Category Archives: Linux

Ubuntu: A New Style of Linux

I know just yesterday I wrote that I would not be updating my blog for a bit, but with two recent announcements in the Ubuntu-sphere, I felt obligated to chime in with my own two cents. For those who haven’t heard the news, Ubuntu last week announced that it would be shipping version 11.04 with its Unity interface, dropping the traditional GNOME shell that it has used for… ever.

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Ubuntu Revelations: Better Safaricom Integration, One App Away

It took me two years to come to this revelation, which is sadly two years too late for me, but I hope this helps out some others.

When I first started using Ubuntu in Kenya, I was more than pleased to notice that the Safaricom modem, a Huawei E160 by model name, is seamlessly supported by the stock Ubuntu kernel from as early as version 8.04 I believe.  Of course, though the modem is seamlessly supported, not all of the features found in the Huawei dialing app bundled with the modem, are supported.  This includes such functionality as the ability to send an SMS through the modem, particularly useful for activating new data bundles and checking your existing bundle’s remaining balance.

To rectify this situation, I first started to hack my own program to send an SMS, as searches were returning very few positive results.  Wanting to push something out quick, I found myself settling on Python (of course), and scouting out various libraries for interacting with AT commands over a serial interface.  This project didn’t go over well and I always seemed to find myself with more pressing concerns, [insert other hacker excuses here].  For the past two years I have stuck with the good ole’ switcheroo method of taking my modem SIM out of the modem, putting it in a phone, performing any necessary SMS-based functions, and then replacing the SIM in the modem.  Clunky but functional.

It turns out that over the past two years I have been searching for the wrong terms and the application I have wanted has been here all along.  It is known in the Ubuntu graphical universe as Phone Manager and in the command line world as gnome-phone-manager.

What threw me off the scent was that the app is heavily advertised as focusing on working with phones via Bluetooth, whereas my modem uses a USB connection.  Upon reading the fine print, I noticed that some descriptions also include, “and other serial connections.” Well, hmm, that changes the situation a bit.  While the app installed, I crossed my fingers hoping it included a halfway-decent serial port selection mechanism.

It does.  It’s so decent that it even lets specify the device node directly!  Huzzah!  For Huawei modems, once the USB Modeswitch finishes its song and dance, the modem portion of the device will settle on /dev/ttyUSB0.  Under the Phone Manager app preferences, just throw that into the “Other port” input box and you are good to go.

Now with just a click of the icon I can be sending balance check SMS and even activation SMS through Ubuntu and my Safaricom modem.  To activate new bundles, just sambaza your modem credit from another phone, or MPESA, and you are good to go.  Ubuntu (and other Linux) are first-class modem users after all. Take that Windows.

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Kenya Cybers Should Take New Direction

Most Kenyans accessing the non-mobile Internet do so through local cyber cafes scattered throughout the country, some even in the smallest and most remote of villages.  This unprecedented level of specific-location access allows someone approaching the internet as an income generating activity to tap an enormous demographic.  Yet as far as I can tell, most cybers follow the same model, mostly do to lack of hardware and lack of skills: three or four ten-year-old computers connected through either an archaic Telkom line, or for thoseentrepreneursahead of the curve, a cellular modem.

People love to tout the fiber-optic cables recently laid (or sunk?) as the beginnings of a data revolution.  People tout higher speeds, Kenya as a potential source of untapped digital service providers and support, or any number of other ideas.  Yet all of these things require much better training than most curricula provide and will take at least a decade to fully realize as an economic impact.  Am I making broad statements? Sure. But nobody is paying me, so I don’t have to be correct, I just get to talk and it’s up to you listen.

I propose an interim solution that leverages existing cyber infrastructure.  Don’t interpret it as a niche market, but instead as a  model that all cybers should work to implement.  I propose that cybers become passive content-consumption education centers.  I hope the hyphenation clearly delineates where I am going.

As the capability and power of even modest used computers available in local markets increases through laws of trickle-down theory, we should begin to utilize them to act as content caches, fed from both online content and through (legally grey) locally available digital files.  That’s right, I want streaming video and music servers in cybers around Kenya.

Take all of those old computers and make them web browser dumb boxes.  Provide each user with a locally-served web site that aggregates the most popular YouTube videos from around the world, as well as locally-popular content; create streaming music web services through the use of such lightweight, user-friendly services as MPD, the Music Player Daemon, and wrap it up into a nice, easily distributed disc that can one-click install both server and client.

