Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Distro-hopping

Jul 08, 2014 GMT

I know several people who make a habit of changing distributions every few weeks. They install a new distribution, and for a few days they have nothing but praise for it. But the honeymoon soon ends, the complaints start, and they are back hunting for the perfect version of Linux.It's a cycle that remains foreign to me. My first distribution was Mandrake, but I soon settled on Debian, and, fifteen years later, at least three-quarters of my computing remains on Debian. Partly, the choice was due to the fact that I worked for two Debian-related startups in a row. However, the main reason was that Debian fulfilled all the requirements I wanted in a main workstation: it was stable, and had a...
Fifteen years in free software

Jun 30, 2014 GMT

Fifteen years ago this week, free software became a major part of my life. It was a change that took me to places I never imagined, and introduced me to people I otherwise would never have met, almost none of which I regret.At the time, I wasn't a complete stranger to free software. I had tried installing Linux a couple of times without any success. My last contract, too, had been documenting a Slackware system, even though it had been described to me, somewhat misleadingly, as a type of Unix.Then, I went to an apparently routine job interview that turned out to be for a writer for a new distribution. By the time the interview was over, I had fallen down the rabbit hole.As Stan Rogers...
The verbal and the visual: why the Fedora installer doesn't work

Jun 27, 2014 GMT

Last week, I did a fresh install of Fedora for the first time in several years. The installer, I noticed immediately, had become an example of minimalism -- that is, its screens were heavy on the visual and as light as possible on the words. Almost immediately, I found myself fumbling, trapped in an presentation of information that was foreign to me, and wondering how intellectually limited I must be that I had trouble with such a simple design.At first, I thought the problem was that I am far more verbally oriented than visually. Unlike many people, I never thought found the Debian installer that difficult -- even before the current version was introduced. If anything, the Debian...
Choosing an email reader for encryption

Jun 18, 2014 GMT

Most modern email readers support encryption, but that's only half the story. Despite the growing public interest in security and privacy, most readers are still designed on the principle that if you want encryption, you will have no trouble figuring how to configure it.To say the least, this is an ungrounded assumption. All too often, poor documentation and interface design, as well as complicated procedures conspire to keep encrypted email out of the reach of all but the expert or patient few. A little research may tell you that you need a PGP public key, but how easy is it to made your email reader aware of the key?Here's how seven of the most popular email readers on Linux answer that...
Why instructions are not enough for promoting email encryption

Jun 10, 2014 GMT

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) took a step in the right direction when it recently released Email Self-Defense, a guide to encrypting email using Enigmail and GNUPG. More screen shots might improve it, but on the whole it's a clear and well-organized explanation of a topic that puzzles even some intermediate users. I suspect, however, that to get people to encrypt email is not so much a matter of releasing clear instructions -- many of which already exist -- as a matter of overcoming deeply embedded attitudes.Admittedly, privacy and personal security have become popular topics in the media over the last couple of years. However, to conclude from this popularity that people actually...
Finding a DRM-free replacement for Firefox

May 30, 2014 GMT

By now, you may have read Mozilla's reluctant decision to ship with the ability to support Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) in Firefox. You may have read, too, the Free Software Foundation's condemnation of Mozilla's decision. Consequently, you may be starting to look for a DRM-free replacement for Firefox.Mozilla's announcement seems to have caught many projects off-guard. However, here are five leading alternatives: SeamonkeySeamonkey bundles a web browser, mail reader, HTML editor and chat application all into one. The project has close ties to Mozilla, and its browser is based upon a relatively recent version of Firefox.Seamonkey did not reply to my request for comment, but its...
The mysteries of positioning pictures in LibreOffice & OpenOffice

May 25, 2014 GMT

Positioning picture has been a problem ever since LibreOffice and OpenOffice were OpenOffice.org -- and possibly before. Inserting graphics is no problem, but try to anchor, align, or indent, and the picture changes position, sometimes by a matter of centimeters, but just as often jumping to a different place entirely on the page, leaving users frustrated and uncertain about the solution.Over the years, some palliatives have been discovered. Power Users know that things are more likely to go wrong with the default anchor, To paragraph, and will replace it with As character instead. Often, too, users are unaware that adding a caption throws a frame around a graphic, and choose one when...

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