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Successfully completing a school semester with Linux

December 5th, 2009 10 comments

For those of you who have read my profile, you know that I’m finishing up my math degree. More specifically, I’ve just finished lectures for my last term as an undergraduate student of statistics. One of my main fears about switching to a different operating system was that it would disrupt my studies. Fortunately, this fear was unfounded – in fact, I can confidently say that Linux actually made my school experience much easier and smoother than it would have been had I stuck with Windows Vista or XP.

As a statistics student, I obviously work with numbers. Some courses, such as those dealing with experimental design, have fairly simple mathematical procedures (Note: these usually follow not-so-simple justifications for the procedures). Normally I’m given a small data set and told to carry out an Analysis Of Variance (ANOVA). Since the mathematical work in these assignments is pretty straightforward, I like to carry it out in Excel, or some equivalent. Thankfully, OpenOffice.Org Calc works just as well as Excel and uses essentially the same syntax and commands, so I managed to switch between programs rather seamlessly.

Some of my other assignments require more complicated procedures (and occasionally more complicated ANOVAs), so I have to use R, which is basically a very powerful statistical tool. In Windows XP, I found that adding libraries and updating R could occasionally be a difficult process – my roommates can verify that as a consequence, I often go months without updating my programs. In Mint, there were no such troubles – installing and updating libraries is as easy as opening Synaptic and clicking a few times. Linux also provided some less important benefits, such as not having to alter every slash in a filepath to make sure that R can actually find the file. I’m guessing this has something to do with the difference between a backslash and a frontslash.

Other programs like Do, which I’ve reviewed, and Kate, my preferred text editor, make life so much easier. When I’m working, I usually have several data sets open, and I frequently have to jump between folders to access images, old code, old solutions for reference, etc. Kate simplifies things by letting me have several text files open in one window at once, so I can make better comparisons between data sets or summary tables. This is especially important for when I have data sets that are so large that viewing them in R in the terminal would be ill-advised (tip: don’t try to view anything longer than 1000 lines in terminal). Thanks to Do, I can quickly flip between several folders without ever having to move my hands off of the keyboard. In particular, this comes in handy when I need to reference some old solutions for an obscure-but-suddenly-desireable mathematical quality.

I haven’t done too much writing this term aside from updating my resume, so I won’t dwell on the various word processors. In my opinion, if the word processor can create a decent looking resume – it did, by the way – then it should suffice for any other purpose. I’ve also tried out a few other math programs (eg., gnuplot), but I haven’t used them enough to give a reasonably well-informed opinion. However, the fact that I could install them and try them out with absolutely no effort on my part really speaks well for Linux Mint.

After a long, gruelling term, I can confidently say that I benefitted academically from using Linux Mint. Along with everything I’ve mentioned, Linux has provided less direct benefits, such as faster load times and fewer restarts, which make getting started on an assignment or project easier. Despite having a few bugs ranging from annoying (I really wish Do would load on startup consistently) to catastrophic (oh my god why did my desktop shift what is going on), I will probably have some distribution of Linux running on my machine when I switch to Windows 7, if only to run R and some other math programs. If you like to do any sort of math on your computer, I recommend you give it a go too.

Categories: Free Software, Linux Mint, Sasha D Tags: