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Ready for Linux Fest Northwest

April 24, 2012 Comments off

The disks are burned, the stickers are being printed up, and the presentation still needs tweaking, but for all intents and purposes I’m ready for Linux Fest Northwest, which takes place this weekend at Bellingham Technical College.

Next to the Southern California Linux Expo — which will turn it up to 11 at SCALE 11X in February 2013* — Linux Fest Northwest is the best show on the West Coast. Collectively and in choral harmony, I can hear all of you saying, “What about OSCON?” True, OSCON is the biggest of the West Coast shows, bringing out all the big guns, both in FOSS personalities as well as in software and hardware. There are many excellent presentations offered every year at OSCON, however with the show growing to the commercial entity that it has become, there’s a slickness to it that has a tendency to leave many visitors adrift in a vast sea of marketing.

Not so Linux Fest Northwest: It’s in its 11th year in Bellingham, Washington — essentially Microsoft’s backyard — and from the ground up it an all-community affair, completely run with a volunteer staff that puts on an outstanding show on what seems to be the Pacific Northwest’s best weekend of weather. The classrooms at Bellingham Technical College are ideal for presentations and the expo floor is big enough to be interesting but small enough not to be too overwhelming.

I’ll be presenting on Saturday morning — Greg DeKoenigsberg and I switched times so he could give his presentation on Sunday — on “An Intro to CrunchBang” in Haskell 103. Be there or be square. Also there’s a CrunchBang Birds of a Feather meetup on Sunday morning as well. The CrunchBang booth — which will also feature some ZaReason hardware — will be in the center of the room diagonally across from where the raffle will take place.

So if you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you should head over to Linux Fest Northwest. You can sign up at the LFNW link above (it’s free, but you have to sign up for a badge), and head over to the show.

See you there.

*Truth in advertising: I have a vested interest in SCALE since I’m the publicity chair. But even if I wasn’t, I’d still think SCALE is the best show on the West Coast. Frankly, I think it’s the best show in the hemisphere and I’m beyond proud to be a part of it.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions  in the small business and home office environment.)

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PowerPC still lives in Fedora

April 10, 2012 6 comments

For the 0.5 percent of the folks who to which this tidbit pertains — that would be the Linux-on-PowerPC crowd . . . er, group . . . er, trio — the Fedora Project released the alpha version of its Fedora 17 PowerPC version. The release notes are here.

Many long-time readers of this blog who are not family (and even those who are) know that I’ve always had a soft spot for older Macintosh hardware, and those of you who admit to knowing me for a long time know that I’ve had several PowerPC machines running various distros, mostly Debian and Fedora, but a couple of OpenSUSE boxes, too (while it lasted, the G4 tower ran great on OpenSUSE’s PPC version before they gave it the heave-ho). I even mourned briefly against the demise of the PowerPC architecture, but I understand that if 0.5 percent of the Linux community is using a particular architecture, it’s a good idea to probably put resources elsewhere.

So it became Debian who kept the flame alive, until Fedora picked it up again. Thanks, Fedora, and now I’ll try this on the eMac that’s collecting dust in the corner.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Review: “The Linux Command Line”

April 3, 2012 3 comments

A couple of months ago — my apologies to the publishers — No Starch Press sent me a copy of William E. Shotts Jr.’s “The Linux Command Line: A Complete Introduction” to review. I didn’t get to the review until now because, well, I just finished it.

No, I’m not a slow reader; in fact, I’m pretty fast when it comes to going cover to cover. But by “finish” the book, I mean that I am finished reading and re-reading this book, trying out some of the things I already knew and working on things that I didn’t know until I read the book.

In short, “The Linux Command Line” is more than a complete introduction — it’s a full education in 432 pages (not counting the index).

A little background: In the ways of Linux, I am primarily self-taught over the last six years. However, I have taken courses at Cabrillo College which lead to the California State University system’s Unix/Linux Administrator Certificate (I’m lacking a couple of classes — the Windows ones, to be honest). I didn’t exactly ace CIS130 Bash Scripting, but I passed. Also, I have never been afraid of the command line, though I do prefer to use text editors like Geany over things like vi (and, for the love of all things holy, keep emacs the heck away from me!) when fixing files.

That said, and to the author’s overwhelming credit, Shotts takes a topic that could drop all but the most hardcore geeks into a coma-like sleep and makes it very interesting and, at times, fun. His tight writing style and economy of words when explaining concepts are a plus here, and the asides — outlined in grey boxes throughout the book — usually come at the right time in the text, where a mental breather is probably a good idea.

