Thursday, February 07, 2013

Is the Astrology World ready for Linux?

©2013 J. Lee Lehman


Back when I was relatively new in the computer consulting world, many of my installations were in Unix. Unix is a stately old operating system with a solid university backing to its lineage that was designed for a multi-user environment. In fact, back then, people didn't have pc's on their desks: they had dumb terminals. A Unix design allowed even a relatively small business to have the luxury of a true multi-user environment, where different employees shared data between inventory, order processing, billing, payroll, and accounts receivable. Most desks had an IBM Selectric typewriter on one side, and a terminal on the main desk.

Unix was fun for me, and I loved coding database designs. But that was then. After I had been doing that for maybe ten years, the Windows operating system arrived, and the typewriters were on the way out. Networking became the name of the game, and I lost interest, because I didn't like the new databases for pc's. And a good thing, because my astrology business had grown to the point where I had to choose one.

But all these years later, I still reserve a soft spot in my heart for the simplicity of Unix that Windows obscured. All those jokes about Microsoft: like the one about if the Windows operating system ran our cars, they would stop randomly in the middle of the road - and nobody would complain. But still, I stuck with Microsoft for the simple reason that all the astrology programs of any complexity were native to Windows. Sigh.

Then along came Linux. I hadn't really kept up enough to follow its trajectory at first. Call it inertia: I had all these other things to think about, like which Triplicity table to use, and which way to calculate the Ruler of the Nativity. But every release of Windows, I groaned. It became clear to me that the operating system new editions, like much of the established software upgrades, were artificial cycles designed to keep the corporation's balance sheets humming, not mine.

About four years ago, after some encouraging words from my brother, I decided to get my feet wet in SUSE Linux. Mistake. No matter how much I had been hearing about open standards, the installation packaging left so much to be desired that I quit after about a week of frustration. But I still remembered the hype: Linux is fast, Linux is free, Linux is open source. Sigh.

Several months ago, my partner Maggie Meister reminded me about Linux again. At first, I groaned. I don't have time for any big learning curve! But then I made contact with a gentleman who is writing a new software program for classical astrology using Xbuntu, and so my curiosity was peaked.

I started reading on Ubuntu, which is a flavor of Linux. (Xbuntu is Ubuntu with a different desktop; in the Linux world, such fracturing is possible and yet everybody stays friends.)

Unlike many open source scenarios, Ubuntu has some serious money behind it, because Mark Shuttleworth, after making mega$ online, put some of that money back into developing a flavor of Linux that would work for the rest of us. This has translated to regular operating system upgrades, the writing of all the background stuff like hardware drivers, and not least, the development and implementation of the vision for a Linux for all of us.

So I was psyched, but I also remembered my disaster with SUSE. I had discovered that both Dell and Toshiba have made their product lines Linux compliant, and that many other hardware companies have done the same, at least with some of their models. So after much thought, I decided to buy my hardware from a Linux specialist: the machine would come with Linux already installed, and so I wouldn't have to sweat over things like getting the wifi up and running, which was one of the things that had utterly defeated me on SUSE.

In less than a week, my machine arrived, and then I only had to wait for the time I elected that evening to start it up! Right away, I was online, running Firefox (my preferred browser for years), running Libra Office (a sister to Open Office that is completely open source; Open Office had been my go-to for years), and going through the check-list of programs that I had created to map out which programs were cross-platform available, and how I would proceed with the conversion. Skype, Dropbox, Audacity, and Evernotes were some of the applications that were already available in Linux editions - although Evernotes is actually a Linux special work-around called Everpad.

My first goal was to eliminate the Windows 7 computer on my desk, and I accomplished that within two days. I am composing this on the Ubuntu machine with an XP netbook to my left, in the alternate computer place. A week later, I still have not turned off the XP. However, I probably will within the month.

This blog entry is to detail how I got there, what you need to know, and whether it's worth it.

First: I am very happy on Linux. It is for real much faster than Windows. The Ubuntu interface is enough like a cross between Windows and Mac to have a familiarity about running it that allows the user to get pretty far without having to look things up. I did purchase The Official Ubuntu Book (7th Edition), and I have been working my way through it - and it has been very helpful.

