Sunday, March 23, 2008

Linux on my laptop

I mentioned in a previous post that I'd put Linux on my laptop because it ran so much faster than Windows XP did. The distro (DreamLinux 2.2 MMGL) I'd installed, however, is no longer going to be updated nor supported. Because the developers built version 3 from the ground up with a new architecture it is unlikely (if not impossible) for there to be an upgrade path from 2.2 to 3.0. So I downloaded DreamLinux 3.0 RC1 ("release candidate" - so basically beta software). As one might expect with a beta it's buggy, it didn't work with some of my hardware, and ultimately the GDM crashed and couldn't be restored. Hopefully the final release (due out this week if they're on schedule) will be a lot more stable, and I certainly don't envy the developers who have to tackle it.

I had only ended up installing DreamLinux in the first place because it was the ONLY distro I'd tried that actually WORKED with my D-Link DWL-G630 wireless card. Yeah, I'm sure some people are rolling their eyes and asking why I'd even WANT to use that in Linux (Google the model and Linux, you'll see what I'm talking about), but that's what came with my laptop, it works fine in Windows XP, and I don't have money right now for another card. Plus I don't think I *should* need a different one just for Linux, since I know it IS possible to get this one to work.

Actually, I've read if all you want is unsecured access or WEP you don't even necessarily need to use "ndiswrapper," but can use "madwifi" instead. But that depends on the chip set used in the card (there are different revisions with the same model number). For me, however, I not only use WPA-PSK security on my home network, I also couldn't get Linux to "see" the card unless I used the Windows XP drivers and ndiswrapper.

It also doesn't help that my laptop (an HP Pavilion ZE4315US which I got for an excellent price in an eBay auction) has the dreaded ATI Radeon 320M IGP (also known as the U1) integrated video. Well, dreaded by many Linux users, that is. ATI has disowned the darned thing, even though they sold it to numerous laptop manufacturers. In theory the open ATI or Radeon driver work, but apparently only with certain Linux kernels or X-Server versions - and before you know it you're looking at pages talking about editing source modules and compiling custom kernels. Is it worth it? For most people I'd wager not. Which was why I just lived with the fact I wasn't going to have 3D desktop effects, direct rendering, or any of the other stuff the video is actually capable of doing. The most common problem appears to be that many Linux distros "see" the video chip as ATI Radeon and attempt to either use the "ati" or "radeon" drivers, but if some mysterious other components are missing from the kernel and/or X Server, you'll just get a blank screen when X starts. In which case you have to tell it to use the VESA driver, but then you just get 2D graphics.

If you also have that particular laptop (or any of the 43xx series), and were considering a Linux installation here were the ones I tried out, and what didn't work:

Ubuntu 6.04: Booted up fine, actually DID recognize the video card and 3D desktop effects could be enabled (though they were unstable). Nothing I did could get the wireless card to function with WPA security. WEP did work, however. The installation eventually stopped booting after a "security" software update (no idea which one caused it).

Ubuntu 7.04: Needed to be booted from "recovery mode" in order to select the VESA drivers for video, which meant no more 3D effects or direct rendering. I could get it to recognize my wireless card was there with ndiswrapper and the WPA supplicant installed, but it refused to actually connect.

Xubuntu 7.10: Boots up, but randomly crashed soon after getting to the desktop.

Ubuntu 8.04 Beta: Booted up, but once the X server started the screen went black, but would gradually build with brownish spots that would "bloom" to white, with these "flares" flickering like some kind of crap-colored aurora. I frankly thought it had toasted my LCD screen, but it seems fine. I decided not to tempt fate and didn't boot "Hardy Heron" again.

PCLinux 2007: Boots up to the point where it says it is starting the desktop (Gnome) and crashes.

SAMlinux 2007: Boots up to the point where it's starting the X-server and the screen goes blank, even when started in "safe graphics" mode with the VESA driver.

