Friday, December 27, 2013

How to install and configure Debian

Debian is one of the many GNU/Linux operating systems. Ubuntu, perhaps the most popular GNU/Linux system, is based on Debian. Having used Ubuntu for a few months and irked by some persistent instability issues, documented in my previous post, I decided to try out the current version of Debian. Debian is supposed to be extremely stable, but for some reason the current version is codenamed 'Wheezy'. I hope this is not a reference to its performance!
In this post I explain what I did to install Debian and importantly to make it usable.

Installation
Last Friday I installed Debian on my laptop. I first backed up my data on an external hard disk and burned the Debian installation file on a CD. I restarted my computer and booted from the CD. Nothing happened. I saw the Ubuntu login screen instead of the Debian installer. The Debian website says something about how to get CDs to work but I wanted to try the USB drive option. This time it worked. Debian got installed. Well, that's to cut a long story short. It took nearly 6 hours to install Debian mainly because of a slow downloading stage when more than 1300 packages were obtained from a Debian server. This could have been avoided if I'd used a larger installation file I think. Also, I am on a 512 kbps connection -- not great for fast downloads.

During the installation, I didn't have to do much apart from selecting the default options whenever I was asked to. I even went out for a couple of hours in between, with the blue installation screen glowing in the dark house.

Getting started with Debian installation is not very easy. It's supposed to have become simpler over time but it's far from being as easy as installing Ubuntu. So I was worried about whether I would be able to handle the configuration after installation. I'm not a GNU/Linux expert and rely heavily on information on user forums and the Debian website.

Making my user account "powerful"
To my relief Debian got installed after an uncertain start. So I could begin with the configuration -- all the things I've described below. As the first step I had to gain superuser privilege. To add software or edit configuration files on Debian one needs to perform actions as a "superuser". I first added myself to the superuser group by following the instructions given in http://www.pathin.org/tutorials/howto-enable-sudo-on-user-account-debian-6-squeeze/

Getting wi-fi to work
After installation wi-fi did not work, as I'd expected. Many wi-fi chipsets require firmware that is not free. Debian in its pure form accepts only free software and firmware.

So I figured out which wireless chipset I have:
http://www.cyberciti.biz/faq/linux-find-wireless-driver-chipset/

I downloaded the package for the firmware for my wireless chipset: http://packages.debian.org/wheezy/all/firmware-iwlwifi/download

And I installed the package from the command line:
# dpkg -i filename.deb



Setting up the package manager
Packages in GNU/Linux are installation files for software. Packages should ideally be found and added from a package manager such as Synpatic that comes with Debian. In this process, installation is point-and-click and the command line is not needed.

By default only free packages are listed in Synaptic. These free packages are stored in Debian server mirrors around the world. To make Synaptic list non-free packages, I added these lines to the file sources.list in the folder /etc/apt/

deb http://ftp.de.debian.org/debian wheezy main non-free
deb http://ftp.de.debian.org/debian wheezy main contrib



To edit text documents I like to use gedit, one of many text editors available for GNU/Linux systems.

Fonts
If you're used to Windows or Mac and see a fresh Debian install you might be shocked at how bad or rough the fonts look. Many of the fonts we're used to are actually proprietary fonts owned by Microsoft or Apple. Free equivalents of common fonts are available but these are "free" in the price sense, not the "freedom" sense I think. Debian recommends that people use truly free fonts such as those in the Liberation series (Liberation sans, Liberation serif, etc.).

I am unfortunately too used to Microsoft fonts so I installed these fonts through Synaptic.



The Microsoft fonts installation file is ttf-mscorefonts-installer. Within this is contained Arial, Verdana, Times New Roman, Courier, etc. But these fonts don't look quite like what you might be used to. So I applied font smoothing by following the instructions given in https://wiki.debian.org/Fonts#Subpixel-hinting_and_Font-smoothing. This required me to create a new text file and copy-paste the code given.

Skype
Skype is a good example of a free application where "free" is like "free beer" but not "free speech". Skype is thankfully available for GNU/Linux systems (Debian, Ubuntu, Red Hat, etc.). I really need Skype for my work.

To install Skype I downloaded the .deb file (the extension for installation files in Debian) from the Skype website (http://www.skype.com/en/download-skype/skype-for-linux/) but ended up having to do some things to make it work, following the instructions given in https://wiki.debian.org/skype

Copying my files from an external hard disk
When you connect a USB drive or external hard disk to your computer you expect it to open. Not so easy in Debian! I had to mount my external hard disk following instructions in http://www.ehow.com/how_7223499_mount-usb-drive-debian-linux.html. But this seems to be a one-time process. When I connected the hard disk again it was automatically detected and I did not have to mount it.

