[conspire] Linux distributions, and variations thereon

Rick Moen rick at linuxmafia.com
Mon May 9 10:46:52 PDT 2011

Friday and Saturday, I found myself rebuilding my workstation at work
because of some foolishness I'd committed with upgrades of packages for 
Debian.  Specifically, upon accidental coldboot, I found that the dbus
service was now required but not running, and X11 was unable to start
even when I got dbus running.  There's more to that, but it's not
important.  The point is, it was time to do a rebuild, so I backed up
/home, /etc, /usr/local, grabbed copies of the output of 'dpkg
--get-selections', 'dpkg -l', and 'fdisk -l /dev/sda', and considered 
choice of installer.

I prefer a cutting-edge Debian system with no 'Desktop Environment' 
softare (GNOME, KDE, XFCE4, LXDE, CDE) using the Window Maker window
manager.  (See http://xwinman.org/ for screenshots and comparative
data.)  The hardware is a 2005-ish Dell Optiplex GX620 with 2 GB RAM 
and two 21" LCD monitors that I run in side-by-side Xinerama mode.

That motherboard (one I most emphatically would not have picked) poses
two challenges:  It has an Nvidia graphics chip (drivers:  nv, or vesa,
or nouveau, or Nvidia-proprietary), and it has a Broadcom 57xx 'Tigon 3'
ethernet chip (driver: tg3).

Those who've been playing along at home will recall that I consider
Nvidia and Broadcom to be swear-words (along with Marvell).  Nvidia's
the least cooperative graphics chip company by orders of magnitude,  
and Broadcom is its counterpart for ethernet and wireless chips.  Even
when the open source community has successfully reverse-engineered
Broadcom's chips -- which we've gotten really good at -- the drivers
tend to require that one have in /lib/firmware a 'firmware image' binary
large object (BLOB) that initialises the chip.  Nothing wrong with
requiring a firmware BLOB, but Broadcom makes such image files available
only as part of proprietary OS drivers, and in many cases gives nobody
else permission to redistribute it.

In the case of the tg3 driver for Tigon 3 chips, Broadcom apparently
_did_ get around to issuing permission to redistribute its
firmware-image BLOB file without modification, so Debian and many other
distros can include it.  Debian does.  In the most recent Debian
archives, it's in omnibus package 'firmware-linux-nonfree' that 
includes such things for many wireless and ethnet cards
(http://packages.debian.org/sid/firmware-linux-nonfree).  However, 
package 'firmware-linux-nonfree' is in the non-free package collection
(because of licence terms), and Debian installer CD/DVD images don't
include non-free packages on their media.  (You can enable access to the
non-free archives during installation.)  Problem:  I needed the tg3
support _during_ installation, and hadn't anticipated the obstacle.

By the time I realised that, I'd already blown away my filesystems and
was trying a daily snapshot CD of Debian 7.0 'wheezy'.  No go, for lack
of firmware-linux-nonfree.  I didn't have a second machine handy, or I
could have fetched
and put it on a USB keydrive.  Also, that installer crashes and burns
because it has corrupted package indexes, which is sometimes the case
with daily beta-version builds.  (Users are strongly warned that the 
daily images aren't guaranteed to work.)  

So, I tried something I like a lot anyway, the Aptosid 2011-01 'Geros' 
XFCE i386 CD.  Aptosid (a classic in the tradition of terrible naming 
among good projects) is what used to be called Sidux, a live CD issued 
quarterly that includes an HD installer, and is a cutting-edge Debian 
system very closely based on the Debian sid=unstable rolling branch,
with the Aptosid developers' stabilisation packages from their own
additional repository.  The disks default to your choice of either KDE
or XFCE4.

However, no go:  The Aptosid developers apparently share Debian's policy
of omitting 'firmware-linux-nonfree' with its wacky proprietary licences
from the installer disk.  (At home, this would be yet another use case
for one of my spare Intel EtherExpress Pro/1000 cards:  Shut down
system, install Pro/1000, boot up, fetch and install 'firmware-linux-nonfree',
configure tg3 driver, shut down, remove Pro/1000.)

In goes an old Debian 6.0.1 'squeeze' CD1:  That was before Debian
banished the tg3 firmware to a non-free package.  Do a minimal install.  
fetch firmware-linux-nonfree_0.29_all.deb onto a spare partition.  OK, _now_ 
I can install Aptosid (doing 'dpkg -i firmware-linux-nonfree_0.29_all.deb'
in a shell, early in the installer).  Let it finish, install package
wmaker (Window Maker), do 'update-alternatives --config x-window-manager'
to pick wmake, delete /etc/alternatives/x-session-manager[.1.gz] to
disable XFCE4's session management, lose gdm.  

