Archives for May 2008

Six Annoyances in Hardy Heron Ubuntu

(I’m going to publish this in rough draft format. I want to get the post live while lots of Ubuntu developers are thinking about Intrepid Ibex.)

I’m a huge fan of Ubuntu Linux. I’ve used many flavors of Linux over the years, and Ubuntu is my favorite by far. So it pains me to write this. For my needs, Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron) is worse than 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon). I cannot recommend Hardy Heron at this time, and would instead recommend installing 7.10 for the time being. I sincerely hope that Ubuntu/Canonical developers do more work on the “fit and finish” of Intrepid Ibex, because that has always been a strong point in Ubuntu’s favor.

By the way, I’m not alone in my opinion about Hardy Heron. At SuperHappyDevHouse this past weekend I talked with a fellow techie who had Hardy running on his laptop. He agreed that Hardy has had more issues than Gutsy. And this in-depth post by another Ubuntu fan reaches the same conclusion:

The most important question is — do I recommend Ubuntu 8.04? If I were to answer simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ the answer would be negative. If you need a good system, that ‘just works’, wait a few months before installing Hardy Heron, until it becomes really stable, as the LTS staple suggests.

Even when someone posts a positive review, you see commenters show up with quite a bit of complaints.

What are the issues?

I’ll try to pick out a few examples. Here’s a small one. I like to use the microGUI theme in metacity. Normally I would click System->Preferences->Appearance and select the Theme tab. Then I could drag the microGUI theme from this web page and drop it directly onto the Theme tab. Dragging and dropping themes was a wonderful little trick, but it didn’t work for me in Hardy Heron. Instead, a small dialog box appears and then disappears so quickly that I can’t even see if it has text on it. Update, 11/22/2008: This works in Intrepid Ibex now.

Here’s a big problem. In Ubuntu 7.10, it was trivially easy to share folders via Samba (SMB) or NFS. You clicked on System->Administration->Shared Folders and followed simple directions there to configure a shared folder. In Ubuntu 8.04, this menu option is gone. According to pages on the web, you may have to drop into a command-line, run “sudo apt-get install nautilus-share” to install a new package “nautilus-share” which has replaced the old shares-admin program, and then reboot or logout/login. Read this bug where people describe how awful this is, including a very user with the handle Thomas Boutell. Yes, it’s probably that Thomas Boutell, and if Boutell says that something is suboptimal, Ubuntu developers should listen. Right now the GUI throws out a cryptic error when what the user actually needs to do is reboot their machine or log out and back in. Here’s what another commenter says:

I can confirm this to be a problem. There is no way to create a share out of the box with the release of 8.04 hardy. This WAS working wonderfully in Gutsy 7.10. There was a folder sharing GUI on the admin menu under system tools, this seems to have been removed from Hardy 8.04.

I happen to agree with the expectations of the [original poster] Thomas Boutell, this should just work out of the box or there should be a readily obvious way to get folder/file sharing working again like it was in Gutsy. Why on earth was a completely functional feature of 7.10 removed from Hardy ?????

[and then the same user later]

This is just plain too much of a hassle: no one should have to go thru this just to share some files on his computer. Help me use linux, not hassle me when I try to use it.

In a related bug about having to reboot or log out and log in again after installing Samba, another user says:

It can be correct for linux security system. But how I can explain to the user, that he should restart his computer for share a folder?! Former windows users will laugh over me.

It sounds like nautilus-share doesn’t let you set your workgroup name either. So I guess you have to edit the smb.conf config file by hand to change your computer’s workgroup? That led one user to remark:

I guess I’m just getting over this phenomenon I’ve started to see in Ubuntu devs and Gnome devs in particular, of just whistling past the graveyard of usability and treating the users like ants at the picnic. The windows shares are BROKEN by any reasonable user’s standards, and a frank acknowledgment of the problem would go a long way.

