Lars Wirzenius: July, 2006


Friday, July 28, 2006

Debian: Project Ummikko

How good is Linux as a tool for the uninitiated, really?

When journalists review Linux, they usually concentrate on the initial installation experience. Given their deadlines, that's logical: they don't often have time to spend months on using it, so installation is all they have time for.

I wanted to know how good Linux, or more specifically Debian with GNOME, is for the uninitiated, or more specifically, for someone who has been using Windows for a number of years, and switches to Linux. I'm specifically uninterested in the installation experience.

To see what it is like, I recruited a friend of mine, and gave her my old laptop with Linux pre-installed and pre-configured. She has agreed to try switching all her computer use to Linux, and tell me about any problems she has. We'll do this for several months, to make it realistic. Anyone can suffer through a week in a new computer environment.

She's now used Linux for a bit over a week. The initial session, when she tried out the new computer at my home, went pretty well, with only a couple of real problems. Here's an edited version of the notes I made:

Bringing up the network (the laptop is configured to use NetworkManager): She found the networking subfolder of the computer folder in GNOME: "Why does it say 'Windows Network'? And why is that empty?". Later: "Why does 'Network tools' not configure the network?".

She doesn't know if configuring network in Windows would be as bewildering, never having done it. She can't find anything useful about network configuration in the GNOME help system. Eventually I point out the Network Manager icon in the notification area.

She selects a wireless network to connect to and enters the WPA password I give her. She then gets the GNOME Keyring dialog and doesn't understand what it is, wondering why she needs to give the WPA password a second time.

She then proceeds to open some windows. "Minimization works, good." She is happy that there is a task bar at the bottom of the screen, and happens to find the "Show desktop" button there as well: "Oh, you can hide all the windows here if you have many."

She finds mplayer and thinks it looks OK. She comments that she doesn't really care what player she uses, she uses several under Windows, too, and all of them have quirks.

XChat has too many networks to choose from at startup. She's never had to choose an IRC network before, IRCnet being the default for Mirc (or the Mirc installation she has, anyway). She wonders why XChat didn't ask for a server to connect to after selecting the right network (XChat has a lot of servers configured for each network and chose one of them).

She continues to configure XChat: "Oh Lord, NO spell checking." She finds the color selector in XChat (the GNOME or GTK+ default one) to be very confusing. The "Nicks not to highlight on" setting is bewildering, does it mean that XChat highlights by default all nicknames, even for other users?

She'd like "shut up completely" setting for XChat sounds. Giving ops from a popup is intuitive. XChat in general seems intuitive to her.

Next, Bittorrent, using the GNOME torrent downloader. The .torrent file is saved directly to the desktop, which is good. The downloaded file goes there too, which is good, too. Seems intuitive enough, but doesn't seem to have very many settings: it would be nice to be able to prioritize different parts of a multi-file download. She also can't get it to continue a download after restarting the client (possibly related to multi-file torrents).

Next, The Windows version doesn't split up into Base, Writer, Impress, etc, but finding the interesting one (Writer) is no problem. That Abiword was installed, too, was a bit confusing.

Totem: space doesn't play/pause (except in full screen mode). Sound volume control is a bit confusing, since it has to be done using multiple slidebars (master, pcm, etc) in the GNOME sound control dialog, and also in Totem.

After maximizing Totem, quitting it, restarting it, the window is now as big as the whole desktop (minus top and bottom panels), so maximizing and un-maximizing doesn't seem to have much effect, which is weird.

Other problems have surfaced since. The big one was that I had configured a simple firewall for her that didn't let anyone connect to her laptop, meaning that torrenting was not working very well. I use the same firewall settings on my own laptop, but since I mostly torrent for Debian's ISO images, and those have really fast seeders, I've never noticed that I don't torrent outward. Ah well.

She also doesn't like the GNOME torrent client very much. It lacks ways of monitoring and controlling the torrenting process that she cares about: seeder and peer counts especially, or (but less importantly) changing the order in which parts of a multi-file torrent are downloaded. We tried installing Azureus, but the version in Debian etch at the time seems quite broken.

Firefox seems to occasionally also work very badly for her, taking tens of seconds to load pages, but this seems to be a known bug that will be fixed in the next upstream version. We'll upgrade when we can, and hope that fixes it.

Firefox's default font size was too small. Same for the default window size. And sometimes, maximizing the window still doesn't make the contents become bigger (but it works under the Windows version of Firefox). I haven't seen this myself yet, but if I do and can replicate it, I'll file bugs.

Another problem that was due to my bad installation: I had forgotten to install acpid, so every time she booted, she got an error message saying "Can't access ACPI events in var/run/acpid.socket". Her exact words when reporting this were: "I don't want to know. Really, I don't. But, just in case you do."

That's it for now. I may write an updated report later, if there's any interest.

