5 Oct 2017

The Geezer and the Penguin

This is a personal story - the Penguin, of course, is Linux, and I’m the Geezer, 84 years old. We met at first out of idle interest and got to know each other out of necessity. Here's how it all happened.

I got through my whole working life without ever needing or using a PC. Some years after I retired I bought one from a neighbor who ran a computer business in the nearest city, 50 miles from the tiny hillside community where we both lived. The price was reasonable, he set a fee for a yearly check-up and service, and all went well for the first four years. Even though it ran Windows XP, malware was not much of a problem: I bought Norton Antivirus, and the only Internet connection available was dial-up at 14kb/s - scarcely worth anyone's time to hack.

With those web speeds, text sites were a lot more interesting than heavy-graphics ones, so I found myself doing a lot of reading. I wanted to learn more about how my new computer worked – not the electronics of it, more like how the software did what it did.

Microsoft was not interested in giving away any secrets, of course, but I found there was a whole different system called Linux that was famous for revealing every detail of how its software operated.

At the time, Linux was often described in the general press as being for geeks only, but all the people who seemed to know something about it said Linux just took a bit of learning-by-experience – you didn't have to be an IT expert. In my archives I've saved an article from 2007 in PC Magazine by Neil Randall titled "Linux – you can do it!" That's the one that really gave me hope.

I was encouraged, but with a neighbor who offered service for Windows, I didn't think I needed anything else. Moreover, "do it yourself" also meant "fix it yourself", because when I asked my neighbor what he knew about Linux he warned me that if I messed up my hard drive with it, he wouldn't be able to fix it. There would be no help from that direction.

In fact, all help from that direction was about to end, because not long after that my neighbor said he was moving away. That did it. I started looking for a used computer I could mess around with to practice. A friend who was getting rid of an older PC offered it to me if I would pay to have it wiped of his personal data, and I agreed. I also bought a book on Linux, Mark G. Sobell’s A Practical Guide to Ubuntu Linux, and started reading. Even though the book is almost a decade old now I still have it and still refer to it sometimes when I get stuck.

Sobell's book had a DVD of Ubuntu 8.10 in it, so I installed it at once, following the directions on the DVD. It was my first experience at changing the internal behavior of a computer, and it went perfectly. The DVD had huge amounts of software on it, so there was no incentive to try to connect to the Internet at the impossibly slow speed.

As though some mystical transformation had occurred along with that first installation, within less than a year DSL connectivity came to my little village, and I was off and running. For a year or so I kept the Windows XP alive, but eventually replaced it with Fedora (version 12 or 13, as I recall) when I bought a more up-to-date computer with Windows 7 pre-installed.

I did a good bit of distro-hopping in the first few years, but kept coming back to Ubuntu until the Unity desktop appeared. I did my best to live with that for a while, but eventually decided I preferred Xfce. By 2012 I had become totally Windows-free and built a computer from scratch to my own specifications.

To date I've acquired and and given away three computers: they come in with Windows and go out with Linux, to people who want to declare their freedom from proprietary systems. I've narrowed my own distro choice to Xubuntu Core, an extremely cut-down version that installs an Xfce desktop with only a terminal – anything you want beyond that is up to you to install. You can get all you want, and the advantage is you don't get anything you DON'T want.

Of course if you like, you can just install Synaptic from the terminal and get the rest of your software from Ubuntu's repositories, which makes it almost as easy to set up as Ubuntu itself. The longer I use this version the more software I find I can live without. Right now I'm down to a little music, LibreOffice Writer, and all the graphics effects of Compiz. Even though my DSL connection is ridiculously slow by modern standards, I can still add more software at will.

From time to time I recall my distro-hopping roots and try something radically new on one of my current three computers (they aren't networked, so I can screw up one of them horribly without endangering the others), but that is how I learned anything about Linux in the first place: try it, see what happens – learn by doing. If in doubt, learn by reading. In all cases, do it yourself.

This is a guest post by Emery Fletcher


  1. Good for you, I am glad you went to the Linux world, I am know expert of Linux and of course when I started out with it back in 2001 I also had trouble getting around, but from the very first time I loved what I had seen on the screen, and of course over time I got better at it. I am now 44 years old and still use Linux, although I'm in school for Cybersecurity I dual boot windows 10 with Linux, Manjaro as a matter of fact.
    If you ever need any more help,please email me at donaldsmouse0@gmail.com

  2. Ha! This sounds almost exactly like me. I too am an 84 year old geezer and really enjoy Linux and the Xfce desktop distros. I too have several laptops and love to install and play around with new offerings which occur almost daily. Fortunately I have FIOS wi-fi connections and enjoy using Linux Mint with Xfce as my principle distro but do have Xubuntu installed also....ron

  3. I have NEVER read an article or replies where I (71) am one of the younger readers. Good to know we more mature folks are around and making ourselves heard.

  4. I be turning 35 this year. Right now I'm on the first step already got the old computer couldn't made my mind on what distro. Thanks

    1. Ubuntu is a good choice, so is Linux Mint. Mint has an interface that is like Windows 7. Ubuntu still has Unity, though they are moving later this month to Gnome. Both are a bit different than Windows 7. Windows 8 and 10 are knock-offs of the older look of Gnome. IT's changed though now. Still takes a bit of getting used to. Plan on about a week to adjust. Then you'll wonder why everybody doesn't do things this way.

  5. I want to be like you when I grow...older... I'm 46 and have been working in IT for 20 years and starting to feel the burnout of Desktop Support/Help Desk. The only technology that has kept my interest going is open source. Had I known back in 1996 how much of a big deal open source would become, I would've made the switch to being a Linux/BSD Sys Admin a long time ago. Anyways, back to 1996, that was the year I ordered the Book/CD combo for FreeBSD 1.0. The book was part getting started with BSD and more than half was printed man pages. I couldn't put the book down back then.