Update, 11/22/2008: A workaround is to press alt-F2, then enter “shares-admin” and click “General Properties”, click “Unlock” and enter your password and click “Authenticate”, then change the Workgroup name there. You might need to share a folder first (to install Samba), then reboot, then do this change, then reboot again. I ended up editing smb.conf manually to set the workgroup and add whatever sharing I wanted to do.

To me, this feels like a series of choices by the Ubuntu team which may have been locally optimal (“this package has security issues or isn’t maintained — let’s turn it off”) but the net effect of these decisions adds up to a big black eye for Ubuntu. And again, I say this as an Ubuntu fan who wants Ubuntu to succeed. Maybe there wasn’t enough time to shake out bugs in the latest incarnation of GNOME. Maybe it will take a while to find the right pulse rate of software releases. If there’s a plan by Ubuntu/Canonical developers to improve this situation, I encourage them to talk about the future plan in the comments.

That issue encapsulates the sort of thing I’m seeing with Hardy, but let’s talk about a couple more sharing issues I ran into. The problem above was letting other computers connect to Hardy, but what about Hardy connecting to other computers’ shared drives? It used to be that if you click Places->Connect to Server and selected a Windows share, you saw a “Browse Network” button. Now that button is gone for me. I guess you need to know the exact name of the Samba or Windows share that you want to connect to? If so, that’s pretty annoying. It’s also inconsistent, because when I tried to add a printer on a remote machine, I could browse the network from the printer dialog box.

Update, 11/22/2008: In Intrepid Ibex, you can click Places->Network to browse the local network.

I want to talk about one more really annoying problem I ran into. In Gutsy I used “Connect to Server” to create a folder that was connected via ssh to my webhost. If I took a screenshot I could drop the file into that folder and it would magically be copied into a specific deep directory at my webhost. The feature worked perfectly — even better than WinSCP running on a Windows computer.

Now things seem horribly broken. One user asks about it here and includes an image. Evidently a decision was made to switch from something called “gnome-vfs” to something called “gvfs.” I like swapping out old code for new code as much as the next guy, but as a user, this switch is a code phrase for “the stuff that used to work perfectly is now nonfunctional.”

It also looks like someone in GNOME may have decided to change the default location of mounted volumes from $HOME to /, which makes me want to find and punch that person. Or offer them $100 to fix it back to sane behavior.

It’s really quite hard to find out exactly why this simple, useful ability (to create folders that were SSH-connected directly to a specific directory on a remote machine) became broken in Hardy. It appears to have something to do with “bookmarks,” but good luck finding out exactly what’s going on. By the way, if you upgraded from Gutsy to Hardy, all of your carefully-crafted existing shortcuts will break too. This gnome-vfs to gvfs issue is impacting regular Linux (including Fedora) users and causing them to complain. And why not? As one GNOME user states their case, “It should be possible for GNOME users to configure the default path of mounted volumes.”

Are there other annoyances?

As long as I’ve started a complaint thread, I’ll mention a few other things that are on my mind.

  • When I run the Update Manager and install updates, eventually I’m told that “Your system is up-to-date” — but sometimes it isn’t. If I click the “Check” button again, sometimes new updates are found to install. The net result is that I end up checking for updates multiple times, even after I’ve just been told that I’m up-to-date, because my system wasn’t really up-to-date. Please save users the time/effort of checking multiple times for updates and find a way to handle this transparently.
  • The “Hardy Heron” desktop background is sweet, but at 1920×1200 resolution it looks a little fuzzy, as if it had to be scaled up. I would recommend creating a very high-res desktop and then downscaling it so that it’s always sharp, even at the highest resolution.

Okay, that’s my complaints from playing with Hardy Heron for a couple days on my $200 Walmart PC, which I keep around as a guinea pig box for testing. I won’t be installing Hardy on my main Linux box. I might just keep running Gutsy until Intrepid Ibex comes out.

