Even September Ended Once

“It took me half a lifetime to invent it. I’m sure you’ve discovered my deep and abiding interest in pain. At present I’m writing the definitive work on the subject. So I want you to be totally honest with me on how The Machine makes you feel.” – Count Rugen, “The Princess Bride”

So that OpenMoko phone that I wanted? Yeah, they’re not going to ship this year. Well, they’re going to ship the hardware, maybe. But with that UI, really, who cares?

I made the mistake of upgrading to Ubuntu 7.10 before my presentation, something that I’m pretty sure counts as a rookie mistake. It only took me three tries to actually get X working again, and if I didn’t have an extra wireless card around the whole thing would have been a complete write-off, but I weathered that storm, I guess. After a backup and a clean reinstall, the very first thing I had to do was fire up a console and hand-edit xorg.conf.

Again.

How many times have I done that, I wonder? How many times am I going to have to?

Power management is still a complete crapshoot, but hey, it’s only 2007. Sometimes it even works – it depends on which of my USB peripherals I’ve plugged in, it looks like. And I found out that after I’ve put an SD card into the SD card reader, my laptop will never suspend again, not until after a hard reboot. My first hint of that came when I closed the lid and put the laptop into its nice, insulated padded bag, zipped it closed, and practically burned my hand on it when I pulled it out an hour later. Those of you who thought I might have found that out the “easy way” can rest assured that my streak is alive.

Every time you close the lid on your laptop and it doesn’t go to sleep, just keeps on grinding away, do a shot. Every time you try to wake it up but the monitor won’t turn on, or the keyboard won’t work, do a shot. Every time your wireless card, in the finest binary-blob tradition, dies and stays dead until a hard reboot, do a shot. If I say it like that, it’s a game. Games are fun, right?

There was a talk at FSOSS by this fellow named Marcel Gagne, whose main thesis seemed to be that Linux is super-awesome and totally ready for everyone to use, and I just sat there and seethed for five minutes before I decided that it was time to choose between leaving and screaming. He was so far into sombrero-full-of-nails territory, and it was a room full of witnesses, and on tape, so if I was going to make that point in the manner and degree it fully deserved, that was the right moment.

I walked away, though. I’m not sure if I regret that or not.

It’s been the Year Of Linux On The Desktop every year, to my personal recollection, since 1997. Ten years, and if you think it’s the year of Linux on the Desktop yet here are some exercises for you:

  1. Plug in a second monitor, and
  2. Make it work.

Master-class-level exercises include:

  1. Plug in a second sound card, and make it work.
  2. Try connecting a bluetooth headset, and make that work, or
  3. Buy some peripheral at random off the shelf, because you like what the box says it will do, plug it in, and see what happens.

And once you’ve done all of that, wait a week for that special day that a software update makes all that work magically disappear, and you’re left sitting at a console again trying to figure out what part of your boot process lost its shit and kept you from so much as booting into a gui.

I think that free software is really important, fundamentally important. Important enough that I’ve used Linux exclusively for more than five years, now. Not being able to control the machines you ostensibly own, to control what they do, who they report to back to, and how they interact with you and the rest of the world is fundamentally antidemocratic, a subtle and pervasive abuse of freedom, privacy and general human dignity. I’m not overstating the case, here – automated processes get put in place that make decisions that affect us all individually, and if those processes aren’t accountable to, and changeable by, responsible human beings, then fundamental issues of justice and fairness are subservient to the whims and often-marginal competencies of whoever put the code in place.

It’s that serious.

But I can’t just buy things in a store. If I want a device that does a thing, whatever it is, I’ve got to spend an hour or four on Google trying to figure out which model, or device, if any, will work with my setup at all. And I usually don’t get to read the manufacturer’s’ website, or anything – I’ve got to wade through message boards full of jackasses just to figure out if the model I’m going to buy is the same one that some random guy got to kind-of work one time, and maybe there’s source, and maybe there’s not. And maybe it will work, but usually it won’t.

The built-in webcam in my year-old laptop doesn’t work, and probably never will. I have a PDA running Linux, and some of the time that’s great, but most of the time it just sits there running Linux. The GUI is OK, power management is the same issue it always is, and I’ll be damned if I can figure out how to make it sync with anything. I still file bugs when they come up, but nobody’s really interested in working on them. Web browsing with it works, some of the time, but that’s life; “Works in Linux” doesn’t reliably mean much of anything, except that one guy made it work one time, and maybe he’ll tell you how that worked, and maybe he won’t. Can you actually make phone calls with the OpenMoko yet? I heard that one guy managed to, kinda-sorta. You still need to leave it tethered to a power cable, so it’s basically a glorified landline with a shitty touchscreen UI, and oh, hey, here we are in 1997 again.

