At times there’s too much freedom in free software...

At times there’s too much freedom in free software...

November has come, the winter nights are drawing in (here in the UK), time for some indoor activities. One of these activities is a long overdue housekeeping exercise in the home directory of my GNU/Linux box. Let’s face it, in the day-to-day operating of my computer, I don’t always tidy up after myself. All sorts of unused rubbish clutter up name space and the various subdirectories of my home directory, and it uses up significant disc space, not to mention the extra resource for my (too infrequent) backups.

Time for a tidy up.

After practicing the use of the rm command and the “Delete” key in file manager GUIs, I can now see some wood through the trees. Gone are my never looked at photos from that day out so long ago. Gone are the weird and wonderful pieces of software I downloaded for a quick one off evaluation. Gone is my file called qq.tgz with a date stamp of last January containing a compressed version of god knows what. I have been ruthless in clearing up the clutter. Old, weird file names that have given me a warm comfort blanket factor, but were totally useless—now history. My downloads directory—which may have something I have been deluding myself I might need in a peculiar set of unforeseen circumstances—trashed. The "ls" command can now do a long listing in a single “gnome-terminal” session (maximized) and I don’t need to scroll back and forwards or pipe to more. The clutter has disappeared!

Well—not quite—I backed it up first. I’m not quite THAT brave.

I have some mess I feel I cannot touch. It’s using my space but deleting it is a no-no. I’m talking about those hidden configuration files. Those DOT files and directories. I have eighty of them in my top level home directory! I know that developers kindly put them there for my own benefit; I’m a developer and I create helpful DOT files for any person gracious enough to run my programs. However, I’m now finding they shout out to me whenever I view my home top level directory. They are out of control!

A good solution to this is for there to be one top level directory in each home that should store those files. I would suggest .etc, or ~/.etc to give it a more geeky name. That one file in my home directory I could cope with. I’d know what it is for, and I’d be unlikely to accidently delete important configurations from there. I’d even be happy to adopt my programming style to using it.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen. The free nature of free software gives people the freedom to do what they want, rather than force them down a particular route. Granted, there are ancient standards that people more or less adhere to, such as using DOT files for user specific configurations, but these standards get old and don’t cater for the demands of a modern GUI system. Everyone likes standards, unfortunately everyone tends to like their own and ignore all the others. In free software there is no big boss shouting “DO IT THAT WAY OR ELSE!”. Granted, this enables freedom of system writers to create whatever they want, but it creates inconsistencies and inconveniences for the end-user, most of which, with a little organization, would be totally avoidable. The LSB goes some way toward fixing this, but there’s still a long way to go.

I like free software. I like working in the environment, and using the result. I can appreciate that having no central organisation is probably a small price to pay. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to shut up and put up with those eighty files I cannot do anything about.



admin's picture
Submitted by admin on

Comment from: Terry Hancock [Member] ·

2005-11-06 @ 14:52
However, the Debian distribution, for example, has extensive policy documents, and source distributions are routinely patched and modified to make them comply. A simple change like this would not be hard to implement (e.g. "sed s/\.mozilla/.etc\/.mozilla/g" if my sed-fu isn't too rusty) in the packaging process. I've had to do similar tricks to get packages to put their global config files into /etc, which is already a policy requirement for Debian (I say "Debian" only because it's what I use, they are conforming to the LSB, and I'm sure many package distributions do the same thing).

So, if you seriously thought this was worth implementing, there are central points to send the idea. Changing Debian policy or LSB policy would accomplish this.

OTOH, given that dot files are invisible by default on *nix systems, I was never bothered by this personally, and it's pretty easy to use "du -sk .*" to find out what each one is costing you.

Also, I'm pretty vicious about deleting dot files from programs I don't use. Generally, the worst consequence is that you'll have to reconfigure the program if you start it again. In fact, this is my answer to the Windows' world "delete and reinstall" solution -- just 'rm -r .kde' and start over (Kids: don't try this at home)!

Comment from: Steven Bartrim [Visitor] ·

2005-11-19 @ 22:26
I really liked your comments here. I hope you're going to update your site soon. thins that excited you at 14: , black girls on their mission , my parents didnt told me about it

Snappy's picture
Submitted by Snappy on

I have to agree with most of this article's points. Freedom of choice left totally unchecked results in totally disparate, non standard implementation and design. That's good in certain cases, like art and other creative applications. But in the case of a family of Operating System such as *nix, it may be good to at least have certain standards in place.

Freedom is and should continue to be the emphasis. But certain standards (guidelines do exists but are too loose to be of use) should be in place to help the market make sense of linux.

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Edward Macnaghten's picture


Edward Macnaghten has been a professional programmer, analyst and consultant for in excess of 20 years. His experiences include manufacturing commercially based software for a number of industries in a variety of different technical environments in Europe, Asia and the USA. He is currently running an IT consultancy specialising in free software solutions based in Cambridge UK. He also maintains his own web site.