Author Archives: Alex

The Search for an Android News Reader

Seriously you’d think this would be easy. FeedingIt on the N900 wasn’t amazing but it did the job and was totally free. I don’t think my requirements are unreasonable here:

  • RSS support – not just via Google Reader
  • Ethical developer – i.e. supports the app and doesn’t demand excessive permissions for advertising purposes
  • White text on black background (for better battery life on AMOLED)
  • A decent user interface (NewsRob is great)
  • Offline cache, configurable sync schedule – I don’t want it to update constantly during the day and chew my battery, just download articles twice daily before I jump on the tube.
  • A reasonable price (yes I am prepared to pay)

Seriously if anyone can find one that fits these criteria please enlighten me, because I sure can’t. The ones I’ve considered so far:

  • NewsRob
    • The current frontrunner. Ad-supported and paid versions, user interface is nice and clean. I’m currently using the ad-supported version (gasp), until I find another. The problems? No black background (discovered the pro version actually does have a night theme), sync is partially configurable but can’t set specific times, based on Google Reader.
  • Feedr
    • Looked perfect and was apparently one of the better ones, but is no longer updated. Rumour has it that the developer is also behind RssDemon…
  • RssDemon
    • From what I can gather from the reviews on the marketplace, the developer of this app prefers to release a new app so everyone has to buy it again rather than improve the original. The app demands location permissions which is totally unnecessary for a news reader, and according to one reviewer purchasing the elite license does not properly remove the ad components. Strike.
  • BlueRSS GR
    • Developer seemed to have a good thing going with BlueRSS then inexplicably threw all that away by removing the old version and starting again with a new “GR” version that is not getting good reviews. There is no option for a black interface, but I didn’t like it anyway – 3D icons very 1998. Absolutely zero reasons to use this over NewsRob.
  • eSobi
    • Poor reviews, expensive (free is only trial), bloated, too many permissions. Again, zero reasons to use this over NewsRob.

Yes I’m picky but this seriously should not be that hard. News reading on Android – fail.

Google Nexus S – the AL4 review

In a moment of weakness I went and signed up to a 24-month contract on O2 a month ago, with the main attraction being the “free” Nexus S that was part of the deal. I did the math, and assuming my current rate of £15 per month spent on pre pay would continue, it worked out cheaper than buying the phone outright by a significant margin. Even after the post-xmas price drop.

My previous device is a Nokia N900, with the result that my standards for usability are rather low, but my standards for functionality are extremely high. There really is nothing the N900 can’t do with enough knowledge, but compared to the Nexus S it is slow and unwieldy for even the most basic functions such as email and calendaring.

As per usual, in this review I make no attempt to provide a complete or even unbiased review. These are my impressions, nothing more, and the review will be of most interest to you if you’re currently an open-source friendly N900 user in their 20s living in London. Yeah, it’s basically the comparison that I would have wanted to read before I switched.
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Likewise Open – problems rejoining domain after upgrade

There seems to be a common problem with Likewise open not gracefully upgrading on Ubuntu, e.g. – upgrading a system from the distribution supplied Likewise-open 5 in Ubuntu 10.10 to the latest packages from the Likewise website (Likewise 6.0 at the time of writing).

The system in this case was an old Ubuntu 9.10 server using Likewise Open 5. After some patching and an update to the current vmware tools it started failing to authenticate domain users, so I decided to upgrade to the latest version. However after the upgrade I was getting an error when trying to join the domain:

Error: ERROR_FILE_NOT_FOUND code 0x00000002

The obvious solution is to remove all likewise packages and purge the config, however that didn’t seem to work either. What DID work, was removing & purging the config, manually removing a few directories that were not empty, purging a few other seemingly related packages which were marked as no longer required after the uninstall, and finally reinstalling.
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Google Search from the command line

I won’t go into the details of why you would want to do this, suffice to say that I do and searched for a wee while on the best way to do it. Bizarrely Google’s own CLI tools don’t include search.

The only 3rd-party solutions I could find open the results in a web browser, which isn’t really what I wanted. So I wrote a REALLY ugly one-line script, but it works for me, so why not share. Maybe it will inspire someone with more talent!

It requires curl and vilistextum which aren’t in a default Ubuntu install, for more barebones OS’s you may need to install awk as well.

