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the last 10 percent

I live on my own in quite a tiny house with my dog. Yet, being a geek i am surrounded by computers of various sorts.
Excluding “computers” like my ipod Touch and Android phone. My house is currently home, I’m ashamed to admit no less than 7 PCs.

3 Netbooks, including my tiny 7″ Acer Aspire One
My old dell d420 Laptop with docking station
The £30 Dell Studio (that despite having a broken hinge, dodgy O key and non functioning DVD is still the most powerful computer in the house)
My increasingly aged Pentium 4 Media Center in the Living room
a recently re-equired HP Pavilion Desktop, soon to replace my Media Center (I lent it to someone last year)

All but one of these machines is running some form of Linux. Be it, NST (Fedora Deritivitive) To Full Fedora 16, or Ubuntu… well not ubuntu per se as Unity is is usability pile of crap. All of them Run KDE.

The only windows machine remains as it’s my TV recording machine and linux just doesn’t have a decent DVR option. – if you even begin to think about adding a comment about MythTV don’t.

My idea of a media center that records over the air television is a simple one. Install the software, follow the setup wizard to scan for available channels, configure the options, recording drive, media folders etc.. Watch and record TV.

Windows has several very good options.
Windows Media Center – which is actually pretty superb,
Media Portal and
NextPVR.

All three are free, all three take maybe 10 minutes of setup (excluding scanning for channels)
NextPVR is my current favourite, it’s a synch to set up, looks nice, very lightweight, records and plays back crisply. The othes are fine very good indeed and i can’t fault them. But NextPVR is currently my Go to TV recorder. With all three, I simply run the setup wizard and away I go.

Not so in linux.. finding a PVR solution is tough, finding a user friendly pvr is impossible. As is finding one that actually works with any of the three usb tv receivers I own. As soon as instructions talk about downloading and extracting kernel headers and compiling drivers.. my eyes glaze over. I’m a geek, sure, I love to fiddle, but sometimes I want to fiddle AFTERwards, I don’t want to download 500mb worth of poxy header files to compile a driver that will be 42kb in size (and didn’t compile) I don’t want to be insmodding</em anything.

I still haven't managed to get any of my computers to see each other across my local network – let alone get them to join my ldap domain and authenticate against a server. I've essentially given up with that notion, Linux is just shit at networking and I have to accept that I'll have to do all my file sharing either by wasting time and bandwidth using the internet or simply just using a usb stick. Quite honestly it's a bit piss poor.

– before you ask, yes technically they are all trying to exist on the same workgroup (my workgroup is called one.local) – I'd like to have just 1 place where I assign user accounts and access, not have to do it on every single machine I own (hence the setting up of a server and ldap domain, or the attempt to)

Even geeks like things to Just Work sometimes.

If I could find a pvr solution for linux, preferrably with KDE integration, I’d be a happy chappy in one sense.

I like photography, I love photography. I’m not very good, I’ve been at it for years and have some great shots, but I’ve reached a level that I don’t seem to be able develop from (pun intended) but that’s ok. I enjoy it nonetheless. But because of the photography it sadly means I can’t run linux on every machine, if I found a PVR solution that worked.

Linux isnt’ an OS for photographers, maybe for the home snaps with the point and shoot it’s fine, but for dslr users, shooting RAW with hundreds or thousands of images.. it’s not so good..

Recently I had been tasked with finding a “best of” selection from someone else’s photo archive. The External 1Tb drive came and I quickly realised the enormity of the task at hand. 60,000+ files to wade through, examine, shortlist, possibly develop and then create a small slideshow of the best.

Gwenview to the rescue… or so I thought. Gwenview struggles with Camera Raw. it just wouldn’t preview PEF files (Pentax Raw) nor .NEF, Nikok Raw.. although I’m sure it should have, it failed to preview in Fedora and Kubuntu. JPegs and Tiffs were fine and when they worked Gwenview was great, previewing was slick, copying to another location, just one keystroke away, with the added plugins pack it gave simple editing and slideshow ability.

Sadly though, Gwenview started killing my system.. Eating up ram and cycles like it was an American in a all you can eat buffet. It very quickly started to grind the system to a halt and I would have to restart the machine every couple of hours or so to kick it back into life.. The Fan ran full tilt the whole time.

After getting bogged down with Gwenview, I tried Shutter, the Picasa of Linux. It did work with RAW files a little better, not brilliantly, it only showed Raw files with embedded jpegs in them, but it was a start. It led me into a trap though.. Shutter, being a database system (gwenview seems to be a viewer) Wants to “import” your images so that you can start cataloguing. Fine, I “imported” from the external hard drive.. and shutter promptly started copying every single image on my hard drive, I didn’t notice immediately as the import into shutter is chroniically slow. I left it importing overnight and only noticed what it had done in the morning when my hard drive was full and linux crashed. Maybe I was just in a rush and didn’t read all the instructions on screen,but I expected Import to mean “add the details to application database, leaving the files where they were” I can’t really think of a reason why this would even be the default. If I was “importing”from my camera card, I’d have copied the images manually to the image archive. Not only did shutter copy of the files it imposed it’s own file structure on the imported photos. i hate that. i hate applications that decide what is best for me, ignore my own settings and worse still don’t tell me that they’re going to fuck up things I spend a long time creating – yes iTunes, I’m thinking of you here!

