domingo, 27 de marzo de 2011

Installing Linux to a Gateway NV53 laptop, a trial for five distros

Today, one of my sisters-in-law came to visit and brought her laptop because she wanted me to install Linux to it. She is fed up with the never-ending (and increasingly costly) rituals of updating anti-viruses that seem to be always one step behind in the eternal fight against e-threats. Her laptop is a Gateway NV53, 4GB RAM, 320 GB HDD, pre-installed with Windows 7 Home Premium and, despite all the praises that Windows fanboys sing for this OS, she was dissatisfied with its reality: you are always vulnerable to viruses, malware, and a wide array of threats.

Coincidentially, Megatotoro was around and his expertise with dual booting this selfish Windows Vista-with-make-up was truly helpful.

Now, I had dual-booted a Windows Vista7 desktop before with some minor problems. I used Mandriva 2010.2 for that operation, so we tested my favorite Linux distro and...we hit a major problem this time: no sound! Mandriva would not produce any sound out of the built-in speakers, so we decided not to install it.

Then, we tried the next candidate, Pardus GNU/Linux. Again, there was not any sound coming from the Gateway laptop.

Next came Ubuntu Lucid Lynx and, although Canonical's flagship product enabled the sound, MP3s were not natively supported.

The following candidate was Simply Mepis 8.5. As Warren Woodford states, Simply Mepis just works. I might add that, in this particular case, it worked flawlessly, too. It picked up the wi-fi, enabled sounds, etc., much to Megatotoro's satisfaction (his grin couldn't possible be more evident: rarely is it that his distro of choice fails). It's just too bad that people do not know this nice distro. The downside was that the effects in this release are not very polished. Megatotoro, as many Mepis followers, is waiting for the release of Mepis 11. To be honest, I am also waiting (I even reserved a blank partition of my netbook's HDD for it). Megatotoro has installed the beta 3 of Mepis 11 and he is happy with it, but, ethically, he did not want to install a beta to a computer that is not his own.

Therefore, we decided to test one more candidate: Linux Mint Julia. We ran the Live CD and the elegant Irish distro not only enabled the sound, but it also previewed MP3s and dazzled the owner of the laptop with the Compiz effects.

We asked her which of the two finalists she wanted to keep as her first Linux distro and, after considering the options, she asked us to install Mint.

Not to run any risk (as none of us has ever used Mint to partition a Windows Vista7 computer), we used Mandriva 2010.2 to resize the Windows partition and create the new one for Mint. Then we ran the Julia Live DVD and, in 25 minutes, the computer had a Linux OS. This is what her new OS looks like:
(The wallpaper was downloaded from www. art.gnome.org and modified with GIMP)

As soon as we started explaining to the owner how Linux works, she realized that many of the things she has heard about computers are myths and she questioned what the point of spending more money in new Windows OSs is. After all, she reasons, they all have exactly the same vulnerabilities than previous releases do. Ballmer probably won't like to hear this, but she discovered that she can have MORE than what Windows offers for free.

So, even though she did not choose Mepis and Mandriva did not work for her, both Megatotoro and I feel happy. Linux is all about freedom and now my sister in-law has the opportunity to see what a computer can truly do.

Some statistics for the record
Windows 7:
Boot time: 58 s. Shut down time: 20 s.
Linux Mint:
Boot time: 48 s. Shut down time: 4 s. (Yes, that's right. Like a bullet!)
Hibernation: perfectly functional.
Compiz effects enabled.
WebCam enabled with Cheese
Wi-fi working
Function keys responding
Card and flash drive reader working
No issues with the GRUB seeing Windows 7

UPDATE:
The owner found a problem. The laptop refused to shut down. I've heard this before: Ubuntu computers that don't shut down...Well, Mint is an Ubuntu-based distro. Is that the reason? I've never had this problem in Mandriva, Mepis, or Pardus.

jueves, 17 de marzo de 2011

Sorry, we don't sell flash drives anymore

A rather curious phenomenon has been occurring near campus lately: vendors are refusing to distribute USB flash drives, those handy devices for storing data. The first time I got a "NO, we don't have USB sticks" as an answer, I thought that the vendor had simply ran out of stock. However, time passed by and flash drives were not available. Not even one. What was going on?

