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Hackers: Good – Crackers: Bad

March 25, 2007 Leave a comment

It’s interesting how those urban stories become urban legends (no, Bill Gates is not going to give you his fortune if you pass on that e-mail — sheesh) and how myths become become truths when repeated often enough.

Last week, the paper at which I work had a headline on a story that said that the U.S. had the most hackers in the world. Under my definition of hacker this would be welcome news, but the article continued to implicate those who “hacked” as people who did illegal things via computers.

Those aren’t hackers. Most of you know who Eric Raymond is, but for those of you who don’t, the author of “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” — arguably a defining book regarding open source software — has something to say about hackers; real hackers, that is.

Raymond says that hackers — “a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and networking wizards that traces its history back through decades to the first time-sharing mini-computers and the earliest ARPAnet experiements” — originated the term as a positive one. Hackers built the Internet, Raymond continues, made Unix what it is today, run Usenet, and generally make the World Wide Web work.

He continues later to say, “There is another group of people who loudly call themselves hackers, but aren’t. These are people (mainly adolescent males) who get a kick out of breaking into computers . . . . Real hackers call these people ‘crackers’ and want nothing to do with them . . . .”

Raymond continues later: ” . . . [B]eing able to break security doesn’t make you a hacker any more than being able to hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer.”

Hackers build things, and crackers break them.

I think about this every time I look at the Free Software Foundation business-card disk that doubles as my membership card, especially at the signature by Richard Stallman (I asked him to autograph it, sheepishly, after the stellar speech he gave at the University of California last month) which says, “Happy hacking!” To be a hacker would be a badge of honor I’d gladly wear.

[FSF Associate Member](Larry Cafiero, editor/publisher of Open Source Reporter, is an associate member of the Free Software Foundation.)

Nuclear option, or GNU-clear option?

March 19, 2007 Leave a comment

EDITOR’S NOTE: Daniel Koc of polishlinux.org has written an article, translated from Polish to English, about Microsoft “going nuclear” on the Free/Libre Open Source Software movement. His article in translation, which I think is a good read, is here. My reply, which appears here verbatim, is below. As I outline in my reply, I believe we should exercise a GNU-clear option instead, informing the masses about free software and its benefits to computer users in particular and to society in general and I’d be willing to discuss this further, both here and in articles at Open Source Reporter.

[This reply also appears in Larry Cafiero’s blog, Larry the Open Source Guy. I attempted to post earlier, but my reply locked in my browser and I had to rewrite it.]

Thank you, Daniel, for providing a very interesting and enlightening perspective on what the FLOSS movement is up against. While I agree with what you have written, I would like to touch on a couple of points you make.

The possibility of Microsoft playing “the nuclear card” in trying to quash FLOSS, although an option of which we should remain aware, is extremely remote. Just as in a real-life nuclear scenario, both sides would perish if Microsoft tried this. As greedy and controlling (and possibly malicious) the Gateses and Ballmers of the world might be, they are intelligent enough to realize that if they used this option, their own destruction would follow.

So Microsoft may present a facade of maniac behavior with a real or imagined “nuclear threat,” but we know better. These “street racers,” as you call them, will indeed turn the steering wheel at the last moment because their own vast riches and profits will evaporate if they don’t.

They know that. And because we also know that, too, we can free ourselves from the submission that this sort of threat tries to impose on both us — those of us working to bring FLOSS to the masses — and the computing public in general.

Rather than the “nuclear threat,” Microsoft is taking a page from the U.S. foreign policy playbook. How? History shows that between 1945 to the fall of communism in the former USSR, the U.S. used a policy of “containment” against the USSR, stopping the spread of communism through covert operations or brute force in other countries (a policy that, as a U.S. citizen who has lived through most of it, is completely shameful; but I digress). Substitute “Microsoft” for “U.S.” and “FLOSS” for “communism” in the preceding sentence and you have the same situation today when it comes to where we, as a digital society, stand.

