Friday, 20 July 2007

Full Circle: A friendly guide to Linux Ubuntu

As Linux grows more user friendly in the last few years, a lot of us are thinking now would be good time to get our feet wet with Open Source. But making the transition can be quite a challenge, especially if you're beginner with no idea where to start.

Well, breathe easy, young grasshopper, because one of the friendliest-looking guide has just arrived. Full circle is a PDF magazine about Ubuntu Linux and its cousins Kubuntu (Ubuntu + KDE), Xubuntu (Ubuntu + Xfce) and Edubuntu (Ubuntu Linux for education). True to the collaborative nature of Open Source, the magazine is put together by a team of volunteers using Open Source software (Inkscape, GIMP and Open Office).

Issue 1 is impressive, IMHO, because it features a walkthrough of how to install Ubuntu Linux, with full colour screenshots along with tons of other Linux-related info. Two issues have been released so far and issue 3 is currently in the works.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

New MS Office, new problem

I started my job recently. I was hired maybe because they need someone to help setup a simple database for them. And some do design work, but not so much because they have a studio that takes care of the all designing work. But actually it's paperwork – proposal and conceptual paper writing – that actually needs a lot of doing and someone to do them.

From the first day I found myself in an unfamiliar territory. It's not the job or the industry (agriculture entrepreneurship), but it's Microsoft Office.

I've being using OpenOffice for a few years now that MS Office seems so new and different. I had to reacquaint myself with it. I never thought something like this could but here I am trying to figure out how to get things done with Office.

OpenOffice is not a 1-to-1 substitute to Office. They are similar but do several things differently. For example, Office comes with a automatic spelling and grammar checker, while OpenOffice requires additional setup to get these features working. It's just a matter of finding the way how to do the things, by keeping in mind that there are differences between the two.

I often hear that people say OpenOffice is not easy to use and has a confusing interface. I have to disagree with this. Like Office, OpenOffice's interface (menu layouts and so on) can be customised. To get it to look exactly as Office would not be possible, and customising OpenOffice's looks require some patience and learning. But the key thing here is to learn.

I think people are too acustomed to Office that they think anything else is a bother. Why can't it work like Office?, they ask. I think they be asking, Can it work better than Office?

The answer is Yes, only if you're willing to learn. After all, isn't knowing how to use two different office productive suite an advantage?

Furthermore, OpenOffice uses open format standards and handles Microsoft format (.doc, .xls, .ppt, etc.) quite well. Microsoft uses their own (i.e. proprietary) formats which they own and control. If you've encountered the new Office 2007 file formats like .docx, we'll know what I mean.

We recently got a document from the Youth Ministry, in .docx. I had no idea what it was until we Googled it. Thanks to some geniuses at MS, previous versions of Office like our own 2003 do not recognise .docx. We had to convert it via an online file format converter, which consumed time and required an Internet access (our office is out of Telekom's Streamyx coverage so we had to settle for a slower, shared 3G connection).

This happened because .docx is the new default format for Word 2007. Most users don't bother to check it or probably ignored it and assumed that it would work the way .doc format does.

I'm sure we're not the only ones facing this .docx confusion. This is exactly the kind of potential problems with using proprietary file formats. When one company controls and restricts a crucial piece of technology, people will end up being at the company's mercy.

So, is proprietary developed format bad? Not necessarily. Take for example the ubiquitous PDF. It was developed by Adobe, and the company adopts an open approach where it shares a lot of the technical specifications with others. As a result, PDF use has become widespread and it's even hard to imagine working without it.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

The No Asshole Rule

No more! No more special treatment for company's top performers who treat others like dirt. Those who spew venom and drain the energy out of the people they work with. The end begins here!

So say the premise of this book. The No Asshole1 Rule: Building A Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't is not meant to be cheeky or rude. According to Sutton himself, there's no other word that can "quite captures the essence of this type of person."

An a-hole is someone who passes both these tests:
  • Test 1: After talking to the alleged a-hole, does the "target" feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energised, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?

  • Test 2: Does the alleged a-hole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those who are more powerful?
We know the type. We've met them before somewhere, if not at work. But since this is a management book, most of the example are from the workplace and businesses.

Sutton, if you still remember, is a Stanford professor who also wrote another book, the previously reviewed The Knowing-Doing Gap. He even comes up with about a real, quantifiable cost of a-hole behaviour ("the total cost of a-hole") and a self-assessment a-hole test ("Are you a certified a-hole?").

