Good News for Bletchley Park

It was great to hear today that Google are financially backing some of the restoration work taking place at Bletchley Park.

It’s a site with an incredible history and is well worth a trip. Much of the commentary about it online focuses on the World War II code breaking efforts, the works of Alan Turing, or the world’s first programmable computer, Colossus. But there’s much more to the site than that. The very human stories of the people who worked there so many years ago offer a fascinating insight into one of the war’s best kept secrets – and if you’re lucky you might get shown round by one of the guides who actually worked there during those crucial years.

Google’s input is a great step forward. But the thing that will really keep Bletchley Park, and its history, alive is for people to visit it. If you’ve never been, you should definitely add it to your list of things to do. And if you have been, you should add it to your list of things to do again.

An idle thought…

With all the Kinect hacks out there, why hasn’t anyone created a real-time Max Headroom implementation?

Extremely Petty Thieves

We went to the new Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury last night. Despite having seats in the stalls, the throng of people at the bar led us to make our way upstairs to order our interval drinks at the circle bar instead.

The interval arrived and a combination of constrained vomitoria, and excessive politeness as each row waited on the one behind, led to us doing that slow zombie shuffle that is typical of a crowd of people trying to exit an auditorium. By the time we got out into the foyer and made our way upstairs to the circle bar, everyone had already taken their interval drinks from the designated table.

In fact not only had everyone taken their drinks, but some malefactor had taken our interval drinks!

So what had this thief made off with? A refreshing beer? A large glass of wine? An expensive liqueur? No, some damned criminal genius had made off with… two cups of coffee! Really, if you’re going to steal someone’s interval drinks, at least go for the interesting ones.

Our receipt was still in place, next to the sugar bowl and now-empty milk jug, but then we had the fun of trying to get the attention of the bar staff to sort it out while everyone glared at us with the sort of look that suggested violence could erupt – or at least a few fruity words would pass – if it turned out we were pushing in. Luckily the staff heard our (deliberately loud) discussion about what had happened, and everything was sorted with no words, or blows, exchanged.

So, what sort of event had we been to that attracted people who are low enough to steal two coffees from the interval drinks table? Some grungy rock concert? Well, they’re not typically known for their intervals. Some ageing rocker then, whose fans still have a little of the punk spirit, but whose lavatorial urges require an interval? Not even that.

It was a recording of “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue“.

It’s a sorry state of affairs when you can’t even trust Radio 4 listeners not to steal your drinks!

A Great Sound for a Great Gig

Last week I saw Belle & Sebastian at The Roundhouse in London. I can honestly say that it was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. First of all it had the factors that all great gigs seem to share:

  • It contained a good mixture of songs from the whole of their career – singles, album tracks, old and new (unlike some people)
  • The band seemed to really be enjoying themselves
  • So did the audience

There were also a couple of surprises thrown in, from audience participation to a rendition of the Ski Sunday theme tune (!), which just added to the fun.

But one of the best things about it was the quality of the sound: it was the second best sounding gig I’ve ever been to (and first place is taken by another Belle & Sebastian gig I went to a few years ago). It was loud, but not so loud that the audio was distorted. It was loud, but not so loud that I left with my ears ringing. It was loud, but not so loud that you couldn’t distinguish the sound of each and every one of the thirteen (!!) people on stage.

I really wish more bands and engineers would take the time and effort to turn it down a little. You may be the world’s greatest lyricist, or a wonderful guitarist, but if your sound is indistinguishable from the rest of the mushy, distorted audio being forced through speakers which have no headroom left, you’re doing both yourself and your audience an injustice.

But huge thanks to B&S for a great gig and great sound. I’ll definitely try to catch you on your next tour.

