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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



some rambling conversations I’ve had on moving from MacOS to Debian

When the magic smoke escapes

Drunkenly confessing all with Brady Forrest last week:

“I’ve done an insane thing. I’m abandoning my nice MacOS laptop for Debian.”

“Was it Lion for you too?”

Liz has a Macbook Air, and loves Lion. I bought and installed it on my Macbook Pro when it came out. It has slowly, very slowly, ground away any love I had for Mac. Live by the magic, die by the magic, I guess. You screw up the aesthetics, the usability, for just a second, and the magic goes away.

Lion made the Steve Jobs magic smoke escape for me. I am a touchy, fickle, platform guy, so I really didn’t think anyone else had this problem, but since I mentioned it, everyone goes “Oh, yeah, Lion“, like they’d been warning about it in the Old Testament.

Picking over the embers of the relationship, I think the Lion’s failings are mostly down to a combination of Apple shifting to a world of SSD and not really caring what pre-SSD Macs feel like, and Lion being a short 0.1 step on a Long March to another iOS vision.

My stumbling points on that enforced march:

In my twenty-five years of MultiFinder usage, I’ve never been able to quit apps properly. When you hit Alt-Tab on any Mac I’ve been using, about seventy applications perk up, including ones that I last opened in 1989.

I know that the Appletinis at Cupertino are working on this, and in the iOS-influenced future, applications will just be murdered in a dark corner of the OS when they least expect it. But in the meantime, if I shutdown my computer or if it crashes, every one of those seventy-billion apps restart when I log back on.

On an SSD, I imagine this takes two seconds. On my Macbook Pro, it takes six weeks.

Yes, I know you can turn it off. No, that never seems to work.

I also lost a bunch of mail in an argument between Apple Mail and Microsoft Exchange. I knew this would happen if I didn’t use a known file format for my emails. I knew that backups wouldn’t work. I felt stupid for not being able to save them, like a parent who had dodged vaccinations.

Also, I spilled Coke on my keyboard.

(I want to mention this, because the coke-spilling is indubitably not Apple’s fault, and yet it played a large role in me moving on. People always retro-rationalize why they switch, be it with complex moral journeys, or damning inditements of the objective incompetence of their abandoned lover. I don’t think Apple should work harder to keep people like me who are moving to Debian over a spilled coke. I mean, what? I don’t think I’m part of some universal trend. I just want to describe where I walked, and when.)

When I bond with a computer, what I’m mostly doing is bonding with the input devices. I do it in an intensive burst at the beginning of our relationship.

Right now, I’m forcing my fingers to learn where everything is on this new keyboard, steering them away from the non-existent trackpad gestures, teaching my pinkie to find the Enter. A sizeable proportion of the reason why I stayed with Macs so long because my hands knew their keyboards.

When the coke got spilled, the keyboard response got sticky. I started just not wanting to press certain keys. And then I realised that I didn’t want to take a sticky keyboard into the Apple Store any more, either.

I wanted a new computer, and no longer wanted it to be a Mac.

In the twenty minutes I used the default install of Windows on my Thinkpad…

I somehow managed to install two IE toolbars. One was shovelware with the system (Symantec, I think), and was installed when I foolishly chose the default option for security. The other was adware installed when I downloaded BitTorrent to get hold of the Debian install CD. I don’t think Mac or Linux users realise quite how much real estate in most Windows installs is taken with branding. It’s like a screenshot from Idiocracy.

Also, it is amazing how driven the Windows user experience is by fear. Watch out for them viruses! Windows has detected that NOTHING ONTOWARD JUST HAPPENED ON DRIVE D. Click here for omg psych out!

I feel the same thing watching CNN in airports, incidentally.

On saying goodbye to Mac hardware

“My new name for you will be clattering monkey”

My but there are a lot of sticky labels with trademarks on this Thinkpad. Strange holes and posted instructions and international symbols, too. Liz tells me the keyboard is very loud, from across the room, but that’s the Thinkpad’s Model-M DNA, I expect.

I think I will come to love its clatteriness. The IPS screen is beautiful. When I realised that I could buy chargers for this thing for under $30, I almost cried (most of my Mac chargers have either burned up or snapped apart, and it’s $75 a shot). Also, I can just plug an external monitor into it without worrying that I forgot that Mac dongle again.

With the incorrect sense of affluence that saving a few bucks on power supplies gained me, I bought two different kinds of batteries for it — a slightly sticky-out one, which gives me 8-9 hours, and a flush one that gives me four. Just having options filled me with a strange glee.

It still feels a bit like I’ve borrowed a laptop from work, though.

