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November, 2009:

How Necessary Is Windows? Part 1: Overview

Still dealing with neck problems here, but in the background I’ve been pursuing a long-term, low-intensity project aimed at discerning how necessary Windows is for my daily operations. Back in 2001 or so, Keith and I considered publishing a book called Dumping Microsoft, but after I looked closely at the Linux releases of the time, decided it would be premature. Windows 2000 was mighty good, and Linux had yet to break out of its all-hail-the-console, pain-is-good hacker culture. It may be time to reconsider the necessity of Windows (and perhaps that book) which is what my upcoming series here is about.

I’ve changed operating systems often enough in the last 30 years not to get too attached to any of them, and have no tribal/emotional investment in Windows 2000 or XP. An OS is just a workbench, after all: It does very little work by itself, and exists almost entirely to help applications do what they must do in the most productive way possible. Too much of modern OS versions is just gratuitous glitz, which eats machine cycles and doesn’t get a page laid out any faster. My reaction to Windows Vista was pretty simple: What’s in all this for me? The primary purpose of Windows Vista was to make itself harder to steal, which is something of a fetish over there–and all the glitz was tossed in to persuade people to upgrade. Furthermore, the damned thing was slow. No sale.

You’ve heard me say many times here that personal computing is mature. I help out people at our parish with their computers, and an astonishing number of them still use Office 97. They may use the latest IE or Firefox, but they haven’t seen the need to spend more money on word processing or spreadsheets. That’s because the need isn’t there. Office ’97 probably has 90% of everything useful in an office suite; if you want the rest, get Office 2000, which I myself have been using for almost ten years now.

It’s taken Linux longer to reach parity with Win2K/XP because it’s written by volunteer programmers and not highly paid engineers on continuous death-march. It’s also required the vision of a consumer-oriented distro firm to package up a version of Linux amenable to non-technical people. The testing I’ve done over the past year (in parallel with revising my assembly language book for Linux) tells me that Canonical’s Ubuntu Linux is ready for ordinary users, and if it were widely available as a preinstall would be considered no geekier than Windows. (Installing Ubuntu from CD is actually loads easier than installing Windows XP. Microsoft would be perhaps a third its current size if not for Windows preinstalls.)

What makes it urgent now is a creeping suspicion I have that Windows malware is unstoppable. I see articles on tech sites several times a week describing new and increasingly clever exploits of flaws in Microsoft and Adobe software. This is troubling on many fronts, from the technical–Why in hell do we still have buffer overflow exploits after all these years?–to the purely political: How do we know that exploits in closed-source software have really been fixed? Linux is not immune to infection (it’s secure at least in part because of its rarity) but the fact is that infections are difficult and rarely seen in the wild. I want to take advantage of that security, whatever its origins.

Hence the current project. I’ve talked about bits and pieces of it here and there in the past year, and it may be time to present what I’ve learned in more detail. Stay tuned.

Odd Lots

  • Watch out when upgrading to Skype 4: The upgrade installs a Firefox/IE extension called Browser Highlighter that slows the browser down significantly, and I sure don’t remember it showing me a checkbox to uncheck or in any other way refuse the install. This install-without-warning has gotten people more than a little het up. Like Skype, Browser Highlighter is owned by eBay and appears to facilitate online price comparisons. To get rid of it, execute the uninstaller via Start | Programs | Browser Highlighter. Don’t just disable it in the browser; it must be uninstalled from Windows like any app or it’ll just show up in your taskbar tray again when you reboot.
  • From the Words-I-Didn’t-Know-Until-Yesterday Department: An acnestis is an itchy place that you can’t reach to scratch. (Thanks to Larry Nelson for the suggestion.) I use a 24″ slide rule to scratch my acnestes. Very accurate; gets to precisely the right spot!
  • The Arrington Crunchpad may be in trouble. Dayum. I had high hopes for this one, not so much for Web or cloud work as for an ebook reader.
  • Here is a fantastic archive of scanned Radio Shack catalogs, browsable page-by-page. I had a lot of these from the midlate 60s to 1980 or so, and intermittently since. (Thanks to Bernie Sidor for the link.)
  • From Bill Cherepy comes word of a managed PC built into a network jack. It’s unclear how well this would run desktop software, but for cloud computing it could be useful, and in a cube farm setting would not be easily picked up and walked away with.
  • In addition to Green River and Diet Green River, there was at one time Green River Orange Soda, and Pete Albrecht reminds me that there was yet another (unrelated) Green River: The Whiskey Without a Headache. I’ll believe that when I feel it. (But I can’t stand whiskey, so don’t wait up for me to do the experiment.)
  • And if “whiskey without a headache” sounds a little unlikely, then say hello to the robotic cow rectum.

