Becoming Digital

Points of note: comments are back on. I may blog about why some other day. Also, I spent some time re-editing many posts to include more points in smaller word counts, because my writing style is verbose.

I've discussed the pre-existing bias that comes with digital media. We inherently distrust digital items culturally, through increased complexity and less control over the product itself. This is shown through both consumer resistance as well as corporate resistance to such evolutions. This is perceived and is partially my perception of society and culture. Does reality actually reflect what we think?

This is in terms of my experience because I feel trying to generalize any thesis's from the topic would end poorly. When I talk about my own digital conversion, I'm discussing the lack of reliance on phsyical product versus digital distribution, not analog versus digital media playback.

Movies and TV Shows: I don't do much of this, but when I do (usually for things I'm nostalgic for) I just rip it from a DVD and give the disc away.

Music: I used to buy music from various MP3 stores online, but I have since converted to OGG and FLAC and now try to get either a CD or lossless audio for format shifting. The disc is typically stored or put with my books if I really, really like it. Sometimes I loan out CD's or give them away as gifts. I also use netlabels extensively, mostly for my ambient or downtempo electronic music.

Books: This is a mess, though this could be book production's current digital revolution. My physical books are usually used and cheaper than $5, while digital books (read on a Kindle 3) are whatever strikes my fancy and price point. The quantity at which I buy either depends on how much I'm reading, and if the public library has it. For Kindle purchases I use Calibre and additional plugin tools to remove DRM from Kindle formats and archive them locally and remotely. My book reading is as scattered as my purchasing and owning, so it's all over the map appropriately.

Games: Also a mess. I'm deciding which platform I prefer so I can eliminate the cruft, which is emotional and complicated. PC games? I'm digital. Wii? Digital: I rip using a hacked Wii and perpetually loan the discs to my brother. However, older consoles require physical media. Thus the debate continues.


New Yorker talks about Steve Jobs (I sent it to my Kindle for ad-free reading - use something to clear the clutter!)

The article is an advertisement for the biography, yes. However, the thesis is that Jobs was a tweaker - changing things around him, pointing out what worked and endlessly pushing for more and toward his ideal perfection.

My first reaction to the article is whether the tech industry will have another full-on innovator. Perhaps. But as I learn about the past within computers, I see a cycle, or a pattern. What is cool, in focus, remembered will cycle forward and things are forgotten and then remembered again. Cultural focus shifts.

I was thinking as I was looking around at CLI applications: What hasn't been done? If I knew I'd be rich, or at least a little richer than I am now. But has there actually has been any legitimate new ideas in the tech industry of late? There's a long and complicated answer summed up with "Yes, but only a very little bit." It depends on what you qualify as "new," and how it stacks up to older eras.

The article's description of Jobs' endless tweak cycle impacted me because this is why I use Linux. I always tweak my own machines to perfection within my own limitations. I think that Jobs was incorrect in thinking that perfection for him is perfection for everyone, which is why I profess a love for open as much as he stood for closing his products.

The tech industry hasn't become stagnant, as much as its become fashion. It's bold, it's loud, and it sells. And considering the state the current mainstream tech press, is is fair to argue that they have become vapid fashion critics? This is why Jobs' face is plastered over People and Time - not because the tech industry has become mainstream, but because the tech industry has become about fashion. I don't particularly think Jobs intended this to be the case, but his death reveals it.

Reminder (mostly for myself)

You know what feels good? Getting rid of things I don't need any more.

You know what feels better? Not buying the things in the first place.


Bashpodder is a bash script that watches RSS feeds of podcasts for you. You make a list of the podcasts you enjoy in its config file, run the script, and it checks to see if there are new episodes.

I'm pretty sure it's just checking for new episodes versus its .log file, and wget-ing the episodes that aren't there. This unfortunately means that the first time you run it, you'll get everything that podcast has available. But if that's a concern, you could always simply edit the script and comment out the wget commands, or add the URL's to the log file.

If I didn't have a bandwidth limit every month I'd get the job to get run on a regular basis, but I usually just run it when I'm at my local campus.


Podcasts I'm digging: The Bugle (news satire), Other People Podcast (writer interviews), Comedy Bang Bang (comedian interviews and improv),'s podcast (wide variety of techno mixes), and NPR/Radiolab's the American Life (journalism).


The minimalist philosophy I've assumed since last time is a simple one. It's basically come down to this: if it doesn't improve my standard of living in a quantifiable and predictable way, I don't let it into my life.

