Wednesday, 4 November 2015

LINUX, WINE, and cheap software not always being the best...!

Bit of a geeky posting, this, so bear with me ;)

As many of my freinds know, I've been into paper-and-pencil style role playing games for close to two decades; I both play, and referee these games. Over the last decade and a bit, though, the opportunities for me to play have been somewhat diminished by the simple obstacle of shift-working :( However, there's nothing to stop me planning evil adventures, scenarios, and campaigns for the poor saps - I mean players *cough cough* - who I evenyually run games for...

So, with that in mind, I recently started up working on a few ideas. And hit a bit of a snag; some of the software that I used to use to do such things as floor plans, deck plans, maps, and so on, were designed for use with the windows operating system, not what I currently use, which is Ubuntu Linux.

Luckily, there's something called WINE, which allows some - not all - windows software to run in what is effectively an isolated sandbox of windows within Linux. Now note I said "not all". I used to use FloorPlan Plus 3D. Not any more, sadly. Excellent package, but only 32-bit, and for some reason, not at alll reliable under WINE. Ho-hum. However, not all of this is bad news - some packages run VERY nicely.

Profantasy Software market a very handy CAD package called Campaign Cartographer, and being modified from a professional CAD package (under licence), it's very well-suited to being used for RPG mapping purposes. I bought a few of their packages, first Campaign Cartographer, then Cosmographer Pro, and several other bolt-on packages under the CC banner. Buying from Profantasy is also more handy than you might think; although I have the discs - currently buried in storage - I also have an online account with ProFantasy, created when I first bought CC several years back; they archive and make available your purchases, in case you lose discs, or similar, and thus I was able to download the installer files, and use my licence numbers to install them under WINe - they work perfectly, thanks very much :)

The moral of this story - use a decent operating system, and buy software from decent companies when you have to part with your hard earned wedge, and things will tend to be better in the long run.

Put simpler than that: Buy decent kit, and it'll deliver time and time again. A penny saved is not always a wise penny, after all ;)

Sunday, 28 June 2015

A few small updates...

I just realised that I hadn't updated a couiple of posts on here, so now's a good a time as any to do so.

Following on from Thursday, 7 May 2015 ("Oh, pooh. On two counts :-(")...

You already know how the installation of Ubuntu Linux 14.04 LTS went, but the other issue raised, that of an inability to get the computer and Baofeng UV-5R radio to talk to each other was NOT hardware related: It was software related.

CHIRP, the software I was using to try to talk to the radio from the computer, has two main version: 'Stable', and 'Daily Build'. It turns out that the daily build version is able to talk to the radio, but not the stable build. Go figure.

Anyhow, that's been rectified, and I've been able to successfully get the radio programmed how I want it, which was the aim of the game in the first place. So, job done.

And Chirp is still an excellent bit of kit ;)

Another problem I recently had was with viewing DRM material that I'd bought from Amazon Prime and Google Play (in YouTube) (streaming movies and television shows). They just would not play under Linux.

In order to watch these movies and shows, on Amazon, you have to have Silverlight installed in your browser. Problem the first: It's made by Microsoft, and they don't give a tinker's cuss about support to Linux users, the intransigent wossits.

While Silverlight and Flash are not supported under Linux, there are third party  applications, the first being Moonlight, which is sadly no longer available, the second being Pipelight, which is. Problem the Second: Making it work.

The ironic thing here is that I DID manage to get it to work briefly, then suffered a system lock-up in Firefox, had to perform a cold reboot, and then suffered login lock-up, resulting in my having to reinstall Unity. And after that, Pipelight failed to play, despite retracing the exact same steps to get it playing as before. The various help forums were of no help at all in this regard, and that's not a very good advert for Linux, sadly.

I did however, find a work-around.

Using Wine, I installed the windows version of firefox, then the windows version of Flash. Now successfully watching Amazon instant material. It'll do until Amazon bins Flash, by which time, hopefully more effective HTML5 support will have been generated within Firefox et al.

I really wish it hadn't had to be done this way, as there's absolutely no elegance to it: It's a brute-force sidestep but, on the other hand, it got the job done, so I guess I shouldn't whinge too much.

