Sunday, May 11, 2008

Universal Writ

I just read an interesting post over at buy someone named Susan Linton. Titled "Review: Hardy Heron converts an Ubuntu skeptic", the article has some interesting things to add to the discussion about Linux's readiness to be ones only desktop operating system. I am already pretty well on record about my thoughts on that point, since I have not used MS Windows personally for years and years, and only use it at the office when forced to. My brother and his wife have been using Ubuntu, it close relative Mint, or OS.X rather than MS windows for over two years, and both of them are not computer professionals. Neither has even taken a computer class.

This being the case, you would think that the article would be preaching to the choir, and it was in some areas, but in one case it left me feeling rather ... well... cold I guess.
Here is what Susan said:

The look of mud

Ubuntu has become the face of Linux for most new users these days, and the first impression is important. At first boot, the first thing you'll probably notice in this release is the new login screen and desktop background artwork. The login screen is tastefully understated, but the new wallpaper features an expressionistic heron on a burnt amber background. There's a reason why no other distribution uses brown as its default color scheme. Brown is not an attractive color, and Hardy Heron is just Not a pretty distro.

What bothered me was that I used to think that same way till a co-worker named Richard wrote me about his thoughts on the subject. I wrote about this in part in my "Color Theory" post over at TalkBMC a while ago.

What Richard told me was a simple truth that I had never really considered. He was born in Africa, and to him the color palette that he finds attractive and restful is different than the ones I do. The posit here then would be that at least in part, color preferences are based on your early experiences.

I really started to understand this when I bought my first (and only) home. Located in the high desert of Far West Texas, the colors around me are brown and orange and turquoise and sage. The sky in the evening is every pastel shade in the book, yet amazingly vivid.

What would my favorite color palette be if I had been born there rather than an immigrant?

My favorite color, like many in the West, is blue. Still is. While I am able to change still, indicating that I have not died yet, it seems unlikely that this preference will change. Most OS default themes developed in the West are done in shades of blue. Windows XP added a bold splash of green that I hated for years.

This color preference of the West appears to be changing. Vista is kind of interesting in this regard: It is done in shades of black. Many of the add in themes for XMMS and other themable apps are black, although there are also acid greens and other themes that bring to my mind a trip to "Hot Topic" and speed metal bands.

Ubuntu is not a western distro in many ways. Its intent is to be a world distro: That is a concept at its very core. Just look at the Logo!. Knowing that Linux is all about choice, no one has to leave the single thematic element in any color or even shape that does not please them.

Here this is what I found disquieting: Susan assumes her color preferences to be received wisdom. The phrasing of her personal preference was such that she does not appear to be aware of the difference between a personal bias and a universal truth.

Really: If Ubuntu was as ugly as she posits, then how the heck did it become the predominant one for the Linux desktop? Sure it is a solid bit of work, taking a terrific OS and related applications and integrating them in a smooth and nearly seamless way. Lots of Distros do that though. She is not totally wrong: back when I first looked at it, I was put off from doing much more than looking at it in curiosity as I did not like the default brown theme colors either. I preferred Kubuntu in part because it uses a blue-based color palette as its starting place. What I know now though is that this was a preference of mine, not Universal Writ.

I am not trying to pick on Susan here either. At the very beginning of her piece she states as an opening posit that she has never really much liked Ubuntu. We can infer that she might know at some level that this is a preference thing, even though the phrasing quoted above does not make it appear that this has bubbled up to the top of her mind just yet. Why I even brought it up is that it is something everyone should be mindful of when they say things. There is a difference between the phrase "I prefer blue" and "Blue is Gods Holy Color, and everyone should kneel down before it."

This has further implications than just color. I know why I prefer Linux and OS.X to MS Windows. I know those who would scream bloody murder before someone could pry their Redmond loving arms from around their MS Windows XP license are having an extreme preference too. I have seen Vista. I have used it. I get the preference there.

It is not that they could not do things they need a computer for with one OS or another. Really, the top three OS are all pretty full fledged these days. I can write a post, read email, surf the net, IM, create a spreadsheets, change the colors of the desktop, etc on any of them.

Really: There is enough polarity in this world without adding to it. Looked at another way, I just finished re-reading for the 15 or 16th time Robert A Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land". In it there is a concept of a 'Fair Witness': People so trained as to only speak the truth when they are professionally called upon to do so. It is a sort of trance state that they can enter, but it colors their thinking even when they are not in the 'Fair Witness' modality. To demonstrate, a main character of the book named Jubal asked a Fair Witness named Anne to describe the color of the house on the hill. Anne looks, and replies that "It is white on this side". Jubal then explains that no Fair Witness would ever assume that the house is anything other than what they can see, or even that the house will stay white once they quit looking at it.

That mind set is a lovely thing in my opinion because it removes so much possible false judgement from the situation. It goes no where near "White houses are best" although it would be fair to say "White houses are far better at rejecting solar heat gain than dark color houses", and so if you live in a hot place, white might in fact "be best". Unless you like being hot.

I just wish people would spend just a bit more time thinking about a preference (and I include myself in this), and expressing it as such, rather than stating it as the way that the world must revolve around.

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