At least there’s fresh running water and a Start button

In response to my (justified) kvetching about Vista in my last post, a commenter named Matt wrote in:

I hear there’s some free operating system written by a guy from Finland. Sounds pretty crazy to me, but I hear you can just download it for free. Maybe you could have used that if you didn’t like Vista?

Yes, I’ve heard of the OS by the guy from Finland, and even tried it. On introspection, though, my feelings about Windows are pretty much identical to my feelings about America: sure, it’s big and bloated and crass and flawed and overcommercialized and buggy and insecure, and at least 95% of the insults that the sophisticates hurl at it are true. And other countries and OSes have a great deal to be said for them, and indeed I do spend much of my time visiting them. But this is home, dammit, it’s where I was brought up, and things would have to get a lot worse before I’d consider moving away for good.

All I need, then, is the Windows analogue of Obama. Would that be the Windows 7 beta? (Vista, of course, being the Windows analogue of Bush?)

51 Responses to “At least there’s fresh running water and a Start button”

  1. MacNerd Says:

    Dude, get a Mac! OS X is way better than Windows or Linux.

  2. Scott Says:

    I’ve used Macs for 20 years, and their fundamental problem hasn’t changed within that time: too few buttons.

    (Are Macs Canada? …or Scandinavia? I’m not sure.)

  3. Jeremy Says:

    As a fellow Vista-user, don’t worry. It actually begins to suck less over time. Or perhaps you just change your standards.

    For the first two weeks or so that I had Vista, I hated it. Now, it seems identical to XP for all practical purposes.

  4. Blaise Pascal Says:

    Mac OS X has supported multi-button mice since day one. Many apps also support multi-button mice.

  5. Peter Turney Says:

    Dual boot Vista + Linux. Then you can be an expat who visits home when the nostalgia becomes unbearable. You’ll find the visits become less and less frequent.

  6. Bill Gates Says:

    Don’t listen to Blaise. Everyone knows Macs can’t use multi-button mice.

  7. John Armstrong Says:

    Sure, one button. And a meta-key for right-clicking. Or use a two-finger tap on the trackpad. Or…

    All I know is I liked NEXTSTEP, so I figured OS X couldn’t be all bad, and a week after getting my PowerBook I’m not going back. And the fact that non-Mac laptops are vanishing from math conferences.

  8. Greg Egan Says:

    I’ve used Macs for 20 years, and their fundamental problem hasn’t changed within that time: too few buttons.

    I’ve had an iMac for a year and a half (I had a PowerMac 6500 for ten years before that) and the optical mouse that came with it has both right-clicking and a scroll wheel. How many more buttons do you want?

    My “birthplace” was the PDP-10 / DECSystem 10 in the ’70s, which I guess was the former Soviet Union. The PDP-11 ushered in some significant reforms, but the Amiga 500 was a utopian commune in the jungle whose predilection for things like pre-emptive multitasking in the 80s made it far too sensible to last.

  9. Adam Wolbach Says:

    With respect to Peter’s sentiment, when I need both I usually run Linux in a virtual machine on Windows (or vice-versa) rather than setting up a dual-boot, which eliminates much of the reboot’s context-switching overhead; you can visit home much faster. VirtualBox is a solid open source choice that is easy to learn.

  10. Peter Hollo Says:

    Dual boot Vista + Linux. Then you can be an expat who visits home when the nostalgia becomes unbearable. You’ll find the visits become less and less frequent.

    Nope. I triple-booted Vista, Ubuntu, and OSX (hackintosh-stylee) for ages, and I love Linux and love many of the innovations of OSX, but found the convenience of Windows outstripped the others enough for me to slowly stop rebooting into the others. In Windows I have my preferred music program (foobar2000), my preferred image viewer (IrfanView), and generally I find it easy to manage, easy to get around with the keyboard, better supporting (still) of multi-button mouses etc.

