Category Archives: Computers

ASUS EeePC server review – a few months on

In late October last year I successfully got my ASUS EeePC running as a web server for this blog. (Read more about it here.) A few things have happened – including the power going out in our apartment – which prompted an update on how well it’s working for me.

(I’m a strong believer that the best reviews are those that look at long-term durability under real world situations. Usually this is a problem because technology moves so fast, but I think these computers will be around for a while yet.)

Battery as a UPS
I planned to use the battery as an uninterruptible power supply. If I ever needed to remove the power cable I’d just put the battery back in (it draws less power when it’s out) and feel confident that it won’t turn off for at least a few minutes. I’ve had to do this a number of times and it works perfectly!

Ethernet versus wi-fi
I don’t trust wireless connections as much as I do ethernet ones so I chose to physically remove the wireless card. This was perhaps a mistake. We rearranged our bedrooms and rather than be encumbered by multiple ethernet cables running across doorways I decided it was time to put the wireless card back in and see how reliably it worked. Not only is it reliable and responsible for less cable clutter; I no longer have to worry about downtime when temporarily removing the ethernet cable which I had to do occasionally. I don’t know how much additional power the wireless card is drawing, but I think it’s justified. (I’m now even tempted to set my desktop PC up with a wireless card and move into the twenty-first century!)

ADSL downtime
We have a problem with either the phone connection going to our apartment or our modem. This problem results in our modem getting disconnected occasionally and having to re-establish a connection. If it was regular I’d think it was the modem, but we have bad days where it just can’t connect for a few hours at a time and long stretches where we may have no issues for weeks at a time. My suspicion is that it has something to do with wet weather.

Anyway, the point is, if you’re hosting content of any kind and absolutely need it to be reliable, it’s best to get a professional company to look after it. If you strongly prefer to have it hosted locally, just make sure you have a reliable connection. For me this isn’t too much of an issue – this is more of a hobby project and I have hardly any readers.

Power
Last night, as previously mentioned, we lost power to our apartment. This lasted for more than four hours. Though rare, this revealed one important flaw in the ASUS EeePC that I hadn’t previously noticed: there is no BIOS option to turn back on when receiving power (common to desktop computers). This makes perfect sense; it’s a laptop that is not intended as a server, so this would not be seen as a useful feature.

What this means is that any time the power goes out – even temporarily, if you remove the battery to reduce power consumption like I to – you need to wait until power comes back to manually turn the computer on again. (I was asleep when power returned, so my blog was down for about twelve hours!)

(There’s actually a hack people have used to trick it into triggering ‘Wake-on-LAN’ actions when regaining power, but this requires the computer going into standby mode – read: having the battery in, which is a deal-breaker for me.)

Conclusion
This is a great server setup, though it does have a few limitations. If you have a reliable ADSL connection and you’re not too worried about losing power, I highly recommend it. But if you need a bit more reliability you may need to sacrifice the convenience of the attached monitor and trackpad, the lower power consumption, and much of the associated street cred, for a more traditional PC with the common ‘wake on power’ BIOS option.

Bits, Please – a chiptunes celebration compilation

(Please see my previous post for more information on the process of compiling this playlist.)

Interested in taking a crash course in chiptunes?  This isn’t a bad place to start.

I made a mixed CD compilation of chiptunes for my brothers but wanted to share it online, too, as a sort of ‘my friends are awesome’ present.  This is a style of music that makes me happy and I have chosen a few highlight tracks that I find more interesting, fun, or inventive than the average chiptune.  (Of course, by definition, all chiptunes are awesome.)

The tables below list basic song information and include links to the artist pages at (usually) the 8-Bit Collective, as well as a link to directly download the tracks.  (If any links are unavailable it is because, unfortunately, the pages or files they point to have been removed.  I discuss this in more detail in my previous post.  Sorry =/)

The first table, ‘Bits, Please’, contains tracks that run just under 80 minutes so it fits on a CD.  I have included eight ‘bonus’ tracks in the second table that just didn’t make the final cut – most of them were quite long.

Rather than manually downloading each track, I have also constructed an m3u playlist that enables you to stream the compilation in just about any audio player.  (Download the .m3u file here.)

