ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Calibration —

I made the relatively hard decision not to have Vista in my home. This is tough for me, because I’ve been using Windows computers as my front-end to my stuff for over 10 years, and I have done an awful lot of work on that operating system family. Walking away has the potential to be difficult. (I should note that my system at my day job will probably be Vista, because it’s not under my control.)

But walking away is what I’m doing; crippling cards and drivers and messing up the whole user-OS balance in the name of ensuring access to the latest Adam Sandler movie doesn’t strike me as a fair deal. In fact, it has that heady perfume of a forced ass-raping, the coquettish sounds of laughter and snickering behind my back as I pay through the nose to have “approved” monitors and cables and who-knows-what-else so there’s a clearly defined red carpet for major studios to protect their little flicks.

There are professional/amateur whiners better suited to make the case for why you should or shouldn’t convert (upgrade’s not a good word here) to a Windows Vista system. I’m more interested in the meta-situation, that of changing your operating system and what that has meant.

There are computers you touch and computers you work on/own. If you define “own” as “it was partially or completely mine, and I did stuff on it beyond testing to see if it beeped”, then I have owned the following computers:

  • Commodore PET.
  • Atari 800.
  • IBM PC (5150! I had one of the first 1000).
  • Apple IIc.
  • Commodore Amiga (500 and 1000).
  • Macintosh SE.
  • Sun 3/60, 3/280, Ultra 2 (COW.NET once ran on Sun 3s)
  • SGI IRIS 3000.
  • Six Billion Anonymous x86-based machines.

Obviously, as a computer historian guy who gets sent or buys an awful lot of old crap, I’ve “owned” a lot of other machines and my basement laboratory that I do my research in is what the experts call “chock full”:

But just because I have something in my house doesn’t mean that I can harken back to long-spent weekends or nights hacking away at the box trying to make things boot or try stuff out. Hence I have Commodore 64s, Lisas, Atari STs, Apple Powerbooks, TIs, and a whole other range of computerized doorstops, all waiting for their short moments in the sun when I boot them up to test a theory or try some donated software. You can rest easy, Fan of Your Chosen Old Computer, that I’ve definitely played with your favorite platform or machine. But when I say “own”, I meant it was in the bedroom or the office, not the basement or attic.

As should be obvious from the last few paragraphs, I love these fucking things. Just adore them. They’ve ruined my vision and they’ve horrendously inflated my sense of self-worth and social context, but it’s a fair swap. I’m fine with the damage they’ve caused because of all the weeks, nay, the years of what they’ve given me in return. The chances I’m going to wake up one day and go “Gaaahhh, what have I done, I have wasted my life” are very unlikely, at least as far as blaming computers for any of it. I state it clearly: I am a computer guy.

Therefore, what computers I’m doing “stuff” on are very important to me. I have been expressing myself using them for a quarter-century now; they’re an extension of me, of what I do, how I am known, and how I know. Sometimes they disappoint, sometimes they freak me out, and sometimes they have left me shivering in my chair, crying. But other times they lift me out of myself, raise my hopes, bring me dreams to join my own. I use them for communication, for entertainment, for work, for learning. And like any tool, I can react very positively or negatively to shifts in how a given computer “does” things.

It has always been possible to configure or change a computer to suit the user, but more often than not the user has had to configure or change to suit the computer. There’s a big difference between prodding around in the back of a circuit board to solder in a modification that lets you change how memory works, and plugging in a USB device that immediately adds a new port or peripheral.

In the rush to define themselves, home computers were more often than not “open” affairs, where the best and most successful plan was to focus on getting the things out cheaply and to as many distribution networks as possible, not to lock the thing down. There are, of course, exceptions to this everywhere, from the demand that Macintoshes have no slots to the artifical limiting of memory in Commodore computers to ensure future models would be purchased. But you didn’t feel, at any point, that the computer was “against” you, just that the company was being a short-sighted basket of fuckfruits to make a few extra bucks or cut down on maintenance calls.

