At large: A need-to-know basis

At large: A need-to-know basis

Fearful of being left behind, Matthew JC. Powell prepares to jump on a bandwagon . . .

I had a revelation recently. I'd got the notion into my head that I'd like to go see a movie at midnight. I won't say which movie - that should be obvious. I'd seen it several times already, including the now-traditional midnight opening, but somehow an urge took me. I rarely resist such urges.

So I stole off into town late one night, to a theatre where the movie was showing. When I got there to buy my ticket, it was already late, and the other members of the audience had already begun to assemble. Unsavoury lot, they were: ill-kempt, unshaven, edgy - you can imagine how out of place I felt. I milled about in the lobby, desperately trying to avoid looking directly at anybody while simultaneously catching broken bits of choc top.

After the movie, I and the rest of the motley assemblage poured out of the cinema and onto the street. It was a bit before three in the morning, and cold. I closed my jacket around me, rubbed my palms together and made that "hurphuphuph" noise that cold people make for no apparent reason. The street was abandoned, but for the few remaining of my fellow moviegoers who, like me, didn't bring cars. I wanted to get home quickly. Just something in the air, elusive, felt vaguely menacing. That particular part of Sydney isn't known for being particularly pleasant late at night, and there's a tinge of murder pervasive. If I ever wanted to make actual enemies in the underworld, it would be a place to go.

On this occasion, though, I had no desire to make enemies in the underworld. Rather, I felt a longing to protect my patellas and get home. I found a spot under a streetlight near a bus stop and waited for a cab. A bit further down the block, one of my fellow cinemagoers adopted a similar position. Like a funnel-web spider, he was probably as afraid of me as I was of him.

Nearly an hour later, no cab had gone by. A couple of cars with people in them gawking at me like an exhibit at a lion safari, but nothing useful. They wouldn't even throw me a chunk of raw meat. I was becoming increasingly impatient and agitated, pacing and pawing at the ground. Meanwhile, the guy down the street remained calm, reading a magazine or leaflet or something.

After I'd been grumping about for a while, he began to come closer. Naturally, I was wary. I froze on the spot.

He arrived at a point about five metres from me, stopped, and spoke. "You won't get a cab for a while yet," he said, "it's the change of shift."

What a bizarre thing to know. This guy was not a cab driver, knew no one personally who was a cab driver, and had no affiliation with the industry. Yet he had somehow obtained the knowledge of when cab drivers swap shifts, and was comfortable with the fact that he could not get a cab during that time. I can see no reason why an ordinary person should be forced to understand the mysterious workings of the taxi industry, and as a result I was frustrated and annoyed because I didn't know why there were no cabs.

And that was when my revelation hit me. I have become so used to dealing in layers of metaphor that the concept of understanding what I'm actually using has become alien to me. I don't feel the need to understand how one becomes a cab driver or what process leads a given cab to arrive at the curb near me and take me home, so I've never found out - at my obvious peril.

In my job, I benefit from knowing a bit about how computers actually work. I've tinkered in command lines - Unix, CP/M, DOS - and know enough about the computers I work with to fix them when things go wrong. But technology has advanced a long way since my tinkering days, and it has suddenly occurred to me that, shielded by various graphical user interfaces, I have become less and less aware of what's going on when things go right. This is, I don't mind telling you, a fearful revelation.

A change is needed. A radical shift, back to the level at which computers actually work, and away from the level at which they look pretty. I need to get into a type of computing that's unattractive and scary, even when things are working beautifully. I need to look at the exposed guts of an operating system, and see it pulsing. I need to know.

It's time I installed Linux.

Matthew JC. Powell is the editor of ARN's sister publication PC Buyer. E-mail him at matthew_powell@

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