Tuesday, December 29, 2009

MSN video chat in Ubuntu 2

I wrote previously about video chat using the MSN network coming to Ubuntu.
Yesterday I finally got the chance to test it- with disappointing results. The video option in Empathy was greyed out, even with my web cam plugged in. I switched to Emesene and clicked the web cam icon. I got an error message that Libmimic was not installed.
I checked in Synaptic, and found that Libmimic0 was installed. However, I noticed that Python-Libmimic was not. Thinking that Emesene might be written in the Python programming language and require it, I installed it. After restarting Emesene, I didn't get the error message any more, and could see my web cam, but the person I was trying to chat to couldn't.
Frustrated, I rebooted into Windows.
What went wrong?
Doing some Googling later on (back in Ubuntu) I came up with a possible explanation for why the video option in Empathy is greyed out- some required packages for the MSN network are not installed by default. The official Ubuntu documentation says that python-tpfarsight is required; a post on the Ubuntu forum suggests python-msn is required. I haven't had a chance to test Empathy with video chat yet, but hopefully it'll work now.
I don't seem to be alone with the Emesene problem. Somebody had exactly the same issue on the Ubuntu forum. I have no idea why the other party could not see my web cam- maybe a reboot will have fixed it. Again, I haven't tested yet.
UPDATE: seems MS broke video chat in Linux by changing the way their Windows Live Messenger does video chat.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ad blocking in Opera

Yes, I know they pay for sites, but ads are just too in-your-face, irritating and dumb. Not on all sites, but blame the sites that have flashing ads, video ads, ads for junk, even ads with sound. Here's how to block ads in Opera.
Go to Tools>Advanced>Blocked Content. Now all you have to do is enter some of the most common ad server web addresses. Addresses have to be entered one by one. Blogote has a short list that doesn't take too long to enter and seems to be effective.
Opera stores the web addresses in a file called urlfilter.ini. A longer list of ad server addresses can be entered into this file. Tamil has A full description and a list of ad server addresses.
urlfilter.ini does not exist by default. Use the first method to add a few addresses and Opera will create the file. The longer list can then be cut and paste in, making sure addresses follow the same format.

Update: Opera 11 now has extensions- and there are a couple of ad blockers available, so this post is now redundant.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Email notification in Ubuntu

Previous versions of Ubuntu came with Pidgin as the Instant Messenger program. It also notified of emails arriving to account mailboxes- Hotmail, Yahoo, Google etc. The new IM program in Ubuntu Karmic is Empathy. It has video chat (the developers of Pidgin didn't consider it important) but not email notification (the developers of empathy don't consider it important).
So I thought I'd try Empathy but look for an email notification program. There seem to be a number that work with GMail, but I wanted something that would work with my old Hotmail and Yahoo! accounts as well.
I settled on Mail-Notification, but not without a number of days spent getting the program to work correctly. These were the problems and issues I encountered:
  1. Mail-Notification has options for Hotmail and Yahoo! accounts but they don't work "out of the box".
  2. Hotmail and Yahoo! can be accessed using SSL, but SSL doesn't work "out of the box" with Mail-Notification.
  3. Mail-Notification's GMail alerts don't integrate with Ubuntu's notification system "out of the box".
  4. Mail-Notification doesn't provide an option to go to webmail pages for accounts other than GMail "out of the box".
Here are the solutions I found. I'll start with 2. because that's what I tried first.

Mail-Notification comes without SSL support.

SSL support is disabled in Mail-Notification due to licensing issues. SSL is required to access Hotmail or Yahoo! accounts via POP3. A version of Mail-Notification with SSL can be downloaded here or compiled as described here. (Beware: Ubuntu will offer the version with SSL disabled as an update. Decline the update to keep using SSL.)

The disadvantage of using POP3 to access Hotmail and Yahoo! is that POP3 does not provide a method of reporting which emails are new, so all mail on the server will be reported as new, even if that's a couple of hundred of ancient emails on Hotmail.

I wanted to be informed of new emails, not all emails in my Hotmail or Yahoo! accounts, no matter how old, so I looked for a solution to 1.

Mail-Notification Hotmail and Yahoo! account options don't work

Mail-Notification actually requires the installation of a couple of scripts which it uses to access Hotmail and Yahoo! accounts: GetLive and FetchYahoo! These can be installed via Synaptic, but the installed versions are out of date and don't work. Here's how to sort out the problems:


Install GetLive from Synaptic or command line.
Download the latest version of the script here.
Open Nautilus with root privileges (gksu nautilus in a terminal) and navigate to usr/bin.
Drop the latest version of the script in usr/bin, but make sure it is named "GetLive" not "getlive".
Right click on the script and select Open with Other Application>gedit.
Replace $Mode = "200810" with $Mode = "200909"
Credit for solution here and here.
(The problem with Mail-Notification looking for "GetLive" and not "getlive" is due to be fixed in a later release- after which it may be necessary to name the script "getlive"; Microsoft may alter the Live Mail access protocol again in the future, so check the link for updates if this fix fails.)


