Friday, December 30, 2011

Resisting the Monopolies, Unsuccessfully

I've had occasion to be unhappy with both Google and Amazon lately, and one difference is that Amazon has employees that work in customer service, though it seems they become dysfunctional as soon as one says 'Linux.' Google, though they have no customer service personnel, does understand Linux well.

It is unfair, of course, to say that Google lacks customer service. The fact of the matter is that, though I send them a little money every year to store more stuff on their servers, Google does not view me as a customer. The advertisers and marketeers are Google's customers.

But first, Amazon, since that's a quicker issue. Overall I love Amazon. If I can buy it at Amazon (or Zappos, or LL Bean), I tend not to shop. I love my Kindle. The last time I moved the price was a fixed price plus something like $0.50 per pound. Kindle books weigh much less and fit well into carry-on.

I also used to like local bookstores. I still like Barnes & Noble, but their locations are inconvenient, and indeed have been inconvenient to every place I've ever lived. By and large, local bookstores are gone. There are none that I'm aware of in or near Catonsville. I blame Amazon. I blame myself and people like me. I blame the states for not collecting sales tax on online purchases.

I've just started another round of Amazon doesn't care about Linux-based customers, or doesn't care enough to provide a working MP3 downloader. First, why make us use a downloader? Why not just use open web protocols? Users have perfectly usable web browsers. Second, why not let us use clamz. I can sometimes download an MP3 album using clamz, and sometimes not. Sometimes it works without a hitch, and sometimes the Amazon web page holds me hostage until I either cancel the order or download a non-functional Amazon-provided downloader, one that would have been perfectly appropriate a few years ago on a Linux of the era.

Of course, the Linux community shares some of the blame for that, by not providing backward compatibility. As Henry Spencer reputedly said, those that don't understand Unix (e.g., the Ubuntu folks) are doomed to re-implement it, poorly. Why exactly can I not install a program on a current Linux that worked fine a couple releases ago? I know I can play games and force it to install, but there's nothing interesting about that and it's not a constructive use of time.

So, now I've taken a step away from the monopoly and downloaded an album from, a completely satisfactory experience. However, their descriptions are less complete than Amazon's, and their prices seem higher. In other markets, the monopolist, e.g., Microsoft, produces low-quality products at high prices. In this market, Amazon doesn't care about fringe customers.

Google has made me reconsider my reliance upon them by screwing up their user interfaces across the board. Okay, Google Translate, formerly Google Language Tools, has improved, and maybe other things have as well in ways I have not noticed. How reliant upon Google am I?

  • Gmail
  • Chrome
  • Picasa
  • search
  • reader
  • calendar
  • documents
  • maps
  • YouTube
  • alerts
I would certainly miss them if they were gone. To avoid Gmail's terrible interface, once Google stops nagging me about switching to the the new interface and tries to ram it down my throat, I may go back to an e-mail client, like Thunderbird.

For search I have been using DuckDuckGo fairly regularly, and mostly like it. What I don't like it that it seems Wikipedia is almost always the first result. Why start with something that's unlikely to be very good?

I could abandon Blogger and go back to LiveJournal or some such.

I could go back to a mix of Firefox and Opera rather than my current mix of Firefox and Chrome, but I find that Chrome works better at the financial and e-commerce web sites than any other browser, though it's been a few releases since I've tried using Firefox to pay a bill.

If Picasa's UI doesn't degrade much from it's current state, I prefer to stay there since I don't know of any other similarly-useful photo site. Maybe I could adjust to photo streams, but for most of what I do, albums are a better fit. Yahoo? Who else?

Reader is very convenient, but I could start using RSS more directly. That's inconvenient, though, which I guess is Google's point.

Not Bothering to Write a Letter to the Editor

This month's Communications of the ACM (12/2011) has a one-page article dedicated to Dennis Ritchie, and almost 7 pages to Steve Jobs, even though Ritchie was much more influential within CS, which is the CACM readership, than was Jobs. Over the entire computing industry, I would say that Ritchie had more impact as well: C, Unix, Turing Award, Hamming Medal, etc. Jobs, in comparison, was a marketing dweeb.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Zeitgeist, Linux Spyware, the Last Word (for now)

To disable zeitgeist since it's hard to remove without damaging other system components, follow these steps (I've done these things but will take a few days to convince myself the monitoring has stopped and nothing else broke):

First kill any zeitgeist process that's running (ps -ef | grep zeitg should display any instances).

Then, from SilverWav:

# Delete previous logging.
rm ~/.local/share/zeitgeist/activity.sqlite

# Render Zeitgeist illiterate - cannot read or write
chmod -rw ~/.local/share/zeitgeist/activity.sqlite*

SilverWav also recommends running zeitgeist-daemon --replace, but I do not, since I just killed the damned thing. Note that SilverWav is talking about neutering zeitgeist on Ubuntu 11.10, so this hasn't infected Mint alone. One thing I did differently than SilverWav was to just delete the contents of activity.sqlite rather than deleting the file itself. 

