Sunday, August 17, 2008

WWJD (What Would Jamie Do)?

Everybody knows (or should) who Jamie Zawinski is. He's the cool dude (or should I spell it 'dood', or is that now obsolete too) who supplied significant portions of Mozilla and XEmacs and Netscape Navigator 1.0, and who then wound up with millions from Netscape, some of which he plowed into the DNA Lounge. Not bad.

Jamie's one of those original 'free software' pioneers who's both talked the talk and walked the walk, and managed to do so clearly and lucidly (far, far better than me at least). One feature Jamie added to DNA were kiosks and other computing resources running Red Hat and Fedora Core. Jamie's one of those guys who, according to Jeff Atwood, "lives and breathes Linux." According to Jeff, Jamie's had not one but two serious run-ins with Linux and failures to work consistently (i.e. from release to release) with a given hardware platform and its sound card(s). And Jame Is Not Happy.

The first time Jamie had a problem was in 2006 with Fedora Core 4. He made the fatal mistake of upgrading a working system with the latest patches shoved at him and wound up loosing the right audio channel of his Linux-powered recording system. He eventually discovered that he could fix the problem by upgrading from FC4 to FC5:
We seem to have solved the "missing right channel" problem. It was, in fact, a software problem. We were running Fedora 4, and when we installed the latest patches on March 31, that's when the right channel vanished. We tried downgrading to the version of the kernel and ALSA as of three months ago, and that didn't fix it. But, Jonathan took all the sound cards home and tried them in his machine, and they all worked fine there. He was running Fedora 5. So we upgraded to that, and the problem went away.

That's right: upgrading to the latest FC4: breaks the world. Giving up on FC4 and going to FC5: un-breaks it. Nicely done, guys.
And then again, this past March, he attempted an upgrade from Red Hat 9 to Ubuntu 7.10. And ran into another brick wall:
I spent a solid four days trying to upgrade the kiosks from Red Hat 9 + LTSP 4.3 (vintage 2003) to... something newer. In this case, Ubuntu 7.10 + LTSP 5, since it seems like that's what the cool kids are running these days...

Well, since this is not my first rodeo, when I say "upgrade" what I really mean is "do a fresh install on a spare drive."

So, after four days of this nonsense, I gave up, and just put the old drive back in. "Nonsense" in this case is defined as: the upgrade made the machines be even crashier than before (they can barely stay up for an hour) and it's a far worse kind of crashy: it's the kind of crashy where you have to press the shiny red button to make them come back to life, instead of them being able to do that themselves.

So, fuck it. They'll be running a 2003 version of Linux forever, because I frankly have better things to do with my time (what, do you think this television is going to watch itself?)

To paraphrase Homer Simpson, "Let that be a lesson to you, son: never upgrade."
Jeff Atwood ends his blog entry with the observation:
I find it highly disturbing that a software engineer of Jamie's caliber would give up on upgrading software. Jamie lives and breathes Linux. It is his platform of choice. If he throws in the towel on Linux upgrades, then what possible hope do us mere mortals have?
What hope indeed? I can offer numerous entries of my own where I've had problems with audio hardware (and video chipsets) working with one release and failing to work properly at the next, or not working at all. And running out to embrace Windows or Mac OS X won't help solve the problem; no one will ever forget Vista (driver and application incompatibility, UAE), and no one should ever forget the problems that Leopard 10.5 had when first released (blue screen boot hang due to APE, poor firewall, Time Machine and the changes to the user interface to add move 'bling').

No. The issue is quality control all around, with Linux being the worst offender so far. And by quality control I mean a consistent level of functionality, improving over time with each release, that includes as little breakage as possible with existing hardware, and a clear warning if breakage will occur. In the mean time I've adapted the policy of no updates or upgrades unless it's a real security issue that affects me, and of sticking to one distribution for personal use that seems the least broken of the lot I've worked with: Mandriva.

Update: Microsoft Pulls Ahead

I'd forgotten the Great Blue Screen Of Death at the opening Beijing ceremonies (shame on me). Every time I try to build up some personal sympathy for Microsoft and Windows, Microsoft goes and pulls off, on a grand scale, a completely public screwup like this and totally obliterates that sympathy. It takes a world-wide monopoly to screw up on this grand a scale.

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