Monday, May 21, 2007

Pierre becomes a Linux geek.

Trust me, I didn't intentionally desire to completely change my computing life style in one swell foop. It all started last Monday when I decided that my three year old 20 gig hard drive, while still quite serviceable and healthy was getting just a mite cramped in the capacity department. When I purchased said drive in 2003. I figured that I'd never be able to fill up a drive that big. That was before my discovery of podcasts, iPods/ iTunes and the subsequent desire to rip all my CD's into mp3 format, and the amassing of a few hundred photos, not to mention my packratting nature forcing me to hoard the setup files of damn near every software download I've accumulated for the past three years. Although I purchased a cheap 40 gig drive and an enclosure to back all that stuff up, I still kept quit a bit of that junk on the main drive.

I used Retrospects back-up application to back the mess into one of the partitions of the 40 gig drive and then I purchased a nice 80 gig unit from my favorite online store TigerDirect.com (shameless plug). I put the new drive into my Compaq Evo, booted up the disaster recovery image CD that I made specifically for this purpose and then chaos ensued. The disc got through the first part of the restore and then blue screens naming some driver that somehow is acting up and causing the setup routine to stop dead in its tracks. Of course, I cannot do what the screen says because Win2K hadn't gotten to the point where I could actually remove the offending driver. The machine locks up completely where nothing on the screen moves and ctrl-alt-delete is useless. Now after the fact I should have realized that if I held the power button in for a FEW SECONDS it would have eventually reset the machine, but I wasn't quite thinking rationally at this point so, what does idiot boy do??? He pulls the plug, which is the absolute worst way of shutting down a recalcitrant computer. Upon restoring power and starting up, the computer emits one short and two long beeps from the speaker and does nothing else. There's nothing on the monitor. I'm about ready to commit grievious bodily harm on myself and anybody else who was stupid enough to be in the room with me. I thought that i had completely scragged the BIOS which is the bit of code that a computer runs upon powerup that checks the memory and other bits and then passes control to the main operating system. If you have no BIOS, you have no computer.

After I succeeded in talking myself out of playing in traffic, I remembered that I had my current computer's predecessor sitting downstairs gathering dust. That machine was an ancient Gateway Pentium 2 box that was the equivalent of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in computer time. I dragged that old beast out of retirement, installed the hard drive and CD burner and tried to reinstall Windows again...no dice. the reinstall CD was screwed up in some way and would not allow me to do a recovery. Here I am, with a seemingly dead box, a useless Windows restore CD and I am getting very irritated. Eventually I figured out what was wrong with my Compaq box. According to the manual one short and two long beeps meant that a memory stick was messed up. I removed the offending stick and the Evo booted up as if nothing had happened. The large man dodged a big bullet. That's where Linux came in to save what little sanity I had left.

Now as I've said before, I am a packrat by nature. I hoard everything because I never know when a seemingly forgotten item that I stashed away might come back to save my bacon. It has happened more times than I can count, and it was about to happen at least twice in the next few minutes. I had dappled in Linux on and off over the past few years. I know a little about the open source OS and have heard more than a few Linux zealots rave about stable and efficient the OS especially when working on old iron like my Gateway. And I had a copy of SuSE Linux laying around in my computer bag, so I popped the CD in and booted it up. It installed cleanly, and I could set up my printer and DSL connections with no problems. Unfortunately, I was to find out that SuSE was bought out by Novell, and they promptly got out of the consumer Linux business to concentrate on enterprise Linux, so I couldn't update the old software. I then dragged out a copy of Ubuntu Linux that I had laying around and installed that. After some issues with setting up my DSL connection, which may or may not still be totally rectified as of this writing, so far, things are looking up. Ubuntu ran slowly on the Gateway, but least it ran. On the Compaq, Ubuntu runs like a scalded dog.

