Why Linux Still Gives Me Grief

Several days ago I wrote a rather scathing article about my utter dismay and disappoint with Mandrake 9.1 and by association, Linux as a whole. Since then I have had many many flames and equally as many agreeing emails (is there a simple opposite word for flame?) Since then I have been trying, really really trying to get my system working fully. But time and again I’m coming up against the same brick wall of (un)usability, computer esotericism and down right idiocy.

Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of osnews.com

NOTE: To view screenshots of the issues discussed in this article, please check here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

My last article was written shortly after I’d spent a day and a half pulling my hair out trying to get Mandrake to work satisfactorily, it was written undeniably in the heat of the moment and right on the cusp of me removing Mandrake’s EXT2 partition and never touching any form of Linux again. However against my better judgment I decided to leave it installed – after all I’m determined that this will NOT beat me. (I actually did nuke the partition and reinstall it)

Hardware Configuration

I find this the single hardest thing to track down and fix. As I
mentioned in the last article. I was disappointed that Mandrake didn’t
want to let me use my USB ISDN Adapter. It seems to correctly identify
it in USBView but there is no means to select it in the Mandrake
internet config program, using either basic or expert options.

I’m sure there is a config file somewhere I could edit but a few
problems arise from that theory.
1 – I don’t know where that config file might be or what it’s called
2 – I wouldn’t know what to edit or what to change anything to
3 – I have no idea how to identify the usb port it’s connected to (In
windows this is USB port 3)

I also couldn’t get Bluetooth working with Mandrake – so no Personal
Network and no syncing with my phone- even if I knew how to do that in
Linux. But one of the comments I received after the last article was
from someone who claimed that it was supported in Mandrake 9.1. as he’d
personally put it in there. Apparently the module is called
Bluez. So I looked, and I looked and I looked but nothing comes up
anywhere when I do a search for “Bluez”. But running “lsmod” shows a
module called bluez as present (incidentally why can I only lsmod as

But I can’t find any documentation on my computer about Bluez, nor
anything on the mandrake site, nor indeed anything anywhere that tells
me how to use or configure it. So it’s just sitting there on the
computer, maybe doing something maybe not, I can’t tell. With he
best will in the world, how on earth am I (or anyone else) going to know
that Bluez is the Bluetooth module? If it was called bluetooth (or
contained the word bluetooth in it somewhere) it would be easy to hazard
a guess as to it’s function, but the only way to know what Bluez is/does
it by someone telling you! Surely there has to be a better way than

As someone else pointed out, perhaps I should have visited the Mandrake
site PRIOR to installing it and finding out if my hardware was
supported. A very good point I thought, so, belatedly I did return to
the Mandrake site to check their hardware compatability list. It err…
doesn’t seem to work very well, or was it just me? Typing in
“Eicon” (for my USB Terminal Adapter)… nothing comes back.. Type in
USB ISDN nothing comes back…. Type in Webcam Go, nothing comes back…
finally in sheer desperation I enter “ISDN” to which I get about 6
entries back all with showing the “not compatible with Mandrake” icon.
Not a good sign. Tried typing in Bluetooth…. nothing… Bluez,
nothing. Maybe I just went on a day it was down or not working
properly, but even a couple of days later was still not getting
anything back. Surely Mandrake have tested their OS with lots of
hardware, but perhaps not my specific bits, but surely other Mandrake
users have tried them.. Looking through the newsgroups and archive
there are loads of people using a similar kit as me and running Mandrake
(and having similar problems). Ok, next stop: the Eicon site.. Oh
dear, the USB TA is not shown to be supported by Linux. Not good news,
but I know that it DOES work, as I had it working correctly in Suse 8.0.
Can’t actually remember how I configured it though, other than to use
the Hisax driver and connect via USB… Suse seemed to do the rest!

Next up, my graphics card (Matrox G550). Seemingly, something is wrong
somewhere as whenever I try to run any OpenGL thing, the computer locks up completely.
Tried with Unreal Tournament, several OpenGL games and some XMMS
visualations–all do the same. So I pop over to the Matrox site and download
their latest Linux drivers and their latest incarnation of Powerdesk,
their graphics card tweaking utility. Apparently, it will allow me to
stretch my screen (good) as well as adjust the screen resolution easily
and refresh rate (excellent). Download the tgz files, extract
them, examine and digest the install instructions, seems easy
enough. So, I open up a terminal and run the install.sh file as instructed.
But oh dear, once again I’m thwarted in my attempts to get anything

Apparently the latest drivers aren’t compatible with this latest
version of Xfree86. (Luckily I know what Xfree86 is). But the drivers
are dated last month, so in my mind, that means they’re fairly new. So
why are they incompatible? Perhaps these drivers are already installed –
it’s definitely using some kind of Matrox driver! So I decide to skip
that and try and install the Powerdesk tools by double clicking the
rpm and going through the installer process. It works. Fantastic,
my first proper install of any application ever. (Well, it doesn’t throw up
any errors!) But there’s a problem. I don’t know where the program has
been installed or what it’s called. How on earth do I find out? After
lots of searching for possible names I take a guess that it’s called the
same as the rpm, and it is. I su into the shell (as it asks me to do)
and run it again. Click Ok to continue at the pop up window and “poof”,
it logs out of KDE and returns me to the log in screen (I’m guessing X
restarts as the screen blanks for a long time). Try as I might it won’t
do anything else but this every time. Bummer! but not to worry I just
have to remember not to run anything OpenGL and I can live with it not
working 100% for now.

Next up Xine. Oh dear oh dear, where do I start?:

It was always my understanding that Xine enabled me to play movies,
specifically unencrypted DVDs (or encrypted ones with the DeCSS plugin).
So I’m guessing that Mandrake (or any distro) doesn’t come with DeCSS
installed but I was curious to see what happens anyway, so I started it
up and inserted a disc. For starters no autoplay, but that’s fair
enough as Linux doesn’t really seem to manage that yet and I felt I was
being a little optimistic expecting that. However try as I might I just
can’t find the “play DVD” button. There’s a play VCD button, A DVB
button and one marked CD. Obviously I know what that VCD button is for
(Video CD) and CD is for compact disc obviously, but not idea what DVB
is for. Hovering over it with the mouse and the tooltip reveals it’s
for Digital TV input – neat! If only I had any of those on hand to test
it with!

Xine is the epitome of a bad interface design. Not only does it have dark grey text/icons
on a black/dark grey background (a visual nightmare), but lots of what
look like working buttons but confusingly aren’t. It’s cluttered with
tiny little meaningless icons that tell you next to nothing, even with
mouseover tooltips. Just what the hell is an MRL browser for? What is an
MRL and why would I need it to browse it? Clicking it brings up a file
explorer type window, nowhere does it give even a hint at DVD
playback. and after much trial and error I find that I can only play
.vob files one at a time (or sequentially by creating a playlist) and
even then I can’t just type in the path to file, but have to clik up
from my home to directory to the root and back down again to
/mnt/cdrom! I thought the DVD element may be missing because I hadn’t
installed DeCSS and it hadn’t enabled the right bit of Xine. So I
rebooted into Windows (still no Internet access for me in Mandrake)
popped over to a site that has the plugin, downloaded it, rebooted
back into Mandrake and tried to install it. Oops! can’t just download
that plugin on it’s own, I have to download the other 8 or so library
files as well. So back I go to Windows and back onto the Internet where
I decide to download everything on offer on that site. I’m sure
that’s overkill as there is probably just one of two packages I need,
but I don’t know which ones they might be, so I downloaded the lot (all
12mb of them) just in case I needed them it would saving me rebooting
every five minutes. Back into Mandrake and finally get Decss and the
dependencies installed. (note: this is now 2 things I’ve managed to
install: mandrake is already allowing me to do more than any other
distro thus far) Fine, now to retry Xine, but strangely it’s the
same. I load a random .vob file…. Nothing happens, no error, no
playback, nothing. (previously when I’d tried this without the DeCss
plugin it complained about not being able to play it). Tried another
disc, same thing, Tried loading the main menu, great it works… only I
can’t navigate around with the navigator nor just click on the screen
element as I do in any windows DVD players. So for all the fantastic
skill of the coders it’s still useless to me as far as I’m
concerned, as I can’t play DVDs, but due such having such a
dreadful inept and annoying interface I almost feel that it’s a blessing
in disguise. (But I would like to point out that I think the work been
done to reverse engineer DVD encryption, navigation and playback is
truly stunning. I tip my hat to all concerned). At some point
I’ll download videoLan and try that, at least that had a simple
interface and easily allowed the playback of DVD discs. (Well, it did in
Windows anyway)

