Category: 8. Hardware Logistics

Free Computers!

I have mentioned Free software through out the Digital Aladore project.  In fact, the final processing routine was completed entirely with Free software.  But, I haven’t mentioned yet that the whole project was completed on a laptop I found discarded in my neighbourhood laundry room!

Digital Aladore is a zero budget project: Public domain content, Free software, Recycled hardware!

Many people have old computers laying around doing nothing because the old bloated operating system gets too sluggish, forcing you to buy the newest hardware.  I live on a university campus and I regularly see old computers sitting at the dumpsters–that’s a No-No! E-waste is a huge issue that requires the good old Reduce, Reuse, Recycle strategy.

I thought I should do a few posts explaining my workflow to refurbish an old computer into an awesome free software machine (for creating ebooks of course)!  Its way easier than you imagine–and if the old hardware is free there is nothing to lose!

Here’s the basic outline:

1) Find an old computer

2) Clean it up

3) Erase the harddrive

4) Install an OS

5) Install some applications

Details to follow!

Creating your Free Machine!

One of the sub-texts of Digital Aladore is demystifying processes that seem so complicated and technical, like doing OCR or creating an ebook.  I am not super techie and have no training or knowledge of all the details of computer systems.  But I am NOT afraid to open up a computer case!  Its really not a big deal.  So I offer these posts in the same spirit as the rest of Digital Aladore: if you followed along to crack open an EPUB and look inside–do it with some old computers as well!

This post outlines the first steps to creating a great computer for all your ebook processing needs (and anything else you might want to do…) from junk.

First, you need to find a good junk computer… this sounds tougher than it is!  You don’t need to be picky about the hardware, an old computer that seems laggy and slow running Windows can be revived.  There is a lot available because people are buying new computers constantly.  Places to look:

  • Around your house
  • Around your friends houses
  • At dumpsters around universities or tech offices
  • At Recycling/waste collection centers ( for example, a lot of universities, schools, and organizations have a place where they gather e-waste that you may be able to dig through)

What to look for:

  • No obvious physical damage to vital bits
  • Not totally clogged with dust and grime (this usually means it was a poorly maintained server, the power supply and fan will probably be burnt out)
  • All the parts are there (at minimum you need a power supply, some USB slots, some RAM memory, maybe a CD drive)
  • More than one of the same machine (get several, then swap parts to create one working machine.  Schools and offices will often get rid of a huge batch at once.)
  • Stickers indicating the original OS and processor (this will give you an idea of what kind of hardware to expect inside)

If you have never played around with computer internals before, check out a couple YouTube videos to get oriented (there is a billion, here’s a funny one from 2007).  You could also drop into a community e-recycling organization to get some hands on learning sessions, often called “free geek” (for example, Free Geek Vancouver has a weekly drop-in night).  These organizations are also a great place to get parts or recycle the stuff you break!  Remember that there are no real consequences if you are working with computers people were already throwing out.  Just have fun!

If you found a likely candidate, quickly test the system.  Plug the computer in and hit the power button to see if it starts up (you don’t need any peripherals attached at this point):

  • If nothing happens, check the power cord, switch, and fuse on the power supply.  If nothing still happens, the power supply is probably dead.  Go find another computer (or power supply)!
  • If the fans come on, but there is no beep, this means the BIOS is not booting and there might be something wrong with the motherboard.  You might be able to fix it with some trouble shooting.  Some things to try: remove the mother board’s button battery for 30 minutes and reset the CMOS using the reset pins; remove the RAM memory and any installed cards, then add them one by one to see if an item is causing a hardware conflict.
  • If the fans come on, but there is a bunch of beeps, this means there is some hardware issue that they system is detecting.  These beeps are actually coded messages, so you can search around to find out what they indicate.  It should be easy to isolate the problem and get it running!  Remove or swap out the offending components.
  • If the fans come on, and you get a nice single beep–you are good to go!  Hold the power button for several seconds to shut the system down.

In your old computer, all the heat sinks and fans are probably full of dust.  This makes them inefficient at cooling the system.  So once you find a system you want to work on, unplug and open the case.  Gently blow out or vacuum all the dust.  Get it nice and clean now!

While the case is open, I usually remove any unnecessary hardware as well, such as old floppy or zip drives.  Just unplug the all the cords, no big deal.  I also remove the batteries from old laptops, since they are usually dead.  Its a waste of electricity to keep charging a battery that doesn’t hold a charge, and removing it also significantly cuts down on heat and weight.  Be sure to properly recycle the battery.

Once you get a computer that will power on and beep, you are ready for the next step.  At this point you will need a keyboard, monitor, ethernet cable, and mouse.  Details in the next post…

Free Machine: hard drive nuke!

