Troubleshooters.Com Presents

Linux Productivity Magazine

November 2006

Linux to Go

Copyright (C) 2006 by Steve Litt. All rights reserved. Materials from guest authors copyrighted by them and licensed for perpetual use to Linux Productivity Magazine. All rights reserved to the copyright holder, except for items specifically marked otherwise (certain free software source code, GNU/GPL, etc.). All material herein provided "As-Is". User assumes all risk and responsibility for any outcome.

See also Troubleshooting Techniques of the Successful Technologist
and Rapid Learning: Secret Weapon of the Successful Technologist
by Steve Litt

[ Troubleshooters.Com | Back Issues |Troubleshooting Professional Magazine ]

Who owns your data?  -- Question posed by Steve Litt in the April 2001 issue of Troubleshooting Professional Magazine.


Editor's Desk

By Steve Litt
A family situation in mid September caused a rapid departure to Chicago with one day's notice. No time to pack my desktop computer, and also, no room at my Chicago destination for the desktop computer and accompanying IPCop box. I went computerless. During the nine days I was gone, all Troubleshooters.Com activities ceased. If you ordered a book or course in mid September, now you know the reason for the delay and the total lack of communication.

Folks, that's no way to run a business. Immediately upon arriving back in Orlando, my search for a laptop began. Because the contemplated laptop had to completely replace my business desktop, these were the requirements:
Within a couple weeks, LEK computers in Winter Garden Florida provided me with an Acer Aspire 5100 laptop, with a dual core Turion (32/64 bit compatible), 120 GB disk, and a whopping 2GB memory, 10/100 wired network, wireless network, soundcard, three USB ports (which can be used for external mouse and keyboard), and a bootable DVD+RW drive. It also had a useless Winmodem and pre-installed Windows XP Media Center Edition (that program itself is a few hundred dollars).

The price was excellent by local Orlando standards, and LEK made me a deal that if it wasn't Linux compatible, as determined by a Knoppix test, I didn't have to buy it (they had to order it). I know what you're thinking -- I could have gotten a better price at Costco, Sams Club, or an online store. That might be true, but if you want to install Linux, you don't want to submit an RMA with the explanation "won't run Linux". You just KNOW that RMA request will be declined. So I went with the same local vendor I've dealt with for years, paying a small premium for a vendor who consistantly watches my back.

OK, so it had all the bells and whistles, but was it Linux compatible? Knoppix answered the question -- yes and no. Video worked. Built in mouse and keyboard and video display worked. An external monitor worked when the right function key was pressed, and an external USB keyboard worked. LEK didn't have a USB mouse, so I couldn't try it. Anyway, when used self contained, the basics worked.

The 10/100 network also worked great. Knoppix found LEK's DHCP server and set up networking accordingly, bringing up all the websites I tested.

Several things didn't work -- wireless, the Winmodem (obviously), and the sound card. Sound didn't matter -- I can use a CD player for my Artie Kegler CDs. Lack of a modem meant no dialup, at least without a separate IPCop box, which I decided to bring. As far as wireless -- I'd never used wireless in my life, didn't understand it, didn't see the need for it, didn't like the security implications, and hadn't even listed it among my requirements. If I'd only known then what I know now!

I plunked down my money and walked out with the laptop. Did I mention the family situation had gotten hot again, and I was required to leave town in 2 days?

If you look up the word "pressure" in the dictionary, you'll probably see something like this: "Having only 2 days to pack for a trip, including enough book inventory for a week, and also load Linux on a laptop, get it to work, and put all your data on the laptop such that all your programs and your menu system and outline tree work identically to your desktop system".

I got to work immediately.

The first casualty was Windows XP Media Edition. If there were more time, a dual boot might have been possible, but the overwhelming priority was getting the laptop identical to my desktop. I stuck in a Mandriva 2006 installation DVD and overwrote the hard disk, formatting it all as a single huge partition for the whole system. Did I mention there wasn't much time?

