Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Open-source guru Eric Raymond joins Freespire board

"Desktop Linux must advance now," said Raymond. "If desktop Linux is to advance to a broader audience, it must work with iPods and other MP3 players, play DVD movies, view Windows Media and Quick Time content on the web, and so on. I wish users didn't require these proprietary formats, but it's naive and unrealistic to expect the masses to forgo these requirements in the near future. Linux must make some compromises to attract mainstream users."

I hope this works.

I tried Linspire aka Lindows a long while back and found it to be very user friendly. But like other user friendly Linuxes (and like Windows and OS X) it was often sluggish at times when I thought it should be snappy. It took longer to start up than other, more basic Linux versions. I used Suse for a year or so and found that it had these problems too, but I also learned what default components I could uninstall to pep up performance a bit.

In the mean time I kept experimenting with Debian and gradually learned how to make it do things like play CDs and Windows media files. It would be nice someday to have the best of both worlds, that is, systems that do excellent device detection and set-up, allow you to override those decisions, and this is important, only do that when you request that it be done (re-detecting my video card and monitor at every start-up is just plain silly).

But I tell Windows and Apple users to look for the "Works with Linux" logo, or words to that effect, even if they have no plans to run Linux. Hardware that only runs on Windows, or worse, only on a specific version of Windows is a good way to isolate vendors that are lazy or cost-cutting to the extreme. They may also be attempting to lock you into their products by co-mingling the software and hardware aspects of their products. Remember replacing a Winmodem with another Winmodem and finding that they aren't all alike, can't be easily detected or unistalled, and interfere with one another? Remember HP printer device drivers popping up messages reminding you to use only genuine HP toner, paper, and asking if you would be interested in HP Life insurance? OK, I made that last one up.

Two years ago I wanted to get off of the inkjet printer treadmill, having tried 5 or more various brands and finding them all using more ink than I spent for myself on food, I decided that black and white laser technology was good enough for me, especially with a price war that was going on in that space. I ended up with a small Samsung ML-1740 that was under $100, and included the word "Linux" on the packaging. At the time I was using my Apple Powerbook almost exclusively, and as it was new, sticking with OS X. The printer worked flawlessly, and in fact it has taken me those two years just to use the included "starter" supply of toner. I doubt I've printed half a package of paper in that time. Finding a full sized toner refill wasn't easy when I finally needed to do that, but Staples just started carrying them, and I could have ordered it online had that not occurred. My guess is that the printer will die from roller rot before I use all that toner. Quite a change from ink cartridges that start drying up while the printer is just sitting there.

Anyway, my acquisition of a used Dell SX-260 small footprint machine for around $300 has caused me to switch back to Linux almost full-time (I'm so fickle, and I wish more users were). The Powerbook is now relegated to actual travel situations and a bedside movie watching machine. When Etch goes production I may even try that on it, but no hurry.

It took a few weeks after setting up the Dell for me to realize that I needed to print something. Thinking this was going to be an ordeal, I "printed" the few pages I needed into a PDF file, transfered that file to the Powerbook, and then hooked the Powerbook up to the printer to get the hardcopy. It wasn't a LOT of trouble, but wouldn't do for printing directions or a map as I was on the way out the door, late for some appointment (one of the few regular uses I have for a printer at all).

So I decided in the next few days I'd better investigate Linux printing to the Samsung. After trying various generic Linux printer set-up methods with less than spectacular success, I remembered an article written by Eric Raymond on his own frustrations with the process. Things hadn't improved much, if at all.

But then I remembered the "Works with Linux" words that had helped me choose this printer in the first place and decided to visit the Samsung web site to see what was available. Keeping in mind that Samsung has gone on to newer models, I was able to find a driver download for the ML-7xx line of printers (some of which include scanners I guess) and downloaded that file. It wasn't a Debian package, but was an "unzip and run the install program" sort of thing. No different really than what you get with Windows, except the Windows things are usually packaged as an EXE file leading Windows users to be more oblivious than they might otherwise be about just clicking on any and every icon they see.

The Install program (which told me the first time I ran it that I needed to be "root", put up a nice GUI dialog. There were a blessed few options to pick, and all the defaults seemed reasonable. It also mentioned that I needed Sane support pre-installed for scanner support, and just in case I did the appropriate apt-get to make sure that was the case, even though my printer doesn't have a scanner (I do need to verify I can scan with my Canon scanner though, another rare activity).

In just a few clicks, my installation was complete and it even asked if I wanted to print a test page, which I did, and which printed quickly and accurately. It put a printer icon on my desktop (KDE, but I don't know if that matters) and now when I print, I get the options I had before of creating a PDF file, or printing to a real printer. Magic. Just as good as Windows, better in some ways. If more devices had this level of support, switching to Linux would be a no-brainer for many home users these days.

