I missed this before, sorry.
My experience with Linux from about 0.8 through 2.4 was very simply this: I rolled my own kernel. Even when I was using a distro, I still rolled my own. I can't do that anymore.
And Debian shipped that way from the very start. They've had to change their procedures quite a bit, in fact, to cope with the steadily-decreasing reliability of the Linux kernel. They've had to do backporting of bugfixes and that sort of thing, where they used to just track either 2.2 or 2.4 vanilla. Even 2.4 wasn't good enough for Debian for a long time, and it's MUCH better than 2.6.
I feel bad for the 2.6 Debian maintainers.
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