Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Web Browsers Windows

Firefox 3 Download Day: Good Publicity Stunt

Unless you keep up with tech news, you may have missed it, but this past Tuesday was “download day,” in which Mozilla was hoping to set a world record for downloads by encouraging its users to download Firefox 3 on its release day.

I don’t think there was actually a previously held world record, and I’m not sure how meaningful the 8 million number means. It doesn’t mean there are 8 million users, only 8 million downloads. I myself, did three downloads that day. There was someone on the Ubuntu Forums who did seven downloads. There may have even been people writing scripts to download Firefox. Who knows?

But let’s just say there were 8 million unique downloaders. So what? According to Internet World Stats, only a little more than 1/5 of the world population has internet access. That means only 0.6% of internet users downloaded Firefox on download day. If we were to assume that the entire world had internet access, that’d drop the percentage down to 0.1% of users who downloaded that day.

Those numbers aren’t very encouraging. Actually, they aren’t discouraging either. They’re pretty much meaningless, as we know the Firefox web browser marketshare is anywhere between 10% and 50%, depending on the country.

All it means is that most Firefox users had no clue there was a download day. They just went about their daily lives actually using Firefox instead of re-downloading it. Still, it was a good publicity stunt… at least for those who do read the tech news. It made the front page of the technology section of Google News practically every day this week. I don’t think any download record will ever mean anything, but you’ve got to hand it to those Mozilla folks for getting some good hype.

Computers Windows

Why is Windows forcing me to reboot?

Despite being a Linux user who will probably never again buy a Microsoft product, I am not a Windows-basher. I don’t particularly like Windows, but it’s not terrible. If you force yourself to operate as a limited user (instead of the default administrator), it’s as secure as Mac OS X or Linux, and it generally gets the job done.

There are endless operating system wars among fans of all three major platforms (and even some minor ones you may not have heard of). Ultimately, though, for everyday use, they’re pretty much all the same. Click on the icon or use a keyboard shortcut to launch the program. Use the program.

Every now and then, though, something happens that just makes me want to throw my Windows computer at work through the wall (I must resist the urge to do so, of course, since the computer and wall are the school’s, not mine). Yesterday, I was in the middle of doing some work, and, as usual, I had about six programs open. All of a sudden, this message appeared:

As you can see from the screenshot, the Restart Later option is greyed out, meaning that Windows is basically telling me, “I don’t care if you’re in the middle of doing something important. Close all the programs in the next five minutes; otherwise, I’ll close them for you!”

Hey, I’m using this computer to do my job! Today, just today I’m going to bash Windows. Is that okay? Windows sucks!!!

Okay. Tomorrow I’ll be good and say people should just use whatever operating system works for them.

Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Teach kids computer skills, not computer programs

Frequently, in online discussions of the putting of Linux and/or open source in schools, the idea of preparing children for the Windows-dominated workplace comes up. The idea is that most workplaces use Windows and Microsoft Office and will sometimes even require proficiency in certain Windows applications, so how would putting Linux and open source software in schools prepare children for using Windows software in the future?

In “Should students learn Windows? Or Mac? Or What?” Scott Granneman points out rightly that technology changes quickly. Most of his examples have to do with changes in interface (Mac OS 9 is not like Mac OS X), but technology changes are far more drastic than mere changes in interface. I grew up in the 1980s using all sorts of computers that are out of fashion now (the colors were green and black or yellow and black on monitors), and finished my pre-university schooling before Windows 1995 was popular. Never was I taught to use Microsoft Office or any modern Windows interface. In high school, I took one computer science course, which trained me in Pascal, a programming language almost no one uses now.

Somehow, though, I’ve managed to actually get jobs and function in them, sometimes even excel in them. Now, more than two decades after my first exposure to computers, I use Windows XP and Microsoft Office five days out of the week and also use FileMaker Pro and Mozilla Firefox, two programs I’d never used in college or high school. In fact, in college, I could barely find anything on the web, because I had dial-up, and Google didn’t exist. Now, I can do mail merges, create pivot tables, and find information quickly on the web.

