Creative Labs and the proprietary idiocy
April 1st 2008

Just when you thought that the world of proprietary software and silly "intellectual property" business couldn't do it worse, they surprise you!

This weekend I learned about a message from a big boss at Creative Labs to an individual nicknamed daniel_k at some Creative Labs forum. Please follow the link to the message, because it is very interesting. And don't forget to read some of the responses.

The short story is that Creative Labs produces some sound cards and their drivers. Apparently some of the drivers would not work for Windows Vista, and daniel_k managed to program drivers for Vista (and Linux, I think), and distributed them for free (asking only for voluntary donations). The result: an open message in a forum, asking daniel_k to cease and desist.

The rationale for CL to do that seems to be that they didn't release Vista drivers for the sound cards on purpose, so that customers would have to buy new cards if they switched to Vista. With daniel_k's contributions, such customers are not forced to dump the old card for a new one, so this costs CL money!

Another example of absolutely vile acts from vendors of proprietary software (were the drivers free software, this discussion would be moot), and one more reason to say fuck you all!

The good part is that the story is already being spread around the net, and a lot of customers and potential customers are becoming angry customers and potential customers. I wish CL the worst for their vileness and short sightedness on the issue. They should have supported daniel_k, and use the ensuing possitive feedback campaign... but they didn't. Shame on you, Creative Labs!

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Re-partitioning a disk infected with Vista to dual-boot with Linux
January 9th 2008

Some time ago I helped a friend to install Linux into a Vista laptop (incidentally, another friend asked me about the subject today). The only aspect I'm covering in this post is the re-partitioning of the disk, which is a wee bit trickier than with XP and previous Windows versions.

With my laptop (one with XP preinstalled), I just inserted my favorite Linux CD, rebooted, and used the built-in partition utility that all Linux installation CDs have to downsize the Windows partition, and then make the Linux partitions in the remaining disk space. With Vista this is not the case. You have to be very careful, because Linux can not resize the Vista partitions (at least at the time of writing these lines). The problem is that Vista uses a modified NTFS format, and Linux can not cope with it yet (read more at my source for this info: pronetworks.org).

You can also find at pronetworks.org a detailed HowTo for making the resizing of a partition. In summary (e.g., for shrinking a partition to make room for Linux):

  1. Go to Control Panel -> Administrative Tools -> Computer Management
  2. Click on Disk Management (under Storage in left hand panel)
  3. Locate partition to shrink, right click on it, and from the context menu choose Shrink Volume
  4. Fill in the self-explanatory dialog box. Basically, enter amount of MB you want the partition to be reduced by.

You will thus end up with a smaller Vista partition, and some empty space. Now, you can insert the Linux CD, reboot, and install Linux in that empty space, without touching the Vista partition.

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Windows 7 wishlist
November 18th 2007

I came across a blog post [es] talking about Windows 7, the planned sucessor of the current Windows Vista. The same can be found elsewhere, e.g. in Ars Technica.

The article summarized some features that Windows users would like to see in W7. You can also see a picture with the whole W7 wishlist. What struck me was that, although the Redmond giant tried its best to copy every single innovation from free software, they still missed important points that users value enough to make a wishlist out of them.

Some points in the list are new and exciting. Some others are everyday things for us free software users, and it's so amazing that Windows still does not include them:

  1. Request for an integrated font manager
    One of the problems of proprietary software: the pieces each programs uses (including fonts) are property of the maker, so sharing is largely hindered. In Debian we have things like Defoma, and font management is quite lean in any distro, anyway.
  2. Explorer toggle button to quickly show/hide hidden files or system files
    Files starting with a dot are hidden in Linux. All file managers I know of have the hability to show/hide them with a click or a shortcut (Ctrl-H in Thunar and Nautilus, no default but configurable shortcut for Konqueror).
  3. Network/Internet bandwidth monitor
    Most, if not all, docks/taskbars in FLOSS desktops (Xfce, GNOME, KDE...) have a widget for that.
  4. DirectX update on Windows Update/Microsoft Update
    I use Debian, and it manages the installed software with APT (other distros have other systems). With it, I run "aptitude update" and it searches the online repositories for the last version of all the packages that exist in them. When I do "aptitude safe-upgrade", it automatically upgrades all the packages for which there are updates, and notifies me if some upgrade requieres to install a new package (without upgrading it until I agree to install that new package). And it's been like this for years.

