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Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Do comparisons have to be fair?

If you’ve spent any time on a Linux forum, you know people there love to debate about Linux v. Windows v. Mac OS X. Throw in the term user-friendly or easier, and you’ll likely fan the flames so they can be put out only by a discussion thread closure.

One type of objection Linux defenders often raise is the idea of a fair comparison. For example, someone may assert that Windows “just works” out of the box and that Ubuntu is difficult to install and doesn’t detect everything. To be fair, a Linux defender responds, people generally buy computers with Windows preinstalled and preconfigured by the OEM (Dell, HP, etc.), and you’re comparing a preconfigured operating system to one you’re installing and configuring yourself.

Obviously, the Linux defender, in this case, has a point. After all, if you install Windows from scratch and don’t have all the necessary drivers available, it’s actually a nightmare to install and configure, much more so than Ubuntu is. Even if you do have the necessary driver CDs, it’s less of a nightmare but takes an extremely long time to set up.

It is worth exploring, though, whether we have to make fair comparisons or not. Yes, Windows is a pain to install and configure yourself, but if most people never have to install Windows themselves, how relevant is that point?

Imagine, if you will, a new fast food chain trying to unseat McDonald’s, or a new everything-store trying to topple Wal-Mart. Well, McDonald’s and Wal-Mart will have the advantages of name-brand recognition, infrastructure, inertia, and low prices (due to economies of scale). It wouldn’t be enough to say “My fast food tastes better than McDonald’s'” or “My store has employees who are happier than those at Wal-Mart.” That doesn’t mean you can compete. It also makes little sense to say, “Well, people who don’t want to shop at my store because of travel distance aren’t making a fair comparison, since Wal-Mart is already well-established and has stores all over, and I have only one store so far.” While someone may be understanding that you have difficulty gaining customers who live within ten miles of a Wal-Mart and five hundred miles away from your store, they’re still not going to drive five hundred miles to get to you.

The major flaw in my analogy, of course, is that the customer isn’t going to complain that the store is five hundred miles away. Customers understand that it’s hard to compete with well-established businesses… even if they ultimately choose the well-established business over the “underdog.”

So there are two sides to this. On the one hand, disgruntled would-be migrants to Linux from Windows should recognize that difficulties migrating do not always have to do with quality of workmanship—a lot of the problems Linux faces for impressing home users have to do with Microsoft (like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart) being the dominant force in home computing. Just as Wal-Marts are “everywhere” and the new store has only one location, Windows computers for home users are everywhere and supported by almost all major hardware and software vendors. You can stick with Windows if you want, but you do have to understand that it’s hard to unseat what has inertia and lots of money and name recognition.

At the same time, Linux advocates like myself need to remind ourselves that fair comparisons are fair only in theory and are often contrived and meaningless. Yes, a Windows installation can be difficult without driver CDs, but most Windows users won’t install Windows themselves, and a large percentage of Windows users who do install Windows will also have driver CDs for their hardware.

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Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Recovering deleted files with a Ubuntu CD

Continued from Recovering Windows files with a Ubuntu CD II: getting your files

Introduction
Usually when you delete a file from your computer, the file is still there—its space, however, is marked as available for use. Even if you reformat your hard drive and reinstall Windows (I had a friend who did this by accident, and I used Ubuntu to save her data), most of your data is probably still there.

Assuming you were able to boot the Ubuntu CD and it properly detected your internet connection, you can use a program called Photorec to recover your personal files.

If Ubuntu does not automatically detect your internet connection, and you have access to the internet on another computer, you can download the appropriate two installer files from here and here. Find a way (by USB key or iPod) to transfer them to the computer running the Ubuntu live session, and double-click libntfs10 to install it, and then double-click testdisk to install it.

This may be a bit confusing—the program we want to use is called photorec, but the program we want to install that allows us to use Photorec is called testdisk. Also, the program is called Photorec, but it recovers many types of files, not just photos.

Installing testdisk to use Photorec
First, we’re going to install the program we need in order to use Photorec.


Click on System > Administration > Synaptic Package Manager. This will open a software management program that will fetch and install software for us.


Click on Settings > Repositories.


Make sure all the checkboxes are checked (or ticked), except the CD-ROM source at the bottom. Then click Close.


Click Close again.


At the top-left corner of the Synaptic window, click Reload and wait for the new software package information to download.


Now that we’ve told the software manager to find all the software that’s available for installation, let’s install it. Click Search in the Synaptic window, in the search box type testdisk, and then click Search in the dialogue window.


testdisk should appear in the results. Right-click it and select Mark for installation.


In the Synaptic window, click Apply, and then confirm you want to apply changes by clicking Apply in the dialogue window as well.


Wait for the software to download and install.


Click Close


Quit the software manager.

Prepare backup location

You can use an external hard drive or even internal second hard drive for backup.

For an internal second hard drive, you can access it the same way you accessed the internal first hard drive (the one you’re trying to recover data from).

If the backup location is an external hard drive, you should be able to plug it in and have it automatically appear on the desktop as an icon.


Go to Applications > Accessories > Terminal


Type

df -h

in the command prompt window that appears. This will show you the path to the backup location. In this example, the backup location I’m using is 2.8 GB large, so I must make a note that it is available at /media/disk-2.