OpenSUSE 10.3: Hangs during the boot process.

DreamLinux 2.2 MMGL: Boots in "safe graphics" mode using the VESA driver. Configured my wireless card for WPA with no problems. I ended up using this distro on my laptop for several months because it had an attractive, clean interface; the wireless connection worked; and since it used Xfce (which is light-weight) it was pretty snappy even BEFORE extra memory was added to the laptop.

DreamLinux 3.0 RC1: Booted, installed, ran for about a day until the instability took it down for good. But, if they get this thing stable and get it to work with the ATI 320M I'll definitely be looking at it again.

Mandriva 2008: boots, recognizes the video card and runs Compiz Fuzion effects flawlessly. Had really easy configuration of the wireless card drivers, except that I couldn't get it to connect at first. Eventually I found that, if I turned on the "Interactive Firewall" it would connect properly, but over WAN it wouldn't actually let me go use my web browser, so I just disabled all the filters - so it's "on" but isn't set to actually do anything (which isn't really necessary on my home network, which has another firewall between the laptop and the cable modem). I have had intermittent issues with various windows losing their title bars and borders or (specifically the system control panels) becoming non-responsive and sometimes impossible to terminate. Though that might be because of Compiz, I don't know. Sound was also not working correctly, but once I tried the alternative "Trident" driver that seems to have solved it (go to the Hardware control panel, find the "Sound" section and click the "Configure" button, it will be in a drop-down menu of driver choices). Getting the volume buttons on the side to work is more tricky. Have to select the only "Pavilion" keyboard in the config panel, then use the Kmix "Global Settings" to bind the buttons to volume up/down. Mute button doesn't do anything. Oh, and presently they only work for earphones, not the PC speakers/Master slider. Still looking for some better solutions to these issues.

Presently Mandriva 2008 lives on my laptop because, thus far, it is the ONLY Linux distro I've found that will both utilize my wireless card AND let me have 3D rendering enabled. It's noticeably less responsive than DreamLinux (with Xfce) was on the same hardware, but still faster than Windows XP is, so I'm going to leave well enough alone now that I've got it all working.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Bad Wine

The continuing story of a penguin who's gone to the dogs. (Muppets "Pigs in Space" reference for the uninitiated).

Ok, so I got Ubuntu Linux on my desktop running without too much trouble - but I gotta say if they REALLY want the masses to move away from Windows they are going to have to step up their game regarding "ease of use." There is STILL far too much fiddling with configuration files and typing line commands into terminals for my liking - and I sort of have an idea what I'm doing (well, barely). I can't imagine your average "point and click" Windows user having a clue how to install most software on Linux, or even know how to mount a drive (or that you even HAVE mount drives for that matter).

But my venture wasn't to try and make Linux like Windows. That would be like putting sows ears in a silk purse, to twist a phrase. But I wanted to see if the much hallooed application "Wine" could actually run some of the Windows applications I unfortunately need, and which haven't been ported to Linux. I was further encouraged by a related project - "Wine-Doors" - which was supposed to ease the pain of installing applications into Wine.

Ok, quick explanation. "Wine" is a compatibility layer. It creates a fake "C:" drive structure in some folders and then runs the Windows programs inside the Wine program. The programs are tricked into thinking they're running on a Windows machine because they find DLL files and whatnot where they expect them, but there's not actually any Windows operating system present. Sounds neat huh? Well, when it works it actually IS pretty neat. The problem is that it doesn't work most of the time.

Getting some simple applications to run wasn't a problem - like Notepad. Yeah, fun, eh? Installed an older version of Firefox in it that works (though what the point of that is I don't know, since Firefox is available for Linux). I couldn't get the install of Winamp to work until I manually copied the files over form my Windows drive - THEN it worked. Quicktime sort of worked. I can set preferences, but not actually play any media files. Yay! Fun setting preferences. Tried to install iTunes and it crapped out. Tried to install Internet Explorer 6 through "Wine-Doors" and it wouldn't work. No errors, just wouldn't do anything. Windows Media Player gave me some cryptic "256" error during installation. DirectX gave me a similarly cryptic "512" error. A look at the Wine-Doors bug lists didn't clear those up at all.

