School IT education

I’ll start this post off by stating that I’m not having a go at any specific school with my comments here, least of all the one that my son attends, and that I attended too many years ago to mention. My sons school is, in fact, a very good school, and I’m not just saying that because I am now a governor 😉

That said, let’s move on…

The other day my son came home and asked if he could use the computer. Nothing spectacularly unusual there, but shortly after logging on he came back to me asking if we had “the big blue W” on it somewhere. After a brief to and fro I ascertained that what he meant was Microsoft Word and that he wanted to show me something that he had done at school.

There’s a few points here. Firstly there is the comparison with when I was his age (he is seven). Back then I still had around 6 years until the ZX81 was launched and I got my first taste of computers. Now they are not only everywhere, but interconnected to the point where it didn’t even occur to him that the work he had been doing at school wouldn’t be accessible from home – bless him.

Secondly there’s the annoyance that from such an early age the ‘big blue W’ and Microsoft Word are synonymous with word processing. I keep trying to tell myself that he is only seven and they need to keep things simple, but it is still irritating. The end result of this was that I sat down and explained what a word processor was, and that even though I didn’t have the one he used at school I did have another one. I was encouraged by the fact that, when presented with OpenOffice he set straight to work trying to reproduce the same sort of document he had at school, and did so with no help at all – beyond a brief grumble that there wasn’t much clipart! (actually I did show him where that was).

The next question baffled me a bit, “do we have the internet?”. My response was to tell him that we did, and that he used it regularly! Then we headed down a familiar road, “no I mean the big blue e” 🙁 So off we went down the explanation of what a browser was and that he was already quite comfortable using both Opera and Firefox, as was his younger brother (who is 3). In fact they are both rather too good at some of the games on the CBeebies, Nick Jr and BBC Dr Who websites! Still, they are also quite happy playing with Frozen Bubble or Tux Paint 🙂

Firefox 3 first thoughts

Well I’ve only been using Firefox 3 for a very, very short while, but thought I’d make a few notes on my initial thoughts. I’ve not tried the beta or release candidate versions at all, so this is a real first impression.

To start with it is worth noting that I’ve only installed the Windows version, since I’m suffering using Microsoft on the desktop for a while. This is partly due to a couple of hardware failures, partly office reorganisations that are as yet unfinished, and partly forcing myself to keep my hand in – unfortunately I have to.

The first thing I noticed was that it was much faster and more responsive. Firefox 2 has, particularly in the past few weeks, been pausing for periods for no apparent reason. The second observation was that the memory footprint was much, much smaller, so this may well be linked. I tend to use a reasonable number of tabs when browsing and have been keeping an eye on the memory usage recently. I’ve been trimming things down to around 12 open tabs at a time and was amazed that Firefox was using between 200M and 260M, with no sign of reducing when tabs were closed. After installing Firefox 3 I checked and found that it was running at pretty much exactly half that, around 100M to 130M with the same 12 tabs as before the upgrade!

Part of this reduced footprint may be down to the few extensions that are now disabled due to incompatibility. With a major upgrade it is probably time to take a look through the extensions I’m using to see if any are no longer relevant. A few quick highlights of my extension usage are…

Bookmark Sync and Sort – sadly this is no longer compatible, and from a quick investigation it hasn’t been updated for a good while now, and the referenced home page has gone. Time to look for an alternative it seems. All this was doing was backing up my bookmarks to a WebDav folder on my intranet server, and at first glance there seems to be no obvious alternative. With a bit more digging I’ve found two, or perhaps just the one, options:

  • Foxmarks – I ignored this first time round since it was linked to a service, but further investigation shows that you can use it with either WebDav or FTP, as well as install a server component. The original Foxmarks was based on the OSAF Cosmo server, but it looks as though this has been replaced by the Chandler project, so a little more investigation is required.
  • Sitebar – another one I passed over when finding Bookmark Sync and Sort. Again it is linked to a service, but it seems that you can download the server component if you want to. Sadly, according the the Mozilla Addons site it doesn’t currently support Firefox 3, but it does have the advantage of being open source which Foxmarks doesn’t seem to be. Again, more investigation is required.

