A month of Fedora 12

To be frank, I’ve been using Fedora 12 since the latter half of October from the release candidates, and it is a surprise that there has not been a single issue. There were bugs in the Fedora 11 anaconda installer, and I didn’t like the wallpaper as much as the older ones. But I just love the default Leonidas wallpaper, and many other UI quirks don’t exist, at least for me.

I had installed the release candidates from 1 to 4, and thereon, updated from release candidate 4 to final release two days after November 17. Two exams on 17th and 18th had made me postpone the update. I have modified the base install to make it more convenient and productive for me:

I deleted the lower panel and moved the window changer to the top panel since my display is a measly 15.6 inches at 1366×768 pixels. My laptop too has the same resolution, albeit at 14.1 inches. Then I added the System Monitor applet and power button to the panel since I need to keep a tab on my bandwidth.

As Rahul Sundaram suggested on Fedora Forums, I’ve switched over to OpenJDK, and all my Java code (there’s not much code actually) runs smooth without any issue. In fact the Java Mail API and MySQL connector run better than the stock Sun JDK which had a few issues. I’d been a NetBeans user for long, but the Eclipse bundled in Fedora 12 is better than NetBeans and it didn’t take much for me to switch allegiance.

Meanwhile KDE has got better compared to previous iterations, but is still short of the KDE Gold Standard set by openSUSE. While on openSUSE, I have a serious issue: No DHT support in openSUSE 11.2. This might be a fallout of the court rulings on The Pirate Bay, so let’s hark back to Fedora.

Empathy is still nascent with no IRC support (really bad, IM – IRC != IM for me) But for the ability to call friends on Google Talk (Yay!) and better integration with GNOME, I’d not have used it much. I use xchat for IRC anyway, but this is something that Empathy should be having.

Last week, my younger brother got some CD for his board exams, which had a few xls files and a massive mdb file. I was scratching my head, and then headed to sf.net. I installed mdbtools and the gui that goes with it, and then imported the tables to a csv file. I used Python to extract the data into a text document, and converted the CSV file to SQL so that I can create an app emulating the windows one using MySQL and Python. That is an example of the power of open source. I often rant about the need for open formats and  ban proprietary formats. Some are plain evil, like Sony’s vem format that you cannot read unless you have the ‘MicroVault’ flash drive.

I’ve installed Qt 4.6 on my desktop, and it is really a ‘cutie’ for developing cross platform apps. Qt + Python = cross platform heaven. I’m going to move over to Qt now on, to get some experience developing using SDK.

Overall, Fedora 12 is just about the best desktop distribution for folks with prior Linux experience, but people who are new to computers can jump onto the bandwagon right away.

When open is not open, and reviving a hard disk

I was doing some work on OpenOffice.org when I saw the term Microsoft Office Open XML(OOXML) on a site and was duly shocked at this openness, then it struck me that I had heard someone talk about this format(at a FOSS event in college) and Microsoft’s attempt to get it ratified as an ISO standard. I wondered if they had managed to buy people out, and unsurprisingly they had. I don’t have anything against the corporation, they develop some good looking (don’t get me started on the performance) software and good hardware. What I don’t believe in is the abuse of their position as an established and respected company. If you want your format to become the industry standard so badly, try to make it better than the current benchmark, which still is the Open Document Format. I do not see any advantage of OOXML over ODF, be it file compression, compatibility, uniform implementation etc. The previous document format, .doc was fine, but was not compressed enough.

If Microsoft was so particular on using an Open format, they could have adopted ODF. Why can’t you? Star Office is commercial, and uses ODF, so there’s no stopping Microsoft from using it. The only advantage of OOXML is that it is supported by the office suite with largest user base, Microsoft Office. The argument no longer holds water, since Office 2007 supports ODF from Service Pack 2 onwards. This unethical buying of approval is what makes me dislike MS. I still respect Bill Gates as a messiah of the personal computing revolution, but I am no longer reliant on MS software. I have the freedom of choice courtesy Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, Larry Wall, Guido van Roosum and numerous other people who have made the world of open source heaven.

A rather interesting thing happened this week. A friend’s external hard disk had gone berserk and wouldn’t open in XP or Ubuntu. Saravanan(A genius, an RHCE and a linux freak/geek all rolled into one person! ) and myself helped him out, but it didn’t work out. So I got his hard disk home yesterday and set down to work. I booted up my favoured OS, Fedora 11 and it detected the disk but did not display the contents. So I got into a virtual terminal and force mounted it and voila, everything was normal. I copied all data to my hard disk, formatted the external drive and then copied back all the data. It worked fine on Debian, Ubuntu, openSUSE, XP, Vista and Seven. This is another advantage of using open source software such as Fedora. It helps you solve others’ PC troubles and yours too!

