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November 7th 2010

Thoughts on optimising use of the new OU VLE and the OU Exchange Server

This is my first cut at an update on the changes to the OU Email and Conferencing systems for Tutors and Students, in particular on the impact on the aspects of 'Mobile Users' and users of Open Source Software including Linux. The Open University has used FirstClass, which is an excellent integrated Email and Conferencing system for ar least 12 years - we first wrote our first web page about upgrading it to Version 5.1 in 1998 and the OU had been using version 3.5 for many years. It was a Server Client system where the client had to be installed on your system. It could be used in an Offline mode called Personal if you installed a simple server on your machine which you could Replicate (synchronise) when you were online). Few pieces of Software have stood the test of time so well and it is still well supported but for various reasons the OU has chosen to use a different conferencing system and withdraw email support for students and Microsoft Exchange mailboxes for Tutors. The only supported access to The Microsoft Exchange Server is via a web interface provided by Microsoft called OWA (Outlook Web Access) and the Virtual Learning Environment supplies a web based forum system as part of a wider system. This obviously offers some cost savings as there is no longer any need to licence the FirstClass Clients or provide students with email.

The Open University Virtual Learning Environment

The Open University has changed from using First Class as its Primary Email and Conferencing system for its courses to a Virtual Learning Environment. A Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) provides a framework and set of tools by which course content and elearning activities can be delivered online. As part of the OU's VLE, a number of tools have been developed which are now available for ALs to use to support student learning. There is another reasonable definition of a VLE at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_learning_environment . The OU VLE is based on Moodle and is currently has the largest number of users outside of Moodle.org at 651,727 and has 5,332 courses using Moodle (as of 8 November 2010). Moodle is scalable, robust and feature rich and the fact thatl other establishments are already running with over 25,000 courses confirm the system has scope for expansion.

At this point we are only interested in a few components of the OU VLE, in particular the VLE-Forums and the Email access provided to Tutors.

VLE Forums

Microsoft Outlook Exchange Server

Access software

The Outlook Web App (OWA), originally called Outlook Web Access, is a webmail service of Microsoft Exchange Server. The web interface of OWA resembles the interface in Microsoft Outlook. OWA is used to access e-mail, calendars, contacts, tasks, and other mailbox content via a web browser and offers much of the functionality of Microsoft Outlook. The most important difference is that Outlook allows users to work when an internet connection is unavailable, whereas OWA requires an internet connection to function. The OU favours OWA and provides no support for users of Microsoft Outlook or other POP and IMAP access from, for example, Thunderbird. The OU thereby restricts supported use to those with very deep pockets or broadband. The OWA interface comes in two flavours, one with a complete feature set and an alternative 'Lite' version with reduced functionality . The full version requires Internet Explorer 7 or later, Mozilla Firefox 3.01 and later, Google Chrome or Apple Safari 3.1 whilst the Lite version is rendered in other browsers.

Microsoft Outlook is a personal information manager, available separately application and as a part of the Microsoft Office suite. It is the optimum client designed to work with Microsoft Echange Server and it is claimed to have 500 million users. As well as e-mail, it also includes a calendar, task manager, contact manager, note taking, a journal and web browsing. It can be used as a stand-alone application, or can work with Microsoft Exchange Server and Microsoft SharePoint Server for multiple users in an organization, such as shared mailboxes and calendars, Exchange public folders, SharePoint lists and meeting schedules. The current version is Microsoft Outlook 2010 for Windows and 2011 for Mac and only costs £119.99 as a standalone program. Not surprisingly there is no version for Linux.

Thunderbird access via IMAP and POP. The Outlook Exchange Server email is accessible via IMAP or POP although, not surprisingly Microsoft has not implemented the full standards and conventions used by almost everyone else. This is the best way to be able to continue to work when an internet connection is unavailable or expensive and you can not afford to purchase Outlook or use Linux. The main use with the OU by Tutors is email and Thunderbird offers impressive facilities for Offline working with IMAP or POP so this is our prefered solution. The choice of POP versus IMAP is more dependent on circumstances and we will return to that.

