Saturday, April 30, 2011

I Finally Gave In...

I've been struggling with a 256kbps connection for ages now. I finally gave in and updated my plan. The only thing is it's all gone horribly wrong!

Slingshot informed me that the change would happen at the next billing period. Brilliant! That's perfect. Given that I've paid up till the 18th on my old plan, this works out perfectly. Only they then decided to put the change through last night. I was less than impressed.

The issue being, although I'm paying roughly the same, I'm paying for quite different services. On one, I was paying for an unmetered connection with very limited speed. On the other, I'm paying for 20GB/month at full line speed.

So changing me over has actually caused a bit of an issue. I've been given 18GB at 256kbps. The worst of both worlds. So I complained. I wrote them an email (around 3am) saying this was simply unacceptable. I have paid up on my old contract till a certain time - I expect them to honour that. The response came back "They can't shift me back because that plan is no longer offered".

That's not my problem. It's theirs. They choose not to honour the contract! That's my issue. So either shift me back or offer me some sort of compensation - I'd be happy with 10GB for the rest of the month - half the 20GB for the half of the month that's left (liberally calling 19 days half a month). I see that as fair...

But the real issue here - have we become so used to institutionalised theft that businesses such as Slingshot feel they can do this sort of thing and not expect complaint? I guess this goes to my complaints post. And I suppose given the way the government seems to be conducting itself at the moment, it's little wonder they might think this. It's up to us to keep complaining...

I'll update this post as this little battle continues...

[Update 2/5/2011]

So I wasn't getting any joy exchanging emails. So I decided to finally call them tonight. Rather than giving me what I thought was fair, they well exceeded my expectations. I got another 50GB slapped onto my allowance! 70GB for the month. I know comparatively against the rest of the world, that's still not brilliant, but for New Zealand, where investment into cables going outside of New Zealand (that place people like to visit called "overseas") isn't an appealing commercial venture.

Friday, April 29, 2011

We Aren't Royalists... Are We?

I was so sure that the media attention the Royal wedding was getting was just the media finding something to latch on to. I mean, today in the news - it was the royal wedding then the 200 odd people (probably more like 300 now) dead in America due to freak cyclones and finally the struggle of the farmers in Hawkes Bay following the floods. And while watching "Back Benches" the other day they took a quick poll of those who would watch the wedding. It was fairly conclusive. No one's interested.

I've been feeling a little down. Over the last 2 weeks I've only really seen a friend I'm tutoring at the moment (and by tutoring I mean helping him while we catch up) and the fantastic people of the OLPC group. But it's kind of felt like work. One I'm tutoring and the other I'm helping with software testing. Given that and me being sick for the last week and I've just been feeling kind of lonely.

So today I glammed myself up. I marvelled over my weight loss during the year - I can wear a shirt which is tapered in that way that it looks ultimately crap if you're a little overweight. So being all glammed up I decided to text some friends to see if they wanted to go out for a drink. They both got back to me but they were, the both of them, going out to wedding parties. It's not that they were particularly interested. One text back with an imagined rolling of the eyes (inferred by the tone of the text) and the other was going to keep a friend company whose wife was holding a party.

So it just wasn't going to be my night. I did think about going out and watching the breakers game but the shirt I described earlier requires cuff links - which I can't find. It's probably a good thing. It means I could give Ian and Baillie and call and hopefully spend some time doing the things that have been bothering me (such as my room).

So I called and got Baillie - who promptly asked "Why are you disturbing me while the wedding's on?". A little more conversation and it turns out she wasn't just watching the TV coverage, but having found herself frustrated by the Australian accents, was also watching a live Canadian feed on the Internet. There was a bit of an explanation as to why she had chosen this feed, but I'm choosing not to relate it.

Anyway, even though most of my friends aren't that into it, they're all being affected by it in some way. I still don't think the fact that a royal wedding was going to happen should have been the main story for the news.

Oh and while I'm here writing - this has been a record month! Not much of a record so far - 7 more hits than December - but still an indication that I've got an audience. I so love the sound of my own typing and if I have an audience it's an excuse to do it more.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Has ACT Just Won Themselves Some Seats?

During this whole Don Brash/Rodney Hyde debacle I've had the uneasy feeling that they're doing what Labour should probably be doing. Let's face it. It's been long and drawn out. I'm not sure anyone had any doubts that Don Brash would eventually take over the party.

Let's face it. Neither of those people are ideal. The ACT party, while I find myself sympathizing on some points, how I see those points and how ACT sees those same points is very different.

Baillie would (has) described herself as a non-practising Darwinist. That is, someone who believes (or hopes for) natural selection. I think I fit that category. So I will raise my voice when I feel the government is interjecting in people's life's - even though I have contrary views at times as well (with employment for example, I think there is a place for something or someone to help because the employment landscape is such a mess). I will use phrases such as "personal responsibility" during these times.

