Notes on Linux: It Doesn’t Work

This is the second part of a series of thoughts of my first month trying to work in a Linux environment. The first post dealt with a theme that kept coming up as I was negotiating to use a different OS: that people want Macs because they are “pretty” and “shiny.”

The “pretty” accusation is a fatal misunderstanding of what I, or most people, want out of a Mac. It may even be a defensive dodge, to distract from a deeper issue.

What Macs and Windows do, that Linux doesn’t, is WORK. Linux doesn’t work. This is not just me bitching. This is me bitching to a key Twitter programmer, a networking guy at Apple, and a network security expert — all of whom are sympathetic to the open source cause — and having them sympathetically affirm my complaints, and learning that they do not use Linux on their primary work machines because they do not have the time to constantly act as their own sysadmins. “I use Windows, because I need to get work done,” the network security expert confided.

On my second day of work, I walked into the office with my Ubuntu netbook. I am now chalking this up as a tactical mistake. Everyone around seemed to take is as a signal that I was comfortable in Linux, rather than just trying to be a good sport and eat our organization’s own dog food to ensure it’s ok for our clients.

Here is a partial list of the things that went wrong on Ubuntu and Debian laptops in the course of a recent week, in which I had to meet a major deadline, then migrated to a new machine, then had to re-install the OS because of compatibility issues:

  • Enigmail (an encryption tool for Thunderbird) refused to work when Javascript was running in other applications
    • hitting “cancel” in the course of doing this may have caused an email to be sent in the clear
    • Enigmail does not always automatically respond to email in kind (in the clear, signed, or encrypted)
    • was unable to access Enigmail’s bug tracker to file this
  • Linux software to combine PDFs crashed and threw errors not present in Adobe (the software probably used by the people to whom we were sending this quarterly report)
    •  working at the command line, my boss’s suggestion for solving the problem, would have slowed me down more
  • had to install a separate keyboard profile to use diacritic marks (oh, come on)

At this point my new machine arrived; we started migrating me off my clunky Ubuntu netbook and into Debian:

  • Debian and Mozilla not playing nice with each other (I’m told it’s actually a trademark issue) made it impossible to get a working copy of Thunderbird with Enigmail once I was in Debian; the ability to encrypt email is an officewide requirement
    • email solutions used by more technically proficient co-workers in Linux offered nothing for less-technical-user me; they rolled their own, I can’t
    • staff lack of familiarity with Thunderbird issues on Debian required additional research and configuration (into IceApe/Seamonkey, which has little documentation)
  • copying email profile info from one Linux laptop to another led to weird duplications/things going missing in email folders, a problem which even surprised the more-tech-savvy co-worker who was helping me with this
  • permissions problems with files when dragging and dropping, could not copy to USB key

I think it was at this point I asked to be allowed to return to Ubuntu on my new box, which required setup by someone else. And then:

  • rsync permissions problems kept me from copying permissions from one laptop to another
  • password not working to decrypt disk on startup in Ubuntu

That last one was a show-stopping problem. I could not even log into the machine. I took my personal Mac on my trip to our parent office in DC instead, so I could actually get some things done on the train; I wasn’t about to carry two laptops, as my back already hurts enough. In DC, I was told by a co-worker that he’d faced the same problem. The solution was to hit backspace two times before entering the password, as it was a known issue that Ubuntu automatically added two characters to the text box.

As it turns out, that wasn’t even the problem. I still don’t know what the problem was. I don’t really care anymore. I had the device completely wiped, ordered a Mac, and went back to using my poky Ubuntu netbook in the interim.

Our organization supports tools for circumventing firewalls in places like China and Iran. I figured what I was doing was also circumvention. Routing around damage.

Yes, I could have asked a sysadmin for help with any of this. And yes, I did ask a co-worker and my boss for help, and they gave me a combination of assistance and gruff admonishments to go look up how to do it. So all of this can, in the abstract, be solved.

