The Grand Locus / Life for statistical sciences



Why Linux is awesome

Before you rush to the comments and express your opinion about this title, let me make something clear. I do not expect anybody to erase their operating system and install Linux after reading this post. Actually, I do not care whether you use Linux or another operating system. All I want is to share what I have learned by using Linux, and why it made me a better scientist.

The mouse that infects your brain

About a year after I started to use Linux, I was surprised to realize how uncomfortable working on Mac and Windows had become. I could not quite pinpoint the problem, but I had the vague feeling that something was missing. Yet everything seemed to be there. When I could finally formulate it, I realized that what was bugging me was the discomfort that all the possible options had been preconceived for me. I could click on option A, I could click on option B, and if I liked neither of those, there was no option C.

But most surprising was that I had never realized this before, because I had no idea of all the things you can do with your computer. I had unwittingly gotten rid of a “mouse infection”. Using the mouse all the time makes you use the computer like a tooth brush. It implicitly makes you think of the computer as a physical object that you manipulate with your hand.

A computer is not a toothbrush. Linux taught me that.

A race for knowledge

When all options are open, nothing can stop you, right? Wrong. The practical limit of freedom is knowledge, or rather the lack of it. From day one, using Linux is a race for knowledge because the only way to get things done is to know how they work. This is of course what scares off beginners, and rightly so. Is it worth spending countless hours installing a driver for your graphics card driver? Yes! Knowing how to set up a graphics card is the most useless skill I can think of, but by getting there you develop the attitude of a problem solver.

Hard and tedious at the beginning, the reward becomes huge over time. Good problem solvers adapt fast and they are not afraid of changes. And no matter how good they are, they keep learning new things.

The (open) world is your playground

Knowledge that you cannot share is not really knowledge. In my own definition, a good programmer is someone who can read another programmer’s code (and understand it). This makes a programmer good programmer because s/he will be able to learn from others. By making almost everything open source, Linux is an invitation to learn from people who are better than you.

I have learned much more by grabbing people’s code from different sources than thinking about the problems on my own. For instance, this blog is a fork of Nick Johnson’s bloggart. There is no way I could have made a decent web application on my own.

When something is built around an idea, this idea transpires in every little detail. Linux is not only an operating system, it is also a a business model and a philosophy. Following my experience of using Linux, I believe that freedom and openness lead to knowledge and competence. There are many ways to get there and I have no doubt that many people did so without using Linux, or even without turning on a computer.

In the end, what makes Linux awesome is not the features of the operating system, it is the values that it was built around.

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