ACT takes this to completely different levels. Personal responsibility is more to do with the things that we rely on the regional councils or government for. The idea being that both of these entities should be doing the minimum humanly possible and the rest becomes user pays. Does this sound at all familiar? This is exactly the kind of thing that we scoff at America for. Social healthcare is a communist concept?!?

Could this be an example for Labour? If the Labour Party were to look at this, see the media time it got - and let's face it, ACT is a minor party compared to Labour - I'm willing to bet that this will have an almost instant effect on the polls. So a change in leadership with a commitment to repair what's currently wrong with Labour. A public welcoming of Judith Tizard back into the fold and I think Labour could actually win this election.

Let's get really critical of Phil Goff here. While I've heard he's charismatic in person, this hasn't translated to the media at all. Comments such as "he's completely forgettable" aren't all that uncommon. The Aunty Clark envy is getting really tired. She's gone. The people who remain are part of the party he's now leading. Get over the fact that they might have gotten on with Aunty Clark and start forging your own relationships. However, I think the ship has left the dock on that one.

Of course, now that ACT's done it, can Labour do it without it looking like nothing more than an ill-conceived media stunt?

Is Ubuntu Ready for Prime Time?

In 2004 a Linux distribution called "Ubuntu" came out. It's made huge strides. It has become so popular that it's become synonymous with the word Linux - not in any real sense, just in the way it's perceived.

However, for what's probably the most popular Linux distribution out there at the moment, it has some rather major problems. The problems seem to arise, much to my dismay, from the fact that it's the community supporting it.

And the problem is this: You can not expect enterprise level support. When Canonical (Read: Mark Shuttleworth) makes some big decision regarding the future of the distribution, such as the use of grub2 (while still in beta I might add) or the change in interface, he doesn't put any emphasis on resources for things like change control. In fact, the wiki seems to be full of documentation that seems to state "you just don't need to know how to do that".

But then when you start delving a little deeper, you find that the problem isn't so much with the dictated changes but more the lack of support. Take for example the netbook interface. Hugely popular but now being replaced with Unity. I'm not sure how many people have had a look at Unity but personally, I find it awkward, counter-intuitive, confusing and intrusive. I found a bug report asking why the Netbook Interface is no longer supported.

It would seem that it is the same reason that gnometris was broken for so long (A bug if it was using a theme which just about every distribution at the time had as a default) and cheese is still broken (It just can't do video. Wxcam seems to be a suitable replacement but isn't quite as pretty). Lack of support.

In a community model you're reliant on someone being interested enough to fix it. So what happens when no one's all that interested? The project falls by the wayside. This isn't to say it's not still useful to people. It's just that it's not interesting enough for hackers to play with it.

I'm sure other distributions suffer the same problems. However, other distributions release when they're ready rather than forcing a release every 6 months. This 6 month cycle tends to happen with a great gnashing of teeth as things seem to have changed for the sake of changing and contain more bugs than a cockroach hotel.

Try filing a bug report. One of the first things you're asked is whether this is a problem with the latest version (usually not yet released). If it's not, they'll normally tell you you'll just have to upgrade.

But then, those in the know may ask about long term support releases. However, these are only really supported in the loosest of terms. I would have thought that it would have been paramount to continue to support the kernel for example - releasing new kernels to make sure that this version was current. This isn't the case.

I'm not saying that Ubuntu is bad. What I'm really saying is that it has holes. Perhaps Canonical need to find a model that works for having paid developers looking into supporting these dropped projects. If only to provide a little certainty for system implementers. There's bound to be a fair few of us out there trying to make it work for large'ish deployments.

Of course, I can't complain. It's not like I've paid any money for it. My sense of entitlement is more frustration that I'm needed. The secret about most computer people? We work with machines that are designed to do repetitive tasks. In which case, we're lazy. "Is there an easier way to do it? Sure - I'll get the computers to do it". A computer can be a bit of a hammer - every task starts to look like a nail. In other words, every task is a repetitive one.

So how do you use Ubuntu or any other Linux distributions in big deployments? Hire a Linux geek? Except Linux geeks cost a hell of a lot. I was looking after a very similar issue - testing the compatibility of applications on a new version of Windows. Except that job wasn't quite so strenuous (in the same way). Assuming that I was charged out to the client at around $200/hour (and getting about 1/5 of that myself), then you're probably looking at around $120/hour if you were to hire that person directly. Experience counts here.

