...making Linux just a little more fun!

April 2005 (#113):

The Front Page

By Heather Stern

Tux and his faithful steed SuSE in the Old West

[BIO] Tux has been Linux's mascot since shortly after the release of the 2.0 kernel. He's been known to be quite the fellow for the ladypenguins, and A Brief History Of Tux - So Far will surely tell you more than you needed to know about this dashing fellow. All too often, it's a working vacation for him, but he's considering a hiking trip or a cruise sometime this Summer.

Heather is Linux Gazette's Technical Editor and The Answer Gang's Editor Gal.

[BIO] Heather got started in computing before she quite got started learning English. By 8 she was a happy programmer, by 15 the system administrator for the home... Dad had finally broken down and gotten one of those personal computers, only to find it needed regular care and feeding like any other pet. Except it wasn't a Pet: it was one of those brands we find most everywhere today...

Heather is a hardware agnostic, but has spent more hours as a tech in Windows related tech support than most people have spent with their computers. (Got the pin, got the Jacket, got about a zillion T-shirts.) When she discovered Linux in 1993, it wasn't long before the home systems ran Linux regardless of what was in use at work.

By 1995 she was training others in using Linux - and in charge of all the "strange systems" at a (then) 90 million dollar company. Moving onwards, it's safe to say, Linux has been an excellent companion and breadwinner... She took over the HTML editing for "The Answer Guy" in issue 28, and has been slowly improving the preprocessing scripts she uses ever since.

Here's an autobiographical filksong she wrote called The Programmer's Daughter.

Copyright © 2005, Heather Stern. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 113 of Linux Gazette, April 2005

The Mailbag

HELP WANTED : Article Ideas
Submit comments about articles, or articles themselves (after reading our guidelines) to The Editors of Linux Gazette, and technical answers and tips about Linux to The Answer Gang.

What Fools We Linuxers Be

Fri, 1 Apr 2005 02:32:50 -0800
Heather Stern (The Answer Gang's Editor Gal)

We're thinking of a very special edition of "Foolish Things We Do With Our Computers". If you did something foolish, or had something foolish inflicted upon you by your otherwise favored silicon lifeform, and you're willing to have just a little more fun with it in public, send it along to us.

This does not have to be in article format. You can just send it to The Answer Gang (tag, at our happy domain linuxgazette.net) with the subject "Foolish Things With Computers" and we'll gather them all up and roast marshmallows over them. Let us know if you want your name left in - we'll take these anonymously too. But don't just make them up; we want real tales that make us groan and go agh I won't do that again! :)

Articles about voice

Thu, 24 Mar 2005 14:21:50 -0800
Heather Stern (The Answer Gang's Editor Gal)

In the issues numbered about 85 to 89 we had articles about the use of voice on computers in developing areas, for hadicapped usage, and the like.

Sound systems on Linux have improved considerably - we've had Jimmy cover "Songs In the Key of Tux" - but we haven't come back to the topic of ordinary voices. Voice Over IP got a mere nod in my Answer Gang blurb last Summer.

If you are interested in writing an article on this topic, see our article submission guidelines and then drop us a line!


Knight's tour

Wed, 2 Mar 2005 23:05:44 +0100
Gunno Törnberg (gunno from telia.com)
Sent to our author Kapil Hari Paranjape privately, printed with permission. -- Heather


and thanks for your amusing article about the Knight's tour in Linux Gazette. I don't understand Python, but I have some experience of the Knight's tour problem. Mathematicians might have annoying habits, and one could be to end their articles with Exercises Like: 4.There is apparently a better algorithm than Warnsdorff's for the Hamiltonian circuit. Find it and implement it.

"apparently" ?! Enough to drive at least me crazy ;-)

I have a couple of pages about the problem at:

with some decently efficient Java applets and some about the research done about the problem of how many closed tours there are. (At least I would call that problem 'hard')

Once again, Thanks for your article
and Best regards

Gunno Törnberg

RW "Quick Format"...

Sun, 6 Mar 2005 13:36:24 -0500
David Yerka (leshaworks from iname.com)

Here's a reply to my posting of the Packet Writing material on my own site. I've gotten his permission to forward this into TAG as commentary on the original, so if you want to use it... ?



Hi Brian,

Actually the time for UDF formatting of a CDRW is consistant with Nero's packet driver (InCD) under Windows. InCD used to have multiple selections of "Format" and "Quick Format" available but only the "Format" option was available for a BLANK CDRW disk and formatting could take up to 45min to an hour. A previous formatted UDF disk would let you "quick format" and take considerably less time; some times as short as 6min.

Of course, I suspect the "quick format" is really only doing a quick erase and random verify of the file system. This would be similar to a 'quick erase' of a CDRW disk which was written/formatted as an iso -- erase the header and directory structure but don't bother with rest of data (i.e. lets hope the surface, etc. is OK and we'll just overwrite for the new compilation).

I had a Mount Ranier capable CDRW drive at one point and I noticed that it worked a bit differently. Apparently MR drives can format and write "at the same time" and also do formatting in the background. So, when using MR (instead of UDF 1.5) it appeared only the disk headers and directory structure was initially formatted. Then, as data was sent to the drive (by "drag and drop" or whatever) it was cached and buffered, then the space needed was formatted and written to in the background. When the disk was ejected a significate delay occured while anything left in the cache was written out to disk and the disk cleaned up. It appeared that only as much of the disk was actually formatted as needed because you could "force" a full disk format in MR and it would take about as long to complete as a format as UDF.

Users should also be aware that UDF file systems are much, much less safe than standard iso compilations. They are more effected by heat. Not all UDF file systems are equal -- especially now that various revision levels are out (UDF1.5 appears to be "standard recommended" while there were revisions up to 2.5 last time I looked). In practice I've found that using packet writting is tends to work only for the computer/drive you write it on and only for relatively short term storage.

Note the fact that Windows XP's setup for CD writing uses a disk buffer and writes only a iso. It simulates a "drag and drop" random access file system by mapping the CDRW disk to the buffer (actually a system folder called "cd burning") and then just burns asks to burn a standard iso. For adding to a written disk it appear to load what is already on disk to the buffer adding to the new files then erase the CDRW disk and re-burn it. I suspect even good old Microsoft figured the odds of including UDF packed writing would be adding another can of worms to XP.

David Yerka

PS: I have been testing Xandros OC 3.0.1 and I find I like it quite a bit. I didn't find 2/2.5 really ready for an average business user but Xandros 3 looks to be a true MS desktop killer. A number of my clients are fed up with paying through the nose for Windows "upgrades" -- some really feel MS tugging the chain -- so they are very interested. I even have one office where the practice management application will run under Crossover Office -- and the developers have decided to commit to a Linux version for release next year.

Rob Tougher's article, issue 96

Thu, 31 Mar 2005 11:01:19 -0500
bbruns (bbruns from fitme.com)

Dear editor,


This was pretty good article but it seems to leave out something. Because of that I've had hours of pain. Perhaps a note could be added.

Here is what seems to be missing: setting up AXIS_HOME, AXIS_LIB, and AXIS_CLASSPATH, as in

set AXIS_HOME=c:\axis
set AXISCLASSPATH=%AXIS_LIB%\axis.jar;%AXIS_LIB%\commons-discovery.jar;

I found this solution at:

Regards and keep on going,

Bill Bruns

Trojan files on TLDP server?

Mon, 4 Apr 2005 10:27:17 -0700
Rick Moen (LG Contributing Editor)
Forwarded from a discussion on the Linux Documentation Project mailing lists. Linux Gazette is a member of TLDP... -- Heather

Date: Mon, 4 Apr 2005 15:02:12 +0000 (UTC)
From: Machtelt Garrels <address_elided>

Can somebody look into this? It never happened to me... Please confirm if this is fake or not.



Date: Mon, 28 Mar 2005 16:57:59 -0800
From: Brian Wildasinn <address_elided>

Hello TLDP,

URGENT NOTICE: Trojan LG TLDP archives alert!

On March 25, 2005, I download some files from TLDP. My download script shows a time stamp of 9:10PM, which downloaded the entire ftpfiles directory at linuxgazette from my home LAN at

I have a WinXP notebook attached to a wireless access point. After downloading some Linux Gazette tarballs from http://linuxgazette.net/ftpfiles, my security scanners show an active suspicious port open. I could telnet into port 5400 on WinXP from my FreeBSD box over my LAN.

Using NMAP security scan on FreeBSD `nmap -sS -P0 <wireless access point w/WEP encryption/router MN-700>` showed port 5400 open, which is described as "5400/tcp excerpt Excerpt Search" or Bladerunner Trogan.

Here is the results of ClamWin from my infect notebook:

See attached ClamWin.infection-log.txt


Date: Mon, 4 Apr 2005 10:27:01 -0700
From: Rick Moen <address_elided>

Quoting Machtelt Garrels:

Can somebody look into this? It never happened to me... Please confirm if this is fake or not.

What you have there is a pair of false positives. I'm not sure what in Linux Gazette issue 86 Clamwin thought was an instance of "Exploit.IFrame.Gen", which I gather is an MS-Outlook exploit. The Gazette has a feature near the end of many issues where the text of particularly hilarious spam and/or virus mail is published and mocked, so that might well be it.

I would guess that the "HTML.Phishing.Bank-1" Clamwin thought it found, I'd guess it was (likewise) erroneously triggering on the "Spam Cuteness" item in Jimmy O'Regan's "Linux Launderette" column.

Brian, there's nothing wrong with paying close attention to your anti-virus software if you're on MS-Windows, but you'll want to read the results with at least a little skepticism: For one thing, given that the Linux Gazette files are a magazine, and that you read the contents rather than executing it as a program, it's unclear to me how -- even if every issue were packed chock-a-block with MS-Windows worms, trojans, viruses, and exploits -- those could have been anything but inert curios.

You may indeed have an alarmingly open "port 5400" on your MS-Windows XP box, of course -- for entirely independent reasons. Good luck with that.


This page edited and maintained by the Editors of Linux Gazette
HTML script maintained by Heather Stern of Starshine Technical Services, http://www.starshine.org/

Published in Issue 113 of Linux Gazette, April 2005

The Answer Gang

Linux Gazette 113: The Answer Gang (TWDT) The Answer Gang 113:
...making Linux just a little more fun!
(?) The Answer Gang (!)
By Jim Dennis, Jason Creighton, Chris G, Karl-Heinz, and... (meet the Gang) ... the Editors of Linux Gazette... and You!

We have guidelines for asking and answering questions. Linux questions only, please.
We make no guarantees about answers, but you can be anonymous on request.
See also: The Answer Gang's Knowledge Base and the LG Search Engine


¶: Greetings From Heather Stern

(¶) Greetings from Heather Stern

Hello folks, things are a bit hectic over here at ye olde Answer Gang. It's been a complete madhouse - no wait, an incomplete madhouse -

Just check out the Lifehacks we have this month. Hopefully they'll keep your life less tangled than ours. We're saving up our Tips and our threads from The Answer Gang about Linux itself will be back next month, after we get the backhoes rolled away, and the forklifts are gone... Sorry for the dust, folks.

There's a friend of mine who says, when tech does poorly, buy stocks in raw materials for construction. After all we know the backhoe is the real enemy of the internet! I wonder if it's time to sell those puppies - it looks like things in the tech world are pretty much looking up. Not necessarily all at once, but certainly, there are signs of Spring. Renewal is here, there are random() seeds everywhere. We're getting to the /root of things (with a bit of hack and /-ing, true). Duck season, wabbit season... allergy season.

Ok, enough of that, I'm hiding indoors and doing programming until Summer. :) Share drinks with your friendly local bartender in the TAG lounge, and this is what you get:

Happiness is like water. It might come back as rain, but it's always there if you look for it.

Diving into something new, or coming out of deep waters? Sploosh. Remember to protect your silicate buddies from the elements. See you next month, folks :)

p.s. Yes, we do celebrate April Fools Day around here. Please send us any Foolish Things You Did With Your Computer for a special run in next month's issue. Any particularly yummy Answers you have discovered, are also welcome; by this means you, too, can join The Answer Gang! Send your submissions to: tag .at. linuxgazette.net - Thanks!

p.p.s. Yes, questions are good too, we're always eager to answer you. Well, almost always. We don't guarantee an answer (tho stumpers are likely to land in Help Wanted). However - please don't ask us things you don't want published - the Gang's not a private place. But you can be anonymous, you only need to ask that too. -- Heather

(?) Lifehacks

From Jimmy O'Regan

Answered By: Jimmy O'Regan, Brian Bilbrey, Raj Shekhar, Heather Stern

I'm looking for everyone's lifehacks. For more information about what a lifehack is, scroll down -- I've included the introduction to an article I was writing for another site (cough) that I couldn't make relevant there -- but in short, it's things that make your life easier, like Ben's quote catcher or my screen scrapers (they save me ~5 minutes per day that I can waste on IRC instead  :) .
So drag out your ugly scripts, or at least say what they do in principle. (No, I don't have any that haven't been made into articles already :) -- Jimmy


Lifehacks are an idea that was put forward by Danny O'Brien at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference . Lifehacks are the result of taking one of the basic principles of self-help -- find out how the experts work, and emulate them -- and applying it to geeks.

One of the least surprising discoveries of the Lifehacks research is that "Overprolific Alpha Geeks" spend most of their working lives using the shell. Two of the conclusions of the talk are that geeks will have private blogs/RSS feeds.

Why would you use private blogs?

Most people need to provide their bosses with periodic reports. Because feed aggregators are available for almost every imaginable platform, reading feeds is not an issue. Having reports available in a private blog offers two immediate benefits: each report is archived in a known location; and the feed reader provides notification of new entries (as well as keeping its own archive of entries). Making reports available as a feed can also boost productivity and increase communication -- sysadmins, for example, can generate many of their reports from log files, and add this to the feed so their boss no longer needs to wait around for a formal report; programmers can use scripts in CVS (or other version control systems) that generate a report containing a list of changed files and the log message for every commit.

A popular use of blogs is as a whiteboard -- people thinking out loud, inviting passers-by to offer suggestions or criticism which may help to improve an idea. By maintaining different blogs with varying levels of availability, people can share ideas with the appropriate audience without revealing things they would prefer to keep secret.

The most basic advantage of writing down an idea is that you no longer have to worry about remembering it. Even writing to a completely private blog, as a "todo" list, has advantages. Writing an idea forces you to clarify your own thoughts: the simple act of writing an idea down to remember it can lead to you expressing it well enough to share it with a wider audience. Once an idea is written, it can then be refactored -- you can share it at a later date, when you have developed it further. Another advantage is that each blog entry is automatically dated, so each idea can be compared with public blog entries from the same time, so you can discover why the idea was relevant; and if nothing else, a blog provides you with a single place where you can archive your ideas and "secret scripts" in case you need them again.

Semi-public blogs, available only on a company or department intranet, allow co-workers to keep track of each others activities and to offer and receive suggestions about ideas without publicly exposing company secrets. Information put on a semi-private blog may later become suitable for public consumption, such as a note about a bug in a product, or information about server downtime.

