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May 172017

It may not be very funny, but the funny thing about WannaCrypt is that it is somewhat of a failure! Unless the authors are spectacularly stupid (not entirely impossible incidentally), they have no way to recover their ill-gotten gains. The pile of looted bitcoins they have acquired is fully visible, so any attempt to use those coins will almost certainly result in them being tracked down – they have attracted too much attention.

Which is another aspect of the WannCrypt malware – it has highlighted the vulnerability (MS17-010) and caused a huge vulnerability hunt. Which is causing those who wrote other malware (such as Adylkuzz) to gnash their teeth, because otherwise their malware would have quietly worked away in the background. The malware authors behind Adylkuzz have probably made more money than the WannaCrypt malware authors … and may well get away with their loot too.

Which is why other malware authors “wannacry” – the attention that WannaCrypt has gotten has ruined MS17-010 for them.

May 172017

It seems rather strange when you discover it, but Windows Update sometimes lies about what updates have been installed. I am not sure how often this happens, but it does happen from time to time. Which with WannaCrypt rampaging around is somewhat unfortunate.

What seems to happen is that Windows Update gets confused about what patches it has installed – it’s internal database gets corrupt. One possible fix for this is to remove the database :-

net stop wuahuserv
cd %systemroot%
ren SoftwareDistribution SoftwareDistribution.old
net start wuauserv
rd /s/q SoftwareDistribution.old

When using Windows 10, you may well have to start (net start wuahuserv) Windows Update services before stopping them. Once you have removed the directory, the next time you run Windows Update in the gooey, it will spend some time rebuilding it’s database and hopefully will then pick up the missing updates. No promises but this worked on at least one server that had unacknowledged missing patches.

Of course without a proper vulnerability scanner it may be tricky to determine when Windows is lying about being fully patched. The best bet is to assume it is lying whenever something like WannaCrypt comes along.

The other possibility is to look into something like Autopatcher which is intended for offline updates – you can download the Microsoft updates and use the tool to patch Windows computers from the downloads.

Apr 302017

Despite how long I have been running Windows in virtual machines (as far back as Vmware Workstation 1.0), I have never gotten around to looking at the virtio network interface – except for naïvely turning it on once, finding it didn’t work, and turning it off – so I decided to have a look at it. I was prompted to do this by a suggestion that emulating the NIC hardware as opposed to simply using a virtual communications channel to the host would hurt network performance. Good job I chose a long weekend because I ran into a few issues :-

  • Getting appropriate test tools took a while because most of the tools I know of are very old; I ended up using iperf2 on both the Linux main host and the Windows 10 guest (within the “Windows
  • The “stable” virtio drivers (also called “NetKVM”) drivers didn’t work. Specifically they could send packets but not receive them (judging from the DORA conversation that was more of a DODO). I installed the “latest” drivers from Note to late readers: this was as of 2017-04-30; different versions may offer different results.
  • Upgrading my ancient Debian Jessie kernel to 4.9 on the off-chance it was a kernel bug turned into a bit of an exercise what with ZFS disappearing after the upgrade, and sorting out the package dependencies to get it re-installed was “interesting” (for small values of course). No data loss though.

I ran two tests :-

  1. sudo nping –tcp -p 445 –count 200 –data-len 1280 ${ip of windows guest) – to judge how reliable the network connection was.
  2. On the Linux host: sudo iperf -p 50001 
  3. On the Windows guest (from within the Ubuntu-based environment): sudo iperf -p 50001 -c ${ip of Linux host}
Device nping result iperf result
Windows guest (virtual Intel Pro 1000 MT Desktop 1 lost 416 Mbits/sec
Windows guest (virtio) 0 lost 164 Mbits/sec
CuBox running ARM Linux n/a 425 Mbits/sec

Which is not the result I was expecting. And yes I did repeat the tests a number of times (I’ve cheated and chosen the best numbers for the above table), and no I did not confuse which NIC was configured at the time of the tests nor did I get the tests mixed up. And to those who claim that the use of the Ubuntu environment screwed things up, that appears not to be the case – I repeated the test with a Windows compiled version of iperf with much the same results.

So it seems despite common sense indicating that a NIC “hardware” custom designed for a virtual environment should perform better than an emulation of a hardware NIC, the actual result in this case was the other way around. Except for the nping result which shows the loss of a single packet with the emulated hardware NIC.

