My History of Computing, Part 4: The Year of Linux on my Laptop

Continued from Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Please read those before continuing me on my computer reminiscence journey… Thanks!

Even after my first attempt at installing Linux broke my AMD-K6 machine, and I had become a total Mac user, I was still keeping tabs on what was going on in the open-source world. Through the 2000s I was reading sites like Slashdot and Distrowatch, learning about the gradual expansion of Linux in the server realm, in embedded systems such as routers and smartphones, in supercomputers, and the field of desktop computing, where it was making great strides. It seemed like every year from about 2000 on, someone on Slashdot was declaring that this was “the year of Linux on the desktop.”

I wanted to experiment with Linux again, but I knew from reading online that there were only a few PowerPC-based Linux distributions, and installing them on anything older than the iMac was iffy at best. So I kept reading… and waiting.

Then, right around 2007, a new Linux distribution started appearing on my radar. Called Ubuntu, it was created by South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth who spent several years and a lot of his own money to hone and polish the open-source operating system to be user-friendly and run on a wide variety of home computers. The hype was incredible. The Linux nerds on the interwebs were practically calling Shuttleworth the next Steve Jobs. I was even hearing about it on non-Linux-specific websites and on the TV news. I knew I had to give this a try.

It just so happened that I had a guinea pig to test this new operating system on. My sister, who also lived in Yellowstone at the time, had a AMD Athlon-based laptop that had a hard drive corrupted by a virus. For some reason, I took a picture of the virus scan:


She wanted me to reinstall Windows XP on it. I decided that I would rather take Ubuntu for a test spin. I had gotten a disk with (I believe) Ubuntu 7.04 on it just by asking Canonical, the company that managed Ubuntu, for one. Back then, they were still mailing people Ubuntu CDs for free. I stuck the disk in her laptop’s CD drive and it started running a test version of the OS from the disk itself.


Everything just seemed to work, except for the wireless card, but I had a spare USB wifi adapter which was instantly recognized. The desktop was instantly recognizable and looked very Windows XP-like, except for the brown-and-orange “Human” color scheme. I could easily access files, settings, a web browser, and even an open-source office suite, unimaginatively named OpenOffice. It had support for MP3s and video files, and even included a video with Nelson Mandela explaining the meaning of “Ubuntu,” which in many Southern African languages means “humanity towards others,” or “I am what I am because of who we all are.” There were a few bugs and glitches, but the system seemed amazingly complete and simple enough for anyone to use.

So I installed Ubuntu and handed the computer back to my sister, saying, “Look, I fixed your Windows problem.” My sister turns the machine on and goes, “Well, this is nice, but can it run <insert name of proprietary Windows program here>?” So that was the end of Ubuntu, for now. I didn’t even bother installing it on my MacBook, because by the time Apple made it easy to dual-boot into another operating system on the same hard disk (via Boot Camp) I had already been using Mac OS X for a while and figured that I could do everything in it that I could in Ubuntu.

It would be a while before I would install Linux on another computer. In 2012, my sister, bless her heart, gave me another broken Windows laptop, but instead of asking me to fix it, she just gave it to me, because she bought herself a brand new one. This was a HP Pavilion DV7 with a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, a 512 MB NVIDIA graphics card, 8 GB of RAM, a Blu-ray drive, 17″ screen, and a Harmon Kardon speaker system with a built-in subwoofer. Pretty awesome specs, and she just gave it to me. I have the most awesome sister.

(Yeah, I know, another stock photo, but the camera on my phone isn’t worth a damn.)

So I fixed the problem (another busted hard drive) and set myself to installing Linux on it. Well, there were problems. Not that it couldn’t run Linux, but many of the features were poorly supported. The audio system couldn’t operate the speakers very well, especially the subwoofer, which warbled terribly in every Linux distribution I tried on it. I used Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Fedora, and PCLinuxOS, but they all had the same problem.

Also, something about Linux’s display system refused to work quite right with the video card. It displayed video, it even played 3D games quite awesomely, but it hurt my eyes. It’s kind of hard to explain. I can only think it was something to do with font rendering, but working in Linux, any Linux, for more than a few minutes gave me serious eye strain. I complained about this on forums and the general consensus was “you need to get your eyes checked”… but this wasn’t the problem. I had a Mac laptop at home and a Windows 7 computer at work that I could both use for hours on end with no problems whatsoever.

So I decided to restore the machine to its original state. I acquired a Windows 7 install DVD through completely legal means and installed it on the HP laptop. I promised myself long ago that I would never run that buggy, virus-ridden piece of crap on any of my machines long ago… but sometime between the time I gave up Windows and now, Microsoft really got their act together! Installing Windows 7 was a piece of cake, and once I got the necessary drivers from HP’s website, it ran like a charm. I was soon listening to music on the most beautiful-sounding laptop speakers I had ever experienced, as well as playing Blu-ray movies in 1080p, blasting my way through video games actually written this century, and everything else I normally used a computer for. And best yet, no eye strain!

