Saturday, September 6, 2008

Living in KDE . . .

After my recent experiences with KDE 4.1 (followup here), I decided to finally give Kubuntu its due, and I have to say: I really like it. I went ahead and changed my Gnome Ubuntu installation to Kubuntu (using sudo apt-get install kubuntu-desktop) and choosing kdm as my default desktop manager. I've been very pleased, and I may have even made the leap to KDE as my preferred environment. So what's changed for me? I wasn't having any problems with Gnome, per se, but, as I posted recently, I was just getting a little bored with it. Here's a shot of my current desktop:

I've found that KDE is just as stable as Gnome, and the buggy-ness that I have complained about has not really been an issue now that I've committed to it. On a side note, I'm also just getting better at fixing problems as they occur. Linux settings are much more doable than I thought, and I'm having less of that "Oh-my-god-I-wish-I-could-just-call-tech-support" feeling about problems I encounter. Her are my favorite things about Kubuntu's brand of KDE:
  • a "right-out-of-the-box" attractive interface - even the default background photos are attractive, which is not true for Gnome Ubuntu (note: the image in my screenshot is one I found through StumbleUpon)
  • Amarok - it's now my favorite music player and comes (in Kubuntu, anyway) with a link to Magnatune - great music, free to listen - it's usable and configurable
  • Konsole - it makes the terminal feel like a web browser: I can run concurrent sessions in multiple tabs - very useful since I'm often logged into several computers at once
"Regular" Ubuntu has been my home desktop, but now that I often work from home, KDE is a better fit overall. I'll report back as I continue to explore.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Having to Feed the Windows Monkey

I haven't done much "Windows bashing" here - a very popular sport among Linux users in general - because I tend not to 1) think it's a good idea to do so when my goals are about free software promotion and 2) care all that much. Since I began this project, the Windows partition on my original hard drive has become smaller and smaller, and I boot into it less and less. As others in my dual-boot situation probably know, however, this can become a problem - I'll explain what I mean through a short Ubuntu vs. Windows comparison.

If I were to take the Ubuntu Hardy Heron installation disk that I burned in April and put a fresh install on my computer, the necessary software updates required to bring my computer up to the state it's now in would number in the hundreds and take, oh, I don't know, 25 minutes at the most to process with a high speed Internet connection. I'd probably have to reboot once during this process, but that's only because the Ubuntu kernel has been replaced at least once since then, and you can't (or shouldn't) run a new kernel without booting into it. All told, though, I'd be done with this maintenance and ready to play Same Gnome within a half hour or so. This process is no fuss and you can usually do other things on the computer while it's all processing.

Well (and you know what's coming), when I booted into Windows XP last night to use iTunes (which I almost never use anymore, but I have an older iPod shuffle, for which Linux alternatives are limited), I was confronted with several competing programs that all wanted to automatically update at the same time (including iTunes). Windows Update, McAfee antivirus (which comes free with my ISP), Adobe Reader (which is its own story - why do we have to work so hard for a program that only occasionally opens PDFs?!) and Java were all jumping up and down saying "Update me first!" " No - me!". I felt hijacked! All I wanted to do was to see if Apple had a $0.99 song to download (and they didn't even have was I was looking for!). My computer seemed to be pushed to the limit and I finally gave up on browsing the web because it was requiring too many resources just to process the many updates. I had to reboot twice. Then I went ahead and set McAfee to scan Windows and went to bed. And this was after not booting into Windows for maybe 2 1/2 weeks!

With Ubuntu running so well (the cooling fan, which was blowing at full speed in Windows, almost never comes on during normal use), and doing all the work I need my computer to do, I wonder sometimes why I keep Windows at all. Maybe I'll start seriously looking into using Wine to run my necessary Windows programs and finally moving to a full Ubuntu box. Using Windows is just too much work for an OS that I don't even like that much anymore!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ubuntu: Old Hat?

I've only been using Ubuntu for six months, but I'm finding I'm getting a little restless as far as Linux goes. I just read two interesting Ubuntu-related articles, one about Ubuntu boredom (in the sense that solid and dependable are "boring") and the other from a jaded Linux system administrator who found in Ubuntu the home desktop Linux he's been looking for all his life. I'm understanding both perspectives now. For my new job I'm learning Linux (Debian GNU/Linux, more precisely) at the command line level (servers typically do not employ GUI desktops), and at home I keep wanting to explore new places. I think what I'm dealing with is the inevitable letdown that comes after any sort of mountaintop experience - when your new love or religious insight or whatever begins to just become part of your life. Not that it's "nothing special" - you just want to rekindle some of that emotional high that you had when you first found it. That's where I am with Ubuntu at the moment.

As I mentioned, I partitioned my Windows hard drive, originally for Kubuntu, and there I saw KDE 4.1, which captured my imagination for a few days, but again, I still land in the Gnome camp as far as desktop environments go, at least for the time being. Now I have an installation of Lenny, the soon-to-be-labeled-"stable" version of Debian, which I intended to be a minimal installation so I would really be forced to work in the command line, even at home, but I put KDE on it after some back and forth dithering. I'm simultaneously enjoying the utterly dependable nature of Ubuntu and its many applications and wanting something more, something different.

Maybe what I really need is to bring more people into this world, so I can vicariously re-experience that flood of excitement again. "Whoa! This is really fast!" and "Wow - this rivals Windows and Mac for quality alone!" and "This is all free?" and "Ah. . . I get it. That's what 'free' means!" Until then I need to learn to appreciate Linux for all it's stability and dependability, and be more patient about what innovations are around the corner.

Friday, August 8, 2008

My Linux Anniversary - 1 Year Later . . .

Well, it has been a year since I took the plunge and installed Debian on my parents' old desktop, and my what a year it has been! One year ago I was a reference librarian at a busy suburban library who found a book about Linux and decided to try out Knoppix for the first time. I had just been turned down for a job with the state library agency and wanted to bone up on my "technology skills," whatever I meant by that. Since the state library's system runs on Linux, I thought learning that environment would make me more marketable. So for a few weeks there I would drag my parents' desktop out of a closet and hook it up, then when I was finished I'd disassemble everything and put it back in the closet (since it took up too much space in our small apartment). Since the network card never worked, I never really did get a feel of what actually using Linux for my day-to-day computing needs would be like. Then, because of several goings on in my personal and professional life, I put my Linux toys away for a few months (and gave away my parents' comptuer) until I needed to use the Linux-based Cinelerra for a video project and I installed Ubuntu on a second hard drive on my main computer.

Having Ubuntu on my main computer truly changed the way I thought about my computing needs and choices, and I spent weeks just downloading free (and I do mean free) software and trying different things out. I was truly astonished at what tools I now had at my disposal, and when I began researching how this all came about (through books and online videos, mainly) I discovered that this was something I truly wanted to get involved with, both personally and professionally. I've always been "computer savvy," meaning that I know my way around computer hardware and software and learn those concepts fairly easily, but I wanted to develop specific skills that would allow me to get a job in technology-oriented librarianship.

Then another job came open with the state library as system administrator, and I was dissatisfied enough in my reference librarian position to give this a try. I was not exactly qualified for the position, but I hoped my newfound determination to get this sort of job, along with my nascent devotion to free and open source software, would win me some points as a candidate. They were looking for either a techie with library knowledge or a librarian with a technical background or interest (neither combination is all that common), and they chose me, the librarian with tech skills (well, more interest than skills, but I'm working on it). So I'm now the system administrator (in training) for one of the most forward-thinking library agencies in the country, running the open source, GPL-ed Evergreen ILS, for which my predecessor led the development team (now Equinox Software, Inc.).

