An interview with K.Mandla

So far, more than a dozen people have been kind enough to step up to the microphone and tell a little more about themselves. I’m a bit shy to do the same, partly because it seems egotistical for me to interview myself, partly because I have reservations about giving out too much information. But I don’t want it to seem like I’m too good to participate, or won’t do something that I invite others to do. So in the interest of parity, and to get the ball rolling on these interviews in the New Year, I’ve answered the questions myself this time.

Tell as much as you’re willing about your “real” life — name, age, gender, location, family, religion, profession, education, hobbies, etc.

There are some private details that I’m not going to share. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my name will never be part of what I do online, and I prefer not to discuss family or nationality either. My gender is something I leave to you to guess. Most people can sense gender through writing, and I’m probably fairly easy to decipher. And you can see my age on my profile page.

The name “K.Mandla” is a conglomeration of two names I borrowed from coworkers. “Kgomotso” can be translated from Setswana as “peace,” and is usually a woman’s name, although I’ve met several Kgomotsos who were men. It’s pronounced “kho-mo-tso,” with a guttural “kh” and with an aspirated “ts.” “Mandla” appears in several southern African languages as the word for “strength” or “power,” and is pronounced more or less as it looks. 🙂 I don’t know why I picked those names, but I did.

I have mentioned elsewhere that I currently live in Japan, but I’d prefer to keep my profession private. Some people know it, some people don’t, and I think that’s the best way to handle it. I’ve had a lot of jobs in my time — I’ve worked in education, I’ve been a journalist, I’ve been a mainframe operator, I’ve worked in community development, I’ve done publishing layout. I’ve been a graphic artist, a copy editor, a calligraphist, a secretary, a counselor, a writer, a tutor, bartender and translator. I’ve done professional development courses and workshops, I’ve worked fast food, I’ve stripped computers for resale and I’ve taught kindergarten. Once I even put up advertisements for a tobacco company. In retrospect it’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but it did keep food on the table.

I am not religious, and I am something of a pragmatist when it comes to the topic: I think religion in its most honest form is an important part of being human. However, I do not subscribe to or endorse any particular faith.

I have several tertiary degrees. Two are arts degrees, one is in science. None are in computers or technology.

Like (or perhaps unlike) a lot of geeks, I find languages to be incredibly interesting. Most languages are basically ordered systems for communication, with rules and structures that are meant to be followed in certain circumstances and broken in others. Kind of like computers, in a way. 😉

English is my native tongue, but I can speak three more, including two Bantu (sub-Saharan African) derivatives, and now some Japanese. At one time or another I had a strong proficiency with Spanish, German, Turkish and Italian, although it has been a very long time since I spoke any of those languages regularly, and as a result they’re quite rusty. I can usually read them and I can still hear what’s being said to me, but I have difficulty replying because my responses come out in the wrong language! 😆 I can get myself into and out of trouble in Afrikaans and a few other languages too. If I have my way, I’ll study Chinese, French and maybe Latin one day.

I learned all of those, with the exception of perhaps one, from living in countries where those were the native languages.

For hobbies, I like rehabilitating and tuning old computers, sketching, studying Japanese language and running half-marathons. Uphill both ways, of course.

When and how did you become interested in computers? in Linux? in Ubuntu?

My earliest computer experiences were in the calculator aisles of department stores in the early 1970s. In those days calculators had LED displays that were sunk into a plastic mount and you had to hold them at a particular angle to read them correctly. I remember feeling quite mischievious by walking down the row and asking each machine to add 12,345,678 and 98,765,432 — the sum is 111,111,110, which throws out an error (11111111E) on an eight-digit display. I was convinced the next calculator customer would think they were all broken.

But I had the good fortune to be growing up at the inception of the digital era. I had a Little Professor calculator game. One Christmas I got a “Hit or Missile” game. I had a Mattel Football II game. I took a calculator class in the sixth grade, about the same time I was put in a speed-reading class — the teacher used a devilish machine with an aperture that rocketed from side-to-side like a spring-loaded filmstrip projector.

Around 1979 I saw my first Atari VCS, and the addiction set in permanently. Around the same time I was playing Dungeons and Dragons, so it was only natural that I’d get the handheld digital game, as well as Milton Bradley’s Dark Tower game (those things are worth gold these days). I spent an unfortunate amount of money (for a 12-year-old, anyway) building a collection of Atari games, with Adventure, Defender, Pitfall, Robot Tank and some others as favorites.

Later on I worked a summer job and bought a Commodore 64. This was the original breadbox version, along with a 1541 drive and a VIC 1525 printer (hideous machine, that printer). At one point I had an SX-64, but I couldn’t tell you what became of it. I started programming in BASIC, sometimes for fun, and sometimes as homework for computer classes. Since I had to use TI, Atari or Apple machines at school, I found utilities that allowed me to manage the C64’s graphics system with the same commands as Atari, which meant I could basically (a pun! ha!) program for school at home. That came in handy when I wrote a program to double-check my calculus homework by graphing the equations for me.

