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November, 2009:

So Much for the Arrington Crunchpad

Damn. Like, well, damn. Michael Arrington just announced that, probably no more than a week or two before shipping boxed product, the Crunchpad is dead. I rarely post two entries on the same day, but I happened on this just a few minutes ago, and it’s important enough not to hold until tomorrow. The problem seems to have come out of nowhere and is shaped something like this: The CEO of Fusion Garage, the firm tasked with manufacturing the Crunchpad device, just popped up in Arrington’s inbox and basically said, We don’t need you anymore and will be making and selling the device ourselves. WTF? And WDHTHIA? Barlennan?

What happened probably happens a lot in certain tech partnerships between small and roughly equal entities: One who thought they held more of the cards wanted a bigger cut of the take than the original agreement gave them. And because both Arrington’s group and Fusion Garage have joint ownership of the various pieces of IP involved, neither can just move ahead and release the product on their own. (Why Fusion Garage doesn’t recognize this is obscure.) Unless this is an extremely clever way to simply kill the project without admitting technical failure (a possibility, but not something I’d expect out of Michael Arrington) the project may be dead on legal grounds.

Or maybe it really was the problematic 12″ capacitive touchscreen that has given these guys pure hell from the outset. Doesn’t matter. I had high hopes for the gadget, which (screw the Web!) would have been a spectacular ebook reader. I dislike the physically small, low-res e-ink readers we now have, because they don’t display technical art well, nor color at all. Comics people have the same gripes, albeit for a different kind of art. There’s no physical law saying that all ebook readers must be the same color-and-resolution-limited, coat-pocketable thing. Books are different.

Again, if the fail was really technical, and all this huggermugger a smokescreen, we won’t see anything out of the ashes. But I do hope that if we’re just seeing tantrums here, something can be worked out.

(Still, is it just me…or did Arrington fold perhaps a little too quickly?)

More here later if I can find it.

Odd Lots

  • Here’s a great graphic strongly suggesting that the much-denied Medieval Warm Period really existed, and was indeed a global phenomenon. (For further evidence, read The Little Ice Age, which predates the worst of the current Global Warming hatefest and thus may be considered reasonably reliable.)
  • I had not heard this before: The imminent Nook ebook reader from Barnes & Noble will have a Wi-Fi connection, allowing owners to browse free ebook previews that are only accessible through store hotspots. This gives people a reason to come into physical stores, Nooks in hand, spend time, drink coffee, browse the print collection, and leave with a bag full of print titles that aren’t available as ebooks. Assuming it’s true, as a marketing gimmick, it’s brilliant.
  • The Nook has a slot for a Micro-SD card with a capacity of up to 16 GB. Assuming a typical text-mostly ebook file to be 500K in size (which is very generous; most fiction titles I’ve seen are about half that, or less) a Nook is capable of storing about 30,000 books. If you read a complete book every single day, that will last you for…82 years.
  • I’ve already seen the Nook e-reader referred to as the “Nookie reader.” Which it will be, trust me.
  • People are quibbling in the comments that it’s not a self-propelled model train, but screw it: This guy made a Z-scale model of an N-scale model train layout, working effectively at a scale of 1:35,200. He gets serious points for, well, something, and the video is very cool.
  • And at the other end of the scale, here’s the world’s largest model train layout. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.) Makes me want to go back and work on The Million-Mile Main Street, positing a 1:1 scale model train layout that covers an entire planet, where the trains (each a sort of AI hive mind) run things, and the people are hired actors.
  • Researchers at Purdue have demonstrated ALICE, a new species of rocket fuel consisting of aluminum nanoparticles and…water. Larger aluminum particles have been used in rocket fuel before (they’re part of the formula in the Shuttle’s strap-on boosters) but the smaller the particles, the more efficiently they burn. As aluminum is common just about everywhere, if you can corner enough solar radiation to smelt the aluminum and dig up some water (guess where, Alice!) you can go places.
  • Pete Albrecht sent me a link to SeatGuru, which provides detailed floor plans for all major aircraft on all major airlines, including where the power ports and extra legroom are. If you fly a lot, it might be worth a close look. Here’s a good example of a specific aircraft.
  • This insane vampire business has evidently begun to affect the cosmetics business; the Daily Mail reports that pale foundation and powder are pushing their tanner competitors right off the market.
  • I stumbled upon the above item after stumbling upon this, which may be the most inexplicable Web site I’ve seen in the last several years. They pay people to put that together? And what kind of organism from what planet reads it?
  • Word must have gotten out that I’m a liturgical conservative. I therefore find this funny, in a slightly painful kind of way. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)

Think Before You Click!

