I was idly looking over the shooting script for Men In Black the other day. Different from the movie, in a lot of little ways that add up; as filmed it came out a fun, largely harmless sci-fi movie of no particular note but the original script was quietly darker and more introspective than you’d expect. As an example, the scene where Edwards (Will Smith) has been given until sun-up to decide if he’s in; he asks Jay (Tommy-Lee Jones) “Is it worth it?”
On screen, Jay replies “It is. If you’re strong enough” as he walks away. But on the page Jay’s explanation of the cost of signing up is a lot more personal.
EDWARDS – So what’s the catch?
KAY – What you’ll gain in perspective, you’ll lose in ways you’re too young to comprehend. You give up everything. Sever every human contact. No one will know you exist. Ever.
EDWARDS – Nobody?
KAY – You’re not even allowed a favorite shirt. There. That’s the speech I never heard. That’s the choice I never got.
EDWARDS – Hold up. You track me down, put me through those stupid-ass tests, now you’re trying to talk me out of it. I don’t get it.
KAY – You got ’til sun-up.
EDWARDS – Is it worth it?
KAY – You find out, you let me know.
Kev called me out yesterday, and he was not wrong.
I’m back to carrying around a Linux laptop these days, and all those old mixed feelings are still there. Power management is still really dodgy, the UI is a mess, lots of stuff that should Just Work by now either just doesn’t, or somehow stopped working for a while after a good run. Plug the wrong USB dingus into it, and if you close the lid it will try to cook itself; using it for day to day stuff isn’t wildly better than I remember it being a few years ago; I’m back to using it for reasons that I refer to as “principles”, stuff about information freedom and freedom-to vs. freedom-from, developing on the platform you’re deploying to, that sort of thing. They’re arguments that I can make pretty convincingly, even to myself sometimes, but there are days (like this one) that all that rhetoric seems like a thin veneer over some self-imposed variety of Stockholm Syndrome.
I have a paragraph here about how “It is better, the saying goes, to light a single candle than to curse the darkness”, and then goes on to something about being honest about your motivations, and maybe you’re lighting the candle to cover up the smell, not push back the dark. It’s not really coming together for me, but that’s the broad strokes of it.
You get the idea.
But here’s a thing: my brother sent me a PDF he needed to quote some passages from, the usual horrible “PDF-full-of-scanned-JPEGs” garbage you find everywhere. He was losing patience with it, and all the OCR software he could find was either insanely expensive or useless junk or both.
But I know that
pdf2html will give me a numbered list of all those images, and after a few seconds of research with apt-cache, I found Tesseract-OCR, installed it and tested it against a small sample of pages to see if the output looked sane. It did; it doesn’t to output to anything but a file, but that’s fine. So a quick
for i in `seq` do later, my laptop is quietly grinding out a text file a human can copy and paste from.
The good parts of life with Linux are like that. Rich scripting languages, an incredibly broad, deep and on-demand tools that have been hammered into shape for years or decades, job control that lets you just put it in the background (or on a server somewhere else) and let it run. Being able to chain tools together so that when you need something novel done you can just get it done, and not spend hours scavenging around the ‘net for that one piece of random crapware that does 70% of the job, it’s so great.
Linux on a laptop has a set of problems that have existed for years; I know I’m bringing a lot of this on myself. If I was using a desktop, a lot of these hardware hangups might just disappear, just by virtue of the fact that you never unplug a desktop, or put it to sleep. And I know what way the trends are going, here, too – the Free Software tools people care about seem to be finding their way over to OSX, with varying degrees of speed and elegance, but the rare design sensibilities that find their way back, seemingly via a cargo cult’s long march, don’t seem to be helping much. Bold efforts (like Gnome Shell) that sail less than perfectly polished run rapidly aground on the shoals of the Linux community’s profound fear of change. And as for hardware, well. Um.
But: Apt-get. Shell scripting. Pipe, job control. All the old, unglorious tools, so many of them rock solid and reliable; they are incredibly great. Being able to just have the tools you need, to test and experiment and process and have the computer doing stuff for you instead of having to muck around manually basically all the time, it is so good. Being able to see the right-out-there experimental stuff, like software radio, gestating; amazing. Macports and (God help you) Homebrew are a thin gruel in comparison, and Windows has nothing to compare it to.
I feel like I’m typing with mittens on when they’re not around, like I’ve looked into my toolbox and found one oversize novelty Tonka screwdriver and wrench made of Nerf. These are just the basic fundamental particles of getting anything done! How do people live without this stuff?
These days my everyday computing carry is ideologically polarized. My Macbook is mostly a desktop I can move to the couch, and I roll with a Thinkpad and an iPad. The small number of things I need to Just Work just work, and there’s room to (and yes, frequently, need to) tinker with the rest. I’m actually thinking about my next laptop being a linux on a non-Macbook, as crazy as that sounds. And if you’ve ever tried figuring out if a laptop runs linux correctly, well. You’ve read The Killing Joke, right?
So I don’t even know what direction that pendulum is swinging, now. I guess we’ll see again in a few years. I don’t know if it’s worth it; if I figure it out, I’ll let you know.