Archive for the ‘computers’ Category

The first time I saw Pong, I knew that massive change was coming – and that I would spend my life against the background of that change.

I was a high school junior at the time. I was in Yakima, Washington, with the other top two runners from my training group with the Vancouver Olympic Club. We had spent most of the day on the bus, and had been picked up at the bus depot by the head coach of the running camp we were scheduled to start the next day. The coach found a hotel for us, warned us of the consequences of getting into trouble before he picked us up early the next morning, then left us to our own resources.

Not that there was much chance of trouble. We were upper middle class kids (middle class, in my case), and our idea of a wild time would have been to have a couple of beers. But we were in a small town in eastern Washington on a Sunday evening, so our chances of getting into trouble were mathematically remote. After experiencing the minor thrill of paying for our own dinners, we had several hours to kill and few resources for making them interesting.

Not knowing what else to do, we started walking. Back then, Yakima’s downtown (or at least the part we found ourselves in) consisted mainly of three or four story stone or brick buildings, the newest of which must have been fifty years old. Had I known the labor history I knew a few years later, I might have been amused myself – if not the others – by finding the locations of famous strikes, but at the time I knew nothing of such matters. All the architecture told me was that I was some distance from home.

We passed a couple of taverns, and looked into one, getting cursed for our troubles. Like many athletic teens, we not only looked our age but a couple of years younger, so trying for a drink was out of the question. We passed a strip joint and laughed uneasily at the thought of what we might do there if we were any more daring.

Another store front turned out to be a makeshift chapel. The minister was preaching to a couple of old men and several rows of empty chairs. He saw us, and gestured for us to sit down, all without interrupting his Baptist-style preaching. One of my friends was tempted to listen for a while, but we dragged him out by his elbows, laughing as though we had found those mythical beers after all.

Finally, we found an amusement arcade. Most of it was filled with pinball machines and mechanical games that haven’t existed now for decades. It wasn’t dusty, but looked as though it should have been.

Still, it was a way to spend our evening – if not one that we were going to boast about. Soon, we we working systematically around the machines.

It was waiting for us in the middle of the third wall, obviously newer than the other machines in the arcade, and resembling what even then we recognized as a computer. “Pong,” it said across the top, and the word was strange enough to be enticing.

In these days of 32 bit, 3-D graphics, Pong is nothing much: just two rectangles that move vertically, but not horizontally, and a square representing the ball that moved at angles rather than in a curve. The sole aim was to get the ball past your opponent’s rectangle – either the machine or another player. But we had never seen anything like it. At fifty cents, it was twice the price of the other machines, but as soon as we saw it, we forgot about all the other machines, feeding quarter after quarter into it and pausing only to get more change or to give the others a chance to play.

After all this time, I can’t speak for my friends. But for me, the fascination wasn’t in the game. No doubt a world Pong champion exists who can contradict me, but there wasn’t much strategy that I could see beyond aiming and trying for an angled shot whose trajectory or increased speed might slip past your opponent.

But as we quickly organized a tournament among the three of us, what kept me interested was the possibilities. I had spent much of summer playing board games, usually against myself, and I understood almost at once that in another few versions, such computerized games would solve my lack of opponents problem. I knew Pong was primitive, but I took it as a proof of concept – as a promise of better to come.

When we were finally quarterless, we found our way back to our hotel room, stopping only for the decadence of bedtime milk shakes. As I lay awake in my strange bed, staring up at the ceiling, my excitement wasn’t about the cross-country camp starting in a few hours. It was about that next-to-mindless game of Pong, and the thought of what might come after it.

The next day, ordinary reality reasserted itself. Yet my conviction about the importance of Pong never wavered. A year or two later, when Space Invaders came out, I recognized it immediately as the next step that I had been expecting. I never thought of taking computer science, my talents being more verbal than mathematical, yet the conviction remained absolute..

Forget reading science fiction. I was living in a science fiction age, and the fabulous promises of Pong would be part of the fabric of my life.


