Thursday, May 28, 2009


Downloaded Linux Mint 7, Gloria, and booted it on europa. Ran some quick tests and found it to be solid, as solid as Linux Mint 5 and 6. It's amazing it runs as well as it does directly off the Live CD; Flash, DVD playback, MP3, AVI, and MOV playback are but a few of the working features of Gloria. One regression I found concerns playback of a MP4 file I ripped using VLC under Ubuntu 7.10. It has played without issue up until this release. Another regression occurs when running glxgears. While there appears to be excellent performance, the OpenGL canvas that is the center of the application does not stay integrated with the window decoration on the desktop. Dragging glxgears around the desktop leaves copies of the canvas where the application was dragged from. This isn't an issue with Linux Mint so much as it's an issue with the current AMD/ATI video driver.

I'm disappointed to find those regressions, but those are not show stoppers. For the limited use to which I'll put this distribution and this release I can certainly afford to ignore them. Besides, the initial selection of wallpaper, fonts, desktop theme, and the use of the Gnome menu slab are just about perfect. There's nothing forcing me to twiddle with the desktop. I even appreciate the fact there's only one panel along the bottom.

Other features that were enabled from the Live CD appear to be cover flow application select (Alt Tab), as well as the nice showing of the desktops when pressing WinKey E (see below).

I feel sorry in a way for the Linux Mint team. It looks like they've taken on the thankless task of cleaning up Ubuntu so that it runs the way the Ubuntu team would like to think their release runs. I know it's not polite to say this, but an alternate slogan might be "Linux Mint - the way Ubuntu was meant to be." Or perhaps that's already out there and I just haven't seen it yet.

Whatever. It works. Thanks guys, I certainly appreciate it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ubuntu Knots Penguin Knickers

I ran across this little snippet courtesy of DistroWatch Weekly:
The Ubuntu world was rocked last week by an announcement about Ubuntu One a web-based file-sharing and file-synchronisation system for the promised era of cloud computing. The Register explains: "Ubuntu's commercial backer won't fluff its own cloud, but Canonical isn't eschewing online services in the battle against Microsoft. Canonical has begun beta tests of a web-based service that'll let you store and synchronize files on your Jaunty Jackalope PC with other Jackalope-powered machines. Called Ubuntu One, it's designed to provide you with access to your files using a web interface when you're away from your main machine. The service also promises to let you share documents with others." While all this sounds like a worthy goal to pursue, not everyone in the Ubuntu community is happy. The reason? The Ubuntu One server will be a proprietary system. Brian Burger on Planet Ubuntu: "Big chunks of Launchpad are still non-free, and of course about half the mess with Ubuntu One is the fact that it's only half-free - the client is free, the whole server side is totally proprietary. Another, even larger and more awesome irony: The proprietary nature of Ubuntu One's server-side code has, so far, mostly produced controversy and a nifty but not ground-breaking web application. The open-source client side has already produced parts of a nifty new UI for encrypted directories that will (hopefully) be in the next release of Nautilus."
I guess Mark Shuttleworth got tired of Ubuntu not being "cash positive" and decided to do something about it. He originally wanted to concentrate on the core, but I guess he learned what a lot of others (Amazon, Google...) have learned and is tying his distribution to cloud services. It will be interesting to see if his cloud initiative is (a) more stable and (b) more profitable than his current pure-distro play with just Ubuntu. Because, you know, if it's in the cloud then the operating system becomes irrelevant. Or at least that's what they say.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Star Trek: Flashier, Trashier, Dumber

It's good to be the curmudgeon. You get to sit over in your corner and throw rocks at the very shiny, very thinly built New and Improved Thing, such as JJ Abram's re-versioning of Star Trek.

I saw this movie for the first and last time over a week ago on Friday night, May 8th, for the princely sum of $9.50. I'm a cheapskate, preferring to wait until early Saturday morning to pay $4.50 for the matinee, but the hype was so high on this Trek film that I succumbed and paid a premium to sit in a sparsely filled theater (less than 1/4 full). No lines, no waiting. Few people. When I look at local reactions to films I have to wonder how new releases can break box office records; they sure aren't doing it around my neck of the woods.

