Sunday, March 11, 2007

Linux, Daylight Savings time, blogging, and you.

It's been eleven days since I've typed anything into this blog, though to me it felt far longer, because even though I know nobody is reading, I don't do it for you. I do it for my own need to say what I'm thinking and throw it out into the abyss that is the internet blog hole. And the problem I had for eleven days was I couldn't think of anything worth talking about. I still technically can't.

Certainly I could fall back on bashing the CBC or Canada's media/entertainment companies, or I could bash Winnipeg, the NHL and Gary Bettman, or how cell phone companies are crooks in collusion with the government (in every country that exists), or the lack of any broadcast HDTV in Winnipeg (which kindof mixes options one and two together) but I don't want to get repetative. I mean, I've already essentially said a lot on the subject already, and unless I have anything interesting to say (even though nobody is reading this) whats the point in wasting time typing it all in?

I could talk about Daylight Savings Time and how its probably the one and only decision from George W Bush that was logical. Frankly, I'd rather have more daylight in the evening than at 5 in the morning, because a) people who wake up in the morning have lights. Car's in Canada already have low beams on when you start them up. and b) whats the point in wasting all the daylight for when you're at work? Then getting only one hour after work before the sun goes down? I'd rather have two. Of course, I've never wrapped my head around the whole daylight savings thing. So, yeah, I could talk about Daylight Savings Time, but everyone else already is. Besides, surprisingly, Linux automatically adjusted for DST.

I could talk about Linux, I suppose. I think Linux is currently at a major crossroads, but all of the things that are happening with it seem to be behind the scenes, slowly gelling in the fridge to finally - hopefully - make it so that anyone can use it and enjoy its lime flavoured gellyness. In my view, as someone who has been using linux for a while now, I'm going to post a list of 5 things Linux does right, and 5 things Linux has left.

Five Things Linux Does Right.(and ways it can be even better) (or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb)

1. Installation. Installing Linux in most distributions is appallingly easy and fast. If your computer isn't hopelessly made up of horrid cheap hardware, you can be up and running into a working desktop in less than a minute through the use of Live Distributions. Once one of Linux's worst problems, Linux is now comparatively easier and prettier to install than Windows. Assuming,again, your hardware isn't complete crap, and even then, 9 times out of 10 you'll be fine.. A lot of credit has to go to the invention and propogation of live distro's like Knoppix, without which we would not have the *Ubuntu's of today. An added bonus is that an advanced user can use the live/install hybrid CD's of today to repair trashed filesystems. I had a hosed filesystem a few months back after I made a questionable decision to do something I should have known better not to do, and a live CD helped save my entire home directory. Sure I could keep backups, but I'm a bit of a packrat both in the physical world and in the world of data, so an unsalvageable filesystem is a bit like an act of God telling me to discard the old and start anew. But, I managed to save it so hell, big deal.

That's not to say Linux developers should rest on their laurels. The various Ubuntu's are great, but I ran into a problem installing Ubuntu on a laptop that would overheat during the install process and freeze (maddeningly) at around 70% IIRC. Sure I ended up taking it apart and cleaning off the thermal paste and putting on some Arctic Silver Ceramique instead, but there are people out there who won't do that, and the point is to get the distro installed. Kubuntu didn't freeze until I tried installing it on that machine. Plus the lack of memory on that machine didn't help things either. If Ubuntu's installer had a "Just install it" mode, that didn't go into the GUI, it would have saved me a lot of hassle, I ended up using Ark Linux in the end, which doesn't have a built in live-CD (though has a Live-CD without an installer) which has the alternate problem. The Ark Linux installer is great in that it asks three questions, and gets on with the business of installing the system while you play Tetrix. If somehow the two different methods were combined, things would be great. The Ark Linux install had the added bonus of not REQUIRING ME to reformat my ext3 partition, which meant I could keep my renamed /home directory inode and just install everything overtop. It still works to this day (though sadly ArkLinux development has slowed down substantially).. One other thing, it'd be nice to be able to setup a plugged in USB flash drive as the home directory automatically, to save your changed preferences in a live CD if you move around a lot.

2. The Internet If All you do with Linux is internet related, all the tools exist for you to never need to boot into Windows. Especially since Java is now GPL'ed, you can run JBidwatcher for your unfortunate need to use ebay, there are at least 4 major web browsers including Firefox and Konqueror (although internet explorer isn't, but who needs it nowadays) and dozens of specialised ones available like elinks, and all the rest. News Aggregators, Skype and other telephony programs, web page creation, torrents, its all there.

The only negative thing that can be said about Linux's network support is that it's currently a pain to get many wireless network cards working, confusing non standardized drivers mean strange names for your wireless 802.11* cards assuming they work, lack of gui to connect to your WPA-PSK encrypted router, and legal issues forcing occasional hunting for firmware reminding you of Windows. Also Flash 9 isn't compiled for 64 bit Linux for some peculiar reason, showing the negative side of proprietary software. Hopefully GPL'ed flash software catches up one day.

