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2009-06-01

Article mentioning slackroll in distrowatch.com

Filed under: Software — rg3 @ 21:09

Update: the article this post refers to has been updated and the slackroll part has been removed, citing this post as the cause of its removal. I have not been contacted by anyone yet (“Contact me”, on the right column), but I saw people were coming from the article page in the blog statistics and simply checked it out.

On May 18, 2009, as part of a feature called “DistroWatch Weekly”, distrowatch.com published an article on slackware-current. The author of the article recommended using slackroll to upgrade to slackware-current and suggested how to do so with a few commands. As the author of slackroll, I am forced to comment on it. I already did when the article popped up at linuxquestions.org a few days later, but this is the official statement apart from my initial comments. As most official responses and press releases, this one comes too late.

First, I wanted to comment on my reply to the thread at linuxquestions.org. As you can see, it is not a very polite response. I was not aware that the article existed until I opened the thread, and I did some minutes before going to sleep. I was supposed to be sleeping at that time, because the next day I had to get up early and go to work. I was not happy at all with the article contents, it was too late to write something elaborate, but I had to write something because the article was probably spreading. My initial intentions were to reply to the article directly in distrowatch.com. Unfortunately, it’s not a web site I follow at all. The page containing the article has several more, and I was not sure comments were allowed. As I didn’t see a way to post a comment below the article end, I supposed it was not possible, not realizing comments were at the bottom of the page. Still, apparently you need to be a registered user to post comments, as I am unable to find a way to do it as of today.

I have no personal opinion about the article author. If you read my post at linuxquestions.org and feel some of my words are personal attacks, take into account they are not. He or she is probably a nice person who thought it was a good idea to write that article. I always thought if someone was to write an article about my program for a popular web site or magazine, they would contact me first to inform me and maybe even ask me to review the article and point out mistakes. Experience, on the other hand, has shown this does not happen. This is a lesson to be learned. I will always contact the program author if I ever write an article about it in an important web site or publication, but this is not what people do, apparently. If he or she had contacted me previously, I would have pointed out that the article was completely wrong in many points and that people should not try to do what the article suggests. A popular program I made is youtube-dl. It gained a lot of popularity with an article Joe Barr (RIP) published about it in linux.com. He did not contact me, and it even reached the front page of digg.com before I found out about it. A couple more articles about youtube-dl have been published in printed press and nobody has contacted me before publishing them. Now, this article about slackroll confirms the tendency.

Repeating my words at linuxquestions.org, I completely discourage installing slackroll and proceeding as the article suggests. Furthermore, for good in a sense, the method the article describes doesn’t work. This can prevent a lot of people from making a mess with their Slackware 12.2 installation. Still, it hurts slackroll’s reputation. It barely has any reputation at all, given the fact that it’s used by a handful of people in the world (I estimate less than 50 users worldwide). In that situation, any publicity it gets is going to deeply mark the opinion people have on the tool, so it’s important that it’s good publicity, as I don’t want slackroll associated with “not working” and “breaking people’s systems”. Some people say “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”, but I do not share that view.

About the article contents their selves, the simplest statement I can make is “it is all wrong”. As I already did in my comment at linuxquestions.org, I am going to point out all the mistakes and misconceptions so people have a clear view of the program and in an attempt to wash its public image a little bit. Before it even starts talking about slackroll, the article says that the proper way of upgrading to slackware-current is to “download each individual software package from the current tree and install it with pkgtools. Given that this tree gets on average 2 – 3 updates per week, some of which could contain dozens of packages, this would be very time consuming indeed!”. The reality is that, even if you use a tool to upgrade, you are still going to download all those packages probably, and installing them with pkgtools only takes writing a simple shell loop, so it is not very different. I won’t comment on anything about slackpkg, because I only used it briefly before starting to work on slackroll and I don’t remember the details well enough.

