Time to share that free (software) love

In February, I met a bloke in a local bookshop who was bemoaning the fact that he couldn’t find out what was going on in his area, because he didn’t have a computer. There used to be some in his local library, but they broke down. I was surprised at first – everyone I know uses computers every day – but this man was from a generation that relied on leaflets and newspapers to find out what was going on. He couldn’t afford to buy a computer, and also he’d need some help and a few pointers to get started. So we talked about getting an unwanted computer and installing a free OS on it. And as we spoke, we figured out that the time was ripe for this sort of thing.

Some of us have been banging on about the merits of free software for so long that it can get to feel like we’re always going to be a minority. Perhaps we get so familiar with trying to convert skeptical users of proprietary operating systems to join us in our eccentric linuxy ways, that it just feels like it’s always going to be like this. But what if external factors coincided in such a way that fairly suddenly, it made much more sense for Windows users to switch to desktop GNU/Linux than ever before? And it became easier for volunteers to put working machines in the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t have any? Would we be ready to push at that open door, and grow the desktop-user numbers in our communities exponentially?

Here are a few things that have happened recently, which I’m going to suggest conspire to create just such a moment of possibility. Firstly, consider that a lot of people are seriously skint at the moment, so buying a computer is going to be difficult. Secondly, there are loads of computers knocking about that used to run Windows XP, which as of last month reached the end of its support life, so there should be lots of people looking for a new operating system; they might even have heard that the new versions of Windows are very different and unpopular with many ex-XP users; likewise, there’ll be lots of machines getting decommissioned by organisations that won’t install a new OS. Thirdly, open formats are gaining acceptance, so the days when people are expected to do simple tasks with proprietary formats (docx for example) could soon be over.

If you combine all of that with the things we’ve been talking about for years; all the social, technical and environmental benefits of running a free operating system; it starts to sound like this really could be a significant moment in the uptake of GNU/Linux by ordinary, non-technically-minded folks. I’ve talked to a lot of people over the last couple of months about how we can work together to make this happen.

Looking around, there are these amazing things already going on:

  1. NELUG – a great bunch of helpful, knowledgeable and highly skilled linux users
  2. Transition Durham – a network of people and groups who (amongst other things) are interested in re-use and recycling, planned carbon descent and building resilient communities
  3. Durham Community Support Centre – who are working with a lot of digitally excluded people, and are interested in education

So, we had a meeting on April 24th 2014 to sort out how we could work together and make something good happen. Here are a few of the key points to come out of that.

  • We agreed that the model of skill-sharing without hierarchy, as pioneered in the Escuela Moderna and subsequent practice was a good fit with the ethics of free software and community education. This means that people can both learn and teach, and are encouraged to do both. The idea of a gift economy was also mentioned, as being a community-reinforcing aspect of free culture.
  • We recognised that we were a diverse group of people with some common interests but also some differences, and for that reason it was important to set up a project that was autonomous, so we can benefit from association with the three organisations listed above, without anyone feeling that they need to belong to organisation x,y or z to participate. We want to be open to all-comers.
  • We talked about who we would like to attract as participants, and decided to target beginners who needed help either getting a machine to run a free operating system, or using free software applications. We could also signpost people to other organisations, e.g. user groups, and resources, e.g. free online courses.
  • We agreed to work towards holding our first event on Saturday, July 26th 2014 from 10am to 3pm at Durham Miners’ Hall. They have wifi.
  • We’ll work up an evolving document (see this skillshare proposal) to introduce what we’re doing and why, and propose a loose structure for the first event.
  • D. volunteered to design some posters/fliers, with some help on the content
  • We noted that a lot of our target group won’t have regular computer access, so we’ll need to reach them through off-line means, e.g. suitably positioned posters & fliers, via other groups, word of mouth, etc.

Progress since then…

  1. M. and B. have been to the Miners’ Hall and checked out the room – it is suitable for the kind of session we have in mind. Also, we’re helping the Community Support Centre (in the same building) to get some old XP machines running Linux Mint, for use by their visitors.
  2. Because we agreed to be autonomous from the three organisations above, we need our own blog, although there’ll hopefully be a lot of cross-referencing with this one you’re reading now. So M. has set one up provisionally (domain to be discussed and mapped later)


March LUG – Kindling

Somewhere out over the North Sea I took off my jacket, leaned back, and sipped on my beer. My jacket has a nice big inside pocket and, if I take the cover of my kindle, it fits perfectly in the pocket. It’s a perfect fit. I mean, you wouldn’t know it was there …

A few days later I dug out my kindle and noticed the display was suffering from a split personality. The bottom half was telling me to switch it on, while the top half was still showing three little birds, outside my window, singing a sweet song. Oh dear. After a visit to the University of Google it became apparent to me that this problem is not uncommon. Weird, but not uncommon. Weird because you can run your finger across the screen and feel nothing; no cracks no blemishes. But it’s clearly broke. It may be silky smooth on the outside but it hides a shattered interior.

The forums on Amazon buzz with feel-good stories of customers phoning Amazon and getting great trade-in deals on their ‘just out of warranty’ kindles. My Kindle was not just out of warranty, it was exceedingly, comfortably and generously out of warranty, and had been for a couple of years. Still worth a try …

Well that didn’t go anywhere useful. Nice chap all the same, and together across the ether we visited the Amazon website where we discussed the nice shiny new kindles and he advised me that I could ‘buy’ one, at the price shown. Apparently bears also go to the bathroom in the woods. Ok, let’s go to ebay.

