Jul 142018

Old hardware can be fun to keep going, especially when one of the branded and expensive operating systems stops support on otherwise very good hardware. For a few friends I have installed Xubuntu 16.04 LTS and act as support and tutor. Recently I picked up a discarded 2004 Toshiba and gave it a try. Well, I think there is a limit to how old a laptop or computer I want to do much work with.

For my friends I suggest they do what I do, hence the Xubuntu installs. This way I can also answer some questions on very short notice and perform rescue if there is a glitch or mistake or a badly needed update. I know the menu and main applications and I can look up others in the repository. These people have acquired a decent machine or even buy one, maybe on sale or re-furbished. My current preference is for a 64-bit, 4GB ram and any hard drive that is newer, these are now measured in 100’s of GB’s. The 2004 Toshiba had a 60 GB hard drive and that was enough for installation in 32-bit, but there were other problems.

The old 2004 machine, excellent in its day, was very limited: only one available slot for ram and an early Celeron(tm) processor, not even a Celeron M(tm). Processors are constantly improved and every decade make a leap of 2^5th, if they double in speed every two years, and therefore allow increase demands from the applications. The 2004 could not do multi-threading and was limited to the 32-bit and single core, single thread processing. As a tool it was limited everywhere one would expect increased ability. The Peppermint 8 OS was maybe not the best choice – it is geared toward Internet connectivity and processing which demanded too much from the bus and processor. The games, for instance, were opened by the ICE-SSB links. The “ICE” name for the launcher is the Peppermint nod to an earlier nickname of their OS. It uses the launcher to open a “single site browser,” that is Chromium locked to a single site and without toolbars.  This technique is used elsewhere for Internet test centers an other kiosk-like controls on the user to focus on only allowed activities. For example on a test of scientific knowledge taken via the web, the browser locks me on the test and I cannot access an encyclopedia to find the answers. Unless I also have a cellphone in my hands, too. The effect of the added overhead on the processor of browser plus controls was too much for the 32-bit processor and ram. Locally installed games worked much better, as one would expect. Typically I could play Solitaire and watch the sensors [‘watch -n 10 sensors’] and see the machine cool down. It heated up when browsing and shut down once when I was not paying attention to the heat. Clearly I was asking too much of this old device.  I have assigned this old machine to re-cycling; taking a few choice working sub-assemblies out for use in newer machines I can get to function reliably.

I have the “Net Install” version of Debian on disk and will be using it on 32-bit machines. The Ubuntu threat to cease 32-bit support makes sense for any really workhorse machine; 64-bit, multi-core, multi-threading and larger ram are expected for Internet and visual applications. Still I know that the 32-bit machine with enough ram and bus speed can adequately do most of what I commonly use my computer to do. Currently I have a Dell from 2005 which has the CeleronM(tm) processor and 2 GB ram and it seems to run much better with the Peppermint OS or the Debian 9, Stretch. I am using the Debian Stretch to see just how well it will work and so far it does well, handling local and network access creditably. It will do as a demonstration machine to bring to meetings, though a bit heavy when compared to current portables. And, alas, the optical drive is noisy, but working for now. Unless I find a replacement that is not quite so worn out I won’t use it for audio disks. All in all it shows that 32-bit is sufficient when given enough ram and is used for the basic tasks of e-mail and Internet browsing and running applications made for the installed OS. It can certainly do as a standby machine to access e-mail if I’m doing repairs for myself or someone else. We have become so accustomed to being connected it seems a necessity.

While experimenting with Peppermint I discovered Quod Libet, a music player with built-in browser and accumulator of Internet streaming audio. This ran well on all the machines tested, even the 2004 Toshiba. I have re-discovered the fun and the frustrations of streaming radio as it exists outside of the services that include an algorithm to play what it thinks I want to hear. You know the ones, you join and put in an artist or song and voilà, hours of homogenized music. Instead, the streams collected by Quod Libet seem to be independent radio stations around the world, always interesting, sometimes almost randomly playing music so disparate as to jar the ear. It is some fun to listen for a while to New South Wales, Australia or Paris, France and get a take on pop and hip hop I might otherwise never imagine. The browser claims over three thousand stations, though I suspect some duplication, still, many more than I can get via fm radio in Santa Fe, NM, USA.

