06 March 2008

Conversion is just the beginning

After years of our son's influence, and after considering the persuasive arguments of a certain Northwest Yearly Meeting pastor, I've converted. My new Sony laptop is using Linux as its operating system, specifically Ubuntu 7.10.

It was not an easy conversion. First of all, who wants to live a clean, calm, pious life after you've seen the glamour and glitter of Windows Vista (which came with the Vaio)? Not only is Windows Vista attractive, with its soft, translucent, animated windows, but it works so hard to lure you further into its world. Most of the buttons on its opening desktop lead you straight into offers for even more delicious e-treats. It even comes pre-loaded with TWO Spiderman films ready to enliven your workspace, just waiting for your input of a credit card number.

But it was all those encumbrances that really put me over the edge. Some file/application associations were infuriating: pdf files, upon which I rely for much of my work, were associated with a full-featured suite of Adobe Acrobat 8, which is very expensive to purchase after the trial period. Even after I downloaded Adobe Reader, I had to chase down and uninstall various Acrobat-related programs before it stopped harassing me. Norton's security software nagged at me, too; it's ironic when a security program becomes a greater annoyance than some of the invaders it's designed to repel. Even after I'd uninstalled it and replaced it with a less annoying product, Norton reminders continued to nip at my heels.

Cumulatively, all these Microsoft entanglements--both the slick, fun features and these constant invitations to spend more money--felt like a continuum, a universe I wanted to flee. I was seeking an alternate reality, but did I really want to risk the stability and known quantities of my new laptop by messing with its ultimate reality? Well ... actually, no--I made a backup. And, having used Vista's transfer utility to import files from my old laptop, making an insurance copy was no small matter. It took nine DVD-R disks to hold the backup.

However, there was in fact a moment of truth. Having tried out the Ubuntu Linux operating system in a sort of dry run, booting the computer directly from the installation CD, I had to face the decision: do I push the "install" button or not?

Guess what: you can approach the altar more than once! The first time I pushed "install," it soon came to the hard drive partition dialogue. How do I want to divide up the hard drive for the various units of the program? Wow, how should I know? I decided to chicken out of the installation and go back and do the partitioning under Windows. That ended up being a good choice; those partitions showed up when I went back to Ubuntu a second time and returned to that dialogue. Under Windows, the C drive had taken up the full hard drive; there were no partitions (except for a nice hybrid feature--about seven gigabytes on a solid-state drive to boost speed), so I had to shrink that C volume to make space for two additional partitions to accommodate Linux. Instructions for partitioning were singularly unclear on every source I looked up, so I made what I thought were conservative decisions, and they seem to have worked out. I wonder how much harder it would have been if I'd had the computer for a while and data had been distributed throughout the hard drive.

After my decision (conversion), life was easy for about an hour, like the seeds that fell into gravel. The first half hour was the installation itself, which went like a breeze. The second half hour was my first playful session running under Linux. Speed! A clean, lean desktop! The feeling of sheer virtue, using a product generated by worldwide collaboration! The wireless Internet access worked flawlessly; I found my old document folders and files, and they all opened without a problem. Adding a Cyrillic keyboard was simple, too, and switching between the English and Cyrillic keyboards was simpler than the same task on Windows. It's a simple one-click toggle.

However, after conversion comes discipleship--truly engaging with the new operating system, not just cruising along its visible surface. The first task that didn't involve just clicking the mouse was installing a Flash player for the Firefox web browser. Although it basically involved familiar steps, such as downloading and unpacking a compressed archive file, the instructions were written in a language and the filenames in a style I was unfamiliar with.

I succeeded in installing the Flash plugin, but the next challenge was a real crisis of faith. I plugged in my external monitor, and -- nothing. I was so used to Bill Gates plugging and playing my peripherals automatically for me that I didn't know where to start my troubleshooting. So I started in a logical place, the settings. In the "Administration" menu, I found "Screens and graphics," and, indeed, up popped a box that allowed me to describe my second monitor and specify its location in relation to the primary monitor, and to extend my desktop to the second monitor. The only problem was, it didn't work.

I spent most of the next day troubleshooting this problem. I love working with two monitors, and am reluctant to give that up. One screen has my primary workspace, and the other has my Skype window, a media player, a dictionary, and anything that I want to refer to at a glance. So I wasn't going to give up easily. I used Ubuntu links and Google to look for others who'd had the same problem, and based on the consensus advice, I spent a lot of time looking under the graphic hood of the Ubuntu vehicle, putting in commands and editing files much as I had done years earlier in DOS before becoming spoiled by Windows. In particular, I edited a file called xorg.conf to convince it to run TwinViews (a provision in the video software for two screens) properly.

