Less isn’t always less

It’s a fact of life that no amount of testing will render any computer program beyond “hello world” bug free.

In mathematical terms, this could be expressed by “The limit of bug-count in a system will tend to zero as the number of test scenarios approaches infinite,” and while developers test their brain-children as much as humanly-possible, it’s impossible to test all possible scenarios, and mass-use software, that is used in a variety of hardware/software environments and in just as large a variety of circumstances is even harder to perfect.

As a developer of non-massive-consumption software, it’s already challenging for me to ensure that my users don’t hit a wall every once in a while. Developers of massively-consumed software would, likely, win Nobel Peace Prizes were they able to keep a track record even barely close to mine, but the difference doesn’t like in the quality of our work – as a matter of fact, the people behind Firefox, to use an example that’s cross-platform and not piss anyone off, are far more talented than I am.

The difference, really, lies in how we are made aware of problems in our code: my users have direct access to me. If something goes wrong, they give me an angry call (not always, fortunately) and things get fixed right-away (most of the time, I’m proud to say). Reporting a bug in Microsoft Word or Open Office Writer is something that is either impossible, or impossibly challenging, respectively, which brings me to my “Less is not less” statement.

Based on what I’ve experienced on both camps (Windows and linux), I’m willing to bet that for every bug known to the right developers there are at least five that they happily know nothing about.

Microsoft relies heavily on a group of elite users they call MVP’s (Most Valuable Professionals, if I’m not mistaken), getting a bug reported requires that you get an MVP in the right area interested enough in your problem to report it to their point-person at the company. The process is extremely informal and not particularly publicized.

The Linux camp does things more professionally, I must say, but on the flip-side, reporting a bug is so daunting that only a few percentage of users is likely to report problems. One thing that makes reporting problems in Linux inconvenient is that the process is further complicated by having to decide who to report a bug to… is this a KDE bug? Is it an application bug? Is it a distribution bug? Is it a driver bug? Then, once that first round of questions is answered, you need to use that particular component’s bug-reporting facility. The easiest ones require that you visit a web site and register but then have familiar forum-like interfaces, while the others rely on mailing lists (seriously? Mailing lists in this day and age?).

I have lost count of how many times I’ve said fuck-it and lived with blatant bugs in the past because it was impossible or harder than it was worth to report them.

It’s late now, and I don’t have many ideas on how to improve the status quo, but there’s got to be a better way to make those who are able to fix things aware that something needs to be fixed.


Linux’s cost of entry: Almost prohibitively high

After giving it some thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that all the statements (and there’s a lot of them) about Linux being more stable/secure/efficient than Windows are really dumb. It’s like saying that anything makes a better writing instrument that a slice of bread. Anything is better than Windows, when it comes to those particular attributes. It’s called a tautology, if you’re into words.

In the universe of servers, I would only recommend Microsoft if you need to take advantage of any of a plethora of Windows-specific technologies, but I don’t run a server. I run a desktop system (two, actually) mostly for work, and I must say, after a bit over half a year into this experiment, the experience has been nothing short of a slew of uphill battles – some harder than others, and even though I’ll continue using it for the foreseeable future (I’m realizing how obsessive I can get), I’m getting to the point of admitting that expecting Linux in any of its hundreds of incarnations to make any inroads into the average users population out there, is a lost cause.

Today’s battle started because I have a 90-minute audio file that I need to transcribe and I found an audio player designed specifically for this task – Express Scribe, from NCH Software.

NCH’s web site has a link to download the file and not much else, so I clicked on the link, downloaded the file, and finally double-clicked on the file in the folder where I had saved it. This is what I got:

After typing my password and clicking OK, I got this:

I thought I did something wrong, so I repeated the above steps; maybe I mis-typed my password, but I got the same exact results as before.

Knowing full well that repeating a behavior several times expecting different results is a sign of insanity, I stopped trying that.

Eventually, I got the program to work, however, the real issue is that any normal user (especially any user who came to Linux from Windows or, if you’re into unlikely scenarios, from a Mac) would’ve stopped right there and perhaps wonder if the nearest Apple store is closed at the time.

This sort of thing happens often; at least to me. Being the geek I am, I tinker with things until I get them to work, but it’s never straight-forward. In Windows (I’ve never used a Mac, but I don’t think it’s very different), all it takes to install most programs is to run that program’s installer, just like I was expecting to do with Express Scribe, or the developer would take half an hour of his or her time to write a list of steps to follow.

NCH’s download page for Express Scribe doesn’t have anything other than “This is a compiled binary program made for Linux. The advantage is it does not require Wine. The disadvantage is some esoteric proprietary formats cannot be supported.”