Installing from Source

After the resounding success of installing from RPM in Mandrake,
I thought I might be lucky installing from source (tar.gz file, as
opposed to a srpm in this case). I download gocr, to try my luck with
optical character recognition. Xsane works brilliantly for scanning
already so I hoped GOCR would be the perfect compliment. Downloaded it
from sourceforge unzipped/untarred it and followed the instructions, which were
(after untarring) “2. Change to gocr directory and run make.
cd gocr[version]; make install
That’s it.” if only that were true!
When I installed Mandrake (using all 3 discs this time unlike last
time) I didn’t check the “development” tree in the applications. My
logic was thus: I am not going to be doing any programming in Linux
(would do if I could program c or c++) the most I’ll be doing
programming wise will be html, php, sql any maybe a modicum of Python. I (wrongly)
assumed that the development tree would be for coders developing linux
applications and didn’t make the assumption that it was in fact
“virtually compulsory” in order to install source code. But not to
worry, I just installed GCC (and libraries) it from the original
Mandrake discs and reran the installer. Sadly only to be met with
another error message.

I’ve never managed to install anything from source ever, regardless of
distro. I’ve always encountered spuriously obscure errors like this. Not
being a C coder I have no idea what they means, and therefore no way to
know how easy is they are to fix or resolve: Is it my fault they won’t
install or is it a fault with source code or have I downloaded an
incorrect version?

Program installation is one of the THE most annoying things in Linux.
When it’s not dependency hell from rpms, it’s the necessity to download
15 different library files, or just getting an install error message
that I can’t understand. Sure, it might be much easier with Xandros/Lindows/Debian/Gentoo etc (if I could
access the internet of course) but surely Linux is mature enough that
some bright coder could build an installer framework for Linux, so
regular people needn’t have to compile source? There are dozens for
Windows and I’m sure as many for Mac (Nullsoft, Vise, Installshield
and Microsoft leap to mind for Windows)
 “ah!” I hear you all exclaim.
 “but haven’t you come across that ‘missing dll’ hell in Windows
often enough?” you ask?

err… well no actually, not really! I can think of no more than about
two or three occasions when (back in 1998) I was running windows
98 and downloaded a VB based package that needed VB5 (or VB6) runtime
files. Mostly when that happens now though, the author repackages the
.exe with runtime files included or gives a link to download them from
Microsoft – (certainly that’s a bit of a pain, but simplicity
itself to install by anyone: download file, double click .exe… click
“next” a couple of time and that’s it, done. Then run desired

Neither of these issues is the specific fault of Mandrake or the GOCR
developer(s) but they’re not helped by them either. Perhaps I’m just not
thinking like “a geek” enough to use Linux effectively and get it
working properly. But I keep thinking that it shouldn’t be this
complicated. I’ve had to re-install MacOS a couple of times in the past,
as well as build literally dozens of Windows machine from scratch and
it’s not this complicated (Windows certainly wasn’t brilliant, all that
rebooting you had to do with win9x was ludicrous – but at least it is
much better now in 2000/XP) Perhaps it’s just that every other
operating system is geared towards “real” people whereas Linux isn’t.
Installing anything on Macs, Amigas, RiscOS, Beos and even Windows is
simple. With Linux it’s complex, slow, tedious and immensely
frustrating, especially when it doesn’t install (as it is in Windows
when things don’t/won’t install) – but it’s an exception in Windows, not
the norm (In my experience anyway)

Too much choice

Obviously, choice is a good thing; no one really disputes that. But too
much choice always runs the risk of being overly confusing, and
contributing to many people overlooking the good and using the bad, or
at least using the not so good. Mandrake comes with far far too much
duplication in applications that just breeds confusion (and frustration)
it needs a lot more rationalization of the apps it installs by default.

