If a tree falls and no one…

Google evil

I’ve noticed lately that many times, right after paying for online purchases, Google offers to protect the goods I just got. And they want to do it for free.

I don’t like free, and I don’t like free coming from Google because one way or another, you pay for anything you get from the search behemoth (it really sucks that they have the best search engine by far over the best of their competitors, because I’m stuck with them). Of course, the price you pay is a bit of your privacy, which makes the uproar over the NSA’s scandal quite ironic.

Today, as I had a few minutes after purchasing a few things for a client, I decided to click on the “learn more” link at the now ubiquitous offer from Google and the only new thing I learned is that the protection doesn’t go beyond 60 days after the date of purchase and it only covers $1000 worth of lifetime claims, not to mention that the coverage itself is rather lame (google “google your purchase protection” and see for yourself).

The exercise was more to satisfy my curiosity and confirm my suspicions than anything else, and confirmed they were:

” If you opt in, the merchant will share your
order information and email address with us.”

It’s really ironic how the leak about the NSA’s practices elicited quite an uproar for rather basic information being collected on us while someone collecting (and aggregating) information as detailed and intimate as what we buy, how much we pay for it, and how, results in collective non-reaction.

I expect more than handful of souls to cry that our government was doing it without our knowledge, while Google’s Purchase Protection is 100% voluntary and overt. The latter is, technically 100% true, but in this day and age, to be aware of the ability of a government organization that’s powerful enough to be cloaked in the utmost secrecy and expect that it will only gather information outside our borders and only on foreign individuals and entities is the epitome of burying one’s head in the sand. And yes, Google’s program is voluntary, but how voluntary is something when it is a given that most people offered it will accept? I’m willing to bet that the opt-in rates are well over 90%. After all, you’d have to be an idiot not to accept something that’s free, and most people can’t be idiots. Right?

So, going back to the title, if Google does something evil and no one notices or cares, is it still evil?


Privacy – yes, I know, more of the same…

It’s quite ironic that science fiction has led us to believe that it would be government who, by 1984, would be watching our every move and know more about ourselves than us, yet it is the poster children of the free enterprise, Google, Facebook, who would really have this ability and we’d be asking our governments to find a way to curb their voracity for the data that are our lives.

Google doesn’t say much about what it does with our information, but it’s just a matter of time before their vast database of emails, search patterns, clicks, and, lately, phone call transcriptions (possibly done in real time) are offered for hire, providing anyone willing to pay the price with a chillingly accurate image of our lives.

Facebook keeps making statements, which are changed about every six months in subtle ways, but judging about how the social network works, they should stop the crap, come to terms with reality, and change the name of their privacy policy to “publicity policy.” I’m the first to admit that it provides a rather pathetic picture of who most of the people in my contacts list really are (and how little they have to offer), but I can’t get away from it for prolonged periods of time. It appeals to my (and everybody else’s) narcissistic sense of self.

Will any of this happen? I don’t think so. As much as we hate the beast, we just can’t stop feeding it. They’re like those mythological creatures that feed on hate, yet everyone hates them.

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.

Wide screens are better because we say so

There was a time when both TV’s and computer screens shared proportions. 4:3 to be exact. For those that don’t get fractions, if your screen was 40” wide, it’d have to be 30” tall to follow the 4:3 ratio.

Movies were always different. Mostly because it is trivial to stretch a white canvas much wider than it is higher across a theater hall.

To show a movie made for cinema on a TV screen required that either the top and bottom be unused (black bands above and below the image) or that the sides of the image be cropped and viewers would be happy because not a single square inch of their brand-new 60” projection screen was being wasted.

DVD’s apparently forced the issue as, out of respect to the original, they would present the movie in all its wide glory, wasting about 30% of screen real estate.

TV’s then started being manufactured in the now ubiquitous 16:9 format, which was actually proposed back in the 70’s (the HDTV standard), which was all good. The 16:9 standard was actually proposed as a compromise between the 4:3 format common at the time and the formats used by most movies, which weren’t actually 16:9 (and still arent – see wikipedia to learn more than you ever cared about this and other trivial things that are unlikely to impress the beautiful brunette at the end of the bar).

But why computers? You’re probably wondering. Especially when most work done on computers (written documents) has always followed a tall, rather than wide, format.

When in doubt, as they say, follow the money. The cost of manufacturing an LCD screen is directly proportional to its surface area. Manufacturing a 14” screen with the new 16:9 ratio costs about 10% less than manufacturing the same screen using the 4:3 proportions (you get roughly 10% less pixels on a wide screen than on a 4:3 screen with the same diagonal dimension).

