Friday, March 14, 2014


                        About twenty years ago I found at a yard sale in Norway, Maine a proud Olympia manual office model typewriter. I snatched it up for five dollars. It seemed to me hardly used; still in fact shiny in places. It must have been built in the fifties, and if the former owner had used it at all he must have been a very careful and fastidious typist. I was happy about this great purchase. Later I ended up with a used car that I got for thousands of dollars less than it was worth. They were the two purchases of objects in my life that made sense to me, junk dealer that I am. It does happen, you know, so stay awake. A once in a lifetime deal may suddenly appear to anybody, even somebody used to buying new.
     Once I had bought it, of course, utilization of the big lunk of a machine changed drastically. It became a veteran, a US Army Ranger in the battle of words. Before that time I had always written in small, neat letters with a fountain pen on unlined yellow paper—still the best way to write poetry, I think, though the UNIX app ed has quietly taken hold with me. Since I am a constant and dedicated re-writer, no matter how hard I tried to keep the manuscripts free of pointing cross outs, deletions and additions, they all, even after ten rewrites, always appeared chaotic. (God bless the lovely ladies who type and re-type manuscripts—in fact, do they really do that, the wives of husbands who write, and so on? or possibly a pipe dream. Dunno. I had testimony on one front who claimed his wife did it. Hard to estimate what difference it made success-wise.) I was spending more time, I thought, copying and re-copying than writing. My freshman English instructor at UNH in Durham, New Hampshire, long ago, used to leave comments like "turgid" "unclear" "dark". My festering teen-ager's brain considered that he might be talking about the lack of typing skills. For some reason I thought that the big clunk of Olympia typewriter parts would solve that problem.
     At that time my eyes were beginning to go. The font on the old typewriter was an especially clean and slightly larger than usual Elite type. I hated the old clunky Pica type. This Elite type was especially pleasant on my eyes. I continued along with first drafts in pen and ink, so as not to argue with an old habit, but any further re-writing I typed. After awhile I actually became a good typist. Not a bad pastime, I thought, a spin off from writing. But as the years went by and I attempted to build a point-of-view or an attitude, which meant to me that I had something to say, the constant re-typing became a bigger pain than re-writing ever had been in pen and ink. Some of my short stories were in folders that had a novel's bulk and heft—twenty-three drafts. And if anybody would ask me, which nobody did, I still couldn't say that the story was any better on the twenty-third draft than it had been on the first. Although I was getting nowhere, I returned to writing again and again for the solace and enjoyment of my thoughts. The sentence became a sacred bridge over the troubled river of thought. It took me from what I knew into the dark unknown, and in so doing revealed life's mysteries. Don't ask me what I found out, what secrets I dug up with my heated self-heckling but I was honestly never bored in this back alley of life with my books and my yard sale typewriter.
     For all of this time I did not consider writing on a computer to be a wise idea. My writings were precious to me. Once in it for the hour or two every day my troubles vanished. I was lucky to have a wife who put up with my absences. A thought is very frail. It barely exists like a puff of smoke. Thought is balanced in the upper realms as if on a high wire; any vague wind could tear it apart. For a long time it did not make sense to me to commit my words to a mere machine. Machines were too much subject to vagary and chance. Being mere machines, computers crashed, and if they did not crash, they were untrustworthy for the long run. I had a beginning acquaintance with UNIX in the eighties, and though the system definitely worked, it needed to be rebooted because every so often it got stuck. When you had not saved previous to these sudden freeze ups, at the reboot you lost whatever you had been working on, a very tiresome mis-behavior. There was coddling, maintenance all carried on by odd behaving, whimsical characters in polyester suits. I should mention the very expensive machines UNIX required. Then Jobs came along with his cute machines. As an added attraction I thought he looked like John Lennon. Jobs was another one of those odd behaving characters. OS 9 was the first operating system I considered to be stable enough for my works. But the thought of spending a thousand plus dollars for a machine to write on seemed absurd to me. But in the back of my head there was always that giant book of UNIX lore I had waded through when I was setting type. UNIX was the bear for documenting any tinsy thing, and still is.
