Monday, January 30, 2012

The experiment with Mom!

I read these stories all the time about "Joe Sixpack", or about some "mythical, typical user". I am convinced that while there may be some common attributes found in a casual computer user, there is no one, single "typical user" out there.

My mother is an intelligent woman, someone who reads every day of her life, remains active, and while she is traditional and conservative in her approach to life, in no way does that limit or label her as "closed minded", unwilling to change, or any other stereotypes you may think of, or possibly have even experienced in the past.

No, my mother is smart, witty, with a good sense of humor, and she's in better health than people ten to fifteen years younger than her.

Many years ago, my mother worked in the local school system, first in Accounts Payable at the School Board office, then in the counseling office at the Junior High School. She had to use a minimal amount of computer access in order to do her job. She was able to pick up the skills and do an adequate job with them, given the time and expertise needed to perform her job.

When I moved in with my mother, I found that she had a laptop computer and she was able to use it for really basic things, like reading Email and searching news sites. What she knows tends to be limited, for the most part, to what she has been shown. Very gradually, she is learning that there are not too many harmful things that happen when you click on a Web page - EXCEPT when someone is asking you to fill in information about yourself or others. She knows not to do that!

With that in mind, I set out to see if my mom could use a Linux system in place of Windows XP. I was almost certain she could because:

1) All she accesses are sites on Internet Explorer, such as Hotmail, Bing, MyMSN, or From there, she accesses other things. It's all Web based.

2) So far, I have seen no evidence of Word Processor use. So if she wants to use a Word Processor, learning Abiword, KWord, Libre Office, or something else will be no different than learning Microsoft Word.

Therefore, I have had my mother using Linux Mint 12 for over a month. She's had very few questions and no big problems. When she wants to do something like reserve a ticket somewhere or buy something, she asks for my help so that she won't mistakenly go to the wrong place.

So she's done pretty well with Mint.

My next experiment is to see if she can handle Xubuntu. If that's a yes, then it may even become Lubuntu, a really light system that is very suitable for people who use the Internet and very little else.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Using Google Chrome OS

This is a late Saturday afternoon, and after a leisurely day, I am sitting in my basement lab with my prototype Google Cr-48 Chromebook, a netbook that Google was considering producing. They sent quite a few prototype units out to perspective users back in December 2010, and I was fortunate enough to hear about it early in the program and apply for one. I got mine back on December 21, 2010, just in time for Christmas!

The unit wasn't real fast in prototype form. It had a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom CPU. Later, when the software and hardware were ready to release, both Samsung and Acer produced, and released, their own Chromebook models that had slightly beefier specifications. The form factor, 12.1", remained the same, the SSD drive, keyboard, and display, as far as I know, remained the same in the final units, but the CPU was kicked up a notch or two. I think one model had a 1.8 GHz, low power consumption Atom chip, and there may have even been a low powered Duo Core Atom introduced.

If that is in fact the case, then those would make pretty darn good systems. As it is, this is a solid system. Out of all of my hardware (home and work, for that matter) the keyboard and display are as good or better as anything else I have.

Boot time, hibernation time, and shutdown time easily outpace ANYTHING else that I have. How does a ten second boot time on LOW POWERED equipment sound? How about a one second hibernation time or a one second wake up from hibernbate sound? Even wireless now connects better than it once did - just a few seconds.

With this unit, 5-10 seconds after opening the lid, I can be editing or at least calling up Web pages to view. So it's great when I want to read stuff on line. What's even better, now that I have a 4G LTE Verizon Wireless Mifi unit, I can do Wifi anywhere I can get a Verizon signal, which is most anywhere I go around here. So if I am so inclined I can bring this Chromebook and my small pocket sized Mifi along. The Chromebook has better battery life (8-10 hours) than the Mifi (~3 hours), but that is enough before plugging in most of the time.

I used to take this unit to Borders and use their Internet cafe. Now with fast 4G LTE Mifi access, I can do a lot more than that!

