I now have a Fedora Friend Finder!

In early 2011, I decided to go to a FudCon in Tempe, Arizona (here’s my archive). And here’s my blog summarizing my participation.

One of the things in the list of items to bring was a Fedora Friend Finder (archive), in other words an extension cord with multiple outlets / a power bar. This of course makes sense when you have a bunch of computer people gathering together, face to face: We still bring computers and as such we want to plug them in.

As you can see if you followed the link or checked my archive, the page featured a long power bar with 12 outlets, like the following:

12 outlet power strip

I of course had considered the power bar shown to be quite fanciful and even comical to the point of farce, and as such I assumed that someone had played around with GIMP to produce the image. However, the message was clear: I brought a four outlet power bar with a roll-up extension cord to FudCon Tempe, like the following:

cord caddy

During FudCon Tempe, I was mildly popular during the various “unconference” sessions and certainly made friends as a result of my power bar. In fact, during the “Lightning Talks” at the end of the “unconference” part, I was so popular that I had to turn people away who wanted to plug in, even after several other power bars had been plugged into mine.

Fast forward to this past week in 2014, and I’m shopping for supplies at a Canadian Tire for a job site I’m starting up, including electrical extension cords and power bars. What do I find? To my amazement, a 12 outlet power bar just like I’d seen on the Fedora Friend Finder web page. The person I was with was a bit bewildered by my fascination with it; to him, it was just a big power bar. It may have been odd, but it was just another power bar.

I wasn’t just fascinated; I was practically beside myself. Here I was in front of a real live example of the farcical prop I’d seen on a web page. Of course, I had to buy one.

Here’s a pic of it with eight personal pumps and one DryCal calibrator hooked up, charging the internal batteries:

my Fedora Friend Finder

I think it’s cool. It will probably eventually be used at home where I have my multiple computers and a big wide screen TV and PVR, where things are currently lit up like a Christmas tree, so to speak, with multiple power bars which are nonetheless underused given the multiple oversized adapters.

However, the temptation will be there to bring it out to any events at which not only would such a power bar be useful, but also to just brag on an “over the top” level and get incredulous looks along with a “may I plug in ?!?!?”

Tux seems to be moonlighting for the CIBC

It seems that Tux, the Linux mascot, is now moonlighting for the CIBC, a Canadian bank.

The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, also known as “CIBC”, is currently running a campaign surrounding its travel rewards programme, with a tagline of “So good even penguins can fly(tm)”. There have been some TV commercials with penguin families humorously “talking” about their not always succesful trip planning experiences. All of the penguins in the live TV commercials appear to be close approximations of some variety of real penguins, and of course, the digital renderings / puppets / whatever are digitally or otherwise manipulated in an anthropomorphic fashion with human voice-overs in order to appear to be like regular people.

On the CIBC website, the cartoonish penguins look sufficiently different from the “live penguins” on TV and look like they’re straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. While I suppose that the “live” penguins and the cartoons may look vaguely similar, it’s in the fashion that the Flinstones or the Jetsons look like you and me.

CIBC website

But wait, folks, as the screenshot above shows, the cartoon penguins don’t resemble our hero.

So, while I was passing through the Vancouver, BC (Canada) airport, one of the kiosks trying to get people to sign up for a credit card (obviously, the CIBC) was giving out little penguin keychains as part of the promotion. Even from a bit of a distance, I could clearly tell that they were Tux the Linux mascot, albeit with a CIBC logo and the travel rewards programme logo on its belly. I got up the nerve to go to the counter and say that I wasn’t interested in the sales pitch, but that I just wished to look at the keychains since they’d attracted my attention. Immediately the lady gave me one and let me go on my merry way, hoping that the keychain would garner some of the marketing attention it was designed for. How little the nice lady knew. 🙂

Tux is moonlighting advertising for CIBC!

Once at home, I of course checked Larry Ewing’s website. I figured that there must be some kind of copyright or license infringement. However, according to Larry Ewing’s page titled Linux 2.0 Penguins at http://www.isc.tamu.edu/~lewing/linux/ , it says “Permission to use and/or modify this image is granted provided you acknowledge me lewing@isc.tamu.edu and The GIMP if someone asks.”

Larry Ewing's Tux Page

So: At first glance it seems that, depending on how you interpret Mr. Ewing’s licensing condition(s), anyone can use the image for any purpose, and unless someone asks, you don’t need to credit anyone or anything or put a copyright notice or “used with permission” or whatever. Unless he’s saying “acknowledge me always, but only bother acknowledging The GIMP if someone asks.”

So, as I said, it seems that Tux is moonlighting.

Backwoods Washing Machine

I used to be rather involved in Scouting and camping, so it was no surprise when my brother recently sent me a link to “41 Camping Hacks That Are Borderline Genius“. (Here is my archive of the page in case it disappears ) The idea was to present a list of camping tips that, while often easy once you’ve looked at them, seem to elude many of us. The tips ranged from the small to large, from the really backwoods to mostly the car camping with a family crowd variety, from the simple to the involved. I read the list and found some tips interesting, some I’d done before, some I’d never thought of, and enough of which I thought were downright gratuitous in their inclusion in the list (in my mind — although this itself isn’t listed — along the lines of “if you’re going for more than an hour you’ll want some food”.)

This post is about one of the tips that I found useful.