So while we should be aware of larger “weaponry” in Microsoft’s arsenal, focusing on the constant stream of FUD flowing from Redmond could be of more immediate importance; this FUD campaign primarily consists of the myth that FLOSS is on the margins and cannot be mainstream. We know better, and it’s incumbent on us to make sure everyone knows the truth. Coupling the fact that the FLOSS movement is making gains at a time when public distrust of Microsoft continues to rise, we have an opportunity to provide another option.

Promote and exercise the “GNU-clear option,” instead of the “nuclear option.”

The GNU-clear option is not a proposal to “reinvent the wheel” — the blueprint and philosophy that guides the FLOSS movement is well established and continues to provide a firm foundation on which to build the movement. Among other things, the GNU-clear option offers the choice that the myths about FLOSS can be busted and it truly can transform both the personal computing experience and society as a whole, despite lies to the contrary pumped out of corporate headquarters around the world and printed/broadcasted by a spoon-fed corporate media.

Let me give you an example: When was the last time you spoke to anyone — anyone who was not a computer person, that is; just a friend, relative or even a good-looking guy (or gal) at the bar or pub — about FLOSS? Today, I hope, but if not, make a point to do so. My conversion to FLOSS came as a result of a simple conversation with a supporter during my campaign as Green Party candidate for Insurance Commissioner in California last year — a conversation that lasted only a few minutes (including the exchanges of e-mails), but it clearly made a huge impression. I can’t code to save my life, but as a journalist I can publish a magazine (which premieres in July) and maintain a Web site to promote FLOSS principles to those non-geeks wishing to learn more.

That is my contribution. And we all have contributions to make — none of which are too small or insignificant — in bringing FLOSS to the mainstream and fighting the corporate paranoia and maniac behavior that gestates in their boardrooms and executive offices.

Ultimately, a corporate strategy based on fear and manipulation of the public will fail, allowing us to prevail.

Thank you for this article, Daniel.

Sincerely,
Larry Cafiero
Editor/Publisher
Open Source Reporter

[FSF Associate Member](Larry Cafiero, editor/publisher of Open Source Reporter, is an associate member of the Free Software Foundation.)

News, blues and reviews

March 13, 2007 Leave a comment

Finally grabbing a minute from my duties (in no particular order) as Dad, chauffeur, daily newspaper copy editor, raffle-ticket seller, Green Party official, honey-do husband and Open Source Reporter editor/publisher/webmaster, allow me a few random thoughts, cheap shots and bon mots (to quote the San Francisco Chronicle’s Scott Ostler):

Lost in the shuffle: While panic reigned for the last couple of weeks regarding Daylight Saving Time being moved up a couple of weeks and while the Y2K-like distress accompanied the advent of yet another meaningless time change (which, incidently, should be abolished), did it occur to anyone to . . . ahem . . . just go into your preferences, find the time/date item and just set the clock ahead an hour? Sheesh.

C’est Ubuntu: This just in from across the Atlantic — the French government has decided to forego Windows and have the government work with an open source operating system, specifically the GNU/Linux distro known by all (and loved by many) as Ubuntu. Starting in June, 1,154 desks of the legislators and their parliamentary assitants in the National Assembly will feature GNU/Linux-based computers. Allez, France! “More on the story,” as we say at OSR, from C|Net can be found here. But wait, there’s more . . .

Who’s carrying the ball for Open Source in England? It ain’t Labour, surprisingly. The Conservatives have run with this issue, as shadow chancellor George Osborne has been saying to all that will listen that a Conservative government will insist all software is open source would cut the the UK’s IT costs by 5 percent. Hello, Tony? More on the story, again, from Britian’s IT Contractor here.

Gentoo hubbub: The GNU/Linux distro known as Gentoo has fallen on hard times. Or has it? DistroWatch, an above-average source of news in the GNU/Linux world, touched off a bit of a back-and-forth firestorm on the site’s weekly report. What more interesting than DW publisher Ladislav Bodnar’s story about Gentoo is the firefight in the reader comments that are linked at the bottom of the report’s page. In his story, Bodnar writes that “[F]urthermore, one has to wonder: with the amount of time some of them spend flaming other people on the various mailing lists and planet blogs, do they actually have any time for coding?” So how do some of the pro-Gentoo people respond? With flamethrowers blazing, of course. A legitimate question, Ladislav, and a good story that, flaming aside, has resulted in a good discussion on your great site. Stick to your guns.