My favorite example of many is this: In Chapter 15 on Storage Media, Shotts take a grey-box look at “Why unmounting is important.” Of course, it is important, but he goes into the ever important why, explaining the ins and outs of buffering and how that affects storage. To the years-of-experience Linux user who would say, “Well, duh!” it might be old news. To those of us who didn’t know such intricacies until reading this, it was a refreshing tangent that wrapped things together in the chapter.

Each of the chapters is like this, very informative — but not boringly so — punctuated with asides that contribute greatly to the chapter itself. The first 22 chapters were an enjoyable walk though many things I already knew, and some things that were a revelation. In fact, rather than a reference book, “The Linux Command Line” reads more like a story — or maybe a biographical novel — of the command line.

Then cue the ominous music: From chapters 23 to the end, which is 36, we get to where the proverbial rubber meets the road; where it’s make or break time. It’s the hard stuff.

Another aside: In “My Blue Heaven,” witness-protected Steve Martin tells FBI agent Rick Moranis at one point that he’s never used a firearm. “It doomed me to middle management,” Martin’s character says. That’s kind of where I’m at with programming — I’ve used programs, submitted bug reports and even written bash scripts, but never compiled a program.

Chapter 23 stars with compiling, which I did (whew!). Chapter 24 deals with bash scripting (which I’ve done in the past, and now have a better understanding of it) and continues on through some of the more intricate parts of command-line use, like “Starting a Project” (Chapter 25), “Top Down Design” (Chapter 26), two chapters on Flow Control (27 and 29), ending up with “Exotica” in Chapter 36. Again, with Shotts’ thorough explanations in each chapter — again, thorough but not droll — assuming the reader is of average intelligence and can understand what’s written, he or she would come away with command-line skills that could be put to immediate use.

Early on, Shotts touches on the gist of why this book — and why it’s a “complete introduction” to the command line — might be on the long side. “Learning the command line is challenging and takes real effort. It’s not that it’s so hard, but rather it’s so vast.”

No truer words were spoken.

So if you’re relatively new to Linux but can install a distro and navagate your way around the command line, even peripherally, this book will be a help to get you into an area of Linux that can be both helpful and interesting at the same time. If you’re an experienced administrator coming to Linux from another operating system, you’ll find this a valuable reference. Everyone else in between would clearly benefit from having a copy of this book as well.

One drawback, however: There’s a typo on page 51, where a sentence is missing an R. I am certain that the editors will fix that before the next printing.

But never mind: “The Linux Command Line: A Complete Introduction” by William E. Shotts, Jr., gets my highest recommendation for a book that educates and entertains with equal doses of practical knowledge and peripheral anecdotes.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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A tale of two fests

April 3, 2012 3 comments

There seems to be a lot of traffic on social media around some of the Linux events later in the year. Clearly, there’s no harm in getting a head start on things, but it’s probably a good idea to keep our eyes on what’s immediately in front of us.

There’s one coming up next weekend: Indiana LinuxFest in Indianapolis next weekend (meaning April 13-15, for those of you keeping score at home). ILF is in its second year, and this year it staged what I thought is a coup that they got Debian founder Ian Murdock to be one of the keynoters; the other, of course, is no slouch either: Amber Graner of Linaro. Add that to the usual suspects — exhibitors, a wide range of talks at various levels and some certification exams — and you have the recipe for a growing Linux show in the Hoosier state.

If you’re within a day’s ground travel (let alone a day’s air travel), ILF is a good show to attend.

Later this month, Linux Fest Northwest — next to SCALE, my favorite expo in North America — takes place in Bellingham, Wash., literally in Microsoft’s backyard. LFNW is part of the West Coast’s “triple crown” in Linux events, the others being the Southern California Linux Expo at the beginning of the year and OSCON in the summer, and now in its 11th year, it has been a testament to how community-based FOSS events can flourish. Plus, the Pacific Northwest is fantastic in April.

Get to either, or both, if you can.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Adios, Ubuntu

March 27, 2012 11 comments

I’m not going to make a big deal about this, despite the fact it transcends mere annoyance and enters the anger zone. Also, I apologize to those who got comfortable with their popcorn and were ready for a verbal thrashing and grammatical throwdown of epic proportions here, as we’ve done in the past when this issue arose.

The reason I’m not going to make a big deal about it is because there’s nothing new in this issue — just the standard issue Canonical/Ubuntu behavior where it’s “Ubuntu uber alles” and the FOSS community be damned. But at the same time, the reason I bring it up is because it’s something which folks should keep on their proverbial radar, and keep track of it because just as it has happened continually in the past, chances are it will keep happening in the future.

Joe Brockmeier wrote something on his personal blog today that he discovered yesterday about “the Ubuntu kernel” in the upcoming Precise Pangolin release. I can’t add anything to this, and Joe writes something I completely agree with and something I wish I had written. This new “kernel” comes from a company that has systematically kept the word “Linux” at arm’s length, or further, for years now, and now they don’t even have the courtesy of acknowledging their roots.

