Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Sometimes you find home where you’ve never been—and you dwell where you aren’t.  §

Last year our refrigerator failed over the course of several long months.

At first it wasn’t clear that this was happening; things seemed ever-so-slightly undercooled, but this is a house with kids in it. There are a lot of fridge openings-and-closings, and we were in a warmish part of the year. It seemed like “tell the kids to close the fridge” territory.

Eventually, however, it started to become clear that we couldn’t actually keep anything frozen any longer. Anything from the freezer section at the grocery store was destined to melt before it could be used. First, we had a few days from purchase until melt. Then, we had a day from purchase until melt.

Then, at some point, there was no freezer. And then, at some point after that, the freezer became the place where we put the lettuce and the drinks, because if we didn’t put them in the freezer, they wouldn’t actually stay any cooler than room temperature.

It was at this point that I started buying and replacing parts, which I did for about a month. Nothing helped. The coils would get cold and freeze up, but it wouldn’t actually cool the interior. I replaced all sorts of things—fans and sensors and thermistors and relays and heaters and so on.

Then, needing the ability to actually preserve food, I gave up. We hit the local classifieds and scored a rather nice fridge for a decent price. The old fridge went to the driveway, where it stayed.

For a long time.

— § —

Also something like a year ago, maybe a touch longer, I spent a couple of days installing Fedora 25 on my Macbook Pro.

It had been years since I’d maintained a Linux installation. The last was probably in 2010, shortly after switching to Mac OS.

Now this was not a small switch for me. I was an early Linux adopter, having come from the world of Unix, and before that, from OS-9. Modular, multiuser, file-as-input-output operating systems were second nature to me always, from the very beginning. I was not weaned on the desktop metaphor, and it was always foreign to me, so in 1993 it was only natural that when Linux became a viable operating system in its own right, and a free one at that, that I’d end up using it.

And for sixteen years I did. I wrote six books and thousands of articles about Linux. I spoke publicly about it. I helped organizations transition to it. I helped individuals to adopt it. I evangelized. I coded. I knew it inside and out.

And, in 2009, I was tired of it.

Mobile computing was happening, desktop Linux had failed due to the general incompatibility between the social model of OSS and the stable ABI, API, and UI/UX needs of commercial developers. More importantly, what did exist of desktop Linux seemed to be coming apart at the seams, with KDE and GNOME, the two major Linux desktop environments, throwing basically their entire codebases out and starting again from scratch—on environments, in KDE 4 and GNOME 3, that I found to be unusable.

At least quarterly, running a series of updates via the system package manager ended up breaking my personal system entirely, and I’d spend the better part of a day Googling, searching through (and let’s face it, often for) manual pages for ever-changing infrastructure to figure out how to restore boot, graphics, networking, suspend and resume, audio, and other things.

It was endless work to keep a Linux desktop running and updated, the desktop itself was regressing badly in user experience terms, and the payoff for all of that was not being able to watch online video from any major provider and not being able to buy hardware or software from any major manufacturer.

I’d had enough. I tried out Mac OS. Within a month, I switched to Mac OS and spent hundreds on commodity hardware and software in a kind of orgy. I could finally buy real stuff for my computer and expect it to work as advertised. And by god, I was going to do it.

After all those years on Linux, all that time in the public eye, all those words written, in the space of a few short weeks Mac OS became my home and Linux was written out of my life entirely.

Until last year sometime just before the fridge episode began, when I decided that it might be amusing to have a Linux installation around again. More to the point, I just wanted to see the state of things. So I set out to adjust the partitioning on my Macbook Pro and install Fedora 25.

— § —

But I was also telling a fridge story.

As of last week it had been the better part of a year with a fridge sitting on my driveway, and I was getting tired of seeing it there. And I had a play date coming up with parents who probably wouldn’t appreciate bringing their kids to the sort of household that allows an accumulation of broken major appliances to build up in front of the house.

So I finally got my stuff together and rented a U-Haul to clear out a whole bunch of things that had begun to accumulate on the driveway and on the patio—fridge, replaced wall-to-wall carpets, broken furniture, and so on.

Yes, this is what had accumulated on the driveway and on the patio. Let’s not get into that discussion just now.

Anyway—I spent all of last Saturday stuffing this U-Haul truck full of every last bit of old stuff, yard stuff, household waste, and whatever else I could fit into it, to do my own run to the dump. Yes, that is something that frequently happens in this area.

