Title text: This really is a true story, and she doesn't know I put it in my comic because her wifi hasn't worked for weeks.
Cueball's cousin decides to install Linux on her new PC, and calls Cueball, whom she views as her personal Linux expert. The overarching joke revolves around the fact that Linux, especially home PC-based GNU/Linux, is much more often used as a "hobby" OS, as compared against a "productivity" OS such as Windows or macOS. Large numbers of people use Windows or Mac by default, because it came with their computer hardware when they bought it, and it already had the software suite they wanted to use installed along with it. Linux, on the other hand, rarely comes pre-installed on PC hardware and generally must be deliberately chosen and acquired. While it can be set up to achieve efficient and productive workflow in virtually any area on PCs, because it often must be consciously selected, installed, and configured by users, it tends to either attract or, in a few cases, create individuals who take disproportionate pleasure in, and derive self-identification from, hacking the operating system itself. Thus, many people who are Linux enthusiasts began by not really knowing anything about it other than that it's free of cost, but the process of actually building Linux on their machines gradually led them to take an increasing interest in it, which the comic humorously likens to substance addiction.
Xorg (officially X.Org) is an implementation of the X Window System, a program responsible for the graphical display used on Linux. If it has configuration problems, which was quite common with some video card drivers back in 2008 (especially those for ATI Radeon cards), it is often difficult and/or painful to fix (see 963: X11). Man pages are manual pages for Unix-based operating systems and software, usually accessible online but also bundled with the software itself. Considered helpful and clear by the sorts of advanced computer users who typically run Linux, the text-only documentation requires a bit of a learning curve and is not generally adequate for less-technical users. Here, the joke starts to build in that Cueball's cousin, a computer novice who just wanted something to work out of the box, is now having to learn how to understand Linux documentation in order to even 'attempt' to fix her ongoing Xorg problem (likely an inability to start a graphical terminal, something a novice user would depend on).
In the third panel, we see that the cousin's problems are persisting. She may have been able to get a graphical terminal to work, but now Ubuntu's built-in auto configuration tools are failing to address another critical problem. She suggests that she is considering switching to a more "advanced" Linux distro in order to sidestep the failing autoconfig issues. A Linux "distribution" is a suite of tools and applications that provides a specific user experience on top of the core Linux operating system. Each distribution, or "distro," has a different look and feel and different feature sets and design philosophies. Ubuntu is a very popular "beginner" version of Linux, designed to "just work" and be familiar/usable to people fresh out of Windows. Debian is a popular but somewhat more "advanced," traditionally "Unix-like", distro, with a huge and diverse base of supported software that generally requires more Linux know-how to configure and use. In fact, Ubuntu is based on Debian, and under the hood they have similar features, so that it would not be considered much of a leap for a competent Ubuntu user to switch. Gentoo, on the other hand, is a very advanced distro allowing for extreme customization and optimization, but requiring extensive install and setup time. It is generally considered to be extremely complex and beginner-unfriendly (to the point that its difficulty has become somewhat memetic in the Linux world), a trade-off for providing a powerful and versatile set of tools for advanced system hacking. It appears that during her six-week struggle to build her system, Cueball's cousin has started to consider that her problem would require a solution that could only be accommodated by complex tweaking.
In the fourth panel, there is a strong implication that the cousin has indeed switched to Gentoo, because a hallmark of that distribution is that the kernel (the basic core of the operating system) must be compiled from source code upon installation. Source code is a computer program expressed in an somewhat human-readable format, often simply as text. However, source code cannot be run directly by a computer, and instead needs to be "compiled" into low level machine instructions the computer can understand. This means that with Gentoo, instead of downloading an already functional Linux system to install and run, users download the source code for the system, customize it to their own needs, then compile the code into a runnable version of the OS, all before they can begin to use the system. The cousin has been forced to do this, because whatever her problem is, the solution required a customized kernel. This could include needing the kernel to be compiled in a non-standard way not supported by more mainstream distros, incorporating experimental third party code into the kernel or modifying the kernel herself to fix the problem. Compiling a kernel with the aforementioned modifications is a tricky affair, since any mistake or oversight can render the kernel, and thus the computer, non-functional. If a mistake is made or the custom kernel does not fix her problem, the kernel needs to be compiled anew. The fourth panel also implies that the cousin has been stuck in a trial and error loop, compiling the kernel over and over again for the better part of 6 weeks in an attempt to fix her problem.
