Thoughts on “Linux Legalism”

Where does the line belong, between absolute strict adherence to the Pure and Venerated UNIX/Linux Way, and the practical but not-so-pure approach to a free operating system that simply works on your hardware, stays out of your way, and is elegant and easy to use?

How DARE you use a distro that has those non-free bits of code in it (without which your computer or video card, or sound card, etc wouldn’t work)! How DARE you install more than one web browser (even though one works for most sites but you need the other for one or two sites that won’t function in any other browser)! You know the Law: One application per task! Do One Thing and do it well! That is the Law of Linux!

Legalism nullifies the grace of God in Christianity. Obedience to the Law is the natural result of true conversion, not a prerequisite as in order to become a Christian. In the same way, perhaps, purity from non-free bits, one-app-per-task, etcetra, is a noble goal. But just as no one can become righteous by obeying the law of God, neither can hope to even use most computers, much less share the “gospel” of Linux with others, without enough non-free, impure, proprietary bits of code to make the darn thing turn on, display stuff, connect to the ‘net and do any useful stuff.

Oh, and then there’s the whole evil corporation thing, unreasoning hatred of Novelle, Red Hat, and Canonical for daring to make money on Linux!! Forget the GNU license that allows that. Forget the fact that development and quality and availability of usable Linux OSes would hardly be possible, much less widespread and wonderful, without some deep pockets to bring it to us ordinary users. Canonical, the makers of the Ubuntu family of distros (far and away the most popular and by far the easiest to install, configure, and use), seems to get the brunt of that hatred, for some reason, perhaps because of it’s popularity and the sheer number of spin-off distros that rely on Ubuntu, like Linux Mint, Linux Lite, Zorin, PopOS, and a zillion others. You don’t see that kind of multiplicity of spin-offs from Fedora (RedHat) or SUSE (Novelle). There’s a nice noble little distro called Trisquel which takes all the little non-free bits out of Ubuntu to make a “pure and holy” desktop distro that aims to be as easy to use as Ubuntu but pure as the wind-driven snow when it comes to the righteous UNIX/Linux Way. That’s awesome! So why isn’t Trisquel more popular? Because it doesn’t freaking work on most computers! Without at least some non-free firmware and software, most computers simply won’t run on a “pure, totally free” operating system.

So has Canonical made some mistakes along the way? Sure. But they learn, adapt, and move on. And eventually, even upstream distros take some lessons from Canonical. The Calameres installer, for example, looks and behaves a lot like Canonical’s Ubiquity installer that made Ubuntu so easy to install. Now even Debian Buster is using it! But they resisted for a lonnnnnnng time. “Ew! That’s Ubuntu stuff! Ewwww!” Snobs. Typical of Debian. But they have finally relented. Perhaps after Linus Torvaldes (the inventor of Linux) himself mentioned that even he couldn’t install Debian they decided to consider the idea…

So, anyway: As much as purity and perfection are to be strived for, don’t chase me (and countless others) away from a perfectly working OS and drive us back to Windows just to spite you! You gave me the gospel of Linux, and I believed and converted. Baptized in Ubuntu and life is good. Don’t tell me afterwards that now to be a “real” Linux user I have to abandon the distro I have come to rely on and struggle to get a computer working on Gentoo or Linux-From-Scratch. Just as legalism robs Christians of joy and authentic faith, so it is with Linux. So shut up and leave those Linux Mint / Ubuntu / Zorin / etc users alone.

Likely to Be my Permanent – and my Only – Linux OS

I have kept Linux Lite and MX-Linux around for a long while, mostly to help introduce new users to Linux. Many of them got started because the Microsoft OS they were used to is such a freakin’ resource-hog that you have to buy a new computer every three years or so just to keep up! Why let a perfectly good working machine go to the landfill because Micro$oft has decided not to support it anymore, right? So, Linux to the rescue, right?

Nope, not nearly as much as it ought to be. A trip to the Swap Shop finds a dozen or so vendors offering refurbished computers for $40 or so, but they still have Windows and they’re slower than snails. When I used to brag about how Linux could make them run better than new, and without any need for the dreaded terminal, I won a few “converts,” and a few more by cleaning up and donating old computers with a lightweight “newbie-friendly” distro pre-installed. Of allllllll those people I helped, guess how many are still using Linux?

