No Fences Thursday, Apr 22 2010 

I don’t believe in
fences or fiends.
I don’t own a
iPad or iPod.
I don’t
tweet or text.
I don’t use
Microsoft or MacOs.
***
I believe in
freedom and friends.
I own a
computer and Creative-Micro-Zen.
I
call and converse.
I use
Lucid Lynx.
I do because it’s
better.

Should the Ubuntu Release Cycle be Cut Back Saturday, Mar 27 2010 

The end of March is near, and in about a month, we will be seeing Lucid Lynx, or Ubuntu version 10.04.

After finally cutting my last machine over to Karmic a few weeks ago (my X60 tablet), I’m wondering if Ubuntu is developing new versions too fast.  I know some may think how can development be bad or too fast.  The answer is simple: stability (or lack thereof).

The main reason why I waited to cut over my last machine was because I was worried about having to tweak my machine so that I could get my tablet functions working.  It took me about an hour to work through, and I got it pretty close to perfect.  (I can’t get one feature, auto-rotation when in tablet mode, which was working in Jaunty to work in Karmic.)  The other reason why I waited was because, aside from a couple of issues, my machine working fine, and I didn’t feel the need to upgrade.  After all, regression sucks.

But I did finally bite the bullet because I noticed my personal T61P at home was running much cooler and more efficiently after I cut it over to Karmic.  I also had a problem with that bone-jarring alert beep occurring on shutdown or when I over-deleted/backspaced (entering one too many of either) in menu dialogues with Jackalope on my X60.  The sound was so annoying I became like a Pavlovian dog; after a few days jumping out of my seat (because of the alert) after beginning the shutdown cycle, I learned to turn off my external speakers before doing so.

So what’s my assessment of Karmic?  Actually, on my personal machines, I have had no major issues with it.  However, after my last cut-over, my feelings are mixed.  I have one issue with Karmic and dual-head mode.  Karmic seems to have better monitor detection capabilities and allows me to extend my desktop over two monitors.  The only problem is that if Compiz is running, X routinely freezes up.  After many months of routine use my X60 (I plug into an X6 multi-base in my office), I’ve had to learn to do things differently.  I have to disable Compiz before plugging into my base.  Not a big deal; however, after many bouts of forgetfulness, I’ve needed to restart at lest two dozen times.

So, for the first time in my computing life, I have decided to run alpha software to see what Lucid Lynx has to offer.  Since I was planning on fresh installs anyway, I decided to upgrade to the 64-bit version instead.  I started off slow.  I put Lucid Alpha 1 on my other Thinkpad (a T60 with integrated graphics).  Amazingly, things worked quite well with little tweaking.  It is alpha software so there were a few glitches here and there, but very minor.  Since it worked so well, I decided to install Lucid on my T61p at home (this one uses NVIDIA graphics); the Alpha 3 was already available, so I installed it instead.  Aside from some issues with the current NVIDIA drivers, the experience has been very positive as well.  I began thinking, Wouldn’t it have been better to hold off on Karmic and wait for Lucid instead?

I also began thinking about Ubuntu’s quick release cycle.  Do they need to release new versions every six months, or should they give themselves more time in between versions to try and release something more refined say once every year?  I’m not a programmer and have the faintest idea what six calendar months equates to in computer software development time, but after using every version of Ubuntu since Feisty Fawn (not to mention several other distros in between), I find myself wondering if it is too much.  Couldn’t the upgrade cycle be cut back to allow for partial upgrades of the current version instead.  For example, instead of going to a new version of the entire OS, couldn’t new versions of apps like Open Office or Firefox be moved into the repos instead?  (I know, things we can, as Linux end users, do anyway.)

Why not give the Ubuntu developers time to work out the kinks and get things more stable?  Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t some off the cuff rant because I am angry or disappointed with Ubuntu.  In fact, this line of questioning is quite the opposite.  Like every good citizen of every country, contrary to what many conservatives in this country believes (they call it unpatriotic), we have a responsibility to ask questions and critique the status quo to see if there is room for improvement.  The only way things stay at the top is if it is willing to adapt and change.

I know.  You must be saying isn’t that what the six month cycle insures.  Well you’re right.  It does insure a new version every six months, and seemingly, a change in the status quo.  The problem is of course time and quality.  Look at Microsoft as a prime example.  Although their release cycle is very slow and not a good model; how many times have they released a sub-standard product because of profit margins?  Vista was a joke because it was poorly designed, too ambitious (in terms of driver development and third-party interest), and was on a timeline that it could not keep up with.  So what did MS users get?  A product that no one wanted to use or move to (like Windows Me).  People were clinging on to XP or jumping ship to Mac and Linux.  I had never seen so many new Macs in my life until Vista was released.  (Which may not be a good thing either…but that’s another post for another time….)

Well, Lucid is still in alpha and we won’t know how good it is until it is finally released in April.  So far, aside from moving the minimize, maximize, and close icons from the right side to the left, a la Apple (something that can be easily moved back), it has been very positive and promising.  The load times seem to be faster–although nowhere near ten seconds–so far I’ve been averaging about 30-35 seconds to working desktop, and I do like the new themes and splash screen they’ve installed.  I do like the fact that the apps seem to have finally caught up; all of my favorites, Firefox, Thunderbird, Kompozer, etc. are there in their newest versions (sans the Gimp…it is in the repos and can be easily installed).

I look forward to when Lucid is finally released in a few weeks, and regardless, I will be a happy Linux user.  But while using whatever version I finally decided upon come that time, I will still be pondering whether Ubuntu could benefit from a slightly less ambitious release cycle.  Cutting edge is good…bleeding edge…not so much….

eBook Pricing Post iPad Tuesday, Feb 16 2010 

A colleague sent me an article from the New York Times last week discussing the likelihood of eBooks prices going up.  Ever since the fabled iPad was rumored, I wondered what would happen to the eBook market.  I was greedily hoping the announcement would bring prices down like it did for music when Apple first opened the iTunes store.  (Of course, we all know what happened to iTune prices once Apple established a strong customer base.)

