Monthly Archives: July 2008

And I didn’t even have to edit xorg.conf! (Part 1: Desktop Effects)

Of course, just the thought of manually editing xorg.conf in this day and age shouldn’t even have crossed my mind. Especially on Ubuntu. But (as my Twitter followers might have observed) I recently acquired a new Lenovo Thinkpad at work–specifically, a T61p widescreen Thinkpad which, unfortunately, has an NVIDIA graphics card (really really bad open source support under Linux because NVIDIA won’t open up their drivers). NVIDIA, however, do provide proprietary Linux drivers which are far far better than the ATI drivers of my previous Thinkpad T41p (under either Linux or Windows).

Fortunately, while not a freedom-hater, I’m not averse to using proprietary drivers if I can’t make my laptop work any other way. And as this is my work machine, I need it to Just Work (or as close to as I can). So I installed EnvyNG (envyng-core, envyng-gtk) and ran that to install the proprietary NVIDIA graphics drivers. Incidentally, enabling the NVIDIA proprietary drivers listed in System > Administration > Hardware Drivers screwed up my graphics – I assume the drivers that Ubuntu thinks are right for my graphics card aren’t actually the right ones. EnvyNG, however, got it spot on–the widescreen display resolution (1920×1200) was automatically detected and worked straight off.

Ubuntu Desktop Effects (aka compiz)

This works pretty well. I had to look up how to enable, for example, the rotating cube (which is the ultimate desktop bling) which seemed to me to be a pretty bad Out of Box Experience (OoBE) – before installing Ubuntu on the Thinkpad, I’d booted once into Vista to check that the memory I’d installed was detected. In my brief visit, I noticed that things like the pretty semi-transparent sidebar and thought it’d be nice if Ubuntu did that without any effort on the user’s part (though, to be fair, someone else had installed Vista and, presumably, ensured it worked before shipping the Thinkpad – it would be possible to do the same for a pre-installed Ubuntu machine).

Rotating cube
Rotating cube

My general opinion of the Desktop Effects is that while the effects themselves are amazing and a real step-up for Linux desktops, the Advanced Desktop Effects Manager, where you enable/disable the effects you want, is not incredibly easy to use. It’s often not clear what a given effect will do if you enable it. Nor is it clear what all the many many options for each effect will achieve. Really, we need a much simpler interface that has advanced options hidden away – something I’ll take a look at at some point…

The effects that I’ve enabled for now, and found useful/interesting/pointless-but-fun are:

Effect Name Description How to enable
Desktop Cube Places each of your desktops on the side of a 3D cube. See this very useful blog post about enabling the rotating cube
Rotate Cube You can rotate the 3D cube in a very funky way. See this very useful blog post about enabling the rotating cube
Scale Apparently similar to Mac OS X – you can set up so that when you move your mouse pointer to an area of the screen (eg top-right corner), all the open application windows are displayed on-screen as thumbnails. Scale > Bindings > Initiate Window Picker for All Windows then click the top-right corner of the little graphic to specify where you want the mouse point to trigger the effect.
Show Desktop I configure it so that when I move my mouse pointer to the bottom-left corner of the screen, all visible windows minimise; repeat mouse movement to get them back. Enable it. Then General Options > General > Show Desktop then click the bottom-left corner of the little graphic to specify where you want the mouse pointer to trigger the effect.
Water Effect You can drag your mouse pointer around with CTRL+Windows key to make a water effect – at least, that’s what I think is the result of enabling that effect. Just enable it.
Reflection When you CTRL+ALT+Down, and all the desktops line up for you, you get a reflection of each desktop underneath. Just enable it.
Cube Reflection I think you just get a reflection of the cube while it’s rotating. Just enable it.
3D Windows When you rotate the cube, each window is arranged on its z-axis so that they stand away from the surface of the cube. Just enable it.

By the way, Wobbly Windows are enabled by default. If you’re interested in knowing more about how Wobbly Windows came to be, here’s an interview with Red Hat’s Senior Interaction Designer (in 2005), Seth Nickell (PDF).