When the installation completed, the first challenge arose -- no video! Knoppix had worked at LEK, so one way or another Linux could run my display. I booted Knoppix, copied the Knoppix detection created XF86config-4 to /etc/X11/xorg on the laptop, rebooted, an got video. Crude but effective. Video could be repaired correctly at a later date.

The next challenge was getting my desktop data on the laptop. Past techniques for that task included NFS, tar, and even Samba. Not this time -- I used rsync. With other methods, once you transfer the data, you must immediately cut over to the new system. With rsync, you can keep working on the old box, and from time to time use rsync to re-synchronize your data.

Next was the usual minor hassle of setting up what I call "the Litt package": UMENU, EMDL and VimOutliner. No problem -- with the home directory and other data directories transferred, those three applications just worked. Kewl!

One reason for the large disk was to hold the entire Mandriva 2006 DVD image, which can be loop mounted so that the Mandrake installers can install off the hard disk instead of requiring insertion of a DVD. Working off the hard disk is much faster and more convenient.

Last but not least, I went through my UMENU menu system, testing several programs, and when they didn't work installing components off the hard disk Mandriva image. By the afternoon before my departure, the laptop appeared to work like my desktop. That left about 5 hours to pack everything else. Whoopie!

Steve Litt is the author of Troubleshooting Techniques of the Successful Technologist.   Steve can be reached at his email address.

Is Linux Productivity Magazine Back for Good?

By Steve Litt
Linux Productivity Magazine ceased publication in the summer of 2004, after hurricanes Charley and Frances wiped out our roof and temporarily stopped all Troubleshooters.Com business activities. This is the first Linux Productivity Magazine since then. From now on, Linux Productivity Magazine will be an occasional publication. For that reason the magazines will no longer have volume and issue numbers. From now on, new Linux Productivity Magazines only when I have suitable content and the time to write it.

So check back from time to time. It will be worth it.
Steve Litt is the author of Manager's Guide to Technical Troubleshooting.   Steve can be reached at his email address.

Critique on My Laptop Selection and Installation

By Steve Litt
It's time to pat myself on the back, because my laptop selection and installation were darned near perfect.

First, my requirements were reasonable, and my prioritization of a known and trusted vendor over a few dollars allowed me the confidence to jump in head first. The temptation is always there to spend less, but when you must be a Linux road warrior with a clone of your desktop, you need big RAM, big disk, and a known Linux compatible laptop. I've known folks whose video was so new they needed to wait until the next distro version to get their video working. That works if you can use it as a Windows box in the meantime, but otherwise your box is gathering dust and obsoleting while Linux drivers catch up.

Then there's the matter of my blowing off several hundred dollars worth of Windows XP Media Edition operating system. Mightn't it have been better to dual boot? Of course it would have, and that's what I'd recommend to you, but I didn't have the time.

The action that makes me the proudest is testing all functions with Knoppix. The transaction was not complete until it was clear that all major and needed functions worked with Knoppix. Of course, one could make the point that it might not work with the distro you really install, and in fact this happened with my video, but the fact that you can get it to work with Knoppix means that if you try hard enough, you can get it to work with any modern distro, without writing a driver from source code.

The rsync data file transfer made everything very easy. The tried, true and tested desktop could be used until the very last moment, with frequent rsync transfers keeping the laptop completely in sync.

In summary, here's how you go on the road:
  1. Define laptop requirements to clone your desktop
  2. Test the candidate computer(s) with Knoppix
  3. Purchase a computer whose major and important features run with Knoppix
  4. Install your favorite distro, the most modern version
    1. So it has drivers for modern hardware
  5. Transfer the data with rsync
  6. Test major functions
  7. Set to DHCP and test with local DHCP server
  8. Just before leaving, do a final rsync transfer and shut down the desktop
I'll refine this list later in this Linux Productivity Magazine issue.