Install via Synaptic or command line.
Download the latest version, unpack and replace the fetchyahoo! script in usr/bin again using Nautilus with root privileges.

(A minor irritation with FetchYahoo! is that it marks emails on the server as read, before you have actually opened the webmail page and read them- so after a while Yahoo! emails disappear from Mail-Notification. GetLive displays mail headers but leaves emails marked as unread.)

Mail-Notification's GMail notifications don't integrate with Ubuntu's notifications

Open gconf-editor in a terminal and navigate to /apps/mail-notification/popups/actions.
Edit the key and delete all the actions.
GMail notifications will then appear as the now-standard Ubuntu notification, although without an "Open" option. (This option is still available in the Mail-Notification menu, or by clicking the icon if you have the "Open last email" option selected.)
Credit here.

Mail-Notification doesn't provide "Open Message" options for Hotmail and Yahoo!

Go to Properties>Status Icon and select "Open the latest message".
Open a new file and paste in the following (Substitute the name of your default browser for Firefox if applicable):
firefox http://[Your Hotmail webmail address]
Name your script "open_hotmail.sh", save it in "~/bin" ((home/bin) and make it executable (right-click>Properties>Permissions).
Add this to the Hotmail mailbox attributes in mailboxes.xml:
open-command="~/bin/open_hotmail.sh %filename"
Repeat for other accounts substituting the account name for Hotmail.
Clicking on the Mail-Notification icon will now open the last mail, whichever account it's from.
(See section 5.1.2 of the Mail-Notification help file.)
Credit here for help to get this working.)

A final minor problem with Mail-Notification is that the icon only appears in the panel when there is new mail. To alter properties or add accounts, open gconf-editor in a terminal, navigate to /apps/mail-notification and check "always-display-icon".

[UPDATE] Mail Notification appears in the System>Preferences menu and can be configured from there. Apologies for the misleading information.

[UPDATE 2] There's a new email notification program available. OMGUbuntu has the details.

[UPDATE 3]Ubuntu users can install Mail-Notification with SSL enabled from a repository here.

Bad Karma?

Is Ubuntu Karmic Koala possibly the best operating system on the planet or causing outrage and frustration, with early adopters wishing they'd stuck with previous versions of the Linux distro?
The truth is that Karmic Koala has a few bug, just like any new release.
Ubuntu is a "bleeding edge" distro: latest versions introduce new features that come with bugs.
Which is why the Long Term Support version is still at 8.04 (Karmic is 9.10).

We issue a new desktop and server release every six months. That means you'll always have the latest and greatest applications that the open source world has to offer. Ubuntu is designed with security in mind. You get free security updates for at least 18 months on the desktop and server.

A new LTS version is usually released every 2 years. With the Long Term Support (LTS) version you get 3 years support on the desktop, and 5 years on the server. There is no extra fee for the LTS version, we make our very best work available to everyone on the same free terms. Upgrades to new versions of Ubuntu are and always will be free of charge.
Want stability? Stick with the LTS. Want the latest features and hardware support? Give the latest version a go, but expect a few bugs. Want a good compromise? Update to new versions a few months after they come out when most of the bugs will have been knocked out.

Where's Windows at?

My first experience of Microsoft Windows was Windows 3.1, if memory serves. After that, I must have used various incarnations at times ('95, '98, 2000) before using XP on a regular basis on my own computers. Now we have Windows 7, but where is Windows really at?
Was Vista really Windows 7, and is Windows 7 really just Vista SP3?
My own experience with XP was that it wasn't as good as it could have been when it came out, but MS improved it over the years and now XP SP3 is an excellent operating system- with some life left in it thanks to the fact that so many Netbooks use it now. I had an option to upgrade to Vista on my last computer, but didn't take it up, because I hadn't heard good things about the OS.
Vista users are not so lucky- they face paying for an upgrade to get the OS that Vista should have been- i.e. Windows 7, a.k.a. Vista SP3.
Does staying with XP make sense. Well, XP is actually faster in some tests than Vista and Windows 7. Scott M. Fulton, III at BetaNews gives this reasonable advice:
Meanwhile, many very intelligent XP users who skipped out on the whole Vista debacle, may be considering whether to purchase a Windows 7 "upgrade" package, or a new computer with Win7 already on it. The dilemma for them has less to do with the operating system than with the state of their computer: Too many 2002-era single-core PCs out there have a single hard drive that's littered with media files and documents that have never been offloaded, perhaps never even backed up. Many are running Office XP, because their businesses run Office XP (on Windows 2000), perhaps because they can't install a newer version of Office without breaking their VPN software. Like bacteria cultures, their computers have become mossy, overgrown hives of inactivity, where sometimes the Internet works and sometimes it doesn't.

