Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Linux Setup - Phil Baker, Lead Forecaster, National Weather Service

Weathermen are like rock stars. I remember when local New York City forecaster Nick Gregory came to my junior high school. Everyone was genuinely excited, and at that age, we were rarely excited about anything (except Faces of Death — man did we love that movie). It’s only gotten more glamorous for the weather industry. Gawker has a weather site. Nate Silver’s given weathermen his blessing. So it’s great to talk to Phil, who’s a Linux-using forecaster with the (U.S.) National Weather Service. He’s a GNOME fan who runs a simple setup that lets him try out different distros. And it’s yet another example of just how many different fields can successfully work with Linux desktops.

You can find more of The Linux Setup here.

You can follow My Linux Rig on Google+ here and follow me on Twitter here.

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?

    My name is Phil Baker. I’m a Lead Forecaster with the National Weather Service (NWS) in Memphis, TN. I’ve been with the NWS for 21 years (time flies!), after graduating from the University of Nebraska. While not officially on the IT side of the house, I help out the IT staff where I can, particularly when it comes to Linux or networking.

  2. Why do you use Linux?

    I was introduced to Unix in the late 90s. At that time, each NWS office had an HP-UX RISC workstation that was a precursor to our present day AWIPS infrastructure, which originally ran HP-UX. I bought my first PC in 1998 and Windows felt like a toy compared to Unix. About this time, a sysadmin at the office was testing a new operating system called “Linux” on a spare PC. I was intrigued. It definitely was not a toy and the shell commands I’d learned on HP-UX were transferable to this Linux box. I went home and installed Caldera Linux on my one-year-old PC, then quickly moved to Mandrake — “Red Hat with KDE,” as it was known back then. I’ve been running Linux ever since.

    Soon after Red Hat introduced Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), the NWS migrated AWIPS from HP-UX to RHEL, which ran on faster Intel hardware. The WSR-88D radar was also upgraded to open hardware running RHEL, which significantly expanded the radar’s post processing capabilities.

  3. What distribution do you run on your main desktop/laptop?

    I distro hop quite a bit. Currently, I’m running Linux Mint 15 on my desktop and Crunchbang Linux on my server. With Mint’s underlying Ubuntu 13.04 soon running out of support, and the harder-than-it-needs-to-be nature of upgrading Mint, my desktop will soon be upgraded to Fedora 20. My laptop is an old MacBook Pro that runs Fedora 20 through VMware Fusion. I’ve been impressed with Fedora 20 and it’s a good platform with which to stay current on the future technologies in RHEL.

  4. What desktop environment do you use and why do you use it?

    I personally prefer GNOME 3. I’ve tried KDE and really like it, but there’s just so many knobs to turn to get it like I want it. GNOME 3 is simple and it gets out of my way. There are still a few areas where I think it needs to mature, and I’m sure it will. I see myself as a GNOME user for many years.

  5. What one piece of software do you depend upon with this distribution? Why is it so important?

    I develop web pages for our internal situational awareness server at work. We have thin clients (LTSP) with 42-inch monitors that contain supplementary weather information from sources internal and external to the NWS. I also like work on the family intranet at home. Besides the Chrome browser and GNOME Terminal, the app that I spend most of my time in is Geany. It’s my go-to app for web development.

  6. What kind of hardware do you run this setup on?

    My home desktop is an Intel Core i7 Ivy Bridge, with SSD and 16GB RAM. I hope to soon pass on my old MacBook Pro to my wife, so that I can buy a System76 Kudu Professional. It’ll be nice to run Linux natively on a powerful laptop, with all the hardware visualization support and a higher resolution screen. I’m just waiting on available funds. :)

  7. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?

    This screenshot is from my Fedora 20 VM.

Phil Baker's desktop

Interview conducted January 10, 2014


The Linux Setup is a feature where I interview people about their Linux setups. The concept is borrowed, if not outright stolen, from this site. If you’d like to participate, drop me a line.

