Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Virtualizing Windows with VirtualBox

Many Linux users dual boot with Windows for various reasons. Usually it's either to ease the transition to a new operating system, allowing them to get used to Linux while still having the comfort of falling back on Windows, or because there are applications that don't have any good equivalents in Linux. I dual booted for years just because I had to support people with Windows systems.

Dual-booting does have it's disadvantages, though. The main one is that rebooting back and forth between operating systems wastes time, and prevents a smooth workflow. Virtualization technology allows you to run one operating system under another. Some of the advantages are that rebooting is no longer necessary, interactions between applications from different OSes are more integrated, such as copying and pasting, and you can, if you like, run multiple OSes at the same time.

There are disadvantages, however. Virtualization does take resources. Each additional OS will demand a certain amount of memory and hard drive space. Perhaps even more significant, from the point of view of the PC gamer, is the fact that as of now there is no reliable support for hardware accelerated 3D graphics.

VirtualBox runs on Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. It can run a variety of OSes as guests, and is quite easy to install and configure. I'm going to be focusing on using Ubuntu as the host system and Windows XP as the guest system, but except for installation the instructions should be similar for any system.

The following instructions are quite lengthy and might look intimidating to a new user, but once the install of VirtualBox is finished it's mostly just following wizards. Very simple, really.

If you're running Ubuntu it should be available for installing from your repositories in the usual way, but the VirtualBox site has more recent versions packaged for various distributions here. Once you download the .deb file, right click it and open it with gdebi.

There are a couple things that have to be done to prepare your system for running VirtualBox. We're going to use the command line to do this. First, you need to add yourself to the vboxusers group. This can be done graphically, but it's actually simpler to do in a terminal. Open a terminal (in Gnome it will be under Applications --> Accessories) and copy and paste the following, substituting your username for (username):

sudo gpasswd -a (username) vboxusers

Now we need to load the VirtualBox module with:
sudo modprobe vboxdrv
sudo chmod 666 /dev/vboxdrv

To ensure the module gets loaded everytime you reboot we're going to add the module to /etc/modules. In the terminal copy and paste:
gksu gedit /etc/modules

You will be asked for your password and a text editor will open. It should look similar to this, although the exact modules listed may not be identical:

# /etc/modules: kernel modules to load at boot time.
# This file contains the names of kernel modules that should be loaded

# at boot time, one per line. Lines beginning with "#" are ignored.



At the bottom of the list add vboxdrv and save the file.

Start VirtualBox, either through the menu or by typing virtualbox in the terminal. You should see a window that looks like this:

Click the "New" button at the top, and the "New Virtual Machine Wizard" will pop up. Click "Next", and you will see:

Name the new virtual machine anything you think is appropriate, and select the OS type you are going to install from the dropdown list.

Now you have to choose how much memory the guest system is going to use. You want enough memory to run XP with while leaving your host system with enough for it's needs. My machine has 2 GB of memory, so I was comfortable giving 512 MB to my virtual XP, but if you only have, for example, 512 MB on your computer you'll want to choose less. VirtualBox recommends 192 MB, but if you have to you could run XP with 128 MB, although it will be slow.

Click "Next". Now we have to make a virtual hard drive. Click the "New" button at the bottom of the window.

Another wizard pops up to help create the virtual disk. Click "Next" and you will see:

The explanations of the two disk types are clear. The dynamically expanding image is a little slower with disk writes until the image expands to it's maximum size, though. Choose one and click "Next".

Choose a file name for the image and the size of the virtual hard disk. VirtualBox recommends 10240 MB of space, which is about 10 GB, but if you're not planning on installing many applications you could get away with an image size of 2 GB for Windows XP. After clicking "Next" you will see a summary screen:

If you are happy with your settings click "Finish". We're back to this screen:

The virtual hard disk you just created should be already selected in the dropdown box. Click "Next" to get to the summary:

Click "Finish" to create your new virtual machine.

You will go back to the main window with your virtual machine in the left pane. Now we have to install the operating system. Click on your virtual machine and press "Start". You will be shown the "First Run" wizard which will help you choose how to install. You probably want to install from "CD/DVD-ROM Device", and select your drive from the drop-down list.

After clicking "Next" again insert your Windows XP installation disk and hit "Finish" on the screen that follows. Install Windows in the usual way.

We're still not quite done. Once Windows is installed you'll want to install the Guest Additions. This is a set of drivers and applications that allow for better mouse pointer integration, video support, shared clipboard between host and guest OSes, and shared folders to allow transfer of files between host and guest.

Click on "Devices" at the top of the window and choose "Install Guest Additions". Just follow the prompts and you'll be fine.

There are a couple of other tweaks you may want to make. Shut down Windows XP, and in the main "VirtualBox OSE" window select your virtual machine, then select "Settings". Here you can change things like the amount of memory used, media management, etc. Under the "Audio" tab you may want to enable sound. "Alsa Audio Driver" is probably your best bet for Host Audio Driver.

The "Shared Folders" tab will let you create a folder which you can transfer files between the host and guest OSes. In Windows XP you will access this folder as a network folder.

Hopefully I've covered most of the basics. There's lots more to play with, don't be afraid to experiment and try various options. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions please feel free to leave a comment or email me.

It's Been Too Long

Okay, after six months I guess you could say this blog had been abandoned. I've come back to visit, though. Hopefully I'll make more of a habit of it than I have in the past.

My sister finally decided to give Linux a try during my visit with her. She already uses cross-platform, open source applications for everyday use like Thunderbird, Firefox, and OpenOffice, so I though Linux would be a good fit. I installed Ubuntu, and made some recommendations for applications, although I did tell her there were usually many good alternatives for each task.

She likes Evolution for it's calendar, but when she tried the Evolution-RSS plugin it wouldn't work properly. It will download the feeds when first started up, but never updates them again. I've tried it on my system and the same thing happens, whether I use the plugin from the repositories or compile from source. I've suggested alternatives like Liferea for a stand-alone reader, or switching to Kontact, but I'm never happy with suggestions that say "use something else" rather than fixing the issue.

The one thing that seems to be holding her back from diving completely into Linux is the lack of a good blogging tool. She is a compulsive blogger and In Windows she uses BlogDesk, and I'm unable to find anything in Linux with the same functionality. I've tried getting it to run using Wine, but haven't been able to. Dual booting isn't practical, as she would have to reboot many times a day just to use one program.

Since Linux doesn't have a comparable tool (that I'm aware of), a virtualized Windows environment that she can run BlogDesk in seems to be the best solution. I've played around with VirtualBox, and I'm impressed with how easy it is to install, configure, and get running. Tomorrow I'll post a tutorial on how to get Windows XP running under Ubuntu Linux using VirtualBox.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Parrots and Hatchets

Found this here. For some reason it reminded me of my first date with an old girlfriend. I picked her up in my car, and she noticed a hatchet in the front seat. I won't go into why I had a hatchet in the front seat of the car (something to do with work), but more important is why I didn't move it somewhere else (I'm an idiot.)

Of course, she asked why I had a hatchet in the front seat of the car, and of course being a smartass I said something about bringing one on all my first dates. At the time I thought I was being funny, but looking back it was probably pretty creepy. Not creepy enough that it stopped her from seeing me again, though. That either says something about my charisma and charm, or her questionable taste in men.

Flagpole Sitta

Okay, I'm about a month behind on finding this one, but that's okay, because it's been about a month since I've posted.

Found this video of Harvey Danger's Flagpole Sitta at Vimeo, and it's a blast. It's just a group of people lip syncing to the song, but they're obviously having a lot of fun doing it. It helps that it's a great song, too.

