I now have a stable operating system running only free software (free as in freedom) running on my old Compaq (see below). If it were a person, it's feet would be two inches off the ground.
But can I listen to MP3's, watch video clips on the BBC or YouTube or watch DVD's? That will require some non-free software (as in freedom, but still free as in beer). It will also leave the computer distinctly earth-bound and not in its previous extramundane state.
MP3's were easy. Just a case of installing libxine1-ffmpeg.
Flash required a bit more effort. I had to add a repository for lenny-backports ( "Be warned : The resulting system can't be considered plain "stable" anymore"). If, like me, you're wondering what backports are, the Debian Wiki has an explanation.
DVD's also required adding a repository- this time debian-multimedia. After installing libdvdcss, and inserting a DVD, Totem popped up and auto-played it, but only the first chapter- the copyright notice and introductory screen. I installed MPlayer but that had the same problem. A quick Google suggested that this is a common problem in Debian- the support for DVD menus isn't there (both Totem and MPlayer can display DVD menus in Ubuntu). One media player that can handle DVD menus in Debian is gxine. Information on installation is in the link above.
After adding the debian-multimedia repository and checking Update Manager, there was a warning about "new dependencies for some new applications or newer versions of existing dependencies" and an option for a "smart upgrade". (As described here.) I took the option for a smart upgrade and it seemed to work out all right, but still, what was all that about?
In short, enabling the proprietary/non-free/possibly illegal packages which a lot of people (including me) use without much thought is trickier on Debian than on Ubuntu. Even on Ubuntu, it can be daunting if you're using Linux for the first time, or don't have much computer experience. I can see why distros like Mint are popular.
My experience with Debian was made more difficult than it needed to be because there was no multimedia installation page provided by Debian to refer to- I had to get information from a lot of different pages, many of them blogs or Linux resources rather than Debian pages. It something that Debian seems to be working on, which is good to know.
The feet of all Linux users do not hover two inches above the ground through purity and holiness.