This page puts on the record my position in a number of acrimonious and long‐running “holy wars”, handling the issues in the time‐honoured fashion – that is to say, it attempts to pass off personal value choices and cultural attachments as objective technical evaluations. So please bear in mind that none of this matters, it's all just a peculiar tribal ritual.
If you've found this page you've probably already guessed my taste
in operating systems – not that I'm a total
Linux‐weenie; Mac OS always struck me as having real style
even before it started converging on the One True Way. But
given that I'm running aged Intel‐compatible PC hardware (and
given that PlayStations make better games/media platforms!) I have
no use for anything but GNU/
And yes, I tend to prefer the label GNU/
Those in the know may also already have deduced that the specific
distribution I favour is Debian – huzzah! Death to all
unbelievers! Et cetera. But I'm not displaying
the zeal of a convert; unlike the many Linux‐users I hear of who
began with some commercial vendor like Red Hat or Mandr
akeiva and then drifted into
Debian's uncharted gravity‐well later on, I started out on this
distro from the beginning – indeed, I'd already been
employed as a Debian GNU/
But having since had the opportunity to compare a few alternative distros (and unices) I've developed a considerable attachment to Debian's three greatest features:
I should admit in the interests of fairness that it does have its drawbacks:
For me the advantages outweigh the disadvantages; for you things may be different – so use what you like. “Market share”? What market?
This is one of those religious debates I've never had the energy for. There are plenty of good Window Managers; the one I use by preference these days is FVWM*, a distinctly old‐fashioned and low‐end package, but one I've got configured absolutely the way I want it. Other window managers such as Windowmaker* are flashier “out of the box”, but all seem strangely inflexible.
I prefer not to go over to an entirely
GNOME*‐based environment, partly because
it's sluggish on my hardware and partly because it strikes me as
too bossy and monolithic. (Likewise
KDE*, now that it has got its licensing
issues sorted out and made it into Debian.) Still, as long
as it's possible to cherrypick items out of GNOME's
catalogue it isn't much of a problem. And the same goes for
“office suites” like
OpenLibreOffice*: obviously, I
don't need to produce org‐charts, PR slideshows, or project
schedules anyway, but if I did, wouldn't I want the best
independent application of each type, rather than a “suite”?
I know why commercial software houses need to lock me into a
single system, but I'm bemused by the idea that the free world
should copy their limitations.
Maybe this is “distrocentrism” on my part? As a Debian sysadmin I naturally prefer to see packages “seamlessly integrated” by means of open standards and coherent underlying systems policy rather than by sets of applications forming private clubs!
Believe it or not, Microsoft Internet Explorer‡ has always seemed to me like a perfectly decent web browser. Sure, it took some serious brain damage in the browser wars, but Bill Gates wasn't the first to deploy non‐standard HTML‐tags. Unfortunately MSIE makes a truly disastrous message‐formatter, personal security manager, desktop wallpaperer, and so on – the only supplementary role it's proved fit for is as a back‐end for the Microsoft Virus Transfer Protocol.
When it comes to graphical web browsers on Debian,
Mozilla* is the sole well established
option… so it's a pity that its designers are only now beginning
to realise what a bloaty accumulation of misfeatures it is.
Even Galeon* seems an immense improvement,
despite being the same basic engine with a GNOMEy front end; and
alternatives such as Dillo* are so much
faster it's ridiculous. Fortunately the relaunch as
Firefox* means I can finally get a version
without the chrome tailfins.
(Opera†? A throwback to the bad old days of crippleware. No thanks.)
However, I don't use Lynx itself much these days. Instead my favourite character‐mode web browser is W3m*, which proves once you get past its Japlish documentation to be a lot more powerful and configurable. Unlike Lynx it handles frames and tables nicely; it knows what's supposed to happen when you mouse‐click on a link; it can be set to display inline graphics (yes, in an X terminal window!); and it supports tabbed browsing (a feature MSIE might possibly get in about 2007). But its handiest feature is that once W3m has threaded its way past the empty pyrotechnics of a site's splash pages to the actual content, you can press a button to launch your choice of fancy‐schmancy graphical browser pointing at that URL!
