Tag Archives: Linux

Setting up a Digital Ocean remotely hosted WordPress blog

Mike Haubrich and I are developing a science oriented podcasting effort. It will be called “Ikonokast” (all the good names, like “The New York Times” and “Apple” were taken). We decided to enhance the podcast with a WordPress based blog site, perhaps with each page representing one podcast, and containing backup and supplementary information.

Here is the site, set up and running.

After considering our options, we decided to try using a Digital Ocean “Droplet” to host a WordPress blog. Here, I want to tell you how that went, and give a few pointers. This might be a good idea for some of you. And, I’ll explain what the heck Digital Ocean is in case you don’t know.

What is Digital Ocean?

Digital Ocean is one of the many available hosting sites, but different. You’ve heard of hosting sites such as the infamous [name of comosmy deleted because having the name od that company in a blog post draws spam to the blog ](the “Hooters” of hosting sites), where you pay them to provide a server you access remotely, then using tools like cPanel (cringe) you install WordPress blogs or other stuff. Digital Ocean is different because, among other things, it does not set you up with cPanel (though you can install it). Also, Digital Ocean is not really designed to use as a full on hosting application for ALL of your needs, but rather, to set up a smaller but highly capable host for a specific need. This is great for developers who are always working on entirely separate projects. So, for example, a developer might create a “droplet” (a Digital Ocean server) and install stuff, setting up a specific application like a web site or content management system or whatever, and then hand that entire project over to the client who thereafter owns it. There are numerous other differences, including pricing, that I’ll cover below. Some of these differences made us chose Digital Ocean, others are not important to us (and still others are beyond our understanding because we are not hackers or professional IT experts).

The developer oriented philosophy is not of much relevance to the average non-developer, but it is likely very compatible with the user who wants to set up a web site or similar application for their own use. For us, setting up a simple WordPress blog, it seemed to be a good option. We could have gone the free route by getting a WordPress.com or similar free site, but by having our own fully functional Linux server, we could would not be limited by any of the technology that those sites use, allowing us to use the server for other purposes should such a need arise, and allowing us to configure the installation any way we want. For example, if you set up a typical host with a WordPress install, or use a general free blogging platform of some kind, there may be a limitation on the size of the file you can upload. You can probably get your host to change that for you (it is a PHP value, a single line of code in the PHP configuration file, usually). But that involves interacting with the host’s help people. Also, there may be configuration changes you want but that they won’t do. A Digital Ocean droplet can be regarded as a computer you own (but is not in your house) and that you can do whatever you want with, as long as it can be done with any Linux computer with those specifications. So, for this case, you would just log on and change the maximum file upload setting in the PHP configuration file.

Another use of something like Digital Ocean (again, this can be done with any host, but it may be easier with Digital Ocean) is to set up your own cloud server, using something like Own Cloud. (See below for more uses.)

Another feature of Digital Ocean is that the servers appear to be fast and efficient. As a user, you have a server with an SSD drive, for example.

Even though you can access your Digital Ocean droplet (your server) via the command line using SSH, Digital Ocean also provides an interface that helps automate or make simpler many of the tasks you would normally do. In addition to this, for the more tech savvy, Digital Ocean has an API that allows you to set up a way to interface with and control the server that matches your own needs. This feature is way above my pay grade, so I can’t really comment on it, but it is there.

Why we decided to try Digital Ocean

Now, here is the part of Digital Ocean that makes it most interesting and potentially useful for the average user who wants to play around with serious technology but is not a hacker. Like Mike and me. This is the set of different distributions and applications that can be “automatically” installed and set up with a “one click” system. I want to say right away that there is nothing “one click” about this, as far as I can tell. Nothing takes one click. I have no idea why Digital Ocean uses that term. To me, “one click” means you click once, then you are done. Having said that, the various options are highly simplified approaches to doing some stuff that is fairly complicated if done from scratch.

Apparently unique to Digital Ocean is that you can choose among a range of Linux distributions. This means you are likely to find a distribution you are comfortable with. Other hosts have a distribution they use, and that is the one you get. Digital Ocean has Ubuntu, CentOS, Debian, Fedora, CoreOS, and FreeBSD. When you set up a simple droplet, you pick one of these distros, and that’s it. (I’ve not done that, so I don’t know if that is truly one click. Could be.) What you get, of course, is a server version of that distro. If you want a graphical user interface, that is a different thing (see below).

In addition to being able to chose among these distros, you can “one click install” a number of major applications. Most of those listed on the Digital Ocean site are Things Unknown To Me, but I do recognize some of them. Joomla, MediaWiki, Docker, Drupal, LAMP, ownCloud, etc. are available.

And, of course, WordPress.

When setting up one of these applications, you start (I think in all cases, but I’m not sure) with no droplet. The droplet and the underlying distribution are created at the same time the application is installed. Also, the “one click” installs of these applications seem to be associated with a specific underlying distro. To mix and match distros and apps, you would install the distro, then manually install the app. The One Click WordPress install is on Ubuntu.

How much does Digital Ocean cost and how big and fast is it?

Pricing is, as far as I can tell, one of the major differences between Digital Ocean and other servers.

When you choose a distribution or an application, you then choose a droplet it will go on. This is where pricing and power come in. The smallest droplet costs $5 a month or $0.007 and hour. If you calculate that out, the per hour cost is just over the monthly cost during 31 day months, but the cost is capped at that monthly cost. More importantly, it is pro-rated at that hourly rate. So, as long as the droplet exists, you are being billed for it, but not when it does not exist.

As far as I can tell, and they are pretty straightforward in their description of pricing, so I think I have this right, if you create a droplet, run it for several hours, and then destroy it, you are charged only for those hours. By the way, you are charged while your droplet exists but is powered off, because the resources are sitting there reserved for you. But if you create a droplet to try something out, then destroy it, that limits the charge. So creating a droplet, installing stuff, trying it out, yada yada, if that is all done over a couple of hours, you might be billed something like 20 cents. If you have no droplets but have an account, nothing is being charged to that account.

Having said that, the five dollar a month droplet is usually not going to do what you need (though I have thought of a few uses for such a thing). The minimum droplet for a WordPress install using their “One Click” method is the $10 droplet. Technically, you can install a WordPress setup on a $5 droplet, but the “One Click” method takes up more resources than the $5 droplet has, so you would need to install it manually.

The $10 droplet has 1 GB of RAM and 30GB on the SSD disk. The transfer rate is 2TB, and you get one core of processor power. There are $5, $10, $20, $40, and $80 options that range up to 8GB of memory with 80GB SSD space, 5TB of transfer rate and 4 Cores at the $80 per month rate. There are also massive higher volume plans running up to the unspeakable sum of $640 a month, but we need not discuss this here because it is scary.

Another difference between Digital Ocean and most other hosts is that you can easily change the specs, or at least some of them. You can increase the RAM by simply changing the specs and rebooting. Changing the SSD size takes longer but it can be done on the fly.

About that One Click thing, and installing WordPress

The WordPress install has nothing to do with one click. There are many clicks.

We managed the WordPress install with no problem at all with respect to the server, except one bit of confusion on my part. Maybe two bits.

I just clicked on the one click button. Then I did a whole bunch of other stuff, as specified in the Digital Ocean instructions. It is worth noting that Digital Ocean has many tutorials, and I think they have some sort of incentive system to get tutorials written and updated by users.

I ran into three problems that an expert would not likely have had, and I’ll tell you about them so you’ll know.

First, early on in the process, you need to get a secure connection to the server. You can do this by setting up a key on your computer and syncing that with the key on the Digital Ocean droplet. Do you know what I’m talking about? If yes, never mind. If no, good luck with that, it is a bit esoteric. There seems to be another way, which involves Digital Ocean resetting your root password and mailing it to you. Now, the NSA has your password, so you may want to change that. In any event, the whole secure connection thing is one of those areas that hackers already know all about but someone like me doesn’t, so I was confused and that took a bit of work. The tutorial is written with the assumption you are jot an idiot, but you may be an idiot, like me. Just carefully follow the instructions. You’ll be fine.

