Open Source Applications: Catfish

June 30, 2008

Every now and then I bump into a nice, little, relatively unknown but impressive application that makes my life a little bit easier. Catfish is one of those. From the website:

Catfish is a handy file searching tool for linux and unix. Basically it is a frontend for different search engines (daemons) which provides a unified interface. The interface is intentionally lightweight and simple, using only GTK+ 2. You can configure it to your needs by using several command line options.

The reason why it isn’t very well known is that most distributions/desktop environments come with their own search tools, like tracker, beagle, strigi, etc. The beauty of catfish is that it can be a front-end for all of those, and more.

Supported backends are find, (s)locate, doodle, tracker, beagle, strigi and pinot.

You can argue that any distribution that comes with heavy duty search tool like tracker or beagle already has a front-end available, making catfish unnecessary. On the other hand, users who prefer leightweight search tools will happily use find and locate from the command line. That’s what I did until a couple of weeks ago.

As far as I can see, catfish can be useful in two situations: first of all, there are so called “power users” who still like a leightweight GUI. Like me πŸ˜‰ I have no objections to the CLI at all (in fact, I think it’s one of the best things about Linux in general), but in this situtation, I prefer my search results in a nice, little GUI where I can doubleclick and execute them. That’s not possible in a terminal.
The other situation is rarer, but still possible: what if you have an old PC lying around which won’t run the latest Ubuntu very well, but will be used by normal, everyday computers users. It’s easy to add “Search Files” to the menu, and link it to catfish.

One thing to keep in mind: catfish 0.3 doesn’t have preferences (the settings dialog is being rewritten for 0.4). For example, you can’t configure which search engine to use by default, or which directory to search. That all depends on what arguments you use to start the program, but it’s not difficult. Read the man page for more details.

All in all, it works well, looks nice, and runs fast. All I look for in a program.

San

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Arch Linux 2008.06: Overlord

June 25, 2008

It’s taken some time, but here it is, the spankin new, fresh from the press Arch release, ambitiously called “Overlord”. In this review, I’ll have a look at it, and discuss a bit of the Arch philosophy in general.

Installation

So, when the new release appeared on the ftp servers today, I quickly grabbed the latest iso, burned it on a CD, popped it into the CD tray, booted up, and clicked on the “Install Arch” icon…

No wait, I didn’t. What I did was booting into my existing Arch installation, ran “pacman -Syu” (more on that later), and one minute later, my Arch was as recent as possible. You see, a new Arch release doesn’t mean as much as say, the newest Ubuntu or OpenSuse. It’s a Linux distribution with a rolling release model, which ideally means you install once and then never again. New software will be in a testing repository for a while, and then transferred to the main ones. That means that, if you update your system every day, it stays current. If I installed “Overlord”, I’d end up with the exact same system as I have now.
So then, what’s the new release for? Well, every now and then, the Arch devs are good enough to provide a snapshot with all the current packages, so you don’t have to update too much. That’s pretty much it.

Okay, almost it. There are some changes to previous install CDs, but despite what the announcement says, they’re not major, and they aren’t many (certainly not when you compare them with an Ubuntu release). They’re just very nice. From the announcement:

– ‘base’ category is always installed
– Use of UUIDs for persistent device naming
– Availability of USB disk images alongside traditional ISOs
– True live Arch installation environment
– Inclusion of the beginner’s guide from the wiki
– Documentation updates
– Includes the current stable kernel, 2.6.25.6

The possibility to install from a USB-stick certainly will make some people happy, and the inclusion of the beginner’s guide from the wiki even more. See, no matter what people say, installing Arch is difficult. Yes, I know some people won’t agree. Okay, I know your girlfriend was able to install Arch from scratch. Congrats, mine could never do it. In fact, I couldn’t even do it when I tried it about a year ago, but then again, I had tried it without reading the beginner’s guide. If that means I don’t pass the girlfriends test…great! πŸ˜‰
Let me repeat, installing Arch isn’t easy. Certainly not the first time, definitely not if you don’t want to spend some time figuring things out, and it’s downright impossible if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want from your installation, or if you don’t know what kind of hardware is in your PC (especially graphic cards). But if you do know all that, and you know what you want, and you have an afternoon off, and you have the beginner’s guide or the official install guide near…well, it shouldn’t be a problem. That’s why I’m thrilled with the inclusion with the guide on CD.

