Category Archives: Open Source

Upgrading my Dell XPS 13 to Ubuntu 14.04 LTS

But I’m really not that into football, so:

And while that was going (my Thinkpad is my work laptop which I’d brought home with me on Friday):

Back at the main story:

Meanwhile, Germany had won the Men’s World Cup for the first time since reunification (but their fourth if you count West Germany’s wins), the first European team to win in South America:

I decided to reinstall from scratch. I should probably have done this in the first place because the original installation was the one Dell did with all their custom packages to make the hardware work. The Dell XPS 13 packages (for the laptop I bought in July 2013 anyway) are now all in the official Ubuntu repositories. I think my problems were probably caused by clashes of some kind between the old and new packages.

Almost all my data files are backed up in Dropbox so that bit’s easy. The Windows 7 virtual machine I use for PhD software is about 26 GB but I can rebuild it if the HDD dies, so I don’t bother backing it up (the data on it goes into Dropbox). I figured, however, that backing it up to my USB stick might be useful and save me some time. Annoyingly, that’s the bit that took most of the time. Downloading the Ubuntu ISO and creating a USB installation disk took no time. Then installing it was pretty quick too.

It’s doubly annoying that the virtual machine took so much of the time (I finished about 1.30am, leaving Dropbox doing its thing while I slept). After waiting for the files to copy back to my newly-installed laptop this morning, I discovered that I’ve been working in a VirtualBox snapshot. So the 13 GB Snapshots folder that I’d not copied was kindof essential to things and the virtual machine wouldn’t boot without it:

I can’t find my Nvivo 10 CD either but I imagine installing Windows 7 and its updates will take most of today anyway. Fortunately it’s sunny so I might just leave it installing and go do (PhD) reading in the garden.

At ThingMonk 2013

I attended ThingMonk 2013¬†conference¬†partly because IBM’s doing a load of work around the Internet of Things¬†(IoT). I figured it would be useful to find out what’s happening in the world of IoT at the moment. Also, I knew that, as a *Monk production, the food would be amazing.

What is the Internet of Things?

If you’re reading this, you’re familiar with using devices to access information, communicate, buy things, and so on over the Internet. The Internet of Things, at a superficial level, is just taking the humans out of the process. So, for example, if your washing machine were connected to the Internet, it could automatically book a service engineer if it detects a fault.

I say ‘at a superficial level’ because there are obviously still issues relevant to humans in an automated process. It matters that the automatically-scheduled appointment is convenient for the householder. And it matters that the householder trusts that the machine really is faulty when it says it is and that it’s not the manufacturer just calling out a service engineer to make money.

This is how James Governor of RedMonk, who conceived and hosted ThingMonk 2013, explains IoT:

What is ThingMonk 2013?

ThingMonk 2013 was a fun two-day conference in London. On Monday was a hackday with spontaneous lightning talks and on Tuesday were the scheduled talks and the evening party.¬†I wasn’t able to attend Monday’s hackday so you’ll have to read someone else’s write-up about that (you could try Josie Messa’s, for instance).

The talks

I bought my Arduino getting started kit (which I used for my Christmas lights energy project in 2010) from Tinker London so I was pleased to finally meet Tinker’s former-CEO, Alexandra Dechamps-Sonsino, at ThingMonk 2013. I’ve known her on Twitter for about 4 years but we’d never met in person. Alex is also founder of the¬†Good Night Lamp, which¬†I blogged about earlier this year. She talked at ThingMonk about “the past, present and future of the Internet of Things” from her position of being part of it.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, @iotwatch
Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, @iotwatch

I think it was probably¬†Nick O’Leary¬†who first introduced me to the Arduino, many moons ago over cups of tea at work. He spoke at ThingMonk about wiring the Internet of Things. This included a demo of¬†his latest project, NodeRED, which he and IBM have recently open sourced on GitHub.

Nick O'Leary talks about wiring the Internet of Things
Nick O’Leary talks about wiring the Internet of Things

Sadly I missed the previous day when it seems Nick and colleagues, Dave C-J and Andy S-C, won over many of the hackday attendees to the view that IBM’s MQTT and NodeRED are the coolest things known to developerkind right now. So many people mentioned one or both of them throughout the day. One developer told me he didn’t know why he’d not tried MQTT 4 years ago. He also seemed interested in playing with NodeRED, just as soon as the shock that IBM produces cool things for developers had worn off.

Ian Skerrett from Eclipse talked about the role of Open Source in the Internet of Things. Eclipse has recently started the Paho project, which focuses on open source implementations of the standards and protocols used in IoT. The project includes IBM’s Really Small Message Broker and Roger Light’s Mosquitto.

Ian Skerrett from Eclipse
Ian Skerrett from Eclipse

Andy Piper talked about the role of signals in the IoT.


