Sunday, July 31, 2011

Moving from Ubuntu to Linux Mint, Debian Edition

Linux Mint Debian Edition
Ubuntu has been as my primary Linux distro since Breezy Badger hit distrowatch in 2005. As a loyal Debian user, I loved the concept of an easy to use Deb, geared toward the desktop. I am far from a 'newbie', having used Linux since 1999. Contrary to myth, power users want simplicity too. We like it when our hardware "just works" or when an upgrade goes flawlessly. Yes, we can often fix things when they go wrong, but we prefer to spend our late nights working on projects we are interested in, rather than just getting our wireless card or sound to work. This ease of use, with the power of Debian just below the surface, has kept me loyal to Ubuntu through the years.

Now things are changing at Ubuntu. I understand the reasons and respect the work that Canonical and Mark Shuttleworth have done. No one can doubt the huge contribution they have made to the Linux world.

Mint Menu
I will leave the debate over Unity vs Gnome, button placement and compatibility with Debian repositories and file structures to others. But, as Ubuntu moves more in its own direction and away from its Debian roots, I find myself again looking for an alternative which still feels like Deb, but includes a polished desktop, multimedia codecs, drivers for popular hardware and a sensible software library. These are the same reasons I tried Ubuntu way back when and are the reasons I recently took the first steps away from Ubuntu and installed Linux Mint, Debian Edition on my netbook.*

I downloaded the dvd image and used unetbootin to load the .iso to my flash drive. Instructing my bios to boot from USB, the live desktop loaded without a hitch. In just a few minutes, I was booted into an elegant UI (see at top), with a very usable slab menu (mint menu) instead of the traditional Gnome Application, Places and System drop down menus. The chimes at startup told me my sound card had been loaded and was working properly.

Compiz works smoothly
A pop up message informed me that my wireless  network was available and after entering my password, it logged in and I was online, painlessly. YouTube videos played out of the box. A simple fix located on the Mint Debian webpage got the touch pad working quickly, including two finger scrolling and right click. Compiz was enabled and in a few clicks my wobbly windows and desktop cube were working smoothly.

Exploring the main menu, I located a nice Software Manager which offered packages listed in searchable categories with reviews and screen shots. Very nice. Also available was the familiar Synaptic Package Manager, which I had heard was removed from Linux Mint. Not true.

Software Manager
An icon in the lower right corner informed me there were updates available from the Mint repositories but these failed with a complaint about broken packages.  However, running apt-get via the terminal allowed me to update/upgrade without a problem. This is fine with me as I prefer Synaptic and apt-get to the Mint Upgrade Tools and the documentation states it is fully compatible with Debian repositories. However, this may be a problem for new users.

I like this Debian derivative and plan to keep it on my netbook. Eventually, I plan to replace Ubuntu with it on my desktop as well. For now, I am enjoying exploring this minty Debian which may be just the flavor I was looking for.

*Hardware specs:
Asus eeepc 900
16 + 4 GB SSD
900 MHz Celeron Processor
Atheros AR5001 wireless adapter
Intel 915GM Graphics Controller

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Live Earth Wallpaper for Your Computer

Live wallpapers have been available for your iphone or Android phone for quite a while now. Where are the cool live wallpapers for your home computer? I use a near-live Earth view on my desktop showing weather and night and daylight areas. It updates hourly as you watch the night shadows fall across the Earth and the city lights come on. Similar programs are available for Windows, Mac and Linux so your desktop need never be boring again.

Windows and Mac users can download EarthDesk 5 from Xeric Design at for a cost of $24.95. There is a trial version available which applies a watermark to the desktop image.

EarthDesk offers many unique features such as a database of over 10,000 cities around the world which you can use for centering your map. You can lock it in
place by city location or the position of the sun or moon. Moon phases andreflectivity levels of the earth combine to display an accurate rending of moonlight on the planet. You can select between satellite, enhanced satellite or political maps. Adjust the cloud transparency level and watch the vegetation and snow cover change month to month.

Linux users have several free options. First up is the popular xPlanetFX, available at . This live Earth wallpaper features near photo quality images with realistic cloud and surface feature rendering. Coronal and atmospheric lighting provide even more subtle detailing.

xPlanetFX software comes packaged in .deb, RPM, or PKGBUILD or you can build and install it yourself with the tar.gz version. It is also available at

PortalView Live Wallpaper
EDIT 12/29/2012: Another Linux Live Wallpaper option is PortalView Live Wallpaper, created by this author. It was designed to grab and update not only World Sunlight maps, but webcam images and satellite & radar maps. It includes scores of webcam and map locations to start with, then customize with your local favourites.