Getting the program to run, at first, took opening a console and calling bash to interpret the file I had downloaded and even though it ran, the fact that every time I’d run it I’d get a dialog asking for my password and another mentioning that the installation went well, made me realize that rather than running, this thing was limping around.

In the end it took a number of web searches to find out that if I want to run the program I need to double-click on /opt/nch/scribe/bin/scribe or create a shortcut to it if I want to have it readily-available. (This is actually the solution to the problem.)

Granted, most applications available for Linux install in a more humane way, but this sort of thing has plagued my experience enough times for me to be able to say, with a clear conscience, that anyone who expects to do more with their Linux system than write documents and spreadsheets and browse the web, should be prepared to pay an entry cost that’s much higher than just having to learn and adapt to a different user interface.

Update – 2012-04-16: It seems that the Linux version of Express Scribe is not supported anymore. NCH Software’s web site has no direct link (that I could find, at least) to the page from which I downloaded the program (http://www.nch.com.au/scribe/linux.html as of this writing, in case you landed on this post looking for the application). The best way to use the program is through wine, as the native Linux version has a bug that makes it skip about 2 minutes ahead every time you pause the audio.

Your typical linux experience (mine, at least)

This is from December 31, 2011, hence the red line half-way down…


I’ve had it with vmware

…and linux, as a TRULY viable alternative to Windows (or, gasp, a mac), is in the dog house right now.

A few days ago Fedora, on my main computer, decided it was time to run a number of updates. I think the kernel was part of this particular round, as it required a reboot.
Today, as I set to do some bookkeeping, I fired up vmware player, but it didn’t work. I got a message about an update, then a message about the update not being able to run and then nothing.

I ran into something similar some months ago and documented how I solved it, but what had previously worked, for some reason, didn’t anymore.

For the next several hours I tried different things, googled the hell out of the problem to no avail and, in the end, decided it was high time that I post my problem in vmware’s forums. This was this morning. So far, my question’s been read about a dozen times and whoever knows how to solve this particular problem is probably busy helping other users with their own problems, as not a single reply has been posted. Most importantly, not a single vmware support employee has bothered to drop by to offer support or even acknowledge the problem, and this is on a non-free product.

This isn’t anything new in the Linux netherworld, where many of the programs I rely on came to be because someone whoever knows how to write them happened to have the same problems I encountered. Of course, the quality is directly proportional to how anal that programmer actually is. The most extreme case of this I’ve seen so far was Wine on Debian: the volunteer that maintained that package fell off the edge of the earth and as a result Debian has no Wine unless you’re willing to jump through fiery hoops.

To put the whole situation mildly, I’m fucking sick of how often a trivial task becomes an ordeal because all of a sudden I have to deal with dependencies, updates, and plain bugs. All in the name of an operating system that’s [so far] impervious to viruses and doesn’t require hardware worthy of science fiction to run reasonably well.

I’m calling Red Hat’s pre-sales department before the week is over to see if $300 will at least get me some decent support for a year, until I’m truly comfortable here instead of spending a good chunk of my billable hours dealing with hobby-ware.

The Linux Experience

It’s been a while since my last entry and from the slew of responses, I wonder if I should apologize at all to my imaginary readers. Well, they’re MY imaginary readers. I imagine them loyal and understanding.

I’ve been using Linux (the Ubuntu incarnation of it, with gnome as the UI – I found Unity insulting as it certainly is far from ready and it reminds me too much of Vista) for maybe a month and a half or two, after about 20 years of Windows and even more using computers in general to work.

Weeks one through three were traumatic, requiring at least two full re-installations of the operating system because I managed, as a very novice user that knows enough to be a threat to himself, to royally screw things up.

After that, it’s been smoothER sailing, but this experiment has been anything but smooth per se, and at this point I’m torn because it has carved a serious dent into my productive time. I must note that I was aware that I would loose a number of hours to getting accustomed to familiar things being in different places than where I had expected, but I didn’t expect the amount of time devoted to “settling-in” being so huge.

To add insult to injury, as a novice, I also lack the tools normally gained from experience to resolve problems quickly so, for example, a recent printing problem (printer suddenly stopped printing for no apparent reason and without manifest error messages of any kind) stole about one hour of my precariously-scarce time. It didn’t take longer because that’s what took for the problem to resolve itself “magically” – I didn’t do anything besides scour whatever forums I could think of, looking for a solution.

Almost two months into my little experiment (which I hope doesn’t end up being just that) I have serious doubts about this operating system’s ability to ever reach the masses. The reason, from my still ignorant perspective, seems to be that the labor behind it is volunteer-based. In a world where bread doesn’t just magically appear on the cupboard every day and banks, credit cards, and grocery stores expect to be paid with money, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand where, in the priorities food-chain, volunteer work falls (that is, unless you manage to hire an army of coders suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome).

