An interesting revelation further to my “Confused” post

I came to an interesting epiphany when discussing my little whining session regarding the computers being sold at a relatively wild range of prices with my brother (at least, wild given the ranges, from $230 to $700, all fabulous deals to begin with) and apparently being sold principally by the metrics of clock cycles, memory, and price tag. Oh of course the other things are there too, but we all know what’s really important, don’t we? 🙂

The realisation was that perhaps I should be using Gentoo linux instead of what I happen to be using, CentOS 4.5. Or really, Gentoo (or any of the other source-based linux distros) instead of any of the others. More about what appears to make Gentoo so special in a moment. Suffice it to say right now that Gentoo is not for the faint of heart, and I have a faint heart. 🙂 Gentoo is *very* difficult and complex to set up. And can take days in some cases, even assuming that it all goes well.

My brother decided to take his AMD 2.8 with plenty of memory and convert a movie to DVD format; possibly under Windows, possibly under CentOS 5.1, he didn’t tell me which. He decided, for the fun of it, to convert the same movie, at the same time, with a dual-core 1.3, I believe under Windows. AMD’s have faster performance per clock cycle than Pentiums, so an AMD 2.8 is purportedly similar in performance to a P4 3.8.

We were both surprised: The dual core 1.3 won the race.

Apparently, the video conversion software was optimized for dual cores on said machine, so between the software, its clock cycles, and all the other metrics (bus speeds, memory, etc.) it was able to beat out the other machine just using brute processing force.

Gentoo is a linux distro that is distributed as source code which must be compiled at the time of installation, and which figures out what kind of hardware you have, then compiles the source into binary code using settings and tweakings specific to your computer. This way, you see slight to noticeable to (occasionally) fabulous improvements in speed and performance over installing standard binary ISO’s of another distro built from exactly the same sources, on the same machine. In principle, if you were to make a binary ISO of every Gentoo install, no two would be quite identical; nor would the binary ISO from one install on a given machine necessarily give the same performance on a comparable but slightly different machine.

The word “Gentoo” is the proper name for a type of penguin that happens to be the fastest swimming penguin; the Linux mascot, Tux, is a penguin. Hence the name Gentoo for a Linux distro.

Hmmm, now I understand the raison d’être for Gentoo. And an appreciation for things in general. And, maybe I’m a bit more confused. 🙂

And no, I have never tried Gentoo, nor am I likely to in the near future.:) This is neither an endorsement nor critique about Gentoo or any other linux distro; it is an observation further to previous observations that there are many, many, many metrics by which to compare two or more computers and that software, including the “mere” (yet very involved) compiling of the source code as a function of the hardware, is yet another very important metric in deciding how to purchase a new computer. One which I suspect the mass consumer such as myself is not likely to comprehend — or at least properly evaluate on the street — when pulling out their credit card.preteen lover
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I’ve got a computer catalog … and I’m confused.

I have been oggling over the computers in the catalog recently sent by a well-known Canadian discount supplier of computers and electronics. After all it is the Christmas season. (But my PIII 550 desktop and PIII 450 laptop are just fine, thank you.)

I’m confused. I only know that the reconditionned P4s 2.0GHz with 128megs of RAM are worth the $230 or whatever they are asking give the market these days. Actually sounds like a great deal, although I think the first thing I’d do is pop in a few memory sticks were I to buy it.

There are Celeron D 3.46GHz units with 512megs for $300.

A Pentium D 2.8GHz with a gig of memory for $488.

An Intel Core 2 Duo 1.86GHz with 2gigs of memory for $670.

An Intel P4 3.0GHz with 512megs of memory for $250 .

I could go on.

The “disparities” for the laptops are much more confusing.

Now I’ve been dealing with computers for about 25 years. I’m by no means an expert; in fact, I don’t really know what’s going on under the hood. But I do understand is that AMD Athlod 2.6GHZ with a gig of memory for $549 might be a good idea; I hear that the AMD chips are way faster than Intel chips with the same cycle speeds. I don’t know why, but I believe my source. And I know that a Celeron is an intentionally crippled Pentium to respond to “market pressures” for a cheaper PC.

