Monday, April 24, 2006

The Immigration Issue: part 1

The immigration issue is big news, especially here in Arizona. Everybody has their ideas and opinions on what needs to be done. Some say we should build a wall while others think a guest worker policy will fix the problem. I think that we need to really understand the problem before we can fix it. This article will focus on exploring the problem. I'll attempt to offer some solutions in subsequent posts. Bear in mind that I'm not an expert but this is what my "common sense" has come up with.

Supply and Demand

The very heart of a capitalist society is the law of supply and demand. Simply put, where there is a demand, there will be a supply. In the US there is a demand for low wage labor. Whether it's on farms, in restaurants, in construction, in retail, in travel, or anywhere else, employers are looking to cut costs. This is not evil but business. If I can do business cheaper than company B down the street, more people will come to me and I'll make more money. Just look at Walmart. They cut every possible cost they can and that's given them low prices and high profits. What company doesn't want that?

The problem is the supply of workers. Americans have become very proud, especially in the more affluent parts of the country. How many people would rather be unemployed than work for McDonalds? How many people are willing to work the long hours of physically demanding labor that farm or construction work requires? It's not a popular choice when we can go to college and get real high-paying jobs in computers or accounting or medicine or some other white collar job. Not only that, but the low wages can make it extremely difficult, if not immpossible, to live on the income from these jobs. At this point it's not a matter of arrogance but survival. Can a person really live on $7 an hour? how about $10 an hour?

So what happens? When employers can't find people to fill these jobs locally, they broaden their search. Unfortunately, our neighbor to the south isn't nearly as prosperous as we are. There are thousands of people willing to work in these low wage and low prestige jobs. Many of them are doing it to support their families and give there children a shot at a better life. The wages that we turn our noses up at are more than generous for some of the impoverished areas of Mexico and other Central and South American countries. So they come here and take the jobs.

Is this bad? Well yes it is. Why? It's illegal. Maybe that seems like a little thing but lets look at something similar: prohibition. Is drinking bad? Some say yes and some say no but, during prohibition, it was illegal. What happenned? An entire criminal industry grew up around the smuggling alcohol. They usually had more people and better weapons than law enforcement and they created a level of corruption that seemed to permeate through everything. Despite the best efforts of government, this continued until prohibition was repealed. With illegal immigration we have some of the same thing. We have coyotes that are smuggling people across the border and charging a few thousand dollars each. We have drug cartels using illegal immigrants to smuggle drugs across the border (the drug trade being another supply and demand issue that I won't be going into here). There are cases of bribes going to police and border patrol in order to keep things going. There are areas of the border that are avoided by the border patrol because they know they'll get shot at if they go there. In my opinion, the illegal immigration isn't nearly as bad as the criminal organizations that have sprung up to support it.

That's not to say that illegal immigration isn't bad. Sure the illegal immigrants are just looking for a better life and I don't think they should villified individually, however, collectively there are some real issues. Let's go back to supply and demand. What happens when there's a demand but no supply? If there are jobs but nobody to fill them? One of two things happen, either the job is withdrawn (the company figures out how to function without the job being filled or the company goes out of business) or the salary is increased. What happens when salaries go up? The poor get richer and the rich run the risk of getting poorer (or at least not getting richer as quickly).

So what is the economic impact? If the poor are getting richer, they will improve their standard of living. They wouldn't be so desparate for the necessities of life. We would probably (remember, this is just my opinion) have reduced crime, reduced animosity between the lower, middle, and upper classes, more people satified with their lives, etc. There's a lot of good that can come from it. Would there be any bad? Yes, I think there is a downside as well.

If Walmart, which pays under $10 per hour on average, couldn't find anybody to work for those wages, what would they do? They'd raise their salaries. They would also probably raise their prices to cover for the loss. For smaller businesses it may be more extreme. If landscaping companies had to increase their wages and hence their prices, how many customers would they lose? How many would go out of business? Food prices would probably go up, luxury prices (restaurants, hotels, etc) would probably go up, housing prices would probably go up, etc. A lot of small companies would probably go out of business and a lot of large companies would have much smaller profits (and some could go out of business as well).

Businesses are very powerful in government (like it or not) and will fight anything that they see as detrimental to their bottom line. In a lot of ways, illegal immigration is good for business. Cheap labor means bigger profits and illegal immigrants don't complain about poor treatment, lousy wages, lack of healthcare, etc. After all, if they did, they might get deported. Unfortunately, the crime and suffering caused by our current immigration policies have gotten to the point that the people are upset and demanding the problem be fixed. So now, business lobby or no business lobby, something has to be done.