Oct 192016

I have just been listening to a Microsoft fanboy on the you tube wittering on about something (not computer related), when he tried to read out a URL. According to him, there are “backslashes” in the URL.

Not in any normal URL. For those who do not know, URLs are web site addresses such as The character that appears after the network protocol (http) – the “/” is formally known as the solidus, and less formally as a slash. The slash that goes the other way is called the backslash (or more formally the reverse solidus).

And who decided that one was a slash (‘/”) and the other a backslash (‘\’)? Although it has been used since the Medieval era, it was probably first called as solidus in the 19th century because of it being used to signify the British shilling. Currently it is the Unicode Consortium who call it a solidus in the international standard for character encoding. If you disagree with them, by all means either convince them they’re wrong or set up a new international standard and get it more widely adopted than Unicode.

Until then, I’ll carry on calling someone who says a backslash looks like – ‘/’, wrong.

Does it matter? In the big scheme of things probably not, but it does make reading out instructions more difficult when either slashes or backslashes appear. After all computers rarely say “Ah! I see what you meant! You meant which is different (and makes sense) to http:\\\“. And as anyone who has ever encountered autocorrect “mistakes” will attest, letting computers decide what you meant is not always the best idea.

And how did the mistake originally occur? To some extent Microsoft is to blame, although I doubt Microsoft ever called the slashes the wrong name.

When Microsoft wrote their first operating system (DOS), they chose to make it semi-compatible with an earlier operating system (CP/M) which used the slash to indicate the use of an option to a command-line command which in turn was inherited from certain early DEC operating systems.

When they came to implementing directories (yes that long ago), they broke with the tradition of stealing ideas from DEC (or we would have ended up with paths like C:[WINDOWS.SYSTEM]FOO.SYS) and instead chose the Unix path separator. But the slash conflicted with option processing on the command-line, so they used the backslash instead – C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM\FOO.SYS.

Of course people started calling the backslash, a slash, and I’m sure there are many out there who will continue despite being told that they are wrong. Of course when I say they’re wrong, I have the backing of an international group of grapheme experts behind me.


Oct 232013

Crazy experiment time. What happens when you have a disk with 100 partitions? The replacement for the old MBR standard for partitions on PC hardware is slowly being replaced with GUID partitions. The later increased the maximum number of partitions to 128 which is probably far more than anyone needs, but what happens when you have a disk with 100 partitions?

As it happens, I had a spare external drive to play with, so set something up :-

for x in {1..99}     
  parted /dev/sdc mkpart FAT $(($x * 100)) $((x * 100 + 99))
  mkfs -t vfat /dev/sdc${x} 

This took a surprising amount of time to run with two interesting effects :-

  1. The mkfs tool refused to make a filesystem on /dev/sdc16 and /dev/sdc80 as it claimed it would be creating a filesystem on a full disk device. I suspect that this is a bug due to simplistic assumption of what constitutes a full disk device based on minor device numbers (/dev/sdc16 happened to be 0 and /dev/sdc80 happened to be 64). This could probably be solved by using device nodes within /dev/disk/by-${something}/${whatever}.
  2. The Unity Launcher appeared to attempt to populate itself with the new filesystems as they were being created, but very rapidly decided not to bother. This happened several times.

Once the creation process was complete, I reconnected the external drive to my Ubuntu machine, and yes the launcher does contain a ton of hard disk icons. The launcher is still full functional, but having a hundred (or so) devices below the normal icons does make using it a little clumsy.

Fortunately it did not mount all the filesystems automatically – closing that many windows would be very tedious. Mounting them all via a file manager window was pretty tedious, but it worked :-

