« Tripartite | Main | The power of us »

Penguin time

Danco_Island_Penguins_(15660612764).jpg"When your computers know you're out of town, they sulk," a friend of mine observed once.

Yes, they do. While I was away, my main desktop machine decided to freeze. The repair shop around the corner (how lucky to actually have one) said: needs new motherboard. Which also meant a new processor because: new and different socket. The new configuration turned out to refuse to boot the old version of Windows XP that had been running on the machine - or to repair the old installation, either of which would have been the quickest way to get back to work and forget the whole thing. Faced with reinstalling from scratch, I wrangled the machine back (naturally, they wanted to finish fixing it) and spent a weekend contemplating. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" - but if it *is* broke do you want to restore the status quo or take advantage of the opportunity to try something new? It felt silly to be reinstalling XP in 2016. I never liked 7, 8 really needs a touchscreen to be tolerable, and I was never going to consider 10. It's penguin time!

sumac-penguin.jpgI have long known that my operating system future would eventually be open source software. Philosophically, I should have adopted it exclusively at least 15 years ago. But for years I was paid to review Windows software, and by the time that stopped I had so much experience with it that switching seemed like emigrating into a foreign culture where I didn't speak the language. For years, I've been bucking Windows' idea of where I should put things and how I should operate in favor of habits that were defined in about 1992: these directory names, with these functions, that I back up in this way, and these programs easily launched with these mnemonic keys. Jumping off that familiar track onto a distantly parallel one seemed like a lot of effort. Of course, that distant line wasn't really parallel: more of an asymptote that's been coming closer all this time.

The good part: it took about 24 hours from first inserting the Ubuntu 14.04 disk to being able to do useful work on the machine with all the main functions enabled, albeit with much effort still required, chiefly in getting working some Windows software that I still need. That's a reasonable triumph for the open source community: it has come a long, long way. While user documentation is still limited by the fact that few professional writers can afford to do a lot of free work, the reality is that even apparently obscure problems can often be solved with an online search if you can figure out the right terms (searching on error codes is as effective as it is in the Windows world). This works for several reasons. One, enough people use all this stuff that whatever problem you have the likelihood is that someone else has already had it. Two, enough people who use Linux are geeky, chatty, and inclined to be helpful enough to post the solutions they've found. Three, the community is still small, homogeneous, and well moderated enough that the junk gets weeded out effectively or stopped at source. The quality of answers I've found has been amazing. This is all great stuff.

However, I'm not an entirely novice user. I've been using UNIX commands on the WELL for 20 years, and DOS before that. So not only am I less scared of garbled strings of letters that need to be typed into a terminal, but I can make a reasonable guess at what they mean; what's more difficult is translating the sometimes weird names for things that seemed logical to an interface developer without a marketing or usability department. A real newcomer - say, a 19-year-old who's grown up with an iPad and a smartphone - will struggle more than I have. As long as everything works, they'll be fine. As soon as something breaks...we're still talking about an uneven patchwork of software and information. In this effort, strict attention to dates and sometimes quite fine-grained version numbers is crucial. Otherwise, you find yourself downloading or trying to implement fixes for problems that have been fixed in the release you're running or trying to follow advice that was written several versions ago and has gone through an interface revision. Nonetheless, if you know how to search and read and follow instructions, the hit rate for finding fixes is very high, and for people like me there's real satisfaction in being able to find and successfully implement them - now that it's easier.

Emperor_penguins_(2).jpgIn the midst of all this, I discover that the Linux community is in the midst of an uproar. On January 15, the Linux Foundation, an association of both corporate and individual interest parties, presumably contributors to and users of the codebase, amended its by-laws so that individual members, who formerly had the right to vote in two board members, no longer have that right. Instead, the board will be made up solely of representatives of its corporate members. This seems a wrong move - and counter to the Foundation's stated mission. There are companies all over the open source landscape - but individuals still deserve a voice. Have a penguin.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)