Friday, December 16, 2005

Obsessed with Mac - on Linux

What can I say, I love the Mac GUI and some features like the drag on drop approach to installing software in the apps folder. Its not just me; there seems to be a growing Mac craze among some friends and office colleges.

Yet my heart is with GNU/Linux, and the last couple of days, I have been somewhat busy customizing it to a near Mac experience. Baghira is the main KDE theme engine for Mac wannabe's like myself. It provides few tools, among which one I simply use quite often called Baghira Starter. Its quite useful in that if you can remember the beginning of a command or even an application category, it will auto complete and enable you to launch it. Gone are the days, straining your eyes looking for an application among the many in the K menu (or Start button in the windoze lingo).


Unfortunately to get a better Macperience, you also need to install some additional software.

- A Mac like application launch bar. There are some, such as Kxdocker, Ksmoothbar or some found in Super Karamba. But none are perfect. I ended up using something called engage which is part of the awesome E17 desktop.

- Kompose is a Compose clone found on MacOSX that allows you to switch between applications. You can even configure this app to respond, when you move the mouse cursor to one corner, something I do on the Mac.

- Finally while experimental and quite slow, get the latest version of xcompmgr (X composite Manager) for a drop down shadow effect.

- Though I didn't install it, for a drag-n-drop approach to installing apps, similar to the Mac DMG way, have a look at Klik and Auto Package.

There is a great HowTo on how you can customize KDE. If you prefer GNome, not to worry. Just head on over to and search for gnomac.

That's it! A near Mac like experience.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

A Trip to Mac OSX on Intel


Its been a long obsession ever since I heard the existence of the x86 port. Unless you've been living under a rock (or an msn umbrella), chances are that you have heard about Apple's decision to dump the powerpc architecture in favor of Intel. You might also have heard that the developer version (was/had been) leaked (by apple?). Anyway, I wanted to get my hands on this baby; not only to satisfy my curiosity, but also to see what the competition was like.

Sure the MacOS X is going to slaughter any short or long horn that will come its way, but could it also hurt some desktop GNU/Linux deployments in the short term atleast?

Well after a couple of unsuccessful attempts, we (yes we!), managed to convert the dmg image to an iso(dvd) image and then burn it. Unfortunately it turned out that MacOSX refused to install after complaining the hardware wasn't supported. After trying several notebooks and desktops, it was obvious that none of the hardware we could find was supported -- or so we thought!

A bit of research on google revealed that this edition indeed required a binary patch to make it work on any machine other than the one Apple had provided its developers with. So after a 143MB or so download, I was left with a binary patch that used a windoze binary patch tool called ppf-o-matic. "Hmm windoze, now where can I find one of those", I thought to myself. Investigation of the tool's website turned up a Mac OS version, which after trying on a friends iBook, failed with a crash. The recently released java version too couldn't cope with 4GB+ iso image. Being somewhat skeptical, I tried the windoze patch tool with wine, the FOSS windoze emulator, to find that it worked great.

Everything was going well - the md5sums matched as published on many howtos. Once the dvd was burned, I tried booting it off to be greeted with a beautiful installer.

installer_welcome Sanjaya helped me with the initial bits of the Mac installation, but it looked like I was going to loose my data - the installer didn't know how to resize my Linux partitions. So I booted off from the Taprobane LiveCD and ran qtparted to resize my partitions. I discovered that wasn't going to work either as QTparted didn't allow it. Just then I remembered a page from the LVM howto about having to manually resize the filesystem before resizing the physical partition.

So I fired up a shell and typed:

resize_reiserfs -s -12G /dev/hda1

which basically said to shrink my reiserfs root (/) partition by 12 GB. Again I ran Qtparted, now hoping to be able to resize the physical device, but again I found that option wasn't available. The alternative left was scary - to use fdisk/cfdisk to delete the partition and recreate it while the data stays in tact! Oh boy! was I heading for disaster and I'd be foolish not to do some sort of back up, which I did.

So without thinking twice, I deleted /dev/hda1 partition and recreated it starting from the same location (beginning of the hard drive) but spanning only 2GB more than the size of the filesystem.

Then I resized the file system to grow back to fill the 2GB gap in the physical file system.

resize_reiserfs /dev/hda1

erase_disk Once again, I rebooted onto the Mac installer and found that it still couldn't install on to the free disk space without removing the current Linux / partition. So once again, I found myself inside the LiveCD trying to fix things from Linux. Again I fired up my shell and ran cfdisk to create the MacOSX partition and set FS_Type_ID to Hex AF (which by the way cfdisk has no idea about).

Now this time when I booted into the Mac installer, it detected the presence of the partition and allowed me to format it without deleting the Linux partitions. From this point onwards, the installation was a breeze.

install install2

After installing, it turns out that the installer hadn't installed any boot loader at the MBR, as I was still left with GRUB. After a trial and error, I discovered that with the installation DVD in place, if I don't press any key then it would boot the installed MacOSX as opposed to running the installer.

By this time there was a small crowd looking over my shoulder at the beautiful and speedy Tiger desktop that lay before our eyes.

desktop It was late, and time to go home (from office) so I rushed home hoping to try to install the OS on my AMD64 barebone. Unfortunately, it seemed the installer cannot detected my SATA hard drive for some reason even though I remember seeing the Nvidia chipset as supported.

Afterwards, which I managed to get working, I also managed to get GRUB to boot MacOS directly on the IBM Thinkpad, without the need to bootstrap via the DVD installer.

After a few hours of using MacOSX x86 version, I admit that I am impressed. Not only of the extremely user-friendly GUI that's covered with eye candy, but also because the OS seems very responsive and feels light-weight even with all those effects. I am not sure what it is - whether its the free & opensource Darwin micro kernel, or the non-free & proprietary x-window like system, it feels fast!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Mango party!


mango_crowdA new distro sweet as Mango was (un)officially launched by our very own Arunan, who is celebrating his B' day today* happens to be one of the youngest Slackers in the LKLUG. The occation, which was held at the newly opened "The Linux Center" or TLC in short, was filled with several LUGers and showered with slices of Mango EVERYWHERE, going fast!

Mango is a new distro that is based on Slackware/Vector (do I hear.. long live Slack????), and contains sinhala and tamil localization as well as several useful packages. Though I would have preferred if he had used Debian/Taprobane instead, I guess a slacker will always be a slacker :) (FYI:he has shown interest in a remastered taprobane with a different undisclosed name)

imacAmong the Mango there was a very noticable Apple. Anuradha's brother Sanjaya, took out his new Apple iBook, hoping no one would notice (specially with all the mangos' around). But boy was he wrong! For the rest of the evening, the Linux center was pretty much a Mac Center :) No one complained, as the Mac OSX is powered by a FOSS kernel and subsystem.

Interestingly enough the key person, Arunan was missing from the event. Most of us waited and waited for him to turn up while some people had to leave ealy. After several hours of waiting (while having fun), he turned up with hands empty. It seems the Mango iso image was too big to fit on to a CD. So I guess, we'll have to wait for the official version or ask for a DVD version. bud_sethu

* Today also happens to be my brother's B' day. If your reading this - Happy B' day malli!

Sunday, November 20, 2005

My quest for the perfect wireless world

So after my unplesent experience with CDMA, and the difficulty of carrying a full fledged phone around all the time (I even took it to Blue waters last week), just to satisfy my online cravings, I decided to take a plunge and upgrade my cell phone.

Those who have seen my old cell phone know how ugly it looks, with bits of colors torn from the cover and the keypad virtually erased (well, ok .... most of gadgets end up looking so), wouldn't second guess that it was about time I upgraded.

