Sunday, August 31, 2008

What a nuisance

If there's one thing the Free (as in speech) Software crowd can't do, it's create a good marketable name for an application or Linux distribution. The classic example of the former is the Gnu Image Manipulation Program, or Gimp. The best and latest example of the latter appears to be gNewSense (or nuisance).

The latest release, 2.1, was just announced on Distrowatch. Based on Ubuntu, it strips out all the proprietary bits, including codecs and drivers, and forces the end user to initially use the open and free equivalents if they exist. If they don't then you're stuck without features such as 3D acceleration, DVD playback, QuickTime movies, etc.


Rather than reflexively kick gNewSense to the curb, I downloaded the live ISO and booted it on europa to see what did and didn't work. What follows are some very brief notes.
  • Booting - gNewSense has one of the simplest, if not the lamest, boot prompts I've run across in a long time. The initial splash artwork is the name of the distribution in large ragged green letters on black, with a boot prompt sitting beneath it. And that's where it'll stay unless you either press F1 or Enter to start the boot process. No timeout. That caught me off-guard; I'm so used now for a live CD to automatically timeout and boot I can't remember the last time I had to specifically boot the CD. What a nuisiance
  • Video - The desktop came up in 1280 x 1024 resolution. Surprisingly enough System -> Preferences -> Screen Resolution allowed me to select 1600 x 1200, something that every Gnome-based distribution since May of 2007 hasn't been able to do. Mandriva can select that resolution, but only with the Drax configuration tools. All other distributions required I install the AMD/ATI package fglrx. As for 3D acceleration there is none, at least not for my card. Even if by some miracle I had 3D acceleration I couldn't use it because the geniuses behind gNewSense recompiled the X packages to remove GLX support. Why? Because the "non-free SGI Free B license" isn't free enough. What a nuisance.
  • Web-browser. What??? No "Ice Weasel"??? I was able to use the bundled "Web Browser" to view many sites and to file this blog post Unfortunately it was missing features I've come to rely on with Firefox, such as automatic spell check and plug-ins. I can only assume that the reason for the "Web Browser" is, like for GLX, Firefox just isn't free enough to suit them. Not even Ice Weasel!

    Another problem with the Web Browser: it becomes confused with Ajax-based forms such as Blogger. Even though I saved the majority of this post (Save Now) but did not publish it, Web Browser popped up the following dialog.



    That, along with no Flash, makes for a very dull experience. What a nuisance.
  • Keyboard. While writing this post I discovered that the double quote (") is found via shift 2, not shift ('). That's right folks, the shift 2 and shift (') are swapped. At least it didn't take long for me to figure out. What a royal nuisance.
  • Appearance Preferences. Remember how GLX was removed from X? The visual effects tab is still available on the Appearance Preferences dialog. What a nuisance.
  • Multi-media. Ubuntu is proud of its ability to support multimedia, and as a consequence provides an Examples folder on the desktop. So does gNewSense. Unfortunately the slim pickings that Ubuntu provides has been dumbed down even further with gNewSense. Instead of the nice little Ogg movie about Ubuntu we're given a horrible recording of Stallman singing. What an utter nuisance.
It takes a perverse turn of mind to brag about building a distribution that deliberately removes functionality because it doesn't adhere to some given ideology, but that's exactly what gNewSense does. All this in the face of two new distributions, kiwilinux and PC/OS, that were released after gNewSense and that brag about including all those 'restricted' codecs and drivers and Flash. Oh, and by the way, they were both derived from Ubuntu 8.04.1. And let's not forget Mint Linux, Mandriva, PCLinuxOS (derived from Mandriva), and Sabayon that also include all those ugly but essential bits out-of-the-box. Or those distributions that make it drop-dead easy to install all those nasty bits, such as openSUSE and Ubuntu. But what finally gets to me is that the keepers of gNewSense consider themselves even more Catholic (Free) than the Pope (Debian): in their FAQ they note that even Debian is non-free because Debian "provides non-free software through its repositories and includes non-free kernel drivers."

If you're the kind of geek who likes to program while wearing their hairshirt, then gNewSense is probably the distribution for you. But if you're the regular kind of geek who wants to get on with a task and not fight the OS, then all gNewSense will ever be for you is a big big nuisance.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Who's your buddy, who's your friend?

