Get off my lawn.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dell + Ubuntu = ???

Dell started selling its Ubuntu systems today.

This is the first time in a long time that a major/mainstream hardware vendor has shipped systems with a non-Microsoft OS pre-installed. I had heard about this for a few months and thought "sure, Dell's going to slap a copy of Ubuntu on machines and sell them on some backwater page from their site, which will only be accessible to people who search for it for an hour." But, they're actually advertising it on the main page. I think that's pretty cool. I mean, it's not hard to install Ubuntu on a machine yourself, in fact it's about the easiest OS I've seen to install yet. But the fact that a major vendor is selling machines with it pre-installed is interesting.

There are other vendors selling pre-installed Linux systems of course (e.g., but man, they're expensive... I was going to get a cool-looking little system for my wife from them, but after configuring it to the specs I wanted, I could have bought 2 iMacs for the money. That's crazy!

What I would like to see is someone selling this laptop with Ubuntu installed on it. For $400. I would buy 3 of them at that price.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Microsoft against the Free World, Part MXXLCXCV

Microsoft, convicted monopolist, crusher of countless small companies and enterpreneurs, has announced that "free software" infringes on 253 of its software patents.

How ironic. Microsoft themselves have been on the receiving end of patent suits (ones they lost), and had to pay millions of dollars in damages in one case I remember. When it happened, they complained about software patents being "bad". Boo hoo. They've been kicked around by the governments of several countries for abusing their status as a monopoly. In those cases, Microsoft pleaded with the courts to let them "innovate". In the times where they've been found to be on the wrong side of the law, they've made every effort to come across as the poor, persecuted multi-billion dollar company being picked on by the big mean government. But this time, here they are, threatening to sue their own customers over software patents they supposedly own. It works like this: If you're a Microsoft customer who also uses, for example GNU/Linux, Microsoft wants to sell you some coupons that you can redeem for a distribution of Linux sold by a company (Novell) whom Microsoft has promised they won't sue. In other words, if you use free software, Microsoft wants you to pay them for it, even though it's supposed to be free. Or they will sue you.

I wonder how many companies have done well in the past with an approach like that? I can't think of any.

Microsoft has a storied history of killing off its competition. It would like to do so with OSS, except this time, they can't rely on their time-tested tactics for doing so. Microsoft managed to kill off or buy most of their competition 10 or so years ago, back when selling software in boxes for money was the norm. Sometimes they won by selling better products, but not very often. Sometimes they won through better marketing, but a lot of the time, they won by dumping software on the market for free, removing customers' incentive to buy software from someone else. When you own the desktop and the office suite, you can afford to do that, but it's pretty tough to do if you don't. In the late 90s I remember thinking it had gotten to the point where, unless you sold something really specialized that Microsoft didn't also sell, you were going to have to give it away just to get it into someone's hands. I couldn't see the point of doing that. But that's essentially what's happening now. Companies all over are giving software away for free and charging for support, and making money at it. People like it. As the last company on earth who makes money from the sale of software, Microsoft isn't happy about it, but they made this bed they're lying in.

Microsoft isn't saying exactly which of its patents are being infringed. Big surprise. They have a lot of patents. There's one covering "spring-loaded" folders (whatever that means). There's another one involving "lists of items", and still another one covering the use of the number "4" in a mathematical expression. Real strong, important stuff, likely to hold up in court for 6-7 seconds before melting like a stick of butter in hell. They're going to have to get specific about the patents at some point of course, but I bet they will wait as long as they can before they do. It's in their best interest to approach this project like they approach the release of new software: Start out by spreading FUD, getting people excited (or scared) about what's "coming". Delay and stall, lather, rinse, repeat, and gather the money of anyone dumb enough to sign up along the way. At the end, when the truth is revealed and you find that you just waited 5 years for a bandaged-up copy of the same old thing, well, there you go. If they were to get specific about the patents that are supposedly infringed, people from the OSS crowd would be all over the code, removing the infringing elements within hours. If that was all Microsoft wanted, they could come clean and allow others to do the same.

But that's not the point. This isn't about stopping someone from doing "wrong". (If that was all they wanted, they could have closed up shop and committed ritual suicide on the front lawn years ago and saved us all a lot of trouble.) No, they want to extort money from people, because they're running out of legitimate ways to make it for themselves. They spent something like $700 billion on the development of Vista, and all bragging to the contrary, sales are not good. It's Windows XP with a 4GB clown suit on, and no one cares. They sold off assets and claimed that the resulting influx of cash was due to Vista sales. Pathetic. Their public image is suffering, too. Instead of the cuddly/smart/iconic Bill Gates at the helm, they now have Steve Ballmer. The man seemingly can't manage to appear in a photograph without looking like some kind of ghoul from a sci-fi movie. He would actually look cooler if his jaws opened horizontally like the alien from "Predator".

