Archive for the ‘linux’ Category.

I’d be happy to take that off your hands

In the not too distant past, I was manning the reference desk, listening to a man say he had to come to the library to use the computers because his laptop was so badly infested with viruses that he had to throw it away.

“You threw it away?” I asked, incredulously.

“Yeah, it’s worthless now.  I can’t use it.  I’m just going to throw it away.”

Realizing he hadn’t actually thrown it away yet, but was willing to, I glibly asked if he’d throw it my way.  He looked at me incredulously at the same time I realized there was probably some intervening ethics involved.  So I said, “Or, I could show you how to make it usable again so there will never be another virus on it.”

He was still incredulous.  I assured him it can be done.  He wanted to know what he could do for me.  I told him “Never tell anyone about this,” forming a mental image of what would happen if he went out and told all his friends, or worse, wrote to the director about what I’d done for him.

He came back a couple days later, but didn’t have the laptop with him.  I hooked him up with a copy of Keir Thomas’ Beginning Ubuntu Linux, and a newer version of the CD included in the book.  He was still somewhat incredulous.  He left the book, but promised to come back the next day with the laptop.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see him again after that. I’m still wondering whether the original story was true, or if my comments prompted him to find someone to clean up the laptop for him.

I’ve since left that job.  Sometimes I miss the interesting world of public libraries.

The harsh reality about aging computers

In preparing for Software Freedom Day (September 19, more details in this post), my dad and I began evaluating the stash of donated computers he has (he’s waiting on a call from the local Computers for Kids program donee), and installing Ubuntu on them to be demo machines.  As we began installing Ubuntu, we hit a snag:  Ubuntu 9.04 will not install on pre-2000 computers.  Version 8.10 wouldn’t install either.  There were only three, and one of them was only 366 MHz, but I figured I’d give it a try anyway since they each had at least 256 MB of RAM.

I have a friend with a warehouse full of computers that he donates to another giveaway program.  He gets donations, like my dad, evaluates them, categorizes the parts, etc, and puts together systems with Windows XP on them (from TechSoup).    He told me last year he isn’t accepting any more computers with less than 1.0 GHz processors, because current software has too many problems with slower computers.

Well, yeah, you can get software to run on the older machines (see some previous posts), but increasingly, it’s a question of why?  I did it for the challenge.  But for machines going to others to use, why make it a challenge for them (unless, of course, they want that)?  For the Ubuntu folks, anything older than 2000 just isn’t worth the effort anymore.  For my warehouse friend, 1 GHz is the cutoff (which is post 2000).

On one hand, culling the older ones makes it easier for us.  On the other, my conscience cringes at adding to the number of computers and parts to be recycled (and the decidedly un-green effect most of those recycling shops have).  But that’s the reality: software installation and maintenance on dinosaur machines is a beast few are willing to wrangle with.

Software Freedom Day again!

September 19 this year!  Unfortunately, the date, selected by an international committee, is also on Rosh Hoshanna.  I think groups in some areas have changed the date for their events 🙂

In another unfortunate turn of events (or not, depending on your point of view), I had to pass my role as organizer for our local event to others in the Palm Beach Linux User Group.  The good news is they’re doing a better job of it!  The local Software Freedom Day event in Palm Beach County this year will be at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.  If you’re reading this and you’re from the south Florida area  contact Bill Hall (pbclug at comcast + dot + net) or me (leave a comment below).  They’re looking for presenters, people who want to help set up, share, or just spread the word!

See the page at Software Freedom Day for more details!

See you there!

Frankenfest followup

We sorted a lot of stuff that day. A lot of people unloaded a lot of electronics.  About a third of it went to recycling (there is a recycling station near us that takes electronics).  We built three awesome systems, and the rest was divvied up among whoever wanted it.  Most of it ended up in my Mom’s garage.  She had been ecstatic as we hauled things out of her garage that morning.  We brought back about 2 to 3 times as much as we took.

She only said, “That’s going to be gone when the guests arrive (for Christmas)?”  We nodded solemnly.

The next day and over the next couple weekends, my Dad and I tested parts, sorted the box of RAM chips a friend donated to the cause, and put together another 6 working systems.  He got pretty good at installing Linux on them.  We used LinuxMint until we got down to the really low resource systems (Pentium II’s).  We put 20+GB hard drives on those, upped the RAM as much as we could (usually 256+MB), and put MacPup on them.  They were beautiful. 🙂

My brother arrived for Christmas, and during one of my days off, we put together another 4 systems, all with MacPup on them.  Unfortunately, my brother couldn’t get the case back on the last system, so it’s still waiting for me. 😉  After Christmas, my dad took them all to a local school, to eventually be given to students and families in need.  The teacher in charge of it had never heard of Linux and was eager to see it and learn more about it.  My dad, of course, was eager to tell her about it.  It sounds like another Linux fan has been born.

