Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Geek Wednesday: Are Geeks Atheists?

The arch from the Japanese garden at Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (click to enlarge)

Are geeks atheists? That's one of the topics for discussion at Helium, an interesting, if rather poorly edited Wiki-style site for amateur punditry. If you like to read, and especially if you like to write, I'd encourage you to go there and explore. You can set up an account, rate others' work on specified topics, and contribute your own. If your work rises to the higher echelons in the rankings (thus the site's name), then you can even get a little cash.

By the way, you'll find my own spout on the geek-atheism question in there. I've also posted over a dozen other pieces (most of them recycled from my books and this blog), and done at least two hours' worth of rating at Helium. And here's my advice to the site's owners: you've got a great idea and a very good interface; now you need some rules for your writers, and some damned good content editors (I'm available). The problem you have right now is that there's a lot of schlock in there—people scribbling posts into the site as if they're texting their friends. If you don't tighten up your editorial policies and practices a little, I'm afraid Helium could turn into a Hindenburg.

Update: I received the following note this morning from Barbara Whitlock, an editor at Helium: should check out the boards (give us a couple of days to restore this after the board crash two days ago). We have a rich Writing Workshop section that helps educate writers on how to improve their content. Helium is a user-generated site, with an editorial staff that provides minimal filters. The model empowers the community to rank quality and flag inappropriate and meaningless articles. New writing standard guidelines have recently been published; and I'm working on an article today to advertise this more on the site.

That's encouraging, but I'd still suggest a more Wikipedia-style approach to content editing here. For, despite its occasional troubles with misreporting and shoddy fact-checking, Wiki has an excellent record for accuracy, given its enormous size. This comes from well-defined editorial policies and warm, expert bodies in the editors' seats. You can't program good judgment, and you can't have faith in writers to universally honor guidelines. Wikipedia is successful because it monitors its content for journalistic qualities such as fact-checking and professional standards of presentation. This, combined with its open-source, community-driven approach to knowledge, is why Wiki reporting is usually more credible and interesting than the mass media's. Helium would do well to study that model.

That slapping sound you hear is of spontaneous high fives in Redmond. For the Apple stockdating chickens have come home to roost, and an ex-CFO is pointing a finger of complicity at none other than Saint Steve.

Ah well, at least things could scarcely be better on the product side right now. Yeah, there was a delay to the release of OS X Leopard, but guess what, Tiger remains the most reliable, efficient, and fun OS out there. And their hardware is second to none (see below for the tale of how easily I installed Ubuntu Linux onto the MacBook). Apple now offers an 8-core Mac Pro sporting Adobe CS3 and Final Cut Studio 2. The ballyhooed iPhone is less than two months away, and the Beatles look like they're ready to walk down the long and iTuned road.

Tough break, Steve: do they take iCards in prison? I'll ask Martha...

The G's Have IT: We haven't had much to say about Google lately. Maybe it's because there isn't anything to complain about, really. After its usual fashion, Google continues to add and improve, add and improve. What has always been remarkable about them is their ability to actually respond to the needs of their user community, and this has not changed. A few months ago, after the release of Blogger 2, I had some choice words for its performance and overall buginess. Google quietly fixed everything I'd complained about, and then added a few features to boot.

Meanwhile, they've become the number one brand in terms of overall recognition, and positively buried Yahoo on the earnings front. I think I know why, and it has to do with discerning substance from appearance. For while Yahoo continues to obsess over cuteness and glitz, Google focuses on features and performance. Your personalized Google page won't be as pretty or cool-looking as My Yahoo, but it's packed with as much stuff as you'd want to put in there, and it works. Gmail sports one of the plainest-looking interfaces around, but for speed, storage capacity, POP-friendliness (you can run it in almost any desktop client app), and searchability, Gmail kicks Yahoo Mail's butt. When it comes to advertising, Google's text-oriented, clunky-looking approach continues to win, even as Yahoo trips over its own shoelaces with Overture. And for search—well, what do you use?

"Me-Two": And as for Microsoft, who can tell it better today than Charlie Demerjian, in this very funny (and, I think, accurate) analysis of the fate of Vista, courtesy of The Inquirer, which is a frequent must-read for all geeks and technophiles.

Getting Feisty on the Mac

Ubuntu Linux released version 7.04 (that's Y / MM, for those of you who care) last Thursday, so I decided to give it a spin on the MacBook, since I already have a solid Linux setup on the Wintel box in MEPIS.

