Cheaper portable notebooks

Over half a year ago I wrote a post with my reflections on buying a new notebook. At this moment I still haven’t bought a new notebook, and in hindsight I think it was a good decision to keep waiting.

Since I wrote that post, the category of expensive portable notebooks like the Sony VAIO TZ, Dell XPS M1330, Dell Latitude E4200, Dell Latitude E4300, Lenovo ThinkPad X300 and Lenovo ThinkPad X200 has remained expensive. All cost more than € 1000. A few are far more expensive, like the Lenovo ThinkPad X301 and the Sony VAIO TT. Some exceptions are less expensive than € 1000, like the Lenovo ThinkPad SL300, but still too expensive to my liking. Of course there are a lot of other notebooks with 12″ or 13,3″ diagonals (Acer for example offers a lot), but they can’t compare to the quality of the notebooks I just mentioned, and often provide low battery life less than 3 hours. That doesn’t make  I don’t consider them.

Even though that has remained the same, a lot has changed. The market is crowded now with netbooks, which feature significantly less performance than the traditional portable notebooks, are even smaller with maximum screen sizes of 10″ and occupy a price range of € 200 – € 400. A while ago I considered buying the Samsung NC10, which distinguishes itself with a battery life of more than 6 hours and costs approximately € 400. But new developments made me change my mind.

So far Intel’s dominance over the netbook market with it’s Atom CPU and accompanying platform was uncontested. Recently however, AMD has released it’s competing platform for ultrathin notebooks, and the HP Pavilion dv2 will be the first notebook to use the platform. AMD is aiming for notebooks with larger screen sizes than 9″or 10″ which is common for netbooks. During Intel’s virtual monopoly of the netbook market, it restricted the screen size of netbooks using the Atom N270 to 10″ to prevent cannibalization of it’s more expensive CPU’s.

With more competition around the corner, this will probably change. I don’t think a screen size of 10″ is adequate, 12″ or 13,3″ at the maximum is the best compromise between portability and comfortable screen size. Also note that currently, the cheapest 15,4″ notebooks can be found under the price of € 400, the maximum price of the average netbook. Even at that lower price point, the 15,4″ notebooks outperform the netbooks. Netbooks are still relatively expensive, which will probably change as more competition arrives at the market.

Fortunately, there is even more competition coming for Intel and AMD. VIA will also enter the market with it’s VIA Nano. It will be used in the Samsung NC20 and FreeStyle 1300n notebooks, both featuring screen sizes larger than the common 10″ size for netbooks as well. MSI intends to introduce the X-Slim X320 and Asus the S121, which both come with an Atom CPU and a 13,4″ and 12,1″ screen respectively.

What is possibly more interesting is that ARM prepares to enter this market as well. The ARM CPU’s use the ARM architecture instead of the CPU’s produced by Intel, AMD and VIA, which use the x86 architecture. At this moment Microsoft Windows doesn’t support the ARM architecture, so ARM has made a deal with Canonical to make the Ubuntu Linux distribution available for their hardware. Qualcomm and Freescale will produce ARM CPU’s for the netbook market. These products would be very attractive to me if they are supplied with Ubuntu, I’d rather not pay for Windows if I’m not going to use it anyway. This could be a great for mainstream Linux adoption.

File sharing with gnome-user-share

Some months ago I wrote about using OpenSSH in combination with GNOME to share files. I advertised it as an easy method, but easy is relative, and using OpenSSH to do the job is still not easy enough. It’s quite a hassle to create a different user with stripped privileges to create a safety measure. That’s why I continued searching for a better method to share files. I found gnome-user-share, which can be found in Ubuntu’s package repository. To install it, just open Applications → Accessories → Terminal and then enter sudo apt-get install gnome-user-share there.

After it’s installed, you can open System → Preferences → Personal File Sharing to access configuration options. It uses a WebDAV to share the ‘Public’ directory in the user’s home directory over the network. It uses Avahi to publish the WebDAV server to all computers on the local network, so no configuration is necessary to allow other computers to access the server. So all you need to do to access the server is open Places → Network, where it should be visible. Additionally, it can also use ObexFTP to share files over Bluetooth.

However, even though gnome-user-share is really easy, it does come with it’s disadvantages. It doesn’t feature configuration of permissions, so you can’t protect your files. It doesn’t integrate in Nautilus. But most of all, it’s only possible to share the ‘Public’ directory, it’s not possible to share other directories. A feature request to implement this already exists in the GNOME Bugzilla – bug #500738 – but so far it hasn’t been picked up yet by the developers. Once this application is more mature, it should definitely be included in GNOME to make file sharing easy. Right now it’s hard to find as a separate application.