For these folks...it's time already. The world has evolved, and it's a lot nicer out here now. It's time for that long-overdue visit to the toxic waste disposal facility.

On the other hand, if you are running Windows XP on a modern, multi-core system, that's well-managed with its data files on an independent drive from the system device, whose networking is fast and crystal-clear, whose media files are all well organized, and that's secured by hardware and software firewalls along with non-intrusive anti-malware utilities, then is there a compelling reason for you to consider keeping the hardware and upgrading the operating system to Windows 7?

I say there is: The genuine advances that the Vista kernel (especially the 64-bit kernel) made to system security are all present in Windows 7 (which even technically speaking is really Windows 6.1). The truly good ideas that Vista advanced, especially with regard to software access policies, are all present in Windows 7. But you're not paying a significant performance penalty for them.
Does it make sense to pay for an upgrade?
Even after reading this, one question probably still remains on many readers' minds: If Windows 7 truly represents the level of functionality that Vista should have provided from the beginning, then shouldn't Microsoft be paying for it and not the public?

If Vista were an insecure system, then I would say yes. It was not. It was an annoying system, especially with "features" like the Black Screen of Death. But it was not Windows Me, the travesty of code that represents the absolute nadir of Microsoft's development history, the "Disco Era" for Windows.

Even then, however, I said Windows XP was worth paying for. XP -- the first version, the one I said in hindsight was desperately in need of a transplant. The fact that I value my time (with a calculator) is just one reason. The fact that I value the developers' time spent making this work, is the other. Yes, I've said Windows 7 is "Vista Service Pack 3," and I stand by that. But in terms of the work Microsoft's people are genuinely devoting to improving the quality of this product (whose quality needed improvement), I do believe it is worth the investment. Windows Me was not worth the investment; Windows 98 (pre-OSR2) was not worth the investment.

But as anyone who's done the work knows, cleaning up crap is a dirty job. Someone has to do it, and there are days I'm glad it's not me. Windows 7 is cleaner, brighter, and sanitized for your convenience. And that's worth the tip.
I honestly look forward to trying out Windows 7 at some point in the future- but for the life of this computer, it will run XP SP3 and, of course, the latest version of Ubuntu.

Monday, October 19, 2009

GB english spellchecker in Opera 10 on Linux

Opera 10 has added an inline spell checker which checks spelling in web forms, but the default (and only) dictionary in the Linux version is US English. Here is how to add GB English, and other languages.
Curiously, the Windows version already has a GB English dictionary option.
UPDATE: This post is now obsolete (and the link above dead). The current version of Opera has a menu option to add spell check dictionaries.

Monday, October 12, 2009

MSN video chat in Ubuntu

Video chat is possible in Ubuntu (Ekiga does it). But video chat with somebody running Windows MSN has, up to now, meant a reboot into Windows. In Ubuntu 9.10, video chat via MSN will be possible using Emesene 1.5. (More information at OMG! Ubuntu!)
Ubuntu 9.10 will also bring the new IM client Empathy (replacing Pidgin), which will also support MSN video chat at some point in the future. (OMG! Ubuntu again).

Ununtu 9.10

Ubuntu 9.10 will be out at the end of October. As usual, there'll be a lot of changes under the hood, and also changes to default (and optional) themes, icons and wallpapers. Ubuntu users may have guessed the direction Ubuntu is going in from the log-on screen and pop-up notifications in Ubuntu 9.04- dark. I've using the dark New Wave theme for a month or so and have got to like it- I'm hoping the new dark themes will have better integration with other programs- at the moment the menu bar with Open Office is unreadable with a dark theme. Anyway, the reviews of 9.10 are good. Here's one from Lunduke.com.

Linux MP3 tag editors- a review

The story so far. In the beginning, the universe was created...
OK, skip that bit. I have a collection of MP3 files, and the tags attached to some of the files are causing errors in the way albums are displayed in some music players. I want to view and edit MP3 tags. My last post on the subject ended with some confusion as to which tag editors can do what, so here is a quick review.