Shutter’s tagging and cataloguing, what I saw of it, seemed very good. but it’s heavy handed “i know best” approach just drove me insane. An OPTION to keep my file structure or use Shutter’s shitty one would have been nice as would have “leave files in place and just import them to the database” option instead of this silly copy all the files option.

I eventually did find a couple of Camera RAW programs to edit and develop but all the while I kept thinking to myself..

This would have taken half the time in Adobe Bridge, then Photoshop. Or even half the time in Adobe lightroom. Browse, catalogue, move, organise (or not) then easily edit the result. I found the raw editing apps to be quite good, but then I had to import into another app to process beyond basic raw manipulation and expoert to jpeg. too many steps, too many applications and I’m not familiar with them enough to make that a speedy process. Thank god i didn’t have to use GIMP though, otherwise I’d still be trying to fathom it out now (I hear Gimp 2.8 is finally half way usable, but I’ll stick with alternative, usable applications for the time being)

If Gwenview didn’t shred my processor and handles RAW files better, it would be excellent and would have nearly done the job, Pinta, Krita etc might have finished it off and given me jpegs I could use, but I felt Gwenview could have been nearly there.

I had to admit defeat though, and some 40 hours into the review, switched to windows, Adobe Bridge and CS4 and whizzed through the rest. What took me about 30 hours in linux, I completed in windows in 3 or 4. (this is at least parrtly as I’m familiar with Bridge and Photoshop though) Taking that familiarity out of the equation though and windows still wins hands down, quicker faster better workflow and memory management. Ok CS4 isnt cheap (if you buy it) but sadly Linux still has a way to go for photographers.

I’m 90% linux,(and like it, LOVE KDE) but just that last 10% might take forever to get good enough to allow me to ditch windows finally.

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Why no Desktop Linux

Over on Slashdot today there is a discussion about why Desktop Linux hasn’t really taken off.  In that context they’re talking about Linux on the office Desktop. 
In the past month or so I’ve gained a bit of insight into this that I hop you don’t mind me sharing.
I work for a government organisation,  in a local setting. We have 450 staff members who mostly log onto to our very aged network infrastructure with Think Clients Running Citrix. It’s all very very primitive and quite crude.  But some of us, like us Admins have PCs and administer an Active Directory Network or three.
I’ve built used and configured Active Directory servers and domains, and going back a bit, before AD, old style NT4 Domain Controllers and clients. Whilst no expert, I’ve taught myself how to do it all, and built up my experience along the way. At home, I have a somewhat  sad and geeky set up, just me, but 5.. occasionally 6 computers connecting inside one of my two internal networks. 
I haven’t really had a chance to “play” with Active directory setups and I have been wanting to “fiddle” with some home networking these past couple of months. I could  greab an MSDN copy of Windows 2008 server, but it seems a bit of an overkill for my home network, besides I’m mostly running Linux at home. I could go for Windows Home Server, but I don’t have a copy and not keen on buying one just to “play” and explore the possibilities. So I’ve been looking for a different, … probably Linux server solution.
In the last month I’ve download over 90Gb of client and server distros and tested  A LOT.
What I want is: Something reasonably simple and straightforward that will act as “domain” server that i can authenticate against for my linux clients and .. perhaps, if it’s possible even my windows 7 machine (which is Windows 7 home and strictly speaking can’t authenticate with windows Domains).
i’ve like something that sat on top of a reasonable distro.. and had some form of Gui Interface. yes it could be a console Based gui, but I’m not wasting hours trudging through .conf files and Man pages. A gui setup I can “muddle” through and learn as I go.. 
So.. I’ve tried Clear Os 5
Clear OS 6.1, 6.2beta, 6.2 Final
None of those ever managed to get installed. They all DEMAND to be installed from DVD, No live setup, and no usb install. When I finally got a disc to burn (I only have 1 cd burner) every single disc failed to install.  Bear in mind this is 4 different versions of the same software – and not just 1 copy of each disc either! I was singularly unimpressed.
Zentyal
Buidls on top of an Ubuntu base, and sounded ideal. Web based config, nice and straightforward to set up each module, and looked pretty much what I wanted.
Again, no USB install
No Live DVD version
Problem – doesn’t work over WIFI.. it only works with ethernet connections.
Resara: 
again, builds on Ubuntu to provide simple and what looks to be ideal Acitive Directory like features. 
ISO disc can run from usb, 
can run from LIVE 
Brilliant.
Runs on top Ubuntu 10.04… 
problem.. Ubuntu 10.04 will not recognise either my wifi cards nor my ethernet adapters on either of the machines I wanted to try it on.
It does come as a packages in later distros, including the latest 12.04.. I tried installing it in 
Ubuntu 11.10, Kubuntu 11.10, ubuntu and Kubuntu 12.04.. 
Don’t bother trying, it foobars the machine.. No idea what it does but you go from a working Ubuntu install without Resara to a non functional build without network or (in one case without X) 
Iincidentally Zentyal comes as a packages in later Ubuntu distros  – it too barfs the system to buggery when you install it.
Now there may be other packages in Linux that will provide client users and groups,  and packages to share folders and files and the like. But they don’t exactly leap out at you.
Linux hasn’t taken off on the work desktop because Linux networking is absolutely shit! It’s akin to the old days of Novel Netware and headache that it used to be to set up a Novel network. Along came Windows 3.11 and then NT4 and made networking a relative piece of piss and Novel vanished overnight.
I have 4 computers that I used regularly at home. When i ran windows on more than 1 machine, networking was an absolute piece of cake. almost no set up to see another machine share files and folders and add users from one machien to another for permissions on folders and files. It’s virtually effortless.
My linux machines at present.. well there is not q machine that can actually see another one. They should all be set up to be on the same workgroup, they’re all sharing a very narrow band of DHCP addresses. and yet.. trying to do even the simplest of things like get them to all be part of my workgroup called “home.local” instead of “workgroup” is a challenge a fiddle and a faff. Working between samba.conf fiels, Gadmin gui, SMB4k, Nautilus file manager, Dolphin file manager and the so on, is an effort. When you do get them to talk to each other, you find annoyances like..
I can browse a samba folder containing music, I can play the music, I can edit the music tags and filenames, I can work with that folder as if it were on my machine.. but only in the file manager. Music players and managers refuse to acknowledge it’s existence.. i have to permanently mount it the share.
Linux networking, is crude, problematic, inconsistent, fiddly, overly complicated and more trouble than it’s worth.
If, by some miracle I do manage to get my “domain” server up and running I have no idea how well Linux will handle the notion of “logging in” and authentication against it. I suspect the answer will be.. Poorly, if at all.
Ok.. I only really wanted to fiddle and explore the whole “server” at home thing, i don’t NEED it.. but it’s fiddling and exploring and learning how to do things at home that I might discover a really cool technique or technology that I would use in the future or suggest to use right now.  I like Linux.. I’ve got more Linux computers than windows and use it more than the vast majority of the time at home. But at work… well, it just wouldn’t work at work. 
Linux at my work will (sadly) be confined to its sole place.. running our web and intranet server. and it will never venture to to the workplace desktop until networking is simple, very very simple and at least as easy as Windows and indeed as easy as it for Macs to network.

