Why Gentoo?

I just came across another good post on why it’s worthwhile to use Gentoo, if not permanently, at least temporarily. Kathy Sierra posted on the Passionate Users blog about the inverse relationship between efficiency of your tool and your understanding of what it does. The more autoconfiguration there is, the harder it is for you to figure out what to do when you’ve got a setup that doesn’t autoconfigure.

A commenter on that post pointed to an earlier Joel Spolsky (Joel on Software) post on leaky abstractions—in other words, an incomplete, simplified metaphor that sometimes breaks down. When you don’t understand both sides of the metaphor, you can’t figure out why everything’s busted.

In the same way, automated tools suck. They’re great once you understand the black box they hide from you, but ignoring that black box entirely is a route to disaster. That’s why you should try Gentoo, or LFS, or some similar DIY distro that gives you the opportunity to understand what all those fancy GUI tools really do. Someday, they’ll break. Will you survive, or will you take your toys and go home?

OSCON talk proposals

The deadline for proposing ideas for OSCON talks was Monday at 11:59 p.m. Naturally I clicked Submit for the final time not long before then, at 11:56 p.m. Note I said “final time,” implying more than one—I decided to go all-out and submit three ideas, in hopes that at least one will slip through. For the curious, they are

  • Design and publish beautifully and professionally: How to create a professional-looking document, using Scribus and Inkscape. Many people who read this probably don’t realize I spent four years working as a page designer and copy editor at newspapers. I continue that interest today as editor of a newsletter about open-source activity for the Open Source Educational Laboratory at Oregon State.
  • Community dynamics in a large open-source project: Problems, solutions and conundrums in Gentoo. The funniest (and saddest) part is when the same things begin to repeat themselves, and nobody else remembers last time it happened.
  • Open-source software in the biosciences: Where we are and what we learned on the voyage: The cruel joke of scientists as programmers. As a grad student in biochemistry at OSU, I’ve had to deal with more ugly software than many of you can imagine. But at least more of it is open source now, right?

Anyone else submit proposals? I’d be interested to hear what they’re about.

Learning PHP, Ajax, MySQL

I’m taking over a webapp at work written in PHP+MySQL. I’d like to add some Ajaxy goodness to it because the UI is an ugly POS with lots of pointless page loads for little things, etc. Funny thing is, I have basically no experience in any of these technologies.

Suggestions for the best way to learn them together or separately?