PDF’s, Scanning, and File Sizes

I’ve been playing around with PDF’s for the past few weeks and have noticed a very interesting thing: A PDF is *not* a PDF is *not* a PDF is *not* a PDF, ad nauseum, and it would seem, ad infinitum. At least, so it would seem. Part of me almost wonders if the only distinguishing feature of a PDF is the .pdf extension at the end of the file. In “researching” this post I have learned what I knew already; PDF boils down to being simply a container format.

Lately I have been scanning some annual reports from years past for an organization I belong to, and due to the ways xsane 0.997 that comes with Fedora 12 scans pages — which I will concede straight out of the gate I have only explored enough to get it to do what I want and to learn how it does things “its way” — the PDF file sizes are “fairly” large.

In order to find this out, I first found out about one of the quirks in xsane 0.997: Something about the settings with xsane doesn’t have it stop between pages for me to change pages; at least, I haven’t gotten around to finding where the settings in xsane are to have it pause between pages. This is important because my scanner doesn’t have an automatic page feeder. The first page of results of a google search indicate several comments about this problem, but not a solution. At first glance the second page of results is of no help.

So I end up scanning pages one at a time, and then use GhostScript to join them all up at the end to make a single PDF.

Without having added up file sizes, it was obvious that the total size of all the scanned pages at 75 dpi and in black and white was sufficiently larger than the single PDF with all the pages joined. This did not bother me since, again without having added things up, the difference didn’t seem *too* great, and I assumed that the savings were principally due to adminstrative redundancies being eliminated by having one “container” as opposed to having 25 to 30 “containers” for each individual page.

Then this week a curious thing occurred: I scanned a six page magazine article, and then separately, another two page magazine article, at 100 dpi and colour, and whaddya know, the combined PDF of each set is smaller than any of the original source files. Significantly so. In fact, the largest page from the first set of six pages is double the size of the final integrated PDF, and in the case of the second set of two pages, each of the original pages are triple the size of the combined PDF. I’m blown away.

Discussing this with someone who knows the insides of computers way more than I, I learn something: It would appear that xsane probably creates PDF’s using the TIFF format (for image quality) as opposed to what I imagine Ghostscript does when joining files, which would seem to be to do what it can to reduce filesizes, and as such in this case I imagine convert the TIFF’s inside the PDF’s into JPEG’s. A bit of googling indeed appears to associate tiffs and PDF’s when it comes to xsane; indeed a check on the “multipage” settings shows three output file formats — PDF, PostScript and TIFF. And looking in Preferences/Setup/Filetype under the TIFF Zip Compression Rate, it’s set at 6 out of 9.

So I google PDF sizing, and one result led me to an explanation of the difference between using “Save” and “Save As …” options when editing a PDF: “Save” will typically append metadata on top of metadata (including *not* replacing the expired metadata in the “same” fields!); “Save As”, well, that’s what you really want to do to avoid a bloated file since all that should be will be replaced.

Another result begins describing (what is no doubt but a taste of) the various possible settings in a PDF file, and how using a given PDF editing application, you can go through a PDF, remove some setings, correct others, etc., and reduce the size of PDF’s by essentially eliminating redundant or situationally irrelevant — such as fields with null values — information whose presence would have the effect of bloating the file unecessarily.

I’ve known for a few years that PDF’s are a funny beast by nature when it comes to size: For me the best example by far used to be the use of “non-standard fonts” in the source file, oh say any open-source font that isn’t in the standard list of “don’t bother embedding the font since we all know that nine out of ten computers on the planet has it”. In and of itself this isn’t a problem; why not allow for file size savings when it is a reasonable presumption that many text PDF’s are based on a known set of fonts, and most people have said known set of fonts installed already on their system. However, when one uses a non-standard font or uses one of the tenth computers, when one constantly creates four to 6 page PDF text documents ten times the size of source documents, frustration sets in; having wondered if designating a font substitution along the lines of “use a Roman font such as Times New Roman” when such a font is used — such as in my case, Liberation Serif or occasionally Nimbus Roman No9 L — I asked my “person in the know”. Apparently, Fedora 12’s default GhostScript install, whose settings I have not modified, seems to do just that.

I guess what really gets me about this is how complicated the PDF standard must be, and how wildly variable the implementations are — at least, given that Adobe licences PDF creation for free provided that the implementations respect the complete standard — or more to the point, how wildly variable the assumptions and settings are in all sorts of software when creating a PDF. I bet that were I to take the same source and change one thing such as equipment or software that the results would be wildly different.

So, concurrent to the above scanning project, I happened to experiment with a portable scanner — a fun challenge in and of itself to make it work, but it did without “too much fuss”. And I found out something interesting, which I knew had nothing to do with PDF’s but (I presume) rather with scanners, drivers, and xsane. I tried scanning some pages of one of the said annual reports with the portable scanner on an identical Fedora 12 setup using xsane, and the PDF’s that were produced were far greater in size than those scanned with my desktop flatbed scanner. My flatbed scanner would scan the text and the page immediately surrounding the text, but correctly identified the “blank” part of the page as being blank, and did not scan in those areas, thereby significantly reducing the image scanned size. The other scanner, a portable model, did no such thing and created images from the whole page, blank spaces rendered, in this case, to a dull grey and all, thereby creating significantly larger PDF files than the scans of the same pages created on my flatbed scanner. However, as I mentioned, I assume that this is a function of the individual scanners and their drivers, and possibly how xsane interacts with them, and in my mind is not a function per se of how xsane creates PDF files.

Another interesting lesson.

The new Google OS

Well for those of you who haven’t heard, internet darling Google announced in the past day or two that it will be releasing a new OS expected in 2010 (here’s my archive).

I had a few reactions:

– Google getting headline news should make it interesting, and they have the money and clout to be a real competitor. I saw the news about the new Google OS by watching the morning news and one of the taglines was “Google to launch operating system”. Sorry, Ubuntu only gets headline news within the likes of gearheads like me (see below), and it’s a footnote at best when people talk about that South African Space Tourist.
– What will “it” be? Linux? Google-Hurd? Open-source? GPL? BSD-licence? Apache Licence?
– I wondered what it would be about. Goobuntu? Ahhh, it’ll be an internet-centric linux distro — meaning, even though it’s obvious that it’s meant to be a MS-killer on the netbooks (with the possibility that it could be released, with appropriate changes, for the desktop too), its main comparison will be gOS. (Insert tongue firmly in cheek here. Then bite.)
– It’ll only have any way of working if it A) deals with the problems Fedora has out of the box (flash, mp3, avi, DVD, etc.) by no doubt including such support out of the box, and generally be AS GOOD POINT FOR POINT as MS, and then some, and B) do something better than MS — and be something that people want.
– It’ll have to likely change the computing paradigm. The cloud computing paradigm has been touted for about seven years or more now and has only been taking off in the past year or so. Google has been slowly eroding MS with things like gmail and google docs, alongside Firefox and OpenOffice.org, and generally contributing to opensource and other projects, but I’m wondering when the breakpoint will be when suddenly EVERYBODY drops MS and goes somewhere else, or rather the pie becomes properly split up such that what’s under the hood matters less than what goes on on the screen. Oh, and people don’t like change. Resistance to change is one of Open Source’s, no scratch that, “any alternative to MS”‘s biggest enemies.
– My original take on the above was that Google *would* be the people able to push things beyond the breakpoint.
– I’m wondering if it will have to go on par with MS by pulling a Novell to integrate MS-files nicely.
– Ahh, “machines with it will be sold starting in 2010” — it was but also wasn’t as specific as that … will there be a slice in it for Google? Or will there given away the way other distros are, but have insidious settings that encourage the user without realizing it to go to some web page that has google click ads? Or … what’s in it for them?

Then of course, I’m listening to one of these “deal to the lowest common denominator then add 2 points of intelligence” syndicated talk radio hosts who’s got a guest talking about this subject. To set the stage, the previous topic he discussed was a videoclip on YouTube of a person using both hands to shave his head while driving and whether there should be a law against such a thing, which he caps up with the likes of “there should be an anti-moronification law against such morons.”

To be fair, the stance he and his guest take is targeted at most people who inexplicably (to me, anyway) have no clue that there *is* an (easy) alternative to MS on the PC, besides the Mac, which he rightfully puts in a class of its own. And, Linux *is* mentioned as an available alternative, but “it’s pretty much for the gearheads”.

Here’s what I sent him, I was so riled up:

*****

Forget Ontario hair-shaving idiots making the roads less safe, I wonder about those on the radio who say linux is for “gearheads”.

I suppose I’m a gearhead, I do indeed like computers for their own sake beyond the day to day usefulness they present.

However I’ve been using various versions of linux for the past several years on my PC and take great pleasure in overwriting any existing MS format on any new computer I get — over the past three years, that’s about 5 computers, formatted a few times over on some. Some are older and more archaic than the netbooks your piece mentioned, let alone today’s top of the line desktops, and I’ve been using them for desktop uses, not server applications. On them are full OS’s that are not stripped down — unless, of course, I were to have chosen one of the minimalist versions — and interestingly are not all that slow.

There are several versions which are geared toward the “average” user. Most of the more common versions can do all of the day to day uses that were mentioned in your piece and are on par with — sometimes superior to — MS. I use a version that is a cross between the “gearhead” market and day to day usage. I recommend to newcomers Ubuntu, which I do not use. Virtually all users of MS however would be able to use Ubuntu, available at ubuntu.com, with no difficulty, and it is the most popular of the linux versions and is not aimed at the “gearheads”.

I was incredulous listening to the show to hear that people still think that MS is the only option for their PCs. I suppose that the few who have heard of linux figure that something given away for free is worth the money paid for it. Au contraire, MS is less configurable and as you know virus prone as compared to linux; for the virus part, you have to pay more to get properly protected. Linux on the other hand is safer, faster, and free compared to MS.

I found your guest informative but I found the bias toward linux not being a competitive alternative on the desktop — which it has been for years — compared to Windows “very interesting”.

*****

Oh, I do think that the driver in Ontario is a complete moron. πŸ™‚

And Mr. Shuttleworth, please note that I *will* recommend Ubuntu to the general public since the learning curve is easier than even Fedora’s.

Oooooops, I was wrong … (so what else is new?)

In a previous post, “I may just have that reason to get rid of Ubuntu” I stated that the thing that killed Ubuntu for me was the difference in how OO.o on Ubuntu 8.04 and Fedora 9 deal with the “notes” function in a document. The versions of OO.o in question were — according to distrowatch.com — 2.4.0 for Ubuntu 8.04 and 2.4.0 for Fedora 9. As of today’s date my F9 notebook has updated itself to 2.4.2, so to be fair I imagine that in the past year Hardy Heron has had some updates as well.