If you’d like to burn your own CD, here is a link to a printable .pdf album cover I made.  (The awesome font I used is Press Start 2p, available for download at the Open Font Library.)

But enough with the words; on to the music!

 

Bits, Please

Artist Title Link
01 cTrix Booty Plus Plus (Atari 2600) <download>
02 kulor My First LSDJ (MGB Gameboy Pocket) <download>
03 Kubbi RYSKIM! <download>
04 come home_ LigHTr <download>
05 an0va Flow <download>
06 RushJet1 Dark Labyrinth (1-bit) <download>
07 Cuttlefish Long Path <download>
08 Disasterpeace Spirit Square (remix) <download>
09 Mr. Owl Funkturnal <download>
10 Byzanite Hello Seattle Remix (Owl City Remix) <download>
11 IAYD You Will Not Take Anything Else From Me <download>
12 Je Mappelle Moving On. (KAWAII DEMO) <download>
13 Danimal Cannon Polywrath ( LSDJ Math Metal ) <download>
14 Jredd Happy Pants! <download>
15 Bibin Vampire Killer <download>
16 Maxo 01 The Glorious Birth Of Gardenbot9 <download>
17 little-scale My Heart Is Forever Collapsing <download>
18 4mat Black Lipstick <download>
19 mikebleeds Listen To Me <download>
20 Mootz Make it or Break it <download>
21 Mr. Owl Turtle Island <download>
22 -12insomnia- gravity blast <download>
23 Rainbowdragoneyes (P)(U)(N)(C)(H)(Y)(O)(U) <download>
24 TREYFREY Demo <download>
25 RushJet1 Wasteland (1-bit) <download>
26 Zef Livewire <download>
27 Sanditio Anti-Gravity Research Facility <download>
28 swampyboy zero gravity romance <download>
29 Tettix Earth’s Assault on the Central AI <download>
30 Kola Kid spaceman <download>

 

Bonus Bits

Artist Title Link
01 .exe I Pressed Start <download>
02 Downstate Diode hill <download>
03 Dr0id1cus w/ L-tron Ch4sing Gh0sts <download>
04 ant1 Antstep <download>
05 Sycamore Drive Starlight <download>
06 SMILETRON Hypersonic Spazmatron <download>
07 PamTech Florence-Cosmic Love-PamTech Remix <download>
08 Jophish FORWARD (Guitar, Piano, Chip) <download>

Gis’ a chiptune!

One of my favourite communities to lurk in is the 8-bit Collective (http://8bc.org).  Users share songs that they have made through creative engagement with old technologies, and they are given helpful, mostly positive feedback for their efforts.  The comments are clear indicators of a supportive community and I just love reading the occasional, “Hey, I love this song!  Also, I just wanted to let you know I’ve been regularly listening to [x] that you posted last year and it’s one of my favourites of all time!  It makes me smile whenever it comes on =)”

People are quick to offer suggestions (“I can’t hear the bass so much.  I had a similar issue and I find that [complex process to change program settings] works for me.”), they remix each other’s tracks, and they simply offer an inclusive environment for creativity.

And, on top of that, the music is awesome!

The idea

Listening to chiptunes one day, I had the great idea that I should compile a mixed CD for my brothers and give it to them as a present.  I wanted to share some of the amazing songs I’ve been hearing and, growing up with similar media and technologies reminiscent of these sounds, I thought they may be able to appreciate it.  And if not, well, I’ve spent more time listening to chiptunes than I would have otherwise.  Win!

I soon decided I wanted to do more.  To further embrace new technology, I would share the playlist on my blog so my friends could download the tracks and follow links to past conversations about the songs within the community.  The experience of hearing great songs for the first time is, I feel, often more exciting when you’re doing it in the company of others – even if there exists a temporal distance that must be bridged by archival technology.  I quite enjoy reading the initial reactions from listeners, both in the form of ‘traditional’ comment systems (as used in 8bc) or using ‘timed comments’ like they do in soundcloud.

I also decided that it was nigh time to teach myself how to write m3u playlists.  One excellent way of sharing music is to simply provide others with a small text file of information that enables their music player to stream the files directly from various locations on the Internet.  This was going to be fun!

