Older blog entries for salimma (starting at number 71)

Try Thunderbird 5.0 now — without hassle

There are cases when getting a specific software from one’s Linux distribution is not the optimal solution — and I’m saying this as a package maintainer myself. The main ones are:

  • the distribution package might be out of date
  • legal reasons prohibiting the software from being packaged (e.g. Skype, Flash, Adobe Reader)

Note that the first point is not exactly a criticism — after all, distributors tend to be wary of introducing breaking changes in a stable release. For software in the second category, upstream often provides binary packages, but again, using a tarball requires users to deal with dependency resolution themselves, and even when Debian or RPM packages are provided, the packaging is often sub-par (upstream developers can’t be expected to be well-versed in the subtleties of each distribution’s packaging).

Enter 0install. Now installing, e.g. Thunderbird 5.0, is a simple process:

yum install zeroinstall-injector
0alias thunderbird5 http://mojo.informatik.uni-erlangen.de/interfaces/2011/thunderbird.xml

or use “Add New Program” from the application menu and provide it with the URL for the Thunderbird feed. This currently lets you easily select between Thunderbird 5.0 beta 2 and 5.0 final (for both 32-bit and 64-bit builds) as well as the distribution’s packaging (on RPM-based and Debian-based distributions as well as Gentoo), and will pull in needed dependencies (please report any problem here).

You can browse http://mojo.informatik.uni-erlangen.de/interfaces/2010/ and http://mojo.informatik.uni-erlangen.de/interfaces/2011/ to see other available feeds that I maintain (and 0install’s site for even more). Of note: Eclipse JEE, Maven 2.2.1/3.0.3, Skype and Tomcat.

Syndicated 2011-06-29 11:04:14 from Intuitionistically Uncertain » Technology

The compat-wireless dance

At Fedora, our kernels tend to track upstream as much as possible, which sometimes makes for an amusing wireless experience. Here’s a tale, amusing in hindsight, of my three Sony computers, all using the ath9k module.

Firstly acquired is the 15″ Vaio EB I use as a desktop replacement. It works fine with stock drivers — at least, no known problem until today. We’ll get back to it later. Next, the 10.2″ Vaio W netbook. With this the wireless driver would need to be cycled — unload and reload — unless it’s kept active by, say, a continuous ping session.

Now, the EB did not use to work with the experimental compat-wireless drivers — basically the wireless code not yet merged into the Linux kernel; while the W absolutely requires these to avoid the ping keep-alive workaround.

Then comes the 13″ Vaio Y I got on a closing sale — at a nice discount price. Both the EB and the Y need to be on Fedora 15 because of graphics quirks (the former Radeon 5650, the latter Intel Arrandale), but that’s for another article. Everything seems to work fine, until I realized today, attempting to transfer a large-ish (> 100 MB) tarball from the Y to the EB, that the wireless on the Y keeps freezing up if I continuously transmit! It’s not a regression, or not a recent one, since older kernels do that too.

In goes compat-wireless to the rescue, and lo and behold, the transmission now works fine. Only then I find out that now the EB also acts up when it’s downloading at maximum speed. Sigh… funnily, now compat-wireless works fine on it, and fixes the problem.

I don’t even think I want to file bugs on this — different issues on different laptops — I’m just glad the latest wireless code works uniformly well now, and am just waiting for it to land in the mainline kernel.

Syndicated 2011-04-05 14:25:13 from Intuitionistically Uncertain » Technology

HOWTO: Unchain Yourself from Proprietary Formats

Today being Document Freedom Day, I’m taking stock of how unencumbered my digital lifestyle is — both on the consumption as well as on the production side. I’ll try and explore alternatives for each category. But before that, one must first explore why proprietary and patent-encumbered formats are bad, 

