SalixOS, Revisited

The exact opposite of my friend Orca who loves the bleeding-edge, rolling-release, high-drama, I-dare-you stuff, I want my operating system and software to be rock-solid, super-stable, tried-and-true, old-reliable almost-never-updated (because updates break stuff, especially in those bleeding-edge, rolling-release systems). I’m a simple user, and simple is good. I still couldn’t resist a peek at Artix, though, the Arch-based systemd-free spinoff. A short peek. Nice! But scary for a technophobe. Suprisingly simple to install.

SalixOS, however, was not so simple to install and set up. It was needlessly complicated by an obsolete repository (easily prevented by issuing a point release that is possible to update without having to search the rarely-used forums for a solution). Neither the Wiki nor the User Guide has been updated in a lonnnnnng time.

Repository Mirror to the Rescue

Right in the System menu is the solution: Labeled, “Repository Mirror,” it looks around the Interwebz (that’s how the cool kids spell it, right?) for current repositories and mirrors that are running. I even found one very close to where I live! Once refreshed, updating in adding a few favorite softwares was easy. My old favorite showed up then, too. Seamonkey, now non-Mozilla (in spite of all the Moz references) so probably safe to use. I replaced Firefox and ClawsMail with my old favorite.

Salix comes in different flavors, but most of the big changes in the last couple of years aren’t there, since this is based on Slackware 14.2 (stable). The upcoming 15.0 will offer KDE-Plasma, Xfce 14.6 with all the cool GTK3 stuff. But all that new stuff is still “Beta” in the Slackware world. So wha’d’y’think that says about the legendary Slackware stability? To me says, “Made especially for Robin.”

And like the logo says, it’s “Linux for the Lazy Slacker.” Absolutely made especially for Robin, because it’s simple, got the cool toolbox you would never find in Slackware where everything is as challenging and geeky as they can make it. When Slackware 15 comes out, Salix 15 will follow quickly upon it, as they are already testing the new stuff. That one is called “Slackel,” and it’s kinda sorta like “Beta Salix.” I guess you could say like Debian Testing and Debian Stable, both Slackware and Salix have testing and stable releases too. Slackel is the more up-to-date stuff with it’s attendant risk, however minimal, while Salix is the “especially made for Robin” stuff because it’s rock-stable and proven reliable over centuries of time. Wellll, maybe not centuries, but y’knowhatimean.

After PCLinuxOS pissed me off to such a severe degree, conscience (sort of) demanded a change in my OS. This one was a little familiar because I’d toyed with it before. It was also good because it’s systemd-free, which means it’s not logging and journaling and keeping track of every little freakin’ keystroke and mouse gesture. And it’s true to the good ol’ Linux philosophy, “Do One Thing (and do it well).” Salix certainly does that, and the one-application-per-task rule keeps it lightweight and easy to manage. Long may it live.

Robin’s Favorite Forever

I think that if I listed all the Linux distributions I have tried, it would number somewhere near two dozen or thirty!  Some didn’t last a day, some not even an hour.  Some lasted for weeks or months, when either some update messed it, or I messed it up myself, one just disappeared, one got political and I dumped it on principle, and one – only one – was the distro I always ran home to when I either got scared off, ticked off, or turned off.

Debian and Debian-based distros.  Slackware and Slackware-based distros.  Ubuntu and Ubuntu-based distros.  PCLinuxOS (independent, the apparent “heir” of Mandrake).  Red-Hat-based distros.  Everything but Gentoo and Arch.  I am a technophobe still, after all.  Some I loved!  Crunchbang Linux, now unsupported, was most awesome when it was Ubuntu-based.  The switch to Debian brought improvements in some areas but made installation and configuration much harder and more complicated, and one installed, it ran slower too.

In the end, they’re all Linux, all wonderful for the niches they fill.  Whether for servers, tablets, or desktops; whether for super-geeks or novices; grandparents or little kids; students, teachers, heroes, and sidekicks – there’s a Linux for everyone.

For this technophobic sidekick, it really has, after 6 years, boiled down to one single distro that has kept my old relic computer out of the landfill since I first ditched WindowsXP for my first ever alternative OS, Ubuntu 8.04.  One that – once discovered – became my go-to operating system, the one I always ended up falling back to.

When Canonical tamed mighty Debian and made it finally available, installable, and useful for ordinary mortals to use without “mad techno-geek skillz,” they did it better than anyone else had before.  And they still do.  I know a lot of Linux folks enjoy belittling Canonical for their business dealings and Ubuntu (to include the official derivatives, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Edubuntu, etc) users for their lack of computer skills.   So be it.  I have always lacked computer skills when it came to tweaks and fixes and configurations and such.  I kept a diary of whatever I did and what resulted.  I learned to use the terminal like a wonderful, powerful, magic toolbox!  But I always preferred the graphical interface, and the point-and-shoot simplicity of the Synaptic Package Manager instead of sudo apt-get whatever, for example.

