Nov 022023

Time Machine, Reflections on Hardware

Here are some reflections after success in replacing the OS on a Chromebook.

I have enjoyed extending the useful life of computer hardware for a couple of decades. From using Knoppix as a live disc and wearing out a few copies, to switching from Red Hat 8 to Ubuntu 4 or 6. That was when Ubuntu was still sequentially numbered, now it gets the release number from the date of release. This is an improvement for Time Travelers. In the early days of the 21st Century the non-free proprietary parts were the modem or wifi sub-units. Sound and display could also be a bit tricky to configure. So we traded ideas and work-arounds or sometimes the firmware needed for a non-free piece of essential hardware or where and what to buy to replace it with a free firmware usable one.

Then there was a period in the switch in personal computing from desktop to laptop. Some improvements in either cooperation and release of firmware for specific hardware items made it a bit easier to extend the useful life of a piece of hardware. A good CPU, upgradeable RAM and upgradeable storage were the requirements for a good Gnu/Linux project. We debated Red Hat vs Debian, Ubuntu verses the variants. Everyone had a favorite Gnu/Linux OS. And people came to seek our help to install on their older laptops. This could be done at regular or special Gnu/Linux Users’ meetings. Local groups, and ours was one, donated configured computers to cafes in town. I believe this was happening broadly. This period ended sometime before 2018. Cafes changed, people changed and smartphones became common.

This year Gnu/Linux on Chromebooks became a possibility. ChromeOS is based on a privatized version of the Linux kernel and Coreboot boot manager. Should work, right? It can, ChromeOS even offers a terminal for application development. It works, but is not really free as in freedom. I have converted one instance of ‘expired’ Chromebook hardware to Xubuntu. It works, with limits and caveats. My unit has browser, wifi and sound, a limited OS – due to the 16 GB Emmc storage. No office suite, no graphical text editor, function keys limited to F1-F10 and no “Super” key. I have made keyboard shortcuts for sound control, and added the “Super” function to the “Search” key which replaces the “Caps Lock” on Chromebooks. Better free than at the mercy of the ChromeOS, but not a replacement for a fully functioning computer. The added storage is not available at boot, so no matter how big an SD card I add it does not change the limitation of storage for the operating system. Maybe someone else will find an answer to that. My conclusion is that it feels like prior times: the limited and privatized hardware, limited control by the user of software by design of the OS and only 4 years support by Google for ChromeOS at present. All this leaves the extension into freedom a real challenge, but no replacement for a fully functional device. Few Chromebooks have a good CPU and upgradable RAM and Storage; the modified keyboard limits what can be done if you do liberate the device. In fact they feel more like a terminal and function that way – the “main frame” is now the Internet. Google, should one desire to live in their environment, allows a lot of work to be done on their web sites. Work is not retained by the user at her/his computer, but becomes part of the storage offered, for a price, by Google. For some users willing to accept the exchange of their freedom and privacy for simplified access to the Internet a Chromebook is an option.

A lot of this recent effort of mine feels like a return to those former times: hardware is problematic and varied. Sometimes a particular hardware is not going to work. The minimal Emmc soldered to the motherboard is one example of a severe limitation brought by the new thinner and lighter portable, ultra-portable laptops. Cloud computing has been sold as the way to operate, but people are not using their own servers as a rule. So the majority of people work and browse the Internet in non-free conditions.

For freedom nothing seems to work short of sufficient personal equipment. Freedom to use, modify, contribute and share your software is still a revolutionary set of concepts. See the Free Software Foundation at
This is still affordable for many, and not too complicated. It does take a certain budget and careful shopping and a commitment to compute self-consciously, thinking about freedom. One way we can help is by sharing our expertise and insight into what it means to have truly free software and mostly freed hardware. The kernel is quickly adding hardware compatibility for the many parts of a good computer. With careful shopping and a little planning on repair-ablity one can avoid the non-free firmware. Life is not perfect, but we can make it better.

Our cafe culture has also shifted from Internet computers to food and phones. While some places offer wifi it is often through a highly regulated portal that restricts access to some sites and bandwidth. Restaurants are returning to focus on their menu and service. The novelty of the Internet is gone, it is now assumed as part of the landscape. And where it hasn’t reached money is being allocated to extend it as a utility to rural and under served areas. Phone connectivity has also changed the interface of personal computing and released people to rely on ever smaller devices. This part of the landscape is changed and people are accepting the new, smaller dimensions. This is no reason to abandon our willingness to promote the four freedoms of computing.

Aug 182022

I am working on a laptop to donate for general users, so I have chosen LinuxMint as the distribution. It includes the non-free audio/visual codexes and brings some of the Ubuntu tools including the Languages setting which helps bring in a wide variety of languages other than English.

As I am a bit of a fan of the GUI, while still able to go to the command line, I feel the readily accessible and easier to use “Languages” is easier than re-configuring Locales. In Debian, I can shift the language, but I am not fluent enough to be sure I could use the commandline in a foreign language. Plus, as I am sending this unit into other hands to pass on to yet others, I hope that the idea of using the “Settings” menu and visible options to adjust the Desktop will be familiar to anyone, anywhere with even a small amount of familiarity with computing.

