Archive for September, 2010

On US drivers

Monday, September 27th, 2010

So over a long weekend, I drove between 1100-1200 miles from Boston to New York, to Washington D.C., to Monticello, to Washington D.C., to Edison, to New York, and back to Boston. In that time, I saw all of the usual appallingly bad examples of driving common in the US. Let me itemize a few that particularly annoy me:

1). Separation distances aren’t known or understood generally. People seem to have absolutely no issue driving a mere few feet behind you when at speed on the highway, but then often drive with wider distance in urban areas. They often seem to have absolutely no comprehension of breaking distances, and so on. Trucks do the same thing, at speed, without engaging any intellectual thought.

2). The speed limit is viewed with the usual contempt, but it is miss-directed such that vehicles generally speed less than in Europe (where limits are higher anyway) but ignore construction speed limits and fail to slow at tolls and other places where safety limits have been imposed. The net result is that drivers react with incredible hostility toward those who slow down in such situations. The new law in Massachusetts (and many states) requiring drivers to slow down and move over for stopped emergency vehicles also seems to be widely ignored.

3). High beams (non-dipped lights) are frequently used indiscriminately on the highway with no regard for other drivers and the impact it will have on their ability to see. Some people do think to adjust their lights when there are oncoming cars, but not while sitting and tailing you (some of these lights are so unpleasantly bright that they can’t be mitigated through the mirror setting), or driving past you and hitting you with glare in your side mirrors.

4). Signals are generally taken as a sign of weakness. Many people never signal at all (their license should be revoked), many frequently change lanes way too often (recently attributed in a study as a significant cause of accidents – that should incur a fine), many trucks do the same (disgustingly dangerous – should result in criminal prosecution).

5). People don’t plan ahead. Rather than reading signs, they’re drinking coffee and juggling fast food without watching the road (probably talking on the cellphone aswell). Then last minute lane changes result in massive tailbacks while people try to get in the lane they should have been in ten minutes before.

Those are just a few of the things that annoy me about the non-standards of driving in the US. It’s not that Americans are bad people in any way, it’s that this country has no real national standards for driving, nor an adequate standardized national driving exam (“drivers ed” is typically non-compulsory for adults). Law enforcement often seem to convey a sense of caring less about things that actually cause accidents (lack of signalling, tailgating, etc.), preferring instead to generate revenue by meeting speeding citation quotas, and missing the point.


Open Hardware Summit and Maker Faire New York

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

So I decided to attend the first Open Hardware Summit next Thursday (September 23 2010) in Queens, New York. I’ll drive down on Wednesday and I’m staying nearby at one of the airport hotels. Open Hardware is one of the next big things that is already starting to influence the Open Source community, and I think it’s important to keep up with what’s going on. If you’re going to be there, give me a shout.

After the conference, I am debating taking Friday off and driving down to D.C. and Virginia for the day. I’ve yet to see Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home) and I’d so much like to tour the library and grounds. If I do that, I’ll drive down after the conference and stay nearer Virginia in the evening, or nearer D.C. (I also want to see the Declaration of Independence as I keep missing it when I go to D.C.). The idea of a day living in my imagined 18th century world of rose-tinted American idealism is nearly always more enjoyable than many rational people might think it ought to be :)

I’ve bought a ticket for Maker Faire New York for the weekend, thinking I might then drive back to Boston in Saturday and stop off in New York on the way back for a few hours. Something like that. Just as long as I’m back in time to spend Sunday writing!


Netbook recommendations sought

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

So I’m considering finally entering the modern age with a netbook. I want a 64-bit capable Atom based N450 or N475+ system, to which I will add my own SSD (something that actually is known to work with “TRIM” and not just claims to, and not whatever it may come with). I intend to run Fedora on it, for development purposes, so there’s no point in looking to Android or other environments. It’ll be solely for ease of hacking, battery life, etc. It’ll probably run Rawhide and test kernels, etc. I have a shiny laptop for the times when a shinybook is required to fit in at the coffeeshop.

I’ve seen the more interestingly unusual stuff from Nokia and friends, but it’s pretty much come down to a choice between ASUS and Acer (apologies to the Dell Mini). I don’t need built-in 3G, nor WiMAX because in the US those are not sane and sensible choices at the moment. I think, on balance that the ASUS Eee PC 1015PED is probably the best choice right now, over the Acer Aspire One. The Acer does offer the same kinds of things, but the reviews aren’t treating it as nicely and the ASUS has a reasonably long line of heritage by now. So I think it’s basically the ASUS…but this post is intended to catch the case that I’m missing something very obvious.

