My Addiction

I admit it. I have an addiction. They say the first step to solving an addiction is to admit that it exists. Well I’m here telling you I realize it. However, I don’t want to get rid of this addiction. It’s a very good addiction that’s not bad for my health, only my wallet.

Yes I admit it. I am addicted to computers.

So it should come as no surprise to you that I shall be studying computers at university next year. It even says so in the about me section on the sidebar. So it must be true. What you read on the internet is always true. Sheesh… But seriously now, I’ve been deeply into computers since several years ago. Let me give you the background.

It was 2001 and our family had a Dell P4 system. My dad and I played mostly games on it. I had been to the local Futureshop (which had relatively recently opened up here) and saw the shelf of video cards and wondered just what people did with them. I had never really seen the inside of my computer at this point. Well one day I decided that we definitely needed to do something to improve the performance on our computer. So I went to the internet and did some searching. I still remember the first site I went to, Tom’s Hardware. I did a random search on the internet for tech sites and that one came up first I guess. In any case, I did some studying and prepared myself to do some computer surgery.

We went out and plopped down a good $300 or so on an ATi Radeon AIW 32MB. A pretty decent card at the time, we liked the idea that we could import our video camera stuff into our computer with it and also that we could now watch TV on our computer. Installing it went without a hitch but I was hitched. It was to be the start of a pretty exciting hobby (and now much more than just a hobby) for me.

From then on, I upgraded a few relatively small things like the hard drive and so forth, but it wasn’t until the fall of 2002 that I embarked on my next ambitious computer project. Throughout the rest of 2001 after installing the video card and the first half of 2002, I participated in the online tech community. I spent quite a bit of time chatting with other enthusiasts (if you could even call me that at that point), sharing opinions and gathering new ideas. So it was the summer of 2002 that I became very interested in configuring and building a computer myself. So I went and got the parts all chosen and shipped in and I built it on a weeknight. Boy that was fun.

I had put it all together and I prepared to turn on the computer. Oh this would be a moment long remembered; however I didn’t realize it would be for the wrong reason. I pushed the power button and absolutely nothing happened. Ugh. So after much rooting through the computer, I realize I plugged the damn power wires in wrong to the motherboard. After switching them to the right pins, poof, on the computer turned. I then installed Windows and whatnot. I went to bed content that night.

The next step on my journey was to enter the world of overclocking and tweaking. At first I was constantly scared about breaking my shiny new project. Fast forward a couple days. That feeling has passed and I was overclocking the system like mad. Of course with my n00bish skills I didn’t get very far, but it was fun nonetheless.

So the year after that, I built another computer, this time with more experience in choosing parts and overclocking. That became my own personal computer so I could do basically what I pleased with it. I then upgraded that computer to an Athlon64 and so forth, but that’s not important in the overall scheme of things.

I also got into Linux quite a bit. It seemed like a very interesting platform. Lots of people talked about it, but I didn’t really see it around much. So I decided to try it out for myself. Boy, that created many, many hours of frustrating but, in the end, fruitful work. I now can get around in Linux and learned quite a bit of Google searching =P and perseverence. I had to switch several distros which meant formatting and reinstalling then configuring the system several times. More than once I gave up for a while only to take it back up again later. I’ve finally got a nice Linux setup going and it’s been working well. Now if only people made more games for it. 😉

So now I’ve spent a ton of time on the tech forums reading and responding. Everytime I read this person’s overclock or that person’s new system, it makes me tingle and I want to go out and grab another piece or hardware to test or push my system further. It’s a never ending want for more. But I’ve semi-learned to control it. From time to time, it rears its head again and my finger twitches though and wants to push that buy button.

In the end though, I can’t think of something else I wouldn’t rather spend my money on. (well university’s kind of important, but yeah…) It’s taught me a lot more than, say, that a non-locked PCI bus = corrupted hard drives. It’s taught me discipline, testing methodology, analytical skills and the passion for a great field of work. I genuinely look forward to my university studies in computers. Hopefully it’ll be a sort of continuation of what I’ve been doing on my own for the past 4 years.

Charlie.

I

Yep, I know what you’re thinking, why that registered symbol beside MacFanatics? Well I’m pretty sure They’ve patented the name for themselves or something, they’re that Apple-like. (ok, so maybe that’s not entirely true…) I will dedicate this article to the Apple fans of this planet. They’re not the normal type of fans you would see following the band bus or whatever. Instead they would pay to grovel at the feet of Steve Jobs or get shot with a potato canon to receive an Ipod. Trust me, it’s been done!

Apple is a very unique company. The company was started by Steven Wozniak and Steven Jobs, who were both high school drop-outs. They had previously dabbled in the computing world, but it wasn’t until Wozniak created the Apple I that their computer careers really took off. The first Apple computers were quite an improvement over the then-current PC. It was much more user-friendly and many features we see in Windows nowadays and take for granted originated with the Mac.

