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.

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.

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!

The Vices of Its Virtues

For all its vaunted power and flexibility, and notwithstanding the fact that it is free (in both senses) Linux is sometimes a real pain. I run two distributions of Linux: "Arch Linux" on my laptop and "Ubuntu" on my desktop. I have a neat little program called "Unison" that synchronizes my documents between them. Unison is a wonderful program, but one installation of Unison will only talk to another one if it is the same version. Unison 2.36 does not talk to Unison 4.0.

Arch Linux is usually a little more up to date than Ubuntu, particularly since I use Ubuntu's "long term support" version (a topic for another time). As I tried to synchronize my files between my laptop and my desktop before I ran out the door today, my laptop reminded me that I had updated it to Unison 4.0 so it wouldn't synchronize with Unison 2.36 on my desktop.

Check to see if Ubuntu has a prepackaged update: No.

Check to see if I can download the Unison source code: Yes.

Uninstall old prepackaged version on Ubuntu.

Untar Unison source code.

Oops, Unison requires the Ocaml compiler, which I do not have on my system.

Install Ocaml compiler from Ubuntu software repository.

Brew a pot of tea while liblabldgk2-ocaml unpacks . . .

(Divert my attention to fix a problem with the iPhone's hogging the processor. See also PortbleDevicesiPhone)

Consult Unison manual.

Consult user group when the instructions in the manual do not work.

# ocaml > Makefile.ProjectInfo

# make

# make install

Move unison-2.40 binary to /usr/local/bin and create symlink "unison" in /usr/bin

It launches on the Ubuntu box!

Will Arch Linux connect? No.

(Slight fiddle with ssh connection.)

Will Arch Linux connect? Yes - success

Time elapsed 1 hour 26 minutes.

Bet ya can't wait to try Linux!

The great thing about Linux is that you can do all these things. (When Windows is broken, all too often your hands are tied.) The unfortunate thing about Linux is that every once in a while you have to do all these things.

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.

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.

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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Ubuntu Open Week

A series of on-line lectures and tutorials introducing users to the Ubuntu Linux operating system begins November 2, 2009 with Ubuntu Open Week. Anyone who wants to get more out of his or computer should consider attending.

Law and the Long War Discussion

As I move forward with the discussion of Benjamin Wittes' Law and the Long War initiated by bloggers Thomas Nephew and the Talking Dog, Mr. Wittes' article in the Washington Post on the President's efforts to close the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay caught my eye. In general, I find much to disagree with in Mr. Wittes' approach as I dip into his book, but I do think that he makes an important point in his recent article.

Mr. Wittes' comment that the President is enjoying a Dick Cheney moment by deciding to close Guantanamo through unilateral executive action is a cheap shot. Dick Cheney pursued a relentless effort to aggregate greater power to the executive in order to pursue an unlawful campaign of terror, murder, torture, and domestic espionage. While I agree with Mr. Wittes that it would have been preferable for Mr. Obama to have acted with Congressional cooperation, the exercise of executive power on a mission of mercy, however bad the precedent, is just not the same as its exercise for Dick Cheney's unabashedly murderous ends.

Mr. Wittes is right about one thing, however. Our approach to the treatment of prisoners is now a hopeless muddle; the tenuous structure of international human rights law shattered beyond recognition by the reckless adventurism of President Bush and his cowboys. By going to war on false pretenses, President Bush and his supporters squandered the moral authority bestowed by the unprovoked attack on 9/11, sapped American credibility, and sent thousands of young men, women, and children to needless early deaths. The Administration then used its unjust and unnecessary war to bootstrap a ruthless attack on American Constitutional rights by engaging in torture, open-ended detention, and hitherto unprecedented surveillance. As someone who works two blocks from the White House, if I die in the next terror attack I pray that I will die a free man in a free society, not the Orwellian Republic that Bush has initiated and Obama seems determined to perpetuate.

I actually agree with Mr. Wittes that the appropriate treatment of prisoners is one thing our national debating society, the Congress, might be able to get right, if it had strong and principled leadership from the White House. Frankly, I would wish for a strong reassertion and expansion of the principles of the Geneva Convention, coupled with an equally strong vindication of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. I am skeptical that this could be accomplished in this age of Chicken Little-ism in the face of the threat from the cave dwellers of Afghanistan. However, the Congress has, with strong leadership from the White House, occasionally risen above its general level of moral cowardice, as with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Perhaps it could do so again, and prove Mr. Wittes right in his contention that questions of prisoner treatment should not be left in the first instance to the Courts.

Crocodile Tears

CNET's Charles Cooper celebrates SCO's lawsuit against IBM with ill-disguised glee. The lawsuit apparently alleges that IBM included SCO's proprietary Unix code in contributions to Linux. Cooper seems to feel that the suit is the beginning of open season on Linux and Open Source development. What is less clear is why he writes with such overt animus.

Microsoft Gobbles Up RAV Antivirus

RAV AntiVirus Website - Reliable AntiVirus Solutions, Antivirus Research, Statistics

GeCAD Software has announced a definitive agreement with Microsoft Corp., of Redmond, Wash., USA, by which Microsoft will acquire GeCAD�s antivirus technology. Microsoft has stated its intention to integrate GeCAD�s technology into products and services that will help secure customers.

This announcement is significant because GeCAD is the only company I know of that produces antivirus software for Linux. While viruses are perhaps not a huge threat to Linux at the moment, I thought the software was worthwhile. Now that Redmond is acquiring the company, I expect its Linux support to wither.