January 8, 2004

Linux for poets

Author: JT Smith

Valerie MacEwan is a fiction writer and poet who (her words) "...lives on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina." She's also a Linux user and advocate. The following (lightly edited) IM transcript tells how and why she started using Linux, and how and why she believes other writers should start using Linux and open source software.Roblimo: How and why did you first start using open source software?

Valerie: A friend of mine, who went to high school with my daughter, went to work for Kozmo in NYC. He used it and wanted me to try it

Roblimo: And you did? What software did you try first?

Valerie: Jerm (the kid) and my husband were working for an ISP and Jerm was on the OpenBSD team -- he introduced me to IRC and we tried Mandrake in '98, I think. Bought it at Sam's Club.

Roblimo: Did you find it hard to use?

Valerie: It wasn't stable back then, if I remember correctly, and Rob [Valerie's husband] had to help me with command line stuff all the time.

Roblimo: Ah. So you had built-in husband tech support available!

Valerie: Always. I don't suggest anyone trying Linux without a tech-support attachment, be it spousal or friend, but that was back then -- with SuSE 9, I'm not having as much trouble as I did with 8 and with Red Hat.

Roblimo: You use OpenOffice as your primary word processor, right?

Valerie: Yup.

Roblimo: Have you have any compatibility problems with publishers that require Word documents?

Valerie: Yes. The first problem is always this -- trying to get the person on the other end to tell me what version of Word and Windows they use. No one seems to know. If you ask, "What word processor do you use?" (so you can save in a compatible format) invariably they will answer "Windows." Once you get that straight, then there are a few font problems. I use Courier almost exclusively now when I'm converting. I also don't use AutoFormat.

Roblimo: Have you had any stories rejected because of file incompatibilities?

Valerie: No. And I don't send stories in .sxw, I usually do .rtf or .txt or .doc.

Roblimo: Do you feel your writing quality is affected by the software you use?

Valerie: Definitely. If it's not easy to use, you lose your creativity. If it's not compatible, you lose jobs.

Roblimo: Have you found Linux hard enough to use that it affects your creativity?

Valerie: In the beginning, when I first installed it, the early releases of Red Hat or SuSE in the late '90s -- it did. I would lose information or not know how to access it. I would save it as the wrong extension...

Roblimo: What about Linux in its current state? Do you think a new user would have the same problems you had at first?

Valerie: No, a new user would probably only find problems with some hardware compatibility. It's probably easier because I didn't have to offer up command line sacrifices to the root gods for SuSE 9. The gods were friendly. Much more point and click, drool and do it -- I bought it, I installed it, everything. And I don't consider myself that much of a computer person. The only thing that scared me was the whole partition thing, which I still don't think I did right. I think there are about 50 gigs somewhere on this thing and I'll be damned if I can find them.

Roblimo: Do you know any other writers who use Linux? I mean fiction and poetry people...

Valerie: Yes, John Biggs. He writes fiction. His Web site, bigwidelogic.com, is a Linux site. And someone else who's been on The Dead Mule, can't remember who. So, that's only 2 and I know a s**load of writers.

Roblimo: Piers Anthony uses Linux.

Valerie: Ahhhh, that's true. And probably some of the young whippersnappers out there. I'm trying to think of more, don't want to leave someone out.

Roblimo: Why do you think so many writers use MS Office instead of OpenOffice? Are all you fiction and poetry people rich?

Valerie: They use it because it comes with their $400 Dell specials. Or because they bring it home from work and copy it. I would venture to say more copies of MS Office are truly from someone's office than are bought. Most of the writers I correspond with don't even know there's an operating system other than Windows. That's one of my pet peeves. I mean, if you're going to be a welder, you have to know how to use a torch -- for instance -- but for writers, they seem to think they don't need to know how to use the tools of the trade in order to make a living at it. They don't know how to send attachments, use email, anything like that. Makes me nuts. I spend so much time just instructing writers on how to submit, it's annoying.

Roblimo: Are you part of a writers' group?

Valerie: I used to be but they ran me off. It was just a local group. Then I tried some online stuff, through WebDelSol and Zoetrope, but I could never remember to go back and check on it. Now I have 5 writer friends, we send things back and forth... I never thought about it, I guess we are a writer's group. Most of us have met in the flesh, as they say, and aren't just an online group.