Technology changes quickly. It surely does. It really doesn’t matter, from the standpoint of preparation for the future, what operating system or software you use with children in schools. Do you think I’m still using turtles to draw colorful lines all over a tiny black screen now? No. Did all the F-keys I learned to use in my mouseless word processor in high school (I used a program called T3) help me with Microsoft Word later? Well, not directly.

What’s important to teach children is curiosity, not to be afraid of tinkering with things, the playfulness that computer software allows. You have to teach kids to be resourceful and get to know different tricks with whatever software you put in front of them. Do not have them memorize steps (click on this menu, then this menu, then this menu). Have them learn concepts. Really, this is what more schooling (not just from a technology standpoint) should be about.

If you stuck me in front of a program I’d never used before, it wouldn’t take me long to figure out its basic functionality and even how to get things done quickly with it. So putting Linux in schools shouldn’t hurt children’s chances in the workplace if you teach them concepts instead of memorization and exploration instead of rote instructions. And, who knows? Maybe they’ll be using Linux in the workplace twenty years from now anyway. Or maybe desktop/laptop computers as we know it won’t even exist at that point. We’ll have some new technology that’s even better, even more intuitive.

Further Reading
Linux in Education: Concepts Not Applications
In Defense of a Linux Education

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Is security through obscurity better than nothing?

Before I started using Linux and getting into frequent online discussions with other Linux users about security issues, I had no idea about computer security. I thought having a login and password was enough to keep the “bad guys” out, should my computer ever be stolen. Most people I know think the same. My dad (who actually is quite tech-savvy and can, unlike me, program in several languages and build his own computers from scratch) thought a fingerprint reader on his Thinkpad would keep people from accessing his files, but I showed him (with the aid of Knoppix CD) that that wasn’t the case.

The truth is that most computer “security” for home users is bogus and just security through obscurity. It may (or may not, depending on how resourceful they are) keep nosy family members and friends out, but it won’t stop someone who’s stolen your computer from getting to all your files. Having separate passwords and usernames on a home computer (as opposed to authenticated on a domain at work) is mainly a way to just make it slightly inconvenient for others using the same computer to snoop into your files.

If they had a little bit of knowledge and really wanted to snoop, however, they could. In the case of Mac OS X or Ubuntu, all it would take is booting into single-user mode and copying your files to their folders and changing ownership of those files. Or, if they didn’t want to be stealthy about it, they could change your password and log in as you. In Ubuntu, Mac OS X, and Windows, if you have a live CD (like Knoppix), you can boot it, mount the hard drive, and read any and all files on the computer.

Of course, in addition to having a username and password, there are other ways to slow down intruders and snooping friends from exploring your computer’s contents (setting a BIOS password, for example). Ultimately, though, once physical security is compromised, your computer’s contents have been also compromised… unless your drive is encrypted.

Of course, if one single person learns anything new from reading this, then the obscurity is that much less obscure now than before, but this understanding leads to the next question of “Is security through obscurity better than no security at all?” The Pidgin developers seem to think it’s not, as you can read in their justification for storing instant messaging passwords in plain text. In answer to the question “But surely something is better than nothing, right?” they say No. When a Pidgin user looks at her accounts.xml file, she can tell immediately that it’s a sensitive file and should be treated as such. When an application attempts to ‘trick’ the user into thinking its passwords are secure by obfuscating it in some way, the user assumes it’s safe.

In one sense, I agree with this. I don’t believe in giving users a false sense of security. In another sense, though, I think what they’re saying is ridiculous. Most users of instant messaging programs never look to see whether their passwords are stored in plain text or not, so they will almost always assume it’s safe. What would make much more sense by their line of reasoning would be to have a huge warning the first time you launch up Pidgin saying “Instant messaging is never secure, and that’s why we store your password in plain text.”

I’m a little ambivalent about all this, if you couldn’t tell. On the one hand, I do believe that for most purposes (keeping snooping family members and friends out), having usernames and passwords for unencrypted data serves its purpose. In this regard, security through obscurity works. On the other hand, this does give people a false sense of security, as they may think that not having an autologin will prevent laptop thieves from getting their data. People won’t be careful when it comes to their data and the real “bad guys.” On a lighter note, they may think that forgetting their administrative password means they have to reinstall the entire operating system instead of just resetting the password.