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I have interviewed Richard Stallman and other members of the Free Software Foundation often enough that he remembers my name (no small feat, I’m sure, considering the hundreds he meets each year). Once or twice, I think, in talking about parrots and folk music, I may have caught a personal glimpse of him. But, even if I haven’t, I generally support the Free Software Foundation. So, when Richard Stallman spoke the other night at the Maritime Labour Centre in Vancouver, I wasn’t going to see what he is really like, or to hear his arguments. I went to see his public persona, and to observe how other people reacted to it.

First, in case you are wondering, Stallman is neither three meters high, green-skinned, nor fanged like a sabertooth tiger. He is a man in his mid-fifties, surprisingly short –maybe 170 centimeters high– and apparently not given to exercise. His hair is long and graying, and so is his beard. Both are uncombed. His clothes are business-casual.

He was tired when he arrived at the hall, and perhaps feeling a little over-exposed to people, having given a speech earlier the same day at the University of British Columbia. After meeting the organizers, he immediately requested a quiet place to work. The request was probably a necessity, since Stallman keeps in close touch with the Free Software office in Boston, but I also suspect that he was relieved to have a moment to himself in the middle of a day in the public eye.

Another myth-buster: Stallman starts by being polite when you talk to him. Nor is he humorless. His comments sometimes show a wry sense of humor, often based on literal interpretations of other people’s phrases. He shows, too, an interest in dining as a social occasion, lamenting that, when he arrived the previous night, he had no one with whom to eat. And, after listening to the local band that warmed up the crowd for him with Flanders and Swann’s “The GNU Song,” he got up on stage to sing “The Free Software Song” with them, his smile not the least deterred by the fact that he is a mediocre singer and could only remember some of the words.

At the same time, Stallman is not always easy to talk to. He seems a little deaf, and impatient with the fact. He is impatient, too, when talk strays into an area where he has expressed the same opinion for decades – or perhaps he simply does not suffer fools gladly. And who can blame him? At this point in Stallman’s public career, anyone who calls him a supporter of open source software has clearly not been paying attention. Nor can it be easy to cover the same basic subjects dozens of times each year.

One on one, he might make some women uncomfortable with compliments about their attractiveness that are a little too quick and open by modern standards. Other women seem to find him chivalrous. Both sexes might accuse him of expecting to be the center of attention, but again, who can blame him? When he is on tour (and he is often on tour), he usually is the center of attention, with his hosts hovering nervously around him.

After our phone conversations, I expected some of these traits, but the overall impression that Stallman makes in person is hard to define. He is neither as obnoxious as detractors paint him, nor as selfless and charismatic as some supporters insist . Although, after meeting him, you can see how all these depictions originate, like any person, Stallman is more than the sum of such caricatures.

Stallman on stage

The fragmentary impressions I got of Stallman off-stage were reinforced when he got up to speak. Like many professional speakers, he immediately gains animation and energy when handed a mike, no matter how tired he is beforehand.

Stallman spoke for well over two hours, not using notes, but obviously covering ground (In this case, his view of copyright law) that he had gone over many times. He was fluent, with few if any pauses or interjections, but not particularly eloquent. Think of a university instructor who keeps his classes interested without being arresting or given to flights of rhetoric, and you have the right impression. The two hours went by quickly, and the audience showed no signs of boredom.

As an argument, Stallman’s speech was concrete, full of examples ranging from the personal to the legal, often enriched with small jokes, and structured with extreme clarity.

If I had to summarize Stallman’s speech in a single word, that word would be “focused.” When Stallman lays out an order to his points, he always returns that order, no matter how many digressions intervene – and, generally, he allows himself very few.

One thing that comes through very clearly as he spoke is his absolute sincerity and conviction. Whatever else anybody might think of him, those are never in doubt. He is quite willing, for instance, to do without a cell phone, DVDs with DRM, or anything else that he cannot use with a clear conscience.

But, as I watched his argument develop, what struck me was not so much any brilliance (although clearly Stallman has an above average intelligence), but his thoroughness. Although other people might possibly make connections or reach conclusions faster than he could, few could think topics through as carefully as Stallman.

