2017 Tour de Cure Donation Drive

It’s that time again, ladies and gentlemen: I am fundraising for the Tour de Cure, the annual bicycle race that benefits the American Diabetes Association. Since I have diabetes, I have absolutely no shame about guilting my friends and family into donating to the cause. So let’s dive right in, shall we?

What am I donating to?

The American Diabetes Association does a lot of things to improve the lives of people with diabetes. First and foremost, they fund research that aims to prevent and cure diabetes. This is hugely important. However, while a cure is being developed, they also fund programs for people with diabetes, like Camp Carolina Trails – the summer camp for children with diabetes at which I volunteer every summer. They are also involved in government, making sure that people with diabetes have a voice in Washington, which is especially important as the Senate considers the AHCA.

Why are you doing this?

I’ve done the Tour de Cure for the past two years. It’s nice to do something tangible to try and combat this disease that often leaves me feeling powerless and not in control. Plus, I know that there are a lot of other people, including the children I work with every year at camp, who will benefit from events like this. As an added bonus, my blood sugars are great when I’m exercising, and this is an excuse to do that.

So what do I get?

I’m glad you asked! You get to see pictures of me wearing ridiculous things while I’m riding in the Tour. Last year, I created a set of donation goals, and for each one, I would another absurd item to my costume. I’ll be doing that again this year. See below.

But I donated last year, and you didn’t even send me a “Thank You” e-mail! What gives?!

You’re right. I didn’t send out “Thank You” e-mails last year, and I feel bad about it. This year, I promise I will send them out. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I’m not perfect. And while that isn’t a good excuse for lack of manners, sadly, it’s the only one I have. If you choose not to donate to my race, I hope you’ll donate to someone else’s.

Alright, what can I do to humiliate you during the race?

Here are the goals:

  • $200 – This is just the starting bid. I need to raise $200 to enter the race. But, just for you, I’ll leave the streamers on my handlebars from last year’s race (see pictures below).
  • $400 – I will attach a red cape to my jersey, and ride with it on the entire race (unless it gets caught in my bike, falls off, or otherwise becomes a hazard…)
  • $600 – I will super-glue a cowboy hat to my helmet. Last year was alien-head deely-boppers, and I think it’s time to change it up.
  • $800 – Same as last year, if I reach $800, I will attach a milk crate to the front of my bicycle, put an ET plushie (which I still have from last year) in it, and ride the race like Elliott from E.T.
  • $1000 – I really wanted to make this my fundraising goal, but I think I’ve started too late. Nevertheless, if we reach $1000, I will take your most ridiculous suggestion and incorporate it into my outfit. Please add your suggestion to your donation e-mail, comment below, or send it to me in an e-mail. If the suggestions aren’t creative enough, I will come up with my own, and I promise that it will be suitably ridiculous.

Will we make $1000 this year? Will E.T. ride 25 miles around a bicycle course in Woodinville, Washington at a charity bike race? Will the alien-head deely-boppers come off my helmet, or are they permanently welded to it with hot-glue from last year? Donate to find out!

None of that is quite humiliating enough.

Don’t worry, it’ll be enough. Did I mention that I’m riding with a company team made up from people at work, none of whom I actually know? Yeah, it’ll be plenty humiliating.

How do I donate?

Please donate through my Tour de Cure Participant Page. Donations directly to the American Diabetes Association are awesome, and I encourage them, but they won’t benefit my ride directly. Any amount helps, and I will greatly appreciate it.

Where are the pictures from last year?

Well, I’m glad you asked…

With alien-head deely-boppers... because fundraising.

Alien-head deely-boppers. Yes, people did point, stare, and take pictures.

My bicycle, complete with streamers, and a jersey with retro-gaming buttons all over it.

My bicycle, complete with streamers, and a jersey with retro gaming buttons all over it.

My race jersey with retro gaming buttons all over it.

My race jersey with retro gaming buttons all over it.

Convince me further…

I like to make this into a fun challenge, but this race is important to me, and to a lot of other people in my situation. Diabetes isn’t easy to live with, and it’s not going away any time soon. Last year, I meant to ride the 25 mile course for the first time. I trained a bit, and I thought I was ready. However, the night before the race, I experienced a perfect storm of a CGM (Continuous Glucose Monitor) sensor failure, a low blood sugar, and an extremely high blood sugar that lasted until just before the race. It was almost like diabetes knew what I was doing and was trying to stop me. That morning, I woke up at the right time, and considered not even going to the race. I felt awful. I was dehydrated and had ketones from the high blood sugar (high ketones make you nauseous; it’s not fun), I had barely slept because of the low blood sugar, and I didn’t feel like going one bit. But I drank a lot of water, drove out to the race, and although I elected to do the 10 mile race instead of the 25 mile, I completed it. I won.