I hope the Freespire project meets with much success, and let's get the word out that devices that work with Linux, in general work better with everything else too. It is a mark of value that separates the value brands from the also-rans.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Microsoft offering free repairs for all 2005 Xbox 360s

It ain't broke. But if it is it ain't our fault. But if it is, we ain't gonna fix it. But if we do, we'll just fix some of them. Or not.

Now bend over again.

Apple updates strengthen wireless security

You remember, the exploit that wasn't an exploit. Now fixed. Makes perfect sense to Macheads.

"WinXP is the Model T of operating systems"

"In my experience, coming to Windows after using Linux and KDE for years, WinXP has fewer features and is less customizable than KDE. I am not just talking about “eye candy” either. I am less productive when using WinXP. Instead of working in the way I prefer, I am forced to modify my work habits to match WinXP's limited feature set. WinXP is the Model T of operating systems — any color as long as it is black."

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Skin moles may hold clues to treating cancer

"Scientists say the process in which moles and molelike tumors start and then stop may be good news. It seems to be an important way for the body to stop cancers that can easily get going when a random mutation pushes a cell along that path."

Monday, September 18, 2006

Dell goes back to basics and hires 500 engineers

"If you haven't noticed over the last 10 or so years, Dell's engineering has amounted to little more than perfecting the glue application on the back of a case badge and swapping pins on a power supply to ensure proprietariness."


In the World of Blogging, Be Carefull What You Ask For.

Is Adobe hopping to get the free advertising boost of the blogosphere? If so, maybe they should have a re-think.

In the distant past I was a fan of Windows. In the less distant past I was a fan of all things Apple, and in the less distant netherworld of unreleased betas I was a fan of Adobe too.

At some point the future of all of these companies was in doubt and they worked hard to survive. But then, to a greater or lesser extent they all achieved the ability to draw residuals on their past successes. The iPod has remade Apple. So much so that I wonder if they even want to be in the computer business any more. MS still makes tons off of Windows and Office, but predictions of the eventual decline on those revenue streams are almost universal. Adobe, long a one-trick pony, after MS pulled the font rug out from under them, Acrobat made a lot more sense as a “perpetual” revenue generator and they did a great job of promulgating the format to just about everywhere from Linux, Apple's OS and even to Palm pilots and such. Small companies could of course survive for decades on these income streams, but these aren't' small companies, so they have to find ways to get larger streams to flow out of these existing products. This is almost never good for existing users, who are in many cases completely happy with what they have. All they need is for that existing capability to keep up with OS upgrades (most of which they don't need either but are forced into). And so the march of “improved” technology goes on.

I was a beta tester for an Adobe product called Atmosphere back in, oh, 2000 or so (maybe earlier). Way back then they already had a system that would allow you to set up a 3D chat room on any ordinary web page, complete with customizable avatars, sound, etc. Not quite the full experience of Second Life, but for what content creation involved (a few hours of tinkering) quite impressive. Someone skilled in the tool could produce a 3D landscape that was breathtaking and approached a photo-realism that I haven't seen anywhere else. The only problem was that the code was buggy as heck. After two years of delays it seemed to have gotten worse rather than better. They changed the scope from being a separate program with a plug-in for web work to only a plug-in and no separate viewer. The plug-in only worked with IE, and many of the beta testers (like me) had already switched to Mozilla. FINALLY they announced the production product, as if they had given up on fixing the bugs. Ahhh, but they had promised all beta testera a copy of the production product. I got mine. Shortly thereafter the product was unceremoniously discontinued, and the production team made to vanish. The next version of Acrobat had some sort of 3D capabilities built-in, which I've never seen operate as I had already begun my migration away from Windows and I suspect that's the only place it will work (if it does work).

Call it bloat, or featuritis, the unfortunate requirement of being a publicly traded company impels these companies to abandon common sense and make former things of beauty into eyesores while they scurry to discover something new. A poor user has to hope against hope that these new endeavors such as Xbox and iPod will be such runaway sucesses that the companies will leave the old stuff alone, but that doesn't seem to be the normal course of events does it?


PS: Unless I'm missing something, your pointer to the Acrobat video points to a page that requires you to have Flash version 8 (not available for Linux yet), nevertheless, it automatically directs me to a product update page which doesn't exist, although the script doing this never discloses that fact and instead just waits for something to happen that isn't going to happen. Finally I discover that the actual video, on Podtech, is in a Quicktime format that I could have even played on my Linux machine. I cringe that they pay people to put this stuff together. It's probably just as well for Adobe that I don't spend much time blogging about them.

