PulseAudio and Systemd

PulseAudio was still Beta when Ubuntu began shoving it out the door and inflicting it on users – even newbies to Linux. It was among the first things I scrapped in a new installation, in favor of ALSA. Nowadays you can’t really do that very easily because so many other softwares depend on Pulseaudio! So now you’re kinda stuck with it. Fortunately, it’s not Beta anymore, and it’s fairly trouble-free. Users who are having trouble with it and who have to use it as a dependency for other applications like Skype, should install PAVC (PulseAudio Volume Controller) to provide some measure of control over it’s many options.

Systemd was also Beta (or beta quality at least) when it was first shoved down our throats. Now for the last few days, my customized Update filter has refused two systemd updates – and I’m finding in some forums that systemd updates are causing people problems. I’m having none – but it isn’t because I don’t have systemd, it’s because I don’t accept anything but security updates and safe updates.

The cool part is, I don’t have to try and figure out which updates are safe and which ones aren’t. My friend Ralphy’s updater, adapted for Linux Lite from Linux Mint’s awesome updater (please visit Unlockforus.com for info), does that for me!

When is the last time you had this much confidence in your operating system?


I will insist on selectively updating Linux no matter what distro I’m using.
I now know enough to decide on my own, pretty much, which updates are high-risk (like most kernel updates) and which ones are not. Even on my copy of the awesome rolling-release PCLinuxOS, I don’t accept every update in spite of the “official” way you’re supposed to update it, using Synaptic Package Manager, reloading it, marking all upgrades, and applying. I’ll mark them, then examine them and unmark the high-risk ones.

I wonder if systemd is the next PulseAudio, kinda sorta. The debate was never settled, it just got so old and tiresome, and the debate fell silent. And PulseAudio took over the world while no one was looking. Systemd, same thing, perhaps? It is manageable by people who really know their stuff, but for me, right now at least, my “management” is to avoid updates to systemd unless they are security updates.

It will take a long time for debate on systemd to settle down. The PulseAudio debate has basically just died of old age. No side won the argument, the debate just went on and on until people got sick of repeating themselves. In the meantime Pulseaudio took over Linux userland. I think it will be the same with systemd. It does violate the “sacred” UNIX principle of “do one thing and do it well.” It does waaaay too much, so that if systemd breaks, all the stuff it controls breaks down with it. That’s my issue with systemd, and that’s why I don’t update it as soon as new updates become available for it. It’s like a kernel panic in a way.

Stupid Beta crap. It belongs on a geek tester’s laboratory machine, not on a casual user’s desktop.

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Compare, Ponder, Choose

So for a few weeks I have had a great chance to compare two awesome Linux distributions (hereafter “distro” or plural form “distros”), each with unique tools and features. So much of choosing a distro has to do with completely subjective stuff like the user’s ability, tastes, and values. There are desktops and Window managers to choose from, levels of risk to choose from, rolling-release vs. point releases (both have their advantages and disadvantages), system tools and system toys that may be unique to a particular distro. One is not better than other as far as most of the objective measures are concerned, it’s about “which is better for me.”

I had a big fancy 64-bit hand-me-down HP all-in-one desktop that ran PCLinuxOS Xfce “mini” in spite of it’s abundance of RAM and processing power. Until the hard drive finally failed completely. I also have a Dell Latitude laptop, also 64-bit, with 3 gb of RAM and a decent processor, running Linux Lite. Both ran well, except as noted in the following few paragraphs, and either one may suit any particular user – except new users, perhaps, in which Linux Lite has a decisive edge if, in my opinion, an additional safety feature is added. Without that added safety net, Linux Lite is no safer than any rolling-release distro as far as things being broken by updates – a very common complaint in most Ubuntu-based distros. Recently, “upstream” Ubuntu included Beta software in an update that broke a whole bunch of systems “downstream” until a later update fixed it. There’s no excuse for that! Especially in a Linux distro that is targeted at novice users.

