More Linux awesomeness

Well, here I am again. After several years with various BSDs, and even OSX and Windows, I'm back with my long lost love - Linux. I installed a new PC, and Linux was a natural choice, being the most sensible desktop OS. I chose ArchLinux as the distro - this is a minimalist one well suited for technical users - reminds one a bit of BSD - and seems to be getting popular nowadays. Over the years, nothing really groundbreaking seems to have happened in the Linux land - we do have a few new distros, and wider industry support - among other things, it seems the vast majority of future smart phones will be running Linux, most likely the Android incarnation. Otherwise Linux is as good as ever, there's a few nifty things like mpd - the music player daemon, which offers flexibility as playing music is separated from the controlling UI. The latest craze is the Awesome window manager, though.

Tiling window management, like so many other things in computing, can be traced back to Xerox PARC (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiling_window_manager). The idea of tiling window management is probably familiar to most people on the application level: for example the file managers of the Amiga and MSDOS era often placed views of 2 directories side by side, and nowadays e-mail applications like MS Outlook may display the titles of the messages in your mailbox in a part of the window and an actual message text in another part. This UI paradigm is in sharp contrast to the nowadays ubiquitous floating window managers (seen on about all desktop OSes) where your windows overlap quite a bit, and may even be completely hidden or maybe it's just the corner peeking out from behind all the other windows. This can become a bit painful when you have many windows, as finding and identifying the actual window you want is a challenge.

Tiling window managers don't waste desktop space to the clutter of partially visible windows, but instead the fewer windows visible at each moment are maximized to provide the largest working area possible. This kind of window arrangement seems especially appealing to software developers: "here's my text editor, here's my compiler, what else do i need?". For all the rest of us, a sophisticated and highly dynamic window manager - such as Awesome, http://awesome.naquadah.org/ - is welcome. For example, Awesome can quickly shift your basic arrangement of the desktop by changing the basic layout - you could say have your master window take the left half of the screen and all the other screens being stacked on the right half, then switch to a fullscreen window view, or to a layout where each window takes the equal amount of space - you can edit various parameters of the layout by changing the number of master windows, slave window columns, the size taken by the master column, etc.

Another exciting feature are tags - these are much like the virtual desktops that most unix users are familiar with and which have been used to expand the size of the desktop for a long time already - but the trick is that you can easily select to view an arbitrary set of tags simultaneously, ie. like viewing multiple virtual desktops at the same time, or a bit like Expose&Revelation on OSX - but the difference being that the selection from a big set of small windows transitions seamlessly to the regular experience of working with a few large windows. All in all, Awesome offers a very powerful and dynamic experience to the serious unix user.


The old, rusty blog empire

Looking at my blog with renewed interest, I wonder what should come of it. More than a year and a half have passed since the last entry - something that's not so uncommon in the blogosphere, but rather a natural and widespread phenomenon. New interests come along and the old ones wither and wane.

Why would one keep blogging? Perhaps to:
  • Drive a personal brand (marketing and egoboo)
  • Advocate ideas and opinions (change the world)
  • Research and gather feedback (learn and communicate)
I guess that pretty much sums it up. Then what makes a good (or a passable at least) blog? How about:
  • One that you can keep updated (at least once a month?) - for years and years
  • One that can provide interesting and useful information - now that's a feat right there
  • One that you are comfortable writing in public, in the front of tens of millions of eyes out there - remember it might be possible to retrieve the information much later, even decades from now
There are so many interesting subjects to write about, and only so little time to delve into anything, so where to start in hopes of actually producing something worthwhile? The icct blog served nicely for tracking the developments of the mobile world, and I suppose it could be refocused just like that into other embedded issues and the whole fascinating world of professional Quality Assurance in general. Then again a strictly formal and professional format might fit the bill better for me. icct also had its philosophy-of-technology side too, although I never really developed it.

I've always viewed computers with the fascinated eye of a humanist - they provide a means of communication, and a world that is not just technological but a human reality as well. Late during my studies - I majored in philosophy - this interest deepened with analysis and began to connect with environmental thought and spirituality. Today's key human issues are intimately connected with how technology has transformed us and how we are transforming the natural world using technology. One could talk of sacriledge of the Mother Earth, but the connection with spirituality is larger and more interesting than just that.

Since the turn of the millenium I've recognized that there must be a spiritual component in my thought - during much of the decade before that, I would turn to philosophy and the sciences - the natural and the behavioural - as the sole toolbox for building my Weltanschauung. But this kind of strict formal discipline, where you present your data, make the inferences, and others have to accept unless they find a fault in either, has its limits. How we experience the world, how we feel our relation to the world, and how we can hope for a better future - these are subjective projects and do not admit of such objective rationality. Although a correctly implemented religion does not admit of any irrational element, building a discipline of spirituality is a difficult task, partly due to the controversial and traumatized relation to spirituality that is almost the modus operandi in Europe.

