May-June 2006 Selected Content
An Open Source Life - Elizabeth Sterling
As a homeschooler, you live something of an open source life. You take bits of this and that from the culture around you to fill up your days and teach yourself and your children. You share your knowledge with friends and strangers whenever you get the opportunity. You might make some money by teaching workshops or classes, or you might write about your experiences and share them in books, articles or a blog. Or you might not. Your experience tells you that you don't need a government or corporate structure to give you or your children the education you need. You are free to live and learn, work and be, however you choose. Open source computing shares that freedom and independence, and might just be a liberating component to your homeschooling life.
Using open source computer software is an opportunity to save money, learn more and take an active role in deciding what you want or need a computer for. Getting the software for free is a huge bonus. Learning how to play with the code to customize software for your particular needs is just the icing on the cake. Let's take a look at how you can cut back on your computer expenses and increase your computing power with a Linux operating system.
To get started with Linux, you can explore several options. One is to go out and buy a new computer. You can buy one "out of the box" with Windows on it for starters and put Linux on it when you get home, or you can build a computer piece by piece to get just the computer you want. A cheaper option, however, is to start out with an older computer that you already have.
If you are planning to upgrade your computer anyway, this is a good time to start with Linux. You can put Linux on the old computer you were going to retire and use Windows on your new computer. Alternately, you can choose to create a "dual boot" computer, adding Linux to a partition on your computer so you can choose which operating system to use each time you turn the computer on.
Whichever way you decide to start your exploration of Linux, I recommend not trying to jump into this new world without some link back to the computer system you are used to. If you normally use a Microsoft-based computer, you will be glad you kept at least one Microsoft computer in the house while you get your Linux computer working the way you want. You may find during your first months of playing with Linux that you can't get some of the software you need (or an equivalent) to work properly. You may also find that some things are just easier or better under your old system, like computer games or other Windows-specific educational products.
Picking a Distro
Linux is the most famous open source operating system (OS), but it isn't just one OS; it is a collection of OS's. Each flavor of Linux is called a distribution or a distro. Most distributions are put out by companies which offer various products for pay such as a commercial version of their operating system, enterprise versions of their OS for use in high-impact business situations, special software customizations and technical support. Nearly all Linux companies supply a free version of their distribution.
When you are first getting started with Linux, you definitely don't want to pay for it. Give yourself the opportunity to freely change from one version to another until you find the distro that best fits your needs. You may have difficulty locating the free version of the distribution you want on some sites, but perseverance and careful reading of each Webpage will pay off. You'll find some companies are extremely good at hiding the free version of their software; others hide it in plain sight, while still others make it easy to find and download.
To decide which distro to start with, visit http://www.distrowatch.org. You will find all sorts of information, from reviews of different distributions to technical information and popularity ratings. There are a number of different types of Linux out there. There are distros for handheld computers and cell phones. Some distros, called "minimalist distros," are designed to be so small that they will fit on a USB pen drive and can be run on any computer simply by plugging in the pen drive and rebooting the machine. The most common are the distros designed either for server use or for desktop use. You will probably want a distribution that is designed for desktop use if you plan to do things like write reports, explore the Web and make art with your Linux computer.
Using Great Free Software
My favorite thing about using Linux is that we can do almost anything that people with expensive Windows-based software can do, only we can do it all without paying for the software--legally! This isn't about stealing software; it's about using software that is created to be shared for free.
Instead of Word or Excel, our family uses OpenOffice.org. This office suite includes a word processor, a math equation writer, a spreadsheet application, a drawing program and a presentation program similar to Microsoft's PowerPoint. Each program has the ability to translate into or out of the popular Microsoft file types, as well as a number of other file types you may find useful. This article is being written with OpenOffice Writer and saved in the MS Word file format.
If you enjoy working with programs such as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, you will love the Gimp. Gimp is an open source application that does everything the expensive Adobe software can do, and then some. Over the years several innovative Gimp features have shown up later in Adobe's products. We use this program in our home for all sorts of art projects. It's great for digital scrapbooking, for creating freehand art or making adjustments to photos or other digitized versions of your analog art, and it can even be used to create 2-D animations.
If 3-D art is your thing, there is no need to invest thousands of dollars in 3DS Max, Lightwave or Maya. You can create professional-quality 3-D graphics and animations using Blender for free. Spider Man 2, the movie, used Blender to create all of its animatics (movie-speak for pre-visualization animations). Independent filmmakers are also finding that Blender is an excellent option for low-budget special-effects shots.
