On Desktop Linux

After more than 20 years, I think I’m going to throw in the towel on trying to use Linux as a daily-driver desktop operating system.

A little background to start: I’ve been a Linux user for a very, very long time.  My first install was a 2-floppy MCC Linux installation, which of course didn’t get me very far.  A friend down the hall in my dorm leant me his collection of install floppies for SLS 1.05, and finally I had a system that could at least talk to the modem.  This was in 1994.  Kernel version 0.99.something.

My distribution of choice has been Debian GNU/Linux since before the late Ian Murdock left the project.  Debian is a great system, though I’ve dabbled with most other Linux distributions from time to time.  Redhat 6.0 box sets.  SuSE.  Oracle Linux.  Ubuntu.  Linux Mint.  Manjaro.  I’ve even tried the FSF-endorsed distributions like BLAG, Ututo, and Trisquel.  Along the way I’ve stumbled through NetBSD, FreeBSD, OpenBSD.

Throughout college I used a dual-boot OS/2 and Linux combination, with most of my time spent in CLI on the Linux side.  In those days, the fonts provided by X were atrocious and simply too much for my already poor eyesight.  I made due.

After college I bought a Winbox, a Micron running Windows 98.  I tried to love Microsoft, but it was certainly hard in those days.  OS/2 was already dead.  At one point I tossed out all of my proprietary software and went exclusively Debian.  I lasted 2 weeks: the daily headaches, both physical and software, finally got the best of me and I went and bought a Windows 2000 license.  I still dabbled with Linux occasionally but booted back into Windows to get real work done.

In 2008 I bought a MacBook Pro.  Finally a machine with enough horsepower for real virtualization, but enough native applications that most of the time I didn’t need it.  Visually stunning, easy to use, exactly what I wanted with one important exception: it ran Mac OSX, not Free Software.  I gave up my associate membership in the FSF and decided to plant myself firmly in the “at least it isn’t Microsoft” camp.  I continued to use Linux and *BSD on servers — mostly leased virtual private servers and some systems at work — but for home computing I was generally satisfied with the Mac and the Apple ecosystem.  We now have 2 iPhones, several iPods, 2 iPads, a Time Capsule, and another MacBook Pro (2009) on the network.

The 2008 MBP is now at the point where the hardware is getting unreliable, and this hardware is no longer supported by current Mac OS X.  The latest it can run is El Capitan (10.11) which will lose security updates at the end of this year.  I’ve been trying to decide what is next: do I buy a new Mac, do I go back to Windows, or do I try again to convert to Free Software?

Windows 10 is quite a nice piece of work.  I’m using it daily on my work-provided Dell laptop.  Microsoft has clearly learned from their mistakes – especially the horrendous mess that was Windows 8.  Microsoft Office 2016 is a nice environment to work with, and I really enjoy using Visio.  My need for UNIX-like tools is satisfied with Cygwin64 and Vim.  Visual Studio is now free for personal use.

I don’t see the same kind of innovation coming from Apple these days.  Clearly the best and brightest are on the iPhone team, which makes sense since the vast majority of Apple’s revenue comes from there.  The latest MacBook Pros are just as ridiculously overpriced as they always were, but don’t offer nearly the premium over a Dell machine at half the price that they did in 2008.

Linux?  I don’t think so.  On my desk presently, there are 4 laptops.  One is the MacBook Pro I use as my daily driver.  The others are:

A 2007 MacBook that was given to me for free.  It needs a replacement keyboard, the spacebar is not as firm as it is supposed to be.  The latest this hardware can run is Mac OS X Lion (10.7), which is no longer supported by any major browser vendor.  It also contains a Broadcom BCM4321 wireless chip, which is not supported by Linux or BSD.

A 2002 PowerBook Aluminum.  Beautiful machine.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with it, but like the newer Apple hardware, it also contains a Broadcom wireless chip.  Under Linux, the particular model in this laptop will communicate with the AP, but after 10-15 seconds starts to drop 50% of the packets.  No known fix.  Works fine until Mac OS X of course, but the newest OS supported for PPC machines is Leopard 10.5.  Debian dropped support for PPC after Jessie (8).  It runs OpenBSD quite nicely, as long as you don’t want to use wireless.

A 2004 Dell D620.  Again, beautiful machine, nothing at all wrong with it.  It shipped with Windows XP.  Linux will run on this machine, and the wireless card (an Intel 2200) is actually supported decently.  However, it is a 32-bit machine in what has increasingly become a 64-bit world.  Ubuntu dropped support for 32-bit machines after 16.04.  Power management doesn’t work properly with Linux on this machine, so the fans run full speed all the time, making it unwelcome in any coffee shop.  It works fine on Windows XP, but who wants to use Windows XP these days?

I think my plan is to donate these 3 older machines to anyone who will take them, keep the MacBook Pro as a backup machine, and buy myself a new laptop in 2018.  Maybe Dell will have a good sale around the time I have some money.  What I’d really like is a smaller machine — a 13″ one like a Dell XPS — and a docking station with a large monitor.  I think I’m done with the Mac ecosystem unless Apple surprises me with something truly innovative in the next round.  I’m not holding my breath.

 

Antenna experiments, take one

A mixed bag to report today with regard to antennas.

