Free Agent: Computing With the Breezy Badger

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I'm writing this column on my trusty IBM Thinkpad, which has been running the newly released Gnome 2.12 for about a week now. This is thanks to Ubuntu Linux, which has gotten so much praise in my recent reports, a colleague suggested I should change the name of this column to "Ubuntu Agent." Ahem.

The version of Ubuntu I fell in love with last spring is 5.04, also known as the Hoary Hedgehog release. Version 5.10, the Breezy Badger (could I make this up?), is now available in prerelease form, and may very well be finalized by the time you read this. I like what I see, although there are also some disappointments. Let's dive in.

Badger Beginnings

When I first praised Ubuntu, I wrote, "when the next Ubuntu release ... comes out in six months' time, upgrading to it should be as painless as feeding new repositories to Apt and then typing sudo apt-get dist-upgrade in a terminal window. The system will then upgrade itself over the Internet. I can't wait." Last week, when I decided that it was time to replace Hoary with Breezy on the old Thinkpad, I crossed my fingers and hoped that I hadn't been too naïve.

The magical apt-get incantation did its trick; I kept one eye on the machine for several hours as updated package after updated package was downloaded and installed. A new kernel, a new Gnome, a new all flowed down through PC World's fat pipe from the rest of the Net. (Okay, the pipe's not that fat, actually; but it's much faster than the DSL I have at home.) And when the flow came to a stop, I rebooted and held my breath.

All was not well: I'd somehow lost the video settings that enable the X Window System to start. X, as Linux types often refer to it, is the part of the OS that drives the point-and-click interface of your choice (usually Gnome or KDE). So all I had at my disposal was a command line. That's a below-average boot, to be sure; but luckily the Linux command line has the power to fix just about anything. A quick search of later, and I had the answer: sudo dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg spawned a short question-and-answer session that brought X back up to speed. I had a GUI again.

What I didn't have was connectivity. The Wi-Fi card that I normally depend on refused to come to life, no matter what I did. To eliminate the possibility of hardware failure, I rebooted into Windows--which had sat dormant for so long, it wanted to alter my clock for Daylight Savings several months late. The Wi-Fi card worked, of course.

I wish I could say that I acted like a fine upstanding Linux geek and dove into the bowels of the system to figure out what had gone wrong, but I didn't. Rather, I decided that since the card had worked fine in Ubuntu prior to the upgrade, there was something wrong with the prerelease Breezy package that provides support for my particular Wi-Fi card. I decided to wait for an updated package. As luck would have it, that package was updated the very next day, so when I told the system to go fetch Breezy updates (via the Ethernet cable I'd plugged in), down came the fix. After a reboot, all was well.

The Gnewest Gnome

Since I follow the action on, I know that Gnome 2.12 represents a lot of work "under the hood." The release notes, however, demonstrate what I found in practice: There's less to report with regard to actual changes in the interface.

Spring-loaded folders come to Nautilus, at long last.
Spring-loaded folders come to Nautilus, at long last.
One very welcome improvement is the addition of "spring-loaded" folders in Nautilus, the Gnome file manager. If you choose a List View, as opposed to an Icon View, folders get little triangular widgets next to them. Click one, or hover over one during a drag operation, and the folder springs open to display its contents there in that same window. If you're a Macintosh veteran, you probably recognize what I'm describing so poorly, because you've been seeing this behavior in your OS since before it turned X. If you can't envision what I'm talking about, well, that's why we invented screen shots.

This dialog box allows you to hide and unhide items in your Applications menu ... and that's all it allows you to do.
This dialog box allows you to hide and unhide items in your Applications menu ... and that's all it allows you to do.
Gnome 2.12 also tries to address a common complaint: In Gnome 2.8 and 2.10, there is no way for users to alter the contents of their Applications menu (the Gnome equivalent to the Windows Start menu). Gnome 2.12 adds an "Edit Menus" command that calls up a dialog box remarkable for its lack of functionality: You can't rename any Applications menu items or the folders they reside in; you can't move an item into a different folder; you can't create your own folders; and finally, you can't create a new item from scratch. All you can do is hide and unhide items. For example, let's say that you just downloaded and compiled the latest edition of StreamTuner and you want to add it to your Applications menu. Sorry, bub, not with Edit Menus, you don't.

The Add Applications dialog box is a friendly shell for your package manager. Apps ahoy!
The Add Applications dialog box is a friendly shell for your package manager. Apps ahoy!
So perhaps when you click "Add Applications," found at the top level of the Applications menu, you get what you're looking for? Sadly, no. What you get is a dialog box listing common (and not-so-common) applications. If you spot an uninstalled app that you want, you check its box and click Apply. Your package manager leaps into action, downloads the package. and installs it.

This is pretty sweet, and quite newbie-friendly, but it doesn't address the original complaint: If I install an application manually--outside of the purview of the package manager--there's no way to add that app to the Applications menu. That's a shame. It's also a shame that there is still no way to reorganize the menu in whatever way works best for me. Here's hoping that Gnome 2.14 will do a better job at addressing the flexibility of this basic element. In the meantime, if these are features you crave, check out Smeg, the Simple Menu Editor for Gnome, which is the best solution out there at the moment, despite its horrid name.

