Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Xorg is ruining my life!

It would be hard to state how much I was looking forward to the Ggaphic user interface for multiple monitors that was supposed to arrive with Gutsy. Since the beginning of the school year I've had a pretty nice VAIO laptop that used to be my principal's machine (she got a new macbook), but I've been unable to use it at all with a projector to show slideshows and the like to the staff during presentations or meetings. Perhaps designing and implementing a reliable GUI for external monitors and projectors is more difficult than I understand, but this is a such HUGE issue for so many people that I'm honestly appalled that it hasn't been addressed sooner.

In any case, all is to be fixed with Gutsy right? I mean I'd seen screenshots of the Multiple Monitors GUI since the beta releases. How great would it be to be able to just connect a VGA projector to my laptop and mirror the output? I mean, under Windows MCE the machine does it AUTOMATICALLY! I just plug in the cable with the projector on and BAM! it's up on the screen. It should honestly be this easy under Ubuntu too. Alas it is not.

I wrote last time about my disappointment with the Multiple Monitors GUI on my classroom computer, but today has been an absolute debacle. Not only did the GUI not work (surprise, surprise) but after doing some command line junk (which again, should NEVER be necessary) and actually getting the setup to work fine, my Xorg server crashed and as I type this, Edubuntu is reloading all over again. Crap.

So I'm sure there's a very good reason the GUI doesn't work. I've actually read about it on the forums and whatnot, something to do with specific video cards or something. Here's the thing though: I Don't Care. This is something that "just needs to work". It's unacceptable that something this necessary requires me to scour forums, sort through a bunch of stuff about changing device drivers, xrandr, my Xorg.conf file and then eventually leads me to try some command line code that appears to work but also crashes my system.

The good news is that bulletproofX is coming with Hardy Heron and is supposed to solve these problems the way windows did way back in the last millennium, namely by defaulting to a basic GUI display set instead of just crapping out entirely. So if you thought I was anxious for this change before Gutsy, you can imagine how I'm feeling right now. Hoping beyond all hope. -joe

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Weddings, firestorms, my first impressions of Gutsy, and Manhattan Rats

Well my wedding is only 12 short days away. Things are getting pretty crazy but I've actually been able to find some relief in tinkering around with the Gibbon a bit (the latest version of Ubuntu is codenamed Gutsy Gibbon for all you n00beez out there). I heard time and again how much work a wedding is to plan when I got engaged, but I guess I thought that weddings are only as difficult as you make them. And while I still kind of believe that still, I now realize that almost every woman is going to make their wedding as difficult as they can possibly stand, which means that planning your wedding is going to be a lot of work.

I had actually been pretty far behind in my own responsibilities with the wedding (it didn't help that I was gone two weekends ago to Seattle for an International Baccalaureate training) when the fires struck Southern California. A lot of us were doubting whether we would be able to fly into San Diego from Seattle at all. Fortunately we all got home safe and I don't think anyone from our school was evacuated or hurt at all. The fact that school was canceled for the rest of the week didn't hurt as far as catching up on my wedding responsibilities either (or my Gutsy tinkering for that matter). I guess you have to try and look on the bright side of bad situations sometimes.

So my first impression of Gutsy was not as good as I might have hoped. I spent several hours on Ubuntu Day trying to upgrade my existing teacher station just to have it crap out on me at the end and revert back to Feisty. Then I downloaded the .iso file a couple of times only to have the discs be corrupted somehow. I was able to upgrade from feisty on my laptop, but at the end when it was supposed to remove the old programs it froze up and I had to restart. For a few days I was kind of suspicious of the whole thing and when I finally got back from Seattle I decided to just do a clean install which meant losing Windows XP MCE altogether.

The .iso I downloaded this third time worked fine, so now I'm Windowsless and loving every minute. I like the codec search and install feature like many others have mentioned (although I still can't watch videos for some reason, but yahoo videos look great!) and I also definitely spent a couple of hours tinkering with the Compiz settings last night so I could watch walls of fire burn up my closed applications and whatnot. Otherwise I really don't notice much that different about Gutsy from Feisty.

