Linux Lies

Category: Computing Devices
Fri, 03 Oct 2008, 16:03

In a recent e-mail, an acquaintance wrote to me: "I have heard that Linux is a rip off of UNIX, and the only reason the creators of Linux can't be sued is because they can't be found".

I couldn't believe what I was reading. What nonsense! Are there really people out there who believe crap like that? Let's have a look at those claims.

Tux

First, what exactly is Linux? Think of the computer you currently use. For most of you, your computer runs some form of the Windows operating system. An operating system controls all aspects of the basic operation of the machine, providing interfaces between the software you use and the underlying hardware. Linux is an alternative operating system.

But there are fundamental differences between Linux and Windows. The most obvious difference is the price. Think about how much the cost of computers has fallen over the years. The cost reductions are almost entirely due to the cost of the hardware components. But the cost of the Windows operating system has not fallen. As the cost of the hardware decreases, you are spending a larger and larger proportion of the computer price to the manufacturer of Windows.

Why hasn't the cost of the software decreased in proportion to the cost of the hardware? After all, unlike hardware, the manufacturing costs of a piece of software is practically negligible. True copies of software can be easily made by anyone. The reality is that Microsoft has a virtual lock on the operating systems installed on the majority of personal computers sold. That is, they have a monopoly, and can charge what the market will bear.

Now to my point: Linux is available for free. That is, you can download and use a Linux distribution for only the cost of your internet connection, and the cost of a blank CD or DVD.

But that's not all. Linux is one of many free software packages. Typically, a Linux distribution comes with a plethora of useful software. So much so that you can easily run Linux on your desktop computer and do everything you need (and want) to do without paying a dime to a software vendor. Word processors, spread sheets, image manipulation, games, e-mail, web browser, financial - you name it, there's a software package available for free. You can pay if you want to. Sometimes you do want to if you need vendor support. But for most people, free is the right price.

Now on to the ridiculous claims: The first is that Linux is a "rip off of Unix". I could spend a lot or words discussing Unix, but that's not really necessary here. It's sufficient to point out that Linux is completely independent from Unix. Unix was developed in the early 1970's by Bell Labs. Linux development started in 1991 by a Finnish student named Linus Torvalds. Shortly after Torvalds began his pet project, others joined in, including the people responsible for the GNU project. GNU (which stands for "GNU's Not Unix") provides a wide range of software tools that duplicate tools available on Unix, but again, is completely independent of Unix. In other words, Linux looks and works a lot like Unix, but contains no Unix code.

What about the other claims? Can the creators of Linux be sued? Some companies claim that Linux is tainted by stolen code. Such claims are silly for one simple reason: The source code of Linux is publically available, unlike other operating systems like Windows. Furthermore, the entire history of Linux development is public knowledge. If there were a potential claim against Linux, it would be very easy to look at the source code to evaluate the validity of the claim. Those responsible for Linux have publicly stated that if there were any infringement of anyones patent or copyright, they would immediately pull out that code and work on a non-infringing replacement.

Lastly, are those responsible for Linux in hiding, as my acquaintance suggests? Hardly. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, not only is the history of Linux development totally out in the open, so are those responsible. That applies not just to the Linux kernel, but also to the vast majority of open-source and free software. People like Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman (GNU), Guido van Rossum (Python), and Larry Wall (Perl) are well known in the open-source community. They have no reason to hide, and anyone can reach them if necessary.

Finally, you have to wonder about the sources of such misinformation about Linux. It should be noted that while Windows software is supported by multi-billion dollar business empires, open-source software doesn't get a lot of publicity. The benefits of open-source software are communicated largely by word of mouth, and not by multi-million dollar ad campaigns. So how do some people, like my acquaintance, hear these lies about Linux? In her case, a good friend of hers recently became a MCSE (that is, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer). I would hate to think that he was the one who lied to her. But clearly, the growing success of Linux is seen as a major threat in the Windows camp.

In conclusion, if you do see questionable claims, remember that everything can be verified with a simple Google search. Research the subject for yourself. Or download a distribution of Linux and give it a try for yourself.

Omnifariously yours, Hans

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Browser Wars

Category: Computing Devices
Mon, 09 Jun 2008, 18:57

The last time I visited my family, I used my sister's computer to check my favorite on-line forums. But first, I installed Firefox. For some reason, my brother-in-law took a fit, and insisted I remove it. That really took me by surprise since Firefox is, of course, the superior browser.

