Ubuntu (coLinux, VirtualBox, dual-boot) – Full Circle (again)

I blogged a few days back saying I was trying Ubuntu full-screen in Sun’s VirtualBox to see if I could use it to replace Windows.  The answer then was yes, pretty much.  I also found a spare 160GB SATA disk, so decided to install a fresh Ubuntu 9.10 image on that and leave Windows alone for a week or so.

Yep, that works as well.  No issues, could do everything I wanted except Lord of the Rings Online (probably works in WINE but why bother when I have an XP license).  But.

But there wasn’t any real driver for me to keep using Ubuntu.  I don’t have to give up XP (yet), after all, I paid for this license (kind of) and I can already do everything I want under XP, and use a lot of Open Source software to achieve that.  So, after being logged in to Ubuntu for a week, and fancying a quick bash on Lord of the Rings Online I rebooted back to Windows XP and realised I felt like I’d made it back home after a luxury holiday somewhere exotic.  Sure it was nice, but also, nice to be home.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Linux, I love UNIX and I can only get by day-to-day because I have Cygwin installed and can grep and awk and finger as much as I like.  But I don’t need to be using Ubuntu all day to get things done.  Maybe in a few years when I want to give up Microsoft products and stop paying their tax, but for now, no pressure.

So, here I am back in Windows.  But I miss some stuff Ubuntu, and in the short time I used Evolution and a few other things, I came to like them.  No problem I thought, let’s try coLinux again.  Surely, in 10 minutes, I can whip together a coLinux Ubuntu distribution, and be using XWindows and Gnome.

Well, not quite.  I followed most of this excellent guide to build a basic Ubuntu 9.10 coLinux image.  Really, it’s superb.  I tried booting it into coLinux – but no joy.  I hung half way through the boot.  An hour or so later and I discovered it was because Ubuntu Karmic requires some kernel features not present in the stable coLinux kernel.  No problem I thought, I’ll use their development kernel.  No joy there either.  More reading, and Karmic requires kernel stuff only found in some experimental coLinux kernels.  Essentially, I tracked down this page.

So I downloaded the relevant experimental kernel from http://www.henrynestler.com/colinux/testing/kernel-2.6.33/, followed the instructions, and sure enough, my new Ubuntu image boots quite happily.

I added a slirp interface so I could run some apt-get updates, and a TAP interface so I could connect into the coLinux instance from XP.  I also added a page file, and extended the root filesystem (you can find info on how to do those at tek:Cited as well, here and here).

So I was back to running XP, with Cygwin, and coLinux which is roughly where I was three or four weeks ago.  A quick ‘apt-get install ubuntu-desktop’ and a several hundred MB download later, and I can run gnome applications (using Cygwin/X).  But, they’re not quite perfect.  They forget my font settings.  Because I’m running them stand-alone (rather than as part of the whole gnome desktop setup) they don’t always work perfectly, etc., etc.

And so, three or four weeks into this whole thing, I’m coming to the conclusion my best bet, would be to run Ubuntu under VirtualBox.

Which really, is where I started in the first place.

Hobbit news

The BBC just reported this,

Shooting of the long-awaited film version of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit is set to begin in New Zealand in July.

You can read the full article here.

The most exciting bit for me personally is the last sentence,

The second will be an original story focusing on the 60 years between the book and the beginning of the Rings trilogy.

Original material in the Tolkien universe?  Now that is worth getting excited about.

Car and Body MOT

March was the month of MOT’s.  The car failed on the usual wear-and-tear stuff and we got it repaired and serviced and that set us back the neck-end of £400.  But then it’s the only time in the year we do actually fork out for the car unless it’s actually broken, so I can’t really complain.

I passed my MOT.  HbA1C result was 6%, which is a little higher than the last one, but still well below the 7% warning level and close to the 5-5% level in non-diabetics.  So that’s good news.  I need to work on it a little more, I liked the look on the nurse/doctor’s face when they see I’m diabetic but have an HbA1C of 5.7%, so a few points off the 6% would be nice.  Usual advice from the nurse, lose weight, do cardio exercise, eat properly, take care of my feet.  Can’t blame her for trying with the advice, and I think she doesn’t blame me for not being able to achieve it all.  It takes me a lot of energy to keep my sugar levels down to below 6%, mental and emotional energy, and cutting out all the other stuff required to lose weight as well would probably be the end of me.