Long ago, in the halcyon days of 2006 while I was basking in the goodness of Suse 10.2, I happened to come across Bug Buddy. I'll let you read the details, but the real story is what happened next. Bug Buddy sent off a crash report where a kindly developer then asked if I could provide even more detailed information, specifically a stack trace with debugging symbols. That's right, I needed to install alternative packages with debugging symbols and attempt to repeat the crash. Fortunately for me I never saw that crash again, and Suse 10.2 went on to be the best Suse (and Linux) experience I ever had on europa before Mandriva. Unfortunately for the bug report I was never notified of the additional need, and it quickly expired.

In any even Bug Buddy seemed to fade into the background until this evening when I went checking up on OpenOffice Ninja. And right there, at the top of the list, was the provocative article "The irony of bug-buddy." Seems that OpenOffice 2.4.1 vanilla, Fedora 9, and bug-buddy 2.22 caused OpenOffice to silently crash when invoked with a document via Nautilus. And it seemed the problem also plagues openSUSE, Ubuntu, and Gentoo. Does it plague Mandriva 2008.1? For me, on europa, the answer is no. I open Office documents all the time with the same release of OpenOffice and Bug Buddy the Ninja was using. I have had no problems.

But let's get back to Bug Buddy for a moment. Bug Buddy is a great idea, and a great tool, but only if it provides all the information needed the first time it's invoked, and only if it works with the environment across all distributions. Otherwise Bug Buddy shouldn't be a part of any distribution.

Don't it make your brown eyes Zune

Everybody's been so busy savaging Vista that it's taken all attention away from another Microsoft problem child, the Zune. Not to worry. There's still plenty of sharp commentary around the net from all quarters about Yet Another Microsoft Flop (YAMP). Leading off the comments is this one from Motely Fool (Leaving So Zune?):
The Zune will never be an iPod killer. Truth be told, it will never even get close enough to be an iPod tickler.
Then there's this snarky article from Digital Daily about how the Zune Team is trying to gather more content for the Zune (Zune Ready for Closeup; Zune Market Share-Not So Much):
Well, it’s also the team that does the impossible–defying all rumors of extinction and plugging away on a platform no one uses. Maybe while the Zune team is making the rounds, they’ll find out who represents U2.
Which leads us to the important question of marketshare. Some report it at about 4% worldwide (3.8%). Microsoft got there by supposedly stealing market share from Creative, which dropped to 2% market share. Meanwhile, SanDisk sits at 11%, and the rest belongs to ... Apple, with 71%. How many Zunes did Microsoft move to reach 3.8%? One million from May 2007 to May 2008, for a grand total of two million. And that's assuming that each and every two million are still using their Zune and haven't moved on to something from SanDisk or Apple, or even Creative.

In this household my wife and both daughters have iPod Nanos (one second generation 4GB and two third generation 8 GBs), while I sprung for a 4GB bright-red SanDisk Fuse for $88 from Wal-Mart. I love my Fuse. Since the family allows me to touch their iPods I can easily sit and compare the two from time to time. Yes, the Fuze is different from the iPod, but the Fuze is the equal iPod (IMNSHO), and the Fuze has one key feature the iPod is missing: I can drag and drop music from Windows or Linux onto the Fuze, while I can't with the iPod. Oh. And for the retro user, the Fuze has a very good FM stereo radio (i.e. non-digital) receiver which I use for news and weather updates.

It's a shame that Microsoft can't package and sell the drama they've been generating with Vista, Zune, and XBox 360. They'd make such a fortune it would dwarf the money they make by selling Vista, Zune, and XBox 360.

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.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Notes from the Field: Installing Fedora 9 on a Dell Latitude D630

My employer has given me a Dell Latitude D630 notebook. It comes with a 2.4GHz T7700 processor, 2GB memory, wireless, and an nVidia Quadro NVS 135M video card. The system initially came with Windows XP SP2 installed (since upgraded to SP3). As delivered and configured it worked like a charm.