The Gallic War

A few weeks ago I finished reading The Gallic War by Julius Caesar, or Commentaries about the Gallic War to be precise. It’s far more easy to read than the other ancient epics I’ve read so far. As an account of a military campaign it’s quite exciting to read, especially when the Romans (or Gauls on several occasions) execute a well thought out tactical plan to deceive and defeat their enemy. This brought back memories about Sun Tzu’s writings in The Art of War, which mentions that all warfare is based on deception. Besides the account of the military campaign, Caesar also describes the geography of Gaul and the culture of the Gauls and Germans. Not surprisingly he writes describes their way of life with disdain, dismissing them as barbarians.

Even though Julius Caesar is without a doubt an excellent general, quite a few mistakes are made during his campaigns either by himself or those under his command. Caesar’s invasions of Britain can be considered pointless, because he doesn’t conquer territory but merely brings it into Rome’s political sphere of influence. After Gaul is pacified, Ambiorix revolts and later Vercingetorix starts a greater revolt. I keep thinking, could the Gallic War have been conducted in a better way, could those revolts have been prevented? You often read about the Romans asking for hostages from subordinated or defeated tribes during the course of the events. Apparantly they don’t have hostages or are not able to use the hostage to exact pressure on the revolters in case of the revolts of Ambiorix and Vercingetorix. Caesar easily pardons his enemies when they surrender, maybe if he had been more cruel to set an example the Gauls wouldn’t have revolted as easily? On the other hand, according to the book Vercingetorix and the other leaders chose to revolt because they would rather be defeated than subordinated to the Romans.

Easy file sharing with OpenSSH and GNOME

In my home I have three computers running Ubuntu connected to a router, which form a network. It’s useful to be able to share files with my brother’s PC, and Ubuntu uses Samba as a solution for file sharing because Samba can easily share files with Microsoft Windows. However, in my experience Samba often doesn’t work as it should. When I want to access a Samba share on a remote PC it often starts whining about permissions and refuses access. I don’t know where to start to figure out a solution for this. And in principle, why should you use Samba which reverse-engineered the Microsoft SMB protocol? Shouldn’t there be a better solution which works flawlessly? I started looking around for other methods for easy file sharing, and I found OpenSSH. Using it is surprisingly easy, and you can share files fast and flawless. So that’s why I’m posting a guide to give easy instructions on how to use OpenSSH in combination with GNOME for file sharing.

Because the username and password of your system are used to log in to a computer with SSH, anyone who will be able to log in will have all the privileges that user has, like becoming root. I chose to create a new user account on my system so that I could use that user instead of my own user to log in with SSH, while also stripping this user of any privileges. Then I changed permissions of my home directory to allow read-only access to Others. This can be done by opening System → Administration → Users and Groups. Enter the details for the account, and then disable all the privileges. Now open your /home directory in the Nautilus file manager. Right click your home directory, go to Properties, go to Permissions and set Folder access for Others to Access files. Of course you should solve this differently if your home directory contains privacy sensitive information. Possibly a better solution would be to keep read access to your home directory disabled, while you use the home directory of the new user for writing files. You also place links (create a link to a directory by right clicking the directory and choosing Make Link) to a few directories inside your home directory which contain the files you want to share and for which you have enabled read access for Others.

To log in to a computer with SSH, you need to install the OpenSSH server package first. You can do this by opening Applications → Accessories → Terminal and then enter sudo apt-get install openssh-server there. Then you need to look up the IP-address of the computer you want to log in to, which you can do by opening System → Administration → Network Tools. In my case, I chose to select the Ethernet Interface (eth0) as the network device here. Then you can see the IPv4 IP address, which is what we need. Now use another computer in your home network, and open Places → Connect to Server… and select SSH as the Service type. In the Server field, fill in the IP address of the other computer. Leave the Port field blank, in the Folder field enter the path to your home directory (e.g. /home/alexander) and in the User name field enter the user name you use to log in to the computer. Enable the option to add a bookmark, and give it a name. The bookmark will appear in the Places menu, and in the Nautilus file manager. Then press Connect. You will then be notified that the identity of the computer you are connecting to is unknown, but you should ignore the message and connect anyway. Now you enter your password for the username you entered previously. You have options to forget or remember the password, I chose to remember the password. Now Nautilus will open and display the home directory of your computer. You can start sharing files now. For me this works a lot better than Samba, even though it’s still not the best solution for simple file sharing. This was merely a quick guide, and more detailed documentation is available here on Ubuntu’s documentation website.