PCLinuxOS

The “main” version is KDE, which has been doing through big huge changes recently to the new KDE5. Breakage is probably to expected with all the big changes, and KDE4 is no longer supported in PCLinuxOS. It is definitely a “KDE-centric” distro, and even the standard Xfce community edition has abuncha KDE/Qt stuff in it. That’s fine on a hearty machine, but many people choose Xfce because they want a lean, fast desktop, and KDE is a long-time resource hog. I used the Xfce “mini” after getting a little frustrated with the “regular” Xfce edition, and it was decisively more nimble and responsive. Unencumbered by systemd or “KDE stuff,” I enjoyed the speed, but experienced very frequent crashes in both of my two favorite web browsers, Seamonkey and Midori. I was more than a little spooked by the all-or-nothing approach to updating, even though PCLinuxOS has a large number of people who test newer versions of software before it gets added to the repository for the rest of us. Perhaps it’s just because of the big changes to KDE right now, but “broken after updating” threads have dominated the support forums. I experienced no breakage in my KDE-free system. Still, it’s a rolling-release distro with all the advantages like install once and update forever without ever having to install it again – and the disadvantages like “oops look what got by the testers” and “we didn’t anticipate it’s impact on other (non-KDE) desktop applications.” Is rolling release better? Well, for some, yes, and for others, no. I don’t think it’s for me, though, and that’s just a personal choice.

PCLinuxOS has an awesome tool kit for tuning and tweaking the system and doing other tasks. Several are unique to the distro, and I love the innovation. The community is absolutely second to none; cordial, knowledgeable, welcoming, generous, patient, and full of good humor and enthusiasm for the team and the distro. The monthly PCLOS magazine is wonderful, and users of any distro can benefit from reading it’s tutorials, recipes, puzzles, interviews, and reviews.

The reason I ran to PCLinuxOS to begin with was that it is systemd-free. Not that I ever had any issues with systemd myself, but the potential for big problems and back doors is very big and very scary. But that’s potential, not realized/actual, at least not yet. It bears watching. Yet on the other hand, it’s so widely adopted in the Linux world that there are now thousands of developers and coders to keep watch of it and to prevent it from becoming a major threat to privacy and security. Most of the objections I have found to systemd make a lot of sense, but they are years old already, and many of the vulnerabilities discovered have long-since been patched. The bottom line is reliability, simplicity, and speed. Especially for us “casual” desktop users and technophobes. I have decided that for now at least, I can’t make such a big deal of systemd based on vulnerabilities discovered and patched long before it finally appeared in most Ubuntu-LTS-based distros. Technophobia is one thing. Paranoia is a whole ‘nother critter.

With the loss of my fancy hand-me-down 64-bit all-in-one HP ‘puter’s hard drive, I dug an ancient Dell Dimension out of mothballs and decided to test out the 32-bit version of another favorite of mine, Linux Lite (32-bit).

Linux Lite

Xfce desktop, of course, because it’s lightweight, infinitely configurable, gorgeous, super-simple, and totally awesome. It also has a cool tool kit unique to Linux Lite, like “Lite Tweaks that lets the user safely do all kindsa system stuff in a few mouse clicks. This is great for new users!

Also unique to Linux Lite is that applications are named for what they do, not by their “real” names that tell the user nothing about them. How will a new user from Windows or Mac know that Thunar is a file manager? They wouldn’t, so in Linux Lite it’s simply called “File Manager.” What a concept, huh? Yes, this won’t matter to most long-time Linux users, but for introducing newcomers to Linux awesomeness, this is thoughtful and wise.

My browsers behave better in Linux Lite than they did in PCLinuxOS, though I have no idea why. I just know that they do. Fewer crashes, fewer freezes, fewer surprises.

