My Debian Adventure 3: Squeeze & KDE4

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Background

I installed my first Linux distro in December of 2002. After that, I tried many different Linux distros, looking for one that I could use full-time instead of Windows. I’ve been using Linux full-time instead of Windows since July of 2006. I used Kubuntu Linux full-time for several weeks, then switched to Mepis Linux, which I used for over a year, and I’ve been using Debian Linux since December of 2007. As a full-time Debian user, I ran Debian Etch (Stable) for six months, then moved to Lenny (Testing) for nine months, and then upgraded to Squeeze (Testing) one year ago. I also spent a year testing, installing and customizing several “light” Linux distros on used PCs that I gave to victims of domestic violence.

Introduction

As a Debian Testing user, I was used to doing frequent updates, some of which caused me varying degrees of problems. But because I had read so many negative things about both KDE4 and grub2 (grub-pc), I refused those upgrades when Squeeze first offered them to me several months ago — and, ever since then, I’ve continued to hold back all of the upgrades (currently 160) that have wanted to switch my two PCs from KDE 3.5.10 to KDE4.

For the record, until a few days ago, I had no prior experience with using KDE4 — not even running on a LiveCD — so I had no prejudices or grudges caused by bad personal experience with earlier, buggier versions of KDE4.

But a few days ago, I bought a new (used) 64-bit PC . Because I’ve read a lot of positive things about KDE 4.3.4, and because, for the first time ever, I have the luxury of my wife and I being able to continue using my other two PCs while I experiment with my new one, I decided to take the plunge and try KDE4 for the very first time, in a full-blown, fresh install of 64-bit Debian Squeeze on my new PC, using ext4 partitions, KDE4 and grub2.

So, two days ago, that’s exactly what I did.

And two nights ago, I was up until 3:00 AM, thanks to Debian Squeeze’s version of KDE4.

This story is all about that experience and my personal opinions about that experience. I do not attempt to make any generalizations about KDE4 in general; in fact, I’ve read many good things about KDE4, written by people who were using other Linux distros instead of Debian. So any problems that I describe and any opinions that I express are limited strictly to the current 64-bit, AMD64 Debian Squeeze (Testing) and the way that it currently implements KDE 4.3.4, ext4 and grub2 (grub-pc).

The Full Install

I began by using the latest version of the GParted Live CD to create /, /home, /mydata and swap partitions onto an empty hard drive. For the first time ever, I used ext4 for all of the non-swap partitions. GParted handled all of those tasks perfectly, without any problems or issues.

I shut down my PC, replaced the GParted CD with a Debian Squeeze AMD 64 Netinst CD with a daily build dated 2010-02-03. After downloading the ISO, I had verified that its sha1sum was correct. Then, after I burned the CD, I confirmed that its sha1sum was correct.

I chose KDE from the install options and the install began.

When it got to the drive-partitioning step, I chose “manual” and configured it to recognize and mount each of my newly created partitions the way I described above.

The install went without a hitch, other than the fact that it took nearly 2 1/2 hours to download everything it needed from the Debian repository at http://ftp.us.debian.org/debian/.

To make a long story short, the installer’s downloading, installing and configuring processes took a very long time, but it all worked perfectly. When prompted, I told it to install only the Basic system and the Desktop Environment (or whatever it is that the installer calls them — I can’t remember).

And I instructed it to install the grub2 bootloader onto the hard drive’s MBR.

At the end, I removed the CD, rebooted, and held my breath: I’ve read so many horror stories about grub2 lately.

We Have Liftoff!

My PC booted up to the grub2 menu with its muted colors. It had worked! Whew!

Several seconds later, the KDM login screen appeared. I entered my username and password, and a few seconds later, I was looking at a brand new — and very minimalist — KDE4 desktop. By right-clicking on the desktop and choosing “Configure Desktop”, I quickly confirmed that Debian had correctly configured itself to make my PC’s integrated ATI Radeon Xpress 200 graphics chip work in 2-D with my 22-inch LCD monitor’s native 1680×1050 resolution. Hallelujah!

Kicking It To the Curb

The very next thing I did was click on the Kmenu and see if I thought I might be able to get used to its new “Kickoff” layout that I’ve read so many negative comments about. I clicked. And clicked. And clicked. Kickoff requires lots and lots of clicks to look at very few choices.

