Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rescue & Recovery Linux

Just an update to an earlier post about rescue CD's. I am continuing to work on mine, to the detriment of other more practical projects. :-)
My build script continues to improve, now automatically blanking and burning a CD from the generated iso if desired. Yeah, I know there are lots of programs out there to make live CD's, but I got started on this one and anyway it's good experience and shell scripting practice.

I think the CD is quite usable now, but I keep improving it and fixing small bugs. This takes a surprising amount of tweaking and troubleshooting. I run the live CD on a test system and use it's own utilities to do most of this. I am building it now on a 2400Mhz system, but plan to move the build process to one with a 3200Mhz CPU. The build takes 30-40 minutes now, so that should go down quite a bit on the faster system which is dual core.

It's grown to 622MB unfortunately, but I plan on paring it down some, even as I add more documentation. Some of this size is because I leave most of the reference material and some programs in binary (including some Windows apps) and .deb format outside the compressed squashfs so they are available without booting the live cd, even on Windows.
Anyway, here is a screen shot:

Friday, November 21, 2008

Obama Email

I had heard about, so I decided to put in my $.02:

"We could save a great deal of money by moving government agencies toward using the Linux operating system and Open Source/Free Software in general. The momentum is there and growing - the DOD, NASA, NSA and US Army already use it in some applications.
I believe it deserves consideration for much wider deployment, given it's proven quality and security. A Gartner study just said that 85% of enterprises are already using open source and the remainder will do so within 12 months.

"Free Software" refers to freedom, not price, but the excessive licensing fees paid to proprietary vendors are often unnecessary, and in Microsoft's case, perpetuate an unethical monopoly, stifle innovation and put a burden on government agencies budgets, and on ordinary citizens too.

Also, we should promote, if not legislate, open standards in Internet technologies and document formats. Preventing vendor lock-in and allowing open access to public records and documents without requiring any one companies product seems desirable. These closed file formats force users to pay for accessing information that should be freely available to all. They also hinder competition because it is difficult to produce a competing software product, if the file format is a secret.

Educational institutions should be encouraged to use and teach Open Source/Free Software, not only to make our education dollars go further, but to prepare students for the new software model that is gaining ground very rapidly with governments and corporations worldwide.

This technology and philosophy has reached a maturity and achieved a critical mass of adoption that I think warrants consideration for more government use.

I have noted more advantages in a blog post here:
(oriented to home and small business users, but many facts still relevant).

Thanks for reading and congratulations on the election! "

Maybe I'll get the national CTO post? ;-)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Rescue CD's

I like tools. Always have, whether it's a useful automotive repair item, a cool home repair gadget or an interesting piece of software designed for some specific use. PC utilities have always interested me too, so naturally I have followed the development of self-contained OS/utility packages like the many live CD's available for repairing your system or recovering data.

There are lots of them. Searching Distrowatch I came up with a rough count of 23 that sounded interesting. There are many more as well. I have tried several of these over the years and among the ones I like are:

System Rescue CD:
Very nice, but not so intuitive and does not use BASH as the default shell (though it is available). It is very complete in the applications it includes, but most of them I have never needed. Only provides a few programs in GUI mode.

Somewhat plain, Slackware based. You need at least 256MB of RAM and a 586 CPU to boot and use it. That is kind of limiting for a rescue CD in my opinion. There's a 32bit kernel and a 64bit kernel.

Trinity Rescue Kit:
Based on Mandriva. Lots of tools for Windows rescue, as well as Linux. Has several virus scanners for Windows.

Ubuntu Rescue Remix:
Command line only. Less than 200MB. Oriented to data recovery. This one got me thinking of doing my own.

Mostly forensics oriented, but very impressive. Has a Windows mode and a Linux live CD mode, so you can run some of the programs in Windows. Slick looking and professional. LOTS of software. 700MB.

Lately I have been playing around making my own, following generally the instructions here. This is relatively easy to do if you have no fear of the command line. After building a few versions though, and realizing that if the resulting CD was to be anything more than a one-off toy, I would have to constantly update it. So... I decided to write a BASH script to wrap the commands in and semi-automate the whole process. Shouldn't take more than a few hours I thought. Rrright... Anyway, after a few days of working on it off and on, I have a functioning script without too many bugs (I hope). I plan to burn the resulting iso's to CD-RW for easy updating without accumulating lots of obsolete CD's. I am thinking of calling it Rescue & Recovery Linux. Unimaginative, but no one will see it but me.

