The Beginning

The first computers I ever used were the Apple II’s in my public school. I didn’t learn much about them beyond where the power button was and where to put the floppy disks so I could play Oregon Trail or Number Muncher. My family’s fist PC showed up in our home on Christmas Day, 1996. It was a Packard Bell that came with Windows ‘95 and a bundle of software on CD-ROM. Our house was definitely online by 1998 and almost immediately I started playing with HTML and making web pages about my favorite bands on Geocities. That computer was eventually replaced with a gaming rig my older brother built. By the time I was in high school, I had my own computer. I don’t remember exactly what it was but I’m sure it was some kind of Frankenstein’s monster of a PC and it was running Windows XP.

A screenshot of Gentoo running FVWM in 2005.
Check out this cool desktop a Gentoo system running FVWM from 2005. This dude hacks!

During those high school years one of the things I liked to do was customize my Windows desktop. I spent lots of time on several websites downloading skins, themes, wallpapers to make my PC look really sleek or really hacker-ish. One of the websites I frequented for customization content was DeviantArt. At the time they had a section where people shared screenshots of their desktops. I still remember the username I had on the site. Among the small collection of embarrassing, cringe-inducing and angst-ridden art were a few screenshots of my computer at the time. Here’s a screenshot of my XP machine in 2005. I had an iPod at the time, and you can tell I was really into the look of OS X. Of all the screenshots in that DeviantArt section, I thought the coolest ones were all from people using some obscure OS called GNU/Linux. Their desktops were unique because they were able to customize every little detail. Right down to the icons and fonts! Man, those desktops look so cool! I’ve gotta get in on this!

Millenial deviant art web pin.

When I started looking into this GNU/Linux thing, I came across the FSF. I learned about free software, what it was, why it was important. I loved it! It had a rebellious attitude to it that was also communal and friendly. It fit well into my rebellious teenage mind. I don’t remember how or where I first saw it but also during this time I saw a movie called Revolution OS. It’s a must-see if you’re the least bit curious about GNU/Linux. You can watch it on Odysee for free. It’s a great film documenting the beginnings and rise of the GNU/Linux operating system. After seeing that, I was completely sold. Not only did I want to use this radical new OS, I wanted to support it financially, and I wanted to be a part of this rebellious anti-corporate community. So over the next year or so I would try out a few different distributions by buying physical installation media.

Remember when it was common to buy CD-ROM software that came in big cool boxes like this? Complete with documentation I never read...

The distributions I tried during this time period were: RedHat, Debian, OpenSuSE, and Mandrake. I realize none of these are FSF-approved distributions. Although, I think Debian was at the time. I still don’t use an FSF-approved distribution but that’s the topic of another post. Things did not go as well as I had hoped. I dove into the pool before learning how to swim. No, it was worse than that. I dove into the pool believing I was a great swimmer when I could only doggy-paddle. I thought I was a clever hacker but I realized quite quickly exactly how clueless I was. I ran into hardware compatibility issues with some of the distributions. On the ones where I could get my hardware to work, I couldn’t understand how to work the OS. How do I install software? A package manager? Why can’t I just download the installer from their website? The package manager doesn’t have the latest version of the software I want, how do I get the latest version? Compile it myself?! What do I look like, a software engineer? And why can’t I get my iPod to work? I have 3 hard disk drives on this computer, why can I only see one? Where is my D:\ drive? Edit my fstab? That file looks like gibberish, I don’t want to touch it. To top it all off, there were several occasions when I exited Vim by restarting my PC. I was a real life meme of a Linux newbie.

My last effort was with Mandrake, which had a reputation at the time for being a good beginner’s distribution. I ran into the same problems. I hated it. I gave up. In hindsight, if I had just picked up one of the several manuals I had, I might have learned enough to stick to it. Alas, I didn’t. I kept tabs on it over the years, tried distros with live ISOs when to see what was up. I even kept a live Ubuntu CD on hand as a data recovery tool. But for the most part, I had given up on Linux. But not on free software. All the time I was using Mac or Windows as my OS, I still used as much free/libre software as I could.

Eventually I had to buy a new computer. As I mentioned already, I had an iPod and was starting to fall for Apple’s slick marketing.

Distant Lands

My "battlestation" in 2005. Left-to-right: my PC (with CPU/fan/volt meters in 3.5" bay, left PC monitor, external HDD with cool lights, some Motorola flip-phone from NexTel, iPod, the Aiwa HiFi system I used as PC speakers, PowerBook G4, right PC monitor.)

After giving up on GNU/Linux systems, I bought an Apple PowerBook G4. A year later I replaced my desktop with a Mac Mini. I was an Apple user until 2011. It was a good experience for the most part. Apple does make a good computer and OS, but approach the year 2011 a few things started to really bug me about Apple.

Apple computers were always a bit more expensive their the PC competition but by 2011 the difference in price would not justify the difference in quality in my opinion. In the beginning I lusted for the sleek brushed aluminum shells and glossy peripherals of Apple hardware. But after a few years the shiny case showed it’s true self to be a nuisance. Upgrading the memory or disk drive on my old x86 PC was a straight-forward operation: undo a few screws, remove old component, replace with new. It could have been this easy with my Mac Mini but Apple deliberately makes it difficult. By encasing the computer in nice-looking but difficult to disassemble shell. They don’t want their users opening up their computers to make their own upgrades or repairs. This is an absurd practice that is hostile to their own customers. You bought the machine, you have the right to repair, upgrade, or modify it as you wish and Apple should not put obstacles in your way. This is a right that guys like Louis Rossman of Rossman Repair Group, LLC are fighting for us to keep. It’s not just computers either, automobiles, tractors, home appliances, and more are increasingly more difficult for their owners to repair and maintain due to design decisions made by the manufacturer.

