Category Archives: Linux

yEd

So, today I needed a flowchart editor. Something like Visio, really, but less bloated and available on Linux and Windows. I did a quick Google search.

There’s Dia, obviously. It’s not being developed these days, though, and I never did like it much. Also, it looks bad on a HiDPI screen–my laptop is blessed (or cursed, if you run Java software) with 4k.

The next thing suggested was yEd, developed by yWorks, a company specialising in “the development of professional software solutions that enable the clear visualization of diagrams and networks.” They had an online HTML5 version that I tried and liked, and even better, the desktop software was a) available for Linux, and b) free. Now, yEd is written in Java so a) wasn’t actually all that surprising, but for a company whose bread and butter is diagrams, releasing it for free was.

But Java, you say? What about HiDPI? Well, here’s the best part: while most of their downloads include a prepackaged JRE 8, they also make available the JAR without the JRE, allowing me to run it in an early release JRE 9, and Java 9 has supported HiDPI for quite some time now. And let me just say this: yEd looks great. It’s perfectly scaled, with beautiful icons and a spacey interface.

Plus, on top of the HiDPI goodness, the software itself is great. I’m really pleased.

New Laptop, New Linux Distro

Having returned to running my own company, I decided it was time to retire my 5-yo MacBook Pro and get something modern to run Linux in. After careful consideration I decided on a Dell Precision M3800 since it’s actually being sold by Dell with Ubuntu 14.04 pre-installed. The M3800 is thin and light, in spite of the 15.6″ screen, robustly built and includes a 4k screen. Simply put, it is gorgeous.

I didn’t order the Ubuntu version, though, partly since I actually need Windows every now and then, but mostly because there’s the “free” Windows 10 upgrade once it becomes available, and I’m curious. Instead, I added a second hard disk for the Linux install. The extra disk can be fitted if opting for a smaller battery, and the installation didn’t void the warranty, since Dell actually accepts that people will want to tinker with their machines (beat that, Apple!).

After careful consideration, a few live USB sticks and one test install of Ubuntu, I have now set up Linux Mint 17.2 as my primary OS. It handles the HiDPI 4k screen beautifully, except for some older apps with hard-coded font sizes and such (shame on you, Skype!) and most Java-based programmes I have tried so far. oXygen is pretty much the only Java app I really need, so for now I’ve doubled every font size in the preferences, which makes oXygen usable. The toolbars are still tiny, but I am now able to work.

All in all, I’m really pleased.

Further Unity Comments

After a couple of days with Ubuntu and the Unity desktop, I have another couple of comments.

First of all, I don’t like the global menu bar. I really don’t like it. It takes up space for no good reason – the clock, etc don’t require it, not really, and if you turn off global menus, which I did, it is mostly empty.

Second, I hate the “Amazon Lens”. It’s not that I don’t shop on Amazon – I do, all the time – but I want to choose when to interact with Amazon (or other commercial providers) without my desktop interfering. So I’ve turned that off, too.

I also don’t like how newly opened windows are placed on the desktop. It’s probably configurable using some of the tweak tools that are available, but I can’t be bothered to look it up.

This morning, I switched back to KDE and the more traditional desktop metaphor, and immediately realised that it’s rather boring, too. It’s nice, with all kinds of extras and eye candy and stuff, but it’s boring and it should be possible for someone to come up with a more modern Linux desktop.

It’s just that Unity isn’t the answer.

New Distro, Part Two

After a couple of days of Kubuntu, my curiosity took the upper hand and I decided to install the Unity desktop along KDE.

It’s an interesting GUI, I have to admit, but I remain unconvinced. The search-oriented task bar thingy to the left is an odd bird, for example. It is as if Canonical were mixing their desktop metaphors. There must be a task bar because everyone’s got one, but it seems as if they’ve gone out of their way to ensure it is different. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing yet.

Worse is that the global menus do not work–as many others have pointed out, on a large screen the menus will simply be too far off from the programme window itself. I know, OS X does this also, but the difference, the crucial difference, is that the menus and their behaviour are consistent on a Mac, something they can never be on Linux.

Version 14.0 allows you to move the global menus to their respective windows, which solves the problem but also highlight a less serious one: the top bar, now mostly empty sans a few icons to the right, still takes up space but now provides no real benefit.

On the whole, though, the GUI looks nice, with better graphics than I remember from past Ubuntu versions. It looks like a finished product, something that, say, Debian Testing, doesn’t–the XFCE desktop I briefly tried when deciding ona new distro looks ghastly. I know it’s not supposed to have the bells and whistles of a Plasma desktop, Windows 7 or even Gnome, but my god, the damned thing put me off to an extent I didn’t think possible.

Time for a New Distro

Recently, I upgraded my work laptop with an SSD disk.The laptop, a Lenovo Thinkpad T510, has been pretty reliable but getting a bit long in the tooth. A conventional 2.5″ disk three years old is a cause for concern if used daily, and anyway, SSDs are amazingly fast these days. It’s almost like buying a new computer.

