Distro Mania

If anyone’s in the mood for a new Linux install, you’ve got a lot of choices on your plate:

  • Ubuntu 10.04 is out. While most Ubuntu releases last a fairly short period until the next one, 10.04 is a Long-Term Support (LTS) release, so it’s here for a very long time, and the important fixes from future versions will get folded back into this. (Note that there’s also a 10.04 LTS for servers.)
  • RHEL 6 Beta is out. (As the “beta” in the name may imply, it’s still in beta.) See the changelog here.
  • Fedora 13 comes out in under 3 weeks.

Registry Cleaners: Avoid Them

I suspect most readers here knew, or at least suspected it all along: most registry cleaners are, at best, useless.

Lifehacker has a good piece on this, although it unfortunately begins by talking about how to edit the registry, which is really something I’m content with people not knowing. The people who have good reason to edit their registry know it well; I’ve never, ever heard of a non-technical user having reason to edit anything in the registry.

In bullet points:

  • Messing with the registry is dangerous stuff. So is “cleaning up” DLL files, which most registry cleaners somehow feel compelled to do, too.
  • Unless a particular entry in the registry is actively breaking something, deleting a handful of old registry entries isn’t going to help performance or disk space when there are hundreds of thousands of them.
  • Defragging the registry is silly, since the whole thing is stored in RAM.
  • No one has ever produced statistics showing that cleaning the registry has led to any appreciable increase in speed.

I tend to think that registry cleaners are like colon cleanse products: aggressively marketed, pretty much snake oil, impressive-sounding without giving any hard statistics, and really freaking dangerous.

Dating over TCP

Our newest site at work is a 40+ dating site, a new industry for us. And one of the things I really love about the team I work with is that all of the engineers do what they do because they love programming, which means that we’re all giant nerds.

Consequentially, we all found this comic to be absolutely hilarious. I suppose it’s like the SQL joke I posted the other day, where part of the humor is that it’s just such a ridiculous topic to joke about, and another part is the realization that, if you tried to explain why it was funny to anyone, it would instantly become boring and lame. (“Don’t you get it? It’s the TCP handshake! But instead of establishing a connection, he’s asking her out!”)

The SEC and Porn

From CNN:

“During the past five years, the SEC OIG (Office of Inspector General) substantiated that 33 SEC employees and or contractors violated Commission rules and policies, as well as the government-wide Standards of Ethical Conduct, by viewing pornographic, sexually explicit or sexually suggestive images using government computer resources and official time,” said a summary of the investigation by the inspector general’s office.

And then:

“This stunning report should make everyone question the wisdom of moving forward with plans to give regulators like the SEC even more widespread authority,” he said.

Non sequitur!

My friends in IT all tell me that employees surfing for porn during the workday is frighteningly common. The employees at the SEC who surfed for porn should be fired, but I’m not sure how this is even an interesting news story. The only difference is that the SEC caught these people, which I guess is notable for two reasons: most companies seem to not catch on that people do this until the IT staff has to clean up their computers, and also, it’s unusual that the SEC caught anybody doing anything.

That said, I’m not sure how you go from “33 employees in the SEC are pervy creeps” to “We can’t trust the SEC.” There may be other reasons not to trust the SEC, but my takeaway from this article is that the SEC should fire the people who look at porn at work, and that a tiny fraction of employees having surfed for porn at work is hardly news.

I really need to start my own news station. Although people in the Senate holding this up as reason to not allow the SEC more investigatory power may have made it news.


What makes someone think, “You know what would be a prime market to get into? Making discount network equipment and keyboards and competing on price!”?

If we look at just the big players, the companies that anyone who’s ever walked down the networking aisle at Best Buy could name, I come up with HP, Cisco, Linksys, D-Link, Netgear, SMC, and Belkin. Seven companies. The latter two maybe don’t enjoy the same stellar reputation, but they seem to sell plenty of quality equipment nonetheless. Quite a few of those companies are multi-billion-dollar firms that comprise the S&P 500. They’re huge, and they’ve got to sell enormous quantities of equipment every year. Have you ever tried to buy a 4-port switch? It’s a line of reputable companies all trying to undercut each other. You can get a switch for under $10 if you shop around. From a well-known, trusted brand. It’s a fiercely-competitive market.

So it boggles my mind that anyone would think it was a good market to enter. It’d be like decided to start a fast-food burger joint that would go head-to-head with Burger King and McDonald’s. It’s suicide. For one, both companies consider their brand’s recognition to be worth an asset worth more money than you or I will ever see. Unphased, you decide to name your company something in a foreign language that most Americans are unsure how to pronounce.

