The Trouble with Linux

GNOME co-founder Miguel de Icaza has a trenchant post on why Linux desktop computers have not been more successful.

A few quick points in response:

  1. I am very happy with my Debian desktop and Arch laptop.

  2. I agree with de Icaza's praise for the new GNOME shell interface, which I use on my laptop.

  3. I think de Icaza's critique of the Linux development model is worth listening to, although I am evaluating it more on the basis of his status as a longtime leader in the community than any ability to independently evaluate Linux development.

  4. De Icaza's blandishments notwithstanding, I am not ready to jump ship for OSX.

Apple to Basics to Computers

Scientists are in oversupply reports the Washington Post; the dream of earning one's Ph.D. and eventually running a lab has never seemed farther away.  Which brings me to wonder what Apple Computer is doing with all its cash.  If I were Tim Cook, I would set up a skunk works along the lines of Bell Labs or Xerox PARC, the legendary research centers that pioneered the technological discoveries without which Apple Computer would never have been possible. I would try to pick the best scientists and let them pursue independently directed long-term basic research.  That's how we got the transistor and the graphical user interface (GUI), for example.  We have the scientists.  Let's put them to work.

The Amazon Instant Video Ripoff

It seemed like a good thing while it lasted.  Buy your movies in the cloud and have them to play on your computer anywhere through Amazon Instant Video.  For a little while, it worked like  a charm, and I accumulated a small library of three or four videos.  Then suddenly yesterday, without warning, the video simply cuts out. As best I can ascertain the problem is related to some tweak in Amazon's digital rights management that is not compatible with Adobe flash on Linux.  Maybe this is what I deserve for using a minority operating system.  But Amazon Instant Video has just lost a customer.  And I will think twice before I again buy content that I have to store in the cloud.

A Single Addressbook? Impossible, Apparently.

One of the minor frustrations of my cyber-life is the lack of a universal address book. My hypothetical requirements seem deceptively simple: a cross-device, cross-platform, and cross-application central address book. In other words, I could enter address, phone, fax, and email information once and then access it in any device in both my email clients and my word processors and text editors. Simple, right? Not so very.

As it stands, there seem to be three major alternatives, none of which is quite satisfactory: LDAP, Caldav/Carddav, and whatever the hell Microsoft Exchange has under the hood. LDAP is widely accepted and reputedly is efficient and scales well. However, it is a beast to configure, finicky, and seems to lack a consistent format. Carddav seems to be simpler and more uniform but is not as widely available — for example, Mozilla Thunderbird at least works partially with LDAP, but not at all with Carddav. And Microsoft, well Microsoft seems mostly to want to play only with Microsoft (although the iPhone admittedly integrates nicely with Exchange).

Even if I can mostly get my different email clients — Outlook, Horde, Evolution, Thunderbird, and Emacs — to share at least one of the above databases and to sync with at least some of the others, the word processor situation seems to be pretty hopeless. I would like to be able to click a mouse or tap a key and insert the relevant address information from my universal address book into whatever it is I am typing: an email, a fax, or a letter. At various times, I use Word, WordPerfect, Libreoffice, and Emacs, but I have yet to find a fully satisfactory solution for any of them, much less for all of them.

Email Encryption

I added a new post on encrypting email with S/MIME to my series on digital privacy at the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition.  It reminded me of the difficultry in striking a balance between providing enough information to be useful and accurate but not so much as to discourage or confuse, particularly since the series is aimed at sophisticated people who are nevertheless complete novices when it comes to encryption.  Of course, not being a cryptanalyst, computer programmer, or mathematician myself, I also try to keep within the bounds of my own limited, practical knowledge.

Organizational Challenges

I have always greatly admired people with a natural flair for organization; unfortunately I am not one of them.  For the rest of us, there is org-mode.  And what might that be? I hear you say.

Org-mode is a customization of the powerful, and programmable, text editor Emacs.  Don't be misled by the "text editor" label; Emacs is to text editors as Ferrari is to cars; except that Emacs is free.  More aptly, perhaps, it could be characterized as the Swiss Army Knife of the digital world, being adapted to everything from software development to playing music to composing email.

For me, however, the killer feature is org-mode.  Org-mode takes simple text files and turns them into a full-fledged personal planner, and it is completely customizable!  The down side is that, while org-mode is simplicity itself to use, it can be the very devil to configure (the price of complete customizability).  Forturnately, there is plenty of help online, such as Bernt Hansen's excellent web page.  So if you have the time, patience, and determination necessary to assemble a first-class organizational tool, download a copy of Emacs and org-mode and have at it!

Jumping Ship

If the topic were anything more serious than blogging software, the dramatic and innovative rise, peak, and uitimate fall of Six Apart would have an Aristotelian quality to it.  Six Apart revolutionized the blogging world in 2001 with its sophisticated, Perl scripted, individual blogging software, which was the dominant individual blogging software until it was overtaken by Wordpress later in the decade.  The story of Movable type's demise is a complex one involving both design misjudgments and marketing errors, but by earlier this year Six Apart had been taken over by Say Media and Movable Type spun off to the a Japanese developer.

