Udine, Again

Last year, I wrote about Udine using FLOSS in their infrastructure. Well, it’s in the news again.“The move, the city says, will allow it to save roughly €400 on the cost of software licensing for each machine, a total of €360,000. The migration will start with 80 new computers that, according to the 2014 budget document, have to be bought by December. The migration will continue as old PCs with Microsoft Office installed will be gradually phased out and substituted with new, OpenOffice ones.” For years they’ve had both FLOSS and M$’s office suite on PCs but now their council will publish it’s deliberations only in ODF, forcing users to familiarize with OpenOffice.org. This time they are moving all office suites to OpenOffice.org and in 2015 they are planning to shift that other OS out from underneath, saving a bundle in licensing fees. I hope the taxpayers are appreciative.

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Schools And GNU/Linux

Emiel Brok has a good article on using GNU/Linux in schools.“I was part of a commission to bring a new curriculum to a higher vocational school for sysadmins. More than half the people present were convinced Linux and open source are indispensable for the datacenter. And, the hosting admins emphasized Linux and open source are essential for graduates to get a job at their company. For this target group it is very important that software is scalable up and down, both technically and financially. They state that this is only flexible enough with open source software. If they are not flexible and their competitors are they can not survive.” It’s bang on. GNU/Linux should be used where it is in the wider world, just about everywhere. What’s particularly interesting is that he documents that businesses who contribute to education want GNU/Linux in the curriculum because GNU/Linux has become essential to their businesses. That does away with that argument that one should “teach that other OS” because it’s out there.

In my experience the FLOSS licences are wonderful for teaching because students can learn to install, copy, distribute and use software without needing a budget or permission for it like that non-Free stuff. Turning out graduates who know consumers and businesses can install FLOSS on computers should be an objective of every high school. Only then will education have set them free.

See How to use open source in the classroom.

See also his posts on Google+

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Ho Hum “9” Inaction

If you seek innovation in IT, don’t look to M$.“A number of clips are up for watching, detailing how Windows 9 will handle multiple desktops, the return of the Start Menu, and more.” They just don’t get it. We’ve had menus and multiple desktops for ages in GNU/Linux. I’ve cut back to three virtual desktops and a couple of virtual machines myself in my old age.

No, rearranging the deck-chairs is not innovation, M$. It’s more of the same. We get it. You’re old and slow and have 1K+ million users and they expect you to do the same old thing but please stop calling it “innovation” or the “product of research”. Real innovation happens in FLOSS and GNU/Linux where the pace of innovation sometimes is annoyingly fast. In the last few years, FLOSS has brought us the cloud in real measure, better and faster IT generally, Android/Linux and “apps”, more distros and rearrangements of the desktop than you could ever think of shipping, and most amazing of all, growth of >100% in users at a price of $0 to end-users.

See Leaked Clips Show Windows 9 In Action.

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Linus On GNU/Linux And Computers In Education

As part of an interview, Linus Torvalds mentioned some of his observations/opinions on GNU/Linux and computers in education.“It has been interesting to see how the fact that they are using Linux on their laptops at school really hasn’t been a problem. OpenOffice and various webby things just work fine, and I was worried there would be some situation where it would cause big problems.

I may be a huge computer nerd, but even so I don’t think education should be about computers. Not as a subject, and not as a classroom resource either.”
As so often, I both agree and disagree with him, almost in the same paragraph… ;-)

It is good to know that his local school used GNU/Linux and OpenOffice before they moved to that community and that his children have no real problem using GNU/Linux at school. That squares with my experience over much of northern Canada. GNU/Linux just works really well for students and teachers. It’s fast, efficient and reliable so folks can get on with teaching/learning and not fighting software. The key thing is that GNU/Linux is affordable and schools can have about twice as much IT for the same cost as with that other OS.