In particular, Stallman pays close attention to how issues are framed by language. For example, he rejects the term “piracy” for file-sharing, pointing out that its main purpose is to demonize the practice, not to suggest an accurate analogy. Conversely, he talks about “the war on sharing,” doing his own bit of framing.

This is the same concern, of course, that leads him to insist on referring to GNU/Linux. Many people reject this idea without thinking, but, once you realize that, for Stallman, defining the terms is a necessity for clear thinking, then you realize that he is not simply being pedantic. He is well aware that language is rarely, if ever neutral, and, quite unsurprisingly, tries to influence the debate so that it is on his terms, or at least neutral.

If Stallman’s speech had a weakness, it is that he did not always think on his feet. Several times during the questions at the end, he seemed mildly at a loss, and could only refer back to his speech or declare – sometimes arbitrarily – that a questioner’s topic was irrelevant. Once, when a questioner went on and on without getting to the point, all he could do was seize on a careless use of “open source” rather than “free software,” instead of moving to take direct control of the situation. But perhaps fatigue had a lot to do with this behavior.

Watching the crowd

At any public event, watching the audience can be as rewarding as listening to the performance, and Stallman’s speech was no exception. Some audience members, I later learned, also attended his speech earlier in the day, as well as the one on the next day. However, even without that knowledge, I would still unhesitatingly describe the crowd as geeks with a small smattering of spouses. Most clearly had some familiarity with free software and Stallman’s ideas, and had not come to be challenged so much as to glimpse someone famous.

A minority had a slightly more ambitious goal: To engage Stallman, however briefly, in conversation. Since Stallman’s reputation and manner discouraged most from approaching him informally, some found a moment by getting him to autograph copies of his book, others by asking questions at the end. Many of those lining up up the mikes to each side of Stallman did not have an actual question, so much as a statement they wanted to make to Stallman. One or two seemed inclined to argue with him.


So what do these impressions add up to? A public event is not the place to get to know anybody, and Stallman would probably be a difficult man to get to know under any circumstances. What I saw was the public figure, with – perhaps – the occasional flash of the private man, both accustomed to his fame and occasionally irritated and trapped by it.

In the end, it occurs to me that a distinction between the public and private Stallman many not be worth making. He reminds me of the portrayal of the Wart (King Arthur) in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. White depicts Arthur as someone inspired by a great idea that took over the rest of his life. In something of the same way, Stallman appears to have been struck by the idea of free software in the early 1980s. The decades since then, I suspect, have simply been filling in the details and taking the idea to its logical conclusions – until now it is hard for a casual observer like me to say where the public man ends and the private one begins.

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It’s tough being pure GNU, especially when hardware is involved.

All my workstation computers are custom-built; I like to know exactly what goes into them, and would do the same for laptops, if I could. The last time I bought a workstation, I decided to break my old habit of buying an ATI video card, and buy an NVidia one instead (Never mind the model number, which usually matters less than the manufacturer would have you believe and is irrelevant here).

The switch seemed a good idea at the time. Not only was the ATI market share being reduced so quickly that the company seemed in danger of disappearing, but free and open source drivers for NVidia seemed closer to competion than for ATI. I felt confident in the decision, and settled down to learn the new arcanery of another manufacturer.

Then, last week I turned on the computer to find that yellow artifacts were cycling down the monitor like something out of The Matrix. I managed to boot once without them, only to have them reappear as I settled down to my morning email. Before long, the artifacts were so thick on the screen that I could no longer read anything beneath them, and I had to do an ungraceful shutdown, haunted by the vague guilt felt by those using a journaling filesystem, who know that, when they do finally manage to reboot, they will be confronted by the announcement, “The filesystem is NOT clean.”

Did I mention that it happened on the morning of the day that I do my usual backup, too? The perversity of the universe was apparently set on stun that day.

Some fiddling with my test computer soon showed that the problem was not the monitor, as I originally thought, but the video card.
Since I had bought the computer system thirteen months earlier, I was sure that the warranty would have just expired. To my surprise, it still had almost two years to run, so I took the system into the shop that assembled it for me.

