Development Hell

In which The Author is blinded by Geek Speak

Last week I needed to do a particular job using GIMP, the Open Source (and therefore free) alternative to Photoshop. Easier said than done.
I’ve always pricked up my ears when it comes to free software. In fact, the last piece of software I bought was the video-editing package to accompany my camcorder. The only reason I still use Windows at all is to run that package, and also the software which came with my camera. Everything else on my system at home is Open Source.
(Incidentally, after spending most of a day and some of the next day tidying up a friend’s Windows 8 laptop a fortnight ago, I’ve sworn off Microsoft entirely.)
I wanted to install what sounded like a fairly useful plug-in for GIMP, which would enable me to batch resize and watermark pictures in one operation. It would be very handy when Alwyn’s website goes live in the new year. I found one called BIMP, which sounded as though it would be ideal for our purposes. I downloaded the file from the developer’s website, and then the fun started.
It doesn’t just install like a normal GIMP plug-in, you see. That’s a fairly complex operation in Linux anyway, requiring superuser privileges and access to hidden directories. I’ve got a reasonable grasp of the Command Line Interface after six years as a Ubuntu user, but I very quickly found myself going up my own orifice.
Eventually I returned to the programmer’s website, where he simply said that one needed to ‘compile the script’ before proceeding.
Compile the fucking script? Who does he think I am – Steven Moffat?
The last time I dabbled with anything remotely like computer programming, I was in the Lower Sixth form in school. I’ll be fifty in March. You do the maths. I’ve never even attempted to work in Visual Basic, Java, C++, Python, Perl, or any of the other languages which have come about since the good old days of the BBC Model B Micro. Compiling a script is way above my pay grade.
The many threads of questions accompanying the programmer’s website didn’t inspire confidence, either. He didn’t seem to want anyone to actually use his plug-in. Whenever anyone asked him a simple question about the installation procedure, he or she was met by lines of code which didn’t explain anything. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that he was being deliberately obstructive.
I appreciate that English isn’t his first language. From what I can gather from his website, his first language is Italian. Maybe the fine details were lost in translation.
I suspect that the language with which he really feels most comfortable is Geek Speak. If you watch NCIS, you’ll know the face Gibbs pulls whenever Abbie and McGee go off on one of their technical explanations. That’s my standard response to Geek Speak, too.
Eventually, after a lot of searching around, I found a link to a site where someone had actually ‘compiled a binary’ (whatever that means) which should have been ready to use. Once I downloaded it into my folder, the little icon looked the same as all the other GIMP plug-in icons. That seemed promising. However, when I relaunched the program, the plug-in was nowhere to be found.
I returned to my neural default setting (‘Fuck it!’) and hunted through the Software Centre for something that could do the same job. After a while I found a program called XConvert, which has a nice user interface and an easy to navigate menu system.
I ran a trial job with some of the photos I took when Geoff and I were in Swansea, and it works a treat. Alwyn and I will have to play with it to get the best results, but at least it bloody works.
In the meantime, all the various BIMP downloads are where they belong – in the Rubbish Bin.
Yesterday I wanted to accomplish what seemed like a fairly straightforward task. (Remember how much I hate that word?) I needed to change my suggested edits and comments in Jon Wallace’s forthcoming book, so that instead of being attributed to ‘Unknown Author’, they bore my name.
Easy?
Not when you’re working on a Microsoft Word document in LibreOffice, apparently. After a great deal of digging around, I found a fix which required me to copy some lines of code into a macro, and then run said macro. I tried it a few times, but without any success. I ended up saving the entire book, transferring it to the PC at home, and then transcribing my corrections and comments to a new file, having set up LibreOffice to recognise me.
It was so much easier when I was growing up. The Doctor simply waved his sonic screwdriver at the troublesome computer and everything worked perfectly.
Now, even using anything outside the very basic built-in functions of the software seems to require the user to dive into the world of programming (or coding, as the UK Government likes to call it) There’s even talk of putting ‘Coding’ on the primary curriculum, believe it or not. We’ve certainly come a long way since we sixth-formers were allowed to play with BBC BASIC on one of the school’s three computers – as long as they weren’t being shared between a class of thirty or so, of course.
I’ve got friends a few years younger than me, who immersed themselves in the world of programming from an early age. They’d buy magazines like Hobby Electronics or Acorn User, and spend hours typing lines of code into their systems. If they wanted to play a game, or keep track of their stamp collections, or do anything else, they pretty much had to write the program themselves. Is it any wonder that after a while they became as familiar with BASIC or assembly language as they were with English?
As a result, of course, they also became fluent in Geek Speak. They almost seem unable to prevent it from slipping out, in fact. I’ve got one friend in particular, who simply can’t help himself. Whenever I mention on Facebook a technical issue I’ve encountered, he’ll launch into a major ‘explanation’, which he (naturally) thinks makes perfect sense, but which leaves everything as clear as mud. I could be tempted to think he does it deliberately, to wind me up.
I had to walk away from Olly and Andrew a fortnight ago. After spending two days on Mark’s Windows 8 system, and several hours trying to install BIMP, I wasn’t in the mood for anything to do with computers. They were having a pint in Thereisnospoon when I walked over to join them. As soon as I heard Olly mention ‘programming’ I immediately apologised to them, told them I’d had a fucking gutsful of Geek Speak, and went to sit at another table.
While I was hunting for a solution to the ‘Unknown Author’ mystery yesterday, I spotted a comment from an other frustrated LibreOffice user. He said something like, ‘I don’t need to be able to rebuild an engine in order to drive a car. Why should using software be any different?’
Someone else commented that it’s not the 1980s any more. We shouldn’t still have to write our own software hacks for packages which have been in circulation for a good number of years.
I agree with both those points, and I’m not exactly a novice when it comes to computers. I’ve been using them on and off for over thirty years, and I’m starting to realise that the more one knows, the more one is expected to know in order to get the best out of the software.
But the whole point of the Open Source agenda is to make software usable, affordable and accessible. Surely these plug-ins, macros, add-ons and miscellaneous hacks should all come bundled with the main packages when you download them. Instead, you practically need to learn how to program to accomplish fairly basic tasks.
In the meantime, you’re confronted with pages and pages of Geek Speak, which probably makes perfect sense to the programmer, but means absolutely nothing to the average computer user who just wants to do the job.
Maybe in thirty years’ time, when the current crop of babies have been taught to code in primary school, the language of software development will be as natural in Britain as English itself. Until then, I fear we’ll be stuck in Development Hell, separated from the Geeks by an impenetrable barrier of technocrap which means nothing to most people.
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