Why Open Source, Part III

This is the third installment exploring my own personal history with computers that has lead me to use open source software almost exclusively. In part 1, I started off with my first computer and the 8 bit revolution from 1980-1987. In part II, I go into my missteps and experiences during the 16 bit revolution, which fills in my experiences up until the end of 1994. In this installment, I go into my experiences with DOS, Windows, and OS/2, then back to Windows as I entered the new millennium. However, before I move forward, I have a confession to make: Some have indicated that my memory must be incredible to recall all of this information. My memory is not remarkable; rather, I am a digital hoarder and own a Vic 20, Commodore 64, and an Amiga that all work, and many of my old disks still work, so digging through my digital hoard, I was able to jog my memory. It’s also the reason why these take so long to write. With no further ado, let’s continue into the new millennium.

Part III: DOS, Windows, and OS/2 (and Windows)

My original Windows 3.1 disks

I had learned how easy it was to build my PC, and there was no turning back. Selecting IRQ’s, DMA’s, editing the AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS in DOS were not entirely different from editing the startup-sequence on my Amiga. Many of the AmigaDOS commands I had learned transferred over. Before long, I had mastered the PC, but unlike the Amiga, there were tangible rewards. I could connect to the college mainframe remotely and upload code I had tested in the compiler on my PC, so I could spend lab classes at home, saving me the time and expense of commuting to the college; I only had to go to class when something new was being taught. My fax software let me fax my resume to potential employers, saving me a tremendous amount of time. My computer was working for me; it was saving me both money and time. However, the benefits of Windows became apparent as the world of computers was moving in that direction, and I had already accumulated a small library of Windows software and utilities, so to unlock that vast library of extremely useful software, I had to upgrade.

My first PDA from the 1990’s

I discovered that I could sell my computer for more than I paid to build it, because when people upgraded components, the old components held little value; combine them into a usable system that someone can turn on and use right away, those components combined were worth significantly more. And so my next build was a ‘386 system, also built from used components, but with 2MB of RAM, a 16 MHz processor, and VGA graphics connected to a white monochrome VGA monitor. The hard drive, this time at 40MB, was still small, but I built this system entirely with the money I made from selling my ‘286. I was amazed at how far my initial $200 investment would go, simply because something was deemed obsolete. I had long learned that nothing is obsolete as long as it performs the task I need it to do, and I was taking full advantage of the marketing campaigns of the big computer companies that made people feel like their computers were “Less than” and they had to upgrade.

Oh Ess Too.

After my second year of college, I secured a contract with EDS to assist them in their Y2k conversions for the summer, converting Pacbase COBOL programs. I knew COBOL and JCL (which was not unlike the Amiga’s startup-sequence or DOS’s autoexec.bat), and I made some new friends as I adjusted to the new culture. I went to COMDEX in Toronto that year, and that’s where I bought OS/2 Warp 3 Red pack for only $40. This was a fantastic value, as it contained an office suite with a modern word processor, database, and spreadsheet, a suite of Internet software (e-mail, browser) which all were equal to commercial products for Windows in those days (remember Microsoft Works, Netscape and Eudora), and full DOS and Windows compatibility. I experienced the same arrogance I had with the Amiga; THIS was the OS of the future. The difference this time was that my hardware was open architecture and fully compatible with Windows and DOS. It really was a better DOS than DOS, and better Windows than Windows. Until a better Windows came out. I sold my ‘386 to build a ‘486 DX2-66 system that could handle OS/2 using the same formula as before, but adding in some extra money from the sale of my ‘386 to spring for a brand new colour SVGA monitor.

Me with my son and computer, multitasking like it’s 1999.

I became a hardcore OS/2 Warp user in the summer of ’95. I had learned about the greatness of this fantastic operating system in my college program, and this was the year I switched from using BBS’s to signing on to an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The Internet changed everything; instead of waiting for a week for someone halfway across the world to respond to my message in a FidoNet echo, I could get a response almost instantaneously. I could create a web page. The Internet was a democracy; a fair and level playing ground. What made it great was that I could get access to the Internet for not much more than what I was paying a local BBS for things like FidoNet access. Now you’re probably wondering, how did this help me on my journey towards using open source software? The answer to that was my discovery of the Hobbes OS/2 archive. As you can see, this is similar to it’s contemporary, aminet.net, and the spirit of open source software is very strong in these unique places.

My K62-450 as my first ever Lilnux server, note the Apple sticker for comedic effect.

I ran OS/2 for a good three years, eventually upgrading to an AMD K62-450 based system in part so that I could tell Macintosh fanboys who accused me of being brainwashed by WinTel that I ran neither Windows nor used Intel. The fact that there was another OS and CPU alternative that I opted for shut down their entire argument, and planted the seed that the PC’s open architecture really made it the computer platform for the people. I contemplated upgrading to OS/2 Warp 4, until I realized that IBM was going to discontinue OS/2, that OS/2 would not support the new Windows ’95 programs, and that there were a LOT of GREAT games for Windows ’95. The fact that Sun was making StarOffice a free download for OS/2 and Windows (which would eventually become OpenOffice and then LibreOffice) sealed the deal. I could’ve switched to Linux then, but Windows was where interesting things were happening. I skipped past ’95 and bought the Windows ’98 upgrade (to upgrade from my licensed version of 3.1), along with Command and Conquer: Red Alert, from Costco.