Incidentally, in case you didn't know, Harvey Danger made their third album Little by Little available as a free download on their website. No, it's not the one with Flagpole Sitta, but it's a great album if you still haven't heard it.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Annotated How to Tell You're in Canada

Found this page at http://proudcanadiankids.ca/how_to_tell_you.htm, which apparently took the content from http://www.icomm.ca/emily/, but that doesn't exist anymore.

I found I was making comments about each item to myself, which only crazy people do, and decided that I was preparing for a blog post to share with others, which may or may not be crazy.

Some of the items are absolutely true, some are regional (Canada is huge, and there are cultural differences between different areas), some are true but trivial, and some I've never come across. I haven't bothered to research anything, so don't believe anything I say without checking it out for yourself. And don't read it expecting it to be funny. I don't feel very funny.

I've italicized my comments:

  • Everything is labelled in English and French.
This is true. Whenever anyone asks if I speak French I tell them, "Just cereal box French."
  • Everything is measured in metric. (No, the temperature does not drop fifty degrees when you cross the border, and the speed limit doesn't double.)
Mostly true. Some items in grocery stores are labeled with both metric and imperial measurements, and most measurements used in construction are imperial, using inches and feet instead of metres and centimetres. I have no "feeling" for Fahrenheit measurements, but tend to measure length and weight in feet/inches and pounds rather than metres/centimetres and kilograms.
  • Milk comes in plastic bags as well as in cartons and jugs.
I remember getting milk in bags years ago, but haven't seen it sold that way for a long time. This may be a regional thing, it may still be sold that way in the east.
  • There's hockey gear everywhere. A guy can get onto a bus wearing goalie pads, a helmet -- everything but the skates -- and nobody gives him a second look.
This is a little exaggerated. I don't remember ever seeing anyone wearing full hockey gear outside of a rink (and I live in Edmonton, which is a big hockey town), but it's not uncommon to see people carrying their gear around in hockey bags.
  • Restaurants serve vinegar with French fries.
Might be a regional thing again. I've eaten french fries with vinegar, but always have had to ask for vinegar, it's never been served automatically.
  • There are $1 and $2 coins. The paper currency is in different colors, and it's pretty.
True. I've heard lots of jokes from Americans about our "play money", but it's practical too. I can see at a glance whether I'm selecting a $20 or a $5 from my wallet without having to read the bill.
  • The Trans-Canada Highway -- Canada's analogue to the US Interstates -- is two lanes wide for most of its length. (There are great big huge wide highways around the major cities. The 401 north of Toronto is sixteen lanes wide in places.)
This always drove me crazy when driving out of town. The highway is divided close to major cities, but in-between cities it's two lanes.
  • There is still the occasional musical variety show on network TV, and such a show that was on until recently was hosted by a very, very large woman (Rita McNeil).
I have no real comment on this. I haven't watched a musical variety show in years and don't pay attention to see if any are still on. Although I'm not a fan of Rita McNeil's music, I think it's a good thing that a person with talent can have a successful (?) show, in spite of her weight. There are too many successful "artists" whose sole talent is their appearance.
  • The CBC's evening news anchor is bald and doesn't wear a toupee.
Peter Mansbridge. I've always respected him for not wearing a toupee, against (I'm sure) a lot of pressure. Baldness isn't a handicap or a disfigurement, and I'm more inclined to trust an anchor who doesn't hide himself under a wig than a smarmy hairsprayed mouthpiece.
  • When new coins are introduced to replace paper currency, people actually use the coins.
There are one dollar coins called "loonies" because there is a picture of a loon on them, and two dollar coins called "toonies" because, well, "toonie" rhymes with "loonie." If you don't manage your change it can get away from you. Once I noticed the change in my pocket was getting a little heavy. I had over $50 in loonies, toonies, and quarters.
  • Contests run by anyone other than the government have "skill-testing questions" that winners must answer correctly before they can claim a prize. These are usually math problems, and are administered to get around the law that only the government can administer lotteries.
Even contests on the radio have to have skill testing questions, although these are usually lame trivia questions rather than math questions.
  • Lots of people run around in clothing from Roots.
I suppose, although being fashion blind I haven't really noticed. No different than anyone else paying to wear advertisements for any other clothing brand in any other country. Instead of having to pay thousands of dollars to get their name out, clothing companies have the consumer pay them for the privilege of displaying their brand. I really identified with the main character in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, who was "allergic" to brand names.
  • The following gas stations are around (and don't exist in the US):
    • Esso (instead of Exxon -- a visitor suggests "Esso" comes from the "S" and the "O" of Standard Oil)
    • Petro Canada
    • Irving (only in eastern Canada, and a visitor advises me that there's now at least one in Maine)
    • Canadian Tire
    • Husky
    • Mohawk (primarily in western Canada)
I would add Domo to the list as well, although I think it's only in western Canada. And they already mention that Irving, which I've never heard of, is only in the east. Irving is a terrible name for a company.
  • These are the biggest department stores:
    • The Bay (the Hudson's Bay Company, the oldest company in North America and possibly the world -- it was incorporated on May 2, 1670)
    • Eaton's (Toronto, Montréal, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver are among the cities that have large malls called the Eaton Centre (Centre Eaton in French)). Eaton's has been having financial troubles for several years now, and finally closed a number of its stores and sold the rest to Sears Canada.
    • Zellers -- owned by the Bay, Zellers is similar to KMart (which recently pulled out of Canada) or Target (which isn't in Canada at all).
This is dated. Eaton's Centre in Edmonton has been renamed City Centre or something like that, and as far as I know Sear's has given up on using the Eaton's name. There are no more Eaton's stores. As far as I know.
  • These are the big banks:
    • Toronto Dominion
    • Bank of Montreal
    • Royal Bank
    • The Bank of Nova Scotia
    • Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC)
    • The National Bank of Canada
    • The HongKong Bank of Canada
    • Canada Trust (actually a trust company, but offers the same services that a bank does)
    These banks are national and have branches all over the country. One sure sign you're in Canada: the federal government has blocked two big bank mergers (the TD wanted to merge with CIBC, and BMo wanted to merge with the Royal), ostensibly because reduced competition is bad for Canadians. Wow.

    Credit unions are also popular in Canada, especially in Quebec, where they're called caisses populaires.