Now about updating: What I am about to suggest is only my opinion, and plenty of people who are a lot smarter than I am will strongly disagree. The following suggestion is not officially supported by Linux Lite and in fact, opposed very strongly by it’s lead developer. But I find myself in very good and numerous company when I say that updates can do as much damage as good, and nothing frustrates new Linux users than unexpected breakage caused by updates. As I have already mentioned, “upstream” Ubuntu is known to include beta software in it’s updates, and there is absolutely no excuse for making unwitting beta-testers out of novice users (and simple people like me, and technophobes like me) without their knowledge and consent! This is unforgivable. Users of Linux Mint enjoy true freedom from these ridiculous, highly risky upstream updates, because their Updater allows the user to selectively update their system according to risk. A wonderful, awesome former member of the Linux Lite development team has adapted Linux Mint’s awesome Updater for Linux Lite and made it available to Linux Lite users (here). He also has taken another of Linux Mint’s cool tools, called MintStick, and included it in his repository of awesomeness. In PCLinuxOS you can use GParted and MyLiveCD to do the same things that MintStick does, but the process is cumbersome and time-consuming compared to the “click-click-done” simplicity of MintStick. The Updater from unlockforus.com I consider a vitally important safety measure for Linux Lite, and whenever I introduce new users to Linux I will include it by default, it’s that important. Otherwise, new users should start with Linux Mint if their hardware can handle a heavier load than Linux Lite ordinarily uses.

I now have Linux Lite running on all my machines, and have no plans to change.

PCLinuxOS Mini Xfce Edition

I have been writing about why I jumped from Ubuntu-derived Linux Lite to PCLinuxOS. Linux Lite – with addition of a vitally important safety feature from the awesome and venerable Ralphy’s own repository – is by far the best newbie-friendly distro for older hardware I have ever had the pleasure to use. Just one issue: It’s “daemon possessed.”

And I don’t mean it’s administered by a Ferengi starship commander, either. A daemon is a program that runs in the background. Every decent operating system has daemons, or it would hardly be useful for us ordinary mortals. But this one particular daemon, named systemd, is a dangerous, invasive, “supervisory” one that does more than just initialize programs and applications and allocate the proper resources to them. It oversees, overrules, overextends, and keeps a record of every process. It has many security vulnerabilities and other issues that sent me fleeing away, at least until it can be tamed and put on a leash or something, if ever.

I wanted a Linux distribution that was not only not possessed by that evil daemon, but also beginner-friendly and technophobe-friendly. Salix would have sufficed in the first department, but not really in the second. A little more research and I re-discovered PCLinuxOS. There’s a nice community Xfce edition with lots of extra stuff in it that I actually don’t need or want, but that is true of every newbie-friendly Linux mixture. I found a “Xfce mini” edition, put together by the revered and praiseworthy Ika, a long-time member of the very loyal and enthusiastic PCLOS community. I installed it today on the old laptop and just wanted to describe the experience a little, for the benefit of any readers who are looking to escape the systemd threat without losing the simplicity and “friendliness” of wonderful Linux distros like Mint, the ‘buntu family, LXLE, Linux Lite, ElementaryOS, and many more built from Ubuntu. For them, if they have decent hardware that isn’t more than a couple of years old, there is the flagship KDE edition of PCLinuxOS. It has it all! I prefer the lightweight, infinitely configurable, and super-simple Xfce desktop. It’s the default desktop of Linux Lite, and also the default desktop of several Linux distributions meant for use by children! So it’s not complicated, but it’s powerful, simple, and nimble on older hardware. The Xfce flavor of PCLinuxOS is available in two different forms: The standard one is basically kinda sorta PCLinuxOS with Xfce tied on. The “mini” Xfce version has few installed applications, just enough to run it and then install the software you really want and prefer to use. It uses Synaptic Package Manager (yeah, you read that right, Synaptic, even though it’s not Debian or Ubuntu-based) to update and install software from a vast, hyooooge, very extensive repository! It even has Seamonkey! Cool, no adding PPAs and all that high-risk nonsense. LXLE has like six or eight added PPAs besides Ubuntu’s, just to get the latest versions of LibreOffice, to make Seamonkey available to their users, and the latest daily builds of other popular software. That’s nice, but the more PPAs you add to an Ubuntu-based OS, the greater the risk of something breaking when installed and/or updated. My other complaint with Ubuntu-based distros is the inexplicable presence of beta software in a distro intended for novice users! I just think that is unconscionable. Systemd, by the way, is beta quality even if it’s not billed that way.

