The Epitome of Nerd-dom

A short while ago, I did a series of posts on computing based on the fact that I had done a lot of related research when studying the installation of Linux. I feel that I should now come clean and point out that between the time of that first post being written and now, I have tried and failed to install Ubuntu on an old laptop six times already, which has served to teach me even more about exactly how it works, and how it differs from is more mainstream competitors. So, since I don’t have any better ideas, I thought I might dedicate this post to Linux itself.

Linux is named after both its founder, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish programmer who finished compiling the Linux kernel in 1992, and Unix, the operating system that could be considered the grandfather of all modern OSs and which Torvalds based his design upon (note- whilst Torvald’s first name has a soft, extended first syllable, the first syllable of the word Linux should be a hard, short, sharp ‘ih’ sound). The system has its roots in the work of Richard Stallman, a lifelong pioneer and champion of the free-to-use, open source movement, who started the GNU project in 1983. His ultimate goal was to produce a free, Unix-like operating system, and in keeping with this he wrote a software license allowing anyone to use and distribute software associated with it so long as they stayed in keeping with the license’s terms (ie nobody can use the free software for personal profit). The software compiled as part of the GNU project was numerous (including a still widely-used compiler) and did eventually come to fruition as an operating system, but it never caught on and the project was, in regards to its achieving of its final aims, a failure (although the GNU General Public License remains the most-used software license of all time).

Torvalds began work on Linux as a hobby whilst a student in April 1991, using another Unix clone MINIX to write his code in and basing it on MINIX’s structure. Initially, he hadn’t been intending to write a complete operating system at all, but rather a type of display interface called a terminal emulator- a system that tries to emulate a graphical terminal, like a monitor, through a more text-based medium (I don’t really get it either- it’s hard to find information a newbie like me can make good sense of). Strictly speaking a terminal emulator is a program, existing independent of an operating system and acting almost like one in its own right, directly within the computer’s architecture. As such, the two are somewhat related and it wasn’t long before Torvalds ‘realised’ he had written a kernel for an operating system and, since the GNU operating system had fallen through and there was no widespread, free-to-use kernel out there, he pushed forward with his project. In August of that same year he published a now-famous post on a kind of early internet forum called Usenet, saying that he was developing an operating system that was “starting to get ready”, and asking for feedback concerning where MINIX was good and where it was lacking, “as my OS resembles it somewhat”. He also, interestingly,  said that his OS “probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks”. How wrong that statement has proved to be.

When he finally published Linux, he originally did so under his own license- however, he borrowed heavily from GNU software in order to make it run properly (so to have a proper interface and such), and released later versions under the GNU GPL. Torvalds and his associates continue to maintain and update the Linux kernel (Version 3.0 being released last year) and, despite some teething troubles with those who have considered it old-fashioned, those who thought MINIX code was stolen (rather than merely borrowed from), and Microsoft (who have since turned tail and are now one of the largest contributors to the Linux kernel), the system is now regarded as the pinnacle of Stallman’s open-source dream.

One of the keys to its success lies in its constant evolution, and the interactivity of this process. Whilst Linus Torvalds and co. are the main developers, they write very little code themselves- instead, other programmers and members of the Linux community offer up suggestions, patches and additions to either the Linux distributors (more on them later) or as source code to the kernel itself. All the main team have to do is pick and choose the features they want to see included, and continually prune what they get to maximise the efficiency and minimise the vulnerability to viruses of the system- the latter being one of the key features that marks Linux (and OS X) over Windows. Other key advantages Linux holds includes its size and the efficiency with which it allocates CPU usage; whilst Windows may command a quite high percentage of your CPU capacity just to keep itself running, not counting any programs running on it, Linux is designed to use your CPU as efficiently as possible, in an effort to keep it running faster. The kernel’s open source roots mean it is easy to modify if you have the technical know-how, and the community of followers surrounding it mean that any problem you have with a standard distribution is usually only a few button clicks away. Disadvantages include a certain lack of user-friendliness to the uninitiated or not computer-literate user since a lot of programs require an instruction typed into the command bar, far fewer  programs, especially commercial, professional ones, than Windows, an inability to process media as well as OS X (which is the main reason Apple computers appear to exist), and a tendency to go wrong more frequently than commercial operating systems. Nonetheless, many ‘computer people’ consider this a small price to pay and flock to the kernel in their thousands.

