Lenovo C330 Chromebook: A Writer’s Delight

Lenovo C330 Chromebook: A Writer’s Delight

By Gene Wilburn

lenovo

Until recently I’d shied away from Chromebooks. They didn’t seem like real computers to me and for the price of even the basic ones, you could often pick up a used laptop with more overall functionality. I have several programs, such as Photoshop and InDesign, that require a high-end computer and I use both MacOS and Linux computers for these heavier-duty computing needs.

What softened me to the possibility of using a Chromebook was my iPad. It changed the way I used the Web. Between the iPad and the advent of reasonably-priced cloud storage, I began using the iPad more than my laptop computers, especially for writing. I went from being a touch typist to a single-finger poke typist on the iPad’s virtual keyboard. Occasionally I augmented this with Bluetooth keyboards and the combination of an iPad with a wireless keyboard made me wish for something along the same lines but in a single, integrated unit, similar to but not expensive like the Microsoft Surface.

I was intrigued by an announcement from Google in the fall of 2017 that they would soon upgrade ChromeOS to allow it to run both Linux and Android apps concurrently with ChromeOS apps on their Chromebooks. Linux is my favourite operating system and Android apps are pretty much identical to the apps on my iPad. It was beginning to look very interesting.

Deciding to take the plunge, I found the Chromebook unit that had the specs I was looking for in the Lenovo C330: 4GB RAM and a 64GB eMMC drive, plus extras that I thought of as gravy, such as a touch screen and a 180 degree pivot of the LCD panel. At roughly $360 Cdn, it seemed reasonably priced.

Setup and Experimentation

The first thing I did when the machine was in front of me was hold it up so I could check out the whereabouts of the I/O ports. On the left side, facing the machine, is one USB-C slot which the power supply uses but which can be shared with other peripherals. One USB3 slot for backward compatibility plus an SD card slot. Nice touches these. The right side of the unit has a mechanical volume control, on/off switch, and an earphone jack. Did you hear that, Apple? An earphone jack! A lot of us still have good wired headphones we’re satisfied with. It’s a real courtesy to customers to not expect all of us to upgrade to USB-C devices in one fell swoop. Kudos to Lenovo.

I opened the lid and feasted my eyes on the keyboard. An honest, full keyboard with all the keys exactly where I want them. Wide shift keys, easy-to-hit Enter key, full-size numeric keys, and a set of arrow keys at the bottom right, underneath the right shift key. The keys are coated in a kind of plastic that feels slightly rubberized. Response is on the soft side, but so far I have not witnessed any sign of keyboard bounce. Speaking as a writer, the Lenovo keyboard passes muster. It’s not as good a feel as my Macbook Air (old style non-butterfly) keyboard, but given the difference in price level, the Lenovo keyboard holds its own.

As I was about to turn on the unit, I paused momentarily for a big breath. I’d never before in my life ever used a Chromebook and had no idea what to expect, other than its reputation for ease of use. When it booted into the Chrome logo it asked the same kinds of setup questions you get on any tablet, such as network and password. It assumes you have an email account with Google. That’s mandatory, I believe, so I put in my Gmail ID name and password, and it began the setup, already familiar with my profile. There was the usual keyboard question, defaulting to US keyboard but I chose the Canadian-English spell checker. Boom, it was done. Installed and ready to go. Anything else you want, visit Settings and help yourself.

Naturally the default browser is Chrome. It went straight to my Gmail account and right into my Google Docs documents and folders. Seamless.

I studied my way through Settings next. I tested the Bluetooth adapter on a BT speaker and a pair of BT headphones and they both checked out fine. The only disappointment for me was that I didn’t see anything about Linux. I then guessed, rightly in this case, that ChromeOS wasn’t up to date so I updated it, rebooted, and this time in Settings, there was a new Linux section, with Install Linux as an option. It warns that this is still in beta, but I’ll take a beta Linux over no Linux any day.

When it finished installing Linux I opened the Terminal app. After a few seconds wait as things initialized in a KVM (kernel virtual machine), a beautiful Linux system appeared, at the command line. It turned out to be pure Debian, the latest version of Debian at that, which delighted me. I’ve been a Debian Linux fan since the mid–90s. I used Apt to update Linux and now both ChromeOS and Linux were up to date.

Android Stuff

The desktop of ChromeOS has a bottom panel called the Shelf that contains an icon for the Chrome browser, Gmail, YouTube, and Play Store. Play Store is where you find Android apps. I’ve populated my Chromebook with some of the same apps I use on my iPad: iA Writer (a writer-oriented Markdown editor), Netflix, a File Manager utility, Dropbox, Snapseed, Great Courses, plus a few more. Each, so far, has worked as expected. An Android app, such as iA Writer, has access to that same shared Downloads folder that is shared by ChromeOS and Linux, meaning you could edit the same document from three different operating systems, which I did out of sheer curiosity.

One of the noticeable things about using Android apps is that the fonts are not as crisp as you might like. The fonts have a slightly fuzzy, artificial look, unlike the well-formed ChromeOS native fonts. This is not a show stopper but it makes the Chromebook more of a Grade B tablet when running Android apps. I would not care to read an ebook with the Android fonts.

Linux Subsystem

For me the Linux subsystem (still in beta) is the jewel in the crown of the Chromebook. As mentioned, the default installation is based on Debian GNU/Linux, and there are hints that other distributions of Linux might be offered sometime in the future. Oddly the Chromebook default Downloads directory does not appear in my /home/gene personal space. Instead it’s mounted at /mnt/chromeos/MyFiles/Downloads. To make this more convenient I immediately made a symlink to that from inside my personal workspace with:

 $ ln -s /mnt/chromeos/MyFiles/Downloads/ Downloads

At this point the system was ready to easily share files among the three operating systems.

I used the Debian Apt utility to update Linux and install certain pieces of software to try. Among my downloads were Gedit, Wordgrinder, Joe, Emacs, Pandoc, and LibreOffice. All worked well, though there was occasional background screen flashing when using Gedit. I experimented with writing a bash script but could not get the system to chmod my file to an executable, even using $ sudo chmod a+x filename. It appears that the basic ChromeOS file system is mounted with a ‘noexec’ flag and at this time I haven’t yet figured out if this can be changed. The good news is that the shell script can be run as $ bash scriptname.

I installed and tried out a couple of different standard Linux terminal programs, Gnome-terminal and Konsole, and unlike the default terminal they can be launched in multiple instances either in separate windows or in tabs. The default terminal can only handle one thing at a time and there are no tabs for additional instances. What it does have, however, are better looking fonts.

There are occasional glitches in the Linux subsystem. Once in awhile, if I’d switched between environments several times while using Linux, it would lose its pathing and respond with “command not found.” When I closed the terminal app and opened it again everything returned to normal.

At a user level, the Linux subsystem generally works well, but I wouldn’t try any development in the environment, at least not at this point in its evolution. All the Linux utilities I tried worked normally, including the many text utilities.

I gave the Linux subsystem a serious workout by installing LyX and all its TeX and LaTeX components. It took four tries. The subsystem crashed three times, once with a segmentation fault, requiring me to shut down and restart the entire Chromebook each time, but it picked up each time where it left off after the previous try. Eventually it finished and I was able to run LyX and preview a typeset document. Not bad, but the Linux subsystem is not yet what I’d call robust. At this point it’s best to think of it as Linux Lite.

Choosing the Best Writing Editor

As a writer who is also a techie I’ve usually eschewed word processors. I like working with text files because they’re non-proprietary and there are many good utilities that work with them, but, like writers everywhere, I often need to italicize the title of a book or movie or a record album and sometimes I want to boldface a word. I also want to put hyperlinks in my text that point to places on the Web. To handle this, in plain text, I use the excellent Markdown system of notation.

My go-to editor for the past couple of years has been iA Writer, which comes in Windows, Mac, Android, and iPad versions. It’s a text editor wrapped around Markdown, making it easy for writers to use, and it has a first-rate HTML export function built in. It’s uncluttered and has a focus mode and a night mode that allows the writer to concentrate on the writing rather than the writing environment. The Android version is similar enough to my Mac and iPad versions that I suspected it to be my editor of choice on the Chromebook.

