Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Electric Sheep Project: The Collaborative Dreams of Thousands of Computers

What do computers dream about when they sleep? With Electric Sheep, you can view the beautifully rendered collective dreams of thousands of computers. This constantly evolving and changing collection of fractal art is created using the mathematics of the Flame Fractal algorithm and the processing power of an army of client computers worldwide.

Electric Sheep is a distributed computing program for Linux, Mac and Windows (download it here). It was built using the Flame Fractal, created by Scott Draves in 1992 and may be the first example of open source visual art. It uses an algorithm that creates beautiful and ever changing videos rendered by the computing power of nearly a half million idle computers world wide. These videos are displayed as screen savers or stand alone apps on client machines.

The name 'Electric Sheep' is an allusion to the novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" by Phillip K. Dicks. The program renders flame fractals, called sheep, which are uploaded to the server, where a 'flock' of about 100 are stored, combined and evolve. These are distributed to client machines and displayed as a screensaver 'dream' when the computer sleeps.

According to 'The Flame Algorithm and its Open Source Culture' by Scott Draves and Isabel Walcott Draves:
"The algorithm treats every pixel as a variable in an equation with thousands of parameters. The parameters specify a collection of functions from the plane to the plane, and the algorithm visualizes the interference pattern between them. This is the origin of the Flame algorithm, a combination of fractals with a particle system [Draves and Reckase 2003]. The results are distinctive, recognizable, and extremely diverse."
Originally only static images were produced, each one taking hours to render. Scott Draves wanted to animate the images but it would require a super computer to accomplish this huge task.

In 1999, taking inspiration from the Seti@Home project, Scott Draves spent a week coding a new distributed computing program. It harnessed the cpu cycles of inactive computers to collectively render and animate portions of these complex visual algorithms, then upload them to the server where they are compiled into stunning animations.

This 'Sheep' lineage shown below left
The flock evolves through voting by users for the best 'sheep' which are 'bred' to produce offspring by combining the fractal codes to produce changes, called mutations. Just as in biological life, these children are each unique creations while retaining some features of the parents. (Unfortunately, the feature to vote on sheep is not available for Linux users.)
Lineage of 'sheep' shown above right
You can browse the Electric Sheep server and view the current 'flock', where you can view family lineages, frame sets, genomes and more.

Electric Sheep uses standard HTTP protocol over Port 80 to download and collaborate on sheep creation. No personal information is shared with the servers. The only data which is sent are your votes (if any) and the rendered frames contributed by your cpu cycles. Security cautious users can monitor the network traffic with the following domain and IP addresses:     *
207.241.*.*            *

You can create and submit your own flame fractals (sheep) to the gene pool using Qosmic for Linux. Look for flam3 in the software center or repositories.

Linux users can launch Electric Sheep via the terminal with the command 'electricsheep' or access basic configuration settings by typing 'electricsheep-preferences'. Options  include choosing a nickname for credit on the server, selecting your video driver, setting frame rates and cache size.

Install Electric sheep through your distros Software Manager or by typing the following command  in a terminal.
sudo apt-get install electricsheep

Would you like to help this project? According to this page,  Linux maintainers are needed for patches and bug fixes.  According to this forum posting:
"the main requirements are you be dedicated, trustworthy, and good with programming and linux, including the automake stuff and packaging. most of the work is done in the platform independent code by cd81, so what we need is just someone who will 1) make the fixes discussed here so it compiles and runs cleanly and 2) keep it that way.

please send me email and we'll talk about it. include a link to your home page or resume or something so i know who you are."

What does your computer dream about when it sleeps? With Electric Sheep we can peek into this collective dream, a mathematical formula which produces the vibrant colors and swirling shapes of this ever-evolving and original open source art project.

This article was originally published in on Sept 27, 2011

Monday, September 26, 2011

Hands On With Xubuntu 11.10 Beta

Xubuntu 11.10 Beta 1 Desktop
On September 2, Canonical released beta versions of Oneiric Ocelot for Ubuntu, Kubuntu and Xubuntu.  This is the third article in a series looking at these newest releases. Today we focus on Xubuntu, the lightweight Ubuntu, designed for older computers or those that just want a fast distro with a comprehensive software collection that is easy on system resources.

