Archive for the ‘open source’ Category

Rant 2010-03-02: Evil of Open Source

March 2, 2010

I know many Linux and open source advocates want to claim that they have replacements for every conceivable software package. Yesterday, I dealt with two separate issues that prove that no matter how much improvement there’s been in open source software, the benchmarks against which they’re compared are the proprietary applications they seek to mimic; and open source rarely achieves parity with its proprietary counterparts.

One of the problems with open source is too many people want to reinvent wheels rather than join ongoing development of existing projects. So instead of all the time and resources going into making one thing work better, we end up with several things that don’t work; and more often than not, lists of things “to do” remain longer than lists of stable features. And also more often than not, the comparisons that any way relate to one application or utility being a “clone” are laughable because the proprietary versions aren’t sitting targets and because they have far more working, stable features.

Among the poor comparisons are OOo for Microsoft Office, GIMP for Photoshop, Gnash for Flash, and xsane for any proprietary scanning utility (which typically comes “free” with the scanner/printer). While these projects have vastly improved, they’re not really in the same league as the proprietary applications they seek to replace.

I take news of forks and “new” projects with a bit of hesitation, except when they’re backed by big money — that means companies with a vested financial interest in open source. It’s the people from Novell, IBM, Red Hat, and so on — and the money those companies have put into development — who’ve made the greatest improvements in everything from Gnome to NetworkManager to the Linux kernel to a lot of the little things that make Linux approachable by a lot more people than it otherwise would.

I saw this morning courtesy of Lifehacker that the Ubuntards (Canonical) are reinventing another wheel. It’s scanning this time.

Although his software isn’t officially at a finished, 1.0 stage, it’s already decent enough to be an attractive install…

Most open source software isn’t at “a finished, 1.0 stage.”And I’m not sure what the writer at Lifehacker considers 1.0 — I looked at the bugs listed at the launchpad site for simplescan and can say right off the bat that it’s not even close to being as functional as the much more mature xsane. And with the scanner I use most often, I can say that xsane isn’t nearly as functional as the Windows utility that came with my scanner .

The most recent blueprint notes one of the issues facing development of such a program:

A general problem is to ensure that white is really white (your interface mockup displays a scanned page with gray background). A simple scan interface does not serve so much if the scans display gray backgrounds, and necessitate to open gimp to pick the white point to correct balance. User could check “automatic white balance” box in case of scanned pages with white background.

In fact, among the “bugs” listed as wishlist items are things I take for granted using Windows-based utilities — including real greyscale (as opposed to black-white) and color separation.

I’m not knocking this project or even Canonical; I know that Canonical’s philosophy is to make everything work simply even for the least savvy computer user. It just seems that a lot of the money and (wo)manpower these projects throw at reinventing wheels could go a long ways to bringing existing projects up to speed so they’re legitimate contenders against proprietary counterparts.

The wheel doesn’t need constant reinventing. Right now, most open source projects only compete against other open source projects rather than against proprietary software. For some things, this is probably just fine. In the bigger picture, though, it leads to stark choices between half-implemented, amateurish efforts from the open source world and well-polished proprietary applications that work as intended. It would be nice if open source advocates would improve what they already have so that it’s stable and works well. Instead they’re constantly shifting goalposts with changes in APIs and spending more time with paradigm shifts in user interfaces. Broken support, broken applications. When that happens with Microsoft or Apple, they’re held accountable by consumers — screw up enough times and people will stop buying your software. When that happens in open source, the user is left holding the bag until the user or developers, anyone, makes a fix.

I’ve dealt with this in several ways. I bought a device that was ogg-friendly but found out MTP devices lack open source support, so using it under Linux and BSD has been very dicey — but the damn thing works great under Windows and syncs through WMP like a charm. The same trouble has proven true with onboard hardware, including the card readers in my AA1 (flawless in Windows, only one works in Linux and a card has to be inserted before booting or else it won’t ever read a card), wireless (I quit using Linux altogether on the AA1 due to rampant, incorrigiable issues with ath5k), etc.

Some day maybe all this stuff will work as well under open source as it does currently under proprietary software. Until then, proprietary software isn’t evil: it fills a valid niche for people whose computers and hardware have to work in a certain and consistent manner. But as long as open source continues forking without good cause and duplicating its own labor over the same recurring sets of issues, it’s only going to improve slowly. And the slower that ever-reinvented wheel turns, the faster it’s going to get left behind. And why — just for some turf battles over who controls any particular project, not over anything substantive. That’s petty, and it’s also evil.

Update 20100209 – Debian Lenny, TinyCore, emacs, ratpoison, oroborus, and security of small distros

February 9, 2010

I’ve intended to sell this thing but haven’t yet. I updated my AA1 page last week to reflect the fact that I really don’t run Linux on it anymore. I still have {Tiny,Micro}Core set up on it, but I’ve booted that maybe three times in the past few months including once this morning to get my emacs-related files. I don’t know if the issues with wireless were related to the network stack, the ath5k driver itself, wpa-supplicant, or a combination of factors. For the last time, it’s NOT a hardware issue because the problem never happened (meaning started) under Windows; it only happened (started) under Linux and persisted after rebooting. I occasionally boot TinyCore from a USB stick on my other computers (see below).

