...making Linux just a little more fun!
By Adam Engel
The KDE and GNOME desktop environments make it possible for people who have no knowledge of Unix or GNU/Linux commands to use a GNU/Linux system as easily as they'd use Mac or Windows for web-browsing, word-processing, email, games and the things most users spend their computer time on. It's only going to get better, and one day many people might know GNU/Linux only through the GUI.
I asked Okopnik, "Do you think this is a 'good' thing, that people are finding out they have an alternative, but at the same time using that alternative almost exclusively on the GUI level, like they would use Mac or Windows? Have you noticed more of an interest in Linux or an enhanced readership since Linux became both market and user friendly? If so, are these new users less interested in the "technical" aspects than in having a stable GUI-based system to for work and email and net-surfing?"
Okopnik wrote, "Actually, this is an issue that I brought up in an involved discussion with the LG staff and the Answer Gangsters (The Answer Gang answers Linux questions sent to us by our readers, and the discussions and the answers become part of LG.) My viewpoint here is that it's actually a very good thing - modulo the awareness that the Command Line (CLI) exists. That is, people are perfectly welcome to come to Linux and use only its GUI capabilities as long as this serves their needs - but when the GUI proves insufficient, the capabilities of the CLI are there, just underneath, providing the perfect security blanket.
"In an article I wrote for Java Developers Journal, I related an example of this. I had a client whose Web developer left them in the lurch with several hundred HTML files without the ".html" extensions. This wouldn't be too bad by itself - renaming a group of files isn't difficult - but the thousands of HTML links within the files referred to those extensionless names as well. With GUI-only tools, this is a nearly-unsolvable disaster. From the CLI, it was a matter of a single short line of code:
perl -i -wpe 's/<a href="[^"]+/$&.html/g' *
"The readership of LG has certainly changed over time. Where we used to get dozens of questions on fairly technical topics in The Answer Gang, we now get only a few - and they tend to be simpler, less technical. The email I get from our readers indicates that there has indeed been a definite shift in the user base; the old Linuxer who would bang on a problem for hours so that it could be reported (and quickly fixed) is being... well, not _replaced,_ but reduced, percentage-wise, as the mainstay of the population. The new user is often just that - a computer user who just wants that email/web/document/spreadsheet processor and maybe a few games on the side. There is, however, a cultural shift that occurs even in those users after a while: you cannot live in a society based on a given moral premise and ignore that premise, or even stop it from penetrating into your life (even if you try to prevent it.) The original "hacker ethic" of Linux lives on, strong as ever in those who use the full extent of this OS, and inherent (and growing, however slowly) in those who use it even without that full knowledge.
I wrote, "I was considering the license for Documentation -- I forgot what it's called..."
Okopnik wrote, "The Open Publication License. There has been quite an evolution of licenses on the documentation side; the OPL is pretty much the last product of it (there are a few others) and is by far the most popular, simple, and comprehensive. The LG remains under it because I did _a lot_ of applicable research."
I wrote, "It almost goes without saying that this article will be 'free' but it's probably a good idea to say it because I've been 'burned' before, as have other writers I know, having articles that were meant to be "free" stolen by publications that charge a fee to readers -- online or off."
Okopnik replied, "This would be a good reason to implement the 'no commercial distribution without prior permission' clause."
I wrote, "Tell me about your experience with licensing and your research. For instance, how does one particular license affect LG as opposed to another?"
Okopnik wrote, "When I took over the E-i-C/publisher slot here at LG, I decided to revisit the decisions that had been made (and cast as procedure) in the past with regard to as many of them as I could find; in my opinion, this needed to be done to keep LG fresh and relevant. One of these was the license under which we accept and publish all our material.
"I had asked Rick Moen, a member of our staff who is very knowledgeable about the nitty-gritty of various FLOSS issues including licensing to comment on our use of OPL; I also threw the floor open to others' input. As a result of the discussion and familiarization with the basic issues at stake, I did a lot of my own research, and came to focus on the OPL (which was the license LG was using at the time) and the CC, the Creative Commons license (see http://creativecommons.org/; I recommend the site highly, particularly their "license-choosing wizard" which helps you pick the appropriate one for your application.) The latter held a lot of promise and flexibility, but in the end, I had to vote /antiquo/; the OPL, with a little clarification, supplied all our needs. The front page of LG now states:
"All content released under the Open Publication License v1.0 (options A and B not applied)
"The clarification in the parentheses was the only thing added. Given that the author of OPL himself, David Wiley, considers it dated (he became CC's Director of Educational Licenses and shut down the Open Content site in 2003), we may well transition to the CC at some point in the future. For now, though, the OPL serves our purposes and creates no restrictions on the author's rights (theirs supercede ours) that I would find objectionable.
