Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Fulfilling a Promise: Closed Minds, a Response

Making good on my promise to write a reply to the article "Linux Winds of Change", linked to in this posts title, here's the response:

I should just say at the outset that I was planning to write this in the context of comparing what Penguin Pete, who is referenced in the ITWire article above, wrote about Ubuntu (indeed, he's the person who appears to have sparked the entry). But that post appears to have disappeared - bad idea, Pete, as it leaves you open to accusations of intellectual dishonesty.


Stan Beer starts out his article by noting that there are "some very closed minds" in the article. Big deal. As I noted in my comment to him at the end of the article (in which the promise to write a response can be seen), every community has its closed minds, and to my mind, it's pretty disrespectful of Stan to start out with this, as I'm sure that in the minds of some of his readers, the equation Linux = closedmind is now indelible.

He also makes the assertion that Ubuntu is the cause of "a growing rift between some old guard stalwarts and the stewards of the increasingly popular Ubuntu distribution." Now, I can see how that might appear to be the case if you're a newbie to the Linux scene (as it appears to me that Stan is, judging from some of his comments as you'll see later. However, it is of course possible that this is not the case). But the reality, Stan, (and in using your first name I'm not in the slightest trying to get personal), is that there have always been "rifts" between distro users: between Slackware and Debian, or Debian and Gentoo, or Redhat and Mandriva, or Mandriva and SuSE, and every other possible combination in between (not to mention many others). It's part of the reason why there are so many Linux distros. And it stems from the fact that computing is a very personal thing: as the most complex man-made systems I can think of, it stands to reason that computers can be configured in an endless variety of ways, and that there is no guarantee that Person A's configuration will suit any of Persons B through Z. That's a point I'm kinda sorta gonna come back to, too.

Next, he makes the claim that
According to Penguin Pete and an apparently not inconsiderable band of Linux stalwarts, Linux is not and never will be an operating system designed to suit disillusioned Windows users. They reckon Linux was designed to be a replacement for Unix not Windows.
Well, that's true - it was. But it's been my assertion for nigh on ten years now that given an open mind, Windows users can easily get used to Linux (or at least "GUI-Linux" in whatever form. It may be the case that KDE and/or GNOME is more Windows-like than, say, fluxbox, or that having a desktop environment like those two helps users to acclimatize to Linux without having to "jump in at the deep" end, but as I'm writing right now I'm using UDE, the Unix Desktop Environment, which, it's true, is still more of a window manager (the thing that puts borders round windows) than a full blown desktop environment (with panels, clocks, status bars and goodness knows what else), but it's a faster and more comfortable environment for me than KDE. Many Unix users hold the opinion that Linux is better designed, because look at the evolution of the system - it now is beginning to be seen as a worthy rival to MacOS and especially to Vista, whereas ten years ago it was a system (allegedly) for nerds and geeks. And yet, as Stan and Penguin Pete obliquely point out, the geeks can continue to use Linux for Geeks, with Slackware instead of Ubuntu and UDE or fvwm or fluxbox instead of KDE/GNOME, and no-one can take that away from them. And if any of those DE's or window managers stops being developed, a new team of people who want to use it can take over from the original developers and continue its evolution: such events have occured countless times in the free software world, whereas with proprietary software, time and again you see that those systems that are tied to losing companies or institutions or architectures (Commodore with the Amiga, Multics by GEC/MIT, ITS for the PDP-10) vanish without a trace.

