Use a simple download manager – wget

(Side note: This is based loosely on a previous tutorial about getting PCLinuxOS, which was lacking some important detail and needed to be adapted to more general purposes.  This is the improved result.)

One very common operation in the GNU/Linux world is downloading of the ISO (CD or DVD image) for a given GNU/Linux distribution. Typically, this is around 650 or 700 MB – a sizable download. One of the biggest wastes of bandwidth – not to mention your time and patience – happens when an ISO download (or any other large download, for that matter) is interrupted or mysteriously quits… especially if it occurs when your download was almost complete. If you’re not using a download manager, you’re stuck downloading it all over again from the beginning.

There are a number of graphical download managers available at no cost. Ease of use varies, and importantly, so does freedom of use. That is, some of them are free/libre (also known as open source) software and some are not. The free/libre applications are safer security-wise to use on your system, since their source code is available for the public to scrutinize and ensure that they don’t do anything they shouldn’t be (such as collecting your information and sending it to someone without your knowledge or permission.) But the simplest one of all, in my opinion, is wget from the GNU Project, a well-trusted organization dedicated to producing and promoting free/libre software.  It is safe and also very simple to use, even for those who are scared of the command prompt. There are no unnecessary frills, nag screens, advertisements, registration forms, restrictions, or user agreements in legalese.  It comes with your GNU/Linux distribution and is almost always installed by default.  That makes it very convenient to use.

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No Linus, it’s not about Microsoft-hating

Linus Torvalds says Microsoft hatred is a disease

As time goes on, I like Linus Torvalds less and less. He’s all too willing to allow people to wrongly credit him for the whole free software movement instead of Richard Stallman. He doesn’t actively claim it, but neither does he make any effort to set the record straight when mistakenly given this credit or when erroneously introduced as “the one who started it all.” To add insult to injury, he does this while minimizing the role of the GNU programming and debugging tools that made the Linux kernel possible, the GNU GPL that enabled its popularity, and the entire GNU operating system started in 1984 that it fits into, all while teaching against the free software principles that put all those things in place. He’s happy to have people call this combination “Linux,” rather than GNU/Linux, even though Linux is just the kernel and makes up only about 1/10 as much code as the GNU software in a given “Linux” distribution.

I respect Linus highly as a programmer, and for his contributions to GNU/Linux’ success. But I don’t trust him as my IT morality compass – I think he’s got it wrong and I am not impressed with his lack of integrity either.

Contrary to what Linus would have you believe, this is not about hating Microsoft. It’s about fighting against those who wish to compromise our freedom by actively stifling competitors – especially free/libre open source software competitors. Microsoft has been convicted of a wide variety of antitrust practices, on numerous occasions, by U.S. and E.U. federal courts – and was recently fined again by the E.U. for not complying with the terms of the judgement against them. Just do a web search for “Microsoft antitrust” and see just how far down the rabbit hole goes. Anyone who so actively fights consumer choice is the enemy of the consumers and of the IT free market as a whole. Microsoft is but one exceptional example, but there are many others. And remember, there’s a big difference between hating someone vs. hating what they do.


Yet Another Windows Nightmare, aka YAWN…

Attacks against unpatched Microsoft bug multiply

Any seasoned Windows user will not be surprised that there’s another known Internet Explorer security bug that Microsoft has taken much to long to address. Yes, they have released a little workaround script to temporarily disable the dangerous ActiveX control in question. But as a computer repair technician of many years I can assure you that the article’s assessment of that workaround is quite correct. Most people aren’t keeping up on this sort of thing – especially since it happens so annoyingly often – and are unlikely to use that script, since it requires taking time out of real life to go download and install it.  This, after another similar incident last week.

These frequent opportunities to have one’s computer invaded and/or data stolen or deleted should serve as a wake up call to how truly dangerous it is to run Windows.  With all the spyware out there nowadays, it’s pure lunacy to do online banking or taxes or any other sensitive transactions on a Windows machine any more.  I have had customers tell me horror stories about getting victimized by identity theft after making such transactions, and finding out later that their Windows machine got infected with spyware shortly before it happened.  Danger, Will Robinson!

As a computer tech I can also tell you that by and large the most common repair these days is removal of viruses, spyware, adware, trojan horses, and keyloggers.  I speak as someone who has been cleaning up Microsoft’s messes for a long time when I say it continually amazes me how much time, money, and energy are spent just keeping Windows systems free of malware.  This in addition to the hefty 100 or 200MB service packs one has to keep downloading and installing, and having to deal with sudden crashes so frequent and ubiquitous they earned their own moniker in the computer world – “BSoD” for Blue Screen of Death.  (Here for your viewing pleasure is a video where Bill Gates himself gets hit with one of these at Comdex, a large computer conference… poetic justice, many would say.)