10 Things I’ve done after Installing Ubuntu 12.04

It seems to have become a tradition that as soon as Canonical release a new version of Ubuntu there is a swathe of blog posts detailing all the things you have to do after you install their latest OS.

I have a few computer now, and all except one of them is running some variant of Linux. The only machine left is my main desktop/media center and despite looking there just isn’t a linux alternative to NPVR or Windows Media Center (that works! Myth.. just doesn’t work with any piece of kit I own and is just the most ludicrously complex bit of software i’ve come across!)

Most of the laptops/netbooks I own are currently sporting variants of Fedora. Fedora 16 KDE, Security Spin, and NDS (Fedora based Security distro) but there a lot of things I do like about Ubuntu (and a lot i don’t).

What they do well is:
Great live CD support: if you’d only ever used Fedora or Ubuntu you’d be forgiven for’ thinking that all Linux distributions could be tried in “live” mode. Sadly, from recent experience that is far from the case. The more well known distros all do a great job there, but there are still so many that have no support or make it so damn difficult to even get a distro onto a machine. (suse, I’m looking at you!) But linux server builds particularly have no support for live mode – in fact very few have support for usb install.

Easy install:
I won’t go as far to say that Ubuntu created the nice graphical installs we see today, but they certainly have taken them to mass market and done a great deal to make that kind of installer the norm.
[even you’re hard core geek must surely appreciate the easy install that Ubuntu delivers!]

Hardware support: [caveat]
Generally it’s known to be very good and works with a lot of hardware. For my own expeirience, I find Ubuntu a massive pain to configure my wifi on virtually all my devices. – 12.04 beta that i tried recently installed my broadcom drivers fine during “live” mode, then flatly refused to activate them after install.

I’ve expressed at length my disappointment with both Gnome Shell and Ubuntu’s Unity interface. Starting with the loss of their (in my opinion) excellent netbook remix interface in 10.10. it’s been a steady decline for usability.

12.04’s Unity Interface makes great strides from earlier releases and God I tried to use it, I tried to like it.
But it’s just not a great interface.
Sure it looks superb, font rendering and widget looks superb. Everything else is a mess. Not a Gnome Shell mess mind you, it’s way better than that. But it still not good.

After installing 12.04 open up the software center – and begin by:

1 – Remove LibreOffice

Nothing particular against libreOffice, it’s perfectly fine. But I don’t use it, and plan to install Calligra Office and Lotus Symphony.

2 – Remove Ubuntu One

Unlike dropbox, SpiderOak and now Google Drive. Ubuntu One is restricted to Ubuntu based Linux and windows. )the windows client is truly awful though)
I need my cloud storage to be accessible in windows and all linux flavours.

3 – Install SE Linux

From recent experience I’ve learned the hard way that Ubuntu isn’t secure, moreover it’s full of holes. Or at least it was, 12.04 might be miraculously better, but I’m not taking any chances.

4 – Install a better firewall:

I chose Firestarter, but there’s plenty of others to choose from. The UFW Firewall is… well it’s ok.. But I notice that it’s not turned on by default, and not very easy to amend rules. The interface is somewhat lacking in that regard.
Other firewalls worth trying:

  • Shorewall’
  • Firewall Builder

5 – Synergy

Synergy is a wonderful tool that lets me control several computers at one time without just one mouse and keyboard. Great for working on the laptop and adjusting my TV recording at the same time.

