Saturday, November 17, 2007

Is Ron Paul really such an underdog?

I admit it, I'm a Ron Paul supporter.

And while it's hard to do anything on the Internet recently without seeing mentions of Ron Paul, when I'm sitting around watching television or reading a magazine, sometimes I feel like I'm alone in that support. Journalists on every news program use terms like "underdog", "dark horse", and "third tier" when mentioning Ron Paul, and almost invariably preface any discussion of Paul with a reference to his low percentages in polls.

But today I stumbled across an article entitled "Ron Paul is Not Being Included in Polls". Normally, I approach such articles with a healthy bit of skepticism (assuming I bother reading them at all), which is why I was a bit surprised when I realized that the author provided proof to back up his claims! The article provides links to quite a few recent polls performed by the major news networks, and from what I can tell, the author is justified in his claim. Since the numbers cited on the major news programs are often aggregations of such polls, a guy has to wonder exactly how accurate those statistics really are...

I'm certainly not suggesting that there's some sort of vast conspiracy against Ron Paul, but I do think that the news media might be approaching this Presidential race with a certain bias for the "obvious" candidates. Paul was pegged early on as an "also-ran", and the questions asked on poll questionnaires seem to reflect that bias.

It's no wonder that Ron Paul is showing so poorly on these polls. The surprising thing is that, given the questions asked, that he shows up on the polls at all.

I'm looking forward to December 16th, the day on which Ron Paul supporters have organized another "money bomb" fund raising event. If Paul has a repeat of the record-breaking $4.3 million raised on (remember, remember) the 5th of November, it will be considerably more difficult for the media and political pundits to marginalize his campaign. It would be hard to call a candidate that raises over $12 million from individual donations in a single quarter a "dark horse".

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A World Without Walls or Fences (Interlude) — Avoiding the "Windows Tax"

Here's an interesting passage from the Windows Vista EULA (End-User License Agreement):
By using the software, you accept these terms. If you do not accept them, do not use the software. Instead, return it to the retailer for a refund or credit. If you cannot obtain a refund there, contact Microsoft or the Microsoft affiliate serving your country for information about Microsoft's refund policies. See In the United States and Canada, call (800) MICROSOFT or see

Some computer manufacturers like Dell are beginning to offer Linux or other free operating system installations on select computer systems. Even if you're planning on buying a new system that is only available with Windows, however, you still don't have to pay the so-called "Windows tax" if you plan on using one of the free operating systems like Linux or BSD instead.

Before you power up the computer for the first time, call your retailer and tell them you want decline the EULA and return your copy of Windows. They're legally bound by the EULA to give you a refund, though they still might try to either tell you it's not possible or else offer some sort of in-store credit or rebates.

If you stick to your guns, you should be able to get $100 or so back on your purchase, without sacrificing anything.

I recently purchased a new laptop, and decided to take my own advice. After a brief navigation of the Dell customer service phone system, I was placed on hold for half an hour (and subjected to a horribly distorted and static-filled version of the Dell theme song) until a customer service representative became available. After explaining the situation to the CSR (and quoting the pertinent bit of the EULA), I was placed on hold again for 10 minutes while the CSR entered the return into the system. I was told that the refund of $159 would be processed in four to seven business days (though it showed up on my statement in two).

All told, it was a much more pleasant experience than I'd been anticipating. All that was left for me to do was reformat the hard drive of my shiny new (and $159 cheaper) laptop and install Ubuntu.

Next Time: A Newbie's Guide to Installing Ubuntu

A World Without Walls or Fences (pt.2) — Selecting an Operating System

When considering the installation of a new operating system, the first thing to do, obviously, is to pick one. With Windows or Mac OS X, it's a fairly simple choice. Consumers are usually forced into one or the other, depending on whether you're buying a PC or a Mac. Times are changing, though -- it's possible to install Windows on a Mac now that they're using Intel processors, and some manufacturers (notably Dell) are offering Linux installations on select PCs.

With free operating systems, the decision is a bit more complex. There are plenty out there, but the most popular are BSD and Linux. Both of these are Unix-like systems, and while there are some differences, they would likely pass unnoticed by the average user. Each can be installed on both PCs and Macs. BSD is a fairly direct descendant of the original Unix, and its development has been fairly structured. The development of Linux, on the other hand, has been a bit more... organic. It could be said that BSD was engineered but Linux was grown. Neither is necessarily better than the other, though there are plenty of people on both sides who would vehemently disagree.