Kid3 is the clear winner in KDE. (It's perfectly usable in Gnome- but the KDE dependencies make it a little slow to load, and it uses the KDE theme.) The Gnome alternative, Audio Tag Tool, produces errors when reading ID3v2 Version 2.3 tags, and cannot read ID3v2 Version 2.4 tags- the default used by such applications as Sound Juicer.
Applications using the Mutagen backend are a very usable alternative in Gnome, only lacking the ability to see which ID3 standard is being used, and if an ID3v2 tag exists, to see which version, and to switch view between tag standards if both exist.
UPDATE: A comment points out that there is a version of Kid3 for Gnome (kid3-qt) which doesn't have the KDE dependencies- a tip of the hat there.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Music file tags

Rip a CD and the ripping program will often go online and look up the album, artist and track information, and append this information to the audio file as a tag. Sound Juicer does this in Ubuntu. But how does it work, and is it possible to automatically tag audio files that have been ripped without tagging? This issue caused me some confusion recently.
I used Audiograbber to rip some CD's into MP3 on a Windows computer. The program didn't prompt me to add the tag information, so I assumed it didn't have this facility (looking at the website now, I see it does). The result was several folders of MP3 files with no meaningful file names or tag information.
I decided to look for a way to automatically tag and name the files. I found EasyTAG. The program gave me an option to search the something called the CDDB database to look up the CD details. For several of my folders of MP3's, this worked. For one folder, the program found the CD in the database, but one track didn't match up. In frustration, I tried MP3Tag in Windows. Using the same CDDB database (freedb.org) and entry, the program correctly tagged the folder. (Ho hum.)
But I was left in some confusion. Apart from not seeing that I could have used Audiograbber to look up the files when I ripped them, I hadn't really understood what how EasyTAG and MP3Tag found the metadata for my files, as this post to the Ubuntu Forum proves.
So how does CDDB work? Wikipedia has a good explanation. The CDDB database uses a "discid" created from track duration information stored in the table-of-contents of the CD.
So how had EasyTAG recognised my already-ripped MP3 files without a table-of-contents? I'd assumed it must have used an "audio fingerprint", but I was obviously wrong. I can only guess that EasyTAG and MP3Tag use track length information to create a discid.
So is there a way to identify audio files using an "acoustic fingerprint"? Yes, MusicBrainz Picard can do it in Linux. (Winamp in Windows uses Gracenote.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Audio file tags- and problems therewith

Audio files like MP3 files can contain metadata (information about the information) in a "tag" (an appendage to the file.). That's why when a music player plays a music file, it can show the album, artist and track information even if the folder and file names do not carry this information. Of course, if there is no metadata, a music player will not show album, artist and track information, even if the folder and files do carry this information.
Ripping a CD to MP3 will result in files that play as "Track 1, Unknown Album, Unknown Artist" or similar- unless the ripping program is capable of looking up these details and appending them to the MP3 file. (See a later post.)
A problem can arise if music tracks are incorrectly tagged, because music players use the tags (not folder and file names) to organise a library. So a stray space or upper case letter in the wrong place in a track or artist title can mean an album appears twice in a music library.
Some music players are better at dealing with minor errors like this and will group tracks and albums correctly even if there are minor differences in tags. Winamp in Windows is pretty good in this respect; music players in Gnome seem to be more fussy. (Amarok is as good or better than Winamp, but it's a KDE application- usable in Gnome, but slow to load and a different theme.)
A error in the way a music player organises tracks and albums in a music library means looking at the file tags for errors. Here's where the fun starts. There are two different standards for tagging MP3 files, and several different versions of the second standard. (Wikipedia has a good write-up.) How to view and edit tag information?
My music collection is on a Windows partition, and I've always used Winamp for tag editing, but recently I had a problem with an MP3 file tag causing problems, so I thought I'd try some Gnome alternatives. Amarok has excellent tag editing, but, as I've mentioned before, it's a KDE application- usable, but not ideal in Gnome.)
I tried Rhythmbox and Banshee (two music players with tag editors) but couldn't see the problem. I also tried a couple of tag editors- Audio Tag Tool and EasyTAG. I booted into Windows and looked at the album with Winamp: the problem was obvious in Winamp's excellent tag editor: a superfluous "Album Artist" compilation ID3V2 tag was causing a music player to mis-identify an album as a compilation. ("The Pot" in this screenshot.)

The tag didn't show up in EasyTAG:

Going back to Audio Tag Tool and clicking the "Advanced" button, I was able to see the offending tag, this time in a field called "Band".

Deleting the "Album Artist" tag in Winamp allowed the music player to list the album correctly, but curiously left Audio Tag Tool unable to view any of the ID3V2 tags.