Again, a little dated. Toronto Dominion merged with Canada Trust to become TD Canada Trust. Not interesting, but true.
  • These are the most well-known Canadian restaurant chains:
    • Harvey's -- fast food burger joint
    • Mr. Sub -- similar to Subway
    • The Keg (Le Keg en français) -- a big, high-end yet still generic steakhouse
    • Pizza Pizza -- similar to Domino's
    • Tim Horton's -- do(ugh)nuts! See below.
    • Swiss Chalet -- sit-down chicken and ribs place
    • Robin's -- another do(ugh)nut chain, popular in western Canada.
I had forgotten about Robin's. I'm not sure they even exist anymore, I haven't seen a store here for a long time, and I know they ran into financial trouble a while ago. Pizza Pizza is only back east; I ran into them for the first time when I was in Toronto.
  • The big mass-market beers are Molson and Labatt, and they're a lot stronger than US beers. Molson Golden was recently reintroduced to the Canadian market, but I hardly ever see anyone drinking it -- I get the feeling Molson ships most of it to the States and tells the Americans it's good.
True, but beer snobs won't drink beer from either of them. They buy from small brewing companies until they find out they're also owned by Molson or Labatt.
  • The major cigarette labels are Player's, Craven A, DuMaurier, Matinee, and Export A. Canadian cigarettes are milder than American ones.
True story. Got into a truck with a friend, sniffed, and asked, "Did you fart?" Turns out he was smoking an American cigarette. Marlboros, I think.
  • Mountain Dew has no caffeine.
Ya, but so what? I don't demand that my soft drinks contain caffeine, and probably wouldn't notice whether they did or not.
  • Coke and Pepsi use real sugar instead of corn syrup.
I'm sure there are people who will claim that this makes a big difference, but most people wouldn't be able to tell without reading the ingredients. I've heard it has something to do with how the US taxes sugar, but I don't know for sure.
  • Instead of seeing Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores, you see Coles and SmithBooks and Chapters and Indigo.
True, but boring.
  • There are lots and lots of do(ugh)nut shops, especially ones called Tim Horton's (named after the hockey player who started the chain). (The number of Tim Horton's diminishes as you go further west, but I'm assured there are lots of them in Edmonton.)
There are lots of them in Edmonton. I've worked with guys who knew the location of every single Tim Horton's in Edmonton, and there was always one near by when it was time for coffee.
  • When you step on someone's foot, he apologizes. (This really happened.)
This is a comment on Canadian politeness. I've never run into a situation like this, but perhaps people are generally politer here than elsewhere. I haven't really noticed. For every comment on how polite Canadians are, though, I can come up with a story on how rude they are. Canadians are just people.
  • There are billboards advertising vacations in Cuba, and Cuban cigars are freely available.
I guess it might be odd for an American to see. I guess Canada sees no need to ape a pointless embargo. I wish we thought the same way for other pointless American policies. Like moving up stupid Daylight Savings Time.
  • Nobody worries about losing a life's savings or a home because of illness.
They're talking about Canada's publicly funded health care system as opposed to the American private health insurance system. If a person can't work because of illness and has no long term disability coverage, they can still have financial difficulties, although it's not the problem I've heard it can be in the States.
  • In pharmacies, you can buy acetaminophen or ASA with codeine over the counter, but you can't buy hydrocortisone ointments or creams without a prescription.
Not sure this is something that will leap out at a new visitor, I've never noticed, but sure.
  • When you go to the dentist to get a cavity filled (or worse), she or he puts a needle in your mouth first to "freeze" it. (Asking for Novocaine (a brand name) immediately pegs you as an American.)
What do they do in the States? Is Novocaine administered topically? Rectally? I've never had to ask for any kind of anaesthetic, let alone by brand name. If a dentist approaches me with her tools of destruction without giving me anaesthetic first, I leave. Quickly.
  • At county fairs and the Canadian National Exhibition, red ribbons indicate first place and blue ribbons indicate second. (Canadians: it's the other way around in the States.)
Okay. Don't care.

Submitted by visitors:
  • Any conversation will inevitably include a brief discussion of the weather.
Weather is a large source of small talk, but isn't that true anywhere?
  • It's almost impossible to get a glass of iced tea in downtown Toronto. (This person must have been a Southerner -- in the US South, "iced tea" is unsweetened, and "sweet tea" has sugar. "Sweet tea" is what you get when you ask for "iced tea" in Toronto.)
I don't think it would be easy to get unsweetened iced tea anywhere around here. I remember ordering iced tea in Las Vegas and getting unsweetened iced tea. No big deal, I just added sugar. I also had a jar of unsweetened instant tea in the cupboard when I had a roommate. He tried some and complained to me later about how it wasn't sweetened. For some reason it didn't occur to him that if something wasn't sweet enough you could add sugar to it.
  • Teenagers can drink legally. The drinking age in Quebec, Manitoba, and Alberta is 18; it's 19 in the rest of the country.
Yup, and when they drink they act like drunk teenagers. I did, anyway.
  • Potato chips come in flavo(u)rs such as salt and vinegar, ketchup, and "all dressed" (a collection of just about all possible seasonings -- the person who suggested this one liked it to a "suicide slush" in the States).
Do potato chips not come flavoured in the States, or just not these particular flavours? Ketchup chips are disgusting (if you like I'll show you lab results and studies proving it), and I've never been a big fan of salt and vinegar. Now you know a little more about me.
  • There are "chip vans" (aka "chip trucks" or "chip wagons"). These are like the van driven by the ice cream man, only they sell French fries. They are most ubiquitous on the roads to "cottage country." (A visitor from British Columbia noted that "chip trucks" don't sell French fries in BC; they drive on logging roads and carry wood chips there.)
I don't often see these, although there is one that makes an appearance during downtown festivals.
  • Every weekend during the summer, southern Ontarians go in droves from Toronto and its environs to their second homes (ranging from campers to great big houses with all the amenities) in cottage country (usually Muskoka -- I'm told that calling it "the Muskokas" marks you as an outsider).
No, the southern Ontarians that can afford second homes go in droves. I'd like to believe that every Canadian family can afford a cottage on the lake, but it's not true. Every region has it's popular getaway spots, and this is a "How to Tell You're in Southern Ontario" bit, not Canada.
  • Every weekend during the summer, southern Quebecers go in droves from Montréal and its environs to their cottage country (usually the Laurentians; the Eastern Townships; Burlington, Vermont; Lake Champlain, New York; or Plattsburgh, New York).
See the above comment. Same idea.
  • Every weekend during the winter, the cottage country people go back to cottage country to go snowmobiling. Gas stations are just as likely to be filling snowmobiles as cars or trucks.
Yup. Canada has snow, and we like to play in it.
  • Cars (especially on the Prairies) have electrical plugs sticking out from under the hoods. These are for block heaters, to prevent engines from freezing when it's -40.
It doesn't often get to -40 C around here, but even at -20 C it's a good idea to have your car plugged in.
  • People give distances in times, not miles.
Never noticed this. Might be a rural thing, and I'd bet it's not limited to Canada.
  • People ask whether you'd like "a coffee" rather than "some coffee."
Sure. Who cares?
  • Canadians tend to use British spelling. They write about "colour," "cheques," "theatres," and so forth. Most use the American "-ize" rather than the British "-ise" verb ending, however.
Canadians tend to use Canadian spelling, which tends to the British but contains some American.
  • People drive with their headlights on during the day. Since 1989, all new cars have had to be fitted with daytime running lights.
I'm surprised they don't do this in the States yet. It does increase visibility, and decreases accidents. I've heard of cars from Canada getting stopped by troopers because the lights were on. This was a few years ago, I hope at least the border states have caught on.
  • In Ontario, you can buy beer only at the Beer Store (formerly known as "Brewers' Retail"). The experience of going into a beer store is documented nicely in the 1983 film Strange Brew.
Again, "How to Tell You're in Ontario."
  • Movie theatres have one night a week, usually Monday or Tuesday, where they charge matinee prices.
It used to be a really good deal. We used to call them "$2.50 Tuesdays," which had a nice ring to it. Now it's not that big of a discount (even considering inflation.)
  • There is no mail delivered on Saturdays.
Or Sunday. Or holidays.
  • "Lieutenant" is pronounced "leftenant."
That's the official pronunciation, but I've never heard anyone in real life actually use it, even those in the Armed Forces.
  • Mortgage interest is not tax-deductible. The interest rate on most mortgages is not fixed, but rather, is renewed at the end of a term which can be as short as six months or as long as seven years.
Wow. I used to work at a bank and dealt a lot with mortgages, and I still don't care.
  • Most Canadians will tell you that the last letter of the alphabet is pronounced "zed." Sharon, Lois, and Bram, popular children's entertainers, make it a point in their performances of "The Alphabet Song" to say "zed" instead of "zee."
This throws some Americans. Don't worry though, we still say Jay-"Zee" and "Zee-Zee" Top.
  • People end sentences with "eh," eh?
Ahh, good old Bob and Doug McKenzie. We also wear toques to funerals (well, actually, we might if it were really cold) and drink beer for breakfast.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Free Ebooks: Part One

Electronic text isn't new to any of us. You're reading it right now. Paper books have a lot of advantages over electronic text, though. Paper books are usually easier to read, with higher contrast and less glare issues than etext, making them better suited for longer works such as novels. Power isn't much of an issue. Anywhere there's light, you can read. And they are sturdier and cost less than any electronic device you own. Drop a book, no big deal. Drop your Palm, well, that'll be a few bucks to replace it. Get your book wet, well, it sucks, but at least you can let it dry out and keep reading. Get your laptop wet, time to buy a new laptop. Even just the physical act of holding a book, flipping the pages, admiring the cover art, is better than reading text from an LCD screen.

