Thursday, June 15, 2006

Linux Revisited

Recent relocations have forced me back into the Linux camp. I had a PC setting around, but I didn't have a copy of Windows XP to install. I wasn't about to spend the price of a brand new PC to buy one, so I installed a copy of Xandros I had from a previous flirtation I had with Linux. There had been a couple significant updates since I last played with it, so I thought I would give it one more try.

Now understand, I am not your typical computer geek. I view a PC as a tool, not as a political statement or some sort of pet that requires constant petting and grooming. That seems to put me at odds with the majority of the Linux community. Here is how my experience with Xandros has been going:

Installation: This couldn't have gone smoother. Pop in the CD, boot up, tell it to take over the entire hard disk, go eat dinner, then come back. Done.

Hardware changes: The PC originally had just a CD-ROM drive, so I snagged a Plextor DVD burner and swapped it in. I booted up Xandros, and... nothing happened. OK, maybe it already sensed the drive and made whatever changes seamlessly. The boot-up sequence displays a "hardware detection" message, so maybe I was all set. No joy; when I put a blank DVD into the drive, Xandros tries to read it and reports that the CD is in the wrong format. Hmm. I hadn't really done anything at that point, so I just re-installed. The installation detected the DVD burner and all seemed well.

DVD flakiness: Sometimes, when I burn a DVD, it gets to 99% completion, then just hangs there forever. The entire system is hung. The hardware is even hung. The only way to extract the DVD is with a paper clip jammed into the little emergency eject hole, which results in the DVD being spit out still rotating at 5000 RPM (or whatever an 8x DVD burner runs at). I'm sure that is real good for the hardware and the DVD. Xandros is hung to hardware reset.

File manager flakiness: I want to find and beat senseless the moron that thought it was a good idea to program the file manager to collapse the directory tree on one disk just because your mouse rolls over something else in the left pane.

Slowness: The above wouldn't be nearly as annoying if Xandros wasn't so god-damn slow about reading the directory from anything other than internal hard drives. USB drives, CD's, DVD's, whatever. It can take several minutes just to get a list of files in a folder. I have no idea what takes so long, but it is annoying as hell. Worse, playing MP3 files from my USB drive always results in random hiccups, like a USB2 drive is too slow to spit out data fast enough to keep up. Which is absurd given that I used to play MP3's off the same drive connected to a USB1.1 port on a slower Pentium 3 PC. But of course that was under the hideous, ugly, inefficient, bug-ridden, virus-laden Windows operating system, not slick, beautiful, bug-free, delivered-by-God-himself Linux.

MP3 files: I'm sick and tired of being lectured about how I can't possibly want to rip tracks from a CD to that hideous spawn of Satan file format called MP3. Would I rather rip them to God's own standard, otherwise known as OGG? Well, as almost no MP3 player in existence knows what an OGG file is, actually no. I would like MP3 files. I'm told I simply need to get some sort of license and install some sort of software from someone somewhere. Except no one seems to know who, how, or where. Maybe I lack patience and if I just spent four or five hours on Google, and a week being insulted on message boards for the thought-crime of defiling my Linux box with MP3 files, I could learn how to do it. I refer you to the second paragraph of this article.

Software: Linux is an open source operating system, yet most of the open source applications (excluding those that ship on the Xandros disk) only have binaries for Windows machines. I'm expected to download and compile source code. There may have been a time in my life when I had nothing better to do, but that was a long time ago. If the Linux desktop landscape is so fragmented that it isn't possible to have binaries for applications, then I guess the only thing I can say is, "Nice knowing you. Say 'Hi!' to Gem and BeOS when you hit the dustbin."

Digital camera flakiness: I recently purchased a Sony DSC-S600. It works in either USB Mass Storage mode, PTP Mode, or Auto, which detects how it is being access and responds either as a USB mass storage device or a PTP device. I plug it into a Windows XP machine, and the OS immediately pops up a window showing the image and video files. I didn't bother to test it, because I generally don't bother with photo album software, but I'm confident that if I had opened up something like Kodak's PhotoShare, it would have automatically found the camera, accessed it as a PTP device and that would have worked without a hitch as well. I carried the camera over to my Xandros box and plugged it into a USB port and opened File Manager. Nothing. No sign the camera is even plugged in. I hit the Xandros message boards and find someone singing the praises of Digikam. I realize it is already installed and fire it up. I go into the screen to configure the type of camera I have and hit the auto detect button. Camera cannot be auto detected. Hmmm. Back to the message boards. No real help there; just a lot of Linux cheerleading and "I have completely different camera than you, and I mine works perfectly!" Yea, thanks. And up yours. I change the camera setting from Auto to USB Mass Storage mode. Now Digikam auto detects the camera as a generic USB device. I can see the pictures on it and download them. However, I cannot delete them, and I cannot download video files. Well, to be precise, I was able to download exactly one video file, and have never been able to since. Also, if I unplug the camera, then plug it back in at a later time, I have to go into the setup, delete the camera, then re-auto detect it before it will recognize that the camera is plugged in.

OK, maybe this is because I have it set up as a USB mass storage device. Change the camera setup to PTP Mode, open Digikam, delete the existing camera configuration, then auto detect. It detects my camera as some other Sony camera. Progress, of sorts. Except it's just like before: I can see the pictures. I can download them into photo albums. I cannot delete the images off the camera. I cannot download videos. No matter what order I do things in, I have to delete and re-auto detect the camera after every session. None of the problems are insurmountable, but they are annoying as well as being an indication that Xandros and the software distributed with it need a tad more baking.