Then he bursts my bubble by opining that computers aren’t a great resource in the classroom! Look at the alternatives, Linus: paper and talk/actions. Everyone loves talk and activities in a classroom. Those are the experiences that last a lifetime and pass on a lot of personal knowledge to students and among students. There’s no downside except that it’s a synchronous process. If activity X is happening and every student is expected to be involved then something else, Y, can’t happen even though Y may be more valuable to some particular student than X at the instant in time. Think snail-mail versus e-mail… Computers can do the synchronous thing or the asynchronous thing and at the speed the student can handle not the speed of the slowest student. Further, for a subset of tasks in the classroom, nothing beats a computer. Think finding, modifying, creating or presenting information to any size audience. There’s a reason computers are popular on the web. There’s a reason computers belong in the classroom. Of course, it takes good planning and thought for teachers to include IT but when well done, it pays huge dividends.

One thing that Linus seems to emphasize in this is the personal relationship between teachers and students, teaching students to be people, that sort of thing. There is a flip-side to that. Some teachers and students just don’t get along. Who knows why? Sometimes it’s a lasting first impression or one encounter that got out of control. Whatever. Sometimes a student and a teacher just don’t connect well. I had that several times. In one case, I sought advice from parents and a vice-principal and it was suggested that the student might be more productive using a computer instead of the usual classroom activities with talk/chalk and paper. Voila! The inhibitions of the student vanished and an amazing torrent of productivity ensued. At one point I thought she could not even read. She ended up with top marks.

For me there are two key reasons to use IT in the classroom. One, networks and hard drives are just so much faster than paper. Why waste time finding paper when a search engine can find information in a second? I think half my education was wasted just looking for paper. Think scanning tables of contents and indices at the back of a book v pressing “enter”. Imagine a student in a library with >1K books. Two, students have varied interests and abilities. Rather than learning at the speed of the teacher or other students, a student can learn at the speed of light with computers. In turn this allows a teacher to concentrate energy on slower students rather than doing Q&A with students who need lots of bandwidth and service. I first started using computers in the classroom up north where I often had multigrade/multilevel classrooms and needed 4 or 5 teachers in the room. Computers can fill the gaps very well. All it takes is a good plan to make sure everyone is on task rather than playing games.

There is always this difference between parents and teachers. Teachers are faced with 15-40 demanding or indifferent students in a room and must do his best by all of them. A parent often has 2-3 children and the older one helps out… It’s a different world with different problems and different solutions. How would Linus deal with 24 students in a high school classroom when only one or two could read half decently? I found the kids were mostly deficient in vocabulary so I broke them up into several groups and had them cycle through a vocabulary-building exercise on a cluster of computers over in the corner (my first GNU/Linux cluster served this role). In a few weeks students went from reading at a Grade 4 level to a proper high school level. All this from just learning 10-20 new words every day. While one group was doing that, I had the other groups working on other subjects/activities. It was a massively parallel processing classroom and it worked.

For actually teaching about IT there are two paths in our curriculum: specialized instruction/learning about hardware, software, programming, networking, databasery, etc. and general instruction where students learn to use IT in all their educational activity, the 3 R’s, physed, cooking, whatever. In both paths a lot of computers is better than few. For the specialized instruction one needs at least one computer for every one or two students. The usual ratio is 1:1, or a bit more so teachers can demonstrate on one PC or students can practice on others. I often had students actually disassemble the lab’s PCs clean and reassemble them. I also had a few additional PCs for students to learn about changing parts, networking or installing software. If a computer lab has the space there is a use for more PCs and servers. The more you have the fewer limitations there are. Now even virtual machines are a useful option. For the general instruction one or two PCs per classroom are not enough. There’s too much waiting happening. In the real world, every worker likely has access to IT. That is an ideal goal for regular classrooms. Some schools have 1:1 as a policy. That could be too much in an art classroom where most of the work is not done digitally but considering that the lab(s) should be included in the inventory, it’s not an unreasonable goal for most schools of size. A small school should definitely have a 1:1 ratio because it leverages IT to equalize most deficits in resources.

