ADTE Colloque 2016

Today I attended the ADTE Colloque 2016: The annual conference in Montreal (home for me) for a Quebec association with goals to promote free software in education.

Overall, the conference and its logistics were reasonably well organized; as far as the implementation of the event went, it seemed to go hitch free. Rooms that were appropriately sized were available, enough chairs were in place, there were no problems with the sign in, the microphones worked, the lunches arrived, and so on.

My interest was to see Richard Stallman, who was the keynote speaker.

Before he started his speech, I got to see his laptop almost closeup: He has a GNU sticker on it, an FSF sticker on it, and a small Trisquel sticker on it. I managed to ask him what the model was; an IBM Thinkpad X60, reconditioned, slightly upgraded, and marketed by a company called Gluglug.

Given that the conference was in French, Mr. Stallman presented what was no doubt his standard speech on free software, in French. (Let’s clear this up now: I’m a native English speaker, but Montreal is a predominantly French-speaking city; as such, since I live in Montreal, *of*course* I speak and understand French fluently.) Although I knew in advance that his French was competent enough to make his presentation in French, I was pleasantly surprised and very impressed that technically it was better than moderate in calibre, and that he could maintain it for over two hours with barely two or three requests to provide the French equivalent of a word or expression. And despite a fairly thick non-native speaker accent, it was almost surprisingly easy to follow.

His speech, although it appeared to be one of his standard speeches, went on too long in my view; 2.5 hours had been allotted for the presentation and questions, and I thought he could have accomplished the same thing in about 100 minutes, including questions.

I found that there were three downsides to his presentation:

– The “Church of Emacs” routine was off-topic or at least beyond the scope of the conference. Given what amounted to be a public audience, it was out of place. A cute parlour routine or pub talk in its own right, but out of place there.
– His comments about not having children were completely out of place, however legitimate they may be in their own right, and at best were poorly presented.
– Mr. Stallman apparently is losing his hearing, and asks people to speak a little more slowly, and clearly enunciate all their words. This is understandable, especially when those asking questions are not speaking his mother tongue; further, Quebec French and accents can be difficult even for native French speakers not accustomed to them. At one point, someone who forgot to speak extra clear and a bit more slowly elicited his ire as he either lost his temper, or whined like a child, repeating admittedly for the umpteenth time for the person to speak clearly and more slowly.

As for the rest of the conference:

The overall conference had a few quirks. The iPads at the registration desks were funny and out of place, given the topic of the conference. The glaring and blatant use of a Microsoft Windows computer on the overhead projector was a weird oversight to the point of being shocking, regardless of the fact that for all intents and purposes it ended up only being used to display the wifi network and password, and one minor demonstration during a roundtable discussion. This was addressed in the first question period by an irate participant who venomously commented on it and expressed his feeling of being insulted, to the applause of roughly at least a third if not half the participants.

For me, the first round table, before Mr. Stallman’s speech, left something to be desired. I thought that they could have been better organized instead of being just “I’m Tom Smith and this is what I do. Oh, and this is what I know about free software.”

The second round table, after Mr. Stallman’s presentation, was a bit meatier and not quite as disappointing as the first. There was an IT person who was trying to slowly provide Free Software by placing it in their pool of software available to staff at his institution, alongside other software. Another panelist provided a good and enlightening response to a question, to the order of “Try explaining *that* to a powerful teachers’ union!”

My brother said the comments then as well as elsewhere in the day felt like we were still in 2006 instead of 2016 given their nature, such as:
– “Well GNU/Linux is hard to install” (I found it easy to install in 2008, and installing other software and fixing settings is something one does on any platform);
– “LibreOffice isn’t fully compatible with MS Word” (that’s a very nuanced conversation that strictly speaking is technically correct, but mostly trivially, IMO);
– “I’m accustomed to program X”;
– “I didn’t know that you could do that using free software”.

The lunch included in the admission fee was fine albeit a bit too frou-frou for my tastes, and totally inedible for my brother’s admittedly very narrow tastes. I would have hoped that there might have been more than three or four tables in the trade show part of the conference, which was held in the large lunch room area, but that’s neither here nor there.

The two afternoon sessions I attended were on the subject of “Accessing the Moodle Community”, and the ProjectLibre software.

The first presentation on the Moodle Community seemed a bit off and probably confusing to most of the participants, being a bit obscure and technical. However, once I re-read the title in the day’s schedule, I realized that it *was* on topic (both for the conference, and, on topic for his presentation.) Disappointingly, the presenter was delayed by a good fifteen minutes, for technical reasons: He could not use his computer for his presentation, given that for some reason he was unable to plug it into the projector. He then tried to present his slides prepared in LibreOffice with a computer using MS Powerpoint, which did not like his slides. He finally had to install LibreOffice on the supplied computer which was effectively permanently connected to the projector, or the setup otherwise effectively precluded the use of his own computer. He should have been prepared with the slides saved in PDF format, but to his credit he had placed the presentation online so that he could access it easily, in addition to having brought it on his computer.

