LJ Archive

Letters to the Editor


Issue #82, February 2001

Readers sound off.

In Response to Debian 2.2 Potato: Memorial to a Hacker

Who writes your “THE GOOD/THE BAD” box? Couldn't (s)he at least read the article this is supposed to summarize? For example, the article tells us how much better the install has gotten, and the box says “The worst install ever”. Hello? Anybody at home there?

Hmm. What does “kernel 2.4.0test8” do in a “Hardware Profile”? And why is it mentioned at all? Nothing in the rest of the article talks about that, and there's certainly no such pre-alpha kernel in the distribution.

I see that “several packages are in need of updating”, but no specific package is mentioned. Somehow, I'm not particularly surprised.

Now this is truely offensive. If you had bothered to actually look, you'd have noticed that none of the compatibility libraries are needed for Debian-compiled programs: they're there for compatibility with foreign binaries. There's even support for compiling to old libraries for people who need that, though libc5 support may finally vanish in the next version unless our users tell us that they really want us to retain it.

“There is a plan to remove the boot floppy altogether from future distributions”. Nope, no such plan. There is a plan to replace the installer on those floppies with a modularized version.

“Debians package management system is also incredibly cryptic.” Hmm, well, what I've seen of rpm so far certainly didn't impress me as any less cryptic, and though most Debian developers agree dselect needs replacement with something more modern, I've seen users praise it more than once. Of course, that's all personal opinion, but my impression is that a number of people only find the stuff cryptic because they were told to expect it to be cryptic. Personally, I think a typical Windows-like GUI installer is horribly cryptic.

“...a URI, which is similar to an URL”. Ouch. Short tutorial follows: A URI (Universal Resource Identifier) can be either a URN (Universal Resource Name) or a URL (Universal Resource Locator). It's a URN if it's “stable forever”, such as urn:isbn:0-345-38851-8; it's a URL if it tells you how to find the named resource, such as http://www.linuxjournal.com/. It can be both.

You know there's a saying that one should judge publications by how they talk about a subject one is familiar with? By that measure, this issue makes for a pretty steep drop in credibility. OTOH, I've seen better articles before, so I'll just chalk this one up to a sort of one-off.

—MfG Kaikaih@khms.westfalen.de

Retro Linux

Don Marti's “Building the Ultimate Linux Workstation” brings back fond memories of a similar article about 17 years back. “80 Micro” ran a feature comparing a couple of custom-built screamers. At about $3,000 apiece, I could only dream about buying one of those state-of-the-art machines.

Those blazing hot TRS-80 Model-III-compatible systems boasted an unbelievably fast 5MHz Z80B CPU, 128K of bank-switched RAM (the Z80 had the on-chip hardware to address only 64K), and get this, a 5 Meg hard drive, enough to store most people's entire collection of floppies. Eat your heart out, fellas.

Those folks lucky enough to have one of these rockets stored in their attic need to start putting the pressure on for porting the kernel to the Z80 chip. For that matter, there is a shameful lack of drivers for such critically important legacy hardware as the Friden Flexowriter, magnetic core memory, reel-to-reel tape drives, the KSR-33 teletype terminal and the paper tape reader/punch (much better to save cartons of punched tape than all those tacky CDRs). Hey, get on the stick, Linus. We want retro-Linux and we want it now!

—Mendel Cooperthegrendel@theriver.com

Exploiting Explorer

Upon opening the November, 2000 issue of Linux Journal to page 199, I almost fell out of my chair. Linux Journal, the premier magazine for the Linux community, had an advertisement (for Axis Communications) with a screen shot of a Microsoft Internet Explorer window. Is it really so much about the mighty dollar that you have no restrictions as to the content of your advertisers' ads? At a minimum, you could have made it look like a Netscape window. I truly enjoy Linux Journal, and usually read it in its entirety, on the same day it is delivered. The last thing I want to see is an advertisement for a product (that runs on just about any platform) being depicted running in the Windows environment.

Thanks for a great magazine,

—Jerry Readjerry@jread.net

Be Specific

Through my letter box came a smoking issue. I loved the cover and the feature articles on building an Ultimate Linux Workstation (or even a lower budget version). I coveted all of these configurations, which were better than the surplus Celeron-based system I'd just commissioned as my personal Linux workstation to replace a failed 486-based Linux box (don't laugh—that 486-based workstation gave better performance than many high-price Windows boxes).