I have a stray hour this morning, and I’d like to work in some notes on a few deceptive online mechanisms of various species that came to my attention all at pretty much the same time.

The first of these is Fanbox, which is a spinoff from a site called a few years ago. I’m getting emails daily that claim to be from Facebook friends telling me that “Rodney Hornswoggle thinks you will really like this YouTube video. [Click here to] Check it out.” Even though I do know Rodney and he is on my friends list, a pitch like that smells to high heaven, and I’m not dumb enough to click on it. I researched it online and got a faceful. The emails were sent by something called Fanbox. Fanbox is a Facebook service that does various things, but, almost incredibly, it works by asking people for their email account and password, so that it can begin spamming everybody in the hapless users’ address books.

I boggle at the notion, but in fact this is not a new phenomenon. Fanbox’s corporate parent has done this sort of thing for years, to the huge annoyance of a great many people. As with other things of this sort, the full story is complex. Google on “ scam” or “fanbox scam” and you’ll begin to get the idea. The takeaway here is obvious: Don’t give your email account password to Facebook apps. Or anybody else, for that matter. Geez.

Next is Video Professor, which is (again) not a new idea: Selling tutorial DVDs via “negative-response billing.” This is illegal in Canada but not the US, and hearkens back to the “book of the month” clubs or “record of the month” clubs in years past, in which you agree to accept (and pay for) an item every month until such time as you cancel the membership. At least with those ancient systems you had some reasonable idea of what it would cost you. Details of how much you end up paying Video Professor for a number of tutorial DVDs ($290!) are obscure, and present only in some very, very small print. TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington wrote about it in the Washington Post , after which Video Professor tried to intimidate both Arrington and the Post with legal threats. It didn’t work, and the effort spawned a great deal of negative publicity for Video Professor. However, they’re still out there, selling DVDs using what I consider an extremely deceptive pitch. Stay well back.

Finally, while we’re talking stuff-hidden-way-down-in-the-fine-print, there are “online loyalty programs.” (More here.) The scam works like this: An online retailer takes your credit card information during an order, but just before the order is completed, you’re invited to join a loyalty program to receive coupons or discounts or something. The program costs $9-$12 per month, but (as always) that’s way down there in the fine print, which authorizes the online retailer to give your credit card information to the loyalty program operator, who then bills your card and kicks backs funds to the online retailer that originated the lead. As with rebates, most of the coupons and other “rewards” are never redeemed, so it’s basically a free monthly slurp out of a great many credit card accounts. Online merchants who use such systems should be avoided. Here are a few mentioned in the article: Priceline (you’re old, Jim!), Orbitz (how d’ya think they could afford that hovercraft?),, Fandango, 1-800-FLOWERS, Continental Airlines, and many others. (I printed out the full list included in the article as a guide to my personal boycott of anybody offering such programs.) And wow! Our old friend,, pocketed $70M through its partnerships with the loyalty progam operators.

Don’t be a victim. Think before you click. Read it all, especially on second or third-tier sites that you haven’t dealt with many times before. Check every line on your monthly credit card statements. Google for the name of the site and “scam” and see what others have said. Paranoia isn’t always a mental illness these days, especially online.

Thanksgiving Break

I’m by no means finished with my current thread on how necessary Windows is, but the Thanksgiving holiday weekend intervened, and Carol and I flew to Chicago earlier this week to spend time with family. I hadn’t seen our nieces Katie Beth and Julie since the beginning of August, and kids change quickly at this point in their lives. Julie is now making short but full sentences (at 18 months) and Katie, now 3, is chattering away as she discusses some pretty interesting issues. For example, last night at Gretchen’s house, Katie looked at me and asked her mother, “What is Uncle Jeff?” (A few of my early girlfriends probably wondered the same thing.) Gretchen tried to explain that Uncle Jeff is her brother, but Katie does not have a brother and may not quite grasp the concept yet.

