Monday, August 22, 2011

Gnome users are revolting II

I currently have Debian Squeeze installed on my computer, and Fedora 15 on a Live USB, and I'm booting into both from time to time. This gives me a good idea of how Gnome 3 in Fedora compares to Gnome 2 in Debian in terms of ease and pleasure of use as a desktop environment.
I have to say, when I boot into Debian now I feel disappointment that I won't be using Gnome 3. I miss the modern environment of Gnome 3, and not the Windows 95 paradigm of Gnome 2. Now there are some modern inventions that are just a trend, a fashion, and don't make our lives easier. We might get exited about them at the time, but a decade or so later we might be back to using whatever we were using before, because the fashion has come round again, or the novelty has worn off the new invention and we realised what we were missing in the old.
I don't believe that's true with Gnome 3. I think it really is a step forward in ease of use, but I've seen some strong claims to the opposite, for example, this from Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols on ZDNet:
The idea of GNOME 3 was to get rid of clutter OK, I can see that, but in doing it GNOME’s designers had made GNOME less usable For example, in shifting from one project to another in your workspace you need to use the dashboard as a window management interface For me, this is like having to stop my car to shift gears That by itself is so annoying that I quickly stopped using GNOME 3.0.
I decided to do a comparison between Gnome 2 and Gnome 3. This a screen shot of my bottom panel in Gnome 2 on a particularly busy "workspace":

OK one click will shift from one "project" to another, but it's quite difficult to see what window each button will open. Quite often I maximise the wrong window and it takes several clicks till I find the one I'm looking for.

Here's a screen shot of my workspace in Fedora with the same number of windows open.

Yes, I have to push the mouse cursor into the top right of the screen to see it, or click the Activities button, or hit the Windows button on my keyboard, but once I've done that, it's easy to read the description for each window, and even with 13 windows, the thumbnails give me a pretty good idea of what each window is- it's easy to recognise an image file I'm working on, for example.

I could move windows to separate workspaces in Gnome 2, but I have never got into the habit. Gnome 3 certainly makes it a lot easier to do:

To my mind, Gnome 3 is easier to use. Of course, when we get used to a way of doing something, it becomes easy to do, and when we move to a new way of doing something it's hard to do. The difficulty of just doing something different can stop us seeing that we're actually doing something easier. Of course the ultimate judgement is personal, but I think I'll be using Gnome 3 more and more in the future.
I'm not sure that it is ultimately the easiest way of organising windows- I think that docks like Docky and Avant Window Navigator do things better in some ways, grouping open windows under the icon of their common program. Now what I'd really like to see in Gnome 3 would be the quick launch bar having some of the functionality of a dock, with icons indicating which programs have windows open, and hovering over the icon producing a pop up list- something like this Docky Screen shot.

Update: I just realised that Gnome does have this functionality- icons that have windows open are indicated by a very subtle down glow (so subtle I'd missed it) and right click brings up the menu.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

MP3 in Fedora 15

I've been using a Fedora 15 Live USB to test Gnome 3, and also looking at how easy Fedora 15 is to do everyday task. Probably one of my most common everyday tasks on Linux is listening to MP3s and watching rips of TV shows and films. I was able to do this on Fedora 15 without much trouble, by following a series of notifications and advice links. Today I came across a review of Fedora 15 where the author (a person with lot more IT experience than me) has gone down the same road as me but somehow failed to reach the end.
Movie player is default application for MP3 files and it suggests to search for MP3 plugin. Of course I want to search. And search is... unsuccessful. Manual search in Package Manager is also unsuccessful. You probably know that MP3 support in Fedora is famous topic.
This has inspired me to write a walk-through for anybody struggling to listen to MP3s or play a movie in Fedora 15. (I've chosen a video file for this walk-through because I get video and MP3 working in one swell foop.)

The review writer has done what I did, tried to play a file and seen a notification about missing plugins and an option to search for them:

Here we go with the search:

And my search is also unsuccessful:

(I think that notification should really say Failed to find plugin.)

However, if the review author had clicked the More information button, he would have found the answer. The button launches the Fedora Project Wiki page:
If you're seeing this page, it is probably because you tried to search for something in PackageKit, but it could not find what you were looking for in the Fedora repositories. Look at the contents below to find information about specific issues you might encounter.
Scroll down the page and you'll find that the decoders you need are actually codecs which cannot be included in the Fedora repository because they are "patent encumbered or under an unacceptable license", and that you need to get them from a third party repository. Follow the link and you'll be offered several. I've used before, so I clicked on that, and then on the Enable RPM Fusion on your system link. I opted for Graphical setup via Firefox web browser, and selected Fedora 15. This brings up the option to open an rpm file:

After the download, there's a prompt to install the file:

A request for additional confirmation:

[Update: Repeat the process for the nonfree repository.]

Now we go back to our media file and try to play it again. We get the same notification about missing plugins- but don't be disheartened:

This time the search finds the plugins we need (in the third party repository we added, of course).

And we get another request for additional confirmation (and a chance to look at the packages that are going to be installed).

