KDE – What Happened? (follow-up)

Lots of responses to my post from June, “KDE: What Happened?”, with some very fair pro-KDE points:

  1. Ubuntu doesn’t put nearly as much work into its KDE packages as it does into its Gnome packages. Excellent point: it’s probably Ubuntu’s look and feel I like rather than either Gnome or KDE.
  2. My complaint was really with Amarok rather than KDE, which I only used for about 30 minutes. Good point: but I’m glad it was clear I didn’t use KDE for very long before giving up.

Ignoring the less-valid suggestions of other comments that only inferior consumers can’t be “bothered” to customise their gadgets (as if this was a badge of honour, for consumer or provider), I clearly need to try a “real” KDE desktop from a “real” KDE distribution for some length of time (and it wouldn’t hurt to use a decent machine, too, although I don’t really have access to one; Ubuntu/Gnome has been happy enough on T41-era hardware for some years).

However, apart from the pure speculation that hackers have migrated away from KDE development, I think my other points still stand and I’ll attempt now to clarify them. Yes, KDE may still be under development; yes, it’s beta – but what software isn’t? KDE just seems to this semi-casual observer to have taken too many unnecessary sideways steps: the sound managers; the default themes; the stability.

I know how hard it is to develop good software but KDE (and Amarok) not only aren’t continually improving, they degrade at times – yes, in the name of long-term improvements but that’s not much use to this current-term potential user – and it’s this which I find most puzzling/maddening. Judging by the comments, at least, it seems I’m not the only one; I’ll finish by linking to this page which describes how to run Amarok 1.4 under Ubuntu Jaunty – solving my original problem:

http://diabolicalorsmart.com/tech/installing-amarok-14-in-ubuntu-jaunty/

When Software Works Right

I recently started using Picasa. It’s wonderful but I backup my photos across a lot of different machines and disks and I’d been a little concerned that it wouldn’t work very nicely under these conditions: how would starring and edits appear after copying my Pictures folder to another location? Obviously I could (and have) just exported the starred and edited photos into their own folder but I was pleasantly surpised to discover Picasa on my Windows XP box showing all the stars and edits created by Picasa on my Linux laptop.

rsync the entire folder and it just works – hooray!

KDE – What Happened?

Wow. What happened? It’s slow, it’s ugly, it’s unstable. I realise it’s not exactly a state of the art machine I’m using but, nevertheless, my true and trusty T41 has run everything else I’ve ever thrown at it: Windows XP, Gnome under Ubuntu with its “enable desktop effects” wobbly windows and all. With 2GB of RAM it’s still a serious machine after 6 years on the go…until it met KDE 4, that is.

Why am I using KDE at all? I make a point of not doing so usually, aside from one indispensable application: Amarok. I use Amarok for one very important purpose: organising my music collection. With its support for visualising your tags in all possible dimensions, automatic cover art fetching and its killer “organise files” feature it is pretty much the ultimate MP3 collection organising utility. Apparently, it also plays music. That it was the one odd-ball KDE application remaining on my desktop was a perfectly acceptable compromise, given the advantages.

Last weekend’s upgrade to Ubuntu Jaunty, however, had the unfortunate side-effect of dragging in KDE 4. Suddenly Amarok (Amarok 2, now) had a totally alien UI with car-aaazy decorations looking like something out of CDE in 1995 and a truly horrible (and un-hideable) plug-in system in the middle third of the screen, used for no less than 4 separate high-tech purposes such as “disconnect media device”. That it now crashes regularly and is slower than before is simply icing on the cake.

The KDE Years

It’s very sad and it certainly wasn’t always like this. After years of neglecting the grand “desktop environments” of KDE and Gnome in favour of Afterstep, I was won over in 2000 by KDE 2. It looked good, was easy to configure and – most of all – had the then amazing Konqueror filemanager and browser. In a world before Firefox, what Konqueror had achieved was simply stunning: it rendered pages better than Netscape, was nicer to use and, though it had seemingly come out of nowhere,¬† nobody was surprised to find Apple using its rendering engine¬† as the basis for OS X’s Safari.

It was so obviously, clearly good that I didn’t look back for several years and in fact went on to install KDE in the course of several contracting jobs, including one just after that fateful initial discovery in which a fleet of thin client workstations served a KDE 2 desktop to a school interested in exploring alternatives to Microsoft software.

