ChatGPT, help me install COBOL under Zorin OS, please

Senior developer at work in the computer room

More realistic (but still imaginary) senior COBOL developer. Get them while they last! Or use ChatGPT instead, I suppose, if your business is fault-tolerant.

Zorin OS looks reasonably Windows-like once you select the right theme, but to be honest it seems slightly slower than Windows 10, at least when opening programs. The mouse pointer will also freeze randomly and fairly often on my Acer Nitro 5, although it starts moving again if I press any key or scroll with the mouse wheel. But it is clean and low on distractions, and as a bonus, it is far less exposed to viruses, spyware, ransomware, and other creepy stuff. When Linux geeks assure you that their grandma loves Linux, they are not actually lying. It just so happens that their grandma mostly uses the PC to read and answer emails, maybe surf the web, and watch pictures of her grandkids. But we all know that Linux isĀ really made for people who don’t want things to be easy.

Case in point, installing gnuCOBOL, a free compiler for the COBOL programming language. COBOL was popular on big “mainframe” computers in the 1960es and still survives here and there. The code is largely self-documenting and easy to read, with intuitive English-like phrases like SUBTRACT REBATE FROM PRICE. So you would reasonably expect it to be easy to install as well. Perhaps download an installer from the website, double-click on it, and go make a sandwich while it installs? Haha no, this is open-source software, made by autistic people for autistic people. We would not give normies that kind of power without them working for it. If at all.

Actually, it does not look that hard looking back, but that is because ChatGPT told me what to do step by step. (Well, I actually did download the package file on my own.) Interestingly, it still took a couple attempts. ChatGPT told me what dependencies to install first (that would be other pieces of software that gnuCOBOL depends on), but it forgot two, which I had to install later. In all fairness, this became obvious during the installation process, more exactly after I gave the command ./configure while standing in the unpacked folder. This command does the reasonable thing and checks for dependencies, so if you know what’s going on, you can install the missing dependencies on this stage. Of course, if you’re a normie and used to software coming with installers, you don’t know what goes on. I suppose a small script could have automated the process, but then any random normie could install your software without being bathed in a cold sweat. And we wouldn’t want that. Normies deserve to suffer.

Anyway, the meat of the install process is running this little sequence in the unpacked folder:
sudo make install
sudo ldconfig
where the “./configure” part will list any missing components (which you must add with “sudo apt-get install” and the proper name, which it will not necessarily tell you). Once that runs without errors, the “make” will try to compile the new software, the “sudo make install” will try to put it in your system, and the “ldconfig” will update the shared library cache. Or that’s how ChatGPT explained it. But if you had been worthy, you would have known this already. That said, ChatGPT which is currently as smart as a lawyer, still had to make three attempts while adjusting for error messages, before the “cobc” – COBOL compiler – finally was ready to use.

If even this explanation just looks like a wall of gibberish, that is sort of the point. Normies, muggles, neurotypicals or Untermenschen, whatever you call the human majority: They are not supposed to be able to do this. Let them stick to Windows and make spreadsheets while Windows keeps trying to take over the screen and tell them of other people’s coronation and how Microsoft Edge is the only safe way to browse the Web.

But ChatGPT has changed all that… a little, at least. I mean, it took 3 attempts, and I am not quite neurotypical myself and have dabbled briefly in various operating systems over the decades, including some Linuxes. And ChatGPT-4 is still only smarter than 80% of lawyers, from what I hear. (Let the lawyer jokes begin… if you are willing to risk being sued.) In all fairness, I would not ask the average lawyer to install a COBOL compiler on a little-used operating system, either. More realistically, they would ask me.

Next I was planning to tell about the somewhat similar adventures of trying to install an IDE – and integrated development environment – where our ever-helpful Artificial Intelligence threw up its metaphorical hands because things had changed since it was trained in 2021, and we installed a different IDE instead. (Things have changed since I graduated in 1977 as well.) But the next day the news broke that we folks who pay for ChatGPT will be able to let it fetch information on the Web. If this works (and is enabled in Europe, which is a big if) that would mean a major power-up for our friendly Large Language Model. Who knows, it might even become able to install software under Linux on the first try. That would certainly put it ahead of most humans.

