Monday, December 12, 2005

Panther on a PC? The Time May Arrive

When I originally thought of having a "Geek Week" feature at Daily Rev, I figured it would be a nice break from the grind of the news and the painful throb of political corruption. Was I ever wrong.

Technology is all over the news, especially at this time of year. It's very prominent in the business section; gets plenty of press in the political arena; and there is even the occasional scandal involving tech.

Like today, the day after I had written a panegyric on the open source software model, noting Wikipedia as a prime example of the promise that open sourcing holds for government and society as a whole, as well as technology. It appears some nebish (who probably knows nothing about technology or open source software) has broken the honor code of Wikipedia and written some slander into an online article at Wiki about the Kennedy assassination. He's been exposed and, to his minimal credit, has apologized for his act ( many so-called journalists in the mainstream media might take a cue from that?).

So, in spite of the fact that the air is full of noise today about killing Wikipedia, I find myself more in its court than ever. I will not, of course, defend the moron that wrote lies into a Wiki article, anymore than I'd defend Judith Miller for re-hashing the Bushies' lies about Iraq in the New York Times.

But the question that occurred to me is not, "how was this allowed to happen?" but rather, "isn't it amazing that this is the first documented instance of such an egregious error in an open source encyclopedia, when there is the most wretched falsehood and the most devious spin published in the most celebrated newspapers and magazines of our culture every single day?"

I consult Wikipedia quite regularly, often on things that I know a fair bit about myself, and I'm often astonished at the accuracy, depth, and articulation of the work there. So before you join in on the feeding frenzy of umbrage currently raging among the pundits of the mainstream media over Wikipedia's bad apple, I'd suggest that you recall the words of the guy who looks like Mel Gibson, even at the age of 2005: "let him who is without sin cast the first stone."

(End of editorial--we now return you to your regularly scheduled Geek Week feature)

Technology: the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. The definition often gets lost amid the culture that surrounds it, and the gear, toys, and aura that have become associated with technology. The word itself is of ancient Greek origin, from the word "techne," meaning, "skill, art, craft." Aristotle first used the compound term in his Rhetorics: technologia, to him, was a systematization of rules and formulae to assist in the articulation of thought and argument.

So a technology is a system, an interactive and synergistic ordering of parts whose collective relationships add up to a whole greater than their sum. Such a system is meant to serve practical purposes that help people think, act, organize, communicate, and record information. These purposes, when properly fulfilled, tend to move the human race forward. So why do we see hackers, virus writers, spyware geeks, and zombie gamers appearing to dominate the landscape of technology?

Perhaps the first point to be made in this respect is that hackers are present and probably more ubiquitous in other fields of endeavor beyond technology. The government of the United States of America is currently run by a band of the most reckless and avaricious political hackers imaginable. There are religious virus writers in abundance today, led by the scheming, predatory toad in the pointed hat in the Vatican, appropriately named Mr. Ratsinger (closely followed by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and a host of other demons in purple robes). And spyware is nothing new to this culture of ours—technology has simply given it a name and a unique forum in which to operate. If you want to see the original spyware/adware/malware in action, just turn on your TV set and watch a few of the commercials: that's been going on for over half a century. Returning to government, if Karl Rove is not the king of malware, then I'm ready to listen to anyone else's nomination.

So technology did not invent corruption; it simply gave it a new and popular place to fester. Fortunately, the PC and the web are still very young—I am always amused to hear people talk about Windows 3.1 as if it were something out of an ancient history tome, whereas it was released barely 20 years ago! And as we pointed out yesterday, there is still a vast potential of youthful enthusiasm and invention in technology that is largely absent in politics, spirituality, and other, more wrinkled arenas of our culture. Thus, it is the web and the blogosphere that have helped to keep what remains of democratic debate in our society alive.

The point is that a system is only as good as its components and their mutual relationships. Here in my apartment, I have two computers: an "old" Apple iMac (the beautiful dome-shaped iMac that preceded the current sleek models which house computer and display in one slim unit), and a Gateway machine with a P4 processor running Windows XP. Both are solid, well-constructed machines in terms of pure hardware; but they vary considerably when it comes to how they work. Software is the functional heart of a computer (or, for that matter, any system, including the human brain); so when it comes to the kind of synergistic relationship that we look for among the components of a good system, I find that the Apple machine wins hands down.

