National Review blasts software patents

The latest issue of the National Review (a right-wing publication) contains a column (written by Reihan Salam) harshly critical of software patents. The argument is the standard one that the free software community has been repeating for years: software patents impede innovation. The column even mentions Against Intellectual Monopoly. Is this a sign that awareness of the problem is slowly trickling into media circles outside the free software/techno-geek community?

Update Canon firmware from Linux

So, you found out that there's a new firmware version available for your Canon camera. You went to the Canon website and found...that there are only Windows and Mac versions available! What now?

Just download the Windows version. The EXE is a self-extracting ZIP file. If you don't have WINE installed, Ubuntu (and probably other distributions) will open the file with the default archive-extraction utility. There should be a firmware file (extension .FIR) and some instructions in PDF format inside. I had a bit of trouble extracting them; it seems that the Ubuntu archive-extraction utility, file-roller, doesn't want to extract single files from self-extracting ZIP archives. Just extract everything and ignore what you don't need. Follow the instructions in the PDF file of the appropriate language, and you should be good to go!

In the future, it would be nice if Canon would just provide a plain old ZIP file. Every reasonably modern release of every common OS supports it.

Catalyst 11.6 warning

If you use AMD's Catalyst drivers on Windows, and you have more than one monitor, be aware that Catalyst 11.6 (the most recent version) enables AMD Overdrive (automatic overclocking) by default. On my computer at work (Radeon 3450 GPU), this caused intermittent (and really annoying) flickering lines on the second monitor. Disabling AMD Overdrive fixed the problem.

In short, WTF, AMD?

Ikiwiki + Git = Awesome

OK, this is pretty damn cool. I wrote this post on my laptop, committed it to a Git repository, and pushed it to my server's copy of the Git repository, and now it's here on my blog! Granted, I don't have the preview functionality, but still...I think it's neat. I guess that means I'm a geek, but then, I knew that already...

Postfix and Amavis

Interesting tidbit about Postfix and Amavis, particularly when Debian distribution upgrades come into play: if amavisd can't be contacted, messages may become stuck in the queue.

postsuper -r ALL will requeue all messages, fixing the situation. See this forum post, which tipped me off to the whole thing. I don't think the situation described there matches my problem, but the solution sure worked! At least, after I made sure amavisd was running, since it wasn't. I will update this post if I get any more information.

On a somewhat related note, when Aptitude wants to remove packages, you should probably do a quick check to make sure it's not trying to remove anything important, like your DHCP client.

Intel GMA 500 and 600

Originally published: 2010-05-27

I'm not going to beat around the bush here: these chipsets ought to be an embarrassment to Intel. As noted several times, there is no open-source 3D support for these chipsets, and there is no documentation for them, either. In short, if you buy a netbook with a GMA 500 or 600 chipset, it will probably break with the next release of whatever distribution you run. Want to run a different kernel for whatever reason? You're probably SOL there, too.

It used to be the case that all-Intel hardware meant the machine would run Linux very well. Not so anymore. This is a betrayal by Intel. I do what I can to avoid buying Intel hardware these days, but it's hard to do in the notebook market. To my knowledge, no vendor sells an AMD-based notebook without Windows. I really wish I could get an AMD-based equivalent of System76's Lemur notebook, for example. As it stands, if I want a notebook, I have to choose between giving money to Intel or giving money to Microsoft. So, I will almost certainly buy Intel hardware when I purchase my next laptop. I will, however, tell everyone interested in a netbook to stay far away from any netbook whose GMA chipset has a three-digit number. I may even advise them to purchase a netbook with NVIDIA's Ion chipset. At least NVIDIA does a reasonable job of keeping their closed-source driver up to date.

Update: I ended up buying an Asus EeePC 1201T. AMD CPU, AMD GPU, and no Windows! Sadly, it appears that it is no longer available without Windows. The WiFi chipset is also...lacking, at least from a driver perspective. Still, I am rather pleased with it.

Paypal is evil

Originally posted: 2010-09-10

Slashdot Story
Sadly, this is not an isolated incident (just the most egregious that I know of). Things like this are why I avoid dealing with PayPal whenever possible, despite the potential convenience. If PayPal were making any demands, this would be extortion, but as it stands, it looks more like simple theft. Hopefully the publicity will keep them honest this time.

Stuck With Microsoft

Originally posted: 2010-05-27

I tend to gripe about Microsoft quite a bit. Some people may wonder why. Some may dismiss it as a fanboy's hatred for the opposition. Let me explain.

The nastiest thing about Microsoft is probably their reliance on lock-in as a business model. This is best demonstrated by Microsoft Office. The Office document formats were not publicly documented for a long time. Today, the specifications for Microsoft's Office binary document formats are publicly available, which is a good thing. However, those formats are not the default in current versions of Office. Instead, the newer versions of Office use Microsoft's Office OpenXML format. This format is openly documented. In theory, at least. In practice, the documentation is ridiculously long and vague. What does "format like Word 95 mean"? Only Microsoft knows for sure. Thus, only Microsoft can implement the specification correctly. Also, the specification allows arbitrary binary data to be embedded in the document, opening the door for undocumented extensions down the line. All this would be bad enough on its own, but Microsoft takes it a step further: Office 2007 doesn't even implement the Office OpenXML specification correctly! Thus, even a competing office suite that implements the Office OpenXML specification to the letter will not properly display Microsoft Office documents created with Office 2007. Office 2010 does at least conform to the "transitional" version of the specification, but it still doesn't conform to the "strict" version.

What does this all mean for the end user? It means that the end user can only reliably view his own documents with Microsoft Office. That is, once he starts using Office, he is effectively stuck with it, as the price of switching includes all the time it would take to fix all the formatting problems caused by the new software not fully understanding the Microsoft format (and in some cases possibly retyping the entire document). Thus, even a free, easier-to-use, technologically superior office suite will have trouble gaining market share. This is really a hallmark of anti-competitive behavior: if the entity engaging in the behavior did not already have a majority market share, the behavior would be detrimental to their business, but because they do have a majority market share, it serves instead to shut out their competitors.

I should note that OpenOffice is by no means perfect (in fact, the project has some rather nasty governance issues that discourage outside contributions), and Microsoft Office may, in fact, be superior in certain areas. That said, I think it will suit most people just fine, and the fact that it uses the Open Document Format by default means that any other office suite should be perfectly capable of opening them correctly. There is even an ODF plugin for Microsoft Office that enables it to open ODF files. There is a trap waiting for the unwary, though. Microsoft Office 2007 SP2 contains support for reading and writing ODF files, but it is of substantially worse quality than the third-party ODF plugins available. In fact, there is a superior third-party ODF plugin that was funded by Microsoft. Why did Microsoft feel the need to re-invent that wheel? I suspect it was done for one purpose: allow Microsoft to claim to support ODF (as required for use by some governments) while making ODF look bad.

TL;DR? Using Microsoft Office is like smoking crack: once you start, it's hard to stop.