TIAMTOW (There Is Always More Than One Way): Or, Just Say “No” to Microsoft

In a couple of previous posts, we detailed the efforts we went through to get Windows 10 running at Chaos Central–if only for the tax season.  As it happens, the new year brings an anguished thread on the Facebook “cousin network” on the problems others, mostly not computer professionals, are facing or have encountered with either upgrading to Windows 10–which is, after all, a choice–or, even more ominously, keeping the Windows 7 or 8 systems they already have, in the face of the changes Microsoft is making to services to take advantage of new Windows 10 capabilities, that also require forward-compatible changes to older systems.

Despite the shortcomings of Microsoft and Windows in general, the fact remains that every computer sold that doesn’t have the Apple logo on it comes pre-loaded with the current shipping version of Windows, like it or not.  This is the result of all-or-nothing sales contracts between Microsoft and every major computer manufacturer that persist despite anti-trust litigation that flares up from time to time across the planet.  If you don’t want to pay the Apple premium for what is admittedly high-end hardware packaged in a designer shell, your choice is a range of quality and capability (and corresponding price) in a box that comes with Windows.  For the sake of argument, we focus on desktop and laptop computers, rather than the choice of tablets and phones, which offer a third choice, Google’s Android system.

But, speaking of Android, there is a third paradigm available for desktop and laptop users.  This third range of choices doesn’t even require you to buy new equipment–it is available to replace Windows on the computer you have.  Or, if you want, you can take advantage of competitive sales of competing Windows models and just accept the slight “Microsoft Tax” for the installed system you will not be using.  This third choice is the family of Open Source systems based on GNU/Linux, which, coincidentally, is also the core basis for the Android system.

Despite having paid the Microsoft Tax for the existing system on your old (or new) computer, switching to GNU/Linux costs nothing, unless you choose to purchase–at nominal cost– a set of DVDs or CDs for the installation rather than downloading and burning your own network installation disk.  The principal behind this is the idea, espoused by Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation, that openly shared software benefits the entire economy rather than enriching a small cadre of individuals who hide their code–which may be of dubious quality and may not do exactly what you want or need.  Open Source means that anyone with the skill and need can improve, extend, or adapt the programs, and is obligated to share with others.

We call this a paradigm rather than a fixed choice because there are many versions, or distributions, of GNU/Linux from which to choose.  There are currently three different “families” of distributions that are popular:  Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), which is an industrial version that comes with expensive licensed technical support, but also provides “free” versions as CentOS (Community ENTerprise Operating System), that is a proper subset of RHEL, and Fedora (a jaunty, experimental Red Hat).  A slightly different offshoot distribution, SuSE, evolved in Europe and is also more suited to industrial and high-end server use.  The widest variation in distributions is based on the Debian model developed by the late Ian Murdock.  A distribution consists of the core, essential GNU/Linux packages, plus a distinctive set of desktop presentations and productivity applications, with a repository of optional packages.  Pure Debian and the Gentoo bare-bones file set are popular with developers, but users looking for an alternative to Windows find that Ubuntu Linux or Mint Linux are more suited to “zero-administration” use, are very easy to install, and have a default set of productivity applications that meet the needs of most casual users.

Ubuntu Linux 14.04 Desktop (shown in a virtual machine window on another Linux machine)
Ubuntu Linux 14.04 Desktop (shown in a virtual machine window on another Linux machine)

So, what does the Linux experience look like?  Installation consists of downloading a network installation image, burning it to a CD or DVD, rebooting from the new disc, and either replacing the existing Windows system or repartitioning the hard drive to make room for both Windows and Linux, with the choice at boot time.  Once Linux is running, Ubuntu shows the Unity desktop, which is somewhat similar to the Windows 8 or 10, with a disappearing icon bar on the left from which to choose programs.  Mint Linux, based on Ubuntu, offers MATE or GNOME desktops, which are more familiar to Windows XP users, with a menu panel at the bottom and a popup menu at the lower left.

