Stop Motion: Puzzle One

Recently I ordered a couple of Playmobil and Lego Bionicle figures as I want to have a go at creating a storyboard stop motion animation.

It’s probably going to take a while to put together, but for now, check out my latest animation: Puzzle One.

Ditch Windows 7 Starter and Send Microsoft a Message

Anyone else get a netbook recently and have you experience stunted by Microsoft with their crippled version of Windows 7? As you know, recently I bought a new Samsung n210 netbook. The trouble is that it came with Windows 7 Starter Trial edition installed.

Of course, I planned to install UNR anyway, but I still wanted to play with Windows 7 6.1 and see how it compared to Vista… boy was I feeling sorely ripped off when I discovered that this is basically some kind of crippled Trial version of Windows. I mean, you can’t even change the wallpaper on it!

All because Microsoft wants to upsell you a copy of Home Premium so that they can subsidise their OS on a system that is just not cost efficient to run it.

Well, there was no way I was going fall into this lousy sales trap and if you don’t want to play Microsoft’s game that it’s forcing on everybody send them a real message. Don’t just pay up and grumble, switch to a complete Operating System with no limits on what you can use it for, switch to Linux.

Here are 5 distro’s I’ve personally used and can recommend, but you don’t even have to go for one on this list, check out others, especially if one doesn’t quite match with your hardware:

Ubuntu
Ubuntu Netbook Remix
Linux Mint
OpenSUSE
Fedora

Or try out these distros that have been specifically created for netbooks:

Moblin
EEEbuntu
Jolicloud
(UNR technically belongs here too)

Most, if not all, of these distros are going to let you install a duel boot with Windows 7, so even if you want to keep it just for manufacturer updates you can.

Best thing about using Linux on a netbook is absolutely no need to have an external DVD player. I have been using a netbook for over a year and have never needed to plug in an external DVD player. Most of the software I use comes straight from the repositories, the rest is available online.

Don’t throw your money at Microsoft, teach them a real lesson, democratise your computing experience and heal your netbook!

Book Review: World War Z by Max Brooks

World War ZI recently finished reading this book so I thought I’d share my opinion.

Now I must declare my bias, I really like zombie stories, but I tend to go for the movie/graphic novel kind so this was a first to read a zombie story in book format. I also haven’t read the Zombie Survival Guide (the other book by Max Brooks) but it’s had good reviews. That said, I have mixed opinions of this book on the whole so I’ll start with the good.

The fictional story is set sometime in the near future (from what I can tell) after a worldwide apocalyptic war against the undead. There are only hints of how the infection came about, but this is not essential to the plot, which is more a collection of survivors tales than a conventional story.

The survivors accounts are told through a series of interviews by a reporter that travels the world originally on a mission of collecting “facts and figures” from locations across the globe.

I found the whole of the book to be well researched, from the locations down to the weapons, occupations and science. I also found the tales themselves to be fascinating, gut-wrenching and full of imagination.

Some times it felt I was reading a mini-story within a story – some of the tales you could literally see a whole book or movie being extracted from. There are things happening with zombies that have never been tried on film or in any media I’ve read or seen – underwater ghouls, a blind Japanese warrior, astronauts in space. I particularly enjoyed the neo-references to LaMOEs, lobos and quislings. Brooks seems to have thought of things that no-one would have thought of were this a real event.

Now for some tiny annoyances. I felt through a large part of the book that the writing style was the same, for people who would be culturally, linguistically and phonetically miles apart. It got better towards the end of the book but at times it was a bit jarring. Particularly since I like to read accents in my head.

The other thing, minor detail, was that Brooks fell into the typical American trap of misapplying a British turn of phrase. “Taking the piss out” is not some kind of tribal psyching up that Brits do before a battle. It’s something we occasionally do to people who don’t get our humour or customs. Take note!

Other than that, great stories, great read. Well worth picking up if you are into zombies and you want to see a different kind of survival.

Buy World War Z at Amazon.co.uk

Recover Your Data with Photorec

Recently my wife had a crisis – she deleted a huge amount of files in a directory all in one go, worse still, she had committed the fatal no-no of saving and working on these documents from a USB flash drive.

For anyone who is doing this – STOP IT! NOW! Flash memory has a limited lifespan, and if you don’t use up the whole memory block each time the parts you do use will wear faster*. What this means is you’re eventually going to lose those files if you’re relying on it effectively as a mobile office! That is of course, assuming you don’t lose your USB memory stick on the bus or the tube on the way to work…

Bottom line USB memory sticks are really for moving files around, not permanent storage, and it’s even worse to not make backups!

Back on topic. My wife was in despair, she thought these files were lost. Now anyone who uses Linux extensively knows that Linux creates a .Trash file which stores all deletions till you come to unmount. Not so on Windows – no Windows has it’s own bizarre rules for external memory depending on size. In the case of flash drives, there is pretty much zero chance of restoring from the Recycle Bin.

But all is still not lost! When she called me I was careful to instruct my wife not to touch anything on the USB drive. That means no saving, modifying or adding new files.

We then took the memory drive home and I plugged it into my trusty Ubuntified Sammy n210. I downloaded a package called Testdisk, which comes with a handy utility called Photorec.

For those lonely Windows users, download an Ubuntu live CD, then run Software Centre and install Testdisk and go from there.

Procedures for doing a recovery of files with Photorec can be found at Ubuntu’s Community Documentation portal.

It’s run from the command line but then there’s a simple intuitive GUI interface that gets you to where you need. Just select the USB device, the directory you want to save to and a few clicks later you can restore pretty much everything on the disk.

A word of warning though, Photorec spits out everything with a generic indexed name. The file extensions are there, but it’s a case of opening them up to discover what is inside and renaming those files. A bit laborious but if the documents are that important – worth it.

And once again – BACKUP YOUR FILES!

*I’m not talking about netbook flash hard-drives of course, they have different technology that evens the wear.

Book Review: Charles Mackay’s Extrodinary Popular Delusions & The Madness of Crowds

“A modern-day interpretation of a finance classic”

That was a long title for a short book. It’s not the actual Charles Mackay work, it’s a modernised version written by journalist Tim Phillips that basically summarises the important details and lessons that apply today, as much as (if not more than) they did back then.

“Here’s the catch: we rarely spot bubbles as they occur. We can identify them with hindsight, but that’s not a lot of use if you’re investing. It takes a strong stomach, when a price keeps rising, to hold fast to your belief that it was fairly priced at half its current price.” Ch. 22 p. 45

Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds: A Modern-day Interpretation of a Finance ClassicEach chapter is broken down in to two concise pages and covers everything from the crusades to witchcraft and the dutch tulipomania to the recent economic meltdown. It makes for an extremely easy read, allowing anyone with even a basic education and knowledge to access the wisdom contained within.

The lessons are clear and sober, there is a soundbite for every topic – a quote called a “defining idea” and a footnote with ideas about how to apply the lesson to your business.

This is a must-read book for pretty much anyone who either invests money, uses money, is interested in the economy or finds their lives affected by it – which pretty much covers everyone. In fact I’d go as far as saying it should be made into a school textbook. This is required reading for life.

Buy Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds: A Modern-day Interpretation of a Finance Classic (Infinite Success Series) today on Amazon.co.uk

Cache Maggot Arrested!

Geotards cry “Let his blood be on us…”!

Another frenzy has been whipped up over on Groundspeak forums over the arrest of someone who has been allegedly plundering caches for a long time.

Speaking as someone who’s had 2 caches stolen, I’m not really feeling the urge to grab my pitchfork and join the lynch mob. Yes it was frustrating that my cache went missing twice, but I treat it as an accepted risk of the game. The third time I re-hid the cache I put in a shocking electric lighter (with a note on the cache page). But my third hide has been much more successful so far – the cache maggot has not found the new one yet.

There’s a lot of discussion about the legal position of caches placed, abandoned property and whether the charge will stand up in court. There’s an argument whether the cache itself could be seen as a litter and the thief simply doing their civic duty of removing it.

I’ve lately switched to mostly lurking the geocaching forums, there’s a few rabid Coyote’s that frequent them who take the game, and themselves far too seriously.

Repeat after me “It’s a piece of tupperware filled with McToys, It’s a piece of tupperware filled with McToys…”

Graphic Novel Review: Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection

Zot! The Complete Black & White CollectionZot! is another one of those classics that I missed at the time when it wasn’t a classic, it was new. Thankfully, a couple of years ago Scott McCloud brought out the complete black and white collection so that guys like me could become new fans and get completely engrossed.

When I first spotted this book on the shelves of Borders (aah Borders, remember them?) I knew it was one I wanted to pick up at some point and read. It went on my mental wishlist. I had flicked through it a couple of times, inspired by Manga and a popular Japanese superhero, but not quite all Manga, just enough of Americana and Manga to make it a perfect blend.

It just so happened that I was browsing through Borders during their final sale, that I spotted the one and only copy left on one of the mobile trays of unsorted books and immediately I snapped it up for a good reduced price. This has to be one of my best graphic novel purchases of recent, if not all time!

Zot! is not your average teen astroboy superhero yarn, there are themes covered more suited to older teens. It’s also not an average superhero yarn in the sense that it centers largely around the relationship and growing love between ordinary earth-girl Jenny and boy from another dimension Zot. In fact, it’s more of a love story that occasionally features hell bent supervillians and save the world scenarios. If you don’t mind a love story in your dose of action adventure then this is an epic story you should not miss.

