Hari's Corner

Humour, comics, tech, law, software, reviews, essays, articles and HOWTOs intermingled with random philosophy now and then

A look at Slackware and Debian - part two

Filed under: Software and Technology by Hari
Posted on Fri, Jun 10, 2005 at 09:49 IST (last updated: Thu, May 7, 2009 @ 21:09 IST)

I had originally intended the second part of this article to cover the differences between Gentoo and Debian, but recently I had posted a comparison between Slackware and Debian at LinuxQuestions.org in response to a thread and I thought I should post it here as well, since a kind member responded appreciatively to it. It's rare when you get such praise in a competitive, highly knowledgeable community like LQ, so I thought it would be a good idea to blog it. Feel free to leave your own comments and thoughts as well. I'd be very grateful if you could.

Here it is:
If you are big into the "manual configure" thing and you don't mind the down-and-dirty, often repetitive tasks of installing dependencies by hand, editing configuration files manually and so on, use Slackware.

Slackware is the "hacker" oriented approach to Linux. It's clean and is tailored to allow you manual configuration of your system. GUI tools are minimal for most configuration tasks. There are 3d party package manager tools for Slackware, but your success will be 50-50 with automated tools.

It's logical approach can be easily learnt though, though you might start wearing of installing dependencies by hand as your system builds up ;)

With Debian, you get convenience and power (if you choose to use it). Apt package management will give you 99.99% success if you choose to use only the official repositories and are relatively conservative the chances of breaking your system are nil.

As with Slackware though, system administration can be done manually, but you do have the choice of installing *a lot* of tools from the huge repositories of Debian and this might help to administer a Debian system more easily than Slackware.

Debian == Easier to maintain, upgrade and manage. Suited for general purpose power users with a wide range of needs. If you are the kind of user who wants to constantly keep installing/uinstalling/upgrading/removing software from your system, choose Debian.

Slackware == Suited for tweaking and learning, can be more involved when you upgrade. Suited if you don't need too many applications and if you aren't going to constantly install/upgrade/delete applications. Tailored to be lightweight, configurable and yet powerful.

Both are excellent mainstream distributions each focussed in different areas and each following a different set of priorities and philosophies.
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Hardware Compatibility and Linux

Filed under: Software and Technology by Hari
Posted on Sun, Jun 5, 2005 at 16:36 IST (last updated: Wed, Jul 16, 2008 @ 21:07 IST)

Shopping for computer hardware and peripherals can be a pretty daunting task for most computer users because of the sheer choice of products and the wide range of prices. And this process can be especially daunting for users of Linux. Let me assure you, however, that researching a product before you buy it can pay rich dividends. I can speak from personal experience.

Google can be your best friend when researching for hardware compatibility. I urge everybody who uses Linux to do their homework before purchasing a piece of hardware. And that brings me to the main point of this article: why do hardware manufacturers continue ignoring the Linux end of the market and why they continue to respond so poorly to repeated appeals from the Linux community to provide better support and 100% compatibility with their products?

And believe me, there is no reason why hardware manufacturers cannot provide Linux drivers. Their excuses are pretty lame and dismal. When drivers for Microsoft® Windows® are provided, why should Linux be given shabby, stepmotherly treatment? And yet you have those people who have the audacity to complain that Linux doesn't support their hardware! What nonsense! What utter rubbish! While the best brains of the Linux community are doing their best to get those miserable pieces of hardware to work under Linux by long hours of toil, effort and reverse-engineering, you have people screaming that Linux doesn't work! Ridiculous.

Whatever the reasons for certain hardware manufacturers to turn a blind eye to Linux (and I won't go into that debate here), it is the duty of every Linux user (from newbie to guru) to demand their rights before shelling out the cash. It can be incredibly frustrating to ask your local store dealer/supplier about the technical issues relating to compatibility with Linux (most of them will simply blink and stare at you when you mention the word "Linux"), but there is such a thing called the world wide web. Use it to your best advantage and do extensive research before buying a product. Companies that refuse to support Linux or even allow other independent developers to create drivers for their products can suffer by losing your support. Who cares whether they're the biggest company on the planet? Let self-interest rule your decisions regarding purchasing their products.

Finally, I would like to ask you to sign The Linux Printer Driver Petition targetted at printer manufacturers who continue ignoring Linux. I found the link when I was browsing LinuxQuestions.org today. It won't take a minute of your time so I urge you to read it and sign it.

Please do put your signature on that petition for whatever it's worth. At the very least it will make sure that the voice of the lone individual will not get lost in the wilderness.
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Championing a Cause at LinuxQuestions.org

Filed under: Internet and Blogging by Hari
Posted on Fri, Jun 3, 2005 at 17:03 IST (last updated: Wed, Jul 16, 2008 @ 21:08 IST)

For quite a while now I've been championing a cause at LinuxQuestions.org where I'm proud to say I've been a fairly active member, helping out wherever I can (to the best of my feeble, limited knowledge and experience). And I'm proud to say that I am 100% on the side of Linux. Over a period of time, I've shed my ambivalence and these days I rarely use Windows.

