Friday, December 25, 2009

Proposal for a new Linux distribution

I have decided my life isn't interesting enough, so to make it more interesting I've decided to create Yet Another Linux Distribution (YALD). This YALD will have the name ... drum roll please ...

Fairy Linux

Named after the Fairy Penguin of Australia, it is meant to be yet another 'lean' distribution of Linux. Here's what I had in mind as a beginning set of requirements;
  • Fit in, complete, at around 200MB. That's installed.

  • Based on the latest kernel, whatever that happens to be. That would be something in the 2.6 line, and greater than 2.6.32.

  • Based on the latest glibc, whatever that happens to be, and not one of the embedded/limited substitutes found in other small distributions.

  • Based on one, and only one, desktop environment. I'm seriously thinking of KDE 4 (seriously). There is a strong reason for this, primarily that KDE uses Qt, which will make a good foundation for another choice I have in mind.

  • Stripping out as much of the current software as possible, especially the duplicates.

  • A limited CLI userland. I had thought of using Busybox, but after reading about how litigious the current project has turned out to be, I've decided to go with the regular tools. I have half-seriously considered a comment that someone should take the BSD tools and create an alternative to Busybox. That would be a sub-project.

  • Make sure that Ruby and Ruby/Qt are installed. The complaint has been made, more than once, that there is no equivalent to an easily approachable programming tool like Basic/QBasic/Visual Basic. I've used Ruby and Ruby/Qt; the tools and bindings are there to build reasonably sophisticated (and fun) graphical applications without having to pull out the C++ and regular Qt libraries.

  • Target x86 systems to start with, but I would like to eventually migrate to ARM exclusively.

  • Make sure that all necessary drivers are with the distribution for the best user experience possible. For x86 that means nVidia and ATI. I'm well aware of what happened in the case of Kororaa, but the commercial modules will go in and stay in. As for the GNU purists, I don't give a damn what they think or how they feel.

  • Base all of this on an existing distribution. Although I've built, from scratch, embedded Linux systems for experimental purposes, building a full-up and installable distribution is non-trivial. It makes a lot more sense to base off of an existing distribution. The base distro I have in mind is Linux Mint. Linux Mint is just that good.
This is just a starting list; I'm sure I'll come up with more requirements, and then they'll need to be racked and stacked for importance. Only after that will I make the decision to go through with this or not. I need some ROM as to the level of effort and resources required, rather than jumping in feet-first.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

You spent how much???

My youngest and I went to see Avatar today. According to her, "it's just a bloodier version of Fern Gully." My oldest has subtitled it "Dances with Fern Gully." And without Robin Williams as Batty Koda for comedy relief. But everything else is there; instead of fairies in a tree you have nine-foot-tall Na'vi in a Home Tree. In Fern Gully the protagonist is shrunk so he can interact with the fairies, while in Avatar the protagonist is wired into an artificial version of the Na'vi so he can interact with the "in-digs". It's a highly predictable movie wrapped in a lot of very expensive eye candy (which, according to published accounts, cost anywhere from $200 to $500 million to make). After sitting through the movie I came out with an attitude that can be best summed up by this shot of Neytiri, except instead of Col. Quaritch lined up on the arrow, I'm imagining it's James Cameron.

Since my list for the good parts of this movie is far shorter than my list for the bad parts, I'll just cover the shorter list. That list contains only two items: the performances of Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington.

I've enjoyed Sigourney Weaver's movies, particularly the Alien and Ghostbusters series. I also had a blast watching her as Gwen DeMarco in Galaxy Quest. She's always been smart and sexy in everything I've seen her in, and in Galaxy Quest she was smokin'. In Avatar, as Dr. Grace Augustine, she brings maturity and sophistication to an ensemble that is severely lacking in both (or at least not allowed to develop any similar capabilities). I first saw Sam Worthington in Terminator 4, where he acted rings around Christian Bale. What he lacks in Sigourney-style maturity and sophistication he more than makes up with in earnest energy. Call me old fashioned, but I respond a lot more to good acting and a good plot; I guess I should be satisfied with one out of two.

I'll say this much for Worthington's character, he puts a new spin on "going native" at the end of the movie.

Edit 1

What bugs me more than anything about Avatar is a key 'plot' element, and that's the inability of normal humans to breath unaided in Pandora's atmosphere. The atmosphere is certainly rich enough to support large intelligent beings, as well as very large sophisticated flying life forms. I also saw human-manufactured flying machines that appeared to be getting part of the fuel from the air (you know, like oxygen). I saw lots of burning, and in one scene what appeared to be a flame thrower. Finally, if our descendants are capable of turning human DNA into avatars that are identical with the native-born Na'vi, then why can't they do something simpler, like giving regular humans a pair of lungs capable of working unaided in Pandora's atmosphere?

