More Dellbert

[If you don’t know who or what these* are, check the Glossary page.]

Dellbert* (cont)

Things change quickly around here when RoboFrog is doing HIS* thing. I like stability and a minimum number of surprises. TheFrog thrives on chaos, so it’s not unusual that there are significant changes to Dellbert since last time. HE* had Dellbert working with Ubuntu 12.04 Server and an LXDE desktop environment. It was sluggish, but it worked.

RoboFrog was working with OldBlue. OldBlue? That’s right. I haven’t introduced OldBlue and I’m not going to do that today. He’s our other rescue computer. He was making quite a racket and TheFrog was trying to figure out why. Turned out that OldBlue had a bad CPU cooling fan. RoboFrog thought about it for a while. HE wanted to salvage a fan from one of our old machines. The problem was that we’re using most of them. Then HE got a big idea. HE remembered that we had an old, blue Candy-Mac (Apple Macintosh Desktop) hidden away. HE’s kept the machine for years…even though it doesn’t work…because HE likes the case. HE has dreams of using that case when HE assembles HIS next Linux machine. Your guess is as good as mine as to when that’s going to happen. We’ve had the Mac for about 14 years. It’s been non-functional for the past 5 years (One of HIS! experiments). Maybe it had a fan HE could appropriate.

Nope. There were a couple of fans in the case, but nothing we could use for OldBlue. Then HE saw them. Two memory cards; but this is a Mac and Dellbert is a PC (Thought I’d forgotten about Dellbert, didn’t you?) Sometimes TheFrog looks like HE just freezes in place. HE doesn’t move for several seconds. It was spooky the first time I saw HIM do it, but I know now that HE’s just off in HIS own universe thinking about something. I wait patiently until HE comes back.

“Could that work?”

“Could what work?” I ask.

“Could these two memory boards work in Dellbert? They’re both roughly the same vintage.”

See what I have to live with? HE went into the Candy-Mac looking for a cooling fan for OldBlue and came out with memory cards for Dellbert. HE changes direction so fast sometimes I get whiplash. TheFrog proceeded to remove the two memory cards from the Mac and headed for Dellbert. HE opened up Dellbert. Dellbert had three memory slots, two of which were empty. RoboFrog removed Dellbert’s memory card and compared it the cards he removed from the Mac. Same size and shape. All the numbers on the back of the cards were identical. RoboFrog installed all three cards into Dellbert, closed his case, and fired him up.

Dellbert now has 384 MB of RAM (random access memory). Best of all, it didn’t cost us anything. Soooooo…did it make any difference? You bet! Next time.

Dellbert

[If you don’t know who or what these* are, check the Glossary page.]

I told you that RoboFrog rescued two old machines that were on their way to the computer graveyard. I’ll tell you about the “other” computer another time; for now…Dellbert*. Dellbert is the “newer” of our two castaways. He’s still a wimp by today’s standards, but he has the best hardware: 128 MB memory, 13 GB hard drive, 500 MHz Pentium III processor. I haven’t been able to pull TheFrog away from Dellbert. (For me, that’s a relief. If HE’s* tinkering with Dellbert then HE isn’t messing up our other machines. I like stability; TheFrog just can’t help asking, “What happens when I do this?” Notice that’s not “…if I do this?”) The big thing on TheFrog’s mind is,”These computers were free; are they good for anything?” HE set out testing Linux distributions to see if HE could get anything to run acceptably.

RoboFrog’s first attempt was Lubuntu 12.04. (We’re running Lubuntu on Whitestar* and we love it.) The problem was that Lubuntu wouldn’t load onto Dellbert. After that attempt, HE started trying server distributions. HIS reasoning was that server distributions don’t automatically load GUI’s*. You end up with a command line interface that needs a lot fewer resources. HE tried the following (in no particular order): Ubuntu 12.04 server, Debian 6.0.5, Debian Testing, Slackware 13.37, Vector Linux 7.0-lite, Knoppix 6.7.1 (not a server distro, LXDE GUI), FreeBSD 9.0 (worked very well). I’m sure that HE tried something that I’ve forgotten, but the bottom line is that all of the server distributions (and Knoppix) loaded without any problems.  HE considered experimenting with Slackware, but since everything else we have is running one of the Ubuntu’s, HE came back to Ubuntu server.