One of the first things I fell in love with was the four desktops. Yep. I've generally tended to have a whole bunch of programs running: e-mail, Firefox, accounting, Sirius, Solar Fire, Solar Spark, possibly one or more other astrology programs, not to mention word processing, possibly a database or spreadsheet,a presentation program, and maybe a audio or video program. What a mess! Now my projects are split out between four regions which are switchable through Ubuntu-S (yes, being an Ubuntu machine, I don't have a Windows key, but an Ubuntu one). So now, astrology is on one desktop, the Internet on another, my sound editor and presentation program on the third....

But: is this ready for astrology prime time for someone without a Unix pedigree? My answer is: it depends. If your primary program is Sirius, Kepler, or Nova Chartwheels, the answer is: yes. If your primary program is Solar Fire, then the answer is: maybe. And what follows is why there is a difference.


 A long time ago, Linux people realized that there were a lot of programs on Windows that Windows alums would quite justifiably want to maintain under Linux. And thus, wine was born. In Linux, wine is not a drink, but a platform to fool a Windows program into believing that it's really loaded on a Windows system. Wine creates a bottle in which it takes the Windows program's outputs and inputs and translates them into calls that Linux understands. The thing is, wine can be pretty tricky to implement.

Enter Crossover. Crossover is a program by Code Weavers that automates much of the wine process so well that if you have copied over a Windows .exe or other program file, or you put a Windows installation cd in your cd player, Crossover will very nicely ask if you would like it to try to install the program. I used Crossover to install Microsoft Office 2007, Sirius, AstroTides, my e-mail program (Thunderbird comes installed), and a whole host of utility programs. Crossover also runs on Mac's.

Here are some of those results.

 What you see above is Sirius, from Cosmic Patterns. You also see a desktop view with a couple of features. Ubuntu has something they call the Unity interface: you see on the left side a series of icons: these are the common programs and procedures. Unlike a Windows desktop, these icons are always in view to the far left.

The only problem I had loading Sirus through Crossover is that the Sirius installation is a two-cd operation, and that is currently flaky in Crossover: I solved this by installing in Windows, and then copying it over.

This also brought up an issue which is generally true in Crossover bottles: the issue of multiple windows within a program. When you ask for a new chart, Sirius pops up a data entry window. It's very easy for the entry window (which is smaller) to get "trapped" behind the main window.

In the background of the Sirius window, you will see a couple of file manager programs. Linux has file management similar to Windows (actually, of course, the Unix architecture predates Windows), but one of the commands in common is ALT-Tab for switching between programs: something I probably used every day of my Windows life. ALT-TAB has an extra feature in Linux: if you hold it down on a program icon, it will then allow you to switch between the open windows within a program - a very handy feature. If I was doing data entry in Sirius, then get interrupted by a phone call or e-mail and come back to the astrology desktop with the main Sirius screen up front, it will be locked because the data entry screen is actually controlling Sirius at that point. ALT-TAB allows me to see the problem, and get to where I need to go.

Next, we have Nova Chartwheels. I didn't observe any anomalies in bringing this up, but I also confess I am not a power user of this program. But notice: I had no font issues with either Sirius or Nova Chartwheels when I brought them up.

Astro Tides is a little utility program from Esoteric Technologies that apparently never took off, which is unfortunate, because now Esoteric Technologies is no longer supporting it, and it has some great features, like being able to scan time periods for the lunar mansion. Perhaps the fact that it runs flawlessly under Linux will yet breathe new life into it.


If the program you want won't run in Linux, there is another option, but it's definitely Plan B. That option is VirtualBox, a program by Oracle. By using VirtualBox, you can actually create a ship-in-a-bottle on your Linux hard disk in which you can load an alternate operating system. There is only limited communication between them through some shared resources. If you want to load Windows, you actually have to buy a copy of the Windows operating system and install it within the VirtualBox environment established. This is how I got Solar Fire running.

Let me emphasize that getting VirtualBox going is not something to do if you have any fear of computers! It's tricky, but I got great tech support from both my hardware supplier and the company from which I bought the Windows operating system cd's. What you are seeing on the screen is the actual VirtualBox which contains Windows XP, and then the VirtualBox control screen behind it.

Finally, here's my old friend Solar Spark, another somewhat orphan program from Esoteric Technologies - mostly, I suspect, because getting these small programs compatible with Windows 7 and then Windows 8 was probably just not worth the expense.

 The other thing to be aware of is that setting up VirtualBox does put system performance at risk because we already know that Windows is a hog. I configured the VirtualBox to only use as little of my systems resources as I thought I could get away with. Certainly, it's a grand idea to pick one Windows operating system to implement, because while it is possible to run multiple operating system, each one chews up resources.

Happy hunting!