What will it be, Steve?: Those of you who know me — those three of you outside my family now reading this — know that I’m a completely committed Mac guy. Despite the fact I have taken the free software and open source software path, I still think that Apple still makes the best built hardware, period. I say this because having been faithful to the hardware for the last 15 years, I’m siding with DefectiveByDesign.org in asking everyone to sign a petition going to Steve Jobs to “set the ethical example” by eliminating digital rights management (DRM) from iTunes. You can click on the gif at the left to sign the petition (go ahead, but don’t forget to come back). The petition responds to an open letter Jobs wrote on DRM last month. C’mon Steve: Other than axing the Newton (yes, finally I’ve forgiven you for that), your record has been flawless, and those of us who are eternally grateful to you for saving Apple hope you will continue to do the right thing. Keep it up by keeping your word on April 1.

Who left the dog out? Yep, I did. My apologies to the well known, and fairly loved, GNU/Linux distro known as Puppy — a dog that didn’t make it into my GNU/Linux zoo tome a few blogs ago. It should have, and I really did plan to put it there, but I forgot. Here, have a Milk Bone, Puppy folks, and thanks for sparing me the embarrassment of notifying me personally in very civil e-mails — rather than frying me, Gentoo-supporter style, on my own blog.

[FSF Associate Member](Larry Cafiero, editor/publisher of Open Source Reporter, is an associate member of the Free Software Foundation.)

GNU/Linux and BSD: What a zoo!

February 27, 2007 Leave a comment

I realize that this may be old hat — a fedora of any color — to long-time GNU/Linux users, so please indulge me on this discourse into the animal kingdom.

One of the joys of having my daughter look over my shoulder while dealing with the GNU/Linux learning curve — despite learning a very colorful and spicy vocabulary (okay, that’s a joke: She gets enough of that when I bring her to the newspaper) — is that she’s enamored by the wide variety of characters that symbolize GNU/Linux (and GNU/Solaris) operating systems, to say nothing of those other-worldly (netherworldly?), but unbearably cute, BSD mascots.

Granted, I’ve weighed in on my animal of use — the beast of burden on my Macs — in earlier blog postings, but as Mirano points out, there sure are a lot of animals out there (“. . . and why no chickens?” since she’s partial to chickens). But this observation, courtesy of a 9-year-old who puts together her own Web site with a classmate, started me thinking: Dang, the ethereal world of free software/open source software is full of animals — and we’re only talking about the mascots here.

There are the standards
GNU and Tux, the former for GNU’s Not Unix, and the latter being the ubiquitous, happy penguin Tux, symbolize GNU/Linux, although in the public mindset, these two animals should be thought of together rather than separately. But there has been an effort, especially around those in the free software movement, to rightfully link the two together, so we have GNU and Tux becoming superheroes battling the multinational corporate software hegemony, as shown below.

As you know, nearly all the wide varieties of GNU/Linux distros have some variation on the theme, but mostly they have Tux as their mascot, without the GNU (pronounced “guh-new”) gnu (pronounced “new”). While we find that unfortunate and hope that developers will rightfully put the two together in their own mindset, and that of the public, we all have our favorites. I can’t get all of them into this blog, but if you comment on which ones I missed, I could give them a fair shake in a later posting.

Who let the dogs out?
Not all GNU/Linux distro mascots graze on the African plains or waddle and eat herring: Speaking of standard-bearers, one of the Linux-for-Macintosh pioneers was Yellow Dog Linux, which has long since expanded not only all the latest Mac hardware, but they’ve blazed a trail into the realm of operating systems for Sony’s PS3 — that’s a good dog, Potter! Despite the fact that I have several distros lined up and waiting to audition to be my GNU/Linux flavor of choice, I currently have Yellow Dog 3.0 on the Old World Macs that I use on a daily basis. Speaking of real dogs, Norway’s http://wolvix.org/”>Wolfix keeps the canine motif going, with their symbol being a little more direct: a wolf’s footprint.