I haven’t played a video game on a PC since the last millenium. No WoW, no Half-Life 2, no Portal, no (and this one truly hurts) Cyan Worlds stuff. I’ve filed bugs, shared processes, solved problems and filed patches whenever I’ve been able to. And then I walk into an Apple Store and play with an iPod Touch, and I just want to cry. I’ve said this a lot recently but I swear that playing with the iPod Touch is like getting a postcard from the future. It is shockingly great – the touch screen works exactly the way you want it to. The physical model underneath the UI makes it simple, intuitive, flexible and gorgeous.

It’s technology that works exactly the way you want it to, on the first try, and it’s beautiful. And I kept thinking, why can’t I get some of that?

How about it? All this freedom is awesome, and I’ll be the first to admit that there are best-in-the-whole-world applications here, but I’ll be fucked if it’s easy to make them work with each other. How about some convenience for once? How about some fucking ease of home use and home administration, not just glossy icons and bigger click-targets? Because I’m getting pretty goddamn tired of feeling like I’m working on an antialiased imitation of OS9 with fancy icons, here. Of having to explain to my wife why Gimp won’t print and randomly, silently crashes out without saving her work. Of closing the lid on my laptop and never being sure what that’s going to do. Of OpenOffice being brittle, opaque and just unbelievably fucking terrible in general. Of having to do bullshit like run low-level scripts to get sound cards to, you know, make sounds.

But mostly, I’m tired of looking at other people’s beautiful toys and wondering why I’ve apparently consigned myself to an environment made up of shitty, dated user interfaces in front of second-rate software running on clunky hardware designed by people with elaborate technical explanations for their terrible taste. I’m tired of feeling like freedom is synonymous with thousands of little inconveniences and workarounds on technology five years late. It’s not like putting up with this shit is going to get me into heaven.

And the next jackass who tells me that the answer is to switch distros is getting punched in the neck. In fairness, that might get me into heaven.

If your machine doesn’t need a video card or a sound card, it’s still the year of the Linux desktop. Same as it was last year.

See you in 2008.

7 Comments

  1. Ken
    Posted November 13, 2007 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I know that free software is the ethical choice, but my periodic tastes of Linux frustrate me enough that I’ll stick with beautiful and functional yet non-free interfaces. I need to get things done, not fiddle with configuration files and get abused by pathetic UIs.

  2. Oren
    Posted November 13, 2007 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    jesus, well put. I’m going to bookmark this under /dev/mike and just point people here everytime they say ‘linux’ and ‘desktop’ around me.

    not that they do, since my osx switch seems to have made everybody make all sort of correct assumptions about never asking me for linux related help.

  3. Posted November 13, 2007 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    I should invite you over sometime to play with my Vista machine.

  4. Posted November 13, 2007 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    The Three Dead Trolls In A Baggie song “Every OS Sucks” still seems to apply.

    “Yeah, but I’ve got a girlfriend and things to get done.”

  5. Adam
    Posted November 13, 2007 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I was going to say the same thing about Vista. I wouldn’t have touched Linux with a 10 foot poll a while ago but getting a new laptop shipped with Vista changes your perspective a bit. Vista’s kinda like having Bill Gates come over to your house, rape your family members, kick you in the nuts, take your money and leave. So compared to that, I say that it *is* the year of Linux.

    That being said, I share your pain. I also went to 7.10 in a fit of euphoria. Madness! Now my kernel choices look something like this:

    2.6.20.1 – Bug that is almost certain to turn my hard drive into a flaming ball of goo in a month or two.
    2.6.22.1 – No sound, but who need sound, right?
    2.6.23.1 – No sound AND no wireless. Makes it that much more difficult to fix the sound.

    So I can sympathize. That being said, I’d rather punch Bill Gates in the throat than some unsuspecting (and possibly well meaning) linux advocate. Makes one wonder why he though the Macbook was too expensive.

  6. Posted November 13, 2007 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Oh, Jiminy Fucking Cricket, there’s not a damn thing wrong with Vista. Turn off the UAC and move on with your life, people. It’s a good OS!

    As for UBUNTU, yeah. I used to run Linux exclusively, in actual 1997, and I was sort of evangelistic about it. Who needs Word when you have Emacs and TeX, right? And PostgreSQL is a perfectly fine replacement for Access! And Gnumeric just Excel without the bloat, right? Right?

    When I started using Windows again, I felt guilty for a bit, but also so incredibly relieved that I could finally just DO STUFF again. And of course these days people call me a Microsoft fanboy, but only because I like things that don’t suck, and Microsoft makes a lot of those.

  7. Posted November 13, 2007 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Never mind Kozlick, he’s as insane as he’s always been. That aside, I am running Vista Ultimate on my laptop, and I generally don’t rate it any worse than XP (it wins in some areas, loses in others…).

    It’s very weird…some of the things you find difficult in Linux are cake in FreeBSD (and some of the things you can do for free in Linux are just broken in BSD land…this is NOT a “Hey, you should be running *BSD you Linux weenie!” post). And of course, anything X related, they pretty much share the pain on.

    I use open sores software where it works and is convenient, but I refuse to tie myself to any platform or software that is more pain than anything else (well, there is Irix, but I’ve always loved SGI hardware. Shame they make overpriced Itanic boxes these days).