Monday, April 25, 2005

Multiple O/S Tango, interlude

Learn to beware whenever you're learning something new and the phrase, "It's pretty easy once you get used to it" pops up.

A long time ago I had a car wreck, and in the savings-building interim between the two week insurance loaner and the purchace of the new wheels a couple of incredibly kind and generous friends let me borrow a second car they weren't using.

He bought it for Her, but She didn't have a license and was still freaked about driving, so they let me borrow it so it would be driven since Bad Things happen to cars which sit.

It was an Audi Fox, quite old and rusty at the time, and the agreement was that I was to be a sort of test pilot, identifying and hopefully correcting problems while I drove it so that She wouldn't be bothered by them.

Unfortunately for them, I'm freakishly adaptable to odd situations.

One big problem was that the starter stuck. Every time you got into the car and turned the key... nothing. However, we found out by listening to the subtle noises it produced that the starter solenoid engaged, and that current was flowing to the starter and it moved a little. A little tap with a hammer on the starter body always freed it up, no problem. Since replacing the starter was well beyond my troubleshooting mission, I very quickly got in the habit of grabbing the hammer I kept by the driver's seat, walking around to the passenger side, bending down, reaching under the fender, and striking the starter. This very quickly became automatic, and I soon learned where to hit instinctively without having to look under the car.

Not that I didn't work on it. It overheated and the cooling system exploded when I was using it, and I replaced the hoses and thermostat, in addition to many little easily fixed details.

Friends who often drove with me quickly got used to it as well, and one friend even had fun doing the hammer work for me. Hitting your car with a hammer to get it to start was just incredibly amusing to people of a certain mental bent.

By and by She got her license and about the same time I bought a new vehicle, so we met for me to demonstrate the Care and Feeding of her new baby...

I have no words to describe the Look on her face when I casually chatted about how to hit the starter with the hammer before you started it up... confusion, frustration, and slight horror come close... "It's pretty easy once you get the hang of it!"

The more I use different computer systems, and try to get things done and solve problems on all of them, the more I begin to understand how most people get in the habit of not thinking about having to crawl under the metaphorical car and hit it with a hammer. It's when you try and teach intelligent but novice people how to use computers that you begin to notice the looks of confusion, frustration, and slight horror at what you've gotten comfortable with.

And most powerfully, the look that almost screams, "There must be an easier way!"

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Multiple O/S Tango, First Movement, in Gee Unnatural

I've spent the past few hours dealing with one of those really, really little computer problems that seem to creep up from time to time. The ones that are so simple and insignificant they threaten to completely destroy the vast and complicated computing house of cards which is the modern operating system.

Our trusty little computer I built a few years ago has probably been the most reliable computer I've ever worked on. Not to say that things haven't gone wrong, they have, but the things which have gone wrong on this box have all been mild and simple to fix for the most part.

For the past couple of years I seduced it into running multiple operating systems. On my main hard drive I've got Windows, and on the second I've been running Linux.

I've always been of two minds about computers. Sometimes I want to geek out, open up the hood and tinker around with the innards, but much of the time I just want to do something. Much of the time I want the computer to not only get out of my way, but actually help me accomplish something useful, with a minimum of thought not focused on the task at hand.

And of course for every task there are usually two kinds of tools: ones that are easy to use, and ones which are hard to learn but ultimately more powerful and useful. This is very true of computers.

A good computing system should offer both kinds of tool. Hardly any do.

So, I've found that the route to having both kinds of tools available for our household's computing needs has been to run both Windows and Linux. (Although, I've been very intrigued by where Macs have gone lately.)

Oddly enough, I've found that the stereotypes of both Windows and Linux really aren't always true. Although they are true enough to justify the stereotypes' existences.

Windows has always been seen, or at least marketed as, the Everyman system. It does what You need it to do and you don't need to learn much.

Until you do. And then it quickly becomes an Odyssey of Initiation into the Heirarchy of the Black and Arcane Magicks necessary to placate the Great God System. Oh, Regedit, accept this humble and pathetic sacrifice of mine most Holy Weekend.

Or you need it to do something more than office, game, media, or internet.

However, what it does do it does damn well. Software installation is almost bloody effortless, which one doesn't fully appreciate until one runs Linux, where this has always been a serious weak point. Click and *pouf* There it is on your desktop! And nearly everything runs on Windows.


And, of course, if you work in an office, you probably use Windows, and Office, and if you have to take work home it's nice to have it at home as well. This is especially true because Microsoft likes to "tweak" the standards for Office file formats every so often so that other programs can't read Office files, forcing you to buy the latest version.

This is slowly becoming an issue with us. M----- uses Office at work, and likes to have Office at home so she can do stuff here and at work with no fuss. We've had Office '97 since, well, 97, and we've never needed anything better. We haven't even come close to using the features we already have, much less have need for anything better. We own a huge Tome on Office, and there are powers and functions I've never even come close to using. I know of someone who used Excel 95 to create a networked business system for a company and it handled everything from invoicing to payroll.

Office is honestly one of the best software suites ever created. With the incredibly HUGE exception of their file system.

