Originally Published: Friday, 10 March 2000 Author: Rob Bos
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Ode to my P2

Today, my computer is an integral, indispensable part of my life. With it I communicate with nearly everyone. I write. I use it as a central warehouse for my files that I can access from anywhere in the world. I use it to play music, I use it to do a hundred small tasks. And I do it all under Linux with a facility and stability unavailable anywhere else.

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I rather like my computer. With it, I've done a lot of stuff, written a large quantity of material, hacked together several programs, met people, participated in arguments, spent time learning about and configuring programs. And I've spent many hours wrestling with my own screwups. But in the end, I've come out a lot more savvy about computing in general.

This machine was purchased about two years ago. A fairly old machine by today's standards, it started life as a PII 233MHz with 32 megabytes of memory, with no software included, bought on the cheap from a local clone distributor, set up in a basement, built with cheap parts and shoddily built at that. After going home and promptly voiding the warranty to fix an improperly-seated modem so that Windows 3.1 and DOS could access my favourite local BBSs (yes, I was still using BBSs in 1998), I happily went about customising my system. A week later the motherboard fell prey to what was most likely a random power spike in the local electric system. Two hundred dollars and a surge protector later, I had a working system. At that point, I decided to attempt taking advantage of the complimentary dialup account with my university to get home Internet access -- I had been a casual Web surfer for about a year at that point -- and after about a week of struggling with Windows 3.1 TCP/IP (yes, I suppose I could have borrowed win95 from a friend, but all my programs were win3.1, and win3.1 is fast on a PII), I was Web surfing contentedly.

Since, in the various communities that I had ties with (the Jihad to Destroy Barney and the BBSs that I still frequented), there was a fairly large proportion of technical people, I quickly became aware of a fair amount of buzz surrounding this nifty little thing called "Linux" -- a version of the old, outdated, stuffy, mythical UNIX systems that were so often referred to in humour text files. Curious, I eventually caved in to the pressure and downloaded "zipslack," a thirty megabyte UMSDOS Linux distribution that, in hindsight, was a bad way to get started. About a week later, I gave up in frustration at not being able to get it installed properly.

As someone who tends to obsess fanatically about things in general, and as someone who kept hearing good things about this "Linux," I kept with it, eventually managing to install it (somewhat contrary to the instructions provided) on the second partition that I had set aside earlier. I ls'd and rm'd and pico'd, and all in all, was quite content with poking about and learning new things about this interesting phenomenon of an operating system. Since my only previous experience with Unix before 1997 (before my student shell account) was with a dialup Unix account that a local provider was giving away for free (Uniserve, I think), this was a breath of fresh air. I was learning things, transcending limits daily that the old DOS had imposed on me, breathing fresh air, and seeing the potential of this system.

But I still went back to Windows 3.1 to do real work, for writing papers, and playing around with batch files, for Internet usage -- mostly because I didn't know how to set up dialup connections in Linux. The PPP HOWTO, an imposing 200k document from hell, wasn't much help -- though in hindsight, it would have been a far easier undertaking than setting up win3.1 to use PPP.

Still, nothing lasts forever. All my programs were quickly becoming obsolete, though comfortable, and Linux was advancing by leaps and bounds. One day, on an impulse, I happened to walk into a computer software store (I once had a kind of blatantly immature habit of playing the good old stump-the-salesman game) and noticed a boxed Red Hat Linux 5.2 on the shelf. On impulse, I bought it, brought it home, and let it sit on the shelf for a few days before attempting to install it (not realising, of course, that my machine was capable of booting off CDROM, I created all the disk images and stuff). The basic install went fine; none of the questions presented any difficulty, though I was surprised to actually have to dig out my monitor and video card specifications.

Having a full CD of Linux software was to me a revelation. Over the next month, I reinstalled RH5.2 ten or more times, playing around with different partitioning schemes and different package schemes. I compiled software that I had acquired by rebooting to Windows, downloading, and rebooting again, eventually caved in and configured PPP to work with my university ISP, and in general just had a lot of fun playing around with the system.

I wiped Windows 3.1 off my system in mid-1998 when I realised I hadn't booted into it for two weeks and needed the disk space for important things. Continuing to play around and get my work done efficiently (plain text is just so much nicer for writing papers), I upgraded to Redhat 6.0 thanks to a friend who burned a CD, then to Mandrake 6.0, and finally to Debian, the most elegant and incredibly well-done Linux distribution, being pulled from feature to feature of those distributions like a ferret jumping at shiny objects.

"Wow! All the packages are updated, and it has this cool GNOME thing!" "Wow! Compiled for a 386 and fixes all the braindead things I had to workaround in RH6?" "Wow! A package system that actually works!?" I think that this is fairly typical of Linux users in general.

Today, my computer is an integral, indispensable part of my life. With it I communicate with nearly everyone. I write. I use it as a central warehouse for my files that I can access from anywhere in the world. I use it to play music, I use it to do a hundred small tasks. And I do it all under Linux with a facility and stability unavailable anywhere else.

To me, it doesn't matter if Linux succeeds. For me, it has succeeded and will continue to succeed indefinitely. It doesn't matter to me if "Big Companies" are writing "Cool Software" for it -- I have all the software I need. It doesn't matter if "Huge Support Networks" are in place -- I can support it myself, for the most part. What I can't figure out, I can ask someone else for.

And what's more, I know that in the future, no matter what happens, almost all Linux applications will have a decent chance of running, or compiling, on this computer, with relatively little effort on my part. I can rest secure in knowing that when I get a new computer, I'll be able to use this machine in some useful capacity. When I have my Crusoe machine running Quake IV and full motion video downloading via gnapster 2.1.0 from some guy in Paraguay, good old "neko" will still be around in some useful capacity, thanks to Linux.

Rob Bos (rbos@linux.com) is a student at Simon Fraser University and a Contributing Editor to Linux.com. He has a yellow belt now, and will test for his 7th kyu belt in shotokan next month. He is immensely proud of this fact.

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