In Windows, new drives “mount” (or become available for use) as new letters (D:, E:, F:, G:, etc.). In Ubuntu, new drives mount as folders inside an all-encompassing directory. The top-level directory is slash (/). Inside that directory is subdirectory called /media, which has inside of it another subdirectory called disk-2. That’s where I want to send the recovered files to.

Recovering files with Photorec

Before you run Photorec, maximize the command terminal window. To run it, you need to run the command

sudo photorec

Don’t try to run the command photorec without sudo, as I tried to do earlier in the screenshot.


Photorec is a terminal program, so your mouse won’t work in it. You can navigate its menus with your arrow keys and then select your choices with the Enter key.

The media you are selecting is the drive you want to recover files from. Then click Enter to proceed to the next step.


Select the appropriate partition type. If in doubt, select Intel.


Select to search the whole disk.


Since this tutorial is aimed specifically at recovering Windows files, you’ll most likely choose Other for filesystem type.


This is where things get a little tricky. Photorec will assume you want to back up to a folder in Ubuntu’s /home/ubuntu directory, but you probably want to back up to an external drive (in this example, it’s /media/disk-2).


To go up a directory, go to the double-dot and press the right arrow key.


Do the same to go up yet another directory.


Select media and hit Enter.


Select the drive you want the recovered files to be saved to. In this case, it’s /media/disk-2.


Once you’ve selected the backup drive, type

Y

for Yes.


Wait for Photorec to scan for files. Depending on the size of your drive, this could take a really long time. The drive I scanned for this example is only 8.7 GB and took about 15 minutes to scan. If you have a 160 GB drive, well, you do the math.


When it’s done, you can select Quit.


Select Quit again.


Yes, select Quit a third time.


To exit the command terminal, type

exit

Checking the recovered files

If you look at the backup drive, you should see a bunch of folders full of recovered files.


Every folder will have a mix of different file types. Some files will be music files. Others will be Word documents. There will be pictures and text files. All sorts of stuff you may not even care about. The labels will be random, so even though you have your files back, it’ll be up to you to reorganize them and rename them appropriately.


To get out of the live CD, go to System > Quit.


Select the appropriate option, probably Restart.


Wait for the live session to fully end, and then press Enter to reboot after the CD ejects.


After you reboot into Windows, you should be able to access the recovered files.

Congratulations! You just saved yourself hundreds of dollars, learned something new, dabbled in Linux (Ubuntu specifically), and didn’t give up access to your computer for days or weeks.

You should, of course, always back up your files, but it’s also good to know there are free and easy ways to recover your data otherwise.

If you need any help with this process, please feel free to post a support thread in the Absolute Beginner subforum of the Ubuntu Forums.

Categories
Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Recovering Windows files with a Ubuntu CD II: getting your files

Continued from Recovering Windows files with a Ubuntu CD I: the backstory

Booting up the live CD
Once you have your Ubuntu CD (or DVD), place it in your CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive and boot your computer (yes, even if Windows won’t boot—Ubuntu’s functionality doesn’t depend on Windows, so don’t worry). If the CD doesn’t boot, you may have enable the BIOS to boot from CD. There’s usually a key you can press during boot-up to bring up a boot menu and choose to boot from CD. The key itself varies from computer to computer. On some computers, the key is Delete. On others, it’s F2 or F9. On still others, it’s Escape.

Starting the live session

The first thing the live CD will ask you is what language you want to use. Select English or whatever language you think is most appropriate.


From the boot menu, select Try Ubuntu without any change to your computer and hit Enter.


Wait for Ubuntu to load up. This could take several minutes.


Click on the Places menu and select your hard drive. It won’t be called C: or D:. It’ll likely be labeled by the size of the drive. In this screenshot, my Windows drive is 8.7 GB, so I’m going to click on that in order to make it accessible (since the live CD won’t affect the hard drive unless I explicitly ask it to).


You should be able to see the Windows drive as an icon on the desktop now. Double-click that icon to open it (just as you would double-click on My Computer in Windows). Then go to Documents and Settings (Windows XP) or Users (Windows 7).


Double-click on the username of the user you want to recover files from.


Then find the folder you want the files from. In this example, I’m going to My Documents


If you need to go to a subfolder like My Pictures, double-click on that folder as well.


Once you find the files you want to recover, you can copy and paste them to an external drive or even email them to yourself (for most wired broadband connections, Ubuntu will automatically set up a working internet connection).

Notes
Yes, you may be shocked that anyone can boot a live CD and access your files, but it’s true. Better you know now and get rid of that false sense of security you used to have. If you have confidential files, you may want to consider encrypting them or not storing them electronically.

The screenshots and instructions are from Ubuntu 8.04 (nicknamed Hardy Heron), but they should also work (with slight modifications) on other releases of Ubuntu or with other Linux versions (or “distributions”) as well.

Continue reading: Recovering Windows files with a Ubuntu CD III: deleted files

Categories
Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Recovering Windows files with a Ubuntu CD I: the backstory

The problem
What if your Windows installation is suddenly unbootable, you accidentally delete all your files, or the Geek Squad “accidentally” formats your hard drive without asking your permission or backing up your files first? Well, people who have learned from these kinds of experiences will tell you to learn to back up everything. Invest a small amount of money in an external hard drive and back up often.

Yeah, that’s easy to say after the fact. But what do you do now, when you desperately need a file from an unbootable Windows computer? I’ve read a lot of sob stories online from people thinking they need to pay the Geek Squad hundreds of dollars and also part with their computer for days or weeks at a time in order to get their precious not-backed-up-this-time-but-swear-they’ll-be-backed-up-next-time files.

