Ubuntu Installfest for Local Schools this Weekend

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This Saturday from 10:30 to 3:00, there will be a triagefest at the Creative Arts Charter School at 1601 Turk Street at the corner of Pierce Street in San Francisco. This is the school that had that huge fire on 12/22/11.  More about that fire here:

The purpose of this triage fest is to separate good equipment from bad equipment.  Volunteers with a pick-up truck for moving equipment 3 blocks would be particularly appreciated.  Pizza will be served at 12:30 p.m.

Please bring with you everything that you would need to test a computer and its peripheral equipment, and to take a computer apart and put it back together.  It would also be good to bring Ubuntu 10.04 on a flash drive, since we will be installing that distro on some machines.

This public charter school relies on our Linux computers heavily for the work that their students do, so they will definitely appreciate the work!  Thanks in advance to all volunteers!

GoogleTV Reviewed

A couple of weeks ago, the price of the Logitech Revue with GoogleTV dropped to $99 – This was finally low enough for me to grab one, give it a try and see how it compares to or complements my home-built MythTV/Boxee machine. I have also played around with the Boxee Box in the past, which currently costs around $200.

It is anticipated that the Revue will get an update to Android 3.1 (with the Android market included) in a couple weeks – leaked versions are already floating around out there, and developers can already play around with the new firmware in the Android SDK (I have tested my apps already, and they pretty much worked and looked great without any need for modification). However, my initial review of the product will be with the current version of the firmware and not the leaked version. As this update is bound to vastly improve the usefulness of the device, I will probably have to update this review when I have access to it.

First off, I am a pretty big fan of Android; so, I like the idea that GoogleTV is based on the same platform as my phone and tablet. It feels very familar. For example, you can press and hold the home button to get a list of currently active tasks (and yes, your TV can now multi-task!). Additionally, the settings look familiar and the feel of the interface just generally screams “Android.”

The device is pretty responsive while navigating and one of the biggest surprises I found while using the device is how much I love the bluetooth keyboard remote that comes default with the unit (see the images on the Amazon page linked above). I was skeptical of its size at first; but, I now must admit that it is by far the best home-theater remote I have ever used. On my home-built MythTV box, I have an infrared remote (similar to and a compact bluetooth remote keyboard ( They both pale in comparison to the Revue remote. The IR remote can only control the mouse through lircmd daemon (which is a pain to setup and leaves a lot to be desired in usability), and the compact keyboard/mouse combo has a pretty poor button layout for navigation. The Revue remote just feels light, well laid out and very efficient to navigate around with.

The biggest dissapoint with GoogleTV is the relatively small number of native apps available compared to Boxee for example.  It comes with approximately 10 with no way to get new native apps. This is about to change in a very big way with the release of the Android Market to the device. The Amazon Video app itself is also pretty disappointing in that it is basically just a link to the Amazon VOD webpage that has not really been optimized for the device. On the other hand, the Netflix app is great and the web-browser and search apps are really really well done. Browsing the web on the device is a really great experience. It is surprisingly easy to navigate and to discover new content.

What is not said enough about GoogleTV, though, is that while there are only a handful of native Android apps available (again, at least until the Market is released), there are practically already a limitless number of html5 optimized web-apps for GoogleTV. These apps, which run in the Revue browser, often look and feel just like native apps. What is particularly nice about these apps, is that, though they are often designed with GoogleTV in my mind, because they utilize html5 or flash and live in the browser, they can also be used on Boxee or on your desktop/laptop with the keyboard. Here try a few of them out for yourself: – (Crackle, Clicker and KQED are some of my favorites). Notably missing is a Hulu app.  This is missing not for any technical reason, but because Hulu has chosen to block their content on GoogleTV. This is a bummer for sure; but there is still a ton of content available.

Another disappointment in the Revue is the Logitech media player app. This app advertises itself as being able to view and play media from shared drives (such as samba shares) on your network. The problem is, it only recognizes about 20% of my content, none of my mkv files are recognized for example, and displays the files it does find in a random order with no setting to sort alphabetically. Secondly, the app doesn’t do any kind of curation: It doesn’t look for movie descriptions etc., and requires you to step through a series of menus where you choose individual shared drives each time you launch the app. I am sure that once the Market arrives on GoogleTV someone will have an awesome replacement app in a matter days, but for now, organizing the media on your network using the Revue is a total fail. This is probably the main area where Boxee really outshines GoogleTV.