At this point I should point out that these posts are not very detailed or authoritative (this is not the main mission of Digital Aladore)–use my suggestions at your own risk!  Luckily, if you are following along, you have junk hardware, so there is very little risk.  If you need more information about any point, make a very specific search–there is an incredible amount of information available, often targeted to specific computer models.  It is also worth searching YouTube as there is an endless number of video tutorials that may help you along the way.  If you have encountered a problem, its almost guaranteed that a bunch of other people have too!

Now that you cleaned out all the dust from your junk computer, its time to clean up the data.

When you delete files inside your OS, the data does not actually go away–it basically just removes the references to the location.  This means it is fairly easy to recover the contents of a drive even if everything was deleted.  So when you are getting rid of a computer, it is a good idea to securely erase the hard drive.  For truly sensitive data, the most secure method of erasure is to physically destroy the drive.  Of course, for the average person, this is a waste of money and environmentally unfriendly.  Instead, there are a few applications that systematically over-write the entire storage space of the hard drive with random numbers, thus achieving more complete and secure erasure of your data, without destroying the drive.

So if you want to re-use a hard drive (or give away your own computer), I would suggest first completing a full erasure since too many people forget to do it.  If some one is nice enough to give you a free machine, its the polite and ethical thing to do!  Furthermore, it will give you a fresh clean drive to work with, the equivalent of getting rid of the physical dust and grime.  The best way to do this is via a bootable application running from a CD or USB stick.  The most commonly used is “Darik’s Boot and Nuke”, know as DBAN.

DBAN, http://www.dban.org

[or on Source Forge http://sourceforge.net/projects/dban]

DBAN was an open source project, but was acquired by a commercial developer in 2012.  It is still free and licensed GPLv2, but the website is half advertizement for a more advanced commercial application.  Just ignore the ad and download DBAN.

You will get an ISO file which is a optical disk image.  This is the most common way to distribute the data to create bootable CDs, DVDs, or USB sticks.  ISOs cannot just be copied to a CD or USB, but need to be properly written to the storage.

Creating a bootable CD is simple in Windows 7 or higher.  Simply insert a blank disc into your burner, then right click on the ISO file and choose Open With > Windows Disc Image Burner.  Click Burn!  (For other OS there are many simple applications that can burn disc images, you probably have one already installed)

windows disc image burner

Once the disc is burnt, LABEL it with some dire warnings–Warning: DBAN NUKE!  You don’t want to accidentally run this one…

You can also create a bootable USB stick, using a tool such as UNetbootin or Universal USB Installer.  This is helpful if your junk computer does not have a working CD drive.  However, the one disadvantage is that using the autonuke feature of DBAN will result in also nuking the USB drive unless you remember to remove it before the nuking process begins.

Using DBAN is fairly simple: start up your junk computer, open the CD drive, insert DBAN, then restart.  There is a very simplistic text based interface with a few options.  Please read other tutorials to find out all the details (for example try ultimate boot cd) and remember this is powerful–everything will be GONE.  The easiest/best option is to just type “autonuke” and let DBAN go to work.  Everything will be nuked.  It will take a long time, maybe three hours… When it is done, DBAN will display a completion message.  Simply remove the CD and shut down the computer.  You now have an empty hard drive!

One final note:

If you don’t have large storage needs you can just avoid the hard drive altogether by using USB sticks for both OS and storage.  This is a more reliable option since hard drives have a relatively short life span (you should only expect a hard drive to last around five years max).  In general, solid state memory is more reliable and also likely newer than the traditional hard drive found in your old machine.

Free Machine: OS

Now that you have a clean hard drive, its time to add an operating system!

Most home computers run Windows or Mac OS which are developed, owned, and controlled by single corporations.  Linux is different–an Open operating system that is developed by thousands of contributors world wide (check out the Linux Foundation).  The kernel (the layer of software that directly communicates with hardware, the core of an OS) was written by Finnish computer scientist Linus Torvalds and released in 1991.  The kernel is now distributed under a GPLv2 license.  Although Linux is not common on home computers, it is EVERYWHERE!  Linux powers the majority of servers that host the internet, main frame computers, and mobile devices.  For example, Android which now runs on more than a billion devices, is built on Linux.

For home computers there are hundreds of Linux “flavors” available, called distributions or distros (for example see the Wikipedia list or DistroWatch).  Each distro is a group of applications, utilities, and a desktop environment bundled with a Linux kernel.  There is a huge variety in the look, functionality, performance, and guiding philosophy as each distro is customized to particular users and needs.

So lets get a open OS running on your recycled ebook creation machine!

[remember, follow these posts at your own risk!]

