Month: November 2011

Quick custom Linux live CDs for workshops

People bring all kinds of laptops to workshops, and installing your software on them might take hours.  So it’s nice to just give everyone a bootable USB stick or CD, containing a live linux distribution (i.e. one that runs straight from the USB stick/CD) and the software.  This can get a room full of people up booting into an identical system in a matter of minutes.  Here’s an easy way that I’ve found to do it:

Choose your base distribution

For workshops, I like Linux Mint LXDE edition. It’s lightweight so works with less powerful machines that people might bring, and is based on Ubuntu.  There’s also a debian based edition of Linux Mint which is great, but it only comes in DVD size which doesn’t fit on cheaper USB sticks, and the customisation process takes long enough compressing a CD’s worth of OS.

Whatever version of linux you choose, download the .iso file of the installation CD or DVD.

Load the .iso file in a virtual machine

Install VirtualBox OSE, create a virtual machine with enough disk space for what you want to do, and set the CD of the virtual machine to point at the .iso you downloaded.  Then start the virtual machine, install the distribution to it, and boot into it.

Customise the OS

Install everything you need for the workshop.  You might want to remove some stuff too, especially if you want everything to fit back onto a CD.

Create a new .iso

Install remastersys and run this command:

sudo remastersys backup

This takes a fair few minutes to run, but is fully automated.  You end up with an .iso that is a live CD of the system you’ve customised.  Remastersys is really the hero there, I’ve gone through a manual process before and it was painful.

I have had one strange problem with running this under linux mint lxde — failed boots due to lack of ubninit.  For USB keys this is easily fixable by grabbing the initrd file from /boot in the virtual machine, and copying it into /ubninit on the USB key.  Not sure how you’d do it for CDs and DVDs, I guess you’d have to edit the .iso somehow.

Burn to CD or USB keys

I really recommend USB keys, I’ve found booting from CDs really slow on some machines, especially those apple mac laptops for some reason…  Plus a lot of laptops and netbooks don’t have CD drives these days.  To burn an .iso to USB I recommend unetbootin.  Be sure to unmount/eject/”safely remove” the USB key properly before removing it. **update** It seems Macs can’t boot from a USB key without hassle, so you have to burn CDs for mac people, or get them to buy a better computer.


Install an .iso distro into a virtualbox, get it right there, then use remastersys to make a new iso and burn to CD, or preferably write to USB keys with unetbootin.

Social network time

I’m privileged to be able to hear my grandmother Billie Campbell singing The Old Lamplighter in the 1940s, even though I was born after her death.  I’m also privileged to be able to see (but not hear) my great-grandfather John Ross Campbell on his release from being a political prisoner for incitement to mutiny in 1924.

I’m privileged because I’m in my 30s, and recordings were comparatively rare in my foremother and forefathers’ days — these singular glimpses are treasured as extraordinary, I feel very lucky to have them.  I really have no feeling of what it would be like to be a child born now, growing up with access to the  minutiae of my parents’ social networking timelines.  Overall probably positive, I think, but perhaps it could be more positive if we were made to be more mindful of what we say there.  Timelines are not just about a linear sequence of stray moments, but of the cycles of life, including the flashes of emotion around the birth and death of stages of life and of the lives of people.  Personal history is not just about projection from the past to the future, but also about the alignment of the lives of those we touch with our own.

I think that if the phrase “social network” is to live up to the meaning it had before the dawn of firefly, friendster, facebook and whatever comes next, then the programmers of these systems have to start taking a longer, more structured view of time.

New old laptop

My old laptop was falling apart, but buying a new one presented all kinds of ethical problems of which I have become increasingly aware.  Also new laptops are badly made and I always much preferred the squarer 4:3 screens that weirdly got phased out in the switch to widescreen five years ago (around the same time that storing a collection of films on a laptop became practical I guess).

So, I built my dream laptop from ebay purchases (all prices include postage):

  • IBM Thinkpad T60 with 1024×768 screen and 2GB RAM – £164.95
    The last IBM branded thinkpad, widely considered the best laptops amongst linux musicians 🙂  Apparently it is possible to find T61s with 4:3 screens but I couldn’t find one.
    I did buy a T60 for £118, which had a higher resolution screen but it arrived damaged, and only had 1GB RAM.  This one arrived beautifully reconditioned, well worth the extra, and the 1024×768 screen is good for matching projector resolutions.
  •  T7600 cpu – £94.99
    Replacing the 1.8GHz processor with a faster 2.33 GHz one, the fastest that the T60 is compatible with.  Installing it was tricky and nerve-wracking but a youtube video helped me through it.  £95 is expensive for a second hand cpu, but that’s because it’s the fastest of its class and so in high demand..
  • Arctic silver paste – £5.75
    To help keep the faster processor cool.  I was worried I’d have to upgrade the fan too but the cpu temperature has been fine so far.
  • A Kingston 96GB SSD drive – £85.00
    This probably makes a bigger speed difference than replacing the CPU, and makes the laptop much quieter..  I didn’t put much research into this but read that more expensive drives aren’t faster because of limitations of using an older laptop
  • 9 cell battery – £20.55
    The laptop came with a working battery, but £20 for a 6+ hour battery life is a no brainer.

So the total is £371, not that cheap but it’s a really nice, fast (for my uses), quiet and robust laptop.  Returning to a 4:3 screen feels like opening the door after years squinting through a letterbox.   Also, screw planned obsolescence, hopefully this five year old laptop will be with me for years to come.