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May 4th, 2011

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09:41 am - Of Linux and Learning
A couple of months ago I switched to Linux on the two computers I use at home.

This is kind of a big deal. I was never a Windows fanatic, but I grew up with it, and put so much time and effort into learning its intricacies that the idea of switching to anything else depressed me. I cut my tech teeth on pre-DOS computers (TI-99/4A, Atari 800, Apple ][c, NEC-PC8201...), whose use basically demanded a certain do-it-yourself ethic. When I got my first IBM-compatible PC (remember the phrase "IBM-compatible?"), I learned to use DOS then Windows, but I always always very good at getting my computer to do exactly what I wanted it to. I stuck with the command line because it's powerful and fast, and altered the GUI to the point that people would ask what OS I was running. The level of customization in my Windows installations is the stuff of really boring legend.

And I was very, very happy with Windows 7, until Service Pack 1 came out a couple of months ago and both of my computers stopped recognizing their keyboards. I couldn't even boot into Safe Mode.

I was in the process of booting my desktop into Ubuntu from a thumb drive to retrieve my files when it occurred to me that I might as well give Linux another shot. A decade ago, all my friends got excited about (and was subsequently let down by) Red Hat, which turned out to be not quite ready for public consumption. I ignored Linux until 2007 when I replaced Windows Vista on my new laptop with Ubuntu on the recommendation of a friend. None of my hardware was supported, so I went back to XP. Much more recently, I experimented with netbook-centric distributions, and found that Hexxeh's builds of ChromeOS were interesting but unusable, Jolicloud was severely underpowered, and Puppy Linux was ugly. Backtrack is plenty useful, but it's not intended to be used as a primary OS.

I did install and use Netbook Ubuntu for a month or two on my netbook, but I found the command line really confusing, certain drivers were still missing, I couldn't stream Netflix, and my music software didn't work and didn't have an acceptable equivalent.

After the Windows 7 SP1 fiasco, I decided to try Ubuntu again, simply because I've heard such good things about it. And I'm really, really happy with it. All of my driver and software problems have been fixed in the meantime ('cept for Netflix, and there's a (crappy) workaround for that). I've done the same kind of UI customization, and I'm working on learning Bash, which is the Ubuntu command line. I'm somewhat relieved to learn that the million little utilities I designed for myself in Windows can be scripted very, very easily in Linux. Actually, most of them are built-in commands (hello, wget).

Right now there's nothing I was doing in Windows that can't be done as well or better in Linux. Granted, Portal 2 came out after I stopped using Windows, but sooner or later someone will make it work. That might have happened already, actually.

I've always been semi-evangelical about open-source software, so Linux has always seemed like a good idea, but one with a high intellectual entrance fee. Ubuntu is sort of Linux for dummies; it's simple, clean, capable, and is always there to hold your hand. I chose it over other distributions because it has a large, supportive community and has a reputation of usability, right out of the box. I'm actually starting to wish I'd started with Gentoo, which sacrifices user-friendliness in favor of power. Not that I have any complaints, it's just that Ubuntu comes with permanent training wheels which I probably don't need.

Anyway, all of this is to say that it's helped me identify something about my learning style which I wish I'd noticed a long time ago: When something new frustrates me, I need to let it sit for a while before tackling it again. The syntax of the Linux command line confused the hell out of me the first time, but coming back to it more recently, I've found it easier to learn. There's a notoriously difficult-to-configure utility called Conky which displays system statistics on your desktop (ala Rainmeter or Samurize on Windows (Geektool if you're a Mac user)). I got upset and gave up the first time I tried to figure it out, but last night I managed it in front of the TV, and I have a pretty good idea of what happened in the show (Andy's out of the army, Shane's in Christian school, and Nancy's going to have to sell heroin for U-Turn).

I can see this pattern in my school experience, as well. Math concepts and new music are easier for me to master if I get a taste of something and then forget about it for awhile before returning to it. I had better luck in my programming classes when I had to schedule short bursts of time on the mainframe than when I actually sat down in front of my own PC for hours at a time.

I see it my appreciation of art, too. Songs I hated on the first listen are much better a week later, and movies are often significantly better (or worse) the second time around. When this happens, my second opinion is the one that sticks through subsequent viewings.

I don't know what this means. Maybe my preconceptions are too strong for me to absorb new information until I've had some time to adjust my perspective. It's too bad if that's the case, because I'm not sure I'll ever be mindful enough to recognize that when it's happening.

In conclusion (and skipping four paragraphs back), you should be running Linux. Everyone should be running Linux. It's free, it's much easier than it used to be, and I have yet to break it. But I'm trying.
Current Mood: optimisticthrilled
Current Music: Nothing. I'm at work.

