Free Agent: Hard-Core Fedora

After years of using the Mandrake Linux distribution, I've moved my main desktop machine to the newly released final edition of Fedora Core 2, the Free, community-supported testbed distribution sponsored by Red Hat.

Switching distros is somewhat like getting a new car. The rules of the road remain the same; the pedals are in the same place; and the blinkers are activated in the same way. But the back-seat windows don't roll down all the way, as they did in the old car; the gas cap is on the other side; and the new dash is going to take a bit of getting used to. And so on.

Happily, the new car runs faster. Fedora's marriage of kernel 2.6 and Gnome 2.6 (the identical version numbers are just a coincidence) makes for a very responsive system that's a pleasure to use. But when it boots, the Num Lock doesn't come on, as it does in Mandrake. And so on. All this really means is that I've got some tweaking to do.

My Mandrake-to-Fedora transition was significantly eased by the fact that I take advantage of Linux's ability to spread distinct parts of the file system out across separate hard disk partitions. The Linux file system is extremely hierarchical. This means that you can, for instance, assign the entire /home hierarchy--where all user documents and settings live--to a partition of its own. Big deal, sez you.

Well, here's the kicker: When you run a distribution's installation program, it doesn't have to format that /home partition. The program can just leave it as is and incorporate it into the new OS's file system hierarchy. All your settings and all your stuff are waiting for you. The system partitions, however, get formatted before the new OS is installed, ensuring you're starting with a clean, problem-free slate. This is the way to live.

What about retaining system-level settings? In most cases, they live in /etc (pronounced "et-see" by Unix wizards), stored in simple human-readable text files. On my system, there was about 45KB worth of them. I made backup copies of them all in my /home directory, and then (as the root user) put the ones I wanted to restore back in /etc after the Fedora install was complete.

It's Not Over When It's Over

When you've completed Fedora's installation process, there's some more work to be done. What you've got at this point is a system that's entirely unable to play or generate MP3 files, and also can't talk to DVD drives. That's because the system-level code for these functions is encumbered by licenses the Fedora Project doesn't want to touch.

You can bypass the legal squabbling and teach Fedora what's what by pointing one of its package management tools at the software repository at and scooping up the packages you need. Eric Raymond's Fedora Multimedia Installation Howto is a good guide for this task, and can also point you to a few other repositories you might want to visit in order to bring your Fedora installation up to speed media-wise.

One of Fedora's primary niceties is Yum, the default package management tool that is akin to Debian's Apt-get and Mandrake's Urpmi. Yum can track down just about any Free Software package you can imagine, download it, and install it for you. It installs any necessary system libraries along the way, thus saving you from what Linux users call "dependency hell." (For more on this, see "The Linux Experiment.") Yum works well, but it spends an extraordinary amount of time thinking about what it needs to do before it does it. I miss Urpmi's speed. There also is no spiffy GUI front end for Yum, so you're stuck with the command line.

Fedora is all about freedom and flexibility--so if you like, you can chuck Yum out the window and replace it with Apt, the package toolset that drives the Debian distribution. A friendly GUI for Apt called Synaptic is available in the Fedora packages as well. These are just two of the many entries that remain on my "try this out" list.

The Rules Are Different Here

As I prepped my PC for its changeover, I was struck by a few of the basic differences between Linux and Windows that I've come to take for granted over the years. I want to take a moment here to point out just one of the subtle but important ways that Linux does things differently. Wait, scratch that: not "differently," but "better."

In Linux, you can delete a file while it is in use. This might not sound like a big deal, but it can be very handy. For example, let's say Cousin Milly sends you an MP3 of her band's new song. You dump it onto your desktop and double-click to launch your media player. Thirty seconds later, you know you're not going to hang on to this caterwauling performance, so you drag the file into the Trash or Recycle Bin. In Windows, you'll get yelled at: You're still listening to that file, so it's "in use." It can't be deleted, or renamed, or moved, and so on. It's locked till you're done using it. Linux won't yell at you, though. It knows what you want to do, and won't get in your way: Milly's abomination goes into the Trash while your media player carries on.

There are even niftier ramifications to this behavior. When you update a program in Windows, you've got to shut that program down first, right? That's generally not necessary with Linux. Today I was instant messaging with a friend when Yum, the package tracker, told me there was an update available for my IM client, Gaim. No problem. I let Yum download and install the new Gaim right over the old one. The old one, now deleted, kept on running, and I kept on chatting with my friend. When we were done, I closed the old Gaim for the last time, clicked the Gaim icon on my toolbar, and the new Gaim popped open. This is how easy computing should be, right?

As Always, Another Alternative

At the urging of several readers, I spent some time this month with Cobind Desktop 0.1, a fledging Linux distro aimed at folks who want a simpler computing experience. I thought this might be grist for Grandma's mill.

Cobind uses Red Hat's Anaconda installation program; and it boots in an environment with the window manager and tool/task panel of the XFCE desktop, a Windows Explorer-style file manager called Velocity, and desktop icons powered by Nautilus (the Gnome file manager). If this sounds like a hodgepodge, that's because it is--and in this early edition, the duct tape holding it together shows.

There is no Start Menu equivalent, only a small toolbar on the bottom of the screen with icons for core apps that have been chosen for you: Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird for Web surfing and e-mail, Gaim for instant messaging, AbiWord for word processing, Gnumeric for spreadsheets, and GnuCash for personal finances.

Taskbar at the top; button bar at the bottom; not a Start Menu in sight: Welcome to Cobind Desktop, a "less is more" incarnation of Linux.
Taskbar at the top; button bar at the bottom; not a Start Menu in sight: Welcome to Cobind Desktop, a "less is more" incarnation of Linux.
It's pointless to go into greater detail given that this is version 0.1, and clearly much work remains to be done. For example, one project the Cobind team is taking on is the creation of a friendly GUI for Yum, which Cobind also uses for package fetching. What's obvious at this early stage is that Cobind is a very interesting work in progress. I'll be keeping an eye on it.

Cobind also opened my eyes to the XFCE desktop. XFCE reminds me of the Gnome 1.x series, which was extremely configurable in a way that delighted geeks but turned off just about everyone else. The difference is, XFCE has a much more polished look to it than Gnome 1.x ever did. This is partially because XFCE uses the same widget engine that Gnome 2.x does, so it inherits those good looks. But XFCE also strikes me as very fast and very well thought out. Its file manager is not to my liking, but might be just the ticket for those who hate the way Nautilus works in Gnome 2.6. At the very least, XFCE is worth a look for geeks and interface junkies. Look in your package management tools to see if your distribution has an XFCE package ready to install.

Free Software-Compatible Geeky Dream Device of the Month

Slim Devices Squeezebox Wireless
My new favorite toy is the $279 Squeezebox Wireless from Slim Devices. This little black box sits in my living room with the TV and stereo, pulls down the Wi-Fi signals that float around my house, and connects to server software running on my main PC. The Slimserver software streams MP3s (and other types of audio files) on my hard drive out to the Squeezebox, and can also push out Shoutcast Internet radio streams. Best of all, the Slimserver code runs on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux boxes--and it's Open Source, so if you're a geek (or wish to give one an odd job) you can hack away and add new features to your music player. Talk about Freedom!
Matthew Newton is a self-described "writer-editor-tinkerer-geek" who would love to hear from you.
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