I may yet get a few more years out of this old dinsaur before Linux stops offering support for 32-bit architecture.  But even when I no longer need to stick to “lightweight” distros, I’ll stick with the best one I’ve ever used, the one that more than any other, has kept my old desktop running, got me through all my college classes, and inspired this blog.

Robin’s all-time, forever fanboy Linux distro:

xubu-core16-04

XUBUNTU.  Here’s 16.04, built from Xubunu-core (after installing the Ubuntu base with only a terminal) and my own selected lightweight applications.  There’s no Firefox or Thunderbird in my remix, no LibreOffice, none of the usual popular stuff, but ultralight or other lightweight alternatives.  Geary for email (because Claws Mail just refused to cooperate). Midori for web browsing. Abiword and Gnumeric for office stuff. Mostly standard Xfce apps for just about everything else I use my computer for.  All with the awesome Ubuntu base and Xubuntu team community support.

This old Dell still runs faster and better on Xubuntu, now 7 years later, than it did when it was brand new running WindowsXP.

 

Sticking With Salix!

Well this is certainly unexpected! The first time I tried Salix, it refused to boot after an update, and I was like, “I’m done. I thought ‘borked by an update’ was uniquely a Debian/Ubuntu phenomenon until now. Screw this.”

What an ignorant and impatient fool I was. When an update includes a kernel update, you also have to update your bootloader to load the new kernel. That’s what I did wrong, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own, for not reading the instructions and assuming far too much. Typical, perhaps, of a technophobic user playing with a Slackware derivative for the first time after using almost exclusively Ubuntu-based distros previously. I was used to being spoon-fed and giving the operating system too much automation. Simplicity does not mean “everything happens automagically and you don’t have to do anything but click Okay.” The user is responsible for knowing what the heck he or she is doing!

Salix tells me what my choices might mean during installation and updates, and when it refused to boot after I made a stupid decision, I should have known. Silly spoon-fed Ubuntu user and Slackware rookie.

But y’know what? I think I’m just gonna leave Salix on my old ancient relic desktop computer for good. I’m probably all done messing around with other distros, at least on this particular computer. Here are my reasons:

It’s Slackware-based and fully compatible with it’s parent distro, unlike most of the other Slackware-based “lightweight” distros. This means it has Slackware’s legendary stability and reliability, and ultra-mega-super-duper-uber-long-term support.

It’s super simple! In keeping with the whole Slackware philosophy – and Linux philosophy, for that matter. One application per task. Do one thing and do it well. Stay the heck out of the user’s way.

It’s systemd-free.
I know, before you jump all over me about it, I’ve read all the debates and I think I’ve probably never personally had any issues with systemd, except that even my beloved Xubuntu began to slow down over time (almost like “Windows rot”) and had to be rebooted regularly just to refresh it and dump cache and stuff. It didn’t do that before Ubuntu (and thus Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Mint, and all their derivatives and spin-offs and remixes) adopted systemd, so I wonder if that might be part of the reason. The “one ring to rule them all” feature of systemd is counter to the “do one thing and do it well” principle that has made Linux so awesome to begin with (until recently). I don’t reboot Salix. I don’t need to. Could systemd be the reason? I don’t know, but it sure is nice not to have the gradual loss of speed over time that I experienced with Xubu and other old favorites.

Yeah, he’s talking to systemd.

Salix doesn’t include kernel updates by default. Why should they? The installed kernel works fine, it’s secure, and my computer doesn’t need support for all kindsa features it doesn’t even have. It ain’t broke, no need to fix anything. The only thing I change is the wallpaper occasionally, or fonts and stuff. It’s perfectly boring, as it should be.

My distro-hopper-stopper is Salix.

I haven’t tried it on the laptop yet, but that’s another post for another day.

From Linux Mint to LXLE

Your mileage may vary, of course. But for me the choice has been an easy one:

I bought a modest, used Dell Latitude laptop computer for school and work. It is a 64-bit machine that shipped with Windows 7 and has 6 times the RAM of my desktop, an ancient Dell Dimension desktop with 512 MB that still runs better on LXLE than when it was brand new running Windows XP! I was a Xubuntu fanboy until even Xubuntu got to be too much for the old desktop. Lubuntu (at the time) was a halting, buggy mess that while plenty fast, operated with fits and starts. It didn’t last even a day before I was trying alternatives like MX-14 which was great for a while and then troublesome and rebellious later on. So I experimented with LXLE and it has been fantastic and trouble-free for over a year now.

