Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

The antivirus paranoia culture

Recently, I’ve spent some time looking at the computer section of Yahoo! Answers, and it’s a fascinating place from a sociological perspective. If the questions and answers popular there are indicative of what common attitudes and practices are among Windows and Mac users, then this is how a typical user operates:

  • Install free antivirus software
  • Install Limewire and use it to download copyrighted songs and movies as well as software cracks.
  • Run as administrator all the time (no limited user account).
  • Get infected with a virus or rogue.
  • Ask for suggestions about a better antivirus.
  • Consider that maybe paid antivirus solutions may be more effective than free ones.
  • Consider that Frostwire may be safer than Limewire.
  • Switch antiviruses.
  • Switch P2P application.
  • Get infected again.
  • Try to remove the infection with MalwareBytes.
  • Spend hours trying to remove infections with various other programs.
  • Eventually give up and reformat entire drive without backing up files.
  • Continue cycle.

There also seems to be a popular misconception that Windows’ malware problem has to do primarily with its popularity and not any flaw in security (like running as administrator by default all the time). So when a trojan (which requires user stupidity, not a flaw in the security of the operating system) appears for Mac OS X, the Windows users on Yahoo! Answers say “Aha! See? Macs get viruses too. They’re no more secure than Windows” and the Mac users on Yahoo! Answers say “Oh, no. What antivirus should I use to protect my Mac? I thought Macs were immune to viruses.”

I hope you see the problem here. Antivirus software companies may not be so nefarious as to actually create viruses (though maybe they do—we don’t have any irrefutable evidence either way), but they have definitely created a culture of paranoia and not just healthy fear.

Most computer users are paralyzed when it comes to security. They have no concept whatsoever as to what makes a computer secure or insecure. They just think “If I run ‘the best’ antivirus software, I can do whatever I want and my computer will be safe.”

Yet, I’d be willing to bet that most of these people would be better at spotting a fake valet before handing over the keys to their cars and would know better than to actively seek out burglars to give out their bank ATM cards and PIN codes to.

What can we do to turn around this culture of paranoia and turn it into proper, healthy fear properly channeled through education and good practice?

I used to be part of this culture, back when I was an exclusive Windows user. I got malware of some kind and panicked. And I thought if I just got a “better” antivirus and changed from Internet Explorer to Firefox that my security would be so much better.

It wasn’t until I got more familiar with the worlds of Mac OS X and Ubuntu that I realized privilege separation matters. Yes, it’s theoretically conceivable that malware could infect a limited user account if it were designed that way, but if it did and was detected in a short amount of time, then it could be easily removed. Malware as it is now thrives because it digs deeply into the Windows system files so that booting into safe mode or trying to use system restore to get rid of it isn’t enough. If you use a limited user account, no system files will be affected, and if malware were ever designed to affect a limited user account, you could just delete that account and carry on.

More importantly, the paranoia comes from a total lack of understanding about how computers become infected with malware. They have the same understanding of computer diseases that “doctors” had about human diseases centuries ago. It’s a bad humor. It’s punishment for doing something evil. It’s not germs you actually have to come in contact with.

A lot of malware comes in not through software flaws but through user flaws. Social engineering is a great way to get malware installed because Microsoft, Apple, and Linux developers can do nothing about it through better programming. If you can trick the user into installing “the codec you need to watch this video” or “this pirated version of iWork” or “this cool new software,” then any kind of built-in security goes out the window.

Couldn’t these users who suffer from such paranoia and ignorance save themselves a lot of heartache if they did a few simple things?

  1. Use a limited user account in Windows
  2. Take ten minutes to read up on social engineering and how not to be a victim of it
  3. Back up personal files regularly
  4. Use Norton Ghost or Acronis True Image to image a working installation so a reinstall wouldn’t take so long
  5. Install system security updates

The way a lot of people run their computers, it’s like having rampant unprotected sex and then getting an HIV test every six months. That won’t stop HIV! Get a condom! Computers have condoms too, even though Microsoft doesn’t make them very easy to put on.