The Arch installer is ncurses based, which means it’s graphical but looks like crap. It works very well though, and asks you the same questions you get from a standard Ubuntu install, but be sure to change your keymap first if you don’t live in the US. It’ll want to know where you want to install and where the swap partition is, what file system you want to use, what packages groups you want to install (hint: all of them, that’s easiest) and then ask you if you want to run hwdetect. There’s a quote about this on the beginner’s guide:

Advanced users who are thoroughly familiar with their hardware, required modules, and who are able to manually configure /etc/rc.conf, /etc/mkinitcpio and /etc/fstab, etc. from scratch may wish to choose ‘no’. (Needless to say, this option is very involved, beyond the scope of this guide, and therefore is not covered.)

To me, that means “you’re a noob, run hwdetect now”. So I did. I must say it’s as reliable as the hardware detection of any major Linux distributions now, and I never had any problems with it.

Then, you have to edit some files, which contain the configuration of your timezone, locale, network, processes that should be started at boot, etc. It’s the hardest part of the installation, but there aren’t many things you’ll have to edit, because most of the defaults are just fine, and you don’t have to worry about processes until later anyway. Again, check the beginner’s guide. Everything you want to know is in there, and a lot of things you don’t want to know are in there too. Everything else is standard fare, like picking a root password, and choosing an ftp-mirror close to you.

The install itself is very fast…ten minutes or less on a decent system. And after those ten minutes, you’re greeted with your new, shiny, slick looking…command prompt?

Configuration

That’s right. You won’t need the install cd any more, but there’s a lot of tinkering left to do. See, when you’ve arrived at this point, you don’t have anything even remotely resembling what most people would consider to be an operating system. You don’t have a user account, just root. You don’t have sound. Most of all, you don’t have a graphic environment. You’ll have to install and configure those yourself.
Many people would consider this a turn-off, but I think it’s one of the biggest advantages of Arch: it’s incredible versatility. Sure, you’ll spend some time getting things just right, but after you have, it’ll be exactly what you want. You want the newest KDE? No problem. Or maybe you want XFCE with some delightful Compiz effects? You got it. Or, you shudder at these screenshots, and you like something a little more sparse. You have it. Maybe something else? Gnome? PekWM? XMonad? Awesome? Fluxbox? Openbox? It’s all there, and it’s all well-documented in the wiki. But you’ll have to do everything yourself, and I do mean everything. Making sure your fonts look good. Install and configure Alsa. Install and configure X, and the right drivers. Install and configure your favourite software. It takes some time, and some effort, and much reading of the wiki, but the payback is that you end up with a system that’s exactly as you like it.

Using Arch

So you see, the normal review criteria don’t apply to Arch. If you want to know what the default application for downloading torrents or burning CDs is…well, it’s the one you choose to install. Does it have a nice configuration center like Yast? Are you kidding me? No it doesn’t! Does it play multimedia out of the box? Er…no. It doesn’t do anything out of the box, except providing you with a very solid base for you to build your perfect desktop system upon.
Now, at this point you may think that Arch Linux is some kind of Linux From Scratch, where you have to do everything yourself, but that’s not exactly true. Arch does provide some very useful and unique features, like pacman and the wiki.

