The Geezer and the Penguin

This is a personal story – the Penguin, of course, is Linux, and I’m the Geezer, 84 years old. We met at first out of idle interest and got to know each other out of necessity. Here’s how it all happened.


I got through my whole working life without ever needing or using a PC. Some years after I retired I bought one from a neighbor who ran a computer business in the nearest city, 50 miles from the tiny hillside community where we both lived. The price was reasonable, he set a fee for a yearly check-up and service, and all went well for the first four years. Even though it ran Windows XP, malware was not much of a problem: I bought Norton Antivirus, and the only Internet connection available was dial-up at 14kb/s – scarcely worth anyone’s time to hack.

With those web speeds, text sites were a lot more interesting than heavy-graphics ones, so I found myself doing a lot of reading. I wanted to learn more about how my new computer worked – not the electronics of it, more like how the software did what it did.

Microsoft was not interested in giving away any secrets, of course, but I found there was a whole different system called Linux that was famous for revealing every detail of how its software operated.

At the time, Linux was often described in the general press as being for geeks only, but all the people who seemed to know something about it said Linux just took a bit of learning-by-experience – you didn’t have to be an IT expert. In my archives I’ve saved an article from 2007 in PC Magazine by Neil Randall titled “Linux – you can do it!” That’s the one that really gave me hope.

I was encouraged, but with a neighbor who offered service for Windows, I didn’t think I needed anything else. Moreover, “do it yourself” also meant “fix it yourself”, because when I asked my neighbor what he knew about Linux he warned me that if I messed up my hard drive with it, he wouldn’t be able to fix it. There would be no help from that direction.

In fact, all help from that direction was about to end, because not long after that my neighbor said he was moving away. That did it. I started looking for a used computer I could mess around with to practice. A friend who was getting rid of an older PC offered it to me if I would pay to have it wiped of his personal data, and I agreed. I also bought a book on Linux, Mark G. Sobell’s A Practical Guide to Ubuntu Linux, and started reading. Even though the book is almost a decade old now I still have it and still refer to it sometimes when I get stuck.

Sobell’s book had a DVD of Ubuntu 8.10 in it, so I installed it at once, following the directions on the DVD. It was my first experience at changing the internal behavior of a computer, and it went perfectly. The DVD had huge amounts of software on it, so there was no incentive to try to connect to the Internet at the impossibly slow speed.

As though some mystical transformation had occurred along with that first installation, within less than a year DSL connectivity came to my little village, and I was off and running. For a year or so I kept the Windows XP alive, but eventually replaced it with Fedora (version 12 or 13, as I recall) when I bought a more up-to-date computer with Windows 7 pre-installed.

I did a good bit of distro-hopping in the first few years, but kept coming back to Ubuntu until the Unity desktop appeared. I did my best to live with that for a while, but eventually decided I preferred Xfce. By 2012 I had become totally Windows-free and built a computer from scratch to my own specifications.

To date I’ve acquired and and given away three computers: they come in with Windows and go out with Linux, to people who want to declare their freedom from proprietary systems. I’ve narrowed my own distro choice to Xubuntu Core, an extremely cut-down version that installs an Xfce desktop with only a terminal – anything you want beyond that is up to you to install. You can get all you want, and the advantage is you don’t get anything you DON’T want.

Of course if you like, you can just install Synaptic from the terminal and get the rest of your software from Ubuntu’s repositories, which makes it almost as easy to set up as Ubuntu itself. The longer I use this version the more software I find I can live without. Right now I’m down to a little music, LibreOffice Writer, and all the graphics effects of Compiz. Even though my DSL connection is ridiculously slow by modern standards, I can still add more software at will.

From time to time I recall my distro-hopping roots and try something radically new on one of my current three computers (they aren’t networked, so I can screw up one of them horribly without endangering the others), but that is how I learned anything about Linux in the first place: try it, see what happens – learn by doing. If in doubt, learn by reading. In all cases, do it yourself.


This is a guest post by Emery Fletcher

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