I did a quick Google search on recovering deleted files and found these depressing results:
Geek Squad – Best Buy geek squad irresponsible, erased my hard drive without consent ripoff Deptford New Jersey
Recover deleted files
How to Deal with Data Loss
f-ing pissed
Windows XP Crash Blue Screen
My computer won’t start?

Hope
You do not have to part with your computer for days or weeks at a time, pay someone hundreds of dollars, or be a computer genius in order to access your files right away. In the spirit of Why Every Windows User Needs a Linux Live CD, this tutorial with screenshots will show you how you can use a Linux live CD (with Ubuntu as an example, but there are many Linux live CDs you can use—Knoppix, Damn Small Linux, Mepis, PCLinuxOS) to access files from an unbootable Windows installation, and to recover files that have been deleted or that are part of a drive that has been reformatted.

Linux live CD?
I’m not going to go into a whole detailed history of the free software movement, Linux, and open source. You can read the Wikipedia links and find out more yourself. The bottom line is that the solution is both cost-free and legal.

A Linux live CD is a CD that runs an active session (complete with web browser, word processor, disk utility tools, and more) off the CD itself and your computer’s RAM (or memory). It does not affect your hard drive unless you specifically ask it to. Of course, since it is using your RAM and not your hard drive to run the live session, the more RAM you have, the more smoothly the live session will go. For these purposes, I’d recommend at least 256 MB of RAM. If you have less than that, you might want to look into Damn Small Linux or Puppy Linux instead of Ubuntu. They provide a lighter live session that can run comfortably with a small amount of memory.

Getting a Ubuntu CD
Usually, it’s not that hard to get a hold of a Ubuntu CD image if you have a working Windows computer and a broadband connection. Since we’re operating under the assumption that your Windows isn’t booting, there are several alternatives for obtaining a Ubuntu CD:

  • Find a Ubuntu user near you. Believe it or not, you may actually know a Ubuntu user—ask around. Even if you don’t, you can probably find one on Craigslist who’s not only willing but more than happy to give you a free Ubuntu CD. You can also try to contact a local Linux Users Group (they exist in all parts of the world), and the nice folks there will likely give you a CD for free or charge you only a nominal fee.
  • Use another computer to download and burn a copy of Ubuntu. This could be a computer at work or a computer at a friend’s or relative’s place. I’ve detailed here this entire process. It requires a faster-than-dial-up connection, a CD burner, and a blank CD.
  • Buy a CD or DVD. If you don’t know anyone who has a Ubuntu CD, feel shy about asking strangers for one, and have no access to a computer through which to download and burn Ubuntu, you can buy it at a very small cost. For example, Best Buy sells a boxed Ubuntu set for US$19.99, and Amazon sells a DVD of Ubuntu for US$12.99. Unfortunately Best Buy and Amazon don’t appear to sell these any more, but you may find them available on eBay or Craigslist.
  • Order a free CD. As a last resort, if none of the above options work for you, Ubuntu’s company will actually ship professionally packaged CDs to you for free (including postage). The only problem with this method of obtaining Ubuntu is the time it takes (you could be waiting up to two months to get your free CD in the mail.

Continue reading:
Recovering Windows files with a Ubuntu CD II: getting your files

Categories
Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

The effectiveness of “security through obscurity”

I don’t believe that security through obscurity is ideal or ultimately effective. I don’t believe it’s a generally good security approach. Nevertheless, it is not often the same as no security at all. Security through obscurity can have its place.

A few years ago, when it was brought to light that the newest (at the time) Ubuntu version stored the administrative password in plain text, that incident was a huge embarrassment to Ubuntu developers, and they fixed the security hole within hours of it having been brought to their attention. Nevertheless, it had been in place for months prior to being brought to the developers’ attention. Were any Ubuntu installations compromised because of this bug? Probably not.

Likewise, most people don’t know that physical access to a computer means (except in rare cases) total administrative access. If you encrypt your drive, you can prevent unauthorized access to your files. If you put a password on the BIOS and disable booting from CD, you can slow down or make more inconvenient the unauthorized access. Maybe that’ll stop people from compromising your computer if you’re away from it for only a few minutes.

Many users are naive to just what prolonged physical access means, though, in terms of security, and that’s dangerous, because then security through obscurity works against you. I used to believe (before I started using Linux) that having my laptop prompt me for a password upon waking the computer would mean that if my laptop were ever stolen, no one could get my files. Before I booted a Knoppix CD on his laptop, my dad used to think a fingerprint scanner would prevent people from seeing his files. In these cases, the “security” is obscured for the user and not the thief.

If a thief makes her living by taking the data off your computer (probably for the purposes of identity theft) and not solely by selling the hardware, she probably knows exactly how to access your data, whether it be resetting the BIOS password, booting from a live CD, or even moving the hard drive to another computer.

There have been quite a few debates about whether recovery mode in Ubuntu should exist or perhaps be hidden by default. In Windows, if you need emergency administrative access, you need to boot a CD. In Mac OS X, you have to know the relatively obscure hold-down-Cmd-S-while-booting procedue to get into recovery mode. In Ubuntu, though, it’s right there in the boot menu. Just press the down arrow once and you’re in recovery mode, which means you have root (or total administrative) access to the computer.