But when I got the new laptop with 3 GB of RAM and all that power, I thought I should try good ol’ Xubuntu again, maybe play around with some other distros that would surely run better on this new high-powered 64-bit beauty. First to find it’s way onto the hard drive was Xubuntu, my old favorite for many years. Because it is stable, functional, simple, and has that wonderful Xfce desktop I love. It refused to run the computer’s built-in wireless card, and all efforts to install the Broadcom driver failed to remedy the situation. On a desktop it wouldn’t have mattered, but for goodnessakes, a laptop is supposed to be wireless!

So I tried Linux Mint Xfce 17 (codenamed Rebecca). Same great Xubuntu base, fantastically easy and safe updater that helps avoid the whole “borked by an update” scenario that the Ubuntu flavors are famous for (not so much on the long-term-support editions though). I love Rebecca! She’s gorgeous, down-to-earth, compliant, low maintenance, and eager to please. Best Mint yet! But again, wireless didn’t work. I actually ended up buying a wifi-dongle just to regain the functionality required of a laptop! I shouldn’t have to do that, but that’s just a fact of the times when you buy a computer that is “built for Windows.”

tpe g54usb 0

This little gem from ThinkPenguin.com cost only $25 and made my laptop a laptop again.  It was the only option after spending a couple of frustrating days following every step of extracting the driver from Windows and “ndswrapping” it into Linux without success.  Money well spent.

In the meantime I have been doing most of my work on the desktop, and growing increasingly fond of that ultralight and super-simple LXDE desktop. I hadn’t liked it on buggy, frustrating Lubuntu, but that PCManFM file manager is wonderful, the management and configurability of the panels and applets is every bit as elegant and easy in LXDE as in it’s older sibling, Xfce.  Basically, I just got used to it, and since I use it here on the desktop all the time, I figured my laptop should be the same way instead of confusing myself between the two.  And in front of other people too, since I use the laptop at work and school a lot.  As much as I adore the lovely Rebecca, I decided to try out the new 64-bit LXLE 14.04 and see how it compared with my desktop’s 32-bit LXLE 12.04.

The new one very closely matches the old one, but omygoodness, the default applications are the very same ones I always use (and usually have to install, sometimes from a PPA).  LibreOffice of course, but lookie here: Seamonkey!  Heh heh!  See I’m not the only one who thinks it’s wonderful, and knows how much less resource hungry this Netscape-based suite from Mozilla is than it’s more famous and popular Mozilla siblings.  It’s even faster than Chrome!  It’s almost completely set up the way I always set my own desktop configuration up, panels and all, right from the start.  Almost no tweaking to do.  And to my surprise, the wireless card works right out of the gate in LXLE!  Even Rebecca couldn’t manage it, but here’s this “lesser” distro for older hardware that just recognized it and enabled it instantly.  No more need to plug in my USB wifi dongle.  Maybe I’ll use it on my desktop instead, so I can move my desk to where I want to without running wires around the house.  Praise be!

I don’t even miss that once-beloved Xfce desktop anymore.  LXLE does LXDE better than Lubuntu, and better even than Xubuntu does Xfce.  It is elegant, lightning-fast, absolutely gorgeous, and stays out of my way when I’m working on school stuff.

Your mileage may vary, and people have their own reasons for choosing a Linux distro. But for me, switching from Linux Mint to LXLE was an easy choice. Now my laptop offers the same familiar interface and beautiful functionality of my desktop – and no longer needs special hardware added to give it the functionality I need.

Enough Already, Firefox!

The fancier and “better” Firefox (Mozilla’s popular web browser) and Thunderbird (the e-mail client) get, the better I like Seamonkey! Since my upgrade to Xubuntu 14.04, Firefox crashes randomly, doesn’t communicate properly with Thunderbird, and until I figured out how to fix it, it looked like this:

All of the text in the Address bar disappeared under these blankets of solid color. Fixing it was a matter of installing a new theme in Firefox called FXChrome. But come on, man. Wasn’t this discovered a month or two ago? According to Google it was, so it could have been fixed or patched or at least mentioned in the release notes, but noooooooo.

Remember the old Netscape Suite? Great, simple, reliable browser fully integrated with a fantastic built-in e-mail client. Netscape Communicator, Netscape Composer, all that cool stuff – well it’s still alive and well, under Mozilla’s umbrella, but separate – thank goodness – from Firefox and Thunderbird. Now called Seamonkey, it’s a bit more nimble than Firefox, can use many of the same add-ons, and is free of the bugaboos that have showed up in their flagship browser and email client. It also has good ol’ fashioned clickable buttons instead of search-and-destroy menus all under some unfamiliar-looking icon. I’m writing this post using Composer.