So now I've gone from being a non-Linux user to a Linux end user/advocate to a professional position where I need to know the inner workings of Linux cold. I'd say it's been a pretty good year, wouldn't you? :-)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

More on KDE 4.1

Okay, I've only used KDE 4.1 for a couple of days and I have a little more to report. The first thing to say that this is my favorite KDE "straight out of the box" that I've encountered so far in my limited experience. Aesthetically, this couldn't be better - I think it's much sleeker than Gnome (we'll see what Gnome 3.0 brings) and rivals the design of Mac OS X (sorry - prejudice aside, Vista's not in the running here!). The eye candy is abundant, but not overdone. The last thing to say about the "look" factor is that in all my years as a computer end-user, I have never just wanted to sit there and admire the desktop, especially without changing the default wallpaper. I can't help it - I'm posting another screenshot:

So let's consider it a settled point that KDE 4.1 is very pretty.

There are, though, some issues I've encountered. I've always found KDE to be a bit buggy, and this one seems to be no exception:
  • The "startup" music clip is truncated (I hear dramatic piano that begins, then suddenly stops). Strangely, the "shutdown" clip works fine.
  • As a Firefox - Thunderbird user, I always have problems setting them as my default browser/mail client - this has been true in all my KDE experience.
  • I tried to configure Kopete as my Google chat client, but it failed, saying that I didn't have a certain plugin installed (which I do see on my package list as installed).
  • I'll mention here that my KDE 4.1 is installed onto my existing Kubuntu KDE 3.5 installation, which may be a factor in these issues.
And just a couple of usability complaints:
  • Well, (and this was lambasted in KDE 4.0 from what I've read) the desktop is no longer a "desktop" in the sense that you can just, say, download a file and put it there (which is something I do all the time). It is now a palate to place "widgets," some of which are actually useful, but are mostly nonessential eye candy as far as I can tell.
  • Things are not as "configurable" as they were before. I can't, for instance, change my clock to display in a "12 hour" mode - not a huge deal, just a preference. Some of the things that are configurable are things I'm not that interested in changing, like the length of my task panel at the bottom of the screen.
All in all, though, this is an impressive program, and I will keep it going alongside my "normal" Ubuntu Hardy installation.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

KDE 4.1 - Wow!

Okay, I'll just start with the screenshot, because, I'm just a little speechless:

Can you believe this is Linux?!? As anyone who has followed my blog knows, I've had mixed reviews of KDE in the past. I first saw KDE in Knoppix, my first experience using Linux, and it just looked foreign and strange, and not that inviting. I tried KDE again when I first installed Ubuntu and liked it okay. Actually I thought it was nice enough, but just a little boring maybe - a little too Windows-y looking for my taste. And I know it's shallow, but all the "K" names (Klipper, Konsole, Konqueror) were really bugging me there for a while. Since then, though I've kept a separate Kubuntu partition, just to be able to use it from time to time, if for no other reason than that it's free and that it gives me a well-rounded Linux experience to use both Gnome and KDE.

I replaced my monitor today, the CRT model that came with my Dell in 2004 with an LG 19" flat panel, and I wanted to see how KDE looks on it. Then decided to see if I could give KDE 4.1 a whirl. So I downloaded it to work alongside KDE 3.5 and wow, is it awesome! It's almost like an entirely different program, making my darling Ubuntu Gnome desktop look a little boring itself. I may even do a fresh install of Kubuntu in this partition with KDE 4, then upgrade to KDE 4.1. In any case, I'm sure I'll report back with more to say!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Learning How Linux Really Works

The thrust of this blog has been an attempt to use Linux in the same way one would use Windows or Mac OS, which is to say, without using the command line. Nothing makes people's eyes glaze over more quickly than the very words "command line," no matter which type of computer you're using. I recently showed my father-in-law the bash shell on his three-year-old MacBook, and he had no clue what it is or what it does. When Windows 95 took hold of the computing world, it was a while before I found that the "MS/DOS" icon opens the command window that works like it always did in the pre-GUI days of the late eighties. In any case, the command line is where Linux truly works, and all the mousing and clicking is really only issuing commands to the shell, the Unix/Linux term for the command line interface.

For all of the Linux distributions I've encountered, bash (the Bourne Again Shell) is the default shell (there are others that I haven't explored yet). I'll mention here that bash is a program developed for the GNU operating system, which, along with the Linux kernel, constitutes GNU/Linux, or what many call simply "Linux." A shell is simply a program that allows a human being to interface with the computer, manage files, perform tasks, and so on. To use the shell, you type in a command (input) and the shell performs the command and provides feedback (output) or simply returns to the command prompt, which lets you know that the command worked and all is well. If something goes wrong, it lets you know that too by giving you (usually comprehensible) error messages. That's about it. Once you know a set of basic commands, you can navigate through your files in a more hands-on and precise way than is possible from a graphical interface. It's a little like driving a car with a stick shift after only driving an automatic. You have much more control, but there's a steep learning curve and you're in for a bumpy ride for a while.

The other main thing to learn about Linux that you can only do effectively (in my view) from the shell is the directory structure. At first this is a little overwhelming, but since it is set up in a standard, orderly hierarchy, you'll soon learn what it is you're looking at. Finally, when you have learned some commands and get your bearings, you can learn the true meaning of "open source" since you can view the source code of all the programs you have installed. Of course, at that point you'd want some understanding of programming languages, and I'm not much help there at this point!

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Non-insider's Guide to Free and Open Source Software

For years I have been using and, in some cases, promoting "open source" software, but until a few months ago, I really couldn't have told you what is really behind that idea. I knew vaguely what it is - that the source code for a certain software program is "open" (available) and can be copied and improved upon by anyone who wants to. And that's good, right? But since neither I nor anyone I know actually would delve into the source code (at least not at this point), what does it matter? Windows, Office, and Adobe Reader all work, even though they don't share their source codes, so why should an end user (that's you) care? From a practical point of view, there are not that many compelling reasons, but I'll try to lay out what "Free" and "open source" mean and why they might just matter to you after all.

A Nutshell History - Free Software and GNU

In the 1970s, long before everybody had computers in their homes, computers were confined to university research centers, and software was free and shared for the most part. Two future figures in personal computing came out of this era with opposite impressions. Bill Gates, frustrated by the idea that software was being shared among computer enthusiasts without payment to the software creators (known as "pirating" software), wrote an open letter saying so, in which you can see the seeds of the Microsoft business model.

Richard Stallman, on the other hand, became frustrated that people were putting restrictive licenses on what was previously open and shared software, and in response to this, he created the Free Software Foundation, which still advances the cause of Free Software. Stallman's greatest innovation is the intellectual property workaround of "copyleft," in which a program's creator copyrights the source code, then releases the source code and program with the condition that it must remain Free and shared and that any modifications to it must also be shared in turn, preventing anyone from taking, say, the Linux kernel, changing the code, then copyrighting that code to make millions of dollars. This concept has been codified in what is known as the "GNU General Public License" or "GPL," which led to the Linux/Open Source revolution as much as anything else.

If you are interested in Richard Stallman's ideas about this, peruse the GNU Project website. It is worth mentioning that what is normally referred to as "Linux" is actually just as much Richard Stallman's GNU system (hence some distributions' insistence on calling it "GNU/Linux") - unfortunately for Stallman, "Linux" is a much catchier, if not quite accurate, name.

"Open Source" Software

In the late 90s, as Linux began to take hold as a viable alternative to proprietary software, Free Software advocates began attempting to shop their software programs to the business world. Given the political stances of the Free Software movement, and the inherent trouble of describing software as "free" to people interested in making money, several Free Software figures got together and formed the Open Source Definition, which was based largely on Debian's Free Software Guidelines. This new term (to which Richard Stallman strongly objects) gave businesses a way to extol the practical benefits of free software without having to negotiate the ambiguous (and potentially loaded) term "free." Unfortunately, "open source" is also ambiguous enough to lead to situations where companies may release their source code (making it "open"), but will attach a number of caveats about its use and redistribution that are not at all in line with the Free Software movements goals (or those of the Open Source Initiative for that matter).