The Iliad

Today I finally finished reading The Iliad. ‘Finally’, because I have a habit of losing interest when I start reading a book, then I’ll put it aside and never finish reading it. It’s not the case that the books I read are boring, to the contrary. It’s just difficult for me to spend less time on other things.

The Iliad is a great work of literature. The book I read (ISBN13: 9780192834058) uses Robert Fitzgerald’s translation. There are many different translations and varying opinions on which is the better, but Fitzgerald wrote a beautiful translation in my opinion. When I read the opening sentence, which is as follows:

Anger now be your song, immortal one
Achilles’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Achaeans loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men – carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

I thought it was some of the most beautiful use of the English language I had read. Soldiers aren’t “killed”, but “darkness veils their eyes”. The writing style of the Iliad, as is to be expected, is a bit different from modern literature. I love how it is written. I noticed especially how frequently similes are used to enhance the ferociousness of the events described in the Iliad. For example:

As ravenous wolves come down on lambs and kids
astray from some flock that in hilly country
splits in two by a shepherd’s negligence,
and quickly wolves bear off the defenceless things,
so when Danaans fell on Trojans, shrieking
flight was all they thought of, not of combat.

The Iliad describes a bloody war with a high number of 241 casualties. Most of the time a ‘kill’ is described in fine details. However, the Iliad is so much more than merely a description of a war. It teaches virtues and vices. Most of all, it takes a fatalistic position that man is bound to destiny. The Gods have a divine plan, and the mortals are the pawns which have to abide by the plan. Already in the beginning of the book it is made clear that it is Troy’s destiny to fall, and that knowledge is also what drives the Greeks to persevere. Achilles knew that if he abandoned the war he would live a long life, and that if he would stay he would receive everlasting glory, but he would also meet his end. Achilles chooses the latter destiny, and his acceptance of that destiny is what makes him the greatest hero of all in my opinion.

I was a bit surprised that the most famous memory of the Trojan War, the Trojan Horse, is not in the book at all. I assume it will be mentioned in the Odyssey, which I’m going to read next. Another surprise was the weak performance of Aeneas. When Achilles attacks in book XX, both he and Aeneas are “far and away” the best fighters of both armies. However, he would have been defeated in his two duels with respectively Diomedes and Achilles had the Gods not rescued him. It’s strange that the Romans claim lineage of such an underperforming hero.

Photos taken during my visit to Rome

Finally, over two months after returning home, I got around to uploading some photos taken during my visit to Rome. Many photos didn’t turn out well, but here you can see the Colosseum, the Ara Pacis, and the oculus of the Pantheon.


Ara Pacis, front

Oculus of the Pantheon

The second photo of the Arch of Constantine and other photos which I deleted have an unnatural white sky instead of a blue one. I tried editing the RAW files of the last two with UFRaw to correct it, but I’m not satisfied with the result at all. I did some research on why my photos got mangled, apparantly the phenomenon is called blown highlights or clipping. The Wikipedia entry isn’t very informative on how this can be prevented, but fortunately searching a bit turned up this weblog post. It covers the Olympus E-510, but it should apply to the E-410 as well because they are quite similar. That seems to be very useful advice, and I’ll make sure to experiment with this knowledge to see if I’ll be able to effectively prevent blown highlights. I should read the manual thoroughly as well to get to know the E-410 better.

My short visit to Rome

Some time ago I was thinking how I could spend my time during vacation. My father made some suggestions for travel destinations, which included Rome, which he had visited years ago. Because I’m interested in the period of Classical Antiquity, and because it would give me the opportunity to visit the places in Rome I had heard about during my study, I accepted his offer. For this post, I created two maps with Google Maps for the first and second day of my visit of Rome.

Last Friday on the 27th June, I departed to visit Rome for two days together with my father. At Eindhoven Airport we boarded a flight of Ryanair to Rome Ciampiano Airport.

After we landed, we boarded a bus to travel to the nearest station of the Rome Metro, Anagnina. A bus ticket cost € 1,20 and the metro ticket which is valid for a certain amount of minutes (75 minutes AFAIK, there is no limit on the distance travelled) cost € 1,00. This is incredibly cheap. Unfortunately the metro system only consists of two lines, which is a pity. Most of the time we walked through Rome, we didn’t really bother to figure out how the bus worked. We exited at the station Repubblica.

From there on we went to our hotel, the Eurostars International Palace. We were really satisfied with the hotel. It probably was a bit expensive with four stars, but the costs were acceptable because our visit was short. We boarded the aircraft in The Netherlands at approximately 14:30 and we entered the hotel at approximately 18:00. Because it was already late we didn’t have much possibilities to visit attractions because most are closing soon after 18:00. We walked around the surroundings of the Roman Forum a bit, then we picked a restaurant for dinner. After that we visited the Trevi Fountain and then we went to sleep at our hotel.