“We have command line Ubuntu and apt-get (package manager),” mused TheFrog. “What happens when we do: apt-get install lxde gdm?” (You don’t need gdm, but we prefer it.)

I think you get the picture of what’s happening. HE’s not looking to me for an answer; HE knows that I don’t know. Rather, HE’s musing to HIMSELF and has already executed the command. TheFrog is simply passing time until HE gets HIS answer. But notice, too, that there’s no sweat rolling down my face (as is usual in these situations). HE’s doing this on Dellbert! First, even if it doesn’t work, it can be undone. Second, it’s not the machine I work on…so…”You go Frog!” Third, Dellbert was free. Even if he goes up in smoke, it’s no big deal (at least to me…TheFrog? That’s another story.).

Amazingly, it worked. RoboFrog rebooted. HE had a functioning Ubuntu 12.04 LXDE system. And frankly, it worked better than expected; it was sluggish, though. TheFrog was hopping off the walls. I haven’t seen HIM that excited for a long time.

TheFrog wanted to to see if HE could get a browser to work. HE was already pushing Dellbert pretty hard, so HE needed something light. That usually means Midori. Midori takes some getting-used-to, but we like it…a lot. HE had a long frown on HIS face when Midori turned its toes up and died. That’s the first time that’s happened to us. So what next? HE did some research and finally came up with Arora. Arora tried to run, but there was so much disk swapping that it essentially locked up Dellbert. Next, TheFrog tried Dillo. It ran pretty well; it’s not our favorite browser, but if you’re really low on resources, give it a try. It’ll get the job done.

There’s more to where we are with Dellbert, including a big surprise. Next time.

Linux Newbie

RoboFrog sits around worrying about the oddest things. HE’s concerned about how to get newbies into Linux safely (without destroying their current system) and with a gentle learning curve. Then, how does one move from newbie to moderately competent Linux-er (whatever that is). TheFrog feels that HE’s hit a plateau with what HE knows about Linux. HE wants to figure out how to get to the next lily pad. There’s no one answer to either of these issues, but our two computer refugees suggest one possible approach. We’re going to tinker in both of those directions for awhile: Linux Newbie and The Next Lily Pad.

The BigDog

[If you don’t know who or what these* are, check our Glossary page.]

BigDog* was a gift to RoboFrog from HIS* brother. The RoboBrother (RB)  likes buying expensive toys that he perceives to be best-in-class, in this case, laptop computers. That’s how RB came to own BigDog. RoboFrog got a call one evening.

“Can you run Linux on a Hewlett Packard laptop?”

“Hey, Bud,” says RoboFrog. “Sure. Why do you ask?”

“I have a new laptop. I can’t get it to do what I want and I’m sick of Windows. I want to try something else.”

“Windows should work just fine for you. What’s the problem?” say RoboFrog gently.

“I don’t want to talk about it. I’m out of patience with this thing. I just want something different.”

The RoboBrother gets in these moods sometimes and we’ve found through painful experience that it’s usually best to just go with the flow.

“Well, sure. It shouldn’t be difficult to load Linux. Understand that once we do that, everything you have on the machine will be gone. By gone I mean really gone. We can’t get it back. You should back up anything that you want to keep.”

“That’s no problem. There’s nothing on here that I want.”

TheFrog walked RB through downloading Linux Mint and burning a DVD. Then HE found out that RB had purchased a new hard drive for the machine. The drive that came with it was 250 GB and RB had purchased a 500 GB drive. Why did he need that much hard drive space for a laptop? RoboFrog was afraid to ask.

“Why don’t we just load Linux onto the new drive? That way you won’t lose anything and you can come back to Windows if this doesn’t work.”

“That’s great,” say RB. “How do I do that?”

“Should be easy. Look for panels around the edge of the machine or screw-down panels on the back. Open the panels until you find a drive that looks like the new one. Then just put the new drive into the machine the same way as the old one.”

