Taking the Blue Pill

A Unix User’s Adventures in OS X

In “The Matrix” Neo is offered a choice: take the Blue Pill and wake up in the happy world; Take the Red Pill and step through the looking glass into our ugly reality: a dystopian nightmare ruled by machines. Conventional wisdom is that using Linux is like taking the Red Pill, and a Mac hides away the ugly reality, providing a shiny, well-designed experience where you can ignore the machines and focus on your own needs.

I have preferred Unix-based interfaces for the past fifteen years, making use of Windows and Macs when needed. When my employer recently offered the choice between an overpowered MacBook Pro and a less overpowered PC, I decided to try the Blue Pill. I can no longer tell which is the dystopian reality, but I have taken some notes along the way.


My previous workstations have been Lenovo W series notebooks: solid workhorses with good battery life. Capable of anything! Could use one as a bludgeon in a fight. Then I got this MacBook . . . so thin!? Where did they put all the workhorse bits? Solid metal, good performance, the battery lasts, and it is easier and more convenient to carry around in the backpack. And the power adapter isn’t nearly as humungous. I love it!

I do miss the Lenovo’s docking station. Getting to work or breaking out to a meeting means swapping five cables in and out of the side of the computer. A minor annoyance, but one that was solved six billion years ago by those boring PC users.

Winner: Mac

Retina Display

I have always valued displays with more pixels: in my younger days it meant I could cram more terminals onto a screen. Later, it meant that anti-aliased fonts looked nicer when I scaled them up to read text. Now, on this Mac, I am not looking at pixels any more. After using computers for three decades it is just a really special experience not to see the pixels.

Sometimes I just stare at the screen because I get a weird kick out of the fact that I can’t see pixels any more: just well-formed letters.

I can also respect Apple because this is not simply “more pixels” — the display paradigm has shifted away from bitmaps and they did some careful work to make sure that bits and pieces were scaled correctly so that the high-resolution display would not look like crap. Kudos!

Huge Winner: Mac

The Windows Key

Macs are the only platform which uses the Windows keys. Windows grew up without a special key, so most key combinations use Alt. Linux tends to copy Windows conventions: Alt-Tab, Alt-W, Alt-F4, Control-Alt-Arrow, &c.

You want Function Keys? Try this Symbolics LM-2 Lisp “space cadet” keyboard designed at MIT. CC: Dave Fischer

Macs built their keyboard combinations around the old Open Apple / Closed Apple keys, which they then replaced by the . . . Whatchamacallit . . . key, but since Windows is the dominant OS, the Whatchamacallit key (on most keyboards) is actually a Windows key. And since I know what to call the Windows key, I think of all Mac keyboard combinations as Windows-Tab, Windows-Q. (Yeah, I have learned that people call it “Command” . . .)

I think it is funny that Microsoft copied the Windows key from Apple, Apple re-branded the Apple key to a mysterious glyph, and now whenever I use my trusty external keyboard I mainly use the Windows key to talk to the Mac.

There is an unintended advantage to this: if you run Linux or Windows as a Virtual Machine on a Mac System, you can Windows-Tab between Mac apps and your VM, then within your VM you mostly use the Alt key. You start training your brain to use the Alt key within your VM, and the Windows key to talk to your Mac.

Winner: VMware

Keyboard Shortcuts

The Mac has a nice Control Panel for configuring keyboard shortcuts within the OS and within applications. This is dang handy. My only grouse is that it seems a modifier key is always required. So, in Outlook, if I want to Archive a message I have to hit Control-A instead of simply “a”.

I can live with that.

Linux . . . there might be a control panel for shortcuts, but only for the interface, then each application may or may not have a way of configuring keyboard shortcuts.

Winner: Mac

Copy and Paste

Mac and Windows do this the same: Control-C / Control-V is Command-C, / Command-V. Wonderful, right?

Let me tell you about Unix. We highlight the text . . . then we go to another window . . . then we press the middle mouse button.

Big Deal, right? Okay, now let us say you’re doing a fair amount of copy-and-paste. Quick: copy-and-paste five things!

