Lenovo C330 Chromebook: A Writer’s Delight

Lenovo C330 Chromebook: A Writer’s Delight

By Gene Wilburn

lenovo

Until recently I’d shied away from Chromebooks. They didn’t seem like real computers to me and for the price of even the basic ones, you could often pick up a used laptop with more overall functionality. I have several programs, such as Photoshop and InDesign, that require a high-end computer and I use both MacOS and Linux computers for these heavier-duty computing needs.

What softened me to the possibility of using a Chromebook was my iPad. It changed the way I used the Web. Between the iPad and the advent of reasonably-priced cloud storage, I began using the iPad more than my laptop computers, especially for writing. I went from being a touch typist to a single-finger poke typist on the iPad’s virtual keyboard. Occasionally I augmented this with Bluetooth keyboards and the combination of an iPad with a wireless keyboard made me wish for something along the same lines but in a single, integrated unit, similar to but not expensive like the Microsoft Surface.

I was intrigued by an announcement from Google in the fall of 2017 that they would soon upgrade ChromeOS to allow it to run both Linux and Android apps concurrently with ChromeOS apps on their Chromebooks. Linux is my favourite operating system and Android apps are pretty much identical to the apps on my iPad. It was beginning to look very interesting.

Deciding to take the plunge, I found the Chromebook unit that had the specs I was looking for in the Lenovo C330: 4GB RAM and a 64GB eMMC drive, plus extras that I thought of as gravy, such as a touch screen and a 180 degree pivot of the LCD panel. At roughly $360 Cdn, it seemed reasonably priced.

Setup and Experimentation

The first thing I did when the machine was in front of me was hold it up so I could check out the whereabouts of the I/O ports. On the left side, facing the machine, is one USB-C slot which the power supply uses but which can be shared with other peripherals. One USB3 slot for backward compatibility plus an SD card slot. Nice touches these. The right side of the unit has a mechanical volume control, on/off switch, and an earphone jack. Did you hear that, Apple? An earphone jack! A lot of us still have good wired headphones we’re satisfied with. It’s a real courtesy to customers to not expect all of us to upgrade to USB-C devices in one fell swoop. Kudos to Lenovo.

I opened the lid and feasted my eyes on the keyboard. An honest, full keyboard with all the keys exactly where I want them. Wide shift keys, easy-to-hit Enter key, full-size numeric keys, and a set of arrow keys at the bottom right, underneath the right shift key. The keys are coated in a kind of plastic that feels slightly rubberized. Response is on the soft side, but so far I have not witnessed any sign of keyboard bounce. Speaking as a writer, the Lenovo keyboard passes muster. It’s not as good a feel as my Macbook Air (old style non-butterfly) keyboard, but given the difference in price level, the Lenovo keyboard holds its own.

As I was about to turn on the unit, I paused momentarily for a big breath. I’d never before in my life ever used a Chromebook and had no idea what to expect, other than its reputation for ease of use. When it booted into the Chrome logo it asked the same kinds of setup questions you get on any tablet, such as network and password. It assumes you have an email account with Google. That’s mandatory, I believe, so I put in my Gmail ID name and password, and it began the setup, already familiar with my profile. There was the usual keyboard question, defaulting to US keyboard but I chose the Canadian-English spell checker. Boom, it was done. Installed and ready to go. Anything else you want, visit Settings and help yourself.

Naturally the default browser is Chrome. It went straight to my Gmail account and right into my Google Docs documents and folders. Seamless.

I studied my way through Settings next. I tested the Bluetooth adapter on a BT speaker and a pair of BT headphones and they both checked out fine. The only disappointment for me was that I didn’t see anything about Linux. I then guessed, rightly in this case, that ChromeOS wasn’t up to date so I updated it, rebooted, and this time in Settings, there was a new Linux section, with Install Linux as an option. It warns that this is still in beta, but I’ll take a beta Linux over no Linux any day.

When it finished installing Linux I opened the Terminal app. After a few seconds wait as things initialized in a KVM (kernel virtual machine), a beautiful Linux system appeared, at the command line. It turned out to be pure Debian, the latest version of Debian at that, which delighted me. I’ve been a Debian Linux fan since the mid–90s. I used Apt to update Linux and now both ChromeOS and Linux were up to date.

Android Stuff

The desktop of ChromeOS has a bottom panel called the Shelf that contains an icon for the Chrome browser, Gmail, YouTube, and Play Store. Play Store is where you find Android apps. I’ve populated my Chromebook with some of the same apps I use on my iPad: iA Writer (a writer-oriented Markdown editor), Netflix, a File Manager utility, Dropbox, Snapseed, Great Courses, plus a few more. Each, so far, has worked as expected. An Android app, such as iA Writer, has access to that same shared Downloads folder that is shared by ChromeOS and Linux, meaning you could edit the same document from three different operating systems, which I did out of sheer curiosity.

