Linux Migration for the Home PC User, Part 1

Intended audience: (1) Those folks who use PCs, but don’t particularly love them. It’s just a basic convenience, on a par with telephones, washer & dryer, refrigerator, etc. This is easily the majority of Americans who own a PC, and perhaps a big part of the rest of the world. (2) Small business owners who have workstations for pretty much the same reasons — an asset which improves the profit margin, may even be critical to operations, but is not the primary nature of the business.

A major element in understanding these users is realizing, while they aren’t cheapskates, they hope to minimize the investment of time and resources into their PCs. If it consumes too much, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. There are trade offs involved, but the most important thing to understand is the computer is just a tool, not the central function, not even a hobby. This is no place for purists and zealots. Nor will this series be of much use to those who must run specialized applications on those computers. The primary use pattern is common documents, standard communications and research, with a minor concern for mere entertainment.

Why would you consider migrating from Windows to Linux? In my work as a volunteer computer service technician, the one thing which finds traction is the impending death of XP. That Vista is significantly different without necessarily being better, and requires hardware they can’t afford, while their current machine is still in good shape, and perhaps the fear (justified or not) which results from all the sales pitches they can’t avoid designed to prod them into buying the next new security package, are all contributing factors. But they don’t want a new hobby; they just want their computer to work with less hassle.

I tell these people there is no magic pill. Switching is a way of shifting the cost profile, which includes time and money. When you start having more time than money, Linux starts to look a lot better. If you aren’t willing to invest that time up front, you can’t get past the hump of migration. If you can put some effort into it, you can afford to relax a lot more on the other side. Naturally this calls for a Linux which doesn’t require constant attention, and there’s precious few projects which consider this at all important, as noted in the past. There are two paths I recommend to folks considering migration: Ubuntu and CentOS.

Try Ubuntu first. There are multiple versions offered at any one time, but for those seeking stability, look for the “LTS” label. Never allow yourself to be tricked into using the most current just because it’s the latest and greatest. Six months from now you’ll have to update, and it will surely break things. If you don’t consider your computer a hobby, stick with the LTS releases, because they are good for a couple of years. Next, join the Ubuntu forums; it’s the best and cheapest support system you’ll ever find for installation and initial setup. Be prepared to explain every time you aren’t a hobbyist and LTS is essential to your purpose. Don’t be drawn into discussions which revolve around why “you just gotta run the latest”. Those who actually can help you the most will understand.

It’s possible you won’t be happy with Ubuntu. The biggest issue is hardware setup, followed closely by the particular system of The Ubuntu Way of doing things. It’s not for everyone. Also, please note as your LTS version ages, somewhere short of two years from the release date, the volunteer support degrades rapidly. The term “support” is a bit ambiguous here. The company which produces Ubuntu offers support in the sense you can expect them to keep providing updates and fixes for the operating system and some of the packages which run on top of that system. They also sell the other kind of support, where you can contact someone who will help you with specific issues. The forums are a way of avoiding the costs of that second kind of support. But the free forum support is provided mostly by Linux enthusiasts and serious hobby users, and they tend to lose interest when you don’t keep up with them. Otherwise, they are some really nice people, and this is about as good as it gets.

If the problem is your hardware is just not powerful enough to run Ubuntu, but is in pretty good shape still, you will need to accept the necessity of spending a lot more time making this work. You can try Puppy Linux. The folks on the forums are just as nice, just as helpful, but the project is much smaller. Also, it simply won’t work on some older laptops, for example. Still, for older machines, it’s one of the best options.

If your PC is less than six years old, and you are more independent, capable of chasing solutions scattered randomly across the web using search engines, or finding and reading somewhat more technical documentation which comes with the system, then I recommend CentOS. This is a project based on the commercial grade Red Hat Enterprise Linux. You can pay for a Red Hat license and get their business grade support (help), or you can use CentOS for free, and still benefit from their system support (updates and fixes). Know up front, this is a more no-nonsense approach to things, but with that comes stability. You install once, and keep it working just fine for a long time — at least five years.