On the one hand, obscuring recovery mode might give people a false sense of security (thinking it’s difficult to gain root access). On the other hand, having it in the boot menu kind of advertises it, and you might have a curious sibling or roommate who selects it and starts getting playful on the command-line, and she might not have done so if it weren’t in her face the way it is.

Outside of the computer world, it’s a bit like keeping the key to your house underneath the welcome mat. Doing so is definitely bad security. On the other hand, most people won’t know exactly where you keep your key or if you keep it under the welcome mat at all. If you post up a big sign next to your door saying “Hey, the key is underneath this welcome mat!” you’ll be sure to have your home broken into.

When it comes to computer security, definitely encryption and restriction of physical access should be publicized more as real security options, but I do believe there are tradeoffs to embracing and eschewing security through obscurity. Just make sure you are obscuring access for others and not for yourself.

Categories
Ubuntu Windows

How to reset a Windows password with Ubuntu

If you ever have forgotten your password for the only administrative account on Windows or know someone who has, you know the experience can be infuriating. All is not lost, though, if you have a live CD handy. This page is an adaption of Reset a Windows password with Knoppix for Ubuntu. It has also been tested for Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7.

This tutorial assumes you know how to obtain and boot a Ubuntu CD. If you don’t, go here first.

Start off by booting the Ubuntu CD.


Select your language of choice and then Try Ubuntu without any change to your computer.


Once the live session has loaded, go to System > Administration > Synaptic Package Manager.


Once Synaptic Package Manager is open, go to Settings > Repositories. This will open the Software Sources window.


Once the Software Sources windows appears, make sure you check (or tick) the box next to Software restricted by copyright or legal issues (multiverse). Then click Close. You should get a warning about how you’ll have to reload the repositories to have your changes take effect.


So click Reload in Synaptic Package Manager and wait for the new information on what’s available for installation be updated.


Click Search and search for chntpw.


Right-click on chntpw and mark it for installation.


Click Apply and in the Summary window, click Apply to confirm that you want to apply changes.



Wait for the changes to apply, then click Close and then quit Synaptic Package Manager.

That method for installing chntpw assumes you have a working internet connection on the computer in question. If you don’t (or regularly do, but not when you boot the Ubuntu CD), you can also download chntpw from one of these mirrors, transfer it to the computer in question (via USB stick), and then double-click the download file to install it.


To mount (or make available for use) your Windows drive, go to Places and select the appropriate drive. In this case, my drive is an 8.7 GB drive. Yours will probably be different.


Then, go to Applications > Accessories > Terminal to use the command-line.

cd /media/disk/WINDOWS/system32/config/

In most cases, I think the first mounted drive will mount to the /media/disk directory, so pasting this command into the terminal should get you into the right directory.

If not, you can try the command df -h to see where your Windows drive mounted to and substitute that directory path for /media/disk in the above command.

Note for Windows 7: the word Windows is not in all capital letters, so it would actually be cd /media/disk/Windows/System32/config/

ls
AppEvent.Evt SAM software system.LOG userdiff.LOG
default SAM.LOG software.LOG systemprofile
default.LOG SecEvent.Evt software.sav system.sav
default.sav SECURITY SysEvent.Evt TempKey.LOG
Internet.evt SECURITY.LOG system userdiff

If you paste in the command ls, you’ll see a list of files in the directory, and one of them should be called SAM.

sudo chntpw SAM

Paste in the command sudo chntpw SAM to change the Administrator account password.

If, instead, you want to change a particular username’s password, use this command instead:

sudo chntpw -u username SAM

Either way, you should see a whole bunch of cryptic terminal output:

chntpw version 0.99.3 040818, (c) Petter N Hagen
Hive’s name (from header):
ROOT KEY at offset: 0x001020 * Subkey indexing type is: 666c
Page at 0x7000 is not ‘hbin’, assuming file contains garbage at end
File size 262144 [40000] bytes, containing 6 pages (+ 1 headerpage)
Used for data: 243/19072 blocks/bytes, unused: 11/5312 blocks/bytes.

* SAM policy limits:
Failed logins before lockout is: 0
Minimum password length : 0
Password history count : 0
RID: 01f4, Username:
RID: 03ec, Username:
RID: 01f5, Username: , *disabled or locked*
RID: 03e8, Username: , *disabled or locked*
RID: 03eb, Username:
RID: 03ea, Username: , *disabled or locked*

———————> SYSKEY CHECK Not Set (not installed, good!)
SAM Account\F : 1 -> key-in-registry
SECURITY PolSecretEncryptionKey: -1 -> Not Set (OK if this is NT4)

***************** SYSKEY IS ENABLED! **************
This installation very likely has the syskey passwordhash-obfuscator installed
It’s currently in mode = -1, Unknown-mode

SYSTEM (and possibly SECURITY) hives not loaded, unable to disable syskey!
Please start the program with at least SAM & SYSTEM-hive filenames as arguments!