As I read these articles though, a long-running frustration of mine resurfaced. Many years ago I studied AI and expert systems when the computing science literature was full of talk about a hardware configuration system at Digital (now Compaq). Their system, known as either R1 or xcon, would check that a hardware configuration was viable. If not the system would remind the engineering team what needed to be added and finally generate a detailed list for the installation engineer to follow so that boards were plugged into the correct bus slots. With all the hardware options for Linux I've long thought that a similar expert system was necessary.

Obviously such a system needs a database containing what motherboard has what features, what hardware is necessary for a server and what is needed for a low-end/high-end workstation, etc. Specific issues with hardware options could be highlighted, e.g., what EIDE drives to avoid and why, what ASICs don't work correctly, whether to use Intel or AMD processors, whether Alpha or PowerPC chips would be more appropriate, what video cards have only partial support in XFree86, what software need not be installed on a workstation and what is required on a server, how many fans are needed and where should they be mounted, even down to issuing reminders to the installer of applicable CERT advisories. Extensions could help configure Beowulf clusters, firewalls, diskless workstations, laptops and many other useful setups.

I wanted a summary at the end of the Ultimate Linux box article of the various suggested hardware configurations. A simple spreadsheet (gnumeric of course) helped to collate all that advice and price it. In that respect the following article on the cheaper workstation was a better source of information. But being able to feed these configurations into an R1/xcon-like system would have been really helpful—especially if it held up-to-date price information. Then I'd know which supplier to buy which components from so I could get that ultimate workstation at the lowest cost.

If anyone is working on such a configuration tool I'd love to hear from them and/or to read about it in Linux Journal.

—Trevor Jenkinstrevor@suneidesis.com

What about Tapeware?

I just finished reading the Readers' Choice Awards and find it interesting that no one mentioned Tapeware from Yosemite software for backup.

We have used both tar and BRU but find Tapeware to be far superior to either. It is a distributed application (in the class of Arkei, I suppose?) and runs seamlessly distributed across both Windows and Linux platforms. The GUI is QT-based, which makes it look and feel exactly the same between Windows and Linux.

Just thought I'd mention this product since no one seems to know it exists.

—Bud Millwoodbudm@weird-solutions.com

Uses for CueCat

Good job with the CueCat article!

Living in Europe, I wondered why so much buzz about a bar code scanner. Then I read on the Net how it is distributed and what the attached software does (or is capable of doing). It stinks!

I'm glad LJ supports this kind of backward engineering efforts by publishing both the method and the results. At least it makes life a bit more uncomfortable for privacy invaders!

On the other hand, such an inexpensive device with open-source drivers can be sold by the thousands for perfectly legitimate uses. I will buy one on my next trip to the US, I'm thinking about:

  • Finally classifing our library and keeping track of the borrowed material.

  • Doing the same with our music/data CDs.

  • Classifing our medicines. With two kids we don't know what we have, what it's good for, when it expires and where we hid it last time!

—Carlos Vidalcarlos@tarkus.se

In Response to Arthur (“Letters”, November 2000)

I rarely feel the need to reply to mail printed in mags, but yours was so full of misconceptions that I felt an overwhelming drive to set the record straight and educate you simultaneously.

First, regarding your statement that “(America) consumes so much...yet gives little back....” Put on some sunglasses so that you may open your eyes and take a good look around you! Electricity to power the computer upon which you wrote that misguided e-mail originated in the USA. The computer itself, what is today accepted as the “PC”, came from here. The Internet upon which your garbage was transmitted—not to mention the underlying technology such as telephone equipment—originated in the USA. Television, the car you drove to work, and the list goes on and on! Compare that to the list of things contributed to the world by your little penal colony (all I could manage is Foster's Lager, fuzzy brown fruit and Crocodile Dundee) then do the math!

—Todd Ficht, Americanficht@ieee.org

Be Warned

I was just reading the Video section of the article “Building the Ultimate Linux Workstation” and came across a couple of quotes from Darryl Strauss that I thought shouldn't have been there. He states: “The up-and-coming board to watch is the Radeon”; and “Performance is about the same as the GeForce2, and they want to do open-source drivers. It's just not out for Linux yet”

I would like to focus on the “they want to do open-source drivers. It's just not out for Linux yet” part. Let me spare anyone from the hell that I have gone through with ATI in the past and I ask that a little research be done on ATI specifically before the readers and subscribers of Linux Journal are recalling where they got the idea to buy the damn thing to begin with.