Firebug, IE Tab (remember this is on Windows!), It’s All Text!, Speed Dial and Web Developer are all available for Firefox 3, so that just leaves…

Tab Mix Plus – not having this one is a bit painful, although partly because I’m not sure what features I’m missing that were part of it and what may now be officially available that I haven’t found yet! That said, I’ve just noted that there is a newer version, just not listed on the Mozilla Addons site. I’ll have to give it a try and then work out what options I’m using that it provides – the session manager, the new tab button and undo closed tabs spring to mind.

There are a couple of other incompatible ones listed on my install. Google Photos Screensaver I think I had disabled anyway and RealPlayer Browser Plugin I hadn’t noticed before – although is probably responsible for blindingly easy downloads from YouTube etc. 🙂

That’s what leaps out at me, bar the slight interface changes. No doubt more differences will become obvious over time.

Broadband smoke and mirrors

I’ve just been reading an article titled Broadband Britain cheaper and faster than ever on the Silicon website. Whilst it is true that prices have fallen and speeds have increased it started me thinking about how far things had progressed since I first got an internet connection.

I was quite a late starter for home internet, I didn’t get my first dial-up account until 1996. I had been using it at work since around 1990, but the urge to get it at home didn’t hit until later. By this time there was already talk about ‘broadband’, and I signed up with Demon Internet with the hope that the promised cable modems would be available quite soon – well, that’s what Nynex were promising. Sometime in the next 6 months they said. Nynex were taken over by Cable & Wireless and the 6 months promise was kept going through until 2001, so that’s about 5 years later! During that time I survived on 56k dial-up. In 2001 my employer paid for an ISDN line to be installed and things got a little better, although primarily due to the extra line and no online charges rather than the speed.

In late 2001 my employer decided to cease trading (a whole different story!), so I had the prospect of returning to dial-up. Thankfully this was about the same time as the ‘wires only’ trials started, so I switched from Demon to Nildram and went ADSL. This was at the beginning of 2002, so finally, 6 years later, I had a speed boost to 512k. The key thing about being ‘wires only’ was that I didn’t have the hassle of the nasty USB ‘frog’ that came with ADSL up until then, so it was an altogether more pleasant experience with Linux.

At that time the cost was a little over £30 a month, not cheap, but orders of magnitude cheaper than an equivalent ISDN package, and only a little more than dial-up with a flat charge instead of paying per minute – and with the added advantage of not tying up your phone line. If we fast forward now to 2007, about 5 years on, I was still with Nildram, I was still paying £30 a month and the speed was still 512k. Checks with BT indicated that the line, which runs for 2.89km from my local exchange, can only handle 512k. I was warned that if I switched to the new ADSL services that offered ‘up to 8Mb’ the line might ‘rate adapt’ to a lower speed than the 512k. Now in 2008 things haven’t changed on that line. My how far we have come with broadband speeds in the past 6 years!

To be fair you can get broadband cheaper now. This has been done in two ways as far as I can see. Firstly there’s the reduced specification packages – most people don’t want fixed IP addresses, etc.. Secondly there’s the bundled packages that are pretty much ‘lost leaders’ or ‘sweeteners’ for other services. I have also abandoned Nildram and moved to another supplier making a significant saving and getting 8 IP addresses instead of just the one (although I’ve not yet revamped my network to take full advantage of that).

Speed wise things have only really changed a little, and then only if you are pretty close to the exchange. Annoyingly, whilst I am 2.89km from my ‘local’ exchange, only a couple of hundred yards up the road people are 1.79km away from their ‘local’ exchange – a different one! My speed has improved though, by virtue of taking advantage of the old ISDN wiring for a second, business line. For some strange reason this is rated at 3.5Mb instead of the 512k of the line next to it on the wall. I know the cable from the telegraph pole is identical since it was replaced when the ISDN line was installed. Presumably there is something drastically different in the cable quality or route to the green box just down the road!