Pacman is Arch’s package manager, and it’s one of the best out there. It has all the features a package-manager should have, and it’s fast. In my experience, faster than apt-get, much faster than any rpm package manager. Yes, it’s command-line only. There are graphical front-ends like Shaman for those who are used to Synaptic or Adept, but command line is faster. I mentioned the command “pacman -Syu” earlier, which is all that’s needed to keep your system up to date. the “y” refreshes your repository databases, the “u” upgrades your system. For everything else, you’ll need to consult the wiki.

Ahh, the wiki. I once read that a distribution’s wiki (and not the forums) should be the first stop for users looking for help. In the case of Arch Linux, that’s certainly the case. The wiki is clear, easy to use, and huge. If you have a problem, chances are the solution is in here.

There are other nice features, like the AUR, the repository of community-driven, unsupported packages. It adds to the already impressive number of packages available in the official repositories. And if that’s not enough, there’s always ABS, Arch’s build system if you want to build packages yourself.

Conclusion

Basically, Arch is a do-it-yourself distro. That’s a totally different philosophy than the one used by Ubuntu, or OpenSuse, or Mandriva, or any other distribution that wants to provide an off-the-rack, works-for-everyone experience. There’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes, despite all the effort, things don’t work for everyone. Most of those times, the solution isn’t very hard, but getting under the hood of those distro’s isn’t always simple.

Arch is simple. It’s not easy at first, but it’s simple…and “simple” has the knack of becoming “easy” when you’re used to it. After the install, you end up with a system that has everything you want it to have, but nothing more. That means it’s light-weight, and fast, and unique, and very easy to maintain. After the initial hours of configuration, there’s not much left to be done. Upgrade the system every day. Sit back. Relax. Enjoy. I know I will.

San

PS: All screenshots were found in the monthly Arch Linux Screenshot threads, are used without permission, but because I liked them.


Convert people to Linux: the easy way

June 19, 2008

Amongst Linux users, there’s a shared feeling that any Linux OS is superior by far to anything Microsoft produces. More often than not, I also notice a frustration that the rest of the world doesn’t know/acknowledge/cares about this. There’s a lot of talk about converting people to Linux, and the best way to do that. But actually, it’s very easy. Here are some tips.

Make sure you’re comfortable with Linux. A new user of Linux will need support, just as sure as a new user of Windows will. The difference is, with Linux, you’ll have to be the support. You can’t simply say “Oh that problem? Yeah it’s common. I have no idea how to fix it”, because the new user can’t simply bring his PC to the shop and ask them to repair it. If you haven’t spent at least a year with some kind of Linux distribution, don’t bother to convert others. They’ll end up hating you, their PC, and worst of all, Linux.

Refuse to do any Windows support. This may seem harsh, but I noticed that the more I learned about operating systems and computers in general, the more people I knew grew to rely on me for their tech-support. I don’t mind helping out my friends, but anyone who ever was in my situation knows what the number one complaint of Windows users is: “My PC has become very slow”. The reason? No firewall, no virusscanner, and clicking everything they see in Internet Explorer. Fixing that more often that not requires a re-install, which is slow, boring work.
Furthermore, the more I used Linux, the less familiar I became with Windows. I haven’t done any problem-solving in XP since SP2, and I have no experience whatsoever with Vista. Beyond the very basic, I won’t be able to help anyway, and if I have to start using google…well, people can do that themselves, can’t they πŸ˜‰
There are a couple of people I know who use Linux, and I’m always more than happy to help them. Funny thing is, most of the time, any problems they might have are fixed in five minutes or less.

Don’t take the first step. Simply put, if people are happy using Windows, why bother? For most people, the OS they’re running on their PC is completely unimportant, so the choice between Windows and Linux is irrelevant. Singing the praises of Linux over and over again will only make them hate you, and more importantly, Linux.
Of course, most people using Windows aren’t happy with it at all. I have no doubt that there are enough people who keep their Windows PC absolutely virusfree and in great shape, but their number is dwarfed by others who have no idea what “maintenance” means, and could benefit from using another OS.
What I’ve noticed is, if those people notice you’re happily running Linux, which can be easier, faster, safer and better looking than Windows, they get curious. If they take the first step, and if you help them with the others, converting them can be very easy indeed.