My first scanner, and first USB device

In the late 90’s, Windows was the centre of the digital revolution. If I wanted to do banking from my computer, the software from my credit union only ran on Windows. Windows also supported USB, and my first USB device was a scanner that was fast and good, so finally I could put my pre-digital camera photos on my web page. I was running StarOffice 5.2 at home. At the office, I was provided with an obsolete Pentium 100 computer barely capable of running Windows ’95 with a really old version of Microsoft Office. I would get documents in the .docx format that I couldn’t open. As I was just a Y2k programmer, the company didn’t see fit to get me a license for the latest version of Office, and so I downloaded and installed StarOffice 5.2 to my work PC, and it had no problems handling the latest .docx documents. I became a devoted user of this open source office suite, which was also a great html editor, which I used to create my first web site. While most people went with GeoCities, I opted for Tripod, as it was overall a better service. My first web site, last updated on July 29, 2000, still exists today.

My first laptop; working on my web site during my break at work.

I bought my first laptop that came with Windows ME which really wasn’t all that bad. With 64MB of RAM and an 800 MHz processor, my Toshiba Satellite would have been good if it didn’t completely fall apart and deteriorate a couple of years later. That was the first entirely brand new computer I bought since my Amiga 500, though my AMD K62-450 had a lot of new components. Eventually, I would upgrade my desktop to Windows XP when they offered the upgrade from Windows ’98, and then built a new system based on the AMD Athlon processor. By this time, StarOffice was no longer a free product, but I was ready for the full Microsoft experience. I was all in; Windows XP, Office 2003, the latest Athlon processor with tons of hard drive space and memory, and by gosh did I ever love playing Half Life and related games. My new PDA synced well with it, and when I bought a digital miniDV camcorder (a requirement of becoming a father in the early 2000’s), Magix Movie Edit Pro 10 delivered high end video editing at a good price. When I got my first digital camera, it came with Windows software that was, in effect, a digital darkroom. Everything would have been fine if it wasn’t for the excessive advertising Tripod was doing on my web site; inserting big, ugly ads that I’d struggle to eliminate with some clever javascript embedded in my html. I never minded them having a banner at the top of my page, but ads were appearing throughout my pages, making them ugly and slow. Furthermore, I didn’t want my name to be associated with a random brand.

Installing Red Hat Linux on my server

I knew full well that the Internet was the great democracy. When I had a dial-up connection, it made sense to use a service like GeoCities or Tripod, but by 2005, I had signed up for high speed Internet Lite with Rogers, which was on all the time. Although it was “Lite,” it was plenty fast enough to serve up a static, ad-free web site. All I had to do was to learn how to configure and set up a web server. I experimented with Microsoft’s Personal Web Server that came with my Windows ’98, and to be honest it would have been perfectly suitable, or I could have installed the Apache server on my Windows machine, but I had this crazy idea to repurpose my old Windows ’98 machine as a dedicated web server that I could tinker with. Since my Windows ’98 license was already used for the XP upgrade, and after extensive research, I ended up with Red Hat Linux running the Apache server on my old AMD K62-450, and installed OpenOffice 1.0.2 on it. That was my turning point.

A capture of my self-hosted web site.

Red Hat Linux had its limitations. It could not play the latest games, it could not do video editing, and the photo editing software was comparatively weak. However, even that early version of OpenOffice 1.0.2 was a delight to use, and I secretly enjoyed using it more than Microsoft Office 2003 on my XP machine. I used a KVM switch to switch between my Windows XP box and my Red Hat Linux box, using Windows XP for games and video editing, and Red Hat Linux for everything else. The theme of my own personal web site was counter-culture; no tracking cookies, no advertisements, just content that I wanted to share. I had just barely learned how to use Linux, and I was already running my own web site and touting the benefits of open source.

My $50 Amiga 2000

In December of 2006, I went to World of Commodore and, for $50, bought what was once the best computer money could buy: The Amiga 2000. Being a digital hoarder, I still had all of my JumpDisks, and decided to revisit this collection on a nostalgic trip. To my horror, I found some of the older disks unreadable. I tried to find copies on the Internet, but found nothing about JumpDisk at all. After messing around a bit with diskdoctor and using some other tools like a disk sector editor, I was able to recover the data from those disks, but I realized they would not last forever. I wanted to preserve this legacy, but my high speed lite connection was already stressed with the Shameful Driver’s of Southern Ontario and other photographic endeavors. I did the math and determined an online service provider that would provide ad-free hosting for an annual price was less than it would cost me to upgrade my connection. And so it was in 2007 I shut down my Red Hat Linux server after migrating it to a paid on-line web hosting company.

