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Gael Duval, Father of User Friendly Linux, on Mandrake and /e/ Phone
The Two Solitudes of GNOME and KDE
May 26th, 2015

Nitpicking Linux

We can be a quarrelsome people. We can. All of us. Millions of us.

Millions of people, representing different cultures, languages, religions and political or moral belief structures. But somehow we pull it off — this whole “Linux thing.” From where I stand, this cohesion may well be noted by people hundreds of years from now as a model of cooperation.

Arguing LinuxYeah, that’s a stretch but work with me here.

To press the point just a bit more, there are times when I sit back in amazement when considering what we have accomplished to this point. And indeed, we are taking part in a history changing endeavor.

Dethroning a king can be messy.

However, at the micro level…the place where we stand face to face…I don’t think many of us see the macro, the historical value of what it is we do. It’s difficult to see the whole ship when you are painting it from two feet away.

Which is leading up to this…

Who she is isn’t important, but the discussion became heated. In the best interest of everyone around, we broke it off. No winner, no loser, and the whole point was lost in the process. However, that small slice of time stuck in the back of my mind. It was about how we communicate with each other. And this isn’t a singular thing within the Linux Community, but it shines some light on the silly little things that we allow to grow into the beast we can no longer control.

The whole thing started with one small question: “How can anyone use that bloated system?” She was referring to the Mint KDE respin Randy Noseworthy built for Reglue. To be fair, it isn’t exactly a lady’s dainty size five footprint.

I had been showing her around the system on my laptop, noting the impressive number of educational games and applications that are included. Obviously, she wasn’t impressed. She went on to argue that less is more, that all those applications were choking the machine and blocking it from it’s real potential.

I stood silent, allowing her to finish her point. And the point to her point was at all levels, pointless. What use is a computer if it doesn’t have the tools you need?…Really? Bloat? So you have a computer that is sleek and fast. Big deal. If you hesitate to install the software you need in order to be productive…well…

I’m not sure how to address that.

Possessing a tool you never use to its potential is to me, well…a strange mindset. But if your computer is only for browsing and the occasional banking session, then yeah…I can understand. To you, the system I showed you would indeed seem bloated. However, to harangue someone for a bloated computer when everything on it is work or entertainment related… There’s something broken in that thought process. To me, it’s just a bit disturbing.

No matter how simply or eloquently I said it, she was unable to grasp what I was trying to get across. First off, her use of the term “bloated” is a term I have heard often over the years, relating to Linux systems. It can be interpreted as an indictment of sorts. A finger pointing to something egregious. It denotes something or someone being wasteful of resources, and ultimately it is a bad thing.

Eventually, things got out of hand and it was time to mount up and head for the nearest exit, which I did with haste. Oh, but let’s not stop there…

When in Cambridge for the LibrePlanet 2015 event, I was approached by someone I have known professionally for several years. He pulled me aside to give me some unsolicited but appreciated advice.

“You’re in Stallman’s stalking grounds, Ken. Make sure your first mention of Linux is GNU/Linux. People in this audience will hold you to that.”

And yeah…that makes sense. We’ve been over this a lot on the Blog of Helios. The level of volume in this discourse rose to jet turbine roar at times. It got ugly and I was forced to spend time, often over an hour, deleting the nasty and sometimes threatening tones. When those comments were still being submitted for approval a year later, I just deleted the entire article.

I don’t know Richard Stallman, and I often disagree with some of his doctrine. I don’t think he could ever foresee how volatile this subject would get. And yes, I will give GNU its due. Stallman changed computing and software history. Ultimately, he changed the way the world would write, understand and share software. My habit of referring to GNU/Linux as just Linux has nothing to do with the politics or interworking of what we do. It boils down to one thing:

If you present someone to the Linux world as GNU/Linux, you spend the next fifteen minutes trying to explain GNU. It’s difficult to explain in just a few minutes, it’s difficult to pronounce and it confuses the new Linux user. However, I make it a practice to bookmark websites that explain what GNU is and why it’s critical to Linux, and I tell people why it’s important to read about the subject when they have time.

The vitriol that some Linux/GNU/Linux battles brought forth was far-reaching in effect, not to mention being completely contrary to what and who we, as a community, are trying to accomplish. But as my friend and cohort Larry Cafiero stated so simply and eloquently a few years back…

“Drop it, we’ve lost that war. Let’s move on.”