They use Microsoft Internet Explorer 7, and since I'd never seen it before, I thought I'd have a look to see what it was like. Wow! Was I underwhelmed! I looked at it and wondered what the heck they were thinking of when they came up with this new version.

IE

Have a look at the above screen-shot of a MS IE window. The menu bar is in an unexpected place, replaced by a couple of navigation buttons. There's a button labelled "Bookmarks", but using it requires one to be logged into Google. The "Favorites" menu can now be reached by clicking on some other button, but that's not immediately obvious. In the previous version, you could rearrange the buttons to get a more compact appearance, but version 7 limits your personalization choices.

FF

On the other hand, here's what my Firefox window looks like. To maximize the area devoted to the web page, I have the navigation buttons and fields on the same line as the menu items. Perhaps it's mainly a matter of personal taste, but I find this a less cluttered and easier to use arrangement of the important controls.

And now to the main point of today's rant. For a long time, I've always advocated designing web pages using the agreed-upon standards to ensure that the pages can be viewed using any browser, and I still believe in that. However, how much longer do we have to put up with the bugs and non-standard behaviors of Microsoft's browser? Other browsers, like Firefox, Safari, Opera, and Konqueror, can implement the standards properly? Why should web developers have to go through hoops and handstands to support a non-compliant browser?

That said, I've started to implement CSS properties that work best in Firefox and Safari. As a result, pages on my site, www.boldts.net, now look the best rendered by those browsers. Under Konqueror and Opera they look fine, but IE has trouble rendering certain features properly. Do I care? No. There's no reason the average web user can't upgrade to a better browser. The market share of Firefox continues to rise as people make the comparison.

To be fair, Microsoft is working on a new version of their browser, and when released, may well be a more standards-compliant browser. But why wait when proper choices exist today?

Omnifariously yours, Hans

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For Me, It's Back to Work!

Category: Computing Devices
Thu, 05 Jun 2008, 18:43

I haven't been blogging much lately. It's sometimes difficult finding the time to type my thoughts into a coherant form. For the past few weeks that's been especially true, since I started a new job.

When I started my job search back in September, I figured my most marketable skills were in the iSeries area. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of openings for iSeries programmers. I applied for a couple of iSeries positions, but neither of them resulted in so much as the time of day! Many iSeries boosters will argue that their favorite system has a bright future. But based on my own direct experience, I must sincerely disagree.

I did find a job, though. But it has little in common with my previous job. In fact, I had to explain what an iSeries was to my interviewer! My new job is giving me lots of opportunities to learn new things, like Zope, Plone, and OpenBSD, just to name a few.

man in a hurry

And unlike my previous job, which required me to commute 50km a day by car, I can now take public transit to work. A generally relaxing trip on a GO train followed by a 20 minute walk gets me to my job in a century-old building in Toronto's Fashion District.

Without a doubt, GO Transit is the best way to get downtown from the suburbs. I pay a little over eight dollars a day to ride the train. If I were still driving to my previous job, I'd probably be paying at least that much for gasoline every day! One big advantage of taking the train is that I can read the newspaper and do the daily Sudoku. You can't do that while driving!

The walk between Union Station and the office is interesting. It's hard to avoid walking past some city landmarks, such as the CN Tower, the Rogers Centre, or the CBC building. It's fun to watch the tourists taking pictures of each other sitting beside the Glenn Gould sculpture!

Sure, there are some disadvantages to a downtown job, such as dealing with hordes of other commuters. Also, the track level at Union Station has to be the most dreary of any major railroad station I've ever seen. I know public money is tight these days, and they're doing what they can to improve service, but couldn't they find some money to at least replace the roof over the tracks at Union Station?

On the whole, though, I think it's going to be interesting working downtown. I'm sure eventually I'll get bored with Toronto's downtown. And maybe it's unreasonable to expect long term employment from any company. But for now, it's a new and fun adventure!

Omnifariously yours, Hans

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On Internet Advertising

Category: Computing Devices
Thu, 13 Mar 2008, 12:49

Like many other webmasters, I too want to find ways to generate income from my web site. The Google AdSense program is a great way to bring in a few dollars, but it would be nice to take in a bigger piece of the advertising pie by selling ads directly.

But selling ads is not easy. Many advertisers don't want anything to do with the traditional banner ad since they are seen as ineffective. But from the point of view of the webmaster and of the visitor to the web site, banners remain the best solution. Let's have a quick look at some of the other methods advertisers use:

radio man

Some advertisers count on techniques that basically annoy the reader. Pop-up ads, and their cousins the pop-under ads, foist the advertiser's message directly in your face. In the few seconds before the reader hits the close button, the advertiser hopes that his message will get through. For me, pop-ups and pop-unders are so much a nuisance that if I stumble upon a web site that uses them, I back out immediately and never return.