It will be interesting to see how this all turns out. The OSS community has some legal ammo of its own, not to mention a lot of big friends in the corporate world (IBM, etc.). Some of those companies own patents that Microsoft currently infringes. If Microsoft turns on its own customers and starts suing people over patents and "coupons", they're going to look like idiots, and probably get punched in the eye in court.

Microsoft have cost people countless hours in lost productivity and stress because of the general junky and insecure nature of their software. They've helped to create a whole sub-species of the human race who don't know how easy and fun computers can be, thinking that "Computers == Microsoft", and that regular breakdowns and lockups are just part of the way computers work. Will someone there please just throw the ring into the volcano and get it over with?

Sunday, May 06, 2007


I run Ubuntu on my computers here at the compound. Ubuntu Edgy, to be specific. The other day, the installations I have here popped up their little orange icons to let me know there were updates available. When I clicked on them to open the update manager, there was a button at the top, and a notice: "A new version of Ubuntu is available", and a button I could click to upgrade to the latest version.

I normally don't trust Linux upgrades, but I was feeling reckless today, so I clicked it.

1.5 hours later, here I am running Feisty Fawn, the latest release, and it appears to have worked flawlessly. Plus, it seems a little smarter about the few things I've messed with so far. For example, if I unplug the ethernet cable from the back of my laptop, the networking system just switches to wireless by itself. If i plug it back in, it goes back to the wired connection.

If you ask me, this is how upgrades should work. Press a button, get the latest, no screwing around.

Yay Ubuntu!

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Snakes and Arrows

I'm listening to the new Rush album, Snakes and Arrows, released on Tuesday.

I've always been a Rush fan, and I've been looking forward to this album, like I always look forward to Rush album releases. This is sort of a review.

I know of no other band like Rush. They are OLD. They are GOOD. There are bands that have been around longer than them, but they've either broken up, have replaced members with no-name plug-ins, or they've dissolved and reunited for a "reunion tour" when the members went broke and and needed to cash in on past glories to earn more drug money. Rush is different. They have remained a vital, productive musical unit for over 30 years, pumping out new music at a regular pace the whole time. I also think it's interesting that in Rush's music, I can sometimes hear flavors of music from bands whose members cite Rush as influences. That makes them some kind of musical chicken-laying egg.

As musicians, Alex, Geddy, and Neil are without peer. They've each won so many awards for proficiency on their respective instruments, they've actually been kicked out of the running in some of the contests. But they're not the kind of "player's players" that earn respect by showing off and playing a million miles per hour. That's what's so cool about them. Virtuosic playing is just kind of part and parcel to their music. They play like monsters without sounding like they're showing off. The instruments' parts may be dynammic and challenging, but they serve the songs they appear in. In contrast to, say, Dream Theater, where a given song will sometimes degenerate into what sounds like a band's equipment being thrown into a wood chipper for a few minutes before returning to the main song. "Look at us, we can play fast!"

The Sound

It's big. It's bold. It's beefy. This is like a lot of recent Rush albums, in that there's not much in the way of keyboards. It's mostly big guitar, big bass, and big drums. Rush produced this album with Nick Raskulinecz. He is a producer who worked with the Foo Fighters before. His last name has probably only ever been typed once, and copied and pasted everywhere you now see it in print. And, it can only be pronounced by Klingons. The sound quality on this album is excellent, a lot better than the last album, Vapor Trails. That one sounded like it was recorded on a home-studio setup, by people who record at home. Everything was a big wall of sound, panned hard left/right. This one has a lot better
placement of the individual instruments, and is more interesting to listen to as a result.

There's a big collection of vintage guitars being played on this CD, including some Les Pauls, a 355, some acoustics, and something called a "boozookoi". Alex Lifeson is a master craftsman when it comes to guitar sounds. There are two kinds of guitar players: Those who find a sound they like early on and stick with it, and those who don't. Alex is the latter kind. He has always used a wide variety of sounds, and is a master at putting them together in unique ways. Having recorded guitars myself, I'll say this much: It's not as simple as it sounds to jam a bunch of guitars into a recording and make them sound good. Every tone interacts in unexpected ways with the others. It's a fun thing to do though, and after you get the hang of it, you can do some interesting things. Alex definitely has the hang of it, miles beyond what I even aspire to. There's a lot of acoustic guitar on this album, too.

Geddy Lee is an icon. It's interesting to listen to how his sound, the legendary "Geddy Lee" bass sound, has evolved over the years. On this album, the "Geddy Lee" sound is big and fat. The days of him having a screeching voice are long gone, too. He has a strong, confident voice in a normal range, and has had for 20 years. There are a lot of vocal harmonies on later Rush albums, and this one is no exception.

Neil's sound is interesting. The drums sound deep, like the larger ones are about the size of a car. But they're also tight. I bet that took some doing. There seems to be a lot of reverb or something on them, and they're not overly loud.