(!) [Brian] Thank you.
Thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU!
This is the sort of thing that I've been doing unconsciously for the last 20 years, and what's been lacking is the vision to make it a conscious process.
Every machine I have does webserving, I drop stuff into the serving space for testing, for review, for remembering.
I put stuff on my public site so that when I forget I ever knew how to do a thing, I can google for the answer and find what I wrote once upon a time (that's happened THREE times in the last year).
I rsync everything, everywhere. Cron takes care of most of it, occasionally I'll manually run a set to a sometimes running box, and then shut it down and put it in the basement. Mostly that's private stuff, and not the things that can be replicated or are static, committed to DVD+R (like the ogg collection).
I run phpGroupWare at work with Calendar, TroubleTicket and Todo modules active.
I publish fun and useful links in my webspace on the internal server - everything from a demo of how the Windows messenger error looks when Samba + ClamAV +Samba-vscan catches an inbound virus, to the mods I might make to my cube to get a nerf-weapon war type of battle-cube.
All of my email accounts are IMAP, I have 5 active places, and I copy stuff from account to account, in and out of the assorted todo sub-folders as I want to apply the topic to the part of my life in question.
(!) [Jimmy] I do the same. Anything that I really like, or may need in real life, I email to my phone (my phone has Blackberry email, so email to my private account comes in like an SMS message: straight to the phone, no need to check :)
Email is one of the top geek ways of keeping information, according to that survey. Wanna remember something, mail it to yourself.
(!) [Brian] I don't have a useful PDA. I've had FUN ones, linux-based, but I'm thinking I need a real one, one of these days. Useful AND used. All the Linux ones provided tools to sync/work with Windows boxen. Um, sorry, don't run that one, got any other choices? I'm leaning towards Treo. Any thoughts?
(!) [Jimmy] I use my phone as a pda. Getting SyncML going is something I really want to do, but I'm not sure I want to be synchronising across the Internet when the phone is right beside the blasted PC :(
SyncML is now part of the Open Mobile Alliance (http://www.openmobilealliance.org/index.html) -- Heather
(!) [Brian] I have one "blog" that I'm experimenting with, using Wordpress . There are parts of it I like, but for many purposes I really like the read-in-time-ordinal of journalling rather than the reverse mode of Blogging. I suppose that's why I've never really mentally connected with RSS feeds, even though a great number of people I know think that feeds are the greatest thing since sliced bread. Are these "problems" for me? Am I just in the wrong phase of a Candlestick-Two Faces conundrum? Thoughts, please...
I LOVE the idea of using a blog as a log watch aggregator. That ROCKS!
(!) [Jimmy] Heh. That was an obvious use I didn't see mentioned. Back in college I used to have a bunch of scripts that ran grep over various log files, diffed them against yesterday's, and mailed the result to an admin account.
I used them to track things like who used su and when etc., and had something similar in root's .bash_logout so I could compare and see who was doing what (not to snoop, just to offer a helping hand to the newbie admins).
(!) [Brian] What's in my ~/bin: 87 scripts, mostly ugly hacks to run CLI and GUI tools in a specific order. For example:
bilbrey@vimes:~/bin$ cat getpix | egrep -v "^$"

See attached brian.getpix.bash.txt

Since the USB card reader doesn't ALWAYS see media inserted, a quick cfdisk brings that problem to an end. I mount the card, copy the contents to the directory I specified on the commandline. Ick, no test for correct input, eh? Unmount, prompt, call another script to convert all to 640x480. use GQview to pick and choose. Those I keep, I may edit using GIMP from within GQview. When I'm done, I have the 640x480 snaps that I'll use on the website. Exit GQview and the script continues. Make thumbnails of the remaining files. Copy everything into my local copy of the webtree. Blow the whole processing tree away, leaving me with camera originals on the disk. I don't use this one much anymore, because I have a new camera and a new method of doing some of that stuff. I haven't automated it yet because I've been too busy to save time. Sigh.
(!) [Jimmy] I keep my photos on flickr.com (and on CD, but they're easier to find on flickr), and my links on del.icio.us . In issue #110 I described what I use to get a montage of my last N photos ( Flickr and Perl ) and My tip in #112 has a script I use to get a Netscape bookmarks-compatible version of all the links I have in del.icio.us.
(!) [Brian] I have another little script, a three liner that drops me down into the current year's working directory in my web space, pops a firefox window pointing at http://localhost/xxx/xxx/blah.php, and fires up bluefish with the most recently edited page in the window.
I have a number of scripts dedicated to setting up ssh tunnelling for VNC connections to windows desktops at my last-but-two employer out in CA, where I still consult from time to time, and it's much easier to answer Netscrape or LookOut questions when they can SHOW me instead of trying to describe things over the phone.
(!) [Heather] For being able to show someone _else_ that VNC session, VNC snapshot over at sourceforge looks nice...
(!) [Brian] I have lots of little scripts for rsyncing chunks of my local machine to other places, for web publishing, for backup, for sharing data.
I need to spend more time being efficient, writing still more tools to do my work for me.
(!) [Jimmy] Same here. I'm finding more and more that it pays to take a step outside myself and really pay attention to what I'm doing, then use this function:
histdump() { history $(($1 + 1))|head -n $1|awk '{print $2}'>sh-$(date +"%b%d-%H:%M"); }
(!) [Raj] One thing I use heavily is Emacs. It has a number of nifty modes which make life much organized for a programmer. I will list a few especially good ones
PlannerMode is an organizer and day planner for Emacs. It helps you keep track of your pending and completed tasks, daily schedule, dates to remember, notes and inspirations.
emacs-outline-mode: very useful if you are writing an outline for an article or just taking notes. (I find wiki-mode more user friendly, see below)
(!) [Jimmy] I'm familiar with it :) (http://linuxgazette.net/108/oregan.html)
(!) [Raj] emacs-wiki-mode: This is a Emacs mode for maintaining a local Wiki. Though I use it for making outlines of articles and keeping notes during meetings. The main idea is that you write using plain text, but it is rendered on emacs as html. (emacs-wiki-mode comes with emacs-planner-mode)
Instead of having a personal blog to keep a track of personal-todos/inspirations etc. , I use a wiki: http://rajshekhar.net/wiki
(!) [Jimmy] Ah. There's something worth mentioning. You all know and love Heather's SysadMoin (http://www.starshine.org/SysadMoin), right?
Yeah, wikis are brilliant. You can even get them for your desktop now (http://www.beatniksoftware.com/tomboy)
(!) [Heather] The great thing about MoinMoin is, it supports access control lists, so it can be public and private spaces at the same time.
Yeah, pardon my dust over there at SysadMoin, it's only available inside our LAN at the moment while I'm preparing an upgrade. Not moin's fault - I had a hard disk go crunch - most annoying - geez, it's a good thing I make regular backups. A few merges, oh, I have to re-do my dark theme too...
Ahhhhh, backups. If there's one "hack" I've taken back out of the computer world into my real life, it's making sure to have backups. Backup plans, backup copies of contact info, someone to backup for me if that old problem about not being able to be in two places at once strikes home. Save early, save often, save extras.
Over in #moin on freenode, where I have been hanging out a lot lately, there's one fellow (deitarion) who's cleaning up not only a lifetime of loose notes but also organizing and commenting on a number of files he's gathered over time, using MoinMoin Desktop Edition, in other words, a wiki designed to be personal: http://moinmoin.wikiwikiweb.de/DesktopEdition
He seems to have saved a bunch of space already and be working on some search engine tricks for it, combining it with GTKtalog (commandline fans may prefer SwissDB ) and planning on a local web proxy to manage his external bookmarks. He's working on saving enough space and/or being clear enough on what's his, to have this help his emigration from his current distro to Gentoo.
(!) [Jimmy] One of the best tips I saw is one from JWZ. He keeps an /etc/setup script, and every time he does anything from the root account, copies and pastes it into the script, and comments it saying why, before copying it to his other machines, so he can have every machine set up to exactly the same state whenever needed.
(!) [Heather] Jim (the Answer Guy) and I both keep a README file for each of our machines, either in /etc or in / (I like to hardlink them together; keeping /etc on a seperate partition from / is rare and creepy, but a symlink would do nicely - hardlinks, though, protect it from being deleted by the fs if one of the links is removed).
This file datestamps any interesting changes we do to a machine, possibly including script bits, fstab tweaks, etc. Reading it should be enough to figure out how to spin up another machine just like this one even without the box itself.
I also keep one of these in each complete chroot area I set up, since I treat them like whole machines. Which brings me to the next Lifehack :) For chroot'd environments that aren't just the single app, I change its /etc/hostname to something that clarifies what it is (past examples include "rescue", "minideb", "dev-potato", "memoryalpha" for my trek stuff), and I change the part in the root user's setup (/root/.bashrc) so that instead of asking for hostname:
export PS1='\h:\w\$ '
...it uses the contents of the hostname file:
export PS1="-=[ `cat /etc/hostname` ]=- \w\$ "
Note the doublequotes - if you use single quotes, the command to cat the file is going to be used every time, and you don't really change a chroot's hostname all the time, do you? (I certainly don't.)
Since my chroot'd prompt also looks different, even without colorization tricks that I use on my terminals, I can easily tell that I'm in the chroot, and which one I'm in. So nice when I'm ssh'd in and using a screen session heavily.
If you haven't heard of screen then for goodness' sake get it. Job control is nice, but this gives whole windows with real terminals, so the human can multitask too; things that you might want to background can be run in another window where they think they have foreground; it can be told to log one of its windows (great when a compile or some other scripted thing is about to spout lots of text you want to read later, or grep through); with some rather careful permission settings it can even be used in multi-user mode, so you can show a junior admin, your kid sister, or a linux newbie you're helping spin up to speed, the exact things that you're doing. With screen you don't need X and vnc unless you need graphics :)
(!) [Jimmy] Hey Raj, you've been holding out! http://del.icio.us/lunatech/lifehacks has the kind of stuff I was looking for and you know it! :-P
(!) [Raj] I never thought anyone else (who is a geek/programmer) would find those useful. I had collected them from manager-type fellows  :-) . You might find these useful too - http://del.icio.us/tag/cli - http://del.icio.us/lunatech/hacks
(!) [Jimmy] What, geeks don't have to deal with managers anymore?
I really liked the "Hack Yourself" link (http://www.bloodletters.com/hackyourself.shtml)


You don't exist.
You just think you do.
We're nothing but the stories we tell ourselves. We know in our hearts what kind of people we are, what we're capable of, because we've told ourselves what kind of people we are. You're a carefully-rehearsed list of weaknesses and strengths you've told yourself you have.
(Self-confidence, for example, is a particularly nebulous quality you can easily talk yourself out of having.)
You owe no allegiance to that self-image if it harms you. If you don't like the story your life has become -- tell yourself a better one.


The lifehacks tag is a good one to keep an eye on: http://del.icio.us/tag/lifehacks (or even http://del.icio.us/tag/lifehacks+gtd)
Since lifehacks is pretty much just self-improvement geekified:
"How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought you Think" (http://speakeasy.org/~lion/nb) is a braindump book about how to keep a paper version of a wiki.
(!) [Heather] I think John Walker's "The Hacker's Diet" counts as his own lifehack: http://www.fourmilab.ch/hackdiet/www/hackdiet.html
(!) [Brian] THANK YOU, Jimmy, for bringing this one up!
(!) [Jimmy] You're welcome :)

This page edited and maintained by the Editors of Linux Gazette
Copyright © its authors, 2005
Published in issue 113 of Linux Gazette April 2005
HTML script maintained by Heather Stern of Starshine Technical Services, http://www.starshine.org/

Published in Issue 113 of Linux Gazette, April 2005

News Bytes

By Michael Conry

News Bytes


Selected and formatted by Michael Conry

Submitters, send your News Bytes items in PLAIN TEXT format. Other formats may be rejected without reading. You have been warned! A one- or two-paragraph summary plus URL gets you a better announcement than an entire press release. Submit items to bytes@lists.linuxgazette.net

Linux Links

Configuring the GIMP to look and act a bit more like Adobe Photoshop

The Linux Box Show, recorded in glorious audio for your listening pleasure.

Linux Makes Granny Cry.

Interesting Open Source perspective analysis of CeBIT 2005, and the opportunities missed.

Linux Medical News is 5 years old.

Richard Stallman interviewed on the state of GNU/Linux.

Waiting and Sleeping on the command line.

News in General

 Linux Kernel

The newest iteration of the stable 2.6.x series of Linux Kernels is now available: Linux

Also new, is the April release of version 2.4.30 in the previous stable series.

As always, you should download kernels and patches from your nearest mirror.

 Intel License

Intel has tentatively proposed eliminating the Intel Open Source License, substituting for it the more common BSD license. This would be a small contribution to reducing the proliferation of licenses that has occurred in recent years.

 TUX Magazine

TUX Magazine is a new Linux magazine aimed at beginners. Coming from SSC, publishers of Linux Journal, TUX will be a monthly online magazine distributed in PDF format. NewsForge has published a report on the new publication.

Distro News


Yoper Linux has been profiled and reviewed at NewsForge.


LWN has reported on the release of experimental UserLinux metapackages for Ubuntu Hoary.


Puppy Linux is a flexible and small-sized GNU/Linux distribution. You can read a brief review at LinuxInsider.com.


OSnews has published a lengthy interview with the developers behind Arch Linux.

Software and Product News


Firefox appears to be making measurable inroads into Microsoft Internet Explorer's market share. The Microsoft browser offering now accounts for less than 90% of the browser sector.


Nero, the popular Windows CD/DVD burning software, has recently been released for Linux. NeroLinux is a closed source application, and is available free of charge following registration on the Nero website.

 Adobe Reader

Adobe has released a new version of its PDF reading software, Adobe Reader 7.0, for Linux. The software is available for free download, and has been profiled on DesktopLinux.com.

Mick is LG's News Bytes Editor.

[Picture] Originally hailing from Ireland, Michael is currently living in Baden, Switzerland. There he works with ABB Corporate Research as a Marie-Curie fellow, developing software for the simulation and design of electrical power-systems equipment.

Before this, Michael worked as a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, University College Dublin; the same institution that awarded him his PhD. The topic of this PhD research was the use of Lamb waves in nondestructive testing. GNU/Linux has been very useful in his past work, and Michael has a strong interest in applying free software solutions to other problems in engineering.

Copyright © 2005, Michael Conry. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 113 of Linux Gazette, April 2005


By Shane Collinge

These images are scaled down to minimize horizontal scrolling. To see a panel in all its clarity, click on it.

[cartoon] [cartoon] [cartoon]

All HelpDex cartoons are at Shane's web site, www.shanecollinge.com.

[BIO] Part computer programmer, part cartoonist, part Mars Bar. At night, he runs around in a pair of colorful tights fighting criminals. During the day... well, he just runs around. He eats when he's hungry and sleeps when he's sleepy.

Copyright © 2005, Shane Collinge. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 113 of Linux Gazette, April 2005

Free as in Freedom: Part Four: Epilog - 2000 VAIOS and a Grain of Zen

By Adam Engel

The KDE and GNOME desktop environments make it possible for people who have no knowledge of Unix or GNU/Linux commands to use a GNU/Linux system as easily as they'd use Mac or Windows for web-browsing, word-processing, email, games and the things most users spend their computer time on. It's only going to get better, and one day many people might know GNU/Linux only through the GUI.

I asked Okopnik, "Do you think this is a 'good' thing, that people are finding out they have an alternative, but at the same time using that alternative almost exclusively on the GUI level, like they would use Mac or Windows? Have you noticed more of an interest in Linux or an enhanced readership since Linux became both market and user friendly? If so, are these new users less interested in the "technical" aspects than in having a stable GUI-based system to for work and email and net-surfing?"

Okopnik wrote, "Actually, this is an issue that I brought up in an involved discussion with the LG staff and the Answer Gangsters (The Answer Gang answers Linux questions sent to us by our readers, and the discussions and the answers become part of LG.) My viewpoint here is that it's actually a very good thing - modulo the awareness that the Command Line (CLI) exists. That is, people are perfectly welcome to come to Linux and use only its GUI capabilities as long as this serves their needs - but when the GUI proves insufficient, the capabilities of the CLI are there, just underneath, providing the perfect security blanket.

"In an article I wrote for Java Developers Journal, I related an example of this. I had a client whose Web developer left them in the lurch with several hundred HTML files without the ".html" extensions. This wouldn't be too bad by itself - renaming a group of files isn't difficult - but the thousands of HTML links within the files referred to those extensionless names as well. With GUI-only tools, this is a nearly-unsolvable disaster. From the CLI, it was a matter of a single short line of code:

perl -i -wpe 's/<a href="[^"]+/$&.html/g' *

"The readership of LG has certainly changed over time. Where we used to get dozens of questions on fairly technical topics in The Answer Gang, we now get only a few - and they tend to be simpler, less technical. The email I get from our readers indicates that there has indeed been a definite shift in the user base; the old Linuxer who would bang on a problem for hours so that it could be reported (and quickly fixed) is being... well, not _replaced,_ but reduced, percentage-wise, as the mainstay of the population. The new user is often just that - a computer user who just wants that email/web/document/spreadsheet processor and maybe a few games on the side. There is, however, a cultural shift that occurs even in those users after a while: you cannot live in a society based on a given moral premise and ignore that premise, or even stop it from penetrating into your life (even if you try to prevent it.) The original "hacker ethic" of Linux lives on, strong as ever in those who use the full extent of this OS, and inherent (and growing, however slowly) in those who use it even without that full knowledge.

I wrote, "I was considering the license for Documentation -- I forgot what it's called..."

Okopnik wrote, "The Open Publication License. There has been quite an evolution of licenses on the documentation side; the OPL is pretty much the last product of it (there are a few others) and is by far the most popular, simple, and comprehensive. The LG remains under it because I did _a lot_ of applicable research."

I wrote, "It almost goes without saying that this article will be 'free' but it's probably a good idea to say it because I've been 'burned' before, as have other writers I know, having articles that were meant to be "free" stolen by publications that charge a fee to readers -- online or off."

Okopnik replied, "This would be a good reason to implement the 'no commercial distribution without prior permission' clause."

I wrote, "Tell me about your experience with licensing and your research. For instance, how does one particular license affect LG as opposed to another?"

Okopnik wrote, "When I took over the E-i-C/publisher slot here at LG, I decided to revisit the decisions that had been made (and cast as procedure) in the past with regard to as many of them as I could find; in my opinion, this needed to be done to keep LG fresh and relevant. One of these was the license under which we accept and publish all our material.

"I had asked Rick Moen, a member of our staff who is very knowledgeable about the nitty-gritty of various FLOSS issues including licensing to comment on our use of OPL; I also threw the floor open to others' input. As a result of the discussion and familiarization with the basic issues at stake, I did a lot of my own research, and came to focus on the OPL (which was the license LG was using at the time) and the CC, the Creative Commons license (see http://creativecommons.org/; I recommend the site highly, particularly their "license-choosing wizard" which helps you pick the appropriate one for your application.) The latter held a lot of promise and flexibility, but in the end, I had to vote /antiquo/; the OPL, with a little clarification, supplied all our needs. The front page of LG now states:

"All content released under the Open Publication License v1.0 (options A and B not applied)

"The clarification in the parentheses was the only thing added. Given that the author of OPL himself, David Wiley, considers it dated (he became CC's Director of Educational Licenses and shut down the Open Content site in 2003), we may well transition to the CC at some point in the future. For now, though, the OPL serves our purposes and creates no restrictions on the author's rights (theirs supercede ours) that I would find objectionable.

"LG's only concern is the right to distribute freely in electronic format. Should you wish to prohibit or restrict commercial distribution, or want to be contacted before anyone converts it to print, we have no objection or concern; in fact, we have no say - and this is what I, in my capacity at LG, see as perfectly suiting our needs. A slightly different attitude than you'll find in a commercial environment, I grant... " wrote Okopnik

I wrote, "This is a particularly interesting/different attitude for a magazine."