Outlook Exchange Server - Key Information to set up POP and IMAP

Common Information to set up IMAP and POP access to OU Microsoft Exchange on Thunderbird

Name: A Other (your choice for display)
Email address: a.n.other@open.ac.uk (new email format)

Incoming Communication using IMAP
Type: IMAP
Port: 993
Server name: ouca.open.ac.uk
Security: SSL
User name: ano123
Authentication: Password

Incoming Communications using POP
Type: POP3
Port: 995
Server name: ouca.open.ac.uk
Security: SSL
User name: ano123
Authentication: Password

NOTE It is best to set to Retaining a copy of the emails on the server

Outgoing Communications through Exchange are always SMTP
Type: SMTP
Port: 465
Server name: ouca.open.ac.uk
Security: SSL
User name: ano123
Authentication: Password

Note: The advantage of using the OU SMPT server over that from your ISP is that it automatically saves your sent mail into an online folder.

 

Getting the most out of VLE Forums.

There are two mechanisms available to quickly monitor what is going on in the VLR forums in which you are actively participating or just watching out of interest without going online for long periods.

Subscribing to a VLE forum

The first and most useful mechanism is to subscribe to the forum or to a single thread within it. There are links at the bottom of the forum or thread to do this. Once you have subscribed, an email is sent to you at your registered OU email address which contains every new posting and, for ones already in a thread, the post it is responding to. This good for a small number of forums which do not have large numbers of participants.If you have a large number of active participants you will receive a large number of emails and if you have several forums they will all be mixed up making monitoring difficult. It is, therefore, very desirable to be able to filter and sort the incoming emails into folders corresponding to the various forums.

Sorting messages containing postings into folders: Thunderbird has a rule based message filtering mechanism which enables you to do the required identification based on information in the title of the email message and information in the body of the message and then move the message to a different folder. This works on POP and IMAP folders and you can move the message to an online folder on the IMAP server if you have an Exchange or other IMAP mailbox or an offline folder if you have either a POP or IMAP mailbox. If you access the same IMAP folder on several machines you need to ensure none of the rules which move messages conflict and are preferably identical

OWA also has message filtering built in which has the advantage that it is done on the server which means it is done ready for access by any machine using IMAP which reduces the number of rules and avoids any conflicts. You can also use the same mechanism to forward all your mail to another mailbox before doing the sorting into online folders - this means you can have a way to use POP access which has advantages while you are on the move, either through your usual personal account or through an additional account. There are a few restrictions in how you create the rules and it is easier to create multiple logical ORs than ANDs. For example if you want to find a forum which contains 'T889' AND 'Tutor Group' forum to sort it you have to do one test in the Title and another in the Body - see below how options you have used are greyed out preventing AND operations:



We can still use an 'in the subject or body' test but after that we are running out of options although so far two have been enough for me.

Tagging postings - Thunderbird: You are well on the way when you have all the postings from each Forum in their own folder but there is one further important step and that is to 'Tag' the postings depending on who made them. The tagged messages show up in different colours so you can tag yourself, the members of your tutor group and the course team. This is a huge help when you, as a tutor, are looking at a course wide forum so you can keep an eye on your own students and similarly for students to see what the rest of their group is doing. It also means you can pick out the Moderators and other Course team postings. You can use the various search and sorting tools in Thunderbird to easily pick out the tagged entries - the quick search feature is perfect for this. The screen grab below shows this in action on some tests in an otherwise huge inbox.



Tagging has to be set up on each machine as the tags are not stored with the message.

Tags in OWA: OWA has the ability to set tags as the outcome of an Inbox Filter rule and give them custom names and colours like Thunderbird and use then to filter you views. The tags are not so visible or intrusive depending on your viewpoint - in OWA it is a small marker whilst in Thunderbird the whole title is coloured which I prefer as it is impossible to miss. Note again that the tags applied in OWA can only be seen within OWA and likewise in Thunderbird they are only visible on the machine where you have set up the rules.

Creating your Rules

The main thing is to decide on your strategy before you create the rules - this makes getting the logic correct much easier. The following screendump shows what we set up for our online access via OWA although we could equaly well have shown the same for Thunderbird. The first three ticked rules tag depending on the sender and then the following rules sorts those from subscriptions into online folders which sit below the Inbox.


The tags are only shown in OWA and the operation has to be repeated in Thunderbird whilst the sorting into folders is obviously seen everywhere. The messages resulting from subscriptions are really only intended to alert us to what is going on, in particular the need to respond online. Useful postings from forums where you are lurking can be can be filed into local folders on your machine. It is very debatable about removing Tutor Mailings from the online inbox automatically and this has now been turned off.