This responded to the wrong "my-hardware-is-defective" assumption that is so common in a Windows monoculture. I have seen flash drives "fail" countless times. The most common problems are:
  1. Missing folders
  2. Missing files
  3. Impossibility to record data
  4. Failure to erase some folders
  5. Inexplicable virus alerts (with the subsequent affirmation "I scanned it with my anti-virus!")

I saw a young woman return her memory stick to a vendor that offered a warranty. She described some of the problems mentioned above. Of course, as Windows users never blame their OS, they have to blame this strange behavior on something and the poor hardware is the one that gets all the kicks. So they complain to vendors.

The vendor, inadvertently, falls into the trap. So, s/he either returns the money or replaces a USB drive that is perfect with a new one. This becomes a truly lousy business that, given the quantity of repetitions, was enough to show red numbers. Hence, the vendor decided not to sell that kind of hardware anymore.

With Linux, I have been able to show many USB flash drive owners that the memory stick is perfect and that the problems listed above are the consequence of virus infections. These infections happen thanks to the weak security of Windows and the ignorance of the user. To get rid of the problem, all you have to do is remove the pesky hidden files...which you achieve with two clicks in Linux. In Windows, well, you need to disable system restore, go to the registry, apply patches, reboot (can't do anything without rebooting, you know?)... You might also need a great deal of good luck and all the charms you can get.

I have a question. What will vendors do once that viruses become more common in, say, memory cards? Of course those will not be perceived as OS problems, either. Are those storage devices going to be banned as well? No wonder why Microsoft could come up with the stupid idea of banning infected computers from the Web...

sábado, 12 de marzo de 2011

Emergency at the University: A PC problem or an OS that is defective?

On Jan 20th, 2011, I posted an entry on my office network and, jokingly, put up a picture in which viruses were pawning the Windows computers. Well, that picture became prophetic: while the Windows 7 machine gradually collapsed, the XP one became a zombie that got the entire University Internet service in trouble for a whole week. However, my Mandriva box emerged pristine, completely unscathed. This is the account of what happened.

The main computer in the section is an XP system, which was later linked to the new Windows 7 computer that was bought. The computer I use was also an XP one. However, I installed Mandriva Linux to make it a dual boot and now I seldom boot it in Windows. After less than a year, the Windows 7 station started to show some strange symptoms: It would not start, the screen would flicker, or the machine would freeze. We asked the department technician to come to examine it and, as Carla Schroder said it back in April 2010 (read article here), the technician deemed the whole thing a hardware problem (he blamed it on the hard drive) and substituted the HD. I told him I had my reserves, but people in the office pretty much ignored me.

Last week, the Internet service of the University was in terrible shape. I wanted to go talk to the IT Manager of the Faculty, but it was not necessary because he stormed yesterday into my department. He was a rabid pitbull after something to bite and barked that a machine in my section was sending viruses non-stop and collapsed the University Internet service. His boss, therefore, gave him a furious call with an ultimatum: "Either you find the infected computer, or you pull the switch off for the entire Faculty". He went to my machine first, but I told him that I only run Linux on it, upon which he responded: "Linux? Then it's not yours!" and jumped to the other machines and found the IP of the culprit...it was the XP system. The result? The machine was unhooked from the network and will remain in quarantine.

But what happened to the Windows 7 box? I asked the technician in my section if he had actually checked the integrity of the hard drive to support his claim. I knew the answer already; he only supposed it had been a hardware failure, but never checked the disk! Carla Schroder was absolutely right: people assume that computer problems are necessarily hardware, not OS problems!

I asked him to put the disk back. He reformatted it and Windows 7 is behaving OK so far. I wonder if Windows does not check the integrity of the disk BEFORE install... Anyway, I installed Mandriva (no indication of disk problems whatsoever, by the way) and now that system is also a dual boot.

Maybe it's time for people to stop blaming computer problems on hardware and to begin seeing reality. In my office, there are three stations for three individuals who are not computer experts. The two Windows machines broke; the Linux one is still up to the job and has not failed, not even once, since its Penguin OS was installed.

