Distro Hopping is pointless because the Answer Is Always Debian

If you have an Axe, and you replace the handle.

Later you replace the blade.

Sharpen the blade again.

Chop the wood for the fireplace this winter.

 

But… Is it the same Axe?

 

There are indeed options.  Alternatives, even with computers.  That’s what this is all about.

This” is “Distrohopping”.

Think of it as remodeling your computer instead of your bathroom – which is a very small area that results in your emptying your bank account into a small hole in the floor where all your money turns to sh… sewage.

Windows and Mac people don’t really understand the concept, but it is more like the ultimate theme.

You see, I actually enjoy tweaking things on my computer.  I have the freedom to tweak away.  Change fonts, colors, even the entire way that the work flow happens on the thing.

I expect everything to just work.  Why not, I’ve got the tools.  I can change almost everything.

I stopped running Windows when I found out that Microsoft gave themselves the right to watch every little thing that I am doing on my computer.   Since they are not paying me for that right, I dumped Windows.

On the spot.  “F” that spyware.

Not completely sure how Mac fits in that, however I finally got the chance to play around with the Apple operating system and found its rigidity never fit with my innate curiosity.

So here I am on Linux.  Debian Linux to it’s friends.  BSD People know what I am talking about when I refer to absolute control, so come close, little cousins, lets laugh at the normies.

I have a spare laptop.  Still quite useable, an i3 with 4 GB soldered in.  That is all it will ever be, and it was bequeathed to me when a friend passed.  So we shall call this machine David as a result, In His Honour.

David doesn’t get used too much.  It is the slowest “i” machine I have here, but with the right operating system it will run quite fast enough to be useable.

By the right operating system, I mean a Distribution of Linux.  I did try a version of BSD called Nomad BSD that boots from a stick.  It says that it never touches your hardware, which is intriguing and it does show promise.

Since BSD is even less used than Linux in the home market (Less than 1% vs about 2-3%) it is inherently more secure due to “Security by Obscurity”.

But I digress.

I run Debian Linux on my computers.  It is Utterly Stable.  As in that granite counter top that some have will chip before my Debian computer will crash.  Stability comes from the Debian Foundation testing the ever loving daylights out of it.  I got tired of instability along with Windows’ snooping, and settled in on Debian.

Stability comes with older, more stable software due to all that testing, but it can be quite old to be on what is called “Debian Stable”.  That is a problem for some people who want newer and more cutting edge software, but that is easily solved by installing “Debian Testing”.  It’s the last (arbitrary last) time Debian moved the “Unstable” version to save it off.

As of this date, Debian Testing is the “Release Candidate” for the next version of Debian.  I am running that every day on two computers.  Still stable, still no problems.

Since Testing is what many other foundations use for their own base to spawn off a software library for their own Distribution, Testing is much more stable than many other distributions efforts.

In fact, the largest distributions, Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and many others are all derived from that.

Ok, enough background.

I wanted a change for David.  Ubuntu just recently went to their newest version called Disco Dingo, and since I still unironically listen to Classic Disco, I chuckled at that name and installed it.

Except it had no way to hibernate David.  David is also a laptop and a mere “suspend” is worthless.  Write the data to disc (or SSD in my case) and turn the thing off so you are not wearing out the batteries.

Ubuntu is the base for Linux Mint.  The hibernate issue is a requirement so any distribution without hibernate is a “Non-Starter” for me.

Ubuntu?  Fix that.  It works in Debian Stable and Debian Testing.  You being arbitrary because “Some Systems May Crash So We Turned Hibernate Off” is an explanation on the order of having your child paint their younger sibling with Peanut Butter because they liked it.

It Does Not Work Because You Broke It, So Fix It.

That leaves Linux Mint off the table too as well as anything based on Ubuntu or derivatives including the alphabet soup of versions.

If you’re counting, this is Ubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Linux Mint, plus some other newer distributions like MXLinux and a few others that the names slipped my mind.

Yes, I can install another version of linux on a laptop in 15 to 30 minutes while watching old bad sitcoms at night, and I have, and I got bored with it.

Another thing I require is a fast interface.  I settled on XFCE4 because it looks like the versions of windows, broadly, before they went insane and decided everything should be giant ugly blocks and resemble something like Legos On Acid.

My usual configuration of XFCE4 looks like Windows 7 once I get through with it, Base fonts are usually something that looks like the London Underground with a font called “Gill Sans“.

Helvetica and Arial, as fonts, both look like hell.  A Lower Case Letter L and an Upper Case Letter I should look very distinct.   With Helvetica, it does not.  It irks the daylights out of me, along with the strange spacing between the letters (Kerning) and other very subtle things that some people have grown used to without realizing it.

So after churning through the top ten Debian Derived Distros, I tried CentOS.  It’s a Community Based option that is the shared version of the same software that runs on all the servers.  At least all the Linux Based ones that aren’t running Debian.