Why are there three basic text editors installed with KDE? I’m sure if
I’d installed Gnome there would be even more? If just one was installed by
default, with the others being left on the CD or downloadable from the
web, knowledgeable, power users could go ahead and get them if needed.
But as it is, its’ just confusing, to my eye, they all look and perform
about the same anyway, I mostly use them as a basic text editor, or for
opening up readme files. (as I’m sure most people will do with them)
I’ve also got what initially appears to be four different image viewers,

Is there a reason for them all? Why not just have one good image/camera application rather than 3 or 4 that are similar – I don’t have a digital camera, so have no idea why I would need any one over another. I’ve got two competing Audio ripping tools installed, Grip andKaudioCenter, two sound and volume mixers, the badly named Aumix and
Kmix, several cd players: Xmms, KSCD, Noatun, Xine and Kaboodle, two
multimedia audio player: Kaboodle and Noatun. There’s three word
processors, OpenOffice Writer, Kword and Abiword. Two ICQ clients, two
ftp clients, three web editors (Mozilla, Quanta and Bluefish, two
scanning programs: (Xsane and Kooka), three image viewers, Two KDE
system monitoring tools, two version of Ghostview, several email
clients, two slideshow, spreadsheet and flowcharting programs and
a myriad of terminal tools and I only installed KDE I didn’t install
Gnome, goodness knows how many other duplicate programs I would have got
had I installed that as well?.

Don’t get me wrong! There’s nothing wrong with these programs; they are
all fine in themselves but there’s no need for them all to be installed
by default for every user, when just one, the “best one” would suffice.
I wonder how many CDs Mandrake would ship on if they supplied just the
best or most common applications needed by most people? Not to mention
how much money they would save on packaging, testing and configuring the
apps. Let alone how much less confusing Linux would be.

There is so much about Linux to adore. KDE and most of the KDE
applications are brilliant, Koffice is truly wonderful, (I’m writing
this in Kword and it’s genuinely superb). I can burn CDs effortlessly
with K3d, Scan easily and quickly with Xsane, quickly get to what I want
with Konqueror, manage my diary, address book and sync with exchange
using the wonderful Evolution (Kmail is pretty damn good too). But the
wonderful and brilliant applications of Mandrake-Linux (and Linux in
general) are hugely overshadowed by the sheer difficulty in getting the
system working, using it day-to-day and the sheer and needless
complexity of some of the basic operations and the sheer amount of
redundant (i.e. duplicate) applications.

Footnote & Resume
Many of the comments I received last time commented that I didn’t give
much detail about myself and level of ability, so in an attempt to
rectify the situation I will conclude with a brief resume of my computer

My first computer experience was my next door neighbors Atari VCS
(can’t remember the model version, but pre 2600, the one with the wood
effect paneling), from then on I was hooked. My Dad bought a ZX81 for
£99 (mail order) in 1981 (when I was 10) and this was my first
experience with personal computing. It grew from there to a ZX Spectrum,
(AKA Thompson/Timex I believe?) Dragon 32 (my dad’s computer
actually), Commodore Plus 4 (sadly), Commodore 64 and then to the
(godlike) Amiga and BBC/Acorns at school. Spend most of my time in
Secondary school working in a computer shop selling home and business
machine (at that time that was AT compatible Amstrad 1512s 1640s and
then 8086s and Amstrad PCWs, Back in the days when 4 color monitors and
high density 5.25″ floppies were a BIG deal!)

Went to university with my Trusty 286 in tow, after taking it to bits
and “improving” it several times. I finally “improved it” a bit too much
🙂 and ditched it in 1995 for Pentium 90 that was the dog’s bollocks of
processors then and which I built myself. Moved from Win3.11 to Win95
(via OS/2 briefly). At University worked extensively on Macs (OS7), HP
Workstations, (HP/UK) and Sun boxes (Solaris). Then left Uni and started
working in IT as a web developer/graphic designer. (Primarily
developing on Sun boxes running Apache/Perl and when I installed Linux
(Red Hat 5) for the first time) 7 years down the line from
University I’m a freelance web developer/graphic designer/System
Admin/network kind of person, who also dabbles in a bit of journalism
now and again (not always IT-related).

I mostly (though not exclusively) develop for Windows web platforms
nowadays: .NET/ traditional asp, SQL server/ MySQL, a little PHP and the
odd bit of Python and Rebol (www.rebol.com) – thankfully no more

I’m currently using a self-built computer:
AMD Athlon XP 2400+,
MSI motherboard, with USB2 and Bluetooth (onboard),
60gb HD + 30Gb (slave),
1GB ram,
Matrox g550 Graphics card,
DVD+RW drive
Real Magic Hollywood+ Decoder card
USB ISDN TA (EIcon Diva)
PQI USB 6 in 1 (removable) Media reader/writer (for writing Mp3s to my
PDA and mp3 player)
Wacom Graphics Table (A4 size) – Serial
all running in rather nice Orange colored “i-Tee” PC case.


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