[conspire] (forw) Re: hello from a newbie to hacking

Rick Moen rick at linuxmafia.com
Thu Aug 6 16:16:42 PDT 2009

Might be of interest.

----- Forwarded message from Rick Moen <rick at linuxmafia.com> -----

Date: Thu, 6 Aug 2009 16:15:36 -0700
From: Rick Moen <rick at linuxmafia.com>
To: [snipped]
Subject: Re: hello from a newbie to hacking
Organization: Dis-

Quoting [snipped]:

> I've begun nosing around your site linuxmafia.com - and it's terrific!

Why, thank you!  You might be surprised to hear that it's a circa-2001
VA Linux Systems model 2230 that I got for free (and I was a VA Linux
employee, back in the day) sitting on my home aDSL line.  In other
words, it's scrounged throwaway hardware (albeit lovingly looked after).

> Please add me to your mailing list if you happen to keep one, because
> in whatever way possible I want to be kept aware of what you are
> doing. You seem to be a hub for quite a bit that is going on.

There's no one single place.  I do have a local LUG mailing list for the
group that meets twice monthly at my house ("CABAL"), but it's just a 
low-traffic and low-key local mailing list, so you probably wouldn't be
interested.  I'm also on other LUG mailing lists in the San Francisco
Bay Area, and the BSD ones, and the local sysadmin group's (BayLISA's).

One thing I ordinarily do _not_ do is conduct lengthy discussions in
private e-mail, because at most one other person benefits:  I prefer to
hold discussions about Linux in public forums, especially ones that are
Web-archived (as a good mailing list is), so that many other people can

This mail is an exception.  ;->  No worries; I'm just explaining why
there can't be a bunch of follow-up discussion.

> I want to think like, and develop a broad perspective like, a hacker
> so I am starting python and common lisp, too, because Eric S. Raymond
> wrote this advice for would-be hackers like myself.
> I picked this delicious snippet off your site --  "In the end, I would
> like to say that programming is an aesthetic experience much like
> composing poetry or music. So it is something wich
> cannot be spoon fed at schools and colleges..."   Rick, this is what I
> want for myself!

I like that quotation, too, but it's not actually mine.  I believe my
friend Eric Raymond wrote that.  It sounds like him, anyway.

> The linux world today is much wider than the BSD one. Nonetheless, if
> I have pretensions for becoming a 'nix hacker over the next 10 years,
> or 20..., is it worthwhile pedagogically to learn PC-BSD concurrently
> with starting with a beginner linux distro like Mint 7 or
> siimplyMEPIS?


I'm lastingly fond of FreeBSD, and PC-BSD is just a nice
desktop-packaged variant of that.  I respect it quite a bit, even though
I've not run any BSD in a long while.

There was a time when I'd have advised any novice coder or sysadmin (I'm
the latter more than the former) to start with his/her choice of either
Slackware (Linux) or FreeBSD.  Why?  Because both are elegant,
conceptually simple standard-bearers for *ix.  Both tend to be a bit
spare and stark in their configurations and feature sets.  The drawback
is that you're forced to immediately learn the core, most-fundamental
aspects of *ix to get anything done.  The advantage is that you're
able to do that (master what's important) without extra layers of stuff
standing between you and the system fundamentals.

That probably sounds a little hand-wavey, so here's an example:  As I
was getting comfortable with running Linux, it occurred to me that I 
really didn't understand X configuration at all.  (This was in XFree86
days, before everyone switched to X.org.)  I'd been running my machine
in a mode where startup finished without launching X.  Upon login at the
console prompt, you could if you wished type "startx" at the Bash prompt
to run an X session.  I'd customised various rc files related to my
choice of window manager, X clients to run, etc.

Suddenly, one day, I tried running the display manager xdm at the end of
system startup, instead -- and none of my customisations to the X
environment were there when I logged at at the xdm graphical login
screen.  But why?  That was when I realised I really didn't understand
X configs.  

Fortunately, on relatively sparse *ix systems (this was probably early
Red Hat, say RH Linux 2.1 in the mid-90s), tracing out the rc files that
started X -- via either startx or a display manager -- wasn't all that
painful.  To this day, I know how to simply illustrate how different
window managers work on a system by creating an .xinitrc file that runs
just "xterm &", and the start and stop various other things including
window managers at its shell prompt.

That was before layers upon layers of extra configuration were laid on
top of that for the benefit of novice users -- some for GNOME/KDE, some
for other things.  These days, trying to figure out X configuration with
a "desktop environment" is an order of magnitude more challenging.

