Oliver Knill

Linux User Stuff

Oliver Knill
Harvard University
One Oxford Street
Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
Department of Mathematics
Office:SciCen 434 (Cam)
Tel: (617) 495 5549
Email: @math

Office hours Summer 2007: Monday 15:30-16:00, and by appointment

Oliver with family and 8 computers at home
"Oliver with family in home office. No fights about who uses the computer. There are 8 of them. Both Linux and OSX."
  • Distribution: The distribution Mandriva works flawlessly on my linux boxes. Some machines still run "Mandrake". A few machines now run Ubuntu, which installs things even faster than Mandrake with the automatix script. I usually get the Mandriva media for a few dollars at linux central. What is essential for me: the installation is fast and usually does things right. Here are a few things, I usually have to adjust after an installation. I liked a 2005 Mandriva edition of Mandriva which allowed to copy first all the CDs on hard disc.
  • Comparison with OS X. While I'm also a big OSX fan, there are many advantages of Linux: even on inferior hardware, a properly configured linux box can be a multiple times snappier. There are the fraction of seconds, one has to wait at the shell with OS X, or - worse - watch the "turning wheel of annoyance", which is absent in linux. In this respect, OSX is at the level of linux distributions I used 4-5 years ago. An operating system never, ever should block a user, even for fractions of seconds. There are other things of course, like not having to reboot after an update (which makes OSX unfit for scientific computing), the lack of digital right management systems DRM, the independence of a vendor and transparence in what is there and what is running, and what is phoning "home".
  • Browser: Mozilla, Firefox or Lynx. A wrapper to give Mozilla the ability to open local files from the command line. Firefox recently added the ability to open files locally too. Finally.
  • X: Vidia drivers worked great until Mandrake 10, where it had problems with the 2.6 kernel, but switching back to the 2.4 kernel worked well. In Mandriva, things are automatically configured during the installation and work well. Also, in Ubuntu, all NVidia stuff works well.
  • EMail: The Unix "mail" is fast, simple, reliable and secure. To send and receive attachments per commandline, "mpack" and "munpack" work well. I use "Pine" to handle more complicated carbon copies or attachment lists. "procmail" to filter some addresses. (I feel that spam filtering is in principle unsolvable without a change of the SMTP protocol. It currently works only because spammers are too simple-minded to serve their load past the filters. The "spam/no spam decision" is not only person-specific but also time and situation dependent.) Recently the spammers started to learn how to pass even the most sophisticated Biasian filters. July 2006: This has now happend. Spammers use many addresses only once, send messages in a form, which a normal person would send too.
  • DVD burning DVD burner and media prizes have come down and are great for backup. Here is an older makedvd script. Things got simpler: "growisofs -Z /dev/hdc -R -J directory" burns a directory onto DVD. "dd if=/dev/cdrom1 of=data.iso bs=2K; growisofs -Z /dev/cdrom2=data.iso" copies a data DVD from DVD drive /dev/cdrom1 to a DVD burner /dev/cdrom2.
  • Backup on HD More recently, even backup on DVD is no more an option for me. I backup on a my network of computers and keep entire harddrives as a long term backup. I always hated tape, whether it was for sound, video or or backups and even stopped using a decent Sun Tape drive, when harddrives became bigger. I use now a reliable, caseless, hotswappable "masscool ADT-UPS001 IDE/SATA to USB 2.0 Adapter", to attach HDs and GPG encrypt the backup with commands like "tar -czf backup/bin.tgz bin; gpg --recipient knill@math.harvard.edu --encrypt backup/bin.tgz; rm backup/bin.tgz" which can as easily be decrypted and encompressed "gpg --decrypt backup/bin.tgz.gpg>bin.tgz; tar -xzf bin.tgz" Of course, to compress and encrypt hundreds of gigs, needs some time. Backup is a reason, why I like to have a decent machine, since this task is done regularly, usually at night.
  • Editor: "vi" moves mountains, is extremely fast, reliable and simple. In order to use the default editor, like "nano" in Ubuntu: "sudo rm /etc/alternatives/editor; sudo ln -s /usr/bin/vim /etc/alternatives/editor"