Since the weather today remains unseasonably warm, I decided it would be a good opportunity to try some experiments, especially with no one home to persuade me to do chores or other such nonsense.  Looking around for materials, I found an unused spool of 26 gauge wire, several hundred feet of it in fact, and in the junk box a number of eye hooks and sticky tie pads.  Also in the attic is a 5/8 wave 2 meter antenna on magna-mount, and a good length of RG58 coax.

I first strung up some of the wire across the attic roof, running it across a few sticky pads affixed to the ceiling the full length of the attic from the front window to the back.  Despite the attic being used only for storage, this placement kept it out of the way and in a good place to prevent human mishaps.  I then ran the far end outside the rear window and down along the back of the house, with enough length that it reached the ground below.

From the bedroom window one floor down, I noticed something odd that had never occurred to me before.  The attic window is not directly above the bedroom window, and the bedroom window is not directly above the dining room window.  All are offset by a few feet.  This ended up working out well, as the wire coming from the attic could be run across the bedroom window ledge and secured there, and then from the far end of the ledge it was at just the right location to drop down right beside the dining room window.  Some more sticky pads secured the wire there.

I then brought the wire in through the dining room window and across the floor, temporarily, to the desk where the radios sit.  I repeated the process with the length of RG58 over the same path, with the PL259 connection left a few feet into the attic for connection to the 5/8 wave antenna.

First problem: I need a PL259 barrel connector to connect the 2 male PL259s in the attic, feed line to antenna.  I know there are at least 3 of them in the house somewhere, but of course I couldn’t find one of them today.  Oh well, skip that plan and move on.  I can always order one.

The long wire antenna actually worked out fairly well.  I tried it connected to my MFJ-1020C active antenna and from there into the PCR-1000.  Very good performance on MW, even in the middle of the day.  Performance on SW left a lot to be desired.  I also learned that the PCR-1000 seems to be a bit sick with regard to SSB.  Switching from AM to USB or LSB immediately closes the squelch all the way.  I can see on the S-meter that there is signal there, and hear it in AM mode, but absolutely no audio output in SSB mode.  Definitely a bummer.

With the R-20, the performance on 40m LSB was quite remarkable.  I spent a good hour listening to the NY State QSO party and logging stations up and down the east coast.  It turns out that with the long wire, the active antenna was doing almost nothing for me other than raising the noise floor.  Performance was best with it bypassed out.

I took a break from listening to go out in the yard and play with the dog.  It was at that point that I noticed the fatal flaw with my new wonder-tenna.  You see, I forgot to mention that the 26 gauge wire I found is purple.  Bright Barney the Dinosaur purple.  Against a dark brick house.  So much for a discrete antenna installation.  I decided that rather than argue with the litigious back neighbor, or the neighbor on the side who is trying to sell their humble abode, I would take things down for now but leave the mounts in place.  Stringing the antenna up takes all of 10 minutes, and under the cover of night no one will know the difference if I haul it up, listen for a couple hours, and take it down in the morning.

I was going to leave the coax in place (it’s black) but I think I have a better plan.  I need to negotiate for enough space in the front bedroom to put the radio desk there.  A big part of the problem I’m dealing with down here is the amount of electronic noise.  For whatever reason, this MacBook Pro seems to give off a ton more RFI than either of the Dell laptops.  Maybe the bluetooth mouse is part of the problem.  I think I will have much better luck taking the PCR-1000 upstairs with one of the Dell machines, shutting off WiFi, and taking some basic steps to shield the radio from the laptop.  That placement will also allow me to run the feedlines down the stairs, rather than outside of the house, which is a huge improvement in any case.

Waiting for the rain

I spent the better part of the last three weeks hiding inside my own thoughts.  I was still going to work each day, going through the motions, doing what needed to be done, but not really interacting with anyone in a meaningful way and not making any sort of creative progress.  I’m not exactly what changed on Friday, except a little bit of frustration with not knowing the start time of the burlesque show that night because I didn’t have my own Facebook account to go and look it up.  That seems to have flipped the switch from ‘hide inside my own head’ back to ‘privacy is overrated, forget it’.  I only know these two extremes most of the time.

I turned on Facebook again Friday night.  I’m not sure exactly what people will think of me reappearing and re-adding everyone all over again, so I’ve started slowly with people I know won’t think twice about such things.  I am trying with Twitter, but it seems so desolate these days.  Ello.  Instagram.  I even re-activated my Patreon account, after deciding that I can come up with $10 a month to support the artists I adore.  My disappearance from there was always more about hiding than about money anyway.

Despite all of these steps, I’m still struggling to believe that I have anything to say that is worth hearing, or that anyone would want to interact with me on a deeper level than pushing a Like button on Facebook.  I’ve told myself to keep quiet for so long, for fear that someone important will find out what I have said or written and yell at me.  People are mean that way.  Society is mean that way.  I just don’t feel like living in a self-made box anymore and people are going to have to either get used to that or get out of my way.

Yesterday was the last real day of summer and warm weather.  Today the rains are coming and the colder temperatures start tomorrow.  We’re making more time for inside activities, but I really wish we still had some board games to play.  My favorites were Monopoly and Pay Day, but I think we gave them both away a few years ago.

Today before it gets much colder, I need to figure out how to string some antennas for the winter.  No outside antennas allowed, but I think locating the 5/8 wave 2m antenna in the attic should be fine for VHF, and a simple long dipole strung across the attic roof should be decent for HF.  It is too cold in the attic for the radios themselves, so I need to figure out how to run a feed line down to warmer parts of the house.  That is the tricker part, since the front room by the attic door is too full of sewing projects for a radio desk.