Considering much of the clamor for the iPad was lauding its ability to be a multimedia device and e-reader in one, many believed the device would do to eBooks what the iPod did to music.  In other words, make book buying a cheaper and more convenient online experience.  After all, who buys CDs these days?

The interesting thing here is that Apple, in Jobs’ attempt to gain a sense of exclusivity, capitulated to publishers’ desire to set their own prices for their book catalog on the iPad.  The deal quickly had ramifications outside of Cupertino, and Amazon was also agreeing to McMillan’s demand to raise prices of bestsellers from $9.99 to up to $14.99 a download.

Since Apple was a second (well actually more like a third or fourth) comer, they couldn’t strong-arm publishers to give them special pricing to entice customers.  Amazon had that racket nailed down already.  So instead of strong-arming the publishers, they did the opposite.  They allowed publishers to dictate the prices to them in an attempt to garner enough support to build a viable and attractive catalog for their iBooks store.

So how is Jobs going to justify higher device and media costs?  Wow factor.

If you saw Jobs announcement for the iPad, you noticed that many of the things he focused on was about the interface.  Like the Nook, you can peruse the bookstore by seeing cover shots of books in the library.  Apple, of course, upped the ante a bit by putting the books on a virtual bookshelf that leads to a secret entrance into the bookstore.  I gotta admit, cool looking.  But would it make me go out and replace my Nook for an iPad?

He also showed how a finger swipe turns the page and how the other functions work–bookmarking and the like.  Again, all interface.  I wonder how the reading experience is outside in sunlight?  Or, how long you can read before your eyes get fatigued?

Of course, he also talked about embedded videos and other mixed-media elements the iPad would be able to support because it is, well, a computer.  Sounds interesting, and it is a feature that could possibly change the way people write books (like graphic novels).  But what kinds of videos are going to be embedded in books initially?  Commercials, maybe?

So let’s review the reasons why the iPad is good for eBooks: a cooler interface, video ads, and, oh yeah, higher book prices.  And don’t forget you do have to buy the device first.  That will set you back anywhere from $500-$700 dollars, and if want to be able to use your device away from WiFi hotspots, another $30 for use of AT&T’s already overtaxed (thanks, iPhone) 3G network.  How could anyone pass up this deal?

Well, obviously, I’m not convinced that the iPad will be as well received as many think.  I’m skeptical that there is a need for such a device.

Do you know why I love my Nook?  Because it’s convenient to carry and use, and it does its job very well.  Quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to hold a 10 inch device to read my paper while I have my lunch.  I want instant on and an easy-on-the-eyes reading experience.  If I want to browse the web and check email, I can power up any of my PCs to do that; they all run Ubuntu, so they load rather quickly.  Besides, they all have the conveniences that make surfing the Net fun and enjoyable–a physical keyboard, stereo speakers, etc.  Okay, I admit, being able to navigate to any place on a page by pointing with my finger is a cool feature.  However, the iPad, as I see (granted I haven’t seen one in person), lacks one major factor that makes e-readers cool (and a viable replacement for printed books), the ability to mimic the reading experience of an actual book.  Books don’t interrupt your reading with an email alert, or try to distract you from the words by embedding videos, and they won’t even allow you to surf the Net.

In terms of book pricing, don’t get me wrong; I am all for writers getting paid for their craft.  After all, without them, there would be no books to speak of.  I believe that everyone should get compensated (if they so choose) for their time and effort should they provide a valuable service or product.  However, what I don’t agree with is how publishers use the poor author as an excuse to raise prices.  If the publishers are so concerned about the author, why not take a smaller cut and give more to the author?

Why raise prices anyway?  One astute person who was interviewed in the aforementioned Times article suggested that since there is no printing, shipping, and storage costs with eBooks, it seemed absurd that publishers could justify raising prices.  Seems logical; however, the counter-argument the publishers make is that printing and handling of physical books is only a small portion of the overall publishing cost.

Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the publishing industry to say if this is a valid argument.  All I know is that the old lesson of economics will come into play here–supply and demand.  I’m certain the publishers who inked deals with Apple are banking that the iBooks store makes eBooks as ubiquitous as music bought from the iTunes store (and hence, driving up demand).  The problem I see is that people are reading less today than before.  The eBook, I felt, would be one way to get people reading again.  Unfortunately, I’m concerned that the new price-point is going to alienate would-be readers.  Instead of reading, they’ll spend the $15 dollars on the DVD version of Kite Runner instead of Khaled Hosseini’s, much better in my opinion, written narrative.

I don’t want to come off as some maniacal anti-Apple/Jobs Linux fanboy, but we have to realize that Apple is rebuilding what Microsoft was forced to break down–a restrictive market.  At least Gates didn’t require you to buy a Microsoft computer to run his software.  Jobs got his groove back and is willing to take on all comers.  But at what price?  You can’t use Flash on the iPad because Jobs feels Adobe is lazy.  Whether he’s right, isn’t the issue.  It is the fact that you, as the end-user, CANNOT decide this on your own.

For me, the cost is more direct; I’ll have to pay more for eBooks thanks to him.

Unicomp Endurapro: Quite a Clacker Sunday, Jan 17 2010 

As promised, I wanted to share with all of you my experiences with my new toy.  Part of the reason why I was posting so little in the last few weeks was because my Lenovo multimedia keyboard began failing.  I first noticed the problem when I was trying to input an address around the Christmas holiday.  Every time I hit a key in the second row of the number pad, the number or the symbol would not register, a problem I could easily work around for the short-term.

But I also noticed, and I thought this was quite odd, that my semicolon and right arrow keys were also malfunctioning.  Now these routinely bothered me.  The semicolon is a fairly common punctuation in the English language, and, although it isn’t as common, its key mate, the colon, also gets some regular play on my keyboards.  And I use the arrow keys quite often to navigate documents and webpages.  So in order to use either key, I would have to take my hand away from my keyboard tray and reach up to the top of the writing surface of my desk to hit the corresponding key on my Thinkpad.  (Yes, I know I could use the keyboard on my laptop; however, my TP sits pretty high on my desk and because of that, isn’t very comfortable to type on.  Besides, I’m a creature of habit; I like to do things a certain way.)