    OSX’s various failures mean it’ll be difficult to convince me to go over: Finder is incredibly annoying with the keyboard, from the inability to properly cut and paste (cutting fully deletes the files, rather than Windows’ elegant “mark for moving” style) to the annoying way that file selection (or track selection in iTunes) expands the whole selection up and down when you hold shift and press the arrow keys, to numerous other things like inconsistent Home/End/PgUp/PgDn behaviour…
    Time Machine is awesome, having a proper *nix shell available at all times is awesome, but folks: Vista NEVER crashes for me except due to peripherals stuffing up (as with OSX), and with User Account Control turned off it has less annoying popup moments than OSX or Linux, and a very nice interface.

  11. Joe Says:

    Ah no, you’ve got it wrong. Bush is Vista, yes. But Obama is OSX – sexier and just overall nicer to get along with.

    Which makes Clinton OS9 – you really love the guy but he just keeps letting you down…

  12. John Sidles Says:

    A PDP-10? Luxury!

    We learned to program on surplussed CDC 160s!

    … having 4096 words … 12 bits per word … had to toggle in the code bit-by-bit … then spit out the program on a punched tape!

    … and whenever they broke, we had to pour over the wiring diagram, isolate the faulty logic with a scope, pull the card, and wire-in new transistors … that cost a dollar apiece!

    … Aye, you tell try to tell young people nowadays, and they don’t believe you!

    (all true, by the way)

  13. Daniel Drucker Says:

    I think we’ve all been trolled successfully…

  14. Lucas Says:

    I’m basically an agnostic when it comes to OSs. They all suck in different but very real ways. My main computer is a Mac, but Finder sucks, and there isn’t the same availability of open source software as there is for Ubuntu. The hotkeys are a little annoying, and I had to replace the peripherals that came with my computer because the mouse and keyboard both sucked. On the other hand, very few applications ever crash on my Mac.

    My laptop is dual booting Ubuntu and XP. XP is so slow, has a very unintuitive configuration setup, and has trouble reliably finding my wireless internet. On the other hand XP has never crashed on me, and any software I could conceivably want is there.

    Ubuntu is fantastic! Ubuntu’s package-installer software is much better than Windows or OS X. It’s great as a programming environment (though not really that much better than OS X), and it’s very customizable. And every application I could ever want is right there for the taking. Gedit is probably the best text editor I’ve used. Except that the media player can’t play a DivX video without stopping playback randomly, Firefox crashes frequently, the computer (i.e. Gnome) crashes sometimes (never happened in OS X or XP), Open Office crashes whenever I look at it cockeyed, etc.

    On balance, OS X is probably the best of the lot, but I don’t think the difference is sufficient to be worth switching platforms. (Oh, and Linux is France–high-minded culture, but difficult to understand and sometimes mean. OS X is Japan–ethnically homogeneous, functional, efficient, but with a strange aesthetic that’s sometimes elegantly simple and sometimes baffling.)

  15. mng Says:

    A vote for virtualization here. I run Windows with Cygwin, and when that’s insufficient, I pull up a virtualized Linux.

  16. Matt' Says:

    Back during the primaries, at least, the analogy was:
    Mac : Windows :: Obama : Hillary

  17. harrison Says:

    I finally fully switched over to Ubuntu a couple weeks ago, after Buffy killed my XP partition (long story). Linux has a lot of flaws, especially on laptops — getting wireless up and working is always a sketchy proposition, and I still haven’t figured out how to tell Ubuntu to shut down my laptop if I close it and don’t come back after half an hour. On the upside, it’s great as a programming environment, and it’s useful to have a single program that can handle .pdfs, postscript files, and .djvu (plus comic books)…

    The Windows/America analogy’s a good one, but there are pretty crucial differences; it’s as trivial as rebooting or starting up a virtual machine to switch back and forth, and just because you live in a different OS doesn’t mean you can’t visit friends and relatives in your home OS.

  18. AndreW Says:

    I hate it when people give me this kind of kvetching. I use Windows because it runs my software, and until other OSes will run all my software I will not use them. It is straightforward, yes?

