Aug 23, 2014
Ever since I started writing on my computer, I became fascinated with the idea of building a system that would be perfect for the writer. I suspect that there are systems that work perfectly for programmers, and why shouldn't there be?, but every program or app that I have run across seemed to me deadly to the writer who was not a programmer and who just wanted to write novels, for instance, and other long works fast with no bullshit. I think in the last few years I have made some progress in this matter.
When I started writing on a computer, the app I started with, as did anybody else, I imagine, was Microsoft Word. About two weeks into it I thought: what is this, this is so backasswards, and it looks terrible, how can any fool expect me to stare at this all day, or long enough to write the huge, lengthy great American novels I wanted to write? For awhile I went back to the long suffering Selectric which had been banged on steadily for the previous ten years. The writing was tiring enough, but Word made every page an exhausting challenge. The media was making me work harder than the words! XP was the big thing then; and believe me I can see why. XP was very good, especially when the CPU's were dual core and 4 gigs of RAM became common with machines off the shelf. I think Microsoft has never come close to matching it. System seven passes, but neither XP nor system seven are good for me, who might stubbornly push out several thousand words a day. Perhaps good for little old ladies who like to look at baby pictures, tap out an email now and then, play a game or watch a movie, but not for me, who had my own specialized purpose. Almost all OS's are like that: they are not serviceable for workers in literature who spend many hours per day staring at a video monitor which is supposed to look good and be easy to read and not too hard on the eyes.
That began a five year walkabout through computer science. I tried everything, some apps that cost money, some apps that didn't cost anything. I tried very expensive hardware, a MacBook Pro, and hardware that I salvaged for next to nothing, and pitted them side by side in order to see which one I would grab first when I was determined to get something done. Whether hardware or software worked or tied you up in spastic knots of frustration seemed to have nothing to do with how much they cost. Some of the apps were more than apps, they were complicated writing systems, and every update was a boot to the wallet. Some apps were incredibly slow, hulkingly halting; others disappeared after the first update. If you didn't buy the updates, they ceased to work. The files, though I was smart enough to insist on basic .txt files, except for a short flirtation with .odt, which I am presently suffering for, were then a bitch to clean up and use, or rewrite five years later, as writers often do, and haul back into existence. Others were useless in the sense that they gave you a text file or a rich text file and not much else. It is very hard to make a typeset quality pdf or a decent html file unless you went to another app or unless you added the commands by hand, and then you would need another app to compile the commands with in order to take a look at the file. Numerous highly specialized apps sometimes lead to a very haulting work flow even if they all work. The process might be prone to error and downright dangerous. A round of corrections, for instance, accidentally deleted could set you back. The frustrations increase as five minutes become two hours. And worst of all, good running machines become obsolete as OSes and apps are blown up with inefficient and expensive junk.
And then, in the case of the PDF for example, you might have to shell out an amazing amount of money to make changes in the PDF file. HTML is better for the democratic man in that once the file is in the browser, in the form of a blog, for instance, changes are always possible and easy to make. But finding server space, in the case of a blog or wiki, costs money, more money, I think, than it should. Setting up your own server to run your own website and emailer is not a job for a beginner. Besides, the expense in terms of time expended in maintenance can be high. Not to mention the machine, whether a built at home box or store bought, has to be rather close to the top shelf. The parts for these 24/7 machines are not cheap. If you are busy, if you do on your computer actual work, if you are a writer, for example, as I am, there is no time for maintenance. In order to cut down on the maintenance you might get stuck with an Apple desktop. You'll be able to run Apple software on an Apple machine. But the bottom end is $3,000. IBM server boxes ditto. It is a big investment, but commercial OSes and commercial grade hardware mean less downtime. The time to master the equipment is much shorter, and in the end less time will be wasted dealing with broken hardware. That is the theory. Once you get into it and spend x-thousand dollars, it may take you a while to find the proof.