Of course, Burger King and McDonald’s aren’t exactly known for wholesome, nutritious meals. So there’s a big (and growing!) market for things like organic, or at least real, food. So if your company that no one can pronounce decided to make organic, healthy hamburgers, you might have a minuscule chance of doing well. But instead, for some strange reason, you decide that the way to go about competing with the titans it to undercut them on price. Yes, yes, both of them have the equivalent of the Dollar Menu, and yes, both of them have unimaginable economies of scale to allow them to sell prepared bacon cheeseburgers for what someone working minimum wage would earn in under 10 minutes.

Even though you don’t have their economies of scale or name recognition, you decide to undercut them on already-frighteningly-cheap products. After a short run, your name becomes synonymous with “cheap crap,” and no one with tastebuds will buy your stuff. The food is terrible, the menu is in broken English, and the place smells of rotting sewage.

I don’t get it. Getting into an overcrowded, over-competitive industry like this is the business equivalent of suicide. And yet there’ve got to be at least a hundred different firms marketing their consumer networking equipment in the US.


I modified the main page a bit. It tries to parse WordPress cookies and see if you’re logged in. If so, it offers a “micro-post” option. A few things you should know…

The first is that these ‘microposts’ are not stored on your real blog. They’re stored in the generic posts table that RSS feeds of individual blogs are dumped into. Right now there’s no way to comment on a micropost, thought I hope to add that capability at some point. (I also thought it’d be neat to add a thumbs-up option to posts, although then I realized that my novel idea was rapidly becoming a clone of Facebook.)

Another thing is that microposts use the way-cool auto_html plugin. (I’ll have to add AJAX preview at some point.) Basically, if you post a link (by just copying-and-pasting the URL), it will linkify it. If it’s a Youtube post, it will actually embed the video. If it detects that it’s an image, it will insert the image. (Sidenote: no resizing is done, since it doesn’t actually download the image. Please don’t include enormous photos.)

My hope isn’t for posts like “sitting in my chair now“, but I find a lot of neat links and such that aren’t really worthy of a full blog post, so I thought I’d experiment with making it easy to share simple links, more along the lines of Tumblr.

There seems to be a parsing error if you mix URLs and images/videos in the same post, so keep things simple. 😉 And let me know what you think — suggestions for enhancements, or pleas to fix anything that I don’t realize is broken, are always welcome.

Libraries and eBooks

As devices like the Kindle, Nook, and iPad become more prevalent, a lot of libraries are showing interest.

One problem is that eBooks are following the Digital Restrictions Management* trend, which cripples content so that it will only play for approved purchasers. The goal is to limit “piracy,” such as someone buying a piece of media and passing it along to all of their friends when they were done. It’s always seemed to me that the goal of DRM was antithetical to that of libraries. That said, there has been a big backlash against DRM, both because it treats people as criminals and because it sometimes doesn’t work and denies the people who actually bought content in the first place the right to use it. Some instances of DRM going awry would make Orwell roll over in his grave: Sony installed rootkits (for all intents and purposes, a virus that buried itself deep in Windows) on audio CDs until it got caught (and subsequently reamed), and Amazon, seemingly oblivious to the enormous irony, wirelessly deleted Orwell’s Animal Farm from the Kindles of those who bought it, after it was found that the people selling the book didn’t have the legal right to distribute it.

That said, eBooks and libraries aren’t totally foreign. A ZDNet article talks about about Sony’s Overdrive program, which, among other things, permits libraries to lend copies of eBooks, though support is unclear.

A question on TechDirt asks if libraries are legally permitted to lend out pre-filled Kindles. The answer, apparently, is that Amazon says it is not allowed, but that they don’t seem to have sued anyone who’s done so yet. That said, I think this question is missing the point. Lending Kindles is silly: it would be like lending VCRs and DVD players. If a library were to lend everyone a Kindle instead of books, it would do little but drive costs up tremendously. The way I see it, people would own e-book readers, and the library would just lend them the e-book they wanted to read. (Plus, if someone checks out a paperback and skips town, it’s not really a big deal. If someone checks out a Kindle and never brings it back, it’s a big loss.)

On top of all of this, I’m also a bit concerned about the role of brick-and-mortar libraries in all of this. If all the library would do would be to give its patrons access to the digital files to put on their e-book readers, why is a library needed at all? You’d just need a server somewhere to host the books and allow wireless downloads. I’m not positing that libraries are anywhere near obsolete, just that Utopian visions of an all-digital society seem to render them obsolete. Of course, that Utopian vision seems somewhat dystopian to those of us who, even with lots of technology, rather enjoy reading off of dead tree pulp, or those of us who see libraries as more than a warehouse of books. But libraries need to make sure that their pursuit of high-tech actually serves their patrons’ best interests, and isn’t just random purchasing of expensive devices that don’t offer any advantage over conventional books.

