Buh-bye 2006!

Education, Free Software, Jonathan 3 Comments »

Tomorrow is the last day of 2006. Wow, it’s been a wild ride, and the beginning of the year feels like a lifetime ago. It started out well, the project that I’m most involved with, tuXlab, reached a big milestone with the installation of the 200th lab. Since then, many replications has happened in South Africa. I don’t have an exact number, but I estimate there’s close to 300 schools in the country that currently follow the tuXlab model. The first 200 was set up with funding from the Shuttleworth Foundation, while the rest has been set up by other funders and projects, such as the Gift of the Givers Foundation, Netday.org.za, Ubuntu Education Fund, Engen, Ikamva Youth, and others. The first 200 labs was also set up by volunteers, and support and maintenance have been funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation.

Another exciting turn for tuXlabs, is that it was installed into two prisons (blog entry) as well. The prison tuXlabs have been used for adult education, and providing OpenICDL courses. Lab administrators in the prisons also wrote and passed LPI exams. The prisons project has been an amazing success, we have proved to the Department of Correctional Services that GNU/Linux works, and that it’s maintainable and affordable. Don’t be surprised to see a large number of lab roll-outs in our prisons next year :-)

In March, I also went to the most amazing concert I’ve ever been to, and saw Metallica, Collective Soul, the Rasmus, Simple Plan and a whole bunch of other bands we never see here in South Africa live. The great local guys were also there, such as Fokofpolisiekar and Seether (even though they’re not quite local anymore these days). I hope we have something like that here soon again.

Within the Foundation, our team was reaching all the targets set out two years before that, and with some of the changes in focus within the Foundation, some of us felt that the new projects wouldn’t specifically interest us. Not because they’re not good projects, but because we specifically wanted to continue working with the projects that we have put so much energy into already. We put together a proposal and business plan, and presented it to the Shuttleworth Foundation Trustees. They were happy with our ideas, and were happy to fund us to start a new organisation. This happened in June, and our first month was chaotic. Previously, we lived in the comfort of the Foundation and all the internal services that was running there. Outside, a lot of our old processes didn’t work, and we had to quickly re-work them. We also had to find new systems for our financial stuff, and quickly slam together a management system that worked. By August, things were already coming together nicely, and I’ll go as far to say that the last month or so, we’ve become a well oiled machine. Besides the prisons project, we’ve got a good amount of government work as well. What stands out most is the Digital Doorway project, for which we implemented the software solution (custom tuXlab system) and we’ll also be implementing the next 50 stations and upgrading the existing 25 from HP441 based Mandrake 9.2 systems to Ubuntu multiseat tuXlab machines.

This year, I also had the privilege to get to know a very large part of the Ubuntu community, which include many amazing (I’m so overusing that word, but it can’t be helped) individuals and have learned a lot from them. I also became a member of the Edubuntu Council, where we vote in new Ubuntu members that have made significant contributions toward Ubuntu. I also attended the Ubuntu Developers Summit in Paris, it was at a complicated time that I left for Paris, but it was also uplifting to see how such a large amount of people could work together so incredibly well. I took a lot with me from that summit, and applied much of it to the tuXlab Ubuntu derivative, which we’ve released to tuXlab schools earlier this month. A public version will also be available next month, also in various flavors. That has also been a huge milestone for me, and our new company. We’ve attracted some attention from huge multinational companies. Oh, and you can also expect to see local laptops (very popular brand) soon that will be available with Ubuntu (and no Windows)- I am also very excited about that… although I should really keep new news for my hello 2007 post ;)
We also did Software Freedom Day again this year. We did it in one of the most poorest areas of Cape Town, where I also learned a lot from. Locally free software has had quite a good year besides that too. Our local LUG, CLUG, had a fundraiser to raise money for our LUG to attend one of the big, very commercialised computer fairs (Futurex). It was one of the two Linux/Free Software stands there, and the stand generated huge interest from many people, although many people just couldn’t understand how software can be ‘free’. A local Python users group has also been founded, and the first meeting was very well attended. I hope that the group continues to do more fun stuff into 2007.