But solving it involves me being quite dependent on and at the whim of other people. See “feminism,” earlier; but it’s also not the most effective way for an office to work, causing bottlenecks.1

Next: The Learning Curve and the Command Line

1. I’d say “and inefficiency and slowdown,” but I’ve read enough on the history of labor to be sort of intrigued by the possibility of having an office which returns to a pre-industrial ethos, reversing Fordism, allowing employees make mistakes even though it’s inefficient, generally placing a higher value on learning and employee skill-building than on production of a product. I’m not so intrigued by this when I’m under deadline, though.

Comments 2

  1. Doug Belshaw wrote:

    So your footnote made me laugh – people who get stuff done and meet deadlines use Macs. There’s even some empirical evidence for this if you read http://usesthis.com!

    But this bit nails it for me:

    “I still don’t know what the problem was. I don’t really care anymore. I had the device completely wiped, ordered a Mac, and went back to using my poky Ubuntu netbook in the interim.”

    As someone who’s spent time teaching teachers, things have to work 99.9% of the time for busy people to consider using them. 95% of the time isn’t good enough. People have to be able to rely on technology.

    You know, I really did revisit and reflect upon the tools I use post-NSA revelations. I went down some long (and sometimes dark) tunnels. But I’ve come to realise that my circle of influence is made wider through the outputs *from* my computer, not what’s on it.

    Posted 19 Nov 2013 at 11:51 am
  2. Harry wrote:

    Nice series. I appreciate the obverse of my POV articulated by someone who likes words.
    Full disclosure: I am a sysadmin, been running Linux on my laptop/desktop/cluster for 30yrs so I am familiar with how it works and unafraid of the commandline, but as such I also assist all members of my immediate and extended family with their computer problems. My 80 yo inlaws are running Linux without too many problems, including running a couple of WINE-based genology apps. My ~80 yo mother is running a stock MacOS and has frequent issues, mostly with the mail and USB file transfers. My technophobe daughter runs a KDE laptop thru university and until the disk recently died after 6 yrs, had very few issues with the actual apps, except for some problems with file and print sharing at her univ. My wife has a Mac and has very few problems with it, since like you, she’s had one for 25 yrs.

    I interpret your argument as:
    – Mac users don’t go for the pretty shiny interface – MacOS works well, rarely breaks, and provides good value for the $ spent. Fair statement – I don’t see why under these situations, you couldn’t use a Mac and use the OSS apps that the company requires since most of them work reasonably well under MacOS. It could have been a cost-saving approach, and trying to cut down on IT heterogeneity.

    – Linux is neither pretty nor easy to use since it keeps crashing. (Here, I interpret that to mean that the apps keep crashing since while Linux itself crashes occasionally, it’s pretty rare that the kernel locks up.) I’d take issue with the pretty – you never mentioned trying KDE, but it’s been the most fully integrated and most Mac-like Desktop among the group. It certainly has some problems itself, but the ‘Kontact’ suite is also the best integrated business comm suite extant.

    – the main set of problems seemed to derive from a business requirement to use encrypted email which was difficult to set up and use. I sympathize with that, especially since the email clients for Linux are pretty clunky, altho getting better. And the most sophisticated and easiest to use for a Mac user (KDE’s kmail) still has stability problems that may occasionally put you in email hell (but does remind you to keep frequent backups).

    – oddly, while the company apparently has sysadmins that could be called on for help, you never did that, instead consulting your boss and co-workers who continued to give her less-than-expert advice.

    – mostly odd is that the company did not have a standard set of apps and configs that were well-debugged and supported. One of the strengths and weaknesses of the Linux eco-system is the variety of apps that can be used to do a task. In a business env, that kind of heterogeneity will cause all kinds of grief, as you’ve reported. This is a huge problem when an org tries to jump to Linux, but the successful ones do careful planning sometimes too-careful (see Munich) and set up structures to ease the transition. Throwing ppl into the very deep Linux pool and expecting success is a guarantee of the reverse.

    – jumping from machine to machine can be a pain, but in my experience as a sysadmin, not any greater than a Mac or PC. It’s very much like moving into a new house, with generally all the confusion and setup annoyances that entails. Certainly an expert can cut down on the pain, but it’s always a pain.

    Posted 24 Nov 2013 at 11:56 pm

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