The epiphany of simplicity.

May 28

Keep it simple.  

If visitor statistics have proven one thing in the last few days, then it is that keeping it simple works best. A small article about configuring a Ubuntu workstation for grandma turned into a site-rush overnight. The moral of the story ? Linux is being presented as an operating system that is way to hard. Somehow I think that the one thing that is holding back de destribution of Linux desktops to the mainstream is … The Linux community itsellf.

Blame the community ?

Now don't get me wrong. Whenever I was in need of Penguin related information, I knew where to turn. Tons of forums, newsgroups and websites where jam packed with information. And they where more then happy to provide it …. Only .. it was presented in a way that was only comprehensible for “the inner circle of linus-ians “ They where friendly and nice, and the howto's started out pretty friendly and easy , but three posts later in the thread the learning curve had gone allmost vertical and they where talking Grep this and Ls that and what have you. When this sudden increase of complexity startled me and I asked or a little more directions I was redirected to another thread that dealt with that problem on its own. Its like asking somebody to help you because your car door is stuck, and as an answer they give you a manual in automechanics.

Linux GeekMy wires are crossed.

Wireless support in Linux is a pitfall in that account. When it works out of the box , its fine , when it does not : You're screwed ! And this is sometimes the fault of the evil hardware manufacturers that don”t want to release their drivers (poor Linux heroes even reverse engeneer them to get it to work). But other times there IS a way to get it going, but you have to edit this, copy that, compile this , download that … AAArg ! By the time I have figured that out my laptop will be outdated anyway.

And once more all together : AUTOMAAAATIX !!!

An example that it CAN work is the famous automatix script, instead of posting a gigantic textfile with a complete list of applications you can make, they decided to script it in a little Gui so people could click and pick what they needed. Is it Linux-geeky cool : NO ? Would bash-brawlers frown upon this de-geek-i-fi-cation of technology ? YES .. Does it work ? Hell yes !

Strip the technobabble from the how-to and bring it down to playschool level : Copy this, past it there, click that. No pipes , no grep, no compile, no wget .. just copy paste and click. And the result : A newbie proof way that has done MORE for the linux community since its early rise a year ago , then pages and pages of “man” files have done in years. I'm not saying we don't need these because we do and they are a wonderfull work of patience and passion, but to somebody who just gets started .. they just don't work.

It can be for dumb people too. 

And the other thing is : Using Linux does not mean turning it into some major command line operating system that will be able to run the planet should the white house ever decide to pull the 64 k of ram out of the presidents head. It can also mean using it for a simple system. Or a safe-surft computer. So you see my bearded linux-zealots ! Keep'in it simple is keepin it popular !

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Ubuntu for your grandmother.

May 25

This article was recently featured in Full Circle magazine. Please visit their site or download the edition here .




They say its for geeks, they say its for nerds, they say its for those whose pinkie finger has the imprint of the enter key tattooed on it. We say its for your grandmother ! Yes my friends, I kid you not, for all of those who are afraid to dip their little toe into the great Linux-Lake let us reassure you : If your grandmother can do it ? So can you. Before we start , let me clarify : We are not talking about turning your Linux machine into a clustered database server with SQL, PHP, Apache, Samba and what have you. We are talking about the advantages of using Linux .. as a desktop.

Why this experiment.

I have been toying around with Linux since 1999, Seen the first desktop versions evolve and have seen the Linux OS grow in strength on the desktop. Last year I found out about Ubuntu Linux and have been doing several articles and podcasts on the use of Ubuntu as a desktop system. I am by no means a Linux zealot ! No pingu-pimping for me ! Drop me in the Linux command line and I'm as lost as Debby Harry in a hair salon. I do however have a philosophy about computer use. I think technology should be safe and simple and that a computer should work for you and not the other way around. Linux has always been seen as to hard and to complicated. So it was time for a little experiment. Could we put together a Linux desktop system that was simple to use, safe from virusses spam and user mistakes, and had a lot of software to offer. Could we build a Linux box that your grandma could use ? Well , lets see.

Step one : Find a grandmother.

My fiancé's family is pretty tech savvy , her dad is a computer wizz, her mother is on MSN messenger all day, her sisters live on line and her grandmother .. is right up the alley. Its not that they are all computer freaks out there , they all just have an open mind towards technology. Good old granny started out on her gaming trip some fifteen years ago when she swiped a hand-console Tetris game from one of her grandchildren. An all night-gaming rush that night got her hooked on these little hand held gaming consoles. Some two years ago she got a second hand worn down IBM Thinkpad laptop running windows 95 for running some simple games like .. surprise surprise.. Tetris and stuff. So when she called me last week in a panic that she accidentally deleted some shortcuts and 'could not get her games to work anymore'and in her despair, was even suggesting buying herself a brand new laptop .. it was time to jump in .




Step Two : Find a laptop

Finding a laptop for cyber-granny was not all that hard. My fiancé's dad had an old Compaq laptop lying around that was no longer in active duty. With an 800 mhz Processor and 256 meg of ram it had been set out to pasture because of a defective PCMCIA slot on the motherboard. Apparently force feeding a PCMCIA card upside down into its slot does not bode well for the laptop. So it did no longer have wireless capability and since the family had bought a new laptop .. it was just laying around. One discarded laptop, one grandma in need .. Cheque please ! 