Problems!

I began planning things.  I spent hours upon hours compiling a playlist that would fit on an 80 minute CD and all was going fine, until . . . I noticed some of the tracks had been removed from 8bc.org by the artists.

This doesn’t present a problem for the mix CD I was compiling but a major part of my plan involved linking to the song pages and providing a direct download link for each track.  If some of the songs (and pages) were removed – and there was no reason to expect the remaining songs and pages would stay up forever – my playlist would include broken links, making it incomplete.

I was trying to do everything right by the artists.  I was trying to embrace the interconnected and decentralised nature of data.  What I didn’t prepare for is the likelihood of information removal or the changing of links – also known as ‘breaking the Internet’.

My own artistic remix is at the mercy of its sources.

A possible solution

On each song page on 8bc, it is stated, “Any reproductions of this work must be accompanied by a link to the artist’s page.”  This is a very simple license which I equate to, at least, a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.  So, in effect, because these tracks were posted on 8bc.org at some stage, I can host them on my server and link to any missing files from there, as I will be linking to the artists pages already.

But this makes me a little uncomfortable.  I have read a few conversations about removed files where the artists have said, “I took them down because I just didn’t like the direction I was taking last year,” or I have found other instances of the songs available elsewhere online for a small fee.  While, technically, I would be doing the correct thing legally by hosting these files, it’s taking advantage of the artists who agreed to something in the past, perhaps not through informed consent.  It’s one thing to share these files with my friends; it’s another to make them searchable and available to everyone and potentially removing a small but important income source for the artists.

For now, I’m going to simply share the m3u files and compilation playlist on my blog without fixing the holes.  But I’ll still share all of the files with my friends.

The future of sharing?

I had a lot of fun with this project.  Apart from the actual content (which, by the way, I haven’t mentioned is ‘awesome’ for a few paragraphs now – look at the restraint I am demonstrating!), I enjoyed exploring a variation on the established practice of making a ‘mixed tape’.  Technology is allowing us to include more information within the music (metadata) but it is also allowing us to share the connections and experiences of the wider audience – as well as enable direct communication with the artists, themselves.

I’d love to see more of this kind of sharing happen.

Stay tuned!  Coming up in my next post: the actual playlist with download links!

Gnome 3 – early observations

Gnome 3 is “stable and […] could lead to an even better desktop than the one we previously had but which lacks features and flexibility at the moment”. – Linux Mint Blog

Linux Mint 12 was released last week.  I was hesitant to upgrade my OS from the previous version because I knew it was using the new Gnome (3.2, opposed to 2.32), and I fear change, but I’d been having a problem with the window manager for a while (maximised windows would be a few pixels out from of where they should be so when I close them it often doesn’t register properly and closes other windows I have open behind – it’s all very annoying) and wanted to reformat anyway, so . . . I 3.2ook the plunge.

Gnome 3 looks quite nice, but in practice I don’t feel it is an improvement on Gnome 2.32.  It simply doesn’t have enough configuration flexibility anymore.

I previously posted about my clean, simple desktop running on Linux Mint 11.  I had a single panel at the bottom with the few programs I regularly use, and quick access to a menu listing only those programs I may actually click on one day.  It was a pleasure to interact with.  I was productive.  But Gnome 3 (check out a video demonstration here) makes this sort of simplicity impossible.

The focus on simpler interfaces is one I understand.  Make it easy for an unfamiliar user to find what they want.  Streamline the settings so they’re easier to follow.  This makes GNU/Linux more accessible.  But one of the effects of this, in both Gnome 3 and Unity (Ubuntu’s new desktop environment), is the severe limitation on customisation.  I am now left with a permanent panel across the top of my screen that I can’t remove or hide (panels are distracting and take up precious screen real estate) and I can only alter its contents with the assistance of specialised ‘extensions’ that I can install.  For example, there is an accessibility icon in the panel by default, and one of the most popular extensions simply makes it disappear.  Extensions aren’t such a bad idea, but because there are so few of them available, and because their options are usually (always?) limited to ‘on or off’, there’s simply not much you can do.