A nice mix of software Center and package Manager

6 – Apper

What has happened to Ubuntu’s Software Center. It feels compelled to try and sell me things and at the same time hide the results of my searches and why does it try and install every package one at time (and require my root credentials every single time it installs!)
Nope, sorry it had to go.
I could have installed Muon, which is ok, but I prefer Apper – It’s what I use in Fedora and I like it’s mixture of part “Softwae Center” and part “Package manager” so I can install components or just whole applications.

Even after just a few packages you start to notice one of the problems with Unity. It feels compells to install an icon on the Dash. Stupidly it installs an icon for apps I’ve installed and also for apps that are waiting to install. So it mixes 3 elements. Apps I could run that are installed, apps that I’ve recently added and apps that I can’t run because they dont’ exist yet.

I actually installed about 20 -30 packages initially, mostly security related and ended up with my Unity Dash sporting some 100odd little icons. The only way to remove them was to click on them one by one and select “unlock from dash”

The Unity Dash just isn’t equipped to provide enough feedback to make it clear what it’s doing.

If you want to run an app already installed it’s
a – not obvious at all how to find them let alone run them

The “lens” wants to push apps to me that aren’t installed – confusing as hell for most users, and trying to find anything I’ve already got installed involves either taking my hands off the mouse and typing or clicking from top to bottom to top and back again with the mouse. it’s just a silly silly system and incredibly slow.

The Unity interface doesn’t cope well with multiple windows open. Open up several app windows and they start to overlap but getting to the app windows at the bottom is a trial in itself. The only way I found to find them with any certainy was to Alt-Tab (which incidentally looks lovely when it does it’s thing but it’s a silly system that forces me to use that.

The Unity interface seems to rely on the notion that users are great typists and know the names of the applications they want to use. For me, that’s ok, because I actually use keyboard searches more than anything, but for regular usability this is just bloody awful. Most computers cannot touch type, many are unfamiliar with the layout of a keyboard generally and most real world users do not know or care what an application is called. Most real world users don’t even have a notion of what an applicaiton is.

As an example.. go find some real users, not yourself or your immediate co workers, but real users.. people who don’t sit in front a pc 10 hours a day but just “use” the computer as a tool.
Now ask them what browser they use.
or even better:
Ask them what version of windows they run at home?

Most “real world” user won’t have a clue about either.

unity is an interface for geeks and nerds – which is odd as Canonical seem to be striving towards mainstream desktop penetraton.

7 – Install Gnome Do

In an attempt to speed up working with Unity I installed Gnome Do.. It’s a great application (and virtually identical to KDE’s Krunner 0 – but with a nicer interface)

8 – Install KDE Desktop

I tried with unity, really I did. But it’s just so painfully slow and clunky I couldnn’t bear it any longer and installed KDE

Alternatively you could install:

  • XFCE Desktop
  • Mate (Gnome 2 desktop)
  • Cinnamon

Cinnamon desktop is lovely to look at and I look forward to seeing this project grow and develop. Sadly, at the moment it’s just too unstable to use regularly, but it is very light on the resource front and very very usable.

9 – Install Opera

Again nothing wrong with Firefox, nothing at all, it’s a very fine web browser that seems to be getting better and better with each release. But so is Opera..

Opera is especially good if you want an alternative to Evolution or Thunderbird and don’t want the resource hungry (but great) Kmail and Akonadi backend as opera’s M2 Mail is superb, especially in Opera 12, it’s much improved from earlier versions.

10 Install Calligra suite and Lotus Symphony

I have to include them both here as I do like calligra Suite and enjoy using it. But it’s early days for Calligra and some of the major elements I need in a word processor and presentation tool aren’t there yet. Lotus symphony on the other hand is very stable, very very compatible with ODT and M$ Office (Including word form templates) and LOtus Symphony is actually a really really good application. Easily the best M$ Office alternative. In fact I would install Symphony over M$ office any day..

Unity Free and infinitely More Usable

[As someone who has to suffer using and Administering Lotus Notes and Domino, I never thought I’d have a good word to say about any product tagged with the “Lotus” moniker]
God, Lotus Notes is the most awful product ever created!

Tutorials for the ultra Noob

One of the things that I have been tasked with recently is creating some “basic” tutorials on how to use computers.

Here’s the scenario:

  • It’s not a computer course, but it is a sort of classroom environment for adults
  • Each of the attendees (maximum of 7 or so) can access a laptop if they wish
  • The laptops are provided to aid with job hunting, writing, general learning, and “to help people get familiar with computers”
  • Many of the people attending have little or no computer knowledge at all
  • Many of them have no formal qualifications and it’s likely have are on the lower end of the literacy scale.
  • Many of them are terrified of computers and often times most of the laptops go completely untouched.

My task is to provide something that will engage them, be easy to follow, as jargon free as possible and show them that computers aren’t nearly as terriifying as they imagine.

Nominal goals include:

  • Getting the terrified to “have a go”
  • “showing them how to use email and the web”

All sounds fairly straightforward doesn’t it?

Except, I’m finding it quite tough going, creating something that has is simple enough to understand by a computer virgin, explains everything in a way that is good enough to help people get going, yet not too wordy to a chore to read and caters for all abilities.

The main element I would like to teach people is not, “how to do things” but simply how to explore.