More choices for Linux users include Real Time Sunlight Wallpaper which has packages in .deb or tar.gz. This program offers four projections: Mercator, Peters, Mollweide and Equirectangular as well as Dawn to Dusk and Moon Phase views.

Impress your friends and family with these beautiful Live Wallpapers for your home desktop. Whether your using Windows, Mac or Linux, there is no excuse for boring desktops any longer.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

10 Cool Summertime Apps for Your Android Phone

Summer is here and the days are long. Whether you are taking a trip to the beach, one of our National Parks or Disneyland, theres an Android app to make it easier, quicker, cheaper or safer. Heres a list of 10 useful summertime applications for your Android phone. 

One of the best free weather apps, The Weather Channels app features current conditions, real time animated radar, hourly, 36 hour, 10 day forecasts, weather alerts, videos and weather channel TV listings.

Driving Directions
Google Maps still offers one of top mapping applications with a wide feature list including navigation, 3D maps, street views, hotel and restaurant locations and traffic reports.

Tide Charts
Headed to the beach? Load up this tide prediction app which lists 3000 tide stations all over the world and can run completely offline for those out of the way locations.

UV Index
This app, provided by the EPA and NWS, predicts the ultraviolet radiation levels for selected cities and offers suggestions for safe exposure.

Use this app to locate and book hotel rooms while on the road. View pictures, compare prices and get discounts not available online.

Calorie Counter
Stay looking great in your swim suit with this Calorie Counter. It has a database of over 750,000 foods, fast foods and even a bar code scanner.

Theme parks
Ride Hopper-Park Wait Times is a handy app for assessing wait times at more than 260 theme parks and including over 4300 rides. Lists show times and park hours of operation.

State/National Parks and Monuments
Get maps, weather information, park information and Wikipedia pages for national parks, monuments and recreational areas.

Hiking Trails
This free app helps locate trails near you, records statistics including calories, distance, speed and elevation. Use the digital compass for bearings and then share your adventures on Facebook, Twitter and 

Gas Prices
This is a free trial app (Full version is $7) which provides info on gas prices near you. You can set criteria for distance, price, brand and more. It provides a list of stations based on your gps location and criteria and then helps you get there with maps or driving directions.

With all these great Android apps available to help you make the most of your summer, it makes you wonder how we ever got through August without our Smart phones.  Now get out there and have an adventure. September will be here before you know it.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

What is Linux?

KDE Desktop
Linux is an Open Source computer operating system that was developed in 1991 by Linus Torvalds as a graduate school project. Due to it's 'open' nature, developers and enthusiasts have been building on this kernel ever since and have created a vast ecosystem of software, tools and desktop environments to suit any need. It is loosely based on Unix and has a reputation for being stable and secure. Many popular products are based on Linux, such as the Android phone and tablet and the Tivo DVR.

What is Open Source?
Open Source Software builds on the scientific model of development. Developers are allowed to take the existing software source code and expand it, share it and invite further collaboration with other interested developers. The source code for the software is 'open', that is, available to anyone to examine, use, alter and distribute. This leads to rapid progress in popular software applications and a constantly expanding library of software.

Generally, Open Source licenses have one main restriction: You cannot distribute the software without also providing the source code. This ensures that the software will remain free for all to use, and allow others to build upon your improvements.

Is Linux hard to use?
In the early days of Linux development, it could be very hard to use. The tools and user interface were immature. Hardware drivers were scarce and getting a useful working system could be a challenge. Thankfully, decades of development has brought most Linux distributions to par with both Windows and Mac in terms of user-friendliness and hardware support.

Gnome Desktop
In fact, today most popular hardware will work 'Out of the Box' with Linux. Driver support is built into the operating system. No need to keep track of all those hardware CDs. Drivers are rolled into the Linux kernel so you will rarely to have to go driver hunting again.

Linux offers a variety of Desktop Environments to suit your taste and needs. The most common are Gnome, KDE and XFCE. All offer a complete library of software for basic computing needs. All can be customized to your taste and requirements.

How do you get software for Linux?
Linux operating systems usually are pre-packaged collections of software, tools and artwork which together create a 'distribution', aka a 'distro'. Popular distros include Ubuntu, Red Hat (Fedora), Debian, Mint, Slackware and many others. Each major distro provides its own 'package manager' for accessing and installing the huge selection of Linux software. There are literally tens of thousands of programs you can download and install for free with just a click of the mouse. Most distros will automatically keep your installed software updated with version upgrades and bug fixes.