After flirting around with the new Nokia 6230i, I decided she was too expensive for my purse, and decided to go with the next best thing – the SE K700i. Thanks to my friend Asanga and his underground contacts, I managed to get a decent price (I think).

Well after charging it for a good 2.5 hrs, which gave me some time to skip through the manual, I got right down to business – with Linux ofcourse.

Since my notebook doesn't have inbuilt support for Bluetooth, I used the IR port instead. Irda is fairly well supported in Linux, except when it comes to enhanced modes that are specific to the IR chip. Unfortunately, my IR chip isn't detected by the findchip tool.

Nevertheless, using IR to emulate a standard COM port is how I generally connect the two. Tools such as irdadump and irdaping are useful when it comes to debugging the connection.

Transferring files to and from was quite a breeze (as usual), using the command line tools such as ircp, irxfer and obexftp. The challenge was connecting via GPRS. Thanks to google, I was able to quickly find details of how to set that up. Even though there are no drivers for my Irda chip, using the irtty_sir module, it turns out, I can still connect, thanks to serial emulation!

Here is the wvdial.conf I used to connect to Dialog

[Dialer Dialog]
Modem = /dev/ircomm0
Baud = 57600
SetVolume = 0
Dial Command = ATDT
Init1 = ATZ
Init3 = ATM0
FlowControl = crtscts
Username = ""
Password = ""
Phone = *99***1#
Stupid Mode = 1

Next I wanted to check if GPRSEasy Connect could do the same and sure enough, by selecting Sri Lanka – Dialog from the drop down provider list (yup, they know we exist!), and selecting SE K700 (700i wasn't in the list – but then again, my software version is old), I was able to easily connect.


So there you have it folks - everything works, and I didn't have to install a single third party driver. GNU/Linux rocks!

Saturday, November 12, 2005

LiveCD from scratch workshop

Just came back from a long day workshop organized as part of the IITC 2005 Conference. Myself, Anuradha and Chamath undertook the almost impossible task of a, "less than a day" workshop, consisting of several integrated interruptions (ie. lunch, tea breaks), to cover a relatively advanced subject, to a relatively inexperienced GNU/Linux user, and still managed to pull it off - somewhat!

Now that I'm done patting our selves in the back, I'd like to say that it was extremely fun :) After all, there is really nothing like going under the hood and getting some "machan (grease)", on a Saturday morning tinkering with Linux. For those who missed it, we had a small crowd (that is too small to mention), but made it much easier to managed and give personal attention to each attendee. Here is a summary of tasks we managed to cover:

  • Presentation on the Linux kernel's boot process, from the BIOS all the way upto the runlevels, both during a normal hard drive boot and during a Live CD boot.
  • Install Taprobane GNU/Linux, using the cfdisk->mkfs->cp -a method
  • Create an initrd using mkinitrd and use it as a prototype to build a modifiable initrd
  • Hack the initrd's /linuxrc script to drop us to a shell and play with a world before the BigBang - /sbin/init
  • Presentation on using Squashfs and UnionFS to provide write support anywhere
  • Creation of a squashfs file system using out live running system
  • Creating the final iso and testing it using qemu

Unfortunately, our iso booted only half way before panicing, by which time we were out of time for debugging. Despite this, I hope, the attendees had a lot of fun, hacking away.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

More Firefly please...


Just finished watching the 13th episode of the Firefly, to discover, I've run out of episodes :(. About a month back Suchetha handed me a stack of DivX CDs and insisted that I watch it. The pilot episode was a long 2hr show, somewhat weird and not soo interesting. I was expecting something like Star Trek or Andromeda but this was like a space cowboy movie - where have all the aliens gone?

But as I watched more episodes, skipping days due to a busy schedule (like flying off to Pakistan for one), I was drawned to the characters (specially to one :), j/k). Each episode was some what connected, but had its unique cinematic style.

And now after the 13th and final episode (excluding the pilot), its all over :(. Fox that originally aired it, had pulled the plug! Like many fans, I am left wanting more...But there is a bit more to come, Serenity, the movie named after the ship in firefly, will be released soon on dvd. Till then, perhaps the theme song will remain stuck inside my head.

Theme from Firefly

Take my love.
Take my land.
Take me where I cannot stand.
I don’t care, I’m still free.
You can’t take the sky from me.

Take me out
to the black.
Tell ‘em I ain’t comin’ back.
Burn the land and boil the sea.
You can’t take the sky from me.

Have no place
I can be
Since I found Serenity.
But you can’t take the sky from me.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Home sweet home

Though its a little sad leaving Islamabad and the folks here, who has really taken good care of us during our short visit, I am looking forward to get back. For the past few days, we've been seeing and hearing about the earth quake and its survivors and have been totally our of the loop as far as Sri Lanka is concerned.

Judging by some of the funny emails, I've been getting, I can only imagine the heated atomosphere with the upcoming Presidential Election.


Thursday, October 20, 2005

Pakistan's Big Brother

Today we visited the Nadra (not to be confused with the more familiar Narada center), which stands for the National Database and Registration Authority. They are the government organization that issues National ID cards to eveyone. The place is amazing when you consider the data they have on pretty much everyone. For example they can, just by using your name along with your fathers name, tell pretty much everything about you such as whether your married or single, which cities you've been living in, and information about uour reletives. One of the IBMers, after seeing the demo, said "he felt naked".

Later in the evening, we visited the main hospital in Islamabad to talk with some of the senior doctors to see what can be offered. We then walked around the hospital and saw some of the victams. Due to space limitations, they were placed all accross the lobby area. According to the doctor, the numbers just keeps increasing.

We met one of the girls, who had been stuck between the rubbles for 9 days. Its an amazing story, that is just beyong belief. Just imagine being trapped in a confined space for 9 days with no food or water. Ofcourse when they found her, she had already passed out, so hopefully she had hibernated most of the time. Her father said that he had burried 12 other childern.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Boom shakala

This morning I woke up with a sudden gasp! I thought some one had jumped into my bed. After looking around and under the sheets, I went back to sleep a bit longer.

It turns out, I had experienced a slightly bigger after shock. Acording to the earth quake center, I believe it was of magnitude 5.6. Later that day we felt another smaller one in the evening. It was probably not as big, since I didn't get the usual email alert from the Earth quake monitoring center.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Taprobane Sahana Edition

ibm crowd
Started remastering Taprobane GNU/Linux to include the Sahana phase I as a LiveCD. Taprobane has a really neat feature which makes remastering quite easy just by running few make commands. For example, to customize the ISO image, all one needs to do is execute

# make chroot

That will drop you to a chrooted environment, sometimes referred to as a chrooted jail!, because you get trapped inside a directory (well atleast till you type exit in this case). Once in jail, you are free to install/remove packages before getting out using the exit command. Once that's done, remastering is as easy as ..

# make iso (or even just make)

After about 20 minutes, it will produce a freshly baked iso image that's ready to be served on a CD platter :)

But....thats just how it's supposed to work ;). Perhaps due to the manner in which I went about remastering, there were some challenges (one of the thing I picked up from the Brent Woodworth, who is the head of IBM's Crisis Response Team, was not to use the word problem!). I managed to figure out most of them but there are a few more that needs to be ironed out tomorrow.

Other than work, I just came back from a heavy meal at one of the most beautiful hotels in Islamabad, known as Serina. The whole scale of the hotel, not to mention the hill like landscape and its romantic candle lit dinner was just wonderful. The food we chose to consume was from an Arabic menu (they initially offered us an american steak menu), and was a quite large portion. Dinner was quite educational as far as learning about mitigation and dealing with an Earth Quake. For example, one of the useful tips I learned, that I hope to apply, is to scream and swear at the ground at tell it to stop shaking!!! Apparently that can help you prevent any phycological trauma that one might incur as a result of a violent quake.

