Monday, 31 March 2008

Adobe AIR for Linux!

Yes, you read that right. There's now a version of Adobe AIR available for Linux! It's still quite an early alpha, but Tumblweed, Twhirl and Pownce all work fine in it - check out this screenshot:

Now I can finally update my Twitter status with ease in Kubuntu!

Saturday, 29 March 2008


Recently I've discovered the excellent Songbird music player. This has only just reached version 0.5, but is already showing a truly staggering amount of promise. Once it reaches version 1.0, it may even replace Amarok in my affections. I'm already using it instead of iTunes on my Vista laptop for playing music (I haven't tried it with my iPod yet). I would use it in Kubuntu, but the only package I can find for it (via Getdeb) is a bit cranky.

For the uninitiated, Songbird is to iTunes what Firefox is to Internet Explorer. It's an open source music player that supports extensions, similar to Firefox. It's written by the people that created WinAmp and is built around XULRunner, the Mozilla framework, which is what allows it to support the extensions, similar to Firefox. It can work with just about any online store that wants to cooperate with them.

To put it another way, imagine you took iTunes, ripped out the iTunes store and replaced it with Firefox, so you could browse music sites and listen to music you find, all within the same application.

It already has a staggering number of extensions, including ones that allow you to scrobble to, which makes me think it will almost certainly be a success. You can skin it as well (these skins are known as "Feathers"). And even though it's a fair bit weightier than the likes of Amarok, it's still a lot smaller and faster than iTunes.

If you haven't tried it, download it and give it a go. It will change the way you think about enjoying music on the Internet.

Compiling from source

For a while now, I've been using a Xubuntu install in VirtualBox on my Vista laptop as a test bed to try all the things I don't want to do on my Kubuntu laptop, but would like to get better acquainted with, such as messing around with desktops and things like that. I highly recommend this method if you have a powerful enough computer (even if that computer is running OS X or Windows) as you don't need to burn an ISO image to disc and if something goes wrong with a VirtualBox install you've always got access to the Internet through the host system, and if it goes completely belly-up you haven't lost anything. It really is a great way to learn more about Linux.

Well, I've certainly learnt something today. I just compiled Crimson Fields from source. It's surprising how easy it is when you know how - you just have to untar the source code package, switch into the newly created directory, find the README or INSTALL document for details of the dependencies, install the development versions of these dependencies, then just the usual triad of commands (./configure, make, and sudo make install). However, I actually used checkinstall, a great utility for Ubuntu which when used instead of make install, doesn't install it as normal. Instead, it creates a .deb package which you can then install using dpkg as normal. The advantage of this is that it's easy to uninstall it if necessary.

The finished program works fine. Here's a screenshot as proof:

Now, I want to have a go at compiling my own kernel. Will very probably screw that up, but I can try!

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Alternative OS's

You know, an awful lot of people never even think about the operating system they use. They just use the computer as a tool to get the job done. That's fine, of course. The very fact that people can use a computer without having to worry about what the operating system is doing and in a simple and readily-understood way is definitely progress.

Nowadays, you can generally buy a new computer, unbox it and be online in a matter of minutes, with very little assistance. That means the technical barrier to computer use is very low - I mean, plenty of elderly people use computers, as do quite young children.

By comparison, in the late 1980's when I got my first computer (an Amstrad CPC 6128) it was nothing like as easy to use. It had a command-line interface only, and no mouse. Every manufacturer installed their own operating system (often on a ROM, not a hard drive, so there was absolutely no prospect of being able to change it). There were some great OS's available (apparently the Commodore Amiga had a great OS, for one), but many of them required a great deal more technical ability to use than is now required.

Nowadays, the pendulum has swung in completely the opposite direction. With a few minor exceptions, all computers come with either Windows or Mac OS X installed. While both these OS's are quite easy to use, to me it seems that two operating systems can't possibly be sufficient to be the best OS for everyone in the world. I wouldn't want to return to the chaotic mix of OS's available in the late 80s and early 90s, but I do think that a little more diversity does a lot of good. After all, if Microsoft and Apple had more effective opposition, they'd improve their products to compete, so end users benefit.

Linux, of course, is far and away the most popular alternative OS in all its various incarnations, and is beginning to make its presence felt as a preinstalled OS as well, thanks to products like the gPC, Dell's PC's with preinstalled Ubuntu, and the Asus Eee PC. But, it's certainly not the only one. There's plenty of other alternatives. And it's worth looking into some of these if you're in the market for a new operating system.