New Desktop/Workstation
It came with Windows XP Pro installed. I first installed Scientific Linux 5.4 via the live CD, which provides a Gnome desktop. I’ve already posted about adding an old hard drive that had OpenBSD 4.3 on it, on which I installed NetBSD 5.0.1 after backing up $HOME. I’ve been too busy to even update SL54 (which I know has updates because I was also running it on my new-old laptop for a while), let alone configure NetBSD beyond the basics (e. g., setting up my network card even though it’s not yet networked, SSH, etc.). I’d hoped to set it up further this past weekend but I’ve been eye-deep in a stack of reports to edit and charts to generate.

New-Old Laptop
I’m still using Debian Lenny, which I installed using net install. I let it go ahead and install the default Gnome desktop even though I initially thought about just doing a minimal installation and adding what I wanted. One of the reasons I did that is because life has been so hectic the past 18-24 months that I care a lot less about bloat than I do about the convenience factor and having everything ready to roll. Otherwise I’d already have the other computer set up and ready to roll, no?

I have switched some apps around, though. I was using xemacs but decided instead to revert to GNU emacs 21.4 from backports so I’ll have more of the modes I’ve come to take for granted and which require either finding via apt or from their developers. I’m posting this now via weblogger.el (which I’ll have to clean up later) from within emacs. I’ve also installed oroborus and am using it instead of metacity within Gnome (edit ~/.gnomerc to include a line “export WINDOW_MANAGER=oroborus”); this is RAM-sparing to some degree but not nearly enough. I already have ratpoison installed as well, and will more likely than not start paring down on the Gnome bloat as I find time. I’ve been running ratpoison mostly under another user account.

Other Computers
My ancient ThinkPad got a minimal install of Debian Lenny several months ago but hasn’t been booted in at least a month. I may use it for TinyCore. Or as I’d intended with Lenny just to be a temporary HTML/blog server for home use. I may just use MicroCore if I do that.

Nothing to report on my old MMX box. I haven’t booted it in so long I don’t even remember what it has on it.

Unfinished Business
Speaking of {Tiny,Micro}Core, I started on a screencast/presentation back before Christmas that I alluded to at least once here. I’ve been too busy to finish it. It’s in response to a question that was asked at the TCL forums about using TCL as an enterprise Linux replacement. I wanted to demonstrate beyond the more obvious answers why I thought it was unsuitable and worked out a quick and dirty concept to show how vulnerable such a distro — based basically on one file — could be. This kind of goes beyond the security of the image being read-only and, accordingly, being able to reboot into its original state; instead, I wanted to see how difficult it would be to take advantage of the fact that the image is on a read-write partition which can be mounted by user tc locally or remotely and then replaced. My little POC requires user interaction at this stage (which was in maybe 20 minutes’ work) to basically get a corrupt image to replace the original so that each subsequent booting of it isn’t actually the “pristine” original tinycore.gz image but instead the corrupted one (which could have any variety of “reconfigurations” in it, but mine basically pings another computer when it has an IP and has a message stored in a file stating what changes have been made to the original image).

I haven’t decided if I’ll go through and see if I can get it to work remotely without user interaction. Even if I do that, I won’t post it here. Sorry, kiddies.

Since these small image-based distros typically lack logging facilities, it would be trivial to pull this off and possibly leverage vulnerabilities in various packages to further make a mess of it. The smaller the distro’s base image, I think the less noticeable it would be. With my download speed, I can download the TinyCore image in just a few seconds.

Also, I tested this on USB. It’s trivial to test if something has been booted from sd{a,b} and contains a directory named boot containing a file called tinycore.gz. The same applies to other small distros which similarly use one file to store the operating system, allows full sudo (or, in the case of some like Puppy, root only), etc. Even though something is running from RAM, it’s still found on a storage device attached to the computer and can be mounted (unless it’s quickly removed). So I don’t think this is inherently more secure than anything else (or inherently secure at all), and the smaller size could be a disadvantage since it would take less time to download and be less likely to be detected by most users.

As improbable as it is that such things can be accomplished without some kind of user interaction or physical contact with a USB stick to install a corrupted image, it’s still possible. Add in potential vulnerabilities from various packages — including browsers, improperly set up servers, etc. — and the possibilities increase both locally and remotely.

No, the sky is not falling, but there is a potential for risk even though the image itself is read-only. The image may be, but its partition isn’t. The risk may be acceptable for most uses. It isn’t acceptable for enterprise use — not without some kinds of safeguards that enterprise distros have to help reduce problems like this from occurring.