Today I stumble across this little gem from the OpenOffice.org website:

Improved Notes Feature in Writer

“In the past; notes in OpenOffice.org were just displayed as small yellow rectangles within the text. This was not very intuitive and user friendly. With version 3.0, OpenOffice.org got an advanced notes features which displays notes on the side of the document. This makes notes a lot easier to read. In addition, notes from different users are displayed in different colours together with the editing date and time.”

Ooops.

I went off on a holy rant, wondering why the heck Ubuntu has changed a few things more that it arguably needed to, when in fact … well, it apparently hadn’t: The annoying yellow dot was a function of OO.o to begin with. At that time. If anyone was changing things, it was Fedora backporting this function some time last fall, assuming that it wasn’t OO.o doing it, or adding a preview into the version that Fedora grabbed and included in F9 — in keeping with Fedora’s usual policy of not using custom patches not necessary to Fedora integration or backporting updates, instead opting for rapid changes, new releases, and submitting bug and improvement patches upstream instead.

Which is perhaps not saying much since at release time, both distros were using 2.4.0; rather, it only raises the question of why things are different between two nominally identical pieces of software, and perhaps lifts blame away from Ubuntu.

Oh well, I still don’t like Ubuntu. πŸ™‚

In the meantime … I wonder how this is explained given that both distros apparently had the same version of OO.o at release time. I wonder if the feature was backported in Fedora. Or if it was backported by OO.o and Fedora simply passed on the change. Or … ?

And in the meantime as well, I wonder about the notes function in previous versions of the 2.x series of OO.o acting in “the new way” at least back to 2006 — again in the same post, second to last paragraph:

“The appearance of the notes in the margin is not a recent occurrence in OO.o, at least in the 2.0 series: back in August 2006 under CentOS 4.4” OK, this is still the Red Hat family” I received a document with the notes visible in the margin (being a work contract I declined the document and asked that they resend the proper version, please.) I was using the standard OO.o 2.whatever downloaded and installed directly from openoffice.org (since the CentOS 4 series originally came wih OO.o 1.5.something series; I’d been using the OO.o 2.0 series for close to a year at that point under Windows before I’d made the switch to linux.)”

Printing PDFs

I’ve just had an interesting object lesson in the differences between two different pieces of software that have more than essentially the same function.

Today I had an important PDF document to print out at home instead of at the office. For the purposes of practical convenience, it was far better to print it out at home and just deliver it to the office than spend the extra time at the office (5-10 minutes) turning on my office computer and printing it out there on a printer I knew would have no difficulty dealing with it, having printed out a few dozen identically-generated documents on it.

On my pretty much stock Fedora 10 box, I use the Evince Document Viewer 2.24.2 using poppler 0.8.7 (cairo) for the Gnome desktop to display and print PDF documents. So far, I’ve been satisfied.

The PDF’s layout had margins beyond my printer’s abilities. And of course the most important parts of the document, being right at the edges of the margins in this document, were being cut off in the process of printing out the document. A reduction in the print size was not useful since the vital information was on the end of the document being cut off in the margins. I suppose I could have tried rotating the document to try to see if the cut off part would not contain crucial information, which I didn’t think of at the time. Both these strategies, however, miss the point: If the original document has very narrow margins, something is going to get cut off no matter what; not exactly desireable.

I did try something that happened to involve a Windows box (ughh) mostly because it had a different printer, and you never know how things behave differently with different equipment.

Not surprisingly, the windows box happens to have an Adobe viewer installed (I avoid that box as much as possible; I don’t even maintain it, that’s my brother’s job. πŸ™‚ ). I click to print the document and whaddya know, in the print dialog there’s an option to fit the document within the printable area. Document printed, convenience secured.

Now what I would like to know is how much of the print window in my desktop is governed by HPLIP, how much by Gnome, how much by CUPS, and how much by the application invoking it at the moment. So I did a little experiment: Always selecting my printer, I opened a print dialogue in Evince Document Viewer, OpenOffice.org (3.0.1), Firefox (3.0.7), The Gimp (2.6.5), Xpdf (3.02) which I intentionally installed for the purpose of this experiment, and gedit (2.24.3) (on which I’m composing this blog). Besides Xpdf, each appears to have the same base, and except for Evince Document Viewer, each also adds a function tab of its own. Xpdf, on the other hand, has its own stripped-down interface — either invoke the lpr command or print to a file.

Here’s a quick table listing the tabs listed in the print dialogs available in five, off-the-shelf standard installs of Fedora 10 software, with my printer selected, plus Xpdf, which was installed directly from the Fedora repositories without any modification of settings or whatever on my part:

OpenOffice.org*: General; Page Setup; Job; Advanced; Properties
Firefox: General: Page Setup; Job; Advanced; Options; Properties
Document Viewer: General; Page Setup; Job; Advanced
The Gimp**: General; Page Setup; Job; Advanced; Image Settings***
Xpdf: Xpdf has its own stripped-down interface
gedit : General; Page Setup; Job; Advanced; Text Editor

* There is an Options button in the “Page Setup” tab for OpenOffice.org.
** The Gimp treats my “special” PDF as an image much like any other, and automatically sizes it to the current settings, much like it would handle a .png or .jpg image
*** The Gimp has an option to ignore the margins; see above note

Not one, besides The Gimp, has an option to fit the document within the printable range, and The Gimp only indirectly, because of the way it seems to handle PDFs by default as an image to be manipulated. And of the others, to be fair, only Document Viewer and Xpdf deal with PDFs — even FireFox delegates PDFs to the Evince Document Viewer by default.