How to explore seems to me to be the fundamental turning point between being afraid of computers and becoming confident. It seems to me that most people who are afraid of computers wrongly assume that they must

“know how to do it” – whatever “it” is.

The belief that you can’t approach or use the computer until you know how to complete a task scares the hell out of people and of course, at first you don’t know how to do anything.

But if you learn to look and explore the computer, you don’t need to know how to do anything at all, you just look, explore and work it out as you.

Surely that’s how most of us geeks do things – someone gives you a task that you’ve never done before, but you know enough to know how and where to look to find out. So when you’re asking if you can do something you know that you can find out.

Windows is getting pretty good at providing enough on screen information to help users work out what to do next. Linux… well.. linux has never been good that way and whilst it’s better than ever it’s still often a case “google it to find out because you’ll never work it out on your own”

The thing I’m finding toughest though, is brevity. I want to write like I speak, to be informal and informative. Yet it’s really hard to limit the text and make it easy to read whilst simultaneously providing enough information to people.

 

To begin with I think its important to reassure people that it’s ok to NOT know. Even trying to reassure them that it’s ok to not know where each key is on the keyboard.

 

Layout too, I think is crucial, I can’t just throw together a standard Word document, nor even create an web page as it’s got to be something people can print out and take away. It has to have lots of pictures as well.

Turning out to be a lot more of a challenge than I thought it would be.

How can we make Computers less intimadating

If I tell you when I first starting working in the I.T. industry, it would give away my true age (let’s pretend not yet 30!). But suffice to say it was a long time ago. An age when 40Mb (yes megabyte) hard drives were the most amazing thing in the world and anyone who had a floppy drive on their computer instead of a tape drive was considered rich, posh and just showing off.

So I’ve been working with computers a good long while. I’ve used so many different types of operating systems over the years and it’s hard to remember a time when there wasn’t a computer in my household.  I watched my dad unpack our ZX81 and saw him learn and progress through to programming “hi res” graphics with his Dragon32 *
*if you’re neither British nor old enough that this means nothing to you, go look them up. They were milestones for the computing age and part of your computer heritage.

Tandy TRS 80 compatibleI taught myself to touch type and can rattle away on a good day at 80-100 words a minute. I’ve used Joysticks, mice, touchpads, trackballs, graphics tablets, finger mice, laser pointers, chording keyboards, gestures and my voice to interact with the computer.

It’s very very easy to forget that the way I, and indeed, you use and interact with computers, is so far removed from the way “real” people use them, that there is a huge swathe of people who struggle with them.

By the fact you’re reading this, probably puts you in the “comfortable with computers” bracket and so you probably don’t even realise how terrifying they are to so many people.

A lot of computer phobics have managed for years to do without them, but that is becoming harder and harder to do these days, the internet is everywhere and whether they like it not they’re being rapidly pushed towards using it.

Althought these are commonly seen everyday around my workplace.
I’m going to tell you about my mother and my experiences with her, as she is the closest thing to a computer “virgin” I’ve ever come across:
She lives at the other end of the country and I only get to see her once a year (if that) – she’s in her late 70s now, partially sighted and fairly disabled with arthritis. But she’s just emabarked on a 2 year Masters Degree in History at the local University. Going back some decades now, she ran a department that included some of Britains most powerful mainframe computers of the age – All punch card driven and probably less powerful than your average mobile phone by today’s standards!

Despite computers being in our house for as long as I can remember, they weren’t her domain but my dad’s and mine.  But she not only wanted to learn about computers and get on the internet but when she started her degree it became essential. Particularly as she disability means she often just can’t get there and has to work remotely.

i cobbled together a low spec computer for her – cannabilised from bits of other computers, into what i suspected would be all she would need. A glorified web browser and, possibily word processor.

I took it up to her and installed it for her but there was virtually no time at all to even give her the most basic of training.

She’s got a Pentium 4 3.2Ghz machine with single SATA 80Gb HD. Inbuilt graphics card and 1Gb of Ram (no room for more on the board!!)

My old 15” monitor, a £5 off the shelf mouse and old keyboard that was being thrown away from work. There is a USB wifi adapter but i thought that would be far too complicated for her to understand (and for me to remotely try and support if she couldn’t connect) so 2 homeplug ethernet adapters into her broadband hub.

On the software front I put on Easy Peasy 1.6 – Ubuntu 10.04 based, but with the simplest of interfaces, everything runs maximised and it’s simple as clicking a button to show the desktop and programs available.

She phones up occasionally with problems, but I can tell she tries not to “bug me” but talking her through even the simplest of things highlighted to me some fundamentals that we all need to appreciate.

1 – Most people have no idea about the difference between the computer and the monitor. To her (and a lot of the people I work with) the monitor IS the computer.

2 – Keyboards have far far far too many keys on them.


If like me, you have a gaming keyboard, you probably have 150+ keys. But even the standard keyboard scares the hell out of people. Not only do they not know where each key is positioned, but there are dozens of other keys they don’t understand. Even things like the Shift Key, a fundamental to you and me, baffles most people – it’s doesn’t even say shift any more but often just has a silly symbol.

It very quickly became evident that a black full sized keyboard wasn’t going to work for her. Partly just too many keys, and partly she can’t see the letters. 

