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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Sun, 18 Jun 2017

Debian 9.0 Stretch is the new Stable

I don't keep up with Debian, though my sentimental feelings for the pioneering Linux distribution remain strong. My days with Debian were late Etch into Lenny, Squeeze and early Wheezy. For the release of Squeeze, I used SVG files from the desktop's awesome artwork and made a custom T-shirt that I still wear.

Not to bury the lede too far, the news of the day is that Debian 9.0 Stretch has been released as Stable. For more on Stretch, read the installation manual and release notes.

I still have an old IBM Thinkpad R32 that runs Debian -- I can't remember if it is still on Wheezy, though it probably is.

For my laptops, I started running Fedora when I got a new laptop in 2010 -- a Lenovo G555 with an AMD processor. Since I was using the proprietary Catalyst video driver, I eventually broke the installation and moved to Debian, which I ran on the laptop until it died in 2013. I began again with Fedora on my next laptop, an HP Pavilion g6, and it is still running that version of Linux (and I'm using it right now to write this post). I now have a new HP laptop, an Envy, that is still running the Windows 10 it came with, and I added the Windows Subsystem for Linux/Bash so I can have a fairly functional Linux command line.

So I'm not a current Debian user. Especially on the desktop, I want newer versions of just about everything, and I find it easier to get that in the twice-yearly releases of Fedora instead of Debian Testing or Unstable. Debian Stable, which I've used and loved, is just too "stable."

But if you think about it, I could easily run Debian Stable and add newer versions of Node, Java, Ruby and NetBeans. When a laptop is new, I find Fedora to be the easiest, quickest and best way to get the most hardware working, but after a couple of years, Debian is a very attractive option.

With newer hardware, there's always the Liquorix kernels, which I used to run so I'd always have the latest on my Debian installations.

For my programming needs, Node is certainly part of Debian Stretch, but this part of the release notes is a little worrying:

5.2.2. Lack of security support for the ecosystem around libv8 and Node.js

The Node.js platform is built on top of libv8-3.14, which experiences a high volume of security issues, but there are currently no volunteers within the project or the security team sufficiently interested and willing to spend the large amount of time required to stem those incoming issues.

Unfortunately, this means that libv8-3.14, nodejs, and the associated node-* package ecosystem should not currently be used with untrusted content, such as unsanitized data from the Internet.

In addition, these packages will not receive any security updates during the lifetime of the stretch release.

I checked the v8 package in Fedora, and it appears to be updated about every month, though not at all for the past three months. I'm not sure what to take away from this. I'd have to look at the upstream v8 before making any judgments on how well Fedora is doing with the package, plus I'd need to see how Ubuntu handles it.

Back to Debian. The Debian Project is the code that goes into it and the volunteers that make it happen. Debian is not owned by any corporation, individual or group. It'll pretty much always be there and be free.

Does Debian benefit from work done by corporations like Red Hat? Yes, it does. Free software in general and Linux in particular are coded by individuals all over the world, some of whom are paid by companies to make their contributions.

However it finally goes together, Debian is a special project.

The short version: If you can make Debian Stable work for you, it's a terrific operating system that really is stable and will last you a couple of years without a major upgrade. If you're interested, it's worth a test on your hardware before committing to a Linux distribution. On my computers, the "contenders" are Debian, Ubuntu (mainly the Xubuntu version with Xfce) and Fedora.

Fri, 21 Nov 2014

Two Debian Jessie firmware packages that make the HP Pavilion g6-2210us run better

I've been doing test installs again, among them Debian Jessie, and things don't work as well as they should on my HP Pavilion g6-2210us laptop without a couple of firmware packages that can be installed after a little tweaking.

Before I go on, for my particular laptop with a Realtek wireless module, the two Debian packages I need to install are firmware-linux-nonfree and firmware-realtek.

If you use the "regular" Debian images to install, as I did this time, instead of the harder-to-find, unofficial ones with non-free firmware included, after installation you have to first get into your /etc/apt/sources.list file as root and add the contrib and non-free repositories, update your software sources with apt, and then install the firmware packages.