Edit 2

After sleeping on what I'd seen in Avatar, I awoke with more questions and an even deeper dislike of the movie. Regarding the treatment of the Na'vi, I take a more Harlan Ellison view towards what might happen if a technologically superior force (us) meets another stone-age culture (the Na'vi).

Again, if humans have that ability to create and control fully grown avatars, then they certainly have the ability to conduct brutally effective biological warfare against the natives, as that would have been the most effective manner for killing them. An example from our own history can be found here, where it appears that in 1763, General Amherst and Colonel Henry Bouquet write about the use of blankets infected with smallpox "to Extirpate this Execrable Race." I cannot believe that if the Na'vi had been sitting on something as valuable as "unobtainium", and if the home world (Earth) was in such dire straights, that the in-country human population wouldn't have hesitated in the least to remove the natives, by whatever means deemed as efficient and effective as possible. No warning would have been given, no kindness extended.

Which leads me to wonder what Harlan Ellison thinks of this film?

Edit 3

Because Avatar seems to borrow so heavily from so many other films that I've seen over the past decades, it's inevitable that I should find key similarities with those films. That happened to me today as I was standing with the Labs at a local PetSmart waiting to have their annual Christmas photos. For whatever reason 1981's "Outland", with Sean Connery and Peter Boyle, bubbled up into my conscience. What probably helped triggered memory of this movie is the scene in Avatar where Giovanni Ribisi's character was putting golf balls into a cup. Peter Boyle's character was also into golf, and in fact had a virtual green in his office. Other parallels included the type of location: Pandora is a moon around a gas giant, while Outland took place in a base on Io, again a moon around a gas giant (in this case Jupiter). There's even a strong parallel with the Outland's Dr. Lasarus (played by Frances Sternhagen) and Weaver's Dr. Augustine; both are tough, independent, fearless, and just a little profane. Finally, Sternhagen and Weaver are both seasoned pros who put in excellent performances in their respective roles.

There but for the grace of God

I was born and raised in Atlanta, or more specifically, Atlanta suburbs located in DeKalb county. My time in elementary and high schools were average, bordering on boring. Except in one area: high school football.

I suffered from the same high school jock envy that a lot of other males suffered from. After all, who didn't want to belong to a group (the football team) held in the highest regard, and whose members seemed to have the pick of just about any girl on campus? It was the ultimate young male testosterone trap, and I fell into it like a ton of bricks. Or at least I wanted to. My eyesight was pretty bad in high school, and the eye doctor kept waiving the specter of detached retinas and early blindness in front of my parents. I thought at the time the doctor was just full of it. Maybe in retrospect he wasn't. The upshot of the diagnosis was I merely stood on the sidelines, looking with longing at a sport my parents wouldn't allow me to participate in.

It's been nearly three decades since I graduated from high school and headed off to college, and so much has happened in my life that that painful period has lost all its sting. But today I was reminded of what I could have had, if, in an alternate reality, I had gone on to be a high school football jock, and furthermore, had been successful enough to be a pro.

I came across an on-line article about Dave Pear, a 56-year-old retired Super Bowl champion with the Oakland Raiders. The article about Dave was titled, appropriately enough, "Former NFL star Dave Pear is sorry he ever played football". I'll let you read all that he did and what happened to him, but I will quote what he lives with now.
"My life is simple," he says. "It's hard to get out of bed, but eventually I do. I try and do a little walking on the treadmill. I take naps. I go to physical therapy once per week. I read my Bible."

He is, in basic terms, a train wreck -- a football-inflicted train wreck. Pear walks with a cane and, often, simply doesn't walk at all. He suffers from vertigo and memory loss. Over the past 18 years, he has undergone eight surgeries, beginning with a Posterior Cervical Laminectomy on his neck in 1981, and including disc removal and rod fusion in his back (1987), arthroplasty in his left hip (2008) and, earlier this year, four screws removed from his lower back.
My life, in comparison, is almost perfect. Though I feel a few very minor aches and pains brought on by decades of running, I'm still quite active physically. When I get up in the morning I have a great job to go to, one I can actually look forward to. So far I've had a great life and a great marriage, and I've got a wonderful family with two really good kids.

This is not to revel in another's pain and suffering. I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy. No, sometimes you have to be brutally reminded of all you have to be truly thankful for. And at this specific moment, reading about Dave Pear, I am very thankful indeed for my life, imperfect though I may think it is at other times.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The state of the Penguin

Over the past week I've been collecting ISOs and burning CD and DVD ROMs from them for the purpose of just seeing how the boot, and then taking a few moments to see how they look and generally operate. I booted a fair portion of the usual suspects: Mandraive Linux One 2010/KDE, Fedora 12 x86-64, OpenSUSE 11.2/KDE, Ubuntu 9.10 and Linux Mint 8.

