Networking success

I told you I was having trouble getting my sister’s computer upgraded to a modern setup.
We now have a wireless router installed. I can connect wirelessly to the network via her desktop on windows and linux, and via my laptop on Linux.
I tried installing her new monitor, but it turns out to be DOA.
Linux is running her display at 800×640, so it isn’t very usable. If her new monitor worked, I would play with this more, but since she doesn’t use it, and I have the laptop, this doesn’t make sense to waste time on now.
You can complain about computers being user-unfriendly, but networking is definitely lots easier than it used to be. When I set up my router at home with the new Comcast connection, I had to manually clone the mac address from the computer Comcast had originally connected to to the router. If that happened here, it was transparent to the user.
Of course, it doesn’t look like you would be able to set up this router from Linux at all, unless there’s some magic screen on the network interface I haven’t found. But maybe you could run the setup program under WINE.

Another opinion on Ubuntu 9.10

I reported on my
with the October release (9.10, Karmic Koala)
of ubuntu linux. The
respected hardware site Tom’s Hardware has
relative to 9.04.

If you don’t have time to read the whole article, the
conclusion is that this time the Ubuntu developers bit off more
than they could chew in 6 months, and while most of the
innovations they attempted would have been good if they’d come
through, the release is too buggy to be recommended either as an
upgrade or to a new user.

The reviewer rolled back his production system to 9.04. I was
concerned enough about the problems I found on the laptop that I
never upgraded my desktop. I haven’t rolled back the laptop,
but if I were doing anything more critical than browsing or
reading PDF’s on it I probably would.

I was interested that he didn’t
seem to find the same problems I’ve hit, unless his experience with
the system hanging was the same bug I found with the
screensavers. I haven’t had hangs since I told the screensaver
not to run. But of course, the screensaver is the most
sophisticated graphics I ever do, and that might not be the case
for him.

So if you’re thinking you should try Linux, I agree with the
recommendation in this review that you use Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope).

Cutting a program

When I ran through the program I had drafted for the December
17 concert
, I found it took me 55 minutes to play. That’s
with playing everything roughly the right number of times
through, but without the 2 pieces I wasn’t playing, and without
doing any patter between pieces. Since we’d like the actual
performance to run about 50 minutes, and absolutely can’t go
over an hour, this meant it was too long.

We postponed making a decision about what to cut until last
night, but since there will be at most two more full rehearsals, and
possibly only one, it’s time to make the cuts.

There was one obvious piece (Susanna
by William
) that I hoped we’d have time to learn, but we were
still fumbling for notes last night. So doing that will take
time away from doing ensemble work, so that one’s out. Another
piece (Judith
and Holofernes
) was put in to go with
Susanna, so it’s out, too.

About half the program is going to be Morley Canzonets of two
and three voices. I’d love to do a whole program of
these, but I was a little worried that the set was too long for
people who don’t listen to this kind of music all the time. The
other sets are broken up with catchy dance tunes, but this one is
all 16th century polyphony, all the time. So I cut a couple of
those, too.

There’s still one more piece that’s pitched a bit high for my
current vocal
, and last night when we sang it our pitch
drifted sharp, so the high D’s that sounded a bit
strained in the first verse, I couldn’t even hit in the second
verse. We’re going to try singing it a step down, which will
make it on the low side for our tenor, so if we turn out not to
like it at either pitch, we’ll cut that one too.

If you’re recording and don’t feel like using a stop watch to
time things, the program exiftool will tell you all kinds of
things about a number of file formats, including MP3 files.

Ubuntu 9.10 upgrade

This is another hot topic on the blogs and forums that discuss
such things. See the slashdot
for examples. The reason people use the Ubuntu flavor of Linux is
that it consistently gives you an upgrade every 6 months, so you
don’t have to be way behind the new, improved versions of
programs, but 6 months is usually enough time to get a set of
tested applications together.

I installed my laptop last week, and have not managed to solve
the problems that my fairly trivial usage on that system shows
up, so it will be a while (or maybe never) before I put it on my

The most obvious problem was that the screensaver was asking me
for a password whenever I came back to it. I couldn’t find a
screen where I could tell it not to do that.

I also found a couple of times where the machine was hung when
I came back after being gone for a while, so I removed
xscreensaver, and went with gnome-screensaver, which does have a
screen to tell it not to ask for a password, but it ignores it.

The machine also hung in gnome-screensaver, so I told it not to
run. But it’s still asking me for a password.