According to the store’s staff, I was far from the only one whose card was suffering from the same problem. Trouble with NVidia cards of several models were becoming widespread, I was told. Fed up, I switched to an ATI card, also taking the opportunity to double the video memory to 512 megabytes.

I had been thinking of video cards as costing three or four times what they actually do; the old price had stuck in my head, just as I automaticallly assume that a paperback will cost five or six dollars – like most people, for me, the natural price for anything is the price they were when I was newly an adult. I also received a trade-in on my old card.

I switched back because, now, the situation is reversed. Since AMD bought ATI last year, ATI has been regaining market share. Moreover, while AMD’s behavior is far from perfect towards free software, it is still friendlier than any other manufacturer. Now, thanks to AMD, ATI free and open source drivers seem likely to mature first before NVidia ones.

So far, I’m satisfied with the swap. Not only does my workstation run faster, but I can use the highest resolution for the monitor, which I never could with the NVidia card. More importantly, although I can’t use an exact driver for the card, I can use a free one that has at least some degree of support for 3-D, without resorting to an archaic driver like VESA.

All the same, I can’t help thinking that I would probably have had a less troublesome week had I not tried to second guess how the market would react with free software and stuck with my original preference.

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A correspondent tells me that Boycott Novell’s Free Software Credibility List gave me a rating of three on a six point scale (I could link, but I don’t want to give the site any more hits than I have to). Until hearing this news, I didn’t know about the list, because, so far as free software is concerned, I only read news sites and blogs with either technical knowledge or expert commentary. Usually, too, I make a habit of not commenting negatively in public on anyone with a claim – no matter how remote – to being a journalist. At the very least, I generally don’t mention them by name. However, since my informant seemed to think I should be upset, I’m making an exception here.

To be honest, I am more amused than angry about a list whose silliness is exceeded only by the self-importance of its owners. I mean,  how does any journalist, no matter how skilled a word-slinger, get the same rating as Stallman, the founder of the free software do? Yet several do. And why are authorities like Eben Moglen off the list?

I also notice that, at least in some cases, the list seems a direct reflection of how closely a journalist’s opinion corresponds with Boycott Novell’s, rather than any criteria that might be mistaken for objectivity. Robin Miller, the senior editor at Linux.com, is apparently denigrated because he took a group tour of the Microsoft campus a couple of years ago (I’m sure the fact that he presided over a podcast in which a Boycott Novell writer performed poorly has nothing to do with his ranking). Other writers seem to rate a 4 or 5 largely because they stick to technical matters and, rarely talking about philosophy or politics, say nothing for Boycott Novell to dissect for suspect opinions.

Strangely, the Boycott Novell cadre didn’t rate their own reliability, although whether that is because they are assumed to be the only ones who rate a perfect six or because the ranking doesn’t include negative numbers, I leave as an exercise to the readers.

From the link attached to my name, my own ranking seems based on the fact that I accepted that a comment signed with a Boycott Novell writer’s name really was by him; when he said it wasn’t, I accepted the claim and he suggested that I was owed “some apologies.” Yet, apparently I’m permanently branded as being only marginally trustworthy because of this minor incident. I suspect, though, that the writer’s belief that I lumped the Boycott Novell writers into the category of conspiracy theorists has more to do with my ranking than anything else.

But these foibles don’t disturb me unduly. Far from being upset, I’m glad of the list, because it gives me a goal. If I write consistently hard-hitting articles in which I dig carefully for facts, build a flawless chain of reasoning, and tell the truth no matter how uncomfortable the consequences, then maybe – just maybe – in a few years Boycott Novell will reward me with the ultimate accolade of a zero ranking some day. Then I’ll know when I have truly arrived.

And that is all that I intend to say on this subject. Ever.

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I like to think that I’m at home on the computer. Not on Windows – ask me to solve a problem there, and (assuming I don’t refuse to approach it), I’m relying on common sense, Internet searches, and my increasing irrelevant memories of the days I used a version of it with any regularity. But on GNU/Linux, I like to think that I know my way around. I know most of the configuration files and relevant packages for hardware and configuration, and, if I don’t, I can make educated guesses or know where to find the information I need. But an attitude like that can be as misplaced as hubris – it’s practically begging the forces of irony and chance to humble you.