This seemed to work well to me for the periods where we were at home as Pauline to could use the Wind netbook, her laptop or my desktop with a big screen seemlessly. However everything was in the clouds and somewhat ephemeral to Pauline and she wanted to keep a copy of anything and everything which was important locally so it was logical to move on to the POP access alternative with the messages left on the server to allow webmail (aka OGA) access if required and as a backup. I decided to leave all the OGA rules in place but just untick the ones to move the forum messages to folders. Having tried the various options it is now time to return in more detail to:

Choosing between OWA, Redirecting, Forwarding, IMAP and POP access to the OU Exchange Server

I have experimented with most of the options and they all work and the decision rests on on what sort of user you are, in particular if you are mobile and want to minimise times online and/or data flows. My initial feeling was that the IMAP route was the one to try first, perhaps because it was different to what I done before and I wanted to explore it more. In particular I wanted to see how well the offline caching worked, how effective the message filters were on an IMAP mailbox and get a handle on the actual data flow.

First lets set some groundrules with a consideration of the different types of users and connections - where we sit is in italics. Your situation may be very different

Types of Use and Users

Types of Connection

The advantages of Redirecting or Forwarding from the Exchange Server set up in OWA

You can avoid/minimise your use of OWA if you are not enthusiastic about using an online system for email. You can easily set up OWA to Forward or Redirect your emails. The two are different. Forwarding is just an automatic version of the Forwarding of an email message you are used to. The Title has FW: added on the front and the reply address is that of the OWA mail system so you can easily make the mistake of replying to yourself. The only advantage is that the messages remain on the Exchange Server. Redirecting is perfect if you already have a good well set up Email system with plenty of mailbox capacity. You can arrange for all the messages to be Redirected by a simple rule and they will no longer be on the server. This means the mailbox will never fill up and you probably do not have to worry about reseting passwords until you need access to change the forwarding - hopefully it cn be reset elsewhere. You can, of course, also use either to cope with a period when you are away and want a less data thirsty solution than web access and you can use your rules to make sure you just forward/redirect the important messages and leave everything else till your return.

The advantages of POP access through Thunderbird (leaving messages on the server) are:

  1. A local copy of everything incoming which can be used to retain a long term audit trail.
  2. Short term backup via the messages retained on the Exchange Server
  3. Access via OGA, IMAP or POP on other machines while the messages are retained (say 3 months)
  4. The same tagging of messages and sorting into folders as with OGA is possible with the advantage they are local.
  5. True offline working with writing of emails offline possible
  6. Choices about data flow with ability to restrict the length of messages downloaded to say 10K until cheap data available (Thunderbird feature)
  7. Overall reduction in data flow because only one download needed which is good for mobile broadband.
  8. Online can can be kept very short with everything being accomplished in a single send and receive of all ones POP mailboxes in parallel which is good for pay by the minute mobile operation for example via a satellite link.
  9. Data link integrity only a minor issue with offline operation using POP and SMTP - would you use OGA on a train with a tunnel ahead?

Disadvantages of POP access through Thunderbird (leaving messages on the server) are:

  1. One has to eventually use OGA or IMAP access to tidy up the Exchange server to avoid exceeding mailbox limits (currently 100 mbytes so not a problem over the length of a course)
  2. No seamless operation across machines - one computer is very much the master although the Thunderbird Profile can be moved to a different machine when one is going mobile for an extended time.

Advantages of sending emails through Thunderbird and considerations in the choice of SMTP server

  1. Easy choice of SMTP server even on a message basis
  2. Any outgoing emails can be automatically copied to another email address - we keep a separate mailbox for these backups
  3. Use of OU Exchange Server's SMTP server has advantages as a further copy is saved online for backup on the exchange server and accessible via OGA.
  4. The ISP or mobile operators SMTP server can easily be set up as an alternative - some operators do not allow access to other SMTP servers to avoid spamming even if you are using authenticate SMTP.

 

Using the RSS feeds.

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a web feed format used to publish frequently updated works—such as blog entries, news headlines, audio, and video in a standardized format. Most RSS 'channels' includes full or summarized text, plus metadata such as publishing dates and authorship. Readers can subscribe to timely updates from favored websites or to aggregate feeds from many sites into one place. The user subscribes to a feed by entering into the reader the feed's URI or by clicking an RSS icon in a web browser (such as Firefox) that initiates the subscription process. The RSS reader automatically checks the user's subscribed feeds regularly (often every half hour or when the package is opened) for new work, downloads any updates that it finds, and provides a user interface to monitor and read the feeds. This avoids one needing to manually check the website as all new content is effectively pushed onto their browsers when it becomes available. This is the mechanism which provides the BBC news feed built into the Firefox browser (the drop down at near the left of the links toolbar).