People talk about education and change in the known ecosystem, but my proposal is based on the idea that ease-of-use is the best tool for eliminating inhibition.  The Kenyan government, as far as I know, did not drive around to villages and teach people how to use mobile phones; instead, mobile phones taught themselves, or friends taught friends, without either friend needing an engineering degree.  Phones are easy. So too the content can be.

Making content easily available and locally stored has seemingly small per-use benefit, but represents huge cost-savings over the long term.  Connections will seem “faster” (a huge selling point here) when each member is streaming their YouTube video locally and not over the shared 256 Kbps dedicated line.  Also, allowing people to become absorbed in their workflow by providing personally crafted sound tracks (with provided headphones!) while they work will entice users to stay for more minutes, and in this business, minutes is a direct translation into money.  Not to mention the savings owners will have when not using their credit to download the same content over and over again.

In the same interface, provide links to the major sources of content on the web, thus allowing a gradual adoption of the less user-friendly sites.  A savvy cyber owner will monitor the content viewed online and maintain a download queue to move it to a locally stored cache.

All the technology has been developed, and is here in Kenya, and I have seen Kenyan techs using it on their own.  Why not put it together in a nice package for all to benefit?

Hey Mkahawa, are you listening!?

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Linux Gaming Roundup

Let’s see, you have successfully gotten your computer running the your latest Linux distribution of choice, but you are still missing the finger-twitching action of a good video game. You could dual boot your machine, but that just seems wrong to some, and a nuisance to others; you could run a virtualized instance of Windows, but that might not give you the power you need to run the latest in 3D tech, or you could realize that if you want to play games on Linux, probably so have others, and there’s bound to be some type of “pure” solution.

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Kubuntu 10.04: One Month In, Impressions

When I began the process of upgrading my base Linux installation to Ubuntu 10.04 LTS, I made an active decision to try something new in my own personal computing environment: I would switch over to a KDE-based distribution.  I have been using GNU/Linux-based operating systems for about 10 years now, having experimented with them throughout high school, then making permanent switches on some of my machines in university, and now working completey in the ecosystem while serving in Peace Corps, as well as actively converting others to its use as well.  But in all my time with Linux, never did I use KDE.  From a principles standpoint, there was that messiness regarding licensing in the nineties and early aughts; from a visuals standpoint, GNOME just always looked better (I prefer simple and elegant), and from a user-base standpoint, I just never felt, “power user,” enough to use it.

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Personal Social Device For Kenya

I know, it’s been done before, but let’s try again, with a different name.  I was reading around Slashdot and was interested in one of their articles about the Qi Ben NanoNote, an ultra-small, clamshell-style computer with specs that match moderately-powered smartphones… of about three years ago.  But there’s a catch! Two actually.  The Ben NanoNote runs all Free and Open Source Software as well as using all copyleft hardware.  What’s copyleft hardware you ask? Why it’s hardware to which everybody has access to final production diagrams and schematics, allowing anyone with resources to implement the hardware design exactly.  Finally, the device only costs $99, and that’s an end user purchase, not an OEM bulk rate, which could arguably be much lower.

Where am I going with this?  Lets’ revive the personal communicator device, tried time and time again but always failing (I know, I’m an idiot)!  Sony did it; there was also that Sidekick device, and many others.  So what would be different? Well, none of it ever reached mass-market distribution in Kenya, none of it was completely Open Source and most certainly none of it was only $99.

Statistics already show there is a vibrant mobile-Internet user group in Africa, and more and more people are joining sites like Facebook and getting their daily news off the web, but they are doing so from tiny screens and T9-ing their input.  Throw in SMS support and there is potential for a new crop of data-bundle-oriented mobile service customers who don’t care about making phone calls.  If you are worried about the perception of lugging around multiple devices, many people already carry multiple phones depending on the number of carriers they use.  Make this new device multi-SIM and it’s even more attractive!

There are disadvantages to the device as it stands now.  There is no camera.  There is no built in 3G modem. There is no custom software that would make the device seem tailored to the mobile social experience.  It’s currently un-marketable as far as I am concerned.

