Friday, 24 July 2009

Open source, open razors and how I learnt to love Microsoft (sort of)

Photograph by Andrew Dyer.

I've made two little lifestyle changes in the past few months. The first was that I started using Linux as my main operating system. I've long been a Mac user, and used Windows at work, but decided out of pure curiosity to see how Linux had advanced since I last used it, during my first job, about 10 years ago. Well, all I could say was 'wow'. I tried a few different Linux flavours - Ubuntu, Linux Mint (best choice for newcomers, I'd say), Crunchbang (not for newbies!), and, above all, Kubuntu, where I have found a happy home. When I saw there was so much excellent software out there - for free! - I saw that I couldn't really justify continuing to pay for software as I had been doing, and practically overnight made the switch to running Kubuntu as my main operating system.

The second big change was that I started shaving with an open razor. A friend had made this switch some time ago and pointed out all the advantages: it gives you a better shave than even the most expensive Gillette-type blades and is a one-off purchase, with no ongoing costs. The two of us were at a meeting in Hanover and spotted a shop which specialized in razors. I snapped one up and spent many happy hours chopping my face to ribbons, whilst basking in the warm glow that comes from knowing I'll never again spend money on razor blades.

Whilst mopping up the blood one day, I realized there was actually quite an interesting parallel between open source software and open razors. Now that might sound a bit weird, but bear with me. Both these changes - the new razor and the new OS - involved a lifelong shift to no longer paying for products, and no longer supporting large and cynical corporations (look up the origins of Gillette if you want to know why I use the word 'cynical'). Moreover, both these changes involved learning new skills, and both were initially a little bit difficult. But most interestingly - and this is the point I'm working towards - both gave me a new respect for the mass-producers of razors and software. It was only when I started using the open razor that I saw just how amazing my previous razor was: I could carelessly flick it around my face in moments, without worrying about cuts, in a way I never could with the open razor. Yes, it didn't shave quite so close, but it did a really quite impressive job, all things considered. It works just fine for a lot of people. There are better things out there, but why would most people need to look for them when they're pretty well served with the standard fare?

And it was just the same with the operating system. It was only after switching to Linux, and seeing just how difficult it is for the people who write an operating system to make it work with the thousands of different computers that exist, that I realized just what a clever job the folks at Apple and - particularly - Microsoft have done. Windows isn't perfect. It doesn't shave as close as Linux, to push the metaphor too far, but it does a really quite impressive job, considering. It works just fine for a lot of people. There are better things out there, but why would most people need to look for them?

So in summary: learning to shave with an open razor stopped me being a Microsoft basher. I'm sure there's a lesson there somewhere.


Karl McCracken (twitter: @karlonsea) said...

So you prefer Linux to Mac OS X? Interesting - my Macbook's full, and I need to upgrade with a bigger HD . . . most likely a whole new machine, financed by selling this one, and the components of a couple of Apple desktops I have.

But now you've got me thinking . . .

Ian Walker said...

If you visit any of the sites I linked to, you can download a Live CD image of that Linux. Just burn it to a CD and you can boot your computer with that OS without making any changes, and so try it out. (On the Mac, hold down C when it chimes after you restart.)

Just be aware that it'll run slower off the CD than it is properly installed.

Give Mint a try first. I think you'll be really impressed. Especially if you play around with the desktop effects. Wow!

Ian Walker said...

If you get another Mac you can install rEFIt, which lets you choose Linux or Mac at boot-up, and run both.

But if you decide to go for pure Linux you can get a much cheaper computer. Indeed, if you run a lightweight Linux, like Crunchbang, you can buy a second-hand computer for £200 and have a fast and powerful system for very little.

Karl McCracken said...

Hi - I had a bit of hasle with the Mint version (my CD writer on the Mac's a bit poorly) . . . so I've had a go at Damn Small Linux, and am currently playing with it on a Windows machine. It's a little slow and clunky running from a USB stick, but remarkably familiar for all the stuff I've tried. Familiar enough for me to use Firefox to come back here and leave a comment anyway!


Ian Walker said...

DSL is an amazing achievement, but as its main aim is to produce the smallest version of Linux possible, it's a bit of a spartan experience. To get the full feeling, you need to try some of the flash! Perhaps give Ubuntu or Kubuntu a go, if Mint won't work for you.

(Incidentally, my guess is that Mint needs to go onto a DVD rather than a CD as it's over 1 GB)

David Hembrow said...

I agree with Ian regarding DSL. It's tiny. That's the point. You'd be better off with something a bit bigger.

We use Ubuntu here. It's on our main computer, both my children's computers, and I've installed it on my mother's computer in the UK too. In all cases it simply takes care of itself.

A fair chunk of my commercial computing work was actually done with MS operating systems. I wrote lots of device drivers for Windows NT, ported Windows CE to new hardware etc. You do actually get quite a lot for the money from MS, and it works pretty well. However, you don't get freedom.

I certainly also prefer Linux to the Mac. Once you get used to simply being able to install anything you like whenever you like, and being able to do anything you like, the restrictions of commercial OS's become a bit irritating.

But shaving ? A beard is easier.

BTW, Ian, I used to have my own long hair, so perhaps I also then had all the advantages of your Brian May style wig when I rode my bike ?

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