Playing with Ubuntu

Our labs purchase new high-end computers every 3-5 years, depending on the system. I don't know that we will continue to do so - it seems all the students have laptops these days, anyway. But when we do purchase new ones, we have to dispose of the old ones. After the school has asked around if anyone needs a computer (and we did, we had two new staff members who really only needed typewriters, they are fine on these boxes) the rest are sold off to anyone interested. I bought 2, one for WiseKid and one for WiseMan.

WiseMan's only 2-year-old JE-built machine sucks rocks. We had it in the shop twice, paying to have it looked at. They always say: runs fine here. But whenever he is doing something important (like processing his photos or putting together a slide show or ripping his ancient party-mix tape cassettes to MP3) it stops. Dead.

We had analyzed it to be a network conflict and removed the D-Link card, just using a USB-connection. This was marginally better, but it still dies, and usually at the worst times. Friends who understand more of the low-level stuff have had a look and diagnosed: the CPU is overheating.

So what do we do? Have a shop (not JE!) put in a cooler for another 100 €? Buy a new computer? This was the first time in ages that we didn't buy an Aldi Medion machine. We have never had problems with the Aldi machines. This is perhaps the Curse of the Aldi-Box. If you don't buy an Aldi, it is bad.

So I bought the machines, delivered one to WiseKid and one home. As I began putting it together I realized the difference between home and school: We connect the machines by Ethernet, not WLAN. There was no WLAN adapter. And before the machines are handed on, one of the student workers formats the disk and puts a free operating system on, Ubuntu.

Now, I used to be a Unix guru (I ran a Unix-based lab as a student worker in the early 80s), and I once installed SuSE (version 5.0, if anyone is interested) on a dual boot on my home machine. But I was still doubtful if this was a good idea, and my first steps were not encouraging. I could log in, get the Ethernet hooked up and surf, but I couldn't even get a CD to play.

A friend who sets up computers for people for a living was staying over and had a look at the box. He told me about the paranoia of the Ubuntu users of only using free software. You just have to klackety-klackety-klackety click-click klackety-klack and presto, now it works.

Even I couldn't follow the keystrokes, but I now had a vague notion how this worked. I've been terribly busy, but I sat down once and installed the D-Link card. Yes, I can use a screwdriver. I got it to the point that it could see my WLAN, but it couldn't connect. It being past midnight, I gave up for another day, which took another few weeks.

Yesterday I really needed the space this box was taking up, so I sat down again. Not remembering where I was (no, I didn't take notes like I try and force my students to do, I should practice what I preach), I just restarted the router and then tried to investigate.

It worked. It now had a connection. I pulled the Ethernet plug, and it still worked. Hmm. I installed Audacity. I twiddled here and there. Easy-peasy. I lugged it into the living room and set it up with the digital TV we got last year.

It works! Except that I discover a new reality - my trifocals are adjusted for driving / computer / reading. The driving distance does not focus well on tiny letters on a screen. But I got a huge font set up and monster icons, and that's all right.

Now we had to deal with getting Audacity to write MP3. The directions on the Ubuntu-Wiki were written in some dialect of Sanskrit that WiseMan didn't understand, so I was called back in. I clicked around, the menus didn't fit what was needed, nothing worked. Then I remembered the klickety-click. Sure enough, I moused around and found that menu. And Lame was not enabled. We did that, and surprise, surprise, now we could do MP3s!

WiseMan started lugging down stuff. USB-Stick? Check. USB-Drive with all his pictures? Check. Printer? Check. Print to PDF? Check. Camera? Check. Cassette player with audio out? Check.

"I wonder", WiseMan said. "Can I play DVDs from any country code on this box?" He gets out the rare Ingmar Bergman DVD that was supposed to be encoded for Europe, but was encoded for the US. And sure enough, it plays.

Who needs Windows? Ubuntu is ready for prime time, as soon as you get it over you using non-open software.


Anonymous said...

Can also students purchase these machines? I did a quick internet research, but unfortunately didn't found where to ask... I'd be interested, because I know these machines are good :)

WiseWoman said...

Yes, but you have to go through the lab engineer, and he left for vacation today. Don't know how many are left....

Anonymous said...

Okay, thanks for the fast response!