Anyway. I’ve seen the Fedora wiki pages, various Google feedback on the ASUS, and I also know how to use the Internet :) So I don’t need generic advice of the form: “hey, look at this webpage blah blah blah”, nor do I care if I need to compile some driver or do something on a unit that will already be for hacking anyway. What I would like is a few specific, personal recommendations of the form: “yep, I have that and it’s a great choice”, or “I have this and find it better because…”. Jeremy bought one of the older Acer Aspire Ones, so that’s an interesting data point. You out there in Fedora land, what are you running right now in the way of a netbook?


On Boycotting

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

So I’ve been boycotting Whole Foods Market for over a year now, ever since their CEO John Mackey wrote this diatribe in the Wall Street Journal (a “news” paper largely fit only for use as toilet paper, and only out of desperation for lack of sandpaper). I boycotted WFM over this article because Mackey explicitly tied his personal opinions to his position as CEO. Had they been just his personal views – and clearly distinguished without use of “At Whole Foods we…” – I might have ignored them and continued to shop in the Whole Foods literally next door to my apartment.

I’ve been building up a mental picture of retailers, stores, corporations, and so forth, according to their political and social positions. Public records reveal the true leanings of many of the “corporate leaders” behind those corporate views, but I generally won’t completely write off a store just because its CEO gave the Republican Party a large personal campaign contribution (that’s a private right of an individual). When it comes to corporations, the ideal in many cases is to remain politically neutral, while supporting worker rights and so forth. But sometimes, that is not possible. For example, when it comes to US constitutionally protected equal rights for gays and lesbians. Who the heck gave corporations a right to say “you can’t marry that person”? Well, arguably the Supreme Court has through several different rulings it never should have made, which are repugnant and disgusting and offensive to all things that are decent, but that’s another matter.

Anyway. I have my political preference, and others have theirs. I’d rather it didn’t have to impact where I buy my toiletries, but it sadly does. You wouldn’t catch me dead shopping in Walmart for many different reasons, but I thought I was reasonably safe with Target. But when a company starts getting involved in State elections by supporting an anti-gay governor, then it isn’t red targets I see, but red flags. I haven’t been to Target since this little debacle and I’m trying to decide if I’m willing to go there again. I suspect I may find their apology acceptable this time.

There’s a bigger issue though. I can’t boycott everywhere, but that’s not the crux of the matter. The crux is that I’m really not comfortable with the way the Roberts Court have totally fucked us all over and allowed for corporations to give unlimited donations to future elections. This is only going to be the start. You can bet it’s going to get a lot worse in the months and years ahead as a money free-for-all decides who gets their image shoved in voter faces the longest.


What I want from computers

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

Well, my first blog post on this subject generated some broad agreement (and a few flames), but I think it’s necessary to be a little more specific about the three main things I want from from computers, from Linux, from whatever, as opposed to just from Fedora or any one Linux distribution. Here we go, and remember, this applies always to a “stable” release, not to the latest half baked bits that are under work, and it’s equally applicable to any Operating System you care to mention…

1). When I turn the computer on, it works. I don’t give a flying fsck what awesome cool kernel feature, bootloader change, init process, or other “it’ll be great and amazing ten years from now” feature you’ve developed if the computer doesn’t boot properly and I can’t totally ignore what you did underneath. Ten years ago, I used to buy into the notion that it was all great breaking stuff because it was saving humanity, but now I am older and wiser, I realize it is just plain shoddy to release something that causes obvious regressions and stops a system from booting. I am not targeting anyone in particular here, or any particular incident, just saying there is never an excuse not to boot. Windows can boot, Mac OS X can boot, other Operating Systems can boot. So if any Linux distribution or other Operating System cannot boot as a general matter of course, there is absolutely not an excuse. Users don’t care if it’s better but doesn’t boot cleanly, they would rather you left it alone. Yes, that’s an impossibly high standard, and a reason often to choose not to re-work stuff without assuming that level of paranoid commitment to quality.

2). When there are updates, I’m told about them and given a chance to reboot or delay the upgrade. And the upgrade always works smoothly with absolutely no loss in functionality. In fact, I can feel quite confident doing an update as a matter of best practice, even ten minutes before a big presentation, or even during the presentation if I want to. Windows, and Mac OS X generally do not blow up your computer when you do an upgrade (I can’t remember the last time I saw an OSX kernel panic, or a less than perfectly pristine update experience). You say “sure, ok” or you delay it, or you do whatever, but the computer works fine ten minutes hence either way. Anything less than a perfect update experience is unacceptable and must not be tolerated. This means that often the answer is “no” to taking things into an update, and the update is small and manageable, especially when you have very limited QE resources to ensure everything is working after the update is completed. This works well in the “Enterprise” space, but it should work well in every “space” you are in, it’s just common sense.

