Thursday, April 17, 2014

April showers bring... New Releases!!!

Ah, spring. The season of renewal. The cold and snows of winter retreat, and the warmer days and growing grass and flowers return. Spring is also a time for distro releases. Today marks the release of Ubuntu 14.04 LTS. The Internet is practically dragging to a stand still from all of the Ubuntu users, eagerly downloading ISO images, or performing live updates. I plan on waiting a week or so, then looking into updating my wife's computer from Xubuntu 12.04 LTS, to Xubuntu 14.04 LTS.

A quick check of DistroWatch shows no less than seven distribution releases, and another two development releases this week, with more to come in the near future, no doubt. Amble on over to DistroWatch and check out what's new and hot!

OpenBSD, another of my favorite operating systems will be pushing out a new release soon (historically around the first of May). I'm really looking forward to this release, as I will finally have the hardware to run it again. I've been without an OpenBSD system for almost a year now, and have really missed it. The list of changes and improvements is somewhat staggering, which really makes me want to get it back up and running on actual hardware.

Anyway, that's all I've got for this entry. I'll leave you with this picture of a cute squirrel walking along my back fence, that I took today. Another sure sign of spring:

Monday, March 3, 2014

It's March already???

Oops! I guess I kind of skipped completely over February. To be honest, I was sick for most of February, and when I wasn't sick, I was enjoying my photography hobby. When I got back into photography last May, I used just three software tools: ImageMagick on the CLI, mostly for resizing my pictures, Geeqie, for viewing my pictures, and The Gimp, for cropping and rotating my pictures. That's all the post processing I currently do, as I'm striving to "get it right" in the camera. That works some times, other times not so much :D

Like most digital photographers, I will eventually start using more post processing methods on my pictures. To that end, I've been scouring the Internet for good open source photography programs. The Gimp will be my first go-to program, but there are so many other things out there. If I ever start shooting using RAW mode on my camera, I will need a program for post processing (adjust light levels, brightness, contrast, colors, etc...) and to convert it to JPEG format, for posting on the Internet. I've found two so far (and there are probably loads more): RawTherapee and darktable. Both of these are very good, and I'm sure they compliment each other. Since these are open source programs, I can install them both and play around with them. Another area I'm interested in is High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography, and I've already found an open source program to experiment with, when I get to that point: Luminance HDR. is an excellent source for open source photography software listing and reviews, if you are a photographer, and use open source software, I highly suggest you bookmark this link.

I have found that, in any particular market segment, you can find good to outstanding open source alternatives to commercial software products. My wife and I are, for the most part, Linux-only, and we do not use Wine in order to run Windows programs. We do keep one Windows computer (Windows XP Professional, right now, but I will be upgrading it to Windows 7 Professional soon), for our Amateur Radio station, because we use the same software other hams in our area use. The rest of our desktops and notebook computers run some flavor of Linux, with only open source software on them.

We are approaching distro release season, and I would suggest you check frequently, to see what is coming out next. As this blog entry is mainly about open source photography software, I will leave you with this picture I took yesterday, of a scenic little canal in my town. Again, the only post processing done to it has been resizing (smaller) using ImageMagick:

Monday, January 20, 2014

Broadband-Hamnet: A broadband mesh network for Amateur Radio

Last year I hinted at something I had been playing around with: Broadband-Hamnet, previously called HSMM-MESH. Broadband-Hamnet is an open source project, build around OpenWrt, that allows Amateur Radio operators to set up arbitrarily large networks on the fly. Broadband-Hamnet mesh nodes are self discovering, self configuring, self advertising and fault tolerant. This means that to create a BBHN mesh network, all you need to do is bring two mesh nodes within a distance close enough for them to detect each other. To extend that network, just add more mesh nodes. BBHN mesh nodes work in ad-hoc mode, and use channel 1 to link to each other.

One of the beauties of the Broadband-Hamnet software is that it runs on relatively inexpensive, easily available hardware: The Linksys WRT54G family of consumer grade WiFi routers. Work is underway to port the BBHN firmware to the Ubiquiti family of WiFi routers. To get the BBHN firmware on a router, you simply follow the directions to "flash" it with the new firmware. After the initial reboot, you go in and configure the node. The only caveats to this are, for a BBHN mesh node, the SSID must be "BroadbandHamnet-v1", to match all of the other mesh nodes, and the node must remain on channel 1.