I’m also addicted to Linux text editors and as long as I was setting up shop anew on the Chromebook, I gave them a spin, using them with Markdown. I tried a number of console editors, including the very basic word processor called Wordgrinder, Joe, which has WordStar/Borland style keyboard shortcuts, and my favourite console editor, Vim, with stands for Improved Vi. These all work flawlessly in the Linux subsystem, and they’re light on resources. Occasionally, when I’m feeling exceptionally brave, I dabble with Emacs.

On a whim, however, I decided to try Chromebook’s featured editor, which is Google Docs. I’d used Google Docs occasionally to store information, but I’d never taken it seriously as a writing tool. I was surprised at how much I liked it, not least because the fonts are excellent and easy on the eyes. I wrote a few paragraphs then tested its various export formats. All were very good except for one quirk when it saves output to a plain text file. In text files it puts two blank lines between paragraphs where I only put in one while I’m typing.

Not being too sure about Google Docs, I asked writers in the “Canada Writes” Facebook group if any of them used it and what they thought about it. I got back several replies from writers who say they use it nearly exclusively and have found it to be stable and excellent for all their writing, including client work. That was enough to convince me it was worth a try and this review is my first piece written in Docs. I suspect Google Docs will become my main editor.

Conclusion

In the short time I’ve owned the Lenovo Chromebook C330, it’s become my favourite writing machine for drafting stories. It’s also a pretty decent machine for listening to music or watching streaming video. To be honest, other than seeing that it works, I don’t make use the feature that allows me to fold the viewing screen back 180 degrees. I already own an iPad which I greatly prefer as a tablet.

For the most part, the Chromebook is a writing machine with the side benefits of being a very good web browser and Gmail viewer. I use the Linux terminal to run utilities on text files, and to SSH (encrypted remote login) to my other Linux and Mac computers.

It has met my expectations and then some. Overall I’d give it high marks in the bang-for-the-buck department. At $360 Cdn, it’s a bargain, and a writer’s delight.

 

Waiting for Gestalt

Waiting for Gestalt

By Gene Wilburn

Gestalt (ge STALT). A word meaning, roughly, when the brain perceives with clarity that the whole of a system is greater than the sum of its parts, and everything clicks into one awareness. One can have a gestalten moment. But can one achieve a gestalten existence?

When I was coming of age intellectually at university in the early to mid 1960s, there were a number of explorations of the mind making the rounds. Existentialism, the sometimes bleak philosophy that arose strongly in Paris after the Nazi occupation at the end of World War II, was alive and well. Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus were still publishing and there was something compelling in the message that you’re responsible for who you become, creating a personal integrity in the face of the meaninglessness and absurdity of the universe. This is, of course, an over simplification.

Along with the primary existential philosophers came “Theatre of the Absurd,” a literary form of existentialism, perhaps best seen in the play by Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, in which “logical construction and argument give way to irrational and illogical speech and its ultimate conclusion, silence.” [Wikipedia, “Theatre of the Absurd”]

Another prevailing line of thought came from the field of psychology, in the form of Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” with “self actualization” at the top of the pyramid. In its wake people were self actualizing all over the place, or at least that’s what they professed. It certainly launched a full-blown pop psychology business and fuelled New-Age-style thinking before “New Age” had even become a word.

A different branch of psychology, from Germany, had earlier in the century introduced Gestalt Theory, a holistic psychology that seemed to imply that if you could attain a gestalt with yourself and your environment, you could flow through it with understanding, and perhaps appreciation, in the way that listening to a symphony is an experience that transcends the individual notes of the musical score.

Looking back on this fifty years later, I think existentialism has held up rather well, especially when augmented with a generous helping of late Roman-style stoicism. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs still has a sound feel to it, though there is a sense that Western society, as a whole, has slipped down the pyramid a bit in this era of anti-enlightenment, anti-science populism.

But the one that still teases my mind is gestalt theory. At the turning of each decade I’ve been waiting for that gestalten moment when everything would click into place and I would reach an understanding — “Because something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?” [Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”]

The problem is, how does one achieve gestalt when everything keeps changing?

The Impact of the 1960s

I emerged from the 1950s like most boys who had reached their teens by the start of the 1960s, interested in cars, playing basketball, grooving to the week’s Top–10 radio, and thinking about going to university after high school. In other words, I was as cookie-cutter naive as one could be.

It was the folk music era which, in my relative isolation, I took to be the music of the Kingston Trio, Limelighters, Chad Mitchell Trio, Burl Ives, and that new group on the radio, Peter Paul and Mary. It was when I heard Joan Baez sing a couple of old ballads like “Barbara Allen” I began to perceive a different kind of folk music that was less slick and more personal. Back then it was just music I liked. Later it would change me.

My intellectual life began when I went to university where I first majored in engineering. It was a tough study, but I was getting by, being moderately good at math and logic. There was, however, a problem. I enjoyed learning folk music more than studying STEM subjects and the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs left me questioning what I was doing. I bought a guitar, learned a fistful of chords, and learned to sing and play the songs that were haunting me.

My taste in folk music had also led me to discover the Weavers, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and a rich vein of black blues singers from Big Bill Broonzy and the Rev. Gary Davis to Mississippi John Hurt. I loved all these voices of the people.

I couldn’t square my study of engineering with my awareness of what was happening. The civil rights movement in the American South highlighted the inappropriate treatment of black people. President Kennedy had been assassinated, then Martin Luther King, then Robert Kennedy. There was a strange, unpopular war being waged in Vietnam.

Things were changing, blowing in the wind, as it were, and the gestalt of the time was changing with it. I switched my major to English and my minor to French, and began studying literature with its plays, novels, poems, and essays. In French classes, we frequently read the existentialists Sartre and Camus. I studied philosophy, social history, and art history. I met and became friends with dozens of like-minded individuals, some male, some female, some straight, some gay, a few who were black or hispanic, all of whom shared a passion for literature, art, philosophy, and music. I had found my people.

Something happens to your mind when you embrace the Humanities — something that comes as a series of epiphanies that raises your consciousness into new realms of thought and feeling resulting from contact with the great writers, poets, playwrights, philosophers, artists, and musicians of all eras. It’s intoxicating and exhilarating and, as Thomas Wolfe proclaimed in the title of his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again. You’re changed.

You reach for a higher kind of gestalt, the gestalt of the modestly well-educated. You begin to read the New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Le Monde, The Times (London), The Guardian, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, The Globe and Mail, and university quarterlies. You listen to folk music, cool jazz, classical music, and opera. You see Verdi in the same tradition as Shakespeare, and taste the richness of Old English in Beowulf and the delightful Middle English of Geoffrey Chaucer.

It’s a heady experience, all in all, but the question always arises: what are you going to do with all this when you head out into the “real” world?

One Pill Makes You Larger, and One Pill Makes You Small

For one gestalten period it seemed as if the world had changed. The war in Vietnam was vigorously opposed, campus radicalism was on the rise, and hair got longer. The folk music I’d grown up with was woven into a new kind of rock music and the voices of Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young filled the airwaves, along with new bands like the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and Frank Zappa.

Alan Watts taught us about Zen, the tarot deck came back into fashion, and decorated VW vans filled with flower children with headbands, victory signs, peace medallions, and bloodshot eyes were common sights.

Among the reading favourites were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Catch–22, The Vedas and The Upanishads, The Teachings of Don Juan, The I Ching and The Whole Earth Catalog.

Everyone was for “getting back to nature” and many communes were started, mostly ending in failure, and from the broadway musical Hair to massive rock concerts, it was assumed that the Age of Aquarius was upon us. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz described it as an “explosion of consciousness.”

It’s sometimes said that if you remember the 60s, you weren’t really there. My own memory of the time is patchy, with psychedelically-coloured gaps and an enduring sense of mysticism. But, like many, I didn’t see how it was sustainable. In the words of the Jefferson Airplane, “You are the Crown of Creation / And you have no place to go.”