"Freeware", "Shareware", and Other Confusions

To add a large dose of confusion to what is already a complicated topic, there are many software programs out there on the Web which are free to use, but are not Free or Open Source software. These programs will often use terms like "freeware" or "shareware" in their descriptions, which to the untutored eye all look the same. Browsers like Internet Explorer or Safari, or programs like iTunes, Adobe Reader, or VMWare, are all free to download and use under certain conditions. There is also a growing number of free (of cost) web-based services that have come to define the idea of "Web 2.0"-style computer usage, like Google Documents, PBWiki, and even Blogger (which I use to host this blog). These are not Free Software in the "free as in speech," Open Source Definition/GPL sense. As Free Software advocates continually have to explain, the "Free" is about "freedom", not cost, and these "pseudo-free" programs have ulterior motives when they don't charge for their use (mainly advertising).

How to Tell if Your Software is Free

Now that I've laid out what's Free and what isn't, how do you tell? Here are a few characteristics of non-Free software:
  • A restrictive End User License Agreement (EULA) - a quick glance should tell you - you will see a lot of "You may not . . ." language.
  • Many non-Free programs will attempt to slip in extra software (like the Yahoo! or Google browser toolbars that track your internet usage and provide advertisers with whatever personal information you don't explicitly "opt out" of)
  • You may see advertisements appear during the installation process
  • You may have to enter your personal information to "register" your product or use a product key to be able to use the product
Free software programs will often be licensed under the GPL or some other license (Apache, Mozilla, and other open source companies provide this sort of licensing as well). Look for language affirming the rights to redistribute and share the product.

It's All About Choices

Just like in your grocery-shopping, software choices matter. Most of the time (at least to my palate) conventionally-grown brocolli tastes the same as organically-grown brocolli, so why spend the extra money? I buy organic fruits and vegetables (when possible) because I know (or trust) that my body doesn't need the extra chemicals and pesticides that are used in conventional factory farming nowdays. Free and Open Source software are similar, in that you know that you can use conventional corporate software solutions with all of their caveats and insidious advertising, or your can use Free and Open Source software, which guarantee your freedoms to use and share it as you see fit, without any ulterior motive. You can argue that they "taste the same", but isn't an extra glance at the EULA worth the effort?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Free as in Kittens

I've talked so far about software freedom as in speech and as in beer. Today my topic is the kind of "free" that people view as a burden, the example being "free kittens." This is the meaning of "free" that keeps many regular, reasonable computer users from adopting (or perhaps even trying) free software solutions for everyday needs. Free kittens are free of charge initially, yes, but that doesn't include the monetary costs of vet care, food, or replacing clawed up furniture. The word "free" here also doesn't include intangible costs like time spent training the kitten, cleaning up after her, having her keep you awake at night, and the like (can you tell I speak from experience?). We learn as adults that many so-called "free" things are not really free, since the costs of ownership outweigh the benefits.

A big reason that people pay for software is so they have someone else accountable when things go wrong, which as Mr. Murphy has taught us, they always will. That accountability is obviously worth millions (just ask the recently-retired Bill Gates, age 52). The sense of "getting what you've paid for" also provides much of the basis for Microsoft's infamous "Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt" (FUD) strategy that was revealed in the leaked "Halloween Documents" in the late 1990s. From this perspective, it's easy to say that free software is "not really free," since you can't call anybody when it breaks.

In an earlier post, I addressed how tech support is usually provided in the GNU/Linux/Free/Open Source community. Through online forums and IRC channels, users have great access to support from fellow users - people just like you who use a computer just like you who've had problems just like yours, not someone getting paid pennies to answer a phone and pretend like they care. As anyone who's sat on hold waiting for a tech support person, or sifting through hundreds of "knowledge base" articles that almost-but-not-quite address the problem, knows, "support" in this case is often not very supportive. Since Linux is community-driven, you're bound to find someone to help you with your problem, because we've all been there!

So what's the counter-argument to the charge of free software being "free as in kittens?" First of all, most cat owners will tell you that the kitten stage is worth the effort. I mean, we're all adults here, right (unless you're not :-))? Does anybody who's actually lived real life believe that anything is really free in this sense? Does having the "right" to call tech support 24/7 and sit on hold being told by recordings that your time is valuable really constitute peace of mind? I don't think so, but I'm also kind of a sold-out believer in free/open source software at this point and I know from experience that I can pretty easily find solutions to problems.

The main point to make at the end of the discussion is (to paraphrase Richard Stallman), "think free speech, not free kittens." Free software is not about monetary cost, it's about having the freedom to use and share software for the benefit and enjoyment of all. Have a happy Fourth of July and make sure to download some free-as-in-speech software this weekend! Be brave and build it from source!

***[Fireworks, Star Spangled Banner playing]***

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Free as in Beer!

As I mentioned in my last Independence Day post, most free software is free in the monetary sense of the word ("gratis"), which can be a hindrance to those of us who are trying our best to emphasize the "freedom-as-in-liberty" sense of free software to those who don't yet understand. To your average computer user, "free" usually means "free to download," and that category includes many programs that no one in the Free Software world would consider free in the "liberty" sense (here's an FSF page with some definitions of these variants). And even when people download software licensed under the GPL and its variants, they don't notice that difference because they click right by the EULA in every case. And let's face it - most computer users aren't philosophical about software - they just need a program or OS that works so they can get things done (be that work or play).

One of Richard Stallman's memorable and concise ways of making the "free" distinction is to say "think free speech, not free beer." The problem with the term "free software" seems to be that many users can't think past the "free-as-in-beer" quality (or perhaps "free-as-in-cheap" or "free-as-in-kittens" - my next topic!). But let's think for a second about why that is, and how we advocates and defenders of software freedom might use it to our advantage. This software is (almost always) free of charge. When I go out looking for a Linux distribution or a software solution, I don't go to a shopping site. I look in the Ubuntu repositories for a program I know I can use without buying it or I go to a download mirror. Isn't there value in this quality of free software? Can't we enjoy free speech and free beer? (I can really appreciate free beer, can't you?)

Of course, I'm not advocating not caring about freedom-as-in-speech. I'm a librarian and have worked for years in a world were everything's free-as-in-speech, but I also advocate the enjoyment of that shared freedom. Just like the library, the freedom of free software is something all of us can use, share, and enjoy. (And in the case of free software, you don't even need a picture ID and proof of residency!) :-) Let's enjoy it!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Partitioning Hard Drives - My Experiences

When I got into all this Linux business, I was very intimidated by the thought of installing Debian onto what amounted to a throw-away PC that nobody needed. The only way I was ever going to install Linux on my main PC before about six months ago was to purchase a second hard-drive so I could leave my current configuration (aside from the Master Boot Record - which we'll get to shortly) alone. Even recently, when a library co-worker mentioned a desire to dual-boot on a laptop with a single hard drive, the very idea of partitioning a drive was scary and unknown to me. Now I've done it twice, and it was quite easy (maybe too easy).

I recently began a new job, and when the IT guy gave me my work laptop, he mentioned that I was welcome to resize the Windows partition and install Linux (WOW - I didn't even have to ask! In my last job the systems guy quailed at the idea of putting Linux on a web server!). I smiled and gulped and decided to get to it. By the end of the evening, I had installed Ubuntu on my work laptop and all was well.

Next, my wife just got a Windows-based computer, and we off-loaded her data from my desktop and deleted her Windows XP profile, which then allowed me to consider shrinking the Windows partition and use the space for Ubuntu (I later ended up using it for Kubuntu). This was a little more involved than it was the first time since I used a Live CD program called GParted (Gnome Partition Editor) to resize the Windows partition. Then with the freed space, I installed Kubuntu.

Since both of these experiences were successful, I'll make up a simple guide for my next post.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Taking a Closer Look at KDE

I actually have a lot to report, but I'll have to get to it bit by bit in more than one post. For the moment I'll stick to one topic - my renewed interest in the K Desktop Environment (KDE). To review, Linux distributions can come with different desktop environments, even if the same file structure lies underneath. This is a very foreign concept to users of computer systems like Windows or Mac (which is like, everybody) that might allow you to change things like fonts and color schemes, but if you really want your computer to look and act a different way you have to buy a new computer (or at least upgrade operating systems). In Linux, there are choices that are just not present in proprietary software programs.

