How Would I Improve Linux?

I got two items here, but first I have to give some backplot.

Way back in 2013 I bought what is still my primary workstation, a Dell Inspiron i5 of some description. Over the intervening years I've thrown more storage into it and doubled the RAM to 8GB and for the most part the computer has remained acceptably serviceable, even if it was suffering from a strange inability to reboot -- it would reboot to the Dell logo and stick there until power cycled, after which it would start properly.

Last year my kid started to get into games more and it turns out that the seven year old computer just isn't up to it any more. Now sure games are not the most important thing in the world, but the number one thing a computer has to do is meet the user's needs -- and I needed to play some games because they looked interesting.

I'm not talking Triple-A super titles or anything. I'm talking Cities Skylines. Kerbal Space Program. Not basic basic stuff, but not state of the art or nothing.

So I decided that I needed to re-think my entire computing solution. (If you recall, I did something similar back in 2018.) I had my desktop upstairs and a lab computer -- a Dell Power Edge 1950 -- at the office. The '1950 is an ancient tank that sucks up an obscene amount of power even if I'm not paying for it, although it was still providing the internet presence for the wiki I have. I figured that I'd like to get rid of it.

So, I figured that I'd need a computer capable of running my newer, faster desktop as well as running the VMs that I had kicking around for playing and for things like the wiki. Since this sucker would be in my room, I'd need something silent -- or at the very least, very very quiet.

My first attempt at this was an Intel i7 8-series NUC (Next Unit of Computing). I put 32GB of RAM in it along with a 1TB flash drive. I installed Windows 10 on it, and away we went. I was planning that after a period of acclimation I would install Hyper-V on it and run the VMs there. I'd be able to have a single device that I could work on, do lab stuff with, run my internet wiki, and play games on.

It was all coming together.

Well, except for the fact that the NUC is actually a laptop in a super-compact desktop form factor. And as such, the Achilles Heel of such a device is keeping the processor cool. If you even breathed on the processor the fan would spin up; work it hard and it would get quite noisy. What made it especially annoying was that it was a variable fan -- meaning that the change in sound pitch would keep you awake overnight. And since it was planned I'd be running the wiki out of it, I couldn't just put the thing to sleep overnight.

During this period I had several goes where I installed Fedora Workstation on this computer. These installations never lasted very long, for reasons I'll go into later. But immediately relevant is the fact that I couldn't make the system quieter under Linux.

After a month of this, I just gave up and went back to the i5 running Windows 10. The NUC got VMware ESXi installed on it, and all the VMs either migrated from the office or were reconstructed, and the '1950 has been retired.

The next exercise was a gamble that didn't pay off. After my failure with the NUC I continued to watch the computer sales sites. I was wondering if I bought an i5 8-series NUC if the fan noise would be less -- places like Reddit suggested so.

On eBay I had a couple of attempts buying fanless i5 workstations from China. I tried three times, and all three times the sale was cancelled and the charge reversed. I never really understood why.

In mid December I happened across a sale on NewEgg or Mike's or something where a fanless, i7, 8GB computer was on sale for half off, for about $500 shipped. I had acquired another 1TB drive and 16GB of RAM in anticipation of one of the previous attempts paying off, so I decided to try at this one. Amazingly it was shipped 2-day from Hong Kong, and the seller paid the import duties for me. Unfortunately the package wasn't deliverable because of the import fees, so I had to go across the city to the shipping depot to get it. It took longer to get across the city than it did to get from Hong Kong.

This computer was even more of a failure. There's a fault in the graphics card -- if you work the card too hard (say, by playing a game) the computer just resets to the boot logo and reboots from there. At that point the graphics have little black pixel drop-outs, drop-outs that move like static when the graphics memory is manipulated (ie: by moving the mouse or a window or whatever). A cold boot corrects this problem.

And so, I decided once again to give Linux a go for my desktop needs. Keep in mind that this was after a month of playing around with the NUC, another two weeks of fighting with the fanless device, a failure to get support on the fanless device, and the general feeling of being out $1500 without much to show for it.

So, I installed Fedora again. Don't remember what version. It was -current whatever it was.

And I was done with it in less than a day.


Mainly: I couldn't watch TV.

I've got a Sonar/Plex arrangement set up in the basement (partially on the NUC, but no matter). And I've been binge watching series as I work on this stuff in my room. So the straw that broke the camel's back was that I installed Chromium, connected to my Plex server... and couldn't play anything. None of the videos worked.

Googling the error around found some pages which discussed some kind of VLC dependency on Ubuntu, but it was never clear to me if it was a server-side or client-side fix. In either case, I never managed to watch my movies or TV on Fedora.