I was even able to transfer all of my old Mac stuff onto it with a free HFS+ utility, which was my last hurdle to using Windows. So I was able to forgive Microsoft, seeing as though my hate of them was based on experiences I had a decade ago and buying all of Apple’s anti-Microsoft propaganda. This laptop became my primary computer for all of 2013, after my MacBook went to meet its maker in the big old Starbucks in the sky, and so far I haven’t had a single virus or incidence of data loss.

Of course, then Microsoft had to deplete all of their good will by releasing the horrid dreck that is Windows 8… but that’s another story.

So when my wife accidentally spilled water on her 8-year-old Windows XP-running Toshiba laptop last month, I was able to get her running on my HP laptop with no problems at all. All of her Windows programs run well on it, so she’s happy. Meanwhile, I wanted a new laptop so we could both get online at the same time, and I wanted a better Linux experience than the one the HP laptop could provide me. So I set out to get a cheap laptop on eBay that I could tinker with, that would tide me over until I could afford a new machine. One of my coworkers recommended Lenovo Thinkpads. They were rock-solid business laptops that you could get for extremely cheaply because companies lease them for three years, after which they end up flooding the market on eBay. I had also heard that they had excellent Linux support, and a small but devoted following of techies who worked on getting all the special Thinkpad bells and whistles working on Linux.

In January, I found an amazing deal on a Lenovo Thinkpad T400 with a 2.53 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 250 GB hard drive, and Intel GM45 Integrated Graphics for $120. Similar machines were running for $200 or more. So I snapped it up and had it shipped to my home. The hard disk was sold to me erased, for security reasons, I guess. I had originally intended to dual boot Windows 7 and Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, my current Linux distro of choice. But when I stuck the Ubuntu CD into the drive and turned it on, I was amazed. It had detected all of the hardware and ran it flawlessly. It even could activate the ThinkLight keyboard lamp, the TrackPoint pointing device, all of the media controls, and even the ThinkVantage button (which in the absence of the IBM/Lenovo ThinkVantage utility suite, defaults to activating Ubuntu’s help system.) And it wasn’t giving me any of the same eyestrain problems that I was experiencing on the other computer. So I just decided to put Ubuntu on the whole drive.

If occasion requires me to run Windows, I can just install it on a secondary hard drive, and just swap out the disks. Lenovo makes it so easy on this laptop–all you have to do is unscrew one screw on the bottom, pop out the drive caddy, and replace the drive with another one of your choice. I think I totally got my money’s worth with this laptop. It’s 5 years old, to be sure, but it beats the pants off of anything I could have gotten new at this price. And it has one of the best laptop keyboards I have ever used.


But I’m not about to join the Church of Lenovo… not yet, anyway. I hear their newer Thinkpads have dropped the iconic boxy look, magnesium roll cages, and great keyboards, and are are essentially commodity consumer laptops with Thinkpad branding. Kind of like that MacBook I bought. Oh well. Right now, I am happy with what I have, and happy that I can successfully compute in Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Unix, MS-DOS, and TI BASIC. That confounded Timex Sinclair 1000 still baffles me, though. Maybe I’ll try again with that one someday…

The first thing that popped up when I typed in "Timex Sinclair 1000 screenshot" into Google Images. I find it strangely appropriate.

Comments? Questions? Feedback? Contact me at wordpress (at) thewanderingnerd (dot) com, or leave a comment below!

My History of Computing, Part 2: From the Dogcow’s Hoof to the Penguin’s Talons

On May 6, 1998, Steve Jobs announced the iMac, the computer that brought Apple back from certain doom, completely revolutionized the computer industry, and paved the way for all the other iDevices. It was just like every other Mac computer that came before it, but the genius of the iMac was that it didn’t look like a computer. It looked like a shiny blue egg from outer space.  And it wasn’t marketed as a computer. It was an “information appliance.” Apple sold it as a quick way for people to get on the Internet without the “fuss” of plugging a rat’s nest of cables into a series of beige boxes, configuring hardware drivers and fighting with the operating system. You just, one, plugged it in, and two, turned it on. There was no step 3, as Jeff Goldblum pointed out in that famous commercial.

And people bought them in droves. It was the 1990s. People went crazy about anything to do with the Internet. Everything in the late 90s was “e-this” and “i-that” and “something dot com.” And they went nuts over the iMac because it got people on the Internet, and non-nerds could use it.  Seriously, everyone went so crazy for the iMac that you could put colorful translucent plastic on anything and it would sell like hotcakes… even things that had absolutely nothing to do with computers:

(pictured: not an iMac.)

