Tuesday, May 27, 2008

No-Win Win: UbuKubu Me?

This is a reincarnation for me. I'm trying Linux again. I have to.

So far I've been lucky. I have avoided Windows Vista, the latest shuddering horror from Microsoft. I have two desktop computers, one an HP/Compaq and the other one something I built. I was getting a little skittish about both of them. The Compaq has been performing well since some time in 2004, which means it could blow up at any second. Compaq hardware is often proprietary, and I am not a hardware person, so there is no telling what would happen if I had to try a major repair.

Recently I replaced a battery on the motherboard of my homebrew box, and did the same for the Compaq, and boosted its RAM from one 512MB stick to two, both new, for a total of 1GB now. That worked. I'm relieved. RAM seems to be one of the first things to go, along with hard drives. Having renewed the RAM I'm probably safe for a while. I back up my data to multiple external hard drives daily, so I'm OK on that front, but you never know what will happen next.

Computers are tricky.

As for my home built box I built, it seems to be running fine. I'm a little surprised at that. I used to get parts of the screen image blurring on me, kind of smeared. It would come and go. Then one day the display quit. Black screen. Dang.

I opened the case and pushed the video card into its socket. It didn't seem loose, but that was about all I could do. Surprisingly it worked. Must have been loose. The display began working again, and has been fine since. The only other real issue is the power supply. These apparently are the absolute main cause of hardware problems, and this is an old one.

The original computer died and took the hard drive with it. To be safe I decided to rebuild the whole thing. That's when I bought the Compaq. Had to have something, but it wasn't high powered enough for doing photo processing. So I went ahead with the rebuild: a new motherboard and processor, 1.5 gigs of RAM, new video card. Pretty much the whole shebang but for the old case, optical drives, and power supply. It has been working fine for about four years, just like the Compaq, but I worry about both of them.

I've been seeing strange problems over the last few months. Different on each box, but disturbing. I get error messages on shutdown, and the Compaq decided on its own to do a sudden reboot every now and then. Disturbing.

My research pointed at ZoneAlarm, a firewall I'd been using on both computers. A component called TrueVector may have been a problem, documented by others, from a couple of years back, so it was strange that I was getting it. Luckily only the Compaq was crashing.

Spooky though. And both computers had problems.

I replaced the ZoneAlarm free firewall with one from Comodo. I gather that the ZoneAlarm for-pay product is really good. I'd been using the free version, and if it was causing the system crashes and so on then I didn't want to buy anything from this company. I dumped it. Comodo is highly rated. I'm using that now. It seems to be good. Maybe better than ZoneAlarm. I'm not smart enough to tell, but it seems to work.

I still get the odd notice of something or other not closing properly on shutdown, and that has been annoying me. I downloaded and ran the Eusing Free Registry Cleaner on the Compaq. Doing something like this is always risky but this is getting to be a test of wills. Me versus the computer. The registry cleaner cleared out a bunch of stuff. Hundreds of invalid registry entries. All gone now.

Only now I have problems with Opera, my main web browser, and some OpenOffice documents. No doubt I'll find other problems with other programs.

This is not fun. The Compaq has other issues too.

It came with a second hard drive partition, devoted to system backup. In other words, in case of a catastrophic failure the user could restore the operating system from the second disk partition. Unless the problem was the hard drive. Makers are too cheap to send a damn 50 cent Windows installation CD. I deleted all that, but now I'm stuck with 4 gigs of disk space hanging off the side.

Then when I upgraded from the original Windows XP home version to a purchased copy of XP I got two prompts at startup. One was for the XP, and the other was for XP. Only one is real. I can probably edit the master boot record somehow, but don't want to mess with it, so it's the two prompts.

I tried starting over, including formatting the disk. Not quite good enough. The extra partition is still there and so is the second prompt. I'd have to do a low level format and haven't wanted to bother. The time may be near though.

And it's only a matter of time before new hardware is due. Then I'll have to load whatever abortion Microsoft comes up with next. Considering how evil Vista appears I can't imagine the fun. Hardware makers are screaming because Vista is so dead in the marketplace. They need sales. The sharks are circling.

We are doomed. Some of us.

There is Apple. The pod people. A true monopoly, in charge of operating system, hardware, and applications. It's an all or nothing choice with them. Nice to have that choice, but once in you may never get back out, and truly expensive. If Apple had 90% share instead of Microsoft they'd own the whole world by now.

That leaves Linux. Or BSD. Consider BSD equivalent to Linux. I don't really care. For me most of it is out of bounds, suitable for server rooms. I've been there and won't try the low level stuff again.

Once upon a time, about 1995, I bought a book on Linux. It had a Slackware CD in the back. I repartitioned my hard drive and installed it in the new partition. It worked. In command line mode. Fine. Great in fact.

Then I installed the X Windows system and spent the next month or so trying to get it to work. There was one little obscure issue with the text mode mouse driver that took ages to uncover and about three seconds to fix. I had lost a month of my spare time but X worked fine. This was in the days of window managers only, before integrated desktop systems. It was different from Windows 95, not as polished, not as fun, not all that useful, but I wanted to learn. It was OK.