The Gnome Years

Years later, a similar instant switch occurred when I tried Ubuntu and its default window environment, Gnome. Having disregarded Gnome for years, here, for the first time on a Linux desktop, was a nice default look and feel. Nicer and more polished than Windows which – though I hated using it for any length of time – had undoubtedly always looked and felt better right out of the box. The file manager was good: nice thumbnails and you could burn CDs by selecting a bunch of files and right-clicking “burn to CD”. GIMP looked and worked well – helped, obviously, by being the original GTK application but nevertheless fitting in perfectly. Firefox had come of age, too, of course, long ago replacing Konqueror. By now, of course, all our work was done in the browser anyway and that holy trinity of file manager, web browser and photo software was all I really needed or wanted to work right…except for Amarok, of course.

In contrast with KDE’s continuing “how many pixels between a window’s outer-frame and its inner widget bounding box” approach, Gnome had spent time studying what users actually wanted to configure and stripped away all the trimmings. There really was nothing offensive to reconfigure, beyond perhaps a desktop background. In doing so, they had foreshadowed Apple’s rise which was built on providing good looking hardware and software that just worked and that ordinary people could use.

That geeks have since flocked to OS X might indicate that it’s not just ordinary people who want their computers to, like, work. I suspect those who prefer to run free software or are overly attached to their IBM hardware (or both) have probably switched by now to Gnome for this very reason; perhaps this migration of talented hackers itself fatally dented KDE’s chance of ever mounting a resurgence. For me, it seems that, after the initial quantum leap of version 2, KDE remains stuck in a time warp in the year 2001. Suggestions for a new MP3 collection software are very welcome!

Popcorn Hour

Well, it’s no Squeezebox. That about sums it up for me…but I’ll elaborate just a little. Popcorn Hour is yet another little custom-built computer running Linux designed, this time, to play video. I’d heard it did it rather well, too: DIVX, Quicktime and even ripped DVD images (a.k.a. ISO images). That covers a multitude of ripped movies amassed in the era before DVD burners, the new-found joy of BBC iPlayer files and even hastily-ripped DVD images pending shrinkage.

ISO images were, in fact, the clincher, hinting at a level of openness rarely seen in “user friendly” consumer electronics so, for a measly $185, I couldn’t see the harm in smuggling one home when last visiting the states. The Squeezebox has allowed me get rid of CDs, the PVR (almost) rid of recording TV and now I want Popcorn Hour to get rid of DVDs.

Upon arrival home, setup began in earnest:

  1. I’d forgotten Americans don’t have SCART so, since I don’t yet have HDMI, I settled on the s-video output. There was no further cross-continental issues since the box just magically knew to output PAL.
  2. Searching for files to play, I realised I’d several options: the box can take a single hard-drive internally, it can read direct from USB keyrings and drives and, finally, it has a (wired) network port for reading from an SMB or NFS share. Not wanting to pollute the living room with yet more cables, I threw some files onto a 4GB keyring and had them playing them within moments.

Picture’s good, sound in sync…so far so good!

Now, the trouble began. I don’t want to have to shuffle files between keyrings for the rest of my life; neither do I want the expense, hassle and noise of inserting a drive into the Popcorn unit itself. Some sort of networked solution is clearly in order. However, there’s a minor dilemma in that I really don’t want to trail more cables across the living room floor but the Popcorn Hour doesn’t have wireless networking. Eventually, I remember that the Squeezebox – to whom the Popcorn Hour is closely situated – can also act as a wireless bridge. I connect a standard ethernet cable between the two and Popcorn Hour now finds and connects to my Samba share(s) with ease, playing iPlayer content with impunity.

Aside from the issues discussed later in this post and, above all else, this highlights, for me, the gulf between the two devices and the gap which Popcorn Hour has to bridge to even catch up level with the Squeezebox. Observe how not only has the Squeezebox both wired and wireless networking but how it can also perform bridging to “older” legacy devices without wi-fi – a function that even most high-end wireless routers can perform only with the installation of third-party, warranty-impairing firmware! 99% of users will never need to know what a wireless bridge is but it saved my skin (well, floor) in this situation.

Persevering with the Popcorn Hour, despite the iPlayer success, I was not expecting to stream uncompressed DVD images wirelessly; sure enough, I couldn’t. What I wasn’t expecting, however, were a number of crashes and hangs of the Popcorn unit itself due to slow network issues. It should have been a warning signal that the latest revision of the device sports a “front panel reset button” as a feature. Over the course of fewer than two hours, numerous resets ensued on my A-100 – a.k.a. pulling the plug.

Later, after reading that the bandwidth of DVD movies (a.k.a. 1x speed) is only about 1.3MB/sec, I experimented a little and discovered that I could indeed stream even un-reconstructed DVDs wirelessly: the trick in connecting the file server directly to one of the wireless router’s ethernet ports. Evidently there simply isn’t enough bandwidh to both send and receive the video stream. Stability issues with the Popcorn Hour now lurk in the background, only rarely striking.

