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Happy New Year!

The way the ‘Net oughta be. I finally broke down and bought a VCR yesterday. It’s hard to do video work without one, and you want to give people drafts on VHS. When it comes to consumer video, there are two companies I trust: Hitachi and Hitachi. So I went looking for a Hitachi VCR. Their low-end model, a no-frills stereo 4-head model, ran $70 at Circuit City. I ordered it online, along with 5 tapes. Total cost: 80 bucks. For “delivery,” you’ve got two options: delivery, or local pickup. I did local pickup at the store five miles from where I live. You avoid the extended warranty pitch and trying to convince someone in the store to help you, and you just walk into the store, hand the paperwork to customer service, sign for it, then go pick it up. Suddenly consumer electronics shopping is like Chinese or pizza take-out. I love it.
The VCR’s not much to look at and the $149 models are more rugged-looking and have more metal in them, but this model is made in Korea so it ought to be OK, and the playback’s great on my 17-year-old Commodore 1702 (relabeled JVC) composite monitor. For what I’ll be asking it to do, it’s fine. In my stash of Amiga cables I found an RCA y-adapter that mixes two audio outputs, which I used to connect to the monitor’s mono input.

Desktop Linux. Here are my current recommendations for people trying to replace Windows with Linux.

Web browser: Galeon. Very lightweight. Fabulous tabbed interface. I hate browsing in Windows now.
Minimalist browser: Dillo. Well under a meg in size, and if it’ll render a site, it’ll render it faster than anything else you’ll find.
FTP client: GFTP. Graphical FTP client, saves hosts and username/password combinations for you.
PDF viewer: XPDF. Smaller and faster than Acrobat Reader, though that’s available for Linux too.
Mail client/PIM: Evolution. What Outlook should have been.
Lightweight mail client: Sylpheed. Super-fast and small, reasonably featured.
File manager: Nautilus. Gorgeous and easy to use, though slow on old PCs. Since I use the command line 90% of the time, it’s fine.
Graphics viewer: GTK-See. A convincing clone of ACDSee. Easy-to-use graphics viewer with a great interface.
News reader: Pan. Automatically threads subject headers for you, and it’ll automatically decode and display uuencoded picture attachments as part of the body. Invaluable for browsing the graphics newsgroups.
File compression/decompression: I use the command-line tools. If you want something like WinZip, there’s a program out there called LnxZip. It’s available in RPM or source form; I couldn’t find a Debian package for it.
Desktop publishing: Yes, desktop publishing on Linux! Scribus isn’t as powerful as QuarkXPress, but it gives a powerful enough subset of what QuarkXPress 3.x offered that I think I would be able to duplicate everything I did in my magazine design class way back when, in 1996. It’s more than powerful enough already to serve a small business’ DTP needs. Keep a close eye on this one. I’ll be using it to meet my professional DTP needs at work, because I’m already convinced I can do more with it than with Microsoft Publisher, and more quickly.
Window manager: IceWM. Fast, lightweight, integrates nicely with GNOME, Windows-like interface.
Office suite: Tough call. KOffice is absolutely good enough for casual use. StarOffice 6/OpenOffice looks to be good enough for professional use when released next year. WordPerfect Office 2000 is more than adequate for professional use if you’re looking for a commercial package.

Desktop Linux and the truth about forking

Desktop Linux! I wanna talk a little more about how Linux runs on a Micron Transport LT. I chose Debian 2.2r3, the “Potato” release, because Debian installs almost no extras. I like that. What you need to know to run Linux on a Micron LT: the 3Com miniPCI NIC uses the 3C59x kernel module. The video chipset uses the ATI Mach64 X server (in XFree86 3.36; if you upgrade to 4.1 you’ll use plain old ATI). Older Debian releases gave this laptop trouble, but 2.2r3 runs fine.
I immediately updated parts of it to Debian Unstable, because I wanted to run Galeon and Nautilus and Evolution. I haven’t played with any GNOME apps in a long time. A couple of years ago when I did it, I wasn’t impressed. KDE was much more polished. I didn’t see any point in GNOME; I wished they’d just pour their efforts into making KDE better. I still wish that, and today KDE is still more polished as a whole, but GNOME has lots of cool apps. Nautilus has the most polish of any non-Mac app I’ve ever seen, and if other Linux apps rip off some of its code, Microsoft’s going to have problems. It’s not gaudy and overboard like Mac OS X is; it’s just plain elegant.