  19. Michael Bacon Says:


    I lived in Japan for several years (as a lawyer; not involved quantum physics I’m sorry to say)while Microsoft was “taking over the world”, and I was quite happy when Microsoft became dominant. It was so much more convenient — you have no idea how screwed up it was before. So, I have some real sympathy for your view in this regard.

  20. Nagesh Says:

    “But this is home, dammit, it’s where I was brought up,…”

    I just want to add it is considered home even by many who were not born and brought up here 🙂

  21. Daniel Says:

    One of the main reasons America is powerful is its relatively open economy and culture of innovation that led to it being the center for research in science, technology, and engineering for the last several decades (maybe that’s changing now, but it’s still the source of much of our power – the information age was born here). Your analogy with Windows seems weak in this light – “innovation” has never been Microsoft’s strong point, unless you count their enormous effort to stop their own software from repeatedly crashing (hey, I’ll give it to them, XP was actually usable). Mac may have had its share of innovation, but its so restrictive and spends too much time trying to be pretty. Linux is a great way to have fun – you can mess around with anything. Ubuntu is trivial to set up and is more solid than any Windows OS I’ve ever used… and you can play with the source code for anything you’re curious about. It’s perfect for a tinkering, curious CS person.
    If Obama was a CS major, he’d probably have been an open source hacker in college. Call it “community organizing” – maybe he could have saved a couple of good projects.

  22. Scott Says:

    Daniel: I agree. Probably a closer analogy to me would be someone born in China who regarded the US system as freer, more innovative, etc., but preferred to stay in China because it’s what he knew.

  23. matt Says:

    Actually, it isn’t straightforward, AndreW. If you send me a .ppt file, you might think I’ve got problems if I can’t open it. But probably you couldn’t open a .key file that I send you. .key is the file type generated by Keynote, a presentation program that I find, at least when paired with Latexit, to be way easier than Powerpoint. But Keynote is only available on OS X, so one can equally say that NT doesn’t run all my programs. Actually, there are good programs to do almost everything on every OS. At least all OSes run OpenOffice, though it certainly took some time for OpenOffice to get decent. Hmm, I think this thread is kind of an invitation for flamewars though, so better say no more.

  24. Patrick Cahalan Says:

    I’m more or less with Lucas; I’m an OS-agnostic.

    I do Windows and Linux systems administration for a living, I run XP 64 bit on the desktop at home, Windows Tablet PC 2005 on the laptop I’m using to write this blog post, OpenTablet on my Nokia 810, FreeBSD on the colo box that hosts my private web page, and I’ve toyed with NetBSD, OpenBSD, Solaris, and Mac (pre OSX). I cordially loathe all of them… and all for different reasons. 🙂

    I would not, however, recommend dual booting. It’s hard enough to keep your OS patched and up to date if you only run one of your OSes every other week. Virtual machines are a less dangerous option (at least until hypervisor exploits move out of the theoretical realm and into the malware general toolbox), but I figure if I’m doing anything that requires me to have access to another operating system, I have the Internet, and I can connect to what I want to use remotely.

  25. asdf Says:

    Hey Scott, there’s a guy working on soap film simulations to see whether they can really solve Steiner trees in P-time. No results yet, but I thought you might like this.

  26. wolfgang Says:

    >>All I need, then, is the Windows analogue of Obama. Would that be the Windows 7 beta?

    I heard great things about Windows Server 2008 tweaked to behave as a desktop OS.

  27. Joe Fitzsimons Says:

    >>(Are Macs Canada? …or Scandinavia? I’m not sure.)

    Didn’t you know Macs are Iceland?

  28. Bubble Boy Says:

    1. Actually, Vista is a considerably good OS, and much more reliability than XP.

    2. Scott, and others, your admiration of Obama starts to sound like a new kind of Stalinist idol worship.

  29. MTZ Says:

    ho yet another microsoft linux controversy hehe… I think the best thing in microsoft windows is, that it is veeeery user-friendly. Many of my friends are the normal Office/Audio/Video/Internet – Users, and they just love the way Windows works. You dont have to worry about in-depth system-configs, rights managment and proper firewall-configs. For me, as a developer I know these issues are pretty important, and I care about them.Every OS has its own benefits and disadvantages.

