Sunday, February 2, 2014

On the Road to *NIX—Prt. 1

                   I write this from my personal experience for those of you who are sick of the commercial rat race, but who still want a nice behaving computer to do with whatever. For us old folks computing is a great past time especially in a bad winter, and it does not have to be expensive. The Internet,—who says nothing ever changes?—, is everyman's resource for the curiosity created by idleness. (If you are in walking distance of a public library, that is good too.) Sore teeth and bones may keep you awake to all hours. The inevitable commercials and bad news on the TV may get impossible to put up with. Maybe you want your computer alive and humming away decently in the corner 24/7, a good citizen. Maybe you are sick of dealing with the security problems that afflict Microsoft products, and the machines that run OS X are just too outrageously expensive. These are some of the ways I have found to get by.


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My first computer was a refurbished G3.

Abiword running on Debian Mint Openbox
       It was a machine for writers. The battery was good for five plus hours, so you could go out under a shade tree or in a shed in the back forty and write while taking a gander at nature. This was back in the day when most computer batteries lasted a lucky two hours max. OS X had nice kerning, Apple did a lot of work on that, so the writer's eye was not badly offended, as in many other operating systems, by the text he was studying. And the design and overall appearance were quaint to say the least. Carrying one of them around said something about you. It was white. It showed a little genius. I have it still, and it still runs fine.
    For a long time I ran Tiger on it. I remember Tiger as being very stable and trouble free. At first it ran fine on 500mb of RAM.  It was perfect to carry around and bat out a sentence if a free few minutes should come up, or catch a snippet of dialogue from the shop during lunch, or analyze the buzz or tuck away a photo from the new digital camera. Remember those simple days? Maybe I'll load it up with FreeBSD one day soon. I'll run screen and pyroom on it. It should run fine. If I like it maybe I'll even splurge on a new battery. I might be able to run Elinks or Dillo, which are not memory hogs.
    But then as the several years passed from 2002 to 2006, there was a big explosion in Internet browsers. They needed a lot more than 500mb of RAM. Whether Safari or Firefox they locked up my G3 or they crashed. On a good day, if I was lucky, there might be a long wait. Then I was down to old WWW if I was going to get any Internet at all. In those days Apple was not as willing to run X on its machines as it is now. There were operating systems out there, I knew, that were a lot more efficient in utilization of CPU and memory than Tiger, or any of the other commercial distros, such as XP or Vista, but they only worked in X. I used to hang out at the Apple Store with stars in my eyes, and I'm not kidding, but new machines cost too much. Even Jobs' original genius was not worth $2000. But I needed something to write on. Even $500 was too much; then $200 was too much. But I needed a computer. The broken down yard sale Selectric was not working for me anymore, nor was the G3. On the G3 I got the hang of Emacs. In Tiger it was called Aquamacs. Aquamacs has never worked in any distro since the way it used to work in Tiger. The next logical move was toward Linux.
     One day my heart in my throat I loaded Debian Lenny on my G3. I didn't have much choice which distro I'd install because G3s come with an unusual, though well thought of, CPU called PowerPC. Debian and Ubuntu had a branch that worked with this CPU. I chose Debian because there was a version of Lenny with XFCE. There was no room on my 15G hard drive to keep Tiger. For two years Lenny worked great; Elinks worked great. There was a learning curve. My Mutt window had an outer space background and Nano, a very simple and lightweight app, was the standard text editor. Then I had Pyroom and Abiword to write on. Emacs has always worked without a hitch on Debian. This is not true in some of the other distros. Granted, it was a bit tricky mounting and unmounting snap drives for back up. Eventually I became fond of CD RW's and floppy disks and I still am to this day as the best way to get a back up. Believe it or not, when I booted up Lenny on the G3, top showed I was using only 50mb of RAM! Only later did XFCE become a RAM hog. My ancient G3, a little gem, was too pretty to let go. I often thought of perching it on the edge of my desk and slowly swinging my elbow...
