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.

Income tax 2018

It’s that time of year again, that time when we get to continue to ensure that we’re doing our part to help pay for the cost of everything our country needs to fight World War 1, even though it’s long been over. A lot has changed in the 102 years since income tax was federally mandated in Canada; our government has become ever increasingly bloated and inefficient, and income tax has become so complicated, regular people often need someone trained in this field to do it for them. One year around a decade ago, I had a professional, Katrina Morin and Associates, do it for me, and they made a mistake that cost me $25 in interest to the government that I would not have had to pay if my return was done correctly on the first attempt, and Katrina told me herself that she would not refund me this interest charge, even though I paid her many times more than that. Instead of fighting her for the money, I decided to leave her a one star review. I have since realized that all these so-called professionals do is plug numbers into the same computer software anyone can get for free (simple data entry clerk level work), and a lot of them don’t really care if they do that good of a job of even that simple task, so garbage in = garbage out. Since then, I have always vowed to do my and my wife’s income tax myself.

I have since become generally opposed to the idea of paying money for a person or software to complete my income tax return; it’s an additional burden that hard-working taxpayers should not have to endure. I find it amazing that people get excited when they get a return, considering the only reason they would get a return is because they over-paid the government in the first place, effectively giving our government an interest-free loan, although it’s probably better than leaving it in a bank because at least they won’t charge you for taking your money…yet. The expense of software or a person to assist us with our taxes should be shouldered by the government who take so much money from our income in the first place. At the very least, the cost of such software or services should be a 100% write-off. However, our government needs to waste our money elsewhere to keep their budgets on creating waste as high as possible (more on that in a future blog post), and so we are left with our current state of corruption. Fortunately, there are free and pay-what-you-want models that exist.

My favourite program for doing income taxes over the past few years has been StudioTax. Unfortunately, it is Windows or Mac only. This seems unusual to me, as their license to use the software seems to be more in-line with the ideals of open source software: It’s free to use with no strings attached, no registration or license key required, and no coercion to upgrade or pay for other services. I tried to install it using WINE, and while it installed and launched correctly, it ground to a halt after attempting to enter some information.

StudioTax 2018, as far as I can get in Ubuntu Linux

I decided to shoot an e-mail to the StudioTax support team to ask them about Linux support. This was their reply:

Hi, Sorry, not an easy port to make and, most importantly, a costly yearly maintenance/certification. It just not enough demands out there to justify the effort…mobile devices(iOS and Android) are more urgent priority going forward. Thank you for using StudioTax! Warmest Regards, StudioTax Support Team

I was disappointed to learn that there’s a cost associated with getting software certified with our government (again, what are they wasting all that tax money on, as if I didn’t know), but I was happy to see that they are working on Android support. Android is an open source operating system, and there is work being done now to get Android apps to run in Linux. All of this means that it’s just a matter of time.

But, what about now? I could order a paper copy and do my taxes that way, but that’s going to be time-consuming and seems foolish when I have a powerful computer that can help me do it error-free. I could boot into Windows for that one task, but I prefer to stay on the Linux desktop. Option three is to use one of the free on-line services for me to do my taxes this year. I decided to go for the web-based service SimpleTax. They claim to use encryption, so if you forget your password, there’s no way for anyone to reset it. They have a clean, ad-free interface that I prefer. The way I see it, I e-File my return to government run servers anyway and who knows who’s looking after that (outsourced to the lowest bidder or to someone’s good friend or family member), and I have no reason to assume the people at SimpleTax are going to be worse than our government.

What about you? I’d love to see my reader’s opinions on this topic.

LightZone and Ubuntu 18.04

One of my favourite desktop applications is LightZone; it’s a digital darkroom that allows me to work with the RAW image format that my Pentax camera produces. In Ubuntu 18.04, it reported the following error on startup after installation, and then did not work correctly with JPEG images:

/usr/lib/lightzone/libLCJPEG.so: libjpeg.so.62: cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory

After doing some research, I discovered a simple command line solution to this problem; I simply opened a terminal window, then entered:

sudo apt-get install libjpeg62:i386

Now everything works as it should.

Games on Linux

One popular argument many people use for wanting to go with or stick with Windows is that Linux isn’t as good for games. Giving credit where credit is due, Windows is an excellent platform for gamers. Then again, so are consoles like the Playstation 4, XBox One, and Nintendo Switch. However, I’d like to make the case that Ubuntu Linux is also an excellent platform for games, so if your only reason for not switching to Linux is a lack of games, I think you should reconsider.

The standard Ubuntu install comes with four great desktop classics; Solitaire, Minesweeper, Sudoku, and Mahjongg. These classics are both relaxing and mentally stimulating, and are pure versions of these games without advertising or requiring money to unlock certain things.