However, I've also started to morph this concept into something incorporating sustainability - both personal and social. How long will this last? It's a profound question that gets ignored a lot in our fast, self-enclosed tech industry, where the tech press isn't necessarily holding the tech industry accountable any more and largely is the industry's way of boosting its own ego and relevance.

Had I not bought the Kindle yet, I probably wouldn't buy it remembering the sustainability theory. For digital books - once you rip the DRM - the sustainability is long, but for hardware, used books not only are useful longer, but are generally better for everyone. Sure, the obvious angle is that technology contains poisonous toxins, released everywhere on production and destruction. I bought the Kindle thinking that plain text won't be obsolete, but the device itself will not last forever: batteries and corporate support will die, and meanwhile paper books still remain untouched. It's less sustainable as a platform in my life. It may increase my standard of living in quantifiable ways, but it also comes with a price and an expiration date.

I've often praised "used" purchases as a more noble and effective way to move forward, and it's going to be a large part of how I live. When the tech industry is more interested in creating disposable, short lifespan devices that lack repair capabilities (see the appliances conversation we had last year) I find it more rewarding to save a few forgotten tools of yesterday from the trashcan and the eWaste dump. I usually can assume that if it has lasted this long and can still be sold, it will probably continue to do so.

Linux helps here by making old computers useful again, but that's a blog I've already written. It's back there. Trust me.

Re: Change

My Linux Rig posted about Change.

As a Linux user, it’s kind of hard for me to wrap my head around. Because reading about the changes made in Lion, I thought users would be upset that they had lost some functionality (and, to be fair, some people are upset about that) and that some UI choices had been made without their input.

But Mac people just roll with it, trusting that Apple’s changes are improvements.

Compare that to the response to Unity, which was mostly negative. I would argue the negative response was driven by the fact that Canonical forced the change on users, rather than letting them opt-in to a dramatically new UI.

Part of me wishes the Linux community were more open to change, the way the Mac community is. And part of me is proud to be a part of a community that has so much choice, resisting change isn’t too hard to do.

I have a unique experience now in that I've been forced over to the Mac due to my college and have been trying to force myself into this ecosystem. As such, I have some things to say.

Naturally the Apple fans will enjoy what comes their way. I see it largely as a brand loyalty of the utmost crucial to a company's survival, but as for why and now, I can't understand. But trust is a very key point that Linux Rig goes on to make. I think a lot of the reason why I would use Linux over OS X is because I don't trust OS X. But I don't particularly trust Linux either, either as a whole community or as individual projects, but I trust some of them more than OS X at least

The reason why Ubuntu hit resistance in their Unity project is because they have no trust. They haven't earned it. Why would they? After years of creating endless issues mucking around with glibc and buggy Python apps, they're suddenly going to make their own desktop? This is a small project trying to accomplish big things. It's hard not to be pessimistic. If Apple had already released several iterations of the iPhone that were buggy and crashed and never worked, do you think users would upgrade to that?

Ubuntu comes off as a bleeding edge distro. You want to get the new release so you have the new Firefox, the new LibreOffice, etc. Every release is incremental, but you like seeing that progress. Why else have a six month release window? Otherwise risk becomes apparent, not only workflow but in system and desktop performance. This is in what used to be a relatively risk-free environment (Debian) king among all features. That forward motion can halt at any moment, and once we run out of road, what do we do?

Having purchased and used OSX Lion for several days, I can't say I'm entirely pleased. It seems like there's more animation, more cruft, more glitz and less control. It shouldn't have cost $30 for what it offers. But the real issue is why it was released at all. Change is nice, but where are we going with it? Why are we changing? For the sake of doing so? It's not useful change, or purpose-driven change. This is what OS X Lion, KDE4 and Gnome 3 felt like. They don't change in a direction that says, this is why and this is where. They just change because they are expected to, because they have to to get people to keep upgrading. It's up to consumers to figure out why.

KDE and Gnome spent years crafting very distinct, working desktops that looked great and operated smoothly. Then, two competing, inferior, buggier desktops with flashier graphics and little of the stability we once knew. OSX Lion? Suddenly my apps don't work, stability is lesser than Snow Leopard and my wallet is $30 lighter. Hell if change was worth it.

Change isn't always bad for Linux, I agree. I like incremental evolution. I like change I can see and understand, and plan for. I don't like change for the sake of change. There's no point to that.

Musings on DIY

I've complained enough about my iPod nano (4th gen) to make my lungs gasp in agony if I ever verbalized my digitized ramblings. However, what really bothers me about the device is how little I control, even on a physical level.

