Linux Onna Stick

Linux Netbook (by StarbuckGuy)

As part of my “Fresh Start” I thought about the way I use my Acer Aspire One netbook and realized that I didn’t have many Windows-specific programs that were critical. I don’t use it for photo editing, so I don’t need Photoshop and all my plugins. For word processing I normally use Open Office Writer and I’m committed to Firefox for browsing, and there’s nothing Windows-specific about them. I don’t use iTunes on the Acer either. I use it almost exclusively for writing and web access.

So, last night I downloaded the latest Ubuntu Linux 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope) Netbook Remix image and tried burning it to a DVD so I could install Linux from my portable DVD reader. After trashing two discs it occurred to me to RTFM1, at which point I learned that the IMG file was for “burning” to a memory stick (USB flash drive, thumb drive). I’d never installed “Linux onna stick”2 before and it was almost spooky to watch the fast, silent install with no optical disc drive whirring.

I’ve installed Ubuntu Linux before so there were no surprises. I opted to blow away Windows XP entirely and reformat the entire 160GB hard disk with the Linux EXT3 file system.

The surprise came after I installed the OS and saw the new netbook-specific interface. Wow! Very iPod Touch-like. I elected to stick with it, despite a usual preference for the spare conventional Gnome interface. It caught my fancy.

This morning I downloaded LyX and the accompanying LaTeX packages. I love the easy LyX interface to the complex LaTeX typesetting markup language. It produces beautifully typeset output.

Connecting to my home Laserjet printer via Samba was simple, and all I needed to do to configure my wireless LAN connection was enter the correct passphrase.

One of my secret pleasures is installing operating systems — even Windows in a pinch. Every time I install a recent Linux distribution I marvel at how far Linux has come as a desktop alternative to Windows and MacOS. And free, natch. It feels like a homecoming.


1 Read the F*ing Manual (or Instructions)

2 Thank you to Terry Pratchett for the “onna stick” phrase.

A Fresh Start

Writing Table (by StarbuckGuy)

This is a photo of my new writing space. It was previously a sprawling computer workstation area, surrounded by scanners and an inkjet printer, but we consolidated our two desktop PC’s into one unit on the other side of our office, leaving me this space to write. I wanted a place at home where I could sit, shut the door if necessary, and concentrate on writing for as long as I remained productive.

Previously I did most of my writing while sitting in Starbucks, as part of my daily walk. I write well in coffee shops, but the Starbucks is busy and I’m uncomfortable staying for long periods of time, taking a table from the other patrons. So my writing has been done in bursts. And because it’s also a gathering place for many of my photographer friends, I often end up socializing rather than writing.

So this marks a new start, and it’s appropriately symbolic because today (April 22) is the first anniversary of my open-heart surgery. I’ve spent the past year recovering from a double-bypass operation. Only recently have I felt I was returning to normal. It’s been an up-and-down recovery and a little worrisome because the cardiologists and the literature suggest that most people feel back to normal within six months. I didn’t.

This in turn led to depression, which I’m also dealing with. My family doctor reassured me that many of his patients take a year or more to recover from the surgery, but despite understanding that at a rational level, I worried that I might never get well again.

During the past year I’d slipped into the habit of sleeping in late, and casually getting active in the morning, often not dressed and ready for a walk until after noon. In part I had little control over this, and sleep was highly important. Lately, though, I’ve begun some military-like discipline, getting up if I wake early — anywhere between 5 and 6:30 — getting dressed immediately and going for a power walk before breakfast. No stopping at Starbucks, though I carry a camera with me and occasionally stop to take a shot.

The result, combined with the natural healing of my body, is that I’m feeling better and more energetic through the rest of the day. This in turn should help with the writing.

I’ve not been able to shake the depression, but I have many very good days to every bad one, and I’m working with a psychiatrist to help me evaluate my condition and adjust my antidepressant medications when I require changes in dosages. Depression is a terrible disease — one I’ve come to understand first hand and I’m now very empathetic to anyone who is afflicted. Depression is a common condition, I’m told, among cardio patients.