The very next thing I did after that was right-click on the KMenu icon and find the option to change the Kickoff menu back to what KDE4 calls the “Classic” menu.

New Coke

Seeing the word “classic” in that context reminded me of the Coca-Cola company’s highly advertised switch to “New Coke” many years ago — followed shortly by nearly everyone hating it; followed shortly by the appearance of “Coke Classic.”

Followed shortly by the disappearance of “New Coke.”

Ahd “Coke Classic” going back its original name: “Coke”.

New Coke was a perfect example of the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The KDE4 Kickoff menu is another example.

The Minimalized Classic Menu

Once I got rid of the Kickoff menu I was greeted with a minimalistic Classic menu.

Debian Squeeze KDE 4 desktop with its minimalistic default Classic menu.

When I saw how few choices the Kmenu contained, I remembered that I had read somewhere, a long time ago, that the “tasksel” choices during a Debian KDE4 installation were going to work differently than they had in KDE3. It used to be that if you told the Debian installer to install KDE, you got a full KDE3 install that pulled in several different metapackages, including games, utilities, educational software, and all kinds of other things that you’d probably never use.

So, apparently to fix that problem, the KDE4 tasksel apparently gives you only a bare-bones KDE4 installation. If I remember correctly, there were only 4 items in its “System” menu.

And then — if you know what you’re doing — you can add the other metapackages or individual packages that you need or want to that bare-bones installation.

Online Out Of The Box

Before I tried to figure out which packages and metapackages I needed to add to my system, I took a quick look at Iceweasel, the unbranded version of Firefox that Debian included in my KDE4 install. I was relieved — but not surprised — to see that Debian had automatically sensed and configured my wired, routed, DSL ethernet connection.

Debian Squeeze KDE 4 was online out of the box.

KDE4 Metapackages

There’s a problem with giving users a bare-bones KDE4 installation that’s missing a lot of functionality, instead of a full-blown installation that may have a lot of unneeded extras: You can only add the packages and metapackages that you need or want if you already know all of their names. Or if you know enough to do a Google search for the terms ” KDE4 metapackages ,” to learn which individual packages are included in each KDE4 metapackage.

Actually, I guess that search wouldn’t really help you much, either. The very first link in the results of that search takes you to what looks like the best possible source: the KDE4 Metapackages page of the Debian KDE Maintainers Web site, where you learn that… uh… well, you don’t really learn anything at all , except that “We are planning create (sic) the following metapackages to install KDE 4 easily:” followed by a one-sentence description of what they think the “kde-minimal” metapackage will contain in the future; with no information under the titles of the “kde-full” and “kde-standard” metapackages. And no other information.

Help yourself to another glass of New Coke.

Editing A File With Root Privileges

But before I spent time on trying to figure out what packages or metapackages to add to my system, I wanted to edit my /etc/fstab file, to tweak my various partitions’ mounting options.

So I went to the KMenu, expecting to see KDE3’s familiar “File Manager – Super User Mode”.

It wasn’t there.

In fact, I couldn’t find Konqueror anywhere in the Kmenu.

I found Dolphin, the KDE4 file manager. But there was no choice to start Dolphin in Super User Mode.

So I opened a Konsole window, did an “su” command to get root privileges, and issued the “konqueror” command. Which resulted in a string of error messages.

Then issued the “dolphin” command. Which resulted in another string of error messages.

So I started Dolphin in user mode, to do a search to verify where Dolphin was. After a few seconds of searching, an error dialog box popped up, telling me that the Nepomuk search engine had crashed. It asked me if I wanted to report the problem to the developers. I told it that I did.

It thought about my response and then told me that I would have to download and install some package onto my system before I would be able to report the error.

No, thank you.

I tried another search; this time for Konqueror.

Another crash.

At least it didn’t ask me if I wanted to report the crash to the developers again.

So I did a Google search to verify the path to both Konqueror and Dolphin.

Then I added Konqueror’s full path to my command and tried again. Another string of error messages.

Adding the Dolphin’s full path to my command gave the same result.

That’s when I started what would turn into more than 3 hours worth of Google searches, looking for a workaround that would open either Konqueror or Dolphin with root privileges.

What I learned is that KDE4 currently doesn’t provide any easy way for users to start their preferred file manager (Dolphin or Konqueror) as root.

There are plenty of posts about that issue in the KDE.org support forums and lots of other places.

