Archive for June 2009

Dual Monitors

25 June 2009

It’s a dreary, fall-like day and I’m on a big couch cuddled up to a warm laptop when I find I need to do a side by side comparison of data in an accounting app window and a spreadsheet. Woe is me, I have only one monitor!

My main desktop machines have had dual monitors for many years. Being used to two monitors, it always feels crippling to only have one. I’ll probably fix my immediate need by unplugging a monitor from some other machine and plugging it in to my laptop external monitor port as soon as I finish this post.

If you have not tried dual monitors you really should. The ability to work on a document while researching on-line with both word processor and web browser open full-screen is wonderful. Or have one monitor for work and the second for IMs, Twitters or what have you. Any time you find yourself Alt-Tabbing between windows is a good time to have multiple monitors. And it’s easy!

My first dual monitor machine was a Celeron 533, Windows 98 box with onboard video and a $10 used PCI video card. Plug in the two monitors, right-click on the desktop and select … oh heck, I forget. “Configure desktop” maybe? I don’t have a Windows machine anymore, but it’s pretty obvious when it’s in front of you. Enable the second monitor and you’re off! Windows XP was just as easy and I’m sure Windows Vista is too. Have a look at this Windows blog…

On Linux it used to be a bit more difficult. You had to add the second monitor by editing your xf86config file manually. It could take a bit of trial and error, with care not to set too high refresh rates for fear of harming your monitors. These days dual monitors are detected and xorg.conf written automagically. You just have to make some decisions around options regarding how you want it to work. Here’s a good example of multiple monitors in action. Wow. I almost wish I hadn’t seen that.

In these days of virtualization I suppose a person could even run multiple OS with multiple monitors and have a separate ‘machine’ on each display! Hmmm.

You can do dual monitors with two video cards or pick up a video card that supports two monitors. It’s not difficult and it’s a great boon to productivity and workspace comfort. Give it a try!

Online Backup

19 June 2009

Failures happen. We all know that we should backup our files, regardless of OS or platform. I, like many, am guilty of not really following a good backup regimen. When I do backup it is most often to either a removable device or to another machine across the LAN. Recently I’ve been working from a couple of locations some distance apart so have been doing backups between locations with the help of SSH. Having both local and remote backups is good in case the backups at one location are destroyed by fire, children or some other catastrophe.

Lately I’ve been thinking about keeping backups online, either by compressing files to an archive and uploading that to my own web space or by using some online service. The archive-and-upload option doesn’t readily allow for incremental backups, version control or use of the online repository to synchronize files between computers. If I had a co-located server or something I might run Unison, but I’m just backing up desktop/laptop machines and only have a simple web hosting account. An online service is tempting for the added features they can provide.

A few online options are Mandriva Click ‘n Backup, Ubuntu One (currently Beta), Dropbox and Symantec’s Norton Online Backup (recently available in Canada). Here’s a bit of a comparison from looking over their websites.

Feature Mandriva Ubuntu Dropbox Symantec
OS support Linux
Ubuntu 9.04+
(currently Gnome only)
Gratis version No 2 GB 2 GB No
Base Price 6.99 eu ($7.77 usd) /mo 20GB $10/mo 10GB $9.99/mo or $99/yr 50GB $49.99/yr
# of PCs unlimited unlimited unlimited 5
Add Increments 20, 40, 100 GB ? 50 GB 10, 25, 50, 100 GB
Web Interface Option Yes Yes Yes Yes
Encryption (pre-upload) 256 bit AES ? 256 bit AES 256 bit
Syncronization Yes Yes Yes ?
Shared Files Yes ? Yes ?
Public Files No ? ? ?
Storage At Europe, USA ? Amazon S3, USA ?
Languages English
Mobile Platforms ? No IPhone (more planned) ?

All Windows are XP/Vista
Mandriva Click ‘n Backup works with other distros.
Dropbox support Fedora, Ubuntu. Others reported to work.
Ubuntu One is Ubuntu only.