Battles like this happen every day in the life of a diabetic. They’re not always quite that bad, but if you let it, diabetes will make you miserable. There are several cures for Type 1 Diabetes in the works right now, and some of them are very promising. They need funding. And, in the meantime, we need to make sure that people with diabetes have access to the community and care that they need.

So please, support my 2017 Tour de Cure ride.

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Bye, 2016

Welcome back

Well it certainly has been a long time, hasn’t it. My last post was over two years ago, and as you can imagine, a lot has happened since then. Let’s make a small list, in no particular order:

  • Dog (yay!)
  • Motorcycle (huh?)
  • Various and sundry mechanical keyboards (also huh?)
  • House! … rental (oh…)
  • Started learning Irish (you what?)
  • Cured of Diabetes (just kidding)

A few weeks ago, I realized that I missed blogging. It’s not that all that many people read my blog, but I enjoy it. Having a place to show off my various personal projects encourages me to do more of them, and writing about my thoughts encourages me to think more deeply. In short, I’ve decided that blogging is good for me.

They say that it takes an average of six attempts to form a new habit (source: a class that I sat in on in college; totally reliable). And I think this is probably attempt number two, in recent memory. So who knows which side of the bell curve this latest blogging revival is on. But we’re going to give it a go.

The Year in Review

Let’s be real for a second: lots of things about 2016 shat. Yes, the latest trend on Facebook right now is to say, “I’m sick of everyone complaining about 2016. Therefore I refuse to do it, because everyone else is doing it. Harumph!” And, honestly, 2016 wasn’t all that bad. But parts of 2016 were an absolute shit-storm, and I think it’s ok to say it out loud: 2016, we’re disappointed in you. 2017, DO BETTER.

But since this is my blog, and since I call the shots here, let’s have a look at my 2016.

2016 started out with a new place to live. I rented a house for the first time, which, because of the absurdities of the Seattle housing market, ended up being cheaper than the apartment I was previously renting, and comes with more amenities… go figure. Plus, I now have a front lawn and a carport. Sweet.

Oh yeah, it snowed here in 2016 also... what? It doesn't snow in Seattle.

It also snowed here in 2016… what? It doesn’t snow in Seattle.

2016 also ushered in the age of the motorcycle for me. I bought a used, 1978 Yamaha XS650 in late 2015, got my license, and then started to ride early on in the new year. Because Seattle is wonderfully temperate, riding year-round is a possibility, and my first few months of riding occurred during the winter. This made summer riding an absolute treat.

Isn't she beautiful?

Isn’t she beautiful?

Since the bike is 38 years old, it needs a lot of love, but the engine runs great. Most of the work it needs is cosmetic, and I’m having a new seat made for it now. Other things it needs are a new tank and side-covers (or to have them repainted), new rims (I’m thinking mags), and to have the entire engine gunked and cleaned off.

In January, 2016, I also fulfilled my lifelong dream of getting an amateur radio license. For those who don’t know, amateur radio is a hobby that dates back to the early days of radio. Certain radio frequencies are reserved for people with a special civilian license, which allows them to transmit radio signals (most people are only allowed to use walkie-talkies on something called the Family Radio Service band). Radio Amateurs (sometimes called Hams) generally use their radios for hobby purposes like trying for the furthest radio contact they can make, building new radio equipment, or chatting with people all over the world. But they also volunteer as emergency and event coordinators, relaying information to make things run more smoothly.

I haven’t done much with my license yet, but I’m planning to get a nice base-station radio and start messing around with it more at some point this year. If there are any hams reading, my call-sign is KG8QEM.

This year I also delved into the world of mechanical keyboards. Yes, I’m one of those guys who make all manner of annoying clattering noise when I type. Trust me: it’s better. Honestly, I don’t really notice that much of a difference in terms of typing speed or comfort while typing, I just like the way it sounds. There’s something satisfying about the clunk of the keys as you hammer out an e-mail or a line of code. It’s nice. And everyone around me has to deal with it. (Actually, plenty of other people at work had mechanical keyboards before me, so it’s fine.)

Another life-long dream that I’ve fulfilled this year is starting to learn Irish. For those of you who are saying, “You mean English?” or “But, don’t they speak English in Ireland?”, let’s take a moment to talk about Ireland. Ireland has its own language called “Irish Gaelic” or, simply, “Irish”. It’s related to Scottish Gaelic and Breton (spoken by some people in northern France), but it is far different from English. Irish is the official language of Ireland, although most Irish people do speak English primarily. Presumably this has something to do with the fact that the British Empire ruled over Ireland for a long time, just like it did the United States, India, Canada, and a variety of other countries. Like most of those countries, Ireland broke off from the British Empire and formed its own Republic, which happened in 1949.

That’s you Irish history lesson for the day. Irish sounds really cool, and for whatever reason, I’ve wanted to learn it for a long time. So I’m doing that now.

Finally, there’s the Diabetes thing. No, I haven’t been cured. Neither, for that matter, has everyone else. My feelings about diabetes have developed a lot in the past year though, and I’m going to save that discussion or discussions for other blog posts. However, I did ride in the annual Tour de Cure for the second time this year, and I plan to ride again in 2017.

With alien-head deely-boppers... because fundraising.

With alien-head deely-boppers… because fundraising.

That’s it, my 2016 year in review. All said and done, 2016 was a good year for me personally, even though the world as a whole lost a lot. I hope 2017 is better for everyone.

Oh yeah, I also got a fish in 2016. His name is Norbert.

Oh yeah, I also got a fish in 2016. His name is Norbert.

Lessons from My First Three Months as a Real Adult

As of five days ago, I have have been a real, proper adult for three months. That is, I’ve been working at my first real, full-time job for three months. In the years that led up to my graduation, I wondered what the switch from the academic life to the professional life would be like, and many of those wonderings have made their way onto this blog. So it’s only fair that I update you on how things have turned out so far.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed about adulthood so far, in no particular order.

1. Food is Expensive

You sort of take food for granted when you’re living at home. Even while I lived in my own apartment, I would still pop home fairly frequently and take advantage of a free meal and the opportunity to raid the pantry for things I needed. Plus, when you’re working, you don’t have nearly as much time to cook, so if you’re not careful, you end up eating out a lot. My first month or two here, I spent more on food than I did on rent. For context, I live alone in a city where rent is fairly expensive. Granted, for the first month I was in corporate housing with no kitchen, which meant that I had to eat out for nearly every meal, but that’s still a lot of damn money on food.

By the way, don’t believe the statistics about “average expenditure” on food. I’m not sure where they get those numbers, but as far as I can tell, they’re a load of crap.

2. Bills Aren’t as Bad as Everyone Says

People spend a lot of time whining and complaining about how many bills they have to pay*. They bitch and moan and put it off to the last minute, and then freak out and complain some more when their payment is overdue. But it’s really not that big a deal. First of all, many bills these days can be paid online, which makes bill-paying a non-event. I don’t do auto-payments, because I like to track my expenses, and because I don’t trust companies to pay themselves directly from my account or credit card. But even so, the most I have to do to pay a bill is log in, punch in my credit card number**, click submit, and go about my day. It usually takes a grand total of two minutes, and then I can go back to playing Legend of Zelda, baking cookies, or whatever it is I do in my free time.

I suspect that people just don’t like to see all that money leaving their account, and that I can understand. It’s always a little disheartening to see all that money roll in on pay day just to watch it slowly trickle out of your account as you pay one bill after another. Nevertheless, life goes on.

3. There Are Less Hours in the Day

In college, I spent roughly four or five hours in class per day. I then spent far less than the recommended amount of time studying and doing homework outside of school. In my part-time job, I spent very little time working, most of which was during the summer. So my days were pretty much free. As much as I complained about not having any time to do things, I had butt-tons of time to do whatever the hell I wanted, I just squandered it all. How? Not a clue. When I try to add up a typical school day in my mind, I come up around 5 hours short. Where did all that time go? What was I doing? Was I regularly and frequently abducted by aliens? I don’t know, but that time vanished.

When you spend an average of 8 hours per day at work, you wind up with less time in your day. I need to get around 8 to 9 hours of sleep per night to function like a normal human being, which means that about 17 hours of my day (including work) are written off from the start. Factor in an hour of transportation time, and that leaves me with 7 hours of free time. A good bit of that time is spent slogging through my morning routine and, by the end of the day, I have about 5 hours to myself.

Now,  I’m certainly not the first person to mention the fact that working adults have less free time than students, and I’m not complaining about it. On the contrary, I kind of like it. Having less time in my day makes me appreciate the time that I do have, and on the weekends when I have all the free time in the world, I make a decent use of it. That doesn’t mean that I go out saving the world, wrestling bears, curing cancer, and climbing mount Everest, sucking every single drop out of the marrow-bone of life. But it does mean that I enjoy my free time more.

