Monday, May 31, 2010

The week that was #16

A netbook, a computer near-illiterate and Ubuntu

I think I mentioned in one of the blog posts that I was looking at buying a netbook; well, I’ve done just that. To be precise it’s an Asus EeePC model 1001P, and it’s black (ish), tiny and was scarily inexpensive (all of $379) considering what it can do.

Having bought the device, though, was only half of the plan. The other half involved something called Ubuntu.

What the bloody hell is Ubuntu?

Well, the wikipedia entry can tell you more than I can be bothered paraphrasing, but – in short – it’s an alternative operating system to Windows that you can use to run your PC.1

1I have no idea whether, if you’re a Mac user, you can use it on your Mac; I don’t know many Mac users and none of the few has ever expressed a distaste for their OS the same way many PC users express their distaste for Windows – and Microsoft in general.

What’s the difference?

To be perfectly honest I have almost no idea, other than that Ubuntu is a Linux-based system, and Linux works differently – I guess the best way to explain how it differs from Windows is to use an example: if Windows runs on petrol then Ubuntu runs on LPG – but keep in mind that’s only a very simplistic comparison because there are other significant differences between petrol and LPG that aren’t relevant to comparing Windows and Ubuntu – and vice versa.

But it's about as effective an analogy as I could come up with. If you don't like it, feel free to provide a better one.

Why would I want that?

Partly because it’s something I’ve read some articles/blog comments etc. about and wanted to learn more; partly because my interest in computer ‘stuff’ has increased over the years, mostly because of what I do at work; and partly because Ubuntu is what they call open-source software and – this is where it gets interesting – it’s all completely free to obtain and use.

The free part is kind of redundant because the netbook came with Windows XP already on it. But it didn’t come with very much else, and I wanted a word processor and a spreadsheet program (i.e. something like Excel) and, being a cheap bastard, I didn’t want to pay however much Microsoft Office is charging these days.

Ubuntu comes with a ‘bundle’ of programs – video player, music player, social media integrator, Firefox, pretty much everything you need as well as the Open Office suite of programs – basically the open-source equivalent of MS Office. I’ve not really spent that much time on either the word processor or the spreadsheet programs, but from what I can tell they’ll be able to do exactly what I, a low-end user, need them to do – i.e. very basic writing and keeping track of my itinerary and spending habits.

So I pretty much thought ‘what the heck?’ and decided to give it a try. Since the netbook was new and had nothing whatsoever saved on it it wasn’t as if I was going to be risking losing anything important if I screwed it up completely. Sure I’d be out $379 if the whole thing went completely tits-up, but from what I read that seemed reasonably unlikely – especially considering I’d be taking the ‘dual-boot’ option – something I’ll explain in the next section.

At the very worst I’d still have a netbook that I could carry around and write reviews on, as well as take with me on holidays to use for writing and sponging free wireless internet with. Yes, I’d be a failure as a wannabe computer nerd - but surely there are worse things to be...

The joy of installation

This is where it starts to get interesting, because the standard Ubuntu package comes on cd – and netbooks don’t have a built-in cd drive; if you want one you have to buy one separately (which I didn’t do). But you can do it with a USB after you download the package either via Torrent or from the Ubuntu site (I did the former). Getting it to work, though, is a bit more fun since you’ve got to interrupt the boot-up process so you can tell it to read the USB rather than the hard drive.

That took a few goes, mostly because none of the instructions I could find could specify exactly which button (out of several options) so I was hammering away on all of them until I got to where I needed to be.

Installing is pretty straightforward: you work your way through selecting options like language and location and so forth – but then came the important part, which was choosing whether to erase the existing OS (Windows XP in my case) and using only Ubuntu, or going for the dual-boot option.

Dual-boot is like it sounds – you have both OSs on your hard drive and when you switch your computer on you just choose which one you want to work with. Yeah, it’s like wanting to have one’s cake and eat it to, but since I wasn’t that sure I wouldn’t do something that’d completely screw up the Ubuntu install I wanted to have a backup option so that the netbook I’d just bought wouldn’t end up a largish Asus-branded paperweight.

However, for whatever reason, I got the installation part and it wasn’t giving me the options I was expecting to see – it was telling me that I could only either go all-Ubuntu, or choose to manually partition my drive.

Where the bloody hell was the side-by-side dual-boot option everyone described?

After much Googling, no small amount of swearing, and trying – without really having any idea what I was doing – to manually partition the drive to set it to what was being described by other users, I decided I would just bite the damn bullet and go for the Ubuntu-only option and wipe Win7 completely. However, this time when I got to the partition option, it was presenting me with the previously-absent option of side-by-side installation.

