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Archive for February, 2011

What people should know about Linux-based operating systems

February 28, 2011 3 comments

In my last blog entry I talked about buying a new computer, which I got without an operating system and installed Linux Mint on it when I got home. Which got me thinking a lot about the operating systems that run our computers. And my growing passion for GNU/Linux.

About three years ago I started investigating this mysterious thing called “Linux” that I kept hearing about on the internet. I knew, or thought I knew, that it was another kind of computer operating system, an alternative to Windows and Mac OS. I discovered that ‘Linux’ refers to the kernel of the Unix based operating systems officially known as GNU/Linux. In computing, the kernel is the central component of most computer operating systems; it is a bridge between applications and the actual data processing done at the hardware level. The kernel’s responsibilities include managing the system’s resources (the communication between hardware and software components). The Linux kernel was initially conceived and created by Finnish computer science student Linus Torvalds in 1991. The word ‘Linux’ is a combination of ‘Linus’ and ‘Unix’.

But I really don’t want to go into the origins of what we now call Linux, which can get boring pretty quickly for the average computer user. And I don’t understand most of the technical jargon myself. What’s important is that the Linux Kernel is the basis of hundreds of different free and open source operating systems for your computer. (“Open source is a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.” – from the Open Source Initiative website). The open source community is a global, cooperative network of people and corporations whose goal is to provide software and computer operating systems available to anyone at no cost. How cool is that?!

For the previous ten years I’d been a Mac user. I loved my Macs and OS X.¬† I had used Windows a little bit in the past, but found it a bit more difficult and convoluted to use compared to the Mac OS. Then just before I started using Linux, I had a laptop with Windows XP for a few days, and I enjoyed it, since by then I knew a hell of a lot more about using a computer! But I could never understand why anyone would choose to use an operating system that’s susceptible to viruses, trojans, worms, malware and spyware, when you could use an Apple computer, which was not. Except of course for the cost. But there are a lot of people who would argue that a computer that came with lots of great, easy to use software and did not need to be brought in as often for repair or periodic virus removal was worth the somewhat higher relative cost.

Anyway, back to 2008. I started learning about FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) and discovered all kinds of cross-platform software that could run on Windows, Macs and Linux. I got to download and try out GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), a program that is very similar to Adobe Photoshop, but doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars. And Open Office, the free alternative to Microsoft Office. And Inkscape, a free vector graphics application very similar to Adobe Illustrator, and many other free and open source versions of popular software. I was getting hooked!

And around this time I was hearing more and more about Ubuntu (the most popular Linux distribution/operating system) on the internet. Linux distros have been around for a long time. There was Slackware, Arch Linux, OpenSuse, CentOS, Gentoo, Yellow Dog, Fedora, Mandrake (which is now Mandriva) and Debian, to name a few. But Linux mostly had a reputation of being accessible only to geeks; that only hard-core technical nerds used or understood it. And for many years I think that was true! But then in 2004 along came Ubuntu, a distro that was based on the venerable Debian Linux, but which aimed to create an operating system that was geared toward the average home computer user. Again, I won’t bore you with more history. But since I started using Ubuntu in September of 2008, the improvements for each version, which has a release cycle of every six months, has been amazing! As has the development of the other major Linux distros and their offshoots. The aim of Mark Shuttleworth, the father of Ubuntu, has been to make it comparable to the Mac OS in ease of use and visual attractiveness, and I think they’re just about there. And the fact that there are no viruses that affect Linux makes it even more attractive. In thirteen years I’ve never owned a computer that got any type of virus, nor have I ever used any ‘virus protection’ software.

In the past few weeks I’ve talked to a several friends who use Windows on their computers, or bought new netbooks, and I hear the same story. Strange behavior, unintelligible text appearing on their screens, or something (they’re not sure what) automatically downloading that slows their machine to a crawl and other weird behavior. And every few months their computers become so unresponsive that they need to take it to a computer shop and pay a hefty sum of money to have viruses and malware removed. And I can’t help but wonder: why?

