Friday, April 13, 2012

New blog up and running!

Just a heads up to those who may be interested: I have a new blog up, where I will be focusing on issues pertaining to atheism, secularism and some science. Check it out at The Misfit Atheist.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Kobo disses Linux

The day before Thanksgiving, I had found a great deal on something I had been pining to get ever since my cousin got one: an ebook reader. Now, I had ebook reading apps on my Android phone and Linux desktop, but the phone's screen is too small for proper book reading compared to tablets and ereaders like the Kindle. So I was stoked to find that Dollar General was selling this ebook reader for a jaw-dropping $50 on Thanksgiving Day only(I should have waited a week as it's now $45 for Christmas). So I ordered it online on Thanksgiving and received it in the mail on Monday.

After fiddling around with it a bit, I figured out how to add ebooks to it via USB to my Linux desktop PC. An easy affair, but today I wanted to give the Kobo bookstore a try, since the ereader's maker claimed that it worked with Kobo.

Unfortunately, Kobo failed me here. It turns out that Kobo follows the "iTunes/iPod" model when syncing to ereaders that lack internet capability. The ereader I bought did come bundled with the Kobo Desktop app, but only for Windows and Mac. There's no Linux version at all(officially at least), and when I got an ebook via the Kobo webstore, it doesn't give the option to download the ebook for USB transfer to the reader. So I'm left with no way to put Kobo-bought books on my device.

But instead of slamming Kobo for this, I'd like to suggest a solution for this lack of Linux support(I'm aware there is an "unofficial" Debian-based port of Kobo Desktop, but it's 32-bit only and won't install on my 64-bit machine): Make an OS-agnostic web version of the Kobo Desktop app. Or at the very least enable USB syncing via the web bookstore. Until such a solution is made, my only options are getting non-DRM ebooks elsewhere or get a different ebook reader with better Linux support(meaning either way that Kobo loses my business).

Update: I have installed the Windows version of Kobo Desktop via Wine, and it works great except that the app won't recognize the ereader when I connect it via USB . So I've made some progress, but the main complaint still stands.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ubuntu Natty Narwhal Alpha 3: State of Unity Review

A while back I gave a pretty harsh review of Ubuntu Natty Alpha 1, to the point where I basically ran back screaming to Maverick Meerkat. Well, as I promised in the comments, I've given it another shot with the latest alpha release. The short review is this: Unity has progressed nicely, but still needs some polishing work, and be prepared for quite a few desktop workflow changes.

Unity: Almost there

Unity desktop on Alpha 3

Unity has definitely come a long way since Alpha 1 tortured me to death, but it still isn't quite polished enough for me to use as a decent desktop. But still, there's a lot improvements worth talking about. First, all the desktop launchers I had on my ~/Desktop directory no longer clutter up Unity's sidebar, although it's not immediately apparent how I can go about adding a launcher to it if I want to. When you launch an application like Firefox, you'll notice something quite jarring at first but makes sense given Canonical's recent design changes: the application menus are no longer shown in the application window(with a few exceptions), but rather on the top of the screen, like how it is on Mac OS X. After messing around with applications a bit, I quickly got used to it and don't consider it a bad change.

One other little improvement is that the sidebar hides itself whenever an active application window goes fullscreen or is moved over to left side of the screen.

There's one significant change that solves one of the major problems I had with Unity, but has it's own problems. When you click the Ubuntu logo on the top left of the screen, a big fat slab window appears with a search bar and some other stuff. While some folks may like it, I prefer it show menus similar to what you get when you click the Ubuntu logo in Gnome. I don't want to go around type-hunting for an application. Actually, this is pretty much the major thing keeping me from considering Unity as an actual desktop.