The OU offers RSS feeds for most VLE Forums with the title displayed. This means you can very easily know when an interesting posting has turned up and is ideal for a tutor group. You can also see the content of the postings which are in the feed Without having to Log In by clicking at the bottom of the list on the link Open Forum-Name. You can then go to the actual postings to respond from the links but you have to log in at this point. The access to the agregated page is via an unencrypted link (http rather than the encrypted https) so you should therefore be cautious about using RSS in Wifi cafes or on shared machines where the address might be left in the browser history.

Subscription is very easy you will find the feed at the bottom of each VLE forum:



just click on the Atom RSS link in Firefox and you will be taken to a page for the subscription which looks like :



and click subscribe now and it will add it to the end of your bookmarks toolbar - you can then drag it where you want and use Right Click -> Properties to shorten the name so they all fit on.

 

 

November 8th 2010

Lost passwords on Windows 7 (and many other versions)

A friend who had been in the habit of just hibernating his machine found that he had forgotten his login password for Windows. I first loaded up a Ubuntu 10.04 LiveCD and found and copied out all the important files to another external DVD drive then tried the Offline registry tools and password resetter by Petter N Hagen to change the existing password to a blank. This works on many flavours of Windows from NT3.51 to Vista/Win7 32/64bit and 2008 server. There are good instructions and you download a small .iso file (4 Mbytes) and create a LiveCD. This loaded a small Linux system with the utilities which were menu driven using the keyboard. The only non default activity was to chose windows system drive which was in partition 2 rather than the default of 1 because there was a small hidden partition for system rebuilding created by Windows 7. I had to clear the locked/disabled flags (too many attempts to log in) then clear the password of his account to a blank. After saving the changes the machine booted up fine. Many thanks to Petter from my very embarrassed friend.

November 13th 2010

Transferring Cassette Tapes and LPs to MP3

This has turned out to be both easier and more difficult than I had initially expected. I have found an excellent program for recording, editing and converting to MP3 and many other formats called Audacity which is available throughthe Ubuntu Software Centre and The Synaptic Package Manager. This has good documentation with lots of tutorials, faqs and reference documents to help. The difficult part has been setting up the system side although agaig there are some very complete tutorials even showing pictures of the connectors you use on a normal computer. The sound input is normally through a 3.5 mm 'minature' jack which the built in sound cards or motherboards support on most desktops (blue socket) but not on any of my laptops. You can monitor this in Audacity but it is best to connect it directly through your sound system which is where my problems started.

Setting up the Sound System - Alsamixer

The panel control and that through System -> Preferences -> Sound gives minimal access and control of the sound system so you need to access a proper Mixer and Control Panel for controlling the ALSA sound system - the obvious is the Gnome ALSA Mixer which is available through the USC as ALSA Mixer and provides a nice GUI interface to a huge number of parameters. Unfortunately it gives an error message when you start it or try to set its preferences but this does not seem to effect its basic operation. This is a known bug which has come and gone with various versions for many years which nobody seems to think worth fixing. The full panel stretches the whole width of my screen so I have only been able to show the area of most importance to sound recording.

The two controls we are most interested in are the 'Line' input and this needs to have the mute checkbox cleared so we can listen to the input stream and we need to control the recording level with the 'Capture' controls where we set up the level and the balance. You also need to make sure the Microphone - and other possible sound sources - are muted and not set to be recorded. The curson on the picture above is on the balance - for some reason almost all Cassette recordings are not balanced and it is best to get this about right although you can do a final adjustment in Audacity. Likewise you want the best signal to noise but not to saturate so again the overall level should be set so that the highest level is aboutor just above -3dbs but never clipping - this may mean a test run or quick abort on each cassette. LPs seem more consistent and have a better balance between channels. Audacity has record meters built in which show the peak as well as instantaneous levels and also have the two tracks displayed. You can drag the end of the meters to increase the size which is nice and likewise drag the bottom of the tracks down to increase their size to aid adjustment.

The alternative to the Gnome ALSA Mixer if you find error messages non-acceptable is the terminal version alsamixer which takes some getting used to - when you start it use h on the keyboard immediately to get a help screen or you will take hours to work it out! See below for the help screen (note the windows have been reduced to the minimum practical below).

 

This is the Help display you get with the h or H key - you will need it!

We have done an F3 to get to Playback settings, Left/ Rights to get to the adjustments for the 'Line' input, M to toggle Mute off so we can listen as well as capture it, and Up/Down to change the volume.