Maybe I’ll try and start walking again at lunch times now the weather is picking up.

So, another year with diabetes, another year with good control, but no rest, have to do that every year, every time, for ever.


I think DIY might actually stand for “Disaster Incoming, Yes?”.  I have a perception of myself not being any good at DIY.  It may or may not be true, perhaps I’m just below average rather than not very good.  It stems from a lack of practice, a lack of knowledge, a lack of confidence and a lack of skill.  Other than those four things, I’m totally set though.

Which is why owning a house (car / object-which-requires-maintenance) is a bit stressful for me.  I can’t really afford to pay other people to do this stuff for me, and I’m crap at doing it myself, catch 22 (yeh, I’m a whining old bastard and should just shut up and get on with it like everyone else has to).

Half the problem (99% of the problem?) is that I have a very ‘what could go wrong’ mindset.  I’m good at spotting risk, understanding consequences.  This is great if you’re trying to stay alive somewhere dangerous, it’s stupid if you live in a warm house in the middle of a quiet town where the biggest risk is you might get wet from a rain shower.  But there you go – that’s what I have.  It comes in handy in my job sometimes, but in terms of DIY it’s a major stumbling block.  If I was stupid, or didn’t understand the consequences or risks, I’d probably do a lot more DIY.

We’ve got a set of vertical blinds installed over the sliding doors at the back of the house.  We put them up ourselves when we moved in, pretty sharpish since that bit of the house lets in a LOT of light.  I was pretty pleased with the effort, because there’s a lot that can go wrong putting up a rail for blinds, trust me.  Anyway they’ve served us well for 5 years, but in the summer, they still let a hell of a lot of light in.  Enough for it to be uncomfortable being in here using a computer.  Last summer we hung a blue throw from some paper clips and string behind the blinds to block the sun out.  Yes, we did.  MacGyver would have been proud.  We talked about replacing the blinds with some curtains.  But that means another rail.

Grete was really patient, and eventually, with a sulk the size of a 10 story building, I went to Ikea with her and bought a rail system and some curtains.  All I have to do now is hang it.

Which is where the fun starts.  What’s the material above the door made of?  Is it a metal lintel, or concrete, or is it just hollow plasterboard or something else?  Will it be strong enough to mount the three fixings?  What screws do I need?  Why is the plaster all cracked (hidden from our eyes by the blinds).  Is that bad or just annoying?  What if I hang this and make it worse?

What if I make it worse.

And there’s the crux.  There’s why I don’t like DIY.  It’s not a fear, that’s too strong a word, but it’s a constant doubt, what if I do this, and fuck it up so badly, that we end up having to pay someone more than we would have to do it right in the first place?  But hell, it’s only three holes and three screws, how bad can it be?  Well, my mind paints some pretty bad pictures.

And I’m sure you’re sitting there thinking ‘you pussy, just get the fuck on a set of ladders and mount that rail’.  Some people can just do it.  Some people have a lot of experience, practice and innate skill with this kind of thing.  But not me, and that means I have no confidence either, and if you have no confidence, you’re skill level is halved again.

But we’ve bought the stuff, so I will mount this rail and take down the blinds, and I’ll give it my best shot.  And somewhere, in the back of my head there’s a little voice saying, ‘it’ll be okay, it’s only a rail, you’re worrying about it far too much’, and I know it’s right, but at the front of my head, with a loud hailer is the big voice shouting ‘Remember when you tried to put that shelf up in your bedroom when you were a teenager?  Yeh.  Remember that’.

Stay tuned, I’ll post pictures as I go!

Spring cleaning

We’ve been doing a bit of spring cleaning while I’m on holiday.  Grete’s been selling some stuff off on eBay (listed here) and today we dragged some boxes out of the loft and I threw away a lot of old paperwork (bills from 10 years ago) that we need to shred.

Also found a bag with a lot of stuff from my university days, mostly letters from friends during university or in the year or so afterwards.  Really brought back some memories (can’t believe it’s 20 years ago).  Would love to find out how some of the folk I knew back then are getting on (I know a few of them through FaceBook and while we don’t chat every day, or even once a year, it’s sort of nice seeing how they and their families are doing).  On the off-chance that Linda Shaw, Jane Shephard or Joy Elsender search the net for their own names (assuming they’re not married), then drop me a note!  Let me know how you are!

