The Linux Project part II:
My qualifications, a short history of Linux and I, and some words to the wise.
By Pappy McFae
Some might ask the question, "what qualifies you to write a series of articles about Linux?" Well, willingness to jump into that pool of sharks would be the short answer. Often times, that's really all the qualification one needs to do anything in this world: willingness. It can move mountains, change the course of rivers, and even drive someone to write about open source operating systems.
For the long answer, I would have to delve a bit into my personal history. As I said in the first part of this article, I received my first computer almost thirty years ago as a Christmas present. It was a Texas Instruments T.I. 99/4 A. Basically; it was a game system that had a keyboard and a BASIC interpreter on internal ROM. It had a slot to accept game cartridges as well as an expansion port for peripheral devices. Bill Cosby did the commercials for it way back when.
While it was pretty cool, and I did write some BASIC programs for it, because we only had the cassette tape drive, pretty much every time I wanted to make it work, I had to key in the programs. It was either that, or play the video game cartridges. At the time, I was way more into making it run my programs than I was playing the games. Unfortunately, my parents balked at buying the floppy drive, or the extended BASIC cartridge. I can only imagine how far I would have gotten in life had I been able to write more complex programs and store them. I might be one of the Microsoft millionaires.
Somewhere down the line, that computer went the way of most Christmas gifts: into the garbage. Along with it went my hopes to become what I thought I wanted to be at the time: a computer programmer. I forgot that computers even existed for some time after that experience. It wasn't until I was about twenty-four that I crossed paths with a computer again.
This time it was an HP 150 system. The 150's big claim to fame was a touch screen interface. In this case, touch screen is a bit of a misnomer. Instead of having a touch sensitive film on the screen, there were a series of infrared LED's along the edges of the screen. Placing your finger on the screen would break the beams and thus you had a touch screen.
I found that old system in the back area of a business where I was working. The machine had been retired because it died a smoky death. When I asked my boss about it, he gladly gave me not only all the parts to the machine, but its numerous software disks. I was so happy to have it, it didn't matter that I had to repair it before I could use it.
It had died a smoky death because for some reason, the main power capacitor had exploded. When I say it exploded, I mean it shredded parts of itself all over the inside of the drive unit, and blew a blackened hole into the power supply PC board. With a little solder, some effort, and gratitude that the explosion didn't destroy the plastic cover with the ratings for the cap, I fixed it and had it up and running in short order.
I didn't get that computer simply to say I owned a computer again. It wasn't about having a computer for its own sake; it was about having something on which I could write. You see, I was into writing poetry at the time. However, due to my horrific handwriting, once I finished a poem, I had an incredibly difficult time reading it. At last, with this machine, I could write to my heart's content and easily read what I had written.
Of course, me being who I was, I couldn't leave well enough alone. All the years of it sitting out at that work site had filled the touch screen LED's with thick dust. That caused some problems with the computer running properly. I tried to fix this problem. I didn't know what I was doing, and I wound up corrupting all the data on the hard drive. Of course, the first program to die was the word processor.
This meant I had to get a hold of another computer. I had become used to being able to read what I had written. Not only that, I had begun writing a novel. I had to resurrect it! The novel didn't die (that time), but the word processor sure did. It was the only program disk I didn't get with the computer.
The new computer was a 286. It ran MS-DOS 6, and NOTHING else. It was barely usable, but at least I could continue to write my novel. Because of that machine, I began to get deeper into the world of computers. I even found a job at a computer shop. That's a story in and of itself that would take too many pages to recount. Besides, it's not important really.
Linux and I
By virtue of the job at the computer shop, I started amassing a bunch of old computer parts. As customers came in to upgrade, I wound up with the guts from their old machines. By the time I left that job, I had three complete systems, as well as a goodly supply of extra hard drives, controllers, video cards, memory strips, and other assorted odds and ends.