Later I bought a C128, but by then Commodore was no longer in ascension. I shifted to the Amiga for a very short while, but I was working on Sperry-Unisys mainframes that interfaced with IBM machines at the time, so I wanted something similar at home. In retrospect I can’t imagine why I would have traded up a perfectly good, starter-model A500 for a lousy XT, but I did — in fact, my first PC was a Commodore Colt with an after-market EGA card. I added a humongous Western Digital 30Mb hard drive. I used it for work and home, as well as some programming classes — like Pascal and C. And Leisure Suit Larry, of course.

I fell away from computers for a while, mostly because I was working on them everyday, and didn’t want to spend time with them at home. Later I used Apples (high-end Macintoshes and Quadras, if I remember right) for work and college, spending as little time as possible with PCs. For a few years I completely walked away from computers, barely using them at all, even for daily tasks.

In 1997 I was housesitting for someone with a PC and they had a copy of the Quake and Descent demos installed. I turned it on once, out of curiosity, and the old addiction roared back to life. I started to investigate the Internet. I bought my first laptop in 1998 — a 200Mhz CTX EzBook, as well as Age of Empires and Diablo. Later I built a Pentium II system from parts, the first time I’d been inside a machine for nearly six or seven years. I picked up a Voodoo3 card on clearance at a computer store one summer, and that was an eye-opener. I managed to configure gnutella from behind a university server system, back when gnutella was two buttons and an error display, so I’m kind of proud of that.

I started stealing music, movies and software on a regular basis. I once downloaded an entire copy of The Matrix over dial-up — it took a day to download, then I had to decompress it and overwrite the FourCC code with a hex editor to get it to work. I was so proud of that I bought myself a pizza and watched the whole thing through, like a party.

Only a couple of years later I had a top-of-the-line Athlon Thunderbird system, with a five-point speaker system, a 21-inch Princeton monitor and a Wacom tablet. I got DSL and stopped using dial-up. I played Tribes II (a legal copy), Carmageddon II (also a legal copy), and the entire Baldur’s Gate line (not legal copies). I moved from Windows 98 to an illicit copy of 98SE.

After a while I started rehabbing Atari and Commodore machines, picking them up at secondhand shops or “garage sales.” I had bought a lot of parts on ebay, but reversed that and started selling them off again. That was more fun. PC parts were next, although the market wasn’t as lucrative as, for example, a full Amiga 2000 system. I cobbled together a home network. I started building Web sites. I tried dual-monitor systems. I installed Windows 2000 for the first time, and no, it wasn’t legal.

In 2001 I got a backup copy of RedHat (6? I forget) and tried to install it. It was hideous. I had no clue what I was doing — no manuals, no startup guide and no instruction sheet. I put almost no effort into it, and predictably I got almost nothing out of it — no network, no mouse control and couldn’t set the video right. I got as far as a KDE desktop and decided Linux was a complete and utter joke. I repartitioned the drive and laughed that I had even tried it.

I went back to Windows and what I knew. I amassed a collection of 300-400 albums when Kazaa was popular, and stole an immense amount of software I wouldn’t ever need or use — things like Photoshop or 3D StudioMax or Illustrator or Visual Basic. I had no use for the stuff, but it was somehow fun to collect it.

In 2005 I went from a busted-up 900Mhz Slimnote laptop running Windows XP to a 1.6Ghz Dell Inspiron 9200, and I liked the improvement so much I sold that off and picked up a then-top-of-the-line Dell M170 — 2.26Ghz Centrino, Intel PRO/2200BG wireless, 8x DVD+-RW, 256Mb Nvidia GeForce 7800GTX. It had blinking LEDs and a polished widescreen 1920×1200 LCD. I picked up a legal copy of Guild Wars and an illegal copy of Knights of the Old Republic II.

Now for the interesting part.

In November of that year, I was working in a job where we were paying ~$800 per workstation for legal copies of Photoshop. Some workstations needed it, but didn’t have it, and as a result I had to do the simple two-step photo processing for those people. Literally it was just a conversion from RGB to CMYK, then output in EPS or TIFF format. It wasn’t a big deal, but it was silly for someone to have to stop what they’re doing to process a photo for someone else. And since that conversion was the only reason the office was paying for Photoshop, I decided it was worth looking for a free or low-cost alternative.

Enter the Gimp.