Last week, I jumped ship after using Movable Type for about eight years.  I ported my blog to SquareSpace, a move that entails its own challenges, and shut down my Movable Type site.  Despite my nostalgia for Movable Type's powerful and flexible platorm, despite my seduction by the idea of running an individual site independently of a big company, I was just too tired of running a site where I had been hacked, was constantly fighting a losing battle with comment spam, and was unable to implement design changes more suited to the mobile Internet. I'd like to express my appreciation to Ben and Mena Trott, the founders of Six Apart, for their innovative contribution to the web and their support for my blogging itch for many years.  At this point, however, it's farewell Movable Type, hello SquareSpace.

Road Kill on the Internet Superhighway

I like the independence and illusion of freedom that comes from publishing an individual blog on an independent host. To a point I even like tinkering with my Movable Type blog software. (No, I don't need to hear from WordPress users how declasse this makes me.) I enjoy the idea that if somehow something I said offended the powers that be who provide me an Internet platform, I could just pick up my data and move on, without being locked into a Facebook, Google,, Blogger, whatever.

But the illusion of freedom and the appearance of independence come at a price. On Friday, I learned that my little blog had been ingeniously hacked, thanks to a tip from John Grillot of White Fir Design, which runs an anti-hacking operation. When one visited the site, it was to all appearances working perfectly normally. However, unbeknownst to me, it was spewing volumes of c1alis ads and other unsavory spam into Google's search engine, presumably in an effort to attract attention to the spammers' sites. I would have been collateral damage when Google decided to shutdown and blacklist my site as a spam factory, were it not for Mr. Grillot's timely tip.

At this point, having rebuilt the site and changed the passwords, I am still not sure how I invited these cockroaches of the Internet in, but I suppose any site, particularly one that is small and under amateur management, may have a thousand vulnerabilities despite reasonable diligence. I find the experience suggests several implications for how I think about the Internet. On the one hand, I am sure that big providers who manage thousands of blogs are better defended against this kind of attack than I am. On the other hand, although the attack was an inconvenience for me, attacking little sites like mine cannot offer much in the way of economies of scale to the spammers. Moreover, a little differentiation might generate further inefficiencies for the spambots, despite their fiendish ingenuity.

In the end, I remain in favor of more decentralization of the Internet and more individual independence, but paradoxically this can only work through better collaboration and communication to hold the malign influences of the Internet at bay.

Digital Retro - No Love for Tablets

Steve Jobs while introducing the iPad in San F...

Image via Wikipedia

When it comes to computers, I know how the owner of a late-seventies classic Cadillac must feel about modern automobiles. Faced with the tablet revolution, I am putting computer makers on notice that they will pry my wide, clicky, hard keyboard from my cold dead fingers before they take it away, and I am not even that good a typist. I realize that I am part of dying breed, the last generation that spent the eighth grade pounding out "f j f" on Ms. Wells' manual typewriters. By law school, I had graduated to a self-correcting electric for my exams. (The school still did not allow computers for exams, although I had been using my trusty Mac IIsi at home for a number of years.)

A tablet is too big to be as portable as an iPhone and too small to be a laptop. And try typing on one! Even my normal slow pace is reduced to an erratic crawl. Besides which, while I prefer to do as much as I can from the keyboard, the touchscreen is only a marginal improvement on the mouse, unless one is drawing on the screen.

Finally, there seems to be little defense to the charge that tablets are the new TV, that they exist primarily for the consumption of content rather than its creation or exchange. Every time I bring up the iPad, I hear that it is not a tool for "sheeple."

Steve Jobs is no fool, however, and I can see the writing on the wall. Welcome to the brave new world of the tablet.

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The Future of Social Networking Is Not Here Yet

Social networking is a matter of absorbing interest for more reasons than just a popular movie. Facebook currently boasts of 500 million users. It is credited, along with Twitter, with playing an instrumental role in the ongoing Arab revolt, while at the same time consistently being dogged by privacy concerns.

A recent speech by Columbia Law Professor Eben Moglen, covered in the New York Times, highlighted the real dangers of centralized control over networks and data upon which people depend not only for information but sometimes for their lives. Moglen observed, "Friends of ours, people seeking freedom, are going to get arrested, beaten, tortured, and eventually killed somewhere on earth because they're depending for their political survival in their movements for freedom on technology we know is built to sell them out." In Egypt, he pointed out, the Egyptian government was neither sufficiently ruthless nor sufficiently in control of the network to turn the protesters' reliance on Facebook and Twitter against them. But no revolutionary movement is safe if the confidentiality of their communications is entirely at the disposal of one corporate executive easily susceptible to government pressure.

The answer, Mr. Moglen posits, is federated not centralized computing, in which, in lieu of the massive central servers that drive Facebook and Google today, people are able to access the Internet with cheap, portable, individual servers on which their data is stored under their control.

