Archive for Linux

"Click! Take a pic!"

The Canon EOS 450D (aka Digital Rebel XSi) has been formally announced, and it shall be mine. (Provided it doesn’t come with Rosie Perez’s voice.*)

I’ve been wanting a digital SLR for a long time. I’ve used an old 35mm camera in the past, and I really enjoyed it compared to using a point-and-shoot digital. Looking through the lens gives you better control of the shot, including the framing and focus. My 6-year-old Canon PowerShot G2 was top of the line in its day, but now with its stuck pixels and its focusing frustrations, it’s time for an upgrade. The nice thing is with the changing technology I can buy a much beefier DSLR for the same price I paid for the G2.

I’ve been watching Digital Photography Review for more information, and they didn’t disappoint: they’ve got a brief hands-on with the 450D and a summary of differences between it and its predecessor, the 400D/Digital Rebel XTi. It looks like Canon’s packing in some solid features, and that’s got me drooling all the more. I read somewhere that it doesn’t ship until April, but if I’ve been waiting over two years to get my hands on a DSLR, I guess I can wait two more months.

Maybe.

The question, then, is will the investment result in better pictures? I sure as hell hope so. If nothing else I’ll have a lot more fun taking pics. Of course, judging by what I saw out of my friend Richard’s Rebel and Speedlite, the softened flash alone is worth the price of admission. I’m sick to death of blown-out faces and subjects’ uncontrollable blinking in my pics.**

The first step to improvement will probably be jumping into the Digital Photography School forums. It looks like there’s a lot of great advice flying around in there, and it’s a lot faster (and cheaper) than trying to take a photography class at a local community college.*** DPS also has a great blog with some cool tips.

With photography more on my brain than ever, I’ve started thinking more about digital workflow. I’ll need some processing capability for RAW no doubt, which means some extra software for the GIMP on my Linux box. Of course, if I do make the Mac switch, that will change things significantly. It’s a little premature to be worried about the Lightroom vs. Aperture debate, so instead I turned my attentions to iPhoto on my MacBook and compared it to digiKam on Linux.

If there’s one app that I think I’d truly miss in Linux, it’s digiKam. Both it and iPhoto perform the same function: importing and organizing your pictures. They both allow easy sorting and importing, and they both support tagging. iPhoto’s presentation is a little bit cleaner, but feature-wise they’re more or less the same.

The key difference is in the back ends, and maybe some of the Mac folks can speak up here.

What I like about digiKam is it drops pics right into the filesystem. If I need to find my pictures in any other application or through a file browser, I know right where to find them because the albums are a mirror of the folder hierarchy. If I change the names of the picture files on import, that name is applied to the file name, replacing vague camera filenames like IMG98939.JPG. The added benefit here is if for any reason I lost the digiKam database with my tags and such in it, my files are untouched. If I have to access the drive remotely (via SSH/SCP, which I do often) or have to recover files with a drive enclosure or similar method, I have a good idea of what I’m looking at.

iPhoto, on the other hand, drops everything into a package of some kind. The files appear to be copied to the filesystem, but it looks like the titles are only part of the iPhoto Library package and database. I did figure out there are both Original and Modified folders inside the iPhoto Library package, and there are folders for year and then Event, but the image filenames are still IMG884737.JPG. Having an automatic backup if I edit a pic (an untouched original and the new, modified file) is not a bad idea, but does this not take up extra space?

How will this affect remote access? If I use SSH to access a Mac, or if I connect via SCP to copy a handful of pictures to a remote computer, am I going to be able to browse — via the shell or a SCP GUI like WinSCP — to my pictures and copy them? Am I going to have to upload pics to Flickr and fetch them from there? Or is there some other Apple sharing method that I may not be aware of?

And most importantly, if my darling rugrats shove my Mac off a table and shatter it, am I going to be able to access my pictures — and recover tags, titles, and other data — if I yank the hard drive and drop it into an enclosure?

Why does iPhoto do it this way? Inquiring minds want to know.

*For those of you who don’t have rugrats, Rosie Perez is the voice of Click the Camera on Go, Diego, Go! And she sings. It’s truly the work of the Devil.

**I have about a tenth as many pics of my wife as I should because she can’t keep her frickin’ eyes open. If I show you a good shot of my wife, chances are it was taken outside in broad daylight in the middle of summer. As a result she’s probably wearing sunglasses, too.

