Tag Archives: ubuntu

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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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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Linux: Ubuntu In My Lab

This entry is the third in a series covering GNU/Linux, an Operating System consisting of the Linux Kernel and applications from the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) community, with an emphasis on its connections to the developing world. These articles assume at least a moderate understanding of the Linux and FOSS communities. For more information regarding these, I would direct interested parties to Linux.org as well as the Free Software Foundation and finally, for the truly interested, the GNU Manifesto. With all of this knowledge now in hand, I hope you enjoy the series. If you have not already done so, I suggest you go ahead and read the first and second posts in the series: Linux: Not Ready for the Big Time and Linux: It’s Everywhere and Nowhere.

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Funny Forum Posts

I am effectively a system administrator here at NYS.  My teaching job is secondary really to keeping the machines running and in tip-top shape.  Therefore, I am frequently googling around the internet trying to find answers to this or that question.  Recently, I just received 15 brand new machines from Nairobi HQ and need to get them imaged and up to spec with all the same software as my other lab machines.  However, they’ve been giving me a problem so I was googling around and stumbled across this forum post.  I am posting this because I think it’s hilarious, in a non-tech way:

“Ugh…Sorry, my brains fried…my wife is in labor at the moment, so I’ll keep this quick…She has a hours to go, so don’t think I’m a bad husband. I tried gparted, and I can’t resize through that. Checked the disk for bad sectors, the drive is fine. I DEFINITELY don’t know enough about linux to do a text based installer. So is there another way to resize the ntfs partition, thourgh windows or dos maybe? I’m a dos whiz, so thats preffered. Thanks folks…Will check in a few days from now after the kid is born…

Thanks again.” (http://ubuntuforums.org/archive/index.php/t-871687.html)

Apparently this guy really thought resizing his partition was that darn important.  But don’t worry, his wife still had an hour to go so it’s ok, he can muck around with his ubuntu install.  I am glad that at least he is giving his wife a few days attention to help with the newborn child though before returning to his computer.  Hahaha. 

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My NYS Teaching Update

My last post, I kindly offered to split into two because I knew that both portions were going to be large.  And then, as sometimes happens, I got distracted by Peace Corps life (mostly reading actually….) and never got around to updating you on what’s been going on at my primary project, NYS Mombasa.

Well, it’s almost all good news actually!!  I know, shocking isn’t it!  I was just as shocked when this ball started rolling as well.  So let’s begin with me getting back from Nairobi.  I had just gotten back sunday night when on monday morning principal talked to me and informed me that we would be moving the computer lab that morning and I would be teaching starting that week.  I believe this was on May 15th or something.  Hold on, let me look at a calendar… May 11th.  So on May 11th, we moved the computers into the new, shiny computer lab.  it’s big!  The ceiling isn’t falling down!  There is minimal dust!  And it even has an office, and space for 24 computers!  And that’s not even cramming.  I could cram another 12 in if I really wanted to!

We moved all the machines, which were thankfully just imaged, and then I began what other would consider boring, but I found one of the most exciting things i have done here:  i began setting up the network!  And dual booting the machines, so now each machine runs Windows XP and Ubuntu 8.10.  They are all networked, and networked to a printer, which the teachers are loving, because before they would have to go to a special single computer to print.  I also got a rudimentary server running, but that hasn’t seen much work since install.  Not enough time.

Why?  Because I am now working 11 hour days in this lab.  I get in at 7am and do about an hour of maintenance before the walk ins start happening.  I am still on a 6 class a week schedule, which is only 12 hours of actual, official teaching, but on top of that I also have two scheduled classes for teachers, and then a policy of “If the door is open, use the computers.”  Foot traffic has exploded from the people who want me to “give them deep knowledge of computer,” to people who want me to teach them AutoCAD (which, sadly, I cannot do aside from finding and making available free CAD software).  I am also running open lab from 4pm – 6pm where I specifically stay to answer any questions people have.  Needless to say, I have been very busy at site since May 11th.  Or was it the 18th?  I forget.  Peace Corps time.