R4 Cards Now Illegal in the UK

*Sigh*

R4 (and similar) cards have now been declared illegal in the UK. Personally I think this is a significant injustice, as it further erodes individuals’ ability to use their purchased hardware for non-approved (but legal) uses, under the flag of preventing piracy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m generally against piracy and have purchased all my DS games legally. But I do own and use an R4 card. There are two reasons for this: firstly I do play the occasional homebrew game; secondly I use it as a means to conveniently carry all my games with me without the need to keep swapping cartridges. If there was a legitimate way to achieve this then I wouldn’t have any need of this “piracy device”.

The most worrying part of the article is this quote:

“The mere fact that the device can be used for a non-infringing purpose is not a defence,” read the ruling by Justice Floyd.

By that argument we’d better all get rid of our cameras, CD writers, PVRs, video capture cards and any other technology that may be used for copyright violations as well as legal uses.

I use an iPod as a means to aggregate hundreds of CDs into one device: my R4 is a means to aggregate dozens of games into one cartridge. I could put illegally downloaded music onto my iPod just as easily as I could put illegally downloaded games onto my R4. Yet one device is seen as a successful stalwart of consumer electronics, whilst the other is a scurrilous device used by pirates and ne’er-do-wells. The main difference I can see is that Apple are a big, rich company whereas the defendants in this case were small independent suppliers.

Yet again it would seem that money talks – or at least buys expensive lawyers to do the talking for you.

sudo? sudon’t! Stupid “sudoers.d”

If you don’t know what “sudo” is, then this isn’t the post for you… it’s going to get technical and Linuxy. Let’s start with the summary, as it’s the most important part of this post:

If you use /etc/sudoers.d/ don’t create files in the directory – create them elsewhere, ‘chmod’ them, and only then copy them in.
Edit: You can also use the ‘visudo’ command to create and edit the files – see the comments for more details.

Now for the story about how I came to this discovery…

For reasons that I’ll describe in a future post, I have a need to be able to trigger the “chvt” command from a keyboard shortcut. More specifically I want to run “gksudo chvt 1”, as using chvt to switch from a graphical screen to a console requires superuser privileges on my Ubuntu box. This prompts for my password, which seems a little redundant as I can use CTRL-ALT-F1 to the same effect without having to enter a password. So I decided to add an entry to the sudoers file in order to grant myself passwordless access to the chvt command.

I went wandering over to /etc and found not only the expected “sudoers” file, but also a “sudoers.d” directory. This directory contained a single README file, as follows:

#
# As of Debian version 1.7.2p1-1, the default /etc/sudoers file created on
# installation of the package now includes the directive:
#
# #includedir /etc/sudoers.d
#
# This will cause sudo to read and parse any files in the /etc/sudoers.d
# directory that do not end in ‘~’ or contain a ‘.’ character.
#
# Note that there must be at least one file in the sudoers.d directory (this
# one will do), and all files in this directory should be mode 0440.
#
# Note also, that because the sudoers file is not a ‘conffile’ in the Debian
# sense, and sudoers contents can vary widely, no attempt is made to add this
# directive to existing sudoers files on upgrade. Feel free to add the above
# directive to the end of your /etc/sudoers file to enable this functionality
# for existing installations if you wish!
#

That seemed like just what I wanted. I could create my sudoers command in a file of its own, safe in the knowledge that it wouldn’t get trampled by any future upgrades that affect the sudoers file itself. I copied and pasted the #includedir line into my sudoers file (using “sudo visudo”), then set about adding my sudoers directive in a file I named “chvt”:


> cd /etc/sudoers.d/
> sudo touch chvt
> sudo chmod 0440 chvt

BANG!

My terminal was filled with a lengthy backtrace, but scrolling back up to the top, I found this little nugget:

sudo: /etc/sudoers.d/chvt is mode 0644, should be 0440

Well thanks for that marvellous insight – I was just trying to set it to 0440 when you stopped me, you stupid machine.

Because I committed the heinous crime of creating an empty file in /etc/sudoers.d/ “sudo” won’t work at all. I can’t correct the permissions, I can’t delete or move the file: in short, I’ve lost administrator access to my machine. All for the sake of an empty file.

