Romantic gifts

I must have looked bummed in the office, because the guys were trying to suggest things my husband could do to cheer me up. Unfortunately, I poo-poohed the flowers, the chocolate, the romantic dinners, and everything else they brought up. Finally they asked me what things he did to make me feel loved. I thought for a minute, and replied, “He makes spreadsheets of our financial assets, with pie charts and stuff, and tirelessly explains them to me. And he taught me Unix.” Those are the things that let you know someone really cares.

Happy birthday Tim!


I am now a laptop-only person, having retired my last desktop machine from active service. My company is a little unusual in issuing laptops to all the engineers and desktops to everyone else — other places I worked usually went the other way. I was issued a Powerbook G4 15″.

This is the geek’s favorite, but I’d been skeptical. I love my Thinkpad: the ease of updating libraries with Debian, all the apps I need to work, and the best keyboard and pointer in the business. I’ve even developed the nipple-shaped depressed callus on my right index finger from using the Trackpoint all day and night. But I figured I’d give the Powerbook a shot, even though it’s far more glamorous than any machine I’d normally buy for myself.

There’s been plenty of stuff I don’t like. The one-button trackpad is in fact as lame as I expected. The layout of the Apple button makes you cramp your hand to cut and paste, and every so often I get a weird white-cursor-like character in emacs. The Finder is an idea whose time has gone. I much prefer the Gnome or even the Windows conventions for minimizing running applications and switching between apps. The inability to get a ps -ef listing bugs me — and I don’t actually care if ps -aux is more secure, thanks. Having icons jump up and down in the dock to get your attention is incredibly annoying. The machine isn’t really a full Unix distribution from the factory, you have to know to install all that stuff. The filesystem is basically two different ones welded together — the upper-cased top-level directories that you can see in the Finder window by default, like /Music and /Applications, and the lower-cased Unixy ones like /usr and /var that you can only get to via the command-line. This gives a disturbing Eloi and Morlocks feel to the whole production. The drag-and-drop paradigm and the command-line paradigm just aren’t melding in my mind — like it took me forever to figure out that you had to double-click disk images and drag the resulting binary to the Applications directory. I still haven’t figured out how to delete certain developer apps, like Apache, and I don’t like the lack of choice in which ones to install. A lot of the apps that come with the machine just aren’t very good. And finally, you will have to buy a new computer bag, because Thinking Different means your new machine will be slightly too long for any normal bag.

But, with an open mind and not a little work, you can in fact make your Powerbook as useful as a Linux box and twice as pretty. The good thing is that there are a lot of projects around to make OS X apps that borrow a lot of the best ideas from Linux apps. This is what I’ve had to add so far:

  • Before you do anything else, you must find and install the Developer tools package (rummage around Applications -> Installers). It ain’t Unix until you have gcc.
  • Mozilla Firefox. Safari lacks XSLT support and doesn’t work with Mod-pubsub, so it’s of little use to me.
  • Fink. This package lets you use apt with OS X. It installs in /sw, which you’ve got to add to your PATH.
  • Fire. iChat doesn’t support all the IM protocols, and has this amazingly kawaii (and I don’t mean that in a good way) cartoon-bubble interface.
  • Emacs. The version of emacs that comes with the machine only runs in the terminal. You can find a better-compiled version with menus and scrollbars.
  • iTerm. Must… have… tabbed… terminals! And the OS X terms are notably slow.
  • (which requires X11). Sorry Bill, no more money from me. Plus, I work with roughly equal numbers of people who use Windows, Mac, and Linux — OOo is the only one that supports all three.
  • Ogg Vorbis plugin for iTunes. I’m not crazy about iTunes though… might consider switching back to xmms.
  • Changing the name of the machine… I can’t live with something called “Joyce-Parks-Computer”. It’s Park, dammit, not Parks! Look for the Sharing setting, which I would never have figured out in a million years.
  • Two-button Bluetooth mouse. It’s apparently all set up for a better pointer, they just don’t provide one.

Now for the upside. It was definitely nice not to have to spend a week on basic hardware configuration issues, I must admit. I rather like compiling my own stuff, but the disk image system is definitely easier (once I figured out the drag-and-drop thing, that is). Power management and connectivity are top-notch, miles ahead of Linux. And the visuals (screen, shiny lickable buttons, anti-aliasing) are all excellent, if over-fancy in parts. But the bottom line to me is that I can make the Powerbook into something close to a Linux box — except without ps -ef.