  5. Infinite desktop, virtual desktop idea
    Although it probably refers to zooming interfaces, Linux has had the idea of virtual desktops for years.
  6. Profile data: Move locations of all user folders and data to another location
    This is trivial in Linux since the dawn of its times.

  7. Option to "Reopen Closed tabs" in IE
    Firefox has this option through add-ons like Tab Mix plus. Not only that, but many other things are possible, like: periodic reloading of some or all tabs, closing all tabs but the current one, duplicating tabs (along with all their history), freezing tabs (so they can not be accidentally closed or moved away from), change the name of the tab...
  8. Auto clean of Temp folders
    Temporary file management in Linux is flawless. I never saw a tmp location full because the system forgot to clean it.
  9. Provide Manual Duplex Printing in Windows Pring Dialog
    It is really lame to need to ask the maker of a big, monolithic, OS for stupid changes like that. The printing dialogs should be made by the desktop environment (a small part of the OS), or the application, and it should communicate with the printing server (another smaaaaall part of the OS). Details like that one should be fixed by updates in only one/some small packages related to the desktop environment.
  10. IE should have a close button on each tab
    See point 7.
  11. Disk Manager needs to have the ability to expand partitions
    Tools like GParted make partition management a breeze. In Windows, you need commercial third party tools for that. Tough luck.
  12. Image (ISO, BIN) support in Windows
    What? In Windows you can not mount ISO images as if they were actual filesystems? In Linux, you sure can.
  13. Family license
    It must suck to buy a copy of the OS and being able to use it only in one PC. With Linux and free software, you obviously don't have this problem, and you don't need to go crying to your dealer for a more mercyfull license
  14. No dialog should take keyboard focus away from what you are doing
    With all serious desktop environments, you can configure this behaviour, as well as if focus follows mouse, or if you have to click on a window to make it active and so on.
  15. Patch operating system without having to reboot
    With Linux, you only need to reboot if you install a new kernel (you can't use a different kerner without rebooting). For everything else, you don't need to.
  16. Add folder size to data displayed by Windows Explorer
    Wow, it must suck being stuck with a single choice for a file manager (or any other task), and not being able to configure stupid things like that to your liking. Another con of Windows, I guess.
  17. Live CD or DVD to boot from to recover from a crash or virus that would allow to transfer files
    But there is a tool for that task on Windows! It is called "Linux Live CD", and many distros have it. I have read that it is pretty popular among some Windows users: when their system is utterly destroyed, a Linux Live CD can save the precious data in their disks.
  18. Disallow removable (USB/Firewire) drives to default to next available drive letter when the letter is already used by other network drives
    I know the issue of wanting to have permanent names for given devices, no matter what. The solution is called udev.
  19. Windows Mail should be minimizable to the system tray
    I use KMail and it is. Probably Thunderbird is, too. By the way... ever guess how similar to the former two Windows Mail is (by the looks in the Wikipedia article)?
  20. Command Prompt should be improved
    Hehehe. I have no words.
  21. Integrated Anti-Virus
    What is a virus? Please explain, I'm an ignorant Debian user!
  22. More desktop themes should be offered in the default installation of the next version of Windows
    I thought Windows users wanted consistency and simplicity, and everything to look the way uncle Microsoft wanted. In Linux, we have soooo much to choose from. You doubt it? Take a look at KDE-look.org, or Xfce-look.org.
  23. IE direct download - do not download to temp folder
    With any free browser (e.g. Firefox) you can choose the default dir for the downloads, and you can choose for each download where to put it (if you don't want it in the default folder). Is it not like that in IE?