Since the mesh nodes use the WiFi radio to establish the network, in order to attach computers, IP video cameras, or other equipment to the mesh network, you will need to plug them in to the router using one of the four available Ethernet ports. If you wish to connect multiple users at the same time, you can flash another router and turn it into a Mesh Access Point. This access point will then connect to one of the mesh nodes via their Ethernet ports, and any suitable WiFi wireless device (laptop computer, tablet, smart phone, etc...) can then connect to the mesh network using WiFi.

So, what does all of this mean to me, and what can I use it for? It means that you (as an Amateur Radio operator) can create a network where one did not exist before, or you can extend an existing network. Be advised, BBHN networks are for Amateur Radio use only, and can not be used to replace your home network, to communicate over the Internet. This doesn't mean that you *can't* communicate over the Internet, it just means you have to restrict your communications over the Internet to Amateur Radio related tasks. There are tons of uses for a BBHN mesh network. They can be used at special events to provide video (using IP video cameras), voice (using VOIP), or text (using IRC) communications. Since they are ad-hoc, and self-discovering, all you need to do is get enough mesh nodes in place to cover a fairly large area. Any service that is currently on the mesh network, can easily be made available to all nodes and users on that mesh network.

I'm currently running a small BBHN mesh network at my house, for experimental purposes. My BBHN network is comprised of two nodes, AC4FS-1 and AC4FS-2. Both of these nodes use the Linksys WRT54GL routers. I have a Raspberry Pi single board computer, running an IRC server, connected to AC4FS-1. AC4FS-1 is in the ham shack, on the south side of the house. The other mesh node, AC4FS-2, is on the extreme north side of the house, in the office. I have a Linux desktop computer connected to this mesh node. I also have another WRT54GL router, configured as a mesh access point, connected to AC4FS-1. This allows me to access the mesh network using my tablet or smart phone, from anywhere in the house. Here's a network diagram of my BBHN mesh network:

I first heard of the Broadband-Hamnet project from an article in the October 2013 CQ Amateur Radio magazine, written by J. Gordon Beattie, Jr., W2TTT. If you can get your hands on a copy, it makes for a really good read, and is what inspired me to try creating my own BBHN mesh network. In the near future, I plan on creating two portable BBHN mesh nodes, and one portable mesh access point, to test during special events (parades, fireworks displays, races, etc...). At the same time I was building out my mesh network, I found out that the Flagler County ARES group was also experimenting with Broadband-Hamnet, for use in connecting the local hospital to the County Emergency Operations Center (EOC). What a worthy project for BBHN!

Friday, December 20, 2013

It's the holiday season once again

It never ceases to amaze me how fast the years are going by. It seems like just yesterday I was writing my Happy Holidays post for 2012, and here we are, less than a week away from Christmas Day, and only 12 days away from the start of 2014.

2013 has been a tumultuous year for me, with lots of changes going on at work, and in my open source world as well. It has seen me *finally* rebuild my home file server, and to push myself to learn how to create a RAID1 array on it. It has seen the replacement of two of our home computers, and I had a bit of a learning curve dealing with UEFI Secure Boot. And finally, it has seen me begin to dabble in Broadband-Hamnet Mesh Networking. Something I will blog about in January.

2013 has also seen the upgraded release of several major open source operating systems, and countless minor, but still important, ones as well. With each new release of the Linux kernel, it becomes more capable and powerful. New features are added that push the boundaries of what Linux is capable of, and countless bugs are found and fixed.

As we head into 2014, Linux and open source software is finding its way into more and more places, becoming more main-stream, and being accepted in governments and enterprise around the world. I wonder what Andy Tanenbaum would have to say about that?

As we all celebrate our respective holidays, and 2013 draws to an end, let's remember to toss in a thanks to open source hardware and software, and to the folks who contribute so much of their time and effort into the creation, maintenance, packaging, and documentation of them. I'm sure computing would go on without open source, it just wouldn't be nearly as fun ;)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dell Inspiron 15 Notebook vs. UEFI Secure Boot

I'm writing this blog post on my new Dell Inspiron 15 (3521) notebook, which is now running Xubuntu 13.10 x86-64. I ordered this, along with my wife's Inspiron 660s desktop from Dell this past Black Friday. Both came with Windows 8 installed (yes, at the crazy Black Friday prices, it was cheaper to buy them with Windows 8 pre-loaded). In my last blog post, I talked about the trials and tribulations of replacing Windows 8 with Xubuntu on Secure Boot enabled computers. I (erroneously) assumed that my experience with the Inspiron 660s would enable me to easily tackle the Inspiron 15. With the Inspiron 660s desktop, I was able to just turn off Secure Boot, then disable UEFI, and that was the end of it. Not so much with the Inspiron 15 notebook.