In fact, anyone I was at Sheffield Polytechnic / Sheffield Halam University between 1989 and 1993, drop me a note, let me know how you are (how egotistical is that – ah well, have to start finding people somehow!)

So the other thing I found was a bunch of invoices for various bits of computer (these are different to the ones I found here), can you believe these prices from June 2000?

  • 17GB Seagate drive – £66
  • 20GB Quantum Fireball drive – £96
  • 8-port 10BaseT hub (yes, 10BaseT) – £37
  • 15″ CRT – £119 (why do monitors always cost ‘around £120’?)
  • 4x4x20 CD Writer – £139
  • 40 speed CD drive – £30


Printing – it’s a nightmare surely?

I hate printers.  In fact, I know a lot of PC owners hate printers.  For a long time they were really the bane of many home computer users.  Initially every application needed it’s own drivers for every printer type, then we got unified drivers but they were crap, and so on and so forth.  It’s gotten better over the years, but windows printer drivers are still bulky and annoying.

I suspected the one big area of Ubuntu I’d have to bleed to get working was printing.  I’ve played with CUPS previously and an HP LaserJet 4L (a long time ago), and it worked but it wasn’t always ideal.  So I settled down today to spend three hours making Ubuntu drive my HP PhotoSmart C4585.

Holy crap was I wrong.

5 minutes.  Literally.  Googled for ‘HP PhotoSmart Linux’, found that HP have developed their own open source printer drivers.  That looked like a good sign, filled in a few fields on the website and it told me the drivers are already in Ubuntu.  That sounded good.  Did an apt-cache search hplip and apt-get install hplip only to discover the drivers were already installed.  So, opened System, Administration, Printing, told it to search for a printer, it found the PhotoSmart, installed the config, printed a test page.

I am literally gobsmacked.

It even happily drives the scanner as well (using XSane, also already installed).  The printer driver is less annoying than the Windows one (just hides away), and the only thing I’m missing is a display of how full the ink cartridges are, but the Windows one estimates that badly anyway.

So, well done HP, well done Ubuntu, and well done open source printing.  Now I have to find something else to do for 2 hours 55 minutes.

Flirting with Ubuntu (again!)

Anyone unlucky enough to have read anything in my blog before knows I’ve been a long-time Linux user.  I’ve had various Linux servers and now have a couple of Linux virtual machines on the ‘net hosting these pages.  I’ve flirted in the past with Linux based desktops, but for various reasons never made a solid effort to give up Windows.  Mostly that’s because there were a handful of things I wanted that I could still only really get from Windows.  Games primarily, and that’s still the case today.  Lord of the Rings Online might run on Linux under WINE, but since I have a valid XP license and my machine runs it quite happily already, why go to the bother?

However, the list of apps that I do need and only come with Windows has shrunk considerably.  I made the switch to OpenOffice a while back (both at home and work), and although the paragraph numbering pisses me off a great deal, I’m happy enough with the applications.  I don’t play any other PC games any more (other than Flash based stuff) because we got the PS3 and so that has removed a huge chunk of Windows reliance.  Just about anything else I do is either a web app (mail) or there are plenty of Linux apps that cover it (Usenet, browsing, etc.)

So I thought I’d make a solid effort to use Ubuntu and see how I really get on with it.  But I don’t really want a dual boot system until I know for sure I’m going to migrate my data to Linux and only boot into Windows to play LOTRO.  So I’m running Ubuntu in a VirtualBox VM, running Full Screen with Bridged Networking and ignoring Windows in the background.  The VM has ~1GB of memory and plenty of CPU (especially for Linux) so performance isn’t an issue.  The only question is really can I find the apps and a way of working that I’m comfortable with.

I’ve been setting this up for two days and already there’s been some pain.

