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Jim's Rambling and Ambling Thoughts

Obtaining and Installing Linux Distros
This is the final installation of a 3 part series of emails I wrote over a year ago that I am posting here in hopes that some people will find them useful.  You can read  part 1 and part 2 by clicking on the respective links or (probably) by just scrolling down the page.  These emails have been reworked for public viewing and updated some, but are still in the form of the original emails.

As I noted in my last post, since writing these emails I have become quite disgusted with things in the Ubuntu world.  I spelled out some of the reasons in that post.  Despite that, this email will tend to focus on Ubuntu because that is the way the email was originally written and replacing the text with another example would probably take me some hours of work.  (Signifcant effort went into the original emails.)  A lot of what is said can probably be applied to other distros.  Most of what doesn't directly apply to other distros will probably still give you a general idea of what to expect.

There are several places in this post where I've added some updated information in square brackets.  I've used a different color for those additions to emphasize that those are not part of the original email.

The recipient of these emails had broadband.  (She had DSL, but when I wrote the emails I thought she was still using a satellite connection.)  For those, like me, who are on dial-up, BitTorrent is not an option.  And except for certain compact distros, a regular download would take over 30 hours on dial-up, so you probably don't want to do that either.

I hope these posts have been informative and maybe even useful to you.  Feel free to ask questions or post comments (logged on Copper subscribers only).  Once again, grab your favorite beverage, sit back, and enjoy!


As we've already briefly discussed, you can download most distros w/o cost (free, as in gratis) or you can buy from one of several websites that burn them for you.  If you wish to purchase a CD/DVD, I would recommend you do so from on-disk.com.  One of the reasons for recommending them is that a portion of the purchase price goes to support the distribution you are getting.  Whoever you buy from, make sure they are reputable.  (I have no qualms about on-disk.)  The last thing you want is to get a disk where somebody has maliciously tampered with the contents.  Another option for getting Ubuntu (but no other distro that I know of) is they will send you a CD for free.  (This is the same CD you can download or buy from on-disk.com.  It is not some gimmick.  Nor does it have reduced functionality.)  (No longer available.)  To avoid breaking up the flow of text, I'll include this and all links at the end of this email.  To get the disk, you will have to sign up with Launchpad.  And they indicate it will take about 10 weeks for delivery.

Alternatively, you can download most distros.  Except for specialty distros which aim to be small (such as Damn Small Linux), typically the download will be one or more full CDs (aprox 700 MB each) or DVDs (much larger).  Some distros allow you to download something much smaller and then do a "network install" where most of the packages are downloaded directly from the Internet.  I suggest you avoid this until you get some experience with Linux.  In addition to a "normal" download, most distros can be downloaded via BitTorrent.  (BitTorrent has now acquired a bit of a reputation of being used for illicit downloads, but what I am talking about is strictly legit.)  BitTorrent is actually the preferred method of downloading distros because it largely removes the load from the servers.  (These people are kind enough to provide all of this software freely.  IMHO, the least we can do is to try to reduce their expenses.)   I have no experience with BitTorrent because I am on dial-up.

Unless you have a limitation on the number of bytes you can download/upload each month, I would think you could get BitTorrent to work for you.  You would probably have to set up port forwarding for your router.  (I think there are some BitTorrent clients that will automatically do this for you through uPNP.  But I hope you are aware that uPNP is rather dangerous from a security perspective.  I have it disabled on my wireless router.)   You indicated that your satellite connection is not terribly reliable.  I would think BitTorrent would be particularly good at that since it works by downloading  the  file in "chunks," not necessarily in order, and assembling them on your computer.  To make sure BitTorrent could gracefully handle the disruptions, I posed the question on Linux Questions.  The response was that BitTorrent will work with an unreliable connection just fine.

After you download one or more CDs/DVDs, whether by a direct download or via BitTorrent, you should verify the ISO image(s).  (The files are the actual images of the eventual CDs/DVDs and generally have the extension .iso -- a reference to the ISO 9660 standard that is used for CDs and DVDs.  Hence they are referred to as ISO images.)  In Ubuntu this is done by checking the image's MD5 checksum[Note:  This was correct when I wrote it in 2009.  Ubuntu may now be using one of the more secure methods I am about to mention.]  (Other distro's may instead use SHA1, SHA256, a digital signature or other means for verification.)  I have provided a link below for verifying Ubuntu's MD5.  But that page also has information that may be useful for other distros as well.