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Education Linux Ubuntu

The woman who dropped out of MATC after mistakenly buying a Ubuntu laptop from Dell

I know I’m probably the millionth person to comment on this (is millionth even a word?), but I have only two things to say.

1. To the anti-Linux folks and tech “journalists” who blame this on Linux not being “friendly” enough for new users or being for only those who want to tinker with their computers, how exactly would Ubuntu (or any Linux distro) have been friendlier or easier to use in this case? Does Ubuntu have any control over the fact that Verizon gives you the impression its software is necessary to set up an internet connection? Or that Verizon’s CD provides Windows-only software for it? Does Ubuntu have any control over the fact that Microsoft has made Microsoft Office closed source and not made a Linux version? Does Ubuntu have any control over MATC’s requirements misleading people into thinking they need Windows when Linux will do just fine? Did this woman really have to drop out of college because of the laptop?

2. To the supposedly pro-Linux folks who feel the need to harass this woman through Facebook or whatever, shame on you. Should she have known better to research what computer she was buying before plunking down $1100? Sure. Is she an idiot? No. She’s just an idiot when it comes to computers, and I know a lot of otherwise brilliant folks who are idiots when it comes to computers (I was a computer idiot only five years ago myself). There’s no need to send hate mail her way when the people really at fault are the “journalists” who don’t actually do any kind of investigative reporting and rely solely on catchy headlines and misinformation to gain readership and website hits.

A friend of mine recently went back to school for interior design and previously had been a Mac user. Surprise, surprise—she got herself a Windows computer, because she knew AutoCAD wouldn’t run on her iBook. Somehow, though, I can’t picture WKOW 27 running a news story on Mac OS X forcing her to drop out of college because it doesn’t run AutoCAD, even if she had stuck with her iBook.

Edit: Here’s an example of a Mac user on Yahoo! Answers who is having trouble with the .exe file to set up her Belkin wireless router. Anyone going to run a news story on it? Doubtful.

Computers Linux Ubuntu

Linux is a Windows operating system? HP…?

I’ve been fascinated by HP’s line of netbooks ever since I saw the phrase “92% keyboard,” but the reviews of the HP Mini-Note have been mixed, and the most recent reviews of the HP Mini MI indicate they’ve based it on Ubuntu but disabled the terminal. There’s probably a way to re-activate the terminal. Still, what’s the point of disabling it? Mac OS X has had a terminal for years. It doesn’t mean Mac users have to use the terminal. It’s just there for the people who want it.

In any case, I’m not actually in a position to buy a new netbook (my old Eee PC is less than a year old). I like to pretend, though, so I walked through the process of customizing the new HP Mini MI, and I came across this (click for a larger image with the full context):
Uh, that’s a Windows logo there, except they’re saying it’s Linux. It’s one thing to hide the typical Linux interface with a slick internet-media interface or even to disable the terminal, but tricking Windows users into thinking Linux is Windows? Even Mac has the weird split square smiley face or the Apple logo. Linux can’t even get a tux penguin or the Ubuntu logo?

“Progress” always has to happen in small steps at first, I guess.

Computers Linux Ubuntu

Confessions of a Linux user

One of the popular criticisms of Linux users is that Linux users can’t take criticism well. This criticism happens to be true. And I happen to have, at one point, been one of those Linux users who could not take criticism well.

Why can’t Linux users take criticism well? Why couldn’t I before? Does using Linux do something to your brain? Does it cause you to have kneejerk reactions?

Well, I think it does at first. I can speak only for myself, but I wouldn’t be surprised if other Linux users had this happen to them, too. When I first “converted” to Linux from Windows, that’s exactly how I thought of myself—as a convert. I felt as if I’d seen the light. For decades, I’d been enslaved by Microsoft and now had finally seen the light in Linux. Praise Jesus! I wanted to share the “good news” with other Windows users. I wanted to tell them what they were missing. I was so enthusiastic for Linux that I couldn’t understand how anyone could level criticisms against it.

