Geriatric Linux: How an 'old geezer' came to terms with computers

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I was born in 1933, so computers weren't something I grew up with. In fact, neither was TV, atomic energy, or even jet planes. For my first 70 years I had neither the need nor the desire to become involved with computers.

I retired to a very small town on a mountainside, 50 miles from the nearest city. In the process of doing some part-time work for a group enterprise, I was set down in front of a PC and shown how to do the basic operations with it. Rote learning: do this, that happens. Never mind why. This was in 2002.

I couldn't help becoming a bit intrigued, and when I learned one of my neighbors ran a computer service business in the distant city I asked him if he'd help me get a PC of my own and show me how to use it. He agreed he'd do what was needed to set it up and keep it healthy, and he'd charge just half what his commercial clients paid. That was how, just before Christmas 2003, I became a computer user: nice new Compaq machine, nice new Windows XP.

The only Internet connection to our remote town was dial-up, with download speeds that topped out at a blazing 2KB/s (that's right, KILObytes), but I planned to use the machine mostly for writing anyway and didn't want distractions. Nonetheless, after a few years I found myself surfing (more like paddling, at those speeds) and I began to learn what an incredible resource I had at my fingertips.

Among the diverse things I found to read about was a relatively new but fast-growing computer operating system called Linux. It sounded fascinating: invented by a college student, developed by volunteers, used mainly by experts but available to amateurs; it appeared to defy not only the conventional business model, but the very concept of commercial software.

I asked my neighbor what he knew about Linux. "I know how to spell it," he said. His tone of voice let me know it would be unwise of me to pursue the matter further; this was, after all, the era when Steve Ballmer had branded Linux a cancer. The machine that now occupied much of my time was running solely because my neighbor did an update/overhaul/cleanout on it once a year, or so I thought, so I dropped the subject at once.

I kept on reading about it, however, and even bought a few books and magazines to learn more. It didn't look too intimidating, and I thought I might someday try it out. "Someday" came sooner than I thought: my computer came back from its December 2007 cleanup with a note that my neighbor would be moving away late the next year.

Oof! It was like a punch in the gut for me. I'd have to take the computer to some stranger 50 miles away when it needed cleaning! And how would I know it needed cleaning? What about viruses? How would I know if I had a virus? I knew just enough to realize how helpless I was. If my web reading had taught me nothing else, it had convinced me Windows was no do-it-yourself thing!

But Linux was. It was kind of intimidating to think I would have to learn a whole new operating system: not just how to use it, but how to install it, how to maintain it, how to fix it when something went wrong. The Microsoft message had always been "Leave all that to the experts." With Linux, I'd have to BE the expert.

Well, I wasn't going to risk my route to Internet information by trying a new system on my only computer. Fortunately, this was a time when P4-processor machines like mine were being retired for newer models, so by April of 2009 I had found a used one for about the price I had paid each year to maintain mine. That told me something right away.

Almost all my Linux books and magazines had come with a CD or DVD of some distro, and I went to work installing them one by one on my experimental box. It remained air-gapped, not because I was being security-conscious but because I had so much to learn about each of them before I began actually USING them.

I had barely begun playing with my new toy when crisis struck: I discovered my XP system had gotten the Conficker virus some weeks earlier: it could no longer contact the Norton Antivirus site or any official Windows sites. My dialup connection was probably too slow to be of any interest to the Conficker bot-handlers, but it was worth getting rid of. I drove the 50 miles to the city library, downloaded Norton's Conficker cleaner disc, and cleaned up my machine. I had become my own Windows admin!

I would never have dared do that without the experience of my Linux installs. And when, only a few months later, DSL came to my tiny town with decent Internet speeds, I was able to set up the connection myself. Soon I began to take an interest in the hardware too, upgrading my machines with RAM and graphics cards, and in 2012 gave myself a 79th birthday present by building a new 8-core machine from parts.

With that I became Microsoft-free, removing the last remaining Windows OS from what had by then become six machines I had owned. Two I gave away, one on which I wiped the hard drive and the other with a then-fresh Ubuntu Lucid Lynx installation for a friend. I still have my 12-year old Compaq, which currently runs MX-14 with grace and aplomb.

In these past few years I've been having a ball with Linux. I've learned more about digital technology and computer hardware than I ever expected I could, back in 2003. Instead of using computers passively like a TV, as Windows would have its users do, I've taken an active role in how mine work, what they do, and above all what I permit Microsoft and other bad influences on the Internet to do to them.

And it sure makes for an active retirement!

My Linux Story


This article is part of a series called My Linux Story. To participate and share your Linux story, contact us at: open@opensource.com.