You can follow My Linux Rig on Google+ here, follow me on Twitter here, and subscribe to the feed here.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Linux Setup - Dheera Venkatraman, Graduate Student, MIT

As I write this, there’s a fair amount of back-and-forth about actor Wil Wheaton’s off-hand comments on Unity, Ubuntu, and Xfce. The timing is great because Dheera’s interview is all about Linux freeing the user to work in whatever way makes sense to him/her. The point of Linux isn’t to create the perfect distro or desktop environment, because the perfect distro and desktop environment depends very much upon the needs and behaviors of the individual user. So when Wheaton says he doesn’t like Ubuntu and Unity, I don’t think it’s an indictment of those projects, so much as an indication they’re not a great match for him at this time (and just to be clear, I don’t think Wheaton was condemning anything — I think he was casually speaking his mind and not expecting innocuous comments to take hold so quickly across an occasionally news-starved Linux-verse).

Also, not to bury the lede, but Dheera has a great setup, mixing Xfce and Compiz. My previous experiences with Compiz were as something I need to turn off, but this interview made me consider trying it out again.

You can find more of The Linux Setup here.

You can follow My Linux Rig on Google+ here and follow me on Twitter here.

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?

    I’m a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology currently researching single-photon imaging in the Optical and Quantum Communications Group. My side interests include hacking whatever gadgets I can get my hands on, photography, cycling, hiking, piano, and sustainability. As a student I’ve also been involved extensively with the MIT-China Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum and the MIT Sustainability Summit.

  2. Why do you use Linux?

    For me it comes down to customizability, flexibility, security, and being able to take control of everything. In general, Linux never tries to tell me how I’m supposed to use my computer, Linux never tells me that I’m not allowed to do something despite my hardware being capable of it, and Linux never tries to force a user interface upon me. Instead, it gives me the freedom to implement my own visions of how I want my computer to behave, which is exactly what I want technology to do. Also, Linux never tries to “dumb down” technology or hide gory details; when something goes wrong, it tells me precisely what’s wrong, which helps me debug things.

    I’m also a heavy command line user for getting all sorts of batch work done quickly, whether it’s watermarking a thousand photos with custom-generated watermarks, systematically renaming a bunch of files, makeshift e-mail alert systems, or automating desktop publishing tasks; these are all a piece of cake when you have decent command line interfaces to everything and good scripting languages, whereas with most non-free platforms and applications you’re often at the mercy of their GUI interface.

  3. What distribution do you run on your main desktop/laptop?

    Mostly Mint and Xubuntu. Android on my phone if that counts :-)

  4. What desktop environment do you use and why do you use it?

    Xfce + Compiz. This might seem an unusual combination, but Compiz isn’t really all about effects — it really has some useful productivity features like being able to sketch on your screen (great for presentations!), better customizability of virtual desktops and shortcuts, being able to invert screen colors with a keyboard shortcut, zooming the entire screen, and so on. It’s sad that Compiz seems to have stagnated in development of late. As for Xfce, I used to use GNOME 2 a long time ago, but with the changes in GNOME 3 and especially Unity, I find it extremely inefficient to get any real work done. I dislike desktop icons (I have nothing on my desktop), and I also dislike “smart” menus that dynamically change ordering since it interferes with my muscle memory. I wanted something customizable but simple. Xfce was the answer.

  5. What one piece of software do you depend upon with this distribution? Why is it so important?

    Anything and everything that can be interfaced with a command line. I can fill in variables inside an SVG document from a database before generating a PDF with Inkscape, embed the result inside a LaTeX document, compile it, and upload to a server all in one go, for example. You get the idea.

    My preferred music player is the command-line mplayer. I don’t bother with playlists, rather I have my own looping player “shell” that lets me input regular expressions like

    beethoven.*(symphony [5679]|piano concerto [^1]) 
    

    which searches my music files and calls mplayer on the files that match those regular expressions (in this case, Symphonies 5, 6, 7, and 9, and all Piano Concertos except the first).

  6. What kind of hardware do you run this setup on?

    My main desktop is running an Intel Core i7-920 with 8GB RAM, a 64GB SSD for the OS, 1TB conventional disk for scratch space, and a 2TB RAID array in a Linux-based NAS box as a file server.