But it’s not just the extensions that restrict the user; the options for system settings are also heavily ‘streamlined’ – or in some cases entirely absent.  I had to find the command for the old printer settings program (I’m surprised the package was installed) in order to add a network printer because the new interface didn’t have the options I needed to configure it!

I was going to go into a longer rant detailing the problems, but Hitler does a more entertaining job =)

It may seem like power and average users are losing out here in order to appeal to a new audience.  However, my experience makes me a little optimistic.  I can remember a few years ago when Kubuntu (Ubuntu with KDE instead of Gnome) first shipped with KDE4.0 rather than KDE3.whatever.  The new KDE looked amazing, but there was little users could do to customise the experience.  It wasn’t until 4.3 that it could finally begin to compete with KDE3 in terms of usability.  But this was intentional – it takes a while to build a desktop environment, make it stable and add features.  And it’s better if the wider community is involved during this evolution.

I’m hopeful this is what will happen with Gnome 3.  It has just been shipped with Linux Mint, a distribution quickly making its way to the top of the GNU/Linux polularity contest, and many power users are playing around with it, writing new features and sharing them with others.  One day Gnome 3 may be just as configurable as my old desktop.

(I’m also optimistic because I recognise similarities between the Gnome 3 desktop environment and operating systems on mobile devices.  I long for the day that I can get GNU/Linux on a mobile phone, so I hope this is part of the conscious direction for development.)

I can deal with the new environment for now.  I’m even getting used to the menu.  (I believe this is what is called the ‘acceptance stage’.)  But next time I plan to reformat I might finally give XFCE a spin.  (And not just because it has a mouse mascot – though that certainly adds to the appeal!)

Comments and spam

The biggest technical problem I’ve come across since this blog went live on my server is that I couldn’t get comment email notifications working.  If someone comments, I had to manually check my comments summary page regularly in order to find out.  The issue is that I do not have an SMTP server running on the server, so the following takes place:

WordPress: Hey, SMTP server! Someone just commented! exhipigeonist will be totally stoked to hear about this!
WordPress: Uhhh, you’re quiet tonight.  Anyway, I was wondering if you could do me a favour and, you know, email people when this sort of thing happens. Options have been checked, intentions have been made, etc.
WordPress: I choose to read your silence as a ‘Yes’!  There, it’s out of my hands now and not my problem.  I don’t even have to check that it happened and give a confirmation message to anyone.  Time for a break!  *goes off to expel excess RAM into the memory pool*

I’m a little surprised this isn’t a standard thing the installation checks (or if it does, notifies the installer) during setup.  Anyway, I finally fixed it yesterday by configuring the WP Mail SMTP plug-in to use my gmail account to send notifications.  This is not optimal, especially as I’m trying to reduce my dependency on Google services, but I at least have it set up so it appears to be from my admin address.

While I was fixing comment settings I decided to deal with some of the spam I had been receiving.  I’ve been getting regular comments on various posts advertising laptop batteries.  I just delete them because they’re nonsense or irrelevant and appear to be from spambots.  I set up a filter so these have to be moderated while legitimate comments are likely to go through.

However, this morning I awoke to a moderated comment on my robot cupcake entry which said,

Short Circuit 1+2 were good movies 🙂 “Los locos kick your ass. Los locos kick your face. Los locos kick your balls into outer space!”

I’d recently re-watched the second movie and, even though I know such comments (or more specifically, the name and its link) are designed to game Internet search results, and I in no way endorse the products, I thought this comment was cute and just had to let it through.

It also makes it clear that there are actual people going through blogs and writing comments.  It’s not just an automated process.

So I put it to you, spammers (who probably won’t read this): entertain me, make me laugh, and I just might approve your comments.

Update: Probably related, shortly after publishing this post I began receiving large amounts of spam.

I have revised my stance on allowing spam; all of it will be deleted, even if it is entertaining.  (I have even removed the comment I mentioned in this post.)  In fact, I have set WordPress to moderate all comments, making it impossible for spam to get through at all.  Unfortunately, this also harms legitimate discussion until I can think of a better way around it.