Last night, it was my turn for humbleness. Suddenly, I was getting repeated “1”s whenever I tried to type something. I could turn it off by pressing the appropriate key, then it would return.

Since I was dealing with GNU/Linux, on a machine whose security I had hand-tweaked, I was relatively sure I wasn’t dealing with a virus or intrusion, which would have been my first guess on Windows. The system logs showed no suspicious activity – and, anyway, modern cracking tends not to be so randomly malicious.

Investigation quickly showed that the trouble was present regardless of account and whether the X Window System was running or not, and what desktop I was using. The Xorg.conf was identical to my backup copies. Altering locales and other keyboard settings, both globally and for particular accounts, changed nothing. Neither did upgrading key packages.

The keyboard was fully plugged into its jack as well. On both ends.

By this point, I had concluded that, since I had eliminated everything else, the keyboard must be faulty. True, when I booted via an old Windows install disk, no problem existed. But this wouldn’t be the first time that I’d found GNU/Linux drivers more sensitive than their Windows equivalent, so the diagnosis seemed plausible. Perhaps GNU/Linux was detecting a problem that was still too small for Windows to detect?

Unfortunately, by this point, it was past midnight – a time when few computer stores are open. Troubled, I went to bed and brooded on the problem in my dreams.

The next morning, I was on the phone when, wandering about the house, I happened to sit down in front of the keyboard. As I talked, I noticed that the 1 key on the number pad was partly depressed because of an errant seed from a parrot wedged between key and keyboard. A flick of a finger nail, and the seed was gone and my system working again.

I’d wasted two hours, for no better reason than, full of self-confidence in my knowledge, I’d overlooked the obvious. In my defense, I have to add that I rarely use the number pad. Still, I felt duly chastened that I hadn’t bothered to observe something so basic before going into full-tilt troubleshooting mode. I could have saved myself some time and frustration if I had.

Nor does the fact that I was systematic and eliminated various possibilities in an order way make me feel better – not one bit.

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The large IT trade show is in decline all over North America. Comdex disappeared a few years ago, and, despite the thriving market for GNU/Linux, LinuxWorld Expo cut back from twice a year to one. However, since many of these events have been replaced by smaller gatherings, I thought that room might still exist for a local show. However, after spending yesterday at the Vancouver Massive Technology Show, I doubt that trade shows can survive in even such a truncated form.

I was at the show as a volunteer for the Free Geek booth, so my time wasn’t wasted. Recycling and free software education are causes that I am happy to support, and honing my impromptu speaking skills can’t hurt. Still, with five or six volunteers at the booth and a free ticket or two, I had plenty of time to observe the show.

Attendance was only moderate, and, to judge from the way people were strolling around the exhibit hall and from the bland looks on their faces, the main reason for attending the show was to get away from the office for a few hours. On another day, a lazy cup of coffee at Starbuck’s might have provided the same excuse.

But the lack of excitement was hardly surprising. Even allowing for a wish for Canadian content, my first reaction to the list of people was, “Who are these people?” Aside from one or two whose competence I could vouch for because I know them personally, none were exactly acknowledged experts in their fields. In general, the lackluster field made the claim that the show was the place to find out about the latest in technology ring hollow.

As for those exhibiting – well, “provincial” is the phrase that springs to mind. Not only was Free Geek the only exhibitor I saw who was doing anything with free and open source software, but at least one was so clueless that he told a colleague that he wouldn’t use it because it was insecure.

To say the least, that’s not an attitude that you associate with the cutting edge of anything, except maybe a dull knife.

For the most part, the exhibitors were typified by their mediocrity and cheapness. Some wanted to be the next FaceBook, others the next Linkedin. Others were local web designers. Many offered search engine optimization, a piece of voodoo that always reminds me that almost nobody knows how or why marketing works. Many offered marketing or HR services. All were on such tight budgets that few could afford the usual swag – not even a cheap pen in many cases, although one company’s booth team were giving out small oranges or tangerines from woven baskets (which made me think of Nell Gwyn), and one energy drink company offer half-a-swallow samples. None had anything beyond the most basics of booths, the kind that at a really large show practically gets swallowed by any booth of reasonable size.