I downloaded the .iso from here. You can pick between Desktop and Alternate Install CDs, with choices for x86 PCs and 64 bit PC (AMD 64) versions.

Using UNetbootin, I loaded the image to my flash drive and booted into the Xubuntu desktop.

This version uses XFCE 4.8.3 with the Thunar file manager which now supports remote shares browsing and an eject button for removable devices.

The panel has had numerous improvements, including positioning, transparency, an item editor and the ability to create launchers with drag and drop.

The new desktop uses these panel upgrades to create a customized bottom panel which resembles Docky or Cairo Dock in appearance but without the animations or advanced options.

The top panel is similar to the one used in Ubuntu, but sports a small icon on the left which opens the main menu for applications and system settings.

Software Center
Xubuntu comes loaded with a complete software library for most common computing tasks. The included applications and utilities are generally lighter with fewer options than the software included in Ubuntu or Kubuntu but all alternatives are available in the repositories.

Synaptic Package Manager is included along with the Ubuntu Software Center. Using the new Software Center, you can browse by general category or search by name or task. Choosing the right application is easy screenshots and  reviews and ratings from other users.
gThumb Picture Viewer

The new software center provides reviews, ratings, and screenshots from other Ubuntu users. Unfortunately, the Software Center seems to still be rather buggy as it crashed several times as I attempted to install packages. This felt very similar to problems I noticed in Ubuntu 11.10 beta, using the Unity interface.

Kubuntu includes gThumb, a simple picture viewer, but also GIMP for more advanced image editing.

Thunar File Manager
gMusicbrowser is the default music player. It is a simple, easy to use player with many of the features found in heavier programs.

Plugging in an Android phone, Xubuntu recognized it as a USB storage device and launched the Thunar File Manager. I was able to move files easily between phone and computer. It did not recognize the file types or offer to open a picture viewer or music player.

Abiword and Gnumeric are included for Office applications. Both are lightweight but surprisingly full featured programs. Save files in open or proprietary formats, including pdf and MS .doc and .xls file types.

Thunderbird Email Reader

Thunderbird is the the default mail reader and it imported my mail and contacts without a hitch. Mozilla Thunderbird is a full-featured mail program with advanced search and filter capibilities. Tabbed email allows easy movement between multiple messages. Add-ons are quickly installed with the new Add-ons Manager, which provides descriptions, recommendations and pictures.

Onboard on-screen keyboard
Xubuntu now includes 'Onboard', an on-screen keyboard with a full qwerty keyboard, including function and other common keys. Click the orange area to the right to access the number pad and create 'snippets', macros which can be executed with a click.

Firefox 7.0 is included but repeatedly crashed, especially when accessing webpages using Flash. After several restarts, I was able to get Flash installed, despite the Software Center saying it was not available.

Gnome users may find this Desktop Environment slightly familiar, albeit less feature rich. I found it plagued by many of the same bugs I encountered in my review of the Ubuntu/Unity version of Oneiric. I experienced numerous crashes when using the Software Center, Firefox and even the Thunar file manager.

Xubuntu is the minimalist member of the Ubuntu family. It is a full featured distro, designed for those who prefer a fast, lightweight desktop environment, but be prepared for some frustration and bug reports if you decide to test this release.

Find more info at XFCE and Xubuntu Oneiric Ocelot beta1web sites.

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

This article originally appeared at on Sept 23, 2011.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Kubuntu 11.10 Beta Test Drive

Kubuntu Desktop
Canonical recently released its Beta version of Kubuntu 11.10, Oneiric Ocelot, with all eyes toward the final release scheduled for October 13.  We take a look at this release and the new KDE 4.7 Desktop and Netbook Plasma Workspaces.

Kubuntu uses KDE 4.7 with Plama for a beautiful and functional desktop including a new Oxygen icon theme.