This is not behavior I can put up with on the desktop, and if
just going away from the computer is going to break things this
badly, I would say the distribution probably got inadequate

On the other hand, I haven’t yet found any major problems when
I’m actually using the computer. Firefox, rhythmbox, and Adobe
digital editions under Wine all work fine. There’s one little
glitch with the firefox packaging — you expect there to be a
little firefox icon at the top of the screen. There is a firefox
button, but it’s blank. This is the kind of problem you expect to
encounter in a new distribution. Changing your screensaver
options on you with no path to get them back again is not.

Apparently there are people in the world for whom this upgrade
was easier than the one last April, but I’m not one of them.

Borrowing ebooks from the library

The Minuteman Library
, to which my local public library, the Cambridge Public
belongs, has just started loaning out electronic
media, including ebooks.

They have a really good record on computerizing the loan of
dead tree books. Their whole catalog is online, and everyone
who has a library card at any member library can request a book
and get the next available copy shipped to a convenient library branch. You get email when the book arrives, and another
email when it’s due.

Their first try on loaning ebooks isn’t (for me) anything like
as successful, but I’m hoping they just started with something
they could get working fast (it says “Powered by Overdrive”) and will improve it as users point
out problems.

One obvious problem is that there are only about a hundred
ebooks. They do include some newer books, including the two I
requested: Julie
and Julia
, which I have requested, and The
, which I’d put on my Fictionwise wish list,
but didn’t think I really wanted to pay a hard cover price for
it, so I’ve now checked it out of the library as an ebook.

Another problem is that there doesn’t seem to be an obvious way
to check back in a book you’re finished with before the due date,
which would seem to be an obvious courtesy to the people behind
you in line.

The checkout itself went smoothly, although it was a little
irritating to have to enter my card number and PIN again, since
the Digital Media Catalog is a separate site, with the same
login and password as the Minuteman Library Network, but it
needs a separate login.

But when I checked out the book, I got a little xml file with
information about the title and the author and the publisher and
the duration of the loan. So the next problem was to get the
software that reads this XML and gets the actual book.

I turned out not to be able to do this on my Linux computer.
So I waited until yesterday, when I needed to log into Windows
to reprogram the remote control anyway.

Downloading Adobe Digital Editions on a windows box wasn’t any
harder than downloading any other Windows software. (That is,
lots more work than “apt-get install program-name”, but not
really difficult.)

Figuring out where to enter the filename of my little xml file
was a lot harder. The “open file” menu item only wanted you to
enter pdf or pdb files, and this was a .acsm file. So I finally
opened up Explorer and moved the little icon from the Explorer
window to the digitaleditions window. I suppose lots of people
would have tried that first, but it really seems like a barbaric
way to have to enter a filename when you already know the

The program seems pretty bare to me. Most of its window is
blank, so even if you maximize the digitaleditions window,
you’re still using less than half the screen for the actual
reading area. And there’s no way to rotate the window so that
you’re using the screen format in the orientation where it’s
aspect ration is similar to that of the printed page. It’s easy to increase or decrease the font size,
and the page up and page down buttons do what you expect, and
things are readable, but of course, even my laptop isn’t really
an ideal size for reading books on.

I was delighted to find that digitaleditions seems to work
perfectly under wine in Linux, so except for the software download, there
isn’t any reason you have to boot Windows to read the books.
(Unfortunately “works perfectly” means you have to use the same
clumsy method to enter the filename as you do under Windows.)

The program is advertised to work on Sony readers and some
ipods, so it may well work better for owners of those devices.
And if they continue to add more titles, it might make sense to
buy a device that works with the software they’re insisting that
you use. (Obviously not for the hundred or so titles they have
now, several of which are public domain anyway.)

Besides being too big and heavy for reading in bed, my current
laptop no longer runs from the battery, so I have to plug it in
anywhere I want to use it, even for a few minutes. Obviously if
one needed a portable computer to read in bed on there are lots
better choices than this.

So if the digital media loan program succeeds and is providing current books for
free in the format of my choice, I may consider buying a better
device for using it on. It would be even better if the loan
program would give you more choice of both software and
hardware, though.

More ebook sloppiness

I never minded stuff like this when the ebooks I was reading
were being produced by volunteer labor, but now that I’m paying
real money for them, it really irritates me.