It was what I started with on Linux around 2000, give or take a few years.  I had a Pentium 3 Mobile laptop that I kept on the couch in my house in Philly down in the living room that was still useable in 2013 or so when CentOS dropped all support for that particular version.  Centos 3 I think.  Maybe Centos 4.  I forget.

But, CentOS is not geared towards you – or me.

It’s a place to rest my head.  To hang my Skating Helmet I guess.  You see, while it is a Server Operating System, and I could do some serious web development on that little computer, it has a major problem.

The last version of CentOS 7 was announced, and while they have a long term support for it, they do not have an upgrade path for it.

Even Windows 2000 had an upgrade that you could run to get to XP, 7, 8 (ick), 8.1 (UGLY still) and that obscene spyware that is called Windows 10.

So it’s a stop gap.  I wanted something different.  I’ll continue all that searching later.

The laptop runs well on Centos but it won’t stay there.  I’m considering a BSD for it, but not just yet.

The other problem I have with Centos is that it uses a different piece of software to install software called YUM.  They also have a newer package manager, but it also has the same problem that I see and it’s called Dependency Hell.

It is what happens when you get a circular reference while installing software.

A game is written.  It needs something to manage the way a sprite works or how it gets information into it.  That is in a library.  It requires a very specific version.  So installing the game requires you install both, Manually.

By Hand.

But… Debian (any version) does not require that.  The Debian Foundation made very sure that it just works.

Period.

So why fuss with YUM (or DNF) and Dependency Hell.

Especially when Debian has the same software library that everybody else has and I can install what I like on it.

All that just proved what the meme says.  When installing Linux, if you have any questions:

“The Answer Is Always Debian”

Seriously, anything I want for the home, for a server, for a laptop, The Answer Is Always Debian.

  • Server to write web pages?  LAMP using Debian.
  • WordPress Server?   LAMP with WordPress using Debian.
  • Graphics Work?  Debian.  In fact, it comes out of the box with Inkscape for vector grapics and GIMP for very fine photoshop work, as well as Krita and others.
  • How about Video Processing?  Debian.  Install Flowblade for Video Editing, Handbrake for Transcoding.
  • Um…Word or Excel and the rest of Office?  Debian.  Libre Office is extremely stable.
  • An old Windows Program?  Debian.  Add WINE and you can run some, but not all, Windows programs once you figure out the configuration.
  • File Server?  Debian, install and configure Samba.
  • Learn Spanish? Watch Video? Listen to the Radio?  Debian.  Doing all that right now.
  • How about DOS?  Debian.  DOS Box works great.

Haven’t you got this down yet?

Actually the exception people always bring up is Windows Games.  Some of them run on WINE, others via Steam.  I don’t play those.  Too busy, just check that list above and … you get the picture – with graphics, labels, and effects added.

I won’t go on here.  I have a feeling that little machine, David, will eventually end up with Sid, because Debian Sid is cutting edge, more up to date than Ubuntu or what ever flavor of the month that people are enamored with on this week, and because it is a Debian flavor, it will be more stable than you should expect.

Just be aware when they upgrade software, it could break.  All the names for the different versions of Debian are from the movies Toy Story.  Sid is the neighbor kid that breaks all the toys.  Debian Sid could break your toy (computer) so do a backup before you proceed with an update or an upgrade.

Yes, even Debian Stable should be backed up, and I do it once a week.  After all I do author content, like this blather.

Yes, you should too, even if your preferred “distro” is Windows.

Even you Windows people.

Ick.

So I ended up going full circle.  I started on Centos, went “elsewhere” and put Centos on David.  I will get frustrated with it when I can’t play FreeCiv because I can’t find some obscure library because YUM (or DNF) is not very tasty.  I’ll eventually give in and install Debian Sid, type in sudo apt install freeciv, it will install, it will work because:

The Answer is Always Debian.

So why did I distro hop again?  Because I have the memory sticks and the time to actually “Play with” my computers instead of “Play on” them!

Coffee and Backups don’t mix well, or how I broke and rebuilt my Debian Linux install in two hours

Maybe the universe wanted me to slow down.

Maybe I just wanted a second mug of coffee.

Or maybe my fascination with automation went a little too far.

I never used Mac OS for long.  Their walled garden approach of curated software just wasn’t for me.  Too limited.  I don’t care for handcuffs, whether they’re steel or lined with “mink”.

I got away from Windows when the current approach of Microsoft insisting that You Are The Product with Windows 10 and putting in “Telemetry” so they can know how their software is doing.  You agreed to it when you clicked through the user license.

Spyware.  It is offensive.  They watch everything you are doing.

So here I am on Debian Linux.  Happy.