RID : 0500 [01f4]
Username: Administrator
fullname:
comment : Built-in account for administering the computer/domain
homedir :

Account bits: 0x0210 =
[ ] Disabled | [ ] Homedir req. | [ ] Passwd not req. |
[ ] Temp. duplicate | [X] Normal account | [ ] NMS account |
[ ] Domain trust ac | [ ] Wks trust act. | [ ] Srv trust act |
[X] Pwd don’t expir | [ ] Auto lockout | [ ] (unknown 0x08) |
[ ] (unknown 0x10) | [ ] (unknown 0x20) | [ ] (unknown 0x40) |

Failed login count: 0, while max tries is: 0
Total login count: 0
** LANMAN password not set. User MAY have a blank password.
** Usually safe to continue

* = blank the password (This may work better than setting a new password!)
Enter nothing to leave it unchanged

At this point, you’ll be prompted to enter a new password, you should enter an asterisk to make it temporarily blank (you can always change the password to something else once you’re back in Windows.

Please enter new password: *
Blanking password!

Do you really wish to change it? (y/n) [n] y
Changed!

Hives that have changed:
# Name
0
Write hive files? (y/n) [n] : y
0 – OK

Confirm the changes (with the letter y for yes) twice when prompted, and you should be done.

Now if you reboot into Windows XP, you can log into the Administrator account with an empty password.

Categories
Linux Ubuntu Windows

The Linux community’s mixed messages

I’m a long-term (three-year) forum member at the Ubuntu Forums. I’m also a moderator there. I realize that in any online community, even one built around a common interest, there will be a diversity of members and a diversity of opinions. Nevertheless, there is a problem with mixed messages in the Linux community. I’ve seen this in blogs, other Linux forums, and, of course, in the Ubuntu Forums as well.

Here are some examples:

Is using Windows okay or not?
Many Linux users will make fun of Windows users for using Windows, say that Windows is garbage, say that Windows users are sheep for using Windows and not Linux. Then, I think it’s these same Linux users who, when a frustrated new migrant to Linux complains about her hardships in migrating, will reply with “Go back to Windows” or “Why don’t you just stick with Windows, then?”

Either Windows is a valid choice, or it’s not. Make up your mind.

If you’re okay with people using Windows, stop making fun of Windows or its users. If you’re not okay with people using Windows, don’t tell them to go back to Windows if they’re experiencing problems with Linux.

Providing alternatives
A lot of Linux users like to make it sound as if DRM and corporations are a bad thing and that people shouldn’t support the iTunes music store and should use services like eMusic or Jamendo or Magnatune. The problem here is that you can’t dictate people’s musical tastes. If people actually like pop music and not indie music or ambient/trance, then you have to give them some good pop music that isn’t from the major music labels or that isn’t DRM-laden. I’ve been able to track down a few pop songs on Jamendo, but most of the stuff labeled pop isn’t really pop at all.

Just today I saw a thread bashing the iPhone 3G and saying there are better alternatives like the FreeRunner. If you go to the FreeRunner Wiki, though, the FAQ indicates a lot of the functions on the OpenMoko are unstable.

When people have suggested on Brainstorm that Canonical open a Canonical store akin to the Apple store with Ubuntu preinstalled computers and Ubuntu-compatible peripherals, the ideas have all been voted down, and the down-voters have said they prefer to build their own computers and they would rather have Canonical focus on software development.

Well, where does that leave consumers? Why would I choose the OpenMoko, which I’ve never seen in use and which gets, frankly, less than flattering reviews, instead of the iPhone, which I have seen in use and which gets a lot of positive reviews (with a few downsides mentioned on the side)?

I did end up getting an Eee PC preinstalled with Linux, but it was mostly on faith. I never saw it in use in person. I still don’t know in person anyone else who has it. I didn’t have an opportunity to try it out. All I could do was watch a few blurry YouTube videos and read hundreds of reviews and then take the plunge.

Do you care about marketshare or not?
A lot of Linux users claim not to care if Linux gets more users on desktops and laptops. Of course, these same users celebrate every time they find out more schools and governments have switched to Linux, or every time they see a Linux computer in a TV or movie, or every time Linux is given a good review in a relatively mainstream publication.

Do you care or not? If you don’t care about marketshare, then really don’t care. Don’t say you don’t care.

Stop overhyping desktop Linux
Along with the first point, people will blame frustrated users for not researching hardware compatibility or knowing about the limitations of Linux, but then they’ll keep linking to and posting blogs and articles that make it sound as if Ubuntu is the cure-all for Windows problems and that Ubuntu has no problems at all or migration difficulties.

Well, you can’t hype it on the front end and then say “Buyer beware” on the other end. If you’re going to say “I told you so” later, you actually have to tell someone so beforehand.

Free has to be worth something or nothing – make up your mind
I see a lot of Linux users say that there is a popular misconception that free means lesser in quality. The basic idea is that people are skeptical of free products, but we know free products can be of very high quality.

But if someone complains about Linux, then all of a sudden Linux users say “Why don’t you ask for refund?” or “It’s free. How can you complain about something that’s free?”

Where to go from here
Personally, I have non-mixed message stands on all of these issues, and, being as self-centered as I am, I think the Linux community should take similar stands and be consistent about the messages they send.