The second order of business is to take zeitgeist out of the startup list. The startup seems messed up in Lint 12, since the startup list is pretty much empty (this is probably so neophytes won't disable things they need). Look at "Startup Applications" on the "Other" menu, which is a weird place to put it IMHO. To make the automatically started applications visible on the startup list, follow this suggestion from the Mint 12 Tips & Tricks Guide at

sudo sed -i 's/NoDisplay=true/NoDisplay=false/g' /etc/xdg/autostart/*.desktop

It might be worth having a look in that directory periodically for new applications or updates that surreptitiously add themselves to startup. Now the startup list should be fully-populated and you can get an idea of exactly how bloated Linux Mint 12 is. On my startup list, the last application was Zeitgeist Datahub. Uncheck the box next to it.

Package rhythmbox-plugins

It turns out that after removing rhythmbox-plugins, I lost keyboard control of play/pause. This is an inconvenience, so I looked into it a bit more. It appears the package contains:

- Cover art
 - Audio CD Player
 - Context Panel
 - DAAP Music Sharing
 - FM Radio
 - Portable Players
 - IM Status
 - Portable Players - iPod
 - Internet Radio
 - Jamendo
 - Song Lyrics
 - Magnatune Store
 - Media Player Keys
 - Portable Players - MTP
 - Power Manager
 - Python Console
 - Status Icon
 - Visualization
 - Browser plugin to integrate Rhythmbox with itunes

In other words, it contains nothing important except "Media Player Keys". I attempted to re-install, and got this:

29:/home/bup> sudo apt-get install rhythmbox-plugins
[sudo] password for jdm: 
Reading package lists... Done
Building dependency tree       
Reading state information... Done
The following extra packages will be installed:
  gir1.2-rb-3.0 libdmapsharing-3.0-2 python-mako python-markupsafe
Suggested packages:
  python-beaker python-mako-doc zeitgeist-datahub
The following NEW packages will be installed:
  gir1.2-rb-3.0 libdmapsharing-3.0-2 python-mako python-markupsafe
  rhythmbox-plugins zeitgeist-core
0 upgraded, 6 newly installed, 0 to remove and 0 not upgraded.
Need to get 264 kB/725 kB of archives.
After this operation, 4051 kB of additional disk space will be used.
Do you want to continue [Y/n]? n

Why do I need zeitgeist to use the keyboard to control my audio player?

Zeitgeist: Spyware Delivered with Linux Mint12?

This afternoon I noticed something called zeitgeist in my top display, and was curious about what it is. I fired up the software manager, did a search for zeitgeist, and found this:

Zeitgeist is a service which logs the user's activities and events
(files opened, websites visited, conversations held with other people,
etc.) and makes the relevant information available to other

It serves as a comprehensive activity log and also makes it possible to
determine relationships between items based on usage patterns.

This metapackage depends on the Zeitgeist engine and a set of packages
(such as data providers) commonly used together with it.

In other words, spyware, or at least a framework to make life
comfortable for spyware. I visited the web site, and nothing there
seemed to suggest the contrary. So,

apt-get remove zeitgeist libzeitgeist-1.0.1 zeitgeist-extension-fts zeitgeist-core zeitgeist-datahub

Apt also wanted to remove rhythmbox-plugins and a couple other bogus
things. I decided to go ahead and try life without rhythmbox-plugins,
assuming I can reinstall later if need be. It's a little creepy to think
someone, or even just something in my system, was tracking the music I
play and the podcasts I download.

Anonymous Strikes Again!

The New York Times is reporting this morning that Anonymous has attacked Special Forces, having taken, reportedly, "7,277 unique credit card numbers, 40,854 e-mail addresses and released 36,368 usernames and passwords."

I expect a strong, futile reaction calling for legal action, but ideally commercial web sites would begin to take security seriously. In a sense, these organizations are providing an attractive nuisance: leave the gate open, and kids will jump in the pool. Just close the frigging gate.

People want the simplest solution, and often the simplest solution doesn't work. Going after hackers perhaps has an effect, but hackers are a renewable resource. Prosecuting hackers doesn't have a measurable effect. Prohibition similarly perhaps had an effect on the amount of alcohol consumed, but it also served to fund organized crime. We are repeating the prohibition mistake with other drugs now. If we were to legalize, treat, and tax, we could mitigate multiple national problems while at the same time destroying less of Latin America. Going after the dealers rather than dealing with the problem is essentially supply-side thinking. And it works no better than supply-side economics.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Learned Something Tonight

I had just downloaded a statement from my bank, and it had the useless extension .asp on it, which I changed to .pdf since the bank said it was a PDF. Wanting a quicker way to verify that it was indeed a PDF than loading it into a document viewer, I pointed emacs at it. Instead of displaying a screen that starts with something like


which is what the file indeed did start with, it complained that it couldn't render the file and asked if I wanted to view text extracted from it. The extracted text didn't include the first line, so I was at square zero. It only took a moment to get around this new emacs "feature," now a default in emacs23 which is the Mint 12/Ubuntu 11.10 default emacs version, but, in the interest of saving time in the future, I decided to disable the feature, docview-mode.