There are three freely available versions of BSD. FreeBSD focuses on efficiency and reliability, NetBSD focuses on portability (i.e. being able to run on any machine, from your laptop to your Playstation), and OpenBSD is (ironically) obsessed with security. Unless you're concerned that government satellites might be reading your thoughts (in which case you fit right in with the OpenBSD crowd), FreeBSD is probably the best of the three for a desktop operating system, though like its siblings it's really targeted at servers.

Linux is a completely different beast altogether. There are about three hundred different flavors (called distributions) of Linux, though the core of the operating system itself (i.e. the kernel) is essentially the same from one to the next. The primary differences between distributions are the software bundled with the operating system and the community of users and developers that supports that particular distribution.

Linux, in my opinion, is the better choice of operating system for the average PC user for a couple of reasons (other than it's cool mascot, Tux). First, Linux tends to have slightly better support for the more PC-specific hardware like webcams and WLAN cards. Second, Linux is significantly more popular (by several orders of magnitude) with PC users. While "because everyone else is doing it" is usually a poor excuse to do something, there are times when it's a good thing. A larger user base and development community means that any problems with the system will tend to be identified (and ideally corrected) that much more quickly. By far the most popular distribution of Linux for PCs is called Ubuntu. Ubuntu has a huge user base, as well as a regular release schedule.

Ubuntu itself actually has a few variants, the most significant being Kubuntu. The difference between the two involves the last decision that needs to be made when installing a Unix-like operating system: which desktop environment to use.

Unlike Windows and Mac OS X, Unix-like operating systems are not inherently graphical. To get the attractive and convenient windowed interface with which we've all become familiar, BSD, Linux, and their relatives need to run desktop environment software. This is actually a good thing, because it gives the user greater flexibility in altering the computer's interface with a minimum of effort or difficulty.

The two main desktop environments are GNOME (pronounced "Guh-nome") and KDE. The difference between Ubuntu and Kubuntu is that the former is packaged with GNOME and the latter with KDE. Its possible to change desktop environments after installation, or even to install both and switch back and forth between the two. Each has software written specifically for that desktop environment, but again, it's possible to run such software while using the other desktop environment. You'll take a very slight hit in performance, especially when starting the software, but this might not be very noticeable given the power and speed of modern computers. While there are quite a few differences between GNOME and KDE, for the time being let's just say that GNOME is a bit like a cross between Windows XP and Mac OS X, and KDE is more like Windows XP or Vista. Both, however, are much more customizable than Windows or Mac OS X, and can be configured to look and (for the most part) act like either.

The most recent version of Ubuntu family is 7.10, "Gutsy Gibbon". Both Ubuntu and Kubuntu conveniently provide installation disks (free of charge, of course), either through the mail or by download, which allow you to test each operating system before you commit to an installation. I tried each on my old laptop, and found no hardware incompatibilities or other problems. While I like quite a few of the applications written for KDE, Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon feels slightly more polished and complete than Kubuntu Gutsy Gibbon, so I'll be discussing an Ubuntu installation for the rest of this series.

Stay tuned for the play-by-play commentary, with pictures (and maybe even videos)!

Next time: Avoiding the "Windows Tax"

A World Without Walls or Fences (pt.1) — An Introduction to Alternative Operating Systems

"In a world without walls or fences, who needs Windows or Gates?"

I've been running Windows Vista Business Edition since February of 2007. Unlike most people, I actually like it... at least once I turned off the unbelievably annoying User Account Control and downloaded new device drivers for a few components. The search-as-you-type feature in the Start menu and Windows Explorer windows is extremely handy, and the file structure is more elegant (e.g. "C:\Users\username" rather than the verbose "C:\Documents and Settings\username\My Documents"). And Vista is sexy... at least if your system has sufficient resources to run Aero without becoming as sluggish as ticket sales for Lions for Lambs.

But change is inevitable (except from vending machines). A few weeks ago I decided to abandon Windows as my primary operating system. Yes, there are operating systems out there other than the ubiquitous Windows and the Mac OS X operating system that you find on the iMac and MacBook. Most of these operating systems are derivatives of Unix, an operating system developed by AT&T Bell Labs in 1969 and used primarily for servers. The most common of these are BSD and Linux, and they're used daily by millions of people.

Let me toss out some statistics to make this seem a bit more respectable... More than 4 times as many Web servers run a Unix-like operating system. And according to the W3C (the people responsible for developing standards for the World Wide Web), Linux is the operating system of choice for 3.4% of people on the Internet. That may not sound like a lot, but it's approximately the same number of people that are currently using either Windows Vista or Mac OS X.