Now I can understand sudo throwing a wobbly and quitting if it can’t parse the sudoers file – blindly proceeding to read a malformed file could be a quick route to a buffer overflow attack or similar. But dying completely because an empty file has the wrong permissions seems a little draconian. Yes, that README did say “…and all files in this directory should be mode 0440” – but “should be” isn’t quite the same as “…MUST be 0440, or I’ll DIE!!!”. Here’s an idea: if you don’t like the permissions, just don’t read the file – there’s no need to get all suicidal about it.

It seems that the only way to recover from this situation is to reboot the machine: either booting from a Live CD, or selecting the recovery console during the GRUB boot sequence. You can then remove or change the permissions of the offending file and everything will be back to normal after you restart the machine. It does seem like a lot of hassle caused by a zero length file though – thank goodness I didn’t do this on a production server!

All of which leads back to the summary at the top of this post: Don’t create files directly in /etc/sudoers.d/ If you do use the #includedir directive in your sudoers file, make sure you create your files elsewhere, set the permissions to 0440, and only then copy them into place.

Edit: You can also use the ‘visudo’ command to create and edit the files – see the comments for more details.

Graze

A few weeks ago I signed up to Graze, and so far I’ve been really impressed.

The idea behind the company is that they regularly send you a box containing four punnets of fruit, seeds, nuts and other healthy offerings. How regularly is up to you – I receive a box per week, but you can make it more frequently if you want to (and can afford to). At £2.99 per box it’s a little on the pricey side*, but they do have a tremendous choice of over 100 products.

Well, “choice” isn’t the right word, I suppose. You don’t choose your four punnets directly, but rather rate products as “bin” (never send), “try”, “like” and “love”. They rend four random punnets from your “try”, “like” and “love” choices, but you can weigh the selection to favour “love” or “try” if you want to. The fact that I can’t choose the punnets is part of the appeal for me, as it adds a little randomness and variety to my food each week. It’s surprising how exciting it is checking their website each week to see what selection is winging its way to me.

Their website is a work of beauty. It looks great and the user interface is absolutely spot-on – right down to little details like the button which lets you easily push back your box by a week with a single click. If they weren’t on the wrong side of London, I’d seriously be considering applying for a programming job there – it’s refreshing to see a company that really knows how to produce a great web-based UI.

If you don’t mind paying a little over the odds for a semi-random selection from a great range of healthy foods (and if you’re based in the UK), then you should give them a try. Use the link below to get your first box free, and your second one half-price (plus I get a pound off my next box if you do):




* £2.99 per box = 75p per punnet, with each punnet containing between 35g and 45g of produce. By comparison Marks and Spencer offer similar products (though a greatly reduced choice) for £1.00 for a pot weighing 70g. It would be nice if there was a six punnet option for £3.99, bringing the price-per-punnet down to a more reasonable 67p. The box would be longer, but the same width and depth, so would still fit through a letterbox – plus I find that four punnets isn’t quite enough for the week, but eight would be too many.


Top-left, top-right: why not let me choose?

As I mentioned in this post, the migration of Ubuntu’s window controls from the top right to the top-left were a precursor to other changes which would make use of the now-empty corner of the title bar. I’m still not sure why the controls had to move before any of these new widgets even exist, but at least now we have a little more information about the plans for the top-right corner of Ubuntu windows, as Mark Shuttleworth has posted a blog entry about the so-called “windicators” that they plan to put there.

On the whole I approve of the idea of adding more functionality to the title bar – it’s largely wasted space at the moment. But there’s one thing about this proposal which concerns me: the user has no choice about the position of the windicators. From the proposal it appears that the user can either accept the window controls at the top-left and the windicators at the top-right, or they will have to live without the windicators completely.

When you look at this suggestion in the context of the plans for the Ubuntu Netbook Remix it makes a lot of sense. By positioning the windicators at the top right they appear alongside the main panel indicators in the planned version of UNR which combines the window titlebar with the menu and the top panel into one composite element. But just because this positioning makes sense for UNR, that doesn’t necessarily mean it makes sense for normal desktop installations.