One of the noticeable things about using Android apps is that the fonts are not as crisp as you might like. The fonts have a slightly fuzzy, artificial look, unlike the well-formed ChromeOS native fonts. This is not a show stopper but it makes the Chromebook more of a Grade B tablet when running Android apps. I would not care to read an ebook with the Android fonts.

Linux Subsystem

For me the Linux subsystem (still in beta) is the jewel in the crown of the Chromebook. As mentioned, the default installation is based on Debian GNU/Linux, and there are hints that other distributions of Linux might be offered sometime in the future. Oddly the Chromebook default Downloads directory does not appear in my /home/gene personal space. Instead it’s mounted at /mnt/chromeos/MyFiles/Downloads. To make this more convenient I immediately made a symlink to that from inside my personal workspace with:

 $ ln -s /mnt/chromeos/MyFiles/Downloads/ Downloads

At this point the system was ready to easily share files among the three operating systems.

I used the Debian Apt utility to update Linux and install certain pieces of software to try. Among my downloads were Gedit, Wordgrinder, Joe, Emacs, Pandoc, and LibreOffice. All worked well, though there was occasional background screen flashing when using Gedit. I experimented with writing a bash script but could not get the system to chmod my file to an executable, even using $ sudo chmod a+x filename. It appears that the basic ChromeOS file system is mounted with a ‘noexec’ flag and at this time I haven’t yet figured out if this can be changed. The good news is that the shell script can be run as $ bash scriptname.

I installed and tried out a couple of different standard Linux terminal programs, Gnome-terminal and Konsole, and unlike the default terminal they can be launched in multiple instances either in separate windows or in tabs. The default terminal can only handle one thing at a time and there are no tabs for additional instances. What it does have, however, are better looking fonts.

There are occasional glitches in the Linux subsystem. Once in awhile, if I’d switched between environments several times while using Linux, it would lose its pathing and respond with “command not found.” When I closed the terminal app and opened it again everything returned to normal.

At a user level, the Linux subsystem generally works well, but I wouldn’t try any development in the environment, at least not at this point in its evolution. All the Linux utilities I tried worked normally, including the many text utilities.

I gave the Linux subsystem a serious workout by installing LyX and all its TeX and LaTeX components. It took four tries. The subsystem crashed three times, once with a segmentation fault, requiring me to shut down and restart the entire Chromebook each time, but it picked up each time where it left off after the previous try. Eventually it finished and I was able to run LyX and preview a typeset document. Not bad, but the Linux subsystem is not yet what I’d call robust. At this point it’s best to think of it as Linux Lite.

Choosing the Best Writing Editor

As a writer who is also a techie I’ve usually eschewed word processors. I like working with text files because they’re non-proprietary and there are many good utilities that work with them, but, like writers everywhere, I often need to italicize the title of a book or movie or a record album and sometimes I want to boldface a word. I also want to put hyperlinks in my text that point to places on the Web. To handle this, in plain text, I use the excellent Markdown system of notation.

My go-to editor for the past couple of years has been iA Writer, which comes in Windows, Mac, Android, and iPad versions. It’s a text editor wrapped around Markdown, making it easy for writers to use, and it has a first-rate HTML export function built in. It’s uncluttered and has a focus mode and a night mode that allows the writer to concentrate on the writing rather than the writing environment. The Android version is similar enough to my Mac and iPad versions that I suspected it to be my editor of choice on the Chromebook.

I’m also addicted to Linux text editors and as long as I was setting up shop anew on the Chromebook, I gave them a spin, using them with Markdown. I tried a number of console editors, including the very basic word processor called Wordgrinder, Joe, which has WordStar/Borland style keyboard shortcuts, and my favourite console editor, Vim, with stands for Improved Vi. These all work flawlessly in the Linux subsystem, and they’re light on resources. Occasionally, when I’m feeling exceptionally brave, I dabble with Emacs.

On a whim, however, I decided to try Chromebook’s featured editor, which is Google Docs. I’d used Google Docs occasionally to store information, but I’d never taken it seriously as a writing tool. I was surprised at how much I liked it, not least because the fonts are excellent and easy on the eyes. I wrote a few paragraphs then tested its various export formats. All were very good except for one quirk when it saves output to a plain text file. In text files it puts two blank lines between paragraphs where I only put in one while I’m typing.

