Thursday, 30 May 2013

Linux on a ThinkPad X60: Gelignite Child, Ignite

Stellarium, running on Linux Mint 14, on a ThinkPad X60.

In the previous post I wrote about an ancient IBM ThinkPad 600X laptop, and at the end I decided to try out a bunch of Linux distributions on it. Not many of them worked, and I was worried that the post made Linux look bad in an unfair way. The 600X is very old and Linux has come a long way since 1999. Back then it was just starting to come to the attention of the mainstream, judging by this charming article from the New York Times from January of that year. I learn that Linux rhymes with Cynics, which is the first time I've heard that particular pronunciation. Of course, as any fule kno it is pronounced LAY-newzzzzz.

In 1999 Linux plus Apache was the web serving solution that ran well on everything; its enemy was Windows NT. Ordinary people weren't expected to use it as their desktop operating system although it was perfectly feasible to do so. StarOffice, the GIMP, and Netscape all existed back then, but Linux itself was difficult to get working properly. Nonetheless the Linux Men had a dream of full spectrum domination, and that eventually led us to the present day, and desktop-orientated Linux distributions such as Ubuntu and the others, although the press only cares for Ubuntu.

Also James Cameron's Titanic (1997) was made with Linux. He navigated to dev/usr/titanic and typed make and then insmod iceberg and the film was pretty much finished. There's a popular theory that Leonardo DiCaprio has only ever played one character in all of his films, and that "Jack Dawson" from Titanic faked his death and grew up to be Jay Gatsby of The Great Gatsby, who used his fortune to build an aeroplane business - but he started to lose his mind, and hallucinated that he was other people. Viewed in this way the depth of DiCaprio's vision is staggering to behold, the commitment. And what if "Leonaro DiCaprio" is himself a performance, what then? Are we all extras in his film, without realising it? Our actions controlled by an unseen director, according to a screenplay that was shown to us once, briefly, at the moment of our conception. Perhaps, in his final film, in the last scene of his final film, in the last moment DiCaprio will turn to us, the audience, and say one word. "Die".

The screen will cut to black and we will be alone in a darkened room, not knowing if our thoughts are the final eruptions of a dying mind or those of a man sitting in a darkened room. But, yes, it felt unfair to try out Linux on a ThinkPad 600X. It's a very old laptop. Now that I have a pile of Linux CDs sitting around, I decided to try them on a more modern machine, a ThinkPad X60. A 1.83ghz Core Duo from 2005. Built-in wi-fi, 12" screen, Intel 950 graphics chip - not a very good chip, but widely-supported. I use my X60 as a kind of high-powered netbook and it has aged well. In the eight years since it came out it has aged better than the 600X had aged in 2007, if you catch my drift.

One thing the X60 doesn't have is an optical drive, though. Optical drives are a throwback to a bygone age. Luckily I also have the X6 Ultrabase docking station, which has an Ultrabay slot for a DVD drive. The Ultrabay slot can also accommodate a small battery, and - best of all - a second hard drive:

The hard drive caddies are still manufactured, although unofficially - I got mine for £7 from Malaysia, and it works just fine. My other modern ThinkPad, an X61, has an internal SSD, and the Ultrabay caddy lets me add a conventional HDD so that I can store masses of data.

As you might expect, the X60 has no problem with modern Ubuntu distributions. Here it is running the Xubuntu 12.04 live CD:

Peppermint 3 booted to the Live CD environment just fine, but Lubuntu threw up a cryptic "system problem detected" error, which is the kind of thing that gives Linux a bad name. I remember the first time I tried Ubuntu; it installed and seemed to work, but couldn't detect my widescreen monitor unless I edited xorg.conf. The same people who have no problem with this mock Windows 8 because the shutdown button is slightly less obvious.

After taking out the Lubuntu CD and smashing it, something hit me - not fragments of the CD, but an idea. The X60 is modern enough to boot from a USB stick, so why am I bothering with CDs? Why? So, with the help of the handy Universal USB Installer I burned... wrote Linux Mint 14 to a USB stick and stuck it in. Stuck it right in. Good and proper.

Data was once stored on physical objects. Here are some of them. Each new generation was smaller but held far more data. Data storage is now insubstantial but infinitely huge.

Let's see if I can install Linux Mint 14 alongside Windows 8. There was a time when the thought of setting up a machine to dual boot with Linux and Windows did not appeal to me, and was not something I would on a whim. But times have changed. I could in theory just get rid of Windows 8, but I paid for it and it works. It has been blamed for causing the current PC market slump, but I can live with it. It's like a bicycle-mad friend who occasionally rabbits on about veganism, you learn to ignore the bits you don't like.

The X60 predates Secure Boot and uses an old-fashioned BIOS. Rather than install Linux Mint onto the built-in hard drive, I decided to put it on the second drive, in the drive caddy. I suppose this way I could install Linux onto several small hard drives, and just swap caddies when I want to swap distributions. Rather than mess around with partitions I just wiped the drive and used it wholesale. The installation was surprisingly, boringly automatic.