    Various websites I maintain, including my personal website at http://dheera.net/, are all running on Linux servers as well. I have a couple of laptops that run Linux and I’ve also played with running desktop distributions of Linux on a Nexus 10 tablet (with the LinuxOnAndroid project).

  7. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?

Dheera Venkatraman's desktop

Interview conducted December 30, 2013


The Linux Setup is a feature where I interview people about their Linux setups. The concept is borrowed, if not outright stolen, from this site. If you’d like to participate, drop me a line.

You can follow My Linux Rig on Google+ here, follow me on Twitter here, and subscribe to the feed here.


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

My Return to Xubuntu: A Review

screenshot of my Xubuntu desktop

A few months ago, I had a Linux first — I reached the end-of-support of a distro. I never thought of myself as a distro hopper, especially with my main laptop, but I guess I hop around enough to have never made it to the end-of-support.

I was using OpenSUSE 12.1 GNOME, and I loved it, but I saw end-of-support as a chance to really explore my options. I’ve messed around with a few distros on my testing machine, but nothing really grabbed my attention, other than the dearly-depart Fuduntu.

The Search

OpenSUSE actually lets you upgrade via disk (and rather scarily, live), but I didn’t want to upgrade two versions (12.1-12.2 and then 12.2-12.3), having to back up all of my work and settings, only to be back in a similar situation in less than 18 months (assuming nothing horribly broke). So even though I love OpenSUSE, it didn’t seem like the right option for me at this point in time.

OpenSUSE has a rolling release concept, Tumbleweed, that interested me, but I was never able to get it to work on my testing machine, a ThinkPad T43. I suspect the problem might have had to do with bouncing between GNOME versions, but I was never really able to pin the issue down.

I played with Manjaro’s GNOME edition on my testing machine for a few weeks, and that seemed pretty nice, but eventually an update broke my setup and I wasn’t able to even triangulate on what the issue might be. I don’t blame Manjaro, though. Part of running an Arch-based distribution means accepting a willingness to go through log files. I thought I was willing to do that right up until I couldn’t figure out the issue in less than a few hours. I enjoy trouble-shooting a lot of different Linux issues, but reviewing log files is completely unrewarding to me. It’s not a knock on Arch or Manjaro — it’s more a self-realization.

I also played with Linux Mint Debian Edition, another rolling release, but aesthetically it was a bit raw, and there seemed to be some concerns about the rate at which Mint pushes out security updates. In general, it’s a nice enough distro, but it felt and looked old to me.

The Bake-Off

With rolling releases ruled out, I decided to focus on long-term stability. That meant either an Ubuntu Long Term Support release (LTS; 12.04.2) or a Linux Mint one (Maya 13).

Now down to two distros, I had to think about the desktop environment issue. I love GNOME, but I haven’t had the most luck getting GNOME shell working in Ubuntu. In the past it’s been glitchy in a way I haven’t seen in other distros. Ubuntu now has a GNOME edition, but because it’s brand new, there’s no LTS version.

Poking around Ubuntu, I remembered how much I enjoyed Xubuntu back when I ran it a few years ago. While Xubuntu won’t push out Xfce-related updates as long as it will push the general Ubuntu ones, it felt long-term enough for my purposes.

Looking at Mint, I’m not a huge fan of Cinnamon or Mate, so I decided to try Mint’s Xfce version, too.

I installed Mint and Xubuntu side-by-side on my testing machine. As you might expect, they’re both very, very similar, what with Mint based upon Ubuntu. In the end, I decided to go with Xubuntu for purely aesthetic reasons. The default Xfce configuration was nicer, with a single panel across the top of the screen, much like my beloved GNOME. There was more contrast due to a darker theme. It shipped with the beautiful elementary icons already installed. The fonts and rendering were all sharper within Xubuntu (say what you will about Ubuntu, but no distro renders fonts better). Obviously, I could have configured Mint to look just like Xubuntu (it even has the elementary icons in its repositories), but it seemed like an unnecessary step. Why bother going to the trouble of getting Mint to look like Xubuntu when I can just use Xubuntu?

screenshot of Linux Mint Xfce desktop
Linux Mint Xfce

And so, with that, I was settled on Xubuntu as my new distro. Now, I had to get it on my main work machine, a ThinkPad T420.

