Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Jumping on the Linux train

The Computer Science department at my college made the leap to Linux this year. Why?

We needed to have a stable programming environment for our students. Microsoft products have more than their fair share of problems but our need was to isolate the programming environment from our own Information Technology department.

They have blundered the installation of operating systems and software every year since I started at the college. Last year they forgot to include Microsoft Studio in the software image and hacked the operating system so badly that the software couldn't be installed to imaged computers. Another year the prematurely upgrade Windows to a version that wouldn't support any language compilers on the market. Of course the faculty found out about these changes during the first week of school. Computer Science clearly had to take control of their own computing environment.

At this school students are required to lease an imaged Compaq nx9010 laptop from the school for over $1000 per year. They are prohibited from connecting to the netowrk with any other computer. The computer labs became forgotten step-children as soon as the laptops came on campus so they weren't a viable alternative. The answer came in the form of Linux.

We repartioned the hard drive of a laptop using Partition Magic (version 8) reserving half of the drive for the Windows image installed by the college. We then installed Fedora Core 3 from CD. The entire process took less than an hour. The result is a dual-boot system allowing Computer Science students to work in either Windows XP or Linux environment according to their needs at the time. We then made sure we had the programming languages we needed to teach our courses. Much of it was included with Fedora. Java and Java Beans are available free for downloading from Sun Microsystems and we found a nice little version of BASIC for the introductory programming course. Everything worked smoothly!

I took the test system home for the summer and experienced no problems with it.
Fedora released Core 4 before the semester started so we decided to try that. The Operating Systems and Advanced Programming Topics were selected for our pilot. The students partitioned their own drives and installed Core 4 from DVD during class. It was a breeze.

Almost all of the installations completed during class time. I only had to finish two after class because some students got off to a late start. After five weeks, the students feel much more confident in using the Linux side of their computers. Other students started coming to my office to plead for Linux within the first week of classes. So far Linux has exceeded our expectations.

I'll offer a couple tips to help interested parties.

Have students install the Battery Charge Indication to the GNOME panel right away. This will help prevent students from losing their code when the batteries run dry. While you're at it, add a link to Terminal as well to give the student a fast way to the UNIX shell.

Buy a few copies of Learning Red Hat Enterprise: Linux & Fedora by McCarty. This book is available form O'Reilly Publishing and is in it's 4th edition. This will help any reluctant students adapt to their new operating system,

Perhaps I'll have more tips later in the semester.

Happy computing!

Why do I play folk music?

Why do I play folk music?

Good question! It's not for the money. As Peter Yarrow says, "you play this music because it's the only thing that satisfies your soul...".

I play it because it's the best way I can teach the really important lessons. People today have gotten totally involved in getting theirs. They don't have time to think about what's happening in the world like they did before cable television. Their view of the world consists of corporate sponsored sound byes designed to increase ratings rather than disseminate information. But, before we talk about that we need to know what folk music is.

The first thing you have to grasp is that folk music is not a single genre like blues or bluegrass. It includes the best music of all of the popular genres. Put simply, folk music is the people's music. It includes songs that have stood the test of time. They are the songs the people sing, whistle, and tap their feet to.

Much of music has something important to say. Take Woody Guthrie's Plane Wreck at Los Gatos and how it makes us empathize with the poor migrant workers. Then there is Hank Williams' Lost Highway that warns us against life in the fast lane. Bob Dylan's Masters of War indicts the war profiteers while Buffy Sainte-Marie's Universal Soldier warns soldiers that they have a moral responsibility to wage peace. Or, take John Lennon's Imagine which calls for a world without war and greed. Of course, there are love songs too!

There is no shortage of life lessons one can teach by singing folk music. My vocation is teaching Computer Science to undergraduate students. I find it less rewarding than I once did.

There are lots of students too busy chasing the American dream to take time to see what is really important in life. They are uninformed in current affairs. They accept the party line because that's what they see on cable television. I worry about these kids and I wonder, "Who is giving them an alternative point of view? Do they even know they have important choices to make?"

Peter Yarrow's mother was right when she said, "you don't make money playing folk music." At least most people don't. Otherwise I just my throw in my academic towel and hit the road.

Monday, September 26, 2005


GIGO is a technical acronym for Garbage In Garbage Out. It's purpose is to remind computer programmers that quality software and input data are required to meaningful information to be output by a computer. Poor programming, like poor thinking, leads to mistakes. However, the result of bad input is misinformation no matter how good the programming may be. Bad information always leads to bad decisions.

This provides a new paradigm for examining the current administration. Let's suppose the thinking of the Bush administration is the computer software. This isn't a big leap since computer programs represent the "thinking" part of a computer system. Then let's consider the information the White House receives as input data. That part is easy.