/dev/sdc56             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8663-39C5
/dev/sdc65             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8673-0919
/dev/sdc71             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/873E-FEE7
/dev/sdc72             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8741-47B3
/dev/sdc79             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/874D-4B53
/dev/sdc81             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/874E-D280
/dev/sdc82             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8752-1ACE
/dev/sdc83             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8754-2562
/dev/sdc84             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8755-D262
/dev/sdc86             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8759-0D82
/dev/sdc87             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/875A-E5C5
/dev/sdc89             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/875E-035B
/dev/sdc92             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8763-8FB5
/dev/sdc93             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8765-7A2F
/dev/sdc94             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8767-1DBC
/dev/sdc95             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8768-D314
/dev/sdc96             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/876A-A46E
/dev/sdc97             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/876B-F064
/dev/sdc98             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/876D-9D90
/dev/sdc58             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8666-B9AA
/dev/sdc61             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/866B-8EFA
/dev/sdc62             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/866D-1726
/dev/sdc64             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8671-5EE1
/dev/sdc66             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8736-C2F5
/dev/sdc67             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8737-EE95
/dev/sdc68             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8739-7213
/dev/sdc69             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/873B-181F
/dev/sdc70             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/873C-E80C
/dev/sdc73             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8743-11E7
/dev/sdc74             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8745-28A8
/dev/sdc75             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8746-CA94
/dev/sdc77             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/874A-1D30
/dev/sdc78             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/874B-C1C7
/dev/sdc85             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8757-77A0
/dev/sdc88             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/875C-6DF9
/dev/sdc90             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8760-8FD5
/dev/sdc91             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/8762-01DA
/dev/sdc99             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/8770-0F74
/dev/sdc1              93M     0   93M   0% /media/mike/8609-229A
/dev/sdc17             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8621-921D
/dev/sdc21             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8628-8CDB
/dev/sdc22             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/862A-2217
/dev/sdc23             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/862B-8EF9
/dev/sdc25             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/862F-0BE5
/dev/sdc27             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8633-1F9D
/dev/sdc28             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8634-A26F
/dev/sdc34             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/863E-14EB
/dev/sdc37             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8643-1F63
/dev/sdc4              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/860D-2753
/dev/sdc40             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8647-8E49
/dev/sdc41             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8649-033D
/dev/sdc42             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/864A-A12A
/dev/sdc43             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/864C-6EEF
/dev/sdc44             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/864E-3469
/dev/sdc45             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8650-8796
/dev/sdc46             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8652-64DF
/dev/sdc47             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8653-F743
/dev/sdc48             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8655-B14B
/dev/sdc49             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8657-34FF
/dev/sdc5              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/860E-EBD7
/dev/sdc50             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/8658-A04A
/dev/sdc51             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/865A-D4D3
/dev/sdc52             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/865C-33D1
/dev/sdc53             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/865D-FA56
/dev/sdc54             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8660-6C95
/dev/sdc55             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8661-D456
/dev/sdc57             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8665-0AFD
/dev/sdc59             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8668-3D53
/dev/sdc6              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8610-F9B0
/dev/sdc60             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/866A-0A0E
/dev/sdc63             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/866E-F6E7
/dev/sdc76             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8748-8D02
/dev/sdc10             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8616-B29F
/dev/sdc11             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8618-6462
/dev/sdc12             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/861A-5208
/dev/sdc13             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/861B-BA6E
/dev/sdc14             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/861D-5133
/dev/sdc15             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/861E-C384
/dev/sdc18             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8623-BFCF
/dev/sdc19             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8625-9D85
/dev/sdc2              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/860A-504E
/dev/sdc20             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/8627-1391
/dev/sdc24             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/862D-457F
/dev/sdc26             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8631-5F8A
/dev/sdc29             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8636-2F58
/dev/sdc3              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/860B-8C77
/dev/sdc30             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8637-F726
/dev/sdc31             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/8639-6B19
/dev/sdc32             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/863A-FBBC
/dev/sdc33             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/863C-AE68
/dev/sdc35             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8640-3A10
/dev/sdc36             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8641-93A6
/dev/sdc38             95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8644-AFCF
/dev/sdc39             94M     0   94M   0% /media/mike/8646-1BAE
/dev/sdc7              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8612-54E8
/dev/sdc8              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8613-C38C
/dev/sdc9              95M     0   95M   0% /media/mike/8615-3522

Yes I have cut the “interesting” filesystems out of that output.

Windows (7) does deal quite so well with the situation. After rebooting into Windows with the disk plugged in, the login process seemed to take longer than usual (although I don’t boot Windows enough to be sure).

Once logged in, everything seemed fine including the little popup window by the status bar saying it was configuring the plugged in disk drive. However that took longer than expected – after clicking on it for details, it took around 5 minutes to complete. At which point it stuck a red cross by the “Disk Drive” whilst it popped up an Autoplay window for drives E: through Z:. With an offer to format drive T: – so it could at least use the drive that Linux refused (by default) to format.

However except for that little red cross, there was no clear warning that it failed to do anything with nearly 80 partitions. And closing all those popup Autoplay windows was pretty tedious.