Then I did another little experiment: I installed Adobe Reader 9.1 (that license is interesting, pretty convoluted, and makes me wonder whether I may use the installation at all; in any case, I’ll be getting rid of it since I really only installed it for the purpose of this experiment, and decided a while ago that having 2 PDF viewers above and beyond that which is available in the basic distro installation is superfluous unless ther’s a particular reason for it.) And what do I see? A new print dialog that reminds me of the one I saw earlier on the windows box. Interestingly, it has “fit to printable area” and “shrink to printable area” options.

So my little experiment has led me to the following conclusions:

– many pieces of software, presumably not wanting to reinvent the wheel, rely either on the OS or I suspect, at least in this case, the desktop environment for its print dialogs;
– some software authors do want to reinvent the wheel, such as to “do it their own way”, or to be completely platform and environment independent, and therefore make their own dialogs;
– some software authors want to do extra things but don’t want to reinvent the wheel, so they have a wrapper for to add extra functionality to an existing base;
– in my documents, I shouldn’t try to stuff as much content as possible into each page too far, at least not by playing around with the margins.

Looks like something for the Evince authors to toss in. Assuming, of course, that — without fundamentally changing a document — resizing a PDF and/or its content to the local printer’s printing range is a really useful feature, such as to deal with awry margins, or PDFs sized for A4 instead of letter sized or vice-versa. πŸ™‚ And that such non-conformities and/or their prevalence make it worth my using the Adobe Reader, licensing issues aside. Or that another PDF reader out there that has that functionality.

Hmmm … OO.o differences, Fedora, and Ubuntu

In my post I may just have that reason to get rid of Ubuntu I whined about minor differences between “stock” OpenOffice.org appearances and functions and those I used straight off the OO.o website as well as what ships with Fedora.

This blog (here’s my archive) explains a bit why: It says “Many Linux distributions ship ooo-build. … Fedora ships a modified OpenOffice.org, but Fedora does not use ooo-build.” Which means that in keeping with Fedora’s usual policy, it ships upstream versions of software with only reasonably required modifications to make it work under Fedora. When I was using CentOS, I was using the vanilla version directly from OO.o.

That explains a few things. It doesn’t necessarily justify my whining — nor all the changes Ubuntu or other distros (or even Fedora) make, but … Why mess with a good thing? πŸ™‚

Uggghh … I need a bar of soap

I think I’m going to be sick. πŸ™

I never cared for Debian and derivatives because Debian never seems organized enough to get a new release out. In all honesty I’ve never tried Debian. I hate Ubuntu, mostly because I’m very suspicious of anything with great marketing hype and hordes of fanboys to boot. (So much for my initial suspicion of the Stargate movie in 1994 and all of its over-hyping; I have long since wished I had overcome this and gone to see it in the theatres, and I do love SG1 in reruns. πŸ™‚ )

Last week my brother and I were jumping hoops again and again to get my printer working under Centos 5.2. Last January we’d gone to a lot of trouble to get it to work under Centos 4.6 (I finally upgraded to the 5.0 series about a month ago.) No matter how many hoops we’d jump through and resolve there were still more, or another set would surface. Realize that this is a relatively new printer that must have come out at least last fall if not earlier, my brother received it as part of a “throw it in with the new laptop he bought” kind of deal. Red Hat therefore had gone through at least one update, if not two (at least 5.2 if not also 5.1) to add the appropriate drivers or move to the next HPLIP version that would support the printer. To give you an idea, Centos 5.2 comes with HPLIP 1.6.something, my printer needs at least 1.7.something, and the current version is 2.8.something.

Seems to me that commodity printers should be supported, it’s not as though a corporate situation doesn’t use printers. Though they would probably say that my line of printers is too commodity for an enterprise to be interested in, they probably want high-capacity, high-quality printers, not an inkjet meant for the consumer market.

I knew that the printer worked under ubuntu since I tried a live CD from them and it worked without saying boo. My brother was “willing” to continue trying to get it to work but was pushing hard to switch. “You can always switch back to Centos you know.”

The printer was a killer. So is getting wireless on my laptop, using a several years old (about 4 years old) pcmcia wireless card; under CentOS 4.6 I had a kernel under which it worked but any time there was a kernel upgrade I would have to switch back if I wanted to use the wireless. We hadn’t done anything yet about the wireless but had a plan.

I still haven’t gotten the wireless to work under Ubuntu but to be fair I haven’t tried yet at all.

My first reaction was that Ubuntu was the Playskool version of linux.

I also HATE the fact that the default user under Ubuntu is a defacto root user — first thing I did was get rid of the annoying sudo requirement by assigning a password to root, but it’s not of much value because so far I haven’t come across anything in Ubuntu that really requires root the way it would under ANY other linux distribution, other than the fact that it constantly asks for passwords to do anything. Also annoying is that I can’t log root into a gui to do things that way (including to REMOVE the default user from the admin ring.)

This may be the undoing of Ubuntu along the lines of the way that Windows is plagued with problems because most of the time the default user has admin rights and can install and run just about anything unless the Admin user shuts it down. The only upside is that it always asks for your password, but I expect that most windows converts would find this annoying and just mindlessly enter their password just to get on with things.

Once I got over the shock, the problem now is that the user experience, other than the administration to which I’m accustomed mostly doing under a command line instead of gui, is identical to Centos. (The main ubuntu distro desktop is gnome, as is the case for Centos.) Admittedly, the Synaptic gui package manager along with the extensive Ubuntu repo vs. the Centos repos is as good as they say, and worth the switch. And 8.04.1 is an LTS version, meaning that it’s supported for 3 years instead of having to go through the reformat treadmill every 6 months (OK, Fedora supports versions for a month after the release of the second release following, meaning about 12-13 months.)

