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The third penguin

two-angry-penguins.jpgYou never have time to disrupt yourself and your work by updating your computer's software until Bad Things happen and you're forced to find the time you don't have.

So last week the Ubuntu machine's system drive, which I had somehow failed to notice dated to 2012, lost the will to live. I had been putting off upgrading to 64-bit; several useful pieces of software are no longer available in 32-bit versions, such as Signal for Desktop, Free File Sync, and Skype.

It transpired that 18.04 LTS had been released a few days earlier. Latest version means longer until forced to upgrade, right?

The good news is that Ubuntu's ease of installation continues to improve. The experience of my first installation, about two and a half years ago, of trying umpteen things and hoping one would eventually work, is gone. Both audio and video worked first time out, and although I still had to switch video drivers, but I didn't have to search AskUbuntu to do it. Even more than my second installation Canonical has come very, very close to one-click installation. The video freezes that have been plaguing the machine since the botched 16.04 update in 2016 appear to have largely gone.

However, making it easy also makes some things hard. Reason: making it easy means eliminating things that require effort to configure and that might complicate the effortlessness. In the case of 18.04, that means that if you have a mixed network you still have to separately download and configure Samba, the thing that makes it possible for an Ubuntu machine to talk to a Windows machine. I understand this choice, I think: it's reasonable to surmise that the people who need an easy installation are unlikely to have mixed networks, and the people who do have them can cope with downloading extra software. But Samba is just mean.

An ideal installation routine would do something like:
- Ask the names and IP addresses of the machines you want to connect to;
- Ask what directories you want to share;
- Use that information to write the config file;
- Send you to pages with debugging information if it doesn't work.

Of course, it doesn't work like that. I eventually found the page I think helped me most last time. That half-solved the problem, in that the Windows machines could see the Ubuntu machine but not the reverse. As far as I could tell, the Ubuntu machine had adopted the strategy of the Ravenous Bug Blatter Beast of Traal and wrapped a towel around its head on the basis that if it couldn't see them they couldn't see *it*.

Many DuckDuckGo searches later the answer arrived: apparently for 18.04 the decisions was made to remove a client protocol. The solution was to download and install a bit of software called smbclient, which would restore the protocol. That worked.

Far more baffling was the mysterious, apparently random appearance of giant colored graphics in my Thunderbird inbox. All large enough to block numerous subject lines. This is not an easy search to frame, and I've now forgotten the magical combination of words that produced the answer: Ubuntu 18.04 has decorated itself with a colorful set of bright, shiny *emoji*. These, it turns out, you can remove easily. Once you have, the symbols sent to torture you shrink back down to tiny black and white blogs that disturb no one. Should you feel a desperate need to find out what one is, you can copy and paste it into Emojipedia, and there it is: that thing you thought was a balloon was in fact a crystal ball. Like it matters.

I knew going in that Unity, the desktop interface that came with my previous versions of Ubuntu, had been replaced by Gnome, which everyone predicted I would hate.

The reality is that it's never about whether a piece of software is good or bad; it's always about what you're used to. If your computer is your tool rather than your plaything, the thing you care most about is not having to learn too much that's new. I don't mind that the Ubuntu machine doesn't look like Windows; I prefer to have the reminder that it's different. But as much as I'd disliked it at first, I'd gotten used to the way Unity groups and displays windows, the size of the font it used, and the controls for configuring it. So, yes, Gnome annoyed, with its insistence on offering me apps I don't want, tiny grey fonts, wrong-side window controls, and pointless lockscreens that all wanted recofniguration. KDE desktop, which a friend insisted I should try, didn't seem much different. It took only two days to revert to Unity, which is now "community-maintained", polite GNU/Linux-speak for "may not survive for long". Back to some version of normal.

In my view, Ubuntu could still fix some things. It should be easier to add applications to the Startup list. The Samba installation should be automated and offered as an option in system installation with a question like, "Do you need to connect to a Windows machine on your network?" User answers yes or no, Samba is installed or not with a script like that suggested above.

But all told, it remains remarkable progress. I salute the penguin wranglers.

Illustrations: Penguins.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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