Bob's Tech Site


About

This page contains assorted information about Bob and his thoughts on free software. You can follow him on Mastodon or Twitter.


An intro to Bob

Coming Soon

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How Bob does his computing

This section was inspired by Richard Stallman's much longer article.

Computers

My main productivity machine for home use is a HP Spectre 13 "ultrabook" laptop I bought in . It has a dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD. While it is very pretty and light, I also have anxiety about the components failing because it's impossible to repair! The WiFi adapter also requires proprietary Intel firmware to function, and HP's decision to only include three USB-C ports for expandability (one of them is used for the power cable) continues to be problematic.

In I also built my first desktop gaming PC. It has an 8 core AMD FX 8350 processor, 16GB RAM, two hard drives (2TB and 1TB) and an MSI-branded AMD R9 380 graphics card. While it wouldn't impress "hard core" gamers used to their "souped up" machines, it's certainly more than a match for modern games consoles and cost about the same as a mid-range laptop to build and upgrade.

My current smartphone is the Samsung Galaxy A5 (), and I have a matching 10.1" Samsung Galaxy Tab A (). There are also a number of Raspberry Pi devices connected to my home network.

Finally, I collect old computers. Sometimes I restore them for educational or gaming purposes, other times it's to test if Linux or BSD UNIX will still run on them.

Linux distros

For my full-time employment I use Oracle Linux on everything, as that's the operating system I'm paid to write technical documentation for.

At home I use Debian 9 "Stretch" with the GNOME desktop. I've recently experimented with Ubuntu MATE 18.04 LTS and Trisquel GNU/Linux 8.

On my PC gaming rig I have one hard drive setup with Debian and another with Windows 10 Pro. I'm hopeful that as more games are ported to Linux (or supported with Steam Play) I will eventually be able to delete the Windows installation.

First choice Linux distros over time

Using the Internet

Mozilla Firefox is the web browser I use on all of my devices. It has been my first choice web browser since , and I've never seen a compelling reason to switch to Google Chrome. I'm pleased to see the "Quantum" changes that were introduced in ESR 60 have led to a noticeable performance improvement.

To preserve your privacy, I recommend installing uBlock Origin or Privacy Badger. I'm also a big fan of Firefox Sync, an in-built feature that saves bookmarks, add-ons and passwords to an encrypted store on a server, and these are then synchronised between your devices. I recommend setting a master password on each computer to ensure your website passwords are encrypted locally too.

I use Evolution mail as my primary email client, and have since . I use several different email providers, but I'm hoping to standardise on one soon. My current employer makes me use Mozilla Thunderbird with their internal mail system, but this has not changed my mail client preferences.

When it comes to social media I use Twitter reluctantly and Mastodon ethusiastically. I also have a profile on LinkedIn for work purposes, and I used to have one on Facebook but I finally deleted my account in . Friends and family have pressganged me into using WhatsApp and Discord, but I am casting around for better alternatives.

Programming

My "go to" coding language is Python, as I can quickly prototype applications and write simple scripts without all the extra "boilerplate" other languages require. Its huge repository of third party libraries and Lisp-like syntax also appeal to me, and for more complex projects the IDE support is excellent.

This used to be the part where I'd talk about other languages I use in my day job or that I intend to learn soon. However I no longer work as a full-time software engineer, and I currently have no interest in pursuing that line of work again. As a result I'm now inclined to only learn a new programming language if it's interesting to me or it seems likely to be a better fit for my coding projects.

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Linux distributions that Bob recommends

The best advice I can give you is to try different "distros" and desktop environments for yourself to figure out what works best for you and your workflow.

Here are ten suggestions for Linux distros you could try, in friendly alphabetised categories that reflect the four stages of being a Linux user. These are based on my own experience of trying out distributions over the last decade, and conversations I've recently had on this subject with very cool Mastodon users.

"I want to try out Linux and maybe dump Windows"

"I like breaking things to see if I can fix them"

"I'm a power user that wants to customise a stable lightweight base"

"I must live a pure life without proprietary software"

There are plenty of other great choices, and I recommend you check out Distrowatch for inspiration. If you have a favourite distro and are upset that it wasn't included in this list, or you disagree with the category I put it in, please accept this commiseratory picture of a cute and fluffy kitten.