#!/bin/bash

curl -A "Mozilla/4.0" "http://www.google.com/search?q=$1%20$2%20$3" | vilistextum -k - - | awk 'NR > 23' | less

Then chmod +x it, install the script in /usr/bin and you can search from the commandline by typing [nameOfScript] [search terms]. e.g. to search for “testing 123” I type:
g testing 123

Yes there’s a lot wrong with this, for a start if you want more than 3 search terms you’ll have to add another argument (%20$4) after the q= string. I’m sure there’s a more elegant way of doing it by using $@, or $# to get the number of arguments and combining them all in a loop. But then it becomes a 5-line script rather than 1.

Also the result is not exactly pretty, but if you use a graphical terminal such as gnome-terminal all the links will be clickable and will open in your default browser.

Alternatively you could pipe the result to lynx, which actually parses html properly, but then any links would open in lynx which is not what I wanted:

#!/bin/bash

curl -A "Mozilla/4.0" "http://www.google.com/search?q=$1%20$2%20$3" | lynx --stdin

.

N900 PR1.3 is a screamer

Just installed the OTA (over the air) update on my N900 and the difference in speed is actually user-perceptible. Animations are smoother, rotation happens much more quickly and I could swear applications are starting faster as well. Many people are reporting improved battery life too.

There are no new major features that I’ve noticed, so of PR1.2 was a feature release, PR1.3 is very much a fine-tuning release. And despite what the few whiners on the maemo forums might say – that is not a bad thing!

More at the Nokia conversations blog and pocketables.net.

Bash script to alert when memory gets low

We have a web server that’s running out of memory about once every couple of weeks. The problem is that when it happens the swap file is totally full, the system is unresponsive and it usually needs a hard reboot. So it’s a bit difficult to debug. To avoid digging through log files I don’t understand I elected to put a script in /etc/cron.hourly which checks the total amount of free memory (including swap and physical). If there is less than 256mb free (this server has 512mb of ram and a 1gb swap so at this point the situation is serious), it dumps the process list to /tmp/processes.txt and sends me an email with it attached.

Note that mutt must be installed (‘apt-get install mutt’ on Debian/Ubuntu, or ‘yum install mutt’ on RedHat/CentOS).

#!/bin/bash

free=`free -mt | grep Total | awk '{print $4}'`

if [ $free -lt 256 ]; then
        ps -eo %mem,pid,user,args >/tmp/processes.txt
        echo 'Warning, free memory is '$free'mb' | mutt -a /tmp/processes.txt -s "Server alert" email@me.com
fi

Then of course make it executable and symlink to cron.hourly:

chmod +x /etc/scripts/memalert.sh
ln -s -t /etc/cron.hourly/memalert.sh /etc/scripts/memalert.sh

Au Revoir Ubuntu, Bonjour Fedora

If you check the about page and previous posts you’ll note that I’ve been travelling the past few months. In fact I’ve just settled in London and started looking for a job.

There are several shortcomings on my CV that have made it difficult to get past the recruitment agents for a lot of the roles I am interested in. Firstly there’s the lack of big corporate experience – I worked as a technical consultant on a major corporate contract for close to 6 months but the majority of my experience (including almost all of my “BAU” experience) has come from the education sector. Secondly, there’s lack of experience on 100+ Linux server sites (unfortunately no schools are that big in New Zealand, and we don’t have the federated district IT model that many state schools operate in the US). Finally and perhaps most critically is the lack of production experience with Red Hat Linux.

My own personal Linux dabbling experience has come from Ubuntu and Debian Linux. At work it’s been Debian and SUSE. However the number of roles that mention these distributions in the UK is insignificant compared to the number that mention RedHat and CentOS (CentOS is a clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, basically Red Hat with all the branding stripped and separately maintained repositories). In New Zealand Red Hat is hardly an endangered species, but roles that mention it are similar in number to those that mention Debian, SUSE and even Ubuntu, so lack of experience with it is not really an issue.

In the UK however, it most certainly is an issue for recruiters searching for “Red Hat” in CV databases. So it is for this reason that I must farewell Ubuntu and switch to the red team – which if I am to take this seriously means adopting Fedora (presently Fedora 13) for my day to day computing.

I made the switch yesterday, and so far no problems. There is less hand-holding for sure, but I like how it doesn’t try to hide what’s happening under the hood. The flexible installer was also nice, if not as attractive as Ubuntu’s. I also like how Fedora ships software as the upstream maintainers intended – this strikes me as a more sustainable long term solution than having to backport distribution-specific patches every release, but at the same time it doesn’t have the “coherent vision” of Ubuntu, and there are some niceties in Lucid that I really appreciated such as the messaging notification area.