  • Looks like NAT networking in VirtualBox 3.1.4 is hosed.  I started browsing and downloading various things yesterday and every now and then a web page wouldn’t load, and I’d need to click refresh a few times.  Then I installed a Usenet client (XPN, very nice) and it would randomly hang getting headers.  Took me a while to realise there was a problem, but since this is a Debian based distribution the investigation was trivial – sudo apt-get install wireshark; sudo wireshark.  Tracing the network traffic it was obvious the client was losing packets and there was a lot of bright red ACK’ing and re-ACK’ing going on.  I checked online and there were reports of VirtualBox NAT being broken a few sub-releases ago but being fixed now.  Well, it’s clearly not fixed, however Bridged networking seems (so far) to work fine.  Sadly, this caused me serious frustration yesterday and earlier today while I was trying to download and install various apps.
  • Finding a replacement for Twhirl (Twitter Client).  I could of course, still use Twhirl which is an Adobe AIR app and so runs under Linux.  However, support for Twhirl has been dropped and I hate the replacement (too big!).  So I scouted about and found Gwibber.  Sadly, it suffers from the major problem with a lot of open source apps, crap documentation.  Yes I know, it’s open source and so I can fix this myself, but it doesn’t help when you’re first trying to get it installed and working.  So, the current package is buggy, but I worked around that and got it running, then I couldn’t get any themes to work until I found they’d changed the theme system and none of the ones found by Google worked.  Then I found there was a theme package you could apt-get install and it was all okay.  But now in order to run it, I have to launch it twice from the menu, I’m sure I’ll get that worked out.
  • USB support – not critical, but I did manage to blue screen my entire machine today trying to get USB devices to show up inside the VM.  I might try again later, would be nice if I ever need to move data around (although I do have a shared folder, so I can leave stuff on the Windows partition).

Some things worked really well,

  • Pidgin, it’s just excellent.  The plugins are great, and GFire especially useful since I can hang out in the XFire channel with friends.
  • I loved apt-get the first time I used it, and I still love it now (even if it’s called something else ;))

Some things are okay, but could be better,

  • Picasa works under Linux, but only because it runs with the WINE libraries.  When I first ran it, I had some issues but that might be due to the network problems I was having at the same time.  Annoyingly, because it’s running in WINE it looks like a Windows XP app, which bugs me because if I’ve switched to Ubuntu I want it to look like a Gnome app.  But hell, at least it runs; Picasa was the one major app I would miss other than LOTRO.
  • After being a Windows desktop user for a very, very long time, a lot of the shortcut keys I’m used to (such as shift-num-pad-1 to select everything on a line) don’t work, and those are going to be the things that take me longest to get used to.

I’ve promised myself that if I’m just sitting at the computer, I’ll use the Ubuntu VM.  If I’m playing LOTRO I’ll close it down to free up resources, but return to it once I’m done.  I have a couple of other options.  Wubi looks very interesting, it installs Ubuntu into a single file under Windows, and adds a boot option for it on the Windows boot menu.  It installs like a Windows app, and you can uninstall it again afterwards.  When you boot into Ubuntu the Windows partition is mounted so you can share files.  The other option is a straight install and dual-boot into it’s own partition (but I’d need to do some partition shrinking to get there).  Until I know for certain I want to move, I’ll stick with the VM, since it gives me the quickest way to get into LOTRO and back out again.

I suppose the only question I haven’t answered is why I want to move?  Unlike some, I don’t hate Windows (although I still use XP so maybe that’ll come), and I think that Microsoft is no worse that many major software vendors.  I think I just like the idea of software being free and available for anyone to use, improve and share.  Certainly in the next 10 years the face of computing is going to change radically and I’d rather the stuff I use be driven by the people who use it, than the people who want to make money selling it to us.

It’s a nice day!

Bright sunny day.  Wouldn’t say it was warm, but the sun is pleasant if you’re out of the breeze and not in shade.  More importantly, it’s dry, so I finally got a chance to get back into the garden and finish up what we started last year before I had the hernia.

Time to get rid of the deck (once and for all!)  It’s been piled up at the bottom of the garden since last year, so the wood’s in pretty bad shape now.  Some of it is still too long to go into the car though, so this morning I’ve been moving it to the side of the house and sawing the bits that aren’t going to fit.  I’ve moved about a third, and since this is the first physical exercise I’ve had since winter set in, I’m taking it slow!  Here’s how we left it in 2009.

Moved around a third of it to the side of the house, and cut some of the longer beams.

But it doesn’t look like that much has changed yet in the garden!

Total number of amphibians re-homed during this process: 1 (running total)



Time Marches On.  March brings a few things.  It adds another year to both myself and Grete as we have birthdays.  And it brings a round of diabetic checkups (my yearly assessment).  As always, I’m expecting the worst from the blood glucose numbers, and assume I’ll be blind and missing limbs in a few months due to bad sugar control.  We’ll see what the numbers return.

I’m trying to remain upbeat about being almost 40, but with the all crap going on at work, that’s never easy.