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Linux uptime better?

It is Fri Dec 20, 09:25 and my computer tells me that the last time it was restarted was 339 days and 10:43hours ago. A little investigation as to what went wrong back then that I needed to reboot -- ok, now I remember -- I last installed Linux on this machine on Jan 14, 2002. Though this is not my only computer, it is one that I consistently use every day. Why was I checking? I was considering upgrading to the latest Linux version for no good reason other that I am a bit bored. In swapping stories with other folks running Linux, uptimes of over a year are quite common.

When is the last time you restarted your computer? The sad reality is that most people running leading PC platform, Windows, will be forced to restart several times per day. Even when I was using NT I found myself rebooting considerably more often than when running Linux or Apple OS X. The sections below provide more personal computer anecdotes and insights.

 

Purchasing a non-Microsoft computer is bad for the economy...

I recently got called to someone's house to sort out some computer problems. The first problem was an HP Fax/printer/scanner which was exchanged and then I got it working just fine. The second problem was with the Microsoft "paint" program, which the family had been using for less than a week on their brand new computer when it suddenly stopped working for no apparent reason.

For my first attempt at resolving this I reinstalled the "paint" software from the XP Pro CD; this did not fix the problem. (I am going to continue to call it "paint", because that is what they called it, though technically the company refers to it as, "paintbrush").

On closer examination the failure dialogue pointed to an MFC DLL. Since it had so recently been working on the newly installed system, the best bet might be to "re-install" the XP operating system, hence replace the corrupted DLL with a fresh one. The installation program offered me the default option of "upgrading" the hard drive, and since that seemed most applicable of the offered choices, I went along with their selection. This is of course recognized as using the metaphorical sledge hammer to drive a tack, but in the 20 years that I have been using products from this vendor, the sledge has become a familiar tool. Nearly an hour later, it indicated that it had been successful and offered the login screen. Well, almost -- it wouldn't let me login, because it said that I had not "activated".

Now, I was aware of the annoying new XP "activation" requirement for newly installed systems. But the OS had already been functioning normally, before the "upgrade" so it did come as a bit of a surprise that it would not continue to do so after. We find the Gateway support number and we get into the queue. After the usual wait, I was greeted by a friendly voice on the other end and eventually got to the point where I got to describe what the problem was: namely, why a previously "activated" XP (I am assuming it had been previously activated because it worked without any nag messages, although there was no way that I am aware of to determine this beyond a shadow of a doubt) would request the end user to re-enter the activation sequence on a simple "upgrade" operation. And, where had they written down the activation number in the sundry assortment of (semi-useless) paper that littered the box that the computer came in. After a pause, I was asked to hold.

Minutes go by, and the voice returns instructing me to use the Product Key off the sticker on the back of the computer. I had already done that. But, in case the reader does not know about Microsoft product keys, they are a seemingly arbitrary sequence of 25 letters and numbers which they make you type in when you set up Windows -- without which they refuse to let you use what what you paid for (I may say "seemingly arbitrary", but certainly contrived). So, I pointed out his mistake to him and repeated the phrase "activation key", after a pause, I was asked to hold.

This time many more minutes go by before the voice returns. This time he asked me to repeat the fact that we were using XP Professional for the third time, afterwhich he stated that they as Microsoft's representatives, were not permitted to provide the service of working computer systems to their customers. I paraphrase, he didn't quite use those words, admitting to the truth in that manner might have cost him his job. He confidently stated that the only place where we could get the missing information/activation key replacement, is directly from Microsoft. I reply, "I am loving Linux more and more."

Calling Microsoft's automaton required keying in 50 digits copied from the activation screen of the computer, keying these into the touchtone keypad on your phone (using a telephone with rotary pulse dial? Seemingly their answer is: Too bad! Tant pis! Schade!). If you manage to get all fifty correct, the automated synthetic sounding voice on the other end will pause then respond with 42 numbers which you must then accurately transcribe, key into your computer, whilst holding the phone in the other hand. In the end, if you wanted to have the entire sequence repeated, you are out of luck -- we delayed slightly in responding to the phone prompts at end and within a short number seconds the line went dead. You would have needed to get them to repeat it tediously, six numbers at a time, if you want to verify that you got it right.

Ok, so at this point we were able to login to XP -- great! Next step, verify that the re-installed system files resulted in a functioning "paint" program -- SORRY! After all that, the "paint" program was generating exactly the same error as before. Microsoft's claim that XP Pro represented the pinnacle of their achievements, featuring reliability and ease of use, well, ringing a little hollow...

I am not a novice. And when someone who is as computer literate as I am cannot resolve a seemingly simple problem, in a reasonable amount of time, then how are the masses of people who know considerably less than I, going to fare? I know that I could have reformatted the hard drive and performed what is known as a "clean" install, but that just suggests that my failure was in choosing too small a sledge hammer to drive the tack! Perhaps there are some kludgey repair tools that permit one to bandage a very fragile and brittle system, but I confess that I was not in a frame of mind to search for one at this stage of the game. And if indeed the vendor supplies such a tool, it is akin to them admitting to the veracity of the claims that they knowingly and deliberately release insecure, unstable, virus-prone wares -- a claim made by respected names in the computer security profession.