I've had dust in the little area between the screen and the glass for years. You would think the design would allow easy access, but no; purposely placed mechanisms make opening the device incompatible with future operation.

I'm fine with making things not obvious in how to open and fix. But outright making it impossible? What makes me think I should place my trust in Apple to fix issues for me? What about trivial issues such as dust in the screen? I am not a baby; I can do things for myself. Besides, my warranty expired years ago, so Apple's benefit is null as well as mine.

Control is longevity. This example is a physical version, but what of software?

Think about some e-reader that is locked down and can only read specific file formats. (The Kindle has the latter issue but its software is not locked down) Eventually the software lock will reduce usefulness, due to changing industry file formats. Look at how quickly the war between ePub and MOBI sprung up, from where we had barely any tussle at all.

From small fixes to the screen to large fixes in what file format a device supports, these are fundamentals in usefulness when problems occur. They do; even on a closed, locked ecosystem like the iPod, problems occur. Advertising will tell you differently. But I've already mentioned trust.

So we ask: how can this be fixed?

On the converse, how rewarding is it to open your computer case and clean it out, insuring proper care and maintenance is rewarded with many years of ceaseless operation? Or being able to clean a screen when it gets dirty? Or being able to install a new operating system on an old computer, so that what was once a useless security breach is suddenly a useful again?

We should not pretend our skills are not formidable. We enjoy computers. We want them to last. The ability to fix one's own device is simply an extension of this principle.

Why Linux Distro Reviews and Anecdotes are Worthless

So this morning I fired up the newest release of Mr. Linux Distro, which has recently released its 100th release since last Wednesday. I've decided to review this release because it seems like a fun thing to do.

Under the hood, Mr. Linux Distro contains Kernel, Application 64, and my personal favorite, GNUWidget 19. These are numbers that were previously smaller and now they're bigger.

I've arbitrarily chosen benchmarks for this distro and here they are:

Works with my Webcam
Works with my Wi-fi
Doesn't work with some arbitrary piece of hardware that is easy as pie to get working but I'm going to complain about it anyway.
Doesn't work if I stand upside down and sing Mary Had a Little Lamb
Isn't named Ubuntu for some strange reason.

Also, I've found that when you type in "rm -rf /" into the terminal, this distro stops working. This is a disgrace. I'm disgusted at such a low standard Mr. Linux Distro is held to and I won't stand for it.

I did not file any bug reports or do any research.


Self Examination

Try and take some time out of your life to think about yourself.

As much as I can type I will never give you every bit of advice that you can't already figure out for yourself. This isn't me giving up, but rather me being honest and saying, "look, at some point you've gotta grab the wheel yourself."

What should you examine? Well, here's what I do:

-What is it that makes me happy?
-What is standing in the way of my happiness?
-How can I remove these things?
-What do my actions reflect about what I think makes me happy?

The last one is my most important question, because it calls into question the other three answers.

I browse the internet too much. I spend too much time checking uninteresting websites. This time would be better served with reading or playing video games, both of which stimulate my mind more than a mundane website update. Not only would my internet time be more valuable if I lessened it due to more updates to read at once, but I could spend more time doing things that I really enjoy.

You're not going to read anything nearly as soul-inspiring and personal as that on any blog, website, or tumblr. You're going to have to figure it out for yourself.

Technology Isn't Natural

Pre-existing bias.

We all have it to some extent. What is important is what we do with your biases. Can the unhealthy ones be changed? Fixed? Ignored?

Current widespread bias, I argue, is the notion that technology isn't natural. You hear it in the way words sound, the way we perceive concepts.

Think analog. Now think digital.

Analog is warm, old, stable, and simple. Digital is new, cold, complicated, changing, shifting, something else that we have knowingly removed conceptually from the rest of our natural lives.

Technology in the modern world has made us communicate more efficiently than any other before us, and in the process we have made things more conceptual. We deal in concepts as a society, more so in our modern world. Money, once a physical concept, is slowly morphing into a conceptual one. The economy is shifting into a perception-based entity where it was once the flow of physical trade. This blog is entirely conceptual beyond anything my ancestors ever dreamed of.

This is all tied into the concept of modern technology. And we distrust it.

Think about something analog. An old AM radio. Simple construction, reliable parts, probably aging so that it's getting hard to find replacement parts. It sounds muffled when you turn it on, an age that echoes, from beyond a very long distance.