Gnome: Where "Classic" doesn't mean suckage
The "Classic" desktop: Gnome
 Canonical's worked so much on making Unity so compatible with Gnome, that Gnome actually feels like Unity(just without the sidebar or search slab window). It's still the same old Gnome, which isn't bad at all. The only major change you'll notice is in the default applications. Rhythmbox is gone, having been replaced by Banshee. While Banshee is a Mono application(I view Mono as pretty much a "necessary evil" as I need it for OpenSim), Banshee does its' job pretty good, and earns a spot as a worthy application for me. Firefox has been updated to a 4.0 beta release, bringing a few UI changes and Sync feature allowing remote preference, bookmark and settings backup and restore. has been replaced with LibreOffice.

All in all, Alpha 3 has shown major improvements to the point where I have decided to keep it on my desktop machine. If you decide to install it, I have one protip for you: install it without choosing to download updates or proprietary packages during install. The installer bombed out when I tried that, and had to redo the installation. Hopefully that will be fixed in the next alpha. Nevertheless, good job, Canonical!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Puppy Linux: A distro well-suited for a portable Second Life®

A couple of days ago I stumbled upon an old Lifehacker article about Linux distros that can be run from a USB stick. The author of the article wound up favoring Puppy Linux as the best of the bunch. While I've had a go-round with Slitaz Linux before, it still seems too svelte to be a decent USB distro.

So I downloaded the latest stable release, burned it to CD, booted it up and installed it to my flash drive. After a quick change to my desktop's boot sequence via BIOS, I booted my new Puppy flash drive for the first time, greeted by a desktop similar to the screenshot on the download page.

Once I answered a few simple questions(video resolution, date/time zone, etc.) I immediately went to the "browse" icon on the desktop. On first click, a window popped up giving me a choice of web browsers to download and install(Dillo is included by default, but is like ELinks wrangled into a GUI). I picked out the latest stable Firefox release, and restored all my bookmarks from a save file I had on my hard drive. When I was done, Puppy copied over the entire OS stored in RAM into a file on my flash drive, in effect making Puppy persistent.

Over the next day or so I played around with Puppy, particularly as I was getting fed up with weird graphical glitches coming from the Flash player on Ubuntu. Just over an hour ago I decided to try an experiment to answer this question: Could I run an SL client on Puppy?

The answer turns out to be "Yes, if you can do without music and video streaming(due to the lack of GStreamer PET packages; can be somewhat mitigated using "About Land" and copying the URL to MPlayer)". Provided your graphics card is made by Nvidia, all you need to do is launch quickpet, go to the Drivers tab, choose "Click here to test your graphics card", install the Nvidia driver recommended, choose "Probe" in the Xorg wizard and pick a good screen resolution. That's it! Then you can download any viewer for SL/OpenSim(the official viewer doesn't run so well, but Imprudence works much better).

I haven't yet tried running OpenSim on Puppy, but I suspect that will be a bit harder to set up since I haven't seen any mono-related packages in Puppy's software repositories. I might have some luck if I try the official binary packages from the Mono website. Stay tuned for a future post if I'm successful, or an update on this post if not.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Doing everyday tasks on a Linux CLI environment

In my last post, I detailed the horrific digital aftermath of what happened after I had tested out the Ubuntu Natty Alpha 1 release. In short, I was left with a system that refused to boot into a graphical environment at all and was forced to use the command line to do several tasks that would normally be done in a GUI. I was so surprised at how remarkably easy it was to do these tasks(web browsing, torrent downloading, CD burning) on the command line, I announced my intention of going completely GUI-less for two days.

While the "recovery console" session option found in the GDM login screen would be the closest replication of my X-less ordeal, I found that the xterm window it had was too small to show in snapshots. I decided to log into Gnome, but work solely within a maximized xterm window(alternatively you can use gnome-terminal and toggle full-screen with the F11 button). Here are the following applications I've used so far, grouped together according to general tasks:

File Management:

Midnight Commander
There's a few options when it comes to file management on the console. There are, of course, the built-in shell commands(cd, ls, touch, mkdir, rm,rmdir, etc.) ready to be used with just a few keystrokes. But if you want to navigate your filesystem in a more visual way, you can either use the built-in file navigator in the vim text editor(type ":e ." at the vim command line to activate it), or use the Midnight Commander(mc) file manager to do so. Midnight Commander is a two-paned file manager, allowing you to perform file management tasks in two places at once. It can perform file (de)compression, and includes its' own command line when you need to do precise actions on a selection.