The second presentation was a bit better as it at least was a demo of free software that can be used by educators / schools / etc. to either to manage their projects, what kind of software can be taught in schools, etc.

However, I thought that the two individual presenters I saw had two failings beyond what I mentioned earlier about the Moodle presenter:

– They only had about half an hour each; they could have done with at least another 15 minutes each. Each went over their allotted time; in any case, they should have timed things better in their presentations given that they knew of their time limitations, or should have known, given the announcements online and in the printed schedules liberally distributed during the conference.
– They should have been coached in advance with “ok, present what you want the way you want, *BUT*, please spend the first up to five minutes answering these five questions, such as a brief description of what the software / project / topic is, what its use could mean to the participants, etc. etc. etc.” In addition, I thought that each unfortunately were unprepared for people asking questions and making comments during the presentations, which could have been handled with “Could you wait until I finish my presentation, at which point I’d love to take your questions and feedback.”

Overall, however, I did love participating in the conference.

Update 27 April 2016:

Here is the link to the ADTE’s conference recap page (in French) (and here’s my archive)

In it are links to YouTube videos of Mr. Stallman’s presentation as well as a number of links to speakers’ quick resumé of what they spoke about to even sometimes slides of their presentations, again normally in French.

I’ve finally got a convert, sort of, to whom I’m giving a linux desktop!

In 2011 a new hire at work was assigned to join me on a few field jobs in order to expose them to the kinds of things we do at the office.

At the time, I enthusiastically told him about my use of linux. Suffice it to say his reaction was “What is this communist stuff anyway?!?!” Harrrummmpphh. “Red Hat is in line to have $1 billion with a big fat capital B in revenues this year alone. Doesn’t sound very communist to me at all.”

Back in mid-December of 2015 — after countless times of telling him about linux in the meantime, hopefully a bit more toned down — he sent me a message: “Here’s a modest budget; set me up, I’d be interested in trying it out.” I was practically beside myself in my pleasure.

I came back from the Christmas holidays and announced that I’d tracked down a used computer for free, and just needed to get it into my hot little hands. I explained that I wanted to give him a relatively risk free introduction. In the meantime, the computer in question, I’m told, proved to be dead and not usable. I’m promised another computer, and this week, when it looks like I’ll indeed be getting it in time for an install day this weekend, I further explained to my colleague: “The computer is probably about four or five years old but it’s supposed to be a dual core with 4 gigs of memory. It won’t be the best performing computer in the world, and some things it just won’t be able to do, at least not spectacularly, not because of linux, but because of the computer itself; however, it should still be good enough for videos, games, and day to day stuff, and you’ll be able to explore all the software available for it and see what can be done with linux, and you can add a few things like a bluetooth dongle if you like.”

He cautiously tells me all along that I’m building up anticipation; the caution suggests to me that he is mildly tongue-in-cheek meaning “of the disappointing variety”.

I then start asking him very specific questions, like what he wants as the computer name (I give him examples of current and past computer names I’ve used, and advise him to choose carefully since using the name of a pet or relative could backfire in case something goes wrong, and in the process of relating the experience to family or friends they may be confused or even become upset), the user name and password to use, the root password he wants, and things like which email client he uses at home. Pleased that he’ll be able to use a GMail interface, he begins to apparently genuinely say “Oh now you’re *really* building anticipation!” instead of the cautious insinuations from before.

Therefore in anticipation of the build this coming weekend, I put together this list of the main things I’ll need to install on his computer, especially since I’ll be helping my brother-in-the-know again with another desktop install, and try to get in some of his under the hood expertise at getting my server to be a bit more useful than a rarely used ftp server, a backup server for my data which depends on my remembering to back up my data on it, and consuming electricity.

So enjoy my list of things to do to loading a Fedora desktop very similar to how I use mine. And yes I know that there are plenty of things I *don’t* say, like “take this icon and place it third or fifth or last in the dock on the left on the activities screen” or, how to do “that”. 🙂

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.

My participation at FUDCon Tempe 2011

(I know, I’m a month late on this.)

I went to FUDCon for the first time this year; it was the first large gathering of Linux/Fedora/Computer people I’d attended, and I’m glad I went. I was also pleased to finally see so many Fedora desktops — over time I’ve become mildly frustrated being the only Fedora / Red Hat person in the room, often in a sea of Ubuntu.

One of the more difficult things was figuring out in advance how the nuances of how things would work: Not ever having been to a BarCamp style event, I had no clue how or whether a presentation I had prepared would be accepted, let alone inserted into the schedule.

My participation:

Friday

After a day of touristy stuff in downtown Phoenix, I showed up about 5:30pm ish to the courtesy room at the Courtyard in Tempe. After helping stuff nametags into plastic nametag holders on neckstraps, I actually managed to regale people with my stories about crossing the Canada/US border and get plenty of belly laughs. Harish and I managed to exchange a quip to the order of “Oooh, I get to meet the myth!” — first by my stating amazement at finally meeting someone who had once actually installed SLS Linux, and in turn being on the receiving end from Harish when I confirmed that I’m one of the Trekkie myths. In between, the two of us held court on the subject of rotary phones, much to the amazement of Ryan — a university student under 20 — at the anachronism. In the meantime, opensource.com was celebrating its first birthday and supplied pizza, beer and cake.