But getting Seamonkey was a whole ‘nother frustrating effort. I don’t do the “tarball” thing in Xubuntu, even though the process is now simpler than ever. I went to the Ubuntuzilla web site (on Sourceforge) to find the repository, and that’s a vicious circle! The web site directs visitors to download the instructions, and the instructions – two sentences long – direct readers to the web site. That’s just stupid. If not for Google I would have just grabbed the tarball from Seamonkey’s web site, but I found instructions for adding the respository to Xubuntu: Open a terminal and input these two commands:

To set up the key:

sudo apt-key adv –recv-keys –keyserver keyserver.ubuntu.com C1289A29

And then add the repository:

echo -e “ndeb http://downloads.sourceforge.net/project/ubuntuzilla/mozilla/apt all main” | sudo tee -a /etc/apt/sources.list > /dev/null

Then open Synaptic, reload it, and Seamonkey now appears among the available packages listed. Because it’s a repository, it will update along with everything else using the Update Manager.

I offer this just because I bet I’m not the only one a little bit frustrated with “improvements” that complicate, slow down, or outright break my most-used applications. If you prefer free, open-source software, Seamonkey is a better choice than Opera, which is proprietary. Think of Netscape and how easy it was and fun to use – and rediscover it under it’s new name.

Trusty Tahr – The Hard Way

I waited a while to try Linux Mint 17 Xfce, and it looks like it may be quite a while longer – or never – before I do. After a full day of seeding the torrent (because I try to upload at least double whatever I download, to be nice, y’know), multiple kernel panics prevented me from installing it – and left my old Xubuntu 12.04 unable to boot up! Rawr!

Not a big deal, I did a full backup before trying it anyway, and I still have my tried-and-true Xubu Precise CD, so in it went, a fresh install of my old favorite. Just for lulz, I decided to try the upgrade process to the newest LTS, Xubuntu 14.04. I’m glad I did!

A fresh install from their DVD would have been much easier and faster, but I’ve never even tried the LTS-to-LTS upgrade process before, so I updated Precise and waited for the “a new LTS release is available” banner to appear in the Update Manager, but to my surprise, there was none! It usually appears after the first point-release, usually in July of the year it is released. But this time, nothing. But sly little sidekick that I am, I resorted to Linux’s Great Secret Weapon – the dreaded Terminal (cue the screeching violins)!

sudo update-manager -d

One little command. Bingo! Up pops the Update Manager with the new banner offering an upgrade to the newest Long-Term-Support release. One single click on the Upgrade button and the magic happens – albeit slowly and tediously even on a fast Internet connection. The whole process presented only one little bugaboo: A warning that two applications needed to be disabled in order for their newer counterparts to function in the upgraded OS: Screensaver (which I don’t use anyway), and one I had never heard of called xlockmore. So I clicked to disable the screensaver and used the terminal to kill xlockmore, whatever that is:

pkill xlockmore

and the rest went without a hitch, but took about an hour. I had formatted my /home partition along with everything else, so there were no special settings or preferences to guess which might apply in the new-and-improved Xfce 4.12 desktop, and not much to clean up after the upgrade. Reboot, done. And wow.

It’s a liiiiiiiitle bit slower than Precise so far. Most users with computers newer that 12 or 15 years probably wouldn’t even notice any difference. I applied my usual changes – replacing Abiword and Gnumeric with LibreOffice, but Xubu has most of my favorite applications already installed. Great minds think alike, what can I say? Being a college boy I need the heavy duty office suite now. Then I tossed in my little note-taking app (Xournal), multimedia codecs, and the fancy new Ubuntu icon set. I turned off startup stuff that I don’t use (power manager, screensaver, bluetooth) to speed things up a bit. I hate the Software Center, so away with that bloated monstrosity and in goes Synaptic Package Manager in it’s place. Standard Robin adaptations to a newly installed Xubu. Wanna see? I knoooooooow you can’t wait, so here:

That’s one of the spiffy new wallpapers that ships with Xubuntu 14.04. I got my nifty neato li’l desktop weather applet, a calculator, and a few of my most-often used applications on a sweet-looking bottom panel. The top panel is just the way I like it – nearly identical to the default settings that Xubuntu ships with. I got bragging rights now I guess, since I’ve never upgraded “the hard way” before. Not that this was hard or anything for goodnessakes. What, two terminal commands and a few mouse clicks is hard? Not for this delighted li’l sidekick.

Heartfelt thanks to Canonical and the Xubuntu development team for this wonderful, long-term-support edition of the best desktop Linux distro ever!

