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What it’s like to use Linux sometimes

A radio play in one act. For two performers.

COMPUTER: Hello, user! Your wireless card isn’t going to work today.
USER: What?? Why not? It worked yesterday. In fact, it worked all last week.
COMPUTER: Tough. Today it won’t.
USER: Well, you can’t trick me. I haven’t touched the configuration since the last time I logged in; everything will be fine.
COMPUTER: No, it won’t. I’ll connect to your AP, but all of your DNS lookups will time out.
USER: Ha! I’ve got you! I’ll change the DNS settings so that the queries are directed to my other box.
COMPUTER: No you won’t. The network settings are hidden.
USER: They aren’t hidden; I’ve done this before, when I set up a DNS server on my other box and my router to handle local hostnames.
COMPUTER: That doesn’t matter. Every six months, all of the system admin tools are changed and replaced by your distribution. Whatever you learned last time is of no value.
USER: Pfft. I’ll still find it.
COMPUTER: You can try, but the names of the applications have changed too. Plus, the desktop environment you use has been revised twice, so none of the system admin apps are available in any menus.
USER: So? I’ll search for them. I guess that’s what I’m supposed to do.
COMPUTER: You can try, but you won’t guess the names. And the descriptions of the apps are not indexed by the search tool back-end.
USER: Now you’re just lying; I’ve read in blog post after blog post that the search framework indexes the descriptions of the applications.  I think I even heard it in a talk.
COMPUTER: Knock yourself out, then.
USER: Dammit! What the hell did they describe this thing as?? I’ve tried “network,” “connection,” and “settings” — all it finds is a VPN setup tool and something to configure Twitter accounts! I’m running out of synonyms.
COMPUTER: Don’t feel bad; the app you’re thinking of probably isn’t installed by default anyway.
USER: That’s absurd; of course the system admin apps are installed…. Right? And if it’s not, I’ll install it.
COMPUTER: From where?
USER: Gar.  Wait a second; I don’t need to mess with that anyway — I’ll edit /etc/resolv.conf
COMPUTER: Won’t help; you’re using DHCP.
USER: Well, I’ll just edit the DHCP settings…
COMPUTER: In what, the network admin tool?
USER: Dammit! No, no; can’t get out of control — I’ll edit the DHCP configuration files by hand. Let’s see … there appear to be two of them, in /etc/dhcp/ and /etc/dhcp3/ … I wonder which one is the right one?
COMPUTER: You should probably look that up.
USER: Ah; good idea. Let’s open Googl — Dammit!! Not funny!!
COMPUTER: Okay, that was a low blow. But you were getting ahead of yourself.
USER: Well, it backfired anyway. I just realized I don’t *need* DNS at all; I can look up all of the IP addresses I want to visit on one of my other PCs, then enter them by number in the location bar.
COMPUTER: Actually, you can’t. All this time, you assumed we were having a DNS problem, but in fact all of your traffic is going to time out, even if you enter the addresses by number.
USER: That’s ludicrous. Clearly that indicates a connectivity problem; I’ll log in to the router.
COMPUTER: Heh heh; good luck.
USER: Who needs luck? It’s six feet away, and I’m already connected to it. I can type in 192.168.1.1 and bring up the admin interface … any moment now … oh come on, hurry up … Dammit!!! What the hell is going on here?
COMPUTER: I can’t divulge that.
USER: Well it must be a hardware problem. Everything has been working fine for weeks, I haven’t touched the software or altered the configuration, and it isn’t on the router’s side.
COMPUTER: That’s a possibility; you should check to see if there are known issues related to this.
USER: Okay; I will, from by other box…. Well, my distribution has nothing similar sounding in the issue tracker, and everyone on the forum says it’s probably the DE at fault…. Although everyone on the DE mailing list says my distro changes some of the defaults, so they don’t support it. Unless it’s the browser…. But the browser forum says I’m eleven versions out of date, since they now issue “mandatory” updates every three days; what I’m running through my distro is “unsupported.” And I could download an update and install it manually over the distribution’s repository package, but then they wouldn’t support me if it turned out not to be the browser’s fault … plus I can’t download it anyway, since I have no connectivity. But I’m not sure that helps anyway. Clearly something was working fine yesterday and isn’t today. If it’s not hardware there’s very little else it could be. Apparently everybody in the kernel driver community hates this WiFi chip because of some dust-up in 2007, but I can’t really apply what they say about it on the mailing lists, because they’re all running a development kernel on some distribution that I think they seem to have written from scratch. But it doesn’t matter: it’s hardware; I can verify that by booting into OS X on the other partition.
[ -REBOOT- ]
COMPUTER: Welcome to OS X; everything is running normally.
USER: Dammit. Maybe if I just use OS X for a few days, the problem will go away again all on it’s own.

