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Linux is a free, unix clone operating system based around the Gnu tools, set up with the ethos that you should be free to get at any of the source code that you need to get at, either to learn how they wrote it, or to fix any bugs that you find.
It is available from the Linux Emporium and I would recommend that you stick with the Red Hat distribution or one of its derivatives.
They also do Extreme Linux that is specially made for setting up beowulf clusters for parallel processing.
The people into linux seem to see it as a way of taking the control back from the big companies who write software that is too big, full of bells and whistles that most people never use, and doesn't work. They exert power by being able to get the source code for all the programs that they are using,and being able to modify them to do what you need them to do. This is why whatever you want to do in linux, if you can do it at all, you can probably do it in many different ways.
I have noticed that there seems to be a similar ethos of the esperanto, linux, and general semantics communities.
Now for the technical stuff. Linux works by running a kernel that provides low-level support for assorted hardware. This then runs "init" which starts various services and deamons depending on what level you want to run the machine at (single user, multi user, multi user gui, etc). One of the services that it starts is the login prompt.
When you login and start using the machine, certain of the parameters are set up according to your preferences. One of these is which shell you prefer to use. Under MSDOS, the shell is normally COMMAND.COM, but you could use one or two others. In linux, you have quite a choice of different shells that you can run, and more become available every year. You are also left in your "home" directory, where all of your personal files are stored.
When you enter your shell, you are left looking at a prompt until you type something in. This is looked down upon by gui lovers, but although the shell takes time to learn, familiarity with it has a number of advantages. One of the most significant is that you can easily automate tasks that you do regularly.
Sometimes the shell just isn't good enough, ie for graphics and video work. For this you will need a Graphical User Interface, or GUI for short. Under unix generally, this is the X windows system (or X for short).
As you would expect, being unix, it does not do things as you would expect them to be done. Under X they have split off the bit that talks to the hardware (the X server) from the bit that controls how your windows look, the window manager, and again you have a staggering amount of choice.
If that wasn't good enough, you can go even further and have an Integrated Desktop Environment (or IDE for short). Using microsoft again, it is like deciding that you need more than the ordinary desktop, and activating the active desktop. As you have probably guessed, linux has more than one.
If all that wasn't good enough, there are various emulators available that let you run programs for other machines on your linux box. These include WINE lets you run windows programs, dosemu lets you run dos programs, the Unix Amiga Emulator (UAE for short) lets you run amiga programs, and many other emulators also exist.
Once you have got all that straight, you might wish to start playing around with parallel processing and beowulf clusters.
See also Zyra's linux links page.
There is also some stuff you can do to make a secure linux version.