All posts by Chris Walden

Chris Walden is a multifaceted guy with a background in technology, writing, and theatrical production. He is the force behind Mythmade Productions in Austin, Texas and enjoys creating unique experiences for people that go beyond mere entertainment. He lives in Cedar Park with his wife, daughter and some number of cats. He is a regular correspondent for Saul Ravencrafts activities.

The future of software delivery?

I just had to laugh a little when I came across this article: Microsoft Click-to-Run: The future of software delivery?

Wow!  They invented the idea of getting software over the Internet when you want it!  Anyone who has used open source software has been enjoying functionality along these lines for years.  In Ubuntu if I try to execute a command which doesn’t exist I’m given suggestions on how to install it now.  Tools point to on-line repositories of existing software which is installed easily with a few clicks and kept up to date for you as you use them.

Now it’s a new and innovative idea?  *sigh*

In other news is this story “Mozilla Drumbeat Aims to Expand Web Participation.”  I’m intrigued by this project and the upcoming live site.  I’ve been consistently impressed by what is accomplished through open source development.  Yet I also recognize that the nature of open source makes it more difficult to organize and tackle certain kinds of problems.  Mozilla and Apache are both open source groups that immediately get my attention, and a certain level of trust, when they put out a project.  I plan to watch this space and see what they do next.  You can see the progress on the official Mozilla Drumbeat page.

Another shot at a Linux Netbook?

  Wow!  I just got back at work a couple of days ago and I’m already behind!  This article passed through my email today and I thought it was worth mentioning:

Freescale’s Linux smartbook aims to take bite out of Apple

I’ve used Linux on my laptop for about 10 years now.  I’m pretty mystified at all of the problems that people have with it.  My personal theory is that every attempt to put Linux on a cheap laptop has been accompanied by some weird distribution of Linux that people have never heard of, which is tied to the notebook manufacturer.  I never saw one that came out with Ubuntu or something that was a little more mainstream.  (I know, I used “mainstream” and “Linux” together.  Weird.)

I really would like to see a successful Linux device like this, mainly because I want to own them.  All of my computers run Linux, but they’ve either been home-built systems, or laptops that I am snidely told that I would receive no support on.  I figure I am support.  It would be nice to have something that was intended to be a Linux box from… well… out of the box.

Pundits tend to put the blame on the failure of Linux in that people don’t enjoy open source software.  I don’t know if that’s as true as it might be.  I think of it like sushi.  I know a number of people who can’t handle the idea of sushi.  The idea that there might be raw fish in there somewhere is just too weird for them.  Let alone that there are many kinds of sushi that are fully cooked.  There is also a tremendous amount of peer pressure against using open source software.  Fully grown people will resort to the sort of middle-school-level taunting when you are using something different.  Sometimes when I get one of these people to actually try sushi, they love it.  Sometimes they don’t.  I can’t do much about people who won’t even try it.

I think it also has a little to do with how people learn about computers.  For myself, I love a good tutorial to help me deal with something new.  I find all kinds of helpful information like that online for every major tool that I use.  However, it seems that many people learn how to use their computer from colleagues, neighbors and children.  If those of us who use open source solutions take time to show people what’s available and how to use it, I think that you get more adoption.  If our response is that use of open source software has to be “earned” then I think people will go other directions.  I know that this works because I have a number of people that I know personally who have started using an open source tool here and there because I introduced it to them and got them started.  You don’t have to move them to Linux to do this either.  Many open source tools are multi-platform, so they can start with the tools on whatever they use now and then when the get to Linux it will have something familiar.

Firefox is the only tool I know of that has really taken off with people… though many people still refer to it as “Foxfire” or “that fire browser thing.”  Yet, even as broad as it is, the latest stats that I found showed it at 24.63% of the browser marketshare.  I’m not discouraged by any means.  User behavior has demonstrated that people are more interested in doing what they want to do than showing loyalty to a particular software company.  Look at the number of areas where people have switched to web-based solutions rather than buying desktop software to load on their computer.  (Here’s something with numbers in it.)  To a user most functionality is an icon with results in a window full of software.  As long as it does what they need they way the want to do it, that’s all that matters.

So, I’ll wait and see how this one goes.  I would like this one to work out.  If not, there will be another, and another.  It’s not going to go away.

Deep geekiness for the holiday

Over the holiday I got myself the Droid phone, featuring Google’s Android operating system.  I’m afraid that I’ve spent the last week or so geeking out on it a little.

I’ve done the obligatory web browsing, email and social networking.  Then I started to dig a little.  Tonight I managed to create a key-authenticated connection to my home PC and then ran VNC through the encrypted tunnel, just like I’ve described for my other remote work.  It was all but useless with such a tiny screen, but it would do for an emergency.  For example, I was able to lookup a PDF and read it.  If I was troubleshooting for someone it would be enough for me to look at their screen and read error messages.  It’s possible to zoom and pan and such, but I think if I had to do much more I would get myself to a full-size VNC connection.

