Jeff & The Penguin

Adventures in Publishing with Open Source software

So going on holiday is a bit awkward for a one-man operation like me. Unless I want to cart a precautionary stock items around Devon for a week in case someone wants to buy a book, I have to delist my Amazon sale items for the duration of my vacation. I also (if I remember) deactivate the PayPal selling buttons on the site. Which means I might miss some sale, but a chap needs a break sometime.

Except this summer I got rather caught up in stuff, and I forgot the PayPal buttons when preparing for my hols. It shouldn’t have made much difference really, as I don’t sell many items via this route, except this time was different. Two days into my break, and suddenly my phone’s inbox starts filling up with sales notifications. It’s so unusual that my first thought is that I’ve been hacked. Then I do a Google search and this comes up:

Eight oak trees suspended in air

Note the second paragraph. That’s all it took to spike my sales.

All publicity is good, even if it means emailing relatives to ask them to fulfil orders for you.

On Wednesday 24 October, the BBC show Antiques Road Trip came from East Anglia. While taking a short break from trying to turn a profit selling stuff, host Mark Stacey visited Ely Cathedral, and Michael was on hand to give him a tour of the Octagon and Lady Chapel.

There’s a little overlap with his previous piece (TV directors love the echo in the Lady Chapel it seems), but there’s some good stuff about the Lantern, and you get to see the painted angels up close.

Since starting this venture, I’ve rented a PO Box number at my local sorting office. The aim was to establish a real-world postal address for FrameCharge Press, without putting my home address up on the web (for obvious reasons). Well, to start off it was just about manageable, cost-wise – back in 2007 I paid around £60 for a year’s box rental, plus the same again to have the post automatically forwarded to my home.

Turns out that you really don’t get a huge volume of mail coming in to business addresses if you set your business up right. Wholesale book orders come via the Nielsen online system, with email alerts for new orders and a handy web interface for updating stuff. Invoices and receipts are also much more likely to be handled as PDF attachements by email than any other way. Even the general public prefer electronic avenues of contact over actually writing on bits of paper, it seems.

A few years ago I cancelled the autoforwarding service to try and save some money (the PO Box was proving to be a significant portion of my routine outgoings, matched only by my website hosting costs). I elected to pop in to the sorting office once every month or two to pick up the bits of junk mail that constituted my business post. Sadly, the Post Office proved unable to cancel one part of the service without getting rid of all of it, and I ended up paying for a box that didn’t actually exist for nearly three months.

Some people would have been annoyed at the lack of concern shown by Customer Services, or maybe irritated by the failure to offer any refund and/or compensation for the lost services and post items returned to sender during the outage. I was more impressed by the complete lack of problems caused by having no functioning business postal address.

It didn’t matter one bit.

So when the renewal invoice came last week, I opened it with little enthusiasm. When I saw the increased cost – £170.00 – of renting the box for another 12 months, I made a not-particularly-difficult decision.

As of March 2012, FrameCharge Press will do without an official bricks-and-mortar contact postal address. The email address remains available of course, and if someone actually HAS to send something by post I’m sure we can arrange something to suit.

On Sunday 27 November, a BBC Country Tracks programme was broadcast that focussed on Cambridgeshire. The hour-long episode included a four-minute piece on Ely Cathedral, in which Michael White (the author of A Promise of Beauty) talks about some of the lesser-known parts of this great building.

So, this isn’t really about Open Source software, but I’m posting it in case it helps someone else…

OK, so I use Windows XP at work. I do coding and development, that sort of stuff, so I get local admin rights to install stuff – it’s a privilege,  so I make sure to be careful with it and not do daft stuff.  Basically I don’t give them an excuse to take away a very useful ability.

I’m working away as usual, accessing stuff on the corporate network as you do, when I notice that the address bar in Windows Explorer has gone bonkers. Every time I click on it or try to edit it, it reverts to the current directory path and highlights the whole path string. Since I habitually use the address bar to navigate about, this proves to be a problem.

