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[Pat Murphy's Maze of Twisty Little Passages]

Computers, Open Source, and Linux


SlashDot is where I tend to get the latest breaking news for what's really important. Their motto: News for Nerds; Stuff that Matters. Mostly they hit the mark, especially if you customise your slashboxes and topics. You may find me occasionally posting there (very occasionally!) as " Bloody Peasant".

The Ubuntu Counter Project - user number # 22152

While I used Red Hat Linux for a very long time, and was instrumental in its adoption at my workplace, I've found it better suited to servers (and Astronomical Workstations) than to laptops. In 2006 I decided to try Ubuntu, after hearing all the hype about it. So I burned a CD for it, ran gparted to carve off a 10GB partition, and installed it. Never had I seen such an easy and hassle-free installation before. Not only that, but just about everything on my laptop worked: suspend, hibernate, and the built-in wireless. I was sold.

Since then I've been through about 3 different versions of Ubuntu, and as of July 2008 I'm running 8.04, Hardy Heron (and the Red Hat partition on my laptop has been decommissioned, at least for now). It's not perfect: the fglrx driver for the ATI Radeon Mobility 300 graphics card in the laptop doesn't play well when connecting to/disconnecting from the 1680x1050 pixel monitor (laptop native resolution is 1400x1050), so I use the Open Source driver instead. However, when connected to the external monitor, while the video is cloned, Gnome seems to think it still only has 1400 pixels of width to play with, so the panels look... a little short. Yeah, having those cool compiz whiz-bang effects would be cool, but there's a lot to be said for stability!

[AIPS runs on Linux]

I can't claim all the credit for it, but I was a catalyst in getting the Astronomical Image Processing System (AIPS) ported to Linux back in 1993 (yes, nineteen ninety three). Jeff Uphoff (who moved from NRAO to TransMeta, back to NRAO, then to Orion Multisystems, then Penguin Computing, now at rPath) did most of the work. As a result, my work desktop system transformed from a Sparc IPX to a Linux system (initially a dual Pentium pro 200, then through several generations of X86 desktops to the laptop regime, now I use a Latitude D610) around 1996. My home system has been Linux based for even longer (started with kernel 1.2.13 [I think] on a 486, then upgraded to a P-II 450 and now a 3.4GHz Pentium -- made to order with no micro$oft tax!). Yes, Jeff did that first install too. While we (NRAO) started with a modified SLS distro, we soon moved to Red Hat. Personally, I prefer Ubuntu, as for laptop users it "just works" almost all the time.

[AIPS Gorilla] Speaking of AIPS, that Gorilla is a link to my unofficial AIPS page for those of you inside NRAO; sorry, people; the rest of you just get redirected to the official AIPS page. Supporting this system has been most of my work life from 1990 through 2001 (and some before that; I first installed it around 1985 on a VAX 11/750 ["Outbax" at the VLA]). Most people who know what the system is already know where the formal AIPS web pages are (I created many of them, but don't maintain them anymore). And speaking of AIPS and Linux... here's an excerpt from a colleague's e-mail you might find revealing (what I said is in purple emphasised text); this dates from February 2002:

>> Several of you expressed an interest in learning what I found out. The
>> bottom line, you will not be surprised to learn, is that most astronomers
>> use Linux or Solaris.  Linux is quickly becoming at least as popular as
>> Solaris, if not more popular.

> That's emphasised by the benchmark I just did on a brand new sun blade 100
> system with a 500MHz UltraIIE processor, 2 Gigs of memory and 70/30 Gigs
> of SCSI/IDE disk, respectively.  Cost about $13k including a DDS4 tape;
> got 20.6 AIPSMarks.  Our hottest Linux boxes have dual 1.7GHz processors,
> a Gigabyte of RAM, 170 Gigs of all SCSI disk including one disk at 15k
> RPM, and the same size monitor as the blade (21"), for a little over $5k.
> It gets 85 AIPSMarks.  Adding a DDS tape drive and comparing dollars per
> AIPSMark, there's almost an 8:1 difference between the two.  I knew which
> machine would come out ahead, but didn't think it'd be by *that* much till
> this morning.

> If your software runs on Linux and Solaris, it's really a no-brainer what
> hardware to buy anymore.

wow.  that's really stunning.  I am going to go beat some people upside
the head with this now. ;)

[Linux Printing] Printing and Linux was at first an adventure, especially when the little Epson stylus 800 suddenly became for all intents and purposes a full-blown PostscriptTM printer, thanks to the GhostScript technology that comes with most every Linux system. Cool! The same was true for the HP DeskJet 400 I got to replace it (I like the design of ink-jet print heads in the cartridge). However, my printing needs were rapidly becoming more sophisticated, and so around the start of 2000 I started researching what would make a better, faster, and Linux compatible printer. This led me (eventually) to the Lexmark Optra 40 (now long discontinued). I used the Linux Printing site extensively for this, and still do. What I didn't like about the Lexmark was its small memory (forget trying to do full-page 300dpi colour printouts) and its propensity for misfeeds on card stock (at least with my printer). These issues, plus the company's efforts to prevent refilling or reuse of the cartridges, and their apparent use of the DMCA to threaten people if they try to work around it, drove me firmly away from the brand.