"LG's only concern is the right to distribute freely in electronic format. Should you wish to prohibit or restrict commercial distribution, or want to be contacted before anyone converts it to print, we have no objection or concern; in fact, we have no say - and this is what I, in my capacity at LG, see as perfectly suiting our needs. A slightly different attitude than you'll find in a commercial environment, I grant... " wrote Okopnik
I wrote, "This is a particularly interesting/different attitude for a magazine."
Okopnik wrote, "The Open Source culture often produces those. Once money is not the primary motivator, a number of interesting results show up. FLOSS is a social experiment gone successful -> mainstream -> wild, a meritocracy/gift-based culture that focuses on exchanging people's best abilities for community recognition and respect. Part of the secret of its effectiveness is that you can't cheat people out of respect the way you can with money - it can always be lost or withdrawn. Like any other human system, it has its imperfections (see Cory Doctorow's "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" or James P. Hogan's "Voyage into Yesteryear", both of which describe a respect-based system as the basis of an economy), but they're a) usually self-correcting and b) several orders of magnitude less extreme at the edges than what we have now."
I wrote, "It actually brings up the question, "what is a magazine" (online or off)? I always thought of a commercial magazine as a corporation using artists and authors to sell advertisements while at the same time providing a venue for artist/authors' works. But a zine like LG, which provides essential, often crucial information to a specific audience -- i.e. Linux users -- has a unique responsibility as an "education/information venue." By placing author's rights above the rights of the magazine itself, you are serving as a mediator between your audience and the kind of information you offer them."
Okopnik wrote, "/Tetigisti acu/; well done, sir. That is precisely our function and mission. We want to introduce people to Linux, get them to the point where they'll know enough to ask the right questions and to find the answers. This would set off all sorts of alarms for a commercial venture - we are, after all, training our readers not to need us after a while - but I'll happily hang up my editorial hat once most of the world is Linux-competent. :)"
I wrote, "I see LG as a "mediator" between Linux Users and the millions of pages of information pertaining to Linux. At some point an 'editor' is needed, otherwise a reader can just do a Google search on various subjects without a coherent 'theme.'"
Okopnik wrote, "Precisely so. Does it surprise you to learn that I'm a teacher (seminars in programming, network security, etc. for Sun Microsystems and others), and have been, in one form or another, for most of my career? I suspect not."
"What's FLOSS?" I asked.
Okopnik wrote, "An unwieldy compromise of a name that the majority can live with. As you've probably figured from your exchange with Stallman, there's some disagreement about exactly what this whole movement should be called - and Free/Libre/Open Source Software is what we got as a result. Like dead yeast in beer, it's harmless and doesn't even affect the flavor."
I wrote, "Interestingly, or by strange coincidence, I destroyed my wife's Windows installation on a super-powered custom-built PC she uses to run the Maya 3D program (she teaches computer graphics and 3D at New York University)."
Okopnik wrote, "You do realize that Maya is usually run under Linux these days, right?"
I wrote, "Doesn't matter; the university's program is locked into Windows. Anyway, she warned me not to mess up her dedicated Maya machine by 'playing around with Linux' and of course I told her this was an impossibility -- oops. Problem was, I switched, after a year of smooth sailing, from GRUB to LILO and totally corrupted the Master Boot Record (MBR). This brought up an interesting point: virtually no one knows how Windows works. I was able to fix the LILO problem, but I had no idea how to do anything in Windows, nor did many people I called who actually teach courses on the Windows OS. To make matters worse, the only boot disc available was the original installation CD, which you can only access via a password, which we forgot. So, even though we "owned" the system, there was no way of getting in. We had to call in an expert, the person who built the machine and installed the software, the President of Compusoft Computing Systems himself, Philip Keough, who is all of sixteen years old..."
Okopnik wrote, "In an information-based economy, intelligence (and the wisdom to use it correctly) is the winning factor. The side effects still tend to surprise the hell out of people, which makes for interesting food for thought."
