Monday, August 31, 2009

National Parks Widget

The new widget on the top right of this blog is courtesy of the upcoming Ken Burns PBS Series The National Parks: America's Best Idea, which starts on September 27th.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

This is why people don't take RMS and the FSF seriously

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has posted a list of "Windows 7 Sins" that epitomizes Mr. Stallman's blunt instrument approach to winning the hearts and minds of computer users and information consumers... No matter how noble the intent, this type of delivery is counterproductive and, at best, misguided. 

The list features paragraphs and links that provide some fact, plenty of FUD, and a more-than-healthy dose of misleading information around the following alleged Microsoft "sins". You can read the FSF's helpful information using these links, and I'll interject some moderation to temper a few of the "whoppers" that you may encounter along the way:
  1. Education: Remember the days of the Apple ][? The only reason I had one at home was because that's what we used at school. If the skills I gained at an early age were non-transferable to other platforms and technologies, then I should be completely overwhelmed by the OpenBSD, OS X, Windows, and Linux systems that surround me. Indeed, I should be buying up every Apple ][, ][e, and ][c that appears on eBay so that I can have a computer that "I know how to use." The OLPC rant is so poorly thought out that it scarcely requires mentioning. Anyone with a modicum of token critical thinking and analysis skills (which are far more important to education than any type of computing device) can recognize the faults in its logic.   
  2. DRM: Yes, I dislike encumbered files and generally choose not to purchase them. However, I also enjoy watching my Blu-Ray discs, which make very heavy use of DRM technologies. The funniest part of this rant is how it employs convenient omission. The alternatives that are available all work on Windows platforms.  I can generate and play any type of media that I desire, in any format that can be imagined. Consumer education is important, but this is overbearing and misguided. Apple iPods and iPhones, and Microsoft Zunes and Windows Mobile devices would all be less successful if they could only use media from the various stores that are listed. If you do not like the shortcomings that these stores provide, don't use the stores... 
  3. Security: The best part of this one is "With free software, even if you don't have the skills to evaluate the software, you can be certain that someone else can." I'm struggling to muster the faith required to conjure a volunteer benevolent uber-mensch who is fluent in C, well versed in security principles, and has the interests of the populous above those of himself or whomever is providing his source of income. All modern Linux distributions use repositories to get security updates and most people blindly apply binary updates and hope that said benefactor exists in exactly the same way that they rely on Microsoft or Apple to provide updates to their proprietary systems. I would love to see a survey of what percentage of production Linux users have source packages installed. My guess: a single-digit percentage relies on their own skills instead of those of Canonical, Novell, RedHat, etc...   I leave the exercise of attempting to find information about security, bug fixes, patches, and updates associated with GNU Hurd to the reader (Good Luck!).
  4. Monopoly: Yes, they got busted. The argument about PC Manufacturers is a bit of a double-edged sword, however. Successful PC Manufacturers are run by business people, not idealists. Business people have a strong tendency to build, stock, and offer for sale items which they perceive as likely to be sold. Regardless of how enthusiastic your love for alternatives is, pragmatism and economics will prevail. Besides, every major manufacturer offers some systems with Linux. I am not aware of any, however, that are insane enough to try the waters of offering for sale a system based upon the perpetually-in-development but never-likely-to-actually-be-producton-ready GNU Hurd. After all, "there is no stable version."
  5. Standards: Here the rallying cry is primarily against Office, with a side of IE. Although, I was under the impression that the basis of this "campaign" was the upcoming release of the Windows 7 operating system. On the off chance that a friend or colleague sends you an ODF-formatted document, Office 2007 SP2 includes ODF support. For some strange reason the Sun plug-in does a better job of it (to the untrained observer, it would appear as if the folks who developed the source code for OpenOffice are more familiar with the 728-page ODF standard -- which, ironically, is distributed as a ZIP file that contains a PDF).                                                  
  6. Lock In: Again, the logic breaks down rather quicky, and Microsoft can often be replaced by "Company X". For all of Mr. Stallman's obsessions with the various definitions of the word free (apparently free, Free, fRee, frEe, freE, FRee, FrEe, FreE, fREe, fReE, frEE, FREe, FReE, FrEE, fREE, and FREE should all have different connotative and denotative symbology), he doesn't seem to understand the nuance of the free market. Yes, Windows NT4 and Windows 2000 have reached the end of their support lifecycles. But, then again, so have Oracle 8i, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 2.1, AIX 5.3, the Ford Model A, and every other commercial product in the history of market-driven economies. At this point, the argument switches back to Office again... Anybody tried to open a WordPerfect 5.1-or-previous document recently? The once-ubiquitous *.wpd was the de facto "document exchange format" before Microsoft Office started to provide competitive-to-superior functionality. I guess it only qualifies as lock-in when you remain successful in the marketplace. (Interestingly, I could find no mention of *.wpd support in the latest version of Corel WordPerfect Office X4, which prominently features ODF, Microsoft OOXML, and Adobe PDF support.)  
  7. Privacy: This rant combines disparate factors into a doomsday scenario that is ridiculously unlikely. It deftly mixed the Windows Genuine Advantage program (without railing other companies that have even-less-transparent software activation schemes) with some massive FUD about the Trusted Platform Module, and assumes that the reader is ignorant enough to believe that the (NT?) 4(.0?) horsemen of the apocalypse are nigh. Windows Vista and Windows 7 do not employ the version of "Trustworthy Computing" that was envisioned by Palladium. Yes, there is some opportunity for abuse, but the scenario that is described here has less of a chance of occurrence than me winning 18 consecutive lotteries and being struck by lightning (at the same physical location) on each occasion as I collect the winnings. 
In short, throughout its over-105-year history, Oscar Mayer hasn't managed to produce this much bologna. If this energy could be directed into real consumer education, it would be far more productive than this petty -- and frankly, pathetic -- mix of whining and hate- / fear-mongering. This "campaign" comes across as juvenile quibbling and bellyaching, and lacks characteristics that would inspire any meaningful discussion or debate. Said discussion and debate is useful and necessary, but the tactics employed by this campaign are better fit as examples in the next edition of Crimes Against Logic than as tinder for revolutionary fires. Indeed, the only likely response to this "initiative" will be inflammatory blog rhetoric and user-comment cruft on both sides of the "argument"; all of which is distinctly anathema to the prospects of rational debate and progress.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Broadband2Go and Ubuntu 8.04 -- 1st success