PPS: I haven't kept good score, but I think Adobe has failed miserably to honor a promise made by the company CEO a few years back for consistency across platforms. They in fact aren't doing any better now, and in my casual observation are doing worse than before the promise was made. They got off to a great start in making PDF format an open standard, but I'm not at all sure that that openness applies to new features that are continuously forced down users throats. Not surprisingly, other formats which are more open, and do the orignal job better, are startting to have more appeal. DJVU creates better looking documents that render faster, and given the choice when downloading a document I'll pick the DJVU format which is usually about half the size. I suspect this new version of Acrobat will only make matters worse.

More to HP Spying Than Previously Reported

Those briefed on the internal review said that at various times, questions were raised about the legality of the methods used. They did not identify who raised the questions, when, or to whom they were addressed. But a crucial legal opinion, its origins previously undisclosed, was supplied by a Boston firm that shares an address and phone number with a detective firm on the case.

Uh huh.


Representing themselves as an anonymous tipster, the detectives e-mailed a document to a CNET reporter, according to those briefed on the review. The e-mail was embedded with software that was supposed to trace who the document was forwarded to. The software did not work, however, and the reporter never wrote any story based on the bogus document.

Well, I guess the detective agency's lawyer said that was OK too.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

PowerPC Cell Chip Gets Fedora Linux Support

"The Cell chip is interesting for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that it marries a 64-bit PowerPC core with eight vector math units that have a tremendous amount of processing power, which can be used to handle media processing or number crunching. Why someone isn't trying to build a Cell-based scientific workstation out of this chip is a wonder."

Yes, I wonder too:

Why Apple leapt over to the Intel architecture it has been deriding for 20 years. Why Microsoft is experimenting with offloading vector math processes to the video processors because they are an order of magnitude faster than than what we refer to as the CPU (for historical reasons apparently).

One way or another I have a feeling I'll be using one of these some day, no thanks to Microsoft, Apple or Intel (I hate having to list Apple as a co-conspirator) who continue to vend second-rate lock-in solutions. In the mean time, if I have to use second-rate, I'll do it second hand (I've never had one of these fail) and throw them in the dumpster when they roll off the usability curve (which is a lot longer in Linux-time than the commercial alternatives)

Saturday, September 09, 2006

To Browse or to Download? That is the Question

I'm still a skeptic about whether RSS is a good idea or not. RSS emerged at a point where there was still some doubt that Google and others could essentially capture all networked content and make it searchable. Now RSS and "Search" are not seen as competing technologies, but in my mind they are in a way, and Blogging, Vlogging and Podcasting (which if we were consistent would be called Alogging) can each be assigned to one camp or the other as well. The division I'm talking about is the division between things we "browse" on the Internet and things we "download".

I've subscribed to hundreds of RSS feeds over the months and I've used half a dozen ways to manage them at least. They all have one thing in common, which is that data is gathered from the target web sites that I may or may not (and in fact most probably never will) look at. Doesn't the waste of all this bother anybody but me? I think we are fortunate that Joe Average user is blissfully ignorant of his computers ability to collect all manner of information that he is not interested in.

Apple of course ruined all of this by making this “syndication” concept easy to turn on in iTunes. So easy in fact that these background downloads of disk-filling-never-to-be-seen/heard/watched content can be turned on quite by accident. New computers and even laptops with minimum disk sizes of 60G or so mean that it will be two years before a user will slink into his Apple store and ask why he can't do anything on the computer any more without getting disk-full messages. That is, unless the Tiki Bar and RocketBoom episodes don't vastly accelerate the process.

There are, of course, things you can listen to while doing something else, and I've downloaded boring old tech podcasts of one kind or another to burn to CDs that I can take in the car. I could MAYBE even see clear to downloading videos to take on an Internetless plane ride or hike through the Himalayas, but those are exceptions.

The as yet unrealized full beauty of the Internet is that content should be ON DEMAND, always new, freshly spell-checked and corrected so that when I DO go looking for something I'm getting the latest, greatest, most “correctest” version of it possible.

While there is a rightful place for things such as the Wayback Machine, Google Books, and the like, I don't see the future of the Internet as turning us all into more efficient pack-rats. Just the opposite, the certainty that “it's all still out there somewhere” should free us to just use what we need at the moment and not burden ourselves and our hard drives with a lot of copies of things.

