Friday, February 14, 2020

For this years Valentine's, a declaration of love to free software and open source

When I was starting out as a hobbyist Linux user, I was constantly trying out new or different desktop environments, distributions, and applications. I held a special fascination for old software, and by that I mean software that has a history associated with it. This wasn't just another email server. This was postfix, Wietse's email server. He wrote it while he was at IBM research (why? we don't know, but we're glad he did!), and he supports it. These were the times where man pages, ordered in mysterious chapters that you infixed as a parameter, ruled the day. If there was any doubt that reading man pages was serious business, a well-rounded RTFM was earned in Newsgroups. File extensions were for losers. "FVWM is an extremely powerful ICCCM-compliant multiple virtual desktop window manager for the X Window system" - I had no idea what that meant, but by God, I will install this thing!

In any case, the time was just shortly after books had stopped capitalizing commands (in other words, it was ok to $ cp src dst, it did not have to be $ CP SRC DST). Within the depths of this to me pre-historic cave of nerd-candy land, I found Emacs. To be precise, I found GNU Emacs and XEmacs. And again I was drawn into the history of why both exist, what happened, why and - fascinated as I was from all this - tried both. I moved back and forth for what must have been the 100th time before finally -thankfully!- finding a short article online that stated that XEmacs was not recommended anymore, GNU Emacs was where the development was most active on.

Most of the software I used back then, I moved on from. I am not using FVWM2 anymore, even though that had been the default ever since 1996 for me. Long before it seemed that design and look of software became more important than functionality and utility, there was a class of software that just worked. It didn't look great, was sometimes a little slow or required you to become an expert in its domain-specific language (I encourage you to write a .fvwm2rc one of these days to understand what I mean), but it worked - well. So well, in fact, that even though every once in a while I found myself flirting with the new darling, or more convenient "DE"s (desktop environment, meant to indicate a richer graphical interface experience than a pure "window manager"), eventually I just gave all that good looks up and went back to what worked. Thankfully, I was on Linux. This meant that I would usually re-install my computer once per week anyway. Configuration files, those hard earned settings of mine, were always ready on a special USB stick, that looked empty (they all started with a '.' so by default were hidden). It was my secret cache. Here I was, able to turn any -any- Linux I would ever be confronted with into my own workstation. RCS allowed me to version control the configuration files, once I understood what that meant.

Emacs was one of these tools. I carried around my .emacs file and turned any Emacs I could find into my Emacs. Of course, it absolutely helps that Emacs has gotten just better and better over the last 15 years or since that I've been using it. Org-mode is fantastic and it is so much further ahead of any other note taking/task management/planner / ... that it is simply laughable to think of using essentially anything else for this.

Only once did I have another experience like this. As I went through university, I ended up using Ubuntu quite a lot. But I hated GNOME. Remember, this was a desktop environment. I carried my .fvwm2rc around. But... gosh darn it - I had to admit: my printer configuration was a pain, sometimes I just wanted to insert a CD and have it play, and switching to different networks with my laptop was a non-trivial matter (I used to purchase only laptops with an RJ-45 connector because of my laziness to reconfigure my wireless ethernet). Enter Xfce. I started to use it originally because it -somewhat self-deprecatingly- saw itself as the GNOME environment for those with slow computers. It still used the same GTK widgets and libraries as GNOME and I really liked what Ubuntu was doing with it, so this was my way of trying to ride that wave of contribution while maintaining my self-respect as a geek. Xfce got out of my way. It simply worked, did what I wanted, and never tried to impose itself on me.

Ironically, I loved programming in Qt.

These days, I am using Ubuntu as my main OS, stock. If I ever had any engineering to do, I would immediately switch to Xfce4, use my GNU Emacs, document everything using Org-mode, and have a gazillion terminals open, and a Firefox. I look fondly at new comers into this market who reinvent some of these things, and make them "webby" with a nice app to go along with it. On the road, I dictate practically everything into my phone's assistant. It might understand what I'm saying, but in no way were tasks or notes ever meant to be captured in a phone - it's just not for me.

No one in my family understands this, so my last resort is to commit this to this blog. If you had a similar experience and would like to share, please leave a comment!

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