No sweat on that one; she’ll get there. Carol and I visited with her mom on Wednesday, did some shopping, and helped her sister Kathy prepare the Thanksgiving feast. It was drippy from the moment we got off the plane on Tuesday, and the drips continued through the day Thursday, when the family finally gathered at three. The feast included all the traditional fare: Turkey, ham, stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, rolls, both ceasar and Hawaiian salad, three kinds of home-made pies (with ice cream, as an option) and probably a few things that I missed, most likely green vegetables. As has become the tradition, I acted as sommelier, and brought both dry and sweet wines for the table. The dry red was Cosentino Winery’s Cigarzin 2004, a superb, fruit-forward Zinfandel without much oak but with explosive fruit flavors. Not subtle–but then, neither am I. On the sweet side I chose Bartenura’s Malvasia, an unusual sweet blush with just a little fizz. We also had a German Riesling Auslese from St. Christopher, with a bottle of White Heron in the fridge in case we needed it. As feasts go it was outstanding; much credit going to Kathy, her husband Bob, and Bob’s mother Betty for somehow making all the food appear at an appropriate time at the appropriate temperature.

I stayed out of the stores yesterday for obvious reasons, even though I’m shopping for a new subnotebook or (gasp) netbook. Instead I spent time at Gretchen’s making an old family recipe handed down from our Irish grandmother Sade. It’s called gumgash, which is essentially hamburger mixed with chopped onions, mushrooms, diced tomatoes, and shell macaroni. I dumped a little Campus Oaks Old Vine Zinfandel 2006 into the mix, which isn’t historical but adds significant flavor if you can let the whole thing simmer for 20 minutes. After we all feasted on gumgash, the girls demanded to hear their Phineas and Ferb music CD. This is a spinoff from a cartoon show on the Disney channel, about two 10-year-old nerds who invent things and drive their 15-year-old sister to distraction. The show is the girls’ current favorite (having recently upended the Madagascar Penguins; could there be stirrings of Linux culture here?) and I danced with both of them to a few of the brief but well-written cuts (some of which were hilarious) on the album. There aren’t many effective ways to dance with an 18-month-old, so I sat taylor-style on the kitchen floor and held Julie’s hands while we both swayed back and forth to the pounding rhythms of “I’m Lindana and I Wanna Have Fun!” which, while only 51 seconds long, is insanely catching, and echoed endlessly around in the back of my skull until I finally dozed off at 11 last night.

So here I am, taking a breather on Saturday afternoon before getting busy again. We’ll be home in a couple of days, when I’ll continue the current series, and then segue into some observations about writing fiction. I like lumps in my Thanksgiving mashed potatoes, and I like lumps in my exposition. The important part is what the lumps are made of. If they’re tasty enough, nobody will care…but I’ll get back to that.

How Necessary Is Windows? Part 5: Crossover

There have been several attempts down the years to make Windows unnecessary. The most audacious is doubtless ReactOS, which cuts to the heart of things and wants to be a complete Windows XP-compatible OS. Needless to say, this is no small project and will take a long time to complete; right now, I’d call it somewhere between completely useless and intriguingly experimental. (It runs Skype, at least.) I’m also concerned that if they ever do get it anywhere near useful completion, Microsoft will stomp on it hard.

That’s certainly the high road. But how necessary is it to clone the whole damned OS? A Windows app, after all, is just a block of x86 machine code that makes calls into one or more APIs. If you can clone the APIs in an acceptably clean-room manner, you don’t need to duplicate the entire architecture, kernel and all.

And that brings us to one of the oldest and oddest ongoing projects in open-source computing: Wine, begun in 1993 by Bob Amstadt and Eric Youngdale. Wine provides a compatibility layer consisting of clean-room DLLs implementing the Win32 APIs, plus whatever magic is necessary to make the deeper host OS machinery look like Windows to the app. This is easier than implementing a whole OS, with the further advantage that if done properly, Wine can act as a Windows compatibility layer over several Unix-like OSes, rather than only Linux. Currently, Wine can operate over Linux, Mac OS X, FreeBSD Unix, and x86 Solaris.

