Mac OS 10.7 is out today, and I don’t care because “In the Beginning was the Command Line”

A few days ago, I was reading Neal Stephenson’s incredible essay “In the Beginning was the Command Line,” which you can download for free at the link. His work can’t really be summarized because the metaphors he develops are too potent and elaborate to flatten into a single line that describes what he does with them; by the time you finish summarizing, you might as well recreate the whole thing. Despite the folly in attempting summarization, I want to note that he’s cottoned on to the major cultural differences between Windows, Macs, and Unixes like Linux, and by the time you’re done you with his essay realize the fundamental divide in the world isn’t between right and left or religions and secular, but between contemporary “Morlocks” and “Eloi,” the former being the ones who run things and the latter being the ones who mostly consume them (you can see similar themes running through Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out and Anathem). In the meantime, visual culture has become a poorly understood but highly developed global force bathing virtually everyone in its ambiance, and that might not be such a bad thing most of the time. The last issue doesn’t have that much to do with this particular post, but if you want to understand it, and hence an aspect of the world, go read “In the Beginning was the Command Line.”

He wrote the essay in 1999, and the problem with operating systems, or “OSes” in nerd parlance, is that none of them were very good. They crashed frequently or were incredibly hard to use, especially for Eloi, or both. In the last ten years, they’ve gotten much less crashy (OS X, Windows) or much easier to use (Linux) or both, to the point where the differences to a random user who wants to write e-mails, look at YouTube videos, browse for adult material, and look at FaceBook status updates probably won’t notice the quirks of each operating system. Games are a major difference, since OS X and Windows have lots of modern games available and Linux doesn’t, but if you don’t care about games either—and I don’t—you’ll want to discount those.

Some of the major technical differentiators have shrunk: on OS X, you can now communicate with your machine using the Terminal; on mine, I’ve changed the color scheme to trendy green-on-black. Windows has a system called PowerShell, and Linux has various ways to hide the stuff underneath it. But the cultural differences remain. Windows machines still mostly come festooned with ugly stickers (“These horrible stickers are much like the intrusive ads popular on pre-Google search engines. They say to the customer: you are unimportant. We care about Intel and Microsoft, not you”) and a lot of crap-ware installed. OS X machines look like they were designed by a forward-thinking 1960s science fiction special effects person for use by the alien beings who land promising peace and prosperity but actually want to build a conduit straight into your mind and control your thoughts. Linux machines still sometimes want you to edit files in /src to get your damn wireless network working. Given the slowness of cultural change relative to technical change, it shouldn’t be surprising that many of Stephenson’s generalizations hold up even though many technical issues have changed.

This throat clearing leads to the subject of today’s much-hyped launch of Apple’s latest operating system, which is an incremental improvement to the company’s previous operating system. I’ve been using Macs since 2004. I started with an aluminum PowerBook that you can see in this appropriately messy picture. In that time, I’ve steadily upgraded from 10.3 to 10.6, but the move from 10.5 to 10.6 didn’t bring any tangible benefits to my day-to-day activities. It did, however, mess up some of the programs I used and still use regularly, which made me more gun-shy about OS updates than I have been previously. Now 10.7 is out, and you can read the best review of it here. It’s got a bunch of minor new features, most of which I won’t use and are overhyped by Apple’s ferocious marketing department, which most people call “the press.”

I’ve looked at those features and found nothing or nothing compelling. Many are aimed to laptops, but I don’t use a laptop as my primary computer or have a trackpad on my iMac, and it seems like the “gestures” that are now part of OS X, while useful, aren’t all that useful. Apple is also integrating various Internet services into the operating system, but I don’t really care about them either and don’t want to pay for iCloud. I don’t see the point for the kinds of things I do, which mostly tend towards various kind of text manipulation and some messing around with video. It’s not that I can’t afford the upgrade—Apple is only charging $30 for it. I just don’t need it and simultaneously find it annoying that Apple will only offer it through their proprietary “app store,” which means that when I need to reinstall because the hard drive dies I won’t be able to use disks to start the machine.