4. There’s So Much More Time

When I was in school, everything felt finite and ephemeral. Things needed to be done immediately, and my longest term goal was to get a job at the end of my degree. Now that I’m working, I have quite a few goals that stretch two and three years away. One of the hardest parts about working so far has been forcing myself to realize that not everything has to happen now: I don’t have to rush into as many things for fear that they won’t be around anymore. Granted, some things you have to rush into, but there are other goals that you can stretch out. It’s a process of calming down, stepping back, and controlling my life deliberately rather than impulsively. And although it’s hard, it feels pretty good.

5. You Can’t Tell Me What To Do

If I want to eat chicken wings for dinner four nights in a row (which I’ve done once… at least), no one can tell me not to. If I want to fill my room with playpen balls, no one can stop me (haven’t done this one yet). Most of the time, I use this freedom to do fairly mundane things. The other day, for example, I spent the entire day designing and 3D printing a Jammie Dodger cookie cutter, and then making Jammie Dodgers from scratch. They were delicious, and it was a glorious day. Every Sunday morning I make pancakes for breakfast, and this Sunday I made one that was almost as big as my plate because I CONTROL THE SPATULA NOW, SON!

People think that becoming an adult is boring; there’s the so called “daily grind”, and paying bills, and having to be responsible. When people raise these concerns to me, my response is usually “Fuck. That.” Being an adult means you make the decisions. It means no one has the right to tell you when to brush your teeth***, when to go to bed, or what you can and can’t wear. You make your own life, you set your own expectations, and you decide which paths you do and do not want to take. Some of the most inspiring people in the world are the ones who ignored what people told them adulthood was going to be like, and decided what their own adulthood was going to be like. You’re going to spend the majority of your life being an adult, so what’s the point if you don’t enjoy it?

Look at that boss.

Look at that boss.

6. It Can Be Lonely If You Let It

In college, you’re bombarded by people, fliers, posters, and announcements urging you to sign up for this, volunteer for that, and go out to some other thing. This isn’t really the case when you’re an adult. I don’t mean to say that these opportunities don’t present themselves, but they’re not as abundant, and they’re not always as easy to find. Slowly but surely, it’s easy to settle into an unhealthy routine, especially if you’re a bit introverted (like me). Fortunately though, you’re reading this, so you’ll know that all you have to do when you start feeling like a hermit is to go on a site like Meetup.com or look around your local burger joint or hobby shop for some fliers advertising meetings, find something that piques your interest, and go to it. It’s hard at first, but it will very quickly be easy again.

Here’s the Deal

So far I’m enjoying being an adult. On occasion I’ve been afraid that being an adult would be a slow, steady descent into retirement, but so far I’m pleasantly surprised. The thing is, like just about everything else in life, it’s what you make of it. It can be a great experience, or it can be a miserable experience. Since this is how I’m going to spend 80% of my life, I’m choose to enjoy it.

*I recognize that I’m very privileged to not have trouble making ends meet, and I don’t intend to demean those who do have trouble paying their bills. If you complain about all the bills you have to pay because you’re having trouble scraping together the money to do so, then I certainly sympathize.

**If your credit card is your primary mode of payment, I highly recommend memorizing your credit card number, the expiration date, and the CVV security number on the back. These three numbers will make you feel really cool, and will save a bit of time with every bill you pay.

***Please though, do brush your teeth even though no one is telling you that you have to. Everyone around you will appreciate it.

The Importance of Being a Douchebag

Life update: I’ve moved to the wonderful land of Seattle, Washington to work at Amazon.com! Now on to the meat.

No matter how hard you try to be a good person, the sad reality is that you have probably done something dumb, mean, or inconsiderate at some point in your life. You may even have done it intentionally, and with malice aforethought. Maybe you were even consistently a jerk at some point in time. But the important thing is that you have (hopefully) gotten over it, apologized, and gotten on with your life.

Today, I want to talk about the process of recognizing your faults and trying to fix them. It’s easy to criticize other people for being douchebags, but when you are the one being a douchbag it’s often harder to accept. To start off this discussion, I’m going to tell you about George. This person’s name and the situation have been obfuscated slightly, because I still interact with George on a fairly regular basis, and having him realize that I was talking about him would be more than slightly awkward. Still, I think it’s worth having the discussion. And George, if you’re reading this and you realize I’m talking about you,  know that I’m terribly sorry that I was a douchebag.

George

Even the nicest people have things that piss them off to an irrational degree. No matter how peace and love you are, someone out there will do something some day that will really stick in your craw, and make you want to punch them in their stupid little face. For me, this person was George. It wasn’t that George was stupid or mean. On the contrary, most people liked George a whole lot. But for some reason, George and I rubbed each other the wrong way and I was astonished with the level of irrational anger I felt toward him. I caught myself criticising him for things he did that – when I stepped back to think about it – I realized were perfectly correct, and were probably better than what I would have done in the same situation. Sure, maybe George was a little overconfident sometimes, but that surely isn’t any reason to hate someone.