Reptilian GNU/Linux
All jokes about Novell executives being legless reptiles for entering into an agreement with the evil empire of Redmond notwithstanding, SuSE has been represented by the noble reptilian iguana for years. It comes in a couple of flavors, Novell and their Enterprise Linux and the German-based OpenSUSE.

Go Dolphins!
Having grown up in Miami, I know a lot about Dolphins, even the ones that swim in the ocean. So it comes as no surprise that GNU/Linux mascots aren’t limited to land animals. In fact two distros distros — Zenwalk and OpenTLE — take to the seas with their mascots. Zenwalk is a French distro that asks the eternal question: Have you ever tried Zen computing? (although we would have asked, “What is the sound of one app clapping?”), and OpenTLE is a Thai distro for Thai users (and if you visit their sites, make sure you have your Thai fonts, because despite clicking on their British flag link, apparently they’re not ready for English-language visitors yet).

Back on the savannah . . .
With its mascot coming from the African grasslands, Nexenta, an American distro, brings an interesting twist to the GNU family: GNU/Solaris running on a Sun kernel. According to its Web site, “NexentaOS is a complete GNU-based open source operating system built on top of the OpenSolaris kernel and runtime . . . . NexentaOS is completely open source and free of any charge. It contains Apache, MySQL, Perl/Python/PHP, Firefox, Evolution, software update manager, Synaptic package manager, Gaim Instant Messenger, abiword, administration & development utilities, editors, graphics, GNOME, interpreters, libraries and many others. All of this is running on the state-of-the-art SunOS kernel.” Naturally they get such a long listing here thanks to the length of the giraffe’s neck.

The devil made me do it
Continuing on the mascots-from-hot-places theme, FreeBSD is (as they say on their Web site) “an advanced operating system . . . derived from BSD, the version of UNIX developed at the University of California, Berkeley” (which begs the question: Why didn’t developers adopt the bear, since UCB are the Golden Bears?). BSD distros tend to be devil-themed (like PC-BSD, although you have to go seaside for the OpenBSD’s blowfish), which may or may not lend itself to the suggestion that the devil is in the details, or that they’re hell to work with (and I’m on the side that says they’re not, so keep those cards and letters).

Lower life forms
Being lower on the food chain does not reflect the quality of http://www.dragonflybsd.org/”>DragonFly BSD, an operating system and environment originally based on FreeBSD. Going even further down on the food chain — down to plants — a stylized tree represents gNewSense, one of our favorite distros due to its commitment to free software, and Slax has its four-leaf clover (that I’ve overlooked before, but not now) as a symbol.

Once again, I know I’m missing some of your favorite distros and their mascots — and if so, please comment below and I’ll make sure I get it mentioned in another posting.

[FSF Associate Member]

Does Dell finally get it?

February 26, 2007 Leave a comment

A news item today at PC World heralds some groundbreaking news in the way of GNU/Linux being preinstalled on Dell desktop and laptop computers. So when I wrote in the Open Source Reporter FAQ that (and I’m paraphrasing here) your Grandma wouldn’t be using Debian, perhaps I had spoken a wee bit too hastily.

This is not to say that the distro on the Dell machines will be Debian, unfortunately, but the PC World article does mention that “other Linux distributions were also suggested by users, and that Dell will look into possible certifications with other Linux brands across its product lines.” All of which means that users may not be locked into Novell SUSE, but that remains to be seen.

But whatever Dell should choose to put on their GNU/Linux boxes, the underlying fact remains that when a corporate giant like Dell — and who hasn’t used a Dell, either at work or at home (and possibly both)? — provides the option away from prepackaging solely the Redmond-based digital sludge masquerading as an operating system they’ve previously offered, you know Dell isn’t doing it out of the goodness of their corporate hearts.

The demand is there, and Dell knows it. For all the nasty things I have said about Dell in the past, most (if not all) of it deserved, I now have to hand it to Dell: Maybe they get it after all.

Arguably, and with all the fanfare the news warrants, if nothing else this signals that GNU/Linux has officially arrived as a mainstream operating system.