Still, those are all quibbles of the kind that start boring flame wars among nerds on the Internet. I’ve saved the real news for the very bottom of the page: it’s not about Apple’s OS upgrade, which, at one point, I would’ve installed on Day 1. I remember when OS X 10.4 came out, offering Spotlight, and I was blown away. Full-text search anywhere on your machine is great. It’s magical. I use it every day. Even 10.5 finally had integrated backup software. But 10.6 had a lot of developer enhancements I don’t use directly. Now, 10.7 has improved things further, but in a way that’s just not important to me. The real news is about how mature a lot of computer technology has become. By far the most useful hardware upgrade I’ve seen in the last ten years is a solid state drive (SSD), which makes boots times minimal and applications launch quickly. Even Word and Photoshop, both notorious resource hogs, launch in seconds. New OS versions used to routinely offer faster day-to-day operation as libraries were improved, but it’s not important to move from “fast enough” to “faster.” The most useful software upgrades I’ve seen were moving from the insecure early versions of Windows XP to OS X, and the move from 10.3 to 10.4. The move to 10.7 is wildly unexciting. So much so that I’m going to skip it.

If you look at the list of features in 10.7, most sound okay (like application persistence) but aren’t essential. I rather suspect I’m going to skip a lot of software and hardware upgrades in the coming years. Why bother? The new iterations of OSes aren’t likely to enable me to be able to do something substantial that I wasn’t able to do before, which, in my view, is what computers are supposed to do—like most of the things we make of buy. If you’re an economist, you could call this something like the individual production possibility curve. Installing Devonthink Pro expanded mine. Scrivener might have too. Mac Freedom definitely has, and I’m going to turn it on shortly after I post this essay. The latest operating system, though? Not so much. The latest software comes and goes, but the cultural differences—and discussions of what those differences mean—endure, even as they shrink over time.

EDIT: Somewhat relevant:

Mac OS 10.7 is out today, and I don't care because "In the Beginning was the Command Line"

A few days ago, I was reading Neal Stephenson’s incredible essay “In the Beginning was the Command Line,” which you can download for free at the link. His work can’t really be summarized because the metaphors he develops are too potent and elaborate to flatten into a single line that describes what he does with them; by the time you finish summarizing, you might as well recreate the whole thing. Despite the folly in attempting summarization, I want to note that he’s cottoned on to the major cultural differences between Windows, Macs, and Unixes like Linux, and by the time you’re done you with his essay realize the fundamental divide in the world isn’t between right and left or religions and secular, but between contemporary “Morlocks” and “Eloi,” the former being the ones who run things and the latter being the ones who mostly consume them (you can see similar themes running through Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out and Anathem). In the meantime, visual culture has become a poorly understood but highly developed global force bathing virtually everyone in its ambiance, and that might not be such a bad thing most of the time. The last issue doesn’t have that much to do with this particular post, but if you want to understand it, and hence an aspect of the world, go read “In the Beginning was the Command Line.”

He wrote the essay in 1999, and the problem with operating systems, or “OSes” in nerd parlance, is that none of them were very good. They crashed frequently or were incredibly hard to use, especially for Eloi, or both. In the last ten years, they’ve gotten much less crashy (OS X, Windows) or much easier to use (Linux) or both, to the point where the differences to a random user who wants to write e-mails, look at YouTube videos, browse for adult material, and look at FaceBook status updates probably won’t notice the quirks of each operating system. Games are a major difference, since OS X and Windows have lots of modern games available and Linux doesn’t, but if you don’t care about games either—and I don’t—you’ll want to discount those.

Some of the major technical differentiators have shrunk: on OS X, you can now communicate with your machine using the Terminal; on mine, I’ve changed the color scheme to trendy green-on-black. Windows has a system called PowerShell, and Linux has various ways to hide the stuff underneath it. But the cultural differences remain. Windows machines still mostly come festooned with ugly stickers (“These horrible stickers are much like the intrusive ads popular on pre-Google search engines. They say to the customer: you are unimportant. We care about Intel and Microsoft, not you”) and a lot of crap-ware installed. OS X machines look like they were designed by a forward-thinking 1960s science fiction special effects person for use by the alien beings who land promising peace and prosperity but actually want to build a conduit straight into your mind and control your thoughts. Linux machines still sometimes want you to edit files in /src to get your damn wireless network working. Given the slowness of cultural change relative to technical change, it shouldn’t be surprising that many of Stephenson’s generalizations hold up even though many technical issues have changed.

This throat clearing leads to the subject of today’s much-hyped launch of Apple’s latest operating system, which is an incremental improvement to the company’s previous operating system. I’ve been using Macs since 2004. I started with an aluminum PowerBook that you can see in this appropriately messy picture. In that time, I’ve steadily upgraded from 10.3 to 10.6, but the move from 10.5 to 10.6 didn’t bring any tangible benefits to my day-to-day activities. It did, however, mess up some of the programs I used and still use regularly, which made me more gun-shy about OS updates than I have been previously. Now 10.7 is out, and you can read the best review of it here. It’s got a bunch of minor new features, most of which I won’t use and are overhyped by Apple’s ferocious marketing department, which most people call “the press.”