So I’ve used the acronym YAWN here for the reason that these occurrences are the same boring song sung over and over again.  If you’re not fed up by now, you haven’t been paying attention.

When you get sick and tired of being sick and tired, you’ll seek an alternative.

Some people respond to this problem by switching to a Mac.  But I think that’s jumping from the frying pan into the fire.  Part of the problem behind Microsoft’s shoddy software is the fact that they alone control that software, and users’ freedom of choice is the last thing they care about.  That’s why they are far more concerned about using antitrust tactics  to force out competitors (1 2 3 4 5 – oh heck just google “Microsoft antitrust”) than they are about making a superior product.  Now, while Apple’s software is clearly much better than Microsoft’s, they’re worse for user freedom of choice.  This is because, like Microsoft, they have exclusive control over the software – but they also have exclusive control over much of the hardware.  If Microsoft chooses not to remedy a software issue, Windows users are out of luck.  Mac users are subject to that problem too, but worse because the same exact concept also applies to hardware.  If Apple decides it has no plans to remedy a hardware problem (and I have heard various complaints about this), Mac users are out of luck on this front too.  I don’t recommend taking the Apple route, for these reasons.

GNU/Linux is easier than ever to use, and built with security and user freedom in mind.   It has an active worldwide community that provides support and continuous development of free software – “free” as in “freedom” and often “free” as in save your money.


Meeting Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman on the steps of Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada

Richard Stallman on the steps of Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada

Today I went to listen to a talk by Richard M. Stallman, also known as rms. If you don’t know who he is, he is an extremely sharp, witty, and free-thinking programmer/activist who wrote the GNU General Public License – commonly known as the GPL (website), developed the GNU operating system (which the Linux kernel runs inside), founded the Free Software Foundation, and has spearheaded the movement against proprietary software and its restrictions, championing the rights of computer users everywhere.  He helped make software freedom what it is today and paved the way, in both a technical and legal sense, for the Linux kernel to become as popularized as it is today.

It’s important to note that, contrary to popular belief, “Linux” itself is not actually an operating system.  It is a kernel, that is, an interface between software and hardware.  When your software applications or the operating system need to access the computer’s memory, hard drive, or other system resources, the kernel is the part that takes care of those requests and communicates between them.  GNU is basically the whole rest of the operating system, and your applications run on top of it.  What happened is the GNU operating system was developed first, but Stallman and the GNU team had not yet developed the kernel.  Enter Linus Torvalds, another praiseworthy programmer/activist who developed a kernel that worked with the GNU operating system and thus provided the missing piece.  So what many people know as “Linux” is actually the combination of GNU plus the Linux kernel.  Sadly, the GNU project and the vision of software freedom that Richard Stallman has championed, that is, the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve software as one sees fit, are frequently attributed incorrectly to Linus Torvalds (and Torvalds does nothing to correct this, I’ve noticed).  While I have much respect and admiration for Torvalds as a programmer, he was not the author of this philosophy nor the one who laid its foundations.  If we’re going to give credit where credit is due, we should call it GNU/Linux, GNU & Linux, or GNU + Linux.  No, it’s not as short and sweet as just “Linux,” but Linux would be pretty useless without GNU – and vice-versa.

To the layperson, all this may seem like splitting hairs.  But think of a complete operating system like a bicycle.  GNU is the body of the bike; it’s got a metal frame fitted with handlebars, a seat, and pedals.  Linux is the wheels and bike chain.  Without GNU you have wheels, but no useful way to make them roll forward or steer them in the direction you want to go – but those are the least of your problems since you also have no way to make them carry your weight.  Without Linux you can steer and pedal all day, but since the controls aren’t hooked up to anything you won’t be going anywhere.  There’s no interface between you and the ground.

EDIT 21 Jul 2009:  There’s a much more detailed and eloquent discussion of it here.  I realized I also neglected to elaborate on the fact that GNU makes up a much larger portion of the operating system than Linux does.  So you can see why it’s rightfully called GNU/Linux and not Linux/GNU. See footnotes for Why GNU/Linux.

