Let’s be clear:  I am a stubborn git.  I’m the first to admit it.  To the dismay or, perhaps, bemusement of my friends, I struggle with product concepts such as the iPhone, iTunes, Amazon Kindle, eBooks in general, Facebook and Skype.

My friends tell me it’s because I don’t like to conform with the “normal” things that everyone else does.  Things like broadcasting my whereabouts and the company I keep at all times in my life, wherever I am.  Apparently, disagreeing with the background, terms of service, patenting practices and Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) of various “social media” service providers is anti-social and rebellious. 

It’s a curious thing to be a digital pariah.

What my friends don’t understand is that I don’t restrict my opinions to Apple, Facebook Inc., Microsoft and Amazon.  It’s just that they’re the companies my friends use, so to relate to them I cite them as examples.  I feel exactly the same way towards some of Google’s services and products, although I do have slightly more faith in Google than any of the above named alternatives.  They do more good, in my opinion.  And, with Google, at least you have confidence in being able to delete anything you create.

My main objections to these services & products, then, are:

  • privacy: I do not wish to be “guilty by association” on any social network.  Being tagged without my permission, and/or the attempt of tagging me (whether I disallow or permit the tag – or ignore the attempt to tag) is not acceptable.  It is especially unacceptable when I have no faith that the service provider will protect my interests as a private individual and law-abiding citizen.  
  • security: anyone remember when the iPhone took pictures of its users without their knowledge?
  • product quality: I am not interested in any iDevice because of the standard of software engineering and product management.  I am also not interested due to the restrictive rules of the app store.
  • freedom and flexibility: smartphones are good if they are flexible.  If I buy any device with gigabytes of storage, I want to be able to use it for whatever purpose I choose.  And, I don’t want to use any device:
  • with a proprietary connector which requires an expensive proprietary cable to connect it to a computer;
  • which uses a proprietary, “secret” protocol that my chosen computer can’t connect to; 
  • that virtually prohibits me from putting my own digital content on the device, rather than that obtained through the device vendor’s sales channel;
  • that supports in any way the obscuring of content I have a right to, or in some way supports an ecosystem where the alteration, deletion or other control of content is deemed “acceptable” through the EULA;
  • that limits me!
  • On this last point, it worries me that Google Inc are appearing to adopt the Apple way of doing things on their Nexus devices – and in their cloud software.  Not being able to use additional data storage (no SD card in a phone, in this instance) means a greater reliance on the Google way of doing things.  Android software is becoming less flexible with regard to media storage (the camera app no longer lets you select the photo storage location, for example, although Android still supports external SD cards and will utilise media stored on it).
There is a greater trend also: that of the death of physical media and moving everything “into the cloud”.  There are a few fundamental problems with this:
  • Physical media can be shared and enjoyed by more than one person.  Sharing is not copying nor is it stealing.  If I am attending a family gathering – a party, say, then I am free to bring along a couple of CDs to play.  How can this simple act be replicated by cloud-only storage?  If we all use cloud-storage network devices at home, sharing a CD will become impossibly.  
  • One solution to this, touted by a friend, was to “bring along your iPod“.  Disregarding that I wouldn’t have an iPod, introducing this as a solution means I would have to ensure that my portable music player is up to date with all my music.  A solution to that is, of course, a cloud-based music service – iTunes and Google Play Music are two obvious contenders.  But there’s a further problem: connectivity.  Is a 3.5mm headphone plug to amp/speakers standard equipment in most households?  Unlikely.  So there my music stays, locked inside my device unable to be shared.
  • Books.  I can pick up a physical book, read it, share it.  I will probably get my book back if the borrower is respectful, thus I haven’t been denied it in the process of lending.  Can the same be said of eBooks?  Can one “lend” an eBook to a friend?  Perhaps.  More worryingly, though,, can it even be guaranteed that any digital eBook provider will not alter original material or remove any purchased books from my library?  Again, unlikely.
  • We begin to see, further and further, that DRM is abused by on-line content providers.  We are restricted in new ways that the old ways couldn’t (and shouldn’t) prevent.  It is troubling that access to information is price-controlled in this way; entire cultural values can and will be influenced by the (lack of) availability and slowly, surely, belief systems and perceptions of free thinking and free will may be curtailed, even ceasing to (legally) exist.   Hello, 2084. 
    This is why I will not lock my photo, book or audio content in any on-line silo.  I will always have off-line access to my copies of digital media and I encourage others to do this also.
    Does this make me a stubborn git? Or does this make me someone who is not prepared to endure extortionate business practices with items as important as art, literature and music…?