Maybe some slipped through, but I'm too tired to be more throughout.

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handyfloss meets Windows Vista
November 10th 2007

The setup

A colleague wanted to edit a video (actually, three) for a presentation she intended to make in a laptop with Windows Vista and MS Office 2007. The video was a WMV, and the required edition included removing fragments, changing the speed of one of the fragments (and join it back with the others), and adding a soundtrack.

The problem

She could not, for the life of her, edit the damned thing on a Windows computer.

The solution

Why, Free Software, of course.

The motivation of this post

To help dispell two ideas: that "Windows is easy", and that "With Linux, you waste your time finding out how to do things".

The story

Part I - Linux

OK, so I proposed her to use some Free Software called Avidemux. Our first problem was that apparently Avidemux was unable to cut the video in pieces (it crashed at the attempt). After much perusing, and using the humble file command, I found out the reason: the WMV had no playing FPS set. Players, like MPlayer would reproduce it by guessing 25 or 30 frames per second, but editors need a precise value to count on. I readily fixed it by reencoding the video to 25fps with MEncoder:

% mencoder in.wmv -ovc lavc -nosound -fps 25 -lavcopts vcodec=wmv1 -o out.avi

Once a proper FPS given, I used Avidemux to split the file. However, I encountered a second problem: I couldn't split the file anywhere. I could only cut it at points 10 seconds appart. I had to sweat a bit more to fix that, but I also learned something more in the way. Most (all?) compressed video formats use at least two kinds of frames: normal frames and keyframes. The latter are the frames where any player can seek to in the video. According to the man page of MEncoder:

keyint
maximum interval between keyframes in frames (default: 250 or one keyframe every ten seconds in a 25fps movie. [...] Keyframes are also needed for seeking, as seeking is only possible to a keyframe - but keyframes need more space than other frames, so larger numbers here mean slightly smaller files but less precise seeking. 0 is equivalent to 1, which makes every frame a keyframe. [...]

So here you are: the problem was the default value of some variable called keyint. To make the video seekable to any frame (so it could be cut at any point), I set keyint to 1:

% mencoder in.wmv -ovc lavc -nosound -fps 25 -lavcopts vcodec=wmv1:keyint=1 -o out.avi

Once the movie was split into parts with Avidemux, and the unwanted parts were removed, the next step consisted on playing one fragment faster. The problem here is that I don't know how to make a variable FPS video, so we had to make it so all the video played at the same FPS, but a part was faster. How? Removing frames, of course. I used MPlayer to deconstruct the relevant fragment into individual frames (in PNG format):

% mplayer -vo png:z=2 fragment

The command above generates a whole lot of 0000xxxxx.png files, with frames ordered by the number in the filename. Next, I deleted every second frame. How? With a stupid GUI I don't know, but from the command line it is trivial:

% rm -f 00*[13579].png

Now, I just re-constructed the video with half the frames, to get an effectively double-speed video, with same FPS as original:

% mencoder "mf://*.png" -mf fps=25 -o output.avi -ovc lavc -lavcopts vcodec=wmv1

If I am allowed to say it, the effect is really great. You wouldn't tell the sped-up video from the original, except from the increased play speed.

Using Avidemux for joining the video fragments was a breeze, and it could even be done from the command line:

% avidemux fragment1.avi --append fragment2.avi --append fragment3.avi --save total.avi --quit

The last (Linux) part consisted on adding a soundtrack, which Avidemux can do, from a MP3, WAV, or another video. This was easy.

Part II - Windows Vista

OK, the last Linux step consisted on reencoding the video in some format that Vista could read. This was no immediate task, but after some tests, we made it. Windows Media Player could reproduce the movie with no problem.

