Friday, 23 December 2016

Raspberry Pixel on a ThinkPad X60s / X61

ThinkPad X61, with an X60S lid.

Some time ago I tried out Linux Mint on my ThinkPad X60s. It worked!

Now let's try Raspberry Pixel, which is essentially a Debian distribution for children. It's made by Raspberry, creators of the popular Pi microcomputer. I haven't seen a single one of the Hunger Games films, but I miss seeing posters for Mockingjay on the London Underground. The advertising was ubiquitous for eighteen months during 2014 and 2015, and it will never return. Future generations will not know what it was like to see Jennifer Lawrence around every corner, wearing armoured fitness gear, surrounded by flames.

The books were written for the young adult market, and because of this I dismissed them, but isn't the same true of The Dark Knight or The Hobbit? They were written for children as well. The Hunger Games hype didn't really take off until the release of the second film in the series, Catching Fire, which confirmed that the original wasn't a one-off. The films all went on to be members of the half-billion-dollar club, and for three years the world was enraptured by a shared mythology that will probably never be rebooted or continued. And now it's all gone. Like the East German national anthem the Hunger Games films belong to the past now.

ThinkPad X60s, with an X61 lid. Every few years I clean my teacup. This is not one of those years.

Pixel - it has nothing to do with Google Pixel, which is a mobile phone - Pixel is a live-bootable image that works on PCs and some Macintoshes, but not my late 2008 MacBook Pro. I tried, but not very hard, and it didn't work. My X60s is a typical mid-2000s laptop. It was released in 2006. It has a low-voltage, 32-bit, dual-core Core Duo running at 1.66ghz; 3gb of memory; a 1024x768 screen; rubbish Intel graphics; built-in wi-fi; a SATA 1 hard drive. The specification is very old-fashioned nowadays but by no means obsolete, and in its favour it has lots of ports and a lovely keyboard. If you think about it, Donald Trump's real estate business involves borrowing huge amounts of money to build things in the hope that this will generate more wealth, which is the kind of business model left-wingers have wet dreams about. It's the opposite of austerity-era politics.

Besides which as a businessman his activities seem positively tame compared to those of Carl Icahn or the Barclay Brothers. His greatest sins in that respect are brashness and insensitivity. Most of the opprobrium aimed at him seems to be just personal animosity, and horror that such a vulgar man could be president. Underneath this is the horrible thought that, as with Rupert Murdoch, Trump is in fact more representative of society than we are. The human animal is fundamentally vile and base, but very few people are willing to accept this. Donald Trump is the political equivalent of a dog handler who thrusts the dog's nose into a pile of poo it has left on the pavement; he is a mirror of ourselves, and we don't like that.

The X60s is one of the reasons I have never bought a Raspberry Pi. The X60s has a case, a keyboard, a screen, three USB ports, a Firewire port (unusual for a PC), VGA output, an SD card slot, a cardbus slot, and a love-it-hate-it pointing device. It also has a battery and it can be used on the move. The Pi can be made to have all of those things as well, but doing so makes it more expensive than a used X60s. Besides which it has less software support because it has an ARM processor.

My X61 originally had a dull, yellowy screen; my X60s had a bright, crisp screen, so I swapped them around. The easiest way to do this was to swap the entire top half of the machine, hence the mismatched bezels.
How did I accomplish this? Lenovo has a technical manual with complete strip-down instructions.

Pixel is at the moment just a liveDVD or liveUSB stick. Raspberry suggests using Etcher to create the USB stick, which I did; I found that PenDriveLinux' Universal USB Installer didn't work. (The machine booted to the initialisation screen but became caught in a loop.) Neither Etcher nor UNetBootIn were any help creating a USB stick with my MacBook Pro, but Macs are strange beasts, besides which what's the point? OSX is already Unix. It's a lot like Linux, but with a good UI and applications that ordinary people want to use, and it just works.

Once burned to USB, the installation was easy; it worked first time. It detected and used the TrackPoint nub and the ThinkLight keyboard light. It didn't detect the X60s' Bluetooth module but that can probably be fixed and anyway I don't care, I'm never going to use Bluetooth with a laptop. EDIT: After posting this I decided to try the very same stick in my X61, and it also worked first time.

The official website shows Pixel running on a ThinkPad X40, an earlier Pentium M-powered machine hobbled by a non-standard 1.8" PATA hard drive. The X6N generation is a slightly better choice; the 64-bit X61s and X61T tablet in particular. The undervolted processors in the X60s and X61s run cooler than the conventional equivalents in the X60 and X61, and aren't appreciably slower.

A few tweaks set up the desktop. Pixel is very limited and doesn't seem to be optimised for laptops. You have to add the battery meter to the taskbar, and there's no option to standby the machine. The control panel configuration is basic and on the whole it's essentially an internet-connecting-application-launching OS with no bells and whistles. Why not. It runs quickly. The standard browser is Chromium, which makes sense on an X60s given that Chrome has been discontinued for 32-bit processors.

Within a few minutes the typical Linux UI quirks manifested themselves. Little things that mount up. Make the taskbar small, for example, and then maximise Chromium, and it leaves a little gap between the browser and the taskbar until you manually tweak the taskbar size. As with other Linux distributions there is a peculiar emphasis on fiddly things such as making the menu bars customisable - which is nice, but not something I miss in OSX or Windows 10 - but huge gaps elsewhere, e.g. the online help consists of a link to Debian's online manual. Good luck. Linux fans boast about the vast library of applications, but the package manager is just a lot of directories with a plain text search. If you want to install a star map, but you don't know that you should search for Stellarium, you're obviously a stupid lamer idiot who doesn't deserve help. And its immaterial because if you try to install anything it asks for a password, but there seems to be no user account settings.

The manual prominently quotes a developer who opines that "Unix is user friendly, it's just selective about who its friends are", which was probably amusing sixteen years ago to a small audience of Linux fans but is completely off-base today. Amusingly the same man was eventually un-personed by the Debian team, who are obviously highly selective themselves. He must have had a chuckle to himself about the irony.

See, I have nothing against Linux. It's the people I can't stand. In the future, when Linux is finally ready for prime time, they will be forgotten and their influence obliterated. No-one remembers who built the first piano, or the first piano stool; people instead remember the music, and the same is true of operating systems.

Solange is a romantic name. Saint Solange is a Christian saint who lived in the 9th century AD. She was murdered - beheaded - by the son of a local aristocrat, which ordinarily would have ended up with the family being paid to shut up, but instead she became a saint to the locals, who made up stories about how she could heal the sick. Supposedly she survived the beheading and carried her head to the local church before dying. The name Solange comes from the Latin for "solemn". In the screenshot above I am running LibreOffice Writer, one of the few applications bundled with Pixel.

Does Pixel many any sense? My general rule with Linux distributions is that if I have to open the terminal or if it irritates me in any way I rip out the CD/USB stick and never use it again. At the moment Pixel only runs from a live installation, which in practice means that if you install it on a laptop you end up with a USB stick protruding from the side. On a desktop machine there's no point because you have lots of other choices. Sadly I can't try it on my Pentium III-powered ThinkPad 600X to really test its compatibility. The fundamental problem with Pixel is that there are lots of other, more mature Linux installations around, some of which also work on basic hardware, albeit not so basic as an actual Pi.

However I suspect that I'm not Pixel's target market. For the educational sector the existence of a known, standard, low-maintenance Linux distribution that runs from a simple USB stick has an obvious appeal. Pixel allows teachers to give students a cheap USB stick which stores not only their files but also their educational environment. And of course it's a prototype. It will be interesting to see what it looks like in a year's time.