 

This shows how to set the window to be Always on Top

We have reduced the size of the window even more, F4 for Capture view and then used the arrow keys to get to the 'Capture' adjustments. We can mute/unmute with M and enable/disable with the space bar. We can now adjust the Left and Right channels independently with the q, z, e and c keys.

What I normally do first is to start Audacity and Gnome Alsa Mixer both running so I can watch and get the levels and balance correct on a test recording started by the red button. I Find it is often best to keep the mixer program I am using always running 'Always on Top' in as small a window as possible. You can do this for any program by clicking on the little button at the very top left (above file) or right clicking for a menu on the program on the bottom panel. You can then watch record meters built in to Audacity which show the peak as well as instantaneous levels and the tracks which are displayed whilst you are setting the level and balance. You can drag the end of the meters to increase the size which is nice and likewise drag the tracks down to increase the size. You can use Ctrl 1 and Ctrl 3 (or one of the zoom icons which look like little magnifying glasses on the toolbar) to zoom in and out during the recording to get an idea of the balance and levels as the trial progresses.

More recently I have found yet another mixer available from the Ubuntu Software Centre namely Alsa Mixer (Gamix). This has no problems when being started but crashes if you try and access the configuration menu under Prog. Its display is similar to Gnome ALSA-Mixer but the sliders are jerky in operation so I have ended up using Gnome ALSA-Mixer most of the time. For completeness its window is shown below:


Capturing the sound from the Cassette or Record

Once I have the settings it is time to capture the full cassette tape.

Processing the sound

I have only used a fraction of the facilities so far but for cassette tapes I:

Creating an MP3

I am assuming that the LAME encoder/decoder is already loaded- it may not be by default as it is counted as proprietory and protected in some countries. LAME (LAME Ain't an MP3 Encoder) is a research project for learning about and improving MP3 encoding technology. You can find out by looking in Edit -> Settings -> If it is not installed try Synaptic and Search for lame and install ubuntu-restricted-extras libmp3lame0 and libtwolame0 - These LAME packages include an MP3 encoding library, a simple frontend application, and other tools for sound analysis, as well as convenience tools.

Now make the MP3 by File -> Export and select MP3 in the File Type drop down and then click on the Properties button.


I have entered the name of the file and chosen the folder where it will be put. I have selected MP3 files and now need to click Options to set up the MP3 quality.



The default is a fixed encoding at 128 Kps which is predictable but we can do better by using one of the presets recommended by the writers of LAME as shown in the screenshot.

When we click OK a couple of times we are taken to a screen where we set up the metadata for the file which will be displayed when we are chosing it and playing it in Rhythmbox or your favourite player.

Then you just have to wait. Each of the Effects and the final writing take 5 to 10% of the length of the tape so allow an elapsed time for a conversion of about 150% of 'tape' time much of which you can be doing other things.

Saving Time

When you have had some practice you can investigate chaining the commands to save interaction and tags and exporting multiple files to separate your tracks.

Cautions

Audacity uses a lot of disk space especially with lots of undo depth. I have a drive with 17 Gbytes free and I run out of space unless I exit the program after every couple of cassette tapes - it takes a long time when you exit as it is recovering all the temporary space etc. so do not responde to any messages saying it is not closing and do yo want to do a forced quit. So save your project often and then you can recover if you run out of space. Watch the status bar as it wil tell you how much time you have left when recording.

Problems with no sound being recorded

Sometimes I find that I am getting no capture at all - it is worth then checking the volume and control settings in the panel as the setting for sound preferences -> input sometimes seem to get out of step with those from Alsamixer and the input is muted. The correct settings are below:

Editing MP3 Tags - Ex Falso

Audacity does an excellent job of capturing and cleaning up Cassette Tapes and LPs and converting into MP3s and you can set the Tag information when you save them. I have however made a number of mistakes and one does not want the loss of bringing the files back into Audacity so I searched for a simple tag editor and found Ex Falso which can be loaded by the Synaptic Package Manager. It is all very self explanitory and I have not even looked to see if it has help files! It allows one to make changes to multiple files which you need when changing every track in a recording.

24th November 2010

Philosophy behind the approach used on the Ubuntu pages of the web site

This is the start of explanation of the approach used in 'Fun with Ubuntu Linux' and all the pages it has spawned and whether that approach should change in the future.

It was provoked by an email which I quote below:

I cannot remember whether I have made these comments about your Website before, and if so I apologise for raising them again, but I have found your Website so useful in my progression from Windows to Linux, that anything that makes it better for other people seems worthwhile.

