lkubuntu

A listing of random software, tips, tweaks, hacks, and tutorials I made for Ubuntu

Category Archives: open source

The state of IMEs under Linux

Input Method Editors, or IMEs for short, are ways for a user to input text in another, more complex character set using a standard keyboard, commonly used for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages (CJK for short). So in order to type anything in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, you must have a working IME for that language.

Quite obviously, especially considering the massive userbase in these languages, it’s crucial for IMEs to be quick and easy to setup, and working in any program you decide to use.

The reality is quite far from this. While there are many problems that exist with IMEs under Linux, the largest one I believe is the fact that there’s no (good) standard for communicating with programs.

IMEs all have to implement a number of different interfaces, the 3 most common being XIM, GTK (2 and 3), and Qt (3, 4, and 5).

XIM is the closest we have to a standard interface, but it’s not very powerful, the pre-editing string doesn’t always work properly, isn’t extensible to more advanced features, doesn’t work well under many window systems (in those I’ve tested, it will always appear at the bottom of the window, instead of beside the text), and a number of other shortcomings that I have heard exist, but am not personally aware of (due to not being one who uses IMEs very often).

GTK and Qt interfaces are much more powerful, and work properly, but, as might be obvious, they only work with GTK and Qt. Any program using another widget toolkit (such as FLTK, or custom widget toolkits, which are especially prevalent in games) needs to fall back to the lesser XIM interface. Going around this is theoretically possible, but very difficult in practice, and requires GTK or Qt installed anyways.

IMEs also need to provide libraries for every version of GTK and Qt as well. If an IME is not updated to support the latest version, you won’t be able to use the IME in applications using the latest version of GTK or Qt.

This, of course, adds quite a large amount of work to IME developers, and causes quite a problem with IME users, where a user will no longer be able to use an IME they prefer, simply because it has not been updated to support programs using a newer version of the toolkit.

I believe these issues make it very difficult for the Linux ecostructure to advance as a truly internationalized environment. It first limits application developers that truly wish to honor international users to 2 GUI toolkits, GTK and Qt. Secondly, it forces IME developers to constantly update their IMEs to support newer versions of GTK and Qt, requiring a large amount of effort, duplicated code, and as a result, can result in many bugs (and abandonment).

 

I believe fixing this issue would require a unified API that is toolkit agnostic. There’s 2 obvious ways that come to mind.

  1. A library that an IME would provide that every GUI application would include
  2. A client/server model, where the IME is a server, and the clients are the applications

Option #1 would be the easiest and least painful to implement for IME developers, and I believe is actually the way GTK and Qt IMEs work. But there are also problems with this approach. If the IME crashes, the entire host application will crash as well, as well as the fact that there could only be one IME installed at a time (since every IME would need to provide the same library). The latter is not necessarily a big issue for most users, but in multi-user desktops, this can be a big issue.

Option #2 would require more work from the IME developers, juggling client connections and the likes (although this could be abstracted with a library, similar to Wayland’s architecture). However, it would also mean a separate address space (therefore, if the IME crashes, nothing else would crash as a direct result of this), the possibility for more than one IME being installed and used at once, and even the possibility of hotswapping IMEs at runtime.

The problem with both of these options is the lack of standardization. While they can adhere to a standard for communicating with programs, configuration, dealing with certain common problems, etc. are all left to the IME developers. This is the exact problem we see with Wayland compositors.

However, there’s also a third option: combining the best of both worlds in the options provided above. This would mean having a standard server that will then load a library that provides the IME-related functions. If there are ever any major protocol changes, common issues, or anything of the likes, the server will be able to be updated while the IMEs can be left intact. The library that it loads would be, of course, entirely configurable by the user, and the server could also host a number of common options for IMEs (and maybe also host a format for configuring specific options for IMEs), so if a user decides to switch IMEs, they wouldn’t need to completely redo their configuration.

Of course, the server would also be able to provide clients for XIM and GTK/Qt-based frontends, for programs that don’t use the protocol directly.

Since I’m not very familiar with IMEs, I haven’t yet started a project implementing this idea, since there may be challenges about a method like this that might have already been discussed, but that I’m not aware of.

This is why I’m writing this post, to hopefully bring up a discussion about how we can improve the state of IMEs under Linux :) I would be very willing to work with people to properly design and implement a better solution for the problem at hand.

Fun obfuscation in openlux

I was working on a free software alternative to f.lux named openlux a while ago, and I wasn’t working on any interesting aspects of the program, just rewriting functions, which gets a bit tedious after a while, so I decided to try writing one part of the code in a slightly different manner, for fun! :D

The code is supposed to add a variable to another if a character is ‘+’, and subtract it if the character is ‘-‘. Here would be how one might implement this:

int a = /* something */;
unsigned short b = /* something ... note that b is a smaller data type than A, this is important */;
char chr = /* '+' or '-' */

if (chr == '+')
    return b + a;
else
    return b - a;

After a few hours (maybe even a day, I’m not very good at this :P), I came up with this instead:

a = (0x80000000 | a) ^ (0x80000000 - !!(chr - 43));
if (a & 0x80000000) a++;
return a + b;

To dissect this, let’s start with the easiest part (other than return a + b;, of course :P): !!(chr - 43).