Finally, we opened the wonderful Office 2007 in the shiny and new Vista laptop, and created a PowerPoint slide to insert the video (the rest of the presentation was already done). Everything seemed to work, but when we played the presentation, we discovered that either the video or the sound could be played (depending on how we had encoded the video in Linux), but not both simultaneously. WMP would play the videos just fine, but the embedded player in PowerPoint would not... go figure why. After at least 3 crashes of Office (yes, Office crashes), some bitching because we could not make any sense of the new Office interface (we are experienced pre-Vista and Linux users, and Windows is for idiots, right? We must be idioter than average) having to stand the fact that the semitransparent border of a window refused to disappear when we closed it (so we kept working with a blue-greenish stripe across a part of the desktop), and one Windows reboot (yes, Vista still hangs from time to time), we managed to insert and play the darned video. How? We just inserted two videos: one for which only the audio was playing, and another one for which only the image was showing. We then make these two objects to kick off at the same time, et voila!. Not the cleanest of solutions, but with Windows "everything just works", right?

The moral

The moral of the first step (the FPS not being set) was that I had to play around for a while with my Linux tools, but the culprit was MS, and their lousy WMV. I have never produced a video with no FPS (and all other necessary metadata) set, because my FLOSS tools do it automatically. Secondly, I didn't waste my time. Thanks to the usefulness of the FLOSS tools, I ended up learning something about movies, FPSs, and that they are required. I also learned about key frames, and seeking and cuting video streams.

On the other hand, for a much simpler job, we spent relatively (and maybe absolutely) longer with Windows, and we did lose our time with it. The problems we encountered with Linux were difficulties of the situation itself: the original WMV was flawed, the AVI we created had too high an inter-keyframe interval... and the FLOSS tools we used helped us fix them and learn in the process. In the case of Windows, the task was so simple, and all the problems we met were created by Vista. We didn't learn anything from all of our struggle, because we only struggled against Windows (the GUI, the crashes, how to encode the video in Linux so that Vista could read it, why the darned Office would not play the audio or the video), not our problem (editing and embedding the file). All the time was devoted to learning how to overcome the limitations and errors of our tool, not to how to use our tool to perform some task, learning about the task itself in the process. Thus, it was wasted time.

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Malware: Vista Capable
January 26th 2007

I read, via Kriptopolis (es), that "Tim Eades, senior vice-president of sales at security company Sana Security said that 38 per cent of malware is already Vista-compatible."

Apparently, and according to an article at ITPro.co.uk, more malware than anti-malware has been already ported to Windows Vista.

Go, Vista, go!

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Window Vista: reinventing the wheel
June 1st 2006

[Last reviewed 12-Feb-2007]

I have read at menéame (Spanish) about a Windows Vista review, and I have decided to comment about it here. The original review (in English) here.

The first thing one notices is the blatant copy of many MacOS (as usual) and FLOSS project (Linux and Firefox) features.

1) The Aero User Interface allows for window transparency. Wow, I'd be hard pressed to name a Linux desktop environment that couldn't do it long ago.

2) You can Alt-Tab (Win-Tab, really) between open windows, having them appear in 3D. This is nice, but similar effects are obtained with 3D-desktop for Linux (only for desktop switching, not window switching), and now with XGL, which I expect to be fully functional much sooner than the Vista release date (mark my words).

3) The desktop supports applets, that, in the long standing Microsoft custom of reinventing the wheel, and then renaming it to pretend it's something new, they call "Gadgets". Such gadgets would be things like calendars, weather forecast indicators, clocks... Such things have been long present in Linux with SuperKaramba, gDesklets, and adesklets.

4) IE7 can now read RSS, and supports tabbed browsing. Again, Firefox supported it long ago.

5) IE7 now supports international URLs, such as www.müller.de. Firefox, of course, already supports them. Moreover, the URL display is not correct in IE7, whereas it is in Firefox (see images below):

ie7

Figure 1: Internet Explorer 7

ff15

Figure 2: Firefox 1.5.0.3

6) IE7 is said to come with anti-phising settings. Firefox already had extension for that, namely Google safebrowsing, Personal Anti-Phising Sidebar, FirePhish Anti-Phishing Extension or TrustWatch Search Extension by GeoTrust.

