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Why I finally embraced computer literacy

Computer illiteracy
It’s very likely that you know someone who self-identifies as “computer illiterate.” That person may even be proud of being so.

I was once one of these people. I was one of these people for a long time. In fact, I was quite offended when my Latin teacher in high school thought I liked computers (I assume she assumed so because I’m of Asian descent, as that is the stereotype, and I gave her no other reason to assume so). Yes, even though I took AP Computer Science senior year in high school, I still didn’t like computers and did not want to be identified with computers, but I hated hard science more than computer science, so I took computer science, got a 5 on the AP exam, and then quickly forget everything I learned about Pascal (does anyone even use this language any more?) and programming.

Even after graduating from college, I was still computer illiterate and pretty technologically helpless. I didn’t really understand how anything in a computer worked. I just memorized steps (click this icon, type this phrase, click that menu item, select that menu item, use this keyboard shortcut). In 2000, I had to call my future wife internationally to ask her what to do about my printer not working. She was a big help. Until 2004, I remained in technologically blissful ignorance, as I was too busy grading papers and preparing curriculum to care about learning computers. After all, literature was far more important than computers. Computers helped me do my grading and handouts—that was about it.

The turning point
Then in 2004, the Dell laptop my wife and I had got a serious case of spyware/adware. It was impossible to clean off. I tried to reinstall but couldn’t, at the time, find the drivers CD or InterVideo WinDVD—only the Windows XP CD. I had quite a frustrating time trying to get Windows to work properly without drivers or DVD playback. That’s when I first tried Linux (in the form of Blag), gave up on Linux, and then switched to Firefox on Windows (eventually did find those other two CDs). One year later, I became a full-time Linux (in the form of Ubuntu) user.

A combination of quitting teaching and getting malware pushed me to want to make myself computer literate. Quitting teaching helped move me in that direction in two ways.

From teaching to office jobs
First of all, teaching sucks a lot of mental energy out of you. It can become difficult to take on a new hobby when you’re worried about parent conferences, student struggles, classroom management, lesson plans, grading, professional development, faculty meetings, coaching, etc. Yes, of course, I was busy at my office job, too, but once I left work, work was done. I didn’t take work home with me.

Secondly, teaching is still a rather low-tech profession. There are some ingenious ways some teachers have managed to work technology into the classroom, but most of the time when technology is used in English classes, it’s more technology for the sake of “technology in education,” and not for any real pedagogical value. Office jobs, however, usually depend almost solely on the use of a computer. Suddenly, I was stuck in front of a computer monitor and keyboard for eight hours a day, five days a week—and with no summers off. I had to know how to use Excel. I had to know how to use Word (never previously knowing how to do a mail merge or anything remotely fancier than bolding or bulleting text). I had to learn a rather counterintuitive and completely inflexible database program. My boss wanted regular reports from me. I was an office worker, and I needed to know how to use this tool called a computer.

Moving away from Windows malware
And, of course, the spyware/malware infection made it impossible for me to deny that the days of care-free ignorant computing were long gone. In the preinternet days, home users didn’t have security threats. Even in the early internet days of the mid-1990s, the worst thing that ever happened to me was getting bad “funny” forwards from friends. Spam wasn’t terrible in those days. I got maybe two spam messages a week. No, I didn’t have to know all the internals of a computer and how all the transistors and whatnot worked, but I had to learn basic safety and sensible operation—just as I can’t fix a car’s broken transmission, but I have learned how to minimize wear on the transmission, how to minimize the chance of an accident, and how to get the best gas mileage.

And once I had finally given up Windows and embraced Ubuntu, I found computer problems to be fun challenges to be solved. Even now, if I experience a problem in Windows (which I have to use at work), I curse the computer and usually get frustrated at having to figure out a cryptic error message or no error message at all, but if I experience a problem in Ubuntu, I’m eager to troubleshoot it and fix it. It’s perverse, I know. Don’t worry—many Linux users suffer from this malady.

The digital age
Computer illiteracy for me in 2004 was an impracticality. I had to suck it up and realize we live in a digital age. Gone were the days of exchanging lettes and postcards with friends. Gone were the days of trading mix tapes. Everyone I knew was on email and listened to digital music.

Now it’s 2008, and I’m still in an office job (albeit a different one). I’m still no programmer or officially trained computer person, but now people ask me for help when they have computer problems, and very rarely now do I have to ask my wife for tech support. Time to embrace the geekdom. Computer illiteracy is no longer an option.

Linux Ubuntu

Explaining Linux lingo to non-Linux users

The other day, I was trying to explain to my wife why I wanted to install Ubuntu on my Eee PC in place of Xandros. She is not tech-stupid. She’s quite tech-savvy actually. She just isn’t that Linux-savvy. I found myself spewing out a whole bunch of words I knew she wouldn’t understand. Why would any normal person know what a distro or a repository is? What’s a kernel? What’s sudo? Well, the sudo thing she got, because she’s a Mac user and has used OS X’s terminal before.

Explaining the switch to someone who isn’t Linux-savvy forced me to think about what’s important to me as a computer user and to realize that I’m a little geekier than I thought I was. Sure, I’m no programmer. I’m not a system administrator or even help desk (except as a volunteer on the Ubuntu Forums). But here I was with Xandros, a Linux version customized to work flawlessly with the Eee PC, and I was ditching it. The boot time on Xandros is about 24 seconds from the time I press the power button to having a usable desktop with a wirelessly-connected Firefox session.

That’s not enough for me. Apparently, I also want security. The fact that you cannot have sudo in Xandros prompt you for a password without rendering your system unbootable makes Xandros, as my wife puts it, “no better than Windows.” For almost all intents and purposes, you are running as root (the total administrative with all privileges). There are software packages you can’t remove without removing essential components, and you can’t even get Xandros to not have a “What do you want to do?” prompt every time you plug in a USB device.

Most importantly, though, Xandros’ software repositories are weak. There are workarounds, but they are all flawed – mixing and matching various repositories, keeping multiple versions of the same libraries, pinning sources. It’s too convoluted and risky. I had to explain to my wife the idea of a software repository as different from Windows and Mac. In Windows and Mac, if you want to install software, you launch your web browser and search for a program, download it, and install it. In Linux, there are software repositories that have collections of software and software package managers that take a look at what’s in the repositories and download and install whatever you want from what’s available. It’s a bit like online shopping… “like Amazon,” I said. The package manager checks what’s in stock, you put things in your shopping cart, and then you check out, and the package manager installs things for you. “Installing software in Ubuntu is like shopping on Amazon, where you can get just about anything, and installing software in Xandros is like….” I was trying to figure out how to bring Xandros into the picture here, when she stepped in, “shopping at 7-11?” Yes, that was it exactly.

In Ubuntu, you just need to click a few times to add several vast repositories of software with lots available and very few conflicting packages. In Xandros, you have to use limited user-maintained extra repositories or mix and match with Debian repositories (which are only partially compatible with Xandros), and then you sometimes have to force the package manager to install an older version of MPlayer to get certain functionality or manually “install” a newer GTK library to install the latest version of Firefox.

Don’t get me wrong, Asus has created a wonderful internet appliance with the Xandros Eee PC, but I think an internet appliance-like Linux operating system can also be created that allows people to easily tweak it without worrying about breaking things. Ubuntu gives me that freedom, and that’s why I’m using eeeXubuntu on my Eee PC… even if it does take me 56 seconds to boot.