I think I got screwed a few years ago when I was sold a Celeron 533 for about $2000, monitor, keyboard, etc., etc., etc., included (no OS though.) Now I know that prices have dropped a lot since the year 2000; that’s not what bothers me. What bothers me is the thought that allegedly my PIII 550 desktop is self-appropriate — that is, the memory speed, bus speed, on-board processor cache memory, processor speed, and so on are more or less appropriate to each other, and that it’s the first computer I’ve had that is. No Ferrari parts in a jalopy, or Yugo transmissions in a Kenworth tractor. Well okay, nowadays it would be nice if it had USB 2.0 instead of USB 1.25 or whatever, but that’s a generational thing, not technological propriety. I’m not certain about the Celeron 533. It still runs XP and is even slower than when I abandonned it and gave it to my mother.

I think that said discount supplier is trying to confuse me the same way; I think that they have assembled a bunch of parts left and right depending on what they bought at a rock bottom price yesterday, called it a computer, and are hoping that dumb ol’ me can’t tell the difference between them. I figure that they are betting that the processor cycles in bold type and a cheap price tag will get me to pull out my credit card, figuring that these two metrics, possibly with a mention of how much memory is there, will clinch the deal. Of course today’s rock bottom prices are for different parts, so of course the computers they slap together tomorrow will have a similar price but different specs.

I could be wrong.

But I like my conspiracy theory. And I like the PIII 550 I have, that a few lifetimes ago was an online casino server. Seems about half as much faster running CentOS 4.5 (that’s a flavour of Linux) than the Celeron 533 running XP.

A LUzer abandons Windows and goes for Linux

A LUzer abandons Windows and goes for Linux

I “got” the facts. And I acted on them. MS played their hand; it trumped mine. And I won.

I would call myself a LUzer. I don’t really understand what is going under the hood. On the other hand, I have been characterized as a 7 out of 10 when it comes to knowing about computers and being competent, although I think the person was being at least a bit generous. Go figure. Maybe the fact that by 1994 I had completely stopped helping people with their computers, and had been doing next to no helping since I’d screwed up a friend’s computer in 1990 (although it was quite easily salvageable by somebody who *did* know what they were doing around computers), says something about how smart I might actually be with a computer by virtue of knowing my limitations. Ah, bull.

My first intro to Linux was in 1996 when a friend had installed it on his new PI-90. I have a memory of XP style windows on top of a black command line screen.

In 1999 my 486 SX-33 running Win 3.1 – the original legal install from when I’d bought the machine five years before – was finally grinding to a halt after five years of faithful service. This was just before software that would clean up your system existed or just on the cusp of their mainstream availability. I knew that putting Linux on it would be a good idea, clean up the system, and give it a new life for a while longer. I found a few small distros but couldn’t load them due to peculiarities about Toshiba disk drives. A few aborted attempts to get friends to help didn’t get anywhere. Finally my brother managed to force some version of linux onto a 200meg HD, probably a Red Hat distro of the day, but it was only command line. It didn’t help much. I quickly abandonned the system and relegated it to a closet until selling it about a year and a half later.

In 2000 I bought a new desktop and had Win98 installed with a Red Hat 6.0 dual boot. The choice was easy, I supposedly had a decent system and my brother was running a dot.com hosting company on it. After a few weeks I finally got fed up with it; it wasn’t meeting my needs even though I wanted to get rid of MS. I think that lack of user friendliness, having lost half of my 14 gig HD, apparent lack of software availability, and lack of ease of installation for a windows-type was what did it in. The Windows side was grinding to a halt and I finally managed to, ahem, upgrade to Windows 2000 in late 2001, wiping out the dual boot in the process. It was a bit slower than Windows 98 but as promised it was stable and did not get progressively slower with time. Not much anyway.