The major reason I decided to write this is just to spread the word that there is an alternative! There are many alternatives! And not just by paying a lot of money for an Apple computer. If you can afford a Mac, great! They’re beautiful and everything pretty much ‘just works’. But even though I’m fond of Macs (we still have our nine-year old G-4 Mac that works quite well) I’ve come to see the tremendous benefit of open source software. A Linux distro is extremely configurable to fit the users needs and taste. Much more so than a closed source OS like Windows or Mac. Hence the proliferation and variety of Linux distros. Anyone with the know-how can improve upon a distro or go off in new and innovative directions. And bugs can be reported and fixed much faster when you have a world-wide community of developers who all have access to the source code, and the ability to review the work of others.

I believe the reason for the general lack of awareness about Linux is:

A) Microsoft has done such a good job for such a long time at building their monopoly. They’ve simply spent an insane amount of money buying off the computer manufacturers and retailers to sell machines with Windows pre-installed; to the point where the general populace has been conditioned to equate ‘Computer’ with ‘Windows’. (Though Apple is certainly making a headway at changing that over the past few years.)

And B) You’ve never seen a commercial for a Linux-based operating system. Although Ubuntu may change that in the near future. But with Linux, there’s not One Brand. Or a single company behind it. There are many, and a huge variety of choices in operating systems that is growing all the time. (Just check THIS out to get an idea. And look at the list on the lower right of the page.) Linux developers spend their resources on improving their software. Free and Open Source means they don’t have millions to spend on commercials! Yet.

Which leads me back to Linux Mint. Mint is an offshoot of Ubuntu which I started using about a year and a half ago. Though it’s based on Ubuntu, the Mint developers have gone off in many different ways and made it a truly unique and separate entity. And in my experience everything ‘just works’ out of the box. Because of that, Linux Mint has become my favorite distro out of several that I really love, and the Linux OS I would recommend to any novice to try out. I’ve talked a lot about using Linux Live CDs here before. One of the neat things about Linux is the ability to download, burn to CD or DVD, and boot your computer from the removable disk (or portable USB device) to become acquainted with any Linux distro before installing it to your hard drive, or a separate partition on your hard drive so you can dual-boot along with Windows. And from there the adventure just begins!

So it’s time to get down from my soap box! I hope I didn’t bore the crap out of some of you. And if you remember nothing else from my rantings, please remember this folks:

Linux is not just for geeks.

You have a choice of what operating system you run your computer with.

Learning new things is fun!

Next Up: My other new favorite Linux distro: Bodhi Linux

Categories: Computers, Linux Tags: , ,

Buying a new computer

February 20, 2011 1 comment

Last week our tax return came in and I got my long-awaited chance to buy a new computer!

Not that there’s anything wrong with our old desktop computer. The old Black Box has been great. About two and a half years ago my friend Michael instructed me in putting it together. He’s the IT Guy/Computer Administrator at a private school in Western New York, and he had tons of computer components lying around that were no longer being used since their students switched to laptops. So I got to make a computer from used parts that cost me nothing. That was also my first experience installing and using a Linux operating system (Ubuntu 8.04) and the beginning of a wonderful learning adventure. The only thing I’ve had to do is replace a $12.00 fan. But lately I’ve been thinking that a newer (faster) processor might come in handy for certain things. And since the components of the old Black Box are 7 or even 8 years old, it seemed like time for an upgrade. Plus there’s a funny noise I think is caused by a screw on the panel that I can no longer tighten. And I just remembered that the CD burner just started having problems.

I started looking around the internet for different options. Stores like Staples and Office Max had pre-configured systems that sounded good for about $530 to $600. But after reading different computer forums and reviews, it seemed that some components on pre-made computers in my price range may not be the best quality. For example: the HP computer I was considering only came with a 250 watt power supply, while the consensus of on-line reviewers suggested you should have at least a 400 watt power supply. I’m not much into heavy-duty gaming, but if you want to plug-in numerous USB devices like printers, scanners, camcorders and such, more power would definitely come in handy. Also there’s the system bus and L2 cache size to consider and many other things that I won’t bore you with here.

Then I began thinking it might make more sense to go to a computer store where I could have them put together a system with the components I wanted, and where they only sell and service computers (as opposed to the big stores like Staples or Best Buy that sell everything under the sun). And by going to a store that will build what you want I could get a computer without an operating system (Windows) pre-installed, thus saving about $130 right off the bat! I’m still nervous about buying all the parts and putting them together myself (without a lot of assistance from Michael!) so this seemed like the best alternative. I checked out the website of Soyata Computers in Rochester, where you could mix and match components on-line. The cost for what I wanted still came out to be least $600.