Okay, end of lecture on why I switched (and why others should, in my opinion). Now the good part.

The Xfce Mini Live USB cranked right up and ran fast and responsively in Live mode. Installation may be unfamiliar to folks who are used to the Ubuntu-based stuff, but it’s pretty easy. Clicking on the “install PCLinuxOS” icon brings up a nice step-by-step set of instructions. The DrakLive installer uses GParted, but helps the user along. BACK UP ALL YOUR STUFF to an external media first!

I don’t do the dual-boot thing, and I didn’t install PCLOS alongside another distro. So I chose “custom partitioning.”

A swap partition, traditionally about 2X your computer’s RAM. I gave “/” 20 Gigabytes of space on my HDD, and all the rest of the drive is “/home.”
WORD OF CAUTION: If you already have a /home directory on the drive that you used with a different distro, format that sucker! “Foreign” settings and stuff will definitely interfere with PCLinuxOS default settings. Keep your documents, pictures, videos, browser / email profiles etc on external media to use after installation.

Now tell the installer what bootloader and device you want to use. The default is Grub on the hard drive.

Now the magic happens!

Ohhhh, it’s wonderful! The entire process from start to finish took under 10 minutes on my laptop. My only issue was that I needed to use my little non-proprietary USB wifi dongle to get an internet connection. That’s common with the stupid Broadcom wireless hardware in Dell computers. Not a show-stopper really, just a minor annoyance. Easily fixed after installation. On a desktop with a wired internet connection, no issue at all.

Then reboot when it’s finished, but do not remove the Live media (USB or DVD) until prompted to do so.

On first boot, you’ll choose your root password and set up a user (with a different password – this ain’t Ubuntu!). Log in and enjoy!

The mini Xfce version has enough to get you going. First thing: Update! You can do it when prompted to, but on the mini you’ll want to open Synaptic and choose your favorite apps. I install Seamonkey, ddCopy, xournal, Faenza icon set, and a few other favorites. LibreOffice isn’t included in the mini version, so install it from Synaptic if you want it. GParted and ddCopy do what Mintstick did in Linux Lite (and Mint), so I’m comfortable with that. This is a truly customized mixture, and the cool thing is, you can use MyLiveCD to roll your own custom-made, just-the-way-you-want-it iso to install on another computer. It does what Systemback did (and by the way, Systemback is about to lose it’s maintainer, so it may not be available in the next LTS releases of Ubuntu and it’s derivatives).

I’m just enjoying this so much, and I feel so much better to have exorcised the systemd daemon from my OS.

Plan A After All

Plan B was going to be to leave my laptop on Linux Lite, just so I could have the easy, simple, clickable USB utilities I enjoyed in Linux Lite (borrowed from Linux Mint and adapted for Linux Lite by the Great and Venerable “Ralphy,” of unlockforus.com fame).

Since then, however, I have found that GParted can quickly – but not quite as simply – format any USB drive in a few clicks, and an app in the PCLinuxOS repositories called “ddCopy” performs the other function I relied on Mintstick for. So….

Plan A will work after all! Next post I’ll write about the newest Xfce “mini” edition of PCLinuxOS, when I install it on the old laptop.

Happy Canada Day (belated, it was July 1st) to my Canadian readers and happy Independence Day to my US readers!