I consider myself to be a fairly knowledgeable computer user. I have replaced hardware components, installed OS's and other software, configured peripherals, and I think I know my way around a computer as well as anybody. But my training has come in the Windows world. I have very little experience in Linux. I like the concept of open source, which Linux is based on. While I don't have the programming chops to be able to write Linux code and contribute it to the community, I do like that anyone who has that ability can create a piece of software and share it with the community, this gives Linux a programming staff that effectively numbers in the millions. Program updates happen fairly quickly, the OS itself is written with nice, tight, code, and uses memory and hard drive resources efficiently. It's a stable OS and rather secure, not only because it's low number of users make it an undesireable target for the malicious types that seek to attack computers with viruses, malware and such, but because it's based on UNIX which is an operating system that while rather old, still is in use in many business environments. It's designed to keep users separate from the main OS functions and won't allow users to operate in the 'root' or superuser mode any longer than necessary in order to perform a certain function. And I have to admit, that Linux is becoming more and more Windows-like in user friendliness. The version of Linux I'm using, Ubuntu is gaining a reputation for being a Linux distribution that is very forgiving of newbie Linux users like me. It's clean, has an attractive interface and manages to hide a lot of its "Linuxness" under a nice glossy shell. Ubuntu has the ability to update itself without a lot of drama, and comes with a ton of nice software that is absolutely free for the taking. The cost of Ubuntu in general and Linux in particular is also a selling point...free. If you have the bandwidth, a CD burner and an hour or so of free time, you can download a copy of the OS, burn it to a CD and install it. Installations take less time than installing Windows in many cases, and as long as you don't have any really wonky hardware, the included drivers will work with most computers.

But Linux does have it's issues. Because of the miniscule user base (2.5-3% of all computers in the world run some version of Linux, compared to 95% running Windows), large companies that make common peripherals (printers, handheld support, portable media players, etc) aren't as willing to make drivers and software for Linux. Linux supports Palm OS devices in that they can be sync'ed up, but don't expect Microsoft to create ActiveSync software to support that cool new Windows Mobile smartphone that you just dropped $400 to buy. And Apple would rather go out of business than to allow its bonus baby, the iPod to sync up natively with iTunes running on Linux. There are ways to make an iPod into an mp3 player that can run on Linux, but most users don't want to get that deep into their iPods code to do that. Secondly, Linux is an operating system of, for, and by geeks. People who like to tinker,tweak, and play around with settings, and config files are right at home on Linux. The command shell of your choice is never far away, and in many cases, the only way to fix a problem is to call up a text editor, go into a configuration file and make settings changes. This is not for the newbie user. Someone who does not know what they are doing can cause no end of trouble for their system. The "man" files that come with Linux describe commands in a terse, technical prose that has most non-techies scratching their heads.

And don't get me started on the online help. Many, but not all serious Linux users tend to be rather short with Linux newbies asking questions about why they can't get things going. A lot of these guys tend to forget that they once were newbies to Linux and they had questions that the old hands found stupid, and they have been known to give beginners grief for somehow wasting their time with a question they find beneath their dignity to answer. I've always believed that there are only two stupid questions: the one which you don't know the answer, and the one that's never asked in the first place. If you have a problem, and can't figure it out, ask away. It is considered common courtesy when approaching a Linux forum, even one geared to beginners, to be specific about what the problem is, what you were doing when the problem occurred, is the problem repeatable, and the type and kind of hardware your computer is running. And you should at least make an honest effort to address the issue by doing research via the Internet before coming onto a forum with your problem. If you show that you took the initiative to address the problem, give them specifics, and don't be afraid to let them know that you are a newbie, most times, they will help you. But don't be surprised if their answers are terse, succinct, assume that you're a Linux guru instead of a newbie. Remember folks, Linux is an operating built, maintained and used primarily by geeks and geeks aren't always known for their people skills.

Linux has a lot of good things going for it. Price, stability and security, an increasingly pleasant user experience, and lots of high quality software free for the taking. But because of it's techie heritage, spotty driver support and sometimes maddening help system and software installation methods. It still has a long way to go before it'll be able to truly compete with Windows. Linux can be mastered by anyone willing to learn it and take a few bumps and bruises along the way. I'm not sure I'd let my grandma Tilly try to use it without serious support, but if I had never used a computer before, and no exposure to any other operating system, and had a good tutorial, Linux would be an ideal OS to learn.

I'm going to stay with Linux for the long run. It's not Microsoft, and it feels good to ba able to do all the things I used to do in Windows without feeding Redmond Menace's coffers. I still have to use Windows on my church's computer, and I'll also be using my handheld toys there also, but at home on my free time, I'm starting to learn the ins and outs of being a Linux geek.
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