Upgrades? Upgrades? We don't need no stinkin' …

I am incredibly behind on blog posts, for which I apologize. Three weeks ago (sheesh) I was in the UK for the OUCE, and I owe a post on that. The week after that was filled up with meetings, mainly exciting meetings that I hope to be able to talk about in the near future, and this week I am supposed to be on vacation.

Unfortunately, I caught a nasty cold while in Southampton that I haven’t been able to completely shake and this week I hurt my back, which makes it even hard to type. As George Bernard Shaw said, youth is wasted on the young.

Anyway, apologies once again for disappointing my three readers (one of whom I met on the plane ride back from the conference, hi Greg!) and I hope to do better.

This quick, vacation week post concerns upgrades. I’ve been a bit of an upgrade fool and I thought I’d share some of my stories, most of them actually pretty positive.

The first concerns OpenNMS 1.12.6, which was released this week. That upgrade was the smoothest of the three I did. Upgrading from 1.12.5 only involved two configuration files changing: datacollection-config, which added Cisco Nexus metrics, and magic-users.properties, which added a new permission “role” for accessing the Asset Editor UI without being an admin user.

This release also addresses a security bug where an unprivileged user could get a list of user names via ReST. While not a huge issue for most OpenNMS users (How many of you still have admin/admin as the username and password? Be honest) it is still a recommended upgrade if just for all of the other fixes included.

The second upgrade I did was to the latest Ubuntu LTS, Tasty Trollop. It, too, went pretty smoothly.

Many years ago I got frustrated with my laptop and laptops in general. First off, they seemed to be expensive for the performance you received. Second, I would often have to make the “laptop drive of shame” when I forgot it on my way to the office. Finally, I just hated to have to lug it around when I wasn’t traveling.

So I saw a deal on woot for an HP desktop with pretty nice specs, and I bought two of them: one for home and one for the office. While I do have a small laptop for travel, for the most part I use these desktops, and with modern network speeds I can usually access any information I need from either machine.

Now the office machine, which is the one I use most of the time, gets a lot more attention than the one at home. While they both started out running Ubuntu 12.04 (Pastel Pederast), I upgraded the office machine to the newer, non-LTS Ubuntu releases and wasn’t as happy with them. I ended up switching to Linux Mint on both that machine and my laptop, but I left the home machine running Ubuntu.

My initial thought was to wait until Mint 17 came out and then switch to it, but I figured there could be little harm in upgrading to the new 14.04 LTS release in the meantime. The first challenge was actually getting the operating system to realize there was a release out there. I ended up running “sudo do-release-upgrade -d” with the “-d” option finally finding it and getting it started. I run a pretty vanilla setup at home, so there were only a couple of configuration files requiring attention and otherwise the whole thing went smoothly. Took about two hours to download and complete.

So far I’m pretty happy with the new release. No huge new changes, and everything seems to work well together. I did have to re-enable workspaces, and I took advantage of the new option to move application menu bars back to the window versus being in the title bar (I use a 27 inch monitor and it can get a bit tedious swiping the mouse up to the top) but other than that, I don’t see too many changes. Empathy has gotten worse, at least for me, but it was easy to switch to Pidgin. The only bug so far is that if I let the lock screen kick on automatically, a good portion of the time I can never get it to come back up: the screen just remains blank. I usually have to ssh in from another machine and reboot. Other people are reporting the problem (search on “lock screen freeze”) and I have yet to try and restart lightdm (suggested as a way to bring the desktop back), but as a workaround I just manually lock the screen whenever I leave, which is a good habit to be in in any case. I figure they’ll fix this soon.

I still prefer Cinnamon to Unity, but I’m happy using either, and due to the ease of upgrading I’ll probably stick around to using Ubuntu at home for the foreseeable future.

The final upgrade I did this week concerns OS X. I still have three Macintosh computers at home. There is an older Mac Mini that solo boots into Debian that I use for a web and file server. There is an older 24-inch iMac that tri-boots OS X, Ubuntu and Windows 7 that is usually booted to Windows since that is what my wife uses, and there is a newer Mac Mini that runs Snow Leopard and acts as my DVR using the EyeTV product. It also gathers and publishes my weather station data via wview.

I was cleaning up the DVR when an “Upgrade to Mavericks” window popped up. Now I really hated Lion and never used Mountain Lion, so there was no real reason to upgrade, except that I’ve been having an issue where I can’t add any bluetooth devices to the Mini. I really wanted to add a mouse, since some times stupid windows pop up that ruin the DVR aspect of the setup and they can be a pain to close if I have to VNC in. I figured, what could go wrong?

Of course, the first thing I did is make sure I had a full Time Machine backup. I really wish I could find a “bare iron” restore app for Linux that was as easy to use. I do like the Ubuntu backup integration with Déjà Dup, which seems to be missing in Mint so I use BackInTime, but neither offer the ease of Time Machine.

The upgrade to Mavericks didn’t go as smoothly as the others. At some point close to the end, the monitor went blank and wouldn’t come back, so I had to power cycle the system. This caused the install to start over, but the second time it finally completed. I then had to go through and turn off all of the “spyware” that seems to be on by default now. It automatically signed me up for “iCloud” which I turned off (good thing I didn’t have any contacts, etc., on this system or Apple would own them) and I also disabled Facetime, which required deleting a plist file out of the Library directory. My weather station software didn’t start because of a missing USB to Serial driver, but once that got installed things seem to work. I was even able to add a bluetooth mouse with no problem.