Second, and this is totally stupid (of me). (Digital Ocean really needs to re-write a version of their tutorial just for idiots.) When I finally tried to log on to the server, having made a secure connection, I was utterly confounded. I knew what my password was, but I did not know what my user name was. I couldn’t remember specifying or being given a user name. I just didn’t have a user name. Digital Ocean help files were no help. I had no idea what to do. Then, I randomly ran into something that reminded me that I am an idiot.

When you set up a basic Linux server, your username is root. That is obvious, everybody knows that, right? I had forgotten that because most of the Linux setups I’ve installed (and there have been many) were using a hand holding install script on Debian, Fedora, or Ubuntu or something, which set you up as a special user who is not root, but whose password can be used to su or sudo.

So just remember that, your name is root.

The third problem has nothing to do with Digital Ocean, but somehow I seem to have missed these instructions in the guidelines. This had to do with getting the DNS thing set up so the domain (yadayada.com or whatever), which Mike had already bought, would point to the server. There are three things you need to know. First, the domain service has to be told what servers to point to (Digital Ocean provides this info on their web page). Second, you need to do an esoteric thing on the Digital Ocean interface under the “networks” section to enter your domain name. Third, you need to get into the WordPress installation and enter the domain name in the settings on wp-admin (in two locations). Oh, and fourth, you have to wait a while for this to propagate, which for us was a very short period of time.

Digital Ocean and Security

Recently, a few colleagues/friends have had their WordPress sites hacked by their own back end. The hosting service got hacked, and then the clients of that hosting service got hacked.

This can’t happen on Digital Ocean for various technical reasons. Unlike a typical server, in which you only THINK you “own” a computer where you are root, but really, there is a sort of Over Root that can root around in your root, Digital Ocean Droplets are more like a separate server, given the way they are set up. So, for example, Digital Ocean can’t go into your server to fix something for you. But this also means that malicious code (or whatever) at DO (or elsewhere) cant go into your server and break something for you. There is a way to recover a totally crashed droplet that involved DO involvement, but it is you, the droplet owner, that does the fix, while someone at Digital Ocean kicks the side of the server or something.

According to Ryan Quinn at Digital Ocean (I asked him to clarify this aspect of security):

In DO there is no such thing as a “super-root” user on a DigitalOcean droplet. When you create your droplet a couple things happen.

1.) If you do not use an ssh key the create process generates a temporary password and emails it to you. This password is not stored anywhere else in DO’s systems and you are prompted on the first login to immediately change the temporary password.

2.) If you do use an ssh key stored on DigitalOcean, DO admins and support personnel do not have access to these keys through their admin interface.

So while DO has access to the hypervisor (physical machine) that your droplet is running on we have no access to the operating system within your droplet so this would not be a viable attack vector.

So for example, if you were to find yourself locked out of your droplet, our support team could recommend a password reset from the control panel but the only way they could directly assist you in accessing the contents of your droplet would be to power it off, mount a recovery ISO that includes it’s own operating system, and boot your droplet with that image. From that image (which has networking disabled by default) it is possible for you to mount your disk image and access your files.

Overall, a user would have more ready access to your droplet if they were to gain access to your ssh key, root password, or an API key you generated form the control panel than they would if they gained admin access in our backend systems (which are well protected behind firewalls and two-factor authentication, and not accessible from the public Internet).

Deciding if you should use Digital Ocean

Digital Ocean is not for everybody. You need to be at least a little savvy with Linux, probably the command line, etc, and you need to be willing to mess around a little. But it is probably the best solution for getting a fully functional server that you have full control over. Best in terms of pricing, flexibility, and power. As far as the cost goes, that is pretty easy to justify. Adding a monthly bill to your mix of expenses is something you should be careful about doing, but if you set up a $10 a month server with Digital Ocean, and decide you don’t want to do it, just go to your account and destroy the server and you’ve probably spent less than $10. Also, if you click any of the links to Digital Ocean on this page (such as THIS ONE) you will get a $10 credit, so you won’t have to spend a dime. (I set up our server with such a referral, so we are so far cost free!). After that, $10 a month for another month or two is not a big deal, and by then, you should know if the server and all that is working for you and worth the expense.

What about a graphical user interface desktop thingie on Digital Ocean?

You can do that. Digital Ocean used to have “one click” installs for various distros with desktops, but does not seem to do this any more. What you can do is get a droplet with enough power (probably the $20 version with 2 GB memory), create a non-root user with sudo privileges, install a desktop and use VNC to access it. I’ve not tried this or looked into beyond a bit of poking around.

Ubuntu Linux 15.04 Vivid Vervet Beta Mate Flavor

Ubuntu Linux 15.04 will be released in April.

There is not a lot new for the average desktop user in the new release, as far as I can tell. One good “change” is a feature called “locally integrated menus.” This is where the menus are, by default, where they are supposed to be, instead of, well, invisible until you stab at the menu bar that must reside at the top of your screen in Ubuntu with Unity. Then the menu appears and maybe you can use it. That was a bad idea, and over the last few revisions of Ubuntu with Unity, the top menu bar menus have slowly gone away, first as something you could make go away by tweaking around, then an option to make them go away, and finally, they went away (but you can have the annoying disappearing menus if you want).

Several of the various “flavors” of Ubuntu are getting upgrades to the newer version of the pertaining desktop. There will be a newer version of Gnome, a newer version of KDE, etc. in each of those flavors.

I downloaded the Mate Beta and tried it out on my test computer, and liked it. It seemed to work OK so I simply installed it, and the installation went fine. It is now running and I’ve got no problems. There may be some bugs out there but I’ve not had a problem.

Mate is a desktop that forked form Gnome 2.0. Gnome 2.0 was the best desktop of its day for many users. There is an old saying in software development. Once you’ve perfected your software, further development simply breaks it. This happened to Windows years ago, somewhere around XP or before. And it happened in Linux, in my opinion, when Gnome dropped the Gnome 2.0 paradigm and went all Unity on us, and of course, Unity is a broken desktop as every one knows. Expect it to evolve back towards a Gnome 2.0 like framework.

Anyway, Mate is Gnome 2.0 forked and improved, but that improvement is mainly under the hood and not in the overall look and feel, which is the point. I did not like earlier versions of Mate because it was a mess of older Gnome tools and newer somewhat updated Mate tools and some key stuff was simply missing or broken (like the ability to mess around with screensavers). At that time I took my “production machine” out of play for the evolving Ubuntu environment and installed plain old Debian stable. For what I use that machine for, it is great. But I wanted to have my laptop do more snazzy stuff, so I’ve been experimenting with Mate Ubuntu. And that is why I installed the Beta.

There is a handful of cool new items. Mate now has a much better interface and somewhat improved set of tools for configuring things. Among those you will find a easy way to turn off and on Compriz on the fly. The menus are better organized. The theme, icons, other visual stuff is unruined and mainly improved. I’m not going to provide details here because if you are going to mess with the Beta version, 1) you probably know more than you need to know about Mate, and 2) things may be changing somewhat. But when the final release comes out I’ll post on the details and what you may want to do after installing it.

I looked at the new Gnome Ubuntu flavor as well. Although I don’t like Unity I can appreciate Gnome 3, and have used it and I kinda like it. I think the Gnome flavor will be even better. KDE users will also probably be happy with their new flavor, from what I hear, but I’m not much of an expert on KDE.

One final thing. Going from the current version of Mate Ubuntu flavor to the Beta was easy, an in place upgrade that preserved most stuff. It did, however, wipe out some of my previously installed software but not the configuration files. So, I had to reinstall emacs, but my .emacs file was still there. I also had to re install R and RStudio, and Chrome Browser, as well as Synaptic and Deb, and a few other things.