Where ebooks have a large advantage over traditional paper books is portability. I used to have to go out of town a lot on business, and read a lot in the evening at the hotel (I don't watch much TV) and, let's face it, at work when it was slow. Instead of lugging around a number of books in my suitcase I was able to take literally dozens of novels with me in my Palm. My Palm is also something I have with me most of the time, so when it looks like I'm going to be waiting for a while I can take it out and read any time I want to. I tend not to have a book with me when going places simply because of lack of space. Maybe if I carried a purse...

In part one I'm going to point out some places where you can find free ebooks, and in part two you'll find some tools for converting files into a format your Palm can read. If you don't have a Palm, or don't want to read on it, that's fine. You can still find out where to do some great reading.

While reading this, you will find that I tend to point out science fiction books and authors more than other genres. This is for two reasons: I read a lot of science fiction, so I have a preference for it, and the science fiction and fantasy community has embraced the concept of free ebooks more so than others. That's not to say other genres aren't available, especially in the public domain, but for some reason science fiction and fantasy authors are in the forefront of experimenting with giving away their products.

I'll point out the granddaddy of ebooks first: Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg has over 20,000 free ebooks that have fallen into the public domain. This means that most of them are older titles, but they're not all Shakespeare or H. G. Wells. You can find stories from authors like Cory Doctorow,E. E. "Doc" Smith, John W. Campbell, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. I also enjoyed a couple of non-fiction books on real life hackers by Bruce Sterling and Suelette Dreyfuss. Browsing through the Gutenberg Project's collection is like wandering through a second hand book store, finding classics that you had forgotten about or always meant to read. The frustrating thing is that you will never have the time to read everything you find interesting here.

The Baen Free Library offers free science fiction and fantasy ebooks by contemporary authors such as Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Michael Flynn, Andre Norton, Harry Turtledove, Fred Saberhagen, Mercedes Lackey, and more. There is also an excellent essay on the front page by Eric Flint, First Librarian, on the rationale behind the Baen Free Library. Keep in mind that while the books are available online for free, they are not public domain. The copyrights still belong to the authors.

Manybooks.net contains many of the same public domain books as the Gutenberg Project, but also has many Creative Commons licensed ebooks available for free as well. You'll see science fiction authors Charles Stross and James Patrick Kelly here, along with many others. Creative Commons licenses vary, but they generally allow free distribution with restrictions on how the content can be used. You can read more about Creative Commons licenses here.

In part two of this article I'll show you how to make your own ebooks by converting web pages into a format that can be read by your Palm. While almost any web page can be converted, I'll show you some of my favourite sites for reading fiction. Please feel free to share your own favourites in the comments, or email me with suggestions.

Flurb is Rudy Rucker's free online magazine showcasing short stories by him and other authors. Many of the stories are hard to classify although they are generally of a science fiction or fantasy bent. Rucker's almost random, but fantastic, photographs accompany them. There are currently two issues published, with stories by John Shirley, Terry Bisson, Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, and others.

Strange Horizons is published weekly, concentrating on speculative fiction. Art, fiction, columns, poetry, and reviews make this site a great place for entertainment and information.

While not regularly updated anymore, The Infinite Matrix still has a great archive of original science fiction. The last issue was in January, 2007, and the site has been in and out of limbo before that. Hope it comes back, as it is an excellent example of what an online magazine can be.

In part two of this article I'll show you what to use to read ebooks on your Palm device.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Stupid Canadian Broadcasters

And not just broadcasters, but apparently artists as well. Michael Geist has written another great article titled "More Web regulation doesn't make any sense", on how Canadian broadcasters and artists want the CRTC to regulate the internet to protect Canadian content. To be fair, it may not be all artists or broadcasters, but the organizations that represent them sure want it.

There's not much I can add to what he said. His line "It is increasingly clear that the blossoming of new media is a threat to old business models, not to Canadian content" sums it up very clearly.

The internet is a huge opportunity for Canadian broadcasters, if they would only take it. They have the ability to put up all the Canadian content they want. I've written before about how CTV is turning away Linux and Mac users from viewing online material and making it difficult for Firefox users. I've also written about the CBC wanting to DRM promotional videos. CBC doesn't make it easy to link to individual videos, and won't even allow people to embed their Google videos in their websites.

That's a little like a real estate salesman talking to his boss:

"Uh, boss, you know all those flyers for new homes I've been passing out? People are copying them and passing them out to other people. How do we stop them?"


"Yes boss?"

"You're not very bright, are you?"

They aren't even doing the simplest things like using the internet to make it easy for people to find out what's on and where. The webmaster of TV, Eh?, an independant website dedicated solely to promoting Canadian television, has difficulty finding listings or getting the PR people to email her listings.

They don't know how to use the internet, but it scares them, so they want to limit how we use it.

In his first published story Life-Line, published in 1939, Robert Heinlein had a judge saying this:

There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profits in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute or common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back, for their private benefit.
Now that was a judge with common sense. Unfortunately he's a fictional character.

That's not to say I think the CRTC is going to try to regulate Canadian content on the internet. I'm hoping there are some people with enough common sense to realize how ridiculous these demands are. I'm just a little tired of old dinosaurs trying to stop progress, instead of using it for their advantage.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Non-Destructive Partitioning with GParted

"Grandpa, tell me a story."

"Okay, little Percival, let me tell you what partitioning was like in the old days. If you already had information on your hard drive, but wanted to re-partition it, all your data would be erased. There were programs available that would partition your drive without erasing all your stuff, but they cost money."

"Gee, Grandpa, that story sure did suck."

It's true. That story did suck. But it's also true that, unless you really, really knew what you were doing and were willing to spend a lot of time on it, repartitioning your hard drive would destroy your data. Commercial programs were (and still are) available to partition your drive without data loss, but they cost money. If repartitioning your hard drive is something you only do once in rare while (and for most of us it is) free tools may be a better option.

Let's back up a bit. What is partitioning and why would you want to repartition? In the simplest terms, partitions are separate areas on your hard drive. In Windows a single hard drive can be partitioned to look like separate drives, so that what appears to be drive C:, drive D:, and drive E: may all be separate areas of a single physical drive. In Linux they may appear as hda1, hda2, and so on. There are many reasons why a hard drive may be partitioned, but a very common one is to keep the operating system and user data separate. In this way if the operating system is to be upgraded or restored the user's data doesn't have to be touched, lessening the risk of data loss. Another reason is to control damage from runaway files. In Linux most log files are kept in the /var folder. Sometimes servers are set up to put /var in a separate partition. If a runaway process starts filling up a log file it can only fill up the partition /var is on, leaving the free space on the other partitions untouched.

GParted is a free utility that allows you to partition your hard drive without destroying your data. It is a Linux program, but can be used to partition filesystems for Windows (FAT16, FAT32, NTFS) and Mac OS X (HFS, HFS+) as well. A full listing of the filesystems and operations available can be found here.

GParted does many checks and is very safe, but keep in mind that the partitioning process is only non-destructive if everything goes well. I think GParted says it best with the message it gives you if you try to run as a regular user:

Always back up your data before major operations on your hard drive.