I plan on borrowing ideas (and maybe even some code) from the best ones already out there. That's the beauty of free software- you can take the best ideas, modify (and hopefully improve) them for your own use.
Since I am mostly using Ubuntu or Debian-based systems, I based my own CD on Ubuntu. I also wanted good hardware detection, easy updates, and lots of packages in the repositories.
Also, I love the command line, but sometimes it's just easier to use a GUI program for a particular task. I also like Fluxbox as a lightweight desktop, so that is what I am using for now. I think that fewer and fewer of us need to work on PC's with very low specs, so I don't see the logic in writting to the "lowest common denominator". It boots to the command line first though, so it should be usable even on system with slow CPU's and little RAM. (to be tested)

I wanted an easier to use live CD for system rescue and data recovery. I have used Linux for years, but even so, I don't use these types of rescue and data recovery programs often enough to keep all the use instructions and syntax in my head. Another thing I wanted to do is make it easier to see the programs available to use from the command line. Who can remember all the apps in /bin, /sbin, /usr/bin, /usr/sbin? I decided to try and write a shell script to show installed packages in a more compact and readable way than "dpkg -l". I call it and I alias it to just "lspkg". It shows a filtered list of the package name and descriptions, eliminating libraries, xorg servers, etc. I find it helpful, but not perfect of course. I am thinking of doing something similar, "lsbin" maybe, to show avalible applications in /bin, /sbin, /usr/bin, /usr/sbin and /usr/opt perhaps.

Presently, the iso is about 325MB. I wanted it under 200MB so that it would fit on the mini-CD's. Reflecting on it though, I decided that functionality should come before being pocket-size. Most of the really small distros don't include all the programs, man pages, program help, reference material, etc. that I wanted. It's only using about 50MB of RAM in GUI mode, so it should still be usable on older computers.

Eventually I plan to include programs to work on Windows systems as well since I know people still tied to the Evil Empire. There is at least one Windows-based Live CD for rescue, BartPE, though it seems to have gone dormant and you need a Windows CD to build it. I have used it, but I like the idea of a Linux Live CD better, even for working on Windows systems. Some others are mentioned here.

Even though my live CD is functional now, I can always think of improvements to make it better and easier to use. Anyway, its a fun project.
Check back for a progress report.

Continuing work on my rescue CD. It's at a pretty usable state now, but of course I have been so busy working on it that I have had little time to actually USE it! I continue to search for useful applications to include, but mostly now I want to just refine it. I have included the latest Phoronix Test Suite (with a wrapper script to run from the GUI), TrueCrypt, Searchmonkey, Brassero, GParted, Gsmartcontol, Meld, Autopsy and some Gnome system/network utilities. I would like to find a good GUI drive mount utility, but haven't yet. It has the ubiquity installer and I installed one of the first versions on a test machine. It seems to work fine there too.
It's grown to about 550MB, and is slow to boot - something I have to work on.

Link to today's post on my rescue CD, with updates and screenshot.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Browsers & Extensions

Have you tried the new Google Chrome Browser? I installed it in a Windows test machine to see what all the fuss is about. There is also a page about how to install Chrome in Ubuntu using Wine. Linux Today has a good article about the new browser and it's implications. There is also a Google comic that introduces Chrome, it's architecture and features. Very interesting read.

Chrome IS very clean and fast, but I'm not ready to give up Firefox just yet. For one thing, I use several extensions that are very useful to me.
My favorites:

General Use
Adblock Plus - block adds and speed up browsing by not loading add graphics.
Add Bookmark Here - simplify adding bookmarks in the proper folder.
EMail This! - email a link using GMail, Yahoo or your own client, like Thunderbird.
DeskCut - make a link to a web page on the desktop.
Send Tab URL's - send links of all open tabs in an email.
Morning Coffee - load a set of tabs with one click.
ColorfulTabs - color tabs a different color for easy ID.
Taboo - save tabs for later review, without bookmarking.
Sage - A lightweight RSS and Atom reader.
Image Zoom - adds zooming capability for images.