Actually, it was easy. There are two drive bays on the bottom of the HP Pavilion dv-9000. They’re held in place by one screw each. The drive just pushes into the connector. Pretty simple stuff. After the new drive was in place RoboFrog walked RB through the Linux Mint installation. Everything went as expected. Finally, the reboot.

For reasons unknown, RoboBrother couldn’t get the system to boot Linux Mint. After a lot of tinkering, TheFrog suggested that he replace the original drive to at least restore RB’s Windows system. Then the big surprise. The Windows system wouldn’t boot either. And…that’s how RoboFrog got a new computer.

“I’m done with the thing!” railed RoboBrother. “It’s yours. I’m sending it to you.”

To which TheFrog said, “Okay.” (Yeah, I know. HE can be really profound sometimes.)

It took about two weeks for RoboBrother to get the HP Pavilion to HIM*. HE opened the box and out came an almost new, 17″ laptop, a hard drive, and a docking station. Now to find out what went wrong. That was where things got really bizarre.

RoboFrog plugged in the power supply and pressed the power switch. Sure enough, the machine wouldn’t boot. HE examined the extra hard drive. It was the 250 GB drive. That was the one that was supposed to be in the machine. So what happened to the 500 GB drive, the one RoboBrother had installed Linux Mint onto? HE turned the laptop over and opened both drive bays. There in bay 2 was the 500 GB drive. That was one obvious reason that it wouldn’t boot. TheFrog removed the 500 GB drive from bay 2 and installed it in bay 1, pressed the power switch…and up came a beautiful Linux Mint system!

Now, we’re running Xubuntu 12.04 on BigDog. We’ve had no problem with the machine whatsoever. With respect to RoboBrother, we only have questions. Why didn’t Linux Mint boot after the installation? It booted just fine for us. Why was the 500 GB drive in the machine instead of the 250 GB drive? And, how in the world did RB get a drive installed into bay 2?

The story has a happy ending. RoboBrother now has an Apple iPad and he’s as happy as a pig in slop. We have a new machine that working terrifically, and best of all, it was free…as in beer. What’s not to like?

RoboFrog Computing Center

[If you don’t know who or what these* are, check the Glossary.]

Correction: Thunar (file manager)

I said last time that Xubuntu 12.04 had corrected the problem with Thunar. This morning the problem was back. When I brought up the file manager immediately after booting BigDog*, it took about 15 seconds for Thunar to show up and a few seconds later a second file manager window arrived. This is the same behavior experienced with Xubuntu 11.10, but without the error dialog. No problem. RoboFrog just switched us over to a different file manager.

One of the benefits of trying as many Linux distributions as we do is that we come across many different programs and utilities that provide the same basic functionality. There are a number of interesting file managers that can be used with Xfce4 (Xubuntu’s desktop environment). Normally we would turn to Nautilus, but we had a really bad experience with it and Xfce4. It messed up a bunch of settings and the only way we were able to get our desktop working again was to completely remove Nautilus. We don’t know if that was the result of something we did or a glitch between Nautilus and Xfce4. Nautilus is usually a very solid utility.

This is Linux, though, and that means there are other options. We’ve had very good luck with Dolphin (KDE file manager), ROX-Filer, and PCManFM. Dolphin is a heavyweight that provides pretty much all the functionality you could want from a full-featured file manager. The only issue we have with Dolphin is that on older hardware it’s sluggish. ROX-Filer and PCManFM are lightweight utilities that both work very well with Xfce4. Our preference is PCManFM.

Replacing Thunar

It’s easy to use another file manager with Xubuntu. (This procedure should work with any Linux using the Xfce4 desktop.)

