(Warning: This post is all about a computer!)

When Rosie’s brother came to dinner he commented that we had surprisingly little computer equipment cluttering up our flat. Fortunately the day before I had just ordered us a Shuttle SS59G system with 2.5GHz Intel celery CPU [1] to act as a small server for our flat [2]. (And hence given the alias flat.toobusyto.org.uk!)

As a recent Mac convert, I would have loved to have a new Mac Mini, but at the same time I am looking forward to being able to play with the latest developments in Linux and particularly GNOME. A Mac Mini would also have been just that little bit more expensive too.

Assembling the box was a doddle thanks to the Shuttle’s clear and concise instruction manual, although I did get a little bit of a shock when I compared the size of the monster of a fan that comes with the CPU to the one used in the Shuttle. Credit also to Ubuntu for having a live CD that booted without problems, although I had already decided that based on my previous experience Debian testing would offer me greater long term flexibility. As it turns out, this may be at the expense of some considerable short term pain!


The first problem I hit had nothing to do with a difference between Debian and Ubuntu, but in fact a BIOS setting with an unhelpfully obtuse name. Having successfully installed Debian twice (the first time I failed to create a /boot partition, erroneously assuming that since LILO could boot from an LVM device, so would the more advanced GRUB), the machine would 9 times out of 10 refuse to load the kernel at boot time. I could still boot fine from the live CD so I knew it wasn’t a hardware problem, but it was after much googling and coming across references to needing to use Serial ATA controllers in “enhanced” mode, that I took a chance and toggled the only BIOS setting referring to the Serial ATA controller from IDE mode to RAID. Despite only have a single hard disk and thus not using any form of RAID, this did the trick and the machine then booted without problem… unless I selected the latest 2.6.15 kernel from Debian! More googling suggests that a Debian patch for a problem that worked well in previous versions conflicts with an upstream fix for the same problem in .15. Happily, the compatibility between Debian and Ubuntu is such that installing the Ubuntu 2.6.12-based kernel package was no problem.

Desktop Apps

When it came to setting up the desktop, Ubuntu definitely seems to have the edge over Debian at the moment. DVD support — always going to be difficult given the legal issues surrounding it — is always going to be difficult, but my main issue is that clicking on “Play disc” in totem gives some cryptic error message about failing to find a mount point in /etc/fstab. (Since a mount point does exist, I am at a loss as to resolve this error, but totem dvd:// in a terminal works fine.)

Other than this, the latest version of GNOME is looking quite smart. Rhythmbox is looking like a nice iTunes clone (it even supports the iTunes music-sharing protocol), and F-Spot a good alternative to iPhoto. (In fact F-Spot’s clean and friendly-looking interface really impressed me, iPhoto does feel a little clunky at times.) Sadly, F-Spot and Beagle (a desktop search application) are yet to make it into etch, so I had to pull them from the unstable distribution.

More pain was involved in trying to make rhythmbox play AAC files. At first I thought this would be easy as Marillat supplies a gstreamer0.8-faad package, and I was quite confused when it didn’t work. After some head scratching, I did an ldd `which rhythmbox` and discovered the reason it didn’t work is because rhythmbox uses a newer version of gstreamer, which has a different way of packaging plugins. Unable to find a Debian binary package for the appropriate plugin (Ubuntu users are catered for of course!), I found a page of instructions that suggested compiling the plugin would not be that difficult (you need the libgstreamer-plugins-base0.10-dev package on Debian, plus the standard “development” tools). I installed my compiled plugins to /usr/local to avoid potential conflicts with future Debian packaged-versions, but then discovered that gstreamer0.10 only looks in /usr/lib anyway, so I had to create some symlinks to make it work. 🙁 I’ve added making the plugin a proper Debian package to my todo list to solve this problem.

Too much like a Microsoft-product!

I wanted a calendaring program that would interact nicely with OS X’s iCal, and thought Evolution would be the answer. After a frustrating half hour trying to determine why it would not view web-based calendars (despite the interface claiming it could!), I discovered the evolution-plugins package was in fact critical for this feature to function. It now seems to be working OK, but in the process of debugging this, I also discovered that Evolution seems unwilling to actually delete calendars once created, and removing one’s .evolution directory does not have the expected result of removing all the data to allow you a fresh start. Clearly the evolution developers have been far too influenced by the product they are imitating, and I feel an mjg59-style rant IN CAPITAL LETTERS would be appropriate here…

Home Network Infrastructure

This post is already very long (>1000 words!) and it’s getting late, so I shall save a description of my adventures with samba and mDNS (aka Apple’s Bonjour) for another day.

[1] I spent some time considering the Intel or AMD decision. Interestingly, the only CPUs AMD sell in the same price range (£50-60) are 64 bit, and research into the state of 64 bit Linux suggested that 32 bit was as “safer” choice for the moment.

[2] This was my first purchase from Aria and I am happy to confirm that I received excellent service.