Thursday, December 01, 2011
Recently my computer hard drive went bad. Well, or at least that's what I think, I'm not at all sure how good my diagnosis was. In any case I ordered a new hard drive and installed it.
Computers are complicated and I don't know much about them. And what I know about using computers is what I've picked up on my own and listening to what other people say online. Many people get to watch other people use computers, but I've had few opportunities on that score.
Anyhow I feel dumb when it comes to computers.
Along with the hard drive I ordered a SATA/IDE to USB adapter. Using this cable allowed me to recover files from my "broken" hard drive. This also allowed me to look at the files on broken older computers I have. As I say, my grasp of technical aspects of computing is pretty feeble, but this whole undertaking made me reflect on my experience of discovering the Internet from circa 1998 or 1999.
The orange-colored logo is for Ubuntu, a flavor of the free and open source operating system called Linux. The current computer I'm using runs Ubuntu. Previously I had computers using various Microsoft operating systems. Were I still using a MS operating system, it's unlikely I would have attempted to change my hard drive.
We live on top of a hill and over the years lightening strikes have reeked havoc on electronic appliances and our telephones. My last computer didn't work after a lightening strike. As chance would have it, I was preoccupied with other matters and didn't really attempt to fix the computer. A friend lent me a Dell Mini netbook computer which happened to be running Ubuntu. After using it for about a month, I was convinced that I wanted a desktop computer running Linux.
The netbook seemed surprisingly capable to me, so I felt like I didn't need to go in for power when looking for a computer. In fact lower electricity usage seemed like a positive attribute. I've got expensive tastes and little money. That combination in my case often leads to muddled purchasing decisions. Sometimes I pay too much for too little. One of the first computers I looked at was System 76 Meerkat Ion NetTop. I looked at plenty of alternatives and debated the matter internally for a couple of weeks. I ended up getting a bare bones model of the Meerkat, half-way thinking the only reason was because I saw it first. As far as specs go, there were cheaper alternatives, but I've been very happy with it.
Using computers running Microsoft operating systems over the years had brought a bunch of problems and going about solving them always was frustrating. Oddly the memory of those frustrations kept me from adopting Linux earlier. I thought you had to know a lot about computers to use Linux. Any of you who tried to figure out Microsoft issues using their six-digit entitled articles are sure that knowing a lot about computers is a daunting undertaking. Some of the Linux articles are no less daunting, but there is also a rich ecosystem of peer to peer information sharing that comes with adopting Linux. I've found it's been much easier to find out stuff about Linux than Microsoft.
A friend of mine in an incredible act of generosity bought me a computer and an AOL Internet connection in November of 1998--it could have been 1999. I had used computers before that, but mostly as a sort of glorified typewriter. I had also read about the Internet, but nothing prepared me for my real encounter with the Internet. I recall having dinner around my birthday around this time and being bleary-eyed having stayed up late the night before wallowing down some rabbit hole online. I asked at the table if others had found the Internet so addicting. A friend told me at first yes, "but the novelty wears off." It didn't wear off in my case.
Everyone always says to "back up" your computer. It seems easier said than done. None of my multiple backups to CD using software that came with computers running Microsoft software ever worked. When I suspected the hard drive on my latest computer was going I tried to backup to online storage, but came up with errors which made those attempts failures too. I haven't gotten to the bottom of those issues yet, but with Linux I think I can. Anyhow I haven't had, and don't have now a system for doing back ups. Over the years I have put photographs onto CDs. So running my old hard drive.on the bench was a bit like opening time capsules.
Mostly what I've found on my hard drives are a digital version of disorderly shelves of papers and magazines which I have in my own room. I've got to learn to be better about throwing stuff out.
I was intrigued to look at my documents on my ten-year old computer. The first thing I noticed was several file folders of letters. I used to write a lot more letters than I do today; letters I would print and send in the mail. The second thing was the absence of a Photo file folder. I was sure that I had photos saved. I did, but discovered them in various files, for example among the saved correspondence in folders marked with friends' names. I was surprised to see how much my use of the computer then was premised on analogy to the world of paper, and it's astonishing to think about how many of the files there I actually printed out to read back then.
