Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dust Can Do More Than You Think

For a while, I had a problem where the LCD monitor on my main computer would suddenly start flashing from whatever it was displaying at the time to black and back about twice a second. The weird thing was that the machine itself appeared to be "asleep" (i.e. not doing anything) while the screen was black. The problem appeared to be limited to Windows.

Thinking it was a problem limited to Windows -- like a driver problem or something -- I decided to spend quite a bit of time in Linux for a while to confirm my suspicions. As it turns out, there was a different problem -- the screen went black as if it had been put to sleep to save power, only there was no waking it. In fact, I had to do the magical Alt+PrintScreen REISUB reboot. Upon reboot, the boot text was garbled.

I couldn't find anything anywhere on the WWW about it either problem. I figured the card was bad, so eBay to the rescue with a Geforce FX5700 256MB to replace my 5500 for $35. Not bad. I'm still waiting on the card, though, so I was going to grab an old temporary card (ATI All-In-Window Radeon 32MB) to stand in until it arrived. When I pulled the 5500 out of the case, lo and behold, an entire family of dust bunnies had taken up residence in the cooling fan of the card! I figured this might have been the problem, so it got a careful once-over with compressed air, a quick replacement back into the machine, and... everything seems to have gone back to abnormal.

Moral of this story: dust bunnies aren't just cute, they're electrically delicious.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Viruses, Spyware, and Trojans, Oh My!

I wear a great many hats at school. Amongst them is the all-around computer geek fix-it guy. In the last three weeks, I've had to remove spyware from two machines, and I'm currently in the middle of a complete reinstall on a colleague's home machine as a personal favor. The cause? Conficker, a.k.a. Downadup. Sigh. I tire of this kind of stuff. It would also be the reason why I highly favor other operating systems. Then again, the source of the infection was a keygen for some software. People looking to get commercial software for nothing seem to forget that pirates and software crack teams don't distribute their stuff out of the kindness of their hearts. The son of my colleague asked me what antivirus program I'd recommend. My first response, as a somewhat-pointed joke, was "Linux," but I wish I'd been able to reply with "Haiku."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Easy Remote Linux Logins with FreeNX

With my having to fuss with networks at school and having a couple of machines at home, there have been a few instances where being able to remotely log into another machine has been a significant convenience. There aren’t many options out there unless you want to pay money:

  • RDP (aka Windows Terminal Services) – Free only for the client. As far as my limited experience has been, this is quite nice, fast, and it even supports audio. The only problem is that the licensing is quite draconian and it only is available on the server editions of Windows or a pay-for version for *NIX.
  • X11 – X was designed for network-transparent sessions. The only problem is that it’s not secure and setting it up over SSH is a pain.
  • VNC – Lots of good things here – free servers and clients for just about any platform you can think of and setup is pretty easy in most cases. The problem? It’s a bandwidth hog.

Enter the Italian company NoMachine, which offers its commercial NX Server for remote access under for Linux and its ilk with open source libraries. These libraries implement the NX protocol, which is more or less a way to both secure and speed up remote login connections.

As far as my experience has taken me, it hasn’t seen anywhere near the popularity that VNC has. I find this strange – VNC tends to be slow – even with compression – and is not secure on its own. It can also be a little weird to set up sometimes, as was the case for me setting up UltraVNC on a Windows box at school yesterday.

Perhaps it’s just me, but FreeNX deserves more limelight than it has received, if my setup experience from earlier today is any measure. Part of the ease of installation was thanks to The main part of the site seems to be in French, but one page was both in French and English. Compliments of its author, I received listings for the repositories that I needed and was able to install the server with one command. Because NoMachine offers NX clients for both Windows, Linux, OS X, and Solaris, I went to NoMachine’s download page and grabbed the Windows and Linux versions. Just to test to see if things worked, I installed the Linux client on the server machine and tried to log into a regular terminal login and it worked – a little too easily for Linux, in my opinion. I tried a GNOME login from my windows box with the same results. I’ve come to accept the amount of tweaking that Linux requires in most cases, so when it just seemed to work, I was a little suspicious, but everything works as expected.