This illustrates another problem: there are different versions of the ID3V2 standard, and tags written in one version may not be readable in another.
I later came across Kid3, a KDE tag editor, which listed the "Album Artist" tag correctly: in fact, as clearly as Winamp.

The problem with Kid3 on Gnome is it requires a lot of KDE dependencies, and uses the KDE theme. Not show-stoppers, but a good Gnome application would have been nice.
UPDATE: A comment to a subsequent post points out that kid3-qt is available in Gnome without the KDE dependencies.
Verdict: If you want to edit tags in Linux, KDE has the best applications: Amarok and Kid3.
In Gnome, there is nothing which will view and edit all standards and versions of MP3 tag accurately and without errors. Or if there is, I haven't found it.
UPDATE: Maybe I have! It's called Mutagen: it's used by several Gnome programs to edit MP3. Here's a couple of examples of programs which use it, and how they found the error described in the post.
The first is the Edit>Details screen of MusicBrainz Picard.

Next we have Ex Falso.

Exaile, which also uses the Mutagen backend, also displayed the "Album Artist" tag correctly.
I'm not sure why Ex Falso labelled the tag as "Performer" rather than "Album Artist", but I think it's an issue with the ID3V2 standard.
Mutagen can read all versions of the ID3V2 standard.
UPDATE 2: Mutagen doesn't appear to recognise ID3V1 tags: trying out Quod Libet and Exaile, I found that tracks tagged only in ID3V1 are listed as "unrecognised".
UPDATE 3: Even if the above players can't recognise tracks on the basis of ID3v1 information, Mutagen based tag editors have no problem doing so see this test.

Gnome music players & Complilation albums

Winamp was my prefered music player in Windows because it was:
  • quick to start
  • easy to find and play albums
  • easy to hide the player in the notification area while doing other things.
  • excellent at tag editing
The only niggle I had was that it didn't recognise some compilation albums correctly, so I had to resort to playing the folder.
So what is the equivalent in Linux? Amarok seemed to be the answer, doing everything Winamp did and more- it even recognised my compilation albums and would play them without fuss- the only problem being it is a KDE application, and launching in Gnome takes a few seconds for required KDE dependencies to load. I wanted something which would launch quickly and play songs simply, but missed the excellence of Amarok- I tried Rhythmbox, Exaile and Banshee, eventually settling on Rhythmbox.
Meanwhile, Amarok was updated to version 2 with Ubuntu 9.04, and I didn't like the new GUI much, so I uninstalled it. Recently I was looking at my compilation albums spread all over Rhythmbox and thinking about how I was going to play them.
Why can't Rhythmbox recognise compilation albums?
The problem is that it's tricky to 1) detect compilations and 2) to know where to store the info. You can't always know if a particular track belongs to a compilation, because there may be duplicate album names. (Link here.)
So Rhythmbox is still working on it: are there any music players for Gnome that can list and play compilation albums correctly?
I was doing a search recently and came across Gejengel. (It's not in the Ubuntu repositories, but a Deb package for Ubuntu is available here- one dependency is also required.) It's a lean and simple player that nonetheless looks quite elegant and claims to properly handle compilation albums. It did manage to recognise one of my compilation albums, but split the tracks into two albums with the same name for some reason*. [* See update below.] However, the big drawback of this program is it only recognises the MP3 format. There are also still a few bugs in the program (not surprising as it seems to be a one-man effort). Still, I'll be keeping an eye on future developments.
So I was back to searching for a music player that could handle compilation albums. I found a reference to Banshee handling compilation albums well, but when I had tried it, all my compilation tracks were spread out over the music library. I did another search and found this:
Since version 1.2 Banshee has had good support for multi-artist (compilation) albums. If your files already contained album-artist metadata, Banshee should have picked that up and things should Just Work. If not, you can always manually edit the Album Artist by selecting the tracks of the album, pressing e to Edit Information, and setting a common value (e.g. "Various Artists" or the main artist on the album) in the Album Artist field. When sorting by anything except Artist, your tracks will get sorted by Album Artist as you'd expect. (Link here.)
Trying Banshee again, I found that selecting a track and clicking Edit Track Information, there is a Compilation Album Artist tick box. Ticking this and entering Various Artists means that compilation albums are correctly grouped. Success! (I did have one problem with Banshee- it wouldn't show album art until I started playing each album. I had to do that manually for each album- but now all my album art is nicely displayed.) Looks like Banshee is going to be my chosen player from now on- and there's a new version coming soon with lots of bug fixes and new features, so it can only get better! (A repository is here.)
UPDATE: Gejengel split my compilation album into two because it found a "Various Artists" tag in one track. If no track has this field completed, or all tracks have it competed correctly, Gejengel lists the album correctly. (A stray "Various Artists" tag in a non-compilation album also causes the same problem- an album split into two.) If you try the program and have a similar problem, try looking at the MP3 tags with a good tag editor. (See post above.)

