Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Linux Round 2: Do You Dare Try Arch Linux?

In my initial delving into the world of Linux, I settled on Xubuntu as the best distro for my usage (and for my computer,) and then learned how to adapt it for a netbook and customized the program suite.
Since then, I've spend some time on and off experimenting with other Linux distros.  So far, in my still very limited knowledge, I have come to 3 conclusions:

  1. Xubuntu is still the best for me - For my day to day usage, I continue to use Xubuntu pretty much as I set it up a year ago, with only very minor modifications.
  2. I would recommend Linux to pretty much anyone - It comes in so many shapes, sizes and versions, many of which are completely usable "out of the box" (i.e. without any modification) that most people will find a version that will not only meet all of their needs but also be visually appealing.
  3. Linux is lots of fun - For people who simply want a more functional alternative to Windows, find a good distro, and stick with it. For others, there's lots of fun to be had with trying out different desktops, modifying visuals, adapting to your needs, figuring out what's going on behind the visual facade of a monitor, etc.
Arch Linux - The Real Thing!

As for this last point, one of my ongoing side projects after settling on Xubuntu has been fiddling around with Arch Linux.

If you've been around the Linux world for any time, you've probably heard that Arch is one of the best distos out there, with very clean code, no software clutter, no unnecessary processes eating up your computer's resources and completely customizable, so you make it exactly what you want it to be.  Many experts will rate it 10/10 at the top of the Linux distos available.

As far as I can tell, all of this seems to be true.

Compiz Cube
So far, of programs I've tried in different distros, they seem to work faster and be more responsive in Arch.  For example, just last week I tried setting up the Compiz cube workspace selector for the first time. On my little netbook, in Arch it worked flawlessly, spinning around through the workspaces without any noticeable distortion, etc.  In Ubuntu, it felt like it was too much for this light-weight computer and the screens ended looking twisted in the transition process.

Pacman, the program used to install new programs on the computer, is also amazing.

But ...

When I was 4 years old, I saw my two older brothers riding around on their bikes without training wheels.  Before I would get onto my new bike, I insisted that my dad take the training wheels off.  I returned home scraped and bruised and still wobbly on my bike, but with my pride completely in tact, knowing that I could ride a bike the way my older brothers did, without those training wheels that little kids have to use.

With Arch, there are no training wheels ... or helmet
I think my experience with Arch Linux has been a similar one.

Besides all the praise, anyone reading up on Arch will quickly also find the warnings that you have to know what you're doing.  This is true.  I read these warnings too, but in my typical fashion, I decided to jump right in, just to prove (to myself) that I could do it - and I can tell you, I've had my share of scrapes and bruises, not to mention that I am a far cry from being good at this yet.

But, as with my bike, I can now say I did it.

Starting With Arch - A Checklist

First of all, I will repeat the warnings: if you are new to Linux and looking for that ideal distro to suit your needs, don't even try Arch - for now.  My prediction is that it would drive you away from Linux.

I am not the one to give advice here, since I am so new to everything, but I would suggest the following as prerequisites:

  • You know how to dual boot.
  • You know how to configure and fix Grub, the program that boots your operating system, at least using an online guide if necessary.
  • You have another computer available at any time to look up instructions or how to fix what you've broken. (You will break things.)
  • You've customized some a more user-friendly distro (Ubuntu, Mint, etc.)
  • You've (successfully) fiddled around with configuration files (not the visual GUIs that make it easy, but the actual file.)
Dual Booting and Grub

I recommend knowing how to do this as the first necessity because it allows to have your stable distro on one partition, and then have another distro "in the works" on another.  This way, if your desktop is still under construction and not yet what you need it to be, or you break it (again, you will break it) your computer is still usable for day to day usage in your main distro.

You don't really have to know how to do this, but more importantly know where to find it.  This is where that second computer is very important.

For dual booting, see this guide for dual booting linux and Windows. (A very similar process can be applied to dual booting Ubuntu and Arch Linux.)

This guide explains how Grub works and how to do basic repairs.  This one tells you how to make Grub give you a menu after installing Windows.  Generally speaking, if you add a second installation, Linux distros will set up Grub to give you a menu, but it's good to know what to do when something goes wrong.

The first time I tried dual booting, the new distro simply loaded right after the boot and I was worried I had lost my main, customized Xubuntu installation with all my files. They were backed up, but at that time, the idea of going through it all again was not very appealing.  As it turned out, I just had to fix Grub.

If you are comfortable dual booting and fixing Grub, then knowing how to modify and customize is less important since it allows you to go back to your main distro at any time or scrap what you've done and start from scratch.

