Playing with Linux

In the last few months, I’ve been playing with Linux.  It’s fun to see a different way of doing an operating system.  It’s surprising to see what can be accomplished through an open source project.

Linux is slicker than I expected.  I thought it would be difficult to use.  Instead, Linux feels like it is well on its way to becoming an operating system that ordinary people can use without having to worry about technical issues.

What are some easy ways to install Linux?

Use Wubi to install Linux

Wubi is an Linux installer that you can run from Windows.  It takes a while to run because it has to download the Ubuntu Linux operating system.  This is equivalent to downloading a CD.  The installation does not wreck your Windows system.  When you boot up, you can choose to run either Windows or Linux.  If you choose Windows, you can keep working as you always have in Windows.  If you choose Linux, you can start working in your shiny new Linux operating system.  I had to futz around with a few settings to make everything work smoothly but it wasn’t too hard.

The cool thing about this method of installing Linux is that there is little risk.  You can always get rid of your Linux installation by unistalling Wubi from Windows.

Use a virtual machine to run Linux from inside Windows

A virtual machine is a program that pretends to be a computer.  I installed VirtualBox in Windows and then installed various Linux operating systems into VirtualBox.  The virtual machine (in this case, VirtualBox) enables me to use Linux and Windows at the same time.

If you want Linux to have full access to the power of your computer, then I recommend the Wubi dual-boot method.  If you want to simultaneously use Windows, then I recommend using a virtual machine.

Which flavour of Linux?

There are many flavours of Linux out there.

Probably the easiest and one of the best supported versions is Ubuntu Linux and that’s what I would recommend for ease of use.  With Ubuntu, you can use the Wubi installer and it seemed to work well with very little fiddling.

Another popular version is openSUSE, which seems to have a more comprehensive package of software. Nevertheless, I had to mess with it to get the sound working properly.

Linux will continue to evolve over time and who knows which version will win in the long run?  My philosophy is to use a version that is popular.  The popularity of the version is an indirect indication of how well that version is supported and how stable it might be.  In addition, the popularity means that it is easier to get help on the internet when required.  For the last year or so, Ubuntu has been winning.

If you’ve been curious about Linux, then I recommend that you give it a try.

Computer intelligence surpassing humans in 30 years?

The IEEE Spectrum magazine has an entire issue devoted to evaluating the likelihood of a technological singularity within the next 30 years.

First, what is the technological singularity? Some people, such as Ray Kurzweil and Verner Vinge project that technology will advance to a point where computers will surpass human intelligence. This will create an acceleration of technology because computers will redesign better and better versions of themselves. Not long after this, technological intelligence will far surpass human intelligence. This is called a singularity because it becomes impossible for our human intelligence to see the outcome of such a technology.

The IEEE Spectrum is an interesting place to read about the singularity because the IEEE is run by engineers, the people closest to the technology that could make the singularity happen.

The articles in the Spectrum range from skepticism to expectation of the singularity. The magazine polls a number of technological thinkers that have a broad range of opinion. Most think that Moore’s law (the doubling of computer power every two years) will stop in the next 10 to 30 years. Most think that the technological singularity will or could possibly occur, but most think that it won’t happen within the next 30 years. Opinions range from 30 years to 70 years to distant future to never. Ironically, Gordon Moore, the author of Moore’s law believes that the singularity will never happen.

Personally, I found Rodney Brooks‘ article the most interesting. One of his observations is that computer intelligence probably won’t surpass human intelligence because we will be upgrading our own intelligence at the same time. For example, I want a brain implant that includes a face and name database of every person I’ve met.

Elegant design from the evil empire

Microsoft Reader

I’ve been interested in ebooks for a while and am convinced that eventually they will become common. People will get used to reading books on portable devices with screens that look better and cost less than the screens we have today. I don’t think that paper books will go away but ebooks will become more common. I like the idea of being able to read free books on a device and being able to carry hundreds of books at a time.

Lately, I tried out a number ebook readers for the PC including:

Surprisingly, I found that Microsoft Reader provided the best reading experience (see the scaled-down screenshot above). It feels natural to read this way. For an easily distracted person, like myself, the strength of Microsoft Reader is that there are so few options and that these options are not visible during the reading experience. For example, there are about five choices for font size so I don’t find myself toggling between incremental sizes. I can’t even choose the typeface. This may seem like a fault but it works for me. I didn’t find myself looking for additional features and that’s what I want when I’m reading. If anything, this feels like Apple design. Instead of giving the user control over every knob, aesthetics take precedence.

I found that eReader provided the second best reading experience. The main problem with eReader is that it is centers around the Palm operating system and is unlikely to win the ebook format war.

Mobipocket provided rich control over the reading experience. Some of the user interface is more awkward than necessary; it isn’t possible to hide the menus while reading; and, the most important options (such as font size) aren’t available on those menus. That said, Mobipocket provides a reasonable reading experience. I like this format because it isn’t locked into a particular operating system and it has a good shot in the near term at becoming the dominant format for ebooks.

I like the idealism of open-source software but FBReader is clunky and doesn’t work with many of the most common portable devices.

Adobe Digital Editions is just bad. It runs awkwardly slow and it focuses on the PDF file format. I like PDF for capturing material originally on paper (I have many hundreds of technical papers in PDF). That said, PDF is typically not formated in a way that is easy to read on a computer screen. As strong as the PDF format is in the world today, I can’t see the current form of PDF becoming the dominant way to read ebooks. If you are going to read a PDF, stick with Adobe Reader. It’s probably on your computer already.

The most annoying thing about ebooks today is the barrage of options that include varyingly evil forms of digital rights management (DRM). I wouldn’t recommend that you buy any form of ebook with DRM unless you also accept that you may lose access to the book in the future. For example, many DRMed ebooks will only work on one kind of device. Some DRMed ebooks will only allow you read on the particular device that you used for the original download. This problem with DRM is as big as the problem of reading on screens that look worse than paper.

Ebooks have a long way to go before they achieve large scale acceptance. In the meantime, I’m going to play around with reading a few ebooks on my laptop. Right now, I’m reading Accelerando by Charlie Stross (and have been for the last year or so). The convenient thing about reading this book in ebook form is that I can quickly search for the names I’ve forgotten since the last time I put the book down. If you are interested in reading a mind bending book about our possible future, then I highly recommend Accelerando.