My personal preference would be to retain the close button in the top-right, but move the minimise and maximise buttons (which I rarely use) to the top-left. Windicators would appear in the top-right, but to the left of the close button. Of course this layout wouldn’t suit everyone. Perhaps you would rather have the windicators in the centre of the title bar, with the application name to the left and the window controls to the right? Perhaps you would prefer not to have windicators at all, or perhaps you could live without the maximise button if you’re one of those people who religiously use a double-click on the title bar for the same purpose.

The point is that a single layout arrangement, dictated from above, doesn’t suit everybody. So why not make it configurable? Why not turn the title bar into a container-like element, with the ability to host various widgets that are aligned to the left, right or center. The close button would be a widget. The minimise and maximise buttons would be widgets. Even the window title would be a widget. Windicators would probably be treated as one composite widget, rather than making the user deal with each one individually.

In this scenario the window title bar is more akin to the existing Gnome panels in Ubuntu. If you want to rearrange your window widgets you could just drag them around, much like you can with objects in a panel. If you want to remove a widget entirely you could do that too – although a sanity check would probably prevent you removing the only close button. All this configurability would be hidden away in a tab on the “Appearence” preferences panel, making it easy to get to when needed, but not so obvious that it distracts the average user who wants to stick with the defaults.

I suspect that the basics of this scheme are already in place. The fact that there are instructions floating around for using gconf-editor to switch the window controls back to the right would certainly suggest that title bars are already treated as simple containers for other widgets. So why not expose the functionality in a nice user-friendly way? Why can’t I tailor the title bar to my needs as easily as I can the Gnome panel?

Oh well, maybe next time (extended remix)

This is an extended version of a post associated with my webcomic, The Greys. I’ve posted it here because the extended version reflects my personal opinion, and not necessarily that of my comic strip co-author.

The winners for this year’s Ubuntu Free Culture Showcase have been announced, and unfortunately (for us, at least) our submission, “Ubuntufied Flying Object” didn’t make the cut (even after a quick change of clothes). Congratulations to the two guys who did get in, and whose works will be gracing many thousands of ISO downloads come April 29th.

I don’t want this to come across as sour grapes, but I’m a little disappointed with the Free Culture Showcase. Not with the winners, or any of the other submissions that were entered, but with the premise of the competition as a whole. Yes, it showcases Free Culture – deemed to be works released under a particular set of licenses which allow for free distribution and re-use – but that’s all it does. And it could do more.

Ubuntu – like any Linux distribution – relies on the fact that thousands of people around the world have licensed and shared their source code for free distribution and re-use. That the source code results in executable files which can also be freely distributed and re-used is largely irrelevant – it’s the license of the original source that is important.

But, with the exception of our entry*, every submission to the Free Culture Showcase was an “output” file – ogg audio, ogg video and a pdf. None of them include the “input” files – the audio samples, midi files, video footage or original text from which the final submission was created. None of them included information about how they were created, or what Ubuntu software could be used to edit them. None of them specify what software was used to create them in the first place. Note that such omissions are the result of the rules of the competition, not the fault of the submitters.

What is the purpose of the Free Culture Showcase? If it’s just to show that there’s more to “Free” than software, then perhaps it serves its purpose. But it could be so much more than that. It could be a way to demonstrate to new users some ways in which a Free software stack can be used, and as a very basic tutorial on how to get started in creating their own works. When I look at a Free Culture Showcase winner, I’d like to know how I can produce something similar using the operating system and tools I’ve just downloaded. What extra packages do I need to install? Where can I get the source files in order to recreate the work – or to remix them into my own creation? If the original creator used proprietary software or source material (such as sampled audio), then why? Does this represent a gap in the Free Software stack, or the Free Culture archives, which needs to be addressed?