There are still a number of things that annoy me about the OS, like my mouse settings aren't adjustable and it takes me three swipes to move it completely across the screen. I also tried out that FOSS flash alternative and it bombed right off the bat. They shouldn't includ that as an option at all unless it's ready for primetime. I was able to successfully and completely upgrade my classroom computer this afternoon, but the built in monitor control wasn't able to access my attached projector and I had to configure it through the nVidia controls like I do every time either the computer or projector is turned off (really annoying). I will admit that I haven't tried Gutsy as a thin client server yet and they are supposed to have sped up some things on that front so I'll have to get back to you on that one.

Mostly I was just looking for the big leap I saw from Edgy to Feisty and was kind of disappointed not to see it right off the bat. Maybe I just wasn't as familiar with Ubuntu back then or I had higher expectations, but I think the situation was more akin to the rats in Manhattan. Allow me to explain:

About two years ago a poll was taken in NYC that asked citizens what their number one problem was with the city. The surprising top result: rats. There were varying speculatory lines of thought about why this might have happened. Were rats moving into new areas of the city? Where there more of them or where they just getting bigger and bolder? Why have rats suddenly become such a concern? The real answer was much simpler though: all of the previous top concerns had been addressed and thus moved lower on the list. Two years ago NYC was doing pretty well. Crime wasn't as big a problem anymore, the economy was doing well, police and firefighters were doing a good job and people were happy with both their Mayor and Governor. Thus the citizens had no greater concern in their lives at the time except the rats that had alwasy been there but now assumed the top spot among the city's problems.

Similarly Ubuntu has come a long, long way since I started using it back in the Dapper days. Most of the top concerns were addressed in the Edgy and Feisty releases with bulletproof X being the only major thing I can find taken care of with Gutsy. I never had a problem with Feisty and display resolutions or the like so I haven't noticed any change at all. Mostly I'm just busy complaining about small things that would have been silly to complain about just a year ago. Who cares if your mouse doesn't respond exactly how you like it when your wireless card doesn't even work? Who cares about rats when your car keeps getting stolen?

In any case, Gutsy strikes me as the next step in a natural progression of Ubuntu releases. That is, releases that solve a myriad of minor problems left unaddressed by the previous release, but that lack the revolutionary changes and improvements of the earlier versions. And while I'm happy to take what I can get, I'm not going to forget which wheel gets the grease. Steady Squeakin' -joe

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ubuntu Day and understanding operating systems through the metaphor of automobiles

It is ridiculous how much I look forward to days like today. They only come around a couple of times a year and I honestly look forward to them like I do for a movie that I heard was being made two years before its release date. Yes, today is Ubuntu Day, the day the latest release of Ubuntu hits the streets and my computing life is filled with optimism.

Much has been written about Gutsy Gibbon and all the new features it supposedly contains. I have high hopes myself that this latest release will solve some of the most annoying problems that I have blogged about in this space. I think most of all though I look forward to Ubuntu release days because they each show such progress toward a final admirable goal. My cousin once told me about a mix tape his friend had made and titled "approaching perfection". This to me sums up nicely the work attitude of the folks at Canonical and in the Ubuntu community (of which I try to do my small part within) and each release day just serves as a tangible example of how everyone's efforts come together to further that elusive goal.

This may seem hard for some people to understand but I think the best way I can explain it is to use an automobile as a metaphor. Imagine that you are shopping for a car and basically you have two choices. The first car is extremely popular but unreliable and kind of boring although it does come with a myriad of options and add-ons. The real problem with this car though is that thieves are constantly trying to break into it no matter where you go. This means that you are forced to take all kinds of precautionary measures which not only add to the expense of the car but also hinder its aerodynamics and cause the car to travel far slower than it might otherwise. Then, every five years or so a new version of the car comes out, except the same problems persist and the new version not only requires you to pay for the new car, but also give up the old one.