Ubuntu Help?

Ubuntu Forums is one of the the official places that users of Ubuntu, Xubuntu, Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Voyager Linux, and others can go for help, to help others, or just to chitchat about Linux and Ubuntu.

 

But they do have one continuing issue:  They frequently have to add new moderators in this busy online community, and when they do, all too often the new moderators have to assert their authority.  I was censured in one thread because a moderator simply didn’t like what I said (his words, not mine).  Now today I got a private message from another moderator regarding a link to this blog in my signature.  The link has been there since I created my account there, but today all of a sudden it’s “against the rules.”  He writes:

 

*Links:* You may post links to sites with content that is  acceptable 
according to this code of conduct. This is most useful when  giving 
tech support and explaining a topic and then linking to a wiki  page 
or Linux site with more information. 
You may also link to your  personal site."

The link to your site introduces a religious element to all 
of your posts and violates the second quote 
in that it links to a subject forbidden on the forum.

Please remove the link immediately.

Emphasis mine on the links to a personal site, which is all the link was.  Am I not allowed to write about what I wish on my own blog now? Or can UF users no longer link to personal blogs that don’t comply with the rules of Ubuntu Forums?  Fine, I removed the link and told the idiot to delete my account. Fortunately there are other better places for users of the Ubuntu family to go where the moderators are not so heavy-handed and anxious to assert their authority. For chitchat as well as tech help, there’s discourse.ubuntu.com, a friendly place with a new and attractive interface. And there is Ask Ubuntu, and some great personal blogs like OMG Ubuntu. That one hasn’t been outlawed yet by an overbearing jerk, but because it may not fully comply with the rules of some other completely different web site, it could be.

Ubuntu Forums remains an official help forum for Ubuntu family users, and a lot of them have been helped there.  But it’s good to know there are alternatives, since many of us who used to go there to help others are abandoning the site because of the overbearing, drunk-with-new-power moderators who interpret the “code of conduct” according to their own personal preferences. Judging by a look at other Linux forums like LinuxQuestions.org, Linux.com, and LinuxForums.org, it looks like many more users are looking elsewhere for the support we used to be able to count on UF for. 

 

 

Debian vs Ubuntu

I’m truly puzzled by some of the comparisons between Debian and Debian-based Linux distros and their Ubuntu and Ubuntu-based counterparts. I know this is an old debate and that it is complicated by rants from rabid fanboys and zealots on both sides. I don’t care. What I care about is what works for me, on my computer.

On the Linux forums I lurk in, both sides appear to agree that Debian + the Xfce desktop is a hundred zillion times faster on modest hardware than even minimal Ubuntu + the Xfce desktop. This is supposedly because of the Ubuntu changes to the Debian system. They claim that the trade-off of making Debian “easy” and “user friendly” is a loss of speed and efficiency. That’s what they say, frequently, on both sides of the debate. This makes the debate more about simplicity-vs-efficiency, and users of older, modest computers have to choose between them.

My experience has been exactly the opposite!
I have tested all of the Ubuntu variants including derivatives like Mint, and Debian proper and several direct-compatible derivatives from AntiX and MX-14 to Mepis, SalineOS, and Crunchbang Linux. They are all delightful in their own way, and all are supported by large communities of users. But even in their most light weight configurations, Xubuntu and Mint Xfce were much faster than Debian and it’s Debian-compatible spin-offs on my computer. In my own experience with this very modest 12-year-old Dell with its Celeron 2-GB processor and half-gig of RAM, every single instance of Xubuntu, from 10.04 through 14.04 has been much snappier than any Debian-compatible, non-Canonical counterpart – even with the same desktop environment and applications. Linux Mint Xfce, from 10 to 13 also ran faster and more elegantly than Debian, AntiX, Crunchbang, and MX-14. From all I have read, it should  be 10 times slower, but it just ain’t so.

I don’t know what Canonical does to the Debian kernel, but in my experience it has had two effects:

On one hand it makes the Ubuntu family largely incompatible with it’s parent distro. Software from the Debian repositories may or may not actually run on Ubuntu derivatives and vice-versa. It’s a crap shoot, and potentially bad for whichever OS you’re using.

On the other hand, Ubuntu’s changes make Debian not only easier, but also more responsive and compatible with a wider range of hardware. It seems that the trade-off of speed for ease is a myth – at least for this user, on pretty old hardware. And I bet I’m not the only one.

So all of this brings up another mystery for me: If Debian wants to be “the universal operating system” and “ready for the desktop” by users other than the geekiest of techno-nerds, why won’t they adopt some of the huge improvements that the Ubuntu developers have made? The Ubiquity installer, for example. Highly graphical and wonderfully simple, it makes installing the ‘buntus and Mints, Zorin, Pinguy, UberStudent, WattOS, and countless other Ubuntu derivatives fast and easy. While Debian’s new graphical installer is much easier now, it’s still confusing and clunky by comparison. Why make it harder on Debian users? Why not adopt some of the changes Ubuntu has made to the kernel and firmware to make Debian run better?

Because it’s “pollution from downstream,” perhaps? It reminds me of an old boss I used to work for. The only way to get an idea past him and applied to the workplace was to make it look like his idea. If it was his idea, it was brilliant. If it was anyone else’ idea, it was bad, not well thought out, poorly designed, too costly, whatever. And it never got implemented, period. Yeah, that’s pretty bad bossing, and if it hadn’t been a government job he wouldn’t have lasted as long as he did.

This is all free software, Debian. Take it! Use it! Make Debian better! Why not?

It it because Debian wants to remain aloof and “superior?” Is it because Debian doesn’t want “mere ordinary mortals” in it’s community since they don’t write code? As if code is all that matters. Debian and Ubuntu even share many of the same developers and coders! So you would think they’d still be compatible and both would be awesomely fast and super-efficient, elegant, easy, simple, and beautiful. All I can conclude from all this is that Debian is a haughty, nose-in-the-air snob that has nothing but disdain and contempt for her most popular and successful child. Debian is simply jealous of Ubuntu. And for good reason. They claim that Ubuntu is “copied” from Debian and that Ubuntu has “given nothing back.”  WRONG.  Ubuntu has given a lot back, but Debian is too arrogant and elitist to accept it.

C’mon, Debian, you can’t have it both ways!  Either take what Ubuntu offers and make Debian better, or quit whining and crying that your “little sister” is prettier and more popular than you.

 

 

MX-14 – Mepis Magic in a Lightweight Xfce Distro!

Most of my readers know how technophobic I can be. I need my computer’s operating system and software to be rock-stable and trouble free as well as simple and unburdensome on my old, modest hardware. As a starving college student I can hardly afford to buy a new computer, and I’m finding that I have to use a few techno-tricks to get away with using Linux for school when they want Windows. So far saving Libre-Office work in Microsoft format (docx or rtf) has worked, as has changing my browser’s useragent string to make the school’s web site think I’m using Internet Explorer. So far so good.

An update to my Xubuntu 12.04 disabled my printer and sound last week and I fixed it by re-installing Linux-firmware, but it scared me enough to Google in search of lightweight Linux distros (preferably with the wonderful Xfce desktop) based on Debian Stable. Now before you go chiding me for not just using Debian, let me remind you that I’m a technophobe! I actually did successfully install and configure Debian once, but it took weeks to get it working and it was still wild and buggy. One of the reasons that Debian is “the granddaddy of distros” is that others have to “tame” it for ordinary casual users like me. Ubuntu does it, for example. Mint does it, Crunchbang kinda-sorta does it, and Mepis does it. Another reason that there are a zillion and twelve derivatives of Debian, is that Debian Linux is just awesome, period. Huge, vast, worldwide, and wonderful. Just still not quite tame enough for a technophobic sidekick, and too difficult to share with the other Teen Titans. But Debian’s snooty elitism pisses people off all the time.  Another reason, perhaps, for it being forked all the time.

So Google came up with one I never heard of before: MX-14,  “a special edition of AntiX” in collaboration with the Mepis community! Based on Debian Stable (not Testing, which is great, because as a true technophobe, the word “Testing” gives me pause), it’s an Xfce Linux distro that bills itself as “mid-weight” even though it’s lighter and faster than most of the Xfce distros I have tried. Also a huge plus for me, it still fits on a CD! Here’s what MX looks like from the LiveCD:

Ain’t it pretty? The panel appears on the left by default, but you can put it anywhere you like. On rectangular screens it’s a cool space-saving idea to have it on the left or right. My screen is a flat square so I moved the panel to the bottom and added my favorite little applets and most-used applications to it for quick one-click access. I removed the Notifications from the bottom panel and put them on a top panel which is only visible when I mouse over it. This Xfce desktop is wonderful because it is infinitely customizable and stays out of my way. And the new Whisker menu is similar enough to the old familiar one that it was no challenge to adapt to. The only little bug was that I couldn’t add Screenshooter (the screenshot applet) to the panel:

The trick is to treat it like an application instead of an applet. Create a launcher first and then specify Screenshooter. But on this desktop, I can bring up the screenshooter with the PrtScr button on the keyboard! So I just skipped the launcher thing after learning that little trick.

Installing MX is as easy as installing Xubuntu, but it is less familiar which is why it seemed more difficult for the first few minutes. Just slow down and take time to read the prompts and it’s effortless. The only bugaboo was trying to eliminate a 1.2 GB “unallocated” partition on my hard drive that appears right in between “/” and “/home.” I don’t even know how it got there for goodnessakes. I never did figure it out (I’ll do it later when I don’t have a lot of school work to do), but on an 80-GB hard drive I’m not too concerned about it. So after a complete back-up I installed MX on my existing partitions, overwriting Xubuntu. Yeah, I know. I’m still a Xubuntu fanboy, but:

It doesn’t get any more stable than Debian Stable. We technophobes need ultimate stability!
Mepis magic! Mepis has “tamed wild Debian” for years without all the high risk, and
Every Xubuntu user is a Xubuntu tester, like it or not. I never could get why the developers put Beta software in a distro intended for Linux novices. Many like me have just been lucky, but it’s still unforgivable in my opinion, to make Linux newbies unknowingly into unwitting guinea pigs.

Mepis has gained a reputation for making Debian usable by ordinary mortals, but without all the drama, the hype, and the unpredictability of the Ubuntu family. So as soon as I found MX in a Google search and learned it was from the same people who develop Mepis and AntiX, I was anxious to try it. The result:

High-contrast icon theme, and a wee bit of compositing enabled just enough to make the panel background invisible. Simple wallpaper and none of the busy screenlets I had before. They’re cool if you want them, but I’m looking to conserve resources. And Xfce has the “goodies” in the panel where I can see them at a glance instead of minimizing something just to read the weather or see the clock behind my school project. Pft.

Now let me tell you about the default browser, Qupzilla! This is pretty darn cool. It’s as fast as Midori but without the font-rendering issues and crashing. It looks and acts very much like a slightly older version of Firefox, but cleaner and much faster. And Ad-Block by default in MX. Ha! I can even do my useragent trick in Qupzilla. Oops… nice while it lasted, then CRASH!  Re-installed, reworked, revamped, rewired, re-done and still CRASH.  Oh well, back to Firefox.

This is Debian Stable with up-to-date applications from the Mepis repository. And remember what I wrote before about choosing distros? One of the things to consider is the repositories. Choose a distro and you’re also choosing it’s repositories. Y’wanna talk about huge, vast, ginormous, mondo-mucho gargantuan repos? Debian has the biggest and richest repositories in the entire universe! And installing software in MX is easy with the Synaptic Package Manager. I always used Synaptic anyway rather than that slow, bloated Software Center, so again, this has been an easy transition from Xubuntu so far.

And when I need support, Mepis has forums where lots of wonderful people make themselves available to technophobes like me. On my first day they helped me solve two minor problems (one just by browsing the topics and reading, and the other in reply to my screenshooter issue).

I’m a happy li’l sidekick today. My technophobia has not stopped me from trying out yet another Linux distro, and this one looks like it could well take Xubuntu’s place in my heart, becoming the distro I would always “run home to.”

Debian’s awesomeness.
Mepis’ magic.
And none of Canonical’s relentless, unpredictable drama.

Praise be.

Linux Vs Windows

Most of you know I’m finally going back to school after more than 30 years. I don’t mind telling y’all that I’m not a little scared about it. My first class is Freshman English Composition 1. It made sense to me to take that one first so I’ll know how to write papers for all my other classes.

This is my second essay, a “comparison & contrast” essay. It’s probably not hard for my readers to guess what I wanted to compare and contrast, since I think the majority of my posts here have been about my desktop operating system. Borrrrrinnnnnng for most people, I know. And for this essay we were instructed “to inform and entertain,” which means I really couldn’t write a boring, technical comparison. I think I succeeded – a little late in the essay though – in making it “entertaining.” We’ll do peer reviews of each other’s work next week, but I’d like to start mine early, so please, offer some feedback as to how I can make this essay better, and especially more entertaining!

Desktop Operating Systems

Linux vs. Microsoft Windows®

Most computer users are content to use whatever operating system “comes with the computer” when they buy it, never giving their operating system a second thought – until it slows to a crawl, gets a virus, or freezes. They think about the operating system when the Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) appears in Microsoft Windows®. Then the only operating systems most people are aware of are Windows and Apple’s Macintosh system. Now with support for Windows XP ending next month, many users have resigned themselves to buying a new computer that can support the new versions of Windows. That, however, is not actually necessary, because most Linux desktop and laptop operating systems support older, modest hardware and are available to most PC users free of charge. For most users Linux does everything that Windows can.

