More specialty Linuxes to the rescue

Whether your focus is security, storage, music, or religion, there's a flavor of Linux that fits the bill

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Musix Linux is a labor of love by Argentinean musician Marcos Guglielmetti. Musix's heritage is a mixture of Knoppix, Kanotix, and Debian. The Synaptic package manager is installed, which opens Musix to the same wealth of downloadable applications available to any Debian system. Installation is tricky, however; I was unable to successfully install Musix on my test system, though I could run the OS in LiveCD form. Being a Knoppix-based system, however, it does have a boot option that will copy system files to a directory on the hard disk. This provides better performance than a LiveCD system, without requiring a full install that would otherwise erase what's already on the disk.

Though the name Musix implies an operating system bent solely on musical applications, Musix is pre-installed with tools, utilities, and packages that make it as usable as a standard desktop Linux. That is, you won't lack for a browser, a word processor, chat applications, graphics packages, and so on.

The Musix user interface is organized as a set of eight "desktops" (also referred to as "pinboards"), each providing a view of a select subset of the full complement of available applications. You can choose a desktop by clicking on one of a set of colored buttons in the taskbar. The desktops include: General, comprising KDE's Konqueror file manager/Web browser, a link to XCHat, and an Xterm window; Help, consisting of manuals and tutorials in a variety of languages; as well as Office, which includes word processors Abiword, kwrite, and leafpad, a PDF reader, the gnumeric spreadsheet, and several calculators. Root is another desktop, presenting primarily configuration applications -- everything from wireless configuration and sound-card configuration to the KDE control panel. It also offers directory links to boot scripts.

Additional desktops include MIDI, which, as the name suggests, comprises MIDI-related tools, including Timidity, Bristol, Qsynth, Rosegarden, and much more. The Internet desktop serves up Iceweasel, aMSN (MSN chat), BitTorrent, Konquerer, amule (peer-to-peer file sharing), KDE mail, and more. Finally, the Graphics desktop offers xine, gimp, xaos (fractal calculation and display), the kuickshow image viewer, and others.

MIDI is the most densely populated desktop. Musix's selection of audio production and music performance software seems to go on forever. Though an exact package count would be difficult, Musix appears to provide more musically related software than does Ubuntu Studio (though I imagine that an intrepid user could download and install whatever is needed to make the two equivalent).

The crown jewel of the Musix MIDI desktop appears to be the Rosegarden music composition environment. Rosegarden has its own submenu, loaded with links to about 20 different startup configurations. Each configuration loads a different set of plug-ins: one with the Hydrogen drum machine, another with Qsynth, another with the ZynaddsubFX synthesizer, and so on. Rosegarden is a massively capable composition package that can juggle a mixture of MIDI and audio and can even serve as a score-writing system. It's no wonder Musix devotes menu space to it.

Another important characteristic of Musix is that it employs a low-latency kernel referred to as the "–rt patch," (It is called a patch because, until recently, it has been available as a patch for Linux kernels. However, its capabilities have been slowly working their way into the standard Linux kernel.) The –rt patch gives Musix's kernel deterministic behavior and a superior responsiveness to asynchronous events (as compared to a similar kernel without the –rt patch). In short, Musix's kernel is particularly suited to audio-processing applications, whose performance quality degrades with increased application and kernel thread latencies.

Musix is still rough around the edges. Although you can configure English as the system's primary language, various alert and informational screens will still pop up in Spanish. And as described above, installation is less than straightforward. Nevertheless, Musix is such a fine environment for musicians that we will be watching it with nothing but enthusiasm.

Ubuntu Christian Edition
Ubuntu Christian Edition is an Ubuntu foundation topped with applications geared toward the practice of the Christian religion. The primary focus of Ubuntu CE's applications is, of course, Bible study. Heading up the list is the GnomeSword 2 Bible Guide, an elaborate front end for modules from the Sword Project (the work of the CrossWire Bible Society) that creates what amounts to the Biblical study equivalent of an IDE.

You can load Bible texts, commentaries, and dictionaries into GnomeSword. It comes pre-loaded with three English-language Bibles, a Spanish-language Bible, three commentaries, and three dictionaries, including Strong's Greek and Hebrew dictionaries/lexicons. You can search by book, chapter, and verse, and GnomeSword provides windows synchronized to the selected location for each Bible or commentary. Select a word, and you can search for it in one of the dictionaries.