The Lyrics

The lyrics are well-written as usual. I can't say I care for the main message. It is basically this: Rush doesn't believe in God.

Neil is a big motorcycle-riding macho man, but he says that riding it past billboards with pictures of crosses on them make him feel "oppressed". And somehow, he doesn't see a difference between a Christian who wants to share the Gospel with him and a Muslim who wants to fly a jumbo jet into his house.

There's another message in the lyrics, too: Some people are rich, others are really poor. That's just not fair.

I think I have a solution. First, we locate all the rich people. They're easy to spot: They're the ones with the time and luxury to complain about how pictures of crosses on billboards make them feel "oppressed". Next, we ask them to donate 15% of their wealth toward helping the poor. They will helpfully suggest that instead, we seek the aid of a charitable organization, say, a church, to help the poor. But wait, that wouldn't work... The churches can't help, they're all busy oppressing Neil Peart with billboards.

The Music

Far Cry: I was sitting in the parking lot of Best Buy with the engine running in my car. I unwrapped the CD and stuck it in the player, forgetting that the CD player powers on automatically and starts playing when you do that. The volume was up. This song started with a bang, and I saw my life flash before my eyes for a second.

Armour and Sword: This fits the big/heavy character of the album. There is some really cool guitar work in there. There are some really cool clean sounds floating in and out of it, between some high-ish chords. It sounds huge. This is what I mean when I was talking about the interaction between guitar sounds being interesting and fun to mess with.

Workin' Them Angels: I like this one. I think... The intro sounds like something from Presto. The guitars are tight and clean. Then when the chorus starts up, it broadens out. It alternates between 3/4 and 4/4 time, without sounding like they're making a big deal about doing it. It's an OK song, too.

The Larger Bowl: A Pantoum is a poetic form where each verse is 4 lines long, and the first line of the second verse is the same as the second line in the first verse, etc. The lyrics in this song are written according to that form. It forms some kind of logical loop. The music is supposedly written kind of along the same lines. I don't know about that. I don't hear it that way, but that doesn't mean anything. There's a nice solo, I like the chord progression, and it doesn't bore me.

Whoa! When I hear a song like this and think about how old these guys are, I conclude that they still rock. It's dark, driving, and it doesn't let up. There are no "tender" parts. It just pounds and pounds, and has kind of a scary sound. This song is going to be a sight to behold in concert.

The Main Monkey Business: I don't really get this one. It's long and involved, and would certainly be challenging to play. But good songs make a musical point. A good piece of music sounds like it needed to be written. This one sounds like a good band screwing around. It's just sitting there, taking up space, like they had some unused ideas lying around and decided to string them together into an instrumental. I don't hear a discernable theme. I'll have to listen to it some more and see if I missed something.

The Way the Wind Blows:
It starts out like an Allman Brothers or a Cream song. You don't hear that very often anymore. It eventually turns into something else, with a more modern sound. The chorus is custom made for arena-rock fist pumping. When they play this song live, I bet the crowd will sway back and forth in unison during the chorus.

Hope: Alex playing a 12-string guitar tuned to D-A-D-A-A-D. It's well recorded, the guitar sounds great, and the tune is kind of good.

Faithless: Another good song. It has a cool guitar solo. The chorus sounds gigantic. This will probably be on the radio at some point.

Bravest Face: Uh-oh. This one might be an acquired taste. The words are interesting. When I listen to the verses in this song, I think about how far Rush have come as a band from, say, 25 years ago. They don't even sound like a rock band in the verses of this song. The guitar solo sounds like something you'd hear in a bar during the Christmas season. I don't know why it makes me think of that, since I've never been in a bar where Rush was playing during the Christmas season, but it does.

Good News First: This has got to be some kind of record (no pun intended). I don't know of a recent Rush album that has this many good songs on it.

Malignant Narcissism: Another instrumental. According to something I heard, this one came about after all the equipment had been hauled out of the studio. Geddy had called Fender and asked them to send him a Jaco Pastorious signature fretless bass. Neil had a little practice kit sitting around, and they recorded this song based some screwing around they were doing. Alex was in Florida smacking some cops around. When he came back, he put a guitar part on the song. It turned out pretty good, considering what you hear isn't even a band playing the same song on the same day.

We Hold On:
Hmmmm... It has the same big sound as the rest of the album. The middle break is kind of chaotic. Other than some screeching guitars here and there, it's pretty conventional.

Overall, I don't know what it is with later Rush albums. I mean, they're good albums I guess, but they just don't grab me like they used to. Maybe Rush doesn't really have anything to prove anymore. Everyone knows they're great, including them, so I can't legitimately expect them to come up with an album on par with Moving Pictures. Then again, I remember sitting up late at night when Moving Pictures was premiered on the radio, and thinking "I don't know if I like the new Rush as well as their older stuff." I was wrong then, and have been several times since. I will say that this album is better than anything I've heard from them in the last 10 years.