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he writes books

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Thu 19
Apr
2007

Danger: Linux Advocacy Ahead

Max Last week I helped my 17-year-old brother-in-law build his own computer. Moo, as I shall call him, as I have since he was four, is not particularly geeky. He is what they call emo. And he lives in England, so all I could do was give advice over the phone and hope I wasn’t about to hear, “Is this bit meant to be smoking like… OH MY GOD IT’S—beep, beep, beep.”

But he put the whole thing together with no real dramas or explosions, which I was very impressed with. Then we got to what turned out to be the hard part: setting up Windows XP.

I haven’t used Windows much in the last three years. It’s possible that my mind has become clouded by the religion that is Linux. But I don’t think so. I think Windows has gotten crappier.

I seriously can’t believe how many hoops you have to jump through now to do even simple tasks, like upgrade Internet Explorer. (Before you are permitted to plug the gaping security holes in the 2001 version that comes on the CD, you must install some other software that’s of no benefit to you, which requires much clicking, restarting, and rebooting.) The Internet Chat program, Messenger, is so crammed full of ads and promotions that it’s hard to work out where the non-commercial content is. Programs crash. Installing drivers is click-and-hope. It won’t recognize your wireless network card because it wasn’t invented in 2001, and you can’t go on the internet for updates because it won’t recognize your wireless network card. Even if you could, you don’t have any security patches installed, and by the time you download them, your system will be infected with Sasser. Everything you install tries to change your home page, start by default, and fill your desktop with icons.

But what really bothers me is the feeling that you must constantly fight for control of your own computer, because your aims are apparently in conflict with those of Microsoft and half of everyone else who writes Windows software. They want your computer to report information about you, keep ongoing watch over what you’re doing in case you turn pirate (activation, registration, and validation?), show you ads, and lock you out of protected media. If you lose this battle, then six months later you find yourself with a computer so clogged with malware that the only way to make it usable again is to reinstall the operating system and begin the fight again.

Occasionally I see articles about whether Linux is ready to compete with Windows on the desktop. But it’s become obvious to me that Linux is already a better operating system. That’s purely on the merits—features, reliability, and ease of use—and even before you throw in the fact that Linux is free and has more accessible support.

So to me the question isn’t whether Linux is good enough any more. It’s down to the applications: whether Linux programs are available to do everything you want.

Today the latest version of Ubuntu was released. Ubuntu is the best home Linux distribution going around, so if you’ve thought about switching, it’s a good time. You can download a Live CD, which lets you try Linux out without actually installing it, but even better might be to consider which applications you could switch to. If you can find Linux versions that do everything you need, you’re good to go. If you can’t—and there are certain holes here that will rule Linux out for some people—then you might want to stay put. (It is possible to run most Windows applications on Linux with emulation, but it’s clunky. And dual-booting for anything except games gets tedious fast.)

P.S. Here is the last thing I wrote about Linux, in February 2005.

P.P.S. I understand that to many people, Linux users are fanatical freaks with no appreciation for the basic fact that the majority of the world doesn’t fall in love with computers but simply uses them to get things done. But that’s because they’re running Windows. If only they switched, the scales would fall from their eyes and they too would realize that they are eating delicious cherry pie while everyone around them chews on mud, saying, “It’s not too bad, once you get used to it.”

Oh, and the mud is evil.

Comments

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Phill Sacre (#1822)

Location: London, UK
Quote: "Computers are like air conditioners. Both stop working, if you open windows."
Posted: 3807 days ago

AMEN, Max!

In addition to what Max said, I've been using Linux since August 2005 and it's been great - I wouldn't go back! (Although I am fairly geeky and I do work in IT).

However, I've got my wife using Ubuntu Linux, and she's not geeky at all. If you just want to use your computer for anything which you need specific software for, you can do pretty much everything you need to.

I could go on, but I won't...

Yenzo (#829)

Location: Secret underwater pyramid base in the Pacific
Quote: "In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe (Carl Sagan)"
Posted: 3807 days ago

I'm pretty torn right now... The Windows situation you described was perfectly put and it reflected all the misery I had to go through a few weeks ago when my PC crashed... and a month before that when my notebook crashed... and a few weeks before that with the PC again. So at some point while reading your post, you had me convinced to try Linux.

But the other thing is: I don't WANT to be a computer geek! I spent my youth playing Doom and watching Star Trek, not getting any girls and hanging around with a bunch of guys that have since grown up to be computer programmers. And it took a lot of hard work not be sucked into the nerd vortex of programming skills, assembling your own PC, being overweight and going to Star Trek conventions.

Well yeah, I've been to a convention once. But just ONCE. And I didn't inhale.