With the Separate plugin and TIFF conversion, the Gimp was perfect. I installed it for the last workstations that didn’t get Photoshop (we all had administrative privileges in that office — horror!), and chalked up one point for me. Unfortunately management didn’t agree, and months later when they found out, there was one of those finger-pointing sessions that ended with a lot of mid-management types with sweaty palms. I didn’t care. I held up the bill for four more copies of Photoshop and it was like the aegis of Athena, protecting me from anything they could complain about.

But far more importantly, on the particular day when I found the Gimp, the developers’ blog had a few posts on the sidebar. And one of them said, “Ubuntu takes over the world.” Or something like that.

I clicked, and the rest is history.

When did you become involved in the forums? What’s your role there?

I actually found the forums before I started using Ubuntu — I read a lot about it before I ever tried it out. Later I ran into trouble getting it installed on a Pentium II machine, and sought help there; Xubuntu was suggested as an option. That was back in the Breezy Badger era, when Xubuntu was still not distributed as an ISO, and you had to install and start it manually. It worked great on that machine though, and so I kept tinkering with it. Some community members actually offered advice via e-mail or PM, which I was a little distrustful of, but now I know is normal.

For me, the Linux philosophy came after. I wasn’t a software purist at all, but later, and particularly after reading about free software on the forums, I realized this was the proper way to do things. I documented some of my experiences there, including some work with 120Mhz and slower systems, and got a lot of good feedback. As a result of that, and with a need for some way to document my experiences that I could rely on for the long term, I started this blog.

In October 2006 ubuntu-geek asked me to be a moderator. I was worried at first that it might require more time or effort than I had available, but that only showed how little I understood about volunteering on the forums. I’ve been a staff member since.

Are you an Ubuntu member? If so, how do you contribute? If not, do you plan on becoming one?

No, I’m not, and I don’t plan on it. I have signed the code of conduct, so I am an Ubuntero, but I’m not a member.

I have discussed that issue elsewhere, but in brief I’m not convinced I would be able to continue as I do now if I were a member. I have heard from some Ubuntu members that they were occasionally coached in their opinions on Ubuntu, the software or the organization. And since I’ve been quite vocal about some points in the past, I don’t think I would care to be coached too. I’ve been part of planets that told me what to write about, and that was completely unacceptable; the idea of someone in Ubuntu suggesting the same thing would also be unacceptable. So for the time being, no, I’m not a member and I don’t plan on becoming one.

What distros do you regularly use? What software? What’s your favorite application? Your least favorite?

Ubuntu and Arch. I dabble a lot and I try new things all the time, but Arch and Ubuntu are simply the best options for me. One is fast, the other is complete. Depending on my mood, one is installed or the other.

As far as favorite software, I’d have to say Openbox. My least favorite is probably Gnome; my affection for it ended at the same time the screensaver settings were removed. That was when I realized it was taking away too much control in an effort to keep me from breaking things. I don’t like it when someone else second-guesses my level of ability.

And it’s too fat.

What’s your fondest memory from the forums, or from Ubuntu overall? What’s your worst?

Other than April 1, 2006 … I’d have to agree with other staff members and say the best memories are when people say “thank you” for your help. It’s funny, but I can’t remember a time when someone was mean or crude or personally attacked me, but I can think of plenty of people who took a second and posted “thanks” to something I suggested. Seems like the opposite would be true.

Worst memories … one-shot posters who think they know everything about Linux after failing to install Ubuntu on their lunch break. If you really feel the need to create an account, validate it, write up an essay about how Ubuntu wouldn’t install and therefore Linux is a failure, then post it before wandering off into the Internets … do us all a favor and just wander off.

Oh, and I don’t like The Backyard either.

What luck have you had introducing new computer users to Ubuntu?

Lots, actually. I have converted most of my family and quite a few friends. I used to hand out CDs if people wanted to try them, but showing them a working, functional system is a bigger persuasion. I’m a passive evangelist these days: People see my desktop and look confused, and then I tell them I don’t use Windows, and then … you know the rest.

What would you like to see happen with Linux in the future? with Ubuntu?

I’m not going to say “I want Linux to take over the desktop,” because I think in some ways it already has. Two years ago when I started learning about Linux, people were wishing someone, anyone would adopt Linux (in any flavor) as an OS option. Now Dell does, as well as many other vendors. Mothers, grandmothers and Internet cafes use it every day. The ball is already rolling, and from here it only gets better. If you’re still whining into your blog about the Year of the Linux Desktop … well, you blinked, and you missed it. Linux is mainstream.

For Ubuntu, my desires are a little more specific. I’d like to see more focus on key points of usability, and less on glitz. I was wowed by Compiz too, but that was two years ago and that’s really just a selling point, not a core value. I have high hopes that Hardy is as dependable and impressive as Dapper was, mostly because a flashy, splashy Ubuntu would only be good for a few hours before you’d start to realize there were underlying problems. Nothing is absolutely perfect, but too many basic complications will completely overshadow the best and prettiest special effects.