Whilst packed with useful information, the overwhelming impression that I pick up is that to do anything in Linux you need to use a Terminal. Now I appreciate that:-

1. There are some things in Linux that can ONLY be done via a Terminal, and many of them that you describe are certainly in this category.
2. Your Website mainly refers to older versions of Ubuntu.
3. Many Linux 'gurus' prefer to do things via the Terminal.

However, as someone who has (successfully) migrated to Linux from Windows, I would comment that:-

1. In my opinion, it is fear of the Terminal (although I personally find this more from reputation than in practice) that is one of the major things that puts potential new Users off Linux.
2. With each new Version of Ubuntu, more and more functionality that used to require a Terminal can now be managed via a Window, which makes (or ought to make) Ubuntu Linux more attractive to potential Windows converts.

Consequently, I think your Website would benefit from a rebuild that brings it more in line with the latest Versions of Ubuntu, and wherever possible describes how things can (now) be done using Configuration Windows rather than describing how to do things with a Terminal, which tends to give the impression that you HAVE to do them with a Terminal. I'm not sure what Version(s) of Ubuntu you are currently running, and I appreciate that this would involve you in a lot of work, but I think that your Website would really benefit from this treatment.

The first thing is to see what I have actually said so far and then review to see if it still reflects by views or if it should change - not unreasonable after 4 years. The following come from the start of Fun with Ubuntu

This page and the pages split off from it are primarily a how I did it story with a lot of detailed information. There are now some additional how you should do it pages for the newcomer.

This page has become a record of my progress with details of all the changes I have made (and how) to the systems so I can repeat them in the future. It is in a sort of chronological order although I have done some re-ordering to avoid swapping back and forwards between different aspects. I have also included many of the links I found useful at the time. I hope it will be useful to others and perhaps avoid yet more reinventions of the wheel - in due course it may become refined enough to became a 'guide'.

It is now in 2010 four years on from the issue of version 6.06 Dapper Drake that I started with. I upgraded most of my machines, without too many tears, to the next Long Term Support (LTS) version 8.04 Hardy Heron and then to 9.04 Jaunty Jacalope. There is now another LTS version 10.04 Lucid Lynx which all but one of my machines are using - it is more refined and has much better support for some hardware making much of the original document redundant. I have gradually been updated this document and dropping the parts which are no longer relevant as the versions covere lose support although I will keep the Original for reference and users of Dapper Drake and a frozen copy of Fun with Ubuntu Linux for Hardy, Jaunty and Karmic

 

Now lets see the scale of the task: If one uses print preview with a scale factor of 80% we get a print density which would correspond to a normal book and the complete set of Ubuntu web pages would then correspond to a total of 184 A4 printed pages or perhaps 300 in a more usual technical book size such as Royal. Major changes are not trivial even if appropriate.

What Changes are and are not appropriate.

Much of what I have written has been a 'how I did it story' - one should not change history but it is fair to add notes where alternative (Note I do not say better) GUI approaches are available. In many cases this has already happened. The value of an actual 'how I did it story' is that it does more than solve one problem but shows the approach to solving the problem which can be used for other problems. This is particularly true when it comes to devices and drivers.

To Terminal or not to Terminal

As Ubuntu has been refined more and more can be done without use of the terminal (Applications -> Accessories -> Terminal the first time but the first thing I do is add it to the top Panel). Much of the system configuration can be done via GUI (Graphical User Input) as well as almost all loading of programs. If it affects other users you will need administrative rights and will have to enter a password. The Terminal allows you to enter Commands which are direct to the Linux operating system (kernel) either as yourself - a normal user who can only change your own files etc and as a Superuser (called Root) who can change system files which affect all users. You have to have administrative rights to run a superuser which need a password and they only last for a limited time. If you are running as a Superuser you have virtually unlimited powers just like you had in DOS or when running commands in Windows and there is no undo facility from the command line - you need to be sensible and know what you are trying to do and not just experiment.

So when do you need to use commands from the terminal? Basically I only use the terminal when something does not work 'out of the box' or needs some fine tuning not available in a GUI I know about. These days most hardware and software is built in or works adequately out of the box. There are two major exceptions. The first is some of the media software where codecs can not be built in as they infringe patents etc in some countries - this needed a number of things to be done which used to (and may still) need use of a terminal. Playing encrypted (ie commercial) DVDs and creating MP3 and MPEG files are two examples. The second area is devices - most devices are 'plug and play' (often known as 'plug and pray' in the days of Windows) but if they do not work out of the box you can often get them working quite simply but will need to use a terminal to do so. The standard way is to search on the internet to find somebody who has made them work and almost inevitably there 'fix' will be using terminal commands but in a very simple way - the commands can be copied one by one using copy paste and run and you may be in business. This involves trust but usually it will be in a discussion thread and others will have reported back. The trouble is that if you have never used a terminal then you have extra learning curve, chance of mistakes etc so I favour using it enough to get familiar on safe non superuser/root activities (No sudo at the start of the line) to get confident.