The Origin of Species

The flower-power era couldn’t last, of course, because someone has to pay the bills. I trimmed my hair, picked up a degree in library science, and took a job. Through sheer good fortune I ended up as Head Librarian at the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto. It was there that I began hanging out with ornithologists, palaeontologists, mammalogists, geologists, mineralogists, ichthyologists, and entomologists, as well as archaeologists. It has shaped my thinking to this day. I had encountered the gestalt of scientific thinking and research.

One of the curators, a palynologist (one who studies modern and ancient pollens) challenged me with the question: “Have you read Darwin’s Origin of Species?” Being a lit major, I hadn’t, so I decided to give it a go.

What surprised me the most was how clear Darwin’s Victorian prose was. I was mesmerized by the concept of “descent with modification” or as it came to be known, “evolution.” Shortly after reading Origin, a new volume by Stephen Jay Gould passed through the library — a collection of essays entitled Ever Since Darwin. I gave this a read and subsequently read every book of essays Gould produced, culled from his monthly column in Natural History.

As a newly-minted amateur naturalist and birder I became hooked on reading science books written for the general public. The 60’s mantra “all is one” took on a philosophically material interpretation when I studied how the universe started, how suns ignited and planets formed, and how, on this one we call Earth, life sparked and evolved, going through great periods of diversity, extinction, more diversity, more extinction, and so on, leading eventually to a group of suddenly sapient simians. As Carl Sagan pointed out, we are made from the remnants of star dust, and every living thing on the planet is related.

My readings in science and science history led me to reaffirm the existentialist theme that life can be heaven or hell, but human beings mean very little in the face of the universe. I shed any last remnants of religion. Materially, we are bodies that live and die, each of us randomly sorted into different situations, different cultures, different countries and it’s these things that shape our sense of who we are.

There are people for whom science is enough. To paraphrase Darwin, there’s a grandeur to this concept of life and its descent with modification through time and its tangled branches and the sudden bursts of evolution that Gould referred to as “punctuated equilibrium.” This is a gestalt that most naturalists come to feel through their observation of life’s many remarkable species.

But is science alone enough to sustain the human spirit, or psyche, that je ne sais quoi that some people call a “soul”? Perhaps, and perhaps not, depending on the individual. What science does, for me, is to throw into relief all the amazing works of mankind, from art, history, philosophy, literature, and music to the increasing technological achievements that accompanied the industrial revolution.

By the time I had begun to assimilate this naturalistic view, information technology was picking up the pace. Television, radio, newspapers and other media shaped us and moulded us in ways that perhaps only Marshall McLuhan could sort out. But that was merely a preface of things to come: the computer revolution.

Bits, Bytes, and Qubits

From the late 70s onward the computer revolution picked up momentum until it reached nearly Biblical proportions: “And in that time a great change came across the land” [my paraphrase]. Computing became personal, portable, and profoundly ubiquitous.

Like others, I joined the revolution, pivoting my career from librarianship to Information Technology (IT). From the earliest whimsical days that included an ad in Byte Magazine for dBase II, entitled “dBASE II vs The Bilge Pump,” to the corporate adoption of personal computers as strategic tools in the workplace, to the computer (aka smartphone) in one’s pocket or purse, a virtual Pandora’s box of consequences was unleashed.

My work involved setting up workstations, email servers, database servers, storage servers, web servers, and firewalls, with a little programming tossed in for spice. I enjoyed decades of computing projects and by the time I retired, in 2006, the industry had progressed from 8-bit personal computers such as the Apple II, to 64-bit powerhouses running Microsoft Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android, and a few dozen lesser-known operating systems. Smartphones and tablets had become almost a birthright.

Computing begat digital photography, streaming audio and video, automobile electronics, appliance electronics, social networks, and, with lesser success, self-driving cars. I now listen to streaming music, watch streaming videos, and get my news and opinion pages from the Internet.

On another level, machine learning (ML) has grown and penetrated the Internet to such a degree that one can examine a product on Amazon and see ads for it within hours on Facebook. Privacy has suffered. The Internet, invented for the purpose of sharing scientific information, developed a dark side, the extent of which is still being assessed — surveillance, phishing attacks, the hacking of personal information, and possibly enough manipulation to sway elections.

The pace is still swift and the increasingly successful bids to harness Quantum Computing (whose basic unit of information is called a Qubit) will likely bring unforeseen changes. Nothing stands still.

End Game

“You can’t stop the future. You can’t rewind the past. The only way to learn the secret, is to press play” ~ Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why

In my retirement, I’ve once again become a student. I read incessantly, both fiction and nonfiction, I take the occasional online course, and I think, if not profoundly, at least genuinely. It aids thinking to have a philosophical framework to compare one’s thoughts to, and I continue to find the challenge of existentialism worthwhile for this. It’s an honest philosophy, derived from the human spirit looking at an irrational and uncaring, absurd, universe and deciding to carve out a personal meaning for being human. It’s a difficult challenge (never underestimate existential angst) but it’s more open and honest than clinging to a derived set of values, liberal or conservative, from those around us.

I’m beginning to understand why Camus used the story of Sisyphus to highlight the challenge. In the Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a huge boulder to the top of a hill. Every time he reached the top, the boulder would roll back to the bottom and he was required to repeat the procedure, for eternity. “Camus claims that when Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate, he is freed to realize the absurdity of his situation and to reach a state of contented acceptance. With a nod to the similarly cursed Greek hero Oedipus, Camus concludes that ‘all is well,’ indeed, that ‘one must imagine Sisyphus happy.’” [Wikipedia, “The Myth of Sisyphus”]

It would be neat and tidy, at this final stage of my life, to wrap up my thoughts with a pretty bow attached, but I’m unable to do so. There have always been random elements in our story that change the story itself: a colliding meteor, a world war, an economic depression, climate change, the overthrowing of the monarchy and aristocracy, the re-establishment of a wealthy set of plutocrats, the place you were born, the family you emerged from, the schools you attended, the number of freedoms, or lack thereof, of the prevailing government, and, not least, who you fall in love with. It is difficult to piece all this together into a holistic understanding. I am, in my final years, still waiting — waiting for gestalt.

 

My Life As a Faux Cherokee

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My Life As a Faux Cherokee

By Gene Wilburn

For most of my life I thought I was part Cherokee. Not because I was fantasizing some kind of secret life, but because this is what my mom told me.

The link was on my father’s side of the family and because he died when I was two years old and my mom remarried when I was five, I had no further contact with the Wilburn clan from the time we moved half a continent away from my native California.

My mom, dear as she was, wasn’t always a reliable narrator. She told me my grandmother Wilburn was one-quarter Cherokee. Mom lived with my paternal grandma and grandpa for awhile during WWII and I knew my grandma was from Oklahoma, where the Cherokee were resettled after the terrible Trail of Tears, so I had no reason to disbelieve her.

There was no stigma attached to it, though my mom thought my grandma looked “exactly like an old squaw,” meaning she was short, dark, and squat. She didn’t mean this as any kind of ethnic slur—it was just the way white people talked in the early 50s.

I totally revelled in this information. My mind opened up to visions of living in a tribe, living off the land, being close to nature—a past with gripping potential narratives.

I subsequently took great interest in native culture growing up. I always took the side of the Indians whenever we kids played Cowboys and Indians, and I preferred bows and arrows and spears to guns.

The biggest impact was on my reading. I read every book I could find on native people in the US and Canada. Once when I was in the third grade I was home sick with the mumps but I had one of the school’s library books with me, Home of the Cliff Dwellers, an illustrated book about the Pueblo Indians of the southwest. In the delirium caused by high fever, I thought I was there, with them, as I lay sweating in my upper bunk bed.

We lived, in my early school days, in a couple of towns along the Rock River, in Illinois. This area of Illinois had been inhabited by several different eastern plains tribes. Some while previously, the Sauks, Meskwakis, and Kickapoos joined forces to rebel against the whites who were invading into their territory, in what became known as the Black Hawk War. Only three miles away from where we lived in Lyndon was a town called Prophetstown, which was named thus because it was the site on the river where Black Hawk’s prophet had resided.