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Korean War vet, GI Bill helped finance education through PhD in Astrophysics; taught and researched at universities and observatories, later went into aerospace, finally retired, now building and messing with computers, all of which run Linux.  (I don't do Windows)

20 Comments

Great story! Us geezers have to make sure the youngsters don't have all the fun! My mother, who turns 96 on Friday still uses the Linux machine I built for her several years ago. She started learning computers in her 70's. Hmmm - there might be another Linux story there.

When my wife retired about 3 years ago, she wanted to have her own computer to use at home. She had worked in an insurance co. office for about 20 years, using mostly Windows-based business stuff. I built a fairly decent AMD-based machine for her, installed Ubuntu Linux (whatever the current version was at the time, maybe 12?), and helped her set up a gmail account using the Firefox browser. She's never had the slightest problem doing anything she wants to do on that machine.

I think I've updated the OS once, to a more current version. She's using the Unity desktop, which I don't like, but she's quite used to it and hasn't used anything else in a long time.

This past weekend I was cursing a Windows box at home, trying to make it behave. My wife remarked, "I'm sure glad I don't use Windows. I don't think I could handle it."

In reply to by dboth

Switched over in late 1996, after total disgust with Microsoft's closed source, and proprietary attitude. Helped start a Linux Users Group, and we have met the first Saturday of each month, ALL DAY from 8AM til 5 PM, at Winter Park Christian Church, 760 N. Lakemont Ave, Winter Park, Fl. 32792, where we share FREE COFFEE, and answers on the level of the persons who quest!

As a retired USAF ET, with hundreds of hours in the classroom, as student and instructor, I know that we need to be shown, slowly, carefully, and given instruction, in ways that make it
easy to remember. Yolinux.com is a resource that I cherish!

Having run Linux Mint since 2003, I also use many other Linux Distros, and, the BSDs, and, I recommend Puppy for fast live boot fun, LinuxBBQ for live demo of 78 of the 200 Desktop GUIs (Graphic User Interfaces).

For 321 Linux Distros, go to livecdlist.com

For the top 100 Linux and BSD ISOs, distrowatch.com

Note: you might print this to a file, and expand upon that, as you discover new web sites
about Free, Open Source Software!

In reply to by Alex Sanchez

Yes, save to a file, print out and research those links. Would you like to test drive Linux from a Windows computer?

10 minutes, 2 downloads, and 1 usb flash drive 512 Megabytes or larger.
http://rufus.akeo.ie download rufus.exe file about 1.5 MB in size
http://puppylinux.org download tahrpup 6.0.2 .is file about 200 MBIN size
or http://www.linuxmint.com download Rafaela 17.2 Linux Mint about 1300 MB in size
Insert the usb flash drive in usb port.
Run rufus.exe program. Select the correct usb flash drive. Select the previously download .is file. Execute to burn/write the .iso file into the USB flash drive.
Reboot the computer and the Linux chosen should boot up from the USB flash drive as a live Linux you may play without Installing to the hard disk. If not booting, check the bios settings for , "drive boot order". Enjoy, have fun learning something new in life.

Other tools: http://Linuxliveusb.com tool to download and install 1 of 350 Linux distributions to a usb flash drive

Http://isorecorder.alexfeinman.com isorecorder power tool to write .iso files to a cd-r disc.

My blog is http://puppylinux-or-pcbsd.blogspot.com

In reply to by linuxiac38 (not verified)

Great article. I am making the move now, thanks for telling of your experience

Please do try out any of the Linux Distros, on Distrowatch.com or livecdlist.com

Plus, there is the international Linux forum, on Craigslist!

In linux Mint, there are two live chat rooms, in the internet menu!

Even Microsoft runs Linux on: 25,000 developer computers, where the new windows is developed in a Virtual Machine; Four hundred Aruba Routers/firewalls, run Linux, in a
version so similar to IPFIRE, to protect the Microsoft corporate Network!

Of course, all the support and distribution servers run Linux! Microsoft products aren't safe
for use or exposure to the Internet! Millions of us avoid the 50 million Microsoft Virus, as we run Free, Open Source, GNU/Linux!

In reply to by Tim Hutman (not verified)

It's great to see the "older" generations getting into the world of computers and Linux. It just goes to show that no matter what age you are; it's a matter of a person sitting down to learn something new. My 88 year old grandfather can't stand his Windows machine. I sent him a Linux laptop and made some very basic instructions for him (he lives in NH and I am in NC) and he can do everything as before, but with less frustration.

I think you hit upon one of the key aspects of helping people be successful - providing some training and/or documentation. I created a document for my mom that was about 70 pages long and she really liked that.