These installations were pretty painless, but one would prefer not to. But, I was INSTALLING the Beta version, not upgrading to it. I assume that if you are using the current version of Mate Ubuntu you will be able to simply upgrade to it after doing the usual backup with no problem.

10 or 20 things to do after installing Ubuntu Mate (14.10)

See here to see why you might want to install the Mate flavor of Ubuntu 14.10.

Then, install it and consider doing these things. Get your system up to date. Yes, yes, you just installed it but that install image was old(ish). Update and upgrade now:

First, you probably want to open the Software Center, to to Software and Updates, and enable all the Ubuntu Software Sourcews (other than source and the CDRom option). Then:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

Go to Preferences/Additional Drivers and then allow additional drivers, and pick a proprietary driver for your graphics card if you like.

Install the Synaptic Package manager and if you like use it for some of the following updates. I like Synaptic package manager better than the Ubuntu software center.

sudo apt-get install synaptic

You might not need to install gdebi but make sure it is there. This is an application that installs .deb files.
sudo apt-get install gdebi

So now you have a better set of installation tools.

Go to the Google Website and install Chrome. Not Chromium Chrome. Chrome will run Netflix for you. Later, when you run it, it will ask if you want it to be your default browser. Your choice (I use Chrome as my default browser.)

Using Synaptic Package Manager (if you like) you may want to install vlc media player, and your favorite audio software.

I like emacs, you probably don’t, but if you do, this is a good time to install it, and consider updating your .emacs file.

Open up the control center and fiddle with stuff.

You then might want to head on over here and see if you want any of the suggested software for power management or other functionality.





Should you install Ubuntu Mate?

With Ubuntu’s release a few weeks ago of Ubuntu 14.10, Mate has now become an official flavor of Ubuntu.

There are two pieces of bad news that relate to this that we’ll get out of the way. First Ubuntu’s default distribution, which uses the Unity Desktop by default, broke a key Linux feature. If you install Ubuntu with Unity, you can’t easily change your desktop. Or, if you try, you’ll break your system. Ubuntu seems to want you to use Unity no matter what. Second, while at one time all flavors of Ubuntu were treated more or less alike (though the “Default” was gnome) now, the non-Unity distros are called “Older and other” and you have to dig around to find them. Apparently, Ubuntu wants you to use Unity no matter what. Where have I heard that before?

So, long term, don’t expect Mate, or KDE, or any of the other non-Unity distributions to remain as Ubuntu Flavors. I strongly suspect Ubuntu will eventually boot out all the non Unity distros. This will happen about the time Ubuntu gets past a certain percentage of the portable device market (which, at this time, it is not really part of) and it becomes in the interest of Ubunut’s backers to unify the look and feel, with Ubuntu Unityish being the operating system for the next generation of smart phones of which they will sell many. I assume. Or maybe not, we’ll see.

So, why should you install mate? Consider the following two reasons:

1) It isn’t Unity, it works better if you like the traditional Gnome 2.0 style of a desktop. This is really the only way to get that style desktop.

2) It isn’t Unity, and at this point as many of us as possible have to be using something other than Unity (unless of course you happen to like Unity in which case you’ve probably stormed off by now so good bye) in order to send the message that no, we won’t have the Linux Desktop broken by a big gorilla that first takes over the whole Linux thing by being so good at it then tells us what we have to eat for dinner every day thereafter. Thank you very much.

Beyond that, the reason to install the Ubuntu flavor of Mate instead of Mate on some other distro is that, like it or not, Ubuntu has the best distro if you don’t want to totally roll your own or fiddle a lot. You still have to fiddle (see here for example) but most will get their computer off the ground a lot faster and less painfully with Ubuntu.

I was not really happy with some of the earlier incarnations of Mate, partly because this Gnome fork seemed to have broken a lot of nice Gnome features, rather than just forking them. Now, however, either they have stopped doing that or I’ve forgotten what features Gnome had that I liked and don’t care any more. But seriously, Mate as implemented (version 17) on Ubuntu Linux (14.10) is a clean and nice installation.

To install go here, download the appropriate file, then make a bootable DVD or USB. The USB is easier. You can use the ddrescue command indicated here to make a bootable USB. Don’t make the mistake I did. I forgot that not all USB ports on your computer are created equal. Even if your bios is configured to allow you to boot from USB, that may refer to only some of the USB ports. Your computer might even be labeled to indicate this (mine was, but the labeling was tiny and criptic so I was unaware of it!) If you think you’ve got a working boot USB, and it does not work, move it to a different port.

Then, after you have installed Mate, you may want to mess around with it to make it work better.

Do you want an imp under your desk? If it runs Ubuntu?

I might.

This is a preliminary look, based just on the web site and some tweets with the developer, of the imp (all lower case), a small computer somewhere in technology and power, perhaps, between a Raspberry pi (which is mainly a hobbiest toy) and the Intel Nuk (which is sort of a non-Mac Mac Mini). It is called by its makers “The Open Source Computer: Made for consumers.” It is a Linux-installed device, as is your smart phone and, well, the entire Internet. So the technology is well tested at that level.

The imp team describes it this way:

imp is a small, yet powerful computer designed for the post-PC era. It’s your desktop, your wireless media center, and your mobile content hub. imp brings the single-board PC concept from geeks to consumers, and is 100% open source.

It does not exist yet, but launch is imminent, probably November, according to the makers. Here are the hardware specs:

Powered by Odroid U3 by HardKernel
1.7 GHz, ARM V9, Quad Core
2GB RAM
3X USB 2.0 + Micro USB
Mini HDMI
8GB on-device storage
(Optional) Wireless Keyboard & Trackpad
(Optional) Wireless HDMI (DLNA, Airplay and Miracast)
Height: 1.22 inch (31 mm)
Width: 3.82 inches (97 mm)
Depth: 3.82 inches (97 mm)

An Odroid U3 HardKernel is a hardware development platform for Linux/Android with these specs:

* 1.7GHz Quad-Core processor and 2GByte RAM
* 10/100Mbps Ethernet with RJ-45 LAN Jack
* 3 x High speed USB2.0 Host ports
* Audio codec with headphone jack on board
* GPIO/UART/I2C ports
* XUbuntu 13.10 or Android 4.x Operating System
* Size : 83 x 48 mm, Weight : 48g including heat sink
* Package includes the main board and the heat sink

The software specs for imp are:

Powered by Ubuntu 14.04 & Cinnamon
Browsers: Chrome, Firefox
Mail: Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo
Office: Word, Excel, Powerpoint Online, Google Docs, Apple iCloud
Media: Picasa, Last.FM, Spotify, Grooveshark, Pandora, Netflix, Hulu
Social: Facebook, Twitter
Storage: Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, SkyDrive, Sugarsync
Supports media casting (Chromecast; Miracast or any DLNA device)

The Microsoft software is optional. Perhaps other aspects of the installed software are also optional as well. I assume you can install your own system or modify the software at will.

The box, with no monitor, keyboard, or mouse, will be about $150, subject to revision (could be less for early adopters). The Nuk costs about $350.

The imp is designed to interact with your other devices, including other computers, phones (both iPhones and Android), and your TV. It can serve media via wireless HDMI. According to the designers, you can “manage all your family mobile content wirelessly from your desktop. No more USB cables or installation of unnecessary apps; imp supports full continuity. Now you can pick up any task you were doing, or the movie you’re watching on mobile, and continue it from your desktop or TV.” And, it is a desktop computer, if you add a screen, keyboard, mouse, etc.

I would probably use this as a headless file and media server. Just in time, perhaps. I was just trying to decide if I should use my Raspberry Pie to make a cli-only gaming center for 4-year-old Huxley, or to make a low energy demand cloud server, which would really mainly be for file sharing and printing. This looks like it would be a step up and already comes in a box.

I am doing to do a more detailed review later on. Feel free to shoot me questions and I’ll see if I can run them down. Stay tuned.

The imp web site is here.

