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Stop the presses

February 24, 2012 6 comments

It consistently awes me, sometimes to tears, to see how consistently wrong some Free/Open Source Software commentators are about things like the current state of the desktop. To hear some of them tell it, it’s a hand-wringing, brow-furrowing situation in which the fate of the entire paradigm rests in the delicate balance.

Let me explain this in simple terms: It’s not. If anything, it’s an invitation to a front-row seat to witness digital Darwinism at its finest.

So stop acting like this is a crisis. It’s not.

Unity is a dog — it’s a textbook case of incredibly bad judgment by The Mark to make a cookie-cutter, all-in-one user interface across a wide range of different hardware. But that’s all it is. Is it the death knell of the desktop? Hardly. It’s not even the death knell of Ubuntu.

The same with GNOME 3: Arguably a bad move, but not one that is forcing GNOME to fold up the tents and go the way of the Studebaker or the hula hoop.

KDE thriving? In my opinion, it is. That’s a good thing, and they have weathered some bad times recently to come out stronger and with a good product for those so inclined to use it.

Xfce making progress at GNOME’s expense? Tough if you’re a GNOME guy or gal, but not bad in the grand scheme of things. Xfce has always been a good desktop environment which is finally getting the recognition it deserves — it will be interesting to see how they take advantage of this (and good luck, guys and gals).

There is even more attention now toward window managers like Openbox and Fluxbox, as the current desktop environment “crisis” ushers in a sort of renaissance for window managers that gives users a new look at a facet of Linux that is not often discussed.

The bottom line is that’s what it’s all about: choice. Choice is good. Having choices is a virtue, not a vice. It’s simple: Get that and you get FOSS.

[Note to the Linux Foundation: You may think that events@linuxfoundation.org works, but I'm still getting bouncing e-mails across a wide variety of machines using various e-mail programs on FOSS and non-FOSS platforms. Tell you what: I'll just print out my blog from yesterday and mail it to you. Watch your mailbox.]

(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!

What I do

February 23, 2012 3 comments

Yesterday started out in uncharacteristically annoying fashion and, to be honest, I was counting on it to make a thrilling comeback to become a typically normal day sometime before mid-afternoon.

No such luck.

One of the several things that made it a day to shake one’s head at and try to forget as soon as it’s over is a form letter I got from the Linux Foundation rejecting my request to attend the Collaboration Summit. “If you would like us to reconsider our decision, please email us at and provide more specific details about your job function and why you would like to attend.”

Email? Oh, I’ll do one better, Linux Foundation.

In reality, Linux Foundation, if you think that there are others more worthy than me to attend the Collaboration Summit, I’m completely OK with that. Additionally, not going to the Collaboration Summit — as much as I’d like to attend — allows me to rearrange time that I can put toward attending another Linux event elsewhere in the country.

But here’s why I think I should be allowed to attend the Collaboration Summit, and I’d be grateful if you’d keep this in mind for future applications for other Linux Foundation events.

I started using Linux in 2006 — the PowerPC version of Debian on an Indigo iMac G3 — while campaigning for Insurance Commissioner in California as the Green Party candidate. You can blame Cameron Spitzer, then the Greens’ IT guy, for showing me Linux and the Free/Open Source Software paradigm.

Since the end of that campaign where I just missed being elected by a paltry 47 percent of the electorate, I have been an advocate for Linux and FOSS. I formed the Cabrillo College GNU/Linux Users Group in 2007 while attending school there. In 2008, I organized an event called Lindependence in Felton, California, where the town had three opportunities in July of that year to try out Linux. We gave away 300 live CDs of various distros in the course of the month and we estimate that we could have converted between 30-40 people to the ranks of the Linux users.

The offshoot of Lindependence — the Felton Linux Users Group — thrives in our area, and is a regular attendee at farmers markets in the Santa Cruz County area, providing “organic software” free of proprietary additives and preservatives.

In 2009, I formed a partnership that became Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy providing Linux and FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment. Our client roster is small — an asbestos abatement company, two restaurants, an electrical contractor and a grocery store — so we don’t pull in Gatesian or Jobsian numbers on our ledger. But we do OK.

There are other things I do on behalf of Linux: I’m the publicity co-chair for the Southern California Linux Expo, the largest community-run Linux show in the country. I held what others (not me) describe as a “leadership position” in the Fedora Project, including serving as an Ambassador mentor. These days, I primarily work with a distro called CrunchBang, a Debian derivative, which I find provides the best Linux experience for any user choosing to try it.