To finish, I’ll give you two examples of what I mean. My girlfriend is not a Linux convert. She has a laptop with XP installed. The problem is, the thing breaks down constantly. Or she forgets the recharging cable. Or there’s another reason why she can’t use it, so my old PC has to come to the rescue. Mostly, I use it to test new distributions, but for her I used a partition to install Arch and IceWm with a Vista theme, and everything else she might need like OpenOffice, Firefox and Emesene. She’s fine with it, partly because she knows I won’t put XP on it anyway, but mostly because she has no problem whatsoever using it.
In fact, the only reason why she (sometimes) says that Windows is better than Linux is because she knows it annoys me πŸ˜‰

Another friend of mine is a full convert. When Ubuntu Gutsy came out, she asked me to set up a dual boot for her, because she didn’t want to upgrade to Vista. Most of the time, she still used XP, but for some things she used Ubuntu, because it was easier (like FTP some files to her website, which was very easy in Nautilus). When she bought a new computer with XP pre-installed, she asked me to transfer her files. Also, she wanted her PC ready for daily use, because of course XP came without any software worth a damn. I interpreted that as “set up a dual boot again, and transfer all my settings”, which took me something like 45 minutes, everything included. I didn’t touch XP, and simply told her that I didn’t care what she used, but Ubuntu was prepped and ready. If she wanted the XP install to offer the same functionality, she’d have to call someone else.
She’s been using Ubuntu ever since, with only one small apt-get problem which was fixed in a matter of minutes, with a little help from me on MSN Messenger.

So of course, the title of this article is a bit misleading. There’s no magical way to make people use Linux. In fact, if they’re happy with their XP, Vista, or OSX, there’s no reason they should. Personally, I won’t force Linux down anyone’s throat, but I share the opinion of the people I mentioned at the beginning of this article: I do think many Linux distributions are superior to Windows, in terms of stability, speed, safety and even ease of use. If people want to try it out, I’m ready to help, and if they don’t…well, that’s more time I can spend tinkering with my own Linux box πŸ˜‰

San


Arch + Openbox screenshots: June

June 16, 2008

Another month, another series of screenshots. Actually, I stayed with the previous background/theme much longer than I expected (about two months), but once I changed the GTK-theme, there was no stopping me anymore. I changed the Openbox theme to match, and then the background. Of course, I also had to change the config of pypanel and conky…white text on a white background isn’t very readable. I kept the icon theme.

The background is from David Lanham’s site. I urge you to check it out…there’s some very original/beautiful work there.

Click the thumbnails for larger versions.

San


Banshee: beyond the first looks

June 15, 2008

I’ve seen a lot of articles lately about the release of Banshee 1.0, the Gnome music player “written in C# on the Mono platform using GNOME technologies” (from the website). For some people the mono platform alone would be reason enough to bash Banshee, but I don’t care about that. I do get curious however when people claim that Banshee will replace Rhythmbox as the default Gnome media player on their system. I’ve used Rhythmbox. It’s pretty good. I was curious what Banshee had to offer.

Actually, quite a lot. The list of features is too long to sum up here, but I can see why Rhythmbox-users would install Banshee instead. There are a lot of interesting features here, like the beautiful last.fm integration, the play queue, and the expanded search functionality. I’m just naming a few that are interesting to me.

But if you look past that, I have some serious issues with Banshee. First of all, there’s the size. Installing this on my (openbox) Arch system meant a whopping 175MB install, and that’s with gstreamer and gtk already installed. Most of that is of course the Mono dependancy. But still, Rhythmbox and Exaile take a lot less room. Even Amarok, which had to grab qt and kdelibs didn’t take so much room after the install.