Why? Well, Apple has a distinct advantage: they make both the hardware and the core software of every machine they sell. A Wintel box might be made by any of a hundred or more different manufacturers, while the heart of its software, of course, comes from Redmond, Washington, home of Microsoft.

When I come home from work each night, I turn them both on and let them warm up. The iMac boots, loads my email client, opens a couple of other programs I use frequently, and fetches the day's mail, all in about two minutes. The Gateway boots and comes to a sign-on screen, in about the same time. Once it's logged in, it usually has to download some patches and security updates before it will allow me to move on and start working.

The iMac, it must be admitted, is not much of a tinkerer's delight: even if I wanted to add components or futz around with the software guts of the thing, it's kind of hard to turn a dome-shaped machine upside down and tinker; and unless you're a UNIX geek, playing around with the software can be downright dangerous. But fortunately, it never needs tweaking or fixing: at two and a half years old, it is just as snappy and responsive as it was at two weeks. It's been through every version and upgrade of Mac OS X to date: Jaguar, Panther, and now Tiger. I have never had a problem with updates. The virus software (yes, I have it) is the Maytag repairman of the techno-world: it never has anything to do.

The Gateway, on the other hand, requires constant maintenance and support. I remember that I once wrote a blog entry titled "What if Elevators Worked Like Windows XP?", which got quite a response from the geeks I know at work. Well, the fact is that if the world was so organized, people would either be very healthy or else there would be no skyscrapers left in our cities. The common wintel box is constantly bumping up against hardware conflicts, device failures (usually due to software drivers), viruses, spyware, and an assortment of other unexplainable maladies. Keep in mind that Microsoft has, to my knowledge, never made a computer in its history; while Apple has made them—along with the operating systems that run on them—for 25 years running.

So, if you're looking for a computer this Christmas (20 more FOX-O'Reilly points for me—no "happy holidays" here), you need to first decide what you like to do with such a machine. Would you like to put a foot on the path of geek-dom and learn about device driver settings, registry entries, BIOS conflicts, and configuration settings? Then go and get a Dell or any of the other popular wintel machines; and I hope you have plenty of time on your hands. Would you like a machine that is reliable, elegant, versatile, compatible (in terms of file sharing, especially with the advent of windows-friendly Tiger) with most other platforms and software while also impervious to the viruses and malware of its competitors—something you can turn on and get to work or play without having to download patches and updates first? Then Apple's your choice.

With that selection made, you may be wondering, "desktop or laptop?" My advice: unless you're looking for a loaded machine with the power to serve as a media center, gaming station, video, music, or photography studio, or web server, look to a laptop. There's nothing like being able to take it with you, wherever you go. If you're leaning that way, the choice of brands is fairly simple: Toshiba or the Thinkpad for the wintel crowd; the iBook or Powerbook for the Mac-o-philes. In either case, go for as many features as your wallet can stand. The most important are a solid processor (Intel or AMD for wintel—avoid budget "Celeron" type processors if possible; the clock speed is less important than the total hardware environment the processor is running within, but 1GHz or better, P4 wintel or G4 Mac is a good minimum standard); RAM (512MB minimum; 1GB preferred); both CD-RW and DVD-RW drives (the ability to read and write to both CDs and DVDs—the Apple machines come with the "Superdrive" which does it all); lots of storage on a fast, 5400 or 7200 rpm hard disk (60GB minimum for laptops; 100GB for desktops—the more the merrier); a snappy video card with at least 64MB of VRAM; a good sound card or chipset is important, especially in the iTunes/iPod era; and a display that's both appealing and functional for screen size and weight (I still have a CRT—the old tube-type displays—connected to my Gateway, but obviously a plasma/LCD display is preferable unless, like me, your cat needs a warm place to lie down).

If you go with a wintel box, I can't stress enough the importance of a top-flight security software suite. I recommend Trend Micro's PC-Cillin, which I use on the Gateway. Don't even think of connecting a wintel box to the web before you have fully installed a working version of security/anit-virus software. Mac users, for now you can just plug in the machine and go; but don't imagine that your bliss will be long lasting, for with the arrival of Apple's Intel-laden machines next year (maybe as early as January '06), hackers and virus writers will be busy coding bugs and worms for the Mac universe, especially if Apple takes a solid bite out of the Win-Dell market hegemony.

Tomorrow, we'll consider trends in the online universe, and later this week we'll have a visit from a real geek to talk about what's coming (and not) in 2006.

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