Home > CrunchBang, Fedora, KDE, Xfce > Passing it along

Passing it along

September 1, 2013

Last week, one of my news colleagues posted on social media that her laptop had died, and her two boys were in need (so said their Silicon Valley school) of more than just the cheap tablet she had bought recently at a local big-box electronics store.

About the same time I read of her situation, I had been working on a ThinkPad T30 with a misbehaving wireless card — no, “misbehaving” is too kind, as it was definitely on strike — and I thought it might be a good idea to pass along this old guy, adding an old-school PCMCIA wireless card, so the boys would have something to use for the upcoming school year.

Calls were made, thanks were given, and my colleague — a columnist who works from home “over the hill” in San Jose — will pick up the T30 on Wednesday.

This old T30 was once my “road warrior” before I got the ThinkPad T60 that now fills this role. I think of the T30 in the same way that Neil Young thinks of his instrument when he sings “This Old Guitar” — “This old guitar ain’t mine to keep / It’s mine to play for a while” — and while the T30 may not be ideal for a couple of kids going back to grade school this month, it’ll do until something better comes along.

So I added memory I had lying around, wiped the drive and set out for a distro that I think would be good for them. Knowing they have used Windows before and are used to icons and drop-down menus, I counted out both Unity and GNOME desktop environments right off the bat. Also, while splitting hairs here, I also passed up CrunchBang, which is Debian under the Openbox window manager, despite the fact I think beginners would easily adapt to it.

I’d like them to have a good Linux experience right off the bat, so I thought a lot about what to install on the T30.

I finally decided on, wait for it, Fedora 19 Xfce.

Why? A couple of reasons right off the bat: First, I get that I’m quite possibly the only person on the entire planet that acutally doesn’t think that Fedora is solely a “bleeding edge distro only for the most brilliant and cutting-edge Linux users” — I firmly believe that anyone with a few IQ points to rub together, to say nothing of bright kids, can use it. Second, as I mentioned earlier, I wanted to give the boys something with icons and menus; in other words, something that was not entirely foreign to them.

Choosing a desktop environment was not easy. Though I only have it on one machine in the lab, I like KDE and all the great developments KDE brings to FOSS. But I am way more familiar with Xfce and have used it more often; my second distro back in 2006 was the Dapper Drake version of Xubuntu. So it’s a matter of convenience: If anything goes wrong, I’d be able to help quickly. I also installed Flash — Fedora doesn’t come with it natively, to their free-software credit, but it’s necessary especially in a school setting until Gnash is up to speed — a necessary evil maybe, but still necessary. So it’s there.

So on Wednesday, the cat’s out of the bag: They get Schrodinger’s Cat with the Xfce desktop on a T30 with a collection of stickers on it that rivals any NASCAR racer. They’ll get the SELinux lecture upon my handing it over to them, and a few tips about how to handle the the flashing light of the Automatic Bug Reporting Tool.

I’m also going to give them a copy of “Snake Wrangling for Kids” with the hope that maybe one of them will like Python enough to start fiddling with it.

Let’s see how this goes.

This blog, and all other blogs by Larry the Free Software Guy, Larry the CrunchBang Guy and Larry Cafiero, are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND license. In short, this license allows others to download this work and share it with others as long as they credit me as the author, but others can’t change it in any way or use it commercially.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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  1. amenditman
    September 1, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    I had to LMFAO about this, “until Gnash is up to speed”.

    The developers work really hard and do a great job, but…
    Adobe can’t even keep up with Flash development and Gnash is never going to catch that train before it leaves the tracks. Best we can hope for is HTML5, and newer codecs, phasing Flash out sooner vs. later.

    • September 1, 2013 at 4:57 pm

      Yeah, well, whenever I bring up Flash, I get letters (OK, e-mails). In this situation, where they’re going to have to visit sites like Khan Academy (insert Star Trek joke here) and need Flash to watch the videos, they’ll need it.

  2. Bob
    September 1, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Why not just install PC-BSD and solve the problem that way?

    • September 1, 2013 at 6:27 pm

      I’m not sure what you’re referring to by “solve” — solve the Flash situation or something else? I am not familiar with PC-BSD at all, and since I’m expecting a tsunami of questions, I’d rather give them something I’m familiar with when the questions come, rather than giving them something that could be a mystery to us both.

  3. Paul Sams
    September 2, 2013 at 4:55 am

    Larry, no disrespect to the other’s commented here(I was very tempted to say “why not add XFCE-4 to Wheezy?”) Sounds like you’ve got this under control. Sounds like you have a big heart. I know, and I bet you know what it’s like to have something quit at the wrong time money wise. A good friend you are.

    • September 2, 2013 at 8:34 am

      Understood, Paul, and thanks for the kind words. I hope you realize, too, that it’s not like I just took a swig of coffee and said, “OK, then, I’ll just throw on Fedora.” I took a long time to think about what to put on the T30.