I cannot emphasize too much that resources on the web should be brought, carefully, into the classroom. Even a moderately large school may only have a few K books in its library but it’s easy to have many more on a server, fully indexed and ready to be found/read/used by students and teachers. Web services I often set up in schools included a search engine for documents and other data, an image database, a bulletin-board and/or Wiki, and a course management system. Who could not see these as valuable resources brought into the classroom at very low costs compared to having sets of books in each classroom? Better than paper, these can be interactive resources with students sharing and collaborating and building a body of knowledge reflective of the community of the school and the surroundings. For example, I was in one community where students and teachers had interviewed every senior in the community to document their knowledge/lives. Audio tapes were filed away never to be used again. Imagine those tapes transcribed and indexed on a server with images and video… Talk about warm and fuzzy aspects of education.

The bottom line is that schools should have as much IT as they can afford to get the job done the best way possible and thanks to GNU/Linux that is much more attainable than with that other OS.

See Torvalds says he has no strong opinions on systemd.

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Hearing Footsteps

Many years ago, I worked at the University of Manitoba Cyclotron Laboratory. The accelerator itself was in an underground bunker with concrete and equipment all over the place. A lot of the machinery made whirring sounds but there was one place with a corridor that made you hear your footsteps as you walked along. It was startling and many times I turned around to look to see who was following me, especially if it was after midnight and I thought no one else was down there…

M$ is hearing footsteps in its dark labyrinths. In Ethiopia in the last year, there were 24 days when StatCounter recorded a larger share of page-views for GNU/Linux than “7”, it’s current leading product on the desktop. The first occasion was the weekend of November 16-17 of 2013 when GNU/Linux edged out “7” by a few percent. Starting May 21 of 2014 there was a 12-day stretch when “7” only beat GNU/Linux one day. The highest margin for GNU/Linux was 2014-May-25 when GNU/Linux reached 53% share of page-views and “7” only made 27.3%. GNU/Linux still has a ways to go. The average value for “7” was 49% and 16% for GNU/Linux, but the world of IT certainly has changed in Ethiopia.

In Ethiopia the big play for GNU/Linux is the student-desktop. Those students will eventually move to the world of work being familiar with GNU/Linux and choosing it for their IT at work and while shopping too. So, I expect as IT grows in Ethiopia, GNU/Linux will make louder footsteps.

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When And Why A GNU/Linux Distro Dies

Today, Bodhi Linux is on Death’s doorstep. The leader is quitting, leaving behind a git repository. Bodhi is a nice idea, a light desktop distro that is well documented and using APT packaging. It certainly delivers what many folks need. Why is it dying?

If the user-base and contributors were numerous, there would be no problem at all. Someone in the wings would step up and a thriving product would continue. Instead Bodhi doesn’t rank in the top 100 distro list of Distowatch. There are many reasons for the poor state of Bodhi: lack of advertising, lack of innovation, and all the features of Bodhi Linux except the documentation exist in other distros like Debian. I can install E-17 enlightenment display manager and carry on.
apt-cache search enlightenment|grep ^e17
e17 - Enlightenment DR17 Window Manager
e17-data - Enlightenment Window Manager Run Time Data Files
e17-dbg - Enlightenment DR17 Window Manager - debugging symbols
e17-dev - Enlightenment headers, static libraries and documentation

Other distros have good documentation too, but Bodhi made it a key feature. Why would I need to use Bodhi when I can have enlightenment in Debian GNU/Linux? Bodhi was derived from Debian GNU/Linux, not the other way around. No doubt creating and managing Bodhi was a great experience for several developers but they could have had a similar experience working in Debian. Everyone is welcome.

Death is a part of the life-cycle of all living things. Without death the world would be cluttered with old obsolete stuff no one uses. Instead, projects die and the resources, experiences and influences are recycled in other ways. It’s OK.

The possible death of Bodhi Linux is not a disaster, just a sad event in the life of a project like many others. Whether it ends tomorrow or not, Bodhi made the world a better place in multiple ways. GNU/Linux is much more than a project. It is the world making its own software in diverse ways and in diverse places and by means of diverse people.