(10 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:May 4th, 2011 10:36 pm (UTC)
"I cut my tech teeth on pre-DOS computers (TI-99/4A, Atari 800, Apple ][c, NEC-PC8201...), whose use basically demanded a certain do-it-yourself ethic."

And this is why Linux is the operating system for you.
[User Picture]
Date:May 5th, 2011 12:22 am (UTC)
Your point is not lost on me, but I really think Linux is ready for the masses, and (except for the compatibility issues I mentioned) probably has been for the last few years. I'm guessing that a new computer user would find it easier to use than Windows, and much less frustrating since it's much more stable.

That said, I read a news story a little while back about a company that wants to market a Linux PC to senior citizens. I would not like to be their tech support.
[User Picture]
Date:May 5th, 2011 01:15 pm (UTC)
I've been hearing tech-savvy people say variants on "Linux is ready for the masses" for maybe a decade. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, but personally I'll believe it when I hear it from one of these "masses" (which is to say, someone for whom computers are just a tool and not a hobby).

[User Picture]
Date:May 5th, 2011 02:04 pm (UTC)
You won't hear it from the masses until Best Buy starts selling Linux PCs, and that won't happen soon because John Q. Buys-Windows-Because-He's-Heard-Of-It doesn't know there's a better alternative. I wouldn't say Linux has been masses-ready for a decade, but it probably has been for the last five years. The average Windows user who never gets their hands dirty with the nuts and bolts of the OS will find a comparable user experience in Ubuntu, which, again, is almost Linux-lite.
[User Picture]
Date:May 5th, 2011 04:35 pm (UTC)
And should anything go wrong with Mr. Consumer's Linux PC, he will turn to a Linux community that I'm sure is just *dying* to provide help to a person who's only now figured out the difference between right- and left-clicking. I'm hardly going to defend Windows support as good, but they have mastered the are of appearing professional to the low-information user.
[User Picture]
Date:May 5th, 2011 04:49 pm (UTC)
For what it's worth, Ubuntu is curated by a company called Canonical which offers support to a fee. Granted, that paid support is intended for corporations and governmental and educational institutions. Most people are would be better served by the (generally corial) official Ubuntu support forums, which, yes, are not an option for grandma. But grandma has some ten-year-old on speed dial, so she never calls tech support anyway.
[User Picture]
Date:May 5th, 2011 05:18 pm (UTC)
When will there be enough speed-dial-capable ten-year-olds out there to support a large userbase of grandmas, though? I'd love to see that question raised in a business meeting.

I guess my point is that widespread Linux adoption is not a matter of refining the software, and as you point out, probably hasn't been for several years. It's a matter of a support culture that can handle questions like "Is e-mail internet?" without pointing and laughing. I think that Linux will probably rise in the next 10-20 years as this question becomes moot, with the "clueless user" demographic shrinking greatly due to some education and a lot of mortality. Then again, given the limited penetration of computer literacy into the lower and lower-middle class, maybe not.

In the meantime, though, I hear a lot of Linux arguments where "You should try this!" turns to "Why haven't you tried this?" turns to "Why haven't you morons switched yet?", which most Linux proponents don't seem to realize is exacerbating the biggest problem they have. A market is not automatically ceded to the entrant with the best product (Remember Betamax?), and this fact only seems to anger the Linux community and thus feed the same perception issue that keeps Redmond rolling in dough.

I will add that I think the Linux takeover of businesses will happen much faster. It's hard to beat "free" as a price, and companies can tell their employees to suck it up and learn something new in a way retailers aren't.
[User Picture]
Date:May 5th, 2011 07:09 pm (UTC)
Clearly we're not going to convince each other about this.

The non-profit nature of Linux ensures that support has to be crowdsourced. Compassionate, professional, patient Linux help does exist -- even locally or over the phone, but there's no way to support a normal call center. No local Linux specialists? No big deal. Any computer professional worth his silicon should be able to muddle through it in the age of broadband. Any problem you might have has already been addressed in any forum you'd care to check, and that person already got called n00b, so you don't even have to experience the scorn of your peers.

When you referred to "the masses," I pictured the moderately computer-literate masses. I don't think Linux is a good starting point for the computer-illiterate yet, unless you actually have access to a ten-year-old who is willing to hold your hand. I'd say the same about Windows, really, if not for that fancy call center.

I used to be one of "you morons" who haven't switched yet, and I understand the misgivings; most people have invested a lot of time into Windows, and don't know if they can handle learning something new. What I should have said earlier is that finally, the switch to Linux is easy enough for the average non-techie Windows user. I know how that sounds coming from me, but trust me: there is no longer any reason to put up with Windows if you don't like it.