  1. Patents — if some entity holds patents that apply to a format, your ability to distribute your files might be compromised by the need to pay patent royalties. Even if the patent holder covenants not to exercise enforcement of the patents, they or the patents could end up being bought, at which point who knows what could happen. Even Microsoft got into trouble with Alcatel Lucent; the case was later thrown out of court but only after a headline-grabbing $1.52 billion award of damages was initially awarded. And Alcatel is not even a patent troll! Best protection is to use software licensed with a retroactive patent retaliation clause (e.g. Apache license, Eclipse Public License, GNU Public License v3) and whose copyright holders and distributors are in a defensive patent pool such as the Open Invention Network
  2. Format obsolescence – even NASA has had trouble reading precious sensor data from old punch cards and magnetic tapes generated by previous missions, because the documentation for the file formats have been lost!
  3. DRM — Digital Rights, or Restrictions, Management, depending on which side of the coin you’re looking at it from. It’s not impossible to create a DRM policy that is flexible enough to guarantee you your fair use rights you enjoyed with older analog technologies — the printed book, the audio CD — but it’s not in the interest of (most) publishers and distributors to do so. Unless forced by regulation or unless you vote with your wallets.
  4. Walled gardens — remember the pre-Internet days of AOL, CompuServe, etc.? We still have walled networks, they are just built on top of the Internet instead.

Office Documents

Reports, presentations, … you get the drift. I try and stick to LaTeX for the first two, if possible (generating read-only PDF for dissemination) and OpenDocument Format, authored on LibreOffice, if collaborating with a non-LaTeX-user. And for spreadsheets.

Why, you might ask? Well, LaTeX just typesets much more beautifully than other alternatives I’ve seen. It’s a solid, well-understood format, and have very few compatibility problems over the years. Compared to Microsoft Office formats — Word’s .DOC being the most notorious, with worms and newer versions not being able to render old files perfectly! Microsoft’s “Office OpenXML”, their new file format, only became a standard after a process as dubious as Japan’s sponsoring of landlocked countries to join the whaling commission to supplant its voting block. And the standard is not even implemented by Microsoft itself.


Most podcasts are published in MP3; some are available in the patent-free Ogg Vorbis (.ogg / .oga) format — sadly, mostly limited to free / libre / open source software (FLOSS). A rare few are available in MPEG 4 Audio / AAC (.m4a).

I try to subscribe to the Ogg feeds whenever possible. MP3 is patent-encumbered, and the last patent won’t expire until 2017; while users of open-source MP3 decoders have not been sued for infringement yet, the situation is legally uncertain enough that, if you look at your favorite large Linux distribution (be it Debian, Fedora, openSUSE or Ubuntu), none of them carry MP3 decoders, let alone encoders, in their main repositories. Even Microsoft has been hit by frivolous MP3 patent infringement lawsuits!

Consuming MP3 even when an Ogg feed exists for the same podcast would perpetuate the use of MP3 “because that’s what the customers want”. Buying a portable music player that cannot play any patent-free, open-standard compressed format (yes, I am talking about Apple’s iPod here) is even worse. It does not play Ogg Vorbis, it does not play FLAC; instead, apart from MP3 you get non-free formats that Apple is heavily involved with: .m4a, the DRM-locked variant .m4p, and Apple Lossless, which Apple invented for unfathomable reasons instead of using FLAC. It’s not even because they can then engineer DRM support; you can graft it on top of FLAC as well, if you want.

MP4 situation is similar to MP3, except that given that it’s a newer technology, the patents will take even longer to expire.


I try to buy electronic, rather than paper, books whenever possible. With a semi-nomadic lifestyle, buying more physical books just makes moving more costly! And there’s the environmental aspect as well. It’s bad enough that we need to clear forests to grow enough food — and eating excessive amounts of meat makes the matter worse because of the reduced energy efficiencies involved in adding another layer of intermediary between the sun and ourselves — it’s even worse when one unnecessarily gets documents in printed form. Now, used books are another matter altogether.

For eBooks, tech publishers like (in alphabetical order) No Starch PressO’Reilly and The Pragmatic Bookshelf gets the nod for providing DRM-free products, with errata updates, in the major formats (ePub, the eBook standard; Mobi, an older format supported because Amazon’s Kindle uses a DRM-encumbered version if it, .azw, and does not read ePub; and PDF, for faithfull reproduction of the original layout).

Outside of programming references, alas, most publishers are not as enlightened. I must confess to being a heavy Amazon Kindle user, despite its limitations — not being able to lend my books out without restraints for one, not being able to hand over ownership is another. But at least I get to read the books on all my devices, unlike Apple’s iBooks with its five devices per book limit. Kind of nice having Amazon backing up the purchased books in case I lose a device, too; they’re starting to do that for music as well, though only in the US. Hear that, Apple?


For many years, the only patent-unencumbered format available is Ogg Theora (which started its life as On2′s VP3 codec). On2 has since been bought by Google, and their latest VP8 codec becoming the basis of WebM, which is roughly equivalent in quality to MPEG4.

I try to get my videos from sites that allow videos to be downloaded (if the uploader allows for it) — e.g. blip.tv. and vimeo. Revvr, another service featuring this, sadly was a commercial flop and is no longer available. These sites allow you to download videos, dating back to the time when YouTube not only does not allow that, as they still does not, but also limit videos to lengths of 10 minutes! There are workarounds to downloading YouTube videos, but officially you’re not allowed to do that.

Social Networks

i.e. Twitter, Facebook, etc. I have switched to posting mainly to identi.ca, a Twitter alternative running software from Status.net. Unlike Twitter, it supports federated social networking — you can talk to people running independent Status.net installations, much as in instant messaging, users of XMPP networks (various Jabber networks, Google Talk, LiveJournal, Facebook) can communicate with each other). identi.ca lets you push your updates to Twitter as well (even retweets and favorites) and to Facebook, so I really only post directly to Twitter if replying to a Twitter-only user (or the topic is too mundane and I want to keep identi.ca’s SNR high).

Facebook alternatives are not as mature yet; see EFF Deeplinks’ post on this topic for more information.

Online file storage

Here’s a mea culpa – I’m a happy Dropbox user (thank you, Dropbox, for supporting Linux clients — at least on x864 architecture). This is the exception that proves the rule, however: apart from Dropbox, I try to stick to online file storage solutions that at least have open-source clients for communicating with the servers and accessing your data. e.g. Google Apps (including Google Docs) are accessible using googlecl, which uses the Google Data APIs; both are open source. If you move to a platform that is unsupported, you can port the software yourself.

With googlecl, if one is paranoid, one could encrypt all one’s files (with, say, GnuPG) before storing them on Google’s cloud. Hmm, that would be an interesting project to attempt…

Syndicated 2011-03-30 20:14:34 from Intuitionistically Uncertain » Technology

A letter to Thomas Jefferson

… as portrayed by Clay Jenkins for The Thomas Jefferson Hour, in response to the special edition Silicon Valley episode, with the President being interviewed by Joint Venture’ Russell Hancock, discussing California, technological progress, public education and governance.

Dear Mr. Jefferson,

I’ve been listening to your show for a while, and I’m glad to report it’s been a fascinating, refreshing experience to have a humanities scholar presenting a historically-informed portrayal of how you would have reacted to present conditions (and humble enough to follow Wittgenstein’s dictum, „Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.“).

All too often, people who claim to represent a historical figure’s tradition tend not to have a clue what they are talking about — witness the “Jeffersonian” Tea Party movement (Bachmann didn’t even know where Concord was!). Or the “strict constitutionalists” — who’d be aghast at your idea that the constitution be rewritten every generation! I was just thinking a few days ago about the need for better civics education, when discussing the lack of awareness of American and Canadian electorates of their own voting systems.

Or the bible-thumping fundamentalists (I do need to listen to your 794th episode on The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth! .. but I digress.

What I’d like to ask is regarding your suggestion that California should be broken up to smaller, less unwieldy pieces. I greatly support the idea — my favorite books include The Nine Nations of North America (that suggests that north California does not belong, economically and culturally, with the southern parts anyway) and I read blogs like Lost States and Strange Maps with interest.