I downloaded the .iso here and used UNetbootin to set up a bootable flash drive with the live dvd image. After booting*, The welcome screen offers language selection and choices for 'Try Kubuntu' and 'Install Kubuntu'

I clicked 'Try Kubuntu' and after a few minutes, the desktop loaded elegantly with nice visual effects working out of the box. The delicate login chimes indicated that sound was working properly.
Kubuntu boots into one of two default workspaces, depending on your hardware: Netbook and Desktop views. It also adjusts the level of desktop effects to your hardware so it feels snappy, even on older computers.

Netbook Desktop
Netbook Workspace:
Designed for portable devices, the simplified interface is customized to compliment the usage patterns common in these smaller netbook sized computers.

The default netbook desktop features a search box for quick access to applications, email, your contacts, even websites including Wikipedia.

Below the search box is a row of icons for accessing common tasks. Including:
  • Bookmarks
  • Contacts
  • Multimedia
  • Internet
  • Graphics
  • Games
  • Office
The Top Panel contains:
  • Menu (used for menus for running applications)
  • Search & Launch
  • Page One
  • Notifications and Jobs
  • Clipboard
  • Most Recent Devices
  • Sound Controls
  • Battery Monitor
  • Network Manager (no icon, just tiny arrow)
  • Show Hidden Icons
  • Clock
  • Lock Screen
  • Leave (aka 'Shut Down' menu)
  • Running applications
An icon in lower left brings up panel with options for
  • Add Widgets
  • Configure Search and Launch
  • Shortcut settings
  • Add Page
You can choose from thousands of useful and fun widgets to further customize your workspaces, all easily installable and configurable.

Adding Pages is like adding additional workspaces. These can be configured separately with their own widgets and wallpaper. Click the icon at top to move quickly between these pages. The effect is similar to multiple screens in your smartphone.

To switch between the two Workspace views (netbook and desktop) go to System Settings and select the Workspace Behavior icon. Click on 'Workspace' on the side menu and make your choice in the 'Workspace Type' drop down menu.

Desktop Menu
Desktop Workspace:
Desktop view is more like the classic KDE desktop with the capability of adding widgets to further customize your view. There is the familiar Kickoff button in the lower left, which brings up a menu with search capabilities and links to applications and computer locations.  A new breadcrumb addition makes navigation easier.
Click on the three colored dots next to the Kickoff menu to open an activity launcher with shortcuts to common desktop tasks. Click 'Add Widgets' to open a sliding panel with dozens of choices, or you can click Get New Widgets/Download Plasma Widgets to open the Plasma Desktop Shell Add-On Installer.

Widgets Menu
Here you can browse through hundreds of additional widgets, including descriptions, details, user ratings and screenshots. Select to order by Newest, Rating, Most Downloads and Installed. Simply click the 'Install' button to add it to your widget list.

Clicking the tiny icon for network manager brings up a new and improved widget with an easy to use interface which lists all available wireless networks. Click on your network and a window opens where you enter your password and wifi connects instantly.

Flash installed easily
Opening the browser Rekonq (both Firefox and rekonq are installed by default), pops up a notification in your task bar that extra packages can be installed to enhance the browser functionality. Clicking the icon opens a window which offers to install Flash (marked with checkbox). Click the 'Install Selected' button and Flash is installed painlessly.

Muon Software Center
Kubuntu uses the Muon Software Center for installing packages. Select from general catagories or use the search tool to browse thousands of software packages. Simplify your choice with the help of user reviews and ratings and view screenshots.

An updated Amarok 2.4.3 is included as the default music player and it features an spiffed up user interface, improved reliability and support for and native support for NFS & SMB/CIFS collections. Opening Amarok, a notification icon appeared and offered to download and install all the necessary plugins.

Gwenview Picture Viewer
Attaching my Android phone, Kubuntu recognized it as portable media player and attached USB device. I chose to open the pictures with Gwenview, the default picture viewer. Gwenview provides basic photo editing options such as Rotate, Resize, Crop and Red Eye Reduction. It also has a new feature which allows it to compare two or more images.