Although such lofty ponderings do have their touch on the very everyday existence, these matters can be discussed as just that, as straight practical issues. Consider boating - I took up this enterprise quite exactly a year and a half ago, and now I've been wading through a dozen or a two of books on various aspects of the marine subject - combined with a growing body of first and second hand experience, and personal reflections, something should come out of it, if nothing else then at least a few enticing reading tips. Perhaps the importance of seaworthiness and seakindliness could be discussed, as the trends of our time in boating seem to be speed, performance, speed and more speed, combined with luxurious saloons that look good in the show room or in the marina. But the sea is the same as it ever was: there is wind and water, they can be rough and cruel - to ship and sailor alike - and in those conditions, safety and comfort should not be sacrificed, lest pleasurable experience also become compromised.


Nokia and Google make it official; AMD gets cooler

Nokia and Google announced today their partnership in relation to the Nokia 770, which will implement VoIP functionality in the form of Google Talk. So it turns out that this upgrade does not involve hardware after all, and it looks like future internet tablet devices from Nokia are still at least 6-9 months away. However, the press release seems to imply that the 2006 OS update for the 770 is just around the corner (well anyway, there's just 1.5 months left to Q2 of 2006). Speculation of course will continue on how deep-reaching the partnership of Nokia and Google is, and people are coming up with interesting scenarios.

AMD also strengthened its long-standing technology leadership in PC processors by announcing its new energy-efficient desktop processors - a product line that has been technically stable for a few months already. In our times, dual core CPUs with desktop performance and a 35 watt Thermal Design Power should be worthy of standing applause! These CPUs will no doubt find their place in the stylish mini-PC designs and with all home builders who value low noise, low power consumption and low room temperature. Apparently the CPUs will be available in the next week or two, and now we are only waiting for Tom's Hardware to run a nice review of motherboards with AM2 socket support to build our new cool PCs for the summer...

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Linux on UMPC

Chippy reports that people have already booted Linux on the UMPC (also known as Microsoft Origami). The X windowing environment was up and running, but of course quite a few device drivers are missing on the platform. One would assume that it is going to take a fair bit of reverse engineering to get these done. Until the touchscreen and the wireless network interfaces are supported, Linux users can't do much with these devices.

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OpenBSD WRAP, Intel woes

I have recently been putting together an embedded, do-it-all OpenBSD router box. The only remaining problem is the poorly supported Intel wi-fi card for the mini-PCI slot.

The driving motivation behind this project is the necessity of having a low-power, low-noise firewall box for my home network. I guess it would have been easier and cheaper to just get one of the popular Linksys Linux-based routers (certain models in xxx54xxx series). However, I have some experience in building my own freenix-based firewalls, and professional background in embedded devices... In addition the platform is more adaptable and comes with some additional features, like a 10-pin generic I/O interface - could be perfect for driving my Lightget systems and there is even a specific driver for the gpio in OpenBSD!

Based on a tip from a co-employee I chose the PC Engines WRAP. The setup proved easier than expected. After I had chosen the Flashdist installer script as the basis of my OpenBSD installation system, it took only 3 hours (including IRCing on the side) to figure out which version to use, how to set up the files to be installed, and how to put it on the system and get it running. The method is fairly simple: You untar the OpenBSD packages in a separate directory with Flashdist files, and edit the list of files to be installed. You compile a custom kernel, edit the usual configuration files and add any other stuff you need on the installation. Then you attach a card reader with your compact flash, and run Flashdist so it puts all the files on the card. Put the card back into your WRAP board, attach the serial cable, the power cable, the LAN cables and off you go!

Previously I had no kind of wireless network, but since I got my hands on the Nokia 770 I have had a need for such as well. There are quite a few wi-fi cards for mini-PCI slot, as that is common in laptops. NRG Systems for example sells Gigabyte cards based on a Ral chipset, but I was told that this is not a very good chipset... so I decided to get Intel's card, as that also was supported by Linux and OpenBSD.

However. Although Intel apparently supports a driver project for its mini-PCI cards, it's not in a particular hurry to get these working properly on unixoid platforms. The card needs firmware files which are not free to distribute, so you need to download them separately. In theory there are 4 modes of operation: BSS (client), IBSS (ad hoc), monitor and AP modes. Only BSS and monitor are supported by the OpenBSD 3.8 driver. IBSS/ad hoc mode comes with the 3.9 driver, or the Linux driver, and apparently would provide network connectivity for devices like the 770. OpenBSD 3.9 should come out in the next few days, so I'm rather hopeful of getting the system up without having to put Linux on it. If AP mode is desired, one could also run an experimental Linux driver.

The pictures above show the WRAP board and a half of the aluminium case in nice detail. The matchbox is provided for size comparison of the WRAP and 770. Click on the thumbnails for the full-size image.

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