That’s how we ended up doing most of our work in wide-format screens (and wasting about 30% of their useful area because most of what people do in computers, other than watching movies, is better suited to taller display areas, and that’s without counting the space lost to tool bars and “ribbons” running ACROSS the screen as opposed to from top to bottom on one side). Utilitarian design is a dead art, me thinks.

I can just picture someone pointing this out at a board meeting and asking “But what will users say?” and just as easily I can picture someone else saying “They’ll love it… because we say so.”

iPhone syndrome

There seems to be a growing number of people who are up in arms over gmail’s new look. Resistance was prevalent enough upon its introduction that google-folk granted users the ability to change the density of the data presented.

Ever since the iPhone came out, everyone in the technological landscape has been trying to emulate it somehow. The most mundane example of this sort of thing can be found among religious fanatics’ inclination to imitate their leader’s handwriting regardless of how ugly or even unreadable it might turn out to be.

Likewise, techies and marketeers alike seem to live under the impression that anything that comes out of the Apple church is blessed by awesome design.

It’s hard to argue with this, as their user interfaces tend to be streamlined, elegant, visually attractive, and, most importantly, very user-friendly. However, just because Apple created doesn’t mean that there can’t be anything else or, God forbid, something better.

And so, when google saw how much people liked the iPhone’s interface, in their infinite (or googolish) wisdom, they decided that gmail ought to have that same look. Morons.

What they totally missed is that we still interface with our computers with a keyboard and a mouse, not with the tips of our fingers. If anything, screens are getting bigger, both on the desktop and notebooks, so I really see no reason in this environment for oversized buttons and list items one inch apart from one-another. What’s the point of having a bigger screen if we’re getting increasingly less information out of it?

The latest bastion to fall for this iDiocy is Experts-Exchange.com. I have been participating in it for just a couple of days, and I had seen announcements of the “new look” every time I’d log on. Today they made the switch, and guess what: a very usable and, more importantly even, INFORMATIVE interface now looks like a damn iPad and, yup, has less information than before, requires more work to get around. On top of that, they botched it; it doesn’t render correctly in my browser (Firefox under kde).

Hell, I’m not 18 anymore; I need glasses to read, and I appreciate larger letters whenever I find them, but design, just for the heck of it, is plain stupid.

Procrastination and the courts

Today as I ran, I thought about procrastination (something I often catch myself doing) and I was going to write about it when I got home, but I’ll do that tomorrow.

Shortly after that thought, ADD kicked in and my mind went in 20 different directions, like it so often does. Then, for a brief instant, I looked to my right and there was this sign (I’ll post the picture tomorrow) at the entrance of a passageway listing the “Passageway Rules” (the word “rules”, in this case, is not used as a verb).

I had to do a double-take, for I couldn’t believe that a passageway that’s roughly 15 by 15 feet, right through a building, would have “rules”. After reading it, my guess was that the building’s owner has an attorney with a shopping problem, so he needs to make himself “useful” in order to pay for his habit.

If a simple passageway has rules important enough to be engraved on a bronze plaque and displayed prominently (more so than the building’s very name!), it’s no surprise that our legal system is buried under what is probably the vastest collection of laws, regulations, and rules in the world. I have no proof of this, but I have a very strong hunch that this is, indeed, the case.

In the 231 years that this country can claim as its history, more of these edicts have been written than probably in the preceeding 5000 years of WORLD history (again, don’t quote me on this as I’m only speculating and it’s late and I suffer from ADD).

I think it’s absurd that there’s an ongoing fight here to remove the ten commandments from court buildings because they establish a connection between [organized] religion and government. The reason I find it absurd is that disconnecting ten puny laws from a body that includes THOUSANDS of them is akin to stealing a book from the Library of congress!!! (use of lower case very intentional)

Of course, to those [idiots] that are opposed to displaying the ten commandments prominently in any court because THEY think that it blurs the line that supposedly separates church from state, accomplishing their goal is particularly hard because humanity (and especially US people, being adept as they are to stating laws, regulations, and rules) would have come to those 10 laws anyway! If you choose not to believe that they came from God (and I’m not saying that they did or didn’t), you would have to be in denial not to accept that aside from the few that are obviously meant to perpetuate people’s belief in one God, they’re just laws of common sense in order to live in an environment involving more than 2 people. See, if humanity were only 2 people, “Thou shalt not murder” would really be moot after human #1 killed human #2, not to mention that “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” would make these 2 poor people spend the rest of their days wondering what the hell is a wife, or what the hell is a neighbor if they’re married to one another.

Anyway, and not to stray, too much, at least, from my main point, it’s not enough that the first word we learn right after “da-da” and “pooh” is “NO”, but we must experience that concept continuously until we have children of our own to pass on the legacy and even after that, everywhere we turn to, there’s a street sign that starts with “no”, and when we’re not driving, our lives are ruled by an overwhelming number of NO’s.

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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