Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The making of a Linux geek

Software as a subversive activity: The making of a Linux geek

I last booted Windows on my year-old laptop on October 8, according to my SETI@Home stats. I hadn't realized my conversion had been so complete, but over the course of the last few months, I found myself in Gates World less and less for fewer and fewer things.

So it seems I'm now officially a Linux Geek, as much for ideological reasons as technical ones. Taking power away from a giant corporation, and putting it in the hands of an egalitarian community, appeals to me. Marketplace decisions are political decisions; there's a difference between shopping at New Pioneer Co-Op and shopping at Wal-Mart.

First off, for the uninitiated, some Linux 101. I'm assuming that you know next to nothing about this. I'll also figure that if you're reading a local political blog, you're inquisitive enough, smart enough, and latently geeky enough, to dig deeper if you want.

You all know the I'm a PC, I'm a Mac ads, so you know that there's more than one way to run a computer. The group of programs that make a computer know that it's a computer and do computer stuff are called the operating system. Windows is an operating system, as is Mac's OS X, and some of us really old folks remember DOS.

You could call Linux the third party of operating systems. I'm not saying whether Windows or Mac are Republicans of Democrats, but Linux is definitely the Libertarian Party. “Free as in beer, free as in freedom,” goes the slogan. And like a third party, there's some good ideas, some dogma, and they're up against some serious power.

The free beer part is, you do not pay money for Linux. A big percentage of the cost of a typical PC isn't the chips and drives—it's the Windows license. You take your money and give it to the second richest person in the world. Instead of being written and sold by a giant corporation, it's maintained and made available by the community of users. That's the anarcho-libertarian part that's ideologically appealing to me.

Sounds like a nice utopia. But like any electronic media-—movies, music, on-line journalism-there's an underlying problem with the business model. Somebody, somewhere, has to feed the beast with some money. Some of that happens—there's customized projects, tech support, and developers with various IT companies with an interest in the subject. But some of the motivation isn't monetary; it's people building the tools they want and need. “Often, the reasons have much to do with the usual human desire to fill a need with a solution," writes Linux For Dummies. “In fact, any human resource expert will tell you that people who choose to do a job of their own free will produce the highest quality products." (That's how this blog started.)

The freedom part refers to open source. Source code is the sequence of commands that the über-über geeks write in programming languages. You then take a program called a compiler to convert the source code into an “executable” program--the 1s and 0s that the machine understands. In the Microsoft mindset, a purchaser gets the compiled program but the source code is a closely guarded proprietary secret. You get the software they wrote, use it the way they say, you wait for them to patch the bugs. In Linux world, the source code is open for everybody to see, adapt, and maybe improve. Whenever you're proofreading anything, extra sets of eyeballs means more chances someone will see the mistake.

This is where the dogma comes in. Some Linux advocates insist on purity: no closed-source software. Others are willing to compromise for a driver here or compatibility there. And yet others are trying to figure out how to make Microsoft programs run on a Linux system (yes, it can be done). You don't have to vote a straight ticket.

I can tell you more about that, but in the true Linux spirit we'll leave it up to the community.

More Linux posts?
Free polls from

Update: Yes wins; part two looks at easing into open source gently with cross-platform compatible applications.

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