One. Just one. As far as I know, anyway, we lost touch when I moved away. So maybe none! All of them – and we’re only talking a dozen or so – have since traded up to new computers and – one guess – they’re Windows or Mac.

So, my OS is gonna be for ME, not for anyone else. Not to “show off” to others in hopes of winning them over; not on my computer so I can walk others through the steps of configuring, fixing, tweaking, and installing software. Not for the coolest, awesomest, most thrilling visual effects and eye candy I used to care about. No more of that now… my ‘puter is my own, and it’s just for me, and it’s gonna be what I want: Blazing fast, graphical, simple, uncomplicated, and basic. No systemd. No bloat. Nothing I don’t need or want. One application per task, faithful to the old Unix ideal, quaint and outdated as that might seem to others who like the bleeding edge, eye candy, and super gaming capability. Does anyone know of a Linux distro that offers just that, without all the busy bovine excrement that has to be included in the OS just to make this-or-that other thing work that you actually want? One that is still supported and up-to-date without the instability of the Big Major desktop distros? I can think of one. It’s an old faithful standby that has kept my ancient spare 32-bit Dell out of the landfill for over a year now, with no issues. And it’s mind-bending fast on my higher-end 64-bit desktop and laptop.

I’m so disheartened by the fact that all my enthusiasm, “evangelism,” and newbie support for Linux hasn’t actually changed anyone’s mind for more than a temporary short period, that I think I’m pretty much done with all that now. I’ve got better things to use my computer for than just writing about computers, OSes, software, and why these things should matter to people. In fact they don’t matter to most people, and desktops and laptops have largely been replaced by smart phones and tablets now anyway. You like your Chromebook? Cool. Does it matter to most people that it’s Linux-based? Prob’ly not. Does it matter that it’s a Google gadget and it’s likely spying on you and reporting back to the Mother Ship for targeted ads and to predict what you’re likely to spend money on and where you go every day? Apparently not.

Well, it matters to me. And to maybe 2% of all desktop computer users on Earth. The other 98% are content to be carried along, captive to a single vendor and subject to it’s whims. Fine, fools.

I’m moving on.

Moving on from Diaspora the digital ghetto, moving on from trying to convert others to this truly better way of computing and managing applications, data, and workload. I’ll still advocate for Linux and Free Open Source Software (FOSS) when and if the subject ever comes up at school or work or church or hanging out, and here in this blog from time to time when I feel moved to do so and have something interesting to write about that might be of interest to others who appreciate it’s value.

A Great Review of SalixOS

Hi everyone! Here is a great review of SalixOS for responsible users. The reason I’m looking into this again is that my beloved MX-Linux, based on Debian Stable, may not be able to avoid systemd once Debian Buster is released (MX is based on Debian Stable). And there are plenty of good reasons to avoid systemd, even for us ordinary non-technical folks who just want a reliable OS that doesn’t spy on us and report back to the Mother Ship and stuff, as systemd does (didjya know it’s linked to Google!?!), journaling and logging everything!

It’s probably totally unrealistic of me to hope for, but just imagine if MX-Linux (which has been at the top of Distrowatch for awhile) got together with SalixOS (which is ranked even below server-only distros, unbelievably). Maybe the Salix devs could teach MX how to get around systemd in spite of Debian’s efforts to make it impossible, and MX could teach SalixOS about the supercool tool set that makes it so awesome. Both distros have the same mission: To make Linux manageable for us ordinary casual users, while avoiding the instability, unpredictability, and bloat of the popular “newbie” distros.

Yup, probably totally unrealistic of me to even wish for such a thing. But I suspect that SalixOS will be inheriting a lot of new users once MX-19 comes around, if they are unable to avoid systemd.

Kinda Missing My Linux Lite

I know, I know. I’ve already got the bestest, most wonderfulest and awesomeful Linux distro in the history of ever on my ‘puter. It’s not encumbered by systemd, it’s got cool tools, good looks, great performance, and a wonderful supportive community.