A cute grey kitten with adorable blue eyes

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Linux or GNU/Linux?

This has been a hotly debated topic since the early '90s, and there's still no "agreed" answer.

Richard Stallman's stance is that all distributions should be considered "GNU/Linux", because "Linux" refers to the operating kernel, and without the GNU tools and philosophy the kernel itself (and the tools that run on top of it) would not have been possible.

Linus Torvalds and Eric S Raymond think that using "Linux" to refer to the ecosystem in general and the individual distributions (or "distros") by name makes more sense.

I tend to use "Linux" because I don't think the distinction between the kernel and the operating system is something non-technical users should need to care about. However I think non-technical users should care about their own freedom, which is why I refer to "fully free" distributions endorsed by the Free Software Foundation as "GNU/Linux".

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Free software or "open source"?

I don't call free software "open source" unless it really don't count as free software, because I dislike the use of that phrase.

My understanding is that "open source" focusses on code availability instead of the end user's rights, which can lead to strange situations where the user can review the code for an application but they can't use the same build tools or share the final executable.

I also disagree that the free software philosophy needs to be sanitised to increase the creation and adoption of software with user-respecting licenses. It's a feature, not a bug!

The phrase "open source" strongly suggests to me that the idea is being sold to business owners and managers as "outsourcing development effort" or "the cheaper option", when what it's really about is collaborating with others to improve software security and reduce costs related to development or licensing. Free software also provides flexibility for future decision-making through the use of open formats and cross-platform interoperability, and inspires loyalty from customers and employees by respecting their rights as end users.

It is not uncommon to see businesses or individuals that try "open source" revert back to old habits because of the way the solution was sold to them. If you want to successfully evangelise free software, start evangelising free software, not "open source"!

If you'd like a more detailed explanation about the difference between free software and "open source", as well as the pros and cons of using free software compared to non-free "proprietary" alternatives, I recorded a podcast about it in .

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When will it be "the year of the Linux desktop"?

It has already come and gone! was "the year of the Linux desktop" because Netbooks running the operating system appeared in department stores, proving they could be marketed and sold at scale. Ubuntu was also mature enough for disaffected Windows users to switch across without in-depth technical knowledge. Google also stole a march on Microsoft with Android, and by the time Windows Phone arrived it had already lost the battle for smartphone dominance.

Since that year Linux has gone on to dominate every device category in the industry. The vast majority of websites, business servers, motor vehicles, WiFi routers, cable boxes, games consoles, CCTV systems, smartphones, tablets and more "embedded systems" than I can name now run on Linux as standard. You can also buy computers with Linux pre-installed by mail order from companies like Dell, System76, Purism, Pine64, TechnoEthical, Entroware and others.

Over a decade later the only hurdles to adopting Linux for most users are niche proprietary software products that haven't been ported to "the cloud" yet or don't have free software equivalents. PC games continue to be a sticking point, but Valve and EA have made positive steps to encourage improved emulation of Windows games and new native Linux ports. Compatibility with Microsoft Office is no longer an issue because (on the rare occasions LibreOffice can't open a file properly) users can pay Microsoft a subscription for the browser-based version.

Microsoft gave Windows 10 away for free to their existing customers, has shifted their focus to subscription services and the cloud, is pushing hard to lock down devices so they can't install Linux, started porting their applications to rival platforms, and has even bought "open source" companies and provided a Linux emulation layer just to stay relevant. They can clearly see the writing the wall, and they know their dominance on consumer desktops is only maintained by market inertia.

Finally, for the past five years schoolkids have been taught how to program on the Raspberry Pi and similar devices. Google is also finding some success in classrooms with its Linux-based Chromebooks. The old-timers might be set in their ways, but I think the next generation will push back against being passive consumers of proprietary technology and be more discerning in their technology choices, because they know there are compelling alternatives.

tl;Dr: Linux has been supplanting Windows and UNIX for over a decade now, but existing home users have barely noticed.

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