There was recently a debate going on about forum rules and regulations regarding members who use abusive language and otherwise disrupt the harmony of the forum and this led to a more involved debate about whether more or less moderation is required to deal with all the problems. Needless to say, I championed more moderation which was an idea unpopular with the current administration team at LQ.org and quite a few members as well.

This signature which I now use at LQ sums up my recent stand on this issue:
Appeal To All Members: Please do not post Linux vs. Windows threads or tell us why Linux sucks so much. We have heard all these arguments a thousand times and we couldn't care less whether you use Linux or not. This is primarily a Linux help site. If it's help you want, then more likely you'll find the place useful. If you want to rant, you could create your own blog for free!

I am proud to be in the minority, championing a zero-tolerance policy towards spammers and trolls. To my mind, there is nothing worse than abusing a website that promotes an Operating System that is not only Free (as in Freedom) but also has such a number of friendly and knowledgeable users willing to spare their time to promote a cause that is close to their hearts. But let's not take that help for granted. Let's not forget that of the 170,000+ odd members there are hardly a thousand members who actually use the site regularly solely to help others rather than seek help themselves. The site runs smoothly and successfully simply because a small minority of users (compared to the total size of membership) take it upon themselves to contribute.

And yet, there are so many ungrateful wretches who will ruin all this by abusing the help, denigrating Linux and its community or flaming fellow members. The current moderators feel that it's all under control, but I say why should it be under control? Why not stamp out this abuse of LQ.org completely?

Because it is nothing more than abuse, unless somebody seeks help genuinely. While there is a slight leeway to allow debate and discussion on general issues, I believe LQ.org is primarily a technical help site which should focus exclusively on Linux and those who use Linux. It is not there to provide free publicity to all those trolls and half-trolls who relish not only in attacking an Operating System that is based on the concepts of Freedom, but also the community that goes to great lengths to preserve and promote it.

It's like somebody walking into your house and then deliberately and provocatively insulting you. I don't know how many people would tolerate this, but I sure will not tolerate it.

Let's not put up with this continual abuse by adopting half-measures. A zero-tolerance policy will not only establish clear guidelines on what is acceptable and what is not, but also clear the air and make the forum more focussed. It will also be fair on all members and everybody will surely know where they stand with regard to the rules. That ambivalence that is prevalent now will be forever buried and a clear policy will be established thus making it easier for the moderators to make decisions. Debates are fine, but there is a limit beyond which they cease to become meaningful and only promote disharmony and disruption. By weeding out such provocative and repeated topics and preventing their recurrence by closing new ones which spring up from time to time, the forum will become much more focussed and friendly. 60 percent of flaming can be stopped by prevention rather than cure.

And if implementing these policies require more moderators then so be it.
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A progress report

Filed under: Site management by Hari
Posted on Wed, May 18, 2005 at 08:11 IST (last updated: Wed, Jul 16, 2008 @ 20:52 IST)

Another issue of the LiteraryForums.org newsletter and I hoped that by the time I got around to this, LiteraryForums.org would have a shiny new look. Unfortunately this is not the case. For all those of you who have been awaiting this eagerly, I convey my sincere apologies. Hope you can wait a bit longer so that I can sort out a few things.

Let me explain some reasons why this anticipated change hasn't happened yet. Before going into them, let me say nearly 60% of the site has been redesigned off-line. The work then started dragging along and for a couple of weeks then came to a dead halt. I must admit that I was busy with other things. That's just one of the reasons. Another, and more important reason, is my sudden dilemma about the forum software. For several months now, I have been considering moving from phpBB to a different solution. I have already given reasons for this. This not only made me think twice about spending more time in working on something that I considered discarding, this process of downloading, installing, testing and learning other solutions has really kept me occupied in that period of time. But on the whole, I have finally decided that it's best to leave the current setup well alone and continue using phpBB for the time being. Now that this decision has been made, I will concentrate once again on the half-finished redesign work and upload the results as soon I can!

On a different note, my other activities has increased to such an extent that I have really not had the time or energy to participate in the forums. Firstly, maintaining this site is really taking quite a toll on my creative juices. Also my reading has drastically come down of late and I have been unable to contribute any fresh reviews. As a result, I have noticed a drop-off in activity. Again, all I can do is request members to take part in discussions at LiteraryForums.org and keep the community going. Your participation is much appreciated!

Yours Sincerely,

Hari (Forum Host)
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Conflict between style and utility

Filed under: Software and Technology by Hari
Posted on Mon, May 16, 2005 at 17:14 IST (last updated: Wed, Jul 16, 2008 @ 20:30 IST)

Ever since I've got down to redesigning LiteraryForums.org (progress report on this coming up in the next community newsletter!) I've been thinking very hard about a certain issue that has eluded a straightforward answer in my own mind. It's a very simple question. When one gets down to design a dynamic website (in other words, server-side scripted, not static), does style (look, feel and design) come first or is the utility more important? In other words, should the web designer's focus be on style or should the focus be on features and utility? Mind you, I haven't mentioned the word "content" here at all...