You see, my girlfriend is more like the pretty, colorful, sporty kind of person. So naturally, she still thinks I'm a geek. (I wonder why she thinks that. Is it my obsession with Nintendo or watching South Park or being able to surf the Internet for 3 days straight without getting *any* information?) On the other hand, I guess I score some non-geek points just by being with her.

Thing is, right now I'm in some kind of shady gray zone between nerdiness and normality. But I'm afraid installing Linux is gonna push me over the edge. Just to be on the safe side, I shouldn't even be sure what Linux actually is.

You see my dilemma. Maybe someone can help me. While you try to come up with advice, I think I'll read some webcomics and watch a little Dr. Who.

isserley (#1320)

Location: Madrid, Spain
Quote: "I am an elegance bigot. If I’m going to sit in front of this thing for hours a day, I want to feel the intelligence that went into my OS. I want to sense that an English major lost sleep over the wording of the menus. - David Pogue, 06/1998"
Posted: 3807 days ago

preach as much as you want, I´ll stay Mac :)
Besides that, I´tried out the last version of ubuntu, which I strongly prefer over windows anytime. - Funny thing though: I do whave a WEP protected wireless LAN going here, and in hours of trying, I didn´t manage to get the PC laptop only neither with XP not with UBUNTU (the router is some standard D-Link box) - weird!
Luckily the neighbour next door has a open WiFi network :)

isserley (#1320)

Location: Madrid, Spain
Quote: "I am an elegance bigot. If I’m going to sit in front of this thing for hours a day, I want to feel the intelligence that went into my OS. I want to sense that an English major lost sleep over the wording of the menus. - David Pogue, 06/1998"
Posted: 3807 days ago

YENZO: get a Mac. Full Unix power hidden under a nice UI even dumbtards like me know to operate. ;-)

Dead (#724)

Location: Ipswich, Australia
Quote: "5'4" and bulletproof."
Posted: 3807 days ago

I love my Mac.

Chris (#816)

Location: Quebec, Canada
Posted: 3807 days ago

Heh, actually, a lot of these issues could be solved by slipstreaming the latest Windows updates and then making an unattended install. :) It's not as difficult as it sounds, and it'll save you time with all future reinstallations of Windows. You basically just pop the install disc in and off it goes, if you have it automatically partition. Otherwise, all you do is select a partition for it to install to.

You can also add custom drivers. So the drivers for your network card could be automatically while Windows installs.

If you want to get obsessive with it, you could also put all of your applications on the disc and have them automatically install along with Windows. Though if it's software that updates often, you'll have to burn a new unattended install disc every once in a while with the latest versions.

I don't want to seem like I'm advertising, but here's a guide I found useful: http://unattended.msfn.org/unattended.xp/

Cory Lavalette (#52)

Location: Raleigh, N.C., USA
Quote: ""When Will Jesus Bring The Pork Chops?""
Posted: 3807 days ago

Would love to know Max's thoughts on Macs and OSX.

Jack (#2443)

Location: Australia, Bendigo
Posted: 3807 days ago

Macs... jeezus.. I know windows is bad, but thats no reason to resort to a Mac..

shabooty (#637)

Location: D.C./V.A/M.D.
Quote: "I will shake your foundation. I will shake the f**cking rafters. Nobody'll be the same -Danny Bonaduce ....& go visit my blog @: http://www.shabooty.com"
Posted: 3807 days ago

mac mac mac me 3
:)
i cant wait for leopard!

Machine Man subscriber David (#1456)

Location: Sydney, Australia
Quote: "Why are the pretty ones always insane?"
Posted: 3807 days ago

"Ubuntu is the best home Linux distribution going around..." Agreed, but unfortunately that's not saying much.

I've been using Ubuntu 6.10 for several months now on a Dell and under Parallels on a MacBook Pro, and just tonight upgraded the Dell to 7.04. Over six *hours* later it was upgraded and working. Why so long? Well, when the alternate install CD you're using to upgrade says it can grab stuff off the net if you'd like, say no! It seems to go out and download the *whole* upgrade again from the net (which I didn't realise was what it was proposing to do from the very unclear message the upgrade issued up front). Even on my cable connection that took hours (much longer than downloading the 7.04 CD itself took for some reason), and there's no option to quit or change your mind once it's started. Fsck, if you're using a CD to upgrade why would you want to download it all again? Use the packages on the CD you dopes! Well, at least it booted and worked afterwards, which is better than most any Windows upgrade I've ever done.

Really, as much fun as it is to stuff about with Linux, selecting and downloading (and paying for) modem drivers, spending hours, no days, getting WiFi working via all sorts of arcane jiggery pokery with bizarre drivers, and tearing your hair out trying to get multimedia plugins and codecs working, why not just use Mac OS X and have it all "just work" out of the box?