43 is simply the value of ‘+’. Yes, okay, that was a bit cheap :P So, what !!(chr - '+') does is that it will return 0 if chr == ‘+’, 1 otherwise. This could be have been rewritten as (chr != '+').

Easy part out of the way, let’s look at how numbers are encoded, via example, in binary:

00000000 = 0
00000001 = 1
00000010 = 2
00000011 = 3
(...)

So far so good, right? But what about when we reach 10000000? If it’s an unsigned byte, it will return 128 (2^8). If it’s signed, however, it will return -127:

(...)
01111111 = 127
unsigned 10000000 = 128
signed   10000000 = -127
unsigned 10000001 = 129
signed   10000001 = -126
(...)

In both cases, the number will keep getting larger after 10000000, but if it’s signed, it will have wrapped around to -127.

Let’s see larger values:

(...)
unsigned 11111101 = 253
signed   11111101 = -3
unsigned 11111110 = 254
signed   11111110 = -2
unsigned 11111111 = 255
signed   11111111 = -1

Notice that the largest value for the signed number is not 0, but rather, -1. This is important. If it was 0, then it would mean inverting the bits of a number would make it negative (i.e. ~n == -n).

So what would inverting the bits do?

11111111 = -1
00000000 = 0

11111110 = -2
00000001 = 1

11111101 = -3
00000010 = 2

11111100 = -4
00000011 = 3

(...)

Notice a pattern here? If we want to turn a negative number positive, we can do it via (~n) - 1. Vice-versa, it’s (~n) + 1.

Alright, back to the code!

(0x80000000 - (chr != '+'))

0x80000000 can be represented in binary as 10000000000000000000000000000000. In other words, the sign bit for a 32-bit integer. So if chr == '+', it will simply evaluate as 0, and therefore, keeping 0x80000000 intact. Otherwise, it will turn it into 0x7fffffff, which is equivalent to 01111111..., or ~0x80000000.

(0x80000000 | a) simply returns a, with the sign bit on.

Now, to deal with the xor part, let’s use a few examples to clarify:

chr = '+';
(0x80000000 | a) ^ (0x80000000 - (chr != '+'));
(0x80000000 | a) ^ (0x80000000 - 0);
// 0x80000000 ^ 0x80000000 cancel each other out, leaving us with 'a', unchanged (assuming a < 0x80000000)

chr = '-';
(0x80000000 | a) ^ (0x80000000 - (chr != '+'));
(0x80000000 | a) ^ (0x7fffffff);
// assuming a < 0x80000000, this is equivalent to ~a, because the sign bit is left on, while every bit of a is inversed
// as we discussed, ~a is equal to ((-a) - 1)

if (a & 0x80000000) a++; checks if the sign bit is set (i.e. a < 0), and if so, increments a so that it gets the correct (negative) value, for the reasons I explained earlier.

Lastly, all we have to do is return a + b;, which should hopefully be pretty obvious :P

Let’s recap quickly

If chr == '+', a is left unchanged, and the result is simply a + b

If chr != '+', a‘s bits are inverted, and then incremented so that it can be equivalent to a = -a, so the result would be (assuming a’s original value, not the inverted+incremented value): -a + b or b - a.

I hope that you found this interesting, or at least fun to read! I’m sorry if this isn’t very clear, I’m sort of writing this to try and get to sleep, I’ll edit it tomorrow :)

Injecting code into running process with linux-inject

I was about to title this “Injecting code, for fun and profit”, until I realized that this may give a different sense than I originally intended… :P

I won’t cover the reasons behind doing such, because I’m pretty sure that if you landed on this article, you would already have a pretty good sense of why you want to do this …. for fun, profit, or both ;)

Anyway, after trying various programs and reading on how to do it manually (not easy!), I came across linux-inject, a program that injects a .so into a running application, similar to how LD_PRELOAD works, except that it can be done while a program is running… and it also doesn’t actually replace any functions either (but see the P.S. at the bottom of this post for a way to do that). In other words, maybe ignore the LD_PRELOAD simile :P

The documentation of it (and a few other programs I tried) was pretty lacking though. And for good reason, the developers probably expect that most users who would be using these kinds of programs wouldn’t be newbies in this field, and would know exactly what to do. Sadly, however, I am not part of this target audience :P It took me a rather long time to figure out what to do, so in hopes that it may help someone else, I’m writing this post! :D

Let’s start by quickly cloning and building it:

git clone https://github.com/gaffe23/linux-inject.git
cd linux-inject
make

Once that’s done, let’s try the sample example bundled in with the program. Open another terminal (so that you have two free ones), cd to the directory you cloned linux-inject to (e.g. cd ~/workspace/linux-inject), and run ./sample-target.

Back in the first terminal, run sudo ./inject -n sample-target sample-library.so

What this does is that it injects the library sample-library.so to a process by the -name of sample-target. If instead, you want to choose your victim target by their PID, simply use the -p option instead of -n.

