Sunday, May 30, 2010

Renovating an old computer with Linux

I am posting this article on my blog using an IBM Thinkpad that's about 10 years old.
A Windows computer that ancient would be considered almost useless. It would likely not be able to run a modern Internet browser, for example.
My computer, however, uses a variation on the Linux operating system called CrunchbangLinux. I won't claim that it's fast, but it is adequate. I can use it to surf the Internet, play music, write an article with a word processor, read PDF files and do pretty much anything else a computer is normally used for. A "light" version of Linux, which uses a relatively small amount of memory, can rehabilitate an old PC that otherwise would not be very useful.
As I assume there might be other people who might find it interesting to obtain a useful computer by downloading software from the Internet and installing it on an old machine, I'm going to explain how to use Crunchbang Linux, my current favorite version of Linux. I am not a computer hardware expert at all, and I will do my best to write an article for ordinary computer users.
First, I want to define my terms, in case anyone is already confused. All computers run on an operating system, a software program that controls the computer and provides a base for the various other programs it runs. Most personal computers run a variation of Microsoft's Windows system. Macintosh runs an Apple OS.
Linux, invented as a kind of hobby by computer users around the world, is a noncommercial operating system available for little or no money that usually runs on computers that otherwise would usually run Windows.
Anybody is free to develop his own version of Linux, and there are many different versions to meet different needs. There are quite a few light Linux versions written specifically to run on old computers and to run very fast on new machines. Crunchbang Linux runs well on old machines, and so does Antix Linux.
To get started, you'll need an old computer and at least one copy of Linux. You may also need a wireless card or Ethernet card to connect the computer with your Internet provider, if you use a cable connection rather than wireless Internet.
You may not want to run your Linux experiments on the computer your children use for their homework. It's best to find an old computer to play with. Your family, your friends or your employer may have an old computer they consider useless that they are willing to let you have for next to nothing. Otherwise, you may have to shop around using classified ads and other resources.
Next, you'll need Crunchbang Linux, Antix Linux or another "light" Linux.
You can try almost any Linux distribution before installing it by using a "live CD."
To get yours, download a copy of Linux and then burn it on a blank disk using a CD burner.
Any such file will be stored online as an ISO image file. All Web sites for Linux have such files, which are designed to to burned onto a blank CD. The Antix Linux site, for example, has links to many sites which store the files and make them available for downloading. Similarly, Crunchbang has downloading links on its site.
Download Antix Linux 8.5-486 if you have a very old computer, such as Pentium I. Download Antix Linux 8.5-686 if you have a Pentium II or later. The 486 version will work in just about any computer.
Any computer with a CD burner should have a program for burning ISO image files on disk. If you don't have one, you should be able to Google for such a program. If you don't have a CD burner, find the computer nerd in your family or your circle of friends to help you.
Downloading Linux and burning it yourself to a CD may be too much of a hassle for some people. An easier way is to buy a cheap disk from an online vendor. sells Linux disks for $1.95 apiece, including the latest versions of Antix and Crunchbang. (Click "Live CD" and look under "MEPIS" for AntiX.)
It's probably a good idea to have copies of another couple of varieties of light Linux to test, too. Google "lightweight Linux" for ideas. Xubuntu is probably the most popular light Linux and is easy to use and install.
If your old desktop computer does not have a network card, or if your laptop does not have a wireless card, you'll likely want one to connect to the Internet. Unless you are sure it will work with Linux, don't buy your device on the Internet. Buy it at the store and save the receipt. (The packaging won't tell you if it works with Linux, and the salesman at the store likely won't know.)
Now, it's time to have fun.
Make sure your computer's settings will tell it to boot from the CD drive. If you don't have the manual anymore and can't figure out how to do that, Google for a PDF of the computer's manual. In my experience, there's a PDF of the manual available for download somewhere for almost any computer ever made.
Insert your Crunchbang Linux CD (or whatever Linux CD is being tested) into the CD drive and reboot. It should load. If Antix Linux is being tried, enter "demo" and "demo" in the username and password fields.
This "live CD" version of the software in theory load, and allow the user to see if it works on the computer being tested. If Antix Linux is being tested, right click the desktop with the mouse to bring up a menu of software programs to try. The same action will bring up a Crunchbang menu.
If a laptop is being tested and there isn't an unencrypted wireless Internet signal at home, tote the laptop to a library or coffee shop. If all goes well, the software will recognize the wireless card (or the networking card on your desktop computer.) Clicking on the browser should connect you to the Internet.
If the wireless adapter doesn't work, you can try another version of Linux, including an older version of the same software. (For some reason, only older versions of Antix Linux work with my D-Link wireless card.) If you saved your receipt, as I advised you a few paragraphs ago, you can exchange the wireless adapter for another one.
Make sure the sound card works by playing a sound file or trying an Internet radio station.
When you are satisfied the software works on your computer, it can be installed on the hard drive.
Most Linux varieties will ask for a username and password for an administrator and a username and password for a user. To avoid messing up your computer, always log on as a user for ordinary computer tasks such as surfing the Internet, listening to music files, etc. Administrator log-ins should be reserved for when you really need to tinker with the software.
If the software doesn't work or doesn't recognize all of the computer's hardware, try using a different variety of Linux.
When you have finished, you should have a computer that can do almost any task you'd expect a computer to do.
Using it will be a little bit like switching from Windows to a MacIntosh. The system will seem unfamiliar in some ways, but figuring out how to do something normally won't be too difficult.
Your old computer will not be as fast as an expensive new computer. Because you aren't running Windows, you won't have access to all of the computer programs Windows users can run.
But there are advantages to using Linux, too.
Spyware, viruses and other nonsense programs written by troublemakers are written for Windows computers. Running Linux puts an end to having to worry about such things.

Monday, May 17, 2010

'We are Lebron' video

Here's an amusing video: "We Are LeBron," a plea for the Cavaliers star to remain in Cleveland, sung to the tune of "We Are the World." Various Cleveland celebrities take part.

I have a soft spot for Zach Reed, the Cleveland City Councilman -- he was one of the few local Democrats who helped when my wife and I participated in a futile effort to force a vote over whether to raise the sales tax for the Medical Mart boondoggle. So I'll take a moment to note here that apparently Councilman Reed can actually sing.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Barack Obama's crummy Supreme Court nominee

President Barack Obama has nominated a Supreme Court justice who thinks that prosecutors who use fake evidence to convict someone of murder should be shielded from lawsuits. Details here.

There's nothing that can be done about this. Given the partisan realities in Washington, the president could nominate almost anyone, and the Democrats holding a solid majority in the U.S. Senate would set aside whatever private reservations they might have and confirm that person. Only a few of the usual soreheads (libertarians, card-carrying members of the American Civil Liberties Union, those sorts of folks) will raise a fuss. They probably won't get much traction in the media.

I want to thank a couple of the usual soreheads for alerting me to this: Jennifer Abel (via Jeffrey Quick).