The second type of car is very stylish and highly reliable but not much else. Aside from being much more expensive than the first type of car the second type is almost completely uncustomizable. It comes in only a couple of colors with scant options and almost no third party add-ons are supported although add-ons that are made by the car company work flawlessly and even color-coordinate. If you are a mechanic, this car is the worst because if it breaks you must buy parts from the manufacturer and it is practically impossible to trick out the car to any degree.

Then, as you are shopping you come across a third car. This car has at least as many problems as the other two, the main one being that it is far more difficult to drive than the other two, practically requiring a different license if you intend to use it on certain roads. It also only works with certain add-ons which frequently require help from a mechanic to install. But it's reliable, isn't attractive to thieves, comes in lots of colors with lots of options and has one big advantage over the other two cars: its free.

So you "buy" the third car and within a few weeks start wondering if you've made the wrong decision. You start running into problems you know wouldn't have been an issue with the other two cars and start tallying up the hours you spend fixing your car against the money you saved by buying it. Then, six months to the day after you bought the car the manufacturer comes to your house and drops off a brand new car! This new car still has problems, but not as many as the other car did and you feel like the time you spent fixing the other one helps you to drive this new one even better. You're feeling good about your purchase and happy with how things are going when, six months later, the manufacturer drops off another new car! This one is even better than the second one they gave you and fixes almost all the problems you hated about the first one. There are still some annoying things you don't like, but you know that in six months you'll get another new car and just the thought of that day arriving makes you feel positive and hopeful.

That's the best I can do to describe what Ubuntu Day is for me. It represents new hope and new possibilities. I guess all there is to do now is find out what's wrong with it. Upgraaaaade....GO! -joe

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Found a colleague from the UK and got a good tip on my BIOS issues. Gotta love my Internets!

Now I would never describe myself as a "Mac person". I got strange looks just a few minutes ago from a co-worker when I told her I had never used iTunes (which is really only partly true as I did try it out when it was first released and found winamp to be far superior). Nevertheless the school does have about a dozen of the old colorful clamshell iBooks sitting around with about 128 MB RAM or something ridiculous. In any case I thought I might be able to boot these suckers up like a normal thin client except I didn't know how to get into the Mac BIOS (silly me, BIOS is for PCs not Macs).

So I start googling around stuff like "Mac thin client" and come across the old free software magazine article on Edubuntu and thin clients that has basically been my guiding light for this whole project (nevermind it hasn't exactly guided me flawlessly). Although I'm sure I've read the comments at the bottom of the post before yesterday I'd never noticed a particular comment that mentioned a blog on Edubuntu and LTSP before. For whatever reason I checked out the blog and found out that the author was basically doing the exact same thing as me at an elementary school in England. Best of all he had some insight into some issues I was unaware of (hard to believe considering the amount of time I spend reading about Edubuntu).

I left a comment on his blog in the hopes of talking about tech issues and then wrote my own entry on the BIOS issues. You can imagine my surprise then to find this afternoon that I not only had a comment on my own blog but a comment with a pretty nifty tip for fixing my BIOS problem. Apparently the BIOS is sustained on the motherboard by a battery that I can simply remove and then reinsert later at which the BIOS should be reset. I'm stoked to try this out, but even more stoked to have a colleague who not only knows about this stuff but is interested in it and willing to help out. I guess I knew that the Ubuntu community was pretty helpful but the Edubuntu community is so small that it's nice to find another person in the same boat.