Let’s be frank here: The folks who offer CentOS aren’t all that helpful if you aren’t running a server. That’s the focus of their work, and most of them simply don’t have the mindset for typical consumer computer habits. You can join the forum, but you may be disappointed. However, the product is versatile enough to be used on a home PC with some modicum of effort. As the information for this tends to be scattered and scant in some areas, the rest of this series will be dedicated to describing how most common home PC users can tame CentOS. Most of this is explained elsewhere, but the writing tends to assume a level of expertise most home users don’t have and don’t want to cultivate. You don’t really need to, at least not right away.

About Ed Hurst

Disabled Veteran, prophet of God's Laws, Bible History teacher, wannabe writer, volunteer computer technician, cyclist, Social Science researcher
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15 Responses to Linux Migration for the Home PC User, Part 1

  1. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Migrating People to GNU/Linux Just Got Easier

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  3. Pingback: Linux Migration for the Home PC User, Part 3 « Just Passing Through

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  7. Pingback: Linux Migration for the Home PC User, Part 7 « Just Passing Through

  8. Ed Hurst says:

    I’m not a purist regarding the various philosophical angles. My choice for Linux is purely pragmatic, and hardly irrevocable. If I need to, I can usually make adjustments to the software (and kernel) for whatever seems least painful to use and fix what interferes with my work. Right now I use Debian on the server box and Mint on my netbook. I know almost nothing about Manjaro, but feel free to pick what seems to best enable your service to God. I’m not a great big fan of any of them; I just know what has worked for me so far.


  9. steven says:

    I tried Linux (Fedora) some years ago. I was a lazy teen back then so I just hired a geek to get the work done. After a year or so a screen of death with a “sleeping forever” message appeared each time I tried to boot. I had to buy another computer. Questions:

    1. How can I prevent this from happening again?
    2. There is any way to fix it?
    3. I extracted the hard disk from my dead PC and put it into an enclosure, yet it doesn’t work when I connect it to my new PC. What can I do?
    4. To prevent my computer from being exploited by Mycrosoft, its enough to install Linux (plus never use Windows unless offline) or I also need to erase Windows?
    5. Mark Zuckerberg just covers his micro and cam with tape. Is this enough to prevent being snooped or I need to manually extract my micro and cam?

    Off-topic: If sometimes I take a while to reply (or if I don’t reply), its because I’m busy writting my book (writting a good novel is a very demanding task). I like our theological chatters.


  10. Ed Hurst says:

    Linux has changed a lot in just the past two years, even more so since I wrote this post. From my experience, I believe that your “sleeping forever” message was due to some kind of hardware failure. Then again, Fedora is not for the inexperienced; just getting it installed is only a small part of it. It’s upgraded completely ever six months and support for previous versions is just about nil. I recommend Linux Mint or one of the Ubuntus (Xubuntu is my favorite).

    1 & 2. There are no simple answers to these two questions; it’s a hands-on kind of issue. I submit that if you hired someone to install it, you’ll have to pay them again to check out what’s wrong with it.
    3. Does the system recognize the disk at all? Do you know how to check the BIOS and see if the system can use that disk? Either the disk has failed or you will need to reinstall from scratch with something more current.
    4. It depends on why you might need to keep Windows. If you don’t need Windows, install Linux over Windows and you’ll never need to worry about Microsoft. If you need Windows for some reason, there are other options: run it in a virtual machine (as I do), run the WINE package that allows some Windows software to work on Linux, or dual boot and don’t let Windows connect when its running.
    5. As for snooping, there are too many factors for a short answer. You’ll have to decide how likely it is you are actually a target of it and why. Most of the time a camera is blocked with any kind of tape, but a microphone might need something thicker, like “Moleskin” — a padded bandage material. Changing the hardware isn’t necessary unless you are the target of a government spying agency or criminal syndicate. In that case, there’s little you can do, because it’s possible to make the hardware itself spy on you regardless of operating system. But for most purposes, just running Linux can make it very hard to spy on you.