As a step in that direction, a number of developers have launched federated social networking software. Two I have tried, One Social Web and Diaspora, are both still in their infancy. However, they have advanced to the point that with some ingenuity and persistence, it is possible to set up a personal server on your personal computer and exchange information with your friends. As yet, they are still a long way from the promise of cheap, secure, decentralized, private communication. But at least the promise is there.

Linux Likes and Loathings

I was recently having a conversation with a friend who makes his
living as an IT support person for Microsoft systems. I casually mentioned that I use Linux at home and acknowledged that there are some trade-offs. The response was that, well, maybe Linux is O.K. if all I have to do is a little word processing and web surfing. I did not pursue the discussion, but it did cause me to reflect a little bit, particularly since this was a response from a person who has forgotten more about computers than I will ever know.

Linux meets all my basic computing needs: email, web surfing, downloads, word processing, a little basic spreadsheet use. But it goes far beyond that, offering for free an array of powerful software that I could never afford to buy in commercial versions. It's not even a question of my being cheap (which maybe I am), it is a question of come software simply being out of reach. With Linux, I get an array of databases, a web server, an email server, an ftp server, image and video editing tools, and programming tools, to name a few, that would be both difficult and expensive for me to obtain for Windows. All of these are tightly integrated into a highly flexible and customizable operating system. One of the great blessings of my Linux system is that I can get to all of my data, all of the time, anywhere there is an Intenet connection, without being required to store all of my data on someone else's giant server. And with Linux, while I know a problem may be difficult to fix, I also know that it is almost always fixable.

I do run Windows occasionally in a virtual machine (which comes free with Linux). I need Internet Explorer to connect remotely to my server at work and I use WordPerfect for work-related word processing. I also do have good Free Software quivalents for TurboTax or iTunes (for my iPhone). Otherwise, my home computer time is usually strictly Linux.

My first step in writing this piece was to compile some of my Likes and Dislikes about Linux in tabular form, which as a final step, I have listed as follows:

Infinitely CustomizableRequires Customization
Free as in beerLess choice of applications
Free as in FreedomNot the industry standard
Powerful software I can affordNot always the most powerful software
Intellectually challengingLearning curve
StableOccasional hardware limitations
Community Support

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Something Old, Something New

Once again the time has come to upgrade to the latest version of Movable Type. As with most software upgrades, this one is more a matter of vanity than practicality. Version 4 was perfectly functional and more than satisfied my modest needs, but as with so much of human life, the restless desire for something new, the itch for the latest thing, invariably impels me toward an upgrade. (To be fair, the new interface is quite elegant and easy to use, although some have suggested that it is an unduly close imitation of rival WordPress.) Naturally, having insisted on upgrading, I fully expect my customizations to be lost, my feeds to break, and my plugins to be obsolete, so that I will be obliged to engage in a new round of creative destruction as I try to restore the meager design elements of my blog. So gentle reader, I ask that you bear with me patiently until we return to the predictable routine of ordinary blogging.

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1,000 Ways to Say Nothing

I wish I could remember who first observed that modern life has endowed with thousands of new ways to communicate and nothing more to say. At this moment, however, it seems particularly apropos. I finally decided to integrate my blog pages with the notes feed in my Facebook account. Some weeks ago, I displayed my twitter feed on my blog page. I have four private email accounts -- my own domain, gmail, yahoo, and hotmail -- plus a Google Wave account. I keep a list of public bookmarks on I am connected and integrated on my home computer, my laptop, my blog platform, and &mdash God help me — my iPhone, which I tote around from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep, and not because I am making phone calls. I have word processors, CMS systems, text editors, version control systems, and email clients. True, I get a certain perverse pleasure out of setting all this up and keeping it running; it's a hobby. But to what end? Shakespeare was able to accomplish more with a quill pen in a day than the Internet in all its digital glory will in a lifetime.

Blogging to Happiness

I have been a big fan of Gretchen Rubin ever since reading her slim biography of Winston Churchill and her somewhat less slim biography of John F. Kennedy. At present, I am about half way through her latest book: The Happiness Project, in which she chronicles a year spent thinking and trying ways to live a happier life. One thing which brought Rubin more happiness was starting a blog, also called the Happiness Project. Given that one of Rubin's principles of happiness could be paraphrased as the journey is more important than the destination (though the destination counts!), it is not surprising that one of the ways she found greater happiness was through her blog.

The Promise of Infocard

Information Cards, also referred to by the moniker InfoCards or the Microsoft brand name Cardspace, have been a long-promised (and little implemented) addition to the identity and security landscape for some time now. The idea is essentially that they would work like a personal digital ID card that would securely sign you in to any site you to which you belong. Rather than memorizing dozens of usernames and passwords, you could just plug in your handy digital ID and 'Open Sesame." In general, Infocards are touted as being more secure than passwords because they are highly encrypted. To keep your card safe, you would only need to know one password, stored locally on your computer or thumb drive, so that your co-worker or other random person couldn't pirate your card. The piece of software used to store and deploy InfoCards is known as an Identity Selector; there is a new one available that works with Linux and Firefox 3.5 called openinfocard.

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