The “hillbilly washing machine” was a gem for me: Someone else would no doubt list it as mundane, impractical, or on some level conceptually obvious. According to the proponent, this backwoods washing machine could be made for about $6. (Here is my archive of the page.) This person was a blogging mom telling about her participation in the Second Annual Flats and Handwashing Challenge (again here’s my archive), trying to involve other parents in a challenge to use reusable cotton diapers for a week instead of expensive store-bought disposable diapers. One of the challenge’s rules suggests that buying / making / securing a sufficient quantity of reusable diapers in order to last the week without having to wash them seemed to defeat the purpose of the challenge, and as such the challenge suggests the washing machine as one of the ways to make participation (both short and long term) practical.

By the way, here is their survey results page (and of course my archive) which I find interesting just from a simple numbers perspective, but also in how it seems to at least moderately promote the hillbilly washing machine as practical.

The concept is really simple: Take a five gallon bucket with a hole in the lid and use an old fashioned toilet plunger to simulate the function of a washing machine agitator. Add water, soap and clothes to be washed, and voilà , you have a functional washing machine.

backwoods washing machine
I found the idea intriguing: Having a three-season cottage that lacks the space and appropriate place for a washing machine (read it lacks a heated space during the winter to avoid freezing), this seemed to fit the bill, regardless of the time of year. Over the years I’d gotten mildly tired of always making sure that I’d be bringing clothes up from the city for the weekend, let alone enough. As such I had stocked my wardrobe and drawers there with old shirts, pants and the like that were perfectly serviceable but of course not exactly appropriate for showing up to work, let alone the likes of a wedding. I’d even gone so far as to buy a dedicated set of socks and underwear in sufficient quantity for the usual longest stint of two weeks that I would spend up there. I of course had backup plans that I could hand wash some small items in the sink or bathtub, drive to one of the towns about 45 minutes away and use a laundromat, or in an extreme emergency ask one of the neighbours if I may draw on their goodwill and use their washing machine, a plan I hope I never have to use. (This goodwill capital is reserved for “it’s the middle of the winter, I don’t have running water, and I desperately need a shower because such-and-such occurred; a sponge bath just won’t do.”)

So for the next couple of weeks, I kept my eye out for a five gallon bucket on the side of the road on garbage days, having a 16 litre square bucket in reserve just in case I was unsuccessful. Fortunately, my “nice” square bucket did not have to be sacrificed. The “new” bucket was in a previous life apparently used to hold kitty litter, based on the kitty litter dust on the bottom and its proximity to a cat box being thrown out. Its original function was to hold commercial hamburger pickles for a restaurant — and the brine smell permanently permeates the plastic, but, even for one who does not care for pickles, only to a pleasantly low level.

As a side note: I don’t know about how the geometry would have worked out, but based on my experience, the size absolutely does matter — a full 20 to 23 litre bucket is absolutely necessary.

The first part of the job was a general cleaning of the bucket — removing a commercial label, a general washing, and the like.

The next part was to cut out four of the eight sections along the side of the lid that holds the lid to the bucket — I obviously would want the lid to hold to the bucket during usage, but as many people familiar with buckets intended to be water-tight and resealable after opening know, these lids can be a pain to secure properly onto the bucket, and then remove from the bucket. Removing four of the eight sections changed this dynamic from a bucket that was frustrating to open and close to a bucket that is easily opened and closed, while of course maintaining reasonable water tightness during operation.

trim the lid
trim the lid
Then there was the hole to cut in the centre of the lid, large enough to freely allow the plunger to come up and down. It’s about two inches in diameter and was easily cut with a pocket knife.

hole in the lid
Then for the most expensive part of the machine: The plunger. Firstly, just finding an old-fashioned plunger that is full sized does not seem to be the easiest thing to do; they seem to be going the way of the dodo bird. Even the now-almost-old-fashioned plunger with a flexible extension that is meant to fit more snugly into the bottom of a toilet and increase performance and effective pressure seems to have competition with new-fangled, ergonomic and style conscious designs. However, I found one of the plungers with the flexible extensions for a whopping $1.97 plus applicable sales taxes. Following some advice I’d seen on some of the pages describing how to make this project, I trimmed off the extension while maintaining the structural integrity of the bottom part where it would have flexed, and I cut out three triangular holes in the cupped part so as to allow for less water resistance when using the plunger.

modified plunger
And voilà! Backwoods washing machine for a paltry sum of about $2.27 or thereabouts, plus of course a (very) little bit of effort.

At this point, I tested it a couple of times; see below.

Hence, having used it a couple of times, the notion of getting a wringer of some sort seemed useful, and this was my “target item” a couple of weeks later when I went to a flea market. I found a mop bucket with a couple of wooden dowels integrated into it which act as a wringer when you put the mop between them and use foot to create pressure between the dowels, which squeezes out the water. $10 later, and I’d thought I’d really gotten a good deal; I later decided wasn’t worth more than “It was nice to have an objective for the flea market, but in retrospect it wasn’t worth the money at any price.” I tried to use the wringer, but decided that it wasn’t of much use. It not only added extra work to the process, but it wasn’t particularly effective for wringing out clothing, at least given that I was still able to easily wring out more water with hand pressure afterwards. (sigh …)

Now that I’ve used the washing machine a few times, I’ve decided a few things about how to use it and get acceptable results:

1) it’s only good for about one or two days’ worth of clothing for one person, or equivalent; hence you’ll want to divide up equal piles for more days’ worth of clothing, or if you’re washing for more than one person, or also want to wash up all the linen, towels and rags from yesterday evening’s dinner party and associated cleanup. Interestingly, the original blogger suggested that she’d used it for only a day’s worth of diapers at a time.