Now let's supposed our program decides that it doesn't want to see particular kinds of input data. CNN reported "
U.S. intelligence officials had several warnings that terrorists might attack the United States on its home soil -- even using airplanes as weapons -- well before the September 11, 2001 attacks," By now we all know the White chose to ignore warning of the 9/11 attack.

The official warning was presented to the White House 30 days before the attack but he wasn't interested. Nearly 3,000 people died because the Bush administration chose to ignore the report. Bush later denied ever receiving any warning of a possible attack. Yes United Press International reported "
The document, declassified and made public under pressure from the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, is titled 'Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.' It lists a variety of intelligence reporting about the threat from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network." Condie Rice later testified that the title of the report didn't convey any danger. What do you think?

Ignoring information is bad enough to cause an information system to be considered a failure but things get worse than that at the White House. They are cherry-picking was input they wish to receive. For instance, when trying to justify their plan to invade Iraq they specifically sought information that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and a connection to al Qaida and Osama bin Laden. They refused to consider reports to the contrary. All this is revealed in the Downing Street memo. The Sunday Times reported "
Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Of course the Bush administration denies it. What would you expect?

And that's not all. They are cherry-picking scientific research too!

The Union of Concerned Scientists officially contends that "the scope and scale of the manipulation, suppression and misrepresentation of science by the Bush administration is unprecedented." This violates the very integrety of research findings. Consider that the Diabetics Association recently stated that the consumption of sugar is unrelated to diabetes. Consider that the official stand of the Department of Health is the fast food and junk food do not cause obesity. These findings contradict common sense while presenting the misinformation that corporations want us to accept as truth. UCS President Kurt Gottfried said "We're not taking issue with administration policies. We're taking issue with the administration's distortion ... of the science related to some of its policies." I would hope so!

What can the average American do about this? Vote!

You can also visit the Union of Concerned Scientists web site by clicking on the title of this article.

Copyright 2005 by Mark Leon Winegar

"Indie" culture

You may wonder why there is so much cultural content on the World Wide Web today? Why do so many artists, musicians, and writers offer their art freely?

It's the counter-culture of the new millenium. A culture independently grown by artists free of corporate entanglements. It's a movement free to express the truth as seen through a billion different lenses. A virtual home for countless pilgrims to explore the meaning of being. Contrast this with the stark realities of the corporate culture industry.

"In the thirties, Theodor Adorno had declared, 'All comtemporary musical life is dominated by the commodity form.' Those leftists who made democratic claims on behalf of popular music he dismissed with scorn. They missed the totality within which that music was created. 'The culture industry intentionally integrates its consumers from above ... the listener is converted, along hils ine of least resistance, into the acquiescent purchaser.' In so doing, the industry strips listeners and artists alike of real autonomy, of the power to change the system that the music serves. 'The consupmption of light music contract[s] the interested of those who consume it.

- from Mike Marqusee's Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art
The insidious influence of corporate culture is that it stifles innovation until new works are reduced to cookie-cutter replicas. This is the beginning of the end of any great civilization. Dont' worry I don't think we're there yet.

The World Wide Web provides artists with a new media. A media in which they can participate on a level playing field with the bog dogs!

Weblogs are a great tool for anyone who writes. This weblog, for instance, allows me to post my ramblings for all to see. The reading public will decide whether or not my writing is worthy of their time instead of some corporate editor. Weblogs by the way have become an important part of the new media lately.

There are several web sites dedicated to promoting the music of independent artists. is one of the best. Musicians can post their songs there for the public to listen to. Many allow fans to download their music free. Fans will still purchase the music they like on CD because it provides better sound quality than MP3s. Some musicans use these sites to sell their CDs on independent labels.

Personal web sites allow artists of every variety to promote themselves. However, this involves specific talents in web design. Artists may wish to hire someone to help them out rather than try to learn HTML or a web page editor.

The point is culture market is becoming more democratic and artists are free to be innovative. The online market decides what is worthy and what is not.

Everyone wins except the corporate giants.

Copyright 2005 by Mark Leon Winegar

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Cost of recovery?

While we hear the projected costs of recovery from hurricanes Katrina and Rita let's not forget the price paid for the war in Iraq. The initial payment to Turkey, our ally, was $26 billion just to let our troops stage the invasion from within their borders. While that sounds like a lot of money it's only a small part of the expense of the invasion and occupation.
George Walker Bush didn't flinch at this expense.

Let's see how enthusiastic he is at rebuilding our cities, towns, and villages?

We'll also want to see how much of the money goes to the companies owned and operated by his cronies? You know, companies like Haliburton.

Stay tuned!

Copyright 2005 by Mark Leon Winegar