BibleTime is another Bible navigation application that uses the Sword Project library. Its three-paned user interface provides navigation in the upper left, Bible verses in the right, and a dictionary in the lower left. Hover over a word in the scripture pane, and Strong's reference appears in the dictionary. BibleTime is not as powerful as GnomeSword, and it seems to be a work in progress: Several of the toolbar icons were missing in the version I tested, but it was otherwise usable.

Another work in progress is BibleMemorizer, which is a tool for creating lists of Bible verses for memorization. You create and name categories, then populate each category with verses. When it's time for memorization, you click a category and are shown the book, chapter, and verse of the entries you've placed in that category. The actual text is hidden until you click the entry, at which point you can verify how good (or bad) your memory is.

Bible software is not all that Ubuntu CE's developers pre-installed. They added a parental control system as well. From the System | Administration menu, select Configure Parental Controls, and a window opens into a front-end GUI for the pre-installed DansGuardian content-filtering system. From this interface, you can set criteria whereby incoming Web content is rejected: file extensions, URLs, phrases, and more. You can also set the "naughtiness limit" applied to browser sessions. DansGuardian maintains a library of "bad" phrases (which can be edited), and applies a weight to each phrase. When a page is loaded, it is scanned for unfit phrases, and the weights are tallied. If the page exceeds the naughtiness limit, the page is rejected.

Ubuntu CE sits atop the rock-solid Ubuntu base, so there's little fear of misbehavior on the OS' part. And if you're not satisfied with the mixture of applications provided, you can always connect to the vast Ubuntu and Debian repositories.

Ubuntu Muslim Edition
Ubuntu Muslim Edition is the Islamic faith's counterpart to Ubuntu CE. Where Ubuntu CE provides Bible study software, Ubuntu ME offers applications that aid in reading the Quran, as well as assisting in the daily religious duties of a practicing Muslim.

Ubuntu ME's Quranic study package is Zekr, which presents a two-paned window: navigation on the left, and text on the right. Select a sura (chapter), and a drop-down list is populated with the aya (sections) in the sura. Select the aya and the right-hand pane navigates to the proper verses. Below the navigation pane, you're shown details of the sura. For example, the Muslim faith teaches that each sura was originally given to Mohamed at one of two locations, Mecca or Medina. The detail pane shows the "descent" (or location) of the sura. Zekr also provides audio recitation of the Quran. Select a phrase, choose from a list of over a dozen qari (reciters) -- most well-known imams -- and Zekr will play the associated audio of the recitation.

Ubuntu ME also includes a pair of prayer-time reminder programs. One is Minbar, a stand-alone application that lets you select from a long list of world cities (pick the one nearest to your location) and from your choice will determine your latitude and longitude, the direction to Mecca, and the time until the next prayer. A similar program -- called simply Prayer Times -- is also provided as a Firefox plug-in. Meanwhile, Monajat is a small application that sits on the taskbar and pops up a window a predetermined times to display Islamic azkar (supplications).

Like Ubuntu CE, Ubuntu Muslim Edition uses DansGuardian as its content control system. The creators of Ubuntu ME have built a Java-based user front end to DansGuardian. Called WebStrict, the front end provides easy access -- in the form of pop-up editing windows -- to DansGuardian's configuration files. You'll need to know a bit about the structure of those files before you wade into modifying them; they are more or less structured text files, and WebStrict's editors are basic text editors. Nothing stops you from entering mal-formatted data.

Unlike Ubuntu CE, Ubuntu Muslim Edition pre-installs numerous educational packages. These include a selection of KDE-based applications such as Kalzium (a periodic table), KBrunch (which teaches calculating with fractions), Kig (an interactive geometry application), and others.

As with any Ubuntu-based distribution, Ubuntu ME is easy to install and dependable, and it enjoys access to enough free software to overflow even the biggest hard drives.

As you like it
These distributions are outstanding examples of flexibility of the Linux OS; it sits at the heart of systems as small as a firewall running on an embedded PC, or as large as a multigigabyte musical performance workstation running virtual analog synthesizers and drum machines. No less important is the abundance of open source applications whose quality rivals most commercial counterparts.

Finally, hats off to the designers and developers who build these specialized distributions and make the fruits of their enthusiasm available to all.

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