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Nash Bozard
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My hovercraft is full of eels.
My hovercraft is full of eels.

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Hey lookit, I'm using this thing!

The Linux Adventure: Four Days in the Open Source Wilderness.

With the dismal horror that is Windows 8 looming, I decided it might be time to dip a toe in the waters of Linux.  I have a twelve year old laptop, a Dell Latitude C610.  Pentium III, 1.2 ghz, 674MB of RAM, ATI Radeon Mobility 16MB, 20 GB hard drive.  Processing wise, it's on a par with a high-end smartphone.  Graphics wise, it's on a par with a grapefruit.

It's been running Windows XP for years upon years, but Windows being Windows, it bogs down.  Crap accumulates.  The only surefire way to revive it is to wipe and re-install, which will work . . . for another year, or so . . .

Under XP, it does MS Office well, Chrome very well, Skype as well as Skype ever works on any machine, and plays any and all media files and DVD's with no trouble, whatsoever.  In short, it's on a par with a mid-grade Android tablet, except it's actually useful.  And unlike the iPad, I can do two, three, four or even FIVE things on it at the exact same time, on the same screen.  Funny how our tech is running backward . . . 

Anyway, it's usually been put up to the task of serving as my teleprompter, but it's also been my away-machine.  It does not game.  It does not edit.  It's my window into the internet, my file storage, my impromptu entertainment.

But since the time was coming to once again blank its memory and rebuild it, I thought, "Hell, why not Linux?"  Linux does not reject hardware as different versions of Windows is wont to do.  It keeps drivers on file forever.  And if you have a twelve year old computer, it will still work.

So, I burned a copy of Ubuntu.  Ubuntu is the version of Linux that's purported to be the most user-friendly, the closest to a Windows or OSX - like experience that Linux has to offer.  I popped it into my laptop, booted from it, and away it went.

It formatted the drive without a hitch, began orienting itself, took down my user name . . . and then, without warning, the installer disappeared.  It went no further.  Puzzled, I attempted to begin the installation again.  Same result.

I took to the Googles in search of an explanation, and found one: you know how Windows likes to tout all the benefits and enhancements of its current version during the installation?  Yeah, Ubuntu does that, too.  It's called the Ubiquity Slideshow.  Except in Ubuntu 12.04, a known bug in the slideshow sometimes causes the installer to fail unless you instead boot to the Live CD desktop, open the terminal, type "sudo apt-get remove ubiquity-slideshow-ubuntu," and then run the installer again.

Simple and obvious, right?

Those of you who said "yes" probably have a great deal of tech knowledge under your belt.  Those of you who said "no" probably have glazed-over eyes by this point, lulled into a stupor, ready to be commanded.  (Incidentally, at the count of three, you will be a duck.  One, two, three . . .)  In either case: this is not something the average user would be able to fix . . . or would be willing to fix.  This is what's referred to in the tech world as a "showstopper."  It either gets fixed immediately, or you and your software are in trouble.

This also applies to all of the Ubuntu-derived distros: Linux Mint, Lubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Dubuntu (for the LMFAO fans), Bubuntu (the "hold my beer" distro) . . . eh, you get the point.  This did not bode well.  But I applied the fix, and gamely plodded on.

Ubuntu . . . was not bad.  I have it on a virtual machine on my desktop, and it's pretty nice even with the much-loathed Unity interface.  On the laptop, it wasn't bad either . . . but it was slow.  Very slow.  I was asking a great deal from the system with the Unity interface, which was not the fault of the OS, but the hardware.

Since I was playing about, I decided to give Linux Mint a whirl.  Mint is a splinter of Ubuntu, generated in part because of Unity.  It has two interfaces all its own, dubbed "Cinnamon" and "MATE," with the former being closer to the Windows environment.  I burned a new DVD, booted, applied the slideshow fix, and waited for the final reboot.

Aaaaand . . . nothing.  No toolbar.  No interface.  At all.  Just the desktop, with two icons, neither of which worked.  It did this for both the MATE and Cinnamon version.  I can't really fault it, because I have no idea if the distro was to blame, or my old laptop.  So I shrugged, and moved on.