I chose to use a Dell 690 workstation (we have multiple machines in the lab where I work) with a quad-core Xeon running at 2.4GHz and 8GB DRAM, as well as a pair of HP Pavilion 533w's with a 2GHz Celeron and 512MB DRAM I had sitting at home (the Pavilion's were purchased for my girls when they were in late middle/early high school).

All of the distributions booted on the Dell workstation. Of the five, only Ubuntu and Mint enabled everything including sound. What was most surprising (in a good way) is how all five distributions recognized the nVidia Quadro card, enabled hardware acceleration (according to glxinfo) and provided the proper screen resolution (1600 x 1200). And at least Fedora 12 x86-64 recognized all 8 GB of memory.

Overall I found very little to gripe about, but since I was just booting the live CDs and not installing any of them (all the Dell's run Redhat RHEL 5.3), it's certainly not a fair and full test of any of them. However, if I had to make a choice as to which one to start with first it would have to be Linux Mint 8. Yes, it's derived from Ubuntu, but it's a derivative with polish and a bit more quality, and possible, panache. The desktop theme is certainly more pleasant on the eyes than the Ubuntu theme; it's certainly worth keeping after install.

With that little bit of experience I made the decision to install Linux Mint on the two home Pavilions. They were purchased at Walmart as part of a $500 kit that included a printer and monitor for the girls, with the idea that they would follow them to college. They came pre-loaded with Windows XP Home. They turned out to be little workhorses, especially for their high-school years. One of them did follow my oldest to Tallahassee for a year when she lost the use of her Compaq Presario notebook for a time. That Pavilion came home in 2007, where it sat on the shelf for over two years.

This year my wife and I made the decision to donate the computers to Salvation Army. But before they left my house I wanted the drives fully decommissioned; wiped clean, and something else installed besides Windows XP. I had no idea what personal information might still be on the drives, but I wanted to take no chances. I fired up both machines to make sure they still worked. I also wanted to check the performance of the installed XP so that I might have some indication of how much faster or slower Mint might be compared to Windows XP on that specific hardware platform.

Mint was successfully installed, but only after two attempts on each machine. The first time I would attempt to install Mint it would hang at around 67% complete. I then rebooted the machine and started with a fresh install, re-formatting the drive. By the time I was done Mint was booting on both, complete with audio. The only problem with Mint (and with Ubuntu and Mandriva as it turned out) is that the video chipset, an Intel 82845, is not supported with the current distributions. Yes, I found an Intel video driver supplied by Intel itself, but I had no desire to download and go through the gyrations necessary to build and then install that driver. All I needed was a decent way of showing that the hardware (mostly) worked without having to leave Windows XP on the boxes. The lack of decent support means the screen comes up in 1024 by 768 on Mint, instead of 1280 by 1024 under Windows XP. My attitude is if they want Windows back on the boxes then they can use their own licensed software, not mine.

Overall the Mint installation on those machines was very quick and smooth compared to the Windows XP installation it replaced. Applications such as Firefox 3.5 started up reasonably quick, as did other operations, such as starting and using Open Office. Overall I'd say the upgrade over Windows XP was a reasonable success.

So what do I think is the state of the penguin?

Desktop Linux seems to be decent enough, in its own way. When somebody asks for my opinion in such matters I recommend Linux Mint, followed by Mandriva, and then OpenSUSE. Mint usually works well enough after installation that I don't have to give two more options. But I have noticed that many who have installed Linux will eventually go back to Windows, or else buy a Mac. Since I now live in a household with both Windows Vista (and now Windows 7) and Mac OS Leopard machines, I've had an opportunity to see how they hold up over the long haul. And what I've observed is not good for desktop Linux.

First and foremost operating systems are a means to an end for the majority of users (where majority tends to greater than 95%). Linux has been to much an end unto itself for too many years, and it is only recently (very recently) that distributions have been released that are trying, with varying degrees of success, to be that means to an end. Redhat RHEL is one of those means-to-an-end distributions, and they had to be from the beginning. Businesses won't stand for the Sturm und Drang that is the norm for most distributions; they don't have the time or money to waste on it. Novell finally understood this, which is why they now have SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) and SLES (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server) as apposed to OpenSUSE. Canonical sort of understands this, which is why they have their LTS series. Debian understood it from the beginning, which is why they have their stable branch. Debian stable might not have the latest and greatest, but when it has to run rock solid year in and year out, and you want it on Debian, then you run Debian stable.

But then you compare the current distributions against Windows 7 and Leopard, and you begin to realize how many more little details those operating systems handle correctly than does any Linux distribution. And those little details add up quickly into significant user satisfaction.