Window Management:

Yes, the Linux command line can have a "window manager" of sorts. That window manager is called screen. It allows you to have multiple terminal sessions, similar to managing tabs in GUI terminal emulators. It's a necessity when you want to run several command line tasks at once and backgrounding will not suffice, or when have logged onto a server via SSH and wish to run something after you've exited the session. It should be available in virtually any major distribution's repositories.


While it's true the command line is non-graphical, it is certainly possible to do some multimedia tasks with no problems.

For sound recording, you can use arecord to record sound from your microphone, and then pipe the output to an encoder like so:

arecord -f cd -d numberofseconds -t raw | lame -x -r – out.mp3

arecord -f cd -d numberofseconds -t raw | oggenc – -r -o out.ogg

Music On Console
For listening to audio stored on your computer, there's several console-based music players(such as gst123, aplay and the awesome opencubicplayer), but I like Music-On-Console(moc), as it allows you to play music in the background while doing other tasks. It is invoked as "mocp" on the command line(to avoid clashing with the "meta object compiler" used when compiling Qt/KDE graphical applications). While playing music, press "q" to exit back to the command line, but all the music in mocp's current directory or playlist will continue to play. You can simply re-invoke mocp to get control again.

To rip audio from a CD, cdparanoia does the job well and the output can be sent to an audio encoder just like arecord.

You can also master and burn CDs/DVDs on the command line. As I mentioned in the last blog post, growisofs can be used to both create ISO images and burn them to disc.

You can also watch movies on the command line with mplayer by invoking it like this:

mplayer -vo caca movie.avi


Vim, editing a C header file
Yup, you can do some standard office tasks on the command line. For doing calculations, there's the bc command line calculator. And there's no dearth of command line text editors(nano, vim, emacs, etc.), but there's only two apps specifically geared towards word processing: antiword and wordgrinder.

Antiword allows you to view and convert MS Word files into plain text, PostScript or PDF files. An indispensable tool if working with Word files is unavoidable.

Wordgrinder word processor
Wordgrinder is perhaps the only thing on Linux that can be called a console-based word processor. While it writes in its' own native format, it can import from and export to plain text and HTML files. It supports basic styles and paragraphs, but don't expect anything fancy. Nevertheless, its' better than plain text or forcing yourself to do TeX formatting.

SC spreadsheet calculator
For spreadsheet processing, sc fits the bill perfectly(especially if you like vi/vim). Combined with wordgrinder and abook(console address book), you pretty much have a console office suite at this point.


While Web browsing has evolved into a very multimedia affair(Flash, Youtube, Facebook/Twitter, etc.), there's a surprising amount of things you can do on the Internet without a GUI.

ELinks web browser, viewing
For console web browsing, Ubuntu ships w3m by default. While w3m is okay for viewing individual pages, that's all it's really good for. It's basically like the "less" command for web pages. For a truly decent console web browser, elinks is the way to go. It has bookmarks, download management, color support, CSS support and yet it cuts through all the useless crap(Flash, ads and popups) to get you the content you really want.

For non-interactive web interaction, wget and curl are excellent tools. You can also download torrents with the rtorrent console client(mentioned in the previous blog post and highly recommended).

For email, there's several console email clients to use. There's pine/alpine, the traditional mail command, and mutt. If you're used to using the nano text editor, alpine is the easiest option. Mutt is way more powerful, but requires a bit of configuration to get it working specifically how you want it to.

Irssi, chatting with the Kokua/Imprudence devs
For instant messaging, you can use Finch, the console version of the Pidgin instant messenger. And I've found irssi to be a very capable console IRC chat application.


GoogleCL manpage
Yes, believe it or not, Google has a command line interface for some of its' services(Blogger, Youtube, Picasa, Docs, etc.). And because of that, it gets it's own section. On Ubuntu, you can install the "googlecl" package directly via apt-get. If your distribution's package manager doesn't have it available, you could download the tarball and compile it yourself.


