Zen Yourself Free: a Windows Defector Discovers ZenWalk

I have so much to thank Bill Gates for: introducing me to the baffling joys of consumer computing with Windows 95; teaching me the meaning of fear and dread with Windows 98; leading me to the sunlit uplands of Windows XP; getting me out of Microsoft altogether with the arrival of Vista. I hardly know where to start. And if I hadn’t flown into a high-minded anti-Microsoft, down-with-Bill-Gates fury at the start of this year, would I ever have stumbled upon ZenWalk? I doubt it.
Now, of course, I owe a debt of thanks to ZenWalk. How foolish is this? I’m just a writer who uses his PC for that fundamental trinity of word processing, emails and internet. Listening to music and minding the family photos are the two main additional functions, and after that… How important can an OS be? After all, mine is a stand-alone desktop existence of the humblest kind – once predicated on certain Microsoft assumptions about the way things would pan out in the years to come: some gains, some new inefficiencies, more of everything, especially that excruciating Microsoft paternalism, dragging the sacred material of my life into its folders, its crappy taxonomies, its relentlessly moronic understanding of what My Music or My Photos actually means. And I’d be there right now, except for the fact that Bill announced at the start of the year that he really was going to take us for a bunch of chumps by charging authentically monopolistic prices for a new and only debatably improved OS, just because he could. For this writer, the red mist descended, I got wildly pious about the iniquities of a consumer marketplace where competition has effectively been snuffed out, and vowed, if I possibly could, to live a life without Microsoft from that day forward.

But what do I know about operating systems? I can install Windows XP blindfolded by now, but the alternatives? An encounter with SuSe a few years ago affected me like a rash, but cleared up quickly enough, after which I humbly returned to the known stupidities of Windows. Software is a black art, after all. While I can cobble together the physical bits of a PC easily enough, the animating spirit, the language that makes it work, is as alien to me as Cuneiform, with GNU/Linux the Linear B of the business. Then Ubuntu – friendly, thoughtful, wholly sensible – emerges from the mist, and before you know it I have Ubuntu 6.10 working nicely on my PC. Microsoft is already becoming a shadowy memory, and then, one day, I bump into ZenWalk 4.4.1: which is, oddly enough, and even more than Ubuntu, the real revelation, the real life-changer.

Simplicity is half the reason. After a few months tinkering with OpenSuSe (better, this time), Mandriva (a failure throughout) and different manifestations of Ubuntu, I now know my KDE from my Gnome from my Xfce, and of all these Xfce is the lightest, the brightest, the most discreet, the smartest. And it’s Xfce that greets you in ZenWalk. Then the Zen people give you just what you need to work with, and no more. The excellent AbiWord; a tuneplayer called Audacious, which is the ugliest little bugger I have ever seen, but which works brilliantly; a spartan but absolutely impeccable picture manager called GQview; Firefox and Thunderbird, the usual suspects; and some other things which I, candidly, don’t understand. The package manager is a bit half-baked; but on the other hand, the native screen resolution and clarity are so good, I didn’t even need to hunt down any of those tricksy nVidia drivers when I was installing ZenWalk. Indeed, I still cling to the insane idea that consumer electronics should make things easy rather than hard and that the less I have to do, the better. This then helps me rationalize my Linux ineptitude: the fact that I still can’t get a tarball to come out right; that I’m fingers and thumbs the moment a terminal opens up; that I am never, ever going to compile a program. I am old; I am lazy. ZenWalk just worked, mercifully.

On top of which, it made me realize how much I now loathe the progressive hypertrophy of other operating systems. Mac’s OSX, for instance, can be awfully nice, but I hate it for the way it keeps marketing itself to me, finding interesting things for me to do. Ubuntu is excellent, but it has a way of proffering fresh applications like a nervous party hostess urging you to take yet another canapé. And as for Windows – this has become a leering, gussied-up nightmare, with visual tropes thieved alternately from American automobiles of the 1970’s and a child’s playpen. Does this make ZenWalk’s simplicity somehow retrograde? Because it goes back to a comparatively minimal, unadorned look? No: because OS eye-candy is only there to disguise the poverty of our ambitions. If your musical heritage grinds to a halt with Bryan Adams, iTunes (and by extension, the whole Apple culture) is there to retrieve you, to turn you into precisely that creative metropolitan sophisticate Apple would have you believe is lying just below your surface. The fact that there is a perpetual disjunction between the sleekness of OSX and the banality of much of what goes into it, only increases the tension between what is and what can never be. ZenWalk, on the other hand, is beautifully clear, chasteningly grown up, honest. It deals with what you put in; it can’t make it any better or worse than it already is. For that alone, I love it.

The other part of the equation is, of course, speed. A confession: I beefed up my PC in the expectation that, what with Vista and the onward waddle of progress, I would have to have 2Gb RAM and a x2 processor, or die. Which I now have: I ought to be fast. And indeed, Windows XP briefly revealed a zestiness it never had before; while Ubuntu 6.10 was even quicker. But ZenWalk? Things happens instantly – or at least, as quickly as I can take them in. It works as fast as I can, with none of that perceptible latency you get even on a fast machine, and it’s the first time I’ve ever experienced this on a home computer. Is this because of the Xfce desktop? Because of all the extra debris Zen doesn’t install? Search me. What I do know is that it even spreads this joy to my external HDD. This latter used to be a bit of a drudge, something I used once a day, if I remembered, toilingly to back up whatever I’d just produced. But now it’s as much a part of the process as the internal drive, instantly accessible, puppyishly eager to look for that email address I might have saved, once, back in 2002. Put all this together with the conceptual clarity and lucidity of ZenWalk and you have a small but intense revolution – something genuinely liberating, that sets you free to do whatever you want, as quickly or as reflectively as you please. Less is infinitely more.

What are the snags? Well, if ZenWalk breaks, I’m too dumb to fix it. I’ll have no option but to reinstall completely and hope for the best. In that sense, it still has something of that contingent, seat-of-the-pants quality I nervously remember from Win95. Also, tragically, my defection to ZenWalk does not seem to have brought the Microsoft hegemony crashing to its knees. At present, we must hope that if Dell ships a few Ubuntu PCs in the next year, this will help promote domesticated Linux from the status of a microniche to that of a niche with prospects. But after that? GNU/Linux is so multifarious, with so many scores of competing distros, I’m amazed I found ZenWalk at all. In the Balkanized Linux universe, what chance for the vast majority of everyday users who buy the OS with the PC and only change the one with the other? How are they ever to Walk the Zen? There is just no mechanism to help them. (Parenthetically, can I point out that GNU/Linux fans seem to be, in comparison with the average, stoical PC user, nothing but sleazy, promiscuous slatterns, drifting from distro to distro like so many Edwardian society ladies, sometimes running several distros at once in a menage a trois of competing desires? I only put it in those terms because I’m afraid I might turn into one myself.)

Anyway. We shall see. In the meantime, I’m loving ZenWalk and hoping fervently it will stay around for a while. And, yes, in honor of ZenWalk’s originator, Jean-Phillippe Guillemin, I am proud to announce, Je suis Linuxiste: tendence Zen. Long live the revolution.

For your reference: ZenWalk

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