This led to a period of about two weeks where I was in complete emotional turmoil. On one side, I recognized that George was in the right, and I was in the wrong. But on the other side, my inner cave man wanted to hit George over the head with the biggest club I could find, and feed him to a saber-tooth tiger. I was constantly fighting the urge to disagree with him on things he wasn’t wrong about, and I struggled constantly to resolve the dilemma: How can I dislike this person so much when they’re not a bad person? Why don’t I like them if it makes no sense? This was at a point in my life when I had recently figured out how to think deeply about other peoples’ perspectives, and on the whole, I considered myself a fair and non-judgmental human being, and the anger I felt toward George was in direct conflict with that belief. Most of the time, I just wanted the whole situation to go away. I wanted to never have met George, to never have said the things I said, to never have done the things I did, and to continue living my life as though none of this had ever happened. Needless to say, my experience with George really (as Jeff Bridges said in the movie Tron: Legacy), messed with my zen thing.

The truth is, there are things that simply piss us off. I subscribe to the idea that, to a large degree, we are a product of our experiences, and especially our experiences during childhood. Things that happen to us as children become woven into our personalities, and sometimes the events of our adult lives resemble a situation we experienced in the past so closely that they set us off for seemingly no reason. One of the most important such situations in my life is feeling patronized. A sure-fire way to get me to fight your idea tooth and claw – no matter how much sense it makes – is to put me in a situation where I feel like my authority is being overridden, or I feel like you’re treating me like a child. Logically, I understand that people who patronize me either aren’t communicating effectively, or are responding to something I’ve done that is foolish or immature. And I understand that the best response is to figure out which it is, and respond accordingly. Emotionally, however, being in that position pisses me off so much that it occasionally overrides my ability to respond rationally.

Hating Yourself

I have a friend who told me once that the teenage years are about hating yourself, and that it’s important to hate yourself during that time because it sort of irons out the kinks. At first, I didn’t understand how he could say it was good to hate yourself. But then I thought about it a bit more. We often use simple words to encapsulate larger, vastly more complex ideas that the listener is supposed to infer from context. In this case, it isn’t about hating yourself, it’s about recognizing you have flaws and trying to resolve them. But it rarely happens as calmly and deliberately as that. It’s often an emotional battle between the part of you that wants to be right, and the part of you that wants to be a better person. Feeling like you did something wrong is one thing, but feeling like you charged headlong into a bad decision on purpose  is far worse. When you know that you were wrong, not because you didn’t have all the information or because you accidentally overlooked something, but because your core values and habits caused you to make a poor decision, it’s a lot harder to deal with. In that case  it’s not just what you did that is wrong: a fundamental part of who you are is wrong. And that’s a hard thing to come to grips with.

Hating yourself doesn’t mean you think you’re worthless or that you’re a stupid, horrible person; hating yourself – so to speak – every so often, and for short periods of time, means that you recognize that you have been a douchebag, and you are trying to correct the root cause of that douchebaggery. You know that you’re awesome, but that awesomeness requires maintenance.

Balance and Conclusion

Obviously, there is a balance to be struck between “hating” yourself and recognizing your self-worth, and that balance is hard to find. Personally, I think I’m a bit hard on myself, and that prevents me from going as boldly forward as I’d like to sometimes. While I’m not sure I’ll ever feel completely at ease with George and what happened between us, I know that the struggle keeps me on my toes, and that those events were a huge learning experience for me in many ways. From now on, when I notice a similar trend happening, I’ll be able to look into myself and ask, “Is this person really being a jerk? Or do I need to re-evaluate the situation?” And that’s the point of hating yourself: learning from your mistakes.

Valentine’s Day 2014: Wood Carving

This year’s Valentine’s day video is going to be a little short, I’m afraid. Over the past three weeks or so, I’ve been playing with several ideas. My main goal was to have decent, full HD video for my video, since I found the video quality in my previous videos somewhat lacking. Since I didn’t have much luck finding a decent video camera to use, I decided that a still camera would have to do. Raspberry Pi in hand, I set about creating a time-lapse rig using my dad’s DSLR camera.

Raspberry Pi

IMAG0054

It turns out that there’s a great camera control library called gphoto2, which will not only download videos from a variety of cameras, but is also capable of controlling the shutter on many Canon and some Nikon cameras. Once I had that installed, creating time-lapse videos was a fairly simple matter of one command: watch -n 10 gphoto2 –capture-image. This captures one picture every 10 seconds. My first test, watching an ice-cube melt, went pretty well, despite the fact that the tripod was a bit shaky.