Not being too sure about Google Docs, I asked writers in the “Canada Writes” Facebook group if any of them used it and what they thought about it. I got back several replies from writers who say they use it nearly exclusively and have found it to be stable and excellent for all their writing, including client work. That was enough to convince me it was worth a try and this review is my first piece written in Docs. I suspect Google Docs will become my main editor.

Conclusion

In the short time I’ve owned the Lenovo Chromebook C330, it’s become my favourite writing machine for drafting stories. It’s also a pretty decent machine for listening to music or watching streaming video. To be honest, other than seeing that it works, I don’t make use the feature that allows me to fold the viewing screen back 180 degrees. I already own an iPad which I greatly prefer as a tablet.

For the most part, the Chromebook is a writing machine with the side benefits of being a very good web browser and Gmail viewer. I use the Linux terminal to run utilities on text files, and to SSH (encrypted remote login) to my other Linux and Mac computers.

It has met my expectations and then some. Overall I’d give it high marks in the bang-for-the-buck department. At $360 Cdn, it’s a bargain, and a writer’s delight.

 

Waiting for Gestalt

Waiting for Gestalt

By Gene Wilburn

Gestalt (ge STALT). A word meaning, roughly, when the brain perceives with clarity that the whole of a system is greater than the sum of its parts, and everything clicks into one awareness. One can have a gestalten moment. But can one achieve a gestalten existence?

When I was coming of age intellectually at university in the early to mid 1960s, there were a number of explorations of the mind making the rounds. Existentialism, the sometimes bleak philosophy that arose strongly in Paris after the Nazi occupation at the end of World War II, was alive and well. Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus were still publishing and there was something compelling in the message that you’re responsible for who you become, creating a personal integrity in the face of the meaninglessness and absurdity of the universe. This is, of course, an over simplification.

Along with the primary existential philosophers came “Theatre of the Absurd,” a literary form of existentialism, perhaps best seen in the play by Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, in which “logical construction and argument give way to irrational and illogical speech and its ultimate conclusion, silence.” [Wikipedia, “Theatre of the Absurd”]

Another prevailing line of thought came from the field of psychology, in the form of Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” with “self actualization” at the top of the pyramid. In its wake people were self actualizing all over the place, or at least that’s what they professed. It certainly launched a full-blown pop psychology business and fuelled New-Age-style thinking before “New Age” had even become a word.

A different branch of psychology, from Germany, had earlier in the century introduced Gestalt Theory, a holistic psychology that seemed to imply that if you could attain a gestalt with yourself and your environment, you could flow through it with understanding, and perhaps appreciation, in the way that listening to a symphony is an experience that transcends the individual notes of the musical score.

Looking back on this fifty years later, I think existentialism has held up rather well, especially when augmented with a generous helping of late Roman-style stoicism. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs still has a sound feel to it, though there is a sense that Western society, as a whole, has slipped down the pyramid a bit in this era of anti-enlightenment, anti-science populism.

But the one that still teases my mind is gestalt theory. At the turning of each decade I’ve been waiting for that gestalten moment when everything would click into place and I would reach an understanding — “Because something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?” [Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”]

The problem is, how does one achieve gestalt when everything keeps changing?

The Impact of the 1960s

I emerged from the 1950s like most boys who had reached their teens by the start of the 1960s, interested in cars, playing basketball, grooving to the week’s Top–10 radio, and thinking about going to university after high school. In other words, I was as cookie-cutter naive as one could be.

It was the folk music era which, in my relative isolation, I took to be the music of the Kingston Trio, Limelighters, Chad Mitchell Trio, Burl Ives, and that new group on the radio, Peter Paul and Mary. It was when I heard Joan Baez sing a couple of old ballads like “Barbara Allen” I began to perceive a different kind of folk music that was less slick and more personal. Back then it was just music I liked. Later it would change me.

My intellectual life began when I went to university where I first majored in engineering. It was a tough study, but I was getting by, being moderately good at math and logic. There was, however, a problem. I enjoyed learning folk music more than studying STEM subjects and the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs left me questioning what I was doing. I bought a guitar, learned a fistful of chords, and learned to sing and play the songs that were haunting me.

My taste in folk music had also led me to discover the Weavers, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and a rich vein of black blues singers from Big Bill Broonzy and the Rev. Gary Davis to Mississippi John Hurt. I loved all these voices of the people.

I couldn’t square my study of engineering with my awareness of what was happening. The civil rights movement in the American South highlighted the inappropriate treatment of black people. President Kennedy had been assassinated, then Martin Luther King, then Robert Kennedy. There was a strange, unpopular war being waged in Vietnam.