***I tried to take the photography class when I was in college, but the single section offered was always filled within about 6 nanoseconds of the start of registration.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Drinking the Apple Kool-Aid

One of the Apple execs I met yesterday made a good statement about their products: you don’t get it until you try it.

Apple users extol the virtues of their OS all the time. Three of my friends, including (former) die-hard PC user John Roling, have switched to Mac and vow to never go back. A school in Indianapolis employing a 1-to-1 initiative dropped their PC laptops in favor of MacBooks and couldn’t be happier. A Minneapolis-area school switched their 8 buildings from PC to Mac and offered to load Windows for anyone who wanted it; not one teacher requested it.

The rest of us ask “It costs how much?

The MacBook I purchased in December was my first real experience with a Mac, and it’s been growing on me ever since. Wednesday, on the way up to Chicago for our Apple briefing, my superintendent and I stopped off at the New Lenox School District 122. A teacher showed us how she used Macs, and I picked the tech coordinator’s brain about the back end. Both of them couldn’t be any happier with their Macs, and the downside on the back end is far from a deal-breaker.

That night, we hit the Apple Store on Michigan Avenue. I played with an iPod Touch. I fiddled with an iPhone, then browsed the MacBooks, Apple TV, and the iMacs. I chatted with the sales reps, and I damn near came home with an iPod Touch for the Wife.

Yesterday we sat in on the briefing, learned about Apple’s sales and growth, and got a lot of hands-on experience. We created a podcast in Garage Band in minutes (complete with pictures), and fiddled with a lot of the features that would really help in an educational setting, such as the built-in Dictionary and the Speech text-to-speech engine. We even got to see a lot of the thoughtful extras, like Webclips.

We drove home stunned.

Sure, I still have a few beefs. The closed nature of some of their products, for starters (the iPod Touch may be open to more developers soon, but the iPhone will be AT&T-only for some time). The lock-in to iTunes. The lack of true GPS on the iPhone and the Touch (every time someone tried to show me the triangulation feature, it failed or at least failed to build directions off of it). The way the Nike+iPod is restricted to the iPod Nano. And, of course, the price tag.

Yet it’s hard to argue with the value. Like people say, most of this stuff is just cool to use. Apple has put a lot of thought into the layout and design of both the hardware and the software, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about the system’s stability. OS X is loaded with features you just don’t get on Windows (or at the very least aren’t as polished in Windows), and the iPhone and Touch interfaces are an order of magnitude better than the Palm’s (there’s no stylus to lose, either).

The Wife scoffed when I told her I almost brought home a Touch for her. She had been looking at one of those credit card-sized photo viewers to show pictures to people, and she carries a calendar and address book in her purse. The Touch would fill all those functions and then some, saving her space in her purse and give her a much better screen and interface to boot. When I got home, I sat her down in front of my MacBook and gave her a tour of the Touch on Apple’s site. Sure enough, she’s impressed and looks forward to getting one in the near future.

Even tonight, despite my irritation in being forced to purchase an iPod Nano if I want to use the Nike+iPod gear when I try the Cool Running 5k plan this Spring, I found myself pricing out both the gadgets and a pair of Nike+ shoes or the Shoe Pouch. All day I’ve been trying to figure out if I should sync the Wife’s iPod Touch with my school MacBook or if I should buy an iMac for the family, and she doesn’t even have the damn thing yet. I yammered about Apple crap all night, and the Wife says I haven’t been this excited about computers in a long time.

Right now, if someone asked me what kind of computer they should buy, I would tell them “If you can afford it, buy a Mac. If you can’t, buy the best machine you can afford and slap Ubuntu on it.”

I feel so dirty.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

The Advantage in Being Proprietary

My Apple rep, Joe, was in my office as I was packing up at the end of the day. I leaned over to my MacBook, clicked the Apple icon, and clicked Shut Down.

“Did you just shut down your MacBook?” Joe asked. He gave me the same look one might give someone who had just shoved a live viper down the front of their pants.

It dawned on me in that instant how PC laptops had reinforced bad habits. There was no reason to shut down the MacBook because I was going to open it right back up when I got home in ten minutes. Joe had taken his laptop out twice during his visit, and each time opened and closed it without a hitch. I’ve opened and closed m MacBook several times, also without a hitch. In fact, I haven’t shut down the MacBook since, and it’s been eight days.