I guess if it really comes down to it, I believe in education. I believe people should know what is secure and what is not secure. What do people think? I know I have a lot of tech-savvy folks (people who know a lot more than I do) who read this blog. Is it ever the case that security through obscurity is better than no security at all?

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Why is Firefox in Windows better than Firefox in Linux?

I like Firefox. I use it at work. I use it at home. I get annoyed when I have to use other people’s computers and they don’t have Firefox installed. I have to say, though, as a three-year Linux user, that Firefox on Linux sucks, and that there’s absolutely no good reason for this suckage.

Here’s what sucks about Firefox on Linux:

  • Flash crashes. Yes, I know this is an Adobe problem and not a Firefox (or Ubuntu or whatever distro you use) problem, but it’s still a problem, and it’s annoying. It sucks. There are generally times of stability. Every now and then, though, Flash will crash on you. I’ve found this often happens when you have a lot of tabs open and try to close the last tab that’s open that has Flash embedded in it.
  • Tab jumping uses Alt instead of Control. In Windows, it’s cool to jump to the fifth tab by pressing Control-5 or to jump to the second tab by presing Control-2. In Linux, you have to press Alt-5 or Alt-2. Not as cool. It makes for awkward hand positioning, where I have to took my thumb or pinky under my hand.
  • Click doesn’t select the whole URL. This doesn’t bother me that much, as I generally use keyboard shortcuts (F6 or Control-L), and I know the setting can be changed in about:config, but a lot of new users get confused and frustrated by this behavior, and it’s annoying for it not to be the default.
  • Flash interrupts scrolling. If you have a middle-scroll button or finger-scroll touchpad, your cursor will stop dead in its tracks when it hits an embedded Flash element. Doesn’t happen in Windows, just Linux.

I guess that’s it. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be—a rather short list, but the Adobe Flash-related ones are particularly annoying. Ah, Adobe…

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Wizards are for power users

I’ve never met Joe Sixpack, but I keep hearing about him in “Linux isn’t ready for the desktop” rants. Apparently, Joe Sixpack never has to ask for help with Windows. He can do everything he wants without asking for help, because Windows has GUI (graphical user interface) for all the common tasks. Poor desktop Linux. Desktop Linux can’t help Joe Sixpack out, because there are some things in desktop Linux that Joe might need to use the terminal for. If only desktop Linux had GUI frontends for everything, then Joe Sixpack (who really knows only how to check his email, listen to music, surf the web, and type a Word document) would download and burn an .ISO, back up his Windows installation, repartition his hard drive, install Linux, and then troubleshoot hardware incompatibility problems.

I haven’t met this mythical Joe Sixpack. I have met plenty of everyday Windows users I’ll call Jordan Memorizer, though.

Jordan Memorizer has to ask for help. That’s the bottom line. It doesn’t matter that Jordan has used Windows for years, even decades. Nothing is intuitive, even if it involves a mouse and clicking. I encounter Jordan Memorizer at work all the time and have done so at the last three jobs I’ve had in schools. Jordan Memorizer memorizes steps, writes them down, needs constant reminders of how to repeat the steps.

How do I know this? Because I’ve had a lot of Jordan Memorizers ask me how to do a mail merge. Dude, there’s a mail merge wizard in Word. Just follow the prompts. It walks you through step by step. Do you want a label, letter, envelope, email? What list do you want to merge? What merge fields do you want to insert? Want a preview of your merge? Want to complete the merge? The wizard practically does everything for you.

And yet Jordan Memorizer needs to write down where to click and what to click next. Eventually, Jordan will have it all memorized. I know Joe Sixpack wouldn’t have had any trouble with figuring out the mail merge. After all, there’s a GUI for it. I just haven’t met any Sixpacks. The Beerguts I know are Memorizers or Figureouters. And the Memorizers are just as lost on a wizard as some of the Figureouters are with a command-line.

Wizards aren’t for Memorizers. Wizards are for power users—the Figureouters.