After 16 years of dogged work, Wine actually works pretty well. Part of its success is due to a remarkable cooperation between the Wine project and a commercial software house in St. Paul named Codeweavers. Codeweavers sells a $40 deployment/management utility for Wine called Crossover, which basically makes Wine noob-friendly. (Naked Wine is pretty stark.) Codeweavers also tweaks Wine itself to improve app compatibility, and contributes those tweaks back to the Wine project under LGPL. Some financial support is also provided to the otherwise volunteer-based Wine project. Wine’s founder, Alexandre Julliard, is an employee of Codeweavers, where he works full-time on Wine development.

Codeweavers focuses mostly on big-market apps like Microsoft Office, and doesn’t officially support apps beyond a relatively short list of “gold” software. However, I’ve found that a great many Windows apps install and run just fine under Crossover whether they’re on the list or not. InDesign 2.0 is listed on the site as “known not to work” but apart from a minor display glitch, it seems to work as always. (I haven’t tested it deeply so far.) Most Microsoft apps work beautifully (especially older ones) and I’ve been using Office 2000 and Visio 2000 under it without incident since last fall.

Wine implements a sort of runtime environment emulation for Windows called a “bottle.” More than one bottle may be created on a single host OS, and each bottle has its own emulated C: drive and Registry. By giving each Windows app its own bottle under Wine, apps are prevented from interfering with one another in the dreaded “DLL Hell” effect. Because it’s not a VM, the performance hit for running Wine/Crossover is very small, and most important, you do not need to have a legal copy of Windows running in the VM. On the other hand, a bottle looks enough like Windows to be infectable by Windows malware, though one bottle probably can’t infect other bottles on a Linux system, or the underlying system itself. (From what I’ve heard, the low-level system tricks played by many malware packages keep them from running or at least running completely.) There are known conflicts between WGA and Wine, so don’t install WGA if you can avoid it.

Bottom line: If Wine supports all the Windows apps you absolutely must use, you do not need Windows at all. I haven’t tested all the Windows packages that I use here (next up is MapPoint 2004) but for Office and Visio 2000 it’s been nothing short of magical, and I’m guessing InDesign will come along eventually. In a mature software market, time works in our favor: One by one, existing apps will be installable under Wine, and each time that happens, Windows slips a little bit deeper beneath the waters of irrelevance.

Next up: For the hard cases, there’s always virtualization.

Harry L. Helms 1952-2009

I got word the other day that Harry L. Helms W5HLH had died this past Sunday. Harry was a friend for over 20 years, and we met regularly at trade shows including the Borland conferences and ABA/BEA, just to touch base and trade ideas. He and I had a lot in common: We were both longtime hams, we both liked classic radio gear, shortwave listening, and publishing. (We were also within a few weeks of the same age.) He was the co-founder of HighText Publishing in Solana Beach, California, and the author of a lot of books worth reading, including Shortwave Listening Guidebook (1993), How to Tune the Secret Shortwave Spectrum (1981), Top Secret Tourism (2007) and Inside the Shadow Government (2003), which may be the scariest book I’ve ever read. He published Andrew Yoder’s Pirate Radio (1996) which is best-of-breed on the history of that insane little cross-current in the mostly placid waters of the radio broadcasting industry.

His passing was nothing out of the blue: He had blogged about his struggle with cancer for several years, and displayed a species of courage in the face of imminent death that I hope I can summon when my own time comes. His last months were spent in his home town in South Carolina, with his wife and family, and his dogs and cats all around him, and if we all have to make that final leap into the unknown, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better way to do it.

Harry had a healthy scientific mind, and while not religious, he told me he was open to the possibility that death is not the end of all things. He enjoyed uncovering the hidden and the secretive and the overlooked (see Top Secret Tourism for a travel guide to all the places the government would just as soon nobody knew about) and I have an intuition that he was looking forward to seeing “what was out there.” In one of our last exchanges some months ago, I made an outrageous suggestion, about which I won’t say more unless something remarkable happens.

We’ve got his books, and for the time being, that’s remarkable enough for me. W5HLH DE K7JPD / TNKS GUD LK ES 73 SK.