I hope that RHEL (and hence Centos) shapes up and realizes that some people like using as a desktop, and that making it at least vaguely usable without pulling teeth and hair is as important as making it stable.

I have to go now and wash my mouth out with soap.

New Desktop and Centos 5.2

So I’m going to the bank to deposit a trivial amount of pocket money (ok, not so trivial that it isn’t worthwhile to me in the moment; I’m discussing $50) and I decide to walk into the used laptop store before crossing the street.

I see this really cute Dell mini-tower. “Hyper-threading,” the guy tells me. Elsewhere I hear, “no good, could be a real security flaw under linux”. $100; I take out all my bills and about $40 in silver (I occasionally have way too much silver in my pockets!) and promise to come back with the remaining $10.

A cute little P4 2.8 with 512 megs and a 40gig HD, but only a CD rom. I’m happy, apparently there were a couple of duds in the lot of them he received.

Got home, and put on Centos 5.1 using the CD’s from a couple of months ago. Funny, the next day 5.2 comes out and I of course immediately upgrade, but the whole thing takes several hours to download and install!

An interesting revelation further to my “Confused” post

I came to an interesting epiphany when discussing my little whining session regarding the computers being sold at a relatively wild range of prices with my brother (at least, wild given the ranges, from $230 to $700, all fabulous deals to begin with) and apparently being sold principally by the metrics of clock cycles, memory, and price tag. Oh of course the other things are there too, but we all know what’s really important, don’t we? πŸ™‚

The realisation was that perhaps I should be using Gentoo linux instead of what I happen to be using, CentOS 4.5. Or really, Gentoo (or any of the other source-based linux distros) instead of any of the others. More about what appears to make Gentoo so special in a moment. Suffice it to say right now that Gentoo is not for the faint of heart, and I have a faint heart. πŸ™‚ Gentoo is *very* difficult and complex to set up. And can take days in some cases, even assuming that it all goes well.

My brother decided to take his AMD 2.8 with plenty of memory and convert a movie to DVD format; possibly under Windows, possibly under CentOS 5.1, he didn’t tell me which. He decided, for the fun of it, to convert the same movie, at the same time, with a dual-core 1.3, I believe under Windows. AMD’s have faster performance per clock cycle than Pentiums, so an AMD 2.8 is purportedly similar in performance to a P4 3.8.

We were both surprised: The dual core 1.3 won the race.

Apparently, the video conversion software was optimized for dual cores on said machine, so between the software, its clock cycles, and all the other metrics (bus speeds, memory, etc.) it was able to beat out the other machine just using brute processing force.

Gentoo is a linux distro that is distributed as source code which must be compiled at the time of installation, and which figures out what kind of hardware you have, then compiles the source into binary code using settings and tweakings specific to your computer. This way, you see slight to noticeable to (occasionally) fabulous improvements in speed and performance over installing standard binary ISO’s of another distro built from exactly the same sources, on the same machine. In principle, if you were to make a binary ISO of every Gentoo install, no two would be quite identical; nor would the binary ISO from one install on a given machine necessarily give the same performance on a comparable but slightly different machine.

The word “Gentoo” is the proper name for a type of penguin that happens to be the fastest swimming penguin; the Linux mascot, Tux, is a penguin. Hence the name Gentoo for a Linux distro.

Hmmm, now I understand the raison d’Γͺtre for Gentoo. And an appreciation for things in general. And, maybe I’m a bit more confused. πŸ™‚

And no, I have never tried Gentoo, nor am I likely to in the near future.:) This is neither an endorsement nor critique about Gentoo or any other linux distro; it is an observation further to previous observations that there are many, many, many metrics by which to compare two or more computers and that software, including the “mere” (yet very involved) compiling of the source code as a function of the hardware, is yet another very important metric in deciding how to purchase a new computer. One which I suspect the mass consumer such as myself is not likely to comprehend — or at least properly evaluate on the street — when pulling out their credit card.preteen lover
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A LUzer abandons Windows and goes for Linux

A LUzer abandons Windows and goes for Linux

I “got” the facts. And I acted on them. MS played their hand; it trumped mine. And I won.

I would call myself a LUzer. I don’t really understand what is going under the hood. On the other hand, I have been characterized as a 7 out of 10 when it comes to knowing about computers and being competent, although I think the person was being at least a bit generous. Go figure. Maybe the fact that by 1994 I had completely stopped helping people with their computers, and had been doing next to no helping since I’d screwed up a friend’s computer in 1990 (although it was quite easily salvageable by somebody who *did* know what they were doing around computers), says something about how smart I might actually be with a computer by virtue of knowing my limitations. Ah, bull.

My first intro to Linux was in 1996 when a friend had installed it on his new PI-90. I have a memory of XP style windows on top of a black command line screen.

In 1999 my 486 SX-33 running Win 3.1 — the original legal install from when I’d bought the machine five years before — was finally grinding to a halt after five years of faithful service. This was just before software that would clean up your system existed or just on the cusp of their mainstream availability. I knew that putting Linux on it would be a good idea, clean up the system, and give it a new life for a while longer. I found a few small distros but couldn’t load them due to peculiarities about Toshiba disk drives. A few aborted attempts to get friends to help didn’t get anywhere. Finally my brother managed to force some version of linux onto a 200meg HD, probably a Red Hat distro of the day, but it was only command line. It didn’t help much. I quickly abandonned the system and relegated it to a closet until selling it about a year and a half later.