Saturday:

BarCamp pitches, voting, and State of Fedora Address

The pitches were an interesting experience — Of the 170 or so actual participants, it seemed as though at least a third if not half the room got up to pitch their presentation! During the voting process, near the end, I was quite pleased to note that approximately 30-40 people had voted for my presentation. Afterwards, Jared from Red Hat give his “State of Fedora” address, the audio of which can be found here. His main messages dealt with growth and working together; Fedora is strong, not just because of the bits on the CD but because of the people. His ultimate message was that “Fedora will be stronger tomorrow because of the work today.”

Presentations:

Open Source Anthropology / Diana Harrelson

This was one of the more interesting presentations I attended. Diana did some research for her master’s degree on online communities, and chose the Fedora community as her test subjects. Some of the things that we as linux users — both Fedora and the greater Linux community — know about ourselves were confirmed. One such point that she underlined was the

Future Fedora and Reducing Bureaucracy / Max Spevack and the Fedora Board

This was an “interesting” session — perhaps not the best for me. What I found most interesting was how bureaucratic the meeting felt, and not just because of the subject being discussed. Of course it discussed how frustrated people are with how to get others involved in the Fedora project.

Fedora Security Lab and Securing Linux / Joerg Simon and Donald Buchan

Joerg’s presentation was interesting — he talked about one of Fedora’s spins, tailored to include a bunch of tools on how to test system security by measuring all sorts of parameters — open ports, security holes, and the like. I’ve downloaded it and plan on taking a look at how it operates.

My presentation worked out ok; people seemed (at least politely) receptive to my talk, the subject, and my suggestions. The most contentious issues? Root access, root passwords vs. keys, and su vs. sudo.

Juicy Software Repo Management with Pulp / Jason Connor and Jay Dobies

Even though it would have gone over my head as much as software repo management did, I wish I had have gone to Jeff Darcy’s Cloud Filesystem presentation since he’d been telling me about it on Friday evening. Unfortunately I don’t think I got anything out of this presentation, however well it was presented.

I Want to Keep on Hacking but my Hands Hurt / Mel Chua and Sebastian Dziallas

This was a fun presentation — Mel and Sebastien brought a bunch of ergonomic toys related to relieving and avoiding stresses related to using a computer. There were a lot of defacto visual gags as a result of people using the toys or assuming less harmful positions and ways to use your computer better.

FUDPub

Well as usual I showed off how horrible I am at games by agreeing to be beaten by, er play against Clint at ping pong. Food was great; burrito night! There also was plenty of liquid refreshment. I got to meet a computer science professor from Seneca College in Toronto, and thank him for the wiki he’d put up for his students’ participation in FUDCon, which can be found here (here’s my archive). Although I only found it the day before I left home, this was invaluable for framing and gelling all the little details about my participation.

Sunday

Designing UI mockups in Inkscape / Máirín Duffy

This presentation was a bit more amusing for me; at least it wasn’t over my head. 🙂 Máirín proved to be a true mistress when it comes to Inkscape, even though I suspect that for her and most Inkscape users what she was doing was basic stuff to be expected by anyone in graphic design. The coolest thing about her presentation? Her hot dog wallpaper! hotdog here too

IP Law for Hackers / Pam Chestek and Richard Fontana

This was an interesting, two hour session on how Red Hat lawyers have to deal with open licenses such as the GPL, and trademark issues related to the Fedora project. One of the main things I remember is to “keep the name of your project simple, memorable, and generic, ie. unrelated to your product.”

Lightning Talks!

Covered in another area, the lightning talks were apparently a new entry into the FUDCon format. I think that there should be a couple of such sessions, given a sufficient number of presentations. The most interesting talk? Mel talking about baking (here’s my archive). Seriously.

I did not attend the hackfests per se but I spoke with Simon about OLPC. I found his recounting of the successes of the OLPC in Bolivia (?) interestubg: The response to “we should be sending food and textbooks, not computers” criticisms is “Getting textbooks out is hard, but teachers can easily distribute educational resources with OLPC. And, the kids’ parents come back to the school in the evening to use the internet, and learn reading skills while also finding out the true price of their crops instead of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous purchasers hoping that uneducated, uninformed farmers won’t know any better.” As for having a static base (such as Fedora 7) creating a security risk, Simon reminded me that the likelier security risk is to the order of “Give me your computer, you little (censored)!”

I helped with clean up; after that I made an impromptu organization for a group of us to go to Gordon Biersch’s, a local brewpub. The whitbeer was good, and the chicken parmesan was good too. And a bunch of us organized a road trip for the next morning.