Roblimo: Have you tried to introduce other writers to Linux or other open source software?

Valerie: Every person I talk to, whether online or in person -- I am like a Linux apostle and I preach it from the streetcorners. I try to explain that they will be paying licensing fees in the future, that they will not own their computers... people don't listen. And, the ability of the general public to understand computers is greatly overestimated. It truly is. People believe they "know" computers because they can send email. I'm not being a snob, I'm just talking about how hard it is to get them to understand just the basics of what an operating system it... getting them to understand that Windows software was part of the purchase price of their computer... they're not just paying for hardware.

Roblimo: Then why bother with the preaching?

Valerie: I think it goes deeper than my flip comment. In reality, it's about free enterprise, about competition, innovation -- if everyone blindly accepts only one method, then better methods are never born. Sure, there must be standards, that's for compatibility issues (same size railroad tracks, 110V electricity, that kind of thing, it's not just about computer hardware/software compatibility). But it also goes deep into security issues. Microsoft can't get it right and the people who listen to me (or other Linux voices) are the ones who've been hacked, attacked, wormed, virused, and have had to spend $100s on security software. That's one of the biggest things that drove me back to Linux in 2003. I priced all the Norton, AdAware, and more programs and the combined cost was unbelievable. And there, on the shelf next to it was SuSE 9 Professional for $79 and I knew once I put it on my computer and learned how to drive it (mainly, got it to find my Sony digital camera, my laser printer, and my scanner), my odds for keeping other people out of my computer were more in my favor.

Roblimo: You have dogs... which do they prefer: Windows or Linux?

Valerie: Thompson, the Jack Russell, is a Linux man. He used to work for The L0pht but he started telecommuting when they merged with @stake. But Francis, the Scottie, she's Mac all the way. Still uses her Macintosh SE from the '80s. She gets her email through WebTV.

Roblimo: You've mentioned a husband -- a geeky husband, even. What would you suggest as a support option for writers (and dogs) who don't have a computer-hip spouse around?

Valerie: Now that SuSE is owned by Novell, I suspect support will be greatly improved. But, online, the best source is Linuxquestions.org -- and also to just Google for the information and go to where it leads. There are some snots out there who ridicule new users, but most folks are really helpful.

Roblimo: Do you seriously believe most non-technical people, specifically writers and poets, should use Linux? And if so, what specific software would you recommend?

Valerie: Okay, here's the skinny -- I think if you gave a writer/poet a computer loaded with SuSE9 and told them to get to the word processor by clicking on the icon with the fountain pen on it -- they could go to work right away and not notice much of a difference until they tried to save and the OpenOffice .sxw extension came up in the options. If you showed them Mozilla, they'd slam right into the Internet and not feel a twinge. Evolution? No problem, it's easier than Outlook. I would LOVE to have a room with 10 computers set up with SuSE 9, bring in 10 writers, tell them to do some flash fiction but no other instructions -- and see how well they would do. (Someone want to pay me? I can find the computers...)

So:

  • OpenOffice.org 1.1
  • Mozilla
  • Evolution
  • SuSE 9 -- and Gimp (I love Gimp, it's as good as or better than Photoshop)

Roblimo:

What changes do you think current Linux distributions need to make them more attractive to non-technical users?

Valerie: Better TrueType Fonts for all word processing software, either easier to find/install or put it with the software program to begin with. And I'm just talking Times New Roman and Arial -- I mean, hell, that's the Internet... without it, HTML isn't right when you're typing for a Web site. Cutting and pasting between applications is a problem that needs to be addressed. I suppose that would be the Clipboard. With any distributions besides SuSE 9, I would have to say have less command line procedures, less root, because the whole concept of root is mindboggling to a non-tech person. Drivers need to be easy to access/install. I had a hell of a time with my Samsung laser printer. (That's a problem in all operating systems, though, if I were to use Windows XP, I'd have to buy a new scanner because my scanner brand wasn't writing new drivers for XP.)

Honestly? I'd do a massive ad campaign... like Apple did during the SuperBowl way back when -- only not so esoteric. More of a "there is an alternative and you can do it" ad campaign -- "If Valerie MacEwan can do it, you can do it."

Sample Valerie's work -- and work from other Southern writers -- at The Dead Mule, and check her Weblog, www.valeriemacewan.net.

Click Here!