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By Andrew Holmes at 2006-11-04 10:35

Sometimes, life deals you a bum hand. Your grades were too low, so you couldn't go to college. At breakfast, no milk for your cornflakes. Or you drop the toast; have you ever noticed how the butter side always hits the floor? Your apartment is too small . . . the list is endless, and there's no need to go further and get personal, amusing though it would no doubt be . . .

If we gave up after encountering each little problem in our lives, we would all be a bunch of pointless non-achievers, doing nothing because we have no self-confidence and are getting nowhere. There would be no innovations, no new things to make our lives anything but misery and drudgery. The butter side would always hit the floor and we would never learn anything; and our own refusal to learn would effectively be making us stupid. We would still be pulling our own ploughshares instead of using a tractor.

Familiarity with a single operating system, or in general terms just a single method of doing anything, has precisely this effect upon people. Example: How often, when working in a dangerous industry like surface finishing, where cyanide solutions were adjacent to acids, have I heard the phrase: " . . . but we've always done it like that!" - familiarity and the comfort it provides to people in their everyday lives is a dangerous combination; it encourages habits which, in the wrong circumstances, can even prove fatal. Add acid to some cyanide and you'll soon see what I mean. But not for very long . . .

The opposite end of the spectrum is over-confidence, the cocksure self-assurance that you know enough about something to never make mistakes. These people are the ones who know little and blithely sail through regardless or, worse, know only a little and apply it too much. No-one who has ever indulged seriously in managing a computer would make such an assertion, because they themselves have made too many mistakes; they have learned to approach the subject (and the machine) with a degree of caution because of what they have learned the hard way. They have adapted to enjoy the learning, because they have already discovered that you can never know too much.

If you come to computing by way of the most common OS, you may become familiar with it and learn its ways, but OSes are finicky beasts and mistakes are easily made. And sometimes those mistakes are not your own. This is the point at which I will begin relating to you why, despite any faults that it may have, I now run Mandriva in preference to any shade of Windows.

Back in England and Wales I had always run Windows, first as 3.x, then 95, then 98SE (very happily, let it be said) and a brief dalliance with 2000 before leaving for the sunny (and often typhoon-stricken) pleasures of Taiwan. No PC. And thence to South Korea. After a year there, my Boss told me that I was welcome to stay. Result: Order parts. Build new PC. Install Windows . . . and that's where the trouble started . . .

See, I was told that I couldn't get a copy of English (UK or indeed any other) Windows in Korea. What arrived after my order (they didn't even stock the thing on their shelves, I had to wait three days for it to arrive) was something made in Malaysia. Oh, sure, it "supported" English through the IME, but that's not the point; the language pack was for Korean, Chinese and Japanese; hence, everything in the menus and boxes is in Korean, and unlike older versions of W., you couldn't change this.

Clearly, no-one has bothered to think seriously about the implications of such a level of tyrann . . . whoops, sorry, control. In order to be as safe and "secure" as it is possible to be under Windows, you must understand the messages and menus. But this is Korean, and technical Korean at that; little opportunity for understanding despite some five years or more studying the language, because even at this point such language remains obscure. I need an OS in English so that I can understand it!

Is that really such an unreasonable request? It's not the operating system, it's the language packs.

And then . . . I remembered toying with Mandrake 7.0 back at the end of the century. I never got it to work properly, but . . . I liked what I saw (KDE, not GNOME). So I downloaded a "certain" file-sharing program and went in search of it. And that's how I got hold of the community distro of Mandrake 10.0. I also got hold of a copy of Acronis ("I liked the product so much, I bought it!"), shrank the odious and expensive Windows to manageable proportions (eventually to some 15Gb out of 80), formatted the remainder as swap and ext3, and installed Mandrake. Not quite perfect, but then I still had much to learn. Then 10.1, 10.2, 2005LE, 2006.0 (the best so far) and now 2007.0.