This was explicit in the original blog entry regarding the cotton baby diapers: In my experiences, it became obvious that the point (and the capacity) of the unit was tailored and ideally (and only) suited to washing one or two days’ worth of diapers at a time to avoid having to store increasingly smelly items for wash day at the end of the week. The point of the challenge was, beyond using cloth diapers (especially for those who can’t afford disposable diapers), to hand wash the diapers while avoiding the use of automatic washing machines (again in a context of affordability.) It also seemed to come across that perhaps it was intended more as a pre-wash system for such items so that you don’t have to wash them at their dirtiest with your delicates and your picky teenager’s latest styles in jeans, although in re-reading the original posts, it became clear that this obviously was a creation of my imagination, however true it might be.

2a) It seems ideally suited to small items such as socks, underwear, small hand towels, and wash cloths. The occasional polo shirt works too but they seem to be nearing the limit of what the unit can handle — hence the mention above about the importance of the sizing of the bucket being in the 20 to 23 litre area.

2b) It really isn’t suited for bulky items. For instance, during my recent two weeks of holidays, I was glad that I’d had enough pants to not “need” to wash them; for fear that jeans were just to heavy and bulky and would require far too much effort, I never even tried to wash a pair, let alone several.

2c) It seems that washing large items and/or large quantities and/or both would require a larger bucket, and would require something more appropriate for agitation that a simple hand plunger. Some other such items seen on the internet suggest reducing the size of a 55 gallon drum and adapting an old bicycle to agitate the load.

3) For the whole operation, I’ve found that for me, what works best is as follows:
a) put in clothes as above
b) add about a tablespoon or two of wash powder
c) fill with water
d) use plunger action, using two hands — with one you’ll tire out really quickly — for up to about five minutes
e) take out and wring the items individually — as mentioned above, hand wringing seems to be the most effective short of having a proper (old style) wringer or a restaurant-grade vegetable spinner (which I wouldn’t seriously consider buying since I know its cost would defeat the project’s “on a budget” and “let’s keep this simple” themes)
f) hang the laundry on a clothesline or other similar support reasonably securely — outside! Otherwise, you’ll have to go through a rinse cycle or two by repeating a) to e)
g) thoroughly rinse all the items with a garden hose, and allow to drip dry. Hand wringing of items at their bottoms will of course significantly reduce drying time. Obviously, if you rinse as in f), (say, if you do everything inside) then don’t do this!

Overall, despite its limitations, I like the idea. I’d like to think that it’s one of those “why didn’t I do this years ago” ideas. I might not have “wasted” money buying as many new socks just for the cottage.

The “but” part is that it is a useful item that definitely has its limits. Operating it does require a certain amount of manual labour, and is really only useful for a portion of items that need to be washed. I was a bit disappointed that after my two weeks of vacation and despite having kept up with just about all the shirts, socks and underwear I’d worn as well as a few hand towels and wash cloths I’d used, I still had about three loads of laundry to do once the bedsheets, pants, large towels and a few other items were taken into account.

Yes, it was fun. Yes, I recommend it.

Happy washing!

UPDATE September, 2014:

I have used the washing machine since during this year’s holidays at the cottage and a couple of other times. Having formed some opinions last year about its limits, this year I decided not to depend on it for washing or reducing the washload at the end of my holidays, and, surprise, surprise, I found it to be a wonderful and useful tool.

I used it for the predictable small items such as my socks, some underwear, hand towels and wash cloths, for which it is ideally suited.

But I found something else for which it is suited, to my surprise to boot: Much of the bed sheets for a double bed and the pillow cases. Last year I assumed that such items would be too bulky for the washing machine. This year, mid-vacation they needed to be done. They were easy to wash one sheet at a time plus another time for the pillow cases, and to my surprise they were easy to wash, to the point that I have since washed them again in it, “saving me” from having to bring them home to wash and dry in a standard electric washing machine back home in the city.

So two more points for the washing machine and it having continued to demonstrate its usefulness as well as having redeemed itself a bit: Next time going up to the cottage, I won’t have to remake my bed upon arrival, possibly, for all I know, late in the evening and after the proverbial long tiring day at work.

Snow Beer

Beyond its inherent value, my post about the Katadyn Pocket water filter back in March was meant to be a precursor to this post.

One of my Christmas gifts (ie. what I not only requested but actually went out to acquire myself 🙂 ) was a Belgian ale beer kit. The homebrew shop apparently acquired from one of my previous homebrew shops when it went out of business back in 1999 a large fridge and apparently whatever trademarks and (I presume) recipes for a line of beer kits they produced called “SuperBatch”. Basically, the concept is (for them) to create in-store full, ready to add water beer kits using custom recipes, building the kits with various malt extracts in proportions according to given recipes and adding packets of hops and / or other spices (again in varieties and quantities according to the given recipes), as well as the usual yeast packet.

Having a personal preference for Belgian beers, I have been hoping for years to stumble upon a Belgian beer kit, and was finally pleased to find one when I decided to investigate another homebrew shop given that for the past year or two I’d been very slowly been getting frustrated by my up-to-then current homebrew shop over decreasing selection of, and generally decreasing availability of product. The imp that pushed me over the cliff came from somewhere between having found the Belgian kit on the new-to-me shop’s website and having observed that the up-to-then current homebrew shop had also changed distributors, not only not carrying the beer kits I had been using and finding acceptable, but also changing the brand of wine kits I normally (although now rarely) use; I’ve tried a couple of other brands, I don’t like them.