Spooked and Hopeful All At Once

A friend on Diaspora has been asking a lot of questions about systemd lately, and the more he learns and posts about it, the scarier it seems. Not so much for the present, but for the control it takes over everything in the OS (and choice is a big deal for most Linux users, even for simple technophobic “ordinary users” like me). It’s a “supervisor” for all running processes on a Linux system which has it built in (Debian, Red Hat, Fedora, CentOS, Ubuntu and all it’s children and grandchildren like Linux Mint, Linux Lite, ElementaryOS, Bodhi, and dozens of others). He had asked why systemd requires it’s own password, which I didn’t know about. And like the nice helpful boy I want to be, I searched for the answer to share with him. Here’s a a little of the conversation:

I’m not trying to start a new debate, since I don’t know enough about it to contribute anything except that there are still some great systemd-free Linux OSes around, from AntiX and Devuan (Debian-based) to PCLinuxOS and of course, Slackware (the oldest active Linux distro in existence) and it’s derivatives like Vector Linux and SalixOS. That’s all I can contribute to the debate, but here’s why I’m a little spooked by all this systemd stuff:

Politically arch-conservative, my “default setting” is to completely mistrust the government and big intrusive corporations like Microsoft and Google anyway, but from the conversation above (and about 70 more comments in that thread), it seems almost like systemd is trying to take over Linux! It’s initialized on boot-up even before the kernel for goodnessakes, and has “agents” to coordinate and keep a record of every process. Okay, it’s supposed to make everything better somehow I guess, but keeping a record of everything? This really does sound like the start of a “slippery slope” that is supposed to be the new standard for the most popular Linux desktop and server operating systems.

That’s why I’m spooked.

Now for the hopeful part:

If I jump back to Salix to avoid systemd, I would really miss the cool tools I have with my modified Linux Lite – particularly the tools from this wonderful site maintained by a quiet coder who has adapted stuff from other great Linux distros for Linux Lite and Linux Mint. So just for giggles, I searched for a Slackbuild of MintStick, the supercool USB utility that not only writes iso images to a USB thumbdrive, but also lets you format USB sticks with two mouse clicks. And guess what?! Sure enough, there’s a Slackbuild for that! Updates are never an issue in Salix (fully compatible with Slackware). It’s stability is legendary and “broken after updating” is so rare I’ve never even read any such thread in the Salix forums. Linux Lite is awesome for now – modified with the unlockforus stuff – but it’s future is uncertain.

Perhaps I’ll revisit PCLinuxOS again, too. It’s been probably 2 years or more since I played around with it. But Salix was always awesome, even without any Gnome stuff in it at all (there are plenty of places to find “Gnome for Slack” packages and scripts anyway). I’m not a big fan of Gnome, since it seems they really didn’t listen to the community at all when they came up with Gnome 3 and ended up losing a lot of users to Mint’s fork of Gnome called Cinnamon, and to other desktops like Xfce, LXDE, etc.

Linux is about freedom. Systemd seems a threat to that freedom. But thankfully, it’s easily avoided – for now.

EDIT:  I just finished deleting a few paranoid posts about systemd.  As it turns out, most of the issues I uncovered were two or three years old (before systemd showed up in Ubuntu-LTS-based distros) and have long since been patched.  And now that it is in such widespread use, there are literally thousands of freedom-loving developers, users, testers, and coders to keep an eye on it.  Fear of systemd is not going to rob me of an awesome, simple computer experience.

 

It Sounds Kinda Like Slackware – But With Gnome Stuff!

…That is, if you like and want Gnome stuff, like Geary, one of my e-mail favorite clients.  Gnome stuff is unavailable in Slackware (and therefore unavailable in Salix).  I might have switched permanently to Salix from Xubuntu if not for that, because of the systemd thing.  I know, I know, before you jump all over me for having such great reservations about systemd, it’s simply this:  Systemd removes a lot of choice and control from the end-user, leaving it up to developers and maintainers.  So much stuff is dependent on systemd in Linux distros that have switched to it – including all the Big Ones like Debian, Ubuntu (and all it’s derivative distros like Xubu, Lubu, Kubu etc., Linux Mint), and Red Hat (Fedora and family).  Slackware and it’s derivatives remain systemd-free, as does PCLinuxOS and a shrinking number of others.