Perhaps Ubuntu just isn't suitable for big deployments. But then, how many Linux distributions are? I hold high hopes for Red Hat Enterprise - except that it's horribly out of date and expensive. Others are trying to full this particular void - Xandros, Oracle Linux and Suse for example. Perhaps this is where the more embedded approach such as Google Chrome OS (I still hesitate to call it an OS) and Meego come into play.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Failure of Government

I'm not sure I put across my utter outrage of what has been nick named the "skynet" bill.

I'm not sure how many of you are familiar with this but the "Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Bill" was passed under urgency. The session it was debated during was put aside for Christchurch related quake legislation.

I'm not entirely sure what illegal file sharing has to do with Christchurch and the quake but there you go. A huge underhanded sneaking through of a bill that definitely needed some debating. For the most part, the Internet community are livid by this.

I previously attacked Labour for their stance here. In fact, the numbers were 111 for, 11 against (we have 122 members of Parliament?!?). The Greens and Hone Harawira being the only ones to vote against it. At the very least Labour should have been objecting the underhanded "sneak it through" way that it was done.

As for the law itself? It's yet another attempt to protect an industry which has used technology to try and limit your access to their material rather than add value. This is all very much... buttons to me.

Rather than making it easier and more convenient for their customers to enjoy their content and thus not feel the need to illegally download their content, they have continually sought out ways of making it more difficult. Region coding DVD's for example when no such measure existed with video tapes. Although I have to say, the measures taken on video tapes (Macrovision), was annoying as all hell as well.

I had a friend who paid for and downloaded a song three times in an attempt to get it onto his mp3 player legally. DRM was preventing him from moving the song to this mp3 player. In the end he illegally downloaded it because he had, after all, paid for it.

Did the politicians even know what it was they were voting for? Melissa Lee had tweeted that a friend had made her a compilation of "K Pop" (A Korean pop group) music a scant 24 hours before strongly arguing for this bill.

I propose we make up an award - the "Golden Peg Leg". We chop off a leg of those who have taken from the struggling rights holders (in most cases, a recording label) and replace it with a golden peg leg.

And this isn't too far from the truth. It seems the government have failed us. They have struck a huge blow to democracy and it's starting to sound a little less extreme taking direct action. Personally, I'm in favour of marching down town demanding our right to be the only ones to make buttons.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Education - another run

Last year in November I defined myself being uneducated. When looking at the education section of a CV I have next to nothing to put down. A few half completed tertiary courses. A couple of individual papers in a course. A bunch of failed ones - where I didn't appreciate the value of the business papers having come straight out of school.

This issue came up again. Someone wanted to see my CV to see my qualifications. I've never before worked in Linux in a commercial context. So I'm not really qualified at all. I've played and dabbled and learnt all manner of things Linux for years. But then, this isn't guided study. It wasn't ordained by some institute overlord with the promise with a piece of paper at the end of it. It's never been used in any commercial context.

I've been helping a friend out with an assignment and given the ease at which I was able to do the code, I got to thinking about perhaps getting qualified. This is perhaps a touch misguided. For starters, it's not like I'd just be able to just do the assignments and exams and get the papers. No... there's an attendance requirement.

The other week we were talking about the impact of computers on handwriting. A friend was saying that with so many schools integrating computers closely into their curriculum, their handwriting is likely to suffer by the time they get to tertiary education. I can sympathise. Every time I came out of an exam I found my hand hurt something chronic. I'd sit there with an ice pack on it.

She also said it would be sad to lose people from the tertiary route over a simple thing like handwriting. She actually used me as an example - of someone who's tertiary education failed me.

I put this down to a lack of flexibility. And this same lack of flexibility can be seen in our attitudes to apprenticeships. If you go to a tertiary institute, you're considered educated. If you learn from the workplace, then you're experienced. But that experience is looked upon with some trepidation.

I find myself wondering - is it really about the qualifications at all? Does this not just reek of some sort of back room dealing to get students paying inordinate amounts to get a piece of paper? I mean, if people were able to train on the job, then why discourage apprenticeships? And if the idea is to make people work ready and acknowledge their skills, then shouldn't the level of entry, given highly skilled people wanting a qualification, be lower? Should qualifications be all that important in the first place? Personally I would take someone with a great attitude over a qualified person any day of the week. Skills can be learnt. There's no substitute for someone who's willing to learn and apply their skills in ways that add value.

Combine that with the way we do CV's (in order to make us as uninteresting as humanly possible), the power we give to the employers when recruiting (and thus not having any sort of idea what the job entails from a job ad) and the use of employment agencies, and it's a wonder that anyone ever finds a job that they like. It seems to be a formula for getting the worse possible relationship between employee and employer to me.

This doesn't make anyone happy. The workplace gets a bunch of people who, on paper, look like they could be suitable. The employee gets a rather confused situation where they're looking for work but aren't entirely sure what they're applying for and ultimately end up trusting an employment agency to put them into a box that the employment agency is happy with and let's face it - by the time they actually get work, they're so desperate for the work that they're not likely to turn it down. I still wonder about the few jobs that I've turned down in my past.