Thus ensues a couple of hours of fruitless Googling, trying to work out what’s going on (I do raise a HelpDesk call, but they’re busy people). I begin to wonder if I’ve become the victim of some drive-by virus download facilitated by my local admin rights. Eventually I resort to killing processes in the Task Manager, to see if that has any effect. Sounds drastic, I know, but I know my Task Manager’s usual contents rather well after all these years, so can eliminate the majority of EXE files shown before I start.

Fourth time of asking, I kill something called “mswinext.exe”, and the problem goes away. Just like that.  Turns out this is part of the Bing Search Bar for Internet Explorer (which I don’t recall installing at any point, by the way – I’m a Firefox kinda guy).  Sure enough, a quick trip to the “Add/Remove Software” section of the Control Panel shows this unwanted application as installed.

Simple enough to uninstall, but how did it get there? Huh?

I was installing Windows 7 last weekend (for someone else, naturally) and I noted a couple of things which struck me as ironic.

First, it was an upgrade from Vista, so the installer stuck the old system in a renamed folder. Great if you need access to files from the old setup I guess, but that’s not the kind of bloke I am – I wanted it gone immediately.  Sadly, no option to do so presented itself, and I had to wait until the installation was over before I could do it manually. I selected the folder and hit delete, then waited. And waited. And waited some more.  Not only did it take nearly an hour to delete everything, Windows 7 didn’t communicate what it was doing in any clear way.  I killed the process several times with the Task Manager, thinking it had frozen, before I noticed that files were actually disappearing.

Oh dear. Linux has spoiled me – I’m used to getting useful info when I need it.

I’m also used a decent package management system, so I didn’t really worry about selecting everything suggested Windows Update when it kicked in after the installation.

Silly me. Update happily installed an update to the sounds system (Conexant HD Sound or similar), which promptly killed the sound system. In response, Windows 7 then removed all mention of the sound system from the Device Manager, and henceforth denied it had ever existed. There wasn’t anything left to uninstall anywhere, and I had to spend an hour hunting for drivers on various sites to get everything back to the way it had been.

Made my Linux sound issues look simple in comparison…

So, it’s only when you try and do anything half-way productive that you feel the constraining walls of Windows.

The inability to make decent PDFs easily under XP was really, really annoying. I hadn’t realised how much I used the “print to PDF” option under Linux until it wasn’t there anymore. If you’re anything like me, booking holidays is an online process, which means all your documentation is electronic. Sure, you print out everything and take a big sheaf of papers in your bag, but what happens if you lose the paper? I like to take PDFs of EVERYTHING with me either on a memory stick or, most recently, on my funky new phone, which has a PDF viewer and a nice big screen.

Everything about this is now really easy, except making the PDF under XP. Oh, I’m sure I could buy a nice expensive copy of Acrobat, or spend time looking for some shareware utility to install but, to be honest, using Linux has spoilt me and I just want it to work! So Linux Mint 9 came out, and I rushed to it, in the hope that it would not suffer from the problems I had with version 8.

And so far so good.

  • I’ve only turned on once and not had any sound ( this used to happen about one in three times with Mint 8 )
  • The desktop theme has only failed to load once ( another common problem )
  • Best of all, Amarok installed and worked “out of the box”. No mucking about with PulseAudio, no hunting for obscure setup files, nothing.  I even got MP3 support working first go.

Amarok is the reason I keep coming back to Linux – it feels like it was designed specifically for me and the way I use my music.  While I’ve been away they even added Ipod support back in to the application, which is a plus.

So now I’m happy as Larry again.

Gah.  What a come-down.  Faced with the need for a PC that just works, in a boring, reliable, not-have-to-think-about-it sort of fashion, I’ve reverted to using XP, at least for now. Not what I intended.

I console myself that all my applications are the same Open Source offerings, it’s just the platform that’s changed, but it doesn’t really help.


