Computers all the way down: a free virtual machine for your child

The Curiosity Cycle emphasizes that tool use develops the mind. Tools are even better when they are your own. In this blog post, I’ll explain how to create a computer within a computer for your child.

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This computer within a computer is called a virtual machine. Your real computer simulates every action of the virtual machine, so it appears just like the computer you normally run. Well, actually, the virtual machine described in this blog post will be different from your normal computer if that computer is a PC or Mac. This virtual computer will run an operating system called Ubuntu.

Ubuntu is free and open source. Open source means that you can look at the programming code for how it works. You can’t do this with Windows. With Windows, even forensic investigators have to guess at how the system works. Using Ubuntu is analogous to having an old car where you can look under the hood and see the moving parts.

Your child will love having a computer of his or her own. My oldest son really likes that his little brother can’t use his computer, and both he and his brother love customizing the look of their screens and setting their bookmarks. In addition, restricting your kids’ internet searches for ninja Pokemon badger-cats to be within the virtual machine helps to protect your main computer from rootkits and other malware.

Installing the computer within a computer takes three steps. These steps take some time, but the installation is like making a cake from a box–you can go off and do other things while you are waiting for it to bake. Note that for the virtual machine to be zippy and responsive, you need a fairly new computer (any computer purchased within the last two years or so should be fine).

Step 1: download and install the free VMware player from https://my.vmware.com/web/vmware/free#desktop_end_user_computing/vmware_player/4_0
(you may have to restart your computer, ugh).

Step 2: download the free Ubuntu operating system from http://www.ubuntu.com/download/desktop
(this make take a while).

Step 3: follow the instructions at
http://www.howtogeek.com/howto/11287/how-to-run-ubuntu-in-windows-7-with-vmware-player/
You are pretty much done once you get to  “Installing VMware tools” because you can just follow the onscreen prompt to install VMware tools for Linux (Ubuntu is a flavor of Linux). At some point, VMware will ask you about an update to the paid VMware workstation; you can click “skip this update” or “skip this version.”

ImageOnce the install process is done, you are ready to go. You will probably need to install Adobe Flash at some point. Luckily, Ubuntu has a built-in app store called the Ubuntu Software Center, which has a version of Flash. You can go to the Software Center by clicking on it on the side, and then you search for flashplugin-installer.

You can also use this app store to install free games. My kids have fun looking through the games. As another activity, your child can create documents because Ubuntu comes with free software that is similar to Microsoft Office.

Interestingly, the whole virtual machine can be saved as a big file and moved to a different computer. On Windows 7 machines, the virtual machines are stored in C:\Users\<your profile name>\My Documents\Virtual Machines. We think of a computer as a thing, but it is really just a  collection of information running (eventually) on hardware.

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