Actually one might think that utility comes first. After all, who's bothered about the style of a website? Features should come first, right? For a long time I used to think so too, but these days, I'm not really sure. There are a couple of reasons for my dilemma.

First of all, a unique design certainly helps a website develop a certain sense of identity among your visitors. This is especially true of websites which need a reason to develop a faithful base of users, like a web forum, for its growth. A unique design also gives a sense of pride to you, the owner of the website. Last but not least, it is fairly easy to switch between different styles these days. Most present-generation server-side scripts for CMS, blogs and forums have some kind of a templating system that separates the functionality from the style, thus making it fairly easy to experiment with different styles before coming up with one that you like and can stick with. Almost nobody would use the default templates for most of these pre-built scripts because they end up looking pretty common as thousands of users download and use them (especially with the Open Source scripts).

On the other hand, is functionality as important as is made out to be? I've already mentioned in a previous blog entry (see phpBB: to BB or not to BB) about the disadvantages of "modding" scripts - customizing code and adding extra features and such - because maintaining and upgrading becomes a nightmare. Not only this, but I would add that some of the customizations and feature additions can actually end up adding very little value to a website while at the same time conflicting with a very real yearning for simplicity and elegance in design. A very good example of such a "useless feature" is avatars. Who can think of a more worthless, band-width sucking waste of disk and screen space than avatars: those annoying little images that members choose to place below their nicknames? And yet it never ceases to amaze me how many people consider them as an essential part of an online forum!

My take is that, while I always consider features to be of some importance, the design is equally important. In fact, most of your visitors may not care too much for all those features you might have, but will actually end up with a photographic image of your website design in their minds stored up for future reference. Since the design is the most visible aspect of your website and first impressions count a lot, it is so important to make a visible impression. And if you have to sacrifice a few "features" for the sake of a clean, elegant and (in most cases) professional design, then so be it.

But where does one find this right balance between style and functionality? At what point does a simple, elegant design conflict with "desired features"? I'm afraid I can offer no easy answers to that one.
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Spam Filtering in Google and Yahoo Mail

Filed under: Software and Technology by Hari
Posted on Fri, May 13, 2005 at 16:55 IST (last updated: Wed, Jul 16, 2008 @ 20:31 IST)

In the first place, let me mention that I get very little spam in my mailbox. Probably a couple a week (our ISP account gets flooded with them). So going by that standard, the free e-mail accounts I use are relatively spam-free. It may just be a natural consequence of my cautious nature in keeping my mail IDs fairly private.

Anyway, I have two e-mail accounts which I use. One is with Yahoo and the other is a gmail account. Both have spam filters and from what I have observed, I find the one in google mail to be far superior to Yahoo's "bulk mail" feature. For somebody who expected better results in Yahoo, this comes as a stunning fact. And I make my judgements on hard, practical experience over several months.

I have found Yahoo's "bulk mail" folder to be most unreliable. On more than one occasion, genuine e-mails have slipped through the inbox and fallen into the "bulk" box. On the other hand, spam does slip into the inbox rather more frequently. This has not been a one-time aberration but a regular event. Sure, you get the report spam options, but that's rather like the cure: not prevention. And as they say prevention is far better than cure. Especially when the disease is spam.

On the contrary, google mail's spam filter has been giving consistently better results. It is true that I get a lot more spam on my google account, but the fact is that the spam filter has had an accuracy of 99.99% in detecting spam so far (in my case) and even well-disguised spam mails (with ordinary looking subjects, plain text body with no images) have been consistently rejected. There was just one occasion when a spam managed to slip through its defences, but that's quite acceptable. Almost always I can be sure that the mail I receive in the Spam folder will be spam. With Yahoo, I can never take the chance of trashing my bulk mail before taking a glance at its contents.

An amazing fact, but I would have expected the more experienced Yahoo to be the leaders in this field. It shouldn't really have surprised me, though. It's not just in spam filtering that google has overtaken its competition...

Consider the fact that google has revolutionized the field of free webmail providers. In the first place, they made gmail the exclusive domain of a few beta-testers: making it all the more desirable in the eyes of everybody: a very astute move. Slowly and surely they expanded with the unique concept of "invitation-only" registration. They offered a mind-boggling 1 GB of mail space, which was unthinkable at that time. This has not only forced other webmail-giants like Yahoo to keep up with google as far as storage space is concerned (there were days when 6 MB was considered quite enough!), but google's innovative (some critics might say "gimmicky") ideas have been pushed rather aggressively and rapidly and not the least, the implementation of these ideas have been extremely successful. While Yahoo still keeps displaying annoying, full-blown graphical ads in my mailbox, with google, the annoyances never existed in the first place! Talk about revolutionary: their concepts have really made the competition look bad... and worse, obsolete.

How long google can keep this up is another matter, though. What is undeniable is that they have unleashed new, dynamic forces in the field of web services and one can only look forward to more innovations and advances in the future! I am an optimist and I believe that the rise of google can only mean more choices, higher value and better competition in the field of web services... and its a good thing for all of us.
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