This is unfortunate, really, because in a world dominated by Microsoft-based desktops (and you’d have to have your head up your ass to disagree with this), it really is refreshing to use an operating system that’s not only stable, but doesn’t consume 2GB of RAM just to show you the desktop, doesn’t require a CPU capable of running all of NASA’s programs from the 50’s to the 80’s to play minesweeper, can be configured and backed-up with the simplicity inherent to just copying a handful of TEXT-based configuration files, and, at least so far, is impervious to a plethora of spyware, virii, and other non-sense, among other advantages that my lack of experience surely prevents me from seeing. (And for those among my imaginary readers that will quickly point that Linux is a powerhouse in the servers sector, yes, I know; but I’m not talking about servers here.)

The applications I’ve installed so far (Libre Office, Wine, and a few others) are all sprinkled with inconsistencies and, granted, so are Windows-based apps, but here it’s much more noticeable, and the length of time for which people have been reporting bugs or requesting features that still haven’t been implemented just confirms what I said before: developers have to eat and giving code away doesn’t put food on the table (some of them quite basic, such as cut/insert-paste in Libre/Open Office’s spreadsheet program – you can do it with a mouse, but not with the keyboard, and mousing around is quite inconvenient when you have to drag and drop a bunch of rows over a document that has thousands of them!).

Linux doesn’t belong to anyone, or at least that’s what I keep hearing, but the very existence of various camps (Ubuntu, Debian, KDE, RedHat, and a SLEW of others) makes it extremely hard for a user to even get to the point of considering it as an alternative to Microsoft’s offering. It’s a no-brainer to walk into an Apple store if you’re fed-up with Windows. Those who’ve converted years ago probably lost touch now with the strain that choosing a Linux flavor can put on someone. After two months of using it and contless hours reading over the past weekend, I still can’t fully comprehend the difference between basic components such as distributions, desktops, and windows managers. The difference between distributions is anything but clear. Are they different Operating Systems? Are there specific apps that will run on one but not on the other? And what about KDE and Gnome (to mention just two)? How come there are some products that SEEM to be specific for one or the other. To add to the confusion, you can apparently run either KDE or Gnome on most distributions.

I am an experienced user (computers ARE my job) and I hardly recall EVER being this confused in my life. Visiting the various distributions’ web sites is useless. I have never read so much useless fluff. As a user I would be hard-pressed to care less about the philosophies and the beliefs of the community behind each. I respect them and think it’s great that they all have mission statements and goals and ideals, but again, as a potential customer, all that information is utterly useless for me. Guys, please allow me to put this in perspective: buying a car is easier than choosing a Linux distribution.

I “landed”, and can’t imagine a more appropriate term, on Ubuntu because two people suggested it, and I remembered the name, so I figured it was a popular distribution and will likely give me little or no grief, but after two months of using it in my main computer, and considering how many other distributions are out there, at this point I’m wondering if I made the right choice. And I’m only wondering because I don’t know enough about the other distributions to tell whether they would solve the problems I have (pulseaudio and skype have a rabid tendency to misbehave and, although just a cosmetic problem, compiz just doesn’t work smoothly with nvidia hardware, so I’m using metacity).

My user experience, in general, is characterized by compromise. I’m taking it in stride but, objectively speaking, I’ve had to choose to be content with less perfect results than I had when using windows. I realize all too well that Libre Office is not MS Office (I used Office 2000, which was great), that eVince is a far cry from an old version of Foxit Reader, and that grscan2pdf requires about twice the amount of keystrokes and mouse-clicks to scan a document into a pdf, just to name a few, but when compromise becomes as pervasive as in my case, I can’t help wondering if I did the right thing.

Chances are I’ll keep wondering because I don’t know if it’s really worth it to spend another two months researching whether other distributions would resolve the handful of issues I have or whether they would replace those issues with new ones, and, you know what? Time is money and this, my faithful readers, is costing me dearly, so I’m also wondering if I should perhaps consider going back to XP and not have to bend over backwards in order to get work done because, after all, most of the development tools available for Linux (python, apache, mysql, etc.) are slowly and surely showing up in Windows flavor as well.

Right now, I think I’ll move in the direction of trying another flavor of linux (Debian doesn’t seem to be plagued with the pulseaudio problems that seem to be a routine part of Ubuntu, and having used Windows for the past 20 years, one of my main reasons for leaving the Redmondites behind is stability and reliability. Ubuntu doesn’t seem to have much of either; at least not while I’m using it.

As far as Linux, as a desktop for the masses, I think it won’t happen until some entrepreneurial soul packages a really water-tight distribution, with the most popular apps ready for a positive out-of-the-box user experience and charges a fraction of what Microsoft does for the same and, most importantly, TREATS THIS AS A BUSINESS and not as an after-hours activity.

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