Crunch! Bang! Linux again!

It’s been a while since I’ve done any cheerleading here for Linux. I think I’m due. There’s a bit of nerdly enthusing in this post. Well, rather a lot really. But do read on and let me know what you think.

People who know me well know that, whenever possible, I stick to Linux and stay away from Windows and Mac. Partly this is an economic choice: Linux is cheaper (free, in most of its incarnations), and the programs I use on Linux are also free: the LibreOffice productivity suite, Firefox or Chrome browsers, VLC media player, some research tools (RStudio, Praat), and others.

Partly, it is a philosophical/value choice. Linux and the free-as-in-speech free software movement are all about competent people producing quality tools and sharing them, collaboratively improving them, for the benefit of the community. This is very parallel with the values of academic science and research – a career I have chosen as well-suited to my values and personality. In fact, the scientific imperative to make your experiments reproducible is, I think, most naturally met in a software ecology based on freely-available open-source systems and programs.

Partly, it is an aesthetic choice. I grew up on a farm, and my father was forever tinkering with machinery to keep it working, to improve it, or to adapt it for a new task. I’m not much of a mechanic, but the hands-on attitude of many Linux systems suits my moderate computer skills. There are thousands of permutations of Linux out there, in case you didn’t know. I would guess, off the top of my head, that well over 90% of the different operating systems you could put on an electronic device – desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, etc – are variations on Linux. Just choosing which one empowers you to express yourself in many ways. There are visually elaborate and plain systems. There are build-it-from-scratch systems, and run-everything-out-of-the-box systems. For a moderate fee, you can even get dedicated user support from experts. There are systems geared toward multimedia, systems aimed at programmers, systems aimed at old hardware, small memory resources. There are even systems specifically designed to wean users off Windows and Mac operating systems. So if you want to express yourself in your operating system (beyond setting a colour scheme and a desktop image), Linux is the way to go.

I find that it suits my self-identity as a slightly eccentric, moderately computer-savvy, pragmatic get-it-done kind of person.

Anyway, Linux has been my main operating system for several years. Recently it was Linux Mint Debian Edition. Mint is a small set of Linux distributions aimed at ease of use, and the Debian Edition is specifically designed to avoid “bloat” – the excessive accumulation of bells and whistles that can bog a computer down. This very decent system was becoming a bit much for my small and aging netbook, so I went shopping. In this case, that meant downloading disk images, which I could then put on USB sticks. I would reboot the machine using the USB stick, get to give the system a try while running it off the USB stick – it’s slower, but it leaves my existing system intact in case I change my mind – and then reboot and pop in another one.

It turned out that one of the distributions I had seen but dismissed in the past was particularly good – either because it has gotten better or my perceptions have changed (probably both). And so now I am running Crunchbang Linux (also written #! (because the “#!” sequence is a frequent opening to script files that do useful stuff in Linux, and that character sequence is called the “crunch-bang”).

I could go on into the finer details of what makes Crunchbang my current Linux-of-choice, but I think I’ll spare you that deep dive into nerdopolis.

Instead I’ll leave you with a final, and ultimately decisive, reason that I like Linux (and Crunchbang in particular). That’s the community.

I know, I mentioned it above already, but consider this. I have had a couple of minor support issues since I started with Crunchbang a few weeks ago (both due to esoteric teaching- and research-related software I installed). For each one, I posted a short query to the user forum (a group, remember, of unpaid volunteers – people who only hang around because they love the system and the community), and had my problem solved within an hour or two. Just by installing Crunchbang, I have become a member of a supportive, competent community of people who share at least one key interest with me.

Linux really is a human-friendly operating system. Try it out. Or ask around and get a friend to give you a tour.

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