Karmic Koala and Grub

I twisted my neck funny earlier this week, and since then have had intermittent neck pain and nearly constant back-of-the-head headaches. If you haven’t heard from me here, that’s mainly the reason. Things are better now, but this neck thing is a serious issue. It doesn’t take much to much to set it off, and alas, flying kites and looking at the stars have both been implicated.

The pain hasn’t allowed me to get much writing done this week, but I did decide to take a chance and do an early upgrade to Ubuntu 9.10, Karmic Koala. I usually let new major releases of OSes cook for a few weeks so that somebody else will spot the obvious bugs and fix them before I put my own arse in the line of fire. In this case, my neck hurt so bad that my arse didn’t care, and I said, Make it so, #2.

Others have complained of problems with 9.10, so I was gritting my teeth a little as the process proceeded. It took about three hours, but the install went without incident, as had upgrades to 9.04 and 8.10 previously. When nothing obvious blew up, I then spent a couple of hours just trying things: Showing videos, listening to MP3s, playing games, opening documents and spreadsheets, and so on. Having declared the upgrade good, I tried to run KGrubEditor…and realized that it was gone. Its icon was blank, and double-clicking on it did nothing. Apparently the upgrade from Jaunty to Karmic uninstalled KGrubEditor without asking me, leaving me an empty launcher on the desktop.

I thought this might have had something to do with Ubuntu’s moving from Grub to Grub 2 with the 9.10 release, but that’s true only for new installs: Upgrades to 9.10 leave Grub in place and only update menu.lst. So I don’t know why it happened, and I remain a little annoyed. Grub should already have a GUI settings manager/applet in the Administration menu; it shouldn’t be up to some guy to write an independent app to do the job. Editing menu.lst is one of the things I do so rarely that I don’t get good at it, which is precisely why GUI settings editors are necessary.

KGrubEditor is nowhere in the list of apps available through the Synaptic Package Manager, and when I tried to add the KDE4 PPA repository containing KGrubEditor, Synaptic could not access it for some reason. (It may have been an old URL; I’m not an ace at such things and don’t know how to be sure.) I eventually just went up and downloaded the damned thing manually and installed it, but the app can’t find its OS icons and doesn’t correctly set the default boot menu item. I guess I have to uninstall it and reinstall it, but I’ve killed enough time on it this weekend and will leave that task for later.

The takeaway is simple: As good as Ubuntu Linux is, it still has some gaping holes, and bootloader settings management is at the top of that regrettable list.

Odd Lots

  • The University of Utah has a fascinating animation demonstrating the relative sizes of very small things. Starting at the scale of a coffee bean, you can zoom down by pushing a slider past single cells, various viruses, proteins, until you reach the carbon atom. Won’t take but a minute, and has plenty of wow factor, especially if you can’t picture things clearly at nanoscale.
  • For all the beautiful weather and the fact that school was out, this year’s Halloween saw no trick-or-treaters here on Stanwell Street until almost 5 PM. Summer from around the corner and her third-grade friends arrived in a mob at 6:30, and Dash got plenty of girl-attention, but that mostly exhausted the supply of local grade-schoolers. A few young teens came by between 7 and 8, but that about was it. The neighborhood has a fair number of teens, but we were told they were all having at-home parties, and we’re good with that, though I have a mass of Milk Duds here that would probably go critical if placed in a single sufficiently large bowl.
  • Carol and I went over to our next-door neighbors later in the evening. Carol wore her footie jammies and put her hair up in huge 70s rollers. I cobbled up a Ben Franklin outfit that wasn’t half bad, and I carried the small pink kite tethered to a balloon stick with about two feet of string. When we walked in, the guy down the street commented, “Lost some weight, huh Ben?” “Yup,” I replied. “Low-carb and all that.”
  • Want to haunt a house? Hire a team of scientists and an architect. Real ghosts just never show up for work when you need them.
  • This is the smallest packaged PC I have ever seen. Not worthwhile, given that it lacks digital audio out, is Atom-based, and stuck on Ubuntu 8.04 (!!) but it is small.
  • And if you’ll settle for something only a little bit bigger, the AOpen MP45D will do a lot more.
  • I may have linked to this once years ago, but it’s worth running through again: The Museum of Unworkable Devices, which is bestiary of perpetual motion machines, with careful explanations of why they don’t work. Lots of links to even more of the same.
  • NASA has calculated the “average color of the universe“…and it’s the color of my livingroom walls! (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Finally, don’t forget the contest I posted yesterday once it goes down under the fold! Keep those shortie filk schticks coming!