Greasemonkey - modify pages on the fly to customize layout, get rid of annoying visual elements, etc.
Platypus - visually create scripts for Greasmonkey.
GMail Space - use GMail account for file storage.
SQLite Manager - visually manage SQLite databases.
Web Developer - LOTS of tools for web site creation, inspection and debugging.
Firebug - another great tool for web developers.
Clear Cache Button - puts a button to clear Firefox cache on the Bookmarks Toolbar.

Find them here. (And thousands more!)

I also sometimes use Konqueror, a pretty capable browser, but an even better file manager and so much more. Epiphany is also pretty good as a lightweight substitute for Firefox, if not as capable. Long ago, I used Opera in Windows and really liked it, but I haven't seen the need to use it in Linux. And it's not open source.
There are other specialized browsers too, like Flock for social networking, but I haven't used them.

As you can guess, Firefox is my favorite browser, though Chrome is definitely worth watching. Hope we don't have to wait too long for a Linux version. Come on Google, your whole operation runs on Linux, don't treat Linux users as afterthoughts!

One last note - text mode browsers. Why you ask? Well, if you have ever had the GUI fail to start and were stuck at the command line without another machine to get on the Net and research the problem...
Links2 or Elinks can be a life saver in that case. Links2 even has a graphical mode, but it is not always easy to get working (Ubuntu for example).
Though they are not easy to use without practice, I would recommend having one installed, just in case. Based on little use and a very cursory test, I think I would prefer Links2, especially with graphics. If you are ever stuck at a command line and need to surf the web, you can install it (on Ubuntu and Debian-based systems) like this:
"sudo apt-get install links2"
Be sure to start it with a URL:
"links2" for instance.
Use the Esc key to get menus, and navigate with the arrow keys.
w3m appears to be installed by default on Ubuntu systems at least. I would start it as "w3m -v" then read the FAQ. I also looked at Lynx for the first time in years. It is difficult to use like the others (at least if you are not used to them), but at least it has help at the bottom of the screen. Any of them will probably get the job done if you have the patience to learn their quirks, but really, unless you have special needs such as working on a server without a GUI or accessing the web over SSH on a remote machine, I would just keep a live CD handy that includes a graphical web browser.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sunday Reading

Some things I've been reading (or plan to read) that you might find interesting too. Like everyone else, I suffer from "information overload" and have to sift through the news and articles and allocate my reading time to the most compelling or useful ones. Here are my candidates from the last week or two:

Why Microsoft and Intel tried to kill the XO $100 laptop

“I had wildly underestimated,” says Negroponte, “the degree to which commercial entities will go to disrupt a humanitarian project.”

"...and when you threaten businesses, especially very large ones, they are going to react in ways that hurt you.” Ethan Beard

"On the academic side of the OLPC project, they were shocked by the ferocity with which Intel attempted to kill their product."

"Here was a mighty company trying to crush a philanthropic project."

"Apple still markets itself as the countercultural alternative to a Microsoft-powered machine. But the ultimate countercultural gesture is “Open Source” software."

"Computers are like drugs, literally."
I'll leave it to you to read the article to get the context of that, but regardless of whether you think the XO is the right educational tool for the third world, this is the best article I can remember on the OLPC project. Of course I hate the fact they are going to offer the XO with XP too...

Making desktop Linux work for business
"Fortunately, the future of Linux on the business desktop has never been brighter. Bolstered by contributions from some of the biggest names in IT, today's Linux offers a rich, highly functional user experience to compete with any proprietary OS."

No More Odes to Bill Gates, Please!
"Gates will score brownie points for giving away billions of his own money (plus Warren Buffet's). But this isn't a business feat, it's a philanthropic feat. Most philanthropic feats of the past were managed by old women who had outlived their husbands and had a fortune to disperse over teatime meetings while eating small, crust-free sandwiches. So what Bill accomplishes, however noble, is in a field of uncompetitive old biddies. It would be like noting his table-tennis prowess as he picks small children to serve against."

2008 Best of Open Source Software Awards

Anatomy of Linux loadable kernel modules
"Linux® loadable kernel modules, introduced in version 1.2 of the kernel, are one of the most important innovations in the Linux kernel. They provide a kernel that is both scalable and dynamic. Discover the ideas behind loadable modules, and learn how these independent objects dynamically become part of the Linux kernel.