After you have verified the ISO image, you need to burn it to a CD as an image.  VERY IMPORTANT:  this is NOT the same as writing it to the CD as a file.  The CD burning software included with winXP is not capable of doing this.  You may already have some 3rd party software that is capable of doing this that you would like to use.  If so, just make sure you burn it as an image.  If you do not already have a preferred method of doing this, I have included a link below about doing it using free software that runs on MS Windows.  The link is to the Ubuntu site, but the information will work for any distro.  [NOTE: while Windows XP did not come with software to burn an ISO image, I believe I have read that Windows Vista and later does.  Perhaps somebody who uses such systems would leave a comment ...]

Well, there you have it.  Now all you need to do is put the CD in the tray and boot the computer.   You may need to fiddle with the BIOS settings to get the computer to boot from the CD.  Once booted, Ubuntu, and at least some other distros will give you an option to check the MD5 sums of the files on the disk.  I suggest you do this before proceeding, to verify that the CD burned correctly.  You can then boot to the live CD.  Look around as much as you want.  Check out the graphics display, wifi if the computer has it, the Ethernet connection and any other hardware and make sure it is all working properly.  If/when you are ready to install, double click the appropriate icon on the desktop.  The installation for Ubuntu is pretty straight forward.  It will ask you a few questions that I think you can figure out.  Using the "normal" installation disk, Ubuntu doesn't give you any choices about which software is installed.  (I have never used the "alternate disk.")  On a reasonably recent computer, the installation will probably take about 15 to 20 minutes.  Very old hardware may take longer.  As mentioned earlier, I believe you can play games, or whatever, during this time.  Or just wait.  (I will outline below a little more detail of what that installation involved based on a recent installation I did of Ubuntu 8.04.)

Some distros may ask for additional information on "first boot" (following the installation) if that information was not requested at the installation step.  Here you provide information like a username/password, your time zone, etc.  Pretty straight forward.

Now that I know you have ordered a book to guide you, I realize some of this will probably be duplicative.  But I will go ahead and sketch out a few comments about security and (post-install) software installation anyway.

In the Unix world, the all-powerful account, which can do anything, is called "root."  You must use this account to do most administrative tasks on the computer.  But the Unix world (appropriately) has a strong tradition of "separation of privilege."  This means that most of your everyday work is (should be) done as a regular user, w/o root privilege.  (My understanding is that for home users, it is common in the Microsoft world for people to routinely run with admin privilege.  This is one of the contributing factors to Microsoft Windows being such a mess from a security standpoint.)  Ubuntu (and perhaps some other distros), by default, don't give the root account a password (not to be confused with an empty or blank password), so it is not possible to log into the root account or to switch to it using the "su" utility.  Rather, in Ubuntu all administrative tasks are done with "sudo" or an equivalent command for GUI applications.  When users that have been granted the right to "administer the system" need to do privileged work, they are prompted for *they're own* password, and then given root privilege for the command they need to use.

In the Microsoft world, for installing software people are used to downloading  "setup .exe's" (or buying them on a CD), double clicking, and clicking "next" a bunch of times.   (It always seemed to me it was appropriate to hold my hand over my eyes when I double clicked the setup icon since I never could be sure what might happen.  It takes a lot of trust to click!)  In Linux, software is generally installed (and updated) with a "package manger."  While the details vary some from distro to distro, most distros will have both command line and GUI package managers.  Using these, most software you might be interested in can be downloaded from the distro's respositories.  While you are still learning Linux, I suggest you restrict yourself to obtaining software this way.  (Most repositories have thousands of packages available.  You can probably find what you want.)  This way you can be sure the software will work on your system and you can be highly confident it is not malicious.  Software obtained this way will (can) be updated with the rest of your system either through automatic updates or manual updates following (possibly automatic) notices.  After you've gotten familiar with Linux, there may be times when you wish to download software from a website, and possibly the software will need to be compiled.  Of course, if/when you do so you need to be very careful that you are getting something legitimate rather than a trojan.  [NOTE: the wisdom of this advice has been clearly demonstrated recently.  As I started to work with the Linux newbiew I wrote this email to, one of the hardest things was changing her thought pattern so that she tried her distro's repository *before* looking to download something from a random site on the Internet.  The thought pattern she had learned in the Microsoft world was indeed hard to break!]