Think about something digital. Your MP3 player. Crystal clear sound quality. Possibly an unreliable piece of equipment - even the best devices have problems sometimes. If it breaks, it's nearly impossible to fix by yourself, unless you designed it (trade secrets and all that - wouldn't want to give up the money maker!). You assume you'll throw it away when it's done being used. The battery will die, or the screen will wear out, or the headphone jack will stop working. Total life expectancy? Less than a few years.

This concept is not hard to spot once you think about it. Books versus ebook readers. Vinyl versus digital audio. Movie projectors versus a flat screen TV. A card game version of Uno versus an Xbox digitalization.

In so many ways, we as a society distrust technology. We distrust the complications, the conceptualization. We cling to the old ways and never let go, allowing these methods to resurge and amplify.

I'm not saying it's right or wrong. It just is.

iBook G3 with Debian

We have a working Apple iBook, 14.1" screen. Debian 6.0 saves the day!

The stats, I think, are: 256 or 384 MB RAM, ATI graphics card, 30GB hard drive, 700 mhz G3 PPC processor

What works:
-xorg, fluxbox, thunar
-Iceweasel, though only a few tabs at a time and even then it takes a bit (installed NoScript, Adblock, Flashblock and Ghostery to help keep memory down)
-keyboard and mouse, usb mice
-CD drive
-Marathon/Aleph One in software rendering mode (runs fairly well actually)
-Ur Quan Masters

What dosn't work:
-wi-fi (which would be WEP if it worked anyway, so who cares)
-changing xorg to a 16 bit color mode to get more video RAM for 3D acceleration

What will burn the hair off of your skin:
-the heat of the night

What will give you a back ache:
-the thing is darn heavy, mister, are you sure you're on the fifteenth floor?

They don't make laptops like they used to. You could kill a man with this thing. I'm not saying you couldn't with any other laptop, but it involves less whacking and a smaller time commitment.

I'm pretty pleased with it though. A friend mostly gave up on the poor lad and now look at 'em. He's as useful as any other laptop, save the sound and wi-fi. But who needs those things anyway.

I was tempted to try and install OSX on there to compare performance. The PPC iBooks were apparently supported up to 10.4. I wonder if a friend has an install disc.

I'm on Tumblr

I'm currently importing my best pictures and quotes from my soup (which is a large cornucopia of things I like) so bear with the initial deluge.

I haven't decided if I'll use it instead of blogspot, so it's a supplement for now.

It's Gone

Two things happened yesterday.

One, I lost my iPod shuffle.

Two, my roommate's mother splashed my Sansa Clip with a water bucket accidentally. She compensated me for the error.

Now this means that I only have one MP3 player, the iPod nano. And I'm okay with that.

You don't realize how little things mean to you until you separate from them. I automatically assumed: I don't have a small MP3 player now, time to shop. But then I shopped and found I didn't really want one in the first place.

I consider this profound because we assume we need something in our lives and it isn't until we really separate ourselves and look at our possessions, levels removed, that we see what matters.


Other notes:

-We went without internet for about ten days at the apartment which was an interesting, and dare I say, pleasant experience. The internet is a vast and powerful entertainment tool, but it's nice to disconnect from that world occasionally. If I was living alone I might have cancelled it entirely just to get some clarity.

What on earth did I do during these dark times? I read. I can safely recommend The Divine Comedy to pretty much everyone. I went for more bike rides, as they became recreational as opposed to fitness orientated. I also played a few video games. I found that among the few games I own, I can pretty much play Metroid Prime for the Gamecube almost exclusively and be perfectly happy, if not happier than buying a new game every month.

That's the sort of self-exploration I'm looking for!

Lowering Levels of Folders

Folders are great because they hide hidden clutter or complexity.

Try sorting your current files so that you only use one level of folders. This requires you to be:

-More specific
-Less eager to make more folders
-Less apt to shove something in a "misc" folder when that misc folder would get cluttered very, very quickly

It's not a steadfast rule and not everything works with it (music collections for example) but it's a fun exercise that helps reorganize and delete the unwanted.

Five Filters

I found this website interesting. It is a group of digital independent news reading tools.

I found the site through their "Kindle It" tool, which takes a source webpage and turns it into a Kindle-ready document. It works wonderfully. Kindle It works with other formats too.

The other tools:

"Explore Independent Media" - Takes in keywords about current events and outputs alternative sources of information about it

"PDF Newspaper" - Takes in a blog or website and turns it or alternative sources into a PDF formatted page for easy printing. Another format shift tool.

