why I use Ubuntu

April 20, 2013

I have conflicting feelings about proselytizing anyone regarding operating systems.  In fact, one of the best things about Linux is that it’s a relatively small community of people who are interested in and mostly knowledgeable about computers and are passionate about open source software.  Bringing new users to Linux introduces problems after a point, since one of the main reasons there are no wild viruses for Linux is that so few people use it (depending on your source and your country, roughly 1% of computer users).  On the other hand, I love Linux, and Ubuntu specifically.  Coming from 20+ years of Windows use, Ubuntu was still very intuitive to get to know and use (much more so than MacOS for me).  It looks good.  And it’s free!

The main reason I switched to Ubuntu is because it’s free and open source.  While ideologically the latter is important to me, in all honesty it was the former that made me switch.  I was tired of paying hundreds of dollars for an operating system I didn’t love.  When I installed Ubuntu, I had been running a pirated copy of Windows — even though I had 4 Windows licenses for home use.  But these had come pre-installed on purchased computers, and after years of moving, hard drive crashes, and OS problems, I just didn’t know where any of the licenses were, and since all my computers were out of warranty, Microsoft wouldn’t give me the time of day.  Since I didn’t think it was right to pirate an operating system, I decided I’d check out something I could use for free, rather than spending hundreds of dollars replacing something that technically I still owned.

Another reason I switched was the instability of Windows.  I rebooted my computer pretty much every day between programs crashing my system, getting a Blue Screen of Death because of a driver or Windows Update problem, or just having to install new batch of Windows Updates that were so poorly written that every one of them required a restart, even though you should never have to restart your computer for an update that isn’t to the OS kernel, a driver, or something similar.  I’ve had a couple crashes with Ubuntu, but they were all either hardware problems (a video card that’s probably damaged) or because I tried to run lesser-supported Windows programs through Wine, the Windows emulator for Linux.  However, probably even more than the stability, the speed of Ubuntu has won me over.  Ubuntu is a little more bulky than, say, Fedora, but it still outperforms Windows in basically every way.  On my desktop Ubuntu takes about 30 seconds to boot, compared to 5 minutes for Windows XP.  On my laptop Ubuntu takes 15-20 seconds, versus Windows 7’s 2-3 minutes.

My biggest fear with switching to Ubuntu was the old hand-wringing of “What if I can’t use my programs??”  I eased myself into it by switching (while still using Windows) to less proprietary programs that ran on both Windows and Linux.  I started using Pidgin instead of AIM (a huge improvement since Pidgin supports all sorts of chat protocols) and LaTeX instead of Microsoft Office for text documents.  When I switched to Ubuntu, lo and behold, I was still able to do everything I could do on Windows.  I could still use Pidgin and TeXWorks, I found the default Document Viewer much faster and more stable than Adobe Acrobat, and OpenOffice filled the gaps left by leaving MS Office behind (though I still use TeXWorks for pretty much any text document).  As a musician working in two online collaborative projects I do a lot of file sharing, so I was pleased to find that Nicotine+ uses the Soulseek server for file sharing.  My old friend Google Chrome was still available, and I found a new music player — Audacious, which I’ll talk about in more detail in another post.  In short, everything I was afraid of about switching permanently to Ubuntu turned out to be a non-issue.

Personally I think everybody should try out Linux, and Ubuntu tends to be the distribution people find most user-friendly.  Ubuntu isn’t for everyone; if you have to use proprietary software that only runs on Windows, it’s not a perfect solution to have to reboot a dual-boot system or open a virtual machine running Windows.  And it’s definitely true that you MUST be comfortable with the command line if you’re going to use Linux.  As far as many modern distributions have come, you still either must or should use the command line for some tasks.  But for people who aren’t afraid of a few text commands and are willing to try out the open source alternatives to proprietary software, I think Ubuntu is the best operating system currently in heavy use.

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Satellites

April 13, 2013

I was watching an old episode of Cheers the other day in which Sam and Woody attempt to set up a new satellite TV system in the bar.  When Woody asks about how satellite TV works, Sam describes the satellites, and mentions that they’re like 87 million miles away.  This is of course a gross exaggeration; the sun is only 93 million miles away.  It would be essentially impossible for something to orbit the earth from that distance.  Geosynchronous satellites (those that orbit at the same rate as the earth’s rotation) typically orbit at around 22,000 miles.  The exact figure is actually a little higher (22,236), but satellites in an elliptical orbit will be closer than this along their minor axis (the shorter “radius” of an ellipse).  There are actually two types of geosynchronous satellites: regular geosynchronous satellites which are synchronized with the rotation of the earth and appear in the same general area throughout the day, and geostationary satellites which orbit around the equator and appear at the exact same spot throughout the day.  Satellites can only be in geostationary orbit around the equator, because physics.

Okay, let’s dig a little deeper.  One object orbits the center of another object, so we can’t have a satellite in geostationary orbit around New York City because the satellite would have to orbit a point in the earth above its center (if the Arctic is “up” and the Antarctic is “down”).  This means that a satellite in geosynchronous orbit at 30 degrees latitude above the equator sits 22,000 miles above a swath of earth 60 degrees wide.  You may be familiar with this pattern if you’ve watched any space-themed movies: when tracking a space shuttle or other space vehicle it’s path on the ground looks somewhat like a sine wave.  Why does the satellite have to be at exactly 22,236 miles?  Because math.