First, as root, modify your /etc/apt/sources.list, adding contrib non-free to every repo line.

Here are a few web sites that can help if you've never done this before.

Let me just say that if you hope to use Debian for any length of time, you WILL be mucking with /etc/apt/sources.list, so you might as well learn it now.

Once you have contrib and non-free added to your lines in /etc/apt/sources.list, use either su or sudo to update your software sources with apt. Since sudo isn't in the Debian default (though I always install and configure it immediately with visudo), I will give the "recipe" below as if you are using su with the root pasword to get full privileges:

$ su

(enter the root password when prompted)

# apt-get update
# apt-get install firmware-linux-nonfree firmware-realtek

Then reboot the box, and you are good to go.

Tue, 21 Oct 2014

The Debian Jessie installer: first impressions -- desktop choice (yay), encryption fail (boo)

I did a Debian Jessie install last week. This was a traditional install on "real" hardware, more specifically a different drive on my daily (HP Pavilion g6) laptop.

As much as I've praised the Debian installer in the past, and I'll praise it a little bit right now, I will also drop it in a hole and throw a shallow layer of dirt over it just because.

First of all, the Debian installer experience seem much the same in Jessie as it was in Wheezy and Squeeze before it. I don't remember it being much different in Etch. That was my first Debian installation, so my memory, hazy as it is, ends there.

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Wed, 16 Jul 2014

Debian Developer switches to Mac, doesn't look back (and yes, we should be worried)

Debian Developer Jon Dowland writes about switching from Linux to the Macintosh with OS X:

It appears I have switched for good. I've been meaning to write about this for some time, but I couldn't quite get the words right. I doubted I could express my frustrations in a constructive, helpful way, even if I think that my experiences are useful and my discoveries valuable, perhaps I would put them across in a way that seemed inciteful rather than insightful. I wasn't sure anyone cared. Certainly the GNOME community doesn't seem interested in feedback.

It turns out that one person that doesn't care is me: I didn't realise just how broken the F/OSS desktop is. The straw that broke the camel's back was the file manager replacing type-ahead find with a search but (to seemlessly switch metaphor) it turns out I'd been cut a thousand times already. I'm not just on the other side of the fence, I'm several fields away.

What can I say? With the Macintosh seemingly left for dead by Apple while the iPhone and iPad shovel in the revenue, Mac laptops have quietly become the platform of choice for developers everywhere.

Meanwhile, fragmentation in the Linux desktop space and what appears to be not just a lack of attention to detail but a willful rejection of it haven't helped.

That said, I'm firmly in the "buy cheap, run Linux" camp, and I figure that the Microsoft-driven laptop price war to combat the Google Chromebook will provide a whole new class of sub- machines on which to run the Linux distribution of your choice.

Since I don't have $1,500+ for a laptop that won't accept OS updates in a few years and generally don't need to run the Adobe Creative Suite, I don't have the opportunity/burden of trying to figure out how much free (as in freedom) software I could shoehorn into a Macintosh OS X environment.

But I can see how developers who aren't Linux distro developers want to go for what's "easy," if not at all cheap.

While Ubuntu has in the past tried to court developers, the current direction in which they're taking Unity is more about mobile compatibility than desktop productivity. And I don't see any advantages for the average developer with GNOME Shell. Maybe GNOME Classic in an environment with a whole lot more configurability out of the box would work. I know that a more polished Xfce with a lot of the rough edges smoothed out could be popular.

But it's the fragmentation ...

I'd love for Fedora Workstation with its (I think) target audience of developers to fill this gap. But without a long-term support release, that won't happen. Maybe a CentOS "developer desktop" spin could do better.

The elephant. In the room. It's the same thing it always was: Preloads.

It's going to require a major hardware vendor to commit to developer-centric laptops in a variety of price ranges with dedicated, in-house developers making sure the hardware is 100-percent supported in Linux and on the Linux distribution shipping with that hardware. I'm not saying it will never happen. I hope it does.

Until then, Apple is going to eat everybody's lunch, including Microsoft's. And desktop Linux's, too.