In no way can I describe myself as "dissatisfied", I am now a fully paid-up Silver Club member and swim constantly in the warm environment of Mandriva, retaining a rump presence for XP Pro in order to use my (Korean) mp3 player and applications which require a (cheap but not entirely nasty Taiwanese) webcam. And that's it. And for these simple pleasures, I have to protect that XP rump using Trend Micro, Ad-Aware SE, Spyware Doctor, Spybot Search and Destroy, BitDefender, XoftspySE and (most recently) Avast (although this has now been removed, as it conflicted with Trend). Not only do I have to pay for the OS up front, I then have to pay each year for third-party software to do all the things that a "secure" OS should have been doing in the first place!

The other week, I persuaded my Boss here to help me purchase a spanking (how I love that word!) new Averatec Sempron 3.3GHz laptop complete with wifi. Alas, it came with XP Home pre-installed. Young (ahem) Andrew would soon put a stop to that! Whips out his paid-for copy of Acronis, splits the hard drive, installs Mandriva 2007.0. Result: Pure Joy. It works like a dream, right down to KWifiManager and automatic configuration of display and sound manager. Errr, Windows, err, what's that? A bad dream from my past, perhaps?

I could rant about the fact that there are reputedly over 70,000 different bits of virus, malware and other obnoxiousnesses applied with abandon to Windows compared with (allegedly) less than 100 for *nix. But I won't; that's not my focus here today. The point is that by denying a version of their OS to a long-term, paying customer with a particular language preference who lives in an area of a different language preference (Korean instead of English), Microsoft has effectively compromised my system. It's as simple as that. It makes no difference whether Mandriva (or SuSE or Yellow Dog, or MEPIS, or whatever) is factually more secure, easier to install or maintain or what; by denying me a GUI in my own language to administer a system which is almost entirely GUI-dependent (unlike Linux where most things can still be performed from the CLI), full control of the system is rendered impossible.

Similarly, I could rant on about the fact that you can download a fully installable distro of your choice and put it on your system for nothing - but that's not the point. It makes no real difference how much or how little you pay for your OS of choice - it's up to you (as the de facto "system administrator") to make full use of the system upon which it is installed and the sad fact is, most PC users don't.

Worse, if you look at a place like Korea, where I am living and working, ignorance of the operation of a computer and a blithe disregard for things which may "infect" it has made this country a hotspot for 'bots. Duhhh, firewall . . . what's that? At least one of my Korean coworkers cannot use her PC because just such an "infection" has rendered it inoperative. And as if to prove the point, installing the latest version of XoftspySE onto the new spanker showed that it was infested with Chinese spyware! (Make mental note: Must inform Averatec about that . . . some time . . .). My system's security is, therefore, further compromised by operatives who pay no attention to the most important details. The only one who pays enough attention at all is myself.

This issue is one you rarely hear mentioned; we hear a lot about DRM being "defective by design" but the suggestion that Microsoft's own OS (upon which such pernicious devices run) may be little better gets scant air time. But it should; MS's new competitors have long since realised that an age of high-speed Internet and global mirrors together equal all the choice that their customers need. The whole Linux package, irrespective of distribution, contains all of the "localisation" files required for almost everyone and it's all set up during installation. Do you have a problem with that? I haven't. And when was the last time that you could download a Windows LiveCD? For free? It's really telling when the alternative to a copyrighted, EULA-blighted, privately-developed OS riddled with security holes is something which costs little more than a few pennies for electricity and cable time.

This brings me to the final consideration in the case against Microsoft: the wretched EULA. This is a document which basically states that since you are running their software on your system, anything which goes wrong is legally your fault and they accept no blame whatsoever. Remember the Sony affair? Sony also had an EULA, and in their case it hardly seems surprising, considering what they were up to; cases are still being heard against them even as I sit here typing this. If you are a paying customer, and particularly if the end role of the OS or application may be "mission critical", surely this is hardly likely to inspire confidence? And could this be the reason why we are told that NASA chose Linux for the International Space Station (among other projects) over Windows?