Linux does not hold your hand.  It doesn’t make happy noises at you.  It does the job extremely well if you are a casual user who just wants to surf the web.

It does not advertise at you in exchange for spying on you while you look at news, sports, or weather.  I’m looking at you Windows.

It has its own drawbacks.

Linux isn’t great with cutting edge, absolutely new out of the bleeding edge hardware.  Battery management is a bit lackluster, battery life is reduced on Linux as they work to improve the drivers.

It can run some Windows software if you know what you are doing in WINE, and it can even run Windows in its own box if you want to be fancy.   But to be fair, you can run Linux on a Windows computer using the same sort of software.  It’s called a Virtual Machine, and that’s pretty cool.

Basically “Yo dawg, I heard you like computers, so I put a computer inside your computer, so you can run computers”.

I have done the same with Windows in a Virtual Machine many times but I keep an old machine with Windows 8.1 gathering dust under the furniture for an emergency.  I also have the entire complete environment that I was using on my old Windows XP install back when I started the blog.  I can run it, virtually, on my Linux computer.

But never mind that…

All that software has to be backed up no matter what you run, right?

You are backing things up aren’t you?

You aren’t?  I will let you decide if you are being brave, or just stupid, and leave it at that.

I will put up with the quirks in Debian Linux in exchange for stability, when I don’t break it.  My one computer has been Hibernated 170 times as of last night in a little more than 180 days and is still stable.  I don’t reboot when I don’t have to.

I back things up, about twice a week.  I don’t have to do it so frequently, but I do “Author Content” like this blog, as well as Video and Audio, Graphics, and my laptop does duty as a TV/Radio/Graphics Arts studio on multiple levels.

On Linux, all that software is free.  That also includes my office software, but you go on paying for Microsoft office.

Backing up your computer on Linux is fairly painless.  When I am through, the end result is a complete clone of what I have on the computer.  Remove the hard drive, swap in the external drive, and I am back running with just one file system check “fsck /dev/sda” and a reboot.

Just like on Windows or Mac, you need an external hard drive.  USB 3 for the speed, please, and it has to be at least as large as your internal hard drive.

From that point onwards it is just technique.

Technique was what I was lacking on that Saturday.

You see, I wrote a script for the computer to follow.  The script works if everything is correct and in place.  It backs up my chip where I save my personal writings to the hard drive, then backs up the hard drive.  Then to take it one step further it updates the computer’s software, checks to see if there are any spies lurking on the hard drive by scanning for viruses and root kits.  Finally it plays a chime to tell me that it was finished and you were a good person for running it.

Well maybe not that last bit but it is complete.

I also got a little slick and simply told it to do everything without waiting.  Should not have done that.  It’s a lot to stand on its own with the stack of old hardware that I use on a daily basis.

Oh the hardware works, but the wet-ware doesn’t always.

I set the thing going, stood up and just as it started to run to backup the disk, it barfed.

The clone of the hard disk, the actual backup, failed when I bumped the cable and it fell out of the front of the “Destination” disk.

Then it went ahead and updated the operating system, and did all that other stuff.

Automatically.

When it ended I had a computer that showed me everything that I had done wrong to it over the last couple weeks by not starting up again.

I was presented with a black screen telling me that the boot process had stopped and I should try again.

I did, and it repeated itself.

Linux is one of the last refuges of the computer tinkerer.  If you like to do that sort of thing, you can tweak to your heart’s content.  Mine looks a lot like Windows 7.  I could just as easily make it into something that looks identical to a Mac, but I want speed.  It runs about twice as fast as this same computer runs under Windows, so I have it.

When I went to enable the second video chip inside the computer, I followed an old guide on how to do it and predictably it had failed.  That was what showed when I booted the computer.

So Linux kiddies like myself, don’t go and over-automate.   Step by step.  Sure, your machine CAN do it, but if you’re sitting at a desk, wanting another mug of coffee, be certain not to knock the cable out of your backup drive because if the next step is a full upgrade of your computer, you may just be stuffed.

However annoying as all that is… it’s a fast fix.

I reinstalled the operating system, Debian Linux 9, in about 15 minutes.

Brought it up to date in another 30 minutes.

Copied over my “home directories” in another 90 minutes.  It was massive.

Computer back to normal from a bare bones install in about 2 hours.

A few more tweaks to get file sharing working, and making it able to play DVDs.

Lesson learned, slow down.

Oh and if you’re following along and wondering, the specifics are here since I use this as a scratch pad for my memory.

My computer’s C Drive shows up on /dev/sda with operating system on /dev/sda1, swap on /dev/sda5

The backup D Drive shows up on /dev/sdb and will be a perfect clone of the computer.

The syntax of the clone is one line run as root (administrator for windows people)

dd if=/dev/sda of=/dev/sdb conv=noerror,sync status=progress

Just copy the chip to a place on the hard drive manually first.