But … this might or might not work. Since Linux 3.4, there’s a security module named Yama that can disable ptrace-based code injections (or code injections period, I doubt there is any other way). To allow this to work, you’ll have to run either one of these commands (I prefer the second, for security reasons):

echo 0 | sudo tee /proc/sys/kernel/yama/ptrace_scope # Allows any process to inject code into any other process started by the same user. Root can access all processes
echo 2 | sudo tee /proc/sys/kernel/yama/ptrace_scope # Only allows root to inject code

Try it again, and you will hopefully see “I just got loaded” in-between the “sleeping…” messages.

Before I get to the part about writing your own code to inject, I have to warn you: Some applications (such as VLC) will segfault if you inject code into them (via linux-inject, I don’t know about other programs, this is the first injection program that I managed to get working, period :P). Make sure that you are okay with the possibility of the program crashing when you inject the code.

With that (possibly ominous) warning out of the way, let’s get to writing some code!

#include <stdio.h>

__attribute__((constructor))
void hello() {
    puts("Hello world!");
}

If you know C, most of this should be pretty easy to understand. The part that confused me was __attribute__((constructor)). All this does is that it says to run this function as soon as the library is loaded. In other words, this is the function that will be run when the code is injected. As you may imagine, the name of the function (in this case, hello) can be whatever you wish.

Compiling is pretty straightforward, nothing out of the ordinary required:

gcc -shared -fPIC -o libhello.so hello.c

Assuming that sample-target is running, let’s try it!

sudo ./inject -n sample-target libhello.so

Amongst the wall of “sleeping…”, you should see “Hello world!” pop up!

There’s a problem with this though: the code interrupts the program flow. If you try looping puts("Hello world!");, it will continually print “Hello world!” (as expected), but the main program will not resume until the injected library has finished running. In other words, you will not see “sleeping…” pop up.

The answer is to run it in a separate thread! So if you change the code to this …

#include <stdio.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <pthread.h>

void* thread(void* a) {
    while (1) {
        puts("Hello world!");
        usleep(1000000);
    }
    return NULL;
}

__attribute__((constructor))
void hello() {
    pthread_t t;
    pthread_create(&t, NULL, thread, NULL);
}

… it should work, right? Not if you inject it to sample-target. sample-target is not linked to libpthread, and therefore, any function that uses pthread functions will simply not work. Of course, if you link it to libpthread (by adding -lpthread to the linking arguments), it will work fine.

However, let’s keep it as-is, and instead, use a function that linux-inject depends on: __libc_dlopen_mode(). Why not dlopen()? dlopen() requires the program to be linked to libdl, while __libc_dlopen_mode() is included in the standard C library! (glibc’s version of it, anyways)

Here’s the code:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <pthread.h>
#include <dlfcn.h>

/* Forward declare these functions */
void* __libc_dlopen_mode(const char*, int);
void* __libc_dlsym(void*, const char*);
int   __libc_dlclose(void*);

void* thread(void* a) {
    while (1) {
        puts("Hello world!");
        usleep(1000000);
    }
}

__attribute__((constructor))
void hello() {
    /* Note libpthread.so.0. For some reason,
       using the symbolic link (libpthread.so) will not work */
    void* pthread_lib = __libc_dlopen_mode("libpthread.so.0", RTLD_LAZY);
    int(*pthread_lib_create)(void*,void*,void*(*)(void*),void*);
    pthread_t t;

    *(void**)(&pthread_lib_create) = __libc_dlsym(pthread_lib, "pthread_create");
    pthread_lib_create(&t, NULL, thread, NULL);

    __libc_dlclose(pthread_lib);
}

If you haven’t used the dl* functions before, this code probably looks absolutely crazy. I would try to explain it, but the man pages are quite readable, and do a way better job of explaining than I could ever hope to try.

And on that note, you should (hopefully) be well off to injecting your own code into other processes!

If anything doesn’t make sense, or you need help, or just even to give a thank you (they are really appreciated!!), feel more than free to leave a comment or send me an email! :D And if you enjoy using linux-inject, make sure to thank the author of it as well!!

P.S. What if you want to change a function inside the host process? This tutorial was getting a little long, so instead, I’ll leave you with this: http://www.ars-informatica.com/Root/Code/2010_04_18/LinuxPTrace.aspx and specifically http://www.ars-informatica.com/Root/Code/2010_04_18/Examples/linkerex.c . I’ll try to make a tutorial on this later if someone wants :)

Why Openlux instead of Redshift?

First, I want to clarify that this is not a post trying to show that one is better than the other unequivocally. This is, instead, a post trying to show my reasons for writing openlux, and the differences between both softwares. I’m sure that many people will prefer the way that redshift works, over the way that openlux works, and that’s awesome!! The purpose of this post is, mainly, to show the differences, and hopefully help you decide which is better for your circumstance :)

My initial reason for writing openlux was because f.lux didn’t work for me, for various reasons (as I outlined in the first post about it) … I was actually unaware of redshift. There were a few people who linked me to it, and I immediately felt slightly disappointed that I hadn’t done my research before (would have saved me quite a bit of work!). Looking into it though, it’s not what I was looking for, and it has some of the issues that made me switch away from f.lux.