OSX (10.9) dealt a little better with the disk; it at least recognised all of the disks, and stuck up little icons for each one. And mounted them all.  However Finder didn’t seem to respond to attempts to unmount the disks … I had to resort to the command-line. Perhaps I wasn’t patient enough.

And the moral of this little crazy experiment? Whilst we can perhaps throw a little mud at Microsoft, the main lesson learnt is that you too can annoy someone using Windows by handing them an external hard disk with 100 partitions. Especially if the information they want is not in the first 20-odd partitions <Evil Grin>

Oh! And just stating the obvious – it’s a good idea to remove the partitions before putting the spare disk away, or you may encounter a nasty surprise later!


Oct 312011

According to a couple of articles on The Register, a couple of manufacturers are getting close to releasing ARM-based servers. The interesting thing is that the latest announcement includes details of a 64-bit version of the ARM processor, which according to some people is a precondition for using the ARM in a server.

It is not really true of course, but a 64-bit ARM will make a small number of tasks possible. It is easy to forget that 32-bit servers (of which there are still quite a few older ones around) did a pretty reasonable job whilst they were in service – there is very little that a 64-bit server can do that a 32-bit server cannot. As a concrete example, a rather elderly SPARC-based server I have access to has 8Gbytes of memory available, is running a 64-bit version of Solaris (it’s hard to find a 32-bit version of Solaris for SPARC), but of the 170 processes it is running, none occupies more than 256Mbytes of memory; by coincidence the size of processes is also no more than 256Mb.

The more important development is the introduction of virtualisation support.

The thing is that people – especially those used to the x86 world – tend to over-emphasise the importance of 64-bits. It is important as some applications do require more than 4Gbytes of memory to support – in particular applications such as large Oracle (or other DBMS) installations. But the overwhelming majority of applications actually suffer a performance penalty if re-compiled to run as 64-bit applications.

The simple fact is that if an application is perfectly happy to run as a 32-bit application with a “limited” memory space and smaller integers, it can run faster because there is less data flying around. And indeed as pointed out in the comments section of the article above, it can also use ever so slightly more electricity.

What is overlooked amongst those whose thinking is dominated by the x86 world, is that the x86-64 architecture offers two benefits over the old x86 world – a 64-bit architecture and an improved architecture with many more CPU registered. This allows for 64-bit applications in the x86 world to perform better than their 32-bit counterparts even if the applications wouldn’t normally benefit from running on a 64-bit architecture.

If the people producing operating systems for the new ARM-based servers have any sense, they will quietly create a 64-bit operating system that can transparently run many applications in 32-bit mode. Not exactly a new thing as this is what Solaris has done on 64-bit SPARC based machines for a decade. This will allow those applications that don’t require 64-bit, to gain the performance benefit of running 32-bit, whilst allowing those applications that require 64-bit to run perfectly well.

There is no real downside in running a dual word sized operating system except a minor amount of added complexity for those developers working at the C-language level.

Jun 182011

This is a series of notes on dealing with PC malware (viruses, worms and the like) gathered because I’m looking into it and published as a way of reminding myself about this stuff. Bear in mind that I’m not an expert but neither am I a complete dunce – I’m normally a Unix or Linux person but I’ve been keeping half an eye on Windows infections for years.

Some links to tools are contained within. However you should be aware that tool recommendations change over time; you will need to check how outdated this document is before following any recommendations blindly.

At present this blog entry is a work in progress … lots of testing needs to be done before being confident this is right.

Cleanup Process

This is not :-

  1. How to approach this forensically – if you’re dealing with an investigation, it’s a whole other ball game and you probably need professional assistance to avoid corrupting evidence.
  2. A technical guide as to which tools to use.

1. For The Ultra Cautious Or When Handling Real Important Data

The process of removal can be destructive, and in the worst cases you can end up cleaning the malware and ending up with a brick. So make an image of the hard disk as it is. Two basic ways this can be done :-

  1. Removing the hard disk from the infected machine, attaching to an appropriate machine (USB->SATA, USB->IDE converters are handy here), and making an image of the disk.
  2. Booting off a “rescue” CD on the infected machine, and imaging the hard disk to a network share of some kind. This is the preferred option.

This will be slow. So be it. Cleaning an infected PC is not going to be a quick job whatever you do. The best you can hope for is that there are many periods where you can leave it churning away and get on with something else.