Things were changing, blowing in the wind, as it were, and the gestalt of the time was changing with it. I switched my major to English and my minor to French, and began studying literature with its plays, novels, poems, and essays. In French classes, we frequently read the existentialists Sartre and Camus. I studied philosophy, social history, and art history. I met and became friends with dozens of like-minded individuals, some male, some female, some straight, some gay, a few who were black or hispanic, all of whom shared a passion for literature, art, philosophy, and music. I had found my people.

Something happens to your mind when you embrace the Humanities — something that comes as a series of epiphanies that raises your consciousness into new realms of thought and feeling resulting from contact with the great writers, poets, playwrights, philosophers, artists, and musicians of all eras. It’s intoxicating and exhilarating and, as Thomas Wolfe proclaimed in the title of his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again. You’re changed.

You reach for a higher kind of gestalt, the gestalt of the modestly well-educated. You begin to read the New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Le Monde, The Times (London), The Guardian, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, The Globe and Mail, and university quarterlies. You listen to folk music, cool jazz, classical music, and opera. You see Verdi in the same tradition as Shakespeare, and taste the richness of Old English in Beowulf and the delightful Middle English of Geoffrey Chaucer.

It’s a heady experience, all in all, but the question always arises: what are you going to do with all this when you head out into the “real” world?

One Pill Makes You Larger, and One Pill Makes You Small

For one gestalten period it seemed as if the world had changed. The war in Vietnam was vigorously opposed, campus radicalism was on the rise, and hair got longer. The folk music I’d grown up with was woven into a new kind of rock music and the voices of Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young filled the airwaves, along with new bands like the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and Frank Zappa.

Alan Watts taught us about Zen, the tarot deck came back into fashion, and decorated VW vans filled with flower children with headbands, victory signs, peace medallions, and bloodshot eyes were common sights.

Among the reading favourites were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Catch–22, The Vedas and The Upanishads, The Teachings of Don Juan, The I Ching and The Whole Earth Catalog.

Everyone was for “getting back to nature” and many communes were started, mostly ending in failure, and from the broadway musical Hair to massive rock concerts, it was assumed that the Age of Aquarius was upon us. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz described it as an “explosion of consciousness.”

It’s sometimes said that if you remember the 60s, you weren’t really there. My own memory of the time is patchy, with psychedelically-coloured gaps and an enduring sense of mysticism. But, like many, I didn’t see how it was sustainable. In the words of the Jefferson Airplane, “You are the Crown of Creation / And you have no place to go.”

The Origin of Species

The flower-power era couldn’t last, of course, because someone has to pay the bills. I trimmed my hair, picked up a degree in library science, and took a job. Through sheer good fortune I ended up as Head Librarian at the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto. It was there that I began hanging out with ornithologists, palaeontologists, mammalogists, geologists, mineralogists, ichthyologists, and entomologists, as well as archaeologists. It has shaped my thinking to this day. I had encountered the gestalt of scientific thinking and research.

One of the curators, a palynologist (one who studies modern and ancient pollens) challenged me with the question: “Have you read Darwin’s Origin of Species?” Being a lit major, I hadn’t, so I decided to give it a go.

What surprised me the most was how clear Darwin’s Victorian prose was. I was mesmerized by the concept of “descent with modification” or as it came to be known, “evolution.” Shortly after reading Origin, a new volume by Stephen Jay Gould passed through the library — a collection of essays entitled Ever Since Darwin. I gave this a read and subsequently read every book of essays Gould produced, culled from his monthly column in Natural History.

As a newly-minted amateur naturalist and birder I became hooked on reading science books written for the general public. The 60’s mantra “all is one” took on a philosophically material interpretation when I studied how the universe started, how suns ignited and planets formed, and how, on this one we call Earth, life sparked and evolved, going through great periods of diversity, extinction, more diversity, more extinction, and so on, leading eventually to a group of suddenly sapient simians. As Carl Sagan pointed out, we are made from the remnants of star dust, and every living thing on the planet is related.

My readings in science and science history led me to reaffirm the existentialist theme that life can be heaven or hell, but human beings mean very little in the face of the universe. I shed any last remnants of religion. Materially, we are bodies that live and die, each of us randomly sorted into different situations, different cultures, different countries and it’s these things that shape our sense of who we are.

There are people for whom science is enough. To paraphrase Darwin, there’s a grandeur to this concept of life and its descent with modification through time and its tangled branches and the sudden bursts of evolution that Gould referred to as “punctuated equilibrium.” This is a gestalt that most naturalists come to feel through their observation of life’s many remarkable species.

