If It Weren’t For Unix…I’d have never been in the San Francisco Bay Area earthquake of 1989. You remember…perhaps you had the game on TV. In fact, we were on that highway that collapsed as well, although thanks to a fortuitous bit of procrastination on our part, we hadn’t made it to ‘that’ part yet. Spooky, just the same, yet in fact to be in a car on open road may have been one of the safest places to be.


You see, we were visiting Sun Microsystems for VAR certification training. We were in the CAD space with PTC and Computervision products and for many users the emerging PC ‘workstations’ (cough) were just not ‘there’ yet. We’d just left Milpitas with plans to sight-see and then head downtown for dinner, when the car started to shake…


But that’s not what this post is about. Remind me to finish that story someday, won’t you?


Have I ever mentioned that a couple winters ago, in a fit of cabin fever, I decided to digitize all my old records? I still have a couple DJ tables, from back in “those” days, that you can backwind to the beginnings of songs and solve much of the ‘dead air’ recording problem. And while busy recording on one desktop, I started slapping our CDs into the other. Next thing I know, we’ve got quite the musical library. It’s great to hit ‘Shuffle’ in Winamp and not hear the same song twice for…well, months!


But that’s not what I came to talk about. Remind me to finish that story someday, won’t you?


My problem was this: The music was way upstairs in the loft. The ‘good’ stereo was downstairs. Wireless music computer->stereo technology was not there yet (and from a cost-effective standpoint, may still not be for all I know). Next thing I know, I’m hitting a nearby computer fair and bringing home a cheap used laptop. P3. 256 MB RAM. WTH? I just need it to play music through a portable drive on a USB (1.1, natch!) port.


Which it did. Pretty well. As you may expect, from those specs, if we wanted to listen to music after dinner, say, well, we just had to turn on the computer before dinner. And all was good.


Until that fateful day recently when the hard drive died. Took with it the Windows XP image on the drive for which I had no backup. (Remember, I am from the ‘do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do’ school of system management. Oh, wait, that’s yet another story for another day.)


Hard drives are cheap these days, and you can’t buy a small one if you try. Swapping in a new one was inexpensive and easy, and was large enough to negate the need for the external hard drive. So actually, that’s a plus. In no time the hardware was ready to go.


I only had two problems. My legions of attentive readers are, I’m sure, already ahead of me on this. A). Computers won’t boot without an OS, and 2). I had no more XP image.


Have I ever mentioned that another rainy-day, cabin-fever project of mine was to play around with a contemporary Linux distro? I knew things had progressed a bit since the SunOS/Solaris (and oh, yes, HP-UX) days long past for me. But the closest I’d come was a while back in the office when I rigged up a live Knoppix CD to boot (and try to salvage) a dead Windows system in an emergency.


So I do the requisite diligent, exhaustive research by spending virtually minutes Googling around and decide the cleanest of the dirty Linux shirts these days is Ubuntu. That’ll be the one for me! Only the best for my P3 baby! So I download version 9.10 (er, I’m sorry, ‘Karmic Koala’) and burn it to a CD (thanks, InfraRecorder!). Boot up the laptop, and get through a couple screens, but at some point things grind to a halt.


More exhaustive Googling (how did we ever live without having 3 or 4 computers in every room of the house?) and I’m reading that these distros are sensitive to the CD burn speed. Kick it down, try again, hurry up and wait. Same thing.


Ok, Plan B. Try a different distro…the 9.04 LTS version. Burn it reeeally slow. Same thing. Try an 8.XX version or two. Google starts telling me sometimes this happens (due to the graphic chip? CPU? I don’t remember) on IBM (yes, IBM – that’s how old this laptop is) ThinkPads.


Oh, that’s right…I may have neglected to mention earlier this was an IBM ThinkPad. Alas, still no go.


Well, maybe this wasn’t meant to be. Time to revisit that Knoppix stuff, perhaps. 4.X. 5.X. 6.X. They’ll boot from a Live CD but won’t install onto the HD.


Oh, silly me, I’ve totally neglected to inject any sort of timeline into this sordid tale. I believe at this point we’re at about the second 3:00 A.M. evening of this adventure.


I don’t remember the other distro I tried. But it was about that time I heard of an ‘Alternate Ubuntu Version.’ Text-based install. No Gui. ‘Not for the faint-hearted.’ But, if in fact my problems were graphic-related…


Darn if it doesn’t load. Makes it completely through the install. And reboots, even.


Once. And no more.


We all know the definition of insanity, right?


But, sure enough, a little more rooting around, another 3:00 A.M. session, and I learn how to edit the boot files to sidestep my problem (and then do it again when I let the automatic updater run). Now the thing boots up faithfully.


And here’s the thing. It boots up and it boots up fast. Not just fast for a P3 with 256 MB RAM, a slow HD and graphic chip of a ‘Crayola’ quality, but fast. Less than a minute. Faster than any other dual-quad-octo-whatever-chip Winbox in the house. And when you see the desktop, you’re ready to play. I am now convinced that Windows is designed to paint the desktop quickly but we know we still want to get a coffee before actually launching anything of substance. But that is another ‘Another Story’….


Look, I’m not saying it’s a screamer. But can it do some basic music-playing/web-browsing multi-tasking far better than it ever could. And OpenOffice and all the other included stuff? Don’t get me started….<grin>


And *nix ain’t what it used to be. I remember an old bromide that for some reason stuck with me: ‘Learning Unix isn’t a task…it’s a career!’


So far I’ve been using the Rhythmbox app included in the distro for playing MP3s – I understand it does some other stuff such as iPod syncing but can’t report on that at this time. I was just about to start looking at other players when I discovered an Equalizer plug-in for it.


Yr Hmbl Narrator,

Sam Hochberg

One Happy Camper.





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