The Ubuntu 14.10 Upgrade: What to do

The Ubuntu 14.10 Release October 23, 2014

Ubuntu 14.10 will be released shortly and I know you are chomping at the bit and want to know all about it.

There is some important news, for some, and there is some exciting news for others, and there is some boring news, and frankly, some bad news.

Before diving into the shallow pool of Ubuntu 14.10 (shallow in a good way) I want to go over some other ground first. I want to address this question:

“I have installed Linux and I don’t like the default desktop. How do I change that without ruining stuff?”

If you are a long time Linux user you know the answer has two parts. First, “Oh, hey, don’t worry, this is why Linux is so great!” and second, something like “sudo apt-get install yadayada, then log out and then log back in again with your new desktop” where “yadayada” is the new desktop. Easy peasy.”

Now, let is rephrase the question, and in so doing reveal the bad news.

“I have installed Ubuntu 14.04 and I don’t like the default desktop. How do I change that to gnome?”

The answer to the question is actually pretty simple, but has a very different form that I find deeply disturbing. Again, there are two parts. First, “Well, Ubuntu comes default with Unity, and Ubuntu with Unity and some other stuff under the hood does not actually allow you to just swap around desktops like you could in the old days without messing around a lot and depending on exactly how good the information you get on this is, and which desktop you replace Unity and all that with, you will probably break something.” Putting this another way, Ubuntu has broken one of the most important features of Linux, one of the features that makes Linux cool, and in so doing, Ubuntu has made Linux more like Windows. Ubuntu/Unity/Etc as a “distribution” is now vertically integrated across the usual layers to the extent that it is either take it or leave it (I oversimplify but not by much).

And of course, you can leave it. That is the second part of the answer. “You will need to essentially replace your current distro with another distro.”

How to replace Unity with Gnome on Ubuntu

There is a tool to do this, available from Ubuntu. This is actually a pretty amazing tool. It allows you to take a current distribution of Ubuntu and convert it to a different flavor. Ubuntu comes in many flavors. The default is with Unity and it is a desktop environment designed for the average user. Then there are alternatives that have either different desktops or that serve very different purposes, and mixing and matching is allowed to some extent. For example, Ubuntu can be a basic server, or a web server (called a LAMP server), or a mail server (or all three) perhaps without any desktop at all. Or, you can pick any of several distinct desktops like Kubuntu (uses KDE, which a lot of people like) or XFCE, which is what Linus Torvalds and I use, or Gnome 3, and so on.

The tool is called tasksel

You install and run tasksel (sudo apt update; sudo apt upgrade; sudo apt install tasksel; sudo tasksel) and you get a thingie that lets you pick a “Package Configuration,” which looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 11.46.51 AM

You then very carefully follow the instructions or you will ruin everything! But if you do it right, it should very cleanly remove Ubuntu’s default desktop and install Gnome 3 or whatever. HERE are the instructions and HERE is an excellent episode of the Linux Action Show that goes into detail.

Important additional information: First, this information is current in early October 2014. If you are reading this much later than that, re-research because things may change. Second, it is not perfectly true that Ubuntu does not let you install new desktops and use them. It is true, however, that this is not seamless, harmless, or even recommended. A clue to the seriousness of this is that if you use tasksel to remove Unity and install Gnome 3, you can’t then install Unity because Unity will not cohabit with the version of Gnome you’ve installed. There is too much stuff in the middle that does not work right.

I have installed multiple desktops on top of Ubuntu 14.04, including Mate, Gnome 3 and Gnome Panel. It was the first time for me that playing with desktops broke my system and I’ve been using Linux (and Ubuntu) for a long time, and I mess around with desktop a lot. This is the new normal (for Ubuntu). You will see instructions on what you need to do to switch around desktops on Ubuntu, but frankly, that boat may have sailed other than the use of extreme measures such as tasksel.

I will give you a recommendation below if you are confused or uncertain about what form of Linux you might want to install, based on my own experiences.

Now, back to what you need to know about Ubuntu 14.10.

The first thing you need to know is that Ubuntu 14.10 is almost exactly like 14.04. There are virtually no visible meaningful differences as far as I can tell. So if you are using Ubuntu and are sticking with Ubuntu, don’t expect pretty fireworks. This will not be an exciting upgrade.

Second, 14.10 has an updated version of the kernel, the deep guts of the operating system, and this is important. It is good to have a current kernel. Also, this kernel has some important new hardware support. Some Dell laptops have the ability to turn off your hard drive if it feels itself falling, so the drive is not running when your laptop hits the ground. The new kernel actually supports this feature so if you have a newer Dell laptop, you might want that. There is some improvement in the handling of Dell touchpads as well. The point is, you should absolutely upgrade to 14.10 for a number of unexciting but still potentially important reasons.

Want a better desktop, mate?

No, we are not in Australia. The third item is the big exciting news. If you think Unity sucks, and you liked the old fashioned Gnome desktop (back in the days of Gnome 2.0) you will find this cool. Gnome 2.0 was the best Linux desktop for most purposes, in my opinion. With the new approaches taken by both Unity and Gnome 3, and since forever with KDE, I get the sense that the purpose of the computer is to have a cool desktop. For me, the purpose of my computer is to run certain software and manage files. The purpose of the desktop is to facilitate that, ideally in a way that allows me some customization, but that stays consistent over time so an upgrade does not break my workflow or force me to relearn how to use the hardware, and often, that means just staying out of the way. For me, Gnome 2.0 was the sweet spot in meeting those requirements.

But Gnome has moved on. The current thing that looks and acts like Gnome 2 is called Gnome Panel. It kinda works but it has problems, especially (in my experience) on a laptop. It is not being kept up like it should be to be a current usable desktop. So, sadly, Gnome is no longer recommended for those who liked traditional Gnome. This not to say that Gnome 3 (or for that matter Unity) aren’t great. But they aren’t. Just sayin’

But then there is mate.

Mate is a fork of Gnome that intends to maintain Gnome 2 coolness. It has been around for a while now. It has been updated regularly, and the tradition seems to be to come up with the newest version of the mate desktop in sync with Ubuntu’s release schedule. I’ve tried mate a few times, and I’ve had mixed experiences with it, but in the end it is probably the desktop you want to install if you want Gnome 2-osity on any form of Linux.

This is a bit confusing unless you are already used to concepts like the difference between the terms “desktop,” “desktop,” “desktop,” and “desktop.” Mate is a desktop. Most desktops come along with software that is not strictly desktop but works with the desktop. There are two ways to get many (but not all) desktops. One is to install a “distribution” that uses that desktop, like installing Kubnutu to get the KDE desktop. The other way is to have some normal form of Linux on your computer, then you install the desktop onto that and later, you can chose to log into the newly installed desktop, or some other desktop that happens to be on your system.

Mate was available as an Unofficial Ubuntu Desktop. This means that the mate people would take the guts of a current Ubuntu distribution, and replace various parts with other parts so when you download and install the unofficial Ubuntu mate desktop you get Ubuntu with mate as your desktop.

Now, after a period of regular development, mate is an official flavor of Ubuntu. This means that you can do exactly what you could do before, install Ubuntu with mate instead of Unity or KDE or whatever. But it probably has other implications. I assume that being an official desktop enhances the degree to with an Ubuntu Mate distribution will install cleanly and function well.

It does not exist yet. I understand Ubuntu Mate as such will be released on October 23rd, the same day as Ubuntu. And it comes at a time when Ubuntu continues in the process of seriously downplaying the non-Unity desktops. If you go to the Ubuntu site and see what is there and download and install it, you can be forgiven for not ever knowing that you could have installed Edubuntu, Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Mythbuntu, Ubuntu GNOME, UbuntyKylin, Ubuntu Studio or Xubuntu. You have to dig through a couple of layers of the site and then you get to a scary page that most people will think is just for techies. In the old days, Ubuntu highlighted the diverse alternatives. Now, the bury them. That concerns me.

