A year without MS Windows? The Operating System

Last year as I began my new job with UMass Medical School, I knew I would need to learn Linux better, much better.   To do anything requires a commitment and a lot of practice and patience.  So, I decided I would not use a Mac or Windows machine for my job.   I also decided to see if I could use only Open Source software to complete my work.  This is important given that my ‘clients’ as it were are the people in Liberia, Africa where seemingly every workstation and laptop I encountered has an unlicensed copy of MS Windows and MS Office and is also infected with every kind of virus and malware.

Well, it will be a year on July 7th and so I think a little review of what has worked, what hasn’t, and how I see moving forward.  I am going to go over my experience with each piece of the puzzle (i.e. operating system, software packages, and even hardware) over the next few postings.  I’ll try not to get too techie, but I am an IT guy after all!

OK – let’s staubunutlogort with the basics.   There are all kinds of ‘flavors’ of Linux.  Linux is the operating system.  It is like MS Windows 8,9,10 etc. or MAC’s OSX.  It is what turns the lifeless piece of hardware that is your laptop into a usable computer.  There are a lot fo ‘flavors’ of Linux and like Mac vs. Windows, people have their favorite.  For me, I just wanted something that was well supported, looked good, supported a lot of hardware and had a lot of Open Source software I could run on it.  So I chose Ubuntu Desktop for my little laptop computer.  ( Ubuntu webpage ).

Take a look at this screenshot of a typical Ubuntu Desktop.  It has a sort of familiar feel to MACs and to Windows as well.  I have found that it is not too foreign and that both Windows and MAC users can get comfortable with most of it pretty quickly.

ubuntudesktopI am still running version 14.04 although a new version is now available.  14.04 seems to be pretty stable.  Early last year I had one or two occasions where the laptop just froze.  Not sure why.  I even had a terrible time when it froze, I rebooted and my desktop disappeared.  That brings me to my first overall observation.

Ubuntu is pretty good but it still requires some investment in learning.  I was panicked when I lost the desktop all the icons were gone).  I managed to recover after a lot of Internet searches but it was still one of those “when did I do my last backup?” moments (answer is daily, plug in the USB drive and it runs the backup without me doing anything).

I’ve since tried several other ‘flavors’ of Linux including some really tiny ones for running on really old laptops and I still prefer Ubuntu.

There are also some interesting discoveries about Ubuntu that I am still learning.  Take the example of remote access from another workstation or making it work in a Windows network with shared drives.  A lot of times I had to drop into ‘terminal mode’ to really make things work better.  That’s a window that only has text interfaces, no graphical information at all.   Interesting to not both Windows and MAC have these modes as well.

SO, my summary – I like Ubuntu.  It keeps getting better and better.  It is easy enough even for a novice who want a simple experience but as always, investing a little time educating yourself is worthwhile.

 

 

Return to work and more

I don’t have any pictures or anything else all that interesting but I thought I had better update this site with something relevant.  So here goes.

Liberia – I am now back on routine scheduled trips back to Liberia with a mission to establish the Laboratory Information System (LIS) at our detection labs.  I am working on implementing Bika.Health, an open source application.  All this means of course that I am once again knee deep in figuring out stuff.  In this case it is the application, the platform it runs on (Plone/Zope) and how to harden this system so it can be supported.

Piping – yes I am still piping (of course!) and in fact this past Sunday our band performed in a Memorial Day parade in Enfield, CT.

Church – expect more about this soon….

The day when Rick and WPI grad student Chris go to the US Embassy

bead retriever

Bead Retriever

That picture is of a working Thermo Fisher Scientific ‘Bead Retriever’ running in a lab.  Our lab in Tappita had two of these at a cost of $18,000 each.  They cut by 2/3’s the amount if time it takes to prepare samples for analysis.  With the unit running we could run maybe 60 samples (as in potential Ebola patient samples) a day.  Without, 20.   Trouble was, both units stopped working so they were sent back to the CDC at the US Embassy here.  It might be three to five weeks to get replacements.  So Chris and I offered to take a look.  We called Thermo Fisher and got a tentative nod, unfortunately tech support was not available.  Working off each other (ok, we got a little loud so they put us in our own room) for about 2 hours (did I mention that Chris is a robotics expert? Handy to have when working on a robotic system like this) we had one of the moments.  We had the little units apart and were taking it apart piece by piece when we said, “what if that little motor was supposed to have that screw running through it?”   Another 20 minutes and when we pressed ‘start’ we got the message indicating it was ready to run the samples (we actually did not have any samples).   We did the same thing on the other unit, same result.  Next step… Tuesday the lab guys (the ones that know how to use this thing) will do a dry run with fake samples to see if we really fixed.   Just goes to show you what two engineers with a screwdriver and a Leatherman can do.

The first week, a technical summary for all my geeks

So, this was an interesting, frustrating week filled with challenges.  I spent the better part of the week trying to resurrect the Moodle environment in preparation for Julie’s arrival Friday (since delayed a week due to illness).  Simultaneously I was training the local tech on Linux operations (basics including a lot of command line work).  By the end of the week most of the systems were tested and I was about to begin upgrades to the servers (Ubuntu upgrades then Moodle) when a few things started failing.  The server UPSs are all fried from dirty power, salt air, and who no what else so I have two desktop ones to try to protect the servers.  Then one of the servers failed.  Nothong, just would not power up.  Took it out and cleaned the internal power supplies (2 of them), removed the memory and cleaned a little crud off contacts, slid the removable power supplies back in and tried it again.  Success.  Too late in the day to start the upgrade, the generator shuts off at 4pm so I hailed it, a monitor, keyboard, router, etc., home and will attempt the upgrade today.  Might get a better 4G connection here.

About 4G, am really liking the Cradlepoint modems.  Have a 4g sim inside one, added a WiFi as wan connection to my little WiFi hotspot and set load balancing on.  Cool and very handy way to get a better throughput.

So there’s the technical update from week one.

Monrovia – August 5th, 2015

Congo Town Apartment, also parking lot overnight

Congo Town Apartment, also parking lot overnight

It may not look like it, but here’s the view of my lodging since I landed last Friday.  It’s a nice apartment with 4 bedrooms, kitchen living room, guards, razor wire, and a generator.  Also, it happens to be where the ACCEL (www.accelglobalhealth.org) parks all their vehicles for the night and then starts them all beginning at 6:30am..

I’ve three wonderful housemates, all doctors here teaching ultrasound techniques.  Very lucky that two of them are vegetarians and all three great cooks.  I earned my keep by figuring out what was wrong with the microwave an putting it back in operation.