What’s worse is that there is a revisionist tack to the story of who-begat-who, since Mark Shuttleworth, a person for whom the word “hubris” seems to have been coined, seems to think — and isn’t shy about opining — that Debian is part of the Ubuntu “ecosphere,” rather than the other way around.

To say nothing of the lack of upstream contribution by Canonical/Ubuntu — this has been outlined in the past here, here, and even here where The Mark and I square off, and pretty much all over the place.

As long as I’ve been using Linux — that would be 2006 and one of my first distros was Ubuntu (though my first was Debian, to which I’ve returned both using that distro and CrunchBang) — Ubuntu has done much to bring visibility to Linux, until it stopped calling itself that. So while it deserves a degree of gratitude for this, Canonical/Ubuntu has always been the salesman in the new-car showroom, taking credit for selling you this great product when the truth is that the salesman really did not have much to contribute to the construction of the car.

I’m more than welcome to let Canonical/Ubuntu and the legions of Ubunteros — many of them good people, some of them blind hero-worshiping sheep (this will become evident in the comments, no doubt) — go their own way and I’ll go mine.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions — which no longer includes Canonical/Ubuntu products — in the small business and home office environment.)

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How we do things here

March 22, 2012 2 comments

This is how things are done in these parts: I don’t want to speak for him because I know my friend Don Parris has his own explanation for it (which he outlines on his blog here), but it appears that while building up his bash scripting skills, he noticed a certain finality to deleting filed in bash. So he wrote a script to keep the files around in case there’s an “oops-I-needed-that-file-after-all” moment.

So Don did what we do in these parts, this paradigm known as FOSS: He wrote his own script. Not only this, he put it under the GPL and put it out for the benefit of the wide world to use.

Is it something that will be widely adopted and catapult Don to a nomination for the Nobel? Probably not. But for those of us who would use it, it’s a pretty nifty tool, and my hat is off to Don and the Bash Trashman (which you can get at the link two paragraphs up, and note to Don: I sort of like Brash myself, but snicker uncontrollably at the thought of calling it Bashmaster, a la Bassmaster).

Because that’s how things are done here.

There’s a flip side to this coin, too: It’s when someone visits to a distro or a project and tells the community “Hey, you can do things better. Let me tell you how.”

I bring this up in the wake of a thread in the CrunchBang forums around what might — might — constitute improvements in that particular distribution. That’s reason number one. The second reason is that I’m guilty of this, too, and learned my lesson years ago.

While there is always room for improvement in anything, the changes the original poster suggests are things that are already found commonly in other distros and, arguably (as noted in the thread) CrunchBang’s strengths lie in what it “lacks” in the way of digital creature comforts as much as it lies in the great job Philip Newborough has done in putting together an Openbox-based distro that’s fast on old hardware and lightning quick on the newer stuff.

You’ve heard me say this before, mantra-like, and I’m going to have this etched on my tombstone: Use whatever distro/FOSS program works for you. This is one of those basic truths, like the inevitability of death and taxes and the inability to comprehend how gravity works, understanding the Wankel engine or the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” To go to one community set in their ways and say, “You know, you’d be a lot more popular if $LIST_OF_REASONS” doesn’t fly because, in the constellation of the 320-something distros in the Linux/BSD universe, there’s a distro out there that will do exactly what you want it to do. As it should be. And if this one doesn’t do it for you and you’re not using one that does work for you — opting to try to change it to your tastes instead of changing yours to fit the distro — you’re falling into the trap outlined in that popular Southern expression: “Never teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time, and it annoys the pig.”

To his credit (and I’m assuming the original poster is a he), the original poster has stuck with CrunchBang and he seems to be working out some of the bugs he’s finding. Also, one of the things I hope he’s finding is that there is a wealth of knowledge and education a question away in the CrunchBang forums, which is a huge and positive testament to that particular community.

As an aside, I use CrunchBang regularly as my primary distro because a.) I like it and b.) it does what I need it to do across a wide range of hardware which, say it with me, means it suits my needs. The fact that it’s a community with a wide range of smart people is a perk.

Which is as it should be.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Interview with Ken Starks

March 14, 2012 2 comments

It’s fairly common knowledge that if anyone on the planet eats, drinks and breathes Free/Open Source Software, it’s Ken Starks. A tireless advocate for FOSS and Linux, Starks is the poster boy for walking the FOSS walk after talking the talk. In the Austin, Texas, area he provides underpriviliged kids with Linux boxes through the HeliOS Project, which takes donated hardware, refurbishes them and gives them to needy children in the Austin area.