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Browser market share

PC Pro has a story on bowser market share.
I suspect Internet Explorer sucks less than it did the last time I used it (which was back in the days of IE6), but still, try Opera, Firefox, Safari or Chrome.

Usable avast! beta

A new version of avast! is coming, and the scanner GUI doesn't suck. (See previous post.) The latest beta seems to be usable: it has up-to-date definitions, which previous betas didn't.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Free anti-virus: MS joins the fray

MS has produced a free anti-virus program. It rivals the best- which are Avira's Antivir and Alwil's avast! There's a nice review here, based in part on detection rates, where MS, Antivir and avast! do well. Antivir comes out on top, but largely due to avast!'s counter-intuitive scanner GUI- which is due to be replaced when avast! 5 comes out very soon.
One point to note is that if you have set up limited user accounts for family members, those limited users will be able to disable protection if you use Antivir, because the limited user password setting is only available in the paid version; with avast!, you can set a password so limited users will not be able to disable AV protection.
UPDATE: More on the recent test of detection rates here.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Your operating system is not supported...

Looking into cable modem problems in Ubuntu recently, I came across a few horror stories about Comcast, the American ISP. Technicians who have never heard of Linux and insist they can only install the Internet to a Windows computer, that sort of thing. So it was a surprise to come across this blog post by a guy called Linus.
I guess it all depends on who you are, or possibly what you know.
So I need to provision it (ie letting Comcast know about the new modem MAC address), so I call up Comcast. It being a Sunday afternoon, I was expecting that I'll just have to wait for Monday to get it sorted out. But no, not only is there a friendly tech who is greeting me with neither silly muzak nor waiting, but she's happy to get my all provisioned and up and running with a new cable modem in minutes (ok, so it took more than a couple of minutes, but a lot of it was literally waiting for the new cable box to boot up a few times).
The clue in the image above is the telephone number: just call and ask for the ISP to provision your modem seems to be the answer.

Ubuntu and cable modems

The other day I was trying to help somebody on the Ubuntu forum get an internet connection. I didn't notice at first that it was a cable modem (of which I have zero experience), but when I did, I decided to look into how they work. (The thread is here.)
There seems to be a lot of confusion around as to how to get a cable modem connected and working with Linux, how to solve connection problems, and how to connect a different computer or a router.
Here are the myths:
  • Cable companies only support Windows or Mac.
  • You'll need to spoof the MAC address of the computer originally connected to the modem in order to connect another computer or a router.
Here's the reality:
  • ISP software may only work with Windows or Mac, and technicians may only know about Windows and Mac, but there's actually no obstacle to getting a connection. A modem connected to a cable network needs to be "provisioned": the cable company needs to know the MAC address of the modem. They can do this at their end, or the cable guy can do it at your end. If it's done at your end, the cable guy will need Windows or Mac. If you have Linux, the advice is: just get the cable guy to connect the modem and tell him you'll call the provider service line to provision the modem.
  • After connecting a different computer or a router to a cable modem, power down the modem for 10 minutes before connecting (the computer and/or router should be off while connecting too). Power up the modem> (router)> computer and everything should be fine (no need for spoofing). A good guide is here.
In Ubuntu, make sure DHCP is enabled unless the cable Internet provider has told you to use a static IP address.
The original poster at the Ubuntu forum thankfully managed to get his connection working, despite my fumbling around for a solution.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

No DSL Internet in Ubuntu?