But is science alone enough to sustain the human spirit, or psyche, that je ne sais quoi that some people call a “soul”? Perhaps, and perhaps not, depending on the individual. What science does, for me, is to throw into relief all the amazing works of mankind, from art, history, philosophy, literature, and music to the increasing technological achievements that accompanied the industrial revolution.

By the time I had begun to assimilate this naturalistic view, information technology was picking up the pace. Television, radio, newspapers and other media shaped us and moulded us in ways that perhaps only Marshall McLuhan could sort out. But that was merely a preface of things to come: the computer revolution.

Bits, Bytes, and Qubits

From the late 70s onward the computer revolution picked up momentum until it reached nearly Biblical proportions: “And in that time a great change came across the land” [my paraphrase]. Computing became personal, portable, and profoundly ubiquitous.

Like others, I joined the revolution, pivoting my career from librarianship to Information Technology (IT). From the earliest whimsical days that included an ad in Byte Magazine for dBase II, entitled “dBASE II vs The Bilge Pump,” to the corporate adoption of personal computers as strategic tools in the workplace, to the computer (aka smartphone) in one’s pocket or purse, a virtual Pandora’s box of consequences was unleashed.

My work involved setting up workstations, email servers, database servers, storage servers, web servers, and firewalls, with a little programming tossed in for spice. I enjoyed decades of computing projects and by the time I retired, in 2006, the industry had progressed from 8-bit personal computers such as the Apple II, to 64-bit powerhouses running Microsoft Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android, and a few dozen lesser-known operating systems. Smartphones and tablets had become almost a birthright.

Computing begat digital photography, streaming audio and video, automobile electronics, appliance electronics, social networks, and, with lesser success, self-driving cars. I now listen to streaming music, watch streaming videos, and get my news and opinion pages from the Internet.

On another level, machine learning (ML) has grown and penetrated the Internet to such a degree that one can examine a product on Amazon and see ads for it within hours on Facebook. Privacy has suffered. The Internet, invented for the purpose of sharing scientific information, developed a dark side, the extent of which is still being assessed — surveillance, phishing attacks, the hacking of personal information, and possibly enough manipulation to sway elections.

The pace is still swift and the increasingly successful bids to harness Quantum Computing (whose basic unit of information is called a Qubit) will likely bring unforeseen changes. Nothing stands still.

End Game

“You can’t stop the future. You can’t rewind the past. The only way to learn the secret, is to press play” ~ Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why

In my retirement, I’ve once again become a student. I read incessantly, both fiction and nonfiction, I take the occasional online course, and I think, if not profoundly, at least genuinely. It aids thinking to have a philosophical framework to compare one’s thoughts to, and I continue to find the challenge of existentialism worthwhile for this. It’s an honest philosophy, derived from the human spirit looking at an irrational and uncaring, absurd, universe and deciding to carve out a personal meaning for being human. It’s a difficult challenge (never underestimate existential angst) but it’s more open and honest than clinging to a derived set of values, liberal or conservative, from those around us.

I’m beginning to understand why Camus used the story of Sisyphus to highlight the challenge. In the Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a huge boulder to the top of a hill. Every time he reached the top, the boulder would roll back to the bottom and he was required to repeat the procedure, for eternity. “Camus claims that when Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate, he is freed to realize the absurdity of his situation and to reach a state of contented acceptance. With a nod to the similarly cursed Greek hero Oedipus, Camus concludes that ‘all is well,’ indeed, that ‘one must imagine Sisyphus happy.’” [Wikipedia, “The Myth of Sisyphus”]

It would be neat and tidy, at this final stage of my life, to wrap up my thoughts with a pretty bow attached, but I’m unable to do so. There have always been random elements in our story that change the story itself: a colliding meteor, a world war, an economic depression, climate change, the overthrowing of the monarchy and aristocracy, the re-establishment of a wealthy set of plutocrats, the place you were born, the family you emerged from, the schools you attended, the number of freedoms, or lack thereof, of the prevailing government, and, not least, who you fall in love with. It is difficult to piece all this together into a holistic understanding. I am, in my final years, still waiting — waiting for gestalt.

 

Why Use Linux?

Why Use Linux?

By Gene Wilburn

I’m astonished at how seldom anyone asks me “Why use Linux?” It’s as if, outside the realm of computer techies, Linux is unknown or feared. So let me start with an introduction.