Furthermore, while last.fm works just fine, many other internet radios won’t play. I like to listen to a couple that are difficult in any player (one doesn’t even want to play in mplayer), but it’s a bit embarassing for Banshee to get its butt kicked by Amarok, Rhythmbox and Totem in that regard.

Also, Banshee’s configuration is confusing, beginning with adding your files. Just putting the right directory in Preferences doesn’t do anything. “Import Media” gives you a choice of “Personal directory”, “Local directory” and “Local Files”, but selecting one of those three doesn’t seem to make a difference. It’s only until you click “Import Media source” that you notice that the two last options make a file dialog appear.
Maybe I’m an exception here, but I like my configuration to be in one, central place called Preferences. Lately there’s a trend of scattering configuration everywhere. Sometimes it works (the last.fm configuration is very logical: you click the last.fm icon, it says you don’t have an account yet, and asks for your login and password), sometimes it doesn’t (by the same logic, clicking the play button should bring up a dialog saying you don’t have a library yet).

Finally, Banshee provides a link to the wiki in the Help menu, but the website itself promptly informs you that it’s obsolete. It doesn’t inspire much confidence, and it gives the impression that Banshee was released half-ready.

All in all, it’s still not the GTK-media player I’m looking for, and it still doesn’t beat Amarok as the best media player in Linux. It’s decent enough, and offers more features than Rhythmbox, but the raving reviews are a bit puzzling to me.

San


A day with Opera

June 12, 2008

I hate Opera. I really do. And I hate it even more because, unlike Internet Explorer, or Konqueror, I want to like it. When I install the Windows or KDE browser, I spend two minutes with it, go “YUERGH” and flee back to Firefox as fast as I can. With Opera, I want to make it work, and I just can’t. It’s maddening: I know there’s a very good piece of software there, and it seems like the developers want to make it absolutely impossible for me to enjoy it. I tried a few times to make Opera my default browser, and every time I spend hours tweaking and configuring things, and even longer hours searching the web how things should be configured or tweaked. And then I just give up.

Today was no different. Opera 9.5 is out, and I thought, “what the heck. Let’s do this again. Maybe today will be different.” It wasn’t. Opera is still the Darth Vader in browserworld: there’s much good in it. I can feel it. But it’s maddeningly frustrating trying to get it out, and I could get killed while doing it. Well, maybe not killed, but it sure feels like it some times.

Look and feel

Opera 9.5 definitely looks better than all its previous versions. There’s a slick, professional looking new theme, and I like it a lot. I checked out a couple of other skins, but none of them looked as good as the default one. Changing skins was very easy, by the way. Thumbs up.

The layout, however, is a mess. An Opera user once explained to me why it’s a good idea to separate the tabs from the actual window. I think the reasoning is that, that way, every window has it’s own Back, Forward, Reload and so on buttons. Well, I didn’t buy it then and I still don’t. To me, there should be the illusion that the tabs are actually attached to the windows. Otherwise, switching tabs isn’t really switching tabs at all, it’s like clicking taskbar buttons to get the right window, and I had enough of that in my IE6 days.
The way around this is to open the main toolbar, which isn’t actually activated by default, drag everything from the address bar to the main bar, and then delete the address bar. Clunky.

Furthermore, I like my bookmarks on the left side of the browser. For me, that’s the easiest way to go through them all. Opera can do this, but it also opens a “panel chooser”, where you can choose what you want to see in the sidepanel: bookmarks, email contacts, etc. It’s still there if you just have your bookmarks on that panel. That should be on auto-hide by default.
Think I’m nitpicking? Maybe I am, but the whole panel/bar/everything layout in opera is confusing. Getting rid of the “New Tab” button (a huge, horrible monstrosity stolen from IE7) means treating it like a bar: rightclick > Customize > find “Placement” in a preferences window and switch it to “Off”. After that, I had no idea how to put it back.
Those or just two examples, but I spent quite some time struggling with panels and bars and other things, and quite often they ended up everywhere except where I wanted them.