I’m not knocking these small distros. I think they have a special niche, but too many people think they can be one-size-fits-all. Enterprise-grade distros — including RHEL and its clones, SLED, etc. — have a variety of safeguards that would be “bloat” in something designed to be small and minimal. Adding those things to a minimalist distro would seem to be counter to their very purposes. That includes everything from security enhancements to logging facilities (you really do want to know who logged into which computer at what time on what day, and having every user named “tc” can’t be of much use if you need a chain of custody for various computer records, file records, changes, etc.). Moreover, the packages or extensions these small distros offer typically don’t undergo the same level of testing as in enterprise distros, are more often than not bleeding edge rather than tested and stable versions, and aren’t signed. Even signed/trusted repositories aren’t free from trouble as the RedHat/Fedora people found out a couple years ago when their mirrors were compromised.

I’ll see if I can finish the presentation and get it posted soon. Then again, I thought I would’ve had that done a month ago. Stay tuned.

Freedom, Security, and Lacking Credibility

January 22, 2010

This is in response to something on another site.

Just a quick note to the whiny little fucktard who wanted to lecture me on another site about credibility: screw you.

Every time you asked a question or made a point, I gave a rational and coherent explanation. That includes my own example of why someone wouldn’t necessarily want to automatically run a server despite installing such software. That includes the issue of blind trust via social engineering that could lead someone to install something which unknowingly could present an issue with respect to something on a USB stick “automagically” starting without your knowledge or consent or interaction. Etc.

Oh, but it’s Linux! No fucking worries here. Ever!

That site has become something of a joke, especially the distro reviews (where did Caitlyn go?!). I pointed out that BSDs are not Linux only to get a response from the author about “old ways” as if some isolated KDE-oriented sub-project supersedes the one on which it’s based. You know, as if an exception overshadows the norm. Last time I checked, not one of the three major BSDs sets up automounting by default (and why the fuck should they? certainly not to match the Linux world by starting extraneous processes by default). That “last time” was yesterday when I installed NetBSD 5.0.1 on my new workstation. Works the same as it always has: insert USB stick, console messages (haven’t set up X yet) show me it’s there, “disklabel  /dev/point” shows me what partitions are available on it, then it’s straightforward to mount it and/or add entries in /etc/fstab. Duhhh. But probably not so straightforward if you expect it to work like Linux Windows without ever reading any documentation. Just burn the image, boot it, and wonder why you have to set up something because some developer didn’t do it for you.

By the way, the “Linux way” the author prattled about in his review used to be the “BSD way”: users were given control of what gets mounted and when rather than developers taking it upon themselves to dumb everything down so Windows converts would feel more at home. The “Linux way” is an anti-Unix way, it’s really the Windows way. And it’s apparently a flaw if a reviewer has to ever RTFM to learn that he has to manually add extraneous filesystems to his computer. Let alone manually mount something in the first place.

Unix isn’t Windows. I loathe those who demand making Unix more like Windows. It won’t attract more users. It hasn’t thus far. All it does is piss off people who have to go undo things that shouldn’t be done in the first place for a wide variety of reasons (yes, fucktard, including security — no matter how remote the risks might be, as I pointed out at least twice).

Auto-mounting is not a “feature.” I accept many users may indeed want it — we’re talking lowest common denominator and that’s going to be a lot who don’t bother or want to RTFM. That doesn’t mean it should be configured without user interaction of some sort.

If Linux and open source is ultimately about freedom, then stop forcing users to accept myriad running services in the background until they realize they have a lot of bullshit to undo and instead offer them opportunities to start what they want/need at install. Some distros do this, but most don’t. Isn’t it telling that the distros most popular among Windows users and converts give less freedom at install than Windows itself does? And isn’t just as telling that the Linux distros and BSDs that want the end user to have the most freedom and flexibility are the ones that give users a blank slate and tools upon which to build what they want/need and also seem to have an eye on things like stability and security?

But never mind my lone opinion. As the aforementioned fucktard suggested, nobody can take me seriously. I lack credibility because I think users should decide when things start or mount or are added to any system rather than a developer taking such liberties. Go read the lame reviews, pat the author on his buttocks, and wonder why more distros aren’t just like Windows — or wet your pants over the ones that do take all the decisions out of your hands… while you probably write snotty things about Microsoft for doing that very thing. Putz.

Windows Tip: Setting Up Mix and Match Default Browser and E-Mail

June 29, 2009

Here’s another Windows tip for those who want to use a different combination of default browser and e-mail client. This can be used to reset to default Windows settings of Internet Explorer and Outlook Express or to whatever applications you want instead. The point of this is to show that one can easily mix and match open and closed source software in Windows.

This will work for anything installed on your system and identified as browser and/or e-mail client. That will include the usual choices of Firefox, Opera, Thunderbird, and the default Windows programs mentioned above. You can use these same settings to revert to different defaults should you change settings you don’t like.

It also includes other less-known applications like Sylpheed. I like Sylpheed because it’s light on resources, very configurable and customizable (I use mew keybindings and have a lengthy set of filters that include a variety of colors to designate different things as well as the usual sorting of mail by category), and it functions the same way between operating systems. Its mbox import/export also means you can easily sync an account between different machines and even different operating systems. Sylpheed also works without any manual configuration of other applications like security suites; in my experience, it’s worked wonderfully with both McAffee (trial version on my AA1) and Kaspersky (which scans my mail and I’ve also used as a spam/junk filter).

