My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Tying the knot with Ubuntu

My summer research project involved extensive use of Macaulay2, a computer algebra program. Essentially, what Macaulay2 does is make it easy to do computations on different types of abstract algebra objects, like rings and ideals. Since there is no native version of Macaulay2 for Windows, my options for running it these past two summers have been: run it in Windows under Cygwin or, once again, dual boot Windows and Ubuntu (or Kubuntu). Ubuntu and I have a love/hate relationship, as I have testified on this blog before. It’s been a while since I last blogged about my adventures with Linux, and now it’s time for an update.

Last year I was using Kubuntu 10.04, and the experience was immediately better than any other time I've tried using Linux. Maybe it's a truism, but with each new release, more features in Ubuntu work out of the box for me, which of course makes it much nicer to install and use. Whereas earlier versions like Hardy and Gutsy played havoc with my display or printer, Karmic Koala was actually an enjoyable operating system to use. It had one problem, however: when in Kubuntu, my network card would keep dropping wireless connections. This made using Kubuntu at home, where I connect over WiFi, almost impossible. My connection would drop, and in order to regain it I would have to reset my adapter, at which point it would work for a few minutes before dropping again. So as much as I was enjoying using Kubuntu at work (where I had a nice ethernet cord available), it was not, for me, “production ready”.

Getting Natty

Ubuntu 11.04, or “Natty Narwhal”, was released a few days after I began my second research project in late April of this year. I had not booted into Kubuntu in a while—I used it somewhat while working on my honours thesis, because Kile is the best LaTeX editor I have found so far. Still, Kubuntu was definitely not anywhere close to being an operating system I used, let alone something that could become my primary operating system. I did a clean install of both Windows 7 and Ubuntu. Since I have used KDE for a long time, I decided I would stick with GNOME this time to see if my tastes have changed. The installations went off without a hitch; I didn't mangle my computer, and the actual Ubuntu installation took less than half an hour. Natty was scoring points already.

Of course, when I first booted into Ubuntu, I was confronted with the new and much lamented Unity interface. My first impressions were similarly unfavourable—although I can see the argument for Unity as a desktop environment on something like a notebook, all it really did for me was get in the way. Fortunately, disposing of Unity was as simple as logging out and logging back in under the “Ubuntu Classic” option. It hasn’t been smooth sailing from there—I miss my task bar, something I have since remedied, sort of, with Cairo-Dock—but in general my experience with Ubuntu and Gnome has been very positive. Compiz's keyboard shortcuts make me feel like some kind of wizard.

Oh, and my WiFi connection? Like a rock.

Falling in Love

Little did I know it, but I was already smitten with Natty Narwhal. Somewhat ironically, one of the first things I did was begin installing the KDE programs I’ve come to love:

  • Yakuake, the drop-down terminal emulator;
  • Kate, mostly for coding;
  • Kile, of course, my favourite LaTeX IDE;
  • which then prompted the installation of Okular for viewing PDFs; and
  • Konversation, an IRC client.

There are many GNOME programs I’ve come to enjoy, however. I like Banshee, and I found an awesome app for controlling Banshee from my Android phone, replacing what I mostly used Unified Remote for on Windows (I still need to find a good slideshow remote app though). And mainstays like Dropbox and LibreOffice are available for Ubuntu, so there are very few things about Windows I miss. (With school coming back, an exception might be Evernote, but I am going to look into whether NeverNote is a suitable client for that purpose.)

Much to my surprise, but to my considerable delight, I found myself using Ubuntu at home as well as at work. This only intensifed as I resolved to learn how to use Git and I set up a development environment on my Linux side—aside from gaming and purchasing music from the iTunes store, there really is no reason for me to boot into Windows any more. I can do everything in Ubuntu that I can do in Windows, and I can usually do it faster and easier.

In particular, I’m rather pleased with my growing comfort using the command line. I will more often open up Yakuake and start using ls and cd to navigate among my files; I am beginning to learn how powerful commands like sed are when it comes to quick, repetitive changes to my files. I’m most proud of how much I have become accustomed to using SSH, first to connect to SHARCNET and then to my server at A Small Orange. Finally, when I say I’ve been learning Git, I really do mean I’ve been learning how to use Git through its commands, and not just through a GUI program.

The Future is Bright

Barring some kind of catastrophic incompatibility between this computer and future versions of Ubuntu (and even in that case, I could just keep using Natty), I do not see myself switching back to Windows in the foreseeable future. I love Ubuntu. I love using an operating system that is free, both as in speech and as in beer, with updates that will always be free. I love that it is genuinely usable, and that I prefer it to Windows; I’m not just using Ubuntu out of some idealistic principles. I will keep my Windows installation around, because it is sometimes useful, but for now, Ubuntu is finally my primary operating system.

I don’t want to be too evangelical, since I know Ubuntu and Linux are not for everyone. The idea of using the command line can be scary—it was, and sometimes is still, scary to me. Even so, Ubuntu is quite a usable set up—honestly, I think the most difficult part of the learning process is just getting dual-booting working in the first place, and Ubuntu’s installer has come a long way in that sense. If you have ever thought about giving Linux I try, I encourage you to take the leap. And if you haven’t … well, keep an eye on it. Maybe you will change your mind. My experiences were never overwhelmingly positive, but one day I found that Ubuntu had jumped from “interesting but unreliable” to “my operating system of choice”. It could happen to you too.