The GNU/Linux “Chicken Little” Syndrome

You know the type. The technical reporter that tries to do something on GNU/Linux, cannot figure it out and thus states to the planet the equivalent of Chicken Little saying, “The sky is falling!”, regarding GNU/Linux. We see them over and over coming back to the same point, “Until ‘Linux’ solves [insert the technical reporter’s failure to do something here], it won’t be ready for prime time.” What a crock of compost.

In this case the technical reporter in question is Preston Gralla over at Computerworld Blogs. Specifically his recent article I just finished reading titled, Installing Firefox 3.6: One more reason Linux isn’t ready for the prime-time mass market. The problem here is that Mr. Gralla and those like him seem to think it is absolutely necessary to have the latest release of [insert software here] on [insert Linux distribution here]. When that is absolutely not the case in the majority of situations.

I run Mandriva 2010 at the moment on my desktop system here at the ERACC Intergalactic Spaceport and Karaoke Bar, otherwise known as my home office. I have been running releases of Mandriva for several years now. At first I too wanted to always have the latest, cutting edge release of every package out there. After a while I came to understand that if Mandriva package maintainers saw that a patch was necessary for an application I run then they would patch the version in the distribution and release the patched version in the update repository. If there were a new version of a software application that had security implications for a desktop user, then after testing the new version it would be included as an update for the life of that desktop release, usually 12 to 18 months. Long term desktop releases would get these updates if needed for their lifetime as well, usually 3 years. Then the next time I install updates I get the patched or new version.

I have come to appreciate and accept this. After all, it is highly unlikely that a zero day exploit would be found that could crack my Mandriva system from a user-space application, like we see happen so often on Microsoft systems. The default security in a GNU/Linux system makes creating a zero day exploit that can “pwn” a GNU/Linux desktop system slightly less difficult than a single person being the first to find the next Mersenne Prime[1][2] with pencil, paper and an abacus. Is it possible? Maybe, by a long shot. Is it likely? Not really. As a result, I can just be patient and wait for the new or patched software to appear in my update list. If I really want to be on the cutting edge, along with all the problems that may imply, I can install Mandriva’s Cooker version. This is the untested, it may break, it may slap you around with a large trout, developer version of Mandriva. Not recommended for the faint of heart and those who like their system to “just work”. Or I can go with a distribution like Gentoo Linux.

Honestly, I do not really want to be on the cutting edge. I want stable, known to be working with my distribution, software packages. For that I can wait for the updates or the next major Mandriva release. Regarding Firefox versions, I just updated to Firefox 3.5.7 a week or two ago using Mandriva’s updates. I do not see a pressing need to get Firefox 3.6 Right Now. I can wait for it. Mr. Gralla and his ilk can too, once they figure out how this GNU/Linux thing really works. Of course they can also stick with Microsoft and keep getting “pwned” with web based drive-by exploits that take advantage of Microsoft’s poor design decisions.

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GNU/Linux Software I Use Regularly

I recently received an e-mail from a friend that has started using Ubuntu. He is rather new when it comes to running a GNU/Linux desktop and has asked me several questions. One of the questions was basically what software do I use and recommend. This is a serious question that a lot of new users will probably want to know.

Those of us who have been GNU/Linux desktop users for a long time take for granted the packages we install and use. As we have paid our dues to learn the ropes, one way we can help new users is to tell them what we use and make recommendations. It helps to have a base of software from which to start because there are so many choices under GNU/Linux a new user can easily become overwhelmed.

So, for my friend, and for all of you other new users out there, here is the software I use regularly.

My distribution of choice is Mandriva. Mandriva is a RPM based distribution and has several very well written tools to help one manage one’s desktop system. Since RPM is a requirement for Linux Standards Base (LSB) I prefer to stick with RPM based distributions. Mandriva was one of the first, if not the first, RPM based distribution to solve the “RPM dependency Hell” that so many encountered in the early days of RPM distributions.

My “desktop” runs a light window manager named fluxbox. I am not fond of Gnome nor KDE as they are too bloated to start with. Sure one can strip them down, but I would prefer to start light and add only what I want or need. Plus some of my friends I know that run Gnome and KDE do occasionally have broken desktops from trying to update them with the latest and greatest. Due to the complexity of the Desktop Environments (DE) like Gnome and KDE they can be a bear to try to upgrade. Especially for my friends that have jumped from an older primary version to a newer primary version like from KDE3 to KDE4. Just search the web and one can find story after story of upgrade PAIN going from KDE3 to KDE4. Due to upgrade problems under KDE one of my friends now says she has a new swear word, “KDE4”. With fluxbox I have never had such a problem and do not expect to ever have a broken “desktop” because of a fluxbox upgrade.

I monitor my system temperatures and fans with lm_sensors and the sensors krell in Gkrellm. Gkrellm also lets me see at a glance how much space is left on certain partitions I want to monitor. As well as showing me free RAM and other niceties like uptime and process usage.

I always have several xterm windows open to a bash command line. From these I can use dictd and the dict client to look up words and phrases from dictionaries I installed. Here is a little script I run from ‘root’ to install the dictionaries I want when I do a fresh install on new hardware:

urpmi dictd-server dictd-utils dictd-client dictd-dicts-devils dictd-dicts-easton dictd-dicts-eng-fra dictd-dicts-foldoc dictd-dicts-fra-eng dictd-dicts-gazetteer dictd-dicts-gcide dictd-dicts-jargon dictd-dicts-vera dictd-dicts-web1913 dictd-dicts-wn dictd-dicts-world95

The urpmi command is one of those nice tools written for Mandriva that I mention. There are several urpm* commands one may use to manage software from the command line. Mandriva also has a nice GUI called ‘rpmdrake’ that one may run instead of command line versions. Both package systems allow one to search for packages. However, the command line urpm* tools do have a more robust search which can be combined with other command line tools to parse the output.