I went to a research conference Dhi Yantra 2009(means Intellectual Machine in Sanskrit) which focuses on High Performance Computing and Human Brain Modeling(I’m more interested in the former). Today was the first of the three days. It was an illuminating experience listening to people like Dr. Murali Murugavel from from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and several other WARFT alumni and research trainees. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions which are to concentrate on supercomputing. Dr. Rupak Biswas, who is Acting Chief, Supercomputing Division, NASA Ames Research Center; Dr. Rajesh Kasturirangan, Associate Professor, National Institute for Advanced Studies (NIAS) Bangalore and Research Scientist, MIT, Boston and a few others will deliver their keynote lectures over the weekend.

The Ashes test seems to be going Australia’s way after a long partnership between Katich and Ponting. I wonder why Harmy is not playing, he could have changed the course of this game. If Aussie selectors were fools in dropping the crazy diamond Symonds, their English counterparts are fools on a higher plane. Here’s hoping England get back into this game, and have a nice weekend ahead!

Proprietary file formats – a real pain in the rear!

Well, I’ve never given it much of a thought but using a proprietary file format may be harmful to your mouse, keyboard and any other equipment lying around your system. This post was necessitated by somebody using a hitherto unknown(to me at least) proprietary file format to transfer some files, of which I was also a recipient. The files were all with a queer extension, .vem. I thought it could be an office format, but found it was not, much to my anguish. Then I called up those ever useful compression utilities, tar, gunzip, bzip, 7-Zip and WinRAR which often come to one’s rescue in such cases. But even these nice fellows couldn’t comprehend the format, and told me it was either not at all an archive, or was a damaged archive.

Then began my quest. Went I to filext.com, and searched for this extension .VEM. I learnt it was used by Sony in their micro vault devices to save space by compressing data. Very clever, I’d say, but why use a proprietary format that no other device or software supports when you have many other formats, some of which are open source, to do the job. This is a major problem with hardware manufacturers. They expend useless(I’d say a damned waste of) time and money to create proprietary formats and software to use that format. And hey hold on, it doesn’t stop there. They make sure the software works only on their hardware, and also that no other software can access that file format. Phew, what a way to cheat customers!

I tried opening the file with every text editor and compression utility available, to no avail. The problem is that whenever a user drags a file from his computer’s hard disk to this demented device, it automatically compresses the file to save space. Now, if you copy back the file without using the decompression utility, you’re done for mate. The flash drives we normally use don’t need this kind of tedious labour from the user’s part, to decompress all files from the drive. This may have been a factor in users ignoring to decompress their files, but one cannot hold them to fault.

Thankfully, just as I was swearing at Sony for this indiscriminate use of proprietary formats, I stumbled on a link that pointed to a software that would decompress this format, without needing the micro vault (I’d call it a Velcro vault since the file format fastens itself only to this device) at all. Here’s the link for those who are stuck with the same problem:

http://download.sony-asia.com/downloads/electronics/SW/MV/LX/decom/Decompression_v10.exe

Now, the agony doesn’t end here. The user interface of the software is created such that you can decompress only one file everytime you run it, so if you’ve got a helluva lot of files that I have, good luck! And it runs on wine too.

<Update!> I realised there is an easier way of doing things. First I tries the batch file way, but this tool does not seem to accept multiple files, so I took a detour from batch scripts. I modified the property of the .vem files to open with this tool. Do it by right clicking on a  VEM file, select Open With, click on Change button and a window appears. There, browse to the location of the tool on your hard disk. Click on OK button to close this window, and then Apply and OK buttons in the Properties window. Now, if you want to decompress many VEM files, search your PC for all files with .VEM in their name. In the list that appears, select all the files you want to decompress, open them by pressing the Enter key.

Be warned, though, that this may take a long long time, so I’d say switch off your monitor, and then take a walk in the garden or catch some news. When you return after some time, all the wretched VEM files would have been gone, leaving behind the meaningful data you really need. Sadly, this is windows only. For Linux, you can use wine and then maybe a script? Well, I deleted the vem files long back and I can’t try that for now.