I should just mention that one charge I do remember Penguin Pete making is that Ubuntu has a very small amount of packages, and it's this that makes it "not Linux". I agree with Stan here that PP is in error, not because (as Stan puts it) it's still a Linux kernel (after all, OS X has a Mach/BSD kernel, but it takes the kind of chutzpah or doublethink only found in Cupertino to claim that standard OS X, with its proprietary Aqua interface, hidden standard Unix directories, and NeXT-like layout, is anything like Unix to its users) but because there are thousands of distros out there that only offer "a restricted set of packages". Slackware no longer ships GNOME, Arch includes none of the stuff usually shoved in /usr/doc, Gnewsense - or however it's spelt) doesn't include non-free packages, etc. Plus the fact that if you don't like GNOME, there's not only Ubuntu but Kubuntu, Xubuntu, and soon Fluxbuntu. And if you don't like *buntu at all, you can move to any other distro you do like. If Ubuntu suddenly becomes proprietary and starts including stuff that other distros can't (*cough*Novell*cough*), then I'll say it's not Linux - but given that Mark Shuttleworth apparently plans to make a totally-free (as in freedom) Ubuntu variant, I'd say Canonical are moving farther away from that goal, if anything, not closer.

Stan does, however, say that there is a "raging argument" between "elitists" and "evangelists" in the Linux community, and it's here that he goes off the mark. If my personal dislike of Ubuntu makes me "elitist", then so be it, but I doubt you can make a coherent argument that I'm not a Linux evangelist (just ask my local LUG...;-) ). So the "elitists" and the "evangelists" can be one and the same person - and often are. Added to that, it's just another example of the "wars" that have been going on between people who see Linux developing in different ways. But most of us, I think, know that we either hang together, or hang separately.

But my strongest problem with his article rests on these three paragraphs:

As an IT journalist, I'm used to calling things as I see them from a user perspective. If I write a negative article about a Microsoft product, pointing out for instance the steep learning curve and equally steep price of Office 2007, it provokes as much response as a ping pong ball bouncing off elephant hide. If I write an article pointing to a deficiency that I see in a Linux distro, such as not being able to get wireless input devices to work, it provokes outrage (except from a considerable number of users who experience the same problem).

The difference is that Linux zealots and evangelists come from a rarified clubby atmosphere of forums and user groups, where dirty washing doesn't get aired and laundered in public. Thus, they are often thin-skinned and tend to take things personally.

After a couple of my recent articles, one or two well meaning Linux evangelists informed me that as a journalist with many readers I had a responsibility not to air my technical problems related to Ubuntu publicly because I might scare prospective users away. Instead, I should submit polite requests to the Ubuntu forum in private to get my answers. One can imagine the response Microsoft would get if they tried to tell journalists not to write about their issues with Windows publicly!
I really don't know where you're getting this from, Stan, because as we all know, and you yourself admit, pretty much the only "Windows evangelists" are the ones who are paid to astroturf. (That doesn't mean, however, that they are the only closed minds - as Penguin Pete points out in another of his rants, try getting a person raised only Visual Basic, or more broadly the Windows programming environment, to see the merits of Unix programming; or rather don't, as beating your head against the Great Wall of China would be more pleasurable.) He's also perhaps guilty of not paying attention when he says that criticism of Linux "provokes outrage". It's not criticism of Linux that provokes outrage at all: It's an inability or unwillingness to make use of the resources available to you, such as posting on mailinglists to solve the problem. Or a readiness to blame Linux for problems beyond its control: Linux developers always have, and hopefully always will, go to extraordinary lengths to support dodgy hardware with reverse-engineered drivers where no open drivers or specs are available, and when a piece of hardware is not supported by Windows (usually because the manufacturer hasn't bothered to update a driver for an old product to make it work in a new version of Windows), the manufacturer is blamed. But despite the fact that Linux supports more hardware out of the box than either of the other big three OSes, and that it's much easier to deal with fully-supported hardware in Linux than in Windows, when a problem comes up with hardware in Linux, non-Linux people almost universally blame Linux. Please, please, please, if you have a device that doesn't work in Linux, make it known to the manufacturer so that they have a reason to port the driver to Linux.

