The Pan Pipes of Gentoo Linux, Always at the Source

Skyrim. It’s bad enough they built it for feeble console controller play, completely ignoring the greater capacities of PC horsepower and keyboards. But it also means spending time with that bloated, plastic Windows 7. That’s ok, though. You hardly notice the trapped feeling of flimsy lego block walls when you’re immersed in a good game.

Yesterday, though, perhaps as a subconscious reaction to the fascist shackles and narrow hallways inflicted upon us by proprietary operating systems like Windows 7 and OSX, I went a little nuts. Back to the search for my new workstation OS, I left the stench of caustic proprietary industrial chemicals and instead entered the stench of man sweat, heavy gears, lifting, and grease.

Gentoo users are what Arch Linux users imagine themselves to be: real men. You don’t even get in their club unless you pass through the Klingon pain stick ritual, where where if you come out alive at all, you’ve at least bludgeoned, bruised and bloody. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And those who survive, are brothers.

Ok, yes, slightly neanderthal brothers, I admit. You see, Gentoo has left the citadel, gone out into the wild plains, where these brothers live the natural life under the stars, pounding naked on drums while dancing around a bonfire, building and strengthening bodies and minds, and, well, do their druidic rites for whatever purposes, while the rest of the world rides in their silver spaceship to the sun.

Gentoo confuses me. He’s primal, wild and passionate. Painfully intelligent in such an exotic way. He’s a beast. And a spirit. And I can’t help but love him. He’s how I used to be. Before I was civilized by the unified space people. Before I compromised my dreams and aspirations in the name of convenience and responsibility.

Gentoo is a warrior, a kung fu master who can juggle the primal elements, and teaches you by forcing you to confront yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. It’s the essence that counts. And if that essence isn’t strong, persistent and true, you will break. That is the beauty. That is what binds us together.

Gentoo takes a lot of crap from people who say the only reason he’s there is because he’s obsessed with optimization. Gentoo is obsessed with optimization. He’s a kung fu master. But one does not know true meditation until the body and mind are one in optimized harmony. One does not know true meditation without a deep knowledge of self. And honor is what’s inside, not what is perceived by others.

That being said, Gentoo does make building a Linux box much simpler than using tape and paperclips. Their install image can be booted, or mounted locally for an install without having to reboot. Gentoo makes it easy to chroot into an environment where you can build the system, then just reboot in to carry on creating your own little world. Created however you, as the strong individual, might want it.

Over time, Gentoo has become more accommodating of people wanting to take the fast track, providing some selectable profiles that will make sure you get some of your dependencies handled for your bigger, future dreams. Like a desktop environment. You can’t help but imagine him sneering at you for taking a pre-packaged route. But he tolerates your weakness, knowing you’ll eventually find your own strength together.

Normally you wouldn’t find Gentoo “fraternizing” with someone like me, a one-night stand. But I’m not your average Joe, easily intimidated, quick to anger and burying any secret lack of self-confidence. I got in Gentoo’s face, meaning to take him on, no malice, no baggage, nothing to prove – only to see. You can’t describe such things. They can only be experienced.

And it was good. Gentoo has done an excellent job bringing all the various source packages that make up a traditional Linux OS and supporting stuff together. The dependency matrix through their packaging system, portage, is quite good. The difference is, you have to decide what you want. Do you want your IMAP client to support TLS encryption? You better make sure you compile with the dependencies in place.

If you stick to the pre-packaged sources in portage, and set your USE flags properly (which tell what you generally like compiling in support for), Gentoo is mostly hassle-free. I suppose some people may not know, but yes, Gentoo cooks every program on your system from scratch, downloading the source code for you, and doing its best to make sure you have already compiled the other things you’ll need to successfully compile what you currently want.

Users of other Linux distributions often accuse Gentoo users of obsessing about performance tweaks that Linux lets you do, such as taking advantage of very specific hardware capabilities your system might have, and experimenting with different approaches at compile-time optimizations you can sometimes exploit to boost the zippy-ness of a given program. Such things are obsessive. They can also be fun. And sometimes even useful in a practical sense.