As faithful readers of my blog may recall, I added KDE to my regular Ubuntu installation, just to give it a test drive. Since I have so far generally preferred Ubuntu's default desktop environment (called Gnome), I didn't want to keep KDE and all of its many programs installed, so I worked tirelessly for a few days to remove it. I have since been satisfied with Gnome and KDE just hasn't been on my radar until several things happened over the last couple of weeks.

First of all, my poor Ubuntu laptop, which my wife had claimed as hers, died a pitiful death as it gave me chilling messages like "kernel panic!" Fortunately (miraculously), I was able to save much of my wife's data - she's a student so there was a lot of important information on there. (Take this as a cautionary tale to back up your data regularly!) As a replacement, we bought a new laptop running Windows Vista, which meant I was able to offload my wife's Windows data from my desktop and shrink the Windows partition (the mechanics of which I will note later). After some thought about how to use the freed disk space, and some conversations with a new co-worker who prefers KDE, I decided to install Kubuntu, which is Ubuntu with KDE as the native desktop environment.

Here's a screenshot of my new desktop:

I've decided I'm going to try and live and work in KDE for a while, just to get to know it better. I'm told it's the favorite of many Linux users, including Linux kernel author Linus Torvalds. I'd say that's a pretty good recommendation!

I'll report more as I form opinions about it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Free as in Speech

With Independence Day coming up, I want to do a series of posts about freedom and what "free software" actually means. The English language is weak in the area of freedom, so when somebody says "free software" they think "free of charge" or "gratis" (to use the Latin term for the concept), which can really throw you, since most free software is available to anyone without monetary cost. If you have a CD drive with writing capability (which is standard on any computer made in the last four or five years) and a blank 700 MB CD, you can zip over to Ubuntu's download page right this minute, download the CD image, burn it to your disc, restart your computer with the disc in the drive*, and voila! You can either install or just use Ubuntu with the Live CD within 20 - 30 minutes for no charge beyond what you spent on the CD itself. That's free.

But that's still not what "free" means in the term "free software." This sort of "free" means "unfettered" or "free as in liberty" - it's what "free" means in "free speech." Or what the word "independence" means in "Independence Day." You're free to use this software in the way you see fit, as long as that way doesn't involve taking that same freedom away from others. It's free like a public library is free. It's ours not mine or yours. Corporate software companies make their millions on keeping their software locked down and "non-free" in this sense. Every end user license agreement that we click through going "yeah, yeah, I know" is restricting how we use the software we just paid for. It's more of a rental situation, like renting a Blockbuster DVD except a lot more expensive.

For example, if you purchase a copy of Windows Vista for your desktop, and decide you'd also like to install it on your laptop, you are not allowed to do that without buying it again. You just shelled out $130.00 and have the Vista installation disk in your hand, a disk you presume to "own," but you are not allowed to put it on another machine without buying it again. This is not freedom in the way any of us expect it to work. It would be like buying a book to keep on your bedside table and being told that you can't read it in the living room without buying it again.

On the other hand, with the Ubuntu disk you just downloaded for free, you can, without paying anyone or without asking or needing to wonder if you just broke the law, install it on any computer you want. Now that's freedom!

*The boot order in your BIOS settings has to be set to boot from CD before the hard disk.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ready to Try Linux? Here's What to Do

I've been sharing my blog from time to time with the interested few, but I've mostly found that people are content with (or resigned to) working with Windows and not getting too worked up about things like freedom from EULAs. People don't like change, and I can't criticize, since I'm very much a creature of habit myself. But I spoke with a library colleague this week who has actually found my blog helpful (!), but who is on the fence about committing to Linux and is intimidated by the idea of drive partitioning for dual booting (which I actually haven't done, since I installed Linux onto a separate hard drive than Windows). I'm thinking about getting a new laptop for my looming new job (more later), so when I do, I'll set up a dual boot on a single hard drive and report back.

In the meantime, if you just want to try out Linux, you have a few options that will not ruin your life forever (though you probably want to back up your data - but this is good practice anyway):

Live CDs/DVDs

A live CD (or DVD) allows you to boot up a Linux system without installing anything on your hard drive. The most well-known of these is Knoppix, which is based on Debian and runs a KDE desktop. Running Knoppix was my first Linux experience, and I was impressed by what I saw. Nowdays, though, nearly any of the most popular distributions will have a Live CD option, including Fedora and Ubuntu, both of which use the Gnome desktop, which I prefer. Here are some basic things to know about using Live CDs:
  • You can order these from each individual distribution's web site, or if you have a CD burner, you can download an ISO file and burn it to a CD yourself using a decent CD recorder program (like this one). Please note that the built-in Windows CD burning tool will not do this!
  • You need enough RAM to run a live CD - 512 MB should suffice, 1GB is better, but I've run Knoppix - slowly - on 128 MB
  • Most desktops are not configured to boot from CDs, so you will need to change your BIOS settings to allow this (this page might give you an idea of what to do - poor spelling, good illustrations)
NOTE: While Knoppix (others work this way too) boots up, you might be alarmed by all the text running across the screen, thinking that it's something dangerous and irreversible, but please relax - this is just the Linux kernel at work, detecting your system's hardware configuration and attaching drivers to each device. Ubuntu saves you from this and presents a splash screen not unlike Windows XP.


One of the bragging points about the new Ubuntu distribution (8.04 LTS, also known as "Hardy Heron" or just "Hardy") is that you can install Ubuntu as a program that runs inside Windows. I haven't gotten this to work yet, but since I already run Hardy Heron on three computers, there's no need :-). Wubi (as this program is known) is available on the Hardy Heron Live CD or by direct download. One thing to know about Wubi is that it modifies the way your computer boots so that you can choose to boot into Ubuntu or into your normal operating system (like a dual boot, but easily reversible). If you install Wubi and don't like it, you can uninstall it by going to "Add/Remove Programs" in your Windows control panel.

Damn Small Linux

Another Linux distribution you can install inside Windows is Damn Small Linux (or DSL). DSL works well with older systems with very few resources, and runs very stripped down versions of Firefox and other standard Linux programs. It takes up virtually no hard drive space and no memory on a standard PC. There are others of these "minimal" Linux distributions (including Puppy Linux, which I used to briefly resurrect an old laptop).

Virtual Machines

If you have the hard drive space and memory to spare, a virtual machine might be the way to go. The most popular is VMWare, which is not a free program (though I think you can install a basic version for "educational purposes"), but my program of choice, at least on Ubuntu, is VirtualBox, a version of which is licensed under the GPL (as are all software programs currently dear to me :-)). Windows has some special prerequisite installation programs before it will run VirtualBox, but the program is well-documented.

Virtual Machines have the advantage of allowing you to run different operating systems independently and without affecting your hard drive (aside from taking up space). If you have the resources, try Ubuntu, Fedora, or whatever distributions you like without having to make a big commitment. Another advantage is that you don't have to burn the installation disk to a physical CD. You can point the virtual machine to the CD image, which is actually much faster (and cheaper).

Good luck and have fun!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Wine Is Not an Emulator

One of my biggest hesitations about moving to a completely Linux-based environment at home is that I actually use several programs that only run on Windows systems, and so far I have not found truly comparable free/open source alternatives. Having done a lot of online reading about this issue, I find that there are always two or three programs that people often can't live without and that don't run on Linux (which is why dual boot situations are often desirable). There have been many attempts to port Windows programs to Linux platforms, but none have worked better (so far) than Wine.

Wine is a program you can download on Linux platforms that allows you to install and run Windows programs. It is not an emulator, as the name suggests, but is more of an application layer that runs on top of your Linux platform. While it is available in the Ubuntu package repositories (see my previous post about downloading software), that version is older (as are many default installations in the repositories). The best way to download Wine on Ubuntu or Debian is by following these instructions from the Wine HQ site.

