Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My Start in Linux

Welcome to my new blog about the joys of using Linux and free software.  I don't intend for it to be a how-to guide generally, though I will soon share my present personal Linux setup and talk a bit about past ones, and I will be happy to answer what technical questions I can. Instead, I intend for this to be a personal story.

While it's true that this blog is named after Slackware -- and it's true I am a present Slackware user -- for the majority of my Linux life, including the very beginning, I was a Red Hat Linux user while there was a Red Hat Linux, and then I transitioned to Fedora. During my ten years with Linux, I have tried a number of distributions, and for a long time my brother ran a Slackware 10 box that I set up. So, I say I am newly new to Slackware. It had been a while.

I would like to point out at this early stage that I have not left Fedora for Slackware over philosophical or technical reasons. Rather, I am using Slackware again because it runs more smoothly on my aging laptop, and I cannot afford a new one. Fedora is a fine distribution, and so is Slackware. On the one hand, I appreciate the sanity and simplicity of Slackware, which reminds me of Linux as it was when I began using it, but with more up-to-date packages. On the other, I have been a Gnome-user from the beginning. Gnome SlackBuild is very good, but because it replaces glib, among other packages, it breaks certain minor programs and keeps me from building others. Also, this glib difference means I cannot go multilib without a substantial effort. Perhaps this is better: there are only two programs begging me to go multilib anyway. Perhaps I should do without them.

That is a story for another day. Today, I will talk about my start in the world of Linux.


My beginnings with Red Hat were largely accidental. My start with Linux came not too long after finding a book on Linux at my grandparents' house. Its pages covered four distributions that were popular in its day: Red Hat, Caldera, TurboLinux, and SuSE.

In just a few days, I read it all the proper chapters and (I'm sad to say) a solid chunk of the appendices. Later that year, I would go on to read the IBM-DOS 3.3 manual in a similar manner (the fact that it was nearly 15 years out of date at the time only made it more appealing). I would re-read both of them several times.

I was enthralled, particularly because where school lunchroom chatter had lead me to believe Linux was even more primitive than DOS, I found an entire working desktop and an entire alien world to explore. We had built a new desktop the previous year, so I was allowed to do my experiments on the old family computer, a 200 MHz Pentium (with MMX!) with 16 MB of RAM and (best of all) a 4x CD-ROM drive. This was a time when, if I weren't so fixated on X, the entire system would be more than happy with 4 MB of RAM, so while it was junk hardware in the world of Windows 95, it played well with Caldera and Red Hat 6.

The book purported to come with CDs for all four distributions it covered, but sadly TurboLinux and SuSE were missing. I'm fairly certain that I've tried neither of those to this date, or if I have tried SuSE it was only very briefly. I don't know why I never tried TurboLinux, but for a long time we either didn't have broadband or when we did it would take nearly all day to download a CD set. Maybe it never promised something that excited me to be that patient.

As for SuSE, it was partly that factor, partly its similarity to Red Hat, and partly about Novell's alignment with the evil empire in '06. Somewhere between 2002 and 2006 the basis for my interest in Linux switched from being a curiosity about an alien world to a love of the free software movement's philosophy. How can I have possibly supported a company that believed in software patents?? I'm sure I have missed trying some great distributions, but I digress.

Do you remember remember your first time? Did it end in failure? Was it awkward? Were there creepy undertones to the whole affair? I remember that one of the Karate Kid movies was playing on the TV and my brother watched it while I spent the majority of the movie's runtime (including commercials) trying to get Caldera installed.

I think what set it apart from the other distro(s) available to me was its installation process, which was more automated. That's helpful to someone who has known what low-level formatting was for a matter of weeks. To the young mind, fdisk is even more transgressive fsck, and things get really exciting when one thinks of writing to the MBR. Genuinely, I got a rush from it.

The installation went smoothly until the very end. At that time, Caldera's installer included a tetris-like game to take the edge off the boredom of watching packages copy over to your hard drive. I forget precisely when I knew things weren't right, but an indicator would have been things going awry with tetris. Too often in life, this is the case. I think it got hung up along the way. Sadly, at the end of the night, I didn't have a working OS, and I didn't have Mr Miyagi's lessons to fall back on either.

So it was that by the accident of poor-quality CD pressing (and omitted discs) that my first working Linux distribution would be Red Hat 6. That is the story for next time.

I would love to hear what you think of what I've written, or what you'd like to read about in the future. Please don't be shy about commenting on this page or about adding me on Google Plus, where I share more geeky/Linux things and fewer personal things than I do on other social networks, so I'm more comfortable adding Internet strangers (please don't ask to join my other networks, strangers).

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