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The Linux Chronicles



For years the Linux zealots have said that it can replace GatesWare on the desktop. Up to now, they were either crazy or smoking something really good! However I believe that the time has finally arrived. To test that notion, I’m going to prove or disprove the theory that:

An ordinary users of modest computer skills can install Linux and then do productive work with it.

Two parts there. One is to be able to install Linux without the aid of a guru and/or resorting to the shell. Once the typical user is forced to resort to the shell, all hope is lost. Two is being able to actually do work. Not just playing with the system! Most users, myself included, just want the computer to be a tool that sits there and does what he wants to to do.

Windows XP does that pretty well. In fact, though I love *nix, I would have probably stayed with XP indefinitely had Microsoft not gotten greedy. Vista changed everything. I will NOT deal with that garbage.

Vista was the thing that kicked me over top dead center and make me take a hard look at Linux. Well, that and my first adventure with malware. I don’t know what I got or where it came from. None of the anti-virus or anti-malware programs could find anything. But my laptop suddenly became as if encrusted with molasses and began sending all kinds of crap out the network connection. Only a repair install of window (something that can’t be done with modern versions) cleared it away. I wasted several weeks trying to find out what was going on and living with worse-than-dial-up speeds. I spent another day doing the repair install. As the Jews say, “Never Again!”.

I started researching and planning my conversion. While I’m willing to change the look of my desktop and make minor changes to the way that I work and the tools that I use, I’m not willing to make major changes. That means that WINE (the windows emulator) better work!

As I started my planning and conducted my research, I realized that many people might benefit from my work, so I decided to journal the conversion here.

My Background

I started using Unix in the 80s via a bootleg dial-up connection to a friend’s office at AT&T. I fell in love, especially since the alternatives, DOS and CP/M were so primitive in comparison. I got in on the building of the internet and in the late 80s, started a software company to write custom Unix software. I shut the company down and went off in disgust to do non-computer stuff at the prospect of my having to program windows – about 6 months before Mosaic hit the scene. I completely missed the dot.bomb era.

When I came back to computing about 8 years ago, Linux was the thing to have and I got several distros. Only Debian would run on my hardware. It’s still running in character mode as my file server. The hardware is an ancient 300mhz Pentium with about 128mb of memory. A boat-anchor in the Windows world but it can keep the ethernet at over 80% utilization and that’s good enough for me.

I loathe screwing around with a computer. I want it to be like a hammer or a screwdriver and just do its thing. I think I’m typical in that regard. At the same time, I can screw around under the hood when I have to. I’m going to avoid that as much as possible during this adventure and I’m going to take severe exception with whatever causes me to have to. If I have to resort to the shell (command prompt for windows people) more than once or twice then I’ll consider my theory disproved. That said, let’s get started.

Prelude and Preparation

The only serious candidate for the desktop is Ubuntu. So I found a broadband connection (I only have dial-up at home) and downloaded the current release 8.10 Desktop Edition. At the same time a friend sent me a copy of the 8.04 stable distro. I decided to start with the latest version.

The first thing I did was to determine what I actually used the computer for and what programs were involved. I started by taking a snapshot of my desktop (shift-Print Scrn and pasting the result Irfanview and saving the image)


(click on the thumbnail to see a larger version). I printed this image, opened up a spreadsheet in OpenOffice and recorded what each Icon did. Here is rev 1.0


These are arranged somewhat in order of priority. The “WINE” notation means that I’ll probably have to use the windows program running under the windows emulator.

With that list completed, I pulled the windows hard drive out of my laptop and inserted a blank one. I stuck the Ubuntu Live CD in my CD drive and booted up. The adventure begins.

A word about Dual Booting

In a word, don’t. Many, perhaps most of the Linux problems I read about come from trying to dual boot, to have windows and Linux on the same drive. It ain’t worth the hassle. Get another hard drive and dedicate it to linux. You’re going to keep your data on a partition separate from the /root partition anyway so this is no big deal. The drive doesn’t have to be large – an 80 gig drive is luxury. I installed on a 40 gig with room to spare.

Day One – Tripped by the Starting Gate

When Ubuntu boots, it offers a menu. The first choice is booting the live CD without altering the hard drive. This lets you “test drive” the program, albeit in a limited form. The second choice is “Install on your hard drive”. Shazam, that’s what I want.

After a LONG CD boot, a 7 step process starts. The first parts are simple – the language, the keyboard, etc. Then it asks about disk Partitioning. I can imagine an ordinary user going tilt. Problem is, the default selection, “partition into several small ones”, isn’t the best option. I selected the second option “use the entire drive as one partition”.

The system hung.

Knowing that Linux installers sometimes go off to think for many minutes at a time with no outward indication of life, I went off to prepare lunch. 15 minutes later, the thing was still inert so I gave it the One Finger Salute (power switch) and started over. I had about an hour in the process at that point.

The second time through, the partitioning went fine, my screen went into graphics mode, the turd brown desktop background came up and…..

My display adapter crashed.

The installer gave up after 8 tries. Now I had run the live CD with no problem so why is the installer acting up? I can hear Balmer snickering…. I have another hour in the project at this point.

I start over. This time it gets past the “goin’ graphical” part and starts loading files on the hard drive.

Then the display adapter crashed again.

At this point I’m ready to teach my cats to play Frisbee with the distro disc! It was pretty obvious that I wasn’t getting anywhere this way so I decided on another approach. Booting back into the Live CD.

The Live CD has an “Install” option on the desktop. I booted into the Live CD successfully (a 20 minute process) and clicked on “Install”. That 7 step process started again. Oh sh*t.

