* Linux, Drugs, And Rock ‘n’ Roll

It is harder to create a compelling radio advertisement than it is a compelling television advertisement. Simply because one must catch the audience’s attention with sound only. In this presentation, I will try to catch your attention with words alone. Plus a catchy title, which I’ll eventually explain.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 3/25/2004; TechShow materials; American Bar Association

1. Why Strategy Matters
2. Top 10 Tenets Of Principled Computing
3. Challenge Your Assumptions About Standards
3.1. Filename Extensions – Primary Definitions
3.2. Filename Extensions – Alternate Definitions
4. Why Linux?
5. How To Purchase an Inexpensive Linux Laptop In 30 Minutes
6. Why RedHat?
7. What’s The Deal With Drugs And Rock ‘N’ Roll?

1. Why Strategy Matters

If you wanted to, could you login to your iMac from your home, connect via a VPN to a Windows PC in your office, and from there connect via SSH to your UNIX web server, start Lynx (a text-based web browser) and search your website for articles about open source software? If your IT department decided that one third of the people in your department were going to be using Linux computers, another third Windows computers, and another third Macintosh computers, would it matter? Would you all be able to email each other? To access your file server and search for data? To share data? If a backhoe cut through your Internet connection, would you be able to get back on the Internet? If the power suddenly went out while you were writing, would your work be saved?

These are all strategic questions, and this is a strategic discussion. A definition of “strategy” that I like is “an elaborate and systematic plan of action” (http://www.cogsci.princeton.edu/cgi-bin/webwn?stage=1&word=strategy). If you answered “yes” to all of the above questions, then it’s highly likely that you have implemented a computing strategy. If you answered “no” to more than one question (I’ll concede the first question), then it’s highly likely that you have not.

2. Top 10 Tenets Of Principled Computing

I am not a Microsoft hater, Macintosh zealot, or Linux nerd. I do, however, believe in principled computing. My law office uses multiple operating systems and multiple applications, some open source, some not. I care more about how my data is formatted and stored than how the data is created. My decisions about computing are not arbitrary, they are based on principles that I’ve been refining for years. This is a work in progress, but here are my top 10 tenets of principled computing:

  1. Open source is better than closed source.
  2. Standards-based is better than proprietary.
  3. Cross-platform is better than OS-specific.
  4. Beta is dangerous.
  5. Shareware is good, free is suspect.
  6. Auto-updates are bad, except for virus software.
  7. Defaults should be secure.
  8. Defaults should be private.
  9. Monopolies are bad.
  10. Data wants to be portable and searchable.

3. Challenge Your Assumptions About StandardsThis year, the planners for ABA TechShow included an online speaker center for presenters (http://www.abanet.org/techshow/nosearch/speakers/guidelines.html). Most of the material was presented in PDF format. The speaker guidelines stated that acceptable file formats for presentations include Microsoft Word (XP and earlier), Microsoft PowerPoint (XP and earlier), PDF, HTML, JPG, GIF, and TIF. (ASCII text was not an option.) The nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.

Would materials submitted in Microsoft Word 4.0 Macintosh format be acceptable? Microsoft Word 95? What if I created PDF files with Acrobat Distiller and restricted features such as printing and editing? Are any of the listed file formats really standards? What does “standard” mean?

I had been “standardizing” on Microsoft Office for years. Last year, I discovered that Microsoft Word data created in 1997 and earlier was no longer readable by Office XP – even with various translators in stalled. So anyone who thinks that they have “standardized” on Microsoft Office is in for a nasty surprise. Eventually. I value my data, even data that is only six years old, and I’d like to be able to access it without having to open those files with an older version of Microsoft Word.

The unfortunate truth is that there are lots of file formats, some of which are very popular, some of which have been called “standards.” But not all popular file formats can be read by Linux, Macintosh, and Windows computers. If you are letting your data be held hostage to a particular operating system or vendor, then you are asking for trouble.

3.1. Filename Extensions – Primary Definitions

GIF – Graphics Interchange Format. An 8-bit graphics format developed by CompuServe and commonly used on the World Wide Web. GIF files are limited to 256 colors, and they compress without loss of information.

HTML – HyperText Markup Language. A text description language related to SGML; it mixes text format markup with plain text content to describe formatted text. HTML is ubiquitous as the source language for Web pages on the Internet. Starting with HTML 4.0, the Unicode Standard functions as the reference character set for HTML content.

JPG – Joint Photographic Experts Group. Commonly used to refer to a lossy compression technique, reducing the size of a graphic file by as much as 96%. Usually the best file format for photographs on the Web.

PDF – Acronym for Portable Document Format. A process from Adobe Systems, Inc., that converts a fully formatted document created on a Windows, Macintosh, MS-DOS, or UNIX platform from postscript into a PDF file that can be viewed on several different platforms. PDF enables users to send documents that contain distinctive typefaces, color, graphics, and photographs electronically to recipients, regardless of the application used to create the originals. Recipients need the Acrobat reader, which is available free, to view the files.