You can’t get that with Windows or Linux.

Linux has the uptime, but sleep and hibernation are iffy at best. I never got it to run on my old Dell with a few different Linux distros, and I eventually gave up on trying.

On Windows, you may get that kind of uptime out of a server, but on a workstation chances are you’ll have needed to reboot for one reason or another. Sleep and hibernation are at least supported, but when it does work it takes some time to shift into sleep mode and then to wake up again, and even then you may experience problems. For example, we have two shiny new Lenovo ThinkPads at the school, and when they come out of suspend mode they lose their keyboard (it’s especially problematic on a docking station). I have another Dell at work that’s only a few years old, and its suspend gives me fits at times as well. On a Windows machine, don’t even think about interrupting the suspend/wakeup process, because you’ll have problems. Close the lid on accident, realize you forgot something, and open it up again, and you pretty much freeze up the whole system. My wife’s uncle bought a brand new Dell XPS laptop and it took him three power-down and -up cycles before he finally got Windows to work again. Finally, even when it does cooperate, you’re looking at (I’m guesstimating based on previous experience) between 10 and 20 seconds before the system is actually usable.

On this MacBook, meanwhile, opening and closing the lid has been flawless, and damn near instantaneous. Close the lid and it’s suspended. Open it and it’s up and running in about a second. Count the time it takes to reassociate with a wireless network and you’re looking at 2-3 seconds, tops. But that’s okay, because you can start fiddling with apps. I had to write an email this morning, so I sat down and opened the lid. By the time my finger hit the touchpad, the MacBook was ready for me.

I wondered how that could be. Are Apple developers just that much better than Windows or Linux developers, or is there some advantage they have? It occurred to me that being proprietary may be all the advantage they need.

Whether you’re talking Windows or Linux, there are a plethora of machines they can be installed on with a wide-ranging set of features and hardware, each of which require their own drivers. It’s further compounded by the manufacturers handling different features in different ways.

In the Windows world, we have a closed-closed relationship. The hardware manufacturers are all protecting their hardware and software, and Windows is protecting their operating system. Windows only shares the Application Programmer’s Interface (API) with the hardware people, essentially telling them “this is how you talk to Windows.” If there are bugs and problems, it’s on the hardware manufacturer to figure it out, and the end users have to sit and hope the two sides can work things out.

In the Linux world, we have a closed-open relationship. Few hardware manufacturers are writing Linux drivers, but the Linux programmers have the advantage of full access to the Linux kernel and its drivers. They have a better chance of figuring things out, but the user still either has to code up a solution himself or hope a geek out there has the same problems and publishes a driver. The good news is this has drastically improved over the past few years with more companies like Canonical getting into the game, and partnerships between companies like Canonical and Dell are a big help, but there’s still a little ways to go.

The Apple guys, meanwhile, know exactly what the hardware is going to be. Their engineers and programmers all talk to one another and share information, so by the time the end user gets his hands on the product, everything Just Works. (Generally. I realize Macs are not 100% bulletproof.)

The advantage goes to Apple. By the same token, this is probably why the Xbox works so much better than Windows, despite their both being Microsoft products. The Xbox crew knows exactly what’s in the hardware and how to talk to it, so the Xbox operating system is rock solid. (Again, generally speaking.)

Which leads to the next problem: cost. I think I’ll save that rant for another post, though.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Ubuntu vs. Kubuntu

I finally got around to reinstalling Linux on my desktop PC, and wound up taking both Ubuntu and its KDE-driven sibling Kubuntu for test drives.

My DVD drive didn’t like the Ubuntu CD for some reason; the disk worked fine in other boxes, and Kubuntu and even Xubuntu CD’s worked just fine. Put Ubuntu back in and it would crap out while booting. Oh well, I’m used to KDE, so I went ahead and installed Kubuntu.

I wasn’t quite as impressed with it as I was with Xubuntu. If the look and feel of Windows XP is Fisher-Price, then the default KDE setup of Kubuntu is Little Tikes. I felt more like I was staring at a Nintendo game rather than a workhorse desktop and I quickly started tweaking out the desktop settings to make things a little less soft and pretty. I’m not necessarily looking for sparse, but kindergarten isn’t the right direction.