(For the curious, I'm intentionally not naming her, to let her try the experiment in peace, rather than getting her mailbox full of well-intentioned advice on things to try or do.)

Random thought: Catching up with the last fifteen years of gaming

When I was young, about 1992, I played through Wolfenstein 3D. It was great fun. When DOOM came out later, however, I found it to be boring. It was a better game than the Wolfenstein one, but not so much better that I wanted to spend time on it. I never even looked at Quake, or any of the numerous newer games released since. Partly this was because I had converted completely to Linux, and most of the games didn't work on it. Partly, however, I didn't really care, since my favorite games were C and Python.

I have friends who play a lot, though. I even know a game design professional, Ville. Recently I asked him to to show me a good selection of games, primarily first person shooters. I saw, and played, Quake 2, Quake 4, Far cry, and Halo. They were all quite impressive, and pretty enjoyable, with Ville giving me advice all the time. Since Quake 2 works on Linux these days, I bought the CD-ROM and installed it.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work on my laptop. It doesn't make any sounds at all, and sounds are fairly important for the game play. It does work on my desktop machine, so I've played it with that, despite the mouse trouble I have: my optical mouse seems to be incompatible with fast paced game playing, or possibly it is the surface of my coffee table. Either way, occasionally (and usually during a fight) the character starts looking straigh up at the ceiling and rotating along the vertical axis several times a second. It takes a couple of seconds to fix this. Not very good for survival.

I'd fix it by trying a new mouse or getting a mouse pad, but I'm not sure I enjoy a first person shooter game enough to spend any effort on that. I've now played Quake 2 for a number of hours, and died a dozen times I think, without advancing very far. As long as I can spend time lazily shooting at alien monsters, I'm happy, but running around in mazes or figuring out which magic buttons to press in which order (after running through the maze to find them), has begun to bore me already.

The fact that I find the quick pace of game play during close combat more frustrating than rewarding isn't helping.

I will probably occasionally return to Quake 2, because the immersion in a glorious 3D world is so enticing, but I probably won't ever become enthusiastic.

There's other kinds of games, of course. Foobillard, for example, gives much of the same kind of "wow, it's like the real world" experience to me than Quake 2, but I can take my time aiming before shooting. Also, of course, billiards balls don't shoot back.

Unfortunately, I had to purge foobillard from my machine because it is too much fun, and I'd start a game (or a series of games) every time I had to wait for a compilation. One minute of fixing code and starting make, fifteen minutes of playing billiards, is not a good formula for productivity.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Random thought: Understanding, accepting, agreeing

"I can understand why he said it."

"Why do you defend him? How can you of all people agree with him?"

In everyday language, to "understand something" is often interpreted as "agree with something" or "accept something". Usually, that is also what is meant, but it would be better if it weren't. There is a subtle difference between these meanings, and it is annoying when this is lost in the communication and misunderstandings happen.

For example, I can definitely understand the urge of breaking into computers without permission. It is an intellectual, technical challenge, and there's the intense thrill of doing something you're not supposed to be doing. However, I do not, emphatically do not, agree, accept, condone, or otherwise suggest that it should be allowed. On the contrary, crackers should be taken out and spanked.

Let's agree to understand and accept this subtlety.

On the other hand, if making a point, it's good to know that not everyone understands subtlety, especially not all the time. Making the distinction clearer can prevent unnecessary disagreements.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Debian: The Debian Vacation Event

The Debian Project, in an inspired move to improve to reduce stress stemming from overwork, locked out its developers from machines. This experiment was a complete success. With no way to do uploads, or to read web logs on Planet Debian, Debian developers the world over had a very relaxing two days of vacation.

"Morale is up 1.3%", boasts Debian Project Leader Branden "aj" Robinson, adding "it only took four hours to unstick my finger from the Planet reload button, so that I could get up and have a shower".

Asked whether the project would recommend the same procedure for other free softare projects, Robinson replied, "You betcha". Open source mastodont Microsoft founder Bill Gates concurs. "We've been doing the same thing for years. We have an entire team devoted to keeping backdoors open for just this kind of opportunity."

Independent IT expert Lars Wirzenius jumps on the bandwagon. "Yes! A very good idea! I'll happily sell my services to anyone who wants to add a backdoor to their system. I'll make two for the price of one!".

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Enemies of Carlotta: EoC 2.0 alpha 1

I made the alpha 1 release of the EoC version 2.0 development series available. See the EoC home page for info. (EoC is my mailing list manager.)

Friday, July 07, 2006

Debian: Photo mosaics of Debian logos

Metapixel seems very cool.

Photomosaic of Debian open logo. Photomosaic of Debian official logo.

The full size pictures megabytes in size. Sorry.

I made these within minutes of hearing about metapixel. They can certainly be improved, but I don't have the time for that, sorry. I'm just happy to have made this easily.