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A document shown in page mode in LibreOffice

Default installations include LibreOffice, which has the same tools as Microsoft Office–word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, graphics, etc., and can read and write in Office-compatible formats as well as the native Open Document Format files.  Mozilla Firefox is the default internet browser, but Google Chrome is easily installed.  Mozilla Thunderbird is an excellent email client, and the alternate Evolution email client is similar to Microsoft’s Outlook client.  The Totem video player will play MP4 video files or movie DVDs.  VLC is another video player that is very good.  If you want to edit your own videos, OpenShot is easy to learn.   There are several different photo gallery managers and editors available, and the GIMP is equivalent to Photoshop for image editing. Scribus is a page layout/desktop publishing  tool, like Microsoft Publisher.  Incidentally, all of these Open Source productivity tools, with the exception of OpenShot, are available for Windows or OS/X as well (OpenShot depends on some Linux intrinsic libraries and the UNIX philosophy of multiple elements working together, the best way to develop complex applications, but a Windows version might be forthcoming: part of the issue is that it is the creation of a team of exactly one programmer).

Ubuntu Software Center--a place to download free programs
Ubuntu Software Center–a place to download free programs

The software repositories include thousands of applications, tools, and games, all downloadable for free.  Almost any application you can buy for Windows has a corresponding free app that serves the same function.  Also, many popular programs written for Windows can be installed and run on Linux through the WINE (WINdows Emulator) system.  Alas, Quicken, TurboTax, and Garmin Connect are not in that category.

Fiberworks PCW, a Windows program for designing weaving drafts, running under WINE on Linux.
Fiberworks PCW, a Windows program for designing weaving drafts, running under WINE on Linux.

If you don’t want to trust yourself to install a dual-boot Linux partition on your existing computer, you can convert an old XP or Vista computer to Linux, or, if you have a TV with a spare HDMI connector, you can buy a Raspberry Pi starter kit (originally designed in Great Britain to teach computing to children) with a Raspian system on an SD card and extra mouse and keyboard for less than $100 and try it out.  If, like me, you decide Linux is the “one true operating system” and want a “pure” environment without inflating Microsoft’s “shipped system” statistics, you can buy a more powerful machine with Linux pre-installed on it from one of the handful of vendors who build them.  Of course, these low-production-run, built-to-order custom machines are much more expensive than a big-box-store commodity Windows machine, even without the Microsoft license, but they run out-of-the-box, without the user needing to become a system administrator or installer.

There are any number of advantages to running GNU/Linux instead of Microsoft Windows, not the least of which is relative immunity from viruses and other attacks, mainly due to the increased security inherent in systems built on the UNIX mult-user model.  The multi-tasking model is much more efficient as well.   The obvious disadvantage is that most commercial software vendors make their programs exclusively for Microsoft Windows, or maybe also for Apple OS/X.  Another disadvantage, which also applies to Apple products, is that many features offered by Microsoft and Apple depend on proprietary access to the vendor’s cloud services.  However, there are system-neutral independent cloud services if you need that sort of thing, like Dropbox and Google Drive.

So, there is another solution to the aggravation and insecurity of Microsoft and the expense of Apple:  GNU/Linux is not owned by anyone–it is free as in Liberty as well as available at no cost other than your own time and a blank DVD or thumb drive.  GNU/Linux is developed by hundreds of ordinary people all over the world, most of whom are not millionaires, but work at regular jobs, at companies that embrace the Open Source philosophy.  This world-wide community  creates software not as a means to an income stream, but to support the services they provide, leveraging contributions from others and freely sharing their own enhancements.

GNU/Linux is stable and safe: Linux runs more than half of all web servers in the world, and is the foundation for most of the world’s supercomputers, as well as the core of the Android system in the majority of cell phones and tablets.  After 20 years of grass roots growth, Linux only owns a small percentage of workstation desktops, but many of those are also listed on the Windows ledger, as the machines were originally sold with Windows.  Many businesses and government agencies are switching to Linux throughout their organizations.  Is your household next?

