Not good enough

I am in what feels like an odd place with technology. I have a technical background. I earned an A.A. degree in Business Data Processing from American River College in Sacramento in 1979 and went to work as a computer programmer. I acquired some proficiency in Digital Equipment Corporation's BASIC-PLUS, BASIC-PLUS-2, FORTRAN-IV (which had been extended to include many FORTRAN-77 features), and even PDP-11 Macro Assembly language on RSTS/E. By 1985, however, I was burned out. It was really the wrong field for me, but I was slow to recognize this.

I had landed in Selma, California, a small town about 15 miles south of Fresno, where I worked for Quinn Company, a Caterpillar Tractor Dealer. A lot of raisin grapes are grown in and around Selma and it tends to be a place where life ends in high school: The big town events were high school football games (I have no interest in football, beyond some worrisome social effects) and a barbeque (or maybe it was a chili cook-off—they might not still be doing it). I have since learned that that church down the street from where I lived that looked like it might be a televangelist church was par for the course. California's Central Valley tends to be socially conservative with a high proportion of evangelical Christians.

So I was also extremely isolated. In the roughly four years I was there, I regularly encountered only one woman who was interesting. She was my boss—and she was married.

Fig. 1. Still my idea of a real computer. Henk Gooijen/pdp-11.nl, fair use.

I had to leave. I had, since my first jobs in Reno, wanted to return to San Francisco. So I returned to the San Francisco Bay Area and failed to find work. My Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-11 RSTS/E skills were of little interest even to employers with VAX environments, to which they should have been eminently transferable.

Thus began a long experience with working class life. This was interrupted with a computer operator job at San Francisco General Hospital (career-wise, a step down; salary-wise, a step up). It was in a DEC PDP-11 RSTS/E environment. I remain nostalgic about those systems, but I was working graveyard shift—I'm something of a night owl, but graveyard shift pushes it much too far—and I came to feel that my presence and my expertise were enabling the hospital to defer some badly needed upgrades. I left and resumed that working class life.

I had written off ever returning to technology again when I got sucked in at the tail end of the dot-com boom, first as a technical writer at Linuxcare, and then as a junior system administrator at Axis Personal Trainers and Spa. One day in 2001, it seemed like all the venture capitalists folded up their checkbooks at once. That was the end of my technology career.

That said, I did break down and write my own mail delivery agent, Grandma. It distributes incoming email messages into Maildir-style mailboxes according to lists of email addresses. This is very useful if you receive lots of email from lots of different sources.

I come away from my technology career with a better than average mastery of technology. Just not really good enough to be employable in the field. I run my own Internet services, including email, web, and DNS, on servers running FreeBSD. I can manage the combination of Linux or FreeBSD, Apache or Nginx, MySQL, and PHP, but other combinations seem problematic. I am reasonably proficient as a Linux and FreeBSD user and able to find my way around some Windows and Mac OS issues. I am annoyed by religious wars over open source licenses (some people never stop arguing about these), but insist on open source for cryptography, because the code is auditable (though I lack the skills to perform the auditing myself). I may seem relatively intelligent about technology, but many technology workers beyond first level tech support will instantly recognize me as lacking both skill and knowledge.

All that said, these days, I'm distinctly preferring FreeBSD to Linux. I think OpenBSD is a bit more secure but FreeBSD is friendlier in a number of respects including on the important point of just being able to get stuff working. I still use Linux (Sabayon), but it has changed, becoming much more complicated. And I do not see the value in the additional complication.

Pulseaudio has long been an egregious offender. For many years, removing pulseaudio would almost always fix any problems with sound. Now, pulseaudio is layered in with dependencies such that removing it means you no longer have a desktop environment. And I still don't understand what pulseaudio is for.

Another offender is systemd (yes, these are both Lennart Poettering projects). Setting aside the question of technical merit, the simple fact is that Linux distribution developers have imposed systemd on users over often strenuous vocal objections. The documentation is horrendous—sorry, it is and I call bullshit on any claims to the contrary—and it has gone from being a faster init to being a whole lot more. It completely changes the character of Linux. And I have noticed that Linux carries an increasingly heavy footprint.

There's also something called apparmor which, to me, is a solution in search of a problem. Because really, I never found the old UNIX-style permissions structure to be deficient (which is, by the way, one of the allegations against OpenBSD). I had a bind slave on a Devuan VPS that I could not persuade to record zone files, apparently because of apparmor, even though I had attempted to disable apparmor. Please, just get this shit out of my way. It isn't improving my security: I've been hosting my own domains nearly continuously since 1999 and have detected only one security breach, on Drupal, and strictly confined to that web application.

I have noticed much improved performance both in memory and processor consumption by switching to FreeBSD. I would prefer to be running all FreeBSD (yes, I lose some features, but not any I really care about all that much), but installation on UEFI systems is still occasionally problematic. If I don't like pulseaudio, I can still avoid it. And systemd is a Linux-only thing. If we value software freedom, the BSDs seem a lot more like it to me now than Linux. My servers, including my remote secondaries, are all now running FreeBSD. And I'm a lot happier with them.

Accumulated hints: