Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, April 08, 2022

Four Things

Some musings on some random thoughts on computing, encountered by chance.

1. Regarding a blog post titled "My 70 Year Old Mother Has Been Using Linux on the Desktop for the Past 21 Years," someone elaborates on two extreme use cases for Linux:

I started using Linux around '99 as a computer-illiterate and became a coder. I see no irony in this. One of [Richard Stallman's] goals was to have the ability to study and learn from the software and systems you were using.

That, I feel led to the ubiquity of high-quality documentation and materials - an embarrassment of riches. I ordered physical copies of [The Linux Documentation Project] (two phone books, in size). I read the slackware manual and learned the basics of how filesystems work and networking (culminating in redirecting X from my single good computer to a couple of dumpster-worthy systems on my home network). I didn't need to fork over money I couldn't afford for a compiler.

It left me with the lasting bias that free software is liberating and proprietary software leads to learned helplessness. [bold added]
I'm more of a power user than a coder, but my journey was somewhat similar: From near computer illiteracy and little money to spend on hardware or software to having great control over my computing environment, and making frequent use of the ability to automate gruntwork.

I've even done simple computer repairs, like replacing CPU fans, after having learned so much by doing.

2. The last person had a similar journey to mine; this guy is in a similar place now, and comments on a complaint by someone who says he has to fiddle too much to use Linux:
On the left is my Emacs editing window, stripped of toolbars. On the right is a web browser that displays the web page I am editing in near-real time. (Image by me. Copying permitted.)
What did you spend that time on? I never need to look at anything; it's a big reason I use Linux: my system today is the same as it was yesterday, and last year. And will be the same tomorrow, and next year. Of course Firefox and the Linux kernel and all these tools get updates, but overall it's pretty stable from my user-visible perspective. I certainly don't have upgrades which completely change the UI like Windows 8/10/11 "forced" on me, and if something does go wrong (which it rarely does), I can usually figure things out -- Windows: not so much. [bold added]
I run Word licenses on a couple of virtual machines that run Windows in case I need to use it. I like what I normally use (pictured) much better.

I hate change for the sake of change, and love the power of being able to improve my workflow when I see a way to do it. Linux helps me mostly avoid the former and enjoy the latter.

3. Among the things I do all the time is to automate what Rachel Kroll calls monkey work. My favorite quote from that post, about work as a system administrator is, "If you don't automate yourself out of a job every 12-18 months, what are you really doing?"

The down side, of course, comes when I have to work using proprietary systems or software, usually in order to collaborate. I usually get annoyed enough to wonder how some of these companies manage to remain in business, but then remember network effects and, yes, learned helplessness.

(I see the learned helplessness, caused by opaque and frequently-changing user interfaces, as more a product of bad thinking -- by fad-driven development teams and undemanding customers -- than intent by industry, although in our cultural climate of short-range thinking, I suspect there is also plenty of that going on, too.)

4. I'll close with some humor regarding note-taking:
I just need to optimize my life and my brain. Then I will get the job I want, the partner I want, the life I want, and I will truly be happy when I have those things. The emptiness within me will go away. There is a solution to all my problems: work harder and be better. If I just figure out the right notetaking system, I can stop forgetting the important parts of all these books I'm reading (I read 80 last year, but I'm on track to do 120 this year). The problem isn't that deeply understanding a complex subject takes a lifetime and every domain of human knowledge has limits beyond which no one really has any answers, it's that I'm not "learning actively enough." If I take notes, then I will be learning actively and I will actually be thinking better, thanks to my second brain I've built in Roam Research/Org Mode/whatever. Fitter, happier, more productive. [bold added]
The above is a parody of the idea that great tools will solve all one's problems.

I think that I have, over time, evolved an excellent work environment for my purposes. But I still struggle with writer's block, absent-mindedness, and many of the other things that personal knowledge systems are supposed to help one overcome. Jokes like the above are useful to help one remember to spend as much time sharpening one's tools as one needs, but no more time doing so than is actually productive.

It is with that last thing that I think my approach to computing pays off. Most of the time, the tools and systems are just there, but I can fix or improve them at any time if I actually need to.

-- CAV


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus you write, The down side, of course, comes when I have to work using proprietary systems or software, usually in order to collaborate. I usually get annoyed enough to wonder how some of these companies manage to remain in business, but then remember network effects and, yes, learned helplessness.

Yes. I have to use Word whether I like it or not. I have it set up so it's not too painless, until the next dumb-down escapes the hell dimension it should have been better chained up in. (Especially, right now, comments. They have set it up so that you have to save every dang comment when finished, then if you need to make changes, you have to open it up again. If you don't save it, you can't open any other comments or create new ones. When I'm editing, I usually have to copy a comment for pasting ten or fifteen times because of repeated errors. This change turned that process from painless to a bloated waste of time and effort. Then every time I get the original version restored, another dumb-down gets released. Suffice it to say not all my imprecations are muttered.) Unfortunately, open source equivalents of Word only manage something like 98-99% of Word's functionality, so it is a requirement of my job that I have to use Word, like it or not. Given how much I get paid, I put up with it.

Oh, and then Word has stylistic suggestions to go with spell check. The suggestions are increasingly dumbed down, like the useful rules of thumb you learn in high school (avoid the passive) as oversimplified steps on the way to learning how to use English with facility (use the passive when the focus is on...etc.). It seems like the rules of thumb drop a semester each dumb-down; now they seem to be at a 4th-grade level. In my better moods, I want to shake a few lapels and say calmly, "I'm a professional editor. I know what I'm doing. Your assumption that my English is as primitive as yours is as insulting as you are aphasic, so butt out, morons." In my viler moods (like when the latest dumb-down makes the stylistic suggestions suddenly balloon to 500+ for a six-page paper that then crashes), I want to spit in my palms and hoist the skull and crossbones.

Gus Van Horn said...

I count myself fortunate to have escaped dealing too much with comments in newer versions of Word, and appreciate the heads-up.