I did manage to get IE 6 and IE 7 to run by using the IEs4Linux script (which isn't part of Wine or Wine-Doors), and it worked - the programs actually DID open! But the only way I got it to install was via "root" - and it even WARNS you that IE is too insecure to be granted root access. It was pretty crash-prone anyway, and it wouldn't render the "Internet Options" dialogue box.

But running Internet Explorer wasn't REALLY what I wanted anyway. I wanted to run Adobe applications. But if I can't even get stuff like Winamp or Quicktime to install or run properly, I was not optimistic about getting truly complicated programs to run in Wine.

For all the hype about it, I'm sorry, but it's just too dodgy to be useful right now. Maybe in the future, but Wine is a project that has been underway for ages (since 1993) and never seems to quite cross the finish line. One look at the software compatibility database and you can see just how hit-or-miss it is depending on what you're trying to install on it. It also seems that which distribution of Linux you're using is a factor as well. I only saw those error codes mentioned in reference to Debian/Ubuntu. And earlier versions of Ubuntu had to have a special version of Wine to run 64 bit or some such. I wasted an entire day trying to figure it out and get it to work - and basically decided it wasn't worth the effort. Of course I can't get my day back.

In the end, I downloaded Qemu and pointed it to my Windows 98 VM and it boots up just dandy - and Qemu's sound mapping in Linux is at least smooth (unlike the choppy, delayed sound Qemu was giving me in Windows XP). So, if I do make the switch to Linux, I guess I'll be running my Windows apps in an emulator, since that at least seems to work. Of course then you have to be willing to take a major performance hit.

As much as I hate to admit it, for now it would probably just be simpler to keep using Windows XP until Microsoft stops supporting it.

How to waste a day

That Microsoft "flag" image has probably already given you a pretty good idea where this entry is going. I know it's almost cliche to hate Windows (and by proxy hate Microsoft and Bill Gates since they unleashed the bastard child upon us). But, seriously, I have my reasons to dislike Windows, and desperately want to get the hell away from it - but like that line in the movie says "everytime I think I'm out, they drag me back in."

But this post isn't going to become an enumerated list of Windows' litany of evil wrought upon my computers over the years. It's about me trying to break the shackles and move to something better.

I'll just get this out of the way up front - my problems would easily be solved by getting a Mac. I've owned Macs before, still have a few old junkers around, and I like the OS a lot more than Windows, always have. I absolutely need to be able to run Adobe software, which is also available for Macs, so I'd be covered there (of course I'd have to get the Adobe software I have on my Windows machine all over again for Mac). The problem? Making the jump BACK to Macs would not be cheap. I already have decent PC hardware, it's the OPERATING SYSTEM that I don't like.

Now there were a bunch of reasons (mostly tied to the workplace of a job I no longer have) that got me to switch from Macs to Windows in the first place. But money was as much a factor then as now (I built up a pretty respectable system from components for under $300 - similar specs in a Mac would run me 5x that). So, if I can get something better running on my hardware that's the best solution. Enter Linux.

My HP Laptop, running WinXP, was always slow. I could make a meal waiting for it to boot, and refresh my coffee while it opened most applications. It wasn't much better even after I tripled the memory in it. Most people would probably be dissing the underpowered hardware - and my laptop HAS been characterized as a "brick" and a "doorstop" before. Well, then I partitioned the drive and installed DreamLinux 2.2 MMGL on it. It was like I had a brand new computer! Boots fast, has a classy looking "Mac-esque" GUI and my apps popped open on command. So what does that tell you? Same hardware, different OS and suddenly my almost "uselessly slow" laptop is the fresh faced new kid.