Think of your computing device operating system as a vehicle of transit, say a car that takes you to where you want to go. Now think Smart Car. Now think driverless Smart Car where you simply sit inside and tell Siri, or James, or Hobnob where to take you. This is the model of modern operating systems, especially those for tablets, such as iOS from Apple and Android from everyone else except Microsoft. They are attempts to make your trip devoid of challenges or problems and both Windows 10 and MacOS try to do this, not entirely successfully. The design goal of user friendliness and ease of use is good, but it’s only one way of looking at operating systems. The problem with this model is that some of us like to do our own driving, and we like a standard gear shift so we can control the ride ourselves. If you’re like this, then there some things about Linux that might appeal to you.

The standard way to introduce Linux is to say something like “Linux, or GNU/Linux as it’s sometimes known, is a multiuser, multitasking operating system that runs on a broad variety of Intel and AMD processors.” That’s a mouthful and it doesn’t do much to tell you what Linux is. So, think DOS, or if you back go far enough, CP/M. You got around and did work by typing commands directly into your computer. Before Windows (and Mac and OS/2) that’s how you communicated with your computer and launched programs. Like driving a stick shift.

Now, lest I misrepresent it, Linux too has a graphical, windowed interface — several of them to choose from actually — and they’re very nice and modern and you can set up a Linux computer for a non-techie and they can work it just fine that way. I use it that way myself most of the time. But the real draw of Linux lies under the hood, or behind the command line prompt, which is usually a plain, little dollar sign: $. From here you can do just about anything, including driving yourself into a brick wall at high speed, if you’re not careful. But then, you’re a careful driver, right? And behind that dollar sign lies a computer techie’s dream.

So what’s so special about Linux, then? Two things: it’s based on Unix, and it’s free.

Unix

Linux derives, ultimately, from Unix, an operating system that emerged from the Bell Labs in New Jersey and launched on January 1, 19701. Unix pioneered many of the modern operating system concepts, like hierarchical directories, utilities that did one thing, and one thing well, and a way to string the utilities together using pipes and redirection. You may remember DOS commands such as mkdir for “make a directory” (today most people call them “folders”) and cd for “change directory.” These commands were “borrowed” from Unix but were a pale imitation of the real deal.

Furthermore, Unix was the proving ground for the mouse, the graphical interface (before the Macintosh), and before that, and more importantly, the Internet. Email was invented and standardized in Unix, as was the TCP/IP network protocol that the Internet runs on. The Web was invented on Unix too. To put it mildly, Unix has been a foundational technology in the history of computing. The problem with Unix was that it only ran on mainframes and minicomputers, as shared multiuser systems. The techie’s dream was to have a personal Unix that could run on an inexpensive Intel and AMD PCs. But Unix required expensive licensing and was not built for the Intel architecture.

FSF, GNU, and BSD

There were three or four projects that were begun in the hopes of creating a free Unix workalike, free from licensing fees, and free from corporate rule. An influential programmer, Richard Stallman, set up a project to recreate all the Unix utilities with no reference to the original source code so it could be used and legally distributed for free. He called it the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and later, GNU (GNU’s not Unix — a recursive acronym). GNU was delaying building a kernel (or auto engine) for the last piece of work.

Meanwhile another group was striving to release a BSD (Berkeley Systems Division) Unix derivative using both the GNU and the Berkeley utilities to create a Unix-like OS for the Intel 386 processor. They actually did a smashing job at this, but ran into a licensing dispute with the University of California, Berkeley, about free distribution. FreeBSD, as it came to be called, was, and still is, an excellent Unix-like OS and if they hadn’t been forced to hold back until the dispute was settled, I might now be advocating FreeBSD instead of Linux. Unfortunately, it missed its prime window of opportunity. Nonetheless, there are a lot of web sites today running on FreeBSD which is admired for its dependability and stability.

Linux

But fate intervened, and a young computer science student in Helsinki, Finland — Linus Torvalds — took another project called MINIX (an experimental Unix-like OS for the Intel 286) and started rewriting the kernel to work on the 386, the first genuinely 32-bit CPU from Intel. To say the least, he succeeded, then he and his colleagues around the world added the GNU Unix utilities and his friends dubbed the package “Linux” in his honour. Linus is still the head of Linux kernel development, though he now does it from sunny Silicon Valley.

The early days of Linux were typified mostly by character-based consoles, like logging in to a PDP-11 Unix computer except right on your own PC. There were several “Linux distributions” (flavours) like Slackware (still available), Debian (still available and the progenitor of all the Ubuntu distributions), Red Hat (before it went commercial), Caldera (no longer with us), and SUSE (still popular in Europe). In addition the “little Linuxes” began to appear—distributions like Damned Small Linux that ran on minimal or even embedded systems.

