Time to ring in the new year with old school applications. Web 2.0? It's old and busted, and Mutt is back in style.
It’s a few days in to 2011, which means most of us have made (and broken) a set of resolutions for the New Year. While I may not drop all the pounds I want in 2011, I have already shed some baggage: Newfangled apps that don’t measure up to the old school Linux utilities.
Like a lot of writers, I do best at brainstorming with a pen and paper — not at the computer. So I bundled up and took the Moleskine out to Steak ‘n Shake to scribble some thoughts on goals for the new year and story ideas. This is a time-honored tradition, I’ve been brainstorming with an Orange Freeze in hand since I was in my 20s, and I’ve consistently (modulo a few breakfasts) ordered the same meal for 35 years: double Steakburger, fries, cup of chili, and the aforementioned Orange Freeze. Variety may be the spice of life — but I know what I like, and habits can be a good thing.
After placing my order without looking at the menu, I realized that what’s true at Steak ‘n Shake is true for a lot of applications — there’s no good reason to change just for the sake of change. Especially when you know your way around the classics. And unlike the double burger and fries, Mutt and Vim aren’t doing any damage to my arteries.
The Unix Philosophy
Just like I know my Steak ‘n Shake order by heart, I know (or can quickly pick up) the keystrokes to compose and send mail in Mutt. I know how to search and replace text strings in Vim or perform complex operations on files from the command line without having to touch the mouse. Yes, Google Reader and Gmail (for instance) also have keyboard shortcuts — but I can’t pipe mail from Gmail into a script.
Aside from the fast food epiphany I had over the holiday, I also worked on a few projects over the break that informed my decision. For instance, I wrote up a review of Linux-based feed readers for LWN and really spent a lot of time with Newsbeuter. Like Mutt, Newsbeuter is not only keyboard-driven, it’s highly customizable. It hit me just how much I missed being able to fine-tune the tools I work with.
Likewise, I’ve still not found a desktop or Web-based organizer that I really like. So, I’m going to spend a few weeks working with Emacs Org-mode and VimOrganizer. (Really hoping that VimOrganizer pans out, as I’m just not ready to switch to Emacs…)
Thanks to OfflineImap, my mail can be hosted just about anywhere and I can get the same benefits as using Gmail — that is, having my mail at any computer I’m at. I’m also experimenting with Mairix for indexing and searching mail so I don’t have to rely on Google for searching my mail.
The past few years I’ve been spending most of my time in the browser, much of it using Gmail and Google Reader. For many use cases, these tools are fantastic. But they’re not as extensible as Mutt, Newsbeuter, or other old school utilities. The simple feature of being able to pipe output from one application to another is enormously powerful if you take the time to customize your tools and write a few scripts. You don’t have that option with Google Reader, as nice as it is.
Return to Debian and FOSS
Since I spend much of my time writing about all things Linux, I try to keep in touch with all the major distributions — but I tend to have “stable” machine for writing, and then run new releases and beta/release candidate versions on the others and in VMs.
For the past year, I’ve mostly run Linux Mint on the stable system. Over the holiday I decided to get back to basics and check in on Debian. Is it a bit rougher around the edges? Yep. Am I having more fun with it? Yep.
This isn’t something I’d recommend for everybody, of course. I think that Mint, Ubuntu, and other distros have done Linux a fine service by making it more accessible. I appreciate the refinements that have gone into desktop Linux distros to make it more suitable for folks looking to ditch Windows without a bunch of hassle. I still think Web apps need to be a big part of the future for Free Software, but that’s for casual users of computers.
The other reason I wanted to return to Debian is that I want to see where Free Software is at today, and how much I can do without resorting to proprietary bits. The news that Debian Squeeze is shipping a kernel without any proprietary firmware inspired me a bit. While I’m not a die-hard, fire-breathing, Free Software or Nothing person — but I’d prefer to use FOSS where possible. So going back to Debian is going to be an exercise in seeing what’s possible with FOSS only. I might also spend a month or two using Fedora, too.
Moderation in All Things
This doesn’t mean I’m swearing off all GUI applications, or going to start compiling all my software from scratch, or running an Android build on my Nexus with all the proprietary goodies removed. I still view my computer as a tool to get work done, not a hobby. I’m not going to try to browse the Web in lynx or w3m as a rule, or stop using Web applications when they’re the best tool for the job.
So my primary technology resolution for 2011 is going to be to return to traditional, and open source, Unixy tools for my day to day work. So far, it’s going well — and I’ll be sure to share some tips with the Linux Magazine readership as I get further (back) down this road. What about your 2011 resolutions?
Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier
is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier has written for Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many other publications. You can reach Zonker at
firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter