Ubuntu should zig to Apple’s zag

It’s another October and that means it’s time for another Ubuntu release. Before I say anything, I want to make it clear that I have the utmost respect for Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical and the Ubuntu project in general. I think they’ve done wonderful things for the Linux ecosystem as a whole. However, today I’m siding with Eric Raymond: I have deep misgivings about the direction Ubuntu is going, especially in terms of user interface.

I’m not a UI or UX designer. I’m sure there are people at Canonical who have been studying these areas for longer than I have. But I am a daily Linux user. In fact I would say that I’m a power user. I’m no neckbeard, but I think that by now I have a fair grasp of the Unix philosophy and try to follow it (my love for Emacs notwithstanding). The longer I see Ubuntu’s development the more it seems that they are shunning the Unix philosophy in the name of “user friendliness” and “zero configuration”. And they’re doing it wrong. I think that’s absolutely the wrong way to go.

It seems that Canonical is trying very hard to be Apple while not being a total ripoff. Apple is certainly a worthy competitor (and a great source to copy from) but this is a game that Ubuntu is not going to win. The thing is, you can’t be Apple. That game has been played, that ship has sailed. Apple pretty much has the market cornered when it comes to nice shiny things that just work for most people irrespective of prior computer usage. Unless somehow Canonical sprouts an entire ecosystem of products overnight they are not going to wrest that territory from Apple.

That’s not to say that Canonical shouldn’t be innovating and building good-looking interfaces. But they should play to the strengths of both Linux the system and Linux the user community instead of fighting them. Linux users are power users. In fact I think Linux has a tendency to encourage average computer users to become power users once they spend some time with it. I would love to see Ubuntu start catering to power users instead of shooing them away.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Apple does not place its developers above its customers. That’s a fine decision for them to make. It’s their business and their products and they can do whatever they like. However as a programmer and hacker I am afraid. I’m scared that we’re getting to the point where I won’t be able to install software of my choosing without Apple standing in the way. I’m not talking about just stuff like games and expensive proprietary apps, but even basic programming tools and system utilities. That’s not something that I’m prepared to accept.

Given the growing lockdown of Apple’s systems, Canoncial should be pouring resources into making Ubuntu the best damn development environment on the planet. That means that all the basics work without me tinkering with drivers and configurations (something they’ve largely accomplished). It means that there’s a large pool of ready-to-install software (which also they have) and that it’s possible (and easy) to install esoteric third-party tools and libraries. Luckily the Unix heritage means that the system is designed to allow this. Instead of trying to sugar coat and “simplify” everything there should be carefully thought-out defaults that I can easily override and customize. Programmability and flexibility grounded in well-tuned defaults should be the Ubuntu signature.

It makes even more sense for Canonical to take this angle because Apple seems to be actively abandoning it. A generation of hackers may have started with BASIC on Apple IIs, but getting a C compiler on a modern Mac is a 4GB XCode download. Ubuntu can easily ship with a default arsenal of programming tools. Last I checked the default install already includes Python. Ubuntu can be the hands-down, no-questions-asked platform of choice for today’s pros and tomorrow’s curious novices. Instead of a candy-coated, opaquely-configured Unity, give me a sleek fully programmable interface. Give me a scripting language for the GUI with first-class hooks into the environment. Made it dead simple for people to script their experience. Encourage and give them a helping hand. Hell, gamify it if you can. Apple changed the world by showing a generation the value of good, clean design. Canonical can change the world by showing the value of flexibility, programmability and freedom.

Dear Canonical, I want you to succeed, I really do. I don’t want Apple to be the only competent player in town. But I need an environment that I can bend to my will instead of having everything hidden behind bling and “simplification”. I know that being a great programming environment is at the heart of Linux. I know that you have the people and the resources to advance the state of computing for all of us. So please zig to Apple’s zag.

PS. Perhaps Ubuntu can make a dent in the tablet and netbook market, if that’s their game. But the netbook market is already dying and let’s be honest, there’s an iPad market, not a tablet market. And even if that market does open up, Android has a head start and Amazon has far greater visibility. But Ubuntu has already gone where no Linux distro has gone before. For most people I know it’s the distribution they reflexively reach for. That developer-friendliness and trust is something they should be actively leveraging.

Is programming a creative pursuit?

It’s becoming clear that we, as a society, are placing a larger and larger emphasis on innovation and creativity while at the same time bemoaning the lack thereof. There are some activities that we instantly recognize as creative pursuits: painting, music, writing, theatre. And also more modern ones: graphics, web design, info graphics and industrial design, font design and lettering. But when it comes to modern acitivities and professions one of the elephants in the room is programming. The question that’s been on my mind: is programming a creative pursuit?

Programming is problem-solving. It’s about coming up with ways to do things that couldn’t be done before (or at least doing them better). But that’s just the beginning. Once you figure out a way to solve the problem you then create something – a program – that embodies your solution. The program is what goes ahead and solves the problem, hopefully correctly and repeatedly. A program that only works once isn’t very useful. If you’re not creating anything, then you’re not a programmer.

That being said, I think there are some significant differences with typical creative work that needs to be made clear. For one thing, there’s lot less waiting around for inspiration to hit. There isn’t anything really analogous to writer’s block – once you have a problem to chew on you can get going. That’s not to say that you can’t get stuck or that it’s smooth sailing. Far from it, your typical programmer is pretty experienced in applying head to desk. When you don’t have a definite problem to solve it’s a different matter. Luckily there’s lots of interesting software that needs building and problems that need solving. To get out of the rut you just need to do a little Googling (or keep a little stash of side projects to hack on).

Perhaps one criticism of programming as a creative endeavor is that the products aren’t instantly identifiable as creative works. Perhaps if you spent a lot of time crafting GUIs you can make some comparison to the visual arts. If you’re writing server software or building programming languages the end results are far more abstract and invisible. But I’d make the argument that a programmer produces a work of art in the same way that a novelist or a poet does. Understanding that art requires the use of some more mental faculties — understanding symbols, structures, mathematics, semantics and their inter-relation. The process is perhaps harder than looking at a painting. But the payoff to the observer is no less than listening to, and appreciating a piece of music.

All that being said, one of the coolest things about programming is that you can use your programs to produce obvious art work, or write programs that will create art for you. As I’ve been exploring programming and computer science I’ve been thinking of programming as a medium for expression in the same way that music or art is a medium for expression. But more on that later.

Programming has some of the other hallmarks of other creative pursuits. You need lots of practice to get any good. When it’s time to actually create you need to isolate and separate yourself from the rest of the world or you just keep getting distracted. I think there’s an image of programming being dry and interesting only if you’re already into it while the classic creative arts are supposedly fun and energizing. I would argue that’s an unfortunate by-product of our social evolution. If you consider a creative person (or want to become one) I would say give programming a try. There are lots of ways to get started. Though the learning curve is certainly steep (and probably steeper than it needs to be) it’s probably not that much harder than learning to draw or play the violin.

UPDATE: Thanks to Jason Yosinski for pointing me to Hackers and Painters – a far more detailed essay on similar considerations by a far wiser person. Learn from the masters.

Moving to org2blog for publishing posts

For most of the last few years I’ve been using the WordPress online editor for writing posts. Part of this was because I moved between computers a lot and wanted to be able to get at my posts and drafts from wherever I was. But since I’m now using one machine for most of my writing (and all of my blogging) I’ve been able to finally move to centralizing all my writing under Emacs. Luckily I found a great Emacs mode that makes posting to WordPress a snap. org2blog is made to be used with org-mode files but by and large you can ignore the org-mode part (if you want to).

Org-mode is a helpful plain text mode for organizing notes, todos, agendas and even writing in general. I use it for taking notes about academic papers and meetings I go to. org2blog mainly uses the plain-text org format for setting up the metadata for the post — title, date, tags etc. But org-mode also makes inserting links easy and I’m much faster writing with all my Emacs editing shortcuts than I am in a text box in a browser. Org2blog then posts the org-file as draft (or published post) with a single command. I personally just save as drafts and then look at the preview before hitting publish. By writing in org-mode on a single I can also keep local backups of all my posts. Currently each post is just saved to a ByteBaker folder as a separate plain text file but I might put it all under version control at some point.

I have been toying with the idea of moving this blog off WordPress to a more home-brewed setup, but I haven’t been able to justify the time and effort it would take. Might be a winter project to get through the upstate New York winters. Personally as long as I have a trustable backup of all my code and add new things easily I’m fairly ambivalent about how the HTML actually gets generated and presented (especially if it’s done by open source software made by people I like). For the time being I’d rather invest in writing the blog than hacking it.