You know what I think derailed The Future Sound of London's commercial momentum? Obviously FSOL had something to do with it, with their unwillingness or inability to play live, or develop a cult of personality, or bring in a lady singer. But I blame ISDN, and three-for-two offers. Three-for-two offers were a staple of the UK retail scene during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Some shops, notably Waterstones, based their retail strategy on 3-for-2. Wind back to 1996, and fans of WipeOut 2097 associated FSOL with this and this:

That kind of milkshake brought all the boys to the yard, which in this case was the local HMV, where they picked up The Prodigy Experience that they had been meaning to buy for ages but hadn't bothered because they had most of it on the singles, plus a second album, and ISDN. Instead of spooky up-tempo dance music the noise that came out of the speakers was slow and mean. It's a great album and I love it to bits, but it wasn't the kind of thing likely to hook the kids. Their new album, Dead Cities, would have been a much better choice, but it wasn't a 3-for-2 because it was new. And FSOL stopped after that. By the time their next album came out, in 2002, FSOL wasn't FSOL any more, and the mainstream had closed its mind to new sounds.

But, Linux Mint. It installs and sets up grub, which boots to Windows 8 without a hitch:

Phew. It boots to Linux Mint as well, at which point it asks to install nigh-on 250mb of updates. After installing these and rebooting the OS takes up around 3.6gb:

To be honest, I don't believe for a moment that the designers enjoyed designing Linux Mint. It was probably enormously hard work for no reward, with a tonne of wasted effort, political infighting etc. Like so many hobbies, it relied on the hobbyists having fairly lucrative day jobs. And one day they will wake up and realise that they were shafted by people who did no work at all, but the next generation of enthusiastic fools won't want to know. Let them learn to sink by themselves.

Linux Mint 14, running in a dual-boot configuration with Windows 8, on a ThinkPad X60, using a second hard drive plugged into the docking station.

Why did I photograph the screen, instead of taking screen captures? 'cause it looks more real, that's why. The obvious limitation with this setup is that I can't use Linux Mint on the road unless I take the docking station, which turns my X60 into a very large subnotebook.

Now, let's see what happens when I remove the X60 from the docking station and try booting it up. It'll either work, or it won't work. (unplugs docking station, turns machine on) It doesn't work. Yikes. Nasty message, command prompt. BUT the passive-aggressive, utterly obnoxious, hate-filled (gritted teeth) and extremely helpful and freely giving Linux community has a solution, courtesy of a chap called Mr Witch in this post here. It involves using Boot-Repair, and telling it that the removable drive is in fact a removable drive.

Now, with the machine unplugged from the docking station, it boots straight into Windows 8. Yay! With the machine attached to the docking station, it... boots straight into Windows 8. Rats. But what if I change the boot order? Ah, that does the trick, Boot-Repair has presumably shifted Grub onto the removable disc. (checks) Indeed it has. When I boot from the internal drive I get Windows 8, when I boot from the external drive I get the Grub menu - which boots Linux Mint or Windows 8 depending on which one I choose. Now everything is groovy. ~~~shoa, I'm fukcin, in the words of Brandon Vedas. Switching boot devices temporarily is easy, but less elegant than booting from a menu, but hey. Life is less elegant than booting from a menu.

Ultimately, if you can get hold of a cheap used X61 or similar with the hard drive stripped out - which is very common with used ThinkPads, because they were business machines - and you have a small hard drive lying around, Linux Mint would be a very good way of getting a cheap, usable laptop. The internal caddy (e.g. the rubber bumpers and metal cradle that holds the internal hard drive) costs about £5 from eBay. Shorn of the ideology it makes very little sense to dual-boot it with Windows 8 if you only use the machine as a glorified netbook; Linux might be more flexible under the hood, but ultimately Firefox is Firefox. And Photoshop is Photoshop (and The GIMP is not).

Of course, Linux shorn of the ideology is like rhubarb crumble without the rhubarb. It's still edible, but it's no longer rhubarb crumble. It's just crumble.

EDIT: And shortly after writing the above, Linux Mint 15 came out. The team seems to have settled on Cinnamon and MATE as window managers, without offering KDE and XFCE as official options. I tried the Cinnamon version and it installed just as easily as Mint 14, although in the end I wasn't too fond of Cinnamon. Too flashy. It can be ditched in favour of KDE easily enough, but I want to explore new lands before I plant seeds in the soil around me. Next I tried the Debian Live CD, which booted in double-quick time but didn't detect the X60's wi-fi card. Then Lubuntu, which ran into an error during installation and refused to go any further. And then finally Linux Mint 13, the most recent long-term support version of Mint, which installed without a hitch. What happens next? I will gradually use it less and less, and then I'll forget my root password, and then I'll wipe it with something or forget about it.