Monday

During the little road trip and on the topic of Fedora and Red Hat, I remember Brian (thank you for the driving!), a Red Hat employee, telling me about working at Red Hat and the RHEL sales model. It felt like tactics similar to a competing product.

After returning from the road trip, the hackfests on Monday were what I would consider “boring” — definitely not my thing.

The bright light for me was unfortunately at the expense of people who were stranded in Phoenix due to winter storms keeping their flights from leaving Phoenix — the Monday night party in the hotel lobby was quite a lot of fun, and even on Tuesday evening there were a few people still waiting around. I on the other hand had planned to stay sveral days later, so of course I was supposed to be there.

My thanks go to Jared, Robyn, Ryan, Southern Gentleman, Simon, Harish, Joerg, Ian, Clint, Chris, Máirín, Mel, and everyone else.

FUDCon 2011 — lightning talks

Today at the lightning talks at FUDCon 2011, the one that caught my attention was called “The Dreyfus Model: how do novices think differently from experts?” The subtitle was along the lines of “Why won’t anyone help me, I have documentation!”  Here is a pdf archive of her talk I made at the time since as of at least 2020 or earlier, it disappeared.

The gist of how Mel presented the subject was that someone is looking for a bread recipe on the internet and comes up with:

Croissants

flour
butter
other stuff
bake

She explained the various cryptic parts of this “recipe” and how obvious it may seem to an experienced baker, but to a newbie, even figuring out that Croissants is a type of bread, let alone what the “other stuff” is can be difficult to grasp, or the concepts of “oh you have to buy those ingredients first — how much? And what’s this? You need an oven? Now, when they say bake, how long? And how will I know it’s ready? Oh yeah, you need to let the bread rise first …

She went on to say how installing certain bits of software and using them may seem trivial to an experienced user, but knowing how to draw in a tarball, extract it, get all the dependencies, compile it, and all the various steps required was not easy for a newbie, especially in a culture that takes several things for granted and literally may skip steps between major milestones.

Ultimately her message lay in the importance of clear, concise, complete documentation.

When I started learning linux, I had to relearn things too, and found things challenging. I quickly learned that things were not as obvious to myself and that when someone said “oh just do this” what they were really saying was “do this 10-15 item list as root under the following circumstances using the proper switches” — not always an obvious task when you say “install package X” while omitting all the necessary parts before and after.

FUDCon 2011 — after my presentation

So I’ve just given my presentation at FUDCon on some basic security strategies to install on your system.

People seemed receptive. A couple of the ideas that came up was the use of denyhosts before I mentioned it, and a bit of controversy over the root user. People were suggesting the use of keys instead of passwords for the root user, and using sudo instead of allowing direct access to root.

The pairing with someone else worked ok for me — I started at 14:30 and got through all my slides in 20 minutes, including a few questions and comments; I did have to go a mile a minute though. The other person, who did an exposé on the Fedora Security Labs spin, however, had to skip a few of the things he wanted to do and talk about. His presentation was nonetheless interesting.

As I said people were generally receptive and respectful, and people generally recognized that my presentation covers basic security that anyone and everyone should do, and that it’s not necessarily intended to cover all cases or massive networks.

FUDCon 2011 — Tempe, Arizona

Well, here I am, I finally did it. I’m going to FUDCon 2011 in Tempe, Arizona.

After months of saying to myself and friends “Oh I think I’d like to go do this” and asking my brother if he’s interested, and telling all sorts of people “Yep I’m doing it, I’m thinking about doing it, I’m still in the talking about it stage; I just haven’t committed to it yet”, I bought my airline tickets a couple of weeks ago to go to Phoenix, Arizona, and made reservations at the hotel. (Yes, the nice people at the hotel, months after the block was “closed”, graciously gave me the Red Hat Group rate for 6 out of 7 nights — quite the savings!)

So I’ve been working for the past few weeks at translating, updating, revising, rationalizing, etc. a presentation on System Security I presented at my local LUG a couple of years ago. (Of course it’s not in English, silly, why do you think I’ve had to work on translating it?) I’ve also been following the wiki page for the event. I even have my Fedora Friend Finder ready to bring with me.

But … apart from a few blog posts here and there, and of course the availability of the administrative notices / minutes from the planning meetings, I haven’t found what appears to be, let’s say, an online forum where FUDCon is being discussed. (Yes, I know, there’s Planet Fedora — however, it seems to discuss pretty much everything under the Red Hat sun.) The kind of place where people discuss what they’re doing outside of the formal event structure, when they’re arriving, asking questions of participants of previous such events, and so on. Basically, chatter.