You can guess who won, but there was something about Black Hawk’s demeanour even in defeat that highly impressed some of the whites, and one of them honoured Black Hawk by building a statue of him, with his arms crossed, overlooking the river. It left me breathless every time I encountered it. I could canoe up to it from scout camp, not far from Rockford, Illinois.

I fancied that Black Hawk was a distant relative of mine, on the broad assumption that all native people were relatives in one way or another. My closest mental bond, though, was with a brilliant Cherokee silversmith named Sequoya, who grasped that what gave white people their advantage was their ability to write things down and read them. He invented a syllabary for the Cherokee language and taught it to his people. As far as I know he was the first North-American native person ever to do this.

Later, in the 60s when I was at university, I became more aware of the tragic state of many native people across North America, as well as their desire to embrace their own culture fully, without the opprobrium and paternalism heaped on them by decades of white governments and officials.

When native protests occurred at places like Wounded Knee, I felt a deep kinship with them in their tragic standoff. I considered Buffy Saint-Marie to be distant kin and loved her songs. This idea of being part Cherokee stayed with me until very recently.

On a trip to Arkansas to visit my half-sibs, the Keller side of my family, my wife, Marion, and I happened upon a Wilburn-related distant cousin of mine who was also into genealogy. My cousin, when asked about this, said no, my grandma was not Cherokee, but there was, indeed, one person with Cherokee blood in a different branch of the family unrelated to mine. I wondered if this were true, or whether it was a desire to distance the Wilburn line from any native blood. I didn’t know. Did my mom hear something and perhaps misunderstand what she heard? I had to bear in mind that English was her second language, her first being Swedish.

The answer came to light only recently when Marion had my DNA analyzed for genealogical purposes. The big genealogy sites are now honing in on ethnicity, and although it’s still a rough science, the DNA analyses provide insight into your roots.

I felt hugely disappointed that the results showed I had no Native American DNA whatsoever. My cousin had been right. But I had a couple of surprises, too. I knew I was Swedish on my mother’s Nordvall side of the family, and, sure enough, the DNA corroborated this. It also showed me to be part Norwegian, which came as no big surprise, but also a large part Finnish. I’d never heard anything about being part Finn from anyone. That in itself was interesting.

But the biggest surprise, unknown to me, was that I was nearly 25% Irish, specifically from the region of Connemara. It’s a folksinger’s dream to have some Celtic heritage. Perhaps it’s no wonder that my single favourite folk album of the 60s is the self-titled Vanguard recording, Liam Clancy.

So, farewell to the Cherokee, for whom I still have the fondest feelings which live on in a great empathy and support for the goals of all native people, such as stopping oil pipelines from being run through their land by a white government.

And “Hello Ireland.” I suspect there’s no Irish story teller worth his blarney who could not half convince you that the Cherokee were actually a long lost Irish clan who sailed to America long before Columbus.

I can think of only one thing to offset my disappointment at losing my Cherokee heritage only to discover my Irish and Finnish roots. I could now honestly write under the pen name “Mickey Finn.”

ᏙᎾᏓᎬᎰᎢ (Donadagvhoi). (Goodbye)

Fáilte. (Welcome)

—Mick

 

A Newbie Guide to Cannabis

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A Newbie Guide to Cannabis

by Gene Wilburn

On October 16, 2018, Canada will legalize marijuana, or cannabis, as it’s more often called these days. Buying and using cannabis will be legal, but each province is creating its own plan and policy for selling it.

In Ontario there’s been a flip-flop in how it will be sold: the previous Liberal government had decided to sell it through an official provincial sales operation, similar to the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario). The new Conservative government scrapped those plans and says it will allow licensed vendors to sell cannabis directly. Already the Shoppers Drug Mart chain has been granted a license to sell.

Whatever else you might expect, expect some initial chaos across the country as the law takes effect. There will be confusion, but there will also be some elation, and those of us who have used cannabis for years will bask in the warm glow of vindication.

As an experienced user of medical cannabis I would like to make an anecdotal contribution to the education of new users, or to those who maybe tried marijuana in the 60s and 70s but haven’t touched it since.

Cannabis is a drug

Above all else, cannabis is a drug and if you’re the clean-body/clean-mind type, you probably don’t want to use it. If Tai-Chi , yoga, meditation, or doing crossword puzzles gets you off, then be content with it. Although I doubt you’ll be tempted to try it anyway, the circumstance might arise and if you are tempted, here are some tips to bear in mind.

  1. There are two main types of drug in cannabis: THC and CBD. The one that gets you high is THC and on legal cannabis it’s clearly marked as to strength. Back in the 60s it’s estimated that the THC levels of most marijuana was around 7-15%. Today’s strains range all the way up to 30% or so for the high-THC products. CBD, on the other hand, does very little to get you high, but many users report that it helps with body pains such as arthritis and works as a ‘feel better’ drug for those who don’t want to get high.
  2. Because it’s a drug, cannabis will affect your body/brain mechanisms, resulting in a high or a balm, depending on the type. In some people, especially beginners, this can kick off a reaction of paranoia or a knot in the stomach that can be hard to shake off. If you have access to any kind of tranquillizer, it’s a prudent idea to have one nearby if you start feeling very uncomfortable. Any panic reaction tends to lessen as your body becomes more accustomed to usage.
  3. If you feel you’ve had too much substance, try not to panic. It will pass. If you’re trying cannabis for the first time, it’s good to have an experienced user around to reassure you that you’re okay. Listen to music you like, and you’ll eventually go into a deep, relaxing sleep, waking refreshed. However, if you have such a bad panic reaction you can’t handle it, call an ambulance and the hospital will give you a sedative to calm you down.
  4. If you find you like cannabis and use it often, your body will develop a tolerance for the drug and you may require more hits or a higher THC percentage. That’s normal. However, do realize that you can become addicted to the substance. No, not like hard drugs like opioids or even alcohol, but you can get psychologically addicted to cannabis. There’s not a lot of research that’s yet been done on long-term cannabis use so moderation is advised.
  5. It goes without saying, don’t get high and drive. It’s not known how much cannabis you need to constitute a hazard on the road, but it’s better not to take chances. As with alcohol, it’s best to have a dedicated driver if you’re at a social event, or to call a taxi to go home or to the theatre.

Forms of intake

Back in the day, about the only form cannabis came in were marijuana cigarettes, usually called joints, or spliffs, or doobies, whatever the local jargon dubbed them (“reefers” way back in the 20s and 30s). Today’s choices are very different.1

  1. Cigarettes, or joints, are still around and happen to be highly portable. You inhale from a joint just as you would from a tobacco cigarette. This is called “taking, or having, a toke.” This is the traditional form of marijuana and is still in widespread use. It’s also the harshest introduction to cannabis because you’ll likely end up choking and coughing a fair bit. Joints are convenient, but there are pleasanter options.
  2. Bongs. I’ve never used a bong but the principle they work on is to filter hot cannabis smoke through water to cool it off before inhaling. They’re still around, but most users are moving to vapes.
  3. Vapourizers, or vapes. A vapourizer is a device in which you load your ground cannabis flowers. Its  heating chamber heats the cannabis just to the point before it starts burning (as in a joint) and releases the active components of the drug as a vapour that you inhale. This is much easier on the throat and lungs than the harsh additional tars and smoke you get from a joint. Vapes come in desktop versions (best for sharing) and portable versions. As with any other device in this age, you can look up online reviews for user ratings.
  4. Tinctures, or drops. Tinctures, also called cannabis drops, are one of the nicest ways to consume cannabis. They come with a calibrated dropper so you can measure exactly how much cannabis you’ll ingest. You swallow your dosage instead of inhaling it. The downside of tinctures is that they take some time to release the THC and/or CBD into your system — up to an hour or two. If you try a tincture, experiment by starting with small amounts, e.g., 0.25ml. If you’re okay with that, you can try 0.5ml or more. But be careful with the timing because the effects can creep up on you like too many margaritas. Don’t take more if you’re not feeling anything. Just wait it out.
  5. Edibles. Edibles are one to be extra careful with. Unlike tinctures, or drops, you don’t usually know how much cannabis you’re ingesting. They come in the form of candies, cookies, brownies, and just about anything that can be baked. Some folks like to make ‘cannabis butter’ to add to things they’re cooking or eating. There are instructions on how to do this on the web, but the watchword is caution. Like tinctures, edibles don’t act fast. Take small portions and wait at least two hours before deciding it isn’t working or isn’t strong enough. Most people who get into difficulty from an extra large dose of cannabis get it from edibles.

