Saturday, May 22, 2010

Debian “testing” vs Ubuntu “stable”

SuperUser has an interesting question and answer page.
Ubuntu and Debian are my two favourite distos. Ubuntu has the more up-to-date packages, but Debian is more stable. I'd been toying with the idea of trying Debian Testing, to get more up-to-date packages, but the Q&A page pretty much coalesced my ideas- for me, the stability is becoming more appealing than the desire for the latest packages. If I really want the excitement of getting the latest packages reasonably promptly, Ubuntu, the way I came, would be the way to go (or in fact, return).
Ubuntu is a reasonable compromise between features and stability- LTS releases a good compromise- and Debian is an excellent choice for a rock-solid system, although the packages become a little dated as the release ages.
Debian Testing is for people who enjoy regular updates, regular new features and fixing problems. One of the things about Debian Stable (Lenny) that is growing on me is the complete lack of updates I've seen- consistency from month to month seems to be comfy rather than boring. Quite a contrast to Ubuntu, where something seems to get updated every few days.
I have to say I am looking forward to the release of Debian Squeeze, and some updated packages, possibly in the autumn (the release date is uncertain)?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Port is closed" in Transmission

Getting a Port is open or Port is closed message in Transmission has seemed to me to be a matter of luck rather than technical skill for quite a long time now.
I'd thought I'd finally worked out the problem recently, when I applied a maximum upload limit of 80% of the upload capacity provided by my ISP*. This seemed to result in a predictable Port is open message. (I'm guessing that having Transmission use 100% of upload capacity interferes with the ability of the computer to receive connection- it certainly interfered with the ability to browse the web. The explanation seems to be that the computer needs to be able to send information in order to receive it, and with 100% upload capacity used, incoming information is blocked even if the download capacity is not used at 100%.)
However, I began noticing slow download rates on occasion, along with the Port is closed message. With an open port, I'd get up to 60KiB/s; with a closed port, around 5KiB/s. As far as I could tell, the port wasn't really closed: port forwarding on the router was enabled, and ShieldsUp! said the port was open.
I was beginning to think it was an issue with my router. Sometimes restarting the router would give a Port is open message, sometimes restarting the router and Transmission... I was back to thinking getting a Port is open message was a random event.
Then I came across this page at the Transmission forum. The Port is closed message seems to be a common problem, and while for many it may be caused by an incorrect router or firewall set-up, it also seems to be a problem for several people who do have the correct set-up.
Doing some more Googling, I found several examples of technically competent users who had problems getting a Port is open message. I couldn't find an answer to the problem, but I'm convinced there is a problem.
I decided to try out another BitTorrent client, Deluge. So far, I haven't had the same problem- my port is correctly identified as open.
*The Deluge site includes a good user guide with information on bandwidth tweaking.
UPDATE: On a couple of occasions over the past few weeks, I've noticed a very slow download rate in Deluge (this morning, <1KiB/s). Restarting the router has given me a much higher download rate (~30KiB/s, for the same torrent). Deluge has always shown the port as 'open'.
My best guess is that the Port is closed message in Transmission is, at least on occasion, caused by router/ISP problems, rather than errors in the way port forwarding is set up. Perhaps my router just 'clogs up' from time to time with all the incoming connections a BitTorrent client has open?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cleaning a CD drive

I'd been having problems with my CD/DVD drive. Yesterday it finally died. Unfortunately it was during a OS installation. At some point the installation would fail, usually with a message blaming failure to read the CD. I'd tried cleaning the drive with a lens cloth, so I more or less gave up on that computer, putting it aside for when I could afford a new CD drive.
Then, on my old computer, I thought I'd have a quick Google and see if I could find any advie that might resurect the drive.
One site I found recoomended cleaning the drive with a photographic lens cleaner- the type that blows air through a soft brush- and using 100% alcohol on a Q-tip in a circular motion.
I don't have a lens cleaner, but I found an old baby nose cleaner bulb- somewhat snotty but dry- some Turkish lemon cologne and a cotton bud. After some careful blowing around and cleaning of the laser lens, the drive was working again.
I was quite surprised, because I'd had a look at the lens through a powereful magnifying glass and it looked perfectely clean. Obviously even an invisible film of dirt can affect the laser beam. A tip worth remembering, but for best results, look for a real lens blower and proper cleaning alcohol.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Best Newbie Linux Distro

I'm been taking a look at some of the alternatives to Ubuntu, the Linux distribution I've been using for two and a half years now. Ubuntu tends to grab all of the attention as the distro for first-time users, but that could be unfair to several other alternatives. How do some of the alternatives compare?

I've taken a look at Debian, Mandriva and Fedora. (I might have tried Suse too, but the LiveCD has never worked on my computer.) After first trying a LiveCD, I installed all three distros and gave them a good try-0ut.

The core Linux philosophy is Free, as in Freedom, but I'm also interested in Free, as in Beer, so I took a look at how each distribution handled multimedia- Flash and MP3's in particular.