But hey, functionality is more important, so I restored my personal files using KDE’s Dolphin file manager (think Windows Explorer only much more functional). I did like this, and it had a convenient button to switch to superuser mode and get full access to the system. Very nice.

Next I started installing necessary apps. Kubuntu forgoes the tried-and-true Synaptic in favor of its own front end for APT called Adept. Given the name, one would think the software would be good at what it does. To the extent of browsing packages, it was.

Actually installing packages was another matter. I tried installing the Java browser plug-ins, and the license agreements popped up on the screen. I clicked next, but then the license prompts disappeared and Adept spat out an error and ceased installation, claiming the other packages I selected were not installed.

Yet when I looked in the menu, there were Thunderbird and Firefox (Kubuntu tries to get you to stick with Kmail and Konqueror instead — they’re not bad, but there’s something to be said about standardizing across all my desktops, and in my opinion the Mozilla products are the best at what they do). I filed that particular quirk for future reference and went back in to select a few more packages.

Same error, same result. Deselecting some packages and resetting some other selections didn’t help, and after several tries I got the same error over half the time. Not to mention I was no closer to having a Java-enabled web experience.

I thought about having it suck down the GNOME side of things from the Ubuntu repositories, but why? I had just wiped my Linux partitions clean to change the file system format and resize my partitions, so why not just start fresh again? I hooked an old CD drive to the computer, booted the Ubuntu CD, and this time it worked.

I decided to see what would happen if I just formatted the new root partition and left /home alone so I wouldn’t have to restore my personal files a second time. Then I was prompted with a new question: did I want to import files and personal settings? The installer had not only found my Windows partition, but it had ferreted out the profiles for myself and my wife. I only use Windows for gaming and my wife has never logged on to this Windows install so I didn’t need any of that, but I was impressed that it was presented as an option. A few more clicks and I set the installer loose.

On reboot, GRUB appeared and asked me to select an operating system. Where Kubuntu only gave me a Linux option, Ubuntu automagically configured GRUB to give me Ubuntu, a safe mode install, and a Windows boot option. Also slick, especially since I needed the Windows partition for game night with the guys shortly.

Once inside, I actually found GNOME comforting. Sure, with some tweaking I can easily make one look like the other and vice versa, but I was much more comfortable just sitting down to start working rather than spend another hour or so tweaking things out. A minor victory for Ubuntu to be sure, but at least Canonical seems to understand there aren’t just nine-year-old girls in their install base.

I found my /home partition intact, so I moved on to software. Canonical provides OpenOffice.org by default rather than KOffice, and Firefox is the default browser, so I was already halfway there. I added the Medibuntu package repositories and fired up trusty Synaptic.

Bliss. Not a single error, and in minutes I had Thunderbird and several other packages and plug-ins installed and running. Firefox spat out a Flash error at first, which I thought was odd since I’d installed it from Synaptic. Fortunately just clicking the “get plug-in” options within Firefox had Flash 9 up and running in seconds. Not too shabby.

Ubuntu and Kubuntu may share the same guts, but the presentation is vastly different. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll bother downloading KDE at all, but the Kubuntu guys have some work to do if they want to compete with Canonical, especially in package management.

In the end it’s Ubuntu for the win.

It’s also worth noting that I did all of this in about the same span as it would have taken me to get Windows XP installed and up and running just once. Downloading the various software packages alone, not to mention extra drivers and vendor-specific software, would have taken the better part of a day, and I was up and running with Ubuntu in about half an hour. Not too shabby.

In other tech news, the purchase order for the MacBook for work goes in today. I look forward to comparing the apples and oranges of the two, and getting into the guts of its command line. This should be fun.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Xubuntu Impresses

I’ve pretty much written off my good old Dell Inspiron 8000 as an obsolete clunker doomed to crawl along, but I keep it around because I can still run Linux at a reasonable speed on it, connect via wireless in various places, and get some writing done on the road. I most recently ran Fedora Core 5 on it with Fluxbox loaded up as the window manager. Fluxbox is very sparse and minimalist, but it works, and I figured that install would take me through to the laptop’s end of life.

