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Archive for March, 2012

Adios, Ubuntu

March 27, 2012 11 comments

I’m not going to make a big deal about this, despite the fact it transcends mere annoyance and enters the anger zone. Also, I apologize to those who got comfortable with their popcorn and were ready for a verbal thrashing and grammatical throwdown of epic proportions here, as we’ve done in the past when this issue arose.

The reason I’m not going to make a big deal about it is because there’s nothing new in this issue — just the standard issue Canonical/Ubuntu behavior where it’s “Ubuntu uber alles” and the FOSS community be damned. But at the same time, the reason I bring it up is because it’s something which folks should keep on their proverbial radar, and keep track of it because just as it has happened continually in the past, chances are it will keep happening in the future.

Joe Brockmeier wrote something on his personal blog today that he discovered yesterday about “the Ubuntu kernel” in the upcoming Precise Pangolin release. I can’t add anything to this, and Joe writes something I completely agree with and something I wish I had written. This new “kernel” comes from a company that has systematically kept the word “Linux” at arm’s length, or further, for years now, and now they don’t even have the courtesy of acknowledging their roots.

What’s worse is that there is a revisionist tack to the story of who-begat-who, since Mark Shuttleworth, a person for whom the word “hubris” seems to have been coined, seems to think — and isn’t shy about opining — that Debian is part of the Ubuntu “ecosphere,” rather than the other way around.

To say nothing of the lack of upstream contribution by Canonical/Ubuntu — this has been outlined in the past here, here, and even here where The Mark and I square off, and pretty much all over the place.

As long as I’ve been using Linux — that would be 2006 and one of my first distros was Ubuntu (though my first was Debian, to which I’ve returned both using that distro and CrunchBang) — Ubuntu has done much to bring visibility to Linux, until it stopped calling itself that. So while it deserves a degree of gratitude for this, Canonical/Ubuntu has always been the salesman in the new-car showroom, taking credit for selling you this great product when the truth is that the salesman really did not have much to contribute to the construction of the car.

I’m more than welcome to let Canonical/Ubuntu and the legions of Ubunteros — many of them good people, some of them blind hero-worshiping sheep (this will become evident in the comments, no doubt) — go their own way and I’ll go mine.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions — which no longer includes Canonical/Ubuntu products — in the small business and home office environment.)

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Eliminate DRM!

How we do things here

March 22, 2012 2 comments

This is how things are done in these parts: I don’t want to speak for him because I know my friend Don Parris has his own explanation for it (which he outlines on his blog here), but it appears that while building up his bash scripting skills, he noticed a certain finality to deleting filed in bash. So he wrote a script to keep the files around in case there’s an “oops-I-needed-that-file-after-all” moment.

So Don did what we do in these parts, this paradigm known as FOSS: He wrote his own script. Not only this, he put it under the GPL and put it out for the benefit of the wide world to use.

Is it something that will be widely adopted and catapult Don to a nomination for the Nobel? Probably not. But for those of us who would use it, it’s a pretty nifty tool, and my hat is off to Don and the Bash Trashman (which you can get at the link two paragraphs up, and note to Don: I sort of like Brash myself, but snicker uncontrollably at the thought of calling it Bashmaster, a la Bassmaster).

Because that’s how things are done here.

There’s a flip side to this coin, too: It’s when someone visits to a distro or a project and tells the community “Hey, you can do things better. Let me tell you how.”

I bring this up in the wake of a thread in the CrunchBang forums around what might — might — constitute improvements in that particular distribution. That’s reason number one. The second reason is that I’m guilty of this, too, and learned my lesson years ago.

While there is always room for improvement in anything, the changes the original poster suggests are things that are already found commonly in other distros and, arguably (as noted in the thread) CrunchBang’s strengths lie in what it “lacks” in the way of digital creature comforts as much as it lies in the great job Philip Newborough has done in putting together an Openbox-based distro that’s fast on old hardware and lightning quick on the newer stuff.

You’ve heard me say this before, mantra-like, and I’m going to have this etched on my tombstone: Use whatever distro/FOSS program works for you. This is one of those basic truths, like the inevitability of death and taxes and the inability to comprehend how gravity works, understanding the Wankel engine or the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” To go to one community set in their ways and say, “You know, you’d be a lot more popular if $LIST_OF_REASONS” doesn’t fly because, in the constellation of the 320-something distros in the Linux/BSD universe, there’s a distro out there that will do exactly what you want it to do. As it should be. And if this one doesn’t do it for you and you’re not using one that does work for you — opting to try to change it to your tastes instead of changing yours to fit the distro — you’re falling into the trap outlined in that popular Southern expression: “Never teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time, and it annoys the pig.”

