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"I tried Ubuntu, nice, easy install, reminded me of the old Redhat installer. Installed just fine. I get to the GDM login screen, I log in, and then it just sat at a blank desktop and never did anything."
Been there. It's a bug with esd, you should disable it in GConf via command line using gconftool-2. I don't remember the exact command, but as always, Google is your friend ;-) I would suggest searching with site:ubuntuforums.org first.