Montage of previous screenshots
You would think that in a command-line only environment, there's not much you can do with graphics. But strangely enough, that's not the case with the ImageMagick suite of command line tools. With ImageMagick, you could create and manipulate pictures in ways that was once the sole domain of GUI image editors like GIMP. The above picture is a montage of all the other pictures I took while creating this blog post, made possible by the montage tool of the ImageMagick suite. You can make composites, animated GIFs, apply various effects, and a whole lot of other things.


Yes, there's some terminal-based gaming options for Linux. You can connect to various text-based MUD(multi-user dungeon) games on the Internet via the telnet command. A good place to start with MUD games is The Mud Connector. If text-only isn't your thing and require something marginally more graphical, the surprisingly challenging nethack game may be right up your alley. If you've got a bunch of old DOS games lying around, you can use dosbox to play them.

Missed stuff:

I'm pretty sure I've missed a few things, so feel free to let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ubuntu Unity Desktop Review: The disasterous aftermath

Yesterday, I blogged about the current shortcomings of the Unity desktop environment. What happened afterwards, however, is a horror story with a valuable lesson learned, and also something of a testament as to why the *nix command-line still rocks hard.

The problem started when I noticed that Totem and MPlayer started acting weird. When playing a video, the colors were screwed up. But it was kinda funny how people in videos looked as blue as the Smurfs(I now regret not taking a screenshot when I had the chance). So I thought "Maybe I'll check the repositories to see if there's any updates that could fix this".

So I fired up update-manager, and sure enough there were a lot of updates. I proceeded to install them all, thinking it would fix the movie problems and maybe pull in some improvements to Unity too. After the slightly lengthy download and install process, I was instructed to reboot the machine.

On reboot, instead of seeing the familiar GDM login screen, I get greeted with a black screen with only a "ubuntu login:" text prompt. Apparently the X server failed to start up properly. So I logged in and tried to start it manually with "startx". No dice, and it mentioned something about the Nvidia modules. It was then I knew what had happened: the kernel image and/or the nvidia modules didn't jive together. I then tried installing the nvidia-current package and then rebooted. Still didn't work. So I was left with one option: back up my data and re-install the stable Ubuntu release.

But I didn't have a CD/DVD with Ubuntu already on it. I had to first go to the Ubuntu website, download the ISO, and then burn it to disc all from the command-line.

Luckily, I still had access to the Web, could install packages via apt-get, and I knew my way around getting help in a gui-less situation. First, I installed elinks(a text-mode web browser) and rtorrent(a command-line bittorrent client). I launched elinks and navigated to the torrent download link. I saved the torrent file to my home directory, then launched rtorrent to quickly download the ISO.

The real tricky part for me was figuring out how to burn the ISO image via the command-line. After doing a little Googling, I found that the command "growisofs -dvd-compat -Z /dev/dvd=image.iso" fit the job perfectly. After the disc burn was complete, I rebooted and the live session started up without a hitch.

During the live session, I attempted to copy as much of my user data onto a pen drive as I could. Unfortunately, many of the files were somehow uncopiable(undoubtedly a permissions glitch). But whatever I couldn't backup wasn't anything irreplaceable, so it wasn't all too bad.

Then I launched the Ubuntu installer. The installer pretty much took me by surprise, as I recalled I never actually installed Maverick Meerkat fresh before(previously I had upgraded to it from the previous release, Lucid Lynx). The installer is now so polished I can confidently say it's idiot-proof.

Once the install was done, I rebooted and was greeted with an uber-fast bootup from manufacturer splash image to GDM in less than 15 seconds. I'm now still in the process of rebuilding all my lost user data, but I'm back in the game with a couple of golden nuggets of wisdom:
  1. Always regularly backup your stuff, because shit really does happen when you least expect it.
  2. When you're using early alpha software, shit happening is almost guaranteed. Be prepared for it.