The Parkins Report: Events of 2015

50-yearclass reunion, Wartburg College: Judy in her hand-woven hand-sewn vest, Larye in his $20 thrift-shop suit, bought at the last minute when we realized we would take part in the commencement ceremonies.
50-yearclass reunion, Wartburg College: Judy in her hand-woven,hand-sewn vest, Larye in his $20 thrift-shop suit, bought at the last minute when we realized we would take part in the commencement ceremonies.

2015 began with a new hope for good health and a busy itinerary for travel: this was the year for Larye’s 50th college reunion, and several family reunions were scheduled on both sides.

Larye continued to build strength from his medical setbacks of 2014, with sprint intervals on his stationary bicycle in the basement until he got his heart rate “in the zone.” Our first trail outing on the Bike Friday Tandem was on February 28; by September, we had logged 541 kilometers (335 miles) riding trails in six states. We mostly stayed on bike paths and trails, limiting rides to no more than 20km (12 miles) from the car, as Larye remained on blood thinner until our return from our “grand tour.” As it turned out, we found that limit to be a pleasant workout, and didn’t extend our rides farther this season.

Winter and spring were busy times for the weaving guilds, as Judy finished her term as Program Chair and also helped with the workshop planning. A highlight of the season was an April workshop with renowned weaver and clothing designer Daryl Lancaster, in which the participants wove fine cloth and constructed a fitted vest (shown above). After the workshop and guild program, we delivered Daryl to her next workshop venue, taking the opportunity for a weekend stay and bike ride in Birch Bay, near the Canadian border.
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We continued our traditional anniversary celebration with a two-day retreat to rainy Lake Quinault in late March, marking our 30th anniversary.

The Grand Tour–13,500km (8500 miles) in the car, plus 288km ( 180 miles) on the bike–began on May 1, with a trip to Montana to deliver Judy’s brother-in-law, Ben, for the summer, and a brief stop at the Rocky Mountain Laboratory to see old colleagues. We took advantage of our loose schedule to tour points of interest along the way–national parks and monuments, etc.

Along the way, we stayed in

  • Salmon, Idaho
  • Logan and Green River in Utah
  • Chama, Santa Fe, Donã Ana, and Clovis, New Mexico
  • Dodge City, Kansas
  • St. Joseph, Missouri
  • Waverly and Decorah, Iowa
  • Middleton, Wisconsin
  • Jackson, Lanesboro, Winona, Litchfield, Staples, and Park Rapids, Minnesota
  • Aberdeen, South Dakota
  • Roundup, Montana

before stopping again in Polson, Montana. We visited a friend in Moab, Utah, family in Santa Fe and Las Cruces, New Mexico; El Paso, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin; Jackson and Motley, Minnesota; and Polson, Montana. We attended school and family reunions in Waverly, Iowa, Jackson, Minnesota, and Polson, Montana. We stayed at motels, AirB&B hosts, with family, and camped in our tent four nights.

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Camping along the Mississippi River near Winona, Minnesota

On our return home, we retrieved Delia, the cat, from the Just Cats Hotel and settled in for the rest of the summer, receiving a steady stream of bicycle tourists in July and August, between short camping trips to Dungeness Spit and Cape Disappointment, to ride on trails.

In September, we traveled again to Montana, first to sign papers on the sale of our cabin, and then after a week at Lake Chelan (after the wildfires had died down), returned to Montana to bring Ben back to Washington to fly home to California. But, on the way home, we detoured south to South Idaho to visit our niece, yet another family reunion, as Judy’s brother and sister-in-law were also visiting.
Between groups of fall bicycle tourists, we traveled to Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada to vacation with our friends Gary and Char, returning home via eastern Washington, where we retrieved a floor loom we had loaned to Judy’s sister-in-law several years ago. The last bicycle tourists of the season came through with the start of the November rains, and we finally found time to attend our weaving and quilting guild meetings, from which we had been absent since April.ford20151126_091107With the sale of our last Montana property, we paid off some remodeling bills and replaced the black and stainless kitchen range with a white one more suited to the house style. And– uncharacteristic of us, who kept our last cars for more than 15 years–we traded in our bright green Jeep Patriot after a bit less than five years–but nearly 120,000 miles (200 000 km)–for a new dark gray Ford C-Max Hybrid, which is teaching us to drive with fuel efficiency in mind. That’s something we thought we were already doing, but the electric-assist energy-management display demands a bit lighter touch on the brake and power controls to minimize fuel consumption and maximize energy recovery. We also had to get a new rack system that clamps onto the smooth door openings, but, unlike the “permanent” installations on our other cars, we intend to only mount it when we plan to take the bicycle out, to preserve the aerodynamic flow–and our fuel economy. We have become “road mopes” like the other hybrid drivers we have gotten stuck behind on the highway the last few years.