I’ve looked at those features and found nothing or nothing compelling. Many are aimed to laptops, but I don’t use a laptop as my primary computer or have a trackpad on my iMac, and it seems like the “gestures” that are now part of OS X, while useful, aren’t all that useful. Apple is also integrating various Internet services into the operating system, but I don’t really care about them either and don’t want to pay for iCloud. I don’t see the point for the kinds of things I do, which mostly tend towards various kind of text manipulation and some messing around with video. It’s not that I can’t afford the upgrade—Apple is only charging $30 for it. I just don’t need it and simultaneously find it annoying that Apple will only offer it through their proprietary “app store,” which means that when I need to reinstall because the hard drive dies I won’t be able to use disks to start the machine.

Still, those are all quibbles of the kind that start boring flame wars among nerds on the Internet. I’ve saved the real news for the very bottom of the page: it’s not about Apple’s OS upgrade, which, at one point, I would’ve installed on Day 1. I remember when OS X 10.4 came out, offering Spotlight, and I was blown away. Full-text search anywhere on your machine is great. It’s magical. I use it every day. Even 10.5 finally had integrated backup software. But 10.6 had a lot of developer enhancements I don’t use directly. Now, 10.7 has improved things further, but in a way that’s just not important to me. The real news is about how mature a lot of computer technology has become. By far the most useful hardware upgrade I’ve seen in the last ten years is a solid state drive (SSD), which makes boots times minimal and applications launch quickly. Even Word and Photoshop, both notorious resource hogs, launch in seconds. New OS versions used to routinely offer faster day-to-day operation as libraries were improved, but it’s not important to move from “fast enough” to “faster.” The most useful software upgrades I’ve seen were moving from the insecure early versions of Windows XP to OS X, and the move from 10.3 to 10.4. The move to 10.7 is wildly unexciting. So much so that I’m going to skip it.

If you look at the list of features in 10.7, most sound okay (like application persistence) but aren’t essential. I rather suspect I’m going to skip a lot of software and hardware upgrades in the coming years. Why bother? The new iterations of OSes aren’t likely to enable me to be able to do something substantial that I wasn’t able to do before, which, in my view, is what computers are supposed to do—like most of the things we make of buy. If you’re an economist, you could call this something like the individual production possibility curve. Installing Devonthink Pro expanded mine. Scrivener might have too. Mac Freedom definitely has, and I’m going to turn it on shortly after I post this essay. The latest operating system, though? Not so much. The latest software comes and goes, but the cultural differences—and discussions of what those differences mean—endure, even as they shrink over time.

EDIT: Somewhat relevant:

The computer, operating system, or word processor a writer or novelist uses doesn’t matter much, although I still like Macs

Since around 2002, I don’t think that the computer a writer uses has mattered much for writers, chiefly because virtually all computers on the market since that time will do everything you need: conjure up a window and allow you to type as long as you humanly can. The same applies to most word processors: I can’t remember the last time I got a word processor to crash except for Microsoft Word, and even that’s a very rare event. Around the time Windows XP and Mac OS X 10.2 came out, operating system stability problems receded—in Linux, they often weren’t present in the first place—and by now both Windows XP and the more recent versions of OS X are so stable that writers barely have to think about their computers if those machines are used primarily for writing.

This post comes in response to Betsy Lerner, who recently observed that she doesn’t work for Best Buy and therefore doesn’t know if an aspiring writer should buy a netbook (as a professional writer and wannabe novelist, I have some opinions on this stuff). For those of you too lazy to click the netbook link, netbooks are small laptops that usually range from 7 to 11 inches in screen size. I’d argue against netbooks: they tend to have lousy screens, and I wouldn’t want to look at one for an extended period of time. A desktop sounds more reasonable.

Desktops tend to be more reliable and cost less. The new 27″ iMacs are particularly nice, and the screen attached is as good on the eyes as one can get among consumer machines. But your computer doesn’t matter much: get a $400 Dell with a 20″ monitor and you’ll still have a very nice set up. What actually matters is the time you spend with your ass in the seat, not what you’re facing while you write.

I like Macs, but Windows, Linux, or OS X are all decent; all have fine, stable word processors.

