A Linux User's Guide to Mac

By Ed Hurst | Posted at 4:37 AM

Take a deep breath and repeat after me: A computer is just a tool. It is only so good as it serves to make life better for users. A "better" life is obviously not the same thing for everyone. For me, it means making my Mac more like Linux, as I began to discuss in my last article.


My computer background is built on a foundation of Religion and Liberal Arts as academic pursuits, not a matter of mere hobby or business. In layman's terms, it works like this: "Somebody else is footing the bill so we can explore, develop and share our ideas freely. Maybe we can make the world a better place." Even in the military, where I was first exposed to computers, the only limitation to sharing information was a matter of clearance, not money. It's not as if I can't figure out how to make a profit -- I teach economics, among other things. I'd rather not be bound by a profit motive when it's not necessary.

Unix was born in that setting, and remains free and open. It has been implemented in numerous ways, and we have explored one of those here recently, not to mention some others in our archives. That there are hundreds of Linux distros simply demonstrates Unix is more about exploration and sharing than about money.

Mac is all about money, even while it is Unix under the hood. Having gotten my dirty mitts on an aging eMac, I was not too happy with the Panther release which came with it. Had we not been able to prevail upon the good graces of Apple for a reviewer's copy of Leopard, I'd have just about given the eMac away. It really wasn't enough like Unix to be of any use to me. There was no way I could have paid for Leopard.

My work is best done in the Unix atmosphere. I exchange a lot of information with people whose computer habits were formed on academic Unix machines. For example, plain text is king, and hard returns at 72 characters max is de jure, even if you are composing a full research paper. You can find more here if you're curious. Unix editors tend to work that way. Indeed, I've found Joe to be the best writer's text editor around. Many of the other Unix tools are best for my use.

There is one way Unix itself fails me: the wide disparity of how some of the most common applications work from one machine, and one disribution, to the next. Worst of all, the X server does this. I've installed different releases of FreeBSD on quite a few different machines, just about all the major Linux distros, and several minor ones. X won't be the same twice, even if I used the exact same hardware. It ranges between pretty darn good down to impossible to use. Too many electrons have already been wasted talking about why this is so, and I no longer have time to fight with it. The same issue infects the whole field. Some of the most basic tools act differently, and it's a guessing game every six months or so whether this or that Linux or BSD will allow me to come reasonably close to using the collection of applications I find essential.

The only thing worse is Windows, and I've had enough of viruses slipping past some of the best AV packages. Worse, it simply won't do Unix. In my case, that means a lot of commandline stuff. Try all you like, but a virus magnet with a sorry commandline is not an option.

When Apple offered us the upgrade, knowing Leopard was far more Unix-like than Panther, I decided it was worth a serious look. Naturally, I was immediately spoiled by the GUI. It would be fine with me if the Internet had no media files or graphics of any kind. That's not likely, of course, though I still spend a lot of time surfing with text browsers. That genie isn't going back in the bottle, so if I have to have a GUI, it should be as good as I can get. Leopard does that for me. The next thing is, I have to be able to find my favorite Open Source applications.

I'll never be a real Mac person, because I don't much like, for example, Mail.app. Sorry, but Thunderbird is what I use, and I can import all my mail and settings without the least hiccup. It's got nothing to do with superiority, and everything to do with my very un-Maclike work habits.


Some things are quite simple. I've already mentioned Thunderbird. Next came Firefox, Filezilla, PySol, and a few others. I love Midnight Commander, but when I just got started using this Mac, it seemed too much work. I'm still a little confused by the different approach Mac gurus take, the things they assume need not be said, and I'm pretty sure I didn't understand all the instructions. I hunted for a free, dual-pane file manager, preferably capable of showing hidden "dot files" by default. I ended up with muCommander, and I'm quite happy with that.

