Computers Linux Ubuntu

The writers who cried YOTLD

If you have followed tech news closely at all within the last ten years, you’ve probably heard the phrase year of the Linux desktop before. This is the year that Linux makes a breakthrough with home users, and suddenly Microsoft’s dominant market share comes toppling down. I believe people have been proclaiming various years as the year of the Linux desktop since as early as 1998 (possibly even earlier).

Sometimes the writers will say the current year will be the year of the Linux desktop. Sometimes they’ll be a little more conservative and say some year a few years from now will be the year of the Linux desktop. For example, if I were one of these writers, I would either write 2008 will be the year of the Linux desktop! or with the progress we’re saying right now in 2008, it’s likely that by 2011, we’ll see the year of the Linux desktop.

Did we see the year of the Linux desktop? Nope. That, at least, I think most of us Linux aficionados can agree on. But some naysayers go a step further. Through a leap in logic, they decide that the fact that none of these previous predictions have come true precludes the possibility of a future prediction coming true. In other words, the extrapolation goes something like this: Oh, come on. For years, people have been saying such-and-such year is the year of the Linux desktop, and it’s never come. It’s never going to come. Microsoft will always be on top. Just deal with it.

I would contend that we have no way of knowing whether that year will ever come or not. Just think of the fable “The boy who cried wolf.” In it, the boy tells the village that a wolf is coming. The village gets all up in a panic and then realizes the boy was lying. He cries wolf a second time, and a second time the village is in a panic and realizes the boy was lying again. The third time he cries wolf, there really is a wolf, but no one in the village believes him any more. That’s what’s happening with this whole YOTLD business. These writers who keep proclaiming that some year is the YOTLD are losing their credibility every time the year doesn’t come. But it also means that it’s possible the year might come, and no one will believe the writer who really does get it right.

So I guess it boils down to two things: 1. If you’re a writer who wants to proclaim that such-and-such year is the YOTLD, don’t even bother. Even if you’re right, no one will believe you anyway, as people have been saying that for years. 2. If you one of those people who thinks the YOTLD will never come, you have to come up with other reasons than “They’ve been saying that for years.” After all, I could say every year that I’m going to die that year, and I may be wrong most of the time, but one year I am going to be right. Whether I say it’s going to happen or not has no bearing on the actual outcome or occurrence.

I’m just beginning now to read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, which talks about the moment when there’s a huge sociological change (crime rates dropping, fashion trends being adopted, new technology going mainstream), and it’s made me change my mind on Linux adoption. I used to think the growth of consumer Linux would be gradual and stay gradual indefinitely, but there is a tipping point, and if we get to that point (maybe about 15%), there will be a huge flood of new users. I’m not going to speculate on what year that might be, but it clearly happened for cell phones (as Gladwell points out) in 1998, and it also happened for iPods in 2003, and Firefox in 2005. It won’t necessarily mean the end of Windows’ dominance on the home user’s computer, but it could mean a lot more third-party support for Linux—the kind that Macs currently enjoy.

Which year will be the YOTLD? No one knows. There very well still could be one, and it would probably be a year and not a decade.

Computers Ubuntu Web Browsers

My online alter ego

Most people who know me in person (what some people refer to as “in real life”) don’t know that I have an online alter ego. Participating in a social networking site like Facebook does not mean you have an online alter ego (unless the people you are “friends” with are people you’ve never met in person). Your online alter ego is the person you are to people you have “met” online and even befriended online and had arguments with online but have never met in person.

I try, believe it or not, to make my online alter ego as much like the in-person me as possible, but somehow people who “meet” alter ego me don’t always react to me the same way in-person people do. A number of factors contribute to the difference in reactions:

  • Whether we admit it or not, when we meet people in person, we judge them by how they look—and not just their facial features: we judge them by physical stature, mannerisms, gestures, tonal inflections, eye movements, and other social cues.
  • Online venues tend to cut down on a lot of the small talk that happens in in-person social situations. People online have shared with me their sleeping habits, political opinions, sexual orientations, pet peeves, angers, and joys without asking me where I went to school or how long I’ve lived in the Bay Area.
  • Online venues offer anonymity, which leads to more honesty… and sometimes unwarranted abuse.
  • Written language allows you to put more thought into what you say. You can edit, you can proofread, and you can mull over before anyone even has an idea that you are even considering offering an opinion.