My net activities since 1999 have not much changed, I surf the same few websites daily, email, etc. In 1999 my habits were also very similar to what I was doing in 1995-1997 on the net, except more web surfing and virtually no newsgroups. I had thrown in a bit of midi fascination in 2003, but in short order my machine couldn’t even play them. Video became quickly out of the question (performance was barely and really not acceptable at first, and was hopeless in short order). I know that software that worked fine on the computer out of the box in 2000 would never again work with any semblance of actually operating, let alone acceptably.

Meantime in late 2004, a friend’s hubby told me to try out Firefox. It took me a few weeks to get around to trying it, but once I had there was no turning back to Internet Explorer. At this point the recommendations to get away to anything from IE6 were flying left and right from all sorts of reputable sources. Sometime later I, ahem, “upgraded” again to Windows XP.

Then in the spring of 2005, I had had some problems one evening with a critical project for school. Working full time and taking night courses was tough enough, but my (admittely unofficial) copy of MS Office was suddenly grinding to a literal halt for several minutes on my “new to me” PIII 450 laptop while just trying to open up a Save dialog was getting to be over the top stressful. OpenOffice.org to the rescue, and within a few days it was on my Celeron 533 desktop as well, used full time on both machines, and a few weeks later I got around to uninstalling MS Office to save disk space. What a relief to have done that, even without the space savings.

Interestingly, I’ve mostly used software and clients that most people were not using. Admittedly, despite this I was still experiencing problems, which I expect were more or less typical of problems experienced by others, yet I think I escaped many more other problems. I understand that there were all sorts of problems related to the use of MS Outlook, which I had never used since being online starting in mid 1994 and only started using it in mid 2005 at work. Netscape, then Firefox instead of Internet Explorer most of the time (although there was a while that I did use IE.) Eudora instead of MS Outlook. I liked newsgroups instead of the web for many years. Finally I was using OpenOffice.org. All this seems like it was a good practice. Getting “wonderful”, read rude and crude, feedback from normally quiet, peaceful gentlepeople regarding spams on lists merely confirmed that not using the same clients that everyone else was using was a good thing. Admittedly, I was using MS Windows like the crowd. Norton, MS Office (although no more at this point), etc., too.

Then in May 2006 when the Windows Genuine Advantage update came about, and it was not possible to get rid of it from my systems despite several, uhm, attempts. WGA was the incentive I needed to make the move. Definitively, wholly, and permanently. Well, ok, at work they still are entrenched with Windows and won’t budge. At least the IT guys humour me.

I realized at this point I was generally doing something else very interesting, besides mostly using clients different from the crowd: What made my computer do the things I wanted to do – word processing, spreadsheets, web surfing, a few other small projects, were increasingly Open Source. Eudora was not what most people were using. Virtually all – in fact, I can’t think of much to cite an exception, although there were one or two – of the little projects I was doing was done using free software off the Internet. Essentially, virtually all of what I was doing was essentially independant of what – or should I say “Who” — was under the hood beyond the specific technical requirements involved in choosing which download button to choose. And much of it was not what most people are using. What was underneath didn’t much matter, if at all. Surely under Linux, once it tickles my fancy to do those little one or two time jobs again, there would be at least one linux program on the net that works, for the hundreds or perhaps thousands of mostly either for-a-fee or crippleware or really bad implementation of the job under Windows that exist with perhaps one or two good freeware implementations.