Explaining Software Freedom to a Beginner

Learn 10 good UNIX usage habits

Linux free software tools to preserve your online privacy, anonymity and security

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


In the world of FOSS (Free/Open Source Software) there are individuals who stand out from the thousands who contribute (and to whom we should all be grateful!). Some distinguish themselves by the quality or quantity of their innovations, support or promotion of FOSS ideals, some by force of personality and leadership. The Pantheon of Heroes is not limited to individuals either - IBM for instance has supported Linux and greatly furthered it's adoption by corporations.

Among individuals that immediately come to mind are Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds - the two giants.

Stallman, known within the FOSS community as "RMS", founded the Free Software Foundation and started the GNU Project that contributed many of the tools with which Linux was built. He also originated the GPL, or General Public License, to protect free software. It's essential point is to require derived works to be licensed under the same terms, thus insuring the freedom to copy, modify or distribute the code. Outspoken and controversial, RMS deserves great credit for building the foundations that allowed the proliferation of FOSS.

Linus Torvalds great achievement was the creation of the Linux operating system, or more properly, the Linux kernel. (As is common, this blog will use "Linux" more generally to mean the whole OS).
Less ideologically driven than RMS, Linus is seen as a brilliant programmer, and leader of kernel development. Like RMS, and despite his celebrity, Linus can be outspoken and often provokes arguments on the Linux Kernel Mailing List. He is widely honored for starting nothing less than a revolution, affecting not only normal computer users but competition between giant corporations as well. In 2004, he was named one of the most influential people in the world by the Time Magazine article "Linus Torvalds: The Free-Software Champion" by Lawrence Lessig.

Another personality famous enough to be known to the community simply by his initials, ESR, Eric S. Raymond is a famous hacker and open source spokesman. ESR is the author of "The Cathedral And The Bazaar", a famous essay about contrasting software development models. From Wikipedia:
"The essay's central thesis is Raymond's proposition that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow" (which he terms Linus's Law): the more widely available the source code is for public testing, scrutiny, and experimentation, the more rapidly all forms of bugs will be discovered." His essay is credited with pushing Netscape Communications to release the source code for the Netscape Browser, and allowing the foundation of the Mozilla project, the creators of Firefox.

Bruce Perens, creator of the Open Source Definition, is a very well known FOSS advocate and spokesman. He has spoken before the UN on Open source, been Debian project leader, and founder of the Linux Standard Base project to mention only a few of his accomplishments. More pragmatic in his outlook than RMS, Perens promotes the economic benefits of FOSS:
"Open Source can be explained entirely within the context of conventional open-market economics. Indeed, it turns out that it has much stronger ties to the phenomenon of capitalism than you may have appreciated." Quoted from

Coming much later on the scene, Mark Shuttleworth, besides being famous as a space tourist, is familiar as the founder of Canonical, which develops Ubuntu Linux, and it's sub-projects Kubuntu, Xubuntu and Edubuntu.
Ubuntu consistently tops the DistroWatch list and is arguably the most popular Linux distribution. Despite criticizm, it's hard to deny the influence Ubuntu has had in attracting new users. With a larger user base comes more influence with hardware manufacturers, more people reporting bugs, more people defending FOSS (not just Linux) against attack.

Hats off to you all, and all the others unmentioned in this very brief list.
Thank you!

For more on the people and organizations shaping the state of technology with Free/Open Source software see:
Free Software Magazine
Revolution OS

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

News & Views

Ubuntu now available retail at Best Buy and Amazon. Includes CD, a quick start guide and 60 days of tech support. If you are new to Linux this is a good way to get started.
Ubuntu Linux (or search for others in our online store)
(installing kubuntu-desktop will make it effectively Kubuntu, if you prefer)

Some very interesting articles crossed my path today, including this one quoting a prominent kernel developer:

“Linux supports more different types of devices than any other operating system ever has in the history of computing.”
Missing Drivers Myth

A short, very well written post about a users conversion to Linux, and it's benefits:

"Nobody knows yet what the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) will consist of, but the few available indications are so ominous that the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has started a campaign to raise public awareness of the possibilities."

"Intel snubs Microsoft; offers Linux certification"
It's good to see Intel doing more to support Linux, but I still root for AMD. Competition brings innovation and lower prices. I would hate to think what we would be paying for Intel CPU's now if not for the existence of AMD and other competitors. I just wish they weren't promoting Vista on their home page!

