Debian, at last

Those days I am installing Debian in my IBM ThinkPad R40e laptop.
The installation is not fully OK yet. The USB mouse does not work after I disabled BIOS USB support to prevent keyboard lockup at boot time. The internal mouse causes the graphic cursor to jump to the lower left corner at the slightest provocation. I am still learning my way through Debian.

However, I can already start appreciating the power of Debian relative to RedHat and Fedora Core, which I have been using so far.

Debian has reputation of being more difficult to install than several other distributions. What I find is that Debian installer does not hide from you the complexity of what it is doing. But if you are not afraid of scrolling messages and of doing hand editing once in while and of learning new things, Debian is not difficult.

It seems to me that there are few kinds of people. One kind want the control provided by Debian and are willing to pay the price of messing around when this becomes necessary. Another kind want the software to handhold them – hide from them complexity. But when something goes wrong, they are left with having to try things randomly or asking for help from the local guru.

Once I get it to work to my satisfaction, I’ll check the Debian installation and if its Hebrew support is good enough, I’ll consider adopting the dictatorial policy of helping my friends with their computer problems only if they work with Debian (even if today they use MS-Windows XP).

Author: Omer Zak

I am deaf since birth. I played with big computers which eat punched cards and spew out printouts since age 12. Ever since they became available, I work and play with desktop size computers which eat keyboard keypresses and spew out display pixels. Among other things, I developed software which helped the deaf in Israel use the telephone network, by means of home computers equipped with modems. Several years later, I developed Hebrew localizations for some cellular phones, which helped the deaf in Israel utilize the cellular phone networks. I am interested in entrepreneurship, Science Fiction and making the world more accessible to people with disabilities.

10 thoughts on “Debian, at last”

    1. No, I did not even try to use the built-in modem in my ThinkPad R40e.

      I connect it to the world via Ethernet, and in the pre-2.6.8 era I needed a module from outside of the mainstream kernel to drive the BoardCom network card.


  1. I forgot to say: congrats on the new installation! Debian should be a very good distribution, even though it's probably not my cup of tea. I do hope that this time you'll make sure to update everything regularly. You seem to keep staying with incredibly ancient systems. (one time I talked to Omer, he told me he was using ghostscript 4).

    But the million dollar question is: who is John Galt?


    1. The top reason for my moving to Debian is to make it easier for me to keep current.

      When I use RedHat or Fedora Core, moving to a more recent version is a traumatic experience, worthy of going to the synagogue and reciting “Berachat Hagomel”. Usually I enjoyed a more recent version only when I had the opportunity to install and configure a new PC.

      Now I hope to have gradual and smooth upgrade path.


    2. Hmmm… you're possibly right. One thing negative I could say about Mandrake is that upgrading components or entire systems is often prune to what I like to call “cute bugs”, which surface up afterwards. But usually, I am able to fix them or work around them quite easily, but I'm not sure people who don't have a local guru to hold their hand would. (which is why a different distribution would probably be preferable). It's still not as bad as you imply in your post, though.

      Of course, Debian is not entirely free of these problems either. In a post to Linux-IL (or was it IGLU-Web), Tzafrir Cohen once said that a network upgrade of Debian has caused his system to become unusable, twice. (sorry, I misplaced the message
      since, but you can hopefully trace it). But I suppose it is better there – at least from Red Hat, and perhaps even from Mandrake.

      Anyway, I'm glad you'll stay more or less on the leading edge from now on. This will greatly help us coordinate our efforts and help one another.


  2. Hi Omer!

    What do you mean by “I'll consider adopting the dictatorial policy of helping my friends with their computer problems only if they work with Debian (even if today they use MS-Windows XP).”. Why not help people who wish to use Mandrake Linux or Red Hat/Fedora or whatever? They are also open-source distributions.

    Some days from now, I helped talash with his Suse installation. By doing so, I was able to learn some things about Suse, and using apt. I did it despite the fact that my favourite distribution is Mandrake.

    I think far too many Debianists (I can give you some examples, but would rather not defame anyone here) denounce everything else on the face of the earth, and very loudly. This is depsite the fact Debian has had or even still has many issues that are better in many other popular distributions. It's kind of like the Pythoneers attack of everything Perl, only it seems to me that they calmed down a bit, after Python has become more popular.