Since we are no longer meeting face to face as often or easily now, I am hoping that GNU/Linux is familiar to enough people and has a visual interface that “just works” for any user. I have been reflecting on freedom and free software this year, especially after attending the Free Software Foundation virtual conference via video. While I rely on a lot of the work that has been done, I am not absolutely “pure” in my hardware and software. In s few discussions of the current situation I find a wide variety of people using free software for various tasks, from simple to complex. And the approaches vary, too.

Some prefer very un-free hardware for reasons of price, quality of display and other parts, some delve into the total freedom of CoreBoot and motherboards free of undisclosed blobs. I have been a hobbyist and scavenger, so I take what I can find, updating hardware as computing demands have advanced, but basically converting an available PC or laptop to Gnu/Linux and then working with the installed parts and replacing and upgrading where I can.

At home I use Debian and have selected a GUI Desktop that I like. I have an editor preference and other choices and I have become familiar with some other programs as the need or interest has arisen. Most of my daily ‘work’ is simple and basic. I alternate between the commandline and Synaptic for maintenance. I have habits, but not a fully established rationale for my choices. I now try to see that others will be the same: have habits, focus on the many advantages of free software and use it to full advantage either in a particular application or as thorough way of working, using the free-est hardware, too. So I have become a little more broad-minded about how to work with free software and also regret that the public meetings we don’t have mean sharing my interest is rather hit or miss.
I do hope we can expand the circle of GNU/Linux users in the future. I am glad the maintainers have kept up all their good work and that all the distros are keeping up with the changes in hardware and the uses that people have for computing.

Feb 102020

“Goals: Our primary intention is to grow the community of GNU/Linux users; both in their numbers and in the level of their expertise. Also we intend to do it while having a good time.” (from the Home page)

On the theme of really growing a community, it is time to review how to be most helpful. How to be welcoming and able to get to the level of a beginner who wants to try Linux. It may be difficult to think like the basic user or curious hobbyist who are not used to thinking of themselves as system administrators. The 2020 termination of Microsoft support for one of their popular systems gives an opportunity to spread the message of freedom of Gnu/Linux. Has anybody asked for release from the tedium of un-free software? It takes time and a little patience to tutor new users on the shift to any of the Linux flavors. And that is one of the assets of Gnu/Linux, the many options and levels of freedom and ‘curation.’ The variety of Flavors.

A recent encounter I had was to install Ubuntu 18.04 on a used laptop a user purchased specifically for a Gnu/Linux install. I had the ISO and installed it on some good, if used hardware: Intel i7 processor, 8 GB ram and 128 GB ssd. This user needed more speed and had shopped for good hardware, even asking for advice a few times before the purchase. The smaller ssd was no problem as the user has a large external drive for files. Gnome3 turned out to be a stumbling block that I was unable to smooth out for her. Mate desktop was different, but still not right for either of us. She requested Linux Mint 19.3, Cinnamon. After I obtained the ISO we proceeded to do a fresh install. Cinnamon and the curation by the Mint community were what she wanted. Feedback was all good.

I am also working with a another indiviual, referred by a neighbor already using Xubuntu 18.04, the going is slower, but not without progress. Here there will be less depth of learning, but due to the ubiquity of computing and a real need to be connected there is the desire to stay on the Internet. So I will work to see how the user works in the old system and adapt my tutoring and selection of an ISO that is most likely to present a shallow learning curve. I believe it can be done.

Four weeks ago NMGLUG helped clear up a file system error that prevented booting. We used edits to grub, a nice trick and the simplest way through the problem, telling grub to force fsck before mounting the system. there were two commands to enter in the “Linux” line in grub, and the caveat to rerun it till it reported no errors. This was accomplished with the assist of a Linux-savvy user with experience and understanding of the boot process. It is fun to work with people with a skill base that is ready to pick up a new idea.

Speaking of rescue, a quicker conversion happened over a recent weekend: a dropped laptop resulted in hard drive damage and inconsistencies. The remedy was to switch out the drive and install a spare from my closet. I installed the Linux Mint 19.3 here as the user was familiar with an Ubuntu loaner from a previous time I suggested help. It will take some time before I hear back on this, but the user is alert and has specific, mostly web related, habits and needs, so the shift should not be too great a problem. I remind each user that the computer will do the same things, but the buttons may have different colors and names. I try to pick distributions with static, visible menus which are less of an obstacle for users accustomed to selecting files or applications from such menus.

Thinking about a recent install, an old Compaq laptop – 32bit Xubuntu 18.04 worked. My Debian 8 Live did not work and I have tossed that DVD. Time to focus on newer equipment for installs, I think. In order to learn about Linux there is no need to hamper the user with a slow system that may not have the capacity for the demands of today’s Internet. A system that is compromised by a slow processor and limited by 1GB of ram is okay for me to practice with, but if it won’t accept imbedded video on the Internet it is too old and an impediment, not an asset, to advertise the merits of Gnu/Linux. I have an older Asus EEE, which is portable, but without web video capability it is not really good enough to pass on to others. There is better hardware in many a closet, or available for purchase.