Zed Lopez

Why I Almost Left Ubuntu

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been using Ubuntu for about 6 years now. I’d been using Gentoo beforehand; I’ve come to like the Debian packaging system, repositories whose intra-operability had been extensively tested (at least after release…), but with the regular release schedule putting a reasonable bound on getting recent versions of apps. And Malasada is happy with her Ubuntu (Gnome) desktop, and it’s convenient to have all the machines in the house on the same OS.

But I don’t have any use for Gnome, or KDE, or desktop environments in general. I start with a command-line system, install X, build ratpoison from source (with a patch of my own), build rxvt-unicode from source (because even Lucid’s package is one release behind, missing the crucial letterspace adjustment feature), build dzen2 from source (for xft support)… in short, I was acting more like an Arch Linux user. And I was often finding the Arch wiki and forums more helpful than Ubuntu’s, given how often the latter’s advice was desktop environment-centric. I figured why fight it? I’d give a distro more or less aimed at compulsive customizers a go.

So I did. I have a draft blog entry lying around talking about it, which was mostly positive. But I gave up due to a fatal flaw that I suspected (and am now confident) wasn’t Arch’s fault. This bug in which mode_switch is intermittently locked may be common to all instances of Xorg’s Xserver >= 1.7. Harmless for the majority who’ve never Xmodmapped a mode_switch key into existence or mapped a keyboard layout that relied on it. But if you have, it makes your system unusable. At first I’d thought my keyboard was dirty and sticking, but it persisted with a new keyboard.

I wasn’t willing to unlearn my custom keyboard layout, and didn’t want to learn how to do it in XKB having found that a frustrating exercise when I’d looked into it before, so I thought I’d install the Ubuntu Lucid pre-release (I think it was the last Alpha.) My latest machine didn’t have a CD drive, so I was installing with a USB CD drive. And after starting, the installer complained it couldn’t find the CD drive, would I like to provide a driver on floppy? This was when I remembered I’d had the same problem with Karmic. So, like I did then, I started with Jaunty, planning to dist-upgrade for there. Which I did. But whether it was due to my manually configured LVM/crypto configuration or an Alpha bug, the two dist-upgrades left me with a system that froze on the Ubuntu boot screen.

Screw it, thought I, and I downloaded and burned a Debian Squeeze installer. There wasn’t a heck of a lot of distance between Ubuntu and Debian the way I did it, anyway.

That was when I found out that whatever the problem was with the USB CD driver, it was something Ubuntu inherited from Debian.

Screw it, thought I, and ripped the one SATA DVD drive in the house out of its machine and installed it in mine (my current machine has a Zotac Ion mini-ITX motherboard with no IDE headers.) I started over with Lucid.

Shortly thereafter, I encountered the same X issue. So I had to break down and learn how to map my keyboard in XKB. If mode_switch and xmodmap are so marginal that a problem of those magnitude can stand, it’s probably time to throw in the towel and get with the modern technique.

So after all of that, I’m back on Ubuntu, with no reason I couldn’t switch back to Arch, except that all my tolerance for installing OSes has been used up for some months to come.