I should also mention the Nvidia Optimus graphics card. It’s basically two cards in one, an Intel graphics chip for the daily stuff that doesn’t require much graphics processing and an Nvidia chip for the stuff that does, the idea being that the OS switches between the two to either save battery or boost performance.

So, anyway, while I simply cloned the Windows partitions from the old disk (using Acronis software), I eventually decided to try a new Linux distro rather than fixing the cloned Debian Sid I’ve been running since 2010 or so. The Debian system was spread out over several partitions, which caused problems when booting the cloned system–apparently UUIDs changed when cloning, crashing the system.

I wanted something Debian-based, of course. Apt-get rules and all that, and Debian is pretty hard to break even if you run an unstable version of it.

First, I tried the new Linux Mint Cinnamon distro (v 17), having heard some very good things about it. The installation went without a hitch and I was soon able to boot into the desktop (what a pretty one, btw) using the open-source Nouveau display drivers. They were OK but not great, so I decided to replace them with Nvidia’s proprietary package and something called nvidia-prime that would allow me to switch between the two graphics chips. This seemed to work well, until I came to work the next morning, placed the laptop into a dock and booted using an external monitor only.

No desktop appeared, just a black screen.

Opening the laptop’s lid, I discovered that the desktop was actually there, after all, but only on the laptop screen. Nvidia Settings, the helper software that allows you to configure the X server and screens, was broken and so I couldn’t use it to configure the monitors. The Cinnamon display settings would only share the desktop between the two screens but not allow me to only use the external monitor.

Changing from the Nvidia chip to the Intel one did not significantly change this, but introduced a new problem: I no longer had the option to change back to Nvidia.

I looked around to see if there were newer Nvidia packages around, or perhaps a newer kernel, since that’s what I would always do in Debian Sid; there would frequently be something in the experimental branch that would help me. Linux Mint, however, while Debian-based, is far from Debian Sid. It is meant to be stable, and anything, um, unstable would have to come from somewhere else entirely.

I found a 3.15 kernel from a Ubuntu branch and installed that, but Linux Mint would then insist that a 3.13 kernel was actually an upgrade, so I gave up and realised Linux Mint wasn’t for me after all.

I then spent the following evening (and night) installing and testing Ubuntu 14.04 in place of Linux Mint, as a Google search suggested nvidia-prime would work out of the box in it. It did, but after a few hours of fooling around with Ubuntu, I realised I truly hated Ubuntu’s Unity desktop.

Discouraged, I wiped Ubuntu from the disk in favour of Debian’s Testing branch, but that didn’t go well. I downloaded an ISO, remembering that Debian’s installer would not support WiFi cards during the install, only to discover that they had a) switched to XFCE from Gnome as their default desktop and, more importantly, b) my WiFi card was still considered bad as it was non-free according to Debian’s rather strict criteria and so the firmware was not on the ISO and I had no wired network hooked up to that laptop.

I could have used the Windows partition or my Macbook Pro to download the missing firmware, of course, but I got annoyed and wiped the disk again, now installing the new Kubuntu 14.04 instead.

Which is where I am now. Kubuntu also handles nvidia-prime out of the box, but it also has the (for me) familiar KDE desktop. It’s not perfect (the system fonts, for example, are ghastly and I have to do something about that very soon) but it’s good enough for now.

Now, you may be tempted to point out that Nvidia Optimus works out of the box there, too, and with more finesse, but if so, you are missing the point.

Linux is fun, and the very fact that there are so many distros out there speaks in its favour. If something in Windows doesn’t work for you, you won’t have a Windows alternative. Well, you have Windows 8, but seriously?

Linux Ready for the Desktop and All That

My recent XML Prague presentation ran from a Linux partition, the first time in a while I’ve used Linux for presenting anything. The reasoning was simple; I’d developed the accompanying demo on Linux, on a server on localhost, so it would be much easier to just write a presentation in Open Office than to move the demo to something else.

It wasn’t.

I’d fixed every bug in the demo, styled my web pages in an aesthetically pleasing manner (well, for me), and carefully prepared an XML Prague presentation project in oXygen with only the files I would need to show, making sure that they’d fit without scrolling when projected in a lower resolution. I’d bookmarked the important code, and I’d folded everything else. My demo was in great shape.

What I didn’t do beforehand (even though I actually meant to) was to test my Linux laptop in dual screen mode, mirroring the laptop screen to an external monitor using that lower projector resolution. That, of course, was what failed.

My talk was immediately after a coffee break so I figured I’d hook up my laptop immediately after the last talk before the break and test all this. How hard could it be?

Well, no mirroring in that lower resolution. Mirroring in a higher one (the laptop’s native resolution) was possible but of course, the projector wouldn’t work in that resolution. They usually don’t. Dual screen mode, outputting two different screens, didn’t work because I wouldn’t be able to see on my laptop’s screen what was being projected for the audience. I tested pretty much every setting there was but to no avail.

And then the (Gnome) window manager decided it couldn’t take the abuse any longer and crashed.

I rebooted into KDE, hoping it would fare better, but all I got for my troubles was another crash. Not the same software, mind, but something or the other in KDE. I hadn’t really tried anything very dramatic, I’d simply changed the display modes a few times.

