Intuitively Obvious to the Most Casual Observer


I, like so many others, have an almost obsessive passion for fine-tuning my computing environment. I haven’t quite reached the neurotic level of posting self-congratulatory videos and screen-shots (seriously - who needs a screen-shot of a tiling window manager?), but that’s probably mostly because I’ve poured more of my efforts into minimizing my RAM usage.

Whenever I mention this sort of thing to normal people, the question I invariable get is “why?” (often preceded by some variant of “oh god”). It’s a fair question, and “it’s fun” doesn’t quite cut it as a reply. The optimization process can be mildly interesting and even entertaining for a short while, but it more often devolves into hours-long mind-numbing hunts for the perfect combination of boot options. Hardly anyone’s definition of “fun”.

The canonical reply most others afflicted with this syndrome give is that it saves time in the long run. Think of how the milliseconds stack up! OK, let’s think of it: if I shave 10 seconds (!) off my boot time, and I boot a full 500 times a year (easily an over-estimate), I’ll save a bit under 3 hours over two years. Not a very convincing argument after spending 5 hours saving 2 seconds. This argument is even worse for me in particular, since reducing RAM usage to below 300MB on a machine with 4GB can in no way be cast as a time-saver.

So what, then, is the motivation for the perverse quest for the optimum computing environment? It seems logical that, as engineers, we should have missed the simple and obvious - but non-function - explanations: aesthetics, and, closely related, frustration.

Normal people - the same who are asking the question - will happily spend hours, days, or weeks debating and deciding the precise placement of items in a room, or shrubs in a garden, or fussing over the organization of a desk or the color scheme in an office. The motivation is the same. The real cost of a sub-optimal work or living environment is the frustration cost by the simple knowledge that it is sub-optimal. There don’t have to be any direct, material costs - the knowledge and ensuing frustration over fundamentally aesthetic aspects is sufficient.

A fine-tuned, heavily customized instance of xmonad (real men use dwm, by the way) probably hasn’t made anybody noticeably more productive - quite the opposite, in my experience. But like the perfect pen, it brings with it the satisfaction of knowing that it is perfect, and that’s that much better than being simply sufficient.