How Ubuntu (Linux) Changed My Life Thursday, Dec 24 2009 

Ubuntu changed my life!  I’m smarter, cooler, and more ethical.

Sound too good to be true?  Well, it isn’t.

I began using Linux about 2 years ago.  Before that, I was a long time Windows user.  (And before that, an Apple user.)  Until my Linux days, I was a pretty typical PC user.  I would word-process documents, play a few games, and later, check email and surf the net.  I really didn’t care about how things worked; I just wanted them to work.  And hence, my Windows days were nothing pioneering or interesting.

In general, I would consider myself to be a pretty inquisitive person. I have always been interested in how things worked, but for some reason, probably because I saw them as too complex, I did not take an interest in knowing how computers worked.  The movie War Games probably had something to do with this too.  I didn’t need or want the FBI knocking down my door.

But I did take a few computing classes growing up, so I knew some of the basics.  But by the time I was in high school, I was more interested in getting my essays word-processed than understanding computer programming.  I figured the computer geeks could worry about that stuff.  Anyway, by that time, my dreams of being a computer scientist were already dashed by complicated math.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized how important technology, specifically the personal computer, had become. Aside from the obvious advantages of having a word-processor and other applications that made the production and editing of documents much easier, technology was linking disciplines and essentially changing them. The expectations of what people could produce quickly grew as documents became more sophisticated in appearance.

But even though I realized this importance, I accepted that technology had passed me by, and I would be destined to be a casual end user.  So I did the safe thing: I used Windows.  I knew the interface, it did the job most of the time, and it was available in all of the computer labs on campus.  There were a few times when I considered going back to Apple, but once I figured out what it would cost, I decided to stick with the PC platform.  Besides, I had already begun to dabble in open source applications, so I knew there was plenty of free software out there for Windows users.

It wasn’t until that fateful day I came across a Laptop magazine reference to Ubuntu Linux and its growing popularity.  I began to do some research on Linux and Ubuntu.  I talked with the head of our IT department on campus and asked him what he thought about Linux.  Of course, many of his servers were already running Red Hat, so he suggested I give it a try, but warned me to expect some hitches.

So I did.  My first distro was Ubuntu Feisty Fawn (7.04) and Gutsy soon after that.  I then tried Open SUSE (10.3, I think) and eventually SUSE SLED 10, which was preinstalled on a new Thinkpad I bought.  After some testing and trial in the classroom and work environment, I decided to go with Ubuntu.  I really liked SUSE; however, didn’t feel comfortable with the Novell and Microsoft “agreement.” I figured if I was going open source, I would go with a cleaner and unencumbered distro.  (See, I told you I became more ethical!)

So how did Linux, Ubuntu in my case, make me smarter?  I began to tinker with my computer again.  I had to figure out what I needed it to do, and how to get it to do it.  The one nice thing about Ubuntu is that its default install is very usable “out of the box.”  I think most casual users would need to change very little.

For me, I was pretty apprehensive to change anything at first.  But as time went on, I gained more confidence, and soon was making some small ones. In fact, some of them weren’t voluntary.  I’ll admit; what my campus IT guru told me came to fruition.  There were some hitches along the way.  I had to edit configuration files and learn how to use the command line to effectively solve some problems.  But all of these hitches and changes forced me to get more intimate with my computer.  When I used Windows, everything was veiled behind a GUI (and I suppose in many ways Ubuntu is guilty of this too), and so I didn’t need to understand what I was doing when I made changes; rather, I just needed to know how to execute them. Easier, right? Quicker, right? Well, not always. How do you fix something you don’t understand? And believe me, there was plenty that vexed me about Windows.

But if we take James Taylor’s advice and “[enjoy] the passage of time,” I think we could and would learn so much more.  I understand why many would find what I’m suggesting abhorrent.  Why bother trying to understand your computer when you have better things to do?

But I’m not talking about major time commitments here. I don’t think it’s necessary to understand every intricacy of the OS. And as a matter of fact, I want to suggest quite the opposite.  I think we should invest just enough time so we can understand the larger concepts of computing. These concepts will help us better understand how to solve problems that arise.  And I’m not talking about Linux problems, Windows problems, or Mac problems exclusively.  But in general.  If you understand how WebDav works, then the chances of you setting it up properly increases immensely, regardless of the OS that you’re using.  It’s like cooking.  If you understand the basic concept of stewing, you can probably produce a pretty good beef stew no matter whose kitchen you’re cooking in as long as the basic supplies and comparable ingredients are available.

How has Linux made me cooler.  Simple.  It is not the same old expected stuff.  The interface is different and in many ways more intuitive.  People are amazed with Compiz and the 3-D effects that I use.  And besides, when everybody is panicking about the latest major security hole in Internet Explorer, I can smugly smile and say, “I use Linux.”

Why am I more ethical?  Easy.  I don’t support they guys who are trying to control the way we interact with technology.  I stay away from products that are platform restricted. Also, I really embrace the FOSS philosophy because it levels the playing field.  I remember in the past, you had to buy a commercial word processing program to produce decent documents.  Today, thanks to a slew of community supported office apps, this in no longer the case.