How Necessary Is Windows? Part 4: Format Lock-In

Computing certainly isn’t about operating systems. Nor is it really about apps. It’s about files. Data is what we create, modify, store, and distribute in electronic form, and the ways that our data is stored give shape to almost everything else we do in computing. Being able to move from one platform to another thus depends almost completely on whether or not we can bring our files with us.

I’ve been working in front of a personal computer on an almost daily basis since May of 1979, and over the past thirty years I’ve accumulated thousands of made-by-hand files. Much of that is text, and I’ve had almost complete success bringing document files forward down the years, bouncing from one word processor to another by using various format-conversion tools. SF stories I wrote in CP/M WordStar in 1980 have passed through WordPerfect for DOS and several major releases of Microsoft Word and still live on my writing projects thumb drive. I keep a commercial Windows utility called Quick View Plus on hand to extract text from extinct file formats when necessary, which has been pretty rarely in recent years. Still, it’s there if I need it.

It’s a lot tougher once you get away from text. There are no conversion utilities for Adobe InDesign or Microsoft Visio, and as best I know nothing will import files created on either app. This is probably also the case for QuickBooks, and probably a great many more major applications that I’ve simply had no need for and no experience with.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this kind of file format lock-in is the only thing keeping some of these companies profitable, or for some of them simply in business. Computing is mature in terms of the basic mechanisms we use to manipulate data: text editing, page layout, spreadsheeting, presentation, raster drawing and vector drafting, image processing, and database query and display. Small points may be patentable, but the fundamental machinery is now older than any surviving patents. Building an app that could load and edit an InDesign layout file would take some work but no genius, and if done would be a major competitor to InDesign, not only in new projects but (crucially!) in existing projects as well. Adobe guards its file formats with its life because its file formats are its life.

Alas, my files are my life too. And when Adobe’s IP rights bump up against my IP rights, who wins? Adobe, of course. Hence my hatred of activation: I don’t use newer versions of InDesign because Adobe can turn them off remotely and basically hold my work hostage if they choose to, perhaps because they’re too stupid to tell a RAID from a separate machine, or because they’re hungry enough to want to force me to pay for an upgrade that may have no new features that I need…and maybe no new features at all.

I have no general Stallmanesque animus against commercial software. I have a fortune in boxed apps on the shelf, and have never minded paying for them, even when they were upgrades. However, upgrading must be my choice, and migration of software to newer machines as time passes must not require new licenses.

Even commercial software that doesn’t require activation often demands a service and a tray icon, constantly popping up notifiers trying to upsell me to something I neither want nor need. In a mature market, there’s less demand for upgrades, and people can be happy using software for a long, long time. I can understand the vendors’ perspective and their need to be selling all the time to stay alive in a mature market. I think they should recognize my right to find it annoying and turn to software that doesn’t yammer so much and waste my cycles.

The bottom line here is that some apps are difficult to move away from; for me, the two killers are InDesign and Visio. Yours may be different, but I think most people who do creative work at the keyboard have a few. The difficulty lies entirely in proprietary file formats, and leads me to the infuriating conclusion that Windows is necessary only to allow me access to my own files.

The good news (for small values of “good”) is that there are tricks to be played. More in the next installment.

How Necessary Is Windows? Part 3: Apps

I came down with a monster headcold the last couple of days, and whereas this entry was in the can since Sunday, the remaining entries may be a little slower in coming. Bear with me…

We don’t use Windows because it’s Windows. (Most of us use it because it came on the machine and, well, it’s paid for.) Windows is just an operating system, and an OS is a troll living under a bridge. Applications with specific missions lean over the railing and shout orders to the troll, who (mostly) does as they say while keeping order up on the bridge. An OS is 80% facilitator and 20% bodyguard. Our real work happens in the apps. If the apps we use can be run without Windows, then Windows isn’t necessary at all.

There are three ways to break free of an application’s dependence on Windows:

  1. Find a version of a Windows app that runs on your OS of choice;
  2. Switch to a similar app that runs on your OS of choice; or
  3. Coerce a Windows app to run somehow on the OS of your choice.

I’ve done all three, and for the sake of further discussion here, the OS of choice is Linux. Mac OS/X is another worthy option, and all three of these methods are available there too, but for several reasons I hesitate to give Apple my money. (We’ll talk of this at some point; people who know my deep history will understand.)

There is a lot of very good free software to be had for Linux, and it can be had very easily. The Ubuntu Software Center allows easy search for apps via category browsing or keyword search, and any selected apps are downloaded from trusted repositories and installed without further intervention. The Software Center can tell you what packages are already installed, and can uninstall packages you no longer want. This is so uncharacteristic of the ancient Unix culture of pain that I still giggle sometimes when I install something. (“This is easy. Too easy…”)

I was a little surprised at how many Windows apps have almost identical versions running under Linux. This is true of some commercial apps as well as free apps, but free apps are much more likely to have Linux versions. I use the following apps almost identically under both Windows and Linux:

This represents a good deal of what I do in front of the keyboard. (Maybe a third.) I’ve heard that Google Earth can be had in a Linux version but haven’t tested it yet. It’s not available through the Ubuntu Software Center.

Switching to a similar Linux app takes more doing, but for some sorts of work it isn’t difficult. I don’t use newsgroups very much anymore, but using Pan under Linux was relatively pain-free, even though it’s quite different from Forte Agent in many respects. There’s a very useful site called Open Source As Alternative that provides suggestions as to what free apps are reasonable alternatives to many commercial Windows apps. Definitely spend some time there if you haven’t already; the real trick in open source software is often just knowing that it exists, absent pervasive ad campaigns. For example, I’ve known about the Gimp for ten years, but never heard of GimpShop (Gimp reworked to have a menu structure more like Photoshop’s) until I read about it on OSAlt.

KOffice is probably the best of the open-source office suites, though not all the several apps are equally powerful or polished. OpenOffice is even better functionally, but it has some weirdnesses (font management first among them) that probably stem from its Java-centric design. It used to be the only one of the open source word processors I know of that will load a .docx file, but the latest Abiword will do that now. Note that OO will bog anything less muscular than a 2 GHz Pentium, so don’t install it on older machines, and max your memory before you install it on anything.

For generating raw text and editing old Word 2000 files, I now use Abiword routinely. I don’t do much spreadsheeting, but my fairly simple PlanetPlanner spreadsheet loads and runs on Gnumeric, and that’s good enough for me.

Alas, once you get away from the most simple and widespread categories of apps (like word processors and spreadsheets) the news is mostly bad. The real problem with similar-but-not-identical apps isn’t the work it takes to learn them. It’s a phenomenon called file format lock-in, and in some respects is the key issue in this discussion. More about that in the next installment, probably when my nose stops dripping into my keyboard.

Odd Lots

  • There’s a useful overview of the latest Ubuntu release (9.10) here. Note the cautions about the 9.10 partitioner, especially if you have more than one SATA drive in a system destined for a clean install on a shared drive. I ran into some still-unresolved difficulties with the partitioner recently, but they seem to be machine-specific and may be due to BIOS limitations. More on that as I learn it.
  • A similar site for Kubuntu 9.10 is here.
  • I’m not much into costuming (or Halloween, for that matter; my sister got that gene instead) but within the genre of one-person-pretending-to-be-two, this may well be best-of-breed.
  • On the other hand, this one comes close, for sheer attention to detail if nothing else.
  • And while we’re talking tauntauns, didja see the tauntaun sleeping bag? Authentic right down to the tauntaun guts pattern on the lining. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • 2009 is now #8 on the most-sunspotless-years-since-1849 hit parade. Ten more spotless days and we move into position #7. I’m laying odds that 2009 will eventually get into 6th place but no higher.
  • God may not like the Higgs Boson, but hey, I’m not all that fond of opera. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Here’s an interesting pamphlet from 1945 on what the future of television might be. If they only knew…
  • Frank Glover sent a link to an article sponsored by the ESA suggesting some SF ideas that have been realized to some extent or still may have some promise in our own (and not some alternative) future. A little breezy, but has a lot of full-color SF art and classic magazine covers. (5 MB PDF.)
  • This may seem like a weird stunt, but it was (and may still be) a common thing on dairy farms. When I was 10 or 11, I watched Auntie Della milk a cow by hand one morning for the day’s needs, and the barn cats (who kept the barn free of mice) would line up for their milk squirts. Auntie Della’s aim was very good, and by all indications the cats were completely good with that.
  • Make Magazine published a brilliant little project: A vacuum cleaner hose trap for small parts like screws and washers. (110K PDF.) Doesn’t rely on magnetism, but is more like a lobster trap, in that parts enter easily but can’t leave, and rattle around tellingly when the hose pulls them in.
  • From the Jolly Pirate comes word of the Corsair Flash Voyager GT: A 128 GB thumb drive optimized for speed, and (according to him) capable of holding over 20,000 MP3s. $400 now…but check again in six months, heh.
  • Turn the Dodge Viper logo upside-down, and what you’ve got is Daffy Duck.