Anyway, enough of that.

We're nearing our 100th post. I thought this was it except that there a few drafts - things which Baillie or I have started and have never really completed. The only indication of how successful this blog has been I've got really is the number of hits (and the odd feeling I get when people quote back my own blog to me). At the time of writing, since September last year, there have been a total of 3,734 hits. I've been hanging out to see if I can beat last years high of 672 hits for the month of December. Unfortunately this hasn't happened yet though I hold high hopes for this month.

Anyway, I thought I should acknowledge what feels like a bit of an achievement. Given that this blog only appeared due to me feeling horribly frustrated by the news. I've since moved onto other complaints - politics, employment and my life in general. As well as some talk about the Manaiakalani project and OLPC. My volunteer activities (oh - it's prudent to note that officially I'm no longer a volunteer on Manaiakalani. I am now being paid - as soon as I fill in the paperwork which means a bit of a battle with the bank). And of course inviting Baillie to post on the blog rather than me just regurgitating conversations we'd had.

I guess we'll see how this blog goes in another (nearish) 100 posts...

Monday, April 18, 2011

Is the Writing on the Wall for Labour?

I've been criticizing the Labour party quite a bit on this blog. TV3 News has released a damning poll today. I never trust these figures as they don't seem all that forthcoming with how they came up with those statistics. Randomly polling is seldom all that random. Whether it's via phone calls or asking people on the street. It's really hard to get this right. As my favourite maths teacher said to my class at the time "There are three types of lies. Lies, damn lies and statistics."

The figures though:-  Phil Goff 27% for preferred Prime minister. John Key - 59.9%. The figures for preferred party are very similar.

I was talking to someone who claimed that the decile one area I was in at the time had turned into a National area. The reason being that the Labour candidate and National candidate at the time had been invited to speak to the community. The Labour candidate declined. Meanwhile, the National candidate turned up. Around the same time, both candidates were invited along to a working bee. Again, the Labour candidate declined. The National candidate turned up and brought John Key along who mucked in

Obviously the Labour candidate had absolutely no interest in their constituent. He was arrogant. He put absolutely no effort in given that the electorate was traditionally a Labour area.


Has Labour completely lost the plot? Do they seriously think that they can ignore the writing on the wall? Labour need to:
  1. Stop treating people like idiots and do something about the cracks within their own party. If the members of their own party, such as Judith Tizard and others who declined a seat in parliament, are showing discontent, then truly, what are the rest of us supposed to think?
  2. Get back to good old fashioned campaigning. Listen to what their constituents have to say. Get back to being a voice of the people rather than being the arrogant sods that lost them the last election in the first place.
  3. Select a new leader. Phil Goff can not bring the party together.
  4. Stop trying to spin a soft stance as being in our best interests. Show some backbone.
  5. Stop trying to blame the problems on the symptoms. Labour is in disarray. Admit to it. Show that they're willing to take the steps needed to fix the problem.
Despite my criticisms, I still maintain that we can not afford National to be in for another term. Of course this doesn't mean Labour aren't being, as Baillie would put it, a bunch of dicks.

Finding a Middle Ground

With all of the interface changes happening in Linux we're at a bit of a crossroad.

So in my last post I had described some disappointment with the Google Cr-48. You can extend that disappointment to Google Chrome OS as well. I got a half decent look at it today and couldn't believe what I was seeing. It's not so much a Operating System (as it doesn't even attempt to interface the user to the computer) as much as it's a platform to run Google Chrome Browser on. That's it. Nothing else.

So the whole system is a bar at the top which shows you the network status and the time. And the rest of it is a web browser. What I found especially disappointing was that the terminal didn't seem to be any sort of shell I've ever come across. Typing help threw up just over a screen of odd commands for very specific things. There was nothing there for exploring the file system for example. Any hopes of being able to customize it to your own needs is dead in the water.

So the middle ground... I had a look at Meego 1.1 today. Meego is a Linux distribution which is an amalgamation of Intel's Moblin and Nokia's Maemo - given to the Linux Foundation to manage. While I don't think it's ready for prime time it certainly looks promising. Running off a usb stick, it was snappy and quick. By default it comes with Chrome or Chromium (the open source version of Google Chrome). What's more, it had loads of bling.

In the back end of things, it's an rpm based distribution. For network connections it doesn't use network manager and it's gui for network connections was a bit touchy. For example, when a connection failed, you couldn't get it to try again - rather I found I had to reset it by disabling the wireless and enabling it again.