I also write this blog, “Larry the Free Software Guy,” and its distro-specific sibling, “Larry the CrunchBang Guy.” The former is commentary on FOSS issues of the day, written with what I hope is always a high degree of insight and humor.

That may not be enough, but that will have to do. I also have a family — my daughter, now 14, has been giving Linux presentations for two years as well — and a full-time job, so I make no apologies if this does not clear the proverbial high bar set for Collaboration Summit admission.

Again, I don’t mind if you want to give the pass to the summit to someone you think is more deserving — and there are thousands of folks out there in the FOSS world who are more deserving than me. I get that, and I would completely agree. But you should know that I’m not your standard-issue casual Linux user, either.

Oh, and one more thing, Linux Foundation: Thanks for all the great work you do.

[EPILOGUE: The address events@linuxfoundation.org -- which is included in the email sent with the rejection as a link at which to appeal the Linux Foundation's decision -- does not work, and I have the bounced e-mails to prove it. Is it events@linuxfoundation.COM maybe? Maybe.]

(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!

This is Strata!

February 15, 2012 9 comments

There is only one word to describe the speed, style, and power of the ZaReason Strata 6880 laptop.

Damn!

First things first: This laptop is wide — a 15.6-inch-screen-wide-in-high-definition wide — and it is powerful, to the tune of the test model’s Intel i7 Quad-core with 8 threads running at 2 GHz. The 8GB of memory below the keyboard coupled with the Nvidia GTX 540M video card make this a well rounded machine for, well, just about anything. The width of the laptop — oh, it still fits on my lap because that itself is wide, too — allows the laptop to have a full keyboard that includes a number pad on the right.

For something this fast and powerful, you should probably have a license of some sort — a pilot’s license comes immediately to mind.

As mentioned yesterday in my review of the ZaReason Alto 3880, my current ThinkPads come in the basic black. This laptop, too, comes in basic black, but it’s a shiny, slick black as opposed to a staid, utilitarian black favored by IBM and then Lenovo. In terms of black, if the ThinkPad makes you think of a limousine, the Strata 6880 in turn makes you think of the Batmobile.

Strata 6880’s strengths

Originally, I thought that for a laptop, this was kind of big — maybe wide would be a better word to describe it. Sure, I have a wide lap, as I mentioned before, but for something this size? Anyway, it only took an hour or two to become accustomed to the extra witdth in screen real estate — a bonus on a machine like this that’s so nimble and quick. Multiple windows are a snap here and there’s a lot less promoting and reducing when working on multiple projects simultaneously. And the screen: a crystal-clear LCD display with a 1980-by-1080 footprint shows whatever I choose to bring up with a clarity bordering on perfect. This comes in handy especially when watching DVDs or streaming video — which you can do while working on other things (why would you? I don’t know, but for the sake of testing this machine, the Strata 6880 handled everything I had thrown at it) . Not only does the streaming audio/video come across clear and uninterrupted while working on other things, the performance was nothing short of remarkable. I would imagine that most of the graphics performance would have to do with the Nvidia video card, that seems to handle things easily.

Like in yesterday’s review of the Alto 3880, the Strata 6880 ran three different distros: Linux Mint 12, Fedora 16 and CrunchBang Statler. It ran each perfectly and, with the addition of Flash on Fedora in the post-install, everything ran as it should out of the box. If you’re wondering, I did spend extra time with Fedora, only because I wanted to give some extra time to GNOME 3 and, while I can see some of its advantages now working on a machine that will run it, personally speaking that desktop is not for me. As for Linux Mint, MATE and Cinnamon ran quite remarkably, and my home distro — CrunchBang — was flawless and fast on this hardware.

There are times when using the Strata 6880 that I feel like I am driving a Testarossa to go to the grocery store and back. I don’t mean this as a slight — the capabilities and potential for this machine are far wider that what I would use it for. What I’m currently using it for is this — Web stuff (including streaming audio and video), a little testing (though most of that is done on a desktop), correcting photos in GIMP, making and running presentations in LibreOffice Impress (which worked well, by the way), and watching DVDs. This laptop, though, does make me want to break out the Blender book again and give that program another shot, maybe seeing what more the laptop can do.

Still, when I was running multiple programs like GIMP, LibreOffice and streaming a video, the warmest the Strata 6880 got was 54 degrees C — doing the same thing with the ThinkPad usually get the temperature up to the 70s (though, kids, don’t try this at home). All of which is to say that the laptop does all the work thrown at it and seems to look for more.