Enabling an external projector/monitor

Coming soon (as soon as I get round to taking some screenshots)…

LugRadio put to bed

Yesterday, Tony and I trekked to Wolverhampton, video kit on our backs, to video the recording of the last ever studio episode of LugRadio.

I feel somewhat privileged to have shared that small, sweaty studio at Jono’s house with the (current incarnation of) four large gents of LugRadio fame. And to have got on their final show (I said “Hello” a couple of times…before anyone gets too impressed!  😉  ).

I’m by no means a serious fan-girl of the show (I’m not really part of the regular LR community – forums, IRC, etc) but I have listened to a lot of this season (Season 5) and several from previous seasons, and attended all LugRadio Live events except the first (but including LRL USA 08!). So I can tell them apart when they talk, at least.

I was sad to hear that they were quitting, though – not least because that means no more LugRadio Live! I gratuitously mentioned LugRadio Live in the editorial of the totally unrelated BCS-HCI Interfaces magazine after attending LRL 06 because it was such a good example of how a community can pull together such a great conference.

Every year I’ve been really impressed by the sheer number of people who turn up from all corners of the Earth (the furthest travelled gets a prize), including New Zealand and Hong Kong, to spend a weekend in Wolverhampton. Open Source and Linux conferences aren’t exactly a rare occurance these days but most choose to take place in a fairly glamourous or desirable location. My first LRL took place at the Wolverhampton Students’ Union…on a particularly hot weekend…without aircon. My memories include:

  • It was hot.
  • Mark Shuttleworth presenting about making Open Source Software more usable and attractive to normal users.
  • Drinking copious amounts of free water from the bar.
  • Ade getting a verbal pummelling from the female LR community members in the session about how to encourage more women into Open Source.
  • Cramming into a tiny, airless BoF room to discuss the vision of
  • The ‘Women in Open Source’ discussion continuing into the corridor while the next session got underway, and then in the car on the way home.
  • Meeting Josette from O’Reilly and buying books from her.
  • A packed room crying with laughter at Bruno’s epic talk: “This talk may contain swearing”
  • Stephen Lamb from Microsoft bravely and successfully giving a presentation about Security to a room of Linux and Open Source fans.
  • Being incredibly impressed by the range of speakers, exhibitors, and sponsors at this informal conference event that cost just £5 to attend.

So the following year, I went again (this time to the nicer Lighthouse venue); this time I joined The Crew – the yellow-t-shirted people who do all the ‘backstage’ stuff. Memories:

  • It was another hot weekend.
  • Getting up very early to stand outside The Lighthouse at 8am on the Saturday.
  • Ron’s wife providing bacon butties to all the volunteers.
  • Adam running down the aisle to the Rocky Theme in a dressing gown, then….in a thong….banging a gong…
  • Continuing my habit of buying O’Reilly books from Josette.
  • Changing a lot of video tapes.
  • Setting up a lot of chairs, putting them away again, setting them up again, putting them away again…
  • The low-tech wiki.
  • Big LRL banners.
  • Ted Haegar’s teeth.
  • Being impressed yet again at the range of speakers, exhibitors, and sponsors the team had rustled up on the back of a fortnightly podcast that contains a lot of swearing.

And, bringing us right up to date: LugRadio Live USA 08:

  • Tony’s fantastic trailer for LRL USA 08.
  • An atypical heat wave in San Francisco (though, this being America, working aircon).
  • Watching (from a distance) Adam getting frisked of his water bottles by Heathrow’s Security after having been warned three times not to carry liquids through Security.
  • Jono commenting scathingly about Adam’s lack of travel experience, then thinking it a good idea to take a photo of Adam in Security….before disappearing under a swarm of Security staff supervising him deleting said photo.
  • Helping ward off The Doom that kept descending on the team in the couple of days before LRL.
  • Visiting Alcatraz and watching the team posing for more boy-band photos.
  • Sitting in Hard Rock Cafe all afternoon and coming up with the best spoof ever…which I still think should be their Christmas Special.
  • The view of Downtown SF from The Metreon’s balcony.
  • The empty vastness of the venue at The Metreon when we were allowed in on Friday morning.
  • Carrying (and dropping) far too many boxes of magazines and Nutsack goodies with Adam in the searing heat of the streets of San Francisco.
  • Meeting Kynan, who just never stopped working!
  • Being constantly amazed that Google (Google!) were bankrolling the entire event…and even bought us breakfast, live streamed to Google Video from a mobile phone (see it on YouTube here)!
  • Brilliant talks from Emma Jane Hogbin (Women in Open Source), Kristen Accardi and Val Henson (Linux device drivers in 30 minutes – while baking cookies on-stage), Matthew Garrett (Power management and anger)…
  • Stopping attendees sneaking into the building before the doors officially opened on the Saturday morning. The first group just sat down on the pavement and got their laptops out while they waited.
  • One Laptop Per Child laptops everywhere!
  • Small children – officially making this a (somewhat unlikely) family event!
  • Emma Jane getting progressively hoarser throughout the weekend.
  • Tedddd sprinting up and down the massive venue and videoing all the talks simultaneously.
  • Jono playing ‘Jack’s Playing Ball’ on the Frets on Fire (OSS version of Guitar Hero).
  • The MAKE kaleidoscope glasses.
  • A significant number of the last people standing on Sunday night wearing matching free Banshee t-shirts in the bar.
  • Massive Google beanbags.

And that’s just some of the things that I’ve enjoyed at LRL events. And why I’m going again this year. I’ll maybe see you there…

Learning British sign language (BSL)

I’ve been meaning to post about learning British sign language (BSL) for months now. I wanted to post it in BSL as a video blog (vlog) but, having borrowed my friend Ben’s webcam months ago, I’ve still not got round to even seeing if I can get it working, let alone actually sign coherent content in front of it. Another friend, Gareth, has started blogging about his experiences of learning BSL and prompted me to just pull my finger out and write a post. Maybe at some point I’ll record a translation in BSL. Maybe… 🙂

So, I started learning BSL in September 2006 when IBM put on courses for employees at Hursley. We had two hours of teaching every Wednesday morning for 30 weeks, which culminated in being CACDP BSL Level 1 certified.

Jeff, our tutor, is Deaf and taught us using a combination of signing, speech, writing on whiteboards, slides, and humour. Different tutors using different communication methods – for instance, BSL tutors don’t have to be deaf themselves, and some use speech and some don’t. Jeff doesn’t really lip-read so we got lots of practice at signing when talking to him during tea-breaks.

During the course, Jeff taught us a bit about Deaf culture as well as the language. This built on the deaf awareness workshop that we had attended early on in the course. In the workshop, another man (also deaf but deafened later in life; he speaks, uses a hearing aid, and lip-reads) taught us about what it’s like to be deaf, how (as hearing people) to communicate with deaf people, what the Deaf (signing) culture is, and attitudes of deaf people to their deafness.

I really enjoyed the course. It was difficult at first to deal with learning something without being able to write it down (BSL notation is a skill all to itself!). So learning to rely less on written notes was useful too. Learning BSL has been really useful, in particular in talking to my friend Ben at work who is profoundly deaf (without speech) and whose first language is BSL. It’s also handy in meetings or in the noisy canteen to be able to sign to colleagues. 🙂

I think it’s really cool that we could learn BSL at work. Aside from the actual language, learning about the Deaf culture and deafness in general has given me a different perspective on things and broadened my understanding of other people. In terms of my day-job, I have a better understanding of the issues around Accessibility.

For instance, here’s one of them….

Did you know that if BSL is your first language (and, therefore, English your second), written transcripts are not necessarily sufficient for a Deaf person to understand an audio recording***? The concepts and grammar of BSL are so different from English that moving between the two can be very difficult. That’s why you get BSL interpreters signing on TV (eg BBC News 24) instead of just providing subtitles.

A lot (a *lot*) of people don’t know that.

Update (16th July 2008):

***This is not to say that written transcripts are a waste of time, nor that Deaf people can’t generally understand written English! Also, if you can provide written transcripts, they provide a means for other people to translate those transcripts to other languages. So projects like this one are really cool: For a start, a written transcription might one day be able to be converted automatically into BSL…(My SiSi blog post)…