3). When there is some new feature, there is one new feature that works well. Not ten doing the same thing that don’t. This is much harder to do in a general Open Source sense, but it’s easy from a distribution point of view. Pick a small subset of things you are willing to do well and do them, or don’t do them at all. Both Microsoft and Mac OS X have confined what they will offer as part of the basic Operating System platform, and then undertaken to ensure that is the best possible experience they can offer. It isn’t always the best possible experience, and there are problems, but it is actually a good philosophy.


On updates and people

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Continuing the series of blog postings that reference one another, a few comments on “updates and people”, following mizmo’s latest blog entry on the topic.

First, let me thank Mo again for doing an excellent job summarizing some of the problems, and describing the userbase with typically excellent graphics. There are plenty of Pamalas, Connies, and Nancys out there on the mailing lists, but not enough Carolines to speak up for overall cohesion, and product quality that we can be proud of. So, I am going to continue to stand up for the position of “Caroline Casual-User”, the kind of person that I personally feel is actively being driven away through the hostile actions of a few within the community toward update sanity (learning to say “no” to pushing updates) and overall distribution cohesion (ensuring packages actually do work well together). Caroline is the kind of person who is accurately described in the current User base documents on the Fedora Project wiki. She is also represented in a lot of the cosmetic GUIness we see in distributions like Fedora – graphical package updates and configuration, removal of advanced options, the general direction of the GNOME desktop, and so forth.

We have all of these nice “user friendly” features going into the distribution, and an effort at gating releases until they pass certain quality controls. And when you read the “User base” documentation, it becomes clear that the intent was to make the distribution accessible to a wider user base than just hard core package developers and rawhide consumers. Yet there are those who continue to push the notion that Fedora be some kind of rolling update, never really having strong releases (more like “snapshots” that happened to pass some quality control at the time), and that it continue to lose market share to other distributions. Apparently, that’s fine because we don’t care about user numbers so long as good things happen. But users like Caroline lose out in the process. Now, maybe they don’t matter one bit, maybe the mailing list threads are right. But if they are right then the documentation, the intended user base, all of that stuff needs a heavy re-think and update. Because you don’t get to say you are targeting something and then really not do that. You don’t get to pretend that all that shiny software has a purpose because it is going to empower users and then laugh in their face by breaking it randomly in an “update”.

And if those things are right, why does the Desktop gloss really matter anyway? Hard-core developers don’t need simplified UIs, they don’t need graphical configuration, they may not even need to be running a Desktop at all. They might aswell run emacs full screen on a large framebuffer and be done with it. Oh no! I hear the cries now! What a preposterous idea! Well, if it’s so preposterous not to care about a Desktop environment, then maybe it’s not quite so preposterous to ask ourselves who wants the kinds of things being churned out in Fedora these days. I’ll give you a hint, they’re the kinds of things Caroline Casual-User really wants to see. She loves consuming your end product. She loves the feel of Macs, and likes the trend to have more Mac-like features in Linux systems. She doesn’t know about systemd, but she digs the idea of things sorta just working where they’re needed. Heck, she even likes it when she plugs her phone in and the icon on the Desktop looks just like her phone. Why does a hardened developer even need any of that stuff? I mean really, who the heck hard core developer cares what icon even shows up, or even if stuff gets automounted? The real, not-on-Fedora-devel but interested userbase that used Red Hat Linux, that buy the magazines, that care, they are the ones who want that stuff. You know that because you make the software to target them, and now is the time to admit that.

What I want to see is a fundamental shift toward having a stable “Platform”. I’ll take credit for the term “Platform” in Mo’s post since I was the first to use it. Essentially, what I mean is that we split the distribution into a core platform needed to boot, and provide a basic environment for higher level stuff. This is what every other general purpose Operating System under the sun does. They don’t shove out random updates that might break the fundamentals, and it means users can rely on certain core stuff just working. Now, this doesn’t mean returning to the days of Core/Extras. It doesn’t have to be internal vs. external packagers, etc. It can just be about defining a basic set of features that must be stable (boot, init, libraries, etc.), turning those into use-case driven definitions (rather than plain old package lists like “critical path” is today) and then enforcing them. And gating updates, and saying “no” judiciously to people who want to break that. And asking others to go play elsewhere if they don’t like distribution cohesion, and all of these things. Not because they are sexy, but because they are responsible.