When lightening struck I took that computer around to repair shops. The thing weighs easily four times what my current computer weighs. The repair shops all told me it was better to think in terms of replacing the computer. The primary reason for that was upgrading to Windows XP as an operating system.
I went ahead and bought a new computer, opting for as much power as I could afford at the expense of installed software. I got a shop-built computer with only the Windows XP operating system installed. Within seconds of connecting the computer to the Internet to download Microsoft updates the computer was infected by the Blaster worm. Drat! I stayed up all night trying to fix that. There was some problem with the computer that showed up a month or so later. The technicians told me it was a virus, but it was not. I had it in the shop for a couple of week-long repairs, which apparently had only consisted of their running anti-virus software. The third time I returned to the shop they sent it away and whatever electrical problem was resolved. The whole repair sequence took over a month.
XP was a great improvement over Windows 98. And since I didn't have Microsoft Office I used Open Office instead. That was my first introduction to FOSS software. I used a proprietary email client software which doesn't seem to be around anymore, although Chaos Software is still around. The main selling-point to me was it kept the contact list in a document file so was very hard for malware designed for Microsoft's email client which send out emails from the address book .
The main impression from looking around the documents on that hard drive is how my thinking had shifted from the analogous world of paper and print to a digital view. My saved photos are all in a single file. I'd purchased a digital camera so there are lots of photos too. There's still a file of "Letters to the Editor" but most were sent online anyway. I no longer saved email in friend's files, just let the email software save them. There is music on this drive, mostly it's copies from my CDs, so there's nothing I've been missing, but I was using the computer for music listening whereas I hadn't been before.
The Internet has changed the way I attend to music quite a lot. It's strange that I haven't gotten the knack of making mixes to burn to CD as so many of my friends have. I still like to make mix tapes on cassette, but nobody is interested in those anymore. CDs seem a clunky way to share music, it's the lists that matter most in sharing nowadays. It just seems more natural to share online than with a CD.
While it's clear that this transition to a digital view happened before getting a DSL instead of dial-up Internet connection,the shift to faster Internet cemented it.
There are many good reasons that people might want a computer running Apple's OS X operating system or one of Microsoft's operating systems. The big reason, of course, is that they want to run a proprietary piece of software or service which requires one of those operating systems. But for many people almost everything they want a computer for doesn't require proprietary software installed on the computer. That's hard for many people to believe, but it's certainly been my experience.
The years of using Microsoft products certainly left a bad taste in my mouth, and I know I'm not alone in that feeling. Recently several of my friends have gone to Macs for precisely this reason. For one friend the Apple Store was a big factor in her decision, as she can make an appointment to have questions answered for a year. Apple products have always been too expensive for me to consider, but I don't lust after them. The walled garden makes me skittish. Even if I had lots of money I'd use Linux now. It's silly to think too much about what one would do with lots of money, I'm very happy with the computer I have.
When my operating system didn't boot, I simply plugged a flash drive with the operating system on it into a USB port. I was able to check out the hard drive that way. Even for people using MS or Mac having an Linux operating system on a flash drive can be handy. When I replaced the hard drive I simply plugged the flash drive back into the USB and installed the operating system. Once my computer was up and running, I attached the SATA/IDE to USB adapter to the old hard drive and was able to copy my home file to the new drive. It all was quite easy, and something I'd never attempted to do if I were running a computer with a Microsoft OS. I didn't have to worry about entering streams on numbers as a Microsoft ID. Or that one of Microsoft hidden rules would come into play, for example, since the hard drive was replaced Microsoft might decide I was trying to install the operating system on another computer. And I didn't have to worry about encountering an endless loop of Microsoft demanding I insert CDs--my computer doesn't even have an optical drive. I didn't have to worry about Microsoft breaking my stuff.
As I look back over the ten or so years I've been online, I feel very grateful for the many people and ideas the technology has has allowed me to connect with. Now that I like the Internet so much, it's easier to pay attention to threats to the whole ecosystem. A root problem is that so many people are dumb about computers like me. Using a Linux operating system on my home computer has not been a hardship, to the contrary it's been a relief. Open source software is a key reason for the Internet we have and key to protecting the Internet. There's little chance that I'll ever become computer smart. But in all likelihood I'll get smarter and I think most of the rest of us will too. Using Linux over the past year or so has made me smarter. It's a small step, but one many others can take too.