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For the sake of the Linux Desktop: forget about Linux.

There is no such thing as “Linux” as an operating system. Yet we all think we’re marching under the same banner when we’re clearly not. Between desktop environments, package managers, display managers and the rest, we’re a highly uncoordinated bunch. If anyone from the outside should dare ask for a consistent response, they’re greeted with everything from hand-holding to cold shrugs, from slaps on the back to slaps in the face.

I am not proposing that we as techies forget about Linux, nor that we let individual projects’ managers and leaders forget about the community and their Open Source Free Software roots – but to recognize that whilst for us “Linux” is a selling point, for the masses that drive adoption and support, the label “Linux” is a big turn-off.

From a technologists’ standpoint, when we talk about Linux, we all generally know what we mean: a kernel that forms the core of a vast series of operating systems, of which Android which isn’t a GNU/Linux but is nonetheless powered by the Linux kernel.

For persons outside of the tech-sphere, the concept of “Linux” is at best a moot point, if not an actual source of confusion. Numerous times, we’ve tried to explain what “distro” means and why there are different “desktop environments,” whilst applications are downloaded by “package managers” from “repositories”… all of this heavily discussed in “the community.”

The Curse of Choice

For us techies, choice is good. In Linux-land, choice is sacred. To us, choice is Freedom.

To the average person, choice is Hell.

Distro flame wars aside, there’s the obvious fractioning of the developer community. Some develop for KDE, some for GNOME, some independently. Some have packaged for DEB whilst RPM riders have to get the tarball. Arch always gets a tarball. Notifications and panel icons aren’t always there in all desktop environments. And all the varieties.

Even if you try to not stray far and stay on “the most popular distro for newbies” a.k.a. Ubuntu, you still have Lubuntu, Xubuntu and Kubuntu confusion, with Linux Mint and Linux Mint Debian, each with Cinnamon and MATE flavours, close behind. Newbie asks how to change their desktop and are asked in return “what desktop environment are you using?” The newbie answers, “I dunno, it’s blue, I want it to be pink.”

Try telling Average Joe that Manjaro (Xfce), CentOS (GNOME 2), Ubuntu (Unity) and Chrome OS (Chrome) are all Linux whilst merrily swapping through screenshots. They’ll ask you what tea you’ve been snorting. Kinda like showing up at a botanists’ convention and being told that apples, hazelnuts and tomatoes are all fruit, broccoli and artichokes are actually flowers, and that all of them are, indeed, classified under “Vegetable.” The geeks know this. The rest of us model the ecosystem in a very different way.

Hand holding

The other issue is the consistent inability for techies to grasp the very idea that installing a new OS is fraught with danger and uncertainty for a non-tinkerer. Consumers have heard that Linux is hard. They’ve heard it doesn’t run Windows. (Or Windows applications). They’ve heard it might void their warranty. We reassure them that it isn’t hard, to try it, and next thing you know they’ve hosed their data, their printer can’t be found right in front of them and what’s all that scary text on the screen?

And yet we repeatedly see the technology blogs preaching to the choir, “Why DistroX is great replacement for Windows XP” with that chipper encouragement to “give it a go” — like the kind of person who would keep XP for so long would know exactly what to do after reading the article!

There have been plenty of stories in forums, podcasts and so forth where so-and-so managed to put their grandma on Linux Mint and she loved it; or moved their dad to Ubuntu on Unity, so what’s the fuss; or the uber-geek who moved their wife onto a Gentoo or Arch setup and with them at the ready to help, their loved one was absolutely fine. Those are, no doubt, great wins on individual levels, but is kind of a moot point on their own, and still collectively amount to little much than a pat-on-the-head level of success.

But then there are the bigger, more ambitious goals: the City of Munich famously distributing Ubuntu 12.04 CDs for free in the public libraries was one. Whilst the City successfully completed their migration with a host of consultants and internal IT technicians, out in the town, how many people knew what to do with these Ubuntu CDs? Free coasters? Pocket-mirrors to store in your glove compartment? Arts and crafts projects? And did all the gendarmes in France start coming home declaring “ma chérie! I am going to replace the Windows on our PC with Linux?” Mais oui bien sûr, Maurice.

Any time you point out how difficult it is for the average user to install Linux, thousands of commenters are poised at the ready to tell you how easy it is. And I concur that, for me and you, it is dead simple. For grandad and the arts major who pointedly shied away from the school ICT course, installing a new OS is a big freaking deal.

The enthusiasts who are dead set on convincing us that it’s easy have never actually sat down and talked to an actual user. No doubt they’ve gone and done the install for them, and heard “oh it wasn’t so hard then!” after they had gone and done all the hard work.