Zot and Jenny
Image from newsarama.com

That said, the villains themselves are no push-over. As the story goes on we are introduced to ever more dangerous characters who bring death and the threat of total annihilation. Perhaps it’s the casual way Zot approaches them, or the way the story unfolds that makes them seem less so, but there’s no monologuing when it comes to bad guys like 9-Jack-9, if he wants someone dead he’ll just do it, quickly, efficiently and without warning.

Zot! is the kind of comic that people like me wish they had read the first time it came around, before it got “discovered”. It’s the kind of story that when you’ve finished it, in less than 2 weeks, you wish there was more out there in the pipeline, but have to come to terms with the fact that this is a series that finished years ago.

Despite McClouds self-abasement over his amateur artwork, I though the artwork was absolutely fantastic. I say this as someone who often spots annoying oddities and inconsistencies in many comic books I read. A few colour pages would have been a nice inclusion (or even a section in the middle somewhere with a sample of colour artwork), but by no means is the art lacking in anyway. The panels are easy to follow, the black ink used extremely well in many places.

The only criticism I can give it is negligible, the way the story diverges on political issues of the day towards the end. It feels unnecessary reading something like this in 2010 rather than 1991.

The other quibble I have is with the inclusion of the special feature ‘Getting to 99’. Yes, I know it’s draft copies and that’s cool and everything, but I did read the story through and some of the storyboards of Zot basically zipping through endless corridors felt like a bad video game to book conversion and was slightly tedious. But this I can forgive in the face of such an epic novel.

If you’re into a slightly off beat superheroics, with a good story and character development, this is one not to miss.

Get Zot!: The Complete Black-and-white Stories: 1987-1991 at Amazon.co.uk

Stop Motion

I have now made two very, very short clips hosted on YouTube with stop motion using my webcam.

The video quality is not great, but it’s a start, I may switch to using a digital camera instead.

Here is my 2nd attempt – Bearactacus:

Headless Recovery with Persistent Ubuntu Live USB

As some of you know, recently my Samsung NC10 netbook screen was smashed in an unfortunate accident. I have since replaced this with the excellent Sammy N210 but was at a loss where to begin recovering data from the NC10.

Of course, the obvious solution was unscrew and take out the hard drive, however these Netbooks are tightly built, and since I’m still considering the possibility of replacing the screen, I don’t want to create any superficial damage to the case.

So I googled for options, initially hoping to snag a Linux liveCD that would automatically boot with sshd in order for me to log in remotely.

Aside from some vague forum references to Knoppix and editing configuration files, I got nowhere. However what did occur to me was that Ubuntu LiveCD on a usb flash drive can be set to be persistent so it saves any changes including packages and settings.

The following steps are what I did to get access to my netbook data despite having a smashed screen, without needing to take out the hard drive, hook up an external monitor or building my own distro. Hopefully it may be useful for anyone finding themselves in a similar situation.

This is by no means a silver bullet. You will require the following setup for this to work:

  • The system with the broken screen must be capable of booting from USB.
  • The Bios must already be set to boot from USB (unless you have some way to set it without a screen).
  • A second ‘puter with sshd installed and running.

This will not work with a LiveCD, it needs to be a USB pen drive so that changes can be easily saved on the drive.

  1. Download an ISO of Ubuntu or Netbook Remix, which is what I used, and then use the Startup Disk Creator to create a live USB pen drive – check the box for persistent mode (“Stored in reserved extra space”).
  2. Run the LiveUSB and when it boots to desktop open a terminal and type:

    sudo apt-get update
    sudo apt-get install openssh-server

  3. When installing openssh on a LiveCD/USB you need a password to log in remotely. This can be done 1 of 2 ways, either by setting ‘passwd’ for the default ubuntu user or creating a new user. NerdNotes.org offers a nice and easy tutorial. In practice I found that when I rebooted the liveUSB for some reason the default ubuntu user ‘lost’ the password so I had to create a new user instead.
  4. If you have created a new user, be sure to add the username to the admin group, giving root privileges:
  5. sudo adduser <username> admin

  6. Test the ssh daemon by logging in remotely to the machine you will use for recovery. If you are prompted for a key then type ‘yes’ and hit enter:
  7. ssh username@hostname

  8. Then make sure you can ssh back to your ubuntu LiveUSB. You may also want to do a quick reboot and test run to see if you can ssh without problems and without touching the LiveUSB keyboard.
  9. Now shutdown the LiveUSB and plug it into your headless netbook/laptop, switch it on and let it boot up, it should take about 30 seconds to boot automatically after the menu and then another 30-45 seconds before you can ssh in.
  10. Create a directory you are going to use to copy all your files from your netbook.
  11. wafitz@ $ mkdir /media/bkup