As Intel processors became faster and more powerful, Linux added windowing interfaces based on another free project, the X Window Consortium. From this sprang most of the modern Linux graphical interfaces that have names like Gnome3, Mate, Cinnamon, KDE, IceWM — there are literally a few dozen graphical interfaces to choose from, some of which are designed to run on minimal (e.g., old) hardware.

Because it was developed for the PC, Linux quickly acquired device drivers for most of the peripherals of the day: network cards, printers, faxes, external hard disks, scanners, mice, trackpads, speakers, and, more recently, Bluetooth and WiFi adapters. In other words Linux had all the joy of Unix plus all the practicality of a personal computer. A personal Unix. What is most notable about all of this is that it is the result of programmers who cared enough to devote their free time to working on Linux drivers and other free software projects. This was the birth of what is now called the Open Source model.

ASCII (Text) Files

I think it’s fair to say that no other operating system uses ASCII2, or text, files to the extent that Linux/Unix does. Perhaps you remember the early days of DOS and Windows when you might have an autoexec.bat and a config.sys file in your boot directory to customize your system for your use when you started your PC. And when Windows programs frequently had a corresponding .ini text initialization file to create a profile for how a Windows program should start and run.

This is the Unix style, and Linux is set up with all manner of text files that instruct the system how to boot and what to run when it does. And many programs, such as the vi or emacs editors have startup files that are “hidden” files with names like .vimrc or .emacs. The dot at the beginning of the file name makes them invisible unless you invoke a list command that displays them, e.g. ls -a.

The beauty of ASCII files is that they are easily readable, easily edited, and, perhaps as importantly, easily searched. Linux/Unix has excellent, time-honoured facilities for searching text files either for file name or contents. Linux editors abound, from the traditional vi and emacs editors to simple editors like nano or writing-oriented editors like Focus Writer. There’s an editor for any style or personality. Many are oriented to programming, with syntax colouring and parenthesis, brace, and bracket matching to assist programmers, but there are authors who use these editors for writing articles and books. The SF author Neal Stephenson, for instance, mentioned in an interview that he uses Emacs on Linux for all his writing and I believe I’ve heard that Cory Doctorow uses Emacs as well.

Linux currently sports a sophisticated office suite called Libre Office (also available for Windows and Mac), but the true heart of Linux lies in its text files. For things like advanced formatting of print material, PDFs, or ebooks, the traditional Unix approach has been to put instructions on what to do right inside the text file, totally visible with nothing hidden. Think permanent Reveal Codes if you recall WordPerfect 5 for DOS. This is called a markup scheme, and is used for traditional typesetting programs such as troff or LaTeX. This has also led to the development of a simple writer’s markup scheme called Markdown and is the scheme I use for all my writing, including this essay3.

When your files are text files, some things become much easy to do in Linux. For instance, to keep my essay writing in some semblance of order, I internally title my essays as Essay001.md, Essay002.md, Essay003.md, etc. (.md for Markdown) and to see what they’re about I know that each essay has a title line as its first line. To get a snapshot of my work I can use the Linux utility head that shows only the first x lines of a file, 10 by default. (There is a corresponding tail command.) I only need one line, so my command in my Essay directory is:

$ head -1 Essay*.md

Which produces:

==> Essay001.md <== 
# Paradoxes and Temporal Displacement

==> Essay002.md <== 
# Flowers from Algernon

==> Essay003.md <== 
# Where's Walden?

==> Essay004.md <== 
# A Musical Interlude

==> Essay005.md <== 
# Whatever Happened to Ecology?

==> Essay006.md <== 
# Of Melancholy I Sing

[etc.]

Slick, no? It’s a trivial example of what you can do from the command line, but it illustrates the principle of Linux tool use. It starts out with, hey, I’ve got a problem to solve. How do I see the first line of all my essay files? Then I think about what tools are available. Well, head should be able to do that and a quick check on the manual (man) page tells me how to limit the display to one line. This is a form of computing, using the tools for something you want to solve.

There’s much more I could do with my essay files from the command line. Using sed (stream editor) I could make global changes to all the files with one command, say substituting the word real for actual, for example, or removing the spaces around em-dashes. If I were a novelist, I could change a character’s name globally if I decided to rename a character after several chapters into the work. There is nearly always a solution, often more than one, to solve a problem. Of course you need to know what the tools can do before you will think of using them, but that comes with the territory of learning the environment, and if you’re technically inclined, it’ a fun study.

Development Tools

Linux is also the home of server applications, such as Postfix for an email server, Apache or Nginx for a web server, not to mention database servers, repository servers, FTP servers, firewalls, and the like. You can create a test website on a Linux box then test it from other PCs and tablets on your home network before committing your work to a live, external web server. Want to work with a content server like WordPress? You can set this up to work in your Apache web server and get to know it and its plugins and do your testing locally rather than risk fiddling with a live website. Linux is a web developer’s friend.