That aside, stability is far from the only quibble with the Popcorn Hour. In no particular order:

  • The remote control is ugly, large and bewilderingly badly laid out. “Stop” nestles unexpectedly between fast forward and rewind; some buttons click loudly, others slink silently into action.
  • There is no web interface to speak of. There is some sort of almost-undocumented application called myiHome that supposedly affords some sort of control…however my brand new Aspire One with 512MB of RAM isn’t up to the task and, without any sort of DEB or RPM packages, I’m unlikely to go to the trouble of fiddling with it.
  • Thanks to the remote control issues and lack of web interface, I’ve had to leave the internet features largely ignored (when I did try them sometime in the first few heady days of ownership they did, of course, manage to crash the unit).
  • It won’t play Realmedia files.
  • I have severe issues with letterboxed DVDs: Popcorn Hour doesn’t seem to know how to crop the image for my 16:9 TV. In fairness, there’s no issue with non-letterboxed formats like iPlayer videos but, since every DVD I’ve tried is letterboxed, this is a baffling omission.

All in all, a very underwhelming experience. It’s really perplexingly poor. The preceding bullet points are only the tip of the iceberg, too: take, for example, how the Popcorn Hour can display photographs. Fine. However, the slideshow viewer won’t traverse directories…so if you maintain separate folders for each day of a holiday then there is no easy way to view an entire holiday’s photographs. Also, opening an ISO image entails a long pause while what is clearly a separate application is booted on the device – while waiting, it tells you to “remember to always backup your hard disk”. I would indeed take care around software like this…if I had a disk installed.

Returning to the opening comparison, the Squeezebox is simply everything the Popcorn Hour is not: of elegant technical design, pretty and stable. The more I think about it, it’s the only serious open contender to Apple’s closed world. While Popcorn Hour proves handy in certain situations, it’s hard to think of it as anything better than a particularly good final year university project. Plays video…will probably crash at the project fair. Where’s the Squeezebox video?

Custom Thumbnail Sizes in WordPress

This blog primarily serves as a place to post my least worst photographs. Because of this, I like to provide reasonable-sized (400 pixels wide or long, depending on the orientation) thumbnails inlined in the article, each of which each links back to the photograph in its original resolution. WordPress actually doesn’t allow you configure thumbnail sizes but you can hack a PHP file for a (fixed) custom thumbnail size. Additionally, you can increase the picture size threshold for which pictures will have a thumbnail created.

This involves two simple changes to wp-admin/includes/image.php:

  • Locate the wp_create_thumbnail function and edit the value of $max_side. This blog uses a value of 400.
  • Search for wp_thumbnail_creation_size_limit; it’s one argument to a function that calculates the maximum picture size that will be considered for creating thumbnails. The default maximum size is 3 * 1024 * 1024, i.e. 3 megapixels. This is quite small, especially for panoramic pictures, and I changed the 3 to 10 without issue on my virtual server with 128MB RAM.

This can go a long way towards making a photo-centric blog, like this one, a lot prettier.

UPDATE: No sooner have I upgraded to WordPress 2.5 than I discover you can now configure thumbnail size from the GUI; the option is well hidden away in Site Admin -> Settings -> Miscellaneous.

Software Patch Crashed 777?

Philip Greenspun describes by what the engines on a 777 are controlled (“full authority digital engine control”). In short, the link between controls and engine is governed by software and it seems, on this $50m model at least, there is a problem with the algorithm. I flew to Tokyo last summer on a 777 – and was mightily impressed by it, too, it being, I think, my first flight on a really big plane – and reports like this occasionally make me briefly reconsider my wish to work on software I might really care about.

Only briefly, though.

Squeezebox

My most interesting – and, excluding my phone bill, the most expensive – acquisition during my Mountain View sojourn was something called a “Squeezebox”. To avoid confusion with the traditional Irish musical instrument, I’ll say now that this particular Squeezebox is designed and manufactured by Slim Devices, a Mountain View electronics company.

A co-worker had one of these devices placed invitingly upon his desk, connected to a pair of laptop speakers. All very innocuous, really, and I didn’t take much notice until he started extolling its virtues: MP3 and FLAC playback, decent sound, wireless connectivity and Linux compatible. Delving further, it emerged that the box is more than just “Linux compatible”: it connects to an open-sourced server (“SlimServer“) running on a Linux box which scans your music collection without fuss and also provides connectivity to internet radio.