For me, Symantec’s offering is immediately eliminated for being Windows only. Ubuntu’s is eliminated with little more thought for being Ubuntu only. I have an Ubuntu laptop, but I also have four Mandriva machines.

I really like Dropbox. It has a gratis account level, which is great for anyone who does not need a lot of space or who wants to try before they buy. The personality of the Dropbox website appeals to me. Their daemon is closed, but the UI is Free. Unfortunately (for me) it’s a nautilus plug-in. There are a couple of CLI options. Hmmm. I’d really like a GUI client I can use under KDE.

Mandriva is what I use most on my computers. I like it and so am predisposed to be friendly to their offerings. I expect it will work under KDE. The terms and conditions for Click ‘n Backup make me pause though. Some excerpts;

"You may use the machine readable version of the Software only, and only in connection with your use of the Storage. You may authorize use of the Software by that number of your employees or agents for whom you have paid a license fee."

"Each authorized user may install and use the Software on as many computers as he or she wishes, but a license for a single user may not be shared by two or more individuals."

"The Storage relies in part on Microsoft software. Microsoft requires that we notify you of this and advise you that Microsoft is not responsible for providing any support in connection with the Services."

Hello? Is this Mandriva?

"You represent and warrant that you are not on the United States Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Asset Controls list of Specially Designated National and Blocked Persons and are not otherwise a person to whom your service provider is legally prohibited to provide the Services. You may not use the Services for the development, design, manufacture, production, stockpiling, or use of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, weapons of mass destruction, or missiles, in a country listed in Country Groups D: 4 and D: 3, as set forth in Supplement No. 1 to the Part 740 of the United States Export Administration Regulations, nor may you provide access to the Service to any person (including any natural person or government or private entity ) that is located in or is a national of Cuba, Iran, Libya, Sudan, North Korea or Syria or any country that is embargoed or highly restricted under United States export regulations. The Software contains “strong encryption” that is controlled for export by United States law and the laws of other countries. "


Well, I don’t think I’m going to be working on weapons of mass destruction in this lifetime. Hmmm, “is a national of Cuba, Iran,….”. My friend Arman is from Iran. Does he still have Iranian citizenship? I don’t know. So, what if he visits and borrows my computer? Yes, I’m being a little silly there (I think), but really I don’t feel comfortable with these terms.

Maybe I’ll have to whip up my own solution that will provide the features I want on my own terms using my own webspace. If any of these services look good to you though, follow the links below.



Moto W233 Renew Review

17 June 2009

I’ve never had a Motorola phone I didn’t like. From the door stop – wheel chock – war hammer – cell phone – multitool that was my first cell phone, acquired because I was living in a truck and people found me hard to find, to the W233 that is my newest cell phone, acquired because once I was easy to find people came to expect it. Here are some thoughts now that I’ve had the phone a while.

The W233 is small and light, but not so small that I feel like I can’t hold on to it. The buttons lock by default so I don’t accidentally dial the wife from the mistresses house (kidding!). A quick ‘Menu – *’ unlocks the keys. It also unlocks automagically on incoming calls.

I love that the phone works as USB mass storage. That’s the way it should be (and was the major reason that I changed my Ipod OS to Rockbox). Mass storage mode makes messing around with screen background and ring tones simple. I also love that the W233 charges via USB. I don’t have to buy and carry another car charger just for the phone, I can use the 12V to USB adapter I already have or just plug into a laptop to charge the phone on the road.

Speaking of charging, the W233 finally beeped and displayed “Low Battery” after five days of use that included lots of playing around with the phone, using it as an alarm clock, a few calls a day and a half hour CBC podcast listened too with the phone in my shirt pocket as I worked around the house. Certainly good enough for me.

Sound quality is good, as is the default call volume. The speaker phone works well enough.

Menus sometimes take a lot of button presses to get somewhere. Take text messaging for example; press Menu, click right to Messages, press Menu (or select key), press Menu again for “Create Messages”, press menu again for “Create Message” (that’s right!), press Menu again for “Text Message”. By the time I get there I forget why I started!