Kubuntu includes the new KDE PIM suite, an integrated personal management system. It includes KMail for mail, RSS and news readers, microblogger, address book, alarm clock,calendar and more. Be sure to back up all your important information, calendars and address book before you migrate to this new system.

This version of Kubuntu is beautiful, intuitive and surprisingly stable. It ships with the versatile KDE 4.7 and includes many new features and updated software. For experienced KDE users or estranged gnome users searching for an alternative to Unity, Kubuntu 11.10 is a breath of fresh air and joy to use.

More information can be found   wiki and  kde.
Hardware Specs:
  • Asus eeepc 900
  • 16 + 4 GB SSD
  • 2 GB RAM
  • 900 MHz Celeron Processor
  • Atheros AR5001 wireless adapter
  • Intel 915GM Graphics Controller
This article was originally published in on Sept. 19, 2011

    A First Look at Ubuntu 11.10 Beta 1

    o·nei·ric :   [oh-nahy-rik] adjective: of or pertaining to dreams.
    oc·e·lot :   [os-uh-lot, noun: a spotted leopardlike cat 

    Ubuntu 11.10 desktop
    Canonical recently released the first beta of Ubuntu 11.10, Code named Oneiric Ocelot. Ubuntu has ditched Gnome Shell completely and stepped up its committment to the Unity Desktop. As the final release approaches, just one month from today, we spin up this beta and take a first look at the distro that Mark Shuttleworh called, "part daydream, part discipline." 
    The Oneiric Ocelot

    In his blog, "Here be Dragons", Mark Shuttleworth explains the meaning of this releases codename:
    "Oneiric means “dreamy”, and the combination with Ocelot reminds me of the way innovation happens: part daydream, part discipline."
    Canonical released the first Beta of Ubuntu 11.10, code named Oneiric Ocelot on September 2.
    Unity is the default desktop, the classic Gnome Shell is not included in this release. Oneiric will use Unity 2D as the fall back mode.
    The DVD has been slimmed down to 1.5 GB and includes language packs and popular applications including Inkscape, GIMP, Pitivi and a more comprehensive LibreOffice Suite.
    The CD image is still available and all the DVD included applications are available through the repositories.

    New software additions:
    • Thunderbird: New default email client
    • Déjà Dup: New backup tool, easily uploads backups to UbuntuOne.
    • Gwibber: Chat client, with new interface. Integrates easily with Facebook and Twitter.
    Other changes in Oneric:
    • Gnome: Now uses the unstable 3.1.5 version. Eventually moving to 3.2
    • LightDM: New Display Manager which replaces GDM. LightDM is simpler to maintain, faster, more flexible and can be shared with Kubuntu and Xubuntu, each with a customized greeter.
    • Software Center
      Software Center: New interface with "Top Rated" views in all catagories and subcatagories, edit and delete your own reviews, and speedier installation of standalone .deb files (with gdebi). The new software center is easier to use and lists all available software, even packages which aren't in your current repositories, offering to add the repository if needed.
    • The kernel is based on v3.0.3 which boasts mulitple improvements, including more Atheros, Ralink, and iwlagn NIC drivers.
    • Ubuntu Core: A new minimal root file system for creating specialized images and an aid for developer projects.
    • GNU toolchain: Now based on GCC 4.6 for i386, AMD64 and ARM OMAP3/OMAP4 architectures.

    I downloaded the torrent for the i386 DVD and used UNetbootin to set up a live flash drive to test this release.
    Booting seemed slow, but sound, video and wireless all worked out of the box*. It still amazes me how far the Linux community has come toward making hardware detection and configuration virtually painless in most new installs.
    Unity feels faster and more polished. The launcher is docked on the left side of the desktop. It lists icons for:
    • Dashboard
      Dash home (Dashboard)
    • Install Ubuntu 11.10
    • Home Folder
    • Firefox
    • LibreOffice Writer
    • LibreOffice Calc
    • LibreOffice Impress
    • Ubuntu Software Center
    • Ubuntu One
    • Workspace Switcher
    • Trash

    Additional icons are added for open programs and files and these are added to the bottom of the launcher in a 'stack'. This keeps icons for open projects in your view no matter how many you are working on.
    Adding or Removing icons from your launcher is as simple as a right click to select or de-select 'Keep in Launcher'.