Which brings us to the real question. What do we do?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Changing from Xandros 3.02 to Suse 9.3 - My Linux Odyssey

Some people hop from one operating system to the next, always interested and excited about the next new thing. Others like to experiment for a while but, after finding the “right” OS, tend to stop looking around. Others won't change at all. In fact, they will fight change even if their current operating system locks up all the time, is difficult to use, and never seems to work right (OK, not all Windows systems are like that but you get my point). I am in the second group. Once I decided to try Linux, I spent a month or so trying out different flavors until I found the one I liked. So, for the last year or so, I have been a happy Xandros Linux user.

Then it happened. A few months ago, I was approved to replace my computer. Since HP is a supplier for work, I was able to get a nice Athlon 64 box without any hassle (very nice!). Not only that, but I was able to get it with Linux. Granted my only choice was Suse Linux 9.3 but it was nice not to pay the Windows tax and it did seem to make the machine cheaper (HP doesn't allow you to make a direct comparison but it was a $100 or so cheaper than the closest box I could spec with Windows). All in all, a very nice box and, although I am a big Xandros fan, I thought it would be interesting to try Suse out. After all, if I didn't like it, I could just format the hard drive and put Xandros on it.

When the computer came in, I found an interesting thing. Although it shipped with Suse 9.3, it didn't come pre-installed with it. They simply shipped the CDs with the box. So, instead of trying a new version of Linux, I was now picking which distribution I wanted to install. Although I do like to experiment, I decided that since this is my work computer, I should go with what I already know works well for me. So I decided to install Xandros. With the Xandros installer being the easiest installer I've ever seen, it should be super easy. Well, it wasn't.

Did I mention that I got an SATA hard drive on my new computer? Well, I did. It seemed like a good idea and, since IDE wasn't available, it was my only option. The only problem is that the Xandros installer couldn't detect the hard drive. I looked in the forums and everywhere else I could find but couldn't find any advice that actually helped. After a while, installing Suse started to get very tempting. “Well,” I thought, “although I'm accustomed to Xandros, Suse has a very good reputation and would probably make just as good a desktop”. So I decided to give it a try.

The install was pretty easy. Not as simple as Xandros but very straightforward. You do install a lot more software (4 CDs for Suse instead of 1 CD for Xandros) but I didn't have any issues. In about half an hour I had my Suse instance booting up. Easy as pie. The setup after that was a bit more complex. The network setup defaulted to DHCP but the firewall seemed to block the DHCP by default. I stumbled across this by pure accident but, once I opened the DHCP port, everything worked fine. Then I applied all the patches/security updates and I was ready to go. Well, sort of...

My next issue was file sharing. In Xandros I had my Active Directory shares mounted (like a hard drive or CD ROM). This was childishly easy to set up in the Xandros File Manager but gave me problems every now and then because it would lose the connection and hang trying to find them. I would have to manually unmount and remount them. With Suse, I found you could simply bookmark a link to the share and, although you have to log in more often, I haven't had it hang trying to access a disconnected mount point. The only problems I had were opening remote documents caused OpenOffice to freeze. No problem, just copy the document first and then open it. I have to say I like Suse's way better. Of course, I found out later that I could have done the same thing on Xandros but Suse makes it much easier.

Setting up printing was a nightmare. Our printers are also on an Active Directory network. In Xandros, all I had to do was tell it the print server and the printer. In Suse, it wasn't nearly as straightforward. I told it the printer server and the printer, played with a bunch of samba settings in 3 or 4 configuration panels, and finally rebooted. Rebooting seems to have done it though I don't know why it was necessary. Then the printing worked for a while until, while trying to print, it just put the job in the print queue and nothing happened. Kind of frustrating. Sure, I don't print very often and Xandros isn't perfect at printing either, but come on! However, I ended up feeling really stupid when I remembered that I had changed my AD password but hadn't updated my printer configuration. Printing works fine now.

Then there's rebooting. When I went to the shutdown menu and picked reboot, nothing happened. I tried again a couple more times with the same result. Finally I went into a console, changed to root and typed “reboot”. That worked just fine. So why doesn't the menu work? Really odd...

Then there was the issue of mounting my flash drive. I figured it would be the same as on Xandros. I stuck my flash drive into the usb port and ... nothing. So after an hour of poring over forums and help pages, I found that I wasn't the only one with issues. I did get the drive to mount though, and thought I had solved my problem. Well, a couple days ago, I tried it again. Once again, nothing. So now I'm pretty frustrated, but I search again. After a few hours I find another possible solution (something about disabling USB 2.0 support so USB 1.1 compatible drives work) that did the trick at first but after a couple of days it stopped working again. If I reboot, it works again for a while, then stops. Odd...

As for look and feel, I found that I like Suse better. Both Suse and Xandros are KDE based, but the Suse implementation is, in my opinion, a little bit better. It seems more polished or professional or something. I can't quite put my finger on it. I suppose it could be going from a 15 inch monitor to a 19 inch monitor and from a pentium 4 1.7 GHz to an AMD 3200+, but I simply liked it more. Konqueror (the file manager) is also set up differently. It's set to open files/directories on a single click. This took some getting used to but now I like it. The KDE control center is similar in look and feel but, with YAST integration, everything is in a different place. This isn't necessarily good or bad, just different. After a week or so of getting used to things, there weren't any issues other than the ones previously mentioned.

Although I miss Xandros, switching distributions was not as big a thing as I thought it would be. There were some surpises, but overall Xandros and Suse are not all that dissimilar. The issues I faced are not recurring problems but one-time setup headaches (except for the flash drive thing); frustrating at first but soon forgotten. Both distributions do their jobs well and, once again, I'm not really paying attention to my OS any more. I'm just working.

For me, it comes down to personal preference. I started with Xandos and still prefer it; I just use it at home now. However, if I had started with Suse, then it may very well have won my heart. Over all, I have to say that both distributions are quite good. I like the look and feel of Suse better but Xandros seems to have better hardware and network support out of the box (except for the SATA support) as well as a much more simplified setup and configuration. I guess my conclusion is that I like Suse but I miss Xandros. You can't use a distribution for a year and not become attached to it. Perhaps, after a few more months of using Suse, I'll get more attached to it. Who knows, I may actually end up liking it more.

Review of Xandros Linux

This review was originally published by NewsForge. Here's my original.

About a year ago I installed Linux on my desktop at work. I am a database administrator for a PeopleSoft and Oracle shop and I spend a lot of my time remotely logged in to our servers. I decided to try Linux because I had become frustrated with Windows not being able to things like multiple desktops, forwarding the display of a remote server onto your box to run apps remotely, and connecting with SSH. Fortunately, my management is far more interested in having happy, productive employees than what operating system people use so they were willing to let me experiment. Today, with Xandros, I have a good solid desktop, and I don't worry about viruses, spyware, and adware.

I wanted an easy-to-use Linux distribution, something that "just works." I didn't want to spend my time tinkering or figuring out how to make my system work.

At work we have been migrating our Web servers and some of our other database servers to Red Hat, so that seemed a good first choice. However, Red Hat is expensive and, in my opinion (from a usability point of view), better suited as a server. I could have gone for the free and more updated Fedora Core but I didn't want something that was labeled "experimental."

My next thought was Ubuntu. You have to search pretty hard to find negative comments about Ubuntu. I loaded up Warty Warthog on a spare computer and played with it for a while. I liked the clean interface but was bothered by the things missing. I had to hand-edit my config file to set the refresh rate (which wasn't properly detected), I could not get printing to work over our Active Directory network, and I had a difficult time setting up connections to our file server (also Active Directory). After a few days without the ability to print I decided to move on.

My next try was Xandros. Although not free, Xandros has a free (for non-commercial use) version which I downloaded. I was extremely impressed with the simple install routine and the ease of setting everything up. I set up mappings to our Active Directory file server in minutes with no problems, but the real selling point was that I set up printing in less than 10 minutes. I was hooked.

I didn't want to jump into anything without some thorough testing, so I took a couple of months before hitting up my boss for funds to purchase it. One by one, I moved my applications over. It wasn't hard since I was already using Opera for Web browsing and Thunderbird for email. My word processing and spreadsheet needs were pretty basic, so replaced Microsoft Office quite easily. I use a few Windows-only applications, but since I don't use them often, I just left them on a spare Windows box.

I decided to do my "conversion" cold turkey. I immediately went to Linux full-time and only used my Windows box when I absolutely had to. Xandros handled everything I threw at it. I love how you can install local standalone Debian and RPM packages as well as repository-based packages from Xandros Networks. I even came to love the Xandros File Manager (which I didn't like at first) for its power and versatility. It still amuses me that Windows takes three or four mouse clicks to unmount a flash drive and Xandros does it in one. The best part of all is that it just worked. I wasn't spending time fiddling with config files or fighting with OS issues. I just did my job and was happy.

After two or three months of using Xandros, I went to my boss and told him that I had been using Linux for the past few months and explained why I felt it was a better OS for me. I asked for funds to purchase Xandros Deluxe version 3 (which had been released while I was still doing my evaluation). The funds were approved, and within a few days, I had a shiny new copy of Xandros Linux.

