Sunday, June 23, 2013

Computer Work

Computer Work

Learning how to do any meaningful work on your computer when you're starting from scratch takes awhile. The salespeople will lie to you, tell you, no, intuitive. But the number of buzzwords and acronyms, for instance, is astonishing. Even the My Space entries the kids put up may seem overwhelming. Google+ takes awhile to figure out, I don't care who you are. But gradually the details of the basics do start to emerge. For example, what the differences are between CD-R and the various types of read only discs, and CD-RW's, which are erasable, and DVDs; the difference between plain and rich text; and what HTML is and its real world uses. But soon you’ll figure out enough to be able to do everything you really want to do. I took to the computer on the premise that in the end something, if work, is going to be easier and simpler, or if play, “funner”.

But there is a lot else to understand. Some people don't like mystery in the things that they do. They may not be tinkerers, exactly, but they prefer to have some basic understanding of what is going on. One should know, for instance, how to download an application from the web and write it to disk. One should know how to take out the trash, and clean up the disk of junk files, many of which are invisible, and which are reluctant to get trashed. My curiosity swamped me with applications (apps), most of which I never use, though some are amazing and strange. What witchery can this one be? Emacs? Vim? If you really get into the chores you can climb (descend?—for the “root” seems to be at the top) the “directory tree” and become “a power user”.

This is a simple Emacs window.

This is a little more complex. There are fifteen+ files instantly at hand.

A power user is a geek. I personally like the sound of the word geek. It reminds me of the word teenybopper that used to be popular when I was a kid. I find myself more and more attracted to this world of geek-dom, although I don't wear the hood of my sweatshirt dragged up over my head. While I am dashing off a few lines of Apple script, for what reason?, why to get out of doing work, of course, I am hacking. A geek hacks, and that has about it a retirement from the real world. It is a philosophical inclination to escape the gritty and petty repetitions of existence. When you download that tarball, whose essence is to rid the world of having to perform ever again some obnoxious repetition, and you move the files into their load path, and launch the witchery with a shell script, you are being a geek.

Now this machine that you have inherited, which fell into your lap for next to nothing, didn’t come with the install disks. It's a little buggy, overloaded with this and that, but apparently no little Al-Quaeda gremlins in there; you just need to clean up the disk, delete some stuff, reinstall. Oh no! You have to buy the disks. Could go you a little piece of change. These things don't come from Microsoft and Apple for free. What? That piece of junk is not worth sixty bucks, or however much the disks cost. If you happen to have a kind hearted friend who's a power user, he can erase your befuddled disk and install an OS from his own machine. Also, there are operating systems out there that are free! They don't cost anything. You can download them off the web. They are also free in the sense that the source code is for the most part “open”. One, for example, is Ubuntu (which is Linux) and another is BSD (which is UNIX). There are several flavors of BSD, and so on; there are a lot of different Linux OSes. Some work better than others.

To the ordinary computer user who bought a new Macbook, for instance, switching to Linux or UNIX does not make much sense. Apple gives its users plenty of opportunity to download and use *NIX apps. But some people have two or three OSes on their machine, and they switch back and forth between them at will. If you do decide to learn how to install UNIX or Linux on your machine, the software comes free. There's a club sort of that you can donate money to. There's a newsletter and such like, a really feeling thing, a gang. We are Ubuntu men. Slackware users call themselves “Slackers”. Anyway, you don't have to pay sixty bucks to get an OS for your $25 junker. Cheaper in the long run, if you're an old retiree with no money. If you are clever and inventive, you can make on-line friends, too. These alternate OSes run across platforms. You can boot up with any old Dell or iBook that comes your way. If you use your computer to do serious work, it’s really worth the effort. And they come with files of source code for a clever fellow to study. Just think, no secrets! Any interested person can learn enough to get by. Learn a little and become a dangerous hacker and go to guy. Make that rebellious app obey your every whim!

