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Archive for March, 2007

RSSOwl and Thunderbird

I am having some bitter-sweet feelings as I make a certain change. And this change is an easy one to make. Apart from taking my Web-based mail back to the desktop, I have also begun migrating my RSS feeds from RSSOwl to Thunderbird 1.5.x. It saddens me. I have been with RSSOwl for almost two and a half years. I contributed a little bit to the project, wrote about it, and recommended it to people. Having just tested some things in Thunderbird I came to realise that, as a feeds reader, it boasts several features that would greatly help my reading routine.

While I still have RSSOwl (and I might occasionally use it), the move to Thunderbird seems inevitable. But I am only having second thoughts because of export/import issues. Kudos to Benjamin Pasero for a wonderful tool which I may still regularly use. RSSOwl Development has been slow in the past year and I have remained loyal nonetheless. Now I’m just too tempted to ‘change teams’.

Update (the ‘morning after’): After a while of careful consideration, weighing the pros and cons, I decided to use the best of both worlds, at least for now. RSSOwl is good for quick opening of many pages in new tabs, whereas Thunderbird offers nice HTML previews. It also sports retention of old items which otherwise ‘leak’ out of sight. By mixing and relying on the traits of both applications I will probably get the best overall experience. Unless of course they mature to the point where one becomes obsolete and replaceable… let’s just wait and see.

WYSIWYG – Fine Layout, But What Happened to Content?

Internet Explorer 7 screenshot

THE “what you see is what you get” paradigm is a fine idea. This term, abbreviated WYSIWYG (and sometimes pronounced Wisi-wig), aptly describes the way we print our documents. From a particular image on our monitor we are able to produce paper replicas. But should the same paradigm be used for composition of our documents? Should layout itself be manipulated and controlled by the user in real time? Scott McNealy weighed in.

Scott McNealy, who used to like to style himself “chairman, president, founder, chief cook and bottlewasher” of Sun Microsystems, is not known for his affection for Microsoft. Quite the opposite. Speaking to the National Press Club of Australia way back in October 1996, he pronounced that “when the anthropologists look back on the 1980s and 1990s and do the archaeological digs, and get their callipers and brooms and microscopes out, they will blame the massive reduction in productivity during the 1980s and 1990s entirely on Microsoft Office.”

Indeed, there is too much emphasis on presentation at the writing phase. Instead of creating high-quality content, the writer can often be distracted by the desire and ability to turn text into its form in ‘output mode’. This is wasteful. It’s a case of jumping ahead too early and, in fact, spell checkers and grammar checkers which involve false positives lead to similar distractions. The composition, if done properly, should be a staged process. At each stage, full attention should be given to the task at hand.

Writing of good material can be handled in plain-text mode, only later to have the mind occupied with structural layout (as opposes to structure, which requires shallow preparation and planning, without diving in). A similar issue comes up when people prepare presentations in a way that concentrates on looks rather than delivery of concise and important messages. Here is one among many writings on the dumbing-down effect of tools like Astound, PowerPoint, Keynote, KPresent, and Presenter.

In August, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board at NASA released Volume 1 of its report on why the space shuttle crashed. As expected, the ship’s foam insulation was the main cause of the disaster. But the board also fingered another unusual culprit: PowerPoint, Microsoft’s well-known ”slideware” program.

Exercise Helps the Brain, Says Study

My MRI scan

Interesting article about a clinical study at Columbia:

Columbia-Led Study Finds Exercise Benefits Area of Brain Involved in Aging

Neuron-Growth First Observed in Living Brain

Good news to those of us who take a break from work in order to engage in physical activity. The image above, by the way, is my own brain.

I Found Myself in Free Software

[NOTE: streams of consciousness post]

THE past year has been an amazing year for me. I keep making excellent progress. Google have contacted me again, without me even applying. And apparently, it’s the #1 company to work for, based on the most recent US surveys. They actually have interest in my skills, which is the greatest ego boost one can wish for. While the door may be open for me to join them (as they got in touch with me in the past as well), I can only suspect that, given more time, I can do better independently, maybe as a freelancer. It’s clearly an investment. I will complete my current endeavours, which is important for status — however pointless it may seem — and then try to establish my own career, which may or may not revolve around activism. I have been in contact with some managers and prominent figures. Together we have an impact on the government (through the Open Source Consortium), as well as some of the world’s largest companies.

Some of this enlightening direction came from frustration. The frustration resulted from the morbid state of the IT industry, which I was probably destined to reach as a Software Engineer. Recently, someone shrewdly pointed out that people who work in computing nowadays either work for Microsoft or support them. It is an insult to one’s intelligence because Microsoft deliberately slows down innovation. It helps this suppressive establishment sustain a monopoly while keeping R&D spendings low and approaching no risks (disruptive technology). All they deliver are binary ‘blobs’ for Windows on a 32-bit x86 architecture. It’s very restrictive. In the past it was the norm to provide source code. Things are changing now, for a reason. There are benefits to be reaped. Also, the backlash that was formed due to ‘imperialism’ in the computer industry simply craved for older days to return, probably for good. The transition to Free/Libre Open Source software can be seen anywhere we go. It happens to also reduce waste, which helps the environment.

For those who refuse to be fooled by cliches and be sucked into a lavish lifestyle, here is a liberating point of view: Ask yourself not how much you wish to spend and how much work would cover it. The less you spend, the less you need to work. This leaves time for hobbies and luxuries.