But that aside, I feel I’m having a fresh start in life as I near my 64th birthday. You think a lot on death when you’ve been through major coronary issues, and one of the things that does is help you achieve perspective on what is important in your life.

Family and friends top the list, of course, but I also value creative work more highly than ever. My writing has taken a creative turn. I’m reaching beyond technology writing into creative nonfiction and even some fiction and poetry. I don’t know where this will take me, and I don’t have a particular goal other than to follow the desire to write creatively and to photograph creatively.

Hence the new writing space is symbolic of a fresh start, and a new adventure in life. It’s never too late to start fresh. Somewhere in each of us, I truly believe, are muses willing to work with us, if we learn to listen to them. Call it subconscious or unconscious, or call it tapping into special areas of the brain, or even something new-agey if that’s your schtick — what it’s called matters little, as long as we listen.

I figure a good place to start is right here, at a simple desk, with a southern exposure. Pen and paper ready. Netbook on standby. Dictionaries at the side. The Muses whispering. Everything set to take those important steps into the world of imagination.

nine-muses (by StarbuckGuy)

Scratching an Itch

Why we itch has remained a mystery to science. And why a scratch will relieve an itch an even greater mystery. Scratching would normally excite pain cells but somehow, when applied to an itch, inhibits them instead. In an article in the NYT Science section, Scratching Relieves Itch by Quieting Nerve Cells , writer Benedict Carey documents the latest research about a study that indicates the answer lies neither in the skin, nor the brain, but in specialized nerve cells located in the spinal cord.

But beyond mosquitoes and poison ivy, there’s another kind of itch that may be harder to study. The itch to write or create.

I honestly don’t know what drives me to keep writing but it’s something akin to a mental itch that needs to be scratched, and the only way to scratch it is by writing more. On days I don’t write, I feel off base, as if something isn’t in balance. I get twitchy, unable to concentrate or appreciate other things. It doesn’t go away until I’ve written something — whether a blog entry, journal entry, or even a one-line poem.

I mean, it’s not the fame, is it? It’s certainly not the fortune. Aside from the odd paying gig, writing for a magazine, I earn nothing from it. Sometimes, okay … often … it’s not even satisfying. I fall so short of my writing goals I’m secretly embarrassed.

But write I must, and write I shall, cause I’ve got this … well … itch.

A Secret Pleasure: Chocolate Chips

Writing Challenge (by StarbuckGuy)

This is a small piece I wrote for the April challenge on Creative Nonfiction Writing Forums. This particular theme was “a secret pleasure”. I hope you enjoy it.

I keep a stash of chocolate chips in the kitchen cupboard, behind the bags of loose green tea. They’re not hidden, exactly, but they’re discreetly positioned. My wife knows they’re there but she poses no threat because she’s not overly fond of them. It’s my son and his friends who worry me. Young eating machines capable of emptying the fridge in a single session, it has so far never occurred to them that there might be something to devour on the tea shelf.

When the world is too much with me, late and soon, I visit the tea shelf, shake out a few chips onto my palm, and lick them onto my tongue, letting them warm and melt across the taste buds. Only then do I squidge them between my teeth and bite down slowly, anticipating the flavour-burst rush of chocolate ecstasy. Repeat. Repeat once again. Then conclude with a small wash of cold milk.

Although not as writerly as scotch, or as Leaving Las Vegasy as marijuana, chocolate chips have done more than either to promote well being, mental balance, and happiness. In fact, I believe that one day neurologists will agree with me that the most distinguishing feature of human evolution has been the development of chocolate pleasure receptors in the brain.

This in turn caused intelligence to evolve in order that our species might learn first how to process chocolate, then turn it into little brain bursts of goodness, with flat bottoms and cute curlicue tops. The rest of the human intelligence business, such as spear points, transistors, and epic poems, has been a largely accidental byproduct.