In reality, if you were to leave an average user to do the switch on their own, you’d need to write a complete manual, many pages long. And that’s just to install the system. There’s a fair amount of IT to be learned before you can go thwack your PC with a new OS. You’ll probably find after a few weeks that Windows is still on their computer and the manual has found its useful place levelling a table leg.

Seriously, have you ever tried to have the conversation about replacing someone’s desktop with Linux when they’re not a close acquaintance and you’re not going to be on hand at their every issue?

Sure there’s a fantastic community out there – of techies speaking techno-babble.

Even in AskUbuntu which is supposed to be the forum of the “most popular distro” (read: the distro that has the lowest skill barrier for entrance) the speak there rapidly becomes super-technical for anyone who hasn’t tried to understand their computer before.

Forget that it’s “Linux”

Ubuntu has dropped the word “Linux” from its name and I don’t think it’s that bad a thing. Sure Free Software purists will be railing against their decisions on Convenience over Freedom, but face it: even when we do away with the ethical and philosophical discussion, getting people to switch from one technology to another, core technology that changes everything about they way they operate on a practical level, introduces a whole load of issues and fears, and just saying “you’re freer” will win you not votes.

Most people are actually absolutely fine with “software Freedom” and would gladly shy away from lock-in and software slavery dungeons of Windows and OS X – but if it means they’re out in the cold of Fedora or Trisqel to fend for themselves in a world they were never brought up in, they’re most gladly consciously choose their old masters. When you’re a slave of the castle, you can either keep serving or run away into the wilderness, hoping you have enough survival skills to patch wounds and pick the right berries, let alone stay safe from the wolves and the natural elements around you.

For me, Ubuntu (or rather, Xubuntu) is [an] answer. Ubuntu just being “Ubuntu OS” allows provider companies something to home in on. Those of us riding all manner of Linux – Fedora, Arch, Trisqel and the likes – can deal with hardware intricacies, repackaging Ubuntu-oriented packages and such; let software authors just focus on supporting “Ubuntu Linux” (and let’s ensure they do it as Open Source if not Free Software); and let members of the general public the option to say “I’m running Ubuntu.”

By letting average users just think in terms of a coherent brand, we can move them to a platform that prepares them that much more for Freedom, and improves the state of support for Linux as a whole, removing over time the practical barriers to adoption. Imagine the state of consumer desktops where Ubuntu has mostly replaced Windows, and where the average user still doesn’t know they’re using Linux. Imagine Canonical does something…. rash and unethical. The move from Ubuntu to Mint, CentOS or OpenSUSE is so much easier to do both from a “sell” point and a practical point of view, because we’re not switching the ecosystem. And to average users, this is seamless. There are no questions about supported apps or document compatibility.

Saying “I have an Ubuntu” allows us to know that it’s consumer. After all, we don’t ask Mac users to recognise they are running BSD, nor Windows users to know that their “NT kernel” is insecure.

Running “Linux” is still (and will probably always remain) a badge of technical honour. Saying one is running “Ubuntu Linux” is still running Ubuntu as a technician. Just let the average person have their plain “Ubuntu” and be happy.

About that: getting out of walled gardens by using Blockchain?

ReadWrite is runnning a piece touting Blockchain as the panacea to solving the problem of Walled Gardens (because these in themselves are somehow stifling innovation).

The article does a poor job as far as I can tell, from reading it and from seeing the comments, of linking the two aspects, and I had to read a bit further to understand why this is potentially a game changer. Personally, I’m not sure it is. Below is the comment I added to the article:

Blockchain is a protocol that ensures identification and integreity of a piece of data and its iteration in time.

Apps are created and delivered in a walled garden. Where’s the connection?

I did go and read some of the linked articles and I think I can see where this was meant to be going:

The idea is that we want to develop apps that can leverage the power of “App+Could” type systems – that is, having an app that accesses your data online – without seeing your data being siloed into that company’s server forever more.

For example, a notepad app, with lots of your notes in it, accessible from all of your devices (desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, watch, fridge [hey, you might have a shopping list note]). Your data is stored somewhere online, on some company’s cloud infrastructure, and all these apps query that company’s server.

Now if your data is in a peer-to-peer store, using a blockchain-encoded transaction to modify it, then its data is also distributed around the Internet, with changes in the data recognized and stored by the network. I guess the goal is to move the data to a truly disembodied cloud, and not just pigeon holes.

So you change a line in your shopping list on your fridge. The entire network validates this, changes the corresponding peered data, and that change is spread, verifying against the blockchain for the latest status. Your data is stored peer to peer, potentially anonymized and encrypted (ha!), and is resilient to deletion.

