I spent yesterday afternoon getting my bike ready for my first major touring of the year, Club Splendor’s Izu Yamabiko-so touring, and I found my thoughts drifting toward the similarities between being a biker and being a linux and open source software user. (Geek alert! Bear with me here.)
For the past few weeks, I’ve been running ubuntu linux on my box (Feisty 7.04 beta, baby!—bikers live on the edge), and I can’t imagine going back to Windows any more than I can imagine going back to using a four-wheeled cage as my main vehicle. Of course, the parallels here aren’t perfect, as there’s a big difference between being out on the road in the wind and the sun versus sitting in front of an LCD, growing paler by the minute, but I think there’s something to be said for the biker=hacker idea.
I was over at the Stinger’s new place, using the bike jack my family bought them as a housewarming gift (knowing, of course, that I would be using it a lot) to change my oil, and it struck me again how Harleys are built under the assumption that riders will be doing their own maintenance and doing some of their own repairs, and designed so it’s easy to do so. Modern cars, and most modern bikes, are designed with the attitude that such things should be left to the pros, so even basic things like oil tanks are often in hard-to-reach places, or only accessible with special tools. The Harley engine design says, “we understand that bikes sometimes break down, so we’ll make them easy to fix if that happens.” More modern engine designs say, “Don’t worry your pretty little head, this won’t break down…um, and if it does, qualified mechanics are standing by.” Bikers prefer not to be condescended to, and like to do things for themselves.
Open source is similar. People selling commercial software pretend that bugs don’t exist, the way car manufacturers pretend mechanical problems are rare, freak occurrences. If one of those supposedly rare breakdowns happens on the road, you’re screwed, and when something breaks in Windows, all you can do is restart and hope for the best. Open source, on the other hand, recognizes that all software has bugs, so they let you see the source code and give you command line access to fix it. A wrench and a shop manual come included in the OS, as it were, and there are plenty of old grizzled bikers hanging around to give you wrenching advice when you need it.
I checked my sparkplugs to make sure that the fuel mixture settings on my carb were right for the season and that everything was running smoothly, and the plugs are right where you want them and easily accessible. On a whim, decided to switch the stock plugs to some SE split-V plugs, and again, it stuck me: Harleys are built to be tweaked and customized by the rider. Every rider is different, and the designers recognized that and built the bike in a way that allows each rider the freedom to make it just what the rider wants. The corporate masters at Microsoft decide the best way to use their software, but linux is made to be customized and tweaked and optimized to get it to match the needs and wants of each user. The code is there for you to fiddle with. Hack it, chop it, bolt on aftermarket parts, customize it as you like, until you get the ride you were looking for. My bike fits my body, my riding style, and my aesthetic sense perfectly, and now, finally, so does my OS. Of course, I’ll probably never stop tweaking either of them.
Ubuntu linux is a great ride even if you don’t care to learn about the inner workings, just as riding a Harley can be great even if you’ve never touched a wrench in your life. But if you want to go deeper, get your hands greasy, and get a fuller connection to your machine, that choice is there for the taking. It’s all about freedom, baby!