Thomas Brand And I Talk About Old Things

This week I had the pleasure of chatting with Thomas Brand, of Egg Freckles fame. We reminisced about passed technologies, current technology, trends in OS X, and even Linux.

Alex Knight: What is it about old technology that some people such as yourself seem to cling to it so strongly? I’ve been pondering this lately, and I’m unsure if it’s just a nostalgia thing, or if it’s something more–something deeper and more meaningful?

We clearly know in terms of pure specifications, old technology doesn’t perform as well as new technology, and depending on its exact age, that performance gap can be range from minor, to in orders of magnitude greater. Technology advances for a reason. It’s not arbitrary, and humans always want to seek out better, faster, and more efficient ways of getting things done. Convenience is largely a determining factor. How convenient and friendly is this appliance that remains in my control?

Lately on the Macintosh side of things, we see Apple borrowing bits and pieces from iOS that they feel could transition well to the traditional OS X desktop operating system environment. Whether or not we as geeks like all of those changes, or perhaps see them as progress, that is definitely a different story. I know you’ve written on numerous occasions and have expounded greatly on some of the latest trends you see with OS X. In fact, I’ve seen you also mention your still as of yet undying love for Snow Leopard — which is now two major OS releases behind. So to look forward, we must also look to the past to understand where we came from and how we got here. I suppose, I’d like to know why you continue to spend time with your Apple Newton, older Macs, and aging versions of OS X. What keeps you looking to the past?

Thomas Brand: I would have to say the answer is nostalgia, both for the products of my childhood, and for a simpler time.

Back when Apple was releasing the Newton, Mac OS 8, the Power Mac G3, and PowerBook G4, I was mesmerized. The reality distortion field was in full affect, and I got lost in the excitement. Maybe I am smarter now, the field doesn’t hold me as strongly, or the rumours have made the announcements predictable. Whatever the reason, the present doesn’t excite me as much as the past, and I cling to the time when “Thinking Different” was rewarded with something special that made my choices seem unique compared to everybody else.

Remember when every file had its own icon, when a one button mouse was all you needed, and the only way you could share files was with a floppy drive or a serial cable? In today’s modern world of multitasking, symmetric multiprocessing, and access control lists, I miss the magic that came with the flat file system; what you see is what you got. The technology of yesterday is memorizing because it did so much with so little. I am still impressed by drag and drop, and the consistency of the original Macintosh user interface. I am disappointed that in order to move forward we have to conceal the man behind the curtain, and coverup the underlying technology that in the past was all we needed to get by.

I don’t think the world today is more convenient as much as it is more accessible. Just a few years ago we could do everything the iPhone could do now, we just could not carry it all in our pockets. The internet, the iPhone, instant gratification, has made us forget the joy of completing the process–the thrill of interacting with the machine. Today everything has to be so polished or we won’t accept it. In the past there was the Mac, it had its ways, its quirks, its interfaces, and you worked with them to accomplish your tasks. I guess I just celebrate the process more than my peers. How you do something matters, and sometimes the best way cannot be found in the latest software release or this year’s hottest gadget.

Alex: I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a moment. Whilst understanding and acknowledging our technological past is important, can’t one say that what we’re experiencing now is simply the natural evolution of computing?

You touch on instant gratification, and our interaction with machines. Not that long ago, we felt a massive disconnect between us–the person sitting in the chair–and the box full of circuits on our desk. I remember growing up in the 80s and living through the 90s when many people (perhaps many still now) felt a strong dislike for computers. This was not because computers were inconvenient, but because they were merely unreliable tools, and frustrating ones to boot!

Shouldn’t we continue to push boundaries to see where the next generation of computing will take us? If this means obfuscating the file system on our Macs, shouldn’t we accept that as gospel, and worry less about what remains underneath the hood so that we can focus on completing our work? Is that progress?

Thomas: I have nothing against pushing the boundaries and making computers easier to use. I am not speaking for the majority here, I am speaking for myself. I like the file system, computers are my hobby, and I am not ready to look past the underpinning in the same way a mechanic is not ready to forgo a trip under the hood. I am all for the direction computing is going for the general populous. I am just not sure it is right for me.

