Monday, September 26, 2005

A Different View of the Web

I see from the Washington Post that the Opera Web Browser is now completely free to the user -- Google pays them for the clicks in the search bar.

There are versions for Windows, Macs, and Linux. The Linux version comes in the native format for just about any distribution you can think of.

I've played with it a little bit tonight, but only enough to verify that it is different than Firefox. Not better than, nor worse than, just different. If I play with it more, I'll write up a bit of a review, but at the moment it's probably only something to bring up when Firefox just doesn't want to work on a given web page.

Interestingly, the little box at the top of this page identifies Opera as "IE" by default. Which makes me wonder how many of the IE-identified browsers I get in the Site Meter Log are really Opera.

If you're a Windows user currently using IE, you might want to try Opera. If you're already using Firefox, try Opera if you want, but don't (please, oh, please, don't) go back to IE.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Sign Of the Times

I got the sign above from, though I made up the quotes or got them from various places. It's either cute or annoying. Let me know which.

And You Thought It Only Seemed
Like Your Money was Shrinking

Governments have traditionally inflated their currency, shrinking the buying power of each coin.

Here's a guy, though, who literally shrinks coins with a lot of electricity and a big magnetic field.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Aid for Rita's (and Other) Victims

According to the Washington Post, relief agencies will not be able to use donations earmarked for Katrina relief [Registration required, or use BugMeNot] to help those affected by Rita. So we need another relief effort.

It would be really nice if we'd all donate relief agencies on a regular basis, not just when we see people being pushed away from their homes, so that the next time we have a national or global tragedy, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Church relief agencies, etc., can say:

"Thanks, but just keep donating at your usual rate, and we'll have enough."

Where Old RPMs Go to Die

Here's a post from Fedorazine expanding on the XWindows problem that plagued those of us with integrated Intel Video this week. It tells you how to find the RPM files for the old, working version of Xorg-X11 and reinstall them. It also notes that the problem has been fixed.

What's not told is how a novice user will:

  • Figure out that the problem was in X,
  • Figure out how to get into a machine that won't boot and change the /etc/inittab file so that it will boot to console mode (Answer: Knoppix), and
  • Figure out that there are text browsers such as lynx which will let you access the information you need.

That seems to be a pretty tall order, I'm afraid.

Note that call L&T in the middle of the night is not an option.

Actually, the useful thing about this article for me is that it tells you where the update utility yum saves the RPM files it installs. They go in


Friday, September 23, 2005

We're Back (Part II)

Given what's happening on the Texas coast right now and what's still going on in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, it's kind of silly to gripe about a computer. So I'm just going to try to report how I got back on to the Linux box, and try not to be too snarky about it. In any case, it would have been more frustrating if I'd actually had live Internet connection. Since I didn't, I couldn't do much on this box anyway.

Our story begins last Sunday, when I found that the Linux box booted up to a nice, multi-colored screen with no information whatsoever. I reported that fact here (using a Mac), and then watched the greatest win in Redskins' history since the 1992 Super Bowl. (Hey, it's been a long, long, dry spell, folks, what do you want?) And then to bed.

Monday, you'll recall, was the day our Internet connection died. I couldn't do much with the computer until Comcast came on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, but I did observe that

  • The problem started right at the moment that XWindows started up for the first time during the boot process. Fedora, as well as most other distributors, do this to give you a Windows-like feel to your computer. Myself, I'd rather see all the text until we're ready to got to the graphical log-in screen. I like logging in directly to X, but if I'm going to watch an information dump it might as well be on the console screen. Looking at the information in /var/log/messages seemed to indicate the same thing.
  • Querying the X11 RPMs with rpm -qi xorg-x11 showed that the XWindows system had be upgraded on Saturday. I didn't reboot or restart X until Sunday, which is why I didn't notice the problem immediately.
  • The system booted without problem from a Knoppix Live CD.

On Tuesday I had my laptop in a building with an open wireless network. I went on a search through Fedora Core Bugzilla and eventually found Bug 168752, euphemistically described as "a regression in video hardware support, in particular on Intel i8xx/i9xx systems." OK, that's what I have. I downloaded a proposed patch. When I got home I uploaded it to the Linux box and rebooted.

Now I had a box that crashed with a black screen, rather than a multi-colored screen.

Watched developments on Bugzilla. A new, official, patch came along, and I installed it. It still didn't boot properly, but I discovered that by changing /etc/inittab to boot with runlevel 3 (text mode), I could then run startx and get X11 working. Then, this morning, once the Internet connection was re-established, I was able to run yum update which among other things included a kernel upgrade. When I then reset /etc/inittab to boot to level 5 (directly to X) everything worked again.

So it took a week to get restarted. Reading the Bugzilla log shows that the official fix wasn't in the system until Thursday, so for 5 days many of us didn't have a working XWindows system. I'm guessing that wouldn't have happened in a commercial Linux system, where they have the budget to check a wider variety of systems before a patch is released. That's one reason why I don't recommend Fedora Core for the beginning Linux user. And, truth be known, I'm thinking about trying Ubuntu Linux before I upgrade to Fedora Core 5, whenever that comes out.

One recommendation for both Windows and Linux users: Always have a Knoppix Live CD on hand for emergency use. The first thing I did when the Internet was restored was to download version 3.9, the last CD-only version, and burn the image to a CD. If you don't have a Knoppix Live CD on your desk, get one now. It's free, if you're willing to wait for the download.

So a frustrating week was had by all in the Linux & Things household, but it's fixed. I wish we could say the same thing about the Gulf Coast, but that's in the hands of neither Comcast nor Fedora Core.

We're Back (Part I)

Well, we're back up and running here at Linux & Things. Yes, I found a fix for my computer problems. More on that later. You'll remember that on Sunday I found my Fedora Core Linux computer hung on boot-up. Well to top that, on Monday I found that we had no Internet service from Comcast. Analog cable? Yes. Digital cable? Yes. Internet? No.

  • Monday Night: Call Comcast. Inform them of the problem. Schedule a visit for Tuesday. Give them cellphone number to call if no one answers the door -- sometimes you can't hear people knock, and the doorbell doesn't always work. Interesting point: Comcast records show that the line to the house from the street was laid in 1991.
  • Tuesday: Find note on door from Comcast saying, "Sorry We Missed You!" Call them, express displeasure, reschedule for Wednesday.
  • Wednesday: Tech comes, looks inside house, decides problem is outside. Schedules visit by outside tech for
  • Thursday: Outside techs trim some excess cable on the side of the house. Still no signal. Call Comcast. They tell us there top tech will arrive on Friday, and make the enigmatic comment that "Five homes in your neighborhood have been fixed."
  • Friday: Top-tech arrives. He actually knows his stuff, and quickly determines that the problem is in the underground line from the street to the house. Remember, it was laid in 1991, before anyone thought of high-speed digital cable connections. Especially cable connections that require a significant amount of traffic upstream, from the house back to the cable companies servers. In fact, they still use that cable, but only for runs of less than 100 feet. In our case the run is 207 feet. (Hey, I live in East Bowie, what can I say?)
    Top-tech strings a temporary cable, much thicker than you're thinking, from the box on the street to the house. They'll come by and put in a new cable in a couple of weeks. The cable runs in the trees between houses, so I can mow the lawn without having to move things around.
    All the Comcast people were responded promptly (except on Tuesday) and were polite. Unfortunately, not all of them knew what they were doing. Remember those five houses in the neighborhood that were "fixed?" I don't know what was wrong with them, but I can hazard a guess.

In all this, I manfully resisted the urge to mutter the magic words: "Did you know Verizon is laying optical cable around here?"

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Maybe I Was a Bit Overwrought

Or something. Apparently the last post offended Om or someone.

Anyway, this morning I tried to boot up my computer to do a bit of work before church. You know the drill: turn on the computer, go take a shower, come back and sit down. Except when I went to sit down, I saw that the computer was displaying multi-colored lines instead of the Fedora Core 4 login-screen.

I didn't have time to deal with it then, and we had things to do this afternoon, so I didn't try it again until we got home tonight. Same thing happened again. And again. Using different kernels, even.

So the question is, is it the hardware or the software, and in either case are oh-my-God-all-the-files-I-changed-since-the-last-backup safe? So I dug up an old Knoppix Linux CD and booted it. Fortunately, the computer booted up, and it looks like everything is safe.