I regret to inform though that the new crop of students has not really affected the teaching experience as related last semester.  These are completely fresh students, whereas before they were end-of-first-year students who had had computer, but nobody told me, not even them when I asked them.  I was hoping that maybe with completely fresh students I could get off on a better footing, so we went outside for all first classes and just talked about ICT.  I am trying really hard to slow my speech, speak simpler english, use kiswahili, but still same results: nobody talks, the blank stares, everything.

I have thus adjusted my curriculum and my own expectations.  Upon reviewing the Internataionl Computer Drivers License (ICDL) syllabus, and realizing it takes 150 hours to complete, whereas I have only 20 hours with them, I have come to the conclusion that teaching to this spec would be impossible.  Thus, I just go slowly by slowly (a kenyan english-ism) and try to be practical, but while trying as much as possible to still teach concepts over specifics.  For example, at the login screen, I try to explain the simple concept of username and password, and how they are very common in all of computing, instead of just saying click here and type this.  But on the other end of the spectrum I have actually dropped the class on hardware vs. software, etc.  It’s just not practical enough to keep them interested.  I don’t quite know how or when I will explain what the Operating System is, but I feel like when I tell them to switch to Ubunutu for the first time, it might be appropriate.

I have also come to the conclusion that I am just not a good “Intro to Computer,” teacher for NYS.  I am coming to terms with this fact: it just does not itnerest me overly so.  I do wish NYS would finish with creating their new curriculum and send all the real computer teachers back to the camps, so that the volunteers could go back to their inital goal which is new-idea generation, as I understand it.  I do like teaching the teachers: they are attentive, seem to be taking notes, and in general seem to appreciate the potential impacts computers can bring to their lives.  And the open lab sessions bring the students who are eager to learn about comoputers, so that can be a very rewarding time as well.

I will end with a list of pieces of tech I am either using, are intrigued in and whatnot, as well as some projects.  I will also try to put up links where appropriate.

  • I plan on using Ubuntu’s apt-cacher to make updating the ubunutu side of the computers far easier.  It allows me to only download something once and then it distributes it to all of the other computers.  It is not working properly at the moment, and I have not come upon a definite reason why not.  I may end up setting up my own repository instead.
  • For free CAD software, I plan on using the Community Edition of qCAD.  It is open source and available in most major Linux Distrobution repositories.  However, I have not fully looked into the best way to compile it for windows.  Also, one of the teachers, Njau (who is loving linux at the moment), needs to sit down and learn it because he knows CAD software and I don’t.
  • I am currently working on a set of scripts that snag full-content RSS feeds from the net, and then generate a “Daily Newspaper” style website on a completlely local server.  I feel this is the best way to provide daily updated information to the teachers, in a networked environment.  By leveraging the standard formatting of RSS, I am hoping to minimize development times of the software, as well as reduce overall size, letting me focus on making it user friendly.
  • Hopefully soon I will be able to sit down with the Italc suite of tools which will allow for an open source means of screen watching and remote-control, though it will also allow for on screen demonstrations to all the computers at once I am hoping, which is the next best thing to me having a projector. 
  • I want to also set up a local authentication and storage server so that all the students can get a networked space to store work and whatnot.  Right now my data policy is, “If it’s on the computer when I image it, sorry.  I will try to give 48 hours before I image a machine.”
  • For imaging, I ended up using PING.  It is small, lightweight, comes with heaps of other low-level disk tools, and just worked when clonezilla wasn’t.  Not to say clonezilla is bad in anyway, and there seems to be a lot of development effort going on there, but it just did not work.
  • I need to start writing up tutorials for basic computer use.  I am just currently torn between writing it up for ubunutu or windows.  I still don’t know if I should switch to Ubunutu, just for practicalities sake.  I think I will do a post on that later.

Ok, this post is certainly long enough.  I hope you have all enjoyed it.  I have been busy, and I am hoping to stay that way until august, when school goes on holiday, and I am sure I will need one too!

Til next time, cheers!


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