But the jewels in the crown are the programming environments Linux provides, from the amazingly able Bash shell and interpreted scripting languages such as Perl and Python all of which are normally a part of every distribution. To that you can easily add C, C++, Java, LISP, Haskell, and any of a few dozen specialty languages. Naturally this might not appeal to a casual user, but think kids. The more exposure to Linux and its programming environments they get, the more prepared they will be to pursue technical training and study.

Scalable Knowledge

One of the side benefits to learning Linux is that you can log into just about any Unix or Unix-like computer on the planet and feel at home with the environment. This includes machines as tiny as a Raspberry Pi that might be used in a robotic installation, or a supercomputer cluster at a research centre. A survey in 2017 indicated that the top 15 supercomputers in the world were all Linux clusters. Most of the Cloud is based on Linux as well. You can switch easily between your personal Linux PC and a remote console for a Linux system located in Amazon Web Services (AWS) or another cloud provider.

And if you should end up working in the financial sector, as I did for a few years, you’re already right at home in IBM AIX, HP/UX, and Solaris systems that might be operating as Oracle servers. In other words, Linux knowledge is extensible and scalable — you only need to learn the basics once and you’re set for life. Command-line knowledge is stable and enduring.

Rescuing Old PCs

Most of us enjoy using the latest and fastest computers we can acquire and, in an age of graphical programs and the increased demand they make on resources, fast and powerful is good. However, in a text oriented environment, say writing, you don’t really need all that speed and power. The world is full of abandoned PCs and laptops that have quite a bit of life in them if turned into Linux machines.

For instance, I rescued a Dell Mini system with an Atom processor this year. It only has 1GB of memory and a slow HD, but it’s a nice little portable unit for a writer, and a great system for a kid to learn Python on. While most of the major distributions of Linux run best on fast gear, there are distributions created specifically for machines with fewer resources. On the Dell Mini I installed Xubuntu, a stripped-down, lightweight version of the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution. The Mini runs surprisingly well on it. Another friend had a low-resource laptop that was totally swamped by Windows 10, so I installed Lubuntu on it, an even lighter version of Ubuntu and it fuctions well as a browser for the Internet and it runs Libre Office well enough for occasional use.

Even if you’re not a writer, you can use a rescue PC to serve as a music and multimedia server for the house. Or, of course, a development web server. Or just as a machine for learning about computing, from the command line up.

Modern Applications

What I’ve sketched out here in very brief detail is the use of Linux as a traditional Unix box, with command-line richness and tools galore. For a tech-savvy person, this aspect of Linux is like owning a filled treasure chest. But there are also many modern, graphical open-source programs, or applications, available, from sound recording to animation to photo editing. They’re often not quite as slick as the commercial programs available for Mac or Windows, but they’re free of cost and you’re free (that is, it’s legal) to share them with others. These applications tend to be very good, with constant updates and improvements. Above all, Linux gives you choices. If you don’t want to pay Adobe $10US a month to use the current versions of Photoshop and Lightroom, you can use the free Gimp or Darktable apps that provide at least 80% of the same functionality, if not more.

Here’s maybe a surprise. If you’re not an Apple or Windows camp follower, you may already be using Linux without even realizing it. The Android operating system for smartphones and tablets is a Linux variant. If you have a Roku or similar device, it’s probably running Linux under the hood. The same goes for your router. Embedded Linux is widely used in commercial products. Linux may be used in your fridge, your car, or your TV set.

So let me conclude by saying that there are many reasons for wanting to use Linux, though I’ll be the first to admit it’s a best fit for people with a technical bent. If you’re so inclined, you’ll find it puts the computing back into computing. And I’m just geeky enough to think that it’s way more fun than Windows or even MacOS4. And did I mention? It’s free.


  1. uppercase UNIX is a trademark name. The computer industry usually uses the spelling Unix to include both UNIX and all UNIX-workalike operating systems such as HP/UX, Solaris, AIX, FreeBSD, Linux, etc.
  2. ASCII is short for American Standard Code for Information Interchange. Today it’s more accurate to say UTF8 as part of Unicode encoding but it doesn’t come as trippingly on the tongue.
  3. If you’d like to know more about using Markdown, I have written a free small e-monograph on the subject called Markdown for Writers.
  4. Technically, MacOS is a BSD Unix derivative OS but has been modified in untraditional ways by Apple. It’s still a Unix system at the command prompt, but is never as up to date on utilities as Linux or FreeBSD.