The computer, operating system, or word processor a writer or novelist uses doesn't matter much, although I still like Macs

Since around 2002, I don’t think that the computer a writer uses has mattered much for writers, chiefly because virtually all computers on the market since that time will do everything you need: conjure up a window and allow you to type as long as you humanly can. The same applies to most word processors: I can’t remember the last time I got a word processor to crash except for Microsoft Word, and even that’s a very rare event. Around the time Windows XP and Mac OS X 10.2 came out, operating system stability problems receded—in Linux, they often weren’t present in the first place—and by now both Windows XP and the more recent versions of OS X are so stable that writers barely have to think about their computers if those machines are used primarily for writing.

This post comes in response to Betsy Lerner, who recently observed that she doesn’t work for Best Buy and therefore doesn’t know if an aspiring writer should buy a netbook (as a professional writer and wannabe novelist, I have some opinions on this stuff). For those of you too lazy to click the netbook link, netbooks are small laptops that usually range from 7 to 11 inches in screen size. I’d argue against netbooks: they tend to have lousy screens, and I wouldn’t want to look at one for an extended period of time. A desktop sounds more reasonable.

I prefer desktops because they tend to be more reliable and cost less, as described at the link. The new 27″ iMacs are particularly nice, and the screen attached is as good on the eyes as one can get among consumer machines. But your computer doesn’t matter much: get a $400 Dell with a 20″ monitor and you’ll still have a very nice set up. What actually matters is the time you spend with your ass in the seat, not what you’re facing while you write.

I like Macs, as demonstrated by this shot of my desk. But Windows, Linux, or OS X are all decent; all have fine, stable word processors. For documents you don’t have to share regularly, Mellel is a sweet word processor, and it has the full screen mode some writers really like. By “full screen,” I mean that you can hit command-shift-f and bring up a screen that looks like this, except much bigger:

Mellel Full Screenshot

That’s a real screenshot: you don’t have any menus or distractions on your screen, just text and a scroll bar. I added the black border in WordPress. Some people also like Mac Freedom, a program that “disables networking on an Apple computer for up to eight hours at a time” and sounds like a useful way of Disconnecting Distraction. Spotlight is very cool, as is DevonThink Pro. Both are especially useful for nonfiction.

Nonetheless, that’s the .1% of writing that doesn’t really matter much; the 99.9% that does is sitting at your computer and writing. And you can’t buy that for any amount of money.

EDIT: See also Harold Bloom on word processors (and, for good measure, editing), which contains an appropriate passage I came across on this subject.

Apple’s Snow Leopard Day!

If you’re a Mac user, today is Snow Leopard Day—meaning that Mac OS 10.6 is out. It has few major “features” in the sense that earlier versions did but is supposed to be much refined from Leopard. My copy is due to arrive early next week.

You can also read David Pogue’s review, Joshua Topolsky’s review (which has numerous screen shots), Brian Lam’s review, and Walter Mossberg’s review if you want to know more.

Apple's Snow Leopard Day!

If you’re a Mac user, today is Snow Leopard Day—meaning that Mac OS 10.6 is out. It has few major “features” in the sense that earlier versions did but is supposed to be much refined from Leopard. My copy is due to arrive early next week.

You can also read David Pogue’s review, Joshua Topolsky’s review (which has numerous screen shots), Brian Lam’s review, and Walter Mossberg’s review if you want to know more.

Computer post: desktop or laptop/notebook?

Ars Technica reports that Global notebook shipments [have] finally overtake[n] desktops, making the issue all the more salient (Slashdot’s coverage is here). Of course, many of those notebooks are probably netbooks that supplement rather than supplant desktops, and the inflated notebook total is probably in part due to the disposable nature and limited longevity of notebooks. Still, the legitimate question remains, and my short answer for most people in most circumstances in “desktop.”

My work demands sustained concentration (see, for example, “Disconnecting Distraction”) and being in spot for a time helps that; I sold my PowerBook and used the proceeds for a 24″ aluminum iMac. It’s a vastly faster machine that’ll probably last longer than an equivalent laptop will and cost less. Those who want mobility pay for it, and I suspect most people overestimate their mobility and underestimate the benefits of a desktop.