Monday, July 14, 2008


I look forward to Mondays. I know that sounds crazy to lots of you who dread going to work at the beginning of the week, but here is why:

Distrowatch Weekly - Almost always interesting things to read - new distros reviewed, community developments, interviews, etc.
Ubuntu Weekly Newsletter - usually a tutorial link, and Ubuntu in the news articles.
PC LinuxOS Magazine - Often good tutorials and articles, especially for new users.
GoblinX Newsletter - Good news links, Weekly Tip and Minitutor.

Yes, I do read the non-tech news too, and not just on Mondays.

Other interesting things I'm reading today:

Free/Open Source stolen laptop tracking software!
Looking forward to trying this.

The next-gen Web Browser.

The man who changed Internet security

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Beyond Basics

Now that I have coverd the basics for those who may be new to Linux, I think it is time to start updating more frequently with interesting news stories, tips and articles. These posts will possibly take the form of "What I'm reading today" or something like that. They will not always be oriented to new Linux users, as I like to search out more advanced tips and tricks for command line use, shell scripting, configuration etc. I do hope that even the new user will find some of the posts interesting as they learn more about how Linux works, and how it differs from Windows or Mac.

In that vein, here is an article that I found informative and thought provoking (with a couple of quotes):

Don't compare
Linux to Windows or Mac
"The answer is not (always) to make it easier to use —by which most people seem to mean “hide half the functions”— but to make learning it more interesting. The quality of a user experience should not be judged by the cuteness of the help avatar or the number of steps in a wizard (or even by calling it a wizard). It should also be about how much it enhances your life/work, widens your perspective and awakens the child-like hunger to learn in you."

A reader comment on the type articles referred to in the above article link:
"You may not appreciate the actual purpose of these uninformed opinion pieces. They are constructed for one purpose only, to reassure those who embrace ignorance that they are right to do so. Since the inception of the industry, much of the popular media has been devoted to this activity. From William Randolph Hearst to Rush Limbaugh, empires have been built on pandering to those unwilling to embrace learning or facts before coming to conclusions. Fortunes await those who cynically offer this debilitating comfort to the unquestioning hordes. That fact is not lost on those who market Microsoft or Apple products."

Other Interesting articles/news:
DNS implementations vulnerable to cache poisoning.
...and a test for your ISP's DNS server.
Mine shows vulnerable. Hope they patch it soon!

Spit Will Be Worse Than Spam

Apple not as secure as people think? Skip down the page to "Conclusions" if you want a summary of the findings.

Free Software and why it is important. This is a pretty good effort at explaining the origins and strengths of the Free/Open Source Software movement.

Slitaz, a twenty-five megabyte distro!
(a newer review, and another).

Saturday, May 31, 2008

No Microsoft!

Non-enthusiast computer users are probably unconcerned about what goes on behind the scenes in the computer industry, but among knowledgeable professionals, disdain for Microsoft goes back years, if not decades. Few companies provoke the visceral hatred that Microsoft does. More than just technical problems, and lack of innovation account for this attitude about the company. Long known for it's ruthless attacks on competitors, disregard for even it's own customers and ongoing security problems, Microsoft is the "Evil Empire" of the computer world. Despite some hypocritical posturing about "openness", Microsoft is the same old company with deep pockets and shallow ethics.

With Windows loaded by default on almost all new PCs, they have a captive market which is mostly unaware of better and safer options. Most users, especially home users, don't even know they have a choice of other operating systems, word processors and office suites for example. This is beginning to change though, and there are those who think Microsoft's domination is coming to an end. No longer able to make everyone fall in line with it's FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) the company may finally have to compete on the quality and value of its products, like everyone else. (Well, with Vista being the flop that it is, maybe that's not a good idea. Even Microsoft itself is tacitly admitting it).

A convicted monopolist, they showed contempt even for the US Government in one of the many court cases that judged them guilty of illegal practices. The European Union has also condemned and convicted Microsoft of anti-competitive activities on more than one occasion. Microsoft's arrogance and deviousness knows no bounds, as evidenced by numerous incidents over the years. Apparently bribery, deception, coercion, and paying for biased media articles are not beneath them either.
Being a monopolist may not be illegal itself, but it does bring certain responsibilities and certainly cannot be good for consumers. Competition is what drives innovation and value, but Microsoft is feared for trying to kill any competitor. More, Microsoft uses all it's considerable money, lawyers and influence to drive it's own agenda at the expense of computer users both at home and in business. Infamous for dirty tricks, they are desperate to "lock in" users to their own software and services so as to stifle competitors, and deny users choice. Their actions in Boston are typical of their strong-arm tactics.