Computers Linux Windows

OLPC did sell out, folks

Recently, the One Laptop Per Child project announced that it was going to include Microsoft’s Windows XP alongside the Linux-based Sugar OS it had previously been shipping as the only operating system option for the XO Laptop.

There has been a lot of buzz in the Linux community about how this is a sellout on the part of Negroponte and the OLPC project, and rebuttals have been that it’s about the government’s choice to use an operating system (Windows) it wants, the project’s always been about getting computers into the hands of kids (not necessarily open source operating systems), and people who think OLPC has sold out are just Linux fanboys upset because Linux lost out.

No, the definition of sellout in this case isn’t “Went with an operating system we don’t like.” It’s “Went with an operating system it deliberately did not go with before on principle.”

From Free Mac OS X spurned by $100 laptop creators:

Seymour Papert, a professor emeritus at MIT and one of the project’s founders, said the scheme had refused Jobs’ offer on the grounds that Mac OS X is a proprietary system.

Papert told the WSJ: “We declined because it’s not open source,” adding the $100 laptop creators will only choose an operating system where the source code is open and can be altered.

From $100 laptop ‘will take desktop Linux global’:

He said: “AMD is our partner, which means Intel is pissing on me. Bill Gates is not pleased either but if I am annoying Microsoft and Intel then I figure I am doing something right.”

Microsoft allegedly offered to build the operating system for the machine but was rejected by the OLPC project. Negroponte added that the project required an extremely scaled-down OS to enable the eventual machines to run at a decent speed, while using very little power. “About 25 per cent of the cost of a laptop is there just to support XP, which is like a person that has gotten so fat that they use most of their muscle to move their fat,” he said.

I’ve added emphasis in both excerpts. The project started out being about allowing children the freedom to explore and have no licensing or proprietary code restrictions. Now, suddenly, it’s become about spreading Microsoft to even more developing nations. That isn’t choice. That’s oversaturation.

If you have an obesity epidemic, and one of the few efforts to encourage a healthy lifestyle gets co-opted by a pro-obesity program, those people aren’t being offered the choice to continue to be obese; they’re being denied the choice to experience a healthy lifestyle. The choice for Linux has continually been co-opted by Microsoft Windows. And now they are well on their way to extinguishing the emerging (previously Linux-dominated) netbook / subnotebook market by also putting XP on the Asus Eee PC and Vista on the HP Mini-Note.

Yes, OLPC sold out. Might it be good for those kids in developing countries to have a weather-proof Windows laptop? Maybe. But that wasn’t really the original goal of the OLPC project at all. Boy am I glad I didn’t participate in the “Give one, Get one” campaign in November.

Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux Ubuntu Windows

Sometimes I will get PC about “PC”

Yes, I’m a former English teacher, and I tend to be a stickler about word choice, phrasing, and grammar. I’m not ridiculous, though. If you want to split your infinitives, I really couldn’t care less. If you say you could care less when you really couldn’t care less, then I’ll get irritated.

But I don’t mind when people say Kleenex to mean tissue or Xerox to mean photocopy. After all, when someone asks for Kleenex and gets a Walgreens tissue, she usually won’t complain, as long as she can blow or wipe her nose. Likewise, someone asking for you to Xerox a paper really just wants a copy made. If you make a copy on a Canon instead, she is highly unlikely to grill you, “I said Xerox. Are you sure you used a Xerox to make this copy? You didn’t sneak over to the Canon copier?”

Language, after all, is about consensus about meaning. If someone says Kleenex, and we all understand it to mean tissue, then there isn’t a problem. Sometimes, though, there are problems with consensus. In some parts of America, carbonated beverages are referred to as cokes. Coke is coke. Dr. Pepper is coke. Pepsi is coke. In other parts of the country, they’re referred to as pop, soda, or soft drinks. In England, they’re called fizzy drinks. Eventually, somehow, we come to understand each other with regard to those yummy caffeine sugar cans.

Then there is the whole Mac and PC thing.

With Apple’s recent “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” campaign, now more than ever rich people are asking whether they should buy a Mac or a PC. Of course, some snarky Windows users will counter that Macs are PCs, since PC originally stood for personal computer. Unfortunately, now, PC means Windows PC, and they need to recognize that change. I recognize it, and I say it’s unfortunate because it leaves alternative operating systems (say, Linux-based ones) out of the question completely.

