Back to my Open Source Roots

So much has happened, I hardly know where to begin. I haven’t written any articles in a while and have pretty much stayed off social media, except for an occasional Frank Zappa quote or some random bit of interesting information. I decided to not comment on politics because I didn’t want to offend a portion of my readers. Suffice to say that I suspected that Trump would win as soon as he didn’t raise his hand to pledge his loyalty to the republican party. When he did win a lot of people around me freaked out but I remained mostly calm, having long suspected it. I felt really good with myself and my world view. In other words, something had to change.

Wikileaks released Vault 7, a small portion of an archive of leaked documents detailing CIA hacking tools. I remember reading about Echelon in the nineties and people called me a kook, so this news did not shock me. I began looking through the documents, and found mini tutorials about how to do basic hacking and security tasks in Linux. I have ran Linux systems for over ten years, and it all checked out. I only surveyed a small amount, but enough to convince me.

Amid these revelations, people asked an important question.

How do we know if a piece of technology spies on us?

Any Linux enthusiast already knows the answer: through the use of free open source software. It got me thinking about my own choices. This converged with something else that I could no longer ignore.

I could no longer use my Mac productively. When I rejoined the Apple family I felt so happy. I knew I had entered a walled garden, but it worked well with my newly discovered iPhone, and provided accessibility to a modern graphical desktop. I found Mac equivalents of my beloved Emacs and other open source tools and left them behind. A few years passed. I remained mostly productive and felt mostly happy, yet something didn’t feel quite right as time went on.

Looking back, it seemed apparent right from the beginning. I wrote a very popular article about getting MPD to work with AirPlay. I wanted to learn to write apps, but I wanted to use tools I already knew, so chose RubyMotion. I installed Homebrew to get Mac versions of open source programs. I always had an open Terminal window. I could never let go of my open source roots.

In case you don’t know, a blind person uses a screen reader, which makes a computer talk. Every operating system has one or several. Windows has the commercial JAWS and NVDA, an open source alternative. All of Apple’s products have versions of VoiceOver. Android has Talkback, also open source. Linux has Speakup for the console, and Orca for its graphical environments.

I had become to grow less and less impressed with the Mac’s version of VoiceOver. The audio had occasional dropouts and lags. Many disabled audio ducking because of this, but it didn’t solve everything. The Quick Nav feature had issues toggling while navigating web pages. The default voice named Alex sounded amazing, but had some annoying pronunciation issues. For example, it dropped the “s” from Philly Touch Tours, the business I co-founded, making it sound like “Philly Touch Tour”. Terminal has never had good accessibility, but since it doesn’t fall into Apple’s 90/10 rule I didn’t expect that to improve. Sadly, neither did anything else.

In the months leading up to the release of Vault 7, I had tried getting Orca working. I had used Speakup at the console for years, but wanted to explore the Linux equivalent of an environment like Mac or Windows. One weekend the pieces all came together. I think it involved battling with PulseAudio. I chose the Mate desktop, a fork of an older version of the popular Gnome desktop of which Orca makes up a part. I had tried this about ten years before and things felt kind of clunky. I prepared to feel under impressed and regard it as something done for pure hack value.

I first browsed my own site with Firefox. It loaded quickly and beautifully. I visited some common sites, including Amazon. It never crashed. It never sputtered. It worked perfectly.

I wondered if I could realistically switch back to Linux for my day to day computer use. Over the next few weeks I systematically replaced all of my Mac applications with Linux alternatives. I use Thunderbird for email and calendars. I replaced all of my Apple TV’s and AirPort expresses with Raspberry Pi’s running Snapcast, a subject which deserves its own post. I use Emacs for a lot of other things, which I do anyway. I use Evil to get superior Vim keybindings. I should especially mention Org Mode, your life in plain text!

When my MacBook Air finally died, I had a choice to make. Should I go with what I know and buy another MacBook, or try something new and go with my Linux solution? I researched my options. None of the MacBooks have particularly good reviews from professional sources. A Linux laptop from ZAReason would cost less. I had bought my awesome desktop system from them. I threw an i Ching reading. I got the hexagram of Revolution. I chose the ZAReason Linux laptop. A few sharp-eyed friends have already noticed. Now as it stands I only use my Mac for Apple things, such as writing apps, iMessage, and iCloud. I do everything else in Linux. I have never looked back.

I would like to make one thing clear however. Apple has shown us that any corporation can make all of their products accessible. They have an accessibility department which they involve in all of their other projects. The ability to use the same hardware and software as our able bodied peers has immense social and psychological value. Steve Jobs had a vision of making a computer which anyone can use and he succeeded. Tim Cook has stated that Apple cares about more than a return on investment. I wish every corporation would follow their example. My decision to use Linux has my primary desktop and my subsequent choices have nothing to do with the valuable service which Apple has done, or the outstanding treatment I have received from them. I simply cannot continue productively using my Mac with VoiceOver due to long standing bugs and a closed archetecture.

Returning to my open source roots brings up a lot of wonderful old thoughts. I have always wanted to find ways to help people with disabilities. Free software and affordable hardware seem like natural choices, and this has finally become possible. I can do all of the basic tasks I could do on my Mac in Linux, yet nobody talks about it. I feel like I have discovered this wonderful secret thing, and I strongly encourage anyone interested in accessibility to give Linux a try. You have nothing to lose - it costs nothing!