My home line has switched to a bundled service. I’m a little concerned that this may be ‘unbundled’ at some point, since I’ve read that it can be very difficult to re-bundle it if you need to. Unbundling would appear to have no real value to the end user, since it is the quality and length of the BT cable from the exchange that dictates the speed, and this is still the same, bundled or unbundled. I’ve noted that Newnet, a local company, are doing some unbundling and offering up to 24Mb, but having spoken to them I don’t see any likelihood that my 512k line will be any faster. Until BT upgrade their cabling things won’t improve. Ironically, nipping back to 2002 again briefly, I got a phone call from NTL offering me cable broadband a matter of weeks after going live with ADSL. As soon as they were honest enough to drop the ‘6 months’ promise they finally delivered – a bit late though. Cable would seem to be the best option for faster speeds, but sadly in my area we are on Nynex cabling, which apparently is of poor quality, and NTL had no plans to upgrade it. It remains to be seen what Virgin Media will do with it.

Installing packages from the web in Ubuntu

Without further ado I shall dive straight in with the warning that whenever you install a piece of software you should trust where you are getting it from. If you’ve chosen to use Ubuntu then presumably you’ve decided you trust the Ubuntu development process, but when you click on a link to download some software from a web site you need to be sure you’re on the correct site and that you trust those that run the site.

OK, with that out the way, I thought that I’d do a quick blog about the ease of installing .deb packages within Ubuntu (clearly I’m in a bit of a blogging mood today – something of a rarity!). I first stumbled across this a while ago when I decided to install the Opera browser alongside my usual Firefox install. I headed off to the Opera website to download the .deb file that I knew, from previous Debian installs, would be there. What I was expecting to do was download it, do a test install run with aptitude -s to check for any missing dependencies and then, after installing any missing items, install Opera – all via the trusty, familiar command line.

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nm-applet problems with (X)Ubuntu 7.04

Following on from the fun I’ve been having getting wireless cards working under Ubuntu (or Linux in general for that matter) I found a bit of a glitch in the 7.04 install I’m running on my laptop. So a matter of days before the release of 7.10 I’m beating 7.04 into submission! The story goes a little like this:

After using a pretty standard Ubuntu install with Gnome for a while I decided to switch back to my preferred XFCE desktop. This was fairly straightforward, although the xubuntu-desktop package pulled in a few things I didn’t want, so I used it to populate the new install list (in Synaptic) and then trimmed the packages I didn’t want (mainly the office applications since I prefer to stick with OpenOffice). One thing I noted after making the switch back was that there was no Network Manager applet running, and a quick check of the package details seemed to indicate that it was part of Gnome, so I decided to look elsewhere for an equivalent. I experimented briefly with Wicd, but whilst doing that I found out that, although Network Manager is part of Gnome it is pretty free of Gnome dependencies and is largely independent, so I decided to switch back. Having done that I needed to look for a way of getting the applet running. This seemed simple enough, I just needed to add an entry into the Autostarted applications list as accessed from Applications -> Settings. Having done this all seemed well until, after a few reboots I noticed that I had multiple copies of the nm-applet in the panel – oops!

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A Wiki I like!

Anyone that has seen my posts on a number of (generally Linux) mailing lists, may well be aware that there are a couple of web ‘technologies’ that I’m not too keen on. One is forums, and I’m still holding fast on that one. Another is the Wiki. In the past I’ve not been too keen on the idea as they seem to provide no real control over the formatting of the information you put in. I’ve downloaded and tried a couple. Twiki comes to mind with a strange system of filling in a form to then be emailed a link to the download.

