Wednesday 21 August 2002

My life as a geek

Three months ago, considering the possibility of buying a new Macintosh, I wrote: “Even though I’m not really a geek, there’s a geeky part of my temperament that loves the idea of UNIX wrapped in a pretty GUI.”

To which, Marius Coomans replied:

What’s this “I’m not really a geek” business? Give us a break! I’m with Allan, I see a platform change on the way. I’ve thought for a long time that you would eventually fall for Unix - an OS with a concise, non-verbose command set.

As much as I’m loath to give Marius the satisfaction of being right yet again, his comment was prescient: over the past few days I’ve spent lots of time in Installation City: installing Linux on my notebook on the weekend, installing a Telnet client and doing a UNIX command line tutorial yesterday, and installing Movable Type at the new hosting service this morning.

Even though there’s a ton of stuff left to do (including replacing the Berkeley DB database with MySQL), three months ago—when Ben Trott installed MT for me—I couldn’t even imagine doing it on my own. Now I can use my shell account to create directories, manipulate files, and set permissions. (I confess to being underwhelmed by vi but that’s probably because I don’t need its power. Yet.)

I couldn’t connect to the server with the first Telnet client I installed, Absolute Telnet. SSH Secure Shell worked well but, at US$99, it’s a trifle expensive. I had trouble downloading PuTTY yesterday but managed to get it today—it works, and it’s free, but somehow I just don’t like it and would welcome recommendations for a (reasonably priced) Telnet client.

Fonts are inconsequential in a Telnet application. But I got a shock when I saw my weblog in Mozilla under Linux for the first time—the text looked so ragged and ugly. Mysteriously, after running the Red Hat Update Agent, the text suddenly looked fine in the browser. It looked even better once I’d modified my style sheet as suggested by Real World Style, so that the font declarations now read:

font-family: 'Lucida Grande', Verdana, Geneva, Lucida,
Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;

Even so, since I spend most of my time looking at text on a screen, I want the fonts to look smooth and clean. Mark Pilgrim’s link prompted me to go for broke and install Microsoft’s TrueType core fonts on Linux. Which meant I had to:

Well, I can hear some of you saying, big woop. But when you recall that three days ago I’d never heard of RPM packages or dependencies, I think my Linux career is ticking along quite nicely.

Or it was, until I realized that The Gimp saw the new fonts, but AbiWord didn’t. My hubris was punished when I took a break from writing this post and tried to get AbiWord to recognize my new TrueType fonts, only to nuke the application entirely. I should have taken heed of the first two sentences on the FAQ page:

AbiWord supports TrueType fonts in Linux. This is slightly complicated.

Well, yes, if we agree that slightly is an elastic adverb. I tried uninstalling then reinstalling the latest version of AbiWord but ran into dependency problems. So I booted from the Red Hat installation CD and reinstalled AbiWord. Now everything is back to normal: AbiWord is usable, it doesn’t recognize my existing TrueType fonts, and its own fonts look like shit. In other words, AbiWord, thanks for nothing. Suddenly vi is looking pretty attractive.

Yet, on the other hand, thanks Linux, for everything. Thanks for the AU$56 (US$30.50) operating system that recognized most all of the hardware in a ThinkPad I bought in Tokyo four years ago; that connected to the Net the first time I booted; that updates itself seamlessly; that feels solid and reliable; that reveals its power at a pace that I determine; and that seems to be forgiving of my errors.

I guess I’m saying that if someone at my level of expertise can get it to work successfully then Linux is way closer to being ready for prime time than I’d been led to believe. It’s also interesting that I don’t have the same feelings towards Linux as Dorothea Salo:

Part of it, though, is a vague, never-made-fully-explicit expectation that users of Linux and similar open source software “give back” somehow. If you don’t you’re a freeloader, a luser, and you have no right to expect help, sympathy, or consideration when you run into problems. Nor do you have any right to expect the system or any of its parts or applications to be tailored (or tailorable) to your needs. You aren’t a card-carrying geek, so buzz off!

I’m buzzing. It’s not that I don’t value free and open source software, and it’s not that I could not contribute (even I could write better docs than some of these geeks manage). It’s being made to feel like a hypocrite from the get-go that makes me uncomfortable. It’s not really understanding the scope of the expectation. When have I contributed “enough” to be a legitimate Linux user? To warrant a bugfix or an added feature?

I don’t feel obliged to give back any more than $56, plus the money I spent on a couple of books, and the time I’ve invested. The most valualbe thing I can offer is my willingness to engage with Linux and to write about what I learn. While Linux won’t be my main OS any time soon—there are too many Windows applications I like to use— I’m glad I dipped my toe into the water and found it pleasantly warm. If necessary, I could switch and get along just fine.

Right now, though, the payoff is my confidence in using the Red Hat/Apache system at Cornerhost, which is the real reason I installed Linux anyway. I wanted to develop a good conceptual model of how a Linux server works. I shouldn’t need to describe what a relief it is to be able to do everything myself, instead of having to log a job with my current hosting service and wait for it to happen or, worse still, to be told: “Sorry, you can’t do that with IIS. Sorry, we can’t install that Perl module. Sorry, you’ll need to upgrade to the Enterprise Plan.”

Most of all, there’s the fun of doing it and getting it to work (it being Linux, or Movable Type, or a weblog, or anything, really). At one point today, making a cup of coffee, I recalled a scene from Jean Luc-Godard’s La Femme Mariée in which the married woman’s child, Nicolas, describes how to do something (exactly what is never made clear):

To do it:

  1. You pay attention
  2. You figure it all out
  3. You tell everybody
  4. You do it
  5. You buy paint
  6. You check everything
  7. You paint it
  8. You recheck
  9. You work the thing over some more
  10. You make it go.

Doesn’t that so exactly describe our lives as geeks?



Tera Term is a telnet client for Windows for which you can install an ssh extension. I used it for some time (before switching to putty).

Tera Term:
SSH Extension:

Posted by: PapaScott on 21 August 2002 at 11:37 PM

Even vi's original author (Bill Joy doesn't use it. "A Quarter Century of Unix" reports that he recanted of modal editting long ago (and ended up working on a verions of Emacs).

Emacs is a big ball of wax (like Linux), but it is good to have a lisp machine lying about. My computer-illiterate wife uses Emacs to read her email. And it can run on Windows (as can vim).

I'd really suggesting giving emacs a try.

Posted by: Mark A. Hershberger on 22 August 2002 at 04:31 AM

Personally, I love VI/VIM. But, I got lot more people to use SciTE ( which is a free editor for Win32 and Linux. Pretty neat. And very very small memory utilization.

Posted by: S Babu on 22 August 2002 at 07:50 AM

Vim! Vim! Vim! :)

Anyway, putty is more than an terminal interface as it's easy to setup secure tunnels with it. Instant VPN at your fingertips.

Posted by: wari on 22 August 2002 at 11:42 PM

Re: "...too many Windows applications I like to use...". If you start to find yourself wanting to migrate more, you might begin by using applications available on both platforms under Windows, so you still have the familiar environment and the other apps you're used to. OpenOffice is pretty comprehensive that way, and while GIMP may be no PhotoShop, it's fun to watch the PhotoShop users struggle with stuff I find trivial under GIMP.

And in giving back, sometimes that means just taking the time to write up a bug report.

Posted by: Dan Lyke on 23 August 2002 at 02:57 AM

I must confess to being totally confused by GIMP the first time I opened it, since it seemed like just a collection of panels and toolbars without a "unifying" document window. But, once I figured out that I should open GIMP in its own workspace, it started to make more sense.

Good point about taking the time to write a bug report. I'll take that on board.

Posted by: Jonathon Delacour on 23 August 2002 at 10:47 PM

I am not a geek. I am not a geek. I really enjoyed reading your post about Unix and telnet. I was looking for an Absolute Telnet tutorial. I don't use it enough to feel that I know what I'm doing. A tutorial would be nice, but I guess I'll go figure it out and paint it. I do my best work at 3 a.m. anyway.

I love blogging, btw. I wish I could use moveable type, but I'm limited to blogger until I have access to a cgi-bin of my own. I use Blogger Pro which is a huge improvement over the free version. I especially like the feature that I can edit the post date. heh heh

Posted by: Pamela on 17 November 2002 at 10:24 PM

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2002-2003 Jonathon Delacour