Computers Life

Facebook is a little crazy…

So I caved finally and joined Facebook. While I like the functionality of it, I think it’s a little scary that one company is privy to that much information about people’s pasts and relationships. They know where you went to school, who you associated with, whom you still want to be in touch with, what you’re currently excited about. I did read their privacy policy and terms of use, and they seem okay, but it’s still nuts they even have all that information. I suppose, though, they do offer a service, and people find that service useful.

I signed up this morning (less than ten hours ago), and I already have fifteen friends. There’s an amusing aspect of the friendship approval process—you can specify how you know the person (went to school together, hooked up once, know through a friend, etc.), and one of the ways you can specify how you know the person while you’re approving her as a friend is I don’t know this person. That made me chuckle inside, because I know exactly what that’s for. It’s for the people who like to have as many “friends” as possible just for the status of it or the appearance of being well-liked or well-connected.

So far, though, I’m still wondering what’s so great about Facebook, apart from putting you back in touch with those friends you lost touch with in the first place. It seems like Friendster but with a more reliable server and more bandwidth. After setting up an account, logging in, adding a few friends, and customizing my preferences, I was still left (just as I’d been with Friendster) wondering, “Okay. So now what?”

Maybe I’ll change my mind. My wife is a Facebook addict, and maybe she’s giving me a preview of my life to come. I knew I’d get sucked into the Facebook cult sooner or later!

Computers Music I Like

Moving Beyond DRM in Music

In the tired illegal downloading debate, there are few things the different sides can agree on. Is it stealing? Is it moral? Does it actually affect sales? Does it hurt the artists? One thing I think everyone can agree on (including the RIAA) is the need for a new distribution model. DRM (Digital Rights Management) isn’t really stopping anyone from pirating music right now.

It took the film industry a long time to embrace and make obscene profits from the VCR and eventually DVDs. As technology moves forward, so must the entertainment industry, and that includes record companies.

Here are a few ideas on how they can still make money and not prosecute downloaders or impose DRM on legitimate customers:

  • Include “advertisements” in the songs themselves, much the way Hollywood has product placement in its movies.
  • Flood filesharing seeds with low quality or screwed up versions of songs.
  • Set up official download sites that are attractive, easy to navigate, full of high-quality downloads, and funded by advertisements.

In other words, make money the same way TV does. If people feel entitled to getting stuff “for free,” bombard them with advertising. I may be old-fashioned, but I still like browsing through a record store and picking out CDs.

Computers Music I Like

Are you sure the music you’re downloading isn’t hurting the musicians?

I’m reading a book now called Hip Hop Matters by S. Craig Watkins. I came across a certain part about Master P that got me thinking. I don’t really want to retype that passage, so I copied and pasted a similar blurb from this online article: Master P: Hip-Hop Mogul Reveals – interview with the singer – Interview.

What Master P did finally agree upon made rap music history and made him a millionaire. A true rap pioneer, Master P agreed to a deal where Priority Records would be given 15 percent of the profits for distribution, while 85 percent of the money would go to No Limit. He also has complete ownership of the master recordings that will allow No Limit to profit from future sales such as catalogs and reissues. He negotiated No Limit movies the same way. He worked out a distribution deal with Miramax Films. He pays them a percentage to distribute, but he owns his movies, which include I Got The Hook-Up, Foolish and Hot Boyz.

One frequent defense of illegal music downloads is a self-righteous stick-it-to-the-man justification of “Well, the artist doesn’t even see any of the profits from album’s sales. All of that goes to greedy corporations.” So instead of giving the artist pennies and the corporations dollars, you’d rather give the artist nothing. Okay. But what about people like Master P? Master P gets $.85 on the dollar and owns the master recordings of his songs. And he’s not alone.

Paul Anka—the author of “My Way” (which Frank Sinatra made famous) and singer-songwriter of hits like “Puppy Love” and “Put Your Head on My Shoulder”—also bought the masters of all his songs. He managed to negotiate them out from “the greedy corporations” and made himself a very rich man.

Ani DiFranco is an independent musician who made it big on her own label, Righteous Babe Records. While her overall sales may not match top-40 pop musicians, no greedy corporation is skimming her profits off the top. She is the corporation.