However we still have walled gardens where the actual apps have restrictions on their on-device functionality, and we cann’t necessarily control what servers they actually talk to. The reason apps are more interesting than mobile browsers is the interaction with the hardware on the device.

So it’s an interesting start, but so long as there are practical advantages of using an app, we won’t escaped walled gardens on mobile devices.

In the mean time, if you’re really concerned about walling, try open source, try full computers, and try the real world. We’re all over here making stuff. Innovating freely.

Don’t call it “Free Software”

[This is as much of an essay as it is a complete rant. Take with a teaspoon of salt ;-)]

Arguably the worst thing about Free Software is its name.

There is a perpetual need for its advocates and proponents, such as I, to repeatedly re-explain ad nauseam why we mean “freedom” and not “freebies” when we talk about Free Software.

Just mention “free software” to one uninitiated and they think “freebies.” They either systematically think about not having to pay for a full version of Photoshop or MS Windows, or if they’re more sapient they worry about get rich quick scams, too-good-to-be-true-alarm-bells ringing. They think “yeah, like, illegal downloads, right?”

All this because in his ideological genius, Our Beardy Leader decided to stick with a nomencalture he knew was confusing, all because he wanted to use the word “Free” in one sense, when the rest of the world understood it in the alternative sense.

Here’s the thing: “Free [Things]” has for decades, if not a century or two, meant specifically: [Things] for zeros dollars. It was there first. Vox populi (aided by decades of marketing).

What we’re trying to do here, in muscling the adoption of “Free Software” to mean anything other than “freeware,” is to try and change the popular definition of a word from a top-down, prescriptive stance, against the already perpetuated alternative definition.

For someone so hung up with words as to clearly advise against calling Free Software an “alternative,” “because it conveys the wrong idea,” Our Beardy Leader seems to be oblivious of the fact that to the common ear, “Free Software” (the idealogical kind) and “free software” (the freebie kind) are one and the same.

They are. They are free. Look up the dictionary definition, you’ll find “available at no cost.” The common person could care less about the alternative definition; if they got it for free, then they got it free. Free. “Gay” means homosexual today, the idea it originally conveyed of being joyous is relegated to the past, like it or not. Similarly, where “free” can indeed mean freedom, the “Free” in “Free Software” also conveys the wrong idea, but Our Beardy Leader isn’t complaining about that.

All our exasperated lot on the ground can do at best is preach to the choir that understands Free as in “free speech,” or come across as pontificating pedants when we patiently explain for the thousandth time that Free Software does not include the likes of Angry Birds Free Edition and the OS X Mavericks free upgrade.

If you need to explain even the name of something to mitigate against being lumped in with your adversaries, you’ve clearly done a bad job at barnding. Like a health food company naming itself after its founder, McDonell. “Unshackled Software” would be a much better name to pointedly insist on freedom. Unweildy perhaps, but it gets that idea of freedom accross WITHOUT lumping itself in with warez and no-dollars-but-pay-with-your-data kind of schenanigans we’re trying to get away from.

Our Beardy Leader bemoans how the Open Source camp “missed the point” but to be honest, they know this “Free/Free” malarky was just plain stupid; and when said Beardy Leader decided to denounce the use of “FOSS,” ugly acronym as it is, for being too on-the-fence, it was he who missed the point: the opportunity to recognize that “Free AND Open Source” could be taken, in the infancy of the term, to mean “both at once or not at all” in true programming spirit. But no, he chose to stay with the then still influenceable interpretation of it as a colloquial “union” operation instead of a conditional test.

Yes, in calling it “Free Software” Our Beardy Leader decided to go against the common person’s understanding of “Free;” but in talking about “Free And Open Source Software” he just let the common definition through!

So I’ll just call it FOSS, by which to mean “Free Open Source Software.” I think it is perfectly feasible, if not much more powerful, in getting the Freedom message accross, whilst at the same time minimizing the risk of being misconstrued.

Manjaro and the AUR


I’ve been working with Manjaro in a VM for a few weeks, which I use on my work laptop — I don’t want ot have my personal files and browsing history directly inside my work environment, so the VM stands in as my “home” machine when at work.