FreeBSD is based on BSD UNIX and has actually been around for longer than Linux. Unlike Linux, it's managed as one project (as opposed to Linux, which is actually a number of different projects that create different elements which are then put together to create a Linux distro such as Ubuntu or Fedora), giving the whole thing a more consistent feel. It's used on servers a lot, but can also make a fine desktop OS. However, it's harder to use than a Linux distribution on its own (unless you use a tough one like Slackware). Fortunately, a number of projects exist to turn FreeBSD into a more easily useable desktop OS, such as Desktop BSD and PC-BSD, so these make a great alternative for beginners. FreeBSD makes for a stable and powerful operating system.

There are other BSD variants as well. Two notable examples are OpenBSD, which is the most secure operating system in existence, and NetBSD, which is designed to be highly portable and capable of running on many platforms.

OpenSolaris is one that could potentially grow to rival Linux. Like Linux, it is an open source Unix-based operating system. However, at present it is generally harder to use than Linux and hasn't got the kind of huge community behind it that Linux has. That said, OpenSolaris distributions are beginning to appear - BeleniX will work as a Live CD, and Project Indiana aims to build a complete distribution that makes it easy to use OpenSolaris as your main OS (they've even hired Ian Murdock, creator of the Debian Linux distribution, to work on the project). However, although the Linux and OpenSolaris kernels are broadly compatible from a technical point of view so drivers could be easily ported across, due to incompatibilities between the licenses, it's not possible to include these drivers in OpenSolaris, so hardware support lags behind that in Linux.

Another OS that could potentially become available in the future is GNU/Hurd. If you know much about Linux, you'll know that there are essentially two parts to it - the Linux kernel and the tools it uses. These were created by two separate projects - the GNU project created the tools, while Linus Torvalds created the Linux kernel. However, the GNU project had always intended to create their own free operating system from scratch, so after they had created the tools they needed, they began work on an advanced kernel of their own, called the Hurd. Progress on this was slow, however, and eventually in the early 1990's the Linux kernel became available, and this was compatible with the GNU tools (this is why Linux is correctly referred to as GNU/Linux, because it was created by GNU and the Linux project). It's still in development (and has been for a very long time!), but the Debian Project have succeeded in porting Debian to the Hurd kernel, and it's possible it may one day be available as an alternative to Linux (but don't hold your breath!).

Minix is less mature than either Linux or FreeBSD, but is smaller. It's basically a clone of Unix designed to run on desktops. Interestingly, Linux was originally intended to be a clone of Minix, but it's now far surpassed its predecessor in terms of usage and maturity.

All of these operating systems are based on Unix, to some extent, or are Unix-like operating systems. However, there are plenty of non Unix-based operating systems about, and many of these are also worth a look.

ReactOS is essentially an open-source clone of Microsoft Windows. It's designed to improve upon Windows while being 100% compatible with it. While this has yet to be achieved, it's certainly a promising OS.

Haiku is inspired by BeOS, which nearly became the OS on Macs (until Apple acquired NEXTSTEP and used that as the basis of Mac OS X instead). It's very lightweight and fast.

Finally, Syllable is a very fast OS that looks great.It's very fast and integrates the graphical interface with the operating system, so you don't have milions of window managers or toolkits to work around like you do with Linux. Check out this link for a YouTube video that demonstrates it.

Having read this, I hope I've piqued your interest! You may be worried about making changes to your operating system. Fair enough, it makes sense that you'd want to try something without risking your existing operating system. Fortunately, there are plenty of virtualisation tools that enable you to run it on top of your existing OS. An ideal one for beginners is VirtualBox, which will run on Linux, OS X or Windows. Others such as VMWare and QEMU are also available if you look. All of these allow you to run an operating system from an ISO image, so you don't even need to burn them to a CD. Just set up a virtual machine, select an ISO image to run, and you're ready to start! Plus, that way, even if something goes wrong, you can open a browser in the host OS to find the answer to the problem! It couldn't be easier!

So, what are you waiting for?

The Internet? Bah! (looking back to 1995)

Hilarious article from Digg about the future of the Internet (written in 1995). Wildly inaccurate!

read more | digg story

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

A tragic loss...