All of this wouldn’t be a problem in the pirates’ defense, except that I have never in the many online discussions of this topic seen any pirate say, “I carefully research to make sure I’m downloading only music from artists who are getting screwed over by greedy corporations. I definitely buy the albums of artists who reap most of the profits.” Not seldom. Never. So if you’re a music pirate, please stick to the other defenses, or just stop with the defenses altogether and admit you’re doing something illegal and possibly wrong. But please don’t spout any more bull about the artists not getting the profits unless you’re also going to say you research very carefully on which artists get screwed and which don’t.


Social Peer Pressuring

I remember when a whole bunch of my friends signed up for Xanga. They were blogging like crazy, leaving comments on each others’ Xanga blogs and having a jolly old time. Well, they all encouraged me to read their Xanga blogs, but I couldn’t comment on their blogs without a Xanga account. So I created a Xanga account just to leave comments.

Then came the barrage of emails requesting I join Friendster. I held out for a long time. I held out for a very long time, but I kept getting the emails over and over again. The only way to stop the emails from coming? Join Friendster. So I joined. I even gave it a chance (Maybe this social networking thing isn’t so bad…). It was lame. Friendster’s server was slow or down all the time. And I just didn’t see what the point of the site was. Sure, you connect with some old friends you don’t talk to any more. Then what happens? Well, you’re connected, but you still don’t talk to each other.

The most recent fad among my friends is Facebook. They rave about Facebook. Well, for a while my wife held out. Then she spent a weekend away with some of our friends and came back a Facebook convert. That made me even more resistant. It’s like a cult! Now, my wife is “social networking” on Facebook with my friends because I’m not on Facebook. To be honest, I recognize that my wife is having more fun on Facebook than either of us ever had on Friendster (is it possible to have less fun than on Friendster?), but I just don’t like the pressure. Join us. Join us! That’s what I hear when someone says When are you going to sign up for Facebook?

Maybe some day I will join the cult, but it just feels so creepy to me, like some weird middle school clique, a pyramid scheme, or lemmings jumping off a cliff. Well, at least the lemmings seem happy.

Computers Linux Windows

ReactOS could be good… much, much later

Many hopeful migrants to desktop Linux expect Linux to be a cost-free version Windows without problems. It’s with that expectation that many of these potential convertees run back to Windows at the first sign of trouble… or just culture shock. Well, there is a free version of Windows called ReactOS. It’s done in partnership with the people who do Wine (the Windows compatibility layer for Linux).

For at least a year since I first heard of the ReactOS project, I’d always wondered how viable it is as a replacement for Windows. In theory, it’s built to have full compatibility with Windows binaries. It’s basically supposed to be open source Windows.

After trying it out, though, I have to say that the warning on the website (Please bear in mind that ReactOS 0.3.3-RC is still in alpha stage, meaning it is not feature complete and is not recommended for everyday use.) is not just a disclaimer. It’s absolutely true. In fact, good luck running ReactOS for more than five minutes without it crashing on you.

The ReactOS download page has several options—an installation CD, a live CD, preloaded Qemu for Windows, and preloaded VMWare virtual machine. I went for the latter, which was only a 21 MB download. I had VMWare Player installed on Ubuntu, so I figured—why not?

Well, the bootup screen is black… looks a lot like Grub.

Then, you get some verbose loading stuff. The entire boot process, even in VMWare is fast. I didn’t time it, but it felt as if the boot time was about ten seconds.

You get a standard Windows-looking screen.

The Start menu looks a lot like Windows’ Start menu. The interface for ReactOS (again, even in VMWare) is snappy and feels like a lightweight window manager (more like Fluxbox than Gnome or KDE).

When you launch Explorer, you get the option for spatial mode and a split window.

Here it is with a split screen.

If you try to browse to the web, you have to install ActiveX first. Weird.

Ah, but if you try to actually visit a website (here I am trying to download Internet Explorer off the Microsoft website… then you get the freeze-up. Mouse cursor won’t move. You don’t even get a “blue screen of death.”

I tried booting it up again in VMWare. Trying to get to the web again gives me this wonderful screen.

So when they say it’s in the alpha stages, they’re not kidding. Stay away from ReactOS unless you’re a developer who can help. I think it’s not even ready for testing and bug reports.

If you want Windows, stick with Windows. If you want something else, then you can try Linux. Open source Windows full compatibility is far, far off.

Further Reading
Linux is not Windows
Here’s an idea – YOU make it more like Windows!

