No, this is not a breakfast item in the White House cafeteria, but something altogether more exciting. Freedom Toasters are kiosks where anyone can burn to CD free & open-source software.

“Like vending machines, preloaded to dispense confectionery, Freedom Toasters are preloaded to dispense free digital products, including software, photography, music and literature.”

I first heard about them from my friend Louis, as there is one installed at Stellenbosch Varsity. I think they are an absolutely FANTASTIC idea. Few people in the first world (particularly countries where connectivity is not only taken for granted, but free wifi abounds!) realise how much of an issue it is just getting time, facilities and bandwidth to download an install file for Firefox, let alone a full Linux distribution.

These machines change the game completely — people don’t need a broadband connection to get at open source resources. All they need is to bring along some blank CD-Rs and burn whatever they want. The initiative is supported by the Shuttleworth Foundation who have provided instructions for anyone to build their own Toaster, effectively open-sourcing the scheme itself! Hopefully we’ll see these continue to pop up all over South Africa, bringing accessible software solutions to more and more people … and personally I can’t wait to actually see one!

Natalie has written an excellent article about women in technology and more specifically female developer involvement in the Linux community. She makes a bunch of great points (so go read her post!), but the one that I find particularly interesting is this:

“One huge difference that has a significant effect could be that women are less prone to self promotion; while this modesty trait may be good in polite society, it doesnt work well in the geek world. Men are quite happy to promote their ideas, share there excitement and unashamedly display the cool things they have made, this is a great thing and Im not generalising without exception, there are many women who are able to overcome this and be proud of what they have done. Myself and many others I spoke with are less forthcoming with our enthusiasm and this may well be to our disadvantage.”

This is exactly why denying difference doesn’t help anyone. If you assume that men and women are the same, then by the same token, if someone ISN’T extolling the virtues of their latest work, then they must not have done anything interesting. However, if you accept that it’s OK for different people to approach the world in different ways, then it’s always worth digging a little. Grand self-promotion doesn’t always equate to competence … and self-effacement or downplaying also doesn’t equate to a lack of achievement!

Given that SXSWi is starting on Friday, I have some challenges for those of you who will be attending, similar to the one I set for Ryan a while back:

  • TALK to women at SXSWi — and in the same way as you take men’s bragging with a pinch of salt, if someone is being particularly demure about their accomplishments, try to dig a little deeper. Or just make a mental note to check out some of their work and form a proper opinion based on that.
  • Don’t assume the partners are “along for the ride” — as Nat rightly points out, a lot of the time geek partners are geeks in their own right! Hell, I’m the one working as an IT manager, but Elly (architect by day, web designer by night) has significantly more web design talent. Since she’s pretty quiet, you might not realise that unless you actually tried to talk to her.
  • Don’t artificially level — it is much more insulting to women if you add a blog you’re completely uninterested in to your blogroll, or endorse a woman whose work you don’t respect/value, or swap business cards with women at a conference just so you can hit on them, than if you have an all-male blogroll. Step away from the statistics and think about what you’re really doing.

I really need to set up a proper backup system. There are quite honestly some really good excuses for why I haven’t done so already, but at the end of the day none of those are going to help if a harddrive crashes and I lose every bit of work I’ve done so far this academic year. Moving my main “home” machine to running Debian back in September, should have made it a bit easier to do this, since I imagine that rsync is going to be the answer to all my worries.

In true procrastinatory style, I went and had a look around the web a bit and found a few links. I’ve now had the realisation that I really need to revise Agents now as the exam is tomorrow, so I’m going to put this off again, but as a reminder to myself and potentially a help to anyone else also needing to set up a proper backup system, here are some links:

Well, I know I said I was going to go with Woody, but when I got it all working and started using it I remembered just how __old__ most of the stuff in that release is (testing will probably become stable fairly soon now anyway, so it really must be due an update given the length of Debian cycle) and decided that I’d upgrade from Woody to Sarge.

There were a couple of advantages to this approach:

  1. Woody was more likely to have the (older) stuff needed for hardware support etc and so installed a bit easier
  2. Woody’s tasksel still has the “laptop” task and that installed a bunch of stuff in one shot that I would have had to track down individually otherwise
  3. Upgrading was really easy (although obviously took quite a while to do over the ‘net)
  4. I now have much more incentive to actually compile my own kernel, since when you do a dist-upgrade pretty much everything but the kernel is updated

In terms of what I actually did, there’s a nice tutorial of how to upgrade between releases here. The one thing I’d say is check that the changes are actually happening in your sources.list as you go else you might waste time downloading what you don’t need 😉

So I decided to install Debian 3.0 Woody on my IBM Thinkpad 570, as I was having a few problems with Sarge. As an aide to my own memory, as well as help to anyone else trying to do the same, I thought I’d document the attempt

The Install

First of all I downloaded the mini disk set for the 2.4 kernel — although I have an Ultrabase I couldn’t get it to boot off the CD, so went the external floppy disk drive route. I used the fantastic RawWrite for Windows to write the images — it worked excellently under XP on my win laptop. Stepping through the install was fairly easy — I chose to keep all in one partition with a swap of 301Mb (the first time around when I installed Sarge it ran out of room in the system partition, so this seemed safer) I took the option of having extra kernel modules for USB Mass Storage, Infrared, Sound (cs46xx.o module) and a couple of other bits and pieces.

I had hoped to do the base system install over the ‘net and the install even managed to detect my PCMCIA ethernet card (a 3Com MegaHertz model 3CCFE574BT) and automatically loaded the appropriate kernel module (3c574_cs), but unfortunately although I could configure the network and the lights were on on the dongle showing it was connected, the system told me that my network was “configured but not activated” and no amount of fiddling would fix this. So I went the labour-intensive route and cut the install floppies (all 20!) to install the base system that way. On the up side, as soon as I’d rebooted the network worked perfectly.