One of the computers was used to run a computer BBS. A BBS, or bulletin board system, for those who don't know, is like the Internet on an extremely small scale. People would call into that computer, read email (non-internet and internet depending upon the software used), post messages, debate issues, and play lame ANSI RPG games. My computer was a part of a bigger network that ran throughout the Toledo area and up into southwestern Michigan. There were five other systems in the network.
Someone who I can only consider to be the utmost computer geek I have ever known owned the lead system. It was called The Particle Board. Literally, the main system was a motherboard screwed down onto a piece of particleboard. Entering the basement of this home was like entering a computer graveyard. There were systems of every type scattered everywhere. It was amazing!
Anyway, one of the people who lived at the house was a gorgeous football player type. I forget his name, but boy howdy, I'll never forget his face, or his ass, or his legs, or his chest. You get the picture. Anyway, he had three PC's in his room, I think he also had an Amiga, but I'm not too sure about that. He ran nothing but Linux on all his boxes.
Well, considering how hot I thought he was, and considering how badly I wanted to get next to him, I went to a computer fest and picked up my first copy of Linux. I still have the disks, believe it or not. They were put out by a place called Info Magic. The disks contained Red Hat, Slackware, and Debian flavors of Linux. At the time, those were the big three.
I then set to the task of running it on another PC I had built from my collection of computer guts. I set up a pieced together 486 SX33 with a whopping sixteen Megs of memory. With a bit of beginner's luck, I actually had my installation of Slackware up and running in short order.
Then the truth of Linux began to show. That truth is, at the time, there were more bugs in Linux than are crawling around all the homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Getting my CD-ROM drive to function after the first setup was nothing short of impossible. Getting the GUI to remain stable was an exercise in frazzled nerves. Getting the sound card drivers or mouse drivers to work properly was a very hit and miss thing. Some days, the system ran really well, and everything worked like a charm, except for the CD-ROM drive. Other days, it was like pulling rusty nails with your fingers to get anything to work at all. But hey, I was figuring it out as I went along. Considering where others were who began playing with Linux when I did, I was ahead of the curve. Of course, frustration soon came to visit and refused to go away.
To my mind, there are two schools of thought when it comes to computers. One can either work on them, or one can work with them. When I used Linux way back then, I spent most of that time working on the computer. It is a good thing that in the intervening years, Linux has grown up and become much more usable and functional. This fact alone has taken Linux from an annoyance to a viable operating system in some cases. In others, it remains an annoyance.
That's another reason for The Linux Project. I consider a computer to be a tool. It is used to create things: CD's, artwork, cars (when it runs robots), and so many others. To spend time continuously fiddling with the tool leaves little time for creation. I prefer to create things.
Making sure the tool is right is a waste of time in my eyes. I decided that at my first brush with Linux. It was a time eater, and I didn't get much done other than fiddling with my fstab file. Besides that, I didn't get any closer to the hot geek I spoke of earlier. As hunky and butch as he initially seemed, he turned out to be a real lady. I was a bit too rough and rugged for his tastes, and at the time, I smoked. He didn't. Oh well, his loss, not mine!
It is my hope with the writing of The Linux Project that those of you out there who might be interested in using an alternative to Microsoft might find enough information to make an informed decision. It is also my hope that I might help you to find a flavor of Linux that will match your desires for your system. If I can help one person in those areas, then it will all be worth it.
Some things to always keep in mind.
First and most important: due to the nature of Linux, your Windows applications will not run under Linux. If you set up Linux on your system, you are tied to using Linux applications. While there exist flavors of Linux that will set up what they call DOS boxes, or programs that run DOS and Windows applications in a Linux environment, don't get your hopes up that all will fly as you expect. Don't forget the open source reality of Linux. Some flavors devote themselves to making sure things run right. Others leave it up to the user to tweak or fix application errors. Mixing disparate computer operating systems can result in some very strange results. That's just the nature of the beast.