I’ve been hearing a lot of ads lately for a company that promotes the service of accessing your work computer remotely from anywhere.  I’m sure that they offer some special functionality that I’m not considering, but I’ve used open-ssh technique to do the same thing through my home Internet connection.  If there’s interest, I’ll put out a quick tutorial on what I did.

Monday everything begins anew.  More about what’s new with me in the next entry.



Give yourself the gift of freedom this holiday season

You may be getting ready for the holidays with some time away from the workaday world.  If you are the type of person who has the discipline to just shut down the computer and walk away for days or weeks, then good for you!  However, if you’re like me you may want to tinker and quietly play with a few things in the midst of the holiday chaos.  This is a great chance to experiment with the world of open source.

I know many people who say that they were interested in checking out Linux, but just didn’t have time to do anything during their work-day world.  Well… if you have some tinker time, why not check it out during the holidays?  You don’t have to do anything to your existing system.  Simply boot off of one of the Live CDs which are available for download.  The Live CD will bring your system up under Linux and connect you to the Internet.

One downside of this is that you won’t be able to save anything about your configuration, because everything will be running from the CD, which can’t save any data.  You might use a thumb (USB) drive to save a few things if you wish.  The point now isn’t to do a lot of major configuration.  You can do that if you decide to try a more permanent installation.  Here we’re just doing a test-drive and exploring what the different tools do.

There are three major Linux distributions that recommend:

  • Ubuntu Live CD.  I’ve been working with Ubuntu for a while and it is my personal favorite for desktop use.  Their package system is just so easy to use and provides a lot of automatic guidance for dependancies and such.  The only drawback is that some commercial software my not support Ubuntu yet.  That could force your hand.  Every once in a while I get a little confused about how to configure Ubuntu for some of the more geeky things that I want to do, but that shouldn’t be an issue for a test drive, and there are solutions for all those things if you decide to adopt it.
  • OpenSuse is the community version of Novell’s Suse Linux.  It’s the environment that I ran for a few years before I moved to Ubuntu.  OpenSuse is RPM based and will likely be compatible with most commercial packages– though they may only officially support the commercial edition.  I like Suse’s approach to Linux.  The configuration is pretty easy and it has a good online update facility.  If you know that your work environment is using Novell (Suse) Linux this would be a good choice to explore.
  • Fedora is the community version of Redhat.  I started on Redhat ages back, but eventually migrated to OpenSuse.  Redhat is generally well supported by commercial applications, though, again, they may require the commercial edition.  If you know that your work environment is using Redhat, Fedora may be a good choice to explore.

When you download and burn the CD, you will simply boot from it to activate Linux.  It’s likely that all of your hardware will be automatically detected.  You’ll be able to surf the net and experiment with different tools without having to do any reconfiguration of your system.  If you decide that you like Linux then you’re ready for the next step which is an installation.  All the Live CDs are capable of installing Linux on a local device.  You can even install on an external USB drive.

This is a great chance to explore Linux, and it will give you something fun to do if things get a little crazy and you need a breather.

Happy Holy Days!

Quick one on Pidgin

 One of my most often used open source tools is Pidgin.  It’s an instant messaging client that works with… well… most things.  It allows me to have multiple accounts on multiple services which is pretty handy with all of the different things that I’m doing.  A mild downside is it may give the appearance that I’m surfing Facebook all day, but it’s really only the chat account that’s held opened.

Pidgin has a number of excellent plugins that make it very handy to use.  Some of my favorites are the Psychic plugin which alerts me to various kinds of activity between me and someone that I’m chatting with.  For example, I get an alert that someone is trying to reach me when they first open their chat window.  Another one that I like is Off-The-Record which offers significant encryption between chat participants.  Another favorite is Text Replacement which will automatically replace text you type with something in a hash list.  It corrects common typos and can even translate text speak into English if you suffer from typing that way.

The one that I got tonight is slightly silly, but I’m really enjoying it.  I have an IBM Thinkpad (which gives you an idea of its age).  It has a little LED light on it, called a Thinklight. (How do they come up with this stuff?)  This plugin causes the Thinklight to blink whenever a message comes through.  That’s pretty handy when I have a lot of things going on and I can’t tell one popup from the other.  It may annoy me eventually, but right now I kinda dig it.  You can find it at the project web site.

I’m going to write up some information about Pidgin on the Real World Open Source wiki.  If you have favorite tools you should add some notes on it there.  It’s not just for me to edit.  It’s for all of us.