I understand that the Strata 6880 can be a gaming platform, and I would believe it judging by the high performance. I don’t “game” — I may have game, but I don’t usually play on the computer — so I didn’t try it out the gaming side of things. But with the current setup, it would not surprise me that games would be an easy fit for this laptop.

Needs improvement?

To be honest, I had a few qualms about the wide screen at first, but they quickly subsided as soon as I started getting used to the width and found I could put it to good use. Like the Alto 3880, it has the same single-button-on-a-fulcrum setup where you push either side of the single button to get the left/right mouse button, and having a separate left- and right-button mouse set up on the laptop is more of a personal preference than anything. Unlike the Alto 3880, the Strata 6880 had a stiffer keyboard which was more to my liking, so it gets high marks there. One thing that could be a reflection of how much I was using the machine unplugged moreso than anything — and I don’t think it’s a “need improvement” item, but some might: I only got a little over two hours of battery time while unplugged, but again it was while multiple programs — including streaming video — were running. To be honest, I’m never more than two hours away from an electrical socket, so battery life is not a big issue with me.

A final look

As I said a couple of days ago, I don’t have a ranking system — I still don’t, even after yesterday’s review of the Alto 3880 — but I would give the Strata 6880 the highest marks across the board for design and performance. Looking more closely at the machine itself and judging by the firmness of the keyboard, the laptop also feels durable. My only regret in having this laptop for several days is that I couldn’t make it break a sweat — again, the activities I normally do in my day-to-day digital life include the typical Web stuff augmented by some Web and photo work, some software testing for programs that are not terribly complex and a lot of LibreOffice, either writing or using Impress. Also, as I mentioned yesterday, I can’t emphasize enough how important considering a purchase from a Linux hardware vendor is, and apparently the differences in prices are not as much as I thought: After a trip to Best Buy in Capitola yesterday, the difference in price between this laptop and others like it is marginal. The $849 base price for the Strata 6880 is about $50 less than a comparable HP laptop with similar specs on the showroom floor at $799. So if this is in your price range, the Strata 6880 is a good buy.

Of course, the worst part of this process now comes with me having to pack up these laptops and send them back to Berkeley. Thanks, ZaReason, for allowing me a chance to give these two laptops the once-over, and thanks, too, for making such great Linux-based hardware.

Specs as tested

Screen: 15.6-inch bright glossy LCD display at 1920-by-1080 pixels
Processor: Intel i7-2630Q 2 GHz, Quad-core, 8 thread
Memory: 8GB DDR3-1333
Graphics card: Nvidia GTX 540M 2GB
Hard Drive: 128 GB SSD
Optical Drive: CD-RW/DVD-RW
Audio: Speakers above the keyboard for quality sound output
Wireless: #WZF B/G/N
Reader: 3-in-1 card reader — SD/MMC/MS supported
Camera: 1.3 Megapixel webcam included
Ports: HDMI and VGA monitor ports; Gigabit Ethernet port; 2 USB 2.0 ports; 1 USB 3.0 port
Operating System: Your choice from a variety of Linux distros, or no operating system
Battery: Six-cell battery
Weight: 5.51 pounds
Basic price: $849
Price as tested: $1,426

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing 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!

Not a normal week

February 7, 2012 1 comment

Last week up to today, which is still Tuesday in most parts of the world, had not been the most normal of weeks. First, I was busier than I have been in the past with a lot of different things, both digital and non. This is not a complaint — certainly in the face of having two ZaReason laptops to review, and putting new, fast hardware through its paces when you’re at your busiest is something that is a plus.

I’ll get to the reviews — yeah, I swore them off after the last one I did for ZaReason, but these will be the last . . . honest — a little later this week. There will be two by both me and my daughter Mimi, for a grand total of four. Watch this space.

This past week had some pretty interesting developments, like

Robyn Bergeron, trivia question: So here’s the question that will come up in various conversations way in the future — “Who was the first female lead of a major Linux distribution?” That, of course, would be Robyn Bergeron, who was given the nod to replace Jared Smith as the Fedora Project Leader. Not only does Fedora make history, but the project puts itself in incredibly capable hands with the new leader. Congratulations, Robyn.

Rumors of Kubuntu’s death . . . : OK, here’s the story. Listen closely: Canonical dropped funding for Kubuntu a few days ago, but that does not mean, as some bloggers have wrongfully stated, that the distro is dead. On the contrary; apparently it’s going to be treated in the same way as Xubuntu, Lubuntu and the other official ‘buntus. I understand that Kubuntu developers are going to meet and discuss this at the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Oakland in May. If you’re a Kubuntu user or have thought about contributing back to the project, now would be a good time to do so.