    Clicking on the Dashboard icon, brings up a window with shortcuts to Media Apps, Internet Apps, More Apps and Find Files. Below is another row of icons for Firefox, View Photos, Check EMail and Listen to Music.
    This window needs considerable work as the only shortcut that worked was the Firefox icon. The layout did not size correctly for my screen and the last items in the rows were truncated.
    'Stripes' Wallpaper
    The default wallpaper is the same as in Natty, but according to this post, the new default wallpaper will be blue 'Stripes', (see image above) same as the default in Gnome 3. 'Stripes' was not included with this beta.
    The top panel shows icons for network manager (animated as it connects), broadcast menu, power level (which stubbornly stuck at .37% power), clock (which I had to set manually, even after selecting my time zone) and a chat client with an odd [Invalid UTF-8] message (a known bug).

    The last icon is a combination of power and settings. The menu includes System Settings, Display, Startup Applications, Updates Available, Attached Devices, Printers, Webcam and the Lock Screen/Log Out/Suspend/Shut Down options.
    Appearance Settings
    The Appearance window is simplified. Gone are options for customizing your theme. No more tweaking colors, controls, window borders, icons or pointers. Select a basic theme from a drop down menu.
    Firefox Beta 7 is included in this release and I found it buggy with Adobe Flash 10. The Software Center crashed while trying to install Flash and even after a successful install, it repeatedly crashed Firefox when trying to load a video.
    Some fonts don't render properly in some programs. This may be an upstream problem because I saw a similar bug after a recent Debian update.
    Overall, this release is significantly buggier than previous Ubuntu betas I have tested. With Gnome Shell no longer included, Canonical has demonstrated its commitment to Unity on the desktop. The final beta is due to be released on September 22 and the Official Release date is scheduled for October 13.
    According to Mark Shuttleworth, Oneiric Ocelot is built on daydreams and discipline and with this upcoming release, Canonical continues to lead the way into the future of Linux desktop innovation
    For more information on Ubuntu 11.10 Beta 1, visit the Ubuntu Oneiric Ocelot Wiki.
    Hardware specs:
    • Asus eeepc 900
    • 16 + 4 GB SSD
    • 2 GB RAM
    • 900 MHz Celeron Processor
    • Atheros AR5001 wireless adapter
    • Intel 915GM Graphics Controller
    This article was originally published Sept 14, 2011 in  

      Wednesday, September 14, 2011

      Prominent Linux Servers Hacked

      UPDATE: The Linux Foundation and its sub-domains, including have announced they too have been hacked and it appears to be related to the breach of, discovered on August 28.
      As previously reported, one of the developers with root privileges, was found to have a trojan on his personal computer.

      The Linux Foundation and websites are currently displaying the following warning:

      Linux Foundation infrastructure including,, and their subdomains are down for maintenance due to a security breach that was discovered on September 8, 2011. The Linux Foundation made this decision in the interest of extreme caution and security best practices. We believe this breach was connected to the intrusion on
      We are in the process of restoring services in a secure manner as quickly as possible. As with any intrusion and as a matter of caution, you should consider the passwords and SSH keys that you have used on these sites compromised. If you have reused these passwords on other sites, please change them immediately. We are currently auditing all systems and will update this statement when we have more information.
      We apologize for the inconvenience. We are taking this matter seriously and appreciate your patience. The Linux Foundation infrastructure houses a variety of services and programs including, Open Printing, Linux Mark, Linux Foundation events and others, but does not include the Linux kernel or its code repositories.
      Please contact us at with questions about this matter.
      The Linux Foundation Hacked
      Sept. 2, 2011 - the Official Linux Kernel Archive announced on its website that it's servers have been compromised. The statement reads, in part :

      Security breach on
      Earlier this month, a number of servers in the infrastructure were compromised. We discovered this August 28th. While we currently believe that the source code repositories were unaffected, we are in the process of verifying this and taking steps to enhance security across the infrastructure. "