Okay, okay, we’ll look at an actual explanation.  For one object to orbit another, its centripetal acceleration has to equal its gravitational attraction, i.e., it has to be traveling forward as fast as it’s falling.  Things can orbit the earth at much lower altitudes: the space shuttles often hung out around 200 miles up.  But if we want the satellite to sync up with the rotation of the earth, we need it to be higher, because otherwise the centripetal acceleration required to keep it in orbit will be too fast for the earth to keep up.  Note that 22,236 miles is actually a minimum.  We can have a satellite much further out and traveling much faster and have it still sync up with the earth’s rotation.  Of course, there’s no reason we would ever want to do that because it would cost more money and make communications more difficult.

I used Internet Explorer as my primary browser for over ten years, and am always loath to switch programs, especially with things I use every day.  When I finally got fed up with IE’s instability and girth, I tried Firefox for several months before eventually settling on Chrome.  While I consider Firefox a respectable browser, I found that it was too like IE in its memory requirements and speed to entice me to be a full-time user.  I didn’t love Chrome at first, with its atypical “omnibar” instead of a separate address and search bar, and its minimalist design with tabs at the the top instead of menus and toolbars.  However, over the past few years I’ve grown to love it, and I’ll extol its virtues to anyone who will listen (a remarkable small audience).  In the spirit of loving lists of things, here’s a list of 5 things that I love about Chrome.

1.  It looks nice.  Obviously this is very subjective, but I think the minimalist design of Chrome gives it a great look.  The aesthetic appeal of a web browser (or any computer software) is a very superficial feature, but as much as we use web browsers these days it’s nice to have something you like the look of.  As much as I love black metal, there are a lot of self-recorded demos that I just can’t listen to, regardless of how good the music is.  Likewise, I could never make myself love the look of FF or IE.  It took me a while to adjust to the address bar (or omnibar for Chrome) being below rather than above each tab, but now that I’ve adjusted I don’t think I could ever go back.  To me Chrome is the opposite of your grandparents web browser that has most of the screen taken up with search bars and toolbars from every company they’ve ever installed software from: almost the whole screen is browser rather than clunky overhead.

2.  It’s fast — really fast.  Even when I was mostly using IE or FF, I was always impressed with Chrome’s speed.  On my current system (Ubuntu, Intel Core 2 Duo @ 3Ghz) Chrome takes about 3 seconds to load compared to FF’s 9-10.  I’ll note that it’s technically illegal for me to attempt to run IE on my system, and if that doesn’t scare you off maybe IE’s 10+ second start time will.  I rarely use my forward and back buttons, opting to open and close new tabs when I click on a link to something before I’m done with the source page, and so the speed of opening and closing tabs is a big deal to me.  In IE and even FF I might wait several seconds for tabs to open (and close in the case of IE), whereas Chrome usually does so almost instantly, modulo internet connection speed.

3.  The omnibar!  The omnibar seems to be one of those features that people love to hate — even people that use Chrome regularly.  On the other hand, this was a huge bonus for me even before I really accepted Chrome as my primary browser.  I am a philosopher in the original sense of the word (and in the undergraduate major sense of the word), so it’s rare that I can get through a web page without wanting to look up a topic (or five) on Wikipedia.  Even though other browsers have search bars, I never really used them, maybe because they’re so small, maybe because they’re over there in the corner, maybe because my poor monkey brain can’t process an informational difference between wanting to look up a URL and wanting to look up a topic.  At any rate, Chrome makes it a lot easier to search because you don’t have to use multiple boxes.  I’ve heard a lot of complaints about trying to go to a web site and instead getting search results for that web site, but I’ve literally never had this problem (perhaps it’s because I have bookmarks for pretty much any site I visit regularly).  The site information utility (on the left side of the omnibar) is great too, allowing you to, for instance, view the SHA-256 fingerprint for your SSL connection in a couple of clicks.  (I should note that the last version of IE I used regularly was IE7, so I can’t comment on the ease of doing this in recent versions of IE, which I hear are much improved in a number of ways.)

4.  No daily browser crashes.  The single thing that pushed me away from IE was browser stability.  Despite my intense hatred for change of any kind, I got the point where I simply couldn’t stand having my browser crash every day.  With Chrome, on the other hand, I’ve never had a single crash in two years.  Sometimes pages crash, but Chrome has good exception handling and simply gives you an error message (complete with a cutesy frowny face graphic) when something goes wrong, instead of bringing your whole system to a grinding halt.

5.  It’s based on Chromium.  You might guess from the fact that I use Linux that I’m a passionate supporter of open source software.  So the fact that Chrome is based on the open source browser Chromium is a big plus for me.  Why don’t I use Chromium?  I did for a while, but like much open source software (including my beloved Ubuntu) it has little quirks and bugs that can hamper productivity.  In the case of Ubuntu, these bugs have not been so severe that I’ll go back to paying hundreds of dollars for proprietary operating systems and software, but since Chrome is free, I decided it was worth the shame of using a proprietary product to have greater stability and compatibility.