Microsoft has always had Office write bizarre and arcanely complicated files, so that none of the competing products could read their output. And then they tie it into their Windows biz, or charge you twice as much, like Mac Office.

For instance, I just used Word 97 to create a file which was only the word "test". Four characters = four bytes plus layout and font info. 19,456 bytes. It's worse with every new realease. Someone with office XP, open up Word, do nothing else but type "test" and save. How big of a file did it create? Post a comment, I'm curious.

Anyway, while a good bit of that is stuff which allows Office to be flexible and powerful, a lot of it is obfuscation.

This really blew when I worked for places where people used different software, like Lotus or WordPerfect, or whathaveyou. It got tiresome for people to have to always request not to have that file in Word format, because someone couldn't open it.

I mean, Office is in any other respect clearly superior, so why were they worried? Was WordPerfect's 5% market share a real worry? Evidently, yes.

M----- uses a different version of Office at work than we do here at home. I've created a couple rather simple Word documents, emailed them to her, and had the formatting be all wonky when she opened them in the newer, and supposedly compatable, version of Word at work! And when she "fixed" the formatting and emailed it back to me... all wonky here. Seriously annoying for us personally, but I'm sure this has caused many corporate types to Look Bad when, say, giving presentations or taking work home and emailing it to the boss at work. Good for sales of new versions of Office, I'm sure.

Anyway... in contrast to the Windows universe of computing experience there's Linux. Which is mostly free and a product of the work of many thousands of hardcore computer geeks out there who live for making powerful programs and making them available for anyone to use. The central philosophy is that "information wants to be free" beloved of hippies, hackers, librarians, and academics not writing grant proposals everywhere.

Linux is what's known as an "open" system, where all the details are public and open to scrutinity. Somewhat like how science works, where new data and theories are subject to peer review to see if they work or not.

Linux has always had the reputation of being a tool of the second type. That is, ultimately more flexible and powerful, but with a heck of a learning curve. Over the past several years it's gotten much more friendly, but still lags behind Windows quite a bit if you aren't geeky.

Since it's been mostly the work of hardcore geeks, it still remains a weird hodgepodge of effortless and transparent power coupled with difficult arcania. Whenever some geek somewhere has gotten the bug to create the world's best and/or easiest tool for doing something, you have, well, sometimes the world's best and easiest tool. But sometimes just the best, but bloody difficult, and sometimes the easiest, but bloody limited.

Again, it's gotten so much easier lately as the Linux community has taken the useability question more seriously, and since there has been some actual money on the table for software development. Both Sun and IBM have invested quite a lot into the free software world, and notable IPOs like RedHat have brought more venture capital into the community. For good or ill, depending upon you viewpoint.

I've found that there are tasks which Linux does far more easily and powerfully than Windows. Where easy and powerful have been combined, it's freakin' magical.

I never use our scanner with Windows if I can possibly avoid it. So many of the software "tools" included with Windows devices are more pretty eye candy than substance, and often make it hard to do what their purported purpose is. The crap software included with my CD-ROM drive and scanner, to name two, are horrible. To paraphrase Bart Simpson, I never thought it was possible to both blow and suck at the same time.

Our scanner with Linux, on the other hand, just works. No other software needed. And the program Linux uses is downright helpful about options and choices of where to send the scan and what to do with it afterwards.

CD ripping/buring applications are likewise clean, simple, and powerful. The options to do just about anything are there if you need them, but nearly invisible if you don't.

Printing, on the other hand, is still the realm of Windows, because printer makers usually only provide Windows drivers, and Mac ones if you're lucky. Linux? pshaw...

There is a Linux printer program, which does a damn fine job on many of the more popular slightly older printers, but not always...

But on the Linux side, much of the "free" software for Windows you might find for Windows on the internet is just a front end to hook you into buying the "complete" version if you're lucky. If you're unlucky, you've just installed a keylogging program which is even now recording everything you do and sending it to Indonesia in the hope that you'll enter a credit card number or bank password.

Linux doesn't have virus scanning software, because it's not an issue. I went back to Windows 98 from Win2K because of the virus problems. And I've been happy about that choice ever since. Also, because Win98 simply runs faster. Every version of Windows seems to run slower and slower. Once again, why did you install the new version of Windows? Really? Installing Linux on a slow Windows machine often feels like an upgrade, because many things run so much faster.

Of course, then there's the new Mac, where every new version is faster than the old ones, and more powerful. But Apple's always been a hardware company, and you have to buy one of their expensive yet oh, so pretty systems.

So anyway, anyway... back to my original problem...

Since software installation has been a bit of an issue with Linux, once I got a working Linux system I pretty much left it alone. If it ain't broke, don't fix it!

However, while it worked, and worked well, I knew there were newer and other, perhaps easier to use options, available. But which to try? The Linux world offers hundreds of possibilities... or even the Big Few versions could confuse even hardcore geeks with their relative options.

The basic "Linux system" can be combined with thousands of other programs and packaged in various ways depending upon your particular need. Fantastic if you're informed, educated, and knowledgeable. Confusing as hell if you aren't.

*end of part one of the saga*

Reading Neal Stephenson's essaay In the Beginning Was The Command Line may be helpful. You can download it here or read it online here.