If it wasn't for the last capuchino, I probably wouldn't have made it post dinner. Ashif and Rizwan, two IBM colleges came back to my room and we did manage to get some work till 1:30 AM. They are gone now, and so am I.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Pakistan meets Sahana

We managed to catch an early flight at 5AM as opposed to the originally booked 7AM one and make it to the hotel early on. Though we made it to the hotel earlier, Murphy would have us wait for about another hour before we could see the rooms. Nevertheless after seeing the 60 inch plasma TV equipped with 70 odd cable channels, there weren't any hard feelings. The room at the Marriott is very nice and relaxing to be in.

plasma After a very short nap, we were escorted to the IBM office, where we met a lot of new faces. Chamindra presented the current Sahana system and I showed a working demo off one of the notebooks we brought with us. As soon as that meeting was over, we all rushed over to the Priminister's secretariat, which is a massive palace like building just a few meter's off IBM headquarters.

There were several high ranked Army officers to whom we (IBM/LSF) demoed the system and offered other templates and consultancy services Our presentation was taken quite positively by the officials, and they even offered to take the two leading guys from the Emergency Crisis Team on a chopper to see the disaster area.

Later in the evening, quite happy with the day's progress, Asif who is one of the IBMers, took us out to Pizza Hut to initiate eating after fasting all day. We took the special "All you can eat" offer that's happening these days due to the Ramadan season. I must say the quality of the Pizza was better when compared to what you get in Sri Lanka.

The day ended with some coffee and chitchat at a prominent Minister's residence about the current situation. There seems to be a lot of expectations from everyone to get the system operational ASAP. Hopefully all the elements will come together in the coming days.

Blogging from Pakistan

I've just arrived at the Pakistan airport in Karachi, trying to kill some time till the next flight at 7AM. Even though my search for wireless networks through kismet came up with 2 unknown essid's that seem to be unencrypted, I wasn't about to go any further with trying to hack into it just so I can get this blog out on time.

My self and Chamindra are in Pakistan on our way to Islamabad to help with the disaster efforts as a result of the Earth quake strike last week. No so much so by picking up shawals or buckets but by what we know best - Free & Opensource software.

I only got to know about our need for the visit on Thursday, when IBM requested us to join their Emergency Crisis Management Team. If your wondering why us, then the simple answer is, for building the Sahana system in a very short time when the Tsunami hit. Unfortunately as we built it very quickly, within a week or so, its far from perfect when it comes to implementing for a world wide disaster solution.

The good news is Sahana phase 2 is in full swing, and is being built by LSF as a generic system that can be use for just about any disaster. Unfotunately the new system is about 2-3 months away from being realized. That's where I come in -- as an architect (literally) of the old system :)

Our mission is to demonstrate the system as a proposition to managing the current crisis in the hope that it can ease some of the chaos and disorder usually found in such a situation.

Enough said about Sahana, my trip here was quite a company. Murphy seemed to have joined us along the way, following us secretly and popping up from time to time. From the setting up of the demo till the last minute to me loosing the ticket coupons while filling the embarkation to the tatty flight that a 1 hour stop over in Mumbai after circling the sky for about 20 minutes due to traffic! If that wasn't dizzy enough, we were forced to stay in the plane, while a cleaning crew tore plane apart. Which brings us to the present, sitting and blogging in an empty airport with another 5 hours to go.

Well I just bought a book -- "The beautiful Mind", and if its anything like the movie then I'd guess it would be a real treat.

Things can only get better....

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Mini bug squashing CodeFest

Today a few of us got together at the UCSC to work on fixing few bugs as well as add some features to the next version of Taprobane. The plan was to get to a point where we can wrap up the 0.4.x series by releasing 0.4.3, so that we can concentrate on 0.5.

The morning session was spent on setting up the infrastructure as is the usual case. Unfortunately due to firewalls, we were only allowed to access http/ftp services via a proxy. An apt-proxy already filled with some debian packages was setup, inorder to speed up participant's access to packages. A local irc server was setup to remedy access restrictions to freenode.

As a whole the event was somewhat successful in my opinion, as we closed up several nasty bugs while adding some nice features such as drivers for the Huaweu Bell CDMA phone and ndiswrapper. Anuradha Weeraman seemed to have made some progress with the installer, which we hope will make it to 0.5.

peer_coding It was good to see several UCSC students, some of who are also LKLUGers to join in on the fun. Dr. Ruvan, Harsha and Chamath of the UCSC also dropped in to check on progress. Hopefully this will be a regular event.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

I want my CDMA! How my rights were violated.

Last Wednesday, I went to pick up a CDMA phone from Bell after hearing all good about it and how fast it was. I had been using Bell for now over 5 years, primarily to surf the Internet. Sure it wasn't fast at 33.6, but atleast it was the next best economical thing until ADSL shows up.

Naturally when CDMA came along with a lower rental and a 5x claimed speed, it did raise my eye browse. But I had already invested 15,000/- on my current phone, which included paying the old owner his phone deposit of 7500 and another 7500 for the phone transfer.

Still, I was paying 600+ on rental alone and wasn't using the two lines that came with it that much. After waiting and rethinking for about two months and checking on ADSL, I decided to bite the bullet and go for CDMA, while disconnecting the old line.

Boy! was I in for a surprise as I left to the Bell head office It seemed as if I had committed the ultimate sin, by asking that they disconnect the old phone, while I buy another brand new phone from them. The very rude customer support lady told me "Your CDMA request will most probably be turned down!". I asked "why?, I checked if you were still giving out CDMA with internet with some one who works here.", to which she replied, "because we can't have you disconnect one for the other. We can't maintain multiple technologies. This phone has been in use since 1997 (the original customer used it then)."

I told her that I was switching because I didn't need a phone, all I want is a faster net connection, to which she replied, "When ever a new technology comes we can't have you switch". By now I was a bit annoyed and insisted that I wanted to disconnect. She told me that I needed to pay another 1,500 for disconnection and that I should pay another 1,500 (which I had paid for the current phone) for activating Internet on it. She also demanded I give a written letter stating a reason other than switching to CDMA.

She also asked me who had told me CDMA was faster. She said CDMA was much much slower than the regular phone, which I found quite amusing since it was a measure of desperation.

Instead of arguing and fighting over a couple of thousand rupees, I decided to pay it off, even though my human rights were violated. Paying at the counter took a good 20 minutes as the incompetent cashier tries to punch in my credit card number and verify it. I didn't say a thing and just smiled and waited patiently as she struggled, to what seems like her first week on the job. I guess we've all been there.

Once I had paid everything including my total pending bill + disconnecting charges, I asked the customer support lady if I could now pay and take a CDMA phone home. "No!. You must wait till your old phone is completely taken out of the premises", she replied. "But you advertise it as an off-the-shelf phone, how come I have to wait a couple of days and come back?", I asked. "Because your disconnecting your phone. Now if you were getting the new phone without disconnection, we could have given it to you!".

I had been patient, quiet and calm but when some one just wants to screw you because your already their customer - I had to loose a bit of control. While I didn't turn the place upside down with my kung-fu, I did have to make a loud scene unfortunately to get some attention.

By now everyone was looking and a kind gentleman approached me and wanted to talk to me. It turns out he too worked there. He told apologized for the inconvenience and said he would set off the disconnection charge. He also gave me a CDMA phone and told me that it will be activated in an hour. He even got someone to call me later that day as they activated the net connection, free of charge (so far). Finally he told me that indeed CDMA has become oversubscribed and that he can't guarantee the speeds I want. I told him from what I am hearing I don't see a sudden degrade but a slow and gradual one or perhaps only during certain times.

