Monday, February 18, 2008

Linux on a stick

Preamble

WARNING: Long-winded post ahead.

Florida's weather during the winter is ideal; moderate temperatures, low humidity, light breezes, and plenty of sun. This past weekend was no exception. It was, in point of fact, glorious. Most normal human beings are drawn to the outside like moths to a flame when it gets as good as this, and will find any reason to spend as much time outside as possible.

I, however, being the ancient geek that I am didn't spend all my time outside. Oh, I washed cars and raked up leaves and mowed (yes, my green growing yard in February) and walked Max I don't know how many times. But I also ran errands, worked some inside chores, and wrote some code for a project between chores. When I got tired of all that I, for shear entertainment, installed Mint 4 Linux on a Sandisk 4GB Cruzer Micro.

Rationale

The capacity of USB thumb drives are rising dramatically while their price has been dropping just as dramatically. I purchased, for no more good reason than I wanted one, an 8GB Cruzer Micro from Office Depot the end of January. The cost at that time was a mere $60. Then, over this past wonderful weekend I read ads for 2GB and 4GB Cruzer Micros from a number of local merchants. The 4GB model was selling for around $20. I was hooked. So between some of those errands I snuck into an Office Depot and purchased a 4GB model (the 2GBers were down to $12, but I wanted more capacity and that $20 bill was burning a hole in my pocket). With stick clutched firmly in hand, I finished my other errands and then headed back home.

Preparation

I've always wanted Linux on a thumb drive ever since I heard about it. These days you can get it pre-installed from Mandriva on a 4GB thumb drive, or you can follow a number of how-tos devoted to creating your own. I followed the reasonably easy directions for installing Mint on a USB stick on Pendrivelinux. They have instructions and tools for a number of distributions besides Mint, and they even have their own Debian-based image that you can dd to a thumb drive under Linux.

The Pendrivelinux tool and directions for Mint, however, are for creating a Mint thumb drive under Windows. That's right, Windows. I had toyed with the idea of creating a bootable Ubuntu thumb drive using directions from the same site, but after comparing the Ubuntu directions with the Mint directions, I opted for Mint. The Ubuntu directions were complicated and long. And being tired at the end of the weekend I wasn't in any mood to follow complicated (and possible incorrect) directions. Yes, I was lazy.

The Pendrivelinux directions tell you to download the Mint ISO and save it somewhere on your hard drive. Well, I had more than enough space to actually put it on the 4GB stick, and I already had the ISO, having downloaded it when it was first released and burned it to CD. So I plugged the Cruzer Micro into my Linux system and prepared to transform it.

It should be noted at this point that 4GB and 8GB Cruzer Micros come infested with U3 'smart' software from U3.com. This software is meant to empower the user (under Windows) to save data and install other software onto the stick. You can read all about the wonders of U3 Launchpad on their site. But I look on Launchpad with the same disdain and loathing I hold for any junk software that automatically starts and installs itself without my permission on my system. Or at least that's what it appears to do. I find its executables on my hard drive and entries for it in the Windows registry, all because I plugged in an infested thumb drive.

Yes, I know you can stop it automatically running by pressing the left shift key. After you've been rudely surprised by it the first time. Come on folks. Autorun should be an opt-in feature, not an opt-out feature. In any event you can remove it permanently from the drive with a utility provided by Sandisk itself. And that's what I did. Unfortunately the utility leaves the partition table in a mess. If you don't believe me, run the removal utility and then look at the drive under Linux's fdisk. I used Linux tools to clean it up. I suppose the next time I get a U3-infested thumb drive that I'll let Linux wipe the infestation off the drive first.

Installation

Normally the directions given by Pendrivelinux are sufficient for anyone to install it correctly with just one try. I, however, super-genius that I am, complicated matters far more than needed, and in the process it took me three attempts before success smiled upon me. And here's how.
  1. I've installed Wine under Ubuntu. I figured that Wine should be able to run the executable and scripts necessary to prepare and build the thumb drive. I figured wrong. I've never had particularly good luck using Wine to do Real Work, and I thought it would be a bit embarrassing to have to use Windows to build a Linux thumb drive. But I was eventually embarrassed.
  2. I then went back to my Windows notebook and re-ran the Pendrivelinux tools on real Windows. They ran, but at step 6 of the instructions, where it says to copy all files to the pen drive, it really means all files and folders. I'm quite literal about things, sometimes too literal.
  3. The third time was fast, and after moving all files and folders to the root of the thumb drive and running makeboot.bat in step 7, I had a bootable thumb drive.
Operation

It's amazing how fast Mint can run off the thumb drive. Its performance is almost indistinguishable from a hard drive. No delays are encountered like they are when running from a CD or DVD. And the installation icon is still on the desktop, allowing you to install it from the thumb drive if you so desire. While in Mint I enabled wireless, ran the "Bourne Ultimatum" DVD from the now-empty DVD drive, and in general did everything that Mint allows you to do without having to install any other software into Mint. In spite of the self-inflicted problems I now have a much better appreciation of Mint.

Distributions installed on USB thumb drives are a great and cheap way to sample what's out there. The thumb drive gives you an opportunity to really hack with the software without having to install it to a HDD. And if you're not overly smart like I am, the directions are actually easy to follow.

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