An account of my GNU/Linux adventures of last weekend. It was enjoyable and frustrating. And I’m still struggling with how to write about it. What level of detail will serve you the best? There are dry technical details to be mentioned, but also some observations on the experience that might benefit others trying to make this same move to freedom. For me, it seems to be as much a psychological test as a technical challenge.
There are many good technical help and reference web sites out there, but that’s not really what I’m aiming at with this blog. I’d love it if people found this site on a search and it helped them solve a specific technical problem, but my goal is more to provide something interesting to read and to promote free software by talking about the ideas and the culture and how we might move to a free society. But it’s also to chronicle my efforts to start really using free software, so I think I should report on the journey as I go.
It’s kind of like golf. If you’ve ever golfed much, you’ve probably run in to people who want to tell you in excruciating detail how their round went. But you don’t care.
I had to gradually learn this myself. An old golf pro kindly helped me see the light. “Scott, let me tell you something. I don’t mind hearing about your round, because I like you. But if you look around, all these guys–they don’t really care. People only care about their own game.” I wish I could remember better what he said. It was a great lesson, the way he said it. He didn’t make me feel like a bore, but I immediately understood how boorish I was being.
I love to golf, although I haven’t played a round in a few years now. I’d be happy to hear that you love it also. But we don’t need to burden each other with epic golf stories. This post feels like a similar thing. I might enjoy poking around on my computer and getting software to run, but I suspect the details might not be as interesting to you. With this article, I’m trying to provide the details in support of some general observations about this “move to freedom,” so I hope it doesn’t read entirely like some jackass Biff yarping on about his round of golf at the country club. Please go ahead and browse the article and let me know if it felt as satisfying as a five foot par putt.
Anyway, that big intro just made this thing that much longer. I said that it was enjoyable and frustrating to work on GNU/Linux last weekend. Enjoyable because I like learning new things and solving problems. Frustrating because I don’t have enough time to invest in these activities. More and more I just want things to work without understanding them at a low level. (This is a serious conflict of interest that I’ll want to explore more in an upcoming post. I hope I remember to do that…) So while things mostly worked fine, the things that didn’t were irksome, and I think about how they will get in the way of GNU/Linux desktop adoption.
I worked on Wintermute, my old Dell P2 400MHz machine that has served me faithfully since 1998. It came to live with us about the time I was finishing William Gibson‘s Neuromancer, which suggested the name for such a powerful machine.
I had installed Fedora Core 5 several months ago on the machine. The install was easy and I was impressed by how nice the graphical installer has gotten to be over previous versions of Red Hat. I didn’t do a lot with it beyond getting VNC to work so I could stash the box in the basement and run X Windows on it from my main workstation.
I had planned to use Wintermute primarily as a file server and put Ubuntu on a slightly less antiquated machine, Eeyore, to use for web browsing and spreadsheets, looking for a gentle introduction to actually using a GNU/Linux box for something real, but then Eeyore died.
So it was time to promote Wintermute.
Hopes and Dreams and Freedom Goggles
I was hoping for a fairly easy setup. I hauled Wintermute upstairs and hooked him up. All went pretty well, except that as I was setting up my wife’s account and configuring it, somehow the
/home directory became unreadable by normal users. I don’t think I did it, but I know just enough to be dangerous, so maybe I did. I was able to figure out how to start up in a “safe session” as root and fix the permissions.
I look at GNU/Linux through Windows eyes and with an eye to how Windows users might make the transition to it. I understand it does a lot of things better, some of which I’m already aware of, and others which I expect to learn in time. I think I’m geek enough to figure it out, although there is an ongoing crisis of confidence when confronted with my raging inadequacies in doing this migration.
I want to see GNU/Linux replace Windows over time for non-geeks, and it’s hard to imagine that happening given the entrenched state of Windows, and the current state of GNU/Linux for the desktop. Many things about the Windows GUI are very nice, and I’d like to see those ideas in free desktops, and I think we’ll need the things that people have become accustomed to having, if we’re to encourage them to try switching.
I think it must happen, eventually, that GNU/Linux will become widespread on the desktop. It’s easy to imagine this based on my belief in the principles and utility of free software, but there is a disconnect between that belief and the current reality. Windows is dug in.
You can buy in to the FUD and fall in to hopelessness, if you’re not careful. Jerry Pournelle often says that despair is a sin, and I agree that it does seem like a particularly unhelpful and buzzkilling state of mind to wallow in. (Jerry is usually referring to politics, an area in which I often indulge in despair, but it applies to technology also. As technology keeps gaining more importance in our life, there’ll be plenty of opportunities for hand-wringing and despair.)
Anyway, the permissions issue was kind of strange, and I imagined the panic of an unexperienced-in-Unix Windows user at not being able to log in because of this, and how much more pain it could have caused them, but maybe they wouldn’t cause that kind of problem to happen in the first place. And I fully understand that many “regular” Windows users panic at any number of Windows problems, so again this isn’t meant to be critical of how GNU/Linux works.
Solving that problem built up my confidence, but then I ran in to…
Continued in Part 2: A round of GNU/Linux, heading in to the back nine.