For this example, we’re going to set up Sylpheed as the default e-mail client within IE8 (which remains my default browser in Windows even though I use conkeror more often now). The first setting to change is in tools-Internet options.


Select the applications tab once you open the Internet options dialog and you’ll see choices for editor, mail, news groups, etc.


Once you choose the application you want, hit Apply on the bottom. Note this should only work if you’re running the account as administrator (I had to log out, log into my administrator account, change my user setting to administrator, log back in to make my change, then go through the process again to place my account back to limited user). I know many people run as administrator which opens up the system to everything in the world. The reason you don’t want this variable to be changed by a limited user is because any exploit that can affect your browser could change app settings on the fly and compromise your system and your data. I think that’s also a good reason to not run as administrator except as needed. I know it’s not convenient, but the easier and more convenient things are for the user to change system settings the easier it is for any vulnerability to affect the whole system.

Once you have that set, you should be able to use whatever e-mail client you want within IE so that clicking on a mailto: link will open up a composer for your chosen client.

If an icon wasn’t set up in your Start Menu, you can add one this way (and it shouldn’t require administrator privileges). Right click on the task bar and select properties. You’ll get a dialog like the one below. Select the Start Menu tab and then Customize.


This will open another box allowing you to (re-)choose your default browser and e-mail client.


That will put an icon (with the “e-mail” description above it if you’re using the “big icons”) in the top part of your Start Menu. This will also cause whatever app you choose to open if you use the envelope icon on the IE icon bar (“Read Mail”).

It shouldn’t be — and it isn’t — difficult to set up whatever operating system you choose to use with whatever choice of applications you want. You don’t have to switch to Linux just to take advantage of open source software. You can configure Windows to work and look like you want it to even if you mix and match open and closed source software.

EconTalk: Digital Barbarism

June 29, 2009

Author Mark Helprin is this week’s guest on Russ Roberts’ excellent EconTalk Podcast. Helprin discusses ideas from his new book Digital Barbarism, a defense of traditional copyright law.

Helprin’s thesis is that the anti-copyright movement is an extension of the broader trend towards collectivization rather than an embrace of individual rights. Copyrights are about protecting the rights of individuals over and against the collective.

I’ve always shared the pro-copyright view and am not swayed by the vapid arguments that technology makes copyrights antiquated. As Helprin notes, it’s because of technology that copyrights were ever devised in the first place to protect the individual.

My own view has been formed around the concept that the choice of the rights-holder (whether an artist, writer, publishing house, or music company) to defend his own rights is paramount and should be respected and protected by any means necessary — including DRM, encryption measures, and civil penalties. When copyrights are viewed as traditional contract law, there are two parties rather than just the consumer. If a consumer doesn’t like the terms under which works are released, he or she can just walk away and find an alternative source under mutually consensual terms.

If you don’t like Metallica’s vocal opposition to P2P, listen to a band releasing works under liceses that allow free redistribution. If you don’t like movies being released on DVD with encryption, watch only unencrypted movies. If you don’t like proprietary software or software that costs money, use only open source software available at no charge.

Those who want to “share alike” — and I’ve licensed some of my own works under such a license, but I would never release everything under it — are always free to do so with their own content. They can do that for whatever reason they want, whether to expand an audience or because they don’t want the hassles of traditional copyright in a digital age; practical reasons often make such licenses more tenable than traditional copyrights.

Likewise, traditional copyrights and patents serve a valid need in our society. Those who choose other means to protect  their property — no matter how strict and archaic — should be respected by those who disagree with those measures. Unfortunately, such mutual respect is difficult in the digital age given the number of and doctrinaire views of Internet scofflaws.

Sayonara PulseAudio

June 28, 2009

I removed pulseaudio, which I consider proof that open source isn’t about the best ideas always floating to the top. Sometimes the worst ideas float to the top. Just like shit. I don’t think there’s really that much difference between open and closed source software because both are driven by similar pragmatism and developers try to do the best for their target user audiences; it’s not about the intentions of the developers, it still comes down to execution by the end user. What seems like a great idea can make things a hassle for users.

Even getting around it can be a hassle. Is removing pulseaudio straightforward and painless when a distro uses it by default? Of course not. Now I have to set permissions so a non-root user (ahem, that would be me) can use /dev/dsp and /dev/snd/; by default, permissions on /dev nodes are reset when the system is rebooted. I also have to let apps like mplayer know that we’re not using the default pulseaudio any longer, so I’ve set an alias to add -ao alsa to mplayer.


Not a big issue, just clumsy.

Since I’d already removed a lot of dependent packages when I removed Gnome (or a lot of it anyway) last night, there were only a couple related packages to remove with it.