I also have a problem with his assertion that Linux users are "thin-skinned", and as a result don't "air dirty washing". I guess he's never been to a LUG, or been involved in, or a spectator to, a mailinglist flamewar, or even read about one in the papers, because just in the last year or so I can think of at least two memes in the tech press about "The Death of" Gentoo or Debian, both of which were caused by very public, some might say very nasty, flamewars in which plenty of soiled knickers (if you'll forgive the expression) were put on public display. In fact his assertion is almost directly counter to everyone else's assertion. It's well-known that the computer geek crowd, of which the hardcore Stan seems so keen to vilify, is a supposed hotbed of "autism spectrum disorders" such as Asperger's and ADD, for sufferers of which the message is much more important than how it's expressed. As a self-diagnosed borderline aspie, and more of a wannabe than a geek, I can tell you that I have on more than one occasion been offended by the directness and seeming rudeness (which turns out to simply be a lack of patience for what many ASD-sufferers would see as "bowing and scraping") on the part of this or that geek in such-and-such a situation.

So the main message I have for Stan Beer is: Cool it; there always has been room in the Linux community for UNIX weenies and Windows refugees - and hopefully there always will be. Just remember that if I am now one of the former, I was at one time one of the latter.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Eat Humble Pie, You Arrogant Ass!

Some time ago I posted a rant about Ubuntu, in which I stated that they still hadn't fixed a bug in one of the X Window video drivers that has been in Debian for four years.

Except it appears that Arch Linux hasn't fixed it either, so it looks like my rant against Ubuntu/Debian is unwarranted, on that score.

I don't for one minute expect that my rant will make an iota of difference to the majority of the Ubuntu/Debian community, but all the same, my apologies to them for this blunder.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Sling out the Spam

Since I've recently had a spate of comment spam, I'm going to restrict comment posting a little, again. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Personal Appeal

I hope she won't mind me doing this, but I'm going to ask in public that if anyone has any information on the welfare of Danni Matzk (, could they please they get in touch? Her online community of friends is worried...

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Ignore if you don't like Rants

Over on there's a rant about users who threaten "Linux sucks, I'm going back to Windows". Now, I'm not going to add to the myriad reasons why we should or shouldn't care; point out that to me, Linux is easier than Windows, or that you don't have to use the commandline; or try to explain to these people that Linux is a different operating system, with an obligatory <collective gasp of horror from the audience>.

No, I'm not. What I am going to say is this: According to last month's Computer Shopper (which, confusingly as they all seem to do these days, is actually dated either this month or next - I don't recall), the next version of Windows is going to do two unthinkable things:

  1. Drop backwards compatibility. Yes, that's right, all your old DOS games and spreadsheets (which already won't run on Windows 64-bit), Windows 95 tax programs, Windows 2000 office programs - won't run. Well, they will - but in a virtual machine, like "Classic Mac" programs on PowerPC OS X. Yet again, Microsoft have decided to do something right, ten years later than everyone else. (Assuming the next version of Windows is out in 2009-2010, which is a reasonable assumption given that (a) they have announced they are going to start releasing a new version every two years and (b) they're always late.) Of course, as with that implementation of "proper security" that is pleased to call itself User Access Control, there's no guarantee that, having actually given into the principle, they will make the effort to understand it.
  2. Change the interface.
Yes, that's right, the people who have spent billions getting their minions to convince the millions that there is a "One Microsoft Way"* are going to change the way the masses do computing.

Or are they? See, the masses don't like change. They put up with viruses, spyware, adware, crashes**, and other bugs (such as DRM. Yes, William Henry, it's a bug.) that would make a Linux user's life, plagued as it is with driver issues, seem joyful by comparison. (Hmm, that actually sounds familiar--Ed.) They are, of course, safe in the knowledge that Uncle Bill will look after them, and they won't have to worry about things like, um, whether that new game they just installed is sending encrypted information to the NSA on which movies they've watched this week.