The funny thing was that I was thinking of replacing my Lenovo keyboard anyway.  Although there were many things I liked about it, I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t make all of the multimedia keys work with Ubuntu.  I kept trying to remap the keys; however, wasn’t able to.  What’s the use of having a keyboard with email, internet, and app shortcut keys if you can’t use them?  Luckily, the volume and the page forward and backward buttons worked fine.  I got the idea of replacing my Lenovo keyboard when I saw a rebadged Logitech keyboard on the ZA Reason website.  (By the way, the ZA people seem very nice.  I spoke to someone there, and she was very polite, patient, and helpful.)  That particular keyboard, the Logitech Internet 350, didn’t require special software to make the multimedia keys work with Ubuntu–plug-and-play right out of the box.  The ZA people also added a nice touch–Ubuntu logos and keys.  Yes, that’s right, no Windows keys to mar your FOSS aesthetics.  But once I calculated what it would cost to send the keyboard to me here in Hawaii, forget it.  The shipping was almost the same price as the keyboard itself.

So instead, I went to the local Walmart (we don’t have many choices when it comes to tech purchases on this island) and bought a Logitech keyboard there–not the 350 mind you.  I got a really good price for it and was initially satisfied.  However, when I got home, I realized that I forgot to take one thing into consideration.  My mouse has always been connected to a USB hub on my keyboard since the day I got it.  So I was faced with a couple of problems.  First, I use a Logitech travel mouse, and the cord is fairly short.  It would have been impossible to reach the USB port on my TP from the keyboard tray.  That meant I would have to place my mouse on the desk surface separate of the keyboard where it would be uncomfortable to use.  The second, and more important problem, was that I only have 3 USB ports on my TP T61P; I didn’t want to dedicate two-thirds of my USB ports just to facilitate the use of a keyboard and mouse.  Strike one.

So I was left with a couple of choices: 1. Buy a USB hub to connect the keyboard and mouse to a USB port without removing either from the keyboard tray, which would leave the other ports open for peripherals, or 2. Get another keyboard that had a built-in hub, or that was wireless and came with its own mouse.  So I returned my initial purchase and bought another Logitech board from the local K-Mart.  This one came with a wireless keyboard and mouse.  I spent about three times as much, but hey, I needed it.  When I got home, I found that the wireless dongle had two cables coming out of it–a USB connection (for the keyboard) and a PS/2 connection (for the mouse).  PS/2?  Who has PS/2 ports anymore?  (Well, my old Dell laptop still has a PS/2 port, so I guess I still do.)  Strike two.

I returned that keyboard to K-Mart and decided that I would need to order a keyboard from the Net instead, which was okay considering places like Amazon usually have options for free shipping.  But it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.  I began searching my options and kept coming up with 60 dollar keyboards that would cost me 80-90 bucks by the time it got to me.  Strike three.  If I was going to pay a premium price, I wanted a premium product.

So I decided to research.  As with many of these searches, I began with the ubiquitous Google.  I got many hits for “best keyboard,” however, the most common names that kept coming up was the Das Keyboard and Unicomp (or Model-M).  So after researching both manufacturers’ sites, I thought I would go with the Das.  Their board had a modern look.  It also included a USB hub built in, multi-media keys, Linux support, and it used old school mechanical switch technology for key input.  Yep!  Click, click, clack….  No quiet, mushy rubber dome stuff here.  But before I made my purchase, I did a few more searches and found that some people were claiming that their Dases required a lot of power and were rendering other USB ports on their machines unusable when the boards were plugged in.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I like having USB ports, and I don’t want them being tied up by a keyboard.  So I went back to Unicomp to review their lineup.

Now, to understand who Unicomp is, you have to know that they bought the design for the OG IBM Model-M keyboards from Lexmark, who was (maybe still is) a subsidiary of IBM.  If any of you remember the Model-Ms, they were those keyboards that were big, heavy, and had those really long cords with the coiled ends.  They were solid and well-built.  Granted, they don’t quite have the same flair and styling of modern boards, but they’re built like tanks.  In fact the original Model-Ms, those with the four or five function keys on the left side, had a metal plate at the bottom which prevented flexing.  Metal plate=tank!

Unicomp’s lineup sticks to the roots of the Model-Ms, so they look like throwbacks.  They use buckling spring switches, so they have that terse feel of those old boards.  They have added in some of the newer IBM keyboard designs so have models with built-in stick mice and smaller space-saving designs too.  What I was most impressed by was that Unicomp offered the ability to order some of their keyboards in Linux friendly layouts–I’m guessing for programmers.  They also allow you to customize their keyboards.  I even found out that for you pomaceous fruit users, you can request, although it isn’t listed as an option on their website, Command keys to take the place of those offensive Windows keys.  There were a couple of problems with the Unicomp lineup though.  First, their keyboards don’t include built-in  USB hubs (some models that use PS/2 connections have an additional port on the side of the keyboard).  The second problem, it would be costly to ship the keyboard from Kentucky to Hawaii.

But because I was getting sick of a dying keyboard and didn’t want to settle for a cheap rubber dome one again, I bit the bullet and bought a Unicomp.  The Endurapro with the built-in pointing stick and mouse buttons to be exact.  Initially, I thought I could forego an external mouse all together, but realized that I do need the mouse when I edit photos or images.  That meant I was back at square one.  I had an awesome keyboard coming, but I was going to have to tie up two USB ports and would have to place my mouse where it would be uncomfortable to use.  I knew I had to get a hub or something that would allow me to keep everything where they were, and to keep my ports open for other peripherals.  Luckily, I was able to buy a cheap port replicator that had powered USB ports.

When my keyboard finally arrived, I was very happy to find that it worked well with the port replicator.  The mouse also plugged in fine and was recognized.  Another nice perk with the replicator was that I was able to plug my external speakers into it instead of the jack on my laptop.  That meant fewer cables cluttering my desk.