In the end, I didn’t have time to build a power pack for the Raspberry Pi, so I couldn’t film without a power outlet, which is inconvenient to say the least. So, in the end, I decided to record a time-lapse video of my carving a piece of wood. Bare in mind, this is the first thing I have carved EVER. So it’s not that great, but the video is cool, at least.  It took me about an hour and 15 minutes to carve out the drawing I made.

The final obstacle was that Adobe Premiere decided that it couldn’t possibly load any video format that I threw at it, so unfortunately I couldn’t edit the video at all. so there’s a single picture at the bottom of this post showing the final result.

So, without further ado, here’s your moment of zen:


Finished Carving

Which Distro? An Introduction to Picking “a Linux”

Every few days, someone on the Linux users group on Facebook posts a question that goes something like this: “I’m new to Linux. Can you recommend a good distribution for blah?” Where blah is usually something like gaming, media, or learning Linux. Like many people who are new to Linux, when I was first exploring the Linux world, I tried out a lot of distros. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter which distro you choose. I’ll explain a bit more about what a distro is, what kinds there are, and why it does and doesn’t matter, below.

What is a Distribution?

It’s hidden right in the name, but it’s not immediately obvious: a distribution of Linux is the Linux kernel, packaged up and distributed in a usable form. Linux, by itself, is just a kernel: the part of an operating system that manages the hardware, and provides interfaces for the various pieces of software and hardware that make the computer usable. If you were to just boot the kernel all by itself, the machine would start and do nothing. It would spin the fans and hard disks faster or slower, handle new device connections, and maybe even accept user input, but the computer wouldn’t be usable, because the software that interacts with the user (you) is not part of the kernel – no text terminal, no on screen menus or mouse pointer, no nothing. Once the kernel is running, it spawns other programs that handle user interaction. This is a basic model of operating systems.

So, apart from some basic patches and alterations that the makers of Linux distros might make to their specific release of the kernel, the underlying kernel is basically the same from distro to distro. The difference is in the software they install around it, and that’s also one of the reasons Linux is more customizable than any other popular operating system today. For example, there are quite a few different graphical interfaces that support Linux: KDE*, Gnome, Unity, XFCE – these are all visually different interfaces that function differently. And that’s just a very, very small portion of the desktop environments available. So two different distros with the exact same kernel can look and behave very differently on the surface. This is, to a large extent, how various Linux distros differ: the packages included with the base system, and their initial configurations. Ubuntu and Kubuntu, for example, are two distinct distros, yet they are mostly the same except that Ubuntu ships with the Unity desktop environment, and Kubuntu ships with KDE. One could easily uninstall Unity from Ubuntu and install KDE.

Major Differences: Package Management

Arguably the most fundamental distinction between various distros is the way they facilitate software installation. On a base Linux system with no package manager, the way you install packages is by copying the executable binary and it’s shared objects to the proper locations. This isn’t the easiest or most convenient thing to do, as it doesn’t allow you to easily keep track of what software package is installed where, or what version it is. So most Linux distributions ship with a package manager like apt (Debian-based), yum (Red Hat), portage (Gentoo), or pacman (Arch). These package managers will not only install packages from a central repository – all of which has been checked so that it is compatible with all the other software in the repository – but they will install all the dependencies as well. Everyone who has ever tried to install a package from source on a freshly installed system will tell you that this is a great relief, and saves hours of hunting online for tarballs**.

Which package manager you choose is largely a matter of preference, and this is the basis on which I think you should make your decision. Debian-based distributions come with “apt”, which is – from my biased perspective – a reliable, relatively easy to use package manager. Distribution upgrades (i.e. major upgrades) can be done without nuking the system and starting over, it has support for multiple architectures on the same system (e.g. installing 32-bit packages on a 64-bit machine), and is pretty painless. Even the most frustrating problems can sometimes be solved by throwing around a bunch of apt commands semi-brainlessly.

Red-Hat/Fedora-like distributions (like RHEL, Fedora, OpenSuSE, CentOS, and Oracle Linux) use “yum”, which installs rpm files. The last time I used yum was years ago, so my opinion isn’t worth much in this regard. I’ve heard that you have to nuke a Fedora system in order to do a distribution upgrade – that is, you have to do major upgrades by wiping the system and starting over – but I don’t know if that’s the case anymore. If you’re a beginner, I’d recommend using one of the other options, but this is my wholly biased opinion; take it with a grain of salt (and maybe a trial of Fedora on a VM).

Gentoo (and probably some other distros based on Gentoo) use “portage”. Portage is pretty freaking cool, in that it compiles every single package from scratch. It’s a somewhat agonizing experience (although not as much so on today’s faster machines), especially if you want to install a huge software package like KDE. But the benefit of doing things this way is that every binary on your system is optimized specifically for the box sitting in front of you (or under your desk, or wherever it is you have the thing). It’s more useful if you actually know what you’re doing, and can manipulate the various compiler flags effectively, but I’m sure there’s some speed-up even if you don’t entirely know what’s going on under the hood. Gentoo is my favorite distro for learning the ins and outs of Linux, and if you’re a first-timer and really want to dive into Linux and get a good head start, I can’t recommend enough that you take the time to do a full, manual, Gentoo install. Just… uh… don’t be discouraged if you fail the first time. Or the second. You’ll learn a TON, trust me.

My experience with other package managers like pacman is minimal. I used Arch for a while, and it’s a very nice distro. It’s something of the best of both worlds between Gentoo and more user-friendly distros like Debian.

Smaller Distros

The Internet is replete with smaller distros with funny names, and there are too many to mention. Most of them are offshoots of one of the main distributions I’ve described above, with various configuration changes. There are some medium size distributions as well (Linux Mint, Puppy Linux, etc) which tend to do a pretty decent job, and are sometimes designed for very specific situations Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux, for example, are designed to be very small and light weight, and are especially useful for booting from a CD or USB key to do system repairs. Linux Mint, in particular, is a refreshing spin on Ubuntu. I tend not to trust the really small distros though (the ones you’ve never heard of with websites straight out of the 90’s), because I’m dubious as to whether they’ll continue to be supported in the future, and whether they’ve been tested thoroughly. There are probably good ones out there, I just don’t shop around too much anymore.

Choices

In many ways, it all comes down to choices, and the number of them you want to make. If what you want is a plug-and-play operating system that isn’t Windows or Mac OS X, go with Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Fedora, or a similar distro that has a one-and-done type install: you pop the disk in the drive, set up your language, time zone, and login credentials, and away you go. These distros have default packages that support most of your day-to-day needs, and it’s fairly easy to install components that aren’t pre-installed. They work on most of the common hardware out of the box, and they have a lot of online support options.

If, on the other hand, you want to make the choices yourself, choose a distro like Gentoo, Arch, or Debian. Gentoo and Arch, in particular, don’t even choose a default desktop environment for you, so you can choose any configuration you want right from the beginning without having to undo someone else’s work. One time, I installed Gentoo only to realize that I had disabled the kernel configuration for my hard drive controller, so the system couldn’t boot: that’s how much control you have. Debian has some base packages that install a very minimal system, as well as some options that will install a lot of common packages for you. It’s more immediately usable than the other two, but allows you to install a minimal system if you want.

At the far end of the spectrum of choices is LFS: Linux From Scratch. You compile the kernel from scratch, and gradually start loading things on the disk until you have a working operating system. I’ve never done this, but it’s always been in the back of my mind. You can find resources for doing that here: http://www.linuxfromscratch.org/

Stability

One last thing I want to mention is stability. Stability is probably the other most important dimension of a distro, and I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about it just a bit. If you’re cycling through different distros exploring the Linux world, you might not care too much about stability. Honestly, if you play around with things enough, you’re going to wreck your distro no matter how stable it is. But if you’re looking installing Linux on a machine you care about, stability is very important.

Because the distro packagers are usually on the same team (or are the same people) as the people who maintain their distro’s package repositories, their attitudes and values contribute to how stable the resulting collection of packages will be. Debian, for example, is know for being fairly conservative and FLOSS (Free Libre Open Source Software) fanatical, which makes for a very stable, very reliable system, and makes it a bit harder to install proprietary software (not much harder, though.) Ubuntu, on the other hand, is less gun-shy, and uses more up to date packages at the expense of a slightly increased probability that their packages will have unresolved bugs. It’s worth doing some research to find out the attitude of a perspective distribution’s repository maintainers before making your final choice.

Stability is the main reason I forsook Ubuntu years ago, and now only use Debian. Ubuntu is the only operating system I have ever installed (aside from Windows) which has crashed during or right after installation***. It’s a great distro that is paving the way for lots of innovation and publicity in the Linux and Open-Source world, and it has become a stepping stone (at the very least) for new users, but I don’t like the way they do choose their packages, and the default packages that are installed. And, if I’m honest, even though it’s a small and easily fixable issue, Unity absolutely drives me up the wall.

Conclusion

Hopefully this will help you choose the distro that’s right for you. You should play around with a few of them and read up on them (Wikipedia is a great place to do this) before picking the one you intend to use for ever and ever… and always know that you can change your mind at any time. As you learn to use Linux, you’ll likely realize that you wish you had done certain things differently during your installation, so you’ll likely be itching to re-install after a while anyway.

