My problems / Gripes with Gnome 3

Background: Regular readers of my blog — the few of you that are out there πŸ™‚ — know I use Fedora and CentOS. Once again, Fedora is an interesting case: As a pretty strict rule, packages appearing in Fedora are as close to the upstream product — the software as it appears on the original project’s website — as is practical; generally, the only changes are those necessary to make them work under Fedora. So generally, if you were to download the sources from www.thisismyawsomelinuxapp.com and compile them yourself, without tweaking them — while making them work, of course — then that’s what the software probably looks like and how it works under Fedora.

Generally, Gnome 3 has been a mixed bag. Some things are interesting — I won’t say improvements; but I think that there are interesting additions (G2 and mobile device devotees will call retrogrades) that I’m willing to welcome, or at least I find acceptable given a paradigm change. I particularly like the hot corner that brings up all of the open windows. Other things are six of one / half dozen of the other, such as the panel/dock on the left of the activities screen.

Here are some specific gripes I have about Gnome 3 at least as installed in Fedora 15 and 16:

This is based on my experiences with Gnome 3.0-whatever and 3.2-whatever with F15 and F16 out-of-the-box installs:

– switching between windows — the default ctrl-tab is between applications, not windows. To do so requires that I hold down the ctrl key, use the mouse to choose the application, wait for it to open another window with all of the instances of that application, then choose with the mouse which one, which sometimes may be difficult unless I were to have a 50′ screen. So it’s not important that I switch, let alone easily, between two spreadsheets, or two pdf’s, or two documents in LO writer, right?
– solved on my F16 machine by “yum install gnome-shell-extensions-alternate-tab”. Needs to be activated by “gnome-tweak-tool”, listed as “Advanced settings” under the Applications menu — see below, date and time gripe
– the above solution kept on crashing my f15 machine, so I removed it.

– Opening up a new instance of an application. Linus’ well-publicized bug: You go to the activities screen, choose one and click on it — say, in Linus’ case, the terminal — and the existing instance is reopened. So in order to open up a new instance, you have to choose file/new window. Valid in and of itself, but not more efficient by removing the possibility of having many ways to do the same thing. Also, partly addressed by the fact that you can right-click on a launch icon and choose to go to the existing instance or launch a new instance; but, this works out to being the same gripe.
– the both over and under sensitive upper-left hand corner: When you move the mouse to the upper left hand corner over, you’re apparently supposed to be able to open up the Activities screen. In Fedora, it’s too sensitve when I don’t want to open it up and my mouse just happens to be in the area, such as when I am going to the File menu of a given application, and then when I want to take advantage of that cool function, boy is it slow in figuring out that it’s supposed to move to the Activities screen.
– Activities screen — closing windows. When you hover the mouse over a window, a little x in a circle appears in the upper right hand corner of that window icon, allowing you to close it. When you have enough windows, it’s real easy to accidentally click on it instead of on the icon itself (to open the window) unless I were to have a 50′ screen.
– Nautilus — when you have a file highlighted, on the bottom there is an “announcement” window stating that you have the chosen file selected — barring the easy selection of the last visible file via mouse if nautilus is maximized. Obviously you can select it by moving the highlighter down with the down key, but the only way to know what the filename is, is to read the annoying “announcement” window, and you often can’t see the the other file information (last saved, time, file size, etc.).
– notifications — lots of things get a notification, like “you just printed a file” or “the file you just opened is ready”, and they stay in the notification bar available from the lower right hand corner until you manually remove them all, individually.
– adding the date to the time at the top (Correctable by “yum install gnome-tweak-tool” F16)

really minor gripe:

– in order to turn off of the computer or reboot, you have to highlight the “suspend” option in the stats menu off the upper right hand corner, and hold down the alt key. Something I can live with, but there anyway.
– solved by “yum install gnome-shell-extensions-alternative-status-menu”. Needs to be activated by “gnome-tweak-tool”, listed as “Advanced settings under the Applications menu — see date and time gripe

Generally, at least specifically to F15:

– When I unplug my laptop to move it to a different location, using the battery, the system goes into hibernate, and doesn’t even ask if that’s what I really want to do. (Correctable by yum install gnome-tweak-tool, F16, which allows you to decide what the computer will do when AC power is lost.)

And here’s a gripe about Evolution, going back a few years, and which has absolutely nothing to do with Gnome 3, or Gnome 2, or even Gnome at all, presumably):

– when you open up a daughter window, the basic evolution program engine is still needed. It effectively makes the main window barely “first amongst equals” instead of being “the program”, from the user perspective. As such, close the main window but not a daughter window, the program engine module is still operating. That means that in my case — because, when I use my email client, I want it to pop my email, then erase it from the server so that when I go to webmail, I don’t have, what, 100 pages of old email to wade throug — email still gets popped and removed from the server, and no longer available by web mail. This is a human-interface bug, since at the very least when closing the main window, it should ask “do you want to shut down all evolution functions, or just this window”?