To his credit (and I’m assuming the original poster is a he), the original poster has stuck with CrunchBang and he seems to be working out some of the bugs he’s finding. Also, one of the things I hope he’s finding is that there is a wealth of knowledge and education a question away in the CrunchBang forums, which is a huge and positive testament to that particular community.

As an aside, I use CrunchBang regularly as my primary distro because a.) I like it and b.) it does what I need it to do across a wide range of hardware which, say it with me, means it suits my needs. The fact that it’s a community with a wide range of smart people is a perk.

Which is as it should be.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Eliminate DRM!

Interview with Ken Starks

March 14, 2012 2 comments

It’s fairly common knowledge that if anyone on the planet eats, drinks and breathes Free/Open Source Software, it’s Ken Starks. A tireless advocate for FOSS and Linux, Starks is the poster boy for walking the FOSS walk after talking the talk. In the Austin, Texas, area he provides underpriviliged kids with Linux boxes through the HeliOS Project, which takes donated hardware, refurbishes them and gives them to needy children in the Austin area.

Starks had overcome a cancer diagnosis in the past, but he is now engaged in fighting a new battle with throat and neck cancer. While the HeliOS Project is the sum of its parts, Starks is the voice and face of the organization he founded. With a health condition possibly sidelining him for the time being – and possibly longer – this interview provides the most current information on his medical situation, and also provide a report on the direction of the HeliOS Project going forward.

In this interview, we take a look at where Starks and HeliOS has been, where it is now, and where it’s going.

Q: Let’s go back to the beginning and bring us up to where we are today at HeliOS Solutions. How much of an impact has The HeliOS Project made in the Austin area?

Ken Starks: Statistically, we have placed just under 1,500 computers to underpriviledged kids since 2005. Over-all impact is honestly hard to measure. Sure we can give the tools to build but how many use them to their full potential?  We are just not big enough or funded enough to track that info with any science. However, If the weekly feedback we get from our kid’s parents us any indication, we can measure ate least some empirical evidence of an increase in both math and reading skills.

Outside of cold, hard statistics though, you really need to take into account that “aha” moment. That moment when a child glimpses the possibilities at their fingertips. I cannot measure that Larry, and I don’t think anyone can. Still,that does not make it unimportant.

Q: You’ve won local awards, you helped organize the Lindependence Project a few years ago, and you’ve keynoted last year’s Texas Linux Fest. You’ve had a very busy few years recently.

KS: Thanks for noticing and it really was accidental notice. I take some pride in being awarded The Dewey Winburne Community award more than anything but the rest of it has been fun, too … but onward. Laurels wear out quickly in this business and resting upon them just crushes them to the ground.

Q: The HeliOS Project is all about providing Linux boxes to kids. Can you explain how the concept of providing children with technology resonates with people and why it’s a necessary goal for HeliOS?

KS: It’s really the only goal for HeliOS, Larry. When I first got involved with this project, it was something to do while I healed from a work-related injury. But when I began placing the computers, and seeing the huge “digital divide,” it rang a clear, concise and commanding bell within me

Q: Over the years, you and the HeliOS Project team have grown the project to where it stands today. In large part, the project has flourished under your leadership. How does this change with your current health condition?

KS: It leaves much unanswered, Larry, and to this point we’ve always had a pool of great volunteers to rally and help us get the job done. However, out of all of them, should I have to step aside for any period of time, I can’t think of anyone that could take a full lead position. I’m not saying that it’s that hard, but if you have other things pulling you in other directions, you are not always going to be focused where the project needs you.

I was in the hospital for just under two weeks and in that time, we have fallen 20-some installs behind, we have received machines for donation that are just lying about without triage and our landscape has grown to jungle proportions outside of our facility. I am amazed the City of Taylor hasn’t contacted us. I am receiving both chemotherapy and radiation Treatments and to be honest, Larry, I am mostly dead inside. I just don’t have the energy to
go from the bed to the bathroom until I can complete this treatment. And hopefully, we will kill this frickin’ monster forever.

Hopefully, we can gather a small pool of volunteers to go do the installs but if not, it’s just going to have to wait until I can get better. Honestly, the last thing I want people to imagine is that HeliOS is languishing.

Q: Is there a real chance of that, Ken? Languishing, or worse?