What you should do instead of automatically installing Ubuntu

There are a lot of Linux distributions out there, and you are of course free to mess around with them. But I’m happy to give you my current advice (subject to change frequently!) about what you might consider doing.

A given Linux distribution, which includes its own distribution materials, may or may not work fully and easily on a given piece of hardware. Considering that when you are looking at or working in a browser or your favorite text editor, the system you are using isn’t that important most of the time, the ease and seamlessness of the installation is really one of the most important features of a distribution. It is my belief based on recent experience messing around with installing several different distributions on five different computers (four laptops, one desktop) that Ubuntu, in one form or another, will generally install the easiest. This includes getting the install medium, doing the installation, and getting help when something goes wrong.

Having said that, installing debian, a traditional well developed form of Linux, on which Ubuntu is based (as are many other distros and most installations worldwide, I think) is pretty easy. Having said that, I quickly add that you probably really want to install one of the “extras” versions of debian, which includes “non free” material and is stored in a scary place and not so well documented.

So, my first piece of advice is this. Get two sets of installation media (this is not hard). One for Ubuntu, the other for debian. Try to install debian. If you run into trouble, switch to Ubuntu. You’ll get the job done. The installation process is not too time consuming or difficult, so this is not a big deal.

My second piece of advice is to figure out what desktop you like. If you actually like Unity, then by all means go over to the dark side and install default Ubuntu. Have a nice time communing with the devil. See you on Halloween!

But if you prefer a different desktop, like Gnome 3 or whatever, then follow my first piece of advice, trying debian than Ubuntu. If debian installs well, then go to town installing your preferred desktop if it wasn’t the default during your install. If debian does not work, then pick the flavor of Ubuntu that has your preferred desktop.

My third piece of advice I’m giving with an important caveat. The caveat is that I’ve not tried this yet so I have no business telling you to do it. But I am going to try this and I think it might be cool. If a Gnome 2 style desktop is your preference, then either install debian and then install mate on top of that, or install Ubuntu Mate 14.10 when it comes out. Just for fun. It might work great.

My fourth piece of advice is this. If you like the Gnome 2.0 desktop and you want to use a well tested and tried interface, consider using XFCE instead. XFCE is quite like Gnome 2 in many ways, but even less in your face. You could install Xubuntu, the Ubuntu flavor with XFCE as the default (or if you have Ubuntu Unity maybe you can use tasksel to switch, depending on things I don’t want to advice you on). Or, and this is probably the ultimate solution, you can instal debian with XFCE. Which, tellingly, is the default desktop for the canonical Linux distribution that is not Canonical. (See what I did there?@?)

And remember, there are only two things you need to keep your eye on. First, you need a computer that will run your software, and pretty much all of these solutions should do that equally well; the only difficulty here is the match between the distro and the hardware, and for a desktop computer, any Linux flavor with any desktop will probably work so you won’t be pounding your desktop in frustration. For laptops you may want to be more conservative and go with the herd (Ubuntu). Second, whatever you do, have fun. And there is nothing in the world more fun than repeatedly reinstalling your operating system, right????

Scrivener on Linux: Oh Well…

UPDATE (January 2, 2016): The makers of Scrivener have decided to abandon their Linux project. Kudos for them for giving it a try. The Scrivener on Linux users were not many, and almost nobody donated to the project, and as far as I can tell, the project was not OpenSource and thus could not have attracted much of an interest among a community of mostly OpenSourceHeads.

So, I’m no longer recommending that you mess around with Scrivener on Linux, as it is no longer maintained. Back to emacs, everybody!

Scrivener is a program used by authors to write and manage complex documents, with numerous parts, chapters, and scenes. It allows the text to be easily reorganized, and it has numerous ways in which the smallest portion of the text, the “scene,” and larger collections of text can be associated with notes and various kinds of meta-data. It is mainly a Mac program but a somewhat stripped down beta version is available for Linux.

In some ways, Scrivener is the very embodiment of anti-Linux, philosophically. In Linux, one strings together well developed and intensely tested tools on data streams to produce a result. So, to author a complex project, create files and edit them in a simple text editor, using some markdown. Keep the files organized in the file system and use file names carefully chosen to keep them in order in their respective directories. when it comes time to make project-wide modifications, use grep and sed to process all of the files at once or selected files. Eventually, run the files through LaTeX to produce beautiful output. Then, put the final product in a directory where people can find it on Gopher.

Gopher? Anyway …

On the other hand, emacs is the ultimate linux program. Emacs is a text editor that is so powerful and has so many community-contributed “modes” (like add-ins) that it can be used as a word processor, an email client, a calendar, a PIM, a web browser, an operating system, to make coffee, or to stop that table with the short leg from rocking back and forth. So, in this sense, a piece of software that does everything is also linux, philosophically.

And so, Scrivener, despite what I said above, is in a way the very embodiment of Linux, philosophically.

I’ve been using Scrivener on a Mac for some time now, and a while back I tried it on Linux. Scrivener for the Mac is a commercial product you must pay money for, though it is not expensive, but the Linux version, being highly experimental and probably unsafe, is free. But then again, this is Linux. We eat unsafe experimental free software for breakfast. So much that we usually skip lunch. Because we’re still fixing breakfast. As it were.

When you create a Scrivener project, you can chose among a number of templates.  The Scrivener community has created a modest number of alternatives, and you can create your own. The templates produce binders with specific helpful layouts.
When you create a Scrivener project, you can chose among a number of templates. The Scrivener community has created a modest number of alternatives, and you can create your own. The templates produce binders with specific helpful layouts.

Anyway, here’s what Scrivener does. It does everything. The full blown Mac version has more features than the Linux version, but both are feature rich. To me, the most important things are:

A document is organised in “scenes” which can be willy nilly moved around in relation to each other in a linear or hierarchical system. The documents are recursive, so a document can hold other documents, and the default is to have only the text in the lower level document as part of the final product (though this is entirely optional). A document can be defined as a “folder” which is really just a document that has a file folder icon representing it to make you feel like it is a folder.

The main scrivener work area with text editor (center), binder and inspector.
The main scrivener work area with text editor (center), binder and inspector.
Associated with the project, and with each separate document, is a note taking area. So, you can jot notes project-wide as you work, like “Don’t forget to write the chapter where everyone dies at the end,” or you can write notes on a given document like “Is this where I should use the joke about the slushy in the bathroom at Target?”

Each scene also has a number of attributes such as a “label” and a “status” and keywords. I think keywords may not be implemented in the Linux version yet.

Typically a project has one major folder that has all the actual writing distributed among scenes in it, and one or more additional folders in which you put stuff that is not in the product you are working on, but could be, or was but you pulled it out, or that includes research material.

You can work on one scene at a time.  Scenes have meta-data and document notes.
You can work on one scene at a time. Scenes have meta-data and document notes.
The scenes, folders, and everything are all held together with a binder typically displayed on the left side of the Scrivener application window, showing the hierarchy. A number of templates come with the program to create pre-organized binder paradigms, or you can just create one from scratch. You can change the icons on the folders/scenes to remind you of what they are. When a scene is active in the central editing window, you can display an “inspector” on the right side, showing the card (I’ll get to that later) on top the meta data, and the document or project notes. In the Mac version you can create additional meta-data categories.

Scrivenings Mode
Scrivenings Mode
An individual scene can be displayed in the editing window. Or, scenes can be shown as a collection of scenes in what is known as “Scrivenings mode.” Scrivenings mode is more or less standard word processing mode where all the text is simply there to scroll through, though scene titles may or may not be shown (optional).

A lot of people love the corkboard option. I remember when PZ Myers discovered Scrivener he raved about it. The corkboard is a corkboard (as you may have guessed) with 3 x 5 inch virtual index cards, one per scene, that you can move around and organize as though that was going to help you get your thoughts together. The corkboard has the scene title and some notes on what the scene is, which is yet another form of meta-data. I like the corkboard mode, but really, I don’t think it is the most useful features. Come for the corkboard, stay for the binder and the document and project notes!