"Full Page RSS" - Takes a blog or website and creates an RSS feed that will take the full text from articles.

"Term Extraction" - Scans text and finds the relevant terms.

The tools are all free software and work in most of the browsers I tried. Some of them are finishing up and have local binaries to run on your own hardware.


Mildly related, a tool for Kindles: Delivereads. A man named Dave Pell finds things he likes on the internet and sends them to your Kindle weekly as a single file. The first issue was of a fairly high quality - check out his sample stories.

I want to see simple tools like this for e-readers more often.

Bacon's Four Idols

Francis Bacon was a man who discussed, among many subjects, the idols that we keep in our mind that hold us back from thinking rationally and with reason.

Idol of the tribe: being "othered" and disliking someone or something because it's not like us (outside of the tribe)

Idols of the cave: the limitations of personal perspective, Plato's Cave

Idols of the marketplace: communication, peer pressure and sociology in general (inside of the tribe)

Idols of the theatre: the negative effects of the -ism and ideology

The two main topical ones are the cave and the theatre, though I could definitely come up with examples of the other two.

The cave deals with how our own perspectives warp the mind into thinking irrationally. For example, liking something only because it's new, not because it's better. Conversely, liking something only because it's old is also irrational.

I admit to conservatism in technology - I'm predisposed to liking something more when it's older. I have rational examples: Older things are cheaper, often more reliable, and time tested. But I would be foolish to say this is a blanket rule for all things, and liking something merely because it hits these bullet points would be irrational.

The theatre deals with rigid ideology, and in a way it is very close to the cave. Any end all be all ideologies end up here. Communism and capitalism are the two easiest to pinpoint.


You see why I brought the subject up. The reason why I'm discussing the subject is because I don't think minimalism is an ideology, but a bundle of verbs - word that each person fills in themselves. For minimalism, there's a general idea that it requires something minimal (it's right there in the word!) but where and why that threshold stops is entirely loose and as such it's hard to call minimalism an ideology.

But does this idea that Bacon expresses have any bearing on minimalism as we live it today? Are we too ridged in our following of our self-made principle? Is it making us irrational? Or are we more noble in our strength to follow what makes us happy?

I want comments. This is a discourse.

CD Ripping: abcde is the best

Here I thought I was going to be stuck using Exact Audio Copy on Windows, which never stood up to my odd needs for CD ripping along with poor stability.

What I wanted was a program that would look at the disc and tag accordingly with CDDB, then rip the files securely once with cdparanoia or some other secure ripping tool, and then encode the files to multiple formats as I dictated. Little did I know that the tool existed for Linux as a command line program called abcde.

Thanks to a website known as Andrew's Corner, configuring the program was a small matter of copying and modifying the syntax to my needs into a .abcde.conf file in the home directory.

Now when I want to rip a CD, I pop it in, run the command "abcde," make sure the CD it found was correct, and then walk away. (Quick tip: if the program brings up a list of multiple album options, press q to go back to abcde)

This is amazing. It's like someone went into my brain, found what CD ripper I wanted to exist, and then said, "I made it for you, there it is in Debian." Well, to be fair, I did configure the thing, but still.

Also, having never used CDParanoia before, I was pleasantly surprised to find it has real time smiley faces to tell you the status of the rip, which is the best thing I've ever seen and is far more useful than Exact Audio Copy's red bars indicating something I initially assumed was "how much fun you're not having right now."

Here is my modified version of the code if anyone's interested.

# -----------------$HOME/.abcde.conf----------------- #
# A sample configuration file to convert music cds to
# MP3, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC
# using abcde version 2.4.2
# minor mods by
# -------------------------------------------------- #

OGGENCODERSYNTAX=oggenc # Specify encoder for Ogg Vorbis
MP3ENCODERSYNTAX=lame # Specify encoder for MP3
FLACENCODERSYNTAX=flac # Specify encoder for FLAC

OGGENC=oggenc # Path to Ogg Vorbis encoder
LAME=lame # Path to MP3 encoder
FLAC=flac # Path to FLAC encoder

OGGENCOPTS='-q 3' # Options for Ogg Vorbis
LAMEOPTS='--preset standard' # Options for MP3
FLACOPTS='--verify --best' # Options for FLAC

OUTPUTTYPE="ogg,mp3,flac" # Encode to all 3 formats!


