Beyond Skin Deep: The True Beauty of DSL


I’m writing this in response to every review or distro comparison that includes Damn Small Linux in the mix and tries to compare something intended to fit on a small CD or to be run off a small (64MB+!) USB thumbdrive to distros that require gobs of RAM, fast processors, and infinite storage space. I’ve addressed others here and on their own blogs or in the comments sections of their reviews about why that totally misses the boat.

I’ve also become more than a little impatient with those whose expectations include resource-hungry aesthetics, whether in the form of transparent menus by default, xft blurring of fonts, and (perhaps my biggest peeve) wallpaper that approaches measurement in fractional or whole MB increments rather than kilobytes.

One thing I’ve learned is that not many people share the same sense of aesthetics. Accordingly, it’s perhaps the least valid standard upon which to judge Linux distributions — or any operating system. As I’ve written plenty of times now, it can be ugly and rock stable or be beautiful and too buggy to use. Most reviews and comparisons now, unfortunately, are nothing more than beauty contests. Some reviewers are open and candid that they’re more concerned about default themes than how distros do things differently, how that affects users, and why it should matter. Instead, though, we get inane bleating about GTK themes, something looking “old” or “like it was FLTK or something” or a bunch of whining about wallpaper. It begs the question, “Do you use your multicore computer as an expensive digital picture frame or do you run apps on it to make your life easier?

I’m also addressing an issue that recurs too often in the DSL community. Some users, no matter how well they mean, make requests or suggestions for default features and settings with little thought about how they will affect low-end users.

The Difference Isn’t the Aesthetics

Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it.
- Confucius

My primary attraction to Damn Small Linux, the BSDs, and distributions like Slackware and Gentoo has been the freedom and flexibility afforded to end users with respect to defaults. With the exception of DSL, these allow users to start with a “clean slate” and configure systems per unique needs.

DSL is unique among these I just listed, and among other distros. It offers a “total package” with respect to utility, but it does so without any of the intense demands of multicore processors and RAM measured in gigs instead of megs expected of users who choose to try modern, updated Linux distros. In 50MB, users are given tools to handle many tasks — word processing, spreadsheets, graphics, audio, browsing, file management, networking, and can even be used as a server. Its default apps may not be the latest, splashiest tools for their respective tasks but that’s not the idea in DSL. DSL’s approach is to pack the most utility in its 50MB ISO as possible. And it does. Some distros fail to do in 700MB what DSL achieves in 50 — and those require hard drive installation to use, while DSL can be run from the CD, from USB, or be installed to hard drive.

There are no pretenses in DSL, no slavish fads to follow, no blind acceptance of bleeding edge applications. There’s also less concern about default transparent menus, which use more resources than opaque, than there is about trimming default resource use.

That’s not to say that DSL ignores aesthetics. I’ve written themes for jwm so that users can change to something else if they don’t like a default. Others have added wallpapers. There are GTK theme packages and switchers in MyDSL. There’s even been changes to use FLTK themes to improve appearances over default grey. There may be room for improvement, but not at the expense of additional RAM use or extra CPU cycles to carry it out.

Is It Beauty or Is It Bullshit?

Beauty is the purgation of superfluities.
- Michelangelo

But that’s not where DSL will ever try to distinguish itself. It can’t. It’s goal isn’t to win beauty contests at the expense of increasing resource demands or at the price of losing utility. Every other distro does that. They help make older computers more and more obsolete with each new release, despite all the Linux advocacy to the contrary. I’ve written about that many times here, even calling out the FSF for their blatant hypocrisy about it.

I’m to blame for the idea of not using a wallpaper in DSL 4.4 (and hopefully beyond). I made the suggestion on the grounds that we could reduce an initial hit on resources. I don’t apologize for that, either. That’s always been a goal of DSL and I just saw a way that we could continue to make DSL useful on older computers. I initially didn’t even want to use a floating emblem atop the gradient — just a plain gradient. I knew that would go over less well than the whole concept of no wallpaper (let alone a solid color) so I included it.

I wanted it to be clean and simple, just like DSL is supposed to be. Clear, pleasant colors with adequate contrasts and shades that weren’t an affront to the senses. I also wanted it to be flexible. Accordingly, the jwm theme is a mild gradient which I’ve described previously as “alloy” and which should fit with a wide variety of wallpapers if users choose to use one. Finally, I also wanted it to be legible for our users who have vision problems. I hadn’t taken that as seriously as I should’ve until one user noted he was color blind — so I greyscaled screenshots until I found something that would be legible and not force changes of themes just to be usable.

