Moving to Arch Linux

The movie Hackers burned this idea of eliteness into my brain at an early age. They toss around this phrase

she's elite


he's elite

as if there exists is a gated community of hacker gods. To the movie's credit, it does portray that gated community quite well, and planted the seeds of imposter syndrome at a young age for me.

So, in high school, I had my first go at using a Linux distro, Fedora, for a while. Mostly, for bragging rights amongst my keyboard inclined friends. I felt a great deal of pride opening my black CD binder and flipping through my collection of burnt distros that I had only lightly or even never used. Fedora, SUSE, Mandrake scribbled on top to identify each burnt disc in elite red.

Typical priorities of a early 2000's teenager led me back to Windows (MSN Messenger, Starcraft, etc.). I would go on to college and try again, but many classes required me to use Windows software on a regular basis so my Linux partation became something tucked away in the attic of my hard drive.

Oh! the oppression.

Hello Apple

Finally, in 2009, I bought my first Macbook. This was near the height of 'Apple hype,' and I think the hype was well deserved, but not the price tag. So, that first Macbook -- was a used Macbook. I often found myself fumbling around the desktop, clicking into the file browser, Finder, trying to navigate my way through the OS. You can imagine the relief I found when a friend introduced me to Spotlight.

Still till this day, I love OSX's aesthetic. I loved how well it worked and how I didn't have to reinstall drivers because mine had magically stopped working. At that time, I was a VB.NET / C# developer, but came home to this used Macbook often wondering where my Start Menu was.

OSX was a great segue from Windows to a more Unix-like system. Though, using Unix-like here is actually incorrect. It seems some part of OSX's previous marketing was specifically targeted at people interested in using UNIX. So, in fact, it's more correct to say OSX is a great segue to a UNIX based system.

From their 2011 Technology Brief:

There are already tens of millions of OS X users—consumers, scientists, animators, developers, system administrators, and more—making OS X the most widely used UNIX desktop operating system. In addition, OS X is the only UNIX environment that natively runs Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and thousands of other consumer applications—all side by side with traditional command-line, X11, and Java applications. Tight integration with hardware—from the sleek MacBook to the eight-core Mac Pro computer—is making OS X the platform of choice for an emerging generation of UNIX users.

Just an aside, but isn't fascinating the number of times Apple mentions UNIX in this marketing piece? The focus of those machines was clear and they appeased a great deal of users within their target market.

I would continue being an OSX user up until 2018. I was looking to purchase a machine that was portable and powerful and, since Apple has shifted the Macbook Pro's focus, I decided to look elsewhere. Eventually, I settled on an ASUS Zenbook. I chose one of the "ultrabook" models with USB-C charging thinking I would be traveling with it all the time. It was a nice thought.

After my first week of using it, I began to think I had bought a small airliner. I would hear the fan kick in to overdrive often when running Windows. Upon inspection it was always something I had no need for: Windows Indexing Service, Cortana, or Windows Defender. I understand that those pieces of software are useful (Well, maybe not Cortana.), but I'd like to be consulted if my operating system is going to utilize 100% of my CPU in the background.

"Hi, your system may be inoperable for the next five minutes so that we can do unnecessary things. Is that okay?"

No, no it's not okay.

Back to Linux

I wanted something minimal for this i3 processor sporting ultrabook, but something familiar, too. Lubuntu was a nice compromise -- the core and stability of Ubuntu without all of the shiny things. Lubuntu was and is great. It was a great daily driver for a number of months.

I had been eyeing one of my co-worker's enviornment for a while, but never asked about it. One day while we were sitting by his computer I asked, "What distro do you use?"

"Oh, this is Arch!," he emphatically replied. He lit up a bit, so I was intrigued.

Some office programmer chatter of, "Arch is too hard to use" and "I can't even get through the install" motivated my inner masochist to schedule a date with Arch in the coming weekend.

Installing Arch

I think getting through the Arch install is a small badget of honor. At first, I tried only using the Arch wiki (which is amazing, by the way), but I needed some hand holding. This video, Install Arch Linux in 10 minutes, was a godsend to simplifying the install process.

After finishing the install process, you're left with a blank terminal with a blinking cursor. I knew this is what would happen, but in practice it was very humbling and I began to realize all the things I take for granted in an operating system. Things like how you manage your network, system time, and USB devices are all left to you. It can be a bit daunting but can be equally empowering to know you have control over how your operating system operates.

My analogy for people curious about Arch is that it is akin to legos -- and you're building the operating system that suits you. I feel that you grow into the collection of tools that you've chosen, and that will look slighlty different for each person.

Using Arch has also taken this abstract concept of an Operating Systemm that is often opaque and difficult to understand, and made me think of OS's more as collection of tools. There's nothing in the background collecting your data and you're in charge of how and when you update your machine.

Not a silver bullet

Now, this probably reads like a car salesman was tasked with selling you on Arch -- all of the pro's and none of the cons! So, what are some of the things I find difficult?

  • Mounting USB devices

    I'm sure I can figure out how for Arch to remember where I mounted a USB and to auto mount it each time I insert a storage device, but I just haven't invested the time to do it. This is, generally, my experience with Arch -- anything is possible if you put the time into it.

  • Memorizing hot keys

    I don't use a desktop environment and insteads use a window manager. This means that I have to memorize a number of hot-keys that I configure and then without fail, forget. It's only after constant usage do these things start to ingrain themselves into my workflow.

  • Continually improving configuration

    A segue from the previous point. Like any sort of "tech fatigue," (i.e. Javascript fatigue), it can get tiresome to keep coming back to your configuration over and over. It often feels like something you might fix in your house or on your bicycle — you finally get to the point where you say, "I've had enough" and you take that motivation to improve your enviornment.

  • Gaming

    Linux gaming has gotten better, but the Arch steam client isn't there yet.

Nothing is perfect, but I like the idea of working toward an enviorment that fits me best. Arch, to me, is a democratic Operating System where you have the burden of exercising your freedom by investing time into improving it.

Final Words

I'm incredibly in dept to all of the developers whose time and software makes it possible for me to run Arch the way I see fit. Here's a short list of software I use:

dmenu, firefox, i3, i3-gaps, i3blocks, pcmanfm, scrot, xorg, yay, zsh

© Nick Olinger 2023