Fonts also weren’t as nice as in Firefox, and the Preferences window for changing them was confusing, with 23 (twenty-three!) categories to change the font of. Browserbar. Browsermenu. Browserpanel. Browsertooltips. The list goes on. The result? I wasn’t able to change the fonts in the displayed web pages, and I felt pretty stupid about that. (Edit: Hold on, I just found it. It’s in the Webpage tab, instead of the Advanced one.)

Configuration: applications in applications

I already hinted at it, but configuring this beast was a perplexing activity. You can configure Opera until your face looks blue, but the main Preferences window only has five tabs (and as I found out, font config seems to be in two of those). Most of the configuration is in the Advanced tab. It’s decent enough for normal browsing, but Opera is also a mail-client and a bittorrent client. Where can you edit the preferences for that? Not in any normal place, that’s for sure. For example, when you add an email-account, “E-mail” appears in the menu, but the preferences aren’t there. But if you open the e-mail panel and right-click your address, there they are. If there’s any other way to reach them, I haven’t found it.

That mail client is called M2 by the way, and it’s marvelous. Setting up an email account is very easy, it’s fast, it has a nice, simple layout, and it stores all the attachments in neat, organized folders. In short, it beats Thunderbird hands down. But it’s not a standalone mail client…it’s stuck in a browser that wants to be everything. I won’t keep Opera around just for its mail client.

The bittorrent client? Brilliant idea. But here I can’t even find a preferences window, not unless I download a torrent first. Then, it’ll ask me for the portnumber, and where to save it. I accidentally put the wrong portnumber the first time, and then couldn’t change it anymore. Not unless I messed around in about:config…or started another torrent.

Opera is even an irc-client, one that works just fine. I used it to ask a question in the opera channel (which was promptly answered). It works just fine…

But all this means that, eventually, you have a dozen tabs open: some websites, one to manage your bookmarks, your email, your downloads (including torrents), and a some chat windows. And several toolbars. And a sidepanel, which can be your bookmarks, contacts, email directories, or widgets, and I haven’t even looked into those. It’s pure chaos.

Conclusion

There’s so much to like in Opera. It has a nice, default skin. It’s fast. I love the idea of expanding the download manager to handle torrents. The mail client is top notch. But the scattered, and often unintuitive preferences, together with the scattered and chaotic layout just buries the good in a landslide of confusion.

To illustrate how frustrated I was: originally I meant to use Opera for a week. After two hours, I uninstalled it. Then, I re-installed it, and tried again. And as I type this, I’m uninstalling it again, and I’m returning to Firefox for web browsing, Thunderbird for e-mail, Transmission for downloading torrents and irssi for irc. It feels like returning to trusted friends and family: familiar, reliable…maybe just a little bit boring. But that seductive temptress, with the sexy shiny interface and the attractive features…she doesn’t seem to like me at all.

Sander


KDE 4.1: Can I have one of those?

June 11, 2008

My reaction to KDE 4 up till now can be summarized in one word:

Meh.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m the “end-user”. I don’t download alpha en beta versions of distributions to hunt for bugs. I just wait for the product to be finished, then use it. That makes me something of a leech in some people’s eyes, but I’m on limited bandwith, thank you very much πŸ™‚

From my point of view, installing KDE 4.0 made no sense. I was happy using KDE 3.5 at the time, and 4.0 would be a stem down in usability and stability. Reading the reviews that popped up everywhere, I think I was right. As time went by, and I switched from KDE to Openbox, I doubted I’d ever install KDE again.

But now I’ve seen this screencast (beware, 70+MB download), as I’m sure almost everyone has by now, and I’m impressed. When 4.1 comes out, I’ll definitely try it out, if only to see if it’s fast enough to my tastes.

All said and done, props to the KDE-guys, who had the guts to break something that worked, in order to create something new and (possibly? hopefully?) better. I’ll be keeping an eye out.

San