It was more than that, of course. Even after my new-convert zeal died down, I didn’t take criticism well because I knew many of the criticisms were not valid or constructive ones. If 95% of the criticisms people throw at you aren’t valid, it can be difficult to figure out which 5% are valid and give people credit for that little bit. In other words, you get in a defensive mode, the same way a dog who is used to being beaten will shy away from even an intended-to-be-loving touch.

Once the zeal went away and once the defensiveness cooled down, I started trying to deflect criticism into pragmatism. After all, what does it matter if I—a Linux user, not a Linux developer—hear your criticisms? How would I know how to fix things any more than you would?

A little bit of this I have retained, and I still will refer complainers to Brainstorm and Launchpad.

But I’ve stopped toeing the party line. It’s taken me three and a half years of Linux use to do so, but I’ve stopped. Yes, there are many things that are the fault of third-party vendors. Yes, there are many things that are out of the control of Linux developers. In the end, though, Linux developers are human—just like you and me. They make mistakes. That’s why some thing that used to work in an older release no longer works in the current release. That’s why that update broke your X server. That’s why that security vulnerability snuck in and took a while to get patched.

Linux isn’t perfect, not even for what is within the control of the Linux developers. And not all Linux developers are volunteers. Many are, and I appreciate their generosity of time and energy. But many are also paid. But they’re human, folks. They make mistakes. Is it okay for you to criticize? Sure. Criticize away.

I’ve had my fair share of problems with Linux. I’ve been a Ubuntu user for over three years, and I saw Ubuntu storing passwords in plain text (that has since been fixed). I’ve had all kinds of problems getting drives mounted and unmounted properly, and I’ve filed bug reports. Sometimes I get annoyed that they won’t fix bugs in the current release unless they’re security-related. That’s okay.

In the end, I don’t believe in conversion. I believe in using what works for you. If you believe Windows has fewer problems, then use Windows. If you believe Mac has fewer problems, use OS X. If you believe Linux has more problems than Windows and Mac but you just want to torture yourself, use Linux.

I happen to have experience with all three major platforms and have found problems with all three. I could level criticisms at all three. In the end, I choose Linux because I like it, warts and all. If you want to offer your criticisms, I won’t pretend I haven’t heard them all before, but I also won’t call you a troll or tell you that nothing is the fault of Linux developers. Use what works for you, and do your best to improve it with whatever’s within your power to do so.

Computers Linux Ubuntu

Linux – stop holding kids back… so wrong

Recently, a school teacher named Karen in the Austin Independent School District confiscated what she thought were copies of illegal software but were actually Linux CDs. She then wrote an angry email to Ken Starks (aka, Helios), who then published the email and wrote back his own angry response. At least that’s what Ken Starks would have you believe happened.

I’m annoyed that the Linux community is getting on this guy’s side, and he’s trying to make off like a hero. I even question the authenticity of the email. I believe it’s either (depending on how cynical you want to get) a rewrite of an actual email for extra dramatic effect, a completely fabricated email referencing an actual event, or a completely fabricated email referencing an event that never even happened but one that Ken Starks considers realistic or plausible.

Let’s say—for argument’s sake, since I have no proof yet that this is a hoax—that the email is authentic and that the incident actually did happen. If that’s the case, Ken Starks’ blog post does not put the Linux community in a good light at all.

If the teacher’s email is authentic, it’s still not ethical for Starks to publish without the author’s consent what would otherwise be a private exchange, especially for the purpose of public ridicule.

More importantly, Starks does go on to ridicule the teacher in question and offer her personal insults as well. Here are some highlights:

You should be ashamed of yourself for putting into print such none sense [sic].

The fact that you seem to believe that Microsoft is the end all and be-all is actually funny in a sad sort of way. Then again, being a good NEA member, you would spout the Union line.

A dedicated School Teacher would recognize that fact and lobby for the change to Free Open Source Software and let the money formally spent on MS bindware be used on our kids.

A teacher who cared about her students would do that.