Configuring Xinerama is a small pain, especially now that the X.org /
freedesktop.org people have gone all 'Oh, you don't need an
/etc/X11/xorg.conf file.  Don't worry; be happy', such that you don't
have an example to work from.  However, I had a saved xorg.conf file in
my spare partition.  Just to save time because I was in a hurry, and
because the Aptosid developers' comments on the raw state of the nouveau
drivers made me nervous, I installed the goddamned Nvidia proprietary
drivers for now.  (May try to ditch them later.)  Tweak the X config a bit;
hey, it works, high resolution across two monitors.  Install xdm (not as
overengineered as gdm).  Install xterm, GIMP, AbiWord, JPilot, centerim,

Work for a while with 'dpkg -l', deborphan, and debfoster to identify
and remove packages I have no need for -- paring things down to a nice,
tight system.  Aptosid defaults to a few too many superfluous services
for my liking.  Lose all the XFCE-related and GNOMEish stuff.  Install
Mozilla Thunderbird (icedove), Mozilla Lightning (iceowl), Exchange
Provider for Lightning, External Editor extension for Thunderbird.
Install Debian's packages for Firefox (iceweasel), AdBlock Plus,
NoScript, User Agent Switcher, Firebug.  Fetch from upstream some more
extensions:   HTTPS Everywhere, FireICE, Beef Taco.  Install the Debian
package that fetches and debianises the goddamned Adobe Flash extension
for Firefox.

And, hey!  LibreOffice (OpenOffice.org with secret ingredient '100% Less 
Oracle') is available, and looks good, and appears to be stable.  pidgin
doesn't install; some dependency isn't currently installable in
sid=unstable.  (That happens with some dependency-hairball packages when
tracking the bleeding edge.  Probably will be installable in a few

Anyhow, my point is, _that_ is my idea of how to configure a desktop
Linux system.  Note in particular that (1) I pick an installer image
that suits me rather than using the default installer, and (2) the work
isn't done when the installer program finishes.  If you want to make
Linux your own, you have to take charge of the decision about what is to
be run, and why.

Members of this mailing list will have seen the recent guy with the PII
Compaq who haplessly tried poorly chosen Xubuntu (and Ubuntu before
that) and Puppy Linux installers and had no luck because he didn't
understand how to control processes and RAM usage.  He currently seems
to think Linux cannot run on old computers!  That's a bit sad.  If more
people would learn how to interpret the 'ps' and 'top' commands, and
understood how to control and pare down RAM usage, they'd be a lot
better off.

Here is a run-through of recent distros I've burned for CABAL.  As
always, http://linuxmafia.com/cabal/installfest/#distros has the
cumulative list, and attendees are welcome to duplicate them.

Aptosid 2011-01 'Geros' XFCE for i386
Debian 6.0.1 'Squeeze' CD1:  GNOME, KDE, and XFCE+LXDE images for 
   i386 and x86_64, XFCE+LXDE image for PowerPC

Fedora 14 'Laughlin' GNOME DVD for i686
Fedora 14 'Laughlin' GNOME Live Desktop CDs for i686 and x86_64
  (Fedora 15 is expected in a couple of weeks.)

OpenSUSE 11.4 DVDs for i586 and x86_64, 11.4 Non-Open-Source Add-ons CD
  (OpenSUSE is another distribution in a tenuous situation for
  mindshare, on account of Novell being passed like a sack of potatoes
  to Attachmate of all companies.  They've been a bit slow, and the
  next release, expected to be numbered 12.1, is expected only in
  November.  Mandriva's in an arguably worse state, but the community
  fork 'Mageia' is approaching 1.0 status.)

PartEd Magic 6.0 for i386
  Your super-capable toolkit for all partition-editing,
  disk-duplicating, etc.

Then we get down to the Ubuntu family.  Here's one thing I really don't
understand:  Many of the people who go for Ubuntu/Kubuntu/Xubuntu do so
because they want easy access to proprietary AV codecs, Adobe Flash,
extra themes, built-in copies of everything to drive cranky ethernet,
wireless, and video chips from uncooperative manufacturers.  _But_
Ubuntu doesn't give easy access to those things -- whereas two
compatible distros, Linux Mint and Ultimate Edition, do.  But no
newcomers at CABAL ever asks for Linux Mint or Ultimate Edition.
It's always just Ubuntu, Ubuntu, Ubuntu all the time.  I think it's just
ignorance and marketing.

Ubuntu 11.04 'Natty Narwhal' Alternate and Desktop disks for i386 and x86_64
Kubuntu 11.04 'Natty Narwhal' Alternate and Desktop disks for i386 and x86_64
Xubuntu 11.04 'Natty Narwhal' Alternate and Desktop disks for i386 and x86_64

Ubuntu 10.10 'Maverick Meercat' DVD for x86_64
Kubuntu 10.10 'Maverick Meercat' DVDs for i386 and x86_64
   (These are obviously older, and not Long-Term Support, but I'm
   keeping them around because they're DVDs and presumably have the
   kitchen sink.)
Ubuntu Server 10.10 'Maverick Meercat' CD for i386 and x86_64
   (Also aging, but they're the most recent Ubuntu Server disks I have.)

Lubuntu 11.04 'Natty Narwhal' LXDE for i686
   (This unofficial spin based on LXDE should be favoured for low-spec

Linux Mint 10 'Isidora' GNOME DVDs for i386 and x86_64
Ultimate Edition 2.8 for i686
   (Both of these really go to town in bundling 'desktop' tchochkes.
   Why aren't they popular?  Are people really that dumb, that they're
   not willing to install Ubuntu except from official Ubuntu images?)

Linux MintPPC 9 LXDE for PowerPC
   As I've mentioned before, this is a third-party variant on Mint from
   the group at http://mintppc.org/

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