Archive for Casey’s Rants

Chumby Is Very Cool, But It’s Not Perfect

I received my Chumby yesterday and it is definitely a neat little device with a fair price tag. So when I say it’s not perfect, I mean exactly that.

According to a post on the Chumby forums by a Chumby employee, “the device has a 266MHz Freescale ARM9 with 133MHz bus, 32MB SDRAM and 64MB of NAND Flash.” It also has two external powered USB ports and a headphone jack on the rear of the unit, along with the power connector and a power button (be careful grabbing it by the back when moving it; I’ve turned it off accidentally once). Another interesting thing to note is that the unit’s wifi is actually a USB 802.11g dongle on the inside of the device, which means you can replace it if need be. There is also a second powered USB port on the inside which is not in use. Lots of room for expansion on this thing.

The other great thing about the Chumby, before we go into my personal experience with it, is that 100% of the software running the thing is either GPLv2 or LGPLv2.

Inside the shipping carton was a plastic sleeve sealed with a Chumby logo sticker, and inside that was the burlap or canvas bag that contained the Chumby and all its accessories.  The entire package has a “recycled materials” feel to it, from the coarse fabric bags that contain the product to the recycled paper manual. If you’re the sort of person who uses the phrase “carbon footprint” in normal conversation, you will likely be pleased at the packaging in which the Chumby arrives.


Being the type of person I am, I immediately discovered a velcro-sealed pouch in the bottom of the unit that contained a connector for a 9V battery, one of which I happened to have laying on my desk. The Chumby powered up right away and I set about watching the introductory video that plays on first boot. Shortly thereafter the problems set in.

Now to be fair, I should say up front that I wasn’t thinking about some things. Like how a puny 9V battery isn’t going to power something with an LCD display for very long…and it didn’t. However, going back to my bedroom and plugging it in near the night stand that is now its permanent home, I was having a lot of trouble getting a wireless signal.

My wireless router is probably 30′ in a straight line from the Chumby and the signal has to go through one or two internal walls to reach the Chumby if my door is closed, which it usually is (roommates). It grabbed a signal and an IP address early on, but then would fail to reboot properly. Upon trying to regain connectivity, it would fail — over and over and over. I took the unit out to my work area and plugged it in so it was within a couple feet of the WAP, where it proceeded to function flawlessly (except when I had it on rapidly-draining 9V power only, when it would make awful stuttering static noises and shut down).

Eventually I got it to grab a signal from my bedroom and it hasn’t lost it again (about 25 hours now).  So just be aware that you may experience some issues when you first get it out of the box. Not sure if it just needs burn-in time or what, but it’s run beautifully since.

After you activate the Chumby, a process which consists of tapping the screen to replicate a pattern shown on the Chumby site, you can begin to have fun with it. There are several hundred widgets available already, including 67 clocks, and you can have multiple “channels” containing unique widgets. I currently have a “Clocks” channel with about 10 of my favorite clock designs (a bunch of BBC TV clocks from the 80s, a Nixie tube clock and some other retro stuff), a “Productivity” channel with a Google calendar applet and a mail checker, and the stock “Default” channel where I literally dump anything and everything that looks remotely interesting.

 “Neat, it’s a $179 clock. Big deal,” I hear you saying. It’s a bit more than that. Admittedly, I don’t use the news and RSS widgets as much as most people probably will. Why not? Well I usually have my MacBook sitting right here next to me, so I prefer to read news on the Mac’s larger screen. But I’ve been able to offload 100% of my internet radio needs to the Chumby. It has a built-in SHOUTcast browser, Mediafly podcasts, “Radio Free Chumby” which has a load of FM stations that broadcast via web and you can even plug your iPod directly into one of its two USB ports and play songs from it.

All of the widgets are Flash 7 movies, so it’s possible to author a widget with anything that can produce Flash, not just Macromedia’s proprietary (and usually Linux-hating) tools. This is good news, and I can’t congratulate the Chumby team enough for making such good choices when it came to licensing and implementation of widgets.