So if the hardware is OK and my data is OK, it looks like something in the OS got corrupted. I suppose I could try to see what's changed on the disk, but it seems like the easiest thing to do is backup the changes since my last backup, then re-install FC4, going through all of my notes to see which programs need to be re-installed or tweaked. (Which is, after all, the reason I started this blog.) Luckily, I did a full backup a few weeks ago. Also, since my data is in a separate partition, it's possible that I can reinstall FC4 without actually changing the /home directory, in which case I don't need to upload the backup.

Unfortunately, I can't do this until next weekend, at the earliest (something about a job). And I have to figure out how to get Knoppix to recognize a USB drive so that I can back up the data, since I can't burn a CD (only one drive, and Knoppix is using it, though I guess I could install a second CD-burner. I've got enough of them lying around). So posts here will be even more irregular than usual.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Windows: It Doesn't Just Work

Not long ago, I noted that the title to one of my posts wasn't altogether fair.

This title, OTOH, is completely fair.

One of the usual complaints about Linux is that things don't "just work." Well, friends, let me tell you, some times it isn't the Linux system that has the problem:

Several weeks ago, I added a DVD drive to my Linux computer. It performed flawlessly: it reads, plays, rips, burns and reads to CD, and does the same for DVDs. All with stuff that came straight out of Fedora Core, except for the addons that are needed to get around RedHat's nervousness about MP3s and DVD encoding. But that was simple: a little bit of jiggling here, a little more jiggling there, all from easily obtainable, free, open source projects. It just worked!

Emboldened, I went out and bought another identical DVD drive for the Windows machine. This one is from Monarch Computer, including the Nero OEM Suite 3, which, you'll note, is supposed to play DVD movies.

The drive came in the same condition as the one from, i.e., no box, no instructions, bubble-wrapped, and probably previously returned. Software came clearly marked OEM in a paper sleeve. About what I expected.

OK, installation was easy, now that I know how to get the front of the Dell case off. Do you know how dirty a computer can get? I'd removed the main panel of the Dell last month, so the main compartment wasn't dirty, but the front compartment? I've seen the insides of vacuum cleaners that looked better. A lot of dust gathered there since I last opened the case. More than in the Linux box. Probably the difference is a matter of location, though I can't imagine why it's the Windows box that draws in more dust.

(Because Windows sucks, Dave. Quiet, Hal.)

Anyway, installing was a breeze. Windows found the drive immediately, and I was able to play CDs and read DVD directories without installing the Nero software. So I tried to watch a movie.

I was given two choices: Windows Media Player (version 8), and RealPlayer, version 10.

Neither worked. WMP8, I understand, it doesn't play DVDs by default. RP10, on the other hand, should. However, it gives an error which suggests that it's not able to decode the copy protection. So maybe I need a driver for that.

So I installed the Nero software. Try to play a DVD. It just blinks. Look at the package. There is a very small asterisk. It says that this version, unlike the version described above, won't play video DVDs. Thanks, Monarch.

OK, go install Windows Media Player 10, widely advertised to play DVDs.

It probably does. On some machines. However, on this Windows machine, using exactly the same hardware that my Linux box uses to successfully play DVD movies, Windows won't play the movie.

Even when I go down to 16 bit color and 800x600 resolution.

It does suggest that I might purchase a third party video decoder from a company other than Microsoft.

OK, Windows users. Yeah, those of you who drift in from time to time looking for information about Firefox and rtsp: tell me how I can get my Windows machine, with exactly the same hardware as my Linux machine, to play DVD movies in the same, easy, fashion my Linux machine does.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Search that Blog, Seek that Quote

OK, suppose, for some reason that's locked up in the reptilian portion of your brain, you want to search for something in BlogSpace, rather than just on the web. Never mind that a regular search of Google™ for firefox rtsp will land you right in this blog, suppose you want to search for some of our other fine articles. Or maybe you want to search for humorous stabs at Dubya and company.

Well, friends, Google™ has just what you're looking for: Google™ Blog Search. Apparently, GBS searches and indexes RSS feeds from sites which ping places such as Weblogs to inform the world that something new is coming down the pike. Being Google™, you can then export the search results into your very own RSS feed, so you can constantly get news on topics of interested to you in the BlogVerse. (For topics of interest in the real world, you can always use Google™ News.)