Accessories

There are a few accessories that you might want to add to your kit if you become a regular user.

  1. Cigarette paper. To roll a joint you need cigarette papers to hold the cannabis. These are easy to find in shops or online.
  2. Lighter. If you’re new to cannabis and are a non-smoker, in the form of tobacco, you’ll need matches or a cigarette lighter to light and/or re-light your joints. You can pick up a small lighter at any convenience store.
  3. Roach clip. As a joint nears the end, it’s useful to have some kind of clip to hold the last of the joint (called a “roach” because it’s usually dark brown and looks like a cockroach) so you don’t burn your fingers. An alligator clip works fine.
  4. Ashtray. Again, if you’re a non-smoker, you may not own one. It’s a cheap and worthwhile investment.
  5. Cigarette roller. It takes a couple of tries to figure out how to roll joints in a rolling machine, but it makes the nicest joints you could wish for. They’re inexpensive.
  6. Cleaning fluid and cotton swabs. If you purchase a vape, you need to clean it regularly because the resins in cannabis will begin to coat and plug the filters inside the mechanisms. Head shops sell special cleaning fluids, but you can do just as well to pick up a bottle of 99% Isopropyl Alcohol and some Q-tips from a drugstore and daub the Q-tips in alcohol to clean out the cannabis chamber and the mouthpiece, mesh filters, and tubes. Regular cleaning is required.

Courtesy

There are a few courtesies to be observed:

  1. Odours. To some users cannabis smells wonderful, but some people dislike the smell and may even be allergic to it. The strongest odours come from smoking joints. As a courtesy, never light up a joint in anyone’s home without making certain they’re okay with it. Try to smoke your joint outdoors if you can, rather than have it fill your house or apartment with heavy, resinous smells. The same holds for automobiles. Vapes make far less odour but there is some and it’s distinct. Again, use common courtesy. Don’t inflict your odours on someone who might object to them.
  2. Obey the law. Don’t smoke where it’s not allowed. Not only may it not be appreciated, but you could be fined.
  3. Don’t imbibe and drive. This is just common sense. After some experience, you may begin to know your limit, but cannabis can lead you to think more optimistically about your driving skills than is warranted. Be careful.
  4. Avoid smoking up in front of children. I shouldn’t even have to mention this, but respect everyone’s sensitivity to having their children exposed to cannabis smoke. Some parents would rather not have you even mention it in front of their kids. Be a good citizen and friend.

Cannabis is not a panacea

Some of us, and I’ll admit I’m one, used to say in the 60s that, “hey, a panacea is a panacea” referring to marijuana. It was a joke that had some truth in it, but also some falsehood.

Medical cannabis, according to the anecdotal evidence of its users, can help with a number of medical problems. It is said to help with the nausea you get from chemotherapy. It helps some people sleep at night. It helps many with arthritis pains. It helps restore appetite for some. It helps me with my depression.

The thing to remember is that all these claims are anecdotal. There’s not been much research into cannabis because it was a banned substance for so long. Research is at its beginnings, and some of the claims of users may be corroborated and some may be debunked.

For body aches in particular, the high-CBD, low-THC mixtures are the best way to start. These will not give you the typical ‘high’ of cannabis and are therefore easy to assimilate.

Speaking anecdotally, I find I need a relatively high THC content for my depression. As they often say in geek forums, YMMV, meaning “your mileage may vary.” Depression is tricky to treat and what works for one person will not necessarily work for another.

Giggles and munchies

When you get high on cannabis and have no  unpleasant reaction to it, the main thing you feel is a kind of spacey euphoria. Time will slow down. Music will sound wonderful. You’ll likely also get the “munchies” — that is, you’ll get hungry. Food will taste ambrosial. Any food. Including potato chips. Even gummy bears. And you’ll laugh and giggle a lot. You may have interesting mental insights (and may also want to jot some of them down). This can be a lot of fun — hence the recreational in “recreational drugs.” If you’re a regular user, the munchies can also make you fat, take it from me.

Have a good trip

In summary, cannabis, like alcohol, is a mixed bag. Be careful, courteous, and polite when using it. Use it in comforting circumstances, such as your own familiar surroundings or some place where you feel relaxed. Don’t exaggerate its effectiveness — cannabis zealots are very tiring — but certainly enjoy its effects.

One last thing to remember: cannabis does not give you a hangover. That in itself gives it an edge over alcohol as a recreational drug. If you need a clear head in the morning, it’s a better choice than alcohol.

As we used to say in the 60s: “Have a good trip!”


1When I first mentioned to my family doctor that I was taking medical cannabis he asked me “Where do you get it?” I answered, “From Tilray, in Nanaimo, BC.” “What is the delivery mechanism?” he asked. “Courier,” I answered. He laughed and laughed and then said, “I mean how do you take the cannabis into your system?”

Linux on Mac

Linux on Mac

By Gene Wilburn

linux-on-mac

My Macbook Air is now a dual-boot MacOS/Linux laptop. I’ve always wanted to run Linux on really nice hardware so I decided to try installing the Ubuntu 18.04 LTS release after setting aside half my SSD, using Mac’s Disk Utility program to format it as MS-DOS. (Linux reformats this to native Linux Ext4.)

I chose Ubuntu because of its excellent hardware support and, to my surprise, it installed trouble free, though it didn’t initially recognize the built-in wifi hardware of the Mac. To fix this I booted with a USB wifi adapter inserted and Ubuntu downloaded the Broadcom device driver I needed for the Mac. One reboot and I had a live, fully functioning system.

The installation didn’t ask me to try to put Grub into any kind of pre-boot partition, like MBR. To change from one OS to another, I simply hold the Option key down while booting and choose which OS to boot. In MacOS you can set the boot default and mine is set to default to Linux.

I’ve been a Linux user since 1993, starting out with Slackware on an old 386 PC, in character mode only. I’ve used many distributions since then, and I find things to like most of them, but I prefer the Debian-based distributions because of the robust .DEB packaging system. Ubuntu has been rock solid for me so it’s the one I put on the Mac.

There was one oddity. Neither Gnome3 (Ubuntu’s version), nor Cinnamon would recognize any kind of right-click emulation from the Mac’s trackpad. Mate worked just fine, but I’ve grown fond of Cinnamon and by setting its trackpad settings to “mouse emulation” the trackpad had left and right clicks located in the bottom-left and bottom-right corners, just the way I set them up in MacOS. The Mac trackpad worked almost as smoothly as it does under MacOS. I’ve never had much luck with Windows hardware trackpads and Linux so this was a nice surprise.

The greatest moment of acceptance came for me when I synchronized my Linux Dropbox client and it downloaded my photo files. I opened some of them with Gimp, which I already knew how to use, and Gimp looked really good on the Mac’s Retina display. This was a key finding. As a photographer who has used Photoshop for years, I found myself falling behind Adobe because I was sticking with my Photoshop CS6 package. Adobe’s ACR raw editor no longer supports the cameras I use and I’m just not even remotely tempted to buy in to Adobe’s rent-Photoshop-every-month-for-the-rest-of-your-life option. Photoshop is excellent, but so is Gimp, which costs nothing and stays up to date.

The main part of the Adobe package I’ll miss is Adobe Bridge because it could easily review and batch rename files with my custom naming convention. But last year I solved that too, by writing a Bash script to use Exiftool to extract the shot date and turn the result into my file naming convention.