If it quacks like a canard

Canonical’s Jono Bacon suggested on Identi.ca yesterday that Linux users should head over to the Adobe Web site and vote for the software behemoth to bring Photoshop to Linux.  It’s not the first time that someone has asked for this, but what’s irritating is the supporting logic, including, notably, the assertion that bringing Photoshop to Linux will bring new users to Linux: specifically, people who would like to switch OSes but  who are “mandated” to use Photoshop at work.

This is a straight-up Internet urban legend.  For starters, it’s flat out untrue that there are designers or photographers in *any* significant numbers who are required by “corporate policy” to use Photoshop.  Design firms don’t work that way.  Sure, there may be some person somewhere who has an office-wide rule to that effect — it’s a huge world — but it’s nonsense to suggest that it’s anything close to a meaningful blip in the stats.  But even if there was such a person, are any of us supposed to believe that they are not allowed to install GIMP on their computers — but that they will erase OS X or Windows and install Linux instead, in order to use Photoshop-on-Linux?  Are we supposed to believe that Management will allow that?

This chestnut is appealing, because it creates an appealingly noble protagonist: the strident designer who wants to use Linux, but isn’t allowed to, because he’s being held back by The Man.  How can we not want to help that prisoner of conscience?  But it’s an illusion: GIMP, like OpenOffice and Firefox, is available for Windows and OS X.  The prisoner has a path to freedom, and if he’s not taking it today, it’s not because Enemies of Freedom stand in the way, it’s because either the free apps are unknown to him or he’s looked and prefers what he uses now.  The crux is this: whatever barrier-to-usage exists that prevents a budding free-software user from installing and using GIMP on a non-free OS, that barrier is orders of magnitude smaller than the cost of writing-over the existing OS and installing a new one so that the user can use the hypothetical Photoshop-on-Linux.  The path to conversion is Free App on Existing OS, then Free OS altogether.  It is not Proprietary App on Free OS, then Freedom altogether.  The only people capable of thinking in reverse like that are operating system vendors.

I get why nobody likes that solution; it’s harder on the open source community.  It means we have to do hard, thankless work on components like GTK+-on-OSX, on installers and focus and different keybindings, on single-button pointing devices and application resources in screwy Apple Places, and jump through all kinds of other hoops that don’t really seem to earn us many more users. And it seems like an ethical compromise to port free software to a proprietary OS (though for some reason, it’s not to do the reverse…?)  It’s much easier to say “Hey, Adobe, you do all the work to port Photoshop to Linux, we’ll wait right over here.”

Honestly, any designer who wants to try using Photoshop on Linux right now, can.  The pricetag of a CrossOver license is way, way less than a new OSX box or a new Windows 7 license.  So why don’t these designers try that whenever they upgrade their PC hardware?  Partly it’s cause CrossOver ain’t perfect.  But the big reason is simply inertia, like every other PC user has.  Couple that with the fact that an office-ful of designers probably buys bundled licenses for  its Adobe products, and the fact that big firms have The IT Guys do all that installing stuff, and you have a situation where nobody’s going to change operating systems only to use the same apps they can already use today.

Every designer I know has a Dock full of apps; little ones, big ones, expensive ones, cheapo ones.  Flexible ones and single-purpose ones.  Nobody does design work 40 hours a week in a single application.  So if we want to bring designers into the fold of open source and free software, we have to start by making the free apps more appealing to the designer currently running other stuff on a proprietary OS.  Easier to download, easier to install, better integrated with the existing OS conventions.  We have to pre-load things like PSPI with GIMP, include more high-end plugins; we have to promote (and yeah, enhance) GIMP’s PSD import capabilities.  GIMP can already export to PSD, something I suspect Bacon isn’t aware of due to his corporate policy comment.  But of course Adobe changes and extends the format periodically, since it’s their ball.

The upshot is that designers care about results, and they’ll use any tool they can get their hands on if it can do cool stuff.  If anything, designers are less resistant to trying new applications than generic-office-workers or middle-managers. The company may insist on saving work in a file format like PSD, particularly when working in a team situation, but that’s an interoperability issue.  In all of the years I spent being a photographer and designer, and working with both, the only time I ever heard a company dictate a software choice, it was for a DAM that they used to keep in sync with remote clients and contractors.  And yep, it was a proprietary one: Extensis.  You know what — that’s another area where free software needs to do some work.  But designers who want to use Linux but can’t because of the lack of Adobe CS?  Come on.

