21 January 2003
A couple of times already, I've promised to talk about Linux, what it is and why I use it. There was a time when I thought this whole weblog might turn into a newbie's diary, Little Chazzie and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs; but then, there was a time when I thought that shifting from Windows to Linux would turn me back into a power user, a serious computer nerd. It hasn't done that, which I regret, I was always a wannabe nerd; but hey, you play the cards you're dealt.
So here instead is a brief history of Chaz and his computers, to explain where I'm coming from here.
The first mathematical devices I ever encountered were the adding-machines my father used in the accountancy department of the company he worked for. This is before the days of pocket calculators; those machines were mechanical, you set cogs and pulled a handle and heard the gears turn within. Babbage was building such things in the 1810s, and I don't think they'd changed much since.
When I was eight, though, my life changed. For just one year we had an inspirational teacher, in that traditional way that some lucky children do; it was my bad luck that he was a mathematician. For a year, he made a mathematician out of me too, but it didn't last. During that year, though, he had us doing amazing things; and brightest and best, we got to programme the Oxford University computer. This is back in the days when computers were the size of a small hall, and remarkably stupid; the average digital watch these days would outperform that beast. I loved it, though. I learned KDF 9 (programming language - very basic, but hey, at eight years old you're not proud), typed equations onto ribbons of paper tape and jumped that computer through all the hoops it could manage, and thought I'd found my life's vocation. Under Dr Johnston, I ate calculus for breakfast. Then we moved up a year, it was back to long division sums, and soon the only calculus in my life was growing on my teeth.
The next calculating device that came my way was a slide rule. Okay, I loved that too, but it wasn't quite the same. I slipped away from maths like a disappointed lover, went back to literature, didn't see another computer until the day I borrowed money from the bank to buy an electronic typewriter, and in the shop I saw my first PC. Five years later, I borrowed rather more money from the same bank and bought one.
This was before IBM released their patents, or whatever it was they did to make IBM-compatibility the standard. My first machine was an Apricot, which ran its own software and was - ahem - the apple of my eye, till it was nicked in a burglary. Its replacement was a Dell, my first true PC, running DOS. Say what you like about Bill Gates - as I do, and I have, and I will again - but I did love DOS. That's when I became a power user, I was deep inside that machine, I knew what made it tick and it ticked to my command.
And then bloody Apple Macs came along, and suddenly graphics were all the rage and nobody wanted a text-based operating system any more, it was all mouse-and-icon and clever little windows with, look, menus, gosh wow... And so Bill Gates invented Windows, and took half the fun out of my life.
People are always asking me why I hate iconolatry so much, what I've got against user-friendliness. What it is, is that when I wanted to delete a file, I used to type 'delete'; now suddenly I was having to drag a picture of a file onto a picture of a waste paper basket. How patronising is that? I resent being talked down to by a machine. It's lowest-common-denominator computing: 'some people can't cope with keyboards, therefore none of you shall cope with keyboards.' Damn it, I like keyboards, I'm a typist, I'm good at this; it's the only physical skill I have, and these people are trying to take it away from me. 'Try this new dictation software, Chaz, it's really good these days.' No, shan't, won't, don't want it.
For the sake of professional compatibility, to be able to share files with my publishers, I had to use Windows, and Word; but I hated them, and never learned to use them efficiently. Bill Gates made a moron out of me, a trained ape who knew which buttons to press to access basic functions, but never penetrated beyond that most superficial level. And I knew it, and resented it, and became bitter and twisted where once I had been joyful and clean-limbed.
And grouched about it, of course I did; and soon my more sussed friends were suggesting gently that I might like to go and look at Linux. Which I did; but it's too late now, and I've been going on too long. More, I promise, in my next...
© Chaz Brenchley 2003
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.