The unit can be converted to use wired ethernet with very little work and at least two particular models of 10/100 dongles, a Linksys and a Trendnet, are known to work with it. You can ssh into the unit easily enough, by activating what amounts to an easter egg, as well as perform all sorts of other hacks. These are detailed on Chumby’s own wiki. It runs its own webserver which can be accessed by entering its IP into a web browser, but the only content is a summary of wifi information.

Now, to delve into some of my complaints with Chumby:

The touch screen is a bit “meh.” It works, and it works well enough, but sometimes I find myself having to press a button five or six times before it finally registers, and this occurs whether I use my thumb or my forefinger, pad or fingernail. This seems to be exacerbated when I’m laying down (start using one, you’ll see what I mean) but sometimes even if I’m sitting up and holding it directly in front of me it still gets iffy. It works for the most part and you can recalibrate the touchscreen as and when necessary.

Centralized widget control is the other issue. All widgets for general consumption have to be approved by Chumby and placed on the Chumby Network. This isn’t so bad, but it smacks of Apple’s “all your iPhone applications are belong to us” nonsense they tried to pull (looks like they can’t really enforce this, however, which is good news). I like quality control, but I like choice, too.

“Seeing extra widgets on your chumby that aren’t shown in your channel above? These are added by Chumby Industries and content partners. Sharing these promotional widgets with you is how the Chumby Network stays FREE.”  That was a message that gave me some cause for concern. I understand that bandwidth isn’t free, but I did pay $180 for this thing. Having seen some of these nefarious widgets, I have to say that they’re really not so bad. The ad content disappears in under 30 seconds and you’re not forced to watch the advertisment videos…this is a good compromise and I’m certainly not begrudging Chumby Industries their meal ticket.

As you can see, my complaints with the device are minor. I was pleasantly surprised by how little about the thing irked me at all. Instead of having to grumble about ads, centralized control and a flaky touchscreen, I’ve just been enjoying the hell out of it instead. I think you will, too, if you get one. The only way to really experience it is to use one. I’m glad I bought mine. (4.5/5 rating)

You can find a bunch of videos of Chumby unboxings and other things that are probably way better than the one I tried to shoot on, where else, YouTube.


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xclip – Use the Clipboard From the Command Line

Yesterday morning I had a bit of a strange question (so I thought), although it turned out to be a good one. “Is there any way to pipe or redirect output from the console to the clipboard?” I asked my good pal jdong if there was indeed a way to do this. He quickly turned me onto this Debian page where I discovered a neat little application called xclip.

You can read the nuts and bolts of its usage on the Debian page, but it’s quite easy. I’ll use an example based on what I originally wanted it for (being able to paste file listings of various directories into a pastebin or document):

ls -al /media/storage2/Comedy/* | xclip

You can retrieve what went into the “clipboard” by running xclip -o, which will paste back into the terminal whatever you copied using the example above.

Unfortunately what it did not do was save the output to the regular “X” clipboard (where items normally go when you highlight and do a Ctrl+v or Ctrl+x in the GUI or Ctrl+Shift+c/x in the console), which is what I was expecting, but this is easily remedied. In order to do that, we must run the following:

ls -al /media/storage2/Comedy/* | xclip -selection c.
(To paste from the X clipboard it’s simply a matter of running xclip -selection o, but you can also just use Ctrl+Shift+v)

xclip supports a lot of extended features such as split clipboards (which I’m still not quite sure what those are), but I mainly wanted to use it for grabbing file listings. So all I did was make an alias by running:

alias xclip='xclip -selection c'

Now when I pipe output to xclip I can quickly switch to my web browser or document, hit Ctrl+v and my console output appears in a pastebin or whatever else i’m working on. It’s quite handy for both writing technical documents and for troubleshooting. Pastebin is the darling of IRC idlers, and this just made it easier.

I didn’t bother with aliasing “xclip -selection o” simply because I can just use Ctrl+Shift+v and paste back into the console from the X clipboard as mentioned above.

Hopefully that wasn’t too confusing. Use it a few times and it becomes a lot more intuitive. I certainly like it, especially for large outputs that would exceed the scrollback buffer (I use the Awn Terminal Applet constantly, which has a small buffer).