So, hello Linux on Mac has meant goodbye Adobe. And anyway, I can do fine tuning of photos in Snapseed on my iPad.

The final adjustment I needed was a way to easily enter occasional French accented characters from the keyboard. When you live in Canada, it’s common to want to write something like Trois Rivières in accented fashion, to respect the French spelling. MacOS handles this brilliantly but I couldn’t find any Linux keystrokes that worked like a language Compose key.

I found an app called “Characters” that is simply a character map for different languages. It was awkward to use so I did some Googling and discovered that there’s a deeply-buried option in the keyboard settings that allows you to assign a Compose key. I took the default Right-Alt key, better known as Right-Option on the Mac.

It works just as expected. If you hold down Compose and type a backtick(` ) then a vowel, you get à, è, ì, ò, ù. Same for the other accents. Perfect for when the need is occasional. If I were typing a lot of French I’d switch over to a French keyboard layout, but my use is casual.

As mentioned, I use Dropbox to coordinate my files between Linux, MacOS, and iOS machines. It’s also my most immediate backup.

The rest is pretty standard. I use Firefox as my browser, just as I do under MacOS, and I use the browser version of Gmail so I don’t have to fiddle with email client programs. Besides, I’ve never liked Thunderbird.

For writing, the activity I do the most, I use Gedit, a basic text editor that comes with most Linux distros. It has useful plugins, like one for Markdown support. All my writing files are in plain text, marked up with bits of Markdown when I need italics, bold, or some minor formatting like indented passages. I use Pandoc to convert my Markdown files into HTML files when needed.

I tried using Emacs to write with, but as much as I admire it, I don’t care for it as a writing tool. Besides, its line oriented text files don’t mesh well with my Mac editors, which are paragraph oriented. Gedit works perfectly for my needs, including inline spell checking.

Occasionally I do some programming and lately I’ve been studying a little C++. I could do this on MacOS too, but open-source languages feel more at home in Linux, more complete and up to date. Apple keeps its own development tools up to date, but lags behind on open-source releases like the gcc compiler, Perl, Python, and the rest.

I originally thought I’d pop into MacOS more often — don’t get me wrong, MacOS is an elegant and very modern operating system (far superior to Windows in my opinion) — but now that I’ve eliminated Adobe from my life, there’s not much that’s available for the Mac that I don’t already have an equivalent for in Linux. As a result, the only time I find myself booting into MacOS is when I want to update it, to keep it current.

Linux on Mac is one of the nicest surprises I’ve had this year. While nothing is perfect, this is as close to perfection as I’ve yet experienced.

Linux on Mac — an elegant way to run Linux for the technically inclined.

A Darwinian Ramble

 

A Darwinian Ramble

By Gene Wilburn

I was always aware of evolution, in the vague sense that high school biology bestows, along with cell membranes, nuclei, zygotes, and stinky starfish dissection. It made a rough kind of sense and I was never a disbeliever, but I must admit my intellectual life received its biggest boost when I met Charles Darwin. Not literally, of course, but when you’ve read something someone has written, you do in fact meet them, in a virtual sense, and in that way my reading of Origin of Species granted me temporary access to one of the great minds of the Nineteenth Century.

Darwin’s prose style was honest and plain and his clear arguments persuasive. “Descent with modification”, or evolution, shaped life in all its enormity, complexity, and wonder, over time spans so long, with a past so distant, that the human mind can’t properly grasp the scale. Even today when the evidence pins the probable age of life on earth itself to over three billion years ago, that’s a meaningless number to us. After all, there are still extant cultures of hominid descendants who can’t count the number of pebbles in a bag because their native-language counting system goes “one, two, many.” Most of us are slightly more numerate than this, but beyond a small number set, we reach for a calculator. And so it is that we fail to fully appreciate the enormity of time.

Time. Deep time. In the same period as Darwin, Charles Lyell had published his Principles of Geology in three volumes, and Lyell opened Darwin’s mind to the concept of deep time. Given enough time, the speciation Darwin observed, both natural and domestic, had long enough to split and join and migrate and split and join and migrate and split ad infinitum into the diversity of life that has become the hallmark of our planet. When you recall that this was the time period in which geological findings were contradicting the account of the world in Genesis, the concept of deep time was beginning to rock religious beliefs and hold them up for critical questioning. If the world was indeed as old as the evidence was indicating, it’s an astonishing change in world view from the 6000-year estimate provided by Bishop Ussher in the Sixteenth Century, based primarily on a literal reading of the genealogy of ancient Hebrew patriarchs.

Context is important. While I introduced myself to Charles Darwin’s chief opus and subsequently read the account of his travels which we popularly call Voyage of the Beagle, I was serving as head librarian in the research library of the Royal Ontario Museum where I was surrounded by volumes of archaeological field reports, geological works, palaeontological studies, books on natural history, and shelves of scientific journals. Better yet, I had become friendly with several of the life science and earth science curators who were happy to field my questions about the earth and the life upon it. As a bonus, some of the research staff held an annual Charles Darwin Birthday Lunch every February 12th at which one of the researchers would deliver a lecture on their own research and how it related to evolution. In this context, I picked up much additional knowledge of evolutionary theory and how it has evolved, expanded, and become more nuanced since Darwin’s day.

So what has this to do with my intellectual life? It changed everything. I read Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene and started reading Stephen Jay Gould’s columns in Nature. Gould was one of my main influences and his works, collected occasionally into volumes of essays such as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda’s Thumb stretched my appreciation for the complexity of dealing with such a broad topic as evolution. What these scientist-writers showed me again and again is how hypotheses must be modified when new, conclusive evidence comes along to change the original assumptions. I liked the idea of “evidence-based” knowledge — knowledge that is honest and, as far as possible, untinged by bias. Nobody can exist as a totally bias-free being, but most scientists try to limit their biases when dealing with evidence. Philosophically, this appealed to me. From Darwin I learned objectivity. From Gould, deep time. And from Dawkins, the concept that our entire world view can be inverted if we think of humans as the human genome’s way of reproducing itself.

But to a philosophical person, science is as limited by its materialistic outlook as it is strengthened by it. Before my “history of the planet and all its denizens over time” reading, I had already amassed a motley background of humanities studies with courses in literature, art, philosophy, history, and linguistics. My M.A. in English reflected more my interest in the English language itself, than in literature, though the literature was a great perk, showing the brilliant and beautiful ways the English language can be expressed in the hands of its best writers. From the humanities I derived a deep respect for what I’ll call the human psyche. I don’t like to use the word soul because of its religious and supernatural connotations. And if anyone asks, no, I’m not an “old soul.” I doubt such a thing exists.

But I do think there is a spirit in the psyche of humans that can, in the right circumstances, lead to a flowering of art, literature, and philosophy, as well as science. Ours has become an intensely philosophical age in the sense of ethics. What are the ethics of how we treat other people, especially minorities or factions that are different from our own norms and traditions? What is the morality of abortion? What obligation, if any, do the rich have toward the poor? Who should be entitled to low-cost or free medical care? Is “assisted suicide” more humane than aging into a shell of what one was? Is it okay to modify human genes? Or more generally, what is the good life, and how can we help more people on the planet achieve it? There are issues everywhere, to the point of psychological exhaustion that is sometimes reflected in political voting trends.

I remind myself that no age I’ve ever studied has had it easy. Even as many aristocrats enjoyed bounty, they relied on the work of terribly poor, overworked and often undernourished peasants to keep things running. And wars and uprisings could lay low even the aristocracy. The Twentieth Century, after the terrible world wars, seemed to offer the promise of bounty for all, via capitalist economies. In the Twenty-First Century we see a reversing trend, where wealthy plutocrats enjoy great bounty, and the working middle class is shrinking in North American and European countries. Authoritarian governments are becoming more numerous, and even in Britain, Europe, Canada, and the United States, there are populist stirrings among folk who are fatigued with issues and a sinking lifestyle and want to “punish” those in power by voting for autocratic candidates.