For some reason, notebooks are different than desktops... at least as far as UEFI and Secure Boot are concerned. When I tried to disable Secure Boot, then turn off UEFI, I quickly found that the BIOS presented no bootable devices at all. I went round and round with this, to no avail. Finally (remember, I am a man, it is generally thought to be a violation of "The Man Code" ™ to ask for directions), I did some judicious googling and came up with the answer. First, I needed to disable Secure Boot. No biggie, that's easy. Then I needed to tell UEFI to load the legacy OBIOS. Ahh, that was the missing part of the equation! Once that was done, and the notebook rebooted, I was able to see the network boot, hard drive boot and DVD-ROM boot options. A quick trip to the "Boot Options" section allowed me to change the boot options so that the DVD-ROM came first, followed by the hard drive.

Now the fun began! I really wanted to install Crunchbang Linux on this notebook, and I did. But I quickly found out that the kernel version shipping with Crunchbang Waldorf did not recognize the built-in Dell WiFi/Bluetooth card. Bummer. After more googling, I found out that only by updating the kernel version to 3.10.x or greater, would I be able to use the built-in WiFi. Nuts! No biggie, I had already downloaded the Xubuntu 13.10 x86-64 DVD image, so I installed that. On first boot, the 3.11.x kernel detected the built-in WiFi/Bluetooth card and loaded the appropriate module. Yay!!! Another quick trip to Google search gave me a work-around to the sound bug in Xubuntu 13.10, that works with this laptop, so that, in a nutshell, is how I came to be running Xubuntu 13.10 on this notebook.

As an upshot to all of this, I now have access to my old desktop again, and plan on installing OpenBSD 5.4 on it in the near future.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Dell Inspiron 660s, UEFI, and Xubuntu 13.10

Well, I just had my first brush with UEFI. I managed to acquire a Dell Inspiron 660s for my wife as a Black Friday special (darned good price too!), which arrived yesterday. I went to set it up today, and booted into the BIOS setup first, to change the boot order of the devices, and saw it. It took me a few minutes of poking around to totally disable it, but it wasn't difficult, and Xubuntu 13.10 installed just fine. I'm just finishing up the customization and personalization for her, and I'll turn it back over to her.

A couple of things I will say about Xubuntu 13.10: I do not like the lack of an advanced or "expert" installer. Also, the default Network-Manager is a royal pain. Still, after the install was complete, and updates done, it didn't take me too long to remove the Network-Manager and resolvconf packages, change from DHCP to static IP, and get it working the way I like it.

*UPDATE* After several hours of frantic googling, trying to find out why this computer doesn't have audio, I found that it is a known bug, that was allowed to go through in order to get the release out on time. It has been well over a month since the release, and this has not been fixed. I am now doing a clean install of Xubuntu 12.04 LTS.

I also got myself a Dell Inspiron 15 notebook at a great price. It will (hopefully) arrive tomorrow, and I will be installing Crunchbang Linux to it. I have really grown to love Crunchbang, for all of its simplicity and power. I'll write a bit about my trials and tribulations from that install as well ;)

I'm thinking that I will take back the old Pentium D system my wife has been using, and put OpenBSD 5.4 on it again. It has been a while since I've had OpenBSD running on bare hardware, and I'm interested in seeing what changes have taken place since then.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

It's Alive!!!

Ahem, sorry for the dramatic flair. I received an email from [slackware-announce] this evening, announcing the release of Slackware 14.1 stable!!! See the official release announcement here.

After the initial flurry of downloads is complete, I plan on downloading the CD image and installing it to a VM, for now. Like I said in my last post, I'm not ready to upgrade Slackware on my file server yet.

Be sure to keep your eyes on for all the latest news and release information on different distributions of Linux and the BSDs.