I’ve written a few things from time to time about changes in Gnu/Linux Desktop Environments that have taken place over the past year. 2011 has seen tremendous changes in the Linux desktop; from Unity in Ubuntu; to the transition from Gnome 2.3 to Gnome 3 Shell; and to the growing number of people who are finding Xfce and Enlightenment (e17) and KDE more to their liking because of these changes.
This is the time of year when many Linux distros come out with new versions of their Operating Systems (Fedora, OpenSUSE, Sabayon, Ubuntu and Linux Mint, to name but a few), and I’ve been trying out some of these new distros to see how Gnome Shell is progressing. I’m especially interested in the upcoming Linux Mint 12, since I now am running Mint 10 on the computer that my wife and I use a lot. The Release Candidate for Mint 12 came out this past week and I’ve played around with the Live CD a couple of times now.
I have to say, I’m a little disappointed; or maybe I should say underwhelmed. It’s kind of a mish-mash at the moment between features of the old Mint with the new “MGSE” (Mint Gnome Shell Extensions), resulting in two different ways to do several common tasks and not the usual coherent integration of visual style that we’ve come to expect from Linux Mint. Though of course, this is not the final release, and there are naturally a lot of bugs that need to be ironed out from this totally new redesign of Mint. I’ve tried other distros with standard Gnome 3 Shell (Fedora and OpenSUSE) and find it nice to look at but severely lacking in usability. And Compiz doesn’t work in Gnome Shell/Unity, so desktop effects are limited. At least Mint’s Gnome Shell extensions (and Gnome tweak) make it a little more configurable; but still, Gnome Shell and Unity are, in my opinion, a huge step backward for the Linux desktop experience. Come on, people! I need my wobbly windows and fading transition effects! I need a panel I can right-click to modify and move wherever I want on my screen!
My first experience using Linux was Ubunt 8.10, Hardy Heron, three years ago. When I discovered I could download and try out any of dozens (hundreds!) of different distros from Live CDs that cost absolutely nothing, I was ecstatic! Back then Ubuntu had a slightly plain, almost retro look compared to the Macs I had been using. But it was very easy to use, intuitive, and it worked pretty darn well. After a little time reading forums and experimenting I learned I could do so much more with Linux than I ever could with the Mac or Windows. There was so much I could change and configure about the way the operating system looked and the way it worked. And there were other Desktop Environments besides Gnome to choose from! There was Compiz for groovy desktop effects, tons of different window manager themes and icon themes to download that I could change and rearrange with a couple of clicks! And a universe (and multiverse) of free and open source software I could easily install in several different ways. I had a few brief problems at first, but thanks to Linux forums I discovered I could fix any occasional glitch all by myself. What a sense of empowerment! And don’t even get me started about the wonders of the command line!
After less than a year of using Ubuntu I found Linux Mint, and today I’m using Mint 10 on our main computer and Bodhi Linux on another desktop and a laptop. I’ve installed other distros; like Dream Linux, Xubuntu, PCLinux OS, Fedora, Mandriva, Moon OS, Pardus Linux and Pinguy OS; using Gnome, KDE, Xfce or Enlightenment. But for now, standard Linux Mint 10 (Gnome) and Bodhi Linux (Enlightenment) are tied as my favorite distros. And they’re both based off Ubuntu. I’m very familiar and comfortable using Ubuntu (and thus Debian) based distros.
So this is what I don’t understand: After several years most Linux distros have progressed rapidly, thanks to the open source development mentality, to become easier to use, faster, more reliable, more elegant, and more compatible with hardware and peripheral devices. But with Ubuntu ditching Gnome for Unity, and the Gnome Developers making some drastic changes from Gnome 2.3 to Gnome 3 with Gnome Shell, it seems to me like that progress has been stopped in its tracks.
I know, I’ve heard the rationalizations. They want to appeal more to the masses; to the trend of more people using notebooks and netbooks and other portable devices, so they took the look and features of a netbook OS and came up with Unity and Gnome Shell (which to me are pretty much indistinguishable). But I just don’t understand why you would take a Desktop Manager that is easy to use and highly configurable like Gnome 2.3 and then take many of those features away; make it less functional. That makes no sense!