So, all in all, the Revue is a great little device with a lot of potential once the Android Market comes to it. In it’s current state it is worth $99 but not much more – but the value is poised to go up once Honeycomb drops.

My Favorite Lesser Known Android Apps

The guy sitting next to me on the plane home from Florida was a Droid Incredible user; while we were sharing app recommendations, I realized I had a few recommendations of lesser known apps that really rock that I should share with people.  Everyone knows about Angry Birds, Google Sky Map and ShopSavy … but here are a few hidden gems:

1.  ChromeMarks – If you are like me, you use Chrome on your Linux (or other) desktop.  One of the great features of Chrome is the built-in bookmark sync.  Unfortunately, the built-in Android browser does get in on this syncing action.  This is where ChromeMarks come in; it syncs your Chrome bookmarks to your Android phone.

2. aTrackDog – I like to download, install and try out a lot of apps.  I then tend to uninstall a lot of apps.  aTrackDog lets you track new updates of apps, even after you have uninstalled; so, you don’t miss a big improvement in an app that you previously uninstalled.

3. OS-Monitor – It is basically like running “top” on your phone.  You can see all the processes using cpu at any given time.  Isn’t it awesome how much info about your phone is available on Android?

4. Wikipathia – A fun game of degrees of similarity relating terms on Wikipathia.

Add your own lesser known apps in the comments.

Android and App Development

I love Android. It is flexible, feature rich and becoming more polished every day. Development is happening at a breakneck pace. It uses Linux at its core and is mostly* open-source. The asterisk is because certain elements of a typical Android install are closed, like Google’s gmail and market apps (which both have OSS alternatives) as well as some manufacturer radio integration and device drivers. There are some people in the OSS community (the same people that would be angry at me for neglecting the “FL”) that deplore the fact that there are any closed elements in Android at all; to them, I say, “keep fighting the good fight, but I’m going to use and support the best option that is currently available.” Other people (for example the author of this ill-written post that made the front page of digg, will claim it is not open-source because Google ultimately chooses which patches from the community get accepted or not. However, as AOSP developer Jean Baptiste Queru has said, this hasn’t prevented significant opensource contributions to Android 2.x. Open-source does not mean open-decision making (just ask Mark Shuttleworth); so, these accusations are just silly, and, concluding that there is little difference between the iPhoneOS and Android is absurd.

Anyway, I think, ultimately, the proof is in the pudding. If you need proof of Android’s open nature, I point you to the fact that it is popping up in all sorts of devices without Google’s name on them: Archos tablets with their own Market, the Barnes-and-Noble Nook and AT&T phones that replace Google’s services everywhere with Yahoo. This is the real value in Android’s openness – the ability of manufacturers to use it for whatever purpose they want. And, the source code being available sure doesn’t hurt Cyanogen’s ability to make amazing ROMs for the Android phones that many of us own and love – anyone with a G1 want 2.1 on their phone?

Android also happens to have the most open software-store in the mobile world (not to mention the fact that you can install software on your Android phone from any source outside the Market whatsoever). Which leads me to the other point of this post: I have written a couple Android apps and released the source. As a developer, I didn’t have to pay an large amount of cash for the SDK or sign the ludicrous developer agreement that Apple requires for their devices (including restricting the tools you can use to write your app and limiting who you can give it to and by what means). For Android, all I had to do was download the free SDK, try out a few example apps, and off I was (granted, the second app ended up being pretty involved). So, without further ado, here are the two apps I made:

1.SquirrelCam (Available now in the Market). The ledge off my office is home to a squirrel nest every spring. We set up a webcam that utilizes the Linux OSS project web-cam server to set up a live webcam stream. The only problem? It doesn’t work in any mobile browsers (and it wouldn’t be a very nice experience even if it did). So, I wrote a android app to connect to the stream, show live video and allow the user to save frames to his/her sdcard.


2.EMusicDownloader (Coming to the market soon.  For now, grab the apk file from launchpad). is an awesome DRM free music and audiobook store (I think they are the only DRM free audiobook store actually). To downloads albums and audiobooks from the site, however, you need a download manager – there are a couple open-source options for a Linux desktop. EmusicDownloader for android serves this purpose on Android phones. Allowing users to browse on the Android browser and then download their purchases directly to their phone using the app.  And, because the files are DRM free, you can copy them to your PC at your convenience.