It’s not that I’m necessarily against people getting compensated for their work, and, in fact, think every FOSS end user has some responsibility to “pay” for what they use.  The payment doesn’t necessarily need to be in monetary form though.  One could pay by donating time to test updates or new versions of apps. Or by being a part of a community. Maybe report bugs or issues that come up in daily usage. Or they could take an active role in promoting what they use. I’m sure there are numerous ways that end users could help open source developers. (Developers, if you’re reading this, go ahead and suggest some.)

So how has Ubuntu changed my life?  I’m taller, skinnier, and better looking.  Okay, maybe not.  I do feel that I have become closer to my PC though.  I understand it and the concepts that make my computing experience better and more successful.  And I know not to blame technology, but instead, the ones who wield it. Am I cooler? I don’t know, but using Linux has a sort of geek chic that suits me.  And in terms of ethics, I can sleep a little better at night knowing I haven’t made Bill and Steve any richer.  So has Linux changed me? Yes, I think so. And to the distro that figures out a way to make me taller, skinnier, and better looking, I promise to be your biggest fanboy ever!

Happy Holidays!

Why I Use Ubuntu Sunday, Dec 13 2009 

A former student of mine noticed that my laptop looked different.  Well, maybe not the laptop itself, but the user interface.  She immediately inquired how I “did that” while she pointed at the screen of my Thinkpad.  “Did what?” I replied.  After some back and forth and a seemingly adequate explanation, she asked me, “So why do you use that (Ubuntu)?”  I had to think a while before I could answer.  I had been using Ubuntu exclusively for almost two years at that point and really hadn’t thought about that for a long time.  “Because it’s better,” I replied.  She nodded her head and said okay.  She turned to walk away, but stopped.  “If I want to do that, can you help me?” she asked.  I said okay.  She thanked me and walked away.

I started to think about my totally inadequate answer to her question, “Because it’s better.”  Had she given me an answer like that in class, I would have asked, “How is it better?”  So after a few minutes of thinking, I came up with the following reasons why I use Ubuntu.

First and foremost, Ubuntu (and Linux in general) is customizable.  Not customizable like in Windows terms: changing colors, themes, wallpapers, and screen savers (although you can do all of this in Ubuntu too), but in terms of interface, applications, and working environments.  I like the fact that I can find apps to do my regular work and special projects.  If I need a WSIWYG editor to work on a webpage, I can easily find and install one.  I don’t need to go shopping, and more importantly, I don’t need to shell out cash.

I also like virtual desktops.  I have become accustomed to having certain apps running on certain desktops.  I know where everything is and can easily navigate my workspaces.

I also like the fact that I can choose between eye candy and efficiency.  I use Gnome predominantly and use the Compiz Fusion special effects, so I can dazzle people with spinning cubes and 3-D effects.  I have enabled the 3-D effects in Open Office Impress, and believe me, people are impressed.  One student thought I was running Apple software on my Thinkpad.  I have used KDE a little but am not used to the interface.  KDE 4 is beautiful though, and one day when I have time, I’ll play with it a little more.

The second reason, the command line.  Yes, that’s right, I said it.  The command line is very useful.  I grew up with GUIs my entire computing life, so the idea of using the command line was something I would have never thought to be advantageous.  But in actuality, it really is.  Get to know some basic commands, and you can do a lot without leaving your keyboard.  I have even fell in love with keyboard shortcuts in all my favorite apps too.  Speed and efficiency is something beautiful when you need it.

The third reason, I believe in the philosophy of Linux and FOSS in general.  It’s open source and free for anyone to use.  You don’t have to have a lot of money to buy software and upgrades to ensure currency.

And the last reason, because it is simply better.  I remember the first time I decided to give Linux a try.  I was a little apprehensive and didn’t know what to expect.  So when I installed Ubuntu on my first machine, I expected the worst.  But what I found was that installing and running Linux was easy and painless.  I even tried a couple of other distros (OpenSuse, SuseSLED, and Puppy) just to compare.  My confidence quickly grew and in a months time, I had cut all of my machines over to Ubuntu.  (Well, I kept one running Windows, just in case I had compatibility issues for about 6 months.  It has run Ubuntu exclusively since.)

The experience hasn’t been perfect, and I have had my share of troubleshooting and tweaking.  But quite frankly, nothing that has shaken my faith in Linux.  I’m sold and will never go back to Windows (or Apple).  Not because of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but because I like what I have.  I’m familiar with it and don’t see a good reason to use anything else.

The other day I had to help my wife with her work laptop.  It was really weird working in a Windows environment.  It felt very foreign, and I had to think really hard to find the right menus.  It felt clunky and slow.  I guess intuitiveness is somewhat based on familiarity.  If I can’t find a menu where I expect it to be, then it isn’t very intuitive.

So why do I use Ubuntu, because it’s better, and that’s that!