Corkboard Mode
Corkboard Mode
When you are ready to do something outside of scrivener with your project, you compile it. You can compile it into an ebook, a file compatible with most word processors, a PDF file, a number of different predefined manuscript or script formats, etc. Scrivener does all sorts of magic for writing scripts, though I know nothing about that. There is also an outline mode which, in the Mac version, is very complex and powerful. In the Linux Version it is not. So I won’t mention it.

The compile process is cumbersome, esoteric, complicated, and requires training, so it is PERFECT for the average Linux user! But seriously, yes, you can compile your document into a pre-defined format in one or two clicks, but why would you ever do something so simple? Instead, change every possible option affecting formatting and layout to get it just the way you want it, then save that particular layout for later use as “My layout in February” or “This one worked mostly.”

The Powerful Compile Dialog Box.
The Powerful Compile Dialog Box.
One might say that one writes in Scrivener but then eventually uses a word processor for putting the final touches on a document. But it is also possible that you can compile directly to a final format with adequate or even excellent results and, while you may end up with a .docx file or a .pdf file, you are keeping all the work flow in Scrivener.

This fantastic and amazing book was compiled in Scrivener directly into ebook format.

You have to go HERE to find the unsupported and dangerous Linux version of Scrivener. Then, after you’ve installed it, install libaspell-dev so the in-line spell checking works.

A scrivener project file is a folder with a lot of files inside it. On the mac, this is a special kind of folder that is treated as a file, so that is what you see there, but in Linux you see a folder, inside of which is a file with the .scriv extension; that’s the file you run to open the software directly from a directory.

Do not mess with the contents of this folder. But if you want to mess with it you can find that inside a folder inside the folder are files that are the scenes you were working on. If you mess with these when Scrivener is using the project folder you may ruin the project, but if Scrivener is not looking you can probably mess around with the contents of the scene files. In fact, the Mac version gives you the option of “syncing” projects in such a way that you work on these scenes with an external editor of some kind while you are away from your Scrivener base station, i.e., on your hand held device.

Since this data storage system is complicated and delicate, it is potentially vulnerable to alteration while being used by the software, with potentially bad results. This puts your data at risk with cloud syncing services. Dropbox apparently place nice with Scrivener. I’ve been trying to figure out if Copy does, and I’ve been in touch with both Scrivener developers and Copy developers but I’m not sure yet. I use Copy for the masses of data on my computer because it is cheaper, and I use a free version of Dropbox for Scrivener files, just in case.

I would love to see more people who use Linux try out Scrivener, and maybe some day there will be a full Linux version of it. As I understand it, the Linux version is a compiled subset of the Windows version code base (yes, there is a Windows version) and the Windows version is a derivative of the Mac version.

I should also add that there are numerous books and web sites on how to use Scrivener, and Literature and Latte, the company that produces it, has developed an excellent and useful manual and a number of useful tutorials. Literature and Latte also has an excellent user community forum which is remarkably helpful and respectful. So be nice if you go over there.

NSA Claims That Linux Journal Is A Forum for Radical Extremists? THIS MAY BE FAKE (Updated)

When I first became a regular user of Linux, several years ago, I tried out different text editors and quickly discovered that emacs was my best choice. By coincidence, about that time I ran into an old emacs manual written by Richard Stallman in the dollar section of a used booksore. In that edition, near the end of the book, was a section on “Mail Amusements.” This documented the command “M-x spook” which adds “a line of randomly chosen keywords to an outgoing mail message. The keywords are chosen from a list of words that suggest you are discussing something subversive.” (I note that the term “spook” in those days meant “spy.”) Stallman notes in the current edition of the manual,

The idea behind this feature is the suspicion that the NSA and other intelligence agencies snoop on all electronic mail messages that contain keywords suggesting they might find them interesting. (The agencies say that they don’t, but that’s what they would say.) The idea is that if lots of people add suspicious words to their messages, the agencies will get so busy with spurious input that they will have to give up reading it all. Whether or not this is true, it at least amuses some people.

It is amazing to see how things change over time. But this, unfortunately, is not a good example of change over time. As I’m sure every Linux user knows by now, the National Security Agency has included “Linux Journal” (the journal and the site, apparently) as an indicator for potential extremist activity. If you subscribe to the journal, visit the site, mention it in an email, or anything like that, your internet traffic will be subject to additional special attention.

Apparently the NSA captures all, or very nearly all, of the Internet traffic for just long enough to sort through it for key indicators, which they use to pull out a subset of traffic for longer term storage and possible investigation. If you visit Linux Journal’s web site, your internet traffic, apparently, is subject to this treatment.

Why?

Well, this should be obvious. Linux users are extreme. Linux is extreme. If I was the NSA I’d be keeping a close eye on the Linux community because that is where a major national intelligence agency is most likely to find useful, and extremely good, security related ideas. GNU/Linux, FOSS, OpenSource – these are all keywords I’d be watching because this is where the cutting edge is. LAMP systems are the most secure servers used on the Internet, by and large. Linux-like operating systems are the preferred systems for devices that need both reliability and security. I’m sure the NSA itself uses Linux as its primary operating system because it is the most adaptable and secure one they can get. If not, they probably use a cousin or hybrid of some sort.

Also, penguins. Penguins are known to be extreme. They wear tuxedos, who does that anymore? They live on the Antarctic Continent. I can’t think of anything more extreme than this. The adoption of Tux the Penguin as the symbolic mascot of GNU/Linux is a huge red flag for the entire intelligence community.

I do find it amusing that people are a bit up in arms over this. Did anyone ever seriously consider the idea that the Linux community and their Penguin friends would not be the subject of special NSA attention? It would be rather disappointing were it not. Stallman added M-x spook to emacs decades ago. We’ve known for years that the NSA snoops on everything and everyone. Linux is a widely used extremely important operating system. Linux Journal is a key publication used by a wide range of Linux extremists, er, users and developers. Of course the NSA is watching.

Kyle Rankin at Linux Journal who is a known Linux user notes that there is a more specific reason the NSA would view the Linux community as a hotbed of potential extremism. This is where things like Tor and Tails exist as projects and are mostly used. These are, of course, technologies to be more anonymous on the internet. Tor comes form a project originally funded by the US Naval Research Laboratory and DARPA with early work on it supported by the radical Electronic Frontier Foundation. It has also been funded by the US State Department and the National Science Foundation. The original idea was to allow communications over the internet to be untraceable so sailors (or others) could write home and keep their lips tight (loose lips sink ships and all that). With subversive beginnings and evil intent such as this, naturally the NSA would want to keep an eye on it.

I’m sorry to tell that if you’ve been reading this blog post you are probably on the NSA list of extremists. I use the terms “Linux Journal,” “Linux,” and “Penguin” several times in this blog post. And you are looking at this blog post in your browser. You are so screwed.

I would like to challenge the OpenSource/FOSS/GNU/Linux community to take up Stallman’s initiative and bring it to the next level. Let us M-x spook the spooks. Apps, browser add-ins, cron scripts, and other small scale technologies could be used to add subversive terms such as Linux Journal and Penguin to all of our Internet traffic, all the time. The NSA would quickly run out of disk space and someone would tell them to get back to work and do something useful. Real extremists just made a radical extremist Caliphate in the Middle East forchristakes. I would think the NSA would be more focused on such things than on Linux Journal, or Linux. I can see keeping an eye on the Penguins, though.

UPDATE: Charles Johnson send me THIS and THIS. This whole thing could be fake. Go have a look and tell me what you think.

10 Or 20 Things To Do After Installing Ubuntu 14.04 Trusty Tahr

MOST CURRENT INFORMATION WILL BE FOUND HERE: Things To Do After Installing Ubuntu 16.04 LTS

NEW: Very first look at Ubuntu Linux 15.04 Vivid Vervet Beta Mate Flavor

See: Books on Linux and Ubuntu

NOTE: This may not be the blog post you are looking for. If you have installed Ubuntu 14.10 and want to tweak that, GO HERE.