I offer my solace to any not-quite-complete humans who claim not to like chocolate. Their lives may never be optimally gestalten, but they at least have the lesser comforts of scotch, marijuana, or, in extreme cases, vanilla. I’ve not heard of vanilla becoming anyone’s secret pleasure, but I allow for the possibility.

Chocolate chips are also comforting when found in cookies and ice cream, of course, but those tend to be public pleasures. It’s difficult to maintain a secret pleasure at an ice cream shop, a Starbucks, or a family dinner. But a slightly clandestine bag of chocolate chips in the cupboard, semi-sweet ones — Ghiradelli if possible — provides comfort to the writer and poet within in a hard-wired way that surpasses any alternative, not to mention the innate pleasure it provides in fulfilling one’s evolutionary heritage.

The Scope of Things

Spring Cyclist (by StarbuckGuy)

Yesterday I underwent my first scoping procedures: an endoscopy and colonoscopy to see if there might be anything causing internal bleeding. My iron and hemoglobin counts went way down awhile back and my family doc was concerned that there might be some internal bleeding.

As I’ve been told my many people, the preparation for the procedure is worse than the procedure itself. It means fasting the day prior, having only clear liquids, no liquids at all overnight or in the morning on procedure day, and powerful laxatives on the day before that have to be experienced to be believed.  They need you to be clean so they can see the stomach walls and the walls of the intestines.

I discovered a couple of things during the fasting. Campbell’s beef broth is surprisingly nourishing, and I like the upscale drink called Ginseng-Up. A slightly fizzy drink with a delicious ginsing flavour.

As for the procedure itself, it was the usual hospital routine. Check in, get an ID bracelet, then a little hospital gown (short version for this test), then wait. Eventually they loaded me on a gurney and wheeled me into the op room.

“Mr. Wilburn, this is Jessica, a nursing student. Do you mind if she watches the procedure?” Of course not. Then an unexpected question: “Why are you here?” When the question was repeated, I answered “I thought that question was for Jessica.”

“Nice try,” said the nurse, “but you’re the one on the stretcher.” I assumed her question wasn’t an existential one, so I muttered something about my doc being concerned there could be internal bleeding, that my iron and hemoglobin count had gone low. But that they were fine now that I was taking iron supplements. That answer seemed to satisfy her.

The usual jokes as they inserted the IV needle and put some ECG electrodes on my chest. “Ah, you’ve been here before,” kidded the nurse as she saw my bypass scar. “We’re going to spray your throat a couple of times to freeze it. It tastes pretty awful.” That’s encouraging I thought.

She sprayed and I knew right away she wasn’t joking. It tasted very bad. “Just swallow it,” she said. “One more time,” she said, “this is to prevent a gag reflex.” On the second squirt I couldn’t swallow and began to choke a little. “Is this normal?” I asked. “Oh yes,” she said, “perfectly normal. You’ll be fine.”

“Mr. Wilburn, we’re now going to administer a little sedative in your IV. It might make you drowsy.” Bring it on, I thought, still choking and unable to swallow. That’s all I remember until some point when I awoke and could see the scoping monitors and thought it would be interesting to watch. Then nothing.

I woke up in the recovery room and a different nurse gave me some juice and said, “Time to get dressed and go home now.” I felt like I’d had a very pleasant nap. I dressed and soon a hospital volunteer came to me with a wheelchair and took me to the patient pickup entrance where Marion was waiting in the car.

Aside from a slightly sore stomach where I suspect they removed the polyp they’d found, I felt good and enjoyed some soft food: scrambled eggs and a fruit yogurt.  My instructions were to rest. In late afternoon I felt very good and took a gentle walk to Starbucks and back. While at Starbucks I wrote in my journal about the marvels of modern medicine and health treatment.

The polyp will be sent out for a biopsy. Polyps, I’m told, are common and most are benign, so unless I hear otherwise, I’m not worrying about it.

Today I feel even better, and am enjoying sitting in Starbucks writing a blog entry on a nice early-spring day.