"Obscene" comes to mind when thinking of Microsoft's business practices. A recent scandal involving open standards for office documents makes this clear. The International Standards Organization approved a freely shareable file format, ODF, so that users, business's and governments could exchange data without being dependent on one company's proprietary products. This is essential in the digital age, so that data, particularly government data, is available to all who need it without relying on a single vendor. Microsoft, sensing a crack in their dominance, aggressively fought this standards process both openly and covertly. Allegations of bribery and misconduct soon surfaced as they tried to get their own "open" standard approved by the ISO. Following their "Embrace, Extend, Extinguish" play book Microsoft ultimately succeeded in gaining approval of their own overly complicated format, but protests in the streets and government calls to reconsider the approval provides hope that Microsoft may not always be able to bully the world like they have in the past.
(Update: maybe there is still hope this will be overturned).

Allegations of "back doors" haven't helped "The Beast From Redmond" gain trust with foreign governments or privacy advocates either, and even Microsoft's friends are beginning to have doubts about the software giant. There are books ("Just Say No To Microsoft") and articles ("Microsoft Free - One Year Later") written about kicking the habit, and mainstream publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are starting to point out alternatives too.

There are those who say we should cooperate with Microsoft, be "fair", but Microsoft has never been fair, either to competitors or it's customers, and appeasement or pacts with the devil rarely turn out well.

“Monopolies become their own worst enemies—particularly in businesses that live or die by technological innovation,” wrote James Gleick in The New York Times Magazine. “They get soft. They make poor research choices. They bleed both profit and invention. They poison the marketplace that created them.”

As more and more people learn the truth about it's shoddy products and unethical activities, hopefully the power and influence of this greedy and unscrupulous corporation will continue to decline.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Which Linux?

"The trouble with choice is you have to make a choice”
A prospective Linux user, who stumbles upon DistroWatch and realizes there are over 500 “distros” or distributions of Linux may be forgiven for running screaming back to Windows (And you thought there were too many versions of Vista! ).
Yet if you are a new user, unless you have special needs or simply a desire to explore the wonderful variety available, you can probably set aside all but a half-dozen or so. I think we can use a few simple criteria to filter the list to a more manageable size:

Ease of installation.
Unless you buy one of the many computers that come pre-installed with Linux from Amazon, Best Buy, Dell, Sears, Walmart, and many smaller companies, you will have to install it yourself, or have someone help you do so. Modern distros are easier to install than Windows, but novices rarely install that either. This shouldn't scare you off if you can follow directions though.

Ease of use.
Many distros are not targeted at newcomers to the Linux world, and will not be a good first choice. Among these are Debian, Fedora, Gentoo and Slackware. All fine distributions, but skip them until you have some experience with Linux (With a new graphical installer, Debian might be the exception here for an adventurous novice).
Even Linus Torvalds himself favors easy to install and use distros.

Major distribution.
You should start with a distro that has a large user base, because there will more likely be better support options, user forums and documentation. In addition, the larger organizations usually are more likely to have the resources to be able to keep the distro up to date and solve problems quickly as they come along. They also tend to have larger package repositories so you have more choices of software to install, and better long range planning and support. Another viewpoint on how distributions are seen by the Linux community (not necessarily by novices).

You're looking for something better, right? So don't tie yourself to an OS that has links back to the proprietary model. Distros that I personally avoid on ethical grounds, include SUSE, openSUSE, Linspire, Freespire and Xandros. They all have ties to Microsoft, the constant enemy of innovation, standards and freedom. You can do better.
(See No Microsoft! for a fuller explanation of why you should avoid them)

(Note that I am not talking to the experienced Linux user here, and perhaps not even to the technically oriented Windows "Power User". The last two points bear thought in any case though.)

So which one to use then?