Another nice touch was that I was able to get a couple of blank keys for my Endura.  So guess what?  No more waving flags on my keyboard!  I was amazed how easy it was to change the keys.  I used a dull butter knife with some paper towel wrapped around it to pop the original keys off.  I slid the knife between the bottom of the key and the top of the lower casing.  I then gently twisted the knife and jiggled it to get under the key.  Without too much force, the key popped right off.  I took the blank key and centered it over the spring inside and pushed it back on.  Beautiful!

As for performance, the keyboard is great.  It has a very nice feel.  Firm key presses are needed to get the characters to register, and you get clear audio feedback.  Some will find the noise a little irritating, but I’m sure it’s something you’d get used to after awhile.  If you have sensitive people around you, tell them to wear ear plugs.  The sound has has a kind of machine gun like quality.  Because there isn’t a metal plate like the OG Model-Ms to dissipate the sound of the key presses, the Endura sounds a little hollow.  I think the sound reverberates inside the plastic casing of the keyboard and hence that hollow sound.  Nonetheless, the keyboard is awesome.  If I had known I was going to use a port replicator from the start, I probably would have ordered the Space Saver instead of the Endura.  It’s kind of cool to have the pointing stick there on they keyboard should I need it; however, I find that I will accidentally hit it when I type.  No big deal as long as it doesn’t break.

I’m a happy camper.  I have a great keyboard and no more Windows keys, and in actuality it didn’t cost me that much more than a modern wireless keyboard/mouse combo would.  I know.  I don’t have all the multi-media keys anymore, but heck, I’ll learn the keyboard shortcuts instead.  Either way, I have great setup once more!  Time to blog!

The Nook E-Book Reader with Ubuntu Saturday, Jan 16 2010 

Hello blogosphere.  It feels good to be back.  I got caught up in a new semester and all the work that goes along with it and haven’t been able to write.  I have good news though; my Nook e-book reader arrived yesterday.  I was quite surprised.  It wasn’t even supposed to ship until the 15th.  Imagine my happiness when it arrived at my door instead.

I had been neglecting my family recently because of semester preparations, so I couldn’t open the package right away.  Instead, I put it on my desk and waited a few hours.  When they went they went for a walk, I tore in.  It was kind of anti-climatic when I did.  When I got the shipping box open, I was happy to find everything inside.  It comes in really pretty packaging; however, that same packaging, like the ones they love to use these days (think toys…they come in that heat sealed plastic with wire twist ties, and plastic zip ties), is horrendous. It took me almost 20 minutes to cajole my Nook out of its package.  First you have to fight through the hermetically sealed plastic, then the lexan-like box, and finally the plastic tray the Nook is cradled in.  It really is pretty; however, overkill considering what it takes to get the Nook out.  Once I did though….

The Nook is beautiful.  It has a sleek look, rounded corners, beveled bezel with a continuous smooth look (even where the page advance buttons are), and don’t forget the color touch screen at the bottom.  Once I put it into the green Italian leather cover I bought…forget about it!

First things first, I chose the Nook over the KIndle for a few reasons I discussed here.  To save you the trip, I’ll briefly review them.  First, I liked that the Nook allows users to expand the memory by installing micro-SD cards.  (You can go up 16GB.) I assumed the Nook engineers were smart enough to put the card slot in a highly accessible place like at the bottom of the unit or on the side.  Unfortunately, I quickly found out after I ordered mine, that the card slot is actually located under the back cover where the battery is located.  I was greatly disappointed with this because I was planning to save documents onto SD cards and them plug them into the Nook to read at my convenience (mostly for student essays and other written work–after all, the Nook supports PDFs natively–see reason two).  But putting the card slot under the back cover put that plan to rest.  I am not going to remove the back cover every few days to get my SD card out.  Ultimately, the back cover isn’t designed to be taken off regularly and takes some effort to do so.

The second reason I chose the Nook, was because it supported PDF, ePUB, and MP3 formats natively.  Unlike the Kindle, you don’t need third-party software to convert files to make them render or play on the Nook.  This was important because I did not want to be forced to buy all my books exclusively from B&N.  I like having choices.  In fact, and this leads into my last reason for choosing the Nook, my initial plan was to read and reread many of the classics (and other texts) that can be found on Google Books and in the public domain free of charge; a service that comes with the Nook.  I guess choosing Android gave them access to Google’s collection.  Don’t get my wrong though, I’m not against buying books and probably will purchase my share.  However, I do plan to read what’s free most often.

The Nook has gotten mixed reviews so far.  Many find the touch-screen interface laggy and slow.  I’m not much of a touch-screen kind of guy, so I’m almost certain the lagginess won’t bother me too much.  As long as I can use the interface, download books, and read them, I’ll be happy.  So far, so good.  I have already downloaded five books and am about 70 pages into one of my favorites, Don Quixote, already.

The one thing I was most concerned about up until this morning was the Nook’s ability to connect and be managed by Ubuntu.  Because my original plan to swap SD cards regularly was dashed by the placement of the card slot, I had to bank on the Nook working with my Linux boxes.  B&N has software downloads for MS and Mac that allow both systems to download, render, and mange eBooks from B&N.  Unfortunately, they don’t offer similar software for Linux users.  I was a little concerned that the Nook would need such software to allow management from a computer terminal.  Luckily though, I can confirm that I connected my Nook to my Thinkpad this morning and Ubuntu recognized it as a mass storage device.  A file manager dialog opened as soon as I plugged in the USB cable.  I could see the individual folders on my Nook.  I was able to move two PDF files from my hard drive to my Nook without a hitch.  One file had a lot of pictures and the other was basically a text file I created in OpenOffice and converted to PDF.