Back on track, I had a beer kit in hand. And, I was up at the cottage over the Christmas holidays, melting a *lot* of snow and filtering the water using my water filter in order to supply my water needs. Having planned this next part in advance, at one point I took out my water container I keep for wine-making and brewing purposes and, instead of filling my drinking water containers with filtered water for my drinking and cleanup needs, I started filling my brewing water container and brought it home at the end of my holiday.

Shortly after coming home, I made beer. The instructions were a little different from the commercial kits in cans out there (ok, stop rolling your eyes). They were vaguely reminiscent of brewing from grain, at least so far as I had to boil the malt extract with about an equal amount of water, and having to add the packet of (in my case, given that it was a Belgian ale) dried fruit and spices. Having added the rest of the water, which was also its bulk, there was little issue with having to chill the wort. I pitched the yeast, covered the bucket with a plastic sheet, and waited and watched.

A week later, I racked the bubbling beer into a secondary fermenter and added an air lock, and waited and watched.

Three weeks later, after the secondary fermentation and then settling, I bottled the beer, priming with my usual approximately 1oz of honey per gallon. For the inquisitive, the kind of honey I used was the type that Costco sells 1kg at a time, not some esoteric organic variety bought from some road-side stand in front of a farmer’s field a couple of hours out of the city. Typically, it takes about two weeks just to get the carbonation completed.

But, it doesn’t stop there: It took another month after the bare minimum (in my books) of six weeks, or in the general area of 10-12 weeks at this point in late March, for the wonderful chocolate tones and other fuller flavours to start coming out. In between, the beer seemed to be a bit disappointingly dull and flat (not carbonation-wise, but taste-wise.)

And … there are two endings to this story:

First, whaddya think, it isn’t any good? Of course it’s good. In a little while when my supplies begin to dwindle, I’ll be getting another Belgian Ale kit from my new-to-me shop.

Secondly, does the fact that it’s made from melted snow filtered to drinking water quality make it taste any better? Well I guess I’d have to have made separate parallel batches with tap water and distilled water to really know the difference, or even try to determine whether there actually is one; certainly, I can’t particularly tell. Of course the beer is good and doesn’t have any off tastes, and fermented well.

But … I expect that the real difference lies in that I have a bit of a story to tell regarding the water source I used for the beer I’m serving, and not much more.

And, back in April before all the snow in the city had melted away, I melted some and filtered it; it’s now patiently waiting for the next time I make some beer for myself (I had no intention of using it for the beer I’ve made for Canada Day. 🙂 )

Katadyn Pocket Water Filter

During the summer of 2012, I bought a Katadyn Pocket water filter. It took a bit of research, but in short order the decision to buy this model over just about any other was clear: Most water filters seemed to have a capacity of a few hundred gallons or maybe up to 1,500 gallons; the Katadyn Pocket filter has a capacity of up to 13,000 gallons, or 50,000 litres. Given the price difference — anywhere from $75 to $250 for most of the rest, and $300 to $350 for the Katadyn Pocket, there was little to decide.

The unit has a 0.2 micron ceramic filter with silver impregnated in it in order to act as a bacteriostatic agent, although you have to be careful about that (see below).

The only thing that bugs me a very little bit about it is that it’s a filter only (albeit very good), not a purifier. Unfortunately, the purifiers don’t have the capacity that this filter has. This works out to the fact that the unit can effectively remove all bacteria and cysts — and of course cloudiness — in water, but theoretically it can’t remove viruses due to their being far smaller than the pore size (unless they electrostatically attach themselves to a particle which can be filtered out by the unit). It also means that it doesn’t remove any other contaminants smaller than 0.2 microns, including the usual nasties one might think of such as dissolved heavy metals, pesticides and other such nasty contaminants, and the more benign but nonetheless undesirable tastes, odours and colours that aren’t due to cloudiness.

There are two ways of dealing with these issues:

1) Choose a clear water source — that you might be tempted to drink without treating it at all (your natural “yuck” factor will help you out with this) — and this will reduce the likelihood that these are problems to begin with. By itself, most people — including myself, a trained water techie — can’t just look at clear water and tell whether it’s contaminated with the poop of 30 deer 100 feet upstream, or the dumpings from some illegal leather tanning shop 200 feet upstream. But, generally, you can tell the difference between clear, running water in the middle of the woods far away from just about anything and that doesn’t have any smells to it, and stagnant, cloudy and smelly water in the ditch surrounding a garage.

2) Bring around a small bottle filled with bleach and an eye dropper (*). I find that depending on the water source and the strength of the bleach (typically 4% to 6% sodium hypochlorite), 1 to 3 drops per imperial gallon (4.5 litres) has worked well on the filtered water. Melted snow from my cottage could do with 1/2 drop per imperial gallon, given that the bleach taste still often comes through quite distinctly on such (presumably) relatively pure water. As a reference, the USEPA (here’s my archive) recommends to use two drops per quart when using bleach to disinfect untreated water, or about 8 drops per US gallon (3.78 litres), or about 9 drops per imperial gallon (4.5 litres).

(*) This won’t deal with a bunch of dissolved metals, and can’t completely deal with tough contaminants, so choose your water source carefully!