I do have a concern that it might be politically intractable. Not at the state level, but at the federal level! Now, you also suggest that the entire constitution be rewritten anyway, and I agree there, but isn’t there a connection between the two? Under the current system for electing the Senate, Republicans would very likely reject a partitioning of California — it’s bad enough that they have had two Democratic Senators for a while, but giving them even more? (unless the partitioning is gerrymandered and you create coastal Democratic and landlocked Republican states!).

I wonder what the citizens of Los Angeles would think as well, being cut off from their access to water resources in Northern California…

PS any chance you would have been a Linux user? Your support for the free citizenry would match well with the public commons of the free software, open source and free culture movements. You’d find the governance models of, say, the Fedora Project or Debian fascinating (disclaimer: I am a contributor with the former).

Yours sincerely,

Michel A. Salim

Syndicated 2011-03-29 08:43:21 from Intuitionistically Uncertain » Technology

Over at my other blog…

… some ruminations on using commitment sites acting as anti-charity escrows, and tending the public commons as a spiritual practice. With a plug to MIT quantum complexity theorist and Cory Doctorow! You can find out what they have in common for yourself: On motivational anti-charity, Old Catholics, and secular monasticism

Syndicated 2011-03-27 21:58:10 from Intuitionistically Uncertain » Technology

HOWTO: Installing Oracle’s Java plugin on an SELinux-enabled system

As tested on Fedora 14 x86_64, with Sun JRE 6u23, Firefox 4 and Google Chrome.

That this works was a pleasant surprise to a friend and I — he thought the Java plugin does not work with Chrome, and I did not realize the 64-bit version is out (OpenJDK has had a plugin since it was called IcedTea, but the Java applets I need to use tend to make use of the Sun/Oracle binary blobs not yet reimplemented).

Getting it to work with Chrome is straightforward — like with Flash, you symlink $JRE_HOME/lib/amd64/libnpjp2.so to /opt/google/chrome/plugins. With Firefox 4, though, SELinux comes into play. Presumably because while Chrome’s executable is already marked as requiring an executable stack, Firefox 4′s (or rather, XULRunner 2′s) is not.

No big deal, you might think. The SELInux troubleshooter pops up, just follow its suggestions and all shall be well — pipe the relevant audit log lines to audit2allow, load the generated policy modules, close Firefox and try again. Except for… no cheese.

If this happens to you, save yourself trying to delete the symlink, reload Firefox, closing, recreating the symlink, and trying again. It appears that Firefox tries to cleverly remember which plugins fail to load, and it’s this cache that you need to purge. Delete ~/.mozilla/firefox/*.default/pluginreg.dat, and you’d be set on the next restart.

Syndicated 2011-01-21 11:32:21 from Intuitionistically Uncertain » Technology

Good bye del.icio.us, hello Xmarks and Firefox 4!

How fast the wheel turns. Not too long ago, Xmarks‘ public bookmark-syncing service is shutting down, while Yahoo’s Delicious seems reasonably healthy (despite worrying indicators such as lack of support for the more recent Firefox 4 betas, and lackadaisical support for Chrome that, I think, no longer works either). And now the latter is closing — though it’s ironic that you see no official announcement when logging into Delicious, save the news articles and switching guides bookmarked by users!

Now Xmarks is owned by LastPass, and hopefully will be integrated soon with their own offerings — Xmarks’ password-sync is inferior, for instance, and if they offer a unified SSO with LastPass’ multi-factor authentication then that would be wonderful. I carry a Yubikey around these days, with the primary key set for Fedora’s Account System, and the second key set for Yubico’s public server for use with LastPass. If someone were to use a keylogger on a public computer that I use, then by all means; the password they tapped won’t be enough.

