The Arch Linux Rant – Part Two

As I mentioned early on in part one (you may read it here), comments like this are somewhat frequent on the “newbie” forum over at the Arch Linux forums, although the one I linked is probably the mildest of the lot. While they follow the same motif, they range from individuals voicing veiled frustration over the fact that Arch doesn’t seem to “work” like their favorite distro, that it requires too much effort, or that Debian/Ubuntu/<insert distro here> is so much easier (for some value of easy). Fortunately, the majority of these posts are filtered out quickly by the moderators and dealt with accordingly (see the “Topics Going Nowhere” forum for samples). It’s one of the reasons I love the Arch community–the wheat is separated from the chaff early on, and consequently, most of the threads that live beyond a day or two tend to be useful, interesting, or informative.

Now, fair warning: I’ll be illustrating my point with a fair amount of allegory. There are also a few rather broad generalizations ahead, and I’m aware of this. I also don’t address related issues like self-sustenance or the benefits of having broad, practical knowledge (I’ve always wanted to make my own cheese, for instance). This is intentional.

So, let’s begin.

The problem, fundamentally, is not one that’s endemic to any one Linux distro in particular. It’s actually a consequence of society coddling the fools and bringing up the helpless. Before you feel offended, let me clarify that I don’t mean to sound brash. It isn’t the fault of those who are helpless per se. An efficient, productive society creates specialized niches, and sooner or later there’s a threshold that’s crossed where it’s no longer possible for any one individual to know everything they need to know in order to function without outsourcing some of their daily activities.

I realize that the word “outsourcing” has developed exceedingly negative connotations recently, particularly in the US, but it’s the only term that fits. Outsourcing isn’t inherently wrong, nor is it evil. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that you do it all the time. When you go to the grocery store, you’re buying products that have essentially been outsourced for you: Rather than baking your bread, you outsource the baking to the store and exchange some currency for the finished product. Rather than farming your own wheat or milling your own flour, you purchased bagged flour at the store. An efficient society is one where the individual can focus on other tasks (like programming) instead of being overly concerned about day to day needs (such as growing food). An efficient society therefore approaches a point where individual specialization is such that we’re all “helpless” to a point. For example, I’m not particularly mechanically inclined and wouldn’t know where to begin to look to fix a car, but I have family and friends who often look to me for help with technical matters (or building their own systems). We outsource to each other. Put another way, you and I outsource our issues in areas where we lack the expertise or the domain specific knowledge to those who have it.

As I alluded to earlier, this sort of helplessness isn’t a bad thing. It’s the hallmark of a productive, efficient society. However, it’s also important to know and understand these individual limitations before embarking into areas where one lacks the required knowledge. Ignorance is a refusal to learn; arrogance is a refusal to listen. Unfortunately, ignorance and arrogance often play a part in some of the discussions I’ve seen, and it’s all too common that the two traipse around together causing mischief where there otherwise should be none.

The problem then is that the efficiency of society–of outsourcing–has created a clime where a certain subset of the population accumulates the mistaken belief that their problems are the fault of others who are unwilling to help them. They fail to understand the difference between outsourcing a product, such as bread, and voluntary efforts like Arch Linux which require the consumer to be his or her own navigator in seas uncharted. Perhaps the most sinister thing about this lack of understanding is that it’s not primarily cognitive–the consumer in this scenario fully understands that open source projects are largely staffed by volunteers–but it is a form of devious dissonance that leads them to behave as though they’re still outsourcing. It therefore expresses itself as a deep seated inability to make the correlation between F/OSS (Free/Open Source Software) and volunteer labor versus outsourcing and paid-for products. I won’t cover it further here, but if you’re interested in a much more lengthy discussion along these lines, it would behoove you to read the excellent article Linux is not Windows.

I should point out that it’s one thing to say “Help! I don’t have a clue what I’m doing! Can someone point me in the right direction?” but it’s another thing entirely to say “Help! I can’t get my favorite feature to work. It worked fine on my previous platform. Can yours not do this too?” The former expresses ignorance combined with a willingness to learn–this is a good thing, because it’s easily correctable. The latter combines both ignorance and arrogance, culminating in a distinct unwillingness to do research while placing the blame on those who would otherwise offer their help.

But I digress.

To continue: Because of the efficiency and specialization that our society encourages–another good thing–there are some individuals who therefore think that their problem is not their own. The “problem ownership” is then shifted, in their minds, to the people trying to help. This is exacerbated by those who refuse to do any legwork on their own, and it is this personality type that often leaves with unresolved problems and a certain level of anger.

What this means for Arch but not limited to Arch is that there’s always going to be some small number of people who aren’t necessarily willing to help themselves. The clueful ones may eventually acknowledge the error of their ways, apologize, and possibly redeem themselves after some embarrassment. Others are beyond redemption, and when they find their repeated inquiries for help are no longer wanted on the Arch forums, they’ll eventually become a bother to someone else.