Hearing Stallman speak today, spending time with him and then going to dinner with him, I was struck by his eloquence, humour, generosity, and gentle spirit.  I was inspired by his words to pay even closer attention to the restrictions placed on people by proprietary software licensing agreements, the freedoms imparted by using free/libre software (“free” as in “freedom), and to be more careful about giving proper credit to the one guy who envisioned those freedoms at a time when basically all the software out there was proprietary and closed-source.   Nobody (except him, apparently) really even thought about that sort of thing at that time.  I certainly didn’t, nor did anyone else I knew in the tech community.  It’s difficult to express to those who weren’t there, just how radical Stallman’s views were at the time, and how hard he has worked to raise public awareness to the point that it exists today.  He took the hippie ideals of freedom and sharing for the common good, and applied them to software in ways we had trouble wrapping our heads around at the time.  After hanging out with him, I have to say I’m even more impressed by him than I was before.  It was a treat and an honour to meet him and it absolutely made my day.

Before today, I thought I was already pretty well-versed in the freedom and concepts surrounding free software.  I have been using GNU/Linux since at least 2001, and I had even contributed heavily to a detailed group response when the Canadian government asked for public feedback about the feasibility, pros and cons of free software.  I went to hear Stallman and I got schooled until I was humbled and more than a bit embarrassed.  I found that, even though I may not agree 100% with every single detail of his philosophy and course of action, I can’t help but admire the spirit and ideas behind them and do my best to promote them.  Even if you think you know this issue quite well, it’s well worth visiting the GNU website to read about the four software freedoms he describes and the divisiveness, conflict, bullying and abuse that occur when software users don’t have those freedoms.

Stallman is also very politically active on a variety of other issues, including women’s rights, censorship, privacy, copyright law, the environment, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among others.  His personal website makes for a very interesting read and a real eye-opener on violations of civil liberties.


[GNU/]Linux companies sign Microsoft patent protection pacts

[GNU/]Linux companies sign Microsoft patent protection pacts

What a mess.  Companies should not be forced to choose between facing a Micro$haft lawsuit or secretly violating the GPL and hoping they don’t get caught (thus possibly facing a lawsuit anyway).  All that for using FAT – the old, outdated, not-that-great-in-the-first-place file system which Micro$haft stopped using years ago already, after that “gem” of an OS, Windows ME.   (Windows ME  is widely known among techie people as the most crash-prone, corruption-prone Windows version ever released, and that’s really saying something – especially if you ever tried Windows 3.x or 95 or 98 when they first came out, you understand why.)

I used to get really annoyed at M$ just because of their shoddy software and the nightmares it caused for my family and customers (and okay, for me while trying to fix it all), but over the last 10 years or so I’ve come to truly despise them for their nasty business practices.  I do everything in my power to help people dump the Empire.  My son, my spouse, and my dad are all running GNU/Linux only. I attend GNU/Linux users’ groups, and I help whenever I can with GNU/Linux answers and tips – here and on GNU/Linux help forums all over the web.  M$ needs to go!


Adobe Acrobat critical vulnerability

In case you haven’t heard yet (I hadn’t – I’ve been busy with other technical problems), there is a critical buffer overflow vulnerability in all versions of Acrobat Reader and Acrobat Standard.  This is all platforms, including GNU/Linux, Mac, and Windows.  And get this: it was announced February 19, but it’s not due to be patched until March 18!  This is apparently the latest in a rash of Acrobat vulnerabilities over the last several months.

Adobe’s response is a huge disappointment.  Just about everybody has Acrobat Reader.  So the fact that it leaves a hole for crackers to subvert the system it’s on, regardless of operating system, is a HUGE problem and shouldn’t sit open for a full month as a known, widespread, critical vulnerability with no patch.  Their announcement says they’ll be patching versions 7 and 8 too… and affected versions are “9.0 and earlier.”  Translation: this problem has been around for years – maybe since day one.  They’re just getting around to fixing it now, and taking their sweet time too considering how serious it is.  That’s a little too careless for my taste.  I’ve uninstalled Acrobat for good and will be using KGhostView from now on.  There, it’s patched!  🙂

Here’s how to get your “patch” before March 18:

GNU/Linux:  In the true spirit of open source, has a wide variety of suitable replacements.  Some of the most popular ones are KPDF, Evince, Xpdf, and kGhostView.  Just search your package manager for anything with pdf in the description and you’ll probably have at least 2 or 3 choices, with at least one already pre-installed.  Much better than downloading and installing the ridiculously fat 47 MB Acrobat Reader file!

Mac: There is a built-in PDF viewer, but you’re not necessarily any safer even if you’re not using Acrobat, because of a PDFKit vulnerability.  **UPDATE** – Apple has released a patch – however, despite my best search efforts I couldn’t find a link to post here.  Sorry Mac users, I can only point you to Apple’s main website.