Starting the first comment about slackroll, it says “This tool was specifically designed for those who prefer to run Slackware “current” and want to keep it up-to-date with minimum of fuss.”. This is not true. In the beginning, as I was using slackware-current and the method to upgrade a slackware-current system differs a bit from upgrading slackware-stable, the program only worked with slackware-current, but this was long ago. slackroll has, as of today, 33 releases. Support for slackware-stable was added before making the first official one, so this comment is completely false. It was not specifically designed to “run slackware-current and keep it up-to-date with a minimum of fuss”.

It says “Slackroll works by parsing the Slackware ChangeLog, which is provided in a standard format that hasn’t changed in years, and it comes with tons of options and good documentation on its web site”. The latter part is an opinion that I share. I think slackroll has good documentation. It could be much better but it does have a lot of operations. The first part is completely bogus, though. slackroll does not work by parsing the change log. It parses the slackware change log, that is true, but it does not work by parsing it. Parsing the change log is an additional minor feature that is intended to help users read new change log entries easily, but the real work is done by downloading and parsing a file called FILELIST.TXT, which is present in every Slackware mirror. This is the file slackroll uses to see the which packages are present in the mirror and compare that to the previous situation, noticing if there is a new upgrade, package addition or removal.

The next sentence reads “Personally, I have never had any trouble using slackroll, but as always, this is an unsupported utility, so if something breaks, you are on your own”. The first part is a bit surprising, like I said at linuxquestions.org. If he or she did follow his own method to upgrade to slackware-current in the past, his or her system could be broken by now. The second part is also not true. I can answer questions about slackroll using its bug-tracker, by email, on IRC (I visit the ##slackware channel at Freenode from time to time) and also in the forums at linuxquesions.org. You are not on your own if you have a problem using slackroll.

Finally, it proceeds to list the steps to upgrade to slackware-current with slackroll. Those steps were already not working in the moment the article was published, but this is good in the sense that you will not be able to break your system by performing those steps. The first thing I should say is that, in order to use slackroll, you should always start by reading its tutorial. The program needs to be configured a little bit before attempting to do anything like upgrading packages, and it is recommended that you do this without upgrades pending. It is very important, crucial I’d say, yet the article fails to mention it at all. If you want to upgrade to slackware-current from -stable, you should first set a -stable mirror matching your Slackware version and be sure no upgrades are pending. Only after going through the initial set up process, you should change to a slackware-current mirror to attempt to upgrade. Upgrading involves doing several steps that are very particular to the specific release and they change slightly from version to version. Once you know slackroll, you may realize you can use it to perform the upgrade steps more easily, but the upgrade steps have to be followed carefully. This is important but not mentioned in the article either.

The document you would be looking for is called CHANGES_AND_HINTS.TXT, and hasn’t been updated yet with the correct procedure as of the time I’m writing this. During the last weeks, there have been many important changes in slackware-current like the change to a new package compression format or the release of slackware64-current. If you want to upgrade to slackware-current, I think you need to install the new xz package first, then upgrade pkgtools and finally you can proceed to upgrade the rest of key packages, install new packages, upgrade, and remove old packages as the tutorial mentions. Without those special steps, you will not be able to upgrade. For example, one of the first upgrades you will probably want to make is glibc-solibs, and it is compressed as txz, so you need xz and the new pkgtools to begin with.

That pretty much covers it all. Every program I have published so far is a simple or even trivial tool with few lines of source code. slackroll is not very complex, but it is by far the most complex of the ones I have published and I’m very proud of how well it works. I use slackroll and putmail.py a lot. youtube-dl, while being much more popular, is not something I use frequently. However, slackroll and putmail.py are my personal pets and I try to care about them as much as I can. I hope this helps understanding why I took the decision of writing such a long article about it. Much longer than the article it refers to, but I think it has been worth the effort. I don’t want bad publicity about slackroll and, while I’d like it to have more users (more users means more bug reports and constructive criticism), I would also like every new user to use the tool appropriately without breaking their systems.

I completely discourage people from following the steps in the article and would like to ask people to simply ignore it. Thanks a lot for your time and for reading this.

-Ricardo Garcia

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