In 2000 I bought a new desktop and had Win98 installed with a Red Hat 6.0 dual boot. The choice was easy, I supposedly had a decent system and my brother was running a dot.com hosting company on it. After a few weeks I finally got fed up with it; it wasn’t meeting my needs even though I wanted to get rid of MS. I think that lack of user friendliness, having lost half of my 14 gig HD, apparent lack of software availability, and lack of ease of installation for a windows-type was what did it in. The Windows side was grinding to a halt and I finally managed to, ahem, upgrade to Windows 2000 in late 2001, wiping out the dual boot in the process. It was a bit slower than Windows 98 but as promised it was stable and did not get progressively slower with time. Not much anyway.

My net activities since 1999 have not much changed, I surf the same few websites daily, email, etc. In 1999 my habits were also very similar to what I was doing in 1995-1997 on the net, except more web surfing and virtually no newsgroups. I had thrown in a bit of midi fascination in 2003, but in short order my machine couldn’t even play them. Video became quickly out of the question (performance was barely and really not acceptable at first, and was hopeless in short order). I know that software that worked fine on the computer out of the box in 2000 would never again work with any semblance of actually operating, let alone acceptably.

Meantime in late 2004, a friend’s hubby told me to try out Firefox. It took me a few weeks to get around to trying it, but once I had there was no turning back to Internet Explorer. At this point the recommendations to get away to anything from IE6 were flying left and right from all sorts of reputable sources. Sometime later I, ahem, “upgraded” again to Windows XP.

Then in the spring of 2005, I had had some problems one evening with a critical project for school. Working full time and taking night courses was tough enough, but my (admittely unofficial) copy of MS Office was suddenly grinding to a literal halt for several minutes on my new to me PIII 450 laptop while just trying to open up a Save dialog was getting to be over the top stressful. OpenOffice.org to the rescue, and within a few days it was on my Celeron 533 desktop as well, used full time on both machines, and a few weeks later I got around to uninstalling MS Office to save disk space. What a relief to have done that, even without the space savings.

Interestingly, I’ve mostly used software and clients that most people were not using. Admittedly, despite this I was still experiencing problems, which I expect were more or less typical of problems experienced by others, yet I think I escaped many more other problems. I understand that there were all sorts of problems related to the use of MS Outlook, which I had never used since being online starting in mid 1994 and only started using it in mid 2005 at work. Netscape, then Firefox instead of Internet Explorer most of the time (although there was a while that I did use IE.) Eudora instead of MS Outlook. I liked newsgroups instead of the web for many years. Finally I was using OpenOffice.org. All this seems like it was a good practice. Getting “wonderful”, read rude and crude, feedback from normally quiet, peaceful gentlepeople regarding spams on lists merely confirmed that not using the same clients that everyone else was using was a good thing. Admittedly, I was using MS Windows like the crowd. Norton, MS Office (although no more at this point), etc., too.

Then in May 2006 when the Windows Genuine Advantage update came about, and it was not possible to get rid of it from my systems despite several, uhm, attempts. WGA was the incentive I needed to make the move. Definitively, wholly, and permanently. Well, ok, at work they still are entrenched with Windows and won’t budge. At least the IT guys humour me.

I realized at this point I was generally doing something else very interesting, besides mostly using clients different from the crowd: What made my computer do the things I wanted to do — word processing, spreadsheets, web surfing, a few other small projects, were increasingly Open Source. Eudora was not what most people were using. Virtually all — in fact, I can’t think of much to cite an exception, although there were one or two — of the little projects I was doing was done using free software off the Internet. Essentially, virtually all of what I was doing was essentially independent of what — or should I say “Who” — was under the hood beyond the specific technical requirements involved in choosing which download button to choose. And much of it was not what most people are using. What was underneath didn’t much matter, if at all. Surely under Linux, once it tickles my fancy to do those little one or two time jobs again, there would be at least one linux program on the net that works, for the hundreds or perhaps thousands of mostly either for-a-fee or crippleware or really bad implementation of the job under Windows that exist with perhaps one or two good freeware implementations.

At the same time, I was sick and tired of using pirated software, a slow system, and hearing all the stories from my brother talking about the horror stories from his MS-using clients and how wonderful Linux is. I was and am as cheap to buy a new computer as I was in purchasing software, and was getting fed up with Windows in general anyway. And was getting fascinated by my brother using obsolete computers to do what he needed under Linux; admittedly, not always as fast as everyone else was, but doing it nonetheless. I was even contributing to the cause by being on the lookout all the time for old computers and spare parts being tossed. At the same time my Celeron 533 was grinding to a halt under the massive weight of Windows XP, Norton Antivirus and Firewall, cookies, spyware (despite doing regular cleans and surprisingly not really having much), you name it. Despite all you hear about spyware, malware, trojan horses, virii, etc., the last time I had a good old fashioned computer virus was in 1990. And I had relatively few bits of spyware. No Trojan Horses or malware to my confidant knowledge. Imagine what those less savvy than I (remember I sincerely consider myself a LUzer) — and if anything you hear about the problems people are suffering is to be believed, apparently the majority of people were having way more difficulties than I, and more recently than 1990 — must be going through. It makes me wonder why any linux desktop or the collective of such hasn’t made any real inroads against MS. Perhaps Elmer has been out hunting a lot of Wabbits.

