Do What Is Interesting, Not What Is Expedient

If you’re just here for the encoding stuff, this probably isn’t for you. But if you want to read the thoughts of a Linux proselyte (and proselytizer), read on.
I’m sure this also applies to other things, but your mileage may vary.

Also, I wrote this on a whim, so don’t expect it to be as polished as the usual content.

Introduction

Once upon a time (TL note: about 4 months ago), there was a CS student whose life was so easy and uncomplicated he just had to change something. Well that’s half-true at best, but the truth is boring. Anyway, I had been thinking about Linux for a while, and one of my lectures finally gave me a good excuse to install it on my laptop. At that point, my only experience with Linux was running a debian server with minimal effort to have a working website, a TeamSpeak server, and a few smaller things, so I knew almost nothing.

I decided to “just do it™” and installed Manjaro Linux on my Laptop. They offer different pre-configured versions, and I just went with XFCE, one of the two officially supported editions. Someone had told me about Manjaro about a year earlier, so I figured it would be a good choice for beginners (which turned out to be true). I created a bootable flash drive, booted, installed it, rebooted, and that was it; it just worked. No annoying bloatware to remove, automatic driver installation, and sane defaults (apart from VLC being the default video player, but no system is perfect, I guess). I changed a few basic settings here and there and switched to a dark theme—something that Windows still doesn’t support—and the system looked nice and was usable. So nice and usable that I slowly started disliking the Windows 10 on my home PC. (You can already tell where this is going.)

I wanted full control over my system, the beauty of configurability, a properly usable terminal (although I will add that there are Linux distros which you can use without touching a terminal even once), the convenience of a package manager—and the smug feeling of being a Linux user. You’ll understand this once you’ve tried; trust me.

And so the inevitable happened, and I also installed Manjaro on my home PC (the KDE version this time because “performance doesn’t matter if you have enough CPU cores”—a decision that I would later revisit). I still kept Windows on another hard drive as a fallback, and it remains there to this day, although I only use it about once a week, maybe even less, when I want to play a Windows-only game.

Exploring the Rabbit Hole

No one, not even Lewis Carroll, can fully understand what a rabbit hole is unless they experienced being a bored university student who just got into Linux. Sure, my mother could probably install Ubuntu (or have me install it for her) and be happy with that. But I was—and still am—a young man full of curiosity. Options are meant to be used, and systems are meant to be broken. The way I would describe it is “Windows is broken until you fix it. Linux works until you break it. Both of these will happen eventually.”

So, not being content with the stable systems I had, I wanted to try something new after only a few weeks. The more I looked at the endless possibilities, the more I just wanted to wipe the system and start over; this time with something better. I formatted the laptop and installed Manjaro i3 (I apparently wasn’t ready to switch to another distro entirely yet). My first time in the live system consisted of about 10 minutes of helpless, random keystrokes, before I shut it down again because I couldn’t even open a window (which also meant I couldn’t google). This is why you try things like that in live systems, kids. Back at my main PC, I read the manual of i3wm. How was I supposed to know that $super + return opens a terminal?

Not the best first impression, but I was fascinated by the concept of tiling window managers, so I decided to try again—this time, armed with the documentation and a second PC to google. Sure enough, knowing how to open dmenu makes the system a lot more usable. I could even start programs now. i3 also made me realize how slow and sluggish KDE was, so I started growing dissatisfied with my home setup once again. It was working fine, but opening a terminal via hotkeys took about 200ms compared to the blazing 50ms on my laptop. Truly first-world problems.

It should come as no surprise that I would soon install i3 on my home PC as well, and I’ve been using that ever since. Obligatory neofetch.

I also had a home server for encoding-related tasks which was still running Windows. While it is theoretically possible to connect to a Windows remote desktop host with a Linux client (and also easy to set up), it just felt wrong, so that had to change. Using Manjaro again would have been the easiest way, but that would have been silly on a headless system, so I decided to install Arch Linux instead. It obviously wasn’t as simple as Manjaro (where you literally—and I mean literally—have to click a few times and wait for it to install), but I still managed to do it on my first attempt. And boy, is SSH convenient when you’re used to the bloat of Windows RDC.

I would later make a rule for myself to not install the same distro on two systems, which leads us to the next chapter of my journey.

The Slow Descent Into Madness

Installing an operating system is an interesting process. It might take some time, and it can also be frustrating, but you definitely learn a lot (things like partitioning and file systems, various GNU/Utils, and just basic shell usage). Be it something simple like enabling SSH access or a bigger project like setting up an entire graphical environment—you learn something new every time.

As briefly mentioned above, I wanted to force myself to try new things, so I simply limited each distro to a single device. This meant that my laptop, which was still running Manjaro, had to be reinstalled. I just loved the convenience of the AUR, so I decided to go with another arch-based distro: antergos. The installer has a few options to install a desktop environment for you, but it didn’t have i3, so I had to do that manually.

With that done, I remembered that I still had a Raspberry Pi that I hadn’t used in years. That obviously had to be changed, especially since it gave me the option to try yet another distro. (And I would find a use case for the Pi eventually, or I at least told myself that I would.)

I had read this not too long ago, so I decided to give Void Linux a shot. This would be my first distro without systemd (don’t worry if you don’t know what that is).

I could go on, but I think you get the gist of it. I did things because they seemed interesting, and I definitely learned a lot in the process. After the Void Pi, I installed Devuan on a second Pi (remind you, I already had Debian on a normal server, so that was off-limits).

The real fun began a few days ago when I decided to build a tablet with a RasPi. That idea is nothing new, and plenty of people have done it before, but I wanted to go a little further. A Raspberry Pi tablet running Gentoo Linux. The entire project is a meme and thus destined to fail, but I’m too stubborn to give up (yet). At the time of writing, the Pi has been compiling various packages for the last 20 hours, and it’s still going.

As objectively stupid as this idea is (Gentoo on a Pi without cross-compilation, or maybe just Gentoo in general), it did, once again, teach me a few things about computers. About compilers and USE flags, about dependency management, about the nonexistent performance of the Pi 3… you get the idea. I still don’t know if this will end up as a working system, but either way, it will have been an interesting experience.

And that’s really what this is all about. Doing things you enjoy, learning something new, and being entertained.

Update: It’s alive… more or less.

Conclusion

So this was the journey of a former Windows user into the lands of free software.

Was it necessary? No.

Was it enjoyable? Mostly.

Was it difficult? Only as difficult as I wanted it to be.

Does Linux break sometimes? Only if I break it.

Do I break it sometimes? Most certainly.

Would I do it again? Definitely.

Would I go back? Hell, no.

Do I miss something about Windows? Probably the way it handles multi-monitor setups with different DPIs. I haven’t found a satisfying solution for UI scaling per monitor on Linux yet.

I’m not saying everyone should switch to Linux. There are valid use cases for Windows, but some of the old reasons are simply not valid anymore. Many people probably think that Linux is a system for nerds—that it’s complicated, that you need to spend hours typing commands into a shell, that nothing works (which is still true for some distros, but you only use these if you know what you’re doing and if you have a good reason for it).

In reality, Linux isn’t just Linux the way Windows is Windows. Different Linux distros can be nothing alike. The only commonality is the kernel, which you don’t even see as a normal user. Linux can be whatever you want it to be; as easy or as difficult as you like; as configurable or out-of-the-box as you need.

If you have an old laptop or an unused hard drive, why don’t you just try it? You might learn a few interesting things in the process. Sometimes, being interesting beats being expedient. Sometimes, curiosity beats our desire for familiarity.




Btw, I ended up not attending the lecture that made me embark upon this journey in the first place. FeelsLifeMan

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