Once you have Wine installed, you can begin installing Windows-platform software. Just to see how it would work, I went out to the web and downloaded the Windows version of Mozilla Firefox:

and double-clicked the icon on the desktop. Since it's an .exe file (Windows executable) that would not normally function in a Linux environment, it is opened by Wine, and up pops the familiar Windows Firefox installer window:

When I click next, it installs very quickly (Linux does work faster than Windows in nearly all respects - there are reasons for this that I might go into in a later post). Here's a screenshot of Windows Firefox running on Ubuntu under Wine:

Of course, I already have Firefox, as it comes standard with Ubuntu, so this is not the same thing as, say, Adobe Photoshop or Dreamweaver, but it illustrates the functionality of Wine. Give it a try!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Windows vs. Linux vs. Apples vs. Oranges

There are many discussions on the Ubuntu forums that compare Windows and Linux, and most non-newbies tend to tire quickly of the whole topic. Windows and Linux have major similarities and differences in functionality worth discussing when talking to someone who's wondering why they would ever bother with Linux. In fact, I recently checked out a book from the library that I had glanced at a couple of years ago called Moving from Windows to Linux, and that book's entire discussion centers on how things work in Linux and its "free as in beer" quality without discussing at all the implications of the GPL and open source code. But that's why I think the Windows vs. Linux functionality discussion should only be had after you've decided you're on board with free/open source software. And at that point, the whole question of "Does Linux work better than Windows?" is asked in the proper context.

Comparing the product Windows with the product Linux can bring mixed opinions, especially if all you know is Windows. Of course, even this feature by feature comparison is difficult, given the magnitude of variables on the Linux end of the scale. The very funny Mac vs. Windows ads with the frumpy, suited, older Windows guy and the laid back, bluejeans-clad Mac hipster show how cool trumps corporate every time, but what makes this comparison possible is the monolithic nature of each operating system. For a comparable Linux vs. Windows ad, you'd have the frumpy guy on the left and a huge group of people, each with her or his own personality, preferences, appearances, goals, and ideals on the right. Linux is not monolithic. It is a large and myriad community, so such comparisons are not truly possible.

The ultimate difference between Windows and Linux, though, is about goals. I just went to a training session at the library for one of the most prevalent library databases and it was led by a representative of that company. He's a sales rep and he talked like one - mentioning things like customer retention and besting the competition (Librarians vs. Google), and he did a lot of name dropping of high-profile corporate customers and his main thrust for us seemed to be that his company's product is just the best one out there. He was nice enough, and I don't mean to be condescending - he just misjudged his audience. His goals are to sell his product (which we've subscribed to for many years and have no plans to cancel - it is a high-quality reference database) and to inspire brand loyalty. Our goals as librarians are to know our resources for the end goal of high-quality information provision. You can say that this amounts to the same thing, but the difference in goals is key to any further discussion.

This point is the same with any Windows vs. Linux discussion. The goal of Microsoft is to make money. The goal of Linux distribution providers are usually to provide a free, high-quality operating system that can be shared without a license, etc.

Of course, the short answer to the question is "Linux is better." :-)

Friday, May 16, 2008

I (heart) Debian

As I mentioned, I am using a virtual installation of Debian "etch" to learn how a Linux server works, and I wanted to write about how impressed I am with Debian in particular as a rock-solid, stable, and principled Linux distribution. I was just reading through some of the online documentation provided on their website and I just get the warm fuzzies about it :-). Of course, this is a sign that I've either 1) finally lost it or 2) have achieved a level of geekdom seldom dreamed about or 3) a bit of both. Okay, here's what I love about Debian:

Stability and Functionality

Debian takes great care testing software and making sure that it is as bug-free as possible, which results in situation where it is both a) never on the cutting edge of software technology and b) extremely reliable and functional. They maintain three versions of Debian at a time: the stable distribution (currently named "etch"), the testing distribution (currently named "lenny") and the unstable distribution (always named "sid"). The names come from the Pixar film Toy Story, a fact which I just recently learned. Debian is often criticized in the Linux community for being so slow to release, and is not nearly as popular as a desktop distribution as, say, Ubuntu (more about this comparison to follow).

Strong Principles

In the late 1990s, when the free-software movement developed the term "open source" to describe free software projects in a way that the business world could understand, the creators based the Open Source Definition (OSD) on the Debian Free Software Guidelines. Debian as an organization adheres very strictly to these when choosing software to include in its distributions, and there have been controversies (in the free/open source software world) about the policy, including a high-profile rejection of the Mozilla Firefox brand name. For the average end user, this does not amount to much, of course, but that's one of the main reasons Debian is able to keep its reputation for integrity - they are willing to make controversial or otherwise unpopular decisions. Debian also insists on officially being called "Debian GNU/Linux" in reference to the fact that the Linux kernel is only a part of the operating system as a whole. Free software pioneer Richard Stallman has an opinion about this as well.

Foundational for Other Great Distributions

Debian is the basis for many other distributions, most notably Knoppix and (of course) Ubuntu. Since I moved to Ubuntu, I have often thought of it as Debian's "really unstable" branch, though Ubuntu has a different mission in mind and is associated closely with Canonical, which, like Red Hat, is a for-profit company seeking to gain an enterprise Linux market share (not that there's anything wrong with that :-)). Debian was my first choice as a Linux distribution when I got into all this, and I'm happy I went with it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Evergreen ILS - Server Installation

For reasons I won't yet go into, I've been working to install the Evergreen ILS server on my virtual installation of Debian server. Here's what I've done (more than once for learning's sake):

  1. I downloaded and installed VirtualBox on my Ubuntu Hardy Heron installation.
  2. I installed Debian etch using its Network Installation CD ISO image (you can virtually mount the ISO as a CD/DVD ROM - but I also needed a physical copy of this same image for steps later in the Evergreen installation process).
  3. In the Debian installation process, I selected that I wanted a standard system, an SQL server, and a web server. I de-selected the desktop environment option. Everything that can be done with Evergreen has to be done by command line anyway.
  4. Once everything was up and running, I began following these instructions on the Evergreen Wiki.
    • There are several preconfiguration steps I had to do at this page.
After I had downloaded and installed all the software (which was a very educational experience in itself, seeing CPAN in action and watching Perl scripts fly across the screen), created all the relevant users, and edited the necessary XML files, I attempted to start Evergreen using these instructions.

I hit problems immediately. First of all I had trouble finding the script which starts up the OpenSRF framework that Evergreen runs on. When I did finally find it and get it going, I got the error "line 108: opensrf_router command not found." I have installed the system twice now and still get this error. I found this thread, in which another user encountered the same error. The guys at Equinox who designed and manage Evergreen offered some help and I am now doing a fresh virtual install of Debian to give things another try. This might be a documentation problem, in which case I will notify Equinox.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Using Virtual Machines

I've entered a new world on my Ubuntu box since I discovered virtual machines (VMs). I've installed VirtualBox (, and I am currently running a virtual version of Debian server so as to learn that environment, but I have tested Fedora as well, and have even installed Windows XP (though I need a product key to continue, and though I know there exist workarounds for this, I have a dual boot situation and don't really need it).

Using VirtualBox is simple and intuitive. You set the size of the virtual hard drive, set the RAM usage (which means you have to have enough memory on your computer to both run your normal OS and the virtual OS at the same time), then you just need a way to install. You can use a physical CD, since the VM makes use of your existing hardware if you configure it to, but you can also skip the step of burning a CD for your preferred Linux distribution since the VM can boot from an ISO image! You're really only limited by your hard drive space (typical Linux distros require 8 GB for a regular install) and your memory (which cuts into your normal OS performance, but I have 1.5 GB and am able to easily spare 512 MB for this). Of course the implications for this are enormous and have not been lost on the business world, particularly in the area of server virtualization.