      But this was before blogging. Blogging changed the game. I had to get a browser, probably Chrome or Firefox. At first I installed Debian without a desktop, just a window manager, Ratpoison. I manipulated files in terminal, a better system than you might imagine. But no matter what I did, there was not enough RAM to run a Flash based browser. Even ubergeeks who run Elinks and Mutt in Emacs hang onto Firefox, though they sometimes won't admit it. Over the years I have found Firefox to be usually the most up-to-date and secure. Right now the FreeBSD system I am writing this on is running on 75mb of RAM! That is with Screen open and top and mail running in that, along with terminal waiting anything I might think of to do, and Elinks is launched, Emacs, Xclipboard, gv has a pdf open, and everything else is dealing with other files. Launch Firefox and if I am doing any work on it, I am suddenly using 500mb of RAM! Modern browsers do not play nice; they make it so you have to keep up, even if that ten years old machine is still running snappy. Alternatives like Dillo and UZBL are poor substitutes, and Opera is only okay.
     In my experience even the best new machines seem to run painfully slowly. Most people don't notice how slow their machines are. They may have 16G of RAM and a quad-core, and yet their machines hurt to work on they are so slow. I don't see how anyone can help but be irritated. I spend hour after hour writing on my machine, and any irritation or instability bothers me. I remember at one point working on OpenOffice. After a few days it became more than I could handle. It was so slow.
    Cheap fans are another botheration. I like to be reminded of the racket the early programmers worked in but not that much. When you go to build your PC it is wise to spend some time on fans, perhaps quite a bit of time on fans. Some of them make no sound at all. Others make a racket. Some will last almost forever; others conk out after a few years. Some will light up various psychedelic colors, which has amused me at various times in my brilliant career. Some are a couple of dollars, others are twenty dollars or more. A motherboard will cease to boot the system installed on it if one of the fans plugged into it is beginning to fail. Then people like me get good used serviceable "dead" motherboards to collect and sell on Ebay. It was only a dying fan or a heat sink plugged by dust. I have yet to see a blown cap. Most of the manufacturers use solids. What will go in your computer is anything attached to the motherboard that has moving parts in it, and that will put an end to the fun. Nowadays any board you buy has overheat protection. If it is enabled in the bios—why wouldn't it be?—and the CPU gets too hot then the bios will shut down the computer. It is fun to investigate fans. You want them to be quiet and last long, but you also want them to push some air. Obviously a fan that doesn't push much air will be silent and last long. It is worth while to spend a few extra dollars on fans.
      Disk drives, whether solid state or no, also tend to have a shorter life. They are intimately connected to power supply, CPU and motherboard. If all other members of the family are behaving, a disk drive should last a long time. Some disk drives are better than others. When I recently installed a system for myself I had two disk drives to use; one was a Seagate Ultra, an IDE drive I came across four years ago, the other was a new no name SCSI (SATA) drive. I eventually decided on the new SATA drive because it was 500G and the old Seagate was 175G. My decision had nothing to do with future reliability. I also have a 65G Kingston SSD that I bought used on Ebay I can't remember how many years ago. I have never had to put up with a disk drive failure. Still I am careful to be prepared at all times, especially when employing SSD's and snap drives, which die completely dead forever, and can't be revived no way. Anybody who uses a computer for any length of time will have files that are precious. It is a hard drop to the heart to lose anything. If ever you have an extra dollar, invest in good disk drives. Mirroring RAID systems are nice, too. Even famous programmers backup on the Internet, so that is a way to go. But I distrust the Internet and I take care of my own files on the theory that nobody will do a better job than myself.
      So you have picked the local dump for parts. The Internet is full of stories where penny pinching geeks have found IBM servers in a dumpster near work. Or somebody had an old Optiplex in a corner of the garage and if you gave $20 for it, maybe they might part with it, though no guarantee if it will work. Your nearby computer repair shop is a good place to dig up parts. Result: an inexpensive and useful pastime.
     Much more to say about hardware but now it is time to think a little about software. Stay tuned.

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