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Getting Back To Basics

While Ubuntu does a very good job providing graphical alternatives to traditional console applications and utilities, I remain a staunch proponent of the console, as those who know me can attest. I could even go as far as saying that I’m a “zealous proponent” of the console, but I do use plenty of graphical applications, whether for aesthetics or for ease of use or for functionality. I don’t particularly favor one or the other.

However, in many cases, the console is much, much faster if you know what you’re doing. A friend of mine said to me just tonight, “you have a tendency to insist CLI is better just because you’ve spent the time learning how to use it.” He’s exactly right. I’ve spent countless hours reading man pages, howtos, tutorials and change logs because I realized early on in my UNIX-like OS “career,” that the console could open up some very powerful opportunities for me if I only took the time to learn how to use it effectively.

Older hardware can also benefit immensely from a console-heavy environment, although it need not be entirely text-based. But when you have a 300MHz Pentium II with 128MB RAM you probably don’t want to run a full GNOME desktop, Azureus and Amarok. But with command line utilities and a bit of know-how you can still use that machine very effectively (I even had good success selling PII 300MHz with 128MB RAM and Windows XP as “web/email laptops” in 2004, so imagine what you can do with a bit of Linux console magic!) .

Some of my favorite console applications, both old and new, include irssi, the IRC client I absolutely cannot live without, rtorrent, mplayer, screen (which is incredibly powerful and useful when combined with other CLI apps), finch and, of course, ssh. We’ll explore these and others in a series of article I intended to write and I’ll do my best to provide links to the wealth of other sites that provide much better articles than I ever could. I hope to learn a lot more myself during the process, so you won’t  be going it alone!

I am not a console expert. I’ve only been using Ubuntu for just over 16 months, although I did mess around with several versions of Red Hat in the late 1990s, when Linux did not support internal modems much at all, and I didn’t own an external serial modem. Somewhat ironically, I became reintroduced to the console courtesy of Mac OS X which I began using in 2005 and by the time I began using Linux again in earnest I was hooked. Now I know enough to get around in the console of most Linux distribution, BSD and Solaris. But I have much, much more to learn.

So stay tuned for several updates per week in which I investigate new console applications and utilities. You’ll be a “console snob” in no time! 😛

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Kevin Is No Longer In Prison But None of Us Are Free

I just finished Emmanuel Goldstein‘s (of 2600) film Freedom Downtime about the insanity surrounding Kevin Mitnick‘s incarceration. It’s difficult for me to express my disgust with the system to begin with, especially in our post-9/11 world, but this just rammed home the point that the insanity, the ignorance, the control and the fear didn’t begin with Bush, Cheney, the neoconservatives or Osama bin Laden. The film and Mitnick’s Wikipedia page can discuss what happened to  Kevin far better than I can, including the absurd claims of corporations like Motorola, Nokia, Sun and, everyone’s favorite these days, Novell (who claimed Kevin Mitnick cost them $75,000,000), his time in solitary confinement, his years of imprisonment before trial. Go watch this film. Buy the film, buy 2600 magazine, support the EFF and do what’s right.

The terrorist mythos has overshadowed the hacker mythos of the 1990s, but it’s hasn’t replaced it. Hackers, and indeed all citizens, can be considered terrorists, held without trial and, now, held without charge indefinitely.

I have to admit that I don’t have a particular “point” to this piece. I just felt the need to bring this film to the attention of our readership. If we don’t keep fighting we won’t have anything (rights) left to fight for.

***While formatting this I found a great commentary by Keith Olbermann on YouTube, responding to the signing of the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

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Microsoft Agrees Is Basically The Same As Their Office Suite

In a document buried deep in Microsoft’s website, detailing their relationship with Linspire in light legalese, Microsoft calls “Wine, OpenXchange, StarOffice, CrossOver Office and Mono […] product (or major component thereof) of Linspire that has the same or substantially the same features and functionality as a then-existing product (or major component thereof) of Microsoft (“Prior Product”) and that (a) has the same or substantially the same user interface, or (b) implements all or substantially all of the Application Programming Interfaces of the Prior Product.”