2. Boot A Rescue CD

There are those who tell you that there is no need to boot off a known uninfected disk to clean an infected machine; their anti-malware/virus product can clean an infected machine “live”. There are others who claim that the only way to be sure is to boot off that disk and clean the machine that way. Both are wrong.

If you are paranoid (and in the presence of malware paranoia is fully justifiable), you will do both.

3. Boot Infected Machine and Clean

As suggested previously after booting off a rescue disk and cleaning, boot the infected machine and clean again.


The following is a list of rescue CD’s that have been suggested :-

  • UBD4Win. Has to be “built” with the assistance of an XP installation; somewhat tedious but it isn’t the end of the world. However it does need preparing in advance – building a rescue CD with the assistance of an infected machine isn’t the most sensible idea!
  • Knoppix. Graphical, pretty, feature packed, but seems to be lacking in anti-malware tools (for instance the only AV tool included is Clam).
  • Trinity Rescue Disk. Menu interface. Virus definitions update over the net; choice of Clam, F-Prot, Bitdefender, Vexira, AVast (need to obtain license key). Various other utilities.
  • F-Secure Rescue CD.

Some of the above are Windows based; some are Linux based. The choice of which to use should be based on results not whether they tickle your prejudices (or mine!).

The following is a list of “live” tools to be installed that have been suggested :-


Nothing to do with the main subject. Merely some notes worth mentioning.

It seems that at least some malware can detect it is running within a virtual environment. In some cases it ceases to do anything, and in others may try to “break out”. This indicates that analysing malware within a virtual environment may not give sensible results, and in some cases may be dangerous! That is not to say that using a virtual environment is no longer of any use, but you may need to take special case such as running the virtual environment under Linux and/or ESX rather than Windows. And be careful about negative results.

Oct 232010

I have not had the opportunity to fiddle with one, but if Apple wants to send me one to review I am more than willing to do that! But I do have a few thoughts on the new Macbook Air. Both the 11″ one and the 13″ one. If you want something closer to a review (although nobody has had one long enough to review it properly) you can do worse than have a look at this article.

It is amusing to see the reactions to various articles published on the new Air from the “Apple is Satan” crowd, and the “Apple can do no wrong” crowd. Both as it happens are wrong.

If you look at the raw specifications of the Air – especially the 11″ model, you will see something that looks more or less like a netbook. Which of course it cannot be because Steve Jobs thinks netbooks are snake oil and useless at that. In fact it is a little bit better than that – the CPU is a little quicker, the graphics are a little better supported with a faster chipset, and there is a touch less storage (unless you go for the really expensive 256Gbyte model!).

So it’s just a very expensive netbook then ? Well, more or less. It fills roughly the same need – most people are not going to use one of these as their main machines, but will carry them around as ultra-portables. That is the kind of mobile computer you can take anywhere but once you are at your desk it sits in the drawer whilst you use a “proper computer”.

Sure the CPU is a little light-weight, but a couple of years ago a Core2Duo CPU was fine enough to get Real Work Done, so it’s still perfectly adequate to do a bit of light word processing on the train, throw up a presentation on a screen, do a little light web browsing during a boring meeting (ps: I never do this), and of course perfectly adequate for running kermit to connect to a Cisco router whilst balanced on top of a boring blue box.

Most of the compromises made in the specification are to get the size and weight of the laptop down to increase portability – that’s what a laptop is for after all! If you want power, go back to your desktop.

There is a fair amount of criticism around the cost of the Air being as it is very much more expensive than most netbooks. So ? Apple is hardly known for tackling the low end of the market where margins are small, so it is hardly surprising that things have not changed here. And of course this machine has a better specification than any netbook, whilst retaining the characteristic that Apple thinks is important in a netbook – portability.

Of course Apple is hardly perfect. Why must the battery and the SSD be fixed ? And why is there no possibility of swapping out the memory ? Whilst making these devices swappable may well make the laptop just a bit bigger and a bit heavier, it won’t be enough to ruin the portability, and will be a lot greener.

There is of course the usual criticism of Apple that their UK prices are over inflated compared to their US prices. To do a fair comparison, lets take a look :-

Cheapest Air on the US Apple Store $999
Cheapest Air on the UK Apple Store £849
US price in pounds where exchange rate is according to Wolfram Alpha £636.89
Plus UK “sales tax” (VAT) at 20% (to start in January 2011) £764.27
Penalty to UK purchasers for buying Apple £85

So why are we paying that extra £85 ?