Okopnik wrote, "The Open Source culture often produces those. Once money is not the primary motivator, a number of interesting results show up. FLOSS is a social experiment gone successful -> mainstream -> wild, a meritocracy/gift-based culture that focuses on exchanging people's best abilities for community recognition and respect. Part of the secret of its effectiveness is that you can't cheat people out of respect the way you can with money - it can always be lost or withdrawn. Like any other human system, it has its imperfections (see Cory Doctorow's "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" or James P. Hogan's "Voyage into Yesteryear", both of which describe a respect-based system as the basis of an economy), but they're a) usually self-correcting and b) several orders of magnitude less extreme at the edges than what we have now."

I wrote, "It actually brings up the question, "what is a magazine" (online or off)? I always thought of a commercial magazine as a corporation using artists and authors to sell advertisements while at the same time providing a venue for artist/authors' works. But a zine like LG, which provides essential, often crucial information to a specific audience -- i.e. Linux users -- has a unique responsibility as an "education/information venue." By placing author's rights above the rights of the magazine itself, you are serving as a mediator between your audience and the kind of information you offer them."

Okopnik wrote, "/Tetigisti acu/; well done, sir. That is precisely our function and mission. We want to introduce people to Linux, get them to the point where they'll know enough to ask the right questions and to find the answers. This would set off all sorts of alarms for a commercial venture - we are, after all, training our readers not to need us after a while - but I'll happily hang up my editorial hat once most of the world is Linux-competent. :)"

I wrote, "I see LG as a "mediator" between Linux Users and the millions of pages of information pertaining to Linux. At some point an 'editor' is needed, otherwise a reader can just do a Google search on various subjects without a coherent 'theme.'"

Okopnik wrote, "Precisely so. Does it surprise you to learn that I'm a teacher (seminars in programming, network security, etc. for Sun Microsystems and others), and have been, in one form or another, for most of my career? I suspect not."

"What's FLOSS?" I asked.

Okopnik wrote, "An unwieldy compromise of a name that the majority can live with. As you've probably figured from your exchange with Stallman, there's some disagreement about exactly what this whole movement should be called - and Free/Libre/Open Source Software is what we got as a result. Like dead yeast in beer, it's harmless and doesn't even affect the flavor."

I wrote, "Interestingly, or by strange coincidence, I destroyed my wife's Windows installation on a super-powered custom-built PC she uses to run the Maya 3D program (she teaches computer graphics and 3D at New York University)."

Okopnik wrote, "You do realize that Maya is usually run under Linux these days, right?"

I wrote, "Doesn't matter; the university's program is locked into Windows. Anyway, she warned me not to mess up her dedicated Maya machine by 'playing around with Linux' and of course I told her this was an impossibility -- oops. Problem was, I switched, after a year of smooth sailing, from GRUB to LILO and totally corrupted the Master Boot Record (MBR). This brought up an interesting point: virtually no one knows how Windows works. I was able to fix the LILO problem, but I had no idea how to do anything in Windows, nor did many people I called who actually teach courses on the Windows OS. To make matters worse, the only boot disc available was the original installation CD, which you can only access via a password, which we forgot. So, even though we "owned" the system, there was no way of getting in. We had to call in an expert, the person who built the machine and installed the software, the President of Compusoft Computing Systems himself, Philip Keough, who is all of sixteen years old..."

Okopnik wrote, "In an information-based economy, intelligence (and the wisdom to use it correctly) is the winning factor. The side effects still tend to surprise the hell out of people, which makes for interesting food for thought."

I wrote, "I recognized this as an opportunity not only to save my marriage, but to interview a certified computer whiz from the 'younger generation' (painful, those words) who grew up with both Windows and Linux. His high school -- I think the President of Compusoft Computing Systems is a junior -- just provided a Sony VAIO laptop for every student, loaded, of course, with Windows XP. The school was considering GNU/Linux, but decided to go with the 'industry standard.' I asked him if anyone among his hacker friends, not the 'mainstream students,' was into GNU/Linux, which I thought would be the OS for rebellious young geeks. His answer was exaclty 2 out of 2000 sudents, are familiar with GNU/Linux: himself and some other kid who publicly proclaims 'give me Linux or give me death' but secretly runs Windows 2000 as his main installation. I asked Philip why this was so, why kids at such a young age would want to feed into the 'industry standard' way of life. His answer was that Windows felt more "professional" just as Adobe Photoshop was 'more professional' than The GIMP. So much for garage-band rebellion and the Ramones...

"If what he was saying is true, and Mac is viewed as something for graphic artists, like the old SGI, but otherwise obsolete, then there is only one operating system on earth, and it's a damned bad one," I wrote.

Okopnik wrote, "You have to remember that the OS competitive arena is the entire world, while what you heard was a single opinion from a single person in a single location. Furthermore, if he had said 'Windows can do X, Y, and Z whereas Linux can't', or 'the software that we're mandated to use requires Windows', well and good (although I don't think that it's possible to defend the first argument); since his entire area of focus is on how an OS 'feels', then he's off into mysticism as opposed to rational judgement."

I wrote, "So, in reference to your LG audience: is GNU/Linux just a toy that hackers boot on week-ends to unwind, or is it viewed as a genuine alternative to Windows? The feeling I'm getting, or I was getting from Philip, is that even the most dedicated GNU/Linux enthusiasts share their hard-drives with some version of Windows for use in the 'real world.'"

Okopnik wrote, "Well, let's see. Many schools, hospitals, and government installations in India run Linux. Same for South Africa. France has passed a law that says "Open Source is to be implemented whenever possible"; Brazil, which was 8% of Microsoft's business a couple of years ago, has followed suit. Germany has been using Linux in their security departments, and is now implementing it at every level - federal, state, and local. China has decided that it's their official OS; Korea and Japan have joined them in investing several billion dollars in FLOSS software development recently. Most of South America is switching, led by Peru (Dr. Villanueva Nunez, a Congressman, responded succinctly and brilliantly to the fear-and-doubt tactics that Microsoft tried to sow when the decision was made; the translation can be found in many places on the Net.) This is just off the top of my head; there are many other countries which have decided that FLOSS simply _works_ for them (generally by making them competitive in the world market and removing an unnecessary barrier to their pool of talented but poor would-be techies.)

"Special effects - in e.g. Titanic, Shrek, The One, and many other movies - are being done on Linux, simply because you _can't_ build a real server farm for crunching serious processing under Windows (incidentally, one of the most powerful computers in the world is a massively-parallel rig built by students in Australia. Guess what it runs?) The overwhelming majority of Web servers on the Net run Linux - and many of those that don't are running Apache, a piece of FLOSS software.

"I hope these random examples begin to add up to a coherent picture. I couldn't even start to draw an outline of just how huge and pervasive the entire FLOSS penetration into the OS market actually is," Okopnik wrote.

Okopnik added, "Mac's gone FLOSS. Well, almost completely, anyway: the base of Mac OS/X is another free Unix, BSD. The only part they haven't really opened is their desktop manager (if I recall correctly, it's called "Aqua") - but you can run plain ole' X on Mac hardware, and it's available right from Apple's site. What's more, Apple has been edging toward releasing the older versions of Aqua as FLOSS; their real edge has always been as a great hardware and User Interface (UI) company anyway, so they wouldn't lose anything.

"A lot of FLOSS software, unsurprisingly, can be compiled to run on OS/X; the instructions for doing so are, again, available on Apple's site - and so it a lot of already compiled FLOSS. Did I mention that we're taking over the world? :)," Okopnik wrote.

I wrote, "But Mac long ago ceased to be any kind of real competitor to Windows. Like the old Soviet Union kept the U.S. in check and vice versa. Now the U.S. is a Monopoly run rampant -- like Microsoft. A closed system is a closed system. The rest of the world, developing better software on Linux, will catch up while Microsoft, who keeps its position only through use of 'force' will wither up and die," I wrote.

Okopnik wrote, "Is it as obvious to you as it is to me and many others? I don't understand why more people can't see that basic fact - other than simply not knowing or understanding the issues."

I wrote, "I came across this quote by Stallman on the gnu.org site (www.gnu.org/thegnuproject.html):

'The "Linux" magazines ... are filled with advertisements for proprietary software that works with GNU/Linux. When the next Motif or Qt appears, will these magazines warn programmers to stay away from it, or will they run ads for it?'

"Response?" I wrote.

Okopnik wrote, "As it happens, LG is the one Linux publication that does not accept advertisements, and therefore does not follow Stallman's dictum; we prefer to remain totally unbiased (except by our own personal prejudices, of course. :) I have to agree that commercially-driven magazines do have their bottom line to consider; perhaps not above all, but it is a very strong motivating factor. I'll admit to being actually shocked for about 30 seconds when I saw a Microsoft ad in the Linux Journal... but sober consideration prevailed. There's no reason that they shouldn't have - the ad said nothing derogatory about Linux and was placed in the more-or-less correct market for MS's purposes - but it did make for an interesting contrast.

"For the people who were outraged by this - and judging from the comments on Slashdot and elsewhere, many were - I'd suggest considering the following Buddhist koan:

"'Always meditate on whatever provokes resentment.'

"Very interesting questions can be found in the moment between the emotional response and the reaction..." wrote Okopnik.

I wrote, "Sometimes I wonder if I should be writing two different articles, the GNU Story, and Everyone Else's. They're kinda picky with their "GNU/Linux" not "Linux" and initially boycotting KDE because qt was "proprietary" but I guess you need people like that, people who are ready, willing and able to go 'all the way' to get a movement started. If you don't mind me 'requoting' you from the previous section of this article:

'We _need_ our radicals. They're ugly, scruffy, pushy, aggressive, loud, and unfit for normal humans to associate with - but, O Ghod do we need them! They sacrifice themselves on the altar of whatever the hell their passion may be; they give up their right to be seen as "normal", and make of themselves targets at which the majority of society will fling rocks and garbage - and we, the human race, get to move ahead just another tiny notch for each one of them. Granted, there are radicals on either side of the fence - and lots of different fences - but the total vector of these little steps *is* in the direction of progress; another pragmatic belief of mine, and although I won't go into the philosophical ramifications of it, it can be summed up as "'good' is just another way of saying "pro-survival".' -- Ben Okopnik. That's you," I wrote.

Okopnik wrote, "I might add, 'Listening to these folks, however, _does_ require turning down the volume and intensity controls, and keeping a supply of large grains of NaCl handy. :)'"

I wrote, "I just want this article to introduce GNU/Linux to people who aren't aware that it's a valid option -- especially now that KDE and GNOME provide GUI 'desktop environments' that anyone can use. Good to know know LG is sticking to the straight and narrow regarding advertisements for proprietary software, though."

Okopnik wrote, "Well, we don't have an articulated social contract the way Debian Linux does (http://www.debian.org/social_contract), but we do have our priorities. 'Making Linux a little more fun' does not mean distorting the truth for profit - and that includes being cautious with regard to slippery slopes."

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. It is free to distribute, reproduce or modify with the author's consent. Read more about licensing software, text and documentation at http://www.creativecommons.org.

[BIO] Adam Engel has published poetry, fiction and essays in such magazines and periodicals as Counter Punch, Dissident Voice, Online Journal, Strike-the-Root, LewRockwell.com, The New York Art Review, The Concord Journal, The Middlesex News, Accent, The Littleton Review, Ark, Smart Shoes, The Beacon, Literal Latte, Artemis, The Lummox Journal, Fearless, POESY, The Half Moon Review, Art:Mag, Chronogram, Gnome and others.

Adam Engel's first book of poetry, Oil and Water, was published by Maximum Capacity Press in 2001. His novel, Topiary, will be published by Dandelion Books in the Spring of 2005.

He has worked as a journalist, screenwriter, executive speechwriter, systems administrator, and editorial consultant, and has taught writing at New York University, Touro College and the Gotham Writer's Workshop in New York City.

Copyright © 2005, Adam Engel. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 113 of Linux Gazette, April 2005

Roll your Desktop into a USB stick/CD

By Kapil Hari Paranjape


Here is a short course (with some excursions) to help you take your existing Desktop, roll it into an ISO pipe and smoke a USB stick or CD. This is not a task for the faint-hearted - there are no automated scripts in here!

Part of the reason for this hands-on approach is that each desktop system will have its own quirks, so writing scripts which handle the various conditions which might arise is painful. Secondly, there are numerous choices possible - you must mix your own. Finally, I must confess that I do not feel energetic enough to write the scripts at this point. Instead, you have this article!

So if you have spent a lot of time fine-tuning your configuration and want to waste some more time putting it onto a (re)movable drive - read on.

Making a read-only root filesystem

Since the chosen medium for our ``live'' portable system is a CD or USB stick we do not want to write to it often. In fact, in the case of a CD-R we can only write to it once. It should be obvious, however, that a ``live'' system does need to write something if it is to be counted as among the living!

While many mechanisms have been suggested to handle this, we will (essentially) follow the system chosen by bootcd. To do this, we need to create a directory /wraith, an archive /wraith.cpio.gz and a script /etc/rcS.d/S01undead.sh.

The contents of the archive are rather system specific so you will need to choose its contents. However, if you are really, really impatient you can download the listing of the archive that I use and run the following:

 cd /
 cat wraith.lst | cpio -o -H crc | gzip -c -9 > /wraith.cpio.gz
Did you get a lot of error messages? No? Are you really sure that your system is almost identical to mine? Yes? Then you can skip the next subsection.

Choices, choices...

How does one find out what files need to be written to on a live system? One way would be to find all the files that have been written to on your current desktop. To do this first find out when the system was booted - a good measure of this is when the root filesystem was last mounted. So for example

 # Use your real root device in place of /dev/root.
 last_boot_time=$(dumpe2fs -h /dev/root | \
  sed -n -e's/Last mount time: * //p')
You may wish to use the log files or the last command instead. You only need to know the last boot time approximately; subtract a minute or so from it just to be on the safe side - unless you boot the system more often than that! Now create a file with that time stamp using the touch command:
 touch -d "$last_boot_time" /tmp/lastboot
You can now create the list of all files that were modified since that last boot (for simplicity we will only bother with the directories /etc and /var; you can add some other directories if you so desire):
 find /etc /var -newer /tmp/lastboot > /tmp/changed
 # And, just for fun...
 find /home -newer /tmp/lastboot > /tmp/home_changed
Have a look at these lists but don't delete them just yet. You should notice that there are three types of files that are written to on a running system. We will split up our list, /tmp/changed, according to this classification: /tmp/write will consist of those files (mostly directories) that are empty at boot time but get written to as the system runs; /tmp/links will consist of the files that will be quasi-static - we will keep a static version of these files at boot time but we might want to change them on a running system. We will include the third category of files in /tmp/links as well, since we will not treat them differently - but ultimately you may want to change this.

We first create a directory to hold the files that will be modifiable at run-time - say /wraith. Mount a RAM-based file system on it by mount -t tmpfs tmpfs /wraith. Big Fat Warning: This file system is ephemeral and will be lost when you halt the system. If you wish, you can use the directory as-is (without the tmpfs mount) during this subsection, but don't forget to clean up its contents once you have created the archive as explained below.

In /wraith, we will create the top-level directories like etc, var, tmp and so on that we will want to write to. In these directories we will create the files as per the classification above. First, we'll do the writable but empty files:

 cd /
 cat /tmp/write | cpio -pdum /wraith
We expect these files to be empty at start-up so we will ``zero'' them. Do this only to the files for which you don't want to keep the contents. For now I assume these are all the files in the list /tmp/write:
 for file in $(cat /tmp/write)
  if [ -f $file ]
   > /wraith/$file
Of course, we also need an empty tmp directory:
 mkdir /wraith/tmp
 chmod 1777 /wraith/tmp
Next, we create the links.
 cd /
 for i in $(cat /tmp/links)
  dir=$(dirname $i)
  top=$(echo $dir | cut -f2 -d'/')
  rest=$(echo $dir | cut -f3- -d'/')
  name=$(basename $i)
  mkdir -p /wraith/$dir
  ln -s /wraith/$top.ro/$rest/$name /wraith/$i
 # As a safety measure to ensure that all configuration files
 # have been created
 mkdir -p /wraith/etc
 cd /etc
 for i in *
  ln -s /wraith/etc.ro/$i /wraith/etc/$i
This is more complicated and needs further explanation. The idea is to make the ``static'' versions of the files available under the .ro top-level directories. So, for example /wraith/etc/hostname will be a link to /wraith/etc.ro/hostname.

To see this at work create etc.ro and var.ro as sub-directories in /wraith. For each of these directories (say etc) we run a pair of commands like the following. (Warning: Be careful here. If you haven't created all the links in /wraith/etc as above you may crash your running system).

 mount --bind /etc /wraith/etc.ro
 mount --bind /wraith/etc /etc
After these mounts, the file /etc/hostname is a link to the original hostname file which is now available as /wraith/etc.ro/hostname. Since the left-half of this link is on the RAM disk we can perform replacement surgery on it:
 vi /etc/hostname.new
 mv /etc/hostname.new /etc/hostname
On the other hand, if you want to change a file in a sub-directory of /etc, it's a little more complicated:
 mkdir /etc/X11.new
 ln -s /ram/etc.ro/etc/X11/* /etc/X11.new
 mv /etc/X11.new /etc/X11
After this you can edit the files in /etc/X11. Yes, this is quite twisted but (once you get the hang of it) not difficult to manage - especially since we expect that we will edit these files only rarely. An alternate approach is to create the directory tree under /etc in its entirety only leaving links to the files.

You can use the above mounts to test your choices of /tmp/links and /tmp/write, but the real test will come later. For now, undo the above mounts by a pair of commands like:

 umount /etc
 umount /wraith/etc.ro
You can also remove the .ro directories if you like. Finally, we create an archive of this directory:
 cd /wraith
 find . -xdev | cpio -o -H crc | gzip -c -9 > /wraith.cpio.gz
The cpio command will tell you how many 512-byte blocks you wrote. If the archive is really large (more than 1MB or so) then you probably need to re-do your choices.

