In a geek’s perfect world

I’m a geek by trade. If you’re a geek, you read geek news sites, which are rich in controversy and debate. Also, geeks are often times pessimists, conspiracy theorists, “realists”, and are quicker to point out what’s wrong with something before what’s right with something. Many times, they don’t even offer solutions to things they see as problems in the non-technical world, presumably because they feel it would never be implemented anyway, due to some conspiracy theory that was aforementioned. There are reasons for this pessimism. Further, there are many conspiracy theories in the technical world that have been proven correct. Though the things geeks scoff at appear many and varied, they pretty much all boil down to a few things which, if they existed, would pretty much do away with all the debate. Here’s my top ten things that would exist or happen in the perfect world of the geek:



1. Operating systems wouldn’t matter. I could run whatever OS I wanted to, without worrying about hardware or software vendor support, network stack implementation, or the OS vendor’s take on “standards”. Of course, this would also leave most of the vocal geek community bored to tears. If you think hard about all of the ramblings on sites like slashdot, you’ll see that a great many of them would magically disappear if operating systems didn’t matter.

2. File formats wouldn’t matter. I could create a document with any word processor, and open it in any other app. OpenOffice would work with MSOffice would work with Corel would work with Abiword… etc. This goes for audio file formats as well; AAC, OGG, MP3, FLAC, etc., wouldn’t really matter from the standpoint of the application or device that was using it.

3. End users would be forced to have some rudimentary knowledge about being good netizens, and whatever technology they’re using. I’m not talking about understanding Linux ACLs. I’m not talking about understanding how programs are turned into ones and zeros for consumption by the CPU. I’m not even talking about understanding that programs are compiled at all. I’m just talking about simple things like that storing something on disk means it’ll be there when you reboot. Storing in memory means it won’t. Spam that looks like it came from your buddy doesn’t mean it did. Viruses don’t only hurt you. Problems with yahoo.com are not fixable by your local sysadmin. If end users had the slightest clue in the world about how what they do affects the outside world, the world would be a very different place. Of course, the same could be said for driving. Most people are just as oblivious behind the wheel as they are behind a keyboard.

4. Monopolies would not be allowed to make political contributions. I don’t know that there are no laws regarding this, but I’m assuming they don’t since Microsoft/Gates&Co. have reportedly been contributing heavily to the campaigns of both political parties. This seems like a conflict of interest that wouldn’t exist if laws were in place. After all, what’s the easiest way for a monopoly to remain a monopoly? Well, one way is to make a product that, given the alternatives, everyone actually chooses to use. But the other way is to make sure nobody gets in your way. Buy them. If monopolies weren’t allowed to make political contributions, its less likely they’ll use direct money contributions as a means of avoiding accountability for their actions.

5. Marketing departments would be more strictly regulated. You simply should NOT be allowed to market a product unless it actually exists. The practice of marketing “vaporware” can have a chilling effect on innovation and production of competing products. Also, marketing departments would have to make available from their websites documentation backing up anything they’re passing off as fact.

6. Companies that produce research reports for money would be forbidden from receiving funds from companies whose products are involved in the research, or their competitors. For example, neither Microsoft nor IBM should be allowed to commission research from one of these companies regarding anything surrounding Windows vs. Linux. The idea here is to have the monies that pay for the research coming from the end users of the technology, not the marketers. If Morgan Stanley wants a performance comparison of Apache/Linux vs. IIS/Windows, they should commission the research themselves, or form an independent committee made up of like-minded technology users. For example, they could pool funds with others in their vertical market to commission the research.

7. There would be the equivalent of a technology UN. The regular UN is not addressing growing issues which have a profound affect on internet security. In many breaches, the IP address that the attack appears to have come from is not the real source of the attack. Oh no — that would be way to simple; look up the ISP record for the IP address, go get the info from the ISP, bango — arrest the user. Unfortunately, what generally happens is that an attacker in Russia takes over a machine in China, then another in Ecuador, then another in France, then another in Germany, then another in Nigeria, then another in the US, and then attacks a network in the UK. The British firm that’s attacked has damages upwards of a million dollars, and no good way to trace back the path of the packets, because the attacker crossed all kinds of political barriers on his way to the UK. Getting all of the government enforcement agencies all over the world to cooperate and spend their money to work toward recovering money for someone in another country simply doesn’t happen. By the way, this is part of the reason it’s extremely difficult to track down spammers as well.

