Economy Size Geek - A Desktop for Our Little Penguin
The theme for this month's issue is the desktop, and when I sat down to write this article, I was going to focus on bringing the cloud to your desktop. A number of services exist, and I figured one of them would help me solve a problem that has gotten more troublesome of late—keeping all my workstations in sync. But, in the process of doing my research, a more pressing desktop problem came up. His name is Max.
Max is my son. He is only 15 months old, but he already has become a technology-seeking missile. No remote is safe. Any keyboard or mouse within reach is explored. This probably is a combination of mimicry, since I spend a lot of time with a mouse or remote in my hand, and his excitement over cause and effect. As the IT person in the house, I would prefer it that my users not bang on the keyboards until something bad happens. As a parent and Linux fan, I am happy for him to explore technology in whatever way he chooses—especially because I am in the golden time before I have to worry about what he is searching for on Google.
What started as a “crazy” idea came together pretty quickly. A quick scan of the inventory in my office turned up an old file server that was no longer being used. It is not very powerful, but Max did not need more than a “computer”. I found a CD-ROM drive and installed it. The computer already had a network card (yes, it is so old, there was no onboard NIC) and integrated sound. I pulled out an old 17" monitor and some speakers. That just left a mouse, keyboard and desk.
My wife already had gotten Max a keyboard. It was supposed to be for Christmas, but in the name of turning in my article in time, I opened it a few months early. It is a Crayola keyboard. The keys are big and brightly colored. It has no function keys (which means Max cannot get to the terminals). For a mouse, I picked up a Colby T-Rex mouse, which claims to be specially designed for the way little kids click. Originally, I was a little worried Max constantly would pick up the mouse to stare at the red light, but that did not seem to interest him.
The last piece of the puzzle was the desk. I measured Max and found that he needed a desk at about 22" tall if he was standing when he used the computer. I use a standing desk from GeekDesk. So, it seemed to make sense to have him stand as well—both because it is better for you and also because it means I won't be tripping over a tiny chair in my office. A quick trip to Wal-Mart turned up a computer stand. It was built out of particle wood and plastic tubes—not the best piece of furniture in the world, but I was able to find a combination of plastic tubes that gave it exactly the right height. As a bonus, I have tubes left over, so we can raise the desk as he grows.
Now that his workstation was assembled, it was time to get to the installing portion of the show. After some quick research on Google, I turned up three possibilities for his OS.
The Sugar Learning Platform was the system originally developed for the One Laptop per Child Netbook. I was interested in this one because it is specifically designed for learning. The developers spent a lot of time rethinking how everything works so that it would reinforce that goal. Besides, like most people, I had seen only screenshots. It seemed like this was my best opportunity to use it for an actual purpose. Sugar is now based on Fedora as its base OS. You even can download a version to run off a USB thumbdrive. I downloaded and installed the Strawberry release onto a thumbdrive.
Edubuntu is a branch of Ubuntu. This version is focused on building an “educational” operating system, and it seems to have two different goals. The first is to group software in age-appropriate bundles. The second is to make it easy to administer computer labs running Ubuntu. I was more interested in the bundles than the administration. Originally, Edubuntu provided a full ISO for you to download and install. Recently, it offers another option. You simply can add on Edubuntu bundles to an existing Ubuntu install, which meant I could just use one of the Ubuntu CDs I already had lying around.
Qimo (as in esQIMO) is a kid-specific distribution, also based on Ubuntu. It seemed to be more focused on the desktop portion than Edubuntu. For example, during the install process, you create a user account. That user is given full administration rights (aka access to sudo). Another user, qimo, also is created. qimo does not have a password and does not have sudo—meaning that when you boot up the machine, the user account the child is using can run applications but cannot make any modifications to the system. Qimo uses the Xfce desktop environment, so it should be less resource-hungry (which is important as I am putting it on old equipment). Qimo also has a very cute kid-style Eskimo theme.