So what will they do if Uncle Bill, in his Infinite Wisdom, tries to change the interface? Robs them, as Computer Shopper says, of their Start button, taskbar, menus, and all the other interface goodies that have sustained their monopoly^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^Hmulti-billion-dollar successful business for 12 years? If all that suddenly...goes away?

There are two possible scenarios. The most depressing (and, you have to admit, likely) scenario is that people will just accept that Uncle Bill Knows Best (or maybe Uncle Steve - though I predict that two weeks in the company and care of old Stevo without the watchful eye of Uncle Gates around to keep him in check will have the MS stockholders screaming for Bill to come back faster than you can say "Michael Dell regains position as CEO of the former No. 1 PC vendor and starts preloading Linux") and take the time to get used to the interface.

But there is another scenario. Both MacOS and Linux (under the guise of KDE or GNOME) are both similar enough to the old menus-and-start-bar interface to make people feel welcome if they are forced to choose between them and a new, start-button-and-menu-free interface. And Dell preloading Linux (with, they say, as many free software drivers as possible) could just start a trend for people to actually, y'know, develop drivers for Linux (it'll be all over the morning papers)... Despite the fact that the pundits keep pushing people to embrace Apple - and the consumer may well do so - I've noticed that the pundits also keep pushing Vista...but the masses are having none of it. (When a Windows, nay Microsoft, supporter comes up to you and says, "I've noticed that a lot of people are saying they don't like Vista", forgetting of course that you told them this very thing a month ago, you know there's something going on that magazines like Computer Shopper, apparently, can't afford to report on.)

And as for the world switching to Macs, I'm going to incur the wrath of the Apple user community by pointing out three things I (and apparently the market) don't like about Macs:
  1. Unless you can make do with the iLife suite, once you get your Shiny New Mac home you are still going to have to (a) shell out for Microsoft Office (in which case you might as well have bought a PC in the first place) or iWorks (which isn't as full-featured as MS Office); or (b) download NeoOffice, which last I heard was behind OpenOffice in the feature stakes. If you want to run Windows games you will have to...use Boot Camp and/or Parallels (and buy a copy of Windows... in which case you might as well have bought a PC in the first place, because with those you get it "free").
  2. Yes, you can run Photoshop, but good look finding a pirated copy of it for OS X. And if you are going to pay for it, you might as well have gotten a PC, because then you can run all those other Windows applications too. Without buying a Mac.
  3. Macs are still overpriced. No, they are. On this side of the pond, at least, they haven't come down one bit since Macs started using stock PC parts for everything but the kitchen sink (read: the boot code). Now, you may say that you would spend the same to buy a Dell...but then if so, why not just buy a Dell...with which you get Windows (or soon, Linux) and for which there are a whole heck of a lot more "iLife" style applications than.... just iLife.*** Not only that, but you don't have to spend the same to buy a Dell.
  4. (Following on from the last point.) Macs are only from one supplier. What do you do if Apple don't honour the warranty, give you bum service or go belly up? Hmm. Buy a PC? Yes, a Dell might cost as much...if you get the same spec. But you can get a laptop from Dell for £399. In the US, you can get a Mac laptop from $1099 (about £550), but in the UK, prices start from £749 (as of 13:00 on 8 April). Or you can go to Dell, or Fujitsu, or Lenovo, or any one of a million PC suppliers, and get a PC. (Oh, and the Apple ads claim you never have to upgrade your Mac. That's great. Until your version of Mac OS doesn't support your model anymore and so, on top of paying for another copy of the OS at the full retail price, you get to purchase a whole new Mac!).
  5. Macs don't include proper keyboards. Now, I'll admit that one's definition of a "proper keyboard" may vary; an old-time UNIX hacker isn't about to find one to his liking on any PC; but then an OTUH knows how to use xkeycaps to swap the Caps Lock and Control keys, put Esc in the right place and do the same for the console. On UK Macs, the " key is way over there on the @ key (or was it the # key), which, for US readers, is beside L, with " over 2 as God, or at least Winston Churchill, intended. Now, the reason I rat on Apple for this is not because I hate Apple, or Americans, but because not only does every PC manufacturer I've ever seen do this right, but Commodore also did this right, and they made toys.
  6. The New Mac Pros look like cheese graters. Yes, I know, that may sound silly coming from someone who uses a PC with a case that looks like something the cat threw up, but the point is that case was cheap. If I'm going to buy something expensive because of its looks, then it has to look good. And the new Macs don't. The Cube looked great, despite its bad rep. So did the PowerMac G4. But the new Mac Pros (and the last generation of G5's)? Open sandwich, anyone?
Yes, OK, that's six things - I can count to ten, at least.