Wi-Fi Woe Continues

I had harbored fervent hopes that the Breezy Badger would have better support for wireless networking. I've been kvetching in this space for more than a year about the lack of an easy, point-and-click interface for Wi-Fi network selection on the Gnome desktop. When I'm someplace where the Internet is flowing freely through the air--whether it be at a trade show, a coffee shop, or my own living room--I should be able to peruse a list of available networks, clicking to select one to glom on to. This sort of functionality, which has been standard in Windows and the Mac OS for some time now, remains elusive in Ubuntu Linux.

There's a solution out there called NetworkManager that brings exactly the functionality I'm looking for to the Gnome Desktop; it's included in Fedora Core 4, and perhaps other distros I haven't checked on in a while. But no working NetworkManager package yet exists for Breezy. Compiling and installing NetworkManager by hand may be possible, but right now I don't have a Sunday to devote to that sort of trial. So I limp along with what's available in Ubuntu, a little network selector called Netapplet that becomes completely befuddled when it encounters a wireless network it hasn't seen before. I hope the next version of Ubuntu (Mangy Muskrat? Drunken Duckling? Ornery Otter?) includes NetworkManager or some similar solution.

And in the meantime, it's the season of Linux distribution updates. At LinuxWorld Expo in August, Novell announced its openSUSE project, which opens the development of SUSE to a wider community (as Fedora Core does for Red Hat) and makes the distribution freely downloadable for the first time. SUSE Linux 10.0 is nearing completion, and prerelease downloads are already available. Also, earlier this year, Mandrake Linux bought Conectiva Linux and became Mandriva Linux. I maintain that "Mandriva" sounds like a GM car I don't want to buy, but the forthcoming Mandriva Linux 2006 will definitely be worth a test drive. The second release candidate is available for download as I write this.

One More Thing

There was no "Free Agent" last month. Before I wrap up here, I'd like to explain why. As it turns out, had I simply followed the advice of a venerated Linux guru, my monthly missive about all things Open and Free would have appeared. What was the advice that I so foolishly ignored? "Always make backups"? "Don't mess around when you're logged in as root"? "Never trust your data to a commercial OS"? Actually, no. Nothing like that at all.

It was several years ago--at the first or second LinuxWorld Expo conference in New York, when the event was still more geeky than businessy--that I attended a session led by Jon "Maddog" Hall, the longtime executive director of Linux International. Maddog is a much-loved figure in the Linux community, and I remember being pretty psyched to hear him talk.

I retain no memory of Maddog's topic that day; I only remember how he signed off. Once all the techie stuff was wrapped up and a few questions had been answered, he paused for a moment, leaning forward on the lectern and taking a good look around the room. And then, speaking in an earnest tone, he said, as I recall, "One more thing. A bit of advice: Take care of your back." And as he left the stage, I noticed that he walked as if he were in quite a bit of pain. As someone who has fought his own battles against debilitating back pain, I felt a great deal of empathy for the man.

So no, it wasn't a geeky tech mistake that kept me away last month; it was a failure to heed Maddog's advice, despite my history. If you carry your stress in your body, as most of us do, it's worthwhile to be mindful of where that stress accumulates. If you're like me and it accumulates in your back, it's more than worthwhile to do something about that sooner rather than later, lest you try to get up off your couch one night and--zap!--something gives in your spine and you spend the next few weeks barely functioning, unable to attend the latest LinuxWorld Expo despite the fact that it's happening in your own backyard, and missing your column deadline. All because you didn't heed some simple, sage advice.

So, loyal readers, if you take anything away from this month's column, let it be this: Take care of your back.

Next month the focus will be on something other than Ubuntu, I promise. Till then, stay as Free as you can, and keep those e-mails coming. I'll find time to respond to them someday.

Linux Made Easy

The Latest Linux Book for Newcomers

Once upon a time, I recommended a little tome from No Starch Press called Linux for Non Geeks, by Rickford Grant. It was a pretty good introduction to the Linux desktop and to Gnome, although I was a bit puzzled by the emphasis on (and inclusion of, on CD) Fedora Core, which is not exactly the most user-friendly Linux out of the box.

Now the same author and publisher have teamed up again to bring us Linux Made Easy ($35; No Starch Press, 2005, 800/420-7240), a longer book that focuses on the KDE desktop and Xandros Linux, which definitely is built for newbies. Included on CD is the Open Circulation edition of Xandros, which is a bit crippled. For example, CD burning speeds are restricted if you use the Xandros File Manager; spending the cash for a commercial copy of Xandros removes the restriction. Linux Made Easy covers just about every activity you might want to engage in with your new Linux system--grabbing images from a digital camera, ripping and burning music, crafting office documents and e-mails, and so forth. It's a fine choice if you're new to Linux.

Have you taken the Free Software plunge? What works? What doesn't? What's keeping you back? PC World's Free Agent wants to hear from you. Speak Freely!
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