I feel like one of those Everest climbers. The peak is in sight, but I can't quite make it to the summit.
My mangled pre-configured Linux box (nearly assassinated by an overnight delivery service) was re-assembled this week by a Linux-wary, monosyllabic tech in a small computer repair shop. I took it home, plugged the components together, turned it on.
The desktop was familiar, even fun. A Penguin with a red hat appeared. I typed in my password and became "root," reveling in that bit of power. I had never been anything close to a "root" before. Three icons appeared - "Trash," "Template" and "Autostart."
Lo, I was staring at a Linux Operating System.
Clicking on the "K" (for KDE) icon, a list of programs and utilities appeared, including Star Office.
Clicking on Star Office took me to an open file, where I wrote a message I intended to post directly to Slashdot. In two minutes, I had gone deeper into the inside of a computer than I ever had. And I was writing in a word program that was every bit as easy and comprehensible as Microsoft.
My message to Slashdot said "Watson, I need you. So I am using Linux. Here, I officially give thanks to and acknowledge Jonathan Postel, the father of the Internet, and Thomas Paine, the father of media, and plant this strange little flag in the name of the Open Source and Free Software movements."
Then I opened the KPPP modem program and tried to connect to Mindspring, the ISP I had signed up for especially to handle the Linux Box. It dialed, hissed, whistled, even shrieked, then connected, then disconnected. The KPPP daemon had quit, I was told in a message. Here, my homework had paid off. I remembered from my dog-eared O'Reilly "Linux In A Nutshell", my Linux bible, that a daemon (I loved the name. I kept thinking there was a Stephen King movie idea here) was a server process continuously and secretly running in the background.
I knew that Daemons were important. They provided the most basic functions of the Linux system, according to the book. But there wasn't anything in my pile of books to tell me how to turn one back on.
That was five days ago. I could dial up but my modem wouldn't connect with Mindspring. The aptly-named KPPP daemon was all that stood between me and a functional machine, between silence and my victory message. Frustrating, but at the same time, hypnotic.
Marcus Porter, the Webmaster from International Information Services (www.iisworld.com), from whom I bought the pre-configured machine, and I became instant telephone palls. He was patient, smart, a natural teacher and a Linux whiz. We opened terminal windows, pored over logs, fiddled with initialization strings and modem arguments. We traded histories and did geek bonding while waiting for windows to open and close, modems to dial or not.
Thanks to Marcus, I've written some basic script, re-written the modem commands, called up and studied logs of the connection attempt even while the modem was making them, and done a bunch of other things I'd never done before.
If I had any previous doubts about Linux, I can sniff the possibilities. I got an enormous kick from closing the window that wouldn't close. Feeling like Indiana Jones, I saw the fabled Linux kernel itself. I wrote a chat script. Using root, I ordered my machine to kill everything in sight. I loved the command (since forgotten) where I call up a detailed log that is, in essence, the story of my computer, the history of the machine, the record of all the things I've tried to do with it. It was very cool to open the modem window and watch the log record the modem's struggle to connect to the ISP even as I heard it dialing-up.
This might seem simple-minded, even pathetic to Linux veterans and the macho geeks with fragile computing egos. For me, it goes right to the heart of what computing ought to be about, but rarely is. To go into the very guts of a machine, kill programs, close windows, read the preserved history of my own computing and thus writing life, is a stunner.
Linux is sometimes brutal, an experience many people won't have the time for or the will to pursue. But even a glancing look at the history of computing says it will get easier quickly. And the payoff, I can already see, is enormous.
To use Linux, you have to hack, pure and simple. Challenges, roadblocks and obstacles are not technical problems, but the essence of the experience. The machine works for you and with each command, program, trial or error, your confidence grows a bit.
The computer morphs. It's transformed into something organic, something personal, an extension of you and what you want to do, rather than a piece of equipment you use but never really understand. Over time, and with patience, it will do what you want it to do, rather than what they tell you you should want it to do.
Two days after I began nosing around on the desktop, I accompanied my techno-phobe wife on a printer-buying expedition. She has a new PC. A life-long MacUser, I had no idea how to get her HP printer working with her new PC laptop, and she ran into trouble in seconds, not knowing whether she needed to install software or how to do it. Much more than me, my wife dreads altering any function of a computer, utterly convinced she will destroy the machine, along with her life's work, in a keystroke. If not for the demands of her work, she would happily use a typewriter for the rest of her life.
As a result, she uses computers but almost literally hates them. I found myself mouthing many of the encouraging messages I've been getting from Slashdotters: don't be afraid to explore, you won't really hurt everything, use common sense and logic.
Even a few hours on Linux had altered my perception of computing. "We can do this," I said. "Let's just figure it out." We opened three or four different folders and programs until we found one that said "add/remove software." I opened it, and followed the directions that led us to the right drive and loading command. I knew it was loading the CD for the new printer by listening to the drive and hearing the whirr. In a couple of minutes, watched as a graphic appeared showing the software loading, and then the printer clicked to life and spewed forth pages.
"Wow," my wife said. "How did you learn to do that?"
The strange answer is that my bumbling hours on the Linux box were launching the process by which I could take control of my information life. Or begin to.
I understand how simple this is; few 12-year-olds in America couldn't do it faster and more intuitively. But it's a big bridge for people like me. We spend a lot of money for our computers, and we expect them to work. When they don't, we spend even more money and time - how many wretched hours have I stared at programs I didn't need or understand, waited on hold on phone help lines, waited at repair counters, waited for my machines to come back restored?
For years, I've kept myself completely ignorant about something that has changed my own life. Until last week, I couldn't possibly have added a software program to a PC. Nor could I have imagined how to close a frozen window without calling an online tech support line. Or the real jaw-dropper: go to the heart of a computer and read not only its history but the history of my use of it.
Much of my adult life has been spent in a losing battle with giant corporations. I really dislike them. They tell you what to write, think, say; they transform any kind of worthwhile endeavor into some sort of commercial impulse. I want to be as free of them as I can. And soon, I just might be freer than I would have imagined.
From enduring the jeers of hostile geeks to failing dozens of times in a row, Linux has been a challenge. It's frustrating and difficult, and it's not for everybody. But it's for me. Once again, I'm taking hours away from my work and out of my life to wrestle with computing. But this time, there's a pot at the end of the rainbow.
Or so I believe. But this isn't a complaint or lament: every hour I spend checking out this strange new machine has been well spent.
When I started writing this, I intended to end this column with a plea for anybody out there to help me figure out how I can get this willfull KPPP daemon to stop quitting and do his work, to come over to my side, help my modem shake hands with Mindsprings. Then I planned get to post my message and hit the summit.
But life is not that simple, at least not my computing life. Just before I wrote this, I got an e-mail message from the diligent Marcus at IIS, who had spent a significant chunk of his workweek on the telephone with me.
"We've been talking about your woes," he wrote. "I'm sure at this point that l) It's some simple thing I have overlooked or 2) The modem is damaged."
This, I knew, was a very real possibility, as it had fallen out of the bottom of the computer when I first opened it and bounced onto the floor.
Send it back, he said, and he and the other IIS techs would work on it over the weekend and get it working. They'd pay shipping both ways.
"Maybe we can have it back by Monday," he said hopefully.
Maybe so. I'm already working on a different victory message.
mail to: email@example.com