My mom is happier:  the garage only has as much computer parts in it now as it did before the Frankenfest. My dad collected a few more computers, waiting for the next call from the local school.  One of them is a laptop.  He installed Ubuntu on it and showed it off to me.  We decided to upgrade the RAM to 1GB and put Ubuntu 8.04 on it instead of the older version he had.  He spends as much time on it now, learning about Ubuntu, as he does on his Mac.  He is so happy with it he decided to put Ubuntu on another machine to give to a 90 year old friend in need of a computer.  So I helped him customize it to make it easier for his friend, and to strip out all the things that a novice is better off not messing around with.

I’m thinking Linux advocates should consider Frankenfests: get the cast off machines, put together working systems with Linux on them, and give them away!  If you have an idea of who it’s going to, you can customize it to be as full or as stripped as it needs to be.  I think most people will be like my dad, and become fans, too!


CPU's and Monitors, lined up for Frankenfest

CPUs and Monitors for the Frankenfest

It was Kevin’s idea.

At a PBLUG meeting held at Nova Southeastern’s North County campus in Palm Beach Gardens, he suggested it. Frankenfest?  What’s a Frankenfest?  Kevin explained it’s when people bring whatever computers or computer parts they have laying around to an event where you (those attending the event) build whatever you can from what you have.

Kevin had a motive.  He had a garage full of computers and parts, and his wife was not happy about it, but he couldn’t bring himself to just pitch them.

Of course we were intrigued by the idea.  Especially me.  I kept the idea alive by continually bringing it up to the group.  They, of course, took the bait, being Linux geeks.  We ended up with a plan, of sorts. We needed to do something with all the computers we were sure to build.  Laura came up with a group that would like to give away the computer systems to needy families for Christmas.  We needed a place to do it.  My library had fortuitously cancelled all programming for December, under the impression they would be closing, so a very large meeting room was available to us almost any Saturday that month (actually, almost any day in December would have been available, but Saturdays worked best for everyone).  We needed a Linux distro to install.  I suggested Kubuntu because I like KDE and Ubuntu seemed mainstream enough to be easy for the ultimate recipients to find books or help.

Resource: cables

Cables, anyone?

So we did it.  The Frankenfest was today.  We spent two hours sorting and testing what we had. We spent the next 4 hours trying to load Kubuntu on the best machines we had, since I had created a Kubuntu cheatsheet to give to the ultimate recipients.  We started with 7 candidates, from Pentium III’s to a 2.16 MHz box.  We ended up with three successful installs, two with Linux Mint on them, and one with Kubuntu.  Travelin’ Rob had brought the Linux Mint because it runs on anything, and he likes it.  He also promised to do a Linux Mint cheat sheet to give to the foundation to include with these systems they will be distributing.

We almost had one more Linux Mint box, but the install ultimately failed, probably because we tried to put a 160GB hard drive on an older machine that couldn’t recognize bigger hard drives.  One of the better machines we had didn’t like our RAM upgrade attempt, and didn’t seem to know how to operate without the three centuries worth of dust we removed.  As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as computer geeks, we’re really just linux geeks, and have lapses in hardware sense from time to time.  I had spent most of the last week getting screenshots of Kubuntu on my virtual machine, thinking that it would work exactly the same on a real machine.

Resource line 2: speakers and keyboards

Speakers, keyboards, and mice

But ultimately, I guess it was a “success.”  Three families will be getting awesome computer systems. Kevin cleared out his garage. We got everything cleared out by the time the library closed.  I finally learned everyone’s names.

Someone (Travelin’ Rob?) suggested we do it again.  I said, “Yeah, once a year wouldn’t be too painful.”  Someone else suggested we let one of the local stations know, because they would cover it and advertise it if they just knew in advance.  We actually had people walking in and asking if we were taking computer donations.  I looked around at the 20+ computers in various stages of usability, and said “No, thanks.”  I can imagine what a little advance advertising would do.  Of course, since Kevin’s now got his garage cleaned out, it might be interesting to see what we’d get from people dropping by to drop off their computers.

Yeah, I guess I’m hopeless.

Drupal, Google Calendars, and cool people

A friend was looking for a way to communicate with employees without having to send e-mails, since not everyone checks their e-mail regularly, or even thinks to check their e-mail these days.  All of the employees, however, work at a computer for at least part of the day.  Several months ago I had found a way to have the current day’s events listed on each computer’s desktop by using Windows Active Desktop, which will display a web page.  Unfortunately, IT people intervened after a couple months and disabled the Active Desktop feature on most of the computers. That left using live web sites, accessed with a browser, as the only option.

The first issue was to set up something that the friend, who has moderate computer skills, could handle.  We also needed a site that could restrict access to the information being posted.  A bonus would be finding a way to easily display the current day’s scheduled events on the site as well.  An even bigger bonus would be a “solution” that integrated room scheduling with displaying the schedules on the site, especially if that solution would prevent overbooking.  And, of course, the kicker is that it all has to be free.