  1. Use your package manager to install an alternate file manager. (MouseMenu->System->Synaptic Package Manager; search for dolphin, rox-filer, or pcmanfm)
  2. Xubuntu 12.04 installs by default with three desktop icons displayed. Turn off those icons. (MouseMenu->Settings Manager->Desktop; click on the Icons tab and un-check Home, Filesystem, and Trash.) The icons should disappear from your desktop.
  3. Create new launchers for Filesystem and Home. (Right-click on the desktop->Create Launcher; give the launcher a name; enter the name of the file manager program and the directory you want opened.) For PCManFM this would look like: Name: Filesystem; Command: pcmanfm / (for the filesystem launcher) and Name: Home; Command: pcmanfm /home/<your-user-id> (for your home directory). If you’re using ROX-Filer just replace pcmanfm with rox.
  4. Finally, set your new file manager in Preferred Applications. (MouseMenu->Settings->Settings Manager; choose Preferred Applications; click the Utilities tab; click on the File Manager drop-down. If your file manager shows up in the list select it; if not, select other and enter the name of your file manager…in our case pcmanfm. In the case of ROX-Filer the name of the utility is rox. Close the Settings Manager and you’re finished.

RoboFrog Computing Center (RFCC)

As I said last time, we’ve had a significant change in staff and roles at the RFCC. This is roughly what the RoboFrog Computing Center looks like. All of the computers with the exception of Squirt* (Kindle Fire) are networked with the file server using NFS (Network File System). It’s pretty easy to set up a Linux-only home network with NFS. Squirt is brand new (RoboFrog’s birthday present). Squirt connects to the Internet through the wireless router, but doesn’t talk to the network. The entire wireless system has been changed, but we’ll talk about that another time.

Chatterbox* was our file server. RoboFrog retired Chatterbox and reassigned the role of file server to Whitestar*. BigDog is a new (for us) computer that RoboFrog’s brother gave to him. There’s quite a story about BigDog, but I’ll save that for another time. BigDog, though, is now the main “desktop” machine. BigDog is an HP Pavilion dv-9000 laptop. He has a huge hard drive, dual-core processor, plenty of memory, and a 17″ screen…but wow!…he’s heavy. We also received a docking station with him, so TheFrog decided to turn him into a desktop. Since Xubuntu 12.04-beta1, BigDog has performed flawlessly. Best of all, he was free (as in beer). Defiant retains the position of primary RoboLaptop. Though she’s a little slow these days, she’s still our favorite laptop ever.

Dellbert

Meet Dellbert. He’s a rescue computer. RoboFrog was visiting his father-in-law a few days ago. As he walked into the garage there were two computers sitting next to the trash bin. Casually he asks, “What’s up with the computers?”

“They’re going out in the trash tomorrow. They’re old. Aren’t any good. They’ve been sitting in my basement for years.”

“Do they work?”

“They did when I put them in the basement,” says Robo-father-in-law.

“Can I have ’em?” asks TheFrog.

“Sure. Take them with you. I just want to get rid of them.”

You should have seen TheFrog. You’d have thought it was Christmas. I’m not sure what MsRoboFrog is going to do when she finds out he’s dragged two more “junk” computers home. She has a firm policy about such things. I noticed that he took them directly to the RFCC (basement) and didn’t mention anything about them to HER*. Probably just an oversight.

I have to admit that Dellbert is a curiosity. Is there any use for an old machine like him? Dellbert is so old that the only way he had to connect to the Internet was a 56k modem. RoboFrog immediately ordered an ethernet card. It cost him about $13 (US). That’s the only hardware modification made to Dellbert.

I told you last time that we’re running Lubuntu 12.04 on Whitestar. It’s working very well. Lubuntu is Linux tailored for limited hardware. Here’s what they say on the Lubuntu Wiki:

A Pentium II or Celeron system with 128 MB of RAM is probably a bottom-line configuration that may yield slow yet usable system with Lubuntu. It should be possible to install and run Lubuntu with less memory, but the result will likely not be suitable for practical use.

So here it is: Dellbert has a Pentium III, check; 128 MB of RAM, check; and a 12 GB hard drive. According to the Lubuntu-folk he should be good to go, so RoboFrog immediately started loading Lubuntu 12.04 onto Dellbert. The drive started, all the lights flickered, the Lubuntu flash screen came up, all the drives stopped churning, and HE* sat looking at the flash screen with it’s flashing dots. And HE watched…and watched…for an hour. By that time it was obvious, even to me, that Lubuntu wasn’t going to load. RoboFrog tried burning another Lubuntu DVD. I’m not sure that I understand why he did that. Lubuntu loaded just fine onto Whitestar from the first DVD. Anyway, the new disk did exactly the same thing. Lubuntu 12.04 won’t load onto Dellbert from DVD.

