1

Why couldn't I just mount the ISO and copy the files over to the stick?

2

The ISO filesystem is read-only, and those bootable Linux images are usually created in a way where they are both a bootable ISO and a bootable hard-disk image (with bootrecord and partition table), so they could be copied to either a CD or a USB stick.

You can however create your own modifiable and bootable USB stick if you don't intend to ever burn it to a CD or DVD: partition it with fdisk(1), install grub(1) on it, etc.

1

Nothing is special about the programs, but they do create a special program on the USB storage: they create a program called a boot loader.

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