    If you want convenience, great use Microsoft products. If you want to go deeper into the System and use more configurations / potential possibilities, great use Linux…

  30. KaoriBlue Says:

    Bubble Boy,

    Come on… Stalin? I think Obama is going to at least reach Mao levels of popularity by the time he leaves office. When I paid my respects to the chairman a few weeks back, there were so many flowers from other visitors that the Mausoleum looked like a greenhouse.

    BTW – All of WordPress seems to be inaccessible in the PRC, not just this blog (ok, Scott’s homepage too).

  31. Scott Says:

    Bubble Boy: If the hope and optimism people express for the incoming administration annoys you, feel free to reinterpret it as contempt and hatred for the outgoing one.

  32. Stas Says:

    wolfgang wrote:
    I heard great things about Windows Server 2008 tweaked to behave as a desktop OS.
    It’s true for all Windows versions, starting from NT in early 90’s, that server versions are pretty good comparing to what’s offered to general public. Microsoft keeps assuming that most consumers are stupid and need bloated visual features over efficiency and functionality.

  33. Moshe Says:

    Every now and then I visit Linux land, latest that fantasy island called Ubuntu, but when I try to immigrate it always turns out the borders are closed – there is no driver for my video card, the hard drive is too new, the memory too big, there is always a reason for me not to get an immigration visa. For Ubuntu I didn’t even get to visit (as in try before you decide).

  34. Job Says:

    The server versions of Windows are locked down and some software won’t run on it, plus you have all the added server role configuration options, so i don’t think it’s a desktop paradise for non-advanced users.

    As a desktop i also don’t think that it’s that much more efficient. It was true pre-XP but i don’t know if it still is.

  35. wolfgang Says:


    it might be easier than you think. Take a look e.g. at

  36. Kevin Says:


    You can avoid that problem by purchasing hardware that’s known to work with Ubuntu.

    “I like visiting Tokyo, but every time I try to immigrate they won’t let me keep my cattle herd or assault rifle collection.”

  37. Job Says:

    Wolfgang, i’ve been using a Windows Server desktop since the 2003 version and it’s now a 2008 server.

    I just meant that i don’t see anything special about it – i use it because it has IIS6 and i can install and play around with some server software, but other than that i don’t think i see the value in it.

  38. Ijon Tichy Says:

    I’ve been using Linux for the past 4 years. I don’t think it really matters what OS you use. All of the major ones can do the job, and all the problems have fixes and workarounds if you’re not too busy or lazy to find them. All of them could be greatly improved in various ways, too.

  39. Sigivald Says:

    Vista, of course, being the Windows analogue of Bush

    In most cases, unfairly slammed by people either piling on “because everyone knows it’s bad”, or because of early problems caused by third parties?

    Not what you meant, doubtless, but a very good analogy.

    Stas: Having watched multiple waves of wannabe-linux-adopters focus purely on “does it have pretty screenshots?”, “how can I make my leenooks look like OSX pretty?”, “how can I get that k00l 3d cube desktop, and I don’t care if it’s actually useless it looks r4d?!?!”, I must disagree a bit.

    I’m pretty sure Microsoft is correct in assuming that a lot of users do, in fact, care about looks more than functionality and efficiency.

    (And they’re also correct in assuming that a lot of users are “stupid”. I don’t mean that they’re necessarily actually stupid in a general sense, but that they have not devoted any time to figuring out how computers work. For them, a computer is merely a tool used by rote to do specific tasks. They are constitutionally anti-Geeks.

    A quite intelligent friend of mine, recently, had to be shown what dragging a file was in Windows – despite having used it for years – because said friend, while smart and not new to using computers, does not think of them as things to explore, but as tools for performing specific sets of tasks.

    Sobering, to a computer enthusiast, isn’t it?)