If you’re curious, as you might already have guessed, I install Debian on everything I get my hands on: my desktop, my parents computers, Raspberry Pis – hell, I’d install it on my toaster if I could. After administrating around 20 Debian machines during my two years as a SysAdmin, I’ve come to appreciate its elegant simplicity and robustness, and I wouldn’t replace it with Ubuntu if you paid me. But that’s just my opinion; I encourage you to draw your own.

*It has been pointed out – and rightly so – that the K Desktop Environment (formerly referred to as simply “KDE”) is now properly called “KDE SC”, for “KDE Software Compilation”. For simplicity, however, and since it is still referred to in the Debian repository and popularly as KDE, I’ve left the incorrect acronym as is.

**A member of the Linux Facebook group pointed out that newcomers to Linux might not know what a “tarball” is. Tarball is slang for an archive compressed using the unix tar utility, usually with the extensions .tar, .tar.gz, or .tar.bz2. Source code for many open source packages come packaged in a tar archive.

***It’s true, I’ve had many a Gentoo installation crash on me on or before startup, but that was always because I had done something stupid, and was entirely my fault. The same opportunity doesn’t really exist in Ubuntu; I’ve had installations crash once, and succeed after installing again with the same options for no discernible reason.

x Things That ______ People Do Every Day

From time to time, I go on Facebook. It’s this new website you might have heard of, where people post thoughts, opinions, links, and play various time-wasting games. When I go on this “Facebook”, I occasionally run into a link someone has posted, which is titled in this format: “10 Things To do before ____” or “14 Things You Shouldn’t Do When ____” or “11 Things _____ People Do”. I suspect this naming scheme originates from the popular self-help business book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, and on principle, I agree with the concept. The basic idea is this: I want to be more like people who do this, so I should examine what those people do, how they do it, and why, and then I should emulate their behaviour. This is the sort of literary endeavour that requires research, interviews, plenty of rumination, and a fair bit of craftiness to distil the habits these people have amassed over the years into the irrelevant (e.g. separating their food before eating it) and the relevant (e.g. waking up early, using lots of post-its, eating only vegetables.) This is not the sort of thing that one can write – properly, that is – in an hour that would otherwise be spent browsing Reddit, except you haven’t posted on your blog in a while.

What really set me off on this topic was an article that boldly claimed to be a list of some number of “Mistakes Not to Make During your 20’s”. Like most articles of this nature, it contained short, glib paragraphs proffering advice about what to and what not to do during your 20’s in order to be a “successful” person. Ashamed as I am to say it, I read the article, and took some of its advice to heart. One heading in the article that stuck with me particularly strongly, claimed that it was a mistake to “believe you deserve a break.” Weeks later, when I was tired, overworked, and slacking off, the article would pop into my brain, and I would think about how maybe I shouldn’t let my self take a break. It bothered me; if this person who made it through their 20’s told me that this was a mistake, should I not do it? But I’m exhausted and my brain doesn’t work; do I just keep pushing?

One day I realized that was stupid advice. Of course you need – and yes, even deserve – a break sometimes. When you’ve spent two weeks straight doing useless busy work for a University degree that you may or may not use, and that certainly won’t give you the professional skills that you need for a real world job, sometimes you need a break. When you’re frustrated and tired and annoyed, sometimes you need to do nothing for a while, and that’s ok.

Articles like this really stick in my craw because they’re so misleading. It’s easy to take the advice of our elders (even if the “elders” in this case probably aren’t much older than we are), as fact, or at least to wonder if their suggestions will turn out to be accurate. When giving advice, it’s important to consider that you’re giving advice to a person with different ambitions, a different past, and a different future. Sure, it’s easy to look back and what you did when you were their age and say, “You know, I did this, and it really helped me: you should do it to” or “I didn’t do this and I’ve regretted it; don’t make the same mistakes I did.” But it’s far harder to realize that each of us is a different person with our own challenges, and sometimes that advice can do more harm than good.

More than that, however, I find it incredibly presumptuous of a person on the Internet to claim that they know exactly what mistakes I should and shouldn’t make in my 20’s. Mistakes are a valuable learning experience. And who knows, maybe something that didn’t work for them will work for me. As useful as advice can be sometimes, when it comes down to it, we each have to find our own way through this world.

So that is to say, when you really take advice to heart, maybe it shouldn’t be from Buzzfeed. Maybe you should do some research about the author of the article or book, and make sure that they did some research. And maybe you should think about what they’re saying and – more importantly – why, before really accepting it. Or maybe not; it’s up to you.