21 Feb 22

Why do I do this to myself? (or: Sisyphus Linux)

I have an old Dell laptop that I experiment with various Linux distros on. It's not my primary work computer so it's "expendable" in a sense. It's a good extra machine for the kiddos to watch videos on when I'm trying to get things done on the "real" computers.

I ran OpenSUSE happily on it for a long time, but as is my wont with Linux distros, I'm always looking for "the one". Tiling window managers are kind of fun, but I don't have the patience or the time to sit and fiddle with i3 config files. Before kids, staying up until 2 in the morning to get things "just right" was a viable way to spend a Tuesday evening. Now? Forget about it. So, the Regolith Ubuntu "spin" was a nice easy way to get a functional i3 desktop without much effort and I ran that happily for a while.

Then I see that Slackware 15 was finally released. A long, long time ago, I loved Slackware primarily for its BSD-based init scripts and ran it happily for a long time. SysV-style init scripts were kind of a pain to muddle through, especially back in early RedHat when I'm pretty sure they were auto-generated by some other "user-friendly" config tool. So I jumped at the chance to start running Slackware again, and with the XFCE desktop environment, things mostly "just worked".

But of course, I got to thinking... if I liked Slackware back in the day because of its BSD-style init scripts, why not just try one of the BSDs? So an OpenBSD .ISO download later, and some goofing around with the installer, and I've got OpenBSD on the laptop... with some caveats. For whatever reason, OpenBSD just simply would not play nice with my wireless card. After a considerable amount of fiddling around with the iwm drivers, dhcpcd, wpa-supplicant, etc. I could get connected to wi-fi and get a DHCP lease, but it wouldn't stay connected for more than a minute or two before it dropped. Not to mention the default window manager - cwm - leaves a bit to be desired (for my use case at least). I'm sure I could stay up until 2 in the morning to make it a very workable desktop environment, but I need "software for people with kids" these days.

Next up was GhostBSD. The website showed a nice, polished desktop environment, the installer was an order-of-magnitude more user-friendly than OpenBSD's was, and everything booted up nicely. Firefox w/ YouTube worked out of the gate... except no sound. I really, really, really wanted to like GhostBSD, but no amount of tinkering with the drivers, pulseaudio, ALSA, OSS, or anything else gave me any success. This might not have been a deal breaker except for the part where I use this laptop for the kiddos to watch movies on.

So I blow away GhostBSD, and sadly this is where my "BSD for a workstation" adventure comes to an end (though I've gone on to have a lot more success with it on a server, but that's a story for another day). Back to Linux.

Still looking for "the one" distro, I gave KDE Neon a try for the first time. It's kind of a "Kubuntu by the KDE devs" situation. And it was great! Everything "just worked", it felt snappy, no driver issues. I planned on running it for a long time, and then of course I run a package update yesterday and it broke something. KDE just wouldn't start back up. Sure, I can dig through logs, mess around with various config files (which have gotten really, really bad in the Linux ecosystem now. The days of spending hours in /etc/X11/XF86Config are long gone. Now it's hours across hundreds of different config files scattered across /etc, ~/.config, /usr/local, etcetera... this is one thing I really appreciated about OpenBSD), and things like that, but again, I have a life now. "Software for people with kids" and all that. So, on to the next one.

OpenSUSE Tumbleweed again. Install process goes smoothly, boots to a nice KDE desktop, but... for whatever reason, I simply could not disable "tap to click" on the touchpad. This may sound petty, but it's a deal-breaker for me. I messed around in the KDE settings, tried installing the xf86-input-synaptic package, goofed around with the synaptic .conf files, and for whatever reason could not make the change. What's doubly-frustrating is that even after finding the setting in a config file that KDE wasn't respecting, commenting out the "tap to click" setting, it still did it. I haven't had this problem on other distros - KDE Neon and XFCE in Slackware were happy to let me disable it and it worked fine. On to the next one.

I tried Regolith again. I downloaded a fresh .ISO, burned the flash drive, went to install it and the installer failed right off the bat. On to the next one.

So, finally I decide I've wasted enough time goofing off with this and go back to the old trusty standby Ubuntu. And everything "just works." The kiddos are watching movies on it as I write this. I'm sure I can use it happily for a long time with no problems.

But where's the fun in that?

I'm sure in a few months I'll start getting the itch again - something will trigger a fond memory about using Gentoo (definitely not "software for people with kids"), or I'll read yet another article complaining about systemd and I'll get to thinking about Void Linux again (xbps-install got really annoying to type, but in this case the deal-breaker was that the Musl libc it uses didn't play nice with certain software I needed), or NixOS, or GoboLinux (probably the closest to "the one" that I ever found, but popularity has its advantages in a distro, too), or any of a dozen other distros that I've tried, and in the process stay up way too late on too many nights either trying to get it working or trying to get "just right."

At this point, I feel kind of like Sisyphus if he had a laptop instead of a big boulder. "Sisyphus Linux" has kind of a nice ring to it - I guess if I ever try Linux From Scratch and spin my own distro (bound to happen one of these days), I'll know what to call it.