Get cooking with open source

I’ve been doing open source for about ten years now.  I think that many people are interested in freeing up their desktops, but they just don’t know where to begin.  Most people aren’t necessarily technically curious.  They take the computer they buy with the software that comes on it.  In general much of their requirements are met through the basic office, email and browsing tools.  When a need arises… or they get a tip from a friend… they download what they are directed to, by friends, web sites, or advertising.

It’s like food.  Many people don’t really go exploring much.  They eat what’s convenient, not what’s healthy.  People know deep down that they shouldn’t be eating junk, but all you have to do is talk into the speaker and you get a bag of instant food.  Besides, cleaning is a chore!  Shopping is a chore.  Who wants to do all that maintenance?

If you know anyone who has had a serious confrontation with diabetes you know that all of these things can change.  I have a friend who was forced to make changes in his life and start eating healthier.  He taught me that it’s not hard to clean up your diet and that when you learn a little more about what’s out there that it’s not much harder to eat well than it is to eat junk.  He said that the trick is to get away from the sugar and salt-coated taste you’ve been trained to expect and enjoy more what food has to offer.  Does that mean his diet is bland?  Not at all.  It’s full of color and flavor and variety.  He just needed someone to help him understand his options and what the so-called “easy choice” was costing him.

There are some of you who, like me, found out long ago that there were alternatives to the technical junk that we’ve been served.  We’ve learned a few skills to find and prepare our software without having to spend so much money.  We’ve grown to expect software to be multi-faceted, interconnected and multi-platform.  So, just to stretch the food analogy a little further, I think it’s time we started our own cooking channel.

Have you ever seen a cooking channel?  It’s filled with people who are passionate about what you can do in the kitchen.  Some shows are geared toward people who want to be fast and healthy.  They show you how to do things fresher without spending much more time than you do defrosting boxes.  Others are geared toward the fancy skills and advanced presentation.  Still others are about understanding how food works so that you can experiment a little on your own.  All of them have an audience.

So, how do we start our channel.  Why not here on My developerWorks?  You may have noticed that there have been some changes in capabilities.  Updates to the backend have provided sections for files, wikis and improved functionality for the existing sections.  I have created a new wiki called “Real World Open Source.”  I want to make this our own open source cooking channel where we really bring everything together.  We help people appreciate how to let go of the junk and how easy it is to start doing thing that will make a difference for them as individuals and for technology in general.

How do we do this?  Start with the Wiki.  If you are a chef, this is the place to explain the solutions that you have in place and the best ways to make it work.  Feel free to point to existing information that people should know about.  Our goal is to make it all easier to find.  If you are someone who wants to learn, then use this as a place to put up questions and things that you think need to be filled in.

Join the group too.  Besides the Wiki I have a group called Real World Open Source.  Membership in this group will help us keep track with each other and to have some of the developmental discussion that is necessary for this sort of thing.  It also has the ability to set up tasks and things that we need help with.

Why am I doing this?  I feel that I’ve derived a lot of benefit from what I receive from the open source community.  I think that many of the goals that technology can achieve for helping people accomplish more are best provided in an environment of openness, where commercial and community products can work seamlessly together.  This environment will grow only as a result of the demands of users.  We’ve seen progress.  I think that many more will make the move if we can just teach them how to cook a little.

Think open source is all software? Think again!

When I say Open Source—- you say “software.”  How about science?

It makes sense, really.  I’ve always thought of science as the free exploration of ideas about how things work.  The science of today is built on the foundations of yesterday.  In Vivian Wagner’s article, “Open Source Science: A Revolution From WithinOpen Source Science: A Revolution From Within,” she looks at the ways the science is using the same techniques of organizing and sharing information that has made open-source successful.  It’s an interesting read and provides much food for thought.  What would happen if this approach to solving problems became more common?  I don’t have any answers… just curiosity.  I’m very interested to see where all of this thinking takes us.

Start your learning with open source

I actually wrote this some time ago on a blog hosted at IBM’s developerWorks. Now that I’m doing my own site I thought it made more sense to live here. I hope it’s still useful to you.

I got a note from a friend of mine.  He just finished the trial period for some video editing software and was deciding whether or not to spend the money.  Before whipping out the credit card he wanted to see if I knew of any open source video editing software that he should look at.  I haven’t really used Windows for years, except to occasionally help someone fix problems.  (I know!  Go figure!)  My current favorite for video editing is Cinelerra, which is not currently available for Windows.  So, I did a little digging.

One of the first pages that I came across was a Wikipedia article entitled List of Free and Open Source Software Packages.  Wow!  I’d not seen this list before.  It’s pretty comprehensive, and since Wikipedia gets a large number of eyes and hands on it I would expect it to have some pretty good stuff.  As it turns out there are several packages that I was able to point him to which worked across platforms.  I even noted a few for myself to check out later on Linux.