Our first long trip with the new car was a return to Canada, again with our friends Gary and Charlene, this time to downtown Vancouver, BC, for a week in the heart of the city, taking in the Canadian way of preparing for the holidays.

Lions Gate Bridge, from Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC
Lions Gate Bridge, from Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC

Additional material: Our blogs (http://blogs.parkins.org) have more
detailed articles about our travels and activities. We also publish
videos from our bike rides on Vimeo.com
(https://vimeo.com/user10747705) and have recently published a
two-part, one-hour video on YouTube of our bicycle adventures and
Larye’s rehab from heart surgery, 2012-2015
(https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCVO1uvNM_c_Pq5mMhfvW1mQ).

Warm Showers 2015 — Fall Season

After our September travels, we once again activated our availability for the Warm Showers bicycle touring hospitality network.  We immediately got a series of late-season tourists taking advantage of the mild Fall weather in the Pacific Northwest, or willing to brave the rainy season to ride in cooler weather in late fall in southern California,  For some, the travel plan calls for touring over winter in Central America and reversing the seasons into the southern hemisphere to arrive at the tip of South America in late 2016 or early 2017.  For others, the plan is simply to ride after the tourist season, when traffic is lighter on the scenic routes.

So, the extended fall season, September 24 through November 21, brought us eight more guests, bringing the total to 112 since we started hosting in 2011, and 26 in the past year. Guests this year came from Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and the U.S. Some were on short tours, From Vancouver or Seattle to Portland or San Francisco. Others were on the full Pacific Coast Tour, from Vancouver to Imperial Beach, and some were on extended tour from Alaska or British Columbia to Bolivia or Argentina. Some were seasoned Warm Showers members, for others, our house was their first Warm Showers encounter. Through the Warm Showers Facebook page, we became acquainted with a Warm Showers host in Aberdeen and met her for lunch on one of our trips to the coast. She is 75km away, so hosted several of our guests the following night if they were headed toward Astoria via the 6700-meter long Megler-Astoria Bridge, though most of her guests had ridden around the Olympic Peninsula, or had bypassed Shelton while we were on travel.

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Barbara, from Germany
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Lauren, a professional bike route planner from Colorado, on a short, fast tour from Vancouver to Portland.
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Carole and Kate, professional bicycle ride planners from the U.K., on a west coast tour.
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Montana and Logan, from southern California, on a late-season tour of the west coast they are calling “The Downpour Tour.”
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Megan, from Wisconsin, and Gordon, from Scotland, on an epic tour from Alaska to the tip of Argentina, already nearly 4000 km into their 20,000 km tour. They left Alaska at the end of August, but were delayed on entering the U.S. due to Gordon’s visa issues and Megan having to build a new bike after having her original rig stolen in Bellingham. There was frost on the ground when we sent them off through Olympia to save time, as Megan had also had a bad tire cut, resulting in them arriving well after dark. We gave her our spare tire from our Santana. The tire change left them without a lot of daylight to try to get farther south before the fall storms get worse.

Hybridizing Our Ride

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We’d been driving Jeeps for almost 22 years, until a month or so ago.  Actually, just two of them, a ’94 Cherokee and a ’10 Patriot.  The Cherokee, we essentially wore out, putting over one light-second on the odometer (300,000 km), and going through numerous windshields, a set of door hinges, grill, bumper, fender, hood, brakes, clutch, oil pump, power steering unit, several batteries, etc. over the 17 years we abused it.  Our second Jeep was a “buy what they have on the lot, ’cause we’re leaving on a long trip and don’t trust the old one to get us there and back” affair, with no selection of color or features, or even model, as the newer Cherokees had gotten more expensive, and the Patriot was cheaper, on sale.