However, the Linux kernel alone is not enough to make an operating system- hence the existence of distributions. Different distributions (or ‘distros’ as they’re known) consist of the Linux kernel bundled together with all the other features that make up an OS: software, documentation, window system, window manager, and desktop interface, to name but some. A few of these components, such as the graphical user interface (or GUI, which covers the job of several of the above components), or the package manager (that covers program installation, removal and editing), tend to be fairly ubiquitous (GNOME or KDE are common GUIs, and Synaptic the most typical package manager), but different people like their operating system to run in slightly different ways. Therefore, variations on these other components are bundled together with the kernel to form a distro, a complete package that will run as an operating system in exactly the same fashion as you would encounter with Windows or OS X. Such distros include Ubuntu (the most popular among beginners), Debian (Ubuntu’s older brother), Red Hat, Mandriva and Crunchbang- some of these, such as Ubuntu, are commercially backed enterprises (although how they make their money is a little beyond me), whilst others are entirely community-run, maintained solely thanks to the dedication, obsession and boundless free time of users across the globe.

If you’re not into all this computer-y geekdom, then there is a lot to dislike about Linux, and many an average computer user would rather use something that will get them sneered at by a minority of elitist nerds but that they know and can rely upon. But, for all of our inner geeks, the spirit, community, inventiveness and joyous freedom of the Linux system can be a wonderful breath of fresh air. Thank you, Mr. Torvalds- you have made a lot of people very happy.

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Gaming continued…

Okay, gaming again (I have got to get a LOT better at writing only one post per topic). Last time I did my own analysis of the ‘games make people violent’ accusation so often levelled at them. My plan was to devote this post to expounding upon a number of other issues that people tend to take with gaming, but part way through writing it I realised that the only ones typically levelled at gaming by non-gamers could all be basically grouped under one heading, so you instead are getting another in-depth analysis of a single complaint about gaming

So, without further ado…

2) ‘Games are a waste of time/are antisocial/make you fat’
The one my parents always used to take serious issue with, and if I’m honest it’s a perfectly valid concern. Games tie you to a computer or TV screen for hours upon end, seemingly endlessly shooting bad guys, running through cities or conquering vast swathes of human civilisation. Not only that, but this time there is PLENTY of evidence showing how this can get out of hand- game addiction can get to be a serious problem for some people, to the extent that it starts to have a seriously debilitating effect on the rest of their life (For a good example, check out this: http://extra-credits.net/episodes/game-addiction-part-1/ and then move onto part two. I would also recommend checking out some more of Extra Credits if you get a chance- they do some really great video lectures on the subject of gaming, which can be kind of nerdy but really good to watch). I’ve never been sufficiently in to games to get properly addicted to them, and even the most game-obsessed of my friends only fit into the ‘hardcore-but-still-casual-gamers’ bracket (for most of them, gaming is just the main thing they do outside of the day-to-day, and as such the hours tend to rack up a bit. This might also explain why so many of them are single). However, everyone knows the stories of the addicts, the people who’ll complete the latest Call of Duty within a few hours of release, the people who spend 10 hours a day on World of Warcraft and refer to everyone as a noob, the people who somehow allow Starcraft II to be the national sport of South Korea and whose actions per minute rate make a concert pianist look lazy and sluggish. Then there is the stereotypical image that gets lambasted and piss-taken by the internet generally, and that has entered web culture as the very picture of the stereotypical hardcore nerd gamer- the obese mid-twenties guy, living in his parents’ basement fuelled by energy drinks and fast food and dedicating his life to Star Wars, being angry on the internet, and gaming. Lots of gaming. This image may be largely fanciful, but its very existence shows that there is a world of game addicts to point and laugh at, and the fact that they are there points to the existence of game addiction as a large-scale problem.

Clearly, addiction to games, just as with nicotine, alcohol or adrenaline, can be a very dangerous thing, and I am not even going to begin to defend the indefensible by denying that fact. But what about the rest of us? What about the casual gamers, the people who like a few hours of Skyrim of a weekend or whatever? What about the few hours we like to kill- does that qualify as ‘wasting time’?

It is quite easy to say yes to that idea- I mean, lets face it, games are not something you do to demonstrate your superlative contribution to the human race. Think of people like Ranulph Fiennes, Ellen MacArthur, Nelson Mandela or any other inspiring figure who springs to mind as an example of the pinnacle of human achievement in their field. Now, ask yourself- can you picture any of them spending 3 hours on a sofa playing Battlefield? Chances are the answer’s no.

However, there is one thing in this argument that I take issue with, and which leads me to reject the whole ‘waste of time’ idea- the very concept of a ‘waste of time’. Yes, whilst gaming you are not in any way being productive- but neither are you doing so if you are watching TV, playing in the garden, going to a film, chatting with friends, reading a book- I could go on. Even the most amazing people on earth need their down time occasionally, when they can stop being special and just be themselves- just be happy in the state of absorbed flow a good film, book or game, both digital and real-life, can inspire. People play games as a release, a way to relax and enjoy themselves. Different emotions may make you want to play different games (you would not, for instance, play a dark survival horror game to chill after a long day), but the point stands- one plays games to take your mind off the day-to-day, to compel oneself, and to enjoy oneself. Your brain needs that down time, that time left to its own devices, where the pressures of work and school aren’t constantly chipping away at it. Productive? Of course not. Waste of time? Not a chance