We all know that laptop batteries fade over time to eventually give such a short running time to make the laptop unusable as a portable device. And of course circumstances change so you may suddenly need more than 64Gbytes of storage to get your work done on the move – or you just have to run a virtual machine because work has come up with the Ultimate Application that only runs under Windows, so you need a touch more memory.

Or heck, perhaps you just want to give your laptop a midlife upgrade to make it a bit quicker.

Apple want us all to throw away our old products and buy new ones – very capitalistic, but not very green.

And for all those pro-Apple and anti-Apple people out there who get so wound up by product announcements by Apple, please grow up and get a life! It’s a laptop; not a revolutionary change in the way that humanity exists.

Dec 052008

I recently encountered a dead blog entitled “Linux Haters” and instantly thought up writing about tedious fan-boys that think that the operating system they like is the best and everyone should use it. I’ve no time for people like that as they tend to annoy rather than educate. I’ve no problem with people who prefer to use Windows, Linux, Solaris or OSX; it is their choice. Of course in the case of Windows, I do have to wonder why 🙂

But one of the links on that blog led to a place that (amongst other things) ranted about how FOSS projects always have dumb names, and that these projects need a big dose of marketing intelligence. He went on to whinge about the word-games often embedded into the project name.

First of all, he misunderstands how many open source projects start – with a geek or a group of geeks deciding they want something different. Either a new package or a variation on an existing one. There are no marketing types in sight, and the geeks involved probably have no great expectation that they are coming up with the next big thing – they are just having fun and hoping to come up with something useful for themselves. So what if they have a bit of fun playing word games to come up with a name for their project ? Not only do many such projects end up disappearing without a trace, but as marketing types have fun playing with words, why can’t geeks ?

Perhaps the names they come up with are not as punchy as a name thought up by a marketing department, but weirdness does have its own value in this area. A name such as Amarok does tend to stick in the mind more than Music Player 52. And over time, formally weird names such as google and yahoo do tend to become more normal if they are attached to popular projects.

Secondly he specifically criticises names invented by geeks for being recursive acronyms … but does that matter ? He specifically names GIMP which is admittedly particularly guilty being a recursive acronym with no termination. But most users won’t care … once they learn that GIMP does images (and most distributions will tell you so in the menu), they are not going to care that the name is an infinitely recursive acronym … they will just get on and use it.

Thirdly he overlooks the fact that some of the names may in fact have “sensible” names but are in fact sensible names in non-English languages.

Finally he tails off into a moderately incoherant rant with more insults than proper facts.

Perhaps “funny” names do put people off, but perhaps not. Most people are in fact more concerned with compatibility (they use Word because everyone else does) or features.

And of course there are more than a few commercial software packages whose name is not entirely sensible … does Photoshop have anything to do with setting up a shop to sell photos? What does Trent do ? Or Cedar ?

Apr 282007

This is intended to be quite a long piece and may be saved before it is fully completed. Some of the content will be more general ramblings on Linux in general rather than specific to Ubuntu 7.04

I recently installed Ubuntu 7.04 (not without a few problems that most people are unlikely to encounter) and thought it worth rambling through a few thoughts that occurred to me. Most of the ideas are related to how Ubuntu would come across to less experienced users although to be frank I find it difficult to put myself in their shoes. One point to make fairly early is that Linux distributions have conflicting goals … they need to appeal to the less experienced user without putting off the ones who have been running Linux for years, compiling their own kernels and generally getting used to the deeper levels of Linux. One idea here is to have two “sides” to every configuration screen … one for the easy options and one for the advanced options. This does not necessarily need to be implemented as a GUI window that can be turned over, although that is not a bad idea.

I installed using the “alternate” installation CD and did not bother with the “user-friendly” partitioning options, so I can’t say much about the normal installation CD or the partitioning experience. However it is worth noting that partitioning is a somewhat tricky concept to someone new to Linux who has not necessarily done much in the way of partitioning under Windows. Also selecting different filesystem types (ext2, reiserfs, xfs, jfs, etc.) is not something that the average user will be comfortable with.

Mind you Linux installation is not exactly difficult. Those who claim it is, are frequently overlooking just how difficult XP is to install. Either they are already used to it, or have never installed it in the past! Of course installing Linux is trickier than running the Windows that was installed in the factory on the average PC.