I loved the music that was included as a sample - an entire album of jazz. I liked it so much in fact that I went to plug in some speakers only to find that the single audio port on the Asus eee 1001px wouldn't work. This isn't terribly surprising as the hda-intel alsa modules seem to be in a constant state of flux. This probably wouldn't be terribly hard to fix - update the modules.

And that's the HUGE advantage Meego has over Google Chrome OS. It allows people like myself to get in there and have a go at fixing things. It's Linuxy goodness! It doesn't treat the computer like some smelly kid who, although it gives you candy, should be consigned to a little dark corner.

So things I would change? Meego displays a bluetooth tab by default. It would be great if it only showed the bluetooth tab if it actually found a bluetooth device. I've never been a fan of integrating social networking into the desktop. Given the age restrictions on a lot of these services, I think it would be much better to provide the option of hiding that part of things.

The interface does seem to be a little more confused than absolutely necessary. For example, it has this whole idea of "zones". It appears to open up a zone for every application you run. The zones are little more than virtual desktops with multiple applications being able to occupy a single zone. I don't think this is going to take off. It's a nice thought but it just doesn't really fit into most people's work flow.

Despite my various little criticisms I am so much more enthusiastic over Meego (despite it's stupid name) than Google Chrome OS.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Odd Trends in Computing

When I brought a netbook it was mainly due to it's weight.

But there seems to be a disturbing trend in computing. We are getting more powerful, power efficient, cooler processors. And what are we doing with all of that extra power?

Google are coming out with Chrome OS - which, if you don't Internet access on it, is next to useless.

Microsoft have Windows 7, which I am constantly hearing complaints of it being somewhat slow.

Ubuntu had their Netbook launcher - more to do with screen size than anything else, and are now moving to Unity. I have yet to come across someone who actually likes Unity but that's a slightly different matter.

So with more power and compact devices various software vendors (I'm including Google in here) are trying to convince us that our devices aren't powerful enough to do what you do on your computer and that we have to accept various arbitrary limitations.

I get it with Google - they're all about online services. Heaven forbid that you want to edit your files on a machine before uploading it to the Internet.

What interest can Microsoft possibly have in limiting the netbooks? Surely this is just opening up the market for Linux on these devices. I gave someone a copy of the Manaiakalani image for their netbook and that image has apparently found its way onto 2 other netbooks. This is where Windows 7 was previously installed.

But then, Asus tried to do much the same thing with their original eee's. Admittedly these machines didn't really have the advantage of the processors we have today and the screen size was even worse but their horribly cut down feeling version of Linux left users wanting something more - in this case, Windows.

So the motivation? Has it been realised that the more users can be kept on line, the more advertising users will be exposed to?

For a couple of weeks now my gmail account has been showing "Coming soon: Better ads in Gmail". I can't for the life of me figure out why they would think I care. What if I was allowed to use my email without ads?

I've had the opportunity to have a look at a Cr-48 - a prototype laptop from Google. I'm not terribly impressed to be honest. I know it's only intended for developers but the finish felt a little cheap to me.

The track pad is essentially a Mac track pad - with a single click. When I commented on this, the other people in the room said something along the lines of "it does have a right click! It'll be just like a Mac - you just have to press Control".

Mac people - a control click is not a right click. The problem is in the fact that it takes two fingers to do something that can be done with one finger and is intuitive and has only been omitted on a Mac out of sheer stubbornness.

It's incredibly disappointing that Google have, in their infinite wisdom, decided this is the right route for them.

The other thing I didn't like about the track pad was the fact that the touch pad goes right over the button. So when clicking, you get some strange movement in the cursor. When I noted this, it was pointed out that when you've used a Mac for long enough, you learn to use track pad tapping. This is something that I was asked to disable in the Manaiakalani build as this leads to accidental clicks. Not having the choice is just kind of bollocky.

So I'm not all that impressed by the hardware and I find it horribly troubling that this is the direction we seem to be going. It disturbs me that people are getting excited by this. I didn't actually get to have a play with the OS. The bits I did see were pretty and showy. I was having problems with the network. On Windows, Linux or Mac OS X I would have been able to get to a terminal to diagnose the problem rather than leaving me wondering what the computer was doing.

I can imagine what the environment is likely to be though - the same sort of start page as Chrome browser. Nothing installed on the machine and no real option to do so rather being stuck with whatever can be gotten on line. The surprisingly powerful Intel Atom N450 being told it's an ugly stupid child that should just go sit in the corner.

Should we as consumers settle for these limitations knowing we can get a whole lot more out of our computers? This reminds me of those good ol' sales men who would spot someone looking at a computer and go up to them telling them exactly what they want without ever finding out what the customer needed.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Labour's Jelly Like Spine

I've been ranting and raving about how we can't afford for National to be in power for another term and how I don't think Labour can win in their current state.