# Give the location of the CD identification program:


# Create playlists for single and various-artist encodes. I would suggest
# commenting these out for single-track encoding.

mungefilename ()
echo "$@" | sed s,:,-,g | tr / _ | tr -d \'\"\?\[:cntrl:\]
MAXPROCS=1 # Run a few encoders simultaneously
PADTRACKS=y # Makes tracks 01 02 not 1 2
EXTRAVERBOSE=n # Useful for debugging
EJECTCD=n # Please eject cd when finished :-)

My changes:
-It doesn't eject the CD
-The program is not extra verbose
-It only rips FLAC, OGG and MP3
-I left FLAC at high quality
-MP3 is at V2 (about 256kbps)
-OGG is at Q3 (about 112kbps)

The program needs more programs than is required by apt-get, so snap those up. I ended up having to install id3v2, but abcde was rather nice about telling me I needed it. Also, the program supports more codecs than this, and even can do Speex for audiobooks (though for optimal Speex you need to downsample to 8 or 16 mHz).

One more thing I don't need Windows for. Heck, this is far and above so much better than what I used before. When I came up with that great nugget quote "Minimalism is finding our tools and stripping them down in our own way to meet our own needs," this was exactly what I was talking about.


I knew it would happen eventually.

For those of you who don't read Distrowatch religiously (not me, of course! what are we talking about?) you probably still heard that Debian 6.0 became stable a couple of weeks ago. If you enjoyed using the testing version of it at all you would know it's incredibly stable.

Of the bad things I can say about Debian, the worst be that my wi-fi driver is more sensitive to drops than in Ubuntu or Fedora. That's it. This is mainly because in Debian, fixing any issues I have are pretty much my burden, and I did that already a weekend ago. You set it up once and it's done. So, now I have my GNOME desktop that is what I want. And that's it.

Now that my distro-hopping days have finally ended, my habits have changed as well. I've noticed this in my past few installations. I take less risks and try less cool things. I'm boring, and I like it that way!

I'm still minimalist though. Very clean desktop we have here. But your actions really do change once you decide to never install your OS again. Sure, that's hyperbole, but it's also the mentality I'm inside of right now, and it's a fantastic change.

It sure does make for a lack of stuff to post on this blog, though. Sorry 'bout that.

Filter Failure

A suggested YouTube video from 2008. I'll let it speak for itself. Take a peek.

A late comment

I attempted to update this site with meaningful and insightful commentary but I liked my past post so much I wanted it to stay on the front page for a while. Excuse my ego.

Minimal Linux posted a quote from Minimal Mac, and if this blog was on tumblr it would have been easy to quote and discuss, but no, it's time to crack out the HTML. Then again, tumblr crashed while I was writing this blog, so maybe I made the right choice.

"iPhoto works, iTunes works, iMovie works, iChat works, Safari works, Apple stuff works. Sure there might be a program that lets you organize photos better than iPhoto, or a faster music player than iTunes. But my Mac was handed to me preloaded with 98.3% of what I want my computer to do. You can’t put a price on that."

To which Nathan (smartly) responded "This is exactly why I choose a high quality, sensible distribution like Ubuntu, Peppermint OS, or Debian. They give me a simple set of software that pretty much does everything I need."

This is interesting because I was just about to write a post about how I find the recent Linux distro movement towards deluging the user with programs they never use and won't ever need. So let's get cracking.

In my brief time in Mac OS X, I found that iTunes did not work for my needs. I found that Safari did not work for my needs. Finder. Spotlight. iPhoto. Quicktime. Sure, there's the angle where saying "there might be a faster music player than iTunes" is an understatement in the way that calling the act of blowing up the world a simple gesture of ill will. But it also smacks, to me, of settling for something of lesser quality just because we're too apathetic and lazy to bother downloading something better.

Don't think I'm picking on only OS X here - while my talons sink into Apple's joyless cruft with relish, I'm just as irritated with Linux and its users. I have to say, when reinstalling Windows XP for the first time in years, I was pleasantly surprised when I loaded up my desktop and found a clean, empty slate that I could add, expand, and make my own. There wasn't a dock full of apps or a dozen internet apps that connect to twitter and email and an entire office suite.

We have become so focused on this delusion of an objectively best user interface that we've become convinced that not customizing and making our user experience tailored to our needs has become a virtue in and of itself. Not only this, but one of the very successes of Linux - perhaps one of the greatest advantages it has over other OS', even - is its well integrated package management system. Why ignore its possibilities? And it puts a damper on things when I have to remove a gigabyte of meaningless libraries and applications before I get Ubuntu to where it's a canvas for my needs.