With that in mind I solved my brother's problems with his computer in a similar fashion. All he does is surf YouTube and read stuff anyway - Windows 2000 Pro was overkill for his needs, and his older hardware was struggling to run it. So I partitioned his drive and installed PCLinuxOS on it (which, with the proper theme applied, looks enough like Win2K that it wouldn't scare him). Haven't heard any complaints lately about how his computer runs. Again, same hardware, different OS, and it's got more life in it.

So I installed Ubuntu "Gutsy Gibbon" 7.10 (yeah, who comes up with these names?) on my main desktop with "wubi" (which lets you "test drive" it without actually partitioning your drives or using virtualization). Runs great and I get all those fancy Mac Leopard-ish/Windows Vista-ish desktop effects, and with AWN installed I even get a clone of the Mac's dock at the bottom of my screen. I also like that it's the 64-bit version of Linux, so it's pretty peppy on my hardware. But my TRUE motivation was to try and get WINE and WINE-DOORS installed and running Windows applications in Linux WITHOUT having to use Windows itself. Sounds great huh? Yeah. Until you actually try it.

(continued in the next blog entry)

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Was "Private Snafu" at MarsCon 2008?

So today in Googling some MarsCon 2008 Con Reports and blogs, etc., there are surfacing some tales of the "unexpected guests" at the convention misbehaving and dissing the con-going regulars (or irregulars if you like). I know that at least once the military guys had to be settled down by an older, wiser authority - and my observation was that they snapped into line pretty quickly. But I also don't disbelieve that once that authority figure was out of sight his authority was probably also out of mind. All I observed was the sort of rowdy behavior you can get with any group of drunken people, and frankly I didn't think it was that bad and the few of them I personally spoke with seemed to be getting into the spirit of it, rather than mocking it (maybe they were closet geeks?) Then again, I briefly lived in a UK town not far from an R.A.F. base where most weekends found many of the military personnel in the local pubs, so by comparison I didn't think what I saw going on was a problem, but I'm sure I only saw a small fraction.

That said, it sounds like as the night wore on and the alcohol accumulated some of those guys got a bit more out of hand, though I was back in my room by the time this was allegedly going on so did not see nor hear it myself. After all, they were soldiers, not angels - and much like Mal said in Serenity I'm sure some of them went onto the 13th floor with the thought, "I aim to misbehave." Again, I don't doubt at least some of them saw us as a bunch of freaks or were saying disrespectful things about fans and fandom. Of course, when you gather a bunch of people together, military or not, a "group mentality" often forms where they'll say and/or do things together they wouldn't otherwise when alone (heck, that probably explains the conventions themselves, right?) But to be fair, those of us who go to these things probably have members of our own families who think/say we're freaks and wierdos for dressing up in costumes and going to these things, and even though I'm no "Con Virgin" there are still things at the conventions that cause me a WTF? moment or two.

(Frankly I've never understood why we're singled out as social outcasts simply because some of us dress up in Starfleet Uniforms or paint ourselves in strange colors and go to conventions to get autographs from actors who were in shows we enjoy; but if the same person painted themselves yellow and purple, put on a football jersey and helmet, went to a game (or other event) to get an autograph from a player who was in a game they enjoyed - why is the latter socially acceptable rather than mocked? I'm sure it's probably all rooted in the deep-seated animosity between "nerds" and "jocks" that forms in high school.)

Monday, March 3, 2008

MarsCon DAY 3

It's hard to tell where Day 2 ends and Day 3 of the Con begins, usually thanks in no small part to PARTIES!!

As I mentioned in the previous post it was also my birthday weekend and my boyfriend's gift to me was a 1/4 scale remote controlled "K-9" (the robot dog from the "Doctor Who" series, for those not in the know). He even talks! With all the Brits around the parties that night I had to take K-9 out for "walkies." Of course he HAD to put in some face time at the TARDIS Tea Society party. Later on I was driving him around on the tile in the ConSuite - which apparently makes robot dogs quite thirsty because (as the picture shows) he had a sip of my beer. Or maybe his fuel cells recharge with alcohol like Bender's from "Futurama?" It wasn't long, though, before he was tired (well, his batteries were going flat) and called it a night. I, however, had some more Green Death with my name on it.

