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Ken Leyba [opinions]

Sometimes I just want to be stupid [editorial] [free-software] [gnu/linux]

Most modern Linux distributions have slick graphical installers, are on single DVD's and install common applications very easily. The installers make software choices that lead new users by the hand with little to go wrong. Life is also easier for us old timers who, in the past, suffered through many configuration files, compiling network drivers and the miscellaneous headaches we encountered trying to get our hardware to work.

The first Linux distribution that I installed, way back around 1995, was Slackware which came on a set of floppy disks. There was another set for X Windows and other sets for additional software packages. Installing the operating system, once you went through the disk partitioning detour, was pretty straight forward. Getting X to run was an entirely different exercise. You had to install X Windows, load the correct driver for your graphics card, setup the monitor and manually setup the configuration file, albeit through a handy utility. If you didn't setup the software correctly, supposedly, you could destroy your monitor or graphics card. I never heard of this actually happening, but I could imagine typing “startx” and the monitor begin to billow gray electronic smoke. The kind of smoke that you know will make your system never work right again.

Installing and configuring Linux really wasn't that much of a leap though. Getting the most out of DOS high memory, TSR's and knowing the difference between “extended” and “expanded” memory was an art in itself. Making DOS do its magic tricks and Linux doing its own tricks, though different, still required you to know what you were doing. Without the required knowledge you suffered through a partially working machine or worse a machine that just stared back at you with a flashing cursor, no input or output. All of this before search engines had the answer to every question, well probably a wrong answer, but an answer none the less.

All of this graphical and auto-magic installation goodness has made me mentally fat and lazy, we'll leave the physical out of this. I now expect this wondrous GUI-ness all the time, and when it's not there, the small nerve in my neck, that lets itself be known when I'm frustrated, starts to signal its existence. Now with the hundreds of packages that are available on Linux, you would think I would know better than to expect everything to be point and click. Actually, I do know better and I should be happy with that.

I've been working on a couple of projects that have me download source code and do the compile and install dance. Compilation is required either because the hardware that I have isn't supported by the driver version shipped with the distribution or the package is only available as source code. Making sure I have the correct compiler installed with the required libraries forces me to know what I'm doing. I'm back to the old days of using vi and tweaking configuration files to make everything work just right. Basically, I need to know how Linux works to make it do what I need it to do.

The nice thing about Linux though, is that if you have to install something from source or configure a particular piece of hardware that isn't widely supported, the knowledge gained makes you a better user. Sure it's more difficult compiling, installing and configuring, but you have more control of the installation process. If something goes wrong during one of the steps you most likely will get enough error messages to be able to see what went wrong and where. Then you can either figure out the problem or, with the error information in hand, asking an expert for help. Much more helpful than getting a meaningless error message from an installer that you have no control over.

I guess blissful ignorance isn't all that it's cracked up to be. You can't blame me for wanting to be stupid sometimes though. I can dream of being, let's say less than knowledgeable. It's just good to realize that with computing knowledge comes computing power. Without that knowledge, I might as well be staring at a blinking cursor.


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