He offered me to try out CDMA, even though I paid for it and if I am unhappy, to transfer the paid amount to the fixed line. We both agreed to hold off on disconnection for another week.

I came home and got online using an OSI, I am not much fond of. The speeds were awesome, 15kB/sec - 20kB/sec. The next day (Thursday), I connected and it was a whole different story. Just as the Bell people had discouraged me, now the speed had come down from 15k to 3 -4k. Must be the bad weather I thought. I tried again on Friday morning and evening and it was still slow. Was it just me? or has other been lying. I checked today with a couple of other people who has CDMA. They've also noticed a sudden speed drop.

Was this coincidental? Did the network reach its ultimate capacity to suddenly drop speeds to modem speeds? Is this a conspiracy to keep me from disconnecting? Am I the cause for a slower CDMA network?

I could now feel the pain and suffering a divorce could bring; an experience I'd never want to go through again!

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Taprobane hits Distrowatch!

Today is a happy day for all of us who started working on our very own GNU/Linux distribution, appropriately named Taprobane GNU/Linux, as it gets accepted as a Linux distribution worth listing at Distrowatch. It is remarkable to see that Taprobane was approved by for listing at Distrowatch in just 30 days since appearing on the waiting list, especially considering the standard 90 day waiting period.

This is what Distrowatch had to say on it's front page:

Taprobane is an ancient name for the Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka and a Debian-based Linux live CD built by a group of developers at the Lanka Linux User Group (LKLUG). The new version 0.4.1 is the project's first public release. What's in it? "X.Org 6.8.2; official NVIDIA driver support out of the box; KDE 3.4.1; 2; Linux; SquashFS and Unionfs; Apache, PostgreSQL, MySQL, Zope, started and stopped from the K-menu; excellent hotplug support; saving data to persistent media; educational software such as Stellarium and Octave." More details can be found in the announcement on the project's home page. Download: taprobane-gnu-linux-0.4.1.iso (689MB, MD5); also available via BitTorrent.


As a result, Taprobane GNU/Linux now has its own profile page at Distrowatch. Since hitting Distrowatch, more people are downloading Taprobane both via the standard weblink as well as BitTorrent.

Finally I'd like to end by saying that I am extremely happy, not only because we are creating _another_gr8_distro, but also because as a result we are bringing recognition to Sri Lanka (Taprobane) as a FOSS savy, geeky nation :)

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Colombo goes crazy over books!

Reader discretion: This post is long. Try not to fall asleep and crash your monitor

Yes! It certainly has to be the biggest exhibition in Colombo, if not the Sri Lanka, when you consider the long car strip that extends a couple of hundred meters, just waiting to get in to BMICH. The International Book Exhibition happens every year and it seems to be getting bigger and bigger each year!

This morning (if you consider 11AM as morning that is), as I was approaching the Book exhibition, I thought to myself - "I'm not waiting in that queue to checkout a couple of books!". So I temporarily lost hope, especially after seeing that both sides of the road were pretty much occupied by parked cars, but much to my delight the public park down Longdon Place had plenty of space.

The exhibition was just jam packed! So much that the main entrance to the BMICH was temporarily closed off to encourage us to visit stalls at the SBMICH and come back later. I decided to walk over to the University of Moratuwa's IT exhibition that was happening within the main exhibition.

Mortauwa IT Exhibition

Though paying a 40 rupees entrance fee is a bit of a turn off, considering the main book fair is free, after seeing it, I reckon it was worth it.

There were many interesting projects that were primarily dominated by micro-controllers. There were several robots that were either walking around colored blocks and taking pictures, walking around without hitting obstacles or trying to play soccer. Besides micro-controllers, they used infrared to detect obstacles, sonar sensors to detect obstacles as well as the distances to it, and a webcam coupled with OpenCV for Computer Vision.

Unfortunately if not surprisingly, one of the things that was lacking was a single project that was being demoed using a GNU/Linux platform. I find this as unbelievably shocking as UNIX based Operating Systems are generally more popular among academics. Sure there were one or two projects that used an Open Source library
here or there, but it just didn't cut it. The lack of FOSS knowledge, for example was seen in few projects such as one that was built from scratch to map streets and then later display once hooked up to a GPS receiver. When I asked the inventor if he had looked at GPSDrive, it was clear he didn't even know of its existence.
I also constantly kept getting a commercial vibe coming out of the inventors. For example, I heard one person talk about “bringing the product to the market", to which I enthusiastically asked, “Has anyone or company approached you?". The answer was either a no or that few have but there certainly wasn't anything concrete. I overheard one inventor talk about patenting the design and then looking to selling it off. Also when asked the price spent for a project, several times, I felt a reluctance getting a complete answer. Few would give the hardware cost and then pause a little and make a remark such as “Well, we haven't figured out the price for the software and design".

While its good to be entrepreneur minded some of the time, I don't believe people, especially at the academics level should for example invent for the sake of making money. May be its just me, but I felt there was a lot of commercial vibe coming out, perhaps as a result of ties with commercial companies. Nevertheless, this was a really good talented exhibition, I had seen in a while.

Back to the Books

After walking from about 11AM to about 4PM, I ended up buying a LOT of books. Most of them, as you would have guessed were plain old geeky. Here is the list.

  • PHP/Perl Cook Books – I've been putting off buying these, but since there were some good discounts of 200/- to about 500/- per book, I simply couldn't resist!

  • Hardware / Home / Wireless Hacking – Thats three books on fun hobby projects by O reilly. I hope to work on some of the projects as both a means to get back into some electronics and have lots of fun with gadgets.

  • UNIX concepts & applications – A real bargain for this book that was marked as 200/- and sold for 150/-. Only if they knew that most of Unix is still alive and kicking!

  • GENOME – No I didn't mean GNOME, a popular desktop environment. This is actually a popular science book on genes, subtitled as “The autobiography of a species". I actually bought this book about 4 years ago for my X-Girl friend when I was flying down from UK after a short project. Unfortunately we didn't last long enough for me to borrow the book :)

  • Men are from Mars, Women from Venus – Though I've read the book a couple of times, I still feel it impossible to understand Venusians now and then. So I might as well buy the book and keep it under my pillow, just so I see the cover first thing I wake up in the morning.

  • Stories from the History of Ceylon – Shameful as it is, I barely know or remember any! “Only if they could make feature films or animated movies of them." Oh well, at least I got myself a bedtime story book.

Besides buying books, I was lured into buying a 1GB Kingston memory stick with a 5year warranty for just under 8,000/- Guess I'll be installing a full fledge GNU/Linux distro on this baby! to be used as an on the move mini computer.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Phew... Did we pull it off?

After months of going to planning meetings and running around organizing "The biggest FOSS conference", ever in SL, well the FOSS week has finally come to end today. Hopefully we can now sleep a bit longer and breath a little easier.

I'm not going to waste any longer, but just before I hit the sack, I thought I'd recap some of the events for those who'd like to read by refering to blogs and news items.

Keep tuning to this page as I hope to update it as I find more links.



Sunday, September 11, 2005

De ja vu at the Installfest

Today was the last day at the Installfest and my first day attending it. Yesterday my time was totally killed repairing my car A/C and then I had to conduct a lecture at the committee room.

Anyway today as I got to the Installfest De ja vu striked! A guy had brought a mini PDA to install GNU/Linux on to it. Now if you had watched Revolution OS, where coincidently most of us heard of the concept of an Installfest to in the first place, a similar guy comes hoping to install Linux on to tiny machine.

It seemed I was the chosen one to play the person who would have helped that person in the movie (except its never actually shown).