I have never had any fears of using the terminal in principle as I was brought up in DOS days (actually earlier in the days CP/M) so if I have suggestions in front of me which involve the Terminal I do not bother to look for alternatives. I have also written some simple scripts for tasks which I keep doing like loading all my standard programs, codecs, fonts etc. I look at is like cooking - most people follow recipes fairly blindly and do not poisen themselves. Chefs write those recipes and if you paraphrase Chef and Guru then using a terminal to add a new font is little different to adding an spice you don't know to a recipe. However if you have never cooked anything in your life following a recipe to make a souflee may not be a good start. In 'The Road to Freedom' I put forward a set of basic skills I would suggest that people had before have before they started on installing Ubuntu - that did not include use of a Command Line but I would be worried about anybody starting with Linux who would not be prepared to learn. If I ever have any doubts or want to understand more I look at the man (manual) page for the command which is found by typing man commandname in a terminal which gives all one needs to know but in a very terse form. Or I do a search for the actual command with all the parameters using google to see who uses it and for what.

List of activities where use of the terminal can be replaced by a GUI.

gconfig-edit can be accessed by running Edit Menus by a Right Click on Applications and ticking the box under System Tools. I probably run gconfig-edit more from the command line from habit.

dmesg you can see the various log files by System -> Log File Viewer and selecting dmesg. I have always run dmesg from a terminal but the GUI may make it easier to get to read different bits.

You can create a 'root browser' which runs Nautilus as Root to allow you to edit files, set permissions etc on system files without actually entering a Terminal Window. A dangerous but useful trick. This is covered in detail at www.pcurtis.com/ubuntu.htm#gui_v_terminal. I use the nautilus running as root trick all the time which avoids 80% of the need for a terminal but tend to enter it with a terminal command as its just as quick.

Adding PPAs - You can usually add these using Administration -> Software Sources with a little work although I was interested to find that THE Essential Repository if you want to use Media (Audio Visual) which is called Medibuntu only now only has instructions on how to load it using a terminal and a single cut and paste.

Probably more to follow

List of Activities where I still believe the terminal is essential

Anything to do with Devices which do not work 'out of the box'. You either wait till there is support in the Kernel which means waiting for the next version which may not be an LTS version or doing a patch for a period of time. Here commands such as dmesg blkid and lsusb.

Some work with Bluetooth devices especially to set them up as modems.

Monitoring connection times. I have a script called traffic which could be run from a launcher but that only hides the fact that it contains lots of commands and its display is in a terminal Window

More to follow

25th November 2010

Adding a Favicon to a web site

An incoming enquiry asked:

You know how when you set up a Bookmark in your Web Browser, a little Logo appears next to the Bookmark Name; how is this done? I notice that your Websites appear with a lovely little blue logo, and I'm wondering whether it is possible for me to do anything like that, or is that only something a Web Server can do?

My response was:

26th November 2010

FireFTP a modern fully featured cross-platform FTP program which runs as an extension in Firefox

FireFTP is an extension to the Firefox browser and is normally run in one of its tabs although you can use its Options to choose to always launch in a separate Window.

You need to have Firefox installed before Installing FireFTP as an extension. Assuming you already have Firefox then:



The setting up is easy - the following screens are accessed via the drop down at top left which shows the current connection but at the top of the list is selection for a new connection. You only need to set up the Main tab and you must have three pieces of information from your web space provider

  1. Host: - usually starts with ftp.
  2. Login: Your username for FTP which may be the same as for your email but not always.
  3. Password: Your password for FTP which may be the same as for your email but not always.



The connection screen contains the initial values of local directory and that on the web site. Your ISP should tell you where the web site should be uploaded to. If it is the root directory just enter a / otherwise / and the directory name - it is often a directory called /http or /httpdocs. You may be able to go to / and it should be obvious.


Passive Mode: Unless advised otherwise by your ISP you should leave Passive Transfers ticked as it works best for 90% of ISPs.

