domingo, 23 de octubre de 2011

New laptop, new challenge: Which Linux distro is right?

A colleague who is studying abroad came back to the country and visited the University for a while. After giving me a quiz for his research project, he made me an offer I couldn't refuse: he wanted to get rid of one of the laptops he bought for the research-- an HP Pavilion g4-1135dx, AMD dual core, 3GB RAM, and more than 300GB HD, Windows 7 Home premium and MS Office 2010. The price he gave me was half of what I have to pay for it here and the laptop is practically new. It's not that I need a new mobile computer right now (my penta-boot netbook meets my needs for work perfectly), but I must confess that I have been considering to buy myself a laptop, one that I can use as a test ground. I knew there was no way I could get a better price for that machine here in my country, so I bought it and the questions began.

Windows 7... what to do with you?

I was not sure if I wanted to keep this OS and the MS Office suite. While I do not particularly hold a negative opinion about the former, I hate the latter passionately. In addition, it's not like I need to use Windows for something anyway. In the computers where I do have Windows, this OS works more like a storeroom than anything else.

After considering the options, I decided that I would settle for a dual boot. That was my decision, but Windows, as usual, had other plans: my headaches began when I tried to resize the partitions. Someone had made an extra partition and the table was full thanks to HP and its policy of slicing the hard drive. I selected the partition that I thought was harmless and resized it. Windows refused to boot and asked me for the rescue DVD which, of course, I did not have. It was almost midnight and I had little patience for babysitting a spoiled OS, so I changed my mind and simply wiped out all partitions and reformatted them, exorcising all traces of MS software from the machine in the process. I wanted the laptop to test Linux distros, not Windows, so I will not miss Vista/7 at all.

Let the Linux parade begin!

With a blank HD and no further concern, I aligned my Linux Live CDs and DVDs for a test drive of the hardware. I chose Mandriva 2010.2, Linux Mint 11 (Katya), Mepis 11, Chakra (the latest) and PCLinuxOS 2011.6. I deliberately left Ubuntu, Pardus 11 and Mageia 1 out because I didn't have live media of Pardus and Mageia and I personally don't like Ubuntu.

The test was simple: the distributions that managed to activate the sound system and the wi-fi of the laptop and could deliver an acceptable multimedia experience would go to the next stage (installation). These are the results:

1. Mandriva 2010.2 failed (no sound, no wi-fi)
2. Mepis 11 failed (sound, but no wi-fi)
3. Chakra failed (sound & wi-fi, but video wouldn't play)
4. Linux Mint 11 (passed with honors)
5. PCLinuxOS 2011.6 (passed with honors)

Second stage: installation and effects

1. PCLinuxOS
As I'm rather familiar with its installation process, I installed PCLinuxOS first. I was not very sure because I have some problems with effects on my desktop (nothing that prevents me from sleeping, actually), but PCLinuxOS went out like an energetic Texas longhorn and installed everything without a flinch. I tried the Kwin effects and everything was perfect! Of course, I was lacking the Office suite but the process to get it is simple enough for a Linux non-technical user like me: you fire up Synaptic, search "lomanager", select it for upgrade, close Synaptic and click on the Libre Office installer icon on the desktop. The only drawback, if any at all, is that this is a 32 bit OS... Again, nothing that matters much to me.

2. Linux Mint 11 "Katya"
I installed the 64 bit version of Linux Mint. I have always liked the elegance of this OS and the way it handles the installation process. I noticed something new: Mint said that it had detected PCLinuxOS and prompted me for an action. I selected "install next to it" for a dual boot. However, after the process was complete, PCLinuxOS was unbootable... In Linux-Linux dual boots that happens quite often, but my real problem was that I do not know how to repair it from the grub mechanism in Mint (Megatotoro taught me the ropes for GRUB legacy, but I simply do not know how to repair this thing). The only option was to start over...

Installation again and a surprise contestant

I put PCLinuxOS back, but not Mint. I will eventually, once that I know how to handle the dual boot without messing with the other OS.