The Patriot was OK, in some ways a step up, with leather heated power seats, sunroof, six-speed auto tranny, and satellite radio; in other ways not so much.  Despite a much smaller engine (2.7 l. versus 4.0 l.) it didn’t get much better fuel efficiency, though the old Jeep had dropped from a fuel burn of 9.8 l/100km to about  12.4 l/100km toward the end.  During the nearly 200,000km we put on the Patriot in only five years, efficiency varied from 11.25 to 9.8 l/100km, admittedly at higher speeds, as the speed limits have gone from 90km/hr in 1994 to 125km/hr in the open plains of the west in the 2010s.

Faced with the possibility of expensive repairs and decreasing reliability, we decided it was time to look at a bit greener solution to our automobile needs.  After a bit of research into hybrid gasoline/electric vehicles, we settled on the Ford C-Max, a “crossover” sized vehicle similar in capacity and form to our Jeeps–a five-door compact–but without 4-wheel drive.  The attraction is the promise of fuel consumption as low as 5.75 l/100km  and a range of 600-750km instead of 400-450km.  Of course, “recharge” is the usual 5-minute tank fill.

The goal of hybrid technology is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.  At our current stage of energy economy, all-electric cars are not practical, as the battery technology, keeping the weight of the power train equivalent to the gasoline-powered designs, only provides less than 200km range, and requires several hours charging time, though higher-capacity batteries promise to increase range to 500km in some 2016 models.  Also, recharging off the power grid means that all-electric cars are essentially mostly coal-powered, so do not solve the carbon-pollution problem.

The hybrid, then, is fundamentally a gasoline-powered vehicle with a sophisticated energy-management system that employs a relatively small battery and an electrically-assisted power train.  The efficiency comes from using a relatively small gasoline engine that needs an assist for acceleration but is large enough to recharge the battery during low power demands.  The braking system and transmission also serve to recover the kinetic energy of speed as battery charge when slowing and stopping.  The engine shuts off when there is no power demand, i.e., when coasting downhill, and  there is  no  idling at stops or in stalled traffic.  While advanced computer software makes all of this possible, high efficiency is only feasible if the driver uses best operating practices.  To this end, the instrument cluster display helps teach efficient driving technique.

So it happens that we have become “road mopes,” accelerating ever so slowly and smoothly, slowing early for stop signs and signals, coasting to a stop, and generally avoiding rapid speed changes.  I’ve done some of those things all my life when I feel pinched for gas money: when we lived on Vashon Island in the late 1980s and I worked  in Poulsbo, a long commute, I  used to shut the engine off at the top of the last hill before the ferry dock on the way home and coast three miles to the toll booth.  So far, the techniques have paid off, with better than advertised highway mileage on the new car.  In town, however,  the steep hills of Shelton and the short distances we travel have not paid off.  Since waste heat is minimal, on cold days, the gasoline motor runs to heat water for the heater and to be more efficient when power is demanded, so the electric motor component sometimes never engages during short rides, dropping the efficiency from 5.8 l/100km to 15.75 l/100km.  We could have opted for the Energi model, with larger battery and plug-in recharge for better short-trip efficiency, but then, we have the problem of burning coal to recharge (though most of our power comes from Bonneville Power Hydro plants, which pose a different environmental issue) and the fuel cost of hauling the heavier battery on long trips.  Overall, in the first 1000km, we have achieved an average of 6.3 l/100km, slightly better than the Honda del Sol we had from 1996 to 2011.  On occasion, we’ve made it up our hill, albeit very slowly, on electric power, but the battery range under load is only a few hundred meters.  Of course, it recharges during the next downhill run, but at the expense of gasoline to reheat the engine if it is cold.