Fortunately there is the “MyMenu” tool. Go to whatever you want to add to MyMenu, press and hold the Menu button, confirm, and the item you chose is assigned to a shortcut. My first MyMenu addition was text message, so now to start a text message all I have to do is press Menu – 1.

Entering text is tedious. There are two modes of text entry, iTap and Tap. iTap is some sort of predictive system that seems to try to predict what your next letter is going to be. When you press a key iTap presents all the letters and the number that key could be, in descending order based on what iTap thinks is most to least likely to be the character you want. If iTap gets it right you press menu or select for that character. If iTap gets it wrong you move the cursor across to the character you want then press menu or select. This doesn’t work for me because when I press a key I have to look and see what order iTap is offering the characters in. Sometimes I’m moving the cursor before I realize that the character I want is not in the same position it was the last couple of times. Grrr. I like Tap better. Just press the key the number of times to get the character you want. Like for ‘z’ press the 9 key four times w-x-y-z and carry on. No need to press menu or select. This I can do without really looking almost, though I do have to be careful as the keys are a bit small for my fingers. I bet Rasterman could teach Motorola a thing or two here. The Illume keyboard on the Freerunner was uncannily predictive. It seemed to read my mind!

The calculator is alright for simple math, once I realized that the pound key (#) gives a decimal (.). The little hint on the screen that tells you that makes it look like it’s going to give you a dash rather than a dot. It has one memory and a currency conversion utility. No scientific functions or anything though, so you’ll just have to remember π.

The stop watch has “snapshot”, which makes timing a series of things very easy. Games include Sudoku and Tetris. What more games could you want?

There is a web browser, but I’m too cheap to pay the data rates of Canadian cellular providers so I haven’t tried it. Given the screen size on the W233, I’d rather just boot up the Aspire One if I want to do anything online anyway.

All in all I’m quite happy with the Motorola W233 Renew. It seems like they were thinking about the user when they designed this phone. The user who mainly wants a phone that works as a phone and doesn’t want to spend a fortune on it. The user who will use a few other tools from time to time and likes them to be easy to use. The user who knows there is only one planet, at least for now.

Aspire One / Mandriva 2009 Dist Upgrade

15 June 2009

I’ve been running Mandriva 2009 on my Acer Aspire One since I decided that I could not get along with the AUFS used by the original Linpus Lite OS on the machine. A new feature of Mandriva is a mildly annoying pop up at the top corner of the screen that reminds me now and then that a new distribution of Mandriva is available.

Finally I succumbed to its nagging and allowed it to begin the distribution upgrade to Mandriva 2009.1 Spring. My Aspire One is not a fast machine, with 1.6 GHz Atom processor, 512 MB ram and 8GB SSD (the Samsung in this machine). Still when I started the upgrade in the late morning I expected it would finish sometime in the afternoon. The following morning the upgrade continued. I was grateful for the progress bar telling me it was on package 1291 of 1452. At least I knew it was still going.

As I woke up that morning I realized that I had started the upgrade without doing a backup. This is OK for me because God loves fools. Don’t you try it though because everyone knows you do a backup before doing a distribution upgrade or new install and no one will be sympathetic if you lose all your files.

My other concern with this upgrade is that my brother has an Aspire one. Mine is white, Gnu/linux and Good. His is dark blue, XP and Evil. He forgot his power cord. The night of my upgrade he borrowed mine, leaving my Aspire One doing a distro upgrade on battery. “What happens if the battery runs out?” I wondered as I went to bed. The following morning he came downstairs, pulled the cord out of my Aspire One again and took it with his Aspire One to the comfy chair. I asked my nurse whether that happens in the hospital. Do nurses walk up and pull the IV out of your patient and stick it into theirs? She says they do not, nurses being less evil than brothers. If you have a brother, that is all the more reason to do a backup before an upgrade. Maybe do a backup to the cloud. I’ll post on that at a later date.

