Sunday, July 27, 2008

SSC #71 Its Linux and its Minty Fresh!

This week I'd like to talk to you about Linux Mint.  I think I may have mentioned it a few months ago, but I'd like to give it the proper treatment this week.  So without further ado, I present to you, dear reader, Linux Mint 5, codenamed Elyssa.

One thing you must understand about Linux is that due to its open nature, anyone can use the sourcecode from an entire operating system.  It is sometimes slightly frowned upon, such as in the case of CentOS repackaging and redistrobuting pretty much the entire RedHat operating system.  While there's nothing official and no-one is getting sued, some have questioned if CentOS is hurting RedHat's business.  CentOS is free, RedHat is a commercial distrobution that charges money for its newest edition, as well as for support.  One could argue that CentOS is eating RedHat's lunch, but as CentOS isn't making money from doing this, nor is it providing professional support channels, those who use CentOS would likely have gone for a free distrobution in any case.  Its just something that comes along with being Open Source. 

Based on Ubuntu, Linux Mint is a re-branded and repackaged offshoot with many very nice improvements.  It started out simply as just Ubuntu with audio/video codecs added in, but its grown beyond that by quite a bit. While it started out as just a pet project by one man in his spare time--and really, it still is just a pet project by one man in his spare time--with the help of the communty of users he has gathered, its become quite well rounded and has improved upon Ubuntu in many ways.

Unlike the case of CentOS and RedHat, Ubuntu has not shown any hard feelings at all about the existence of Linux Mint (nor any of the other offshoots).  Ubuntu is free, and Canonical only seeks to make money by providing professional support services.  Being that Ubuntu itself has pretty much the same repackaging/improvement relationship between themselves and their parent distro, Debian, there's not much really they could say.

Anyway, on with the story.

I decided recently that I wanted to wipe my laptop and re-install Ubuntu.  I had been using the same installation for over a year, and while it had started out with 7.04 Feisty Fawn, I had upgraded it to 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon, and then a couple months ago, 8.04 Gutsy Gibbon.  I had upgraded through the automatic upgrade tool, and while it still worked fine for me, I felt that it might run a little better if I were to wipe and start again.  The reason for this is that I tend to do a lot of tinkering around with things in keeping with the learning process and I had tinkered with a few things I should probably had read more about first.  So it was sluggish.  Easy enough to fix.  I backed up my home folder and some other files from around my system that I thought I would need (specifically /lib/firmware where my wireless card drivers resided).  

I was in the process of reaching for my trusty Ubuntu install disk, and suddenly recalled having downloaded the Linux Mint ISO (disk image).  Figuring I would just install it for long enough to give it a test drive for review purposes, I popped it in and installed Linux Mint 5.  At first look, it seemed to be just like Ubuntu with a couple visual upgrades, no big deal.  But then I started to notice little changes... small details and improvements.  

If you have ever driven a luxury car (not that I can afford one, but I've driven one a time or two) you notice that for the most part its just like a regular car.  It has the same controls--gas pedal, brake pedal, steering wheel, shifter--where the "luxury" part comes in is in the small details and little amenities that make you feel like you're in a well-crafted machine.

Linux Mint is like that.  Attention has been paid to the small details to make the user experience just that little cut above the rest.

So I went about setting the desktop up in my own fashion, and installed the software that I have come to rely on.  About a month ago, I set about learning how Ubuntu's software repositories worked and I took all of the .deb software packages that I had downloaded and put them in a relatively small (4 gigabytes) software repository served out across my home network.  This allows me to quickly and efficiently set up a freshly installed machine in about half an hour, much quicker than downloading software and updates for each machine.

I was relieved to learn that Linux Mint was not changed enough to make it incompatible with my Ubuntu packages.  All the software I had downloaded previously worked just fine with it since it was based on Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron, so that was a big plus. So after adding my home repository to the /etc/apt/sources.list file, I simply opened a terminal and typed in "sudo apt-get install vlc ssh audacious audacity virtualbox frostwire wine" and let it do its work.  A short while later, my freshly installed system was decked out in all of the software i know and love.  Going back in I noticed a couple things that were missing from a default Ubuntu installation, most notably games and a VNC (remote desktop) viewer.  The games I can do without, and a moment at the terminal with "sudo apt-get install xvncviewer" set that to rights.  

There are graphical ways to install software as well, such as the handy-dandy Synaptic Package Manager, which is included in the default Linux Mint installation, as well as a new thing called the Linux Mint Software Portal.  The software portal is great for those of you who are new to Linux.  Its entirely web based and works in your web browser.  It shows all the available software in easy to understand webpages with screenshots and descriptions.  Click one link and it will automagically install the software. Presto Chango!  But it was more than I need for my setup, and I already had the packages I needed stored locally on the LAN.  But I do plan on checking out new software via the software portal.  Its just such a beautiful solution to the problem of software installation.

Linux Mint also includes a neat utility to upload files to other people.  This is great for casual computer users.  If you're trying to send a file to a friend that is bigger than 10 megabytes, you quickly find that you can't email it since it is too big to send as an attachment.  There are lots of things to solve this problem, such as Peer2Peer software or web-based file-transfer services like, but few of them are as easy as the Linux Mint file transfer utility.  Just right click the file and click Upload.  Once it is completely uploaded, you get a link to give your friend where they can download it.

See what I mean? Little touches and amenities that make all the difference.  But unlike a luxury automobile which not all of us can afford, Linux Mint is something we can all afford.  Its free to download, free to copy, free to share.  Go and get a copy for yourself at and check it out.

So at the end of all of this, I have decided to stick with Linux Mint.  Its a hard thing to do to get me away from Ubuntu, but with Linux Mint, I get all of the benefits of Ubuntu, plus those elegant little touches that make it just that much more enjoyable.  See you next time!

If you live in Russell County or the surrounding areas and you need help fixing your computer, give me a call at (606) 219-4088 to set up an appointment.

If you have a question or comment, feel free to email me at

If you'd like to read my past articles, browse to

Sunday, July 20, 2008

SSC #70 Prepare for War!

The year was 1999. The new millenium was just around the corner and we all stood around wondering whether or not the world was going to end at the stroke of midnight.  Windows XP was unheard of for two more years.  And one company was releasing one of the first PC games to actually use the then-new technology of 3D acceleration.  
    While you were checking your bank balance yet again to be sure that none of your hard earned dollars were being eaten by the millenium bug, others were sitting down at their 200Mhz Pentium II's firing up Windows 98 and starting to wage war.

These days your computer is considered slow if it doesn't have at least a Gigabyte of ram, yet here was an amazing war game that ran on machines with as low as 32 megabytes.  Many of you know what 32MB of RAM will hold.  Your digital camera probably has 16 times as much memory.

I installed Warzone2100 on a whim.  My wife was asking if I had any interesting games for her to play because she was getting really tired of solitaire.  Although Ubuntu ships with over 50 different variations of solitaire, I can understand how one would get tired of playing cards.  Solitaire just isn't my thing.

So I grab Warzone2100 from the Ubuntu repositories, not really getting my hopes up. Was I surprised? Boy Howdy!
Warzone is the mother of all RTS games.  Literally.  RTS stands for Real Time Strategy.  As in, a game involving strategy that happens in real time.  This game is war.  Pure and simple.  Build a base, drill for oil to power your forces and start churning out tanks to defend and conquer.  

Some of you may be thinking that it sounds like Command and Conquer, and it is similar, but there are subtle differences... such as the fact that you design your own units from the technology you develop.
The tanks you can build depend on the level of technology you have captured from the opposing force.  But at a glance they include machine-guns, missile launchers, mortars, bunker-busters and much much more.  When you get further along in the game you get upgrades like Surface-to-Air missiles, VTOL propulsion and the ability to shoot missiles across the lenght of the playing field.  Playing against the computer on the "normal" difficulty level is challenging and extremely addictive.  Levels can last from 30 minutes to two hours and you'll find yourself replaying levels in order to improve your progress because the units you have when you finish each level is what you start the next one with.  Barely make it through a mission alive? Better do that one again or you'll be starting the next mission with next to nothing.   Also, your troops gain experience from one level to the next.  So it's in your best interest to make sure they're not dying or you'll have an army full of rookies.