Playing with the controls for a few moments was a revelation and it was immediately obvious that the Slim device was exactly what my vague undefined dis-satisfaction with CDs had been looking for all this time. Here it was before me, forged in reality and priced at an almost scandalously cheap $300.

img_3068.JPG

Well, by an astonishing coincidence – and as I mentioned at the start of this post – we were in Mountain View. Before I left for home my friend kindly arranged for a quick trip down to the Slim Devices offices where we received a demo of the Squeezebox’s big brother, the Transporter, and picked up a couple of Squeezeboxes for ourselves (complete with Irish plug).

Last night, back home at last, I finally took the time to set it up:

  • Plug in Squeezebox.
  • Follow instructions on screen; it has detected my wifi network and it takes me a few moments to enter the WPA key.
  • It now wants the IP of a SlimServer. Over to the laptop…
  • I plug in my external hard drive, add the repository to my Ubuntu laptop and run "apt-get install slimserver".
  • Open Firefox to http://localhost:9000/. Point it at my music folder and leave running. Music is added to the list as this process runs.
  • Back to the Squeezebox; it’s detected SlimServer already.
  • Listen to Bill Charlap. Be happy.

Total time elapsed is about 10 minutes.

What can I say? The highest praise I can give is that it’s exactly how any self-respecting geek would build a music distribution system. It’s essentially a very custom thin (or “slim” – a word I used myself on a university project some years ago) client computing device which you connect to a very hackable (and I use the word in its original meaning) server which employs some of the best tools from the open source world, such as the MPlayer media player, MySQL database and Perl programming language, to work its magic.

This not only allows Slim to focus on a tight, lean, featureful server but simultaneously fosters a community of devoted contributors and testers (indeed, my friend provided some advice on their Debian/Ubuntu packaging) which alone will ensure the device’s survival for years to come. Features flow organically from sensible engineering practices; for example, I haven’t even mentioned the web interface in this post – by now, you won’t be the least bit surprised to learn that it does indeed have one, effectively turning your laptop as the most overspecced remote control on the face of the planet. And if you have two Squeezeboxes then it can control both.

It’s all so sure a sign of a company that has its head screwed with a good solid helping of common sense and basic knowledge of moral and technical right and wrong that it’s beautiful. One of the unique joys of hifi equipment is that it lasts for decades, communicating freely with each tried and trusted component of your system; now, with Slim’s open spirit and fine engineering, we can finally welcome networked music devices into the club. The CD is dead.

iTunes

  1. Connect iPod to MacBook. iTunes has compatibility with such devices, to a point.
  2. iTunes recognises iPod.
  3. iPod library appears in iTunes.
  4. I play a track.
  5. Track plays. I’m happy, however fleetingly.
  6. Error message appears saying something like “iPod cannot be synced as the file is locked.” I am puzzled and concerned since I ticked the box “do not even attempt to sync my library with my iPod, ever” because I have an advanced piece of software over here which handles multi-directional transfer of music between computers and portable music players and doesn’t require credit card details in order to download album artwork.
  7. I continue but this message keeps appearing. Over in the iTunes browser, weird things are happening.
  8. Ignore all training by suddenly ripping iPod cable from iPod. Scare co-workers by swearing loudly in the office.
  9. The genre of each track I’ve played through iTunes has inexplicably changed from “Electronic” to “5”.Vow never to try anything involving iTunes ever again…especially playing music.

Alt-tab

It’s true that you don’t miss things until they’re gone. Take alt-tab, the standard window switching mechanism, for example.

Apple-tab is the OS X equivalent. This is fair enough since the apple key is in the same position as ctrl is on non-Mac keyboards. It’s the same idea – and, in fact, placement – as the old Amiga key. On a side note, perhaps in future we could all adopt an “OS key” for operating system-specific operations.

Anyway, apple-tab is no alt-tab. It switches between a seemingly random mix of open, closed and what-I-thought-I-closed-two-days-ago applications. Right now, for instance, apple-tab lets me switch between Quicktime, Finder, Preview and iTerm. Except that, when I select any of the first three, no window actually appears. Only iTerm jumps to the front. The others’ menu is activated but no other visible sign.

Is it because I’m using Virtual Desktops? Are the other applications “hidden”? I’ve no idea. OS X has no concept of virtual desktops so it’s a reasonable theory. If so, it’s still pretty unforgiveable to lack virtual desktops.

Also, note that apple-tab is an application switcher. If you spend your day in web applications (i.e. 50 Firefox windows) then you’re going to need to practise your mouse skills to switch windows.

The taskbar thing at the bottom of the desktop is no help, either – a big long list of applications with a little overlaid arrow signifying that the application is currently running. Same story when I click on the icon, however.

(I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who’s been using OS X for about a month and hasn’t read any documentation on OS X and, to be perfectly honest, isn’t planning to and honestly thinks that needing a manual for something as basic as window-switching is a bad sign.)