Then I remembered the Batavia Computer Center, which is closer to where we live. I stopped in last week just to get an idea what I could put together and at what price. And the people there were great! They first asked me what I wanted to do with the computer. I initially told them I had about $600 to spend, but when I told them what I wanted, the owner said I didn’t need to spend nearly that much. I was thinking of getting 6 GB of memory, but they said unless you’re doing coding or heavy-duty graphics rendering you really would never come close to using more than 4 GB. And that makes sense. We’re just so conditioned to thinking more RAM is better, because RAM has been cheap for a while. I’ve never really used more than about 1.7 GB myself. And I had been thinking about getting a more expensive graphics card, but again, unless you want to play intensive 3-D games, there’s no need for it.

After going over the options I ended up getting a system with an MSI motherboard, an Athlon II duo core processor (much faster than my older Athlon processor), 4 GB of DDR 3 RAM, a 2 Terabyte hard drive, a 700 watt power supply and a lovely CD/DVD burner. And of course, no operating system. They put it together in a nice black metal case (none of that shiny plastic) in about twenty minutes. And it all came to $410, including tax!

When I brought the new Black Box home I installed Linux Mint on it and transferred our old files from the back-up hard drive. I could not be happier! The new processor is considerably faster than the old one. Ripping copies of our DVDs is much quicker. Even launching apps, web page loading; everything is faster. And I can now watch full screen video on Youtube or Hulu without any glichiness! Life is good. And it’s a nice feeling to have bought the computer from a family owned local business. They’ve been there for quite a while, and likely will be for a long time. It’s nice to know there’s a place close by to take it if it ever does need repair. And I had fun talking with the guys at the store about Linux and other computer stuff.

Next Post: The Return of the Linux Evangelist!

Categories: Computers, Linux Tags:

The loss of a pet

First of all, I’m astonished that over two weeks have gone by since I made my last post. It feels like it was last week! But I suppose the good thing about time seeming to fly by is that at this rate, spring will be here before I know it! And am I ever looking forward to SPRING!


Last week was very sad and traumatic around the Burke household. Last Saturday night our cat Merlin went a bit crazy and started to attack our dog Max, who is very gentle and whom Merlin has had a perfectly fine relationship with for several years. A similar incident occurred about three weeks ago. Everyone was in the living room, and all of a sudden Merlin just went nuts and started attacking everyone, not just the dog. Stephanie tried grabbing him because it seemed he was going to hurt the kids and she got a couple of nasty bites. The cat just seemed to be terrified of everyone, even our other cat Vivian. But Stephanie got him into the bathroom and he calmed down after maybe half an hour. We had no idea what set him off. It was incredibly strange. I took him to the vet and they kept him for a few days, but could find nothing wrong with him. No rabies, not even a temperature.

So last Saturday when the same thing began to happen again in the living room, the kids and Stephanie immediately ran into another room and I grabbed a blanket and threw it over Merlin. Of course this didn’t help Merlin much, but when everyone had retreated upstairs with Max I released him. He shot away and went under the kitchen table, screeching like a wild beast. And for the next hour and a half¬† I tried in vain to get him into the laundry/cat room. I tried luring him with food and a soothing voice, but nothing worked. He ended up under the computer desk. I put the cat carrier near him, but he’d have nothing of it (unlike last time). And whenever I would enter the room or approach him at all, he made the most horrific sounds I’ve ever heard. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that afraid of an animal in all my life! The gentle, chubby kitty that would lay next to me on the couch at night had become some kind of insane demon.

He finally left the computer room and ended up back in the living room, sitting on the window ledge, hissing and growling whenever I approached. I decided to leave him in the window and we all went to bed. In the middle of the night he went through the cat door to use the litter box. We had it set so it wouldn’t open from the inside, and there he stayed until morning. He was more like his usual self, but Stephanie went in to feed him and said he still seemed a little odd. And he growled a bit whenever he heard Max walk by outside the door.

So Steph got him in the cat carrier and I took him over to our vets office once again for observation. But there was no doubt in my mind, or Stephanie’s, that Merlin could not be allowed back in our home.

The next day they checked him out again and could find no outward signs of illness. Back in October Merlin had somehow slipped out the back door while someone let Max out, and we didn’t know he was gone until morning. After much searching and talking with neighbors, he finally returned about eleven o’clock that night after I’d put his bed out on the front porch. He had seemed to be in pretty good shape considering he’d never been outside before. Although he hadn’t been hungry when he came back home, which seemed odd at the time.