So I’ve lived with Linux Mint for a couple of weeks, and I’m generally impressed, at least with the system as a whole – there were a couple of issues with the sound system as it stood.  Now, sound is important to me, given the amount of music I listen to through my PC, so I’ve been fiddling to try and fix it, and as a result of all the mucking about a number of glitches seem to have surfaced. For instance, the start menu wasn’t behaving properly, and the desktop theme would sometimes not load. But the worst thing was the strange stuttering of MP3 playback through Amarok for the first minute of use, which was really odd.

So, Monday night was “fresh-install” night in our house.

And it all went really well.  Yes, the sound system was initially entirely dead, but I followed this guide to checking the system, and added the relevant driver module (snd-ice1724 for my Shuttle SN25P-based system) to the /etc/modules file, which seemed to fix the problem. And yes, when I installed Amarok it wouldn’t play any MP3s, even after installing the Mint codec support, but in a moment of insight I realised that Amarok uses the Xine engine, which probably isn’t covered by Mint by default. Sure enough, installing libxine1-ffmpeg package and rebooting gave me a fully working version of Amarok, completely free of strange stuttering and jumping.  Hurrah!

I still occasionally have no sound at all when I boot up, but that happened under Fedora 8 and 11 as well – I’m beginning to suspect an issue with my hardware.  At least Mint reboots considerably quicker than Fedora ever did.

So now I’m rebuilding the rest of the system, which I have to say is a much speedier enterprise with Mint than it was with Fedora.

So I booted the Mint DVD.  Actually it’s a Live CD, so after a bit of disk-thrashing I got a working desktop with an Install icon on it.  Thought I’d go straight for broke and clicked to see what would happen.

Turned out that the best option was to stop almost immediately.  The Fedora Installation has an option to replace the existing Linus setup, which I usually choose, but although the options were many, varied and clear with Mint, a straight replacement wasn’t one of them.  So a quick trip via my standard rescue boot disk and its copy of qtparted later, I’d removed all the disk partitions except the Windows XP one (I dual boot day-to-day), and was back in the Mint installation process.  Mint found WinXP and I chose the dual boot option, and off we went.

First point to note is that Mint the installation doesn’t offer a huge range of pre-setup package options (like Fedora), it just does its thing. It’s quick, too.  It’s also the most like a Windows installation of all the Linux versions I’ve used, which is to my mind a good thing.  In no time at all I had a running version of Mint Linux.

It’s very good.  As seems typical of the distro, the first thing it did when I logged on was tell me that there were proprietary drivers available for my Nvidia video card, and would I like to install them?  I clicked yes and it all just happened, as if by magic.  I didn’t have to setup and repositories or anything else.  There was an option for non-free codecs in the menus as well.

There have been a few snags, of course – the Nvidia settings initially wouldn’t persist between boots, and when I installed Amarok the sound system died.  I fixed the video settings pretty quickly if inelegantly by forcing the changes into the xorg.conf file, while the sound issue with Ubuntu/Mint is known and I think I’ve fixed it (watch this space).

However the general Mint experience is very positive – much more user-friendly than Fedora, and definitely greener.  The package selection is very good, sharing as it does the Ubuntu repos, and everything installs easily.  Most applications I used under Fedora are available under Mint – the one exception is Grip, the CD ripper, which apparently is no longer under development and has thus been removed from the package lists.

This led to another very positive experience – I decided to try once more to get Exact Audio Copy to work with Wine (this CD ripper is the one thing I REALLY miss about Windows).  I know that Linux has CD rippers.  I’ve been using cdparanoia with Grip for a while now and it’s fine, but I have to admit to being a bit obsessive about my music – even if I can’t really hear any difference, knowing that the CD has been checked as thoroughly as possible makes me feel good.  I tried to get EAC working under Wine on Fedora, without much real success, but with Mint all I had to do was install Wine-doors, then download the EAC “.exe” file and double click it.  The installation worked seamlessly, including the drive test, and worked perfectly on the first CD I put into it.  Joy.

So now I’m running Mint Linux – watch this space for further comments.