Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I Chose the Wrong Picture

For bleeding hearts like me Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor Rally on the Mall on Saturday seemed both significant and disturbing. I've found it hard to get my thoughts together.

First of all this picture doesn't fit the topic at all. I thought to use this photograph from a KKK march and rally in Washington D.C. in August of 1925. That photo is from a really cool Web site about American history, The Authentic History Center which is a broad collection of primary sources from American popular culture. The problem is a photograph of the KKK is unnecessarily inflammatory and sheds more heat than light.

The only pictures I have on my new computer are ones I've downloaded just to have something to play around with the graphics applications. I got the photo posted here from an email from a Yahoo Group. There wasn't any comment or credit with the photo, but I copied it because I've got a soft spot for blaxploitation films. Back as a freshman at university in the 1970's I didn't have much to do on Friday and Saturday nights and little money too. The Black Student Association showed blaxplotation films for free. These weren't first-run screenings and I don't remember many white students in attendance. A big part of the the fun was audience interaction with the movies. It's incredible looking back that I never chatted anyone up at these screenings, still they were very much fun.

Going from vague memories of the blaxplotation genre I think the picture is of Richard Roundtree who starred in Shaft. I'm not sure though as I searched images and didn't see any of him with the same hair. I'm lost as far as who the woman in the photo might be. I looked around a bit and thought that it might be Camille Yarbrough who was also in the movie Shaft. But the photo certainly isn't from Shaft, and I don't think it is Camille Yarbrough in the photo, nevertheless Camille Yarbrough is very cool.

Meanwhile I've been playing around with the music player in Ubuntu which is called Rhythm Box. Curious about the features for buying music, and probably with the photo in mind, I downloaded Just a Band's albulm 82 without a hitch. I first heard of Just a Band from mention by Kenyan blogger Njorge Matathia. I really liked the songs and the whole DIY aesthetic of the band. So when early this spring their video Makmende Amerudi! became a huge Internet meme I was delighted. If you missed it the video really is worth watching.

All of this is quite far afield from Beck's “Restoring Honor” rally, except that it made me think of various online conversations I've had with African friends where religion comes up. I'm not religious and some of these conversations involve encouraging me to “repent” of my irreligion. Some of my interlocutors are “progressive” politically, so when they speak glowingly of people on the far-right of the political spectrum here in the USA creates cognitive dissonance in me.

I'm not clear on The 27th Comrade's politics. I've been puzzling about that since reading his old blog, Communist Socks And Boots. What is clear is that intellectual rigor matters to Comrade 27. It's also fair to say that Comrade 27 doesn't hesitate to point out injustice, inconsistency and stupidity, even when doing so is annoying. I somewhat suspect he likes being annoying. Some of the links he's posted at the confluence of religion and far-right politics have succeed in annoying me. Still, I value his engaging me online very much.

The alignment of some Africans I've met online with an interpretation of Christianity, the attendant celebrities of it and the hard-right politics that seems to follow gives me pause. It's given me a different lens to look at the Tea Party and Glenn Beck's rally through. From my ordinary frame the politics of the Tea Party screams racism, and the religious rhetoric sounds pretense. The irony is that from African friends I'm able to take a second look at the mindset of some of my fellow Americans.

I choose the wrong picture to illustrate anything about Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally. The rally seems quite important still and I'll try to get some thoughts together about it for future posts.

I think at Christmas time I got a DVD of Shaft in the dollar bin and gave it to a friend as a present. I'm going to try to watch it as thinking about it now makes me think it a much more subtle film than I'd remembered.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Customer Service Update

Having whined about System76 customer service yesterday, I thought I'd better say that I was happy with it today. One aspect of using Ubuntu is having to think a bit more adventurously. For many that seems a great advantage while for others it seems a pain in the neck. I suppose I'm somewhere in the middle. I always am the last one to jump into cold water, but then love the plunge.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Music Set

System76 did return my email Monday afternoon. The email didn't get me any closer to solving my problem with a mic and headset, so I asked more questions. I will await further response.

I really have no idea to what extent System76 actually is a customer relations company. They may actually put some parts together for their product line up. My impression from their online pages is that the business would be classified primarily in the customer service bundle of business operations.

Certainly I'm pretty naive about all things computer. Part of having a Linux operating system is figuring out how to do stuff with the help of other users. I think that's a great thing, but can be intimidating. I looked over the System76 followers at Twitter and noticed there was only about one woman per page listed. I also noticed that over half the male followers have beards.

LinuxChix is an organization formed by women in the Linux community in 1999 with two guiding rules: Be polite. Be helpful. Surely sexism is a part of reason that LinuxChix is needed. But some of the problem is just that computers depend on computer science, something too few of us know anything about. Sometimes clear answers in jargon are mistaken for rudeness.

In most cases it seems that computers operating Linux are the obvious choice for educational settings. I'm in contact with some small organizations in Uganda and with some of the issues that have come up with computers running Windows, it would seem a good choice there too. I'm keen to become at least a little competent because I'm interested in education and service organization where Linux and open source software make a lot of sense.

