Some Thoughts on Getting Started with Ubuntu Linux

[This post originally appeared at ProfHacker.]

About a month ago, I came to the sad realization that my six-year-old white plastic MacBook was not going to see me to the end of my dissertation. Among the more serious of its ailments, its hard disk was about to fail, and doing any task took at least thirty seconds of waiting. (Going through the metal detector at an archives last summer, one of the security guards said, “I remember you; you’re the guy with the old laptop.”) Fortunately the funds for a replacement were at hand, and I needed to decide which computer to buy.

There were two considerations. First, Macs of all varieties are expensive. If my budget were unlimited I’d buy one of the new Mac Pros with three Cinema displays, and compute in style. But since my target budget was less than the price of the cheapest Mac laptop, Macs were out of the question. I ended up getting a ThinkPad T430, a solid, powerful, and fairly inexpensive workhorse laptop.

But the more interesting consideration was that the way I do my work has changed over the course of the past few years. When I started graduate school, I kept my notes in Endnote and wrote my papers with Microsoft Word. I’d never written a computer program for my research or hosted my own server, nor had I heard the words “digital humanities.” Now I keep all of my notes and write my scholarly work in plain text using Vim. An important part of my research is being presented in an Omeka database, for which I’ve written an API client in Ruby and make maps and do data analysis in R. While I do use some GUI apps, most notably Google Chrome, I spend a lot of my time at the command line, because I think my research is important enough that it needs to be version controlled, automated, reproducible, and typeset in a font other than Cambria.

My switch from consumer to professional tools was made possible because of Mac OS X. The Mac operating system has a nice-looking consumer GUI exterior with a very powerful Unix operating system under the hood. The Mac gave me the ability to gradually learn to use *nix-style tools until the GUI didn’t seem very important.

So, notwithstanding my earlier post discouraging the injudicious switching of tools, I’ve migrated full time to the Ubuntu distribution of GNU/Linux.

My reasons for switching to Linux are perhaps somewhat uncommon for academics, though they are not unique to me. Mostly my reasons are the reasons of a historian who has found that the tools and methods of computer programmers not only get out of my way and let me do my work, but also open exciting new possibilities for doing and sharing history.* I’m not encouraging you to switch to Linux, and if you do switch, I won’t provide you with tech support. But now that I’m using Linux I’m going to write a series of posts about that describe how to get started with Linux and point you to some new possibilities in the world of Linux. If you work the way that I do, and if you’re curious about Linux, maybe the posts will be of use to you.

* There are other reasons to try Linux, explained by Amy, such as its ability to run on older hardware and its ability to be customized.