A year without Windows (almost) – The applications

In our connected world it seems that you can do almost everything you need on a computer with just a browser.  Well, that’s what Google thought when they created their ‘Chrome’ O.S. and hardware vendors followed with a series of ‘Chrome books’ which were basically diskless netbooks.

That works great in a world where no matter where you are there is a connection via WiFi.  In my work in Liberia, well that just doesn’t really work at all.  Whether it is sitting in the cramped economy seat on another 11 hour flight or at the apartment in Monrovia or even our office, there just isn’t always a connection.

Of course Microsoft made their fortune on not only the Windows OS but also on the MS Office suite (which has gone the way of Chrome with connection requirements) and the big three applications that come with MS Office are: Word, Excel, and Power Point (I’ll get to Outlook and Access in another posting).   These application are the defacto norm for business, education, governments, etc.  and so without their equivalent capability Linux is D.O.A.

In 2014 I loaded the Libre Office suite of tools on my little Ubuntu Ace V5.   At first I was a bit confused by the interface, I thought the suite was a clone of MS Office.  No, it was a branch of Open Office and so it inherited the interface.  I am not saying the interface is bad, it was just like the big leap I needed to take from MS Office, which pretty much used the same legacy interface from MS Office 2000, to Office 2013 and now 360.  It was different, not bad.

Example of Calc User Interface

Example of Calc User Interface

Word = Writer

I do a lot of writing, a lot of technical writing and when I used Word I used a lot of the features for constructing a document all the way from outlining to footnotes.  I never used the forms feature but I still managed to create my Masters Thesis in MS Word.   When I was at my work at Saint-Gobain I lead a team and we did a lot of collaborative writing and so markups, change tracking and comments were a big deal.  In 2014, when I started using LibreOffice Writer, there were some challenges including an annoying habit of freezing the PC requiring a hard reboot.  Turns out that was mostly a Ubuntu problem in memory management.  Anyway, the good news is that since 2015 I can say there is nothing I have found lacking in the Writer program.  True, some of the Windows fonts don’t quite match  but that’s true even for the Office version on a Mac, if you are careful it all works out.   Writer uses the open document standard as its norm but just as happily read and write in the XML DOCX format Microsoft uses.  No one will know you are using a free software program!

So, unless you are using some esoteric hidden capability or Word, you can probably do all of your work in Writer and never miss a beat.

Excel = Calc

When I came to work at the Medical School one of the big jobs I had to do was create an accounting system to track expenses by our staff and partners in Liberia.  Another big to-do was creating a payroll system that would allow for complete accountability, be run by people on the ground, and handle the complexities of Liberian Tax Law.  My prior experience with Calc in 2014 left me wondering if it was up to the task of some very quirky and complex V-lookups, and other strange calculations.  By the time I was doing this I was over the user interface issues and so I jumped in with both hands on the keyboard and started.

I can honestly say that I was able to create everything needed within Calc (even some very nice picots for reporting) and also able to save them out in Excel’s native format for exchange with others without an issue.  I still kept everything on my workstation in open document format, mostly because I had been burned by an earlier version of Calc, but never had any issues with exchanging spreadsheets between Excel and Calc.   It just works.  There are a few times still when for some reason the cursor gets lost, that may be due to the dual screens I am using.  Closing the workbook and reopening seems to fix it.

OK – long enough posting – I’ll cover PowerPoint on another posting.



A Year without Windows – the hardware

When you sit in an office in Liberia working, you are faced with a multitude of problems, poor power, little or no air conditioning, bad Internet (think 3G… as long as it is not raining and when it rains, there’s no connection), and hot sticky weather mixed with salt-laden air in the capital city of Monrovia.   Perfect setup for IT equipment?

I learned a lesson from the install at the medical school, equipment corrodes here very quickly.  I also learned not to get too attached to your personal workstation.  Two of my coworkers had very expensive MAC’s stolen out of their bedrooms in a guarded apartment while they were sleeping.   One of the thefts was done by a guard.

The last thing I think about is what kind of image I want to portray.  If I show up with a $2,000 laptop what does that mean to the people I am here to help?   Does a $2,000 laptop really get my email any faster?  Do I do some kind of exotic work with super powerful software requiring hyperspeed processing?  The answer is almost always no.  So what kind of equipment do I carry (and it has to run Ubuntu really well).

I ended up picking a low end Acer Aspire V5 – it cost me $259 new.  It’s small, light, uses little power and has a pretty good processor.  What I did next was to ‘enhance’ it a bit.  I replaced the harddrive with a 500GB SSD and upgraded the ram to 16gb.


I decided to leave the WIndow OS on its own partition in case I needed to run Windows (now running Windows 10) and loaded Ubuntu 14.04 LTS.  I added a small external shell to the unit as a bit of protection plus it provides a little bit more venting when on my lap.  It also helped it survived several dops by the TSA when checking through various airports.

The Acer will run for about 8 – 10 hours on battery which is really plenty.  The power supply is pretty small and lightweight and has the added bonus of interchangable plugs so you can go from US to Euro without a separate adapter.  The WiFi chip appears to pickup and hold signals as good as anything else I have ever used.

My total investment on this unit was: $259 + SSD ($139) + ram ($69) = $467.  So I could buy three more of these and give them away to my co-workers in Liberia for the price of one high end laptop.   Yes, it has a small screen but I find that easier than a big screen to handle in a cramped economy class seat flying across the Atlantic for 10 hours.  As for power to run applications, once i replaced the hard drive and added memory, I am able to run everything including VM instances so I can test new software.

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.