8. Legislators would have a clue about technology. They currently don’t. I don’t care how you attempt to convince me, you simply cannot convince me that our legislature has any clue about technical issues. Meanwhile, they make legislative decisions that have a dramatic impact on technology and its use. A lack of technology understanding leaves them little to base a decision on. See item number 4.

9. Programmers and system administrators would be licensed or take some form of oath or be held to answer to some minimum standard set forth by programmers, administrators and those who benefit from and understand their work. This would give those workers the right to refuse to do really amazingly stupid things because someone who has absolutely no business demanding such things “said so”. I don’t think anyone really cares if there’s an oath/license or not, but we should have the right to refuse stuff that’s just plain stupid without it costing us our jobs.

10. PDAs would be useful. I threw this one in for kicks. Due to IP woes swirling around e-books and digital music, progress in application development in this area is limited. Due to storage limitations, you can’t get many of these things onto a pda anyway. Due to the screen size, the web browsers are quite close to useless. Due to the form factor of the pda, along with those of devices you’d want to plug into a pda, it can currently only support so many things at once. Due to the doggedly slow advances in battery technology, they also become less useful, and things like wireless networking and watching video, etc., become something of a moot point on pdas because the processing power needed for these apps is power-intensive. There are thousands of other problems with PDAs that have more to do with other technologies. I just lumped them all under this heading because the PDA is the one device that could benefit dramatically and directly from improvements in seemingly all other facets of technology.

Novell shows us how to run an open source shop

Novell appears to be staging a comeback, using Linux as the catalyst to breathe new life into its line of enterprise applications. For some time now, it seems the consensus has been that the Novell app line was wonderful, but they forced you to also run Novell’s proprietary NetWare operating system. I don’t know if there’s a bait and switch game going on at Novell where they use Linux to get in the door and then shove NetWare down your throat, but even if they do, the fact remains that their apps all run on Linux. The purchase of SuSE, one of the largest Linux distributors, also points away from this bait-and-switch idea.

The idea is really quite simple: open source the application so that hobbyists and some insanely hardcore administrators with time on their hands can get their hands dirty and do what they want. In return for getting the application and source code for nothing, they’ll report bugs, submit patches, request feature enhancements, and generally be a benefit to the application’s evolution. In addition, take that same application, put it in a shiny box, and sell it to enterprises who require a throat to choke in the event something goes awry (they’ll pay for that throat, that’s the key). Offer support and wrap some form of service offering around it, and you’re in business!



The purchase of SuSE also rounded out Novell’s application line, by adding SuSE’s proprietary Microsoft Exchange replacement, called OpenXchange. If they can integrate it with their eDirectory and ZenWorks offerings, it’ll absolutely be a contender for walletshare in the enterprise, and it’ll help Linux get more floorspace in the datacenter. The one thing I think other companies can learn from with regard to Novell’s tack here is that you can open source an application, and still make money from it.

Large corporations tend not to deploy unsupported software. Certainly, exceptions are made in cases like Apache and Sendmail, which are de facto internet standards. The exceptions are made there not because they’re open source and free, though. The exception is made because there is a labor pool readily available just teeming with people who know these apps inside and out. The reason they don’t otherwise deploy unsupported software is because it would either cause the company to spend loads of money on training (and who knows where that’ll come from), or it’ll make the company dependent on the very few people within the organization who know the application. Labor is not supposed to be indispensible from a business perspective, so that’s bad news.

In this scenario, Novell is insuring that those who would never buy the full-fledged offering can still get the software, and that relationship with the community probably winds up making a better product, and probably for less money spent on Novell’s part. Those who will buy a license get a good product, and a good service offering from a name they’ve known for many years. I think this one’s a winner.

"Cheesiest" pre-talk gathering ever

In the department I work in, we try really hard to come up with enough events every week to keep everybody fed. Certainly, we can’t all go to every event, because nothing would ever get done. But we can all meet for 10-15 minutes in the common area to grab some cider and donuts, cookies, coffee, and all manner of dilectible goodness. Today, this all went to hell in a handbasket.



Today, we all went upstairs, armed with our coffee mugs and an appetite we’d been fostering since lunchtime, only to find that the “goodies” for the day would be some odd-looking, two-tone cheese, and some crackers. There were some nuts and a sort of weird trail mix, too, but I didn’t have anything to eat oats out of, so I tried to find some acceptable crackers. It’s just not right when your tongue is thinking raspberry cheesecake and it gets poppyseed ricecake. There’s no recovering from that.