My personal choice would be to modify the rules of the Free Culture Showcase in future:

  • Show a preference not only for open file formats, but also for those works which make their source files available as well (these could get very large, so Canonical should be prepared to mirror them somewhere). Space limitations will likely prevent these assets being put on the CD, so the winning entries should have an accompanying document added when the CD is mastered, detailing the download locations.
  • Show a preference for pieces created entirely using a Free Software stack.
  • Require a brief description of how the piece was created – what software was used, where audio samples were sourced from – enough to give an interested consumer somewhere to start with their own creations. If proprietary software or source files were used, a short explanation as to why.

This doesn’t prevent binary-only submissions to the competition, but does encourage the submission of files that not only represent Free Culture, but also indicate just what can be achieved using a Free Software stack and Free assets (clipart, samples, stock footage, and so on). Where proprietary software was used, it might indicate an area where Free Software needs to improve. Where source files can’t be released due to license restrictions, it might indicate a need for more comprehensive libraries of assets, or it might motivate another user to re-create the missing file as an equivalent, freely licensed alternative.

Let’s not waste the space on those thousands of ISOs with “here’s some Free stuff”. Let’s use that space with “here are some examples of what you can do with your new Operating System – and some pointers as to how you can do it”.


* Our entry was an SVG file, which is both an input and an output file – it is its own source code. It was created entirely using Inkscape on Ubuntu machines. Anyone can edit our file using the same software stack – or by using Inkscape on Windows or MacOS.

Will Lucid play havoc with the Dell Mini 10?

There has been a lot written about the change in position of the window controls in the alpha- and beta-releases of Ubuntu 10.04, Lucid Lynx. I haven’t really got much to add that’s not in this excellent post, and it’s already been discussed to death in this bug report. Basically the problem is that the window controls have been moved from their historical position on the right of the title-bar (where Windows also has them), over to the left:

The rationale behind the change – what there is of it – seems to be that the Ubuntu developers have some ideas for things that they want to put in the top-right of the window. I’ve always felt the window title bar to be a bit of a waste of screen space; I don’t want to see it removed entirely, but rather would like to see it gain some more useful functionality. For example, the window title on Apple’s Finder can also be used to navigate to parent directories, or as a drag-and-drop widget for the parent folder.

So I’m definitely not averse to them adding more power to the title bar, but why does that require the widow controls to move now? Why does it require them to move at all? Unless they’re going to magic some extra space from somewhere, I don’t see why the window controls can’t stay at the top-right, and the new widgets go to the top-left, or to the right of the title bar but just left of the window controls. There may be a very good reason why their new widgets should go to the top right, but with no indication as to what those new widgets might be, it’s a little hard to judge.

So what’s this got to do with the Dell Mini 10, specifically? It’s all about the trackpad.

I have a Mini 9, which I think is a great machine. It has a traditional old-fashioned trackpad, with a pair of buttons underneath it for left- and right-clicking. At the weekend I was working on a friend’s Mini 10, which has the buttons integrated into the trackpad itself. The result was that almost every time I tried to click, the mouse pointer would jump down the screen a little, often meaning I missed the target I was aiming for. Although my friend (who has owned the machine for a few months now) fared much better, even he had more mis-clicks than I would consider reasonable.

I’m not averse to integrated trackpad-and-button systems per se. The recent multi-touch trackpads on Mac laptops seem to work quite well in this regard – perhaps because the whole trackpad is a button, so there’s no need to move your finger away from the target to initiate a click. That’s not the case with the Mini 10: you always have to move your finger to the “button” area at the bottom of the trackpad, but doing so is liable to be interpreted as a desire to move the cursor. It also prevents the “move with the finger, click with the thumb” approach to trackpadding that I prefer. This isn’t the only machine I’ve ever used with such a troublesome trackpad, it just happens to be the most recent.

These jumpy mouse-clicks are problematic enough when window controls are at the right, but putting them on the left makes them a prime target for mis-clicks every time the user tries to open the Applications menu. Apart from the claim of mystery widgets in the future, I have yet to see a good reason for moving the window controls, while I’ve seen plenty of good reasons to keep them where they are. The Mini 10’s trackpad is just another one to add to a long list.