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In Which Alan Geeks

"It's black," I said to Robin, "and it's very shiny."

"Yes," she said, "but just what are you going to use it for?"

"It's shiny!" I explained.

She gave me a long suffering sigh which I put carefully away in the pool room with the rest of my treasures for later gloating over. "I suppose you'd better buy it then," she said.

And so a new computer entered my life. For the technically inclined among you, it's an Asus Eee 1000HE Netbook. In practical terms, that means that it's black and shiny, and about half the size of a laptop, but with just as much oomph. Perhaps it should be called a kneetop, or possibly a toetop. Small is beautiful.

There was a time when machines like these came pre-installed with Linux. Unfortunately that doesn't seem to happen any more. The ones I found for sale only came with Windows XP. I suspect it's a marketing thing. Linux is scary; and so it's easier to sell Windows to the punters because it's more familiar to them. Everybody hates change.

Since Windows was already installed, and since it was equipped with special drivers to make sure that all the oddball hardware packed inside the tiny case worked properly, I decided to keep it. You never know, I might need the built-in webcam one day and my experience suggests that Linux is seldom very good with webcams. However I was not going to be utterly deprived of my Linux experience (to use a particularly vomitous marketing term) just because Windows was already firmly ensconced in situ. This machine, I decided, was going to dual boot both Windows and Linux. And, just because I knew how to do it, I would make Linux the default. Yah, boo, sucks!

But first, since I had decided to keep Windows, I had to tell Windows all about myself. It's a notoriously nosy operating system, and the first time you boot it up, it asks a lot of obnoxious questions.

"What's your name?" asked Windows.

Aha! The difficult questions first!

I told Windows that my name was Pascal Python, middle name Monty, spelled 'Perl' but pronounced Monty; English names are like that, don't blame me. My parents' careful choice of names obviously meant that they had my future computer career planned out for me from the minute I was born, despite the fact that when I was born, that career didn't actually exist in the world, and neither did the programming languages I was named after. Prescient people, my mum and dad. However an unfortunate side effect of being called Pascal Python was that at school I got nicknamed Ada. Johnny Cash sang about the trials and tribulations of a boy named Sue. Trust me, they pale into insignificance compared to those lavished upon a boy called Ada. Still, it could have been worse. Ada's American cousin Linda didn't start making her famous dirty movies until long after I left school...


I lied, and said I was 42.

"Height in kilograms?"

Yet more proof, if proof were needed, that Americans don't understand the metric system.

And so it continued. As soon as I answered one question, another popped up in its place. They formed a seemingly interminable list requiring ever more embarrassing information from me as the interrogation continued with extreme prejudice.

I dutifully typed in my fictitious autobiography in excruciating detail. Presumably the racier bits all got sent to Redmond and filed away in Microsoft's customer database where they would doubtless form the basis of the company's next marketing campaign. I wondered if Microsoft would notice that my answers to some of their questions were, shall we say, inventive. Then I decided they probably wouldn't, since Microsoft marketing people are notoriously lacking in a sense of humour.

Once, in conversation with a Microsoftie, I said: "It's a well known fact that when you go to work for Microsoft, the first thing that happens is they make an appointment for you at the hospital where you undergo the operation to implant the chip in your brain that turns you into a robot slave. However the Microsoft surgeons who perform the operation are very cost conscious, and in order to prevent you having to come back for another operation later on in your career, they always take the opportunity to remove your sense of humour gland at the same time."

The Microsoftie gave me a withering look which I put straight in the pool room. It was the best withering I'd ever experienced, and believe me, I've been withered by experts. "That's nonsense," he said firmly. "They don't send us for an operation! Who told you that?"

"See!" I said.

Meanwhile, back at the Netbook, Windows asked me a question that I couldn't answer.

"What is the name of this computer?" it demanded, smugly.

My mind went utterly blank and I appealed to Robin for help.

"Oh that's easy," said Robin. She's good at this kind of thing. "You've got to call it Gimli, because, being a Netbook, it is small, stocky and powerful."

"Perfect!" I said. "Gimli it is." I stored the name deep in the pool room, in the place reserved for extra special things; this name was so right, so proper, that it was a definite treasure.