However, I think that at least a small part of the problem stems from the evangelism we Arch users periodically exhibit. (Yes, I’m guilty of this.) Because we tout the benefits of rolling-release distros and the simplicity of Arch often without the appropriate warnings attached, newbie users hear these and immediately develop an unrealistic ideal of what Arch is (and can never be) and then project that into their pleas for help. On at least two occasions I’ve seen this develop, and the easiest way to spot these types are from remarks such as “Arch is supposed to be the best rolling-release distro, but I’ve never had these problems with ${other_distro} before!”

The best solution, of course, is to amend our evangelism with warnings like “Arch isn’t for everybody,” but I doubt that would work. We’re all aware that most people gloss over warnings (myself included) whenever a specific threshold of positive remarks is reached. If one’s mind is made up that the road is paved in gold, little attention will be paid to the sign that reads “there be dragons!”

The next best solution is to educate in addition to evangelizing. If you know someone who’s interested in Arch, point them to the forums and the wiki, but be sure to emphasize that Arch is a do-it-yourself distro. Educate interested souls on the merits of problem solving and figuring things out. (Bonus points if you link them to the late Richard Feynman’s book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out as a tongue-in-cheek gesture.) If your friend is someone who isn’t particularly interested in or adept at solving problems, Arch is very likely not the best match. That’s not to say they may not benefit from learning Arch, but you’ll likely save them (and yourself) from some frustration in the event of mismatched expectations.

I really like Arch Linux, and I’d love it if everyone I knew used it. I also think that’s an unrealistic expectation, because I know that not everyone finds enjoyment from the same things I do. If you’re considering using Arch, you need to be aware that you’re going to run into problems. The difficulty of the problems you’re likely to encounter will be determined by your relative skill; the more skilled you are, the easier a potential problem will be to solve. There will also come a time when an update may break the system, and you must be ready to spend an hour or more without access to a graphical environment (shell only). It also helps to familiarize yourself with chrooting Arch in the event you have to rescue your system from a live CD. You must also read the front page news articles prior to an update process, because important information about potentially breaking changes is posted there (if applicable). If this sounds like too much work, you may have to concede defeat. Arch may not be for you.

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The Arch Linux Rant

This post is part one in a two part series (part two can be read here). In this post, I’ll explore some of my thoughts and feelings about Arch from a fairly high level vantage point–consider it a 50,000′ review. In the next post, I’ll explain why I feel comments like this one demonstrate a certain degree of na├»vety, although it’s by far one of the more benign ones I’ve encountered in my short time partaking in the Arch community.

For those of you who know me or, at the very least, read my (mostly) pointless and fairly infrequent rants, you’ll probably recall my decision to leave Gentoo. Some eight or nine months later, I changed my mind and stuck with it for a while longer. That’s no longer the case, and as of January this year I permanently switched over to Arch Linux. I’ve been holding off on posting this rant primarily to take a “wait and see” approach to determine how well I’d do without Gentoo.

The short version is thus: I haven’t missed Gentoo one bit. I started about a year ago (maybe less), running Arch in a VM, tweaking settings, playing around with KDE 4.7-something, and spent quite some time familiarizing myself with the system. Coming from Gentoo and FreeBSD, the transition wasn’t that bad–I’m used to taking a greater hands-on approach with my systems than most people might be comfortable with–so ultimately, Arch felt like a natural fit.

Then I took the plunge.

For the interested, I should share a little bit of history. My initial foray into the world of Unix and Unix-like operating systems began around 2000ish (actually earlier, but it wasn’t until then when I started tinkering with them for my own purposes) with OpenBSD. I later transitioned to FreeBSD for a variety of reasons–mostly the improved performance and greater compatibility (at that time) with other software. It wasn’t until quite some time after that when I began using the ports collection, and prior to then I made a habit of configuring and compiling most of the software I used by hand. As my software library began to increase, so too did the amount of time needed to invest into updating it. I eventually began looking for other solutions, although I kept a FreeBSD system at home for a number of years thereafter.

Sometime later, around late 2003 or early 2004 (possibly as late as 2005), I began experimenting with Gentoo. While I tried other Linux distros, I found most of them too alien in contrast with my beloved *BSDs. Their package managers were strange and sometimes convoluted, and I had little idea how to properly install custom configured software as I was prone to doing. The BSD way worked, but I knew it wasn’t optimal since /usr/local seemed to be mostly unused or remained distro-specific as to its preferred usage. Gentoo was a reasonable fit: Its well-documented nature, a ports-like collection (portage), and the tendency to keep mostly out of the user’s way beckoned me to take a closer look. Better yet, though the system was compiled mostly from scratch, configuring individual options and customizing packages was simple and very BSD-like.

I’ll keep this as short as I can, but I’ll just say this: I ran Gentoo on my desktop and as a file server for a number of years, probably from 2005-2006 until just last year (2011). Indeed, in 2006, I made the switch to use Gentoo almost exclusively, even while I was going to university. Later that same year, my FreeBSD install on my file server was gone, victim to the spread of Gentoo. Don’t get me wrong: I still love FreeBSD–and Gentoo, too–but for home use FreeBSD didn’t seem cut out for what I wanted to do. Granted, I’d still run it in circumstances where I needed a stable, long-running platform as a web service or similar, but at that time, Ports often lagged behind Gentoo and sometimes the only way you could install software was to download and compile it yourself. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. (N.B.: In 2010, the situation somewhat reversed: Ports was updated with newer software versions while Portage stagnated. Strange what a few years will do.)