I am happy to think that one day the world may be enlightened by a hacker who has happened to run across a freebie from the dump and who has bothered to learn how to use the web to serious purpose. An expensive machine loaded with expensive software may not get you there. In fact, a program you may have paid several hundred dollars for may not do what you want done any better than a freebie you could have downloaded off the web. Emacs, the holy mountain (at the summit of which lies the wizards' Holy Grail) of GNU (GNU "Ganew" is not UNIX or, I think, Gee, it’s not UNIX?), is free! Free in dollars and cents and free in the sense of source code being available to anybody to copy, change or etc. Emacs is a giant among apps. It is a magnificent app. In the computer world there is nothing like it. Whether you are a programmer, a web designer, a poet or just another hacker who likes to write, there’s something useful in it for you. And a version of it will run on anything! It may be a little extra work to learn how to use it, but it gets you away from the greed. The inventor, Richard Stallman, a hero of mine, gave it away. It has been many, many times copied, and so obviously copied it is embarrassing, and then sold by assorted thieves under a different name.

If you work on your computer, if you see it as a tool, and you want to get a lot of work done, don't settle on the commercial apps. They are mostly slow and limited in possibilities. It almost hurts to remember my experience with Microsoft Word. I kept thinking: this can't be right. It's okay if you want to write a few sentences here and there. But beyond that using Word hurts. Adobe Software is a senseless colossus that is unbelievable to me. I gave up on it after two weeks. Anyway, do you really want your documents to look like that?

Over the years everybody who is interested in software migrates toward the UNIX mountain. You can also enjoy the transitional stage. My personal brand of UNIX is laid over OS X. That way I get to use Apple hardware without major changes and revisions. Besides, sometimes the apps that come with OS X are well thought out and useful. But know this, friend, FreeBSD comes with a handbook over a thousand pages long, and it is chock full of detailed info. Have fun! I am.