Mac: mouse: click-drag-release — keyboard: press two keys—mouse: move, click—keyboard: press two keys … mouse: click-drag-release — keyboard: press two keys—mouse: move, click—keyboard: press two keys … mouse: click-drag-release — keyboard: press two keys—mouse: move, click—keyboard: press two keys … mouse: click-drag-release — keyboard: press two keys—mouse: move, click—keyboard: press two keys … mouse: click-drag-release — keyboard: press two keys—mouse: move, click—keyboard: press two keys
Unix: mouse: click-drag-release, move, click, click … click-drag-release, move, click, click … click-drag-release, move, click, click … click-drag-release, move, click, click … click-drag-release, move, click, click

Winner: Unix . . . but see below

Focus Follows Mouse

Unix Curmudgeons use every part of the Mouse
CC: Darkone

A favorite option for Unix Curmudgeons is that whenever you move the mouse, the window beneath the pointer becomes the active window. This is called “Focus Follows Mouse,” in contrast to “Click to Focus.” This feature saves curmudgeons the trouble of clicking on a window to paste into it.

So in the example above:

Curmudgeon: mouse: click-drag-release, move, click … click-drag-release, move, click … click-drag-release, move, click … click-drag-release, move, click … click-drag-release, move, click

Focus Follows Mouse is so antithetical to the Mac interface that it is not worth the time to even ask about it. (I know this because I asked about it.) All the same, limited support creeps in: see Brian Moyles’ comment at the top of this section.

Winner: Unix curmudgeons

Microsoft Outlook

If your employer uses Microsoft Exchange, the best way to manage your Email and Calendar is Microsoft Outlook. I have tried using Outlook several times in the past decade and every time I threw my hands up in disgust and frustration. These days, though, I can configure Outlook to do 95% of what I want in a mail client.

On Linux, there’s Thunderbird, which works about as well as Outlook. (They both have their quirks.) But, to my knowledge there’s no native Calendar app that works with Exchange as well as Outlook.

Winner: Steve Ballmer

Software Updates

On Windows and on Mac, the OS updates itself. Windows can do this without prompting. Mac sometimes needs your password. Mac sometimes needs your login credentials to log in to iTunes to update the OS. I hate iTunes and don’t remember my iTunes password so I have to go reset it otherwise it will just keep asking me if I want to update stuff that it can’t download. “Seriously . . .”

On Windows and Mac, each application is left to its own devices to update itself. Some applications are more annoying to update than others.

With Unix, the OS generally updates itself, and it manages all your application updates for you. You can do 95% of your software procurement in the OS-provided interface. Linux will typically prompt you and ask before it does OS upgrades. It might ask for your local password.

Linux usually does a good job updating software, but sometime a Linux flavor will ask wacktastic questions like this. →

Every version of Linux has a different interface for software updates. Some are better than others, but they all get the job done. Most of the time. And they’re mostly not too annoying about it. Most of the time.

Winner: Linux! Most of the time.

Power Management

PCs have at least two different standards for power management, with a bajillion different sensors that need to be reverse-engineered and then supported by various little pieces of Linux to make it all work. I just shut the OS down when I’m not using it.

Apple, on the other hand, have no excuses, and power management is one quick visit to the control panel. When I’m not using the PowerBook, I just shut the lid and stuff it in a corner, and when I open it up again, I can pick up where I left off. It is freaking fantastic!

Winner: Mac

Window Snapping

What I miss from Linux UIs is that when I drag a window to the side of the screen, the side of the window will have a tendency to stick to the side of the screen. I think Microsoft added that back in Windows 95. On a Mac, I just keep dragging the window down and completely off the screen. It feels like driving down a snowy road and I have to be real careful not to oversteer or I’ll end up stuck in a snow bank and I’ll have to shovel myself out from underneath the other windows that have piled up in the ditch.

Moom: makes the Green Button useful!

A happy solution which I have found is Moom. No snapping, but now if I hover over the expand button, I get a choice of asking the window to snap left or right half screen or full screen and other options. This is the best $10 my employer ever spent! This also fixes that weird Mac thing where the green button . . . well, there’s really no predicting what the heck that thing is going to do! Sometimes it goes full screen, sometimes it reverts to previous size, and sometimes it emails crotch shots to your girlfriend. Moom fixes that.