I went crazy for the iMac, however, because it was a Mac. It ran Mac OS 9, which was far superior to Windows 95 in that it didn’t crash and was less susceptible to viruses. And there was a Macintosh way of doing things that was a whole lot more intuitive than Microsoft’s attempt at a GUI. You could install programs just by dragging them from the install disk folder into the Applications folder. Device drivers came packaged in “extension” modules that you could install or remove just by taking them out of the Extensions Folder. There was no Registry to fuck up. And while there wasn’t as much software for the Mac as there was for Windows, it was on average much higher quality and was supported by a well-meaning and enthusiastic band of Macintosh zealots. I still hold that Microsoft Word 5.1 for the Mac was the best word processor released for any operating system ever, and that subsequent releases of Word only added needless bloat. And Windows had nothing like Hypercard, which was like a combination database, application builder, and multimedia program all in one that totally rocked.

And the best thing about the iMac was that it was surprisingly affordable… well, for a Mac. $1000 was considered a cheap computer back in the days. It wasn’t affordable to me then, but I figured it would be someday. In the meantime, my friend and later roommate Jeremy, had bought an iMac, and he let me use his old Power Mac 6100. My Windows-running beige box was currently out for repairs, again, I took him up on it. And I fell in love with the Macintosh way of doing things. But then one day, I turn on the Mac… only to be greeted by what sounded like the screech of skidding tires and the clattering of broken glass. That was the Mac’s cutesy way of letting you know something was hopelessly broken. No helpful diagnostic beeps or screens of undecipherable error codes. Not even a Blue Screen of Death. Just a car crash noise. Jeremy, who was an Electrical Engineering undergrad, couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it either, so he took it away and I never saw it again, except years later at his house, where his mom had turned it into a planter.

So it was back to the beige box and my loathed adversary, Windows 98. I needed another hit of that sweet, sweet Apple Kool-Aid, but I didn’t have the money and Jeremy didn’t have any more old Macintoshes to give me. (He did have one of those very old black and white Mac SE/30s, but I think he was using it as a telnet server for a MUD he was running or something.) Meanwhile, I had another roommate, a music and engineering major named Rupert, who was also a Machead, but his machines also ran something called FreeBSD. It was a version of Unix, like the computers I used in the CS labs ran, and like the new and improved Mac OS that Apple kept promising, but unlike those, it was open source. That meant that anyone could download the source code for free, compile it on their own computers, and change it however they wanted. Open source meant that you were free to operate your computer without the interference of Microsoft, Apple, or any other corporation. Of course, the only part of that sentence I heard was “free”, so I asked Rupert how I could get this on my PC, and thus be able to toss Bill Gates, and his $89 “upgrades” that were more like downgrades, out on his rear.

Rupert hesitated for a while, and said that FreeBSD was very rough around the edges and not really for the average computer user. I thought that he was trying to insult me, but he then suggested that I try something slightly different. He called it “Linux.” Linux was another open source operating system like BSD, but it was written primarily for the PC architecture. It wasn’t as mature as BSD Unix, but there were distributions of Linux that were more geared towards desktop computing and had better hardware support. And it had a penguin for a mascot. I always thought penguins were awesome.


I got install disks for two Linux distributions, Red Hat 5.2 and Mandrake 9.0, by finding them in books at the school library on “how to install Linux.” I knew that I would be unable to dual-boot both Windows and Linux on my puny two gigabyte hard drive, so I decided to make a clean break of it. I saved whatever personal files I had onto Zip disks and purged the hard drive of Microsoft, hoping it would be for good. Red Hat was a bust–the CD-ROM drive couldn’t even read the disk. Turns out there was a scratch on it as long as my finger. I hoped the library didn’t think it was my fault.

Mandrake installed very easily–the installation was very user-friendly and fast, but once I started running it, problems began to emerge. X11 couldn’t understand my video card so it was stuck in 640 x 480, 16 color mode. I typed a bunch of mumbo jumbo into xorg.conf, and still no deal. I had to put in my old, non-3D-enhanced, video card to get a decent sized desktop. Then I couldn’t get the sound to work because it didn’t have a driver for my sound card. It also couldn’t read from my CD-ROM drive, which was weird because it installed from there! I wanted to go online to find a solution to these issues, but the Linux didn’t even see my Ethernet card, and wouldn’t use my dialup modem because it was something called a “Winmodem.”