Jul 012018

Getting Started with a Gnu/Linux Installation:

This is an outline and report of recent experiences with installation of a GNU/Linux system on a laptop. The steps would be the same for any computer, but most of the NMGLUG group are now using and bringing laptops to meetings.
1) Get a disk or usb with an installation ISO; there are many choices. In NMGLUG we have had Debian Stretch 9.4, Ubuntu 18.0, Xubuntu 16.04LTS and Peppermint 8 as recent installs. All of these were downloaded on a working computer and copied as ISO images to a flash drive or DVD.
2) Insert and boot from the ISO media and do the install, choosing partitioning and encryption or no encryption. If in doulbt accept the default partitioning. Installation from the ISO is just the start for the process, but in our several cases installation worked. A restart and login are required to do a little testing of keyboard and some applications. This helps the user get a feel for the menus and any gaps in the hardware drivers. For the Ubuntu 16.04LTS and Debian 9.4 we needed to use a usb wireless dongle with a free driver to download the necessary proprietary driver for the built-in Broadcom wireless card. The Peppermint 8 install on a 2004 laptop ran slow and needed removal of the ‘apt-xapian-index’ application which was monopolizing cpu cycles. Further issues arose with the Celeron processor in this older machine, which seems unable to keep up with the needed work, despite a rating of 2.8 GHz.
3) Get the Updates to bring in any improvements in the basic software: This can be done via Update Manager, Synaptic Package Manager, “Software Center” or the commandline. Ubuntu does not include Synaptic, so the easiest is to open the Updater and select “Check for Updates” or in the “Software” application open and wait while it tallies the software and looks for updates, then look for the “Updates” tab and install them. In Synaptic there is a “check for updates” button and then the “Apply” button, once the updates have been loaded. The retrieval of the updates may take two to five minutes and may be anywhere from 200MB to 600MB in size depending on the age of the installation media and the number of updates and rewrites from the software maintainers. Then reboot and put the machine to use for a few basic functions. The browser should work, and office suite and photo display will work. DVD’s won’t play and some music files may need additional codecs. Some codecs are proprietary and while free of cost, are not truly free for source code or sharing. But there are solutions so that DVD’s and MP3’s will play on any current installation, as long as the hardware is capable. (I cannot recommend using a laptop as old as 2004, unless you want constant problems.)
4) Tweak or “tune” the system: Pepermint 8 required removal of the “apt-indexer”, as above, and removal of Samba as a potential problem. I added: sox, lame, fancontrol, vim, vim-runtime, gnome-games, aisleriot and stellarium. I removed the SSB links for games and Gmail. The SSB is “Single Site Browsing” which usese a locked browser to go to one site only and hides all other browser functions. The default browser was a problem for the Celeron CPU/GPU, so I added the elinks browser. The elinks browser works readily in a terminal, thus cutting down on the load for the gpu. Perhaps a graphics problem with the Radeon builtin gpu? The users of the Ubuntu 18.0 and Xubuntu 16.04 will undoubtedly add and remove some different items. Newer machines may not even require removals as hard drives are larger than the 60 GB drive in the old laptop.
As a part of tuning, I take a look at the settings for the automatic updater, usually I want a weekly notification to update. In a newer edition like Ubuntu 18.0 a two-day update cycle might be good for a few weeks, as the software is improved by the developers in the early release period. Set the Update interval so it does not interfere too often with actual use of the machine.
There are enough applications to allow anyone to select the ones suited to one’s areas of interest. Many Gnu/Linux applications are adapted to user modification and adjustment so you can install and then fine tune the application to make it work the way you would like. I found adjusting the Terminal color scheme improved the readability of elinks, for example.
5) Testing and use: Experience with the older laptop and Peppermint and Debian revealed a good enough wireless and audio setup which allowed streaming radio from the Internet via QuodLibet and slow video on YouTube. The latter was not a surprise, but the ability to play a standard DVD adequately was a nice bonus. The SSB/online games we balky and thus removed, the installed games run well if not added to other simultaneous tasks. So there is some reason not to rely on an older processor and motherboard if you can help it. The Peppermint team is focused on having the Internet be the source for applications and storage – not a good approach for my hardware, but I will keep testing for a while. A second hard drive with Debian 9.4 for the older laptop runs a bit better, but still has the slowness in browsing.
6) Do Something! Once the operating system is loaded, updated, tested and tuned it is time to do some work or play. So use the applications, look at all the settings in the display and functions. Pick colors and icons that are convenient and suit your taste. Explore the menu “tree” so you know where to locate settings and applications.