The result, though, is worth it. Everything’s working (sounding) a lot better and without tracking down every fucking possible setting in those idiotic scrolling interfaces. (Some pluseaudio settings weren’t found in alsaconf. Simplification? No, aggravation.)

More tweaking and clearing out cruft today as I have time.

Snobbery + Ignorance = Linux Advocacy

March 8, 2009

I’m not big on snobbery, especially when it’s packaged with an unhealthy dose of ignorance. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve always been put off by the lists put out by advocates of Linux — seems more often than not the lists contain things you can do in Windows, and often much more easily. To the Kool-Aid guzzling, true-believing advocate who gets a priapism when he sees a penguin, Windows is some maimed and dysfunctional computing ecosystem adopted through laziness and it, its creators in Redmond, and its users are to be mocked at all times. Never mind that Windows is every bit as capable of doing everything they say it can’t or doesn’t do, or that the applications they use in Linux also run in Windows. Linux advocacy suggests it’s contending against FUD when, in fact, it’s based entirely on FUD.

Linux advocacy is fundamentalism. The heretics and infidels continue to buy PCs with Windows licenses, so the jihad continues. And along with it is all the bullshit snobbery that “I can do this but you can’t.”

Oh really? 

The latest victim of my wrath example is Andrew Gregory at TechRadar, which is a site which bills itself as “deep into technology.” I was curious when I saw a feed truncated down to “Hack your Aspire One…” so I clicked it and saw the ellipse hid “Linux netbook interface.”


Oh joy. Not only do we get to see how easy it is to change appearances of the interface, we get a healthy dose of “can’t do this in Windows” bullshit. But you actually can, it just takes a little more effort because most Windows users use computers rather than cum all over themselves from playing with eye candy.

This article would be bad enough if it were just a how-to. Unfortunately, it includes fucking retarded crap about neighbors from Vista Manor asking questions about their Linux-based netbook after an asinine statement about “They just want something that works, and when they try [Linux on netbooks], they like it.” If it works, why are they asking you?

Right, it just works. Like when I ordered my Aspire One, the internal mic didn’t work in the Linpus model but it worked in XP; or how the multi-card reader worked in XP but not Linux; how suspend and hibernate worked flawlessly in XP but had some serious issues in Linux; how the XP model worked perfectly with external monitors and projectors but the Linux model was rather crippled to say the least; etc. Guess which model I ordered? Yep, the one that just works: XP.

Don’t give me that fucking bullshit that “Linux just works.” If it had, I wouldn’t be using XP on an Aspire One right now. The few problems the XP models had, such as issues with the Atheros wifi (which thankfully haven’t affected me), pale in comparison to the crippled-from-the-factory woes of those who bought Linux versions of the AA1. I don’t know why Acer would ship non-functional hardware or choose it without appropriate drivers, nor do I understand why people would buy it. Guess that’s reason #24 “why Linux rocks and Windoze sucks” — you can see the source and write your own fucking driver. Riiiight.

And if people really want Linux, how the hell do you explain the higher return rates for Linux netbooks or how Windows XP has so thoroughly eclipsed Linux on netbooks sold? I’ll have another entry shortly on that latter point. Suffice for now, XP models now account for 90% of US netbook sales. There is no momentum for  Linux on desktops or netbooks; no, sunshine, there’s tremendous momentum away from it with fewer and fewer Linux models being offered in large markets like the US and UK. Just as I wrote last summer would happen as the niche matures. That won’t stop the Kool-Aid crowd from toasting Tux.

Speaking of which, Mr Gregory eases the reader into the complexities of Xfce settings with the calming assurance that “you’re not a newbie: you’re a Linux guru in the making.” WTF? Can one really get the Platinum Certified Linux Guru (TM) card just by tweaking a few window manager controls now? I think they give you that for misspelling “windoze” or “micro$haft” and other signs you’re sipping the Kool-Aid with them.

Mr Gregory suggests, “If you’re used to Windows you’ll probably be surprised by the extent to which you can change the way the system works, but that’s part of what makes Linux so powerful.” If Mr Gregory could pull his head out of  his arse long enough to use Windows, he might be surprised to the extent to which Windows can be changed. It might also surprise Mr Gregory that what he’s configuring isn’t even Linux. It’s a friggin’ window manager that runs on the X Window System and, accordingly, isn’t a Linux hack.

So this is his lame idea of power? Changing an interface so it’s more aesthetically pleasing, which is a personal preference and has ZERO to do with how the system (Linux, GNU, or anything else) actually functions? (Another warning about upcoming posts: I’m going to add another video to my youtube account shortly — hopefully — to demonstrate at least another of many Linux advocacy fallacies about resource use. “How the system works” goes far beyond tweaking user interfaces.)