1. So the first step is to choose a distribution.  This can be complicated and overwhelming!

But lets make it simple: for my junk computers I like to use Ubuntu.  It is one of the most popular, actively developed, and well supported distributions today.  Some Linux purists like to dismiss Ubuntu as too main stream or something, but for the purposes of reviving junk computers I think it is the best.  It is simple to install, has very wide hardware compatibility, and is very easy to use.  People with no previous Linux experience will have no trouble figuring it out.

Once you get your feet wet, maybe you will want to move on to another distribution, but for shear simplicity and success working with old computers, just go with Ubuntu or one of its derivatives.

2. The second step is to create a bootable DVD or USB stick:

Go to the Ubuntu (or other distro) site and download the desktop ISO.  If your hardware is has low specs, you may want to try a distro with a lighter desktop environment, such as Xubuntu or Lubuntu.  The ISO will need to be burnt to a DVD or used to create a live USB stick.  I prefer to use the USB stick, since it doesn’t waste plastic or add cost!

I mentioned how to burn a ISO to CD/DVD in the last post–its simple.

It is also fairly simple to create a bootable USB stick.  Download one of the live USB creation tools (here is a big list on Wikipedia), such as UNetbootin, http://unetbootin.github.io/

Start the application, select the downloaded ISO and the correct USB drive, and click OK:

unetbootin

Everything on the USB stick will be erased.  The burn may take a few minutes and the ISO will be added with special files to make it bootable.

Eject the new USB stick, and plug it into your junk computer.  You should also set up the computer at this time, plugging in a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and ethernet cable (you can use wireless, but its usually easier to use ethernet).

Now, (if you haven’t already) we need to make sure the junk computer will boot from USB.  This means opening BIOS options as the computer powers on.  Each device is slightly different, but as the computer starts to boot you should see a screen with the manufacture’s logo and a message that tells you which key to press–sometimes its so fast you can’t read it!  The key is usually F1, F2, DEL, ESC, or F10 (here are some tips from Pendrivelinux).  It will open a configuration GUI that looks something like this:

Make sure that USB is listed as the first boot device.

But, what if your old computer BIOS doesn’t support booting from USB?  Well, you can use a DVD.  But, what if the machine only has a CD drive (or you don’t want to burn a DVD)?  Here is one work around solution to boot from USB sticks on machines that don’t normally support it: use Plop Boot Manager, http://www.plop.at/en/bootmanager

Plop is a handy and powerful tool that can do many things, but for this purpose, burn the live CD version.  The computer will boot from the CD, loading Plop.  Plop will then offer you the choice to boot from USB!

3. The third step is to actually install the OS.

The live DVD or USB stick will load the installation program.  Ubuntu makes it very easy, just read the information on screen and follow the instructions (here is their guide).

Okay you’re done!  You have a new (old junk) computer!

One final note, to restore your USB stick to its natural state, you will need to reformat it.  Most OS have built in tools to do this, but better results are possible with the official SD Formatter, https://www.sdcard.org/downloads/formatter_4

This will erase the weirdness UNetbootin added to make the stick bootable, and restore the USB stick to its default state.

Good luck and enjoy!

 

Free eBook Creation Machine

So you have your new junk computer ready, now you need some ebook creation software!

This post provides a list of the tools used in the final EPUB creation workflow at Digital Aladore.  If you are running one of the major Linux Distributions (such as Ubuntu) the easiest way to find/install most of these applications is via the Software Center.  However, it is worth checking the version number, since the ones available are often a few up-dates behind.

DownThemAll! this is the download manager/batcher that helps you harvest images of public domain books to OCR.  It is an extension for Firefox, so it is easiest to get by visiting the Add-ons menu in the browser or http://www.downthemall.net

ScanTailor, this handy tool created by the DYI book scanner community will help batch preprocess the image files for your book.  Get it in the Software Center or from http://scantailor.org

Tesseract-OCR, you need to install this OCR engine for, well OCR…  It can be used via command line or with a seporately installed GUI.  Mysteriously, it is listed as “Command line OCR tool” in the Ubuntu Software Center.  Or get it from https://code.google.com/p/tesseract-ocr

YAGF, very simple OCR GUI with Tesseract to export HTML text.  It can be found in Software Centers, but is usually out-of-date compared to the version on the website, http://sourceforge.net/projects/yagf-ocr

BlueFish, handy HTML text editor with powerful batch tools, get it from Software Center or http://bluefish.openoffice.nl/download.html

GIMP, image editor for fixing up the illustrations, available at most Software Centers or http://www.gimp.org

Sigil, full featured EPUB editing tool, get the latest version here https://github.com/user-none/Sigil/releases

Calibre, very handy ebook management and editing tool, http://calibre-ebook.com

That’s the essential list!  More than everything you need to create an ebook, but if you need more, check out the Digital Aladore tools bibliography.