I use aiksaurus from the command line in one of the xterm windows for my Thesaurus. Here is some example output from aiksaurus:

aiksaurus newcomer
=== immigrant ================
arrival, arriviste, comer, emigrant, entrant, fledgling, greenhorn, immigrant, intruder, newcomer, outsider, parvenu, recruit, rookie, settler, squatter, tenderfoot, upstart, visitor

I believe there are GUI front ends available for both dictd and aiksaurus. But as I have never used them I will let others share about those in the comments.

I always have GNU Midnight Commander, mc, file manager running in one of the xterm windows. I prefer mc for most of my file management duties. It is lightweight and can run from a command line when one’s GUI has taken a nose dive. It is installed by default with Mandriva.

My web browsers, yes I use two regularly, are Firefox and Opera. I use Firefox primarily with Opera as my backup for rendering some broken sites that do not play well with Firefox. With Firefox I have NoScript as well as several other add-ons to block certain web annoyances that do annoy me. For example, I want to see Flash content only when I choose to see it. One of the Firefox add-ons is Flashblock. Flashblock will block Flash content but gives one a button to click to allow the content to run. This along with NoScript can really speed up access to certain sites that are rife with advertising screaming for one’s attention.

I use Kontact, yes it is a KDE application, which is a personal information manager that combines Kmail (e-mail), Knode (USENET news reader), calendar, contact manager, notes widget, ToDo list, Journal, and Akregator (RSS feed reader).

For instant messaging I use Kopete. Another KDE application. It allows me to contact friends, family and acquaintances on several instant messaging services including AIM, Jabber and Windows Live Messenger.

Xchat 2 is my IRC application of choice. I use it to connect to Freenode and a couple of other IRC networks to keep in touch with official project channels and support. Such as the #mandriva channel on Freenode for the times I need to ask a silly question instead of searching the web for the answer on my own.

My office suite is I was pleasantly surprised recently to discover that Writer will now open WordPerfect 12 documents. With the contributions from IBM (I presume) it also will open my old Lotus WordPro documents. Naturally will open and edit Microsoft Word and Excel format files. When using Microsoft proprietary files I recommend saving them as Open Document Format (ODF) files whenever possible.

My financial management software is GNUcash. GNUcash does what I need to keep up with my personal finances and my small business finances. GNUcash does not have a “payroll” feature, yet. Since I do not need a payroll feature for my small business the ability to track accounts payable, accounts receivable and print professional looking invoices is enough for me.

I occasionally need to crop a picture or tweak a graphic for my web sites. My choice for that is The GNU Image Manipulation Program, a.k.a. The GIMP. I could not care less if The GIMP does not work like Adobe Photoshop. The GIMP does what I need it to do. All the graphics professionals that whine about needing Photoshop on GNU/Linux or they cannot use GNU/Linux miss the point of FOSS. They should get involved with The GIMP project and help add the features desired. If they cannot program they can at least test and provide feedback. In the end everyone wins with better The GIMP for all.

Those are the software packages I use most to Get Things Done. What about play time? I do have a few games I like when I need a break from reality. The games I play regularly are Wolfenstein Enemy Territory (3D FPS), Unreal Tournament 2004 (3D FPS), and Quake IV (3D FPS). These are three dimensional (3D) first person shooter (FPS), shoot ’em and blow ’em up games. I bought Unreal Tournament and Quake, but Wolfenstein Enemy Territory is “free”. When I feel less aggrieved with life I play around with Flight Gear (3D flight simulator) and TORCS (a 3D car racing game). All of these games run natively on GNU/Linux. I will only run games that run natively on GNU/Linux. I will even buy games that run natively on GNU/Linux. If a game does not run natively on GNU/Linux and requires WINE I won’t buy it nor will I “pirate” it to run it.

That is the list of software I use the most on my GNU/Linux PC. Feel free to share your own list of software in a comment.

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Edit Fri Sep 11 11:16:54 CDT 2009: Clarify the line about FPS.

How to Change the Default Location Bar Search Engine in Firefox

I dislike Google. Ok, I know “Google is your friend!” is a common phrase on USENET, in web forums and on IRC. But in my case I Just Do Not Like Google? and do not think it is my friend. My reasons are personal and political and I will leave it at that.

So, imagine my chagrin at seeing a Google search every time I typed incorrect content in the URL location bar in Firefox. I kept meaning to look into this but kept putting it off (mostly forgetting about it) until I finally heard from my wife that she really did not like Google searches coming up on her Firefox (for the same reasons I hold). So, it was time to figure out how to change that. We both prefer AltaVista for our web searches so I decided to make that our URL location bar default. As always the Devil is in the Details.

The Details

After much web searching (using AltaVista of course) I ran across this blog post How to Change Your FireFox Location Bar Search Engine at This deals with changing the default back to Google after having the location bar search hijacked by Yahoo. What I noticed was the blank &q= at the end of the example search string. That is the query indicator at Google. “Ah ha! Just place the query key at the end!” thought I and looked for the query indicator at AltaVista. It is the same thing, imagine that. So I opened a new tab in Firefox, typed in about:config, searched for keyword.URL, and inserted in place of the Google string. A quick test showed that this works.

I then decided to see if other search engines would work. I have several user accounts on my Linux box so I su‘d to another account in a xterm session, opened Firefox and started testing. Here are the resulting strings that worked:*&Query=

Based on my short test it appears any search engine will work as long as the search engine’s query field is the last thing on the string in keyword.URL. Feel free to do your own testing and post comments about the results here.