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    I was recently asked to explain the difference between setting permissions on a directory to either 755 or 751.
    In 751 mode, a user who isn’t the owner and isn’t in the group assigned to that directory can still execute anything within that directory, provided they know the name of the executable file.  They are unable to browse the contents of that directory to find the name.  Therefore, 751 is inherently more secure than 755.

    The funky, geeky bit

    For reference, each number of 7 5 1 is an octal representation of the number of permission bits set on the file/folder.  There are 3 bits per field.  
    Taking the 7, from 751, this means all bits are set to 1.  This is how it works (think of it like a lookup table):
    meaning:     r   w   x    (read, write, execute)
    bit value:   4   2   1    (< - this is  the octal lookup bit)
    bit set to:  1   1   1    == 4 + 2 + 1 == 7.
    If you take the value 5, then this is how that’s set in the bit fields:
    bit set to:  1   0   1      == 4 + 0 + 1 == 5.
    Remember, there are three fields!  So each field – the “owner”, “group” and “others” fields – contains the sum of permission bits set for that field.  The “751” is actually a nice, easy way to see permissions.  The actual permissions set in a 751 situation are, in binary “nibbles”, 0111, 0101 and 0001. 

    Demo – try it yourself!

    As root, set up a test dir in /tmp/ called test, with 751 perms.  Then create a file within that called hello.sh which simply outputs “hello” on the command line when executed.  To achieve that, simply do this (as root, remember):

    # mkdir /tmp/test

    # touch /tmp/test/hello.sh

    # chmod +x /tmp/test/hello.sh

    Then edit /tmp/test/hello.sh and put these two lines in:

    echo Hello
    /tmp/test is owned by root (rwx / 7) , has the root group (r-x / 5) and the "world" just has execute (--x / 1).  When using your own user account, trying to do a ls /tmp/test - should tell you that permission was denied.  

    However, you should be able to do /tmp/test/hello.sh which outputs "Hello" as expected.  

    If you bump that world permission to r-x / 5, you would be able to see that file because ls has the necessary permission to read the directory contents.

    Minimalism & Debian

    Less is more, as the saying goes.

    While I love using Fedora in my daily work, sometimes when I want to relax I find using an alternative distribution is good therapy.  Fedora is fabulous with its GNOME Shell finery, but occasionally I hanker for something simpler and more lightweight.  It’s also good to see how the other half lives 🙂

    So, I decided to put Debian on my netbook.  With no GUI.  Everything I do on it must be by the command line, including web research.  Compared to Fedora, Debian‘s system requirements are practically non-existent, which is especially good if you want your system to still run nice and quick.

    First steps…

    1. Firstly, I had of course to grab the distribution.  I’m not over-fussed about running cutting edge stuff on this machine.  For me, the most important thing is a low-maintenance base where I don’ t need to think much about the distribution changing every 6 months.

      I visited the Debian Mirror List and grabbed a NetInst CD image.

    2. Next off, I plugged in the USB CD/DVD drive and installed the software, making sure I didn’t overwrite my XP partition.  Well, you need a reminder every so often how awful life used to be.. 😉
    3. I won’t go into the installation process here – there’s plenty of documentation elsewhere which covers that.  So, once installed, I really wanted to keep the installed software as trim as possible.  That is, with one or two exceptions…
    1. Firstly, I have tried and tried it again but I just can’t/don’t/won’t do vi, vim or anything similar.  It’s just not my bag.  It’s emacs for me.  I also want to keep my mail inside emacs, so it’s goodbye to mutt – even if it does suck less, apparently 😉
    2. Also, Exim4.  The servers I manage don’t use it (generally it’s Postfix or QMail) and I already have a tiny smattering of Sendmail knowledge – so I have no desire to pick up on this.  I’m sure it’s a fine MTA and undoubtedly there are many technical reasons why I should keep it on my netbook… but even so, no thanks.

      Therefore, my software changes are:

      $ sudo aptitude remove exim4 exim4-base exim4-config exim4-daemon-light vi mutt

      $ sudo aptitude install emacs w3m-el sendmail

  • So far so good.  However, I was still stuck with a chunky 80×25 character screen when booting up, which is real ugly.  Through much searching and grub configuration editing, I found that my answer was actually to install the intel video package.

    $ sudo aptitude install xserver-xorg-video-intel

    You’re on to a winner here, because Debian Squeeze is already set up for Kernel Mode Setting.  In other words, as soon as your system starts booting up, the video drivers get loaded and the optimal video mode is enabled (or, at least, that’s the intention).

    Whether or not it’s worth specifying screenmode in grub is open for debate.  FWIW, I put this in /etc/default/grub:


    … And in /etc/grub.d/40_custom:

    set gfxpayload=1024x600x16

    Then, I simply updated grub with the new config:

    $ sudo update-grub

    Please note that this step relates to my Intel-based netbook.  Yours may vary.