Starks had overcome a cancer diagnosis in the past, but he is now engaged in fighting a new battle with throat and neck cancer. While the HeliOS Project is the sum of its parts, Starks is the voice and face of the organization he founded. With a health condition possibly sidelining him for the time being – and possibly longer – this interview provides the most current information on his medical situation, and also provide a report on the direction of the HeliOS Project going forward.

In this interview, we take a look at where Starks and HeliOS has been, where it is now, and where it’s going.

Q: Let’s go back to the beginning and bring us up to where we are today at HeliOS Solutions. How much of an impact has The HeliOS Project made in the Austin area?

Ken Starks: Statistically, we have placed just under 1,500 computers to underpriviledged kids since 2005. Over-all impact is honestly hard to measure. Sure we can give the tools to build but how many use them to their full potential?  We are just not big enough or funded enough to track that info with any science. However, If the weekly feedback we get from our kid’s parents us any indication, we can measure ate least some empirical evidence of an increase in both math and reading skills.

Outside of cold, hard statistics though, you really need to take into account that “aha” moment. That moment when a child glimpses the possibilities at their fingertips. I cannot measure that Larry, and I don’t think anyone can. Still,that does not make it unimportant.

Q: You’ve won local awards, you helped organize the Lindependence Project a few years ago, and you’ve keynoted last year’s Texas Linux Fest. You’ve had a very busy few years recently.

KS: Thanks for noticing and it really was accidental notice. I take some pride in being awarded The Dewey Winburne Community award more than anything but the rest of it has been fun, too … but onward. Laurels wear out quickly in this business and resting upon them just crushes them to the ground.

Q: The HeliOS Project is all about providing Linux boxes to kids. Can you explain how the concept of providing children with technology resonates with people and why it’s a necessary goal for HeliOS?

KS: It’s really the only goal for HeliOS, Larry. When I first got involved with this project, it was something to do while I healed from a work-related injury. But when I began placing the computers, and seeing the huge “digital divide,” it rang a clear, concise and commanding bell within me

Q: Over the years, you and the HeliOS Project team have grown the project to where it stands today. In large part, the project has flourished under your leadership. How does this change with your current health condition?

KS: It leaves much unanswered, Larry, and to this point we’ve always had a pool of great volunteers to rally and help us get the job done. However, out of all of them, should I have to step aside for any period of time, I can’t think of anyone that could take a full lead position. I’m not saying that it’s that hard, but if you have other things pulling you in other directions, you are not always going to be focused where the project needs you.

I was in the hospital for just under two weeks and in that time, we have fallen 20-some installs behind, we have received machines for donation that are just lying about without triage and our landscape has grown to jungle proportions outside of our facility. I am amazed the City of Taylor hasn’t contacted us. I am receiving both chemotherapy and radiation Treatments and to be honest, Larry, I am mostly dead inside. I just don’t have the energy to
go from the bed to the bathroom until I can complete this treatment. And hopefully, we will kill this frickin’ monster forever.

Hopefully, we can gather a small pool of volunteers to go do the installs but if not, it’s just going to have to wait until I can get better. Honestly, the last thing I want people to imagine is that HeliOS is languishing.

Q: Is there a real chance of that, Ken? Languishing, or worse?

KS: Larry, I think so. When you have a project who’s vision and dream are guided by one person, then if that person disappears, the void takes its toll. Again, I don’t know anyone that is in the position to step in and take it over. It is an unpaid position at this point and even with some upcoming funding, the Facility Administrator job will pay tops of 28K. I can work for that but most people can’t or won’t. I do have some very real concerns over HeliOS lasting this health problem. I have to balance my life right now with the needs of the project and the demands on my health.

Q: You mention upcoming. How are you funded now?

KS: Except for donations and things we sell through the HeliOS eBay store, I pay for most stuff out of pocket and and then request reimbursement if there is any money in the SPI donation fund. I work small contracts to pay my bills. If there is money in the donations fund, I submit for reimbursement. The biggest problem I have now is that I lost two working contracts while in the hospital due to lack of my ability to go forward with the work.  That’s going to prove to be a big short term problem but hopefully, we will get by this with a little help and we can move along.

I’ve come to the community often in the five years we’ve needed help, and once before when my health was bad. And to be honest with you, I’m not real comfortable with doing so now so verbally, I won’t. It’s just where I/we are at the moment. I have no doubt that if I can regain my health, we can get back on track again. And to be honest Larry … I’ve had a full, interesting life, full of things from all sides of life’s spectrum, both good and bad, innocent and evil, and as I come to realize that my life’s clock may actually be showing the last quarter, the most I could ask for is another five years of productivity so I can make HeliOS a self-surviving entity.

If you care to, you can contact Ken at his prime mover email address: helios@fixedbylinux.com

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Eliminate DRM!

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