Bringing the wraith to life

We need a mechanism to bring the /wraith directory into operation at boot time. To do this, install a script like the following one to run early at boot time. For example you could install the script as /etc/rcS.d/S01undead.sh.

 # undead.sh Mount and load up the /wraith directory for use
 # Version: 0.3  01-Feb-2005  

 # If this has already been run then don't run it again.
 # We can't handle two wraiths!
 [ -f /wraith/live ] && exit 0

 # Create writable space
 mount -n -t tmpfs tmpfs /wraith

 # Create the directory structure
 cd /wraith
 gzip -dc /wraith.cpio.gz | cpio -idum
 cd /

 # Perform the cross mounts with bind
 # which is like a directory hard link.
 cd /wraith
 for i in *
  mkdir $i.ro
  # We use mount with the -n
  # To avoid confusing the mtab
  mount -n --bind /$i /wraith/$i.ro
  mount -n --bind /wraith/$i /$i
 cd /

touch /wraith/live

: exit 
Finally, you edit /etc/fstab so that the root filesystem is mounted read-only at the next boot - just change defaults to read ro,defaults in the appropriate entry.

Don't stop just yet

Reboot and that's it! You have a read-only root system... or almost. Actually, it is likely that you will find a number of places where you didn't create the links you need or created the wrong links. Don't worry. You can modify the /wraith.cpio.gz archive to your heart's content. Make the changes you need to the ``live'' /wraith directory. Now copy all the changes from /wraith into /tmp/ghost. The command

 cd /wraith
 find . -xdev | grep -E -v '^./((live)|([^/]*\.ro))' > /tmp/list
will generate the newer list of files. You can unpack the older archive and compare its list of files with /tmp/list.
 mkdir /tmp/ghost
 cd /tmp/ghost
 zcat /wraith.cpio.gz | cpio -idum
 find . -xdev > /tmp/oldlist
 wdiff -a /tmp/list /tmp/oldlist
Using the differences you can see what files you need to create in /tmp/ghost in order to match it up with the running /wraith. You can save your changes by something like
 cd /tmp/ghost
 find . -xdev | cpio -o -H crc | gzip -c -9 > /tmp/wraith.cpio.gz
 mv /tmp/wraith.cpio.gz /wraith.cpio.gz
The changes will become automatic at the next boot. Of course, once you write the filesystem to a CD, you will have no chance to revise it again!


All this looks too complicated and life is too short? Just remove the script /etc/rcS.d/S01undead.sh, the archive /wraith.cpio.gz and the directory /wraith. You will have your system as pristine as before.

Making the initrd

We want our system to ``run anywhere'' - in particular, we should be able to mount our root file system whether it resides on a CD or USB stick (or perhaps even hard disk). If we use a CD then on most systems this will be on the device /dev/hdb or /dev/hdc. The USB stick usually shows up as /dev/sda or /dev/sdb. It should be relatively simple to just create a kernel which supports IDE CD drives and USB block devices. When we boot such a kernel (with the correct root=<device> parameter) the system will start up as expected on 90% of all systems that one is likely to encounter. If this is OK with you then you don't need an initrd so skip the rest of this section and read the HOWTO on building the kernel with IDE CD and US support - don't forget support for the ISO 9660 (CD), ext2 and vfat (Win95) file systems.

What about the remaining 10%? That will take 90% of the work as usual. One possible solution could be to build all the drivers of all possible CD drives, USB readers and the like into the kernel. Unfortunately, automatically probing for some of these devices will occasionally cause other devices to choke-up. It also seems like a bit of a waste to take up such enormous amounts of kernel memory for unused drivers. The solution provided by our intrepid kernel hackers is the modules+initrd mechanism which allows you to write a script that chooses which drivers to load depending on the devices found.

The steps

The boot loader (see the next section) will load the kernel and the initrd into memory. We will use a ``standard'' Debian kernel image which has essentially everything modularized (``essentially'' since we must have support for at least one file-system built into the kernel in order to load the init RAM disk - this could change if I understand initramfs better).

After the kernel has done its thing, it sets up the file-system with root on the initrd and executes /linuxrc but doesn't quite fully let go - when /linuxrc exits, the kernel executes /sbin/init. We follow Debian's choices when we visualize the boot process as follows:

This script doesn't do much since we want the kernel to let go and execute /sbin/init (still on the initrd).
The program /sbin/init on the initrd is a script that will run the following scripts:
This script loads the modules necessary to read the CD and/or USB stick.
This script will provide the subroutine mount_root to recognise and mount our chosen file system on /mnt.
The final steps of init are
  • Mount the root file system on /mnt and cd to it.
  • Execute pivot_root which makes the current directory the root directory for the kernel and mounts the old root directory at /initrd. After this our ``real'' root file-system is mounted as root.
  • Execute chroot . to change the root device of the current process so that /initrd is free to be unmounted. We must do this so that the RAM disk is free to be unmounted which frees its space for use by other processes.
  • Finally execute /sbin/init on the real root file system. This is the ``real'' init program which will initialise the live system.
Debian has already provided the package initrd-tools which automates the building of the initrd. This already creates the /linuxrc and /sbin/init needed for the initrd. So we only need to provide the scripts loadmodules and script.

Driver loading

Writing these scripts was one of the most complex steps for me as it deals with the aspect of Linux that I usually encounter the least - at least on a working system - booting! On the other hand, this is the job for which most installers and other forms of pre-install detection tools have been written. So we follow the ``teacher'' Tom Lehrer's dictum:

   Let no one else's work evade your eyes,
   Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
   So don't shade your eyes,
   But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize...
   (Only be sure always to call it please, "research".)

   -- Tom Lehrer, "Lobachevsky"

There is a good IDE driver detection routine that is part of the standard Debian initrd. The Knoppix initrd gives us a safe order in which to load all the SCSI modules. The Linux-Live initrd has a list of the necessary USB modules to boot off a stick. So we put all these together to get routines which I call loadmodules_ide, loadmodules_scsi and loadmodules_usb. The loadmodules script on the initrd will then act as a dispatcher - it will choose which routine to run depending on what boot time parameters we give.

Still, we should do some work. So (plagiarising from the hotplug scripts) I also wrote a procedure loadmodules_pci that loads only those modules which correspond to devices in /sys/bus/pci/devices which match the data found in /lib/modules/kernel-version/modules.pcimap. This procedure makes use of the sysfs file system that was introduced with Linux 2.6.x but something similar may be possible using /proc/bus/pci in Linux version 2.4.x. The principle is that the kernel does provide a list of all the PCI devices that it found; for each such device it also provides some device information - the interface for this is the sysfs file system or (in 2.4.x) the proc file system. On the other hand, each module writer makes a list of all devices that the driver is known/expected to work for - the kernel build process writes these to modules.pcimap. By matching the two lists we should be able to load only those modules which have a matching device. This only works with PCI devices but most devices on PC's nowadays (including SCSI cards and the USB controller) are PCI devices.

Here is the script to loadmodules that resulted from the above deliberations. This scripts depends on a list of modules that are related to block devices.

Mounting the root file-system

The second script we will use provides the routine to mount the root device. Again the sysfs file system provided by the 2.6.x Linux kernel comes to the rescue. Under /sys/block we find a list of all the block devices on the system. If the root= option is given to the kernel we can check whether this block device is available. Otherwise we check each available block device to find evidence that it is our root file system - by checking for the existence of the archive, directory and script that we created above.

Using mkinitrd

The Debian initrd-tools package is a collection of scripts and so can be installed on any GNU/linux system (for example use the source package directly). The main script is mkinitrd which will create the standard Debian initrd. We will run this script and make some changes in order to create our ``special'' initrd. First off all create some directory say /tmp/mkinitrd.confdir. In this directory we will create the file exe containing the list of executables that we want in addition to the ``standard'' ones like /bin/sh - in our case we need /bin/grep. Next we create a list of all the additional files that we want to include; this is mainly the list of all modules that are in some way connected with the use of block devices; here is my list. Finally, we also need a configuration file. We are set to use mkinitrd with this directory as our configuration directory.

mkinitrd -r "" -k -d /tmp/mkinitrd.confdir -o /dev/null
This will tell you the name of the working directory which will be something like /tmp/mkinitrd.1234. Now you need to edit the /tmp/mkinitrd.1234/initrd/linuxrc.conf file to reflect the various file systems that you may use for your root file system. Finally, you copy the scripts you created above and generate the initrd with mkcramfs.
rm $dir/initrd/scripts/*
cp allmod.list $dir/initrd/etc
cp loadmodules $dir/initrd
cp script $dir/initrd
chmod +x $dir/initrd/loadmodules
chmod +x $dir/initrd/script
mkcramfs $dir/initrd initrd.img
If you build a kernel with ext2 filesystem support instead of cramfs, then you need to create an ext2 filesystem image based on the /tmp/mkinitrd.1234 directory instead.

Putting it all together

We now combine the ideas of the previous two sections. I assume that you have managed to make your root filesystem boot in a ``read-only'' mode and that you are currently running in that mode. I also assume that you have created an initrd that can boot on ``any'' machine.

I know that the latter requirement is hard to check given that you have access to only one machine at a time. Moreover, it is difficult to find friends who will agree if you say ``I have on this floppy an initrd and kernel that I would like to test on your system''; those few will not remain friends if your kernel+initrd manages to fry their system.

Selecting the boot loader

In order to boot off a CD or USB stick we need some software that can do that. The nominees are isolinux, loadlin and grub... and the winner, in this case, is... grub.

The main file for booting using grub is called stage2 or stage2_eltorito in the case of booting CD's. When these files are properly installed (see below how this is done for CD's), they are loaded and run by the booting machine. They look for a configuration file /boot/grub/menu.lst. We use a menu.lst file that looks like:

default  0

timeout 5

# Pretty colours color cyan/blue white/blue

title Debian GNU/Linux with myinitrd root (cd) kernel /boot/vmlinuz-2.6.8-2-686 root=auto ro quiet vga=791 initrd /boot/initrd.img boot

Other than the kernel and the initrd, we need stage2 and menu.lst in order to complete the list of steps given at the beginning.

Making the CD

First you need a ``pristine'' copy of the root file system. If you used the bind mounts procedure to make the root file-system read-only, then you can just do

 mkdir /tmp/pristine
 mount --bind / /tmp/pristine
You then make a compressed tree of this file system:
 mkzftree -x /tmp/pristine /hugeroom
where /hugeroom is some place with a lot of disk space. Remove the directories /hugeroom/lost+found and /hugeroom/boot from under this directory. Create an empty /hugeroom/boot directory to which we copy the kernel image and initrd. Into the /hugeroom/boot/grub directory goes the file stage2_eltorito along with menu.lst. These files will not be compressed.

We now create the CD image:

 mkisofs -R -J -z -hide-rr-moved -cache-inodes \
  -b boot/grub/stage2_eltorito -b boot/boot.cat \
  -boot-info-table -boot-load-size 32 \
  -no-emul-boot -o mylivecd.iso /hugeroom
Then we blank a CD (if necessary) and write our image to it. For a USB stick, we just create a partition and dump the entire image to this partition using dd. Since I do not have a system that can boot off a USB, I can only check the floppy based boot for such a system. Perhaps one of the readers can enlighten me on how this is to be handled for USB-booting BIOSes.

What else?

You'll probably want to add a writable /home directory to your system. You need to further customise wraith.cpio.gz for that. Another thing that you probably want to do is to fix the /etc/fstab file that goes onto the CD. Other config files may also need to be customised; /etc/X11/XF86config-4 comes to mind - for this to work ``anywhere'' it is best to use the vesa driver. Similarly, use dhcp to configure ethernet rather than a hard-coded IP address in /etc/network/interfaces. On most systems there is a hard disk and it is shame not to use it. You can set-up a swap partition after you boot from the CD - be careful not to trash the host machine though!


Today one can find a number of GNU/Linux systems that work off Live CD's. There is Knoppix - and then there are its Klones. There is LNX-BBC, tomsrtbt, LTSP and even one called Puppy! There are the CD-based installers for the common distributions. But, I am still not satisfied. Each of these make choices that I am not comfortable with. They choose KDE, Gnome or fluxbox, when what I want is fvwm; or they choose xmms when what I want is alsaplayer (in daemon mode)... and so on.

What's wrong with Sunil's excellent article then? - just take a minimal Knoppix-like DSL and re-master it. I would object that Knoppix puts everything in a cloop image which makes it difficult to read the ``real'' contents of the CD on a generic system; further this also makes it difficult to master and/or re-master.

There are other approaches like that taken by Gibraltar, bootcd or dfsbuild or linux-live.

The first two keep the files in a compressed ISO file-system. That makes it usable ``anywhere''. I did try these but for one reason or another they didn't work for me. For example they required the installation of additional packages on my desktop.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: I'm a terribly nit-picky kind of person, and I have spent a lot of time fine-tuning my system and no one is allowed to dictate what packages I must install and how they must be configured.

[ I like this Kapil guy, and the way he thinks. :) -- Ben ]

I enjoy tinkering with such things, and so I must have a system that I understand fully. People also mentioned additional kernel features in late 2.4.x and early 2.6.x that simplify the building of a live CD. Finally, isn't it fun to ``roll your own''?
This document was translated from the LaTeX Source by HEVEA.

[BIO] Kapil Hari Paranjape has been a ``hack''-er since his punch-card days. Specifically, this means that he has never written a ``real'' program. He has merely tinkered with programs written by others. After playing with Minix in 1990-91 he thought of writing his first program---a ``genuine'' *nix kernel for the x86 class of machines. Luckily for him a certain L. Torvalds got there first---thereby saving him the trouble (once again) of actually writing code. In eternal gratitude he has spent a lot of time tinkering with and promoting Linux and GNU since those days---much to the dismay of many around him who think he should concentrate on mathematical research---which is his paying job. The interplay between actual running programs, what can be computed in principle and what can be shown to exist continues to fascinate him.

Copyright © 2005, Kapil Hari Paranjape. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 113 of Linux Gazette, April 2005

Voice recognition shorthand and the birth of Weblish

By Janine M. Lodato

It must be the former high school English teacher in me that hears the omission of the subjunctive in movies, TV ads, and TV programs.

No, it is not a tense like the present, past or future tenses. No, it is not a part of speech like an adjective, nor is it a verb form like the infinitive. The subjunctive indicates a mood similar to the indicative mood phrase, which indicates a situation of fact, e.g. a phrase such as "The wind is blowing today". Subjunctive is also similar to the interrogative mood phrase: e.g. "Did you wind the clock today?"

The subjunctive mood can also be used to suggest a situation contrary to fact: e.g. "If I were rich I would buy a new car" or: "I wish I had enough money to buy a new car". The flags in English that indicate the subjunctive mood are the words "if" and "wish".

English is very simple compared to other languages such as French, Spanish, German, Italian, etc. All have several pages in their grammar textbooks devoted to the conjugations needed for the subjunctive mood. No wonder English is becoming the common language, the lingua franca, of the world! The basic reason, of course, is the simplicity of its grammar. Even most scientific or technical papers are in English (just a hundred years ago, they would have been written in Latin.)

English, though, does have its idiosyncrasies which are difficult for foreigners (as well as for voice recognition software) to cope with - including spelling and associated pronunciation. Take, for example, the word spelled "wind". Depending on the context of the sentence, we can pronounce it two different ways - such as in "Was the clock wound?" versus "Did the wind of the blowing wind wound your ears?"

There are a myriad of other words with the same dual pronunciations: e.g. wound, refuse, compact, and contract. There is no end to them! And then there are the irregular verbs - 300 of them - which have very complex tense structures. My husband and care giver (I am a disabled woman in a wheelchair), who came to this country after the Hungarian student revolution was crushed by the Soviets, became one of the original geeks and never really learned the irregular verb tenses. Instead, he uses the auxiliaries, which he learned early and used in phrases such as: " I did in fact see it" instead of "I saw it". It's no surprise that the voice recognition systems prefer such expressions, which are much easier to parse.

I have taught "English for Foreigners" for 20 years (my wheelchair existence did not affect that, in fact it may have even helped) to students on all levels, from beginners to highly advanced technical experts. My husband is my worst student, but he does act as my voice recognition robot sometimes instead of my computer - though he does talk back and the computer does not.

I must say, I am impressed that so many foreigners speak, understand, read, and write English even better than many Americans. I am impressed, indeed, although I recognize they have no choice if they want to succeed at some higher level of occupation. The Internet, the now famous Web, has cemented this fact. Almost all websites - (addressed by www... and ending in either dotcom (in the form of ".com") or dotgov or dotedu or dotorg, etc.) are published on the web in English. Even the website addresses (called URLs, Uniform Resource Locators) end in dotde (Germany) or dotjp (Japan) or dotit (Italy), and symbols for all the other 290-plus similar names of the countries of the world, are published in English.

Google, the most favored search engine on the Web, indicates that at this time there are 1,900K dotcom, 105K dotgov, 370K dotorg, 158K dotedu and 385K dotnet webpages on the Internet (K, of course, stands for kilo which is one thousand). But, most interestingly, the German-based dotde accounts for 2,050K webpages, and more than half of those are in English.

The Web has had a profound effect on English. In place of proper Webster-style English, a new language has evolved on the Internet: "Weblish" (if I may be so bold in naming it). This new language is now used all over the world, and it is constantly coming up with new words most of which have an "e" or an "i" up front. Email is, of course, a well known example, but once email was created, there had to be a new name for the regular mail - so "snail mail" came into use as a great descriptive term.