So I bought her one of these. A Kids keyboard,
Brightly coloured, high contrast big keys.. and it makes the world of difference. I think we should give these to everyone, it makes it so much easier to remember the position of each key.  But even so, keyboard input for her is a struggle – made worse by her arthritis and her hands just not able to type on the keys.

Using a mouse is just not intuitive as we think it is

I spent an hour on the phone trying to talk her through something, telling her to “left click” and her to tell me that it wasn’t working. Finally dawned on me that she had the mouse upside down.

Yes, you can laugh, I did.. but think about it, if you had never seen one, (and had poor vision) would you know which way was up?

Using a mouse often take skill and precision, a movement too much one way when you try and click and the system doesn’t register it properly. Even keeping a mouse steady for some people is difficult at first for some and they are just rubbish for people with arthritis. The hand position is all wrong for her and she often can’t hold her hand on teh mouse and press the button – she holds the mouse with one hand to keep it steady and reaches over and uses the other hand to press the button.

I haven’t yet, but must try and find her something better, I think a trackball might be easier, but they’re a bloody expensive!

Now the operating system:

here again, you and I are so used to them and how they work that its a real eye opener to see how someone reacts to even most the basic things.

Modal dialog boxes are stupid.

Novices focus their attention on one small part of the computer screen and bringing a dialog up in the middle of the screen is jarring and confusing because it doesn’t seem to link with they screen area they’re focused upon.


In Easy Peasy/Ubuntu and Gnome, the network connection options are top right, so when users do something by interacting with that portion of the screen, information should be displayed there, not anywhere else. Especially if it involves more mouse movements.
“you mean i have to move the mouse pointer all the way over there” I’ve heard my mum say a few times – to her, it seems ridiculous to make her travel all that distance to the dialog box and back again. This isn’t just a linux problem, it’s true of all operating systems. Information pops up all over the screen and it seems random and unintuitive to novices.

Regular users don’t know or care about applications:

People like you and me know the names and functions of applicaitons. We can tell Firefox from Google Chrome, Microsoft Word from Libra Office Writer.
Peraonslly, I love testing applications and do so all the time, I’m always on the lookout for a new or updated app to play with. But regular users just don’t care about applications they just want to achieve things, they want to shop on QVC or Amazon, or check their bank account, or write their letter, or chat to their grandchildren. How they achieve that doesn’t matter and for the most part they probably couldn’t care less how that was achieved.

Similarly, they don’t know, care or often want to know about file types.  (Windows certainly doesn’t help there, it’s very dependent on fiile types and file extensions, yet bizarrely hides file extensions by default!)

Mind you, I don’t really understand why we still need file types either, why can’t we just have a document that contains, words, spreadsheets, or images.. why does it need to be a photoshop file or .doc or xls.. can’t it just be a file!!! (don’t reply telling me that linux does this, it doesn’t linux has file types just like everything else – try opening an Openoffice document in Gimp for example!)

Asking or expecting users to keep track of an application, know the name of it, or where it is, is often asking too much. They don’t care – the computer is a tool that allows them to bank online, shop online or chat to their family and it really should be much simpler and easier to keep track of documents you create or files you download.

Users don’t read error messages or dialog boxes

If you have no computer real computer knowledge you quickly learn to completely ignore dialog boxes.

This is something I see at work all the time, information is clearly displayed on screen – be it a broken broadband connection, a broken hyperlink, or an application crash. Users just don’t read it. To them it’s “geek speak” and jargon.  Even when the information is very clear and straightforward, their fear overwhelms them and they just assume they won’t understand. Anything that doesn’t return exactly the outcome they expect they treat as an error.

One of the biggest hurdles I think is not teaching people how to do everything on a computer, or even how a computer works. Nor is the biggest challenge explaining the difference between a computer and a monitor.  The biggest challenge we must address is convincing people that that they can “explore” and learn as they go and providing an easy way for them to “reset and try again”.

For most people this is a legitimate learning technique, but is so rarely afforded that often the sole method for doing this is the “turn it off and back on again” approach. So that users can start again with each of the steps that they’ve learnt.

My mother has doggedly done her best and has for the first time ordered a supermarket delivery for herself recently.

Still. Her set up just doesn’t work for her, the monitor is too small, she needs a trackball or other mouse device and she increasingly I think needs to look at voice navigation.

She has a new 32” Tv, so I’m hoping that I can venture up to see her and install the computer into the tv (hdmi or vga). Keyboard entry just isn’t going to get her anywhere fast so i think linux will be replaced with Windows 7 so that I can enable the voice navigation and install some dictation software on there.  I suspect she may struggle with Windows 7 a bit – despite it being, in my opinion infinitely more user friendly that linux,  the easy of the Easy Peasy interace I think is hard to beat. But Linux simply doesn’t have the accessibility options that Windows affords, if Dragon Dictate (or similar voice software) was usable in Linux I think we’d stick with it. *


*Dragon, does run under Wine, but it doesn’t integrate with the underlying OS, nor integrate with any of the applicaitons in Linux. You can voice dictate to Dragon’s own notepad, but nothing else though.


Linux: Moving to Fedora

In my attempts to stop the constant hacking of my home network recently I made the decision to ditch Linux Mint 12.