My friend thought the limitations of using a browser and Internet to access posts and information were acceptable.  We could place shortcuts on the desktop, or make the site the browser homepage, and let the staff know about it.  The staff were grateful to have something after the current events schedule disappeared from their desktops.

Except for the site itself, everything did turn out to be free.  But since I happen to have a hosted account with an obscene amount of space and bandwidth that will never get used, it seemed like a good place to experiment for the benefit of my friend.  Since I already have several sites running Drupal, that was my CMS of choice.  It is free, and has a large, active community supporting it.

So I set up a new site, required a login to view the content, gave my friend just enough access to publish stories, and logged into the site from all the location’s computers, instructing Internet Explorer to remember the username and password.  So far so good.  Pretty simple and straightforward.

Then Internet Explorer stopped remembering the username and password (there was probably some kind of staff intervention involved, but I decided to see if I could find a fix that would outsmart them).  A quick search of the modules section of Drupal turned up Persistent Login.  This works great until they start clearing the cookies.

The next request was from my friend for an RTF type editor, to be able to use different fonts and colors in the posts. That was solved with the TinyMCE Wysiwyg module. Then I turned my attention to finding a way to get a daily events listing posted dynamically.

Enter Google Calendar, which has XML feeds.  After trying out several ways to get the feeds onto the site using the FeedAPI module, the Views module, and the CCK module, I began searching through the discussion groups on Drupal.  I came across a discussion that referred to a new module being developed to do just what I was looking for: GCal Events.  Jeff Simpson, the hero here, without any previous experience creating modules for Drupal, put it together, tweaked it and fixed bugs based on our feedback, and has now put it in the projects section of Drupal:

Since the site for my friend was already up and running, I set up a test site that mirrored the other site’s setup:  With the development snapshot of the GCal Events module installed, which has some tweaks and bug fixes applied after the official release was put up, everything ran great.  So I enabled the module on my friend’s site.  Scheduled events for the day are pulled from a Google calendar and displayed on the right column.

The last issue was to set up the Google calendar account to work as a room scheduling “solution.”  There are 3 rooms at this location that are reserved for various uses.  Several people in different departments were using 3 different calendar books to block out reserved times.  On a few occasions, events have been overbooked.  The books can also be hard to locate if someone has taken them for awhile.  Google calendars seemed like an easy, free, and obvious answer:

  1. More than one calendar can be created within an account
  2. Calendars can be shared with other google accounts
  3. Event times in a calendar cannot overlap (which prevents overbooking)

On the main Google calendar account, I set up calendars for each of the rooms that can be booked.  I then shared the calendars with others who would be booking the rooms, allowing them to make changes (so they can add events).  Since the calendars represent the rooms being booked, it is not necessary to fill in the location field, making a “quick add” possible through the popup that appears when clicking on a time space within the calendar (day or week view).

On the site using the calendar feeds, I set up a separate GCal Event feed for each of the calendars, so events are displayed by room.  The only glitch, which was fairly easy to fix, was a piece of php code that refreshes the cache once a week instead of every day (thanks to jdwfly’s post in the discussion:

I love open source software.  And I love the people that are part of it.  Thanks, Jeff!

More on Deli Linux

I have long since given away my test machine that was running Deli Linux on it, but a friend at the local Linux User Group has installed it on an old Sony laptop, and is chronicling the process at More importantly, she wants to actually use the distro, so there is a lot on the page about what works, changes that will get things working (such as sound, and recognizing USB drives), as well as details about which programs are available and work, and how to get other programs to compile.

Software Freedom Day 2007!

In between conferences and other fun stuff, I was persuaded to organize another Software Freedom Day locally. Last year’s event highlighted some of the disconnect between expectations and reality among the visitors. The expectation seemed to be that Linux could resurrect any machine: “Here’s my computer. It’s 18 years old, and I used to use DOS on it. Help me put Linux on it so I can use it again.” Needless to say, we were totally unprepared for that. But I have since found that there are a lot of people out there who think buying a computer should be a once in a lifetime event. Well, maybe I exaggerate, but not much! I think I’d better dust off the dinosaur distros for this year’s event, just in case.

Here’s our announcement:

  • The Palm Beach County Linux User Group is proud to announce its second SoftwareFreedom Day/Installfest as part of SoftwareFreedom Day 2007, the biggest international celebration and outreach event for Software Freedom globally, with hundreds of teams from all around the world participating. This year the Palm Beach County Linux User Group will be hosting the event at the North County Regional Library, 11303 Campus Drive, in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, from 10:00 AM to 12:00 P.M. on September 15, 2007. Google Map location is here.