What I Could Have Done Better

One potential improvement already mentioned would have been to dual boot, or even run both OSes under something like VMWare. If you spend an extra $200 for a fancy Windows operating system, you might as well. If nothing else, a Windows installation preinstalled on the machine will run every part of the hardware and give you some good troubleshooting clues.

It would have been nice if I'd known something about wireless networking and high speed networking. I'm pretty good with hubs, switches, and IPCop lines connected to modems connected to phone lines. But when it comes to networking I'd see on the road, I was a babe in the woods. Do what I say, not what I did. Have wireless networking before you leave. If you don't know enough about wireless networking, get a wireless system in your house and get it to work.

I could have devoted more time to the process. As you'll see in following articles, although preliminary testing went well, when I pulled out of my driveway, my laptop was nowhere near ready to run my business...
Steve Litt is the author of Twenty Eight Tales of Troubleshooting.   Steve can be reached at his email address.

The Trip to Chicago

By Steve Litt
On the morning of October 6, 2006, I aimed the car north and drove, making over 700 miles the first day. Comparison shopping all the motels at an exit 50 miles south of the Kentucky/Tennessee border, I picked the most expensive one because they had nobody drinking and partying. When you drive 700 miles today, and have to drive 500 tomorrow, sleep is the priority -- you can party anytime.

Finalizing the check-in, the motel clerk asked me if I'd like to use their "high speed Internet". Heck yeah came my reply, and she gave me a password to type in when the browser asked for it, and told me to "read the instructions on page 13 of the green covered book in your room."

Well, page 13 gave instructions for Wifi, and wifi wasn't working on my laptop, but wired networking worked just fine, so I plugged my cat5 cable to the laptop and the RJ45 in the wall, restarted my network, and boom, nothing. Page 13 had a tech support number so I called it, left a message, and the guy called me back a few minutes later. This is the kind of tech support last seen in the early 90's -- you know, responsible and helpful tech support.

The guy told me right off hand he knew nothing about Linux and was only certified to fix networking problems on Windows, but he gave me some tips, suggested some tests, and my cat5 cable became more and more suspicious. The tech support guy suggested getting a different cat5 from the front desk, which turned out to fix the problem. At that point, Mozilla asked me for the password the front desk lady had given me, and when the password was given, the Internet was all mine!


Kmail kept aborting, complaining about the lack of a tmp directory. You see, all maildir mailboxes contain three subdirectories, cur, new and tmp. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, rsync did not create the empty tmp directories. After manually creating five or six, it was obvious a broader and more complete solution was needed. It was midnight after a 700 mile drive with a 500 mile drive the next day, so writing a Ruby program was out of the question. The solution was crude but effective. A find command piped into grep produced a list of directories ending in "cur". A few Vim substitutions converted it to a shellscript to create a tmp directory for every directory containing a cur directory. Problem solved.

I got my email, sold a course, and went to bed. Kewl! If wired Internet connections are available everywhere, everything will be wonderful.

If only!
Steve Litt is the author of Twenty Eight Tales of Troubleshooting.   Steve can be reached at his email address.

Sorry Charley, No Dialup

By Steve Litt
At my destination the next day, I hooked up my IPCop box, modem and laptop. No joy. The voicemail service in Chicago makes a bunch of beeps before dialtone when you have messages waiting. The more messages, the more beeps. There were so many beeps I could find no modem init string able to wait long enough for the beeps to end and dialtone to begin. It was obvious my only choice was to travel to a location with wired LAN based Internet access.

Umm, perhaps "obvious" is the wrong word, as discussed later in this magazine.

A Day With My Cousin Mark

By Steve Litt
My cousin Mark is one cool character. He's intelligent, interesting, talkative, and although he's not a geek, he's interested in technology and certainly not scared of it. His wife and three kids are every bit as interesting as he, and because the kids are almost the same age as my triplets, I can relate to them. As a matter of fact when his kids and mine get together, it's, well, it's like when Mark and his brothers and I get together. It's interesting.