3. Emulation Theres a lot of software out there that runs on Linux created to emulate other systems from commodore 64's to gameboys to dos and windows to Bochs and VMWare. A lot is being said for virtualization in terms of operating systems, and Linux was probably one of the first OS's there. Certainly running Windows programs with Wine is still an imperfect proposition (though again, closer than its ever been) But it can be done for certain programs, even some games. There are also game interpreters like REminiscence or ScummVM or even some for text based adventure games. Or you can run many old dos games with DosBox. Certainly many of these emulators run in Windows as well (such is the nature of free software) but the point is these emulators enable us to run old software that we might be attached to for even emotional reasons.

Of course, the negative aspect of Emulation is the expiration of copyright doesn't keep up with the expiration of old software. Businesses would prefer you run Microsoft Office Vista rather than an old copy of Wordperfect 5 in Dos through an emulator. Further, a lot of games out there that could be re-released and repackaged with ScummVM and Linux installers aren't! Confusingly, though there might be money to be made by taking advantage of the emulation, and forevermore creating a package that can be run on linux and (even though emulated) adds to the available repository of programs for linux. What could it hurt to repackage some sotware package that runs emulated in Linux? I don't know why more isn't being done. Flashback was a good game I rediscovered with REminiscance, but who owns the rights, and why can't they repackage it online and take advantage? Another aspect is that even though a lot of free software home brew games are out for various emulated systems, the tools to download them to flash carts have often been windows based. Certainly it'd be fun to be able to play a game like Supertux on a gameboy advance or DS, but it hasn't happened. Still, emulation is a fascinating and at times underappreciated aspect of the Linux users experience.

3. Programming. Lamentably, I haven't programmed anything since high school. I Submitted a patch to a driver for a hardware device once, but even that was just noticing that the device simply needed to be recognized by the kernel for what it was, nothing special. Still it was heartening to think that I contributed in some small way to the Linux Kernel. Fortran, Cobol, Basic, C, C++, C#, Java, Ada, whatever the heck you want to program, you probably can.

The problem for me is that Linux has so many tools for programming it's almost overkill. Where do you start? What graphics library should you use? (QT or GTK?) It's overwhelming and getting over that hump has kept me from creating my killer app (not really) I don't have any confidence in my programming ability and though peer review is probably helpful, taking the plunge and putting your abilities in front of thousands of judges, some of whome could be condescending or ridiculously biased, is not necessarily an enticing prospect. So I keep procrastinating. Hopefully I get over that sooner or later and jump in and find the water is fine and not strangely yellow tinted or surrounded by sharks.

4. Office Programs Sure Microsoft Office doesn't run on Linux. Of course it doesn't. What do you expect. We all know how Microsoft operates by now. And sadly, a lot of people are currently brainwashed into thinking there can be only one way to run an office. With MS Office and Outlook on a Windows Server. Sadly, theres no hope for those people, they're lost to us. That doesn't mean we can't run Open Office (or even pay for Sun's Star Office) Which works and has a plethora of features. Or you can use KOffice which is quite interesting. Scribus itself is not a part of KOffice but it is a fastly maturing publishing software which surely meets the needs of many people. I've found myself entering photoshop contests using the KDE Krita program (which even offers CMYK to those who are sick of the GIMP, but doesn't offer yet the same amount of tools as the GIMP and eats a "tad" more memory). There was a big push in Linux to meet the needs of the Office a couple years back, and now Office Programs are quite mature and if not adequate, quite good.

Projects like Open Clipart are very useful but need more work. There are a few usability/eye candy areas the various Linux office programs could improve.

5. Playing Multimedia. MPlayer and Xine and all the rest accomplished a few years back what people thought would be impossible. They can play back almost all video and audio files even proprietary ones like Quicktime and RealVideo. Certainly one problem again is the anti-progress and freedom patents and such out there in the United States that restrict whether you can play your DVD's with DeCSS (you probably can even in the US, but its such a litigious country most people avoid anything there) But if you live in a Free Country, you should be fine. Plus Amarok and its ilk are great mp3 players and integrate well with even ipods. Nowadays with the Helix player and RealPlayer thats based on it, theres a lot of options out there for someone who wants to watch content online or on DVD or whatever. Plus Flash 9 is finally out for linux so theres a lot of online content you can get.