Galeon is the best Web browser I’ve ever seen. Use its tabs feature (go to File, New Tab) and see for yourself. It’s small and fast like Opera, compatible like Netscape, and has features I haven’t seen anywhere else. It also puts features like freezing GIF animation and disabling Java/JavaScript out where they belong: In a menu, easily accessible. And you can turn them off permanently, not just at that moment.

Evolution is a lot like Outlook. Its icons look a little nicer–not as nice as Nautilus, but nice–and its equivalent of Outlook Today displays news headlines and weather. Nice touch. And you can tell it what cities interest you and what publications’ headlines you want. As a mail reader, it’s very much like Outlook. I can’t tell you much about its PIM features, because I don’t use those heavily in Outlook either.

The first time I showed it to an Outlook user at work, her reaction was, “And when are we switching to that?”

If you need a newsreader, Pan does virtually everything Forte Agent or Microplanet Gravity will do, plus a few tricks they won’t. It’s slick, small, and free too.

In short, if I wanted to build–as those hip young whippersnappers say–a pimp-ass Internet computer, this would be it. Those apps, plus the Pan newsreader, give you better functionality than you’ll get for free on Windows or a Mac. For that matter, you could buy $400 worth of software on another platform and not get as much functionality.

Linux development explained. There seems to be some confusion over Linux, and the kernel forking, and all this other stuff. Here’s the real dope.

First off, the kernel has always had forks. Linus Torvalds has his branch, which at certain points in history is the official one. When Torvalds has a branch, Alan Cox almost always has his own branch. Even when Cox’s branch isn’t the official one, many Linux distributions derive their kernels from Cox’s branch. (They generally don’t use the official one either.) Now, Cox and Torvalds had a widely publicized spat over the virtual memory subsystem recently. For a while, the official branch and the -ac branch had different VMs. Words were exchanged, and misinterpreted. Both agreed the original 2.4 VM was broken. Cox tried to fix it. Torvalds replaced it with something else. Cox called Torvalds’ approach the unofficial kernel 2.5. But Torvalds won out in the end–the new VM worked well.

Now you can expect to see some other sub-branches. Noted kernel hackers like Andrea Archangeli occasionally do a release. Now that Marcelo Tosatti is maintaining the official 2.4 tree, you might even see a -ac release again occasionally. More likely, Cox and Torvalds will pour their efforts into 2.5, which should be considered alpha-quality code. Some people believe there will be no Linux 2.6; that 2.5 will eventually become Linux 3.0. It’s hard to know. But 2.5 is where the new and wonderful and experimental bits will go.

There’s more forking than just that going on though. The 2.0 and 2.2 kernels are still being maintained, largely for security reasons. But not long ago, someone even released a bugfix for an ancient 0.-something kernel. That way you can still keep your copy of Red Hat 5.2 secure and not risk breaking any low-level kernel module device drivers you might be loading (to support proprietary, closed hardware, for example). Kernels are generally upward compatible, but you don’t want to risk anything on a production server, and the kernel maintainers recognize and respect that.

As far as the end user is concerned, the kernel doesn’t do much. What 2.4 gave end users was better firewalling code and more filesystems and hopefully slightly better performance. As far as compatibility goes, the difference between an official kernel and an -ac kernel and an -aa kernel is minor. There’s more difference between Windows NT 4.0 SP2 and SP3 than there is between anyone’s Linux 2.4 kernel, and, for that matter, between 2.4 and any (as of Nov. 2001) 2.5 kernel. No one worries about Windows fragmenting, and when something Microsoft does breaks a some application, no one notices.

So recent events are much ado about nothing. The kernel will fragment, refragment, and reunite, just as it has always done, and eventually the best code will win. Maybe at some point a permanent fracture will happen, as happened in the BSD world. That won’t be an armageddon, even though Jesse Berst wants you to think it will be (he doesn’t have anything else to write about, after all, and he can’t be bothered with researching something non-Microsoft). OpenBSD and NetBSD are specialized distributions, and they know it. OpenBSD tries to be the most secure OS on the planet, period. Everything else is secondary. NetBSD tries to be the most portable OS on the planet, and everything else is secondary. If for some reason you need a Unix to run on an old router that’s no longer useful as a router and you’d like to turn it into a more general-purpose computer, NetBSD will probably run on it.

Linux will fragment if and when there is a need for a specialized fragment. And we’ll all be the better for it. Until someone comes up with a compelling reason to do so, history will just continue to repeat itself.

Back again….