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Open Source for Non-Programmers

On a Linux forum, when you get into discussions of the benefits of open source over proprietary software, inevitably someone will say something to the effect of If you don’t like it, you can change it—that’s the beauty of open source. While that may be the beauty of open source for programmers, how does that benefit affect non-programmers?

I myself am not a programmer, so being able to modify the source code of a program is a dubious benefit for me. I do, however, enjoy several fringe benefits as a regular software user.

These are the main ways I benefit from open source:

  • Low or No Cost
    Yes, it’s true. You can legally charge money for open source software, but very few people do, and the prices can never be exhorbitant (say, $500 for an office suite), because people can easily compile the source code themselves for less than $500. The cost you pay, if you pay anything at all, is usually marginal and covers the distribution costs, the packaging, the shipping, or support. I’ve never had to pay money for any of the open source software I use, though.
  • Peace of Mind
    Free? Hm. Does it have spyware? Does it have adware? Is it a virus? Well, I’ve yet to come across an open source program that’s installed malware on my computer. I have, back in my Windows-using days, installed freeware (different from open source, by the way) that’s come with malware or at least nagware (Want to upgrade to the full edition? Your free trial is almost over!). I think this is a combination of open source program creators generally having good intentions and other open source programmers being able to examine the source code.
  • Community Support
    This is a double-edged sword, of course. Some open source projects are funded by a company, but most are developed by a worldwide community of programmers and testers, meaning that if the project is successful enough, it’ll never die just because one company decides to discontinue it. It also means no company can lock you in to the way they want to do things. If a previously excellent open source project starts going in a bad direction, you can bet there are programmers out there who are working on a fork of the project.

    Here’s where the other edge of the sword comes in, though: someone has to do it. If the project isn’t funded by a company, it’s usually volunteer or subsidized by donations. So if no one’s interested in continuing the project, the project just dies or remains stagnant.

Interested? You may have already started using some open source programs—Firefox, Audacity, FileZilla, GIMP.

If you’re not a Linux user, there are still plenty of great open source programs for you to try out:


Selling Keyboard Shortcuts

I taught an Excel class yesterday to some of my co-workers. Usually they think all my memorized keyboard shortcuts are just too crazy, but I managed to convince them during the class of the benefit of keyboard shortcuts.

Here are a few things that helped:

  • When I told them the keyboard shortcuts, I explained them very slowly, making sure they pressed each key and held it before telling them the next key to press.
  • I showed them how quickly things could be done, and those who followed my instructions (highlighting with Control-Shift-Arrow) were able to highlight their data a lot more quickly than those trying to futz around with the mouse.
  • Some of the mice in the training room we were in bad shape and were even harder to control than normally functioning mice.
  • One of the key combinations I gave them was so complicated it become almost a fun joke, so people memorized it and wrote it down because it seemed convoluted (if you’re curious, the actual key combination is F2, Shift-Home, Control-C, Tab, Control-V).

Well, everyone walked away from that class happy. Ordinarily, though, when I show people keyboard shortcuts, they just shake their heads and reach for the mouse.


Does anti-malware do anything?

I’ve often heard it said on Linux forums that it can’t hurt to run Linux anti-virus just in case a Linux virus does get released into “the wild.” I also see that almost all Windows users I know run anti-virus and/or anti-spyware programs.

Am I naive in asking “Why?”

On the Linux front, yes, a Linux virus could get released into “the wild” at some point. Let’s say that happened on July 1 some year. Do you really think that on July 1 the Linux users with anti-virus will be more protected than the Linux users without anti-virus? The virus definitions would be updated on that day and enforced before the virus could do any damage? And if the definitions are updated on July 2 or July 3, couldn’t the Linux users without anti-virus just install the anti-virus within minutes? What extra protection does Linux anti-virus offer you? As for Linux anti-virus supposedly preventing you from forwarding viruses onto Windows users, how about just not forwarding people attachments you yourself did not create?

More importantly, does anti-virus or anti-spyware really do anything in Windows? I don’t use Windows regularly at home any more, but the few times I have booted into it, I haven’t contracted noticeable malware. And I do use Windows regularly at work, and I don’t have any malware either there, even without anti-malware programs running.

Nevertheless, I have a lot of friends and family members who continue to get viruses and spyware on their systems with noticeable slowdown, mysterious processes running, programs that won’t uninstall or shut down. Do these people have anti-*** running with the latest definitions updated? Hell, yes.