  • Windows is a legitimate choice. I don’t make that choice personally. I prefer Ubuntu to Windows. But if people are using Windows, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, and they are not necessarily sheep. They may use Windows-only programs, may actually prefer Windows, or may not have the inclination to try something new that may give them migration difficulties.
  • We do need real alternatives. Especially if you’re going to criticize people for using proprietary software, your open source software alternative has to be as good, as fun to use, and as polished as the proprietary software alternative. If it doesn’t provide the exact same functionality or better, don’t criticize others for not choosing your open source alternative.
  • Marketshare does matter. People who claim not to care about marketshare still benefit from increases in marketshare. If Linux gets used by more home users, more companies will support Linux, which means you have more software and hardware choices available to you.
  • Linux shouldn’t be overhyped. If you lower people’s expectations, they’ll most likely be pleasantly surprised. If you raise people’s expectations, they’ll most likely be disappointed and never want to try Linux again.
  • Never tell people to ask for a refund. Free software can be and often is the same quality or better than commercial alternatives. People can criticize free software just as much as they criticize nonfree or paid-for software. We do not want people to believe free software necessarily means lesser-quality software.
Categories
Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Why I finally embraced computer literacy

Computer illiteracy
It’s very likely that you know someone who self-identifies as “computer illiterate.” That person may even be proud of being so.

I was once one of these people. I was one of these people for a long time. In fact, I was quite offended when my Latin teacher in high school thought I liked computers (I assume she assumed so because I’m of Asian descent, as that is the stereotype, and I gave her no other reason to assume so). Yes, even though I took AP Computer Science senior year in high school, I still didn’t like computers and did not want to be identified with computers, but I hated hard science more than computer science, so I took computer science, got a 5 on the AP exam, and then quickly forget everything I learned about Pascal (does anyone even use this language any more?) and programming.

Even after graduating from college, I was still computer illiterate and pretty technologically helpless. I didn’t really understand how anything in a computer worked. I just memorized steps (click this icon, type this phrase, click that menu item, select that menu item, use this keyboard shortcut). In 2000, I had to call my future wife internationally to ask her what to do about my printer not working. She was a big help. Until 2004, I remained in technologically blissful ignorance, as I was too busy grading papers and preparing curriculum to care about learning computers. After all, literature was far more important than computers. Computers helped me do my grading and handouts—that was about it.

The turning point
Then in 2004, the Dell laptop my wife and I had got a serious case of spyware/adware. It was impossible to clean off. I tried to reinstall but couldn’t, at the time, find the drivers CD or InterVideo WinDVD—only the Windows XP CD. I had quite a frustrating time trying to get Windows to work properly without drivers or DVD playback. That’s when I first tried Linux (in the form of Blag), gave up on Linux, and then switched to Firefox on Windows (eventually did find those other two CDs). One year later, I became a full-time Linux (in the form of Ubuntu) user.

A combination of quitting teaching and getting malware pushed me to want to make myself computer literate. Quitting teaching helped move me in that direction in two ways.

From teaching to office jobs
First of all, teaching sucks a lot of mental energy out of you. It can become difficult to take on a new hobby when you’re worried about parent conferences, student struggles, classroom management, lesson plans, grading, professional development, faculty meetings, coaching, etc. Yes, of course, I was busy at my office job, too, but once I left work, work was done. I didn’t take work home with me.

Secondly, teaching is still a rather low-tech profession. There are some ingenious ways some teachers have managed to work technology into the classroom, but most of the time when technology is used in English classes, it’s more technology for the sake of “technology in education,” and not for any real pedagogical value. Office jobs, however, usually depend almost solely on the use of a computer. Suddenly, I was stuck in front of a computer monitor and keyboard for eight hours a day, five days a week—and with no summers off. I had to know how to use Excel. I had to know how to use Word (never previously knowing how to do a mail merge or anything remotely fancier than bolding or bulleting text). I had to learn a rather counterintuitive and completely inflexible database program. My boss wanted regular reports from me. I was an office worker, and I needed to know how to use this tool called a computer.

Moving away from Windows malware
And, of course, the spyware/malware infection made it impossible for me to deny that the days of care-free ignorant computing were long gone. In the preinternet days, home users didn’t have security threats. Even in the early internet days of the mid-1990s, the worst thing that ever happened to me was getting bad “funny” forwards from friends. Spam wasn’t terrible in those days. I got maybe two spam messages a week. No, I didn’t have to know all the internals of a computer and how all the transistors and whatnot worked, but I had to learn basic safety and sensible operation—just as I can’t fix a car’s broken transmission, but I have learned how to minimize wear on the transmission, how to minimize the chance of an accident, and how to get the best gas mileage.

And once I had finally given up Windows and embraced Ubuntu, I found computer problems to be fun challenges to be solved. Even now, if I experience a problem in Windows (which I have to use at work), I curse the computer and usually get frustrated at having to figure out a cryptic error message or no error message at all, but if I experience a problem in Ubuntu, I’m eager to troubleshoot it and fix it. It’s perverse, I know. Don’t worry—many Linux users suffer from this malady.

The digital age
Computer illiteracy for me in 2004 was an impracticality. I had to suck it up and realize we live in a digital age. Gone were the days of exchanging lettes and postcards with friends. Gone were the days of trading mix tapes. Everyone I knew was on email and listened to digital music.

Now it’s 2008, and I’m still in an office job (albeit a different one). I’m still no programmer or officially trained computer person, but now people ask me for help when they have computer problems, and very rarely now do I have to ask my wife for tech support. Time to embrace the geekdom. Computer illiteracy is no longer an option.

