How Ubuntu (Linux) Changed My Life Thursday, Dec 24 2009 

Ubuntu changed my life!  I’m smarter, cooler, and more ethical.

Sound too good to be true?  Well, it isn’t.

I began using Linux about 2 years ago.  Before that, I was a long time Windows user.  (And before that, an Apple user.)  Until my Linux days, I was a pretty typical PC user.  I would word-process documents, play a few games, and later, check email and surf the net.  I really didn’t care about how things worked; I just wanted them to work.  And hence, my Windows days were nothing pioneering or interesting.

In general, I would consider myself to be a pretty inquisitive person. I have always been interested in how things worked, but for some reason, probably because I saw them as too complex, I did not take an interest in knowing how computers worked.  The movie War Games probably had something to do with this too.  I didn’t need or want the FBI knocking down my door.

But I did take a few computing classes growing up, so I knew some of the basics.  But by the time I was in high school, I was more interested in getting my essays word-processed than understanding computer programming.  I figured the computer geeks could worry about that stuff.  Anyway, by that time, my dreams of being a computer scientist were already dashed by complicated math.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized how important technology, specifically the personal computer, had become. Aside from the obvious advantages of having a word-processor and other applications that made the production and editing of documents much easier, technology was linking disciplines and essentially changing them. The expectations of what people could produce quickly grew as documents became more sophisticated in appearance.

But even though I realized this importance, I accepted that technology had passed me by, and I would be destined to be a casual end user.  So I did the safe thing: I used Windows.  I knew the interface, it did the job most of the time, and it was available in all of the computer labs on campus.  There were a few times when I considered going back to Apple, but once I figured out what it would cost, I decided to stick with the PC platform.  Besides, I had already begun to dabble in open source applications, so I knew there was plenty of free software out there for Windows users.

It wasn’t until that fateful day I came across a Laptop magazine reference to Ubuntu Linux and its growing popularity.  I began to do some research on Linux and Ubuntu.  I talked with the head of our IT department on campus and asked him what he thought about Linux.  Of course, many of his servers were already running Red Hat, so he suggested I give it a try, but warned me to expect some hitches.

So I did.  My first distro was Ubuntu Feisty Fawn (7.04) and Gutsy soon after that.  I then tried Open SUSE (10.3, I think) and eventually SUSE SLED 10, which was preinstalled on a new Thinkpad I bought.  After some testing and trial in the classroom and work environment, I decided to go with Ubuntu.  I really liked SUSE; however, didn’t feel comfortable with the Novell and Microsoft “agreement.” I figured if I was going open source, I would go with a cleaner and unencumbered distro.  (See, I told you I became more ethical!)

So how did Linux, Ubuntu in my case, make me smarter?  I began to tinker with my computer again.  I had to figure out what I needed it to do, and how to get it to do it.  The one nice thing about Ubuntu is that its default install is very usable “out of the box.”  I think most casual users would need to change very little.

For me, I was pretty apprehensive to change anything at first.  But as time went on, I gained more confidence, and soon was making some small ones. In fact, some of them weren’t voluntary.  I’ll admit; what my campus IT guru told me came to fruition.  There were some hitches along the way.  I had to edit configuration files and learn how to use the command line to effectively solve some problems.  But all of these hitches and changes forced me to get more intimate with my computer.  When I used Windows, everything was veiled behind a GUI (and I suppose in many ways Ubuntu is guilty of this too), and so I didn’t need to understand what I was doing when I made changes; rather, I just needed to know how to execute them. Easier, right? Quicker, right? Well, not always. How do you fix something you don’t understand? And believe me, there was plenty that vexed me about Windows.

But if we take James Taylor’s advice and “[enjoy] the passage of time,” I think we could and would learn so much more.  I understand why many would find what I’m suggesting abhorrent.  Why bother trying to understand your computer when you have better things to do?

But I’m not talking about major time commitments here. I don’t think it’s necessary to understand every intricacy of the OS. And as a matter of fact, I want to suggest quite the opposite.  I think we should invest just enough time so we can understand the larger concepts of computing. These concepts will help us better understand how to solve problems that arise.  And I’m not talking about Linux problems, Windows problems, or Mac problems exclusively.  But in general.  If you understand how WebDav works, then the chances of you setting it up properly increases immensely, regardless of the OS that you’re using.  It’s like cooking.  If you understand the basic concept of stewing, you can probably produce a pretty good beef stew no matter whose kitchen you’re cooking in as long as the basic supplies and comparable ingredients are available.

How has Linux made me cooler.  Simple.  It is not the same old expected stuff.  The interface is different and in many ways more intuitive.  People are amazed with Compiz and the 3-D effects that I use.  And besides, when everybody is panicking about the latest major security hole in Internet Explorer, I can smugly smile and say, “I use Linux.”

Why am I more ethical?  Easy.  I don’t support they guys who are trying to control the way we interact with technology.  I stay away from products that are platform restricted. Also, I really embrace the FOSS philosophy because it levels the playing field.  I remember in the past, you had to buy a commercial word processing program to produce decent documents.  Today, thanks to a slew of community supported office apps, this in no longer the case.

It’s not that I’m necessarily against people getting compensated for their work, and, in fact, think every FOSS end user has some responsibility to “pay” for what they use.  The payment doesn’t necessarily need to be in monetary form though.  One could pay by donating time to test updates or new versions of apps. Or by being a part of a community. Maybe report bugs or issues that come up in daily usage. Or they could take an active role in promoting what they use. I’m sure there are numerous ways that end users could help open source developers. (Developers, if you’re reading this, go ahead and suggest some.)