For a short summary, here’s the entire install process:

  1. Open up /etc/apt/sources.list and add the following lines to the end:

    # Ubuntu FreeNX Repository for Hardy
    deb hardy main
    deb-src hardy main
    deb hardy main
    deb-src hardy main

    # Ubuntu FreeNX Repository for Intrepid
    deb intrepid main
    deb-src intrepid main
    deb intrepid main
    deb-src intrepid main

  2. Update the list of packages kept on your machine by hitting Reload in Synaptic or sudo apt-get update from the Terminal
  3. Install the freenx-server package, either from Synaptic or from the Terminal using sudo apt-get install freenx-server .
  4. Grab the necessary clients from NoMachine’s download page and install on the machine of your choice.
  5. Marvel at the lack of work required.

There is still the ability to tweak the configuration until the Second Coming of Christ, as is typical of Linux, but this is only needed if you want remote printing (which I haven’t tried… yet), sound, or certain other things like setting up a remote login cluster or something. If you just want to be able to log in, you’re done. Ain’t that nice.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Will Windows 7 be a Hit for Microsoft?

Right now, I’m sitting in my living room, writing this from Windows Live Writer from within the newly-released Windows 7 that I put on a spare laptop from school. So far, my impressions are largely positive ones. The installer is much less involved than any previous version, though it does have a couple of annoyances. It creates a 200MB System Partition – not sure what that’s for – and it, once again, overwrites the MBR, so if I had another OS on this machine, I’d have to install the bootloader. Again.

Performance was my biggest gripe for Vista. Getting around feels a little more like a battleship than the cruise liner that Vista is. Driver and device handling is much easier. Once again, more stuff has changed, rendering an experienced user like myself a stranger in a strange land. Numerous places, as usual, are two usability steps forward and one step back.

Some of the changes over Vista are truly nice to have. Dragging a window to the top of the screen maximizes it. Dragging it to the right or left edge tiles it to occupy half of the screen. The new taskbar is a nice improvement. Windows Live Writer is a very nice blogging tool that I just might be using quite a bit on my main computer if it’s even possible.

Other changes are… less than ideal. I’m not impressed by the fact that I have to download a separate e-mail client. Even Windows 95 came with Outlook Express. Yeesh. If I want to download an e-mail client, let it be out of choice and not from lack of one. If Microsoft is going for their own answer to iLife, this ain’t it. The whole Windows Live cloud computing thing doesn’t exactly impress me. If you live in Silicon Valley, fine, but there are many people in the US that are stuck with the choice of dial-up or satellite, with neither being a pleasant option.

I’ve only had Windows 7 for about 6 hours now, so I know I haven’t hardly scratched the surface of the entire experience, good or bad. Some general looking around has given me some ideas for Haiku that would make it more pleasant, but for now, the jury’s still out on the next generation out of Redmond.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Back in the Saddle... Sort of

Now that I'm back from my vacation over Christmas break, things can get back to abnormal. I was traveling around with a laptop that dual boots Ubuntu Linux and Haiku and I discovered that, much to my chagrin, there are some bugs in Haiku that prevent me from doing significant Paladin-based development from within Haiku. Rats. On the upside, though, I did some heavy reading, learning more about both Python and Java. I don't plan on doing much, if anything, with them at the moment, but the reading was good for giving me a different perspective on programming.

I have put together a new development box which is well-suited to BeOS development: a 2.8 Ghz Pentium 4 with Hyperthreading, 1GB of RAM, an nVidia Quadro-based video card (with BeOS support for 3D-acceleration), and lots of hard drive space. It runs XP, Xubuntu, R5, and Haiku. Paladin's multithreaded compiles seem to have a bit of a speed bump over R5 -- which doesn't recognize the hyperthreading -- but not as much as I'd like. The disk is probably the bottleneck, so I guess it can't be helped. Oh well.

School starts back up today, so it's back to the grind, but because I should be settling back into the usual school routine, I should be back on track for more Paladin development shortly, especially being I found out that it crashes whenever you try to reorder file groups. Oh well. A programmer's work is never done. :-)