The Switch

I moved my files over to the testing machine, just to make sure there were no issues with file versions. It was time well spent. OpenSUSE was using KeePassX 2 while Xubuntu is still on 0.4.3. Despite what the numbers imply, they are two completely different programs. The Linux version of KeePassX 2 won’t let you roll back a file to version 0.4.3, so I had to do it in a Windows version of KeePassX via a virtual machine. It represented work, but far less work than losing all of my passwords.

I had some PDFs zipped up with a password. For some reason, the PDFs wouldn’t open on Xubuntu. I had occasionally had the same thing happen on OpenSUSE, so I’m not quite sure that issue was, but the files weren’t anything irreplaceable, so I didn’t even bother trying to resolve the issue.

I had a virtual Windows XP machine in OpenSUSE. I archived it and reinstalled it in Xubuntu without any drama, other than that my flash drive was formatted as FAT32 and couldn’t handle the archive size until I reformatted it as NTFS. I didn’t pick up on the FAT32 size limitation until the Xubuntu virtual machine told me the archived image was defective. Once I reformatted the flash drive, moving the virtual machine over was effortless (and much faster than reinstalling a Windows image from scratch).

Once everything was working on my testing machine, I quickly installed Xubuntu on my main laptop. It was quick and easy, like most Ubuntu installs are. I appreciated that Xubuntu didn’t require me to manually configure my TrackPoint scroll, like so many other distros do. Although I had my files backed up on my testing machine, I was able to move them over using SpiderOak, and that was shockingly quick.

I’ve been tweaking Xubuntu and the level of customization is very impressive. As I’ve mentioned, I really loved GNOME, but there isn’t much you can do to change its look. Xfce is quite the opposite. Of course, I’ve been using that customizability to make Xubuntu look more like GNOME. I turned off the button labels so it just shows program icons in the top panel. I’ve mostly been ignoring the bottom dock, since it autohides. I might remove it at some point, but so far, I rarely see it. I installed the Microsoft fonts from the repositories and manually added Courier Prime, my favorite font. I set PCManFM as the default file manager and configured the application finder/launcher to come up with the Super/Windows button (one of my first Xubuntu tricks). I miss not being able to open specific files from the launcher, like I could in GNOME, but it’s really not much of an adjustment — especially with the gedit dashboard plugin enabled.

annotated screenshot of my Xubuntu desktop
Annotated Xubuntu

screenshot of my OpenSUSE GNOME desktop
My old GNOME desktop

Xfce is great at making tweaks very easy to implement. Keyboard shortcuts take a few seconds, where in GNOME they could be hidden in gconf and dconf configurations. Once you know what you want to do with Xfce, making changes is remarkably quick.

The biggest compliment I can pay my current setup is that it doesn’t feel different from my old one. I’m still able to launch things by clicking the Super button. If I have that ability in any operating system, I’m pretty happy. I appreciate the range of software available within the Ubuntu repositories. Everything is in there, where with OpenSUSE I often had to enable certain separate repositories to get software I wanted.

Lessons Learned

Changing distros is stressful. The main lesson, which I’m sure everyone knows, is to make sure all of your files are backed up. I back up everything to SpiderOak, but I also backed up my files to a flash drive, just in case something went sideways with SpiderOak (which it didn’t).

I’m lucky enough to have an old laptop I can use as a test machine. That was huge. It let me flag problems and resolve them before they were live on my main laptop. If you have a second machine you can test on, I strongly encourage you to do so. Especially if you’re going between different distributions.

Also, in general, when choosing a distro, think about what you really want. I started looking at rolling releases because I didn’t want to deal with reinstallations down the line. But with rolling releases, the cost for having to do a reinstallation every few years is having to be vigilant and observant on a regular basis. In the end, I realized I’d rather spend a day or two on a reinstall every few years than constantly watching and maintaining my system. I just don’t have the skillset to understand the implications of each update. I need a distribution that parses that information for me.