*sigh*  And don’t get a mug of coffee by putting your hand on your back up drive when you get out of the chair!

If you will excuse me, now, I have a mug of coffee to make.  Some home roasted Guatemala Huehuetenango that I roasted last week.  Should be just perfect this morning.

Ahhhh.

Securely Erasing Your Old Hard Drive Easily with Linux or a Mac

I have been thinking of the easiest way to completely and securely erase a hard drive lately.  I was given two old laptops and was asked by a dear family member to help get some personal effects off of an old laptop.

To keep this short, I was able to do that using an external hard drive case and my own machine.

Since I use Linux, I am immune to windows viruses, I can simply copy the desired data to my computer.  I now have a directory of 1.1 GB of pictures, writings and other information on my desktop which I will burn to a DVD and say “Here you go, enjoy”.

Mac people and other BSD people can rejoice in that as well.

She’ll need to scan that for viruses before she looks at it in detail since she’s on windows.

Ok, that’s all done right, just toss the drive in the nearest secure shredder or sneak it into the trash or….

Not so fast.

You see, data can be forever.

A CD typically lasts 10 years.

A CD that “you” wrote may not last that long, say 5 years.

A DVD will last longer, I haven’t had one that I wrote fail yet, and some are well more than 10 years.

I still don’t trust that removable and optical stuff.

But, if I can get the computer I am looking at now to recognize the drive, the data will still be there.  Useful or not.

Even those old 500 MB drives from the first days of the IDE era can be read if I have a way to convince my laptop to read it.  How?

Get an external hard drive case.   You need to know what kind of hard drive you have in your hands.

IDE External Cases are still available.

Serial ATA or SATA cases are available in USB 3.0 and 2.0 if you want cheap.

I paid under $5 for mine when they were on sale.

Put the drive in question in the case.

Plug the drive case into the computer.

Assuming that your computer can see the drive and the data on it, now what.  You’ve got your data off and you want to securely erase the drive.

Here’s where Linux comes in to play, although a Mac will work as well.

Don’t have a Mac or Linux computer?  The easy fix is to download a copy of Ubuntu and burn that to a DVD or to a memory stick and boot from that.   That is all done via a program called unetbootin and it is available for any modern operating system that I can reasonably think of.   Follow the instructions and you end up with a bootable USB stick.  Boot from that stick.  Plug the external drive in.

Now you’re looking at Linux.

(If you’re a Mac guy, you can to follow this on your Mac.)

Commands from this point forward will be in BOLD
Start Terminal.

Get root with “su” or “sudo su” and give it the system’s password.

Verify the address of the external drive.  “dmesg” will give the device name at the end of the display.  You can also find it in gparted (if installed).  The address will be similar to /dev/sdb.

Verify it again.  “Measure twice and cut once”.

In terminal enter the following command – I am assuming that the operating system thinks that the external drive is on “/dev/sdb”.  You need to know which partition and this will tell you where it is:

fdisk -l /dev/sdb

(Man, I hate Helvetica – That is a lower case -l )

On the Windows drive I have in question, it gave me two partitions – sdb1 and sdb2.  Windows being what it is, will almost always use sdb1 as the boot partition, and it will almost always be the largest one and the one in question with your data.

Since I have cleared out all the data that I would be worried about in an earlier step, I do not have to worry about deleting any partitions.  But I do have to create a space to work with.

Within terminal, mkdir work will make an empty directory to play with.

To access the data on the external drive: mount /dev/sdb1 work

To verify you have connected to the drive, cd work 

To list any data files you left in that directory, ls  will show you.

To create a big file to overwrite all that empty space enter the following command.

    dd if=/dev/urandom of=junkfile.txt

That dd Command will write random garbage out to the file called junkfile.txt until it runs out of space. Out of Space is a bit misleading because certain disk formats have maximum file sizes, so just run it again with a different name on the “of” portion of the command – like “junkfile1.txt” until you are satisfied.

That’s about it.   Your empty space on the drive has been filled with garbage.  You can delete that junkfile.txt and use the drive as a floppy if you like.  Since you previously deleted things that you wanted to be securely deleted, this happened with it was overwritten with random data.

The theory goes that with the “new” and “large” disks we have inside of our computers over the last few years, simply writing garbage out would be sufficient.
The Geek version was that the old drives had enough space between tracks that the data would sometimes, but not always, be mirrored and repeated in the empty spaces.  Some of the information could be “recovered” by reading that space.

You don’t have the technology to do that.  Any “normal” person finding your drive would not either.

New drives over the last few years are so densely packed that that space between the tracks is too small to store extra copies of the data.

If you are super worried (paranoid) about your data, give the drive to a destructive person, and some hand tools, and let them disassemble it for the magnets.  Or run over it with a truck.   Or both.

But this is as far as I go with my own personal data.