On the first day we visited these attractions:

  1. Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
  2. Ara Pacis
  3. St. Peter’s Basilica
  4. Vatican Museums
  5. Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II
  6. Church of the Gesu
  7. Sant’Ignazio
  8. Pantheon
  9. Piazza Navona
  10. Column of Marcus Aurelius
  11. Campo de’ Fiori

To get to the Ara Pacis we took the metro from Termini to Spagna. We passed the Mausoleum of Augustus, which is directly east of the Ara Pacis, but unfortunately it was closed for tourists. We chose to skip the St. Peter’s Basilica because the row was long, and we would visit it monday morning when there was no row at all. We never had to wait for longer than five minutes during our entire visit of Rome. During the morning I started to feel a bit sick, so we returned to the hotel after visiting the Vatican Museums. After lying on my back for a few minutes I felt fine again and we started moving. We were pleasantly surprised that the visit to the Vatican Museums also included the Sixtine Chapel. During this day I experienced that I can’t tolerate a temperature close to 35 °C as well as other people. I was sweating immensely, and needed a lot of water to remain standing.

We visited the following on the second day:

  1. National Museum of Rome
  2. Trajan’s Forum
  3. Capitoline Museums
  4. Roman Forum
  5. Colosseum
  6. Basilica of St. John Lateran
  7. Baths of Caracalla

We had already seen Trajan’s Forum from the outside on the day we arrived, but later we realized that it is accessible through a museum which has an entrance situated on the northern side. All three museums demanded most of our time on the second day, there was so much to see. The Roman forum has it’s entrance on the eastern side, which is important to remember because it’s a long walk if you walk around it to search the entrance. The Roman Forum and the Palatine hill were a bit of a disappointment for me, it consisted mostly of ruins and it wasn’t very interesting. The ticket for the Roman Forum included access to the Palatine hill and the Colosseum. This turned out to be an advantage, because we could later bypass the long row of people waiting to buy tickets at the Colosseum. The Colosseum didn’t interest me very much either. After all, it’s a simple structure made out of bricks, it’s nice to have seen it but nothing more. After the Colosseum we walked a long distance to the basilica of St. John Lateran. It was worth it, because this is the most impressive basilica I have seen after St. Peter’s basilica. One more attraction was on the schedule to be visited, the baths of Caracalla. Again this was a long walk, and when we arrived at 18:50 we were told that the baths of Caracalla closed at 18:30. That sucked because I really wanted to see it, the travel guide we read wasn’t specific because it mentions that the baths close one hour before sunset. The plan was to find a restaurant in Trastevere because the travel guide mentioned that some of the best restaurants were to be found there. The distance to Trastevere was too long for us, we were already spent, so we decided to take the metro from Circo Massimo to Termini. Finally we had dinner in a restaurant close to our hotel. The restaurant and the ice cream served there was good, but the pizza was terrible. The pizza bottom was so thin and hard that it broke as soon as I tried to spear it on my fork. And while public transport is very cheap in Rome, the restaurants are rather expensive.

One thing I regret is that I didn’t plan what attractions we would visit in advance. During the morning of the day of our departure, I read the travel guides and Wikipedia for a few hours to determine what I wanted to visit, but that was not enough. I composed a definite schedule of attractions to visit during the evening in Rome, but I missed a few things which I then unnecessarily had to visit a day later.

I brought my new Olympus E-410 DSLR camera along. I still need to write a post which covers this camera, but so far I’m quite pleased with the results, compared to a point-and-shoot camera. The photos I have taken during my visit of Rome will be uploaded soon.

To conclude this post, I’m quite satisfied with my visit to Rome. If I had the choice to do it again, I wouldn’t go during June, July or August. The climate of Rome features temperatures during these months which are too high for my liking. It was great to see the things you normally see in books or on Wikipedia in reality. I probably enjoyed visiting the museums the most.

Installing Ubuntu from a USB flash drive, continued

A while ago I posted about installing Ubuntu on USB flash drive so that you no longer need to throw away CD’s. I wrote that the process should be made easier for inexperienced users. When I investigated what options there are for installing other distributions on a USB flash drive, I found an application for Fedora called liveusb-creator. This is exactly what I was looking for. I proposed an idea to copy this application for Ubuntu in Ubuntu Brainstorm, but apparently an application to do this is already being developed for Ubuntu 8.10. It’s still experimental work, but this is good news. Certainly this is essential for netbooks which don’t have a built-in optical drive.

EDIT: a specification for USB installation images has recently been approved for the next release of Ubuntu.