I’m reading The
, volume 2 of The
Baroque Cycle
by Neal Stephenson, which I purchased

The chapter I’m reading takes place at a castle in Germany, and
I believe Stephenson refers to it by the german word Schloß.
However, the producers of the ebook got the code for the German
double s wrong, and so instead of a Schloß, the ebook keeps
talking about a Schloé. (Html entity 233 instead of 223.)

This book is published by “William Morrow, An Imprint of Harper
Collins Publishers” and I’m sure there are lots of people who work
for that organization who could spot a typo that bad and that
consistent, so I can only conclude that none of these proofreaders
was asked to look at the book after the people who converted the
text to the epub format were through. And that the people who did
the conversion aren’t good proofreaders.

Of course, this would be even more irritating if I weren’t
running the illegal script that turns the ereader format back into
html, which I can edit with emacs.

Truce in the browser wars (on my machine, anyway)

I wrote previously
about my efforts to find a browser to replace Firefox 3.0, which
has major memory leaks and takes over the sound system.

I seem to have settled on Firefox 3.5 for the moment.

I still like the interface on chromium-browser from google, but the linux
version was too incomplete, and so I had to keep a firefox
browser going in addition. In addition, because it was
undergoing such rapid development, I was having to restart it
every day, which is a nuisance.

They have actually gotten flash working, so you could use it to
watch youtube videos, but I’m still not able to publish my
daily blog entry. And they frequently have problems with the
interface with X windows, so that you can’t move or view the
window the way you expect.

Firefox 3.5 still has some memory leakage, and of course when
it’s using 13% of my current 8G, that would have been more than
100% of the old 1G system. But it takes at least a week to get
to be a nuisance on the current system, and by then I’ve usually
had to restart it so that I can listen to the MIDI files when I’m
transcribing music. (This is a point for Chromium; I can play
midi files from the command line even if I’ve just listened to
music on Chromium.)

Another major advantage of Firefox over chromium is that there
are all those plugins, including one that lets you use emacs to
edit text fields, and the one that lets you share your bookmarks
between all your computers.

I’ve heard people complain about problems with Firefox 3.5, but
the only one I’ve hit is that my bank site complains that I’m
using an untested browser, but then it lets me do my banking

So for now, I’m putting up with Firefox 3.5, but I’ll let you
know if chromium grows up enough to be worth another shot.

MythTV discussion

I went to a Boston Linux and Unix
Users Group
(BLU) meeting last night to hear a talk on MythTV by one of its developers
(Jarod Wilson who works for Redhat).

Some points of interest about real world MythTV use:

  • Recording from a cable box is more haphazard than you would
    wish — the most reliable way to record anything you’ve paid to
    be able to watch is to get the Hauppage HD-PVR which lets you
    plug in the composite video cables from the cable box and use an
    IR blaster to change the channels. Modern cable boxes have a
    firewire output, which should let you both record digitally and
    change the channels, but it’s fairly haphazard what channels
    your cable company will let you see unencrypted on the firewire
    output. Also, the HD-PVR will allegedly record in either 720p
    or 1080i, but there are some issues with the linux drivers for
    interlaced video, so you’re currently safer sticking to
  • Most of the USB remote control boxes on the market,
    including the HP branded one that I inherited from Bonnie, are
    essentially the same as the Windows Media Center one.
  • If you’re setting up a filesystem partition for mythtv, XFS
    is currently stable and designed for large files. ext3 is
    usable; ext4 is a bit bleeding edge and people have lost data
    using it.
  • If you can’t handle the volume on the mythtv users mailing
    list, there’s an indexed
    that you can search.
  • The speaker repeated the common wisdom that an NVidia
    graphics card with the NVidia binary-only driver “just works”.
    This has been very much not my experience, but it must be true
    for lots of people.
  • He admitted that his first install of MythTV took a week of
    hard work before it “mostly worked”. He says that once you have
    the setup working, using it (even for the non-technical) is no harder than a commercial
    system (such as Tivo), and administering it is a couple of
    minutes a week for an experienced Linux user, but setting up is
    definitely harder than it should be.

Backing Up

I just upgraded my computer hardware, so I’m typing this on a
shiny new
with 4 cpu’s, a terrabyte of hard drive, and 8 Gigs
of memory.

Getting all the stuff from the old computer to this one is
still harder than it should be, but is easier when you upgrade
while the old system is still working.

What ought to be true is that if you move the /home directory,
install the same set of packages, and import the data from the
database, you should have a working system.