I settled at last on Lubuntu, based on a very efficient and size-conscious setup, made for slower machines.  It uses the LXDE interface, which is made to be faster on old kit.  Once it finished . . . THIS was what I had been looking for.

The laptop was snappy, responsive, and working perfectly.  Every driver found and quietly taken care of.  A familiar interface, similar to XP.  Everything arranged in a way intuitive to someone stepping away from the shallow end of the OS pool.

Lubuntu doesn't include the vaunted Libre Office, so after consulting the Synaptic Package Manager (Think of it as a stripped down app store, if you like.  You're still a duck.) I installed a copy.  In brief, Libre Office is an open-source alternative to Microsoft Office, with identical functions.  And once I had it installed, I was impressed.  It did not disappoint.  It opened any old document I threw at it with no complaints.

Lubuntu comes installed with Chromium, the basis for Chrome.  It's open source, but it's virtually identical and works exactly the same.  It too was snappy and responsive, loading web pages as fast if not faster than its XP counterpart.  This was looking promising.

Then I went to YouTube.

Adobe (the makers of the Flash plugin) and Linux have . . . problems.  They are Hatfields and McCoys, Klingons and Romulans, Bronies and . . . everybody else in the civilized world.  They do not play well together.  To this day, it takes an act of God (and WINE) to get Photoshop to run on Linux, and you can just forget Premiere Pro or After Effects.  And Flash?

Any YouTube video resulted in a black rectangle.  Twitch.TV, same result.  Oh, the bloody ads ran, no problem, no complaints.  But anything I wanted to do, that was right out.

This was puzzling, especially since on WinXP all of those sites ran in Chrome on that aging Laptop with nary a complaint.  So I searched for a work-around.

If you go searching the internet for Linux-specific software online, you will notice one (or more) of the following: no download link, a download link for a .deb file, or a list of commands that the website instructs you to punch into your terminal, no problemo.  That is, unless your idea of "install" is "click on the EXE I downloaded."  Then we got a problemo.

One of the work-arounds, Gnash, was listed in the Synaptic Package Manager and installed from there.  I'll say that the Synaptic Manager is not as straight-forward as the Ubuntu Manager, but I fumbled through.  The other two . . . were not.  And this was a problem I encountered repeatedly: 70% of Linux software is in that Package Manager.  30% is not.  And sometimes, you really need something from that 30% . . .

I spent hours typing "sudo apt-get install blah blah blah" over and over and over again, for things big and small.  It's not only an interruption to normal workflow, but completely alien to the modern computer user.  Most people think of command lines as things you see in movies where Jeff Goldblum writes a virus in alien code and saves the world from invasion.  They consider it as much a fairy tale as they do the idea that Jeff Goldblum knows what a computer is, much less has the ability to code.

Were I my father, I would have either given up in frustration, or called my son and made HIM come fix the damn thing.  My girlfriend heard the word "terminal" and thought "airport."  I shudder to think how my neighbors who have not upgraded their machine in five years would react to such an experience.

In the end, Gnash worked the best, by which I mean "enabled YouTube as a jerky slideshow, and Twitch.TV not at all."  Again, being fair, I will attribute this to the age of my system, but I also have to point out that this same system with WinXP had no such problems.

Skype was woefully outdated, sitting at version 4.0.  My Pandora work-around was Pithos, a very nice application that hooked into Pandora without Flash but (again) required delving into the terminal to install it.

Next, I inserted a DVD.  I swear I heard laughter.

Linux is open source, meaning free to all and sundry.  But the underlying software of DVD's is not.  It relies on an encryption method called CSS to prevent you from doing as you see fit with the copy of the movie you own, which (for instance) includes playing that DVD on Linux.  The fact that CSS was hacked to tatters more than half a decade ago does not deter them from their stance.

The built-in GNOME Player obviously didn't work.  I then went with the old reliable standby, VLC.  Remember Mikey, from the Life cereal commercials?  "Let's make Mikey try it . . . hey, he likes it!"  VLC is the media player version of Mikey.  Whatever you have, it'll try it, and like it.  MKV?  MP4?  AVI?  No problem.

I installed VLC (from the Package Manager, thankfully), and retried the DVD.  Then VLC promptly threw up . . . or I assume as much, since the entire screen turned green.