No trip to Chicago is complete without visiting Mark, so I visited on the second day in Chicago. Hooking up to the RJ45 on the back of his wireless router, my computer imported all its email. Then he had me troubleshoot his son's desktop. Using his high speed Internet, I downloaded the latest Knoppix (in about 10 minutes), burned it as a CD on my laptop's DVD+R, and booted it on his son's computer. Knoppix clearly showed the computer's hardware was good, his data on disk was good, but Windows just wouldn't boot. My advice was to get a Windows expert -- it's probably as simple as fdisk /mbr or something like that.

Then, after dinner, Mark and I tried to get my wireless working. He knew no Linux, I knew no wireless, but we hacked and experimented and installed wireless drivers, getting it to the point where the drakroam program could see the radio signal from his wireless router. An hour of trying to connect farther brough no success. We went on to other things, and just before midnight I left, with a new respect for the complexities of Wifi.

The next morning I booted the computer where I was staying in Highland Park IL, and tried to connect to Wifi. The drakroam list now showed several wireless networks. Mark and I may have failed, but we did something right.
Steve Litt is the author of Twenty Eight Tales of Troubleshooting.   Steve can be reached at his email address.

Let's Try the Library

By Steve Litt
The next day I went to the library and tried to connect. The librarian told me there were no RJ45 connections, but they had Wifi. Boy it would be nice to get wifi working. I went to work.

After about 2 hours of experimentation, something went right (don't know what) and wifi started working. Email send and receive, web browser access, everything. Business was conducted, books were shipped. Awwwwriiiight!!!

Back where I was staying 2 blocks away, the computer couldn't connect to any of the wireless networks on the drakroam list. No problem, I'd go back to the library the next day.

But at the library the next day, it once again wouldn't connect. Frustration city! Even though my todo list included tons of stuff requiring the Internet, I vowed not to quit Wifi configuration until I figured out exactly what factors make Wifi work and what factors make it fail.

This included a long and arduous journey through drakroam, which appeared not to always work, and drakconnect, which appeared to simply ignore the security type (WEP vs Open vs whatever). Lots of research of log files led to lots of experiments with /etc/sysconfig/network-scripts/ifcfg-ath0, with /etc/sysconfig/network-scripts/wireless.d/*, and the ever mysterious /etc/wpa_supplicant.conf.  I learned what the  iwconfig and ifconfig commands look like, both when Wifi succeeds and when it fails.

The next Linux Productivity Magazine will thoroughly detail Linux Wifi, but let me give you the highights:
When you have Wifi, you can go anywhere. Most locations I've seen won't let me send email (probably a port 25 ban or somesuch), but I can go almost anywhere in downtown Highland Park, IL, and access the net. Well, except for MacDonalds, where they have a fee based Wifi that drowns out all others.

When you have Wifi, life is good. Always get wifi working before hitting the road.
Steve Litt is the author of Twenty Eight Tales of Troubleshooting.   Steve can be reached at his email address.

Life After Windows: Is Linux Worth the Hassle?

Life After Windows is a regular Linux Productivity Magazine column, by Steve Litt, bringing you observations and tips subsequent to Troubleshooters.Com's Windows to Linux conversion.
If you've read the articles in this issue of Linux Productivity, you've seen the hassles I fought just to have a working Linux laptop version of my office desktop. You also saw that I bought this computer with a perfectly functioning copy of Windows XP Media Center Edition. I could have Samba'ed my data to the laptop and gone on the road. My wifi would have worked right away, and I'd have sound. Why in the world did I expose myself to the trials and tribulations of setting up the laptop as a Linux machine?

My initial answer is one Bill Gates could appreciate -- I know Linux and don't want to change. I know Kmail -- I don't know Outlook. I know Gnumeric -- I don't know Excel. Oh wait, the machine didn't come with Excel -- I'd have had to buy and install it.