Further, given a choice between a bloated operating system like the Microsoft’s new “Vis-duh” and a more streamlined GNU/Linux operating system that frees up the computer workings for more important things, which would you use (especially on a lower-end machine)?

This is not to say that I’m embracing Dell. On the contrary: I know their products well, having used them in the many office environments in which I have worked over the past couple of decades. In my current job, I use a Dell as a copy editor at the Santa Cruz Sentinel. So let me be frank (and children, you can leave the room now): Dell has always lived up to its reputation as manufacturing hardware that absolutely and unequivocally blows. The fact that Windows-on-Dell can easily be described as hell squared is not lost on many people.

Having said this both here and over the last 15 or so years, however, no one is more ready than I am to give Dell another shot in using a Dell box or laptop equipped with GNU/Linux; crossing my fingers all the while that their hardware dependability may have increased as well.

If anything, improved Dell hardware coupled with Linux could just break me from the habit of spitting on the ground every time anyone mentions the computer maker’s name.

[FSF Associate Member]

You can’t say "Argh!" without saying "Ah!" first

February 17, 2007 Leave a comment

You’ll have to forgive me for being AWOL for the last several days, but apparently the open source gods have dealt me an interesting hand that I’ve been playing to the best of my ability.

While spending most of my time trying to get the hang of Yellow Dog Linux on my G3 Wallstreet (while hoping I can figure out how to go all Linux, rather than booting from BootX), my home machine — the G3 minitower with a G4 processor (thanks, Sonnet!) — seemed to take a vacation when I tried to burn a CD (the drill here is to boot into OS 9 to use the SCSI CD burner, which the machine did not like).

To compound the situation, for some mysterious reason, I couldn’t re-install OS X. This definitely was the exclamation point on the message I was getting from the open source gods: You talked the talk, bub, now walk the walk.

So I went through a few distros to find which one would boot.

Debian: I always have a problem with rebooting Debian after I install it. I don’t know why, but it never works for me, which is unfortunate because I really want to use it.

Gentoo: A very interesting process in installing it, but like Debian, I get a combination of nada, zilch and zero when I reboot.

[Again, this could be PEBKAC raising its ugly head once more . . . ]

So it’s back to Yellow Dog Linux for the G3, because the installer is friendly and I can get it to boot after I install it.

I’m not particularly married to the Yellow Dog, so if anyone has any suggestions for this G3/G4, I’m wide open to them. Further, this sort of speeds up my entrance into the Linux world: I had hoped to leisurely negotiate the Linux learning curve on the Wallstreet and get a handle on it, or at least to the point where I don’t have to reinstall the system if I want to change the monitor settings. The plan was to become a Linux stud, and then jump into converting the desktops at home.

So the “argh” heard ’round the world is really an “ah.”

Incidentally, I’d like to do an informal poll: Which of you readers like better as a desktop, GNOME or KDE?

My Penguin is a real Dog, or PEBKAC no more!

February 7, 2007 2 comments

As you know from reading this blog, I have picked quite possibly the most difficult machine(s) on which to install Linux, upholding generations of Cafiero family tradition by refusing to seek — let alone travel — the path of least resistance.

And it took a walk in the redwoods and a chance encounter with a man and his Golden Retriever to enlighten me to the what I was doing wrong; or rather, what I had yet to do right.

While walking through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton (that’s in Santa Cruz County, Calif.), a man and his dog walked toward me on the trail. I have a particular fondness for Goldens — perhaps the best behaved dogs on the planet — and while giving this one a pat or two and talking to his owner about him, it dawned on me that I hadn’t tried Yellow Dog Linux.

So when I returned home, I found my Yellow Dog 3.0 Sirius disks and, lo and behold, the installation and reboot went without a hitch. While not completely Linux — I have to start with the OS 9 dance until BootX comes along — it gets me into this new open source world.

That means my penguin is a real dog. To many that may be an insult, but not for those at Terra Soft in Loveland, Colo., who would take it as a high compliment.

One thing, though: Can anyone tell me how to empty the trash on KDE?

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