In many ways, driving a hybrid efficiently through conscious energy management techniques is a lot like riding our bicycle–to be able to go long distances, limit sprinting and fast starts to traffic necessity, minimize braking, coast when you can, and keep the rpm’s up to maximize power output from a meager source, whether old legs or a small-displacement engine.  Hybrids aren’t new, but weren’t practical until sufficient computing power was available in a small package to make the decisions necessary to run the engine only when needed for power or charging.  Early models, without intelligent control systems, and all-electric drive motors, were like a portable power generator used at a construction site–the gasoline motor ran all the time, throttling up when the load increased, which didn’t increase efficiency all that much, since it continued to run at idle and created a lot of noise.  Consequently, these kludges never made it to market.

So it goes.  We have purchased a new cartop rack to carry our bicycle racks, but haven’t installed it, waiting for a baseline average so we can see how much the air drag cuts into our efficiency and for a time when we will be bicycling regularly.  Unlike the Jeeps, we will not leave the rack installed for long trips when we don’t need it.  We’re getting good mileage, but we could have done nearly as well with the standard cars by manually switching the engine off at stops and being much more careful to not accelerate or brake unnecessarily.  But, those techniques don’t recover braking energy or promote shutting off the engine on downhill runs, so the hybrid, for now, is the most practical technology for optimal fuel efficiency.

But, we’ve also locked ourselves into another seven years of car payments in an age when  Congress doesn’t feel we deserve a cost-of-living increase, despite increases in housing and food costs, and increased medical costs with possibility of decreased Medicare coverage.  For now, fuel costs have dropped, again, but will inevitably rise as production of fossil fuels drops, as it must, to reduce carbon output.  Nevertheless, we want to set an example, however small, to the next generation that, in the face of irreversible man-caused climate change, we must try to avert total catastrophic runaway conditions.  It may be too late:  massive releases of methane from thawing hydrates in the Arctic tundra and ocean shallows are accelerating, compounding the rise in C02 levels. But, responsible carbon use can buy a little time, for possible, unknown technological solutions.

Cycling to 70 — and Beyond

For the past three years, we’ve been documenting our bicycling adventures with video clips from a handle-bar-mounted GoPro, and lots of still photos.  And, an adventure it has been.  Bicycle touring and recreational riding has become a popular activity for the senior set in the 21st century, so we are not unique, and certainly not the accomplished athletes that some are even into their 80s.  And, other survivors of heart disease have taken up bicycling as part of their rehabilitation, so our story is just one of many.

I’ve taken the 90-some short videos we’ve published over the years and put together clips from selected ones to tell the story, in less than an hour, of how we trained for a self-contained, unsupported bicycle tour on our own, through Michigan, the Upper Peninsula, and northern Wisconsin in 2013 and the setbacks we encountered with a life-threatening disease and the ensuing open heart surgery, followed by a pulmonary embolism that required a year of blood thinner therapy that led to a kidney problem.  After all that, with aggressively active walks and stationary bicycle training, we recovered enough to enjoy a limited bicycling season, combining car travel with trail riding.

So it goes: what follows are two 30-minute videos, the first covering our 2013 tour and preparations, and the second covering the realization that fitness and health aren’t the same thing, and the long trek back to fitness after surgery, rewarded with walks on scenic hiking trails around our local area and  fun rides on really great trails across the country.  The films are a celebration of the joy of bicycling as a life-long activity and the realization that modern medical intervention can not only save your life, but help you live it fully, if you have the determination and resolve to seize the day and take charge of your rehabilitation.

The early videos were fairly shaky, due to the instability of the camera mount.  The YouTube stabilization feature was worse, so it is what it is.  There is a bit of voice-over narration in the beginning of each film, but mostly we let the scenery and the rides speak for themselves, along with the music downloaded from freemusicarchive.org.  If you have the bandwidth, watch them in full-screen mode and turn up the volume.

These videos are on YouTube, which allows longer videos. The originals and others, taken along the trails and scenic byways of western Washington, can be found on Vimeo, at https://vimeo.com/user10747705

Maps, statistics, and elevation profiles of the routes shown in these videos can be found on RideWithGPS, at  http://ridewithgps.com/users/59643

Musings on Unix, Bicycling, Quilting, Weaving, Old Houses, and other diversions

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