Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

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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. Kali (formerly 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.
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