I know GNU/Linux on a computer lets me get to the work and play I want in my computing experience. I think it will do that for you as well. Thank you, Ted P.

May 152018

Hard or Easy; Keeping up with Progress or “What are you going to do?”

There are several styles of computer use: the home and basic Internet user, the DIY hobbyist, the specialist looking for a better tool, the professional dependent on IT for productivity, the network professional, the programmer/developer and the scientific and mathematical specialist in computer science. One can place himself/herself into one of these categories and decide how much energy one expends to get done what is wanted.

The home user is geared to applications that click and work. Now tutored by smartphones, we expect things to just work and update automatically and if not working, just buy the new phone that does work. In GNU/Linux computing buying one’s way out is not really necessary. Why buy new when an upgrade will nicely improve the suite of applications that most people use? Ubuntu fits this user pretty well. Long term support for five years and a guarantee that if the application comes from the repository it will work and not break the system or other applications. The alert user will be aware of update cycles and support. One extra consideration at present is the state of CPU architecture: the 64-bit multiple core processors are going to be more widely supported than the previous 32-bit single core types, at least for Ubuntu. Debian is still working on all architectures. Both are easy to install and update. But they are not the same, so one should think about the level of support to be found in person and via Internet.

The DIY hobbyist is dedicated to a certain kind of work: photography, art, blogging, communication, sales via Internet, etc. He or she has a focused goal and has found a computing solution that works. Sometimes that is available via the GNU/Linux distribution, hereafter ‘distro’, or through a third party cooperating program. In Ubuntu there are ppa’s, “Personal Package Archives” and third party repositories. Ubuntu cooperates with these in the update process. See “UbuntuUpdates.org” for more information. The list is long, but not endless. You should note that though the packages are labelled “.deb” they are not part of the Debian OS. So far, so good if Ubuntu and your particular third party are still in cooperation when a new upgrade of Ubuntu is released. If not, then there is a very good chance of a broken system. Why? Dependencies.

Linux programming has been based on linking smaller programs already built to do bigger jobs or create new methods of solving a problem. This also follows in Distro: applications make use of existing parts of the system and save time, space and work by using these common parts. These are called dependencies. So if you install an application and look at the process it may say, “depends:” and list a variety of ‘lib_this&that’ items you have no idea were involved. In Ubuntu an example would be installing a KDE application on a Gnome desktop. The libs for each are quite different, as each team worked to coordinate the basics in a different way, so the first KDE application you grab will bring in a group of dependency libs. The libs are called “lib_someTask” these parts of the system make it work better and faster. They work as coordinated teams of linking parts. Except when they are removed as no longer necessary or have been replaced with a total rewrite with a different name. This happens over time as hardware and programmers improve how the computer works.

The Specialist user has gone above the Distro to seek out that very special and useful program not necessarily part of the Distro system. So he/she has either built the new application from source code, or found a set of intermediate libs or equivalent to make an “alien” program run with the Distro. Building an application means compiling from source, which guarantees compatibility with the kernel and hardware. That’s what compiling is about, building an application on the given machine. If you work at this level you accept the workload of compiling and testing till it works. There is also WINE, the non-emulator that offers the equivalent of the libs needed by a certain other software stream. Of course there is also the option of virtualization for running a totally foreign OS on a GNU/Linux machine. There are other ways to find and incorporate the specialist applications by searching the Internet and getting advice from others. Going outside the Distro obligates the specialist user to keep up with how many external sources are used and whether dependencies are met. Upgrading in this condition is not easy as your Distro may alter dependencies and create a new ones. If your third party items match, then all works, if not it’s back to the Internet to see what others are doing. One solution might be to freeze the system at a working point and not upgrade. Off the Internet and with updating turned off this will work, but you are on your own, without one central place to find a solution should something fail.

Network and programming professionals make many more sophisticated decisions on hardware and software on a daily basis. The basic operating system that best suits is just the beginning of their work. The Internet is built on Linux servers, so the choice there is obvious. Programming can be done in any computing environment, but some are better than others. This may explain the use of Linux systems in CGI and the inclusion of the Bash shell in certain commercial/proprietary systems. For those new to GNU/Linux the Bash shell gives a way in to learn about the next level of computing. Also called “the command line,” the text only way of getting work done can be really efficient and helps the user get a feel for how the computer takes input to make output.