I wish I had a definitive answer, but this question is hotly debated among Linux devotees, and has been for years. Still, if we apply the four criteria above to the top 50 distributions at DistroWatch (by page hit ranking, an admittedly crude measure of popularity), then I think we are left with:

Linux Mint


(Not in order of preference)

Before looking briefly at each of these, lets get a couple other items on the table. Though not deal breakers, I would also consider:

Software installation & upgrade
Although generally very easy today with graphical software installers, I think the Debian-based distros with their deb packages are more highly regarded in this area. Most other popular distros use the RPM package format--PCLinuxOS, Mandriva, Fedora, and many more.

Desktop, or GUIs (Graphical User Interface)
The two main ones are KDE and Gnome. I think most users coming from Windows will like KDE better as it will feel more familiar. It also has a reputation of being much more configurable and customizable. It also has
higher rated applications, though you can run either one's applications on the other desktop. Some distros, like Ubuntu, let you easily choose either, even after installation.

OK, you're saying,
Ah, if only life offered such absolutes!
All I can do is offer some observations on the seven distros we have selected above:

Nice distro, smaller community than the majors, but many vocal supporters who claim it is THE one for “It just works” functionality. Some say it's popularity is exaggerated. Originally based on Mandriva. Helpful user forum and very good documentation. Glossy monthly magazine with good articles geared to new users.

Started by multi-millionaire and space tourist Mark Shuttleworth, it has grown from nothing to dominating the top spot on Distrowatch. Based on Debian, uses Gnome desktop. Known for innovation and a new release every six months. Dell is now selling desktop and laptop PCs with Ubuntu, but Ubuntu has lately began to attract criticism. Whether justified, or motivated by jealousy and elitism we'll have to wait and see. It has a large helpful user community, lots of excellent documentation, a long term plan, and commercial support for business.

Linux Mint
A very slick smaller distro, based on Ubuntu and has both Gnome and KDE Desktop editions. It has "lots of desktop improvements and a strong focus on making things work out of the box". Integrated and configured codecs makes playing multimedia easier than most and it has a few special applications to manage updates and software installation, etc. More cutting-edge than Ubuntu with all the pros and cons that implies. Large user forum.

An official sub-project of Ubuntu, so all the same comments apply, except it uses the KDE Desktop. Although it usually lags behind it's parent in getting the latest features, it is still very usable, and more easily customizable. Like other KDE distros, it uses the excellent KDE applications, like K3B for CD/DVD burning, Amarok for playing music, etc.
Also like Ubuntu itself, it offers versions with long term support.

Until Ubuntu came along Mandriva (formerly Mandrake) was at the top of most peoples list of beginner-friendly Linux distros.
Trying to get too commercial, financial difficulties, bad customer service and too many bugs dropped them in the rankings for quite some time. Mandriva is seemingly making a comeback and bears consideration again.

Another smaller distro, similar in outlook to PCLinuxOS, but based on Debian, not Mandriva. Has been somewhat commercial in nature, like Mandriva.
Software is not always up-to-date and no obvious long term plan. Nice looking distro with KDE desktop, it retains many fans.

Update Jan. 2009

It seems that gOS (previously included here) has developed a relationship with Microsoft, and is in some sense promoting Windows on it's web site. I would therefore not recommend gOS to anyone who cares about freedom.

So what do I use? Kubuntu since mid 2007 (before that, Gentoo for four years. Starting in 1998 I used Red Hat, Mandriva, Suse, and Gentoo for periods of 6 months to 4 years).

It suits me, and I hope this helps you find one that suites you too.
That, in the end, is the only criteria that counts.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


Charles Darwin sailed to southern latitudes and came up with the theory of evolution. I sailed south and came up with the idea for a Linux website that I would call Linux Latitude. Linux itself originated much earlier.

In November 2006 I was invited to go on a sailing rally, Baja Ha Ha, to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. This annual event is sponsored by Latitude 38 Magazine. It was quite an adventure! We spent a month, stopping in isolated bays on the Baja Peninsula and ending up in Cabo. I had sailed a few times before, but seldom enough that what I learned on one trip I had forgotten by the next. It takes constant exposure and practice to learn anything complicated I guess.

