Open source snobbery or why awesome is almost, but not quite enough

So I have a dilemma with what I use as my computing platform. It is a silly thing, but I suspect that others experience a similar thing, and that makes it something worth considering. It is a technical issue mixed with, or undermined by, aesthetics.

I have been a Linux user for a number of years – in various incarnations. I started out as a Red Hat user – back then I dual-booted between Windows and Red Hat, partly because getting a working internet connection was a challenge. I changed to Mandrake Linux which was impressive enough to let me change entirely. After that I tried out a large number of Linux distributions as well as variations of the BSDs. I settled on Slackware with Slackware 10.0 and enjoyed the Slackware philosophy: You can set up this system to do and be anything. I learned to rewrite the boot scripts, recompile the kernel to only support the hardware I owned but do that well. It was a great satisfaction.

However, with my two most recent laptops, both Thinkpads, I have experienced difficulties with wireless as well as power management. It seems they have the same issues with suspend, and the wireless connection is consistently dropping. The first aspect I have found an explanation for and solution to, but not the latter.
As a result, I have had to leave Slackware and look elsewhere for the most fitting system   for this old X32. And this leads me to an embarrassing problem with making an appropriate choice.

I guess it comes down to a perception of hierarchy. Plainly, everyone will agree that Slackware is a distribution for Linux users who know their way around the basic Linux system, simply because if you don’t, you are not going to get an installation that is usable.
What this means is that Slackware is an endgame distribution. If one looks at the mailing lists, people have been using Slackware for ages, and people who end up with Slackware are going to stay there.
However, if you have to become a refugee from Slackware, the original Linux distribution, it is going to be an extremely ambivalent process. Because you already made it all the way.

I am using Fedora 16, the Lxde respin. And actually, this is a lovely distribution. It is lightweight, it is up to date, it will do the nice things you want without too much customisation. However, it goes through a lot of stuff before it is ready to log in, and I have no way of gettng a feel for the system. And it gives the distinct impression that one is not supposed to. A lot of stuff works automagically on this system, and it does seem a bit sensitive to tampering. I should not neglect to mention that one can get quite spoiled using a system which will do a lot automatically compared to a distribution where one has to do a lot of work before using it will be smooth and simple…

Now of course, the most marketed hobbyist distribution is Ubuntu. But that is a mainstream beginners’ distribution with a questionable approach to community and going for the mindshare. Leaving aside that Gnome3 and Unity will not run on my hardware, Ubuntu simply does not appeal to me. While Linux Mint is considerably more appealing visually and when it comes to functionality – I just downloaded their new Lxde release, and it works quite well – but I always get bugs with these Ubuntu derivatives, and somehow a couple of lines of terminal output will always peek out. If one is running an OS where this is intentional, that is not a problem, but with these, it just looks sloppy. I can also choose to see it the way that they can’t be bothered to support the older hardware I have chosen to buy. This does not make it more appealing.

Recently, I have installed Chakra and Arch – they both had some boot issues I could not track down. They would boot, but they would be probing the hardware for so long that it was pointless. I tried FreeBSD, GhostBSD and PC-BSD – they give a strange boot freeze error. The Red Hat Enterprise/CentOS/Scientific Linux family will not accept my machine because it has to go with PAE – which my CPU does not. Since this is an older machine, I am not even going to attempt to make Gentoo play on it. It would take me a week to build a usable system on this old iron. Dragora, while interesting as a Free-as-in-freedom-FSF-approved take on Slackware, simply won’t give me a good X.org implementation.
I mention these because they are respectable systems. Arch, FreeBSD and RHEL are distributions for technologists. Fedora gets a few bonus points as a member of the Red Hat family with a healthy dose of community.

Long story short, I feel a bit like a phony, and the more I use this, I feel less of the feeling that made me happy about running an open source craftsman’s OS. For the time being, I will stick with Fedora. I have Debian Live sitting on a USB stick next to me – Debian is a respectable community tool. A bit of work would be needed to really get into it. When I used Debian way back, it seemed very elaborate, but powerful.

The quest continues…

11 thoughts on Open source snobbery or why awesome is almost, but not quite enough

  1. Try Debian. I’ve found that it “fits” more hardware than anything else.

    However, some of your trouble might be due to things in the kernel that every distro picks up.

    You can always ride an older Slackware release — they seem to patch those forever.

  2. Bjarke Todbjerg Nielsen

    Being forced into distro exile due to some small, yet annoyingly persistent bug is frustrating. Somehow, knowing you, I’d think that you’d be more satisfied installing Slackware and giving the troubleshooting a real go :-) For instance, you could download the entire source tarball for the actual kernel configuration used on your Fedora system and try compiling it in Slackware. At least i presume that Fedora packages an easily portable kernel tarball – Ubuntu and Debian does.
    That being said, taking Debian for a spin is not a bad idea. Personally I haven’t bothered about using Slackware for a while, for the simple reason that I can’t put my finger on anything that needs changing in the default Debian install.

  3. Another vote for Debian. It is well worth the bit of work required to get into it. Also, I think it should gain bonus points for being a 100% community run distro. Regarding the PAE issues, Debian’s 486 flavoured kernel should be fine for your system :)

  4. Bjarke,
    Yeah… about that.
    Funny thing is, the reason I use Slackware is simplicity. Doing the setup and fixing up the scripts is so transparent that there is not a lot of work to it. And as you say, you and I have built a kernel or two in our time, though it has been a while in my case.
    I actually suspected the firmware, since the IPW2200 requires something extra – but that is apparently updated, so there shouldn’t be an issue.
    To be honest, most distributions drive me crazy. I love Debian in so many ways, but the dependency handling, as in I am just going to install this, this and that, because you may at some point conceivably need it can drive me up the wall. So I expect to be troubleshooting alongside my daily system.
    I am also considering a Slackware downgrade, since I build most things from Slackbuilds.org anyway. That will also fix my suspend and resume issue (well, only resume, actually, but… you know).

    Philip,
    The only PAE issues I had were with the RHEL family, and I got the impression that their big iron-approach means that they basically Can’t Be Bothered(TM) with non-PAE hardware.
    I am taking Crunchbang in as well – your approach to Openbox is exactly how I like it.

  5. Bjarke Todbjerg Nielsen

    Morten; Well, that’s a valid point – cramping your Slackware system with a bloated kernel from some other distribution might somehow defy the purpose of Slackware. It would definitely show you whether your problem was solely a kernel thing, though.
    ipw2200 you say – I use that firmware on the thinkpad. Mine is a PRO/Wireless 2915ABG wireless chip which seemed to work well in Slackware.

  6. Maybe it is one of those IBM-hardware-pretending-to-be-standardised things. Do you use WICD?
    Interestingly, after I have screwed up my Fedora install by pulling out a lot of services and modifying my Lxdm, it is actually much nicer. So right now I am… less distressed.

  7. Bjarke Todbjerg Nielsen

    At the moment I simply use network-manager, but I don’t actually recall what I used in Slackware. Probably WICD :-P . I seem to remember that there was another WICD like application which I may have used, but the name escapes me.

  8. I say go with whatever works, as long as it’s FOSS =P

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