My journey into Linunx -- Part II


About two weeks pass, and now I feel a little more comfortable with Ubuntu Linux. Working with Vim is significantly better, now that I don't have to translate instructions into Windows-speak. But, like all newbs, I got the itch to try things that were *way* over my head. In particular, I wanted my distro to look like all the cool Linux kids' distros: With a top bar filled with numbers and cryptic info, and an environment that is almost completely keyboard driven. The top bar, in particular, is one of the first things I tried to emulate on Windows, with predictably laughable results! So, my new "distro" was going to be i3---supposedly n00b-friendly. (I know, I know. i3 is not a distro. But, remember, I was new to all of this, and couldn't tell the difference!)

Let this be a lesson to all those who are thinking of switching from Windows/Mac to Linux: Do not rush things! Installing i3 wasn't the problem. That all went fine. The problem was that working with a window manager requires knowledge and skill, which I didn't have! Unlike a traditional desktop, which takes care of a myriad of things for you---like configuring sound, tray icons, time/calendar, etc.---a window manager simply arranges a program's windows on the screen. Everything else that you expect to be there on the screen must be configured by you, the user. i3 has a configuration file with some predetermined settings, but still the user must do some leg work.

Surprise, surprise, it was a nightmare. I was *overwhelmed* by all the keybindings I had to remember, the tweaks to make a second display work every time I unplugged it, configuring audio, setting a "compositor" (what?), being unable to make some windows show proportional to their content... The straw that broke the camel's back, if I remember correctly, came on the second morning of using i3: because of my work, my keyboard is always set to US English on installation, but that morning I wanted to type something in Spanish (my native tongue) and it hit me that I would have to do yet *more* research on how to do that. It was all too much. I didn't want to go through that. For every small change I wanted to make, I had to spend quite a bit browsing through webpages, wikis, and forums, and sometimes I couldn't even understand the answer. Therefore, after a couple of days, I bailed on i3.

Fortunately, I had installed i3 alongside Ubuntu, so I could simply log out and then switch back at the login. Unfortunately, once I switched back, I noticed some *artifacts* on my screen. Artifacts are small glitches on the display, little squares in black or other off-colors that make it seem as if your computer is sick. Seems that all that fiddling with i3 somehow messed up my graphical display in Ubuntu. I bet it was that compositor stuff! Oh, well... guess it's back to... reinstalling the whole thing! My third install in the space of about 2-3 weeks!


Then it occurred to me: Why not try something else beside Ubuntu? By then I was a little soured on that distro, given that it failed me twice (though, to be fair, it was probably my own fault). Now, I knew most power users used a distro called Arch, but installing it seemed like such a daunting task. Luke Smith has a video on how to install Arch, and the video lasts almost an hour. After the debacle of i3 I was not willing to go through what could be another disaster. But I also knew that there were Arch-*based* distros, and one of them was Manjaro. So, I thought, let's try it out.

Installation of Manjaro-Gnome went OK. No problems whatsoever. Everything seemed to be in order. A few differences here and there from Ubuntu-Gnome, but mostly everything is recognizable. Except... I have screen tearing when viewing videos. (Apparently, screen tearing is a common issue in the Linux world. Yet, a good chunk of the solutions either didn't work for me or were for NVIDIA drivers, which I don't use.) Since it wasn't *that* big of an issue---I mean, it wasn't like I couldn't get work done---I put up with the screen tearing for a few weeks. I dreaded messing with the graphics. But I knew that I would eventually have to fix this. So once more I roamed the webpages, the wikis, and the forums for a fix. One such fix that I tried had the following effect: after reboot, my screen went black. Pitch black. Uh, OK... Now what? *Sigh* Guess I have to reinstall everything!

I'm not going to lie. I seriously considered going back to Windows. My old disk was just sitting there in storage. It would have been a simple matter of opening up the laptop and putting back the Windows disk to return to "normal". I still had all my files there. It would be like nothing ever happened and none would be the wiser. Oh, but I put so much effort into Linux! And, setting aside all the troubles I got myself into, it was so much better in so many ways. Spoiler: I stuck with Linux.

