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The Penguin Says Home

What’s here?

Welcome to “The Penguin Says,” the Linux application review site.

There are many sites providing links to Linux software, but very few that rate and review them. That is what you’ll find here. Although I fully support free software, you’ll find open and honest reviews here. If an application is a load of rubbish, or too flaky for real use, I’ll say so. But then, if it shows promise, I’ll mention that too.

You can find more about The Penguin Says here. When you read that text, bear in mind that it was written in the summer on 1998, before Linux became the ‘media-darling’ that it currently appears to be.

The reviews

Here is a list of all the Linux application reviews. Note that they are in alphabetical order rather than the order in which they were written.

All reviews were performed on my Pentium 120 with 32Mb of memory, running RedHat 5.0 with all patches up to June 1998.

AfterStep 1.4

Introduction

Many people believe that wine gets better as it gets older. This, however, is only partly true. Some wines taste much better young and all go bad eventually.

What does this have to do with Linux software?

Well, AfterStep is my window manager of choice (see my review of BlackBox for a discussion on what a window manager is) but, more because of laziness than anything else, I’ve been using version 1.0. I never got around to upgrading, but since I was going to do a review I figured that I’d better move to release 1.4 — the latest stable version.

Perhaps I’m getting old; perhaps it’s inertia of some kind; perhaps I just haven’t given 1.4 a chance to prove itself; but I prefer good old 1.0.

What is AfterStep?

I’m getting ahead of myself here. What is AfterStep?

Fairly apparent from the title, it’s a window manager that tries to look and feel like NeXTstep, Steve Jobs rather fabulous follow-up to the Macintosh.

Version 1 took that quite literally. It had a dock (“wharf” in AfterStep-speak) to the right of the screen, pop-up menu’s and gradiated title bars just like the NeXT machine. The dock is a column of large coloured icons that can either launch applications, shrink an application such as xload to display useful information, or both. It’s now in a number of other window managers, notably WindowMaker, but AfterStep was there first. 1 had little else — simple but effective.

For later versions, the authors obviously thought they needed to add stuff. (They seem not to subscribe to the ‘perfection is not when you can add nothing, but when you can take nothing away’ school of thought.) 1.4 takes the basics and adds more docks, more furniture on the windows, themes and support applications.

Installation

You know me by now — basically capable, but lazy. Rather than grab the source, I downloaded an RPM file and upgraded from 1. I expected 1.4 to take all my current settings, but it didn’t quite work like that.

In fact, the first time I tried it didn’t work. XDM simply flashed out of existence for a second and then reappeared.

Okay, dive back in as root and read the documentation. What’s needed is a GNUstep directory that can be copied from a shared directory. It’s not difficult and it is documented, but why can’t AfterStep do it for you? And how much do I have to copy? My home directory now have loads of icons in it — don’t think /home can put up with so much detritus for long.

And copying lots of configuration data from a central location meant that all my setting from 1 were lost. I’d quite like my old settings back, please.

In Use

It took me a while to get AfterStep to how I like it. I wanted a single dock filled with my favorite apps, a clock, resource monitor and something to track my PPP connection to the Internet. It’s all in a configuration file (much like AS1 but in a different place) the basics of which are relatively simple. I think I’ll use the separately available configuration program for anything more complex.

1.4 seems to have a much greater emphasis on multiple desktops, so much so that in the default configuration there are 16 of them! It’s quite neat that they can be split into categories rather (the defaults are Work, WWW, Mail and Games), but I suspect that most people would run out of memory before they run out of desktops. Personally I’ve never got used to multiple desktops and usually just have one very busy one.

Overall

Much in the same way that people use Windows because they don’t know anything better exists, I’ve used AfterStep for well over a year. I thought doing this review would kick start me into using something newer and better.

It didn’t. In many objective ways the newer version is an improvement. It looks better, it’s more configurable and more easily configured and it’s more standard. But something is missing. It doesn’t seem to be a huge improvement over 1, yet has a much larger memory foot-print and popular support is waning in favour of WindowMaker which seems to be advancing much more quickly.

So, sorry guys, but I’m sticking with version 1 and am very tempted to take a look at some alternatives.

About “The Penguin Says”

Why?

I’ve been using Linux since 1994, just after the first non-beta release version of the kernel came available (I think it was 1.0.9, but don’t quote me on it). In the early days I was a bit lost, I didn’t know much UNIX and I didn’t know much about the web, so I stuck to using the packages that came with the Slackware distribution. (At the time I didn’t need much more than the core development tools, anyway.)

Since then, I’ve got to know more about UNIX, Linux and the Internet and have started downloading and looking at a number of applications. Some of them are fabulous, others aren’t worth the time or bandwidth. But how should I know which is which?