So, the transition to Gentoo was made because everything I wanted was just an emerge away. Things remained like this for a long time, too, because Gentoo was at the bleeding edge, and the convenience of a rolling-release plus fairly simple package management was seductive. I think that’s why I had a hard time adopting other distros. Frequent, new releases of software allowed me to continue sampling what was coming down the turnpike and forced me to stay up to date on current software.

Gentoo was not without its warts, of course. I won’t go into detail here as I’ve linked to my thoughts on the matter earlier in this post–and they should be mostly up to date–but the problems that began as a slow trickle eventually turned into a torrent of disaster. Occasional dependency conflicts requiring manual intervention, lengthy X server compiles (and let’s not get into glibc or a desktop environment like KDE), the lack of package maintainers, and a slow, downward spiral into the abyss lead me to look for alternatives. I didn’t want to part with the rolling release model; indeed, once you’ve sampled such ambrosia, it’s difficult to whet your palate with meager release-based distros. Around this time (late 2010, early 2011), I was participating fairly regularly in various Slashdot discussions and made a similar offhanded remark about my concerns with Gentoo, and someone suggested trying Arch Linux. So I did.

The thing that struck me the most about Arch was its simplicity. There’s very little that it does for you. System configuration using the standard init scripts is exceptionally simple and straightforward (mostly in /etc/rc.conf), and with the exception of the package manager and build system, Arch makes Gentoo look like an impenetrable fortress of automation. Within a few days of using Arch, I fell in love with the brilliantly minimalistic design.

Truth be told, there’s a lot about Arch to love and enjoy. It does take some time to get the system configured to your liking, but the installation process is mostly painless and fairly simple (bugs in the installer notwithstanding). Using an AUR helper like yaourt isn’t necessary but strongly recommended. It also helps to have at least a passing understanding of how makepkg and pacman work and interact. Of course, it isn’t necessary to use extras like the Arch Build System (ABS) and the Arch User Repository (AUR), but to ignore them is to do yourself a great disservice: There’s so much software available on the AUR that it makes Ubuntu’s impressive repositories and widespread support (through .debs) seem almost anemic.

However, I don’t think it’s possible to use Arch for very long until you’re drawn in by the allure of creating your own PKGBUILDs. I think that’s at least part of what I like most about Arch. Unlike Gentoo’s ebuilds, PKGBUILDs are simple. Armed with just a basic understanding of sh-like syntax (e.g. bash), a moderately skilled user otherwise unfamiliar with PKGBUILDs could put together a custom one in under an hour. More advanced users could piece together PKGBUILDs customizing their favorite software in an evening or two (mostly dependent upon how many packages they want). But here’s the trick: If your PKGBUILD fails for whatever reason, it’s unlikely to break your system save for inappropriate dependencies or “conflicts” statements. Since pacman (Arch’s package manager) examines the contents of packages, including those generated by custom PKGBUILDs, and determines where each file in the archive is to be placed, it takes an exceptionally stupid habit (usually using -f for force) to circumvent pacman’s all-seeing eye.

To illustrate: When Arch released GIMP 2.8, I was disappointed by some of the new features. The solution? Create a GIMP 2.6 package! (You can download the PKGBUILD here, but be sure to grab both the gegl and babl PKGBUILDs, too.) Since the Arch project provides all the appropriate PKGBUILDs for the official repos, it’s easy to find the one you want, download it, and then modify it to your liking. You don’t even have to deal with the headaches caused by portage overlays.

The astute reader may have noticed that I haven’t yet addressed the issue of binary package updates with regards to the core system and official repositories. There’s a reason for that. While having the binary packages available is nice, and it’s certainly better than spending two days compiling KDE, it wasn’t my primary reason for switching. Binary releases did impact my decision–and don’t get me wrong, I love being able to download just the updates I need without compiling anything but the few AUR packages I have–but it’s one of those conveniences that’s nice to have. I won’t begrudge compiling the system (or kernel) from scratch, because I spent so many years with stagnant Gentoo systems compiling off and on over a week or two. It would seem a tad bit hypocritical of me to complain about compile times. Besides, if you swing that way, you can do that with Arch, too.

I don’t mean to wax optimistic about the glory of Arch. It’s not without the occasional sharp edge, and there’s a plethora of things that will snag the naive user who hasn’t yet developed the healthy habit of thoroughly reading documentation. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to someone who’s new to Linux in general (they should use Ubuntu or a similar distribution), but for others who are at least familiar with the shell and want a do-it-yourself distro, Arch is certainly worth a look.

Interestingly, and unexpectedly, Arch has made using Linux fun again. I’m reminded of the days when I first started getting into Gentoo after understanding its quirks and loving every minute of it. The difference, though, is that I spend so much time doing things in Arch and with Arch that I almost don’t do much else (not even games!). My Windows install is probably lonely; it might receive a boot once every three weeks for the occasional update or game that I can’t otherwise get working under Wine, but even then, there’s so much more to explore with Arch.

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