Category Archives: Open Source Software

Virtual machines in Xubuntu

A customer wanted to view his Lorex video surveillance system’s DVR from a 32-bit Xubuntu 12.04 PC. Lorex supplies clients for Windows, IOS, OS X, and Android, but no client program for any Linux distro.

I tried three approaches:

  1. I installed Wine (Windows emulator) and had it open the Lorex Client 11 for Windows. It didn’t work. (I guess that the Lorex client tries to write directly to the display, which, within Wine, isn’t where it is within a simple Windows system.)
  2. Then I installed VirtualBox and installed AndroVM within it. Then I went to the Google Play Store within AndroVM and installed the Lorex Android client. It ran slowly, but it did work. I’m impressed that this works at all, since Android runs on ARM — not Intel — CPUs.
  3. Next I installed Windows XP within VirtualBox and then installed the Windows Lorex Client ver 11 within this virtualized Windows machine. It worked, but was slow.

My conclusion? For real-time video, all of this virtualization results in erratic motion displays and sluggish controls. If you must try it, run it on fast hardware with lots of memory.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Linux as a remedy for Windows XP’s end of support

A customer with a perfectly good Dell Inspiron 600m laptop was in a quandary. On April 8 his laptop’s Windows XP will lose Microsoft support, making it vulnerable to attack via the Internet. The laptop had slowed to a crawl, so it was time to either reinstall XP or try something else. The laptop’s specs: 1.4 GHz Pentium M, 1.5 GB RAM, 30 GB hard drive. These specs are too modest for Windows 7, and Windows 8 is, well, Windows 8.

xubuntu desktop mage

Linux to the rescue
Because this laptop’s resources are modest, I chose the lighter weight Xubuntu flavor of Linux instead of the heavy-duty Ubuntu. Unfortunately the latest release of Xubuntu, 13.10, would neither run from its live DVD nor install because the Pentium M CPU apparently doesn’t include physical address extensions. Xubuntu 12.04 installed without protest.

With Xubuntu 12.04, both the Firefox and Chromium web browsers are quick, apps print reliably to the networked HP OfficeJet 7500a, and the customer can scan from the same OfficeJet over his LAN to the Simple Scan app that’s part of Xubuntu. It’s very sweet and was surprisingly easy to configure.

No more Microsoft Update Tuesdays or constant virus scanner updates or infections!

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Nobody loves Oracle

Poor Oracle. Poor Larry Ellison. Their yacht is about to lose the America’s Cup and last week Google added insult to injury.

MySQL vs MariaDB logosThe Register reported that Google intends to migrate all of its products that use MySQL, which is owned by Oracle, to MariaDB. This probably involves thousands of servers. Wikipedia has already replaced MySQL with MariaDB.

What is MariaDB?
When Oracle bought Sun Microsystems in 2010, it acquired the popular open source OpenOffice and MySQL products. Soon some OpenOffice developers split and created LibreOffice, which is built on the same code, but is not controlled by Oracle.

Then Monty Widenius, a key creator of MySQL, and other MySQL developers left and created MariaDB, which is built on the open source MySQL code. MariaDB (https://mariadb.org) is not controlled by Oracle, either. (The name? Monty’s daughter is named Maria.)

Background

There’s no love lost between Oracle and Google. Oracle would dearly love to provide the database for Google’s search engine, but Google instead built its own database, called BigTable. As far as I know, Google buys nothing from Oracle other than (maybe) support for MySQL.

Over the past few years Oracle has claimed in federal court that Google’s Android operating system contains code stolen from its Java compiler. (Java was created by Sun and its compiler is now owned by Oracle.) Google has won that copyright infringement lawsuit, but Oracle is appealing the decision.

Did the friction between Oracle and Google influence Google’s decision to abandon Oracle’s MySQL? What do you think?

Extra credit questions: Does Oracle care? Why?