I’m giving my raw perspective as a user, and the upshot is that Hardy Heron feels like a step backwards on the things that matter to me. If I were a GNOME/Ubuntu/Canonical dev, my first reaction would be to leave a comment that says “Matt, you idiot! Don’t you know that XXXXXX is a simple solution for your problem? You didn’t even use the terminology right!” And I’m sure I’ve messed something up, like blaming Ubuntu for a problem that really belongs to GNOME or some other project. But the buck stops with Ubuntu and Canonical. If something in GNOME isn’t ready for prime-time, Ubuntu should hold off until it’s ready. Don’t replace shares-admin with nautilus-share until I can set a workgroup from a GUI. Don’t replace gnome-vfs with gvfs until I can make a drag-and-drop remote folder on my desktop. Don’t replace a sound system until the new sound system is well supported. It’s always a judgment call — I think moving to Firefox 3 was brilliant and acts as a good forcing function to move the community forward. But don’t go with so many new systems that the user experience suffers and Ubuntu takes a goodwill hit.

I love Ubuntu. I want Ubuntu to do well. I want to believe that Ubuntu can romp against the competition. But Hardy Heron feels like a misstep for some users, including me. Please work on fit and finish to get Ubuntu back to the robust, polished distribution that made me fall in love with it in the first place.

A few words about China and Burma

Recently two enormous tragedies struck China and Burma. China suffered a serious 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Sichuan that killed tens of thousands of people. And in Myanmar (Burma), Cyclone Nargis ravaged the coast and also killed tens of thousands of people.

Disasters on this scale boggle the senses. The sheer amount of destruction is overwhelming, and the cost in human life cannot be calculated. I know that people at Google have tried to help in many different ways. I appreciate that there is a donation page for charities to help in China and for charities to help in Burma. We are all in this world together, and I urge people to do what they can to help the people in China and Burma in this time of need. My thoughts and sympathy goes out to the families affected by these catastrophes.

Google Factory Tour starts in less than an hour

By the way, according to this page, it sounds like Google will webcast a press event starting quite soon. You can watch the Google Factory Tour live from 9:30 to noon Pacific time. I’ll probably keep the webcast open in my browser to listen this morning.

A funny reciprocal links image

I thought this was kinda funny. Someone thought that Google was taking stronger action on excessive reciprocal links. So did they ramp down their reciprocal linking? Nope. Instead, they put their offer into an image thinking that Google wouldn’t notice:

Reciprocal link offer

In case you can’t read images, it says “Google doesn’t like link exchanges anymore. Go Figure, So I put this info on an image so they can’t read it. I setup these articles so they don’t appear as link pages.”

For that amount of work to try to hide how you’re linking, you could almost as easily create solid content that people would want to link to on their own. 🙂

Stupid Google Tricks: How often do you cut your hair?

The other day I realized that I enter my haircut appointments into Google Calendar, so I can search for “haircut OR (the place I get my hair cut)” and see when I’ve gotten my hair cut:

Dates of my haircuts

Then I was reading Google Apps Hacks and Hack 25 caught my eye: “Show the difference between two dates”. A formula like “=INT(A2-A1)” will automatically compute how many days passed between the date listed in cell A1 and the date listed in cell A2.

If you copy and paste a date from Google Calendar’s search results into a cell, it will automatically format a nice string like “May 2, 2007” to “5/2/2007”. So it was easy to copy/paste when I got haircuts into a Google Spreadsheet. Then I used the date formula to compute the number of days between haircuts. As Philipp Lenssen points out in his book, once you’ve entered the date difference formula “=INT(A2-A1)” in one cell, you can click the cell to highlight it and then use the handle in the lower right of the cell to copy the formula. Just like that, you can see how long you waited between each haircut:

Graph of my haircut periodicity

Then it’s just 2-3 mouse clicks to add a graph of the time between haircuts. And if you use the “=AVERAGE(B3:B10)” formula, you can see that on average I wait 45.75 days between haircuts, or about 6-7 weeks.

This tip does have some practical value. When the haircut place asks “Do you want to make your next appointment?” you’ll know how far ahead to schedule your next haircut so that you don’t get too shaggy. 🙂