The wonderfully gifted Arthur C Clarke has died. As an SF fan, I enjoyed Clarke's work, and also appreciated many of the younger authors who cited him as an influence, such as Stephen Baxter (who is in many ways the spiritual successor to Clarke and worked with him on the Time's Odyssey sequence), Alastair Reynolds, and Charles Stross. His direct and indirect contribution to science fiction is incalculable.

I'd like to quote the final few words of my personal favourite Clarke novel, The Songs of Distant Earth:
His grief, though piercing, would slowly pass. The light of a new sun filled the sky ahead; and soon there would be another birth, on the world that was already drawing the starship Magellan into its final orbit.

One day the pain would be gone; but never the memory.

Goodbye, and thank you for the wonderful stories you brought us.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Journey Through High School

Check out this hilarious picture of one man's journey through high school...

read more | digg story

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Google Browser Sync

I've just discovered Google Browser Sync. This excellent Firefox extension enables you to synchronise browser settings such as bookmarks, persistent cookies and (most importantly of all) saved passwords between instances of Firefox on different machines.
For me, this really is a boon because I like to keep updating to the most recent version of Kubuntu as soon as it comes out, and I have in the past always done a fresh install each time, as I find that is the best way to upgrade. It is a real pain having to update all the passwords for all the sites I use every time.
But I think next time I install Kubuntu I'm going to set up my home directory on a separate partition so this shouldn't arise again anyway! Still, I've used Google Bookmarks for ages now and I find it really useful to be able to synchronise my bookmarks between different machines, so I imagine Google Browser Sync will be similarly useful.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Find your blog's reading level

Found this great website that discovers your blog's reading level. I've checked both Far Beyond the Edge of Reason and Easierbuntu and they are both College (Undergrad). Unsurprising for Easierbuntu perhaps, but I didn't think Far Beyond is terribly intellectual. But then it's probably based on word length and I do like long words!

If you have a blog, try it and see how readable it is!

blog readability test

Movie Reviews

Bully bother

Sorry things have been a bit quiet lately, been busy and haven't had the time to post! Spent Saturday evening on the Ubuntu Forums. Managed to resolve a few queries, which felt good! I know I already help people with Ubuntu by running Easierbuntu, but it's nice to know I can help newbies in other ways as well!

I noticed today this article on BoingBoing about the game Bully (known here in the UK as Canis Canem Edit), made by Rockstar Vancouver. Apparently the Canadian Teachers' Federation's head has called for the XBox 360 and Wii version to be banned. Now, a Ubisoft designer is offering to buy Emily Noble, head of the CTF, an XBox 360 or Wii and a copy of the game if she commits to entering a critical discussion of the game's merits.

Now, I am an avid fan of the PlayStation2 version of this game, and not just because it's a great game. Contrary to the name, the idea of the game is most certainly not to be a bully. It's to survive the bullies, and beat them. The main character, Jimmy Hopkins, actually says early in the game that "I only give people what's coming to them", and the game sticks rigidly to this. Not once does Jimmy pick a fight without justification, unless you start doing so, and then there are consequences (hit a girl or a small child, for instance, and the prefects will be down on you like a ton of bricks).

I myself had something of a bad time at school, but I really enjoyed Canis Canem Edit. To a certain extent, it's quite therapeutic! When one of the jocks picks a fight with you, it's possible to beat them up and bogwash them (swirlie to our US cousins). And I certainly imagine there's more than one school-age child who has been able to vicariously get revenge on school bullies in general through this game.

The fact is, people forget very quickly just what a truly horrible experience school is for many children or teenagers, and romanticise it. Now, at 29, I am a lot happier and more sure of myself than I ever was in my teens, mainly because I don't have to go to school with a bunch of obnoxious shits. Most of the people who were top of the heap at school wind up doing crap jobs in factories with 5 kids before they are 30.

So Canis Canem Edit is in many ways an accurate portrayal of school life as being a struggle. For that reason, I suggest the members of the CTF play the game properly, and then reconsider their opinions of it.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Hands On: GPC Mini Gives Mac Mini a Run for Its Money | Gadget Lab from

Hands On: GPC Mini Gives Mac Mini a Run for Its Money | Gadget Lab from

Check this out - the gPC Mini! Looks pretty cool and is nice and cheap, and comes with gOS preinstalled (but there's nothing to stop you putting on another Linux distro) and for a pretty good price too. If it came to the UK I'd buy one as a cheap Linux desktop. I'd probably change the OS (possibly to Debian as I've tried that lately and quite like it), but it's reasonably powerful and has a decent-sized hard drive.