So Linux machines are as popular as Macs, they just don't have those funny commercials. Oh, wait a minute... maybe they do.

But why, you may ask, would anyone want to install a Unix-like operating system instead of Vista or Mac OS X? Hrm... Well, how about because it's free? That's right, most Linux and BSD distributions are 100% free. (Free to you, anyway... TANSTAAFL applies to open-source software just like everything else, but that's a post for another day.) Much of the software designed for these operating systems is also free (and incredibly simple to install, but more on that later). Or how about because it's more secure? Linux and BSD users don't worry about viruses or spyware, because they're virtually immune. True, part of this is because of the popularity of Windows -- viruses are naturally designed to target the largest possible audience to maximize the mayhem -- but it's also in no small part because the security of these operating systems is simply better.

But surely these operating systems are too arcane and complex to be usable by anyone but technophiles and geeks? Um... not really. Anyone familiar with Windows should be able to adjust to using a Unix-like operating system (or rather its desktop environment, but more about that later) in no time at all. In fact, the differences between Windows and Mac OS X tend to be quite a bit greater than those between Windows and the desktop environments of Unix-like operating systems.

If you're interested, Michael Horowitz has written an excellent and exhaustive non-biased comparison of Linux and Windows. Some of it is a bit outdated, but it is an excellent resource for anyone debating a change in operating systems. There are a few points on which I disagree. The first is the installation of software in Linux. I find installing software much easier on Linux than on Windows, but YMMV. The second is Linux's support of hardware devices, which has greatly improved in recent years. Third is his opinion whether Linux will become a serious competitor to Windows in the personal computer market. He says no, but an ever larger number of desktop users are turning to Linux. Already, as many people use Linux as use Mac OS X. While Linux isn't going to overtake Windows as the dominant operating system anytime soon, if at all, it is already a serious contender.

Next time: Choosing your operating system

Nice Ubuntu Installation Video

For those who don't want to wait for my series, here's a fairly nice video showing the installation process for Ubuntu Linux using the Live CD. This video shows each step of the installation process, but only for a very basic installation. It doesn't discuss partitioning your drive properly, barely touches on using or customizing Ubuntu once it's installed, and certainly doesn't provide any information about some of the more common issues you might encounter, such as installing drivers for unusual video or wireless cards. However, it does an excellent job of demonstrating how simple installing Linux can be.

Since that video also doesn't show off any of Gutsy Gibbon's nicer desktop effects, for those of you who like the slick appearance and graphical features of Vista and Leopard I made this short video of my desktop. (I had to severely reduce the resolution of my screen to get smooth video capture, so what you're seeing doesn't come close to conveying how slick Ubuntu looks on my system. I'm still playing around with my screen capture software, so hopefully my future videos will look better.)

[EDIT: Videos moved to the "Tech" playlist of the Video Player.]

A Preview of Things to Come...

Welcome to WYSIWYB. Here's a brief overview of what you can expect to see here in the coming months...

To kick things off, I'll be doing a complete do-over of the "A World without Walls or Fences" series I began on Facebook back in September, which is a beginner's guide to installing and using Linux on a personal computer. I've had quite a few interruptions since I started the series, so I'm starting over to make it more cohesive and comprehensive. I'll be discussing the shiny new version of the Ubuntu distribution of Linux, "Gutsy Gibbon", and will include plenty of tips and tricks for installing and customizing Linux that Brian P. and I have picked up in the last few weeks. If Vista's security alerts are giving you carpal tunnel, if you're not quite convinced that a Mac is really worth the extra $500 or $1000 on the price tag, or if you're just curious about the not-so-geeky world of Linux desktop computing, stay tuned.

Also, with less than a year until the election, the 2008 presidential campaign is now in full swing. I foresee quite a few politically themed articles in the coming days, both serious and satirical. I've already come across quite a few juicy links and videos that all responsible, informed voters (with a healthy sense of humor) should see before casting their ballots next November.

Finally, the miscellanea... As I'm nearing the end of my last semester as a graduate student (sort of), I may very well post a few articles about my experiences away from the safe harbor of academia. And it's a near certainty that you'll be subjected to rants and musings about life's absurdities or little injustices, comments and reviews of the latest books I've read and movies I've recently downloaded seen, and links to all manner of weird and wonderful things found on the Web (many of them likely to be brought to my attention by the "Wizard of What???", Jamie J.).

So keep watching this spot. You might see something you like. And just to get the ball rolling, here are a few choice videos for your edification and enjoyment!

[EDIT: Videos moved to the "Politics" playlist of the Video Player.]

Check back later for more political eye-candy!