How Necessary Is Windows? Part 2: Ubuntu

In the past two week’s I’ve installed Ubuntu Linux 9.10 (Karmic Koala) three times: twice as upgrades, and once as a clean install from a CD. The combo LiveCD/installer ISO came down with uTorrent in 8 minutes 5 seconds (!!) and has given me trouble only once, and that with the partitioner: I tried to install 9.10 on Carol’s old HP laptop, but the partitioner could not determine the size of the existing Windows partition, and thus the resizer slider would not appear. On an SX270 with a similar size hard drive and an existing XP partition, the partioner resized XP without any trouble. (I’m wondering if there’s some weirdness in the HP BIOS, but have not gone after it yet.) I’ve spent a great deal of time in Ubuntu in recent days, and beyond that one little glitch with the laptop, I’d say Karmic is the best one yet.

Apart from its contrarian (and purely optional) brownness, Karmic’s default GNOME desktop is a great deal like Windows XP. The taskbar functionality is divided between two panels, one at the top and one at the bottom. Now that 20″ displays are common, I use two lines for the Windows taskbar as well and don’t begrudge GNOME the extra line–and you can put both panels at the screen bottom if you want to. The Home folder stands well for My Documents, with familiar subfolders for documents, music, pictures, video, and downloads. Nautilus looks enough like Windows Explorer to pass, especially given that most of us custom-configure Explorer after awhile and not everyone’s configuration is identical. Left mouse button selects, right brings up context. In short, all the basic ideas of the Windows UI are present, in recognizable form. There’s some bumping-up-against-habit in switching from one UI to another, but after even a little time exploring in GNOME you won’t be lost anymore.

The Control Center is a great deal like Control Panel, with applets to manage most configurable options. One gripe about the Control Center is that there is a perfectly good applet to manage grub’s boot options, but it’s not installed by default and I only came across mention of it online by accident, while looking for something else. If you want it, go into the Software Center, and search for Startup-Manager. Install it, and you can specify grub’s default OS, the menu time delay, a splash background, and other things. I take back the grouchiness expressed in my entry for November 7, 2009, with the exception that Startup-Manager needs to be installed by default.

I still have a gripe with Linux generally that goes back a long ways: It needs centralized font management. Unless I’m missing it (and I looked pretty hard) no such applet exists for Control Center, and installing fonts is much more fussy than it needs to be. This may not matter much if you’re not a publisher or a graphic artist, but it matters a lot to me. I have a set of expensive Type 1 fonts that I bought in 2001 and use in all of my Copperwood Press books, but getting them into Linux was non-trivial, and not all apps that should recognize them do. Scribus and poor little Abiword picked them up immediately, but OpenOffice still can’t see them and I still can’t figure why. I know that X11 makes font management a little more complex than it is in Windows, but that’s no excuse for not having a font manager in Control Center.

Beyond that, few complaints. There is now a Safely Remove Drive context menu item for thumb drive mount icons that I don’t remember seeing in earlier versions. Videos that play without sound in Windows (due to obscure codec errors) play with full sound in Karmic. Bottom line: Ubuntu 9.10 implements all the fundamental GUI machinery that Windows does, and does it with enough similarity not to drive a newcomer to distraction. From that standpoint, Windows really isn’t necessary at all…but alas, GUI machinery is only one small piece of the larger Windows pie. More tomorrow.