Getting along the Linux way.I paraphrase. If I got the words slightly wrong, the meaning he was trying to convey is there. The more we argue about the little, goofy stuff, the less attention we pay to the big stuff. In the end, it’s about moving forward. I suppose we need to remind ourselves from time to time…

There are people who will eventually, and in vastly different ways, need our help, just as it recently happened across the street from me. Someone had a computer so crammed with malware and tool bars that it took almost three minutes between a mouse click and the result of that mouse click to occur.

An hour spent retrieving important files, twenty minutes to install Linux and fifteen minutes showing him how his new system works was all it took. The only time he comes over to see me now is when he doesn’t understand some little thing or another. The one thing I am most certainly happy about is that he didn’t go looking in the forums for his answer. At times, it can get ugly in there.

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Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

13 comments to Nitpicking Linux

  • Johan

    I know the feeling – I think Richard Stallman has a lot of very valid points and he is obviously a very intelligent man. However I am also somewhat pragmatic about these things, when no useable “real” libre solution exist, I will take the next best thing any day over not getting through.

    Last year a colleague came asking if I could help her installing “this Linux thing” on her daughters laptop.
    Her interest was obviously in getting an old laptop running without hassle, as it was getting cluttered by toolbars, spyware and worse (that had been cleaned out six months ago and now was back).
    I helped her installing a distro that would suit her needs and showed her how to do the basic administration (installing, updating, adding users and so) and she was off home.
    Later on she told me that her daughter felt like “it was a whole new laptop” 🙂

    Now I am convinced that had I been pushing on about telling her the finer details about the politics on GNU/Linux, she would have shrugged and asked if I would do it or not – She merely see computers as tools for getting stuff done. Any overdose of info was completely out of place and would be equivalent to educating everyone with a drivers license in the finer details on how their car function – they just want to drive. Basic understanding is naturally needed to get the most of what you have, but not to drive to work and back.

  • The person, whomever she was, lacked tact and certainly was not:

    gra·cious
    ˈɡrāSHəs/
    adjective
    1.
    courteous, kind, and pleasant.
    “smiling and gracious in defeat”
    synonyms: courteous, polite, civil, chivalrous, well mannered, mannerly, decorous; tactful, diplomatic; kind, benevolent, considerate, thoughtful, obliging, accommodating, indulgent, magnanimous; friendly, amiable, cordial, hospitable
    “a gracious hostess”

  • Larry Cafiero

    That’s pretty much what I said, Ken. When I said it several years ago, I didn’t think we had the time or the person-power for this minuscule issue when there are many more important ones, and I still think continuing the discussion takes away from more important work. Even now. It’s akin to arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin — interesting, maybe, but not very relevant or important to the work ahead of us.

    I agree with Johan: Computers are about getting stuff done.

    I make a point of referring to “GNU/Linux” to those who I know refer to it as such, but generally I use the shorthand “Linux” to refer to the whole OS — yeah, I know Linux is just the kernel — because, well, I do. Deal with it.

  • Mike

    @Ken

    “Bloat” is in the eye of the beholder. If you are providing applications that even a few students find useful, then it isn’t bloat. Extra apps don’t even use resources besides disk space if you never run them, and who cares how much disk space a few educational programs take up? It makes me wonder if she was referring to KDE itself? At least that would make some kind of sense, whether or not I agree with the premise.

  • Mike

    “I agree with Johan: Computers are about getting stuff done.”

    @Larry

    I disagree with this. Computers are much more than that. They can be tools, toys, communication devices, and more. While in Johan’s example I agree it was neither the time nor place to expound on the intricacies of OS fundamentals, nomenclature or licensing, it doesn’t mean those things are any less important than “getting stuff done”, even if most people don’t care.

    I think one of the best analogies for FOSS like GNU/Linux vs proprietary stuff like Windows or OSX is one of food:

    Windows and OSX are like junk food being served by fast-food restaurants. It’s expensive and bad for you, but very convenient. Linux on the other hand is like organic vegetables grown locally and prepared by hand. It’s cheaper, and better for you, but often times lacks the polish and convenience of commercial fare.

    You can only make the argument that “I just use what works.” for so long, before the unhealthy nature of proprietary software will take its toll on you. With software, instead of making you fat and clogging your arteries, it slowly steals your privacy and control over your own information and communications.

