Linux & Biking

posted in: Creative Nonfiction | 1

A while back, I wrote a post about biking to work, which still stands. Having biked to work the past two days, I still agree with everything I said back then. The main difference is that now I am wearing business-attire (necktie included) at the office, and so I bike to work in a t-shirt & shorts, and change when I arrive at work. I pack a towel just to be safe (Ford Prefect would be proud!)

0013On my commute today, I was thinking about the similarities between bike commuting and using linux. It just floated into my consciousness, I swear. I’m not grabbing at straws for blog topics. 🙂

Anyways — the reason I thought of it is because I noticed that the freedom I feel while riding my bicycle is similar to the freedom I feel when using this open-source platform.

I know, I know, it sounds cheesy, but I mean it — there is something legitimately liberating about being able to use your computer and not feel so constrained by it. Mac users probably have an idea what I’m talking about. Bear with me here — I’ve thought about it a lot today:

I think that in order to define what I mean by “freedom”, I need to define the constraints I feel are now gone.

Free Biking

When I am on my bike, there is the obvious literal “free” sensation — being out in the open with the wind whipping through my hair and being able to actually smell the lilacs and honeysuckles that I pass on the way to work is an improvement all on its own over the smell of exhaust fumes and other byproducts of internal combustion.

But there is also the more subtle sense of  “free” as in “liberation.” When I am biking i never have to think about purchasing gas — my possible destinations and frequency of travel are limited only by my available time and bodily energy. When oil prices rise, as they are wont to do, I don’t need to think about biking less.

When traveling on my bike, I am liberated from the constraints society would place on me, implicitly, by design. Sure, I can’t bike to my parents’ house 600 miles away (well I suppose I *could*, but that would just be silly), but even with an almighty motor vehicle, I only do that once or twice a year.

I’m not constrained by fences, gates, or tight passages. If the road is bad, or if there is a lot of traffic, I can just re-route around it. I am not tied to the paved roadways and thoroughfares.

When I rode through the depot district this morning, the train gate was down because a train was paused near the furniture warehouse. There were half-a-dozen cars backed up on both sides of the gate, but the train was immobile at the moment. I pulled up to the gate, ensured that the train was indeed stationary, picked up my bike and walked across it, and then resumed riding.


On a bike, riding down a quiet backroad, I just feel free. Even on a rainy overcast day like today.

Free Linux

The distinction here is a little more subtle.

Even though I have flirted with Linux on and off since 1996, I have always remained predominantly a Windows user simply by design — the things I needed to do were all in Windows – or at least that was my perception.

The operating system itself is licensed, meaning I need to purchase a copy of it or purchase a computer that includes a license for it. But if I install it without paying for it in one way or another, you’re breaking the law.

When I need software on Windows, I usually start by googling for some suggestions and reviews. Sometimes I’ll find some downloadable stuff right then and there. More often than not, though, I find myself having to wade through page upon page of listings for software that is licensed — released under a profit motive. I can either use a crippled version of the software, try it for a few days and then have it disabled, or look for illegal means of loading it (often impossible for low-exposure items). It takes time and effort. The profit motive means that the whole time I’m reading reviews I need to keep a critical eye going and second guess what I read “Is this really the best package?”

The profit motive creates an environment where I remain skeptical about whose interests are in mind with the software. Microsoft was quite notorious for the antitrust trial that keeps popping back up over and over (now, it’s in the EU). They have a very vested interest in keeping things  in Windows closed and controlled. They “embrace and extend” existing technologies so that they can influence more money into their coffers.

And let’s not even get started on the anti-virus / malware issue. There’s a good reason that Norton, McAffee, Grisoft, and ComputerAssociates don’t make anti-virus software for Linux.

But now, with Linux, it feels free. The OS is free, first of all, so no licensing concerns there. There are a few distros  of Linux that are for-fee, but nearly all are for-free.

When I’m sitting here at my laptop, if I read about something someone is doing with theirs that I think is cool, I don’t need to go out and buy software  or sift through reviews. Heck, I don’t even need to put in a CD and I rarely have to even google for a source to find it.

More often than not, I simply type “apt-get install” in a terminal, specifying what it is I want, and bam – it’s done. If the software I want requires other software to run, it installs that too. No thinking required. You just type “Y” and hit enter.

The Add/Remove feature that I’ve mentioned numerous times is even easier — not only does it categorize the available software, show me popularity rankings, AND descriptions, but it handles all of the stuff that apt-get does as well, and it’s a nice looking graphical interface.

And the best part? Updates are CONSTANT. Everytime ANY of the software has a patch out, I get notified by a little icon in the upper-right. It handles all the upgrades & updates for me. Yes, windows does that, but only with the operating system itself. Here in Linux world, if I install “Stellarium” (a planetarium simulator), and a new version is released that fixes a security hole, I get patched immediately.

If I don’t like how a particular software package runs (it’s happened a few times), I can always find at least a handful of other alternatives, with one that suits my needs better.

When I have a problem, I can tap into an enormous community for help and often find someone with the same problem as me, along with one or more solutions. Quite often, it’s simply knowing how to ask the question correctly. These people aren’t getting paid; they’re doing it because they enjoy it and want to contribute. There is no profit motive here. You can let your guard down a little bit.

And if I want to do more than just casual usage? If I decide that “You know, I don’t like how this works, it should do this instead”, I can participate to help make that happen! I’m actually considering doing that with the Twitux application — I don’t like how it shows the full-names of my twitter friends, rather than their screennames — I don’t know who to @reply to. And there’s no way to do a simply @reply to someone without typing out the whole thing.

I can contribute to the project, if I want, and help to make the software better. I’m not required to, but I have that OPTION; that FREEDOM.

With Windows, it was always “my way or the highway,” and if I get stuck behind a long line of cars at a railroad crossing, there isn’t a whole lot I can do.

With Linux, I always have options; I always have freedom. I can pick up my bike and walk over the crossing. I am not forced to use my computer in a pre-packaged manner, simply because someone else wants me to continue to patronize their product line.

With Linux, I can breathe.

  1. Javier

    Hey, you are the man… my exact thoughts. I love Linux much in the same I love freedom.