Anyhow, PC-BSD is worthwhile as a way of getting exposure to the BSDish
ways of doing things, which overlap Linux's but have differences.  It's 
worthwhile, in my opinion.  So is OpenSolaris.

> I'm ready to order a new desktop or workstation. The fan noise of the
> vanilla box I have now is driving me nuts.

Interesting fact:  Even allegedly quality manufacturers often use cheap,
badly made fans that rely on sleeve bearings instead of ball bearings.
My ex-employer VA Linux Systems did, for example.  The interesting part
is that it's easy and inexpensive to replace them (aftermarket brands to
look for include Antec, Coolermaster, Vantec, Zalman).  I was so stunned
by the noise improvement when I replaced the large 120mm case fans in my
old VA workstation that I also replaced the 60mm case fans in my VA
2U-size rackmount server -- and the improvement was almost as great.

All other things being equal, large-diameter fans are cooler than
small-diameter ones:  They can spin at much lower RPMs and move the same
amount of air.  Lower rotational speed means less vibration and less
noise.  But still, even at small fan sizes, higher quality fans are a
great deal quieter.

> So I've run across the following machine. I'm interested, but don't
> know yet what are the key questions to ask.  iXsystems is behind

They are indeed.  Quoting http://linuxmafia.com/bale/other.html:

   iXsystems, Inc., formerly OffMyServer, formerly part of BSDi, 
   formerly Telenet Systems, in San Jose, sells BSD and Linux-based 
   rackmount 1U servers, server appliances, and storage solutions. 

So, their predecessor firm was around as a BSD shop for a long time.

> http://www.ixsystems.com/apollo

Intel X58 Express Chipset 
nVidia GeForce video

I'm pretty sure that X58 Express is what's called a "southbridge" chip,
i.e., connection point for CPU/memory/fast-IO/video.  Seems like it's
usually paired with an Intel ICH10 or ICH10R "southbridge" chip -- the
chip that has all the slower I/O, including mass storage, ethernet, USB.
Review oriented around Linux of a _different_ motherboard using X58 Express:

iXsystems is actually a little vague:  It doesn't say what the ethernet
chip is, nor the southbridge.  Knowing those is useful for spotting
possible driver problem areas, because drivers are written specific to

I have a minor prejudice against nVidia chips -- both the video chips
(seen here) and their southbridge chips.  Problem is, the firm has
always been notably uncooperative with the open source community.  And
you sometimes end up giving up on open-source drivers and installing
proprietary, binary-only drivers released and maintained by nVidia, Inc.
alone -- which is a hassle and opens up other problems.

I'm sure the iXsystems ensemble is good hardware, generally.

> I want the capability of being able to distro hop to facilitate safe
> learning of operating systems. Would it be easy to set up a dual boot
> for linux (say simplyMEPIS first) and PC-BSD (instead of MS Windows)?
> Or would it be preferable for them to install some kind of virtual
> machine software - would you have suggestions along this line?

The latter.  I've just never been a fan of multibooting, for lots of

> Here's the nub - I'm needing to organize in a strategically smart way
> what I take up for learning. I need to pick my intellectual projects
> wisely.
> However, because there's just so much out there, a tower of babel,
> confusion comes quickly  in my case; my curiosity is my worst enemy at
> times because my attention tends to wanders over too many subjects.
> Ideaphoria a curse!
> So the **focus** that an experienced hacker like yourself can provide
> occasionally, directly or otherwise,  would constitute invaluable
> intellectual leadership for me.
> Thank you for any suggestions or thoughts that might occur to you over
> any leisurely weekend!

That's a very astute question.  Here's one place to start:  With your
choice of a Linux or BSD (or Solaris) system, learn how processes start,
from the kernel (process #0) through the init process (#1) and its 
scripts and configuration files, to figure out exactly how startup

Next:  Go over to the Linux Documentation Project and thumb through the
list of HOWTO documents.  Pick a few on topics that interest you, and
read them to brush up on what they cover.  (Check last-released dates,
because some LDP HOWTOs are inevitably too dusty.)

_The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering_.
_Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software_
_Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams_
_The Practice of Programming_
_The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an
Accidental Revolutionary_ (you can read this on the Web)

I must demur, anyway:  I'm no experienced hacker, just an easily
confused sysadmin.  ;->

Rick Moen         There was an old man             Said with a laugh, "I 
rick at linuxmafia   From Peru, whose lim'ricks all   Cut them in half, the pay is 
           .com   Looked like haiku.  He           Much better for two." 
                                                        --Emmet O'Brien 

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