Reactions to “Has modern Linux lost its way?” and the value of simplicity

Apparently I touched a nerve with my recent post about the growing complexity of issues.

There were quite a few good comments, which I’ll mention here. It’s provided me some clarity on the problem, in fact. I’ll try to distill a few more thoughts here.

The value of simplicity and predictability

The best software, whether it’s operating systems or anything else, is predictable. You read the documentation, or explore the interface, and you can make a logical prediction that “when I do action X, the result will be Y.” grep and cat are perfect examples of this.

The more complex the rules in the software, the more hard it is for us to predict. It leads to bugs, and it leads to inadvertant security holes. Worse, it leads to people being unable to fix things themselves — one of the key freedoms that Free Software is supposed to provide. The more complex software is, the fewer people will be able to fix it by themselves.

Now, I want to clarify: I hear a lot of talk about “ease of use.” Gnome removes options in my print dialog box to make it “easier to use.” (This is why I do not use Gnome. It actually makes it harder to use, because now I have to go find some obscure way to just make the darn thing print.) A lot of people conflate ease of use with ease of learning, but in reality, I am talking about neither.

I am talking about ease of analysis. The Linux command line may not have pointy-clicky icons, but — at least at one time — once you understood ls -l and how groups, users, and permission bits interacted, you could fairly easily conclude who had access to what on a system. Now we have a situation where the answer to this is quite unclear in terms of desktop environments (apparently some distros ship network-manager so that all users on the system share the wifi passwords they enter. A surprise, eh?)

I don’t mind reading a manpage to learn about something, so long as the manpage was written to inform.

With this situation of dbus/cgmanager/polkit/etc, here’s what it feels like. This, to me, is the crux of the problem:

It feels like we are in a twisty maze, every passage looks alike, and our flashlight ran out of battieries in 2013. The manpages, to the extent they exist for things like cgmanager and polkit, describe the texture of the walls in our cavern, but don’t give us a map to the cave. Therefore, we are each left to piece it together little bits at a time, but there are traps that keep moving around, so it’s slow going.

And it’s a really big cave.

Other user perceptions

There are a lot of comments on the blog about this. It is clear that the problem is not specific to Debian. For instance:

  • Christopher writes that on Fedora, “annoying, niggling problems that used to be straightforward to isolate, diagnose and resolve by virtue of the platform’s simple, logical architecture have morphed into a morass that’s worse than the Windows Registry.” Alessandro Perucchi adds that he’s been using Linux for decades, and now his wifi doesn’t work, suspend doesn’t work, etc. in Fedora and he is surprisingly unable to fix it himself.
  • Nate bargman writes, in a really insightful comment, “I do feel like as though I’m becoming less a master of and more of a slave to the computing software I use. This is not a good thing.”
  • Singh makes the valid point that this stuff is in such a state of flux that even if a person is one of the few dozen in the world that understand what goes into a session today, the knowledge will be outdated in 6 months. (Hal, anyone?)

This stuff is really important, folks. People being able to maintain their own software, work with it themselves, etc. is one of the core reasons that Free Software exists in the first place. It is a fundamental value of our community. For decades, we have been struggling for survival, for relevance. When I started using Linux, it was both a question and an accomplishment to have a useable web browser on many platforms. (Netscape Navigator was closed source back then.) Now we have succeeded. We have GPL-licensed and BSD-licensed software running on everything from our smartphones to cars.

But we are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, because just as we are managing to remove the legal roadblocks that kept people from true mastery of their software, we are erecting technological ones that make the step into the Free Software world so much more difficult than it needs to be.

We no longer have to craft Modelines for X, or compile a kernel with just the right drivers. This is progress. Our hardware is mostly auto-detected and our USB serial dongles work properly more often on Linux than on Windows. This is progress. Even our printers and scanners work pretty darn well. This is progress, too.

But in the place of all these things, now we have userspace mucking it up. We have people with mysterious errors that can’t be easily assisted by the elders in the community, because the elders are just as mystified. We have bugs crop up that would once have been shallow, but are now non-obvious. We are going to leave a sour taste in people’s mouth, and stir repulsion instead of interest among those just checking it out.

The ways out

It’s a nasty predicament, isn’t it? What are your ways out of that cave without being eaten by a grue?

Obviously the best bet is to get rid of the traps and the grues. Somehow the people that are working on this need to understand that elegance is a feature — a darn important feature. Sadly I think this ship may have already sailed.

Software diagnosis tools like Enrico Zini’s seat-inspect idea can also help. If we have something like an “ls for polkit” that can reduce all the complexity to something more manageable, that’s great.

The next best thing is a good map — good manpages, detailed logs, good error messages. If software would be more verbose about the permission errors, people could get a good clue about where to look. If manpages for software didn’t just explain the cavern wall texture, but explain how this room relates to all the other nearby rooms, it would be tremendously helpful.

At present, I am unsure if our problem is one of very poor documentation, or is so bad that good documentation like this is impossible because the underlying design is so complex it defies being documented in something smaller than a book (in which case, our ship has not just sailed but is taking on water).

Counter-argument: progress

One theme that came up often in the comments is that this is necessary for progress. To a certain extent, I buy that. I get why udev is important. I get why we want the DE software to interact well. But here’s my thing: this already worked well in wheezy. Gnome, XFCE, and KDE software all could mount/unmount my drives. I am truly still unsure what problem all this solved.

Yes, cloud companies have demanding requirements about security. I work for one. Making security more difficult to audit doesn’t do me any favors, I can assure you.

The systemd angle

To my surprise, systemd came up quite often in the discussion, despite the fact that I mentioned I wasn’t running systemd-sysv. It seems like the new desktop environemt ecosystem is “the systemd ecosystem” in a lot of people’s minds. I’m not certain this is justified; systemd was not my first choice, but as I said in an earlier blog post, “jessie will still boot”.

A final note

I still run Debian on all my personal boxes and I’m not going to change. It does awesome things. For under $100, I built a music-playing system, with Raspberry Pis, fully synced throughout my house, using a little scripting and software. The same thing from Sonos would have cost thousands. I am passionate about this community and its values. Even when jessie releases with polkit and all the rest, I’m still going to use it, because it is still a good distro from good people.

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