Linux. Better than Windows, but so's root canal surgery...

Machine Man subscriber Devin (#100)

Location: Los Angeles, CA
Quote: ""Toast sweat! It's the scourge of our time!""
Posted: 3807 days ago

I used Windows primarily up until the middle of last year, when I went totally the other way. I sold my aging Windows desktop, bought a Macbook to use for work and travel (work apps I need to use on a daily basis include FileMaker Pro, VisualHub, Final Cut and Compressor, and the Missing Sync), and overwrote Windows Media Centre on my Toshiba laptop with Ubuntu to use at home. I've been steadily moving to open source apps on the Mac wherever I can. I use NeoOffice (based on OpenOffice), Adium, Firefox, VLC, Transmission, Audacity, etc. I have to say Linux is certainly caught up to Windows, and it's definitely main stream ready. Now it's just a matter of telling everyone about it. Feisty Fawn is fantastic, there's no reason to keep XP other than games.

Flynn (#520)

Location: Chicago, IL USA
Quote: "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."
Posted: 3807 days ago

I'm a Fedora user, and while I admit that getting some of the more recent hardware to work can be difficult (I'm looking at YOU WiFi/ATI cards), the overall freedom is worth it to me.

There ARE dealbreakers...I keep my XP box lying around for a few apps that aren't quite as good in the Linux world (audio editing, World of Warcraft), but for the most part, I've been living in a Linux world since 2001.

As far as the Mac people...there are app issues. If you wanna use Cocoa apps (instead of the not fun X interface), you wind up having usually one choice, if any, for apps, and that choice usually isn't free.

You may like the design of your Mac, but I'll take my homebuilt $400 machine over your costly Mac anyday, OSX or no.

Sudi (#2895)

Location: Ithaca, 10 square miles surrounded by reality
Quote: "Mostly lucid"
Posted: 3807 days ago

the mud IS evil! i recently had to upgrade to MS Office 2007 and the morons have gone and changed everything- tabs, toolbars, menus- everything now appears in super large blue icons like i have a vision problem and trying to do simple things like putting a footnote to the text has me hunting like a crazy person and then alternating between crying like a baby and swearing like a driver on delhi roads- i think my laptop will soon develop deep psychological issues - oh and word files now automatically save as .docx which of course do not open on any previous lowly version of the Office software- why, why, WHY???

Travis Bell (#2769)

Location: Calgary, Canada
Posted: 3807 days ago

"Today the latest version of Ubuntu was released. Ubuntu is the best home Linux distribution going around, so if you’ve thought about switching, it’s a good time."

That might be true, but I'd like to take 1 more step back and say that if you really want the power of *nix than OS X is the world's friendliest *nix operating system. Hands down.

I've tried Linux, used to use Windows and about 4 years ago I gave OS X a shot. Nothing has come even close to how much simpler it makes my day to day life.

Cheers,

Stephanie (#2098)

Location: United States
Quote: "Going crazy. Care to join me?"
Posted: 3807 days ago

I'm lucky I know how to turn the computer on. That's why I have a wonderful husband who knows how to take the evil mud and turn it into orgasmic ice cream. Having Windows is like a sado-masochist relationship; you can either be the one who likes to be whipped, or the one who does the whipping.

austin (#2462)

Location: rhode island
Quote: "hmmm...bleh..."
Posted: 3806 days ago

You can almost predict that Windows is gonna be all over you about this.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 3806 days ago

About Macs: I've never used one, but I hear nothing but good things.

Simon Haynes (#3001)

Location: Perth, Australia
Quote: "Author of the Hal Spacejock series"
Posted: 3806 days ago

I set up my mum with Linux over four years ago, and the computer is still going strong. She's happy, it's never crashed and she has no idea what all the fuss is regarding viruses and trojans. (Her previous machine was a steam-powered Win95 box, so a P4 with KDE looked modern, ran fast, and did all she needed.)

My in-laws use a lot of Windows-specific stuff (Publisher, some music editing software, webcams) but I've put them onto Firefox, Thunderbird and OpenOffice. Long ago I learnt that the first step on the road to freedom is to convert the apps - and therefore, the data - rather than switching the OS cold turkey.

As an author I notice a lot of Macs in publisher-land and amongst other writers, but as a programmer I have to use Windows XP myself. However, I do run open-source apps such as Firefox and OO. My own novel-writing software is a Windows app.