I'm sure I'll be back to complaining about how my scanner doesn't work right, but for now I'm feeling pretty optimistic about everything. (btw, I never did get the iBooks to work). Cheers -joe

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Locked out of BIOS, LTSP won't work right

This summer AEA was the beneficiary of a generous donation of a dozen Dell P4 3.0 GHz towers. I quickly resolved to use these towers as servers for both the inside and outside labs, as well as the library and some classrooms where I anticipated heavy use. Of course at the time I believed that a gig of RAM with a P4 running at that speed would be more than enough for what I was trying to do. I now know better. In any case I quickly came across the minor annoyance of being locked out of the BIOS on about 4 of the donated towers. "Not a big deal," I told myself, I could easily install the LTSP on an unlocked machine and swap hard drives with a locked machine. I followed this procedure with all the affected machines and for over a month believed myself to be golden. My world came crashing down earlier this week after I got all the switches in from Newegg and tried to set up the servers in a middle school classroom to no avail.

The potential problems ran through my head like they always do when I get stumped (which happens embarrassingly often): bad ethernet cable? bad port? problems with the network? problems with the thin client? problems with the switch? problems with the server?

After some basic troubleshooting it quickly became clear that the source of my troubles lay with the server, specifically with the network card settings. For some reason the computer was confused as to which ethernet card was the incoming port from the wall and which was the outgoing to the switch. When I figured this out I grabbed another server from a nearby room and tried it out. Except I had the exact same problem! (I now realize that both of the servers I grabbed had their BIOS locked). Now I was really stumped.

It has taken me two days to finally understand what the true source of the problem is (at least I think I've figured it out). Evidently there is some setting that is changed on the BIOS when Edubuntu is installed that does not get set otherwise. I believe this to be the case because this afternoon I took an unlocked computer with a good hard drive and got it to work fine. Then I swapped the hard drive into a locked computer and ran into the same networking confusion. Swapped back the server worked fine.

So I guess my next step is to email the donor from this summer and hope that he knows what the BIOS password is. Otherwise I'm not sure what options I have. Maybe I can call Dell and figure out some way around the password. Or I could try and guess it. That's never worked for me before but who knows? Cheerio -joe

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Another setback

So I'm back to running Windows 2k in the inside lab. That's the one that I spend most of my time teaching in. I'm going to stick with Edubuntu in the outside lab even though it is slower than molasses because at least then I don't have to worry about things breaking so much and viruses aren't an issue.

I have much higher requirements for the inside lab though. In here I hope to do everything from web programming to podcasts to video editing. The machines can barely handle 12 students playing the same flash game at the same time though, so I had no choice but to go back to Windows 2000 in here. I'm really disappointed, but at least now I can go back to using Mavis Beacon 15 with the kids. As many typing programs as there are out there, it's astounding how awful the vast majority of them really are.


cheers -joe

Friday, October 05, 2007

Troubles with Bluetooth

So somehow (I think on Digg) I heard about GrandCentral, an internet company that offers "one phone number for life". Naturally they were purchased by Google and only recently opened up for new customers again. I decided to sign up and got a pretty sweet number that I'm looking forward to trying out. Of course it also has all the options it should like contacts and stuff, but it has some cool features as well like visual voice mail and the like. Well I decided to try to port my contacts over from my phone to my computer and then upload them but ran into some trouble.

The first problem is that of my LG CU500 phone with AT&T (formerly Cingular, formerly AT&T). It only allows me to save my contacts either on my phone or on the SIM card and not onto the MicroSD card I have that conveniently plugs into the computer via a USB adapter via a MiniSD adapter (or is it the other way around?). I have no way of plugging my SIM card into the computer to get the contact information. I can however use Bluetooth to send a vCard with the contact information on it from the phone to the computer, and it so happens that I have a Bluetake 007si Bluetooth Dongle for just this sort of situation. Problem solved right?

Well the first issue I had was that when I plug in the dongle there is no immediate indication on the part of GNOME or Edubuntu that anything has happened. The little blue light on the dongle only lights up intermittently as well so I figured it wasn't even working. I googled the problem and found some stuff that made me use the Terminal (this should never HAVE to be used if Edubuntu ever hopes of capturing a significant population of educators) to install the Bluetooth tools and while I was not at all surprised to discover that the process didn't proceed as the howto described I was a little surprised to discover that the Bluetooth software was evidently already installed on my system. Nice!