As far as I can tell, there isn’t a way. Although there are loads of sites with links to programs and applications, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere that reviews and rates them. Until now.

The task ahead

There are thousands of programs out there, and all of them have a new version popping out once a month or even more frequently. How can I keep up?

I can’t. So, we need some ground rules:

  1. I’m not going to review everything. I want to promote Linux as a usable operating system, so, in the main, I’m going to look at ‘user’ programs — word-processors, web browsers — rather than the new version of GCC.
  2. I’m not going to review every release. I’m not even going to update old reviews. Each review will have a version number attached, leaving the user to decide whether it’s up to date enough to be relied upon.
  3. You’re going to help me! If you’re interested in helping, mail me.

Logo

‘The Penguin Says’ logo isn’t really mine. I took one of the logo’s found on Andreas Dilger‘s page and changed the wording (using Paint Shop Pro — I would have done this using the GIMP, but PSP is much better at resizing images). The Penguin was originally drawn by Larry Ewing, the logo ‘concept’ by Allen Petlock. I hope they don’t mind.

Me

I’m Stephen Darlington. I’ve been using Linux for a number of years now, and various forms of free software for much longer. This is my vague attempt to put something back — I spend all day writing computer programs so the last thing I want to do in the evening is more! I can, however, manage to bang a few words together.

Minolta Dual Scan II

Introduction

Oddly, the main reason I’m writing this review is that I feel that the Minolta Dual Scan II has been harshly treated in the media. Most magazines seem to skip over this, the entry level, model and move on to the Scan Elite. On photo.net all are singing the praises of expensive Nikons and Canons, and complain about the lack of ICE on this model.

In a sense they are right, but everything is a compromise. Here’s why the Dual Scan II is a compromise that works for me.

What is the Dual Scan II?

Flat-bed scanners have plummeted in price over the last few years. Just seven years ago the only way most people could own a scanner was by getting one of those hand-held ones that you manually dragged across your document. They were quite neat, but getting a good scan was tricky. You needed a steady hand and lots of patience.

Fast forward to the present day and you can get good and cheap flat-beds for reasonable prices. You don’t need a steady hand, just the patience — much less than used to be the case too — and a computer capable of accepting large image files. Most of the pictures you can see on the site have come from a very cheap flat-bed, so why did I go and buy a new one?

I have only very occasionally scanned anything other than my own photos. At first glance, a flat-bed seems ideal for the task: simply place the print on the glass and scan away. What’s wrong with that?

Image quality. Each stage the image goes through loses information. By taking the picture rather than looking at it directly with your eyes, you lose information. Scanning it in loses more and printing it onto photographic paper does too. So scanning from a print loses more information than scanning directly from the slide or negative.

Many flat-beds have a transparency adaptor, but I’m not impressed. Most scanners operate at between 600 and 1200dpi, which is great (too much really) for prints, but slides and negatives are much smaller so you’ll need to enlarge them to print. And negatives come out a funny colour. Much better, I thought, to get a scanner dedicated to scanning the originals.

Hence the Scan Dual II. It scans at 2820dpi, which is nearly three times the resolution that I could expect on a reasonably prices flat-bed. It’s much better than a digital camera, too. That resolution is roughly equivalent to a ten mega-pixel digital. Don’t bother looking in the shops for one of those just yet.

It’s designed especially for the task I’m interested in, meaning that you can automate some of the process. I can do up to six negatives or four slides in one go. It’s smaller than any flat-bed and conveniently connects to my iBook’s USB port (many other scanners in this price range are SCSI, which is difficult with a laptop). And it comes with software for the Mac, albeit only MacOS 9, which is another major consideration!

I see what they mean

I spent so much time in image editing software trying to correct the colours of my scans that buying a new scanner was worth the effort. To my eyes, the colours produced by the Minolta are fantastic. It’s able to find details in the negatives and slides that you can’t see in the prints.

It’s kind of obvious in retrospect, but now I find that I’m still spending time in Photoshop (much less through). The problem now is dust. When the source is so small, even small motes of dust look huge. I guess this is why people are happy to pay another few hundred pounds getting a scanner with ICE software. I’ve still not found a 100% reliable way of cleaning my negatives yet, so please let me know if you know of one!

But, as I said, it’s all a compromise. I could have brought a pretty good flat-bed scanner for half the price of the Dual Scan, so I stretched myself getting it. Spending more for ICE just wasn’t an option.