Even if you're not running Linux on your computer, you can still use GParted by booting from the LiveCD. The LiveCD is a small image (about 50 MB) that contains a stripped down version of the Gentoo Linux operating system, the Fluxbox window manager, and GParted. It's probably the easiest way to partition your hard drive, as you won't have to worry about unmounting partitions. It is dangerous to modify a mounted partition, and using the LiveCD ensures all partitions are unmounted unless you explicitly mount them.

Download the iso image and burn it to a CD. If you're running Windows your CD burning program should have an option to "Burn Image to Disc" or something similar. Don't just burn it as a data disk; it won't work. In Linux, if you're using Gnome, just right click the iso image and select "Write to Disc." With KDE right click the image and select "Actions," then "Write CD Image with K3B." Burn the CD, put it in the CD tray, and reboot.

You'll see a screen like this:

Just select the first option (GParted LiveCD) with the arrow keys and press Enter. You'll be prompted to hit Enter a couple more times to accept the default language and keyboard template. Once the boot process is complete you will see this:

A list of partitions on your hard drive will be listed. Mine looked like this:

I have four partitions on one hard drive: hda1, hda2, hda3, and hda4. Only four primary partitions are allowed on a single hard drive, so hda4 is made as an extended partition, with hda5 and hda6 under it. Don't worry too much about what extended partitions are. They are primary partitions that are partitionable, allowing you to fit more than four partitions on a single hard drive.

My problem was that the partition my operating system was on, hda2, was too small at about 5 GB. I wanted it to be twice that size. I needed to take some space from my data partition, hda3, and give it to my operating system. The first thing I needed to do was resize the data partition, hda3. Highlight the partition you want to shrink, and click Resize/Move. You will see a graph representing the partition, as well as some fields telling you how much space available. We have the option of freeing up space either before or after the partition. The partition we want to give the space to (hda2) is before, so grab the left arrow with the mouse and move it until enough space is freed.

We've moved the arrow until about 5 GB is freed in front. The new free space is represented by the gray area directly to the left of the the arrow. Rather than moving the arrow, you could also have entered the amount of space you wanted directly into the "Free Space Preceding" form.

Click the Resize/Move button.

Now let's select the partition we want to enlarge, hda2. Click Resize/Move, and there will be a window similar to what we've seen before. We want to use the freed space immediately following the partition, so grab the right arrow and pull it all the way to the right.

You will see the extended graph cover all the available space, with the new space being about twice as large as it was before.

Again, click Resize/Remove.

Now that we've told GParted what to do, we're going to tell it to go ahead and do it. Click on Apply, and you'll see a final warning:

If you're sure you've backed up all your data and that you want to do this, click Apply.

Using a graphical tool like GParted hides a lot of the complexity of partitioning. The first operation we asked it to do, freeing up space in front of the partition, actually involves resizing and moving the partition. A lot of data has to be checked and copied, so it takes some time. For this operation, resizing two partitions by 5 GB and moving one, it took a little over two hours. Operations involving moving more data and more partitions will take longer.

Now you can tell your grandchildren about how easy free software made it to repartition your hard drive. Your stories will still suck, but at least your data is safe.

I'm back

Well, I've had internet access since last Wednesday. I have a few articles I want to get out, I just need to actually get them written. I've just posted a book review I've been meaning to write for a while, I have the first part of a two part article on ebooks written, and I'm waiting for an article called Non-Destructive Partitioning with GParted to get published by blogcritics before posting it here. Yes, it's nearly as exciting as it sounds. Might be a while before I get more articles dugg.

As I said before, I want to write on some of the more advanced features of DVDStyler's beta version, and have everything I need for it now. I just need to do some screenshots and write the article. I would like to try doing something with QDVDAuthor as well. It has some really neat features, but the UI is such a mess. I'll do a project on it and see how it goes.

I also have five other articles that I've started and put aside for a while, one on choosing a linux distro, one on getting help online, another on the MPAA and RIAA (I really need to get that one out), and one on setting up an internet radio station. I've never actually done the last part, so I suppose I should do it before publishing an article on it.

There's one more book review to get out as well, a technical book on programming in Ajax with Ruby. I'm still slogging through it, though. Not exactly light reading. Probably be a couple more weeks.

I mentioned to my sister that there are too many distractions on the computer to focus on one thing. I need separate rooms with separate devices, one for blogging, one for taking internet courses, one for replying to emails, one for taking care of the server and websites... Which reminds me, I've been thinking about an article on internet courses. There are some great free places to learn. There are some terrible places as well, but it would be a waste to write about them.

I've noticed Diane has been going YouTube crazy lately, and making my blog look drab and uninteresting. It's only because I don't have any interesting content though, otherwise it would be fascinating. So I'm posting a YouTube video too. So there!

Book Review: Saban and the Ancient by Dante Amodeo

Saban is a dork on a mission. Well, dork is probably too strong a word. "Socially challenged" is a gentler way to put it. Saban is the protagonist in Dante Amadeo's Saban and the Ancient, and even though you find out pretty early that he's not an ordinary teenager, you still don't find out just how special he is until much later on.

Saban and the Ancient is the first book in Amodeo's Transformation series. It is aimed at young adults but should be enjoyable by everyone. It's full of slowly revealed mysteries that lead to other mysteries, paramilitary action, martial arts, and mutant super powers. The action starts quickly after we find Saban, a nineteen year old college student, and his study partner Margo in the middle of an apparent military strike against the school. The action that follows shows that Margo is also unusually capable, More is revealed later, but not all.

The book is a progression of mysteries. As you find out more about the characters and their histories, more questions are introduced. The answers to those questions reveal more mysteries. You slowly start seeing the edges of a large conspiracy, then get a feeling of multiple conspiracies plotting against each other. Parts of Saban's past, present, and information about the organization he belongs to, the Ancient, are parceled out piece by piece, giving a good sense of discovery. Questions are raised about Margo, who is more than she seems to be. Nobody has a complete picture of the situation, but everybody seems to have a part of it.

Other people involved in Saban's life are introduced and fleshed out, many of whom have their own special abilities. Amodeo has chosen to give many of the characters code names in addition to their real names, a tactic that could have been confusing. He does a good job of helping the reader keep track of which character belongs to which code name, however.

Lots of pop references and quotes riddle the book. Some I found genuinely funny -- "An accent that thick was normally peppered with the words 'moose and squirrel'" made me laugh out loud. Some fell flat -- "Your mother waz a kangaroo and your fath-air smelt of elderberries" sounded just wrong to me, even knowing it was changed to refer one of the characters' abilities. Everyone will recognize at least some of the references, and most people will get a chuckle or two from them.

Occasionally the author seems to use characters to push his own views, and it's done clumsily enough to seem preachy. A couple of times the characters make references to evolution -- "'Mutation has never produced a generation more robust or viable than the previous,' Saban recited from something he had read. 'People confuse it with adaptation'" seems to need more explanation than a college student blindly quoting from an unknown source, and "That kind of randomness makes evolution look mathematically sound" sounded more like the author speaking than something a teenage character might say. It might have made an interesting discussion into how they got their powers, but we'll probably get that in one of the following books. He also has a character thinking "The price of being one of the cool kids" about an aged Slavic agent's smoker's cough. Being a "cool kid" doesn't really seem to fit an old Russian spy, and it ends up sounding like a public service announcement.

The author explains terms the reader might not be familiar with, especially the military jargon, such as P. E. for "personal effects." He's not afraid to use unusual words in a context that makes their meanings clear however, like "syzygy" and "sternutation" (which I thought was a reference to Frederick Pohl's Heechee Saga series, but it wasn't. Or maybe it was.)