Redshift’s mode of operation is different than openlux’s. It primarily functions as a daemon, changing the color temperature automagically, depending on your timezone. This is a really handy feature, however, you don’t have much ability to configure the times. If you don’t have insomnia, and have a regular sleeping schedule, this is probably perfect. You tell it where you live, and it will change the screen color temperature throughout the day, in order to match the light you would receive if you were outside at that time (except at night, of course =P). But in my case, I can stay up until 4-5am, unable to sleep at all. Having the screen automatically change to a higher color temperature when I’m trying to go to sleep is most definitely not what I need. Now I could change the timezone every so often, but I’d rather have something in which I control when the screen color changes, instead of having to work against the program. I am aware that redshift has an option for manually changing the color temperature, but you don’t have much control over other options (such as animating to it, or individual control over RGB channels).

Redshift also uses color tables in order to compute the RGB values from kelvin temperatures. This allows for maximum accuracy within the range it provides (1000-25100K), however, it doesn’t allow anything outside of the range. On the other hand, openlux, works using Tanner Helland‘s algorithm, which allows for a theoretically infinite (practically 0-232, because it’s stored in a 32-bit integer), but less accurate result. Personally, I prefer using an algorithm, but there are definitely things to say about using a color table instead. The algorithm is pretty accurate (I think it’s a maximum of ~3-5% off of the original value), but if you’re within the range that redshift provides, it’s always nice to have 100% accuracy!

The main philosophical difference (that influences how the programs evolve) between redshift and openlux is the goal: redshift is more oriented towards being a standalone, fully-featured program, while openlux is oriented towards being a program that only does one task (change the screen color temperature), and focuses on that one task. It leaves tasks such as changing the color temperature in accordance with the timezone to other programs specialized for this (such as cron), or manually. Redshift tends to go more on the side of “run it, and forget about it”, while openlux leans more on giving the user maximum control and flexibility.

There’s definitely something to be said about both philosophies, and different users will appreciate different philosophies. I personally prefer the one of having full control at all times, but there are many users who would prefer to just have the program manage it for them automagically.

If you’re not sure which to use, try both! See which one works best for you. After all, GNU/Linux is all about choice :)

If I’ve made any mistake in this article, please let me know. This post is most definitely not about saying that one software is better than the other. While I, of course, prefer openlux, I want this to be a fair comparison of both softwares, so that users can better decide which software they want to use for themselves.

Follow up on the non-windowing display server idea

Note: I’m sorry, this post is a bit of a mess.

I wrote a post 2 days ago, outlining an idea for a non-windowing display server — a layer that wayland compositors (or other programs) could be built upon. It got quite a bit more attention than I expected, and there were many responses to the idea.

Before I go on, I wish to address a few things that weren’t clear in the original post:

The first being that I am not an ubuntu developer, and am in no way associated with canonical. I am only an ubuntu member :) Even though I don’t use ubuntu personally, I wish to improve the user experience of those who do.

Second is a point that I did not address clearly in the original post: One of the main reasons for this idea is to enable users to modify the video resolution, gamma ramp, orientation, brightness, etc. DRM provides an API for doing these operations, however, AFAIK, you cannot run modesetting operations on a virtual terminal that is already running an application that has called video modesetting operations. In other words, you cannot run a DRM-based application on an already-running wayland server in order to run a modesetting operation. So, AFAIK, the only way to enable an application to do this is to write a sort of “proxy” server that handles requests, and then runs the video modesetting operations.

Since I am currently confusing myself re-reading this, I’ll try to provide a diagram in order to explain what I mean.

If you want to change the gamma ramp, for example, this is impossible:

drm_client_wayland

So with the display server acting as a proxy of sorts, it becomes possible:

drm_client_display_server

This is also why I believe that having a server over a shared library is crucial. A shared library would allow for abstraction over multiple backends, however, it doesn’t allow communication with more than one application. A wayland compositor can access all of the functions, yes, but wayland clients cannot.

The third clarification is that this is not only meant for wayland. Though this is the main “client” I have in mind for this server, it isn’t restricted to only wayland. The idea is that it could be used by anything, for example, as one response pointed out, xen virtualization. Or, in my case, I actually want to write clients that use this server directly, without even using a windowing server like wayland (yes, I actually have a good reason for wanting this XD ). In other words, though I believe that the group that would use this the most would be wayland users (hence why I wrote the original post tailored towards this), it isn’t only meant for wayland.

There were a few responses saying that wayland intentionally doesn’t support this, not because of the reason I originally suspected (it being “only” a windowing protocol), but because one of wayland’s main goals is to let the compositor to have full control over the display, and make sure that there are no flickers or tearing etc., which changing the video resolution (or some other modesetting operations) would undoubtedly cause. I understand and respect this, however, I still want to be able to change the resolution or gamma ramp (etc.) myself, and suffer the consequences of the momentary flickering or whatever else. Again though, I respect wayland’s decision in this aspect, so my proposal, instead, is this: To make this an optional backend for wayland compositors. Instead of my original proposal, which was to build wayland compositors on top of this (in order to help simplify the stack), instead, have this as an option, so that if users wish to have the video modesetting (etc.) capabilities, they can use this backend instead.