Continue on for 14.04.

Ubuntu 14.04 Trusty Tahr has just been released, and I’m sure you are about to install it. I’ve put together a few ideas for what to do after installation in order to make it work better for you. You’ll find that below. First, a bit of ranty background.

Rant

Originally, Ubuntu was a great thing. Years ago I used a Unix like system for various things and got comfortable with what we now call the “command line.” Then I used DOS, and that was still a command line operating system (but with different commands) and that was pretty good for the late 20th century. Then Windows came out and I switched to that, and later used both Windows and Mac operating systems to do my work. Eventually, I wanted to get away from those proprietary operating systems and try out Linux, which by then was a Unix like system that had windowing capabilities but also a powerful command line interface.

So, I got a spare computer and installed Fedora. Couldn’t get it to work. I tried SUSE and a couple of other systems, but there was a problem with each one of them. In order to get past the installation and configuration — to the extent that the computer would do silly things like print, or hook up to a network — I needed to already know all the stuff that I was confident I would eventually learn, once I got the system set up. It was a Catch 22 situation.

At one point I came across a new version of Linux called Ubuntu, and the fact that it was from South Africa interested me because I was at the time doing quit a bit of work in South Africa, so that was cool. But the Ubuntu servers were always overloaded and I could never download it. I think I tried one other version of Linux after that, and then decided to give up on Linux because that didn’t work for me either.

But just before I gave up, I tried downloading Ubuntu one more time. And it downloaded. And I installed it and the installation was seamless, and everything worked. And I saw it. And it was good.

Although I messed around with a few other versions of Linux, just for fun, I mainly kept installing various versions of Ubuntu, playing around with all of the know desktops but always coming back to gnome. I became reasonably good (but not high level) at working with Linux on the desktop, spent some effort promoting the operating system, and in short order I stopped using Windows (unless forced to do so) but still using a Mac now and then. I currently use a mac desktop for most things, a Linux laptop as my laptop, and a Linux server for specialized tasks. Every now and then Huxley asks me “Daddy, why do you have nine computers?” and I say “Huxley, I only have six computers, those extra monitors are hooked more than one to a computer in some cases.” And he responds “You don’t need nine computers, daddy.” Kids these days…


Check out our new science podcast, Ikonokast.
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Anyway, then Unity came along and for this reason and other reasons Ubuntu became more annoying rather than less annoying with each release. For example, there are applications that now only work with Unity. This may be less true now than it was two months ago, last time I checked, but the Evernote clone for Linux, Everpad, would not give me menus in a non-Unity environment because it was designed to be broken when run in anything other than Ubuntu with Unity. That sort of thing is very annoying. If you want to have some alternative non Ubuntu-approved desktops AND Unity working on one computer, you have to cheat and mess around and trick the computer in to letting you do it. It is no longer safe to install Ubuntu as your basic operating system then configure the computer “exactly how you want it” (a mantra for Linux users) by swapping around desktops and other functionality. Also, Ubuntu took Nautilus, which had evolved to be one of the best file managers around, and removed some of its great features and made it one of the dumbest file managers around. And, the Unity Dashboard eventually became like that big gift shop at most museums these days … all exits lead through the gift shop.

One of the most annoying things about Unity is the disappearing menus that are no longer located on the application title bar. Both being not where I want them and invisible is incredibly annoying. All disappearing menus are stupid and anti-productive and anyone who does not realize that is a sheep. Baa..

And another thing. The simple act of creating an application launcher for your launching bar/thingie became difficult with Ubuntu. This meant that two or three of my most commonly used applications could not be launched the way I wanted them to be launched by using a simple tweak. It turns out that getting desktop launchers to work isn’t that hard, but dammit, why did I have to learn a whole new procedure that is five times more complicated than the old procedure, giving me nothing new, just because Mark Shutleworth never thought of launching emacs with a standard blank file to make his life easier? WHY???

But then Ubuntu Long Term Release 14.04. If you read about this release on the Internet, you’ll notice that people often say “nothing big in this new release, pretty much the same as the old release” but that is not true. One of the big differences is that you can now configure Unity to use normal menus. That is big. Also, somewhere along the way Ubuntu One came (I never got it to work for me either functionally or adaptively) so I couldn’t care less, but it is now gone so that is one annoying thing that has disappeared. Plus, by now, methods of removing other annoying features of Unity have developed nicely.

The irony of all this is that when you install Ubuntu 14.04 with Unity and you want it to be a sane operating system, there is a long list of things you may want to do to. I’ve culled suggestions from a number of helpful web sites (all listed below) and put them in a reasonable order. If you want to do these things, you might consider running through the list and adding all the repositories at once, then doing a sudo apt-get install update command, rather than doing the latter after every one of the former, to save time. I’ve not fully tested everything here. I.e., I’ve installed Skype but I’ve not tested it. Also, I did these things on a system that was already tweaked so several of these things were already done, but I did them again anyway. That mostly resulted in “you’ve already installed that software, dummy” notices, but at least nothing broke.

I opted or command line suggestions for most of these items, though a few send you to the system preferences, etc.

So here’s what I did, and what you may want to do. I guarantee nothing. Good luck.

Make available some important repositories that are probably turned off

Use the dash to open Software and Updates

Go to other software and check cannonical parters and probably everything else that looks important, unless it is something Ubuntu turned off that you had previously included. I don’t know what to do about those repositories. You may be asked to approve reloading the cash, or you can do this, or both:

sudo apt-get update

While you are in Software and Updates, check for additional drivers

Check in software and updates for additional drivers, under the “additional drivers” tab. Do something smart with what you find there. I did nothing but you may want to. Be careful.

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade

Install multimedia codecs

sudo apt-get install ubuntu-restricted-extras

Install several useful software items:

VLC media player:

sudo apt-get install vlc

Install rar. I don’t know what this is but a lot of people seem to recommend it

sudo apt-get install rar

gimp image manipulation program

sudo apt-get install gimp

gnome tweak tool and unity tweek tool

sudo apt-get install gnome-tweak-tool

sudo apt-get install unity-tweak-tool

Install pidgin if you want.

I didn’t but a lot of people like it.

sudo apt-get install pidgin

Install skype

Install Skype if you want. This is a huge installation and will take a few minutes.

sudo sh -c ‘echo “deb http://archive.canonical.com/ quantal partner” >> /etc/apt/sources.list’
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install skype

Install Java

sudo apt-get install icedtea–7-plugin openjdk–7-jre

Install extra applets

I’ve not entirely figured out the applets yet. They go on the menu bar, called the panel, along the top of Unity’s screen. There are few recommended tweaks and so far I’ve liked them. For some of these, you run it from command line and it becomes part of the panel. For others, you have to run it from the Dash. For some, when you run the app from the command line the program that puts it on the panel keeps running, so when you exit the terminal or terminate the program, the applet disappears. For some the applet ends up on the panel, for some there is an opening application that shows up and requires configuration then the applet goes in the panel, for others the applet is ready to go next time you log in but won’t show up until then. In other words, there is no standard for how applets are created or installed. I refer to the rant at the top of the page. Ubuntu. A “South African Language Word for ‘WTF’”

sudo apt-get install diodon diodon-plugins

Calendar indicator

This is actually one of the coolest applets. My own calendar is relatively sparse; for many days there is nothing at all, but everything on my calendar is very important, of course. The best way to view a sparse calendar is using the “agenda” method, where days that have nothing on them don’t even show up and everything is a list. This calendar indicator does that. The problem is, it does not stick itself to the panel unless you select “autostart” in the preferences after you’ve started it up from DASH.

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:atareao/atareao
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install calendar-indicator

Install a weather indicator

This is an excellent indicator for weather.

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:atareao/atareao
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install my-weather-indicator

Install Copy (instead of Dropbox)

Copy is a less expensive alternative to Dropbox. You should give it a try.