  • Terminal: Despite the many alternatives, I find "xterm" still the best. It is easy to configure, does not have annoyning menus nor problems with fonts (like German umlaute). I had some issues with fonts on Ubuntu machines. Cutting and pasting german umlaute and other special symbols would not work when starting up xterm from the "blackbox" windows manager. The culpit was "gdm". This is an other reason not to run this deamon and to start X manually with "startx". This also saves some CPU cycles (I alwyas try to minimze the number of processes running on my machines). I start xterm up with /usr/X11R6/bin/xterm +cm -sb -bg black -cr yellow -hc red -fg white here is a screenshot.
  • Gaming: "winex" allows to play many windows games within linux without performance degradation. I used to play "Wolfenstein" on Linux.
  • PDA: I had my first Palm Pilot in 1996 with a Macintonsh. It worked also with Linux using a serial connection. Next came a Handspring Visor with a Targus stowaway portable keyboard which served as a super small laptop. Unfortunatly it failed to work with linux. Then, I got a Sharp Zaurus running Linux until I smashed its screen. I currently find a paper based book agenda more efficient.
  • MP3 player: I use an Ipod and more recently an Ipod shuffle and Video Ipod. While USB stick type players like BUSlink or players with memory cards work best with linux, there is nothing on linux which comes close to Ipod with Itunes on OS X. But the ipod can now run linux .....
  • Scanning: The Epson Perfection 1200 worked well with a SCSI interface. A Canon Lide 30 USB scanner works is "plug and play" in Mandrake. Scanning under linux still beats all GUI based scanning software. Of course from the commandline with "scanimage".
  • Textprocessing: I use almost exclusively LaTeX. A quick cure to MS-Word documents: "strings insane.doc > sane.txt" or if possible "wvText insane.doc sane.txt" I also use abiword and openoffice. Abiword paired with "demoronizer" can produce formatted .txt documents from .doc. I also bought textmaker, which works well in linux.
  • Spreadsheets: I handle most spreadsheets tasks with shell scripts using awk, grep, sed or perl. For complex things, I use "Mathematica" and use scripts to bring text files into Matematica form. "gnumeric" on Linux helps to bring Excel files into text form. I also have planmaker on Linux, evenso I have some general issues with spreadsheets.
  • Windows manager: "Blackbox" is a simple windows manager with multiple workplaces and small footprint. It looks nice and is all I ever need screenshot. Both Mandriva and Ubuntu install blackbox as a menu in the login window otherwise put "blackbox" into ".xinitrc" file.
  • Monitoring: "mgm", the "moaning goat meter", written in perl, "ethereal" to monitor network, "nmap" to check ports, "cpm" to monitor network interfaces, "tripwire" to guard /etc.
  • Shell: I use exclusively bash, also on the Mac OS X or Solaris operating system.
  • DVD: I think one of the main reasons that linux is not more popular is that DVD playback does not work out of the box, after an installation and decss has to be grabed. "mplayer" is great, but one has to get "libdvdcss" first. But if things work, the DVD experience is great. DVD's can be seen indepedent of region code, there is an immediate startup without warning splashes or "blocked menu accesses" in players like iDVD in OS X. To save a DVD as a mpg movie on the harddrive, use "mencoder -dvd 1 -lavcopts vcodec=mpeg1video:vpass=1 -ovc copy -oac copy -o film.mpg". Ubuntu has now scripts like "Automatix", which allows to configure DVD automatically for linux distributions. This is probably one of the reasons for the popularity of Ubuntu. I don't know how many hours I have spent with configuring "mplayer" or "xine" on linux boxes the last 10 years. This works now pretty well with Ubuntu. But watching DVDs still has not the ease as in OS X, especially with "frontrow".
  • Image browser: I prefer "xv" for pictures. Grab also the super patch. It improves also PNG support. In OSX, "Preview" has become better too and can now also open huge numbers of pictures simultaneously without locking the machine up. xv has also a nice color editor.
  • Quicktime: The crossover plugin works quite well. With suitable compiled "xanim" a few quicktimes can be watched. Having "Quicktime Pro" on the Mac, I often just translate the .mov file as .avi, to be able to view it in linux. "SnapZ Pro X" allows to record things from the screen.
  • Graphics: "gimp" for raster graphics allows to have things done, before the Photoshop hog even starts up. I mostly use ImageMagic's" "convert" for command line conversions.
  • Ray tracing: "povray".
  • CAS"Mathematica". (Mathematica works well in linux on the command line, I had problems at first in Mandrake 10 with libmtk.so and needed to reinstall. Also font problems with the mathematica GUI are common in Unix versions, except in OS X.,