And way too many threads in which one person complains about the fact that KDE4 removed that basic functionality that many people came to count on in KDE3 — followed by several users circling the KDE4 wagons, ridiculing the complainer for “whining,” and trying to convince them that they should never run their file manager in Super User mode anyway.

You know, it seems to me that KDE4 has single-handedly caused a resurgence of the use of the word “whiner.” I don’t remember seeing it print much at all for at least the past several years, yet now I see it used against nearly every user who ever criticizes KDE4’s blatant removal of so much of the user-control that characterized KDE3.

Help yourself to several more glasses of New Coke.

But back to the problem at hand: Starting Konqueror or Dolphin in Super User mode. In my searching, I found many different workarounds that involved issuing su or sudo or kdesu or kdesudo or sux commands; or even installing a RootServiceMenu that adds an “Edit As Root” option to the context menu when you right-click on a file.

Some of those workarounds reportedly work for some people who use some versions of KDE4 with some versions of specific distros.

For example, issuing the command sudo dolphin or sudo konqueror seemed to work for a lot of Ubuntu and openSUSE users — but every time I issued a sudo command in Debian, it first gave me a 3-point “lecture” about being respectful and careful, and then asked me to enter the sudo password. And after I entered the sudo password, it told me “computerbob is not in the sudoers file. This incident will be reported.”

In fact, every time I found a new workaround, it was followed by several people saying that it had worked for them, and then several other people, saying that it had not worked for them.

Although the situation looked hopeless, I still tried every single workaround I could find.

Over and over and over and over.

But none of them worked for me.

Not even one.

Debian is locked down tight — which is great when it comes to keeping users safe from outside attacks.

But it’s not so good when all of that security treats you like you’re a malicious hacker by preventing you from doing a simple thing like editing one of your system’s configuration files.

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel Is A Train’s Headlight

After what seemed like forever, one workaround looked like it might work, because it allowed me to open both Dolphin and Konqueror with root privileges.

But I didn’t bother to write down which workaround it was, because as soon as I right-clicked on /etc/fstab and chose “Open with Kate”, an error box popped up, telling me that there was a KDE4 error and Kate was not going to start. I got the same error when I tried to edit the file with Kwrite.

There’s no point in having root privileges if you can’t do the one thing that made you need root privileges in the first place.

The Old School Way

I finally ended up opening a Konsole, entering “su” to get root privileges, and then issuing the command “nano /etc/fstab” to allow me to edit that file in the Linux equivalent of the 1985 MS-DOS “ed” text editor.

I find it very ironic that I had to do that in a brand new Linux desktop environment that claims to be more intuitive and user-friendly than the KDE3 that it replaced.

Anyone want some more New Coke?

No? Too bad — it’s the only drink on the menu.

You Can’t Get There From Here

Although I was relieved that my Internet connection had worked out of the box without me having to configure anything, I wanted to explore its configuration, as well as to change it from a dynamic IP address to a static one.

But try as I might, I couldn’t find KDE’s Network Settings. Within a window that looked to me like a Windows Control Panel with only a few large icons, I clicked on a networking icon, but when it opened, it didn’t have any options for viewing or changing my network settings. I’m sorry that I can’t be more specific than that, but it’s been a couple of days and I just don’t remember those particular details any more.

I know — I could have opened a Konsole window, gotten “su” privileges, started nano, and manually edited /etc/hosts — but this is KDE4, the premier graphic desktop environment, so why should I have to “party like it’s 1985”?

Without a GUI method to view and change my network settings, I decided to try to find and manually install some of the KDE4 networking components that my Debian KDE4 install had neglected to give me, in the hope that one of them might give me a Network Settings window.

I’m No Command-Line Purist

I started using PCs before MS-DOS existed, so I have plenty of experience working at the command line. But, despite the fact that Linux command-line purists ridicule people like me for doing it, I happily issue one apt-get command to install the Synaptic GUI package manager on all of my Debian systems, instead of using spartan command line tools like apt — even though I know that Synaptic is a GNOME-based tool, so it always brings along a boatload of its closest friends from the GNOME library.

I don’t care — for me and my uses and my preferences, Synaptic is absolutely the best tool for the job.

Beefing Up The Kmenu

By looking around Synaptic, I found and installed “kdeadmin”, a package whose description said that it would install 13 other packages, including something that looked to me like it might allow me to configure my network settings.