Coming tomorrow
: LibreOffice 3.5 gets its official release tomorrow, Feb. 8. The latest release candidate is already available from the Document Foundation — go get it, either today while it’s still hot from the oven, or tomorrow when it’s ready.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing 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!

Hello, I must be going

February 1, 2012 1 comment

It’s a very busy week among with redwoods in Felton, not the least of which had a Monday visit from the UPS delivery guy with two — count ‘em, two — ZaReason laptops to test. Sadly, that’s not the biggest reason that I’m busy — a new refrigerator comes today and we’ve had to carve a path from the door to the kitchen to get it in the house (though, interestingly, the refrigerator is by a window we can take out . . . hmmm), adjusting furniture to make a clear path. Oh, and I’m starting the media machine going for Linux Fest Northwest — you’ll be hearing a lot more about that as time goes on.

Therefore, in the words sung by the immortal Groucho Marx, “Hello, I must be going . . . .”

But before I do — you didn’t think you’d get away that easy, did you? — a couple of things:

Open palm, insert face: I haven’t had a chance to weigh in on Canonical’s new HUD, the (ahem) Head-Up Display — head-up what, exactly, is something you’ll have to determine for yourself. Without going into detail, I don’t see it as progress or innovation if I have to type something in a field where previously I had to just click on an icon. Maybe Steve, er, Mark Shuttleworth does, but it wouldn’t be the first time he and I have disagreed (incidentally, I’d like someday to agree with something Mark does. Maybe someday). What’s next, the progress or innovation of using a green monochrome screen? I’ll try it — HUD, not the monochrome screen — but from the looks of it, it doesn’t deserve the “oohs” and “aahs” it’s been getting — maybe a disengaged “hmmm” at the most. But we’ll see.

All work and no play: As mentioned earlier, ZaReason sent me a pair of laptops — the Alto 3880 and the Strata 6880 — to put through their paces and give them a review. I was going to swear off reviews after the last one I did, but I reconsidered. They’re currently running Linux Mint with the MATE desktop — very interesting — and there’s a better than excellent chance we’ll have Fedora, CrunchBang and other distros on the HDs before the week is out. Plus, as a bonus, my daughter Mimi is also going to give a review of the laptops as well, since she’s using the one I’m not using, and when she’s done with it we’ll swap laptops. These reviews come sometime next week, probably around Wednesdayish.

Ruh roh: Time to bring a refrigerator up a flight of stairs.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing 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!

That’s my name, don’t wear it out

December 30, 2011 6 comments

Katherine Noyes put together a brief piece for PC World today about Linux release names which, overall, she seems to consider “silly.” In the process, she omits a great bit of detail on the “what” and “why” aspect of distro communities and how they come up with these “silly” names.

Digitally speaking, from a purely anthropological standpoint it is far from silly, and actually it’s quite an interesting topic, though Noyes seems to race through it without giving much detail.

So let me help out here.

SCALE 10XDebian: Release names come from “Toy Story.” As humorous as it is simple, this naming convention is one of the best. An interesting corollary to this is the Debian-based CrunchBang naming convention mirrors the first letter of the current Debian release, but matches it with a character from “The Muppet Show.” So Debian “Squeeze” is translated in CrunchBang to “Statler. “Wheezy” begets “Waldorf.” Statler and Waldorf, of course, are the two old guys in the balcony in “The Muppet Show.”

Linux Mint: I particularly like the naming convention Clement Lefevbre has come up with for Linux Mint. It’s alphabetically a woman’s name ending in “a.” We’re at Julia now. I asked Clement once what he’d do when he got to “Zelda” (or whatever the “Z” name will be for Linux Mint when they get that far . . . and they will), and he said that it was simple: Start with a name beginning with “A” and end the name in “e.”

Ubuntu: We all know the drill here — SABDFL* Mark Shuttleworth comes up with an adjective and an animal with the same first letter and hands it down to a waiting community. Which is in complete contrast to . . .

Fedora: There is a formula here that the Fedora Project adheres to before all hell breaks loose and fistfights break out in the Fedora community while they vote on the release name. The formula is simple: “$CURRENT_RELEASE_NAME is a (whatever it is — i.e., city, body of water, person, thing) and so is $NEXT_RELEASE_NAME.” Looking at Fedora 15 “Lovelock” to the current Fedora 16 “Verne,” it goes like this: James Lovelock was a futurologist, and so was Jules Verne. Now how they got from Verne to Fedora 17’s “Beefy Miracle” is a mystery for the ages.