      This revelation is disturbing on many levels. Once again, it proves that even Linux is vulnerable to attack, despite its reputation for superior security. It proves that even the most experienced sys admins can fail in their efforts to ensure the integrity of their networks. It shows the vulnerability of simple human error, like a trojaned laptop, can have wide ramifications and over-dependence on a flawed web security system, like SSL cert signing, leaves all systems at risk. (See this excellent article regarding the recent compromise of Dutch company DigiNotar which an intruded generated 531 fake certificates, including for popular sites such as Google, Facebook and Skype.)

      What Happened?
      Sometime before August 12 an intruder gained access to the Hera server at using a compromised user credential. Starting around August 19th, user interactions were logged, and a trojan startup file was added to rc3.d. (Interestingly, an attempt was made to attack 3.1-rc2, but this was blocked for some reason.) SSh files, including openssh, openssh-server and openssh-clients were altered and running live.

      It appears that one of the developers with root access may have had a trojan on his personal computer which allowed an attacker to gain access to his ssh key and root password. The same trojan was found on the servers Hera and odin1, with possible infections of three others.

      The intrusion was detected on August 28 when xnest /dev/mem starting throwing errors. Xnest is an X Window system server and was not installed on the infected machine.

      After the intrusion was detected, the boxes were taken offline and reinstalled from clean backups. The folks at were open about the breech and posted details on their website right away. They explain how using git, the exposure to the public should be minimal.

      Git was developed by Linux Trovalds in 2007 as a fast, efficient distributed revision control system. It is used to keep track of software revisions and allow collaboration on projects among developers across diverse networks.

      One of the features of git is its cryptographic authentication of revision history. As Wikipedia explains:
      "The Git history is stored in such a way that the name of a particular revision (a "commit" in Git terms) depends upon the complete development history leading up to that commit. Once it is published, it is not possible to change the old versions without it being noticed. The structure is similar to a hash tree, but with additional data at the nodes as well as the leaves."

      So each revision is named according to its revision history and each of its parent revision histories all they way up to the top level. This creates a 'tree' of revision hashes which contains the entire history of the project. If you change anything, it creates a cascade of changes to the hashes which will throw errors when attempting to merge the changes into the main repository. Attempting to force the changes would result in a separate branch.

      So what does all this mean to Linux users? Are they at risk? Generally, the risks appear small. Most Linux users get their updates through their distos package manager and these are generally signed and maintained on their own servers. Most of the maintainers of these distors use git to update their packages. Therefore, most users can consider themselves safe.

      I have seen some discussion as to whether a user who directly downloaded a kernel tarball using ftp or http between August 12 and August 28, possibly bypassing git, could have received an infected copy of the file. I have found no clear answer to this question as yet. If you have recently built your own kernel, using files from, downloaded via ftp or http, you might consider a re-install to be safe. Also, look for errors involving xnest, as this was the clue which led to detection of the intrusion. As noted on the website:

      "Trojan initially discovered due to the Xnest /dev/mem error message w/o Xnest installed; have been seen on other systems. It is unclear if systems that exhibit this message are susceptible, compromised or not.  If you see this, and you don't have Xnest installed, please investigate."

      Linux users like to believe we are nearly immune from malware attack. Occasionally, reality proves this not to be true.

      A bit of history:
      Intrusion into four servers that host the project's bug-tracking system, mailing lists and various Web pages.

      In case you believe those were ancient history, that it can't happen today, consider these:

      August 2007: Ubuntu had to take 5 of its 7 production servers offline after they were being used to attack other servers. The effected servers were found to be out of date on security patches and using insecure protocols (FTP without SSL).

      August 2008: Red Hat servers hacked.

      There is also the infamous Debian SSL flaw in 2008.

      The point here is that no OS is 100% secure. No sysadmin is 100% perfect. Human error, when combined with millions of lines of complex code, will occasionally fail. For now, the Linux community appears to remain safe and git, developed by Linus himself, has done its job.