Examples are all over the Web, and more are cropping up every minute. Just look at the URLs of the website themselves, and you will see a whole new set of descriptive names: Froogle, the name for the shopping website of Google, is one such imaginative Weblish variation of English.

One of my favorite new words is Lindows, the Linux based variation of Windows. We all hope it will succeed.

But there is another interesting development on the Web. As part of Weblish, there are the new hieroglyphs (also known as ASCII art) which many people now use in their emails. For example, I am a disabled woman in a wheelchair, so I like to sign my email with the following combination of letters and characters that looks like a wheelchair symbol (click here to skip the ASCII text):

There are many other examples of this, like :-) for happy and so on.

My aging geek husband immediately suggested that we should call this new symbology eglyphy or webglyphy or... and he went on interminably with new words until I screamed: "Please spare me, enough of this!"

But he is right, somebody will come up with the best name - and it will be adopted by many and become part of the new language.

Then there is SMS, the new cellular phone based Short Message Service. It uses some of the best shorthand out of necessity, since phones have only 12 keys. A good example: "CMI L8R" for "call me later". And so on - you get the drift.

But the most important development of simplified, short word-based English is due to voice recognition. Hands-busy, eyes-busy people, as well as those with a functional disability can benefit greatly from voice recognition because they don't have to use a mouse and keyboard to document their findings.

Voice-activated, easily-used telephone systems will benefit people in all walks of life. Anyone driving a car will find voice recognition a much more effective way of manipulating a vehicle and communicating from the vehicle. We are all hands-busy or eyes-busy at one time or another - in the kitchen, in the garden, or giving care to children or adults in need, etc. Personal computers have the capacity to accommodate voice recognition systems, like IBM's ViaVoice. This is especially advantageous to a large population segment of people with disabilities, those who are chronically ill, and older people as well as their caregivers.

Using a keyboard is next to impossible or at least difficult for this fast-growing group of people. Caregivers and their patients would benefit from being able to use just their voices to document the treatments or care they provide to their patients. Additionally, voice recognition technology would allow them a hands-free environment in which to analyze, treat, and write about particular cases easily and quickly.

Linux Voice Recognition Project

The care-giving services market alone may justify the Linux-based voice recognition project. Providing care to the needy is one of the largest expenses in the Group of Ten nations, and it is the fastest growing sector as well. Just in the USA, the segment of the population which includes older people and people with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses accounts for 100 million people. Add to that the 5 million formal caregivers and 44 million informal care givers at work in America, and we are looking at half the population!

In the care-giving field, the simplicity, reliability, and low cost of Linux for servers, tablets, embedded devices, and desktops are paramount features. Obviously, the market for these new technologies exists. What remains is for some courageous company with aggressive people to tap into that market. Once those companies get the technology distributed, the needs of many will be met, and a new mass market will open up - one that isn't currently being filled. In fact, the field of opportunity already exists, but it needs to be expanded to serve people with physical and functional disabilities.

Yes, voice recognition offers great promise for the future. However, it isn't perfect and it still needs to be improved. One improvement would use lip reading to bolster its accuracy. Still another would be multi-tonal voice input. Another would be improvements in the design of directional microphones. Every generation of voice recognition software will be improved as the hardware for Linux gets bigger and stronger.

IBM is, in fact, now working on a lip reading system for installation in an automobile so that the on-board computer can very precisely understand the spoken commands of the driver. So, IBM, we need to get this technology into our desktops, ebook readers, tablet computers, and PDAs as well - please? Why not license your lip reading technology to a consortium of open source developers, perhaps sponsored by a non-profit such as DRAIL, an organization concerned with the needy? Or, even more effective would be a licence for a group of such organizations, such as Robert Wood, AARP, Elderweb, etc. who would put lip reading and enhanced, precise voice recognition on an ebook reader, such as www.ebook-gemstar.com or the Korean manufactured one: www.ebookad.com/hiebook/) or an iPOD (Apple's great music machine), or a tablet computer, or any other PC that this segment of the population would feel comfortable with.

Virtual PCs running on a community-based server to which the end-users could connect with simple telephones (POTS) or video telephones (e.g., www.vialta.com) would be of great use. My geek caregiver husband suggests that we should call this project Wordows. "Oh no", I yell at my favorite geek, "That is not so good: it sounds weirdo!" You need to be careful when you create a new word in Weblish. So let us call it, if you will permit me, "Slimdows".

With all these changes, the English teacher in me comes to terms with a changing linguistic environment. Since life itself is constant change, English must also change.

Janine has been a user of voice recognition software for several years and is an advocate for Open Source solutions that will benefit people with disabilities, such as the Linux-based voice recognition project.


I am a registered principal investigator with NSF.

I am a disabled woman, but have great experience with voice recognition and have an advanced system with IBM Via-Voice, so my writing abilities are not impaired at all.

I have many years of personal experience using assistive technologies (AT), and find it very helpful in SPMS (secondary progressive multiple sclerosis). In spite of my handicap, I find it gratifying and fulfilling to concentrate my efforts on worthwhile projects for very deserving companies. Involvement such as this has proved to have healing power for me: I am living proof of the power of behavioural medicine based on deep personal involvement. The best way to use these intellectual strengths is to get involved with collaborative teamwork and personal communications within the disabled community and with companies who provide assistive technologies for this community.

As a handicapped woman who still has control of her mental faculties and voice, I have something to offer by connecting the right people so that I can integrate systems through the Internet to develop a mutually beneficial virtual community.

Personal communications and collaborative teams need assistive technologies to further the self-esteem of the disabled. In short, involvement allows disabled people not only a distraction from their problems, but also a constructive way to spend their time while helping a cause they believe in.

Janine M. Lodato

     ( o )\_

Copyright © 2005, Janine M. Lodato. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 113 of Linux Gazette, April 2005

Introduction to Shell Scripting - Part 3

By Ben Okopnik

A Blast from the Past! Originally published in Issue 54 of Linux Gazette, May 2000

Never write it in 'C' if you can do it in 'awk';
Never do it in 'awk' if 'sed' can handle it;
Never use 'sed' when 'tr' can do the job;
Never invoke 'tr' when 'cat' is sufficient;
Avoid using 'cat' whenever possible.
 -- Taylor's Laws of Programming

Last month, we looked at loops and conditional execution. This time around, we'll look at a few of the simpler "external" tools (i.e., GNU utilities) that are commonly used in shell scripts. Recall that shell scripts are made up of 1) internal shell commands and structures, 2) external tools, comprised of the standard utilities, and 3) installed programs; the first are always going to be there, as long as you're executing the script with the same shell (the shebang usually takes care of that), the second will usually be there (but watch out for non-portable syntax between different versions, e.g., the '-A' switch in 'cat', the various levels of regex parsing in different 'grep' versions, etc.), and the last is essentially arbitrary since you don't know what another person executing your script has installed (or not installed) on their machine. If you're planning on distributing your script, you may need to write code to test for the presence of any external programs you use and issue warnings if they're absent.

Oh, and - the reason for the above quote: the tools available to you as a script writer, as you might have guessed from it, are arranged in a rough sort of a "power hierarchy". It's important to remember this if you find yourself continually being frustrated by the limitations of a specific tool, it may not have enough "juice" to do the job. Conversely, it does not make sense to use some heavy-duty utility that's big and slow to perform a simple operation.

Some years ago, while writing a script that processed Clipper database files, I found myself pushed up against the wall by the limitations of arrays in "bash"; after a day and a half of fighting it, I swore a bitter oath, glued a "screw it" label over the original attempt, and rewrote the entire thing in "awk".

It took a total of 15 minutes.

I didn't tell anyone at the time; even my good friends would have taken a Clue-By-4 to my head to make sure that the lesson stuck...

Don't be stubborn about changing tools when the original one proves under-powered.


Strange as it may seem, 'cat' - which you've probably used on innumerable occasions - can do a number of useful things beyond simple concatenation and printing to the screen. As an example, 'cat -v file.txt' will print the contents of "file.txt" to the screen - and will also show you all the non-text characters that might normally be invisible (this excludes the standard textfile characters such as `end-of-line' and `tab'), in '^' (for Ctrl- characters) and 'M-' (for Alt- characters) notation. This can be very useful when you've got something that is supposed to be a text file, but various utilities keep failing to process it and give errors like "This is a binary file!". This capability can also come in handy when converting files from one type to another (see the section on 'tr'). If you decide you'd like to see all the characters in the file, the `-A' switch will fill the bill - `$' signs will show the end-of-lines (the buck stops here?), and `^I' will show the tabs. Note that '-A' is just a shortcut for '-vet' - something that used to be known as "taking your cat to the vet". (Yes, Unix command usage can be quite odd. :)

'-n' is another useful option. This one will number all the lines (you can use `-b' to number only the non-blank lines) of a file - very useful when you want to create a `line selector', i.e., whenever you want to have a "handle" for a specific line which you would then pass to another utility, say, 'sed' (which works well with line numbers).

'cat' can also be used for "here-doc"s - i.e., to generate multi-line, formatted text output. The syntax is a little odd but not difficult; here are two script "snippets" showing the differences between using 'echo' and a here-doc:

echo "'guess' - a shell script that reads your mind"
echo "and runs the program you're thinking about."
echo "Syntax:"
echo "guess [-fnrs]"
echo "-f Force mode: if no mental activity is detected,"
echo "   take a Scientific Wild-Ass Guess (SWAG) and execute."
echo "-n Read your neighbor's mind; commonly used to retrieve"
echo "   the URLs of really good porno sites."
echo "-r Reboot brain via TCP (Telepathic Control Protocol) - for
echo "   those times when you're drawing a complete blank."
echo "-s Read the supervisor's mind; implies the '-f' option."

cat <<!
'guess' - a shell script that reads your mind
and runs the program you're thinking about.


guess [-fnrs]

-f Force mode: if no mental activity is detected,
   take a Scientific Wild-Ass Guess (SWAG) and execute.
-n Read your neighbor's mind; commonly used to retrieve
   the URLs of really good porno sites.
-r Reboot brain via TCP (Telepathic Control Protocol) - for
   those times when you're drawing a complete blank.
-s Read the supervisor's mind; implies the '-f' option.


Everything between the two exclamation points will be printed to 'stdout' (the screen) as formatted. Note that the terminator ('!', in this case) is arbitrary - you could use 'EOF' or '^+-+^' or 'This_is_the_end_my_friend' - but '!' is traditional. The only constraints on the above are, there must be a space between the terminator and the redirection symbol following it (otherwise, the redirector could be seen as a part of the terminator!), and the closing terminator must be on a line by itself, with no trailing whitespace. This allows the terminator to be used as a part of the text without closing the here-doc.

Using the same mechanism with redirection gives you a mini-editor:

ben@Fenrir:~$ cat <<! > file.txt
> Everything entered here
> 	will be written to file.txt
> 		exactly as entered.
ben@Fenrir:~$ cat file.txt
Everything entered here
        will be written to file.txt
                exactly as entered.

I tend to think of 'cat' as an "initial processor" for text that will be further worked on with other tools. That's not to say that it's unimportant - in some cases, it's almost irreplaceable. Indeed, your 'cat' can do tricks that are not only entertaining but useful... and you don't even need a litter box.


When it comes to "character-by-character" processing, this utility, despite its oddities in certain respects (e.g., characters specified by their ASCII value have to be entered in octal), is one of the most useful ones in our toolbox. Here's a script using it that replaces those "DOS-text-to-Unix" conversion utilities:

[ -z "$1" ] && { 
	echo "d2u - converts DOS text to Unix."
	echo "Syntax: d2u <file>"

cat "$1"|tr -d '\015'

<grin> I guess I'd better take time to explain; I can already hear the screams of rage from all those folks who just learned about 'if' constructs in last month's column.

"What happened to that nice `if' statement you said we needed at the beginning of the script? and what's that `&&' thing?"

Believe it or not, it's all still there - at least the mechanism that makes the "right stuff" happen. Now, though, instead of using the structure of the statement and fitting our commands into the "slots" in the syntax, we use the return value of the commands, and make the logic do the work. Let's take a look at this very important concept.

Whenever you use a command, it returns a code on exit - typically 0 for success, and 1 for failure (exceptions are things like the 'length' function, which returns a value). Some programs return a variety of numbers for specific types of exits, which is why you'd normally want to test for zero versus non-zero, rather than testing for `1' specifically. You can implement the same mechanism in your scripts (this is a good coding policy): if your script generates a variety of messages on different exit conditions, use 'exit n' as the last statement, where `n' is the code to be returned (the plain 'exit' statement will returns the value of the operation immediately preceding it.) These codes, by the way, are invisible - they're internal "flags"; there's nothing printed on the screen, so don't bother looking. If you want to see what the exit code of the last command was, try echoing '$?' - it stores the numerical value of the last exit flag.

To test for them, 'bash' provides a simple mechanism - the reserved words `&&' (logical AND) and `||' (logical OR). In the script above, the statement basically says "if $1 has a length of zero, then the following statements (echo... echo... exit) should be executed". If you're not familiar with binary logic, this may be confusing, so here's a quick rundown that will suffice for our purposes: back in the days when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, and learning about computers meant understanding hardware design, we had gadgets called 'AND gates' and 'OR gates' - logic circuits - that operated like this:

     AND (&&)                   OR (||)
    truth table                truth table

     A   B  out                 A   B  out
    -----------                -----------
   | 0 | 0 | 0 |              | 0 | 0 | 0 |
   | 0 | 1 | 0 |              | 0 | 1 | 1 |
   | 1 | 0 | 0 |              | 1 | 0 | 1 |
   | 1 | 1 | 1 |              | 1 | 1 | 1 |
    -----------                -----------

If any input is 0,          If any input is 1,
the output will be 0.       the output will be 1.
In other words, if we knew the value of one of the inputs, we could decide if we needed to evaluate the other input or not (e.g., with an AND gate, if the known input is a 0, we don't need to evaluate the other one - we know what the output is going to be!) This is the logic we use in dealing with the logical operators in the shell as well: if we have something that is true in front of an AND operator, we obviously need to evaluate (i.e., execute) the back part - and ditto for a false input for an OR operator.

As a comparison, here are two script fragments that do much the same thing:

if [ -z $1 ]
	echo "Enter a parameter."
	echo "Parameter entered."
[ -z $1 ] && echo "Enter a parameter." || echo "Parameter entered."

You have to be a bit cautious about using the second version for anything more complex than "echo" statements: if you use a command in the part after the `&&' which returns a failure code, both it and the statements after `||' will be executed, unless you force an explicit successful exit! This in itself can be useful, if that's what you need - but you have to be aware of how the mechanism works.

Back to the original "d2u" script - the "active" part of the script, cat "$1"|tr -d '\015', pipes the original text into 'tr', which deletes DOS's "CR/Carriage Return" character (0x0D), shown here in octal (\015). That's the bit... err, byte that makes DOS text different from Unix text - we use just the "LF/Newline" character (0x0A), while DOS uses both (CR/LF). This is why Unix text looks like

This is line one*This is line two*This is line three*
in DOS, and DOS text like
This is line one^M
This is line two^M
This is line three^M
in Unix.

"A word to the wise" applicable to any budding shell-script writer: close study of the "tr" man page will pay off handsomely. This is a tool that you will find yourself using again and again.


A very useful pair of tools, with mostly identical syntax. By default they print, respectively, the first/last 10 lines of a given file; the number and the units are easily changed via syntax. Here's a snippet that shows how to read a specific line in a file, using its line number as a "handle" (you may recall this from the discussion on "cat"):

line="$(head -$handle $1|tail -1)"
Having defined `$handle' as `5', we use "head -$handle" to read a file specified on the command line and print all lines from 1 to 5; we then use "tail -1" to read only the last line of that. This can, of course, be done with more powerful tools like "sed"... but we won't get to that for a bit - and Taylor's law, above, is often a sensible guideline.

These programs can also be used to "identify" very large files without the necessity of reading the whole thing; if you know that one of a number of very large databases contains a unique field name that identifies it as the one you want, you can do something like this:

for fname in *dbf
	head -c10k "$fname"|grep -is "cost_in_sheckels_per_cubit"
	echo $fname
(Yes, I realize we haven't covered 'grep' yet. I trust those readers that aren't familiar with it will use their "man" pages wisely... or hold their water until we get to that part. :)

So - the above case is simple enough; we take the first 10k bytes (you'd adjust it to whatever size chunk is necessary to capture all the field names) off the top of each database by using 'head', then use 'grep' to look for the string. If it's found, we print the name of the file. Those of you who have to deal with large numbers of multi-megabyte databases can really appreciate this capability.

'tail' is interesting in its own way; one of the syntax differences between it and 'head' is the '+' switch, which answers the question of "how do I read everything after the first X characters/lines?" Believe it or not, that can be a very important question - and a very difficult one to answer in any other way... (Also sprach The Voice of Bitter Experience.) As an example, to get the output of something like "ls -l" without the 'total:' header, try'ls -l|tail +2'.


In my experience, 'cut' comes in for a lot more usage than 'paste' - it's very good at dealing with fields in formatted data, allowing you to separate out the info you need. As an example, let's say that you have a directory where you need to get a list of all the files that are 100k or more in size, once a week (logfiles over a size limit, perhaps). You can set up a "cron" job to e-mail you:

 ls -lr --sort=size $dir|tr -s ' '|cut -d ' ' -f 5,8|grep \
 -E ^'[1-9]{6,} '|mail joe@thefarm.com -s "Logfile info"

'ls -lr --sort=size $dir' gives us a listing of `$dir' sorted by size in `reverse' order (smallest to largest). We pipe that through "tr -s ' '" to collapse all repeated spaces to a single space, then use "cut" with space as a delimiter (now that the spaces are singular, we can actually use them to separate the fields) to return fields 5 and 8 (size and filename). We then use 'grep' to look at the very beginning of the line (where the size is listed) and print every line that starts with a digit, repeats that match 5 times, and is followed by a space. The lines that match are piped into 'mail' and sent off to the recipient.