AJAX: This complaint isn't just about Xandros, but again, many of these problems are an indication that those involved with this project are not, and do not consult with, typical computer users. I'm a big fan of AJAX and what it means for the desktop. I use Flickr, which requires nothing but a web browser. And we have Writely and Google Spreadsheets in the pipeline. Fully functional versions of what has always been assumed would be locally installed desktop software, that involve no installation whatsoever. They don't care if you run Windows, OS-X, or Linux, as long as you have a reasonably modern browser (meaning a recent version of Opera, Firefox, IE, or Safari). When Writely and Google Spreadsheets were announced, I said, "Ya know, if someone comes up with an AJAX version of Power Point and iTunes, that would pretty much cover the software needs of 90% of the PC users in the world, outside of video games."

Then I find a web site that promises an AJAX version of iTunes that (for the mere sum of $40) would allow you to store some unspecified, but limited amount of MP3 files on their servers and thus available to you from anywhere in the world. Cool! It's only after you pony up the $40 dollars that you find out that it really isn't an AJAX application; it's a bunch of Python scripts. By the way, I never found out how much storage space I had.

So far, none of this is Xandros' or the Linux community's fault. What happened next is.

I double-click on the script and Xandros brings it up in an edit window. Huh. Too bad I had no interest in editing a Python script. Well, maybe there isn't a Python interpreter installed. I poke around and finally in desperation just bring up a console window and type "python". I get some blah, blah back that indicates that Python is installed. So I type in "python and a really long fucking string of characters that I hope to God actually points to the script" and hit enter. I get an error that the script requires some library.


The scripts came with a readme file. It has three lines in it. The first tells me that the software is written in Python. The second tells me what version of Python I need installed. The third tells me that the script requires some library. No links. A grand total of 30 words in a readme file is all the documentation you get for $40 these days.

Double Fuck.

I'm starting to think I just threw away $40 on a scam. I send a note to the help desk e-mail hoping for some links or something. I get this:

"Our engineers have suggested that you read the documentation provided on"


So I did that. (correctly) asserts that I already have Python if I am running Linux. OK, thanks, but I know that. What I wanted to know was why I had to type in 200 characters of shit at a command prompt to run a script. No clue. Well, I'll worry about that later. I find a web site that looks like it may be the home of the Python library I need. After wading through the typical open source community manifesto crap, I find out there are no Linux binaries, just source code I'm supposed to download and compile. Unless I'm running Windows. Then they have a binary.

Triple Fuck.

My response to the help desk, involving suggested sex acts their "engineers" could perform on themselves that were physically impossible and illegal in 10 states, was somewhat intemperate, but I think I was a sufficiently-large asshole that they were convinced they would rather give me my $40 back rather than deal with me. [Update: I got a refund; once again it pays to be an asshole. I'm sure if I had been polite, I would still be getting fucked over.]

If we were talking about a Windows application, I would have downloaded a Setup.exe file, run it, and everything would have Just Worked. OS-X would have read my mind, found the software while I was asleep, automatically installed it, and put a sticky note next to my alarm clock to tell me that my wish had been granted. (OK; slight exaggeration. But not by much.) Linux? Just one frustration after aggravation after annoyance adding up to a giant pain in the ass.

Miscellaneous annoyances: File manager crashes for no apparent reason. Folders and/or files that have been moved or deleted continue to show in their original location. No amount of clicking on Refresh will convince it that the file or folder no longer exists. You have to close and re-open the file manager.

Firefox crashes for no apparent reason. The Windows version has never done this to me. If the initial page that displays in place of my specified home page is to be believed, a new version of Firefox is auto-installed about every 12 hours, yet the version number never changes. I have no idea if anything is being installed or not. Maybe the Firefox team is just trying to annoy me.

Limewire crashes for no apparent reason, or turns into a large, brown square that won't go away until you reboot the system. The Windows version has never done either of these things to me.

Mouse controls behave in odd ways. For example, in the Blogger editor, if I click on the icon to make the highlighted text a hyperlink, the icon is copied to the clipboard, then pasted into whatever document in whatever application that I happen to click on next.

Scroll bars don't appear when needed. Sometimes.

Random hangs when only one or two applications are running. The system eventually comes back, but only after several minutes of not responding to any keyboard or mouse input. Unfortunately, all keystrokes and mouse clicks are queued up and executed after the system comes back to life.

Audio is horribly out of synch with video. Worse, if you close a video while it is playing, the audio continues to play. I have found no way to shut this off (including deleting the file and emptying the trash) other than starting another video. Which, of course, you have to allow to play to completion, otherwise, you have phantom audio playing.

Xandros doesn't have any idea what a movie DVD is. My seven-year-old Win2K laptop knows and can play it full-screen with the audio in synch with the video.

All of this and more is why Linux will never get out of the server room and on the desktop except for the biggest technoweenies. Everything is just too damn hard and/or too damn annoying. I'm no fan of Bill Gates, and Apple's we-know-what-is-best-for-you attitude is somewhat off-putting, but at the end of the day, I just want to get some fucking work done. I can do that with Windows. I can do that with style with OS-X. Linux just makes everything too damn difficult. I'll stick with it for now, because a) I'm flat broke; b) I promised myself I would never buy another Windows box; c) Macs are expensive (see a)); d) everyone says waiting for Macs with the new Intel chip due in August is the smart move. We'll see how much more aggravation I can take before I go nuts and head over to the Apple web site with credit card in hand.


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