There were the usual Linux annoyances -- the sound, by default, sounded terrible; something was fucked up with the keyboard and/or terminal locale settings; and you were never entirely sure what the networking was actually going to do until it did it. Due to a primitive collection of monitors I never had to get into the joys of multi-headed X (or Wayland). But all this is par for the course, and you expect bullshit like it when you install Linux.

There are the usual disappointments, in that Evolution didn't deal with my employer's Office-365 mail system, that there's still no way to deal with Onedrive for Business, and the solutions for multiplexing RDP sessions are still terrible. Sure, these are all windows-specific complaints, but these are the things I need to do and like I said up top, workstations need to fulfill their users' requirements.

Today, I'm still using that seven-year-old i5 as my main desktop, still running Windows 10. I'm using WSL 1 heavily and will probably continue to do so; if we lose WSL 1 in the WSL 2 roll-out I'm going to be unhappy because this i5 doesn't do Hyper-V, a requirement for WSL 2.

Okay, so, back to the top.

What would I improve about Linux?

#1. More of this shit has to just work.

With Windows, I install windows, install chrome, point it at my plex server, and I have entertainment. Done. It just works.

There might -- might! -- be an argument that if computers are being shipped with Linux things like this won't matter, everything will be pre-configured for that piece of hardware. However if you can't get power-users like me going quickly then your pool of advocates is going to be smaller.

The Linux install process has come a long way, at least for Fedora Workstation. It's a bit grindy, and the networking configuration is more of a "gotcha" than it has to be -- but for the most part it's "here's my disks, go."

I'm old. I have a life. I have things I wish to do with my computer, rather than to my computer.

Think of it like a car. Sure, you have the enthusiasts who obsess over mechanical modifications, fuel efficiency, or pin striping; but most people just want to go to the mall. To most people, the car is a tool, not an object to its own end.

Linux workstations are still too much objects in their own ends rather than tools that typical people can just use.

Less important, but still relevant:

#2. Desktop Environment Offerings Still Suck.

Your major options appear to be Gnome (a window manager that seems more appropriate for a touch device than a workstation)... or find something yourself.

Is KDE even still a thing? Admittedly I was pissed off with Fedora by the time I started to wonder this, but I never found out. The internet wasn't really clear in the cursory looking around I did.

I tried Ratpoison because I'm a screen aficionado, and I'm willing to deal with weird keyboard key combinations to get things done. This ended up being a non starter because -- and it stuns me that this is true in the "security" aware late two-thousand-teens -- there's no built in screen lock. There's a hack for Xscreensaver or the like, but no native screen lock. In 2019.

Gnome seems to be going down the road of filing all the sharp edges off of everything, and color scheme aside is more of a Fisher-Price experience than XP ever was.

And what is this obsession with large, fat, rounded window decorations and large, high-resolution fonts that mean we get less information displayed on our 1080p monitors than we ever did on the 800x600 displays we started with?

I think that's enough for now.

Since we're at the bottom here and nobody will read this far, I might as well add that I'm a heavy Linux user -- I have dozens of VMs under my care along with several metal environments. I've deployed Linux laptops as mobile network tap devices. Linux has strengths that are solid assets in the right place.

But the desktop still isn't it.


Gemini Man

Another movie that reminds me of Dracula and the first John Wick. This movie knows what it is and doesn't try to get fancy or deep. It's "these are the good guys, these are the bad guys -- go!" Also there were like seven people in the IMAX theater we watched it in.


Review: Avengers Endgame


J: so I'm out of town for a week starting the Saturday after Avengers is released.

Me: just so you know, I fully intend to see Endgame on my own that week if you are not around.

J: well lets look at the available showings on Friday.

Me: they all suck. No seats or terrible seats.

J: hmm, they have some Thursday night shows.

Me: ...and the one at 22:50 has seats that are not singles, front row, way-the-hell over to one side.

J: should we? It's a three hour movie, starting at 11 PM, so we won't be getting home until 2:30 AM. On a school/work night.

Me: sure, do it. It's almost certainly a terrible idea, even if I can't think of why it is a terrible idea right at this moment.

J: okay, done. Two tickets for 22:50 on Thursday night.

Me: (not thirty seconds later) who the hell are we going to get to look after the kids at 10:30 on a Thursday night?


10000 Tweets

I noticed that I'd missed tweet number 10000, so I had to count back from 10070 to figure out which one was the magical #10000. I'm pretty satisfied with this as the 10K representative.


Captain Marvel

Or, Mar Vel... whatever.

Anyways, it was better than it had any right to be. And all liked the bit with the cat.


It's too late to be working