The book itself is refreshing, especially when a lot of business people associate being nice with being weak or a pushover. Individualism (in Western cultures) and high power distance (in ours) allow a-holes to thrive and run free. Those who can't cope are shown the door or keep silent.

Sutton also points that we all are potential a-holes. He even recalls a time in his career when he being one himself, to show that we all need to keep ourselves in check. Becoming an a-hole is often something that starts when we try to preserve our self-interest, like covering our mistakes from being noticed or trying to pin the blame on others. As we continue to behave in ways that are provable by the above tests and without any intervention from anyone around us, we're actually on the path to become true a-holes ourselves.

Sutton warns that a-holes in power often bring onboard other a-holes and this is how poisonous organisations are born.

There's also a devoted chapter on the good things about a-holes, in order to be fair to the subject. In doing so, Sutton hopes to cover the subject from every possible angle and open more opportunity for discussions.

The No Asshole Rule is an easy book to recommend to anyone, even if they don't read management books. Just be careful you when mention the book's title to other people.

1I personally can't agree with Sutton's choice of word, which I find crude but spot-on nonetheless.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Picked up lines

Some interesting things said by people and read by yours truly.
  1. The bullet you don't hear is the bullet that hits you.

    An army saying, quoted by US science fiction author Greg Bear during an interview. He was talking about how the US government shouldn't only be concerned with the threat coming from outside, but also threat coming from within the homeland. Bio-terrorism came up, and Bear exposited how advancements in biotechnology may make it easier for people outside labs to create deadly pathogens (in similar ways to how hidden garage labs makes meth).

  2. Lupus est homo homini (man is a wolf to man)

    Old Latin saying... and still very pertinent today.

More later, insya-Allah, if found.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

When pillars fall

(There won't be a third part to "More on the previous stuff" installment. After much thought, I don't think there anything significant to be added.)

I am lost for words last week.

My old neighbour from childhood, Uncle Karim, passed away Monday last week. His children were my friends back when we lived in Terengganu. Uncle Karim and my father were colleagues and golfing mates. For the last 15 years or so, both of us live only 20 minutes apart.

It is wrong to smile a lot at a funeral? I was the only thing I could manage to do right that day.

When we got to Uncle Karim's house after hearing about his death, my father went and hugged his sons (his are all boys, 6 of them). I haven't seen them in about 16 years. I thought about whether I should hug them or not, and I froze. I shook their hands instead.

I sat next to Ooni, the eldest son. He and I were the closest and we only have a year's difference between us. But he was busy repeating his Yaasin as much as he can for his dear father. I waited for a chance to talk to him.

Everything was done quickly. The jenazah van came about an hour before Asar, and by Asar Uncle Karim's jenazah was already wrapped in kafan. I stood on the edge of the crowd as his boys helped with the process.

When azan for Asar was called I walked to Ooni and he hugged the tears out of me. Abang Ooni is now a father and a husband and he is as calm as ever. He was sad, I can tell, but he could not let the feeling of lost get in the way of preparing his father for the journey ahead. He thanked me for coming. Suddenly I was hearing Uncle Karim's voice in my head, the conversation he had a few weeks ago. My heart was gripped with the realisation of him no longer being with us in this world.

By 6pm, everything was settled. He went back to his house. Uncle Karim's wife and mother were patient throughout the ordeal. It was kind of healing seeing them braving such a great lost.

And it is a great lost, for me. Uncle Karim was one of the persons whom I look up to. He was the good neighbour, the kind of person who is honest and always showed care for others.

This blog is somewhat a grieving mechanism for me. Here I've already wrote about the death my neighbour Pak Ad, my aunt and my grandfather. I've just realised this recently.

What all these people have in common is they are good people. The kind you wouldn't hesitate to call "good". Their kindness and selflessness shined upon the people around them. Their departure leaves a large, gaping hole in other people's lives including mine.

The are the pillars in my life. They are the ones who showed me that what we do and how we treat others do matter. They show me that we can make a different in the world, in people's lives, without realising it, by doing the right thing. Even when doing the right is very difficult.

I'm slowly feeling the effects of their absence. A world without them is a changed one. But I am powerless against this change.

However, I do see now what I do. I must become a pillar myself. Not by feeling that I am one, but by doing what I need to. Even when it means doing the difficult things. May God help me and all of us, insya-Allah.
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