I again turned to Google for a solution; this was an issue with VLC that happens, for various reasons.  I tried every fix I could find, on message boards and forums . . . disabling overlay, switching output to X11, etc, etc.  I tried them all, separately and together.  No good.

I did some more research (hours and hours were being devoured here) and found out that there was a method, buried in the system, that would allow me to install my own CSS key, and the doors to DVD nirvana would be open.  However, I bashed my head around for another hour looking for the library containing the fix (libdvdread3) only to finally uncover that this file was obsolete, and it had been moved to libdvdread4.  Add another 30 minutes to find out it was in a new directory under said library.  

(You are still a duck.)

At long last, it was installed.  I launched the recommended software (mplayer), inserted the DVD, and it played . . . as another 2 frame-per-second slideshow.

At this point, some of you are saying, "Well, why not use Netflix instead?"  And that's a very good question.  After all, Netflix essentially replaces the DVD in many ways with their streaming service, and while they may not have every DVD, they have a bunch.  Except there's one little hitch: Netflix streaming requires something called "Silverlight."  It's kind of like Flash, except it's entirely owned and distributed by Microsoft.  Poor Linux can't play in those reindeer games.

As I turned into a puddle of rage and obscenity, my girlfriend pointed out that I had been poking at this thing for over three days attempting to get it to do what Windows XP did.  She also pointed out that at this junction since my time is valuable and I have a life and obligations, the sensible thing to do was to go back to the thing that worked in the first place and be done with it.

And, alas, she was right.  I re-installed XP SP3, albeit after some research I disabled a number of services in the system I don't use (like dial-up, for example) and streamlined the performance for such old hardware.  That took me about 30 minutes, all told.  It's back up and running, playing all my media, opening all my files, allowing all my streaming video.

So, what's the takeaway from all this?  Well, let me break it down:

The Good:

Ubuntu and Lubuntu are not hard to use.  They're familiar interfaces (with Lubuntu's LXDE moreso than Ubuntu's Unity), both still accessible, intuitive, and functional.  On the proper hardware, they are fast.  Ubuntu in my desktop's virtual machine is more attentive then a West Point Cadet.  The lightweight LXDE is astonishingly quick on the decade-old laptop.

Further, the Lubuntu distro runs on a grand total of 128mb of RAM.  It's gloriously efficient on antique machines.  Libre Office really shined; while not being designed with old tech in mind, it acquitted itself well.  Chromium was also familiar and fast, with no hitches in regular web browsing.

Linux software crashes.  All applications crash.  But Ubuntu and Lubuntu handled those crashes better than any OS I've ever seen.  The crash window explained what happened and why in plain damn English, and tried to re-launch the application to solve it.  How this isn't an industry standard I'll never comprehend.

The Bad:

This applies to Linux in general; stuff specific to my attempt to use this on old hardware I'll consign to "The Ugly."

The presence of a showstopper bug that requires research online to fix is unacceptable.  When I installed Windows XP years ago, it had bugs, driver conflicts, security issues, all sorts of bullshit problems . . . but at least I could install it.  Without research.  I know this bug doesn't affect everyone, but even one in ten would be enough to sour that user on the Linux experience.  And yes, I fixed it with the terminal, but that brings me to the next point . . . 

You cannot avoid the terminal.  Can.  Not.  You'll think you can, but eventually you'll run up against something that needs it.  If you are someone who's never ventured outside of XP (and there are a lot of you kids out there), the idea of the command prompt is archaic and mythical.  On Linux, sooner or later you'll need to run text commands to install something or fix something or even (God forbid) be forced to work with software that requires text configuration.

Techies are already moaning that people should just learn these things, that it will be better for them.  They neglect to recall that they are both already interested in and comfortable with computers, and that their learning took time and effort.  The majority of people are not like this.  They want it to "just work."  Millions of iPhones have been sold, a junky, locked-down under-powered piece of disposable crap that isn't worth the materials it's made from.  For hundreds of dollars a pop.  Why?  "It just works."

That's who you're up against.  These are the people you want to try Linux. These are people who think that Instagram constitutes "photo editing."  And the sad fact is, there are more of them than us.  Do you want to be tech support for them?  Me, either.

