2011-08-24

UCK: for Humanity!

I'm a great believer in the Internet. I really think that unfiltered access to the Internet should be a human right everywhere where the infrastructure is in place. Where the infrastructure is lacking, us geeks should strive to fix that.

This doesn't just apply to far away places either - one of my less affluent neighbors has no computer and has a teenage girl... who therefore also has no Internet access at home.

This is nothing less than A CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY.

...

But seriously, what little I know about teenagers suggests to me that the Internet probably plays a pretty important role in their lives. I know it was pretty damn important to me when I was that age...

I was pondering this situation the other day, when I noticed my old Eee-PC, Dinky, sitting all forlorn in a shelf in my office. I can't use Dinky for work anymore since the 16GB internal SSD died, the battery died and the mouse button stopped working... but it still has wifi, a working screen and keyboard, a 4GB SSD and 1GB of RAM.

I decided to revive the machine and see if my wifi would reach my neighbor's place. Maybe the touchpad's tap-to-click feature would suffice instead of the broken button? If so, the girl could just have it and it would probably be more than adequate for Facebook or whatever them kids like these days...

Enter UCK

Not being one to take the easy route, I decided to try building my own custom Ubuntu distro for installing on the machine.

After Googling a bit, I figured out that the "standard" way to customize Ubuntu is to use a tool named UCK: the Ubuntu Customization Kit. So I apt-get-install'ed it, downloaded an Ubuntu 10.04.3 LTS live-CD as a base image and fired up UCK.

It took a couple of tries to get it to actually run, but once I did it was a really nice experience. I was able to pick and choose software packages using the Synaptic GUI, and enter a chroot shell to run apt-get update; apt-get upgrade and customize /etc a bit. It's pretty cool to be able to do the routine new-machine-housekeeping before actually installing it.

Ubuntu has a pretty good collection of software out of the box, but I added some games, some programming tools (you never know, right?) and some extra repositories to get the latest Firefox and PageKite. I added kphotoalbum, pidgin and cheese, vlc and mplayer... most of the things I always end up installing on a new computer. I also removed a couple of programs I knew were buggy: gwibber and empathy.

Then I told the tool to build a live CD image for me, not worrying that the end-result would certainly be too large for an actual CD - USB sticks are both bigger and handier. After chugging away for a while, it reported success: Bjarni's Remixed Ubuntu was now packaged in a 1.2GB file named livecd.iso!

The next step was to copy the new distro to my USB stick (blurrily pictured above) and test it. I used Ubuntu's bundled Startup Disk Creator to populate the USB drive and then popped it into my old laptop.

It just worked!

Pretty awesome. Wifi worked, Firefox 6, the touchpad and tapping - even suspend and resume worked perfectly. All things considered, it felt like a pretty sweet little machine. I played around with the live system a bit and made a few customizations to the desktop.

Finally, I wrote the running system to Dinky's internal hard drive, and that was that. Dinky was useful again!

I'm also keeping the live image on my USB stick, who knows when it'll come in handy.

Happy ending (August 25)

Today I bumped into my young neighbor again. It seemed like as good a time as any, so I offered her the computer.

She accepted and smiled - a lot. :-D

Fun!

Next time I bump into her, I'll ask her how she likes Linux...

Tags: life, tech


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