When everything was back in place, I considered if I wanted to give Mandriva Desktop 2011 a chance. I mean, I am not crazy about the ROSA rocket bar and SimpleWelcome, but reports are that it is buggy and Mandriva 2010.2 couldn't activate the Wi-fi, so why would this Mandriva version be any different?

What the heck! I inserted the Mandriva Desktop 2011 DVD and....Surprise, I had sound! I checked the Wi-fi and...Surprise again, it picked up my network signal! It had some issues with the effects and I knew it had problems with Flash, but I installed next to PCLinuxOS just for the sake of testing.

Mandriva 2011 had some problems with the graphic card (no log out, some freezes), but the OS detected that it was due to the lack of a proprietary driver and, after installing it, all those problems disappeared. I installed the flash plug-in from the repositories and the distro is working flawlessly... Who would have thought? :-)

Another distro, another surprise

After downloading the Mageia 1 Live CD, I did not expect anything different from Mandriva 2010.2. However, Mageia Live booted without a glitch and sound was also enabled. I checked the Wi-fi and, yes, it was also picking up my signal.

Moral: Never take a Linux distro for granted. As it turns out, I have enough distros where to choose from to power up this new laptop :-)

I think that I'll keep PCLinuxOS as my main OS. I might also put Mageia in there as a production distro. I'll keep Mandriva 2011 to have a triple boot. Then I'll save a partition for testing.

jueves, 20 de octubre de 2011

Mandriva 2011 PowerPack is in the oven

With the advent of Mandriva 2011, Mandriva versions were reduced to only one. Previously, you could select among Free, ONE, and PowerPack. I was introduced to the world of Linux by the ONE version (back in 2009), but I paid for the PowerPack 2009 and 2010.

Surprisingly, I got today an email from Mandriva S.A. in which they wanted me to fill up a survey regarding PowerPack. It said that this paid version will be available in November and included questions about my Linux expertise *hehe*, the GUI I preferred, the main use I gave to Mandriva, and a wish list. Yay! I asked Text-to-speech to be included.

Truth be told, my home desktop is not running Mandriva 2011, but Mandriva 2010.2 PowerPack, Pardus 2011, and PCLinuxOS. I do think I will buy the new PowerPack if they release it.

sábado, 15 de octubre de 2011

La conferencia sobre Vigilancia tecnológica y software libre

Ayer asistí a una conferencia llamada "Vigilancia Tecnológica y Software Libre", que había sido organizada por la Escuela de Bibliotecología de la universidad donde trabajo. Esta actividad se enmarcó dentro de las acciones para iniciar la migración hacia el software libre en la universidad.

El conferencista mostró una noticia publicada en un periódico nacional ayer. El titular era "Instituciones estatales usan cada día más software libre". ¡Yo no me esperaba eso!

El contenido de la charla se volvió más técnico después. Sin embargo, a pesar de que la conferencia iba dirigida a profesionales en tecnologías de la información, como bibliotecólogos y archivistas, el presentador compartió un par de herramientas libres muy interesantes para el beneficio de usuarios que escriben artículos: Sironta and Zotero. La primera es un programa para colaborar en documentos; la segunda es una extensión de Firefox para recuperar la bibliografía de libros en línea. Ambos son herramientas magníficas para investigadores y eruditos.

Me divierte que haya sido mi madre quien me avisara sobre esta conferencia, ya que ella es una usuaria de computadoras no técnica que solía volverme loco con llamadas deseperadas relativas a problemas con su computadora. Hoy, mi madre es una feliz usuaria de Pardus que me trasmite toda la información que obtiene sobre el acontecer del software libre en nuestro país.

viernes, 14 de octubre de 2011

The conference on Technological Surveillance and Free Software

Yesterday I attended a conference titled "Technological Surveillance and Free Software", which was organized by the School of Information Technologies of the university where I work. This activity was part of the actions to start the migration to FLOSS in the university.

The speaker showed a clip from one newspaper displaying the headline "State institutions using more free software everyday". This piece of news was published yesterday, too. That was something I did not expect!