I wonder if these things will make a comeback or if the tablet age is going to render them dinosaurs? I can tell you that tablets may do a few things these don't, but the reverse is also true. These are still faster and boot quicker than most tablets, but it is the display and keyboard, plus the battery life, that beat the pants off the tablets or smart phones. I could see carrying around a smart phone and one of these instead of a phone and tablet or phone and laptop. Mind you, I do little of either. I value my time and privacy too much. When I carry devices around, usually it is more to "test out" specific features or do some research than it is to "remain connected" at all times. As much as I use the Internet (probably anywhere from ten to fourteen hours a day at least four or five days a week) I usually scale back on weekends. Today, I may do four or five hours (but little to no TV; I RARELY, if ever, watch TV during the week). Tomorrow, I may use a computer a similar amount, but not more than that.

So for me, while I use computers a lot and I am interested in this kind of technology, being imprisoned by it is something that I STRONGLY avoid!

Working with antiX M11.0, and it's a good one!

I have been an enthusiastic user and supporter of the antiX distribution since it became available in 2006. The antiX distribution is a lightweight, flexible alternative to its parent distribution, SimplyMEPIS, which is based on the rock solid Debian Stable technology. As configured when installed, antiX uses the Debian Testing repositories instead of the Debian Stable repositories, and it also has entries in the packaging configuration directory /etc/apt for Stable, Testing, or Sid (Unstable).

On my antiX M11.0 system partition, I use the original Testing repositories. In my alternative antiX core distribution, I use Sid instead.

That brings up another discussion point on antiX. Though it is a moderate sized distribution and it is a derivative of SimplyMEPIS and Debian, at each release it now comes with three distinct variations - the "full" distribution, which is the original antiX, equipped with IceWM and Fluxbox as light window managers, along with a full collection of software that features modest memory and system requirements. After the main or "full" distribution was created, a derivative called "Base" was created. In this derivative, the system comes complete with a graphical user environment containing Fluxbox as its window manager, and it contains a complete set of packaging and management tools, but no application software. With this version, you can install and set up the system the way you want it, adding or removing window management software and applications to suit your needs and interests.

If that's not enough, more recently anticapitalista, the originator of antiX, came up with the idea of a core distribution. This idea is quite similar to the idea that the Arch Linux developers came up with, but I like the antiX core idea, because it uses the Debian tools that are somewhat more familiar to me than the Arch tools, and there is a broader selection of software available at your fingertips. In the antiX core implementation, all you get is the core system and tools, no X server and no graphical display environment. Those things, with Debian, are just a single command away with the apt-get Debian packaging tool.

I created my initial antiX core setup with just a single apt-get command, including the core X server, two desktop environments, Xfce and LXDE, and a small handful of software. I got the initial setup working in ten to fifteen minutes. Over time, I changed it from a Debian Testing to a Debian Sid setup, added some window managers, applications, and I eventually added some heavier applications just to see how well they would work out. What resulted was a system that was very close in content and capability to the Debian Sid system that I had created from the Debian Live project, and it was almost completely the result of my own customization. I give a lot of credit, not only to anticapitalista, but also to Harold Hope (h2) for his smxi system management tool, which I added and heavily leaned on early in my antiX core customization process.

How do antiX M11.0 and antiX core compare? Well, because I eventually modified them using different Debian repositories, the M11.0 implementation is the more stable of the two, but both carry similar flexibility and features. I could undoubtedly go backward with M11.0 and strip software out of it and get close to where antiX Base and Core start at, and I could similarly modify antiX core to behave nearly identically to that of its parent. The fact that there is so much flexibility built into all three of the antiX derivatives speaks well for the design and for the upstream software upon which all of these efforts are based. I recommend one of the antiX distributions for anyone looking for a somewhat lighter system to start with. For those not familiar with many of the underlying Debian commands, I'd opt for antiX M11.0 "full". It has enough software to use it as is, and it has graphical system management tools for keeping it up to date. The Base and Core alternatives are fantastic for someone with a bit more experience and interest in making their system precisely what they want it to be, but all of them are first rate in what they offer. I wouldn't quite call any of them beginner distributions, but the primary M11.0 release is not too difficult for anyone to install or use who has previously installed any other system.

Friday, January 06, 2012