February 19, 2019

.comment: Help Comes From Unexpected Places

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

  • August 9, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell

It all started with XScreenSaver.

I love XScreenSaver, the framework of which was built by the legendary Jamie Zawinski with modules coming in, apparently, from all over the place. There are scores of them, and when XScreenSaver is running in its default mode it cycles through them in no particular order. It's possible to be surprised by the appearance of a new module months after you have installed the thing. There is money to be made producing a little set-top box that boots Linux and X and does nothing but run XScreenSaver on all those giant projection and flat-panel teevees out there, as a kind of neo-modern Lava Lamp for the few minutes each day when the television itself isn't otherwise on.

Jamie is a tremendously considerate programmer. When I downloaded the source for a new version a few weeks after having installed a new Linux distribution, following the very easy compilation XScreenSaver warned me that there was an RPM of an earlier version aboard. It then explained how to remove it (which not everyone already knows) before doing "make install." This demonstrates a connection between developer and user that is remarkable--something other developers should emulate.

It is also one of the surprising manifestations of help that appear all over the place in Linux, but not always where you'd look if you were inexperienced with the operating system.

Last month I decided to make some changes around here. There are some excellent 3-D modules in XScreenSaver, and while they worked, they did so spasmodically, with frame rates of 1 or 2 per second. The sharks and whales, instead of swimming gracefully, looked as if they'd been dropped in boiling water and were now in their death throes. Other GL modules, that would be entrancing were they running at full speed, reminded me of the Zapruder film on the latest conspiracy show.

My impression was that someone, somewhere, was running these things at a high frame rate. If they could, so could I. And so began an odyssey that rivaled the day a few years ago when first I saw a prompt that said [root]#. More than rivaled, actually--things were pretty well worked out after my first week with Linux.

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