Now this teacher—if this incident really did happen, and if she wrote that actual email to Starks—is certainly extremely misinformed. Linux CDs are not illegal, and software can be free. It’s possible that “Aaron” was being disruptive but well-intentioned, and she was a bit harsh to the boy. However, if Starks really wanted to inform her and have her change and get educated, he should have written a kinder reply. His vitriol serves only to alienate her and tarnish the image of Linux communities.

To Karen, if this incident really did happen, and if your email did actually get published without your consent for the purposes of public ridicule, I apologize on behalf of the parts of the Linux community that will let me. You didn’t know that what that student was doing was perfectly legal, and you might have overreacted, but you probably thought at that time that what you were doing was right. If Starks hasn’t totally turned you off to open source software, I’d invite you to explore it yourself some time. It is perfectly legal and cost-free.

P.S. I find it disturbing that this is starting to appear not just on Digg and Slashdot but as actual news stories on tech websites when it’s clear that the only source remains Starks’ blog post. There is currently no outside verification whatsoever that the incident occurred or that this Karen (no last name) teacher actually sent that email to Starks.

Computers Linux Music I Like Ubuntu Windows

The Songbird has hatched

When Songbird first appeared on the scene (I think it was version 0.1 or something), I remember the Ubuntu Forums community getting really excited about it. It was supposed to be like the Firefox of music players, the iTunes-“killer.” It seems as if it’s been years, and people have been hyping it up all along the way.

At intervals, I’d try it out and see how I liked it. Meh. I was never that impressed.

Recently, though, I came back to it on my work computer. Ever since newer versions of iTunes have broken compatibility with third-party efforts to set up global hotkeys for iTunes in Windows, I’ve been on the search for something very simple: a music player that will keep track of how often I’ve played songs in my library and give me global hotkeys. It’s not as easy as you’d think. I’ve tried Foobar2000 and XMMS. No go. So for a while I was just sticking with iTunes without the global hotkeys, and I decided it was too annoying.

For any of you who wonder what global hotkeys are for, I have a job where I do a lot of office work (filing, processing mail, running reports) and also answer the phone and sometimes talk with people in person. While I’m doing office work, I like to listen to music. I have my own office (not a cubicle), so I’m not bothering anyone. But if the phone rings or if someone walks in, I want a quick way to pause my music so I can give that person my full attention. And if I’m doing office work, I’m too lazy to create playlists, so I want to often skip songs I don’t feel like listening to at the moment. Global hotkeys help me do this without constantly having to Alt-Tab back to my music application.

Well, my return to Songbird has been a good one. I’ve now completely remove iTunes from my work computer, and I’m sticking with the bird. I’m very impressed that Songbird not only gives me global hotkeys and keeps play counts per song but it also has so many nifty little plugins. There’s an on-screen display when I change songs. There’s a plugin for looking up concert info for artists. There’s a lyrics plugin. There’s a play queue plugin. All great stuff that iTunes doesn’t have.

I feel as if there’s now a little bit of Linux functionality on my Windows work computer, and it’s great. Go, Songbird!

Apple and Mac OS X Asus Eee PC Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Would Apple’s netbook be the next iPod?

I remember back in 2003 when only a handful of early adopters in America were buying portable audio players. If I’m recalling correctly, some of the big players at the time were RCA and Creative, among others. Once 2004 rolled around and the 3rd-generation iPods came out, suddenly “everyone” I knew had an iPod. Soon, even armed with my Sandisk player, I had unknowing friends call my portable audio player an iPod. The iPod took over a growing trend and made itself a virtual monopoly in portable media devices.

In recent years, phones have been getting more internet-connected. Blackberries have been the standard for business travellers, but most everyday folks have had crappy no-name web browsers in their phones that can do only some very basic tasks. Suddenly, the iPhone came along, and now… well, not nearly “everyone” but it’s getting close to half of the people I know are getting iPhones or planning to get an iPhone when they can afford it. I had high hopes for the Google phone or the Blackberry Storm; however, all the reviews I’ve read of them have been mixed and make it sound as if the iPhone, despite its own flaws, cannot be beat for sex appeal to the masses.

