We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

a potpourri of mirth and madness

Excellent adventures in free software

Debian swirl
After maintaining an ad hoc Linux distribution for myself for several years, I replaced it with Debian and have never looked back. One of the main reasons for this has been the mind-boggling quantity of applications and tools which are available from its repositories. Given couple of keywords, or a good guess at the name of the application, APT fetches and installs the necessary packages in a matter of seconds. After years of compiling free software programs from source code, this profoundly changed the way I thought about finding and obtaining software.

Over 10 years later, the speed and convenience of this system still occasionally leaves me awestruck. As a typical example, on one occasion, I was using a pastebin to share the output of a program I was discussing with someone online by copying and pasting it.. The output was fairly long, and it was inconvenient to copy and paste, so I wanted a tool which would read the output from a pipe and upload it directly to the pastebin, without a human in the middle.

Before I fired up an editor to write such a tool, I did a quick search to check if any such thing existed already, and found Stéphane Graber’s pastebinit, which did exactly what I wanted (and more). Not only had someone else had the idea first, they had implemented, released and packaged it over a year earlier. The end result, for me, was that within 30 seconds of discovering that I needed such a tool, I had it installed and working.

Experiences like the above still make me feel like I’m living a scene from the 1989 film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, where the protagonists discover that they have already traveled back in time to anticipate their own needs. They merely think about what they need, and there it is. The fact that I am still amazed by this probably makes me sound like a dinosaur to other free software enthusiasts, but this kind of instant gratification is something which is only just beginning to emerge in proprietary systems like the iPhone. The web was designed from the start to work this way, of course, but there is much I can do with free software that I can’t do with web applications (at least for now). The web also doesn’t give me that feeling of personal connection with the creator of the software, or (generally) the opportunity to tailor it for my needs.


Written by Matt Zimmerman

December 26, 2009 at 15:47

3 Responses

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  1. I probably would’ve used xclip, which is a command line tool for putting stuff into your clipboard for pasting elsewhere. So I would use eg. /bin/command > xclip, then paste the results into pastebin. Much easier than trying to mouse and scroll to copy the output, though not as handy for this particular purpose as the tool you found.

    (If anyone cares, the equivalent command on OSX is pbcopy/pbpaste — took me ages to find that, and it drove me crazy not to have xclip, so I mention it for the benefit of anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation.)

    Kirrily Robert

    December 26, 2009 at 22:32

  2. In Fedora 12, fpaste is installed by default and it can be used as a filter (among many many useful arguments) and it has been quite nice in #fedora to be able to guide users. It uses xclip to copy content to clipboard.

    Rahul Sundaram

    December 27, 2009 at 23:43

  3. I think that direct support of developers (irc, mailing-lists, direct email, etc) is a plus to software availability.


    December 30, 2009 at 12:51

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