'paste' can be useful at times. The simplest way of describing it that I can think of is a "vertical 'cat'" - it merges files line by line, instead of "head to tail". If you have, e.g., two files containing, respectively, the names of the people on your mullet-throwing team, and the records for each one arranged in the correct order, you can simply "glue" the two of them together with "paste". If you specify the 'names' files first and the 'records' second, each line of the result would contain the name followed by the record, separated by a tab or whatever delimiter you specified with the '-d' option.


The "Vise-Grips" of Unix. This utility, as well as its more specialized relatives 'fgrep' and 'egrep', is used primarily for searching files for matching text strings, using the 'regexp' (Regular Expression) mechanism to specify the text to match.

'grep' can be used to answer questions like "Let's see now; I know the quote that I want is in of these 400+ text files in this directory - something about "Who hath desired the Sea". What was it, again?..."

Odin:~$ grep -iA 12 "who hath desired the sea" *
Poems.txt-Who hath desired the Sea? - the sight of salt water unbounded -
Poems.txt-The heave and the halt and the hurl and the crash of the comber
Poems.txt- wind-hounded?
Poems.txt-The sleek-barrelled swell before storm, grey, foamless, enormous,
Poems.txt- and growing -
Poems.txt-Stark calm on the lap of the Line or the crazy-eyed hurricane
Poems.txt- blowing -
Poems.txt-His Sea in no showing the same - his Sea and the same 'neath each
Poems.txt- showing:
Poems.txt- His Sea as she slackens or thrills?
Poems.txt-So and no otherwise - so and no otherwise - hillmen desire their
Poems.txt- Hills!
"Ah, it's in `Poems.txt'..."

'grep' has a wide variety of options (the "-A <n>" switch that I used above determines the number of lines of context after the matched line that will be printed; the "-i" switch means "ignore case") that allow precise searches within a single file or a group of files, as well as specifying the type of output when a match is found (or conversely, when no match is found). I've used 'grep' in several of the "example" scripts so far, and use it, on the average, about a dozen times a day, command line and script usage together: the search for the above Kipling quote (including my muttered comments) happened just a few minutes before I sharpened my cursor and scribbled this paragraph.

You can also use it to search binary files, by using the '-a' option; an occasionally useful "last-ditch" procedure for those programs where the author has hidden the help/syntax info behind some obscure switch, and 'man', 'info', and the '/usr/doc/' directory come up empty.

Often, there is a requirement for performing some task the same number of times as there are 'useful' lines in a given file, e.g., reading in each line of a configuration file and parsing it. 'grep' helps us here, too:

for n in $(egrep -v '^[ 	   ]*(#|$)' ~/.scheduler)

This is a snippet from a scheduling program I wrote some time ago; whenever I log in, it reminds me of appointments, etc. for that day. 'egrep', in this instance, finds all the lines that are not comments or blanks, by ignoring (via the '-v' option) all lines that either start with a '#' or with any number of spaces or tabs preceding a '#' or an end-of-line (represented by the '$' metacharacter.) Note that the square brackets above, which define a character class or a range of characters to match, actually contain a space and a tab - both of which are annoyingly invisible. Incidentally, the reason I used e(xtended) grep here is that most versions of simple 'grep' don't know how to parse the '(a|b)' alternation construct - and a character class won't work for that, since metacharacters lose their special meaning in character classes and are simply treated as characters.

The result of the above is that we only loop over "the beef" in the config file, ignoring all non-programmatic input; the "working" lines are parsed, within the body of the "for" loop (details not shown in this snippet) into the date and text variables, and the script executes an "alarm and display" routine if the appointment date matches today's date.

Wrapping It Up

In order to produce good shell scripts, you need to be very familiar with how all of these tools work - or, at the very least, have a good idea what a given tool can and cannot do (you can always look up the exact syntax via 'man'). There are many other, more complex and powerful tools available to us - but these six programs will get you started and keep you going for a long time, as well as giving you a broad field of possibilities for script experimentation of your own.

Until next month - Happy Linuxing!

"Script Quote" Of The Month:
"I used to program my IBM PC to make hideous noises to wake me up. I
also made the conscious decision to hard-code the alarm time into the
program, so as to make it more difficult for me to reset it. After I
realised that I was routinely getting up, editing the source file,
recompiling the program and rerunning it for 15 minutes extra sleep before
going back to bed, I gave up and made the alarm time a command-line
 -- B.M. Buck


The "man" pages for 'bash', 'builtins', 'cat', 'head', 'tail', 'cut', 'paste', 'grep', 'strings'

"Introduction to Shell Scripting - The Basics" by Ben Okopnik, LG #52
"Introduction to Shell Scripting - Part I" by Ben Okopnik, LG #53

picture Ben is the Editor-in-Chief for Linux Gazette and a member of The Answer Gang.

Ben was born in Moscow, Russia in 1962. He became interested in electricity at the tender age of six, promptly demonstrated it by sticking a fork into a socket and starting a fire, and has been falling down technological mineshafts ever since. He has been working with computers since the Elder Days, when they had to be built by soldering parts onto printed circuit boards and programs had to fit into 4k of memory. He would gladly pay good money to any psychologist who can cure him of the recurrent nightmares.

His subsequent experiences include creating software in nearly a dozen languages, network and database maintenance during the approach of a hurricane, and writing articles for publications ranging from sailing magazines to technological journals. After a seven-year Atlantic/Caribbean cruise under sail and passages up and down the East coast of the US, he is currently anchored in St. Augustine, Florida. He works as a technical instructor for Sun Microsystems and a private Open Source consultant/Web developer. His current set of hobbies includes flying, yoga, martial arts, motorcycles, writing, and Roman history; his Palm Pilot is crammed full of alarms, many of which contain exclamation points.

He has been working with Linux since 1997, and credits it with his complete loss of interest in waging nuclear warfare on parts of the Pacific Northwest.

Copyright © 2005, Ben Okopnik. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 113 of Linux Gazette, April 2005

-- --- .-. ... .

By Jimmy O'Regan

[ For those who have not yet learned to read Morse code, you could just save this page and run "perl -x oregan.html" over it to read it in boring old English (yes, there's Deep Magic here.) Conversely, the Perl Power Tools project contains the 'demorse' utility, which can be used the same way. Or you can use a Morse dictionary. Or you can just remain forever mystified. Your choice. Oh, and happy April 1st to all. :) -- Ben ]

- .... --- ..- --. .... .-- . .-.. .. ...- . .. -. - .. -- . ... --- ..-. .-. ... ... .- -. -.. ..-. . . -.. .-. . .- -.. . .-. ... --..-- .-- . ... .... --- ..- .-.. -.. -- .- -.- . ... ..- .-. . - --- -. . ...- . .-. ..-. --- .-. --. . - - .... . --- .-.. -.. .-- .- -.-- ... .-.-.- -- --- .-. ... . -.-. --- -.. . -- .- -.-- -... . .- ... .-.. --- .-- .-- .- -.-- --- ..-. --. . - - .. -. --. -. . .-- ... - .... . ... . -.. .- -.-- ... --..-- -... ..- - .. ..-. -.-- --- ..- ... .... --- ..- .-.. -.. ..-. .. -. -.. -.-- --- ..- .-. ... . .-.. ..-. - .-. .- .--. .--. . -.. .. -. ... --- .-.. .. - .- .-. -.-- -.-. --- -. ..-. .. -. . -- . -. - --..-- -.-- --- ..- .----. .-.. .-.. -... . --. .-.. .- -.. --- ..-. .- -.- -. --- .-- .-.. . -.. --. . --- ..-. -- --- .-. ... . -.-. --- -.. . --..-- .- ... -.-- --- ..- .- -. -.. -.-- --- ..- .-. ..-. . .-.. .-.. --- .-- .--. .-. .. ... --- -. . .-. ... - .- .--. --- ..- - -.-- --- ..- .-. .--. .-.. .- -. ... --- ..-. ..- .--. .-. .. ... .. -. --. --- -. - .... . .--. .-.. ..- -- -... .. -. --. .-.-.- ..-. --- .-. - .... --- ... . --- ..-. -.-- --- ..- .-- .... --- .- .-. . -. .----. - .. -. -.-. .-.. .. -. . -.. - --- .-.. . .- .-. -. -- --- .-. ... . -.-. --- -.. . --..-- -... ..- - .-- .... --- -.. --- .... .- ...- . .- .-.. .. -. ..- -..- .-. ..- -. -. .. -. --. -.-. --- -- .--. ..- - . .-. .- ...- .- .. .-.. .- -... .-.. . --..-- -.-- --- ..- -.-. .- -. .- .-.. .-- .- -.-- ... .. -. ... - .- .-.. .-.. - .... . -... ... -.. --. .- -- . ... .--. .- -.-. -.- .- --. . .- -. -.. ..- ... . - .... . -- --- .-. ... . .--. .-. --- --. .-. .- -- - .... --- ... . -.-. .-. .- --.. -.-- -.-. .- .-.. .. ..-. --- .-. -. .. .- -. ... ... .- .-- ..-. .. - - --- .-. . .-.. . .- ... . - --- .- -. ..- -. ... ..- ... .--. . -.-. - .. -. --. .-- --- .-. .-.. -.. .-.-.- -... -.-- -.. . ..-. .- ..- .-.. - --..-- .. - ... .--. . .-.. .-.. ... --- ..- - . .- -.-. .... -.. --- - .- -. -.. -.. .- ... .... .- ... -.. .. - .- -. -.. -.. .- .-- .-. . ... .--. . -.-. - .. ...- . .-.. -.-- .-.-.- .. ..-. -.-- --- ..- .. -. ...- --- -.- . .. - .- ... -- --- .-. ... . -....- ... --..-- -.-- --- ..- --. . - -- ..- -.-. .... -... . - - . .-. --- ..- - .--. ..- - ---... - .... . - . .-.. . --. .-. .- .--. .... ..-. .- -. ... .- -- --- -. --. -.-- --- ..- .-- .. .-.. .-.. ... ..- .-. . .-.. -.-- -... . .--. .-.. . .- ... . -.. .-.-.- .--. . .-. .-.. ..-. .- -. ... -.-. .- -. ..-. . . .-.. .... .- .--. .--. -.-- --..-- - .... .- -. -.- ... - --- - .... . .-- --- .-. -.- --- ..-. -.. .- -- .. .- -. -.-. --- -. .-- .- -.-- .-.-.- ..- ... .. -. --. .... .. ... .- -.-. -- . ---... ---... -- --- .-. ... . -- --- -.. ..- .-.. . .-- .... .. -.-. .... -.-. --- -- . ... .-- .. - .... .- -.-. -- . ---... ---... -... .-.. . .- -.-. .... -.-- --- ..- -.-. .- -. .-- .-. .. - . -.-- --- ..- .-. .--. . .-. .-.. ... -.-. .-. .. .--. - ... .. -. -- --- .-. ... . -.-. --- -.. . .-.-.- -... . --. .. -. -. . .-. ... -. . . -.. -. .----. - ..-. . .- .-. --..-- .... --- .-- . ...- . .-. ---... ... .. -- .--. .-.. -.-- .-- .-. .. - . -.-- --- ..- .-. -.-. --- -.. . .- ... ..- ... ..- .- .-.. --..-- -... ..- - .- -.. -.. .- .----. ..- ... . .- -.-. -- . ---... ---... -- --- .-. ... . .----. .-.. .. -. . - --- - .... . ... - .- .-. - --- ..-. -.-- --- ..- .-. ... -.-. .-. .. .--. - --..-- .- -. -.. .. - .----. .-.. .-.. -... . -.-. --- -. ...- . .-. - . -.. ..-. --- .-. -.-- --- ..- .-.-.-

[BIO] Jimmy is a single father of one, who enjoys long walks... Oh, right.

Jimmy has been using computers from the tender age of seven, when his father inherited an Amstrad PCW8256. After a few brief flirtations with an Atari ST and numerous versions of DOS and Windows, Jimmy was introduced to Linux in 1998 and hasn't looked back.

In his spare time, Jimmy likes to play guitar and read: not at the same time, but the picks make handy bookmarks.

Copyright © 2005, Jimmy O'Regan. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 113 of Linux Gazette, April 2005

PyCon DC 2005

By Mike Orr (Sluggo)

Pythoneers from around the world again descended on George Washington University for the fourth annual PyCon, which was held March 23-25, 2005 in Washington, DC. It's hard to decide what the highlight was: Guido's new beard, the success of the Open Space sessions, the number of attendees (just shy of 450), the international scope (I saw several delegates from Germany, and a few from Japan and Italy), the surprise sleeper hit (WSGI and integrating the web application frameworks was the most discussed topic), the Python CPAN (integrated with PyPI), the keynote from Python's most prominent user (Google), David Goodger's name ("pronounced like Badger but GOOD!"), or Guido's plans for static typing. ("Don't worry," he says about the latter, "it's just a bad dream.")

Keynote #1: Python on .NET

Jim Hugunin, who last year presented his paper on IronPython (a version of Python for Microsoft's .NET runtime environment), is now working for Microsoft. ("So I know if my computer crashes during this talk, I'll never hear the end of it.") Hugunin originally started the IronPython project to prove .NET was unsuitable for dynamically-typed languages, but discovered the opposite. IronPython on Windows .NET 2.0 Beta 1 is 80% faster than CPython (i.e., "normal" Python). Why? Different bytecode, support library is C#, and MS has put a huge number of resources into optimizing .NET and its machine-code compiler. (IronPython on Mono "probably runs about as fast as CPython", he said, although "this could improve with optimization". Mono is a Linux-compatible version of .NET.) IronPython thus joins Jython (Python on Java), Parrot (Python on Perl 6), and PyPy (Python on Python) as competitors to CPython, meaning Python is now more a language specification than a particular C implementation.

Keynote #2: Python at Google

Greg Stein from Google talked about why Python is one of their primary development languages (alongside C++ and Java). They found Python highly adaptable, fast to learn, and easy to maintain. Many of the Python modules they use are actually SWIG wrappers around C libraries. "We use lots of swigs."

Although only a few of Google's user-visible services are currently running on Python (groups.google.com, code.google.com), Python is used extensively in their infrastructure. Google is a challenging environment to administer because it has several servers. "OK, a lot of servers." How many companies do you know with a thousand servers to feed? Their development environment is written in Python: libraries that describe how to build software, utilities to automatically run unittests and enforce a peer review before code is checked in, and packaging systems. Python lets their tools evolve easily as hardware/software is upgraded.

Successfully checked-in code goes to a staging server, then to the "data centers" which push it to the production servers. All this is done in Python. Other Python scripts monitor the production servers: Are they running? Do they think they're healthy? Are their hard drives and CPU temperatures OK?

Google has released some Python code to the public, such as Goopy (a "functional programming" library). They plan to release more, but slowly and carefully. Guido asked, "When are we going to see an open-source build system?" Greg said that it'll be as soon as they can convince the management.

One interesting detail is that since Google always has a ton of user queries coming in, they can test new servers/applications by simply diverting 1% of the traffic to it and seeing if they fall over. (Steve Holden, PyCon's coordinator, called that amount of traffic "frightening".) The command-line tool to do this is, of course, written in Python.

Keynote #3: Guido van Rossum

Somebody named Guido got up and talked about Python as if he owned it. Rather than throwing cans of spam at him, the audience listened intently. Why? Because this was Python's creator, giving his annual address about the state of the language. After discussing "why my keynotes suck" (because he'd rather be talking about the intricacies of language design), "why the beard", and "who is my new employer" (Elemental Security, a company developing an enterprise security product they won't talk about, who also won't let Guido develop Python 3000 on company time), Guido plunged into the controversies du jour.

How did the @decorator syntax win? "Everyone disliked it equally, it's unambiguous, it doesn't obscure the function definition, and it's similar to Java."

If function decorators are so necessary, why not class decorators too? Metaclasses do the job well enough. Other PyCon talks showed how metaclasses are functions that tweak a class object after it's created; for example, to make it keep a list of all its instances. To specify a class's metaclass, give it a .__metaclass__ attribute or define a __metaclass__ variable in the module. Or use a little-known feature of the type builtin to create a class on the fly:

     (BaseClass1, BaseClass2),
     {'my_attribute': 1})
You can also subclass type to make a class factory, as shown in David Mertz's tutorial on metaclasses.

Back to Guido's talk. Python is getting more popular. The Barton Group did a survey of what their developer readers are using, and Python was at 14%. The Barton Group described it as the "P" languages (Python, Perl, PHP) vs. the "C" languages, and noted that Python has fewer security vulnerabilities than Perl or PHP. Downloads and page views at python.org are both up 30% from last year.

2005 also featured Python's first security alert, against a vulnerability in SimpleXMLRPCServer.py. It's fixed in Python 2.4.1 and 2.3.5; patches for earlier versions are available. The experience showed that Python needed a Security Response Team, which is now in place. Previously there was no place to send a security alert without posting it on a public forum or e-mailing it to Guido. Now anybody can e-mail alerts to security@python.org, and they will go to the entire response team.