Actually, the decision was a no brainer as Linux Mint might have had a big neon sign pumping out to the internet saying “come hack me” (in Chinese of course). As I found out, it’s not secure, not by a long way.  Linux, being multi user in nature does make it quite hard to discover hacking as it’s happening, Linux Mint made that even harder by allowing console logon to just about anyone by default and having SSH server and open ports open by default. (not to mention no running and configured firewall!)
I tried just reinstalling Mint 12, but quite literally, as I installed it from usb  – the hacker got in and starting buggering around.
I tried Suse again, I’d really like to give it a go, but Jesus they don’t make it easy. I’ve installed quite literally dozens of linux distros using unetbootin and usb sticks. Can’t do that with Suse. Tried using their imagrwriting tool and after four or five failure I gave up and downloaded the DVD iso (twice, as it failed to boot both times I burnt that too!)
So  Fedora it was, more secure than Ubuntu/Mint and happily came with a KDE version.

Impressions of Fedora 16 KDE

Compared to Ubuntu and Mint Fedora feels “professional”, but in a way I find hard to quantify, it just kind of feels like there is a team behind it who really know what they’re doing. That’s not to say that Ubuntu/Mint don’t (far from it) – but to me, they both feel “bitty” and unfinished and have always felt like they’re in a constant state of beta flux. Fedora doesn’t seem to need or demand the constant patching and updates that I used to expect from *buntu. It does update regularly though, I’m not quite on the this week 3.3 kernel, but not far off it, currently as I write this I’m on 3.2.10 point something or other.
It’s much much much more secure too. Not 100%, as I did have a lovely moment last week watching someone VNC into my desktop using KDE’s desktop sharing (which oddly was set to allow connections with confirmations from anyone!!!)
I’ve still had some hacking and interesting goings on, but thus far. Haven’t seen the same kind of wild abandon that my hacker enjoyed on Mint.  I tracked through him uploading python code, compiling arbitrary c code with Automake and installing XEN hypervisor driver as he virtualised my hard drive. Thus far that hasn’t happened but I do get some odd Security warnings from SE Linux – in truth, ive still got so much to learn about Linux deep and dingy inner workings – that in all these years I’ve not once ever needed to look at before.

Stability

KDE 4.7 came installed and I’m now Running 4.8.1 and other than the usual KDE crashes (seriously Konqueror and rekonq really need to sort that out, they both crash constantly on every distro I’ve used)
But other than Konqueror/Rekonq, it’s mostly pretty dam stable.

Package management.

I was quite worried about returning to RPM package management. I remember the old days of dependency hell from RPMs. However, I have to say, either RPM or Fedora has improved RPM and yum seems pretty great and I think I find myself preferring it to Apt/deb. Sure it’s slow to install, but I kind of like that, it feels like it’s checking to make sure it’s not going to bork my system – it’s part of what makes it feel more stable and professional to me.
Some things take a bit of getting used to like not Sudoing everywhere and I wish I could find a way to install latest Calligra Suite Beta instead of the older Koffice. but that’s a minor niggle.
On my MSI laptop KDE runs brilliantly, again, much much more  stable than Ubuntu or Mint,
My sound card works all the time too (Ubuntu/Mint kept dropping it) – Although it does run
hot, stopping Akonadi does mitigate that somewhat though (wish they’d sort out that cpu usage for Akonadi)

 

I’m used to using Ubuntu Software Center, Synaptic and latterly Muon for package magement. So I was a little sceptical of the simplicity of Fedora’s Apper, but my bad for pre-judging. tis’ actually simple, clean and excellent, does the job nicely!  It could do with a better search facilty or indexing as I found the search somewhat lacking. I suppose Yum compares sort of with PPAs and apt from Ubuntu. But I certainly was finding that PPA management was getting a bit silly as  things became hard to manage over time. It’s early days for Fedora and me in that regard, but whilst RPM seems to work nicely, “yumming” an application from the console is just as simple as apt-get is in Debian and Ubuntu.

 

Other things:

It boots like lightning – suprisingly quick to get to the login screen and then a few seconds thereafter to a working desktop.
Unlike my favourite yellowbelly Open Source Blogger:  Carl Draper I’ve had no problems with Hotot, indeed not had a problem with anything other than Lotus Symphony 3.1 which just falls over right away. However, KDE’s plasmoid twitter client does me fine most of the time.
I’ve been so impressed I thought I might give it a go on my Dell D420 Laptop. Rather than than KDE I thought I’d try out their LXDE version as my Dell only has a paltry 1Gb of Ram.
As with the KDE version the install was flawless, no problems with hardware, not even my broadcom wifi adapter that plagued every other distro before it.
 Once again, rock solid distribution but LXDE not my thing, just … just … I don’t know just looks old fashioned. Perhaps just because of the font rendering? But either way. LXDE on the dell will have to go,
I’ll try one of the other Fedora  Distros, who knows I may even try out again with Gnome shell, but I suspect I’ll settle on the much more visually appealing but lightweight XCFE version.

Conclusion

It’s been may years since my last RPM distro. back then it was Suse 8 – which ironically, is the only operating system I’ve ever actually paid money for!! It was a good expeiience overall back then (kde 3 days) and my last foray into Red Hat/ Fedora drifts back to Red Hat 5.1 and 6.. and that isn’t such a good memory.
Thankfully, Fedora 16 is a joy, stable, dependable, and with KDE on top, just terrific.
It’s been two weeks of Fedora and already I can’t imagine myself going back to Ubuntu or Linux Mint (sorry Mint – I feel awful saying that as I did like you!)

