I have been playing around with R the last few days. This is an open source mathematics software that comes with Linux systems. It is a bit esoteric; it is a command prompt program (meaning that there is no graphical user interface) and the syntax is a bit odd, so it is nowhere near intuitive to use. However, I find the process of figuring out such systems quite satisfying. I have similar feelings toward psychological research; there is certainly a feeling of empowerment that develops from discovering real patterns in experimental data. Philosophy is far less concrete; you can run in circles all day without discovering anything. However, when you find effects from empirical studies, there is no doubt (as long as there were proper controls) that the results reflect some sort of real difference between the conditions. Though, of course, the proper interpretation of that data can be far less clear. And it is also quite nice to figure out how to use technology to model empirical data. Too bad I’m not all that talented at it…
I’m trying it again. A couple years ago I experienced that slight naiveté of the intermediate windows user; I thought I could throw aside the windows that seem so confining. I tried to give them up entirely and instead use Linux. Ubuntu seemed to be an opportunity for just such a freedom; it beckoned as only open source can to someone who hates commercialism.
However, it was not meant to be.
I tried to dual boot it with XP on my main desktop, which had the side effect of making boot times longer. There were problems; I tried out the 64bit version of Ubuntu (may as well use those extra bits!) but flash didn’t work in 64bit Firefox (and it still doesn’t!) so I had to get help from a computer savvy friend in order to get flash videos to work. I don’t want to list all the problems, but they were there, and to top it off, OpenOffice 2 wasn’t quite as good as my copy of Office XP. Sometimes freedom is quite frightening, after all. Mistakes were made, and I eventually found myself not logging into Ubuntu as often as I had planned. Finally, when I got a new desktop I only installed XP.
But perhaps things will now be different.
I’ve formatted my laptop’s hard drive (a Dell Inspiron 600m from 2004 that is still going strong) and Ubuntu 8.10 is now its only operating system. So far, I am quite impressed. Installation was a snap, the open source drivers seem to work quite well, and OpenOffice 3 has improved enough so that I don’t even miss that copy of Office XP that now only exists on a CD. Though, I don’t think Ubuntu has changed all that much; mostly I think I’m making a more realistic choice of how I’m going to use it. My laptop is primarily for ‘work’ (words and data) and isn’t my primary computer. I’ll still be able to use all those unsupported (and sort-of supported) devices on my XP desktop; and, of course, the desktop will be able to play video games. I’m also a bit excited about learning more about R, the free statistical software, as SPSS is such a farce.
I’m sure glad all those programmers spent time making me free software!