Then some other stuff happened, as is often the case when Green Death is liberally applied.

Sunday of MarsCon started waaaaay too early for my liking. "Karaoke Joes" across the hall didn't seem to run quite as late as the previous night, but I'm guessing we still only got about 2 hours of actual sleep in. Had to get up and get going because checkout was at noon and I wanted to get some breakfast at "Snarky's Cafe" before all the yummy stuff was gone.

Caught a little more of the Dementia Music track, went through the Art Show again and a quick turn through the so-called "Science" room. The day actually seemed to be flying by and before I knew it we were up to "Closing Ceremonies." The military group's head honcho was asked to come up on stage and say a few words and thanked everyone for being so respectful and giving them such a wonderful send-off, which I'm sure only those who've been in the military really can understand what it meant to them.

[Note: There was a request from the military honcho to MarsCon, which the convention has been trying to pass on to everyone who is blogging and such about it, asking us NOT to say who these military personnel were or where they are going and to blur their faces out of any photos online. While I'm big on "free speech," don't like governments trying to police the Internet, and highly doubt nefarious bad guys are really monitoring MarsCon Reports - I will nonetheless be respectful to them and have voluntarily redacted anything I wrote which would identify who they were, where they came from, what branch of the military they were, or speculate on where they might be going. After all, the IS a war on, right? ]

A brief announcement about what's coming for next year's con and then MarsCon 2008 was over.

By the time I was loading up my luggage and Con Swag I had become a bona fide "Con Zombie." I wonder how many people take Monday afterwards off just to sleep and recover from these things?

In previous years I've only taken in part of a Con - maybe Friday night and Saturday, usually skipped Sunday because it seems like a throw-away day without much going on (though MarsCon really made an effort to actually HAVE things going on for Sunday to make it worthwhile); or I've done Saturday and part of Sunday if there was a music act or something I wanted to see. This was the first time I've done a Con from front to back, and actually stayed at the hotel - which was great to not have to worry about driving home (just had to worry about finding the room! LOL).

Oh, yeah, pictures? Well, I had my camera at the Con but only took one picture with it. I seriously need to get a smaller camera that fits in a pocket - my digital SLR is just too darned big to lug around at a convention. The photo with this post is courtesy of my boyfriend, who has a more "Con-friendly" camera. :)

MarsCon DAY 2 (Part II)

Well there WERE a couple of last minute additions to the "Anime Smackdown" and I DID have time to update the visual presentation beforehand. The panel itself went really well, though we obviously have some bugs to shake out of it before next time, but it was a very energetic panel as the audience voted (and sometimes debated) why one character or the other should win the smack down.

The way this worked was that all the character names which had been selected beforehand by the panel were put in a hat. Two names at a time were randomly drawn from the hat by the "Referees" and handed to me at my laptop. My laptop was connected to use a LCD projector as a second monitor, so when I clicked the pictures on my laptop the big versions showed up side-by-side on the projection screen. The random selection, though, seemed to wind up with a lot of lop-sided matches for the first round. As the winners of each round were put against each other it narrowed down to the final smack down. The audience voted by show of hands which character won each round. By the end there was standing room only and we had quite a crowd clustered in the hallway outside the door too.

For those who are wondering, "Akira" ultimately won - though the picture I was given to use was actually of Kaneda, not Akira. However the character description the "Referees" gave was actually of Akira.

I do, however, need to come up with a better/faster way to find the character pictures for the matches and probably to set up matches between more than two characters at a time.