These all mean that I’m no longer trapped on Firefox 3, since the other extension without official Firefox 4 support, Greasemonkey, supports it in their nightly builds. Gmail is really annoying to use without Greasemonkey’s Gmail Fixed Font script! Makes one wish that Google integrates its Mail and Groups teams a bit better — Groups’ interface allows switching between fixed-width and propotional fonts for reading, while Gmail only offers it for composing. Sadly Groups’ new beta interface does not even have this feature implemented — ah well, there are three feature requests for it already, hopefully they’ll get it implemented before the new interface goes live.

Syndicated 2010-12-18 11:01:07 from Intuitionistically Uncertain » Technology

On the separation of license grant and physical artifacts

I’ve been pondering the issue for a while, but have yet to put it in writing, until Frédéric Filloux wrote about it on Monday Note:

We’re now in 2015. I read books-related contents on a number of different devices: my smartphone, my high definition tablet, and even my PC some times. (I personally do not believe in TV for such products). I want spend a long weekend in Rome. Instead of buying a couple of books – one to organize my trip and another to use on location – I will buy rights to both.

My digital rights are also transferable: I can loan or give the book by simply transferring the rights attached to the digital files. In retrospect, this feature makes 2010 digital bookstores look primitive. For instance, in the Apple iBooks Store, I was forbidden to offer a book to anyone or even to access to a iBooks in a foreign country – thus negating key advantages of dematerialized contents.

Some of these are already possible nowadays — tech-savvy publishers such as O’Reilly and The Pragmatic Bookshelf already let you regenerate your digital content in the format of your choice, though normally limited to PDF, ePub and Mobi/Kindle only. But the ePub format should be flexible enough to display differently based on available screen size and multimedia support. There are free self-publishing options with sites such as FeedBooks. There are music sites that sell music files in multiple formats — though so far, only Magnatune (which has shifted entirely to a subscription model) allows redownloading while the others (Pristine Classical, HDtracks, iTunes) make you commit to the format of your choice at purchase time.

There are several limitations with these sites that might prevent more widespread adoption, though:

  • Reliance on customers’ ethics: for example, The Pragmatic Bookshelf uses an easy-to-remove watermark; O’Reilly does not use any DRM or watermark; likewise with Magnatune, Pristine Classical and HDtracks. While admirable, and I personally find it a moral obligation not to distribute digital products entrusted to me in such a manner, many publishers would likely balk at the idea.
  • Conversely, overly-restrictive DRM: the Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks and B&N nook stores fall in this category. B&N innovated the ability to lend books but in a very restricted fashion: you can only lend to a unique user once, and only for two weeks. Why? Physical books can be passed around without constraints. Amazon, sadly, chose to copy this model without any change. It’s sad, when public libraries that offer DRMed ePub lending do not have such restrictive conditions; the problem is not technical but commercial motivation.
  • Inflexible purchasing model: with the non-DRMed publishers you normally commit in advance to buying the rights to a work in digital-only form, or in a paper+digital bundle. You can’t “upgrade” from digital-only to paper+digital (though upgrading in the reverse direction is sometimes possible). You can’t order a replacement physical media if yours is damaged (though, again, software games publishers used to offer this). You can’t, of course, “upgrade” from a DVD to a Blu-Ray edition of your favorite movie without paying the full purchase price.

The solution, as I see it, is to separate right of use from the physical artifact. Publishers should be able to sell the two independently from each other (though obviously there is a dependency of the latter on the former). You should be able to permanently deactivate your rights license code on an artifact (for reselling), or temporarily deactivate it (for lending), and set a time limit on the latter. After all, in the information age content is getting increasingly Platonic: living in pure digital form, only to be instantiated into tangible physical forms — we should focus less on the latter and more on the former.

Syndicated 2010-11-10 14:06:45 from Intuitionistically Uncertain » Technology

New fedoraproject.org site

Maírín’s website redesign has gone live! It’s a gorgeous, user-friendly look — congrats to her, the design team, and everyone who worked on this.

Syndicated 2010-10-28 07:09:53 from Intuitionistically Uncertain » Technology

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