To me, the great thing about Gnu/Linux-based operating systems is that there isn’t just one flavor. And as I’ve said before; that’s probably the worst thing about getting the masses to try a Linux operating system: too many choices. With Mac OSX what you see is pretty much what you get. And the same with Windows. It takes years for a new version of these OS’s to get released, and even then, you pretty much know what to expect. There aren’t any drastic changes to the way it works. And the changes are evolutionary; you expect the new version to do more than the previous, not less.
So for the majority of Windows and Mac users who aren’t used to being able to change the look or usability of their OS, the new Ubuntu or a distro with Gnome Shell may be simple and attractive enough to get them to try it. Certainly the price tag and freedom from viruses and malware is a big plus. Trouble is, the vast majority of computer users still don’t have a clue what Linux is, though Canonical, Redhat and the Free and Open Source Software community may gradually be changing that. The thing I love about Linux is what makes it so difficult to promote. There is no single Face for that elusive thing we call ‘Linux’, and despite Mark Shuttleworth’s efforts there may never be.
Of course, that diversity is also a great strength. I, and a lot of other Linux users really love Gnome 2.3. And even though it’s being phased out for a less friendly, more rigid Gnome 3; the world of Open Source is all about innovation. There are always new extensions for Gnome Shell and Unity popping up, and there’s MATE, which is now in its infancy but may bring the goodness of Gnome 2 to Gnome Shell. There is always hope! But at this moment my Linux Mint 10 is working beautifully. And after checking out the alternatives, I’m going to keep using it for as long as I can.
Another alternative that I find more attractive all the time is to just bypass all this fuss over Gnome and Unity and use an Enlightenment distro like Bodhi Linux. e17 is so customizable that it takes a while to learn, but for people who want full control of their desktop and eye candy without Compiz, it’s the Cat’s Pajamas!
If things with Gnome aren’t much better a year from now, I think all my computers will be running Bodhi. I know I forgot some points, but that’s my rant for tonight! Thank you. Comments are welcome.
Here it is, a stunningly beautiful Sunday morning in May. Cherry blossoms; leaves bursting forth above sun-washed green grass; colorful tulips beneath a blue sky. And I’m sitting inside to regale you Linux users out there with my thoughts on Ubuntu 11.04 after using it sparingly for the past week. After this I promise: no more harping on about this new version of Ubuntu, or specifically the new Unity desktop.
So after a week of playing around, my experience with Ubuntu and Unity is this: I think it has great potential to be a visually pleasing and user-friendly desktop operating system, but it’s not there yet. I find myself wishing Canonical had waited till the next Ubuntu release in October to switch to Unity. It just has too many annoying little bugs. If you want to have an operating system that has the same functionality of the previous Ubuntu with Gnome 2 you need to search around the internet and add all kinds of other people’s hacks to get many basic things to work. And that’s for someone like myself who is familiar with how Linux works and where to find these hacks. For someone wanting to switch from Windows or Mac, this would seem pretty user unfriendly/difficult to configure. And even then, I find many things still don’t work right.
Just a simple thing like the panel weather indicator; it’s set to auto-update every fifteen minutes but it never does. If I manually update the weather, the temperature information beside the picture icon disappears. Then if I open the preferences and change something, and click ‘OK’, nothing happens for a minute and then the dialog box goes gray and I have to force-quit the indicator. This happens every time! Another example: every time I open Firefox it pops open in full Maximize mode. I don’t want it maximized. When it’s maximized the window control buttons appear in the left side of the Global Menu Bar instead of the right side of the window where I’ve used ‘Ubuntu Tweak’ to set all other window buttons because I prefer them on the right. I can Unmaximize the Firefox window a dozen times, but when I restart Firefox it’s Maximized again. It never did that before. I don’t know how to change it!
I know it’s not such a big deal, but it’s these little inconsistencies that build up and annoy the crap out of me! Before Unity I never had these problems. Things just worked and I could configure to my heart’s content without having to disable Global Menu or use someone else’s hack. There have been other similar little bugs. This is why I think anyone wanting to try Unity might be better off waiting till Ubuntu 11.10. There are fixes for things appearing almost daily, but why use an operating system that doesn’t work well without installing a hundred patches? You might as well use Windows!