The rest of the crowd came in later, and were visibly upset at the spread that, if it were a movie, would be called “stuff made from flour”. A few quipped about the inevitable shock to our systems this would cause after two straight weeks of having donuts and “stuff made from chocolate” at every pre-event gathering. I guess we need a break every now and then, but I submit that these culinary ventures into worlds unknown to most of the population be advertised as such ahead of time, such that we might mentally prepare ourselves to be greeted by nuts and crackers.

Anyone who thinks dell supports Linux doesn’t own an Optiplex

I volunteered to set up a Linux desktop machine for someone. They just got a new Dell, so I figured it would be pretty easy, since I’ve run a Dell on my desktop at work for some number of years now. Besides, Dell loves Linux, right? Our Linux servers are Dells as well, and they run fine!

Slow down, there. What I didn’t know before volunteering was that this was a Dell OptiPlex. A coworker of mine had once extolled the horrors involved in running Linux on an Optiplex. “Hardware is hardware” was my motto then — Linux has good hardware support, and up to this point I hadn’t found anything, even a laptop, that I couldn’t hack into submission. In fact, in recent years, I haven’t had to do much hacking at all — most things “just work” nowadays — but not the Optiplex.



When I say “nothing” on the optiplex works out of the box with Linux, I mean pretty much anything that is essential to getting any work done. The network card doesn’t work — I had to go and download a driver from the Broadcom website to make it behave. The video card is an ATI, and ATI’s support for Linux is the topic of probably thousands of blog rants by now. The sound card is not detectable, though it might work if you manually figure out which modules it needs. The ones I used were snd-inteli8x0 and i810_audio. I’m still waiting for feedback on whether or not that works before I go figuring out how best to automate the loading of these modules at boot time under SuSE 9.1 Pro.

So, to ATI, Dell, and Intel (whose SATA-enabled motherboards are also causing me MUCH pain with Linux), get your crap together please. I’m willing to spend money on your hardware which is advertised as “Linux compatible”, but not if I find that this, in your language, translates as “some features work half-assedly well under linux” in mine.

Those Tweeter Folks are OK

Tweeter is a major high(er) end audio retailer. I wasn’t really aware of this when I walked into the place a couple of weeks ago to look at something in the way of what I hope will become a home stereo system. I spent over three hours in there, learning about all of the available options: hard-drive based stuff with networked satellite clients, crazy nice speakers, super current cleaners, and the features and options on every receiver and speaker set in the place. Literally. I wasn’t going down easy.

I bought a good receiver that I can grow with, and some speakers which came with an interesting promise: if you maintain the packaging and the speakers, and bring them back within 12 months, and you want to upgrade to speakers that are at least 50% more than the ones you’re trading in, they’ll credit you the *full purchase price* of your traded-in speakers toward the new ones! So, if you spend $800 on speakers today, and go back within a year for the nice $1200 ones, you only pay $400, and you turn in your old speakers! NICE!

But you have to “maintain the speakers and packaging”. This was told to me by the salesperson, and then again by a manager that happened to be at the counter when I was paying. But what happened next sparked my paranoid side.

We’re out back at the Tweeter loading dock, and the salesperson was getting the speakers. Apparently, there was a spider on the speakers, so the guy kicked the spider, which was on my speaker box. When I got home, I noticed that the speaker box now had a hole in it! Ack! I stewed on this for awhile, and the mental images just got worse. I had nightmares about investigations involving hidden cameras to blow the cover off of Tweeter’s secret ploy to lure in customers with this great deal, only to not honor it on account of a hole in the packaging that was put there by the salesperson. The plan came from the highest ranks of management. Corporate. It was scandalous. The press, the FBI, the National Guard, all involved.

I finally called up Tweeter today to tell them of my problem, and the guy on the other end of the line says “well, I have them in stock. We’re not gonna bat an eyelash over a hole in the packaging, but we’ll exchange it out”. Already I’m feeling a little ridiculous. I drive down there, and the guy who was on the phone comes out of the loading dock door and sees that the box has never been opened. Then he sees the hole in the box and I think he was trying *not* to look at me like I was a moron. I wanted to thank him for trying, because now I felt like an idiot. He said that when they say “maintain packaging”, they usually mean “just to keep it around for when you return it”.

Oh.

“But we’ll exchange this right out”. And he did. I went home with a new speaker, in a nice, new box, untouched by human hands, and presumably, spiders.

I did feel like a total dweeb, and then I thought “well, if all businesses treated their customers this way, then I guess I’d be justified in feeling like this”. Fact is, Tweeter has, thus far, treated me better than most companies who have happily taken my money for less. Those Tweeter folks are okay.