Joe I already had found. Because I found the upgrade left me with too much junk on the drive, I decided to do a clean install. The system was noticeably faster, but I had to reinstall Joe and found a later version which allowed me to import my .joerc and .ftyperc files for use under Mac. I've already mentioned the troubles a Unix user will have needing to gain the habit of holding the shift key for the gray keys to work as expected. I have yet to find a way to allow Terminal to grab the F-keys, so some of my custom Joe commands are crippled. Of course, you can't have Joe without a spellchecker. I found the only viable candidate was cocoAspell. I highly recommend you follow the instructions. I like the way they are written up here. The process is only half automated.

Be sure to modify your Bash profile to make the Terminal more useful. Here are some example entries for your ~/.bash_profile which will make it act more like Unix:

export CLICOLOR=1
export LSCOLORS=ExFxCxDxBxegedabagacad
alias ls='ls -G'
export PS1="[33[0;36m]u@h[33[0m]w[33[1;33m]>[33[0m] "

The first three will colorize your ls results, and the last item is simply my personal preference for customizing the Bash prompt.

In Mac Land, "Spaces" is what we call multiple desktops in X. Snazzy implementation, but requires extra steps to use. This will be the number one complaint of Unix users. A large number of minor actions will either not exist -- like the mouse paste function -- or require extra steps. For example, with Spaces you don't get a minature block diagraming the desktops for a one-click jump. You either have to click the icon for a sexy shift to a thumbnail of all desktops, then select one, or you have to use the little icon on the toolbar at the top and then select the desktop number from the list. Lots of little things like that will be annoying to the Unix user at first.

Though Apple says my eMac is too wimpy for Xcode tools, I installed it anyway. I really do prefer to have more terminal based tools, and many of them aren't already packaged for Mac. That would include Elinks. So I got the source and built it to suit me. I've never seen it build that slowly before, but it did build and works fine. I note it had not a single hiccup, as I got too often on Linux. I plan to build a few other packages I want to use, all for the commandline.

Because I'm able to get what I want, I can affirm I'm switching to Macs for my personal desktop use. In some distant future day, I may even be able to save up and buy a Macbook. For now, I'm spending time getting acquainted on this eMac: 1.25Ghz G4, 512MB RAM, 38GB drive, 17" CRT, all in one case. I ditched the one-button mouse for a three-button, but only rarely does the middle button do anything.

For folks like me who prefer the Unix way of getting things, you need not fear Mac will break the bank. Machines are out there, and you can often get a pretty good deal if you keep your eyes open. This system came into my hands by trading with someone who didn't like Macs. Frankly, without the upgrade to Leopard, it would be difficult to use. For low-budget operations, should you come across something like this, I highly recommend you save up and get Leopard. All the extra Mac after-market software will clobber your budget. There are tons of Open Source projects which work just fine, and run on the Mac. If you really have to have it, some things will work with the Mac port of the X server. Sometimes, if you wait a bit, you can avoid that. Indeed, someone is even working on a native port of GIMP, so you won't have to run the X server to use it.

Ed Hurst is Associate Editor of Open for Business.

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2 comments posted so far.

Re: A Linux User's Guide to Mac

quote: A computer is just a tool. It is only so good as it serves to make life better for users. A “better” life is obviously not the same thing for everyone. For me, it means making my Mac more like Linux,

IF you are going to go to all that trouble of making a Mac look like Linux , why not just get a Linux OS and be done with it. After all “A computer is just a tool”, so why not get the better tool instead of trying to make the inferior tool look like the better tool.

Posted by tracyanne - Jul 12, 2008 | 11:31 PM

Re: A Linux User's Guide to Mac

In spite of what appears to be troll-baiting, I’ll answer, tracyanne. Inferiority is in the eye of the beholder. I’m going to the trouble because the Mac is what I have, but Linux is what I like. I find the Mac GUI superior to that offered on Linux, so it’s worth it to me. I could hardly wish to make the Mac look like Linux, since Linux has no particular “look” with its hundreds of window managers — including a few which attempt to look like Mac. I do want it to work somewhat more like Linux. This article aims to help other Linux users evaluate whether they might want to do something similar.

Posted by Ed Hurst - Jul 13, 2008 | 4:12 PM