But that's not what this entry is about. While searching for a solution, Duck Duck Go led me to The Universe of Discourse, which is apparently not where I live, and the following description of my life:
Yesterday I upgraded Emacs, and since it was an upgrade, something that had been working for me for fifteen years stopped working, because that's what "upgrade" means.

I've been in this field for over 3 decades, and even though I am fully aware that backward compatibility is often not a consideration, I have not yet internalized the fact that upgrades necessarily lead to broken systems. However, this is consistent with my recent experiences, especially with Ubuntu and Gnome.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Google Chrome on Linux Mint 12

<Addition of December 23>
The below assumes the reader has just downloaded the .deb from Google. This is the file referred to below.
<End December 23 addition>

With my fresh Linux Mint 12 install, I was unable to simply click on the file, type my password, and see it install (yes, I can be lazy). The workaround is well-explained here:

For 32b Mint, the drill was:

sudo dpkg -i google-chrome-stable_current_i386.deb
sudo apt-get -f install

For 64b Mint, replace 'i386' above with 'amd64'. Of course, either way, use the actual name of the file you downloaded.

Alan Grayson Gets My Vote

Adiós Ubuntu, Hola Linux Mint 12

Today I got rid of my penultimate Ubuntu installation--Ubuntu completely abandoned usability and customization in favor of perceived glitz. I do, however, still have an old Dell laptop (bought at the end of 2005) running Ubuntu 10.4. Support for that drops in April, so some time around then I will likely do a fresh Mint install (and maybe insert a larger hard drive). For now I'm leaving well enough alone. I've thought about replacing this machine, but don't really need to, and so now I'm going to nurse as many years out of it as my primary portable as I can.

I have a Samsung netbook with 1MB RAM; it was running XP, but now it's Mint 12/Mate dual boot with XP. I plan to use it to play around with OpenBox. Also, it's getting a little old, was never expensive to begin with, and has  no files to speak of, so I feel comfortable travelling internationally with it and occasionally leaving it momentarily unattended in a classroom.

My main desktop at home is running Mint 11. This was because the machine would not automatically hibernate with Ubuntu 11.04, so I "upgraded" to Ubuntu 11.10, had a terrible experience--Ubuntu offers a number of user interfaces with 11.10, all of them bad. So, in time I performed what turned out to be an actual an upgrade, to Mint 11. This was amazingly trouble-free and very easy to configure--Mint made a great first impression on me. I'll probably upgrade this to Mint 12 sometime after finals.

My desktop at work would not wake up from hibernate with Ubuntu 11.04 (sense a familiar theme?), so I "upgraded" that to Ubuntu 11.10, hated Unity, hated Gnome 3, and lived with XFCE for a few weeks. XFCE is really clunky and, with Ubuntu 11.10, even with XFCE and as much junk as possible disabled and uninstalled, was very, very slow. This may have been an Ubuntu issue, or an XFCE issue. No matter; as of this afternoon the machine is running Mint 12 with Mate, and seems to be performing fine. The university gave me this machine in '06, and it has just 2GB RAM and is dual core, which seemed sweet then, but pedestrian now. Still, it should be plenty for software development and document typesetting. Anyhow, with Mate and Mint 12, things seem okay.

I'm in the process of removing a bunch of garbage as both Mint and Ubuntu seem to have this philosophy that bloat is good. I'll detail that later. Of course I have to install a lot of stuff as well, which I have started with tcsh, emacs, LaTeX, and GHC being first. Then Google Chrome, which wasn't as easy as I'd hoped. Details soon.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gmail's New Interface: Stupider than I Originally Thought

As bad as I originally thought Gmail's new interface is, it's worse. They have hidden the 'choose font' button behind a T. Sure, T stands for font. I get it. This is what it looks like:

The T between the underline and the font size selector is for choosing font. Blogger, and every other GUI I use, uses a stylized F for font. Perhaps Google thinks it's powerful enough to change the word from 'font' to 'tont.'

This is just more evidence that Google's new interfaces for Docs, Gmail, etc., are not well thought-out and are simply change for the sake of change. Overall, replacing words with obscure pictographs and then using letters that have no apparent relation to their function are slaps in the faces the user community.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Art is to Truth as Mathematics is to Beauty

Art is to Truth as Mathematics is to Beauty
I don't think that statement is original to me, but googling it provided no source. But it should be out here, whatever its origin.