Categories
Computers Music I Like Windows

The futile search for global hotkeys on iTunes for Windows

In the over three decades I’ve spent on this planet, relatively few of those years have I spent listening to music on a computer (desktop/laptop). Yes, in the old days, I listened to records. I think the first one was Def Leppard’s Pyromania. I spent a long time loving tapes, though, and making mix tapes for friends. Probably from 1991 to 1999 I made upwards of 600 mix tapes. I don’t know the actual number. A lot of care went into picking out the exact 20 to 24 songs to fit on those 90-minute cassette tapes. When CDs came along, I used those to copy to mix tapes. Eventually, I got into the whole CD-ripping business and keeping MP3 versions of songs on a computer. But when you don’t put in one CD at a time or one tape at a time, how do you make sense of all the thousands of songs you have?

Well, that’s when I started listening to music on the computer. My first program was WinAmp, and I loved it. I loved the little skins. I loved watching the playlists randomize. I loved the little windows you could move around. When the iPod came on the scene a few years ago, my wife and I each got one, and we realized that the way to get songs on the iPod was through iTunes. My first encounters with iTunes left me unimpressed. It didn’t seem an intuitive program to me. The funny thing is that now, years later, I can’t even remember what I found unintuitive about it. I just remember nothing made sense to me. Eventually, though, I grew to love iTunes. Even now I think it’s the best music management program out there (I say that knowing that Ubuntu users everywhere are groaning while looking for virtual rocks to virtually stone me with).

But when I moved over to Ubuntu three years ago, I had to give up iTunes. In the meantime, I’ve grown to love Rhythmbox. I had little trysts with AmaroK, JuK, XMMS, Exaile, Banshee, Quod Libet—you name the GUI Linux music program, and I’ve probably tried it. Still I kept going back to the simplicity of Rhythmbox.

Even though I still think iTunes is the best overall music management program (I know some people swear by Foobar2000, but that’s just a little too power user for me), there is one thing I miss from Linux music programs when I use iTunes on my Windows computer at work: global hotkeys.

Global hotkeys allows me to listen to music while using a variety of other programs (mainly Thunderbird and FileMaker Pro). No matter what program I’m using, if the phone rings or if someone walks in to talk to me, I can hit a key combination and pause whatever song I’m listening to. Or, even if no one is interrupting me, if I just want to switch to the next song, I don’t have to bring the focus back to iTunes to change songs.

Global hotkeys aren’t something iTunes natively supports, so I have to rely on helper programs to set them up for me. For a while I was using iTunesKeys. Not a bad program, except that it was buggy. It would take forever to quit if I wanted to quit iTunes. Sometimes it would just hang on a random song. Eventually I gave up on iTunesKeys and gave iTunes Global Hotkeys a whirl. Unfortunately, it appears to be a candidate for the admin rights hall of shame, since I get an error message about permissions when I try to run it as a limited user:

Well, since the error message appears every time I try to use any hotkey, since I don’t want to run as administrator all the time, since the author of iTunes Global Hotkeys is no longer maintaining the software, since iTunesKeys is buggy, since I still love iTunes for Windows, since there is no Windows port of Rhythmbox, and since I want to listen to music at work, I’m just going to keep that error message window open and move it down to the bottom of my screen.

In case anyone’s curious, here are the full error message details:

See the end of this message for details on invoking
just-in-time (JIT) debugging instead of this dialog box.

************** Exception Text **************
System.UnauthorizedAccessException: Access to the path ‘c:\ITHKerrors.log’ is denied.
at System.IO.__Error.WinIOError(Int32 errorCode, String maybeFullPath)
at System.IO.FileStream.Init(String path, FileMode mode, FileAccess access, Int32 rights, Boolean useRights, FileShare share, Int32 bufferSize, FileOptions options, SECURITY_ATTRIBUTES secAttrs, String msgPath, Boolean bFromProxy)
at System.IO.FileStream..ctor(String path, FileMode mode, FileAccess access, FileShare share, Int32 bufferSize, FileOptions options)
at System.IO.StreamWriter.CreateFile(String path, Boolean append)
at System.IO.StreamWriter..ctor(String path, Boolean append, Encoding encoding, Int32 bufferSize)
at System.IO.StreamWriter..ctor(String path, Boolean append)
at iTunesHotKey.Form1.LogIt(String strInput, String strName)
at iTunesHotKey.Form1.nexttrack_HotKeyPressed(Object sender, EventArgs e)
at iTunesHotKey.GlobalHotKey.NotifyHotKey(IntPtr virtKey, IntPtr modifiers)
at iTunesHotKey.GlobalHotKey.HiddenForm.WndProc(Message& m)
at System.Windows.Forms.Control.ControlNativeWindow.OnMessage(Message& m)
at System.Windows.Forms.Control.ControlNativeWindow.WndProc(Message& m)
at System.Windows.Forms.NativeWindow.Callback(IntPtr hWnd, Int32 msg, IntPtr wparam, IntPtr lparam)