From what I've heard, the Everex Cloudbook isn't that great, but this is a great machine, and looks stylish too - could make a good MythTV box.

Monday, 3 March 2008

The Slackware Report

Well, having used Slackware, I quite liked it! I had to start the X Window Server myself from the command line with the startx command, and I couldn't seem to log in as myself, only as root, but I was able to get it working in VirtualBox. It booted up to a very nice, fully featured KDE 3.5 desktop with loads of applications installed. It also has the option of using Xfce as well as a number of window managers. Only thing is, I'm used to the convenience of the Debian package manager as used in Ubuntu, and although Slackware apparently does have a package manager, it's based on tar packages, which would be a big change for me. If I change distros at some time in the future, it will very likely be to Debian.

I also tried out Zenwalk, which is based on Slackware but made easier, in the same way as Ubuntu is based on Debian, but made easier (the only difference being that Debian is a great deal easier than Slackware to start with, IMHO). Didn't like that so much.

I've also gotten the Live CD for Linux From Scratch, which is essentially a kit for rolling your own Linux distro. I may try this at some point, but also may try remastering Ubuntu using one of the many tools available to produce my own custom version.

Anyway, where has the weekend gone?

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Out goes Gentoo, in comes Slackware...

Got kind of stumped by Gentoo - it wouldn't boot into the Live CD mode in VirtualBox. That's a shame as I was really looking forward to trying it - maybe I'll give it a go on a real machine sometime. I was planning to do a fresh install when Hardy Heron comes out so I can try it then seeing as I'll have to do all the setting up again anyway.

So I've decided to try another technical distro instead: Slackware. This is a distro based on simplicity (not necessarily for the end user, more a case of it being a simple, bare-bones distro with very little hand-holding. Last time I tried it with Slackware 11.0 I didn't get very far, but now I have a simple guide to installing Slackware 12.0 as well as a DVD copy thanks to Linux Format magazine. We'll have to see how this goes...

Trying another distro

Having managed to cope OK using Debian, a fairly complex Linux distro, in VirtualBox, I'm now going to try a new one: Gentoo. This is among the most difficult of distros to use as you basically compile the whole thing yourself from scratch. Should be interesting, but I suspect I will not get very far!

I managed to get an Enlightenment desktop set up in VirtualBox OK, but the end result isn't that great. There's no doubt that Enlightenment can be the basis of a fantastic lightweight desktop, but really I'd have to use it full time to do that, which I don't really want to do. Ditto for IceWM, although if I had an old computer that wasn't up to running Kubuntu I would use IceWM on that.

But wish me luck on Gentoo!

A weird image...

Was just visiting the page for Digsby, a new IM client. Unfortunately it's in private beta, so you need an invite code to use it, so I have sent off an email requesting one. While I was at the site, I saw the CAPTCHA for registering:

I guess some people might be offended by this! Good thing I'm not religious!

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Window Managers

I've spent much of today playing with Ubuntu in VirtualBox on my Vista laptop. I got hold of a copy of the iso image for the alternate install of Ubuntu Gutsy, and used this to install a command-line only system in VirtualBox.

From there, I just needed to edit my /etc/apt/sources.list to remove the CD-ROM from my sources, sudo apt-get update and sudo apt-get upgrade to get everything up to date. Then I was free to start tinkering, installing window managers to try them out.

Once you've got your command line install working and up to date, you need to add the xorg package to install the X Window Server. I also installed xdm to let me log in graphically. From there, you can just install the window manager of your choice.

My favourite so far has to be IceWM, which resembles old versions of Windows in appearance, and is fairly simple to configure, although I'd have to stick with it a while to be able to get to use it properly. Technically I'm already using it (my Eee PC uses IceWM for the tabbed interface in normal mode), but I like the possibilities of it.

Enlightenment is, in my opinion, a better window manager and looks nicer, but E17 (the most recent version as used in OpenGEU and gOS)hasn't yet been officially released and so isn't in the Ubuntu repositories, while E16 I don't like.

So I'm currently installing E17 using a deb package from to download and compile it from scratch. It's certainly taking its time, but I'm hoping the results will be interesting.