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Italian Court Attacks “The Tax”

We should all live in Italy! Maybe not. Their criminal law system stinks… but they got it right when considering the defacto monopoly bundling M$’s OS creates.“The judges sharply criticised the practice of selling PCs only together with a non-free operating system as "a commercial policy of forced distribution". The court slammed this practice as "monopolistic in tendency". It also highlighted that the practice of bundling means that end users are forced into using additional non-free applications due to compatibility and interoperability issues, whether they wanted these programs or not.” If you buy a lawn mower, you can have Brigg & Stratton, Honda, Kohler, or Riyobi engines. You can have gasoline, diesel or even electric… If you buy a small cheap computer as your PC, you can have GNU/Linux or Android/Linux on it if you want. Why are legacy PCs different? Only because M$ devised a means of maintaining the monopoly granted by IBM indefinitely.

Congratulations on the Italian court seeing through the sham of denying monopoly or accepting the lie that retailers can do whatever they want, that the consumers don’t have to buy the thing. What if the consumer wants GNU/Linux on a legacy PC today, on retail shelves, eh?

When I approached the Canadian Competition Bureau on the matter, they parroted that I had no standing, not being in competition with M$. Shame on them. Who is in competition with M$ when M$ has eliminated the market? They should do their job and protect consumers and businesses from an unfair tax on goods and services in Canada. What’s your government doing to protect your freedom of choice in operating systems?

See Italy: High Court shoots down Windows tax.

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What You Get For $680

These days, there are lots of adequate PCs for ~$100 but if you have a need for CPU-power, like gamers or video-editors, you probably want to spend a little more.“Pros:
Meets all my needs for my video games. I am able to play all my games on high and very high. This is my first time purchasing my own computer and this was the right choice.
My computer had multiple issues on detecting my USB wireless adapter. My computer would see the USB inserted, but still wouldn’t allow me to connect to the internet. Worked on this for several hours and purchased a new USB wireless adapter, it still failed a couple more times and now it seems to be working fine.
In addition, it keeps asking me to activate Windows when it’s already activated. I just ignore it and close it, starting to get annoying though.
Furthermore, the Fan isn’t TOO loud to the point of hearing it across the room. It’s as quiet as those mini pocket toy fans that you would use on a hot day at the beach.”
Think you own that shiny new hair-drying PC that runs that other OS? No you don’t. It owns you, nagging you about “activation”working for $0 for M$, charging full price for buggy software, etc. Just read the comment in the feedback on NewEgg.

Think that if games become more available for GNU/Linux that such users would gladly pay less for their PC? Think that users hate being bugged to send more money to M$? Think that users want software that works? Wintel is a house of cards and that one card holding up the stack is rattling. Consumers are finally getting choices and taking them by the millions.

Here’s a choice many have made, a ChromeBox.
Here’s what one verified owner wrote:
“Pros: It’s fast, focused and is perfect as an internet-only device or for web application developer. I’m a node.js developer and use c9.io on this device for all my development. It works flawlessly. Especially with the 16gb RAM upgrade I gave it.
Cons: I wish the location of the sd card port and usb ports was revamped. This device would be best with power port located in a different place given the sd port location.”

That’s it folks, trouble-free computing for ⅓ the price. Yes, you can have 3 trouble-free systems for the price of that one gaming PC with M$’s OS… and it’s all thanks to GNU/Linux.

Oh, think I’m taking a few quotes out of context? The mean “number of eggs” for the ChromeBox with verified owners was 4.55 eggs. For that gaming box? 3.93 eggs with a long tail of disgruntled owners… Misquoting Dirty Harry, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

See Single review: CyberpowerPC Gamer Ultra 2175 Desktop PC AMD FX-Series FX-8100 (2.8GHz) 8GB DDR3 500GB HDD Windows 8.1 64-bit.