Date: 2013-06-23 14:01:53 EDT
HTML generated by org-mode 6.33x in emacs 23

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The LAN Party

   I had a dream last night. I was sitting behind a young man in the Symphony. He was directly in front of me, Pablo. I was the smelly old fart sitting among a gang of kids. I didn’t know him, although I had seen him around. Then he turns towards me, eyes me. “A wonderful thing has happened,” he says. “Look.” He opens up a leather satchel and in it there is a fancifully wrapped package. There were double red bows and the wrapper was a bright yellow.
   While he’s showing me this package, three women moved into the row behind me and sat down. Two of them were somberly dressed in darker colors, though not black, and the third one was dressed in the natty bright garb of working women. By their expression the three seemed well reinforced middle class ladies. The words petty bourgeois keep coming to mind, I’m not sure why, because it is hard to spell and it sounds European. I am from Poland, you know? Polish people tend to be European thinking, rather than Russian thinking. But one of the women was more lively, more inclined to be fashionable. Anyway, the young man pointed to the more fashionable woman, and said, “I got a gift, from her.”
  He was a regular, nice looking fellow—equanimous. His clean, healthy face showed no sign of the various debilitating habits of this world. The playful background titter of the orchestra warming up reinforced my attention. Suddenly I detected something was about to be revealed, and in an instantaneous flash, I warned myself to pay attention. These were dark days for me and I had been unable for a long time to find anything real. I went around with my Bean Halogen lantern strapped to my forehead searching like a maniac. Nada. Now I was sitting at the Boston Symphony expecting the worst. How could anybody screw up the Eroica, you ask? Easy. But back to my dream. It was an exceptionally clear and vivid dream I, Pablo, had that night, though I am having a hard time explaining it now. An old dog may fall off the scent, but he’ll pick it up again when everybody else has gone home.
  Now, among the young women, who sat down behind me, the one in the working girl’s natty garb was very lively looking, and it was this young woman who jumped around and moved to a seat which happened to be empty beside the young man. They looked peculiarly similar, as if there was a family resemblance. Yet she, though she wore glasses, seemed to me as if formed of a heated gas, rather than particulate substance. She was tanned, not brown, freckles along the bridge of her nose. The young fellow said, “We’ve been acquaintances for a long time. But different places, different time, you know? Then she sent me this.” He held up the package.
  There was a spate of murmuring from the two matrons behind me.
  The young fellow commenced to sweat. With a quick gesture of a bent forefinger he brushed the sweat off his brow.
  He looked at her, and he looked back at me, “She’s always there. My life is irresponsible, you know? I’m an artist and it isn’t right that I should lead someone else into that life. Sometimes there isn’t food. So I’ve tried to avoid...that. I don’t know what to think.”
  “So, did you ask her?” Was my thought, knowing the economics got worked out one way or another, though these situations may look hard at first glance.
  The poor young fellow, now he was in a big sweat. “I want to do the right thing.”
  When the tittering continued from the two sober matrons behind me—I take it they were disapproving?—, the young woman glanced up at them, smiled, closed her eyes, seeming to put them out of her mind. When he looked at her wonderingly, she laughed. As if she should know what this “right thing” was supposed to mean. I wondered what “right thing” there was to a simple offering of a gift. Had something gone wrong? Perhaps there was an aspect of the gift giving ritual that I wasn’t aware of or that had somehow passed me by? This is a possibility, of course, since who knows how bright I am? The basic intelligence of even the mighty and the powerful can be debatable, and I certainly wasn’t mighty and powerful. I guess that I could take an IQ test. Were girls not supposed to give boys gifts? That seemed far fetched, though perhaps that was IT.
  She said, “They were against it,” nodding at the matrons, “but I did it anyway.” She put her arm over his shoulder. He was also pleased. They were two young people who were pleased with each other.
  Then the thought occurred to somebody that he should open the present. There was still time before the start of the music.
  “Should we here, do you think?” He said.
  “Why not?” You could see they were in great delight, and it hardly mattered what was in the box. I say that honestly.
  He carefully took it out of the satchel, breathed deeply—almost a sigh— and began to remove the wrapping.
  “Ben told me what you needed.”
  He looked up at me, the bystander, the observing stranger, “Ben is my brother.”
  “I like them both,” said the very lively young woman. “But this one plays hard to get.”
  “I’m not as sociable. It has always been that way.”
  “Open!” She commanded.
  By now there was considerable negative tittering from the two dark
sisters. One was a great beauty. The other was well known for her hospitable acts and charitable work. They were notorious around town. I did not know them very well, of course. They were all three very good looking in my opinion. But the beauty: what can you do, in my line of work, without beauty? But they didn’t hang around the streets or in the bars.
  To my astonishment inside the box was another box with very garish looking symbols on it. It was a motherboard from a famous manufacturer of high end computer parts!
  “Ben told me your computer was kaput. Look there’s more.”
  In the box were two other smaller boxes. One had Intel on it: it was a Zeon CPU. The other had two eight gig DDR3 Ripjaws. I personally about hit the floor. I had never seen as many expensive computer parts in one place in my life. I am lucky my computer guru passes on his outdated trash to me.
  “Ben told me you were a whiz at computer parts. But I’ll help you do the build, if you like.”
  “I don’t know if I can accept this. I...”
  “Oh please, I’ll be very insulted if you don’t.”
  The matrons behind me, especially the great beauty, were now tittering energetically. “Where did you get the money?” Said the great beauty. Although famous for her beauty, she had always seemed to me haughty, those times I had seen her around, which occurred more often now I had moved back into town and was getting out more.
  “Oh, don’t listen to them. I work, I earn money, I buy things. I don’t sit on my hands all day the way they do.”
  “Little pragmatic fool,” said the great beauty.
  "Miss Electricity," said the charity worker.
  “Thank you,” the young man said. “I don’t know what to say. I’m pretty much helpless without a good machine.”
  “I know. I am happy that I can help.”
  After a while I had managed to drag myself upwards into consciousness again. I debated MOSPHETS, CPU, GPU, RAM cards with heat spreading rip jaws and variable voltage case fans. Eventually I realized that the conductor was about to begin the Eroica. All the symphonic tittering had stopped. Not one note of the music reached me. At the end of the first movement, the young man looked at the young woman who was sitting beside him. “I can’t stand this any more. Let’s go get your machine and Ben and have a LAN Party.”
  “Hell ya. Let’s go.”
  Then I was all in a sweat that I’d be stuck here with the Eroica and charity and beauty. But the young man turned around and said,
  “Hey, Pablo, what ya got?”
  “Well,” I says, “it works.”
  “If ya can connect, come on.”
  You know me, I couldn’t pull out fast enough. Beauty was giving me the fuckingest dirty looks. “Oh no,” I thought. It was a great LAN Party, though. Knowlsey, the young man who was always so kind to smelly me, gave me some RAM. His box was water cooled. Fun for the simple minded, I guess.
  But I really liked this dream as a dream. I had to get up right away and write it down.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Strawberry Fields