But bear this in mind: if they could have, they would have. Texas Instruments tried to control the market for TI 99 cartridges so that you couldn’t have third parties come out with cartridges without paying TI. Atari sued the first third-party makers of cartridges for the 2600, Activision. (Activision won). Situations like this occurred in mainframe eras too, with IBM pounding the stuffing out of “IBM-like” resellers or vendors, or charging significant amounts of cash to “upgrade” a machine by removing a wire inside, unblocking access to additional capacity. What I’m saying here, is there’s no Garden of Eden situation with commerce and machinery/computational hardware, just periods when the greed hammer hadn’t yet pounded every potential nail.

That said, just because the situation has always been around, doesn’t mean you have to swallow it like a tasty gumdrop, either. If something you buy doesn’t work the way you expect it to, if it turns out that you were promised one thing or given another, or if you realize you’re being slowly cornered into someone else’s revenue stream and they’re pissing away freely into it, you can mostly say no. Or at least, you can try, and not just live in a constant BOHICA mode, getting slowly drunk on bad beer and thinking that singing along with songs on the radio constitutes freedom.

The vital situation, the step here that I think Vista finally took, was turning what was traditionally “your” computer and “your” operating system, and vitally shifting the total balance of power to where you were now a “user” like a junkie or lab rat is a “user”, not like a bulldozer operator is a “user”. You got voted off the island. You were charged for a membership to the club but you can’t use the steam room. Meetings you weren’t allowed to attend and which claimed to be in your best interest were adjourned and the minutes all said the same thing: Praise the user’s money. Fuck the user.

Windows XP, this previous revision, had a measure of dumbassery I could live with. It’d bitch like a kid who lost his ice cream cone when I installed certain pieces of software, but then it’d let me do it anyway. It would slow down noticably after a few days of being up, and occasionally would go into conniption fits when I happened to request a thumbnail of a movie with whacky codecs in it. But it was possible to go play whack-a-mole with processes and bring it back to some level of normal. And it was comfortable, and I could do stuff on it.

And like I said before, it’s not like this stuff hasn’t been creeping up, nesting, making little catacombs in your freedoms as a user of technology. You can point to End-User License Agreements and maintenance plans and nutbag intellectual property laws and all manner of maneuvers conducted over the past few decades. They were all there, but like a lot of people I mulled them like water buffalo down the hill, knowing in the back of my mind that those fuckers were eventually going to stampede and possibly trample over something I cared about. It was just a matter of when, and whether I’d be around for it.

Well, I’m officially around for it. So !VISTA NO!, if you please.

Some time ago, I started putting more and more of my efforts into working in FreeBSD. is basically a BSD shop, with my scripts and programs for mantaining it all in BSD and with the applications that people connect to also in BSD. I rsync. I work in Perl, script in bash. A lot of my “work”, therefore, is not on the Windows boxes on my desk but downstairs on the BSD boxes or across the country on same. I’ve been splitting my efforts for years, in other words, spreading the love around, embracing computers but not just the one that plays a chord when it boots up.

So then the question becomes what exactly do I do in Windows? This is the calibration, the tough part, the self-assessment of realizing what I do. Here’s my list:

  • Edit my video.
  • Master DVDs.
  • Burn DVD-ROMs and CDs.
  • Connect to IRC.
  • Telnet or SSH to other places.
  • Web browsing.
  • View PDFs and Flash Animations.
  • Play music or movies.
  • Write in notepad.
  • Play demos or games.
  • Variations thereof.

Immediately, we see stuff I can do equally well on a FreeBSD box: ROM burning, IRC, ssh, telnet, viewing PDFs/flash, web-browsing, writing in a text editor, play music or movies. There’s almost no definable difference between doing it on a Windows box and a box running a X server. The only reason I don’t do that now is because the Windows boxes are the ones on my desk.

The others are the sticking points. Video editing and DVD mastering persist because I’ve really grown comfortable with Vegas. I really like the way it does stuff. I like the speed, the ease, the way I work with it. I’ve grown comfortable with it. The demos and games, well, that’s because they’re written for Windows, right? They use the Windows stuff and so they won’t run anywhere else.