Don't get me wrong - sometimes I just want a temporary desktop system that I can use for a few days. But it's nowhere near close to what I would call "top of the class" for me. I can't stand most default desktops and I love to endlessly customize and make changes. It's a constant procedure. My needs change forever. I cannot say with a straight face that any one desktop can do 98.3% of what I want to do; it changes daily. I find new programs that do things better and better, faster and quicker, with lighter resources and less clutter.

I miss the days when we had a working, well configured desktop that we made our own. I want to stop using computers entirely when I see customization looked down upon as some sort of geeky, unachievable thing. When did the nobility of individualism suddenly transform into a virtue of conformity?

Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I think we're giving too much credit to default applications. Is it too much to ask to just want a well configured Gnome, a Terminal, and nothing else?

Appliances: Revisited

In my last blog I discussed why I believe that appliances are a different beast from computers. In this post, I will proceed to contradict myself, because if we're going to get any good material about this topic we're going to have to make mistakes.

The idea of an appliance, but with user control. An ideal.

What's the problem with an Xbox 360? It plays great games, broad media center applications, and it works without fuss or effort. Naturally, repair options are terrible; both spare parts and the knowledge required pale in comparison to desktops. But the biggest issue? Control.

The computer industry is run by people who want control; they've had it for years. You want a CD? You better get it from them. You want a game? You connect to their servers, on their time frame, and in their hands. Your OS has bugs? You had better hope that patching those bugs is worth company time.

I write this blog because I believe that control should be in the hands of the user. GNU/Linux, huzzah. If anyone wants to read more about that, go read some Stallman essays; his intellectual monopoly on free software Kantian philosophy can barely be matched by a sophmore in college.

What makes minimalism different in GNU/Linux is because you're trying to achieve the pinnacle of an appliance while keeping the control in your own hands. The very fact that you were able to install an operating system and understand how it works in the briefest of levels: this matters, now. You found it and stuck with it because it was open and free and it worked for you.

Minimalism in Linux is about getting the appliance focus and effort, without the lack of control or repair options. Hardware control? Any desktop from a rummage sale can run Debian, and if a part stops working, the internet has a new piece for ten dollars. Software control? That's where we get somewhere.

Linux allows us to delete at our whim. Suddenly, it's not a handheld device manufacturer saying "you can't do that on our phone." This is me saying "I won't run a word processor on my computer because it's inefficient."

If you don't see the difference between "You can't run Flash because we won't let you; it's too inefficient" and "I won't run Flash because I won't install it; it's too inefficient" you've lost a grasp on what makes minimalism powerful: personalization. Minimalism is subjective and in many ways nebulous without personal interpretation.

Appliance-foisted minimalism is a path, but it's not the only one. That's not my minimalism. A picture of a clean iPhone no more proves that a user "gets it" than a picture of a refrigerator proves that a user of such "gets" how to pick a pretty fridge. Hopefully that's what's right for them and the many that choose that path, and to be fair, of all of the logical fallacies, argumentum ad populum was always my favorite.

Minimalism is finding our tools and stripping them down in our own way to meet our own needs. It's about keeping that focus and keeping that mindset that appliances bring, but removing the control from the hands of the companies and placing it back into the hands of consumers. Computers started with an open design and we've been tweaking ever since. To forgo the openness of the computer concept is to destroy the notion for a computer entirely.

Appliances are not evil. But a lack of control is not my path. And that's why this blog exists.


I'm sure you've heard this before:

"Consumers want computers that are appliances, or appliance like."

What does this particular phrase mean?

1) Little to no maintenance
2) Basic knowledge is required to manipulate its functions
3) Repairs are easy, fast and cheap...
4) ...unless the entire machine needs to be thrown out and replaced

It's easy to see why people would want an appliance for a computer. Have you ever heard a relative ask you for their refrigerator to be fixed? It actually sounds minimalist, to a degree, to want a machine like this.

My only issue with an appliance is that strictly in the theoretical sense, a computer cannot and never will be an appliance. Every person uses a computer differently - the more we try to limit the instructions a computer can be given, the less useful a computer becomes. Don't be distracted by the pretty language; appliance is simply another word for "limiting the functions to manufacturer's orders."

I've heard arguments that we should ditch the folders and files paradigm and go into a more iOS like system, where the application deals with the data itself (an appliance-like system). But then you get into the issue of having programs share data among each other. How would we do this, so that programs could transfer and read each others data? Well, we make a common API, right? Oh, I've got a good one, you may have heard of this: it's called the "My Documents" folder, or even "/home/user" on some computers.