When I walked out that Friday evening I decided to wait a week before writing a review. Part of it was out of deference to then-future viewers who wanted to see the movie without spoilers. Part of it was to allow the shock to wear off a bit. What I discovered in that film are so many instances of bad science fiction (mixed with bad decision making and bad general story writing) in this film that picking them out is akin to shooting into a barrel packed with fish.

One of the first scenes you're treated to is the appearance of the Romulan mining ship in the general vicinity of the USS Kelvin, which just so happens to contain Kirk's daddy and mommy, who as it turns out is in the throes of giving birth to James Tiberius himself. Call me paranoid, but if I were captain of a ship out in the middle of nowhere and something weird dropped into my area of space close enough to sense but far enough away not to be a direct threat, I would send in easily-replaceable unmanned probes long before I'd send my expensive capital ship and equally expensive and highly trained crew of specialists into harms way. I'd stand back and assess the situation rather than charging into the middle of an unknown situation. And if any of those unmanned probes were destroyed, I'd high-tail it out of there and get backup before I'd go stick my nose back in there again, making a best guess as to possible course and speed of the unknown, sowing the possible areas it might traverse with more unmanned probes to send back more intelligence. But no. JJ wants to entertain us with a fairy story, so we go in with guns a-blazing and special effects a-flyin'.

Which brings up the next problem with the opening: what happened to point defense systems? For example, most of today's ships have a number of Close-In Weapon Systems (CIWS) such as Raytheon's Phalanx, available since 1973. The basis of the system is a 20 mm M61 Vulcan Gatling autocannon linked to a radar system for acquiring and tracking targets. The cannon fires at a rate of 3,000/4,500 tungsten armor-piercing rounds per minute depending on the version of the system. It is mounted in a self-contained turret along with an automated fire control system. It is Bad News. You would think that after 200 years of combat in space with Klingons and Romulans that the Federation might come up with something far more lethal, but I guess not. Which, all things considered, is yet another reason to not go looking for trouble all by yourself.

What would I have done? Plot an immediate and fast course away from the disturbance, sending out one or more unmanned probes (drones) towards the disturbance, and drop countermeasures between me and the disturbance if it appears to be hostile. In a forward position such as that, where my supply lines and support are far to my rear, my goal in that situation is to stay alive while gathering intelligence and relaying that intelligence up the chain of command.

The next atrocious scenes involve the destruction of Vulcan and the means of its destruction. JJ and Company would have us believe that destroying Vulcan would somehow push the Vulcan race to the edge of extinction. One. Single. Planet. This is the Vulcan race that 'discovered' our first warp drive experiment. Why would a space-faring species, especially one with faster-than-light capability, limit themselves to a single planet? What about the other bodies in their own solar system?

And then there's the problem with how Nero essentially sashayed into the Vulcan home system (hypothetically 40 Eridani) and did the deed. Where were defensive ships, the surface defenses. Hell, where were the ships that should have been streaming evacuees from the planet?

None of what happened to Vulcan in this movie had any basis in logic what-so-ever. It was simply a pure contrivance to artificially advance the story.

I could rant on and on about plot holes and the fact that Kirk is miraculously promoted from cadet to captain so fast it makes everybody's head spin (including mine). But I've said enough. I'd foolishly hoped I'd get to see the re-birth of Star Trek. I should have known better. This is a stinker that ranks right down at the bottom with Star Trek V. There is no real future for Trek. At least not for me.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Little Brother