But it all comes down to: if you enjoy it, use it! If not, there are tons of other options in the Linux universe. (And don’t get me started on Gnome 3 right now).
So here’s the end of my little rant. For anyone out there interested in trying Linux for the first time I would still heartily recommend Linux Mint, or if you really want lots of apps and bells and whistles pre-installed, Pinguy OS is quite groovy, too.
If you’ve been around the block with Linux a bit, also try Bodhi Linux with the Enlightenment window manager. It’s light, gorgeous and configurable to the nth degree. And in my opinion, makes Unity look old and crude in comparison.
So get outside and smell the honeysuckle! Give your mother a kiss and a hug. Or give someone else’s mother a kiss!
Happy Mother’s Day!
In my last blog entry I talked about buying a new computer, which I got without an operating system and installed Linux Mint on it when I got home. Which got me thinking a lot about the operating systems that run our computers. And my growing passion for GNU/Linux.
About three years ago I started investigating this mysterious thing called “Linux” that I kept hearing about on the internet. I knew, or thought I knew, that it was another kind of computer operating system, an alternative to Windows and Mac OS. I discovered that ‘Linux’ refers to the kernel of the Unix based operating systems officially known as GNU/Linux. In computing, the kernel is the central component of most computer operating systems; it is a bridge between applications and the actual data processing done at the hardware level. The kernel’s responsibilities include managing the system’s resources (the communication between hardware and software components). The Linux kernel was initially conceived and created by Finnish computer science student Linus Torvalds in 1991. The word ‘Linux’ is a combination of ‘Linus’ and ‘Unix’.
But I really don’t want to go into the origins of what we now call Linux, which can get boring pretty quickly for the average computer user. And I don’t understand most of the technical jargon myself. What’s important is that the Linux Kernel is the basis of hundreds of different free and open source operating systems for your computer. (“Open source is a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.” – from the Open Source Initiative website). The open source community is a global, cooperative network of people and corporations whose goal is to provide software and computer operating systems available to anyone at no cost. How cool is that?!
For the previous ten years I’d been a Mac user. I loved my Macs and OS X. I had used Windows a little bit in the past, but found it a bit more difficult and convoluted to use compared to the Mac OS. Then just before I started using Linux, I had a laptop with Windows XP for a few days, and I enjoyed it, since by then I knew a hell of a lot more about using a computer! But I could never understand why anyone would choose to use an operating system that’s susceptible to viruses, trojans, worms, malware and spyware, when you could use an Apple computer, which was not. Except of course for the cost. But there are a lot of people who would argue that a computer that came with lots of great, easy to use software and did not need to be brought in as often for repair or periodic virus removal was worth the somewhat higher relative cost.
Anyway, back to 2008. I started learning about FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) and discovered all kinds of cross-platform software that could run on Windows, Macs and Linux. I got to download and try out GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), a program that is very similar to Adobe Photoshop, but doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars. And Open Office, the free alternative to Microsoft Office. And Inkscape, a free vector graphics application very similar to Adobe Illustrator, and many other free and open source versions of popular software. I was getting hooked!
And around this time I was hearing more and more about Ubuntu (the most popular Linux distribution/operating system) on the internet. Linux distros have been around for a long time. There was Slackware, Arch Linux, OpenSuse, CentOS, Gentoo, Yellow Dog, Fedora, Mandrake (which is now Mandriva) and Debian, to name a few. But Linux mostly had a reputation of being accessible only to geeks; that only hard-core technical nerds used or understood it. And for many years I think that was true! But then in 2004 along came Ubuntu, a distro that was based on the venerable Debian Linux, but which aimed to create an operating system that was geared toward the average home computer user. Again, I won’t bore you with more history. But since I started using Ubuntu in September of 2008, the improvements for each version, which has a release cycle of every six months, has been amazing! As has the development of the other major Linux distros and their offshoots. The aim of Mark Shuttleworth, the father of Ubuntu, has been to make it comparable to the Mac OS in ease of use and visual attractiveness, and I think they’re just about there. And the fact that there are no viruses that affect Linux makes it even more attractive. In thirteen years I’ve never owned a computer that got any type of virus, nor have I ever used any ‘virus protection’ software.