The package description was right — I don’t remember the exact details, but after I installed “kdeadmin”, my Kmenu suddenly had a few more admin choices, and that Windows Control Panel-like window suddenly had a new Network Connections icon.

Here We Go Again

Unfortunately, the new KDE4 Network Connections screen didn’t have an “Administrator Mode” button. So every setting in its 4 tabs was greyed out. To make matters even worse, its “Network Interfaces” tab was completely empty — no wired ethernet interface, no IP address; nothing.

I figured the problem must be that I was in User mode, you must have to run “systemsettings” (I Googled to find the name of that file) as root in order to be able to view and change all of my network settings.

And apparently, I was right, because another series of Google searches found many other people who were facing the exact same problem: How to start “systemsettings” as root.

And — exactly like the “Run-Konqueror-As-Super-User” problem that I described earlier — there were many, many workarounds.

Many of those workarounds worked — but only for specific people running specific versions of specific Linux distros along with specific versions of KDE4.

But again, none of the proposed workarounds worked for me.

Another Light At The End Of The Tunnel

After what seemed like hours of trying every workaround I could find, I finally found one that successfully started “systemsettings” as root.

I could even see and edit a few of the settings in the Network Connections tabs.

But I didn’t bother to write down which workaround that had gotten me to that point, because the “Network Interfaces” tab was still completely empty — no wired ethernet interface, no IP address; nothing.

I’m really getting kind of sick of New Coke.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I’ve read about KDE4 for the past couple of years, and I’ve followed all of its many trials and tribulations. I’ve read many negative comments about it that I thought were probably trivial or even baseless. And several times in the past, based on things that I’ve read, I’ve thought that various KDE4 iterations might be good enough for me to finally upgrade my Debian Squeeze KDE 3.5.10 systems to Debian Squeeze KDE4.

But lately, I’ve noticed a lot more positive comments about KDE4 and a lot fewer negative ones.

Plus, I’m really tired of holding back (currently) 160 “upgrades” that want to change the Debian Squeeze, KDE 3.5.10 system that I’m using to write this, into a KDE4 system.

I’ve been using KDE since July of 2006. And I’ve been using the Debian Testing branch for nearly two years (Lenny then Squeeze) — so I have no delusions that the Debian Testing branch should be as reliable as the Debian Stable branch.

And my regular readers know that I’ve written very positively about my Debian experiences many, many times.

So I began this brand new installation with my eyes wide open, and with every hope — knowing that there might be some rough edges, but being willing to give KDE4 every benefit of the doubt.

In short, I really wanted it to work.

But I find it disturbing that Debian Sqeeze’s implemenation of KDE4’s 4th point-version (4.0, 4.1, 4.2, 4.3) is still missing some of the most basic GUI functionality that KDE3 provided and that every KDE user needs and expects. And instead, KDE4 users are forced to resort to a command line, and to use a cryptic text editor like “nano” to manually edit config files that most KDE3 users probably never even knew existed, let alone had to edit. Plus Debian Squeeze with KDE 4.3.4 has some incomplete basic config screens with missing or broken functions, and users may even be completely locked out of performing other basic and necessary functions.

Overkill

After all of the frustrations that I’ve described, and all of the additional frustrations that were caused by not even being able to work around the original frustrations, I was ready to try something desperate.

So I opened Synaptic, found a metapackage called “kde-full” (or some similar name) — again, I don’t remember the exact details for sure — and marked it to be installed.

At that point, I was more than willing to install a bunch of junk that I’d never use, if doing so would finally give me the few basic things that I really do need.

I don’t remember how long it took to download that metapackage — it was nearly 3:00 AM, and I was cross-eyed with fatigue by then.

I sat and watched the packages download, one-by-one.

And when they finally finished, dpkg kicked in, to install and configure everything.

I watched as the progress bar crept across the screen and the names of the packages flashed by.

Somewhere around the installation of the Mahjong game, Synaptic suddenly crashed, and my screen went black.

Cursorless black.

Completely black.

Depressingly black.

Irretrievably black.

I’m-completely-locked-up-unplug-the-power-cord black.

When I powered my computer back up, it booted normally, without any error messages.

And it took me almost to the desktop — and then crashed back into the black hole of hopelessness.

I’m really starting to hate New Coke.

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