Then I found out that Front Row was missing.

Now when I had a Macbook, I hated Front Row. I was always turning it on by accident. But for my DVR, it made a great interface to EyeTV. Apparently Apple has dropped it since Lion, so I spent a couple of hours trying to find a replacement. When nothing I found was acceptable, and with my growing distrust of Apple with respect to the information it was going to capture on my computer, I decided to go back to Snow Leopard. Should be easy, right?


Both the version of Snow Leopard I have on a USB stick and the install disk that shipped with the computer would now gray screen when trying to boot. I know that Mavericks futzes around with the disk partitions, so I figure that is to blame. I was just about to boot to an Ubuntu disk just to repartition the disk when I decided to try and boot into the new “recovery” partition that Mavericks installed. While I didn’t have much hope that it would be able to access a Time Machine backup made with Snow Leopard, I was pleasantly surprised when it worked.

Another surprise came when I found out that my bluetooth mouse was still associated with the computer. I’ve always thought of the term “backup and restore” to mean one puts a set of bits into storage and then puts those same bits back. Apple has a weird interpretation of this, especially when it comes to the iPhone, where “backup and restore” can mean “perform a complete operating system upgrade in the process of putting back user data”. Apparently Time Machine is similar, and my new device settings were remembered.

So in summary, I guess the time I spent playing with Mavericks was worth it. I know now that I don’t ever want to upgrade from Snow Leopard, and I got my bluetooth issue addressed, if not fixed. Ubuntu 14.04 LTS is worth checking out, especially if you are looking to get rid of Lion/Mountain Lion/Mavericks, and do upgrade to OpenNMS 1.12.6.

You’ll be glad you did.

Steve Jobs is Dead and I Miss Him

As much as I dislike Apple’s walled garden, I don’t impose my will on my teammates. If they are more productive using Apple equipment, so be it.

On Friday Seth mentioned that his laptop had been having issues since upgrading to Mavericks. Snow Leopard was fine, but now it would crash frequently, especially when it was cold (i.e. had not been running for awhile). Now the policy at OpenNMS is that everyone gets a brand new laptop when they come on as an employee and we always buy three years of service, so if anything goes wrong in those three years it gets fixed for free and then it’s time for a new laptop.

I asked Seth if he had taken it to the “Genius Bar” and he had, but they couldn’t find anything wrong with it running the test disk and since it was 30 days outside of Applecare so they wouldn’t explore it further without charging us for it. I hadn’t realized that his laptop was that old, so it was time to get him a new one.

We visited store.apple.com and configured a new one. Nothing special, just a 15-inch Macbook Pro with retina display, 16GB of RAM and the 512GB SSD (it’s ridiculous to pay an extra $500 for the 1TB disk). Unfortunately, it wasn’t scheduled to ship until November 22nd, and looking at availability at the stores nearby it also showed a November 22nd date.

This struck me as odd since the laptop had been out for awhile, so I called the Apple Store at Southpoint Shopping Center and talked to Christoph (not Chris – Christoph). I mentioned that I was a business owner and I needed a new laptop for one of my guys as soon as possible and what did he have in stock. Turns out the online store was wrong and they had several of the laptops Seth wanted on hand. Cool. I told him I was on my way and that I’d be there in about 30 minutes.

Now, I hadn’t been in an Apple Store in a long time, even longer since I’d made a purchase, and the first thing I noticed was the counter was gone. There used to be one counter about 20 feet from the door where you could run in, make a purchase and run out. After wandering around for a few minutes, I found a lady in a blue Apple shirt holding an iPad. I told her I had called ahead and talked to Christoph about a laptop I needed for one of my employees. She smiled, took my name, typed it into the iPad and said that there were a number of people in front of me so could I just “wait over there by the Macbook display”.

So for forty minutes or so I loitered near the counter listening to all of the people in front of me ask questions like “How does Facetime work?” when I knew exactly what I wanted and was ready to make a purchase. Luckily, there were a number of Ingress portals within range so at least I could hack them while I waited (and answer questions from Apple fanboys such as “What game is that?” with “it’s not for you”).

Finally it was my turn to get a sales associate. This is when it gets worse. He couldn’t find “OpenNMS” in the system and so he insisted on collecting all of my business information.

I asked “will this get me a discount?” No.

I asked “can you just you my Apple ID?” No.


Fifteen minutes later I was walking out of the store, fuming, with Seth’s new laptop. The whole process should have taken less than five minutes. Not only does it gall me that I had to waste an hour of my time just to turn over $3000 to a company I dislike, I couldn’t help but think that this wouldn’t have happened under Steve Jobs. He was a devotee of “form follows function” and he would have never let some fashion whim such as “no Apple Store shall have a counter” interfere with the purchasing process.

Now my hope is that I’ll never have to buy another Apple product for my team, but if I do, it surely won’t be through a walk-in store. This was one of the worst shopping experiences of my life, and definitely the worst one at that level of spend.

Odds and Ends

I swear I had three small things to talk about, but I can only think of two. Oh well.