I'm not sure I want Labour to win now. The problem is that Labour can't seem to show any backbone. They were given the opportunity when CERRA was being debated - instead opting for a very soft "we'd rather not have to deal with the media if we objected" and now with the latest copyright law - snuck in as being of importance to the Christchurch Recovery.

So much wrong with this. Rushed through under false pretences. Clare Curren's blog puts a spin on Labour's support for this bill. They made the bill better by objecting to the disconnection clauses - which are still in the bill. They played the cards they were dealt.

But you can't forget the fact that during Labour's last term they were trying to push through Section 92A. They were on the same path. Just how hard did Labour fight this bill? I would suggest that it's perhaps very convenient for Labour for this to happen while National are in power.

In short, neither majour party, in my opinion, is going to give New Zealand the leadership that it so desperately needs in the coming times. Is it time to start looking outside of these parties?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Sad State of Internet in New Zealand

I've just finished talking to a sales representative from Vodaphone.

Every couple of months someone comes to the door or rings up saying they can save us money on our phone and Internet connection.

I have a 256k connection. Sure it's horribly slow, but it's tolerable and to my way of thinking, it's a hell of a lot better than having to worry about how much data I've gone through. I really don't see the point of having to worry about the data you're downloading and then being throttled down to dial up speed.

So I always ask, "Can you offer me an assured speed without the threat of throttling or having to pay more money for $50 or less a month?".

The answer is ALWAYS "no".

I'm abrupt. I make absolutely no apologies for this.

This brings up a great big giant hole in the New Zealand market around the Internet. ISP's here seem to be obsessed with speed. I like speed. I like not having to stress about data even better. I just want to use the Internet.

Add to this the whole thing around the $1.5 billion ultra-fast broadband plan that National promised during the last election. This seems to have come with a 10 year regulatory holiday. But given that the current focus is solely on speed rather than reliability, is the situation going to improve at all? Are the ISP's going to continue to try to tell us exactly what we want or are they going to start to cater for different people and different needs?

I went to a computer shop and asked for a particular model of hard drive. They told me (despite what was listed on their webpage)  that they didn't have any and I didn't want THAT hard drive - I wanted some other hard drive. They were failing to see that I had completely different concerns - I wanted a slower, low power hard drive as the performance hit was negligible but the benefits of running cooler resulted in a longer lasting, more reliable hard drive.

I don't shop there anymore.

An Internet connection isn't all that different. I have various sales people trying to tell me I want X connection for Y amount (often more than I'm paying now for effectively more stress). The difference is that ALL of the vendors do the same thing. It's a bit like trying to buy a fork when everyone's only willing to sell you a spoon (Isn't it ironic?). And not only will they not sell you a fork, but they'll try to convince you a spoon is so much better.

Perhaps ISP's need to look at other industries. I'm not a big fan of milk chocolate but then, I have options. There's the inappropriately named white chocolate or, my favourite, dark chocolate (though Cadbury don't have a decent dark chocolate and easter products seldom come in dark varieties - yet alone finding them on the shelves of supermarkets. Go Whittakers!).

Or shoes... available only in a single style and colour. The only thing you can choose is the size.

So the question is, how is it that Internet uptake in this country so high when the customer doesn't seem to be a concern? If they were, options would be offered. Surely we deserve better.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Adding Loads of Users to a Linux System

While I'm a bit of a Linux fanboy, I do find a lot of the community to be irritating at best - unhelpful at worst.

For example, I was running Ubuntu and found an issue with my video card where if I was running a 3d desktop, it would crash if I tried to use a second monitor. The issue was to do with the combined desktop size - so if one monitor is at 1024x600 and the other  monitor supports 1920x1200, then the combined desktop size is 2944x1200 (if the monitors are side by side). The issue occurred when the combined width was more than 2048.

So I wrote a script that limited the output on the second monitor to within those limits. The problem was that I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to replace Ubuntu's way of switching displays. When I asked around I got the usual "Why would you want to do that?" soon followed up by "It's a hardware fault". Like I said. Unhelpful. I know it's a fault - that's why I'm trying to fix it.

That was the final straw and I ended up moving away from Ubuntu on my personal computer as a result.

So where is this all leading? There are other bits and pieces in Linux that, although they may be risky and oft times ill advised, they do save A LOT of time. So I've decided to start documenting these bits and pieces.

Hopefully this will help other people out there - and if it doesn't I'll have some notes that will hopefully save me time.

So to add a user non-interactively...

Why is this useful? If you had a list of users you wanted to add to a system, or in my case, needed to write a wrapper around adding a user (in order to make it child friendly for people who shouldn't have to worry about the fact that they're running something other than Windows or OS X), then this comes in really handy.

adduser -p "$( mkpasswd -m SHA-512 $PASSWD )" $USERNAME -G group1,group2

So adduser obviously adds a user. The -p lets you specify a password. Mkpassword creates a hash of the password (basically a one-way algorithm to create a "signature" of the password which is why you normally have to reset a password rather than finding out what the password is).