You’d think that with all those factors involved, people would think more highly of my online alter ego than they do of me. Such is not the case most of the time. I’m a friendly guy. People in person tend to like me (or at least do an awfully good job of pretending they do). Online, though, I’ve had people accuse me of being sexist, racist, homophobic, too politically correct, pedantic, lacking in a sense of humor, and enforcing draconian policies (I’m a moderator of an online forum). Oddly enough, I’ve had people accuse me of opposite things. Some people have said I’m anti-Linux. Others have said I’m a Linux fanboy. Some have said I’m too pro-Gnome. Others have said I’m biased in favor of KDE. Some have lorded over my newbieness with their “leetness” (re: elitism), and others have considered me to be very knowledgeable in the geek realm.

All of this makes me wonder if some of the people online whom I’ve grown to like and respect would actually get along with me in person. I suspect probably not. Many of the people I connect with in the Ubuntu world or even through this blog are anti-gay gun-toting right-wingers, or at least present themselves that way. Some of them drink too much beer.

Well, such is life… and online life. I’ll close with a message from my online alter ego: If you don’t read me laughing, it’s not because I lack a sense of humor; it’s because your joke wasn’t funny.

Computers Linux Ubuntu

Linux for home users – stop the hype!

I’m an open source advocate who has been using Ubuntu for the past three years and just bought my first Linux-preinstalled computer (with Xandros instead of Ubuntu, but that’s okay), but I hate it when people hype up Linux to Windows users. I’m not talking about Linux for embedded devices or Linux for web servers. I’m talking about Linux for home users—what some call “Desktop Linux” (although the demographic seems to include laptop users as well).

Hyping up Linux is counterproductive. I’m an active member of the Ubuntu Forums and have seen too many “I’m going back to Windows” threads started by disgruntled potential migrants from Windows who were oversold on Linux by these “let’s hype up Linux” articles and blogs. Shame on the bloggers/writers. If you want to migrate people over to Linux successfully, you should be honest about the pros and cons, appreciate the good points Windows has to offer, and concede the difficulties people may face during migration.

The most important point to hammer home to potential new users is that Linux is not a drop-in replacement for Windows. Sadly, it is usually only after potential migrants get disgruntled that the Linux users say, “Yeah, Linux isn’t Windows!” Well, if you’d said that in the first place, people wouldn’t have had their unrealistic expectations shattered. They would have just stuck with Windows as they should have.

I’ve collected below a list of links to articles and blogs that overhype Linux (shame on them). The one (ironically enough) entitled “Why Linux is Better” happens to be one of few that admit Linux may not be a good choice for a number of situations, but it throws that in as a P.S. below a lot of hype at the top.

Hooray for Ubuntu 8.10!
Our Linux Top 10 Reasons
Why Linux is Better
10 Reasons Why Linux Ubuntu is Better than Windows
Ubuntu – an amazing alternative to Windows
Switching From Windows To Linux
Everything About Linux
Ubuntu! An alternative to Windows and Mac
Linux Friday: Reasons To Switch To Ubuntu (Or Any Linux Distribution)
Why Use Linux?
With Vista’s View Getting Dimmer, Should You Give Linux A Chance?

You won’t have to read through all those links to get the impression that Linux (and Ubuntu in particular) is the best thing since sliced bread or vanilla ice cream. Linux for home users is a choice many people don’t know they have, and they should be made aware of that choice, but they shouldn’t have that choice shoved down their throats or made out to be the unambiguously “best” choice.

I humbly offer my own write-up to potential migrants. It was written a long time ago, but I think it still holds kernels of truth, even as Ubuntu has become more polished over the years: Is Ubuntu for You?

Don’t believe the hype. Explore your options cautiously, be skeptical of any article or blog that appears one-sided, and come to Linux with an open mind. If you follow that advice, whether you stay with Windows or end up moving to Linux, you won’t regret anything. (I’ve left out mention of Mac users here, because most of these overhype-Linux write-ups target Windows users.)

Computers Linux

I love my web host

Taking a break from the Eee love to give some love to ICDSoft. Even though there are web hosts out there who appear to give better deals (“unlimited bandwidth,” for example), I’ve found ICDSoft an absolute pleasure to work with over the years.

The uptime is almost 100%, the customer service is friendly and prompt (never have to wait more than a minute for a response to a question), and they every now and then surprise you with a major upgrade (at no additional cost).

Just this week they migrated my Psychocats server (I didn’t even see any interruption in service during the migration) and multiplied my bandwidth limit tenfold. They’ve also moved to Debian, which they said will provide more stability (and everything I’ve heard from the Linux community is that Debian is rock-solid).

Very exciting, and just in time for the release of Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron), when I’m sure my site will get hammered by eager new Ubuntu users. Thanks, ICDSoft!

