Last week, I downloaded and tinkered with cygwin at work. Cygwin is a neat unix-like environment for Windows, which gives Windows much of the power (neat tools like 'ls' and 'sed') and obfuscation of a command-line. But, it's so much more, because XFree86 has been ported to cygwin, which means that it's a free and functional x-windows client for Windows. (Take that, you pushers of expensively-licensed X clients!). Initially, this made for a neat trick at work; cygwin lets me ssh into my research account and run applications like SAS, SPSS, Mathematica, and emacs, right in their own window on my very own desktop. Note, however, that I don't use SPSS or Mathematica, and I'm perfectly comfortable using SAS and emacs via the console. This party trick is, of course, nothing new to people, like Kieran, who run linux right at work. For those, like me, who are consigned to use WinME at work, cygwin makes for a pretty cool toy.
But it suddenly got really cool when my desktop monitor at home broke. I had fortunately set up some file-sharing between the desktop and our new laptop last weekend, so when the monitor headed south I thought, "Erm, everything will be just fine, as I can pluck up all my files anyway." But by yesterday, I wanted to download my email using evolution, and anyway Heather needed to get to some applications that reside on the desktop.
The cool part? Not needing to beg, borrow, or steal a replacement monitor to access my computer: ssh-ing to the desktop using cygwin, and -voila- having the full functionality of the computer right there on my laptop screen. Simple file-sharing's got nothing on full-on logging in and seamlessly accessing everything I need. Similarly cool? Logging into the desktop via webmin (previously set up) and remotely installing the open-ssh server from a CD-ROM full of RPMs! There are days when using linux is cool, and then there are days when nothing else would have Done the Trick. Keeping in mind that remote windowing has been a core functionality of unix for two decades, it's nonetheless absolutely cool to A) have a reason, aside from simple neatness, to do it, and B) have it work right off the bat.