Incidentally, whilst I understand that setting up complex partitions and filesystems is inevitably going to take a while, my configuration took as long to setup as the rest of the installation! This is somewhat extreme!

So the ordinary user has managed to work their way through the installation routine and has rebooted the system. They are now faced with a blank screen with just a ‘username’ prompt in the middle. It would be nice here to have a one-off prompt in a seperate window here to explain that the user needs to login with the username and password they created during the installation and a brief explanation of why logging in is a wise mechanism

So the user logs in and is presented with a fairly typical GNOME screen which is quite blank. It would be quite nice to start a “What To Do Now” screen here. The GNOME help feature is quite useful when started, but it should be started for new users. However advanced users may prefer to “turn it over” to get a more complex default index with content that applies more to them. This could be nothing more than a single item on the help screen titled “Advanced Users” to give instructions on how to do it (something like dpk-reconfigure yelp advanced-view) … a command line command here is appropriate to indicate a barrier that should be climbed before it is appropriate to “turn this page over”.

One other thing on a series of documents explaining Linux to new users. It could explain some of the typically installed applications … which ones to use to do what, and where to find them in the menus. It could also explain the reason for the funny names … that many of the applications are created by programmers and named by them, and not to let their sometimes peculiar sense of humour be offputting.

Traditionally Ubuntu has avoided including proprietry codecs for common multimedia formats such as MP3. This is for genuinely legitimate reasons and I am not suggesting this changes, but the help screens should have a number of entries relating to this. “Playing Proprietry Encoded Music And Videos” should point to a help screen saying why these formats are not included by default and simple instructions in installing them. “Why Can’t I Play MP3s” and “Why Can’t I Play DVDs” should give a short explanation and point to the instructions on installing them. By all means make the point that priorietry formats are evil, but be helpful too.

Oh! And don’t lie in help screens. At one point Ubuntu claims that their package manager is the only way to install software. This is obviously not true to advanced users and could eventually be seen as not true to ordinary users too. Just say that it is strongly recommended to install software using the package manager as an obvious mistruth makes one wonder what else is wrong.

Ubuntu comes with a fairly easy way of enabling “desktop effect” with an appropriate warning about their stability. However it only enables compwiz and I wanted to have a quick look at beryl. This was acomplished fairly easily, and I suddenly had access to a great deal more desktop effects. Some very interesting eyecandy it was too, some of which I can see could be quite useful.

However the preferences screen was a little swamped with different configuration options. Whilst beryl is most definitely in an early phase of development, it would be wise to look at this. Not that all of the options should be removed, but going back to a phrase I used earlier, “turning over” the options screen to keep the advanced options hidden from most users should be considered. It also needs far more explanation of what all the options are. Perhaps a button to “grow” a simple explanation into a longer more detailed explanation.

What if things go wrong and the new user needs assistence ? Well there are two parts to this … problems during the installation that results in a system that cannot be booted, and problems that crop up after installation.

For the second, there needs to be a section in the help screens on obtaining assistence. This should assistence in obtaining information about the broken system (perhaps Linux needs a tool like “Sun Explorer” which generates a compressed archive containing the output of many different diagnostic commands such as fdisk -l, cat /proc/cpuinfo, etc). Also explaining how best to phrase support requests … anyone who has done technical support knows the problems that can come about because of badly expressed problem issues.

Ubuntu helpfully has pointers to sources for free online support, and to commercially available support. However it would be useful pointing out the basic difference between the two … free support can be of as high a quality as commercial support, but you cannot be certain of getting a response. Whereas commercial support has the downside that it costs money.

Finally (well … if you are lucky 🙂 ), Ubuntu comes with a fine graphical package manager called Synaptic; whilst as a crusty old Unix veteran I prefer the command-line equivalent, it does do a pretty good job. However a new user looking at Synaptic could be a little overwhelmed by the number of packages that are available. Synaptic has a series of ways of viewing the package repositories which can be helpful in finding what you want; why not add an additional default view (with a prominent button saying “See the rest”) that has just one (well perhaps up to five) “best of breed” package listed for each application.

A new user is less likely to be overwhelmed when installing software if they visit the package manager and see “3D Modeler” -> “Blender” instead of the current situation where “Blender” itself consists of half a dozen packages that they need to hunt through several hundred applications to find.

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