Debian was easy to install. It used to have a reputation for being difficult to install, but the new graphical installation interface was perhaps the easiest of all three to use. Debian is very strict about including only free and open source software, and the installation gave me an message about missing firmware. I made a note of the message, and in the end, all I had to do was enable Debian's non-free repository and install some firmware for my wireless card- not a big issue, but it could be tricky for new users, and no other distribution I tried was this strict, and installed the firmware without asking.
Debian is the distribution upon which Ubuntu is based, but its priority is more stability than latest features, and it is not targeted at new Linux users like Ubuntu. Using Debian reminded me of Ubuntu when I first started using it three years ago- a lot of the packages are old. They're stable of course, but they lack the latest features, and sometimes contain performance bugs that Ubuntu users will not be pleased to see again.
The look of the installation was austere- and I soon realised that desktop effects were not installed, as was the case when I first used Ubuntu three years ago. I'm not a fan of desktop cubes and wobbly windows, but a series of concentric boxes when closing a window takes me back to.... Windows 3.1, probably. The driver for my video card installed by Debian just doesn't support desktop effects, which came as an option with the other two distros and worked when enabled.
There's no equivalent of Ubuntu's restricted-extras package in Debian, which makes enabling multimedia less of a breeze. I got Flash and MP3's playing without too much trouble, but playing Flash files I'd saved to my hard drive resulted in an error message. With a bit of Googling, I found I just needed to install a Gstreamer plugin. Not too much of a big deal, but just another issue that would be off-putting for a newbie.
Debian generally doesn't go out of its way like Ubuntu to be user friendly or attractive- a lot of features that are enabled by default in Ubuntu are not present in Debian. They can be enabled, but it takes some Googling, some head scratching and some delving into system settings. Debian is in fact probably more designed for system administrators to use, rather than home users, and many of the system settings and messages reflect this.
Debian is a utilitarian distro. Which suits some users, but it's probably not the distribution to recommend to first-time Linux users.

Mandriva was another easy installation. Immediately after installation I noticed an update message for Mandriva 2009- strange, considering I'd installed 2010. Doing a update removed the message- but still, not a good first impression.
The Mandriva installation was up-to-date, attractive and fully-featured.
I'd installed Mandriva One, which comes with some proprietary components- notably Flash which is pre-installed. Mandriva has a unique approach to proprietary software- particularly multimedia codecs- among Linux distos I've tried. Clicking on an MP3 file for example, pops up a message about the nature of the MP3 format, and gives two options- installing the required proprietary codecs, or installing reverse engineered Linux alternatives. A very reasonable and honest approach, but unfortunately neither option worked for me, and the install button was positioned below the bottom of the screen on my laptop. Mandriva has a utility called Codeina which is supposed to "provide and install codecs for playing multimedia files in formats for which a codec is not already available on the system". By signing up, I was able to install the MP3 codec for free, but other codecs required a fee. Clicking on a downloaded Flash video file produced another message about installing proprietary codecs or Linux version from Mandriva- again it didn't work. I tried enabling a third-party repository of proprietary software for Mandriva, but again, no luck. (This seems to be a recognised bug.) Maybe paying to licence the codecs through Codeina would have worked. Maybe this actually the most ethical thing to do anyway, but I'm afraid this is where I gave up on Mandriva.
In summary, an attractive and user-friendly distro, if it weren't for the problems with multimedia.

By now I'd done half a dozen Linux installs on this laptop, dual booting with Windows, without any problems. However, I must have done something wrong with the Fedora installer, because I couldn't get either Fedora or Windows to boot, even after repeated attempts. Ferdora 13 (out in a week from now) is set to have a new graphical installer- I hope it's easier to use. In the end I just let Fedora use the whole disk (haven't used Windows in years). Fedora 12 at least is probably not the distro to choose if you're thinking about trying Linux alongside Windows.
Booting into my new installation, I hit a major bug- there were a lot of updates ready for the system, but the update process failed. I had to do a Google search and apply a Terminal command to get updates working: I think most newbies would have been lost here.
As with Mandriva, the Fedora installation was up-to-date, attractive and fully-featured.
The installation came with AbiWord, and I've always used OpenOffice. Installing open office wasn't too much of a trauma- I made the mistake of installing the entire package, which is a 800MB download, rather than the base package, which is 120MB- and anyway, Fedora 13 is set in come with OpenOffice.
Fedora comes with a security feature called SELinux. Google SELinux and the first hit tells you about it. (The second hit is how to disable it.) A lot of experienced Fedora users seem to dislike it. Within minutes of installing Fedora, it was blocking things I was trying to do and telling me I was possibly being hacked. If you've ever used an over-enthusiastic security program (HIPS or intrusion protection) on Windows, you'll be familiar with the experience. It probably something new users of Linux would not want to be trying to get their heads round while adapting to a new operating system.
Like Mandriva, and unlike Ubuntu, Fedora does not have a repository of software that is not available under a completely free license, or is not free. As in Mandriva, you have to enable a third-party repository. This is easy to do- just click on a link in a web page, enter your password, accept the source as trusted.... Anybody familiar with windows malware might be a little worried by this- if Linux becomes more popular, and fake repositories start appearing, and users are used to accepting third-party sources of software and giving their passwords... The Ubuntu system, where non-free software is available from Canonical itself inspires a lot more confidence.
The good news is that, once the third-party repository is installed, clicking on an unknown file format will bring up a dialogue asking if it's OK to install the necessary codec, and, if accepted, do it automatically.
I'm actually quite pleased with Fedora, and will certainly be keeping it long enough to try out Fedora 13. (A plus point for me is that the Gnome 3 shell preview works better in Fedora than Ubuntu, and I'm interested in seeing how that goes.)