Windows: People on the forums are suggesting FoxIt Reader as an alternative.   Disclaimer:  I haven’t used it, and this program itself had a similar critical buffer overflow issue until May 2008 or so.  But hey, at least it’s safer than Acrobat right now.  Nice bonus:  the file download is a scant 3 MB, compared to the bloated 21 MB of Acrobat Reader.

Be safe!


Getting AVG update to cooperate

EDIT:  I am no longer recommending AVG for GNU/Linux, for 3 important reasons.

First, Grisoft – the company that develops AVG – has discontinued the graphical user interface (GUI) for their newest GNU/Linux version (8.5, as of this writing).  For GNU/Linux newbies, this means no more pointing and clicking to use your antivirus program – it’s all done at the command prompt.  So this essentially eliminates most newbie usage – and newbies are the ones who need the most protection, since they’re not as savvy about keeping systems free of viruses.  I think this makes AVG nearly useless for many GNU/Linux users, and that Grisoft is exceedingly lame for doing it.  This is made even lamer by the fact that they have simultaneously expanded their services for their Windows version.  Industrial strength mega-lame.

Second, the above boneheaded move will surely mean the demise of AVG for GNU/Linux.  The cynic in me suspects that’s precisely what it was designed to do, so they can bow out of GNU/Linux development with a half-assed excuse.

The third reason is the reason behind the second.  If AVG had been free/libre software – that is, free as in freedom – other developers in the community would be free to look at the source code and develop a GUI (or any other desired features) for it, regardless of what Grisoft decided to do.  As it stands, because AVG is proprietary (closed-source) software, when Grisoft decides to abandon it no one else can pick up where they left off.  What good is freeware (software that doesn’t cost money) if you are always at the mercy of the company that developed it?

Since writing this tutorial, I’ve become much more aware of issues surrounding software freedom.  I’ve left it here because the reasons I cited for needing an antivirus on GNU/Linux are still as valid as ever.  I now recommend clamav antivirus, with either klamav or clamtk to provide a graphical interface.  They’re all free/libre software licensed under the GNU GPL, and they’re usually easily installed through your GNU/Linux distribution’s package manager.  I haven’t test-driven the clamtk GUI, but the klamav GUI is very similar to the one you would see in AVG’s GUI – if it still had one.  Ω

Now, I know what you may be thinking… If I’m running GNU/Linux why do I need an antivirus program?  Isn’t that a Windows thing?

But the fact of the matter is that no operating system is 100% safe from viruses.  Just because GNU/Linux is more secure in general, and less people use it so it’s less of a hacker target than Windows, does not mean you don’t need to worry about it.  Moreover, just because you’re not susceptible to Windows viruses yourself doesn’t mean you can’t still pass them from one Windows user to another as you e-mail and share files with others.  The buck should stop with you.  After all, you don’t want to be the Typhoid Mary of the computing world, do you?  🙂

AVG is a popular, user-friendly, and free (as in beer) antivirus program that can be used on GNU/Linux or Windows.  I highly recommend it.  It’s easy to install, configure, and keep updated.  If you want to get it there is a link in the sidebar.

Now, a commonly reported problem when running AVG antivirus in GNU/Linux is that it opens, but when you click Update to get the latest virus definitions, it stops with an error message: “Sorry you do have permission to execute AVG update.”

I used to remedy this in KDE by right clicking the menu button, opening the Menu Editor, finding the application in the list, going to the Advanced tab, clicking Run as a different user, and typing in root as the username.  Then when you go to run AVG it will prompt you for the root password before starting and complete the update no problem.  But there is a more elegant solution.

AVG creates a user named avg and also a group named avg .  If you add your username to the group avg , then log out and log back in, the changes will take effect and you’ll be able to run the AVG update without trouble.

If you want to do this from the command line, you can type this as root:
usermod -A avg yourloginname
or for you Ubuntu/Kubuntu/Mint users:
sudo usermod -A avg yourloginname
In openSUSE 11.1 it can be done through the GUI by opening System -> Configuration -> Yast , then go to Security and Users, and User and Group Management.  Select your username, click Edit, go to the Details tab, and put a check next to avg and click Ok and Ok.  Other GNU/Linux distributions will keep the settings in whatever control panel they have implemented, but the idea is the same.  Find the user and groups settings and add yourself to the avg group.

See why I prefer the command line?  🙂

Now don’t forget you’ll need to log out and then back in and you’re all set.