     Anybody who does real work on a computer every day will eventually end up with a UNIX system; reason being the documentation is voluminous. The UNIX system I set type on long ago definitely did process words, huge documents longer than any novel. And UNIX was the Internet. Get close to UNIX, get close to the Internet. A writer could get on a UNIX terminal anywhere, write like a madman and know that with the pressing of a button or two he was speaking to the whole world. But for me, because of the quaint peculiarities in UNIX that needed still to be ironed out, computers were still a waste of time. There were system wide crashes. Memory was not enough forgiving. When they were other people's documents, that seemed okay to me, even sensible, but when they were my own documents, not okay. In short, to be convinced I needed the price of the machine to come down, way down to perhaps a hundred-fifty $$! and a foolproof way to save. AND I needed a big breakthrough in operating systems: though a browser might crash, it would not take down the whole system. (Course, I would prefer that nothing crashed ever, wouldn't you?)
     One day I was wandering into work. My boss took out of his pocket a funny looking cylindrical object. I thought it was a tiny bomb. This was soon after 911. My boss was about to blow me up! He laughed, "Oh, this is a snap drive. Two-hundred-and-fifty megabytes. You stick it into a USB port." "No moving parts?" I wondered. "Nope." I had already been filled in on floppy drives, but we're talking a little more than a megabyte. I liked floppy drives, I had put a couple of my stories on one. But you had to format and wade through this process and that before you could do anything with it. They were cute though, and seemed to be a safe way to store things and you could label them and file them into a little box. If you knew gzip or one of the other compression apps, you could put a big novel on a floppy. But on the other hand this snap drive, you just stuck it into a USB and started saving to it. I soon learned that the little white iBook my grandson got from school which followed him around like a puppy used to in yesteryears had not one but two USB ports. Jobs knew better than anyone what was coming.
     The used iBook I eventually ended up with a decade or so ago still works fine. Now I have FreeBSD UNIX on it which runs X, GNU Screen and Pyroom, one of my favorite apps for writing. I transfer files via. snap drive. I can use text based browsers on it—my favorite is Elinks. One tab has Wikipedia, another Google, and there are tabs for Oxford American Version and a thesaurus. I ought to use it more than I do. But I have a Desktop with FreeBSD, too, which I use mostly. I have a MacBook Pro, it was a retirement gift I gave to myself, so it was not about writing. It has an SSD and 16G of RAM. I hate laptop keyboards generally, though not the iBook so much, whose keys are bigger and softer and more convex so that they are more comfortable to type on. But the Macbook is very frustrating to type on. Some people, who like their laptops and use it as the sole and primary machine, carry around portable keyboards and they connect them via. USB to their laptops when they get where they are going. Keyboards are a study. New, fresh designs for keyboards and mice are all over the web. I bought a used IBM standard keyboard for my Mac and for the FreeBSD Desktop I use a Realforce ten keyless as my everyday keyboard. It has Topre keys. It was very expensive. When I started to use it a lot, I became a good touch typist; and the sore fingers, wrists and shoulders ceased. The last thing people usually buy or pay attention to is the keyboard. Ditto monitors. Master typists don't use cheap keyboards. They don't use laptops either. Most good keyboards don't travel well. But there are some on the market that do.
     I built the FreeBSD Desktop out of a litter of junk parts, and I'm not kidding. The CPU is about eight years old, an AMD 64 dual core. The board is four or five years old with four gigs of RAM. I didn't know what I would put on this piece of junk. I was in the mood for experimenting. I had been tending in the direction of BSD for a long time. But there was GnewSense, Knoppix, Trisquel, a fresh new release of Fedora that I had been hearing good things about, as well as an old standby Debian.
     I don't know how people use Microsoft Windows. They sit at their machines all day, waiting and waiting and waiting. OS X is hopelessly slow also. But Microsoft is the worst. People go to their jobs and they boot up and they wait and wait. That alone must be stressful. I don't know how big business can justify the hours and hours of down time and inactivity they must suffer. After a few years I switched over to Linux. Linux is the wild west of computing. There are a thousand Linux OS's. Naturally, some of them are good, others not so good. I remember Debian Sarge and then Sid, with which I replaced OS X Tiger on my iBook. I used XFCE desktop in Debian. I do actual work on my machine; I don't have time to wait or worse try to figure out how or why something got broken; I am not interested in guessing my way through a "work-around". Sid (Debian) was great. Nothing ever went down. Eventually I even finagled a right click out