On a related note, try and spend a few weeks with a rolling release. Just about all of them are easy to manage at the beginning. But as you make changes and as updates come in, things can become more complex. Testing over time will give you more of a sense of if you have the tools to keep a rolling system running.

Finally, I really urge people to take Xubuntu for a spin. It’s a beautiful distribution that has a lot of nice default settings. I really thought more people would flock to Xfce when GNOME 3 came up. Some of the default implementations, or lack of implementation, can make Xfce seem old-fashioned and kind of ugly. Xubuntu does a great job of showing how contemporary Xfce can look and feel. It’s got that familiar, menu-driven interface that so many people seem to like, but it also works well via its own application launcher/finder. It’s fast and simple. I loved GNOME 3, but Xfce is just as impressive. Plus, it’s really nice to have my weather applet back.

You can follow My Linux Rig on Google+ here, follow me on Twitter here, and subscribe to the feed here.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Linux Setup - Vince Bardsley, Author

Vince Bardsley says he’s a hobbyist, but his hardware is no joke. I definitely recommend checking out his clean machine, which is a physical setup more of us should probably try and emulate.

You can find more of The Linux Setup here.

You can follow us on Google+ here.

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?

    My name is Vince Bardsley. I am, in order of decreasing importance, a Christian, a husband, grandfather and father. I am also, in no particular order, a retired science teacher, novelist, cyclist, RV’er, computer hobbyist, Linux advocate, amateur radio operator (KB3OM), bridge player and Corvette owner.

  2. What distribution do you run on your main desktop/laptop?

    Presently I have Mint Maya (Cinnamon) on my production computer. Maya requires only a few tweaks to get it just the way I want it and between the Update Manager and the Software Center it stays that way. I admit to being a ‘distro hopper;’ to allow me to do that easily I have a number of hard drive racks and drawers, so trying something new is as easy as pulling out one drive and sliding in a different drawer with a different drive.

  3. What software do you depend upon with this distribution?

    I use LibreOffice for writing and spreadsheets and either Rhythmbox or XBMC to listen to music. I’m afraid I don’t do anything exotic.

  4. What kind of hardware do you run it on?

    The production machine is based on an ASUS M4N68T-V2 mobo and AMD Phenom II X4 955. It has 8GB of RAM and a Nvidia GeForce 9300 GS for video. The OS and related directories are on a 64GB Patriot Torqx 2. Home directories and swap space are on a WDC WD3200. This is clearly overkill for what I do. Backup, etc. is on a Zyxel NSA 221. The display is a Samsung SyncMaster 2493HM. Audio is output through an ancient Altec Lansing speaker system. There are also various other boxes around the house including my wife’s HP laptop (running Maya) and a Raspberry Pi.

  5. What is your ideal Linux setup?

    My ideal Linux setup is a clean machine. I get to repair a fair number of computers for friends and acquaintances (if you’re reading this you know exactly how this goes). The vast majority of these boxes take the term dust bunny to a whole new level. I like my computer to be clean and cool. My solution is made from poster board and a furnace filter. All the holes and cracks except for the exhaust fan have been sealed:

    Vince Bardsley's clean machine

  6. Will you share a screenshot of your desktop?

    The objet d’art is entitled, Self Portrait, in pipe cleaner, by Zoe, my five-year-old granddaughter. The open box in the lower left corner is a page from Crossthread my latest novel, now available on Kindle.

Vince Bardsley's desktop

Interview conducted Sept. 28, 2012


The Linux Setup is a feature where I interview people about their Linux setups. The concept is borrowed, if not outright stolen, from this site. If you’d like to participate, drop me a line.

You can follow us on Google+ here and subscribe to our feed here.


Monday, April 25, 2011 Saturday, April 9, 2011

Linux Mint Xfce Versus Xfce Debian Testing

I don’t quite know why, but I really like the idea of a rolling distribution.