Asus Eee PC Computers Linux

Welcome to the Eee: My computer just got downsized

Since the Linux model isn’t sold in stores, and the Windows model is supposed to arrive about now but reports are mixed about its actual availability at Best Buy (brick and mortar, anyway), I’m starting up a little section here devoted especially to the Eee, because I feel this is where computers are headed.

If you’ve been reading technology news the past two years, you know that the One Laptop Per Child XO Laptop, the Intel Classmate PC, and the Macbook Air have been a lot of the exciting developments in the area of home computing and/or education. Computer use recently has grown more and more dependent on the internet. These days, with Firefox (or another web browser), you can do your taxes, organize photos, listen to music, share documents, shop, connect with friends and family, get directions, buy concert tickets… you get the point (and so do computer manufacturers). The traveling internet appliance has arrived and are even starting to earn the nickname netbook.

Well, I’ve been eyeing these “netbooks” for a while now, and the Macbook Air is just too far out of my price range, and I’d been hearing good things about the Eee for months (the fact that it has Linux preinstalled on it didn’t hurt for me either as a selling point). After reading literally hundreds of reviews of it (blogs, videos, user comments, tech news articles), I took the plunge and got myself a Xandros-preloaded Eee PC, and I don’t regret it. More details later, but for now just know that it is cute, visually stunning, and does what it’s supposed to (email, web browsing, web camming, Skype, IM, word processing, time-wasting games, music management, photo editing) and in a very, very small package.

Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

The truth about open source and piracy

There are a lot of stereotypes about Linux users as socially awkward too-long-bearded 30-somethings living in their parents’ basements hacking illegally into government servers and indulging in “free” software that’s really pirated software. After all, isn’t that why Linux users use filesharing programs like Frostwire or visit sites like PirateBay?

The truth is that many open source advocates are against software piracy because piracy of proprietary software hurts open source adoption, and if you use open source software, there’s no reason to pirate. I know people who are dependent on Adobe Photoshop, and so when they can’t afford Adobe Photoshop, they pirate it. Same deal with Microsoft Office. Well, there’s never a time I can’t afford GIMP or OpenOffice. They offer freedom and they are cost-free.

Bill Gates may not always be ethical (or pretty to look at—sorry, but it’s true!), but he is a savvy businessperson if nothing else, and here are some of his insights into piracy:

From Gates, Buffett a bit bearish (2 July, 1998):

Gates shed some light on his own hard-nosed business philosophy. “Although about 3 million computers get sold every year in China, but people don’t pay for the software,” he said. “Someday they will, though. As long as they are going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They’ll get sort of addicted, and then we’ll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade.”

and from How Microsoft conquered China (17 July, 2007):

Today Gates openly concedes that tolerating piracy turned out to be Microsoft’s best long-term strategy. That’s why Windows is used on an estimated 90% of China’s 120 million PCs. “It’s easier for our software to compete with Linux when there’s piracy than when there’s not,” Gates says.

There you have it from the man himself. Who should be (and probably are) against piracy more than anybody? The Linux and open source people.

Computers Life Linux Ubuntu

What do grocery stores and operating systems have in common?

Who would have ever thought I’d be comparing Trader Joe’s to Ubuntu?

Well, in recent years, a lot of the grocery stores in our neighborhood have been closing down, so Trader Joe’s is one of the few still around. When my wife and I started shopping there originally, we made a regular habit of shopping at both Trader Joe’s (which touts itself as a unique grocery store) and regular grocery stores. As time went on, we found ourselves shopping more and more at Trader Joe’s and less and less at regular grocery stores. I found myself giving up Breyer’s ice cream for mochi ice cream. I found myself giving up Yoplait for Trader Joe’s yogurt. I found myself giving up Fresh Step for Space cat litter. Now, practically our entire grocery list can be found at Trader Joe’s. I still rely on a regular grocery store for Cheerios, tortillas, and Thomas’ English Muffins; the Joe’s O’s, Joe’s tortillas, and Joe’s English muffins just don’t cut it in my book… right now, but maybe that’ll change.

The same happened when I moved from Windows to Ubuntu. Initially, I dual-booted with WIndows for iTunes. Eventually, I weaned myself off iTunes and on to Rhythmbox. I gave up my iPod for an iAudio. I gave up the iTunes music store for actual CDs. My wife, who migrated from Windows to Mac found herself using more and more Mac applications. Initially, she was using Firefox and Thunderbird, but they both kept crashing, and she gradually moved from open source applications to Apple proprietary applications. Now she uses Safari and Mail. She’s even moved from Cyberduck to Transmit.