System76 states that they want to serve the educational market. I think that's very smart and very much needed. That Linux can seem intimidating looms large as a hurdle to overcome for greater adoption in educational settings. Clearly school librarians and other IT specialists play a big role. But simply having more teachers choosing computers running Linux will make a big difference.

I want to be happy with my choice of computer. Right now I can't figure out why my mic or headset for Skype calls don't work. In order to provide support System76 needs to know what the computer is. All their documents say to click on the System76 Driver to find this information. When I did that I get a message that the System76 Driver is unsupported and instructs me to report the bug. In my email response the sales representative told me "that's normal." In his email there was nothing responsive to the issue that I can't get the mic or headset to work.

I bought a computer running Ubuntu because I believe in the significance of open source software. System76's aim to sell computers in the education market is something I'm aligned with; I want to see more teachers and students using Linux. The only possible reason my personal experience is the least bit interesting is how it relates to the broader adoption of open source software. It's a case of "if I can do it anyone can." The point is, I'm not interested in making System76 look bad, rather curious whether a company like System76 can make an average customer like me think Linux is a reasonable choice.

I'll give System76 one point for responding within a working day to my email. Since the response didn't address the problem, no more points. I feel like subtracting a half point for calling a system message to report a bug "normal," but I won't. So a 1 on a 1-5 customer satisfaction scale so far.

Looking around the various software on computer I turned my attention to music. I rarely listen to music on my computer, so I'm rather behind the times when it comes to all the stuff one can do with music. I did have iTunes installed on my old computer, so I wanted to try out the Rhythmbox music player installed. It's easy, even I can figure it out. I'm not so sure about the music store yet, mostly because I'm saving my pennies.

All that put music on my mind. I went up to my house and sat among my meager cassette and CD collection. I still like to make mix-tapes. Who will listen to mix tapes nowadays? The other day I had listened to an old mix tape a friend had made long ago and enjoyed it so much. So I looked up at my tapes and started pulling some down to listen to various cuts. The tapes are from a certain time in my life, something like 20 years ago. I had a blast listening.

I started out with "Carmelita" a song Warren Zevon wrote, but the rendition I played wasn't Zevon's but Dwight Yoakum on vocals and Flaco Jimenez playing accordion. The next song I played was Rodney Crowell singing John Hiatt's "She Loves the Jerk." A theme seemed to be emerging: Life is hard and love hurts. I'll list the songs I listened to at the end of this post. But before I do I'll go right to the last song I played before bed.

It was "Set" by Youssou N'Dour. I was blown away not having heard it for years. I opened the liner notes and read the English translation of the lyrics:
Set (Clean)

Have a clearmind
Be pure in your heart
Be sure in your actions
One day all the world's musicians will meet
Music has no frontiers

One day the Americans
Will find a new vision,
And the Russians too
Will see life in a different way
For there are too many weapons
And war is terrible

I have a vision of all Africa
Being united one day

Give me your hand
Give me one chance to know
What do you think,
For the future?

The young people are crying
Because the older ones are frightening them
That's what makes me sad
They are crying because
They have no hope
Gulp, I'm going to listen to my old tapes some more. Who knows maybe I'll even figure out how to put some of my old music on my computer.

Here's the song list:

Carmelita - Dwight Yoakam
She Loves the Jerk - Rodney Crowell
Holding Back the Tears - K.D. Lang
I Want Your Love - Chris Isaak
You - Maxi Priest
Belefonte - Joyce (Moreno)
I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry - Al Green
I Can't Get Next to You - Al Green
You've Got Me - Etta James
Got You On His Mind - The Subdudes
Set- Youssou N'Dour

Photo credit: Henryk Kotowski Creative Commons cc Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0

Sunday, August 22, 2010

New Computer

Early in June my computer was destroyed by a lightning strike. We're up on a hill and the place seems a lightning attractor. Generally the electric grid is well grounded as is our household electric system, but the grounding of the telephone system seems less so. Following instructions my DSL modem was connected directly to the computer rather than through my surge protection. This is not the first computer I've lost by errant electricity over the telephone lines. In fact, the computer lost was a 10-year old Dell Desktop running XP that a friend gave to me to replace the computer previous to it lost in just the same way, which had replaced another lost in a lightening strike. I will add that all of these computers were used longer than what many people consider the useful life of a computer, something around three years.

A dear niece got married here at Thistlemoor in late June, so I was panicked by not having a computer to coordinate with all the out of town guests. A friend lent me a Dell Mini NetBook computer which was a great help. Also knowing that young people would bring their computers and that the World Cup games would be going on I finally got a wireless router for the house. This has the added advantage that my new computer isn't plugged in directly to the phone lines which I hope will prevent lightning from destroying another computer.

The Dell Mini uses an Ubuntu operating system. I had often thought that I should be running Linux, but I was afraid of it because I'm not very technologically adept. But using the Mini was easy. I really liked that it booted in seconds, quite a contrast to my ponderous XP machine. Writing on the Mini was a bit hard. I finally did adapt to the small keyboard, but I found that I too often accidentally closed windows and couldn't figure out what I was doing. It's very frustrating to loose writing, so I just didn't blog.