This seems to be a fairly common issue for Ubuntu users, perhaps because many people have their broadband service installed by a technician, or insert a Windows CD from their ISP to walk them through the process. Faced with a router, a cable or two, and a fresh installation of Ubuntu (or other Linux distribution), getting a DSL Internet connection seems an impossible task.
In fact, it's quite simple- if your modem has an Ethernet cable. (USB modems are the work of the devil as far as Ubuntu is concerned- they all require proprietary drivers, which Ubuntu doesn't supply. They can be got to work, but it's a tricky job even for somebody familiar with Ubuntu. Other Linux distributions may work "out of the box" with a USB modem, but that's not the subject of this post- anyway, an Ethernet connection is faster, doesn't require any extra software of firmware, and leaves a USB port free.) If your modem has a choice of USB and Ethernet connection, use the Ethernet cable.
Plug in the modem (phone line, Ethernet and power), open a web browser on the computer and type in the modem/router's IP address- this should be four numbers separated by dots, something like this:,, according to the manufacturer- If it's not in the documentation, Google the make of you modem/router and you should find the address quite easily.
If you can see the set-up screen of the modem/router, it's just a question of making sure the router has the right settings. (If you're unlucky enough to find that your router is not configured via a web browser, have a look at this Ubuntu guide.)
If a computer has been connected to the modem/router before, then the modem/router will probably have been set up to connect to an ISP service, and the modem/router may assign your computer an IP address so your computer can access the internet via the router/modem. (If there's no connection, try enabling DHCP (a service which automatically assigns an IP address to connecting computers), otherwise you will have to tell Ubuntu to use a static IP address. DHCP is the easiest method.)
If you're connecting for the first time, or changing ISP, you will have to tell the modem/router how to connect to your ISP service. Typically this involves entering your username and password, and settings for Protocol, VPI, VCI and Encapsulation. These details for most ISP's in the world can be found here.
This should be enough to get you connected to just about any ISP in the world with many makes and models of Ethernet modem/router. Got a USB modem/router? Well, connection may be possible, but help is beyond the scope of this post. Try this Ubuntu guide, or the Ubuntu Forums- also a good source of advice for connection problems not covered in this (very basic) guide.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Opera on Ubuntu

Opera is a great browser for Windows, and it works on Linux too. In Ubuntu it's available in the Canonical Partner Repository (free software that is not open source), so no need to use an installation file, and updates will be available through Update Manager.
However, updates can be slow to appear. Opera has its own repository, to which updates are added much more quickly.
I'd been using that repository for quite a while, when I began to get messages from Update Manager that the repository could not be found- some research revealed it had been moved. I couldn't find the new location, so just removed the repository.
With the release of Opera 10 recently, I was impatient to try the new version on Ubuntu, but the Canonical repository still had the old version. I searched again for the location of the Opera repository, and found it- but this time I just couldn't get the key to work.
I found the solution here- the answer was in this comment. Copying and pasting the key had transformed an emdash into a hyphen- to the eye, the same thing, but in a Terminal command, very different.
Thanks to Kyle Baker and greenpossum.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Favicon malware

Nothing could seem more innocent than a favicon. It's the little website icon that sits next to the website address in the browser address bar and is added to your list of favourites (or bookmarks according to the browser you're using). But the little favicon.ico can be infected with malware. (See here and here.)
Nothing is more frustrating than a malware detection from your anti-virus program which reappears every two minutes whatever you do, as seen here on the avast! forum, and here detected by AVG- favicon malware was the cause both times, of course.
But why was the malware reappearing every two minutes? My best guess is that IE was downloading missing favicons, either after the cache had been cleared, or malicious favicons deleted.

Microsoft anti-Linux FUD

Microsoft doesn't want you to use open source software. And the way they get you not to use open source software is through FUD. The latest example can be found here, where MS is "indoctrinating" sales staff in the reasons customers wouldn't be happy with Linux.
Now it's perfectly true that Linux doesn't run Windows programs. If you really want to run MS Word, you'll need Windows; but if you use Open Office, you won't. Fair enough, customers should know this.
Linux doesn't run Windows games* (*Some will run in Wine, but the performance can be poor.) If customers want a games machine, they'll need Windows, fair enough, although I actually think a dedicated games console can be a better option- games take up huge amounts of disc space, require a powerful video card which can add the price of a games console to a PC, and if my experience with Half Life is anything to go by, can rip a HD to shreds with crashes while reading or writing to the HD leaving bad sectors.
Now we come to hardware. My printer, camera, MP3 player, wireless dongle and external hard drive all ran out of the box on Ubuntu Linux. I had to install some firmware for the scanner to work, but I'd've had to install a driver for it to work in Windows- in fact my printer doesn't work in Windows because I haven't installed the driver. Good manufactures support standards and Linux, and their hardware works in Linux. (HP is a shining example.) Verdict: FUD.
Finally, Internet Messaging. No, you can't get Window's Live Messenger on Linux. Yes, you can have IM with a multi-protocol IM client* like, in Ubuntu, Pidgin. (* Supports multiple accounts- MSN, Yahoo!, Google, ICQ etc.) No, Pidgin doesn't support video chat on MSN (and I don't know of any Linux IM client that does.) Linux does have Ekiga, a free video chat client, and Pidgin does support video chat on GMail, but I can see that it's not going to be convenient for a Windows users to get used to a new IM program, or a Linux user to video chat to a Windows user.
This is a big turn-off for prospective Linux users, or indeed, purchasers of Linux computers (netbooks, probably) who ask: where's Windows Messenger?
This is of course intentional: that's the way Microsoft works: get you used to their product so it's just too much effort to change.
Verdict:FUD. There's no reason to be locked in to Windows. There are alternatives to the Microsoft IM network.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The CCleaner for Ubuntu?

