Thursday, October 11, 2012

An Interesting Problem to which Coffee is the Solution

School computers always present interesting conundrums for tech folk. On one hand, they are equipped with a lot of software that we- especially if we are the dreaded hybrid creature known as the 'tech-artist'- cannot afford on our lonesome.

And, you know, they provide work stations away from home, enormous screens, additional storage space, and most importantly: the ability to do 'other stuff' when we are supposed to be working. Depending on the school, they may be equipped with powerful hardware. They're ubiquitous; instead of lugging around a high-powered laptop, we can jump on a computer with the same account no matter what building or room we're in.

On the other hand, we don't have administrative rights to them. We can't install anything on them. There are a lot of constraints on the machine. Stupid things don't work. Command terminals are blocked. System Preferences are turned off. Annoying buttons are pre-programmed and can't be disabled. There's a whole lot of any school-based computer system that the average tech person doesn't have access to, restricting what we're capable of doing. And this can be very frustrating when we're trying to accomplish relatively simple tasks.

Given a spot of cleverness, it is of course possible to bypass system restrictions and install programs on school machines. Bare in mind that this means the programs will usually only be installed on a single machine, and these programs wont carry over from compute to computer. Which really causes either a lot of work as you install your programs on every feasible computer workstation you might need to play with, or else a lot of limitations as you are constantly forced to go back to only one workstation. Not an option for licensed tools, assuming you have legit licenses (and usually you don't want to advertise your pirated software all over school computers where, you know, someone potentially could find it...)

Now I'm sure a true nerd could, after a few days of focused meditation in a dark closet somewhere, return and hack in to the school IT department and install their favorite programs anywhere they please, all while avoiding getting caught, and still managing to keep their Apple Developer License information secret and safe and restricted to a single account. But for the rest of us, finding workarounds becomes a useful skill.

It is possible to find portable executables for Windows development machines, and often these are a saving grace. But in an art school, where anyone might divide by zero and open up an inter-dimensional portal at any moment, a chained Mac can be irritatingly dense and inaccessible.

The solution, often, is Java.

I hate Java. I'll be the first one to tell you I hate Java. I hate that Open Office uses Java. I hate that my undergraduate university, The University of Central Florida, had a Computer Science program where the students all learned C, and then Java, and then nothing! They were sent out into the world believing that Java was a gift from the heavens! They were never taught C++ or any sensible programming language! And they wanted to make games! Games! In Java!!!!

While Runescape may be the only Java game that ever succeeds, ever, in the full sum total history of the world, Java serves another extraordinarily valuable purpose on those school computers lucky enough to be installed with self-updating Java run-time environment: Java programs are platform independent, need not be installed, and just work. Java can bypass most of the limitations of a school computer, providing things like command terminals when terminals are disabled, whole suites of software when technical tickets go unanswered, and even just simple productivity widgets like digital flashcard helpers.

And don't get me started on networking! SSH, FTP, SVN, GIT- you name it- if it has an acronym and involves something concerning networking, someone out there made a java app for it. It might be a little flaky, and it might not run correctly until you wiggle a few parts and flop on some duct tape, but Java WILL save your bacon, come hell and high water, no matter what goofy school restrictions stand in the way.

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