Finally, A Few Tips

Again, I'm far from being an expert, but sometimes tips from someone who is just going through the learning process can be more helpful than those from someone who knows it so well that they think it's easy.  So, if you decide now is the right time to try Arch, do the following:

Use a How to Guide - A Necessity

When people say it's an absolute necessity to have a how-to guide to set up Arch Linux, they really mean it's a necessity, as opposed to a good option to make it easier; without the guide, you'll boot Arch, get a command line and have no idea what to do next.  If you remember some terminal commands from Ubuntu, let's say, it's likely none of them will work since you haven't installed the programs yet.

Arch Linux has its own installation guide but I prefer this one from Whitson Gordon at Lifehacker.  Here, you will need a second computer so you can read the guide as you install.

Have a Wired Internet Connect

Whitson recommends this, but on my first go, I decided to try using a wireless connection anyway.  I spent several hours digging deeper and deeper into the Arch Linux documentation (which is excellent and exhaustive, by the way) until I finally got it working.  With a wired connection the second time, it was working in 2 minutes.  Once you have the installation set up, it's very easy to set up wireless.

The ArchBang installation boot screen
Start Off with Arch Bang

Arch Bang is a variation of Arch that comes fully usable with a visual desktop environment (Openbox) and all the basics you need to begin.  For example, networks, sound and video card are all set up; in Arch you have to do these yourself.  The boot disk also guides you through installation, including setting up Grub.

Once you have it installed you can try installing other desktop environments, etc.

It doesn't give you the full Arch installation experience (= more in depth knowledge of Linux and plenty of headaches) but it does give you a way to get used to installing and customizing Arch ahead of time and ease into the process.  More than once, I've thrown away an unsuccessful attempt at doing what I want in Arch, and doing in Arch Bang first to get a better idea of where I'm going wrong.  I later go back and try it from a new installation of Arch.  You can also get used to using Pacman, Arch's superior package manager (to install new programs) and the online documentation (which is the same for Arch Linux and Arch Bang.)  I suggest this is a good way to start, before trying to install Arch from scratch.

Have Fun and Try Lots of New Things

If all you want to do is install a good distro on your computer, and use it that way for the next 5 years, I would say there's little point to going to Arch.  For me, that's what Xubuntu is.  Yes, it's very stable, clean and fast, but I wouldn't say it's worth going through the rather longish learning process for that. It is worth it, though, for lots of experimentation and fun.

Tomorrow I'll share some of the things I've tried in Arch.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Springtime - New Life Arises from Death

This year, Lent started off cold and snowy, with bare trees and everyone feeling like winter just wouldn't come to an end.  As Lent continued, the snow began to give way, the earth began to thaw, and little green sprouts pushed their heads up through the piles of dead plant life from the fall and dirt piled up from the winter snow.

Around the middle of Lent, our family planted some sunflower seeds inside - one of the clearest reminders that new life rises out of death; a plant, having dried up and died, leaves a dry seed as a reminder of its death.  We buried the seeds, seemingly dead, in the ground in hope that new life would come.

In the Roman tradition of the Church, there has existed a strong idea that the Feast of the Resurrection is closely tied to the arrival of spring and the new life that it brings out the death seen in winter.  In fact, many great theologians, from St. Ambrose to Pope Benedict XVI, have believed and given great strength to the idea that Christ did in fact rise from the dead on March 25, the same day he was conceived, and the same day that God created the world - all great signs of hope and new life.


Now, only 3 days for the celebration, even the 10-foot piles of snow have receded, green grass has pushed up through the matted brown grass of the fall, and tulips and daffodils are just about ready to bloom and celebrate the greatest event of all history with the world.

Just about all the sunflower seeds we planted have sprouted and many have grown a few inches tall.

The world (or at least the part of it where we live) is just about to burst with new life, proclaiming the new life that Christ brought us in his death and resurrection.

Here are some more pictures of our sunflower plants:

 These are the egg carts we planted them in just until they germinated:

The transplanting process:

The wagon I use to take them outside to get some direct sunshine on warm days:

Monday, April 14, 2014

Lent in Linwood Ontario

When I gave up Facebook for Lent, I intended to spend some of the saved time to be more regular in my blogging again.  Now, less than a week before Easter, I'm finally getting my first blog post up!

While, despite my best intentions, some of that time was used in the very intriguing (but perhaps not so fruitful) activity of fiddling around with Linux again (this time with ArchLinux,) we've also had a very fruitful and and focused Lent.

Another Traditional Mass

Our priest gave us the wonderful gift of another special traditional Latin Mass (i.e. Extraordinary Form) for Ash Wednesday.  This was my second and I am sure it will not be my last.

A Visit From the Bishop

Two weeks ago, His Excellency Bishop Douglas Crosby of the Diocese of Hamilton visited our parish.  We had a few minutes to chat. Most importantly, as our priest let us know the week before, Mass with the bishop is the church in its fullness - another wonderful gift!