In summary, it's easy to see why Ubuntu is one of the most popular distros with new users- it's easy to install and set up for everyday use, it's user-friendly, up-to-date with features and attractive. The three distros I tried all had disadvantages, or what I would see as disadvantages, for new users.
That's not to say a new user could not set up an installation to their liking- especially if they had support from a friend or colleague already using that distro. There are other user-friendly distros that I didn't try- Suse, PCLinuxOS etc., but Ubuntu remains one distro that can always be recommended to someone who wants to try out Linux with some confidence that they won't run into (for them) insurmountable obstacles either during or immediately after installation.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ubuntu's notification area 2

It's not hard to see where the inspiration comes from for the new Ubuntu panel design- and particularly the notification area.
Clean, elegant, organised, functional, predictable, consistent...
...and grey.
Apple OS X of course.

Here are the Ubuntu Lucid Lynx notification area and the Apple OSX Leopard notification area for comparison:

Here for comparison is a standard Gnome notification area:

Untidy, scruffy disorganised, unpredictable, individualistic.... and colourful.
For some reason, I actually prefer the standard Gnome notification area.
But I'll just have to get used to a new notification area regime eventually: Gnome 3 is moving in the same direction:

Ubuntu users are revolting!

Well, some of them.
Mark Shuttleworth is not, I repeat, IS NOT, a user experience expert or even a known aficionado. Instead of using his money and power to hire the best experts to decide (he does hire experts, but then he makes the decisions all by himself), he goes ahead with his own ideas, which have little to no foundation. This fact explains whimsical decisions like placing the window control buttons on the left and also why he couldn't explain the decision rationally (he still can't, by the way).

This new idea comes out of nowhere again. Canonical hosts and sponsors Gnome hackfests where people like Seth Nickel attend explaining interesting and grounded ideas, then Mark mostly ignores them and goes back to his particular playground, i.e., the Ubuntu OS.

Sure, Ubuntu is owned by him, he can play with it as much as he likes. I just wanted to point out, in a website like this, that zealotry and blind following to this guy's whimsical ideas is NOT a good idea. He needs criticising -and some serious one- or Ubuntu will become the Apple of the Linux world.
I have to agree to some extent. I don't like the new Ubuntu notifications, the messaging menu, the new notification regime, buttons on the left, or the any-colour-you-like-as-long-as-it's-grey notification colour scheme. But most of all I don't like the changes coming in piecemeal with every new release.
By the time Mark Shuttleworth has finished changing the look of Gnome, he may well have come up with something much better than he started out with. (The OMG! Ubuntu blog has some hints at changes in line for Meercat.) However, Gnome itself is set for a big change around that time with Gnome 3 and the Gnome shell. (which Ubuntu may ignore: OMG! Ubuntu again.) Whichever rework of the Gnome design turns out to be more popular, I suspect long-term users of other distro's will find the radical change to the Gnome 3 shell easier than the bit-by-bit changes to Ubuntu.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Destop design (1995-2010)

I've mentioned recently how I like to minimise applications like music players to the notification area, and talked about alternative method of minimising to an icon- using a dock.
Now I learn that Ubuntu is set to kill its notification area.
I quite like the old system of minimising documents to the taskbar and putting running applications in the "notification area"- system which apparently originated with Windows 95 (although the "abuse" of the notification area to hold any old application came from third-parties, not MS).
How to avoid running applications in the notification area? I learnt recently that a lot of Ubuntu users have applications like music players running full screen on a different desktop and simply switch desktops. Seems like a good solution, but I've never really got into using more than one desktop.
I recently came across a way to see what's running on different desktops and switch between them, using Compiz and the "Windows" key. The keyboard short-cuts Super (aka the Windows key) + W brings up all desktops and shows what's running. It seems there are a lot of useful Compiz keyboard short-cuts I never knew about.
The way the short-cut worked reminded me of the Gnome 3 shell, which I've been trying out recently- clicking on Activities in the shell opens a window with the desktop or desktops, plus a panel menu.
As a way of organising open applications, I'm going to try having four desktops, and running one application full screen on each desktop. For somebody who has been using the taskbar and notification area for so long, it'll be a case of teaching an old dog new tricks, but with any luck the dog is not yet too old to learn.
The Gnome 3 shell is due for release in September 2010.