That whole episode got me to thinking about the position held by open source.  I believe that open source software is a fantastic training ground for someone who wants to learn about technologies.  I am amazed that it is not more utilized to teach people, especially kids, about technology.  Think for a moment about what is available for free to someone who is willing to take the time to download and install it.  Think of what GNU/Linux offers out of the box.

I remember when I wanted to learn about computers.  There were pretty slim pickings for a kid in the early 80s.  I had a friend with an Apple IIe.  I eventually got my own Commodore 64.  However, much of the software was just out of my reach.  If I could get hold of it– don’t ask me how– I couldn’t really access an expert to help me learn what I was doing.  I remember clawing my way through an assembler.  There was no way I could get my hands on one of the good Borland development suites.

Now look back at that Wikipedia page.  Look at all of the packages that are available.  Look at things like the open source office suites.  In any school curriculum kids could learn all of the important elements of how documents, presentations, spreadsheets and other common office artifacts are put together.  They could learn the really important things.  (Hint: it’s not how many cool slide transitions you can cram into a presentation.)  They could learn about using styles to make document management easier.  They could learn the concepts of working with form fields and the structure of a successful document.  Just about any good office suite would have all of the necessary elements for that.  Sure!  When they walk into their job they may have to read a manual on which buttons to push… but they’ll have the concepts down.  They’ll understand what the tools are for, which means that they’ll be able to apply that knowledge to whatever tool is put in front of them.

Think about the kids who want to learn about computing.  Every conceivable programming language is at one’s disposal through open source.  They can learn abut networking, firewalls, collaboration, etc.  It’s all there.  If they get excited enough to want to work with it at home, they don’t have to go buy (or steal) anything.  The software is freely available.

Any general technology can be explored using these tools.  When the user reaches a point where the open source products no longer do the job, then it’s time to go shopping, but now they are educated shoppers.  They know what they like and don’t like, what they need and don’t need.  They aren’t at the mercy of a so-called expert who may or may not have their best interests at heart.

I challenge you to go play with that list.  See what’s on there.  Some of it is surprising and amazing!  Then, keep your ears and eyes open for people who demonstrate a need.  What for someone to say “I wish.”  It might be a friend who wants to learn something about video editing or 3D animation.  It might be at your child’s school where they say they just can’t get hold of the right tools to teach some area of technology.  Imagine if you could grant that wish by just pointing them to the right resource and get them started.  Imagine how far people could educate themselves about how things work using things that are freely and legally available.

Just imagine…

Austin radio station will be airing Linux ads

According to the “Blog of Helios,” talk radio station KLBJ AM in Austin, Texas will be airing ads for Linux.  The ads are more like PSAs.  They are not selling a particular distribution of Linux and they don’t even point the listener to a specific, trackable action, so I don’t know how one would measure their impact.  However, the people paying for the ad have apparently purchased time during the Kim Komando show– who tends to be pretty Microsoft-centered in her discussions.

The ads have been released under the Creative Commons Attribute-ShareAlike 3.0 license.They further stipulated that no attribution is necessary, so that provides a lot of freedom.  The blog referenced above has links to the voice-over track in MP3 and ogg formats.  There are both 30 second and 60 second versions.

I have no idea what affect these ads will have, but I’m glad to see this approach.  It’s not wrapped around a company.  It’s a community effort.  Hopefully it will get some people curious and asking questions.

Quick one on InfoWorld’s Open Source awards

Today I was looking at the InfoWorld Best of Open Source Software Awards 2009.  InfoWorld is a sometimes dubious, but often entertaining online techno-rag.  They are generally upbeat about open source projects.  Regardless, I’m always interested to see what different areas seem to value in the open source arena.  Looking over their selections I think there are some projects that may be of interest to my readers, based on previous comments.  If you do end up working with some of these, join the Real World Open Source group in My developerWorks and share your experience.

What’s with the whining about GIMP?

I’ve used GIMP, the open source photo editing software, for years now.  I’ve even turned on a few people to it who were looking for a free solution.  (It’s multi-platform, of course!)  Today I read several comments in different people with complaining about the GIMP interface.  I’ve used it to touch up photos to remove red-eye and blemishes.  I’ve also done some weirder stuff with it, like opening my eyes in a picture of me in front of Stonehenge where I was squinting.  I’ve used it to remove reflections of photographers and other offending objects.  I once used it to restore the dignity of a many by closing his fly in what was otherwise a good picture.  (You never know what you’ll be asked when people discover that you can do things!)

GIMP is a complex graphical program.  You need to understand some basic concepts abou layers, transparency, masking and some other things to make good use of it.  These concepts seem to be present in other commercial packages.  Any powerful program requires you to understand some things.  I just don’t get what is so confusing.  Maybe I’m wired too geekily, but it makes sense to me and I find it to be one of my favorite and most-used tools.  It really just works.

Oh, well.  Back to work!