But theres also some you can't. I've had pointless problems navigating and viewing content at NBC, CTV (owned by bell globalmedia! the dastards), etc. Sure you can watch TV online there if you use Windows, but if you don't, well, Yargh Matey its a pirates life for you. Also, even though Linux can play the media great, thanks to creative and talented folks throughout the world, there are enroaching problems such as DRM, Proprietary drivers for video cards (and poor communication with linux driver writers to create open drivers), encrypted digital TV that you need to buy a special box from motorolla to watch, and so on. Plus creating your own DVD's, though possible, is still a bit cludgy under linux. Sadly theres no easy answer to these problems, luckily half the fun for many linux users is finding solutions to difficult problems.

Now, Five places where Linux really currently fails.

1. Sound/Movie Creation/Editing software.
That's not to say you can't do anything in Linux, but that the options out there are currently not at a state acceptable to most people would be content with. The tools are there in some form, tools like Blender and Rosegarden are two of the most advanced and celebrated, but this whole area is currently lacking.

2. Games. If you like playing Solitaire and Mindsweeper and Tetris, Linux has all the games you need. (Though strangely, Kubuntu didn't have any games on it when I last tried it, a disapointment to say the least when youre waiting for e2fsck to finish and can't connect to your encrypted wireless router) .. Otherwise, you're stuck with Cedega, Wine, Dosbox, various emulators, and playing halfheartedly with your overpriced Nintendo Wii (Yeah you heard me) It's a catch-22 situation, again the video card companies come into play with their drivers, and Microsoft makes it appealing to lock game companies into its directX environment. There are games out there for Linux, but if games are your life, you're stuck in windows. Of course, if ReactOS ever gets to a useable state, Gamers might have a lifeline to ditch Microsoft, but who knows when and if that could possibly happen.

3. Priorities and Permissions. If I plug in a CD, in Linux, nowadays, it gets mounted to /mnt/cdrom. Great. All is as it should be. Of course, in the Windows world, things are quite a bit more simple (and arguably, dangerous) where they are assigned to a drive. Same thing with a USB flash drive. Can I write to that drive? Hopefully if the Linux distribution is set up correctly.. but when it isn't, a new user can easily become frustrated and give up on Linux. Also, incompatible hardware. It would be nice if there was a file of hardware that doesn't work in Linux kept, along with a reason why it doesn't work. So that if someone has problems with something, at least they'll know why and can complain to the appropriate people. Maybe a popup window when KDE starts up that says "HEY, YOU, YOUR WIRELESS CARD DOESN'T WORK BECAUSE IT WAS CREATED BY COMMUNIST ANARCHISTS" or something like that. Maybe a bit more informative. Anyways stuff like that has always been a pet peeve of mine but thats the way it is. Also filesystem confusion is out there for a lot of people. It could be nice if even though files are sorted according to /bin/etc, you could have a virtual directory based on the original package that shows all the related files.

4. Science and Education. Sure there are some programs like Kalzium and KStars and Stellarium, and online tools like Wikipedia. But what if you aren't online? Certainly a wikipedia DVD would come in handy for a lot of people. I'm mostly surprised at how I've never seemed to come across many really good learning tools for Linux. There are a few out there, but for some reason I find it strange that there aren't more. Certainly I remember a game for the old Commodore 64 where you would be in a mansion of some sort and have to solve simple math problems to get through. Not difficult stuff, but woefully under-represented in Linux. Plus the kids aren't going to be able to play the latest "Kick Elmo in the Face" game from Sesame Street. I guess Google Earth does everything you need or science nowadays, though again, sadly not Open Source.

5. Embedded systems. Whatever happened to the Sharp Zaurus? Seems Microsoft owns the pda market nowadays, the phone market looks to be theirs for the taking. What happened? Sure people are out there trying to get linux working on these machines, and encountering hardware difficulty (which some people might enjoy tackling, while others just want to get the end result).. It's just a strange and dissapointing result and I'm surprised nobody brings it up. Linux was gonna OWN the embedded market, wasn't it? Now everyones all hush hush and mumbly. Maybe things are going to get better, but really, you have to admit that Microsoft outplayed, and outwitted linux in this space. Will it outlast? Remains to be seen. And they currently have the immunity idol. Who will be voted off? Opie? GPE? Uclinux? Also I AM THE KING OF ANALOGIES.

There. I've said everything there is to say about Linux that I can think of, and that last thing about the Embedded Systems required quite a bit of reaching down deep within my inner critic and coming up with something to bug me. I suppose I left out things like K3B (Great linux cd/dvd burning frontend/program) and Kopete within the last year has stopped pointlessly crashing.. even though I don't like to use instant messaging a lot of Windows users do.

Amusingly enough, as with every time I hit publish on my blog, I'll think of at least 5 other things I could blog about. Writers block dissipates immediately after you don't need to write anything. Oh well.

You know what'd be nice? If I didn't have to automatically add url's for certain words. like Opie or GPE, if blogger could automatically figure out to give a link for them. Cause I hate doing that.

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