A Silent Lenten Retreat

A week ago this weekend our parish had its first weekend retreat (12 hours on Saturday and half a day on Sunday.)  It included prayers in the form of the rosary, silent prayer times, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. We had a 4 part video series by Father William Casey - an amazing speaker! His topics included the Eucharist, prayer, repentence and God's commandments.  Very clear, to the point and simple advice to follow.

This evening I am driving to our cathedral for the Chrism Mass, and - God willing - I will be going to a TLM Mass for the Easter Vigil.  (There's one in Toronto - I still have to double check the schedule.)

Right now I'm using a computer desktop that's "under construction" so the pictures will have to come later!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

"The Handsome Frog" - The Gift of a Story!

On Friday, while we were away at the church, a friend who had been visiting decided to stay at the house until we got back.  In the mean time, her 12-year-old daughter wrote a story for us.  What a wonderful gift a story is, especially when it's written just for your family!

Here's a picture of the page, with the text typed below:

The text (there are a few slips, but I'll leave it exactly as she wrote it):
Once upon a time there lived a frog, his name was James.  James lived in a pond filled with lily pads and dragonflys fly over him.  And he could always see the sunrise and the sunset.  Theose were his most favourite things to do sit and watch the sun.
James loved to eat flys big ones in July, August.  Sometimes he even made fly salad.  His favourite season was summer he loved to play tag with his Best friends and go swimming.  His very Best friends name was Albert.  James and Albert always wanted to look their best in a good way, not to put anybody down but they always thought it was good to be handsome.

Sometimes they would go shopping together.  Usually it is the girls that go shopping but they didn't care what other frogs thought they just did what they felt was right.  "So it doesn't matter what other people think of you, you just got to do what you feel is right"!

Hope You Enjoyed This Story!!
I don't think I'll be rushing off to go shopping, but certainly not because of what other people think!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Stations of the Cross Restored and the Prayerful Elderly

Stations of the Cross at Our Parish
This Lent  we are having the Stations of the Cross at my parish (St. Mary Queen of Heaven, Linwood, ON) again.  I have to confirm this, but I believe it is the first time these prayers and meditations have been held here since we started sharing a priest 13 years ago.  Of course, they are being led by a layperson while the priest leads the stations at the main parish nearby (St. Clements).

We though at first that it might be only my family showing up, but we were pleasantly surprised to be joined by 6 elderly parishioners from the community. 
Detail of the 12th Station
These parishioners, along with a few others who join when they can, form a core group of what the pastor praised as "our prayerful elderly."

They always come 30 minutes early for Mass to say the Rosary and pray and a number of them always come to Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Mass (in honour of Our Lady of Perpetual Help) on Wednesdays.

It hadn't occurred to me very directly before our pastor mentioned it, but this group is a true gift for our parish; I don't doubt that the dedicated and constant prayers of this group are a strength and blessing for the rest of us.

And I am delighted that they have blessed the newly re-established Stations of the Cross by joining us.

One of our crucifixes

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Strict Lent - How to Make it Work!

Today, Taylor Marshall (whose blog I recommend) shared a story of how he ruined his Easter one year by trying to go too hard on himself at Lent -How My Strict Lent Once Ruined Easter – A Lesson on Lenten Crash and Burn.  Excellent post - go and read it!

I wrote the following as a response on how I moderate my Lenten penance.

1. Talk to Your Priest

I tend to "go hard" (this year, for example, I'm giving up meat, coffee and Facebook) but I moderate this in several ways. One is I take the advice of my priest; if he says something is too much, I believe him. Dr. Marshall mentions this point and it's very important; most priests have seen enough crash and burn stories that they can see it coming if you're being too hung up on going all out. I have done this since I first joined the Catholic Church (this is only my 3rd Lent) and priests are very helpful in giving direction like this.
2. No Penance on Sunday!
We must remember that Sundays are not days of penance; it's not that penance is "optional" but, from what I understand, it is actually incorrect, since every Sunday is like a mini Paschal feast, we are to celebrate on Sundays. Every Sunday I will be enjoying my meat and coffee (I'll stay off FB, though, since that could lead to a habit, and it's not really "festive" to go on FB in any way); this way it's only 6 days at a time, and these urges don't build up so much. I enjoy it thoroughly and in moderation. We're usually at my parents' house for lunch on Sundays, and they inevitably make a nice roast. My mom has coffee with the desert, and I wait till it's served (rather than gorging into the coffee the minute Mass ends), enjoy two cups with cake, maybe one more later in the day and leave it at that. (Basically, what I would do on a normal Sunday.)
Make sure the festiveness of Sundays is a celebrating Christ, not just gorging in the things you abstained from; we eat meat and cake, drink wine and coffee and spend our Sundays with family to celebrate the Resurrection. If you find yourself going crazy for meat (or whatever you gave up) on Sundays, it's probably a good early indication that you may need to make adjustments and you should talk to your priest to guide you through those adjustments, especially if you haven't yet!