Then we are asked if we trust the source of the packages. (This is important! In this case, we can trust the signed packages from this trusted source, but clicking through confirmation dialogues like this without being sure is not a good habit to get into.)

And finally we can watch our film. (And listen to MP3s too, as the film required the MP3 codec.)

Update: Tried this procedure myself after a clean install of Fedora 16, and although video worked, MP3 coded audio in video (or indeed, just MP3 files) wouldn't.
In the end the solution was to manually install the GStreamer  streaming media framework "ugly" plug-ins and the Non Free GStreamer streaming media framework "bad" plug-ins.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Printing and scanning with HP Deskjet 3050 on Fedora 15

I've been running Fedora 15 from a Live USB drive, primarily to test Gnome 3, but I've also been wondering how easy it would be to do all the things I need to do on my computer on Fedora 15.
Today I tried to use my printer to print and scan. It's an HP deskjet j610 wireless printer/scanner which I'd previously configured in Debian and now connects to my router. In Debian Squeeze I'd had to manually install the latest version of the HP printer software hplip, because new versions of the software come out regularly to support new printer and Squeeze came with a version in the repositories that was too old to recognise my printer. Fedora 15 has just been released, so I hoped it would come with HP software up-to-date enough to work with my printer.
I managed to print fairly easily. I went to Applications>Other>Printing and my printer was listed as a Network printer. Adding the printer prompted for the download of an HP driver, and after tinstalling the driver, I was able to print a test page.
Scanning was more of a problem. Simple Scan was installed but couldn't see my scanner. I reckoned I would need hplip again, so I installed that [from the Fedora repository, not from HP]. I found I also needed hplip-gui. However, the hplip GUI disn't automatically discover my printer, and I had to add the printer's IP address (look in the router's DHCP Client List or print the report in the wireless section of the printer menu) using Manual Discovery.

After the manual discovery, hplip recognised my printer and I could do a scan in Simple Scan. However, I also found the HP Deskjet 3050 was listed twice in Printers now, so installing and setting hplip might be the best way to set up the printer- hplip can also check ink levels which is useful.

[I did this from a Live USB- in an actual install, I had to enter username root and the root password  to add the printer.]

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Microsoft's bad reputation(s)

A new report claims that Internet Explorer 9 is far better at blocking socially-engineered malware than other browsers. (This is malware which tricks the user into installing it rather than look for security weakness in software to install automatically.) IE9 is claimed to have a 96% protection rate, and its closest rival only a 13% protection rate.

Normally I'm quite sceptical of reports like this because they often turn out to have been sponsored by the firm that did so well, and that the test proves to have been biased in some way to favour the sponsor's product.
In this case, this doesn't seem to be true. The test is not Microsoft funded and the testing organisation seems to have gathered its own test samples. (However, Trend Micro has contested the findings.)
Microsoft has achieved this success using something it calls SmartScreen URL Reputation and Application Reputation. In other words, they are trying to blacklist every malicious URL that comes into existence, and whitelist every good download that exists on the web. Their users will be warned if a web site is malicious or if a download is known to be good.
How does Microsoft identify malicious URLs? explains:
SmartScreen's reputation systems begin with telemetry feeds: reports from end users, data from third parties, traffic from URLs showing up in e-mail, logs from our services, etc. Some of these feeds contain billions of URLs per day. Other feeds contain URLs that a third party has certified to be known phishing sites, and still others contain little more than the fact that an URL has appeared in spam e-mail messages.
(End users? Does that mean that Microsoft checks every URL Internet Explorer users visit? Well, as Microsoft call it a cloud-based URL-reputation service, I would imagine yes. Cloud based would imply that URLs are sent to the mother ship to be categorised good or bad, or investigated if unknown.)

These feeds are checked largely by an artificial intelligence, but in some cases by human analysts.
we take every URL in every feed and use machine learning to predict the probability that the URL is abusive. At a high level, this involves examining each URL for suspicious substrings (for example, the word "pharmacy" in the URL), looking up the history of the URL–its associated domain, IPs, DNS servers, routers, subnets, ASNs–and combining these into tens of thousands of potentially predictive features for the URL. We then apply models based in machine learning, which pore over these features and separate the abusive URLs from the honest ones. Most of the time, we are confident enough in the findings of our machine learning engine that we can flag a URL as abusive based on this recommendation alone. Sometimes a URL is suspicious but we're not certain; we send many of these suspicious URLs to our analysts for final classification.
Microsoft seems to be being quite aggressive in extending this list of suspected malicious URLs:
With the right evidence, SmartScreen's reputation system will flag whole domains as abusive.

URLs and domains are concepts that let humans refer to computers. But every computer that's directly on the Internet also has a numeric code, called its IP address, that lets other computers refer to it. For example, might be the IP address of the computer that's running the web server that's hosting the domain. SmartScreen's reputation system tracks these as well and will mark specific web server IP addresses as abusive. SmartScreen will also generalize to other computers "in the neighborhood" of known bad ones. For example, IP addresses are often allocated in blocks, and it's likely that the person who owns also owns and .144 and .145. We use knowledge about the way infrastructure blocks are allocated–into subnets, ASN (Autonomous System Number) blocks, the way message routing works, and more–to figure out what other computers the abusers own, and prevent those abusers from attacking Microsoft customers.