On the X220’s aura

At Noisebridge:

“So I abandoned my Macbook, and got a new laptop.

“What kind?”

“A Thinkpad X220

“Hahahaha! Well, that’s a surprise.”

The X220 is the default machine of the hacker types around here. I spoke to a Googler who said he’s basically holding out for his annual laptop upgrade until he can get one. The Mozilla guy I know has one. The guy who used to work at the porn site that runs out of the major San Francisco landmark has one too. He left there, but it’s his laptop, so he gets to keep it. If you have a job where you can afford it, and you’ve fallen off the Mac wagon somehow, you get an X220.

Unlike my contradictory sense that this is my work laptop, my Macbook really was paid for by work. I get to mangle this my own way. My plan, I think, is to work out a way to erase all of these brands. I was always covering up that glowing Apple: now I have to work out a way to laser-cut out the Lenovo logo. I think it’s less that I’m ashamed of who made my computer, and more that I don’t really see myself as being used to advertise it further.

Given its hipsterhacker fashionability, somebody should sell a Das Keyboard-style blank keyboard mod for the X220.

On the moral purity of Debian

Even with fashion on your side, there’s no real redemption to be found in moving from a Macbook to a Lenovo Thinkpad. Apple may throw employees off the roof at FoxConn, but Lenovo was spun out from the Chinese state. God knows what it has buried in its TPM: probably the internal organs of dissidents.

Debian, however! Oh Debian! I hope somebody somewhere a hundred years from now writes an epic poem about Debian. Later I will write* about the technical challenges of installing Debian on this X220 (there honestly weren’t much, but it did require me to dance from MacOS Lion to Debian Unstable).

But, god the delight of hunkering down in the Debian commune again. I love how relentless and unsullied they are, even by Ubuntu. Are the number of official Debian developers going up or down? I can’t really tell; it’s like I never left. Could you ever kill Debian?

I’ve often said that I frequently have a mad desire to move to wooden shack and become a Debian developer. Imagine my delight when I discovered that one of my favourite Debian developers really does live in a cabin in the woods.

Is ending up in a shack really that bad, if you never have to feel lonely?

On the post-multi-national status of GNOME

While Debian has remained the same, GNOME seems transformed. I noticed this when I went to GUADEC in 2010. One always got the feeling that somebody was steering GNOME, but it wasn’t clear who. When it started, I thought it was Miguel and Nat, then Novell, then Redhat. Now it has that floaty, determined meandering that the best mass open source projects have. From a distance, everyone seems to be constantly bickering and regretting the next steps; but the steps get made, and slowly everyone adapts to them. GNOME feels like a nation now.

Or maybe even an insipidly post-national alliance of countries. Maybe it was because GUADEC was held that year in Amsterdam, but GNOME these days seems even more international than KDE, and certainly less Anglo than Windows or Apple. I get the sense that bits of it are fiefdoms, and others are more free and democratic. The corporations with an interest in GNOME get to hive off certain parts, more or less, but they still have to respond to public opinion. But there are plenty of people here because they don’t get the chance to express themselves in any other way: either because they are UX people who don’t work for Apple, or users who don’t get to use Catalan on any other platform.

This may all be wrong impressions — I will greatly enjoy discovering how wrong.

I really like GNOME 3, and the shell, even though so much of it is half-baked and unimplemented. I get to be a baker!

18 Responses to “some rambling conversations I’ve had on moving from MacOS to Debian”

  1. Bill Sullivan Says:

    I’m reading this, and writing this, on a Macbook Air running Lion. Next to my desk, I have a pile of boxes from Amazon full of PC components. Tomorrow, the last box will arrive and I’ll build a desktop PC for the first time. I’ll put Windows on it, then I’ll put Ubuntu on it.

    So, I know where you’re coming from.

  2. Yatima Says:

    I sit here on my MacBook Air beside Jeremy’s ThinkPad. Three pieces of anecdotal evidence: TREND ALERT.

  3. Will Watts Says:

    Just two weeks ago bought a Mac Mini – my first ever Mac.

    (It replaces my Ubuntu Netbook as #2 household computer, pushing the Wii into fourth place, the old Dell into fifth and so on, with the 1985 Compaq Luggable Sewing Machine in the guest bedroom wardrobe now down in fourteenth place. Obviously my big Windows 7 machine, built for me to my specifications by a little man in Picadilly using only Turkish blend tobacco and with three gold rings around the filter, remains my principal instrument.)

    Thanks to you, I have the unwelcome sensation of having finally been allocated a table in the swankiest restaurant in town just as the last celebrity couple departs, and they are putting the chairs up on the tables, and switching off the outside lights.