For many years Macs enjoyed great success, especially in the classrooms. If you search around, you’ll probably find some school libraries with Macs in them still! All was grand and happy in AppleLand, but it was not to last.

You see, the PC industry and Apple had different thoughts in mind. Apple wanted to continue being “revolutionary” while the PC industry was happy with just evolving. So what happened was PCs dropped in price so that almost everyone (in the first world at least) could afford one while Macs were segregated to a more niche market. They were still very user-friendly, usually more so than the PCs with Windows. Unfortunately for Apple, people soon realized they didn’t need a multi-gigahertz machine just to scroll through word documents and emails. They didn’t need powerful, expensive computers to do what they needed to do. The PC industry (minus Apple) realized this and marketed the mainstream computer heavily. These were the $500 jobbies that you picked up at the local corner store (well, ok, BestBuy or something along those lines) and took home to get by with. They weren’t blazing fast, weren’t extremely user-friendly, and didn’t look like they could be put on a fashion runway. Instead, they were adequate for what the majority did and that was good enough.

So it was companies like Dell that stole all the PC market share while Apple was busy tooting its next new system that was see-through or had different colors on the casing. Whoopdeeeffingdoo. If I want to have some visual excitement, I’ll go stare at a bright light or something. I don’t need my computer to look like it’s on drugs… So what does Apple do once it sees that almost no one want its computers?

It makes the damn Ipod.

And god was that a success. Even I have one. Well, I had to try it out and I must say, it’s definitely a fad. Since then, I’ve picked up a Creative Zen Micro and I’ve been much happier with it than with the Ipod. The Ipod (and almost everything Apple makes) is damn pretty that’s for sure, but it’s both expensive and you get less than competing products. Apple is riding a wave of great marketing and Ipod recognition. People may not think much about Apple’s computers but you can almost be sure that they’ll at least have heard of the Ipod. It has been a great success for Apple and I can see it being a very big portion of their revenue base in the future as well.

And that finally brings me to the real topic: those MacFanatics. You see them around in small packs usually. There’s not too many of them, but they sure can grab attention. In the forums they’re the people that essentially plug their ears and eyes to the rest of the computer world and repeat to themselves that Apple is their savior. It’s like a religion to them. ‘The G5 is xx% faster than anything else’, ‘the Powerbook is all you need; it’ll even cook breakfast for you’. However, if they would only take a look around, they would realize just how blinded they’ve become. I’m not saying everything Apple is crap. Far from it; I’ve got my Windows system set up to look like MacOSX. However, I don’t intend to move to a Mac. Oh I’ve thought about trying them out (especially when the Mac Mini was launched) but I realized I have no need. All of the programs I run are Windows-based (some Linux too) and I’m not that much of a sucker for looks (in computers anyways). The G5 is fast enough for me, but don’t go around saying it’s the fastest PC. It’s not. I can build you one that is both faster and costs less as long as you let me put it in a different case. It’s as simple as that.

So what am I really saying? Apple is a company that had (has) great ideas for innovation. Unfortunately, they’re innovating in the wrong direction and they’re targeting the wrong demography. If they really want to gain market share, they must convert Windows users. Pleasing the current fanbase will only do so much. The Mac Mini was a good start, but they’re far from turning me over to the dark side. Until then, I’ll have my fun reading what those MacFanatics� have to say.

Linux Misconceptions

I can definitely see how these could arise. Before I had any experience with Linux, (but enough with computers in general) it seemed to me an ominous object looming over me, casting a large shadow over my computer abilities. Many users screamed at the first sight of Linux. Many of them hadn’t used Linux either but had heard other people talk of it. Whether those people used Linux or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that Linux is one big scary operation system to the majority of end users. But as I’ve found with most preconceptions, my fear of Linux was mostly unfounded.

Now these views are coming from a computer enthusiast. I have no qualms about spending several hours on end trying to figure out a problem. I also enjoy doing some self-learning, which is how I’ve acquired most of my computer skills.

Okay, let’s start off with a bit of an intro to Linux. First, and most basically, it’s an open operating system created by Linux Torvalds based on UNIX. It’s developed under the GNU General Public License which states that the source code for the operating system is available to anyone who wants it. Nowadays, it is redistributed by various groups and companies. Some distributions are offered for free while others are marketed commercially. In either case, they’re all based off an implementation of the UNIX kernel.

I’m a relative newbie to this Linux business so I’m not going to serenade you with complex terms and big definitions. It wasn’t until about half a year ago that I really became interested in Linux and its endless possibilities for both productivity and plain entertainment. Instead, I’ll give you an overview of what someone can (and can’t) expect when moving over to Linux.