However, this experience has compelled me to try a little experiment in the near future. I plan to dedicate at least 2 days of computer use solely within a command-line environment. No desktop environments, no window managers, and no GUI applications at all. Of course this means no SL or YouTube, but I'd like to see how far the command-line can be used to perform tasks usually reserved for a GUI environment. Look out for a future blog post on it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ubuntu Unity Desktop Review

A few days ago I decided to upgrade my desktop Ubuntu OS from 10.10(Maverick Meerkat) to 11.04(Natty Narwal) Alpha 1. Previous experience upgrading to such an early alpha release told me that this would be very risky and likely I would have to re-install back to the stable release. But after the lengthy upgrade process was completed(took a few hours because I had Gnome, KDE, and LXDE desktop environments previously installed), I successfully rebooted and was greeted with the familiar GDM login screen.

I clicked on my username, entered my password and chose "Ubuntu Desktop Edition" for the desktop session. But instead of Gnome or Unity popping up, it appeared that what I got was a very unfinished and incomplete desktop session. There was no launcher, no panel or even an easy logout mechanism. I was ready to dismiss Alpha 1 as a starting point only for the developers. FAIL.

But it turned out the Unity launcher and panel was present, but required desktop effects to be turned on to use them. So I did just that and this is what appeared:

Ubuntu Unity "Desktop"

Looks like a cross between Gnome Shell and Ubuntu's Netbook UI. What initially annoyed me was that all the entries I created in my Desktop directory were being shown twice: in the launcher and on the desktop screen. And notice the launcher entries displaying a question mark as the icon? That's because it seems the launcher can't display icons that are not stored on the system icon directories. I'd have to hover my mouse over the icons to tell what they really are. FAIL.

But the worst current feature of this release is finding all the applications. You have to click on the Ubuntu logo on the top left of the screen, and Nautilus will appear showing you the /usr/share/applications directory. Ugh. No application menu grouping or sorting by task at all here, just a single directory being spit out in front of you. FAIL.

As far as I can see, the current incarnation of the Unity desktop isn't even a true desktop environment yet. It's still a major work-in-progress, much like when KDE 4 first appeared. No doubt we'll see much improvement in future alpha releases, but for now I'll be sticking with Gnome/KDE/LXDE for my real desktop needs. Unity still needs a lot of work to be easy enough for casual use.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Linden Lab to TPV developers: No KDU for you!(Updated)

During the final months of the now-banned Emerald viewer, one of the major scandals that hastened its' demise was the emkdu library that Emerald used was hacked to send user info to Modular Systems without the knowledge or consent of the user. As a result of the discovery, Emerald was forced to remove emkdu.

In the aftermath of Emerald's demise, Linden Lab has made a few drastic changes. First and most important, they have changed the license of the official 2.x viewer from GPL to LGPL. Second, they are no longer going to release llkdu as a DLL. They will statically link llkdu into the viewer binaries. Third, they are playing copyright cops by threatening to delist, ban or block TPVs that use KDU code without obtaining a proper license(claiming it is a GPL violation).

Why is KDU important? Well, it's the code used to render textures in-world. The advantage KDU has is that it renders textures faster than the open source equivalent, openjpeg. However, KDU's speed advantage seems to be negligible on machines with modern graphics capabilities. So it makes a difference only on lower-end machines.

My personal opinion on it is this: There's only two proper solutions for TPV developers: either switch to a 2.x codebase and obtain a KDU license(not cheap, by the way), or obsolete KDU by modifying openjpeg to match or outperform KDU.

The former solution is apparently what LL is betting TPV developers will not do. They must think that they will simply fall back on stock openjpeg, and as a result virtually all TPVs will be "inferior" to their own viewer. It's clearly a power play by the Lab, once you look at the bigger picture.

However, Kakadu does not have a monopoly on JPEG decoding and rendering. TPV developers can either enhance openjpeg, or switch to another open source library such as JasPer(Google "open source jpeg2000 library" for more possibilities) and work with that. And as a form of protest against LL's power play, TPV developers should temporarily not contribute JPEG library changes back to LL. If LL wants the improvements, they'll have to go out and download them, just like TPV developers do to incorporate LL changes.