To many such advanced users, their installation of Linux is like a hobby sports car: A never-ending project, constantly tweaked and cleaned and adjusted to improve performance, that spends far more time sitting around with its hood open than actually being used for its ostensible purpose. However, for more typical users who are interested in a functional computer system instead of a toy or project system, Gentoo can be highly frustrating or plainly unusable. By week 12, Cueball's cousin is likely suffering from the sunk cost fallacy, in that she believes that since she has put in so much time, she needs to see it through. She might also be optimistically underestimating how much additional work will be required, since at each point Linux does at least offer potential solutions due to its customizability. Finally, there could be an element of target fixation, in that the cousin has become so focused on the problem, she has forgotten about her original plans for the computer or that Windows is still an option.
In the fifth panel, Randal riffs on the old anti-drug message "Parents, talk to your kids about drugs before someone else does," with the meaning being if a responsible adult does not educate their kids about the dangers of drugs (or Linux), then someone else (likely a peer) might convince them that drugs (or Linux) is a good idea. This brings us to the overall theme of the comic, in that Linux might 'seem' like a good idea for the average, less-technical user, but in reality will open up a world of pain that will hinder their ability to be a computationally functional member of society. There is an additional call to the theory of gateway drugs, where mild drugs like alcohol or cannabis will lead to harder drugs like cocaine and heroin. In the comic, Cueball's cousin starts out with Ubuntu, a "gateway" version of Linux. However, it quickly leads to harder and harder versions, all in a futile effort to solve her problem, with the end result being her vanishing for weeks inside her house like a junkie hopelessly hooked on drugs.
The title text continues the joke about Linux's poor support for many Wi-Fi cards common in 2008, a device that is not only well supported on Windows, but was typically seen as making networking easy for less technical users.
While the comic primarily pokes fun at the difficulties in using Linux (circa 2008), it indirectly shows some of the advantages. The first one is that it is a freely available alternative to Windows, and the second is that it provides users the tools to make fixing problems possible, whereas with Windows, the only problems that are fixed are the ones Microsoft chooses to fix. The comic is also somewhat anachronistic, as over time, hardware support in Linux has become much more robust. It is currently unlikely that Cueball's cousin would wind up in kernel compile hell to enable basic functions such as graphics and Wi-Fi. The world's most popular operating system, Android, is a flavor of Linux, and the growth of web-based applications has pushed much of even the desktop user experience into the browser. As of 2017, it would be unlikely that the cousin would even consider a desktop computer, instead relying on her Android phone or tablet.
- Linux: A True Story:
- [Cueball talks on a cell phone.]
- Week One:
- Cousin: Hey, it's your cousin. I got a new computer but don't want Windows. Can you help me install "Linux"?
- Cueball: Sure.
- [Cueball's cousin sits in an office chair with her laptop on her lap. She is on the phone.]
- Week Two:
- Cousin: It says my XORG is broken. What's an "XORG"? Where can I look that up?
- Cueball: Hmm, lemme show you man pages.
- [Cueball's cousin crouches on the floor with the laptop on her lap. She is still on the phone.]
- Week Six:
- Cousin: Due to auto-config issues, I'm leaving Ubuntu for Debian.
- Cueball: Uh.
- Cousin: Or Gentoo.
- Cueball: Uh oh.
- [Cueball's cousin lies on her stomach with the laptop on the floor. On the floor are several pieces of paper and a book. Cueball stands to her left.]
- Week Twelve:
- Cueball: You haven't answered your phone in days.
- Cousin: Can't sleep. Must compile kernel.
- Cueball: I'm too late.
- [Box with text:]
- Parents: talk to your kids about Linux... Before somebody else does.
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