The cost of convenience


I am not particularly good with computers. Working in the command line makes me feel uncomfortable. I can follow instructions well enough, but when doing something “ambitious,” things can go south very quickly.

There is a free program I use to do visual design work. Late last year, a new version came out with one little feature that made the whole thing much more convenient to use. After a little refurbishing, I got my laptop running and set it up to do what I thought would be a simple installation – download the installer from the site, click the little check boxes to tell the program I didn’t want some vaguely-associated financial software or photo organization software, and wait for things to install.

That didn’t happen.

After some running around and hunting down strange servers, I realized I would have to do something I thought the province of people who could be fairly called computer professionals. I would have to compile the whole thing from scratch.

I still don’t know exactly what that means. In layman’s terms, though, it means abandoning all the lovely graphical programs I so enjoy and going straight for the command line – running the whole installation with nothing but textual commands and feedback. Fortunately, the programmers’ website had a very user-friendly step-by-step guide for compiling their program. I hit my first speed bump with a missing dependency – a missing part or tool I needed to run the program. Again, the programmers’ guide was friendly. They included instructions on how to fix this particular dependency. But while compiling this dependency, I got another missing dependency error. Computers are complicated machines, so each part or tool requires a set of parts or tools to work correctly.

Over the next several hours, I found myself in what computer professionals call “dependency hell,” when each dependency requires another dependency or two to compile, and each of those another one or two. If I were more interested in computers, I might have been really impressed by the sheer magnitude of the programming architecture required to run a single program. But it’s not easy to be academic when frustrated at 3:30 in the morning.

Finding the way out of dependency hell first required I find its roots, dependency by dependency. Every time a new dependency compiled the first time through, I felt like I’d found an oasis – a brief rest on my dark and confusing journey.

I’ll share with you the tech support specialist’s best friend. It’s Google. Any time there was a problem, I knew somebody else in the world had probably had it or something similar. Google searches led me to forums where people who had more experience than I shared and found solutions for their problems. What others had learned fixing their problems was preserved for others to find – a living technical support document. Even with this great resource, I eventually discovered I couldn’t get the feature I wanted without seriously altering my system. Rather than continue to turn my computer into an unusable, monolithic mess, I changed the operating system and installed the software. From the point I gave up on doing it my way, it took two hours to get what I sought.

I’d like to reiterate why I spent a total of 10 hours on my laptop struggling with computer engineering far beyond my ken. I wanted one little feature in a photo manipulation program, one that was available in the current version, and I wanted it on the system I had. If this sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is ridiculous – at least in this context.

But think about all the effort, all the hundreds and thousands of hours, the lost weekends, the missed concerts, the lonely nights and all of the rest that went into designing the smartphone – a device that fits in a pocket and allows its owner to check Twitter or Facebook or what have you on the go. A device that is reliable, light, hard to break, has a good battery life, doesn’t cost too much and a dozen other things.

Convenience isn’t cheap, doesn’t come easy and is rather inconvenient on the whole. Still, I have my little feature, and it feels all the more special because I put in the work to make it happen – even if things didn’t work out as I’d wanted. Make of that what you will.