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By mephisto786 at 2006-01-19 06:03
By Jibril Hambel

Then (first written in the Summer of 2005)

I came to Unix late in life. I admit it. Although why that admission should feel somewhat shameful I'm not sure. It may have something to do with a conversation I had with one of the IT suits at work, when he saw me thumbing through a reference manual for C/C++. He was under the impression that, like learning other languages, it is best to start out in your single digit years. I was under the impression that he was more often than not annoyed and perplexed by the programmers he dealt with and had given up and stuck to beauracracy.

There comes a point though when a neophyte Linuxer will either bail or continue digging. I think I hit that point, though I can't tell you when. With my box at home running a screaming fast Mandrake 10.1, I'm shopping for a laptop to load another distro or two on and developing a fetish for mini distros. Welcome to mole world. Just what is it about distros and variations on them that makes so many of us collect? Quite possibly an urge to conquer, mixed with intense curiosity about how different what is essentially the same base system can get. It is a phase (I hope) that often creates two somewhat conflicting and quite irrational drives in users. The first, is to reach a point where one can say “I know Linux, I won't be flummoxed by some new distro if someone has a question". Whether that goal is achievable or not is something I take on trust from old hackers. Yes. It is quite possible to become distro agnostic and run a system which happens to have different icing but the same underlying cake.

The other and far more pernicious obssession dwells on 'the latest.' Always having the latest. Yesterday's kernel, a distro's beta release, if not an unstable alpha, the latest version of KDE or Gnome, the last release of emacs, and so on. The New Hacker's Dictionary terms such behavior heat seeking. As in “heat seeking missile.” Quite often, it is brought on by one's peers. Or rather a certain contingent of one's peers.

“Have you heard? Fedora Core 4 just came out...!” someone says in response to my saying I got my hands on Fedora Core 3; or after installing Mandrake 10 and having a configuration problem, you get told by half the chat room that you should “upgrade to SE 2006.” Never mind that it's still 2005.

And it is tempting. That is, until you reach a point where you notice that the ones that have the most good advice to give and the most sensible approach to running a Nix system are either on two releases behind, or Debian, which amounts to the same thing. If, that is, they aren’t running their own homemade distro based on Slackware. If you're lucky you see the heat seeking craze as precisely that...a craze. Personally I have to reread the section in an old copy of Running Linux where venerable guru Matt Welsh repeats quite clearly that the only reason you upgrade is because there is something you need in the latest version. If everything is fine and you're vaguely in the same kernel generation? Don't mess with it. Because he says bluntly, keeping up with all the newest developments is impossible.

And, if you keep your head about you and aren't living off some kind of disability check or still living with the folks ( in which case you might have enough time on hand to spend your days installing distros and tweaking and editing your fstab files), you see the trends come and go. There was a month or two where I would've killed to get a copy of Mepis; a Debian based one-cd wonder. Two months later, I listen to the talk on the web, check out a few screen shots and the whole thing screams “POINT AND CLICK NEWBIE DISTRO.”

I feel somewhat saner and better off with my solid, established, 3-6 CD (depending on your need for all the source code) POINT AND CLICK NEWBIE MANDRAKE. In a very short while I have seen Ubuntu go from the latest thing to a “well, let's see where they are in five years” yawn. All the while wishing them luck, make no mistake. But a little time gives a lot of perspective in something moving as fast as GNU/Linux.

One of the moments of realization that I was in for the long haul was the morbid fascination I have with the live CD called Slax. Clocking in at under 200MB - small enough to fit a business card CD - it manages to load up KDE as a desktop and some fairly flashy graphics and yet, it was the first live cd I had to CONFIGURE, for Crissakes. Which tells me that – however beautiful and friendly the Mandriva or Suse or Mepis gets? You eventually sidle towards starkness and away from bloat.

The people you lose patience for early on are the holy warriors, the distro fanatics. Being a distro fanatic is not so bad, except for the need to slander and denigrate every other system out there. Granted we all take a spill now and again and spend a couple days ranting about how awkward, clumsy and idiotic the latest Fedora Core is. Or whichever distro it happens to be that doesn't bow and scrape before your will. Because we installed it and didn't have it running hellbent for leather after twenty minutes. In weak moments I still grumble about Fedora Core. Forgetting (quite conveniently) how fast I once had Red Hat 9 cooking along after a few weeks.

Along with the mechanics of it is the tendency to start picking apart how the distro handles business. This one is too commercial, that one too elitist. Within six months of a business news release that has you foaming over Suse's mercenary ethic or Gentoo's for-hackers-only slant, you find another news item which reveals a different side to the bogeyman of the month. I was certain that Suse sold their soul to the devil a long time ago. Then they announced a change of tactics and unvieled OpenSuse; a Fedora Core styled community project that could make Mandrake look like Ebeneezer Scrooge and Ubuntu like a wolf in sheep's clothing.

There is, however, a cure for most of these ills. A cure, ultimately for all ills should we wax too metaphysical: Time – healer of wounds and wounder of heels – knocks the stuffing out of the most earnest heat seeker and silences the most vocal sectarian. If, that is, common sense hasn't gotten to him first. In a brave gnu world the most valuable commodity is knowing what you dont know, and remaining willing to learn.

And Now?

Since this article was first written, in the summer of 2005, I’ve quite often failed to settle for what works since then. Mandrake is history, being replaced by the latest collection of overnight sensations and solid nix standbys like Debian and Slack. Now? It’s Sid Unstable (because hosing your system is fun in a masochistic kinda way) provided it's on your hacking laptop and not your production machine. The desktop production machine is now Suse 10 because I realize that Novell is not the Anti-Christ. I wanna give this OpenSuse thing a chance, too. And of course, Slack for when you get tired of watching all your nifty configuration devices battling it out for supremacy of your Xorg.conf.

I wonder if this means I’ll be now seeking out distros with ever decreasing amounts of bloat, just as I used to seek out the latest kernel and the shiniest newb-machine. I won’t however, be surprised this time if it turns out to be the case. Seen one obsession, you’ve tasted them all. But hell, where would the Linux world be today without a healthy dose of obsession?

(This article is released by the author under the terms of the GPDL)


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