F**king Hackers

Sorry for the title of this entry, but I’m absolutely utterly fucked off the limit. I have managed to be safely online for 18 years without incident. Sure I’ve picked up the off bit of malware along the way, mostly of my own stupidity from the odd keygen here and there. But nothing serious in any way, in fact. For the last few years I’ve given up on running Anti-virus 24/7 as I don’t think they actually provide much in the way of security. November last year I noticed something on my windows machine gathering passwords and uploading them to Amazon-ws.com. Sneakily wrapping them all up in a virtual driver and then piggy backing on my bluetooth drivers somehow to upload. I couldn’t quite figure out what was being uploaded, but I suspected passwords and certificates. 4 anti virus and three of the best anti malware apps failed to find it and I ended up cleaning it out myself. Then a few days later using the recovery partition to just reinstall Windows 7. However, I was also strangely a bit paranoid that something else was going on.. Files would be modified at odd times and in odd ways, but nothing that i could absolutely say was hacking. Until last week that is, when I stumbled across the evil fucker hacking realtime. Not content with a bit certificate stealing, email address gathering or password stealing. The fucker had, clearly had plenty of time and free access to install virtual network drivers, downloaded some python dev tools and compilers buy masquerading the downloads as official microsoft updates. I literally watched him compiling python and C++ code on my machine. Every time I set my firewall (Comodo) to “block all traffic” he would reopen traffic to my other networked machine. Not only that but he’d secretly partitioned my hard drive, creating two hidden clones that were marked for use with Hypervisors. Digging deeper, he’d also “patched” my recovery partition, so even if I reinstalled I’d just reinstall the exploits he’d put in place. Very clever don’t you think? Silly me for not checking more thoroughly, but thing is.. I kind of was, it was only as I digging really deep (e.g. I was comparing two versions of windows Explorer in a hex editor as I suspected it had been replaced) Last week we spent nearly 24 hours with me, trying to find out what was going and at the same time trying to plug the gaps and kick him off my system. Clearly, he was the more skilled, much much more skilled. EVery time I thought I’d closed a hole and locked the firewall, he’d reopen the ports and just waltz back in. Discovering the repartitioned hard drive was the last straw and I unplugged and removed the boot manager. I had to go an look at my media center, that too was compromised to shit, looking that the code that had been installed, it looked very much like someone had not only created a web server to stream every tv show I record, but also seemed to be actually streaming LIVE tv out over the internet. Wish I’d had time to look into that actually as I would have quite liked to be able to use that at some point. However, it was absolutely riddled with shite and I nuked that too. Thank heavens for Linux… or so I though. The fucktard had also partitioned both my linux laptops, covering tracks with custom grub loaders. Sadly this is where it gets hard. Linux doesn’t lend itself to particualrly good diagnostics and granularity in being able to find out where things are going wrong.

Addendum
It’s been over two weeks since I noticed this attack and it’s still ongoing. I’ve spent hours rebuilding, tracking, tracing, sniffing packets and trying to firewall them out. 
Staring at a computer screen 24/7 (literally) does make you paranoid there is no doubt:
“it that a hack, did I do that, or is that a system change?”
“does that normally look like that?”
“did the system change that, or the hacker?”
“Is that a normal windows/linux operation?”
It’s hard to keep track and keep a balanced approached and see the wood for the trees. Last week though, was a cracker..
I spent hours on my linux laptop (Now Fedora 16, not Ubuntu/Linux Mint based anymore) and kept having this feeling that I was being watched (see, what I mean about paranoia). I was investigating and learning about linux hardening techniques and had the Google Results window up on the browser, I had been up for hours, so took a break for half and hour.. only to return to see someone remotely controlling my mouse, moving from result to result and exposing the Google Chache image next to each link!
I was tired, but not tired enough to hallucinate!!!
Currently
I’m behind my ISP’s firewall, my ISPs router firewall (BT Broadband), behind a DD-WRT firewall in a subnet or a subnet. Each machine, Windows, Linux and Android is firewalled with software, blocking all traffic incoming on every port and blocking all outgoing traffic other than TCP for web browsing and dns lookups..
Every day, my logs see attempts of entry.. successful entry, that slips right on through.
There’s something going on uPnP somewhere down the line with uPnP requests coming in from different addreseses each time. There’s ACK floods  – each ACK request is 100k+ instead of the normal 40bytes or so!
Somehow, every single day my hacker gains entry, starts installing certificates, adding support for Chinese text and locale and then uploading code and compiling it  – sometimes Python, sometimes C – (in linux.. it’s just a party and he can compile what he likes where he likes seemingly)
My certificates are uploaded somewhere, in Windows Explorer.exe is downgraded to an earlier version, files are changed and moved – virtual network drivers are installed in seconds, and ultimately , given enough time my bootloaders are changed, hard driver partitioned and virtuallised. 
If necessary, he fakes Windows UPdate/Linux UPdates and downloads fake updates. All of which my firewall, and virus casually ignores.  Only my network packet sniffer, and Process monitor (which logs everything) sees what’s going on.
In linux I can see that conf files are changed, daemons started and there I lose it.. it’s impossible to keep of track of Linux goings on. Luckily Fedora is fractionally more secure than Ubunutu/Mint but even so, he just waltez in and takes over.
AS I find out more.. I’ll let you know.