of the iBook (F11). Later a friend at work gave me a broken down DV7. I put Crunchbang on that, another very well thought out Linux distro which is based on Debian. The standard Crunchbang window manager is Openbox, a derivative of a very strong line of window managers—Blackbox and Fluxbox. Crunchbang introduced me to a strange, new possibility: that you could do a lot of writing efficiently on a computer because Crunchbang reminded me of an IBM Selectric Typewriter. You press a button and there it is: it was instantaneous. No lag at all. This word "instantaneous" is something you have to experience to understand, especially Microsoft users, who think waiting five or ten seconds to get Word or 15 seconds to get a browser, or a ridiculous minute-and-a-half to boot up is "quick". Then after you understand it, you never, never want to go back. Crunchbang also was very stable. When I got a used Kingston SSD on Ebay, I was able to switch to Xubuntu, where I could use a more complete window manager (XFCE again) and still keep the amazing quickness. Linux Mint Helena was also very serviceable. But all these Linux distros had quaint sensitivities. Certain apps don't play nice. You can easily run into a part that doesn't want to cooperate with the whole. Spending even five minutes fixing something that who knows how it got broken irritated me. Updates in Linux are the worst. Of course, updates in the commercial distros are bad also. Pondering this dark subject, I have had less trouble with OS X updates than any of the others. But times have changed, and I have moved on to UNIX. On that dark subject in FreeBSD so far so good.
     Now, I speak as a non-programmer. I write every day, sometimes for hours. Like most writers on any given day I may have three or four different projects going. I need version control, and I need an easy way to compare versions. I need good pdfs, which when printed, have near typeset quality. I need HTML that will not fall apart or print differently from one browser to the next. Yes, I need to make footnotes sometimes and appendices. Above all, I need apps that are quick and efficient. I can't afford to buy a new computer every year or every other year or even every five years. I have tried every word processor or editor I ever heard anything about. Some were so hard to work with you felt like somebody was trying to chop off your hands. It just hurt to work with them. I wanted to create a flow, just as I had with pen and ink, that felt natural. Besides, nothing made any sense if I couldn't get on the Internet with it. If I could get inexpensively typeset quality PDFs, then I could publish myself, make sturdy, good looking books, a rarity nowadays when every book you look at is almost unreadable. The tools to create such an environment come from UNIX and they start with Emacs and Auctex (LaTex).
     When I bought the Macbook, I knew I was buying a UNIX machine. I also knew that I was buying an exceptionally high quality machine. As it turned out, I was not disappointed. Also it had a huge battery which supplied enough juice for eight to ten hours whether on the web or not. And besides it is beautiful, well, pretty maybe. At least it is not junk. I don't know why I don't use it very much. I may buy a big box of T-40 parts, put another junker together and sell the Mac and the DV7. I have the MacBook set up now with an IBM Standard Keyboard, an Apple mouse and modern HP Pavilion monitor; and I don't use it! I use the junk with UNIX on it. It goes together better. It also helps that emacs works better on it. For some reason emacs does not work very well on OS X since Tiger. In Tiger aquamacs, the Apple version of emacs, worked very well too. I have not tried aquamacs in a long time. I don't know if I'd say that aquamacs was broken, it just didn't work very well. It may be that aquamacs is in a transitional phase. Irritating peculiarities add up when you do actual work on your machine. Of course, if you are a programmer to put up with anything that does not work very well is absurd. I am not a programmer, I do not write code, certain things that suck I have to put up with, but when I eventually discovered ways to put open source apps, UNIX apps, on OS X, it went better. I came to an uneasy peace with a commercial distro. But now I can simply ignore it.
     It does not serve a working man to become too attached to junk. Some junk is better than other junk. The next step in this saga is to swap the disk on the Macbook and see where that will take me. If it works out and PabloOS works on it as well as it works on the junker Desktop and I can attach a serviceable keyboard by the USB, then I am no longer confined to a desk and I can take my tool and my writing into nature. There begins another story.

Put your monitor where you want it.

     This set up was $40 at Monoprice. Don't hurt your neck! Save your eyes!

Good keyboard. Lousy mouse.

Great keyboard, good mouse.
 Mice are a study, as well as keyboards. Do your homework. Save on the irritating, time consuming point-and-click.

Way to go. Notice all the programmable keys!

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