So we’ll never know what was really going on with Merlin (or ‘Mermer’, as Arthur called him when they were both very young). Out vet and I had a theory that he may have developed a brain tumor that caused his bizarre behavior. Or maybe he somehow ate something during his ‘great adventure’ last Fall that did something weird to him. Or something else happened, maybe some traumatic encounter with a dog? …Who knows?

But after going over all the options we could think of, we had no choice but to have Mermer put to sleep last Monday. I brought him home and we buried him next to our dog Tessa, who died in November. They were best buddies.

So in three months we’ve gone from four pets to two! Arthur was especially upset over losing his friend. And even now, when I lay on the couch to watch ‘Fringe’ on Friday night, I still expect Mermer to jump up and snuggle down on the blanket next to me. Or to see him sprawled on the kitchen floor in the morning, licking himself, yapping for his breakfast.

Good-bye Mermer.

Categories: Animals

Philosophical Musings in the early morning hours

Well, it’s happened again. I was sleeping quite comfortably snug in my warm bed, while outside it was 10 degrees and snow is falling. I was dreaming something pleasant and vaguely interesting, but already I’ve forgotten it. Anyway, it was just so wonderful to be sleeping soundly, after having a miserable fever for the past three days. And then, sometime around 5 AM, I slowly drifted up from slumber, basking in my contentment and warmth, and my brain Awoke. Thoughts started flowing so effortlessly through it, (into it, from it?) that I just lay there in my cocoon and listened to all the things my thoughts had to say.

It is a profoundly pleasant feeling when the brain first ‘awakens’, to just lay back and let this mesmerizing human consciousness do its thing, relatively unhindered by the constraints of the everyday rational robot-brain. If only I could automatically record those thoughts as they follow their course. They are so easy, articulate, insightful; so unashamed of where they come from and unafraid of where they will go. I know they’re my thoughts, but I’m also just delighted to listen to what they have to say. And I never know what they will say or where they will take me.

Of course once my body is awake enough to realize this is some pretty profound and marvelous stuff, and I drag myself from bed and come down and awaken the computer (oh crap, there’s some new e-mails, should I look at them now? What’s the weather forecast?!) and open a word processor, or in my case this blog, that precious uncensored flow of thought is already a thing of the past. Damn, that was a long sentence, too! So, a couple of things this teaches us (me) are that thinking is relatively easy when we’re not distracted. Of course, our modern world is purposefully designed to be one BIG distraction. And the reasons for that are the stuff of contemplation at another time. And; one thought leads to another and another. I just need to start somewhere.

I just realized it’s been about one year since I started writing this blog. Wow! I need to go back and check that first post out again. But I think the main reason was just to make myself write; something; anything, just to see where I would go. And what my mind was naturally interested in writing about. And as I look back, a lot of what I write about here is pretty mundane shit! A lot about entertainment; TV shows, movies, sometimes books (Oh! I’ve got a great one I just started reading. I’ll have to tell you about it later!), computers. Not that there’s anything wrong with entertainment, or computers! But man, it’s so easy to fall back on watching other people’s thoughts and stories! To marvel at the creativity of others (if we’re lucky). It’s definitely easier to consume than to create. But we are all creative beings. If you can relax for a while, if you can quiet the mind, your consciousness is full of amazing shit!! God, The Universe and Everything! I mean, how often do we stop and think about how literally awesome the human brain is? There’s nothing like it that we know of. And how weird would it be if we are the only ones who can know how awesome it is?! I hope that’s not the case. But I’m digressing.

We have these incredible brains that are capable of who really knows what, yet we spend most of our precious time on this Earth watching ‘Reality’ TV, or worrying about what we don’t have and how we can get it, or being afraid, and on and on. I know, I know, I’m just ranting now. This post has pretty much diverged from what I first intended. But I know I waste too much of my precious time on things that aren’t so important. Hell, we’re only alive until we’re not! I need to create more. Do more art. More writing.

And I had a bunch of great ideas about writing in those wee hours this morning, but now it’s already 8 o’clock! And some of those ideas came from the TV show ‘Fringe‘. How ironic! But I guess everything has its purpose; everything feeds the brain, if we can just be a little selective, for God’s sake! I think I need to stop now.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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