Configuration

There is more detailed discussion in some of the references below, but the summary of my config is:

  • Monitor: Defined it using the Advanced option, HorizRefresh 30-60; VertRefresh 50-75, which then allowed for 1024×768 resolution; selected 16 bit so it would run faster
  • Mouse: Selected as /psaux, type PS/2 and this worked fine for the built-in trackpoint
  • Keyboard: Selected p101 keyboard, uk layout and this seemed to work fine, even though the keyboard of course only has 85 keys
  • PCMCIA: Automagically worked
  • Ethernet: 3Com MegaHertz model 3CCFE574BT worked when defined as the Intel chipset type and “auto” for selection of speed as the RJ45 dongle shows both 10 and 100; working fine since the original reboot
  • Infrared: I selected the recommended modules for the kernel during the install, but haven’t had chance to play with this yet
  • Sound: As mentioned previously, I built the cs46xx.o module into the kernel during the initial Woody install; since the upgrade to Sarge it isn’t working, but that I think is something to do with ALSA having been installed (but I don’t really know!)
  • Power Management: Installed APM as a module in the kernel during the install process. This means I can hit Fn-F4 to suspend and so on — all seems to work fine. Update: It works more than fine. On Monday I took the laptop up to uni with me and used it a bit to take notes in lectures (and show off the new toy) — this left it at about 80% of battery. I then put it on suspend by pressing Fn-F4 and two days later it’s still got 35% battery. So get APM working properly — because you’re worth it!
  • Modem: Since I haven’t used a modem in at least 3 years, didn’t bother to try and get the modem set up. Apparently the drivers are evil binary only as well so you might need to soul search (bottom par)

Useful Sources of Info

As previously discussed, I have RSI. Since I developed it over the course of my year away working, now that I am back at uni I’ve suddenly realised how much it hurts to write. Even though a normal lecture is only 50 mins long, writing solidly for that amount of time is proving increasing difficult.

Since I manage to work on computers for 50 mins at a time with no problems (perhaps because one’s hands are more relaxed when typing vs writing) I figured I should get myself a laptop setup so I could take notes electronically. Online shopping being the beautiful thing that it is, I am now the proud owner of an IBM Thinkpad 570 and a new docking station will arrive for it tomorrow. The laptop itself didn’t come from the linked shop, but the docking station is coming from Laptopshop.co.uk who really seem to know their stuff. UPDATE: No, they don’t. They told me the docking station came with drives included, but when it arrived it didn’t. When I rang up to ask for the drives to be sent as well they said the original information is wrong and are being singularly unhelpful in resolving the issue

My reasons for choosing this particular laptop are multiple — I used to have one at work a few years ago and although it struggled under the weight of Win98, I think it will run Linux like a dream. It’s a particularly lightweight model and apparently works with Debian. Although if I’m honest I’m thinking of trying Feather Linux on my USB key and seeing if that will work. Admittedly I couldn’t get it to boot from USB earlier today, hence buying the docking station. But arguably if I can get Linux running happily on it I might be able to update the BIOS and then have a chance of booting from more modern peripherals.

Today I handed in my Project Proposal, which is the starting point for the massive final year project I am embarking on that will eventually end in my dissertation. The proposal itself was fairly easy to write content-wise (I’m doing something that I’m interested in and had already started the research). Producing the thing in the right format though was a different story.

Essentially, everyone I have spoken to has recommended that I choose LaTeX for writing up my dissertation. Having seen how wonderful LaTeX docs tend to look when cast against the unholy offspring of other options, I thought this was a fantastic idea. Following my recent revelations about how to really get good at using something rather than just trying it and giving up, I decided that there was no time like the present and that I’d prepare my Project Proposal in LaTeX too.

This, ladies & gentlemen, is why writing a five page document just took me 15 hours.

On the one hand, I really wish that this wasn’t my 33rd consecutive waking hour (I had to work yesterday so didn’t start until the evening), but on the other I have learnt so much. I have also discovered that there are some mighty fine bits of software out there that can be really good. So I thought I’d post a little thank you here.

What I ended up using was LyX on my newly installed Debian Sarge desktop (different machine to the server previously discussed). LyX is a WYSIWYM editor that runs off a LaTeX engine and lets you produce PostScript output that prints beautifully.

[Well, it does if your printer is working. Truth be told, I haven’t gotten around to installing the drivers and working out how to run CUPS yet, so I had a slight problem: no way to print out my beautifully formatted Project Proposal. Then I remembered the WinXP laptop had already been set up for the printer, so reconnected it to that and moved the file over to that machine.

Ah, slight problem. WinXP can’t do PostScript. This was when I discovered GhostScript and GSView. They installed in minutes … and they just worked. So Proposal printed, problems sorted and my heartfelt thanks to all the developers and their families.]

Reflecting on the whole episode, this is one of my Linux experiences that has really shone. The LyX package is a really great way to get the power of LaTeX quickly. I know it’s a bit of a cheat and don’t worry, I have ordered the LaTeX bible and will be learning it properly, but it really is a great bit of software. I’d also heard all about how useful BibTeX could be, but then I discovered Pybliographic, which integrated seamlessly with LyX and handled all my citations in a very smooth manner. All in all it all worked very well and I got a much more professional looking document than I deserved, even having put 15 hours into it. Anyone else doing dissertations this year, I’d heartily recommend you look into it!