But I still miss my Linux Lite, and I’m torrenting the latest release all day today. I intend to dual-boot it with my equally fantastical and awesomeful MX-18.

Why, you ask? Why, why whyyyyy would you do such a thing?! After all that stuff you said about Ubuntu-based distros putting Beta software in their updates and all that stuff about what systemd might well become?

I have several good reasons, and I’m not alone! A lot of cool techno-wizard types who use MX-Linux and AntiX and post regularly in MX forums also use Linux Lite and help out in their forums! The two distros share a common mission in spite of their different bases and different philosophies. That mission is making and keeping desktop Linux easy and simple for us “mere mortals,” us ordinary desktop and laptop computer users. They have different ways of doing it, and both are great! I tend to give Linux Lite the edge in that department so far. My reasons for dual-booting:

  • For new Linux users that I don’t do the installations for, Linux Lite is much easier to install. That Ubiquity installer from Ubuntu is just the best there is, and I wish the Debian-based distros would adopt and use it.
  • If I do the installation, it’s likely to be MX-Linux if they are interested in really learning how to configure and maintain it. If they’re honestly not willing or inclined to learn more, and to join the forums and learn to responsibly maintain a DebianLinux system, I’ll install Linux Lite for them, which – for now at least – has a very low learning curve and built-in maintenance features for “lazy” users.
  • I can provide much better support to these new users if I use the same distro and can “click along with them” to configure, adjust, and maintain their OS.
  • I can remove 99.999% of the risk posed by the Ubuntu base by adding the “after market” tools that minimize the update dangers and make the menus and such more intuitive (in my opinion). UnlockMe also has the simplest way to add software that isn’t in the Linux Lite and Ubuntu repositories. If I do the install, I’ll use a custom iso that includes these wonderful tools.

Linux Lite has a wonderful community of friendly people, and like the MX-forums, the developer(s) actively participate in those forums. That means a lot to me, still being as technophobic as I ever was, despite being geeky enough to use Linux and actually understand some of the techno-jargon in Star Trek, my all-time favorite entertainment escape. They are also easily searchable and welcoming for those few newbies who actually regret not wanting to learn more at first.

So look for an overdue review of the current version later this week or next.

“Artim”

Ubuntu-Base, Debian Base, Systemd

I love my Linux Lite! On decent hardware it is light, fast, simple, and best distro for newcomers to Linux, bar none.

On older hardware, especially legacy hardware, not so much anymore. I can’t run it nimbly on the old Dell Dimension, so I’m loading up an ultralight OS on it called AntiX. Reading up on this distro and it’s mid-weight sibling, MXLinux, I found some very cool stuff that has me thinking hard about even my newer machine.

MXLinux has some great advantages for a mission-critical computer:


1. – It is based on Debian Stable.

That means several things: Ubuntu-based distros are famous for including beta and beta-quality stuff in their updates! Debian Stable simply does not. Breakage in Debian Stable is very rare. So there’s really no need for a “Mint-Updater” to filter out the high-risk, dangerous system-breaking stuff. That’s a biggie for me.

It also means access to the huge, vast, far-flung Debian repositories of free and open-source software. The largest on Earth. No beta stuff, not cutting-edge, the latest and greatest, but definitely more reliable.

2. – Systemd is there, but not used in MXLinux.

A lot of software depends on systemd now, so installing just about anything from the Gnome project and other software means you have to have systemd as a dependency. But MXLinux doesn’t use systemd as it’s init, nor as the invisible lord and master of every process and daemon on the system, as it does in both Debian and Ubuntu and most of their derivative distros. For most users – including me, actually – this is not any big deal. But in the back of my mind I wonder what systemd may become as it takes over more and more functions in Linux in the future.

3. – In addition to the Debian Stable repositories, MXLinux has their own, with up-to-date and tested software. No more adding PPAs just to get this or that bit of software. That is a big deal to me, since I think it’s dangerous to add PPAs to your software sources.

Just for these three things, I would thing seriously about adopting MXLinux as my “default” distro, especially on modest hardware.

AntiX has no systemd at all, by the way! Debian-base, systemd-free. That’s going on the old Dell Dimension.

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.

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.