Why I use Linux

2018-08-06 @Technology

I’m strongly inclined towards decentralized, hacked together, self-organized entities. They epitomize evolution.

Linux fits this model rather well. In contrast to the top-down-control operating systems that aim to cater to all users with a familiar set of interfaces and applications, Linux represents an entirely transparent and distributed paradigm. It lacks any definitive façade.

The number of Linux-based variants spans in the hundreds. Some survive natural selection. Some gradually become phased out. Yet each is independently maintained, with inherent benefits and limitations. Each caters to a particular user-base with preference for working in a certain way. See distrowatch to have an idea on the lower bound of the variants in existence.

The affair is less complex than it sounds. Many distributions are derivatives of others, and many overlap in philosophy. Each variant, however, represents only a starting point, limited perhaps to the package manager (the ecosystem to manage installed applications/packages), a default window manager (if any), and a common pool of initial packages. A user ultimately has the freedom to customize the distribution to the extent of imagination and beyond recognition even.

It is in the extensive control provided to the user that lies the strength and the beauty of Linux. A user can define whatever workflow, interface(s), and interaction that lend themselves to the object of desire. The choice involves the impressive array of alternatives among text-based and graphic-based applications for accomplishing a task. It also entails the Window Manager (graphical-interface system) selection among dozens of popular variants alone. It enables the flexibility to work in a more traditional GUI-style similar to Mac or Windows, or to rely on the terminal for virtually all traditionally GUI-oriented tasks.

The advantage of working in the terminal lies in the ability to devise a set of macros, aliases, shortcuts and automations at almost all levels of the workflow. It makes routine operations as non-imposing as possible, yielding focus to the analytical factor. The speedup also heavily owes to the decrease in the mechanical aspect of hand movement. If properly configured, a user can work almost exclusively with fingers around the alpha-numeric portion of the keyboard and eliminate constant movement towards those auxiliary keyboard elements or mouse. In fact, one can entirely eliminate the mouse by properly harnessing terminal-based alternatives for email, calendar, file management and manipulation, document composition and rendering, music listening, and much routine maintenance.

Linux can become whatever you want it to be within the very broad constraints of your hardware and kernel. (The Linux kernel, by the way, you can also modify.) It is this non-defining identity that causes much confusion among the beholders.

A friend of mine who I once guided in configuring Ubuntu on a slower laptop, commented that it felt hacked together. I still wonder on the nature of the critique in that statement. “Hacked together” is a virtue. It is this ability to be hacked that enables anyone to find holes and strengthen the ecosystem. It is this ability that grants the potential for continued evolution - from the bottom up. Any user can influence and discover novel features and uses.

Another friend of mine, upon observing my heaps of multiplexed terminal sessions occupying the entire display, draws a reference to that pseudo-operating system called DOS, from the period of the early to mid 90’s, which, incidentally, also based itself around terminal commands. In retrospect, I prefer that reaction to the mistaking of terminal emulators for acts of cyber-mischief in airport lobbies.

Sometimes I operate in a terminal-based file manager. Lately, Ranger has served this function. Historically, I’ve relied on Midnight Commander, a derivative of Norton Commander that I’ve used as early as 1995 in a DOS environment. The visual layout has remained largely unchanged absolutely identical, with the traditional blue background, the headers, and the footers. I suppose this choice of interface can lead to further odd conclusions.

I’ve interchanged between Linux and Windows as early as 2002, and then relied exclusively on Linux since 2009. Although relatively slow to assimilate changes in style, I’ve experimented with several major variants. I’ve migrated to VIM, Latex, and Pandoc for all document manipulation, set to eradicate any word processor interaction. I’ve severely minimized the Window Manager footprint (coinciding with my general trend towards minimalism), and ultimately transitioned to an almost exclusively terminal-based workflow, short of a web browser.

If not for Linux (or access to other Unix variants), I would likely have long chosen a path that deviates from personal computers. Being heavily sensitive to the aesthetics and the mechanics of the components I interact with daily, I don’t sympathise with the mainstream operating systems, not mechanically, not aesthetically, and certainly not philosophically. But something to the likes of Linux would always have existed. Linux represents the alternative, the underground, an entire movement rather than an OS, and an evolutionary response to the top-down imposed infrastructure comprising the status-quo.

Sources referenced

  1. distrowatch
  2. Ranger
  3. Midnight Commander

Questions, comments? Connect.