So when people say “PCs have problems with viruses and spyware,” I do have to correct them and say, “You mean Windows PCs.” If Macs and Windows PCs were the only personal computers out there, I’d be fine with them equating PC with Windows PC, but a non-Kleenex will soak up your mucus the same as a Kleenex will; a Windows PC is a completely different experience from a Linux PC, though. We Linux users may be few, but we exist, and the English language should reflect that existence. After all, we have words in the English language people don’t even use (for examples, watch the national spelling bee in Washington, D.C.).

Computers Ubuntu Windows

Users tend not to read pop-up balloons

Moving from Windows to Linux can be a harrowing experience. One who does this may experience culture shock and then frustration at not being able to do things the way she was used to doing them. Every now and then (through Ubuntu Brainstorm, a blog post, or a Ubuntu Forums thread) I’ll read a Ubuntu user propose that we have a little balloon or pop-up tutorial on first boot to educate new users about how to use Ubuntu.

I have to say I don’t see what this would accomplish. In my experience, both advanced and average users tend to view pop-ups of any kind as an annoyance to be quickly closed. The only difference I’ve seen is that advanced users tend to read the pop-up message before closing it, and average users tend to not read the message at all.

Some definitions first. The kind of advanced user I’m talking about is the person who is not necessarily a programmer or technology professional but is definitely the person friends and family go to for help with computer problems. The kind of average user I’m talking about can’t find how to start a program if you remove or move its launcher icon.

Let me give you some examples of the behaviors of average users I’ve seen (usually at work, in various jobs).

Someone I know wanted to do some image editing, so I had her install GIMP. Now, whenever she starts GIMP, though, there’s a tip of the day that pops up, and she just gets an annoyed look on her face and closes the tip of the day. This happens every time. She doesn’t ask how to make the tip of the day not appear or read the pop-up, which tells you you can uncheck the box to make the tip not appear when you launch GIMP. She just gets annoyed and closes the tip of the day pop-up.

I, on the other hand, also get annoyed when the tip of the day appears, but I uncheck the box and make sure it never appears again.

Then, of course, there’s the Firefox We blocked a pop-up for you pop-up (or drop-down, or whatever you want to call it). I haven’t met a Firefox user yet who enjoys seeing this appear on her screen.

Just as with the GIMP tip of the day, most Firefox users I know look immediately for the red X to click and then click it to make it go away. Unfortunately, they don’t bother to click on Options to see if there’s an option to make the drop-down not appear again the next time a pop-up is blocked.

If they had, they would have seen that there’s the option Don’t show this message when pop-ups are blocked. And just as with the tip of the day, I, being a relatively advanced user do look for the option to disable the pop-up, but I, too, am annoyed that the pop-up appeared in the first place.

Lastly, all the annoying little messages that appear in the system tray or notification area. You have unused icons. Updates are available to install. Do you know how many Windows users I’ve seen just ignore the notification about updates being available for installation? Do you know how many people do not take the Welcome to Windows Tour of XP?

Pop-up balloons and messages just get in the way of people. Although there may be rare exceptions, generally users fall into one of two categories when it comes to pop-up messages: people who don’t care to read what you have to say, and people who care about the message but would rather get it another way (on their own, without it being shoved in their faces).

So my guess is that if we had this pop-up tutorial or balloon for a tutorial in Ubuntu, then veteran Ubuntu users would be annoyed by something popping up and then not read it because they know it all ready, and new Ubuntu users would be annoyed by something popping up and then not read it because they’re annoyed.

Generally speaking, I’d say if people want to learn something new, they’ll find information about it on their own. If we do want to insert a beginner tutorial into the Ubuntu process, though, what better place to put it than in the installation process? That’s why I’ve proposed this on Ubuntu Brainstorm: Add a tutorial slideshow to the installation process.

Veteran users can click Install, answer a few questions, and walk away. New users can click Install, answer a few questions, and then stay and learn something, because they have to wait for Ubuntu to install anyway.

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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.