Saban and the Ancient is an enjoyable read that could have used a little more polish. By the end of the book enough is shown about the big picture to be satisfying, yet enough questions are left unanswered to leave you wanting more. I'm sure the next book will answer many of those questions while posing others.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

No Internet for Days

I'm going to be switching internet providers, and I can't have one set up before the other takes over. So my current provider should be disconnecting me tomorrow, but that's a Sunday so I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't until Monday.

Then I have to call the new provider to hook me up. I'd be very surprised if they were able to do it in a day. Two or three days is more what I'm expecting.

That's like going two or three days without food. It can certainly be done, but it's not something you do without a good reason, it won't be any fun, and I'll be miserable.

If I have time before my internet goes dark I want to post on the beta DVDStyler 1.5, and go into a little more detail than I went into on my Free Movies post. Some very nice stuff can be done with it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Installing and Upgrading and Repartitioning, Oh My

Decided it was time to repartition my hard drive, to take advantage of a rarely used NTFS partition, and to finally give my /home directory it's own place. Normally I'd save excitement like this for a Saturday night, but I have a day off work and thought I'd save Saturday for the girlfriend. Time will tell if I made the right decision.

If I'm going to repartition, I might as well upgrade my Ubuntu Edgy Eft to the new Feisty Fawn. Did a lazy backup of my home directory, just copied it over to a FAT32 partition on the same hard drive. For some reason my emails wouldn't copy over, possibly due to some FAT32 naming restrictions (they had names similar to 1165045363.8505.rPeh8:2,S.) Didn't feel like burning them to a DVD, so I just transferred them over to the server with sftp (Thanks Mom!)

Downloaded the image for Feisty, burned it, put in in the DVD tray, and rebooted. The cd comes as a live CD, like Edgy and Dapper. I didn't use the live CD when I upgraded to Dapper or Edgy, I just did a sudo /usr/bin/update-manager -c -d. Ubuntu used to have a text installer, which I actually liked. It wasn't as pretty as a gui, but it was fast and simple.

I used Dapper's live CD on my mother's computer, but wasn't really happy with the results. It was dog-slow, and I was wishing for the good old days of the text installer. On my computer, though, I was pleasantly surprised. It ran very smoothly, and aside from a few short freezes as the cd was accessed I couldn't tell it was a live cd. The difference is probably in the memory-- I have 512 MB, and she has 384. That extra 128 MB made a huge difference. By the way, Ubuntu installed fine on her computer, except it doesn't like her on-board Intel graphics. Right now she's stuck with 640 x 480 resolution, which just won't do the trick. I'm going to pick her up an nVidia card and give it another shot.

Used Ubuntu's disk partitioner to manually repartition my drive, I think it uses GParted. I don't use the default partitioning offered, I never really trust it, on any distribution. Selected the partitions I wanted manually, which was pretty easy. Installed Feisty and I'm now just installing programs and tweaking things to my liking.

I notice there's a "Restricted Drivers Manager" menu item. It seems to just be to install the nVidia drivers. It's normally easy enough to do from Synaptic, but it doesn't hurt to have an easy to find place to do it, I guess. There's also a "Desktop Effects" item, which also wants to install the nVidia drivers. That will enable Compiz, a compositing window manager. That just means your desktop have some neat effects, like transparency and wiggly windows and such. I'll give it a shot, but I was pretty happy with Beryl.

Apparently Feisty will offer to download the codecs needed to play multimedia files as well, like DivX or mp3. In the past you either had to download them yourself (not too tough, I think it was one or two packages from Synaptic), or use something like EasyUbuntu or Automatix. I'll see how that works.

Anyway, so far everything is working smoothly. Ubuntu set up my desktop resolution automatically with no problems, the nVidia driver is now installed and working, and the desktop effects are enabled. Just a matter of replacing my backup files, installing all the programs I like, and tweaking my desktop. Fun stuff. Saturday night has a lot to live up to.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Stupid Cat

Middle of the night, and the cat reminds me he's out of food. He's very good about it, doesn't meow or howl, just runs to his food dish and looks up at me.

Okay, stupid me. I knew he was out, and was going to pick some up earlier today, only I forgot.

I switched shifts with a co-worker, and have to start work at 10:00 AM tomorrow. I know. Boo-hoo. But that's 4 hours earlier than I normally start. That's like 4:00 AM or 5:00 AM to most people.

Now I have to make a decision. Knowing that he won't die if he doesn't have food for the next, oh, 22 hours, and that I have to try to sleep tonight or I'll be completely zoned tomorrow, do I make the run out in the rain to 7-11 to buy a small box of $22.00 cat food, or do I let him stick it out?

Yes, I made the right decision. He doesn't know or care if I don't feel like running out and getting wet and overpaying for cat food. He just knows his tummy is hungry.

What he doesn't know is that I'm going to rent him out for lab experiments to make up for the inconvenience.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Stupid CBC

My sister sent a link to Inside the CBC, apparently CBC's blog, which I didn't even know existed. Turns out they want to put DRM on their video clips here. First off, why are they worried about people pirating their little video snippets? Some would consider it promotion. I think before they start worrying about piracy they have to get people who want to watch their stuff first.

They also want opinions on whether DRM would be okay on full episodes of shows. Instead of giving you just my opinion, I'll give you samples of the comments left so far. They show that the public, or at least those that are inclined to leave comments on CBC's blog, are far more educated about DRM than I would have expected:

angrytrousers says: "All it seems to accomplish is to make the experience more annoying for Joe Consumer..."

From William Denton: "CBC should use open formats, without DRM, that anyone on any platform can use."

Dwight Williams: "I’ve considered myself lucky to have narrowly avoided such “guilt presumed from the moment of legit purchase/download” bullets messing up my computer gear so far."

Evan Young has an excellent suggestion: "A more progressive and community supportive stance would be to license your material under a Creative Commons license so that CBC fans like myself could share and promote your material freely but CBC would retain the right to prevent commercial use and disallow modification of it’s content."

Luke is the sole supporter (so far), and even he's lukewarm about it: "I’m not a fan of DRM generally, but if it would allow full shows to be made available online…"

The problem CBC is having isn't with piracy, it's with getting people to watch their damn shows. Why are they spending our tax money on a solution that will make it more difficult for people to see their shows, and will do nothing to stop piracy?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

On Canadian Authors and Meaningless Labels

My review on Fast Forward 1 got a comment from A. M. Dellamonica, author of one of the stories in the book, Time of the Snake. She gave a link to the first story she had published about the squids at Strange Horizons. Read the brief bio at the bottom of the page, and was pleasantly surprised to find out she was Canadian. Not only that, but she lives in Vancouver, right next to my sister.

It's neat to find out an author that I like is Canadian (I enjoyed her story in Fast Forward 1, and found out after I wrote the review that I had also read a story of hers in one of David Hartnell's Year's Best SF anthologies, Slow Day at the Gallery, which I also enjoyed). I'm not sure why I find it to be important. I've never really been very nationalistic or patriotic.

Of course, the Canadianness of the author isn't nearly as important as the quality of the story she writes. Years ago I bought the first of the Tesseracts anthologies, a collection of speculative fiction by Canadian authors. I've learned to hate the term speculative fiction. It's an ugly phrase, and nearly meaningless. I also found out that I didn't enjoy most of what Canadian authors were publishing, and decided it was a silly and artificial classification to base a book on. Now I see that it's an important jump start for authors that might otherwise not get a chance to see print, but I've grown wiser since then.

Canada tends to lay claim to anyone who passes near the border. I've read about how Alexander Graham Bell was Canadian, when he really only passed through here on his way to the U. S. There was a time when every article about Michael J. Fox in the local newspapers kept calling him an Edmontonian, which is true in only the strictest sense. He was born here, but I'm pretty sure the family packed up and moved as soon as they could, never to return.