    Omer, please be better than that. Every GNU/Linux (or any other open-source OS – I'm not discriminating) distribution is a good thing because it adds to the diversity, may inspire new ideas and because some people may prefer it over the others. If the core distribution contains only open-source components (as is the case for Connectiva, Debian, Gentoo, Mandrake, Red Hat and other distributions), then it is even better. No need to become an elitist, and start depracating other distributions.

    Some people like Mandrake. Some people like Red Hat. Some people like Debian. Some people like even Slackware. And I know two people who use Linux-from-scratch. There are also various purposes that warrant various distributions. Mandrake is excellent as a desktop OS, and I believe it would also be suitable for most network servers. However, I probably won't base an embedded system on it. Gentoo is very configurable, but most people with limited resources (read: without a distcc compile farm) will find its long compilations frustrating.

    To every distribution there is a time, and a season for each distro under the Sun. (with apologies to Qoheleth).


    1. The war between keyboard and USB mouse was ended when I installed kernel version 2.6.8. Now both work happily under both settings of BIOS USB support.

      The graphic mouse cursor is now obedient.

      Thanks to Amos, who told me about the Debian package of Hebrew-enabled OpenOffice.
      Install Culmus fonts (another *.deb package, only 'apt-get install' keystrokes away when your sources are configured), install OO (was a bit difficult, there were some conflicts, but when there are enough scrolling messages, you can figure out how to fix it), add Hebrew keyboard layout, enable hotkeys to switch keyboard layouts – and you have Hebrew wordprocessing.

      Now, about my considering to help only people who installed Debian on their computers.

      My reason is simple: it seems that giving technical support is easiest when Debian is used on the computer. If he expects me to hold his hand personally (rather than support his PC by himself and rely upon Web sites, Google and mailing lists for the tough issues) then he should install whatever OS and flavor which will make my task easier.

      Also, Debian seems to have the richest collection of software packages. So if he just wants to use his PC to get his work done, then his best bet is to install Debian and the packages needed for his work. Rather than mess around with distributions with eye-candy-full installers but short lists of useful software packages.

      I am not saying people should not use other distributions. I am not saying people should not help their non-Debianist friends. However, when it comes to the best use if my time, it seems that using my time to help only users of Debian will be better use of my time than helping MS-Windows XP or Fedora Core 1 users.


    2. ” it seems that giving technical support is easiest when Debian is used on the computer.” – I'm not sure that's true. Somethings are easier to fix in other distributions.

      ” If he expects me to hold his hand personally (rather than support his PC by himself and rely upon Web sites, Google and mailing lists for the tough issues) then he should install whatever OS and flavor which will make my task easier.”

      Well, I don't like this sentence. I am glad to help people who are using whatever distro they choose to use, because if I can indeed help them, I can:

      1. Actually help them and be satisfied that I do.
      2. Perhaps learn some more about the different distribution.
      3. Be content that I'm not trying to program the world at large to follow my whims.

      Generally, it's analogous (risking an analogy here) that the customer is always right. It's also like I feel whenever I tell my ISP support person that I'm using a hardware Router/NAT and he sais that he doesn't support it. (even if it's obvious that there's a problem at their end.)

      The last thing I want to see is Linux fragmented between the Debian camp, and everybody else, where the Debianists keep chanting “Use Debian Instead! Use Debian Instead! Use Debian Instead!”. I don't tell a Debian user to use Mandrake instead if he asks me for help. Why shouldn't you follow suit?

      “Also, Debian seems to have the richest collection of software packages.” Well, Mandrake also has a rich collection of software packages, and Red Hat too. Perhaps not as rich as Debian, but still most software is an apt, urpmi or yum command away. There's nothing technologically that prevents the software pool to grow for these distribution – it just requires more packagers and volunteers.

      And for the record, all of the important packages are already included in the distribution. Helping someone with a problem would usually be irrelevant to several packages of obscure programs.

      “However, when it comes to the best use if my time, it seems that using my time to help only users of Debian will be better use of my time than helping MS-Windows XP or Fedora Core 1 users.”

      So you aim to be a Debian guru instead of a Linux guru? You do realize that over-specialization is considered harmful. In fact, several studies by Anthropolgists and Historians demonstrated that all the extinct human cultures became extinct due to over-specialization. I'd rather be a Linux expert, and a more limited expert in UNIX in general (just because I'm not going to bother studying the differences between Linux and other UNIXes until I really need to), than a Mandrake and only Mandrake expert. [1]

      My point is this, if someone asks you how to determine if a file is a directory, I'll tell him to use “-d” or “ls -l”, etc. I'm not going to ask him, “are you using Debian?”

