The Tool As The Work

I’ve been using Linux in some capacity since tinkering with it in a lab at my old job in 2005. That’s not a long time by enthusiast standards, but it’s not nothing, either. I saw this post on Reddit and the sentiment stuck in my throat a little bit.

I’m a bit of a distrohopper – not on my main PC, but I have the “luxury” of having literally dozens of older boxes laying around my house and I’ve tinkered with a lot of distros since 2009, when I went full Linux.
For the past few years I’ve been thinking what changed in Slackware to turn it from my favorite distro once into the one that is immensely frustrating for me to use – and I don’t think anything has changed about Slackware itself.
The concept of “slack” in “Slackware” stems from you not having to install anything – it has you covered with all that software it provides. But am I wrong or is that a really “mid-2000s” thing to want? As Internet speeds grew, it became quicker and easier to just get everything you want from repos – not stuff preselected by the distro either, the stuff YOU prefer.
And you can use Slackware like that – build up from base system, install package by package with Slackbuilds, tracking dependencies yourself. I know, because I have built my OS like that in the past. And the results can be great! But Slackware fights you on that. It recommends you install a whole lot of useless crap, it doesn’t provide any tools to get rid of unneeded dependencies automatically when you delete something you no longer need (sbopkg does, but slackpkg doesn’t). It’s a good learning experience, but it’s frustrating and hard to do – especially compared to most modern distros, where you can get a minimal system with the selection of packages of your choosing in minutes.
I think Slackware may still have it’s place somewhere with limited internet speed/access (similar to endlessOS, perhaps). Personally, I just can’t really justify using it any more – between either accepting a bloated and arbitrary default package selection, going through the long and frustrating process of deselecting individual packages during installation or building from base system, which feels like working against the flow of what Slackware wants to be.

I started out with Lindows (now Linspire), which was a highly beginner-friendly distro of the time, intended to tempt the Windows XP refugee. We couldn’t get it to work at first (lol). Went to Debian after a battle with the graphics card in the aging IBM desktop I was using, discovered Ubuntu (Swahili for ‘Can’t Install Debian’ as The Register quipped) which was manifestly an easier experience (Wifi worked out of the box, a miracle at the time. You kids have no idea how good you have it) and realized I wanted to learn more.

So I tried out Arch Linux. Arch, I will say up front is a fantastic distro, probably one of the best around (still). It gives you nothing but a boot disk and excellent documentation, and following the install guide to the letter gets you a working linux system, and the means to do what you want thereafter. It’s an incredible learning tool (what it teaches in terms of basics is a foundation you can use everywhere) and has the distinction of now being a meme.

There’s nothing difficult about Arch; if you can follow instructions you can install it. The community is mysteriously up its own arse. They can be proud of their distribution, if not themselves.

I was fortunate enough to find a career involving Linux. System Administration has a way of really getting to the root of just how simultaneously difficult and wonderful open source can be, but also – I have to say – how irrelevant desktop Linux is to it all. I tended to try and follow the open source way, minimizing proprietary software and dog-fooding a linux desktop just to force myself to always be learning something.

For the most part, I loved it, and still do. If all you really need is a terminal and a web browser (a mail client at a push…) you can’t beat desktop Linux. It’s reliable, flexible, can be left alone and just stays out of the way. For the most part. Those last two represent one of the challenges of ‘enthusiast’ distros.

That is to say, if you’re spending more time trying to get your distro up and running and maintaining it than actually using it to do a job of work, it will start to get on your nerves sooner rather than later. As with relationships and cars, high maintenance becomes tedious and annoying.

I ran Arch for a little while. An update broke it (it happens; the forum will usually chide you for not reading the news items on the front page which say something like “Because we can, this latest update will cause breakage because we really like yelling at people on the forum for not reading this”)

Arch’s news items often contain critical notes about frangible package updates.

It wasn’t broken badly, but I did not have all day to sort it out, so off it fucked. I replaced it with Slackware, which is the longest running Linux distribution still in development, and the subject of the Reddit post above.

Where Arch gives you the building blocks and a framework for building out a system for whatever purpose you want, Slackware provides a working system with software as the standard install. You can get cracking wherever you are, internet connection or not. There is a package manager, but uniquely in Linux distros it does not handle dependency resolution. This is not as crazy as it sounds, as the base system has most of what you need to work, and most of what you need to compile packages from the extensive Slackbuilds project (which uses the same system to build packages from source that the distro does). You can say Slackware is not just a distro, but a whole way of thinking about a distro. It is both cutting edge (if you run the current branch or are close in time to a stable release) and conservative in that things should be simple, and they should work. You’ll find plenty of ostensibly old software in Slackware, but if it works (and has no vulnerabilities) it gets included. It is utterly reliable and stable, in my experience.

I ran 14.2 on my work desktop for ages, until the day my desktop hardware got refreshed and meant a switch to something newer (the Xorg stack was just too old for the GPU and I was not going to take the time trying to sort that out) and I could not get the migration to the Current branch to work without a full reinstall. I needed to get working, and that was that. The fact that basic internet these days allows one to ‘get anything they need’ (which is actually how you build Arch Linux up from base) doesn’t mean Slackware’s approach is redundant, because choice is still going to be constrained by your distro’s package manager or your ability to build it yourself, which isn’t particularly easy if you’re unfamiliar.

Good luck maintaining your system when it’s composed of a mix of official packages and source-compiled specials (ask me how I know…) Slackware’s philosophy of adopting the Slackbuild system (a simple shell script) to create a standard package is a really nice approach, and you appreciate the beauty of it over time. If you take a bit of effort to organize things it’s not hard to stay on top of it all.

I ran Ubuntu 18.04 LTS for a while, and it worked really well. It was simple, had everything I needed, supported things like Zoom which became essential to my job, and ran without fail for a long time, I was able to integrate it with some other proprietary tools like our endpoint protection and backup agent which made life easier, if taking me a bit from ‘the way’. I do not love Canonical’s drift into increasingly restrictive proprietary practices, like fencing off updates to a subscription model after five years from LTS epoch. That can be a pretty short period if you’re mid or late cycle.

The point is if you want to tinker with distros that’s a pursuit in and of itself, but it’s fuck all to do with productivity. I have to emphasise It doesn’t have to be, especially if that makes you happy. Slackware is great for just getting to work and being exceptionally easy to maintain once you know its ways. It also has the loveliest people behind its development and community.

I built KISS Linux on a laptop recently just as an exercise in faffing about, and honestly going back to basics (though getting it working was anything but basic) was really interesting in reminding me what I enjoy about Linux and open source, but also how far Linux has come in terms of bells and whistles. You lose a lot in a simple WM environment. Do you need it? No. Is it nice to have? Absolutely. I really got sold on i3 and its Wayland derivative Sway as a working environment, it’s really efficient. Would I attempt it as a productivity platform? Not now. Too many compromises I’m not patient enough for at this time, but it’s good to go back to basics and I have a play on the laptop when the mood takes me.

Bloat is a common complaint of much in computing, and open source. But you can’t escape it really. Even KISS has to use the Linux Kernel, which is an absolute nightmare of LOC chonk. It also amused me that Dylan Araps (author of KISS Linux) made Flatpak available as an optional personal package, Flatpak being the absolute total fucking antithesis of keeping things simple, But it works, and users like what it provides (I even built it on Slackware as I wanted things like Spotify and Plex Desktop because I’m a tart. Sorry, Pat!)

Don’t worry about the thing, use the thing. That’s all that matters.



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