Weekend roundup and first big challenge at work.

This past weekend was a little on the busy side. We got up early to go looking at potential new places to live as we’re hoping to move out of the in-law’s place by the end of June after Courtney’s graduation and open house. Only made it to two places in Canton before a stop at an Office Max resulted in Courtney buying a new computer desk for use in the new abode forced us back home. Why? Because our only vehicle at the moment is a 2000 Pontiac Grand Prix and, with Courtney in the back seat, we had to try and fit the box of desk parts into the trunk and it didn’t fit entirely. I was reluctant to leave it sitting in parking lots hanging out of the trunk hoping no one would walk off with it.

What was interesting about our first stop is that it wasn’t an apartment building, but a mobile home park. It seems some parks have started renting out mobile homes over the past few years because folks are more likely to rent than to buy as these homes tend to be notoriously hard to resell. The rates seem to be slightly less than some apartments depending on the size of the home in question and you still have the option to purchase it later if you wish to do so. The tricky part about looking now is that they really don’t know what they’ll have available in a month’s time so we could only get ballpark ideas. The other place we stopped in was for town home apartments which include a usable basement. The rent on those was higher, but it’s hard to argue with the utility of having a basement to stick crap into. We’ve still got a few other places we want to look at, including some in Ypsilanti which would be closer to work and the community college Courtney and I are likely to be attending this fall so no final decisions as of yet.

The other thing we did on Saturday after dropping Courtney and her desk off at home was go to the local Honda dealer to consider a second car. I decided awhile ago that I think I’d like to get a Honda Civic as my next car and, after sitting in a couple of them, that lust has only grown. Still, after the debacle with the computer desk earlier, we also looked at the Honda Element which I also liked, but not as much as the Civic. New models are currently out of our price range at least until Anne can land a job so we also looked at some of the Honda certified pre-owned vehicles and, for good comparison measure, a brand new Honda Fit.

I have to say that the Honda Fit surprised the hell out of me. It’s a fucking dinky car, but for being so damned small it has a surprising amount of room in it. Headroom in particular was more abundant than I expected and, when you fold the rear seats down, the damn thing will haul quite a bit of crap around. The one we looked at was priced around $14,995, but even going with a no-frills base model we still weren’t sure we could swing the payments until we figured out what our monthly rent was likely to be. So we didn’t end up buying a car, used or otherwise, though once we get settled and have an idea of whether or not we can swing a down payment (we were basing our initial inquiries on not having one, which obviously drives the payments up) we’ll probably go back and get us a Fit to start with plans to buy a Civic later.

As for the new job, it’s been going pretty well despite a rather hectic week last week were I was on mornings for a good part of it, and today I was given a Special Project to work on. We have a number of machines set up as kiosks sitting around for the folks out on the floor to make use of during their breaks/lunch for browsing the web, entering their time cards, etc. that are largely run under Windows XP. Windows XP is much hated here and so I’ve been tasked with turning them all into Ubuntu based kiosks locked down to just a few apps and then turning that into an ISO image that can be slapped on a machine whenever it needs to be staged. Needless to say I’ll be reading up quite a bit on how to make a Linux kiosk setup in the next couple of weeks. If you folks have any recommendations for good resources on the web, let me know.

20 thoughts on “Weekend roundup and first big challenge at work.

  1. I can help you with that personally, Les. I have some not-small experience with Linux. I do have some web resources on that as well – but a hint for you: either go with Ubuntu LTS or actually go out and modify a Debian. They are going to be easier not to break with updates.

    Oh – and it’s not going to be quite as simple as locking it down to a few apps, I am afraid. You’ll also have to do some basic hardening. I have other resources for that and some personal experience to throw in as well.

    What kinds of things do you need? Active Directory Integration – if this is meant for corporate users with a few outside guests thrown in, you might want it. Which applications do you need? And how fast do you need it? Let me know and I’ll post some of the links I have. I just don’t want to overload you with useless crap.

  2. Webs05 has a Fit and I can attest to large craploads of capacity.  We moved an enormous television and then a huge entertainment center in his dinky Fit and the lid closed with room to spare.  The seats can be reconfigured in lots of ways.

    Difference in gas mileage could help you make your patments.  Way back in ‘79 a college buddy of mine made the payments on gas savings alone when he switched from a Jeep to a Toyota Celica.  And today my 18-year-old Civic gets 31mpg in town though I don’t drive it much.

    Linux kiosks rock – we run our walk-up email stations without hard drives, off a CD drive hidden inside the machines.  Just to boost Webs a little more, here’s his notes on the project.  But unlike Webs and Ryan, I can’t add much myself.  My experience with Linux adds up to “Webs, help me!!!”

  3. I was going to get a Fit, but I ultimately went with a Nissan Versa due to it having more headroom and a bit more interior room altogether. It’s nice to not have to sit in the backseat to drive comfortably like I used to have to do in my Ford Escort – nobody could sit behind me when I was driving that POS. 

    I do still find myself having to lean forward and crank my kneck to see a stop light if I’m too close to it (like making a left turn in an intersection where you need to see that the light turned red…oh yeah, I guess that’s probably not something I should be doing anyway.) but at least I don’t bang my head getting in and out, and my head isn’t flush with the ceiling.

    Anyway, I have on several occasions so far moved 3-4 large people comfortably over long distances in there, and the backseat is supposedly very roomy, though I haven’t sat back there other than to vacuum yet myself.