But where I have found Gentoo most convenient is the fact that everything on my system, regardless of optimizations, I have compiled locally, myself. This means that when I want to experiment with a new software release that no distribution has yet conveniently packaged up for me, I can very easily compile it, just by downloading the source. I already have the header files or object files on my system for any dependencies this new package may require. And this can be very nice, because I don’t have to go searching for the correct “development” libraries that most binary Linux distributions would require you to install, in order to compile other programs against those libraries.

I could very happily build a life with Gentoo as my main workstation. If I weren’t a superficial bitch underneath it all. I want shiny, pretty, and I want everything done for me right now, and in the future, and I want it to not look home made. I want him to do everything for me, and I don’t want to have to do anything for him. That’s how it should be. And I’ll settle for a bit of a body fat, if he’ll take care of me. I’ll even smile.

That’s why I’m back in Fedora right now. Gentoo handled an install of root on LVM and RAID just fine, too, btw. Well, as long as you passed the right kernel parameters and built the initrd properly. You have to tell those burly men what to do. Just like Fedora requires it, but for no good reason. Debian from the future is on the flipside still, while I’m trying to make things work with Fedora. Good, faithful Debian Sid.  I wonder what you’ve been thinking, what updates have come since I’ve last been there. Maybe tonight I’ll see.

You know, Gentoo is real shit. Anything more bare to the metal that this and you’ll be crossing the boundaries over into science. Right now, no matter which desktop Linux distribution I eventually end up with, I’ve got in the back of my mind that I’ll be slipping out of the shiny citadel every once in a while, on those clear nights, with the curiosity and pull of the deep woods, to join Gentoo again – under the moon and stars, the bonfire only a small pinpoint from above, yet the raw source of all we have become.

The saga contiues: Psychotic SUSE 12.1 Linux – A Mythological Nightmare

  • loved that.  🙂
    i’m one of those extreme distro-surfers.

    gentoo has long been the …. the ….   oh i might as well say it…. gentoo has long been the best.  i knew this even before i had used it, from my research.

    ok, we might quible whether funtoo or exherbo are better yet, but it’s the same jazz, mostly.

    you can get a sneaky leg-up into the gentoo party, skipping the klingon pain-stick ritual.  i currently have toorox on my workstation (dont worry, i did the ritual, i have a gentoo installed on there too, and went for advanced klingon pain ritual to get exherbo too… and a side order of funtoo), toorox is a rather nice preconfigured gentoo.

    there’s also papug (32bit only), calculate, loonix (kde3.4), sabayon (also has binary package management), and i’ve been working on my own gentoo variant (still pre-alpha, *ntoo-based witch), for some other options to get a taste of gentoo, without the painsticks.

    not to mention systemrescuecd, and pentoo, each having their very welcome special uses.
    oh, and there’s UTUTO, if you want 100% libre-ware.

    i’m not a gentoo-only kind of fanboy though.  i’m currently writing this from a GIMPstick, run in virtualbox, in my Debian-Sid Crunchbang.  ^_^

    i’ve spent a fair bit of time with arch (i have parabola GNU|Linux-libre on my serverbox) and slackware too (and about 400 other distros have had a look in to varying degrees too)

    …. every distro has something worthy, but it’s gentoo that has something that becomes essential once tried, that no other non-gentoo-like distro has, that keeps me coming back to it.

  • k2t0f12d

    Do Linux from Scratch/DIY Linux before you say Gentoo is the closest thing to baremetal. Your analogy is backward. Gentooers haven’t left the citadel for the wilderness, we build the citadel to escape the wilderness. And together we know how the entire thing works down to the rivets in the walls…

  • Wow, that’s a richness of distributions to check out. Sabayon was certainly on my list! Thanks Digit I know exactly what you mean, too. Debian-Sid crunchbang sounds very interesting…. …..

