How I Got Stranded with Linux and the World Didn’t End

For the last three weeks, my husband Nathan has been hopping around the country and the world doing IT Stuff, and I’ve been sitting at home trying to finish a book draft. Somewhere along the way my beloved red Dell started making some really creepy noises. Now, basically everything I have is backed up through the amazing thing that is Dropbox, so we weren’t precisely worried that I was going to lose data if the laptop died, but this is not the time for me to lose days of work because of a dead computer. So he handed me one of his and hopped on a plane. This is how I got stranded with Linux. And you know what? I might stick with it.

There may be some among you who have no idea what I’m talking about. (For those who do, please forgive me the gross oversimplifications that are about to follow.) Linux is an operating system, like Windows. If you have a PC, your computer shipped with Windows and you probably run programs like those included in Microsoft Office. I, for instance, use Word when I’m writing. I use Excel to organize my taxes. I use Photoshop and MS Paint to remove scratches from my negatives and resize photographs for use on this blog. All of those are programs that run on Windows. They are also all programs that have to be purchased (or–don’t do this at home, kids–pirated). If you’re a Mac user, you’re probably using Apple’s operating system, Mac OS X. Same idea.

Linux’s biggest difference (at least for a non-techie like me) is that it’s open-source, meaning anyone can take the code and use it, change it, improve upon it, and send it back out into the world, so it’s constantly evolving with the help of its users. And, by the way, if you use an Android-based phone, you’re already running Linux.

Nathan is a confirmed Linux guy. He’s been managing a few hundred Linux servers for a couple of years, and has been running a Linux-based operating system on his desktop, too. When he left me with this thing, he said, “Just try it. If you don’t like it, I’ll fix your laptop and you can go back to Windows.” Why, I wanted to know (and I was rawther frustrated at the time), would I want to change what I was using? This is what he told me:

  • Linux is faster. At basically everything.
  • The version he put on my laptop, Linux Mint, was designed to be easy-to-use, so that new (or reluctant, like me) users can install it and use it without any major re-learning or any tweaking.
  • Linux is free. Anybody can use it. It’s MS Office-comparable programs, called Open Office, are free, too. So where, in order to get Word on this laptop I would’ve had to pay $150-$500 for a MS Office Suite, I can use Open Office Word Processor for zero bucks. Photoshop Elements, the simplest and least expensive Photoshop product, goes for $80. Photoshop CS5 costs $700. GIMP is the comparable image manipulating system for Linux, and it’s also free.
  • This version of Linux Mint (Debian Edition) performs rolling updates. This means it’s always being improved upon by the community behind it, and you are always running the most up-to-date version of the system. Compare this with Windows, which does a big release that you have to re-purchase every few years if you want to upgrade, and in the meantime if the version you’re running is annoying or buggy, you pretty much just have to deal with it.
  • Linux has a huge community of afficionados–so if you have a problem or a question, you can find a forum and get a solution or an answer. If you call Microsoft with a problem or a question, you are likely to get charged for the answer. On the other hand, speaking as a woman who lives with an IT guy and who regularly hears “Google it” in response to my more basic support questions, I am finding that I am much more likely to get an answer (and an enthusiastic one, even) when asking a question about my use of Linux. IT nerds love Linux. (I think I recall Nathan telling me it would be hilarious if I asked one of his nerd buddies if his new smart phone ran Linux. Hilarious to him, because he knew I had no idea what I was saying, but he also pointed out that I would instantly be the hottest girl in the room.) So if you are helpless and you need assistance to use Linux, you can get help. People are likely to be glad to help you, rather than just telling you to Google the problem or asking if you’ve already turned your computer off and on again. There’s even a meet-up here in NYC for brand-new Ubuntu users (Ubuntu is a Linux-based operating system).

Okay, so those are the plusses (again, I’m sure there are many, many more, but I’m restricting myself to a couple that pretty much anybody who works regularly on a laptop can appreciate). But Open Office Word Processor is not Word, Spreadsheet is not Excel, and GIMP is not Photoshop (according to Nathan, I’m really going to be annoyed with GIMP for a while. Evidently it’s a pain in the neck). So for anybody who’s curious, here are the negatives I’ve found so far.

  • The trackpad and buttons on this laptop are weird. Seriously. Dragging and dropping is funky. Doesn’t work the same way my other laptop did. I’m pretty sure that’s not Linux, though, and the bottom line is, I am smarter than a trackpad. I really believe this. I refuse to let a trackpad get me down.
  • We haven’t gotten my scanner working with it yet. We did, however, get Nathan’s working with it, so possibly I will just get to swipe his for the time being.
  • I’m sure GIMP is going to make me want to shoot myself in the head. But then, so did Photoshop and Photoshop Elements until I got manuals for them and taught myself how to use the features I needed.

And…so far that’s it. We set the defaults in the word processing and spreadsheet programs and GIMP to save my files as .docx and .xls and .jpg so I don’t have to worry about converting them. So I won’t, by accident, send my agent or editor a file they can’t read, or switch to my netbook (which runs Windows) and not be able to open my manuscript. And yes, things look different in Open Office, but working in its word processor rather than Word is no big transition. It’s like making an omelet in somebody else’s kitchen–the frying pan might be in a different place than it is in yours, but as long as all the tools are there and in logical places, you can cook breakfast without a headache.

So there you go. My writing life is an experiment right now. But I’m not hating it.


  1. I use Open Office and GIMP on my computer (because I’m cheap and hate paying for things). GIMP does take a bit to get used to and it was never as easy as Photoshop, even though I’ve been using it for a few years now. Blergh. You learn to deal, I guess.

    I don’t write enough with Open Office (I’ve been teaching myself to stick to Scrivener for Windows when it comes to writing stuffs), but it works well enough I suppose as well. It’ll be my fallback if writing in Scrivener makes me wanna punch my lights out. I was always a big fan of Rough Draft for short writing things though.

    GOOD LUCKSIES! Linux always seemed neat, but I never took that jump. Take it for me ;D!

  2. Also cool is how open windows wiggle like jell-o blocks when you move them across your desktop. I appear to have left this Very Important Fact out of my overview. 🙂

  3. Free with to readers of this post: an inside glance at the marriage behind Milford Command Central. We are literally sitting next to each other and still conversing via comments on my flipping blog. And his glasses aren’t really taped, folks.

  4. Melissa, I’ve never used Scrivener–I’ve basically been a Word girl and a quad-ruled notebook girl. It’ll be interesting to see how I do with GIMP, but I used so few features of Photoshop that I’m hoping that my simple needs will protect me from too much frustration. 🙂

  5. Hi Kate- you might be pleased to hear that the GIMP is getting a major revamp hopefully sometime this Spring, allowing a more user friendly (or at least, novice user friendly) single window mode. Nice to hear even famous writers are using Linux – even if only by accident!

  6. You called me famous. That’s so adorable I’m not even going to correct you.

    GIMP’s worked fine for my oh-so-limited needs so far, but one of these days I have dreams of actually learning to do stuff with images rather than just cleaning up scratches, so I am glad to hear that. I tend to be the kind of learner who encounters a specific problem and gets annoyed in the process of figuring out how to do it, rather than investing time to learn a program in any kind of depth before expecting it to do what I want, so I kinda realize I deserve *some* of whatever annoyance I encounter. But don’t tell Nathan I said that.

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