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Why "easy" distributions are difficult

Posted 06-23-2016 at 09:58 PM by xri
Updated 09-15-2016 at 08:11 PM by xri
Tags distros

In retrospect, I wonder why so many seasoned users have (over the years) recommended me to go for "easy" distros, that have been "scientifically" designed for all users. I wish somebody had told me to go for the "hard" ones. That would have saved me a lot of pain.
My problem with the "easy" distros has been that everything would be fine at the beginning and all I needed to know was point-and-click sequences in order to start working. Maybe some basic console skills (how to 'cd', or 'cp', 'mkdir' and probably 'pwd') as a necessary oddity to skim through. I got up to speed with my work in no time. I told myself, "when I have the time, I'll go through the manuals in detail and will learn how to do <insert skill here>"
It always happened that eventually I would need to modify my computer's default behavior, or worse, something would break. Then it came to fix it in real time. Google showed a bunch of solutions, most of them looking like black magic ("this worked for me" was how the poster presented it). Without having a clue as to why they came up with those solutions, I would try them all, one by one. In some cases, that would solve the problem, without me getting much insight into what I had actually accomplished. In some cases, none of the suggested solutions worked. The forums were useful, but the answers (when they existed) also ranged from the irrelevant to the accurate (the most accurate of them being "RTFM"), with me going through the same trial and error sequence. A nightmare. Sometimes, it was easier to just reinstall.
At the end, out of desperation, and partly due to curiosity, I would hit the documentation and the man pages. And then it came the surprise, it was all so simple! All I needed was to spend a few minutes (or hours) reading it. Why hadn't I gone there in the first place? Because everyone told me to follow the "easy" path.
At the end, the "easy" path ended being much longer (and excruciating) than the (direct) "hard" one.
My last experience of this type was with FreeBSD vs. PCBSD. One "expert" told me that PCBSD was the most appropriate option for the desktop and "easy" enough. And I believed the "expert".
Without denying the talent and hard work of the folks that put together PCBSD, it did not work for me. I went through the typical sequence, as described above. Finally, while trying to fix something, I ended with a crippled system, unable to boot. On a different box, I tried vanilla FreeBSD, while following the official (and some of the popular non official) documentation. So far I have managed to configure a minimal system, which has, nonetheless all the things I plan to use, and (more important) none of the ones I will not use. If this one fails, I have been dropping enough breadcrumbs to allow myself to backtrack my steps and get it right the next time.
I mean no offense to the people who produce the "easy" distros and certainly none to the many who use them. I am sure they have their place for specialized purposes, such as {bioinformatics,sound,images,numbers,etc} and some also make great live distributions. Additionally, I see the appeal for system administrators who have to install them into thousands of computers at once without having to "train" their users. However, for my personal use, from now on, I will stick to the "hard", KISS distros, which I plan to build slowly, while reading their manuals. Again, this is what works for me. YMMV
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