The first is the new topology map in OpenNMS. As someone who really, really hates network maps, I love the direction the team is taking with them in the application. We have a geographical map which is just plain awesome, and now the topology map is starting to come together.

The topology map’s job is to show you how devices are related, and the beauty of it is that there is an API so you can determine exactly the relationships you want to see. For example, you could show Layer 2 connections, or, in a VMWare environment, you could display how host and guest operating systems are related to each other and to network storage. In the future we could have relationships between devices and applications. The possibilities are limitless.

Even Papa Johns Pizza has put it on the big screen.

The second thing, which is probably obvious but I still want to complain about it, is that iOS 7 sucks.

You might be asking yourself: Why do you care? True, Android is my mobile platform of choice, but my current phone is locked to the AT&T network. I tend to fall on the opposite side of the “unlocked phone” debate within the open source community in that I believe if you accept a discount on a device in exchange for being tied to a particular network for, say, two years, then you shouldn’t break that contract. So, when I go overseas to Sweden, I take an iPhone 3GS that is unlocked.

Now that my spouse has moved off of iPhone to Android, her iPhone 4 was up for grabs so I decided to get it unlocked.

The process was pretty simple, but Apple decided to force me to upgrade to iOS 7 in order to do it. So when Cult of Mac boasts that 71% of phones that can run iOS 7, do, they don’t take into account those of us who were dragged kicking and screaming into it.

And you can’t go back (Apple seems to have an odd definition of “backup” and “restore” in iTunes).

I hate almost everything about it. I hate the thin Sans font. I hate the Windows Metro icons. I hate the needless animations.

And I can’t find anything. It took me forever to figure out how to unlock the screen rotation. It used to be simple: double click the home button and swipe right. Now I found it buried on some settings page.

Anyway, since the biggest thing anyone is saying about the new iPhone is that “ooh, it comes in gold” I think Apple is in their twilight years.

While I didn’t always agree with him, I miss Steve Jobs. Not as much as I miss Lou Reed, but still.

Mint with a Dash of Cinnamon

Since switching to using Linux as my primary desktop, I’m always curious as to what options are available to me besides my default go-to distro of Ubuntu.

While Ubuntu 12.04 (the LTS version) is one of the best desktop operating systems I’ve ever used, I’ve grown less enchanted with each subsequent release since then. Part of it comes from some of the choices made by the Ubuntu team (such as the tight integration with Amazon) and I can work around most of those, but I’ve had numerous stability issues with Unity that didn’t really exist in the older releases.

When Debian wheezy came out, I decided to give it a shot as a desktop operating system. I’ve used Debian as a server O/S for over a decade, but the main thing that makes it great for servers, the cautious nature of changes and inherent stability, kind of suck for the desktop. I’ve discussed this with Eric, who is both a Debian user and a Debian committer, and his reply is to ask if you really need to have umpteen updates to firefox, etc. I can see his point, but if I’m using, say, Gnome, having access to the latest release can have a huge impact on the user experience.

So I didn’t like wheezy as a desktop, but before going back to Ubuntu I decided to check out Fedora. It does support Gnome 3.8, but I ran into another issue that affects almost all distros outside of Ubuntu, which is the ability to easily encrypt one’s home directory.

Ubuntu, in the install process, let’s you choose to encrypt your home directory. While I’m firm believer in xkcd’s interpretation of what would happen in the case of someone wanting access to my data, I still like to take some precautions.

I don’t like whole disk encryption for a couple of reasons, namely the possibility of a performance hit but mainly the fact that I can’t remotely reboot my computer without having someone at the keyboard typing in a passphrase. I figure encrypting /home is a good compromise, especially since the key can be tied to the user’s login via pam.

I tried to get this to work on wheezy, but I found the performance was spotty and sometimes I’d login only to find nothing in my home directory. I didn’t spend too much time on it, since I was eager to use Gnome 3.8, but was disappointed to find that Fedora didn’t allow one to easily encrypt their home directory either.

Before giving up, I decided to take a shot a Arch Linux. I’ve been hearing wonderful things about this distro at conferences, but the installation process taxed even me. It it seriously bare-bones, but that it supposed to be part of the appeal. The philosophy around Arch is to create a distro with just the things you, the user, want and with access to the latest, greatest and, supposedly, most stable code.

It appealed to me as a great compromise between Debian and getting the latest shiny, but I couldn’t get it installed. You end up having to create your own fstab and somehow the UUIDs got screwed up and it wouldn’t boot. It also didn’t support the encryption of the home directory as an option out of the box, but I was willing to try to create it as I did under Debian if I could get it up and running. I don’t think it was impossible for me to get working; I simply ran out of play time and decided to try Arch another day.

On my way back to Ubuntu I decided to try one more distro, Linux Mint. I never made it back to Ubuntu.

Linux Mint 15 is a fork of Ubuntu 13.04. It removes some of the choices made by the Ubuntu team that raise the hackles of privacy advocates, and it introduces its own desktop manager called Cinnamon.

I quite like it.

I can’t really say what I like about it. It’s pretty, with the exception of the default desktop background (seriously Mint, yeah I know there’s history there but, sheesh) which is easily changed. The Terminal theme is one of the nicest I’ve used. There’s a pop up menu like Gnome 3, but then there’s these little dashlet thingies that let you launch things quickly, and a notifications system that is easy to access without getting in the way.