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Beware of CNET downloads

QualityControl_rejected2CNET (download.cnet.com) stores many useful open-source and shareware programs on its servers. In the past I’d have recommended that you download them from CNET. Not any longer. Now CNET attempts to push browser toolbars, games, and adware on to your computer. Recently I thought that I’d opted out of their crapware, yet when the download was done, they’d still pushed this garbage unto my PC. I give them two big thumbs down.

I found this in the CNET Wikipedia entry:

Some software applications freely downloadable from the Internet are also offered for download by CNET. Some of these “CNET versions” are actually wrapped inside other applications that install other pieces of software such as adware commonly referred to as PUP.CNET adware. In most instances the user has to specifically opt out, and the opt-out option is not clearly or immediately visible. Most anti-malware software programs identify these wraps as potentially harmful and routinely identify them for removal or quarantine.

I recommend that you steer clear of CNET downloads.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Adobe, like Microsoft, is moving to a subscription model.

Adobe Systems’ May 6 press release announced that they are killing their popular Creative Suite and replacing it with the subscription-based $50 to $70 per month Creative Cloud. A bean counter at Adobe must have calculated that they can quadruple their annual revenue if they discontinue selling their market-leading Photoshop image editing application, part of Creative Suite, and instead charge a monthly rental fee. Microsoft is moving toward the same subscription model.

I’d like it, too. It guarantees an annuity. It’s gotta be a financial controller’s dream: more or less predictable revenue makes cash flow predictions easy. There’s just one problem: user backlash. After all, there are good Photoshop alternatives.

I don’t use Photoshop; I use the open-source GIMP image editor. Its user interface differs from Photoshop, but there’s a plugin that makes GIMP behave like Photoshop. For simple image cropping, resizing, and single-layer effects I use Irfanview. I don’t use Microsoft Office, either; I use the open-source OpenOffice.

Here’s my Photoshop alternatives article.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

International Space Station switches from Windows to Linux.

ISS TORU docking system
TORU docking system aboard ISS used to manually dock Progress freighters to ISS

This paragraph opened a recent story on ExtremeTech.com:

The United Space Alliance, which manages the computers aboard the International Space Station in association with NASA, has announced that the Windows XP computers aboard the ISS have been switched to Linux. “We migrated key functions from Windows to Linux because we needed an operating system that was stable and reliable.”

Apparently computers aboard the International Space Station (ISS) already run various distributions of Linux. I’m not surprised: once installed, Linux is more stable than Windows and techies enjoy having its source code freely available so that they can modify it to suit the mission. Its biggest problem, in my opinion, is its hundreds of dialects.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Create your own cloud.

I use Dropbox every day. If you’d like to have Dropbox features but don’t trust them to protect your data or want a special feature, you can host your own Dropbox-like server with open source owncloud.org. It enjoys a great reputation and receives frequent updates. I plan to try it, but I’m not in a hurry, since Dropbox works fine for me.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Common Crawl provides public access to its huge web index.

Google is a powerful search engine, as are Bing, Yandex, et al, but they’re all proprietary: their spiders crawl the web and vacuum-up information which they store within their own walls. (Google calls its web index BigTable.) Yes, we can use their search engine user interfaces, but exactly what algorithms they use remains proprietary and for the most part, secret.

SpiderCommon Crawl Foundation (Commoncrawl.org) was created in 2007 with the goal of crawling the web and making the discovered information available to the public, to do with as it pleases. Common Crawl claims to have stored about six billion web pages in their index and they publish a free library of program code to access it.

Applications that use the Common Crawl index are beginning to appear. Lucky Oyster uses the Common Crawl index to reveal previously hidden social networking relationships to users.

MIT’s Technology Review published an article recently that speculates that, thanks to Common Crawl, now Google-scale start-ups can get underway without having to crawl the web themselves, dramatically reducing their need for capital. Walled gardens such as Facebook and LinkedIn block spiders from crawling their sites — they’re all about locking up information. It’ll be fun to watch the tug of war between the proprietary and the open model in the web search arena, My money is on the open model.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Android devices lead the mobile O.S. market.