DNS servers are another key to SmartScreen's reputation system. DNS servers translate the URLs that you type into your browser into the IP addresses used by computers. SmartScreen assigns a lower reputation score to DNS servers that seem to know just a little bit too much about abusive domain names.
The aim is to increase the "costs that abusers incur as we dig deeper into their infrastructure".


But is Microsoft being too aggressive in blocking URLs, and downloads, because the Application Reputation system is also URL based?
The Sophos nakedsecurity blog contends that there is a 30-75% chance that Application Reputation warnings will be a false positive.
There's certainly evidence that Microsoft is sometimes getting it wrong:
Ever since the release of Internet Explorer 9, we (and other smaller sites) have been plagued by visitors who, when they attempt to download our stationery files, see a strong warning in Internet Explorer 9 about downloading and installing our files. This is worrisome. Even visitors who have been downloading our stationery for over a decade are writing and expressing their concern about the safety of our files.

We’ve changed nothing as far as the way our files are created. The problem lies with Microsoft and Internet Explorer 9′s obviously misnamed, SmartScreen filter.
And concern that Microsoft's aggressive attitude to abusers is damaging legitimate users:
When users who know us and have trusted us for years write us expressing their concern, what do you think users who have just discovered our site are going to do? You’re right: They’re going to leave and never come back. There is nothing we can do about it – Microsoft doesn’t care about the damage this kind of thing causes to small, niche sites like ours. They’re concerned about Microsoft and protecting what’s left of its reputation.

The Sophos nakedsecurity blog identifies the problem:
Users think, "If this were truly dangerous, it would have simply been blocked, right?" Microsoft's statistics show that in a real world attack 99% of users did delete the file, but this warning message is still a new phenomenon. It will be interesting to see how many click through over the long run.

Even worse, if up to 75% of the time you get the warning you are downloading a legitimate file, will you continue to pay attention to the warning when it really matters?
The statistics show that at the moment the warnings are causing Internet Explore 9 users to delete legitimate downloads. Internet Explorer 9 users need to be aware of this issue.

Microsoft may be saving you from yourself (to save its reputation?), but handing out some undeserved bad reputations. Don't assume that a SmartScreen download warning mean a file is malware, but don't become complacent and assume a warning is a false-positive too. Get the balance right.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Fedora 15 Live USB

I've been trying Fedora 15 (and Gnome 3) from a Live USB. I've had a Live CD since the beta but my CD is failing and read errors mean programs fail to launch even if the OS does load. I'd tried a USB installation a year or so ago when I was distro hopping, but without luck. This time the USB boot worked, with only a minor hitch.
I downloaded the Live image from Fedora,and copied it to my USB drive using these instructions. I then bumped up the USB drive in my BIOS boot options and let the computer reboot... to see this message:
isolinux.bin missing or corrupt
I'd made a small error in the device name of the USB. After copying the Live image correctly, I could boot into Fedora.
The USB boot is stable and fast, and fun to play with.
I'm tempted to install it and get used to it, but this is my "production environment" as computers you occasionally do some work on from time to time are described nowadays, and I don't want to be scrabbling to install a printer or scanner or get email working on a new system.
I haven't used Gnome 3 long enough to say anything other than I'm enjoying it so far, except, why did Fedora make the Gnome icon set the default? The Gnome icon set is dull. The icons look like they were created around the same time as Windows 95.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fedora 15 has Gnome 3 has the story (although they're too dumb to realise they've posted a screenshot of Fedora 13 running Gnome 2. Epic fail, I believe the appropriate colloquial comment on the interwebs). also reports that Linus Torvalds doesn't like Gnome 3.
I've tried Gnome 3 on the Fedora live CD, and I would love to install Fedora and try it for longer, maybe as a dual boot with Debian Squeeze, but my CD drive is failing and keeps crashing while running live CD's or install disks.
I had to make do with this in-depth trial report from Adam Craig (actually of the Fedora 15 beta). It pretty much sums up my impressions of Gnome 3, and my feeling that people should try out Gnome 3 for a couple of weeks before condemning it. Something that's been round for a long time and we're all used to is not always the best way of doing things. After all, Gnome 2 is basically a Windows 95 paradigm.

Flash player 11 beta

Flash player 11 beta is available from Adobe. As I mentioned in a previous post, if you already have the Flash player installed on Linux, it's just a case of dropping the new file into the right directory.
The big news seems to be 64 bit support (which I don't need) but there are other new features.
I wonder if the new version will work with my web cam?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ripping to be legal in UK

Millions of people regularly convert movies on DVDs and music on CDs into a format that they can move around more easily, although most do not realise that it technically illegal.

"The review pointed out that if you have a situation where 90% of your population is doing something, then it's not really a very good law," said Simon Levine, head of the intellectual property and technology group at DLA Piper.

BBC News Technology.