I’m wondering a few things, and hope that perhaps this post will help me out in at least finding a nudge in the right direction:

– Is there a forum where people are virtually gathering and discussing the plans and attendance and logistics and so on surrounding going to FUDCon? You know, chatter?
– Assuming that my presentation isn’t tossed for being too long, too technical, too boring, out in left field, or targeted to the wrong audience (it’s sysadmin stuff, not development), will there be a projector available? Will I need my laptop — which I’ll of course have anyway — or just a USB memory stick with the presentation on it? (OO.o format, or PDF? Of course I’ll be ready for all of these circumstances.)
– Regarding my presentation, will someone be wanting it to be submitted in advance for the part about “Refereeing for technical sessions”? Or will “in advance”, in keeping with the “so do not worry about competition” part, mean half an hour before the “Orientation, BarCamp pitches and scheduling” at 9:00am Saturday?
– I signed up after the 140 cut-off mark for food and swag. I don’t have a problem with the basic concept per se: you snooze, you lose, you should have signed up earlier. However, I’m just wondering what the real implications to this are — to what food is being referred? Breakfast, lunch, and supper throughout all the event? Snacks in the hospitality suite — no green stamp on your name tag, no food? A few chits for free meals, given to the first 140 people, at the Student Union cafeteria where a lot of people presumably will eat during the breaks? Food during the FUDPub, at which Red Hat “will be treating everyone to food”? (Or just the first 140 — everyone else with a differently-marked name tag will have to pull out their wallets?) I’m just trying to figure out logistics, that’s all; I’m trying to find the ad for the advertised food, so that I know what’s being discussed. Money isn’t the issue; I’m just looking for some kind of indication, that’s all.

Well, that’s off my chest.

In other directions, I guess I now have to prepare my laptop for going through customs:
– set up an automatic login (a warning against which is in my presentation);
– do a bit of a system cleanup (a suggestion about which is in my presentation);
– remove some privileged information and make sure that it’s really wiped;
– realize that US Customs probably won’t care about my computer, and that the only people who might will be the airline — and hopefully only be amused at the XRay area when they see the square, plastic bucket I carry it in (but hopefully not say that’s it’s oversized, which it shouldn’t be. The primary airline’s limits are 23 cm x 40 cm x 55 cm; the secondary airline’s limits are 23cm x 35cm x 56 cm. I’ve just checked, and it fits.)

A LUzer abandons Windows and goes for Linux

A LUzer abandons Windows and goes for Linux

I “got” the facts. And I acted on them. MS played their hand; it trumped mine. And I won.

I would call myself a LUzer. I don’t really understand what is going under the hood. On the other hand, I have been characterized as a 7 out of 10 when it comes to knowing about computers and being competent, although I think the person was being at least a bit generous. Go figure. Maybe the fact that by 1994 I had completely stopped helping people with their computers, and had been doing next to no helping since I’d screwed up a friend’s computer in 1990 (although it was quite easily salvageable by somebody who *did* know what they were doing around computers), says something about how smart I might actually be with a computer by virtue of knowing my limitations. Ah, bull.

My first intro to Linux was in 1996 when a friend had installed it on his new PI-90. I have a memory of XP style windows on top of a black command line screen.

In 1999 my 486 SX-33 running Win 3.1 — the original legal install from when I’d bought the machine five years before — was finally grinding to a halt after five years of faithful service. This was just before software that would clean up your system existed or just on the cusp of their mainstream availability. I knew that putting Linux on it would be a good idea, clean up the system, and give it a new life for a while longer. I found a few small distros but couldn’t load them due to peculiarities about Toshiba disk drives. A few aborted attempts to get friends to help didn’t get anywhere. Finally my brother managed to force some version of linux onto a 200meg HD, probably a Red Hat distro of the day, but it was only command line. It didn’t help much. I quickly abandonned the system and relegated it to a closet until selling it about a year and a half later.

In 2000 I bought a new desktop and had Win98 installed with a Red Hat 6.0 dual boot. The choice was easy, I supposedly had a decent system and my brother was running a dot.com hosting company on it. After a few weeks I finally got fed up with it; it wasn’t meeting my needs even though I wanted to get rid of MS. I think that lack of user friendliness, having lost half of my 14 gig HD, apparent lack of software availability, and lack of ease of installation for a windows-type was what did it in. The Windows side was grinding to a halt and I finally managed to, ahem, upgrade to Windows 2000 in late 2001, wiping out the dual boot in the process. It was a bit slower than Windows 98 but as promised it was stable and did not get progressively slower with time. Not much anyway.

My net activities since 1999 have not much changed, I surf the same few websites daily, email, etc. In 1999 my habits were also very similar to what I was doing in 1995-1997 on the net, except more web surfing and virtually no newsgroups. I had thrown in a bit of midi fascination in 2003, but in short order my machine couldn’t even play them. Video became quickly out of the question (performance was barely and really not acceptable at first, and was hopeless in short order). I know that software that worked fine on the computer out of the box in 2000 would never again work with any semblance of actually operating, let alone acceptably.

Meantime in late 2004, a friend’s hubby told me to try out Firefox. It took me a few weeks to get around to trying it, but once I had there was no turning back to Internet Explorer. At this point the recommendations to get away to anything from IE6 were flying left and right from all sorts of reputable sources. Sometime later I, ahem, “upgraded” again to Windows XP.