I'm not saying that choice on the Linux desktop is bad. What I am saying is that a stable, functional, not-scary desktop with some heavy development attention and (dare I say it) substantial corporate support could turn the tide and bring not just developers but others (back) to Linux.

Fri, 17 Jan 2014

Buy Debian merchandise from Debian France (and it helps if you can read French)

Debian France now has an online store where they sell Debian-related merchandise: hats, shirts, even umbrellas, pocket knives and those "buff" things that losing "Survivor" contestants throw into the fire on the show's Redemption Island (which probably tells you too much about my recent TV viewing).

The currency is Euros, the language French. May the European force be with you.

Tue, 31 Dec 2013

When life hands you lemons, go back to Debian

Update on Jan. 16, 2014: Since I originally wrote this post, I succeeded in installing Catalyst with AMD's script in Fedora and buying myself a whole lot of time with that distribution. I also tried Debian Wheezy with live media containing nonfree firmware, and that is looking even better than Jessie if I don't want/need an EFI-friendly installer. My original plan was to stick with Fedora until the Debian Jessie freeze and then make the move (sometime late this year). But if Wheezy works out, I'd want to go to it sooner rather than later and avoid Jessie for as long as possible (or until suspend/resume somehow returns to my neglected AMD APU chip.

Update on Feb. 4, 2014: I have suspend/resume working in Fedora 20 with the fglrx/Catalyst driver, and I'm very confident that the same technique I used to get it working there will also work in Debian Jessie, so that means if I do want to run Debian in the near future, I can get working fglrx video, working suspend/resume and EFI booting with Testing/Jessie and don't need to use Wheezy unless I absolutely want to. The only thing that makes me nervous about installing Jessie now is the uncertainty over which init system Debian will end up with -- both in the Jessie and Jessie+1 cycles. But since I have everything but printing to my crappy HP USB printer working in Fedora, it's likely that I'll stick with it for the near (and maybe farther) future.

To keep a short story short, the maintainer of the proprietary AMD Catalyst (aka fglrx) driver for the Fedora-focused RPM Fusion repository doesn't want to do it anymore.

And he made this decision not before the release of Fedora 20 with lots of notice -- and not after with lots of notice BUT PRETTY MUCH DURING THE RELEASE with no notice.

That means my Fedora 19-to-20 upgrade left me without Catalyst. And that means much poorer video performance, higher heat and more fan noise for my newish AMD APU chip -- the Trinity series A4-4300M model with AMD Radeon HD 7420g graphics.

And while the open-source Radeon driver has gotten a whole lot better in the 3.12 Linux kernel, the Catalyst driver is much, much better for this hardware.

I already mentioned the slow video. I can barely run GNOME 3 with the open driver, and THIS LAPTOP ISN'T EVEN A YEAR OLD.

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Wed, 23 Oct 2013

After six or so months with Fedora, I'm looking for something new

These things happen in predictable patterns. Due to hardware issues I land in Fedora, and after six months it's time for something else.

Not that Fedora 18 and now 19 haven't been great, because they have.

But I'm wary of my AMD APU-based HP laptop's trouble with suspend/resume and 3D acceleration. I had both working for a very short time during the AMD Catalyst 13.6 beta's brief run.

But before that I had neither, and now I have decent 3D with AMD Catalyst but seemingly no hope of working suspend/resume with this AMD A4-4300M APU and its AMD Radeon HD 7420G graphics.

And I'm getting tired of new kernels coming into Fedora, some with Catalyst support, some without. And it's past time that this AMD GPU (I think it's the Trinity family) get better support from the kernel and the free and proprietary drivers.

What I'm saying is that if the hardware support I need is not going to come soon, I'd like something more stable while I'm waiting.

So I started auditioning new Linux distributions yesterday.

And when Debian 7.1 and 7.2 Live DVDs both allowed me to successfully suspend/resume my HP Pavilion g6-2210us laptop, I was firmly pulled back into the Debian camp. To my "home" distro.