KS: Larry, I think so. When you have a project who’s vision and dream are guided by one person, then if that person disappears, the void takes its toll. Again, I don’t know anyone that is in the position to step in and take it over. It is an unpaid position at this point and even with some upcoming funding, the Facility Administrator job will pay tops of 28K. I can work for that but most people can’t or won’t. I do have some very real concerns over HeliOS lasting this health problem. I have to balance my life right now with the needs of the project and the demands on my health.

Q: You mention upcoming. How are you funded now?

KS: Except for donations and things we sell through the HeliOS eBay store, I pay for most stuff out of pocket and and then request reimbursement if there is any money in the SPI donation fund. I work small contracts to pay my bills. If there is money in the donations fund, I submit for reimbursement. The biggest problem I have now is that I lost two working contracts while in the hospital due to lack of my ability to go forward with the work.  That’s going to prove to be a big short term problem but hopefully, we will get by this with a little help and we can move along.

I’ve come to the community often in the five years we’ve needed help, and once before when my health was bad. And to be honest with you, I’m not real comfortable with doing so now so verbally, I won’t. It’s just where I/we are at the moment. I have no doubt that if I can regain my health, we can get back on track again. And to be honest Larry … I’ve had a full, interesting life, full of things from all sides of life’s spectrum, both good and bad, innocent and evil, and as I come to realize that my life’s clock may actually be showing the last quarter, the most I could ask for is another five years of productivity so I can make HeliOS a self-surviving entity.

If you care to, you can contact Ken at his prime mover email address: helios@fixedbylinux.com

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Eliminate DRM!

Welcome to the pre-Post-PC era

March 9, 2012 21 comments

Joe Brockmeier wrote an insightful piece on ReadWrite entitled “What We Lose in a Post-PC World” that starts off with this: “Tim Cook, Ray Ozzie, and a host of others have proclaimed that we’re in a “post-PC world.” Well, not quite yet, but you can see it from here.”

You can see it all right, with the Hubble. It’s that far off in the distance.

I agree with most of that Joe writes, incidentally. In fact, I agree with all of what Joe writes, except for the “see it from here” thing (I’m assuming he didn’t use a telescope, space-borne or otherwise). There are things that you can do with your post-PC apparatus, like surf the web, watch videos and all those important digital experiences. But bear in mind that you’re not going to be using Blender on your Android tablet anytime soon.

So while we wait for Hallmark to make up cards heralding the Post-PC era, allow me an introduction of a new placeholder era: the pre-Post-PC era. In the pre-Post-PC era, discussions we’re now having involve the how and what you can — and can’t — do with new technology like tablets and smartphones, followed by heated discussion about the same, punctuated by name-calling, general flaming and hurt feelings around issues of disagreement at which time parties go to neutral corners and take a 10-count before coming back into the proverbial ring and discussing the issue with cooler heads.

Meanwhile, technology marches on and as evening falls on the pre-Post-PC era — which might be called the post-pre-Post-PC era by purists, opening another argumentative can of worms as a sideshow — Blender developers will actually get an Android version for tablets up and running, just proving the point that you can do it, but ignoring the important question around why you would make software to run on something that’s not built for the job.

“Because they can,” they might say, and that’s a valid answer.

One more prognostication: Sailing through the Post-PC era, there will be a post-Post-PC era, after the advent of the pre-post-Post-PC era, where people will start thinking, “You know, I had a laptop (or desktop . . . or both) once where I didn’t have to strain my eyes on such a small screen, and where I actually got stuff done rather than just wasting time.” Or something like that.

At that time, the post-Post-PC era will allow everyone to realize what most of us already know: That what’s nebulously referred to as post-PC hardware works in tandem with, not as a substitute to, the hardware like laptops and desktops that already exist.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Eliminate DRM!

An appeal to reason

March 7, 2012 13 comments

A little over an hour ago, I was giving the final read on what was originally this blog item, under a different title and with a metric ton or two of humor, cutting criticism and the high quality of commentary that you’d expect from this blog. It was in derisive and cutting response to what Mark Shuttleworth considers “innovation” as outlined in this morning’s ZDNet blog item by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols.

Having the ability to use the English language to slice and dice the ridiculous with the accuracy of a Benihana chef with a complete set of Ginsu knives — whether it’s an idea or a person or both — is both a blessing and a curse. The Mark served up some pretty meaty fastballs right in my wheelhouse — a baseball metaphor now that we’re in spring training — and if he puts them where I can hit them, they’re gone. And I tattooed them, right into the next time zone.

But reading the blog item over again before deleting it, I felt like Bill O’Reilly. That alone forced me to take a shower and rewrite this blog item.