The PDA was an HP Jornada 680. After searching on the net, I came across its hardware specifications and a Linux distribution that was made to put on a Compact Flash (CF) disk. Lucky for me I had a 128MB CF card with me, which I recently bought for my digital camera that only came with 8MB ram.

Jornada 680/690 specifications:
CPU: 133MHz Hitachi SH3
RAM: 16MB(680) or 32MB (690)
Screen: Color, 640x240 pixels
Input: touch screen, laptop-like keyboard
Expansion slots: 1x type I CF and 1x type II PCMCIA
Expansion ports: serial (sync) port
Modem: Internal 56k (not on 680e/690e models)
View image

The steps on the site was quite straight forward except for two problems.

1. There didn't seem to be a CF card reader on the PDA but seemed to only have a PCMCIA slot.

2. I didn't seem to have a CF card reader.

After searching on the net, it didn't take long to discover the hidden CF slot under the PCMCIA slot which can be accessed through a door under the PDA.

After backing up my existing digital photos, I tried to mount the CF card when inside the camera as a normal USB device, but my model doesn't seem to emulate usb-storage. And then I remembered that I had my 30GB USB external hard drive/mp3 player that also had a CF card reader.

After getting that and plugging it to the notebook, I was able to format the CF disk and create 3 partitions using the fdisk utility. The first partition was a 8MB fat 32 which held the boot loader exe (shlo.exe) along with its config file slho.txt and a precompiled kernel for the SH architecture.


The second partition which was 100MB, was formatted to ext2, and the precompiled root file system was extracted to it. The third partition was formatted as a swap partition.

Once the CF card was installed to the PDA, it showed up in the WinCE explorer. Booting Linux was easy as double clicking the shlo.exe file. Initially it did hang the machine for about 45 seconds and then suddenly the display went all black for a beautiful tux logo on a framebuffer console display.



By this time, it was already 5'O clock and time to wrap up the installfest.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Chillin' with the Stars

Picture of me posing with MySQL(David Axmark)/(me) and PHP (Rasmus Lerdorf)

The last two days have been absolutely wonderful hanging out, driving around, chit chatting and going out to dinner with some of the most respected people in FOSS. Most of them were also really good speakers and were a delight to listen to.

Michael Tiemann on G++

Here we are now at the last day of the conference and although there is still a Tutorial on Saturday, I think most of us feel sad that its all coming to an end. I for one may not be attending the Tutorial on Saturday as I will be busy with the Install fest.


The day ended with a panel discussion with different views on the role of Government in promoting and/or adapting FOSS, Women's role in FOSS and how to get more women involved as well as cool thinks each of the panel members like to tinker around with these days.

Finally with a few more snapshots the day came to an end. I must say that even though sometimes I was amazed to be around great people and to see how others were benefiting (including myself ofcourse), most of the time it was just so natural and somewhat normal. Now that we have lit the LAMP in Sri Lanka, its time to make sure it keeps burning.

agenda budandstars
Best of all you get to meet good friends from way back then

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Code Fest

The codefest got on to a somewhat good start with people showing up pretty much on time. WHat we are stuck with now is what problems to solve. Some of the more obvious ones are ofcourse localization issues and writing an installer for Taprobane.

There are some renowned hackers such as NIIBE Yutaka who is a kernel hacker, Kuniyasu Suzaki who maintains the Japanese version of Debian Jr and Kazuki Ohta who works on qt-im.

We killed some time in the morning setting up the machines, connecting to the Wi-Fi network and eating pizza. We also had a visit and a couple of interviews from ETV for the wired program.

Now we have just started introducing each other.

selfintro selfintro2

The pizza finally arrived, a bit late for the international hackers, who had already gone out for food. Oh well, that just meant we had to have more slices than usual. No one complained.


Finally the guys (and girls) settled in for some quality programming:

coding1 coding2

More people walked in to the codefest to checkout what these hackers were upto including the Martin Michlmayr from Debian, Asai from CICC and our very own Ven Mettavihari with a camera crew.

asai_nibee martin_chamindra

Anuradha did a small presentation on the reasons behind building the new Taprobane distributions and what we are currently working on and future improvements. Some plans to improve the kudzu by taking the best of both discover and kudzu was mentioned as well as coming up with a light weight Taprobane version based on iceWM was discussed.


During the Q&A session, Anuradha's claim that Taprobane booted faster was put to the test by Kuniyasu Suzaki. After booting Taprobane and then the Japanese version of Knoppix Jr., Taprobane won by a minute!


Martin was kind enough to give us some Debian stickers to decorate our notebooks. After sticking mine on the front cover, only did he discover I actually ran not Debian but Gentoo! Convincing him that I ran Debian more often on other machines finally kept him from ripping off my sticker :)

debian_logo debian_logo2

At about 7 'O clock most of hackers went to Galle Face hotel for dinner which was sponsered by the CICC. Myself and Martin had a good chat about Debian and the forces supporting and annoying it. There was also several interesting chats on Coconuts and related alcholic drinks as well as banana species. Desert was quite interesting with rice pudding and other familiar courses designed as deserts.


When we got back, Niibe got settled with the group porting Taprobane to the 64bit architecture using a 32bit machine (due to unavailability of a x86_64 machine) by using a cross compiler. Niibe seemed to enjoy discribing the build tool chain required inorder to cross compile as it is his area of expertise.

I went Digital and now I am back..

I've gone silent on the blog since I got DVB cable, and been falling a sleep watching cable more often than not.

But during the day, I have been extremely busy going through some major transformations in my life. Here is the Reader's Digest of what's been happening:

  • I left Virtusa to join another startup building GNU/Linux based devices

  • I've been trying to study for my Msc second semester finals. Sat one exam, two more to go

  • Been extremely busy organizing for the first ever FOSS week happening now (5th - 11th). The scale of this event is gigantic!

  • Been working with schools in and around Colombo on a pilot project to install GNU/Linux and train teachers on FOSS

  • Started a new GNU/Linux distribution with Anuradha called Taprobane. We hope to address some of the issues that are missing on some more popular distros, and make it a convenient and pleasant one to use.

  • A lot of other tweaks to my desktop as usual. I now run Enligtenment

Yesterday we had a very successful FOSSchool's event for both School students and Universities that was held at the UCSC auditorium. The place was jam packed with about 350-400 students and teachers, when there was only room for 240. We had to bring additional chairs and really pack up the place.

The evening session for the University crowd wasn't as packed but we were blessed with some great speeches by the former project lead Martin Michlmayr and Dr.(Mrs.) Shahani Weerawarna who enlightened the students on the vocational/higher educational prospects and how involving in FOSS will help.

Which brings us to today: the Codefest. I am currently sitting at the codefest happening at TransAsia and we hope to code non-stop for 36 hours trying solve different problems on improving GNU/Linux.

I will try to blog more on this as things start happening.

Monday, August 01, 2005

I went Digital!

Finally, I'm on a two week holiday working :) I expect most of my work to be done from home for the next two weeks and so decided I need some quality TV time to relax myself once in a while.

Hence I made sure to pay up front and order CBN Sat, before I went on holiday. This morning I got a call from CBN, notifying me that the Cable Guy was coming for a visit! I was somewhat disappointed when the guy turned up a bit late and looking nothing like the "Cable guy" but was soon excited after seeing the dish and the settop decoder. CBN being the first satellite based DVB cable provider in Sri Lanka, I was quite excited to see how it would look once hooked up to my TV card.

Installation took about a good 2 hours for the cable guys (did I mention two of came?), to mount the dish at 45' east, so that it was high enough to by pass our mango tree that was at line of sight, and get the optimum signal strength/quality possible. Finally they stretched a long coaxial to my room that went into the decoder unit and an S-video cable which I had lying around to my recently bought TV card.