OpenSUSE: OpenSUSE’s naming convention . . . does OpenSUSE even have a naming convention for releases?

Got a distro that has a naming convention worthy of mentioning? Let me know.

*Self-appointed benevolent dictator for life, for those of you keeping score at home.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software in his new home office.)

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Eliminate DRM!

A Week in Limbo, Epilogue: An outstanding machine

December 27, 2011 11 comments

Before I start, there is only one thing glaringly wrong with the ZaReason Limbo 5440: having to give back the review model to ZaReason in Berkeley (it’s on its way back to you, Earl).

SCALE 10XThe ZaReason Limbo 5440 is, in three words, an outstanding machine; a simply outstanding machine that can easily handle any work load ranging from that of the average household user who’s just surfing the Web to the constant tinkering and tweaking by the most restless Linux user (to the latter, I plead guilty). Ruggedly built and with a clean design, the desktop fits in nearly any location in the home — it spent a day or two in the “lab” (a.k.a, “The Jungle Room,” where all our computers live in the house and where I do my best work) but spent the rest of the week in the living room in an unobtrusive manner.

But enough of the interior decor talk: The attention to design, both internally and externally, is completely as functional as it is stylish. But perhaps its best physical feature — expandability — makes this model an exceptional one for those who may have an overwhelming desire to add the latest and greatest hardware features to an already exceptional desktop. (A side note: In conversation with ZaReason CTO Earl Malmrose, I was given a green light to add software and hardware to my liking. But I passed on the latter — why spoil a good thing?)

As far as performance goes, everything I threw at the desktop during the course of the week, the Limbo 5440 handled without breaking a proverbial sweat. The only time I could get any of the processors to peak at 100 percent was running folding@home on a regular basis: Using the system monitor, CPU1 (which I would assume is processor 0 in the quad-core scheme of things) ran at 100 percent while using folding@home while any of the other CPUs displayed on the program barely passed 20 percent at any time during program use. The rest of the time, even running multiple programs, I got the sense that reading the graphs on the system monitor, the lines were gentle smiles laughing at me at my attempts in vain to make the desktop work hard.

The price tag for the Limbo 5440 as tested — $969, which is up from the base price of $499 thanks to a variety of upgrades (specs are below) — might seem a little steep to some. But ZaReason’s advantage, one that clearly benefits the consumer, is the issue of value, and how the value of this outstanding machine eclipses the issue of cost. Yes, you could by a cheap box from an OEM that has Windows presinstalled, but then there are a plethora of issues around that — buying a cheaper box at a big box allows Redmond to chalk up another user and the hardware in some of the cheaper desktops are — how can I put this tactfully? — not up to par.

So buying hardware from a company dedicated to Linux has its advantages. To his credit and that of the company, Earl Malmrose and the engineering staff at ZaReason sends out 100 percent high-quality Linux-supported hardware.

Quality and value are ZaReason hallmarks,and the Limbo 5440 lives up to them. This desktop would be a keeper, if I didn’t have to give this review desktop back, and given the opportunity to purchase this machine in the (near) future, I would easily jump on the opportunity to do so.

Now to find a spare $969 . . . .

Specs as tested (the standard Limbo 5440 specs can be found here):

2nd Generation Intel Core i5 3.3 GHz
Fedora 16 GNOME with shell extensions (changed to Fedora 16 KDE at mid-week)
8 GB DDR3-1600 RAM
3 500GB Hard Drives, 7,200 RPM, RAID-5 array
One year warranty

Size of case: 7″ x 14.6″ x 13.8″ / 17.8 x 37.1 x 35.1 cm
Internal Slots: 2x PCI, 1x PCI-Express x16
Rear Ports: 4x USB 2.0 Ports; 1x PS/2 Ports (for that old keyboard/mouse); 1x VGA Port; 1x 10/100 Ethernet Port; Audio I/O Jacks
Front Ports: 2x USB Ports; Headphone Jack; Mic Jack

“A Week in Limbo Series” (for those of you keeping track)
A Week in Limbo, Day 0
A Week in Limbo, Day 1: Under the hood
A Week in Limbo, Day 2: Fedora 16
A Week in Limbo, Day 3: Fedora 16 KDE
A Week in Limbo, Day 4: On second thought . . .
A Week in Limbo, Days 5 and 6: Get with the program
A Week in Limbo, Epilogue: An oustanding machine

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started testing and developing software in his new home office, which is the development side of Redwood Digital Research in Felton, California, United States.)

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Eliminate DRM!

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