I've played with it a bit, but I'm not convinced that it's the greatest thing since frosting-covered donuts. It's a bit weird at the moment. A search for George W Bush gives as its first link The Temple of George W. Bush in the "Related Blogs" header, and a link to Dubya's biography as the first post.

Perhaps we need a little more tweaking.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Easy to Use is Easy to Say

When I'm done, the title will probably seem, to most of you, to be a cheap shot. It is. Deal with it.

At work I need to create actual, honest, true blue, all American, PowerPoint files. Accept no substitutions, especially files produced by

Given that constraint, I need two computers -- a "real" Linux one, which will actually run complicated Fortran codes while reading my email, surfing the web, walking the dog and polishing my car, and either a PC or a Mac to run PowerPoint. Your tax dollars at work, folks.

OK, it's a no-brainer:

  • Mac OS X is BSD-Unix based. I can, and have, run the same codes I run on the Linux box on a Mac.
  • All of the people above me in the food chain use Macs. They're the ones that need my PowerPoint files, so that they can select parts of my presentations, mangle them together with others, and show those higher in the food chain all the neat stuff we're doing.
  • Though they are produced by the same Evil Empire, Mac and PC versions of PowerPoint don't quite get along -- in particular, fonts used in equations get screwed up when going from one platform to another.
  • A Mac PowerBook is infinitely cooler to carry through the airport. And, when it's on, the Apple on the back of the screen lights up, sort of like a Cylon's backbone during sex.

To go along with the notebook computer, this week I got a Mac mini for my desk. It runs Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger).

OK, it's easy to use. It's a joy, a breeze, except that FireFox won't recognize the middle button on my 3 button mouse, and I haven't figured out how to get FVWM running under X11.

But there are some (a very few, but some) things on the Mac that just aren't obvious. And so I list them here, so that the next time I get a new Mac I won't forget:

  • Making something other than Safari the default browser:
    1. Open Safari (well of course, what could be more obvious?)
    2. Under Preferences, click on "Default Web Browser" and put in FireFox or whatever
  • Make something other than "Mail" the default email reader:
    1. Open Mail (after the Safari thing, what did you expect)?
    2. Give it the information to open one of your POP email accounts (otherwise, it will just kick you out of the program. Who'd want to run a Mail program without an email account. Duh.)
    3. Under Preferences, select "Default Email Reader" and change it to the desired program.
  • Bring up something other than a single xterm window when you start X:
    1. Open a terminal window and run the command:
      $ cp /etc/X11/xinit/xinitrc ~/.xinitrc
    2. Edit ~/.xinitrc to start the programs you desire
  • Change your default shell:
    1. Go to the Applications folder, find the Utilities folder, under it find the "NetInfo Manager" folder, and in it find a tab called "users"
    2. Catch your breath
    3. Under "users" click on your account name
    4. Click on the Lock icon in the lower left-hand corner of the box and enter your password, assuming your account has administrative privileges.
    5. If it doesn't, find an Administrator. Yell at him for awhile, until he gives you Administrative privileges.
    6. Find the line that says "shell", click on the /bin/bash part of the line, and replace it with /bin/tcsh or whatever.
    7. If your worst enemy shares this computer, change his login shell to /dev/null
    8. Click the lock closed
    9. Exit the whole mess

OK, that's only four things, which is why the title of this article is unfair. However, you'd think that Apple would have made these choices just a bit more transparent, don't you?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Cats On Porch

Update on our cats. You've seen them before. If they seem more nervous now, it's because they share the house with:

  • Two dwarf rabbits
  • Two rats
  • Two fish
  • One Ball Python
  • One mouse (formerly known as "snake lunch," upgraded to pet)

Yup, 20-20

Amidst all of the recriminations about Katrina, Michael Kinsley has a good article about hindsight. Knowing what we know now, would we have done things differently? Sure. But we (and by "we" I mean thee and me, not just Presidents, Governors, and Mayors) are too good at ignoring things we don't want to see or hear, and not thinking that the "inevitable" is going to happen tomorrow, not ten, twenty, or thirty years from now. And that our perceptions of the inevitable arise from what has happened to us in the past, not what might happen to us in the future:

But just Google up a phrase like "commission warns," or "urgent steps," or "our children's future" -- or simply "crisis" -- and you may develop a bit of sympathy for the people who stand accused today of ignoring the warnings about anything in particular. Far from being complacent about potential perils, we suffer from peril gridlock.