I’ve also given a friend an old laptop of mine on which I installed Manjaro 0.8.8 and for the most part, I think it has been fine (I checked up with her later, and she still didn’t have any help questions for me, so far so good then…)

Mostly, Manjaro works great out of the box. However there is one area I feel is not quite as smooth from an end-user perspective: the AUR. Read more

About that: Growing the Desktop Linux Community

I have a great interest in growing Desktop Linux as a community – being able to learn about the system and do all sorts of things with it is fine and dandy, but when you still have to deal with the Real World that uses closed source systems en masse, you find that your system is still a fringe consideration, not worthy of time and investment by others, with vendors only making software for the closed systems, and your knowledge only has limited use when helping your peers with desktop problems. I like helping my peers with the knowledge that I gain. And I’m sure that people I help are happy to have someone who can help them.

Over at OStatic, Jon Buys has written a piece calling on the community to stop bickering and getting into flame wars, and start bringing productive input to the table, so as to make the Linux Community a welcoming and intelligent place. I couldn’t agree more. But that alone will not swell our numbers. Read more

About that: why are we still writing programs using text-based languages?

PCPro.co.uk has an article on graphical programming

Programming is a fairly specialist activity, requiring a different manner of thinking to operate in. Some programming languages try to be friendly in terms of words, symbols and grammar used to write the code (syntax) – but it still tends to be an initial hurdle to get past.

An asker on Slashdot had the following question today:

“…why are we still writing text based code? Shouldn’t there be a simpler, more robust way to translate an algorithm into something a computer can understand? One that’s language agnostic and without all the cryptic jargon? It seems we’re still only one layer of abstraction from assembly code. Why have graphical code generators that could seemingly open coding to the masses gone nowhere?”

The /. editor added:

Of interest on this topic, a thoughtful look at some of the ways that visual programming is often talked about.

Here are my thoughts:

For the TL/DR: graphical programming is inefficient, and error prone; better methods of viewing source code during read-back is more interesting.

Read more

About that: Rich, Conceited and Alive – choose two.

Currently, Silicon Valley is looking more and more like the Third World: some extremely rich and showy people, and a lot of poverty, with no middle class.

One extremely rich chappy likened the rebellion of the poor against the rich to “a nazi rampage.”

In the comments section on Slashdot, one simple statement illustrated the balance perfectly:

I have lived in Brazil for quite some years now. Here the gap between rich and everyone else (there is no middle class here so to speak) is to such an extent that if you have money you are a target. This means that you must live in a gated community in constant fear that you or your kids might be kidnapped. You need to own a cheapo car so you won’t stand out too much when driving around. Of course you will have a nice car too, but this is only for weekends or maybe travel to places where other rich people go. In the end it is easy to become a prisoner of that wealth that is supposed to make you more free. I would prefer to live middle class in a 1st world country than rich in Brazil. The sad thing is that the erosion of the middle class in the 1st world countries means that they soon might resemble Brazil, and this is not good, even if you are rich.

Another commentator puts it quite bluntly.

When the poor start to starve, they will not die quietly, they will get violent. Keeping the masses reasonably well off is a good investment, even for the most psychopathic rich.

Remember what happened to the likes of Marie-Antoinette and Tsar Alexander.

History doomed to repeat and all that.

About that: Cracking down on sites like Ask.fm

A petition landed in my inbox today: “Shut down cyberbullying website, Ask.fm, in memory of Izzy Dix & 12 other teens globally

This is, alas, another misunderstanding of how websites work, but most importantly how social interactions, in general, work. I’m not saying that anyone is at moral fault in these cases; what I am concerned about is that the petition spreads the idea that any one site should be targeted for crackdown. Politicians can jump at this easily, scapegoat easily, and look like progress is being made. This is shortsighted, and ultimately leads us to rest on laurels until the next, identical, scandal arises.

(TLDR:) In brief, it’s not a crackdown on websites we need, but action on a large scale. We must be in control of the message that society projects to young people, the message must be on every wall a young person will see, and the message must be:

If you are a victim of BULLYING, it is never your fault, and you must always SPEAK UP immediately.

Read more for details. Read more

Response to: Foster Care After 18

The Guardian is reporting on new legislation for England where foster children will be allowed to continue to have foster parents until the age of 21, up from 18 previously.

This is not an effective solution to the core problem of dealing with adulthood, and an exposé of comments from some ex foster-children shows this: for those of us who are lucky to have our parents, they remain still our parents, whether we’re four, fourteen or forty. Read more

Response to: Will 2014 be the “year of the Linux Desktop”?

An open poll for opinions on Linux Voice.com asks whether the tired and still popular question “is 20XX going to be the year of the Linux Dsktop” is still relevant.

My take on it is as below – but in brief (TL;DR) it is no longer relevant technologically, it is relevant and in progress from an industrial point of view, and is is most definitely still relevant when it comes to users at home, with no technical skills. The question beyond that is, do we even want non-techies using Linux? Read more