I’ve been working with Linux for over a decade — servers, embedded, desktop, you name it. Before that, real Unix; currently, I’m using BSDs more than Linux distros. Prior to getting an Aspire One (XP model), I hadn’t done very much work with Windows since the late 90s with NT 4.01 (server and workstation). We have another XP computer, but I’ve rarely used it in the six years or so we’ve had it; it’s slated to become a file server in the near future. My beloved has a Vista laptop which she loves (she hates all Unix-like operating systems), but I’ve only used it a few times. But one of the things I’ve always appreciated about Windows is that it’s scalable and flexible and configurable — and very easily so despite the mindless FUD from little wankers who think Windows is preconfigured and you’re stuck with its defaults.

I know a thing or two about tweaking interfaces — I don’t consider it hacking at all because it’s so bloody fucking superficial. It doesn’t affect productivity (sorry, Nathan, it really doesn’t). It can be a fun diversion, but that’s about it. 

One of the biggest sources of hits to this blog is searching related to themes (not to mention links from DSL for the same) because I posted quite a few for jwm. Why did I do that — because I have some sick predilection for gussied-up user interfaces? No! I did it to shut people up by showing:

  • aesthetics is a very personal and subject area;
  • accordingly, no single distro can please everyone;
  • window managers aren’t inherently “beautiful” or “ugly;”
  • any window manager can be configured to please any user, from colors to controls;
  • people who whine about user interfaces are the very people distros should avoid welcoming to their communities because they tend to value style above substance;
  • most distro reviews are about two things: aesthetics and the incessant dick measuring contest of versioning numbers (“this distro has foo 4.3, which is behind the times because that distro released the same day includes foo 4.4rc2”); and
  • it doesn’t matter whether a distro uses fluxbox, jwm, openbox, kde, gnome, e16 or e17, or whatever else because it can all be gussied up to look pretty much the same but they ultimately provide the same or similar functions.

I was fucking tired of reading in the DSL forums that jwm was ugly. Or that it presented a barrier to wider adoption. So I did a lot of those themes to at least open minds, if not to change them. Some had even balked at the move from fluxbox as the default window manager to jwm, as if that’s what DSL was all about. So I showed how to set it up so it looked and worked (no menu on taskbar, only on right click) like fluxbox. Etc. The window manager doesn’t define what’s  under the hood. Nor does the way it’s painted.

Computers are tools, machines. It’s how they perform that should count. Not how they look. Or, a big peeve, when people try to tell me how something “feels,” as in, “this feels more {stable,vanilla,____(fill in the freaking blank with nebulous drivel)}.” How does “stable” or “vanilla” feel? Compared to what benchmark? Short of crashing or stuff not running correctly, I don’t know what the average user would notice about stable/unstable. Vanilla? That’s usually ascribed to Slackware to denote that it’s not filled with patched binaries or marked up with logos like other distros.

Which was more important with DSL 4: that it marked  a paradigm shift from previous versions’ focus on applications to being more data-centric with MIME-type associations on the desktop and with the new file manager OR that it had a certain “look”?

Every fucking review I read either skimped over the nuts and bolts or mentioned a lot more about the paint job (while occasionally mentioning the aforementioned dick-measuring version numbers for everything, of course) than the change. I usually stop reading or listening to reviews as soon as default aesthetics come up — that tells me about the reviewers sense of aesthetics, not qualities about whatever’s being reviewed.

So the same useless goddamn bickering starts between Linux advocates about Windows. More Linux advocacy lies to crush.

I’ve played this game before, and I win it every fucking time. There was the asshole who said that Linux rocks because it has tools like cron and a shell like BASH. So I showed him a batch script that accomplished the same thing, and that it can be run from Scheduled Tasks. Then there was the fucking idiot who said that Linux was superior because of the wide selection of open source applications; he was left stammering when I showed him that they all — every single one of them — also ran on Windows. Or the blowhard who prattled about proprietary software while I helped him configure ndiswrapper so his blob could run in his pure and  unadulterated open source operating system (I politely nodded my head; he was paying me to set up his certified easy-to-run and free-as-in-beer-and-speech distro).

So now ya say Windows XP can’t be dressed up? Yeah, it’s XP. I can’t take credit for it, even though I have several of my own themes. I did the background myself — all 40.1kb of it. The theme itself is genuine Microsoft, available if you search for it (“signed embedded theme xp” seems to work), signed and all so it didn’t require any DLL hacking.


I need to throw in an image showing window decorations. Because we all know how important that “Piranha” look around all your windows is to getting things done.

Guess that’s what separates me from Linux advocates. I actually use my computer to get things done, whether it’s while using Windows, Linux, or one of the BSDs. I have digital picture frames for when I want to admire pretty stuff.

You know what, I think I’m like most people that way. Maybe that’s why Linux advocacy isn’t working.

Edit: Here’s the lowly window decorations for the embedded theme. Maybe not spiffy enough for l33T Xfce-tweaking Linux gurus, but it does clear up the lie that Windows can’t be themed apart from the classic or XP looks. Twats.


edit 2: Here’s Microsoft’s Zune theme (also signed — no dll hacking required — and available if you search for it) on my netbook, again with a quicky homemade background (I’ll tweak the colors later). Also edited content above.