* Full disclosure: DRM officially stands for Digital Rights Management, but my rights come from the Fair Use doctrine and cannot be “managed,” only restricted. The goal of DRM is to set up and manage restrictions, not rights. It would be like putting handcuffs on someone and claiming that you’re doing it to manage their freedom.

** While discussing this recently, someone asked me, “When was the last time you read an actual book?” I smiled, as I was able to reply, “A couple days ago.” Flabbergasted, they replied, “But you have an iPhone!”

Undocumented Shortcuts & Tricks

I want to experiment with shorter, more link-rich blog posts. I also love tips and tricks that are based on nifty little things not really documented anywhere that work reliably. So, without further ado:

Skip DVD Trailers and Copyright Warnings

Credit to Lifehacker for this find: you can often skip the trailers, copyright warnings, and other crap at the front of DVDs by pressing Stop, Stop, Play on your remote. If that doesn’t work, pressing Stop three times instead of two, and still following it by Play, can work. The comments suggest that this is hit-or-miss, and that in some cases it may start over from the very beginning of the disk, sending you backwards, not forwards. But worth a try next time you’re stuck watching several minutes of unwanted previews, for sure.

Learn the Firefox Keyboard Shortcuts

This isn’t actually undocumented, since I’m linking to the documentation for the list. Firefox has a bunch of keyboard shortcuts for things that normally take a bit of mouse use. For example:

  • Cmd+K will jump to the search bar.
  • Cmd+L will jump to the location bar.
  • Cmd+1 will jump to the first tab. (This works for 1-8, actually, not just 1, but counting tabs is probably more work than just clicking on the right one.)
  • Cmd+9 will always jump to the last tab, regardless of how many you have open.
  • Cmd+Shift+T will undo closing the most recent tab. Wish I’d known about this one sooner!
  • Cmd+Shift+P will enable private browsing, which has a lot of non-sketchy uses as the linked article mentions
  • Cmd+Shift+F will toggle full-screen mode. If you’re only browsing the web, this is handy.
  • Cmd+F to search on page is easy and well-known, but did you know that Cmd+G will jump to the next match?

Adjust the Volume and Brightness on a Mac Like a Pro

The Mac has dedicated keys to turn the volume and screen brightness up or down, but Lifehacker has two neat tricks I’ve never seen before, both of which are first-rate:

  • Holding Option+Shift while adjusting volume or brightness will allow “fine-tuning” the volume by moving in much smaller steps, rather than going a whole “block” at a time. Not always useful, but if you ever need it, there it is. (Of course, if you have the buttons set up so you need to press Function while adjusting them, so that your F-keys are available to applications, Option+Shift+Function is an extremely hard key combination to pull off.)
  • Holding Shift while adjusting volume suppresses the irritating volume-change noise.

Two Useful Firebug Plugins

If you do web development of any kind and use Firefox, you either use Firebug on a daily basis, or you really need to learn about Firebug.

I have a handful of plugins for Firebug, but I just came across two that look immensely useful.

XRefresh will watch local files and reload a page in Firefox when they change. Sure, it’s not that much work to switch to Firefox and hit F5 (or Command+R for those of you who haven’t turned off the Mac’s special functions for the F-keys and find me turning up your sound whenever I try to reload a page during pair programming… or Control+R for those who don’t use Macs at all), but little savings can add up — especially if you don’t even have to leave your text editor / IDE at all!

CSS Usage sounds like a godsend. It’ll poke around a site and tell you what CSS rules are actually used. This could be immensely useful for going through an old site and pulling out old, unused CSS.

To be fair, I haven’t actually tried either of these plugins yet, but I expect both to get plenty of usage soon.

New Main Page

You might notice that I’ve brushed up the main page a bit. In addition to a few styling tweaks, you’ll note that I’m now showing the “excerpt” (short preview) of a post instead of the main thing. I’m not sure how I feel about this yet. I’m toying with a few ideas.

For the heck of it, I show a small thumbnail image of the first image in your post, if present, since photos seem to have a huge psychological draw, and they keep things interesting. I’ve got some more ideas I’m going to be implementing.

Not as obvious: the main page is now driven by Rails and uses RSS to pull in the individual feeds, instead of connecting to the database directly, because the way WPMU stores things is a giant pain for Rails to deal with.