The quality, tough not as great as watching on a real TV set, perhaps due to less than ideal capture capabilities of a cheap TV tuner card, was nevertheless acceptable. I watched TV using one of best FOSS TV viewing application called tvtime. I also got it working in mythTV but the quality wasn't as good since it was caching the video by encoding it before playing, so as to allow for live TV pause functionality.

Anyway for now its all good. Now the only problem is finding time to watch TV. Next on my list is to setup VLC so I can watch TV while I work in my computer/office room.

More on that later....

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

RedHat Launch party....

blackrose Just came back from the RedHat launch party that was held at the Ceylon Continental. By the time I had arrived to the event, it had already begun. The Minister of Technology was about to begin his speech as I sat down. The atmosphere was somewhat dark with a blue spot light shining at center of the stage. Lucky for us, the speech was quite short lived, thanks to other commitments the minister had at the parliament.

After his departure, we were entertained (and some what amused) by two cheesy jazz acts. Perhaps it was because I had seen better acts while visiting Vegas or may be I wasn't in the right mood, but I thought it could've been a bit classier, in terms of better choreography.

Anyway, the first act involved guys and girls wearing black hats, while the second had only two girls wearing red hats. I'm sure there was some hidden encrypted message between the two acts, but I was unable to decipher it, perhaps due to other distractions.

More speeches followed by representatives from ICTA, which included, CEO Manju and chairman Prof. Samaranayake.

This was followed by two speeches by reps from redhat India, who basically highlighted the history and accomplishments of the company and their reasons for coming to Sri Lankan in the first place with an insight into their local strategy.

One thing that striked me as quite interesting was the fact that both redhat reps. and Prof. Samaranayake, were quite careful to sound politically correct as much as possible when delivering their speeches, so as to not upset us, the GNU/Linux community. For example, Redhat said they are keen on promoting Opensource and Linux in the education sector without ever mentioning Redhat in the sentence. Prof. Samaranayake, quite correctly got his history right when he said the movement first began in the Universities and then LKLUG , followed by LSF which made it easier for Redhat to arrive in SL.

Something really good that came out of the event was ofcourse the networking benefits. After a really long time, most active LKLUGers were able to meet face to face in a relaxed party like environment. I think the cocktail event that proceeded the launch ceremony was the killer event that would have spurred a lot of discussion among geeks, business people and other casual visitors.

Only time will tell, if the event was truly successful, but for now it seemed everyone had a good time, thanks to Redhat and their generous pocket :) It was also very good of them to give LKLUG, due credits for promoting GNU/Linux/FOSS, which I hope will motivate more passive members on the list to be more active at an organizational level. With the upcoming events, especially during the first week of September, the more active people there are the better chance we have of succeeding in style.

I end with a quote from M.K Gandhi, that was reminded by one of the redhat rep's speeches...

First they ignore you...,
Then they laugh at you...,
Then they fight you...,
Then you WIN."
-M.K. Gandhi

We are now at the fighting stage. So up next, its time to win!

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Learning the GIMP

Just came back from the GIMP class, which Arunan kicked off today. Though I never considered my self as a GIMP user, nevertheless I was able to do simple tasks such as resizing/cropping/rotating images, removing an object from an image by carefully selecting it or using the sharpen/blur tool to enhance the image.

Most of this knowledge was gained when I was still using Windoze and Photoshop. After I switched over to GNU/Linux platform and started using GIMP, I found myself sort of like in a parallel universe, where GIMP seemed somewhat familiar to Photoshop, with the exception of things not working quite as expected. As time passed, I got used to GIMP; finding how to perform most of the operations I had mastered, except for one: how to work with multiple layers.

On photoshop, when you pasted an image on to another, it is automatically pasted on a separate layer. This makes editing much easier, since you have fine control of the pieces that make up the image. On GIMP, it seemed like the image you pasted got copied to a new layer, but as soon as you click on the canvas, it flattens the image, loosing the layer information. At first it was annoying, but soon I learned to live with it by finding other techniques – until today that is! Thanks to Arunan, now I know how to create and work with layers on GIMP.

The class was quite exciting, as the for of us, which included two monks, worked our way at putting together a vegetable version of “Mr. Potato Head”.

So without any further delays, I present you my creation - “Veg. Potato Head”.

vegitables vegpotato

Friday, June 24, 2005

Leaving on a Jet Plane... don't know when I'll be back again

This morning when I got up, the first thing that came to my mind was Cecilia and what she had said.

The last two days, I followed an “effective writing” course at Virtusa, so that I might improve my writing skills, in other areas besides blogging. The course was quite interesting and often entertaining; thanks to Cecilia's charming and somewhat dramatical ways of presenting material that can sometimes be quite amusing. Here are some excerpts from one of the handouts, which I hope she wouldn't mind that I shamelessly copied.

Signs that lead to misunderstanding!

In a restroom:

In a Laundromat:

Outside a secondhand shop:

There were quite a few more hilarious ones, but I'll refrain from “killing you with laughter”. The above exercise was to rephrase the the sentences, so they are no longer ambiguous nor amusing. I also learned a few interesting examples of the “Sri Lankan variant English”, which we use quite often without ever realizing it.

Anyway getting back to the main topic, one thing that she mentioned and which got me thinking this morning, was the observation that most Sri Lankan's, especially the younger generation, are obsessed with leaving the country and going abroad. This wasn't the first time I've heard it coming from a British citizen that never seemed to like to go back and ended up dying here - the late Phil. I don't really know why it came to my head when I woke up, but I started debating it in my mind as I slowly got ready to go to work.

Then suddenly the underlying problem and solution came to me in a flash, thanks to “The Village”, a movie I watched last week, by Night Shyamalan. If you haven't watched the movie, I wont spoil it by summarizing it here, but what occurred to me was that the problem was mainly due to the difficulty of leaving the country in the first place. People have a disillusioned view of the west as being a picture perfect land of wealth & opportunity.

And while I don't discredit that people have made it so, I can't help but remember some of the things that made Sri Lanka, home sweet home! For example, there are things that we take for granted such as the fact that its easy to get a reasonably good education free of charge all the way up to a University degree (if your smart and lucky), a near free health care system (even private channeling is affordable) and relatively inexpensive transport system (traveling across UK can sometimes cause as much as flying back to Sri Lanka) that is clean (no sticky gum under seats or spray painted walls). And how about walking alone at night, (which is generally safe), you don't always have to watch your back to make sure someone isn't trying to mug you in broad day light or that you can let your kids play outside without having to worry about peter files.

If you think about it, as depicted in the movie, we are somewhat like the innocent village people, who are unable to leave it and head to the town. In our case its worse, because we get to see and hear about the outside world in a stereo typical sense through television, or by seeing someone come back with a lot of money or merchandise when they return.

So what is the solution to curing the illusion that plagues the minds of our younger society, looking to migrate? For me the answer is quite simple actually;. Just as Ivy Walker, was allowed to walk out of the village and go to town, we should make it easier (in terms of visa, or cost of airfare) for anyone to leave the country on a short term basis. I remember when I was away and subsequently working under a lot of pressure on a project, how I longed to come back and just sleep under a mango tree :) Personally, I feel that most Sri Lankan families living abroad are more leaned towards the Sri Lankan ways and culture than those living here. Going abroad on a short term basis also has the added benefit of helping one to realize what we are doing wrong.

Ultimately we need to develop the country so that leaving it for financial reasons is less of a reason, but more importantly to get people in to thinking nationally with a true sense of pride (which is not injected by any political means). The way for this is probably to let more people experience “whats out there”!

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Ubuntu – Getting better but not quite there yet!