More recently, advertisers have turned to another insidious technique, that of buying pages on web sites. A visitor to the site may read some content on a site and believe it to be the opinions of the webmaster. But in reality, the content, including it's external links, is paid for by an advertiser. Since this content is paid for, the objectivity of the material is obviously suspect. But because the content is on an independent web site, the reader may not be aware of the true nature of the content.

Have you seen ads in newspapers that look like articles? Respectable newsrags will put a disclaimer at the top indicating that the article is really a paid ad. But for most publications, their biggest customers are the advertisers. And for many, it's not easy filling a weekly or monthly publication with meaningful content, and so many will accept content from their advertisers. Sadly, the same is happening with some web sites.

This causes a problem for the search engines, like Google. They try to determine the quality of information on the zillions of web sites out there. One way is to count the number of links to particular web sites on the theory that the better quality sites will have more links pointing to them. Links that aren't paid for are considered more useful since there are no ulterior motives in adding such links to a site. But how do you differentiate between a paid-for and a non-paid-for link?

It's been reported that Google has some algorithms that try to determine the quality of links. Apparently, if Google determines that a web site is playing games to try to improve its page rank, Google may place the site in a sort of "penalty box", and exclude the site from search results. And so advertisers end up playing a cat and mouse game with Google, trying out different ways to pay for links that will not be found out by Google!

As always, the person caught in the middle is the average web surfer. The average person visits web sites looking for information or entertainment. Sometimes, he goes on-line looking to buy some particular product or service. But generally, the average person doesn't want to have to wade through lots of ads. Plus, the average person wants to be sure that the information he reads is objective and untainted by commercial interests.

The increase in the number of paid-for pages, as well as "text link ads", is yet another annoying development in the story of internet advertising. Web surfers need to be even more vigilant than ever in carefully reading web site content. Can we expect webmasters to always identify paid-for content? Probably not. Whenever we visit web sites from now on, we need to constantly ask ourselves if what we are reading sounds objective, or sounds more like ad copy.

Omnifariously yours, Hans.

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Is Linux Ready for the Desktop?

Category: Computing Devices
Wed, 12 Mar 2008, 18:20

I won't make you read through my entire editorial. The answer is a most definite "Yes".

Every so often, the question is asked: Is Linux ready for the desktop? That is, although we know Linux is already a darn fine server operating system, is it a good choice for the desktop? To justify my answer to this question, I'll start with a quick review of my own experiences with Linux.

In the mid-1990's, I used OS/2 on my home computer. I think everyone who ever used it knew it was a pretty good alternative to MS Windows at the time. But after a while, we all knew too well it wasn't going anywhere. Rather than move to the dark side and install Windows, I decided to try out Linux. So in June of 1998, I installed Red Hat Linux version 5.1. But after installation I stared at a plain fvwm screen and wondered what the heck I was getting myself into. It was a big step down from OS/2, but I stuck with it. A month later KDE version 1.0 was released, which made Linux a lot easier to use. As a computer geek, I had little trouble being productive with it, but clearly a lot of work was still needed. And I had a lot of learning to do.

Five years later, I moved up to Red Hat version 7.3 which was a big improvement. But still it was not ready for the average computer user. For example, writing CD's needed a good understanding of some text based commands. And adding new peripherals, such as a scanner and flash card reader, wasn't a trivial process.

Let's look at now. I recently bought a new computer, and the very first thing I did with it after powering it up was install Linux. This time, my Linux of choice was openSUSE (version 10.2), one of the more popular distributions. Although installation is relatively easy, I went through the process several times. The first was unacceptable since it left me with just 25 gigabytes in /home, which wasn't nearly enough for my photos, let alone anything else. Also, it kept Windows Vista in a partition. Having a dual boot installation may be fine for some people, but I didn't want anything to do with any Microsoft software. During the second installation, I gladly got rid of Vista completely.

About a week later, I downloaded and installed the 64 bit version of openSUSE. If you have a 64 bit CPU, doesn't it make sense to run a 64 bit O/S? Finally, after another week, openSUSE version 10.3 was released, and so I went through one more installation. In all the installs, the only non-standard part of the process was downloading and installing the nVidia display driver, which works beautifully in 1680x1050 full color.