Python has gotten burned for putting out too many new features in minor releases, so now only bugfixes will go into minor releases (e.g., 2.4.5), and features will have to wait until a major release (e.g., 2.5). The community has indicated it wants a "slow growth" policy on features, with more focus on stability and optimization.

Guido's employer won't let him work on Python on company time, so Python 3000 (a.k.a. Python 3.0) will not appear anytime soon. But it now has a PEP describing the direction it will go. Python 3.0 will have backward incompatibilities as Guido adds a few keywords, eliminates builtins he wishes he hadn't created, and reorganizes the standard library into a deeper hierarchy. Much of the CPython code is still useful though, so it won't be a total rewrite. Some features will be backported to Python 2.x, sometimes accessible as "from __future__ import <feature>". Old-style classes will be eliminated in 3.0, as will map/filter/reduce. lambda may be replaced by anonymous code blocks, although a syntax has not emerged. ("Statements in curly braces was just a joke, really!")

Python 2.5 will have any(iterable) and all(iterable) builtins; they both return booleans. any tells whether any of the values are true, all whether all the values are true.

The Bad Dream

Then Guido said, "If you don't like the next part, just pretend it's all a bad dream." Guido wants to add optional static typing to Python 3.0. Here's a possible syntax:

def foo(a: int, b: list[int]) -> list[str]
This implies:
    a = __typecheck__(a, int)    # Raises error if adapt(a, int) is false.
If that horrifies you so much you want to switch to Ruby because "Guido is trying to turn Python into C," don't worry. He reassured us, "Nothing is settled yet!!!" There are a number of unresolved issues:

The PyWebOff and WSGI

In the beginning there was Zope. Zope was a web application framework and the basis for several Content Management Systems, but it had some discontents who dared to call it "monolithic" and "unpythonic". And behold, then there came Webware, and it was Modular and didn't impose New Programming Languages on site developers, and there was much rejoicing. But others rebelled at even Webware's Heavy-Handedness and arbitrary Conventions and wanted something even Simpler, and a Ton of frameworks appeared: Quixote (which calls itself "lightweight Zope"), SkunkWEB ("Smell the power!"), CherryPy ("fun to work with"), and some thirteen others. Meanwhile, Twisted had released its own Whole Earth Catalog of asynchronous Internet libraries including Nevow. Trying to find the forest through the trees, Ian Bicking held a Shootout at PyCon 2004, comparing several frameworks against each other.

This year, Michelle Levesque went a step further and said we've forgotten about "Brian". "Brian" is the typical non-techie developer who just wants to get a simple dynamic site up. The Python frameworks have now mushroomed to forty [slide showing a montage of logos]. Experienced Pythoneers know that Zope is easy if it does what you want out of the box, Quixote is good for sites that are big on calculations and small on eye candy, Twisted is good for high-demand sites, etc.; but Brian doesn't know this. Brian sees forty apparently equal frameworks and chooses this: [slide with the word "PHP"], or maybe this: [slide with the word "Java"]. Python is about having One Obvious Way To Do It, but in the web framework world it's Ruby and Java that have a unified model, not Python. Quoting Moshe Zadka, "You're not a Real Python Programmer until you've written your own web templating toolkit." But, Michelle said, there are a lot of Brians in the world; they form by far the biggest potential "market".

Michelle's plea to developers is, "Stop writing kewl new frameworks! Help improve the top few frameworks so they can become a best of breed. And put documentation on python.org telling Brian, "For heavyweight use A, for lightweight use B, for performance use C, for XML use D, for no XML use E." Of course, this means the Python community must come to consensus on which are the top frameworks. Some might think "when hell freezes over", but Michelle has a plan.

She issued herself a challenge to implement a typical Brian application (in this case, a book checkout system) in each of seven frameworks, and compare the experiences (i.e., compare the grief). She also blogged her thoughts along the way, making this perhaps the first PyCon talk with its own blog. Of course this is just one person's opinion, but it serves as a starting point for discussion.

Ian Bicking followed Michelle's talk with a remarkably similar topic: "WSGI Middleware and WSGIKit (for Webware)". He agrees with Michelle that the proliferation of incompatible web frameworks is the most important issue preventing Python from enjoying the huge growth curve of PHP, but he takes a different approach. Rather than just writing documentation, Ian would like to see these frameworks become interoperable. WSGI (the Web Server Gateway Interface) is a proposed standard for Python (PEP 333). It's a protocol for web servers to communicate with application frameworks. Currently, each framework has to come with a whole slew of adapters (CGI, FastCGI, mod_python, a custom module, a standalone HTTP server) to communicate with Apache. WSGI allows each framework to need only a single virtual adapter, and the webservers can provide "best of breed" adapters that plug into any WSGI-compliant framework. You can also plug in single-purpose "middleware" objects that look like an application to the webserver, and like a server to the framework, or even chain middleware objects together. This could allow alternate URL-parsing and Session modules to be plugged in and out, for instance, eliminating the need for each framework to reinvent the wheel, and allowing applications to mix and match which coding styles they prefer (e.g., WebwareRequestObjectMiddleware vs QuixoteRequestObjectMiddleware).

Ian refactored Webware to make it WSGI compliant. Webware in this environment turned out to be a pretty thin layer over the standard protocol. Why use Webware at all then? One, to support existing Webware applications. Two, because some developers prefer the Webware servlet style. WSGI isn't meant to be used directly by application developers; its dict-function-iterable model is inconvenient for that.

Since there are two models for concurrency, applications would have to check the 'wsgi.multithread' and 'wsgi.multiprocess' keys (boolean) and take appropriate action depending on which style the web server is using.

These two talks sparked a lively debate in Open Space sessions and at lunch tables about whether such integration between the frameworks is (A) necessary and (B) desirable. Dissidents argued that "everyone's going to have their favorite no matter what you do", "common design patterns are more important than common implementations", and "it's not that important". Several people started collaborating to make their favorite frameworks WSGI compliant (most notably Quixote and Aquarium). However, the discussion also showed that people have widely differing opinions about what WSGI goals are worth pursuing and how the proposed "middlewares" should behave. This will be followed up on after PyCon. It's too bad that nobody thought to organize a sprint for this. (Sprints are group hacking sessions that occur before or after PyCon.)

Donovan Preston ("the Nevow guy") followed Ian's talk and showed how Nevow can encapsulate the Javascript needed to send little messages between the client and server; e.g., to update widgets on a form without redrawing the entire page.

Other Talks

Michael Weigend spoke on "eXtreme Programming in the Classroom". Weigend has been using XP and Python to teach programming to school children. (XP is the abbreviation for eXtreme Programming; it's not related to Microsoft's operating system of the same name.) In XP, the developers have to gather "stories" -- use cases and usage examples -- from the user. Then they have to choose a metaphor for their application, in this case a text editor and chat room for nine-year-old students in Germany learning English. So it might have pop-up lists for common responses, for instance. The developers then explore implementation tools (e.g., GUI libraries) and make time estimates. Then they choose a "story" to work on, a piece small enough to do just one thing, and split into pairs to each write an implementation of the story. Then they gather and select the best implementation. After all the stories are thus implemented, they integrate the best implementations together. That's one iteration, which may take a week. Then they evaluate the integrated product: does it work right? does it really fulfill the stories? If not, iterate again to come up with a better implementation. The beauty of this method, Weigend says, is "the project is always a success". Even if you have to stop work on it early, at least it does something useful, even if it doesn't fully comply with all the stories. In contrast, with linear software engineering, if you stop the project early you may have nothing running at all.

Holger Krekel introduced py.test, a tool I've been avidly using recently. It's like unittest but simpler and more flexible. You merely write functions with assert statements, and pass your module to the command-line tool. There are a few support functions to handle cases like "this test should raise this exception" and "I want some common code executed before each test". Test cases can also be iterative:

def func(x, y):
    assert ...

def test_more():
    for (x, y) in [(1, 2), (1000, 2), (0, 0)]:
        yield func(x, y)
test_more is a test function because it begins with "test_". But it's also a generator that calls another function with a different set of arguments each time. This is useful for testing boundary cases in your other function (func). There's an option to automatically drop to pdb (the Python debugger) on any failure. There's also a sessions feature that runs the remaining failed tests as you edit and save each offending module.

One session summarized the sprint activity this year. Chandler fans experimented with a plug-in API and did three projects. Mailman fans worked on Mailman 3, a SQL database back end, and started using SQLObject. ZODB fans added BLOB support and an iteration API. Zope 3 developers worked on a weblog object using Dublin Core metadata. A Python Core team worked on an AST step for the Python compiler. And distutils fans did phenomenal work, finally implementing the long-desired Python CPAN. They took the Python Package Index and added file upload, so that it could store the packages themselves as well as pointers to them. By the way, the coordinator said PyPI is pronounced "pippy", not "pie-pie". "Pie-pie" sounds identical to PyPy. But old habits die hard. I'm used to saying "pie-pie", just like I say "line-ux" instead of "linnux" most of the time. (I still remember when Linus spoke at LinuxExpo in 1998 and called himself Line-us and the OS Linnix in the same sentence!)

Richard Jones gave a talk about an excellent product, Roundup, an issue tracker with web, e-mail, and command-line interfaces. I'd used TkGnats a few years ago and was happy to learn that Roundup has acquired Gnat's most important features but with a slicker interface. Sending it an e-mail creates a new issue or attaches the message to the existing issue. The main page shows you immediately which issues are open, and you can set categories, priorities, and keywords, and save custom searches. It can use several database backends and comes with a no-hassle demo.

Mike Salib didn't have the feistiness of last year's Starkiller talk, but his "Stupidity and Laser Cat Toys: Indexing the US Patent Database with Python and Xapian" talk had nothing to do with sophisticated cats and everything to do with taking on the software patent cartel. His battle cry is, "The patents will kill us all; there's more of them than there is of us. They reproduce a lot. Sooner or later, people will die due to lack of access to patented technology."

The US patent database can be downloaded on the web, but only one patent at a time. Downloading more than a hundred per session is forbidden, but you can have all patents conveniently delivered to your door on tape for the low price of $30,000. Mike didn't have $30,000 so he opted to download them a hundred at a time in parallel from several computers at the lab of a university that shall remain nameless. The files come to several gigabytes compressed, which Mike was giving away on DVD to any who asked. He will soon have a website up at here.

Mike considered using pyLucene but it was too slow. (However, other projects at the conference are using pyLucene and are happy with it.) He chose Xapian because it works with compressed databases. There were many build issues, but Mike has written a library that will make it easier for others. I'm not sure if it's been released yet, though.

Anna Ravenscroft spoke on "The Time of Day": how to get Python to tell you the current time in any timezone. This was especially apt for her since she was in the process of moving from Italy to California, and had stopped in DC for the conference. Her poor little laptop just couldn't keep up with her jet-set lifestyle. Getting the time in Python 2.4 or 2.3 is simple:

$ python
Python 2.3.3 (#1, Aug 19 2004, 17:24:27)
[GCC 3.3.2 20031218 (Gentoo Linux 3.3.2-r5, propolice-3.3-7)] on linux2
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> from datetime import datetime
>>> print datetime.now()
2005-04-01 11:48:54.392067
Formatting the time seems to fluster some people that try to use time.strftime() with datetime objects, but that's easy too:
>>> print datetime.now().strftime("%B %e, %Y %l:%M%P")
April  1, 2005 11:53am
For date calculations Anna recommends dateutil, and for a database of timezones pytz pytz.

Andrew Jonathan Fine described how he saved his company a million dollars by writing a Python - DocBook SGML - OpenJade - RTF converter to extract the text and structure from MS Word documents in diverse formats into a standard report format that was also in Word. That saved 7 FTEs over two years to manually format it, dwarfing the cost of researching DocBook, Word libraries, etc.

These are just a few of the talks presented at PyCon.

Open Space

Last year's Open Space suffered from a lack of promotion. People didn't realize it was happening, didn't look at the schedule to find sessions of interest, and couldn't remember what Open Space was supposed to be or how it differed from Birds of a Feather (BoF) sessions. This year Jim Fulton vowed to make it better, and he did. BoF's were collapsed into Open Space, and half the sessions on the first day were prescheduled so that at least some choices would be there. One room was devoted to Open Space for the entire conference (except keynote talks), and another room was devoted half time.

So what is Open Space? To do a regular talk at PyCon you have to present a paper to the vetting team who may or may not accept it. To do an Open Space you simply sign up on the schedule. Open Space sessions are smaller, typically 5-15 people. They may be a presentation or a roundtable discussion.

The interesting thing this year was the number and quality of Open Space sessions. Almost every time slot was filled, and many sessions were as content-ful and worthwhile as the main talks. In fact, some were main talks last year, repeated by popular demand.

Brett C. gave a particularly interesting Open Space talk on "How Python is Developed". The python-dev team is the implementation group, with 10-12 core developers. Eighty people have checkin rights, but many have not touched the code in years or only work on certain modules. New modules, by BDFL pronouncement, must first be widely adopted by the Python community before they can get into the standard library, must adhere to the BDFL's coding conventions, and the developer has to commit to maintaining it.

There are plenty of ways to contribute to the Python Core without being a high-level programmer. Post bug reports, run the regression test suite on various platforms, use the beta versions. Install patches posted on SourceForge, run the regression tests on them, check the code to make sure it looks OK, and post the results back to the patch thread. Martin van Löwis also has a deal for those who really want to get a certain patch into Python. Do five reviews of other patches, say you did on the python-dev list, and Martin will make sure to consider your favorite patch.

Lightning Talks

Another highlight this year was the Lightning Talks. These were spontaneously scheduled like Open Space, but limited to five-minute presentations. Some of the speakers weren't as polished as the prepared talks, but the content was nevertheless high quality. The first session had forty talkettes; the second around ten. Somebody came up with the simplest explanation of continuations I've seen:

>>> def foo():
...     a = 5
...    def bar():
...        print "The value is", a
...    return bar
>>> f = foo()
>>> f()
The value is 5
This is a continuation because a is defined in the surrounding scope, and even though it's a local variable in the enclosing function, it nevertheless remains alive when bar is called.

Other talks were on the need for a Money type subclassing Decimal, and active command line completion. rlcompleter2 works in the Python shell and ipython, and shows object names, function signatures, docstrings, and even source code.


Stephen Diebel held a Q&A on the Python Software Foundation, which holds Python's copyright, takes care of legal issues, and is a tax-deductible fundraiser. This year they've awarded $40,000 in grants to three projects: one to upgrade Jython's features to 2.4, another to revamp python.org to make it easier for people to contribute news, and another I didn't catch. Much of the money came from the proceeds of past PyCons. This will be more difficult to sustain as PyCon grows, because bigger venues mean bigger expenses, and a dud year could wipe out the surplus. But Diebel is pretty confident the grant fund will grow, and maybe in the future they can pay a couple of the core developers to work on Python full time.

The PSF members introduced themselves as "Uncle Timmy", "Nephew Jeremy", "Uncle Guido", "Just David", "Neil", "Martin", and "Steve". Somebody complained the PSF was America-centric, but Martin van Löwis pointed out that he is not American, and many of the grants have been going to other places. The EuroPython organizers asked for a PSF representative to come speak, since most EuroPython attendees don't know the PSF exists. (EuroPython will be in Göteborg, Sweden on June 27-29. Next year it will be at CERN in Switzerland.)

Plans For The Future

Congratulations to the honorable Steve Holden, who is retiring from PyCon chairmanship after several years and whose final stunt was pulling off the best conference yet. Andrew Kuchling has taken the baton for 2006, and gave an Open Space talk about his preparations. He noted how PyCon has spontaneously increased in size every year in spite of our pitifully lame attempts at promotion, and at 440 we've already maxed out the capacity of GWU. Next year we have to plan for 500-600. Since most attendees are cheapskates and won't pay more than $70 for a hotel room, we'll likely have to move out of DC to find an affordable venue that can accommodate future expansion for several years. The most likely location at this point is Baltimore. It will probably be someplace "near DC" since that's where many PyCon organizers live, and other regions haven't gotten off their butts to follow up on local venues.

The most common request on last year's feedback forms was more tutorial-level activities. Without much conscious thought, PyCon has positioned itself as a "research conference" where most talks are about cutting-edge projects. That's good for advanced users but doesn't meet the continuing need to train the new generations of users that are dabbling in Python. Suggestions include more talks on basic topics, repeating tutorials that people have written for their local groups, having intense (perhaps paid) tutorials before the conference, and classifying the talks as beginner/mid/advanced on the schedule. They're also considering a low-cost teenager track on the last day with basic topics, which has perked the interest of a couple local schools that use Python in class.

We made one attempt to fill in the tutorial gap this year, but it fell flat. I organized an Open Space called "Python Q&A". I was trying to do something like The Answer Gang here at the Linux Gazette, where people could bring any Python-related question, but we ended up with all answerers and no querents. We'll have to try a different approach next year, perhaps doing it right after a tutorial track.

In the sprint reports session, Andrew gathered suggestions for next year's sprints. Most people said four days was a good length but they should be after the conference rather than before, so that people could sprint on what they learned at the talks. PyCon would have to move to Monday-Wednesday to accommodate the sprints afterward; otherwise, people from overseas would have to take 1 1/2 weeks off work to attend them.

See y'all next year.

picture Mike is a Contributing Editor at Linux Gazette. He has been a Linux enthusiast since 1991, a Debian user since 1995, and now Gentoo. His favorite tool for programming is Python. Non-computer interests include martial arts, wrestling, ska and oi! and ambient music, and the international language Esperanto. He's been known to listen to Dvorak, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Khachaturian too.