Bugzilla — again, not specifically a Gnome problem:

Traditionnaly when ABRT is activated because of a crash, when I get to the point of selecting to report via Bugzilla, I get messages about the wrong settings being in place and that the reporting will likely fail. I found out a few years ago that this is generally due to the lack of the relevant backtrace program for the crashed program, hence there being a lack of sufficient “useful” information. While conceptually I understand the need for a proper backtrace so that as much detailed information is available as possible, this presents a real conundrum: I have occasionally in the past gone to the trouble of installing one or two relevant backtraces — after a crash and realizing this conundrum — and noted that it slows down the system significantly, and having all the existing backtrace programs is impractical. Hence without the appropriate backtrace, a bugzilla report will fail. Yet due to current circumstances, the average (at least desktop user) is unlikely to know which they are likely to need to install, and Fedora loses out on valuable crash information that would help solve a bunch of problems.

What do I like about G3:

Most of these are indifferences (ie. I don’t much care whether they’re along the lines of G2 or G3), but I’m willing to give them a thumbs up at least on that basis:

– nautilus does two panes, although I think that it probably did it before. A certain other system doesn’t; you can only either move things on the directory tree on the left (which you can do, sort of, in nautilus) or between two windows.
– Somehow the automounter for things like memory sticks seems a bit smoother and polished under Gnome 3 than under Gnome 2.
– I have actually always found the dock, and that it’s on the left hand column, intuitive — funny, I find the dock on the bottom in XFCE, which I have on my CentOS server (from the days a few months ago when the machine itself was a celeron 1.0 with 256megs of RAM and it found that hard to handle; G2 ran it into the ground within minutes) not anywhere near as intuitive (although I suppose it can easily be moved were I to want it to). The only drawback: more intuitive and useful than Gnome 2, but, in Gnome 2, I had already been putting launchers on the upper panel for years, as have other people. It still gets the thumbs up, though.

FUDCon 2011 — lightning talks

Today at the lightning talks at FUDCon 2011, the one that caught my attention was called “The Dreyfus Model: how do novices think differently from experts?” The subtitle was along the lines of “Why won’t anyone help me, I have documentation!” Β Here is a pdf archive of her talk I made at the time since as of at least 2020 or earlier, it disappeared.

The gist of how Mel presented the subject was that someone is looking for a bread recipe on the internet and comes up with:

Croissants

flour
butter
other stuff
bake

She explained the various cryptic parts of this “recipe” and how obvious it may seem to an experienced baker, but to a newbie, even figuring out that Croissants is a type of bread, let alone what the “other stuff” is can be difficult to grasp, or the concepts of “oh you have to buy those ingredients first — how much? And what’s this? You need an oven? Now, when they say bake, how long? And how will I know it’s ready? Oh yeah, you need to let the bread rise first …

She went on to say how installing certain bits of software and using them may seem trivial to an experienced user, but knowing how to draw in a tarball, extract it, get all the dependencies, compile it, and all the various steps required was not easy for a newbie, especially in a culture that takes several things for granted and literally may skip steps between major milestones.

Ultimately her message lay in the importance of clear, concise, complete documentation.

When I started learning linux, I had to relearn things too, and found things challenging. I quickly learned that things were not as obvious to myself and that when someone said “oh just do this” what they were really saying was “do this 10-15 item list as root under the following circumstances using the proper switches” — not always an obvious task when you say “install package X” while omitting all the necessary parts before and after.

FUDCon Friend Finders

On the FUDCon 2011 Wiki page, suggested optional equipment is a Fedora Friend Finder (here’s my archive, since as of 2020 the link has long since been abandoned and bought by someone else), which is an extension cord with multiple sockets. I brought one, which has a 30′ extension cord, and it has typically had 2 to 3 plugs, including my own. Right now, I’m in the Lightning Talks, and I’m impressed: My FFF is plugged into another full FFF, and mine is full. Further, I’ve had two plug-in requests to which I’ve had to say, “sorry, I’m filled up”.

Now, I’m just looking for my profits. πŸ™‚

On another note, today I went to get an extra-large pizza at Slice’s Pizzeria around the corner. I made friends quick. πŸ™‚ One person who joined us after the pizza ran out was a local community college professor who saw my security presentation yesterday, and enjoyed it. So much so that he asked if I’d grant permission for him to use it in one of his classes, which I happily granted.

News Flash — Linux spotted in the wilds of Montreal — again!

Back in January I mentioned a chance meeting with someone on a commuter train using Fedora on their laptop. Well this afternoon, I had another such chance meeting in a pub.

At a 5 Γ   7 (Quebec speak for “Happy Hour”) at Hurley’s Irish Pub on Crescent Street this afternoon, I walked by someone with a laptop listening to the Irish musicians, and almost walked by, the Ubuntu icon in the corner of the screen was so familiar (despite being a die-hard Fedora user). I realized my error and exclaimed “Wow Ubuntu in the wild!

I got a quick look at Ubuntu Netbook Remix using Chrome. Dan, the user, said that though he uses Firefox at home on his desktop, he finds that Chrome is way faster at least on his netbook. He said that the machine came with another Linux distro when he bought it, which he didn’t much like, so he reformatted.

Well, Dan, you made my day!

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.

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.