The first file opened; however the formatting was not correct.  The captions under the pictures moved and the alignment of the photos changed.  The pictures rendered, and they looked like photos in a black and white newspaper–nothing spectacular, but acceptable.  The second file also opened without a problem; however the formatting also changed a bit too.  Text that was center aligned on the original file moved to the left, and the numerals in the header did not render at all.  Although many would be disappointed by this, I wasn’t.  The main reason I would be opening a PDF on my Nook would be to read a student essay during times I was not sitting at a terminal.  My plan was never to do a lot of editing and commenting while on my Nook.  When I grade student essays, I like to read them at least a couple of times.  Being able to convert them to PDFs and render them on my Nook will allow me to read them while I wait for my kids or wife in the car or while I commute to work in the morning.  I will be able to do a lot of my first reads during these times, thus allowing me to do the more involved readings sooner.

I did not move any music files, but when I do, I’ll let you know how it goes.  Unfortunately, many of my favorite music files are in OGG format, so I’ll have to convert them to MP3 first before they have any hope of working on my Nook.

I feel fairly confident that I’ll be happy with my purchase even after the fabled iTablet is released in the next couple of months. My electronic arsenal will still be free of panes of glass and forbidden fruits!

By the way, I received another cool product recently; in fact, I’m using it right now.  I’ll be writing about my impressions of it soon.  (I’ll give you a hint; my Lenovo multimedia keyboard began failing about four weeks ago, and I went old school!)  Happy new year!

How Ubuntu (Linux) Changed My Life Thursday, Dec 24 2009 

Ubuntu changed my life!  I’m smarter, cooler, and more ethical.

Sound too good to be true?  Well, it isn’t.

I began using Linux about 2 years ago.  Before that, I was a long time Windows user.  (And before that, an Apple user.)  Until my Linux days, I was a pretty typical PC user.  I would word-process documents, play a few games, and later, check email and surf the net.  I really didn’t care about how things worked; I just wanted them to work.  And hence, my Windows days were nothing pioneering or interesting.

In general, I would consider myself to be a pretty inquisitive person. I have always been interested in how things worked, but for some reason, probably because I saw them as too complex, I did not take an interest in knowing how computers worked.  The movie War Games probably had something to do with this too.  I didn’t need or want the FBI knocking down my door.

But I did take a few computing classes growing up, so I knew some of the basics.  But by the time I was in high school, I was more interested in getting my essays word-processed than understanding computer programming.  I figured the computer geeks could worry about that stuff.  Anyway, by that time, my dreams of being a computer scientist were already dashed by complicated math.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized how important technology, specifically the personal computer, had become. Aside from the obvious advantages of having a word-processor and other applications that made the production and editing of documents much easier, technology was linking disciplines and essentially changing them. The expectations of what people could produce quickly grew as documents became more sophisticated in appearance.

But even though I realized this importance, I accepted that technology had passed me by, and I would be destined to be a casual end user.  So I did the safe thing: I used Windows.  I knew the interface, it did the job most of the time, and it was available in all of the computer labs on campus.  There were a few times when I considered going back to Apple, but once I figured out what it would cost, I decided to stick with the PC platform.  Besides, I had already begun to dabble in open source applications, so I knew there was plenty of free software out there for Windows users.

It wasn’t until that fateful day I came across a Laptop magazine reference to Ubuntu Linux and its growing popularity.  I began to do some research on Linux and Ubuntu.  I talked with the head of our IT department on campus and asked him what he thought about Linux.  Of course, many of his servers were already running Red Hat, so he suggested I give it a try, but warned me to expect some hitches.

So I did.  My first distro was Ubuntu Feisty Fawn (7.04) and Gutsy soon after that.  I then tried Open SUSE (10.3, I think) and eventually SUSE SLED 10, which was preinstalled on a new Thinkpad I bought.  After some testing and trial in the classroom and work environment, I decided to go with Ubuntu.  I really liked SUSE; however, didn’t feel comfortable with the Novell and Microsoft “agreement.” I figured if I was going open source, I would go with a cleaner and unencumbered distro.  (See, I told you I became more ethical!)

So how did Linux, Ubuntu in my case, make me smarter?  I began to tinker with my computer again.  I had to figure out what I needed it to do, and how to get it to do it.  The one nice thing about Ubuntu is that its default install is very usable “out of the box.”  I think most casual users would need to change very little.

For me, I was pretty apprehensive to change anything at first.  But as time went on, I gained more confidence, and soon was making some small ones. In fact, some of them weren’t voluntary.  I’ll admit; what my campus IT guru told me came to fruition.  There were some hitches along the way.  I had to edit configuration files and learn how to use the command line to effectively solve some problems.  But all of these hitches and changes forced me to get more intimate with my computer.  When I used Windows, everything was veiled behind a GUI (and I suppose in many ways Ubuntu is guilty of this too), and so I didn’t need to understand what I was doing when I made changes; rather, I just needed to know how to execute them. Easier, right? Quicker, right? Well, not always. How do you fix something you don’t understand? And believe me, there was plenty that vexed me about Windows.

But if we take James Taylor’s advice and “[enjoy] the passage of time,” I think we could and would learn so much more.  I understand why many would find what I’m suggesting abhorrent.  Why bother trying to understand your computer when you have better things to do?

But I’m not talking about major time commitments here. I don’t think it’s necessary to understand every intricacy of the OS. And as a matter of fact, I want to suggest quite the opposite.  I think we should invest just enough time so we can understand the larger concepts of computing. These concepts will help us better understand how to solve problems that arise.  And I’m not talking about Linux problems, Windows problems, or Mac problems exclusively.  But in general.  If you understand how WebDav works, then the chances of you setting it up properly increases immensely, regardless of the OS that you’re using.  It’s like cooking.  If you understand the basic concept of stewing, you can probably produce a pretty good beef stew no matter whose kitchen you’re cooking in as long as the basic supplies and comparable ingredients are available.

How has Linux made me cooler.  Simple.  It is not the same old expected stuff.  The interface is different and in many ways more intuitive.  People are amazed with Compiz and the 3-D effects that I use.  And besides, when everybody is panicking about the latest major security hole in Internet Explorer, I can smugly smile and say, “I use Linux.”