************** Loaded Assemblies **************
mscorlib
Assembly Version: 2.0.0.0
Win32 Version: 2.0.50727.832 (QFE.050727-8300)
CodeBase: file:///C:/WINDOWS/Microsoft.NET/Framework/v2.0.50727/mscorlib.dll
—————————————-
iTunesHotKey
Assembly Version: 1.2.0.0
Win32 Version: 1.2.0.0
CodeBase: file:///C:/Program%20Files/Jacob%20Hickman/iTunes%20Global%20Hotkeys/iTunesHotKey.exe
—————————————-
Microsoft.VisualBasic
Assembly Version: 8.0.0.0
Win32 Version: 8.0.50727.42 (RTM.050727-4200)
CodeBase: file:///C:/WINDOWS/assembly/GAC_MSIL/Microsoft.VisualBasic/8.0.0.0__b03f5f7f11d50a3a/Microsoft.VisualBasic.dll
—————————————-
System
Assembly Version: 2.0.0.0
Win32 Version: 2.0.50727.832 (QFE.050727-8300)
CodeBase: file:///C:/WINDOWS/assembly/GAC_MSIL/System/2.0.0.0__b77a5c561934e089/System.dll
—————————————-
System.Windows.Forms
Assembly Version: 2.0.0.0
Win32 Version: 2.0.50727.832 (QFE.050727-8300)
CodeBase: file:///C:/WINDOWS/assembly/GAC_MSIL/System.Windows.Forms/2.0.0.0__b77a5c561934e089/System.Windows.Forms.dll
—————————————-
System.Drawing
Assembly Version: 2.0.0.0
Win32 Version: 2.0.50727.832 (QFE.050727-8300)
CodeBase: file:///C:/WINDOWS/assembly/GAC_MSIL/System.Drawing/2.0.0.0__b03f5f7f11d50a3a/System.Drawing.dll
—————————————-
System.Runtime.Remoting
Assembly Version: 2.0.0.0
Win32 Version: 2.0.50727.832 (QFE.050727-8300)
CodeBase: file:///C:/WINDOWS/assembly/GAC_MSIL/System.Runtime.Remoting/2.0.0.0__b77a5c561934e089/System.Runtime.Remoting.dll
—————————————-
System.Configuration
Assembly Version: 2.0.0.0
Win32 Version: 2.0.50727.832 (QFE.050727-8300)
CodeBase: file:///C:/WINDOWS/assembly/GAC_MSIL/System.Configuration/2.0.0.0__b03f5f7f11d50a3a/System.Configuration.dll
—————————————-
System.Xml
Assembly Version: 2.0.0.0
Win32 Version: 2.0.50727.832 (QFE.050727-8300)
CodeBase: file:///C:/WINDOWS/assembly/GAC_MSIL/System.Xml/2.0.0.0__b77a5c561934e089/System.Xml.dll
—————————————-
Interop.iTunesLib
Assembly Version: 1.8.0.0
Win32 Version: 1.8.0.0
CodeBase: file:///C:/Program%20Files/Jacob%20Hickman/iTunes%20Global%20Hotkeys/Interop.iTunesLib.DLL
—————————————-
CustomMarshalers
Assembly Version: 2.0.0.0
Win32 Version: 2.0.50727.42 (RTM.050727-4200)
CodeBase: file:///C:/WINDOWS/assembly/GAC_32/CustomMarshalers/2.0.0.0__b03f5f7f11d50a3a/CustomMarshalers.dll
—————————————-
zjmyotbn
Assembly Version: 2.0.0.0
Win32 Version: 2.0.50727.832 (QFE.050727-8300)
CodeBase: file:///C:/WINDOWS/assembly/GAC_MSIL/System/2.0.0.0__b77a5c561934e089/System.dll
—————————————-

************** JIT Debugging **************
To enable just-in-time (JIT) debugging, the .config file for this
application or computer (machine.config) must have the
jitDebugging value set in the system.windows.forms section.
The application must also be compiled with debugging
enabled.

For example:

Categories
Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Fanboy isn’t just a generic insult. It means something.

Warning, for those who know me in person: This is an extremely geeky post. Proceed with caution.

Just as forum users will sometimes fling the label troll against anyone who argues with them, many forum users (particularly in computer-related discussions) will throw around the term fanboy without making the term meaningful. Most of the time, when I see the term fanboy used, it’s basically used as a way to avoid having meaningful or logical discussion and to shut the other person up, even if she has valid points. It’s basically a way of saying, “Since you clearly are a fan of this operating system, nothing you say has meaning.”

But being a fan alone doesn’t invalidate what you have to say. fanboy goes beyond fan. I think the folks over at Urban Dictionary have it right. Here are some of top-voted definitions for the word:

  • A passionate fan of various elements of geek culture (e.g. sci-fi, comics, Star Wars, video games, anime, hobbits, Magic: the Gathering, etc.), but who lets his passion override social graces.
  • A person who is completely loyal to a game or company reguardless[sic] of if they suck or not.
  • An arrogant person who goes into an outburst every time something he likes is questioned.

Since I am a regular on the Ubuntu Forums, the context in which I see fanboy is often in relation to operating systems. Linux fanboys. Mac fanboys. Windows fanboys. Just so people know, though, a Linux user defending Linux is not a Linux fanboy, just as a Mac user defending Mac OS X is not a Mac fanboy, and likewise for a Window user defending Windows.

What really sets a fanboy apart is saying only positive things about her operating system of choice and never acknowledging anything negative about her operating system of choice. Frankly, I haven’t found too many people like that on the Ubuntu Forums. Sure, if you speak mistruths about Linux or spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt without real concrete examples, then Ubuntu users will speak up and correct you. But if you ask them what’s wrong with Ubuntu or Linux, you’ll get a very, very long list of replies. I don’t think you’ll find many Ubuntu users who will say Ubuntu or Linux can do no wrong.

Further Reading
Mac Zealots, Linux Zealots, and Windows Zealots