That new job. I started my transition on Tuesday. Tuesday was my best single day at work in more than four years. For the record, I started my professional career in March 1997–so I haven’t been working much more than four years.
I picked up the laptop I’ll be using for my new job yesterday. It’s a Micron Transport LT, a short-lived lightweight. It was a good machine, but when Micron sold off its PC division, it got axed. Its replacement, the Micron Transport XT (a name that still makes me chuckle; old-timers will know why), is bigger and heavier. It has a bigger screen, which is worth the extra weight, but I like the small size of the LT. It’s a 700 MHz machine, so even though it’s about six months old, it’s no slouch.

I installed Windows 2000 and Debian 2.2 on it. Of course I quickly made Debian into a hybrid because I wanted to run packages like Galeon that aren’t available for 2.2. Yeah, so it hasn’t been deemed stable yet. The most bleeding-edge Linux distros I’ve ever seen are more stable than anything Microsoft’s ever slapped its name on, with the possible exception of MS-DOS 5.0. Even Debian-Unstable is more conservative than Mandrake, so having bits of Debian-Unstable on my PC doesn’t bother me in the least.

I got to dabble in my new position yesterday, even though I was officially doing my old job. There was a server to deploy, and I was reasonably idle, so naturally I worked on the server.

They should be ashamed of themselves. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the president of my church body, Dr. Jerry Kieschnick, and the president of the Atlantic district, Dr. David Benke, committed the unpardonable sin of praying with people who are members of church bodies other than the LCMS. They now face expulsion from the church body.

This account from a St. Louis television station is a fair summary of the events.

What that account doesn’t tell you is that the First Vice President of the LCMS, who would take office if the presidency were vacated, was widely considered a political enemy of Dr. Kieschnick before the two of them took office early this fall. Dr. Kieschnick is considered a progressive, while his would-be successor is a hard-line conservative. I don’t know anything about Oberdieck, but I do know that Lebanon, Mo. isn’t exactly a hotbed of progressivism.

KSDK oversimplified Oberdieck’s reasoning slightly. Oberdieck believes that Drs. Kieschnick and Benke’s actions imply that all religions are equal, and he objects to that implication. However, if you talk to Dr. Kieschnick, the last thing he’ll tell you is that all religions are equal. He’ll agree wholeheartedly with Oberdieck’s statement that there’s only one way to God–that’s Jesus Christ, in case you’re wondering what I’m talking about–and that it should be followed strictly. The motivation behind the two mens’ actions in NYC in September was to extend a hand, to tell people that the LCMS cares about what happens to them and wants to help them.

The overwhelming majority of Lutherans in this country know and understand that.

This is a political play, pure and simple. It’s just like what the Republicans tried to do to Clinton with Whitewater and what the Democrats tried to do with Gingrich after he became speaker.

And it may undermine the current president’s credibility. What it certainly will do is leave a bad taste in people’s mouth. In a month or two months or five years, people won’t remember these specifics anymore. What they will remember is having a bad taste in their mouth about the LCMS, or worse yet, about Christianity as a whole. The immortal Someone Else will have to work hard to overcome those feelings. Sometimes Someone Else will succeed. Inevitably, sometimes Someone Else will fail, and the hurt will continue. But that doesn’t matter, because it’s Someone Else’s problem, not theirs.

I hope Oberdieck and his allies are happy.

More of the same.

As I watched my Royals’ parent club, the Oakland Athletics, play the Yankees, I burned a CD under Linux for the first time. I honestly don’t remember when I last used my old Sony CD-R (it’s so old it’s a 2X burner!) but that was under Windows.
But burning an ISO image is insanely easy, at least if you’ve got a SCSI drive. Here’s the voodoo I needed:

cdrecord -v speed=2 dev=0,0 binary-i386-1.iso

By the time I could have pulled up the ISO image in Easy CD Creator, I’d typed the command line and cdrecord had already burned a meg.

How do you know the numbers? cat /proc/scsi/scsi.

And I know now why my people at work who are in the know on Linux love Debian. How big is a default installation of the current release? 141 megs. Including XFree86 3.36. It’s definitely not a distro for those who like the bleeding edge or even the leading edge, but if you’re wanting to build a Firewall, Debian looks like the distro of choice, and it’ll fit on a discarded 170-meg drive with room to spare.