Somehow the industry pundits and a-listers haven't gotten over the Gee Whiz factor of easily produced and acquired multimedia, an attitude that is shared among normal people only by teenagers who don't have to earn a living yet. I think what confuses the pundits is that they think this demographic is going to change. I suspect it won't. When these kids (hopefully) mature, they will lose interest, and only be replaced by more kids who have the luxury of spending 6 hours a day socializing without the need to actually produce anything. Orkut, Myspace and maybe YouTube will appeal to these kids, but I think it a huge mistake to think that the rest of what we do on the Internet will “evolve” to look like these products.

Instead, I see traditional modes co-existing for a long time with the new. One way or another my TV set will continue to get (well, if I actually watched TV that is) a standard set of “premium” content that can be referenced as (among other things) chanel numbers. But I also think we will have “radios”, “TV sets” and maybe even “Newpaper machines” that will draw content on demand from a near infinity of sources that we might also refer to in some shorthand form, programmed possibly in advance from URLs. Will these “channel buttons” that replace RSS and other forms of syndication even be worthy of an acronym?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen...

But sooner or later you probably will.

"This is just the latest in an often-repeated set of government IT blunders: Poorly managed projects with unrealistic expectations that fail to deliver, causing them to be scrapped amid the havoc they wreak on a business. In one form or another, taxpayers foot the bill, and that bill keeps getting bigger. (Rhetorical question: how come these gaffes always seem to benefit crooks and not the legitimate taxpayers?)"

MS Claims Patent on the English Language (and others)

'But Microsoft's move is sparking criticism. Dan Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation, said this is just another example of how "completely out of control" the patent system is.'

Not to be outdone, Apple has patented fingers.

Mr. Answer Man Answers Questions About Computing History

“>>techies hate Microsoft for how it has set back the technology industry.
Can someone explain to me how did they do it?
What was there before Microsoft for the masses?”

The linked blog entry though is about Sony vs Microsoft, which I think in the grand scheme of things is being rendered moot...

I answer this question so often I should save a template of some sort.

It wasn’t exclusively Microsoft, but the PC in general. Whether things would have evolved so badly had Microsoft not been in the picture is open for speculation, but as Microsoft plays such an important role in the average user’s PC experience, they have to take the bulk of the blame as it stands.

The PC allowed many people who would never have been allowed inside the air-conditioned/raised floor computer room the chance to hit the on/off switch of a computer for the first time. I’ve met many people who consider this an important milestone in their life, and maybe that has something to do with the fact that “booting” is such a popular pastime for PC users. (On the old mainframe systems I had to schedule special time to re-boot the computer to show new employees what was involved, because it was something that almost never happened otherwise.)

Over the years I’ve watched these folks, newly empowered with their own private on/off switch demonstrate repeatedly why they were never allowed near the computer room. They still blame everything that goes wrong (including such things as forgetting to do backups) on “the computer”, and they marvel at such “new” concepts as RAID drives, uninterruptable power supplies, vector processing, virtual machines and “managed code” that were invented in the 60s or 70s.

As the computer industry recovers from that set-back (which is quite real) the resultant systems are going to look a whole lot like where mainframes were headed anyway. Most people will not be aware of this, nor will they be aware that we could have probably gotten here a lot faster by standing on the shoulders of giants rather than re-inventing the wheel (sometimes mixed metaphors make sense).

How do more and more people connect to the Internet? Through a specialized box that keeps out all the bad stuff. In my case that box also connects to a hard drive that manages shared storage, it communicates with my streaming devices on several radios throughout the house, it does it’s own scheduled back-up, and none of this involves any technology from Intel or Microsoft. Imagine that! Most of what I do with computers these days involves data stored somewhere in “the cloud” of the Internet and I only need to worry about making local copies when I travel where there will be no Internet access (an increasingly rare situation).

As I mentioned in a post above, much of what was wrought when IBM allowed other companies to control the destiny of the PC has now been rendered itself obsolete by yet “newer” technologies that look, once again like carefully controlled centralized systems. Even compare with strong points of new Xbox and PS3 systems being server based and you see that the PC/Game console are looking more and more like the vision of smart terminals that (again) isn’t really a new idea at all.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

HP, Not So Well Dunn

"It was classic data-mining: Dunn’s consultants weren’t actually listening in on the calls—all they had to do was look for a pattern of contacts. Dunn acted without informing the rest of the board. Her actions were now about to unleash a round of boardroom fury at one of America’s largest companies and a Silicon Valley icon. That corporate turmoil is now coming to light in documents obtained by NEWSWEEK that the Securities and Exchange Commission is currently deciding whether to make public. Dunn could not be reached for comment. An HP spokesman declined repeated requests for comment."

Well, this should prove interesting. I was just starting to warm up to HP again too.