Linux Advocacy – No Forest, Just Trees

October 22, 2008

Once again, the immature hysteria of open source advocacy has reared its tiny, ugly head. This time in the form of asking an industry panel why they don’t advertise “Linux” and all kinds of trash talk about industry because their answers weren’t brown-nosing enough for some.

No, Carla, Linux is not a dirty word. (Same goes to you, Kenny.)

First of all, you’re wrong that they don’t discuss Linux. IBM has used Linux by name in advertising. The ad campaign wasn’t shortlived in comparison to other IBM ad themes. Dell is also set to advertise their Ubuntu-based computers.

Not good enough? It’s something that will never rally the masses. There’s no conspiracy centered in Redmond, Washington, with little satellite branches headquartered in Fortune 100 tech companies to keep Tux down. These companies — IBM, HP, Dell, et al — know where and how their bread is buttered. They can sell “Linux” solutions by name to a certain kind of consumer — likely in a milieu involving significant infrastructure rather than individual desktops and laptops. The consumer marketplace isn’t clamoring for Linux. For the consumer crowd, it boils down to a choice between Windows and OSX. That’s not the doing of those selling hardware, that’s a reality of the market; if you don’t like that, fix Linux so consumers consider it a valid choice for their desktops.

There are many ironies in raising such a fuss about IBM and Lenovo in this context. For starters, IBM took on Microsoft long before there was a such thing as Linux. IBM tried to sell OS/2 as an alternative to Windows; they advertised it extensively to limited success (though many people still prefer it despite IBM dropping support for OS/2). IBM was an early adopter and supporter of Linux. They’re the only company whose ads I’ve seen — in primetime, during major sporting events — featuring Linux as noted above.

Where the fuck was Kenny when all those ads were airing?

I’ve written many times here and elsewhere that people are more likely to adopt Linux if they don’t know they’re using it — on DVRs, cell phones and PDAs, and in other devices where it functions without need for configuration by users. If it’s preconfigured and “just works,” there’s no learning curve. That’s far different than what “Linux” represents to most consumers, and it’s far different than putting it on their computers when they’re already comfortable with something else.

Advertising can and does shape perceptions. So does practical use. As far as Linux has come in recent years, it’s still not an ideal solution for all users — especially those who aren’t particularly technically inclined. The world isn’t filled with geeks, just people who want to use their computers. They expect things to work in a manner in which they’ve already become accustomed. Linux doesn’t do that, which is why the return rate is much higher for Linux-based devices than Windows-based devices (search my previous entries for articles about this).

The companies accused of not being “real friends” of open source have devoted tremendous resources — cash, code, manpower — to the cause of open source. They share their people with LUGs, they encourage involvement in the community. They’re not freeloaders.

Yes, their motives are profit-based. There’s not a fucking thing wrong with that — that’s why people get up and go to work, why companies exist. It’s not a matter of lip service to them, it’s their bottom line.

It’s not exploitative, either. Making software free — as in freedom — means reducing barriers rather than creating them regardless of their means or their goals. That goes for the “suits” as well as anyone else. They don’t have to take vows of poverty to use free and open source software. They also don’t have to contribute back to it other than the changes they distribute per the GPL and similarly restrictive licenses.

Everyone using open source and libre software “profits” from it; the productivity, joy, or any other quality derived from the experience — if positive — is a benefit to someone. And I don’t think users have to see a goddamn penguin with “Tux Inside” (would most consumers know wtf that means anyway?) to benefit from it. If it works, they like it. They don’t care beyond that.

Casting aspersions and accusing others of taking but not giving (or treating Linux like a dirty word), though, is sheer demagoguery. Demanding others give lip service and behave in ways you think they should is authoritarian. It’s the antithesis of freedom.

Is that what free software is about now?

If not, you might try attracting flies with honey rather than vinegar. The “suits” freely using and contributing back to open source aren’t your enemies. You shouldn’t become theirs just because you can’t see the forest for the trees.

calcurse Now Imports iCal Files

October 22, 2008

I’ve been a big fan of calcurse since I first installed it. Frederic Culot, its author, has written that the latest version now can import ical files.

…[S]ince last calcurse version (2.3) which was released last week, it is now possible to import ical files. The sync capabilities related problems mentioned in the above comments should be fixed now, as calcurse is now able to import / export ical files.

This means users can now use calcurse about as seamlessly as any other calendar application, but without all the bloat and slowness that makes them a nuisance to use. Visit the download page for sources and availability for various distros and BSDs.

Make A Bottom Line Case

October 18, 2008

I’ve read an increasing number of articles and blogs suggesting that a sluggish economy is just what the open source community needs for further adoption of their software. What many fail to grasp is that no matter how “free” it may be, it isn’t without costs.

The more economically-naive look at the initial outlay and presume that’s the only investment required. They don’t look at the costs employers to retrain employees to use new software, let alone the loss of productivity that occurs while getting up to speed in a new environment.