As a simple computer user, what can I learn? Well, the lesson that I see is that if you want to have Windows as the OS of your computer, you must accept that its security is flawed by design, which eventually will cause problems for an user that is not an expert. You must then invest a lot of time to learn how to protect your system, how to correctly operate the antivirus, firewall, anti-malware, etc. You also have to refrain from downloading shiny animations and programs to enhance your desktop, as they can compromise your system. On the other hand, if you do not want to be bothered by common security problems, then you should use Linux. Thus, you will discover that many so-called PC problems are but Windows problems.

jueves, 10 de marzo de 2011

Names, responses, and FLOSS

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
(T.S. Eliot, "The Naming of Cats")

Funny as it may, this very same dilemma of naming is attached to the computer world. It generates multiple reactions, which range from amusement to irate responses sprinkled with prejudice, especially when addressing the interaction with FLOSS communities.

Let me exemplify. In numerous occasions, I have read the argument that one hindrance to the advance of Open Source is the name given to applications. The reasoning is that "geeky Open Source developers" give their applications "geeky names" that make it harder for the end user to be able to work with them, something that is said NEVER HAPPENS under the Windows environment. That names are always clear in Windows is slanted information: "Excel" and "PowerPoint" give very precise clues of what the user can do with them, don't they? Writer and Calc are more accurate than Word and Excel in that sense. But let us overlook that stone and approach the idea playfully. Once I read: "If I read 'Photoshop', I know it has to do with pictures. But what is GIMP for?" I laugh at this pedestrian position that rests upon laziness and ignorance. After all, the name "Photoshop" can be just as misleading if you have never seen the application (Photoshop is an application to buy pictures online, Photo-shop, right?). On the other hand, if the user looks up the meaning of the GIMP acronym, "GNU Image Manipulation Program" seems more accurate than Photoshop is to describe what the application does. Now, that aside, the argument is flawed in itself because it overlooks human linguistic capacities. You use a mop to mop, a brush to brush, but a broom to sweep and no one complains! What's in the word "mop" that tells you what it is for, other than a symbolic association cemented in our brains by constant reinforcement? Do I need to know what GIMP means to be able to operate it? What do we do when the technologies are not given a name at all? Remember TWAIN (Technology without an interesting name)?

Now, if developers have the right to call their application anything they like because, in the end, the user will learn by exposure and association, what's the big deal if developers name applications using references to literature (Scrooge) or culture (Banshee)? Or if they use words foreign for an English speaker(LibreOffice)? English speakers should remember that, thanks to the Norman Conquest, English adopted lots of French words, so let us be more realistic. A name does not make a technology better or worse, just as a name does not reflect on the nature of the person bearing it.

One interesting feature about names is that they do speak of hegemonic power struggles. In a sense, names manifest dominance, division, and impositions. Have you heard of the tug o' war name between Canonical and Gnome? The former was calling something "appindicator", whereas the latter went for "state message". It's not that they didn't agree on what to call it. Actually, the problem was that the two parties pushed for their own name of choice and that's different. If I call the bird "hawk" and you call it "falcon", there's not any problem provided that the convention has it that the animal can be referred to by the two tags. Yet, if I want you to call something the way I do, then we have a problem. Certainly, it is more one of power than it is of naming.

One great source of fun developers have in the Linux world is the assignment of names to versions. So, Mandriva 2010 became "Adelie" and 2010.1 went by the name of "Farman". Other distributions resort to a set of conventions that makes it interesting for developers to find a name. Linux Mint has, for example, a rule of giving the version the name of a woman using a sequential letter of the alphabet, but the name has to end with an "a". Since I remember, that gave us Felicia, Gloria, Helena, Isadora, and the now popularly acclaimed Julia. Ubuntu has a different formula for their code names: "letter X adjective + letter X animal". Consequently, from the moment I joined the Linux world, I have seen Karmic Koala, Lucid Lynx, Maverick Meerkat, Natty Narwhal and they just announced the successor, Oneiric Ocelot.

Of course, those codes give room for people to start playing with the patterns. Thus, they come up with very creative names of their own to bash the distro, as in this (troll?) comment posted in www.tuxmachines.org.

Naming is always a difficult enterprise and there will always be complaints. Eliot's cats, however, do not have such problem: They have a secret name of their own. Maybe applications are the same and they crash, under-perform or fail to launch because they are also lost in the contemplation of their "ineffable, effable, effanineffable/
Deep and inscrutable singular name".