Then, the content of the talk became more IT jargon. However, although the conference targeted professionals of librarianship and ITs, the speaker shared some interesting tools that many people can benefit from, especially those who work writing articles: Sironta and Zotero. While the former is a program for collaborating on documents, the latter is an extension for Firefox that helps you retrieve the bibliographical entry of online books, a great tool for scholars and researchers.

It's fun that I got the information about the event from my mother, a non-technical computer user who, some years ago, used to drive me nuts with desperate calls concerning crashes and viruses. Today, she is a happy Pardus user and sends me all the information that she gets about free software events in my country.

domingo, 9 de octubre de 2011

Different computer users, one common Linux complaint

There are several types of users in the world of computers. Most of them are simple, non-technical users; they are the kind of people who learned to use a computer without any formal training or they took some application courses (falsely called "computer courses"), so their understanding of a computer is simply too basic. These are naive users who tend to perceive the system as a magic box--sometimes the contemporary equivalent of Pandora's Box and, because of that, their learning is often thwarted by fear or anxiety ("I clicked here and the computer showed me a message box, so I panicked and turned if off").

Some other people belong to the opposite category: the power users. Their computer expertise makes them gurus and, therefore, the systems hold no secrets for them. My impression of these kind of people is that they speak binary code and can diagnose a computer problem rather effectively because they have more than one idea of what might have gone wrong.

There is a third group that frequently overlaps the two categories above. These people have developed skills to use several programs in a level that most computer users cannot, yet they lack the technical knowledge of power users. As a result of their expertise, they become sort of picky with their applications and the way in which their computer behaves. I call them gourmet users. This post here by Gene (ERACC) describes very well the difference between a power user and a gourmet user, whom he calls "niche user".

When the option to switch to Linux is presented, the nay-sayers of each group generally round up their reasons to something like this:

1. Simple users: (Without even trying it) "It's too difficult! It took me a lot of effort to learn to work with the computer and now I have to start it all over again?"

2. Gourmet users: "But if you cannot run ______________ (insert name of their favorite application), this is not good".

3. Power users: "Mmm. The thing is that I prefer to work with _______"(insert name of MS programming tool).

The basic issue underlying those claims is recalcitrance. Yes, those individuals are not willing to lean to work in a different way. Regardless of the arguments, unwillingness to learn is normally the bottom line, which is sad, because very rarely is it that learning something new hurts you.

I guess I fall in the gourmet user category. I decided not to jump into the MS Office 2007 wagon because I could use the previous version quite efficiently. Well, since the version I bought did not include PowerPoint, I had to learn how to use electronic presentation software in StarOffice. Additionally, I didn't like the Ribbon interface...and they killed "Linxs". To modify pictures, I used Satori (never liked Photoshop), not MS Paint. And I didn't use MS Movie Maker to produce videos, but VirtualDub. I required my OS to be able to handle Japanese input. Finally, I also wanted my OS to handle text-to-speech synthesis, to fire all sorts of alarms (music, alerts, actions) and to keep me protected from malware. I managed to learn how to do all that in Windows (with the obvious exception of the latter, which is virtually impossible). To do everything I required, the computer depended on many, many third-party programs to add functionality to the MS OS.

I never shy away from learning. That's the reason why migrating to Linux was not so difficult for me...not to mention that I found a friendlier environment in which all tasks I require from the OS can be performed more easily than in the MS operating system.

sábado, 8 de octubre de 2011

Why I failed the Windows 8 Logo Program

With all this uproar because of the implementation of UEFI as a requirement for the Windows 8 Logo Program, I decided to apply to get it because of the advantages it offers. You know, I tend to boot up rather slowly in the morning: I walk around my house in a state of semi-consciousness until all the proper drivers and modules are loaded. It would be great just to wake up and boot up into my operating system in the blink of an eye.

I discovered that one of the requirements to apply for the Windows 8 Logo Program, before I boot up, is to have secure boot enabled by default. I also must carry several sets of keys, all for the sake of prevention. According to MS, if I do not, some malicious thoughts could hijack the boot process and then I would be cast into a zombie state, controlled by some criminal or terrorist. Thus, I might end writing and sending millions of useless postcards...That's scary, isn't it?