When I say that the only booth that I easily remember is the one selling IM Buddies – USB dongles that could be made to whirl and emit different color lights depending on who is messaging – you can get an idea of just how unmemorable the exhibits were.

In the center of the exhibit were amusements allegedly designed to appeal for geeks (never mind that I doubt a technical person was at the show), such as foosball and Guitar Hero. The apparent prize amusement was a mechanical bull (THAT’S RIGHT, A MECHANICAL BULL! the program screamed). Aging executives bored with imagining themselves Antarctic explorers could don cowboy boots and hats and be gently bucked about with all the energy of the kiddy rides that used to be placed outside grocery stores.

I haven’t had so much fun since the last time I rolled pennies. But I did think a mechanical bull was an appropriate symbol of a lackluster show full of marketing people going through the motions.

I also noticed that there were plenty of posters and cardboard flats advertising the new cable TV program on which Massive’s owner appears. These did their best to make her look geeky, tough, and 18 – none of which she has ever shown the least sign of being in my contacts with her.

As for her male co-hosts, let me just say (as a middle-aged man myself) that it is embarrassing for everyone when overweight or middle-aged men try to act hip or cool. The result was rather like catching a re-run of Mod Squad on the television screen before the DVD kicks in.

I was far from the only one to come away unimpressed, either. In the Tazzu forum, one of the leading network sites for Vancouver IT, other posters were no more thrilled with the day than I was. One forgot all about the show, one decided he would rather work, and the rest expressed sentiments in keeping with mine.

Massive’s only hope of survival lies in the hope that advertisers and those whose egos are stoked by a brief moment at the podium won’t notice the modified rapture of attendees, or look at the attendance figures. If they ever do, I give it two or three more years before extinction. Meanwhile, you can put Massive and other big time trade shows in the CITES Appendices of endangered species.

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Once you’ve been an instructor, the habit of teaching is hard to break. That fact, as much as anything, explains why I am not only attending the Open Web Vancouver conference this year, but giving a talk entitled, “Working with the free software media.” Moreover, since Peter Gordon and Audrey Foo, the main organizers of the conference, are kind enough to let me in on a media pass to wander the conference and buttonhole presenters, I feel that’s the least I can do. And considering that I can’t code well enough to say anything worthwhile about programming, and the social aspects of the open web are already being presented by others, I may as well talk about what I know best.

The Open Web Vancouver conference is being held April 14-15 at the Vancouver Conference Center. It’s a rebranding of last year’s highly successful Vancouver PHP conference. Like its predecessor, this year’s conference is mostly a volunteer effort, and takes advantage of both local and international experts to present a well-rounded program to a small audience.

I chose my topic because I’ve been writing about aspects of this topic in my blog for about a year now, and those entries have been well-received – probably because there’s a real need. A few free and open source software (FOSS) organizations, such as the Linux Foundation and the Software Freedom Law Center, have people and policies in place for dealing with the media, but most do not.

The truth is, typical FOSS developers tend to be suspicious of the media – unsurprisingly, since marketing communications experts tend not only to have an entirely different mindset and to be absolutely clueless about technology. Yet many projects could benefit from more publicity in order to attract new developers or funding, and much of the community would like to know about them.

I’m still developing what I will say, and I have to admit that my teaching skills are rusty. However, my instinct is to forego the usual slide show, and make the talk as interactive with the audience as possible. Topics I’m considering include an explanation of where the free software media stands between traditional media and free software, why cultivating a relationship is worth everybody’s trouble, and how to pitch news and have more of a chance of receiving coverage.

It occurs to me that, with this talk, I’ve come full circle. When I was a technical writer a decade ago, I used to say that my job consisted of explaining the geeks to the suits. Now, I could be said to explaining the suits (or, perhaps more accurately, the shorts and sandals) to the geeks.

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