A pretty large concern that many people (including myself) have is performance. Having an extra server on the stack would definitely have an impact on performance, but the question is how much.

So with this being said, going forwards, I am currently working on implementing a proof-of-concept prototype in order to have a better sense of what it entails, especially in regards to performance. The prototype will be anything but production-ready, but hopefully will at least work … maybe XD .

Idea: Non-windowing display server

For the TL;DR folk who are concerned with the title: It’s not an alternative to wayland or X11. It’s layer that wayland compositors (or other) can use.

As a quick foreward: I’m still a newbie at this field. While I try my best to avoid inaccuracies, there might be a few things I state here that are wrong, feel free to correct me!

Wayland is mainly a windowing protocol. It allows clients to draw windows (or, as the wayland documentation puts it, “surfaces”), and receive input from those surfaces. A wayland server (or “compositor”) has the task of drawing these surfaces, and providing the input to the clients. That is the specification.

However, where does a compositor draw these surfaces to? How does the compositor receive input? It has to provide many backends for various methods of drawing the composited surface. For example, the weston compositor has support for drawing the composited surface using 7 different backends (DRM, Linux Framebuffer, Headless [a fake rendering device], RDP, Raspberry Pi, Wayland, and X11). The amount of work put into making these backends work must be incredible, which is exactly where the problem relies in: it’s arguably too much work for a developer to put in if they want to make a new compositor.

That’s not the only issue though. Another big problem is that there is then no standard way to configure the display. Say you wanted a wayland compositor to change the video resolution to 800×600. The only way to do that is to use a compositor-specific extension to the protocol, since the protocol, AFAIK, has no method for changing the video resolution — and rightfully so. Wayland is a windowing protocol, not a display protocol.

My idea is to create a display server that doesn’t handle windowing. It handles display-related things, such as drawing pixels on the screen, changing video mode, etc… Wayland compositors and other programs that require direct access to the screen could then use this server and trust that the server will take care of everything display-related for them.

I believe that this would enable for much simpler code, and add a good deal more power and flexibility.

To give a more graphic description (forgive my horrible diagraming skills):

Current Stack:

wayland_current

Proposed Stack:

 

wayland_new

I didn’t talk about the input server, but it’s the same idea as the display server: Have a server dedicated to providing input. Of course, if the display server uses something like SDL as the backend, it may have to also provide the input server, due to the SDL library, AFAIK, doesn’t allow a program to access the input of another program.

This is an idea I have toyed around with for some time now (ever since I tried writing my own wayland compositor, in fact! XD), so I’m curious as to what people think of it. I would be more than happy to work with others to implement this.

Using Openlux to help your sleep and/or relax your eyes

If you are familiar with research suggesting that blue light affects your sleep, you might also be familiar with a (free!) software named f.lux. I use it on my iDevices (used to use it on my computers too), and it works great …. except for a few issues.

The first is CPU consumption. Seriously, this software takes up a lot of CPU. That was the main reason behind ditching xflux (the X11 edition of the software). It also doesn’t entirely block out blue light, even at the lowest color temperature it allows (this is true for the iOS version too). There were a number of other issues that became annoying over time (forced very long animations, a daemon that rarely ever works as intended, sometimes the software doesn’t even work at all, mouse cursor being left entirely out of the picture, etc.). These would (probably) all be simple to fix …. however, it’s free as in price, not as in freedom. The software is closed-source.

Openlux is a very simple open-source MIT-licensed clone I wrote that tries to address these issues (minus the mouse cursor issue, that one is a bit more complex). For now, it doesn’t contain as many features as xflux does, but it is only a first release. Animations and the lot will come later :)

I haven’t worked on packaging yet (if anyone wishes to spend some time doing this, that would be greatly appreciated!!), but for now, visit https://github.com/AnonymouMeerkat/openlux for download and compilation information (sorry for the mess in main.c, I will get to that later!).

Here are a few usage examples

openlux                      # Sets the screen color temperature to 3400K (the default)
openlux -k 1000              # Sets the color temperature to 1000K
openlux -k 2000 -b 0         # Sets color temperature to 2000K, but removes all blue light
openlux -k 2000 -b 255       # Ditto, but blue is set to 255 (maximum value, gives the screen a magenta-ish tone)
openlux -r 130 -g 150 -b 100 # Gives the screen a dark swamp green tint (Kelvin value is ignored)
openlux -k 40000             # Sets the screen color temperature to 40000K
openlux -i                   # Resets the screen color temperature

I personally like using openlux -k 10000 during the day (very relaxing for the eyes!), and openlux -k 2300 -b 40 during the night.

I hope this can be useful for you!! If you have any issues, suggestions, feedback, etc. (even if you just want to say thank-you — those are always appreciated ^^), feel free to write a comment or send me an email!

The importance of freedom in software

Software license agreements (EULA) are generally considered little more than a confirmation on whether or not the user really wants to install said software. Heck, for all that most users care, it could read “Do you wish to install this software?” and their overall reaction would be approximately the same. In fact, I often catch myself using the “I decline” button when I realize that this software is indeed useless.