So we have a situation in which an expensive proprietary OS occupies the majority of hard drives around the world, has major flaws and upon installation has a legal document, which the customer has to accept, forcing them to acknowledge the fact that the originator accepts no liability for any accidents which may result from its use (was this acceptable to the US Department of Defense when Sony infected their systems? Somehow, I think not . . .). It has ineffective protections which constantly require patching, and the copyright holder insists upon forcing customers to accept a copy without their particular language pack, which is in itself a major security blunder.

When we consider all of these factors, what possible disadvantage can there be in
not using it, except for a few choice applications which cannot run under any other OS? Even this advantage is being eroded as the competitors make free (and non-free) virtualisation packages available. Mandriva asks you, upon installation, to accept what is basically an EULA but here it makes little difference if it costs you nothing in the first place. Even in the worst case, a wise admin will keep important data backed up and if forced to reinstall, can have everything as it was previously within hours.

Most people who have a Windows system buy it with the OS pre-installed and give
absolutely zero thought to any of the consequences of such factors; these people must learn from their own mistakes if they will not learn from the misfortunes of others. It is not an "elitist" assertion to suggest that anyone who runs a computer system should seek to be as competent as possible; it's just common sense, and of course, it applies just as much to Windows users as it does to users of any other OS.

In the final analysis, then, all the fanbois and advocates can argue until the cows come home and the frost is on the winter fields, it makes little difference to someone like myself. Microsoft would not allow me, two years ago, to buy my chosen OS in my own language in the place where I chose to live (and where they do not speak my language, although many seem to want to). I may therefore never know what is happening when it happens (because there is no IF about this). Mandrake (now Mandriva) did, and I didn't need to be paying each year for the additional stuff I needed to plug the holes. So I spend less proportion of my precious time in Windows now than Apple's desktop market share.

Quite right, too.

They say that so many people are happier when they divorce and marry again, because they are older, have more perspective and can now see the mistakes they could have avoided. I could not possibly make a truer statement about the relationship between myself, Windows and Mandriva. I divorced the shrew and found myself a soul mate.

Awww . . . don't you just love a happy ending?

Andrew Holmes is an ex-chemist ("he has ceased to be") living and working in South Korea teaching English to unsuspecting Korean schoolkids. He has been there for over three years and his Boss shows no sign of telling him to bugger off . . . yet.

by vharishankar on Fri, 2006-11-17 08:10
Wow... excellent article. I really appreciate your writing style and the way you convey your emotions so perfectly to the audience. Kept me gripped all the way in spite of its length. Good job!

by Andrew Holmes on Sat, 2006-11-25 00:16
Hi Hari,

Thanks for the appreciation; the next Korean Konundrum will focus on multilingualism under KDE/Linux and how to implement SCIM to change the text language in word processors - and a few of the problems I have encountered.

I think the point is a valid one. The original XP Pro disc was pressed in Malaysia, the installation is entirely in Korean and I have little idea how "safe" any of the following installations were. Text boxes and menus are all in Korean unless I install something which I know will be in English.

And I suppose that in the end, there is a message in all of this. When an OS moves from one area of language preference to another, the underlying software should not change any of its functionality - the only necessary change should be the language packs, which are essentially "text" rather than "software" (in the sense of things which can or cannot be executable) and in an age when whole OSes can be transferred rapidly via the Internet, why oh why can I (or anyone else) not simply opt for whatever my own language preference is and have it installed in a flash? What's the problem?

This is all part of the licensing disease which has struck so many (particularly American) businesses; even music now comes with a "licence", it's just pathetic. These businesses want to restrict the flow of their proprietary software across borders. Haven't they ever stopped to think about the consequences of this? When you can't have the computer running the OS of your choice using your own language preference, this poses an unacceptable security risk when that OS is the target of almost all of the viruses and malware out there, and as I put it in the article, that effectively meant that Microsoft had left me no choice: either Linux or no security on my PC.

Hmm . . . I can feel a rant coming on . . . time for some more coffee . . .

See ya,


by dugu on Sat, 2007-09-22 16:44
Great article. Really enjoyed your writing skills 10x

by javaunixsolaris on Tue, 2007-12-04 16:44
The bedroom is so cold lately. She's always blue and if I push the wrong button she goes right to sleep. I'm getting a divorce from Windows.


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