    I’ve published a few novels myself at Smashwords, so I know how it can consume your life. The nice thing about online friendships is that it’s easy to break away and resume without much loss.


  11. steven says:

    I planned to ask these questions on “About Linux” but I can’t comment there, so I thought that this topic would be the more appropriate. To be honest, I chose Fedora despite knowing that Ubuntu is easier just because I dislike the African theme of Ubuntu. The geek subtly tried to warn me about Fedora, but I didn’t listen to him because my 16 years old self was even more aloof and neurotic than my current self (XD). Fortunately, I’m now mature enough to not let my aesthetic tastes get in the way, so I will follow your advice.

    1 & 2: Unfortunately I cannot contact this geek again. If I install Xubuntu/Linux Mint, there is a plausible chance of getting the “sleeping forever” just because I forget to upgrade?
    3. Yes to both questions. What happened is that Windows can’t read the ext4 file system, so I would have to install Linux in order to access these files. BTW, is Mac better than Windows regarding privacy?
    4. OK. What do you think about Tails? ISIS recommends it, implying that Tails isn’t as compromised as Tor is:
    BTW, you once told me that you distrust Tor. Which browser do you recommend?
    5. I have some enemies but I worry mostly about mass surveillance. Until I obtain Moleskin, can I prevent (or at least hinder) snooping with 4-5 layers of tape? What do you think about uninstalling the mic driver?
    BTW, my computer fan is adjacent to the mic. Is this a problem? I worry that the sound may pass through the fan to the mic despite Moleskin/tape/whatever…

    Thank you for understanding. I will resume ASAP.


  12. Ed Hurst says:

    Sleeping forever is actually quite rare, especially these days. With both Mint and Xubuntu, the default on updates is to nag you just enough that you don’t forget. Even better is that most updates are rather quick and doesn’t always require a reboot. Linux is modular in nature, so replacing even core software seldom risks an active process calling back to the underlying system and getting lost in the new changes.

    If your disk is formatted ext4, you don’t even have to install Linux, just get a Mint or Xubuntu DVD and you can run Linux from the DVD as a live system and mount the hard drive manually. It will show up on the desktop as a hard disk; you can right-click to mount the file system and get a look at the files. You can also move them to a USB drive; USB drives are typically the old FAT file system or NTFS.

    Regarding privacy: Mac is better in the sense that it is harder for 3rd parties to snoop on Macs versus Windows. Both Apple and Microsoft retain the power to snoop on your use of their software, so it’s a question of whom you trust. With Linux there is no incentive for snooping by the software company or project behind it. Tails is a very privacy-minded version of Linux and defaults to paranoid measures of shielding you from snooping. It doesn’t install itself on your system but runs from the DVD by default. It’s rather like a Windows “PE” disk in that respect; Windows PE disks are huge downloads and rather hard to find already set up for free. Linux has offered live-run disks almost from the beginning, but Mint and Xubuntu use it as the default and you can install from it. Be aware that Tails uses Tor (the network) by default. The Tor Browser is just Firefox with modifications. The problem with Tor is when you become a target for something; it won’t hide you from directly targeted tracking. It just makes tracking extremely difficult.

    The business of browsers is a little complicated. It really depends on how you use a browser. I use Seamonkey (configured for some privacy) when I need a full-service browser with Flashplayer and everything. However, for most reading and research, I prefer Links2 in graphical mode. It does text and graphics, but ignores all scripting. Some sites are all scripted and don’t display, and just a few will block Links2, so that’s when I use Seamonkey. Sometimes I’ll use Lynx on the console because Links2 simply doesn’t render some sites readably. I’ve used Elinks on the console in the past, but it’s no longer maintained; it works well on pages where there are multiple columns of information displayed and can open multiple tabs. You really have to spend some time getting used to the browsers like Links2 and Elinks; they use the mouse and do respond to right-clicks, but they are quirky. Lynx is quirky in a different way and in most cases ignores your mouse. It’s all keyboard and you really have to spend time on the configuration files. I use it mostly to reduce distractions when the text is all I need. For sites where I need to login, I use Opera. I keep my login activities separate from everything else I do. This kind of compartmentalization between multiple browsers helps to prevent tracking.

