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.