I began with research and a couple of jobs as my main occupation. I had many hobbies on the Web, which in turn began paying the bills (Netscape). That is when my hobby and passion became a job, as well as a 24/7 commitment. My PCs have been up since a campus-wide outage in July (running a 2.4 Linux kernel), so the principles I advocate have my full faith. I stand behind everything I preach.

If it were not for delays that I cannot control (e.g. the involvement with and procrastination of other people), I will have probably finished my degree on time, at the age of 24. At the moment it feels as though I’m on semi leave, but I will complete things shortly. One thing I learned while working toward the Ph.D. is that long sentences make it hard to digest the input, let alone breathe in. I improved my writing and presentation skills. Beyond this, I can’t help but feel that 3 years in industry can teach much more than academic experiences. Those who say that a doctoral degree means very little are most likely correct.

As for the future, it’s too hard to tell. I am against long-term projections, which are unrealistic. Technically speaking, predicting the future will involve taking into account all atoms, even neurons of every organism and then building an infinitely-complex simulator and running it for almost an eternity. Let’s just wait and see. I think I’ll be fine.

Metisse

Screen-shot of Metisse for FVWM

Doing the Dreadful Laundry of Documents and Sports

I have finally put behind me some chores that I have been escaping and postponing for almost a year. First of foremost, I needed to spend many hours converting documents and papers of mine to HTML, then filing them sensibly under the Web site (here is the largest one among about 10). It was like opening a Pandora’s box, taking a glance at old papers and trying to figure out what fits where. The mind slips when it is no longer familiar with old material that got mis-filed.

Game seat
Photo from BBC News

The second thing which I finally finished is the rowing competition. I did fairly well at it, given the circumstances, but it had my throat in a bad state for almost a day. I will soon report about. I can’t do so now because it is too early to announce the results. If I win, there will be an excellent prize and it will count as a personal achievement which is becoming hard to replicate as not only do I age, but I also seem to spend less time at the gym nowadays. I am not entirely certain what impact my career will have on my physique, but I am not worried (yet!). I’m probably in a better shape than I have ever been, but it varies depending on exercise. Some things I have neglected while others, which do not count as ‘dirty laundry’, I just carry on doing.

Arbitrary Microsoft and Windows Rants

  • As you probably know, Gates predicted that SPAM will have reached final demise by 2006. The vast majority of it is delivered from compromised Windows PCs and the prediction was made back in 2004. Bill Gates has been publicly whining about SPAM (again, sent from Windows zombies) which he receives himself, even though he has staff to do the filtering for him. It is like a country using nukes against a neighboring nation and then complaining about radiation that drifts across the border. To Gates, never mind the hundreds of millions that suffer from vulnerabilities—those that extract spam from Gates’ own creation.
  • Windows is an alternative operating system, which some claim can actually replace Linux. Of course, it is unstable, prone to breakage or hijackers, and it will not run some of your favourite applications. This last statement is especially true when you come to consider its most recent version. I cannot envision Vista regaining any market share for Microsoft. Au contraire: it already drives many people away. Even aggressive lockin attempts lead to backlash nowadays, owing to the openness of the Web.
  • Linux can import and export individual windows and treat them in a flexible way, owing to the way X server functions. Windows, on the other hand, is not modular, so remote connections are flawed from the get-go. Linux could (and can) mimic the same approach which is grabbing an entire desktop environment to be redrawn. This instantiates a whole new animal on the server and sips resources though.
  • Prebundling remains a major concern as Microsoft now prepares to ‘pull a Netscape’ against VMWare et al. It happens endlessly. For example, by bundling a proprietary formats-biased media player in Windows, not only monoculture is encouraged. Web users who do not use Windows will face more encoded files that cannot be opened. It leads to a danger and circularity trap — a self-sustaining monopoly.
  • Microsoft was wise enough to name their operating system in a way that makes them seem like inventors whose work is copied. Just describing this paradigm would involve uttering the word ‘windows’.
  • Microsoft pays people to write Windows praises on the Internet. It’s a proven fact. One day everyone will look with contempts at pro-Windows ‘Internet trolls’ that advocated a dinosaur O/S and carry on bashing rivals. I had people fake my identity and do some nasty things under my name. I digitally sign my E-mail messages because of this. Me and my electronic accounts/sites are otherwise sensitive to social engineering. I had a couple of imposters in the past, but it’s more of a nuisance than a compliment. Being described as a transgendered person is no joy and the forgers have stooped pretty low in order to fuel slander. Subtly rude and ambiguous phrases like “artichokes on banana” are sometimes used. It’s just one that crossed my mind some time ago (just replace Arty with a girl’s name, please).

Laptop and iPod
Macs and iPods — different company, same problems

Quote of the Day — Why Free Software Suits Business Better

Question: You say that “you can bet your business on Free Software”; how do you back up that statement?

Answer: How can you bet your business on proprietary software? If a company is bought, goes bankrupt or merges or decides to delete a product line you have no choice but to go with whatever product or path they desire. How can you plan when the company keeps changing its licensing terms, and you have no real alternatives? What do you do when the company that makes your software puts its own profits and its values ahead of yours, the customer? When the software company holds back on releasing the latest bug fix so it fits its “release schedule?” When you can’t get that one little feature added that would allow you to streamline your business, save a lot of money and beat your competition to market?

What happens if that company (no matter where it is) is embargoed?

                       — Jon “Maddog” Hall

Multiple SSH sessions
My desktop still serves me well

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