Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Booting from a USB drive and other imponderables

Sep 13, 2010 GMT

It started out such a good day. Then I came face to face with ignorance.I set out this afternoon to buy a netbook computer, in the hopes of taking advantage of the back-to-school sales. I came armed with a USB drive with a bootable copy of GNU/Linux on it. Rather than buy a computer and take it home, only to haul it back if it didn’t run GNU/Linux, I planned to start it from the USB drive in the store first.In case you are unclear on a concept, when you boot from a USB drive, it takes the place of the hard drive. Nothing is installed on the hard drive, and nothing is deleted. Remove the USB drive, and, the next time the computer starts, it boots normally from the hard drive. The only...
WriteType and the philosophy of educational software

Sep 09, 2010 GMT

As a writer, I have a weakness for word processors. The announcement of a new one leaves me slavering to try it. But new word processors are rare these days, so when I saw an announcement for WriteType last week, I immediately downloaded it. However, despite some interesting intentions and features, WriteType is still very much in beta -- and very pssibly misses an important point as well.Max Shinn, the lead developer, began WriteType when his mother, an elementary school teacher, told him about a proprietary hardware word processor for beginners whose main selling point was word completion. Shinn's response was to begin development of WriteType, which he describes on the project's home...
The Gnashing of teeth

Aug 30, 2010 GMT

With the rise of the HTML 5 video and formats like Google's WebM, Flash may be on the way out. But for now, it remains the dominant format for viewing videos on the web. Consequently, from a desktop user's perspective, few free software projects are as important as a free-license Flash player. And that, in turn, is why the announcement that GNASH .8.8 was released last week, and is supposed to be compatible with all Youtube videos is important news -- and disappointing when it proves not to be completely true. Not, you understand, that I would be unduly disappointed if I could never read the latest stupid video posted on Facebook. In fact, in some moods, I believe that the productivity of...
Debian: Yesterday's Distribution?

Aug 20, 2010 GMT

The latest Debian Project News recently announced a code freeze in preparation for a new release by the end of 2010. It's a sign of the times that the news went mostly unreported. Which makes me wonder: What is Debian's role today?There's no doubt that, in most people's minds, Debian no longer occupies the place it once had in free and open source software (FOSS). Five or six years ago, upcoming Debian releases, or elections for Debian Project Leader were major news in the community (I know, because I covered them). Now, few of the news sites gives much attention to either event.Partly, this change is due to shifting priorities. The emphasis in FOSS today is on usability, and Debian...
There's more to FOSS than the Linux Foundation

Aug 12, 2010 GMT

As a Canadian, I'm always irked by airy statements by Americans that they won World War II. Yes, the Americans entry into the war was decisive, but their side was not called the Allies for nothing, and many other countries contributed to the victory or at least kept the fight alive in the years before the United Stated joined in. With all respect, I feel much the same way about the recent interview on Wired.com with Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux Foundation/Published to coincide with this week's LinuxCon in Boston, the interview begins by describing Zemlin as "part legal guardian, part keeper of the flame. The non-profit foundation he runs is charged with promoting...
The Girl with the PGP Encryption Programme

Aug 06, 2010 GMT

Earlier this week, a neighbor loaned me Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the mystery that everyone seems to be reading this summer. Mostly, it's an intelligent light read -- even if the climax does occur three-quarters of the way through-- and the book is very lucky in its translator, Reg Keeland. However, my enjoyment is diminished by the sometimes less than expert treatment of computer security issuesLarsson gets some things right when he discusses computers. His detailed stats for a state of the art Mac in 2005 sound correct to my memory, and his assumption that most people do not protect their computers with a password, much less any other security measures is --...
Privilege and free software

Jul 31, 2010 GMT

Over at the Geek Feminism site, a discussion is going on about an article entitled, "If you were hacking since age 8, it means that you were privileged." As I usually do with anything remotely connected with computers, I immediately started wondering how I could apply the topic to free software. Specifically, is free software the product of privilege? Or does it work against privilege? My tentative answer is that free software is a paradoxical combination of privilege and resistance to privilege.As you might guess from the title, the article on Geek Feminism points out that, anyone who is an adult today who had early access to a computer probably comes from a middle class or...

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