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Things I Like (TIL) #12: Linux

What is this? I’ve liked many things throughout the years. While some have fallen out of my attention, others remain firmly cemented in my memories and feelings. So, I’ve decided to start a mini-series where each week (hopefully), I pick something random that I like or have liked and discuss it, why I like it, and its impact on me. These things can be varied, and range from more trivial matters such as my favourite animal, to books, games, and movies I’ve liked, to topics that have shaped who I am as a person. The posts, accordingly, will vary in length. See my rating system here.



Welcome back to another installment of TIL.

Recently, I’ve been looking through and cleaning up some of my old tweets. Part of this was due to the go vote screen I recently added to Patchouli and Botania (two Minecraft mods I maintain), which I worried would bring people to dig up my old tweets and/or dox me. In those tweets, I found references to Linux from May 2010, and looking at other data such as my old (defunct) blog, it’s clear I was in touch with Linux even earlier than that. So I thought I’d write this post to both highlight Linux and recount my history with it.

From the earliest point I declared to have installed Linux on my computer, I have to date used Linux for slightly over ten years. This means I’ve used Linux almost as long as I’ve been playing the flute, I’ve used Linux for almost half my life, and I’ve used Linux since before I even knew how to write a program or knew I would become a computer scientist.

What is Linux?

Linux is an operating system. That is, it is the first (mostly) piece of software installed on your hardware, and manages the entire system, allowing you to install and run other programs on top of it. Other examples of operating systems are Microsoft’s Windows, Apple’s MacOS, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, Solaris, …

It is like the BSD’s and distinguished from Windows and MacOS in that it is free and open source (FOSS). “Free” meaning both libre (you can modify the code for your own needs) and gratis (there is no dollar cost to using it). “Open source” meaning that work happens in the open community instead of behind closed doors.

Early Interaction

I don’t recall what originally drew my interest. I’d say it was a mixture of respect for my oldest sister, and the idea of centralized and curated software repositories blowing my mind. I remember my sister showing me how you would install a program simply by issuing sudo apt-get install <X>. No fiddling with shady sites and shadier installers? Sign me up!

The first recorded interaction I had with Linux was in mid-2008. My oldest sister had lent me a CD of PCLinuxOS, which I declared in June of 2008 that I would attempt to install in VirtualBox. About half a month later, I came back with news of failure, that it had distorted graphics on both VirtualBox and Microsoft’s own hypervisor at the time, Virtual PC 2007. At the end of that year’s August, I once again proclaimed I would “try again for linux”.

After that point, I didn’t post again for a while. Suffice to say that my interest fizzled as I preoccupied myself with school and messing around with my native Windows install.

First Laptop Install

The very first version of Linux I installed on real hardware (a Toshiba laptop) was Ubuntu version 10.04, Lucid Lynx. I still have very, very fond memories of using the highly polished GNOME 2 + Compiz interface that it shipped with, and I was awed by the visual polish and the fact that it was completely free (as in beer, gratis). The first records of me using Ubuntu I can find date to May 2010, when I tweeted I was “playing with Ubuntu”.

Sometime after this date, I installed it in a dual-boot setup alongside my Windows Vista installation, and frequently tinkered around with it.

Second Laptop Install

The Toshiba laptop I mentioned above was my first laptop, and for Christmas of 2010 I received a new HP laptop. I don’t remember exactly what I decided to install alongside its native Windows 7, but I do remember that I went through a brief phase of distro-hopping. Among them I considered Linux Mint, its Debian-based sibling LMDE, openSUSE, and Ubuntu. Each of them worked quite poorly because this laptop had dual graphics cards: an Intel and NVidia card that were transparently switched based on power settings. Linux at the time did not handle this well at all, leading to abysmal graphics performance. Being enamored with fancy desktop effects as I was, I couldn’t stand for that!

Eventually, on one fateful day, I happened upon Lifehacker’s Arch Linux Installation Guide. It’s super outdated now, but I read the philosophy and it clicked with me immediately. Some weeks later, with some elbow grease, I proclaimed on Facebook in March of 2011 that a “Shiny, new, exciting, hands-on dirtiness Arch Linux install complete”. That was truly my gateway into the Linux world. Arch Linux is unique in that it is quite unguided – installation steps are very manual and the user is encouraged to understand the commands they are typing into the console (I certainly didn’t at first).

From then, I went a bit crazy with the Arch Linux installations, putting it on an old netbook, an old desktop, our Wii (it’s still on there!), and some of my family-members' devices (which I’m sure they appreciated…).

I continued in this manner for several years, switching often between Windows and Arch depending on my mood and what software I had to run.

Third Laptop Install

Sometime near the end of 2013 I got another new laptop, as the HP laptop had poor thermals (who knew blindly copying Apple’s full-metal designs would lead to poor thermals?) and would overheat and shutdown all the time, in addition to the graphics issues mentioned above.

This laptop (Thinkpad X1 Carbon Gen 2) came with Windows 8, which I used for a couple years. On August of 2015, I posted that I “need to get some linux up on this machine fast”. And so I did, installing Arch alongside Windows. I would use Arch on this laptop for a large percentage of my time due to my time in University studying CS, but switch back into Windows frequently for playing games. At this time, I also switched to the i3 window manager.

To this day, this laptop remains my primary laptop and retains both Linux and Windows 10. Because it’s my only remaining Windows installation, I keep it around on there in case there is any edge-case software or devices that require Windows, but otherwise I use Linux on it full-time. For a 6 year old laptop, it holds up on Linux pretty well.

Desktop Install

In the spring of 2017, I built my first desktop computer. Primarily, this was to serve as a powerful workstation and gaming setup. Secondarily, it was because my Thinkpad’s fan had broken and I needed a new workstation for university ASAP while it was being repaired.

I installed Windows 10 onto it, as was customary at the time. In parallel, I continued to use Arch Linux on my laptop. For 3 years I used Windows 10 on the desktop. While doing so, I became increasingly irritated with obscure errors and malfunctions that would pop up, as well as the advertising and (perhaps unsubstantiated) claims of spying in the OS. Finally, during my final spring break of University, March 2020, I eliminated Windows and installed Arch Linux onto the entire disk, choosing the KDE Plasma environment.

Since then, I have had no strong desire or reason to go back to Windows for anything anymore. Crucial games I like are already cross-platform (Minecraft, Stardew Valley, etc.), or easily run in WINE (Touhou). My productivity with open source software like Emacs is and remains high.

The only reason I boot up Windows on my laptop anymore is to use devices with Windows-only control programs, mainly the Epson FastFoto FF-680W scanner. I’m sure it’s possible to use it under Linux too, but I haven’t had the time or motivation to dig into it.

Why?

So, after all the journey…..why? Why do I like Linux, and why is it important?

Here’s a list of reasons:

  • It is open source and free (libre). Anyone in the world can make modifications to it and contribute those modifications back to make everyone’s lives better.
  • It is minimal. This is more reflective of Arch, but on the whole, compared to Windows, Linux installations are lighter.
  • Relatedly, I am in control of everything that runs on my computer – no monitoring processes, automatic forced updates, or preloaded adware.
  • It’s just cool!

TIL Rating: 4. This is the first item on TIL to receive this rating, but it is completely deserved. Without years of experience tinkering and breaking Linux installations, who knows if I’d be inspired to become a computer scientist like I am today? It definitely is life changing.

Until the next one!