7) IE7 has a "MSN search" box next to the URL box (IE6 has it too?), but now it permits to add other search engines. Firefox has had it for ages:

ie7

Figure 3: Internet Explorer 7

ff15
Figure 4: Firefox 1.5.0.3

8 ) IPv6 support, I think was present at XP (through obscure commands), now is properly handled. How long has this been correctly handled under Linux?

9) UAC (User Account Control). A garbage far inferior to the user management in UNIX-like systems (I added the boldface bits):

A new User Account Control (UAC) function enables those whose accounts possess administrator-level privileges (or who log on using the Administrator account) to perform actions unavailable to other types of user accounts [it always was like that for UNIX]. Those who lack such rights will be informed that they lack the privileges necessary to run the program [it always was like that for UNIX], and that they should execute it under a different account instead. This doesn't mean logging out and then logging back in is strictly necessary [it never was in UNIX. su to different user, then exit.], though, because those who have access to privileged account information can always use the "runas" [another MS reinventing and renaming, now for sudo] command to access more privileged credentials.

The guiding idea behind this technique is called the "principle of least privilege" [used in UNIX since the down of times]. Under this doctrine, users who normally work on a Windows machine should log in using ordinary user accounts, so that if they contract a virus or other malware, that unwanted software is a lot less able to do serious damage than if they routinely log in using administrative privileges. But Microsoft hasn't taken this principle entirely to heart, either. The first user defined during installation is automatically granted administrative privileges. Worse yet, the reserved account named Administrator is not required to have a password to log into the machine!

Moreover, unless under Windows, in UNIX-like systems different users have different privileges regarding reading, writing and executing not only root's (again, MS renames to "Administrator") files, but also each other's files. Maybe I can read some or your files, but not write to them, maybe you can let me write to some of your files, maybe I let you see what's inside one of my dirs, and open (but not modify) some files in it, and not even open some others.

10) Windows Updates has been improved, but still I can't see anything that Debian APT, SUSE YaST or RedHat RPM can not do. I can't see, either, some things that APT, YaST and RPM can do. I don't know if Window Updates has those capabilities, the review just doesn't mention them.

11) At startup, it checks whether hard disk defragmentation is necessary. What kind of shitty filesystem needs defragmentation nowadays! Journaled filesystems such as ReiserFS and others certainly don't!.

12) I quote: "Some things never go away: even for Windows Vista, installing some new system components still requires a reboot." This is really garbage. In Linux only a kernel reinstall forces a reboot (you can choose not to reboot, just the new kernel won't be active until you reboot).

13) The review spends 7 of its 40 pages commenting games included with Windows Vista (such as Minesweeper or Solitaire, but also a 3D chess game and some others). While critics for that excess should go to the reviewer, not MS, it is still true that with a long overdue OS, any delay that the polishing of the games could have caused would be criminal.

14) I read in the #218 issue of Computer Hoy (Spanish computer magazine), that the Windows Search utility in Windows Vista has been highly optimized. Basically, so far Search looked up the actual filesystem when looking for some file, whereas now it makes use of periodically renewed indexed lists, that say what is where, so the lookup is much faster. While this is a vast improvement, the Unix/Linux users must be far from impressed. The wheel that Microsoft smartasses reinvented here is the GNU locate, an oooold friend of GNU/Linux users. What the Windows Search did, was similar to the alternative program find.

All in all, I would say that they have spent a few years since Windows XP just polishing the look of Vista, and trying to copy what the FLOSS movement has been innovating. To me, an OS should be completely independent of the look of the desktop, or the games it includes, or how utility applications work. But, well, maybe it's just me.

Read also: 20 things you won't like about Window Vista.

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