Apparently, my ham-handed attempt at manually partitioning had changed the drive into whatever it was the installer wanted to see. It kind of begs the question of how I’d managed to get it out of that state in the first place, since I had – as far as knew – done almost nothing to the machine other than register my copy of Windows and take a picture with the built-in camera.

But at that point I really didn’t care; it was working.

Getting used to it

Ubuntu uses a graphic interface not unlike Windows and Macs – things have different names and are in different places, but it works much along the same lines. Working out which things do what, and where they are stored is proving interesting, but that was always going to be the case so I haven’t felt frustrated in the few hours I’ve spent playing around with it.

Installing things and fixing bugs

The timing of my purchasing the netbook and entering the world of Ubuntu coincided with the release of its newest incarnation – version 10.04, or Lucid Lynx.2 This is both a good and a bad thing; good because it’s new and exciting and (allegedly) an improvement on the previous release and bad because – like everything else these days – it’s released to the world whether it’s ready or not, and any bugs get fixed afterwards.

Having a netbook is more complicated, because there are all sorts of hardware issues to deal with – for starters, 10.04 didn’t include the drivers for the wireless card in my netbook; I had to install a program that’d allow me to use a Windows driver. Then there was the screen brightness issue, which also needed some playing around with code to fix.

But that’s what open-source is all about. They don’t do everything for you; either someone works out how to do it and publishes the instructions for you to follow, or – if you’re clever and knowledgeable enough – you can do it yourself.

I am, of course, in no way suggesting I am clever or knowledgeable enough. But I’m hoping that I can become at least slightly more clever and/or knowledgeable enough than I am now. And it’s easy to access the code to tinker with things, since there’s a terminal that gets you straight into where you can modify it.

Yes, it’s a bit daunting – but, like I said, the joy of doing all of this on a cheap netbook is that I don’t mind losing anything I’ve saved on it (I’ll back up everything significant on USB before I do anything even vaguely experimental) and even if I cook the damn thing somehow, I’ll only be out a few hundred dollars rather.

Still, I don’t really intend for that to happen. Stay tuned for updates!

2All Ubuntu releases have alliterative names and they’ve been going in alphabetical order; the previous one was Karmic Koala and, before that, Jaunty Jackalope. No, I’m not kidding.

Survivor: Heroes vs Villains

Spoilers ahoy.

At the end of the last Survivor series I started writing a blog entry but I wasn’t happy with it so I never took it any further – but now, since I’m looking to make my weekly entries cover more than one topic, I’ll give it another shot.

If you haven’t been watching it, Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains took twenty players from the previous seasons, divided them into two groups (the eponymous Heroes and Villains, based on how they’d been perceived4 as playing the game) and pitted them against each other, much like the two tribe format that’s been the standard. Both teams had people who’d won it previously, as well as those who’d come runner-up – plus a few of the other notorious characters from the past seasons.

However, most of the attention went on the guy who’d been the centre of attention in the last season, Russell Hantz. He’d dominated the game through force of personality, the sneakiest of tactics (he sabotaged his own team), flat-out bullying and no small amount of luck. Of course, the relative cluelessness – and, in some cases, sheer obliviousness – of some of his team members didn’t hurt either.

But he’d gotten to the end and, to the surprise of many, didn’t win. This reflected a very important aspect of the game that people – particularly those who were fans of Russell’s and who had expected him to win easily – had forgotten: the jury are deciding whether or not to give you a million dollars. Yes, to be where you are you have to have betrayed some (if not all) of them, broken your word, gone behind people’s backs and generally done whatever it was you needed to do to get yourself to the end; that is, after all, what the game is about.

But you’ve got to do it in such a way that the jury-members still respect how you went about – and Russell learned the hard way that being lied to is one thing, but being bullied and abused and treated with contempt is another.

A lot of the appeal – for me at least - of Heroes vs. Villians was about whether or not Russell would go down the same path again. But I’d hoped that, unlike the not-especially-bright people in his own series, the experienced players would either beat him at his own game or simply get sick of his toxic personality and just ditch him when the first opportunity. But – sadly – neither the other villains or the merged tribe (Yin-Yang) gave me the pleasure of seeing his flame extinguished; he got to the end and faced the final jury vote to determine the winner.

But, prior to that, we were treated to some of the best Survivor action we’d seen over the past nineteen seasons4. In a way I wish the weekly episodes were two hours long with more time devoted to the challenges, the tribal councils (which, according to reports, often go for hours rather than the 5-10mins we see) and the scheming amongst the players.