There are several popular distributions available for Linux. These include Ubuntu, Fedora Core, SuSE, Mandriva, Slackware, MEPIS, Gentoo, and Debian. They all regularly have updates for these distros and are constantly fixing things and adding new features. After trying out several distros (including Fedora Core 3, SUSE 9.2 Pro, and Mandrake 10.1) I settled on SuSE 9.2 Professional which I was able to download for free off the SuSE mirrors.

Here’s a look at what it looks like:

As you can see, a pretty clean looking operating system. So it should be easy to use right? Well, there are a few problems. You see the Linux operating system itself is open source; however many of the applications we use are not. Also, the hardware in our computers need drivers to work properly. Some of the companies who make the hardware we use aren’t very open with their source code. This means there can be incompatibilities or bugs that can compromise the stability of the system. The Open Source community is growing though. People are seeing the advantages of open source and are moving towards it. As more people do migrate to Linux, companies will be forced to open up. That’s why you’re seeing better and better support for Linux from most companies. They see a potential market before them.

So once you’re past that hurdle, you’ll want to start checking out what you can do with you new operating system. The first thing you may notice (if you’re coming from a Windows system) is that the menu system is a bit different. Also depending which distro you installed, you’ll get different applications with it. Some distros, such as Fedora Core, aren’t developed by registered companies per se and thus cannot acquire some licenses. In this case, Fedora Core does not come with an mp3 decoder. You can play ogg vorbis fine right after installation, but you’ll need to get a mp3 plugin or another media player to play mp3s. And this is usually where most of the troubles start.

Installing programs under Linux is different from installing them in Windows. The Linux system has a ‘root’ user that you’re required to log in as when you make changes to the system. This is a result of the normal use of UNIX. It has an administrator that doesn’t actually use the system normally. So to install a program in Linux you’ll probably want to log in as this ‘root’ user. A side-effect of this setup is those Windows users won’t be able to do anything catastrophic to your Linux system without knowing your root password.

If you’ve got your program as source code, you’ll have to compile it. Most distros come with a compiler preinstalled. So unlike Windows where you can double click on an executable file and have a Graphical User Interface (GUI) guide you through the steps, you actually have to type in commands to compile and then install the program. For the most basic programs, you can open up a console and type ‘./configure’ then ‘make’ then log in as the superuser by ‘su’ and then the root password. Finally as superuser, you type ‘make install’ to install the application. Now this is the most basic compile and install as it gets. Unfortunately, you may run into errors due to a wide range of reasons including unsatisfied dependencies, missing libraries, and so forth. Most users don’t know or want to go through this tedious process just to install a program.

So that’s where many distros are focusing their efforts. They want to make Linux more accessible to the general user.

If you look around you’ll see binary packages created either by the distributers themselves or by community participants. These allow you to basically download and then install by simply clicking on them, much like is possible in Windows. The only difference is that you must once more log in as the root. As long as all the dependencies are satisfied, the program should install fine.

But dependencies are a pain in the ass. Most of the time, you need something to install an app properly, but that app has another dependency and down the line it goes. It’s really quite annoying. So to take it one step further, there are included applications with many distros that installs programs and finds all the dependencies for you. For example, under SuSE I have YaST (which stands for Yet Another Setup Tool). I just add the mirrors I want and then when I go to install a program (by simply clicking on it or several) it asks me whether it can install all the dependencies needed. It’s really quite slick. So you’ve basically solved the installing application problem.

Now one of the greatest advantages to Linux is also its greatest weakness. Because it is an open source project, anyone can create new applications and modify existing ones. This means there’s an extremely wide variety of programs and you’ve got a good chance of finding something that meets your needs. However it also means that many applications are under a constant state of updating. Bugs need to be worked out and it’s difficult to test these applications under a variety of conditions if it is just a small project. That doesn’t mean the applications available on Linux are second-tier to Windows or Mac programs. Far from it. In fact, some programs have been ported over from Linux to Windows and Mac.


OpenOffice.Org, an office suite

Audacity, an sound recorder and editing program

Linux programs are being made to be compatible with most Windows-based programs. OpenOffice version 2, which is currently being worked on, will have much better Microsoft Office compatibilitiy. Wine, which is a program that allows some Windows applications to be run under Linux, is constantly improving with an ever growing list of compatible programs. Furthermore, your range of internet tools are also available. Kopete satisfies the IM programs all in one; Firefox is vastly superior (in my opinion) to Internet Explorer, and K3b is probably one of the better media burning programs available to either Linux or Windows.

Linux can be a very useful tool if you give it a chance. Once configured properly, it can be as easy to use as Windows while being much more secure. I’m not saying that it’s right for everyone. Many will get frustrated and never look upon it again, but most people aren’t even giving it the chance it deserves based solely on the fact that the next person didn’t have a very good experience with it. Oh for sure, someone who can’t use Windows adeptly shouldn’t even consider Linux. However if you’re ever looking for a challenge and a possible reward, give Linux a shot.

Charlie.