The software that comes with the scanner seems to be quite powerful, but does stop some way short of real image editing software. They supply Adobe Photoshop LE for that purpose, which is getting on a bit. It’s a cut-down version of Photoshop 5. Since we’re now on version 7 it’s rather ancient, and, like the scanning software, is not OS X native.

Conclusion

Slide scanners are very expensive compared with flat-bed scanners. Not only are they tasked with scanning much smaller sources, but far less people buy them. This means that in the broader scanner market, the Dual Scan II is horrendously expensive.

But as far as slide scanners are concerned it’s great. There are cheaper scanners, but they work at much lower resolutions and are only able to work on a single exposure at a time. The more expensive models tend to have image enhancement software which, while useful, is not worth the extra for someone with my (lack of) artistic abilities.

The bottom line is that if you’re on a limited budget, or would rather spend more money on camera equipment rather than computer peripherals, then I consider the Dual Scan II to be a good buy. However, the ICE software on the next model up are quite possibly worth the money.

Note: Some time ago I emailed Minolta technical support to ask them about a MacOS X version of their software. I was surprised when they said that they were not going to produce one. I was, therefore, even more surprised when I recently found said scanner software in a native MacOS X flavour. Ed Hamrick’s Vuescan shareware application is still a viable option, especially if you want to scan negatives (on which it does a far better job out of the box) but I think I’ll be sticking with the “unavailable” Minolta software.

Dreadful Conclusions

Introduction

I still can’t quite believe that I did it. I actually bought and Apple Macintosh, just like I said back in February. After years of using Windows and Unix is seems a little odd, but I think I like it.

There’s a lot to like about it, though. Here are some of my thoughts as a Windows and Unix user.

Hardware

It was the combination of the new, white iBook and Mac OS X that swayed me in the end. There’s no way that I’d buy one of the original iMacs and my budget didn’t stretch to a PowerBook no matter how much I wanted it to.

One thing that I really like is the hardware. Unlike most PC’s, it feels as though it’s been designed rather than just thrown together. Even compared to my old Dell laptop, this one feels well put together.

Having said that, it’s not perfect. I’m sure that it looks neat on all the design sketches, but I can’t imagine that having all the ports down one side of the machine is the most optimal way of doing things. For once, it probably works best for left handed people! The ports are all down the left side so the mouse cable goes in the correct side. Unfortunately I’m right handed…

Also, it’s deliberate that there are no flaps over the ports. The idea being that there’s nothing to snap or fall off over time. On the other hand, I’m sure that means that they’ll fill up with fluff and other random detritus.

Unlike most PC’s, Apple have completely parted with the past. There are no serial, parallel or PS/2 ports (not as though you’d ever expect PS/2 ports on a Mac). This has bothered me less than I imagined it would. The main down-side is printing to my parallel-ported Deskjet, but I managed it using my Linux box as an intermediary (and Postscript interpreter). Not the ease of use that Apple imagined!

The last thing I’m going to mention about the hardware is something that is an after-thought with most machines: the power-supply. Basically it’s tiny, only just bigger than ink cartidges for the aforementioned Deskjet. After using laptops with power-supplies near as big as the computer this came as a surprise.

Software

I didn’t buy the iBook for it’s hardware, though (although that was important!). I got it for Mac OS X. As I mentioned before, Mac OS X is a rather neat combination of a BSD Unix kernel and a Mac-like user interface. On paper it looked fantastic. It has all the things that the original Macintosh operating system lacked, such as a real networking stack, multi-threading, pre-emptive multi-tasking and the ability to use more than one mouse button. (Okay, I’m joking about the last one.)

The incredible thing, after all the disappointments I’ve had comparing marketing literature with the real thing, is that it does deliver.

In the previous section I mentioned that I now print using my Linux box as a server. It’s not pandering to any Macintosh oddities. Mac OS X is sending print jobs directly to the Linux print spooler, just as another Linux or Solaris machine would. Very neat.

Another thing you can’t really see from screen shots in magazines is how good it all looks. Semi-translucent windows, drop-shadows instead of borders, the way loading programs bounce up and down in the dock, the way that progress bars and the default button in dialogs pulsate… They’re all completely unnecessary, but totally cool. It makes working with the machine that much more fun.

Fun. Now there’s a word you don’t hear in connection with Windows very often. Linus Torvalds wrote Linux “Just For Fun” (his book), whereas Windows was written purely for money. I guess they’ve both succeeded in their own goals. I hope Apple can profit from their combination of both.

Annoyances

There are only a few things that I really dislike, and some of them are rather petty.