Of course, in the back of our minds, we know that we really should read it …. but, come on, we have a life to live. We can’t spend it reading license agreements! YOLO.

Many software developers know this fact, and capitalize on it. One good example would be a company named after a fruit that develops smartphone specifications. Have any of you ever read the 60 page long license agreement on a tiny screen, just to install the next Flappy Bird?

I’m no different. I’ve probably only read 3 (proprietary) license agreements in my entire life… and I’ve installed hundreds of proprietary software.

I’ve also found myself accustomed to thinking it’s illegal to share software with my friends. The idea of inspecting or modifying how a proprietary software works (through reverse engineering) feels very risky and only borderline legal. And, actually, both are true in most cases.

For many users, this doesn’t seem like an issue. Most users, and in fact a lot of programmers too, wouldn’t check the source code of a program they are running. And, to be honest, most users would rather just link to the website of the software anyways, even if the software would allow itself to be shared.

However, just because these freedoms are rarely used, it doesn’t mean that they are useless. Think of a self defense class. Unless you’re in a more violent neighborhood, chances are that you will very rarely need to use it. But when you do, you will be really happy that you did invest the time to learn it. After the Snowden leaks, many people started accusing software of sending data to the NSA. Is this true? I don’t know. And that’s the issue: We are not legally allowed to know. We cannot inspect or modify the software in any way. We blindly trust what the developers say about their products.

Of course, there are also more everyday usages of being able to inspect, modify, or share. I’ll use Studio One as an example. It’s a proprietary software. Its bugs have lead me to immense data losses (due to a really badly functioning “Undo” button that can occasionally screw up the entire project file). If I had the source code handy it would be possible to fix this (probably a bit difficult, yes, but possible). But I can’t fix it, because the EULA doesn’t allow me to inspect and modify.

What about sharing software? Because I cannot share the software I use with others, it makes it entirely impossible for me to create truly “open source” music (I’m not sure if the term applies to music, but I think you get the idea). I make breakdown videos, where I show how I made the music, but as far as I know, I cannot legally go any further than that.

This is not because these software developers are evil. They do this to maximize their profits, and that’s understandable. However, the cost of this is our freedom.


Now that I’ve spent some time criticizing proprietary software, I’ll take a bit of time promoting free (as in freedom) software.

First the term, Free Software. “Free” has multiple meanings (in the coincidentally named “thefreedictionary.com”, it lists 38 different meanings for the word “free”), but there are 2 major ones: free as in no price (gratis), and free as in freedom (libre). In order to distinguish between them, I’ll use “gratis” and “libre” instead.

Both the terms gratis and libre can be used to describe software. Hence, using the term “free” can be very ambiguous; “does this specific software respect my freedom? or is it just that my wallet is unnecessary?”. In many software circles, “free software” simply means gratis. In these circles, Skype could be considered free software (even though it doesn’t respect your freedom, among other issues). However, in other circles (generally among libre software developers), “free software” qualifies as “libre”, not “gratis” (and therefore, Skype would not be considered free software).

So what is the purpose of free software? Basically, depending on the license, it enables you to do what proprietary software forbids you from doing. You can share the software with anyone, you can inspect how the program works, you can modify it, and you can redistribute the modified versions too! It allows for an incredible eco-system in which programmers around the world can create new features, fix bugs and security leaks, then submit it back to the project leader for integration with the software. Or, if someone has a wildly different goal than the team who develops the project, they can fork it and create a new project, using a modified codebase of the original!

What does this mean to users who don’t know how to program? Well, okay, sure, not as beneficial to them. However, practically speaking, since an unlimited amount of programmers can get involved, libre software (especially larger ones) have a much lesser chance of having bugs, security leaks, viruses, or spyware. It can also include many more features than proprietary software does. Libre software is also often updated much more frequently than proprietary software, since any developer can contribute.

It is also possible for users to hire a programmer to make a change for them, in the same way that home owners may hire a plumber to fix a leak (except that, generally speaking, programmers would probably take more time to make the change than a plumber would to fix the leak).


Since the first part talked about the idea of proprietary software, and the second about free/libre software, the third will look at practical usage: How to switch over to libre software.

It can be difficult to switch to libre software, especially when you have proprietary software that you use a lot and/or really like. For example, if you use Skype, it may be difficult to ask your Skype contacts to switch over to Ekiga or some other libre VoIP software. In my case, a surprising number of my contacts were thankfully flexible enough to switch over to some other communication method. However, everyone is individual, and your friends might find it difficult to migrate over (even after explaining why not to use Skype).

However, luckily, most proprietary software have libre equivalents. It is beyond the scope of this post to list these, but, with a bit of research, you can find some online (I would link a list, however, I can’t find any lists that only include truly libre software). I would be happy to help find an alternative if you want too! (just leave a comment or send me an email)

Sometimes though, there are no alternatives. This is especially relevant in the field of modern video games, or music production. It is also relevant with drivers for parts of your system that do not have a libre driver written for it. So what do you do? This is really up to you. Are you okay with using proprietary software for this one purpose? Should you avoid using it period?