RoboFrog, never one to be deterred when he’s in the zone, switched to Ubuntu 12.04 Server. Guess what? It loaded just fine. Then he loaded Debian 6. No problems with Debian. Next, he tried Vector Linux. That loaded fine as well. Finally, he loaded Slackware 13.37. No problems there either. For the time being, that’s the operating system that’s on Dellbert. The only Linux we’ve tried…so far…that won’t load…is Lubuntu. Go figure. That’s disappointing to me, but TheFrog seems to be more excited than disappointed. That usually means he’s up to something. I’ll figure out what it is and tell you about it next time.

That’s the new cast of characters at the RoboFrog Computing Center. Xubuntu 12.04 continues to perform magnificently and apparently TheFrog is excited about tinkering with Dellbert and Slackware.

We’re back…finally!!!

[If you don’t know what or who these* are, check the glossary.]

Linux Problems Resolved!

RoboFrog was adamant that we weren’t going any farther until we resolved our Linux problems. HE* fell in love with Xubuntu 11.10, but couldn’t get it to work reliably. Thunar (file manager) never did work correctly. While that was irritating, RoboFrog fixed the problem by using a different file manager. So far, so good. The problem HE was never able to resolve was dropping Defiant’s* wireless connection. This problem got a lot better when we installed the Diamond Wireless Range Extender. Sadly, we still lost the connection occasionally. The fix came suddenly and from an unexpected place.

Xubuntu 12.04

Xubuntu Desktop (Precise)RoboFrog was at HIS* wits end with Xubuntu 11.10. It was the distribution that HE wanted us to run here on the LilyPad, but dropping the wireless connection was a deal-breaker. One morning HE noticed that Xubuntu 12.04-beta1 had just been released. We usually don’t run beta’s, but The Frog was desperate. HE figured there wasn’t much to lose, so HE downloaded Xubuntu 12.04-beta1 and installed it onto Defiant. I thought that the Xubuntu team had done an amazing job of creating an attractive desktop. RoboFrog isn’t particularly impressed by a pretty face. HE’s more into things like file managers and Internet connections that work properly.

The critical problem from RF’s point of view was the wireless Internet connection. We ran Xubuntu 12.04-beta1 until beta2 was released. Defiant didn’t drop the Internet connection a single time. When Xubuntu 12.04-beta2 arrived, we did a fresh install and ran it until the official Xubuntu 12.04 release. Again, Defiant didn’t drop the Internet connection a single time. One more fresh install when Xubuntu 12.04 was officially released. The Internet connection problem was simply gone. Thank you Xubuntu team! Finally, we had a beautiful, stable Linux system. Xubuntu 12.04 is our Linux distribution of choice and we highly recommend it to anyone who wants a simpler, traditional desktop environment.

Here’s an additional note. The problem that Xubuntu 11.10 had with Thunar (file manager) continued into the 12.04 beta1 and beta2. The problem was corrected in the release version. We are happily using Thunar and it works exactly as it should. Xubuntu 12.04 is a solid, high quality distribution…and we love it.

*buntu 12.04

Actually, we tried Ubuntu 12.04, Kubuntu 12.04, Xubuntu 12.04, and Lubuntu 12.04. Ubuntu, Kubuntu, and Xubuntu work amazingly well. We recommend any one of these especially for first-time Linux users.  We had a couple of glitches with Lubuntu. We like it, though. It’s running on our file server. More on Lubuntu next time.

Renovation at the RoboFrog Computing Center

We’ve dramatically changed the staff and roles at the RFCC*. Chatterbox* has been retired; Whitestar* has taken up duty as our file server; we have a new (to us) “desktop” machine (BigDog); a Kindle Fire (nameless so far) has come on board; and we rescued Dellbert. Defiant has maintained her position as our primary laptop. We’ll tell you about this cast of characters next time.

Thankfully, things are finally stable here at the RFCC…and maybe…we can move on to some of the cool projects that we want to work on.