Now, putting aside that I’m a water techie, why would I, who stopped being involved in Scouting and most forms of camping and hiking in 1999, need such a device?

The family cottage doesn’t have running water in the winter, and I usually spend a week over Christmas and typically a weekend a month at the cottage over winter, when the water is off. I’ve been starting to get tired of carrying up big jugs filled with water. I’ve been getting tired of running out of water or at least having to be careful about how I use water. And, particularly, I’ve been getting tired of depending on a few neighbours for their goodwill. The operative notion here is “depending”; a lack of goodwill is not the issue, although the variability of whether or not two of the immediate neighbours would be around all the time is a concern alongside the inconvenience of having to go out to get clean drinking water in the middle of washing dishes.

One of the first things I had to figure out the hard way is the importance of keeping the unit clean (go figure, a water techie needing to be reminded of the importance of keeping drinking water treatment equipment clean): Over almost two weeks in the summer, I’d used it three times, and ended up with a good case of diarrhea which took a couple of weeks to clear up. So note to myself, and those considering buying any camping water filter: Keep the unit and the outlet hose in particular clean — it can get contaminated easily — and when you’re going to leave it sitting around for more than a day or two or pack it away for a while, run a bleach solution through it first and dry it out.

So, does the filter work? And do I get the runs any more?

Of course, and of course not.

This year over Christmas, I found it quite useful, although I did bring up a good supply of water anyway to begin with, given that I was coming up for a week and the long-awaited testing grounds had finally arrived. I needed some kind of starting point, in case I found out that “making” water was a lot more work than I’d bargained for, especially given all the freezer cooking (and therefore dish washing) I do over that period.

I also confirmed what I had begun observing for years while melting snow for things that didn’t require drinking-quality water: You’d be surprised how much dirt and debris comes through when melting “pristine” snow in the middle of cottage country, far away from the city. It’s but a little more appetizing for drinking, cooking or rinsing the dishes than dishwater — so of course I don’t bother filtering the melted snow for my “put the dirty dishes in hot soapy dishwater” part, but of course I use filtered water for rinsing the dishes.

Regarding the amount of bleach to use, I have found that the filtered water from melting snow needs about a drop per imperial gallon, while the filtered lake water can handle about two drops per imperial gallon, before a distinct bleach taste comes through. This is a little testing based on working with the filtered water and after having first consulted some tables on how many drops of bleach per litre to use for treating water (here’s my archive) (instead of just calculating it myself). As a reference, the USEPA (here’s my archive) recommends to use two drops per quart when using bleach to disinfect untreated water, or about 8 drops per US gallon (3.78 litres), or about 9 drops per imperial gallon (4.5 litres).

Regarding the “one litre per minute” claim, it mostly works out to that, sort of, I guess — which means, not really. In practice, though, I suspect that that’s based on filling up one litre or one quart water bottles commonly used, especially in camping and hiking circles. For larger amounts of water, it takes longer. The best test I’ve had — since filtering water while being distracted by the TV at the cottage isn’t much of a test — was when I recently filtered about 23 litres of melted snow undistracted for a future batch of beer, and it took me about 40 to 45 minutes. This admittedly but importantly included a stop about halfway through to open up the filter and clean the ceramic filter, which had become sufficiently dirty from the dirt in the “clean” snow that I’d melted, making filtering the water difficult. A comparison between the 100 metre race and the 3,000 metre race in the Olympics would be apt: You sprint in the former race, but you pace yourself at a somewhat slower running speed in the latter in order not to get too tired right away and be able to make it to the end of the race.

Anyway, I like the filter, and it should get several years’ worth of use before I have to start thinking about buying a replacement filter cartridge.

Update 08 June 2016: Katadyn water filter capacity — update

Installing, then removing, the Mate desktop

Back in mid-January, 2013, I switched to the Mate Desktop. I can’t figure out if I changed because I was getting tired of Gnome 3 and all the complaints surrounding it, including my own, and fell over a cliff when an imp pushed me in the form of my brother wanting me to install Fedora 18 with Mate on it, or the other way around.

I went through a lot to get the desktop to a level at which I had become accustomed under Fedora 14. I took a lot of notes; I would need them in the next few days for my brother’s system. Indeed, they were useful; the install went rather well, in no small part due to my notes. Incidentally, it all felt like a fresh reinstall. Yet, the whole transition was smooth, and I hadn’t forgotten anything. (Having a CentOS box with a Gnome 2 desktop helped. 🙂 )

Two things presented themselves as relative problems, one right away, and one that took several weeks to develop.

The first problem was a general set of issues: I was hoping for what amounted to the Gnome 2 desktop, having reached its apex (for me) in Fedora 14. The general environment and look and feel of Gnome 2 were there, but a number of packages, some might call secondary, weren’t there. Most notably, PackageKit, a gui application for adding and removing software, and xsane for scanners, and hplip — removing the ability to use my scanner before reinstalling hplip — but there were others. These were trivial absences since installing them is trivially easy, but curiously, PackageKit still wouldn’t show up in the menus. This was still a trivial absence since I rarely use PackageKit, normally preferring command-line installations and updates; but this was still a mild nuisance since I occasionally like to see what is available in the repositories, as well as some descriptions. And, I found that the themes were different from that to which I’d become accustomed, such as buttons, most notable for me in LibreOffice, were different. I was struggling to remember how much of that to which I was accustomed was that to which I had been accustomed for a long time, and how much was a case of much having changed however many times since I started using Fedora with F8 such that I was numb to any such changes.