So what’s this new systemd-unencumbered distro?  It’s a virtual unknown called Void Linux.  Not a fork, not built or derived from any other Linux distro, Void is described as “the most BSD-like Linux distribution out there.”  Users describe it as superduperultramega lightning fast on even ancient hardware. It needs only 96 megabytes of RAM!  Available in “flavors” from KDE and Gnome to LXDE, Xfce, LXQt, and even Enlightenment, Void Linux is a rolling-release distro that uses runit instead of systemd.  It just sounds awesomely perfect for hopefully bringing my old “dead” relic back to life, if I can fix the hardware issue.

VoidLinux

So, naturally, I’ll have to try this thing out.  It’s not for beginners, probably not for technophobes either, but curiosity has got the better of me and I’ll at least experiment with the Live Xfce version, and if my hardware issue can be fixed on the old Dell, I’ll throw Void Linux on there and write about it here.  Stay tuned!

 

Treat Your Moderate-to-Severe Technophobia With Linux Lite!

I’ve written before on both my own fear of technology, and about Linux Lite. Today I’ll combine both subjects. It all started with a flare-up of my moderate-to-severe technophobia that started last week, triggered by a discussion on Diaspora about systemd, the evil “one ring to rule them all” program manager used by most Linux distros these days. Just click on the systemd tag for a little more about it (but not much – I’m no expert).

But it’s big and intrusive and “does too much.” Some people complain that it’s an attempt to wrest control of Linux from it’s end-users to the developers, maybe more. The interest of so many “big evil corporations” in adopting it has the same familiar red-flag properties that have people running scared of Google and Facebook, using TOR and proxies online and that kinda stuff. Well I guess it just got to me, having gone on for so long.

I mean, it just depends on how you look at it, right? Or maybe…

I had already dumped Google, killed my gmail account, and quit facebook over fear of becoming a commodity for these companies to sell to advertisers and government agencies or whatever. Now, oh my Lord, systemd is threatening even the sacred refuge I fled to for privacy and safety and dignity! I’ve never experienced any issues – that I know of – with systemd as far as functionality. My Linux OS does what I want it to, does it well, and stays out of my way (unlike Microsoft’s OS). But still…

So…. I went and did something really stupid. Please don’t laugh (at least not where I’ll see you or hear you).

Instead of just switching back to Salix, PCLinuxOS, or any number of other systemd-free Linux distros that I have run before (because there’s no Gnome in any of the Slackware derivatives and PCLOS is too resource-hungry), I tried to rid Xubuntu of it’s horrific, demonic, intrusive systemd. I read on how to do it “safely” before I gathered my courage and ventured into the dark, fearful, mysterious netherworld of the command line interface (CLI). I didn’t do so recklessly or without a plan. I checked and double checked, referred to several official and unofficial sources, and proceeded with all deliberate caution.

I don’t care what the experts say. The only Ubuntu-based stuff that is free of systemd and that can function without it, is based on version 12.04 and older. None of those are supported anymore. I not only crippled my operating system, but apparently something I did in my efforts to exorcise the evil systemd demon from my machine seems to have physically damaged it somehow. Every technophobe’s worst case scenario! Push the wrong button and

Poor old Dell Dimension desktop. It served me so well for so many many years! Linux kept that old relic out of the landfill for decades! And then killed it, mercifully fast. No, I killed it, in a fit of technophobic panic over something that I really know too little about to be so worried about. Rest in peace, you trusty old friend. <sniffle>

But I didn’t spend a dime for my new one. An HP all-in-one with a huuuuge 500 GB hard disk drive! It was unresponsive after an upgrade from Windows 8 to Windows 10. My partner used it to play one of those Windows-based MMPORPGs (Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game) on Windows, and bought a new one to keep playing, and for Skype and other stuff she absolutely has to have for her job… All of which, by the way, will run in WINE on Linux. Now’s my chance to show her just how effective Linux can be as a drop-in replacement for that bloated, expensive OD from Redmond!

So:

I’ve loaded up Linux Lite again, because it has cool tools, Xfce desktop’s simplicity and beauty, and readiness for the tasks I want to demonstrate for my Windows-addicted partner. This new computer is many times more powerful than the noble old relic that preceded it, and I hope it will help me win over one of the most challenging Windows addicts I know.

Stay tuned!