Successfully completing a school semester with Linux

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.


  1. Hey, glad to hear you’re getting along with Linux pretty well. I just wanted to mention that the GNOME Do bug about startup has been fixed, just not yet released. It will work properly in the next released version.

  2. Yes, we have a fix for the 100% CPU startup bug (which may or may not be the exact bug you are experiencing). Hopefully we can push out a maintenance release or something soon. 🙂

    Also, I noticed you use Docky. We are splitting off Docky into its own application (so Do and Docky can both grow without stepping on each other’s feet). Docky 2 (the stand-alone Docky) is currently ‘alpha’ but quite stable and usable. We probably will have a beta release soon. We do not (yet) have integration with GNOME Do, but plan to at some point.

    I recommend giving it a try. There is a PPA for Ubuntu Karmic, I am unsure how that works with Mint. There are also instructions for installing from source.

  3. Kate simplifies things by letting me have several text files open in one window at once

    I don’t think there are any text editors out there nowadays that don’t have a tabbed interface, are there?

    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.

    You should try LaTeX (preferably with a plugin for your plaintext editor of choice), it beats any WYSIWYG utility out there.

    @ Robert
    I could see many people switching if only there were a way to get the ‘systray’ into Docky.

  4. @K
    You’re correct, most text editors do have a tabbed interface at this point. I just wanted to mention that Kate because it works well and in my opinion has a nicer look and feel than others.

    Some of my earlier posts documented issues like poor media playback, hardware incompatibility, and instability. Getting my monitor to work correctly has been a chore, especially in KDE. Even in GNOME it doesn’t work at its optimal resolution. Getting Flash to work is a total crapshoot, and I still get the occasional catastrophic system failure that forces me to restart X or to outright reboot. We have an entire category on our website (“God Damnit Linux”) and podcast (“What the hell Linux???”) dedicated to venting about these issues.

  5. Congratulations on your successful discovery of GNU/Linux and thank you for sharing your experience.

    Thanks for your review of Do. I’m not familiar with Do but have solved most of the issues you describe with the E16 window manager, kicker and a tackpoint. E16 is an excellent, low resource window manager that plays well with GNOME and KDE applications and has wonderful pagers and edge flipping. Kicker is the KDE 3.5 panel, which is modern enough and can be covered up by other applications when used in E16. Trackpoints are the little red joystick that IBM has been putting in the center of your keyboard for 15 years. Most of all, these applications are mature and of the best quality. They don’t do strange things to your data. Do looks interesting and I’ll be looking into it one day when it settles down.

    Some other applications you should discover are kbibtex and kile. If you want your thesis or papers to look perfect and like kate, you will love the way kile deals with latex. kbibtex is an excellent reference database that stands on it’s own for any research project. Most handy are it’s search feature, abstract and link fields. When you find the keywords you were looking for, you have a link to where you stored the paper. You can get flash working well in a distribution like Mepis, if you must have flash.

    Gnuplot, which is not actually a gnu project, deserves it’s own special mention. Nothing else comes close if you have to generate hundreds of plots. Combine gnuplot with a few simple scripts an you will never use a spreadsheet again for anything but one off graphs. Done right, with eps output, the output rivals fancier graphing programs that murder you with a thousand clicks. I’m sure you have found this wonderful site. It will lead you through gnuplot.

    You should not count on Windows 7 to work any better than Vista or any other version of Windows [2]. If and when you buy a new computer, you will be forced to purchase this new blight of an OS. I’m not sure what it can do that can not be done better with free software. Good luck with it, but I doubt you will be able to stick with it for useful work. The most important issues of program incompatibility, poor power management and general performance problems have not been solved as far as I know. These barriers are not compensated for by third rate window management that apes parts of KDE 4 and Mac.

  6. In the last two years of my college career, i used nothing but linux. There was only two times i needed a virtual machine for xp and that was for my adobe photoshop and excel 2007 class. Office 2007 was incompatible with wine at the time, and adobe photoshop still runs like crap in wine.

  7. @Sasha
    (How could I not see that “Reply” button…)
    Ah I see, got it. I pointed it out because it sounded to me like you thought Kate were the only one with that capability, but you probably know that already.

    I would mention I’m running Gentoo somewhere below here, but something tells me most people wouldn’t know what that is. Well, technically, I guess it would be more correct to say that I’m running Portage with the Gentoo repository as my main one.

    Some of my earlier posts documented issues like poor media playback, hardware incompatibility, and instability. Getting my monitor to work correctly has been a chore, especially in KDE.

    Sounds like a problem with old software, which might be true depending on which version of Mint you’re running.
    The fact that you have problems with poor(?) media playback sounds strange, given that most players use gstreamer or ffmpeg, which means you should be able to play just about anything.
    Hardware compatibility are in most cases due to missing kernel modules (which, IMO, should be compiled in when not testing).

    Getting Flash to work is a total crapshoot

    www-plugins/adobe-flash- works pretty nice here. Though I prefer to not mess with Flash whenever I can, no matter the operating system.

    I still get the occasional catastrophic system failure that forces me to restart X or to outright reboot.

    In my experience, the only time’s I’ve had this happen to me is when I’ve executed some command that were malformed and sucked upp all of my RAM or CPU% (such as entering “raw text input mode” in Gnome Do and entering a . [dot]), but even then I could most of the time switch to another “session” and kill the process from there.

    Probably not interesting, but might be worth mentioning. I’m on amd64 with a non-hardened multilib system without selinux and mostly “unstable” packages which are actually, surprisingly enough, very reliable.

    sys-apps/portage- “-build -epydoc -python3”
    sys-devel/binutils-2.20 “nls -gold -multislot -multitarget -vanilla”
    sys-apps/coreutils-7.6 “acl gmp nls xattr -caps -static -vanilla”
    x11-libs/gtk+-2.18.3 “cups jpeg jpeg2k tiff -vim-syntax -xinerama”
    media-libs/mesa-7.7_rc1 “gallium nptl xcb -motif -pic”
    gnome-base/gnome-session-2.28.0 “branding ipv6 splash”
    sys-kernel/gentoo-sources-2.6.31-r3 “symlink -build”
    sys-libs/glibc-2.11-r1 “nls -gd -glibc-omitfp -profile -vanilla”
    sys-fs/udev-149 “devfs-compat extras”
    sys-devel/gcc-4.4.2 “fortran graphite gtk mudflap nls nptl openmp -bootstrap -build -gcj -ip28 -ip32r10k -multislot -nocxx -objc -objc++ -objc-gc -vanilla”
    sys-apps/openrc-0.5.3 “ncurses pam unicode”
    sys-apps/hal-0.5.13-r2 “X acpi consolekit crypt policykit -apm -dell -disk-partition -laptop”
    x11-base/xorg-server-1.7.3 “hal ipv6 kdrive nptl sdl xorg -dmx -minimal -tslib”
    x11-wm/compiz-0.8.4-r9000 “cairo dbus emerald gnome gtk plugins svg unsupported -fuse -kde -kde3”

  8. @K
    Jake is actually also using Gentoo (or some variant thereof). You may consider checking some of his posts if you are interested in seeing his perspective of things.

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