Well, this three part series started as a single email.  When I started, I had no idea it was going to be this long!  I've since learned you have ordered a book, so perhaps some of this is reduntant.  But I hope it has been useful.  Or perhaps contains some info that will be useful as you progress.  Below I've sketched what happens on a default Ubuntu 8.04 install followed by the links I mentioned in the above text.

Good luck!  I'll be happy to (try to) answer any questions as they arise.  There are also various on-line forums where you can ask questions.  Be aware that you are expected to have tried to find the answer on your own before you ask on a forum.  (I.e., "Google" for the answer first. :-)  While you can find reports on the Internet of forums being unfriendly, I think that has largely changed (to the extent it was ever true).  Certainly, I know that both Linux Questions and Ubuntu Forums don't tolerate rude behavior.  And I have read reports of some other forums being friendly although I don't have experience with them.


Here is my experience with installing Ubunut 8.04 a couple nights ago:

The disk boots and shows you a bunch of languages to choose from, with English highlighted.  If you do nothing for 30 seconds, it will automatically select English and start booting to a live CD.  If you hit "enter" (recomended) it will select English and present you with the following choices (text displayed on computer screen is in bold; my comments are in parentheses; bullets added for presentation):

  • Try Ubuntu without any changes to your computer
    (This option will boot to a live CD.  In addition to trying out everything, you can start an installation from here.  While installing, you can still run applications/games if you wish.)

  • Install Ubuntu
    (This will *partially* launch the live CD desktop and automatically launch the installer.  You aren't given any desktop menus so you can't do anything but install.)

  • Check CD for Defects
    (This checks the MD5 sums for the files on the CD.  I highly recommend doing this first thing.  After finishing, it presents the results and prompts you to press "enter" to reboot the machine.)

  • Test Memory
    (This runs a memory test until you manually stop it.)

  • Boot from first hard disk
    (If you wanted to do this, why did you boot the CD in the first place? ;-)

When you launch the installer, it will ask you for things like time zone, a username/password pair, etc.  While you can use the installer to partition the disk as you like, while you are just starting out you probably want to tell the installer to use the whole disk and let it make the decisions about partitioning.  [NOTE:  I already knew the recipient of this email was not planning on dual booting.  Most distros these days will provide options for dual booting without requiring you to make partitioning decisions.]  Be aware that in the Linux world it is common to have the hardware clock set to UTC rather than local time.  (This is good for some of us because then there is no need to worry about daylight saving time changes.  Linux can be set to use local time for the hardware clock, but I suggest you not do that unless the machine also runs Microsoft Windows. I.e. a dual/multi boot machine.  Even when the hardware clock runs UTC, Linux will display the time in local time.)  So unless the installer succeeds in getting the correct time from the Internet, your clock may be wrong after the installation.  You can correct this when you boot into your new system.  My Ubuntu 8.04 installation took about 20 minutes.  At the next reboot you should get a login screen for your new installation of Linux!



Get a Ubuntu CD mailed to you free of charge:
  (Edit 7/1/2011:  This is no longer available
Click here for more information.)

Resource for links for both Bit Torrent and regular downloads (most distros):

How to verify MD5 checksums for Ubuntu; this page also contains some general info that will be applicable to other distros:

How to burn ISO images to CD on a Microsoft system:


UPDATE 6/29/2010

The United States Supreme Court has issued its long awaited opinion in Bilski v. Kappos.  A detailed blog about this decision can be found at Groklaw:


In my first blog post I talked about the problems software patents pose and mentioned that this case could have important consequences on software patents in this country.  Because of the possible ramifications, a lot of people have been following this case.  If I recall correctly, an abnormally large number of amicus briefs were filed.  Certainly this decision did not deliver everything many of us who care about free(dom) software wanted.  But as PJ, author of the Groklaw blog, noted, this does seem to represent some steps forward.

The patent that was actually before the court was invalidated.  In connection with that, the court reaffirmed that abstract ideas are not patentable.  The court was mindful that we are moving from the industrial age into what is commonly called the information age.  The court showed concern that what it pronounced in this case would not be found to be too restrictive as this transition becomes more fleshed out.  But it also seemed to understand that things have gone too far and that restrictions need to be imposed on what is patentable.  While the court declined to specifically rule on "software patents" as such, it does seem to me that as a result of this ruling it will not be as easy to get a software patent as it has been in the last 10 years or so.

My takeaway from this ruling at this early point is that software patents will be judged more harshly than they have been in the recent past but they will not automatically be invalidated.  Apparently much more needs to be fleshed out in future court cases.  So let me conclude this brief update with Eben Moglen's reaction to this ruling.  Eben Moglen is a lawyer who helped found the Software Freedom Law Center.  I have great respect for him.

As reported by the American Chronicle:
Attributable to Eben Moglen: "The landscape of patent law has been a cluttered, dangerous mess for almost two decades," said Eben Moglen, Chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center. "The confusion and uncertainty behind today's ruling guarantees that the issues involved in Bilski v. Kappos will have to return to the Supreme Court after much money has been wasted and much innovation obstructed."
NOTE:  The above summary of Bilski v. Kappos reflects my understanding based on reading the cited Groklaw article.  I have no expertise in legal matters.  Please consult the Groklaw article or other articles on the 'net for more informed opinions about this ruling.


UPDATE 6/30/2010

Here is another, and I believe somewhat more pessimistic, outlook on the Supreme Court's Bilski decision.  To my knowledge, this author has no legal background (Pamela Jones, who wrote the Groklaw article referenced above, is trained as a paralegal) but this article does contain some solid background information you may find useful.  And it is considerably shorter, and I think easier to read, than the Groklaw article.  (The Groklaw article strained my brain! ;-)


UPDATE 7/2/2010 — Burning an ISO file to CD/DVD in Windows 7

Apparently the ability to burn an ISO file to CD/DVD in Microsoft Windows w/o 3rd party software didn't happen until Windows 7.  For Windows Vista and before you can use the instructions linked above.  But if you have Windows 7, here are the instructions for using the software that comes with it to burn ISO images:

Monday, June 28, 2010 1:43 PM by imweezie
Thanks for sharing all of this with us Jim, a lot of work went into it and I appreciate it! Any comment from you concerning "linux mint" that Gemini mentioned?
Linux Mint
Monday, June 28, 2010 11:32 PM by jimmymac
"Any comment from you concerning 'inux mint' that Gemini mentioned?"

I have never used Linux Mint. I have read favorable things about it, particularly as a newbie distro.

It's one of a number of distros that cause some conflict for me because of the proprietary codecs that come bundled with it. This probably relates to what I said in the first installment that I don't make a good Linux advocate. I would say the vast majority of people have no problems with the bundling of codecs. W/o the codecs you will be unable to play a lot of media, including MP3. [1] My inclination is to avoid the proprietary codecs, particularly the ones that have "Microsoft" or "Windows" in their names. Because of its pervasiveness, I have reluctantly relented in the case of MP3 and installed it on a couple of my systems. But where possible, my strong preference is to avoid even MP3 in favor of unencumbered formats such as Ogg-Vorbis.

[1] Ubuntu is one of a number of distros that do not bundle these codecs. This may be partly as statement for freedom, but it could also be to avoid legal trouble since it is illegal to distribute the codecs in the United States w/o a license. (It is also illegal to use them w/o a license, but the chances of being sued for doing so is virtually zero. I am not a lawyer; do not take this a legal advice.) Yet you can install these codecs yourself after installation. In the case of Ubuntu (maybe other distros also) third parties have set up ways to make getting and installing the codecs drop-dead easy.

On a related note, I am still waiting with anticipation for the Supreme Court's decision in Re: Bilski. (A relevant link is in my first blog entry.) When the Court heard oral arguments last November I was led to believe a decision would be announced before the end of June. So far, no word ...
Bilsi Decision is In
Tuesday, June 29, 2010 3:07 AM by jimmymac
I was aware when I mentioned Bilski in my previous comment I had not yet checked the Internet today for developements. (But I mean, what are the odds? Right?) Sure enough, I just saw an article on Groklaw about it. My takeaway after glancing at it for less than 60 seconds is that while business method patents, and therefore probably software patents, have not been abolished, they probably have been somewhat curtailed. (The Bilski patent itself is toast, but most of us were looking for the broader implications.) If so, that is good news but not all that free software supporters had hoped for. I will post a clickable link above when I get some time, but until then here is one you can copy & paste:

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