Corporate buying policies are a big deal, and a big hurdle, but not here — they affect offices that upgrade their desktops en masse and buy suites of licenses, and (in my estimation, far more importantly) they affect schools and universities, who negotiate for software licenses in bulk, and have IT or “Academic Computing” offices that manage multiple campus-wide labs, usually remotely, rather than the teachers who actually spend their time in those labs with the students.  They affect governments, which is probably an even bigger obstacle because of all the rules and legal requirements that restrict their buying practices.  Open source needs to make in these areas.  Porting proprietary software to Linux and swapping out the OS isn’t going to do it.

Let’s put “There are people dying to use Linux, but can’t because they have to use Photoshop” to rest — you know,  so we can give air-time back to the other oft-repeated urban legend about GIMP adoption: that no “professional” users will touch it because of its “unprofessional” name.  Cause guess what: that’s flat out untrue, too.  But one canard at a time.

Revival of the fittest

Finally time to take this quasi-public.  I’ve been working on an open font, a revival of the 1908 News Gothic by ATF.  I’m calling it News Cycle, and you can find the Launchpad project at https://launchpad.net/newscycle/

I chose News Gothic for a couple of reasons.  (A) there is not currently an open source implementation of it. (B) I kinda like it.  (C) News Gothic was a stalwart newspaper font, which appeals to me as a journalist.  (D) There’s room for improvement. The various proprietary revivals cover only Basic Latin, which leaves out much of the world.  Orthogonally, although there are several other good realist open source typefaces out there, the original News Gothic was designed at multiple weights: meaning Regular, Demi, Light, Heavy, etc.  To my knowledge there are extremely few open fonts that have this property, so reviving one built for it would potentially be useful in a lot of different ways.

That said, this is also intended to be a learning experience for me, which it certainly has been thus far.  Learning about type design, learning the open source font toolchain, and so on.  Not to mention learning about writing systems.  Thus far, I’ve only implemented Latin-based glyphs, and although I’ve done more than were originally included in the original 1908 specimens, I’ve already learned a lot about the writing system that I use and that much of the “Western” world uses.  That part’s quite entertaining.

In any event, this is only the beginning, but if you’re a die-hard glutton for punishment, you can download the FontForge sources from the Launchpad project page, or a binary TrueType font file (.ttf).  You can drop it into ~/.fonts/ on Linux, /Users/Yourname/Library/Fonts/ on OS X, or C:\Windows\Fonts\ on Windows. It is licensed under the SIL Open Font License, which grants users the right to modify and redistribute the font.  That said, if you know someone else who might be interested in it, you would be doing them a tremendous favor by pointing them here rather than simply emailing them a copy of your copy; this is an ongoing work that will change.

I’d appreciate all kinds of feedback; I’m relatively happy with the basic glyphs and metrics, but the glyphs I’m adding now are the ones I’m less familiar with — including accented characters.  In particular, if you’re a non-English reader and you find something that looks out of place in your language, let me know or file a “bug report” on the Launchpad project page.

Right now, News Cycle Regular covers 74% of Basic Latin, 74% of Latin-1 Supplement, 77% of Latin Extended-A, and a teeny tiny percentage of Latin Extended-B.  I’ve only just started the hinting.  Many thanks to the fine folks at the Open Font Library project and the wider open font community, particularly Dave Crossland (who puts up with a ton of lame questions from me), Nicolas Spalinger, and Denis Jacquerye.

Menu Madness

I’ve been reading about GNOME Shell this week, in preparation for GNOME 3.0.  A lot of the UI changes I am ambivalent about (workspaces, for example, I never, ever, ever, use; consequently I could not care less how their behavior changes), some of them I think are great, others I’m not so sure about.  The one I’m most interested in learning more about is the demolition of the Applications menu, because that is the primary interface for launching apps, which are, of course, the things we need to Do Stuff.