To conclude this Android lovefest, here is a list of some of my other favorite Android apps (not developed by me) for you to try out:

Shoot U! – A super fun game by Camel Games, my favorite Android game developers.

Dropbox – If you use it on your Ubuntu machine, you’ll love the Android app.

Astrid – Open-source todo list that syncs with remember the milk = awesome

AmblingBookplayer – Awesome audiobook player/downloader for Android.

GoogleVoice – If you don’t know what GoogleVoice is… go check it out now!

Google SkyMap – Best augmented reality app ever.

WordPress – Manage wordpress sites on the go.

WordUp! – Fun word finding game.

Listen – Awesome podcast fetching app.

Boxee Remote – Control your Boxee box with your phone.

OI-Filemanager – open-source file manager

Qik/Ustream – Stream live video from your phone

Picsay – Edit photos and add amazing effects right on your phone.

Fring – Make Skype calls over 3G.

– Control your phone’s behavior based on all sorts of criteria.

Shazam – Everyone knows what this one is right?

ShopSavvy – Scan barcodes to get web/local prices and reviews.

+Many more.  Come to this weeks BerkeleyLUG meeting on Sunday to see the full list.

Google Mail / Voice / Wave / Reader Notifications in Your Systray

In my opinion, Google’s web-services and Linux go together like pie and ice-cream.  Though, there are some people in this very LUG that would disagree with me about Google’s benevolence, there is no denying the quality and convenience of gmail etc…  Moreover, even though Google’s web services themselves are not open-source, they are built on top of an open framework and toolset, and Google itself sponsors some great open-source projects (chromium, android, Kernel development etc).

If you are of a like mind, you probably already use google’s services like gmail, google-voice (the best thing since sliced bread) and google reader.  Like me, you might have been in a constant search for a notifier applet for your taskbar for these services.  I have used CheckGMail for a long time, and then docky’s builtin gmail applet, but I have now found a real winner after reading a post at OMG!Ubuntu.  It’s called googsystray; it’s one program that looks great and notifies you of new messages in gmail, wave, gvoice and google reader in your taskbar.  It comes with a lot of nice features.  For example, you can send SMS messages with google-voice right from the applet.

Here are a couple screenshots:

And here is one screen cap from the original OMG!Ubuntu Article where more details can be found:

Go ahead, follow the link above, grab the .deb and give it a whirl.

Banshee and Android Rock Together . . . Or Why Ubuntu Should Drop Rhythmbox

To a Linux user like myself, an iPod is more or less a fancy paperweight; since Apple does not provide a version of iTunes for Linux.  Yes, it sorta works in Wine and does work well in a VirtualBox… but, really, why bother?  Even if there was an iTunes client for Linux, I probably wouldn’t want to use it when there are already sleeker, faster and more complete media players for Linux available like Banshee, Songbird and Amarok.  This doesn’t mean I don’t get a little jealous about the iPod/iTunes experience, though.

Android users often ask if there is an iTunes like app for synching their music to their Android phone.  The answer is yes – unlike the iPod, Android is an open platform and users can use any number of applications to sync their music collection to their phone, including simply dragging and dropping your music folder onto the android device.  Drag and drop works well enough, but if you want to sync podcasts, playlists and album art to the device automatically, you need something a bit more sophisticated.  Banshee does all of this for you and more.  When you plug in your Android device (for Nexus One support pictured below you need the most recent package from the Banshee PPA), Banshee automatically shows you the music and videos on the device.  If you have purchased music from the AmazonMP3 store on the phone, Banshee recognizes it and gives you the option to import it to the music collection on your computer.  It then gives the option to sync your music collection to the phone.  It will also automatically, sync your newly downloaded podcasts, artwork and playlists with the phone.  Add or delete a file in Banshee, and it is added/removed from your Android device the next time your sync as well (you can instead choose to manually manage which songs or playlists go to the device).  Downloaded a new podcast, or listened to an old one?  That change is reflected on your Android phone the next time you sync as well.

By the way, got an old iPod lying around?  Try putting Rockbox on it, Banshee detects and syncs Rockbox devices flawlessly.