    The real issue isn’t government snooping. There’s almost nothing you can do about direct surveillance by the government. However, most government surveillance is massive and rarely targeted. There is typically way too much data they can harvest to even know what they should do with it. The bigger problem is the commercial snooping. This is all about creating profiles to tailor advertising; it’s all about manipulation. Advertisers are generally without conscience and respect; their data is a very tempting target for people who might be your enemies. As the advertiser snooping gets better, governments get more interested in letting companies that understand advertiser-style tracking do surveillance for them. That’s the real risk, because it brings fascism onto the Internet.

    Regarding tape: A couple of good layers is about as good as you can get from tape. The whole point with moleskin is acoustic deadening, not thickness. Any kind of foamy or cloth structure helps. I wouldn’t worry about the fan being near the microphone. If someone knows how to use that kind of snooping, and is determined to use it, you and I can’t even learn how it works, since it’s very obscure technical spycraft.


  13. steven says:

    Hmm, I probably got the sleeping forever because I turned off Fedora updates. How can I get a Mint or Xubuntu DVD?

    Privacy: As most millenials I live with my parents. They are normies/neurotypicals who use smartphones and tablets carelessly, thus allowing Big Brother to snoop my conversations with them. I also worry because I know that all computers “listen” what the rest of computers of the house “talk”, yet they are programmed to react only when the dialog is addressed to them. This allows Big Brother to indirectly spy me each time I go online. How can I make my parents take privacy seriously? There is some kind of hypnosis/jedi mind trick I can use to make them compliant?
    Can my ISP spy me regardless of Tor/Tails usage? Specifically, I worry about DNS leaks.
    BTW, my laptop has a switch that apparently allows me to go offline even if the router is on. Does it actually works or it is deceiving me?
    How and when do you think that Microsoft will exploit those Win7 and WinVista users who have turned off updates because of Win10?

    Browsers: Will Links2/Lynx/Elinks hide me from directly targeted tracking and/or protect me better than Tor? Do you use a VPN on Seamonkey/Opera/Link2/Lynx/Elinks? What about fingerprinting?
    What do you think about Tutanota, Scryptmail and the like?

    Tape: How many layers are needed? 4-5? 8-10? If I add a rectangle of cloth (ex. from a T-shirt) between the layers, will it work as good as Moleskin?

    Thank you very much, Ed. Currently you are the sole person I can ask for tech advice.


  14. Ed Hurst says:

    I’m flattered that you trust me; perhaps I can rise to the occasion. There’s not much anyone can do to make your parents care about privacy; it’s a question of consciousness. I’ll cover snooping in today’s blog post.

    Your ISP is limited. Any technology that sets up a privacy tunnel (Tor, VPN, proxy, etc.) cannot be snooped. Your ISP cannot read the headers of the packets aside from routing between you and the proxy gateway. They can know that you are using a proxy, but not where it goes from there. DNS doesn’t leak. If you turn off your laptop wifi, it’s offline unless someone has planted snooping firmware. That’s also covered in today’s blog post, but I keep mine turned off when I’m not using the Internet.

    People who turned off updates are at risk from newly discovered security holes, but aren’t getting any new holes planted by Microsoft. For now, Microsoft is not sneaking updates on people who have it turned off. The push to upgrade to Win10 came with a new raft of telemetry functions added to Win7 and Win8, but not to Vista. Telemetry snooping is currently going directly to Microsoft, and turning it into targeted snooping would be very difficult, but not impossible. Browsers are covered in today’s blog post.

    Tape: If you don’t get Moleskin, use common athletic tape of any cloth tape. Three layers is about as good as it gets with any tape for acoustic purposes. If you want to make your own replacement for Moleskin, cut a square of cloth and soak it in rubber cement. The stuff for kids is safe enough and can be peeled off later; be careful about using other kinds of glue. Most won’t stick to plastic in the first place; those that do might be permanent.


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