No luck with NetworkManager (Bugs: Ubuntu, Gnome Network Manager).

Anyhow, the important parts:
  1. edited /etc/udev/rules.d/70-persistent-cd.rules and added ,RUN+="/usr/bin/eject %k" to the Novatel-generated entries
  2. re-inserted the card and ran lsusb to verify that the Virgin Mobile card showed up in modem mode (1410:6002)
  3. ran sudo modprobe usbserial vendor=0x1410 product=0x6002 to establish the ttyUSBx devices (I had gotten this far previously)
  4. verified that said ttys were there via ls /dev/ttyU*
  5. followed Sprint's instructions for wvdial, including sudo wvdialconf, sudo vi /etc/wvdial.conf (to set the parameters), and then sudo wvdial to establish the connection (when I tried wvdial w/o root, it couldn't modify /etc/ppp/chap-secrets or /etc/ppp/pap-secrets. I'll have to look into that, b/c root may not be strictly necessary here... I seem to recall a "dialout" group...)
  6. NOTE: the wvdialconf and /etc/wvdial.conf items above are one-time steps...
  7. NOTE: It's trivial to script the lsusb, modprobe, checking for tty, and launching wvdial tasks, and should be easy to add a launcher icon also. (UPDATE: it was pretty trivial -- see below)
  8. Killed my WiFi (via Airplane Mode), then wrote this post via the 3G goodness. Verified no ip on eth1 (my wifi), and active ip on ppp0 via ifconfig
  9. NOTE: leave the terminal window open, and simply hit <Ctrl>+C to disconnect when you're ready.
It's a good step in the right direction. Would be nice to get it working with Network Manager, but this reminds me of the good old days (when we upgraded our University's dial-up from SLIP to PPP and I had to figure out how to make it work with a distro based on the 0.99pl10 Linux kernel).

Initial Script
# look for any Novatel Wireless device
DEVICE=`lsusb |  grep $VENDOR | cut -d : -f 3`
# if a device exists, make sure it's the Virgin Mobile modem
# if it is the modem, make usbserial probe the device
if [ "${DEVICE:0:4}" != "6002" ];
    then echo Virgin Mobile card not found; exit 1
    else sudo modprobe usbserial vendor=0x$VENDOR product=0x$DEVICE;
# make sure that usbserial created /dev/ttyUSBn device(s)
# if the USB tty is there, then initiate the ppp connection
TTYUSB=`ls /dev/ttyUSB*`
if [ -z "$TTYUSB" ];
    then echo No TTY created; exit 1
    else sudo wvdial;

Saturday, August 22, 2009

More RAM for the Mini 9

I happily spent $20 for a 2GB DDR2 SODIMM, and replaced the 1GB that came with my Mini 9. Both the BIOS and the kernel saw it correctly with no issues.

The only obvious improvements have been in Picasa and VLC -- but both are important parts of my plan for this netbook...

No BB2G on Ubuntu 8.04 -- yet

Well, I found some good references and managed to get the usbserial driver to create ttys for the USB device. But, I have not managed to successfully connect a ppp connection quite yet...

Here are some links. (The last two are the most relevant, but the others provide good context.)

NOTE: the Virgin Mobile card has a product ID of 0x6002, vs. the 0x6000 for Verizon's version.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Virgin Mobile Broadband2Go for OS X

OK, this was too easy (I'm using the card to write this blog post).