So to add multiple users, you'd probably put things into a loop - something along the lines of:

#!/bin/bash
GROUPS=disk,wheel,usb
exec 4< /path/to/file
while read <&4 ; do
  adduser -p "$( mkpasswd -m SHA-512 $( echo $REPLY | cut -f 2 -d " " ))" $( echo $REPLY -f 1 -d " " ) -G $GROUPS
done

Where the file is a "username password" pair. I haven't actually tested this script so it might not work but it's got the guts at the very least.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Sad State of the Labour Party

I know I've spoken about this before.

In fact, the original name of the post was "Can Labour Win with Phil Goff at the Helm?" until I actually wrote the post and decided a title with Chris Carter rounded the post off nicely.

Unfortunately, things haven't improved since I wrote that post back in October last year. Phil Goff is at least getting on the news. However, it's still on a platform of negative politics.

Once again there's descent within the Labour Party when it needs to be at full strength. First Chris Carter, then Darren Hughes and now Judith Tizard. While I'm no fan of Judith Tizard after the whole Section 92A debacle, I do think that the Labour Party needs to be at full strength. Once again we're going into an election unable to have faith in either of the majour parties.

I think National is what we needed 3 years ago but we simply can not afford to have them for another term. Those 4 years should have given the Labour Party time to grow but instead it just feels like it's flailed.

Has the Labour Party had any positive media in this time?

Again I'm saying to myself "New Zealand deserves better". We aren't quite a two party system but we might as well be.

So what are our choices when neither party seems to be offering what New Zealand so desperately needs?

Vote for one of the smaller parties? I would probably vote for Progressive if it wasn't for their rather egotistical use of Jim Anderton's name in the party name (it's called "Jim Anderton's Progressive Party") giving it the feel of a single policy party - can anyone say "Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party"?

Not vote at all? Sure, you can't complain about who gets in but then, if there are significantly lower votes than usual, will that send a message? That we're not happy with either choice?

Vote Labour regardless of it's apparent instability? Go the way of National and see state assets get sold?

We've got until November to decide. Let's hope Labour can pull it together by then.

A Manaiakalani Post - geek speak alert

It's been a long time coming.

Things are looking extremely positive for the moment.

The backports package for the network drivers seems to be solving a great deal of my issues.

Making the connection system wide came with an unintended consequence - the connection was made as soon as the computer was booted up rather than after the user had logged on.

This means more learning time rather than dealing with connection issues. Combine this with a monitoring script that looks for certain states in Network-Manager and the system and you've got a really stable connection. One school (300 netbooks) now has things configured in this manner and the issues I was getting have all but completely disappeared.

The remaining issues are things which I know about. The boot up theme for example, hides what's going on. This is an issue if it's doing something like checking the hard drive, as this can take a little bit of time, and not knowing what's going on can leave the user feeling bewildered and frustrated that their netbook just isn't starting up in the usual way.

Schoolzone, one of the two options for web filtering for school's is presenting all sorts of problems. When I realised that the gnome proxy tool doesn't set the authentication details for apt-get, I added them in manually. Only to find that Schoolzone blocks bzip2 files.

My first thought was to talk to Schoolzone about unblocking bzip2 files except that I would guess that this situation arises quite often. Trojans/Viruses which bring down a payload (for Windows environments at least) probably have things compressed and bzip2 seems as good a compression format as any. So I'm wondering if I can write an overlay to "apt-get update" which pulls down uncompressed files and does the right things to them using a server somewhere on the Internet to store the uncompressed files.

However, by the time I get to doing something like that, all of the schools in the cluster will probably no longer be using schoolzone which would make testing difficult.

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Helen Barrett and her daughter, Erin.

It was a dynamic situation. It was interesting having someone around the school who I was able to leverage off. If I was thinking about something, I could ask them for their experiences of it. First off they asked me why I hadn't included Openshot on the netbooks.

There are actually 2 reasons.
  1. Openshot hasn't impressed me in terms of stability.
  2. The screen real estate needed for Openshot makes it less than ideal on the netbooks.
But then I started thinking. What would happen if you were able to find software to replace the classroom computers? In which case you could replace all of those computers with monitors to plug the netbooks into. 5 or 6 to a classroom would do. This would lead to savings. The upgrade cycle on monitors is a hell of a lot longer than on computers. If they're unable to work on the monitors, they still have the netbooks to use.

They then said "At the very least, audacity should be on there". So I've started trials. I've shown a few of the more curious students how to install it and have said "go forward and play". One has even offered to make me some instructional videos.