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GNU/Linux And ChromeOS Double-Team The Desktop

If we listened to the naysayers we’d believe GNU/Linux had ~1% share of the desktop. “It’s going nowhere”, “Can’t”, “No way” etc. are expressions they use but when you look at the numbers we can see GNU/Linux on the desktop in USA, the home of M$ and Apple, moving on up. In the last year GNU/Linux moved up from ~1% to about 1.7%. Amazing! That’s in one year after stagnating below ~1% for years, according to StatCounter. On top of that ChromeOS which is mostly a browser running on top of GNU/Linux rose from almost nothing to ~0.7%! Amazing and in a country that used to pride itself on taking about 20% of desktops produced annually in the world!

That’s a total of 1.2% increase in share of GNU/Linux, counting both GNU/Linux desktops and ChromeOS. This shift if probably due to a mix of situations:

  • a move from XP to “anything but 8.x”
  • a move to ChromeOS in education where IT is a tool, not the reason for existence of schools and students
  • and of course the price. You can’t beat GNU/Linux on price/performance.

This small but rapid move is the reason M$ now donates its OS to small cheap computers, schools and governments, anyone making a big break with Wintel. That may hold GNU/Linux back a bit but the first two motivations haven’t gone away. People just don’t like M$’s offerings lately and most people want to use their PC, not fix it. Advantage, GNU/Linux. Case in point: The Little Woman has a little PC, an Acer netbook running GNU/Linux. Lately, she had a problem with the wifi connection not working automatically. She gave it to me to deal with and to my surprise, I found she was running the release Debian made two releases ago… Squeeze (2011-02). It just worked since I made that installation shortly after my retirement from teaching. I dist-upgraded her machine to Wheezy in short order. Her problem? We had a problem with the wired router here. A NIC failed. In the process of working on that machine, I shifted the wireless access point and weakened the signal a bit… I had even forgotten that little machine existed because it’s usually on a shelf or in her purse. I rarely see it. She had so little trouble with that machine that she didn’t know how to select an access point on a recent trip… Compare that to the periodic re-installations and malware-purges we used to do with that other OS before I came to save her from M$.

Yes, GNU/Linux is more than a Geek’s OS these days. All kinds of folks are awakening to the possibility of an inexpensive choice for reliable IT.

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Linus On (desk)Top

At DebConf14, Linus Torvalds had a Q&A session. One topic was GNU/Linux on the desktop. At one point, about 8:45 in, he details a major problem with GNU/Linux on the desktop, from the viewpoint of developers dealing with a bunch of distros. Essentially, a distro changes something and has to rebuild everything or all applications may be broken. For one distro, this is not a problem but a developer can’t produce binaries for all distros. It’s just impossible. He thinks Valve distributing major applications, games, to GNU/Linux will use huge statically linked binaries to overcome this. This will put pressure on all distros to come to some standards to help developers.

I agree with Linus that this is a big problem but I think it’s mostly a problem for non-Free software where the distros or OEMs have no access to source code. If the distros fix the issue in source code for their repository, the users don’t see the problem and the developer is not closely involved in the work. Clearly, OEMs and distros can do the work if they have the source code of applications. Since most users of PCs can function perfectly well with any particular distro without importing a lot of “foreign” applications, I think this problem is back a level or two from the key issues which I rank from most important to least important:

Problem My take
1 – Getting OEMs to ship GNU/Linux readily, without buyers having to beg, Still a problem for consumers buying directly, but not a problem for wholesale buyers like governments or large organizations because OEMs make a few changes and copy images, not a lot of work. Distros like Linpus and Ubuntu have made big inroads with this.
2 – Getting retailers to offer retail shelf-space (some aren’t even giving retail shelf-space to that other OS here…), Still a problem here even for small cheap computers because legacy PCs are not getting much space and consumers are not lining up demanding choice. When the market matures in a few years things could change. GNU/Linux is better for OEMs, retailers and consumers in many situations. Retailers tend to like selling higher-priced items with higher markups when they should consider that they can sell more units at a lower price and make more money. With FLOSS, the retailer gets to keep more of the money the consumer pays.
3 – broken ABIs by distros, making it difficult for developers to get applications into distros or onto OEMs’ machines, Linus’ issue, and Important for non-Free software because distros/OEMs can’t get the source-code. Less important for FLOSS because the packager in the distro does the work, not the original developer. The developer needs only to convince the distro to package the software. (Linus does mention that this is not practical even for a FLOSS application (e.g. his diving programme, Subsurface) with a small number of users. ~58minutes in)
4 – Consumers’ lack of familiarity. In my experience, consumers/students/non-geeks are readily convinced with a demonstration/advertisement, particularly when they see improved performance and/or lower price, something OEMs and retailers can do.