Copyright © 2005, Mike Orr (Sluggo). Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 113 of Linux Gazette, April 2005

Design Awareness

By Mark Seymour

Another bout of logorrhea

Snow is no longer falling outside my window and it's officially Spring, so a man's thoughts naturally turn to a new pair of blue jeans. (For the purposes of this column, anyway.) To celebrate, we'll create one or two logos for a new blue jeans manufacturer called Pants On Fire.

But first let's examine a common household product whose logo has recently undergone a redesign, and analyze the change.

Cooking for oneself, you sometimes end up reaching for a can of something. Here's a list of Hormel products, with their industry classifications, some of which might be in your cupboard:

DI LUSSO™ Deli Products
HORMEL™ Snack Size Deli Meats & Cheese
HORMEL® Deli Beef
HORMEL® Deli Dry Sausage
HORMEL® Deli Ham
HORMEL® Deli Turkey
HORMEL® Party Trays

BUFALO® Authentic Mexican Products
CHI-CHI'S® Mexican Products
DONA MARIA® Authentic Mexican Products
HERDEZ® Authentic Mexican Products
HOUSE OF TSANG® Asian Sauces and Oils
MARRAKESH EXPRESS® Mediterranean Products
PATAK'S® Indian Products
PELOPONNESE® Mediterranean Products

HERB-OX® Bouillon
HORMEL® Bacon Toppings
HORMEL® Chunk Meats
HORMEL® KID'S KITCHEN® Microwave Meals
HORMEL® Microwave Meals and Soups
SPAM® Family of Products
STAGG® Chili

CURE 81® Ham
HORMEL® ALWAYS TENDER® Flavored Pork, Beef, Chicken & Turkey
HORMEL® Fully Cooked Entrees
HORMEL® Pepperoni
LIGHT & LEAN® Premium Luncheon Meat

Besides showing how acquiring companies over the years may stick you with brand names that outlive their time (though I'm sure there are food manufacturers who would kill to own SPAM), this list also illustrates the dilemma frequently confronted by designers and their clients: so many logos, so little money...

The list of 'ethnic' foods also shows how you may have to deal with cultural sensibilities when designing a suite of logos. For instance, DONA MARIA loses something in the translation when it doesn't carry the enya, that little squiggle over the 'n' in Doña, which changes it from 'Donna' to 'Donya', which means something entirely different. While Bufalo with one F means the same in Spanish as the word does in English with two Fs, it will look odd if the can isn't in the ethnic food aisle. And "Marrakesh Express" obviously didn't mean the same thing to the Hormel people when they bought or developed the brand as it did to those of us who lived through a time when you took that train (there was even a song about it) in order to purchase large quantities of a processed agricultural product that Hormel can't legally sell...

But we're going to look at just one Hormel product line: Dinty Moore. Just within this one brand, there are many varieties, including:

Canned Products
Beef Stew
Chicken & Dumplings
Chicken Stew
Meatball Stew
Turkey Stew

Microwavable Products
Beef Stew (7.5 oz cup)
Beef Stew (10 oz tray)
Chicken & Dumplings (7.5 oz cup)
Noodles & Chicken (7.5 oz cup)
Rice with Chicken (7.5 oz cup)
Scalloped Potatoes & Ham (7.5 oz cup)

Our focus will be on the beef stew, which carries the same logotype as all the other Dinty Moore products. The brand logo is simple and, even in its 'new' incarnation, fairly traditional:

The logo, while tidied up recently, is still not very exciting nor evocative. But the use of blue as a 'food' color doesn't do anything for my appetite; I'm not sure how they got stuck with it originally, and not sure why they didn't modify it when the logo was redesigned. The blue got a little lighter, and the font 'domed' with shading, but the change was more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Left unstated, even on its own webpage, is all the 'back story': who the hell is Dinty Moore, and why should we care? The official Hormel history page merely mentions its beginning as a brand name in 1935. Apparently Dinty was a real person, even though the story is a little complicated.

Original packaging Revised packaging

But its Dinty Moore's finger that we're talking about here. It was there the last time I bought a can, a big red fingerprint right on the lid, but it's gone from the new one. The story behind that print might have been interesting, but it too is not in evidence anywhere.

[ So that's where that finger came from! The people at Wendy's have been wondering... -- Ben ]

As the photo shows, it was labeled as the "Dinty Moore Mark of Product Quality" but what, if anything, that had to do with Dinty's approval of the contents, I'm not sure. What a three-inch fingerprint had to do with anything, I'm also not sure, but the second series of photos shows that the designers couldn't figure that out, either, and took it off. The entire color way of the can has shifted as well, especially on the top, from red toward blue; someone at Hormel likes blue, I guess. Maybe it tests well...

For the writers among us, there were a few interesting wording changes as well: the old can read "still made with Fresh potatoes & carrots", while the new label has the contents just "Made with fresh potatoes & carrots". An all-red "no preservatives" slugline fell off the back of the old label and now appears inside three oddly shaped trapezoids (one yellow with black letters, one blue with white letters, and one in black with no text for no apparent reason) on the front of the new label; some lawyer's idea, no doubt. The shift to all caps for "BEEF STEW" and "FREE" would get a zing from my old professor, Arnold Bank, so I'm giving one to them in his absence; it may fit the box better, but it doesn't make it easier to read.

A last little design note, one dear to my heart: where to put the "registered trademark" symbol.

On the original logo, the ® was above the top curve of the 'e' at the end. On the redesigned logo, it hangs off the spur of the 'e' on the baseline. Neither is better than the other, but it's one of the niceties of logo design that always needs to be addressed.

(Meaningless but important note: In the 'good things on the Internet' category, my new favorite URL name has to be http://www.thesegoto11.com/ The phrase These go to eleven refers to a scene in Rob Reiner's movie Spinal Tap; if you haven't seen this classic rock & roll spoof, you should. The logo's pretty darn good, too.)

Now for a few logos and logotypes for our imaginary blue jeans company, Pants On Fire, Inc. (a friend of mine became its president when he said one thing and did another once too often...) It's a classic childhood phrase, and I'm surprised it hasn't been snatched up already. (If there's some little boutique jeans store in Hollywood using the name, my apologies; you didn't show up in a Google search.)

The imagery for the logo/logotypes is obvious: pants and/or fire. We can use them by themselves (a logo), to create emphasis for text (a logotype), or as a combination of images and text.

Here are several Pants On Fire logos, a narrow one and a squarer variant:

(see a larger image here)

Here are a pair of logotypes (neither of which I'm really happy with, but this column is due):

(see larger images here)

Here are several combination logos:

(see larger images here)

And here's even a rudimentary logo in 3D (courtesy of my old friend Kelley, the modeling whiz):

(see a larger image here)

These, of course, do not begin to cover the spectrum of possible combinations using the company name and imagery relating to the concept and the wording and the products. Just the choice of font(s), let alone the many variations of weight and style, would be a long and difficult process. (I wimped out here and, in the interest of getting done on schedule, just went with Helvetica Bold.) Trying to design for all the possible usages of the logo (pants labels, tags, corporate identity print, signage, trucks, on-line, television, posters, the list is endless) would limit some of the wilder choices, but drive others: should the logo be able to stand alone as well as with text, how small will it be legible, how many or how few colors can it be represented with, etc.

There might well be sub-brands, such as UnderPants On Fire, that I will leave to your imagination. (If you come up with a good logo for it, of course, send it along.)

Then there's the Spanish language market (Pantalones en el fuego), along with the rest of the world (Dutch: Broek op Brand, French: Pantalon sur le feu, German: Hosen auf Feuer, Italian: Pantaloni su fuoco, and so on). Care would have to be taken, of course, to work with native language speakers to see if the phrase meant anything remotely similar. Note, too, that some languages capitalize many words and some do not; that can seriously alter if and how you translate a logo. Many companies do not translate their brand names, and rely on the globalization of the marketplace to compensate.

I hope this column has given you some more logo issues to chew on. As ever, if there are specifics you'd like covered, let me know.


I started doing graphic design in junior high school, when it was still the Dark Ages of technology. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both eleven years old, and the state of the art was typing copy on Gestetner masters. I've worked on every new technology since, but I still own an X-acto knife and know how to use it.

I've been a freelancer, and worked in advertising agencies, printing companies, publishing houses, and marketing organizations in major corporations. I also did a dozen years [1985-1997] at Apple Computer; my first Macintosh was a Lisa with an astounding 1MB of memory, and my current one is a Cube with a flat screen.

I've had a website up since 1997, and created my latest one in 2004. I'm still, painfully, learning how web design is different from, but not necessarily better than, print.

Copyright © 2005, Mark Seymour. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 113 of Linux Gazette, April 2005

First Impressions of Crossover Office

By Neil Youngman


I guess most Linux Gazette readers will have heard of Crossover Office, even if you haven't tried it. For those of you who don't know about Crossover Office, it is a package that allows you to run some Windows applications on Linux. It contains proprietary software, plus a version of the free package WINE.

Crossover Office supports a number of popular Windows programs, including various versions of Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and Dreamweaver.

How many people out there won't use Linux because their favorite package isn't supported on Linux? If Crossover Office supports that package it could be the answer for those people.

I use Linux for my everyday computing tasks, but when working on Word documents for my employer I found that none of the major Linux word processors had sufficient compatibility with MS Word, so I wanted to see if Crossover Office would allow me to run Word at Home without having to reboot into Windows.

Installing Crossover Office

I started with a demo version of Crossover Office downloaded from the Codeweavers web site. This is installed by running a shell archive; it installs quickly and easily and offers a slick interface.

I was then able to install Office 2000 and IE6 without much difficulty. I did find that when Crossover Office says "if you are certain that the installation is finished, click the Installation Complete button", the Installation Complete button should be left well alone. Crossover Office will detect when the installer exits and clicking that button trashed my installation. I was only able to complete the installation by removing the .cxoffice directory and starting again from scratch.

Supported applications are installed from the setup menu and when I first tried the demo everything installed smoothly, although later I found installation could be tricky.

Installing Office 2000

To install a supported application like Office 2000, select Crossover->Office Setup from the main menu. This produces the Crossover Office setup window, in which you click the install button.

Clicking the install button pops up the install window, which offers a list of supported applications, from which I selected Office 2000.

After selecting Office 2000, you are offered a choice of installation media. I chose to install from CDROM, after which Crossover Office installed DCOM95, then launched the regular Office 2000 installer. I then went through a regular Office 2000 installation, which was little different from a regular installation on Windows. The main difference was that where Windows would have rebooted the system, Crossover Office popped up a window with the message "Simulating Windows reboot".

Once Office had installed, I was able to run all the usual office applications as well as the main applications I had installed - MS Photo Editor, which ran well under Crossover Office.

Crossover office added a "Windows Applications" option to my main menu from which I could select the required program or a "new office document" or "open office document" option. It also set up the appropriate MIME types, so that I could open MS Office documents just by clicking on them in Konqueror. I was also able to open attachments in kmail using MS Office.

I found that the performance of Office 2000 was pretty good on my 700MHz Athlon. I haven't actually measured it, but subjectively Word 2000 seems to start much quicker than OpenOffice Writer and there are no obvious delays once it is up and running.

Installing unsupported software

Having been impressed with the installation of MS Office, I was curious about how well Crossover Office would do with unsupported software.

WordPerfect Office 2000 took a long time to even to get to a splash screen. I thought it was having trouble reading the CD and the cancel button was grayed out, which may have been just as well. Similarly when I selected WPO2000 setup the setup wizard took about 10 minutes to initialize and when it finally arrived it looked a little scrambled, with text hidden behind graphics. Transitions between the screens where the installation setting were selected were slow, with the old screen being slightly scrambled before the next screen was displayed. These screens also suffered from hidden text, making the ability to guess what the prompts said essential.

After about 50 minutes spent on the installation, the final result was that after a simulated reboot Crossover Office produced the message "An error appears to have occurred during the installation" and the install was terminated without completing.

After I got the upgrade to version 4.1 I tried again. Version 4.1 was quicker, but still produced substantially similar results.

The next thing I tried to install was Pagis Pro. This was a lot quicker than the WordPerfect installation, but there were still times when I had to wait several minutes with was no real sign of life before visible progress restarted. At one point there was a window which obviously required some input, but was too small to read and I couldn't expand it. This held things up for a while until I selected the window and pressed enter after which the install proceeded again.

Other annoyances included a registration screen with no visible submit or cancel button and a splash screen which forced itself to the front over all the Linux stuff. This was an excessive degree of compatibility which made some other things unusable until I got past the splash screen.

The install finished with Crossover Office displaying the message "The Unsupported software installer has exited." I could now run Pagis Pro, but it offered me an empty list of scanners, so it was off to the Xerox web site where I downloaded the Twain driver for my scanner. Although the driver seemed to install OK Pagis Pro still offered an empty list of scanners, so there was no way of making use of it.

When I tried to uninstall WordPerfect Office I got a message saying that the Corel uninstaller had found no Corel Applications on the system.

It seems that Crossover Office is unlikely to help with unsupported hardware and unsupported software will be at best hit and miss. If you want to use Crossover Office with unsupported software I would recommend trying it with the demo version before parting with your cash.


I started out with the demo version of Crossover Office 4.0 and I was sufficiently impressed to buy version 4.1.

When upgrading from the demo, the FAQ recommends uninstalling everything, so I did that. I then installed 4.1 from a .deb package as root to make Crossover Office generally available. On reinstalling MS Office, I found that although I could open an Office document by clicking on it in Konqueror the Windows Applications menu entry did not appear, so I could not just start an Office application from the menu. I opened a support ticket on the Codeweavers web site on the 9th of January. The first response was on the 21st of January and the problem was not resolved until 15th February, when they suggested reinstalling from scratch.

Subsequently, when playing with an installation in a spare partition, I found that nothing would install, with error messages indicating that DCOM95 had failed to install.

Instead of opening a support ticket I chose to ask for help on the IRC channel at irc://irc.freenode.net/#crossover. They suggested installing DCOM95 separately, instead of starting with MS Office. This did not work on the first couple of attempts, but eventually it succeeded after I deleted a local copy of the DCOM95 installer program. I was then able to install Office.


Although I have had a number of unexplained errors when installing Office 2000 and Internet Explorer, they have run flawlessly under Crossover Office once installed.

Office 97, 2000 and XP are supported, but Office 2003 will not be supported until Crossover Office 5 is released. The support I received with Crossover Office Standard was not responsive enough for a professional environment, but Crossover Office Professional version comes with enhanced support.

Crossover Office Professional also comes with multiuser support, which would be essential to minimize administrative work on any multiuser machine.

Overall, I found that Microsoft Office 2000 and Internet Explorer 6 worked very well under Crossover Office 4. I would not claim that I have tested more than a fraction of the features of MS Office under Crossover Office and I would advise more comprehensive testing before deploying it an a professional environment.

If you wish to run a supported application under Crossover Office, I consider it to be a good value at $40 for Crossover Office Standard and $75 for Crossover Office Professional.

If you wish to run an unsupported application, or on an unsupported distribution, I would recommend downloading the demo version and testing it thoroughly before parting with any cash.


Neil is a programmer, specialising in C++ on Unix and Linux. He has degrees in Computer science and Next Generation Computing.

Neil has worked on a wide range of systems from the control system for the British Gas national grid to video servers for the Home Choice video on demand service. He first programmed computers in 1980 with his school General Studies class, which was allowed access to a mainframe at The National Institute of Oceanography, programmed in Fortran on punch cards.

A computer science degree followed at Queen Mary College, London, then Neil worked for Logica for 3 years before taking an MSc in New Generation Computing at Exeter University.

The next 5 years saw Neil researching parallel simulation algorithms at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment, initially on transputers and subsequently on SPARC based parallel systems. Since leaving RSRE, Neil has mostly worked freelance and has worked on financial data feeds, video servers and virus scanning proxies.

Neil first used Unix at college in 1982 and started working on Linux in 1996.

As of May 2004, Neil is working for Wirefast a global messaging company.

Outside of computing, Neil is into motor sport, particularly Formula 1, the World Rally Championship and the British Touring Car Championship. He doesn't race himself. If you've seen Neil's driving, you'll understand why.

Copyright © 2005, Neil Youngman. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 113 of Linux Gazette, April 2005


By Javier Malonda

The Ecol comic strip is written for escomposlinux.org (ECOL), the web site that supports es.comp.os.linux, the Spanish USENET newsgroup for Linux. The strips are drawn in Spanish and then translated to English by the author.

These images are scaled down to minimize horizontal scrolling. To see a panel in all its clarity, click on it.

[cartoon] [cartoon] [cartoon]

All Ecol cartoons are at tira.escomposlinux.org (Spanish), comic.escomposlinux.org (English) and http://tira.puntbarra.com/ (Catalan). The Catalan version is translated by the people who run the site; only a few episodes are currently available.

These cartoons are copyright Javier Malonda. They may be copied, linked or distributed by any means. However, you may not distribute modifications. If you link to a cartoon, please notify Javier, who would appreciate hearing from you.

Copyright © 2005, Javier Malonda. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 113 of Linux Gazette, April 2005


By Jon "Sir Flakey" Harsem

These images are scaled down to minimize horizontal scrolling. To see a panel in all its clarity, click on it.

[cartoon] [cartoon]

All Qubism cartoons are here at the CORE web site.

[BIO] Jon is the creator of the Qubism cartoon strip and current Editor-in-Chief of the CORE News Site. Somewhere along the early stages of his life he picked up a pencil and started drawing on the wallpaper. Now his cartoons appear 5 days a week on-line, go figure. He confesses to owning a Mac but swears it is for "personal use".

Copyright © 2005, Jon "Sir Flakey" Harsem. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 113 of Linux Gazette, April 2005