And you know what I hate about the WGA thing Microsoft has been foisting on us? My wife's PC went through a number of auto-updates and reboots over several weeks, and when I checked one more carefully it was JUST a WGA update - on her laptop AND her desktop PC. If anyone from Microsoft had been in the room when she found that little gem out they'd have been counting nuts, I can tell you.

Treznor (#3087)

Location: Denver, Colorado
Quote: ""I conquered a small nation to impress the Dread Lady.""
Posted: 3806 days ago

Well of COURSE it took hours to download the Ubuntu CDs and updates, David. Everyone else in the world was downloading them at the same time. As our Senator Ted Stevens infamously put it, "the tubes get full." Normally downloads from the Ubuntu servers go through around 560kb/s for me, but that night I was lucky when the speed topped 56kb/s.

Never apologize for Linux advocacy. I'm running World of Warcraft on my Kubuntu laptop, and I'm not ashamed of it. Well, maybe a little for playing WoW, but not for the fact that it runs perfectly well. The only reason there is software on Microsoft that won't run on Linux is because Microsoft has convinced a large portion of the software vendors that "nobody" is really running Linux. If you were to see native ports of things like Adobe Photoshop, Dragon Naturally Speaking and other deal-breaking software on Linux, you'd see Microsoft's market share drop like a stone.

Stuart Lamble (#1321)

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "Growing old is mandatory. Growing up is optional."
Posted: 3804 days ago

Another vote for the Mac here. I went the Linux path when I started doing Unix sysadminning for a living. Then I got jack of faffing around with config files so I could get my work done (this is what I'm supposed to be doing on *servers*, damnit, not my bloody desktop!), bought a Mac, and - long story short - never looked back.

Greg Karber (#1568)

Location: gregkarber.com
Posted: 3804 days ago

Ubuntu? Sorry, I'm not really into Pokemon.

xkcd.com/c178.html

Anthea (#3088)

Location: Canberra
Posted: 3804 days ago

I admit that I've been using a mac, so have been living in happy-mac-land for quite some time, and therefore am inured to both the rants of PC people and the converted starry-gaze of the linux-pro, but I still don't think that excuses me for thinking "wow his sister got married young" when I started reading your post...

Kitta (#716)

Location: Perth, Western Australia
Quote: "Don't feed or spank the monkey"
Posted: 3804 days ago

I'm a Mac and Linux (Ubuntu) user and just today I was trying to setup my brothers laptop, that runs Windows, to print over my network. Could not be done. It crashed during driver installation, refused to join the other kids on the network, and then crashed a few times as if it was a child I refused to give a cookie to.

In the end, I took a screen shot of what he needed to print, put it on a flash drive, and then plugged that into my Mac to print.

Joe (#3092)

Quote: "Welcome the Maxtocracy"
Posted: 3800 days ago

Maxx,

Why aren't your books as funny as your web site?

Joe

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 3800 days ago

To comply with FCC regulations.

Eluvatar (#2716)

Location: Boston
Quote: "Man i waithtir nin tiruva?"
Posted: 3798 days ago

(Posted by Treznor Apr 21)
> The only reason there is software on Microsoft that won't run on Linux is because Microsoft has convinced a large portion of the software vendors that "nobody" is really running Linux.

Well, that and vendor's fear of having their software stolen :P

I agree with Max's 2005 posting about Linux, though I usually phrase it differently-- Linux is a set of useful tools, Windows is your 'friend' who 'helps' you. Mac OS X I find to be somewhat in the middle, though assuredly better at 'helping' you.

Of course, my perspective is a bit special, having used Linux at home the entirety of my relatively short life so far (except for some games). To me, GNOME is what I am inherently used to. Every journey into Windows is like a tourist's expedition into a third world country, with a strange fixed interface and totally different neighborhood relationships-- by which I mean that GNOME programs get along nicely and sort themselves into neat categories while Windows applications demand space on the desktop where they jostle for position.

This is not to say that Linux does not carry its own peculiar frustrations, mostly related to its relative rarity. One of the more annoying things in my experience was getting the wireless to work on my laptop-- fortunately Fedora's NetworkManager has simplified managing it somewhat at this point. Another is perhaps the varying quality of software available-- it's all free but you have to be careful about who's little project you install, as it can easily be complete crap.

Lottie (#3093)

Location: Sheffield, UK
Posted: 3797 days ago

Apparently, Apple computers have a terrible environmental impact. More so than the others anyway.

Cory Lavalette (#52)

Location: Raleigh, N.C., USA
Quote: ""When Will Jesus Bring The Pork Chops?""
Posted: 3786 days ago

Max: About Macs: I've never used one, but I hear nothing but good things.


Cory: *gasp*

As for environmental impact of Macs ...

http://www.apple.com/hotnews/agreenerapple/

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