  • The only significant piece of the puzzle remaining was to get wireless sorted out and connect to my server:

    $ sudo aptitude install wireless-tools iw wpasupplicant autofs nfs-common

    ** PLEASE NOTE: this step assumes your wireless network device doesn’t require firmware or that you already have the firmware installed in /lib/firmware. **

    Once done, you need to uncomment the /net line in /etc/auto.master and restart autofs:

    $ service restart autofs

    If you want to refer to server by hostname and are not running a DNS server, add the hostname to /etc/hosts (somewhere below the localhost lines):

    111.222.333.444      myserver.mydomain.com  myserver

    At this point, assuming all went well, you can cd to /net/ in either the shell or a file manager such as nautilus (if running a GUI).

    So, this takes care of a basic local network configuration, but we still need to actually get connected to it on wifi.  So, there is, in my /etc/network/interfaces:

    # The loopback network interface
    auto lo
    iface lo inet loopback

    # The primary network interface
    allow-hotplug eth0
    iface eth0 inet dhcp

    # Wireless
    auto wlan0
    iface wlan_mynet inet dhcp
    wpa_ssid my-network-ssid
    wpa-psk  my-network-key

    Once done, save this file and change the permissions for extra security:

    $ sudo chmod 0600 /etc/network/interfaces

    – and connect up, like this:

    $ sudo ifup wlan0=wlan_mynet

  • Voila!  With luck, maybe a little patience, and possibly an extra step or two (which you can hopefully figure out, if needed) these are the key set up steps which will make your netbook/laptop nice and lean, and perhaps more fun to play with.

    Next time, I’ll go through a few tools I use for ‘net stuff.

    Strong headline maybe, but if you’re not on Google+ then you might consider your stance after reading this.

    Jeri Ryan, best known as borg escapee “Seven of Nine” in Star Trek:Voyager, hosted a Hangout today on Google+, in celebration of having over 1 million fans subscribing to her feed.

    Someone lucky enough to participate
    in Jeri Ryan’s hangout!

    There was a lot of buzz around it, with hundreds of comments flying around under the Hangout post, updating in real time.  It was pretty hard to get a video stream from Google, such were the number of simultaneous subscriptions.

    In many ways, this reminded me of the excitement of the early internet, where we learned about things such as bandwidth… The kids today, they have everything!

    Still, the excitement wasn’t only in the new broadcast/interaction (intercast?!) method through G+ hangouts, it was the realisation that, should they choose, celebs can now use a nice, safe way of engaging with their fan base.  Directly.  Over time, this may disarm broadcast controllers and empower people, be they celebrities or fans, into collaboration through constructive, enriching dialogue.

    Wil Wheaton, self-confessed geek and well-known actor likewise, was notably impressed with hangouts.  It was refreshing to see people observing great netiquette while chatting with Jeri.  How much more enjoyable, this, than suffering typically mundane updates as you might in another social networking system.

    As Google measures and expands upon functionality in G+, I hope they’ll see fit to bring more interactive tools to the table.  I get the feeling that hangouts are just the start of the next revolution.  As Android gathers increasing momentum and Google+ apps appear on both major mobile platforms, we could see real-time social networking emerge as the number one communication method.

    People, known and unknown to each other, will communicate, partly in mimicry, utilising all tools at their disposal.  And, with open source platforms gathering adoption, they will inevitably add both their biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. 

    Resistance, my friends, is futile.

    UPDATE – here’s the recording:

    It takes a long time to ditch those applications with which you’re intimately familiar.

    It starts, quite often, with your Office Suite.  No, I’m not talking about desk and chair, but rather Microsoft Office.  Excel is an excellent spreadsheet tool, there’s no doubt of that.  But quite often, people like to work differently to the prescribed “norm”, and Libre Office allows just that.  It’s not the only open source office suite, of course: there’s also KOffice, the Abiword/Gnumeric combiniation and so on.

    Recently I’ve ditched other proprietary applications which I have worked with for years.  Why?  Well, for one I believe that switching applications is good, because it challenges you to think differently.  You have to learn new ways of doing old things, and this can help you think of new, better things to do.

    Secondly, you get no love with proprietary applications.  Time and again, you pay your money and end up getting no support.  So, really, what is the point?  I’m not just talking about Microsoft, either; many proprietary software vendors are only able to make a profit by re-packaging open source software and selling access to it from within a proprietary system. Parallels, I’m thinking of you here.