The big question is: what can you afford? A long romance with Mac equipment can lead to an eventual marriage, unfortunately, an expensive marriage. But if you can afford to budget $2,000 a year, then why not Mac, or an IBM server or some other top-of-the-line equipment? Or better still have a machine built by an expert. Chances are nothing will go wrong and the work you will be doing will go on uninterrupted from one day to the next. It's a nice feeling: sit down at the machine, boot up and know that in a few seconds you'll be hard at work. The trouble is, you may not like the damned machine, you may not like the apps, maybe the machine is irritatingly loud, or the apps are such that they are so painful to work with that you just do not want to go there. This I will tell you from first hand experience: Adobe apps don't work very well. And they are ugly, chaotic looking and generally unpleasant to have anything to do with. It is unbelievable to me that there are people who work with Adobe apps all day every day. And at the same time they pride themselves in the number of phony effects that they can get. Fortunately I got my deciding experience with Adobe inexpensively. Lots of people get robbed, purchase apps they use a few times and then avoid like the plague. DEVONthink cost me over $100. At that time I had just gotten the Mac and I was enthusiastic about collecting data which had to be organized somehow. So I dived in. It worked. It did as advertised. But it was so ugly and tedious to work with I had to give up on it. I found myself doing the same operations over and over, and at least for me, nothing seemed to come together. Besides my eyes were going and all those black on white squares and boxes gave me a headache. But then maybe I am not being fair because Emacs, even in the first few weeks, as I was getting used to my first computer, began to intrigue me. The number of keybindings dedicated to the cursor and the keyboard made plain typing difficult for awhile, but the end result was amazing. I got so I could type as fast as I could think. The cursor flew all over the window as I went back to make changes. With such a drastic increase in efficiency I found my output per day to have increased three fold. Instead of 500 words per day, 1500 was more the norm. Emacs is free. I also like Aquamacs for its beautiful Apple fonts and colors. But like in anything Apple there is a despotic arrangement going on. You can't get into things. Configuration files are generally off limits. Getting into a configuration file to make the app run the way you want it to run is habit forming. It is a heady experience. After awhile, you come to expect it. And then the romance of running a Mac wears off.
So this is what happened during a crucial moment of my writing life. I want to be as prolific as Balzac. Though it may be that I write junk, I wanted to write a lot of junk. I started this novel which may go to half-a-million words. Gotta make some progress every day. No time to fool around. I threw together some spare parts I had collected, a crumby old ECS board, six years old, a ten dollar used AMD dual core and I splurged on two beautiful Noctua fans and I even bought a new disk drive. I found an Alienware box somebody had junked. Eventually, after an odyssey through *NIX, which is another story, I ended up in a head-to-head battle between the junker with Xubuntu on it and the 2011 MacBook Pro with quad core, SSD and 16G of RAM. I attached them with a KVM switch so that to move from the one to the other was only a matter of pressing a button. At first OS X was flashy. The colors were nice, the fonts were beautiful, nice kerning. Emacs kept crashing, though I never lost anything, so I switched to Aquamacs. But at the same time I began to see what a smooth operation Xubuntu was. As I got more and more familiar, I discovered everything worked. I could stay in Emacs all day. It compiled LaTex with no irritating glitches. I could even stay in Emacs to view the .dvi or the .pdf. Changes could be made and viewed instantly. All free, free anyway you wanted to think about it. And better still, any configuration file was fair game, and Xubuntu seemed to run on anything, even my collection of raunchy parts. Needless to say, two months later I am looking to sell the Mac. A fifty dollar machine had beat out a two-thousand dollar machine! To be fair, the one is not portable, but I am a stay at home guy, and nice running core-two-duo Thinkpads can be thrown together for $50. Never ever another Mac. In fact, after awhile the MacBook became obnoxious to me, if you can believe that. I began to consider it a rip-off. OS X is not nearly as stable as I was lead to believe. I fought off the crashes, refusing to believe what was happening in front of me probably because I had spent so much money getting there. But when I went head to head, early every morning, before dawn, in a hurry to get something done, I booted up on the junker.
(Before I go on I'd like to give praise to two really good apps for writing and one OS that I thought was surprising. The two apps are Pyroom and Jer's Novel Writer. After trying out a hundred apps for writing, I found Pyroom to be the simplest, most direct distraction free app of all. It submerses you and never insists that you come up. I spent a lot of time on it. But now I can get the same effect with Emacs plus the Emacs keybindings. The distraction free element is not Emacs, which requires more self-disciple for those long thinkfests than pyroom. Jer's Novel writer was a great app for giant text files. Also it had numerous useful features, and little cubbyholes to put your notes in and margin notes. But the developer went to work for Apple and he ceased maintaining it. I have not looked lately to see what has happened to it. I had to stop using my copy because I could not trust it any more. The OS I found which was unusually serviceable for people interested in building a home server was Ghost BSD. It uses Openbox desktop. It is BSD, though, fun for the simpleminded. It's apparently a one man operation, but I liked it so much that I might go back to it again if I get set up for it: printer and Internet on a wire. Emacs and Openbox were made for each other.)