As a professional tool for software developers and Linux IT professionals, Fedora is a fine choice. For end-users and Linux enthusiasts who don’t have to use a specific distribution in their work, Ubuntu is generally an easier distribution to get in to. In fact I wouldn’t recommend Fedora for anyone other than Linux geeks because only the two most recent versions are supported. This means a forced upgrade every 12 months minimum. Ubuntu LTS releases on the other hand are supported for 3 years on the desktop and 5 on the server. The previous 8.04 LTS release will still be supported on the desktop until April 2011. Install Lucid today and you will get security updates for it until April 2013.

Why not CentOS 5.5? Too old. Having been accustomed to the current versions of software shipped with Ubuntu it’s a bit hard to go back to Gnome 2.16! (Gnome 2.16 was released in September 2006 and was the version shipped with Ubuntu 6.10, Fedora 13 ships with the current stable 2.30 release).
As desktop distributions, CentOS and RHEL are simply too far behind to be competitive, except in large environments with legacy apps which require absolute stability of APIs. However modern applications are often browser based, so for any environment considering a desktop deployment of Linux that doesn’t depend on legacy desktop software, I’d be suggesting a very hard look at Ubuntu LTS.

Despite the title I won’t be abandoning Ubuntu entirely, in fact I play to keep tabs on each release (maybe even dual boot to test each one) but professional needs have dictated that I upskill in “the Red Hat way”. Let’s hope this has a happy ending!

NZ does us proud

It’s times like this that I’m proud to be a kiwi. Despite lobbying by certain business interests, it looks like New Zealand is going to beat the US and most of Europe to the punch in outlawing software patents.

This is a huge win for the IT industry in New Zealand. The patent system was designed to encourage innovation, but thanks to “licensing companies” which litigate without producing anything and the use of patents on obvious techniques to obstruct competitors, patent law has been doing quite the opposite.

Link to original article

If you’re after a new camera …

… the Panasonic GF1 is quite a bargain at the moment at $990 NZD for the 14-45mm kit. In the UK it is just £329 (with £50 cashback), which at the current exchange rate is even cheaper.

The G1’s successor (G2) was recently released, which adds movie mode, a touch screen and a few minor improvements. When it comes to taking photos though, the two are almost indistinguishable.

The G2 however has an inferior kit lens (14-42mm, the better old one is 14-45mm), and costs $500 NZD more than the G1, which now costs about the same as the new “budget” model, the G10.

The G10 does have a basic movie mode, but loses the high resolution viewfinder and articulated screen. It too has the inferior 14-42mm lens, which in my view makes the G1 the better buy unless you absolutely must have movie mode. But if movie mode is important you really want a GH1 or G2 anyway (possibly GF1).

dpreview.com’s review of the G2 should tell you all you need to know. :)

Me though, I’ll be sticking with my 40D and Canon lens collection, plus the S90 for situations where a big camera is inconvenient (the S90 is by far the best compact I’ve ever used). I think the GF1 is the really interesting model in the Panasonic range as it realises the potential of the micro four thirds system – a big sensor in a small package. The problem however, is that a MFT (micro four thirds) camera can’t replace a compact because they’re all still too big to fit in a trouser pocket with a standard zoom.

I really don’t want to own 3 expensive cameras comprising two unique lens and accessory systems, so therefore a MFT camera would have to replace the DSLR. And the MFT system to date can not match the dynamic range and lens selection of the Canon EOS line. So for now I’ll stick with 40D + S90, with my most likely upgrade path to be a 5D MKII and/or 600D when the 40D starts to show its age (which it certainly isn’t yet).

The S90 may have cost a lot, at the time it was almost twice as much as a perfectly good compact like the Fuji F200EXR. But you’ll notice that its price hasn’t dropped at all since its introduction which to me indicates that demand is still high, and I think it was worth every penny.

So to put things in perspective, the S90 costs more than the G1 in the UK after the rebate, and if you don’t mind the larger size of the G1 it’s not difficult to see which is the better value!

I’m off…

… but unfortunately before finishing the series on setting up the Ubuntu home server. Realistically it is unlikely it will be finished until I setup another one, as the original is back in New Zealand and I’m en-route to the UK!

It should be more than enough to get most people started though, so it has certainly been a worthwhile exercise. For the parts that were finished, see An Ubuntu Home Server.