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.


Say-nothing phrases can be fun

There’s a Sara Bareilles song called “Love on the Rocks” that begins

We met on a rainy evening in the summertime
Don’t think I need to tell you more

While some people get annoyed with such say-nothing phrases (another example is, “This person needs no introduction” before a usually lengthy introduction), I delight in them, particularly this one.

If she had said only We met on a rainy evening in the summertime, I would have mentally ingested the phrase as a statement of fact and not think any more on it. Since she goes on to say Don’t think I need to tell you more, I begin thinking about why she doesn’t need to tell me more. Then my imagination starts kicking into gear and I start examining the implications of meeting on a rainy evening in the summertime. I start wondering what kind of steamy meeting it might have been. Is it like those movies where the stars rush to each other in the pouring rain and kiss, pneumonia and hypothermia be damned?

Same deal with “This person needs no introduction.” Sure, you’re going to give her an introduction anyway, but that’s just bonus—she doesn’t really need an introduction. More importantly, the message (not needing an introduction) isn’t the point of the phrase so much as the metamessage (this person is important, and if you don’t know why, shame on you, but I’ll tell you anyway just in case you don’t know).

If you get irked by say-nothing phrases, I urge you to use your imagination. Imagine a world in which people don’t always say phrases and sentences to convey only the literal meaning of the words they’re saying. Say-nothings can be fun!

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

What if “that” isn’t “so gay”?

I fully expect the “stop being so politically correct” comments to come pouring in for this, but I’ve always been bothered by the phrase That’s so gay.

I’ve heard it from even my most liberal friends—friends who fully embrace equal rights for gays and lesbians. It is part of our culture. I even said it myself for a number of years. Its offensiveness is only tangential, but it is still existent… existent enough that I find ways to avoid it (and still feel good about being able to express myself—don’t worry!). After all, That’s so gay really just means That’s so stupid or That’s so undesirable to do. Whereas the word gay used to be associated with happiness, it is now in everyday speech associated with the undesirable, the stupid, and the uncool. In the end, people who use the phrase are probably not likely to start yelling faggot! and dyke! or to start beating up gay people for being gay, but I just don’t see why we need to create (reinforce?) negative associations with the word gay. If you mean That’s so stupid or I don’t want to do that, then say “That’s so stupid” or “I don’t want to do that.” It’s completely unnecessary to say “That’s so gay.”

This is an entirely different phenomenon from the association of black with bad or yellow with cowardly. There simply exists no other simple word for the black market other than the black market, no other word for blackmail than blackmail. The only thing that seems artificial in the English language’s use of the word black is in application to skin color. All the supposedly “black” people I’ve met are various shades of tan or brown. I’m supposedly “yellow” for being Asian, and I’ve often heard people refer to Asians as “olive-colored,” but for the life of me I don’t see how my skin tone is either tint. Since Malcolm X took it for granted that what he then called Negroes (as was the popular label of the time) were, in fact, “black,” he took offense to the association of the word black with that which is negative. I view it as quite the other way around—it was probably already part of the English language to associate black with the negative and then a logical extension for racists to then attach the “black” label to overall darker-skinned individuals. The fact is that even white people are not white (with the exception of albinos), and that in the United States it was court decisions that had to decide whether or not Arab-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and Filipino-Americans qualified as “white”—ultimately deciding the societal worth (and not really the race) of those individuals.

What we’re seeing now with the word gay is the opposite. It is now firmly entrenched in popular usage to have gay mean “attracted to the same sex” with only a vestigial connotation of happiness. There’s absolutely no reason to start or continue to associate it with the generally negative (the stupid, the undesirable).

The worst part about the phrase That’s so gay is, however, not its pervasiveness so much as its subtlety. Unlike blatant slurs like faggot, That’s so gay is very difficult to counter without appearing oversensitive or “politically correct,” and the explanation of why it might be harmful is quite lengthy (see how long I’ve been writing about it so far?), so most people just let it go.

I just hope the day doesn’t come that people start saying That’s so Asian to describe that which is undesirable.

Further reading
That’s so gay!
That’s So Gay!
‘That’s so gay’ prompts a lawsuit
What is the lamest reason for giving up on Ubuntu/Linux you’ve ever heard?