No, I did not make a recycle pile. Let’s not get into that discussion just now.

After loading the truck to the gills, I punched up the local dump transfer station on my phone (I’d forgotten where it was located) and, after 10 minutes driving in circles as Google Maps tried to unfuck itself and its directions, I was finally on my way in a coherent direction.

The route took me along a back road that I was only vaguely aware existed and had only ever driven on maybe once before.

And as I drove, I passed—on the east side of the road—what at first glance looked like an undeveloped wooded area inaccessible to passers-by, but at second glance appeared to actually be a small, off-the-beaten path park, dense with trees, complete with pond, crossed by a river, full of ducks and geese, and devoid of people or cars by virtue of being set back from the road, in a little valley, nearly invisible unless you are looking for it.

— § —

If you’re anything like me, there are places in your mind that you inhabit without ever having been to them. I don’t mean “places” like “the dark place” and “the happy place,” but rather physical, geographical places.

Stretches of beachfront, urban boros, back country roads and bergs that you visit over and over and over again not because you’ve been to them in real life but in fact because you haven’t and for various reasons can’t, the largest of these reasons generally being that you can’t afford, economically, to arrange your life in such a way as to arrive for a while and spend time anywhere other than where you already are, the smallest of these reasons generally being the fact that they don’t actually exist anyway and are conceptual metonymies of all the places in the world that are immensely lovely and that you’ll never visit or live in anyway.

And if you’re like me, you’ll also know that every now and then—on incredibly rare, precious occasions—you’ll spot a place in passing that freezes you in your tracks, that paralyzes you with a kind of transcendental humming—because the place that you’ve spotted is in fact a place that you’ve previously inhabited in your mind, without any previous or possible reference to its actuality.

This little park was such a place. And as soon as I saw it, I knew I had to visit it at the first opportunity—and take the kids there with me.

— § —

It took me the better part of two days to install Fedora 25. It wasn’t at all easy, and a great deal of Googling, reading, and console hacking was required just to get visuals on boot. I had to write a bunch of bytes to a few registers to get the Macbook Pro to select the right GPU and turn off kernel modesetting and so on.

Finally, though, I managed to get the distribution installed and a boot manager in place and a working desktop up.

I tried the current versions of KDE and GNOME and couldn’t decide between them—they’re both equally bad—so I left them both in place.

As is typical for Linux, lots of things only half work. In particular, CPU and GPU clock and thermal management don’t work, so the machine runs hot as hell while in Linux, something that makes you wince with every passing moment when it’s happening on an expensive Macbook Pro. Audio is iffy, trackpad support is, too (even with the acceleration multiplier set at zero, pointer movement is so rapid and drastic as to make the desktop almost impossible to use), and everything just feels haphazard after years on Mac OS.

But more than half a decade of zero Linux, I could tell myself that I at least hadn’t lost touch with the system in its evolution and with the skills and experience I’d nurtured for so many years. I was able to solve a bunch of problems, bang on a bunch of dotfiles and bits of hardware interfaces, and get a system up and running.

But truth be told, I had no idea what else to do with it. I played with it for a couple of days and then I basically never booted into it again. I left it there on my SSD to take up space and act as an invisible monument to the life I once led.

— § —

The kids have had fevers this weekend, but I was not about to allow these fevers to prevent me from visiting my park. Yes, “my.” As in, I’d been there so many times I felt as though it was like a second home to me, even though I’d never been there before.

So at about 2:00 in the afternoon, I loaded the kids into the car along with the younger of the dogs and told them that we were going to a new park I’d discovered.

I didn’ t try to explain to them that the place was already special to me and that I’d inhabited it in my dreams for years, spent many a troubled afternoon leaning back in an office chair doing the exhausted surrender cobra, eyes closed, while strolling along the banks of the little pond in its middle. Metaphysics and sentimentality are lost on five- and seven-year olds, and that’s for the best. We have to grant them at least a little innocence, for at least a little while.

We arrived and I realized that I could see no driveway and no parking lot; it was unclear where to position cars for a visit to this park, so we parked on the side of the road, crossed over, and stumbled down and into a grove of trees (the park sits perhaps 20-30 feet lower than road height, and one has to descend a hill and walk through a kind of forested area to enter).

Then, we played.