    The cargo area is a bit dinky compared to a car with a trunk or an SUV (I got the hatchback…well, I guess they call it the 5-door nowdays), but the seats fold down nicely and create a fairly spacious cargo area for moving stuff.

    That’s my two cents on small cars, I’ll stop now. Don’t want anyone to think I’m a Nissan salesman or anything.

  4. Ryan, the machines will be logged in constantly using a guest account so no need for Active Directory or LDAP stuff. The primary application will be Firefox for web browsing. These machines are just something for the folks on the floor to amuse themselves with on breaks and lunch. The boss did say he wanted VNC and SSH on the boxes, but that was more for our use than the guests. Also they’re supposed to be Ubuntu as that’s the distro most in favor at the company.

    Two of the stations are already running Linux and I’ll be taking a closer look at them to see how they’re set up. It’s supposedly a very basic installation.

  5. Well don’t I feel like an ass.  According to their respective websites, the Fit has wider seats and the same damn headroom as the Versa.  Shoot, I feel really dumb now. red face It felt smaller when I sat in it damnit!

  6. BB, you bought the right car… the one you liked most.  Comfort is subjective and where interior dimensions are involved your subjective impression is more important than the specifications.

  7. Would it be acceptable to utilize a single Linux server and either dumb terminals/PCs, the application of interest is FreeNX (vs. NXServer which costs) and it can provide reasonable bandwidth management? Check out Knoppix as it has a FreeNX client/server built into the LiveCD for examining it further.

  8. Well, in that case…

    Might I suggest adding mIRC (or XChat) and OpenOffice (at least the Writer and Calc) in addition to Firefox? There are also a few ways to tweak Firefox and Ubuntu in general to do user account cleanup and automatic logout. If you tie that together with passwordless logins, you get some privacy protection and automatically disable root access.

    You’re also going to need to do some permission changing on user configuration files, troll around a bit in the basic configuration files, and some cleanup scripting. It’s not so much difficult as it is time-consuming to do. I would also suggest using remote boot if you can do it. It’s very advanced, though – but it makes kernel security updates a no-brainer.

    There’s just a lot of small stuff to put in there, really. It depends on how psychotic you want to get with security and privacy, but the basics are fairly straightforward and well-documented. My suggestion to you is to put together a list of the software you will need, any privacy or security concerns you must/want to address, etc. and then decide how much time you want to put into it.

    Oh – and I would suggest using a Live boot of some kind, if I were you, regardless of whether you install onto the hard drive (there are ways). Again, that is quite advanced, but it assures without a doubt that you will never have a problem with someone breaking a kiosk.

  9. Kysttfafm, you’re making it more complex than it really needs to be. Like I said, these are simple stations for folks to browse the web when they’re on break. The machines are already there running Windows XP and they just want me to convert them to Linux. This is as much about teaching me Linux as it is anything they really need done.

    Ryan, let me take a look at what they have set up on the two machines so far before I decide how fancy I should get. grin

  10. Regarding the Linux kiosks:

    KISS

    How you architect something like this depends on problem parameters. If it’s only a handful of boxes with internal users only and absent any hard requirements to do more, I’d simply look into unattended installs and restage these boxes once in a while. The only thing I’d look at closely is data retention and logging, subject to corporate policy. What you don’t have can’t be subpoenad.

    The above is a very different problem from building an Internet cafe or in Webs’s case, public kiosks at a place where you can’t assume friendly users.

  11. As far as the Fit’s go, I did a lot of research and they get the best reviews and seem to have better safety than comparable models like the Toyota Matrix. As Fit drivers, My Fiance and I can say we absolutely love the car, the utility, handling, gas mileage (which has never been below 25 and I would say it is averaging around 28), and we just like having a reliable car. If you can afford the payments, go for it!

    Word to the wise, my Fiance called ahead to 6 other dealerships within a 50 mile radius to find out what they could offer us for a price. The first two said they couldn’t drop the price (which is what we were told here in town), then as she kept calling they finally dropped the price. We only got $300 off ours, but from what I have read and heard, that is a lot. The Fit is an incredibly popular car with a low sticker price compared to dealer invoice. So getting some money off the sticker price can be tough. Be prepared to walk out on em…

    Anyways, with the Kiosk stuff, here is my plan that I am currently working on. If anyone is interested in helping let me know, I can start a new post or a new development site. I know this idea would be really popular and I am very close to being able to test boot functionality of the client.

    Les, if this is getting too complicated, just look into Boothbox. I can help you with that if you like and give you all the links you need to make it work!

  12. Sepharo, we might have been. They were around the Cherry Hill and Beck Road areas.

    Elwed, you’ve pretty much hit it on the head. I spoke with the boss about it a bit more today and it doesn’t have to be too fancy. This stuff is sitting in a small corner of the break area and won’t be used by anyone outside the building.

  13. Yeah, that’s kinda where I was going with the kiosk thing, too. If you don’t want to do a LiveCD-type installation, there are a few things you can do with the permissions to make it near-unbreakable.

  14. That’s the sort of info I’m interested in learning about, Ryan. Got any links you can toss my way?

  15. So today I started messing around with the Server install of Ubuntu and it does make for a pleasantly blank slate to build upon. The boss suggested that I experiment with alternative desktop managers Fluxbox and FVWM so I’m trying to dig up info on how to install them under Ubuntu

    Any links you guys have would surely come in handy.

  16. Webs, thanks. I think I’ve stumbled across a couple of those already so at least I’m on the right track.

    Elwed, I’ve been reading lots of man pages, but not so much source code.

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