Monday, December 08, 2008

Software as a Subversive Activity, Part 4: One Geek's Journey

Software as a Subversive Activity, Part 4: One Geek's Journey from Microsoft Slave to Linux Liberty

My journey to free software began with free hardware.

Iowa City, my home, is the ur-college town. When leases expire, all on the same day, people leave stuff on the curb and it's understood that you can just pick it up. I was looking for an emergency backup computer to teach myself some fix-up skills and boost my alien detecting score, and one day I literally picked one up on the street.

Alien detecting?

I've been an obsessive SETI@Home geek since 1999. Not as obsessed as the overclockers, or the IT trolls at my office who don't like Firefox let alone unauthorized (!) screensavers. But I still wanted to raise my score by running it on a spare machine.

By late 2005 I had collected maybe four machine's worth of parts, and decided to Frankenstein them together. I had the cases, I had the memory, I had the cards and hard drives. What didn't I have? Windows XP licenses. Some of the machines were University surplus with wiped hard drives. Others had Windows 98 or even 95.

Most of the time when you buy a computer you don't even get an actual Windows CD. You get a “restore disk” that will set your computer back to its original state. You lose your data and your settings. You get back all the commercial crapware that Beast Buy and the manufacturers get paid to put on there. You know “Try AOL Now” and eBay ads and trial versions of Microsoft Office and Quicken that expire in a month.

Without those expensive Windows licenses, I had boat anchors instead of computers. Then I was going through Reddit and I saw the link: Ubuntu: Linux for human beings. I knew next to nothing about Linux other than 1) it was free (as in beer) and 2) it was supposed to be kind of hard. But with free machines and free software, I had literally nothing to lose.

First there was a download. 650 meg and burn a disk image. That's not quite as simple as just copying files to a CD, but you can skip this step and ask Ubuntu to send you a free disk instead.

I powered down and booted from my new CD. First I had to choose my language. (They were in alphabetical order but English was highlighted.) I chose my location on a little map to set the time. Chicago? Close enough. I was asked about my keyboard style. No clicking Terms and Conditions like “I agree to give Bill Gates all my money.” No 25 alphanumeric character security code to enter and, after you get it wrong, re-enter. (With my middle-aged eyesight I can never tell VM0SG from WNO5C.)

Then the first, and only, slightly tricky part: disk partitioning. I had a big brick with a bad Windows installation, so my choice was easy: Wipe the whole drive. But you don't have to do that (I'll get back to it).

Ubuntu took over from there. One pause to remove the CD, maybe a half hour total time. I booted up, heard the happy drums that are Ubuntu's start-up sound, and I was in business. I mean, really, fully in business. Firefox was there in a taskbar, and while I didn't use them yet I had email tools, Open Office, media players. I didn't have to spend additional time installing Microsoft Office and changing the default browser and uninstalling Try AOL Now. I was ready for a full computing experience.

But first, I needed to get to my real business: detecting aliens. Off to SETI@Home to download. The site detected that I was in Linux and offered me the proper download. I was confronted for the first time with having to use the command line. But the site gave me step by step, cut and paste instructions. I'm glad I learned, but now it's even easier. The SETI@Home client, BOINC, is now included in Ubuntu's package manager.

A package manager is a a collection of tools to automate the installing and upgrading process. You can choose programs from a list called a repository. If you choose something that requires additional add-on files, the package manager will automatically select and include those. No pausing halfway through installing a program to ask if you want to upgrade Active X or Acrobat Reader like you get with Windows.

So about an hour and a half from starting the download to happily detecting aliens. I then chose a digital clock screensaver, hooked up my biggest monitor and set the whole alien detecting clock on top of the entertainment center.

The next day at work I spent two hours battling one printer driver in Windows.

I kept scavenging for computers, and in the process of those Ubuntu installs, I started feeling more comfortable. The more I learned the more curious I got.

I dived into the world of dual-booting, where you have two operating systems on one computer and choose one at each start up, unexpectedly. I was home one holiday — either Thanksgiving or Christmas 2006 - and Windows stopped recognizing my external hard drive. That was the home of my music collection, and my nephew urgently needed to hear the Jingle Cats. I banged around in Windows for way too long and then, with plenty of space on the hard drive, came to a snap decision. “Screw it!” (The actual inner monologue may have used stronger language.) “I'm installing Ubuntu and goin' dual boot!” The partition manager was friendly enough that I could tell where the Windows files were, and I set up a small Linux partition without wiping my Windows out.

So I had dual-boot and we had music (so to speak). The only downside was, I still preferred booting in Windows, and the start-up menu defaulted to Linux. If I wandered off or got sidetracked at startup, as I was prone to do, I was in Ubuntu. Eventually I figured out how to edit that menu to make it boot in Windows first if I wanted to. But by the time I learned that, I was already committed to Linux.

My dual boot died when my hard drive died in August `07, but in December I got a new machine. It wasn't long before I installed Ubuntu. I liked the first experience enough that instead of making the Linux partition small, I split the 160 gig drive half and half. (I've since learned enough to repartition it without wiping the data; I shrunk the Windows partition down to 30 gig.) I was still just playing around, but sometimes I walked away during a startup, found myself in Ubuntu, and just stayed for a while. I tried out email programs, Open Office, and started thinking about making the move permanent.

In July 2008 I was live-blogging a political convention and realized that I couldn't hook into the wifi in Windows, but I connected with no problem in Linux. In retrospect I think that was the tipping point, but my conversion was complete by late October when I finally got my Access databases to work under Linux.

Next week: Linux for kids!

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