  1. Install the Connection Manager and Drivers on a Windows system. (I used my boot camp partition.)
  2. Activate the USB device, and Program it using the Connection Manager.
  3. Restart in OS X
  4. Run the installer package (Installer.pkg), and -- unfortunately -- reboot.
  5. Follow along with the Leopard instructions in the UserGuide.pdf, with a couple of (fairly obvious) modifications:
  • The connection was created automatically (easier than their instructions)
  • It was called "Virgin Mobile Modem" instead of "Novatel Wireless CDMA Modem"
  • Some of the options they didn't mention on the WWAN tab have been removed (again, making it easier)
  • They forgot to mention adding your account credentials before clicking "Connect" (NOTE: This may actually not be necessary, based on my experiences under Linux -- I'll have to try using no data here later...)
  • Your Account Name is your MDN / Broadband2Go account number
  • Your Password is your Account PIN
That's it -- fully functional on OS X in a matter of about 2 minutes. Next stop, trying to get the bugger to work with Linux (namely Ubuntu 8.04 on my netbook). I'll report back if/when I'm successful...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The "Netbook" Experience

I have just added a Dell Mini 9 to my computing arsenal. I ordered it with the Dell-ized Ubuntu 8.04 precursor to "Netbook Remix" and after spending my first day with it am rather more pleased than I had expected...

Sure, the keyboard is somewhat compressed and "interesting," but the keys that are in weird locations are used infrequently during netbook-friendly tasks. The biggest exception to this general rule is the right Shift key, which requires a bit of a pinky stretch to get to, and will require training before muscle memory would render it easily-accessible. For completeness, here are the odd and quibble-worthy key placements:
  • - / _ and = / + are to the right of the P, and not on the number row
  • ' / " is down low, next to the "right-click menu" key (this can interfere with some normal typing activities, such as blogging or composing documents)
  • `, ~, {, }, [, ], |, \, Insert, PrntScrn, PgUp, PgDn, Home, End, and the F1 through F10 keys all require use of the blue Fn key. (In other words, you wouldn't want to do any heavy programming or scripting using this keyboard.)
  • There is only one (left) Ctrl key, and one (left) Alt key.
  • The diagonal shift of the top row w/r/t the "home" row is practically non-existent. (Honestly, this hasn't bothered me or prevented me from touch-typing.)
  • There is not even an embedded, Fn-key triggered number pad, as is common on many notebooks. You have to use the traditional (horizontal) typewriter layout to generate numerals.
  • F11 and F12 don't exist (at least not directly)
  • Esc, Tab, Caps Lock, and the right Shift key are all tiny, but usable. Enter and Backspace are quite generously sized...
  • The arrow keys form an inverted T, but are surrounded by other active keys.
The Operating System
Full disclosure: I am a bit of an OS collector and aficionado, and entered this experience with no fear of using Linux.
I would have loved to see an Ubuntu 9.04 installation, and even preemptively downloaded the "Jaunty" ISO before receiving my system. But, I realize the 8.04 is the LTS release, and figured that I'd give it a fair shake before making any "radical" changes to my new toy...

My biggest dislike was that a slightly-rebranded (Web Browser) and non-update-able Firefox 3.0.5 was installed (To be fair, an update to a later 3.0.x was in the Dell repository). I suppose the rebranding was intended to help uninformed new users who may not know what Firefox is, but the inability to update just plain bothered me to the point of being unforgiveable. Fortunately, I was able to quickly and easily load Firefox 3.5.2, and reprogram the Dell desktop launcher to use that version (and its icon). I also replaced or removed many of the Yahoo! shortcuts that Dell placed in the launcher to "help" me. I was also successful in downloading and installing *.deb packages for Picasa 3 (library on external USB HDD), Skype, and some other staples...

OpenOffice 2.4 is there by default, and functional. I would have preferred to see 3.0, and will now have to investigate whether 2.4 can handle "Office 2007" file types (I don't think so, but could be pleasantly surprised if I'm wrong -- [I wasn't wrong.]).

The Dell launcher is actually quite convenient (much more so because it can be very easily customized). But, it looks like Canonical has made some improvements in UNR.

Summary of First Impressions

I got this as a bit of a toy, with the primary intended real use-case of "photographer's travel companion". Paired with my Photo Safe II backup device, and with the aid of Picasa, this use case will definitely become a reality. Since the Photo Safe II interacts with the computer as a USB HDD, the limited storage space on the built-in SSD is less of a concern (although upgrading to 64GB is still a distinct possibility). The 8.9-inch glossy screen and features of Picasa easily out-class the screens on my digital cameras, and those on the very expensive photo viewer devices, like the Epson P6000. Having access to a full-featured web browser (and Flash) on hotel and hotspot WiFi greatly outdoes the mobile phone experience, too. Hulu works quite nicely!

Watch this space for further impressions after I've lived with this for a while... I'm using this as my primary living room browsing experience right now.