But the question is one that an individual is better suited to answer, as it depends on that person’s needs, and I can only enumerate the trade-offs inherent in the laptop/desktop decision. The question becomes almost philosophical concerning the nature of the person you are: more peripatetic or less? Working for longer at a computer or not as long? Used to a large screen or not (becoming accustomed to space and then having it removed it difficult)? Annoyed by cable creep or not? To be sure, some groups of people are well-suited to notebooks: people who move often, have to travel frequently, and students scurrying between dorm and home all probably fit that category. I suspect there are fewer of them than the laptop numbers indicate and that many people don’t consider the detriments, especially ergonomically. I’ve heard the complaint too many times: my wrists hurt, or my back hurts, or my eyes are tired, and they almost always come from laptop users. I recently gave a friend an a Griffin iCurve for her laptop, which seemed to improve the problem. ICurves are no longer made, but the new version is called an Elevator.

An Elevator, external keyboard, monitor, and mouse improves the laptop, but they’re expensive. Comparing Mac equipment makes this delta particularly obvious—even if one buys third-party monitors—as various pricing specials and what not don’t obscure the underlying prices. One person in an Ars thread said, “I’ve found that if you don’t need mobility, paying for it is a bad idea.” Indeed: and the question becomes “need,” which I can’t answer. A Slashdot commenter said that “the lack of replaceable parts is one other reason why laptop sales are ‘higher’ than desktop sales.” Combined with a) the inherent jostling laptops experience and b) the compactness of the parts, raising the temperature inside the machine and increasing the likelihood that subtle manufacturing flaws will do things like pinch video cords or dislodge logic boards, this means laptops are likely to need to be replaced more often, in addition to their higher upfront costs.

I have an iMac, which has some of a laptop’s drawbacks, including no user-serviceable parts aside from RAM. But it’s also relatively easy to move and more likely to last than a ceaselessly mobile laptop. It remains in one place, making it easier to get in the zone, as described by Rands in Repose at the link. Books, mostly fiction but still a few technical ones too, surround my desk, and, like Malcolm Gladwell, I’m more likely to turn to them for quotes, inspiration, and sounding in many circumstances than to the much-scattered Internet:

[Gladwell ….] still prefers to do most of his research at the NYU library. Google is something of a personal hobbyhorse: “Google is the answer to the problem we didn’t have. It doesn’t tell you what’s interesting or what’s important. There’s still more in the library than there is on Google.”

He’s overstating his case but I take his point. Then again, the article also says that Gladwell likes to work in coffeeshops, which is anathema to me: I look every time someone walks by or the espresso machine goes off like a whistle, and at the end of three hours I’ve written as many sentences. There’s even a picture of him sitting at a laptop, perhaps contradicting some of my overall point.

Nonetheless, like most philosophy problems, this one has no perfect answer and is more an expression of underlying value than anything else. Granted, this decision has a greater economic aspect given the continued cost disparity between laptops and desktops, which seems unlikely to disappear in the immediate future. But I think that, if most people weigh what they value, the money and advantages of a desktop more often than not make them better machines. If you’re writing, or coding, or editing movies, or doing any number of other things for a sustained period of time on a somewhat regular basis, a desktop or laptop + external peripherals seems an improvement over a laptop. If you’re chiefly using a computer to read e-mail, check Facebook, and the like, the computer choice probably doesn’t matter. Either way, I’d rather the save money, although many others obviously prefer the mobility. To me, and presumably many others who like to write and to read, and the “deep thought” stage is, to my mind, more important than shallower activities that demand less cognitive attention. That’s not to say you can’t get in the zone or produce useful work on a laptop—millions of people obviously do—but I still think a desktop a more satisfying overall choice.

I can guarantee nothing, of course, and Lord of the Rings speaks to this issue, as it does to so many:

“… The choice is yours: to go or wait.” [Gildor said.]
“And it is also said,” answered Frodo, “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”
“Is it indeed?” laughed Gildor. “Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; how should I choose better than you? But if you demand advice, I will for friendship’s sake give it.”


EDIT: A recent NPD survey on netbooks found that “60 percent of buyers said they never even took their netbooks out of the house” (hat tip Salon.com). If your laptop never travels, why bother having one?

EDIT 2: I posted a follow-up regarding the relative reliability of desktops versus laptops. The former win according to the best data I’ve seen.

EDIT 3: Marco Arment has a post on why he’s now using a MacBook Pro instead of a Mac Pro. The reason: Solid State Drives (SSDs). The limiting factor on laptop performance for most people used to be the hard drive. With an SSD, it’s not. If you have enough money for a large-capacity SSD and are willing to put a conventional hard drive in the CD / DVD bay, you’re not giving up any substantial performance in day-to-day tasks. More than anything else, the growing power of SSDs make me think the days of desktop computers are limited.

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