Keep directories in sync while navigating: This is one of the big pluses of FireFTP. If you specify both an Initial Local and Initial Remote directory this feature becomes available. Once it's enabled and you've connected to your server - every directory change you make, whether on the local or remote side, will be mirrored by the opposite side. This feature assumes that both sides are similar, if not exactly the same, in content. This is particularly useful for web designers who have local and remote copies of their files and who do not wish to have to change directories on both sides when uploading and downloading files.

Once you have set up the account you use the Connect Button to Connect

Tip - under Linux you can start it directly by typing in a terminal:

firefox -chrome chrome://fireftp/content/

Or create a launcher instead of using a terminal - Al note this trick!

We now have an excellent stand alone FTP program when it is set to run in a window not a tab. Many thanks to the authors for an excellent program and for use of the icon in my launcher.

1st December 2010

A method for hiding text and expanding it

The idea for the following methods is based on some code found at the Webdeveloper.com by Ultimater.In my version it involves three small JavaScript functions. It should work in all browsers that support the W3C DOM Core and includes a test to prevent any hang ups.

The template I use for all my pages contains links to a standard JavaScript file called epopup.js (in the begining it just provided popups but now has lots of other functions hence the epopup.js) and a standard Cascading Style Sheet CSS file called general.css. The JavaScript functions are added to epopup.js and the styles for the 'expander' and the expanded text are added togeneral.css. You could place them in the head instead- with suitable wrapping - or just add them to otherwise empty .css and .js files. The links to my standard files use the following code which is already in the head of almost every page:


<script src="epopup.js" language="JavaScript" type="text/javascript"></script>
<link rel="stylesheet" href="general.css" type="text/css" >

The new functions in epopup.js are:

/* The following functions are loosely based on code found at the Webdeveloper.com by Ultimater */

function ExpandOn(topicID){
var expand=document.getElementById(topicID);
if(!expand)return true;
if(expand.style.display=="none"){
expand.style.display="block"
}
return true;
}

function ExpandOff(topicID){
var expand=document.getElementById(topicID);
if(!expand)return true;
if(expand.style.display=="block"){
expand.style.display="none"
}
return true;
}

function ExpandToggle(topicID){
var expand=document.getElementById(topicID);
if(!expand)return true;
if(expand.style.display=="none"){
expand.style.display="block"
} else {
expand.style.display="none"
}
return true;
}

And the two new style for the 'expander' and to identify the expanded topic which I have added to general.css are:

.expand {
color: #000099;
text-decoration: underline;
font-style: italic;
}
.expandedblock {
margin-left: 40px;
margin-right: 2%;
display: block;
padding: 10px;
background-color: #ffffff;
}

You need to insert the following into the HTML to obtain the 'link'and how to wrap the 'topic' you want to be able to expand [ Click to Expand and see the code to insert ]

If you can not see the code you have not clicked the 'expander' so try it out - you can then [ Click here to hide it again ]

Another set of Expand and Hide Scripts

The following scripts also let you open or close either single 'topics' and also multiple topics together. I found this code by Christian J in a thread in a Web Design Group forum under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 License so this can only be used for non-commercial work. It creates all the 'containers' automatically so it is very easy to use when you have many 'topics' to hide and expand. I have not used it live yet but in testing I found that the JavaScript has to follow the 'topics' you want to Hide and Expand. [ Click to Expand and see the code to insert and to try this alternative approach  ]

Pro and Cons of the two approaches above

I am currently using the approach and scripts I developed because they are based on ones used by many other web sites and I also understand what they do as I wrote them. The alternative by Christain J is more elegant and better for a large number of short expansions but I have not found a way to add any styles to the limited text available for expanding and contracting

5th December 2010

Wifi and Keyrings

I have just installed Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid onto a friends amchine and had some trouble with the Wifi. Normally when you find a new Wifi Source which is WEP or WAP you enter the key and the first time it asks you to set up your default keyring. You add a password twice as a check and that is it saved. That did not happen and every time after that it asked for a password we did not know. It is possible it had found a shadow on another drive as it was a rebuild of a system. I found that the keys are stored in your home folder in folder .gnome2 and if you delete the keyring called default.keyring you then start again and set it up when you try to connect to the wifi. If you then want to change the password you can go to Applications -> Accessories -> Password and Encryption Keys and change the password to what you want. After this one had to set up the Wifi again and store the password using the option for it to be always set up at start up. The Wifi also needed to be set to auto to start it automatically using the network Connections -> Edit Connections -> Wireless -> select -> Edit -> Click bow for Auto Connect. I have not been able to duplicate on my machine as it was updated to 10.04 and the keyrings seem to be different and stored in a single login keyring.

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