The biggest free software news in 2006 was of course that Sun GPL is being released under a GNU GPL license, which is definitely good news for many users and vendors of free software. The other big news is the Novell/Microsoft deal. Some view it as the best thing that has every happened, while some view it with lots of sceptacism. I have a theory that, no matter what happens in the free software world, that it will ultimately benefit free software. So far I haven’t seen proof to the contrary of that. The Free Software Foundation has also been busy, releasing Gnewsense, an Ubuntu derivative free of proprietary code, and also running an end of year fundraiser, that has already passed its half-way mark. The GNU GPL version 3 is also being reworked, and it’s been a big source of controversy in 2006. FSF has also launched a campaign against Windows Vista, and bought a game and released it under a free license (see comments).

Coming back to my personal life, I’ve made some tough decisions the last month. Two years ago my father and I moved into the same house, and we decided to go everything 50/50. I had some strong moral objections to some of the things he’s been doing lately, and decided to move out. It’s had some strange effects on me. Since moving out, and adding some more space between myself and both my parents, my anger levels have come down drastically. I also discovered that anger has been a big part of what drives me, and when my anger went away, it’s like I didn’t have any energy anymore. I think Yoda is so right about anger in so many ways. In only the last few days, I’ve found new, positive energies that gives me just as much energy. Just in time for 2007 :)

I’m quite excited for 2007, I have so much ideas and plans for it, and the future. I’ll blog about those just after the new year. In the meantime, I wish everyone who manages to read this far a happy new year, may 2007 treat you well and wishing you good health and happiness. Buh-bye, 2006!

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FSF Fundraiser for 2007 campaigns

Free Software 2 Comments »

The Free Software Foundation is starting its fund raiser to fund the campaigns for software freedom in 2007. The target is to raise either US$50 000, or gain 300 new members.

Membership funding is the Free Software Foundation’s #1 source of funding, please consider signing up as a member today, and enjoy the benefits of being a member, as well as contributing something back to the Foundation, which has done plenty for free software already.

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I’m bringing edgy back

Education, Free Software 10 Comments »

Wow, we did it. Today is the official release date of the tuXlab GNU/Linux distribution. It’s probably the first distribution that can be considered an Edubuntu derivative. It also benefits from other Ubuntu derivatives, Kubuntu and Xubuntu.

So why a tuXlab distribution? Well, as part of the tuXlab project we have always maintained a set of customisations on top of Ubuntu. Often, these customisations have been hacky and hastily put together to satisfy the needs of an end user. Now that tuXlab is managed by a commercial entity, it is possible for us to release whatever we code we have and get it out there, and get it improved. The tuXlab GNU/Linux distribution will contain as much functionality and ease of use that we can possible give our users. Our policy is to contribute back to upstream Edubuntu (and the other Ubuntu derivatives) as much as possible. This will be largely dependent on the quality and relevance of the new software we create, since any software that goes into Edubuntu needs to go into the main category.

So currently, what’s different from tuXlab to Edubuntu? Here’s a quick list of things I can think of right now…

1. LiveDVD chooser

When I told people that we will be installing using the Ubuntu live CD infrastructure, there was lots of grumbles because Ubiquity (the live CD installer) and a full desktop environment takes up quite a bit of memory. I immediately thought that we could put in some kind of simple GUI that would allow a user to skip the desktop interface, and run Ubiquity directly. This now makes it possible to install using the graphical installer on a system that has 128MB of RAM.

2. Xfce Desktop

The Gnome desktop proved to be very user friendly in our labs. In two schools that had an additional Windows lab, the kids preferred the Gnome desktop to the Windows one. Some teachers felt that Nautilus should be more like Windows Explorer, but otherwise Gnome is widely loved. The problem though, is that in many of our schools, the schools received further donations of equipment, and used it to expand their tuXlab network. In many cases, the load on the server was too heavy, and once an LTSP server starts to swap, you get into big trouble. We had to find ways of getting our memory usage down, and I’ve been using Xfce on my laptop with Debian before, but it has never really looked integrated and user friendly enough to implement in schools.