A video of me demonstrating my (then) new Pinnacle Studio MovieBox

This wasn’t the end of open source for me. I was all over OpenOffice as my new productivity suite. I also discovered GIMP, Audacity, GPodder, and Transmission. All of the great open source software I discovered or re-discovered using Red Hat Linux was also available for Windows. Even though I remained in the Windows eco-system, I was enjoying a growing library of free, high quality open source software, with the exception of my new favourite application, that being video editing software. By 2008, I replaced my laptop with a Compaq C700 running Windows Vista, and bought a package that included Pinnacle Studio video editing software and a USB device that would allow me to import video from sources such as composite, S-video, and FireWire. My new video editing hobby kept me entrenched in Windows; however, I also started listening to Linux Outlaws on my new Sansa C250 MP3 player (no iPod for me), which held my interest in open source.

My first MP3 player, the Sansa C250.

By this point, you might be frustrated by the fact that, even after using a product like Red Hat Linux, I was still very much a Windows user, and I think it’s important to explore the reasons why, going back to 2009 when I upgraded to Windows 7 and Microsoft Office Enterprise 2007. At around this time, I started a small business doing energy audits on homes. I had a blower door kit that came with calibrated sensors to determine the air tightness of a home, and this piece of gear could be connected to a computer via USB running the software that came with the blower door which would automate the entire process, making me a lot more efficient at my job. No matter what, I could not get this software to run properly in Linux, even with WINE, and there was no Linux equivalent. Running my own business left me with little free time, so writing my own software was out of the question. When it came to actually doing business, products like QuickBooks allowed me to generate professional invoices in a snap and managed the financial side of my small business with minimal effort; while I explored open source options like GnuCash, I could not afford the investment in time to properly configure and set it up, as it was still early days for this software.

Hot2000, one of the pieces of software I needed for my business

I really was at odds at this point in my life; on one hand, I believed in the philosophy of open source software. On the other hand, when there’s a business to run, I couldn’t afford to be inefficient; time is money, and the Windows platform really delivered. Things like workflow really mattered, and anything that distracted from that, such as unusual errors while attempting to run software in WINE, resulted in costly mistakes. My solution then was to dual boot; when Ubuntu 10.10 came out, I was very excited, and dual booted all of my computers. In my spare time, I attempted to get open source software configured to run some of my business. However, I could not ignore the fact that some of my business colleagues were successfully running their business from Netbooks running Windows XP and riddled with malware. Eventually, I settled on using Windows for work and video editing, and booting into Linux for fun.

RETScreen, a business application created in Microsoft Excel.

This takes us up to a bit past 2010, when the impact of open source software really made an impression on me. I decided to cover a greater span of time in this post in order to fully illustrate the impact Windows had on me, and why it was difficult to transition to open source. In my next and final installment, I will cover the last decade up to today, exploring the reasons why, in the past year, I made the decision to switch almost entirely to open source, and my thoughts as to whether or not I’d switch back.

Aunt Ruth

January 16, 1948-September 10, 2019

Aunt Ruth, Uncle Barry, Christmas 1971

Today, my aunt Ruth died at the age of 71. She was my mother’s “Baby Sister.” It was brain cancer.

I wish I could say hers was a life well lived. I wish I could say she achieved all of her hopes and dreams. She was loved, but her life was not perfect. Growing up, the cycles of abuse that echoed throughout generations of my working class Irish family must have taken its toll. Sitting next to her in this photo is her husband Barry, a man who died in a boating accident not too long after this photograph was taken, leaving her alone to raise my older cousin Jeff, whom I admired and looked up to. Given the hand that life dealt her, I think she did a pretty good job of it. He’s a pretty neat guy who’s a professional DJ and loves paintball, and has a son of his own.

During the times I had the opportunity to spend time with my aunt Ruth, she was very sharp, intelligent, and witty. She would speak very fast as she said something witty, but she never seemed to let anyone get too close. I wanted to get to know her better, but I was afraid. I knew she wanted more out of life, but her darkness was holding her back. Sometimes, she would disappear into that darkness, but my brave mother would always go looking for her in that darkness to bring her back out into the light that shone from her love and the love of family. Whenever I saw Aunt Ruth after my mother had brought her back into the light at Christmas time, she had a look in her eye that reminded me of a dog that had been beaten too much. All I could do was hug her. I had no words of comfort to offer.

She didn’t die alone. My mother brought her into the light of her love one last time, bringing her baby sister into her home so she could take care of her. My mother would always be there for her with a compassion and understanding that knew no bounds. I’m certain my mother’s unconditional love for her baby sister comes from knowing far better than any of us what her baby sister had to go through in life that thrust her into her darkness. My mother made sure her baby sister got to see her son one last time mere days before she died. She made sure her baby sister got to speak to me on the phone before she lost the ability to hold a conversation from her aggressive brain cancer, and I want to remember those final words she was able to speak to me forever. Words that she struggled to vocalize at the same quick rate she used to. How generous of her to give me those words in the final days of her life, it was the greatest gift anyone could offer.

I suppose, given the love of my mother and her other two sisters, my aunt Ruth did live a full and wonderful life. I credit this love for helping my aunt live to the age of 71. She left me a great cousin in her son, and her legacy is the evidence that love is the light that helps all of us find our way out of our own darkness. I only wish I could have hugged her one last time, and that’s what is breaking my heart right now.

Love you, aunt Ruth.