So my question to security experts out there (I am not one): does anti-*** software, particularly in Windows, do anything practical to prevent malware? Or does it just suck up more system resources? As far as I can tell, it’s better to not have anti-*** installed and just set up Windows with a limited user account than to have someone run as administrator and have all these useless anti-*** programs running and giving her a false sense of security.

How does the senate vote?


Positive outcomes from migration ordeal

If you’ve been following my last few posts, you know my wife and I have had quite a time of it switching my parents-in-law to something other than Windows. We were originally thinking Mac, but even Ubuntu doesn’t give them everything they need. In the end, because of one website my mother-in-law uses a lot, they are buying a Windows license. My wife had suggested maybe getting Vista, but the hardware additions to make it usable would have been too much extra expense on top of what we’d already spent.

A few good things did come out of it, though:

  • My parents-in-law got exposed to something other than Windows. Windows isn’t inherently bad, but people should know there are other options out there, especially if they can’t troubleshoot Windows problems. In the end, both of them actually took quite a liking to Mac OS X, despite their general comfort with the familiarity of Windows and the need for that poorly designed real estate website.
  • Right now my parents-in-law are using Ubuntu. Until they actually go out and purchase and install Windows, Ubuntu’s IEs4Linux still works better with the real estate website than IEs4Linux on Mac OS X. They’re not going to “convert” to Ubuntu or use it long-term, but at least they know Linux isn’t a scary thing. It’s all about exposure. Baby steps. Plant the seed.
  • My wife finally has a grasp of how terrible vendor lock-in is and how important free software is. That isn’t going to stop her from using Mac OS X or Adobe CS3. She needs those to make a living (no, she’s not going to do her professional graphic design stuff with GIMP, Inkscape, Scribus, and F4L). But she did seem a bit more receptive to my explanations about trying to strike a balance between short-term “just works” and long-term “lets me do what I want.” I think she now has a better grasp on why I use Ubuntu. I’m not a Stallman-esque saint when it comes to Free software (I have my Flash player and MP3 codecs installed), but I do try to use FLOSS whenever possible.
  • I’m reminded once again how much a pain it is to install Windows and reinstall Windows. Sometimes Windows recognized the internet connection. Sometimes it didn’t. Unlike our Windows XP at home, the one at my parents-in-law’s wouldn’t do well with multiple partitions. If I tried to resize the partition to make a separate documents partition, Windows wouldn’t boot any more. Never mind how long Windows takes to install (and that it comes with virtually no productivity software)—most annoying of all, that it keeps asking you questions every ten minutes or so. You can’t even answer four or five questions and then walk away and come back later. You have to babysit the installation.
  • We can wipe our hands clean. I’m generally not of the “If you continue to use Windows, I won’t support you any more” camp, but in this case, my wife and I have had to troubleshoot my parents-in-law’s Windows problems so often that we’re just tired of it, and we let them know: “Fine. Use Windows for that real estate website. If you have any future Windows problems, though, we won’t fix them for you. We’ll support only Mac or Ubuntu.” At a certain point you have to draw the line, especially if people insist on running Windows as administrator instead of limited user.

It’s been a learning experience for sure, but some good did come out of it.


Final Resolution: Back to XP for the in-laws

Thanks to all who tried to help.

My wife and I finally got IEs4Linux installed on the Mac Mini, to no avail. Even though IE itself worked, the website my mother-in-law uses was a no-go. The worst part—even though the site does work with IEs4Linux on Ubuntu, it doesn’t have all the features she wants (ones supported by only IE 7).

We tried to install IE 7 on Windows and realized their copy of Windows wasn’t “genuine.” So they’re going to buy a genuine copy of Windows… all for a badly coded IE-only website. That one website prevented migrations to Mac and/or Ubuntu. That one website. So they’re going to keep the Mac Mini and do just about everything (music, pictures, most internet, email) on it, and then have a fresh Windows install… for one website. This is a sad day.

Edit: My mother-in-law is not alone, apparently. Check out Mac Marginalization: Real Estate and the MLXchange FAQ:

Can MLXchange be used on a Macintosh Computer?
With PC emulators like Virtual PC, MLXchange can be made to work on a Mac. However, Macs are not supported by Interealty.

Here’s a weird link, where a Fedora user couldn’t get the website working under IEs4Linux without a workaround. As far as I could tell, IEs4Linux was working with the site… but not with the full functionality and all the fancy features, though.

Glad I’m not a realtor.