Those who are adventurous can also elect to set up dual boot systems. Some flavors of Linux can operate on drives partitioned for use with DOS/Windows. Others can't. If you are in the mood to play, you can find a way to get Linux and Microsoft to hang out on the same system with fairly little trouble. If you wish to take this tack, you are on your own. Such things are beyond the scope of The Linux Project. Suffice it to say I have set up dual (Windows, Linux) and triple boot systems (Windows, Linux, OS/2) with varying degrees of success. It can be done, but it's up to you if you want to take that tack. I wish you all the luck in the world if this is your goal. It can be fun. It can also be an incredible pain in the ass!
Secondly, Linux is generally a year or so behind the curve in supporting new devices. You may get lucky and have Linux drivers included with your nifty new device, but don't get your hopes up. With video cards, generally if they support the VESA standard (most do), Linux works just fine with them. If they don't support the VESA standard, it's a crapshoot whether they will work or not. Because Linux is really about networking, it is very likely your newer net cards will be supported. Once again, that's not assured. Sound cards are more likely to be problematic, especially ones that come attached to motherboards. If you are really planning to take the Linux path, it's best to know where to get old computer parts. If you have a used computer shop near, they should have supportable devices. If not, you can check for such things on E-bay.
Thirdly, installing Linux is generally a fairly easy thing to do, given you know something about computers. Getting everything to work, on the other hand, can take on a long-term meaning. At the writing of this specific article, I have had experience with one particular distribution that flatly refused to make the sound card work. After two different installation attempts, the sound card remained mute. I am going to re-install this particular flavor one more time for official review by The Linux Project. I am going to attempt a different means of getting it to work, but I honestly hold no illusion that the third time will be the charm.
Remember, I have experience in setting Linux up and making it work. If I can't get something to work after weeks of fiddling with it, I'd say it won't work. When it comes time to work with that particular distribution, I will check to see if they have anything about flaky sound cards in their forums.
Fourthly, you might wind up having to install your distribution more than once. This is especially true of some of the not-so-well-made distributions that exist out there. Allow yourself time to do a bit of research at the web site dedicated to the distribution you plan on using. The more you know at the outset, the more likely you are to have a successful installation the first time around.
Fifth, Linux isn't for everyone. In some cases, it's better to stick with Microsoft and their stuff. Microsoft offers real support for their stuff. With Linux, consider yourself more or less on your own. New devices are setup to run with Windows, and you can rest assured that the driver disk(s) included with your new hardware will work properly under Windows. A lion's share of the software in the computer store is made to work under Windows. Everyone's geeky brother that has played with Windows for any length of time can serve as a source of free tech support. This is not so with Linux. One generally needs more than the garden variety Windows geek to get Linux back up and running when you have dealt it an unintended coup de grace.
You really don't need to know a lot about a computer to use Microsoft products. Usually, all you need to know is the CD key. The garden variety Windows geek can usually fill in the blanks. Unless you consider yourself somewhat proficient with a computer, or know someone who is, Linux isn't really going to fill your needs.
Sixth, playing with Linux can completely destroy data. If you are playing with Linux on a spare computer, you have nothing to lose if things go awry. If your computer is the basis for your business, don't mess with Linux on it. Linux has destroyed literally tera-bytes of data since it was first compiled. It is sure to kill more data as the years progress. Don't paint a target on yourself and your machine. If you can't afford to lose your data, you can't afford to play with Linux. PERIOD!
This is the reason The Linux Project is being done on a spare machine. My main computer contains the files for my business ventures. Even when I do find that elusive, awesome Linux distribution that does everything that Microsoft's stuff does, I'm still not going to put it on my main machine. Been there, done that, sent lots of needed files to heaven long before their time.
Keeping all those things in mind, if you are still willing to play with Linux, then sit back and join me as I begin performing the tests on the various Linux distributions that exist on the Internet. At the writing of this article, I have officially tested two different distributions, and have am gearing up for the official test of the third.
If there is a distribution that you would like tested, please let me know. I might consider it just for the sheer fun of doing the research. If I get enough response, I might set up a web site dedicated to this information. We'll see how things go. I know one thing; this is going to be a lot of fun. My inner geek is already all a quiver over the idea.