Then two important things happened. The coming of age of Xfce 4, and the Xubuntu project. Xubuntu started a community project to support Xfce in Ubuntu. I installed the xubuntu-desktop as soon as it was available and was very impressed with the results. The new Thunar file manager was just as simple to use as Nautilus, and I will even dare to say it works better. More importantly, memory and cpu time requirements fell drastically, and in the ~20 labs that we have tested it, there was a major improvement in speed, and users were happy. It was an easy decision to settle on the Xfce desktop for the tuXlab system. We were also largely influenced by Andy Rabagliati of wizzy.org.za, who have also used Xfce for a long time in his labs here in South Africa. We have also use custom menus, for which we will implement translation support in the next release.

3. tuXlab Home

The large majority of local content here in South Africa is web based, so tuXlab Home is a simple bash script that is run in postinst after new content is installed, where an icon of the installed software is added to the tuXlab Firefox home page. It’s very crude, and simple, but we have lots of plans for it. It already works great even in its current, simple form.

4. Xola

Xola is the tuXlab On-Line Assistant. It’s a python script that you interact with via a web interface. It’s a troubleshooting tool that asks a user questions about their problem and suggests possible fixes. It also features a diagnostics page, showing which services are running and which services aren’t, which means that our help desk doesn’t have to explain to our users how to type “ps aux | grep dhcp3-server” in a terminal anymore. It’s also still quite crude, but it’s helpful and we will continue to improve on it.

5. J-Zee

J-Zee is the universal wrapper. We found ourselves wanting to add all different kinds of wrappers to all kinds of scripts and programs, and decided that it was silly. Instead, it was decided that we get all the functionality of all our wrappers into one script. At the moment it does very little, it logs which programs are used by a user for statistical usage. It also kills some programs at startup. For example, in some of our schools teachers have reported that the younger kids open up multiple copies of Ktuberling, GCompris, Tuxpaint, etc, hogging up memory and eventually causing the whole network to be slow. J-Zee has a list of programs that you would ideally run only one copy of (like gcompris), so if you run gcompris, and then Ktuberling, your gcompris session will be killed. And if you are running Gcompris and open another copy, your old one will be killed. J-Zee will do and log much more in the future. We are interested in statistics of which software people of different ages, sex and culture are interested in.

6. 2Pack

2Pack couldn’t be included in our first release, since it’s not complete enough yet. We want to take a gdebi-like approach to installing new software in our labs (in this version we will in fact just use gdebi), and make it extremely easy for teachers to install new software. We also want to create an environment where 3rd party software vendors can easily port their software to 2Pack for installation in tuXlabs. We have already debianised software for 6 software vendors, but would like to make even more options available to our schools.

7. SOS Childrens Villages Wikipedia Distribution

We use the SOS Childrens Villages Wikipedia distribution in our labs. It comes in at just above 200MB, and contains many important and crucial articles with pictures. Previously, we used to include the entire Wikipedia snapshot in our labs (two years ago it was 12GB, and it has doubled every six months since then). The problem with the full Wikipedia was not so much with its size, but the content. We received some /really/ ugly faxes from schools where children have discovered pages such as Vagina, and pages linking from that (such as BDSM). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these subjects, it’s just that Wikipedia can sometimes get quite graphic, which is totally inappropriate for young kids. Something that this
smaller distribution has fixed for us.

8. Localisation

We’ve included all the available local language packs. Ubuntu currently includes translations for 8 of the 11 South African languages (including Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu), not too bad at all. We’ve also customised the Ubiquity installer to ask less questions. The South African version only asks two questions, and that is how you’d like to partition your disk, and to confirm your action.

It doesn’t get much easier than that! :)

Besides the above listed features, it contains everything you’d expect from a modern educational distro, the KDE edutainment suite, Pysycache, Gcompris, Tux4kids, Firefox, Evolution, OpenOffice.org, and more.

We’ve released the internal version that will be sent to all our schools. It contains some proprietary bits that are sponsored to all tuXlab schools by various content providers. The content will be removed and a public version will be uploaded over the coming weekend.

This is really our ‘edgy’- release early release often version. We plan to do some real big innovating stuff for our Feisty release, some functionality is already half-way implemented. We will also have more that we can submit back upstream to Edubuntu, although I’m already quite excited by this release :-)

Screenshots are available on the tuxlab-os website (slightly outdated, will get an update soon), and there’s also a Tectonic story.

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