Now, this is an easy one – there are plenty of usable email packages, but only one is worth writing home about, and that's Mutt*. It's a perfect example of an application that does one thing and does it well: it doesn't parse HTML; it doesn't maintain LDAP addressbooks; it doesn't even have a built‐in message composer. But why should it? You've probably already got a favourite web browser, database, text editor, and so on – you just need a dedicated mail user agent that can politely call on their specialised assistance when appropriate. Meanwhile it gets on with excelling in its own field, offering immensely powerful message handling options. My own setup does things like automatically setting various headers to suit the mailinglist I'm posting to, and that's really the least of its powers.
Oddly enough, though, back in the days when I was marooned in an MS‐Windows‡ environment I was always happy with Netscape. The Navigator† part of the package may have been a so‐so web browser, but Communicator† makes a fine IMAP client. At least when the competition includes anything as chunk‐hurlingly awful as Mucuswaft Outbreak Expose‡.
Vi* vs. Emacs*? A plague on both your houses!
Vi in particular needs to be stamped out, since its
grotesque teletype‐era command interface is almost perfectly
designed to trick unsuspecting users into mangling
MagnumOpus.txt when they accidentally open it in the
wrong editor. The proof of this, and the single Vi
command I urge everybody to learn, is the exit sequence needed to
get out safely – :q! (that's
COLON-QUEUE-BANG). Apologists for Vi argue
that it's important to be familiar with it because it's ubiquitous
as the basic editor on servers where a minimum of software is
installed. Well, this might be true on legacy UNIX systems,
but that's dinosaurs for you – Debian GNU/
Now, if Vi is the hagfish of the text‐editing world,
Emacs is the whale – supposedly a friendly and
intelligent creature, but in reality just a smug blubbery shipping
hazard. Its basic problem is that it wants to swallow the
entire desktop – an understandable ambition
twenty years ago when there were no
decent window managers, but a liability nowadays when I'm trying
to get it to launch quickly on an overloaded system. And if
I really want a Mayan date calculator (to take an example that I
do in fact use occasionally), it's easier to pull up a commandline
and run one there than it is to hunt down the Emacs
“alternate calendar” functions, which are invoked by a long
rambling string of keystrokes starting with ESC-x…
The trouble in both cases seems to be that the programmers working on these text editors are working in text editors, and inevitably start by building into them all the features essential for programming, followed by enough feeping creatures that they never need to venture outside their “Integrated Development Environment”. Features that would be useful for mundane tasks such as editing ordinary English prose are only fitted in as an afterthought; thus the “open-line” function (which mystifyingly inserts a RETURN after the cursor position) gets to hog CTRL-o, whereas the “spellcheck” function ends up requiring the relatively obscure key‐sequence META-$, and automatic paragraph wrapping is nowhere to be found. Then of course when you discover the “help” menu, it asks for the internal name of the Lisp function you're inquiring about…
Fortunately there are a few text editors available that don't suffer from this IDEification Syndrome. Perhaps the best known is still Pico†, which comes along with the Pine† mail‐client; but while it's very user‐friendly, it's not (by Debian's standards) properly free software. That impediment has been overcome by the creation of Nano*, its GNUified clone (with improvements) . At last, an editor that I can reasonably set up as the default on a multi‐user system! And the bonsai variant Nano-tiny* makes a perfect editor for servers and rescue‐disks, so bye‐bye Vi.
However, even though Nano is the text editor I advocate for normal text editing, it isn't the one I'm using now! That's Jed*, a slimline Emacs‐clone which clearly shows all the symptoms of advanced IDEification Syndrome – for instance:
It took me many, many hours of fighting with config‐files written in raw S‑Lang to get Jed more or less domesticated. The main reason I bothered was that at the time Nano lacked a --backup option, leaving me concerned that I might trash my only working copy of some critical file; and recent versions of Nano don't have that problem, so don't do as I do, do as I say!
Note incidentally that Microsoft Word‡ simply isn't in the running here, since its output is a proprietary‐format binary file full of desktop‐publishing control‐codes, not text. If I wanted my words “processed” I'd use a real typesetting app such as LyX* – or more likely, write in some markup‐enriched text format under Jed (like I'm doing now), and then convert that to PDF.