Why am I more ethical?  Easy.  I don’t support they guys who are trying to control the way we interact with technology.  I stay away from products that are platform restricted. Also, I really embrace the FOSS philosophy because it levels the playing field.  I remember in the past, you had to buy a commercial word processing program to produce decent documents.  Today, thanks to a slew of community supported office apps, this in no longer the case.

It’s not that I’m necessarily against people getting compensated for their work, and, in fact, think every FOSS end user has some responsibility to “pay” for what they use.  The payment doesn’t necessarily need to be in monetary form though.  One could pay by donating time to test updates or new versions of apps. Or by being a part of a community. Maybe report bugs or issues that come up in daily usage. Or they could take an active role in promoting what they use. I’m sure there are numerous ways that end users could help open source developers. (Developers, if you’re reading this, go ahead and suggest some.)

So how has Ubuntu changed my life?  I’m taller, skinnier, and better looking.  Okay, maybe not.  I do feel that I have become closer to my PC though.  I understand it and the concepts that make my computing experience better and more successful.  And I know not to blame technology, but instead, the ones who wield it. Am I cooler? I don’t know, but using Linux has a sort of geek chic that suits me.  And in terms of ethics, I can sleep a little better at night knowing I haven’t made Bill and Steve any richer.  So has Linux changed me? Yes, I think so. And to the distro that figures out a way to make me taller, skinnier, and better looking, I promise to be your biggest fanboy ever!

Happy Holidays!

Karmic on a HP Mini-110: Murphy’s Law at Work Thursday, Dec 17 2009 

So my former student who was interested in Ubuntu came to see me Tuesday morning.  In her hands was a small, pink neoprene sleeve.  “I’m ready.  Can you install Linux on this?” she said as she passed me what she was carrying.

I unzipped the sleeve and found a pink HP Mini-Note 110 inside.  It still had all the static-charged plastic coverings on it.  I quickly searched the hardware support site on Ubuntu.com to see if there were any known problems with the Mini-Note.  I was happy to find the following entry: “The Karmic version “just work” with almost everything supported without tweaking. Wired nic works nicely. Sound works nicely. The “windows” key however does not work anymore, and the built-in SD card reader has no available driver.”  I asked my student if she needed her SD card reader.  “What’s that?” she said…so we continued.

“This will take about an hour and half or so,” I said to her confidently.  After all, I have successfully installed all the different Ubuntu variants, Geubuntu, Elive, Puppy, Damn Small, SuSe SLED 10, OpenSuSe 10, Moblin, and gOs on various boxes without a hitch numerous times (well, DSL and Puppy did give me a little trouble).

“Why so long?” she responded.  I went on to explain that I had everything set to install Ubuntu; however, that I wanted her to try a live version first.  I also wanted to test for any problems and run an update before I sent her home.

All things considered, I expected the install to be fairly quick and easy.  I should’ve known better….

When the live session finished loading, everything looked okay.  I clicked on the Network Manager applet to test the wireless capabilities.  Although the hardware switch showed that the wireless radio was on, the system didn’t recognize it.  I immediately suspected a Broadcom driver issue–call it intuition.  Before I went any further, a system window opened.  It automatically recognized that there were propriety drivers available.  Of course, the only one listed was the Broadcom STA driver.  I happily enabled it and within a few seconds, was able to get on to the campus’ wireless network.  Great, I thought, smooth sailing from here.  I launched Firefox, and as soon as I did the system froze.

I shut everything down and started a new live session, enabled the Broadcom driver, and launched Firefox again.  And guess what?  The system froze.  “Why is it doing that?” my student asked with a hint of agitation in her voice.

“Don’t worry.  I’ll figure it out.”  After three more failed attempts, I began to get a little nervous.  I suspected that I could probably get further if I did an install instead of trying to troubleshoot the wireless card in a live session  But since it wasn’t my netbook, I didn’t wan to render it unusable for any prolonged amount of time, so I decided to do something I had never done before, a dual-boot install.  I figured if anything went wrong enabling the Broadcom driver, my student would still be able to use her computer until I figured out how to fix the problem.

So I began.  After going through the install wizard, I sent my student off to study for her exam.  I hit “Install,” and I went to a meeting.  When I got back to my office about 45 minutes later, I was happy to see that everything went seemingly okay.  I began the shutdown process.  I pulled my Unetbootin thumbdrive from the USB slot when I was instructed to and waited for the system to shut down.  When it restarted, Grub came up fine.  I decided to test XP, so I launched it first.  Everything looked as expected, so I logged off and rebooted again.  Grub came up fine, but this time I launched Karmic.

I was relieved to hear the familiar sounds of drums and the sight of the Karmic splash screen.  As soon as the desktop came up, I went to work on the Broadcom driver.  I waited a minute to see if the system would recognize the Broadcom card; it didn’t.  I ran the Hardware Driver utility and was disappointed to find no available proprietary drivers.  My student, who had returned to my office, looked concerned.  “Is everything okay?  Is it done?  Why is it taking so long?”  After some explanation, she calmed a little.  I pulled my wired connection from my Thinkpad and plugged it into the Ethernet port.  Immediately, the system recognized the connection and established an IP address.  I looked for the driver again.  This time, it was there.  I enabled it, pulled my wired connection, restarted the wireless radio (it was smart enough to shut down when it realized there was a hardwire connection), and connected to the campus wireless network.  I ran ifconfig from a terminal, and saw an IP address.  Relief.  I crossed my fingers and launched Firefox.  It opened fine.  Just to be sure, I navigated to a couple of webpages; I felt more relief when it did without issue.

“Almost there,” I said to my student.  I launched the Update Manager.  Since the image I was using was the Karmic RC (which was probably the culprit for the aforementioned problems) there were over 200 updates.  I ran them and restarted the system.  I crossed my fingers again and hoped that the wireless card would automatically connect…it did.

Before my student left my office, I installed the Compiz Config Manger and the simple version (CCSM), so I could configure Compiz.  After all, she wanted the cube.  After some quick instructions on how to use the managers, I set her virtual desktops and the cube.  She thanked me and promised to go home and test everything out.