Me using my Mac Mini in my East Boston apartment. Circa 2010.

Apple has been accused of planned obsolescence several times and I believe I experienced this with my Mac Mini. When I decided to get rid of that computer, it was because it had become suddenly and inexplicably slow. I can understand web browsers or other such behemoth applications being slow as they got bigger and more complicated. But even programs that hadn’t changed for years, like my word processor and some simple games, were taking forever to load. I wish I had kept the computer so I could have installed Linux on it and compare the performance.

So it was time to ditch Apple. But I still need a computer, so what next?

A look inside of my Intel i5-based PC, nicknamed MonsterMash. Toward the end of its use as my daily driver, I fitted a massive heat sink to the CPU and overclocked it to 3.4 GHz.

I decided to build a new PC in 2012. Thanks to one friend who donated a case and another friend who donated a graphics card, I had a pretty decent PC 2.5 GHz i5 PC build for less than $500. The bad taste of Linux was still in my mouth. I didn’t want to deal with hardware problems or bugs. Yeah Microsoft is evil, but Windows is good enough and I was able to get legitimate license keys for free from my brother who worked for a big software company. I didn’t do much with that PC besides play games. I do not regret the Dozens of hours spent in Tamriel. I started off with Windows 7 and upgrade to Windows 10 later solely because the upgrade was free. That turned out to be a big mistake.

Upon rebooting my PC and clicking on the start menu, I was horrified at what I saw. Advertisements. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I knew Microsoft was evil but I just didn’t expect them to stoop this low. Not only do I need to put it with advertising everywhere in real life and online, now it’s in my PC’s operating system itself? I quickly found ways to disable all the garbage but then Richard Stallman came into my mind. Sure I can tick all these boxes to disable the ads, but without open source code, I cannot possibly trust that this does anything to protect my privacy. Ads in Windows are even worse than ads on the internet. Google and Facebook are only able to track what I do online. Microsoft has the advantage of being able to spy on literally everything I do with my PC.

I hated it, and yet I still stuck with it for another year or two. All the while growing ever more irritated with Windows 10’s forced updates. What’s worse than being forced to update your PC when your Microsoft overlords tell you to, is something breaking with nearly every update. After one update my graphics card drivers failed; after another update, explorer would randomly crash a dozen times a day; after another update my audio stopped working. Each time, I would spend hours or day searching for a solution to my latest problem. Sometimes a bug affected so few people, it never got fixed or it was only fixed in the next update six months later. Eventually, I had enough and I resolved to ditch Microsoft for good. Even if Linux distributions were more difficult to use, I was determined to learn anyway so that I could escape my corporate computing nightmare.

Returning ~/

I kept tabs on the free software world over the years. I knew that the desktop Linux experience had improved by leaps and bounds. But I knew better this time than to jump in carelessly. I left my main desktop machine running Windows as a backup. I picked up an old laptop from an e-waste recycler. The plan was to install a Linux distro on the laptop and use that to learn. When I eventually felt comfortable using Linux, I would install it on my Desktop as well and my home would be purged of Microsoft garbage.

Ubuntu doesn’t have the greatest reputation at the FSF but it did have an overall reputation of being the best just works distributions, so that’s what I chose to install. I was pleasantly surprised to find that everything indeed just worked. After a few months of getting acquainted with the graphical interaction with Ubuntu, I started digging deeper. This time without fear of breaking anything since I had a backup to rely on.

I stumbled on a free e-book that changed the course of my relationship with computers forever. That book was The Linux Command Line by William Shotts. It is a crash course in Linux system administration for the complete newbie. It is the best book for that task. It has no parallel. It explains the overall philosophy of a GNU/Linux system - the directory structure, everything is a file, small programs that do one thing well, extensibility, et cetera - as well as how to use the command line interface and how to make your own BASh scripts. I still recommend it to new users today and I still reference it myself from time to time. I encourage even users who say they aren’t interested in programming or using the terminal emulator to read this book. Many distributions these days are shockingly stable. But sooner or later you may make a mistake or something may break and when that happens you will feel far less helpless if you have a working knowledge of the system and the command line interface.

Christopher Walken more cowbell meme.

I owe a lot to that book. After reading it and working through all the examples, I felt confident in my ability to use Linux and I was able to cut Windows out of my life for good. It didn’t stop there though. I had a fever, and the only prescription was more Linux. I started trying out different distributions. I spent a Saturday installing Arch on my desktop machine. That was a moment of pride for me because I still remember that troll who tricked me into trying to install Gentoo when I barely understood how ls worked. I setup a home server using an old Dell OptiPlex I bought from the same e-recycler I got my laptop. I use it to play media on every TV in my house, and share files with all my computers and mobile devices. My mother-in-law was very frustrated with her sluggish Windows 10 PC. Well guess what, Nana? You’re getting’ some Linux!

Free Software For Life!