When Caldera Network Desktop came along, I bought it. It was wonderful. It worked. It looked good. I was sort of happy.

The problem with Linux has always been the same as with my favorite word processor XyWrite. XyWrite was called a word processor kit. It could do just about anything, and do it faster than you could follow, but you had to spend years learning how to program it. Linux is like that. Still is, though today things seem to be improving.

Caldera Network Desktop worked fine, in that sort of sort of way. I spent a year and a half total trying to get Linux to the point that I could switch to it. Weeks would go by on one little thing. Just configuring Emacs so it didn't look ugly took forever, and I never did get it right.

But I was determined. I would do it.

Not.

The turning point came when a new version of Gnome came out. This was after I'd switched to Red Hat 4. I didn't want to wait and buy a new version of the whole operating system, wipe my disk, reinstall, and hope for the best, so I found the updated packages and loaded them.

Didn't work. Surprise, surprise.

There was a dependency problem. I must have spent a month or more tracking down the package I needed to make the other packages work, and I never could. After a year and a half of this it was time to give up. I left Linux. The real issue was that I couldn't do much with it anyway. I could create a text file and save it, and navigate the filesystem, and I did connect to the internet through my dialup connection. But that was about it.

There was very little software available (thousands of packages, most of them utilities), and no interoperability with the majority of the desktop computing world. Before web applications.

I did other things, but kept following Linux. Every now and then some new piece of software would be developed, and eventually a Windows version would come along, and I'd start using it. Right now I use very little that the normal Windows user would recognize. For browsing: Opera and Firefox. For document formatting, spreadsheets and graphic mockups: OpenOffice. For writing: Emacs. For web development: Ruby on Rails. For desktop publishing: Scribus. Email client: Mozilla Thunderbird.

That covers 95% of my work. For image editing I use PictureWindow, a Windows application. For image viewing I use IrfanView, and that's about it.

All but PictureWindow, IrfanView, and Opera are Linux applications which now run under Windows, and all are free.

Today the jump to Linux may be very small. I'm hoping. I don't want to stay on the Windows train when it hits the wall. I bought a new computer from ZaReason with the latest version of Kubuntu preinstalled. It was way cheap. The operating system was free. I love it.

Kubuntu is based on Ubuntu, which is now the most popular Linux distribution. Download either if you have a gig or so of free disk space and several hours, then burn your own CD. Or you have them send you a free CD. Either version will boot and run from the CD so you can try without mucking up your setup. Or you can do the standard dual boot thing and have Linux running natively as an alternate to Windows.

It's still early for me. I've remembered a lot from 10 years back but I'm not at the command line anymore, and the whole environment is new. It's all graphical now, almost all of the time. Linux, with the right desktop environment, is now more polished than Windows. All of the familiar options are there, and some extra ones, but the tools have different names and they are in different places, and they work a little differently. But I'm willing to adapt. This is the future.

After 15 years of development Wine 1.0 is due out this summer, so most Windows applications will now run under Linux. This is good. I don't need much, but bringing along a few things would be nice.

Kubuntu feels solid. Well built. Like a professional product. Windows is none of these. Windows is a cardboard box, beat up and taped up back together. Windows is crap. Too bad. Windows has gotten to the point that it's collapsing under its own weight. Crud only piles so high.

The designers of Linux and KDE (the K Desktop Environment) were careful. They think things through, then build. I've been following KDE since the beginning, about 1998 or so. It's been a long time, and they've been working carefully. They get things right before release.

Linux systems are built by people who care. By definition. Microsoft was founded by people who were good at selling. Its true they worked hard at first, putting in long hours and sleeping under desks. That might be necessary some times in some places for a while but it isn't the basis for a real business, and especilly not for software. Microsoft is huge now but they are still trying to throw things together on the fly. That won't work. It hasn't worked. It isn't working.

See Vista. There is no way to make up for lack of design and professionalism by hiring more people and working them harder. Nothing beats intelligence and care, which is what the whole Open Source/Free Software ecosystem has going for it. For them software is something to build proudly and shared so that others can make it better. For Microsoft it's a source of money.

The Microsoft philosophy is to shove something out the door and collect the dough. For the open source world software is a tool for the profession to build with. Legal and medical knowledge are tools. Attorneys and doctors don't hoard proprietary knowledge in secret, doling it out in small bits. The same knowledge is there for anyone. Using it appropriately is the hard part, the part they get paid for.

It's like that in the open source world too. They're willing to compete on the basis of being smarter or better informed or more conscientious, but the tools are there for all to try.

Sounds good. I'm trying to find time to get at my new Kubuntu box because I have a lot to catch up on. I think it will work this time.


References:

Caldera Network Desktop
Comodo
Compiz
Eusing Free Registry Cleaner
GNU Emacs
IrfanView
Picture Window
Kubuntu
Rat Head Linux (Spoof alert!)
Ruby on Rails
Slackware
The FreeBSD Project
Ubuntu
Wine
XyWrite
ZaReason, Inc.
ZoneAlarm


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