StarOffice is the keyword here, as it was the original name of when it was originally being developed by Sun. I used it for a short time in the late 1990s but eventually went back to Word and the other familiar Microsoft apps. So, couched in trade names and lawyer-speak, Microsoft has called a product with basically the same features as MS Office. While almost no one will ever see this document, it’s still interesting that they seem a bit more open to admitting that free software is giving them a real run for their money these days than they have been in the past.

In the same document Microsoft also discusses GPLv3 software, widely reported to have been excluded from Linspire due to their patent sell-out. “GPLv3 Software” means those portions of software products of Linspire, if any, that are distributed by Linspire under Version 3 or later of the GNU General Public License,” is the verbiage in the document, so who knows what that means? The small but sinister words “if any” are present, so reporting may be correct in general so far.

While Novell has told Microsoft they will release GPLv3 software in SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop whether Microsoft likes it or not, Linspire and, as far as I know, Xandros, have not had such an outbreak of cajones. To use the tired but favorite journalistic phrase, “only time will tell.”

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“Hardcore Windows Fan” Describes His Experience With Feisty

Tom Baker, a self-described “hardcore Windows fan” and, presumably, the Fourth Doctor in the BBC’s long-running (since 1963) science fiction series “Doctor Who“, began using a LiveCD of Ubuntu GNU/Linux 7.04 “Feisty Fawn” and, of course, he liked it. The author’s ignorance of UNIX-like operating systems does show through in places but I don’t mean that as a disparaging remark at all — he made the effort. The author begins by telling us how great Windows is:

Say what you want about Microsoft, it powers the world. I can use any hardware, play any game and use nearly any software ever written. I can do it securely, and with little frustration.

I certainly disagree with this because even Vista, with its many security improvements (I’m not being facetious), retains gaping holes through which intruders can exploit your system and the prying eyes of our friends at Langley and Fort Meade can take a peek. Every piece of hardware is far from running flawlessly on Vista. Significant amounts of hardware, including printers, simply do not work with Vista. Other times, the drivers merely negatively impact the performance (in the case of video cards).

Nearly any software ever written? Not by far, lad. A quick visit to SourceForge showed that there are 152,864 projects registered, most of which are not written to run on Windows platforms. And not all of our software, whether free or “open source,” is registered as a SourceForge project. And while using Vista may not be frustrating for him, it is for me. Bugs, crashes, quirks (such as XP shares not showing up in Vista, but Vista shares working properly in XP) and all manner of “Redmondism” plague Vista, not least of which is a barely functional command line shell. Sorry, Bill, not all of us need a cute little picture and a cursor to get the job done.

Patently untrue or not, his opening comments do set the stage for his final report. He had some trouble getting onto his wireless network (secured with WEP) and had some issues with codecs and getting the proper screen resolution. I couldn’t help but thinking “why not just do a dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg?” The experience of a free, UNIX-like OS certainly does rub off on you once you get comfortable running in terminal, which is where I tend to spend most of my time these days (whether downloading with hellanzb or rtorrent or ussing irssi for IRC chat).

After he decides to install the OS, he has the following to say:

I’m writing this on my newly installed version of Ubuntu. I can honestly say it was a piece of cake getting it up and running. I had to do a few things first, like create some partition space on my hard drive to install Ubuntu on. Lucky for me, Windows Vista has a handy new “Shrink” command to shrink the size of your partition. Thanks to that, I was able to free up about 9 Gigs to devote to Ubuntu.

I can’t help but get a kick out of him extolling the virtues of Vista’s “handy new ‘Shrink’ command.” Many of us have been using gparted, whether from a GNU/Linux install or from a LiveCD, for a long, long time (or qtparted for you KDE types). He concludes by saying that he thinks it is unlikely that Ubuntu will ever replace Vista for him, but admits that he “just likes Vista, warts and all.” To each his own, as they say.

Bottom line, I was pretty heartened to see a self-described Windows zealot describe his initial (positive) reaction to Ubuntu 7.04 which, he says, “lives up to the hype.” Even though I maintain my position that UNIX-like operating systems, free though they may be, are not suitable for many end-users, I think power users and “admin-types” such as this fellow have a definite place in our community. It’s important to remember, however, that the important part of our community is not the fact that we use GNU/Linux – it’s the fact the we use free software.

You can find the full text on his blog.

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