  • Actually, k2t0f12d, I said that anything closer to the bare metal than Gentoo and you’ll start crossing over into science. And that’s pretty close to what DIY Linux is. You really have to be aware of the interconnectedness of subsystems there and beyond that, and the fundamentals of Unix, and even computer science in general. Of course, you can regress even further to say that even Linux isn’t bare metal. It is, after all, a comfy layer above the metal. But speaking from the perspective of one of the “unwashed masses” desktop users and their traditional choices in distributions, Gentoo is certainly out in a wilderness away. But I agree with you and appreciate that the difference between a wilderness and home (or citadel) is a matter of perspective, and I apologize for any offense. In most ways I prefer the Gentoo world approach, even from an aesthetic standpoint.

  • Imran Rafique

    Suggestion for how to save your cake, and eat it too 🙂

    Install Sabayon. Sabayon is basically Gentoo, with their (Sabayon’s) own custom overlay which mixes in some unstable/stable & testing pkgs together, along with some custom patches (all stuff which portage is flexible enough to allow you to do). The advantage here is that Sabayon already comes with most stuff ready to use, out of the box.

    Then, just run a small script to add all existing unstable pkgs to /etc/portage/package.keywords. Edit USE flags as per your preferences. Then just use portage and emerge after that (instead of sticking with Sabayon’s own binary pkgs manager). You might have to re-emerge the odd pkg, if your USE flags are significantly different to what Sabayon choose (eg: vim). Other than that, you’re good to go.

    Best of both worlds (and this is from someone who uses Gentoo only on all of my boxes, since late 2002).

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  • Arne Babenhauserheide
  • I love that! I have dreams of the Hurd, too.

  • Sweet. I suppose that’s not too much just for getting a workstation I love – which would mean it’s stable over time.

  • Jack Byer

    That’s exactly the route that I came to Gentoo. I don’t remember when exactly it happened but somewhere around 2000-2002 I switched from using regular distributions to Linux From Scratch. Then after six months to a year of doing that and accumulating a large collection of Bash scripts to automate to compilation process I started hearing about a distribution that already did all that so I switched to Gentoo and have been there ever since.

  • Sergio Rodríguez Inclan

    Haven’t you tried Sabayon Linux, is Gentoo with binaries, you should give it a try, thanks for the post 🙂 

  • This… this is so poetic that you touched something deep in my soul… something that makes me glad for I have partaken in the Gentoo initiation ritual, survived, and came out stronger… yet that something also made me sad that in the near future, I’ll be leaving my beloved Gentoo servers behind and start baby-sitting the cold, heartless, borg children servers produced — not birthed — out of the tartarus called Richmond.

    And like you, I know that some day in the future, the haunting calls of Gentoo will every now and then beckon me to step out of my nursery, and join the druids’ dance under the stars, a tribute to The Source where it all began.

  • Oh man, Pep. I’ll do what I can to keep the bonfires burning. You could always lead a double life… …. …..

  • Indeed! In fact I’ve planned to ask my new employer to provide me with 2 or 3 servers “to fool around with” 😉

  • Chris Brennan

    Quite the poetic story you weave. And this is coming from a very long time Gentoo user (back around late ’07/’08 when it was still fresh and running from from the citadel you mention.

  •  Thanks Chris! Yeah, back then I can remember many times having to hunt down problems in makefiles. I’m amazed at how few problems crop up any more in the source that’s out there. I used to be you could count on it with almost any given piece of software. Now it seems to be the exception instead.

  • Arne Babenhauserheide

     Well, the Hurd is moving nicely these days.

    Yesterday I saw tests where the UDP implementation in userspace was actually almost as fast as the in-kernel one. And that’s quite some deal: The design is slowly beginning to pay off more and more.

  • That’s interesting… I got very intrigued by the Hurd many years ago, but have never once delved into it. Maybe it’s time…