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Why Linux Works for Me


I can't sleep because some weird Twitter interaction I had earlier. I shouldn't let it bother me, but it did. I received a retweet from someone I didn't know, saying: "Linux doesn't work. There. I said it."

There was a link to a blog entry describing various frustrating problems the author had with Linux, who was sincerely trying it out; applications that didn't do what was asked of them, things generally not cooperating, and intimations that others had experienced pain as well. Constructive feedback all. It also said Linux doesn't work. It said Mac OS X and Windows do work.

Heh, I thought, "Linux doesn't work" isn't really right. I've been using this Linux thing since 1995. Obviously Linux works for me. So I replied: "Heh, Linux works for me. Linux doesn't work for you."

Don't reply stuff to strangers on Twitter! The original person didn't reply (and hasn't yet. probably still resting in all innocence of this whole thing), but someone else jumped in and said I sounded dismissive and unhelpful. So I tried to clarify and defend myself. I didn't mean to dismiss the original writer's negative experiences with Linux, I was just nitpicky about language. "Linux doesn't work" sounded sensationalist to me. What works for one person might not work for another. This lead to a bevvy of tweets back and forth that make me understand Twitter rage a lot better. Maybe Twitter doesn't work. For me. Tonight.

More context

One IRC discussion later with yet more people, I understood the context a bit better. It turned out that the original author was a woman, something I had been completely unaware of, though I started to suspect something was up when the word "mansplaining" was uttered by yet another person. And here I thought I was just being a nitpicker. There are real issues women face in tech, and I had just obliviously stepped into a bit of a hornet's nest. I have more reading to do.

So after I calmed down I reviewed my words; getting caught up in unreasonable defensiveness in 140 line texts about nothing. I sent a few clarifications and "sorry didn't mean to be dismissive of your experience" back to the original writer. At the very least I could have been construed as "not constructive". Sure, it was a pretty mindless nitpicky tweet.

I'm sure this blog entry is part of that defensiveness too, but let's turn it into something constructive instead. Let's have a conversation about Linux, and why it works for me. And to tell some stories. Hopefully nothing sounds mansplainy.

A Very Brief History of Linux Troubles

I have been struggling with issues on Linux so long that I feel quite spoiled these days. Mostly when I install Linux things just work. I remember back in 2000 or so I would have to work hard getting my mouse to work. Back in 2004 or so I remember having to wrestle with nsdiswrapper to install a Windows driver just to make the wireless work. And I remember struggling to hear sound.

Back then I had to be my own sysadmin, or worse. Whatever is worse than being your own sysadmin.

Topsy-Turvy World

These days the hardware support is so much better. Generally after installation the graphics, sound and wireless work. I guess this astounds me so much given my past experience I'm too easily pleased, perhaps.

I was spoiled with Linux graphics support for some years. I'd been using the (properietary) NVidia drivers and they worked quite well on my previous laptop and my current desktop.

In fact, on my previous laptop it worked better than on Windows and Mac OS X, a rare story of a topsy-turvy world that I'll share. My wife got a new Mac OS X laptop at about the same time. It turned out almost all the hardware, from motherboard to video card, was the same as on my laptop. It was just my laptop was cheaper and didn't look very cool. But, you'd say, Mac OS X works out of the box, and with Linux you need to tinker a lot. True usually. Not this time.

With Linux, I could just install the NVidia driver from the repository, reboot, and things worked. On the dual boot Windows partition that I was maintaining for games and rarely used (I've since given it up), I had to find a hacked NVidia driver as for some reason laptop support wasn't officially in there. I think that got fixed since then. Annoying, but tolerable.

With Mac OS X, my wife would start a 3d application that she'd bought the Mac for, and that worked on the previous one, and after a few minutes the laptop would crash horribly. Hard reboot required. In desperation we eventually installed a separate Windows partition and it worked just fine there -- the hardware was fine.

No fix was possible; there was some bug somewhere in the NVidia driver. But it was impossible to upgrade. We had to wait half a year or so for Apple to create an update of their operating system including NVidia driver, and then buy the upgrade to get this bug fixed.

Topsy-turvy world. Not usually true. But a good story.

Present Day Troubles

So last year I got a new laptop, and mindlessly got NVidia again, as it had worked so well for me before, and then was thrust into a chaos of installation issues I just wasn't used to anymore. The reason is NVidia Optimus, a technology to let your laptop save power by using Intel graphics unless demanding 3d applications are run.

That really sucked. I was really frustrated. I didn't need nonsense like that. Eventually I got it sorted out, switching from Fedora back to Ubuntu, but it was painful. I must report that the support has much improved -- I recently reinstalled my laptop and while I still had to do some special installation, it started working then.

Then there was the wireless on the laptop. For some reason when not plugged in the wireless driver would magically decide it was going to go into Ultimate Power Saving Mode and slow my internet down to an absolute crawl. I found a fix which was to turn the powersaving off, but it was annoying. I can report again that this got fixed in more recent versions.