Let my explanation take another page out of Bill Gates' playbook -- Windows doesn't run some of my essential software. UMENU absolutely doesn't run on Windows1. VimOutliner, which I use over 100 times a day and is woven all through my business processes, now runs on Windows but it doesn't provide interoutline linking2.

And then there's the filesystem's use of drives instead of top level directories, a system that would wreck all my hand crafted scripts and programs. As you can see, far from being less hassle, going on the road with an XP box would have been more of a hassle, not less.

Stop the Hypocracy!

Enough already! All my explanations discussed the hassle of converting back to Windows. Most people are native and current Windows users, so none of those arguments hold water with the average user. As a matter of fact, given my laughing at those using similar arguments to stay with Windows, it's hypocritical of me to use them as arguments to stay with Windows.

I just wanted to give Uncle Billy and his Sidekick Stevie a dose of their own medicine. Now let me introduce you to the true reason I endured the hassle of overwriting Windows with Linux on my new laptop:

I don't want any data or program ownership hassles while on the road.

Let's say while installing Exuberant Ctags, I accidentally mess up Windows so badly I need to reinstall. First, I have a recovery disk -- not a genuine install disk. Second, I'd need to phone home to Uncle Billy on the USS Redmond to get permission to reinstall. That's bad enough in the home office, but on the road it's the last thing you want.

Compare with my Linux situation. If I hose my OS, which is much harder to do in Linux, I just reinstall and lay down a backup (I'm doing backups every couple days, thank you). It's perfectly legal for me to carry a marker pen labeled DVD with Mandriva. Or five of them. If I were to lose my one and only Windows install disk, do you suppose Billy and Stevie would send me a replacement? With Linux, I can make as many backups, whether for archival purposes or not, as I want.

Perhaps Windows will loosen up on their "piracy protection" that prevents reinstalls. I don't think so. From what I've read on the Internet today (link in URLs section of this mag),

Let's say I hose my OS in Windows. Where am I going to get drivers for my video, network, and wifi? Do I carry every driver CD with me? Contrast that with Linux, whose hardware drivers are right there on the install CD or DVD, and they autodetect.

What's life like after Windows? It's enduring a little Microsoft manufactured hassle in order to have a machine you can trust, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, wherever your business may take you.

1 David Billsbrough once hacked the Perl version of UMENU to run on Windows, but it was missing several features including prompted argument substitution.

2 VimOutliner's interoutline linking can be achieved in Windows by use of a product called "Exuberant Ctags", which I understand is free software. You can also use the Citrix package on Windows to give a Posix interface on Windows. I imagine both UMENU and VimOutliner interoutline linking can be achieved using Citrix on Windows. T
Steve Litt is the founder and acting president of Greater Orlando Linux User Group (GoLUG).   Steve can be reached at his email address.

GNU/Linux, open source and free software

By Steve Litt
Linux is a kernel. The operating system often described as "Linux" is that kernel combined with software from many different sources. One of the most prominent, and oldest of those sources, is the GNU project.

"GNU/Linux" is probably the most accurate moniker one can give to this operating system. Please be aware that in all of Troubleshooters.Com, when I say "Linux" I really mean "GNU/Linux". I completely believe that without the GNU project, without the GNU Manifesto and the GNU/GPL license it spawned, the operating system the press calls "Linux" never would have happened.

I'm part of the press and there are times when it's easier to say "Linux" than explain to certain audiences that "GNU/Linux" is the same as what the press calls "Linux". So I abbreviate. Additionally, I abbreviate in the same way one might abbreviate the name of a multi-partner law firm. But make no mistake about it. In any article in Troubleshooting Professional Magazine, in the whole of Troubleshooters.Com, and even in the technical books I write, when I say "Linux", I mean "GNU/Linux".

There are those who think FSF is making too big a deal of this. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The GNU General Public License, combined with Richard Stallman's GNU Manifesto and the resulting GNU-GPL License, are the only reason we can enjoy this wonderful alternative to proprietary operating systems, and the only reason proprietary operating systems aren't even more flaky than they are now. 