Oh, and it took a Linux Mint (NOT an Ubuntu one, to my utter disbelief) tutorial to give me this solution. Here's the link, in case you're curious:

Make of that what you might!

Enjoy the rest of your weekend :)

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Next up... the netbook... (Part three)

Well, I've identified a few issues, and solved them, chief amongst them being the keyboard layout and language selection. Ye gods, that was annoying.

Seems it defaulted to the system keyboard layout, with no regional settings. I managed to bumble about in there until I found the right settings, whiuch only to a week or so of on and off prodding, prying, and poking, in between work, sleep, and so on.

So. I've got it working the way I want it working. The next step is to load the essential software on there, and test it again.

Once that's done, I'll have two Linux machines, one for carting about the planet (and emergencies), the other to stay at home.

Can I say that I'm rather pleased with myself?

Yes, I can

Monday, 8 June 2015

Next up... the netbook... (Part two)

OK, part two...

Following the problems with Xubuntu, I looked about, and sought advice. Damnsmalllinux was suggsted, but the information on the current state of the project did not make for optomistic reading. In addition, there was no LTS version of it available. So, no to DSL then. Pity, but that's life.

Lubuntu - yet another fork of Ubuntu - then appeared on the horizon, mostly dut to the listing over on wikipedia relating to lightweight Linux distros ( I decided to give it a try, and downloaded the 64-bit LTS iso, again using Startup Drive Creator to create the live thumb drive; it worked with no problems, and when I tried it in the Acer netbook, WOW, twenty seconds - maybe even a tad less - to boot up into the desktop.

WiFi worked first time, and logged right into the home broadband system.

I've not yet played around with the rest of the nuts and bolts of it, but it was appreciably quicker and more responsive than the existing Windoze 7 installation.

I'll be testing it on and off over the week, but it very much looks like I may well have found the flavour of Linux for my Acer Netbook :-)

More when the testing is done :-)

Next up... the netbook... (Part one)

Flush with my successes on my Toshiba notebook, I dug out my old netbook, with it's catalogue of problems; the ultimate goal here was to replace the pain-in-the-backside operating system (Windows 7 Professional) with a low-overhead version of Linux.

Before I could do that, though, I had to fix a fairly major problem.

The keyboard was giving me all manner of grief before the machine was retired, and the Toshiba became my main machine. A lot of problems could be squarely laid at the door of a faulty keyboard, but at the time (a few years ago now), replacement keyboards were selling for silly money, so I shelved the idea until prices came down. Well, prices HAVE come down, and looking about, Amazon had them at around £35, and Ebay for less than a tenner. Guess who won ;-)

At £8.45 (including postage and packing), the replacement keyboard was sourced from Ebay. It arrived within 48 hours of ordering, which was a very nice touch indeed.

Removing the old keyboard, however, was... interesting. There are copious videos (you tube excells, of course) on this topic, so I consulted a couple of them, finding the advice to be pretty-much the same. The original keyboard, however, thought otherwise, and was a pig to get out. But, come out it did, and a managed not to damage the netbook in the process, which was nice!

Fitting the replacement keyboard was a doddle, compared to removing the original, and the power-up test of the Acer netbook went fine. It still runs under windoze 7, but at least all the problems I had with it could be safely traced back to the faulty keyboard as the original cause :)

Then, I looked at what flavour of Linux to use. The decision process was fairly logical, for a change (I intuit a lot, I'm not a programmer by any strech of the imagination!)