But then something good happened. A certain High Profile printer vendor hired an open source evangelist (albeit temporarily), which gave them a kick in the right direction (Way to go, Bruce!). HP now offers an open source hpijs printer driver (developed now on SourceForge) for Linux that gives equal quality to the drivers for other operating systems. I now have a HP Model 990cxi that works really smoothly and nicely. Using HP's special hpilj driver and the latest ghostscript, I can get the full 1200-dpi "photoret" resolution. Printing out photos from my digital camera (see below) on photo paper with this driver produces, well, photographs! (Yeah, that seems routine now, but back in 2002 this was a really big deal).

[SANE] SANE: Scanner Access Now Easy. This, plus the XSane graphical interface ("front-end") is the software that makes using scanners not only possible, but as the name says, easy, on Linux. I now have an Epson Perfection 1650 Photo scanner hooked up to my home system via USB, and it works (even the built-in transparency unit). In the first two months, I must have scanned in several hundred of my old 35mm slides, and a bunch of old photos too. The neat thing is, I've set it up to work with saned, the daemon, so I can run the scanning software on any of my home network systems, not just the main desktop. That, plus the GIMP plug-in feature, really makes it a majorly cool device.

[Photography] Digital Cameras... When my bought-in-1980 Pentax 35mm camera (a ME Super SLR) went on the fritz back in 2003, I realised it was time to join the digital era of photography. I ended up using the resources at DP Review to determine the best quality and fidelity -- and the most mega-pixels! -- you could get for the money, and various other resources. Five years later the prices of digital SLRs came down to the point where I could afford to get one (yay, I really missed that functionality!).

Both the old Sony (DSC-S85) and the new Nikon are compatible with Linux (they appear as a VFAT file system under /media/usbdisk or similar when the USB interface is plugged in; if you want, f-spot will pop up automatically when you plug the camera in; I prefer a more hands-on approach, however). Time was when you might have had to hack your /etc/fstab/ for these things, but with a modern Ubuntu distribution, no longer. The JPEG files are easily accessible on both cameras, as are the movies the Sony takes (these are playable by totem, vlc, mplayer, etc.). When the prices of digital SLRs came down enough, I got a Nikon D40 and I'm still getting used to it. It's sooooo nice to be able to see what you're really photographing again!

Other stuff:

  • Office suites: my favourite word processor was WordPerfect for Linux, but Corel stopped making that product (around the time Microsoft purchased a 15% share in the company. Coincidence?) So now I use (and sometimes grumble about) OpenOffice. I miss "View Codes"! There's also Abiword, Kword and a few others.

  • Who needs an outlook or an explorer when you can have Firefox and Thunderbird (or Evolution)? If you get Firefox, be sure to install the NoScript add-on; it increases the safety of your web browsing by orders of magnitude.

  • As for scripts, I still think Perl is better than Python; it's what I know well (that and of course bash). And it's proven faster :-)

  • Text editors: Time to don the asbestos suit... I think Emacs beats vi hands down! If you don't like that, just type M-x psychoanalyze-pinhead :-) :-)

  • Services. Your typical Linux installation comes with not one but several mail servers (Sendmail, Postfix), the ProFTPD server, MySQL and Postgres database servers, the most widely used DNS server on the planet (bind), a Samba server for offering content to Windows networks, the CUPS print server, and of course the Secure Shell (ssh) for remote logins. And that's just for starters...

  • Laptops: If you (like me) use Ubuntu Linux, you'll find that with most laptops it just works. With my Dell Latitude D610, the built-in wireless has been flawless, and the power management is also operational: I usually just suspend when I bring the laptop between work and home, instead of a complete shutdown.

And yes, I'm a geek, so we need the obligatory Geek code in here:

Version: 3.1
GS/CS/O d-- s+: a++>? C++$ UL++++ P++$ L++++ E++ W+++$ N o? K++ !w !O M-
V PS+++ PE- Y+ PGP+ t+ 5+ X R tv- b+ DI++ D--- G+ e++++ h---- r+++ y?

[Powered by Apache!] Patrick P. Murphy
National Radio Astronomy Observatory
Charlottesville, Virginia, USA