Running applications and open windows show up in a bar, like Gnome 2 or Windows, but I don’t find myself using that all that much. It is pretty easy to customize the whole thing, such as changing the location of things as well as setting hot corners.

There are a couple of issues. The menu doesn’t seem to index everything like the Dash in Unity, and I had gotten used to just typing in a few characters of a file name in order to access it. It does seem to remember files you use, so once you have accessed a particular file you can find it via the menu, but it does impact workflow not knowing if it will show up or not. The other issue is that it is still bound to Ubuntu, so they have some common bugs.

For example, I use the screenshot app a lot. Under Ubuntu 12.04, when I’d take a screenshot a dialog would appear asking me to save it. A suggested filename, based on timestamp, would be highlighted followed by the .png extension. I could just start typing and it would replace the highlighted text with what I had typed. That got broken in 12.10, so I’d have to reselect the text in order to set the filename. Not a big deal, but a little bit of a pain.

When I switched to Mint, it had the same issue. Note: in the last day or so it seems to have been fixed, since I am not seeing it as of today.

Of course, you get a lot of the Ubuntu-y goodness such as encrypted home directories out of the box with Mint, but Mint may end up being on the winning side of the Wayland vs. Mir argument, since Cinnamon isn’t tied to Mir (or Wayland for that matter).

For those of my three readers with a life, you may not be aware of either of those projects. Basically, for decades the control of graphical displays on most computer screens is based on a protocol called X11. Under Linux that implementation is currently managed by the X.Org project, a fork of the Xfree86 project that was the Linux standard for many years. The next generation display server arising out of X.Org (well, at least many of the developers) is called Wayland, and in the next few years one can expect it to become the default display server for most Linux distros.

Ubuntu, however, has decided to go in a different direction by launching its own project called Mir. I believe this is mainly because their goal of having a unified user interface across desktop, tablet and phone devices may not be easy to meet under Wayland. My very elementary understanding of Mir is that it allows the whole display space to be managed like one big window – easy to resize under the different screen resolutions of various devices – which differs from Wayland, but I could be making that whole part up.

I’m a huge fan of Ubuntu and I believe that those that do the work get to make the decisions, but I also believe that Wayland will have a much larger adoption base, ergo more users and developers, and will thus be more stable and more feature-rich. My own experiences with Unity’s stability on later releases indicate a trend that the first Mir releases will have some issues, and I’ve decided that I’d rather stick with something else.

For the time being that seems to be Mint with Cinnamon. Not only can I get work done using it, the underlying Ubuntu infrastructure means that I can get drivers for my laptop and still play Steam games. I still run Ubuntu 12.04 on my home desktop and laptop, but that is mainly due to lack of time to change over to Mint.

So, if you are looking for a solid Linux desktop experience, check out Mint. I am still amazed at what the free software community gifts me with every day, so my desktop of choice may change in the future, and I’ll be sure to let you know if I find anything better.

One Hot Tomato (#noapple)

I had started to notice that my home wi-fi performance seemed to be degrading. I use an Apple Airport Extreme and I’m not sure if it is just the new proliferation of Android and Linux devices in my house or if something else is going on, but I was seeing a lot of network drops and slow connections when wireless.

I figured I could continue on my #noapple quest and get rid of yet another Apple product if I decided to replace the router. I knew that whatever I purchased I wanted the option of loading FOSS firmware, so I did a little research and came across the DD-WRT and the Tomato projects (I’m sure there are others, these just seemed to be the most popular).

There was a pretty high profile case a few years back when it was realized that the base operating system of Linksys routers was Linux, and due to the diligence of the Software Freedom Law Center and others, device vendors using Linux had to be more transparent about it. The name of the DD-WRT project came, in part, from the Linksys WRT54G router that was the main focus of these early alternative firmware versions.

My requirements for a new router were that it had to support both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, it had to support SNMP (‘natch) and I wanted to be able to host a guest network. I live out on a farm and often I have people visit who want to access the Internet. Rather than give them the password to my network, the Extreme allowed you to create a “guest” network that had no local access but could connect to the Internet over wi-fi.

I settled on the Linksys E4200 and ordered it from Amazon. When it arrived I started playing with the stock firmware and found another feature that I quite liked: a built in UPnP server. This allows you to connect a hard drive to the router and then serve media content such as music and videos to devices that can access UPnP media servers (such as my TV and the PS3).

I didn’t like the way Linksys implemented the guest network, however. Unlike the Extreme, where it was just a separate SSID that you could leave open, this required a password, and you had to connect to a web page and authenticate first. I believe this was a feature brought in from legacy Cisco gear, but I didn’t care for it. Still, I figured that as little as that feature got used I could live with it.

No, the show stopper for me was the lack of SNMP support. For some reason modern consumer-grade routers just don’t support it. But, not to worry, I could load in an alternative firmware.

Or so I thought.

I had decided to use Shibby’s Tomato firmware since I really liked the idea of a UPnP server and I read that the one that ships with DD-WRT wasn’t very good (I’m not stating that as fact, mind you, but the limited amount of research I was able to do seemed to indicate it). I downloaded the version for the E4200 and hit a roadblock: the firmware wouldn’t install.

