My laptop can kick your laptop’s ass (not that it has any need to, of course)



In general, machismo is the sign of a loser. Think of some truly powerful people — Louis the XIV, the British Admiralty (once upon a time anyway), Tom Cruise, a Pope of your choice, even, for god’s sake, Rummy in his prime. Every one has a suspiciously feminine, manicured cleanliness. They all show off more than a patch of pale skin as they sway down a line between the momentous and the monstrous. It’s only the people they conquer that need to drink a lot, work out with weights, wave guns, and put on snarly faces.

That’s because real empowerment and confidence emanates from the inside. When someone has it, they just have it, and other people want to be around it. When someone doesn’t have it, they compensate in various ways, for example, looking tough, or shrieking on Oprah’s couch. Other people shrink away. (I guess just ’cause you have it doesn’t mean you can’t lose it.)

I feel like I’ve been through a related evolution in my use of software. At first I was just annoyed with the fact that Microsoft Office cost like $400, and that anyone I gave my work to would have to shell out $400 too. That was a problem for me and my colleagues. I started experimenting with programs like OpenOffice on Windows, installing Linux on spare computers and talking about it very obnoxiously. It was an ideology, but not a practicality. The pathetic, secret truth was I was still dependent on Bill Gates for the everyday work I really needed to do. Time passed.

Then last year I started a major project and decided I’d try to do it all with open source, partly for political reasons, partly for economic ones. I made some blogs using WordPress and set up my crappy old laptop as a dual-boot Kubuntu Linux / Windows XP machine. When I started using Linux every day, I had a fresh revelation: a lot of this software wasn’t just free, it was better than the stuff I was paying for on Windows. Programs like digiKam (for photo management) and K3B (for CD burning) and R (for statistics) were straight out superior to the proprietary alternatives I had used.

And it was clear that some of that superiority came from the process by which it was created: by solving real problems that real users had, by avoiding wacky wizards and features, by NOT reinventing the wheel when there were perfectly solid applications that could be borrowed. (For example, digiKam’s “export photos to CD” creates a template and then opens up K3B to burn it.) By allowing forks and modifications rather than trying to force all users to conform to a master plan.

Then the real magic moment came when one of my WordPress sites couldn’t do what I needed it to do. With some trepidation I delved into the code itself, and voila, added the feature I needed! I never would have tried that with a proprietary product.

At that moment I didn’t need to shout out loud any more or wear my open source ideas like a bulging motorcycle jacket. My empowerment on this little aspect of life was inside of me. I was free to wear — well — polyester.

Now I’ve got a new laptop and it rocks. It’s a Thinkpad T61 with a dual-boot Kubuntu 7.10/Windows XP configuration. The only time I use Windows is when I have to look up something for a “legacy client.” All my hardware worked practically out of the box — sound, wireless, hibernation, bluetooth — because the Ubuntu team did a great job with hardware detection and configuration. And with help from ThinkWiki I figured out how to keep the ThinkPad’s neato Protection and Recovery service functional even while shifting to a new boot manager. Thank you for sharing your work, faceless mesh of global collaborators!

Open source is yet another thing that gives me hope that the environmental movement is part of a real change in the world, and not another marketing scam. When people share their experiences and their ideas, it inspires others to share too, and to consider bucking the shopping-mall norms to find something that actually works better for them. I’ve tried to do my little part in the past year by describing my tiny house project, and people have really responded.

It’s been easier than acting all loud and leathery, and maybe a bit more persuasive too. Plus this polyester shirt — a short sleeve, button-up Goodwill special — is easy care wash-and-wear. Who knows, maybe it once belonged to Bill Gates. With the success of open-source, he might be looking in to toughening up his look any day now. 🙂

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