But the other was a bit more insidious in its latency: After but a few weeks, it felt old. I daresay stale. And, it felt unloved. I suppose that in having used Gnome 3 for a year and a half, the familiarity it did have with Gnome 2, and the extensions having smoothed out many complaints, I had become a convert.

So, what did I do?

yum groupinstall gnome-desktop
yum groupremove mate-desktop
yum groupinstall gnome-desktop (to reinstall that which was removed by the previous command)
yum install gnome-shell-extensions*
yum install gnome-tweak-tool
yum remove xscreensaver*
reboot

… and here I am. Happy again. No, I’m not sure I want to say that. 🙂

Installing Fedora 18

This past week I installed Fedora 18 on a Frankenputer for my brother, yes, *that* brother who is my linux expert, because, well, I’ve been exclusively using a linux desktop since 2006 at home and at the same time he had gravitated away from using a linux desktop back to “another” system.

After having swiftly changed my own Gnome 3 desktop to Mate this past week in order to work out the kinks, I was ready to install his system. I expected or at least hoped that this setup would be a bit easier than my experiences under Fedora 17 since at least under F18 Mate is an officially supported desktop, while under Fedora 17, Mate is merely fully available (and functional) from the Fedora repositories. Interestingly, it was an identical experience — besides the parts about doing a “yum groupinstall mate-desktop” on my system and installing it under anaconda under F18; I still had to add a bunch of packages, tweak here, adjust there, etc. in the same ways. A quick look at versions numbers between the two systems suggests that many of the packages are the same version number, just recompilations for each version of Fedora.

So after his having spent hours going through four junkers, interestingly all having come from me over time, including one on which we had installed Fedora 14 a couple of years ago, and not being able to get any of them to work, we managed at the last minute to secure two more junkers — essentially, stripped carcasses which were cast offs from a local guy who does a lot of business doing virus & spyware removals, “reinstalls”, selling good-quality used laptops, and dealing in spare parts both to locals (such as myself and my brother) and over the internet through the likes of eBay, we start working on the install. Spare parts from other junkers as well as a new 2T drive are inserted into “Door #1”.

“Door #1” appears to be an Intel Core 2 Duo or some such, so this is so far the most advanced processor with which I’ve ever knowing worked at least up close. To me it seems clear that it’s a 64bit machine; I’ve caught the 64-bit religion, which is pretty gratuitous under linux, since just about *everything* is available under 64 bit. A 64bit Fedora Net Install ISO is downloaded and burned.

Frustratingly, “door #1” proves to be a doorstop: it powers up, rather loudly, but being able to do little else beyond turn on and make a lot of noise in the process, and not even boot through the BIOS. At this first glance it seems to be little wonder that our local tinkerer had stripped out the parts he thought he could sell on eBay or otherwise use to build his own Frankenputers in a reverse “2 for 1” deal. Time is running out on closing time for the local stores, so we move on to “Door #2”.

“Door #2” again appears to be a dual core or some such, so this is so far the most advanced processor with which I’ve ever knowing worked at least up close. To me it seems clear that it’s a 64bit machine; I’ve caught the 64-bit religion, which is pretty gratuitous under linux, since just about *everything* is available under 64 bit. The aforementioned CD is thrown in and things boot up until it hangs a few times at the point that the graphical part of Anaconda is supposed to kick in. After a few stalled attempts, we download and burn the 32-bit version, and everything works. Phew, just under the wire.

The visual changes in Anaconda made things seem more direct. Setup goes through cleanly.

Then I go through my list of things to install and remove, some of which date back to my install of Fedora 12 — yes, I still have some notes from then (paper works!) — while others dating back to the past week or so when I installed Mate on my machine and learned about what I wanted, needed, didn’t want, and so on.

The whole process took about 6 to 7 hours.

And, apparently, my brother, the master surpassed by his student, tries things out and loves it, after a few years of not having a linux desktop. Maybe there’s a renewed hope for him.

Go figure.

Fedora Life Spans

As a quick post, I am presenting my table here of typical Fedora lifespans.

Surprise, surprise — or, if you prefer, surprisingly — over the years, on average Fedora has actually been doing a good job of keeping to what is colloquially described as a 13 month lifespan, despite fairly variable lifespans of almost +/- 20% compared to average as of Fedora 16, often being delayed by a week or two or more, and in the case of Fedora 18, by two months! In fact, it has been keeping to this average rather closely — as of Fedora 16, the cumulative averages have kept to less than 2% from the overall average since Fedora 5. Well we’ll see how that affects things, as it is right now I’ve estimated the lifespan of Fedora 16, which I’ll correct when the official number comes out. We’ll see how the two month delay has/will affect(ed) the scheduled release of Fedora 19, and as the case may be Fedora 20 and so on.

Each of Fedora’s End of Life (EOL) is scheduled at a month after the release of the second version of Fedora after, eg. Fedora 12’s end of life was one month after the release of Fedora 14, and so on.

So, while I’m making this up, if the lifespans of Fedora 1 and Fedora 2 are any indication, Fedora presumably only started with the “every six months or so release dates” and/or defining the EOL as one month after the release of the second version following a given release, somewhere around Fedora 3, or possibly Fedora 4. (Although apparently Red Hat Linux, as mentioned here, had a release schedule of about every 6 months, too — and an erratic lifespan of 18 months or 3 years or 5 years, depending on what appears to have been whim though what probably was more along the lines of support contracts tied to specific releases, public reception to a given release, or a given release’s perceived technical excellence and value, etc.)