Instead, view the Ben NanoNote as a proof of concept that inexpensive mobile devices can be manufactured and run quality software.  Mobile consumers in Kenya are already accustomed to a web without Flash and H.264 support, so why not create this half step device that opens up more of the web for a fraction of the cost of a 44,000/- black-market iPhone or 80,000/- Blackberry. 

Most importantly, being completely open and, “easy,” to hack (it was designed for it), it could help entice a whole new generation of jua kali hackers in Kenya, who get to see instant results of their efforts running on hardware and over the network.  This is where Nokia and Samsung and other hardware manufacturers are getting it all wrong.  It is far too difficult to modify their devices, to fix problems, to customize the experience, all of which carry a lot of weight in the markets here.  There’s space for an upset and a chance to change how people perceive their mobile devices.  If FOSS can make successful inroads, why not FOSH?

Oh, and make it solar powered just for giggles.

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Flash Disks Kill My Morning Productivity

You know those mornings, those mornings where you have a list of things to do, ready to feel accomplished. Then when you show up, something goes wrong, and before you know it you’re very own principles are thrown up against your productivity, and all of a sudden, you are fighting to save the world and make fundamental systematic changes so as to prevent such problems in the future but at the cost of actual results today?! Yeah, this morning has been one of those mornings.

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Linux: Thinking With Fingers

I have yet another perfect example of how Peace Corps is no longer your mom and dad’s Peace Corps. This morning, my most pressing issue at work was getting the biometric fingerprint scanner working in Ubuntu so that I could demonstrate biometric authentication to my students during class today (granted we have power, today being Thursday and all). My ICTT students are learning about Users and Security in their lecture on Operating Systems and we’ve gone over PIN authentication which they understand because their mobile phones use PINs to unlock their SIM Cards; user and password authentication which they understand because they use it every day to log into their computers, but where does that leave me for biometric authentication?

Thankfully, NYS has provided me with fairly advanced computers, and honestly, this is why I loved the Free and Open Source Software world. My computers come with fingerprint scanners built into the keyboards, and with a little Google-ing, sure enough there is an open source driver for this scanner and it integrates perfectly into my pre-existing setup. No crazy applications that change default behavior, no humongous install files that need to be downloaded, no trial software that expires after 30 days unless I crack it. Just a simple, small module that plugs into my pre-existing system and seamlessly integrates fingerprint scanning. Now, I can demonstrate to my students biometric authentication, and they can see it in real life.

If you don’t care much about Linux tech, no need to read further. If you do care about Linux, and particularly getting fingerprint scanning working, this may be of interest to you.

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I Have A Dream

I have a dream that one day I will have a computer running a dedicated web server based on Ubuntu Server 10.04. It will be stable, reliable, trusty, with lots of hard drive space.

I have a dream that one day I will have a rock-solid apache server running such platforms as video streaming, local blogging, file storage and editing, all free and open source.

I have a dream that one day my students will watch downloaded NASA TV videos, streams of BBC Planet Earth and Blue Planet, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, not just soap operas.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day my teachers will use software such as Moodle to digitize curricula: grades will be posted on-line, students will receive updates and messages without needing to find non-existent time in their schedule to ask their teachers outside of class.

I have a dream that one day, my students will be able to access downloaded versions of Wikipedia, read e-book versions of novels in the public domain; teachers will read the latest journal articles to keep current with their trades and continually improve themselves.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day my students and teachers will compete against one another in networked games, improving hand-eye coordination and student-teacher relationships at the same time.

I have a dream that that one day the NYSTC Computer Lab will become a hub of asynchronous learning, self improvement, entertainment and fun.

I have a dream that one day I will have a counterpart at NYS: an individual educated in computers and interested in their application for the enhancement of learning; an individual willing to learn the ways of Open Source, Software Libre and Linux; networking and system administration; an individual willing to take over the reigns of the lab from me, as I am leaving in but a year.

I have a dream today.

…since when did I dream?

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Linux: KTouch

It is the dream of every open source enthusiast to have a problem of theirs nearly perfectly solved by a pre-existing piece of FOSS software, especially one that sits above the version 1.0 marker and has a degree of polish one would expect from a paid-for, closed source project. As a Peace Corps volunteer teaching basic intro to computers, one of the most important topics to teach is typing skills. There exist many typing programs, but the FOSS world only has a few worth mentioning, and after trying a couple, the one I found to be most complete and conducive to my teaching style is KTouch (easily available in most major Linux Distro repos).

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