When she left, she was smiling.  She told me she would let me know if there were any problems.  It’s been a couple of days and so far, I haven’t heard from her.  I guess things are going well.  I’m glad.  For a minute, I thought I was going to lose a convert.

It really wasn’t a bad install.  Only a few minor problems.  I just wished things went a little smoother for my student’s sake.  You should’ve seen her face when I opened a terminal session.  Just goes to show that you can never get too cocky.  I’m glad I was able to figure things out, but the experience was a nice reminder to always expect the unexpected.  Good old Murphy is always lurking around a corner…waiting to strike.

*For a how-to on this install, please go here.

The Children are the Future…for Linux Wednesday, Dec 16 2009 

Whenever I read articles or hear discussions about Linux’s ability to take over the desktop market, Whitney Houston’s song “The Greatest Love of All” comes to mind (actually, I think of Arsenio Hall’s–aka The Sexual Chocolates–rendition in the movie Coming to America).  “Why?” You may ask. Because the children are the future in so many ways, but especially for Linux.

I’m certain you’re all familiar with that old cliché, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  Although this is not the case for every old dog (OD) (after all, I get my technology butt handed to me on a regular basis by some pretty old dogs), it is true for many who don’t have interests in technology.  ODs like this yearn for familiarity.  They don’t like change–not even from one version of MS Office to another.  “Why did they move that thingy from here to over there?”  “I don’t understand why they changed that.  Everything was working fine until now.”  “Why would I want to give up this big, shiny tower that takes up almost half of my desk for that tiny little laptop.  Bigger is better, right?”  All right,  you get the idea.  Enough geriatric bashing; I’m not getting any younger and will probably be just as stubborn and more cantankerous in my golden years.

Back to my point.  To truly understand where I’m going with this, I need to redefine what I mean when I say old dog.  An old dog isn’t someone who is merely old, in fact, many of them are fairly young; rather, they are people who are stuck in their ways–the ones who will sacrifice faster, more efficient,  and secure technology for what is familiar because it simply works for their needs.  After all, no one wants to relearn how to do the everyday typical task. I know, I know.  I said in a former post that intuitiveness and qualitative measures of what is good or better is intrinsically linked to familiarity, and what is most intuitive, a lot of the time, is the one that is most familiar.  This is true; however, the true measure of intuitiveness is the ability to make changes while staying familiar.  How users adapt to the changes is a good measure–the quicker they adapt, the more intuitive the technology is.

Again, I digress.  Back to old dogs.  The problem with old dogs is that you can’t force them to change.  You have to let them think that they are dictating change.  That’s why it’s better to roll out changes slowly, so that the learning curve is flatter.  The less painful it is, the more welcoming ODs become.  But yanking the entire OS from under their feet is not a good idea.  Too much change.  Too steep a learning curve.  But why bother?  Why force ODs to change?  If Deepak Chopra’s Fourth Spiritual Law, “the Law of Least Effort,” is accurate, it makes little sense to force ODs to do so.  Too much effort.  Besides, it goes against nature’s flow.  Introduce new technology to them, show them how it works, and then, let them decide if they want to take the leap.

But the kids!  Ah yes, the kids.  They are the answer.  Today’s children have grown up with technology all around them.  Nintendos, X-Boxes, Playstations, iPods, iPhones, and so on and so forth.  At their age, they aren’t frightened of change.  They are just beginning life’s journey and are eager to learn new things.  These two factors combine to create the perfect storm for learning new technology. Today, children figure out new technology quickly without much trial and tribulation.  I’ll give you a personal example.  It took me three boot cycles to teach my 5-year-old son how to load Puppy Linux from the Grub menu, launch Firefox, find the bookmark for his favorite Spongebob game, launch the game, and how to shut everything down when he was done.  Three boot cycles…that’s it.  I know some adults who can’t even check their voicemail on their cell phones, or how to program the favorites button on their TV remotes after numerous attempts.

If the Linux community wants to see their market share increase, they need to go after the children.  I know that sounds insidious, but believe me, exposure to Linux is safer and more beneficial than McDonald’s, Barbie, and GI Joe.  Steve Jobs and his marketing team figured this out a while ago.  They don’t necessarily target young children; however, they have used a concentrated marketing strategy, and have gone after young adults and teenagers with great success.  Look around.  How many young people do you see carrying iThings?  iPods?  iTouches? and iPhones?  And now, rumor says that Apple will be releasing their first iTablet next spring.  (Sounds suspiciously like a bigger iTouch to me.)  I’m guessing it will be very intuitive and will be all the rage if the price is right.  Why has Apple become so ubiquitous?  Because they figured out which market required the least effort on their part.

Canonical has at least made an effort to reach the children with their Edubuntu spin.  It’s a good idea, and a nice starting point; however, it needs much more development.  Development in two ways.  One that creates apps that are more exciting, appealing, and educational for children.  And the other that creates apps for educators–e.g. gradebooks (like GradeL) and class management software.  A concentrated effort like this will help get Edubuntu in more classrooms, and hence, more exposure.

There are other distros and interface tweaks that seem to be targeting a younger and more mobile crowd.  Android, seems to be making some headway.  And although I’m skeptical of Google’s motives, I think their influence and marketing savvy will bring Android to more and more devices.  If the multi-touch tablet takes off, I’m sure the heavyweight distros will begin developing for this platform.

I once read a comment on some blog that stated that Linux needn’t worry about Windows, but instead, should set their sights on Apple.  I didn’t think too much about the statement at the time; however, in retrospect, that person was right.  Why worry about Windows?  Linux has overtaken Windows in so many ways, that the point of which is better between the two is moot.  But Apple on the other hand, is leading a revolution.  They have flooded the market with sophisticated and innovative peripheral devices that aren’t in direct competition with the desktop computer.  Slowly but surely, many of these device holders are more and more interested in Mac computing.  The iTablet will be another stepping stone to the promise land.