Firstly, Apple are still not too confident with it. When you get a new machine it defaults to starting Mac OS 9. If you’re used to dual-booting your PC between Windows and Linux you’d probably expect a menu when the machine starts up asking which operating system to start (that’s what I was thinking). But no. You have to find the Startup Disk control panel, change some settings and restart the machine. Not difficult when you know but not in keeping with the well known Macintosh user-friendliness. (Apple have just announced that they’re making OS X the default OS. This has not been well received by many, who are waiting until Quark and Photoshop are native OS X applications before switching.)

The other things are really niggles. For example, in the Finder although you can search for NFS and (presumably) Apple shares, you can’t browse Windows shares. (Of course my Linux box only had SMB shares at the time…) In fact, I’ve not been able to connect to any SMB shares on my server yet. However this “problem” has not been widely reported so I think that we can assume that it’s my local configuration.

And this is the churlish complaint: they’re updating it too often! Within days of getting hold of the machine there have been many megabytes of fixes. Which is kind of good, but the upgrade to 10.1.2 is 30Mb, rather a lot over a dial-up line especially when dropping the line means you have to restart the download from scratch.

Conclusions

Stepping away from what used to be called IBM Compatibles seemed such a big step. At this stage I half expected to be annoyed with myself, and cursing spending all that money on something I didn’t fully understand how to use.

The key has to be its value. I want to be able to access the Internet, edit MS Word compatible documents and write software. The iBook can do all that using free or preinstalled software, comes in a very neat package with some unique features

It is still kind of odd having to think about how to do some things that are “obvious” to me in Windows and Linux, but I’m still of the opinion that it’s worth the hassle.

Death March

Introduction

Perhaps more than any other engineering discipline (see Steve McConnell’s After The Gold Rush), software engineers work on projects that have no real chance of success. There are as many reasons why as there are projects, but if you want to be in with a chance of surviving such a ‘death march’ this could be the book for you.

Content

Edward Yourdon is a well known and well respected computer scientist, so what useful information can he give you in these circumstances? Surely you’re lumbered with the simple choice between putting up with it or resigning?

Well, no. The book explains that there are any number of things to do, and not just for the project stake-holders. There are things that just about anyone on the project — and indeed just outside the project — can do. And quitting is almost always one of the options he gives. I find this interesting because most books tend to argue that you can fix anything. Sometimes you just don’t have the authority to do anything that would make a significant enough change.

Of course, it’s a two-hundred page book, so it doesn’t just launch into this resign-or-fix discussion. First he talks about what a Death March project actually is, and then moves on to finding who the key players in the project are. These people are not always those that you think should be in charge! For example, the CEO’s golfing partner is often in a position of power and influence, although you won’t find them in the organisation chart. (I’ve seen these kind of dynamics in play, but I hadn’t really though about it in these terms.)

He then moves on to negotiating the best deal for you and your team in this bad situation. You may not be able to get your boss to accept a rational argument at the beginning (or even towards the end) of the project, but you should at least try. And these are the arguments to use!

Motivation, both from the various clients and in your own team, play an important role in the success or otherwise of the project, and are discussed in some detail. One vaguely controversial statement is that we all need to be involved in politics to some extent. I agree with the ‘why’ — even your boss may secretly want your project to fail — but I don’t know how. Many, maybe most, of the developers I know have absolutely no interest in politics and try to pretend that it doesn’t affect them!

The next two chapters talk about methodologies and tools, and their applicability to death march projects. The last chapter discusses integrating the death march into your companies culture (most of your projects are going to be like that anyway, so you may as well get used to it!).

Controvacy!

It’s not all good news, though. Some of the chapter on staff motivation is hard going (or at least would be for the people on your project). One of Yourdon’s correspondents suggests that, on a death march project, people should be putting in at least 60 hours a week! I know that some people do that, and that it is encouraged at some companies, but I really don’t think that people should be encouraged to do that on a regular basis. It’s only fair to say that Yourdon goes on to say that people working over 60 hours a week need to be watched closely, but by then the damage may already have been done.

Generally, however, the advice given is very pragmatic. I’d like to think that most of it was obvious, but it isn’t. This is the kind of information you probably realise only after years in the business.

Overall

I’m sure you can guess by now: I’m impressed. Most Computer Science books are not this sensible and are frequently based in research in university labs rather than commerce. In fact, I’m pretty certain that I’ve never seen a book that recommends that you resign in certain circumstances!

It’s not just the detail that makes this an important book. Yourdon backs up his assertions with examples and email’s from colleagues that discuss some of the options available.

If you work in IT, sooner or later you will end up working on a Death-March project. This book is just what you need to be able to tell what chance of success it has and whether you and your organisation will survive it. Highly recommended.

Details

ISBN: 0-13-014659-5

Price: $16.99

Buy this book from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.