Home users use their computers for writing, spreadsheets, web browsing, e-mail, sharing music and pictures, and keeping up with Facebook. Since many Windows users are heavy gamers, Linux may not fully satisfy their needs, because the majority of people who write computer games have Windows users in mind when they write them. Yet players of many popular Massively Multi-Player Role Playing Games (MMPRPGs) are able to play World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy on Linux machines. Non-gamers are likely to have an even more satisfying experience on Linux than they had on Windows.

Almost all Linux desktop operating systems are available at no charge! Released under the General Public License, Linux and most of the software it uses are Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Thousands of coders from all over the world collaborate continually to maintain Linux and keep it updated. This is in stark contrast with Microsoft Windows®, which is proprietary and closed-source, and lavishly expensive; as is the “bloatware” needed to maintain it.

The term “bloatware” refers to software that is not intended for the user, but just for the operating system (OS). Anti-virus / security software, registry cleaners, and other optimization software is considered “bloatware.” Linux, by contrast, has no registry to clean and has virtual immunity from known viruses, spyware, and other forms of malware. One of the reasons for this difference is simply the fact that Windows users ordinarily operate with “Administrator” privileges, while Linux users have to enter a password and log in as “root” (Administrator) to access the vulnerable bits of the system. No need for “bloatware” whatsoever. It is an easy choice: Pay lavishly for an expensive, resource-hogging system, and for expensive “bloatware” to keep Windows happy and cooperative, or pay nothing for a virtually virus-proof system, saving your hard drive space for your pictures, videos, documents, and favorite miscellaneous digital treasures.

FOSS offers free (as in cost) alternatives to most applications that Windows users pay big money for: Evince does what Adobe Reader does; Firefox, Chromium, Opera, and Midori do what Internet Exlporer does. Thunderbird and Evolution do what Outlook does; and Open Office and Libre Office do almost everything that Microsoft Office® does. GIMP does what Adobe Photoshop® does. Pidgin is an all-in-one FOSS application that replaces AOL’s Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, MSN Instant Messaging, and Skype®. Most of the 300-plus free Linux distributions include all this software on their free and downloadable installation CDs and DVDs.

Linux users are able to keep their older hardware out of the landfills and lend their computers years of new life simply by switching from Microsoft Windows® to one of the completely free distributions of a Linux operating system. It makes good ecological sense to use Linux rather than to discard a perfectly good computer simply because the operating system has become obsolete. Linux is also more energy efficient, making full use of the computer’s resources without needing to run a half-dozen instances of “bloatware” in the background, robbing the user of the use of those resources for applications. Computer users want to run applications, not the operating system! Linux lets users do that, staying out of the way; while Windows is a resource hog that reserves vast resources for itself, keeping them unavailable to the user. In an interview with PC Magazine, the inventor of Linux, Linus Torvaldes, put it better than anyone before or since: “Computers are like air conditioners,” he said. “Once you open Windows, they’re useless!”

In the blockbuster film The Matrix, one if it’s major characters, Morpheus, describes the Matrix’ grip on the minds of its victims in terms that exactly and perfectly describe the majority of computer users victimized by Windows:

“You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.” Microsoft counts on that sense of dependency and fosters it by discounting their system to original equipment manufacturers who agree to sell Windows and other Microsoft products on their new computers. Windows has become an institution in itself: The default format for most documents is .doc and .docx, used in Microsoft Office®. Drivers for printers, monitors, and other peripherals are written overwhelmingly to operate on Windows. The grip of Microsoft, both on manufacturers and users is almost palpable. Yet as the most-used operating system worldwide, Windows XP, reaches the end of its life, more and more people, institutions, and governments are switching to Linux and saving millions by doing so. Among the most notable of these, according to Wikipedia, are the city government of Munich, Germany, which chose in 2003 to migrate its 14,000 desktops to Linux. The United States Department of Defense has switched all the servers for the US Army to Red Hat Enterprise Linux, the Federal Aviation Administration is currently making the switch, and the National Nuclear Security Administration is using it. The city of Vienna, Italy scrapped Windows for Linux. The French Parliament has switched its desktop computers to Ubuntu Linux, as has their police force, the National Gendaremie, and France’s Ministry of Agriculture as well. The federal employment office of Germany has switched to OpenSUSE Linux. Several school systems in the United States and abroad are saving thousands by switching to Linux, and Daytona State College / University of Central Florida’s Writing Center is promoting Libre Office in place of Microsoft Office.

Put side by side, the two operating systems are so unevenly matched for cost, security, availability, support, and ability to function speedily on modest hardware that in the years to come, the Microsoft Matrix-like grip on the desktop computer may be loosened. One computer and one user at a time, a new standard may emerge to dominate the desktop.