Learning Linux

I was sick and tired of supporting Windows! I was sick and tired of dealing with Windows problems at work then returning home to deal with them there! It wasn’t always that way.

I embraced learning DOS and encouraged the adoption of Windows when it emerged. I even enjoyed supporting it at work and playing with it at home for the first few years. Then the novelty wore off and I was left wondering why it seemed everything in Windows was so poorly made. Not all operating systems were that way. DOS and its applications were pretty solid. I recalled using a Unix based, multi-user system just before the dawn of the world wide web. Now that was solid! The command line interface, bash, was a mysterious thing that reminded me of the wonder I experienced at my first sight of a CPM-80 command. My employer’s client had some SCO Unix PCs in the test labs and some of the mini-computers ran a different Unix variant. I thought perhaps Unix would hold the same appeal for me in my burned out state. I decided to switch from Windows to a modern Unix variant for my home PC.

The trouble was I only vaguely remembered how to list the files in a directory; use an FTP, WAIS, and Gopher client; and an email program named Pine. Worse, I new nothing about the available Unix operating systems.

In retrospect my timing was excellent. As I was casting about for information about Unix operating systems for PC, the Linux operating system was in its infancy; it was free, and I discovered where to get it.

I downloaded, via FTP over a 2400 baud modem, the sixty or so 3.5” diskettes that comprised the Slackware Linux distribution. After many diskette swaps and a dizzying number of configuration choices, I booted my PC into Linux! I had a command prompt and associated text-only programs. Configuring the system to use my modem was simple enough. With that in place I could download updated software and use a text-based web browser, but I wanted a graphical user interface (GUI).

I had chosen the X Window System (X11), which would enable the GUI, when I installed from the diskettes; although initial attempts at configuring and starting it failed. I did a lot of reading about the then very complex subject and determined that I would have to recompile the kernel.

Okay; that concerned me. I had been programming using Pascal and 8088 assembler as well as having a class in C, but as I was soon to confirm, I was in over my head. I read up on the changes I would need to make, how to recompile the kernel, and how to make the PC boot from from it then gave it a try.

My first several attempts resulted in a system that wouldn’t boot and I didn’t know enough, yet, to fix it. So I reloaded from diskettes each time I cratered the system. I was getting floppy elbow from swapping diskettes so much!

I learned from each mistake, getting closer to a working GUI each time. I finally got the PC to boot from the new kernel and X11 to start in a strikingly ugly GUI. I had seen the screenshots of the pretty GUIs and I trusted that they weren’t faked. I needed to learn how to make mine lovely too. I turned out that X11 was only the foundation; I needed a window manager.

I read about the options and looked at the screenshots. I settled on one; I think it was Xfwm, but that was many window managers ago. In any case, I downloaded the necessary software then configured and compiled each. After a few hiccups I was able to get a nice looking GUI and the graphical versions of the applications I needed: email, web browser, terminal program, and text editor. I stuck with the text-based FTP program, ncftp. Now that I had my GUI I needed the files from my Windows hard drive. It was trivial to mount my Windows hard drive so I could access it from Linux.

With my basic application needs satisfied and access to my old data I began using my Slackware Linux PC as my primary system.

By 1996 I had become so into Linux that I looked for a local user group to join. I was shocked to find that there was none serving southeast Michigan, so I posted a Usenet message looking for people interested in joining one. I formed the Metro Detroit Linux User’s Group (MDLUG) and lead it for two years. It still exists today, although I’ve moved on to a different Unix variant for my primary operating system: Mac OS X.