For me, I use proprietary software for both music production, and a few video games. I don’t like the fact that I’m using either, but I currently value the features that it provides over what it can control (when using proprietary software, I ensure that internet is turned off, and I don’t have any other software open). Later, once I find OSS alternatives for the music software I’m using, and when I detach myself from video games (I only really play Deus Ex Human Revolution …. it’s a good game, with an amazing soundtrack xD), I will probably finally use 100% libre software (minus the BIOS) on all of my machines.


Lastly, I would like to address the fact that libre software is only one part of the issue in having control over your computer. While it is possible to have full freedom in every single way for software, there are two other major issues: Hardware, and Internet.

Hardware is very difficult, since you can’t easily change the hardware. And, in fact, even if you knew the source code (HDL) of the hardware, it would be very very difficult to reverse engineer it in order to make sure that the hardware is indeed following the source code. There are even theories that Intel and AMD CPUs are sending information to the NSA (evasively worded responses from the companies give credence to this theory). Whether or not this is true is outside the scope of this article, but the point is, hardware is a very big issue, and I think the only true answer that would guarantee that the source code truly is the hardware, would be to create your own hardware. I think it goes without saying that this would be very very difficult. Maybe with the rise of 3D printers this will someday change … who knows!

Internet is the other issue. The internet is a way to access ports from foreign computers. Unless you own the foreign computer, there is no way of guaranteeing that your data will be safe with them. They can do anything they want with the data you send. Getting away from services that are known to spy on you and otherwise harm you (such as Facebook) can be a difficult task, depending on how connected you are with the service. In Facebook’s case, everyone is on Facebook, because everyone is on Facebook. Leaving it can be difficult, since you have to sometimes migrate family members and friends to other websites (same point as I made with Skype).


I hope that you found this post useful! I’m sure a lot of points in here may be wrong (please correct me!!), but I have tried my best in order to make sure that this can be as informative and accurate as possible to those that are new to the concept of software freedom. I know I have missed a lot of other important points in here, but I’m not sure where, or if they should be mentioned, so I will link articles containing those below.

If you have any questions, comments, corrections, or anything else (as long as it is constructive, of course!), please feel free to leave a comment or send me an email!


Further reading:

http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.en.html (a very good explanation on what the Free Software Foundation considers libre software)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ag1AKIl_2GM (a talk by Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU project, about software freedom)
http://www.gnu.org/distros/free-distros.en.html (a list of completely libre GNU/Linux distributions)
https://libreplanet.org/wiki/List_of_software_that_does_not_respect_the_Free_System_Distribution_Guidelines (a list of software that are free and open-source, but not libre … yes, Linux contains non-free code!)

I’m quitting relinux

I will start this off by saying: I’m very (and honestly) sorry for, well, everything.

To give a bit of history, I started relinux as a side-project for my CosmOS project (cloud-based distribution … which failed), in order to build the ISO’s. The only reasonable alternative at the time was remastersys, and I realized I would have to patch it anyways, so I thought that I might as well make a reusable tool for other distributions to use too.

Then came a rather large amount of friction between me and the author of remastersys, of which I will not go into any detail of. I acted very immaturely then, and wronged him several times. I had defamed him, made quite a few people very angry at him, and even managed to get some of his supporters against him. True, age and maturity had something to do with it (I was 12 at the time), but that still doesn’t excuse my actions at all.

So my first apology is to Tony Brijeski, the author of remastersys, for all the trouble and possible pain I had put him through. I’m truly sorry for all of this.

However, though the dynamics with Tony and remastersys are definitely a large part of why I’m quitting relinux, that is not all. The main reason, actually, is lack of interest. I have rewritten relinux a total of 7 times (including the original fork of remastersys), and I really hate the debugging process (takes 15-20 minutes to create an ISO, so that I can debug it). I have also lost interest in creating linux distributions, so not only am I very tired of working on it, I also don’t really care about what it does.

On this note, my second apologies (and thanks) have to go those who have helped me so much through the process, especially those who have tried to encourage me to finish relinux. Those listed are in no particular order, and if I forgot you, then let me know (and I apologize for that!):

  • Ko Ko Ye
  • Raja Genupula
  • Navdeep Sidhu
  • Members of the TSS Web Dev Club
  • Ali Hallahi
  • Gert van Spijker
  • Aritra Das
  • Diptarka Das
  • Alejandro Fernandez
  • Kendall Weaver

Thank you very much for everything you’ve done!

Lastly, I would like to explain my plans for it, in case anyone wants to continue it (by no means do I want to enforce these, these are just ideas).

My plan for the next release of relinux was to actually make a very generic and scriptable CLI ISO creation tool, and then make relinux as a specific set of “profiles” for that tool (plus an interface). The tool would basically contain a few libraries for the chosen scripting language, for things like storing the filesystem (SquashFS or other), ISO creation, and general utilities for editing files while keeping permissions, mutli-threading/processing, etc… The “profiles” would then copy, edit, and delete files as needed, set up the tool wanted for running the live system (in ubuntu’s case, this’d be casper), setup the installer/bootloader, and such.