Is Linux more secure than Windows?
Linux was built from the ground up for security in a networked environment. It separates regular users from Administrators (called 'root' or 'super user' in Linux) and protects the system from unauthorized tampering. The wide variety of distros with slightly different file structures and processes prevent a software mono-culture which allows malware to spread wildly. The open nature of the source code ensures no hidden commands or back doors will be present. Bugs are found and fixed promptly. There is a saying in the Open Source world that 'Many eyes make all bugs shallow.' In other words, with so many people looking at the code, flaws are discovered quickly. Most Linux users do not use anti-virus/malware software as there are almost no viruses for Linux.

XFCE Desktop
How can I try Linux?
Most modern distos offer 'Live CDs'. These are complete Linux distributions which boot and run from a cd or flash drive. They include most popular software applications including an Office Suite, browsers, image editing, blogging, networking, games and much more.

The magic of Live CDs is that the operating system and software exists and runs completely from the CD or flash drive. No changes are made to your hard drive or operating system. You simply download the .iso and burn to CD. Simply reboot your computer with the CD in the drive and start exploring Linux. This is a good way to test all your hardware and play with the included software. Check out the distros package manager to see what other programs are available. When finished, simply exit Linux, the CD will eject and your computer will boot back to Windows with no changes to the system.

If you decide to try Linux long term, the live CD will walk you through installing Linux alone or alongside Windows. The two operating systems can exist happily together on your hard drive, and you can select which you wish to use when booting your computer.

Another method of trying out Linux is called Wubi. This is available on Ubuntu and allows you to install Linux into Windows just as you would install any other program. Removing it works the same way. Simply uninstall it like any other software using Windows Add and Remove Software Feature.

Where can I get Linux?
Linux distributions are widely available for free download on the Internet or by ordering a CD from Linux vendors.

Which One?
The variety of distributions available can be daunting. Which one to try? Your needs will guide your choice but most desktop distros offer a similar set of software and basic tools. The major differences are in the Desktop Environments, package managers, inclusion of non-free software and customizations such as themes and artwork. There can be big differences in hardware support among different flavors so if your wireless card is not supported out of the box by say, Fedora, it may be supported by Ubuntu or Mint.

Business customers may wish to explore Red Hat or Fedora, the free version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. (RHEL) This distro is widely used in business and the corporation is growing at an astounding rate. They offer desktop and server solutions, including support, primarily to business customers.

Home Desktop users might consider Linux Mint when exploring Linux for the first time. It is designed to be simple, user-friendly and includes all the multimedia codecs out of the box. The update manager is simplified and customizable. Other newbie friendly distros include Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS, OpenSuse and Mandriva.

If your tired of fighting viruses and malware, paying good money for commodity software or just ready for a change from your old drab Windows box, give Linux a try. Live CDs make it easy and risk free. Linux is secure and stable. It is used to run the biggest server arrays on the Internet or it is as personal as your home PC. It is developed by users for users and continues to grow and evolve as a real alternative to the Windows world.

Solving a Corrupted or Truncated Web Cam Image

I have a weather web cam which uploads outdoor pictures every 5 minutes. I have been struggling with a problem with the web cam images displaying rows of black or gray pixels starting at the bottom of the image. This corruption waxed and waned throughout the day, sometimes consuming large portions of the picture.

I have spent hours searching the web for an answer. I have read countless articles and forum postings without success. I have noticed that many others have the same problem, with no answer to be found.

I am posting this to share a solution to the problem which I discovered through trial and error. I hope it will help someone else struggling with this frustrating issue.

First, when playing with the web cam settings I noticed that the corruption increased with the sharpness of the image. It seemed the more detailed the picture, the more likely a problem would occur. So for some of you, if this problem is minor, that is, it occurs intermittently or only involves a few rows of pixels, you may be able to correct it by simply lowering the sharpness setting. Yes, this will result in a less detailed picture. You decide which bothers you more.

For others who are experiencing a large amount of corruption of the image, which may obliterate most of the picture, I have found that reducing the image resolution has worked to end the problem. I was reluctant to change from the default settings but the problem has not returned since I tried it. 

Yes, it makes the picture smaller or grainier when enlarged however I was able to increase the sharpness setting without the problem reappearing.

This is not a perfect solution. Other factors which may be involved include a cheap web cam with a fairly low resolution to start with. Spending a few extra bucks on a decent web cam may allow you to lower the resolution without loosing much detail in the image.

Another problem can be the distance from your web cam to the computer processing the image. USB cables will degrade the signal if the distance is longer than 15 feet without a repeater or external power supply, so check the length of your cable. Shorter is better.

Let me know if this worked for you or if you found another solution. Good Luck with your project.