TIFF – Tag Image File Format is a common format for exchanging raster (bitmapped) images between application programs. Usually identified with the “.tiff” or “.tif” filename extension, the format was developed in 1986 by an industry committee chaired by the Aldus Corporation (now part of Adobe). Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard were also on the committee. One of the more common image formats, TIFFs are common in desktop publishing, faxing, and medical imaging applications.

DOC – This is a rather generic sort of extension indicating some sort of document, usually in simple ASCII; of particular note though is the fact that both FrameMaker and MS-Word often save their native format files with this extension, and such a file may only be read with FrameMaker or FrameViewer (if a Frame document) or MS-Word (if an MS-Word document). Neither of these programs are available for all platforms, and even when they are available are usually not free. To complicate matters even further, there are several different versions of MS-Word in common use that cannot read each others’ files. Thus in general this format should not be viewed as portable, and chances of reading it on any particular platform are slim. Documents saved from either FrameMaker or MS-Word that are meant for other machines should probably be saved in MIF or RTF formats (respectively) in any case.

3.2. Filename Extensions – Alternate Definitions

DOC – Department of Commerce

TIFF – a quarrel about petty points

4. Why Linux?

So why Linux? Because personal computers are, first and foremost, personal. And assuming you have implemented a computing strategy, it shouldn’t matter what operating system you use. Linux is a variant of UNIX written for the PC. UNIX is the operating system of choice for those who want a powerful and flexible operating system, but pre-Linux, it was difficult and expensive to have UNIX on your desktop. And with Linux, you are not restricted to one operating environment. If you prefer to work in a command-line environment (like DOS), you can. If you prefer a graphical desktop environment like Windows or Macintosh, there are several to choose from, including KDE (which originally stood for “Kool Desktop Environment”) (http://www.kde.org/ and GNOME ( GNU Object Model Environment).(http://www.gnome.org/).

5. How To Purchase An Inexpensive Linux Laptop In 30 Minutes

1. Limit your search to those ready, willing, and able to sell on eBay. The day that I wrote this (about 2.5 months ago), there were 53,758 laptops for sale on eBay

2. Search for the brand computer that you want, include the descriptions in your search, and include “no operating system” or “no OS” in your search (http://search-desc.ebay.com/…). There is no need to pay for an OS that you won’t be using. This narrowed the field to 231 laptops.

3. Narrow your search by adding the features you really want, such as a DVD player. This narrowed the field to 105 laptops.

4. Purchase a laptop. I spent $570 for the following laptop:

Model: Dell Latitude C600
Processor: Intel Mobile PIII 750 Mhz
Memory: 256 MB
Hard Drive: 20 GB
Display: 14.1″ (1024×768)
Optical Drive: 8x DVD ROM
Modem: 56 Kbps
Network: 10/100 MBps NIC

5. Purchase Linux on CD-ROM from Red Hat.

6. Why Red Hat?

I first purchased Red Hat Linux in 1995, and Red Hat (http://www.redhat.com/) continues to be a leader in the Linux space, so it was an easy choice. Also, Red Hat’s newest offerings include a desktop version of Linux with Red Hat’s own desktop GUI called Bluecurve (which includes features from both KDE and GNOME). Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) also includes office productivity applications, such as the OpenOffice.org desktop productivity suite (http://www.openoffice.org/), Ximian’s Evolution email client (http://www.ximian.com/), and several web browsers, including Mozilla (http://www.mozilla.org/). And although you can download RHEL from Red Hat’s website, it’s probably easier (and certainly less time consuming) to request the CD-ROMs (which are free with your purchase or RHEL).

7. Summary – What’s The Deal With Drugs And Rock ‘N’ Roll?

The “rock ‘n’ roll” part is multimedia. It is becoming easier to find and install drivers for third-party hardware, which means you should be able to listen to music and rip MP3s on your Linux laptop. The “drugs” part is caffeine. If you plan on installing Linux from scratch, or if you plan on creating a “dual boot” system (i.e. one that will boot in either Linux or Windows), plan on spending some time. Of course, it takes time to install and configure any operating system or software.

Linux may not be for everybody, but it is certainly a viable option for many people today. For the price of MS Windows and MS Office, you can get a fully functional Linux laptop with open source software. And with change left over for coffee.


For a discussion of a standards-based file server that supports Linux, Macintosh, and Windows, see:

“Conjuring Up File-Sharing Magic”
Law Practice Management, November 2003

For a discussion of office suite software that supports Linux, Macintosh, and Windows, see:

“How And Why To Try Open Source Software”
Law Practice Management, November 2003

For a look back at TechShow 1998 (and one of the few poems I’ve ever written), see:

“‘Twas the Night Before TECHSHOW”
Law Practice Management, July 1998

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