I told my brother that I was sure this time. I wanted to go to Linux. And all the way. My computers were to be MS free zones. He kept on trying to convince me to do a dual boot. Nope, that ultimately was my doing in the last time, it was too easy to go back when things were too complicated for my laziness, but I was serious and understood the value (and consequences) of going cold-turkey.

He knew that I was serious but suspected that perhaps I still hadn’t grasped what I was asking for. He later said that he was behaving much like the rest of the linux community, which he characterized as being like some religions that don’t try to recruit and actually shun converts; they just want to grow by new members from birth, who likely and/or hopefully are going to be more committed. I don’t know if this is true; I have heard lots of stories to the contrary about how helpful people are toward linux newbies. I think that despite his enthusiasm in the idea of making a convert, he was really groaning, realizing that he’d have to do all the work while I enjoyed the fruits of his labour. So one fateful day we were discussing the subject for the umpteenth time and I responded to some question no doubt along the lines of “yeah, but why?” with the following: “I want something to believe in.”  He was intrigued. Very intrigued.

Now I suspect — I know — that I wasn’t so much looking to believe in Linux, although I somewhat was, as I was just so sick and tired of Windows, a virtually useless computer, the MS culture, and was more wrestling with moral issues of having illegal software on my computer, at least given a really convenient reason to lean on this crutch. On this last point, MS proved to me beyond any doubt that they knew, or at least could know if they really wanted to, that I had a pirated install, even though they likely weren’t going to physically come after me, at least in the short term. The scare was enough to push me over the edge; I *knew* that a consequence of WGA was that if it ain’t über-critical, I wouldn’t be getting the update and an already suffering system wouldn’t survive the lack of updates over time. And in a sense, the FUD worked. Just as well, it was all linux needed to win me over. Except that MS only won the moral battle; they didn’t get my “Oh please, MS, please please please forgive me and accept my money for a legit copy of your … software I don’t like … that requires third party applications to make my computer safe while further slowing it down to uselessness”

In any case I knew that all but one of the things I wanted to do in Windows could be done just as well under Linux, sometimes better, and other opportunities lay open. Fortunately a web application that is more convenient than the original Windows application I was depending on came around within a couple of months after the switch, and no tie to the past was left.

First install at the end of June 2006 was Fedora Core 5. I think my Celeron didn’t take and kept on hanging during the install, so it was donated to my brother’s cause and he pulled out a PIII 550 that finally had hardware to match or so I’m told. Alledgedly it was an online casino server in an earlier life about five or six years ago. Now I’m told the video memory isn’t great for videos, but hey everything else is great. And the laptop is good for videos.

Don’t get me going on this one (but here I go anyway), suffice it to say that my limited experience with most computers is that you’ve got a processor that is this class, but the bus speed and/or the amount of memory and/or the HD speed and/or the HD size and/or the HD transfer rate and/or the mother board speed and/or … you get the picture, are underpowered usually due to mismatching and alledged sales responses to consumer demand for an inexpensive machine. Sure I’m as cheap as the next guy and am usually interested in saving a few dollars. But this translates into underpowered or needlessly oversupported or otherwise inappropriately built machines. Why put a porsche engine in a Jalopy? Or a Mini engine in the tractor for an 18 wheeler? Or four season tires on a Formula One race car in the middle of a Montreal snow storm? Or a Ferrari transmission in a Yugo? I probably would have paid an extra hundred or two back when I bought my original machine were I to have been assured not that it was probably right for me, but that it truly was a good machine (albeit not top of the line) and the best part is that all the components are appropriate to each other. I paid an extra couple of hundred for a 17″ screen instead of the standard 15″ and have been pleased with the decision since day one.

Back to FC5. Originally I was going to get CentOS 4.4, but then I was told that things were going to be bleeding edge with FC5, and I appropriately mused that I no doubt would end up bleeding around the edges. πŸ™‚ Big mistake. Sorry Red Hat, I may be a fan (mostly since my sysadmin is big time into RH) but this was a bad choice. Dependency hell was my experience. Broken updates. Losing my net connection and having to reset things back to the first kernel that worked just to get the modem back up and running. I’d be afraid to do yum updates just because I knew that there would be 15 to 20 or more per day, not to mention a few more in a couple of hours before I went to bed. And some would break, for the umpteenth time, my net connection. Later I find out that on FC5 the FC people had gone haywire and out of control with development, and didn’t do enough QC on things like dependencies or this or that, and further that my brother thinks he mistakenly installed the heavily-bleeding-edge -devel fork instead of the -stable fork.

About 6-8 weeks later, the aforementionned PIII 450 laptop was formatted with CentOS 4.4. Best thing to ever happen. Things actually worked on the machine and I could do things that I either couldn’t do with FC5 or didn’t dare for fear of the dreaded multiple-times-daily updates breaking things. Amongst other things, I could watch movies again on the laptop. Obviously, I’m part of the target audience for the CentOS desktop: Rock solid with rock solid stability and slow-moving advances without the support because I can get it elsewhere reigns supreme for me. And the price tag suited me. OK, that’s the same target audience as the RHEL people, except for the deep pockets and need for support. Credit where it’s due: if you didn’t know already, CentOS is a recompile of the RHEL sources, which also have strong roots in … Fedora Core. πŸ™‚

Several weeks after that, bye-bye FC5 on the PIII 550 desktop, WELCOME CentOS 4.4. Ahhhhh … The desktop is finally useable again. Not that it was outright unuseable under FC5, I just didn’t need the stress of wondering how many updates I’d have this afternoon or whether my modem would “disappear” again. Those are exactly the kinds of things from which I was trying to get away from by getting rid of Windows, even if those particular issues were not specifically in my Windows experience. At the same time the modem was moved away from my mom’s Windows machine and hooked up to my PIII 550. Then a funny thing happened.