Because I tend to be a contrary person, I've generally bucked that trend, especially with authors. I cringed every time Spider Robinson was called Canadian. He's a New Yorker. William Gibson? Love it if he was Canadian, but he's really from the States. He's just visiting.

Of course I was wrong. Spider Robinson has been living in Canada for 30 years, although he waited until 2002 to get his Canadian citizenship. And Gibson has lived here even longer, almost 40 years. He's lived in Canada longer than I have. How long does a person have to live here before I consider them Canadian?

On the opposite side, I consider Cory Doctorow to be Canadian, even though he moved about five years ago to London, England and then to Los Angeles, California. How long does a person have to be away from Canada before they stop being Canadian.

And why does it matter? Short answer is, it doesn't. I was a fan of Robert Sawyer, Robert Charles Wilson, and Doctorow before I found out they were Canadian. The important thing was I enjoyed the stories. The fact that they're Canadian just gives me a little bit of irrational pride.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Book Review: Fast Forward 1 edited by Lou Anders

Fast Forward 1 is an anthology of 19 stories and 2 poems by mostly established authors. Some of my favourite writers are here: Stephen Baxter, Ken MacLeod, Larry Niven, Ian MacDonald, Gene Wolf, Paul Di Filippo, Mike Resnick, and Nancy Kress, along with many other excellent authors.

The idea behind Fast Forward is to present a variety of science fiction stories, without imposing a theme on the collection. Every story in the book was enjoyable, while a few of them were outstanding..

Paolo Bacigalupi's disturbing Small Offerings shows us a world polluted and contaminated with chemicals, and some of the consequences.

I really didn't want to like Kage Baker's Plotter's and Shooters, but I did. Besides the obvious comparison to Orson Scott Card's Enders Game, it seems like just another nerds versus the jocks story that you can find in any genre, or bad teen movie. I found myself liking it even though I kept giving myself reasons not to. The ending is what really made the story for me. Happily ever after, but not really.

Stephen Baxter brings us No More Stories. It starts out being almost excruciatingly mundane, slowly builds up a sense of strangeness, and ends up showing us a future on a grand scale.

One of the things I like about anthologies is that they can introduce me to writers I'm not familiar with. I had never read anything by A. M. Dellamonica before, but her Time of the Snake has made a fan of me. It's a story of alien invasion told from the point of view of a human guiding a squad of squids. The door-to-door urban warfare will bring to mind some real life events.

Ken MacLeod tells us of Jesus Christ, Reanimator, a sacrilegious, funny story about the second coming.

Sanjeev and Robotwallah takes place in Ian MacDonald's future India. Robots and war, what's not to like? One of my three favourite stories in the book.

Mary A. Turzillo's Pride tells the story of a boy and his... cat. A very bad cat. It begins by being a slightly amusing tale of a hick, but ends with an emotional wallop.

By far the longest story in the book is John Meaney's Sideways From Now, and it was still too short. Almost two stories in one, one about a future with quantum telepathy, and one similar to Jack Vance's Dying Earth books, where magic, dying technology, and Machiavellian politics reign.

Paul Di Filippo's contribution Wikiworld combines concepts from Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson, wraps them up in his own original idea, and throws in more cultural and online references than any one person is likely to get. Pyr Books has wisely made this story available free of charge online.

I've just touched on a few of the stories available, there are many more well worth a read. If Sturgeon's Law (ninety percent of everything is crud) is true, then there are nine other anthologies filled with dreck, because this one is excellent. I look forward to more Fast Forward anthologies.

[Edit: The forward to the book states the stories are supposed to be "new, unthemed science fiction," which my tiny brain misinterpreted as meaning hard science fiction. Calico Reaction questioned this in a comment on Lou Anders' blog. I've corrected the review.]

Monday, March 05, 2007

Linux Truths, Half-Truths, and Myths

When people find out I run Linux on my computer instead of Windows or even Mac OS X they sometimes have funny ideas about what it must be like. Some of it is historical; Linux used to be quite difficult to administer in its younger days. Some of it is misinformation, or no information at all. I hope to dispell some of the misconceptions.

Linux is difficult to install - Myth. For the most part. Depending on the distribution, Linux is much faster and easier to install than Windows is. A smooth install of Linux takes me about an hour including installing updates, and even less sometimes. This includes installs of Red Hat (before it was Red Hat Enterprise Linux), Fedora (after it was Red Hat), Mandrake (now Mandriva), and Ubuntu (still Ubuntu). Of course, there are some distributions aimed at more experienced users that seem to go out of their way to make the whole installation process a little more, shall we say, complex. I'm looking at you, Gentoo.

I just recently re-installed Windows on a friend's computer that had become so infected with god-knows-what that it was completely unusable. I didn't keep track of how long the install took, but it was hours and hours, not even including when I had to go to bed and continue the install in the morning. Downloading and installing updates, rebooting, downloading and installing more updates, rebooting again. On and on it went.

Of course, after the install all he had was Windows with some minor applications like Notepad and Wordpad, and some games like Solitaire and Minesweeper. Don't get me wrong, I've wasted plenty of time on both of those, but it's a pretty sparse selection.

When I install a Linux distro I get a complete, usable desktop. An office suite, CD and DVD burning software, image manipulation software, full featured email suites, and lots of games. All for no cost. And lots more easily available. Which brings me to my next point...

Programs are difficult to install in Linux - Half-truth. Most distibutions give you on-line access to repositories, large collections of programs picked and packaged by your distribution maintainers for easy installation. Installation this way is actually easier than in Windows. On my Ubuntu box I open up Synaptic, type in a search for the kind of program I want, select it, and it installs. And again, for no cost.

Compare this to Windows where I have to search the web for the program I want, check forums and review sites to see if anyone has been infected with spyware with it, download it, scan it with my anti-virus program, install it, and then find out it's a crippled trial version of what I want.

Where it can be more difficult to install software in Linux is when the software you want isn't available in your repositories, or you need a more recent version. Sometimes the writers of the program have made a package available for your distribution, in which case installation is still pretty easy. Sometimes you have to compile the program from the source code, though, which can be tricky.

There are very few games for Linux - Truth. Compared to Windows, there aren't many commercial games available. Games such as World of Warcraft can be run under Wine, a program that allows Linux to run some Windows programs, but if you are a hard core gamer you'll either have to dual-boot with Windows or use a game console to get your fix.

That's not to say there are no good games available. PlaneShift, Alteria, America's Army, Sauerbraten, Battle for Wesnoth, and Frozen Bubble are just a few of the great games you can get for free.

I need an anti-virus program for Linux - Myth. One of the most common questions from Linux newcomers is which anti-virus program to use. They simply can't believe that one isn't needed. That's not to say viruses don't exist for Linux, there must be dozens and dozens of them. Very few exist in the wild, and those that do fizzle out very quickly.

One of the common arguments against this is that Linux has such a small share of the desktop that not many are written for it; if there were more Linux desktops there would more Linux viruses. This argument ignores the fact that Linux is fundamentally structured so that you have to work very hard to allow a virus to thrive. If you're interested, this guy goes into a lot of detail as to why that is.

The one time you may want to run an anti-virus is if you're running a Linux server that has Windows clients, for example an email server. This is not to protect the server, but rather to protect the Windows boxes from email borne viruses.

The people you find recommending Linux anti-virus software are usually working for the anti-virus software companies. I'm sure they have your best interests at heart, and aren't only interested in selling more product.

Linux is hacker proof - Myth. Just like any piece of complicated software, vulnerabilities appear and need to be fixed. You must keep your operating system updated, and if you're running servers you must understand how to configure them securely.