Alex: For those following, it doesn’t come as a surprise that you have been dabbling with Linux more frequently. I know your heart is still with OS X, but can you tell me about your experience with the platform thus far? Specifically, I’m curious about what distributions you have been trying, and on what hardware you have been using it on. On that note, back in the 90s and early 2000s, I recall getting my feet wet with Linux, but always ended up incredibly frustrated with driver incompatibilities and unnecessarily complex installations (I’m looking at you Gentoo). Clearly, versions like Ubuntu have come a long way to attempt to quell many past grievances, however I’m not so sure I could use it as a daily desktop operating system. Can you see yourself moving to Linux full-time in the future? If so, what continued obstacles during a potential transition from OS X to Linux may one Mac user encounter?

Thomas: In June I purchased a Dell XPS 13 specifically for experimenting with Ubuntu. I choose this Dell because getting Linux working right on mobile hardware is difficult, especially if that hardware is new. Dell and Cononical have been working together on a special build for this laptop aimed at developers called Project Sputnik. It includes a number of developer tools while supporting minuet hardware features like the backlit keyboard, multimedia keys, and multi touch trackpad.

Like you this isn’t the first time I have experimented with Linux. I purchased a white box eMachines laptop in the early 2000’s to experiment with Fedora Core when it first came out. Recently I have felt compelled to give Linux a second shot because of the changes being made to Mac OS X as well as my experiences at MIT where I administer Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X.

Beginning this week I removed Snow Leopard from my primary home machine, a 2009 Mac Pro, and started using Linux full time. I am able to do this because my computing requirements have changed in the last couple of years. Before I was hopelessly married to the Adobe suite of applications. As my interests have moved from graphic design towards writing, and technology having the gold standard in graphics applications has become less important to me. Today I can get by with Firefox, Thunderbird, The Gimp, gEdit, Inkscape, Rhythmbox, Shotwell, and the Terminal. I miss the rich fully developed applications on the Mac like Mail, Pixelmator, Acorn, OmniGraffle, BBEdit, Lightroom, and Coda, but part of learning a new thing is moving outside of your comfort zone.

Linux has come a long way, and Ubuntu is leading the pack in terms of consistency and innovation. I have tried other distributions, but I am sticking with Ubuntu for now because it has the widest support, and is the easiest to install on Apple hardware.

Will there come a day when I leave the Mac behind and move to open source software forever? As of today I have made my preparations by converting my documents to standards that can be more easily read in Linux, including reprocessing all of my photos from DNG to JPEG. I think Apple will always be in my life, and iOS is a great mobile platform. I am just not convinced that Apple’s current direction is right for me, and I am willing to take the time to experiment in order to figure it out.

Alex: The ability for us as Mac users to transition to other platforms like Linux seems easier than ever, thanks in part to technologies like Dropbox. Perhaps I will have to give Ubuntu another go, but it’s definitely been a few years. I’m quite heavily entrenched in the iCloud document universe now, and although I love it, it would be trivial for me to export my files from iA Writer to Markdown text files. Considering that Ubuntu is so heavily focused on creating an easy to use desktop operating system, we should see some pretty big usability strides continue to happen over the next few years. I’ve heard the quality of individual applications has also increased greatly, in terms of design and usability as well. Although I’m still quite happy with OS X, if for some reason it takes a turn in a direction that I don’t feel comfortable with, it’s great knowing a good alternative would be available.

So what’s your experience like with gaming on Linux? I know you’ve been a bit of a Mac gamer, but as OpenGL performance on OS X has been historically less than stellar, can you talk about what it’s like on Linux? There’s even less of a library of popular games available than there is on OS X, however it seems that we’re at a point now where popularity is shifting with companies like Valve software porting Steam over to the platform. Can you see yourself getting more into Linux gaming?

Thomas: I try to keep my workflow open so that I can move between different platforms as needed. That is why I have never fully embraced iCloud, and why I am a big fan of technologies like plaintext, PNG, SVG, and Dropbox. Even Microsoft Exchange seems to be the gold standard for personal information management on cell phones these days.

Unfortunately there are some things that are not so open, and games are one of them. I have done little gaming on Linux. I am cautious to get in bed with another DRM encumbered ecosystem like Steam. Luckily I am a big Id Software fan. John Carmack, the lead developer, makes sure they release the source of their older titles, and I am excited about replaying my old favourites on Linux in the future. For right now you can find me as MisterMiser on Quake Live.

Alex: Thanks for taking time out of your week to chat with me about old and new technology; it’s been fun.


Thomas Brand writes at, and you can also find his posts on at [@thomasbrand][ADN}.