My love affair with computers and computer science started before entering high school. During seventh grade, I used to pack my lunch twice a week, and take the bus after school to Tel-Aviv university. There I got acquainted with a whole new world, involving programming languages, punch cards, and room-filling humming machines called computers. Those monstrosities could do amazing things if you patiently feed those punch cards to them, one by one, and wait, and wait…Unless of course there was a syntax error, I became sort of an expert on those.
My love affair with computers and computer science ended in college, after one semester as a computer science major. I still think that the ideas behind theoretical computer science are some of the deepest I was ever exposed to, and discrete mathematics continues to be my paradigm for a grab bag full of pleasingly clever tricks. But, the thing I took most from that semester is the following insight: the only thing more mind-numbingly dull than writing code is debugging code. Any profession that would involve large dose of those pleasures will seriously compromise my ability to hold on to my sanity, not to mention my pleasant demeanor and good manners.
The next step in my love/hate relationship with computers, like most other scientists, involves years of ugly (erm.. I mean “functional”) Unix machines of various kinds. Those come with their own sub-culture, including the hacker next door (who remembers where to put all the spaces and dashes in hundreds of Unix commands), the condescending tech “assistant” (who just cannot understand how the answer “755″, to my question regarding file permissions, is not a sufficient explanation), and finally the clueless user, repeatedly getting locked out of the security fortress that is his own private computer. Needless to say, that last character would be me.
The thing is, to me managing a Unix machine is a lot like coding and debugging, a continuous process of learning and improving your mastery of a set of increasingly arbitrary and breathtakingly boring tasks. After using the system for a while, your mind fills with useless information, like for example all the details in this short and clear explanation I googled on how to change file permissions in Unix. For me, reading past the first sentence requires very strong will and determination, which I freely admit I don’t always posses.
On the other hand, all this was going on while I was in the process of learning some of the most amazing ideas in late 20th century physics, while being able to discuss them with an equally impressive set of people. You only get this privilege for a limited time, so I made the conscious and (I still think) correct decision to be a passive and uninformed user of my computer. Let the tech assistants figure out all the fascinating mysteries of the complicated beast that is the Unix (or any other) operating system, I have better things to do with my time.
Things turned around with my first Windows machine, a shiny new laptop equipped with Windows 2000, which I got as a new faculty at UBC. I found that the computer assistants at UBC, pleasant and competent people all around, were not really in the business of managing my computer for me. On the other hand, I also found that I didn’t really need their help. For example, if you so choose, you change user permission on a file by right clicking and editing its properties, it was a genuine pleasure then to say goodbye to “chmod” and all its friends.
When customizing your environment is that easy, it is natural to do more of it, but I never really become a tweaker. Even in Windows environment, there are many ways to control the guts of you computer, but I always found that practice pointless. I’d set up my computer and its software, and let it do its job for me, while concentrating on the million other jobs I am paid to do, and actually enjoy doing. I was a happy customer.
That is, until Windows Vista came and changed everything. I could talk at length about the frustrating experience of having to become that tweaker and problem solver that I had no desire becoming. Suffice to say, after almost a couple of years of trying to fight it, including such low points as catching myself editing the registry, I finally declared defeat. So, I am switching to the only viable alternative, the other evil empire (or cult, if you wish). Legend has it that one can i-walk on i-water using one of those shiny objects, we shall see. I’d be happy if it just works on some minimal level.
So, consider this an open thread: give me advice, what software should I use, how can I get my windows-based software and peripherals to work, what are the hidden pleasures and the pitfalls of being an Apple cult member, and most of all – how can I quickly and efficiently become the (mostly) passive user I’d like to be once again.