For me, this is just giving me an opportunity to delve into other Linux distributions that I wouldn't wipe a hard drive for!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Microsoft Through New Eyes

Windows Vista has been out now for well over a year, and I have been reading about it and trying it out as I can. My parents have it on their new desktop and as I mentioned, my mother-in-law has it on her laptop. I've always been interested in computers and how they work, and have been satisfied with the way Windows works, mostly. The crash-heavy days of the late 90s were sometimes difficult to bear, but like most Windows users, I was only really interested in Web and word processing features. Really, until February, I was a basically content Windows user, subscribing to antivirus and firewall programs, paying for Windows cleanup utilities and new versions of Office, patiently removing all of the autoupdate programs that automatically load at start up and use up precious memory by constantly running in the background.

When Vista came out, I accepted the idea that I would eventually be using it, either at home or at work or both, because I had seen how Windows versions get phased out. Software developers stop supporting it and develop features that only work on the new OS, and the OS includes features that users of the previous version cannot access. This is the business model that Microsoft and its universe of programs have worked on for the past15 years, and until Vista, it seemed to be working. The problem is that Windows XP is Microsoft's best OS so far, and users want to keep it. Since many new Vista users (including Microsoft Executives) discovered that much of their hardware was not supported by Vista, and that many new computers that were considered "Vista Ready" did not run well. Both my parents and my mother-in-law have computers that I would drool over were they running Ubuntu, or even XP. 2GB of memory, large hard drives, and fast processors are exactly what I want for what I'm doing. However, I've learned that Vista needs these kinds of specs for basic operation!

I've used Vista enough to see good reasons why I wouldn't want to use it:
  • After the eye candy factor wears off, I see that it works a whole lot like XP with program load times, crashes, etc. When I configured my mother-in-law's laptop it crashed three times in the hour or so that I worked on it. And that was right out of the box.
  • The warnings! Whether I was downloading software, configuring start up options, or even surfing the web, I got warning after warning that what I was about to do might put my computer in danger. DANGER!
  • Every program on there, from antivirus protection to QuickTime, wants to have an auto-update feature run in the background and pester you until you update to the version of the week.
I guess the most annoying of these is the unnecessary warnings. They truly make it seem that if you download (gasp!) Mozilla Firefox, for instance, you are putting your computer at risk!

Really though, after a few months now of using Ubuntu as my main OS, Vista just feels really corporate to me, which I guess is how I've felt about Windows for about a decade now. Maybe I don't like Vista because it's the Uber-Windows, in all its hyping, scaremongering, and gluttonous glory.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Use the Ubuntu Forums!

I've posted before about how Linux deals with tech support, and I have to say - I think it works really well. I had two technical issues involving gifts from my in-laws. My mother-in-law gave me her old laptop, and for a couple of days there, the sound card wasn't working. So I scoured the Ubuntu Forums for answers to my issue. Since there are many ways to skin a cat, I got several solution ideas and tried a few. Not only were the solutions I found close to the solution I was going for, several were exactly on point, with the same model sound card and some with the same model computer. We also were given a brand-new Canon Pixma MP210 model all-in-one copier/scanner/printer, which did not work "out of the box" with Linux like our HP did. I drove myself crazy trying to get this to work, especially since I knew relatively little about how Linux device drivers work. I posted to the end of an older thread, but didn't get a response for about three days. So I started a new support thread and emphasized that I was not some cranky Windows user who just wanted Linux to act like Windows (which annoys many in the Linux community), but a new user, eager to learn an important Linux skill. Once I did this, the response was nearly immediate and very helpful. Meanwhile, the older thread yielded the most useful results, and the ones that ended up working for me.

It wasn't fast, but I didn't wait on hold and I was shown solutions that worked!

What I'm Doing Here

I've been working on this blog for a while and have been sharing it from time to time with friends, co-workers, and family members and I'm told kind of all around that much of what I'm writing is incomprehensible to them! At first this was kind of flattering, especially from one or two of my peers who were impressed by how much I've learned about this, but I really want people to understand, especially my friends and family. Of course I've been doing this for nearly 9 months now, and that was after learning a great deal in graduate courses that has given me some background. So I'm writing this post as a jargon-free clarification of what I'm doing and maybe I'll re-clarify why I'm doing it in a separate post.

When you use a computer, you are using its operating system (like Windows XP or Vista or Mac OS) and its applications (like Internet Explorer, Office, Safari, or iTunes). You may have variations on this. You might have Windows Vista or (God help you) Windows 98. You may only use Microsoft Word and Internet Explorer. You may use Quicken or Adobe Photoshop or Dreamweaver or some very specific application you need for work. All those product names are probably familiar, because so many people use them. Your eyes probably don't glaze over as you read them, at least.

Linux, like Windows or Mac OS, is also an operating system. It has a desktop, icons, and volume control. It looks like this:

I use a mouse, a keyboard, a printer, a scanner, and speakers. I type in plain English, not computer code. If you were to sit down at my computer, you would be able to get around and do whatever you normally would do with your current computer. With a little orientation, you would be surfing the web, using email, typing and printing letters, listening to CDs, or watching DVDs. You could also talk on the phone, chat, program a drum machine and lay down guitar, bass, and vocal tracks for your next pop album. You can download all your digital camera pictures and tinker with them. I think I've made the point.

What if I told you that you can have all of these benefits for free? Not one shiny dime have I spent on this project. Here's what I have on my computer:

  1. A brand spanking new operating system that is endlessly customizable to my whims and preferences. It NEVER crashes. I've never had to "Ctrl-Alt-Delete" to get out of something and I certainly don't have to restart after every software installation or update.
  2. A full-featured office suite that can open MS Office documents and save sharp, crystal clear PDF documents.
  3. A professional grade video editor (among several out there).
  4. A first-rate Internet browser, email client, and chat client.
  5. A drum machine and multi-track digital recorder.
  6. As many games as I'd ever have time to play and then some.
I could go on, but again, I think I've made the point. I didn't have to buy this great stuff, and you know what else? I can share it with you for free as well. We don't have to meet in some back alley, and we don't have to call a company and ask permission. No one will come lock us up for doing it. This is what is meant by "free" software. Pretty cool, huh?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Several Musings . . .

I have been starting posts left and right, and then I get bogged (blogged?) down and I never finish them. Here is a summary of some of the ideas that I was trying to express:

I Have Changed

Since beginning this project, I have been mainly interested in the practical aspects of Linux (e.g., "Wow, this works!," "Where do I find this or that driver?," "I wonder how KDE & Gnome are different?" etc.). I had said from the outset that using Linux for me was not at all political, but slowly, as a result of using Linux, and from reading/seeing the books and other media about Linux, GNU, and Open Source, I have a greater understanding and respect for the entire ethos and philosophical framework for these movements. The result of this is twofold:

  1. I am now enthusiastically searching out open source alternatives for proprietary software. I recently did a blog post for our library system about this. I am also talking to others about my experiences ad nauseam.
  2. I have come to view proprietary software very negatively, especially now that I have an understanding of the many benefits of keeping software open and free (as in liberty).
The best thing I can compare this transformation to is a religious conversion. I have "found Linux!" Given the pride, fervor, and devotion of Linux users, I imagine this is not an uncommon experience.

Getting Under the Hood

Because of the requirements of certain employment opportunities in my field, I have decided to learn Unix commands and scripting. I had taken a networking class in grad school that required us to know some of this, but that was nearly three years ago and I've gotten quite rusty. I'm also trying to learn Perl for the same purpose. I was a science/math kid, and then in high school and college I was drawn to literature and the liberal arts, and with my M.S. in library and information studies, my science/tech side was reawakened. However, my current skillset doesn't quite match my enthusiasm. This is what I'm trying to remedy by learning shell and Perl scripting.

Open Source Libraries

A corollary to my interest in open source programs to do everyday computer tasks is my interest in applying all this to libraries. My system uses a proprietary Integrated Library System (ILS) that we all (patrons and staff) tolerate at best. When we want a certain customization, the answer is almost always "no," and I just don't see a good reason why this should be true. Fortunately, in a rare case of my home state of Georgia being ahead of the curve, the Georgia Public Library Service developed the Evergreen ILS, which is released under the GPL and is completely home grown. I would love to get involved in this project, and I am trying to develop a skillset (see above) to let me get my foot in the door.