That was the only panel in which I was involved. Afterwards I caught some of the "Dementia Music" track programming, went through the Art Show (I actually had something in it this year - or at least 1/3 of something as it was a collaborative effort). Never heard if anyone bid on it or not. Also got through the Dealer's Room and Propatorium. The prop guys seemed quite impressed with my wooden replica of the Star Trek "Assault Phaser." I should have my movie Tricorder done by next year - maybe on the day(s) I'm not using those with my costume I'll put them on display. They certainly seemed to think my Phaser passed muster! Yay!

In the late afternoon I noticed a bunch of guys in camouflage in the hotel lobby and restaurant. It's not unusual to see an entire group come in costume, but they were the real deal.

I gotta say, it was a bit of a wierd and wonderful experience to see real military at the parties mixed in with people dressed as Space Marines and Stargate SG-1. Of course, some of the folks who do those costumes at the Cons are also served in the military for real. They were off to "somewhere" and the convention invited them to join us for the evening. Their CO wasn't keen on the idea at first, but eventually let the men who wanted to attend the evening of the convention. The convention provided "day pass" badges to them so they could get into the room parties that badge people. One party room in particular was clearly a familiar "touch of home" for those guys as it was packed. Their presence at the convention was an unforeseen, but interesting factor that made for a unique convention experience, that's for sure!

I think most of the people I meet at Cons are actually pretty smart folks, and they showed a lot of class in welcoming those guys to join us as both guests and heroes. Despite what the current administration thinks, you CAN make a distinction between the "war" and the "warrior." Soldiers go where they're sent, after all. It's the politicians who need to be made to answer for it.

I'm sure it will mean a lot to them too, they'll no doubt remember the night they had a drink or two with a Klingon, met a friendly Dalek, chatted up some Anime Cosplayers in a room that looked like the Firefly ship Serenity, and enjoyed a glass of "Green Death" in the "World Defense Force" room decorated like the inside of an Army tent. Hopefully all those guys will remain alive and well so they'll have those memories for a long, long time.

[Note: There was an request from the military honcho to MarsCon, which the convention has been trying to pass on to everyone who is blogging and such about it, asking us NOT to say who these military personnel were or where they are going and to blur their faces out of any photos online. While I'm big on "free speech," don't like governments trying to police the Internet, and highly doubt nefarious bad guys are really monitoring MarsCon Reports - I will nonetheless be respectful to them and have voluntarily removed anything I wrote which would identify who they were, where they came from, what branch of the military they were, or speculate on where they might be going. After all, there IS a war on, right?]

It was also my birthday on DAY 2 and my boyfriend threw an impromptu birthday party for me in our hotel room with a small gathering of friends who were also at the Con. We had a big cake which thankfully only had ONE candle on it. There were like 10 of us and we ate about half the cake and donated the rest to the ConSuite for whomever wanted a slice while it lasted. I went back in there about an hour or so later and it was all gone. :) LOL

Saturday, March 1, 2008

MarsCon 2008 DAY 2

It's not even noon yet, but I can't complain. Woke up with no hangover from last night - and after I'd been warned about the WDF's "Green Death" mixed drink (whatever it is).

It occurred to me this morning that I never actually picked up one of the program booklets, and so had no idea what panels there were this morning - though I'm not a huge fan of panels anyway. I'm inclined to think my time was better spent taking my time getting ready this morning and enjoying hot waffles with strawberry, blueberry, and maple syrup topping, scrambled eggs, bacon, and a fresh, piping hot cup of coffee - which will work for "Brownian Motion" as a power source for your Infinite Improbability Drive in a pinch.

Right now I'm back in Ops at the "Martian Militia" table. I can at least get on the Internet in here (unlike in the room - despite Holiday Inn claims to the contrary regarding "free wireless internet anywhere in the hotel"). There will probably be a couple last-minute additions to the "Anime Smackdown" panel that will require an update to the visual presentation - but that panel isn't until this afternoon so there *should* be time to change it. That is if I actually find out which characters are being added!