  1. I already use Ubuntu 14.04 LTS on the Toshiba notebook, and I'm reasonably satisfied with it.
  2. The netbook specs are markedly lower than the Toshiba (Acer Aspire One D255; Intel Atom N450 1.66GHz, 512kb cache, 1Gb RAM, 250Gb HDD, 10.1" screen, 1024x768 screen res, processor "64-bit ready"), other details at
  3. Ubuntu 14.04 LTS will not work properly on the Acer netbook due to these lower specs.
  4. A smaller 'footprint' of Linux, with a correspondingly smaller set of system resource requirements, was therefore required.
  5. Given that I was already familiar with Ubuntu from its installation on the Toshiba, a netbook version of Ubuntu would be preferred.
  6. Problem, Ubuntu for Netbooks did exist, but was folded back into the main development program a couple of years ago.
  7. Ergo: A different Linux product had to be sought.
  8. Research indicated that a distro incorporating the Linux Xfce Desktop Environment would be best for the Acer (specifies very low system requirements, good for so-called 'legacy' equipment), so it maked sense to make sure that this is used in the Linux Distro I eventually selected.
  9. Ideally, any distro should be a Long Term Service version (LTS), for ease of maintenance and support.

As a result of the above, and a litle further research, I came to the interim conclusion that Xubuntu 14.04 LTS ( was most likely to be the best choice for the Acer (and me!).

So, I downloaded an iso of it from, and unpacked it onto a USB Thumb Drive using Startup Drive Creator (a Linux program available from most Linux software repositries). It worked as expected, and the thumb drive was runing a 'live' copy of Xubuntu 14.04.2 LTS.

However, when plugged into a USB2 slot on the netbook, things did not go as expected.

It took forever - almost ten minutes, the first time I tried to boot it up. So, I saved the configuration of the session, and shut it down.

I then booted it up again, to see if this was a one-off problem. It took five minutes to boot that time.

In both cases, once up and running, Xubuntu ran just fine, even if it didn't recognise the correct characters whe  the "|" key was pressed (that's minor configuration issue, nothing for me to worry about at this point).

I thought that such a long time taken in booting might indicate a problem with the thumb drive, so to see if this was the case, tested it on the Toshiba notebook, via one of the two USB2 ports (the other is a USB3 port).

The Toshiba booted up from it in thirty seconds flat.

Hmph. Not the thumb drive, then.

Obviously, the netbook either needs a MUCH lower overhead version of Linux, or there's an issue with it booting from a thumb drive. Or both.

So, however you cook it, I'm only 50% accomplished on converting the netbook to Linux, which is a tad irritating, given how easy it was to switch over to Linux on the Toshiba (a Satellite C855-29M). In fact, "irritating" is not the word, but as this is a family show, I think it best not to use the words I realy think sum up this problem!

So, time to look for a version of Linux with an even smaller set of specifications than Xubuntu.

This may take some time...

Monday, 11 May 2015

Ah, that's better :)

Well, the replacement hard drive for my notebook arrived this morning from (nice and fast, that was good!), and inside the larger-than-expected box (L 23cm, W 16cm, H 11cm) was a surprisingly small hard drive (roughly 10cm x 7.5cm x 1cm - Good God, these things have got a LOT smaller in thirty years!), sealed in a factory-issue Toshiba-stamped Anti-Static bag.

The new drive was successfully fitted (it was pitifully easy, one screw, prize off a plastic panel, carefully ground myself against the metalwork (static electricity kills modern electronics), and swap them out. Many orders of magnitude easier than when I worked in the IT game - at least someone's learned how to make things simple!)

Then came formatting and installing Ubuntu Linux 14.04 LTS (Long Term Service). For that, I had to go into the BIOS (hitting the F12 key as you turn the machine on to access the settings menu), and tell it to boot off the USB port. Again, dead easy.

The installer, running off a LiveUSB thumb drive, did the job with no problems; the new installation then took itself off to update everything in sight to current release levels, as expected.

All in all, a relatively easy and simple fix to conduct. Nice to know some things come along with no dramas attached!

One or two comments need to be added, however. The installer makes one massive partition; you really need three: One for the operating system, one for your data, and one for the swap file. For this, you really need a decent disk management tool, and there exists in Linux, one such excellent tool, called gparted. However, it's been over two decades since I played with partitions, and a LOT of standards and practices have changed in that time, so I left it to the Ubuntu installer to do its thing.

And got one partition, not three. Live and learn.