In reply to by BJ Maynard

One of the first things I put in that documentation was how to use Teamviewer on his Linux PC. That way, if he had any issues that he just had to have help with, I could just take over and show him. I'm just a phone call away and can remote into his computer anytime he needs me to.

In reply to by dboth

This is one area in which I think the community has a long way to go. It's getting better, but for a long time, when someone said "community edition" or "the open source community", it meant insiders who had been involved for a long time. In many meetings / mailing lists / chat environments, tolerance for "newbie" questions decreased as the community aged. And even the highly tolerant forgot what it is like to be unfamiliar with something, responding to questions with what appeared to be a foreign language ("Simple! Just pipe it through grep and redirect stderr to the null device." WTF is that supposed to mean to someone just starting out???)

It's important to remember that new blood coming into the community will keep it thriving, and we all need to nurture that if for no other reason than enlightened self-interest. In addition to making friends that might become future developers, answering newbie questions hones ones documentation skills.

In reply to by dboth

Great story! You are a champion life long learner. I'm sharing this story far and wide. I got my Mom her own LInux desktop ten or more years ago which she used successfully but she didn't possess the curiosity that you have written of. :)

This is awesome. Gives me hope for my mom, haha.

LOL....understand what you mean. My father-n-law is that way too. I made a few MS machines for him over the years but finally switched him to Linux just over a year ago and he loves it. Now this man is a Southern farmer who does not like anything tech related. He still has a flip phone and he was hesitant on that even. I finally convinced him to give it a try and he hasn't had anything bad to say about Linux since then, or my technology either (lol).

In reply to by phoenix

What a wonderful story, great to see you are using Linux and encouraging others to do so as well. As an ex Engineer and Polytechnic Tutor in programming I have used Linux for years. So much inertia and opposition to it in the Education sector, Microsoft have forced Windows and its software on kid's for so long they have grown up believing their is nothing else. I taught for some 17 years and never managed to get an Open Source Lab established. Management are vendor locked and just laugh if you suggest Linux, even though all the big systems are Linux based in science, Amazon, Cern etc etc. The next door neighbour is converted to Linux Mint 17.2 and has never looked back. More articles and discussions like this are needed. I have never converted my wife away from windows, she uses it at work and that's that's I am retired, age is no setback just takes us longer to learn I guess. Well done on your article, keep going dear friend.

A fantastic story. Mine is not that colorful. I live in an Asian metropolis and I'm 67. I started in the days of DOS with an Apple II. I still have XP on dual boot on the two old single-core PCs that I use at home every day (right now too). They're still running speedily and smoothly with an upgrade or two of the ram and cpu.

I use Xubuntu 14.04 to 15.10 on different PCs, notebooks and netbooks. All my work, etc. is 99% on Linux and about the only time I boot into XP is to check and fix the NTFS partitions on internal and external drives to maintain compatibility with other users who use Windows and with my XP OS.

...thus proving you don't need to be a rocket scientist to learn Lin,.. Oh wait, "PhD in Astrophysics"... ;-)

I'm a bit surprised that in your field, computers weren't foisted upon you earlier. So, now are you the guy who goes helping his neighbors remove viruses by handing them a Linux CD?

Great story!

Actually, they were. In 1960, for a 1-term project as a grad student, I was handed a Fortran manual, a set of partial diff equations for solar thermal convection, and told I'd be given four hours on the research center computer the next week. Got the program written, edited it in SOAP, and swore I would never touch a computer again.

Until...

In reply to by Kevin Cole

Ah. I misinterpreted "neither the need nor desire" as "and therefore never sat down with". So, calculator, slide-rule, lots of paper / pen / chalkboard / chalk? Or a brain that's just "wired for it"? It just seems like a field where you'd have needed to do a fair amount of complex math relatively quickly -- spoken as one who is most definitely NOT an astrophysics Ph.D.

People I tutored used to assume I was good with math. I responded "Hell, no! Why do you think I use a computer?" Truth be told, I was good with theory, but on standardized tests my "clerical speed and accuracy" put me in the third percentile in the nation. The "verbal reasoning and logic" score, however, was at the other end of the spectrum -- 96th percentile. Not that I put a lot of stock in those tests, having seen the ugliness of how those particular sausages are made, up close and personal, as part of my career.

In reply to by Emery Fletcher

Concentrated on the observational side: used clever optical tricks to acquire brand-new basic information, then did easy initial data reduction to a form theoretickers could play with. Thesis data reduction via hand-cranked Marchand. Optics eventually led to aerospace.

In reply to by Kevin Cole

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