So there’s it. I am basically on Windows because I want to edit video and play a few games. (In marketing terms, these tasks/attributes are “sticky”.) That’s not very much, is it? If I got comfortable with Adobe (which runs on Apples) or any of the free video editing software programs that are getting progressively better, I could ditch that part of Windows. And the demos and games? Well, I could probably just watch the demos at work occasionally, or at a friend’s house, or something similar. That’s hardly a reason to keep around a system, just to play a couple games. Hell, if I got my hands on an old copy of XP (when it becomes old), I could probably just keep that in a separate partition, dual-boot or use a vmware-like thing, and then play the stuff that way. I’d have choices.

And there we see; a little time of thinking and I can know exactly why I’m staying and how easy it is to leave when I’m ready.

It took me quite a while to compose that list up there, racking my brains for what I actually do instead of just saying “I need Windows, so too bad about the raping.” I would start to consider what I thought was an intractable, Windows-only thing, and then I realized there were free programs, running in a BSD system, that did the exact same thing out there. Often better. (Sometimes not better, but good enough).

It is very uncomfortable distilling your life, your love, into a little list. But when you do it, you realize what’s really important to you, and you can step forward and make decisions based on facts, not hopes and rough sketches.

There’s a big difference between a vista and a horizon.

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  1. Jim Munroe says:

    Yeah, I concur with your list — video editing and dvd mastering are the only things I boot up my xp for. Used to play games on it until my videocard started whining, but now I prefer the console: games are made for their hardware specs and there’s a better selection. I think the Ubuntu/Debian Windows installers are going to get a fair amount of use — they timed the release of those well.

  2. Ryan Russell says:

    Day job? When do you have time for a day job? What is it?

  3. fuzz says:

    My boss’s boss has apparently been asking Questions about vista.
    So it looks like I’m going to be looking after a network full of little vista boxen, might as well get used to it now…

    On the gripping hand Ubuntu is really, pretty, I think I could spend most of my day there if not for the bits and bobs I can’t/won’t/don’t do on anything except XP.

  4. LateBlt says:

    Y’know, it’s funny that you post this now, because I’ve recently been going through this same process of self-examination, asking the fundamental question: What the heck do I do with computers, anyway? Yeah, I’m on them for about 12 hours a day, but just what do I *do* with that time?

    Unlike your list, though, which is more eminently practical, I came to the conclusion that besides all the real-world uses for a computer (media, data, communications, etc.), a computer can serve ends just by being a computer. The ability to twiddle the bits in memory, the ability to drive arbitrary I/O ports, the ability to control pixels on the screen… These alone are reason enough for computers to exist. Just by being understood, computers are doing something for people. That might sound unrealistic, but I suspect many other computer people would agree.

    I’m not knocking the practical uses of computers; they’re definitely there, and they serve a purpose too. But even without them, computers and computer people would still have their place.

  5. With each new generation of Windows, the question of “do I *really* need Windows” gets revisited (and rightfully so). Like you, every five years or so when the reality of upgrading all my machines to a new version of Windows hits me, I start considering alternate possibilities.

    I have to say, this time around I’m closer than I ever have been before to switching to another operating system. In 2001 when XP was released, there were simply too many things I did on a regular basis that no other OS could do. Having a dual boot setup seems pointless to me. If I have to keep Windows around for at least one task, I might as well do everything with it.

    Ubuntu is really coming along and I suspect in the very near future it will be an all around acceptable replacement for Windows for me.

  6. hmvh says:

    This behemoth called “Vista” – do I actually need it and its monstrous hardware requirements?

    Your list of tasks for what ones uses his Windows machine has made me think. What do I really use my (main) PC for?

    · Editing photos
    · Updating and editing my humble websites
    · Watching the oddd DVD
    · Editing and mixing music CDs
    · Ripping
    · Scanning
    · Surfing the web
    · General Office ™ work.

    Hmmm… I’ve neglected to mention that the tasks above are done on a humble 933Mhz machine running Windows 95B!

    So. Does anyone really *need* Vista?