Wednesday, February 20, 2008


unix snob

I'm kind of a unix snob. I was already using it when Microsoft Windows and Macintosh were introduced. I was a hardware engineer and the garage tinkerer toys were on "Windows" while the serious tools were on unix RISC machines, so I never had an employer demand that I use the MSFT junk.

I had a gig where I generated Powerpoint slides for a few months. I picked a set of window decorations that looked like MS-Windows 95, and Applixware for the slides. The boss and the IT department didn't notice I wasn't using "Windows" until the Melissa worm came through and knocked down every computer in the office except mine.

I know their customers demand it, but I can't understand why a company that calls itself an IT expert consultancy would fool around with "Windows" for its own email and other critical systems. An auto mechanic would never depend on a $5 Chinese socket set from the flea market. That job takes professional quality tools. But here we have the company whose rooted box spammed me yesterday exposing a "Windows" email server on a routable address. They'll have a hard time cleaning the box up, and they'll put it back on the net to get rooted again. They think that's normal. It's the Chinese socket set of software and they're trying to run their business on it. Happens every day.

This week I helped a local peace activist graduate from Web-TV to Ubuntu GNU+X+Linux. Except she didn't need any help. The only thing that didn't "just work" was when she entered the wrong password for her dial-up service. Ubuntu didn't have an error indication; it just failed silently. (Which just reinforces my preference for KDE over GNOME. KPPP usually "just works" including error indications.) It's a good thing nobody'd told her "linux isn't ready for prime time."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


This site best viewed in

Yesterday I set up an eight year old Dell box for a local peace activist. Any machine you care about has a name and a notebook. This one is ruby, and I googled Ruby Bridges. The second hit was a bio, and it said "This site best viewed with Microsoft Internet Explorer 4" at the bottom. Which wasn't true, the site works fine in Konqueror (therefore Apple Safari) and Seamonkey (therefore Mozilla Firefox).

Opening the page source, I see it was composed in Microsoft Front Page. I've only used Front Page once, years ago, and don't remember much about it. But I suspect it put that lie at the bottom of the page and its user didn't know to remove it.

Remember the "browser wars?" Microsoft tried to control how the World Wide Web would develop. It put features in its Explorer browser which were intentionally incompatible with all other browsers in the field. They were designed to force Web authors to choose whether to write for Explorer or for Netscape, Opera, and Mosaic. If they could get enough "only works with Explorer" pages in place, they would have taken control of web standards away from the Web Consortium and the Internet Engineering Task Force. The Justice Department alleged Microsoft's name for this strategy was "Embrace, extend, extinguish," but the corporate media were too timid to report it. You probably heard it was just "embrace and extend."

Every page that says "best viewed with Microsoft Internet Explorer" is a reminder of Microsoft's illegal monopolistic behavior.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Ecological niche attracts figurehead

We see these "what a jerk Bill Gates is" articles all the time. They really don't help us understand the problem.

It's not "Bill Gates," it's Microsoft Corporation. The standards-seeking nature of the computer business combined with our worldwide lack of meaningful antitrust laws creates a perfect ecological niche for a software monopoly. First it was IBM and them MSFT. The monopoliast needs a sympathetic public relations figurehead. If it hadn't found Gates there were plenty more who wanted the job. Gates was, as they say, born on third base and thinks he hit a home run. Despite the fact he was one of the founders and his mommy had the connections at IBM, I think it's just as accurate to say Microsoft created the person that is now "Bill Gates" as Gates created Microsoft.

How much do you really know about Walt Disney? Did you know he hated Jews and children? Disney Corporation needed that cuddly grandpa entrepreneur character for its figurehead, and the public persona of Walt Disney was about as real as Mickey Mouse. Do you actually believe Thomas Edison invented the light bulb? Of course not, Edison invented the engineering sweat shop and the contract where engineers work for wages and sign away their patent rights. Nobody will ever know who was on the team that developed Edison Electric's tungsten filament light bulb manufacturing machine, but you can be sure it wasn't Edison himself. So what makes you think you know any more about "Bill Gates" than you know about Edison or Disney?

Friday, November 02, 2007


You're not crazy, the docs really do suck

My friend in LA ran into a showstopping udev-related bug, while installing Ubuntu for a friend. Booting after the initial install, kernel waits for root FS and udev never creates the device name it wants. Device names, it turns out, aren't as persistent as they need to be. His friend installed Windows-2000 and will tell his friends for years to come how half-baked "Linux" (all free software) is. This is how we advocates of software freedom create MS-Windows fans.

I couldn't figure out the bug for him during a short phone call. There's no way he could have figured it out. The reason we were stuck isn't that we're stupid or the bug was at all subtle. It's because Ubuntu doesn't tell us how its boot sequence works, and because udev is poorly documented.