I wrote, "I recognized this as an opportunity not only to save my marriage, but to interview a certified computer whiz from the 'younger generation' (painful, those words) who grew up with both Windows and Linux. His high school -- I think the President of Compusoft Computing Systems is a junior -- just provided a Sony VAIO laptop for every student, loaded, of course, with Windows XP. The school was considering GNU/Linux, but decided to go with the 'industry standard.' I asked him if anyone among his hacker friends, not the 'mainstream students,' was into GNU/Linux, which I thought would be the OS for rebellious young geeks. His answer was exaclty 2 out of 2000 sudents, are familiar with GNU/Linux: himself and some other kid who publicly proclaims 'give me Linux or give me death' but secretly runs Windows 2000 as his main installation. I asked Philip why this was so, why kids at such a young age would want to feed into the 'industry standard' way of life. His answer was that Windows felt more "professional" just as Adobe Photoshop was 'more professional' than The GIMP. So much for garage-band rebellion and the Ramones...
"If what he was saying is true, and Mac is viewed as something for graphic artists, like the old SGI, but otherwise obsolete, then there is only one operating system on earth, and it's a damned bad one," I wrote.
Okopnik wrote, "You have to remember that the OS competitive arena is the entire world, while what you heard was a single opinion from a single person in a single location. Furthermore, if he had said 'Windows can do X, Y, and Z whereas Linux can't', or 'the software that we're mandated to use requires Windows', well and good (although I don't think that it's possible to defend the first argument); since his entire area of focus is on how an OS 'feels', then he's off into mysticism as opposed to rational judgement."
I wrote, "So, in reference to your LG audience: is GNU/Linux just a toy that hackers boot on week-ends to unwind, or is it viewed as a genuine alternative to Windows? The feeling I'm getting, or I was getting from Philip, is that even the most dedicated GNU/Linux enthusiasts share their hard-drives with some version of Windows for use in the 'real world.'"
Okopnik wrote, "Well, let's see. Many schools, hospitals, and government installations in India run Linux. Same for South Africa. France has passed a law that says "Open Source is to be implemented whenever possible"; Brazil, which was 8% of Microsoft's business a couple of years ago, has followed suit. Germany has been using Linux in their security departments, and is now implementing it at every level - federal, state, and local. China has decided that it's their official OS; Korea and Japan have joined them in investing several billion dollars in FLOSS software development recently. Most of South America is switching, led by Peru (Dr. Villanueva Nunez, a Congressman, responded succinctly and brilliantly to the fear-and-doubt tactics that Microsoft tried to sow when the decision was made; the translation can be found in many places on the Net.) This is just off the top of my head; there are many other countries which have decided that FLOSS simply _works_ for them (generally by making them competitive in the world market and removing an unnecessary barrier to their pool of talented but poor would-be techies.)
"Special effects - in e.g. Titanic, Shrek, The One, and many other movies - are being done on Linux, simply because you _can't_ build a real server farm for crunching serious processing under Windows (incidentally, one of the most powerful computers in the world is a massively-parallel rig built by students in Australia. Guess what it runs?) The overwhelming majority of Web servers on the Net run Linux - and many of those that don't are running Apache, a piece of FLOSS software.
"I hope these random examples begin to add up to a coherent picture. I couldn't even start to draw an outline of just how huge and pervasive the entire FLOSS penetration into the OS market actually is," Okopnik wrote.
Okopnik added, "Mac's gone FLOSS. Well, almost completely, anyway: the base of Mac OS/X is another free Unix, BSD. The only part they haven't really opened is their desktop manager (if I recall correctly, it's called "Aqua") - but you can run plain ole' X on Mac hardware, and it's available right from Apple's site. What's more, Apple has been edging toward releasing the older versions of Aqua as FLOSS; their real edge has always been as a great hardware and User Interface (UI) company anyway, so they wouldn't lose anything.
"A lot of FLOSS software, unsurprisingly, can be compiled to run on OS/X; the instructions for doing so are, again, available on Apple's site - and so it a lot of already compiled FLOSS. Did I mention that we're taking over the world? :)," Okopnik wrote.
I wrote, "But Mac long ago ceased to be any kind of real competitor to Windows. Like the old Soviet Union kept the U.S. in check and vice versa. Now the U.S. is a Monopoly run rampant -- like Microsoft. A closed system is a closed system. The rest of the world, developing better software on Linux, will catch up while Microsoft, who keeps its position only through use of 'force' will wither up and die," I wrote.