Then in the spring of 2005, I had had some problems one evening with a critical project for school. Working full time and taking night courses was tough enough, but my (admittely unofficial) copy of MS Office was suddenly grinding to a literal halt for several minutes on my new to me PIII 450 laptop while just trying to open up a Save dialog was getting to be over the top stressful. OpenOffice.org to the rescue, and within a few days it was on my Celeron 533 desktop as well, used full time on both machines, and a few weeks later I got around to uninstalling MS Office to save disk space. What a relief to have done that, even without the space savings.

Interestingly, I’ve mostly used software and clients that most people were not using. Admittedly, despite this I was still experiencing problems, which I expect were more or less typical of problems experienced by others, yet I think I escaped many more other problems. I understand that there were all sorts of problems related to the use of MS Outlook, which I had never used since being online starting in mid 1994 and only started using it in mid 2005 at work. Netscape, then Firefox instead of Internet Explorer most of the time (although there was a while that I did use IE.) Eudora instead of MS Outlook. I liked newsgroups instead of the web for many years. Finally I was using OpenOffice.org. All this seems like it was a good practice. Getting “wonderful”, read rude and crude, feedback from normally quiet, peaceful gentlepeople regarding spams on lists merely confirmed that not using the same clients that everyone else was using was a good thing. Admittedly, I was using MS Windows like the crowd. Norton, MS Office (although no more at this point), etc., too.

Then in May 2006 when the Windows Genuine Advantage update came about, and it was not possible to get rid of it from my systems despite several, uhm, attempts. WGA was the incentive I needed to make the move. Definitively, wholly, and permanently. Well, ok, at work they still are entrenched with Windows and won’t budge. At least the IT guys humour me.

I realized at this point I was generally doing something else very interesting, besides mostly using clients different from the crowd: What made my computer do the things I wanted to do — word processing, spreadsheets, web surfing, a few other small projects, were increasingly Open Source. Eudora was not what most people were using. Virtually all — in fact, I can’t think of much to cite an exception, although there were one or two — of the little projects I was doing was done using free software off the Internet. Essentially, virtually all of what I was doing was essentially independent of what — or should I say “Who” — was under the hood beyond the specific technical requirements involved in choosing which download button to choose. And much of it was not what most people are using. What was underneath didn’t much matter, if at all. Surely under Linux, once it tickles my fancy to do those little one or two time jobs again, there would be at least one linux program on the net that works, for the hundreds or perhaps thousands of mostly either for-a-fee or crippleware or really bad implementation of the job under Windows that exist with perhaps one or two good freeware implementations.

At the same time, I was sick and tired of using pirated software, a slow system, and hearing all the stories from my brother talking about the horror stories from his MS-using clients and how wonderful Linux is. I was and am as cheap to buy a new computer as I was in purchasing software, and was getting fed up with Windows in general anyway. And was getting fascinated by my brother using obsolete computers to do what he needed under Linux; admittedly, not always as fast as everyone else was, but doing it nonetheless. I was even contributing to the cause by being on the lookout all the time for old computers and spare parts being tossed. At the same time my Celeron 533 was grinding to a halt under the massive weight of Windows XP, Norton Antivirus and Firewall, cookies, spyware (despite doing regular cleans and surprisingly not really having much), you name it. Despite all you hear about spyware, malware, trojan horses, virii, etc., the last time I had a good old fashioned computer virus was in 1990. And I had relatively few bits of spyware. No Trojan Horses or malware to my confidant knowledge. Imagine what those less savvy than I (remember I sincerely consider myself a LUzer) — and if anything you hear about the problems people are suffering is to be believed, apparently the majority of people were having way more difficulties than I, and more recently than 1990 — must be going through. It makes me wonder why any linux desktop or the collective of such hasn’t made any real inroads against MS. Perhaps Elmer has been out hunting a lot of Wabbits.

I told my brother that I was sure this time. I wanted to go to Linux. And all the way. My computers were to be MS free zones. He kept on trying to convince me to do a dual boot. Nope, that ultimately was my doing in the last time, it was too easy to go back when things were too complicated for my laziness, but I was serious and understood the value (and consequences) of going cold-turkey.

He knew that I was serious but suspected that perhaps I still hadn’t grasped what I was asking for. He later said that he was behaving much like the rest of the linux community, which he characterized as being like some religions that don’t try to recruit and actually shun converts; they just want to grow by new members from birth, who likely and/or hopefully are going to be more committed. I don’t know if this is true; I have heard lots of stories to the contrary about how helpful people are toward linux newbies. I think that despite his enthusiasm in the idea of making a convert, he was really groaning, realizing that he’d have to do all the work while I enjoyed the fruits of his labour. So one fateful day we were discussing the subject for the umpteenth time and I responded to some question no doubt along the lines of “yeah, but why?” with the following: “I want something to believe in.”  He was intrigued. Very intrigued.