In the past few weeks I’ve talked to a several friends who use Windows on their computers, or bought new netbooks, and I hear the same story. Strange behavior, unintelligible text appearing on their screens, or something (they’re not sure what) automatically downloading that slows their machine to a crawl and other weird behavior. And every few months their computers become so unresponsive that they need to take it to a computer shop and pay a hefty sum of money to have viruses and malware removed. And I can’t help but wonder: why?
The major reason I decided to write this is just to spread the word that there is an alternative! There are many alternatives! And not just by paying a lot of money for an Apple computer. If you can afford a Mac, great! They’re beautiful and everything pretty much ‘just works’. But even though I’m fond of Macs (we still have our nine-year old G-4 Mac that works quite well) I’ve come to see the tremendous benefit of open source software. A Linux distro is extremely configurable to fit the users needs and taste. Much more so than a closed source OS like Windows or Mac. Hence the proliferation and variety of Linux distros. Anyone with the know-how can improve upon a distro or go off in new and innovative directions. And bugs can be reported and fixed much faster when you have a world-wide community of developers who all have access to the source code, and the ability to review the work of others.
I believe the reason for the general lack of awareness about Linux is:
A) Microsoft has done such a good job for such a long time at building their monopoly. They’ve simply spent an insane amount of money buying off the computer manufacturers and retailers to sell machines with Windows pre-installed; to the point where the general populace has been conditioned to equate ‘Computer’ with ‘Windows’. (Though Apple is certainly making a headway at changing that over the past few years.)
And B) You’ve never seen a commercial for a Linux-based operating system. Although Ubuntu may change that in the near future. But with Linux, there’s not One Brand. Or a single company behind it. There are many, and a huge variety of choices in operating systems that is growing all the time. (Just check THIS out to get an idea. And look at the list on the lower right of the page.) Linux developers spend their resources on improving their software. Free and Open Source means they don’t have millions to spend on commercials! Yet.
Which leads me back to Linux Mint. Mint is an offshoot of Ubuntu which I started using about a year and a half ago. Though it’s based on Ubuntu, the Mint developers have gone off in many different ways and made it a truly unique and separate entity. And in my experience everything ‘just works’ out of the box. Because of that, Linux Mint has become my favorite distro out of several that I really love, and the Linux OS I would recommend to any novice to try out. I’ve talked a lot about using Linux Live CDs here before. One of the neat things about Linux is the ability to download, burn to CD or DVD, and boot your computer from the removable disk (or portable USB device) to become acquainted with any Linux distro before installing it to your hard drive, or a separate partition on your hard drive so you can dual-boot along with Windows. And from there the adventure just begins!
So it’s time to get down from my soap box! I hope I didn’t bore the crap out of some of you. And if you remember nothing else from my rantings, please remember this folks:
Linux is not just for geeks.
You have a choice of what operating system you run your computer with.
Learning new things is fun!
Next Up: My other new favorite Linux distro: Bodhi Linux
I have two completely different topics on my mind today. First up: this has been an exciting week so far in the world of GNU/Linux. Ubuntu 10.10, or ‘Maverick Meerkat’ was released this past Sunday on 10/10/10. Right now I’m using Pinguy OS on our main desktop computer, which is based on Ubuntu 10.04, and I’m very happy with it. The new version of Pinguy OS (based on Ubuntu 10.10) should be out soon. But I was curious so I downloaded Maverick Meerkat a couple of days ago just to try it out. And it looks and runs very nicely. I’ve read that there are some changes in Ubuntu 10.10 that should help with optimizing system performance in general. And of course there’s all the talk about better integration with ‘the cloud’ which I don’t care as much about. But Ubuntu certainly has come a long way since I first installed version 8.04 a couple of years ago (my first foray into Linux) in terms of ease of use and the look and feel of the operating system.
