Freedom to Work

Posted on by Chris Warburton

I've been messing with my new work computer, on which I had the option of running Windows Vista or Fedora 11, and thought I'd give a run-down of how I've been finding it, the issues I've come across, how I've fixed them and future tinkering opportunities. Needless to say, if you're looking for any information about fixing issues with Windows Vista then you're in the right place. As a first step you'll need to wipe over it with Fedora 11, then your computer will be usable and under your control so that you can follow the advice below if you'd like to.

Graphics
The graphics card is Nvidia, but isn't supported by the nv driver :( I tried nouveau, which starts up OK with the right resolution and a working cursor, but everything else looks like someone's taken a dump in the framebuffer. I've kept clear of Nvidia cards for years because they're anti-Freedom, but a consequence of this is that I'm not familiar with nouveau settings like I am with Intel, AMD and VIA. Rather than spend too long trying to grok nouveau I had to do the unthinkable: install Nvidia's binary blob :( Gives output at the native resolution of the widescreen monitor, unlike VESA, but obviously I'd like to purge this proprietary contaminant from the machine at some point. I think I'll do some research into nouveau driver options in my own time, then spend a few minutes each morning testing them at work, since it obviously requires restarting X over and over. If I can get it working I'll post the results here and maybe on some Wikis. It certainly can't be as awkward as getting my XO's screen to play nicely under Debian ;)

Codecs
There were only (supposedly) patent-free Free Software codecs installed on the machine, since that's how Fedora has to ship as it's from the "land of the the free", but for those of us in less backwards jurisdictions this isn't particularly brilliant for testing videos and things. I'm not overly familiar with Fedora's package naming conventions so I installed Gstreamer's good, bad and ugly meta-packages, but a lot of guides don't make a distinction between non-Free codecs and patent-encumbered Free Software codecs, so I might've unwittingly pulled in some evilware. I'll take a closer look through at some point, but for now I'm sticking to MPlayer, since it's a far more powerful application than, eg. Totem, and is more useful from the commandline.

Previously-installed Malware
When I took over the machine it was full of proprietary junk. It's got some scarily dangerous repositories enabled like one from Adobe, one from Dropbox and, less evil (or so they say), one from Google. It's got some crappy Flash plugin installed from Adobe, but thankfully SWFDec overrides it. I'm not sure how this proprietary player's installed itself, so I haven't looked into how to undo it utterly. When I do I think I may have to keep an equivalent in some sort of sandbox anyway (eg. a UnionFS overlay) since I may have to test some sites which are infected with Flash (although, of course, I don't know how anyone could debug something for which they don't have full, irrevocable access to the source). As well as this it's also got Skype, which is a program that does a limited form of SIP/Jingle-style VoIP. However, not only is the client proprietary, the whole network it uses is a black box too! I'd like to purge this from existence, but unfortunately work does some communication via this obfuscated mess, so I can't for the moment because there's no interoperable replacement (did someone say "vendor lockin" AKA "the exact reason why this crock should never be used by anyone"?). Once again I think a sandbox might be required to stop it playing havoc with the system, or whatever it's meant to do (I don't know since I've not seen the code). As well as this is Dropbox, which I've never had the misfortune to use directly, but heard many horror stories from the Computer Science department about how prevalent the myth is that Dropbox is somehow a version control system. What it really is seems to be is some sort of UPnP-aware WebDAV-esque remote filesystem, which appears to attempt peer-to-peer synchronisation and causes unending conflicts if it's used for anything more elaborate than the equivalent of an email conversation. I can't really see the point of it, since it's just a poor man's Git, but once again I don't know of any compatible alternative (LOCKIN ALERT! LOCKIN ALERT!) so I think I'll sandbox it too, at least the daemon.

It seems a shame to me that so much infrastructure has been build on such untrustworthy foundations, for a company which is apparently "Proud to be Open Source". Of course, the gatekeepers of these secret services will die at some point, and their code will either be freed or become useless, but hopefully we won't have to wait that long for someone to kill it. Who knows, maybe I could play a role in this now that I'm trying my hand at Web technologies?

Next post will cover networking, which is occasionally cropping up problems as I do new things, but is worth sharing what I tried nonetheless.

Ciao.