  40. Moshe Says:

    Kevin, I guess it all depends if you consider having my choice of an mp3 player, solid state HD, DVD player, etc. etc. as akin to having an assault rifle collection. I think it is more akin to preventing immigration because of your clothing, taste in food and music etc. is not quite right…To strain Scott’s analogy a little, countries that encourage immigration usually thrive. Same goes for OS, if Linux is going to be my homeland, I’d have to feel comfortable there.

  41. Stas Says:

    I think we have yet to see a user-friendly and efficient OS with minimalistic GUI. It’s like the search engines before Google had all bells and whistles on the front page (and most still have), but Google won over with one input line and two buttons design.
    I’ve not seen yet anyone who likes aero in Vista, it normally gets turned off at the first boot :).

  42. V Says:

    Tut, tut. I am very shocked that noone pointed this out. Linus is Finne-Svensk: He lived in Sweden.

  43. V Says:

    Oops. Sorry. I got it the other way round.

  44. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Here are a couple of comments to tick off smug Mac heads. The main reasons for Mac’s continued existence and growing success are easy to identify:

    1. A massive, multi-decade marketing campaign to convince non tech oriented people that Mac users are “cool”. In the early years Macs cost about twice as much as a comparable PC. Current estimates are 50% more. Emphasizing cool appears to be working better these days in the science and engineering world.

    2. Early emphasis on elementary education. People tend to stay with what they start with. It’s hard to say anything snide about this; it was a good idea.

    3. A lot of (otherwise?) smart people have libertarian and/or counterculture leanings. They don’t want to be identified with boring computers used by people with jobs.

    The rest of the story: Apple teetered on the verge of bankruptcy for decades as not enough people wanted to pay a premium to be cool. Then Apple hit the jackpot selling toys and gadgets, and now phones. But, will they continue to spend big to keep their computer lines afloat? Why should they? Takes money away from developing the iSkateboard and iTaco.

    Meanwhile, MS OS’s have plenty of problems, a main one being that they attempt to keep huge amounts of legacy software running. That causes lots of problems and costs a lot. It is nice for people who need to use one of these apps. Vista might well look kind of silly now, but that’s the way things are going. Recall that whenever you see an app you used 10 years ago, you thing “man, those were the dark ages”.

  45. John Faughnan Says:

    What, are you feeling lonely?

    Talk about throwing chum to the sharks.

    You must have known what would happen.

    PS. OS X = Obama. Of course.

  46. Scott Says:

    What, are you feeling lonely?

    Thanks for asking, John! I have felt lonely at various times in my life, but not at all right now.

    Talk about throwing chum to the sharks.

    Notice I got out of the ocean shortly afterward? 🙂 My aim for Shtetl-Optimized, going forward, is to feed the sharks their chum without getting bitten.

  47. Niel Says:

    Rahul: Clearly Mac will stay in the hardware/OS business for the same reason MS is in the OS/Video-game-console business — they have control over the infrastructure that best supports their other, more lucrative products.

  48. Dave Bacon Says:

    Hey Scott, might I suggest you support the United Nations instead of the good old US of A: get a Mac and install VMWare Fusion to run Windows! New World Order ahoy!

  49. wolfi Says:

    Hm, isn’t that strange that you can install Windows on a Mac, but that you cannot install MacOS X on a (non-Apple) PC. How does that fit the OS X = Obama analogy?

  50. John Sidles Says:

    “Isn’t it strange …” is a Limbaugh trope, which jars upon the ears of Obama-celebrators.

    MLK-style idiom is preferred: “I look forward to the day when my operating system is judged …” 🙂

  51. Pat Cahalan Says:

    @ Moshe

    I have a little netbook running ubuntu that has a solid state drive and a USB DVD player.

    I have a nice little DVD player and an mp3 player that required about 3 seconds to install and configure. It’s only the GNU/Linux dogmatic distributions that don’t package proprietary codecs.

    Oh, and remember that your DVD player doesn’t work under Windows without additional software, either. You just happened to buy it with it preinstalled 😉