Why did I ever think it was a good idea to provoke spammers?  *facepalm*

You are here

Earlier this year I mentioned to my dad I’d like to set up a web server at home. I’d want something second-hand with low power consumption that has an SSD and is effectively silent. You know, kinda like an ASUS EeePC. Dad had the crazy idea that I could actually just use an EeePC. ‘Brilliant’, I thought, and shortly got a 900A model very cheap from the Internet.

( I know I can host a wordpress blog with my domain name using my ISP’s webspace, and that this might actually be much easier, but this would mean I couldn’t play around with technology and have as much fun!)

I initially tried Ubuntu 11.04 on it but had a few small, technical problems. That, and I hated the Unity interface. For some reason I had it in my head that Ubuntu would be an easier distribution to use as a web server than Linux Mint 11, which I use on my other computers. I finally replaced it last week and, after many hours spent installing and reinstalling WordPress, it worked! I thought it could be nice to celebrate my week of uptime by posting a few photos of my physical server setup.

Click for full-size version

Internet, this is my web (and printer) server, sheeelob. (You can thank Cassie for the great name idea!) sheeelob lives on my desk under a small, wooden bookcase thing(?) that I once found on the side of the road. I leave the battery out to conserve power, but leave it close by for emergency relocations or power cable rearranging. Keeping the system simple, only essential programs have been installed – look how tidy the desktop is! That big orange thing is the security cable that makes it extremely inconvenient to use an external monitor.

(And to answer your question, yes, the composition of the above photo did take into account the prominence of my dinosaur card.)

Click for full-size version

And when I’m not configuring software or transferring images manually (I’ll eventually set it up so I can do all of this externally) sheeelob slides neatly out of the way.

 

Creative Commons License
Images appearing in this post are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Computer setup – part one: Hardware and OS

[Updated: Added a new paragraph to the end describing my success in getting rid of gnome-panel.]

I thought it might be nice to write about my computer setup.  I haven’t made a post like this in years and I just recently upgraded my operating system so it felt like a good time.  I’ll begin here with part one which discusses my operating system installation and hardware setup.  Part two will talk about the software I use and part three will focus on Firefox 4 because, well, like many others, my browser is where I spend most of my computing time.

Hardware
I know how to build a computer.  I know how to choose high quality parts that operate great together and cost altogether much less than pre-built systems.  However, after spending far too much time fixing these by diagnosing the issue, finding replacement parts on eBay (if I get exactly the same part I don’t need to reformat) and then realising problems are still present and starting over, I chose another approach to computer hardware: buying very common, pre-built DELL systems.

The reasons for this are numerous.  First of all, they’re so easy to get hold of.  I went for the small form factor Optiplex 745 from a few years ago and if I ever want to get another one there are many, competitively priced, local options on eBay.  The small form factor version is a little less common than the standard desktop system, and I need to make sure I get one with the correct CPU, but I imagine it will be simple to get hold of one in an emergency for quite a few years to come.  Second, as a person who doesn’t feel comfortable buying ‘new stuff’, especially electronic equipment, this allows me to buy used computers and still have access to fairly decent technology.  I know I could build a computer with better specifications, but, really, I’m not going to notice the difference.  Third, speaking of specifications, packaged systems tend to be quieter, have lower power consumption, and take up less space than something I’d build myself.  Fourth, these can be incredibly cheap!

Lastly, and perhaps the most important point here, because I have two of these computers in the house, if my main computer has a problem, I can simply remove the hard drive and put it in the not-as-important media computer located in the lounge room.  Let me put that another way: if my computer dies, I can be back up and running within a few minutes!  I could fix the problem in my own time, and have the luxury of looking for and waiting for a replacement when I get around to it.  The biggest problem I have with computers is immediately, heavily dissipated.  As long as I keep good backups of my files, my productivity should never receive a major hit.

The only changes I need to make to these computers is to: put in a simple, low-profile, passively cooled (read: quiet) NVIDIA video card that has a DVI video output (I can’t stand the quality of D-SUB); find a good, second-hand monitor on eBay; change the hard drive if I have a spare one of larger capacity; remove the ‘Made for Windows’ sticker on the front and replace it with a ‘GNU/Linux INSIDE’ sticker (I got some after a Richard Stallman talk and they’re awesome), and; reformat the computer so it uses my currently preferred flavour of GNU/Linux.