Turns out that I had the E4200 version 2, which uses the Maxwell chipset instead of the Broadcom chipset. None of the firmware versions I could find support that chipset, so I was stuck. I packed the router up and shipped it back to Amazon.


To replace it, I ordered the Asus RT-N66U. It seemed to be decent hardware and had solid alternative firmware support. I knew from my research that the default software did not support SNMP, so I immediately installed Tomato. The process was incredibly simple:

  • Download the proper firmware version from Shibby’s site
  • Put the router in “rescue mode”: first, turn it off
  • Remove the power cord
  • Press and hold the reset button (the small recessed button between the LAN port and the USB ports)
  • Replace the power cord
  • Turn on the router
  • Release the reset button once the power light slowly flashes (on 4-5 seconds, off 4-5 seconds)

At this point in time you can navigate to and access the firmware reload screen. I set up as a static address on my system since I read that this process can have issues if you are using a DHCP address, and then I simply uploaded the new firmware through the browser and installed it.

That was it – once the router rebooted I was able to access the Tomato webUI and it “just worked”.

The number of features are just staggering. Want to create a guest network? Just create a new SSID and associated it with a new VLAN. Need SNMP? Configures out of the box. The UPnP server was pretty easy to set up, but I had formatted the external drive as ext4 and it wouldn’t mount. I was able to ssh in to the router and look at dmesg to see that it was complaining about “extra features” so I reformatted as ext3 and it mounted just fine.

While I haven’t played with everything (such as QoS), I was really impressed with the IPv6 support. Since my ISP doesn’t support IPv6, I needed to set up an IPv4 to IPv6 tunnel. I signed up for a free account at Hurricane Electric and I was able to get IPv6 working rather quickly. However, since my public address is assigned via DHCP, any changes would cause the tunnel to break. However, Tomato comes with a built in Dynamic DNS client that talks to the Hurricane Electric site and updates the tunnel with any changes. Now that I have IPv6 working, I can configure the Juniper router in the office to allow traffic between the two networks with no need for a VPN.


Once again I am impressed that not only is a complex open source application available for free, but that it trumps its commercial counterpart by far.

The Dell XPS 13 Ubuntu Edition

Over the last year or so I’ve managed to divest myself of most of my Apple products in a project I call #noapple. The last remaining piece of Apple equipment I used frequently was an 11-inch MacBook Air (MBA) that I would dual boot with OS X and Ubuntu.

I was able to use it mainly booted to Ubuntu, but there were certain things that were a little bothersome. For example, the trackpad driver under Ubuntu wasn’t nearly as smooth as it was under OS X, and it was extremely sensitive, having little of what is called “palm detection”. Quite frequently, in the middle of typing something, the cursor would jump to some random part of the document when my palm barely brushed the trackpad.

But in any case, it worked well enough that I could use Ubuntu when I was on the road.

Back in December I learned that Dell was releasing an Ubuntu optimized version of its XPS 13 laptop. This device is very similar to a MBA, and I was excited to read that Dell had worked hard with the vendor of the trackpad to optimize the drivers for Ubuntu.

I ordered one, and I thought I’d share my experience here.

The ordering process was pretty straightforward. Simply visit the website and configure your system. It’s very similar to ordering on the Apple store website. I ordered the laptop and a number of accessories, and in short order received a confirmation e-mail with links to track the progress of the order.

Here is where I hit my biggest issue with the whole process. Like Apple, some of the accessories I ordered shipped in advance of the laptop itself. Now, when I order things on-line, I have them shipped to the office since we have a loading dock in the building with a full time shipping manager who can sign for things. Dell decided to ship my packages to my billing address (my home), even though I had specified a separate location. I’m not sure if this was due to security reasons, but they were unaware of one thing: I own large dogs, one of which likes to gnaw on electrical cords.

So, when my first shipment arrived (a spare power supply and a VGA adapter) it was left on my front porch. I didn’t realize it had come, so I left it there. It wasn’t until I saw the packaging spread across my front yard that I realized what happened, and found that the VGA adapter had been chewed into two pieces.

This was on a Saturday and my laptop had not yet shipped, so I wanted to make sure they corrected the shipping address before that went out. I ended up spending nearly two hours trying to reach a human being at Dell. Once I worked my way through their automated system until I got to the question “is this for home or business?” and when I hit “business” I was told to call back on Monday during their normal hours. So I tried again and hit “home” which put me in a queue for about 30 minutes until the call was unceremoniously dropped. I kept trying but finally just bailed and sent in a request via e-mail.

I didn’t get a response to that request until Wednesday, but by that time my laptop had shipped. The support representative, Jeanette, apologized for the issues but I was pretty unhappy and pretty much ignored her e-mails and phone calls. Since they were using FedEx, I was able to divert the package to a local FedexKinkos office and managed to get it (sans teeth marks) with a little extra effort.

I wasn’t impressed with Dell support, but then Jeanette wouldn’t let it drop. She kept trying to call and e-mail. She arranged for a replacement adapter to be sent. She kept wanting to make sure I was happy. In fact, as I write this I have an outstanding e-mail I need to reply to but I wanted to write this up first. If this is the kind of personal attention issues get from Dell, then Dell may have a chance against Apple. But they really need to do something about their automated system. Overall, due to Jeanette’s persistence, I am satisfied with my purchase experience.