So when you recommend a fix by way of another distro, or a command function, or anything more complicated than (at the very most) System Preferences, stop and remember: iPhone.  This is what people not only want, but expect.

The troubles with Flash will slowly become irrelevant, but we're not there yet.  HTML-5 is right around the corner, but at this point that corner's over two years wide and keeps getting wider.  Until then, we cannot get by without Flash.  And until then, Adobe will continue to screw Linux users.  Try the 64-bit version of Flash for Linux.  I triple dog dare you.

The Ugly:

This is stuff specific to my ancient C610 trying to work Linux: media was not going to happen.  Not without more work, more effort, more research.  And people, I did these things.  I even used WINE to run a dodgy bit of Windows software in the hope it would let me watch flash video, but wouldn't even load without crashing.

While Linux was as fast if not faster than the WinXP install it replaced, it was not as functional.  Not out of the box.  Not without work.  Not without research, and time, and effort.  When you compare the two in terms of productivity . . . a one hour install and you're off and running, or three days and you still can't play one DVD.  Which makes more sense?

Conclusions:

I had hoped that Linux had progressed to the point that it would be a viable contender to usurp Windows in the face of the coming Metro Debacle.  I had hoped there would be a new, flexible era of simple, open source computing.

That day may come, but it is not this day.

Linux shines on old hardware . . . for very basic things.  Word processing.  Spreadsheets.  Basic web browsing.  Email.  Photos.  Printing.  The bare bones stuff.  And depending on your distro, it does it fast and it does it while looking damned spiffy.  In general, on any hardware, Ubuntu is usually as simple and painless to install as Windows or OSX.

But techies . . . the terminal cannot be required.  It shouldn't even ever have to appear for vital functions of the OS.  If it all can't be done in a GUI, then the home user and most office users will pass.  Keep a poweruser mode if you like; hell, I encourage it.  It'll make repairs simpler when a user decides to clean their hard drive by deleting all the clutter (namely the system folder).  But there absolutely must - I can't stress that enough, MUST - be a way to go through Linux for regular folks that never, ever involves the invocation of sudo.  All installers need to be GUI-based and web downloadable, above and beyond the package manager.  Until then, the dream remains a fantasy.

I'm hoping the announcement of Steam on Linux might make some in the hardware industry take Linux more seriously, and fix some of the high-end graphics driver issues that pop up due to OEM neglect.  Steam might kick open the door.  If the hardware people follow, then the software people will.  Adobe might even pull their head out of their ass and CS7 might just have a Linux flavor.

But that day is not this day.

(Still a duck.)

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In a wee bit of a talky mood.

Once upon a time in 1999, I was living in a city far from where I was born. I was lonely, and heartsick, and very sad most of the time. I'd had a rough time of it from a very bad breakup, the resulting fallout, and I guess all the silly choices I'd made that had led me there in the first place.

It came to be that the only solace I'd found in this situation emerged from the radio. I don't mean the type of radio you know today, the conglomeration of the same six songs in constant repetition hour after hour. I'm talking about a little community radio station called WMNF, 88.5 in Tampa, FL. They were beholden to no one but the people who chipped in to keep the lights on. And what poured out of that signal was pure fire.

I had whole musical vistas opened to me that I never would have experienced had I not just turned the dial a little further left than usual. So, for my daily commute to and from work, twenty minutes in the morning and twenty at night, I found a little grace, understanding, commiseration and beauty. I heard songs from a heartfelt perspective that told me gently and honestly that I wasn't alone.

I had the Nields, Blue Mountain, Richard Thompson, Lucy Kaplansky, Dar Williams, Richard Shindell, Steve Earle, Ronny Elliott and the Nationals, Jimmy LaFave, Robert Earl Keen . . . so many I can't even remember them all. It was all powerful stuff, and they left their mark on me.

Tonight it was Richard Shindell stirred up in my memory, thinking of those days . . . how desperate I was to escape, to move on. Eventually I did, but I took that music with me. Hardly anybody I know has ever heard of these people, but I like that. Some people have special places to which they'll take those who matter to them; for me, these songs are those special places. So here's one for you guys.

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And here's a more comprehensive way to mitigate Google's privacy policy nonsense:

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