I’d braced myself for the worst and was surprised by some of the initial feedback. It was positive. One even called it the best look for DSL yet. I was relieved, but I knew not everyone would appreciate the results. Let alone the goals that precipitated moving away from wallpaper in the first place.

Simply put: I was trying to create a pleasant, usable interface with the least possible demands. I was starting to think I may have succeeded in that difficult balancing act. Uh, no.

User Demands versus Resource Demands

Beauty is no quality in things themselves:
it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.
- David Hume

Aesthetics is entirely subjective. When it’s paramount, it puts utility behind beauty. This is why many reviews of DSL (and certain Slackware-based distros and anything intended to be used as easily by older hardware as for newer) totally miss the boat. It’s also something that some within the community don’t seem get. DSL isn’t alone in this – Slackware 12.1 no longer has the default LILO interface. Now it has a flashy Slackware logo. And I heard in one podcast that more Slackware branding could be on the way.

One complaint about the new DSL look came yesterday along with three proposed wallpapers, the smallest of which was a quarter megabyte in size and none of which impressed me more than the default gradient. I quickly repeated the reason for the gradient and also vented my spleen about this obsession with making everything match. I edited my comments and used some hyperbole about that which caused someone else to call me a prick.

Consideration was given to make the jwm theme as generic as possible so it wouldn’t be problematic if users wanted to change wallpapers or select other colors for their gradients. I think users are probably more inclined to leave jwm themes alone and change the background.

I don’t care if someone wants to call me a sexist prick for trying to get resource use down or for my dishing out harsh criticism (I didn’t call anyone a “prom queen” — that was a simile — and I toned down my allusion to socks matching berets so give me a little credit for leaving out underwear and bra references; that was about a peculiar obsession with making everything match) when it comes to things that increase demands for default themes. I also asked for better, prettier solutions if they had them and could keep default resource use down.

DSL isn’t competing for users who want spiraling graphics. DSL should be usable by people with at least a 486 and 16MB of RAM. Many users are still getting life out of earlier Pentiums with DSL. All of that precludes bloated wallpaper which slows down other DSL users. And not all of them are going to like the bloated wallpaper more than they like the gradient. At least the gradient doesn’t unnecessarily eat up their available RAM.

The absence of flaw in beauty is itself a flaw.
- Havelock Ellis

The reason I wanted a clean, simple, generic interface was to reduce demands: on RAM use, on CPU cycles to redraw windows (DSL uses pseudo-transparent aterms by default), on users who choose to use other wallpapers or colors, and so users would be less compelled to have to change other things. If the jwm theme works with color scheme X and Y, then that’s one less thing for a user to have to mess with. The same goes for other parts of the system (which I didn’t have a hand in choosing).

This is where my comments about interior decorators and getting gussied up like prom queens came from. I don’t see coordination between different parts of the whole as either a good or bad thing. The more generic things are, the easier it all is to manage. If something obviously clashes, I agree it’s problematic. But defaults shouldn’t be so tied together that changing one thing necessitates changing everything. That might work in something as bloated as Gnome or KDE.

I don’t think either RC of DSL 4.4 is aesthetically-challenged. I think the bigger issues for it and subsequent 2.4 versions are going to be practical matters. Like what can or can’t be upgraded, and why. Not to mention fixing things and — one of my favorite parts about DSL — reducing default demands even further, if possible.

Beauty is Fleeting, Hardware Can Outlast Your Good Looks

Being thought of as “a beautiful woman” has spared me nothing in life. No heartache, no trouble. Beauty is essentially meaningless.
- Halle Berry

DSL’s niche in the Linux ecosystem is unique. Reviewers need to understand that before comparing it and its mix of default apps to what comes in other distros. Users already appreciate the unique qualities of DSL.

DSL isn’t a slave to fashion. Reviewers need to understand that and judge it on its own merits instead of compare it to every other distro that’s abandoned the machines DSL continues to support. Users, no matter how well-intentioned, need to understand they have tools included in the base to change whatever they don’t like about default appearances. Everyone needs to recognize that others have different tastes.

Everyone also has different goals. The thing that distinguishes DSL isn’t its default themes (not even the ones I edited) and wallpapers but its core philosophy, its utility and pragmatism, and its ability to be used by computers whether they have little or lots of resources.

Even in a world of spinning window managers and multicore processors, some of us continue to see DSL’s simple philosophy of pragmatism, accessibility, and usefulness as a thing of beauty. No matter how it looks.

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