It is possible we might be headed for a more authoritarian age and will elect our way into a less democratic society. It is becoming an age of fear and anger among a large portion of the population. The main fear is change, along with a nostalgic longing for the 1950s when increasing prosperity was the norm, at least for large members of the white middle class. How we treated our minorities in the 50s is another matter.

The problem with this problem of resentment and fear is that you cannot go back in time, or as they say in Lit classes, “you can’t go home again.”

In one of the subsequent editions of Origin of Species Darwin introduced the Malthusian phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the thrust of evolution. In his later private writings he said he regretted using the phrase because it conveyed the wrong connotations. He wished instead he had said something like “survival of the most adaptable.” So much of modern life is about adapting to change. Those who adapt to the changes will be more likely to survive and, with luck, prosper. While nothing is guaranteed in life, staying nimble is a positive survival trait.

And so, I turn to Darwin for encouragement, even though it is stripped of religious and the supernatural:

There is grandeur in this view of life [natural history and evolution], with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

We were not the first species on the planet, and we won’t be the last, but among those who truly embrace life in all its originality and variety, this is the time of humanity. Religion may offer people comfort, but philosophy asks the hard questions, such as what is our obligation to planet Earth itself? We have already driven many life forms to extinction, many just recently. Do we take a more caring role in our impact on the planet, or should we simply take, take, take until we, too, go extinct?

I have come to believe we need both science and the humanities to keep us on a rational course. We are from the earth and will each of us return to the earth. To a good evolutionist, such as I’ve become, that is it. So the intellectual question remains, if this is really it, how should one comport oneself, both socially and intellectually? The intellectual life is needed for perspective on questions like this and I think we must continue to learn and to educate, and, of course, adapt to the age in which we live. There is both power and positiveness in the human psyche. We have a brain unlike any other creature. Our obligation, it seems to me, is to use it.

Why Use Linux?

Why Use Linux?

By Gene Wilburn

I’m astonished at how seldom anyone asks me “Why use Linux?” It’s as if, outside the realm of computer techies, Linux is unknown or feared. So let me start with an introduction.

Think of your computing device operating system as a vehicle of transit, say a car that takes you to where you want to go. Now think Smart Car. Now think driverless Smart Car where you simply sit inside and tell Siri, or James, or Hobnob where to take you. This is the model of modern operating systems, especially those for tablets, such as iOS from Apple and Android from everyone else except Microsoft. They are attempts to make your trip devoid of challenges or problems and both Windows 10 and MacOS try to do this, not entirely successfully. The design goal of user friendliness and ease of use is good, but it’s only one way of looking at operating systems. The problem with this model is that some of us like to do our own driving, and we like a standard gear shift so we can control the ride ourselves. If you’re like this, then there some things about Linux that might appeal to you.

The standard way to introduce Linux is to say something like “Linux, or GNU/Linux as it’s sometimes known, is a multiuser, multitasking operating system that runs on a broad variety of Intel and AMD processors.” That’s a mouthful and it doesn’t do much to tell you what Linux is. So, think DOS, or if you back go far enough, CP/M. You got around and did work by typing commands directly into your computer. Before Windows (and Mac and OS/2) that’s how you communicated with your computer and launched programs. Like driving a stick shift.

Now, lest I misrepresent it, Linux too has a graphical, windowed interface — several of them to choose from actually — and they’re very nice and modern and you can set up a Linux computer for a non-techie and they can work it just fine that way. I use it that way myself most of the time. But the real draw of Linux lies under the hood, or behind the command line prompt, which is usually a plain, little dollar sign: $. From here you can do just about anything, including driving yourself into a brick wall at high speed, if you’re not careful. But then, you’re a careful driver, right? And behind that dollar sign lies a computer techie’s dream.

So what’s so special about Linux, then? Two things: it’s based on Unix, and it’s free.

Unix

Linux derives, ultimately, from Unix, an operating system that emerged from the Bell Labs in New Jersey and launched on January 1, 19701. Unix pioneered many of the modern operating system concepts, like hierarchical directories, utilities that did one thing, and one thing well, and a way to string the utilities together using pipes and redirection. You may remember DOS commands such as mkdir for “make a directory” (today most people call them “folders”) and cd for “change directory.” These commands were “borrowed” from Unix but were a pale imitation of the real deal.

Furthermore, Unix was the proving ground for the mouse, the graphical interface (before the Macintosh), and before that, and more importantly, the Internet. Email was invented and standardized in Unix, as was the TCP/IP network protocol that the Internet runs on. The Web was invented on Unix too. To put it mildly, Unix has been a foundational technology in the history of computing. The problem with Unix was that it only ran on mainframes and minicomputers, as shared multiuser systems. The techie’s dream was to have a personal Unix that could run on an inexpensive Intel and AMD PCs. But Unix required expensive licensing and was not built for the Intel architecture.

FSF, GNU, and BSD

There were three or four projects that were begun in the hopes of creating a free Unix workalike, free from licensing fees, and free from corporate rule. An influential programmer, Richard Stallman, set up a project to recreate all the Unix utilities with no reference to the original source code so it could be used and legally distributed for free. He called it the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and later, GNU (GNU’s not Unix — a recursive acronym). GNU was delaying building a kernel (or auto engine) for the last piece of work.

Meanwhile another group was striving to release a BSD (Berkeley Systems Division) Unix derivative using both the GNU and the Berkeley utilities to create a Unix-like OS for the Intel 386 processor. They actually did a smashing job at this, but ran into a licensing dispute with the University of California, Berkeley, about free distribution. FreeBSD, as it came to be called, was, and still is, an excellent Unix-like OS and if they hadn’t been forced to hold back until the dispute was settled, I might now be advocating FreeBSD instead of Linux. Unfortunately, it missed its prime window of opportunity. Nonetheless, there are a lot of web sites today running on FreeBSD which is admired for its dependability and stability.

Linux

But fate intervened, and a young computer science student in Helsinki, Finland — Linus Torvalds — took another project called MINIX (an experimental Unix-like OS for the Intel 286) and started rewriting the kernel to work on the 386, the first genuinely 32-bit CPU from Intel. To say the least, he succeeded, then he and his colleagues around the world added the GNU Unix utilities and his friends dubbed the package “Linux” in his honour. Linus is still the head of Linux kernel development, though he now does it from sunny Silicon Valley.

The early days of Linux were typified mostly by character-based consoles, like logging in to a PDP-11 Unix computer except right on your own PC. There were several “Linux distributions” (flavours) like Slackware (still available), Debian (still available and the progenitor of all the Ubuntu distributions), Red Hat (before it went commercial), Caldera (no longer with us), and SUSE (still popular in Europe). In addition the “little Linuxes” began to appear—distributions like Damned Small Linux that ran on minimal or even embedded systems.

As Intel processors became faster and more powerful, Linux added windowing interfaces based on another free project, the X Window Consortium. From this sprang most of the modern Linux graphical interfaces that have names like Gnome3, Mate, Cinnamon, KDE, IceWM — there are literally a few dozen graphical interfaces to choose from, some of which are designed to run on minimal (e.g., old) hardware.

Because it was developed for the PC, Linux quickly acquired device drivers for most of the peripherals of the day: network cards, printers, faxes, external hard disks, scanners, mice, trackpads, speakers, and, more recently, Bluetooth and WiFi adapters. In other words Linux had all the joy of Unix plus all the practicality of a personal computer. A personal Unix. What is most notable about all of this is that it is the result of programmers who cared enough to devote their free time to working on Linux drivers and other free software projects. This was the birth of what is now called the Open Source model.

ASCII (Text) Files

I think it’s fair to say that no other operating system uses ASCII2, or text, files to the extent that Linux/Unix does. Perhaps you remember the early days of DOS and Windows when you might have an autoexec.bat and a config.sys file in your boot directory to customize your system for your use when you started your PC. And when Windows programs frequently had a corresponding .ini text initialization file to create a profile for how a Windows program should start and run.