This week I upgraded my oldest daughter's Toshiba laptop to Windows 7 from Windows Vista. It was painless, flawless, and fast from start to finish. Better than Mint. Since the upgrade, the oldest hasn't had a bit of trouble (and to be honest she had no trouble with Vista after SP1 either). Windows 7 does run noticeably faster than Vista on a Toshiba that was purchased nearly three years ago, which I think is a significant achievement, especially for Microsoft. I did not attempt to upgrade Vista; I had the drive backed up to a Toshiba portable 250GB USB drive, did a clean install, and then migrated specific files and applications back onto the machine after Windows 7 was installed (a company called Refresh Computers, close to where I work, backed up the drive for me).

My wife and youngest both use a Mac; my wife uses a 2008 Macbook and my daughter uses a 2006 iMac. We've been down the OS upgrade path once already with both machines, and we'll do it again this Christmas with Snow Leopard. OS X upgrades are the easiest of any OS, bar none. And of course, once installed, the OS Just Works. This makes my wife happy, who uses Mac Office and Google Chrome the most, while it pleases my daughter, who also uses Mac Office and Photoshop.

Which brings me back to Linux. If you compare any of those distributions to eight-year-old Windows XP, then I'd have to say they are equal, if not just a little better. But compared to the latest from Apple and Microsoft, they are still in second place, and in some instances, a distant second place. And they have no one but themselves to blame.

I see the Linux community crippled by too many in the community who are in the blind pursuit of ideological purity. That group, led by the Stallmanists, seem intent on keeping free software 'pure', even if it leads to a less than satisfactory user experience (as it all too often does) compared to either Windows or Mac OS X. Those few distributions that dare to include software that allows a close approximation of the user experience you can achieve with commercial software risk scorn and ridicule from this core group.

And that's a shame. Linux could have been a true desktop contender, but it never was allowed to grow into one. Instead, it faces a future of irrelevance on the desktop, and fragmentation on embedded devices. And even that future is in doubt; Moblin appears to be stagnating, Maemo is a one trick pony (one device with one vendor, Nokia), and Android was rather radically re-engineered to fit on smartphones. Yes, Android is Linux at the roots, but it's certainly no desktop OS. Desktop Linux is destined to remain as it started out; a fringe choice in a world dominated by Microsoft and Apple, primarily Microsoft.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me

Yes, today was another lovely birthday. I've long since passed the point where I anticipated my birthday. Now I dread them. This year, rather than sit around and feel sorry for yet another year passing, I decided to go out and shoot. And because I was in such a wonderfully grim and cheerless mood I decided to drive around International Drive here in Orlando and shoot a bit of its long, slow decay. I took Megs with me; I'd bequeathed my E-300 system to her for her to use this coming spring in college. She needed the practice.

We started at the Sea World end of I-Drive, near the old Harcourt Brace Jovanovich building (or whatever it's called these days). It caught my daughter's eye because of the huge "For Lease" sign plastered across the top two floors of the building, visible from I-Drive. We drove around and into the empty parking lot; I assume it was empty because it was Sunday, but you never know. The lovely color shot is from the front and shows the neatly trimmed lawn. The back shows the sign we first saw from the main drag.
HBJ FrontHBJ Back and For Lease Sign

We next drove down I-Drive towards the intersection with Sand Lake, slowly passing the Orange County Civic Center which now sprawls across both sides of I-Drive. We passed the OCCC and continued until we we came to a huge, empty vacant lot. Up to this point every square foot of I-Drive has, or was, completely developed. I was a bit shocked to see that much empty prime real estate, and then I was shocked further when I realized that the Mercado Marketplace used to sit on that land.

Mercado Marketplace TreesFormer Mercado Marketplace
Mercado Marketplace Main EntranceLast Entrance Standing

I don't know the nature of its demise. All I know is I was here when it first opened, and for a number of years the family and I would come here to eat and to visit the Titanic show that was part of its attraction.

Steak & Ale BeddingFinally, I close this post with a shot of yet another empty Steak and Ale. This one is within spitting distance of the old HBJ building, right on I-Drive, and sits next door to an equally empty Bennigan's.

Some inventive person stashed a mattress into the awning that extends over the front entrance. It's high enough that you can't see anyone up there, it gives shelter from the rain, and the metal is strong enough to support the weight of the person who crawls up there to lie on the mattress.

We saw a lot of other promising material, and we've made a mutual promise to come back and shoot all up and down I-Drive, especially the north end above Sand Lake.

Yes. I had a wonderful birthday.

All images shot with Olympus E-3 and Zuiko Digital ED 9-18mm f4.0-5.6 UWA zoom.