  • Illustrations. "xfig" can produce simple LateX graphics which then can be edited by hand, scribus is getting better. But a decent "Adobe illustrator" equivalent is not yet available in linux. I use "inkscape" a lot as an alternative. One can run also "Adobe Illustrator" via "wmware". The program "oodraw" in the open office suite works quite well to export eps files. Now, I almost exclusively use Mathematica to generate mathematical illustrations in postscript form.
  • Virtual machine. "vmware". I upgraded over the years from version 2.0 to 3.2, then 4.05, now I'm using workstation 5, which has a cool snapshot feature. I could not carry over an old virtual machine created in 2.0 (new MS registration was required and failed) and had to do a fresh install of an XP virtual machine. I wonder what will happen when Vista appears.
  • Dual boot with XP: Simplest solution: leave XP on one harddrive and install linux on a second drive. Here is my lilo.conffile (Linux on the master drive, XP/NT on the slave drive). But I do hardly reboot anymore thanks to "wmware" and "xwine". Since google earth has appeard on linux and OS X, I practially do no more use windows.
  • Coexist with OS X. Mac OSX complements linux wonderfully. At home, I setup linux as a NFS server and mount the home directory on the macs. Certain things can not be done yet well in Linux like OCR (I have ReadIris and Omnipage for OS X), editing PDF files (Acrobat and Preview), Flash creation. Also external devices, like Video cameras, video editing, DVD authoring and even reliable printing is just so much simpler in OS X. Back to NFS: the easiest way is to add an directory service entry using the Netinfo manager.
  • Flash: Flash 9 finally works both in Ubuntu Dapper and Edgy. While an installation by hand from the Adobe page, the sound did not work for me, a basic sudo aptitude install flashplugin-nonfree finally does the job as of january 2007. Before, that I had used also run Firefox with wine.
  • Backups: While working: flashback. Nightly: rsync on second HD and on different machines. Daily diff miror home/office via broadband. Weekly: Backup up on different machine from the daily backup. Less and less: burn a few DVDs. Yearly: get a new HD and retire an old one with backups. It is important to have backups off the cycle. A corrupted file can propagate slowely through all backups and only get noticed a few years later. It is good to be able to "turn back time" also for longer time periods, possibly due to fat finger accidents.
  • Unix: Having been excited to learn Unix on a VAX workstation in 1984, I bought in 1989 a "Next Station" and in 1994 a Sparc station LX which both still work, (since 2002, both were retired in the garage and in 2005, I finally had the heart to throw them away. Nostalgia: Next at my office in Tucson, and here is an old intranet page with computers. Having been satisfied with the Next and a Sparc station and a Tenon MachX Mac application on a Apple Powerbook 5200 for many years, I started using Linux relatively late (1996).
  • Games. Due to lack of time, I like simple games. Like Garage Games. "Marble blast" and "Think tanks" which run nicely in Linux and are reasonably prized. For short breaks, I like games like xkoules.
  • Keyboards Spending most of my work day at computers, I find the keylocations and the mechanics of a keyboard crucial. I use now exclusively "Happy hacking keyboards", which I get at linux central. I use them also on all OS X machines. They have now two USB ports at the back. On all keyboards, I switch the third jumper at the back of the keyboard to have [del] and [BS] behave as I want.
    A linux and mac mini setup on Oliver's desk. One of the three happy hacking keyboards is for an other linux machine for which I just switch the screen. I also like small wireless mice with USB sticks on the back of the keyboard. The Mac mini is mostly used for video editing, flash creation and watching DVD's while working on the other machine. The mac minis are great and quiet and I like also the one in the office, where I switch between linux and OS X with a KVM switch. Two Imacs with Happy hacking keyboards on Ruth and Bens desk. In the background is the mac mini with a stack of Lacie drives. Also this mac has a happy hacking keyboard. Barely visible are the ibook laptops. One of which is now used for the piano. To the left of the picture one can see a networked HP 3055 printer/scanner/copy machine for which the TCP/IP configuration is set to "manual" with a fixed IP address so that all machines can print comfortably on it. Scanning needs a HP proprietary interface and currently only works on the macs.