What can I say about openSUSE 10.3? My scanner, LAN-based printer and sound device were all supported out of the box. It also recognizes my digital camera, although transferring image files is much faster when I plug the flash card directly into the computer, which works flawlessly too. Writing CD's and DVD's is now an easy process, with a robust and complete GUI based application.

Regarding software, openSUSE 10.3 has practically everything you might ever need packed onto one DVD, 4.1 gigabytes in all. The installation DVD has more than you need for a desktop, including all the software you'd need for a LAMP server. If you're a webmeister, you know that having Apache on your desktop is a good idea so you can test locally first before uploading.

For office tasks, you get OpenOffice. This includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation editor, and database. For image editing, you get the GIMP. For web browsing, you get a number of different web browsers, including Firefox and Opera. You also have a choice of e-mail clients, including Thunderbird. The programmer is incredibly blessed with a goodly number of compilers, interpreters, editors, libraries and GUI design tools. If you had to pay for the equivalent proprietary tools, it would cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars for each desktop computer in your home or company. Granted, the open source tools might not have all of the functionality (or bugs) of their proprietary cousins. But is that last five percent that you may never use anyways really worth spending the extra money? If you have a lot of desktop computers in your company, the costs can add up very quickly!

To get some idea of the software included with openSUSE, start the "Install Software" application. Any time you need to do something, chances are that if it's not yet installed, you can find it in the software repository. For example, one time I needed to extract the text from an image file. A Google search revealed that the command I needed was gocr. When I found I didn't have it yet on my system, I popped in the install DVD, invoked the "Install Software" program, and found the gocr package. Every time I browse the list of packages, I always find something else useful to install too!

Of course, many of the free or open source tools, such as OpenOffice, GIMP, Perl, Python, Ruby, Firefox, etc., are available for Windows too. But if you're using an application that doesn't require Windows, why spend the extra bucks either for the O/S itself or for the hardware needed to run it effectively? Think about it: In a Windows machine, how much CPU time is spent on checking for viruses? Or ensuring that all your software is properly licensed? If you have a dual processor machine, you might have one of those CPU's doing nothing more than making sure you're honest. Do you really want to deal with a software vendor that assumes its customers are fundamentally dishonest and need constant checking?

With the release of Windows Vista, many companies, institutions and governments are making the comparison between open source and proprietary solutions. Most are choosing to stay away from Vista. Many are choosing to switch to Linux. In fact, over the past year, it is believed that desktop usage of Linux has more than doubled. (From looking at the logs for my own web site, I believe that estimate is on the low side!) The advantages are clear: No license fees. No need to upgrade hardware just to support a new O/S release with dubious benefits. And much improved security.

To conclude, the time is now ripe. You can break the shackles of proprietary software and advance to open source software. As some fans of Linux say "It's not the software that's free; it's you!"

Omnifariously yours, Hans.

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Introducing the "Computing Devices" Section

Category: Computing Devices
Sat, 26 Jan 2008, 17:16

I've been involved with computers for more that thirty years now. I've always been tempted to comment on the subject, but for some reason up until now, I've tended to air my opinions in other on-line fora. That will change. As you can see, I have strong opinions on a variety of topics. And the realm of computers is no exception.

My first real exposure to computer programming was in first year university. Officially, I was registered in a mathematics program, which required a couple of computer courses. After a week or so, though, I knew my future would be with electronic computing machines. If I was really smart, though, I should have immediately dropped my physics and chemistry classes and taken on some more useful classes instead, like German or philosophy.

After getting a B.Sc. (Honours) degree in Computing and Information Science, and dropping out of grad school, I found a job in a large multinational computer company, where I would spend the next 26 years. For most of that time, I enjoyed working with IBM midrange computers, such as the S/38, AS/400, and iSeries. But my last three years were on a zSeries project, which wasn't nearly as much fun. When my manager chided me for not using PowerPoint for a presentation, I finally knew for sure it was time to leave.

Since my departure last summer, I've enjoyed spending time with my family and my hobbies. But I can't stay between jobs forever. I would like to find an iSeries programming job close to home, in the Scarborough, Pickering, Ajax, or Whitby area. Others can claim expertise in RPG, but I can genuinely claim to know that language inside and out. Unfortunately, iSeries jobs are pretty rare around here. If you know of any iSeries opportunities in this area, please let me know.

Finally, a few words on the icon at the bottom of the posting. The sign with the cross and three upward points is the ancient chemical symbol for "essential oil". This is appropriate for this section since computing devices have such an essential role in todays society. Of course, the word "oil" also has some negative connotations, as in the term "snake oil"

Omnifariously yours, Hans.

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