At the same time, I was sick and tired of using pirated software, a slow system, and hearing all the stories from my brother talking about the horror stories from his MS-using clients and how wonderful Linux is. I was and am as cheap to buy a new computer as I was in purchasing software, and was getting fed up with Windows in general anyway. And was getting fascinated by my brother using obsolete computers to do what he needed under Linux; admittedly, not always as fast as everyone else was, but doing it nonetheless. I was even contributing to the cause by being on the lookout all the time for old computers and spare parts being tossed. At the same time my Celeron 533 was grinding to a halt under the massive weight of Windows XP, Norton Antivirus and Firewall, cookies, spyware (despite doing regular cleans and surprisingly not really having much), you name it. Despite all you hear about spyware, malware, trojan horses, virii, etc., the last time I had a good old fashioned computer virus was in 1990. And I had relatively few bits of spyware. No Trojan Horses or malware to my confidant knowledge. Imagine what those less savvy than I (remember I sincerely consider myself a LUzer) – and if anything you hear about the problems people are suffering is to be believed, apparently the majority of people were having way more difficulties than I, and more recently than 1990 – must be going through. It makes me wonder why any linux desktop or the collective of such hasn’t made any real inroads against MS. Perhaps Elmer has been out hunting a lot of Wabbits.

I told my brother that I was sure this time. I wanted to go to Linux. And all the way. My computers were to be MS free zones. He kept on trying to convince me to do a dual boot. Nope, that ultimately was my doing in the last time, it was too easy to go back when things were too complicated for my laziness, but I was serious and understood the value (and consequences) of going cold-turkey.

He knew that I was serious but suspected that perhaps I still hadn’t grasped what I was asking for. He later said that he was behaving much like the rest of the linux community, which he characterized as being like some religions that don’t try to recruit and actually shun converts; they just want to grow by new members from birth, who likely and/or hopefully are going to be more committed. I don’t know if this is true; I have heard lots of stories to the contrary about how helpful people are toward linux newbies. I think that despite his enthusiasm in the idea of making a convert, he was really groaning, realizing that he’d have to do all the work while I enjoyed the fruits of his labour. So one fateful day we were discussing the subject for the umpteenth time and I responded to some question no doubt along the lines of “yeah, but why?” with the following: “I want something to believe in.” He was intrigued. Very intrigued.

Now I suspect — I know — that I wasn’t so much looking to believe in Linux, although I somewhat was, as I was just so sick and tired of Windows, a virtually useless computer, the MS culture, and was more wrestling with moral issues of having illegal software on my computer, at least given a really convenient reason to lean on this crutch. On this last point, MS proved to me beyond any doubt that they knew, or at least could know if they really wanted to, that I had a pirated install, even though they likely weren’t going to physically come after me, at least in the short term. The scare was enough to push me over the edge; I *knew* that a consequence of WGA was that if it ain’t über-critical, I wouldn’t be getting the update and an already suffering system wouldn’t survive the lack of updates over time. And in a sense, the FUD worked. Just as well, it was all linux needed to win me over. Except that MS only won the moral battle; they didn’t get my “Oh please, MS, please please please forgive me and accept my money for a legit copy of your … software I don’t like … that requires third party applications to make my computer safe while further slowing it down to uselessness.”

In any case I knew that all but one of the things I wanted to do in Windows could be done just as well under Linux, sometimes better, and other opportunities lay open. Fortunately a web application that is more convenient than the original Windows application I was depending on came around within a couple of months after the switch, and no tie to the past was left.

First install at the end of June 2006 was Fedora Core 5. I think my Celeron didn’t take and kept on hanging during the install, so it was donated to my brother’s cause and he pulled out a PIII 550 that finally had hardware to match or so I’m told. Alledgedly it was an online casino server in an earlier life about five or six years ago. Now I’m told the video memory isn’t great for videos, but hey everything else is great. And the laptop is good for videos.

Don’t get me going on this one (but here I go anyway), suffice it to say that my limited experience with most computers is that you’ve got a processor that is this class, but the bus speed and/or the amount of memory and/or the HD speed and/or the HD size and/or the HD transfer rate and/or the mother board speed and/or … you get the picture, are underpowered usually due to mismatching and alledged sales responses to consumer demand for an inexpensive machine. Sure I’m as cheap as the next guy and am usually interested in saving a few dollars. But this translates into underpowered or needlessly oversupported or otherwise inappropriately built machines. Why put a porsche engine in a Jalopy? Or a Mini engine in the tractor for an 18 wheeler? Or four season tires on a Formula One race car in the middle of a Montreal snow storm? Or a Ferrari transmission in a Yugo? I probably would have paid an extra hundred or two back when I bought my original machine were I to have been assured not that it was probably right for me, but that it truly was a good machine (albeit not top of the line) and the best part is that all the components are appropriate to each other. I paid an extra couple of hundred for a 17” screen instead of the standard 15” and have been pleased with the decision since day one.

