Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Shadow and flame.

Today I installed Ubuntu on my computer as a dual boot. Ubuntu is a particular flavor of Linux, currently one of the most popular (and also the most user-friendly, or so I've heard).

While part of me is exulting that I have taken a step towards being able to call myself a true computer geek, another part of me is a bit shamefaced because I didn't do a traditional dual-boot routine, where you partition your hard drive, back everything up, and hope nothing goes wrong while the second operating system installs. I used a hitherto-unknown-to-me program called Wubi which makes installing Ubuntu as simple as installing any other program on Windows. You simply download it, run it, follow the prompts, and it sets itself up. You can even uninstall it directly from within Windows, if you decide you don't like. It sounded so easy, in fact, that I was more than a little incredulous when I first heard about it, but after reading reviews from a couple of tech sites I decided to go ahead and try it out.

There were several reasons I decided to install a Linux operating system on my computer. that I think about it, they're all pretty much the same reason: certain programs run on Linux, and not Windows. One of those programs is IRAF, and though I already have Fedora (which is another version of Linux) installed as a Virtual Machine in Windows 7, it is way harder to install IRAF on Fedora than it is on Ubuntu. However, it was overshadowed by another program, Sage, that was the main motivation behind my decision. 

Sage didn't make it onto my to-do list a few days ago because I wasn't aware of what it was then, merely its name. Since then, however, it has become of great importance to me to get it installed. Sage is sort of to describe it? It's "a viable free open source alternative to Magma, Maple, Mathematica and Matlab", according to the website. The mentioned programs are all what are known as Computer Algebra Systems, or CAS's. A CAS is your best friend when trying to do most kinds of higher math, because they can do all kinds of amazing mathematical maneuvers. The most amazing part (as reflected in their names) is that they can actually do algebra, a highly symbolic undertaking.

Anyway, these programs are used by researchers all over the world, but they all have something in common: they ain't cheap. Not by most standards, and certainly not by the standards of a poor college student. So you can see why I was so excited to find a free one ("free" as in no cost, and, since it's open source, "free" as in freedom). Also, their use is allowed, and even encouraged, by one of my professors for the homework and tests he assigns (which gives you an inkling of the difficulty level of said homework and tests...).

The really cool thing about Sage is that it's not just one program, it's a collection of a whole bunch of open source and free mathematics programs from all over, all tied together with the computer language Python, a language that I have some limited experience with (so this does fall on my to-do list, in a round-a-bout way!). In fact, when I finally got Sage up and running this evening, I was able to go ahead and write a 'for' loop on my own before getting to that part in the manual, because it uses basic Python for the interface.

So far, Ubuntu has been pretty good. It's definitely a little different from Windows, but not too bad -- I can see why some people would prefer it. Who knows, I may even come to do so myself some day. At the same time, using it today, I felt a strange sense of discombobulation from seeing my now-familiar computer with a different look and feel. It was almost like being away from home, in strange territory. But I think that will pass in time. I'm writing this post in Ubuntu right now, as a matter of fact.

Some of you might be wondering what I like most about Ubuntu so far. Is it the fact that it, like Sage, is open source and free, a common operating system for people who enjoy freedom? That it is stable and new-user friendly? That almost any program that runs on Windows runs on Linux, plus many that don't?

No...(though those are all valid reasons, to be sure)

It's the fact that I found an app that lets you paint fire on the screen with your mouse!

Yes, I just wrote my name in fire. On my desktop.

Yes...those of you who know what a pyromaniac I am will understand. I could hardly stop playing it with for the first few hours after I discovered it. With the touch of a button and a flick of the wrist, you can send surprisingly realistic simulated fire searing across the desktop, then dispel it just as easily. Underlying programs are not affected and go about their business, so if you feel like it, you could write a document while your screen is ringed in flame (and yes, I have tried that).'s getting late, and I need to catch up on my sleep from a late night last night. I didn't get around to installing IRAF on Ubuntu today, so that will be a project for tomorrow. A hui hou!

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