In any case, rather than put you through an eye-rolling, arm-waving rant on this screen about how The Mark’s vision of reality differs from — well — reality (to say nothing of his uncanny knack for hyperbole and a penchant for exaggeration, followed by responses to criticism that redefine ad hominem), I’m just going to appeal to reason and let the reader decide.

Quoting Shuttleworth from the ZDNet blog: “Yes, we are moving beyond the desktop, but we are also innovating to make the desktop itself, better.”

No, you’re not, Mark. Here’s why.

Unity: This is a one-size-fits-all solution to a situation that requires a wide range of flexibility, unless of course you don’t consider the user interface for a tablet any different than that of a 17-inch monitor, and everything between. How this can even be remotely considered innovation when, for all intents and purposes, it’s a round peg trying to go into different shaped holes?

Wait for the improvement? No, thanks. I tried Unity for an entire day, and I wanted to like it. I spent a couple of hours tweaking it, reading wikis (thanks, Google) and getting it to where it would best work for me. But it got to a point where its functionality failed on so many levels, in large part to a UI that was not suited to my hardware. I wanted very badly to say something nice about it — “Um . . . it’s a nice color” — but I even couldn’t do that. Unity is a digital cowpie, and no matter how many improvements you make to a cowpie, it’s still a cowpie.

As a result, I’m glad to use Xubuntu on one of the lab’s machines, which is the one distro in the ‘buntu universe that shines.

HUD: Head-Up Display — no, I’m not going to ask “head-up” what? Nope, I’m not going there. Having tried this (HUD, that is, not . . . um, never mind), I can’t see how this is an improvement: I have to type the name of a program I want in order to get the program I want. Couldn’t I do this — oh, I don’t know — from the command line? And if so, doesn’t this make HUD a GUI for the command line?

A more important question: This is innovation? The only way this is innovation is that Canonical had this ill-advised, counterproductive concept of doing things this way before anyone else did. Being the first to do something counterproductive is not innovation; arguably, it’s regression.

If you like Unity and it works for you, use it. Like HUD? Same thing. I have no problem with people using what they want — that’s a key to using Free/Open Source Software — and you should be glad that FOSS provides a wide range of choices on many levels, including the user interface.

But innovation? No, that’s not a good word for what Canonical is doing with Unity and HUD. Or at least it’s not a word that describes it.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Eliminate DRM!

Counting to four

March 1, 2012 8 comments

The recent FOSS hubbub-in-a-teapot has Linus Torvalds ranting about security — again (remember the “masturbating monkeys”?). The rant deals with having to use root passwords on OpenSUSE for basic daily usage, which Linus find a bit much and says so with inspired prose.

Arguably, he has a point, or several. How he makes it, though, is a bit over-the-top.

Pot, meet kettle. I have a reputation for being quick on the proverbial draw when it comes to things that annoy me — to the point where my Santa Cruz Sentinel colleague Tony Solis has made a chart designating the “Larry Threat Level” on any particular newsroom day. And if you permit me a Captain Obvious moment, writing when you’re furious is not the best thing to do. I’ve had to backpedal on more than one occasion because the white-hot prose that flew from the keyboard here sounded great in the fury of anger, but later it paled in comparison.

So I don’t mind so much that Linus went off like a Roman candle about this incident. What I do mind a bit — and I think it’s way beneath him, no matter how annoyed he is — is this line from his “venting,” as he puts it: “So here’s a plea: if you have anything to do with security in a distro, and think that my kids (replace ‘my kids’ with ‘sales people on the road’ if you think your main customers are businesses) need to have the root password to access some wireless network, or to be able to print out a paper, or to change the date-and-time settings, please just kill yourself now. The world will be a better place.”

Calling security-obsessed programmers “masturbating monkeys” is one thing. Suggesting suicide for something that, at best, is an annoyance that can easily be fixed is akin to spraying down someone with automatic gunfire after they kick you in the shin.

Truth in advertising: I have a stake in this, sort of. Years ago, a friend of mine had a spouse who commited suicide. On a variety of levels, it was extremely traumatic for family and friends, and it’s not something you fix from the command line or by writing better code. It’s permanent.

When things annoy me — which is more often than I’d like — I go walk in the woods. Fortunately for me, I live within walking distance of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, where I go to put things in perspective; 200-foot trees can do that. Linus, I know redwoods are native to northwestern Oregon, so a walk among the trees might be good idea before hitting the keyboard to vent. Or dive, since I know you’re a scuba diver (the Pacific is not far from Portland, if I remember correctly).

So Linus, and everyone else, it’s also good to take Mark Twain’s advice: “When angry count four; when very angry, swear.”

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Eliminate DRM!

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