So I rebooted again and accepted my faith, booting into Gnome and using the dual screen mode where I’d be flying blind unless twisting my head all the way back like that poor girl in The Exorcist, trying to run the demo from the laptop’s touchpad in front of me while hurting my neck to see the results on the large screen behind and above me.

If you’ve watched the conference video (second day, about 7 or 8 hours into the file), you now know why.

My laptop is not particularly fancy or modern. It’s a 3-yo Thinkpad with an Nvidia Optimus graphics card, the kind that includes what was then a high-end Nvidia card and a low-end Intel card, the idea being that you use the former for the graphics-intensive stuff while reserving the latter for the 2D desktop stuff. It still doesn’t work properly in Linux so I only use an Nvidia only mode. It’s not something I blame the Linux developers for–the Optimus is proprietary and thus not something easily handled in open source–but it is what it is and quite common.

But other than that, there is nothing very special about my laptop. It just works, mostly. Well, it should.

So is Linux ready for the desktop yet?

Evolution 3.2

Evolution 3.2 solved my Groupwise problems by eliminating Groupwise support altogether. It’s an odd way to do it, considering that both originate from the same company, Novell. I am now left without a groupware solution for Linux.

In all fairness, mine is the unstable (“Sid”) branch of Debian Linux, which means that the Groupwise library will likely be updated and re-included at some point. It’s just that the functionality used to be one of the core advantages of Evolution and what brought me to it in the first place.

Every time I start to think that Linux is finally ready for the desktop, something happens.

Evolution/KDE/Gnome Rant

I’ve been running Evolution as my email/calendar/groupware/etc solution in Debian and KDE 4.6 at work ever since I gave up on Windows for anything beyond PowerPoint presentations and such. In spite of the Novell Groupwise server misery that we are forced to live with at Condesign, Evolution does the job. I’ve actually managed to synch my mail and appointments with both my trusty N900 and an Android thingy that the company wants to be my primary work phone, and have been if not pleased then at least content with the situation.

I should add that using a KDE solution (KMail/Kontact) has never worked for me. I can’t get Kontact to log in to the Groupwise server, no matter what.

Anyway, unfortunately a recent apt-get update did… something. I’m still able to read my email in Evolution but the calendar and address book both crash with a DBus error whenever I try to view or use them. The usual suspects, from deleting caches to looking for non-UTF-8 characters in calendar ICS files, do not seem to apply and upgrading or downgrading Evolution doesn’t help either. The problem seems to be more fundamental.

Yesterday, however, I booted into Gnome rather than KDE, mostly because I was bored and wanted to see what Gnome 3.x is like. Thing is, for some inexplicable reason Evolution now runs without a hitch. Calendars, address lists, everything. No crashes, no DBus errors.

Now, I’ve used KDE for years, preferring it over Gnome because the latter always feels a bit patronising to me. Gnome is like a Linux equivalent to OSX, built on the assumption that users are all idiots and the inner workings-on of a computer should always be kept hidden so the user is not unnecessarily confused with anything even remotely technical.

Yet, OSX, for the most part, does the job. It just works, which I discovered recently when setting up a MacBook Pro for my daughter. It had no problem finding and configuring our home network HD and printer (tricky subjects for our Windows and Linux boxes, for some reason), and even displayed a nice image of the exact printer model to help me install it. Pretty cool, actually.

And this is what Gnome 3.x seems to focus on also, on just working. Yes, it feels a bit dumbed down, but it really seems to just work. I even think that I could learn to live with the 3.x GUI.

And I got my calendar back.

Mobile Sync, Part Three

After (unsuccessfully) banging my head against the wall trying to sync my Ubuntu 10.04 laptop with the Nokia N900, I resorted to the only solution I knew would work.

I wiped out Ubuntu and installed Debian GNU/Linux Sid in its place. Apart from spending a night recovering from a dodgy dist-upgrade, the laptop now works, syncing perfectly with the N900.

Me, I think there is something wrong with Ubuntu 10.04.

I Want A Nokia N900

I’ve been waiting to get my hands on a Nokia N900 smartphone for a couple of months now. Nokia released it in November or December (depending on who you choose to believe), and here in Sweden in January, but the phones have been in very short supply. I’ve been asking around but so far, there’s been no sign of the N900, anywhere I shop. The other week I finally placed an order at The PhoneHouse. I was told that there are currently six (6) phones available for 114 stores, but that I could expect it in a week and a half or so. And if I didn’t want it, the guy said he could sell it anyway…

The phone itself is a nerd’s wet dream. It runs on Maemo, a Debian/GNU Linux-based distro (yes, it can run Debian apps even though the screen might be ill-suited for some of them), and is actually more of a computer with a built-in mobile rather than the other way around. People have successfully managed to get OpenOffice to run on it and so I’m thinking that I can probably make some kind of XML editor work on it.

A fellow XML’er in the UK has had the phone for months, now, and doesn’t miss a chance to tell the world about it on Twitter. I’m jealous and I want one. Now.