Some computers I owned and loved:

   Computer        RAM  (new)      Harddisc (new)    Bought   Company               CPU        Clockspeed    OS
   1 Genie_I       14 K            500 Baud_Tape     1980     TCS_Trommeschlaeger   Z80_A        4 MHz       Dos
   2 Atari_1400_ST  1 Meg          20  Meg           1986     Atari                 68000        8 MHz       GemOS
   3 Nextstation    8 Meg          200 Meg           1990     Next_Coorporation     68040       25 MHz       Nextstep
   4 Sparc_LX      24 Meg          450 Meg           1994     Sun                   Microsparc  50 Mhz       Sun OS 4.1
   5 7200/75       32 Meg          500 Meg           1995     Apple                 PPC_601     75 Mhz       Mac OS 6-7
   6 5300_Powerb.  16 Meg          250 Meg           1996     Apple                 PPC_603e   100 Mhz       Mac OS 6-7
   7 Dell         128 Meg          8 Gig             1996     Dell                  P_II       300 MHz       Redhat/Caldera/Mandrake
   8 6500/225      64 Meg          3 Gig             1997     Apple                 PPC_603e   225 MHz       Mac OS 7-9
   9 Image_sys     64 Meg          4 Gig             1999     Image_systems         AMD_K6     300 MHz       Redhat/Mandrake
  10 Tuxtops       64 Meg          4 Gig             2000     Tuxtops               Celeron    450 MHz       Redhat/Mandrake
  11 Gateway       128 Meg         15 Gig            2000     Gateway               P_III      800 MHz       Mandrake 6-7-8-9-10
  12 Cube_G4       320 Meg         20 Gig            2001     Apple                 MPC7400/G4 450 Mhz       Mac OS 9-10
  13 IMac_G4       512 Meg         40 Gig            2002     Apple                 MPC7400/G4 700 Mhz       Mac OS 10
  14 Dell          512 Meg         20 Gig            2002     Dell                  P_III     1000 Mhz       Mandrake 7-9-10
  15 Dell          512 Meg         80 Gig            2002     Dell                  P_IV      2250 Mhz       Mandrake 8-9-10
  16 Ibook         512 Meg         30 Gig            2002     Apple                 G3         800 Mhz       Mac OS 10
  17 Zaurus         64 Meg        128 Meg            2003     Sharp                 StrongARM  206 Mhz       Lineo's Embedix
  18 Visionman       1 Gig        120 Gig            2003     Visionman             2x-Athlon 1666 Mhz       Mandrake 8-9-10
  19 Ibook_G4      768 Meg         60 Meg            2004     Apple                 G4        1070 Ghz       Mac OS 10
  20 Noname        500 Meg        150 Meg            2004     Self_built            P_IV      2500 Mhz       Mandrake 9-10
  21 MacMini       500 Meg        160 Gig + 1 Terra  2004     Apple                 G4        1420 Ghz       Mac OS 10
  22 IMac_G5         1 Gig        160 Gig            2004     Apple                 G5        1500 Ghz       Mac OS 10
  23 Dell_XPS_Gen5   3 Gig        750 Gig            2005     Dell                  P_D       3000 Ghz       Mandriva 10
  24 Mac Mini Intel  1 Gig         80 Gig + 250 Gig  2006     Apple                 Intel CD  1660 Ghz       Mac OS 10
  25 IMac_Core_Duo   1 Gig        250 Gig            2006     Apple                 Intel     2160 Ghz       Mac OS 10
  26 IBook Core 2 Duo 1 Gig        80 Gig            2006     Apple                 Intel     2000 Ghz       Mac OS 10

My Geekcode

 Version: 3.1
 GM d s: a? C++ ULS++++ P++ L++ E--- W++ N+ !o !K w--- !O M+ V !PS !PE Y+
 PGP++ t !5 !X R !tv b++ DI D+ G e++++ h---- r+++ y++++
 ------END GEEK CODE BLOCK------
can be decoded here.