I gave in to the urge to upgrade my Ubuntu system, from 10.4 Lucid Lynx to 12.04.1 Precise Pangolin. What follows is a log of the trials and tribulations…
Lucid Lynx: A postmortem
Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx was one of the best operating systems I have ever used. Maybe the best. It was the time when Ubuntu still used the classic Gnome desktop, when there were no ads in the package manager, and when everything worked practically out of the box as long as you were fine with Gnome, which I was. Actually Gnome 2.x was a pretty impressive and user friendly desktop while at the same time not hogging too many system resources and not making too many bad decisions for you. Lucid was an OS that made me feel warm and fuzzy inside and with it, I was comfortable and productive. I felt like I knew what the system was doing, since as a long time Linux user I was intimately familiar with things like the 2.6 kernel and Gnome. And Ubuntu’s additions mostly made sense. Lucid Lynx was by and large the solid continuation of the Ubuntu that had initially won me over by its out of the box functionality and solidity and feel of common sense, Karmic Koala. Karmic was, for a Linux distribution, almost dazzlingly awesome. It started running in Virtualbox under my Gentoo system, and I found myself preferring it more and more until I wiped my Gentoo and physically installed Ubuntu. Karmic’s install and update tools were awesome and saved me a lot of time especially compared to Gentoo. It was a no brainer kind of operating system that kept all these things away from me in a dependable fashion to let me concentrate on being productive. That’s what made Karmic and Lucid so great – low maintenance, no bullshit, and the best of what GNU/Linux had to offer with a bunch of sensible tweaks.
They will be missed.
Precise Pangolin: We know what’s good for you
The upgrade to 12.04 went smoothly. However, it turned out to be an obstinate, wisecracking son of a bitch that was hard to convince to do what I need. First, Canonical hit me over the head with Unity. It’s their own desktop (aren’t there enough of those in Linux?), and it looks like something you’d expect on a smartphone, not on a work PC. Excuse me, I use my PC to get actual work done, and I know where my shit is, so I need a desktop that stays out of the way, does not advertise its stupid search function as a substitute for buttons and menus, does not make it unnecessarily hard to switch between workspaces (no taskbar? no pager? seriously?), does not use my graphics hardware to play funny 3D effects, and does not generally clog up my system. And I don’t need every random application to abuse my harddisk to create databases about anything that some programmer deems interesting. No thanks. Much less do I need a dæmon that keeps a protocol about all my activities (aptly named zeitgeist). What is this obsession with turning a work PC into a permanently social-cloud-enabled smartphone (that’s why it’s called Unity, after all)? What happened to productivity? I don’t even *have* a smartphone and don’t want one, and I don’t want all this twitter and contacts and being tagged in someone’s photo personal-information-managing shit either. I want a platform to do my work on, you know, something where I can run Blender, Radiant, Gimp, and all that stuff while the updating and upgrading business is hopefully done automatically.
So I installed Gnome, which these days goes by the moniker of Gnome Shell. Out of the kettle, into the frying pan… another would-be tablet UI with fancy effects, if not quite as “modern” as Unity. Luckily it provides a fallback mode called Gnome Classic. I wonder for how long. Unfortunately the nice Gnome configuration tools from previous Ubuntu distros are gone.
The upgrade reversed everything I had done to tweak the system to my needs. It re-installed Pulseaudio, which I had removed because I like OSS4 better. It nixed my custom theme. It really insisted to use the Noveau driver for my graphics card, and almost wouldn’t let me shut down the X server at all in order to install my Nvidia driver. Excuse me, a Linux system where it’s practically impossible to shut down a certain program? That’s new.
The audio player, Rhythmbox, started abusing my harddisk in order to index any and all sound files that I have (a lot because I make games), not just .ogg or .mp3 files, no! Every last bit of every audio file anywhere. I don’t doubt that this functionality is useful to some, but why is it enabled by default? And why is it so hard to kill? And while I’m at it, why does it have ads in it?
Speaking of ads, the “Ubuntu software center” (an app store by any other name) now displays banner ads and tries to sell you Linux Magazine. Somehow we went from the idea that GNU/Linux is free to the idea that banner ads are normal and if something is free, that’s no longer normal, but it’s now advertised as being free! Wow. Let that sink in for a moment.
The upgrade also disabled my third-party repositories because, you guessed it, they aren’t good for me and I need to be protected from myself.
While I tried to fix all this, I got pissed enough to try KDE instead.
KDE: We, too, know what’s good for you
KDE 4.8 is an awesome desktop. It is a common sense mixture of Gnome Shell and Windows. It keeps everything that was good about Windows, such as the task bar and start menu, and refines it. It also adds integrated applets (some very nice ones), an Exposé – like window / workspace switcher (overwiew mode) that’s much better than Gnome Shell’s, configurable mouse gestures and shortcuts and a highly integrated set of applications (some very good ones) with a lot of great functionality. It has fast Webkit based browsers, a great file manager, a good mail client and a network of services for every imaginable task. It also manages to look and feel very light and modern on top of that.
Unfortunately it is a giant memory and CPU hog. The worst offenders in the process list are something called Nepomuk and a process called Virtuoso which will boldly go ahead and claim 90% of my CPU as well as gobs of memory. At the same time, my harddisk seems to be shredded to bits. Yes, all the time.
It turns out NEPOMUK is a giant research project sponsored by the EU and a number of businesses, and KDE is its main playground. It calls itself a semantic desktop project. What it actually is, is a fancy desktop search and data mining application. It collects a metadata cache (database) about all your personal files, meaning it builds up a network of relations between files and other things such as contacts, e-mails, photos and so forth. And when you utter a search term such as “design”, it comes up with anything and everything related to that.
While that sounds potentially useful for people who collect large amounts of videos, documentation and so on, it also raises severe privacy concerns. You basically have to take two or three people’s word for it that your data doesn’t land on the server of some company or research lab (or other institutions that might be interested in data mining). You have no way to control what actually is in the database. Right now it’s a black box that a few people tell you is the future, that is sponsored from the outside, that creates an index of all your data and all its interrelations and attributes and stores it.
Sounds potentially fishy if you ask me. Just potentially. You can actually switch it off, mostly, but the KDE devs have already said that according to them, this is the future and soon KDE won’t function properly without Nepomuk and friends.
Speaking in more practical terms, Ubuntu’s KDE has this stuff enabled by default, and it eats your CPU, RAM and hard disk. And KDE’s built-in compositing also eats your GPU. Finally, almost all of the programs I use productively depend on the GTK GUI toolkit (also used by Gnome), while none depend on the Qt toolkit that powers KDE.
In the end, it’s an easy decision. KDE isn’t for me. I went back to Gnome Classic without effects.
While I mostly got it working as I want to now, it’s not as good as Lucid and caused a lot of frustration. What is the problem with having something that works, and sticking to it? I can only wonder. I also wonder how long it will be possible to run Gnome 3 in “classic” mode like I’m doing now. Guess I need to look into alternatives.
I’m seriously tempted to install Gentoo on my spare partition again. It is way more maintenance, but perhaps freedom just comes at that price.