Whether it’s a grocery store or an operating system, the place you visit most or the system you boot into can often move you in a certain direction. It’s easy to get assimilated and hard to “serve two masters.”

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Without education, it doesn’t matter which OS is “more secure”

In Linux online communities, oftentimes there are debates about which operating is the most secure—Windows or a Linux-based distribution. The debates usually go something like this:
Do I have to worry about security in Linux the way I did in Windows? No, you don’t have to. Linux is much more secure. But isn’t that just because it’s less targeted? If it were as popular as Windows, it would have just as many security problems. No, it wouldn’t. Read this article about how Linux has better security, and don’t forget that Linux servers are huge targets and still more secure than Windows servers.

And it goes on and on. The details of a secure structure, sensible (from a security standpoint) defaults, and frequent patches for exploits are all important parts of security. Ultimately, though, security debates about the structures of the OS are moot when the user does not employ good security practices. It’s a bit like people debating whether kevlar is “more secure” than chainmail armor. Well, what if the attack is through biological warfare rather than a bullet or sword? What if the person you’re trying to secure can be tricked into taking off the kevlar/chainmail? Then it doesn’t really matter which covering is more difficult to penetrate, does it?

And this is also why bringing in servers into desktop security debates doesn’t shed light on whether an increase in user base will lead to more security compromises. Servers tend to be administered by server administrators—professionals whose job it is to constantly battle and prevent online security breaches. On the home desktop (and sometimes even the business workstation), users tend to be less savvy about what to click or not click, what to install or not to install, and when it’s a good idea to type one’s password.

Yes, developers should try to strengthen the security of the OS in terms of structure and defaults. Yes, developers should create patches for newly discovered exploits (buffer overflows, for example). Nevertheless, if the Linux user base does increase to the point where desktop Linux is a significant target for malicious users, and computer users in general remain as uneducated as they are now, then all those security patches will be for naught. Users who can’t discern the difference between a spoofed webpage and a real webpage are the security exploits that can be patched only through education. Users who will give their passwords away to untrustworthy sources are security exploits. Users who will install some “cool” program (yes, in Ubuntu it could be a .deb file you double-click or an added repository) that happens to contain spyware or a rootkit are security exploits.

A larger Linux user base with no better education than computer users as a whole have now is going to be subject to the same social engineering malware attacks that the current larger user base Windows has. No developer-created patch is going to fix that hole.

Computers Music I Like

Cowon iAudio 7 Review (Ubuntu perspective)

A little backstory
Last week, my 256 MB Sandisk player died. I really liked that player. It was ugly, and it didn’t support free formats, but it was functional and small.

So I did quite a bit of online research on a replacement player. There were a few things I was looking for in a new player:

  • Relatively cheap (nothing over US$200)
  • FM radio
  • Not terrible looking
  • Long battery life
  • Linux compatibility
  • Support for open formats

My search brought me eventually to the Cowon iAudio 7, which fit all of those criteria. It was quite a bit pricier than my cheap Sandisk had been, but it was still under $200; it had an FM radio, and most reviews said the reception was pretty good; it didn’t look too bad in the pictures; its battery life is supposedly 60 hours; the Cowon website prominently includes Linux compatibility in the description (Linux kernel v2.2 or higher (data transfer only); and it supports both Ogg and FLAC.

First Impressions
Well, it arrived yesterday, and immediately my wife remarked that it was “cute” and I agreed with her. Despite most online reviews complaining about the iAudio 7 being too thick, I was surprised at how small it is. Yes, it isn’t as slim as the iPod Nano, but it isn’t a giant monster either. It’s more like a box than a flap, that’s all—a very small box, though. I was a little disappointed to see that the packaging did not list Linux under the system requirements’ operating systems (only Windows and Mac), considering Cowon makes no bones about mentioning Linux support on its website.

The Quick Guide that comes with it is quick indeed! It basically tells you nothing. It has pictures of the included parts (headphones, USB cord, player) and labels all the buttons (menu, play/stop, hold switch, etc.), and that’s about it. There is no manual explaining how to use the iAudio 7, and I couldn’t find one at the Cowon website either. Most of the reviews online (CNET, anythingbutipod, Amazon, NewEgg) gave me the impression that the controls were not intuitive but also not too hard to pick up. As a matter of fact, the controls make almost no sense. When you’re in the menus, Play/Pause goes forward (that makes sense) and Record goes back (that makes no sense). I accidentally enter Record mode while I was browsing the menus and started recording, but I didn’t know how to stop. I paused, of course, but there was no way for me to stop—I just pressed a bunch of buttons in the hopes of something working. One of the buttons got me back to playing music, but I had no assurance that I wasn’t simultaneously recording something at the same time. If someone can point me to a PDF manual (or even a website) explaining the iAudio 7 controls, I would be much appreciative.

