Linux praise

Originally created on 9/14/2000

The roots

I don’t think I’d deserve to be called a “Linux-head,” even though I am fascinated by this OS. Frankly, I like FreeBSD as well, and very much so. It’s just that at this point of time I know the Tux world better than that of the [name of BSD daemon].

My Linux endeavor began in late ’96 or early ’97, I believe. A friend of mine had mentioned it a few times (in fact, he has been administering a Linux/UN*X network), I’ve seen it mentioned in a few places. I became curious. I ordered a ‘Try Linux’ CD from Cheapbytes or LinuxCentral.

I’ve tried a few OSes by then. I despised Win95 from the very beginning: did not find it even remotely `innovative’ (but I was biased — I was in the States back then and my computer of choice for one and a half preceding years was a Mac). I was very interested in OS/2 (Warp), but a bootlegged CD refused to install at first, and later I found the system too crippled and weak in terms of applications.

The university in US was running most of its heavy-duty stuff on old IBM 3270’s and was heavily locked-in with IBM: all PC’s were PS/2’s running OS/2 (aside from mentioned above Macs of which they had a variety of Performas and a range of Classics). So, I poked around University system a bit. There was not much to see there though, and I was not a CompSci major anyway.

Much earlier than that, in 1988/9 I’ve also used Unix, but that was VERY brief experience which can be discounted almost completely.

The first encounter

So, there I was with a ‘Try Linux’ CD in my hand, an unknown ahead of me. There were 3 distributions on the CD: Slackware X.x, RedHat 4.x and Debian 1.x. Name ‘Debian’ somehow repelled me — I immediately imagined some sort of a Gennie from a bottle, or a fat Arabian Shaikh. It just would not go for some reason.My friend (see above) used to mention RedHat, but I was not sure whether in good or bad way. Hell, I said to myself, this is at least a name I’ve heard of! And that was the first install.

Obviously, as a person coming largely from a Mac/PC background I did not find it particularly great at first sight. Installation was really difficult for me, I did not know much about all these partitions/devices/addresses and ports (hey, I had all my choices predefined in all of my previous OSes!), it was dreadful. And I did not like the huge ugly icons of RedHat system/package management panel. Yuk.

So, I decided to give it another try, with a different distribution. I have also ordered a promotional copy of Caldera‘s OpenLinux, so that was my second try. I’ve removed it half a day after installing it. This distro was even less appealing, especially considering their strong emphasis on a better features available only commercially (I was in no way a FSF advocate at the time, yet free [beer] access to powerful software was very well known to me. Or better put free [pirated]).

Desperate, I decided that I gotta give it last try. Slackware. Weird name, but at least not repelling as Debian. Ok, lets’s see what you’re about…

A brave new world

The first thing that surprised and encouraged me was the ease of installation (in relative terms) compared to the previous 2 distros. I mean, it was not as easy as installing DOS and Windows over it. Nor as Win95 installation. But it was easier/cleaner than RedHat process, much nicer than Caldera’s in terms of explaining what we do now, what’s gonna happen next, etc.I loved it. I finally found what I could learn little by little without being annoyed by any number of things. It then also turned out that this was my friends distribution of choice!

To be honest it did not live too long on my HDD though. In haste and without experience I have not partitioned my hard drive well and was forced to clean it all to get Windows install properly. Then I did not have much time for playing with it. Then I discovered that having 3 distros on a single CD, obviously, meant that those were some-what crippled distros.

The learning curve

I did not have any idea to make Linux my default OS at the time. I felt adventurous, true. But that was not enough to completely change it all over. It also seemed at the time that Windows NT 4.0 was gonna be quite nice: stable, fast and looking good.So, despite a positive experience with Slack, and inspired by a few news articles on the Net I order official RedHat 4.2 — the full thing: 2 CDs, a box and a printed manual. I also ordered a few Linux books (listed below).

The 4.2 was better than the version I tried before. It also was the first full Linux installation I’ve done. I’ve read the book, I’ve read some more. I learned a few things. I struggled through a few. Particularly difficult (for some reason) was getting PPP to work. I’ve discovered the wonderful world of HOW-TO’s and peer help. I’ve also confirmed my feelings about dislike for RedHat: this time I did not like RPMs. I hated them. I could not figure out where things were going, what are they, how I change things or do them my way.

I have ditched RedHat for the second time and installed Slack from the same ‘Try Linux’ CD as before. And I confirmed my feelings once again: I loved it. Soon after that I got a chance to lay my hands on a more recent version of Slackware (3.4, I believe), and a full as well.

A trusted friend

This one lived a long life on my computer, went through a lot, has been changed a lot. I’ve learned to get things done on my own. Was frustrated for the first time that I got a bunch of error messages when I tried to compile something, and rejoiced once I figured out what was wrong. It lived long until glibc broke things.See, as I said, I am not a programmer, nor a CompSci major. I just love this stuff. And frequently the looks do matter to me. So, naturally, the first time I saw Enlightenment (thanks to PLiG) I wanted it. Bad. So, I downloaded it, as well as a bunch of other stuff it depended on: GTK+, imlib, all graphics libs (libjpeg, libgif, libpng, etc.). I compiled it and installed it. It worked. Not from the very first time, but it worked. It was fun.

But then the GNOME came around. And I wanted it too. And I tried to get it and compile it and… It would not. I RTFM’ed. I checked my libc version. It was libc5, but GNOME needed libc6 (a.k.a. glibc2). Fair enough, I told myself. This is not the first time that I need an updated library. I’ll just get it and all.