  12. Once you can ssh to the LiveUSB, you want to mount your hard disk partition.
  13. wafitz@ubuntu$ sudo fdisk -l

    Device Boot      Start         End      Blocks   Id  System
    /dev/sda1               1         182    160101883+  82  Linux swap / Solaris
    /dev/sda2   *       53782       60802    69389632    7  HPFS/NTFS

    wafitz@ubuntu$ sudo mount /dev/sda1 /mnt

  14. It should now be easy after this to grab your files and scp them back to your curent system, whether you previously had Windows or Ubuntu (or other distro) Linux installed. However if like me, you had an encrypted home partition, then keep following the steps:
    I got the original instructions for this from Dustin Kirklands blog – nb: I needed to use ecryptfs-add-passphrase in order to record my passphrase manually before mounting the encrypted directory.
  15. wafitz@ubuntu$ sudo mount -o bind /dev /mnt/dev
    wafitz@ubuntu$ sudo mount -o bind /dev/shm /mnt/dev/shm
    wafitz@ubuntu$ sudo mount -o bind /proc /mnt/proc
    wafitz@ubuntu$ sudo mount -o bind /sys /mnt/sys
    wafitz@ubuntu$ sudo chroot /mnt
    root@ubuntu$ su - wafitz
    wafitz@ubuntu$ ecryptfs-add-passphrase --fnek
    wafitz@ubuntu$ ecryptfs-mount-private
    Enter your login passphrase:

    Warning: Using default salt value (undefined in ~/.ecryptfsrc)
    Inserted auth tok with sig [xxx] into the user session keyring

    wafitz@ubuntu$ cd $HOME
    wafitz@ubuntu$ ls -a

  16. Finally you can do a secure copy from your netbook back to your host pc:
  17. wafitz@ubuntu$ scp -pr * wafitz@:/media/bkup

If you have found this post whilst searching for a solution and this helps you, please let me know. Even more so, if this method can be refined or improved then I’d also like to read your comments!

Praise for HP Source!

As some of you may know, our 8 year old printer died last weekend. This was unfortunate as it is during a time I’m heavily relying on printing and scanning for various goings on. It was a HP psc 1200 series and so I opted to go for HP again and get wireless printer.

So I just picked up a HP Deskjet F4580 All-in-One Printer for £49.99 from Comet which is quite a good price – I needed it for today so I couldn’t order it online and get it cheaper. Anyway I got it home and unpacked, noted the typical Windows/Mac install disk so before I plugged it into my ‘buntu pc I checked online for any known issues.

Now I knew HP supported Linux but didn’t realise to what extent. Support for Linux from various vendors ranges from a single webpage with some obscure references to full blown downloadable software. I was quite happy to discover that HP support offer the latter.

Getting the wireless up and running took only a little effort, below I’ve detailed a a quick how-to for those not confident to delve into the documentation:

  1. Go to the HP Linux Imaging and Printing support site and check your printer is on the list of supported devices (most are).
  2. if your printer is there, click on the link to download HPLIP.
  3. This should download a file called hplip-x.x.x.run (where x.x.x denotes a version number) to your desktop or downloads directory.
  4. Open up a terminal window and navigate to your downloads directory and make the file executable:

cd ~/Downloads
chmod 755 hplip-x.x.x.run

  1. Run the file and follow the install prompts.

./hplip-x.x.x.run

  1. Here’s where it got tricky, the last prompt asked to me to reboot(r), re-plug(p), cancel(c) or ignore(i). I ignored at first as I wanted to go straight to wireless setup but it didn’t immediately detect my printer. The good thing is if you make a mistake you can start over the installation again.
  2. I selected (r) to reboot, and plugged in the usb cable. Ubuntu immediately found and installed the printer to my CUPS interface, but now I wanted wireless, so I found that HP had installed it’s HPLIP Printer service and added it to Applications – Accessories menu.
  3. I opened up HPLIP Device Manager and when to setup device.
  4. Follow the prompts again. I had to select the Wireless/802.11 temporary usb option as I didn’t have a direct connect printer.
  5. Click ‘Next’ and it should automatically detect your wireless enabled printer, then just click ‘Next’ again and enter your wifi network essid and passphrase.
  6. HPLIP will then advise you it is safe to remove your USB cable.
  7. After a short while it should connect and you should see a new printer installed in the HPLIP Device Manager, as well as a new printer installed in CUPS – the first one Ubuntu installed is still there but disabled due to USB being disconnected.

W00t! I have printing again and thankyou HP for supporting Linux so well!