Install dropbox and the app indicator

I’ve not gotten the app indicator to work, but this is the recommended procedure. I’m probably missing something. Truth be told, I’m not sure if dropbox is working on my laptop at all at the moment. Let me know how it goes with you.

sudo apt-get install dropbox

then you might have to do this to get an indicator;

sudo apt-get install libappindicator1

But if you are like me that won’t work. In fact, while Dropbox seems to work on Ububuntu 14.04 unity, autostart does not work; I’m prompted for my system password to start Dropbox on login. For now I think I’ll wait to try to figure out how to get the icon going until this all gets resolved, presumably in one fell swoop. But, again, see rant above: how does Ubuntu fell about itself, killing off Ubuntu One at the same time it makes Dropbox harder to use. Do we users not count? Jeesh.

Anyway, if you want to verify that Dropbox is working, go to the command line and type in

dropbox -h

and you’ll get a list of commands that will allow you to play around with it, including

dropbox status

which will tell you if it is running.

Install classic menu indicator

This is a pretty important applet. With this applet in place you might even consider setting the Unity launcher bar on autohide! It is the standard debian style menu. I recommend going into preferences and changing the icon to the standard (Ubuntu) icon so you know what the heck it is a few days after installing it.

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:diesch/testing
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install classicmenu-indicator

Remove keyboard indicator

The keyboard langauge is indicated on your panel. Why? If this annoys you you can remove it.

System Settings-> Text Entry and uncheck the Show current input source in the menu bar.

Fix screen brightness controls

On some computers, including mine apparently, Ubuntu broke the ability to change the brightness of the screen. It can be fixed. I’ve not tried it, but you can check out this web page for instructions on how to do that. Good luck.

Add a nifty system load indicator

sudo apt-get install indicator-multiload

Fix the obnoxious stuff on the Unity Dash

You don’t want Ubuntu telling you to buy stuff at Amazon and all that other dumbass stuff it does? This and other annoyances can be fixed.

Go to Settings, security and privacy, and then turn that stuff off. You should turn off “include online seach results” and you may want to turn off the thingie that shows your recently open documents. All this clutters up the dashboard, but if you want this information there, by all means leave it.

Get rid of the shopping suggestions with this code at the console:

gsettings set com.canonical.Unity.Lenses disabled-scopes “[‘more_suggestions-amazon.scope’, ‘more_suggestions-u1ms.scope’, ‘more_suggestions-populartracks.scope’, ‘music-musicstore.scope’, ‘more_suggestions-ebay.scope’, ‘more_suggestions-ubuntushop.scope’, ‘more_suggestions-skimlinks.scope’]”

Disable online searches from dash with
wget -q -O – https://fixubuntu.com/fixubuntu.sh | bash

Fix overheating and extend battery life

There is a good chance Ubuntu is not handling your fan, battery, etc. optimally but there is a nifty utility that probably will. Do this:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:linrunner/tlp
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install tlp tlp-rdw
sudo tlp start

Install Dolphin

Just go to Synaptic package manager or Ubuntu software center and install Dolphin file manager. Other folks are suggesting sunfish, but I don’t recommend it. At the moment, Dolphin is the only file manager I’d recommend for Ubuntu. I’m still waiting for a good file manager to come out.

Install Compiz settings manager

sudo apt-get install
sudo apt-get install compizconfig-settings-manager

Then, after you’ve installed it, DON’T TOUCH IT.

Disable the boneheaded overlay scrollbars

What is more annoying than disappearing menus? Disappearing scroll bars that are located at a specific position that YOU CAN’T KNOW WHAT IT IS BECAUSE YOU CAN’T SEE IT. Get rid of that.

gsettings set com.canonical.desktop.interface scrollbar-mode normal

Put the username back on the the panel

Why Ubuntu thinks you need to know what keyboard is running but not which user is behind the keyboard is an enigma wrapped in a riddle.

gsettings set com.canonical.indicator.session show-real-name-on-panel true

Install Adobe Flash plugin

sudo apt-get install flashplugin-installer

The, spend the next hour trying to get that to work consistently.

Install some Codecs and Enable DVD Playback:

sudo apt-get install gstreamer0.10-plugins-ugly libxine1-ffmpeg gxine mencoder libdvdread4 totem-mozilla icedax tagtool easytag id3tool lame nautilus-script-audio-convert libmad0 mpg321 libavcodec-extra

sudo /usr/share/doc/libdvdread4/install-css.sh

Add workspaces

Type “appearances” at the dash (or get there from system settings), click behavior, show workspaces. A violation of the Prime Directive (have no widgets on the launcher because we broke that) will happen and a widget will appear on the launcher that shows you what workspace you are in and gives you a workspace switcher.

Integrate Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Configure social media with “online accounts” from the dashboard

Make some customized launcers

Use these instructions to set up launcher icon thingies in your unity launcher for apps that require special conditions not already installed. For example, I have emacs open with a file from the desktop called “blank.txt” which is sometimes blank and sometimes just contains the last stuff I wrote into that file.

That is all.



Other posts of interest:

Also of interest: In Search of Sungudogo: A novel of adventure and mystery, set in the Congo.

Copy vs Dropbox UPDATED: iOS and Linux

UPDATE: Linux Install.

Installing Copy on Linux was pretty easy. You go to the web page, download a tarball, upack it, then inside the tarball figure out the folder that matches your OS (i.e., 32 vs 64 bit) and go into that folder. Then run the Agent. That may, if you are good, put a thingie on your notification area. Click on that and then sign in and install and stuff, that’s it.

There are two pages you might find useful, one for Ubuntu the other for Copy more generally if needed.

Notably, the install on Linux was easier for Copy than for Dropbox. Dropbox install LOOKS easy but never goes as planned, in my (extensive) experience with it.

Copy is a new cloud storage service that may be a serious competitor to Drobbox. I just installed it and I like it.

Dropbox gives 2 Gigabytes for free, 100 Gigabytes for 9.99 a month, 200 Gigabytes for 19.99 a month, and 500 Gigabytes for 49.99 a month.

Copy gives 15 Gigabytes for free, 250 Gigabytes for $10.00 a month, and 500 Gigabytes for 15.00 a month (cheaper if you pay by the year).

I know for a fact that Dropbox works well with Linux and Mac and I assume Windows. Copy claims to be compatible and well integrated with all of these system. I’ve not thoroughly tested Copy yet, but they do seem to work differently.

To make Copy work on my Mac, I installed the app from the menu by downloading the image file and doing the drag and drop thingie. I then ran the application and after a few short steps I had a new folder on my computer called “Copy.” It was place within my home directory, though I had the option of using a different folder. The installation program conveniently (or obnoxiously depending on how well you keep your lawn trimmed) placed a short cut on the shortcut bar in “finder.”

At a couple of times during the process of signing up and installing I was given the option to just move everything from my computer, or from “another cloud storage device” to Copy, which I chose not to do because that would have certainly involved upgrading to a paid account; I wanted to try this out with the free storage first, though I’m not adverse to buying storage if I need it, especially at rates so much lower than Dropbox.

The first thing I did was to attempt to drag and drop a folder that has several files in it into Copy. The folder held a handful of subdirectories, several hundred files, and was in all about 1.2 gigabytes in size. Within a few seconds upload started. Seemed to be about on par with Dropbox, but I did not take any measurements for comparison. Copy allows local syncing, which of course I’ve not tested yet.

It is difficult to recommend for or against Copy until it has been out a while longer, but at the moment it seems to be essentially the same as Dropbox but cheaper. Will Dropbox lower its price? Will Copy be amazing like Dropbox is? Will this work just as well on my Linux machine?

Tune in next week for another installment of …. “Copy vs. Drobox”


UPDATE: I’ve installed the iPad app. Installed cleanly, much crisper, easier to use, better laid out than Dropbox, a total win. And it functions fine.

Tomorrow PM I plan to install Copy on my Linux laptop. Later in the week, on the Linux workstation.