This is the Unix style, and Linux is set up with all manner of text files that instruct the system how to boot and what to run when it does. And many programs, such as the vi or emacs editors have startup files that are “hidden” files with names like .vimrc or .emacs. The dot at the beginning of the file name makes them invisible unless you invoke a list command that displays them, e.g. ls -a.

The beauty of ASCII files is that they are easily readable, easily edited, and, perhaps as importantly, easily searched. Linux/Unix has excellent, time-honoured facilities for searching text files either for file name or contents. Linux editors abound, from the traditional vi and emacs editors to simple editors like nano or writing-oriented editors like Focus Writer. There’s an editor for any style or personality. Many are oriented to programming, with syntax colouring and parenthesis, brace, and bracket matching to assist programmers, but there are authors who use these editors for writing articles and books. The SF author Neal Stephenson, for instance, mentioned in an interview that he uses Emacs on Linux for all his writing and I believe I’ve heard that Cory Doctorow uses Emacs as well.

Linux currently sports a sophisticated office suite called Libre Office (also available for Windows and Mac), but the true heart of Linux lies in its text files. For things like advanced formatting of print material, PDFs, or ebooks, the traditional Unix approach has been to put instructions on what to do right inside the text file, totally visible with nothing hidden. Think permanent Reveal Codes if you recall WordPerfect 5 for DOS. This is called a markup scheme, and is used for traditional typesetting programs such as troff or LaTeX. This has also led to the development of a simple writer’s markup scheme called Markdown and is the scheme I use for all my writing, including this essay3.

When your files are text files, some things become much easy to do in Linux. For instance, to keep my essay writing in some semblance of order, I internally title my essays as Essay001.md, Essay002.md, Essay003.md, etc. (.md for Markdown) and to see what they’re about I know that each essay has a title line as its first line. To get a snapshot of my work I can use the Linux utility head that shows only the first x lines of a file, 10 by default. (There is a corresponding tail command.) I only need one line, so my command in my Essay directory is:

$ head -1 Essay*.md

Which produces:

==> Essay001.md <== 
# Paradoxes and Temporal Displacement

==> Essay002.md <== 
# Flowers from Algernon

==> Essay003.md <== 
# Where's Walden?

==> Essay004.md <== 
# A Musical Interlude

==> Essay005.md <== 
# Whatever Happened to Ecology?

==> Essay006.md <== 
# Of Melancholy I Sing

[etc.]

Slick, no? It’s a trivial example of what you can do from the command line, but it illustrates the principle of Linux tool use. It starts out with, hey, I’ve got a problem to solve. How do I see the first line of all my essay files? Then I think about what tools are available. Well, head should be able to do that and a quick check on the manual (man) page tells me how to limit the display to one line. This is a form of computing, using the tools for something you want to solve.

There’s much more I could do with my essay files from the command line. Using sed (stream editor) I could make global changes to all the files with one command, say substituting the word real for actual, for example, or removing the spaces around em-dashes. If I were a novelist, I could change a character’s name globally if I decided to rename a character after several chapters into the work. There is nearly always a solution, often more than one, to solve a problem. Of course you need to know what the tools can do before you will think of using them, but that comes with the territory of learning the environment, and if you’re technically inclined, it’ a fun study.

Development Tools

Linux is also the home of server applications, such as Postfix for an email server, Apache or Nginx for a web server, not to mention database servers, repository servers, FTP servers, firewalls, and the like. You can create a test website on a Linux box then test it from other PCs and tablets on your home network before committing your work to a live, external web server. Want to work with a content server like WordPress? You can set this up to work in your Apache web server and get to know it and its plugins and do your testing locally rather than risk fiddling with a live website. Linux is a web developer’s friend.

But the jewels in the crown are the programming environments Linux provides, from the amazingly able Bash shell and interpreted scripting languages such as Perl and Python all of which are normally a part of every distribution. To that you can easily add C, C++, Java, LISP, Haskell, and any of a few dozen specialty languages. Naturally this might not appeal to a casual user, but think kids. The more exposure to Linux and its programming environments they get, the more prepared they will be to pursue technical training and study.

Scalable Knowledge

One of the side benefits to learning Linux is that you can log into just about any Unix or Unix-like computer on the planet and feel at home with the environment. This includes machines as tiny as a Raspberry Pi that might be used in a robotic installation, or a supercomputer cluster at a research centre. A survey in 2017 indicated that the top 15 supercomputers in the world were all Linux clusters. Most of the Cloud is based on Linux as well. You can switch easily between your personal Linux PC and a remote console for a Linux system located in Amazon Web Services (AWS) or another cloud provider.

And if you should end up working in the financial sector, as I did for a few years, you’re already right at home in IBM AIX, HP/UX, and Solaris systems that might be operating as Oracle servers. In other words, Linux knowledge is extensible and scalable — you only need to learn the basics once and you’re set for life. Command-line knowledge is stable and enduring.

Rescuing Old PCs

Most of us enjoy using the latest and fastest computers we can acquire and, in an age of graphical programs and the increased demand they make on resources, fast and powerful is good. However, in a text oriented environment, say writing, you don’t really need all that speed and power. The world is full of abandoned PCs and laptops that have quite a bit of life in them if turned into Linux machines.

For instance, I rescued a Dell Mini system with an Atom processor this year. It only has 1GB of memory and a slow HD, but it’s a nice little portable unit for a writer, and a great system for a kid to learn Python on. While most of the major distributions of Linux run best on fast gear, there are distributions created specifically for machines with fewer resources. On the Dell Mini I installed Xubuntu, a stripped-down, lightweight version of the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution. The Mini runs surprisingly well on it. Another friend had a low-resource laptop that was totally swamped by Windows 10, so I installed Lubuntu on it, an even lighter version of Ubuntu and it fuctions well as a browser for the Internet and it runs Libre Office well enough for occasional use.

Even if you’re not a writer, you can use a rescue PC to serve as a music and multimedia server for the house. Or, of course, a development web server. Or just as a machine for learning about computing, from the command line up.

Modern Applications

What I’ve sketched out here in very brief detail is the use of Linux as a traditional Unix box, with command-line richness and tools galore. For a tech-savvy person, this aspect of Linux is like owning a filled treasure chest. But there are also many modern, graphical open-source programs, or applications, available, from sound recording to animation to photo editing. They’re often not quite as slick as the commercial programs available for Mac or Windows, but they’re free of cost and you’re free (that is, it’s legal) to share them with others. These applications tend to be very good, with constant updates and improvements. Above all, Linux gives you choices. If you don’t want to pay Adobe $10US a month to use the current versions of Photoshop and Lightroom, you can use the free Gimp or Darktable apps that provide at least 80% of the same functionality, if not more.

Here’s maybe a surprise. If you’re not an Apple or Windows camp follower, you may already be using Linux without even realizing it. The Android operating system for smartphones and tablets is a Linux variant. If you have a Roku or similar device, it’s probably running Linux under the hood. The same goes for your router. Embedded Linux is widely used in commercial products. Linux may be used in your fridge, your car, or your TV set.

So let me conclude by saying that there are many reasons for wanting to use Linux, though I’ll be the first to admit it’s a best fit for people with a technical bent. If you’re so inclined, you’ll find it puts the computing back into computing. And I’m just geeky enough to think that it’s way more fun than Windows or even MacOS4. And did I mention? It’s free.


  1. uppercase UNIX is a trademark name. The computer industry usually uses the spelling Unix to include both UNIX and all UNIX-workalike operating systems such as HP/UX, Solaris, AIX, FreeBSD, Linux, etc.
  2. ASCII is short for American Standard Code for Information Interchange. Today it’s more accurate to say UTF8 as part of Unicode encoding but it doesn’t come as trippingly on the tongue.
  3. If you’d like to know more about using Markdown, I have written a free small e-monograph on the subject called Markdown for Writers.
  4. Technically, MacOS is a BSD Unix derivative OS but has been modified in untraditional ways by Apple. It’s still a Unix system at the command prompt, but is never as up to date on utilities as Linux or FreeBSD.