By way of analogy, it’s a lot like companies that give away or cut prices on one item to sell you other things. Get a free cell phone, get locked into a two-year commitment. Get a free razor, spend $20 a month on blades. Get a cheaper game system, pay more for games. Your initial cost of entry may not be very high, but in the long term you may pay a lot more than if you’d paid more upfront.

Software can be like that even if it’s not offered with service deals. Especially if it’s not offered with service deals. That leaves companies in the position of sorting things out on their own. That involves manpower, that involves training, that involves loss of productivity for some period of time. Those are costs, and those costs can exceed the value of the “free” software many times over when compared to proprietary software.

Many companies have made their transition to open source where it’s seamless, like in servers. They made such transitions long before the capital crisis.

Companies don’t make radical changes during times of crisis or uncertainty. They stand pat. In a recessionary environment (and we’re technically NOT in recession) or in a sluggish economy (I’ll take 3% growth) they keep their powder dry. That’s one of the self-fulfilling prophecies or vicious circles that leads to sluggish economies and recessions. Ironically, moves made to adjust for such slow downs tend to be reactionary (rather than precautionary) and post facto.

I wish I could share the optimism of those who think negative changes in the macroeconomy will be positive for open source adoption, but I know changes of the magnitude of converting a company’s entire computing infrastructure are based — justifiably — on grounds that are more direct to their own situations (not every company is affected by the over all economy to the same degree). This is why it’s futile to get companies and individuals to participate in alternative energy without tax breaks and other incentives. One of the best and most effective ads I’ve seen in a long time along those lines is the granola tree-hugging IBM ad in which the executive quickly changes his tune about energy efficient servers when the young lady makes the point that those will save the company 40% in energy costs. Enter singing cartoon animals, the fantasyworld can be achieved in reality.

If you can put a figure on something, you will do a lot to convince people that change has a reward. Then you can sell them on it.

But if you only give them the up-front cost, you’re not making a sound and financially appealing case to them. They need to know that they won’t lose any function from what they’re already using; in some cases, open source solutions meet that criterion but in too many it doesn’t. They need to know there will be no disruption in transition; they’ve already spent a lot of money training employees to use something, they’re losing that investment if it doesn’t relate 1:1 with what you’re suggesting they use instead. They need to be able to quantify where these changes will pay off, whether it’s immediately (unlikely) or down the road (possibly); they already know where they stand with what they have and most of them are happy with it.

Their licenses are already paid for. They don’t devalue — in fact, the more use they get out of each license, the more they’ve paid for themselves. That can be measured not only in the length of time they hold their licenses (I’ve seen businesses still using NT 4x and OS/2) but also in the familiarity and comfort of their employees who use it. The more comfortable their employees are using it, the more productive they are. And that’s what software means to employers.

You’re not going to win many employers over with crackpot anti-Windows hysteria that prevails among those who shout the loudest about these things. Whether they share your opinions, they’re oriented to results and not to wisecracks, cheap shots, and open source zealotry.

Consider companies who are already involved in open source, especially with their own software products. Sun has deals with Microsoft. Novell has deals with Microsoft. HP has deals with Microsoft. IBM has deals with Microsoft. For all their competitive axes to grind, they understand cooperation is essential to market share. Why then do the pro-GPL types who push cooperation on one level object to it on any other?

I think the silliest thing I read in all of these bleatings about how open source can take off in this downturn (despite strong earnings from Intel, IBM, et al) was a suggestion that Linux fanboys pass the hat and start advertising in the same way Apple and Microsoft have. I think Red Hat, Novell, and Oracle already do that. So does Canonical to some degree, and they’ve done product placement in box stores. It’s not that people don’t know Linux is available, it’s that they don’t care — they have something that works, that they understand (some really do), and they have no reason to change either on a personal level or in their companies.

It’s a lot easier to commoditize an entire product line, as Microsoft and Apple do, than bits and pieces; the fragmentation of what constitutes Linux in particular doesn’t lend itself well to advertising unless you have something to offer in the form of service (as Red Hat, Novell, Oracle, and Canonical do). And if you’re results-oriented in your advertising (think of the HP ads showing celebrities and how they use their computers), you’ll end up advertising for companies whose open source offerings allow users to get stuff done: Sun’s Open Office, Mozilla’s Firefox — which will run on closed source operating systems at least as easily (if not better) than on Linux. Face it, nobody is going to get sucked into an ad that talks about how many fucking window managers you can try out in a crazy one or two night Mountain Dew binge.

For better or worse, open source will not fare much better during a slow down than any other software. The sluggishness of the economy will cause more companies to not make radical changes if they make changes at all — aside from holding back on anything until they have a clearer picture and assurances that the sky’s not falling. Open source advocates have to be able to quantify where these kinds of choices affect bottom lines while at the same time offering assurances that changing from licensed software backed by a company with its own bottom line (the word accountability comes into play here) won’t leave users in a holding pattern. Accountability is a valuable asset.

Get to the value beyond initial costs. Companies demand to know that, they need to know that. Show comparable — no, you really have to show greater — value and measures of accountability they already have.

Do open source advocates have any clear answers yet?