Free Software At The U. of Memphis

“Software is like sex: it’s better when it’s free.” — Linus Torvalds

I’m a big fan of free software. I had been running Windows and DOS before it all the way back to the early ’90s, but I always had an interest in free software and about two years ago I finally made the switch to Ubuntu Linux. I’ve been very happy with it, as it does everything I need, and since it’s easier for me to be the system administration for the family if we’re all on the same system, I went further and bought Adella a laptop with Ubuntu Linux, and even gave my mom’s old PC a new lease on life by replacing her crawlingly slow Windows XP installation with Ubuntu Linux.

It’s come a long way since I first toyed around with it in 2000, but because Linux still has such a small share of the market, occasionally I run into something I want to do where there’s no Linux support. When I would call my Internet service provider, for example, I quickly learned never to tell them I was a Linux user because their brains would turn to goo and they would stammer that they wouldn’t be able to help me. Similarly, when I worked for Marymount the helpdesk wasn’t in a position to offer support for Linux, almost all the students ran Windows or Mac, and that was all they could really handle.

I saw that the introductory assignment for my Statistics course was to get set up using a remote client to access a terminal server that had PASW, an expensive commercial Statistics software package, and that there were two sets of directions — Windows and Mac. “Uh oh,” I thought, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of that bit in “King of the Hill”, where… well, see for yourself:

So I contacted the University of Memphis helpdesk, just to see whether they could offer directions for a Linux user like me. I had really low expectations, but I was pleasantly astonished when they responded immediately with useful instructions. After a few iterations with them, I was connected properly and using the remote application. University of Memphis helpdesk for the win!

At the same time, using an application on their server over my not-so-great connection was pretty slow. The thing is, the reason they provide this convoluted means of accessing the application isn’t that it won’t run on people’s computers at home. The reason people have to jump through all those hoops is that licenses for this software are incredibly expensive. But free software to the rescue, because there’s a free software alternative called PSPP that is designed to replace it costlessly. I imported the data set in both places and it looked the same and gave me the same results, so I emailed my instructor asking whether he minded if I use PSPP instead. Because the directions on getting set up with PASW were so particular, I was concerned that he might insist I use it. But he asked which particular package I’d like to use and he sounds amenable to it. So that’s pretty impressive as well.