The migration from the Xandros 2 installation that I had to version 3 was painless. I just backed up all my files and moved them over to the new computer (I upgraded my computer at the same time). Apart from installing some programs, that was about it. The look and feel was the same. The big changes were in the underlying architecture (moving from the 2.4 to the 2.6 kernel, upgrading KDE, etc.). The most noticeable change was the inclusion of Crossover Office (which I use only to test Web pages in Internet Explorer). After just a couple of days I was done tinkering and back to work.

Of course I had some minor issues. Setting the default Web browser to Opera involved some Internet searching and command line configuration. Printing gave me grief every now and then (which turned out to be an Opera issue) but I got that solved. In order to install the Oracle client, I had to trick the installer into thinking that Xandros was actually Red Hat. The only recurring problem came from Samba. I set up my network shares by mounting them off of my home directory, but every now and then (maybe once a month) I would lose my connections and the file manager would freeze for about five minutes trying to access the shares. To fix this I had to wait for the file manager to time out, manually unmount the shares, and remount them. Apart from that, Xandros was solid as a rock and so easy to use that I rarely thought about what OS I was using at all.

I've been using Xandros for over a year now and no longer consider it a grand experiment; it's just my desktop. Some say that Linux is not ready for the desktop and, for them, it may not be. However, for me, it's not only ready but it's the perfect OS for my job.

I love my car!

I finally got it. Ever since the PT Cruiser came out in 2001ish, I've wanted to get one. Of course new cars aren't cheap (even though the PT Cruiser IS relatively inexpensive, it's still not cheap) and I had a car that ran pretty well so it was hard to justify spending that much money because it "looks cool". However, I had decided that when my current vehicle, a 1991 Acura Integra, finally wore itself out, the PT Cruiser would be at the top of my list. However, with only 150,000 miles on it and it being an Acura, I figured I had a few years to prepare. I was wrong.

Starting last summer, my car started having issues. Little things would wear out/break that would be annoying to fix and, at least twice, required towing the car to our mechanic. It was bad enough that I enrolled in AAA which, at the rate I seemed to be going, would pay for itself rather quickly. Well it did and, as an aside, I was so impressed with AAA's service that I recommend them to anyone who asks.

Anyways, the car ran OK for the next 6 months or so but then, at the end of January, the car died. My wife was driving it back from somewhere and the engine just conked out right at an intersection. I called AAA and they had a tow truck there in half an hour and towed it to the shop we use. The mechanics looked it over and pronounced the engine pretty much dead and quoted us 3 or 4 thousand dollars to get it fixed. For a car that was starting to break a lot, paying twice what it's worth to get a new one didn't seem very wise. So we went shopping.

I did some internet research and found that PT Cruisers seem to have very good resale value and that it wasn't that much more expensive to buy brand new. Buying new also allowed me to get the options I wanted while not paying for the ones I didn't. So I did some homework and, on the last day of January, my wife and I went to a dealer.

We took a test drive and I was sold. I told the dealer exactly what I wanted (base model with AC) and what color and they were able to come up with one. It did have one extra feature but it was satellite radio (which I actually wanted anyway) but I did get them to cut the price in half. So after some negotiation we finally got everything ironed out and I left hoping that I'd never have to buy another car for a long, long time. I love the car but the whole experience was awful.

So, I've had my cruiser for about two and a half months and I still love it. It's fun to drive, it looks great, and it has lots of room. My kids call it "Daddy's blue car" and get really excited whenever I take them for rides. It has a smooth ride, a fairly quiet interior, easy to read dashboard, and for such a small car, it puts you about a head above most other small cars which gives you nice visibility. I got the manual transmission which works well although the clutch is a little stiff (which is really noticable in Phoenix rush hour traffic).

The car has so many cool little things on it. Not only does it have the standard A and B trip odometers, but it also shows you the outside temperature (which I think is really cool). The dome light doesn't just turn off when you shut the door but it fades to dark. It's got a very nice sounding stereo system with easy controls. Plus it has cup holders! OK, you wouldn't think cup holders would be a big deal but my old Integra didn't have them. I also love the retro-styled interior. It has all the conveniences I want but with the 50s look to them.

Is it perfect? Well, no. It has power door locks but they can only be controled from the front doors. This means that when I get the kids out of the back, I have to go back to one of the front doors to lock the car. I'm also still getting used to have the window controls in the middle of the dashboard instead of on the doors. The only other thing I can think of is that the gas cap is on the passenger side and I keep parking on the wrong side of gas pumps. Other than that it's a great little car and if I can get 150,000 miles on it before needing to get a new one, I'll be happy as a clam.