I’ve started using OpenID

My collection of user accounts for various websites has grown a lot during the years I’ve been active on the Internet. I estimate I have more than 30 user accounts, and I need to keep track of user names and passwords for all of them. Fortunately, technology has been developed to solve this problem, it’s a shared identity service which is called OpenID. If you have an OpenID, you can use your OpenID to authenticate your identity with every website which supports OpenID.

Apparently I already had an OpenID when I read the OpenID website. I already had a account registered, because using the Akismet plugin for WordPress requires an API key which is provided to you when you register an account. Somehow using the OpenID associated with my account didn’t work, when I tried to authenticate with my OpenID told me I had to log in to my account, when I already was logged in. So I decided to register an OpenID at another OpenID provider, myOpenID. This is my OpenID identity page now.

I downloaded the WP-OpenID plugin for WordPress and installed on my English and Dutch weblog. Now I can use it to log in to my administrator account, and visitors can use it to place comments. It works quite nicely, but I think OpenID support should be included out of the box in WordPress so it is more accessible. As you can read on the OpenID website, several important websites provide OpenID’s or support them. Unfortunately most of the websites I visit still don’t use it, I hope this will improve because OpenID makes your life on the Internet a lot easier.

Installing Ubuntu from a USB flash drive

Practically every Linux distribution, including my favorite Ubuntu, can be downloaded as an ISO image. Traditionally these ISO images are then burned to a CD recordable or a DVD recordable. When that is done, you load the CD-R in the optical disc drive of the PC on which you want to install the Linux distribution and you restart the PC. The optical disc drive is then used as a boot device, and the Linux distribution can then be installed. In Ubuntu’s case, the installation is started after Ubuntu itself is started, because Ubuntu is a Live CD in case you download the Desktop CD version.

These times USB flash drives are quite popular, and they have some advantages compared to CD’s and DVD’s. The most important advantage in my opinion is that USB flash drives are reusable while CD and DVD recordables are not. Other advantages are portability, performance, reliability and ruggedness. I often have to throw away CD recordables which contain old versions of Ubuntu, I’d like to avoid wasting CD’s. Fortunately, it’s also possible to use USB flash drives for installing Linux distributions.

I have found instructions on the Internet. Because Ubuntu’s ISO image is supposed to fit on a CD it’s file size is approximately 700 MB, so you need a USB flash drive which has a capacity of at least 1 GB. If you are using Windows, follow these instructions. If you are already using Linux, follow these instructions on the Ubuntu Wiki and use the script. These instructions are very easy to follow. But I’ve experienced that these instructions fail to mention an important step, to be able to use the USB flash drive as a boot device I had to change a setting in the BIOS of all three PC’s on which I have booted from a USB flash drive.

You need to set the USB flash drive as the first hard disk drive which is going to be used as the boot device. By default the USB flash drive is set to be the boot device after the hard disk drive(s), and then it will not work because the PC will boot from the hard disk drive. There are several different BIOS manufacturers and the way to do this is depends on which BIOS is used by the PC. On the PC’s I have tested, I have encountered two different BIOS versions, one computer had an Asus A8N-E motherboard which used a BIOS produced by Phoenix Technologies (Award BIOS), the other two computers used motherboards manufactured by MSI and used a BIOS produced by American Megatrends (AMI BIOS).

To access the BIOS, you need to press the Delete key soon after starting up the PC. In the AwardBIOS you need to go to the “Boot” menu, then choose “Hard disk drives”. Then you should see the name of the USB flash drive below the hard disk drives in a numbered list. You need to place the USB flash drive on the top of the list with the “+” key, and then press F10 to save the change and exit the BIOS. In the AMIBIOS you need to choose “Advanced BIOS Features”, “Boot Sequence”, “Hard Disk Drives”.

After I had followed these steps, everything worked perfectly. Unfortunately, this information isn’t found on Ubuntu’s website, but on other websites. The instructionson the Ubuntu Wiki don’t count, because those are “hidden”, i.e. you won’t find them unless you search for them well, this way the average user will never find them unless they are on the website. Notice that when you choose the links “Get Ubuntu” and then “Download Ubuntu” on the website, you will arrive at this page after choosing a download server? Here you can find links to pages explaining how you can verify the MD5 sum and how to burn the ISO image to a CD recordable. Exactly this page should also contain a link to a page explaining how to install Ubuntu from a USB flash drive, instructions for doing so should be made more accessible to users. Even if the instructions I linked to are relatively easy, some people which lack knowledge might be put off by it’s seeming complexity. Perhaps an application with a graphical user interface could be created, which would enable the user to select an ISO image and a USB flash drive, and which would then automatically copy the files to the USB flash drive.