Then just yesterday Linux Mint 10 ‘Julia’ was released, one of my favorites, also based on Ubuntu 10.10 but which has become a fabulous and very innovative distro in its own right (and the fourth most used computer operating system in the world!) I burned it to CD and booted our old Dell laptop with it, and in about five minutes decided to install Mint 10 over Mint 8 which has been running on it for quite a while.
I’ve got to say, Linux Mint 10 is great! And it actually feels like the old laptop hardware runs a little quicker with Mint 10. It really feels spunkier, looks beautiful and graphic effects seem to work even better than before, right out of the box, as they say. It’s a joy to use. I think Linux Mint, Pinguy OS or Ubuntu are perfect choices for someone new to Linux. Installation is incredibly quick and easy. And though most applications the average user would want (OpenOffice, Firefox, GIMP, VLC Media Player, Brasero Disc Burner, Rythymbox Music Player, etc.) are preinstalled, installing other software is incredibly easy. I just love these distros more and more, and the GNU/Linux community in general. It just amazes me how quickly operating systems can develope and improve in an open source environment!
My new Mint 10 installation
Here are links to more thorough info and reviews for those interested:
So, that’s my Linux rant for a while. Now we move on to an even more… intimate?… topic.
The last time I visited my doctor for a checkup he suggested it was time for a colonoscopy. It’s recommended when one reaches 50 years of age, and since I’m now 54 it was high time. So even though my blood test came back good, I somehow found myself agreeing to have it done.
The dreaded day is this Friday, October 22nd. Now the idea of having a plumbing snake with a camera inserted up my rectum is certainly unpleasant enough. But the entire day before the ‘procedure’ I can’t eat anything, only clear liquid. Luckily the appointment is at 8am Friday morning, but still, the thought of not being able to eat for over 24 hours is what’s really scaring the hell out of me! Because of my unique (or uniquely strange) metabolism, it’s difficult for me to go more that four or five hours without solid food, preferably protein, without my blood sugar level getting flaky. And if I go for longer than that I can get really irritable. So the thought of subsisting on chicken broth for a day and a night is becoming seriously scary as the day approaches.
I’ve talked with other guys who have had this done, and they say it’s not that bad. Or at least because of the drugs they give you, you don’t remember much afterward. But it’s the day before that I’m dreading now. By Thursday night things may get really ugly around here! So I’m really, really trying to think of this as an opportunity for growth, for a deeper awareness of my own body and of why and how much food I actually consume just because I love to eat. And God, do I love to eat! This morning I looked at the sheet the doctor sent me, and it said today I have to stop eating anything with raw fruits, raw vegetables, or wheat. Man, that last one is especially tough! You wouldn’t believe how much I kept thinking about donuts!
This morning Arthur and I went over to Genesee Valley Park in Rochester after dropping Fiona off for her reading class. Usually we stop at a Dunkin Donuts for a breakfast sandwich and perhaps (probably) a donut. But I valiently fought the urge! It was a cool but glorious day. The sun came out and we strolled among blazing gigantic oaks under a bright blue sky. We wandered over endless acres of golf course, and what did I find on the leaf-strew grass, but a golf ball with a Dunkin Donuts logo on it! I’d never seen a golf ball with a product name on it; this was weird! Then as we walked along an old trail near East River Road, amidst the aroma of fallen leaves I swear I caught the scent of baked goods drifting on the chill air. And it smelled like donuts! Arthur noticed it too!
Then on the way back toward the car on the old park road we had passed earlier, we found a blue plastic donut. The baby toy kind of donut of different sizes that stack on a plastic post. And I swear we had not noticed it earlier. Right in the middle of the road. The universe was taunting me!
Anyway, I hate to bore you, gentle readers, with my gastrointestinal angst. But I started thinking it might be interesting, perhaps to no one but myself, to chronicle the next few days until this ordeal is over. So here goes. Maybe this will prove to be a valuable lesson in transcending my thraldom to food. Perhaps, beyond my donut attachment there lies Nirvana. (But then again, maybe true Nirvana can be found at Donuts Delite!)
Time will tell…