So enjoy the Table.

My problems / Gripes with Gnome 3

Background: Regular readers of my blog — the few of you that are out there 🙂 — know I use Fedora and CentOS. Once again, Fedora is an interesting case: As a pretty strict rule, packages appearing in Fedora are as close to the upstream product — the software as it appears on the original project’s website — as is practical; generally, the only changes are those necessary to make them work under Fedora. So generally, if you were to download the sources from www.thisismyawsomelinuxapp.com and compile them yourself, without tweaking them — while making them work, of course — then that’s what the software probably looks like and how it works under Fedora.

Generally, Gnome 3 has been a mixed bag. Some things are interesting — I won’t say improvements; but I think that there are interesting additions (G2 and mobile device devotees will call retrogrades) that I’m willing to welcome, or at least I find acceptable given a paradigm change. I particularly like the hot corner that brings up all of the open windows. Other things are six of one / half dozen of the other, such as the panel/dock on the left of the activities screen.

Here are some specific gripes I have about Gnome 3 at least as installed in Fedora 15 and 16:

This is based on my experiences with Gnome 3.0-whatever and 3.2-whatever with F15 and F16 out-of-the-box installs:

– switching between windows — the default ctrl-tab is between applications, not windows. To do so requires that I hold down the ctrl key, use the mouse to choose the application, wait for it to open another window with all of the instances of that application, then choose with the mouse which one, which sometimes may be difficult unless I were to have a 50′ screen. So it’s not important that I switch, let alone easily, between two spreadsheets, or two pdf’s, or two documents in LO writer, right?
– solved on my F16 machine by “yum install gnome-shell-extensions-alternate-tab”. Needs to be activated by “gnome-tweak-tool”, listed as “Advanced settings” under the Applications menu — see below, date and time gripe
– the above solution kept on crashing my f15 machine, so I removed it.

– Opening up a new instance of an application. Linus’ well-publicized bug: You go to the activities screen, choose one and click on it — say, in Linus’ case, the terminal — and the existing instance is reopened. So in order to open up a new instance, you have to choose file/new window. Valid in and of itself, but not more efficient by removing the possibility of having many ways to do the same thing. Also, partly addressed by the fact that you can right-click on a launch icon and choose to go to the existing instance or launch a new instance; but, this works out to being the same gripe.
– the both over and under sensitive upper-left hand corner: When you move the mouse to the upper left hand corner over, you’re apparently supposed to be able to open up the Activities screen. In Fedora, it’s too sensitve when I don’t want to open it up and my mouse just happens to be in the area, such as when I am going to the File menu of a given application, and then when I want to take advantage of that cool function, boy is it slow in figuring out that it’s supposed to move to the Activities screen.
– Activities screen — closing windows. When you hover the mouse over a window, a little x in a circle appears in the upper right hand corner of that window icon, allowing you to close it. When you have enough windows, it’s real easy to accidentally click on it instead of on the icon itself (to open the window) unless I were to have a 50′ screen.
– Nautilus — when you have a file highlighted, on the bottom there is an “announcement” window stating that you have the chosen file selected — barring the easy selection of the last visible file via mouse if nautilus is maximized. Obviously you can select it by moving the highlighter down with the down key, but the only way to know what the filename is, is to read the annoying “announcement” window, and you often can’t see the the other file information (last saved, time, file size, etc.).
– notifications — lots of things get a notification, like “you just printed a file” or “the file you just opened is ready”, and they stay in the notification bar available from the lower right hand corner until you manually remove them all, individually.
– adding the date to the time at the top (Correctable by “yum install gnome-tweak-tool” F16)

really minor gripe:

– in order to turn off of the computer or reboot, you have to highlight the “suspend” option in the stats menu off the upper right hand corner, and hold down the alt key. Something I can live with, but there anyway.
– solved by “yum install gnome-shell-extensions-alternative-status-menu”. Needs to be activated by “gnome-tweak-tool”, listed as “Advanced settings under the Applications menu — see date and time gripe

Generally, at least specifically to F15:

– When I unplug my laptop to move it to a different location, using the battery, the system goes into hibernate, and doesn’t even ask if that’s what I really want to do. (Correctable by yum install gnome-tweak-tool, F16, which allows you to decide what the computer will do when AC power is lost.)

And here’s a gripe about Evolution, going back a few years, and which has absolutely nothing to do with Gnome 3, or Gnome 2, or even Gnome at all, presumably):

– when you open up a daughter window, the basic evolution program engine is still needed. It effectively makes the main window barely “first amongst equals” instead of being “the program”, from the user perspective. As such, close the main window but not a daughter window, the program engine module is still operating. That means that in my case — because, when I use my email client, I want it to pop my email, then erase it from the server so that when I go to webmail, I don’t have, what, 100 pages of old email to wade throug — email still gets popped and removed from the server, and no longer available by web mail. This is a human-interface bug, since at the very least when closing the main window, it should ask “do you want to shut down all evolution functions, or just this window”?

