Monday, January 03, 2005

Happy GNU Year!

I hope you had a happy holiday. I did. I spent much of my vacation re-acquainting myself with the old Infocom text adventures. I also learned that interactive fiction is still being created in impressive quantities. Take a look at Baf's Guide to the IF Archive for excellent modern examples of interactive fiction. Surprisingly I found that my eight year old twins quickly found the genre to be addictive, which suits me just fine. Not only it engrossing entertainment, but it exercises reading, spelling, and cognitive skills.

Unfortunately, I also spent a great deal of time (too much!) helping Windows users with virus and spyware infections. While a lot of press concentrates on the dangers of email viruses, I found that the infections I took care of were contracted one of two ways: visiting infectious websites, and downloading infectious "free" software.

Enough press has been given regarding the Firefox browser that I would have thought this hardly bears repeating, but repeat it I will. When surfing the Internet, NEVER, NEVER EVER use the tragically misnamed Microsoft Internet Explorer to "explore" the Internet. Use Firefox, use Firefox, USE FIREFOX. I use the term "surfing" advisedly. I realize that there are some websites that absolutely require the use of MSIE, and that you'll have to use it if you choose to go there. However, when you're out browsing sites that you know nothing about and can't personally vouch for the security of the site, MSIE is the wrong tool. It is hazardous and dangerous to your computer. In the last year I have personally had exactly zero infections. I use Firefox.

Now, while I'm a huge proponent of Free software, you must understand that "freeware" is not Free software at all, in the sense that Open Source software (OSS) is free. While freeware is often accompanied by legitimate advertising (the excellent Opera browser is a good example of this), very often such software is accompanied by spyware, trojans, and spyware loaders, even if you downloaded them from reputable sources. The authors of such programs rationalize their abuse of your computer by obliquely referring to their practices two-thirds of the way through obscure and obfuscated licenses that they rightly believe you'll simply click through rather than read. READ THE LICENSE BEFORE YOU INSTALL. IF YOU CAN'T FIND A LICENSE, DON'T INSTALL.

To be perfectly safe, look for software that is licensed under a truly free license that's endorsed by the Open Source Initiative, such as the GPL. Think of these licenses as symbols of safety and quality. Some of the very best software available is Open Source. This includes Firefox, as well as the excellent Thunderbird email program (which solves the security issues posed by Microsoft Outlook Express). These programs are the moral choice as well. If you or your company is strapped for cash, don't pirate Microsoft Office, give OpenOffice.org a try. It's arguably better, can interoperate with Office, and it's free.

It's not limited to office software, either. With the recent excitement happening in space (NASA's ) I recently decided to upgrade my outdated astronomy programs. What a pleasant surprise! I found three superb open source packages that meet my needs precisely. Cartes du Ciel is more than a simple skychart... you can overlay the charts with perfectly placed photographs taken from NASA's archives. The companion program, Virtual Moon Atlas, is simply wonderful. Finally, Celestia provides you the ability to virtually "visit" not only just about any named object in the Solar system, but also the 100,000 stars in its database. You can "fly" between these star systems as if you were on the starship Enterprise and see how the shapes of the constellations change as you move among them. Fasinating.

Check out the GNUWin II project for more examples of free software for your Windows machines, or look into Linux for the ultimate in free computing.

Compute safely, and have a Happy GNU Year!