Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Geek Wednesday: The Open Source Society

We have a lot of stuff for Geek Wednesday today, but first a few valuable informational links on the theme we've been pursuing so far this week—the arrogance of our government and its paid media.

First up is Jon Stewart, who pleads with Robert Novak for understanding. Hilarious.

And yes, I know I said I'd stay away from MSNBC because of what they did to Alterman, but who can stop watching Keith Olbermann and his eloquence to Power?

And speaking of Alterman, he's just as relevant, sane, and topical in his new home at Media Matters as he was at MSNBC. The following is his preface to a truly bizarre WSJ union-bashing editorial:

One of the many afflictions facing American political life is the lack of an honest conservative intellectual cadre. The leading voices of the movement, The Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal editorial page, routinely voice statements that they, themselves, are too intelligent to believe. But they know that if they throw it out there, it will be picked up by the idiots on cable TV and talk radio and will control the discourse.

And just in case you think there's nothing happening in the world except the mysterious debris that's following the space shuttle around, there's more trouble and unrest in the world (aside from Iraq, that is): a military coup in Thailand and a spate of public rioting in Hungary. To know what's happening all over the planet, and to obtain a reasonably journalistic perspective on it, never mind the American MSM—point your TV remote or your browser to the BBC.


Geek Wednesday

Microsoft sez: nobody can be big or successful but US! YouTube, you're goin' down, because you're too much like US. You see, it's that old chicken-and-the-egg thing: does arrogance begin with government or with corporations?

AOL, makers of the world's worst browser (I've had a recent chance to confirm this, since I downloaded it after they started giving the pitiful thing away), is fighting worms; while IE has lifted its dress for porno malware writers. Yep, you guessed it: IE and AOL use the same engine. If you're still stuck in Windows hell, Firefox and/or Opera should be your choices; on the Mac, Safari is still king for speed and reliability, with Mozilla's Camino, Firefox, Opera, and Omnigroup's remarkable Ominweb in close pursuit. For some other options, see our Linux review below.

Ken Fisher of Ars Technica has spent some time with RC1 of Vista (that's "release candidate," not "Royal Crown"). He says it's not a bad piece of late beta, and concludes, "my greatest praise for RC1 so far: no fatal crashes, no shell crashes, and only the occasional Internet Explorer barf. In other words, it's a lot like working on Windows XP. Take that as you may."

Ubuntu Linux: The Dapper Drake

Over the weekend, I installed the newest version of Ubuntu Linux, codenamed "Dapper Drake" onto the Wintel machine here; and I was even more impressed with this than I had been with the earlier version ("Hoary Hedgehog"). As you can see, the OS delivers visually (the Earth shot is of Picasa for Linux, from Google's Labs); and I found out that there's more to it than meets the eye.

Ubuntu's installation disk contains a fully functioning "live" version of the OS, which you can use while in Windows. If you like it well enough to install it, it comes with a helpful partition manager, so you can create a partition for Ubuntu without harming your Windows installation. The installation went smoothly for me, and the machine now starts with a black screen that gives me ten seconds to choose whether to boot to Ubuntu or Windows.

After logging in, the GNOME desktop opens. It is a refreshing change from the puffy garish blue of XP, and offers warm, earth-toned tawny oranges, golds, and browns instead. The OS required only one download, install, and restart from its built-in upgrade manager (as opposed to the half-dozen or so you'll have to endure during a Windows installation).

Once that was done, I was presented with a fully functioning Office suite, OpenOffice; a browser (Firefox for Linux) to which I later added Opera for Linux and Konqueror, both from the Synaptic Package Manager application. The SPM contains hundreds of offerings, from the mega-geeky database and developer tools to productivity tools, performance enhancers, games, and graphical/multimedia applications. Every single one of these is free: that's the beauty of the open source world.

Now if you're unfamiliar with this seemingly communistic computing realm, let me explain what's behind it, because it is no different than what I and my partner do in this space right here. At Daily Rev, we research and write about what we think matters to freethinking people. We don't get a dime for it (I assure you, the advertising has done nothing for us, I have scarcely sold but a few copies of my books, and the donation link is treated as if it were infested with plague), but we keep doing it anyway. The work itself is regenerative, instructional, and often even entertaining. In other words, we do this from a sense of love for the work and its content.

Same thing with geeks: they work at jobs where they probably write code for projects that really don't fulfill them, so they come home and write code for a community of users, in an environment where they're doing something valuable, invigorating, and restorative. This is why I have written, time and again, of the vast potential contained in the "open source" model for government, politics, culture, the arts, and society in general.

So what's the trade-off? What do you have to give up if you're leaving the expensive, dangerous, but vaguely reassuring, nipple-sucking realm of Microsoft's XP or even (the less dangerous, somewhat cheaper) Apple Mac OS X?

As far as I can see, not a lot. But you do have to put something into the project: you have to make the effort to learn a few things; you may even have to re-familiarize yourself with the command line again here and there (though far less than you might fear). Remember, if you've been around computers since the '80's or early '90's, we all started out on the DOS command prompt. I can recall gratefully returning to C:\ after a bout with repeated crashes of Windows 3.1. So many of us have it in our backgrounds to learn a little command line action again, and the payoff is considerable.

The most obvious benefit is cost: Linux, and everything that runs on it, is free. Think of how much money you've spent on software, whether for a Wintel box or an Apple machine: my conservative guess for myself would be something on the order of five grand over the 20-odd years I've owned computers. Now, with the advent of web-based productivity software, the move to a platform like Linux makes even more sense. What do I need a $300 OS for if I'm going to use my PC to write documents in (Google's word processor) or spreadsheets in OpenOffice or Google Spreadsheets? A copy of Apple's iPhoto, which comes with the iLife suite, costs $75 (unless you're buying a new Mac); but Picasa for Linux is free.

One area where you'll find both a little frustration and a refreshing taste of human ingenuity is in video and multimedia processing. Quicktime, Windows Media, Real Audio, and iTunes currently lack Linux flavoring. But geeks are an endlessly resourceful lot: they find workarounds and alternatives to the corporate squeeze at every turn. I've just downloaded "mplayer," an open-source adapter for reading QT files on the web. There are a number of music players for Linux, and again, I've been very impressed by the graphics handling of Ubuntu Linux. Dedicated geeks can write drivers, codecs, translators, and converters for just about anything that runs on silicon, so your job as a user is merely to do the necessary research to find out who's developed the thing you're after.

The overarching point to all this is right in line with everything else we talk about here at Daily Rev. We have entered a time in human history when respect—for each other, for differing values and purposes, and most of all for the living planet we inhabit—will be paramount to our survival, both as individuals and as a species. The corporate, capitalist model has failed us—not because it's inherently flawed (it might be, but I'm not sure I can make that judgment); but more because it's been allowed such destructive dominance. We need alternatives, and we need to see them practiced widely. If the dominance of the corporate model is weakened, then business will be strengthened, and corporations will start behaving better, too.

So, as I have mentioned many times here, capital is not the culprit. You can have everything you need to live comfortably and happily without falling into the pit of belief that lies beneath the thin, slick floor of the cult of competition. You can be recognized for your gifts, your talents, your capacity to create change for the betterment of the whole, without your succumbing to the delusory allure of fame. You can fulfill the heart of uniqueness that beats within you, and you won't have to sell yourself out in doing it—in fact, you're more likely to realize your true destiny if you avoid shilling yourself.

That's what The Open Source Society is all about—contributing to the whole by fulfilling the individual. Now think about how large or significant a place in your life is touched by technology (you're reading this blog, for one thing). Linux, BeOS, Mozilla, Wikipedia, Mambo, and any other open-source, shared technological environment or product is the geek embodiment of The Open Source Society. Give it a try by ordering a free (truly free—not even any shipping costs) Ubuntu Linux disk.

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