Having a good grasp of military strategy is a must.  This is not a game where you can just jump in and start mashing buttons and come out on top.  While the graphics are a little dated, they're not so bad as to diminish the gaming experience.  In fact, if it were flashier, it might just take away from the hard-core strategy of it all.  You can't spend time looking at pretty lights, you have troops dying out there!
If you've been looking for a good game to test your mettle, this one will do the trick nicely.  And playing it won't cost you one red cent.  Originally developed by Pumpkin Studios, and later bought by Eidos Interactive, the game was eventually released as Open Source and you can find it now for free on the Warzone2100 Ressurection website (  Ubuntu users, for you guys, installing it is just as simple as typing in "sudo apt-get install warzone2100" in the terminal window and it will download and install automagically. How's that for easy?

Originally, the minimum requirements for this game are low enough that just about everyone will be able to run it.  In fact they are so low you probably wouldn't believe it, so I'm just going to quote from the manual.

Minimum Requirements:
Pentum 166 MHz Processor
Windows 95 / Windows 98
2MB SVGA card
8X CD-ROM Drive
100% DirectX 6 Compliant Sound Card
DirectX 6.0 or higher (included)
75 MB of Uncompressed Hard Drive Storage
Keyboard and Mouse

Recommended Requirements
Pentium 233 MHz Processor
4 MB Direct3D or 3Dfx compatible 3D Accelerator Card
Multiplayer Game requires one of the following:
IPX or TCP/IP local area network
28.8 Kbps or faster modem
28.8 Kbps or faster internet connection
Serial connection via null modem cable

Now though, the game has been picked up by a community of developers and maintainers that are slowly tweaking and improving the game.  Chances are that the minimum requirements have risen by a small amount, but even still, its a pretty safe bet that if your computer supports 3D graphics at all, you'll likely be able to run this.  If you've bought your computer in the last five years, its probably a done deal.

If your computer can't meet or beat these uber-low system requirements, give me a hollar, I probably have an old hunk of junk video card lying in the corner that will help your machine play it just fine.

See you next week!

If you live in Russell County or the surrounding areas and you need help fixing your computer, give me a call at (606) 219-4088 to set up an appointment.

If you have a question or comment, feel free to email me at

If you'd like to read my past articles, browse to

Sunday, July 13, 2008

SSC #69 Into the Vortex

Hi folk, its been a little while since I've written anything.  Did'ja miss me?  I just needed to take a break and charge the creative batteries a little bit.  I shouldn't be missing any submissions from here on out because... I would like to triumphantly report that I am back on the net!  Woot!

After, what was it?  Three months?  Once again I am able to check my email from my living room.  Now that its over, I consider the whole experience to be quite invigorating.  While I have missed a few article submissions, (and I sincerely apologize to you for that) and I couldn't look things up in Wikipedia the moment I had a burning question, all in all it was a good chance to break some stagnant surfing habits and get some things done.  Rather than hitting the StumbleUpon button and randomly surfing for websites to alleviate boredom, I took the opportunity to really dig in and learn some cool new Linux tricks and skills that are really going to come in handy.

But all that aside, I'm really glad to be connected again.  And for that I have Vortex Wireless to thank.

Yep, thats right, I'm with a new Internet Service Provider.  And I just can't wait to tell you all about them.

Vortex Wireless is a locally-owned, locally operated wireless broadband ISP.  Its not a local annex of a corporate machine, Its just a few local guys who had a great idea and who have made it a reality.  Exactly my kind of operation.  I always root for the underdog.