    The strawberry field had no weeds in it. And the soil smelled pleasantly of cut grass and decay. I was a fearless kid; I liked to do things that wrecked you. Hardship did not deter me. In fact, hardship was interesting. So I got down on my knees, and dragging behind me the crate of quart containers, I began to pick the strawberries.
  Bob Anderson, the boss, a handsome, blond man, seemed to like smiling but he had not recently smiled at me. He lived in the stone house on the bluff overlooking his fields. The house was a mile outside Peru on the Pewter Road. While he cleared his fields he had gathered stones to build the house. The roof was tiled, and the windows were gabled. Then when Earlin Emerson, the florist, retired, Bob Anderson bought both of Earlin’s beautiful glass greenhouses. Mr. Anderson directed Charlie Sturtivant, Vic Slade and Emil Kasmirek to disassemble the greenhouses and to transport them on Charlie’s flatbed truck into Mr. Anderson’s field. They erected them just as the winter of 1955 was setting in. They broke not one pane of glass, because Bob Anderson was not an ordinary man.
  This greenhouse and the flowers and seedlings in it used to jump out at me. The plants’ beauty assaulted me, and their fresh perfume made me dizzy. They emptied my mind into a swirl of confusion. Sometimes I’d wander into that greenhouse and dream with big eyes about heaven and earth. Mr. Anderson turned toward me a granitic profile and studied me with eyes sidelong.
  I wanted to know more about those plants, but a stone wall of misapprehensions blocked my way. I was preoccupied. By nature I was inclined to believe what I read in books. I read God was dead, and the word “nothingness” had on me a big influence. My inflamed mind gave many things a strange slant, which made impossible certain simple everyday understandings. I was “existential”, which meant to me that it was not necessary to get too put out over anything. The stick figures that represented workers in my Civics textbook at school did not get too put out. They were existential. When the production ceased, the workers went home. But the plants went on working, and they worked assiduously. In Mr. Anderson’s greenhouses they worked all day and all night. They were a load, a mystery. I sighed, I liked to hang out in the greenhouses. Plants didn’t look at all like I imagined was nothingness.
  One day my father said, “Eddie, this is a good day to work. Today you must earn a dollar.”
  I agreed. It was a good day to earn a dollar. I could wreck myself today. I went into Mr. Anderson’s strawberry field. Only a few people were picking, so I was alone with my vaguenesses.
  Mr. Anderson was disinclined to waste words in introduction or explanation. He had given me my crate of quart containers and he sent me off to work. Obviously, he was not a man like the ordinary. Why should I ask questions?
  But where were all the ripe strawberries? I looked back over my shoulder at the beautiful greenhouses. Pallets of potting soil and trees, whose roots were wrapped in burlap, and too many different gardening tools for me to learn all their names were clustered in families around the greenhouses. A plumb greenhouse of glass would capture my imagination and fascinate me the rest of my life. Maybe I could have been better employed?
  On this day most of the strawberries were a sickly yellowish white color, but a few were red and lusciously ripe. Nevertheless, Mr. Anderson had sent me, and I must wreck myself to earn a dollar.
  As I crawled along, searching for red strawberries, I considered the sickly berries. Might they also be tasty? Why do strawberries have to be red to be tasty? If you could pick a few sickly berries, you could earn a dollar more quickly. Besides, as the sun ascended higher and the field got brighter, the berries seemed to become brighter, too. In this brighter light red berries could dominate the future.
  In fact, they could take over. So a battle was brewing, a war of reds and whites. The reds outflanked the whites and rushed to the attack through a thin filament of green. That must be General Ike, the ripe one in triumphal pose, humongous in the battle’s center!
  Could the crop today be worth picking? Maybe it was a new crop just coming in, or an old crop languished past picking. What did that matter to me? It was not even lunch time yet, and I still had to get wrecked. But I could eat any time. My lunch box was full. Eat like a barbarian! Beat my chest! Work at least until lunch. Besides, dreaming in a sunny, green field was a happiness even if there was not much fruit to pick.