Now that Windows was satisfied with me, it was time to put Linux on the machine. The most popular Linux distribution is Ubuntu, the brainchild of South African millionaire Mark Shuttleworth. Ubuntu is a Swahili word which means "this is the Linux distribution for people who find Red Hat Linux too hard to understand". Swahili is a very compact language with a small, but extremely powerful, vocabulary.

I installed Ubuntu and it had a look around.

"Hello there!" said Ubuntu, in a strong Seth Efrican eccent. "I see you have a wireless network card."

"That's right," I said. "Why don't you use it to connect to the internet?"

"OK," said Ubuntu. "I'll give it a go."

There was a brief silence and then Ubuntu said, "Hey! I've found this really, really powerful access point in the next room. Wow! Just look at that signal strength. Never seen one as powerful as that before, squire."

"That's right," I told Ubuntu. "That's the one I want you to use."

"OK," said Ubuntu. "What's the password?"

I told Ubuntu the password and there was a long silence.

"Well," said Ubuntu at last, "actually it doesn't seem to be quite OK. I gave the password to the access point, but nothing happened. It's completely ignoring me. So I can't connect to the internet. Sorry."

"Never mind," I said. "How about you play some music for me while I think about it."

"Oh yes!" said Ubuntu, anxious to redeem itself, "I can do that. Where's the music?"

"Over there," I said.

"Got it," said Ubuntu and a media player appeared on the screen. Coloured histograms bounced up and down in time to the music. Utter silence emerged from the speakers. I turned the volume up to its maximum value. The speakers hissed a bit, but not a note of music emerged.

"Have you noticed how quiet the music is?" I asked Ubuntu.

"Sorry about that, squire," Ubuntu replied, "I've never seen a sound card like yours before. I don't know how to get it to make a noise. But you must admit the histograms are pretty."

"Very pretty," I said, "but they don't compensate for the lack of sound."

Since Ubuntu was utterly unable to make the two most important bits of Gimli work properly, I uninstalled it, trying hard to ignore the agonising screams as its files got slowly deleted, one by one.

What to do? What to do? I decided that I wouldn't be able to solve this problem alone. I needed advice from an expert. I went to consult with Porgy, the cat who knows everything.

"I have a problem," I said to Porgy.

"Miaow?" asked Porgy impatiently. He'd just woken up from a preprandial nap and was on his way to dinner, after which he was planning an elaborate postprandial nap, perhaps the most important nap of the day because when he woke up from it, it would be breakfast time. He hates having his plans interrupted.

"Linux doesn't seem happy with the hardware on my new computer," I explained.

"Miaow," said Porgy, deeply sympathetic and momentarily intrigued by the problem.

"So I need some advice about how to proceed."

"Woof!" said Porgy. He thought the answer was obvious and he couldn't understand why I hadn't thought of it.

"Of course!" I said. "Puppy Linux will do it. Thank you Porgy. I knew you wouldn't let me down."

"Miaow," said Porgy, deeply satisfied, and he gave his bottom a thorough licking as a reward to himself. Then he resumed his stroll in the direction of dinner.

Puppy Linux is a distribution put together by an Australian called Barry Kauler. It is named in honour of his Chihuahua, a fearless animal who didn't appear to know that he was small and vulnerable. In his own mind he was a giant among dogs. He used to chase kangaroos. And sometimes he caught them…

Puppy Linux does lots of extraordinarily clever technical things that I won't bore you with, but one of its many strengths is that it reaches hardware places that other Linuxes cannot reach. Its default administration password is woofwoof and the login name of the default user is spot. Those jokes (for small values of humour, anyway) definitely belong in the pool room.

"G'day," said Puppy, after I booted it up. It pushed its Akubra to the back of its head and wiped the sweat from its forehead. "Got a password for the wireless access point? I've done everything else, but I can't do that without a password."

I provided the password.

"What kind of password is that?" sneered Puppy, doing the Australian Wave to keep the bugs at bay. "Do you want me to save it so that I can automatically connect to the internet next time? After all, you don't want to have to type that rubbish in every day, do you?"

"OK," I said. "Now, how about playing some music for me?"

"You want me to choose something from those files over there, cobber?" asked Puppy.

"Yes please."

"No problems, mate."

Music poured out of the speakers. I smelled the faint odour of steak sizzling on the barbecue and I heard the distant sound of a can of Fosters having its tab torn off.

"Can you turn the volume down a bit, please?"

"Sure, mate."

It's ever so nice when things just work.


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