Now we have these netbooks that are “popular” in the sense that early adopters are excited about them, but really very few people I know have netbooks let alone know of their existence. I bought an Eee PC 701, and I still love it but, like many netbook owners, know that the netbook has not reached its full potential. Some Linux users are optimistic, since most netbooks come with a Linux-preinstalled option, that netbooks could be the key to a Linux-for-home-user revolution of sorts. If that’s to happen, OEMs have to wake up and start making a netbook that is unreservedly the best. I’ve read literally hundreds of reviews of various netbooks, and with every review, there’s something seriously wrong. Some key is placed in the wrong place. The keyboard is too small. The sound is tinny. The processor is too slow. The battery life is too short. The Linux distribution it comes with is crippled.

Why is it so difficult? Really. If an OEM (Dell, HP, Acer, Asus, etc.) came out with a netbook that had these characteristics, I guarantee it’d blow the sales of the other netbooks out of the water:

  • 92%-sized keyboard with important keys in the right places
  • No weird side buttons for the touchpad
  • Nice aluminum casing, no cheap plastic
  • Sleeps when you close the lid, wakes when you open the lid
  • Ubuntu-based Linux that takes advantage of the full Ubuntu repositories
  • “Easy” interface that can easily (meaning a box that checked or unchecked, ticked or unticked) be changed to a more typical “advanced” interface
  • 2- or 3-second boot time
  • Definitely cheaper than the corresponding Windows option
  • Battery life of longer than 4 hours
  • Kernel supports 2 GB of RAM without user modification
  • Ships quickly, no extended delays

Why is that so hard to find? Why does Dell’s Mini come with some weird architecture that isn’t compatible with the regular x86 .deb packages? Why does HP’s Mini-Note use a Via processor? Why does any netbook run with a crippled version of Xandros or with Linpus Linux? Trust me, OEMs, for your own financial good, fix these problems quickly and come up with an all-around great product, not just a sufficiently-good-for-early-adopters product.

If the rumors I’m reading are true and Apple may enter the netbook market soon, this could be another iPod coup. I don’t agree with all the design decisions Apple makes. In fact, I actually am opposed to Apple’s whole approach to user interfaces. I cannot deny, however, that Apple thinks out its decisions and tries to create what they consider a good user experience. And they know how to make their products sexy. See, I don’t mind having an ugly MP3 player that also has a radio, has a really long battery life, and costs half the price of an iPod. But I’m not most people. Most people would much rather have a sleek iPod that costs more, has a cool scroll wheel, and works with iTunes.

I’d love to see Linux get some real success among home users, but if there’s not a Linux netbook that I can unreservedly recommend to friends and family before Apple comes out with one, I’m afraid Linux may miss the boat on this one. Or, even if Apple doesn’t come out with a netbook exactly, if the current line of netbooks stays flawed, netbooks themselves may die out, and the iPhone may take over yet another niche.

Computers Linux Ubuntu

To Debian and back again… again

Every now and then I try out Debian because of its reputation of being rock solid and stable. There are many things I like about Debian, especially its release cycle. But I still end up coming back to Ubuntu.

My most recent expedition was on my Eee PC 701. I tried the specialized version of Debian that’s supposed to be fully Eee-compatible (it comes with wireless drivers and hotkeys working, etc.). The only problem is I’ve never had good luck with madwifi drivers, even though that’s supposedly the “correct” way to go. In Debian, I ran into that same problem. Oddly enough, the minimalist installer was able to retrieve and install packages over my wireless connection, but when I had actually installed Debian, I couldn’t get wireless to work, even though the madwifi drivers were installed.

So I tried, as had worked in Ubuntu, to use ndisgtk instead, but I got some fatal error about the module not being loaded. Even though Debian’s Gnome was a lot snappier than Ubuntu’s (not sure why), I just went back to what’s tried and true (if not as responsive an interface). Back on Intrepid again.

Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Please stop pretending Windows “just works”

As a follow-up to Macs are just computers, not magic and Macs are computers, not magic (part 2), I have to say based on recent events that people who say “There’s a reason 90% of home users use Windows” (and mean to imply it’s the quality of Windows instead of consumer inertia) or “Linux is for people who don’t value time. I’m going to stick with Windows because it works” are delusional.