Amazingly enough, the install completed! I shut the machine down, removed the CD and booted into native Linux! Yay!

Now to get on the internet. I’m stuck with dial-up here in this mountain paradise. I even acquired a US Robotics Sportster V.92 external modem from a friend. I figured that things would be complicated enough without trying to get a USB or WinModem to work.

There is nothing on the desktop for the equivalent of windows DUN (dial-up networking) or “network connections” so I shut down Linux, installed the Windows drive, booted back into XP and went looking.

It seemed simple enough. Go to “Admin->network”, unlock the tool with my password, fill in my ISP’s particulars and go online. I put the Ubuntu hard drive back in, booted up, clicked on Admin at the top of the screen and…. No “network”. There was a “networking tools” item but no “network”. So I shut down again, go to windows…… rinse and repeat.

After more googling, it was evident that something was missing from my setup. The GUI wasn’t going to work so I researched command line networking. As with most things, there are many ways of doing it in Linux. I chose something that I believe is called WVnetwork (sorry, bad notes on this). Put the Ubuntu hard drive back in, get a shell and call up the man pages on the command. There’s a config file to edit under /etc. This is bordering on requiring guru skills. I edited the config file to reflect my ISP’s particulars and fired off the program.

The modem lit up, dialed in and….. Failed. Turns out the example config file was wrong. I thought that it might be but I tried it once just in case. I corrected it by getting the “chat” strings in the right order and tried again. success! I’m online!

I fired off Firefox that comes with the distro and went looking for that elusive network entry. It just wasn’t there even though everything says that it should be.

At this point I was tired, aggravated and needed to get some work done so I shut down the system, installed the windows drive, booted up and did some work. *sigh*

Later that evening I decided to try the older 8.04 Live CD to see the differences. WOW! Not only did it start right up but that “network” entry was there and after I configured the dialer via the GUI, it worked. I was too tired to wipe the hard drive and start over so I shut down and went to bed.

Day 2

I answered my morning email, shut the machine down, installed the Linux hard drive, booted 8.04 directly to the desktop, chose Install and hit a brick wall. It would not let me install over a newer version. DAMN!

Sooooo… Out with Ubuntu, in with windows. Put the Linux drive on a USB adapter and wipe the partition. Down with Windows, in with the now-blank drive, boot the Live CD and click Install. This time it installed the first time with no hassles. I shut down, removed the CD, booted into 8.04 and checked for that “network” entry. It was there along with a lot of other stuff. It was obvious that 8.10 is badly broken and is not ready for prime time.

Undoubtedly they had to take out some stuff to accommodate the bloat of Open Office but damn! Screwing over dial-up users isn’t smart.  Maybe it’s time to go to a 2 CD distro.

The booting and hardware discovery was fascinating. I have a 13 port USB hub connected to my laptop with something in almost every port. Ubuntu found everything except one. The most important accessory. My WACOM graphics tablet and mouse. DAMN! I got out an old wireless mouse, deciding that fighting that war could wait til later.

It found my two USB hard drives and mounted them automatically. Ditto my thumb drive and the SD card reader. Things are looking up. Firefox is lean and lithe, the polar opposite of the slow bloatware that it is under Windows on this same machine.

The default mailer configured fairly easily once I poked through Agent’s config files with the windows drive mounted on a USB adapter to get the setup particulars. Note to self: Write down all the config stuff before exiting windows.

I quickly discovered that WINE was not on the distro disc. I googled around the net until I figured out how to retrieve that package and installed it over dialup. About 50 meg’s worth if I recall correctly. Unlike windows, you don’t have to reboot the machine after every install. It just works.

To use WINE all I have to do is open the file browser (equiv but better than Windows Explorer) and click on an .exe file. It just runs. I installed a couple of windows programs. If the windows installer put an icon on the desktop then an icon showed up on the GNOME desktop. Slicker’n day old grits!

At that point I was tired and needed to get work done so I declared victory over step 1, shut down Ubuntu, started windows and did my work. I was feeling pretty good.

The Present

The preceeding is a historical account based on my notes and my journal I keep on my system. I didn’t decide to blog about the conversion until the end of Day 2. From here on out, my blogging will be in near-real-time and with lots more details. I hope that it will serve as a how-to guide to other users (not programmers or hackers) who want to Boot Bill!

Posted by neonjohn on January 15th, 2009 under Computing

2 Responses to “The Linux Chronicles”

  1. Nicholas Says:

    I went pretty much all-Linux a couple of years ago. If you have questions you have my e-mail address; I can’t promise to respond instantly but I should be able to help with just about anything. I don’t have much experience with Ubuntu but I know a fair bit about the common parts that all Linux systems have.

    I don’t really miss Windows, there were a lot of hassles I encountered that I don’t have to deal with with Linux. For example, it’s almost impossible for something you install (aside from a kernel upgrade) to hose your system, and kernel upgrades aren’t hard to back out of if they go wrong.

  2. Clifford Clingan Says:

    OK Bigg’un, I’ve read what you’re doing, and I’m impressed with your goals;
    1. Get Bates out of your Wallet
    2. Do it by going Free ware (Ubuntu Linux)
    3. Do it and keep a Log of the effort
    4. Finally, doing it the way someone like myself can duplicate, that is, using only the Tools on the Desktop; No Shell or “writing” add-on plug-ins to bypass a problem … in other words, “Newby” Style.
    I look forward to your journey towards Freedom, and Independent Wealth, because you’ll not have to “Upgrade” to another $200 to $500 Operating System every couple of years, that may, or may not, run the Applications you have spent, what … $2K to get permission to use, on that ONE computer.
    You ROCK Dude!

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