Well, not so simple, Joe. That’s not just a library. This is the library. And upgrading it was very difficult. I tried to compile. It worked, yet nothing worked after that. I tried to get a binary — I get in the similar trouble. I concluded after a long trial and error, mailing list reading and HOW-TO mastering that I would need to recompile most of my system to get it all running with glibc2/libc6. I gave up — I did not have time for that, and I was really intimidated by the task. I decided to just order a distribution that would use glibc2 (Slackware 4.0 that was still in beta at the time was still on glibc1/libc5 with libc6 runtime, I tried it too but it did not help me). RedHat again.

Square one?..

I’ve gone up by a major version: from 4.2 to 5.2. It was better, or I just became more experienced and knew more about where things may be. I learned to use RPM a bit, though not a great deal. I found it to be not too bad, yet not very exciting, still. I got GNOME to compile, was always up-to-date with all minor releases of E, had every theme from E.Themes.Org on my PC.But I was not at home with it. For some reason it still did not feel right. I thought about switching back to Slack, but it still was not on glibc2. I poked around and discovered that the repellent distribution — that ‘Debian’ thing was also a glibc2. More than that, I’ve read In the Beginning Was the Command Line and an interview with Neal Stephenson (whose Snowcrash and Diamond Age I liked a lot) at Amazon and then the other one at and found it amusing that the guy loved Linux and in particular — Debian. Hell, I told to myself, I gotta try.

The new frontier

As the man said, I got my CD over at LinuxCentral — full Debian 2.1 Slink on 2 CDs in a little paper envelope were on my table in 2 weeks’ time. I was very eager to see what it’s like, but did not want to loose my current install. So I set the box up to triple-boot WinNT/RH/Debian. This did not last long: RH got ditched (3rd time in a row, pretty consistent, eh?) within a week.Debian was a marvel. Install had reminded me of Slackware, dselect(1) sucked, but otherwise .deb seemed to be a more interesting approach than .rpm. With a single package repository/bug tracking system it was more like a serious software company approach, rather than a fairly anarchic RPM world (which I mean in only good sense).

Then I discovered apt(1). Right around the same time I’ve gotten a free access to the Net, and ever since then my phone line was engaged constantly: I’d be always on-line, fetching system updates over night and keeping the box running just in case during the day.

So much did I like it, that I even went ahead and installed it on my office machine as well: ThinkPad 770E. I also convinced a few friends that Debian was the distro they should use. None had ever complained.

What’s so good about Debian? The first thing that comes to my mind is the system management. With apt/dpkg it is MUCH easier to do than with RPMs. You get distribution and quality control in one place, provided by volunteers around the world.

The second thing, and some may flame me for the order of things, is the fact that it is entirely free [speech], unlike any other distro. It may not matter to most, after all I am running Netscape, FrameMaker and KDE on my box, but it does make Debian developers an honor to be prudent like that. Had everybody been as prudent, the world would definitely be a better place.

And then again the depth and breadth of the distro as measured in terms of package number — this is probably one of the biggest around. They have it all. If they don’t — well, you can always compile it yourself. Or fetch an rpm/tgz and convert it into a .deb using alien(1) script. Simple as that.

Happily ever after…

This lengthy dedication has come around for reason, really. Everyone in this life had screwed something badly once or twice (and if they say they never did — well, you can bet they did it more than twice), or found himself screwed. That was exactly the situation: I was on a business trip, away from home. My trusted ThinkPad started to show the age and brutal handling: one day its AC/DC adapter got it. I had 2 full battery packs, but those were also not so young and lasted 2 hours each only.That is when I was glad I have set it up to dual-boot NT/Linux: you can bet that in the plain CLI mode your laptop will consume less (even if marginally) power. In a situation when you need to at least be able to read your mails and type up a memo or two — all you really need is mutt(1), fetchmail(1) and vi(1) (you may wish to change some of them to suit you preferences). Oh, yeah, and a Linux box 🙂

Those batteries lasted me 3 and a half days. Impressive, eh?

Soon after that I got a replacement laptop (I was still not home, hence repairing or getting a new damn adapter was not an option [Thanks, IBM, helluva support you guys offer! And helluva partner to provide it!]). A nice new Toshiba Portege 7200CTe specs. Has a pretty big hard drive — 12GBi. So, I figured, let’s try and install FreeBSD there. For fun.

After messing around with it for half a day (I was trying to perform a net install over an HTTP proxy — there is an option in the install menu to do just that, but I am still to find out how it is supposed to work), I did something wrong. Namely I ‘Okayed’ standard boot manager procedure and the thing messed up my partition table. I thought I am screwed bad: I just got this laptop, and it was tough. I just got everything working on it. And now on boot up all I see is: No operating system found. Pretty encouraging, eh? Oh, and on top of that BSD failed to install.

I rushed home hoping that I may still save the day. Ok, I thought, MBR must have been overwritten. Not to worry, I’ll just install bare-boned Linux and LILO to boot it as well as NT.

Good thing I did not completely rush to conclusions there… Once I booted off a floppy and got to partitioning part I happily discovered that the sole reason for my trouble was ‘bootable’ flag in the partition table. What a relief… And thanks Linux, yet again.

Ever since then I carry a rescue set: a boot and the root floppies of Debian GNU/Linux. Just in case. Highly recommend.

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