Okopnik wrote, "Is it as obvious to you as it is to me and many others? I don't understand why more people can't see that basic fact - other than simply not knowing or understanding the issues."
I wrote, "I came across this quote by Stallman on the gnu.org site (www.gnu.org/thegnuproject.html):
'The "Linux" magazines ... are filled with advertisements for proprietary software that works with GNU/Linux. When the next Motif or Qt appears, will these magazines warn programmers to stay away from it, or will they run ads for it?'
"Response?" I wrote.
Okopnik wrote, "As it happens, LG is the one Linux publication that does not accept advertisements, and therefore does not follow Stallman's dictum; we prefer to remain totally unbiased (except by our own personal prejudices, of course. :) I have to agree that commercially-driven magazines do have their bottom line to consider; perhaps not above all, but it is a very strong motivating factor. I'll admit to being actually shocked for about 30 seconds when I saw a Microsoft ad in the Linux Journal... but sober consideration prevailed. There's no reason that they shouldn't have - the ad said nothing derogatory about Linux and was placed in the more-or-less correct market for MS's purposes - but it did make for an interesting contrast.
"For the people who were outraged by this - and judging from the comments on Slashdot and elsewhere, many were - I'd suggest considering the following Buddhist koan:
"'Always meditate on whatever provokes resentment.'
"Very interesting questions can be found in the moment between the emotional response and the reaction..." wrote Okopnik.
I wrote, "Sometimes I wonder if I should be writing two different articles, the GNU Story, and Everyone Else's. They're kinda picky with their "GNU/Linux" not "Linux" and initially boycotting KDE because qt was "proprietary" but I guess you need people like that, people who are ready, willing and able to go 'all the way' to get a movement started. If you don't mind me 'requoting' you from the previous section of this article:
'We _need_ our radicals. They're ugly, scruffy, pushy, aggressive, loud, and unfit for normal humans to associate with - but, O Ghod do we need them! They sacrifice themselves on the altar of whatever the hell their passion may be; they give up their right to be seen as "normal", and make of themselves targets at which the majority of society will fling rocks and garbage - and we, the human race, get to move ahead just another tiny notch for each one of them. Granted, there are radicals on either side of the fence - and lots of different fences - but the total vector of these little steps *is* in the direction of progress; another pragmatic belief of mine, and although I won't go into the philosophical ramifications of it, it can be summed up as "'good' is just another way of saying "pro-survival".' -- Ben Okopnik. That's you," I wrote.
Okopnik wrote, "I might add, 'Listening to these folks, however, _does_ require turning down the volume and intensity controls, and keeping a supply of large grains of NaCl handy. :)'"
I wrote, "I just want this article to introduce GNU/Linux to people who aren't aware that it's a valid option -- especially now that KDE and GNOME provide GUI 'desktop environments' that anyone can use. Good to know know LG is sticking to the straight and narrow regarding advertisements for proprietary software, though."
Okopnik wrote, "Well, we don't have an articulated social contract the way Debian Linux does (http://www.debian.org/social_contract), but we do have our priorities. 'Making Linux a little more fun' does not mean distorting the truth for profit - and that includes being cautious with regard to slippery slopes."
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. It is free to distribute, reproduce or modify with the author's consent. Read more about licensing software, text and documentation at http://www.creativecommons.org.
Adam Engel has published poetry, fiction and essays in such magazines and
periodicals as Counter Punch, Dissident Voice, Online Journal,
Strike-the-Root, LewRockwell.com, The New York Art Review, The Concord
Journal, The Middlesex News, Accent, The Littleton Review, Ark, Smart
Shoes, The Beacon, Literal Latte, Artemis, The Lummox Journal, Fearless,
POESY, The Half Moon Review, Art:Mag, Chronogram, Gnome and others.
Adam Engel's first book of poetry, Oil and Water, was
published by Maximum Capacity Press in 2001. His novel,
Topiary, will be published by Dandelion Books in the
Spring of 2005.
He has worked as a journalist, screenwriter, executive speechwriter,
systems administrator, and editorial consultant, and has taught writing at
New York University, Touro College and the Gotham Writer's Workshop in New
Adam Engel's first book of poetry, Oil and Water, was published by Maximum Capacity Press in 2001. His novel, Topiary, will be published by Dandelion Books in the Spring of 2005.
He has worked as a journalist, screenwriter, executive speechwriter, systems administrator, and editorial consultant, and has taught writing at New York University, Touro College and the Gotham Writer's Workshop in New York City.