Perhaps though, the best thing about it for Linux is that it is all coming together at a time when people are already starting to switch to Linux for its own sake. The computer press keep coming out with articles saying Linux is no longer only for geeks, and those sections of the press which until now have done their best to ignore it are having to sit up and take notice. The future's bright, but not necessarily orange. Or apple.

*Yes, I know. i: It's ironic. ii. I feel your pain.
**Yes, Windows still crashes. Sometimes right in the middle of reinstalling all your drivers, because you have had to reinstall Windows because it won't boot. Aargh.
***This may be starting to sound like I'm pushing Windows. Actually, I'm not. I just hear far more rubbish about how "Linux is hard to use" from Mac users than from Windows users, as if I didn't get enough already. So a Mac user is probably an order of magnitude less likely to run Linux anyway, than a Windows user.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Doin' the Distro Shuffle

My three-year old love affair with Gentoo Linux has come to an end. On Sunday I emerge sync'ed and started an upgrade, only to find that a bunch of packages would not compile. By the time I had finished I couldn't even boot the thing because would not work, and no amount of emerging could coax it back. I decided it was time to say goodbye, and started looking around for a few other distros.

My first distribution (apart from tentative tries with Redhat) was Mandrake Linux, and I often miss it despite the fact that I remember it as being buggy, patronising, and having a childish set of icons (do you never forget your first distro?). So I downloaded and tried Mandriva One, which has a positively horrible orange default theme, and when I tried to install it it got 3/4 of the way through and then just stopped. I think I'm cured of my Mandrake nostalgia :-(.

The next distribution I tried was Arch Linux, and I'm writing from it right now. It's really fast - faster than my Gentoo installation - and of course installing with its binary-based package manager, pacman, is a lot faster than emerging. The first time I installed (from the 'net) I was a bit picky about what got installed, but I must have been too picky, because the second time I installed (choosing to install everything from the full CD image), fonts came up antialiased. Hurrah! It's not one for you if you hate the commandline (the installation program is a text-based ncurses interface program, it comes up in text mode by default, and there is no default graphical system configuration program - though these days the one that comes with KDE is a lot more useful than it used to be - it now understands GRUB, for example), but if you can cope with the fact that it's text based, it's actually one of the easier installs out there. It's probably not as easy as Slackware, because you have to edit rc.conf and make sure the initrd has options to install a non-us keymap and boot from raid and lvm if you need them, but it has sensible defaults so with those provisos, you should be able to fix any "mistakes" (such as not adding kdm to the list of daemons to load on boot) from a running machine.

One minor problem I did have with it was that when I set my resolution to 1280x1024, X started up with one or two inches off the right of the screen blank - easily fixed by using my monitor's controls to shift the display to the right and enlarge it a bit. (I tried using xvidtune but for some reason X would ignore the Modeline part of the config file). One thing I love about Arch is that it allowed me to install the root partition onto an LVM, just like I had with Gentoo - all I had to do was reformat /, /usr, /var, and /opt, and we're off! I have /home, and several directories under it, on separate partitions, and it's amazing seeing (almost) all your configurations come up the way you had 'em on another distro.

I have a spare hard disk on which I'm going to install Slackware 11 and/or Debian, but for now it looks like I may well stay with Arch.