So I tried to pair my phone and computer through the dongle. Everything's working fine, the comptuer shows up on my phone, but then my phone asks for the passcode. I try the default 0000 and it doesn't work. I try all other kinds of combinations in case I ever actually programmed a passcode into the thing and nothing works.

I go into Add/Remove... and add the Bluetooth tool for GNOME. No luck. I add the Bluetooth tools for KDE and my phone now shows up but it can't connect.

At this point I'm not sure what to do. I've googled and looked through forums and it seems like a pretty standard complaint. Now granted that Bluetooth still isn't quite ready for primetime (astounding considering how prevalent it is now) as even with XP I would have trouble getting all the features to work with my Bluetooth stereo headphones without proprietary software. In fact I imagine the trouble has as much to do with my phone as Edubuntu. Nevertheless, this is yet another case of me trying to expand the capability of my Edubuntu machine and falling into the time warp trap of googling, scanning forums, using the Terminal, etc. to try and get the new capability to work. None of those things should ever be necessary, and at the very least, shouldn't Edubuntu at least tell you that it has detected a dongle? At least it's Friday. -joe

Thursday, October 04, 2007

I have a new focus

Okay, after a long time of trying to decide exactly what this blog would be about I guess I've decided to make it about open source in education. Specifically I will be dealing with issues associated with using Edubuntu in the classroom. I suppose I will still find time to contribute some personal information about myself, but I guess I'll try to title those ones "personal" or something. Mostly I guess I just don't care to have an online diary and would rather put my thoughts and frustrations trying to implement Edubuntu into the Internets so that maybe someone will find it useful and improve the product. So a few things:

Just yesterday I received our order for 35 8-port 10/100 ethernet switches. I plan on using them to setup Edubuntu LTSP miniLANs in every teachers classroom. I'm still waiting on the ethernet cords we ordered so it probably won't happen until next week some time. In the meantime though I'll probably have my tech crew (6 middle schoolers I have been training on tech stuff after school each week) at least start setting up the servers and thin clients in each teachers room.

I finally got the labs both set up. I have my own that has a bunch of donated P3 dell GX150s running at 800Mhz with 128MB RAM and the outside lab with a bunch of donated Compaq P2s running at like 333Mhz with 128MB RAM or something. Here are some pics of the process of setting up just the inside lab (in the pics are the Compaqs, I switched the computers after a few days so the better ones would be inside with me).

So on the first day I'm running 12 of the Compaqs in the inside lab computers off of a 3Ghz P4 Dell with 2GB DDR400 Dual Channel RAM and I have my first class of kindergarteners go to this alphabet flash game on the bbc site and the thin clients all run like molasses! I was so disappointed. I did have some extra ram so I bumped it up to 4GB but they still ran terribly. It was impossible for the students to do the assignment. After school I tried to go to the bbc game under Windows 2000 and it ran nearly as slow so I figured it had to do with the thin clients' processor and switched all the Compaq's with the Dell's with some help from the librarian and my Tech Crew. The problem seems to have been fixed a little bit, but when I watch the system monitor on the Server the CPU is pretty much maxed out with 12 thin clients. I think I need to look into getting a better server because I really want to do some cool stuff in the inside lab. I'm hoping to use kompozer for webpages and Google Earth and definitely some fun games for free time rewards. Plus, what if I want to use Kino or do some podcasts? So I'm not sure what the relationship is for what kind of servers and thin clients are needed for that level of computing but everything I read seemed to suggest that I had adequate levels of equipment. I'm guessing those sources were referring to simply being able to power the thin clients and to use them for any serious tasks would require more power, but this was never clearly stated and now I find myself in the unenviable position of needing another 3k or so to buy my new Dual Xeon server. Hopefully future guides will provide some sort of graph or chart to illustrate exactly what kinds of processes are capable of being executed with a given server/thin client setup. I know I would have appreciated one (still would!) Until next time. -joe