And learn some stuff too while you’re at it.
Or how I learned to stop fearing my PC
Linux taught me how computers and networking works through hands-on experience, I was/am constantly trying to do stuff with Linux that I have had no experience with. I knew what I had been taught in school about computers, but that often aint nothing compared to what I learn by trying to do things I had never really done before.
Linux will teach you much about computers and their capabilities, which is necessary in the real world for any EE. Embedded Linux is also the way the embedded industry is headed. Here is a simple time-line of my recent (2004), but fun Linux/computing addiction, with example projects along the way. Warning this may get lengthy:
1. Heard about Linux from fellow geek in lab, heard it was a free OS to use along with compatable free versions of Photoshop, MS Word/Office, Matlab, h/pspice, verilog simulator, firefox w/ flashplayer, etc. Check this out for more info:
I heard some things were much easier, some things harder, no spyware/viruses, better security, blah blah you’ve heard this all before. You should try dual booting.
2. Installed it on an old PC and used it as my primary desktop machine as dual boot. Googled any problems/errors I had such as printing, etc. Some things were a pain, but I learned some things about software and hardware/networking that I had never known before. Usually its pretty fun and valuable to fix problems you run into yourself.
3. Decided to Setup an ssh server at home (really easy) that I could access anywhere. Created a simple web page that had php scripting enabled (so you can build interactive web sites and/or control your computer from a web page). Setup an email server (easy to do, very tough to keep out spam). Learned much about setting up and traversing firewalls/routers. Learned about setting up ssh tunnels, so you could do anything from anywhere on your private LAN through ssh. Learned lots about security too.
4. Setup a full C/C++ build environment so I can compile any program I have sourcecode to from places like sourceforge.net, etc. Play around with various scripting languages like Perl, Python, especially Bash.
5. Having taken C++, learned to use libraries to build my own short simple but powerful programs that access sound card hardware and other hardware, click buttons on the screen without a mouse (from anywhere on the net), and even wrote some simple networked servers/clients that can talk to each other on a home LAN.
6. Found out that many wireless routers (like the old Linksys WRT54G) run or can run Linux (openwrt.org). Downloaded the Openwrt SDK (Software Development Kit) for building custom software for it in C. Found out that the routers also usually have 2 serial ports and 4-8 GPIO (General Purpose Input Output) for LED’s and switches. I wrote a simple program to stream audio from another PC on a LAN to the serial port on the WRT. I had a $40 wireless speaker with WPA-PSK encryption. Used two or three simple 70-80 line C programs to do it. Fun stuff.
7. Recently started putting small Linux installs on Fanless, Hard disk-drive-less (use a usb stick), computers that cost under $200. They have VGA and full audio outputs and have no moving parts. In the pro-audio world this is pretty fscking awesome b/c it will last 10 years if it is kept out of water/beer (beer is for the equipment installer, not the equipment) and at a reasonable temp.
8. I also use gnu-octave (open source version of matlab) on Linux to crunch numbers / simulate simple DSP algorithms such as Sigma-Delta Modulators, FIR/IIR filters and architectures for FPGA’s or C code, and play w/ the amazing FFT and its DCT cousins (discrete cosine transform) which has applications in audio analysis and compression.
9. I run vmware server under Linux now so that what few Windows apps I must use, I can use them from a virtual machine (simulated computer on a computer like Parallels for the Mac) in Linux. I no longer dual-boot the two OS’s. VMWare can access USB, serial/parallel ports, and sound card access. Can’t kill windows off my PC entirely b/c unfortunately in the pro-audio world, much of the pro audio equipment is MS Windows only configurable, which is sad, but thats what happens when there is a government dependent/sponsored monopoly in a particular industry, they become “defacto standards” whether they are actually better or not. The linux kernel is capable of running uninterrupted for years at a time, and some machines have been doing so. It is very robust.
Also the command prompt or “shell” (Bash) in Linux/Unix is very, very powerful and eye-opening. It is basically a programming/scripting interface to programs. You can do things with it that will blow your mind once you learn your way around. You can use programs that they were never designed for specifically, unlike GUI programs in windows.
I have done things like encode audio from the soundcard (mic input), as an mp3, streamed it to another computer over a network and played it out the sound at the remote location (home), all with general purpose applications with one long command (mp3 encoder, ssh, mp3 decode to sound card at home). Apps in the *nix world have “standard input” and “options” and “standard output” among other interfaces and can be “connected” together with pipes and manipulated in more ways than you or even the original designers imagined. GUI (Windows) programs can’t compare. Wanna download a file without opening a browser?
$ curl http://example.com/file.mp3 > file.mp3
puts the file.mp3 in your present directory
What programs are listening on which ports:
$ sudo lsof -nPi
Find all files recursively in a directory with the string “gtk.h” and print the name of the file and line it is on:
$ grep -rn "gtk\.h" *
Linux is for people who want to know their computer better. It is a different approach to computing. It will help you eliminate your fear of the Computer, and even make it your slave. I use Ubuntu now, but almost any distribution gets you going fast (CentOS, PCLinux, Suse, Fedora, etc). Avoid slackware or gentoo unless you are really gung-ho about spending hours reading a manual, installing and getting a usable system. I know that statement will get me death threats, but I believe they have their place, and its not with a newbie unless they have help. If the newbie wants to learn the hard stuff all at once, they can use gentoo or slack, but I still prefer the simplicity of an ubuntu install and maintenence.
This is a living document and more will be added later.