ATI has promised 3-D drivers for their cards under Linux for almost two years now. When an actual 3-D driver that is usable (and when I say usable thats exactly what I mean; drivers that make quake3 actually run a bit faster than the couple pixels a second you get, try for yourself) has yet to be seen. UTAH-GLX is not developed by ATI or anyone they've hired. They've hired the guys/gals at Precision Insight sometime ago (http://www.precisioninsight.com/), and they (ATI) promised to have ATI 3-D drivers available in Q1 of 2000. Needless to say Q1 of 2000 came, and they had no usable drivers; Q2 came, still no drivers. Q3 came, you get the idea.

They consistently boast on their web site that they have 3-D drivers for the Rage 3-D pro cards, which is correct but it's not their drivers; and it's not supported by ATI. You can find them here (UTAH-GLX) utah-glx.sourceforge.net. The Rage 128 3-D drivers are available here at dri.sourceforge.net, which happens to be Precision Insight's DRI project. Mind the Precision Insight drivers don't do much and aren't usable. So whatever you do, PLEASE do not buy the ATI Radeon before the drivers are completed and usable. DO NOT make the same mistake I made when I bought this ATI rage fury. Personally I'll never buy another ATI card again; not because of the hardware, which is of high quality, but because they don't support their hardware with drivers.

—Christopher Warnerchristopher.warner@mvbms.com

Ada's Shortcomings

I work with Ada quite a bit at work and enjoyed seeing the article on Ada in the latest issue of Linux Journal. I have to agree that many programmers should take a serious look at the language. It is highly structured, and I would guarantee that novice programmers will decrease their debugging time and their frustrations tremendously by using the language. Many C++ programmers could learn a great deal of discipline sorely lacking in that language by taking the time to learn Ada.

With that said, I do have to take issue with some of the statements made in the article. First, Ada does not provide a full suite of operator overloading/overriding capabilities. It does not allow overriding of the assignment operator nor the array indexing operator. Also, you cannot specify a return by reference in Ada. The latter two difficulties can be a great hassle when developing container classes, since it makes the specification used by clients clumsy. The language also does not support type promotions, which can again lead to unnecessarily clumsy interfaces.

Ada does not have inferred templates (known as “generics” in Ada). Generics must be instantiated explicitly, and each instantiation, even if based on the same parameters, represents a new class incompatible with other instantiations. This can be a roadblock to software reuse. The language also lacks a notion of “protected” in the sense that C++ and Java have; nor does the language have a construct for declaring an object's attributes constant over the lifetime of that object. (You should see how JGNAT works around these issues when providing an Ada-equivalent API to the Java core classes; it's not pretty.)

Perhaps one of the biggest drawbacks to the language is that the compilation of the code requires it to be “bound” before it is linked. The binding process creates additional code needed to elaborate software modules (in the correct order). This prevents dynamic loading of code at runtime; in other words it prevents “plugins”. I believe technologies are now coming out to allow Ada plugins, but it is not clear that they faithfully adhere to the Ada standard.

In short, the article could have done a better job at pointing out some of the disadvantages as well as some of the advantages in programming in Ada. Do you have any plans for an article on Eiffel, another highly disciplined language?

—Johnjohn.rusnak@mindspring.com San Jose, CA


The opening paragraph in the January 2001 issue (81) of Doc Searls' Linux for Suits article, “The Morlock Market”, is actually a quote from Neal Stephenson and should have been separated from the article text and noted as such.

Listing 2 of John Hall's “A Crash Course in SDL”, issue 81, reads, beginning at line 15:

value= ((red >> fmt->Rloss) << fmt->Rshift) +
           ((green >> fmt->Gloss) << fmt->Gshift) +
           ((blue >> fmt->Bloss) << fmt->Bshift);
return value;

But should have read:

value = ((red > fmt->Rloss) << fmt->Rshift) +
           ((green > fmt->Gloss) << fmt->Gshift) +
           ((blue > fmt->Bloss) << fmt->Bshift);
return value;
Not to worry, the listing is in correct form on our ftp site.


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