Operating System
I’ve been running GNU/Linux as my primary (and often only) operating system since about 2004, back when having non-standard hardware meant you received a crash course in unix commands and software compiling.  After various tinkering with GNU/Linux as a dual-boot playground, I began using Slackware as a primary OS because I liked how configurable it was and its tendency to force me to learn how the operating system functioned.  I soon moved to using Kubuntu due to its larger support community and ease of use – I realised I spent a large portion of my time fixing things and wanted to be a bit more productive, and I preferred the configurability and look of the KDE environment over that of Gnome.

Last year, feeling a bit bored with the KDE interface and wanting to try out an alternative, I came across the Linux Mint project.  The aim of this OS, an offshoot of Ubuntu with interface improvements and media codecs as standard, can be summed up by its motto, ‘From Freedom Came Elegance’.  It looks great, is incredibly intuitive to use, and releases updates when they are ready rather than keeping to a proposed release date at the potential cost of stability.

Another important difference in this latest release is that Mint has chosen to retain the Gnome environment rather than switching to Unity, which many long-standing Linux users vocally dislike.  (I haven’t used Unity, but from the videos I’ve seen I don’t believe I’m the right audience for it.)

Mint 11 was released last week and I’ve experienced the simplest – and quickest! – OS installation ever.  For the first time in years, I decided to make it a dual-boot system so I could use Windows without having to open the case and change the hard drive.  (I have a few ancient games I like to be able to play, even if it’s rare, and I’m not yet able to submit my tax return using GNU/Linux.)  I first used the DELL recovery CD to install Vista, allowing it to use 80Gb of my hard drive, and run updates, which took almost two hours.  In contrast, Linux Mint 11 along with its updates took perhaps twenty minutes from USB boot to me being logged in, transferring my documents.  (I know this is an unfair comparison to an OS that has numerous years’ worth of updates, but even without them Mint was quicker by a long shot.)  It’s strange using Vista again, even briefly; it’s far less intuitive than Mint (and GNU/Linux systems in general?) and is really starting to show its age, visually.

Also making the Mint install process quick was not having to install much additional software.  Almost everything I need is right there, as standard, and is updated automatically.  Apart from games, the only additions I installed were icecat, avant-window-manager, wine and emusicj (more on them later), only the latter of which was not done through the software manager.  And in terms of hardware, my printer ‘just works’, my digital camera is detected and uploads photos after a simple declaration of file preferences, and my video card runs superb after prompting me to install proprietary drivers for it.  I encountered absolutely no issues with sound or network, as was common with GNU/Linux distributions and my hardware many years ago.

Here’s what my desktop looks like after configuration:

Linux Mint 11 with awn(Click to see larger version on flickr)

One day in and I only have one issue with my current setup: getting rid of the default Gnome panel.  I like to use the OSX-dock-like Avant Window Navigator for everything.  It has a menu, lists the few programs I access regularly and is set to ‘intellihide’ so it disappears when a window goes near it – simple, yet powerful.  However, it’s not easy to get rid of the Gnome panel completely (I’m still looking into a simple method, but the one everyone mentions does not work in Mint 11 – more research needed).  For now I remove all the items I can from the panel, put it in the top-left of my screen and set it to auto-hide.

gnome-panel hidden

gnome-panel hover

Its presence is a little irritating, but at least it doesn’t get in my way.

Update: Thanks to david4dev, I found a way to get rid of gnome-panel.  The details are outlined in my Linux Mint Forums comment here.  Now, the only remaining annoyance I have is that I can’t configure the Cairo Main Menu as well as I could the default one.  The result is a slightly more bloated menu list than I’d prefer – I never use ‘Session’ or ‘Recent Documents’ links – but it’s still a major improvement.

Update 2: After installing this same version of Mint 11 on my server in late October, installing awn, setting it to run on startup, running system updates and then restarting the computer, it appears that the fix no longer needs to be applied – the gnome panel disappears automatically.