Mid day the upgrade finished and I rebooted.


Mandriva 2009.1 is pretty! But networking didn’t work! Wireless didn’t work at all. Wired said it had an IP, but I couldn’t connect even to my router’s administrative IP. After a bit of phutzing around I changed the DHCP client from dhclient to dhcpd and that fixed the wired anyway. Now I remember that I had to do that when I first installed Mandriva on the Aspire One.

Doh! The wireless problem turned out to be a router in need of a reboot. I have a Linksys WRT54G and a Linksys WRT54G2 and both seem to need a hard reboot from time to time. They just stop. Maybe I should try a WRT54GL.

There’s a bug in the synaptics driver in Mandriva 2009.1. Mandriva 2009.0 worked just fine, but apparently there is an ‘upstream’ change to two-finger scrolling rather than edge scrolling so the synaptics driver has changed. Whatever. My scrolling didn’t work by either method.

When X was first started sliding a finger on the touchpad edge scrolled at first, but only briefly. I tried setting options with synclient such as “synclient -s RightEdge=5212”. No difference. In fact the bug gremlins kept changing RightEdge to 6143 no matter what I did. I tried qsynaptics. No joy. Finally I edited xorg.conf manually. Here is what worked for me.

Section “InputDevice”
Identifier “Mouse1”
Driver “mouse”
Option “Protocol” “ExplorerPS/2”
Option “Device” “/dev/mouse”

Section “InputDevice”
Identifier “SynapticsMouse1”
Driver “synaptics”
Option “SHMConfig” “on”

and from the ServerLayout section the line;
InputDevice “SynapticsMouse1” “SendCoreEvents”

Section “InputDevice”
Identifier “Mouse1”
Driver “synaptics”
Option “Protocol” “auto-dev”
Option “Device” “/dev/psaux”
Option “LeftEdge” “1632”
Option “RightEdge” “5212”
Option “HorizEdgeScroll” “1”

And now my touchpad scrolls both vertically and horizontally like I expect it to.

Aside from that the distribution upgrade has been pretty uneventful. The little tooltip things that pop up when I mouse over an icon seriously lack contrast, but I expect that will be a simple thing to fix once I bother to look into it. The new desktop is quite beautiful to my eye. The applications I like work like they did. Firefox, Clawsmail, Bash, Gnumeric, Freemind, Tuxcards. GIMP looks a little different, but it’s still GIMP. Qcad. I’m getting used to Okular and Dolphin.

I’m happy with Mandriva 2009.1 Spring on my Aspire One.

Moto W233 Renew

5 June 2009

w233Honestly when I found the Moto W233 Renew I was just looking for a cheap phone. The phone listed on Fido’s website at $65 and I found it at Future Shop for $59.99, which was apparently a mistake but they honoured the price on the display (after peeling it off so don’t bother rushing down there). Only after I had the phone did I start to look at “renew”.

The phone housing is made with 25% post-consumer recycled plastics, water bottles according to Motorola’s website. The housing is of course recyclable itself. Phone innards do not use lead solder and the Getting Started Guide is printed on 100% recycled paper using vegetable-based inks. Included with the phone was a postage paid envelope for recycling your old phone via the Phones for Food project of the Canadian Association of Food Banks. Motorola promotes this phone as the world’s first carbon neutral phone. It is certified CarbonFree® by through use of offsets for the manufacturing, distribution and lifetime use of the phone. The external packaging of the phone seemed excessive to me, but at least it is composed of paper and recyclable plastic.

All in all it seems this is a sincere effort by Motorola and Fido to make a more environmentally responsible device. For people looking for a cell phone and who weight environmental impact into their product choices or even for people who are just looking for good value in a basic GSM phone, the Moto W233 Renew is worth a look. I’ll post on the function of the phone once I’ve had a chance to use it a bit. Right now I am waiting for a call back from Motorola on how to make voice memos on it. Both Fido and Motorola say it has that feature, but so far I can’t find it and neither can they.