Between the trees that we walked through as we entered, fallen leaves lay three to four feet deep in every direction, and the rustling that they made as the kids and the dog played in them, bounded through them, and swam beneath them mixed with the sounds of moving water, gabbing ducks, and complaining geese just a little off to the east.

Sunlight split itself into trunk-shaped stripes, making patters of bright yellow and dark shadow everywhere, as though it weren’t early afternoon but in fact near evening.

The kids ran through flocks of trundling birds, laughing at the purity of the moment as the birds grudgingly hop-hopped forward, then flew away en-masse in a swirling storm of wings and complaints. Molly, the younger of our dogs, was beside herself with fascination and dog-joy.

We walked around the edge of the pond, played on a leaf-scattered wooden bridge stretching over a shallow river, dug with sticks, climbed trees.

It was a pure moment for me, too. Though this won’t make sense to anyone who hasn’t lived something similar, it was not unlike arriving in New York for the first time.

Anyone who doesn’t think it possible to come home to a place you’ve never been before has missed one of life’s great joys and deep secrets.

— § —

I’m writing this in Linux tonight.

For no particular reason, at 2:00 in the morning as I felt the urge to write, I also felt the urge to boot into Linux first. So here I am, laying on the living room floor, the kids having a “living room camp-out” beside me, fire burning in the fireplace, Macbook Pro overheating under the weight of the general project-flow incompetence of the OSS community.

I’m surprised I’ve managed to get this far, actually. As seems to be par for the course in Linux, there had been dry rot for no reason I can fathom since I last booted. Scrolling in GNOME 3 stopped working since my last visit, so it’s annoying to try to start apps, given that doing it via GUI generally requires being able to scroll through the app grid. In KDE, the window manager failed to start, chucking out a bunch of errors about bad drawables. I Googled it, set some environment variable or other, restarted the window manager from the console, and all—well, most—was well.

Apart from the fact that applications keep punting on me and I keep getting notifications on the lower right that such-and-such has encountered an error, etc., just after a window disappears on me for no particular reason.

But this window hasn’t yet punted on me, though I can’t actually try save my work or it will (learned that the hard way). And I’m nearly done typing.

In another window, running Konsole, I have over 1,000 packages downloaded and sitting there waiting to be upgraded after starting a dnf distribution sync.

So in short, I’ve logged in after a year to run the updates. Must mean something. Heidegger talked about dwelling being about building and maintaining, as against (in a way) entropy, though he didn’t use that term.

I take this to mean that in some way I still dwell, at least a little bit, in Linux, too, an environment that I spend virtually no time in and haven’t done for something that increasingly approaches a decade.

What’s it like to be back?

Hard to say. I suppose it’s like going back to your college campus and old department building years after you earned your degree. It all seems familiar, yet also quaint somehow. It’s both yours and not yours, as though you both belong and don’t belong all at once.

And you notice a kind of shabbiness that is by turns cozy and sad, and you wonder whether it was always that way. Did you simply not notice because you were young and enthusiastic and dazzled by the university experience, or has time taken its toll in your absence?

Entropy, after all, is a fierce and unwavering—even if often subterranean—force.

In any case, I prefer the font handling and screen real estate strategies of Linux. I like the way in which it feels generally snappier and somehow “deeper,” as though there are nearly infinite stores of power and resources somewhere below the surface—something that I never feel in Mac OS.

Yes, it’s familiar. In some odd ways, here I sit typing and looking at Plasma and it’s as though I never left.

Well, except for the oven-hot air shooting out the back of my poor, ailing Macbook Pro.

— § —

Inhabiting and dwelling are such forgotten, unappreciated things.

I mean, they’re the substrate, the fundamental medium of life, at least for me. They color and inform everything; they are the stuff that each of the five senses and memory itself are made of.

I don’t think about them nearly enough, even though I sometimes think I think about them far too much.

Maybe what that means is that I think about them entirely in the wrong way when I do manage to think about them. Maybe “thinking” rather than “dwelling” is the problem in the first instance.

In any case, I’ve now done my first “actual work” in Linux since 2009. I suppose I’ll nurse it all along and come back and do a bit more in another eight or nine years.

Meanwhile, the driveway is now spotless and clean and it feels uncanny every time I drive back up it toward the house. Where is all the stuff? Who has taken my clutter and room-temperature icebox and replaced them with a scene from the suburbs?

As for the park, I’ve promised the kids that we can go back tomorrow.