Meet Vertumnus, my new GNU/Linux desktop (running on a Dell Inspiron 530)

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

If this post seems a little glowing, don’t be alarmed; it’s because I’m still basking in the brilliant sheen of my new GNU/Linux desktop (which I am composing this blog post on as I type these very words — and these words, too). That’s right, I went through with my plans for setting up a GNU/Linux desktop, though I didn’t actually use the parts list I threw together two weeks ago. I ran across an amazing deal through Dell’s small business site (instant savings of nearly half off!) on an Inspiron 530 and I jumped on it. For $360 ($407 after shipping and state taxes), I got a nice little Dell mini-tower with an Intel Core 2 Duo E8200 processor, 2 GB of DDR2 PC2 6400 RAM, 500GB SATA hard drive with 16 MB cache, SATA DVD burner, keyboard, and optical scroll mouse. It ended up being about the same price as the parts list I put together, but the performance is marginally better, with the added possibility of upgrading to 4 GB of RAM. It also came with Windows Vista Home Premium, which I suppose would be a value add-in for some, but which just made me wince at how much cheaper I could have gotten this system without paying the Microsoft tax. Anyway, Vista’s in the trash now, where it belongs, and the price was good enough that I’m not worrying about it.

Installing the OS

I was going to install Kubuntu on my new system, but I opted for Ubuntu instead on a recommendation from Drinian, who says that Kubuntu isn’t quite as well put-together. The only reason I wanted Kubuntu was because I wanted to run KDE instead of Gnome, but it turns out that’s incredibly easy to accomplish in Ubuntu (just install the kubuntu-desktop meta-package in aptitude, then set your login session to KDE). So choosing Ubuntu over Kubuntu hasn’t left me disappointed in any way.

Unfortunately, installing Ubuntu GNU/Linux still wasn’t as easy as it should have been. I blame the problem on hardware incompatibilities, most likely with the SATA controller on the motherboard. The installation CD wouldn’t boot without passing the kernel parameter “all_generic_ide”, which is something I can handle but the average computer user is likely to be turned off by. Then, after the installation completed, my system wouldn’t boot from the hard drive for the same reason, so I had to boot back into the LiveCD environment, mount my boot partition, and then edit grub’s (a bootloader) menu.lst to pass that same kernel parameter. So, yeah, GNU/Linux isn’t exactly friendly for the masses, at least not on this hardware. Curiously enough, I had this exact same problem when dual-booting Fedora Core (another distribution of GNU/Linux) on my previous desktop. There’s definitely some room for improvement in this area by either the Linux kernel developers or the Ubuntu packagers. There’s no real reason this can’t be one of those things that “Just Works”.

Naming the system

But after the minor hitch with “all_generic_ide” , everything else worked just fine. It was the smoothest GNU/Linux installation I believe I’ve ever done. The GNU/Linux graphical installers have become quite advanced, completely putting anything Microsoft offers up to shame. Actually, the part of the installation process that took the longest time was picking a name for my new computer. I have a long history of naming computers after various mythologies, deities, or nerdy things (Ixion, Dark Anima, Fyre, Quezacoatl, Geminoid, Phoenix, etc.), so I wanted to continue the theme. I figured since this is the first time I’ve ever used a dedicated GNU/Linux system as my primary desktop (as opposed to Microsoft Windows), I wanted to emphasize the change this brings to my computing life. So I got into a lively discussion on IRC with someone who apparently knows a good deal about ancient Greek/Roman mythology, and his best suggestion was the Roman god Vertumnus, who is “the god of seasons, change and plant growth, as well as gardens and fruit trees”. I liked both the change aspect and the environmental aspect, so Vertumnus it was.

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Having journeyed outwards, now we journey inwards

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

We’ve been to Luna. Our robots have been to Venus and Mars. Our probes have visited all the planets in the solar system. But we haven’t been to Sol. Yet. NASA is planning a new mission, set to launch in 2015, to correct that little oversight. Solar Probe Plus will get within nine solar radii of Sol, taking direct measurements of the solar corona. These measurements will likely provide the answers to two of our biggest unknowns about Sol: how is the corona half a million degrees (Celcius) if the surface of the Sun is only 6000 degrees, and where does the solar wind get such high velocity from?

Solar Probe Plus is also going to be a “green” spaceship; it’ll be powered by solar energy (duhhh). The solar arrays actually have to be liquid-cooled, and they can’t be kept in the sunlight for extended periods of time, as the temperature at nine solar radii is 1400 degrees Celcius. Ouch. I hope the main heat shield works well.

I’d also like to take this moment to encourage the use of the names “Sol” and “Luna” instead of the much more awkward phrases “The Sun” and “The Moon” in writing and in speech. Any determinate proper noun that requires a definite article is irregular, and I think should be avoided if an alternative exists. Plus, Sun and Moon aren’t even specific; there are many moons of other planets, and the central star of each solar system (not just our own) can be referred to as its sun. Consider that the sentence “I’m traveling to Earth” sounds correct, whereas “I’m traveling to Sun” does not. So, please do English a favor and elevate your language. Someday there will actually be people living on Luna, and what do you think the odds are of them putting up with the sheer awkwardness of “The Moon” on a day-to-day basis? Slim!

I would also recommend “Terra” instead of the “The Earth”, but we see Earth used so often its dropped its definite article, and thus there’s no need to throw around another potentially unfamiliar name.