Motorola Fact Sheet
Canadian Association of Food Banks

Android on Freerunner: Third Impressions

5 June 2009

Well, they don’t call it beta for nothing. Having the DTMF problem fixed helped, but I had to give up on Android on my Freerunner for daily use. The audio buzz that was occasionally a nuisance under other distros on the Freerunner was usually a nuisance under Android. I was stubbornly working with that, but then I got a call from a customer wondering where I was. They had left a message on my cell number and I had not seen any message notification on the Freerunner. Turned out I had missed a bunch of messages. That’s a show stopper for me.

I decided that I needed something that would just work for work. I can play with the Freerunner outside of work. So I looked for something basic and inexpensive and found it in the Motorola W233 (post to follow). With a bit of sadness I transferred the SIM card from the Freerunner to the W233.

Disappointment over Freerunner troubles was short lived as this became another one of those times where things seem to happen for a reason. I picked up the W233 yesterday afternoon and in this morning’s email I find that SDG Systems is offering the Freerunner buzz fix in North America! The customer pays shipping but receives a Freerunner battery in return and the buzz fix, not a trivial procedure, is free. Thank you SDG Systems and Openmoko!

So, with temp phone in hand (and the Bush regime gone) I can send my Freerunner to the States for surgical enhancement. I’m looking forward to a buzz-free Freerunner. While I wait I’ll pick up a couple of microSD cards to make swapping distros easier. Maybe by the time the Freerunner returns, Android on Freerunner might reach 1.0?!



SDG Systems
Freerunner buzz fix

North American Auto Makers

4 June 2009

Do they still not get it?

On CBC radio’s As It Happens, General Motors CFO and Executive Vice-president Ray Young stated with enthusiasm that “in 2009, the main products that we’re going to launch in General Motors in North America will be coming out of our Canadian plants!”

What are these new products that the “new” General Motors is set to proudly launch? A new Chevrolet Camero and Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Terrain. A remake of a 1960’s muscle car and a duo of SUVs. Yahoo. After dumping over ten billion tax dollars into GM, Ontario’s portion of which threatens the province’s credit rating, Canadians will be able to buy the car of yesterday tomorrow!

Ford at least manages to disappoint me without my tax dollars. When unplugged from the Matrix I’m an electrician. I drive a 1993 Ford Aerostar. It’s the most fuel efficient vehicle I can get that gives me the cargo capacity, ladder rack and towing capacity I need to work. But it’s worn out. When I saw that Ford is bringing the Transit Connect to Canada this year I was thrilled! The Transit Connect is a small commercial van that has been winning awards for years in the rest of the world. It carries about the same as my Aerostar, can have a ladder rack. Has no tow rating. Hmmm. Well, maybe I don’t really need to tow. Then the kick to the groin — the North American version will have a gasoline engine that gets about the same fuel economy as my old Aerostar. A little over 20 miles per gallon. For thirty thousand dollars or so I can have a van that does less than my old one and uses about as much fuel.

The rest of the world get a choice of turbo diesel engines that get over 40 miles per gallon in the Transit Connect. At the Vancouver International Auto Show I was told that Ford has no plans to bring the diesel engines to North America. Are the oil companies at work here?

There will be an electric version, with a range of about 160 km. Many work days I drive more than that. Canada won’t let me import a new vehicle that is not made for the Canadian market originally, ie the diesel Transit Connect. Brazil has a turbo diesel Ford Ranger and I think the Ranger and Aerostar share a chassis. Perhaps I could import a Brazilian Ranger turbo diesel engine and fit it into my old Aerostar?

Whatever I do I expect to get eight or ten years out of it and I expect fuel prices to increase substantially in that time. With that in mind, North American auto makers, I’m not looking for the vehicle of yesterday, or even for the vehicle of today. I’m looking for the vehicle of tomorrow. Get it?

postscript: Could anyone have predicted the current North American auto makers troubles? Or are they victims of the terrible economic times we are in? Check out this BusinessWeek article from 2005!