Did all the attention and money devoted to protecting us from a terrorist attack after Sept. 11, 2001, leave us less prepared for a giant flood? Undoubtedly. And if the flood had come first, the opposite would be true. We, the citizens, would have demanded it and then blamed the politicians and the institutions when it turned out to be a bad bet. There is no foresight. We fight the last war because hindsight is all we have.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Update Firefox

Bad news: Firefox has a bug involving the use of international characters in URLs.

Good news: there's a fix.

So, boys and girls, update Firefox or use the workaround in the above links.

Until the official Firefox 1.5 release, Windows users will have to upgrade manually. Fedora Core, however, had a fix available via $ yum update this morning.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Blue Screen of Death:
Good For You?

Sure it is.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Your Pictures Are Ready

Messenger is a NASA/APL spacecraft which is traveling to Mercury. August 2 it flew by us as part of it's gravitational sling-shot trajectory. When it flew by, it took a series of pictures, here collected in an MPEG video.

Downloads may be slow, the site is still being Slashdotted.

This Week's Sign That the
Apocalypse is Upon Us

Our beloved Anne Arundel County Public School System is requiring thousands of Sophomore English students to read Ayn Rand's "novel," Anthem.

Nothing To See Here, Either

The Great Icon Migration continues ...

Pay No Attention to the
Man Behind the Curtain

Just uploading some pictures to Blogger to take the pressure off my Comcast account

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Firefox Hanging?

While I love using the Firefox browser, here at home it has one problem: it takes an awfully long time to load some pages, and if, say, I've got Google News open in one tab, the other tabs will sometimes freeze while it reloads. In extreme cases, the browser "gets stuck" for a while, and in the browser window is a beautiful picture of whatever the last window I clicked on had in it. It doesn't happen at work, for some reason.

I don't know how to describe this behavior concisely enough to send in a bug report, so as a temporary fix I Googled ''firefox hangs linux'' and found this thread, which tells me to:

  • Enter about:config in the browser bar, and
  • set network.http.pipelining to true

I don't know if this will cure my particular problem, or not. I'll let you know.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

You Know What It Means
To Miss New Orleans

Friend TK sent me this article on the strategic importance of New Orleans. There's a similar, less technical article, in Slate. Both of these make the same point: despite the fact that the place should be under water, having a Port of New Orleans is frakkin' useful. There's been a lot of talk about oil not coming in to the country, but think of all the stuff that goes out of the country via the Mississippi and so New Orleans: grain, coal, timber, automobiles, etc. In short, a lot of the stuff that we sell to other people to pay for all that oil.

So the Port of New Orleans will be rebuilt. It's not going to become another Galveston, there's no Houston to replace it. Once the Port starts operating, people will move back -- surprisingly, people tend to move to where the jobs are.

Will the New New Orleans be the same as the old one? Probably not. Certainly no one's going to go to a convention there between August and October. And we don't know if Mardi Gras will survive as we know it. But there will be a city at the bottom of the Mississippi.

So we'd better figure out how to protect it.

Adding a DVD Drive

Those of you (reportedly in the low single figures) who have been with us since the beginning will remember that this machine came with a CD-RW drive, which seemed adequate at the time and was, actually, quite cheap (i.e., it came with the basic machine).

After the last complete backup, which took about 10 CDs, I realized that I needed something better, so I went around looking for a Linux-compatible DVD drive. Actually, I didn't have to look very long. I work in a Linux shop, so the sys-admins there know what works and what doesn't work. One of them recommended the NEC ND-3540A [This link is currently not responding, and it's to NEC-UK. NEC has one of the most annoying web site design's I've been able to find. Note to NEC sales: make it easy for us to find what you're selling.] He gave me two possible sources:

  • Monarch Computer at $55.99* and free shipping, including the Nero burning software, which wouldn't run under Linux anyway, and
  • at $39.99 (it's cheaper by a buck now) plus $3.80 UPS 3-day shipping, and no software.

