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Over several years of using Linux distros (Debian happens to be my fave) and BSDs for my primary computing, I've picked up the odd piece of useful info.
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On Slackware and Unix Idealism

Posted 11-04-2009 at 08:30 PM by ofaring
Updated 11-04-2009 at 11:51 PM by ofaring
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My first foray into Linux was in 1997 when a cousin handed me a CD and said, "Go for it." Well, he didn't offer any help other than that, and being a Win95/3.1 user who had only begun to get into computers, that didn't fly. But after the release of Red Hat 6, I tried again. I got further in that, mostly because they were making an effort to make it installable for newbies who knew squat about Unix. Still, though, I quickly got discouraged by such lofty topics as printer setup and getting the damn sound card to work properly.

So, I left that sitting.

I kept using Win98SE until after XP came out. By that time Microsoft and software companies were withdrawing support for 98SE, and I never appreciated their anti-piracy efforts with XP, having taken part in the beta testing. It was just too invasive for my preferences. Plus, I didn't want to keep spending the big dollars on hardware/software upgrades. The time had come to really have a stab at Linux. Fortunately, I was then renting with a real geek. The kinda dude they emulated Matt Damon's character from "Good Will Hunting" off. He wasn't particularly a unix guy, but he sure understood computers. With a bit of help from him I began with Mandrake Linux (Mandriva today). I kept wasting time, reading, and in general destroying one install after another. I toyed with different distros, but mainly kept with Mandrake and Suse.

Then there was Slackware.

The trouble with the Swiss-Army-knife distros then and now is their GUIs. As my buddy put it, "I hate GUIs which take forever to do a simple command line operation." And he was right. But, they do have their place. Without that launching off point I would probably be using Windows today. They bridged the gap between my Windows mindset and Unix ideals. And it was precisely because of those frustrations with GUIs, scratching my head with no clue what to do when one froze or didn't work, that I first, hesitantly, installed Slackware.

Well, hot damn! Here was a distro which didn't rebrand everything in sight, kept it simple with text configuration files, and even commented those files. I realised that I hardly knew anything about GNU/Linux, but did I ever start. (It was at this point that I completely relinquished Windows on my computers.) I can't say enough for the ideals of Slackware and Patrick. If it wasn't for his distro, I'm not sure whether I would have ever gotten into the nuts and bolts of CLI usage. Slackware is everything good that people say it is. I stayed almost exclusively with it through versions 10.x to 11 before diving into something even worse: FreeBSD. I used FreeBSD from about 6.1 to 6.3, but my curiosity kept me looking around, and I decided to poke about with Debian.

It was at that point that I really saw how pathetic most online GNU/Linux documentation is when contrasted with BSD docs. (I know. Proper documenting is a LOT of work and investigation.) Seriously though, when I do an online search for a solution to a GNU/Linux problem, I expect to get ten answers and throw nine of them out. Not only that, but six of the nine are so blatantly wrong that I don't even begin to investigate them. While I realise that the Linux development attitude is very different from *BSD, it is still something of a point of aggravation. Most BSD folks are not snobs, they are just obsessed with getting it exactly right. That's good and bad, just like Linux development.

Then, around 2007, I became seriously discouraged with the whole Open Source movement. It didn't seem to matter where I looked or what I tried, there were always these enormous pros and cons. I just about came to the point of abandoning the whole endeavour, and that actually saved me. Because I was sick of poking about with this development or that, I left Debian 4.0, "Etch", alone on my hard drive for quite a while. Alone, meaning that was all I used. And finally, after all that bouncing around, I learned something invaluable. You have to spend t-i-m-e with a distro to really learn how to unleash it.

I'm very happy that I stuck with Debian.

For me, political science and history define many of my pursuits and studies. Naturally, that included my decisions with operating systems. I've already stated that Microsoft's methodologies became too restrictive for me, and consequently as I tried different *nix systems I spent a lot of time reading about their development paths. It's fascinating history, if you're into that sort of thing. In the end, politics was what actually most influenced me to try Debian. I was and am absolutely intrigued. Yes, it's their code of ethics, their purpose, their governance. But much more than that, it works, which is just weird.

I've also searched into that ridiculously contentious topic: copyright/copyleft agreements. What's funny is how people get so irritated about it when each camp is trying to ensure freedom of choice. BSD or GPL? The BSD license is truer to the theoretical definition of freedom: that is, you can actually do whatever you want with it. Are you a software company building proprietary products to make a profit in the traditional sense of business? Your choices are obvious. Are you a developer who deeply believes in the free-flow of information, one discovery enabling the next? Well, it's not quite so obvious. Ideally, software becomes better through sharing, like science, art, and writing. I hope to always advocate for the free-flow of information, yet I also see the need for protecting an edge in business. So, it's more circular than linear. I don't recall ever reading a heated discussion where the tension comes from both sides trying to accommodate the other.

That's not so ridiculous as it sounds at first glance. Tension is unavoidable. We are human beings, often with strong opinions. But if I realise that you have a valid point, and you realise the same about me, the argument shouldn't be about survival in single combat. We both need each other. Trying to accommodate both principles at once, which is what does or should happen in the real world, is what makes it such a point of contention. We are rather complex beings with (often) simplistic desires. Get used to it.

Since I don't want to end this sounding like I'm yelling or denouncing people, I'm writing this paragraph using a fancy GUI (KDE's Kate), on a simple GUI (Fluxbox), on Debian 5.0, "Lenny". At some point in the future I would like to better investigate OpenBSD, but for the time being I'm sticking with Debian, although I may also install Slackware. My only point of contention is apparently with Linux proper. Formerly, Debian 4, "Etch", kernel 2.6.18, worked flawlessly with my ACPI implemention, but 5.0, "Lenny", kernel 2.6.26, refuses to co-operate. My hardware is ancient Greece, by today's artificial standards. BUT, it did work perfectly. I would like to figure this out, since acpi=off is a poor substitute for something working properly, although it does the job. But hey, suspend to RAM on APM works better than it ever did with ACPI, so there's always something.

One more shot for the good guys. ;) At least my computer works with Lenny. On FreeBSD 7.x, if I enable ACPI and then plug in my old Xircom ethernet/modem card, the system does a hard lockup, every time.

Keep studying.

ofaring
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