That end of life is looking farther and farther off, however, as I can’t afford to just go out and pick up a cheap laptop, much less a shiny new MacBook. I may as well get the apps as current as possible, so last night I installed Xubuntu 7.10, a spin-off of Ubuntu 7.10 that installs Xfce as the default desktop. Xfce is supposed to run better on older hardware than its more-popular cousins KDE or GNOME, but I saw a negligible difference between it and KDE on my laptop under Flux/FC5.

Not so under Xubuntu. I didn’t see an improvement in boot time (not unexpected), but the desktop did load faster and I didn’t experience a lot of the drag I did before, even under Fluxbox. Flux got the job done, but it’s nice to be back into a fairly modern desktop again.

After that, it’s all Ubuntu candy. The Synaptic package manager impresses me more every time I use it. Firefox and Thunderbird are both current, and the Ubuntu folks didn’t make the idiotic decision to skip Firefox 2 like the Fedora gang. The Software Sources (the sites Synaptic downloads its software from) are much easier to manage, and within five minutes of first login I had Flash 9 up and running. Sound worked out of the box.

Wireless threw me at first. My Orinoco card had a green light to indicate it was running, yet I didn’t have an established connection. Then I spotted the network management applet up by the clock. Click, click, click, voila! At least as easy as using Windows XP’s wireless manager (and easier than some of the vendor-supplied managers).

I started surfing around, and it was a good ten minutes before I noticed the fonts. The fonts are sharper and clearer than I’ve seen on Linux in a while, and they’re at least as sharp and clear as the new IE fonts (which, admittedly, look pretty damn good). It’s not that there was anything wrong with the fonts under FC5, it’s just these are much cleaner and clearer, even under the high resolution. Then it dawned on me that Xubuntu managed to figure out my display resolution on its own, too! I used to have to select a better resolution by hand on this laptop. Under Slackware it meant tweaking X by hand, and under Fedora I had to choose the correct display.

In fact there was zero configuration on this install, period.

The installer asked maybe a half dozen questions: what language I speak, how to partition the disk, my timezone, who I am, and for a password. It then cooked along and presented me with a working system minutes later. People talk about the difficulty of installing XP all the time, but I never saw a major difference until now. This installer runs circles around just about every other installer I’ve ever used.

I still have to dig around and see what else is in there, but it’s looking like I’m going to be an Ubuntu convert. The sticker goes on the laptop chassis this evening, I’ll be installing Ubuntu (or more likely Kubuntu) on the home PC sometime soon, and I look forward to testing Xubuntu on some of the old hardware I’ve got floating around at work.

Linux doesn’t get much more ready for the desktop than this.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

A Guide to Gutsy

If you took my advice and downloaded Ubuntu 7.10, aka Gutsy Gibbon, but you don’t know where to begin, try this installation guide. It’ll take you through the install from start to finish, complete with screenshots, and leave you with a complete working desktop that includes everything you need for work and play.

Enjoy!

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Try Linux Today

Today marks the official release of the latest version of the Ubuntu Linux distribution, making it one of the best times to take Linux for a test drive. Possibly as early as this weekend I will finally be upgrading from an older SuSE distribution to Ubuntu 7.10, aka Gutsy Gibbon.

Join me, won’t you?

Need more incentive? Kim Brebach has 13 reasons Linux should be on your desktop. While I’ve never tried the Simply Mepis distro, his reasoning applies just as well to Ubuntu. What’s more, Ubuntu is the distro Dell now preinstalls on some of their systems, meaning you’re more likely than ever to find someone else using Linux near you.

Or maybe this Wired magazine review will help put you at ease, not to mention Cory Doctorow’s assertion on Boing Boing that Ubuntu’s latest release is both “easy” and “sexy” and he dumped his Apple in favor of a PC running Ubuntu.

What are you waiting for? Download a live CD and enjoy.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Dell (Possibly) Expanding Linux Offerings

Canonical, the folks behind the Ubuntu Linux distribution, claim Dell is doing well enough with their Linux machines that they are going to expand their offerings to include more systems.

Are you sure Linux isn’t ready for the desktop?

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Fix Your Laptop

Lifehacker today had a link to this article about fixing 11 different problems that plague laptop users. They address common problems from batteries not holding charges (the solution: replacement – durr) to hard drive crashes and overheating. Not a bad little reference, especially given I receive questions about things like this from time to time.

Of course, they forgot one big fix for Windows crashes: install Ubuntu. ;)

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.