Some people claim that you can just copy /etc and /var to the
new computer and then the new system will work the same way the
old one did. I didn’t find this to be true, and I’ve been hand
moving the things from /var and /etc that I turn out to need, or
reconfiguring the new system. Part of why this is less true for
me is that the new system is a 64 bid install, and the old one
was still 32 bits.

In any case, when you have the luxury of the old system still
working is a good time to check that your backup procedure is
working, and to add things to it as you find yourself manually
moving something from the old system to the new one.

The most embarrassing hole in my procedure was that I found my
system for entering lilypond into emacs via USB keyboard didn’t
work because I’d installed a little program it needed in
/usr/bin (which should be only executables from the package
management system, and doesn’t get backed up) instead of

I don’t yet have either gallery2 or wordpress working right on
the new system, but the old system seems to have the same
problems, so it probably isn’t the backup procedure.

My own backup procedure is largely rsnapshot, along with some
scripts that back up databases and the websites that are hosted
elsewhere. This gets everything you need (as long as you tell
it the right files to back up), but is fairly large and
cumbersome, so one of the things I’m missing is recent off-site
backups. It backs up to a 1
terrabyte firewire
drive. Each backup takes up about 160
Gigabytes, but the files that are the same are hard linked, so
10 backups are only about 200 Gigabytes.

Anyway, I’m very happy with the new system, because now when
the backup procedure starts I just barely notice, instead of
having to stop what I was doing on the computer and go get a cup
of coffee.

Using a different browser

Until the recent urge to upgrade my computing
, I was using firefox as my
main browser. This was not because it’s a particularly good
program, but because it has managed to get enough market share
away from Internet Explorer that the people who design
websites test on it. There are very few websites, except for
the ones that deliberately try to restrict themselves to
commercial OS’s, that don’t work on Firefox for Linux.

Unfortunately, there are at least two major problems with
Firefox on Linux, that cause me to try other things from time
to time:

  • It has major memory leaks. This means that if you keep your
    system running for weeks, or even days, at a time, after a while
    Firefox will grab enough of the memory that everything,
    including the program that draws the windows on the screen, is
    gasping for memory, and going to read the hard drive before
    drawing every pixel. I knew that killing firefox would fix
    this, but I kept not getting around to it until killing firefox
    took several minutes, because of waiting for the pixels to
  • Less common of a problem for me, but still a sign of an
    uncivilized program, is that once you play music with firefox,
    it grabs some sound resource, and doesn’t let it go, so the next
    time you want to run some of the other music programs I use, you
    have to kill firefox to do it. (For those who wonder, the way
    to do this is the command “alsa force-reload”. This kills all
    the programs that are holding onto resources that prevent alsa
    from reloading the modules it uses.)

Now some people claim that opera is a good
browser for their purposes. Whenever I download it and try it,
it takes me about 10 minutes before I find a site that doesn’t
work with it. I believe the site I do my online banking at is a
frequent offender, so if you have a bank that tests their online
banking with opera, maybe you don’t have my problems. But
switching banks is even harder than switching browsers, and by
most of the bank evaluation criteria I use, mine is pretty good, so
I’m not going to drop them just because their software testing
leaves something to be desired.

A lot of the other browsers for Linux are in fact using the
mozilla engine, which is the same one Firefox uses. Of course,
I don’t know exactly where in the code these memory leaks and
resource hoardings happen, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a
different browser using the same engine had the same

However, it is possible to install an alpha test version of
google’s chromium-browser for Linux. The version for windows
has been out for a few months and gotten rave reviews for being
clean and fast. The Linux version has a lot of things
that don’t work, but for the ones that do, it’s really a lot of
fun to use.

It’s a nuisance to be doing testing on alpha
software (which was pre-alpha until a few days ago). And of course I
need to restart chromium-browser every day when I get the new copy.
And do some testing to find out which things work today.
Yesterday was very exciting, because “copy link address” worked
for the first time. But today, it doesn’t seem to want to
display some slightly complicated PHP for my wordpress
administration, which it’s been doing for some time. Another
button that’s inconsistent is the “Publish” button when I
publish a new post. And of course, they aren’t even claiming
that printing or flash work. I also still haven’t reconfigured
emacs to use chromium instead of firefox, so when I click on a
URL in my email, I still get a tab in Firefox.

So I do still have to keep a copy of Firefox running, but it
usually only has one or two tabs on it, so it isn’t that much of
a nuisance if I have to restart it, and it actually behaves very
much like a civilized program if you’re closing most tabs right
after you open them.