So I’ve been reading the usability design docs for GNOME Shell and trying to figure out what I think they’re saying.  Frankly, it’s a bit unclear.  The Applications menu is broadly replaced by the “Activities” pane, which subsumes the role of Activities, Recent Documents, and Filesystem Bookmarks (yeah, I know; it’s still labeled “Places” despite the fact that that name communicates no information and ambiguously suggests it’s about Location services, which is a genuine embarrassment since GNOME is adding support for that re WiFi and Zeitgeist).  But here’s the issue: in the screenshots and screencasts, the Activities pane  always appears to hold four or five (tops) application icons.  If you need access to more than four or five applications on a regular basis, you have to search for them, then find the app you seek in an alphabetically-sorted list.  I can tell you right now that that is not going to work for me.  I regularly use two dozen or more apps.  Some of these I keep open perpetually (mainly communication apps, terminals, and Emacs), but most of the others I close down when not in use, simply to conserve memory/swap, etc (Inkscape, The Gimp, Rawstudio, Scribus, Krita, some Prism sites, Rhythmbox, MythTV, VLC, the calculator, Deluge, office apps, Grip, PiTiVi, Grsync, and so on and so on).

Having to search every time I need to launch the fifth-or-sixth app out of that list will take me more time.  If there’s no way to configure this behavior, I’m not looking forward to it.

That isn’t to say that the current Applications menu is All That.  It relies on strict categories, but the categories are broad and fill up rapidly.  Here’s the current count of my GNOME app menu categories:

  1. accessories: 32
  2. archimedes: 2
  3. education: 3
  4. games: 19
  5. graphics: 41, 2 in a submenu
  6. internet: 35
  7. office: 22
  8. other: 3
  9. programming: 9
  10. sound n video: 44
  11. system tools: 15
  12. unviersal access: 1

Obviously, you can see some bias in what tasks I do just by counting those menus, but the point is that everyone who uses their desktop to work has usage patterns.  More than one, I think.  I can group what I use my environment for broadly into office “stuff”, work communication, social communication, creative, entertainment, and utility computing.  They overlap; office stuff includes taking screenshots and writing, plus emailing and installing software.  But utility computing includes updating software, too, and work and social communication both could involve IM, Thunderbird, and other apps.

Still, in my own introspection, when I’m in one mode I need to stay in it for a length of time, then switch.  When I’m working, I’ll have and app open to test and I’ll write about it, and I’ll email/IM/VoIP questions and answers back-and-forth to its creator.  When I’m doing creative work, I’ll need to switch back and forth between the creative apps, often many many times.  But I stay within one circle of apps until I change modes.

The way I’ve customized GNOME 2.x to work with me in this method is through the use of launchers that I place on a dedicated panel, grouped roughly by task list, and by having the “perpetual” apps launch at login.  So far, I’m not seeing in the GNOME Shell documentation how I’ll be able to do anything like that in GNOME 3.  The Activities pane seems to limit the raw number of launchers I have immediate access to, and it seems to enforce either “most used” or “most recently used” as the sorting criterion — unclear which.  That has two problems: first, the perpetual apps are almost always going to qualify as “most used,” and when switching modes, a boatload of apps I specifically don’t need are going to qualify as “most recently used.”  In short, if I’m not able to customize the application launching behavior, it’s going to slow me down.

Only YOU can prevent lame free graphics software

If you haven’t already, please go over to this Pledgie campaign page and make a modest donation to help support the best volunteer-driven event for people who use free software and love graphics: Libre Graphics Meeting 2009.

LGM is half-workshop and half-conference; developers that work on all sorts of graphics programs gather together and collaborate on tools that make graphics better — we’re talking photography apps, drawing apps, pub design, 3D modeling, fonts, and this year even video editing.  But there are also a lot of “behind the scenes” projects and libraries that make an important contribution, too — from rendering SVGs to managing color to printing.  When the teams that build these libraries and applications get together in one place, it enables more innovation, better communication, and makes all of the apps rock that much faster.

But LGM has no corporate overlord to make it happen; it is completely volunteer-driven and self-supported.  There is no expo floor and there is no entrance fee; the conference depends on the kindness of the community to make the venue, accommodations, and travel possible.  And for the past three years, the community has come through admirably — helping bring the conference together and in turn reaping the rewards of better graphics on Linux, UNIX, Macs, and even Windows.

But wait, didn’t I say that LGM was only half workshop?  That’s true, because even if you’re not a developer, you’re welcome to attend,  and attend free of charge. You can learn how to help out, learn how to make better use of the graphics apps that you already love, learn about applications and features that are brand-new, plus enjoy demos and performances from the free graphics community.

So if you edit photos, sketch, paint, design, or build in 3D, for fun or for work, you’ve got something waiting for you at LGM 2009. And even if you can’t make it to Montreal on May 6-9, you can help make the conference bigger and better for everybody. All you have to do is visit the LGM Pledgie page and make a small donation.  Why not now?

Click here to lend your support to: Support the Libre Graphics Meeting and make a donation at www.pledgie.com !

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