The problem is that this is at odds with the Manaiakalani project. The netbooks are a pencil with which is used to write/draw etc. on the book which is the Internet.

There is a precedent. The netbook image comes with games already installed - chess, tux math, tux typing (though I'd be quite happy to remove the tux series of games as they a. lock up the sound controls b. aren't the most stable of applications out there) as well as the Ubuntu default games.

None of these applications have saved files which matter. But if you were to create a sound file with audacity, that would have to be stored somewhere - and given that the prevailing attitude to this is that everything on the netbooks should be considered disposable (in terms of software and user-generated content) then this does present an issue which I would love to solve.

To this end, from the very beginning, I created a separate home partition with the thought that eventually I want to be able to empower the student technicians to do just about everything.

I've been throwing the idea around for a while but haven't had a chance to develop it just yet. I think I might have mentioned this in this blog before - I'm calling it "The Keys to the Castle". The idea is that they boot up from a usb drive and it then presents the technician with a range of options. Things like:
  • Reinstall system (preserves user files - so long as they're in /home)
    • This would require saving the /etc/passwd file and putting it in place again after doing the re-imaging.
  • Destructively re-image system
  • Reset passwords
  • Hard drive check (fsck)
  • Reset guest (To start initial login script)
In terms of individual applications misbehaving, most errors can be removed by removing the user's configuration file for that application. i.e. errors with wxcam (the webcam software) can normally be solved by typing:
rm ~/.wxcam

Probably the most destructive thing about reimaging a netbook is the loss of bookmarks in Firefox. So I would love to be able to do something like, even when doing a destructive reimage, saving those bookmarks and have a procedure for putting them back in place once the user's account has been created. It would be even better if I could find a way of putting those bookmarks online - this might be fairly trivial given the services out there.

So for my "holidays" I'm looking forward to a week of sleep and then time to get the sound card working as it should (I've had it working once though I have to sort through the procedure - i.e. is a Kernel upgrade needed?) and then starting development on "The Keys to the Castle".

I've been talking about making this a nationwide project. The idea being that it should be an overlay to standard Ubuntu for school children. So removing Facebook integration, blocking applications which are even slightly objectionable (hot-babe springs to mind though it's only in the restricted repositories) and hopefully starting development on a range of educational software with the user as the focus (Childsplay was very much a horror in terms of it working well - keys would stop working etc. The Tux games I've mentioned before).

I think I'm in a pretty good position for educational software. There are more than enough stakeholders within the environment I'm working in now. So this is a real possibility if/when I find the time.

Of course, this needs to be balanced against my Manaiakalani responsibilities. I know this probably sounds silly but when I do start getting paid for my role within the Manaiakalani project, it's very unlikely to be for any development. I'm more likely to be more... a technical coordinator (I rather like the term "facilitator" but that's off the table given that it'd be seen as a clash in titles) with development being a value add rather than my core job.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Operating the systems (or why Apple sucks)

Seeing as Nev hijacked my post, I figured the best payback was to hijack his specialist subject.

Before I start though, I will add the disclaimer:

The following post is written from the perspective of someone who has nothing to do with the IT industry. Nor does she know anything about programming outside some half-arsed HTML coding. As such please take any opinions given with a grain of salt, really, she's just talking out her arse.

Now if you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that Nevyn is a huge Linux cheerleader. Me, I have had to use a Linux based OS before, and honestly speaking, I am much happier with  Windows 7 (lets all pretend that Vista didn't happen, okay?). I do understand his point of view though, that open source leads to a better result for all.

I am being  swayed over to the dork side by the new shiny Android 3 OS. Yes, it is a tablet specific OS but here's where I have a problem: it's a great looking OS but lacks the hardware to support it. For the large part, Apple have cornered the market with the iPad, yes, it has a stupid name, but they were first off the starting blocks.

At the moment, the only non-Apple tablets available in NZ are the tiny 7" Samsung Galaxy Tablet and the Telecom V9 Tablet. Honestly, for the price of the Galaxy, you might as well buy the Galaxy S phone, and be able to make phone calls as well. I hope that Android can get the hardware it deserves, because in any free market there should be choice, and Apple should not be our only one.

It is easy to be swayed by their clean lines, ease of use and futuristic looks, but behind the mac-white gleam a more sinister Apple lurks. One which demands self-censorship of it's contributing magazine content. Or a  prevents you from looking inside your own device. Not to mention my own personal bugbear, where it locks up iTunes until you've updated, which means you can't access any of the music/movies etc that you've legally paid for.

Is it worth trading off an aesthetically pleasing, intuitive device for your basic consumer rights?

Disclaimer: I have not been paid by, or have any affiliations with any of the products/companies I have discussed in this article. Unless Apple want to give me an iPad, in which case I totally change my opinion. Apple Rules!