What I think surprised me, though, was what was the amazing stupidity of some of the players who’d demonstrated far more insight in their previous seasons. JT – who won his series5 – and Tyson in particular made some colossally stupid moves. Prior to the merge people made post-merge plans that ended up causing them problems – I can’t imagine that if Stephenie or Tom had been there they would have let JT give the idol to Russell, which was the move that effectively ruined the game for the Heroes team.

At one point I commented to a work colleague – one of the few other people I know who actually watch the show – that Russell’s real talent was to somehow emit a beam that made anyone in his immediate vicinity do astonishingly stupid things. Yes, some of the time – like with Tyson – he did some clever manipulating, but other times he didn’t even have to say a word for the other person to act like they’d taken a blow to the head.

But no matter how he managed to do it, he didn’t get eliminated. In the context of the heroes versus the villains, evil effectively won over good as the final three were all villains – Parvati, Russell and the eventual winner, Sandra. I was not that surprised, but my vote would have gone to Parvati since I felt she played a game that incorporated more of the different aspects; she did do well in challenges while Sandra didn’t. But the jury evidently felt that Parvati had ridden, if not strictly on Russell’s coattails, at least in his wake, and their resentment toward him led them to favour Sandra, who did a very good job of distancing herself from him.

At the ‘reunion’, Russell expressed his annoyance at how the winner is deciding, arguing that it should be an audience vote rather than a jury vote. Which is a reasonable point in a sense – except that everyone on the show would therefore be playing to win the audience vote, and the result would be very different and still not necessarily end in Russell winning.

Russell’s antics made him look like a bad loser – again – and pretty much guaranteed he’ll be remembered as the most hated contestant – at least by other contestants who’ve played with him – of all time.

I don’t think they should change the game, and I seriously doubt they’d even contemplate it – in the past they’ve tried an audience vote for an audience-voted million-dollar prize (separate from the main prize) before, but they realised that it would change the way the game is played and never awarded it again. However, there is a $100 000 audience-voted prize which, hilariously enough, Russell won both times he played.

The jury aspect is as much a part of the game as anything else, and if you’re going to be a overtly bullying asshole you’re never going to win. Sure, you’re almost certainly going to have to be sneaky, underhanded and cunning – but when you do, do it in such a way that it only makes them resent you rather than loathe you. And make sure that the people you’re at the end with have done as much – or, better yet, worse – than you have to get there.

I did spend some time wondering why no-one other than Sandra was agitating to get Russell out, but then I realised that they knew what we didn’t necessarily realise (thanks to editing): that those who had already gone hated Russell with an incendiary passion and were never, ever going to vote for him – which meant that going into the final three with him next to you meant it was more like a final two.

Russell was always going to be the person with the worst track record – and, more importantly, no idea that having done what he did would mean people would vote against him or – even more importantly again – that perhaps it’d be a good idea to try and present a context in which his actions could be seen to have been necessary. Which is not exactly impossible; players have done that before and done so in a way that meant they won over at least some of the jury.

Essentially, what really cost Russell the million dollars (twice) is that he was unable to even pretend to respect how the other people played the game. He just went in there and said ‘you guys were idiots; I’m better than you and you should vote for me.’ It’s not that much of a leap to say, ‘yeah, I outwitted you, but I still have respect for how you played the game’ – but he refused to do that. Or admit that luck played a part – which it always does. It was lucky for him JT found an idol not someone else. It was lucky for him Danielle found an idol and not Amanda; both were game-changing events that had nothing to do with him or his actions.

Considering there’s never been anyone who’s possessed the talents of manipulation, good fortune and cunning while also being utterly clueless about the impact of bullying and the expression naked contempt for their fellow competitors, I don’t expect we’ll see any future players attempting to replicate Russell’s ‘style’ – but you never know; he’s obviously someone the producers saw as a way to ensure an audience, and I have to admit one of the reasons I watched was to see how he’d do.

I guess we’ll see in the next season.

3I used the term perceived for a reason; in reality, determining which actions are heroic and which are villainous seemed very sketchy indeed. But it sounded cool, and made for some interesting watching if for no other reason than to see whether someone considered a villain would act more like one because of how they’d been labelled.
4I’ve watched most, but not all, of them.
5Which makes his series (Tocantins) more interesting in retrospect, since his epic dumbassery suggests that he wasn’t the one making the clever moves, it was his ally Stephen – who he beat at final tribal council for the million dollars – which is something didn’t really come through in how that series was edited.

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