If there was one thing you could tell all new Ubuntu users, what would it be?

Don’t do it. Step back. Walk away. Close this page. Throw out that CD. Delete the ISO. Turn away now and run as far and as fast as you can in the opposite direction. Forget you ever saw this. Block this page, this site and anything related. Screen your Internet traffic to keep it out. Plug your ears and whistle. Get hypnotised. See a psychiatrist. See a priest. Seek forgiveness. Seek absolution. Seek electric shock therapy. Do anything and everything you can to keep it away — as far as you can and for as long as you can.

And then embrace the fact that there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Ubuntu and Linux and free software and the philosophies that surround them all are like a giant tidal wave that you can’t stop, you can’t avoid and you can’t control. We’re in your car, we’re in your phone, we’re in your TV, in your router, in your office and on your Internet. We run your bank, we run your network and we run your company. There’s nothing we can’t adapt, assimilate or amass, and trying to stop the freedom we represent is like trying to put out a forest fire with a garden hose.

So take a deep breath and forget everything you knew. Don’t pretend you’re an expert, or a power user or a guru. Start over from scratch. Clean the slate. Start fresh, like a newborn. We don’t care about your qualifications, or when you first touched a computer. Start from zero. And if it doesn’t work the first time, try again. Then again. Then again. Try it with a different computer or different hardware. Don’t do it randomly, do it passionately. And do it because you want to, not because everyone else is. Because believe it or not, eventually, one day … it’s going to work, just like you want it. And then it’s all over.

Because then you’re one of us. :mrgreen:

K.Mandla keeps a blog — in fact, you’re reading it right now. For more interviews with Ubuntuforums staff and community members, read Nine Simple Questions.


18 thoughts on “An interview with K.Mandla

  1. Pingback: Nine simple questions « Motho ke motho ka botho

  2. matthew

    That was a very enjoyable read! Thank you.

    For what it is worth, I’m an Ubuntu member and my blog is aggregated on the planet feed and I’ve never been told what to write or not to write. Then again, I have seen it happen, but I don’t think it has ever happened in an official capacity, but rather through the actions and initiative of specific people.

  3. Onyros

    Hey, Matthew… I suppose they’d know who to try to coach. You don’t seem like the “coachable” type, so why would they bother? Or risk it?

    The fact that this kind of thing happens reminds me a lot of when I worked for a company associated with Microsoft. It was obviously worse there, and at a given moment I was coached… how to coach! I was working as PR, so I had the entire lingo (and its limits) well taught.

    And I really have to thank them for that. That’s how I eventually began searching for an “alternative”. I knew the shortcomings and the cover-ups, what lay behind, the overall inefficiency and incompetence, so I moved ahead. Found Linux (Gentoo – I started hardcore fashion) and have never looked back.

    @ Mandla – for a moment there, I thought you were going schizophrenic on us hehehe.

  4. bapoumba

    As always, I really enjoyed reading the article 🙂
    I do respect one’s privacy, and I do like reading about personal stuff, hmm ^^

  5. tallman

    oh, I thought you were younger, but you are just a few years younger then my mom :):):)

    Interesting life you had, hope your future will be even more.

    The last two paragraphs I liked most.

  6. Kobalt

    Oh my, the next person you’re going to interview will have a hard time trying to conclude the interview, yours is really enjoyable 😉

  7. Pingback: Ubuntu Look » Ubuntu Weekly Newsletter #72

  8. Pingback: Lettre Hebdomadaire Ubuntu n° 72 du 30 décembre 2007 au 5 janvier 2008 « Lettre Hebdomadaire Ubuntu

  9. cannonfodder

    I think I was first exposed to your website while looking up OpenBox screenshots on Google Images. Since then, I have come across a few more of your articles (again, via Google) and always manage to pick up something of value. Oddly enough, I’ve got more of an appreciation for your blog now that I’ve read your ‘self-interview’.

    My IT experience mirrors yours in a lot of ways (Commodore, Apple II, BASIC). Just as you did, I spent a good number of years away from computers before jumping back in.

    I cut my teeth on Breezy Badger but have never been entirely satisfied with any version of Ubuntu. I distro-hopped and gained Linux experience for a good year before I took the plunge and tried Arch — motivated in large part by your reviews and screenshots — and I am a convert.

    Keep up the excellent work!

  10. santa

    Really enjoyable, interesting and fun read.

    and the entire Baldur’s Gate line (not legal copies)

    Made me lol, for the sake of justice go get you’re copy now, best game line ever! ^-^ j/k

  11. Pingback: You no longer have my support « Motho ke motho ka botho

  12. Pingback: A comfortable limit « Motho ke motho ka botho

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