First, you should be aware that not everyone's applauding. There have been reports of the dreaded "grub error 18" on Feisty installations, and problems with DHCP setups and third-party drivers continue to pester Ubuntu.

But let's focus on the positives, shall we? I downloaded the installation cd onto the MacBook (note for Intel Mac users: you have to take the ISO disk image and drag it over to Disk Utility and burn it there, for Boot Camp to recognize it as a valid bootable disk). Here's what you need to start, if you'd like to try this at home:

  • the Feisty Fawn cd, burned as per above

  • rEFIt installed on your Mac. rEFIt is a great utility that's free to download. It works with Boot Camp and your Mac's EFI BIOS to provide the user a gateway at bootup. It manages the various OS installations and allows you to select from them, right at startup.

  • and of course, a working Intel Mac with the latest firmware drivers installed and Boot Camp enabled. I didn't try this in Parallels or VMware Fusion, so if you'd like to give it a shot there, swing away, but don't blame me if it locks up your Mac.

  • So once you have rEFIt installed, you need to open Boot Camp (Applications / Utilities / Boot Camp Assistant) and go through its user-friendly guided partitioning steps. Set the "Windows" partition that you'll use for Ubuntu to 10GB, let Boot Camp do its stuff, put the Feisty Fawn disk into the media drive, and restart your Mac. rEFIt will show you the Linux penguin and let you start Ubuntu. Once it's in live cd mode, the Feisty Fawn's desktop will appear, and you can use the handy desktop icon to begin the installation.

    The installation of Feisty Fawn, soup to nuts, took less than 45 minutes, and I did do some manual partitioning, more out of choice than compulsion. If you try the auto-partitioning option, just make sure the Fawn isn't wiping out your entire Mac HD (thanks to rEFIt, it should only touch the "Windows" partition that Boot Camp made for you). Manual partitioning is safer, to my mind, and it allows you to specify the sizes for your root and swap partitions (I made my root 9GB and the swap 1GB). The G-Part utility in Ubuntu makes it all easy enough even for a non-geek like me to handle.

    Once that was done, the rest was cake. Feisty installed and allowed me to switch over to the KDE desktop from the command line, without even asking for a restart. Everything is there and runs nicely; the OS recognized my Apple keyboard and trackpad; instantly connected via the Ethernet port to my cable modem; and even offered me access to my Mac HD and all the files in it (you may have to change some permissions on the Mac side to get full access). That Open Office window in the graphic above is a Word document I opened from the Mac HD within Linux. Astonishing.

    Now, the problems (hey, it's a new release): I tried finding a driver for the Atheros 802.11n WiFi card, but no luck. Then I attempted a command-line setup to the card, which also didn't work. So for now, I have no Wifi access via Linux on the MacBook.

    Another problem is the power management, which I suspect can be fixed as soon as I have the time. When I left the MacBook in Ubuntu in sleep mode (power on, lid shut) overnight, I woke up to find its battery exhausted. This never happens with OS X running: sleep in OS X is more like a coma. I can leave it like that all night and lose less than 5% of the battery life.

    And the old problems with browser plugin configurations remain in Feisty. This is where MEPIS really shines, because when you install it and open a Firefox window, all your plugins (Shockwave, Flash, Quicktime over M-Player or Kaffeine) are right there, up and running. For this and other usability reasons, I'd still recommend MEPIS for Windows users migrating to Linux and wanting an easy, smooth transition. That said, Feisty Fawn shows considerable improvement over its predecessors for display flexibility (I can get it up to 1280 X 800 now, which wasn't possible in previous versions of Ubuntu), desktop design, file management, and overall performance. On a scale of ten, I'd give Feisty a 7.5, with MEPIS registering an 8.0 by comparison (I'd add that Mac OS X rates a solid 9, and Windows XP a 7—don't even ask me about Vista).

    Before we leave that story, one final tip of the cap to San Quentin Steve: the Apple MacBook is a laptop you can love. What a marvelous piece of hardware: ingenious design at both the technical and user-interface levels, and an operating system that takes virtually anything you throw at it. And that Boot Camp was able to recognize, accept, and work with an OS that was released a year after it speaks to the versatility and integrity of these UNIX-based machines. Take a bow, Steve: you'll look great in stripes.

    Before we go, a program note for this evening: 9:00 PM, PBS, don't miss it. Bill Moyers tells the truth about the media and the selling of the Iraq War.

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