Regarding Linux in business, it's happening, but I think that's where we'll see the least growth, at least in the forseeable future. Non-IT corporate types abhor the idea of Linux because the source code is available to anyone who wants it. I can remember two different CEOs at my last job saying that we'd never use open-source software because its vulnerabilities are public. That's a BS excuse; open-source vulnerabilities get fixed quickly because they are public. Add to this the fact that there is no usually external entity who can be held personally accountable if a major data breach does occur. The fact that there's no one to sue makes corporations nervous.

Interesting, security loving units of government are flocking to Linux like something that flocks. Maybe they'll lead the way.

Edited at 2011-05-05 07:17 pm (UTC)
Date:May 5th, 2011 08:17 pm (UTC)
r3507 here. Login issue. Anyway...

No, we're not convincing each other, but I think we're both raising good points. The conversation's interesting, anyway.

I just don't see how crowdsourced, personal IT avoids succumbing to the GIFT. I don't know what portion of Windows audience is willing to go through Google searches and forums crawls to get their machine to work - I really do think their base is people who just want their computer to work, and want to talk to a human being who can make it work. This is where the call center you mentioned comes in - or more likely, Geek Squad or any number of other professional organizations that aren't even Microsoft concerns. If the majority of the computer-using public really is willing to maintain their own machines with information available online, then yes, Linux takeover is go. I just don't think that we're anywhere near that point.

"...the switch to Linux is easy enough for the average non-techie Windows user. I know how that sounds coming from me, but trust me: there is no longer any reason to put up with Windows if you don't like it."

As you address above, I'll believe the first statement when I hear it from someone who thinks of "drivers" only in terms of cars. Again, this may be my definition of "non-techie" being your definition of "non-computer-literate", but I will posit that this kind of user is the cornerstone of the PC market. And until Linux-based handholding is present on a scale that is at least one order of magnitude within that of Windows-based handholding, Windows will remain the OS for the low-information users that make up the bulk of the PC market.

I was unaware of the issues with Linux in business - I figured companies would see "$0" on an invoice where "$50,000" used to be and grab it by default. But it pushes another major button in the business world - liability. Maybe if companies like Canonical are willing to slot into the liability structure where software providers normally go it would calm some fears. I do appreciate that open-source code is generally more secure, but I don't know how much more secure - there's no better protection from hackers than being so narrowly adopted that a hack could reach 10 times as many potential targets just by being written for a different platform.

The split between business at large and covert organizations kind of encapsulates the Linux issue for me. If you know what you're doing and want total control, get Linux. If you just want a tool that works and don't want to think about it too hard, pay for software.
[User Picture]
Date:May 6th, 2011 12:43 am (UTC)
Unfortunately, from here on out I think my responses may be a lot of "don't knock it til you've tried it." Oh, well.

The thing about tech-support by Google is that in my experience with Ubuntu, the first result always contains my answer. This is only true because Canonical designated an official community support forum from the get-go. I used Google for Windows troubleshooting, too, and that involved paging through lots of (often bad) advice from Yahoo! Answers, pay-walled tech support sites, and so on. This is a resource that's just not available to Windows users. Though to be fair, the Ubuntu search results would likely be more spammy if it was a more popular OS, and I honestly can't speak to other flavors of Linux.

I think your non-techie and my non-techie are pretty much the same person -- somebody is thankful when the computer just does what they want it to do. This kind of person will need occasional help no matter what OS they use, but I think they'll need less of help in Linux than in Windows. This is an abstract thing and difficult for me to explain without being able to sit down with you in front of two laptops, but I'll try. Linux and Windows are both comprised of hundreds of components designed by hundreds of people, but Linux tends not to feel that way. Meanwhile, Windows has a million sometimes-it-works-like-this-but-not-always idiosyncracies. That undefinable something that makes Mac users so smug about the superiority of their OS? Linux tends to have that, too.

Re: security. You're right that Linux (and Mac) don't have enough adoption for anybody to target them on a large scale. I believe Linux has the advantage, however, in that its user base contains a significant contingent of neckbeardy security professionals and genuine tin-foil-hat wackos who are actively trying to find and plug the holes in Linux. Windows has them too, but Microsoft (and Apple) have an incentive to ignore security holes because deploying a fix costs reputation and money. Open-source software doesn't have this problem because profits and patents don't enter the picture. More eyes looking at your code equals more squashed bugs.

Linux has an additional layer of security in that permission to mess with the more delicate parts of the system is withheld by default. Malicious software can bypass Windows' security, but sooner or later malicious software in Linux will need to be granted explicit permission by the user to do its thing:

"Application _________ is attempting to _________, which is an action normally restricted to administrative users. Please enter your password to confirm this action, or cancel to deny access."

That message might look daunting to the computer illiterate, but they'd never see it unless they started deliberately playing with administrative settings.

Edited at 2011-05-06 12:45 am (UTC)
Of Linux and Learning - Garmonbozia for the soul.

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