Now I suspect — I know — that I wasn’t so much looking to believe in Linux, although I somewhat was, as I was just so sick and tired of Windows, a virtually useless computer, the MS culture, and was more wrestling with moral issues of having illegal software on my computer, at least given a really convenient reason to lean on this crutch. On this last point, MS proved to me beyond any doubt that they knew, or at least could know if they really wanted to, that I had a pirated install, even though they likely weren’t going to physically come after me, at least in the short term. The scare was enough to push me over the edge; I *knew* that a consequence of WGA was that if it ain’t über-critical, I wouldn’t be getting the update and an already suffering system wouldn’t survive the lack of updates over time. And in a sense, the FUD worked. Just as well, it was all linux needed to win me over. Except that MS only won the moral battle; they didn’t get my “Oh please, MS, please please please forgive me and accept my money for a legit copy of your … software I don’t like … that requires third party applications to make my computer safe while further slowing it down to uselessness”

In any case I knew that all but one of the things I wanted to do in Windows could be done just as well under Linux, sometimes better, and other opportunities lay open. Fortunately a web application that is more convenient than the original Windows application I was depending on came around within a couple of months after the switch, and no tie to the past was left.

First install at the end of June 2006 was Fedora Core 5. I think my Celeron didn’t take and kept on hanging during the install, so it was donated to my brother’s cause and he pulled out a PIII 550 that finally had hardware to match or so I’m told. Alledgedly it was an online casino server in an earlier life about five or six years ago. Now I’m told the video memory isn’t great for videos, but hey everything else is great. And the laptop is good for videos.

Don’t get me going on this one (but here I go anyway), suffice it to say that my limited experience with most computers is that you’ve got a processor that is this class, but the bus speed and/or the amount of memory and/or the HD speed and/or the HD size and/or the HD transfer rate and/or the mother board speed and/or … you get the picture, are underpowered usually due to mismatching and alledged sales responses to consumer demand for an inexpensive machine. Sure I’m as cheap as the next guy and am usually interested in saving a few dollars. But this translates into underpowered or needlessly oversupported or otherwise inappropriately built machines. Why put a porsche engine in a Jalopy? Or a Mini engine in the tractor for an 18 wheeler? Or four season tires on a Formula One race car in the middle of a Montreal snow storm? Or a Ferrari transmission in a Yugo? I probably would have paid an extra hundred or two back when I bought my original machine were I to have been assured not that it was probably right for me, but that it truly was a good machine (albeit not top of the line) and the best part is that all the components are appropriate to each other. I paid an extra couple of hundred for a 17″ screen instead of the standard 15″ and have been pleased with the decision since day one.

Back to FC5. Originally I was going to get CentOS 4.4, but then I was told that things were going to be bleeding edge with FC5, and I appropriately mused that I no doubt would end up bleeding around the edges. 🙂 Big mistake. Sorry Red Hat, I may be a fan (mostly since my sysadmin is big time into RH) but this was a bad choice. Dependency hell was my experience. Broken updates. Losing my net connection and having to reset things back to the first kernel that worked just to get the modem back up and running. I’d be afraid to do yum updates just because I knew that there would be 15 to 20 or more per day, not to mention a few more in a couple of hours before I went to bed. And some would break, for the umpteenth time, my net connection. Later I find out that on FC5 the FC people had gone haywire and out of control with development, and didn’t do enough QC on things like dependencies or this or that, and further that my brother thinks he mistakenly installed the heavily-bleeding-edge -devel fork instead of the -stable fork.

About 6-8 weeks later, the aforementionned PIII 450 laptop was formatted with CentOS 4.4. Best thing to ever happen. Things actually worked on the machine and I could do things that I either couldn’t do with FC5 or didn’t dare for fear of the dreaded multiple-times-daily updates breaking things. Amongst other things, I could watch movies again on the laptop. Obviously, I’m part of the target audience for the CentOS desktop: Rock solid with rock solid stability and slow-moving advances without the support because I can get it elsewhere reigns supreme for me. And the price tag suited me. OK, that’s the same target audience as the RHEL people, except for the deep pockets and need for support. Credit where it’s due: if you didn’t know already, CentOS is a recompile of the RHEL sources, which also have strong roots in … Fedora Core. 🙂

Several weeks after that, bye-bye FC5 on the PIII 550 desktop, WELCOME CentOS 4.4. Ahhhhh … The desktop is finally useable again. Not that it was outright unuseable under FC5, I just didn’t need the stress of wondering how many updates I’d have this afternoon or whether my modem would “disappear” again. Those are exactly the kinds of things from which I was trying to get away from by getting rid of Windows, even if those particular issues were not specifically in my Windows experience. At the same time the modem was moved away from my mom’s Windows machine and hooked up to my PIII 550. Then a funny thing happened.