Part of my job is developing and supporting applications running on RHEL 4. I decided to install Fedora 9 on this machine, and here are some of the reasons:
  • Support out-of-the-box for whole-drive encryption (remember this is a laptop)
  • VPN support out-of-the-box
  • Contemporary UI (Gnome 2.22) compared to that found on RHEL 4
  • It's the only Linux distribution outside of RHEL that is officially sanctioned by my employer
Rather than monkeying with the initial XP install, I ordered a blank drive for the Dell and swapped it in for the XP drive. That gave me a clean system with which to install Fedora 9 on and a fallback to get back to work. Here's what worked immediately after the Fedora 9 installation on the blank drive:
  • Drive encryption/decryption (I could log in)
  • Wired networking
  • Full screen resolution (1440 by 900) with 'free and open' driver but no 3D support
  • Local mouse
  • Every USB device I currently have
Here's what worked after installing Livna as a repository:
  • nVidia native driver with 3D support
  • Flash version 9
Here's what is broken after initial install and some simple googling for possible answers:
  • Wireless (Broadcom 4328 802.11n draft)
  • Audio
Since I have a wired connection I can perform what I need to do with regards to networking. Audio isn't a show stopper (yet). It's odd to see Flash video without the sound, and before you ask, if the sound system is broken then nothing else that depends on it will work, so 'fixing' Flash isn't the answer. I haven't tried VPN yet, as I haven't had a need. And since everything I'm concerned with is written in Java (Java 6) I'm not concerned with other issues such as gcc version clash.

Fundamentally the system is functional and will probably allow me to get my core job done. But it falls a bit short as a shining light for Linux adoption.

So I wonder what excuses/flames I'll get for these problems.

Update

Mis-identified the wireless chip set. ndiswrapper failed to solve the problem.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Boycott Novell: Defenders of Freedom, or Offenders of Freedom?

The following large quote comes from an even larger rant about Boycott Novell (google for it, I refuse to link it it). I even use the original article's title as my on. How's that for re-use? But I digress. Let me introduce Fucker T. Washington...
Ladies and gentlemen, sit down. You have all been taken advantage of in the worst manipulative mental carnival imagineable.

FUD. We all know the term. Wikipedia states it as: "Fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) is a tactic of rhetoric used in sales, marketing, public relations, and illiberal democracies. FUD is generally a strategic attempt to influence public perception by disseminating negative (and vague) information."

For the longest time, this tactic has been largely connected with Microsoft. Free Software advocates have lashed out against these unfair statements, in an attempt to maintain a fair playing field.
There is one site, however, that tries to "play dirty" with Microsoft, and Novell. Enter the era of double-standards and bullshit. Boycott Novell is the unsatisfied FUD-mongerer's answer to corporations.
...
Nevertheless, Boycott Novell spreads FUD like a plague. It has misled hundreds of thousands of Free Software advocates, and it constantly works on staining the reputations of companies that have done nothing wrong. What's worse, they often have little proof of anything. Ever read a Boycott Novell article? Funny how they cite themselves 10 or more times in every article, rather than actually pointing to any relevent news. Give us facts grounded in reality, for Christ's sake!

The articles themselves are playing on a single card: fear. Their so-called "news" is nothing more than overblown forum posts and speculations that were stretched out to be crap-filled articles. They play the mentality of everyone's least favorite forum trolls, stating "OH MICRO$HAFT IS EVIL, USE LINUX ITS BETTER! LOLOLOLOLOL!". Some people are just fine with using Windows/Mac/BSD/etc. An OS does NOT make a person, actions and words do.

And, as stated before, they use themselves as sources of information. A real journalist would know to link to real information sites, or at least speculation sites. They could say "Well, it's completely possible that..." instead of "NO! THIS IS FACT! BELIEVE LIKE US! THINK LIKE US! CONFORM! BE AN INDIVIDUAL!", it's a worse case than the rampant Mac-fanboyism.

There is a way to reverse this problem: knowledge. Real tech journalists should stop buying into the bullshit. Instead, they should start doing real research and facts, rather than the "Yellow Journalism" that has left Hearst and Pullitzer to roll in their graves. As a group, Free Software supporters need to end the hate and anger against faceless companies. It's counter-productive. Furthermore, it's just damn silly.
Linux advocates need to grow up and go back to what really matters: technical merit. Linux's technical merit has been flagging lately, primarily due to poor quality during the releases. I've personally experienced the lowering of Linux quality in three major distributions (openSUSE, Ubuntu, and Fedora) since April 2007. Devices that worked in older releases stop working (specifically nVidia and ATI graphic chip sets), applications that worked in older releases stop supporting features in later releases (K3b, codecs in ffmpeg, etc) just to name two major problem areas. This is progress?