It's 3AM in the morning now. I honestly did try to sleep but my room is so damn hot right now! Tried listening to some music on the computer but that didn't work either! Instead of putting me to sleep, my AMD64 box that was playing music was also putting out a considerable amount of extra heat. Finally after several unsuccessful attempts at sleeping I came to the obvious conclusion --- I needed to install Ubuntu.

Now don't get me wrong! Ubuntu is cool distro, but not cool! -- not cool enough to beat the heatwave thats hit my room. This is not why I went about installing Ubuntun, but rather because I've made some honest but rude comments about Ubuntu 4.x, so much so as to even calling it worse than RedHat. Consider this article, giving Ubuntu a second chance.

The Installation

So I set about installing the new version (5.04), to replace the older version 4. The installation went pretty much smoothly except at one place it hung trying to communicate with the gateway, where I wasn't connected to the LAN. I waited patiently for about a minute, hoping that there would be a timeout and the installer would continue/skip, but that didn't seem to happen. I ended up using the busybox console to bring down eth0, which resulted in the installer resuming. From a new user's standpoint this sort of glitch is unacceptable – there should at least be a 30-45 sec. time out, preferably with a count down.

While the text installer has its benefits such as speed, stability and portability across multiple platforms, these are all reasons why its a great installer for Debian and not Ubuntu. From the new user's point of view – a text based installer sucks! Sure winD0Ze installer is also an ugly blue screen text installer, but who wants to be like them! Mandrake, Fedora, Mepis, SUSE all have better installers than anything the Windoze guys have ever experienced and to be frank most new users of these Oses never installed it them selves thanks to OEMS.

As the machine booted it again got stuck trying to synchronize the hardware clock using an ntp server at Ubuntu, even though I wasn't connected to the net. Good thing I knew that I can just press Ctrl + C to continue the boot process, but this process should have gone into the background so as to not stall the boot process. Once the machine booted it took another couple of minutes for system finish completing the installation (similar to debian).

The Applications

The boot up GDM splash screen is elegant and polished. The logon sound is so relaxing and soothing that I could go into a trans. Once on the desktop, I thought the application menu was too simple and boring with only a very few application entries. This viewpoint is probably influenced by my preference for KDE over GNOME, which has a cluttered (in a good way) menu, so we'll leave it at that.

synaptic_easy One of the first improvement that I noticed was the removal of the annoying “spacial browsing” -- a fancy name for a win95 technology! I was also impressed with the speed at which applications such as Openoffice loaded without the help of any external loaders. Synaptic, the graphical front end for the package management system had improved quite a lot since I last had a look at it. It now had two modes, where one resembled an idiot proof Redhat/Fedora like package selection via an Add/Remove dialog box and the other had the more advanced legacy synaptic interface. I was very much surprised to discover that the downlodable version of Ubuntu had offcial drivers for the Nvidia graphic card, which other distros don't distributed with the downloadable version. All I had to do was to tick the package and apply to install the drivers directly from the CD. Updating the xorg.conf need not be done manually anymore – all you needed was to execute ...

$ sudo nvidia-glx-config enable

and restart X. Then came the biggest shock of all! Almost so that I was about to fall out of the chair. This was the first time, I had seen the inclusion of a language pack for Sinhala in any distro! Even though the package didn't actually contain any Sinhala translations or fonts, its encouraging to see that Ubuntu has actually allocated a guy called Martin Pitt to work on brining Sinhala support to Ubuntu. This is definitely a guy LKLUGErs should support and work with.


Ubuntu still falls behind

While I agree that Ubuntu has somewhat improved, it still lacks some vital multimedia features that GNU/Linux user's have come to expect from a distro that is targeted at new users, migrating from the dark side. Since testing the previous version of Ubuntu, the bottom line is that I still cant play DVDs (encrypted or unencrypted), divX, ogm, mpg and other popular movie formats, mp3 etc. Other interesting desktop applications such as Blender (3D animation), K3b (Nero like CD burning), Amarok (funky Mp3 player) or Sribus. While for there are alternative GNOME applications that are included for some of these, I think its a bad idea to rule or all KDE apps from inclusion, especially the popular ones. The same goes for ruling out any popular GNOME apps from Kubuntu (KDE based).

Other features I'd like to see include the creation of automatic mount points to access other partitions, specially any windoze partitions and some desktop icons for god sake! I also think its a mistake for Ubuntu to recompile all the Debian packages, thus potentially breaking binary compatibility with all those existing Debian mirrors. While its true that it really really sucks that Debian still doesn't have xorg, while all the other distros have pretty much migrated, this is still not a good enough reason to recompile everything. I am keen to hear from anyone who might be able to give me a better insight as to why Ubuntu had to take this drastic measure and cut itself loose from Debian.

Finally ...

In conclusion, Ubuntu seems to be making slow but steady progress as far as improving its distro, but making leaps and bounds as far as popularizing itself. With Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, sponsering the “Software Freedom's day”, that will happen on the 10th of September, with a lot of free Ubuntu CD giveaways things can only get better for them. I am looking forward to reviewing Kubuntu, if and when I get a chance to try that out.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Upgrading to kde 3.4 -- differently

I've been waiting to upgrade to kde 3.4 some time now, ever since it was released. Kde is one of the most popular desktop environments available on GNU/Linux mostly due innovative features being added with an overall speed improvement between releases.

Within a matter of hours after releasing kde 3.4, it was (as one would expect) available on Gentoo. But the package was masked for testing as usually the case with most new packages, before it is deemed stable with the distribution.

So I waited and waited, checking to see if it was marked as stable almost daily until..... I ran out of patience. After about a month of waiting, I finally decided it was time to make the switch after reading a review article on kde 3.4 and its new features and improvements.

Installing something as huge as kde using sources, as the case with Gentoo, requires hours and hours of painstaking compilation. Things get worse when there are updates to a few applications contained in a large packages that must be recompiled when ever there are such changes. To solve this Gentoo has recently started using split packages starting with the 3.4 branch. This introduces sub packages that consists of 270+ individual kde applications packaged separately and meta packages that are used to group split packages. (you can read more on this here). This makes it easier to upgrade in the future but with a price to pay -- initial compilation takes even longer than the old method. I wanted to try the new method but didn't want to wait 20-25% longer.

Reader discretion : The following content might lead to dizziness or vomit feelings due to explicit g(r)eek content. Continue reading at your own risk...

Day 1: Welcome to distributed compilation

Initially I wanted to just speedup the compilation process and read that it can be done via a compiler preprocessor (cpp) cacher called ccache. This was good and it seemed to improve things (I didn't bother benchmarking), but I knew it was going to take a long time to compile some 270+ packages. There was another solution by the same good old people who developed ccache and samba called distributed cc (C compiler) or in short distcc.

Distcc is a neat method where you can use a couple of machines in a compiler farm to speed up the compilation process by distributing some of the work to others. Getting distcc to work was a bit challenging in the beginning when I tried to use my desktop machine running Debian Sarge for distcc. The problem was it would compile a small part only to fail miserably stating that i686-pc-li nux-gnu-g++ was missing. This was puzzling me for a while since according to the documentation all you needed was just the same gcc compiler version on all participating nodes and nothing more. After following and failing that avenue, instead, I decided to use a friend's Gentoo box, that was running inside a Vmware session. That finally seemed to work as I felt a fresh breath of relief.

I couldn't complete the compilation of all the packages, since I was spending more time learning and experimenting on the technology. I found myself coming home with another 175 packages left to compile. After getting home, I found myself with a new dilemma. Since my home machine ran a 64bit version of Gentoo, now not only did I need to use distcc but also had to do it using a cross compiler. The cross compiling instructions looked way too complex to try after a long day so I kept trying other things and digging the net until I came across an article written by someone who went through a similar experience. It seemed like I had to emerge a package called emul-linux-x86-compat and recompile gcc and glibc with support for multilib, but it was already too late (2:45AM) by now so instead I decided to call it a day and hit the sack.

