And now for the true nerds...

It's been a while and I've been thinking about going back to Linux as a desktop (laptop, actually) OS. I tried Ubuntu 8.10 (Intrepid Ibex) on a persistent flash drive install which was all quite easy. I will save you the trouble of reading the linked article:

  1. download an ISO,
  2. burn a CD,
  3. boot the CD,
  4. insert your USB stick,
  5. select a menu item,
  6. make a couple of choices in a dialog,
  7. click a button and wait a few minutes.
Then you can reboot without the CD, and you are running from the USB stick. But unlike booting from a CD, you can save your state. So as long as you can find a computer that can boot from USB and is moderately Linux-friendly with respect to drivers, you can just carry your USB stick around and boot the various PCs you visit onto your own private OS, then reboot when you're done. Some people have private installs of apps like web browsers on USB sticks; this takes the same idea to a higher level. It's also just cool, in a geeky sort of way. The hardest thing in those steps was burning a CD in Vista - would you believe in this day and age that Vista doesn't come with built-in software to burn an ISO image to a CD? It comes with so much else, it came as a surprise. Luckily my laptop was bundled with some Roxio software which could handle the job. Once running, the other hard thing was getting the wireless card working as it required Ndiswrapper. I haven't totally sorted out the details but the steps went something like this:
  1. Run Synaptic Package Manager (System/Administration menu) and type "ndis" in the Quick search search field.
  2. Install ndisgtk, which requires a couple of other packages.
  3. Run ndisgtk - called Windows Wireless Drivers on the System/Administration menu
  4. Mount the Windows partition and navigate to a directory with bcmwl6.inf. In my case that was /media/OS/Drivers/network/R189336/
  5. The step I stumbled onto is that you have to actually enable the driver via System/Administration and choosing Hardware Drivers.

Then the wireless network utility will let you scan for networks and all that good stuff.

I haven't tried booting this flash drive on another laptop, like my wife's, to see if it's even easier with a card for which there is a built-in Linux driver. When she's not looking I might give that a try. I did try it at work, and it "just worked" just fine with that hardware.

Once on the network, I opened Firefox (version 3.0.3) and went through my usual routine:

  1. Set the "activate new tabs" option
  2. Install AdBlockPlus
  3. Load up a saved bookmarks file and start surfing

I was very impressed with how easy it is to get and install software. Lots of pages of course nowadays require plugins and they all just worked - Flash, Java. Normally you can't get me away from the command line, but these installs were embarrassingly easy. Not necessarily one-click, but the extra clicks didn't require any real thought ("do you accept this license", "do you want to install non-free software")

I tried playing a DVD - an instruction manual for a baby carrier - with a little less luck. The built-in Totem player needed some non-free and probably illegal drivers (yes, I want that) but I wasn't able to get it to "just act like a DVD player" with menus and stuff or to just play in sequence, like a movie. I installed my old favorite, mplayer, but I had no more luck with that. It could be that the DVD wasn't set up all that well - I'm going to try again with an actual movie. Once I got all the mplayer parts installed and unmounted the DVD, mplayer played The Matrix very nicely.

I ran into some grief at first installing mplayer because my little flash drive ran out of space. I did some manual file removal and finally sudo apt-get clean to free up enough space. Later I removed OpenOffice for the same reason.

Full-screen YouTube videos were choppy; possibly because I'm using the default driver. I'm going to try the NVIDIA one (non-free) after saving my work of course. Yes, that did the trick.

Another piece of painless software was installing the Citrix client so I could connect to work.

changed January 29, 2011