CCleaner is an essential application for Windows. Ubuntu users occasionally ask about an equivalent for their operating system, usually to be told that it isn't necessary- Linux is not Windows.
Well, I think I've found the CCleaner for Ubuntu. It's called BleachBit, and on my computer it found 600MB of "junk": not an insignificant amount on a 10GB /home partition.

Fake Flash For Firefox

Sophos analysts have discovered a piece of malware masquerading itself as a flash player plugin for the Firefox browser:

When the file runs, it pretends to install the adobe flash player for your browser.

Upon restarting Firefox after the installation is complete, Firefox shows an extension has been installed as “Adobe Flash Player 0.2″.

Troj/FFSpy-A monitors your Google searches and sends this information to a remote server. It also inject ads into the web pages you are viewing based on the keywords you have used in your search.

This piece of malware seems to be spreading itself via internet forums pretending to be the installation file for the adobe flash player. To reduce the risk of infection, the user should avoid downloading executables from unknown and untrusted sources.
Let's be careful out there!

I am alive

A symptom of malware infection is often browser redirects- that's when the page you see isn't the page you asked for. It's usually something subtle- a page that looks just like your Internet banking page, but is actually an attempt to steal your password, or a Google search which displays injected malicious links.
Here's an example of an unexpected and mysterious redirect from the Ubuntu forum. The redirected page reads simply "I am alive", apparently the result of a router DNS hijack.
Is it a joke? Perhaps not. Could it possibly be the result of an error on the cyber villains' proxy server, which sits between you and the web site you intended to visit- "I am alive" is a message sent between routers on a network. My best guess is that the victim was never intended to see this message and has received an internal network message in place of a phoney web page.
The moral of the story is: when investigating possible browser redirects, don't neglect to check the router, and all other computers on the network.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Anti-Virus scams

Have you ever been surfing the web and found yourself looking at a convincing looking anti-virus scan of your computer running on your screen, which tells you that you're infected with numerous viruses? It's a scam!
The anti-virus "program" is just an animation on a web page, the virus infections non-existent. The idea is to scare you into paying for a fraudulent (scam) anti-virus program devised by the Eastern-European Cyber-Mafia.
These fake anti-virus pages are served up by hacked web sites, hacked advertisements on web sites, or by "poisoned" Google search results: you can come across them browsing perfectly legitimate sites.
As well as trying to con you into thinking your computer is infected, most of these pages will also try to infect your computer with a Trojan horse by means of an exploit. This is a way of installing malicious software on your computer without you clicking 'yes' to anything. (A drive-by download.) If your computer is not 100% up-to-date and secure, you could end up with a scam anti-virus actually installed on your computer, and they are very hard to remove.
How can you deal with these scam anti-virus attacks, and stay safe from rogue programs?
Keep all web-facing software on your computer up to date. This includes browsers and multimedia applications like Flash. The best way to do this is to use Secunia Personal Software Inspector- it wil scan your computer for out-of-date software and provide a download link for a security update.
If you do then come across a fake anti-virus scan on a web page, ignore the scam and close the browser tab or window.
Security Fix has more information.
If you are unlucky enough to get infected with a scam anti-virus program, your best advice is to try Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware or SUPERAntiSpyware Free. Both programs are free to use- although paid versions are also available.
UPDATE: Readers of the New York Times website have seen such a scam, as reported here.

Are you safe with a free anti-virus?

Do you really need to pay for an anti-virus program if you're a home user when there are several free programs available. Symantec says yes.
Well, I've seen computers running Symantec anti-virus infected with malware (a more generic name for any sort of malicious program- virus, Trojan, spyware, worm), and come across posts on the internet from people in the same situation. Having Symantec anti-virus does not mean you'll never get infected. Symantec will get rid of any infection for you, but you'll have to pay $99 if it's not one the program can handle automatically. That's on top of the original purchase fee.
Are you any less likely to get infected with Symantec (or any of the other paid anti-virus programs) than if you're using a free anti-virus program?
Honestly, you can get infected running the best anti-virus in the world (whatever that is) if your security habits are bad, and stay safe with the worst if your security habits are good, but judging by detection rates, the free anti-viruses offer good protection.
An additional advantage of avast! is the excellent forum: if you do catch something nasty online, you can get help to remove the infection for free.
The advice here is to use a free anti-virus for home use and save yourself the fees. Links can be found in the Security Watch article linked to above.