Anyway, what about the laptop itself? In the style of the Apple fanboys, I thought I’d do a little unboxing.

The laptop arrived in a Dell labeled box. I always liked the fact that Apple’s boxes are shipped inside a thinner, brown paper box since I like to keep the boxes around, but once I opened it up I realized that the “real” box was inside.

It was a very nice, heavy black box that felt more like opening up a precious jewel or a nice watch than a laptop.

When opened, the laptop takes up most of the box.

Underneath is the power adapter and a small black folder with basic warranty information. I will miss Apple’s power adapter design, I dislike the whole “brick” model and it makes it a little more difficult to use in other countries, but I’ll get over it.

All in all I think Dell did a pretty good job with the packaging “experience”.

Dell sells a Windows version of the XPS 13, but this one has a small “Ubuntu” sticker on the wrist rest (which I’ll probably remove)

but there is also a permanent Ubuntu logo on the back.

When you start it up for the first time, you get a nifty little “welcome” animation. I apologize in advance for the video quality.

The laptop is slightly larger than my MBA, but then again I bought the smallest MBA and there is a 13-inch version available from Apple.

The main place that Dell loses some points is in the screen resolution. It has the same 1366 by 768 pixels as my smaller MBA, and by comparison the equivalent MBA has a 1440 by 900 screen. I like having more pixels, and I get so frustrated when vendors brag about the “HD” quality of their displays, especially with external monitors. To me, 1920 by 1080 is not sufficient pixel density on a 27 inch monitor, for example.

But after using the XPS for awhile, I’ve found that my old eyes tend to prefer the larger screen.

The XPS is fast. I thought the MBA booted fast, but the Dell boots so fast I don’t mind shutting it down completely vs. suspending it.

Now granted, I have rEFIt running on the MBA, but even with that you can see the difference. Note that in fairness the MBA does boot to OS X a little faster, but the XPS still wins on the overall speed issue.

And, yay, the trackpad actually does work well on the XPS. It has the same kind of “natural scrolling” that I’ve missed. Swipe faster and the scrolling speeds up, etc.

Overall I’m happy with the XPS 13 so far. I have yet to take it on the road for a full workout, but I’m happy that Dell is making this available.

While I wasn’t unhappy with my MBA, I like to vote with my wallet and so I was happy to encourage Dell to cater more to the Linux crowd by buying this machine. Only by patronizing Linux friendly vendors, early and often, will we see them pay more attention to pretty much the only free and open desktop alternative available.

The Meritocracy

I’ve been following the recent kerfuffel between Richard Stallman and Canonical over the new Amazon search feature in 12.10, and while I should probably leave well enough alone, I wanted to add a few things to the discussion.

I do respect Richard Stallman for the work he’s done to promote free software, but I get a little tired of his decision to be the final arbiter on where to draw the line. For example, he does walk the walk and uses a netbook as his primary machine because it has an open BIOS. All well and good. But what about the machines that built that netbook? Was their control code open? What about the website he ordered it from, or the person he talked to to place that order? Did they use free software? What about the logistics company that shipped it to him? Was their software 100% free? The reality is that at the moment there simply isn’t enough free software in the supply/services chain to have a totally free experience, and we can’t get there just by wishing it so. It will have to happen in steps, and those steps will involve the free software community working closely with the closed software community.

Thus going after someone like Canonical and calling what they doing spying actually hurts the promotion of free software. What they are doing is a huge step in the right direction.

Having run a business based on free and open source software for a decade, you can imagine that I am a big fan of it. Last year, for a variety of reasons, I decided to make the jump to using a desktop based on Linux. I tried a number of options, but the one that worked for me, the one that “stuck”, was Ubuntu. Using it just comes naturally, and I’ve been using it for so long now that other desktops seem foreign.

I don’t pretend to speak for Mark Shuttleworth, but one of his goals with Ubuntu seems to be to make a desktop operating system that is stable, attractive and easy to use. I think that with Ubuntu they are close to that goal. It works for me. It also works for enough other people that when Valve started working on a Linux port of their Steam client, they chose Ubuntu. When Dell wanted to ship a laptop with Linux, they shipped it with Ubuntu. (I got one, review coming soon)

The Linux desktop world is so fragmented and represents such a small percentage of potential sales, until Ubuntu came along, there weren’t enough people using the Linux desktop to make it worth writing native clients for Linux. It took people like Canonical and Shuttleworth to make decisions and choices that enabled this to happen.

Now purists will point out that products like Steam aren’t open source. True, but that doesn’t prevent me from wanting to use them alongside all of the other wonderful stuff I now use that *is* open source. In much the same way that Apple switched to Intel to make the transition easier from Windows, Ubuntu is making the transition to an open source desktop easier. And with more developers writing to the Linux desktop, that can only increase the proliferation of software for it.

And despite all of the outcry, Ubuntu is still open source. Should I dislike something or want to change it, I have that ability. But this brings up my biggest frustration with the free and open software community – there are those within it who think it is someone else’s job to implement their desires.