Update:  It seems that KDU, if by what folks on SLU are saying is true about KDU vs. openjpeg speed, then ultimately KDU is merely a crutch for older and low-end machines. So ultimately, the KDU problem may solve itself when SL users upgrade their lower-end machines.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Fractured... OUT!!!(Updated 2x)

It seems Fractured Crystal has finally bitten off more than he can chew, and the entire Emerald gang may soon fork their viewer or call it quits.

What happened? Well, as of a few days ago, Emerald users were unknowingly being co-opted into becoming a part of a botnet designed to perform a DDoS(distributed denial of service) attack on the website of Hazim Gazov, a known distributor of a copybot client who has taken it upon himself to expose the "shenanigans" of the Emerald gang. Hazim quickly discovered what was going on and wasted no time bringing the crime into the public light. The news caught on like wildfire, and given the recent departure of LordGregGreg Back(he quit on ethical principles, believe it or not), the backlash is finally making Linden Lab consider outright banning Emerald.

What happens next is anybody's guess. If LL decides to ban Emerald, it's game over for all of them, including the devs who aren't total douchebags. If Emerald isn't banned, then most likely Emerald will fracture(pun intended) in two.

Either way, it's natural justice against Fractured and Phox. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

"I've got shit to do. I'm TP'ing out." - Fractured Crystal

Update:  Fractured has issued a mea culpa on the Modular Systems blog(jokingly titled "Off with his head"), where he announced he will be "voluntarily" leaving Emerald and hand over control of the project to Arabella Steadham. That still leaves Phox, Fractured's BFF in crime still hanging around, and who's to say Fractured won't simply rejoin the project under a new alt account? Even LordGregGreg has come out completely against using Emerald regardless of Fractured's departure, and started his own fork. Who do you trust?

Update 2:  The Lindens' first official action on the matter... Emerald is no longer listed in the TPV directory.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

MetaGridNet Revamp in progress

As I've previously announced here, I have created a small public OpenSim sandbox called MetaGridNet. It was originally created alongside an Elgg social networking installation. Unfortunately due to persistent spam on the site, I decided to nuke the server and start anew. The MetaGridNet sandbox is still operational, although I did do a fresh install using the latest OpenSim "Diva" distribution(I may set up a basic web site later on). The Diva install has brought with it a couple of new features and one in particular that was sorely needed: a built-in web-based user account creation and management framework(called "Wifi").

The benefit of this is immediate: Metaverse travelers can now easily set up a MetaGridNet account by going to the account registration page and login any third-party viewer(except Emerald because it's not optimized for OpenSim use) with the login URI "". Or if you're already on a grid that uses Hypergrid protocol 1.5, you can perform a Hypergrid jump.

Stay tuned for further updates.

Victoriana triumphantly returns!

I had previously blogged about Victoriana and Tinytoriana, a Victorian-themed Second Life estate that had been forced to leave SL due to gigantic permissions screwups caused by Linden maintenance routines. The decision to leave and the resulting close-down caused a lot of sadness in SL residents.

However, I'm very happy to report that Victoriana is rising from the digital ashes over at InWorldz! I had found out about it this afternoon while in a group chat with fellow Raglanite tinies. After checking the map, I had teleported to Victoriana Square to take a brief look. Later on in the day after I got home from work, I had checked out Tinytoriana, a place made specifically for Victorian tinies. If there were any differences from when the estate was in SL, I couldn't notice them. So there's relatively little readjustments structurally, despite the fact that LittleBlackDuck Lindsay is still in the process of reconstructing the Victoriana estate.

Nevertheless, it's heartening to see this wonderful estate get a "second life" again, thanks to InWorldz and OpenSim.

P.S. - For a future post, I may try to get in touch with Mr. Lindsay to ask him some questions like why he decided to pick InWorldz, how he reconstructed his estate, what the future holds for his newly resurrected estate and more.