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23 January 2003

... So there I was, hating Windows and grumbling about it mightily, being I suspect very tedious about it, not to say tendentious. And eventually Harry suggested that if I really felt that strongly, I might take a look at Linux; and Geoff (that's Geoff Ryman, the only man I know who can make me feel both short and stupid) said pretty much the same thing, but added that if I went the Linux road, I should schedule a couple of hours a week for the first year to learn it properly.

I should not need to say that I did the one, but not (or not yet) the other. I've been using Linux for two years now, and still haven't really learned my way around. Deliberately moving to a system that makes fewer allowances for ignorance feels great, it flatters my ego, but leaves me bumbling around all too often in the half-dark, knowing that I've read something about this somewhere but I can't remember where and certainly have no idea how to handle it now that the situation has actually arisen...

So what are the attractions of Linux? Well, it's not Windows, and it's not Mac; that's two points in its favour. And it's open-source, it's free. Technically that's as in freedom of speech rather than free of charge, but there are many distributions that you can download for no fee. It's a community enterprise, developed by many programmers worldwide sharing ideas and keeping no secrets; all the code that drives the system is right there for anyone to adapt it, improve it and pass it on. I love that, even if I can't play that game myself. I love its generosity of spirit; Microsoft systems will only work with Microsoft code, you can't open Linux files in Windows, but all my old Windows files are right here on my Linux system and I can read them, write to them, save them in other formats, whatever I want. Conversely I can write new stuff in Linux and save it as a Windows file, for the benefit of my less progressive friends.

It ain't all roses, and as I say, I haven't learned my way around well enough to fix some of the problems that come up. Word processors are a case in point. I used to love WordPerfect in the good old days of DOS; when I switched to Windows I also switched to Word for convenience's sake, but I never liked it. There used to be a Linux version of WordPerfect; I fell on that with glee, like I'd come home again. But then Bill Gates bought a large chunk of the company that owned it, and what do you know? Suddenly they dropped all their Linux programs, stopped selling or supporting them, cancelled all future development. (Where are the anti-trust legislators, when you need them?) I managed to track down a copy of the last released version, and got a friend in the States to send it over (thanks, Jeff) - and never managed to get it running properly on my system.

But then along came OpenOffice, which is distributed free. That's so much in the spirit of Linux, I loved the idea and was determined to love the program. Which I did and do; it's still a little primitive in comparison, but it does everything I need and I should have been happy to settle down with that, watch it as it grew and grow alongside. But OpenOffice has a big brother, StarOffice 6.0 - it's essentially the same program, only that with StarOffice you get Asian fonts as well. Obviously, with my Chinese in mind, Asian fonts is a big plus. But StarOffice you have to pay for. I dithered for months, principle vs convenience, and in the end I bought it. And have been happily running it for the last month - except that in the last few days, it's taken to crashing every time I try to save a document. It crashes very elegantly, and virtuously restores everything when I boot it up again, and it does allow me to save work in other formats; but its own native format, every time, it announces an irrecoverable error and over it goes again. This is not good in a word processor, and I have absolutely no idea what's going on. So at the moment I'm back to OpenOffice again, and never mind the heathen Chinee.

I'm also inclined to crash myself at the moment: sandpaper throat, swollen glands, head full of sludge. I'm going to bed.

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© Chaz Brenchley 2003
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.