Do I think Apple is on the brink of world domination?  No, I don’t.  But I have to say, they are surely working towards it.  What does Linux have to do?  Focus on the children.  The more young people who are raised on Linux and Linux devices the better it will be in the long run.  Build it fast, beautiful, and easy to use…and they will come.

I believe the children are our future.  Teach them well and let them lead the way…

Why I Use Ubuntu Sunday, Dec 13 2009 

A former student of mine noticed that my laptop looked different.  Well, maybe not the laptop itself, but the user interface.  She immediately inquired how I “did that” while she pointed at the screen of my Thinkpad.  “Did what?” I replied.  After some back and forth and a seemingly adequate explanation, she asked me, “So why do you use that (Ubuntu)?”  I had to think a while before I could answer.  I had been using Ubuntu exclusively for almost two years at that point and really hadn’t thought about that for a long time.  “Because it’s better,” I replied.  She nodded her head and said okay.  She turned to walk away, but stopped.  “If I want to do that, can you help me?” she asked.  I said okay.  She thanked me and walked away.

I started to think about my totally inadequate answer to her question, “Because it’s better.”  Had she given me an answer like that in class, I would have asked, “How is it better?”  So after a few minutes of thinking, I came up with the following reasons why I use Ubuntu.

First and foremost, Ubuntu (and Linux in general) is customizable.  Not customizable like in Windows terms: changing colors, themes, wallpapers, and screen savers (although you can do all of this in Ubuntu too), but in terms of interface, applications, and working environments.  I like the fact that I can find apps to do my regular work and special projects.  If I need a WSIWYG editor to work on a webpage, I can easily find and install one.  I don’t need to go shopping, and more importantly, I don’t need to shell out cash.

I also like virtual desktops.  I have become accustomed to having certain apps running on certain desktops.  I know where everything is and can easily navigate my workspaces.

I also like the fact that I can choose between eye candy and efficiency.  I use Gnome predominantly and use the Compiz Fusion special effects, so I can dazzle people with spinning cubes and 3-D effects.  I have enabled the 3-D effects in Open Office Impress, and believe me, people are impressed.  One student thought I was running Apple software on my Thinkpad.  I have used KDE a little but am not used to the interface.  KDE 4 is beautiful though, and one day when I have time, I’ll play with it a little more.

The second reason, the command line.  Yes, that’s right, I said it.  The command line is very useful.  I grew up with GUIs my entire computing life, so the idea of using the command line was something I would have never thought to be advantageous.  But in actuality, it really is.  Get to know some basic commands, and you can do a lot without leaving your keyboard.  I have even fell in love with keyboard shortcuts in all my favorite apps too.  Speed and efficiency is something beautiful when you need it.

The third reason, I believe in the philosophy of Linux and FOSS in general.  It’s open source and free for anyone to use.  You don’t have to have a lot of money to buy software and upgrades to ensure currency.

And the last reason, because it is simply better.  I remember the first time I decided to give Linux a try.  I was a little apprehensive and didn’t know what to expect.  So when I installed Ubuntu on my first machine, I expected the worst.  But what I found was that installing and running Linux was easy and painless.  I even tried a couple of other distros (OpenSuse, SuseSLED, and Puppy) just to compare.  My confidence quickly grew and in a months time, I had cut all of my machines over to Ubuntu.  (Well, I kept one running Windows, just in case I had compatibility issues for about 6 months.  It has run Ubuntu exclusively since.)

The experience hasn’t been perfect, and I have had my share of troubleshooting and tweaking.  But quite frankly, nothing that has shaken my faith in Linux.  I’m sold and will never go back to Windows (or Apple).  Not because of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but because I like what I have.  I’m familiar with it and don’t see a good reason to use anything else.

The other day I had to help my wife with her work laptop.  It was really weird working in a Windows environment.  It felt very foreign, and I had to think really hard to find the right menus.  It felt clunky and slow.  I guess intuitiveness is somewhat based on familiarity.  If I can’t find a menu where I expect it to be, then it isn’t very intuitive.

So why do I use Ubuntu, because it’s better, and that’s that!

Some Nook(ie) for X-mas Tuesday, Dec 8 2009 

I just found out that I’m getting a Nook for Christmas!  Isn’t that cool?  I have been waiting a long time to get an eBook reader and the time has finally come.  I know, I know.  The Nook is in its first incarnation, and I’ll be an early adopter.  I just couldn’t pass this up.  I liked the Kindle 2 and almost bought one, but I didn’t like that the memory is not expandable and that the battery can’t be replaced by me.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, the Nook is Barnes and Noble’s eBook reader that was just announced in October.  The first slew of shipments have just began reaching homes and businesses today.  So far, the reviews have been mixed.  Reviewers find the device very slick and cool looking; however, there are some questions about performance.  Many are squarely putting the blame for lagging response on Android’s shoulder.  Android of course, is Google’s custom Linux spin that is being deployed on many new hand-held devices.  So far, I’m not going to cancel my order though.  I’m banking that the Android developers and the B&N Nook team will work out the kinks and improve performance well before the Nook reaches obsolescence (I’m hoping that they figure some of it out before I receive mine in January).

The deal sealer for me was that the Nook had expandable memory, native pdf and ePub support, and an Mp3 player.  Not to mention that Barnes and Noble claims that the Nook will have access to over 500,000 free public domain books for download via Google Books.  I’m sure I’ll be able to find some interesting reading in that library!

My only major concern is if the Nook will sync with my PCs; after all, I run Ubuntu exclusively, and have already noticed that B&N doesn’t have an eReader download for Linux (only for forbidden fruits and glass panes).  But they are using Android, so hopefully that indicates some future development for the Linux platform.  Hopefully, if the Nook can’t connect seamlessly with my machines, I’ll be able to move my documents to an SD card and access them using the Nook pdf reader.

I love Amazon and appreciate that they set the bar pretty high for eBook readers.  I just hope the Nook takes it up a notch or two.  I’ll follow up with a full review when I receive my Nook(ie).