  Toward high noon the sky towered to the dark blue that signified the edge of outer space. Shredded clouds took up positions here and there to guide the sun into prominence. Under this warm sun the berries that were actually red looked indescribably delicious. I believed that the juice must taste like ambrosia, though I was unclear on how ambrosia should taste. I should be picking, but how could I forswear eating? It was as if the berries spoke to me: so red, so ripe, so round. Under a distant, secluded leaf they hung lusciously. I ate some of the best fruit. Pleasures are so fleeting in this world. Put by a berry in a jar! Where has it gone? I came to the only logical conclusion: it looks good, so eat it.
  Quite a few people came into the field that day. They tried picking, then they quickly left. They must have been weak, while I was strong. I persevered. I searched high and low. I didn’t care how hot the sun was or how tired I got. I endured.
  Big forces began to collide in my head. My father was on one side and the rest of the world on the other side. Then next against my father was Mr. Anderson, who I already knew was not an ordinary man. My father had said that I must work to make a dollar, but Mr. Anderson might not find this battle of reds and whites amusing. He might throw my bounty in my face, and the crushed berries’ juices given to the parched earth. What should I do?
  I had done work; I was still here. But there were not enough berries to make a dollar and go home to rest.
  I began to fill out my crate with imperfect berries. The naturalness with which I fell amazed me. Failure and boredom, boredom and failure made resisting hard. Boredom and failure were existential; resisting was like church, which had never worked out for me. I absentmindedly adjusted the bad berries, slipping them with a damp forefinger under the good. It was the same absentmindedness that allows life’s hurtful facts to be softened and embellished.
  Then the light over the strawberry field became gray. A gentle sea breeze had cooled the air, a sign of afternoon in my home town near the Atlantic coast in New Hampshire. A tender weariness came over me. I picked up the crate full of quart boxes of berries and lugged them down the path toward the big greenhouse. As I entered the greenhouse I tried not to look sick.
  “Oh, God, you! I forgot about you,” Mr. Anderson said. “What have you got there?”
  I laid the crate on a nearby work bench and took out the quart containers.
  “No!” Mr. Anderson laughed. “I can’t sell half these.”
  “Sir,” I said, knees trembling. “I want a dollar.”  
  Mr. Anderson was an extraordinary man, and he was a hardass besides, but I was more afraid of my father. I liked wrecking myself, and everything was good except whatever had for whatever reason fear attached to it.
  “I won’t give you a dollar. I won’t give you anything. Look.” He spilled out a quart on the table. Some of the berries were good. He angrily tossed the bad ones into the trash.
  “I want my dollar,” I repeated softly.
  Before he could reply I was astonished that my father walked into the greenhouse, smiling. “Hi, Eddie. How was your day of work?”
  Mr. Anderson had become agitated. “I can’t give him money for this,” he said.
  Father examined the berries spread out on the bench. He laughed. “Mister, your crop has gone past. How should he know? Give the boy his money and we’ll go.”
  “These are not worth anything,” Mr. Anderson said.
  “You got greedy,” my father replied. “You are squeezing your crop past prime. And now you owe the boy a dollar.”
  “Greedy? Fine!” The cash register crashed. He took out a crumpled dollar, and thrust it at me, and said, “Don’t bother to come back.”
  Father and I hustled outside. With face red Mr. Anderson stood in the doorway. Father and I climbed into the old Studebaker. Father drove down Old Peru Road toward home.
  “Sometimes it is hard to tell when a job is not worth doing,” Father said. “And nobody will be anxious to tell you. So you have to figure it out for yourself.”
  A darkness came over me that made me breathless. Perhaps in my life the darkness never really did go away. Sometimes it still closes in if I am not careful. I worry that I am a person who has failed in life because I was not cut out for work.