So there's the gist of the six or so posts I was working on!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Wow! Ubuntu Laptop!

My mother-in-law just upgraded computers and very kindly gave me her older laptop, so literally minutes after I officially received it, I popped in my Gutsy Gibbon installation disk and here I am typing on my new Linux Laptop. Here are the specs:

Acer Aspire 2010
40 GB Hard Disk
Pentium M 1.5 GHz

The installation went well, except for a warning I got about Ubuntu security updates. I had also forgotten about having to enable the types of repositories I would be downloading packages from.

So what will I do with another computer? I plan to have this available for wireless access at home and I want to bring it to show people how cool Ubuntu is in hopes of spreading the word.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Two Online Documentaries

I ran across two documentaries today about Linux, GNU, and open source software. Taken together, they clarify and explain a lot of the philosophy and history behind free and open source software and are worth a look.

The first one is called The Code: Linux, which is a Finnish television production featuring many interviews with Linus Torvalds, Eric S. Raymond, Richard M. Stallman and other Linux/GNU/Free/open source figures. Most of the video is in English, but the subtitles are not, so when other languages are spoken, they are untranslated. This one is about an hour long, and would serve as a good, accessible introduction to Linux and the ideas and ideals behind free and open source software.

For a much more complete history, the film Revolution OS might be the better choice. Aside from being an American film, and fully in English, it feels like a documentary film rather than a TV production (as would be expected). It interviews many of the same players, but it delves a little more deeply into each topic, fully explicating the history, philosophy, and ideologies at play in the Free Software movement, Linux, and the Open Source Initiative. And though on first glance it seems like they're all talking about the same thing in shades of gray (as far as "free" vs. "open source" goes), once you understand the difference, you can understand the political divisions between, say, Richard Stallman and Eric Raymond, and why they matter.

I'm really glad I've been looking a little more deeply into this, and I'll have more to say about these issues in later posts, I'm sure.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

GNU/Linux/Open Source History

I just got a book from the library that I came across in an encyclopedia called The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S. Raymond and started reading it last night. I mentioned in an earlier post that there seems to be a dearth of published (non-web) works about the history of open source software, and this is one of the only ones, and though I was not familiar with it, it is very well known. It was originally an essay posted on the web, and includes other apparently notable essays from the time. The main metaphor of the book evokes two images to contrast closed-source and open-source software development. The corporation method is like the builders of a cathedral - elites who work in secret and unveil their product with great fanfare, while the open source model, which is done in public view and employs anyone who's interested, resembles a chaotic bazaar. Both images have positive and negative aspects. The thing about the current state of Windows, Apple, and GNU/Linux distributions is that the bazaar has caught up with the cathedral.

Compare the reactions from both the public and the press (at least initially) to the releases of Windows Vista and Ubuntu 7.10 last year. You can see the bazaar in action now, with Ubuntu's beta release of 8.04 "Hardy Heron." Critics and programmers are finding problems that will almost certainly be addressed by the final release. One of the most memorable lines in "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" is "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow," which Raymond attributes to Linus Torvalds. Trapped by the cathedral model, Vista faced much negativity and ridicule with the need for "patches" and "service packs" almost immediately. A large open-source community would have almost certainly found these problems before the release.

I said just a few short weeks ago that my interest in Linux and open source software is not political, but I'm finding myself faced with the undeniable reality that moving to an open source way of doing things has made me evolve in my thinking (I'm working on another post about this transformation, which I'm finding difficult to describe), and my opinions about companies that still claim to own products that I have purchased have moved further toward the "free" software philosophy. Expect more about this as I read on!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Cracking the Books (or Sites) on Cinelerra

Well, I may learn things the hard way, but I do learn them. I'm typically a person who likes to dive in to new things, especially computer related things, with the idea that I should be able to figure it all out as I go. I'm not a natural researcher who ponders before acting, which led me to the adventure described in my previous post. But now that I'm no longer under the gun to produce something, and enough time has passed to not feel the frustration of my previous experience, I'm taking the time to read the instruction manuals and tutorials on Cinelerra CV.

The official instruction manual (available here) is very dense and not readable - as you expect manuals to be. It does have important and useful information, however. I've learned that there is a lot of jargon involved ("keyframes," "concatenate," etc.) and if you don't have the basic knowledge about terminology or basic functionality, it's like reading Greek. Cinelerra CV's manual is also available in a wiki format, which I think is much better for online reading.

I'm finding that a better place to start is with the online video show "the_source," which features an unlikely pair of thirtysomething guys (one is kind of your stereotypical Linux geek guy, and the other looks like a frat guy - baseball cap, name-brand fleece vest and all) who have a very friendly and effective way of explaining things. The Cinelerra tutorials are within episodes and the guide to where they start and end is on this page under "Cinelerra tutorials." I've found these to be very useful, simple explanations of the basics of Cinelerra.

I'm still exploring this, so if I find more, I'll report back!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Removing KDE!

Well, I really just downloaded KDE because I wanted to try it out, but there was a pretty big down side: now I don't want it anymore! I had read in an online article about Ubuntu vs. Kubuntu that the reviewer had settled on a dual boot between the two because he likes a "clean install." Now I know what he meant. When I downloaded KDE from the repositories, it added all of KDE's programs, not just to KDE's menus, but to Gnome's menus as well. So what began a very easy to read, manageable list of programs became an explosion of "k" games, applications, clocks, timers, etc. I edited the menus in Gnome to reduce this factor, but I settled on removing KDE altogether. The problem is, what was a one-step installation process is now a multi multi multi-step removal process. Maybe with my next Ubuntu upgrade I can remove these in some automated way!

Oh, and here's a similar take on Gnome vs. KDE on

Friday, March 21, 2008

Video Editing and Cinelerra


I feel like I've finally reached a place where I can talk about Cinelerra and how it defeated me one cold rainy February night. But first I'll share the context and how I made my first foray into video editing (and Ubuntu Linux).

Last summer, as my family and I were going on a beach trip, we decided we wanted digital video camera, so we ordered and got a fairly basic Sony Handycam that records onto mini DVD-R/RWs that you can just pop into a DVD player and watch. One of the main reasons we got it, though, was that we have relatives scattered all over the country and we would like to share some family video via the web.

So when I was co-chair of a group set to provide entertainment for our library system's staff development day, and the idea of a short film came up, I enthusiastically said that it was a great idea and that I would take care of the filming, editing, etc. I really didn't know what I was committing to, but it sounded like fun, and if we could have pulled it off, it would have been memorable. The plan was to make a brief Ken Burns style mockumentary about all of the library branches in our system that are closing for remodeling, with music from The Civil War and serious-sounding interviews, etc. We got some footage of one of the closed buildings and some interviews, and I set about to editing with the goal of having the film on a DVD by staff development day, which at that point was a couple of weeks away. Plenty of time, right?

I began before I had Linux on my computer, and I attempted to use Windows Movie Maker for the project, mainly because it was 1) free and 2) already on my computer. When I tried to import the .mpg files into Windows Movie Maker, they were not recognized and I had to do much reading about downloading this program and that codec, only to find that to convert a single clip into a lower-quality version that would work in WMM was a 20-minute, multi-step process, and I had at least two-dozen clips to do.

I did some reading about other options, but since this was for fun, and not something I would want to invest a lot of money into, I was only interested in open source options. The program I kept hearing about over and over was the Linux-based Cinelerra. I had been considering a dual boot situation for a while, so I installed Ubuntu onto my computer in order to use Cinelerra.

There are two "forks" of Cinelerra, and the one that I settled on was Cinelerra CV, since it claims to be more stable. I downloaded it following the instructions for Gutsy Gibbon at this link. I began using it, and was pleased to see how versatile the program is, and of course, that it imported my .mpg files without a problem.