I felt bad for this family, having spent premium dollars and getting so much trouble in return for it. Yet, rather than completely reformat the hard drive and reinstall a clean XP image on a nearly new machine (with the only motivation being to get their "paint" program to work), I suggested to this family that they should instead switch to Star Office 6, available at their friendly neighbourhood computer software retailer -- Star Office does word processing, spreadsheets, drawing & painting, plus more, including the ability to read and write files in formats that are compatible with other popular software. And, get this -- it works at a price families can afford. (Ok, I was also looking for an "out" because life is way too short for bailing out billionaire software tycoons at the expense of my own kids).

So, to all those folks contemplating a new computer system, you should feel "good" about buying Microsoft's easiest, most reliable product. You will be able to have a good conscience about providing work for so many people who go around getting people's computers to do what they were advertised to do. Mindnumbingly insipid, thankless work. Ok, I mock my own feeble philanthropy -- you might read the sections below for more thought-provoking insight.

 

To Fleece, or not ...

Nearly everyone it seems concedes that the Mac is better. Though admittedly, I have not gravitated easily towards this view, over the years my resistance was being chiselled away by various people in the industry, whom I respected, and finally when I caved in and bought the family iBook.

During the metamorphosis of the system, that is, the transition from the classic OS 9 to 10, I was particularly interested in reading people's comments on the latest Windows and the latest Mac. Though I was myself partial to the likes of Linux & BSD ( the benefits of Linux ), I was also looking for an explanation for the Windows "rise to popularity" puzzle. So, in the search for objective pieces on the two popular desktop computer systems, I came to the conclusion that both sides of the debate has its zealots, though few in the Windows camp come close to the passion of the Mac user. But after reading 'tons' of verbiage on the topic, the most compelling reason to be on Windows that I could find, is that it appeals to the herd instinct in all of us -- why would you want to be doing something different than that which everyone else is doing? After accepting this, the overwhelming clinchers boil down to a few dollars here or there, or the overwhelming number of software applications that target only Windows.

If it really boils down to few dollars of up-front expenditure, then why not add several hundred more dollars to those savings by going to Linux rather than XP? Even if one concedes, I don't, that a Windows system represents a lower acquisition cost, what happens to the argument when you look at a more reflective measure, the "total cost of ownership"? What if you added together all of the money that you spent on upgrades over the seven year life of a computer? And, even more importantly, what if you attached a value to your time, when you spent hours or even days trying to track down that insidious computer problem rather than getting real work done? The balance might tip against the more virus prone, less stable, and the more difficult to use, when this more complete measure of "cost" is accounted for.

And, it begs the question, how many of those thousands of Windows apps are actually worth using? How many have you actually been using? When one boils it down to the subset of apps that one is really likely to use, then we begin to have a more objective discussion. If we are interested in getting to the truth, we must be more even-handed, more open-minded, than we have been.

I recently bumped into this web site. The site's author discloses that he approaches things from the depths of his favourable experiences with the Mac. And, to the point, he has compiled a decent collection of links to articles on the issue. My experiences can concur with much of what is expressed there. Why does user satisfaction seem to be so much higher amongst Mac users?

On the other hand, when we speak of Windows to folks who use that system, the usual response is cynical and pessimistic. When the vendor was taken before the courts in the recent antitrust tribunal -- everyone cheered -- even those who feed at the trough, that is, derive their living from creating software for Windows. The courts are apparently not terribly interested in keeping the playing field level, as it turned out, so the empire continues to grow and people continue to flock to its altar.

Again, I bumped into a web page that describes with good detail the experiences and insights of a non-technical user who makes heavy use of Windows. This is only one page, with a few optional links, but do take the half-hour that it takes to read this -- it is quite good.

I would suggest that a lesson might be taken from all of this: perhaps before we upgrade that system of ours, we need to do a more thorough job of reading about things like user satisfaction; perhaps we should visit the Mac store, besides all the other usual places one might buy computers. In short, let's refuse to get lead down the metaphorical garden path with megahertz sales-speak -- does user satisfaction not have more to do with fewer problems, instead of some inflated theoretical benchmark? Do I care what you buy? -- not really. But, unless you are a lemming, the herd instinct argument falls way too short for a member of a species which, it is rumoured, possesses faculties of intelligence... we do really have a choice, until we refuse to excercise it. In the end, the strength of the monopolist lies entirely in his ability to fleece his sheep.


 

Linux is also more of a technical adventure than the average kid wants, if they just need to get their homework typed in. So, when the University sold off the Apple iBooks at the end of the summer, I picked one up. This is something the kids can use and I didn't need to spend a great deal of time explaining it to them. soapbox


 

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