I would like to apologize to you all, the people who have used relinux and have waited for a stable version for 3 years, for not doing this. Thank you very much for your support, and I’m very sorry for having constantly pushed releases back and having never made a stable or well working version of relinux. Though I do have some excuses as to why the releases didn’t work, or why I didn’t test them well enough, none of them can cover why I didn’t fix them or work on it more. And for that, I am very sorry.

I know that this is a very large post for something so simple, but I feel that it would not be right if I didn’t apologize to those I have done wrong to, and thanked those who have helped me along the way.

So to summarize, thank you, sorry, and relinux is now dead.

– Anonymous Meerkat

SythOS – An experimental collaborative OS

A rather long time ago (around a year and a half), I wrote a post about a system I was making which was supposed to be a cloud-based OS, named CosmOS. I didn’t really develop it that much, as I had a rather vague sense of what I wanted to do with it, and I immediately had problems with implementing the most basic concepts. Most of the idea was actually quite boring, and had already been developed by others. But since I had gone through all the trouble of making a tool for creating it (relinux), I decided to try it anyways, and just radically changed the whole design. And I did. I also found that I couldn’t have used the same name, as CosmOS was already the name of at least two different OS’s, and it was also the name of a directory of linux OSs (among other unrelated usages), so I kind of got that I had to change the name.

The name is actually based on two words, Synergy and Lithosphere (I was going to call it LithOS, but it sounded like some kind of boring scientific and/or business-oriented OS, if you know what I mean). I know, kind of an odd combination, and the reasoning for it is a quite far-fetched, but heck, it’s an unused name, and it sounds cool! Lithosphere was used as a creative way to say “ground”, because it’s not cloud-based (unlike CosmOS, in fact), and it’s also designed to be “down to the ground” with you. Instead of you adapting to the OS, the OS adapts to you (will explain how this works later). Also, the Synergy part is because since it’s completely with you, it allows nearly everything to be done much easier and simpler, reducing the amount of time both the users AND the developers need to do nearly everything (except for the engine… :-/).

The OS itself is principally designed under the following goals:

  • Help the user to become more productive within it
  • Extremely intuitive
  • Extremely easy to collaborate on anything
  • Extremely customizable
  • Fun

There is only one software that I’m aware of that does this well: Minecraft (creative mode). Okay, forget the productive element, but still, anyone can pick up the pace on how to use minecraft extremely quickly. Also, if you’ve ever played it, you’ll know how easy it is to collaborate on building something. You don’t need to use a VCS like git or mercurial to build something. Just get someone else on your server, and build together!

That’s kind of my idea with SythOS. You are inside a 3D environment, windows are mapped to 3D surfaces (I had this idea from Wolfenstein Qt, but it appears to already have been implemented: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FjuPn7MXMs), and the environment is modifiable, using a minecraft-like in-game “level editor”. Other people can connect to your computer (if you allow them, of course), and then you can work together on projects (such as coding, audio, video, or even games) at the same time! Of course, for this to be effective, you have to have somewhat compatible software (you can’t both work on the same window for rather obvious reasons), but even if the software you use isn’t “compatible”, taking turns, and being able to see what the other is doing real-time is still way easier than using some kind of VCS or worse, emailing files back and forth, right? Also, with the chat and mic/audio features that are planned, you can also make meetings and/or “calls” (kind of like skype does, except without the video) within it.

Here’s a list of features that are definite:

  • 3D virtual world
  • Windows mapped to the world
  • MMO-like online presence
  • World is Minecraft-like
  • Different tools and blocks (inspired by minecraft)
    • Hand tool: Allows you to do basic edits to windows (such as moving, resizing, and closing), and allows you to use windows, plus allows you to remove blocks
    • Kill tool: Allows you to kill processes, based on the windows you hit, and, of course, allows you to remove blocks
    • Various blocks, which allows you to place them, and remove other blocks, plus allows everything the hand tool allows you to do
    • Portal tool: Allows you to create portals to different rooms, so as to decrease the time needed to go between two different “workspaces”
  • Whitelist, Blacklist and “Asklist” for everything (great for multiple user computers, and/or online interaction)
  • Chat
  • Quake-like terminal with multiple tabs, but it can be used to place any kind of windows, not only terminals

Other features that are planned, but not definite would be:

  • Mic/Audio
  • Some kind of game engine, so you can create 3D objects that interact with the world (though it’s definitely not limited to games, it could even be used to create fancy movie creation software, or 3D modeling software)
  • Facial expression recognition, so your character’s face will match your expression. This is definitely not an important feature, and if it is ever implemented, it will probably be quite far-future.
  • Video… somehow… (no idea how to elegantly do this though)

Now for the point of this post (the reason why I’m writing it): Would you use something like this? If so, or if not, why? Any ideas and/or comments on this?

About the possibility of it being implemented, I know that it is possible, but I’m not sure how much time it’ll take me to do all of this (and I’m not sure if I’ll have the stamina needed to do this). I’m planning on releasing a prototype by the end of this summer (2013) though.