At some point, I managed to make Linux come to a screeching halt while booting; apparently I had introduced fatal flaws while editing. I figured out why: I had pasted in some text from somebody's advice column, and apparently some phantom characters were not stripped out in the cut-and-paste process, so the poor computer had to call my attention to the fact that not all my strings were legitimate. (If you don't know what I mean by "strings" here, you have probably already stopped reading.) So I went back and manually deleted spurious characters and inserted legitimate quotation marks around legitimate strings, and ran it again. I got the Nvidia logo split across my two screens!!

(One time-consuming tangent: I thought I needed to run Linux at a level that didn't use the graphic interface in order to install what seemed like a needed update, but the bare-minimum level that you can choose at start-up isn't high enough. So I was rewriting some of the service scripts, which had the desired effect of eliminating the graphic login in favor of the old command-line login, but that minor triumph ultimately didn't get me where I needed to go.)

(Another time-consuming tangent: I forgot that "root" privileges for making changes in the operating system last only fifteen minutes unless you've reprogrammed that limit. So don't edit stuff for more than fifteen minutes without saving, because you need root privileges to save!)

Finally I decided that I need to restart the whole process--that is, reinstall Linux. Goodbye to all the tweaks I'd done in my first hour of joy; goodbye to hours of messing around with command lines and pico editing and reading page after page of other people's guesswork on other machines with other graphics cards and drivers, trying to decipher their odd references even as I smiled at their geeky humor. The sense of community and mutual respect in much of the Linux world is tangible and very refreshing, but just as with Christians, some of that solidarity comes at the expense of transparency to newcomers.

What did I do differently that second time around? I deliberately made sure to run the Updates, and there were some 200 of them! And at least one of them was directly related to my video card; after installing that update, the two-screen function under "Administration" > "Screens and graphics" worked nearly perfectly. I still have to make the switch manually when I connect to or disconnect from the external monitor, but at least I have the choice.

I still face a related sound puzzle: I can't make my external audio output work. Online advice is as scattered and inconsistent as it is for the TwinView question, if not more so. I'm sure an answer is out there somewhere, and I'll keep looking for it. That's the lot of the Finder who still remains a Seeker.

PS: I remember Catherine of Avila writing in the Interior Castle about the outermost of the mansions of interior prayer through which we proceed toward the palace of God. Although the soul in the first two mansions has already embarked on the sacred journey, the snakes and demons and temptations are still very much present, trying to pull us back outside. And I cheerfully admit that I use a dual-boot program on my laptop; every time I turn it on, it gives me the choice to load Linux or Windows.

PS no. 2: Help me progress through the mansions! If you know how to make Ubuntu turn off the laptop speakers and enable the external connection, please pass on the information. [Update: I did overcome all these early problems. Before too long, I even abandoned dual booting and stuck with Linux.]

In these last few days, many innocent people in Israel and Palestine and Iraq have lost their lives in part because of, arguably, pathetic leadership in all these places and elsewhere. Why is there such cowardice when it's so obvious that the cliches and ideologies of the past are so fatally flawed?

In the meantime, all I can think of doing is helping prepare the groundwork for such courageous leadership when it arises. First of all, are you taking leadership roles yourself as the way opens, or are you discounting yourself? (Same question to myself.) Secondly, are you and I doing all we can within the networks we belong to--encouraging the reconcilers in their hard and sometimes discouraging work? One of my commitments is praying daily for the people I know at the Ramallah Friends Schools, Bethlehem Bible College, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and World Vision, in their strategic locations.

And to nurture our capacity for ecstasy even in hard times, there's always the blues. Maybe the natural question is "How Long?"


Robin M. said...

You know how you never know when something you write is going to mean something special to someone?

This weekend, I had a leadership role thrust upon me. I wasn't expecting it, I was actively avoiding it in fact. But this morning, I accepted it in my heart. The big task is going to be "encouraging the reconcilers in their hard and sometimes discouraging work" in one of my local networks. And then here I read more evidence that I have made the right choice. The main thing I think I've done right is to keep asking for God's help. And to remember that I am blessed to be able to offer my gifts to the community.

Otherwise, the temptation is to think that the main thing I've learned is not to be good at things, because people will just expect you to do more.

Johan Maurer said...

What has amazed me is that if I act by leading and intuition, my own capacities and competency are no longer the point.

1) When you provide leadership that is needed, people tend to give you the benefit of the doubt, even if the role is unfamiliar to you. (I've even had people say to me, "Wow, you look so confident!" I assure them the opposite is true!)

2) Mistakes, even apparent failures, are not the end of the world!!!

3) You're never in it alone.