Take this Amazon thing, for example. I don’t like it simply because I don’t want to have to add any latency to my searches in Dash, so I turn it off. If the off button didn’t exist, I would have the ability to check out the code that implements that feature, remove it, recompile it and install it. Heck, with the proliferation of git these days the process is even simpler, as I could track my changes along with master.

Yet that does involve something I like to call “work”. Free software doesn’t mean free solution. It is a two way street. You don’t like something? Change it. Ubuntu itself is based on Debian, and Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu. But someone had to do the work to change Debian into Ubuntu, just like someone had to do the work to make Ubuntu into Linux Mint.

It’s what free software is all about.

So it makes me a little unhappy when Stallman refers to the Amazon lookup feature as “spyware”. It’s loaded language meant to get a reaction from his core followers, in much the same way a liberal politician would approach immigration with “let’s open all borders” and a conservative would say “let’s build a wall and throw ’em over it”. The real solution is somewhere in the middle.

This doesn’t mean that users of free software don’t get any say. Feedback is a vital component of any community. I believe when the Amazon feature was introduced in the beta, there wasn’t a way to turn it off. Feedback from the community got the off button added. When questions were raised about trusting Ubuntu with our search results, Shuttleworth replied “We have root“. Not the most diplomatic response, but he made his point that we already trust Ubuntu when we install their libraries on our machines, and compared to that, search results are a minor thing.

If I were truly paranoid, I’d probably run something like Gentoo where the code is build from source each time. But what’s funny is that if I did switch to Gentoo, it would be because I used Ubuntu as the gateway drug to a free desktop.

My final point is that open source software is the ultimate meritocracy. Those who do the work get the most influence. Shuttleworth spent millions to create Ubuntu, so he gets a lot of say in it. Clement Lefebvre founded Mint, so his opinion matters in that community. I think we owe a huge debt to Richard Stallman for his past efforts, but lately I think he is doing more harm than good. And maybe I’m feeding the troll by even bringing it up.

All I know for certain is that I am using way more free software than I was using a year ago, and that is do in large part to Canonical. It was also a lot of work to make the switch, but I had help from like-minded people on the Internet, and isn’t that what open source is truly all about?

The Apple Fanboys

As the iPhone 5 announcement pushes AAPL over $700/share, it is obvious that Apple has another hit on its hands and will be adding even more to its coffers (one of my friends ordered three). As someone who is happily moving away from Apple, I pretty much could care less about the announcement, and I have to agree with Brian Prentice that the iPhone announcement was a little lame.

What is Apple ultimately offering with the iPhone 5? Speeds and feeds. New processor, larger screen, different connector, LTE support. thinner form factor. Don’t get me wrong – these things are important. And they constitute some fantastic engineering work to hang it all together. But is it fundamentally changing my experience with a smartphone? No, not really.

Despite distancing myself from Apple, I still follow some Apple-centric news sites like Cult of Mac. As with any large site, the quality of writing varies, but for the most part the Apple fanboy rants are kept to a minimum. For the most part.

Recently I saw this article complaining about a Samsung ad.

I own a Galaxy S3 so I was interested in how it compares to the new iPhone. I find the S3 to be incredibly light, so I was surprised to see the iPhone 5 is even lighter, but with that exception the S3 meets or exceeds the iPhone’s specifications.

Now the fanboy was ridiculing the rest of the ad for mentioning other features like “S-Beam” and “Picture in Picture”. Well, sorry to say, that’s what advertising is for – to increase consumer awareness – just like no one knew what Siri was until Apple told people. The sad fact is that the iPhone is a fashion accessory as much as a device (notice how case manufacturers now cut out a circle in the case so they can display the Apple logo?) and it will be hard for anyone to complete against that – until the fashion fades. I think that is the most telling thing about the iPhone 5 announcement – there’s nothing really new here. Unless Apple continues to innovate, the door is open.

And I’m with Brian when I think that Microsoft still has a shot at the market. I’ve seen some of their new tech, and the integration of Windows and Office across phones and tablets with centralized storage is huge. Apple is still having trouble getting into the corporation, and if Microsoft can deliver tools that let people work with Excel, Powerpoint and Word more efficiently, that will be more important than Angry Birds and Youtube.

Anyway, I do agree with the Cult of Mac guy that Samsung could have done a better job in their ad. Since I run CyanogenMod I don’t use any of their fancy software (seriously, Samsung, I can’t remove the Yellow Pages widget ’cause it is an important system file?) I would have focused the ad on the things that really differentiate the S3 from the iPhone: removable microSD storage, removable battery, NFC and the microUSB plug.

The thing I dislike most about Apple is that they really want that “walled garden” so that anything going onto or out of your device has to go through them. Removable storage would make it easier to circumvent that, but would erode their margins on memory. With 64GB microSD cards becoming common and 32GB cards being downright cheap, it would be difficult to charge an extra $200 for 64GB (versus the $55 I paid for a 64GB microSD card) if options were available. Plus, the removable storage is the best way for me to manage O/S upgrades and media on my phone, and I can’t see how I lived without it.

Also, don’t underestimate the value of a removable/replaceable battery. A lot of OpenNMS customers are financial institutions that severely limit network access. When I am on-site at one of those places, I rely heavily on my phone, and quite frequently my iPhone would run out of juice by the afternoon (and the iPhone 4 had good battery life). My only option was to plug it in. Not a big deal, but now I just swap in a spare battery and get on with my life.