    As part of the SoftwareFreedom Day celebration, the Palm Beach County Linux User Group will be giving away CD’s with free and open source software for Windows and Macintosh computers, including programs for graphics editing, browsing, word processing, anti-virus, e-mail, web editing, and games. Free CD’s of the popular Ubuntu Linux operating system will be available, as well as demonstrations of Linux, and assistance installing Ubuntu on personal computers. Monitors will be provided for those bringing a CPU to install Linux on.

    Stop by for giveaways, demonstrations, and to learn about Linux, a free and open source operating system available for any type of computer.

Unlike last year, we will probably get some curious people just from those passing by, on their way into the library. I wonder how many other libraries are venues for Software Freedom Day? It seemed like a natural to me (although it wasn’t my idea), since libraries are also in the business of open access, freedom, and making materials available for free (but for a limited time!). What’s really amazing to me is the sheer numbers of places all over the globe that are doing this.

DeLi redux

I wrote about this six months ago (here). I took out the modem on the old machine I had installed Deli on, and put in an Ethernet card. Since a new version of Deli had come out I decided to try it out again from scratch.

The install went pretty much the same as the last time, but this time I tried to configure the local network during the delisetup part (after installation). The delisetup command (at the command prompt after logging in) goes to a text-based setup. (Note: if you try to go straight to a gui interface (by typing startx) without doing the setup, it gives a group of white terminals on an icewm interface; but closing the terminals closes the gui interface). The setup categories are:

  • Keyboard
  • Language
  • Setup LILO – the Linux Loader
  • Setup PPP – Needs data from your Internet Service Provider
  • Setup local Network
  • Printer Setup
  • Setup Tiny X Server
  • Setup Window Manager
  • Install additional software packages
  • Set up your Mail system (with masqmail)
  • Select servicesto run at boot

I went through the Setup for local Network. The first screen says you can always go back and make changes by typing netconfig (it says that, but it lies: typing netconfig gets an error message that there is no such command). Then it wants a hostname and domain name. There are instructions with screenshots at the wiki on the Deli site. After the hostname and domain name, you choose between using a static IP, DHCP, or loopback. I tried both static IP and DHCP, but somehow ultimately ended up with loopback. Choosing DHCP will take you through a probe for an Ethernet card. The message I got was “A networking card using com20020.o module has been detected.” Great, but it wouldn’t connect to the network.

I tried “ifconfig” instead of “netconfig” and it showed, despite the Network configuration done in delisetup:

Link encap:Local Loopback

inet addr: Mask:


After looking at a bunch of config files, going through delisetup several times, and editing the /etc/rc.d/net file, I checked the ethernet card and put it in another slot. But the browser is still giving the error: “dns can’t find” I think it’s stuck in loopback purgatory, and I don’t have the right incantations to get it out.

On the other hand, it is still a nice, fast distro, even on this old dinosaur, and not that difficult to install, as long as you’re not trying to connect to the Internet.

Book Review: Moving to Ubuntu Linux

Moving to Ubuntu Linux, by Marcel Gagné. Addison-Wesley, 2006. Available from Amazon.

This book is really well done. Of the Ubuntu books I’ve seen so far, this is the one I gave to my dad for the Ubuntu we helped him install at the InstallFest. The screenshots are well done (that is, relevant and readable), the writing style is friendly and informal, and there is good depth given to the topics covered. The author states in the beginning: “anyone who is familiar with a computer can learn to use Linux,” and from that perspective, he does a very good job making Ubuntu familiar.

He begins with a detailed screen by screen install, including directions on resizing a windows partition and defragging a hard drive. The rest of the first half of the book then introduces the reader/user to customizing the desktop, navigating files, making an Internet connection, setting up printers, updating, and installing new software. The section on wireless networking was particularly helpful. Although the book uses the default Gnome desktop interface, it includes instructions on downloading and installing the KDE desktop and packages as well.

The second half of the book is devoted to some of the programs available. The coverage seems rather quick, but is substantial enough to get one started. I was particularly impressed with the coverage of the suite, which included creating a database and using it in Write to create address labels. There was quite a bit of discussion in the Music chapter, and a plethora of games were briefly introduced.

One of the nicest features are the “Shell Out” notes throughout the book, which give text commands to use in the shell (terminal). There’s a complete chapter at the back of the book which teaches all the basics of using the terminal, but the “Shell Out” notes are a nice way to get new Linux users comfortable using the shell. Keyboard shortcuts are also frequent. In fact, sometimes more frequent than instructions on where to find the actual command in the menus.

The book is not without a few problems, however. I ran across a few typos, and was left hanging in the Base chapter where the author promised to come back to the option of creating a form but never did. Also, although there is a live DVD included with the book, the computer I’m using does not have a DVD drive. Fortunately, I had a few CD’s left over from the InstallFest. Despite these minor issues, I’d recommend the book. It’s one of the best I’ve seen so far.