Loading songs on to the iAudio 7 is easy. You plug it in, and it’s drag-and-drop. It has a bunch of top-level folders (I deleted the movie folder, as I’m pretty sure I won’t be watching movies on the one-inch screen) for text files, pictures, and music. I dragged about 4 GB of music into the MUSIC folder, and the transfer was fairly quick (USB 2.0, I assume). To test out the Ogg support, I redownloaded Mel’s Hey Girl album from Jamendo as Ogg instead of MP3. That worked out well. I’m slowly moving myself over to Ogg from MP3. It’s a nice free feeling.

I haven’t had a chance yet to test whether or not it lasts 60 hours, but I listened to it for about two hours and the battery meter hasn’t budged. I’ll update this review later with my iAudio 7 battery life experience. There is an annoying little bit with charging—you don’t know when it’s done unless you unplug the player. I’m assuming that once it runs out I can leave it in for about three or fours and it’ll charge. We’ll see. The only other minor bone I have to pick with the charging is the little flap that you open to get the USB cord in—it’s a little hard to open and doesn’t open very gracefully. If you have long fingernails (I don’t), it shouldn’t be a problem, though.

In terms of actual use (apart from the controls not making any sense), the playback is good. I’m no audiophile, but it sounds good to me, clearer than my Sandisk did using the same headphones. By the way, the headphones that come with the iAudio 7 are fine for normal people like me (not those who claim they can hear the difference between CD quality and 192 bitrate MP3). I prefer my own headphones, though, just for physical comfort.

The navigation is a bit annoying. When you try to press the Next button, if you don’t press it exactly the right way, the iAudio 7 decides you want to fast-forward instead of skip to the next song. It also took about three seconds to skip from one song to the next. That’s a long time to switch between songs. Granted, I had almost 4 GB of music together in one folder, but the player is a 4 GB player and should be designed to accommodate that kind of capacity. I upgraded the firmware in the player, and the three-second pause went away, but… A) the firmware upgrade was available as of September, so why didn’t they include it in the player I bought? Maybe it’s been sitting on the warehouse for almost three months. Who knows? B) There is absolutely no warning on the Cowon America website that the firmware upgrade will erase any music and preferences you have. The instructions just tell you to unzip the archive and copy it to the iAudio 7 and then restart the player.

One last note about the FM Radio: it sounds good (my Sandisk player had problems getting good reception for a couple of radio stations I listen to), but you don’t have the option to set your own presets, as far as I can tell. You can have the iAudio 7 scan the stations for the ones with the strongest signals, and then you’re stuck with those unless you manually tune without presets.

Summary Review
The Cowon iAudio 7 is a solid choice for those looking for a cute player that is definitely Linux compatible (no need for MTP plugins) and supports Ogg and FLAC music formats. The sound is good. The FM signal is strong. I definitely recommend a firmware upgrade the minute you open the thing (before you put any music on it), and if anyone knows how to make the controls make sense, please let me know! It has its kinks to be worked out, but maybe those will be taken care of in future firmware upgrades.

Further Reading
Cowon iAudio 7 Review Addendum
Goodbye, Cowon; Hello again, Sandisk

Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

File Recovery Fun

She thought she was doing everything right. She wanted to departition her computer and reinstall Windows. So she backed up all her files to an external hard drive, deleted all the partitions and reformatted as NTFS, then reinstalled Windows. She didn’t remember she still had her backup drive still plugged in, though, when she was doing the reformatting, so she ended up deleting her backup, too—years of work and lots of music and photos. She tried using a recovery program she found and was able to get some stuff back but not all of it (most importantly, her MS Office documents).

Well, she just hosted Thanksgiving dinner for us, so I brought over my toolkit (basically a Linux Mint CD and my own external hard drive) and got to work on it while we ate and did other stuff. The recovery process is pretty low stress but extremely time-consuming. I booted up Linux Mint, plugged in her external hard drive, plugged in my external hard drive, installed photorec, ran it, picked which drive to recover (hers) and which drive to save the recovered files to (mine), and then it took over three hours to scan her entire 160 GB hard drive for files. Afterwards, I copied the recovered files back to her drive (another two hours). Finally, I copied most of her files from the external hard drive backup back to her computer (another hour).

I’m amazed at how effortless photorec is. I’m also glad that once she realized her data had been deleted that she turned off the hard drive and didn’t do anything else… otherwise, I don’t think we could have gotten those files back.