Now let's go on and think about that server you have been dreaming about for the past five years. What is holding you back? You can't expect to run your MacBook Pro or Imac as a 24/7 server. Anybody who tells you you can is either an "old hand" who knows something I don't, or kidding you. You can't run a server on an overload of junk parts. You can try, but it won't run very long. The 24/7 requirement is what will set you back. Running used parts that are designed to run 24/7 is a good positive idea but highly theoretical. If you don't mind the setbacks, if you are not frustrated to find your computer shutting down suddenly, no work today, a day spent in trouble shooting, then a used Supermicro board and two dual core Zeons bought on Ebay for $50 might be your answer. Pull out the back up box, switch drives and you're in business again, sort of. Get a box that will let you switch parts around without tools and bank up backup parts. It does pass the sanity test to operate that way. Insist on good new fans and don't get cheap on your drives. No bigger hassle in computing than a cheap drive dying. ECC RAM is nice, but unholy expensive. If you do buy new, my personal dream, expect the job to run about $1,500 and some change. A server box will run close to $150—if you want a nice box to show off your stuff, a Case Labs box will cost about double—, a Supermicro dual CPU board $300, 2 quad core Zeons, $500 (maybe) and the rest in ECC RAM. That's assuming you have all the other odds and ends, video, an extra drive for backup and whatever else floats your boat, such as dual power supplies. CPU's have no moving parts and if they haven't been burnt, if your used parts supplier is on the ups, what the hell. An eight core Opteron (AMD) on a single CPU board might pass the sanity test. You might be able to get down under a $1000.
Are you sure you still wanna do it? You could hire the cloud for $20 a month or so, more depending on how much memory you need. Blogger is free, fun, but limited. But if you really want something of your own, a true shack and clubhouse, weblog, wiki, blog, emailer, it wouldn't be hard to figure out quite a few things to put on it. Ubuntu has a server OS. There's plenty of documentation. It might not take very much expensive hardware, at least to get started. A normal, everyday machine might drive the thing for awhile. If you make some money, you can throw it into improvements.
So this is about where I have come to. I like my machine to write on. I have got a lot of work down on Xubuntu, and so far updates have been flawless. I look forward to getting up before dawn and writing every day in Emacs. I have mastered enough Emacs to defend myself, so I can write both HTML and LaTex with purpose. Just finished a swing through BSD UNIX. They are having the typical *NIX update and upgrade problems. I lost a disk in FreeBSD, which, of course, could have happened anywhere at any time, but they also are having problems with their new package system, pkg2ng. Virtually every flavor of BSD is built on FreeBSD. So when FreeBSD is having problems, they all are. BSD is built to handle the issues of multiple users on the same system. If you are working in a system with ten or more workstations, BSD UNIX is definitely where you want to go. If you are a hobbyist who is throughly fond of experimenting with backgrounds and configuration files and so on, then BSD is where you will be the happiest. The number of ports and apps you will have to play with is, so far as I can make out, endless. And if you really enjoy retro computing, there are still serviceable apps like ED and Mutt and Pine to download and use. Once you get Mutt, the old fashioned, handy-dandy email client, figured out and configured, you will have an email client that you won't hate, since most of them suck. That is something to appreciate. When you jump into an app that configures your emails exactly the way you want them configured and that looks like what you'd want an emailer to look like, not like a battlefield, and when after a few years, all your apps work and look like you want them to, suddenly you will find yourself struggling to find time to use your computer rather than looking for reasons to avoid it. Everything you do on it becomes twice as easy, a real pleasure rather than an annoyance. An email client, for instance, that ditches emails you decide that you don't need any more before they show up to bother you helps. You don't have to wait for the sender to act on your request: ditched and deleted. And better still it looks nice, too, and you can learn some vi while sending emails out to the family.
I don't really have that much to say about apps anymore since I spend 95% of my time on Emacs. But my idea of battling out OSes via KVM is still in the works. There will be Xubuntu vs Debian on outdated hardware. Which will get ditched? That's the next chapter in the story of PabloOS.
This above is a KVM switch. If you want to run two machines at the same time with your favorite keyboard, mouse, monitor and speaker combination this is the way to go. I have never been able to figure out why anybody would want to slow down their expensive machinery so drastically waiting for an app in another OS that has been loaded on the same drive, I don't care how you do it. You cannot even properly evaluate an OS that way, so most "reviews" of software are bullshit. The KVM is a much better solution. I'll blog KVM switches in a little while. A beginner can hook them up.