Back to FC5. Originally I was going to get CentOS 4.4, but then I was told that things were going to be bleeding edge with FC5, and I appropriately mused that I no doubt would end up bleeding around the edges. 🙂 Big mistake. Sorry Red Hat, I may be a fan (mostly since my sysadmin is big time into RH) but this was a bad choice. Dependency hell was my experience. Broken updates. Losing my net connection and having to reset things back to the first kernel that worked just to get the modem back up and running. I’d be afraid to do yum updates just because I knew that there would be 15 to 20 or more per day, not to mention a few more in a couple of hours before I went to bed. And some would break, for the umpteenth time, my net connection. Later I find out that on FC5 the FC people had gone haywire and out of control with development, and didn’t do enough QC on things like dependencies or this or that, and further that my brother thinks he mistakenly installed the heavily-bleeding-edge -devel fork instead of the -stable fork.

About 6-8 weeks later, the aforementionned PIII 450 laptop was formatted with CentOS 4.4. Best thing to ever happen. Things actually worked on the machine and I could do things that I either couldn’t do with FC5 or didn’t dare for fear of the dreaded multiple-times-daily updates breaking things. Amongst other things, I could watch movies again on the laptop. Obviously, I’m part of the target audience for the CentOS desktop: Rock solid with rock solid stability and slow-moving advances without the support because I can get it elsewhere reigns supreme for me. And the price tag suited me. OK, that’s the same target audience as the RHEL people, except for the deep pockets and need for support. Credit where it’s due: if you didn’t know already, CentOS is a recompile of the RHEL sources, which also have strong roots in … Fedora Core. 🙂

Several weeks after that, bye-bye FC5 on the PIII 550 desktop, WELCOME CentOS 4.4. Ahhhhh … The desktop is finally useable again. Not that it was outright unuseable under FC5, I just didn’t need the stress of wondering how many updates I’d have this afternoon or whether my modem would “disappear” again. Those are exactly the kinds of things from which I was trying to get away from by getting rid of Windows, even if those particular issues were not specifically in my Windows experience. At the same time the modem was moved away from my mom’s Windows machine and hooked up to my PIII 550. Then a funny thing happened.

At this point there were a few months’ worth of delay after delay coming from my brother regarding updating configurations and dealing with little fixes or upgrades on my machines which were best done by him having physical access to the machine. Coincidental to the CentOS 4.4 UPGRADE (ie, going to software, settings, libraries and so on that are a year or two behind what’s current in FC wasn’t a downgrade, regardless of how the technology compares), my mom’s machine started freezing up. My brother and I were convinced that it had nothing to do with literally only changing the position within the network of the modem and the upgrade from FC5 to CentOS 4.4 on the new modem server. Months, three Windows rebuilds, and a hardware change (her old Celeron 333, which put aside the freezing could play video while mine couldn’t under Windows was switched in favour of said old Celeron 533) later with no solution in sight, we were finally looking at my machine since my brother was feeling a bit sorry for me having mostly ignored my computers over that time in favour of my mom’s computer, which I admittedly agreed was a priority as long as I lived in her house. And he stumbled upon something interesting by pure chance: A network setting in *my* box was incorrect and was essentially souring her network connection and hence by extention the Windows box too. Ahhh, two birds, one stone. My help was back. 🙂