I went down to talk to them yesterday about signing up and it was about as pain free a process as could ever be.  Tom Holt and David Godby, the owners were actually the people who took care of getting me registered and everything, and I asked them a few questions about how Vortex Wireless started out and how everything works.  What I got back were straightforward answers and a feeling that I wasn't just a number anymore.  After dealing with a decidedly corporate ISP for the last few years, it was like a breath of fresh air.  I also got to speak to the guys who would later be doing my installation and I found that these guys really know their stuff.  After we talked tech til we were blue in the face, I came away feeling like I hadn't just entered into an agreement for net-access, I had made some friends as well.  And because I was able to talk directly to the owners, I put in a good word on your behalf as well.  If you go in and sign up, just mention that you read about them here in my article and they'll give you a $25 discount on your installation.  Can't beat that, can you?  The only stipulation is that you have to be within range to receive the service.  In short, if for some reason it won't work from your house, he'll give your money back.

Having a site survey to see if your location is viable is completely free and very easy.  Just call them up, give them your address and they'll set up a time with you so that they can come out and take a reading to tell them the strength of the wireless signal from your house.  If the reading is good then it's all gravy.  If not, then no harm, no foul. 

Their rates are comparable to the competition, with multi-tiered services to let you get the speed your twitchy little mouse-finger craves, or give you a cheap always-on lifeline to the net, but without needing a phone-line or cable service in order to make it happen.  You can get the net, and JUST the net, in whatever speed fits your budget.  And with things getting as tight as they are lately, being able to ditch a phone bill is a big plus for my wallet.  Instead of answering a phone only to be guilt-tripped by bill-collectors, I'll save some cash that can go toward paying them off.

Whats really great about the fact that this is a local business is that they'll really work with you.  If your bills are tight and you need to go to a cheaper service, they'll downgrade you (down to as low as $16 a month for 2x dialup speed) until YOU are ready to bring the speed back up.  If things get really tight and you need to suspend service temporarily and turn it back on a little later, they understand how things are.  These are real local people.  They'll work with you.  And thats really all a man can ask for.

Vortex Wireless is located in the Nextel store, tucked away next to Papa Johns Pizza in Russell Springs.  They offer multiple services including broadband, email hosting, web hosting, and PC repair (and don't forget they also do Sprint and Nextel cellphone service and accessories).  From what they've told me, their customers enjoy remarkble uptime because their towers all run Linux (big smile here) and the only type of weather that can interrupt the service is heavy fog.  We get fog here, but we don't get really heavy fog.  This is, after all, Central Kentucky, not Cape Cod.

One little tech fact that I thought was interesting was that neighbors who are on the same wireless tower can enjoy speeds between them that are far in excess of the speed cap enforced by your service plan.  In layman's terms, you and your neighbors can play games with eachother across it with ultra-low latency, which means no lag at all.  And as they say, the less lag, the more frags.  They currently utilize two T-1 lines, at 1.5 Megabits per second, piped in from AT&T to provide a solid backbone to their customers, and due to increasing patronage, they'll be adding another T-1 line shortly to ensure that you get the speed that you pay for.

They told me that currently their plans for expansion are contingent on customer demand.  Essentially they can't afford to put up a new tower if they're only going to have one or two customers connecting to it.  In this instance, the way in which our county's homes are spread out stand in the way of technological progress.  With enough service requests in a given area, though, a waiting customer base would ensure that building a new tower would be financially feasible for the company.  In short, if you're interested in signing up with Vortex Wireless, but you know they aren't in your area, be sure and give them a call anyway so that they know you're there.  When enough of your neighbors also express interest, expansion becomes possible.

I've only been using the service for a couple days now, but already I've seen my speeds exceed what I'm paying for.  A little extra "oomph!" is always appreciated, plus its a better deal that I was getting before... and don't forget I'm supporting a locally owned and operated business.  The only problems I've found with the service are the fault of my own equipment.  I'm piping their service through a cheap router that needs to be replaced, and I will be replacing it shortly with a Linksys WRT54GL.  After that, I suspect nothing but smooth sailing.

Be sure and give Tom Holt and the other guys down at Vortex Wireless a call and see if you can join in the fun.  And don't forget to tell them I sent ya!  Vortex Wireless - (270) 866-4451  or on the web at

See you next week folks.  Take care.

If you live in Russell County or the surrounding areas and you need help fixing your computer, give me a call at (606) 219-4088 to set up an appointment.

If you have a question or comment, feel free to email me at

If you'd like to read my past articles, browse to

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