I reformatted my experimental mail server, then I installed Debian. Then I made it a mailserver. Exim, a sendmail replacement, was already installed. So was procmail. So here’s what I did to make a mail server:

apt-get install courier-imap
apt-get install fetchmail

I created a .fetchmailrc file in my home directory:

poll postoffice.swbell.net with protocol pop3
user dfarq password noway is dfarq

Then I made the file secure:
chmod 0710 .fetchmailrc

I configured courier-imap. I had to scroll down to the bottom of /etc/courier-imap.config and uncomment the last line to activate it. Then I configured exim. I searched for the phrase “maildir” and uncommented the line that enables maildir format (courier doesn’t work with the default mbox format, and maildirs are more efficient anyway).

Then I ran fetchmail: fetchmail -d.

That should have worked. It didn’t. Exim continued to use mbox format. So I can connect to my IMAP server, which is populated by fetchmail, which is in turn served by exim, but since exim doesn’t put the mail in a format the server understands, I’ve got nothing to read.

So I guess I’m going to think about ditching exim for qmail. I have no great loyalty to exim except that Debian put it there by default.

And the Cardinals are eliminated (I’m furious with the way LaRussa handled Matt Morris; he won’t win 22 games next season, that’s a given now) and the A’s are going to have to play Game 5 without Jermaine Dye. I see the Royals have problems with the Yankees even when they’re wearing another uniform. Hopefully they can pull it off today. I’d have liked to have seen Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Jeremy Giambi and Mike Magnante go to the Series in Royals’ uniforms, but if they get there in someone else’s, I’ll take it.

Just had a conversation with Dan Bowman to confirm my feeble grip on sanity (but I was afraid I may have let go, so that is good news), and now it’s way late. It’s actually about 11:30; this server runs on Farquhar time. I’m gonna go make friends with my pillow. Apologies if this is poorly edited.

Back in the swing of things

Here are some odds and ends, since I’ve gone nearly a week without talking computers.
Intro to Linux. I found this last week. It’s a 50-page PDF file that serves as a nice Linux primer, from the experts at IBM. It’s a must-read for a Windows guru who wants to learn some Linux.

Linux from Scratch. Dustin mentioned Linux From Scratch last week. The idea is you download the source to an already-installed Linux box, then compile everything yourself. Why? Stability, security, and speed.

Security. You’ve got fresh, updated code, compiled yourself, with no extras. If you didn’t compile it, it’s not there. Less software means fewer holes for l337 h4x0r5 (“leet hackers,” or, more properly, script kiddies, or, even more properly, wankers who really need to get a life because they have nothing better to do than try to mess around with my 486s–Steve DeLassus asked me “what the #$%@ is an el-three-three-seven-aitch-four…” last week) to exploit.

Stability. Well, you get that anyway when you liberate your system from Microsoft’s grubby imperialistic mitts, but it makes sense that if you run software built by your system, for your system, it ought to run better. Besides, if you’ve got a borderline CPU or memory module or disk controller and try to compile all that code with aggressive compiler settings, you’ll expose the problems right away instead of later.

Speed. You’re running software built for your system, by your system. Not Mandrake’s PCs. Not Red Hat’s PCs. Yours. You want software optimized for your 486SX? You want software optimized for a P4? You won’t get either anywhere else. And recent GCC compilers with aggressive settings can sometimes (not always) outperform hand-built assembly. It’s hard to know what settings Mandrake or Red Hat or those Debian weirdos used.

I really want to replace my junky Linksys router with a PC running LFS and firewalling software. The Linksys router seems to be fine for Web surfing, but if you want to get beyond serfdom and serve up some content from your home LAN, my Linksys router’s even more finicky and problematic than Linksys’ NICs, which is saying something. It’ll just decide one day it doesn’t want to forward port 80 anymore.

Firewalling. And speaking of that, Dan Seto detailed ways to make a Linux box not even respond to a ping last week. It’s awfully hard for a l337 w4nk3r to find you if he can’t even ping you.

A story. My sister told me this one. She’s a behavioral/autism consultant, and one of her kids likes to belch for attention. He’ll let out an urp, and if you don’t respond, he’ll get closer and closer to you, letting out bigger and bigger belts until you acknowledge it. Di hasn’t managed to break that behavioral habit yet. She was telling her boss, a New Zealander, about this kid (he’s 3).

“Hmm,” he said. “Must be Australian.”

An update. I heard some howls of protest about a cryptic post I made last week. Yes, that was a girl I was talking to in the church parking lot until well past 11 the other night. Yes, we met at church. I’ve known her maybe six months. Yes, she’s nice. Yes, she’s cute. No, I haven’t asked her where she went to high school. Remember, I’m not a native St. Louisan… (And if you clicked on that link, be sure to also check out the driving tips.)

No, I’m not really interested in saying much more about her. Not now.