When you consider that Banshee also plays and manages your video collection, looks elegant, has a ton of useful plugins, including amazing Last.FM support, and has full-time support from Novell; you’d think it would be a no brainer for Ubuntu to switch from Rhythmbox to Banshee.  Appparantly Ubuntu is hung up on the few things Rhythmbox has that Banshee doesn’t like crossfading and a magnatune music store (despite the fact that Banshee now has EMusic support and demand for magnatune is small compared to stores like EMusic and AmazonMP3).  And, of course, there is the anti-mono contingent.  Whatever the reason, it’s sad that Ubuntu is holding on to Rhythmbox and that the great Android support to be had with Banshee won’t be default.


In the comments below, it was pointed out that gtkpod can sync newer iPods.  That is good news.  When I had an iPod Touch a year or so ago, the only way to sync it on Linux was the jailbreak it and use ssh to get into the device…

OMG!Ubuntu posted a nice summary of new features coming in Banshee 1.5.3 to be released tomorrow:

Linux Friendly Audiobooks

When people first think of getting audiobooks online, they probably think of Audible.  But, Audible has one really big problem: DRM (Digital Rights Management).  I.e. every book you buy from Audible is encrypted so that you can only listen to it using a very limited number of applications and media devices.  There is no application for Linux to play Audible audiobooks, and Android devices don’t support playing Audible files (yet anyway) either.  Quite frankly, when you purchase a book from Audible, you are not buying it, you are only renting it.  Even if you have a player that is compatible now, in 5 years when you get the urge to listen again, it is likely that your new device or computer will no longer be able decrypt the file.  If you are lucky, Audible may pull an Apple and offer to remove the DRM from the file for additional cash out of your pocket; so you can finally own the book you thought you already bought.  However, there is no guarantee of even that…

Do not despair, though, there are some really great options for DRM free audiobooks that work great on Linux and Android.  I will discuss two: one being a store like Audible (but without the restrictions) and another a project that creates public domain audiobooks of Novels no longer in copyright.

emusic-USThe first is EMusic.  EMusic started as a DRM free, low priced music store that quickly gained popularity in the indie music scene.  Two years ago they started selling DRM free audiobooks in ordinary MP3 format.  Their library is now huge, containing thousands of audiobooks from many publishers.  It is not quite as complete as Audible, but is complete enough that you would hardly tell the difference.  Dan Brown’s latest book “Lost Symbol” hit the library in a matter of days for example.  EMusic’s library is big enough that I have a download queue of nearly 50 books and a collection of equal size already.  One book basically costs you $9.99  (which is incredibly cheap compared to the price of the discs at a bookstore.  Slightly cheaper prices are available if you commit to buying more books over a year period.

If EMusic’s $9.99 cost per book has you turning your couch upside down looking for spare change, LibriVox might be right up your alley.  LibriVox is an open project to create public domain audiobooks from novels whose copyright has expired.  Basically, people around the world, have volunteered to record themselves reading books aloud for the benefit of others.  While, on average, the “acting” quality is not quite the same level as the professionally read audiobooks on EMusic, they are generally quite well produced.   If you have an Android phone, there is a free App in the market called “Ambling Book Player” that lets you download Librivox audiobooks to your device directly (and of course to listen to them).  This is a great way to the listen to classic novels for a price you can’t beat.


So, if DRM has you down, help send Audible a message by supporting EMusic for a huge collection of DRM free professionally read audiobooks and Librivox for great public domain audiobooks.

Best Equation Editor for Linux

It is no secret that the equation editor in OpenOffice sucks (well, there are a few folks out there that think it is great, but not many).  The equation editor in MS Office is pretty awful, too, for that matter.  What I always wanted was an equation editor of OpenOffice that used Latex as the backend.  Then, I found it, and boy is it awesome: Ekee – developed by Ronan Le Hy in France (don’t you love open-source?)

Basically it let’s you type in latex equations into the entry box which it compiles on fly.  When your equation is done, you can then drag and drop it into right into OpenOffice Impress or onto your desktop to save the equation as png.  You can also export the equation to pdf or svg format through the menu at the top with one click.


What if you find a mistake in one of your old equations?  Since it is in a .png format, aren’t you screwed?  Nope, the killer feature of ekee, is that you can drag the .png back into the ekee window and then continue editing from where you left off.


If you ever need to put equations in presentations/posters/documents, check out ekee.