  4. Danny O'Brien Says:

    Will, don’t tell me you’re just getting to like the new Doctor Who?

  5. Steve Mallett Says:

    I write this from my macbook air sans Lion. I will holdout forever from upgrading.

  6. James Says:

    I lie here typing on my work’s Air; despite being the networking guy with a Linux desktop my workplace is an Apple supplicant so having one is useful as a secondary machine. I’m not sure I could deal with it as a primary, but for Firefox and it suffices. It’s always been true that a good Apple experience can only be had by buying the latest version of every product. The iOSification of OS X is sucking from a management perspective too, but fortunately that’s Not My Problem(tm).

    I built a gamebox some months ago, SSD, i5, 8GB RAM, and it’s off except when I go to a LAN.

    You’re right that something happened with GNOME 3.0; one used to be able to feel the project’s pulse on Planet GNOME, but now it’s a foreign country to me. Maybe the mailing lists are the place to be, but that seems unlikely. The community is fracturing, with some greybeards going to XFCE, Ubuntu trying desperately to make Unity not suck, and Mint forking gnome-shell. Me? I’m still on 2.30 in Debian stable, and plan to wait for the fallout to land, letting others dull the bleeding edge for me.

    I haven’t been to a Linux conference in years – anyone know what the ratio is like, at, say, 2012, which is on now?

  7. Jeremy Says:

    I love my X220.

    I’ve been using a MacBook Pro as my Work Machine for the last few weeks – my first long-term Mac use – and, erm, I really don’t see what the fuss is all about. It has sharp, uncomfortable edges. The trackpad responds to multitouch poorly, and yet the UI relies on multitouch to make up for the lack of tactile buttons (how many fingers do I need this time?). The screen is lovely, but the keyboard is awful unresponsive mess, squandering space while missing important keys.

    I could carp about the UI, but it basically boils down to the standard “I miss focus-follows-mouse” with embellishments relating to Mac OS’s particular click-to-focus awfulnesses.

    But pointer tracking does seem to be noticeably lower latency, which is nice.

    The Mac is OK for browsing and other random poking around, but I feel a constant friction from it when trying to actually get anything done.

    I love my X220. The relief is palpable every time I go back to it.

  8. Rich Says:

    I’d say with Witch and Moom you can get OS X to work pretty well in the window management department. I’m using bluetile + GNOME at work right now. I’m squarely on the Mac side for portables. Battery life on Linux laptops is middling to terrible compared to Windows on those same laptops. Oddly, bluetile (the wm) doesn’t have focus follows mouse is fine with me since I can stay on the keyboard almost all the time.

    Alt (err option) ` and ~ are key for switching apps on a Mac.

    Good luck with the 220, it’s all generally POSIX conforming either way so it’s all good.

  9. Rich Says:

    Well, actually there do seem to be some fixes for battery life:

  10. Ed Banger Says:

    My reactions while reading this blog post, in order:

    1. So this is where the ntk guy is hanging out! I miss ntk.

    2. Hey cool, he uses an X220 too. Good choice. I like mine. Cory Doctorow likes his too.

    3. Ha! Das keyboard! I’ve got one of those on my desktop.

    4. Debian? Gnome? Hmmm, the final revelation leading to the nirvana of Archlinux & a tiling window manager has yet to come.

  11. Danny O'Brien Says:

    One day, I will be using a tiling window manager written in Haskell, it is true.

  12. Will Watts Says:

    @Danno: Mock me not. Life is tough, out here on the trailing edge.

  13. Danny O'Brien Says:

    @Rich, yeah, with those fixes I get about 8 hours on this machine.

  14. Ben Hutchings Says:

    Were you unable to install Debian stable at all, or did you upgrade in order to get an accelerated graphics driver? We do try to keep the stable kernel up to date with new hardware support covering at least storage and network drivers.

    (Please reply by mail or use the reportbug command; I’m not a regular reader.)

  15. Steve McIntyre Says:

    Hi Danny,

    Glad to welcome you back to the Debian fold!

    And good call on the Thinkpad – come to DebConf and you’ll see various X models all over the place, most with swirl and other stickers applied liberally over their lids. :-)

  16. Paul Wise Says:

    You mentioned wanting to join Debian! Here are some links about that, please come join us!

  17. Joey Hess Says:

    “Imagine my delight when I discovered that one of my favourite Debian developers really does live in a cabin in the woods.”

    Imagine my delight when I read stuff like this, by lamplight, over dialup. Whether or not you meant me. :)

  18. Danny O'Brien Says:

    Yes, it was you Joey :)


petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.