I've also heard the argument that "Users shouldn't have to learn how to use or run a computer. These things should just work."

Could things be less complicated? Sure. You won't hear me speak ill of actual progress in design. However, with all of the complicated things a computer does on a daily basis, it's a wonder a computer is generally regarded as "too much work for me to learn." A computer does your taxes, helps you type documents quickly as well as create many other types of fantastic things, browses web pages on a vast and global scale, plays every sort of media imaginable including movies, games and music, keeps data on you and your family in ways most people don't realise, and all together has become the single most powerful object in households today.

With this breadth of creation and consumption, you're going to have to introduce complexity. There's no way not to. How much you introduce is correlated to how many tasks you do on a computer.

If you want an appliance, you'll be limiting yourself to a very focused set of tasks based on, not your choice, but the choice of the manufacturer. As much as I like the Kindle, it is an appliance more than it is a computer. It does a very limited set of actions that, while are expertly chosen, are not in my control. Same with an MP3 player. And we know that even devices this limited still have the same issues of complexity and simple failure that computers do. Kindles crash, MP3 players crash, my iPod touch crashed when I had it. Problems happen.

Furthermore, the appliance idea also stems into not having enough power to fix your own problems. Hardware issue? You better hope the manufacturer can fix it for you, for a nominal fee. And you can't do what I did with my computers - I took lots of old computers, found the best parts in all of them, combined them into a mega machine, and I still use it to this day. I can replace any failed component for $40 or less (usually only $10). Try doing that with an Xbox, which is arguably the best executed appliance concept in the past ten years.

Can we expect users to learn to use the machine that more or less runs modern society? I guess not. However, complexity is derived from the actions we choose to do on a given device. Limiting that set of actions, however, or giving power to a corporation for them to make the choice for us, seems to be the wrong path to tread. There are good things to complexity.

Windows XP

I'm still a fairly basic Linux user (as these pages will show, undoubtedly - I've only been using and learning Linux for three years) which is why I still find it valuable to try out competitors for some perspective. Seeing as I had a Windows XP and several CD Keys, I decided to try it out again, to see if my memories hold up.

I also had other motivations, such as a couple of new PC Games that I received over the holiday break. Keep in mind that my desktop is not very powerful relative to the average gaming build, and that it used to be running Windows 7.

Everyone who has installed both Windows and Linux on a bare machine knows that it's no contest: modern Linux distros are so much easier to install that it's unbelievable. Windows 7 isn't as bad as XP, but it still has a way to go. I'm also surprised how finicky the CD-Key system is - it sure goes through a lot of fuss to activate your copy of Windows. I found myself wondering when the activation server will shut down, leaving XP dead in the water.

My CD of Windows XP also turned out to be Service Pack 1, whereas Microsoft has released Service Pack 2 and 3 since then. Thus began my slow crawl towards security. This is possibly why Linux distros try and release every two years or so - I've never installed so many patches and bugfixes in my life, and the constant restarts were baffling. While that was going on I managed to install my drivers, but only because I used Ubuntu before I started to find out the names and model numbers of my wi-fi and graphics card.

After that I combed the internet for my favorite windows applications (it's been a while since I used Foobar2000), which made me appreciate package management quite a bit. Then I went into the settings, turned mostly everything extraneous off (such as that blue and green interface) and got to work on installing my games.

On my box, Windows XP uses under 200 MB of RAM, where Windows 7 uses over 550 MB. A strategy game, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, runs much better in XP than 7, where it barely ran at all. I cannot say that all games run faster (they're still downloading at this point) but Firefox is certainly snappy, though not quite as quick as a well oiled Debian install.

This all just reminds me that in all of the progress that we've made in the past twenty years with computers, software has simply used it all up to display pretty graphics and flashy buttons. For what? An endless hamster wheel of progress where we never actually move forward.

Am I hypocritical for buying a handful of games and a cheap HDMI graphics card? Seeing as this poor beast can barely run anything vaguely new (2007 seems to be the age limit) I'd like to think not. Gaming is a fun hobby for me and, like computers, I have more hand-me-down game consoles than I'll ever find the time to play with. I probably don't need even the light gaming PC I have, but it's hard to turn down Christmas presents when the older, cheaper PC games are actually a lot of fun and I can install Windows XP in an afternoon.

In any case, I'm glad I downgraded to XP for the benefit of my games' performance, and it reiterated my usual thoughts on why I use Linux. My conversion is complete and at this point, there's no returning.