For watching movies, you have a number of options. Xine is the "back end" program behind several different front-ends, including Totem Movie Player. Totem is nice because it can serve as a player for all your DVDs, video clips and music files, and the user interface is simple to use. My favorite thing about watching DVDs on Linux is that country codes don't matter. When we moved from the UK back home to the US in 2003, we had amassed quite a collection of zone-two DVDs. If not for Linux, they would have been nothing but plastic discs once we arrived on American soil since multi-region DVD players are no longer sold in this country.
For email, if you like Outlook, your best bet is Evolution, which looks and feels like Outlook but has fewer security issues. If you prefer Mozilla Thunderbird, you won't have any trouble adjusting, since Thunderbird is also available for Linux. Another good option for your mail and personal information tools is the KDE organizational suite, including Kmail, Kontact and Korganizer.
What Desktop Do You Want To Use?
This question is a strange one to anyone who is used to a Microsoft-dominated world. What do you mean "what desktop?" In the Linux world, you have options regarding just about everything. One of the most obvious choices is what sort of graphical user interface you want to use. This interface is called your desktop, and there are several popular desktop programs to chose from.
Your desktop will include a number of programs that are specific to that interface. Kmail and Kontact are examples of KDE- (which stands for KDE Desktop Environment) specific applications. Another desktop environment is called Gnome. It has some programs such as AbiWord and Gftp which were designed specifically for its environment. The good news is that most programs will work in any desktop environment, even if they were originally intended for just one. (Evolution, for instance, was originally designed to work only in Gnome.)
Your end decision will probably come down to which desktop you like working with best. When you first start out with Linux you should load every desktop environment offered to you, and try them each for a little while. Eventually you will settle on one, and if you are like most Linux enthusiasts, you will be certain that your desktop is the Only True Choice.
Learning Things and Getting Help
The great thing about the Linux community--indeed, the whole open source community--is that there are many ways to get free help and to learn everything you want or need to know. The bad thing about the community is that many folks forget what it was like to be brand new to this, trying to figure it all out for the first time. To get the most out of the help available, there are a few things you should know right from the start.
First, RTFM (read the freaking manual). If you don't read whatever read-me file or how-to that comes with your software before you start asking questions, you will be told in the rudest of ways that you should have. Before you start asking questions in a forum or a chat room, seek as much information as possible through existing documentation.
Second, if you are having a problem, include as much information as possible in your request for assistance. List the steps you have already taken to solve your problem and, if appropriate, paste the lines of your error log which are relevant to the problem.
Where do you get enough information to start asking questions? Start with the how-to library. There are how-to's on just about everything having to do with the Linux community, from programming to increasing the number of female programmers in the community to making coffee (drip or espresso) to setting up all your hardware. To find this wealth of geeky learning, go to your favorite search engine and type in "Linux how-to." You may find that some of the how-to's are difficult to understand in the beginning. Check the newbie how-to's for a beginner's version of the same information. (Again, simply run a search on "Linux newbie how-to" and you will find several copies of this library.)
One of my favorite books of all time, UNIX for the Impatient (Addison-Wesley Professional; ISBN: 0201823764), is a great resource. Our house copy is dog-eared and tattered from years of frequent use. But, wait... aren't we talking about Linux? Why am I suggesting a book about UNIX? Although Linux and UNIX are completely different systems, they are so closely related they use much of the same system administration tools, software and programming methods. Unix for the Impatient serves as a valuable reference for it all.
Your distribution will probably have lots of its own documentation as well. Many programs come with a "readme" file. Find them and read them. Depending on the distro and the desktop, you may have a "help" button with useful information. You may also have an entire copy of the how-to library in the documentation directory on your computer. Almost all distributions will also have a wide range of available documentation on their Websites. Spending time just perusing your distribution's Website will give you a good idea where to find things later when you really need them.
Go Get It!
Now that you know a little bit about Linux, go check out a few Websites, download a copy of a distro that seems like it might suit you, and start playing! Happy computing!
Linux information, forums, news, articles, help. Check the FAQ and major distributions pages.
The Linux Documentation Project (http://tldp.org)
Find how-to's on building a new operating system from the kernel up. Plus user guides, FAQ, forums and email lists for just about everything having to do with Linux.
Tucows is a great download site for all sorts of shareware and freeware products. Applications for almost any operating system, even for your PDA or mobile phone.
GNU (Gnu's, not Unix) (http://www.gnu.org)
GNU is all about free software. The best known pioneers on the legal front for free and open-source software rights.
O'Reilly Books (http://www.oreilly.com)
O'Reilly is definitely a for-profit publishing business, they are some of the great heroes of the open-source and free-software world.
© 2006, Elizabeth Sterling