While looking at statcounter.com, I noticed that more Android devices are used to browse the web than than any other mobile operating system (“O.S.”).

Top 8 mobile operating systems

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

China commits to a localized Ubuntu

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has signed an agreement with Canonical to develop a version of Canonical’s Ubuntu desktop operating system for use throughout China.

imageThe new operating system will be named Ubuntu Kylin. Today more than 90 percent of China’s desktops are estimated to be running Microsoft Windows.

Canonical stated,

Ubuntu Kylin goes beyond language localisation and includes features and applications that cater for the Chinese market. In the 13.04 release, Chinese input methods and Chinese calendars are supported, there is a new weather indicator, and users can quickly search across the most popular Chinese music services from the Dash. Future releases will include integration with Baidu maps and leading shopping service Taobao, payment processing for Chinese banks, and real-time train and flight information. The Ubuntu Kylin team is cooperating with WPS, the most popular office suite in China, and is creating photo editing and system management tools which could be incorporated into other flavours of Ubuntu worldwide. . . Future work will extend beyond the desktop to other platforms.

Development of Ubuntu Kylin will be done at a facility in Beijing by programmers from the China Software and Integrated Chip Promotions Center (CSIP), the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), and Canonical. They’ve named the facility the CCN Open Source Innovation Joint Lab.

Will this open-source effort stop Microsoft in its tracks in China?

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Customize privacy settings in Mozilla Firefox

Privacy settings in FirefoxWhile tinkering with the Release 19 version of Mozilla Firefox, I discovered that it gives you control of cookies, but you have to tell it that you’d like to take control. You do this by choosing

  • Tools
  • Options
  • Privacy
  • In the History pane, choose Use custom settings for history and check the boxes to suit yourself.

Note: You must choose Use custom settings for history (red arrow in screenshot), or the options to control third-party cookies will not appear.

Incidentally, the Tell websites I do not want to be tracked option instructs Firefox to request this of web servers. They may or may not honor your request. (In fact, Apache, the most popular web server, will not honor it.)

I still recommend using the Cookie Culler add-on for Mozilla Firefox. I set it to delete all unprotected cookies each time that Firefox starts.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

RepRap open-source 3D printer

reprapSuppose that you’re Del Griffith and need new shower curtain rings for your pre-holidays sales trip to NYC.

Instead of ordering them from a catalog and waiting for delivery, you can download or create the design, load it into your PC, and “print” them in your RepRap printer. This could transform society.

What is 3D printing?
3D printing creates products via the additive process. Traditional machining is a subtractive process. RepRap originates in Bath, England, is totally open source, and is a vanguard. Its descendants may allow customized one-off production at mass-production prices, close to or even at the point-of-use. Learn more: RepRap wiki.

University of Bath: Who’s behind RepRap?

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© Russ Bellew (fan of Trains Planes and Automobiles) · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Raspberry Pi: cheap tiny computer

Do you hunger for a cheap computer for learning programming? How does 25 dollars sound? Do you want a tiny computer that you can use to browse the web? It’s yours for 35 dollars.

Raspberry Pi and Eben UptonA group from Cambridge University has designed and developed a credit-card size computer that can run Linux on an Arm processor. Their Raspberry Pi computer targets the student and low-income family markets, but has industrial controller applications as well.

The $35 version of the tiny computer includes 512 MB RAM, 2 USB ports, 100baseT ethernet adapter, and HDMI video output. Its sales numbers have been huge since it began shipping in February.

While in charge of undergraduate admissions to the computer science program at Cambridge, Eben Upton (pictured) first envisioned what eventually became Raspberry Pi. He and five colleagues founded the Raspberry Pi Foundation as a UK-based charity whose goal is to promote computer science study in schools. Eben now works at chip manufacturer Broadcom, who produce Raspberry Pi’s “computer on a chip”.

Excellent The Guardian article: Everyone wants a slice of Raspberry Pi

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

These are not the droids you are looking for.

Android is an impressive operating system, but it’s far from perfect.

Android employs pre-emptive multi-tasking: the operating system retains control of the CPU even after starting a new process. It will, without warning, shut down background applications to free up memory. (Most modern operating systems on computers with disk drives, as they run low on memory, will swap least-recently-used memory contents to disk. This is called virtual memory. My Android phone has no disk, so there is no virtual memory.)

Block Diagram of Android's functions
diagram: Alvaro Fuentes Vasquez (Kronox)

Unfortunately, when it needs memory, Android will shut down background apps without warning. Sometimes it shuts down Tunein, and that app doesn’t allow streams to resume from the interruption point. Trying to resume the audio stream can waste tens of minutes.

High-Level programming provides fast app development but poor control

Android provides high-level system calls to its apps, and the apps are written in high-level languages. The result is that for real-time functions such as streaming media, the user has very little idea of program progress or user control. At least half the time that I try to stream media, my attempt fails a few minutes later, with no real indication of why it failed.

This reminds me of the MS-DOS days: MS-DOS and PC-DOS provided system calls for communication. They were limited and slow, so communication application programmers simply ignored the MS-DOS system calls and instead used low-level routines to talk directly to the underlying hardware. They could do this without breaking the system, because MS-DOS was a single-user, single-tasking operating system. It broke some portability between hardware platforms. The world of Android is much more complex: the phone’s stability requires that each Android app behaves itself by communicating via Android system calls only. (It’s easy to forget that this thing is, after all, a phone.)

I don’t know where this is headed. Clearly Android needs work on its user interface. It probably ought to ask permission before shutting down a background app. It should provide low-level system calls, and the app writers need to use those system calls to improve the interface for the poor Android user.

This article is based upon my experience with my Samsung SGH-T679 Insight II 4G (aka Galaxy Exhibit 4G) T-Mobile phone. It uses Android 2.3.6, which I guess is named Gingerbread.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

Goodbye, Outlook. Hello, Thunderbird.

pig
Outlook 2010 is a typical confusing Microsoft product. And it’s a pig.

As part of Microsoft’s nightmarish transition from Office Live to Office 365, I had agreed to try Office 2010 for six months. I installed Outlook 2010 only. I didn’t install Excel, Word, etc. because I’m happy with OpenOffice, thank you, and I hate Microsoft’s habit of attempting to take control of my computer. That was over a month ago. Last week, I replaced Outlook 2010 with Mozilla Thunderbird.

During my three weeks of Outlook use, it had twice refused to allow me to create messages because it felt that I had no legitimate license. I entered the license information that I’d been given by Office 365, and it resumed working (presumably for the remainder of the six month trial). Then it inexplicably appended a period to an outgoing address that I’d added from a VCF file, which meant that the outgoing message got bounced by my mail server.

I tried to understand its use of contacts, but couldn’t make sense of it. I found myself wading through menus while looking for routine settings, and in general wasting hours trying to get Outlook to work as I wished.

Did I mention Outlook’s program load time? It’s absurd: it required minutes of waiting each time I started Outlook.

I finally gave up, installed Mozilla Thunderbird, and haven’t used Outlook since. I know that Outlook does more than Thunderbird: it includes a shared collaborative calendar and can communicate with Microsoft’s proprietary Exchange mail/calendar update servers. That doesn’t justify its hogging of 350 MB of disk space. (Thunderbird occupies 35 MB, and loads about ten times faster.)

Installing Thunderbird is a piece of cake: enter your email address and password, and it does a good job of locating your mail host and auto-configuring itself. At any time, you can ask it to import contacts or messages from Outlook: it finds Outlook’s data files and imports them without fuss. I much prefer Thunderbird’s user interface and its handling of contact lists from multiple sources.

This mess is another symptom of how sick Microsoft is, as it stumbles from one misstep to another under the clueless direction of Microsoft’s Ringo Starr, CEO Steve Ballmer. My unpleasant experience with Outlook, as well as Office 365, has convinced me to move away from Microsoft’s messy products. And I haven’t even looked at Windows 8 yet.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695