I went with, and the package arrived in the promised time. Unpacking, I found no directions whatsoever, no CD, nada. The only paper in the box was the shipping invoice. Also, the drive, while wrapped securely, looked as though it was re-wrapped -- i.e., we're probably looking at a returned-and-reshipped product.

Oh, well, I can always send it back myself, so carry on, my wayward son. First order of business was to remove the old CD-RW. I could have kept the CD-RW and installed the DVD as a second drive, but I don't really do a bunch of CD-to-CD copying and I may someday want that open bay for another disk drive. So open the computer case and remove the CD-RW.

Do you really realize how much dust a computer collects? I hadn't had this machine open in a year or so, and it was rather filthy. Surprisingly, it didn't have a lot of cat hair, just miscellaneous particles. Let's not think about that. OK, clean out the computer and disconnect the cables to the CD-RW.

Then comes the problem of removing the front of the case so that I can pull out the drive. The Dell case, it turns out, has its front case latches inside the box. (The side panel has one external latch on the back of the case and is easy to remove.) This took me a few minutes to figure out, but eventually I got the front of the box open and was able to unscrew the CD-RW drive from the frame and remove it.

The back of the CD-RW and the back of the DVD had identical connections, which meant the hookup was easy. The only difference was that the CD had a different jumper setting than the DVD. This isn't too surprising, the jumper setting changes from model to model even with the same manufacturer. A search of the web (which I can't find anymore, see comments about NEC's web organization) convinced me that NEC drives were shipped with the jumper in the "Master" position, which is where I wanted it.

So plug in all the wires, set the DVD drive in the bay, tighten all screws, and close up the case. Now, how does it work?

  • Reboot went cleanly. Apparently kudzu picked up the hardware change without difficulty.
  • I put a data CD in the drive.
    $ mount /media/cdrecorder
    worked just fine, and I was able read the files from the drive.
  • Audio CDs played just fine, using xine anyway.
  • I burned a CD, using k3b. It worked normally. It was a collection of MP3s, and it plays well on my car stereo.
  • The xine distribution from comes with the libdvdcss package, so I had to try it out, using the SG-1 Season 1 DVD set. Xine worked very well. I was able to access the DVD menu, including subtitles and alternate languages, and play the movie in a window or in full-screen mode. There is even an option to do frame dumps to disk (as PNG files, for some reason). The only things that I haven't figured out how to do is reverse (you can back up by moving the sliding bar at the top of the xine controller, but you can't reverse the movie) and do frame-by-frame advance. These may be available somehow, I just haven't figured out how to use them.
  • I had less luck with mplayer, at least the version from with the gmplayer interface. It plays the disk, but only in order, I couldn't access the DVD menu. There is, I see, an "mplayer-gui" package available from livna, but there's a dependency conflict between freshrpms' mplayer and livna's mplayer, so I haven't tried that yet. Maybe a better gui would allow me to access the menu.
  • OK, finally, let's back up some data. I bought some DVD+R 16X disks from the local store. I didn't try for the dual layer feature (which is apparently only now being added to k3b), so each disk holds roughly 5GB of data. I was able to fit all of my files onto the disk, with the exception of the MP3s. That's OK, I have the original CDs for all of those, so I don't need a DVD backup. k3b offered to let me burn at 1X, 2X, or 4X. I picked 2X, and pressed the "burn" switch. I didn't time it, but I suspect it took under 30 minutes to burn 4+ GB, which isn't bad at all. I quit K3B, mounted the disk, and looked over random files, including pictures and videos. Everything looked fine.

So, apparently, everything works as advertised. I'm going to order another one of these babies with the Nero software, for the XP machine the family uses. The Windows box really needs a full backup so that I can finally get SP2 installed. I'll post the results for Windows when I get it installed.

OK, I won't say that the NEC drive fits all of your DVD needs, and, as I said, the one I got seems to have been returned at least once. It works for me, though, and it was recommended by a Linux sys-admin who hasn't had any problems with his. So while Your Mileage May Vary, it seems like a cheap way to add DVD capability to your Linux box.

Oops. I'd previously misquoted the price as $59.99. Go back whence ye came.