3. Rededicate Penance to Christ

Even with the 6 day waits, it can be disastrous to start thinking about our penance day in and day out, and even more disastrous to become frustrated that you can't stop thinking about it. Meat isn't really an issue for me (my family eats meat only 2 or 3 times a week as it is), and I usually feel the break from FB is a relief; coffee could be a killer for me. But if I find myself thinking about coffee, instead of fighting it (which just turns into a frustrating battle with yourself over something silly), I let myself enjoy looking to forward to coffee, and then I pray a decade of the rosary or something like that, thanking the Lord for the coffee I'm going to enjoy on Sunday and rededicating what I have given up to Him.

4. Make the Penance a Gift

When I want coffee in the morning, I make a cup for my wife instead, who doesn't give it up. This seems like it would be counter-productive, bringing the temptation too close, but for me it works. I feel a certain satisfaction that someone else has enjoyed it and that I have made my sacrifice a gift. If you give up meat, buy a roast for the old widow next door (who in all likelihood hasn't given up meat.) We did that last year. If the temptation is too much, then find another kind of gift to give instead.

5. Don't Isolate Yourself

Try penances that other people around you are doing. Support helps. In the old days, besides being holier (as Dr. Marshall pointed out), people had the support of EVERYONE around them doing the same penance. Some Catholic and especially Eastern Christian communities still have that. We as North American Christians don't. Meat isn't hard at home for us, but my parents (who we visit often) rarely have a meal without meat. My wife and I support each other, and my parents are very understanding, so we get by. As for coffee, my wife doesn't give it up, but she also never makes coffee for herself at home (that's my job!) So, I don't have to smell coffee brewing from the kitchen, unless I'm the one who did it as a gift for my wife.

If you know that people bring cookies to work every day and you love them, or there's a bakery you walk by every morning, it could be torture to give up sweets. Don't choose penances to torture yourself. I give things up that are important, but not things that will be wafting in my face all the time.

6. Leave Yourself Some Pleasures

I love beer and wine. Having given up coffee, I can still sit down in the evening and enjoy a glass of wine with other people. I also enjoy my pipe. If I tried to give up alcohol and tobacco too, it would be torture since I wouldn't have that little pleasure to fall back on - and I can enjoy the pipe even on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday when I'm otherwise fasting as per the rule! Don't try to eliminate every one of the most pleasurable items, but rather specifically choose a couple that you WON'T give up.

7. Build Up Little by Little

In my three Lents I've progressed from giving up one thing to three. I don't expect to increase this by one item every year, but I hope that in 20 years I can handle more than I can now. Disciplines are developed with time, not over night. I will also not feel bad if one year I have to go easier on myself for some reason or another.

So, it's possible to go hard for Lent, but it's not by any means necessary or even helpful to torture yourself.  I think these little guidelines I've created for myself have been a big help.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

On Gin and Turpentine

Having finally returned to my practice of painting, a couple of weeks ago I finally used up the bottle of odourless paint thinner (some sort of mineral spirits, taltine, I think.) So, for the first time in about 20 years, I bought a can of turpentine.

Expecting the worst, I opened it to find that I actually didn't mind the smell that much; in fact, it smelled rather appealing!

How could this be? From my early days of oil painting, I remember the smell of turpentine as one of the most wretchedly repugnant odours to be found.

A Difficult Past

Then I remembered.  Some time in 2012, I think, I discovered a few abandoned bottles of liquor in the house we are renting.  Among them, was a bottle of Hiram Walker's London Dry Crystal Gin.

I left that bottle for last, recalling horrible memories of the gin and tonic that friends had convinced me to try - possibly the worst liquor or mix I had ever tried - at least such was my opinion at the time.

The flavour of gin, you see, to me seemed nearly identical to the strong odours of turpentine that oil painting had made me hate so much.

A Conversion Story

So, after a time when I had finished the other bottles and only that one was left, it sat in the cupboard for quite some time, untouched.  I considered throwing it out, or giving it to some gin-loving friend of mine.

Finally, I decided to open it and give it a try. Still disgusting.  Still tasted like turpentine.  But now and then, I would have half a shot.  I actually started acquiring a bit of a taste for it.  I served it for guests, now unashamed to have it in my house. (No tonic; I would not spend money on buying something that tastes like carbonated salt water.)

By the time the bottle was gone, so was my dislike of the liquor.

I probably still wouldn't go out and buy a bottle of gin. But I would be glad enough if someone served me some (preferably without the tonic.)

So, opening this can of turpentine, I realized that I haven't changed my opinion that gin tastes like turpentine; but rather both - thanks to this old bottle of gin - have become rather pleasant rather than repulsive.

(Note: I still take due care with my turpentine and use it safely!)