At this point there were a few months’ worth of delay after delay coming from my brother regarding updating configurations and dealing with little fixes or upgrades on my machines which were best done by him having physical access to the machine. Coincidental to the CentOS 4.4 UPGRADE (ie, going to software, settings, libraries and so on that are a year or two behind what’s current in FC wasn’t a downgrade, regardless of how the technology compares), my mom’s machine started freezing up. My brother and I were convinced that it had nothing to do with literally only changing the position within the network of the modem and the upgrade from FC5 to CentOS 4.4 on the new modem server. Months, three Windows rebuilds, and a hardware change (her old Celeron 333, which put aside the freezing could play video while mine couldn’t under Windows was switched in favour of said old Celeron 533) later with no solution in sight, we were finally looking at my machine since my brother was feeling a bit sorry for me having mostly ignored my computers over that time in favour of my mom’s computer, which I admittedly agreed was a priority as long as I lived in her house. And he stumbled upon something interesting by pure chance: A network setting in *my* box was incorrect and was essentially souring her network connection and hence by extention the Windows box too. Ahhh, two birds, one stone. My help was back. 🙂

At the same time as the CentOS upgrade on the PIII 550, a few minor problems were still in place, and some solved by remote: I had been using OpenOffice.org 2.0 under Windows for months since it had come out in late 2005, and Centos 4.4, which I installed about 9 months later in June 2006, comes with OO.o 1.1.2. This was one of the first things to be installed/updated on both machines. Another thing came up with MPlayer: It didn’t much do what I wanted — or much of anything, for that matter — and it took a few months of pleading with my brother to finally solve the issues that completely crippled it when we tried to update it. (I know, here’s an example of where that “We don’t want any converts” argument comes into play. 🙂 ) Finally, Firefox 2.0 was out and it would have been nice to update just to see what it’s all about. A difficult job on both, but done on the laptop during one of a few trips to my brother’s bench for the update/fix/whatever du mois. 1.5 is still on the desktop and performs just as well as 2.0.

The (up-til now not mentionned) CD burner I’d had on my old machine that disappeared in the initial reformat months before finally got repatriated from my brother’s nebulous black hole of a junk pile and things were getting better. Now I’m getting somewhere. Stuff I want on CD can now be burned and cottage getaways are more pleasant again as a result.

Finally about after seven months of being able to mostly happily use both computers for what I want — most certainly at least on one computer or the other — the laptop is almost perfect, and now even has a wireless card that became obsolete for my brother when the screen on his old laptop finally died.

In the meantime, an FTP server has been set up on my PIII 550 desktop, and I figured out how to install GUI ftp client (this is a big step for me) on my laptop all on my own. Finally! I now have decent access to my desktop from my laptop to transfer files back and forth (my brother thought it best to make the laptop invisible to all networks, including my home network, in order to protect it from hostiles, making Windows style drag&drop over network drives impossible. Probably a good policy for when I’m on the move.) And the way that access works actually makes sense. Remember, I still — and *like* to — use my computers much the same way I did in 1994-1997, including my net experience, so ftp’ing in to transfer files on and off either system actually makes as much sense if not more to me than a Windows style drag&drop over network drives. There is also a commercial quality web server on my PIII 550 that currently is lying dormant until my brother and I get some face time in front of the computer so that he can show me how to use it.

Then last week I managed to install Pan, a GUI newsreader client. (Might Seamonkey have one of those? Oh yeah, that would be following the crowd. So be it, I’m using Evolution in Gnome. 🙂 ) I seem to be reverting to that beloved 1994-1997 period again. 🙂

Do you think I’m going to update to CentOS 5.0 in a few weeks? Do you think that you’re really going to win the big prize in the lottery this week? Of course not. My machines are stable despite the little things I always want them to do and the things that crop up as a result of changes that are made. Most importantly, they work, and they’re not interminably slow for a comparable and even in some cases superior setup under Windows. And they will be supported and secure for years to come, although my brother will likely convince me to upgrade in a year or two, assuming that by then I haven’t added brand new (at least to me) silicone to my space-deprived abode, which obviously would have the latest CentOS release installed. As they stand, the machines with CentOS 4.4 (mostly) do what I want. What doesn’t yet has nothing to do with the differences between 4.4, 5.0, virtual machines, updated video libraries, or whatever else will be in there.

Now all I need is to find a few hot spots. And I don’t need to borrow a transmitter anymore from the front desk when I check into motels during business trips. I wonder if those motels that charge for a network password are platform independent, or assume that you’re a Windows user and hence don’t know how to challenge a linux machine for a password? (It seems that at at least one motel where they provided free passwords and free wireless, this appeard to be the case. Either that or their password login system was optional.)

Eight months in, I’m finally figuring out, very small step by very small step, how to tap into the power of my computers. Even if you could say that I’ve merely traded one set of LUzer troubles for another.

And I couldn’t be happier about it.

(begin humming grunge style) ‘cos I’m a LUzer bay-bai, so why don’t you flame me?

PS.

My 80gig drive is still next to useless since it’s still NTFS without writing priveledges. In line with my initial zealotry, I have to get around to backing up what needs to be backed up and either get my brother to reformat under a native linux format or figure it out myself.