At the same time as the CentOS upgrade on the PIII 550, a few minor problems were still in place, and some solved by remote: I had been using OpenOffice.org 2.0 under Windows for months since it had come out in late 2005, and Centos 4.4, which I installed about 9 months later in June 2006, comes with OO.o 1.1.2. This was one of the first things to be installed/updated on both machines. Another thing came up with MPlayer: It didn’t much do what I wanted — or much of anything, for that matter — and it took a few months of pleading with my brother to finally solve the issues that completely crippled it when we tried to update it. (I know, here’s an example of where that “We don’t want any converts” argument comes into play. 🙂 ) Finally, Firefox 2.0 was out and it would have been nice to update just to see what it’s all about. A difficult job on both, but done on the laptop during one of a few trips to my brother’s bench for the update/fix/whatever du mois. 1.5 is still on the desktop and performs just as well as 2.0.

The (up-til now not mentionned) CD burner I’d had on my old machine that disappeared in the initial reformat months before finally got repatriated from my brother’s nebulous black hole of a junk pile and things were getting better. Now I’m getting somewhere. Stuff I want on CD can now be burned and cottage getaways are more pleasant again as a result.

Finally about after seven months of being able to mostly happily use both computers for what I want – most certainly at least on one computer or the other — the laptop is almost perfect, and now even has a wireless card that became obsolete for my brother when the screen on his old laptop finally died.

In the meantime, an FTP server has been set up on my PIII 550 desktop, and I figured out how to install GUI ftp client (this is a big step for me) on my laptop all on my own. Finally! I now have decent access to my desktop from my laptop to transfer files back and forth (my brother thought it best to make the laptop invisible to all networks, including my home network, in order to protect it from hostiles, making Windows style drag&drop over network drives impossible. Probably a good policy for when I’m on the move.) And the way that access works actually makes sense. Remember, I still — and *like* to — use my computers much the same way I did in 1994-1997, including my net experience, so ftp’ing in to transfer files on and off either system actually makes as much sense if not more to me than a Windows style drag&drop over network drives. There is also a commercial quality web server on my PIII 550 that currently is lying dormant until my brother and I get some face time in front of the computer so that he can show me how to use it.

Then last week I managed to install Pan, a GUI newsreader client. (Might Seamonkey have one of those? Oh yeah, that would be following the crowd. So be it, I’m using Evolution in Gnome. 🙂 ) I seem to be reverting to that beloved 1994-1997 period again. 🙂

Do you think I’m going to update to CentOS 5.0 in a few weeks? Do you think that you’re really going to win the big prize in the lottery this week? Of course not. My machines are stable despite the little things I always want them to do and the things that crop up as a result of changes that are made. Most importantly, they work, and they’re not interminably slow for a comparable and even in some cases superior setup under Windows. And they will be supported and secure for years to come, although my brother will likely convince me to upgrade in a year or two, assuming that by then I haven’t added brand new (at least to me) silicone to my space-deprived abode, which obviously would have the latest CentOS release installed. As they stand, the machines with CentOS 4.4 (mostly) do what I want. What doesn’t yet has nothing to do with the differences between 4.4, 5.0, virtual machines, updated video libraries, or whatever else will be in there.

Now all I need is to find a few hot spots. And I don’t need to borrow a transmitter anymore from the front desk when I check into motels during business trips. I wonder if those motels that charge for a network password are platform independent, or assume that you’re a Windows user and hence don’t know how to challenge a linux machine for a password? (It seems that at at least one motel where they provided free passwords and free wireless, this appeard to be the case. Either that or their password login system was optional.)

Eight months in, I’m finally figuring out, very small step by very small step, how to tap into the power of my computers. Even if you could say that I’ve merely traded one set of LUzer troubles for another.

And I couldn’t be happier about it.

(begin humming grunge style) ‘cos I’m a LUzer bay-bai, so why don’t you flame me?

PS.

My 80gig drive is still next to useless since it’s still NTFS without writing priveledges. In line with my initial zealotry, I have to get around to backing up what needs to be backed up and either get my brother to reformat under a native linux format or figure it out myself.