The Sourcerer’s 1st Apprentice?

I received an email the other day from a self-acclaimed apprentice. Rather than trying to comment or analyse Ben’s learnings to date, I’ll leave Ben to speak for himself and you to make up your own minds…

Greetings!  And thank you for a most entertaining and informative site.

I am rambling towards a serious point.  Children’s computing and affordable online security using Linux.  A  grandchild called Gabriel features,  with his ‘new’ sixth birthday ruggedised laptop.  More of this later on.

I cannot claim the title of sourcerer -  one day, maybe.

But even apprentices can get lucky, especially if they persevere.  This apprentice is an old Unix enthusiast from 1981, constrained to use MS in the name of conformity by employers and clients alike.  Retired now!

I even paid good money for the Mark Williams Company’s “Coherent” clone of UNIX, way back when.  Excellent, great fun, but it had to go when the then employer wanted their Compaq  back.  Then time rolled by, and the opportunity passed.  <sigh>

……. for the last couple of years we have been free, yes, free I say!

It started with an AMD desktop  box with SuSE 10 that smoked XP when running X-Plane (we used this as a CAD tool for aircraft design verification).  35% faster on the same box.   Wow!  Meant we could save the money for a new box for another year, maybe two. That was a significant saving.

OK, it was ‘fun’ getting the drivers sorted for OpenGL, but we had help. That was one of the great revelations – the amazing amount of help one can find – often faster and better informed than mainstream OS support.

Then we discovered that far from needing to keep  SuSE 10 offline in order to protect our main earning tool from online nasties, it was more than capable of protecting itself, and updated itself smoothly and effectively when connected. No more Norton! No more AdAware!   It just works!  Wow.

By pure apprentice-style experimentation – we had found out that we could telnet into our cheapo  Actiontec ADSL WiFi router, and that once logged in this way we had a prompt that read:    root#_

Our router/firewall was a Linux engine running Busybox.  About the size of a pack of cigarillos, and not much more costly.  Amazing. The impact this had on me was immediate. Curiosity was ON.

After some careful study the vanilla SuSE 10 installation defences turned out to be even  harder than our firewall box!
This is obvious to many, but it was a big happy surprise for us. If there is one thing I hate it is the drudge of updating and running malware scanners and such.  Too cheap to go for the paid option, and had some nasty surprises from the big name vendors too.

A quick trawl around had me downloading ISOs and burning CDs and trying out live distros and then installing them pretty much at random.  Ubuntu really appealed – and Xubuntu was installed on the old Tosh laptop, still running today.  Fabulous forums.

I have got used to Evolution, and swear by Bogofilter – works better on our industrial quantities of spam than SpamAssassin.

My wife enjoys computer games – but guess what? after raiding the Ubuntu repositories and making sure that OpenGL was good to go, the variety and quality of the sort of games that she prefers was judged hugely superior to that on Windows. By her.

So she won the Toshiba, and we put Ubuntu 7.10 on her desktop too. She says repeatedly that the Linux desktop is far more user friendly because :  “…. it is easier to go back, and not get stuck”

So far, so ordinary.  Family discovers free software. Yawn. But there must be many parents faced with what follows….

More distant family members had a problem – young Gabriel had been increasingly monopolising his family computer for over a year, and he was approaching his sixth birthday.  Not a lot of money around, so choice was limited.  Given the size of his room a laptop was ideal, but the price? Laptops can be delicate, too.

A few keyboards had already been ‘disabled’ on his family desktop, and cheaply replaced, but laptop keyboards can be hard to obtain as well as pricey.  Good hardware was critical to a good result.

A used Itronix GoBook was the answer, found on eBay at around 55 quid depending on spec, fully ruggedised, water resistant keys, solid alloy case, and tough as old boots. We  bought a couple.

They work OK, and run surprisingly long on the ancient batteries, over 3 hours with light use.  Not bad for 2001 hardware.

The OS supplied was Windows 2000, a variant of Windows NT and the CPU fitted to these was panting under Norton 07;   AVG not a lot better.  So Windows web access was disabled, and
Xubuntu 8.04 installed in another partition.

Xubuntu’s  significantly lighter weight  XFCE desktop was just light enough for the Pentium III running 700 MHz (divided by 2 remember, that’s 350 MHz in real money), but it was still
a bit slow loading – well the HDD is slow, so fair enough. We can live with that.

Once tweaked up, we had Batman wallpaper and sound theme, with the compositor in XFCE giving a good imitation of Aeroglass ™ on less cpu than my Palm.  Amazing.  Gabriel was suitably stunned, and even his computer-savvy older brother was impressed.

More to the point he had a proven OS that is more immune to nasties than the best maintained Windows machine we have seen, and since all the software is from the Ubuntu repositories, no fiddly admin intervention is required to update weekly.

His mother need never worry about updating a raft of nagware; Firefox is as well-blocked against unsuitable sites as anything else available – and all in free software!  The total cost of ownership of this laptop is what we paid for it.  No annual Symantec tax, no long hours (add it up annually) updating things to protect Windows from its own inadequacies.

For a single mum, that time is priceless, not to mention the money.

With Gcompris and stacks of Linux  educational software on board, Gabriel has a machine that is (hopefully) good for the rest of his time at first school. He can learn/use Windows 2K if he wants to, but without the risk of connecting Windows to the internet.  The Win drivers have
been ‘got at’ .

And thanks to the Batman wallpaper/sounds, it has ultimate cred with his school-friends.  No problems there, then.  A rugged OS that has street cred, educational value and is hardened against attack at no ongoing cost in time or money – all at the popular price.

The last word should be Gabriel’s – whilst staring at the BSOD on a Win system he said with the gnomic aplomb of the young:-

“Mine doesn’t do that…. this computer is  bad.”

All the best, Ben Mullett

We are big fans of Knoppix and DSL – they work so well at their intended tasks, and Puppy Linux is remarkable – VestaPup and MacPup are particularly good fun.

Gabriel will doubtless wish to update his wallpaper/theme eventually, and then we have the fun of showing him how…..

Many thanks for the great email Ben. You don’t sound like much of an apprentice to me; more like an “old hand”. I think you have passed with distinctions and may consider yourself a Sourcerer (there’s no formal exam or certificate – enthusiasm and passion are what really count)! And I’m certain Gabriel will be sure to follow in his Grandad’s footsteps 🙂

Your comment about Firefox,

… Firefox is as well-blocked against unsuitable sites as anything else available – and all in free software!

is amazingly poigniant at the moment as the debate rolls on as to just how “Free” Firefox really is. But the sentiment is sound.

Please point Gabriel to this post – I’m sure he will be delighted to read about his computing activities on-line… If you wish, send me a picture of the laptop (and/or Gabriel or yourself) and I’ll add it to this post so we can all see; a ruggedised and water-resistant PIII lappy running Xubuntu sounds cooler than Iceland!

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