A few months ago scannerdarkly suggested a kind of migration guide for the console, for people thinking of shifting from a graphical environment to a text-based one. To paraphrase, something that would hold their hand as they moved from X to the command line.
Since then I’ve been keeping odd notes on points that would need attention, if there was a shift to be made.
But what I discovered is that there are plenty of suggestions for mundane issues, such as the software to use and the hardware that works. On the other hand, suggestions on the “how” and “why” are a little more scarce.
Instead, I have a list of points that you might think about, to make the mental and personal shift from the point-and-click to the type-and-enter. Take them for what they’re worth. ;)
Start small. I think the best way to get the ball rolling is to find yourself a scapegoat. Pick one small task that you rely on in your daily routine — something like checking e-mail or keeping a list of things to do. Downloading torrents is a great place to start. Or maybe a music player.
Then refine the candidates list by focusing on applications that are grotesquely overweight. To use the torrent example, if you’re still using Vuze or Azureus or whatever it calls itself these days, it’s perfect. Or iTunes, as another example. Or … whatever.
I wouldn’t recommend starting with something overarching or wide-sweeping, like an entire desktop or full-feature browsing. Save those for later.
Once you have a guinea pig, remove it. Wipe its configuration files. Terminate it, with extreme prejudice.
Then find a console-driven alternative. Shop around, find something you like, and install it. Then spend a week with it. I lived at 100Mhz for a week almost two years ago (has it been that long?) and I was amazed at what I could get done.
Do your best for a week and learn the ins and outs of the program. Find all the little undocumented controls, all the front-ends and patches, try them all out and see what it can do.
If you find you can’t live without that first, overweight program … well, so be it. This isn’t for everyone. And I’ll be honest, I keep a higher-powered machine off to the side, mostly because I learned the hard way that it’s worthwhile to have one.
But after a week, if things work in your favor, you’ll probably find you don’t need that old, overweight program as much as you thought you would. The software you thought irreplaceable has just been … replaced.
Let things fester. Great, now that you’ve dumped one application in favor of a console alternative, you can start plucking away at others, right?
You can if you want, but I wouldn’t suggest it. Just because one tiny facet of your daily life is now run by the console, that doesn’t mean the entire pie is somehow appealing.
The point of this experiment is to understand how ultra-lightweight software can be just as usable as the heavyweight. Part of that is recognizing, respecting and relishing small programs that do as much as the large ones, but with less requirements.
If you take your time and let that sink in, you start to gain respect for console driven applications. Then other tasks seem to be obvious candidates for text-only equivalents. More than an arbitrary purge, this is a harsh critical eye.
And that’s when you really start to take aim at applications up and down the list, and push them out one at a time. Task managers. To-do lists. Contact managers. E-mail clients. File managers.
Before you know it you’ll be stripped down to a fistful of text-based programs and maybe one large-scale, obese application (my money says it will be Firefox). You’re almost free.
Get serious. The next step is what separates the men from the boys: Dump your window manager. If you’re living with a crop of terminal applications, you don’t need that full-scale desktop environment any more.
Pick a window manager that inches you closer to text-only. For example, you could take up Awesome or xmonad or even dwm, and still manage to use that one graphical program that keeps you hooked to X.
For a little while anyway. After a while you’ll start to wonder if the graphical program is really worth the weight it incurs, and as a result, you can probably avoid it with lighter alternatives. Move from Firefox to Kazehakase to uzbl to elinks. Move from OpenOffice to Abiword to Siag to emacs.
A lot of people stop at this point. It’s enough to prune down the essentials, and rely on terminal programs for 90 percent of what they do. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I endorse it wholeheartedly; you get the best of both worlds.
True enlightenment. But at least try the last step. When you’ve stopped using that last graphical program, then you have truly freed yourself, and you can move away from X altogether. Your systems will become so light and fast that you’ll wonder where exactly all the power came from.
Skipping out altogether on X is dropping hundreds of megabytes of space from your hard drive, and dozens of megabytes of memory from your system demands. It’s like moving from a yacht to a surfboard. Things are faster, cleaner and more exciting.
And that’s when you’ve moved so close to technological zen that you realize the US$1200 computer you bought a year ago is a waste of your time and money.
That’s when you can sell it all off for a few hundred bucks, pick up a leftover Celeron from a garbage pile, restore it, and use it in the same way, with the same software, and do far far more with far far less.
Be honest. So is this the best way to use a computer? I don’t know. I don’t know you. You and I are relative strangers.
I can pitch it to you any way I like: I can tell you all the cool kids use the terminal, I can tell you all the fast software relies only on ncurses and a sparse kernel, I can tell you life is so much cleaner and prettier and quicker when you’re running a console-only environment on half of a lowly 32Mb.
Fact is though, either you want to do it or you don’t. I can’t make it any more appealing to you than it is naturally. Some people love it; I do, for certain.
On the other hand, I’ve been harassed (never seriously) and called “DOS geek,” even if that is so far off the mark, it’s laughable.
My last advice is: Don’t try this on a whim. Try it because you want it to work. Do it because you think it might fit you, or because you need a drastic change.
Or because you’re anticipating a severe reversal of fortune, and you want to downshift your entire life. Or because you’re liquidating. Or because you have adopted an austere lifestyle. Or you really want to be a minimalist.
The best motivation for any change in life — be it computer-related or otherwise — is from within: a natural, innate, sincere desire to change. Try it on a fluke, and it will fail. Try it because you honestly want to, and you will succeed.