I jumped on Jeremy’s iMac and went to Linux forums hoping for an answer to my problems, only to be told “RTFM, noob” in a brusque, mocking tone over and over again. I pored over man pages and walkthroughs on the Internet, digesting page upon page of obfuscated Unixy language and secret command-line code in a quest to get the machine working. This was definitely not a very Mac-like experience. Here I was, a Computer Science major at a major university, someone who had put a TI-99/4A back together from spare parts when I was twelve, someone who could squeeze every last kilobyte out of DOS’s 640 KB memory limit in order to play King’s Quest V on a 286, and I couldn’t get Linux to work. And I was being laughed at by my fellow nerds for even daring to try. Obviously, Linux was not yet ready for the desktop.

Rupert helped with the Linux whenever he could, but then, well… um… drama happened, and he left the apartment, and school, never to be seen again. I can’t really go into detail about it, but it was very ugly and I felt partly to blame for what happened. And that’s when life kind of started to fall apart for me. Jeremy and I moved to another apartment with another friend, but then my sister moved in, and things there started getting awkward. Since I didn’t have a working computer at home, and didn’t really want to be there anyway, I spent all my time at the computer lab. And instead of programming and doing my school work, I was browsing porn and looking for validation from strangers in online chat rooms. At this time I was taking prescription medication for depression, but this made me drowsy all the time and also caused severe emotional apathy, to the point that I didn’t realize, or didn’t care, that my grades were dropping and I was flunking all my classes. Before I knew it, I was out on my ass, with nothing to show for it all but $60,000 in student loan debt… and a broken computer that couldn’t even run Linux. And all I wanted was an iMac.

To be continued in Part 3, where I take the red pill… and see how far the Apple rabbit hole goes.

Family news and a new toy

I’m sorry I haven’t posted in over a week, but I was very busy. For you see, my fiancee is now my wife. We got married last weekend, or more accurately, we eloped. We were planning this huge wedding in the national park where we both work, but we couldn’t figure out the logistics (and the expense) of getting all my family there from California and getting all her family there from the Midwest and finding accommodations for them all. And we started thinking about all the people we wanted to invite, and all the people we had to invite, and soon it just became this huge fiasco. We knew that we would be miserable trying to have the wedding her parents wanted us to have, and we would piss off a good deal of people by having the wedding we wanted to have. So we decided to piss everybody off and save them the cost of airfare by jumping in the car, getting married in the county courthouse, and spending the weekend at a delightful bed and breakfast that we were almost too sad to leave.

(Artist’s conception of the wedding, courtesy of Bitstrips)

And there’s more news as well. When we got home from our rushed weekend honeymoon, I had a package waiting for me… my birthday present. Last month, I bought a cheapo computer off of eBay to tide us over until my wife (wow, it’s still so strange and so wonderful to call her “my wife”) got the new laptop she wanted. I got an amazing deal for just $100. I bought a Lenovo Thinkpad T400 with 4 GB of RAM and a 2.53 GHz Core 2 Duo processor. Even though it only had Intel GM45 graphics and didn’t come with a hard drive, it was still an incredible bargain. I had seen similar models go recently on eBay for twice this price.


I had been looking for a decent used Thinkpad for quite some time. For years, I had heard about how reliable and well-built the Thinkpad line was, from the IBM days onward, and all the features built in: the roll cage that protected the motherboard, the spill-proof full-travel keyboard, the built-in keyboard light, the hard-drive shock absorber, the ability to easily swap out the CD-ROM for a second hard drive, and then some. But they were business laptops and therefore considerably more expensive than ones designed for average schmoes. Which is why I was so excited to find a Thinkpad new enough to be a decent web browsing and emulator machine on eBay for such a decent price.

I put a Ubuntu install disk into the machine in order to test it. I was going to make sure that all the pieces worked before I went to all the trouble of getting  a hard drive for the thing, installing Windows 7, and tracking down all the dozens of driver files one needs to get a modern laptop running. But, as I was playing in Ubuntu, I discovered that it had detected all my hardware flawlessly (even the TrackPoint and the media buttons) and was running quite fast even from the CD. It was the most painless Linux experience I had ever had with any of my computers. So I decided to say “screw it” to Windows and install Ubuntu to the hard drive. It does just about everything a computer needs to do, it has most of the classic game emulators I like, and I didn’t want to download hundreds of megabytes of drivers, patches, and software updates in Windows just so I could use Microsoft Office or attempt to play some 3-D Windows games that probably wouldn’t run well in Intel graphics anyway.

So, in the future, I’m going to be writing about my new Thinkpad, discovering the joys of Linuxing on it, and continuing to work through the Atarimania 2600 ROM collection looking for unique and awesome games to turn into nostalgi-retro articles for this blog. But most of all, I will enjoy being married… to my wife. My nerdy and wonderful wife. So you may not hear from me for a while.