Well I think I may have found one I actually like and may well use – shock, horror. I’ve never had much issue with the general concept (unlike forums), and having somewhere internally to dump information with little formatting that has easier access than a directory full of almost randomly named text files does sound appealing. Having used the HantsLUG wiki to put a few articles up, I’ve since had in the back of my mind to try a local wiki again. Mediawiki has been one on my list, but having found previous attempts with wiki packages to have left me cold I’ve been in no particular rush.

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Apple TAX / Microsoft TAX

Recently on the Ubuntu Users mailing list there has been a thread on the ‘Apple TAX’ which started as somebody posting about purchasing an Intel based Apple without OS X, but has developed on to a discussion that seems to be comparing the inclusion by Apple of OS X with their systems to the inclusion by Dell and other PC manufacturers of Windows with their computers. I started off putting together a reply to one of the posts in that thread, but having typed it out I decided not to add fuel to the flames on that thread but to post a blog entry instead.

I may well be about to upset the applecart here, but personally do not see Apple including an OS with their hardware as a TAX. Part of this may be historical in that their platform started out back in the days when the primary development model was to create both hardware and OS in tandem to create a new platform. I’m thinking here of platforms like the Amiga, Atari ST, Acorn Archimedes and even IBM’s original intent with the IBM PC (I suspect). The majority of it, though, is the fact that I do not see it as in my remit to demand of Apple the removal of their freedom to create a product to the
specification that they choose. I would see that as against that basic principles of freedom on which Ubuntu, Linux and other free software is based. Apple have a product, and they have defined that the market they are targeting it at is that of people that want a package deal of a computer built, installed and ready to use. That is completely up to them.

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Wireless Ubuntu – part 2

Well, contrary to expectations that may be put upon the date today I managed to get wireless networking working in Ubuntu at last. Sadly this is on the ‘family’ desktop machine and not my laptop, but it is a start.

As I suspected, the Linksys WMP55AG worked a treat and was automatically detected and, after a bit of a pause while I cursed it not working, my two local networks appeared in the network manager applet and off I went. It correctly identified that I was using WPA and allowed my to put my TKIP passphrase in and off it went. A quick install of Thunderbird and it should be ready to start pursuading my wife to give it a go. It will be interesting to give this installation a real workout as the Windows XP install on the same machine runs like a dead Norwegian blue parrot!

I guess I should give a bit more detail, but for now, since I’m tired, I’ll call it a night. I will add that the card uses the MadWiFi driver which is manged by the restricted-manager utilty – I’ll have to learn more about that now so I can get the nVidia driver working properly.

Wireless Ubuntu

I’m in the process of trying to get wireless working on one (or both) of my aging laptops with Ubuntu 7.04. Having looked at the documentation it seems to be sadly lacking in anything useful in terms of WPA, although this may well be partly due to the sad lack of proper support in Linux for WPA in general (as in you are very restricted in the cards you can use). That said, I’m not having any more luck with WEP either. Not that a working WEP would help much as I really can’t reconfigure the networks I connect to using WEP just to allow Linux access sadly. I suspect the WEP issue may partly be due to the fact that I’m probably only half heartedly working on it as WPA is the real target.

So, where am I with my selection of cards? Somewhere about here:

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Dual screen configuration – first pass

OK, as a first pass at getting my two graphics cards working in a dual head mode I’ve made the following key changes to my XF86Config-4 file. This is by no means exhaustive, but should give a few reference notes to refer to. A HantsLUG wiki entry is planned 🙂

First off the Device sections. I had an original one for my NVidia card along these lines:

Section "Device"
        Identifier      "NVidia GeForce MX 440"
        Driver          "vesa"
#       Driver          "nv"
#       Driver          "nvidia"
        Option          "UseFBDev"              "true"
        BusID           "PCI:1:0:0"

Note that the two commented out lines are due to switches back and forth with the NVidia drivers. So far the vesa one is the only on that has consistently worked and for my usage is doing me fine for now!

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