I have built a few applications from source code and it is a problem how diverse the library-space is: years of constant upgrades with incompatible versions of dozens of libraries. At some point, the ABIs should be frozen. After all these years, why is that not done? Perhaps instead of employing developers to constantly update libraries in source code we should employ them to create applications using the libraries as they are. Just fix the bugs. Stop throwing more features into the bins.

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A Little Initiative With FLOSS Goes A Long Way At NHS In UK

The old model of allowing some corporation to dictate more and more expensive IT for big government is dying.“Cost savings from dumping Oracle will come through not paying an Oracle license a maintenance fee and by consolidating the hardware.
Basho claimed Riak is up to two times cheaper than Oracle while the infrastructure will cost five per cent that of the old setup, as various blades and SANs are gone. Also cut from the cost is BT, as HSCIC has whipped management of Spine2 back in house with on-going development. A new architecture uses 106 x86 servers for Riak and local storage.”
At NHS in UK, in a period of three years, Oracle was replaced with a NoSQL system for a fraction of the capital and operating costs. The reduction in licensing fees and hardware needed practically paid for the transition.

This is what I have also observed on the desktop/client PC level. You can have more hardware for the same cost or less overall cost very quickly by switching to FLOSS. Further, the system is simplified because FLOSS licences permit running as many systems as you need without having to count/audit licences. If everything is FLOSS there’s no need for that. There’s no worry about whether a CPU has N cores or whether there are M servers or not. There’s just less to worry about.

See NHS grows a NoSQL backbone and rips out its Oracle Spine.

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Students As IT-techs

During my career as a computer teacher I was often the major IT-support person. When I left a school and moved to another there was always an issue of what would happen with IT support. This was handled in different ways:

  • the school looked for another computer teacher to do the job,
  • the school arranged another teacher on staff to take over the job, or
  • if no proper computer teacher could be obtained, the job was just assigned to someone…

There are lots of things that can happen in such transitions. To ensure a smooth transition, I repeatedly suggested interested students be given the role of IT-support. This suggestion was never accepted because students were considered untrustworthy or incompetent or that somehow this just wasn’t done. I could not understand that because students I taught could do it all and they certainly could have learned the few gaps in their training by practising giving tech-support. They could disassemble and reassemble ATX PCs with certainty the machines would work. They could install and update software. They could write simple HTML and native code applications. They could make Ethernet cables reliably and they could run websites and servers. I felt they were a greatly underutilized resource in the school. Teachers in every other subject area had students help out by tutoring other students, working on projects to help the school or community, and yes, sharing with other students in other schools over the Internet, yet students were not trusted to help out with local IT.

At a school where students do support IT, things are humming. Read about it below. I used to use thin clients in schools to lighten the workload. Here’s a school that used 1:1 notebooks as thick clients and students do a major portion of the work and they use FLOSS to lighten the impact on the budget…

“Students technology apprentices work alongside district IT staff on hardware support, repairs, software setup, instructional tutorials, system imaging, peer training, and any number of tasks related to our school-wide laptop program. Daily work assignments are guided by the needs of fellow students and classroom teachers. On any given day, you might observe our help desk apprentices answering questions from students or staff, repairing a damaged laptop screen, experimenting with code, or diving into Linux configuration files.”

See Linux laptop learning initiative at Penn Manor High School.

“The laptops are running Linux, specifically Ubuntu 13.10, along with several dozen free and open source programs. Our program is believed to be the largest open source 1:1 implementation in Pennsylvania. By using open source software exclusively, we estimate an initial cost savings of at least $360,000 on licensing fees.”

See The Laptops Have Landed!.

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