Aha … Now we’re cooking … This looks just the chap. A couple of days later a huge ball of bubble-wrap arrives at work, and somewhere inside, is a shiny new kindle screen. And there’s even a link to their Youtube video, yeah, well whatever. Why watch a youtube video when it’s NELUG night, and, well, you can run linux on a kindle can’t you? Apparently.

Durham - kindle - nelug -- Tue 19 Mar 2013 21-23-04 GMT_640x480

Richard takes the kindle to bits

That evening I turned up with a broken kindle, a new screen, and a random selection of small screwdrivers. I dumped them on the table and headed for the bar. A few minutes later I returned with my drink to find surgery was already underway. In the time it takes to say “a pint of Black Sheep please” Richard had prised open the cover, removed the battery, and was poking at various bits of the kindle’s anatomy with professional interest.

I made a perfunctory pretense of watching the instruction video on youtube but the Nelug hive mind was working quite well without it. With the new screen fitted re-assembly was, as they say, simply the reverse of disassembly. I stuck to the Black Sheep while Richard stuck to the screwdriver and, despite some frisky screws that had decided to go for a wander and wanted to live somewhere else for a while, it all ended well.

Mission Accomplished

The broken screen on the left with the repaired Kindle on the right

LUG meeting report, 18 September 2012

Much fun was had learning about the difference between BIOS and UEFI booting, with the help of a Fedora 17 live USB: booting a BIOS system with this gives you syslinux, but a UEFI laptop loaded GRUB with a broken set of configurations. A few internet searches told us this was a known problem, and we were able to fix the UEFI booting.

We also spent some time diagnosing CUPS and wireless driver problems, and discussing the implications of Google’s recent announcement that is supporting OAuth 2.0 authentication for several of its APIs.

A Brief Introduction To Regular Expressions

What is a Regular Expression?


A regular expression is a flexible way of defining patterns of text. It is a formal language which is interpreted by a regular expression engine (which might be part of an application or a programming language) that parses input text and compares it to the regular expression, and then performs operations on text that matches the regular expression.

Common uses of regular expressions include:

  • Matching text
  • Substituting text
  • Extracting text


The basic syntax of a regular expression is /pattern/flags. The main part is the text pattern description, and the flags control the behaviour of the regular expression engine.

Different regular expression engines support different features, and also slightly vary in their syntax. After a overview of general regexp syntax we will look at some common applications and languages and how they support regular expressions.

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Durham Linux User Group

We are in the process of updating this site… Apologies if the content you were looking for is no longer here… If you want to help, please get in touch.

You can join the mailing list by going to http://mailman.lug.org.uk/mailman/listinfo/durham

Meetings are held in Durham (In the bar at Durham Rowing Club – See the location page).

We meet on the 3rd Tuesday of every month, from around 19:30, until around 22:30

Book review: ‘Digital Audio Essentials: A Comprehensive Guide to Creating, Recording, Editing, and Sharing Music and Other Audio’

Book cover
Title: Digital Audio Essentials: A Comprehensive Guide to Creating, Recording, Editing, and Sharing Music and Other Audio
Author: Bruce Fries, Marty Fries
Price: £24.95
Publisher: O’Reilly
Published: May 2005
Reviewed by: Dougie Nisbet
Review date: October 2006
Rating: 4/5


This book presents itself an interesting challenge in that it attempts to present a comprehensive guide to digital audio in a book that isn’t the size of a brick. The authors do this successfully and the book is a worthwhile read. Continue reading

Book review: ’802.11 Wireless Networks: The Definitive Guide (Second Edition)’

Book cover
Title: 802.11 Wireless Networks: The Definitive Guide (Second Edition)
Author: Matthew S. Gast
Price: £31.95
Publisher: O’Reilly
Published: April 2005
Reviewed by: Martin Ward
Review Date: December 2005
Rating: 5/5

Calling your book “The Definitive Guide” sets the bar high at the start, and Gast does well to live up to his title and provide virtually everything you need to know about 802.11 networking.

If you are a wardriver looking for plans to make antennae out of Pringles cans, then you won’t find them here (but they are readily available on the Internet!) If you need to set up a wireless network of any size, or are just curious about how they actually work, then this is the book for you. Continue reading

Net booting a diskless Sun3 from a Linux server

My system consists of a Linux server (basically Slackware-3.6 but with kernel 2.2.10 and various other irrelevant package upgrades) and 2 Sun3′s, only one of which is ever in use at any given time (thus they use the same swap partition on the server – later).

The Sun3′s are diskless and hence boot from the Linux box, and mount all filesystems from it. The Sun’s run NetBSD 1.3.2 largely because the Sun 3 port of Linux was not very stable or mature when I set things up.
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Linux firewalls

Linux Firewalls

What is a firewall?

  • A firewall is a controlled gateway between one network and another (i.e. an intranet and the internet).
  • It is not a universal panacea for computer security. You must follow other good security practices.

Why Firewalls?

  • You cannot trust everyone. Some people take pleasure in hacking into machines. Not all are malicious but some are!
  • Your computer holds private/confidential data an you have a duty to protect it.
  • You want to limit access from within your private network to specific external information/services (i.e. not mpeg3′s)
  • You want to monitor/record traffic for audit/security purposes. Beware of privacy laws!

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