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Fri, 30 Nov 2012

Steady improvements in Debian Wheezy -- and a smooth transition from Squeeze

Debian is boring. Releases happen every two years, give or take. Developers spend months and months chasing bugs while other Linux distributions crank out release after release.

But Debian gets better as it inches toward release. And if you're running the Stable distribution (Squeeze instead of Wheezy, still in Testing) you can enjoy the goodness for the next two years -- or three if you wish, as Stable gets an extra year of security patches as Old Stable after a new Stable version is released.

Debian isn't quite as boring as it is conservative. Even though Debian's Testing is more stable than many other distributions' actual releases, you can expect some bugs. And if you follow Testing, as I am at the moment, you get to see some of those bugs get fixed.

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Sat, 17 Nov 2012

It looks like more Debian users are turning to Xfce

Going by what I read, Linux and BSD users are abandoning GNOME and Unity for ... Xfce.

They hate GNOME 3/Shell, they don't like what Ubuntu's done with Unity, and they're not crazy about KDE, either.

Enter Xfce. Back in the GNOME 2 days, I found that on a fast machine you really didn't gain much in desktop speed by picking Xfce over GNOME. But on slow, old hardware, Xfce sure could make a difference.

That means on new computers it all boils down to what you like. If Xfce does the job for you, use it.

With GNOME and Unity throwing out the "old" desktop paradigm for a new one that ostensibly helps the tablets and touchscreens none of us are using work better, anybody who wants to keep working in the same way they've been doing for decades is probably looking at Xfce and LXDE as the way going forward.

Some don't want any change, but most want evolution instead of revolution, and they don't want nonexistant tablets to dicate how they use their mouse-and-keyboard computers.

I get that.

Even Windows users are in this. Windows 8 probably won't throw out so much baby with bathwater, but the changes in the Microsoft desktop would ordinarily send geekier users scurrying toward Linux. Unity and GNOME 3 might be too much of a shock.

Enter Xfce.

It has more than enough features. It's fast. It's not undergoing a cataclysmic transformation. It doesn't care about tablets, touchscreens, smartphones or TVs. It's not trying to sell you services or get you to buy shit. It works like a desktop you know. (Like GNOME 2.)

Personally I haven't soured on GNOME 3. I still like it. But I also like having something I know will be there when my hardware isn't so new. A workhorse desktop.

It's here.

Thu, 15 Nov 2012

Updated: Debian Wheezy GNOME 3 panels (and everything else) goes away: Here's how I fixed it

Note: The fix outlined below DOES NOT WORK for more than a day.

This fix is a bit brutal but DOES WORK:

To restore the desktop in my GNOME 3 user account, I ended up deleting the entire .config directory in my home directory.

That enabled me to log into GNOME Shell and have a working desktop. I lost a whole lot of settings in the process, so I recommend renaming .config as, say, config with no "dot," then logging in and eventually restoring the parts of the .config that you need.

Things I lost by killing out .config include my Chromium browser settings, all GNOME settings, gPodder settings, Gigolo settings ... and maybe more that I haven't yet discovered. Sure, I got my main account working with GNOME, but I should've backed up .config instead of killing it entirely.

For reference and disclosure's sake, here is the original post:

I'm having an issue with GNOME 3 in Debian Wheezy that have only cropped up in the past few days. It may be due to one of the upgrades to Wheezy that have flowed earlier this week.

What happens is I log into GNOME 3 Shell, I get wallpaper and that's it. No panels, no nothing.

I can click alt-F4 to log out, and that's about it.

GNOME fallback mode (i.e. 2D) still works fine, as does Xfce. I wasn't locked out of GNOME at all, just the 3D/Shell version.

This Debian Forums post helped, though I don't think it describes my exact problem. I did take its advice and reinstall gnome-session and gnome-panel. It worked for awhile, then stopped working. I did it again, and GNOME 3 is working again. I'll update this post when I'm sure of the long-term viability of this fix.

Here is the command I used in the console:

$ sudo apt-get install --reinstall gnome-session gnome-panel

For now this fix is working. I haven't seen anything on the Debian mailing lists or forums that describes my exact problem, so this could just be something that affects me alone