On the Crossroads, Past the Arch

To begin with, I have been a vivid Arch Linux user for quite some time. I greatly enjoyed the flexibility this specific distribution offers, even when using derivatives, such as ArchBang. Pacman also happens to be my favorite package manager by far. Not to mention that Arch Linux, despite being labeled as ‘bleeding edge’, never failed me. However, as in every long-term relationship, small things kept piling up and one of them finally became ‘the last straw’. In my case it was the constant need for manual configuration and issues with less popular AUR packages. For example, I really wanted to use Window Maker, but many of the Dock-App packages were outdated or simply broken, because the original maintainers dropped them. Another case concerned the Flash plugin for Chromium. It relied on a .rpm package from Google’s repository, which at one point got removed. Some time passed before the AUR package maintainer noticed the problem and provided a working link in his/her PKGBUILD.

I have no grudge against Arch Linux. Quite the contrary – I love it! For a distribution that small, it is more than incredible how popular and versatile it became. In addition, it taught me a great deal about Linux and its kernel. However, I decided to resume my journey through Linux Land and move forward. ‘Where to?’, one may ask. Debian, perhaps? Maybe Gentoo?

I still have much to learn…

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Tending to the Trees

When I was a child, we used to search for information in books – encyclopedias, journals, illustrated lexicons, etc. Writing an assay was actually hard, as it required hours of prior data collection. I also remember when I had to prepare a portfolio on local bird species. All of the photos in it were taken by me. No one would consider searching the Web, because we simply did not have it. It might sound unbelievable to generations of toddlers and teenagers to come. Now, everything is ‘there’. One can just access the mighty ‘orchard of knowledge’ and pick an apple or two.

apple orchard 2 jpg resizedWith time the orchard grew and expanded, covering more and more varied topics – economy, politics, philosophy, sociology, science, etc. However, I feel that the caretakers are few in number and the orchard has been left understaffed for too long. This is especially glaring in the ever-changing Linux Land. I often stumbled upon articles, forum threads, whole websites which contained vastly outdated information. We have more trees than we can take care of. Or perhaps it is not so?

In past years we thought that a crucial function needs to be performed by a specialized body of individuals, trained and equipped for a given task. However, nowadays we have superior means of communication and we are much more aware of the world than we used to be. Responsibilities no longer have to burden specialized bodies, but can be distributed among all of us – the people. The community. All we need is tools and basic training on how to use those tools. Together, we just might be able to tidy up the orchard.

What I propose is a tool that would allow Internet surfers (in other words, all of us!) to flag outdated information. This would stack into a ‘relevance counter’, which then could be used as an additional variable in prioritizing search engine results. If the ‘relevance counter’ crosses a specific threshold, the link in question is completely removed. I admit this does not solve the problem completely as the outdated piece of information still exists somewhere. However, let us take one step at a time…

A Bottle of WINE, a Bottle of Awesomeness!

wineOne of the major concerns that beginner Linux users have is whether they will still be able to use their favorite Windows programs, especially games, despite not running Windows itself. In fact, there are numerous distributions that address this issue as part of their missive. For instance, Zorin OS and Linux Mint advertise themselves as perfect not only for beginners, but also for former Windows users. Those two distributions I would surely recommend to ‘Windows refugees’. Apart from them, Robolinux offers a pre-configured virtual machine for Windows XP and Windows 7, so that Win can run seamlessly alongside Linux.

However, there is one majestic piece of software available to most Linux distributions alike – WINE. Contrary to popular belief, Wine Is NOT an Emulator. Windows emulators of course exist, in the form of virtual machines. However, WINE works slightly differently. It is a compatibility layer that directly translates calls for Windows-specific libraries to their Linux counterparts. Due to that and because of the way the code is written, the resource-usage penalty of running Windows application through WINE is minute.

From a different perspective, modern Windows installments also use a compatibility layer for 32-bit applications  under 64-bit systems. Incidentally, some 32-bit Windows applications may run more smoothly through WINE, than under Windows itself. Although I no longer have a Windows computer to test this, I decided to give some old classics a go. As a case study I have chosen Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings.

WINE’s main website, WineHQ, hosts a vast database of thousands of Windows applications that have already been tested and may or may not work properly. Age of Empires was a good choice as it was ranked Gold (mainly playable with only minor issues). Admitingly, I did encounter a number of issues I was forced to approach.

1. CD-ROM not recognized. It might come as a surprise, but Linux usually fails to recognize and/or mount the original CD. Brief investigation yielded the explanation. It seems that Age of Empires 2 relies on a rather dated CD filesystem format iso9660. This could be quickly fixed by defining a proper mount point in /etc/fstab, denoting iso9660 as the filesystem of choice. An examplary entry looks as follows:

/dev/sr0                 /media/cdrom                iso9660               ro,exec,noauto                0 0

/dev/sr0 is the name of the DVD-ROM device. While I believe it is a generic setup, other distributions may use different names. /media/cdrom defines the folder to which the content of the CD-ROM (Age of Empires 2, in this case) will be loaded. iso9660 is the filesystem mentioned. Auto could be put in its stead, but iso9660 is a safer choice. ro – read-only (another safe choice, the CD cannot be overwritten anyway), exec – execute (required by some programs), noauto – no automatic mounting (prevents the DVD-ROM from being unnecessarily mounted during system boot). The reason I am actually listing all that is because I had to come up with this makeshift solution myself.