The mathematical and scientific users need no help from these notes. They have studied the intricacies of the hardware/software interface, can think in abstract and effective processes to get the electrons to do the necessary computational work to make multiple events flow in nanoseconds, doing vast calculations, gathering, analyzing or distributing data. Getting the fastest processors and the most efficient hardware systems to advance science is a combination of budget for hardware and improvement in computational circuits. The computer is a tool which can handle great volumes of repeated tasks for the user. The nuanced task of choosing which tasks to automate and how to do that is up to us humans.

So, “What do you want to do and how hard do you want to work at it?” Those are the questions to ask yourself. If it’s e-mail and browser with some video, photography or audio work you can have a really full experience with Debian or Ubuntu. I choose Ubuntu as the Internet support and information is copious and the presence of third party applications is sometimes desirable. Debian has more hardware support, is totally community based and is most of what makes Ubuntu anyway. [In a future post I may address the most obvious user difference between them: root vs. sudo for administration.]

Debian and Ubuntu provide fully graphical interfaces. Installation is still a bit easier for Ubuntu, but the difference is small. Either way, a choice must be made, because they are not interchangeable. I believe the variety in the appearance of the desktop is a benefit available in either one, and that GNU/Linux offers the user the best computing experience and customization. Will it work for you? I think so, given the continuum of GNU/Linux users.

Apr 162018

NMGLUG is meeting at The New Baking Company on Cordova Road. They have re-opened in the same location as before. We are informal,  but try to assemble by 5:30 P.M. so that we have some time before 7 P.M. closing to tutor or do an installation or upgrade. There is WiFi at the Baking Company. They have remodeled, so it is cleaner and brighter. There is no longer a public computer and the WiFi is managed by another party, as the new ownership found that more convenient for them. We can assist with logging in as the process is a little murky.

Recent club work has included some up-grades and installs, at meetings and at other times. Members can be available sometimes for help at other hours. There is a growing number of non-club members using mostly Ubuntu variants now. We have helped them to  install and use Free Software as an alternative to other computer operating systems. Of course, Linux and Debian based systems can support, and keep current, a variety of older hardware. Please contact us if you need some help for your computing upgrade to Free Software, as in license and at no cost, and a community of support spanning the globe!

Aug 222016

Only a few days left to pledge support and pre-order!!


The Earth-friendly EOMA68 Computing Devices project is a crowdfunding campaign run on Crowd Supply to produce a line of hardware products that are ecologically responsible, and built based on royalty-free, unencumbered hardware standards.

They write:

“Now imagine if you owned a computing device that you could easily fix yourself and inexpensively upgrade as needed. So, instead of having to shell out for a completely new computer, you could simply spend around US$50 to upgrade — which, by the way, you could easily do in SECONDS, by pushing a button on the side of your device and just popping in a new computer card. Doesn’t that sound like the way it should be?”



 Posted by at 2:36 pm
Feb 102015

NMGLugers, I have edited the recurring meeting location to the Whole Foods St. Francis (meeting space on Cordova) location. This seems to make more sense that using the Santa Fe Baking Co.. We meet at the Whole Foods location this week and we can discuss this further. Thank you. Ted P.

Update: We seem to have stably (for now at least) settled on Warehouse 21 upstairs in the Media Lab. – Arlo James Barnes, October 2015

Nov 072014

NMGLugers, We met at the 2nd Street Brewery on the 6th of November, as the Santa Fe Baking Company has changed their hours and closes at 5 p.m. The Brewery was noisy and crowded during the 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. dinner hour. Food and beverages were good enough, of course.

There were a few discussions of alternatives which might be better for conversation, quieter and having ample resources like power outlets and elbow room.

Shall we use the mailing list to come make a choice for the next meeting?

Thank you.

Oct 012014

I have assembled a desktop box with internal dvd burner and will test it soon for burning iso’s. I’ve done this because I had so much trouble burning dvd’s with my one laptop with a dvd burner. It was an older model and not perhaps up to all the current standards.
Now I have a 200 w powered desktop and a new dvd burner. Incidentally the 32-bit laptop, with beefed up ram was able to download and burn the OS for the 64-bit desktop.
I have been reminded that we are a GNU Linux group and so should focus only on GNU software and the Four Freedoms. I agree, this is even more important than ever. Perhaps we can talk about this at the next NMGLug meeting. See you there.