Monday, December 01, 2008

Software as a Subversive Activity, Part 3: Terms

Software as a Subversive Activity, Part 3: Talk Like A Linux Geek

A few terms and names will help you find your way around Linux Land and sound smart. The big one--open source--we introduced in Part One.

How do you say it? People who are self-educated and isolated often pronounce words wrong because they've only read them and never heard them. I'll spare you the embarrassment.

Linus Torvalds is the guy who made this Linux thing up. Often referred to on a first name only basis, like Hillary.

The urge is to say LYE-nux, like the Peanuts character or the county attorney, because you figure, well, that follows from the name. I had it wrong for a year or so until I got the definitive answer: Linus says LINN-ux (like Linn County).

Kernel: The gut-level program that controls and manages the computer itself. Technically, “Linux” refers only to the kernel.

GNU, GNU/Linux: The technically correct way to refer to the kernel plus the full operating system. GNU stands for “GNU's Not Unix.” Ha.

GNOME, KDE: The two leading desktop graphical interfaces for Linux, oops, GNU/Linux. If you're used to Windows or OS X they're easy enough to find your way around.

Distribution: A collection of software bundled with the kernel and packaged as a full system, often including a browser, office suite, media players and more. There are literally hundreds of distributions, each with its own look, feel and function,. Some are very specialized; there are “distros” for extreme low resource machines or for data recovery. The most popular distributions are more general. Again, it's kind of like third parties: they agree on the big picture (free beer, free freedom) but clash on the smaller details. (The only people we Linux geeks hate worse than Microsoft are the Judean People's Front. Splitters!)

Ubuntu has been the number one distribution since its debut in 2004, and that's what I use. If Linux is a third party, then Mark Shuttleworth is Ross Perot, the billionaire subsidizing his own movement. Shuttleworth developed a security protocol that he sold at the height of the dotcom boom for so much money that he was able to take a vacation on the Space Station. After returning to the planet, Shuttleworth took an interest in promoting free software, particularly to impoverished parts of the world (he's South African).

OpenSUSE, Fedora, Debian, and Mandriva: the number two, three, four and five distributions. More links to more distributions are at DistroWatch.

Penguins: Democrats have donkeys, Republicans have elephants, and Linux geeks have penguins. Apparently Linus likes them. The penguin's name is Tux.

FUD: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Reasons people don't make The Big Switch.

Command Line, Terminal: Sometimes in Linux you enter text commands, like us old timers did at the DOS prompt. This is where people often start to experience FUD. In my limited experience I've never had to actually figure out what to do at the command line. You can do a full Ubuntu installation without touching the terminal. Any time I've needed to enter a text command, I've been able to search online and find a nice convenient cut-and-paste-able set of instructions to follow.

Root: Linux is designed to be a multi-user system, and to make major changes, you have to be logged in under a super-user account called root. It's sort of like the Administrator account of Windows, only better. I'm oversimplifying, but basically: you can wreck your own stuff, but it's really hard to completely screw up a Linux machine without being logged in as root.

Sudo: a terminal command that allows you to briefly use the powers of root to make a specific change. If you have the root password, you can do anything.

Sudo make me a sandwich: Almost anything.

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