Day 2 : The saga continues

I hit the jackpot with the sarge box after I followed an intutive feeling to try to create a symlink called i686-pc-linux-gnu-g++ that pointed to the g++ binary. After that worked, I created another for i686-pc-linux-gnu-gcc.

I spent most of the time trying to optimize the compilation process further by changing parameters. First I tried changing the order of the hosts that was participating with distcc by placing the more powerful Sarge machine as the first entry, followed by localhost and the at last the Vmware Gentoo box. After reading the IBM's article on distcc, I decided to increase the -j option that is used to specify how many sources to compile at once.

By the time I was leaving for home, there was only another 70 packages left. I didn't feel like spending time to fix the cross compiling issue with the 64bit barebone, so instead left the machine to compile the rest on its own and watched a movie instead. All the kde 3.4 packages had finally finished compiling and all though it still did take a long time when compared to compiling the official large kde source packages, this was mainly due to various interruptions and experimentations I did in between.

I look forward to the next kde release, just so that I can feel good about myself for not killing time upgrading it.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

One small step to organizing my life...

The new year holiday break was indeed refreshing, simply because I had missed “sleeping all day” and “working all night”. I always find my self working or studying better at night, provided I have the luxury of being able to sleep all day.

While mom screamed and complained that I should cleanup my room at least once a year, I took the opportunity to continue sleeping fearless and shamelessly throughout the day and left the organizing work for the night. But instead of organizing my room, I opted for organizing my hard drive!

The first thing that I did was to organize the tons of digital pictures I had lying around my hard drive. I had about three years of pictures taken at various events,vacation spots and just plain old home that was lying inside directories upon directories. So I installed one of the best opensource photo albums available, called gallery.

# emerge gallery

gallery Using gallery I was able to define albums and even sub nested albums to upload or move pictures. In the beginning it was tedious and time consuming since I was uploading the maximum limit of 10 pictures at a time while deciding on comments and captions for them. Later I discovered that zipping a whole directory of pictures and uploading the zip file was far more efficient. Unfortunately gallery didn't support tar.gz or tar.bz2 file formats that are resembled as “more FOSS”.

Once I got bored uploading pictures after a couple of hours, I decided it was time to play with another tool I had installed some time back, called Tellico.

Tellico is a collection manager that can be used to manage collections and has off the shelf support for books, audio cd, DVD/Movies, stamps, wine etc. You can even define other collections through its extensible interface and best of all its Free & OpenSource software!

I had a lot of DVDs lying around my table, so I first started to enter them in. The great thing about Tellico is its ability to search for a DVD title, actor or keyword on the Internet through portals such as Amazon or IMDB and display results. Once found a match you can have Tellico add that as a new record, thus saving valuable time that would otherwise be spent to enter a lot of meta details. Over a very short period and using a slow dialup, I was able to enter my 50 or so collection of DVDs. What actually took some what a longer time (which I hope is a feature that will be available in a future version), is to manually search for pictures of the DVD covers on amazon.


One note of caution is that Tellico stores the complete collection in a single flat file that can result in the file becoming slow as the file grew. Therefore it is recommended that large pictures not be included and if possible to not include pictures at all and instead use a URL that points to the picture on the hard drive. Since my DVD collection is considerably smaller (compared to a video store), I nevertheless stored the images internally but only after properly resizing them. I used the following shell script to resize the amazon pictures to a more reasonable thumbnail size.

for img in *.jpg
newimg=`echo $img|sed -e "s/\.jpg//g"`
echo converting $img
convert $img -resize 200x $newimg-s.jpg
echo done.

Tellico provides several export options such as html or xml to publish your collection. I tried the html export of the my DVD collection and it generated a page containing a list of title that was hyper linked to a separate html page that had a picture of the DVD cover and details, similar to the main interface. Another useful feature includes the ability make note that the item is on load and who has borrowed it (by means of a comment).

Once that was done, I went ahead and managed to enter a few books that were also lying on my table and some off the book shelf. By then I was too lazy to go look for pictures of the books so went to sleep at 4 AM in the morning, while my table and room continued to be in a state of disarray.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

I am back...

Its been ages since I last blogged and I think I've gotten a bit rusty. Been busy with office work towards the end of the financial year and then to find that I'm supposed to hand over a project for my 3D advanced graphics class. It was one of those mission impossible projects, considering I haven't even had a look at OpenSceneGraph, the open source C++ graphics API, I had to build this using. If that wasn't enough!, my car just suddenly broke down last Friday on my way to work and ended up eating my whole day of Friday and half of Saturday. Luckily as if through a miracle, the lecturer listened to the plea of many and extended the dead line... thank you sir!

Yesterday I finally managed to remaster knoppix based on 3.7 for a friend to put on the next issue of the upcoming magazine - IT Times. The problem I've been struggling is that the ISO I remastered would boot on some machines and not on others. Apparently the exact instructions on most of the Knoppix remaster HOWTOs didn't yield a version that boots on all desktops. By trial and error and modifying the mkisofs command I discovered that on some CD/DVD ROMS having the -J option (Juliet) didn't produce a bootable knoppix CD. When I changed it to -R (RockRidge) it worked fine. So if you ever remaster knoppix and find that the final ISO doesn't boot try the following command instead to create the ISO.

mkisofs -l -r -R -v -V "KNOPPIX desktop" -no-emul-boot -boot-load-size 4 -boot-info-table -b boot/isolinux/isolinux.bin -c boot/isolinux/ -hide-rr-moved -o /mnt/remaster/knoppix_desktop.iso /mnt/remaster/master

I handed the CD to my friend Suchetha, who took it over to the IT Times magazine and wowed them. This months issue of the magazine is out and its only 150/= (rupees) which is worth the quality of material and the fact you get a free CD with it.

Well that's it from me for now. The sinhala/tamil new year is just around the corner so I will have some time to work on some interesting stuff.

Happy sinhala & tamil new year!

Monday, March 14, 2005

A taste of Eye Candy ...

I had a good weekend not doing much work except for playing around with my gentoo box adding some eye candy for a sexier desktop. It all started on Saturday when I woke up in the morning and suddenly decided I wasn't going for classes. Instead I opt to goto Expograhics to pick up some books. Its been a while since I've went book shopping as reflected by the 5,500/= bill! Oh well more books to my collection that I would read some day when I'm old and retired (good thing that linux books don't become obsolete).

Anyway after a tiring day walking around fort and carrying a ton of books, I came home just dozed off for about two hours. After a good rest and feeling a little better I started researching for an article I am writing on Linux and Hardware. Soon I was distracted and was searching to get 3D acceleration working on my IGP 340 graphic card that came on my notebook. I had this working some time back on Xfree86 4.3.99 using a 3rd party patch, but now that I was on Gentoo it used xorg instead. After some googling it was evident that my card was already officially supported by the xorg server. All I had to do was to emerge x11-drm && opengl-update.

3D performance wasn't all that awesome! It was at a disappointing below 400 fps. May be I can tweak it further to squeeze some more fps out of it but will have to wait and see. For now that seemed good enough to run all those opengl screen savers :) Next I installed the 3ddesk package that can be used to switch between virtual desktops. I set a shortcut Ctrl+Alt+3 to run the 3ddesk when I need to switch.


Next I wanted to try out the experimental composite support on xorg that allows you to get some further eyecandy effects such as drop down shadows and translucency! Lucky for me I found a good article on that. I set a short cut Ctrl+Alt+T, so that I can click on any window to make it transparent.


Well that's it for now. More fun next weekend :)