      [1] – in regards to MS-Windows: I do have some working knowledge of it, and may possibly have to extend it in the future, in the course of my work. However, I don't try to focus on it, because I predict that Windows is about to become a legacy operating system, and follow the path of DOS, Novell OS, TOPS-20, ITS, OS/2, and the rest of the graveyard of operating systems, that were once very popular, but were then used only in installations that could not afford the upgrade path for some reason. Just note, that I'm not predicting Microsoft's demise. But if they survive, we'll see them heavily adopting Linux and UNIX in general.


    3. “If he expects me to hold his hand…”
      I neglected to mention that this kind of support is free.

      Currently I am being paid to support Symbian (closed OS with horrible developer level documentation) and I support Symbian. But for this I get paid.

      But for free and as favor to friends – please use OS which is easy to support.

      I do not aim to be a Debian guru or Linux guru. I just help when it is easy for me and my help is worth a lot to them. The kind of help which I mean is not about using 'cat', 'ls' or 'less'. It is about fixing problems.


    4. I'd like to respond to what you said and to the entire “I'm not getting
      paid to support my open-source users/friends and so you should play by my
      rules and/or am not obliged to support you” mantra. This is an ancient mantra
      that “makes sense”, is elusive, but is a very dangerous one for an open-source
      user/developer/advocate to possess.

      First of all let me start by quoting someone who is very much my superior
      (גדול וטוב ממני in Hebrew):

      “But if you're writing for the world, you have to listen to your customers—this doesn't change just because they're not paying you in money.”

      (I'll give one virtual candy to the first one who gives a URL to the original

      Now, what I think. In the course of my history as an open-source user,
      developer and advocate, I realized (at least sub-consciously) that my users
      and friends, were an asset rather than a burden. I could learn a lot from
      their problems, the solutions they found, the patterns they followed, and by
      that I can make sure I don't repeat these mistakes myself, and also that
      my further users and friends will also benefit from these mistakes.

      I don't say I did not ever got the feeling “hey! I'm not getting paid to do it,
      so I don't owe you a thing.”. But whenever I did, I took some time to think
      about it, and then wrote a polite and friendly letter answering their questions,
      sometimes even guiding them through the entire process of learning how to use
      the program. (for Windows users, it often involved giving some UNIX 101). I
      wish I had a dollar for everytime someone asked me: “I open the Freecell
      Solver zip file, double click the executable and all I get is an empty dos
      box.” But I politely answered all of them, and eventually integrated a change
      that gave some notice on STDERR. (this I think, just caused the poor Winnies
      to completely ditch the program, screaming in terror, but at least I was no
      longer bothered.)

      Another thing I can recall, is that I wanted to play with Berkeley dbxml (an
      XML/XPath database) and had problems getting it running. So I contacted the
      support E-mail which I found on the site. I was assigned a ticket, and
      eventually, a support person from Sleepycat contacted me with the right
      solution. This is despite the fact I did not pay them anything, but just
      strained some of my bandwidth.

      By helping fellow users with their problems, you will learn and grow. By
      telling people to fsck themselves because they are not using Debian, you are
      going to create feelings of resentment and may even scare people away from
      Linux. If I was going to install a Linux system for a friend it might be
      Mandrake (or it might not – I'm not sure Mandrake is suitable at each
      juncture – no distribution is, probably). Now let's assume he's a mutual
      friend of both of us, and he encounters a problem while I'm abroad. He asks
      you for help. Are you going to refuse him, just because he's using Mandrake?
      By that, you won't only make him desperate (at least until some kind and more
      rational Israeli Linux guru comes to help him), you'll also make either me
      look bad to him, or you look bad to both him and me.

      So, open-source guys and gals, if you don't how to help a man, just don't. If
      you think you might help and have some time, please try, regardless if he's
      using your distribution, your editor, your shell, your window manager/desktop
      environment, your favourite agile language, your dish-washer or your favourite
      kitchen sink. Otherwise, you're not a very good friend and not a very good
      open-source advocate.

      There are of course limits to it. One day I was hanging on the IRC, when someone
      asked me if I can port some obscure bot he wrote (and demonstrated) in mIRC
      script to Perl. I told him that since he did not pay me, I had no egoistical
      interest to follow this path, and so declined. I recommended him to learn Perl
      and do the porting himself.


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