Next up is the Ubuntu software center. Bear in mind that these are largely open source free games, but there are some gems to be found. Warzone 2100 is actually a very well done real time strategy game, and some of the knock-offs, like MineTest, are actually really well done and get a lot of support and development from the community, though people are also able to run the original Minecraft in Linux by following some instructions found on-line with a search. One notable thing that shows up repeatedly here are emulators of various systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System. I was more of a Commodore nerd, so Vice and UAE are more my thing, and DOSBox does an excellent job for classic DOS games. In fact, just about every classic gaming system is emulated in the Linux platform, which can make Ubuntu Linux a great home for all of your classic gaming needs; you just need to add the ROMs or disk images.

One of my all time favourites

Some great Windows games run fine on Ubuntu Linux, thanks to WINE. WINE is a recursive acronym which means Wine Is Not an Emulator. What it is is a compatibility layer that allows Windows programs and games to run on the Ubuntu desktop as a native application, because the compatibility layer provides them with the resources they need. Back in the 90’s, when I bought Windows ’98, I also bought Command and Conquer: Red Alert to go with it as a Westwood Classics, and this was the game that convinced me that Windows was the platform to have because of that game alone. Remarkable that I can play it for free flawlessly on the Ubuntu desktop.

Steam on Linux

Then there’s Steam. I went directly to their website to install this on Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, and it runs great. Another one of my all-time favourites are the Half Life series, including Portal, and these have all been written to run natively on Linux.

Portal

In the case of Half Life, the characters got some improvements in their details.

And then there are new games to try out and explore in the Linux platform; the first one I’m going to try out is Endless Sky, which is a free download. However, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not really that up-to-date on the latest and greatest games on Linux. For that, I would have to refer you to sites like Foss’s 30 best Linux games on Steam you should play in 2019.

That’s about all I have for now, but I think it’s pretty clear that there is no shortage of games on the Linux platform. At least for me, it’s delivered everything I want from the gaming world, and so see no reason to revert back to Microsoft’s marketing vehicle called Windows 10. I hope you have a great weekend and enjoy a few games yourself.

Bringing it all home

It’s been a busy weekend for me, and a very productive one at that! You see, in the early to mid 2000’s, I made use of an old, obsolete computer by installing Red Hat Linux and Apache on it to host my own web page. It’s been well over a decade since I’ve done that, and even though I’ve had this blog on a continuous basis since then, it’s provided by hosting that I pay for, and while the company has been very good and helpful with decent policies and very competitive prices, there are inherent limitations like the amount of disk space, amount of traffic per month, and number of SQL databases I can have. These limits are reasonable, but hosting my own sites on an old computer that’s still good enough for this job would save me a few bucks, remove all limitations, ensure that I cannot be censored (you can send all complaints to gopoundsalt@pquirk.com), and returns me to a hobby that’s more productive and enjoyable than wasting time on Facebook.

So I started with an old Hewlett Packard, originally a factory refurb I bought for cheap, upgraded the hard drive and video, and maxed out the memory on. I wanted to edit 4k video from my drone quad copter, but the HP Compaq small form factor struggled. Still, it is wonderfully energy efficient, making for an excellent personal web server.

My next stop was to install the latest version of Ubuntu Server Long Term Support, which is version 18.04.1. Red Hat Linux has long since moved on to Enterprise, and so costs money to run; I don’t need that sort of support, so Ubuntu will do nicely.

I configured my router so that my server is in DMZ so it’s accessible to the Internet, and explored my options for dynamic DNS. See, these days, our IP address can change from time to time, and a dynamic IP service keeps the Internet records up to date so that the domain name always points to the proper IP address. Turns out Google Domains can do this, so I transferred my test bed domain, paulq.org. It can take a few days to complete.

Ubuntu Server itself is simply the foundation, so my next stop was to install the Apache2 server and a SQL database to provide the foundation for things like WordPress. This was also easy to do. Finally, I installed and configured WordPress.

A lot has changed since the last time I ran a static web site. For example, there’s SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) to ensure your connection is secure. My hosting company offered it for $20 a year. If you’re reading this on the old host, you will notice that the address bar indicates that your connection is not secure. If you’ve accessed this on my new self-hosted server, you may have seen an alarming message telling you the certificate was not verified. That’s because I learned how to generate my own certificate. You will need to add an exception to your browser if you’d like a secure connection (important if you want to leave comments).

I decided to add a GUI to my installation to make it easier to download files from my paid hosting provider directly to my new server; I went with a bare bones Lubuntu, and then installed Mozilla Firefox. However, most of my configuring my server has happened through a remote connection from my new computer via SSH, something else new I learned about this weekend.

My server desktop

Over time, I plan to migrate my other endeavors on over. To be honest, this is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I’ve come to realize that Facebook was eating up all my time. Once I kicked Facebook to the curb, I’ve really learned a lot and became much more productive. Meanwhile, my wife Sally is spending the weekend updating her Microsoft Office skills with some self-learning, in hopes of pursuing new opportunities where she works. The Facebook free lifestyle is really working out!