So, the basic idea, protection from criminals, sounds appealing. Yet, I started asking some questions and found some problematic issues hidden below the surface of the venerable claim of security:

1. The keys and what you wear

The keys that they give me allow me to boot up super fast because they restrict the elements that I need to function. For instance, I will save time getting to work because I won't have problems remembering where I left my glasses the night before. What's more, in theory, even if a malicious poltergeist wants to play with my eye-prescription device, the mischievous spirit won't be able to. However, there is a big problem with this approach depending on who provides the keys. Let us suppose that MS allows OEMs (Organism Evaluating Mechanisms) to provide their keys. The control on what I boot up into will be so tight that if I, by any chance, want to wear a pair of glasses that is not certified by the key that they gave me, I will be treated like the poltergeist myself. Yes, I'd be in trouble to change my shirt, too. This will make a uniform world, indeed. I'm surprised that the United States, a country that defends individual rights with a passion, might meekly agree to let everyone use "the same clothes". Everyone into the same school uniform! How about that?

But the most worrisome part comes next...

2. Secure boot and the right to think

The fact that I cannot choose my glasses manifests something important that is underlying this prohibition disguised as "prevention". If this so called "secure boot" will not let me swap glasses or shirts easily (action), my right to consider wearing some glasses other than the certified ones (thought) is taken away from me. That is, I cannot even think about wearing anything else... Not even the widely-used MS XP Professional SP3 Glasses, for example. Paradoxically, I won't even be able to replace my MS 8 glasses (OEM version) by a brand new a pair of boxed MS 8 glasses if the keys are given by an OEM and not MS itself. You see, my individual right to think about choosing what I want simply ceases to exist.

You might think that all this is simply solved by disabling secure boot. You are, of course, absolutely right; I also thought that way. And that's the reason why I failed the Windows 8 Logo Program: you must have secure boot enabled BY DEFAULT to apply, remember?

I guess I value my freedom more than the Logo. In the end, if I'm free, I can take care of my security myself.

On a serious note, next time I need to buy a computer, I'll make sure I'll purchase it from a manufacturer that respects my freedom to choose.

sábado, 1 de octubre de 2011

On the University migration to Free Software

Megatotoro described here how the recently announced University migration to free software made a big splash in national newspapers and even on TV news. The idea is to start by replacing MS Office suites by free software equivalents (Open Office) and, eventually, dump Windows and implement Linux.

I visited the online page of one of those newspapers to see the coverage and the comments I read were, for the most part, very encouraging and positive. Of course, the public is congratulating the University for the initiative of saving a LOT OF MONEY (that was used to pay MS licenses) through the use of Free Software and to invest this growing amount on improving the campus and on resources available to students.

Today, I had the opportunity to speak to the Dean of the Faculty where both Megatotoro and I work and somehow the conversation steered to Linux. To my surprise, she said: "So you use Linux? That's where we are heading!". Her position was one of embracing change rather than one of fear or discomfort.

Her words are certainly consistent with some actions that the University took:

1. A Free repository was enabled, so scholars and researchers can upload their works and share them with national and international communities for free

2. Several University dependencies have taken measures to guarantee access to their services from different platforms, Linux included.

3. There is a cluster of servers called ESPEJOS (mirrors) that basically lets people download linux distros and other free software from everywhere.

4. The ICT programs are required to teach courses on Free Software.

When the reporters asked the MS representative that handles government issues in the region how Microsoft was affected by this, her words were more an evasion than an answer. She said that Microsoft is “commited to work on interoperability”, and that “this implies more opportunities for developers and more technological innovation and market competition for enterprises and governments, and users”.

Yes, interoperability, she said. For crying out loud! It's thanks to Microsoft that their own proprietary formats do not work properly with other office suites (sometimes, not even their own!)

The interesting outcome of all this is that many comments from the public are urging the government to imitate this step the University took. Of course, our country is not rich and sending all that money to Microsoft instead of investing it on our students or services makes little sense.

I'm sure Microsoft will try to react to this. I was told that, last time, they had a terrible flop trying to license a specialized software for statistics in Windows...It was embarrassing because, during the demo, it crashed, just like on this memorable video...

Maybe that episode prompted the migration :-)