One would think that Apple would be embracing new tech like NFC. With Square raising another $200 million, the interest in mobile payments is huge. Now granted, it may take an Apple to make NFC payments ubiquitous, but the lack of NFC in the last two iPhones means that there is a opportunity to pass them by.

And finally, while it may seem silly, I love the fact that the S3 charges off of a microUSB cable. It’s called a “standard” and it is one that every other device maker on the planet is moving toward (despite another Cult of Mac fanboy rant about Samsung cables in the past) and I can always find one – be it for my Kindle, my bluetooth headset or my digital camera.

While it has been a frustrating experience switching from an iPhone to Android, at the moment I could not see myself going back. The user experience is totally different and the culture is much more about creating than consuming.

I have a choice, and that is the best feature out there.

Some Thoughts on the Apple/Samsung Silliness (#noapple)

My indentured servitude to AT&T ended recently and I decided to use that to jump in for another two years but also to get rid of my iPhone 4.

As my three readers are aware, last summer I decided to move away from Apple products toward freer alternatives. I still have a Macbook Air (running Ubuntu – natch) and up until last Thursday I had an iPhone.

I pretty much liked the iPhone, but it was mainly a consumer device (i.e. I didn’t create much using it) so I didn’t care so much, but I did get frustrated with the terms of service. It was easier for me to freakin’ buy the OpenNMS app than it was to spend 30 minutes or so every other month trying to update my project keys so I could check it out and build it. I settled on the Samsung Galaxy S3 as a replacement.

Having used it now for several days, I have to admit that I’m a little pissed at all of the talk about how Samsung (and implicitly, Google) ripped off Apple. Using the S3 is a greatly different experience from using the iPhone.

I almost wrote “totally” but I have to admit that, yes, there is a virtual keyboard, and yes, you can have a page of icons that you press to launch apps, but outside of that there is little in common between the two.

First, the phone just feels different. It is bigger, thinner and feels lighter to me (although in the interest of full disclosure I have a case on the iPhone 4 since without it my calls drop when I hold it in my left hand). The iPhone felt like a dense, solid slab whereas the S3 feels more like a bar of soap, all smooth and round edges. I am afraid that it might squirt out of my hand one of these days.

Next, the user experience is different. The way one navigates Android takes a little bit to get used to coming from iOS, but the fact that in addition to a physical home button I have two soft buttons (one for contextual menus and one for “back”) seem to make the UI experience a little cleaner (since there doesn’t have to be so many menu icons in the apps). Notifications are different, the way you can control placement of icons is different, and the idea of widgets seems pretty unique to Android. Widgets let you display information without having to actually open an app.

The one disappointment I’ve had is that the S3 doesn’t work with Banshee or Rhythmbox, so it is harder to organize my media files. I am hoping this gets fixed soon.

Android 4.0+ uses the Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) instead of just mounting the filesystem like a USB disk. I can get Ubuntu to mount the phone just fine, but when I launch Banshee it umounts the phone and then hangs. Under Rhythmbox it shows up as a Media Device, but the moment you try to access it (say, right click on it and choose Properties) it kills the app. There is an open bug on that one, but despite its use of Mono I much prefer Banshee.

Now, the S3 ships with the usual amount of kruft that you find on modern technology. Samsung has their own sync technology called Kies (no Linux client of course [sigh]) and I thought it might be interfering with libmtp. So less than 24 hours after I bought the phone I’d rooted it and installed Cyanogenmod (CM9 – not comfortable playing with the CM10 betas just yet).


Now I don’t have any apps I don’t want, and I understand what all the apps I have installed are actually supposed to do. I haven’t seen any real performance problems with the exception of the camera crashing once and some browser issues that went away when I switched to Chrome.

With the exception of the issue managing my media, I am quite happy with this phone. The screen isn’t as crisp as the iPhone 4 but its large size really makes a difference with my aging eyes. But how anyone could confuse the two is beyond me. I hope this patent silliness goes away soon and in the meantime I’m going to vote with my wallet.

Ubuntu (64-bit) and Amazon MP3 Downloader

I am a big fan of Amazon and I tend to buy all of my music from them, mainly since they were the first to offer legitimate music downloads without DRM.

I was on their site today to buy The dB’s first album as a band since 1987’s The Sound of Music: Falling Off the Sky.

I hit a snag. Now that we are surrounded by “the Cloud(tm)”, Amazon will store your purchases so you can always get them, but the bad news is they want you to use a piece of proprietary software called the “Amazon MP3 Downloader” in order to get them to your system.

For Ubuntu, they only have a version that was written for 9.06 and only in 32-bit mode. I am running 12.04, 64-bit and I got a lot of errors trying to install their .deb.

Hunting around I came across a way to deal with this. When you try to download the files from the Amazon Cloud you will be prompted to download the Amazon MP3 application. In small print under that should be a “click here if you have already installed it” link. That sets a cookie on your machine that will allow you to download the .amz file which is needed to access your mp3s.

You can then use clamz or pymazon to download your music by feeding it that .amz file. I used clamz since it was already included in Ubuntu.