  • Gumnos

    My biggest qualm about the “GNU/Linux” vs. “Linux” debate is that it walks off the edge of Occam’s Razor. Given the amount of time I spend using various programs on my computer, why not call it “Linux/GNU/X/Fluxbox/Mozilla/Claws/OpenBSD/tmux/vim/rdesktop/pidgin/cmus”?

    Because that’s unwieldy. So I call it “Linux” — the same shorthand that most of the world uses for this hodge-podge of tools.

  • gus3

    All about getting stuff done? Then what does “xeyes” accomplish? LOL

    The woman’s mind-set can be easily explained if she was coming from the world of Windows, where bloat is the default state and causes real slow-down, as well as providing hiding-space for viruses, trojans, and malware. That is the way of thinking Windows users have been forced into for the past 20+ years. And that’s why Windows isn’t loved or even liked, it’s merely tolerated, and it continues only due to the intertia of “everyone else is using it, so I have to use it to work with them.”

    And now, with Windows 10 revenues at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, Satya Nadella is taking a gamble on Microsoft’s very existence. If the gamble pays off, then he will have done the impossible, by saving the company from the incompetent arrogance of Steve Ballmer.

  • A.C.

    Lots of programs on a computer is really like a set of bookshelves with lots of books. Is a house or a room or an office “bloated” because of lots of books? Only when the books spill off the shelves is it a problem, or when you fail to keep them organized, somehow (there are lots of ways to organize books and programs that make sense to users). The analogy to books spilling off bookshelves might be a program that you always keep running in RAM because your hard drive is full.

    I think Ken also made the mistake of failing to show his audience of one how to remove the unwanted stuff. The great thing about a Linux distro is that nearly all of them allow you to re-install with no problem.

    That said, I remember when the default installation for the distro I was using wanted to install BOTH K-Office and OpenOffice. By default. Along with a lot of other duplicate or near duplicate programs. The default should have been to choose one or the other, with installing both as an option. At that time, neither office system had the same default document format, so you couldn’t really jump back and forth between the two without imperfect conversions. One could argue that both office systems installed by default was, indeed, bloat. People for whom the installation is an end in and of itself would see that it gives you more choices to play with. People who see the installation as a means to another end simply want a tool to do the job. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s really a huge, huge difference in attitude and usage.

  • lpbbear

    I don’t claim to know anything about the distro Ken used. I have never looked at it. My comments are based on my own experience with other versions of Linux. Based on what I have seen with some other Linux distros I somewhat agree with the woman. I have seen many distributions that attempt to throw everything plus the kitchen sink at the user. I’m sure the maintainers of these distributions meant well but most people do simply do want to “get stuff done”. They want one decent word processor, one decent email program, one decent browser etc. Another issue I have seen many times is the inclusion of software that is either bug infested or just plain doesn’t even work at all. Sometimes this software is installed by default. Sometimes it is in the repositories for the distribution. It hangs there like an over ripe tempting fruit that begs the user to try it but when they do turns out to be a frustrating taste experience.
    This kind of thing in Linux can be compared with the “bloated” Windows experience that also frustrates Windows users. The inclusion of crapware, adware, and other system resource sucking garbage that is preloaded from the manufacturer and that totally frustrates Windows users in many cases.
    Offer a lean mean clean Linux desktop to users without going overboard on duplicate software but also give them a clear option to install other software if they really want it. Do thorough testing on EVERY software program listed in the repositories. Completely remove anything that has bugs, or barely works, or doesn’t work at all. Let the maintainers/devs of such broken software get it working before burdening users with it no matter how promising it might look.

  • Jay

    Now days hard drives are big and cheap.
    This “bloat” takes up hard drive space which is usually not a problem. The bloat is way less than Windows systems, and given any sort of modern hard drive is a NON-issue.

    What matters for bloat is how much is running, how much memory and CPU is consumed. If your are constrained on RAM or CPU, don’t launch so many programs at once.

    Windows rot is well known, how Windows gets slower with time. The excuse is that too many programs are installed. My GNU/Linus machines ;-} running Mepis based MX-14 take only a few Gig on the hard drive, and have hundreds to thousands of programs installed, and don’t bog down with any bloat. Still snappy and responsive after 30-100 days of up time.

  • Colonel Panik

    Its recursive.

  • Jay

    Recursive,
    like Bing, Microsoft’s search engine

    BING = Bing Is Not Google !

  • @Jay.

    BING = Bing Is Not Google !

    You sir, have made my day.