Eventually I did manage to solve the screen tearing issue. But let this be another lesson, kids: Do not copy solutions blindly. Read, read, and then read some more before tinkering with critical system settings. Try and make sure that the proposed solution to your issue is exactly what you need. If you can't find the solution to your exact problem, but there's one that gets very close, tread carefully. In my case, I had copy-pasted a bunch of lines into the sensitive X11 directory, when what I should have done is try each line, one by one. Still, it wasn't all my fault. I saw no warnings about possibly losing the display with those settings.

Smooth sailing

No, that headline's not true. It hasn't been smooth sailing. I did go about half a year without having to reinstall, though. During that time, I learned more and more about Linux, and I feel I have left newbie status behind because of that. I'm not a power user yet, but I am working towards that goal. Manjaro has been great, except that, like any Arch-based system, it is a "rolling distro", meaning that it needs updating with some regularity. And sometimes things break after updating. In my case, I got rid of screen tearing, but then after one fateful update, my Brave browser had trouble repainting its windows, i.e. there's screen tearing *within* Brave.

Since one of my main gripes with Windows were the constant updates, at the beginning of 2021 I tried switching to Debian "buster", a stable distro, to get out of this rolling business. The live USB worked, the installation went without a glitch, but unfortunately when it came time to reboot my laptop failed. It wasn't recognizing the new OS. Some 7 months into Linux this wasn't such a huge deal anymore, as I had learned how to back up my system before attempting anything crazy. So I went back crying to Manjaro, and it's what I still use to this day. I've toyed with the idea of going full Arch, but I'm sort of comfortable with what I got now.

i3 - part deux

My computing skills, meager though they are, have allowed me to revive a really old netbook that lay abandoned for many years. It had Windows XP in it, and couldn't support any of the new Linux distros because of its 32-bit architecture. I brought it back to life with the FreeBSD operating system (a cousin of Linux). This was a fun experience, as the OS did not come with either a desktop environment or a window manager. After finishing the installation, all I could see was a full-screen TTY. It was up to me to install all the necessary graphics packages. I believe this experience has helped me be much more comfortable working with a command prompt. It's not so scary anymore! And because I am a stubborn man, I went with the i3 window manager again! This netbook still requires a lot more tinkering to be fully functional, but I am not in a hurry. Messing around with it is part of the fun!

A few weeks ago I got myself a new desktop computer, which alleviates somewhat my worry of completely botching my main laptop and being left without a means to work for a living. And, you'll be happy to know that I transferred my laptop's NVMe drive, the one with Manjaro-Gnome, to that desktop PC. After which I took out the Windows disk from storage, and I erased everything in it. So now I am completely free of Windows. And guess what I installed in that old disk? Yes, i3 again! This time, the i3 window manager sits on top of Manjaro, and it came with lots more preconfigured, so it hasn't been such a hassle to customize. It's still a royal pain when something doesn't work as expected, but I've learned to be more patient. I guess Linux forces you to cultivate that virtue.

The journey doesn't end here. There's still more to learn and more to explore. I already mentioned how I'm thinking of one day installing Arch the "Arch way" (that is, without any hand holding). I've become more accustomed to using the terminal and terminal-based programs. My short term goal is to gradually replace "bloated" programs in favor of minimalist ones. Lately I've become a little obsessed with low-power computing, i.e. doing computer work with the fewest resources possible. My latest discoveries in this regard are Qutebrowser and playing YouTube videos in MPV, a minimalist video player.

It's been almost a year since I left Windows, and I'm happy to say that I don't plan on going back. Linux has taught me a lot, not just about computing, but about free and open source software, about the importance of privacy and being fully in control of your machine. As a Windows user, I never would have thought that changing operating systems would be such a watershed for me. So if you are still locked in the Windows or Mac ecosystems, I strongly encourage you to make the switch to Linux. You'll learn a lot. Just keep in mind that it is a learning process and you'll make a lot of mistakes, and that's OK. Hopefully, you'll learn from the mistakes of others, like me, and your experience will go much smoother.

The End.