Having said that, when vulnerabilities are reported they tend to get fixed very quickly. And keeping your system updated is actually very easy.

Linux users are a bunch of commies and hippies - Truth. I needed to get one more truth in this list.

Getting hardware to run on Linux is difficult - Half-truth. Linux actually supports more hardware than Windows does. There can be problems with some newer hardware when the manufacturer hasn't released Linux drivers, but usually there are Linux gurus working hard to get it working. You may have to wait.

There are also devices that are designed to use Windows to do some of their work. Cheap modems (called winmodems by Linux users) are particularly infamous for this. It is possible with some work to get some of them working, but you are probably better off getting a real hardware modem.

Linux is difficult to use - Myth. There are those who say free (that is, open source) software is hard to use. If you're used to doing things a certain way there may be an adjustment to learning a new way of doing things, but that doesn't make the new way more difficult, just different.

One small example is the difference between OpenOffice and Microsoft Office. In OpenOffice if you want to insert a header or a footer into a document you go to the "Insert" menu, then select "Header" or "Footer". In Microsoft Office if you want to do the same thing you have to go to the "View" menu. One isn't necessarily more difficult than the other, but to me the OpenOffice way makes more sense. If you were used to the Microsoft Office way, though, you may find that hard to get used to.

My programs won't run in Linux - Half-truth. No, your Windows programs probably won't run (although they might under Wine or Crossover Linux) but chances are there exist replacement programs in Linux.

The Gimp will replace Photoshop for 95% of people, although it does take getting used to. I've already mentioned OpenOffice as a replacement for Microsoft Office. There are dozens of different media players, many different web browsers and email clients, peer to peer file sharing programs, DVD and CD burning programs, and so on. All of them are free, and many of them actually better than the ones you've already paid for in Windows.

What are your experiences with Linux like? Do you disagree with me? What else do people get wrong about Linux? Let me know in the comments, or by email.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Software Review: Democracy Player

More and more content on the internet is in the form of video. Browsing sites like YouTube or Google Video can be fun, but what is really needed for serious viewing is a way to find, download, and organize all those videos from a single application. Less searching, more watching is what we want.

Democracy Player, available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, allows you to select from hundreds of channels, containing thousands of videos, for free, such as Homestar Runner or The NBC Nightly News. You can make your own channels, search video websites, and organize your collection.

The video guide allows you to add new channels and is easy to use, dividing the channels into categories such as animation, business, comedy, health, family, and so on. Channels are also tagged, allowing you to browse even more categories. You can search the video guide for specific items, or check out the most popular or recently added channels.

Channels can also be added manually from your favourite video site, as long as it has an RSS feed that is compatible.

Once a channel is added you can choose to have it download new videos automatically, or simply alert you to new videos and allow you to download the ones you want manually.

Democracy can also search your computer for video files, adding them to your collection. It picked up all of my videos, but it seems that it can't yet distinguish between Ogg Vorbis audio files and Ogg Theora video files, as my video collection ended up containing many audio files.

You can also search video websites such as YouTube, Yahoo Video, Google Video, Revver, Blogdigger, Daily Motion, and blip.tv. Your searches can be saved as channels so that new videos meeting your search terms will be automatically updated. If you want to be able to keep up on the newest "three toed sloth" videos, or even something a little more practical, this is a great feature.

The New Videos option can display all your unwatched downloaded videos. You can browse them and watch only the ones that interest you, or have them all played one after the other.

The Democracy Player website also has a helpful page with information and tutorials on starting your own channel, allowing you to star in your own videos to be watched by potentially thousands of people.

Democracy Player has lots of features for organizing and watching internet video, and yet is very simple to use. This excellent piece of free software is continually under development, so expect to see even more features in the future.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Getting Some Stuff off my Chest

After reading my sister's post about CTV's Robson's Arms and their cool decision to put episodes online I decided to check it out. Turns out they've made an uncool decision to exclude Linux users from watching. Clicking on the "Watch Season 1 and 2 on Broadband" link gives me a screen telling me "Sorry, your OS is not supported! We recommend Windows 2000, Windows XP, or Mac OS X."

Even after using the "Change User Agent" option in Firefox to identify as IE 6 under Windows XP I get a message requesting I upgrade to Flash 8. Firstly, I'm running Flash 9. And secondly, if their video player is simply a Flash player why limit viewers to OS X or Windows? Flash plays on Linux as well.

I have also heard that some people are having problems playing the episodes on OS X, and even on Windows it doesn't always play smoothly.

I wrote a message to CTV via an online form last week that assured me all submissions are read by CTV execs, but I'm not holding my breath. As it stands now, I may or may not see the show if it happens to be on at the same time I'm watching TV, but I'm certainly not going to make an effort to seek it out.

I thought I had a similar problem with CBC's website. Quite a while ago my sister had blogged about a spoof of House M. D. that This Hour Has 22 Minutes had done. For some reason it wouldn't work for me. After my CTV problem I started getting all righteous about a broadcaster funded with taxpayer money using proprietary video players that wouldn't run in Linux. That's still true, they should be using H.264 or some other open standard, but it's now working with Firefox combined with the MediaPlayerConnectivity extension in Firefox, so now all my righteous indignation has evaporated.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Website Review: In Pictures

My mother, while not completely hopeless with computers, does have a certain naivety with them. She once called me in the middle of the night telling me "the internet is down" when her dial-up modem gave her a busy signal. When she said her email client wasn't displaying properly I noticed she had somehow made the window tiny. I fixed it by maximizing its window. The list goes on.

Where she leaves me in the dust, however, is in her understanding of Microsoft Office. We were testing OpenOffice to see if it would replace Microsoft Office for her, and she had lots of questions to which I had no answers. Off we went to the online OpenOffice help and the web.

While we eventually got her questions answered it made me realize how little I know about using an office suite. I use it mainly for opening existing documents, writing letters, and using existing templates for projects such as cards or CD covers. When I was alerted to In Pictures I decided to give them a try.

In Pictures offers tutorials on Microsoft Office 2003, OpenOffice 2.0, Dreamweaver 8, Fireworks 8, and HTML & CSS. They seem to update their tutorials regularly; Fireworks 8 was just recently added, and their website says Office 2007, Photoshop, MySQL, and PHP tutorials are coming soon. They also offer downloadable PDF files and bound books of their tutorials for an additional cost.

Their philosophy is "The simpler, the better." The tutorials are given with black and white screenshots, with red markers showing you points of interest or where to click next. The lessons are given step by step, with explanations of what you are actually doing throughout.

The first tutorial I tried was for OpenOffice's database component Base. I had never used Base before, but while following the tutorial I was amazed at how much I was actually understanding. I was really grasping the concepts, rather than just clicking through the steps. The screenshots show you exactly what to do and the steps are easy to follow, clearly explaining what you are doing.

When I tried the Writer tutorial for OpenOffice I was tempted to skip ahead to the more advanced sections, but decided to plod through from beginning to end. I'm glad I did. While I was bored at first by being shown very basic operations, there were always little things that came up that I never thought of doing. That's one of the valuable things about tutorials. They can show you how to do the things you want to do, but can also show you things you never thought of doing.

Of course, you don't have to start at the beginning. Each tutorial is divided into sections, so you can navigate to the area you are most interested in learning. You already know how to use bullets, but want to use footers to number pages automatically? Just go to the "Employ Headers and Footers" section.

In Pictures has been useful for my mother in learning the differences between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice. She knows all the tasks she needs to complete, she just needs to know how to do them in OpenOffice. The tutorials won't cover all the advanced features she needs, but it will give her confidence and a solid footing.

In Pictures is a great place to get started in learning new software, or in covering gaps of knowledge in software you already use. Worth trying out.