      Debian was definitely in the mix, as was OpenSUSE and Linux Mint (my daughter became a Linux Mint due to Unity). I could have put on Debian for the same reason I put on Fedora — one of the myths I’d like to bust wide open sometime before my life is over is that some distros (Debian and Fedora easily fall into this category) are some kind of mysterious “black magic” only for “experienced users.” The reason I went with Fedora is that’s usually the one people point to when people say, “Oh, that’s only for experienced users.”

  4. September 2, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    I hate to say it, but setting users who are most familiar with Windows with the KDE desktop may be the best you can do. At least for my money. KDE bears enough similarity to the other proprietary desktop that it has always seemed a good fit.

    I don’t think it’s because Windows is in any way superior, it’s jut that the computer UI is a reasonably well developed thing and for all its faults, Windows gets a lot of things right. I can’t directly address the modern Mac interface because I haven’t really had my hands on a Mac since the days of System 7.

    That said KDE have the lowest learning curve. At least until a user gets ambitious and wants to change things. But if it’s set up well in the first place, it’s a safe bet.

    This caveat: I am not really familiar with XFCE.

    Good on you for the donation.


    • September 2, 2013 at 3:16 pm

      Thanks, Mark. I thought about KDE, but the main hurdle was the fact that KDE uses a lot of resources and I wanted something lighter.

  5. Al Garrett
    September 3, 2013 at 7:10 am

    I created a similar solution for my 75+ mother. She only needed an email device but I also added Office and Internet capabilities.
    I bought a used Thinkpad, installed Ubuntu with XFCE, changed the background to the Windows XP green field, set the XFCE “Start” button the match the Windows “Start” icon and turned her loose on it.
    She only has three icons on her desktop, one of which is Google Remote Desktop so I can remote in with her on the phone and do troubleshooting if necessary.
    So far, no problems have arisen that can’t be solved by turning it off and back on again.
    On the funny side, a “family friend” came by to help her load some application and found it wouldn’t load. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when the bonehead downloaded some *.exe and then couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t install.

    • September 3, 2013 at 7:15 am

      Heh. That’s a good story about the “family friend.”

  6. September 4, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Nice story, Larry.

    I’m running Fedora 19 with Xfce right now, too, and it’s pretty well stable, so I understand the choice of Fedora from a “it works great” perspective that should get more publicity than it does. (This is nothing that a Fedora LTS woudn’t solve, but that’s another argument for another day.)

    I don’t know if this factored into your decision or not, but the “stock” Fedora with Xfce doesn’t “push” software updates to the user. Instead, you have to run either the graphical Yum Extender (which I love, by the way), or yum in the terminal, both with root privileges.

    This way, if you’re maintaining the system, you can run Yum or Yumex for them, and nobody gets pestered with a window asking them to update software that is useless to them unless they have the root password.

    I say this as a current Fedora user: One of the main reasons I’m running Fedora (and not Debian, which is my usual go-to) is because my hardware is too new and poorly supported in what are now old distros like Debian Wheezy and even the latest Ubuntu/Xubuntu. Fedora beats them for bleeding edge, which I need right now.

    But for an old Thinkpad, Fedora is more of an “I like Fedora” choice than “nothing else works as well right now.”

    I would have considered the Xubuntu LTS (turns out that’s 12.04) so the installation would last longer on the machine without needing an in-place upgrade. Same for Debian, though you only get a couple of years at this point, and Xubuntu will go through 2017, I think. Not that you’d want to leave it that long … but you might.

    I used Fedup to go from F18 to F19, and it’s not exactly a consumer-ready procedure at this point. I’m committed to the six-month upgrade path at the moment, but if/when the open Radeon driver (or the closed Catalyst driver, though this is far from ideal) can handle my AMD chip, I’m going to find something less bleeding-edge and stick with it.

  7. Colonel Panik
    September 5, 2013 at 6:40 am

    Hurry Hurry Step Right Up and See the T30.
    You can see the ThinkPad that is the focus of this
    post on SlashDot. Sept. 5 at 7:37 Pacific.

    Do something nice and you become famous.

  8. Paul Sams
    September 6, 2013 at 12:11 am

    When I re-read my comment, I could see that it appeared I was criticizing Larry’s choice of fedora 19. I wasn’t. Whatever reason he chose to use this setup is justified as it’s his machine, and he was making the decision. He has probably thought out the other matters also. I’m biased toward Debian, Steven, I have a System76 and couldn’t run Debian Squeeze properly on it, but Wheezy was working well and was released as stable two months later. Disclosure: I’m running Crunchbang Waldorf(Wheezy), set up with my preferences. I need to give Phillip credit for the incredible job he has done in creating Crunchbang. I have intel graphics so I didn’t encounter what Steven has, and I respect his choice of Fedora. I’m sure it’s easy for all of us to say “Larry, here is what I think.” I’m sure most, if not all of that is done in good will as we all probably have our own reasons or opinions. Because of GNU/Linux, we have the ability to provide help to people in many different ways with hardware that Windows would deem unworthy. Most of us deem Windows unworthy.

    • September 6, 2013 at 6:56 am

      “Most of us deem Windows unworthy.” No truer words were ever spoken, Paul 🙂

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