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 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.