Rolling distributions are constantly being updated, so you never have to go from a version X to version X.1. Instead, everything is being updated constantly.

A while back, I used Arch Linux, which is a bleeding-edge rolling distribution, and I really loved it, but eventually an update broke my system and I didn’t have the time or the skills to repair it.

But despite that experience, I like knowing I can hold onto an OS for as long as I want. Because right now I’m running Xubuntu 10.04, which is a long term support release. But that just means I get three years of updates instead of 18 months. We’re about a year into that LTS release. If I get a new computer in the next year, I’ll have to upgrade to a new LTS about a year or so later. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s a little bit of a hassle I think about from time to time.

To start thinking ahead, I looked into Debian Testing. Testing is the pre-release form of whatever the next Debian stable release will be and as such, it’s a rolling release that’s constantly being updated. I spoke to some people who use it and even though it’s technically not considered stable, just about everyone said they see very little breakage (with the caveat that Testing is much more stable toward the end of a development cycle than at the beginning of one).

I’ve been playing with Debian Testing (of course, with Xfce) in a virtual box for a few weeks and so far it’s pretty good (details are here). There have been no real issues. The look and feel isn’t as polished as Xubuntu, but some of that could be because it’s running in a virtual environment. Finding software in testing is sometimes a challenge. I had to wait a few days for Chromium because of a package holdup. But that was resolved.

One thing that surprised me about Xfce Debian Testing is how little software bloat there is. There’s no graphical package manager. There’s no update manager. It’s pretty bare-bones. Obviously, one can easily install these things if one wants them, but I opted to just run update and upgrade from the command line, whenever I happened to remember. Testing doesn’t get a lot of updates, or at least it hasn’t up until now.

Right around the time I was playing with testing, Mint announced the release of Linux Mint Xfce, which is the Mint take on Debian Testing with an Xfce desktop.

I decided to try that in a virtual machine, too. In terms of software, it seems like Mint just moved over a lot of GNOME-y stuff. There’s pure GNOME stuff, like the GNOME system monitor instead of the Xfce task manager. Mint opts for LibreOffice instead of lighter office programs, like AbiWord. Mint also chose Rhythmbox over Exaile. I wish the software selection was a little more Xfce curated, like Xubuntu’s software selection increasingly is, but I think Mint is positioning its Xfce Testing as an alternative for people who don’t want to move to GNOME 3, so they want to include as much GNOME software as possible.

I was shocked at how ugly the default Mint icons are. I usually can’t be bothered to change icons in a virtual machine, but it was one of the first things I did. Mint ships with an impressive array of icon options, though.

But in terms of performing very simple tasks, I didn’t feel much difference between Mint and Debian Testing. Neither rendered fonts very well. Both seem to lose application focus on open (but that could just be a Chromium bug), and neither could run Grooveshark in Chromium.

Flash worked right out of the box for Mint but needed to be massaged with Debian, which one would probably expect, given Debian’s stance on free software.

Other than that, it’s hard to say which was better. Because I was in a virtual machine, I can’t speak to how they handle wifi and printing, which are kind of huge things in an OS.

Debian Testing is lean and mean, but it requires more work to get everything configured. It starts you with a very basic system and it’s up to the user to enhance it. I’m a bit concerned about software availability, since Debian is sometimes a bit sluggish with updates. But from what I’ve read, you can often access more cutting edge software in some of the other Debian repositories (although with Volatile gone, I’m not sure what those might be).

Mint makes more assumptions and choices for its users. The GNOME focus isn’t ideal, but it doesn’t take much to remove the GNOME stuff you don’t like and add in the Xfce stuff you do. Plus, I imagine there are less media issues with Mint, since they’re less concerned about free and open software.

If I had to reinstall an OS today, I’m still not sure if I would go Mint, Debian, or Xubuntu. Xubuntu is probably the nicest product, but the update cycle can be a pain. I want to keep an eye on Mint and Debian and see if either breaks or if one emerges with better software selection.

But for now, it’s nice to see some interesting rolling release options for Xfce lovers.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011 Tuesday, March 22, 2011