Here's a screenshot of Cinelerra:

I also quickly discovered Cinelerra's down sides. When I unwittingly attempted to import a file Cinelerra couldn't handle. It crashed. The entire program shuts down and the windows disappear, which is even more frustrating that the "This program has performed an illegal operation and must be shut down" message on Windows. Fortunately, Cinelerra does recover from such crashes pretty well, as long as you save often.

Here's what I love about Cinelerra, once you learn it (which is difficult to do - Cinelerra is notoriously poorly documented):
  • You can add as many audio and video tracks as you like.
  • You can fade in and fade out both video and audio tracks along the time line.
  • You can add in a JPEG or other image and stretch it across the timeline.
  • To keep the audio and video tracks in sync, you can "paste silence" into any gaps in the audio.
Here's why I feel completely defeated by this program:
  • Even with the "paste silence" feature, I had a lot of trouble keeping the audio & video tracks synced up, which was maddening!! (I also only have 512 MB of RAM, which may have contributed to the the video falling behind the audio in the Compositor view)
  • When I finally decided that the timeline was correct and that it was time to render the video to a DVD, it never worked. I tried several different video and audio formats, and Cinelerra would run for 15 minutes, only to come up with a very vague and unhelpful error message. Further research on online forums and other blogs showed me that it might have been that there are milliseconds in which the video and audio are not synced, which throws Cinelerra into a tizzy when rendering.
Of course, the main reason I feel defeated is that I waited too late to begin this project, and put way too much confidence in my own ability to figure out (on the fly) a very complicated process with a very complicated computer program in an unfamiliar milieu.

But I still think I should have been able to do it! :-)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Memories of GUIs . . .

I found an interesting site today called GUIdebook that has screen shots, timelines, and other information about operating systems and desktop environments, including Gnome and KDE. I'm getting interested in the history of GNU, Linux, and other open source software projects. It's like all the while the wider world has been focused on Apple vs. IBM, then Apple vs. Microsoft, then Windows vs. MacIntosh, then IE vs. Netscape, etc., there has been this undercurrent of production that encourages freedom from those very limited choices. I'm looking for a book about the history of this, but I don't see one. I think this might be a subject worth exploring.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Downloading Software for Ubuntu

Using Linux as my primary home operating system has changed my expectations about what I want my computer to do, particularly in the realm of adding new software. As a Windows user, when you think you need a new software program, you go out on the web to read about it, check Consumer Reports, reviews, etc. to see if it's worth purchasing, then you either:

  1. Order it from Amazon (or some other seller), which means you wait a few days.
  2. Go to a store and buy it, which means you pay the full retail price, OR
  3. Download the software after buying it over the web.
That applies to "shrink wrapped" programs (like Adobe Photoshop or Dreamweaver), but even in the case of free software, that too, involves some work with Windows. My method is as follows:

  1. Go to Google and type in the name of the program or the type of program I'm looking for.
  2. Navigate to the appropriate download page.
  3. Select the correct version of Windows.
  4. Download & install the software, which almost always fights with your antivirus/firewall software, and involves agreeing to a bunch of legalese that no one really reads.
That's the current Windows way of doing things.

With Linux, you can do the same thing, go to the web site, download the product, and install it. (Doing it this way can involve a lot of command-line activity and scary-sounding procedures like "recompiling the Linux kernel," which at this point in my Linux life, I don't really like getting into). One of the absolute coolest features of Debian and Ubuntu is the Synaptic Package Manager, which allows you to peruse a list of available software programs, and to download them. There are so many programs and applications available on the list that you often have to search. Here's a screenshot:

I still sometimes catch myself doing things the "old" way when using Linux, only to find that the program I'm looking for is already available through Synaptic.

I think Microsoft and Apple would do well to consider this sort of arrangement. Since I use Windows at home and at work, I find myself wanting this feature. Suddenly, the old "search - click - download" procedure seems archaic!

3/22 Update: I just came upon this page: How to Install ANYTHING in Ubuntu.

Linux Technical Support

One of the consistently cited reasons to avoid open source software, particularly if you're talking about letting Linux take over your $2000 computer, is the lack of tech support. With all purchases of computers and major software packages comes the promise, or at least the option, of being able to call someone, day or night, when things go awry. Having been a computer owner for years, and having used traditional 1-800 tech support phone numbers or live chat (or whatever) for various issues, I have found them to only occasionally be truly helpful. Here are some observations I have about traditional tech support:

  • I have seen that most tech companies have outsourced much of this sort of thing overseas (see The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman) which is something that I generally do not support.
  • You usually have to wait on hold forever, constantly being told by a recording how much the company cares about you and your time, and more often than not, the person on the other end of the phone couldn't care less about you or your problem.
  • Companies have come to rely on a searchable "knowledge base" in which they show either articles by experts on a particular issue, or the record of a forum in which a user asks a common question and experts explain how to fix whatever the problem is.
The biggest problem with the combination phone/chat/knowledge base option is that you end up frustrated in any case. If you use the phone, you have the problems I mentioned above. If you use the knowledge base, you usually find an article that almost addresses what you want to know, but usually leaves out some important detail, which means you end up having to call anyway. I know I'm ranting . . . I'll get on with my point.

Linux tech support is most often addressed in user forums, like the Ubuntu Forums. There isn't a question I've had about Ubuntu that has not been asked and answered, often over and over, on these forums. The experts on these forums are almost always just other users who have been through exactly what you're dealing with, and they usually show empathy and respect, which is NOT often found in traditional tech support. Since they are so friendly, and updated daily, and since there is no 1-800 or live chat option, almost every conceivable issue is covered. This form of tech support requires more effort on your part, but the payoff of community and empathy (I mean, really - who doesn't want to know they're not alone in whatever the problem is?) is very much worth it.

A First Look at KDE

As I mentioned in a previous post, there are options about which desktop environment to use in Linux. This is difficult to wrap your mind around when you're used to using either Windows or Mac, which only have their own displays that you can only slightly modify or configure. When it comes down to it, if you want Windows to look drastically different, you have to buy another version (which often means buying a new computer!). Linux GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) have basic functionalities you can't modify, but with know-how, it seems like you could tailor it to whatever you want. This is part of what is meant by "free software" in the GNU and Debian definitions of the term (also mentioned in that other post) - you can modify it however you want. Anyway, the major GUIs for Linux are Gnome and KDE.

As I mentioned, Gnome is the default desktop environment for Ubuntu, and it is the only option that comes with the initial installation. There is an Ubuntu variant called Kubuntu that has KDE as the native environment, and I was considering giving that a shot sometime soon, but after doing some reading on the Ubuntu Forums, I learned that using both is quite easy, and that I just have to download it from the software repositories and install it. This I did, and I got a chance to give it a whirl. Here's a screenshot:

My first impression is that everything is blue (I changed the default blue background to the photograph you see), which is a shock after the orange-brown "Human" theme of Ubuntu's Gnome. All of my installed files and programs are still available, plus a positive slew of KDE programs: games, widgets, educational software, and many others. With the Gnome programs also available in each menu, I'm actually having a hard time finding anything. One thing about KDE that grates on my nerves a little is that all of its applications either begin with the letter "K" (Konqueror - the default browser, KNotes, KPilot, etc.) or have the letter "K" prominently in the name. The names also often don't correlate with any function of the program ("Kaffeine" is a music player, I learned), which makes the menus a little more overwhelming. This is strange (in my view) for a program touted for its usability. Here's a shot of the screen with the start menu:

The other thing I noticed is that KDE looks a lot like Windows, and moving from Windows to KDE, at least visually, would be a more intuitive switch. Other things to mention:

  • I found that Firefox does not display as well in KDE. The default text size is too small.
  • Konqueror, the native Internet browser and file manager is very nice, and in some ways, I like it better than Firefox. It actually resembles Opera a little.
  • The "eye candy" factor is quite impressive. It seems that Linux desktop environments rival Windows Vista and Mac in this respect.
There are many features and applications I have yet to explore. I'll report back when I have more to say!