    The only way to beat companies is to not buy their products. It’s this simple.  Here are the ways I have ditched proprietary software:

    • Operating System: was Microsoft Windows XP, is now Fedora (16, currently)
    • Email:  was Microsoft Outlook, is now Mozilla Thunderbird
    • Office: was Microsoft Office, is now Libre Office
    • Web Browser: was always Firefox 😉
    • ..the list goes on…

    Through a lens – of an Android
    A telescope for Christmas is one of the best presents a boy can ever have – even one in his thirties!
    This “kid” here was the lucky recipient of a Sky-Watcher SK1309EQ2 – the first reflecting telescope I’ve owned. Using a reflector is really straightforward and a lot of fun.
    Learning the difference between an equatorial mount and an alt-az mount is really the first order of business. Comprehending how to manage mounting the ‘scope, and tracking celestial objects as they circumnavigate the night sky, helps in understanding one’s position on the planet in relation to these heavenly bodies.
    As you start spending time watching the night sky, your eyes become more sensitive to it. Focus on a particular area and, over time, more stars emerge. As I’m discovering, training the eye is as important a task as focusing the viewfinder.

    Capturing the image is somewhat more of a challenge.  Have a look at my first photo album of moon shots – taken with a dash of luck through the camera lens of a Samsung Galaxy S mobile phone, pointing straight into the telescope’s eyepiece.

    The best part of using a telescope, though, is sharing the experience. Luckily for me, that means spending more time with the beautiful girl who was so kind to buy the device.
    Which makes me wonder, am I simply the vehicle for somebody’s feminine geekism..? 😉

    I’ve decided to go “old school” with some of my free time this year.  For some time, I’ve had (in storage) an Amiga A4000T computer – the top spec with Cyberstorm PPC card, CyberVision graphics card, some SCSI disks, 128MB (remember when you could run an O/S in that??) and so on.

    Although the Amiga was always designed to work with analogue video standards (NTSC / PAL), the prevalence of VGA monitors in the 1990s meant that the old “miggy” had to adapt.  One of the great features of the CyberVision card was that it could redirect video from the integral AGA graphics chipset and display Workbench (or anything, it would seem) through the video card instead.  This was no small feat of engineering and, in my opinion, is partly what made computing in the 1990s so interesting; ingenuity, innovation, invention.

    Above, AmigaForever© screenshot showcasing OS 3.1.

    Left: The Amiga’s Kickstart, prompting for a boot disk.  

    My 4000T has seen better days, granted.  Certainly as far as the operating system install and configuration is concerned – the video above shows that I can look forward to the pleasure of installing OS 3.9.  Or perhaps I might investigate OS4 which will harness my PowerPC chip, thanks to the hard work at Hyperion Entertainment.
    Whichever, I am still surprised that for a 15 year old machine everything seems so, well, reliable!  The fact that the phase5/DCE CyberStorm/Vision hardware is operational, and the system starts up acceptably, is really testimony of the longevity of ancient hardware.
    I’m really looking forward to exploring this machine again, and seeing what has recently been uploaded to Aminet.
    Old habits die hard.  Happy New Year 🙂

    Mozilla Firefox word mark. Guestimated clear s...
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    Stupid Firefox 7!  It doesn’t recognise my plug-ins!  But they did work in FF3.5.  What gives?!!!

    Ok, perhaps I’m overreacting.  In fact, I am.  Sorry.

    I use #CentOS for my daily work which includes the rather antiquated Firefox v3.5.  Ouch.  As a web developer, it’s good to test on legacy browsers but it’s also important to use the latest – so I updated to the latest Firefox (v7, at time of writing).

    Because my desktop machine (HP Opteron ML115) has 6GB of RAM, I typically use the x86_64 (64-bit) edition of #Firefox.  However, unlike Firefox v3.5, v7 doesn’t seem to pick up my plug-ins automatically from /usr/lib64/mozilla/plugins.

    To fix this, I had to open a shell and navigate into my home directory‘s mozilla plugins directory (I didn’t even know this existed until now!).

    cd ~/mozilla/plugins
    Then, just fix up all the missing symlinks:

    ln -s /usr/lib64/mozilla/plugins/* .

    No problemo!  They’re now all back again at about:plugins  🙂

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    Linux User & Developer magazine
    – a good read while having your car MOT’d

    I was delighted to take my car to Swiftest in Aldershot this morning, for one simple reason (see pic – and no, it wasn’t because of the coffee, although that helps!)

    Female Friendly policy:
    A Good ThingTM

    In fact, there are two good reasons to use Swiftest in Aldershot.  Three, actually.

    First, the aforementioned reading material.

    Second, the professional, helpful and polite staff (Rob, James & co).

    Lastly, it has to be the “Female Friendly” policy.  I was there first thing (7:30am) for my car to be MOT’d, and the only other two customers to come in at this early hour were both female.  I’d say that was testimony enough.