django. It’ll have to wait [1]. Yesterday I wandered into the local Border’s to kill some time after lunch. Nothing to look for, just like the books. And there it was, a lone Sony end-cap display with (gasp) live, in-the-flesh Readers.

The four word review: hardware hot, software not.

I’ve been lusting after the Sony LIBRIe Reader for some time. When I travel, I hate the part of packing where I have to decide what books to take; I start with a pile of at least half-a-dozen, and end up limiting myself to two. OK, three. This isn’t to say that I even end up reading all the way through those two. Or three. Just that I tend to be reading a few things at the same time, and don’t like having to decide what I’ll be in the mood for the next week. So the thought of taking a slim device loaded with several dozen of my favorite books, along with technical references and work-related documentation… the mind boggles.

So of course I picked up a Reader yesterday. The four word review: hardware hot, software not. I guess I should clarify: device hot, desktop software not. The device itself is a great text reader. It’s light weight (about 9 ounces), has a display that looks uncannily like paper [2]. The text is crisp and the controls decent. Yes, there is a weird flash between page changes, but it hasn’t risen to the level of annoyance for me yet. Overall the engineers managed to craft a device that comes closer to the book experience than anything I’ve previously seen.

It’s the desktop software, Sony Connect, that should be flushed. I’ve admittedly only used the software for less than 24 hours, but I can tell you now that I won’t grow to love it. If anything, I’ll uncover more reasons to hate it. But here’s my brief list for now:

  • The software desperately wants to be iTunes, but just isn’t… I don’t love Apple’s use of custom widgets in iTunes for Windows [3], but Sony’s custom widgets are even worse.
  • Like iTunes, Connect embeds a browser in the application for browsing their online store. But somehow they managed to fuck up scrolling: filling out the registration form in the store and press the down arrow to scroll down the page only to find, hey, what happened? Oh, right, the list box on the left that wasn’t even focused received the command. Try to use the scroll function on your touchpad? Hah! It’s scrollbars only for you, bitch.
  • Plugging in your reader doesn’t let you sync it… it just shows up in the software and you have to drag things manually [4].
  • The Reader is expandable with either Memory Stick or SD (thank you Sony, for realizing that some people want to use their removable storage media in devices other than yours). Unfortunately the Connect software sort of screws that up too — it will only let you drag files to the SD card when its connected by way of the Reader [5], and even then it makes you choose between internal storage and the SD. Can’t I just say “put these on the Reader, please?”
  • Finally, library management is too screwed up to describe: importing allegedly-supported formats fails silently with no notice, you can only create “collections” (the Reader’s way of grouping books) on the PC and then drag them to the Reader, and I couldn’t figure out any way to add a new text to the Collection once its on the Reader without re-creating it on the PC adding something and dragging it back. Which created a duplicate with the same name. Not exactly what I was going for.

There is good news, however. Even though the LIBRIe was a Japan-only, a community of hackers sprung up to both translate the firmware to English and support user-generated content. That effort seems to have graced the Reader with a ready-made hacker community, anxious to liberate the Reader from Sony’s ineptitude. Particularly interesting to me is the development of libprs500, a Python library that reverse engineers the USB protocol and which I successfully used to transfer a text to the Reader under Linux.

We can fix it, we can make it better. We have the technology.

[1]OK, I’m actually still trying to work out whether there’s really a story there, or if everything’s looking like a nail lately. Stay tuned…
[2]Maybe a cross between paper and the old-school monochrome Palm Pilot displays… and yes, that’s a compliment.
[3]Yes, the Sony Connect software is Windows-only right now.
[4]OK, so maybe they think people will attain massive etext libraries on their computers which won’t all fit on the Reader. Fair enough, but there should really be a way to “sync all until I run out of space, and then make me choose” option. Don’t make me think, damn it!
[5]That is, plugged into the Reader, tethered to your USB port, not plugged directly into your integrated card reader.
date:2006-11-11 12:26:51