I'll know better next time (and there WILL be a next time, as I plan to replace this new hard drive in about a year, with a Solid State Drive, which are much better than conventional hard drives (or HDDs), as there are no moving parts in an SSD, they're on average three times quicker than an HDD, consume less power, don't get as hot, and are quieter as a result of all of this as well.

The downside at the moment is that SSDs are expensive in comparison to HDDs, and tend to have much lower capacity than HDDs. Hopefully, that will have changed a fair bit for the better by this time next year.

And that will give me sufficient time to bone up on current partitioning practices, so I can do a much better job of sorting out a new drive for the machine.

Still, at least it's done for now

Sunday, 10 May 2015

OH, Pooh, part lord knows what...

The PC fell over yesterday, yet again. This time, it was locked into a login loop.

I got out of that by using the Ubuntu thumb drive to get the machine up and running, reformatted the hard drive (AGAIN, already), and got DISKS (a linux GUI-based drive checking package) up to test the hard drive using the S.M.A.R.T. system ("Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology") that modern hard drives tend to come with.

Well, now I know why the PC has been falling over so much. It seems that the hard disk is shagged. The S.M.A.R.T. test (performed overnight), revealed that there are 1142  bad sectors, none of which can be moved or remapped. "Old age" is the listed cause.

There are several words that I used when I read the result, none of them printable - or polite for that matter.

So. I've ordered a replacement drive via, for a shade under 50 quid. A word of advice here: Make sure you know what type of drive your machine uses, if you have t replace it; there are two main types, IDE, and SATA. The two are not interchangeable. Best option? Replace like for like. My machine's a Toshiba C855-29M laptop. Hardware-wise, it's quite a reliable machine (aside from the damned hard drive, of course!) The SMART report noted the type of drive as being a Toshiba MQ01ABD100, so that's what I've ordered.

As to fitting it, well, they're easy enough to swap out, as modern PCs ( both desktop and laptop) tend to be pretty modular inside (for ease of servicing, the so-called disposable society, and all that), so (and not forgetting to ground yourself against the earth bonding so as not to fry the computer with static charge when you touch the insides) a screwdriver here, a bit of careful leverage there, and this machine should be sporting a new hard drive sometime tomorrow (the good thing about Amazon Prime membership is that they can do next-day delivery at no extra cost in most cases).

It's rather interesting, however, that I only found this out under Linux, than under Windoze. And not a little worrying, too, come to think of it. I'd used some excellnt tools under Windoze, including but by no means limited to Performance Monitor, CCleaner, and others, and none of them had reported any problems. It was only when I moved to Linux that I found that (a) the problems were manageable, and (b) discoverable.

So, I think I’ll be sticking with Linux from now on; seems more able to keep on top of things - what I've been able to do over the last 24 hours with relative ease, I would NOT have been able to do under Windows.

I'm still peeved that I have to shell out for a new drive, and that I've lost a weeks-worth of data, but on the positive side, there's now light at the end of the tunnel, and my habit of taking regular back-ups (a habit that EVERYONE who owns a computer should practice) has paid off.

There are a couple of tips I'll hand over to you at this time, one I've touched on already above:

  • Take regular, at LEAST weekly backups of your data;
  • If you like, take a clone image, or ISO, of your hard drive once you've loaded up all your software onto it, and set it up how you like it. It'll make reloading the machine a whole lot easier;
  • Use GMail, or a similar cloud-based email service - you won't loose your emails, calender, contacts, or a whole load of other things, if the machine falls over catastrophically;
  • Back up your browser settings - I use Firefox, and have a cloud-based account with them, and sync with it on a daily basis, so that I don't lose passwords, bookmarks, and so on. It's one hell of a handy safety net, let me tell you;
  • If you use a LOT of passwords online (and this is recommended practice by pretty-much all the respected advisors across the globe), then invest in a password manager; there are many of them out there - some of them are even free, but the brand-name ones are probably a good choice, at least to start with. It's a belt-and-braces approach to data preservation, but with modern life the way it is, better safe than sorry.

So. I'm in a better mood, now that I know what the root (Linux pun, sorry, couldn't help it) cause of the problems I've been experiencing are, and what the solution is.

More once I've swapped out the drive.