So how has Ubuntu changed my life?  I’m taller, skinnier, and better looking.  Okay, maybe not.  I do feel that I have become closer to my PC though.  I understand it and the concepts that make my computing experience better and more successful.  And I know not to blame technology, but instead, the ones who wield it. Am I cooler? I don’t know, but using Linux has a sort of geek chic that suits me.  And in terms of ethics, I can sleep a little better at night knowing I haven’t made Bill and Steve any richer.  So has Linux changed me? Yes, I think so. And to the distro that figures out a way to make me taller, skinnier, and better looking, I promise to be your biggest fanboy ever!

Happy Holidays!

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Karmic on a HP Mini-110: Murphy’s Law at Work Thursday, Dec 17 2009 

So my former student who was interested in Ubuntu came to see me Tuesday morning.  In her hands was a small, pink neoprene sleeve.  “I’m ready.  Can you install Linux on this?” she said as she passed me what she was carrying.

I unzipped the sleeve and found a pink HP Mini-Note 110 inside.  It still had all the static-charged plastic coverings on it.  I quickly searched the hardware support site on Ubuntu.com to see if there were any known problems with the Mini-Note.  I was happy to find the following entry: “The Karmic version “just work” with almost everything supported without tweaking. Wired nic works nicely. Sound works nicely. The “windows” key however does not work anymore, and the built-in SD card reader has no available driver.”  I asked my student if she needed her SD card reader.  “What’s that?” she said…so we continued.

“This will take about an hour and half or so,” I said to her confidently.  After all, I have successfully installed all the different Ubuntu variants, Geubuntu, Elive, Puppy, Damn Small, SuSe SLED 10, OpenSuSe 10, Moblin, and gOs on various boxes without a hitch numerous times (well, DSL and Puppy did give me a little trouble).

“Why so long?” she responded.  I went on to explain that I had everything set to install Ubuntu; however, that I wanted her to try a live version first.  I also wanted to test for any problems and run an update before I sent her home.

All things considered, I expected the install to be fairly quick and easy.  I should’ve known better….

When the live session finished loading, everything looked okay.  I clicked on the Network Manager applet to test the wireless capabilities.  Although the hardware switch showed that the wireless radio was on, the system didn’t recognize it.  I immediately suspected a Broadcom driver issue–call it intuition.  Before I went any further, a system window opened.  It automatically recognized that there were propriety drivers available.  Of course, the only one listed was the Broadcom STA driver.  I happily enabled it and within a few seconds, was able to get on to the campus’ wireless network.  Great, I thought, smooth sailing from here.  I launched Firefox, and as soon as I did the system froze.

I shut everything down and started a new live session, enabled the Broadcom driver, and launched Firefox again.  And guess what?  The system froze.  “Why is it doing that?” my student asked with a hint of agitation in her voice.

“Don’t worry.  I’ll figure it out.”  After three more failed attempts, I began to get a little nervous.  I suspected that I could probably get further if I did an install instead of trying to troubleshoot the wireless card in a live session  But since it wasn’t my netbook, I didn’t wan to render it unusable for any prolonged amount of time, so I decided to do something I had never done before, a dual-boot install.  I figured if anything went wrong enabling the Broadcom driver, my student would still be able to use her computer until I figured out how to fix the problem.

So I began.  After going through the install wizard, I sent my student off to study for her exam.  I hit “Install,” and I went to a meeting.  When I got back to my office about 45 minutes later, I was happy to see that everything went seemingly okay.  I began the shutdown process.  I pulled my Unetbootin thumbdrive from the USB slot when I was instructed to and waited for the system to shut down.  When it restarted, Grub came up fine.  I decided to test XP, so I launched it first.  Everything looked as expected, so I logged off and rebooted again.  Grub came up fine, but this time I launched Karmic.

I was relieved to hear the familiar sounds of drums and the sight of the Karmic splash screen.  As soon as the desktop came up, I went to work on the Broadcom driver.  I waited a minute to see if the system would recognize the Broadcom card; it didn’t.  I ran the Hardware Driver utility and was disappointed to find no available proprietary drivers.  My student, who had returned to my office, looked concerned.  “Is everything okay?  Is it done?  Why is it taking so long?”  After some explanation, she calmed a little.  I pulled my wired connection from my Thinkpad and plugged it into the Ethernet port.  Immediately, the system recognized the connection and established an IP address.  I looked for the driver again.  This time, it was there.  I enabled it, pulled my wired connection, restarted the wireless radio (it was smart enough to shut down when it realized there was a hardwire connection), and connected to the campus wireless network.  I ran ifconfig from a terminal, and saw an IP address.  Relief.  I crossed my fingers and launched Firefox.  It opened fine.  Just to be sure, I navigated to a couple of webpages; I felt more relief when it did without issue.

“Almost there,” I said to my student.  I launched the Update Manager.  Since the image I was using was the Karmic RC (which was probably the culprit for the aforementioned problems) there were over 200 updates.  I ran them and restarted the system.  I crossed my fingers again and hoped that the wireless card would automatically connect…it did.

Before my student left my office, I installed the Compiz Config Manger and the simple version (CCSM), so I could configure Compiz.  After all, she wanted the cube.  After some quick instructions on how to use the managers, I set her virtual desktops and the cube.  She thanked me and promised to go home and test everything out.

When she left, she was smiling.  She told me she would let me know if there were any problems.  It’s been a couple of days and so far, I haven’t heard from her.  I guess things are going well.  I’m glad.  For a minute, I thought I was going to lose a convert.

It really wasn’t a bad install.  Only a few minor problems.  I just wished things went a little smoother for my student’s sake.  You should’ve seen her face when I opened a terminal session.  Just goes to show that you can never get too cocky.  I’m glad I was able to figure things out, but the experience was a nice reminder to always expect the unexpected.  Good old Murphy is always lurking around a corner…waiting to strike.

*For a how-to on this install, please go here.