Recently, at my job, I’ve been lending the occasional hand to the tech support department (even though I work in the Admission Office), and the problems we’ve been encountering have been problems that have challenged even tech support (not just the end users). I installed Adobe CS3 on a co-worker’s computer, and all of a sudden Microsoft Word would keep crashing and would start up in only safe mode. And a whole bunch of computers could not view embedded PDFs in Firefox.

Such incidents are not isolated to this job or any job at all. Throughout the last two decades, I’ve seen amongst family members, co-workers, and friends, too many Windows problems to even count. It could be anything from an “unknown error” when an application tries to start to a print job not going to the printer but being unable to be cancelled.

The next time someone says “There’s a reason 90% of home users use Windows,” I hope someone else replies, “There’s a reason 100% of organizations who use Windows have tech support departments.” As a matter of fact, computer problems existing has little to do with what OS you use. I’ve seen Mac owners complain about various Mac problems and Linux users complain about various Linux problems. There is no such thing as “just works.” Windows does not just work. Mac OS X does not just work. Linux does not just work.

The only way around this I can see is a redefinition of the phrase just works. Here’s my new working definition:

Fill-in-the-blank operating system has caused me personally (and no one else necessarily) fewer problems than other operating systems I have used, and when I do encounter problems, they are ones I can tolerate and not big enough for me to abandon this platform for another one.

Everyone who uses a computer either is a geek, becomes a geek, has a geek friend, or pays someone to be a geek. I know no one who buys a computer and thinks, “I know nothing about how to fix computer problems, I know no one who can fix computer problems, and I don’t ever want to pay money to have someone fix my computer. I don’t have to worry about that, though, since fill-in-the-blank operating system ‘just works.'” Anyone who would think that is in for a big surprise.

Further Reading
Windows Setup… or Why I hate Windows
What could it be?

Computers Linux Ubuntu

Dell, you didn’t do right by your Ubuntu customers

Quite a large handful of Ubuntu Forums members ordered Dell Inspiron Mini 9 computers with Ubuntu preinstalled. Kudos to Dell for offering (and actually advertising) Ubuntu preinstalled, and good on those who bought Ubuntu preinstalled (not an XP preinstalled they installed Ubuntu in place of themselves) and sent a real message to a major OEM that there is a demand for Linux preinstalled.

Still, there was a major problem. If you ordered a Dell Mini with an 8 GB or 16 GB hard drive, only 4 GB of it appeared to be usable. Dell has admitted to the problem and has said it’s fixed the problem for future-shipping units.

There is a problem, though. In its latest blog entry, “Inspiron Mini 9 with Ubuntu Linux – 8GB and 16 GB Hard Drives Not Fully Formatted” (in which they mention my username but misspell it—just an aside, no big deal), they say

For customers wishing to be able to use the extra unformatted disk space immediately, if you purchased a USB DVD drive with your Mini, you may use the system restore DVD included with your system to completely reinstall the operating system. (emphasis added)

I realize they’re working on a simple method for customers to use to format/reclaim the unused hard drive space without reinstalling the OS but this is ridiculous. So customers have to have paid Dell money for an external USB DVD drive in order to fix a mistake that Dell made? Dell should be rewarding, not punishing, its loyal early adopter customers. I realize it’d lose some initial money on doing this, but in the long run it’d earn the respect and future business of its existing customers if it shipped its customers free USB DVD drives to reinstall the OS. If it’s your fault, you pay for the replacement.

My wife has an iPhone power supply part that Apple has recalled. Does Apple want her to pay for the replacement part? No, because the faulty part is Apple’s fault. Any recall, any manufacturing problem is the vendor’s fault and should be fixed at the vendor’s expense, not the customer’s.

Dell, you are not doing right by your Ubuntu customers. So if they happened to have bought a USB DVD drive, they can reinstall the OS. If they haven’t, then what should they do, buy one? And will you reimburse them the cost?