Zorin OS day

Elderly man in front of old-fashioned computer

Not me (quite yet) but an AI’s impression of “senior COBOL programmer at work”. These are not exactly the tools I use, but I found the image entertaining.

Today I messed around with Zorin OS + gnuCOBOL+VSCode+ChatGPT.

Now why would an elderly, gleefully celibate Norwegian man get involved with any of this, let alone all of this? Normally when a guy does something weird, we can assume he is trying to impress the ladies, but that would be kind of pointless here. So let’s rewind a little to see what triggered this installation spree, that pushed even the superhuman artificial intelligence GPT-4 outside its comfort zone, let alone mine.

Truth is, I have been eyeing Zorin OS for a little while already. Despite the fancy name, it is just yet another Linux variant. (Based on Ubuntu, from the Debian family of Linux, for those who keep track.) Its claim to fame is that it looks and feels more like Windows than the rest of the Linuxes. (It can also look more like Mac OS, but you have to pay for that, naturally.)

Now why would I want a Linux that looks like Windows, when I already have Windows 10 which came with the computer? Well, one obvious reason is that Zorin looks and feels more like Windows than Windows 10 does. Just the start menu (and it is where it should be, for you who already suffer from Windows 11). No tiles, no distractions, and no bringing up other countries’ coronation ceremonies if you accidentally move your cursor out in the corner while writing. No searching the Internet with Bing when you try to find the software you have on your computer. No suddenly opening Edge and telling you that you should switch to Edge for your own good.

In short, it just works, much like Windows XP and Windows 7… as long as you stick to the basics, at least. But I am Magnus Itland. I don’t stick to the basics, this place would not be called the Chaos Node if I stuck to the basics, now would it? Still, I did get an excuse to install Zorin OS eventually.

It started when I decided to check on my old flame COBOL. We first met almost 50 years ago when I was a teenager and COBOL still was super popular and attractive. I believe it was my teacher in mercantile school who allowed me to borrow a COBOL manual for some greater DEC machine, which I used to eventually create a precompiler that would convert a COBOL program into Alpha-LSI Basic (Uppsala Basic?) which would run on the Alpha-LSI mini machine of the 1970es. Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end… but they did, and fast. And despite the occasional random encounter since, COBOL and I never became a thing. Instead, I eventually paired up with Dataflex to create Norway’s best debt-collection software suite in the 1980es (now long gone, I hope).

Much later, in the age of Windows 7, you could sort of run a subset of COBOL, called OpenCOBOL, under Windows 7, using a dedicated OpenCOBOL IDE (integrated desktop environment) or you could just write the code in Notepad++. But when I went to look for OpenCOBOL, it has been replaced some years ago by gnuCOBOL. It is still open, and free, and has even more features picked up from various variants of COBOL through the ages. Naturally, I downloaded gnuCOBOL for Windows and tried to install it. This turned out to be unspeakably difficult although there were vague hints that something called Cygwin was involved.

I am not really surprised. Windows is like the popular guy in high I class who all the girls flock to, even though you are demonstrably smarter and more competent. If you are not Windows, why would you want to make things easy for Windows?

But once you have invoked the name of Cygwin, you may as well go the second mile and install a real Linux. In this case, Zorin. It can (and will, by default) be installed along with Windows, so you can start your computer on either of them. (You can also run Windows under Linux, or even Linux under Windows for some reason, but that is more advanced and involves virtual machines and such. Maybe another day, if I live and dementia doesn’t get too bad before then.)

Installing Zorin was very easy, once I had downloaded the ISO from their website, followed their tutorial to make a USB bootable, and found out how to enable boot from USB in the boot menu, which on my machine required enabling the boot menu in BIOS and setting the boot order… OK, so it was actually not easy for normal people, I guess. but it was child’s play compared to what came later. And really, as long as you don’t experiment with things you are not sure about in the BIOS (thus turning your expensive PC into an expensive paperweight forever), it is smooth sailing. Just answer questions and take long pauses while the OS installs. Once you get so far as to boot from USB, it’s all on rails.

I gave it a quarter of the disk space instead of the half it asked for. Linux is much less space-hungry and chances are I won’t play a lot of modern games under Linux, which is what takes up most space on modern home computers. Anyway, eventually it finished installing, and I could reboot and start in Zorin. This was where the hard part began, but I may already have written more than a normal person can read without napping. To be continued… perhaps, someday.