I think NetBooks are very cool computers. My friend is going to allow me to buy the NetBook from him. I'm happy about that because it makes it easy to share the Internet with my father. I have found Readability a great tool. Just clicking on a bookmarklet turns a Web page into a more readable page. It's great for the small screen of the Mini and it's great for my father who is not accustomed to the Internet because it removes the clutter from the page. I'm looking forward to having both a DeskTop computer and a NetBook.

Thinking about getting a new computer, something that immediately came to mind is computers are for rich people. I needed something inexpensive. I was impressed by how good the Mini was with its Atom processor, so I looked at Atom desktops which are often called "NetTops." I bought a Meerkat Ion NetTop from System76. I wish now that I had added at least more memory when I ordered it, but money was tight.

Decision making is odd. I saw the Meerkat Ion early on in my search of possible alternatives and thought it very good. I later discovered a computer by Zotac which is very similar to the Meerkat Ion for essentially half the price. I decided against buying that because I had to install an operating system on it and I feel tech-challenged. Part of the selling points of the System76 computers is their customer support. I'll discover if System76 customer support is actually worth anything more than frustration because it appears the machine System76 shipped to me is not configured correctly.

The invaluable Dave Winer posted recently Throwing out software that works. Among the topics in that piece is how Apple's IPad is setting back the development of NetBook computers and the role that corporate filters play in preventing users from getting the products they really want. I wanted my new computer to have Linux installed and I was surprised to discover how hard it is to buy a computer without Microsoft software installed here in the USA. I found this especially odd considering how excellent Ubuntu on the Dell Mini is. I understand that neither Microsoft nor Apple is happy about Linux, but I think that the difficulty of buying a computer without Windows7 installed really has more to do with suppressing NetBooks than Linux.

One option of a place to buy a computer available to me is Best Buy. I had a very unpleasant run in with a salesman there a few years back when buying a computer monitor that cost less than $100. The argument was over my reluctance to pay over $40 for an extended warranty for it. The clerk just wouldn't let the subject go, and all in the rude tone common among those who fancy themselves as geeks. It's one thing to say how great you are, but quite another to imply or say outright that the other is not so great. Online I've read many horror stories about the dealing with Best Buy which have added to my prejudice against the store. I was really pissed off in reading Microsoft trains "Linux assassins". There are many interests who benefit from keeping inexpensive computers rare. I can't quite put my finger on why I'm so irritated by the anti-Linux learning module Microsoft crafted for Best Buy sales associates, but it's a safe bet I won't set foot in a Best Buy store ever again.

The Meerkat Ion is manufactured by AOpen a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer. The unit itself appears to be made in mainland China. It wouldn't surprise me one bit that System76 purchases AOpen computers through at least one middle man between it and AOpen. Anyhow computers in their line up are made by various manufacturers, so the value System76 adds is not in design and manufacturing but in the customer relationship end of things.

Business consultant Umair Haque talks about thin value, that is profit which leaves "others worse off, or, at best, no one better off." Thin value is possible by marginal profits from the marginal losses of others. What Haque advises that businesses instead of being concerned with thin value that they turn their attention to the creation of meaningful value, so-called thick value, that is, sustainable and meaningful value. In looking at System76 it's clear the company is trying to do well by creating thick value for customers. Linux and open source software in general is a good example of thick value and System76 sells computers only with Linux installed. Providing customer service through among other means at Ubuntu Forums. The company is also active on social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

With so much of their business out in public view most of what I've seen about System76's customer support is positive. But I also note customers complaints that they don't always respond to email. The system shipped to me has problems related to System76 Drivers not being properly installed, so I wrote them an email rather than address the issue at Ubuntu Forums. I regret that the computer wasn't sent to me in working order, but am quite interested to see how System76 responds.

The last computer I bought--the one before the cast-off Dell a friend gave to me--was purchased at CompUSA. A month or so after purchasing it the computer developed a hardware problem. I took it into the store only to get a harangue that it was a virus and not a hardware problem. I was pretty sure it wasn't a virus because in setting the computer up fresh out of the box it was infected with a worm which took me on a long slog to remove it and then to learn how to secure my computer. After keeping the computer for a week they called me to pick it up. The hardware problem had not been fixed. I took it back again and with much grumbling they took it back. It didn't work any better the next time I brought it home, so on the third time they sent the computer back to the manufacturer to be fixed. I was without a computer for about a month. That's bad enough, but how I was treated was the most discouraging part. Indeed all the incentives for business is thin value. I was happy that the repairs were made under warranty and without additional cost, but the trips to and fro were not cost free to me.

System76 doing better than CompUSA is a pretty low bar, but here's hoping they make that leap. Of course I would like the response to be much better than that. Clearly I've got a vested interest here, but I've got an interest in a detached sort of way too. The question is whether System76 walks the walk of creating thick value for their customers or merely talks the talk.

I discovered that I miss blogging. I can't imagine that anyone missed my blogging, it's just something that adds to my life. Still I hope that with a new computer, and especially that it runs Linux that I'll become more computer literate. This blog and a few others I have need some attention to make the more accessible if anyone stumbles upon them. It's nice to be back and posting.

Photo credit: System76