Bad experiences with distros (was Re: [H-GEN] CRUX (A programmers linux distro))

Greg Black gjb at
Mon Aug 9 02:20:38 EDT 2004

On 2004-08-09, Russell Stuart wrote:
> On Fri, 2004-08-06 at 21:03, Greg Black wrote:
>>>> [1] I have played with Debian installs, but abandoned it once I
>>>>     had determined that Debian did not have support for the
>>>>     hardware I wanted it to run on.  Since then, I've stuck with
>>>>     BSD variants.
> Greg, I recall you did post to group one of your experiences of
> trying to install Debian.  It was a while (years?) ago.  I vaguely
> recall you getting utterly pissed off with the installation
> process.  I suspect that once you had got everything installed
> you couldn't get anything to work (hardware included) without
> reading reams of documentation.  Perhaps I was just empathising,
> as that was my experience as well.  In any case after a few hours
> of trying you gave up.

Not quite.  Yes, it was difficult to get Debian installed in a
version that fitted my hardware (details revealed on chat), but
it was largely a success and I ran Debian on that box at Humbug
meetings for several months.

I didn't bother reading the documentation, as it was a test
install and I knew I could just rock up to Humbug and find a
Debian expert to help me jump through the hoops -- for which
many thanks to Mark Suter who put in some hours on that task, in
particular getting me upgraded to "testing"[1], which we needed
in order to get my WiFi card working.

Note that the problem here was the hardware, not Debian.

> The bottom line is that nobody unfamiliar with Woody is going to
> get it going in a couple of hours.  You have to edit most of the
> files in /etc by hand.  You have google for hours just to figure
> out what kernel modules you must load to get your hardware going.

I always edit files in /etc by hand, and would not use a system
that made that difficult.  I expect that the difficulty of doing
just that might be the ultimate reason for not getting a new
Mac.  I try to buy hardware that is known to work with the
system I want to run and don't usually have problems with that.
In the case of this laptop, I tested it in the shop before
buying it and it worked just fine with FreeBSD; bad luck would
have it that FreeBSD dropped support for part of it in the very
next release, but that could have happened with any hardware.

And, had I ultimately decided to stick with Debian, I'd have
happily read all the documentation over time and become just as
comfortable with it as Mark is; because it didn't work with APM,
I eventually went back to FreeBSD-4.3 because everything works
with it (except the USB storage stuff, which I can live without)
and it will do until the hardware dies and I try once more to
buy a laptop that can do what I want.

Of course, by then, Apple's prices may have got better; and I
might decide that dealing with Mac idiosyncrasies is better than
trying to bludgeon another random laptop into doing what I want.

> Things have improved since then.  The next release of Debian,
> Sarge, is due one in the next 8 weeks or so.  The new installer
> that comes with it is _much_ better.  However, I suspect that
> Debian will never be newbie friendly.  Debian will is really just
> a collection of packages that work together, or at least aren't
> incompatible.  No attempt has been made to put a unified, pretty
> front end on it - unlike the commercial distributions like RedHat
> and friends.

I'm not a newbie.  I've been building Unix systems (including
soldering stuff on their motherboards) for over 20 years; I feel
comfortable with the Unix way.  For me, the only down side with
Debian (as with all Linux variants) is that they have drifted
away from Unix, often for reasons that seem to have little real
benefit from my perspective -- change for its own sake happens
and is not always necessarily a good thing.  (This is, of
course, a matter of taste and is not a serious criticism of

But I loathe user-friendly installers.  They never know the
stuff that they need to know in order to complete the kind of
install that I want.  This has been true for ever and shows no
sign of getting better.

I once worked on a project that had a couple of IBM boxes.  They
came with an IBM variant of Unix (which eventually became AIX,
but this was before then).  It had an installer that was so bad
I wanted to kill the people who inflicted it on us.  You had to
answer questions about partitioning the disk, as is common.  It
had a default scheme.  We thought it sucked, so we took the
opportunity to set up our own layout, using the friendly utility
that was provided.  Then, over an eternity, the OS and its extra
bits were installed from about a million floppy disks.  Finally,
it was done and we rebooted.  (Because it was all so slow, we
were doing both machines together, feeding a floppy into one and
then into the other.)

And bravo!  They booted, but refused to run.  It turned out that
the boot process had hard-wired into it the disk partitioning
scheme that had merely been presented to us as a default.  There
was no way to drop the things into single-user mode so we could
use ed to fix things -- we waited until it was daytime in the
USA so we could ring our contacts at IBM to confirm that.  And
it turned out that, at that point in its history, IBM had also
deleted ed (for failing to comply with some internal coding
standard), which is when I wrote my first ed clone.  So we had
to repeat the entire installation process, making sure we gave
the "right" answers to the "questions".

The following night, when we were finally ready to do some real
work on these machines, we smelt smoke.  My colleague joked that
the magic smoke had probably escaped from the IBM boxes.  It was
actually the very heavy and expensive screens that were smoking
and then, one by one, burst into flame.  They looked real pretty
after that.  And the IBM men arrived very early in the morning
and took them away in body bags so nobody would see what nasty
stuff had happened.  But we told everybody ...

> Or a related note I see that aj has stepped down from his role as
> Debian's release manager.  From afar (which is where I sit) 
> Debian appears to be a sea of political ideologues duking it out 
> in a never ending storm of flames, recriminations and open 
> hostility.  The vitriol is often directed at those doing the
> work.  Against that background it was the cooler heads like aj's 
> that made pragmatic software engineering decisions, moving the 
> project along to what should be one of its main goals: producing 
> a stable, solid distribution.  It always sad to see people like
> that move on.

I'm aware that aj has stepped down from that role; but, since I
have had no dealings with Debian except as a user for a few
months, I don't know anything about the background to that
story, so I'll wisely say nothing about it.

Cheers, Greg

[1] I don't really know if "testing" is the right name, but it's
    what I remember now.

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