Step Three : Somebody get me a penguin.

With our laptop secured under our arm it was time to browse trough some available operating systems to help “La mama” out. The quota's that needed to be met were :

  • A : Be simple in use.

  • B: be safe from mallware virusses and user-boo-boo's.

  • C: offer enough software without having to take on a loan to get you started.

This kind of ruled out Windows XP pro right off the bat. Several Linux distributions offered themselves up but thanks to the fantastic automatix script, Ubuntu took the cake.

So it was time to let loose the beast. Downloading a standard iso Image from the 5.10 version was about 20 minutes work and the whole installation process took about an hour. The simple installation only bothered us with the country settings, keyboard layout and a user name. No problem there. We let it have the entire hard disk at its disposal so we did not have some boot loader clogging up the startup process. As easy as firing up a toaster was the objective here.

When the bongo's rumbled to announce the first successful boot up we went straight to the Synaptic package manager and started adding games to our installation. Ubuntu comes with some games in the standard configuration, but when you look in Synaptic its like uncovering the lost island of Arcadia. Some games are action based , a lot of them are brain breakers and stuff. Ideal for our test subject. We loaded the distro up with some 100 some games and that was that.

Now what do you do when you've beat Tetris for the 500th time and can't see another polygon for the rest of the evening ? You watch a movie right ? Unfortunately most Linux distributions come without support for playing mpeg2 (dvd's) and mp3 support. It has to do with some legal stuff if i remember correctly. But with Ubuntu we have a little solution for this called : The automatix script. These three lines of code will give you a little GUI in the system menu where you can select all the goodies you want. Realplayer, WMV support , Skype, DVD playback etc…

Its a simple as pie : Enter these three lines of code in your terminal window.

sudo apt-get install xterm
sudo dpkg -i automatix_5.1-1_i386.deb

When you go into the systems menu and look for the automatix application. We selected MP3, WMV, DVD playback and Flash support. Once OK is clicked, Ubuntu does it all for you. For those who are interested HERE is the automatix manual




Step Four : Sense some simplicity.


Now its no good to have a complicated system for our super granny now is it. Time to simplify the whole deal.

  • Step one : Automatic Login. In the settings menu you can choose the AUTOLOGIN feature. This makes sure our little laptop boots up straight into the users desktop. No login/password combinations but hey .. its not like she's typing up memo's for the pentagon.

Meme on Ubuntu.
  • Step two : Could i see the menu please ? thanks to the Gnome desktop the menu is pretty simple as it is (somehow the KDE setup is just too “U-bundant” for me. But a lot of options on the menu where just not needed. So we added the games menu, the dvd and cd player icon and the shutdown icon to the main menu bar and removed everything else. Next up the menu bar was set at the bottom of the screen and the bar you see below was set up top. I left an icon for the main “start” menu there so I could access all the other pr
    ograms and settings if needed.

The Ubuntu Menu
  • Step three : Explaining how it works : Ok Grann, here is how it works. Press the blue button to start up the computer. Wait until you hear the music. Then you have four buttons on the bottom on the screen. One will give you a menu with ALL the games. If you want to play a movie, just pop in a dvd and click on the second button with the little film reel on it. Want to play some music ? pop in the music cd and click on the little cd. And to shut down the system just click on the little door there.

Thats it , half an hour later granny was trained into using the computer, had a shit load of games to choose from, could play movies and music cd's and was able to boot up and shutdown her system without ever having to worry about pressing the wrong button. Who EVER said Linux was hard ?


Needless to say , Nana was thrilled. She had a stable and secure operating system and did not have to worry about pressing the wrong buttons because quite frankly .. there where none. A grin as wide as the Brooklyn bridge spread across her face when she saw the entire selection of games she could play and not have to worry about breaking anything in the process. “ This is much easier than the previous one” she uttered casting a wayward glance to her old Windows computer.

I”ll be keeping tabs on our cyber-grandmother in the next few weeks to see how she gets along with her new system.

Now with computers coming more and more abundant in our everyday lives, its natural that everybody wants one, including everyone in your family. But as the family-computer-geek (and professional IT consultant) it would just turn into a nightmare providing support for everyone. So using a simplified Ubuntu installation does keep calls about viruses, broken os'es and spy-ware away. Even if she decided to go on line, I would just have to add the Firefox and Gaim buttons to her menu bar, give her a crash course in chat'n-surf and she would be on her way. No high maintenance on this operating system. So to round it up ? Who ever said Linux was hard and complicated. When handled right it can be a simpler and safer operating system to plant down in the soil of an unexperienced user. Ok , you can't install all the cd's you see in the shop, but Linux comes with all these goodies built in ! This way you even save money. So the question is : Have you seen your granny lately ?

Granny in action

If you think this article rocks you might want to check out our other Ubuntu Manuals

Feisty Fawn for the Family part one : Setting up a Feisty server and controlling it with WEBMIN. 

Feisty Fawn for the Family part two : Frighteningly simple filesharing for the family  

Feisty Fawn for the Family part three : Torrentfun with a Torrentflux server 

and more Tech Articles

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