Winner: Unix

Honorable Mention: Moom


If you are reading this on a computer, there is a clock in some corner of your screen. Click on it.

On Mac, you’ll get a drop-down menu that leads to a Control Panel to change your time zone and whatnot:

Mac: click on the Clock to get to the Date & Time Control Panel

On Linux, you’ll likely get a monthly calendar, and there will typically be links into your Calendar program to check your schedule, and maybe a link to change your time zone or whatever.

Linux: click on the Clock to check your Calendar

What do you think?

Winner: Linux

Caveat: Nobody manages their schedule on Linux.


Here is a bug that Apple should have fixed back in the 80's: when you close a Finder window, Finder keeps running. Then:

. . . when you click on the Finder, nothing happens!

Finder is the front end of a “User Friendly” Operating System and yet the first thing a user has to do to get anything done is to learn to adapt to Finder’s shortcomings: either go find “new window” in the menu somewhere or move windows around until you find a desktop icon you can click to launch a Finder window.

(Why did Steve Jobs never curse out anyone over this?)

I have wrestled with Finder on and off through the years. It does weird things like in the thumbnail view you can sort, but then you have to “clean up” after you move some files around. Most Linux file managers these days will put a slider somewhere on the window to scale the size of icons on the window. After some digging you can enable that in the Finder, too. The Finder’s buddy, the Preview app, has no sense of paging from one file to the next, which is a common workflow especially when working with a directory of images. (So, I replaced Preview with Xee . . .)

Finder isn’t worth the frustration: when I want to manage my photos, I pull up a Linux file manager or Microsoft Windows.

Winner: Dropbox

Device Removal

Insert a thumb drive or a memory card into your computer, exchange some files, close the window, and . . . now what:

With a sane OS: pull the device out of the computer and resume your life.

With Mac, you have an abundance of choices:

  1. Pretend Mac is a sane OS, and pull the device out of the computer. Next, acknowledge the standard lecture that reckless, irresponsible behavior like yours is what will lead to the collapse of civilization, you knuckle-dragging Neanderthal!
  2. Find the device in the Finder, or move the windows around to find it on the desktop, then drag it to the Trash Can, which will become an Eject Icon. The computer will then grant you permission to remove the device.
  3. Find the device in the Finder, or move the windows around to find it on the desktop, then right-click on it to get a menu, and choose “Eject.” The computer will then grant you permission to remove the device.
  4. Swallow a Red Pill, open a Terminal window, and type the following to lobotomize your Mac into behaving sanely:
sudo launchctl unload -w /System/Library/LaunchDaemons/com.apple.UserNotificationCenter.plist

Winner: Linux


Three Villians CC: Fabian Gonzalez

Mac and Linux each have their advantages. The Mac’s advantages tend towards the hardware, and Microsoft Office. Right now, I use the Mac for email and calendar in Outlook, and for WebEx meetings. I use a Fedora Linux VM on the Mac for doing real work. For me, “real work” is mostly navigating among terminal windows and web browsers, using vim, ssh, some copy-and-paste, and sometimes graphics programs like GIMP, Dia, and Inkscape.

Fedora is not ready to scale itself to the assumptions of a retina display. This in not a problem, as VMware Fusion is happy to scale the display down to chunky pixels. This means that I prefer to read and write English prose on the Mac side so I can stare lovingly at the beautiful fonts. When I’m thinking in Unix, thinking in code, checking answers on StackExchange, I’m at home among the pixels.

For chatting, I’ll use Cisco Jabber on the Mac to chat with workmates, then switch to Pidgin running in the Linux VM to chat with everyone else, especially friends on IRC. I found a Pidgin build for OS X but it did not work well with the retina display. I have never managed to tolerate Adium long enough to form a coherent opinion as to why I so deeply loathe it.

When I want to manage my photos I use the Kubuntu Linux desktop at home. It has a big screen and an intuitive file manager. After that, I’ll boot the Windows VM and play World of Tanks.

Winner: It’s 2013—Everyone Wins!