At this point there were a few months’ worth of delay after delay coming from my brother regarding updating configurations and dealing with little fixes or upgrades on my machines which were best done by him having physical access to the machine. Coincidental to the CentOS 4.4 UPGRADE (ie, going to software, settings, libraries and so on that are a year or two behind what’s current in FC wasn’t a downgrade, regardless of how the technology compares), my mom’s machine started freezing up. My brother and I were convinced that it had nothing to do with literally only changing the position within the network of the modem and the upgrade from FC5 to CentOS 4.4 on the new modem server. Months, three Windows rebuilds, and a hardware change (her old Celeron 333, which put aside the freezing could play video while mine couldn’t under Windows was switched in favour of said old Celeron 533) later with no solution in sight, we were finally looking at my machine since my brother was feeling a bit sorry for me having mostly ignored my computers over that time in favour of my mom’s computer, which I admittedly agreed was a priority as long as I lived in her house. And he stumbled upon something interesting by pure chance: A network setting in *my* box was incorrect and was essentially souring her network connection and hence by extention the Windows box too. Ahhh, two birds, one stone. My help was back. πŸ™‚

At the same time as the CentOS upgrade on the PIII 550, a few minor problems were still in place, and some solved by remote: I had been using OpenOffice.org 2.0 under Windows for months since it had come out in late 2005, and Centos 4.4, which I installed about 9 months later in June 2006, comes with OO.o 1.1.2. This was one of the first things to be installed/updated on both machines. Another thing came up with MPlayer: It didn’t much do what I wanted — or much of anything, for that matter — and it took a few months of pleading with my brother to finally solve the issues that completely crippled it when we tried to update it. (I know, here’s an example of where that “We don’t want any converts” argument comes into play. πŸ™‚ ) Finally, Firefox 2.0 was out and it would have been nice to update just to see what it’s all about. A difficult job on both, but done on the laptop during one of a few trips to my brother’s bench for the update/fix/whatever du mois. 1.5 is still on the desktop and performs just as well as 2.0.

The (up-til now not mentionned) CD burner I’d had on my old machine that disappeared in the initial reformat months before finally got repatriated from my brother’s nebulous black hole of a junk pile and things were getting better. Now I’m getting somewhere. Stuff I want on CD can now be burned and cottage getaways are more pleasant again as a result.

Finally about after seven months of being able to mostly happily use both computers for what I want — most certainly at least on one computer or the other — the laptop is almost perfect, and now even has a wireless card that became obsolete for my brother when the screen on his old laptop finally died.

In the meantime, an FTP server has been set up on my PIII 550 desktop, and I figured out how to install GUI ftp client (this is a big step for me) on my laptop all on my own. Finally! I now have decent access to my desktop from my laptop to transfer files back and forth (my brother thought it best to make the laptop invisible to all networks, including my home network, in order to protect it from hostiles, making Windows style drag&drop over network drives impossible. Probably a good policy for when I’m on the move.) And the way that access works actually makes sense. Remember, I still — and *like* to — use my computers much the same way I did in 1994-1997, including my net experience, so ftp’ing in to transfer files on and off either system actually makes as much sense if not more to me than a Windows style drag&drop over network drives. There is also a commercial quality web server on my PIII 550 that currently is lying dormant until my brother and I get some face time in front of the computer so that he can show me how to use it.

Then last week I managed to install Pan, a GUI newsreader client. (Might Seamonkey have one of those? Oh yeah, that would be following the crowd. So be it, I’m using Evolution in Gnome. πŸ™‚ ) I seem to be reverting to that beloved 1994-1997 period again. πŸ™‚

Do you think I’m going to update to CentOS 5.0 in a few weeks? Do you think that you’re really going to win the big prize in the lottery this week? Of course not. My machines are stable despite the little things I always want them to do and the things that crop up as a result of changes that are made. Most importantly, they work, and they’re not interminably slow for a comparable and even in some cases superior setup under Windows. And they will be supported and secure for years to come, although my brother will likely convince me to upgrade in a year or two, assuming that by then I haven’t added brand new (at least to me) silicone to my space-deprived abode, which obviously would have the latest CentOS release installed. As they stand, the machines with CentOS 4.4 (mostly) do what I want. What doesn’t yet has nothing to do with the differences between 4.4, 5.0, virtual machines, updated video libraries, or whatever else will be in there.

Now all I need is to find a few hot spots. And I don’t need to borrow a transmitter anymore from the front desk when I check into motels during business trips. I wonder if those motels that charge for a network password are platform independent, or assume that you’re a Windows user and hence don’t know how to challenge a linux machine for a password? (It seems that at at least one motel where they provided free passwords and free wireless, this appeard to be the case. Either that or their password login system was optional.)

Eight months in, I’m finally figuring out, very small step by very small step, how to tap into the power of my computers. Even if you could say that I’ve merely traded one set of LUzer troubles for another.

And I couldn’t be happier about it.

(begin humming grunge style) ‘cos I’m a LUzer bay-bai, so why don’t you flame me?

PS.

My 80gig drive is still next to useless since it’s still NTFS without writing priveledges. In line with my initial zealotry, I have to get around to backing up what needs to be backed up and either get my brother to reformat under a native linux format or figure it out myself.