When I had similar trouble with Lilo years ago, I read the 70 page Lilo reference manual (which was pretty good) and I wrote the Lilo Mini-HOWTO. Maybe you've used it. Since then I have been in the same place with a dozen other task problems, but there wasn't any 70 page reference manual or it was incomprehensible or obsolete. (Wi-fi. Docbook. Sound under KDE. SMTP AUTH submission. Postscript fonts in LaTeX. Udev. Postfix restriction classes...) For some of them, I would have written another Mini-HOWTO, but the information just wasn't there to do it with. Source code is not documentation.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


Try changing input focus policy on XP, Vista

On every window system I've ever used, except one, you can adjust the window behavior to suit your taste. I want the keyboard input to go into the window where the mouse pointer is, "focus follows mouse." Most other people seem to want the keyboard stuck to whatever window they clicked in last. That input focus policy is called "click to focus" and it wastes my time. When I move the input focus I want nothing else to happen. Most others seem to want the window they're typing in to jump on top of everything else. That annoying behavior, coupled with click-to-focus, is called "auto-raise." It wastes my time and my screen area.

I used to ask MS-Windows users how to switch the focus policy to focus-follows-mouse. They'd gawk at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. Then a Microsoft developer explained to me why you can't do it on MS-Windows, at least through XP. Believe it or not, the window behavior was hard wired into the MS-Windows operating system kernel! How stupid is that!

But it wasn't stupid at all. Microsoft wanted to prevent anyone else from writing a window manager for their operating system, or even porting one from somewhere else. "No more Quarterdecks!" One more MSFT design decision to serve the monopoly's needs, and against the users'. And it's why they didn't get virtual desktops until fifteen years after everybody else had them.

So, can I have focus-follows-mouse on Vista? It doesn't seem like a lot to ask for, from the software company with infinite development resources, that its fanboys tell me is the usability leader.


Fast install, just copy

Some MSFT fanboy was bragging that he can install MS-Vista in 35 minutes. Of course that's not including any MSFT applications. You have to do those one at a time, or you're "stealing."

I can reproduce an entire GNU+X+Linux installation in half that time. With the applications. That's because the Free Software Foundation's version of the UNIX "cp(1)" program can copy everything on a disk partition, faithfully, in one operation. Then all you need to do is "make the drive bootable" (install a boot loader) which takes another minute or two. It's way faster than installing from scratch, and you don't have to repeat your post-install customizations.

The (1) means it's in the first chapter of the online manual, and it's part of the program's name. GNU cp(1) is part of the GNU fileutils package, standard on any "Linux" distro you'll ever see.

The first GNU+Linux distribution I really liked was H.J. Liu's "GCC Release." Its installation program was, you guessed it, GNU cp(1).

MSFT users aren't allowed to copy their systems, even if it were possible.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Advice to a new user, most open-source projects' web sites suck

One of my users got stuck trying to add a calendar to his new Drupal site. He has no idea what to do next, and doesn't even know how to ask.

I got your mesaage, but I didn't know where you got stuck or what you wanted me to do, so I left it for later.

One of the things you will pick up about open source is how to ask questions. You have to say exactly what you are trying to do, what you did, what you expected would happen, and what happened instead. Nobody can do much for you without that information. If you are asking about a possible bug, the maintainers need enough information to reproduce it. If you are asking "what do I do next" we need to know exactly what you're trying to do, how far you got, and what you are missing before you can proceed.

The chronic problem with open source documentation, and software documentation in general, is it is written by the only people who do not need it, and they have no idea when they left something out. When I looked at the Drupal site, for example, I needed an introductory overview and a glossary of Drupal jargon. But they jump right in to details of how to do this or that, assuming you already know what is in their heads. Sourceforge "project pages" are especially bad that way. The Apache and PostgreSQL sites show that it doesn't have to be that way.

Many open source sites open with a front page blog of "news" where the developers are talking to each other about details of what they did yesterday, and you have to "drill" and search for any instructions or even a statement of what the product does. Sometimes the developers just have poor English composition skills and they are unable to write a sentence saying what the thing is. Slashcode and PHP are like that. What the hell is Slashcode? We don't know how to answer that question in plain English, but here's how to join the developers' mailing list. That's just how things are and you have to get used to it.

You said "modules that need database configuration and installed software from drupal." As far as I know, each Drupal site on the server only needs one
database. Ours is the "default" site, and its MySQL account has the privileges called for in the install instructions. Does the calendar require a second database? Does it need to be told where the existing database is? Are you using a different one than the one I pulled in? I could not find any other third-party modules. In fact I had to create the sites/default/modules directory to put calendar in it.

> let me know if there is anything I need to do

Please turn off the HTML in your messages from Hotmail. They're really hard to read.

Monday, April 30, 2007


Provoking the 800 pound gorilla

Microsoft (stock ticker symbol MSFT) sued for reselling academic licenses. Other retailers get away with it. Why was singled out?

MSFT doesn't really care if some small fraction of MS-Windoze installations are "stolen." As others have observed, "pirated" Windoze enlarges the footprint, creating more demand for Windoze over time.

What bothers MSFT is loss of channel control. Almost all computer hardware and software is sold through a network of wholesalers, distributors, and resellers known as "the channel." MSFT's monopoly requires that MSFT be able to declare and enforce the rules of how the channel works: who gets how much of the cut, what retail customers are told, etc. It's a lot like the way cocaine and heroin are distributed. Fry's plays by the rules (selling almost all MSFT licenses with new computers or in retail shrink wrap, flooring Vista only...) and MSFT leaves them alone. doesn't (selling MSFT licenses on used computers, selling XP in 2007, selling more "OEM" than retail shrink wrap), and MSFT hits them hard.

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