Damn Small Linux

I have been thinking about teaching my kids how to use eToys. To do this, it would be best if they each had their own box and so I have been looking for cheap laptops. I found two Thinkpad T20's for $100 on Craigslist in various states of repair and bought them. I have worked on T20's in the past and so I know their idiosyncrasies well.

One of the idiosyncrasies is getting X Windows to work. I first installed Ubuntu and everything worked but at a glacial pace. The T20 only has a 700Mhz CPU after all. But even at 700Mhz X Windows should fly. The real problems are 1) Gnome is a system hog and 2) this machine only has 128Mb. (It still feels weird that 128Mb is not much RAM. I remember very well Carnegie Mellon University's 3M machines which were to have 1 million bytes of memory, 1 million pixels on screen, and 1 million instructions per second!) So I installed Xubuntu. And this time the pace was faster but only by a smidge. And boot time was still many minutes in duration. Application switching could take a minute.

Searching for a smaller Linux distribution I came across Damn Small Linux and installed that. Well, installed is the wrong word as I first ran it from the LiveCD. It booted the T20 within seconds. X worked. Internet worked. Everything worked. And worked fast. This was a truly usable system on a T20.

The down side, and this is something I am still fighting with, is that it is not a true Debian distribution. It has its own packaging and distribution system. DSL's author had to make significant changes to the Debian core to make a workable distribution that fit on a business-card CD. DSL is intended to be a system for recovering a broken box. I understand this and the understand the impact the changes would have on DSL's ability to use existing Debian packages. However, the impact is only for a few classes of packages. Most POSIX and GTK applications will run fine. I wish the time and effort put into building the packaging system had been used to allow for the installation of standard Debian packages instead.

Before I wrestle too much longer with DSL I need to get Squeak installed. Wish me luck.