Note well that this is out of date in some respects. BeOS doesn't really exist anymore, but Mac has actually incorporated most of what Neil thought was cool about BeOS. MacOS is now built on top of a free system, BSD Unix, so you have the best of both worlds: a slick and easy to use top end over a free and open core system which you can open up and geek out on if you so desire. And Windows is, to use his car analogy, now producing huge, expensive SUVs. XP is kinda like those "luxury" SUVs: huge, gas-guzzling, hard to drive, and heaven help you if you actually dare to take what's in all respects but looks a suburban station wagon offroad, but it impresses people who don't know any better and looks good in your driveway if you care about such things.

Teaser for part two: how a few bytes of data on my hard drive almost rendered my entire system unusable when switching Linux systems!

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Reader requests?

Hey, the idea of a reader request week sounds fun.

What topics would you all like me to delve into / blather on / pontificate / lecture / wonder about?

Anything and Everything. The Great Fatoudust seezall, knowzall!

Requests in the comments to this post, and I'll begin in a week.

I think one request per reader should about fill a week...

One answer to a long-standing question

Recently author John Scalzi asked for reader requests of blogging topics.

I chimed in with my perennial favorite, a question that's been bothering me for years and for which I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer, "Why do so many people suck?"

It sounds glib, but it's actually one of the more important questions I'd like to see addressed about humanity. Think about it. Really.

Didn't expect to hear an answer, as most people seem to chuckle at first. Then pause. And then after a bit say something like, "I don't know..." and assume a puzzled and troubled expression. And then change the subject.

John actually bothered to give a real answer. Cool.

Not necessarily a satisfying answer, mind you, and certainly not a comforting one, but I'm not sure either of those are possible. But, he did give an answer which included the only possible solution to the question I've ever seen:

How do we "...
create a society where sucking is not actually the path of least resistance..."?

Excellent question!

I'll be pondering this and post any answers I come up with... how 'bout you?

Thursday, April 14, 2005

An odd time was had by all

I've been attending a drum circle with M----- these past few months, which has been fun.

One question I asked of the group's host was about odd time signatures.

All of the beats we had been playing have been in the usual even times. Mostly four, but lately in six, which has confused many people.

You probably don't realize it, but all of the music you like is rhythmically challenged.

Almost all of the music you would ever hear is in one of only a few very basic rhythmic signatures.

Just about every rock and pop song ever recorded is in 4/4 time.Four beats of one count per beat. Some punky things are in 2/4 time, or doubletime. Same thing, just faster.

The big rock 'n' roll revolution was a shift within the 4/4 beat, the transformation to a backbeat, or emphasis on beats 2 and 4 instead of beats 1 and 3.

If a movement as huge as Rock 'n' Roll could happen with merely a change in beat emphasis, what's possible with different beats altogether?

Waltzes and some western swing and country songs are in 3/4. Three counts per big beat. Doubletime to 6/4 for some alternacountry. And it's very different music, with a different industry behind it at the present time...

It's all still even, which is to say that there are an even number of beats per measure. When you're tapping out the rhythm, you'll count out an even number of beats before you repeat yourself.

Even with time in three most people hear dotted half notes, or a beat and a half, which is to say they hear a rhythm in two over top of the beat in three. Which is the basic waltz beat, which is a count of three against two. This is why a waltz is so hard to dance for most people, some folks hear a three, and some a two. If partners don't hear the same beat *ouch*

Most modern country is NOT in three, but in six, which allows a rock backbeat, and is thus EVEN.

Anyway, I'd asked about rhythms in five, the simplest truly odd time, which the drum leader hadn't heard about, so I thought I'd explore this.

I've been a fan of so-called progressive rock for a long time. These are rockers who play music more complicated than the usual three minute blues-based verse/chorus structures. Classic bands in the genre include Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Rush, and so on... there are many, many, others.

Sometimes they got inspiration from other styles, like jazz or classical, but most often it was just a self-indulgent exercise in complexity. But sometimes truly wonderful music happened. Like anything, 95% was crap, but oh that other 5% ....

Anyway, one big exercise for a progressive rock band was to experiment with unusual time signatures.

In attempting to adapt these beats to hand drumming patterns, I must say that almost all of them sound very artificial when simplified to just right and left hands... they just stick an extra beat into an otherwise happy rhythym, which makes a beat with a hiccup. None of the odd beats felt natural or danceable or had swing or funk. They all felt like an otherwise natural beat with an extra bit of crap added artificially.

Which is probably because all the beats I've ever heard have been even. Of course that sounds natural... but then again...

Interestingly enough, one of the finest rhythms in five is a jazz rhythm from the early 50s. Dave Brubeck's "Take 5" is an excellent example of rhythmic fiveness which swings and feels natural, and adapts itself naturally to left/right hand drumming.

It's really fun, as it feels like a beat in four, with a "drag/scrape" beat, which if you hear the music and tap out, there will be one beat where you drag your hand across the table automatically as the other hand pauses briefly. It feels natural!

This is the best example of a beat in five I've discovered. Anyone out there have other examples?

M----- once challenged that there would never be good sex music composed in five.

I'm open to experimentation.