I've been reading Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother" as an e-book via the Stanza reader on my iPod Touch. This isn't the first Doctorow book I've read; I started with his "I, Rowboat", thinking it was a comedy (it wasn't, not quite). I actually started reading "Little Brother" because of its reference in a Wired story, "Little Brother Is Watching You", posted back on April 9th. This is the story of Ian Tomlinson, who died from a heart attack after being manhandled and then pushed to the ground by London police. What struck me was that Mr. Tomlinson appeared to be walking alone, hands in pockets, before being overwhelmed by a group of police. There's no clear sound to indicate what might have passed between Mr. Tomlinson and the police, but the video clear indicates (at least to me) that Mr. Tomlinson was in no way aggressive, while the police, with their police dogs and body language, were all about aggression and challenge. And when the police deliberately collided with Mr. Tomlinson, Mr. Tomlinson suffered the consequences.

Little Brother is a cautionary tale of what happens in the near future, in the aftermath of another terrorist attach on American soil, this time in San Francisco. In this hypethetical attack terrorists  blow up the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge and the BART tunnel running under the Bay. Marcus Yallow, the central character, is a high school student out with three friends on a lark when the attack occurs. They quickly find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, leading to their illegal seizure as enemy combatants by elements of the Department of Homeland Security. Marcus is held for six days before being released with two of his three friends. The rest of the story is an electrifying and disturbing tale of how Marcus and many others fight against this future DHS and its attempts to turn San Francisco into a police state, all in the name of Fighting Terrorism.

Each chapter of Little Brother can be considered an individual story in and of itself. In particular are the chapters devoted to how the main characters (high school student Marcus Yallow and his friends) were captured and incarcerated and how the main character and his friends were treated while incarcerated. You can approach the character's predicament either directly (how would you feel being incarcerated and questioned the way they were), or as a parent (how would you feel if you found out if it were your children who were incarcerated and questioned the way they were). When you read these chapters you tend to think Doctorow is exaggerating for the sake of selling a story. Until you remember all the real-life stories about Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. A current story concerns how the Bush administration twisted science to justify CIA interrogation "techniques". In story on Wired titled "Sleep Scientists: Research Twisted to Justify Torture", a number of the scientists quoted by Bush Administration lawyers reacted with anger and horror over how their sleep research was twisted and misinterpreted. Again, imagine such twisted techniques being applied to you or a loved one, such as your son or daughter.

Other chapters in "Little Brother" detailed Marcus' run-ins for what passes for an educational system; a horrible witches brew of pervasive surveillance, general parent apathy, and administrative stupidity that reduces high school to little more than a hell-on-earth for too many bright kids. I experienced a touch of this when I was in high school nearly 40 years ago (without the serveillance) in DeKalb County, Georgia, and I watched my own daughters (and many of their peers) experience a "less-than-ideal" high school education in Orange County, Florida. The foundations for the grim educational Gitmo Doctorow paints has been building for decades.

Unfortunately that unique intellectual poison isn't limited to just high school. In mid-April the EFF reported out of Boston Mass about a "Computer Science Student Targeted for Criminal Investigation for Allegedly Sending Email." In this unbelievable but true story, a Boston College computer science student, accused of sending email to a mailing list, had his equipment seized during a police fishing expedition because he dared, among other things, to use an operating system different form the "regular B.C. operating system". Yes, it appears that suspicions were arroused because he used a CLI-based OS to control his computer, most probably Linux. You really have to read this story to believe it, because you just can't make this stuff up, not even if you're Cory Doctorow. Remember, this is the same Boston that went ballistic over the Aqua Teen Hunger Force guerrilla marketing campaign in 2007; they thought [sic] they were dealing with improvised explosive devices.

As I get older my view of the world grows darker. My cynicism grows deeper, especially about politics. I thought we could repair the damages, both domestic and foreign, of the Bush administration. That's why I voted for Barack Obama. But as the Obama administration steadily unfolds I see disturbing trends where the Obama administration is clinging to a number of Bush administration beliefs, especially at the Department of Justice. If we don't make a clean and honest break with the past, then I fear that if there is indeed another terrorist attach that we may see life imitate "Little Brother". And it may not turn out as happily as Doctorow envisions.