As we moved south along the coast of Baja, we noticed greater changes in climate. At our first stop, about 2 1/2 days out of San Diego, California, we noticed the climate had changed - we were in a low enough latitude that the water was warm, and it was shorts and T-shit weather in November. The surroundings and lifestyle in Mexico, or at least rural Baja, were much different as well. Or first stop, Turtle Bay is 160 miles of dirt road from the main Highway One that runs down the peninsula. Life is slower here. Attitude was changing with latitude.

I was reminded of the old Corona Beer commercials. Remember the ones where the people are laying on a tropical beach with just the sound of the waves, a cold beer and the caption "A whole different latitude..."? Terrible beer, but great advertising. It really puts you in mind of a different, more relaxed place. With Jimmy Buffet playing on the boats stereo, it was easy to slip into this new life style.

Another inspiration, which I only now recognize as I write this, is the Darwin connection. Just as evolution changed how we think about natural history, Free/Open Source Software changes the way we think about software. It is no less than a revolution, though not as earth-shaking as evolution to be sure. And OK, maybe I am stretching to make a connection to evolution here. Actually we devolved from open software to proprietary and now are moving back to open. Come to think of it, there are parallels in evolution too though.

The first leg of the trip was rough, literally and figuratively. We hit gale force winds and 10 foot seas. At one point I figured I had only slept four hours in the last forty.
If the beginning of the journey was difficult, it got easier as we gained experience, got used to the new reality of life on board, and the weather got calmer. There were other rough times later on, but the worst was over, and for the most part, I could now keep learning and just enjoy the new experiences.

Kind of like Linux. The change may challenge you and you may have to adjust your attitude a little to enjoy the ride, but it's well worth the trip.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Why Linux?

Linux is a modern, mature, free computer operating system with a graphical user interface very similar to either Windows or Mac; your choice. In fact, Linux is about choice--and freedom. Best of all, you don't even have to install Linux to try it out. You can just pop in a "Live CD" reboot your computer and be running Linux in minutes. (with no danger to your existing operating system). You can even get an inexpensive CD shipped to you. Actually though, you're probably already using Linux and don't even realize it.

Linux originated in 1991, but is now reaching a critical mass of adoption with millions of users worldwide. Most corporate uses are for servers, but it is now increasingly being used on the desktop by businesses and ordinary computer users too. Even Apple users are impressed with how usable modern Linux is. Among Linux users are major corporations including IBM, HP, Sun Microsystems, Google, Dell and Novell. Government agencies like DOD, NASA, NSA, and the US Army use Linux. The world's fastest computer runs Linux. Many cities, medical facilities, educational institutions, airlines, the NYSE and foreign governments use Linux. You should too.

Instead of having your use of the computer you bought dictated by a giant corporation (and convicted monopolist), YOU can be in charge! Linux gives you freedom; free from cost, free from spyware, adware, worms, Trojans and virus infection. No virus scans, no malware removal, no defraging to waste your time. Oh, and you don't need to buy any expensive third-party utilities to protect yourself either. Linux is secure out of the box. And, many manufacturers try to make up for the cost of a Windows license by bundling demo and trial versions of software such as AOL, Norton, McAfee, Microsoft Office, etc. (known as "crapware"), for which they receive money from software companies looking to increase their sales. These bog down your system and are hard to remove. Not on Linux. You start with a clean system.

Another advantage, Linux runs well on slower computers, so you can save even more money by upgrading your hardware less often, or buying cheaper systems in the first place. Not only do you not have to pay the "Windows Tax" when you switch to Linux, you have access to thousands of pieces of application software as well; Office Suites, a Photoshop replacement, audio and video editors, multimedia players, and on and on. Free.
One more thing; you can update your whole system, both the operating system and all the applications with one command! Likewise, in some distros you can upgrade to the latest version of the operating system (and all it's programs) easily. For free.

Linux also gives you freedom from onerous EULA's and entering long cryptic codes to install software you paid for. Quit worrying about product activation, how many computers you can legally install the software on, planned obsolescence, forced upgrades, vendor lock-in, DRM, and all the other problems from the closed software model.

But Linux is not a copy of Windows. It has it's own unique advantages and it must be said, some disadvantages. Also, Linux and Free Software are as much a philosophy as a technology, but many people misunderstand the term "free software":
"Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer."
(A similar term, Open Source, is slightly different.
For one point of view on the differences, read this essay)
In most cases though Linux is "free" in both senses of the word. Freedom for free--you can't get much better than that.
Freedom feels good. Give it a try.