Bugzilla — again, not specifically a Gnome problem:

Traditionnaly when ABRT is activated because of a crash, when I get to the point of selecting to report via Bugzilla, I get messages about the wrong settings being in place and that the reporting will likely fail. I found out a few years ago that this is generally due to the lack of the relevant backtrace program for the crashed program, hence there being a lack of sufficient “useful” information. While conceptually I understand the need for a proper backtrace so that as much detailed information is available as possible, this presents a real conundrum: I have occasionally in the past gone to the trouble of installing one or two relevant backtraces — after a crash and realizing this conundrum — and noted that it slows down the system significantly, and having all the existing backtrace programs is impractical. Hence without the appropriate backtrace, a bugzilla report will fail. Yet due to current circumstances, the average (at least desktop user) is unlikely to know which they are likely to need to install, and Fedora loses out on valuable crash information that would help solve a bunch of problems.

What do I like about G3:

Most of these are indifferences (ie. I don’t much care whether they’re along the lines of G2 or G3), but I’m willing to give them a thumbs up at least on that basis:

– nautilus does two panes, although I think that it probably did it before. A certain other system doesn’t; you can only either move things on the directory tree on the left (which you can do, sort of, in nautilus) or between two windows.
– Somehow the automounter for things like memory sticks seems a bit smoother and polished under Gnome 3 than under Gnome 2.
– I have actually always found the dock, and that it’s on the left hand column, intuitive — funny, I find the dock on the bottom in XFCE, which I have on my CentOS server (from the days a few months ago when the machine itself was a celeron 1.0 with 256megs of RAM and it found that hard to handle; G2 ran it into the ground within minutes) not anywhere near as intuitive (although I suppose it can easily be moved were I to want it to). The only drawback: more intuitive and useful than Gnome 2, but, in Gnome 2, I had already been putting launchers on the upper panel for years, as have other people. It still gets the thumbs up, though.

How to put XFCE on CentOS 6

This post is following my having replaced the gnome desktop from my centos-6 home server with XFCE, due to:

– the machine is probably over 11 years old and only has 256megs of memory
– the machine is not really likely to be easily upgraded, nor replaced
– the change is worth it anyway given the light load I put on it
– because it was so slow, and even seemed to progressively grind to a halt in a short period of time (a week or less, it seemed)
– questions online about how to replace gnome to XFCE under centos were inconclusive regarding how to make XFCE the default desktop on CentOS.

No, I don’t know how to make them co-exist, I tried a bit and decided after a three or four commands that since I didn’t need Gnome anyway, that replacing it completely with XFCE was the best way to go in my case.

Required:

– an installed and working CentOS 6 setup on the “target machine”
– an internet connection
– an operating ssh server on the target machine — including, if you’re controlling things through the internet, appropriate settings to receive the connection through the internet (another topic)
– root priveleges on the target machine

Optional, but likely to be highly useful (as it was for me given the “cart-before the horse” approach I used):

– a second computer, “the head”, with an ssh client, able to connect to the target machine via ssh either locally on the same network, or through the internet.

This process can be dangerous, will probably require at least one reboot, and ideally should require having physical access to the machine in case of requiring a hard power-down and repowering of the machine. All critical processes should become less critical (ie. user announcement for downtime, transfer to another server, etc.) and a backup should be performed beforhand.

I am presuming that on the target machine, root login has been disabled and that you will be logging in via “mere mortal” accounts and then elevating to root. Should you be using sudo on the target machine, the account into which you will be logging should have appropriate sudo priveleges, and you should adjust the instructions accordingly (that much I won’t do for you, I don’t like sudo; “Don’t be afraid of root. Respect it, but don’t be afraid” as my brother says.) I am also presuming that you are controlling the target machine using the head.

– using the head, ssh into the target computer — make sure that you are logged into an account on the head which also exists on the target. If you are on the same network, on the target machine itself, determine the IP address using “ifconfig” at the command line, and look for the number with a “192.168.***.***” format in the second grouping after the “inet addr” tag.
– Elevate to root (“su” )
– Install the Fedora epel repository on the target computer.
– visit http://fedoraproject.org/wiki/EPEL/FAQ#How_can_I_install_the_packages_from_the_EPEL_software_repository.3F
– enter the following if you are running Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 / CentOS 6 / Scientific Linux 6:
“rpm -Uvh http://download.fedora.redhat.com/pub/epel/6/i386/epel-release-6-5.noarch.rpm”
– enter the following if you are running Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 / CentOS 5 / Scientific Linux 5:
“rpm -Uvh http://download.fedora.redhat.com/pub/epel/5/i386/epel-release-5-4.noarch.rpm”
– Uninstall the gnome desktop.
– “yum remove groupremove gnome-desktop”
– Install the xfce desktop.
– “yum –enablerepo=epel-testing groupinstall xfce-desktop”
– add a line about changing the desktop type
– “nano /etc/sysconfig/desktop”
– add the following lines:
” DESKTOP=XFCE”
” DISPLAYMANAGER=XDM”

– Reboot the target machine with “reboot now”. The head will lose its connection to the target machine. The machine should now reboot and the xfce desktop should appear on the target machine.

Problems:

In my case, I had installed the XFCE desktop environment first, and some dependencies were removed when I uninstalled the gnome environment; I figured this out after a reboot and the screen came up blank after a reboot. I therefore ssh’ed using the head into the target and reinstalled the xfce desktop as above, which installed the necessary missing dependencies. I also installed the evince reader (“yum install evince”) which has nautilus as a dependency (and as such installs it, although so far the only real difference between it and Thunar is that the latter doesn’t support dual panes.) Both seem to work nicely with XFCE because it uses the same libraries as Gnome.