There were a couple of talks about people’s experiences of startups producing physical objects compared with producing software. Tom Taylor talked about setting up¬†Newspaper Club, which is a site where you can put together and get printed your own newspaper run. His presentation included this slide:

IMG_1534Matt Webb talked about producing Little Printer, which is an internet-connected device that subscribes to various sources and prints them for you on a strip of paper like a shop receipt.

IMG_1550Patrick Bergel made the very good point in his talk that a lot of IoT projects, at the moment, are aimed at ‘non-problems’. While fun and useful for learning what we can do with IoT technologies, they don’t really address the needs of real people (ie people who aren’t “hackers, hipsters, or weirdos”). For instance, there are increasing numbers of older people who could benefit from things that address problems social isolation, dementia, blindness, and physical and cognitive impairments. His point was underscored throughout the day by examples of fun-but-not-entirely-useful-as-is projects, such as flying a drone with fruit. That’s not to say such projects are a waste of time in themselves but that we should get moving on projects that address real problems too.

IMG_1539The talk which chimed the most with me, though, was Claire Rowland‘s on the important user experience UX issues around IoT. She spoke about the importance of understanding how users (householders) make sense of automated things in their homes.


The book

I bought a copy of Adrian McEwan‘s¬†Designing The Internet of Things¬†book from Alex’s pop-up shop,¬†(Works)shop. Adrian’s a regular at¬†OggCamp¬†and kindly agreed to sign my copy of his book for me.

Adrian McEwan and the glamorous life of literary reknown.
Adrian McEwan and the glamorous life of literary reknown.

The food

The food was, as expected, amazing. I’ve never had bacon and scrambled egg butties that melt in the mouth before. The steak and Guinness casserole for lunch was beyond words. The evening party was sustained with sushi and tasty curry.

Thanks, James!

Dell XPS 13 Ubuntu: 12.04 bug fixes

Back in July, I bought a Dell XPS 13 Ubuntu (aka Developer Edition) laptop. It is a thing of beauty; the screen, awesome (1920 x 1080; full HD). The XPS 13 comes with Ubuntu 12.04 installed by default, along with some additional software from Dell to make the hardware work. 12.04 was, afterall, a year old already by then.

Unfortunately, not everything works out the box. This post is about how to make them work. I might, another time, write about the pleasant but frustrating Dell ’24/7′ ProSupport ¬†warranty process (though¬†@DellCaresPRO¬†is pretty responsive).

 Problems in 12.04 for the Dell XPS 13 Ubuntu laptop

These are the problems I found (almost all of them had already been reported as¬†bugs on Launchpad or on Dell’s dedicated community forum):

    1. Intermittent freezing.
    2. Wifi dropped out frequently.
    3. Logitech wireless trackball frequently not detected on boot.
    4. Problems mounting devices as harddrives using USB2.0 port.
    5. Touchpad ‘edge scrolling’ doesn’t work and the acceleration/sensitivity settings don’t seem to do anything.
    6. Bluetooth file transfer from my phone doesn’t work.


I installed the following two packages from the Ubuntu repositories:


These install kernels and associated graphics drivers from future versions of Ubuntu. Basically, it means that when the bugs are fixed in future versions, you can use those fixes without having to upgrade the rest of the machine. The packages you’ll get are listed on the Ubuntu wiki. You can check which kernel version you’re using on your laptop by running the command ‘uname -a’.

The newer kernel version fixed problems 1 to 4. It also seems to have fixed most of problem 5 except for ‘edge scrolling’. I now use two-finger scrolling on the rare occasions I use the touchpad so I’m not too worried about this.

Problem 6 (for anyone, like me, who didn’t know this) is intentional. Receiving files by bluetooth is switched off by default in Ubuntu 12.04. I can see why that might be, but it’s not obvious how to switch it on. Someone pointed me to the answer on Ask Ubuntu.

Upgrading Ubuntu

Alternatively, you could just try upgrading the whole laptop to a newer version of Ubuntu. A friend bought an XPS 13 at the same time as me and he immediately installed Kubuntu 13.04 (same as Ubuntu 13.04 where it matters here) on it and had no problems. Similarly, a recent post on Dell’s forum suggests 13.10 works well.

There were three reasons I didn’t upgrade:

  1. I wanted to stay on the LTS (long-term support) version of Ubuntu which is currently 12.04.
  2. The XPS 13 Developer Edition is sold as working so I was keen for this to actually be the case!
  3. I use a Logitech universal receiver trackball and there were problems with the drivers in later kernels. However, I think this has now been fixed.

My opinion

I think it’s pretty bad that all this stuff isn’t installed and working out-of-the-box and that the 24/7 ProSupport warranty isn’t really worth much in practice (the support people I spoke to were fine but Dell needs to improve its support processes for this product).

I do, however, love the laptop. Now it’s working, I’m very pleased with it. Did I mention how lovely the screen is?