My desktop is usually pretty stable, but I got into the habit of using its suspend feature instead of shutting it down. That worked fine for a long time, but after one update the desktop would come back from suspend, pretend everything was fine for hours on an end, and then suddenly crash. I'm not used to hard freezes on Linux. I hear reports that this finally got fixed too, but I haven't dared to try yet, and switched to shutdowns. It boots up very fast these days too, anyway.


Why go through this trouble? While Linux is pretty good at it these days, generally speaking Windows and Mac OS X come with better hardware support. Why this Linux desktop? Is this free software ideology?

I don't think so. I'm not really a Linux advocate. I used to be more passionate about it. I do still appreciate the freedom it gives me, where I as a developer or power user can really dig down deep if I'm willing to invest the time.

But now that it's finally finally yes this year for real the year of the Linux desktop, I'm not going to try to convert people. I think software freedoms are important, and wish more people would care, but people care about convenience, which makes total sense, so am not an activist about it.

I'm not a Linux desktop developer either. If I were I'd want to use my own stuff, obviously, and others too, but that's not it.

The reason why Linux works for me is that I'm a developer. And I think Linux is a kick-ass system to develop on, especially web applications, where I know my code is likely to get deployed on Linux servers as well.

Back to 1995

Back in 1995 I first installed Linux on my PC at home. I remember lugging a lot of slackware floppies around, as I didn't have an Internet connection at home yet either. Why did I go through the trouble? Because Linux, for me who didn't have the money to buy software, made for a much better development environment than MSDOS. If I wrote a C program on MSDOS and I made a mistake, the machine would hang, and I'd had to reboot it. If I wrote a C program with Linux, and I made a mistake, I could shut down the process with control-C. Linux simply was a better operating system than MSDOS; it made better use of my hardware at the time. And it came with all these development tools.

Back to the present

Windows and Mac OS X have caught up in the stability department. While Windows Vista, the last Windows I'm somewhat familiar with, made you jump through hoops and reboot a thousand million times if you wanted to upgrade it after a year or more of no upgrades (something I went through last year. Hopelessly confusing and even scary to people unfamiliar with computers, like the ones I was helping), it generally does not crash all that often.

But with Linux I can download and install a huge range of programming environments and libraries and tools, from mainstream to obscure, within seconds. Windows and Mac OS X don't match that. Modern Linux package repositories are awesome for this purpose. I know I could get stuff like that set up with Mac OS X or even Windows, but it'd entail more tinkering than I have patience for. So the scales balance the other way, for me.

Otherwise it's a matter of familiarity and "makes no difference". I'm familiar with Linux. I think the modern deskop environments are pretty slick. Linux makes me comfortable. I'd feel lost if I have to use something else. The other stuff feels clunky. I'm sure I could get used to it, but I don't see a reason to.

The web browser works. That's important. I remember a period in the early 00s when Microsoft had won the browser wars, and Netscape 4.7 on Linux was aging and sites started to be developed for IE only. Thank goodness Firefox brought us out of that situation. The basic freedom of the web is pretty safe now in our multi-browser world.

Even playing games is getting so much better that I dumped Windows entirely. No more dual booting. Thanks Humble Indie Bundle, and thanks Steam! And Kerbal Space Program. I can't play all games available, but enough to keep me happy. It's really awesome, actually; I never thought it'd get this far.

It's now so much easier to maintain a Linux desktop, I barely have to touch a global config file anymore. I don't really feel like I have to play sysadmin anymore. But I'm sure my perspective on it is warped by the years of difficulty that has gone before.

Linux for non-developers?

Can the Linux deskop work for non-developers too? I think it does sometimes, and has. I suspect in some ways a modern Linux desktop can be less confusing in the amount of popups and warnings it gives you than at least Windows Vista could be. It's just that trouble starts when people want to install familiar Windows software. Learning the replacements takes time, and while some stuff will work better, some of it will be worse.

So let me end this with a story. About ten years ago, I was staying with my parents over Christmas. My mother's competent with computers, now so more so than ten years ago, but not an expert by any means.

I was playing with a Linux distribution that could be booted directly from cdrom, without installation, which was new at the time. I had it inserted into my parents laptop, and forgot to take it out when I went up to bed at night. The next morning I came downstairs to find my mother had started the computer, and it had booted into Linux. She was happily playing the games that came with it. I told her how amazing that was; mom, you're using Linux! My mom is using Linux. It just worked.

2003, the year of the Linux desktop. Briefly. We took the cdrom out. She uses Windows again. I haven't pushed Linux on her.

Because while I'm okay with being a sysadmin sometimes, I don't want to be her permanent tech support. That might indeed be worse than being your own sysadmin.

(not because it's my mom! she's great! and she doesn't read this blog, so I'm not just saying that. and tech support people! it's just not for me, that's all! thank goodness this isn't Twitter; didn't fit in 140 characters, this)

There. That's out of my system now. I shouldn't really let this stuff bother me, but what can you do when it does? Hopefully now I can finally sleep. A 7 year old and a 4 year old are visiting in a few hours, joining our toddler in generating energy and activity, demanding my attention. Good night! Zzzz.


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