2. Game crash in screen resolution 1024×768. This happens only when in full-screen mode. I believe the reason is a collision between WINE and a window manager. Alas, I have a small, 13” screen with a 1366×768 screen resolution. Not exactly suited for gaming.

On a more positive note, I had no problems with proper display of colors, bitmaps and textures. Sound also worked without fail. While still using Windows 7, I had many more problems with Age of Empires 2.

Linux-do – The Path to Linux

For some people Linux is merely an operating system, an inexpensive alternative to Windows or Mac. For me and many others Linux represents a path – ‘Linux-do’ as the Japanese would probably put it (Bushido or Bushi-do – ‘the way of the warrior’). My main goal when using various distributions was always broadening my understanding of mechanics underlying operating systems – how the kernel software lets the user communicate with hardware, how to compile software, etc. Due to its intrinsic flexibility, Linux offers quite a lot.

images.duckduckgo.comDisciples of ‘Linux-do’ such as I typically follow a stepwise progression towards enlightenment – becoming one with the operating system. Beginners usually start with the more user-friendly distributions, for example Ubuntu, OpenSUSE or Mageia/OpenMandriva Lx. The majority of them are content with that level of understanding, however, many want to know Linux better and continue their exploration (‘distro-hopping’). The next step is often Debian – the predecessor of Ubuntu. Many aspects of Ubuntu were already present in its ‘father’, hence the advancement is rather smooth. I believe Debian is so powerful and flexible that it is very much worth to use it for longer. Especially, because it allows for quite minimalistic setups. The almost final destination in ‘Linux-do’ is one of the ‘hardcore’ distributionsGentoo, Slackware, CRUX or Arch Linux. Most of them require half-manual installations (specifically Arch Linux and Gentoo) and rely on or even request compilation of software. I believe Gentoo deserves to be highlighted at this point, due to its immense educational value. As the proverb goes – ‘if you learn Gentoo, you have learned Linux’.

Now, I mentioned the ‘almost final destination’ in the previous paragraph. What is the FINAL destination, then? The answer is of philosophical nature – an educated choice. Simply put, a distribution which we accept to use, fully aware of its advantages (those we utilize to their full potency) and disadvantages (those we accept or amend).

Shrouded with GUIs…

I would like to begin my reflection with a very bold, and somewhat embarrassing statement: I still use Windows.

Not as my main operating system, of course. I would never do this to my open-source-loving soul! Unfortunately, I am forced to use Windows on my working computer, because it is still defines standards in many companies.

I was already aware that Windows is bloated with features. For all I know, many of them can be safely shutdown or disabled permanently to free up memory for the ever-hungry OS. What I noticed quite recently, though, was that Windows is also literally fogged with graphical user interfaces (GUIs), like a fortress of sorts…

castle-fogOn the one hand, this allows inexperienced users to change the way their computer works, looks and responds. It is well appreciated, as it gives a sense of flexibility and choice. Using GUIs is typically faster, though sometimes going through several menus may seem daunting.

On the other hand, it limits and at some point completely removes the need for understanding an operating system. After all, why should it matter what is ‘under the hood’. ‘All I want to do is tweet or chat with friends on Facebook.’

The problem I see with current Windows as compared to the ‘old’ Windows (up to XP) is exactly the overabundance of graphical user interfaces. With each subsequent OS version, a typical user is required less and less. I agree, this facilitates progress. The goal is to make a tool (our computer) easier to learn, so that the user can go on and utilize it to its full capacity. However, proper use of GUIs necessitates balance – usefulness/cost-efficiency vs resource-use. To me, Windows lost that balance long ago and Windows 8 Metro interface was ‘a nail to its coffin’.

Years ago computers required significant prowess. There were no interfaces whatsoever. Later on, command-line interfaces (CLIs) were introduced, easing system configuration. Windows meant to change this. It was supposed to make personal computers accessible to the ‘working class’, make them useful to the average user. Unfortunately, the concept of the ‘average user’ somewhat drifted away, in my opinion. I feel that Windows XP was the pinnacle of Windows OS. Subsequent installments did not add much to Windows, they rather subtracted from it. Windows became less accessible, overly complicated and not exactly what many of us expected. Now, in Windows 10 Microsoft is trying to ‘right the wrongs’ of Windows 8 and borrows Unix-like features (multiple desktops, etc.), advertising them as new and genuine.

To me this means that Windows is no longer in the vanguard. Unix and its derivatives are…