For practical purposes, the license requirements of "free software" and "open source" are almost identical. Generally speaking, a license that complies with one complies with the other. The difference between these two is a difference in philosophy. The "free software" crowd believes the most important aspect is freedom. The "open source" crowd believes the most important aspect is the practical marketplace advantage that freedom produces.

I think they're both right. I wouldn't use the software without the freedom guaranteeing me the right to improve the software, and the guarantee that my improvements will not later be withheld from me. Freedom is essential. And so are the practical benefits. Because tens of thousands of programmers feel the way I do, huge amounts of free software/open source is available, and its quality exceeds that of most proprietary software.

In summary, I use the terms "Linux" and "GNU/Linux" interchangably, with the former being an abbreviation for the latter. I usually use the terms "free software" and "open source" interchangably, as from a licensing perspective they're very similar. Occasionally I'll prefer one or the other depending if I'm writing about freedom, or business advantage.
Steve Litt has used GNU/Linux since 1998, and written about it since 1999. Steve can be reached at his email address.

Letters to the Editor

All letters become the property of the publisher (Steve Litt), and may be edited for clarity or brevity. We especially welcome additions, clarifications, corrections or flames from vendors whose products have been reviewed in this magazine. We reserve the right to not publish letters we deem in bad taste (bad language, obscenity, hate, lewd, violence, etc.).
Submit letters to the editor to Steve Litt's email address, and be sure the subject reads "Letter to the Editor". We regret that we cannot return your letter, so please make a copy of it for future reference.

How to Submit an Article

We anticipate two to five articles per issue. We look for articles that pertain to the GNU/Linux or open source. This can be done as an essay, with humor, with a case study, or some other literary device. A Troubleshooting poem would be nice. Submissions may mention a specific product, but must be useful without the purchase of that product. Content must greatly overpower advertising. Submissions should be between 250 and 2000 words long.

Any article submitted to Linux Productivity Magazine must be licensed with the Open Publication License, which you can view at At your option you may elect the option to prohibit substantive modifications. However, in order to publish your article in Linux Productivity Magazine, you must decline the option to prohibit commercial use, because Linux Productivity Magazine is a commercial publication.

Obviously, you must be the copyright holder and must be legally able to so license the article. We do not currently pay for articles.

Troubleshooters.Com reserves the right to edit any submission for clarity or brevity, within the scope of the Open Publication License. If you elect to prohibit substantive modifications, we may elect to place editors notes outside of your material, or reject the submission, or send it back for modification. Any published article will include a two sentence description of the author, a hypertext link to his or her email, and a phone number if desired. Upon request, we will include a hypertext link, at the end of the magazine issue, to the author's website, providing that website meets the Troubleshooters.Com criteria for links and that the author's website first links to Troubleshooters.Com. Authors: please understand we can't place hyperlinks inside articles. If we did, only the first article would be read, and we can't place every article first.

Submissions should be emailed to Steve Litt's email address, with subject line Article Submission. The first paragraph of your message should read as follows (unless other arrangements are previously made in writing):

Copyright (c) 2003 by <your name>. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, version  Draft v1.0, 8 June 1999 (Available at (wordwrapped for readability at The latest version is presently available at

Open Publication License Option A [ is | is not] elected, so this document [may | may not] be modified. Option B is not elected, so this material may be published for commercial purposes.

After that paragraph, write the title, text of the article, and a two sentence description of the author.

Why not Draft v1.0, 8 June 1999 OR LATER

The Open Publication License recommends using the word "or later" to describe the version of the license. That is unacceptable for Troubleshooting Professional Magazine because we do not know the provisions of that newer version, so it makes no sense to commit to it. We all hope later versions will be better, but there's always a chance that leadership will change. We cannot take the chance that the disclaimer of warranty will be dropped in a later version. 


All trademarks are the property of their respective owners. Troubleshooters.Com(R) is a registered trademark of Steve Litt.

URLs Mentioned in this Issue