Setting up my wireless printer and scanner
I have a Canon MG3100 wireless printer and scanner at home. I set up my Canon printer using an installation file downloaded from the Canon website:

http://support-sg.canon-asia.com/contents/SG/EN/0100393702.html

Then I set up the scanner using the 'scangearmp' program from http://support-sg.canon-asia.com/contents/SG/EN/0100394102.html

Java for online banking
For doing online banking with my bank, I need to cross a login stage where Java is used. To set up Java I installed two packages: openjdk-7 and icedtea-7-plugin from Synaptic.


With all this my laptop became pretty much ready for use, but I'm sure I'll be doing more installations and tweaks in the coming weeks!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Windows to Ubuntu to Debian

I've been a Windows user for most of my life. I got to use Unix when I was graduate student and was really attracted to the command line. That was 10 years ago though. A few months back I wanted to make the switch to Ubuntu, a Unix-like system, because I didn't like the idea of upgrading to Windows 8. I don't want to be told that the new way of interacting with computers is to type and touch. And I don't want to be told a lot of other things that Windows tells people, or rather, forces people to accept. And Ubuntu is free of course (but "free" is a loaded word in software circles and I don't want to get into that now).

In June I borrowed my wife's four-year old Compaq 610 laptop which she no longer needed, got her permission to wipe out Windows Vista after telling her there's no going back, and proceeded to install Ubuntu 12.04. I used it for a few weeks and had to switch to my Windows computer to do some intensive documentation work for which I had to use MS Word. The switch lasted a couple of months largely because the laptop running Ubuntu had a dead battery and no webcam. I had to keep it charged at all times and couldn't do any video calls. This I remedied by purchasing a new battery and external web cam.

I moved back to Ubuntu and soon began to see problems during shutdown. Now any computer running GNU/Linux (which by the way is the right way to call 'Linux') needs to be customized to an extent that might appall Windows and Mac users who expect everything to be ready for them the first time the computer is booted. By the way, Ubuntu is one of the many distributions of GNU/Linux, although they don't make this very obvious on their website.

So the problem was that during shutdown the computer screen would flicker intensely and I could discern some error message about problems shutting down some program. First it was a program called 'speech-dispatcher', and after I tried to do something about this another program called 'acpid' started acting up. I couldn't find much help regarding this on the extensive Ubuntu forums, and I was upset that my laptop wasn't being very stable. Who wants to see their screen flickering or deal with shutdown problems? Shutting down is really one of the simplest things you can do with a computer. I had to do a hard shutdown by pressing the power button when the laptop froze during shutdown, which didn't happen every time but often enough to make me want to ditch Ubuntu.

I began to think of Debian, the GNU/Linux distribution that is behind Ubuntu. Debian is serious stuff. Installing it is not as easy as installing Ubuntu, and after installation a lot of things need to be done to make it actually usable. Also, Debian community forums speak to people with experience using GNU/Linux, unlike Ubuntu forums which are more accessible.

I installed Debian on my laptop yesterday and spent most of this morning doing a number of things to make it ready for use. I'll write about the installation and configuration in my next post...

Monday, December 16, 2013

Response to "MOOCs as neocolonialism – Who controls knowledge?"

A colleague from INASP sent me a link to this article:

http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=2013120517525882

The author asks if students around the world are concerned about the American nature of MOOCs. He asks this because he is an academic whose field of research is education. Generally speaking, students are not like him: they don't get philosophical about education. They want to learn. They want skills, knowledge, jobs. And many students from the South want to go to the North.

MOOCs offer unprecedented opportunities for students in the South who want to make something of themselves and not be oppressed in a dull local education environment, which is unfortunately common (I'm speaking as an Indian). Telling them that MOOCs are not appropriate for them would be another kind of oppression. And anyway they won't listen!

I think the real issue is how universities in the South will respond to MOOCs. I don't think I've come across any positive or progressive responses such as integration of MOOCs in the curricula, providing local technological support for students to take MOOCs alongside classes, developing their own online courses inspired by MOOCs, etc.

I don't think MOOCs were created as part of a neocolonialist agenda. The author says as much near the end of his essay. But with essays such as this, I wonder if universities in the South are getting convinced, without good enough reason, that MOOCs are a form of neocolonialism and therefore consider them with apathy or scorn. I think this is already happening.