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Jim's Rambling and Ambling Thoughts

Some Background on GNU/Linux
A while back a relative wanted some ongoing support installing and using Linux.  To smooth the transition, I decided to send her some background information about Linux and  also tell her my my attitude toward Linux and free software in general.  This became longer than I originally expected, so I broke it into three emails.  I think what I wrote might be useful to other people so I have decided to post those emails here, after reworking them for public view.  I am keeping these posts in the style of the original emails.   Roughly speaking, the posts will be as follows:

  • Part 1:  General information and history of GNU and Linux with emphasis on freedom
  • Part 2:  Overview of Linux distributions ("distros")
  • Part 3:  Obtaining and installing distros

These are somewhat long but I hope not tedious.  For the most part they give more of a bird's-eye view rather than being technical "howtos".  So get comfortable, grab your beverage of choice, and sit back and enjoy.  I have comments enabled for Copper subscribers who are logged on, so feel free to ask any questions or make relevant comments.  I will attempt to answer any questions.  Comments are moderated, so I will have to approve them before they appear.

The original emails were plain text.  Here, I will try to add some links for terms and names which some people may not be familiar with.

Here is part 1.  I hope to follow up with parts 2 and 3 within the next couple of weeks.  Enjoy!


Before getting into the technical details of Linux installation, I thought I should give you some background.  I find myself in the same situation I sometimes find myself when posting on Linux Questions in that I have to take a stab at how much somebody knows to try to target my response at an appropriate level.  Of course, I sometimes get it wrong.  Based on the very little you have told me, while you obviously have heard of Linux and have some idea what it is, I am guessing that you don't know much beyond that.  If I am wrong and you already know much of what I am about to say, I apologize.

In giving you this background, I also think it is important to let you know where I am coming from.  Of course, you don't have to agree with me.  In fact, even if you do end up with views similar to mine, I suspect it is a position you will have to grow into.  I certainly grew into my views over maybe a couple year period of using and reading about Linux.  To illustrate, recall that in your first email you asked something along the lines of whether Linux was still free.  You probably saw this as a very simple, straight-forward question about cost.  For me, the word "free" immediately brought up the dichotomy between "at no cost" and "freedom" (as in the phrase "free speech").  With that in mind, let me start with a little history.

Back in 1984, Richard Stallman set out to create a Unix like system that granted freedom to its users.  Stallman worked at MIT and was used to source code being readily available for the software he used.  He was horrified at the encroaching proprietary "shrink wrapped" software where source code was withheld and freedom was denied.  He called this project for a free (as in freedom) Unix like system GNU (one word, pronounced with a hard "g": "guh-new"), which is a recursive acronym for "GNU's not Unix."

By sometime around 1990 GNU was pretty much complete except for the kernel (called HURD).  To this day HURD still isn't production ready and has become, for many, somewhat of a joke.  Which is where Linus Torvalds comes in.  In 1991 he was a computer science student in Finland.  He wanted to be able to run real software on his 80386 IBM PC clone rather than use the toy-like MS-DOS ("toy-like" is my term, not Torvalds's).  So he started his "hobby project."  He posted it on Usenet and invited others to help him expand and modify it.  In his initial Usenet posting he wrote that it was "not going to be big and professional like GNU."  Well, this "hobby project" became what we now know as the Linux kernel.  (Which has ended up very much "big and professional.")  Combined with GNU (minus HURD) the result was a functioning free(dom) OS like Stallman had dreamed of.  There was already a free(dom) graphical system called "X" or "X11" that had been created at MIT.  These components, combined with one or more "window managers" or "desktop environments," is what is frequently called "Linux," or, as Stallman insists it should be called, "GNU/Linux."  (If you read comments on Linux related sites, it is quite common to see somebody declare that "Linux is just a kernel.")

So GNU is all about freedom.  I would say Linux (or GNU/Linux) is all about freedom, although Torvalds does not seem particularly committed to freedom in the sense Stallman talks about it.  (There is considerable animosity between the two.  But the software works together nicely.)  The GNU home page (http://www.gnu.org) is quite accessible and, among other info, lists what Stallman calls the "four freedoms" that are granted with free software.  You might want to take a look.

I have realized for some time that I do not make a good Linux "advocate."  This is in part because my views align fairly closely with Stallman's.  (Stallman views proprietary software as unethical and I can't go quite that far.  But I do think that free(dom) software is to be strongly preferred.  And I don't like the idea of software running on my computer that can't be reviewed to see what it actually does;  even if I don't personally inspect the source code, the fact that it is available means if something horrible is present, *somebody* will probably find it and report it.  Nonetheless, I do have several pieces of proprietary software/firmware on my Linux systems.)  TMK, the typical MS Windows user (or Mac user) cares little or nothing about software freedom.  They have probably never even thought about it.  They just want something that closely mimics the experience they are used to.  Among other things, this involves the use of proprietary plugins and codecs.  And that's where principles become more important to me than getting people to use Linux.  And that might be where my ability to help you is limited.  But I certainly expect to be able to help you with general stuff.  I just might not, for example, be able to help you install the Adobe Flash plugin.  But such help is readily available on the Web.

Speaking of codecs, that brings up another issue:  software patents.  (Technically there is no such thing as a software patent, but that is splitting hairs.  I will use the term here because it is more convenient and succinct than the proper way to phrase what I am talking about.)  In the U.S. and perhaps some other places, software patents are enforced.  This is not uniform throughout the world and represents an ongoing political and legal struggle.  Even in the U.S., the situation around software patents is in flux.  A couple of recent Supreme Court decisions would seem to strongly curtail what has, for a decade or so, been assumed to be patentable in the U.S.  More cases will have to flesh this out, however.  And there are people who, as opportunity arises, are trying to get software patents abolished completely in this country.  The upshot, as it pertains to Linux, is that certain codecs and other software cannot legally be distributed in this country without a license.  (It may also be illegal to use them w/o a license.)  That is frequently the reason that certain things which people who are used to proprietary software expect to come with Linux are not included in certain distros (I'll explain "distros" in a later post).  Usually these can be added after installing the distro even though it may not be legal for you to do so.  This is another area I may not be able to help you with.

To keep this email from becoming too long (too late?) I think I'll end it here.  Give you a little time to digest what I've already said.  In a future email I'll talk about Linux distributions ("distros") and talk about getting and installing them.


P.S.  As I mentioned, the history of GNU/Linux dates back to 1984.  Unix itself dates back to 1969.  Some of the Linux detractors (very possibly paid by Microsoft) like to claim that Linux is ancient technology and people should use something newer.  What they conveniently forget is that the Linux ecosystem is constantly evolving and some is quite new.  Some is, in fact, leading the way, with Microsoft and Apple following.  Microsoft has a long and documented history of "playing dirty" and Linux scares them to death.  Rightfully so, IMNSHO.

P.P.S  In my discussion of software patents I was a little unclear about the different roles that copyright and patents play.  Copyright allows people/companies to prevent/restrict copying and distribution of their software.  It does not prevent writing software that does the same thing.  Patents cover the *ideas* embodied in the software such that you may not, without permission, do even a "clean room rewrite" of the software.  (Update June 13, 2010:  a U.S. Supreme court decision is expected to be announced "any day now" in re: Bilski, which may have major consequences for software patents in the U.S.)


UPDATE 7/2/2010 — More history of GNU and HURD

If you would like more information about the history of GNU and HURD, here is an article I just ran across.  Some of this was new information for me.  I think the article is quite informative  but it  may be a little too heavy on the technical side for some people's taste.

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