Category Archives: Thoughts

Setting up Fluxbox

I’ve been threatening to try Fluxbox for a while, as the Gnome panel, and the fact that you can’t remove it, really annoys me. A lot of people complain about losing Compiz if they switch, but I have most Compiz options turned off. The only aspect of Compiz that I think is truly interesting is the transparency, and Fluxbox has fake-transparency built in so it does for my needs.

Where to find Guides

This isn’t going to be a how-to for installing Fluxbox from Ubuntu, as there are already some good ones out there: This excellent guide on the Ubuntu Community Docs website, and this guide by LinuxOwns are good places to start. The Fluxbox HomePage is a handy stop, and the Wiki is also a great source of information. If the worst comes to the worst and you just can’t figure it out, you can get help at the IRC #Fluxbox channel on Freenode.

A few Problems I ran Into

Gnome Desktop Control

I followed the Ubuntu guide without too many problems, but I did run into a couple of things of interest. Firstly, one of the first things I did was try to open up Nautilus to see how that looked. Don’t do that, at least, not through the main Application menu. Nautilus has some gnome-based features that basically take control of your desktop, which can cause a few problems. You can bypass this by running nautilus –no-desktop in a terminal, but there is a handy way to bypass these sorts of problems with Gnome apps on the Ubuntu guide here. I just pasted this small section in my ~/.fluxbox/startup script before the section to start Fluxbox.


GSDPID=`pidof gnome-settings-daemon`
if [ "x$GSDPID" == "x" ]; then
gnome-settings-daemon &
fi

Once I had that in my startup config, I had no more problems with Gnome trying to reassert authority.

‘Suggested Packages’

After I finished the guide I made sure my Conky worked, and it didn’t. The reason for this was that I had followed the package manager’s advice and installed its suggested packages with Fluxbox: fbdesk, fbpager, and fluxconf. TIP: Don’t do this!

  • I’m told that fluxconf causes all sorts of difficulties with configuration settings that can really mess the system up. It’s supposed to make it easier to configure Fluxbox. Luckily I had not yet used it, so I just uninstalled it.
  • FBDesk was what was causing my Conky problems. It allows you to place icons on the desktop, which interferes with Conky, and shouldn’t really be necessary any in my opinion, as Fluxbox has much neater ways of organising the desktop, without clutter. I uninstalled that too.
  • I was not aware of any problems with FBPager, but I’ve been told it has been superceded by other things, and I wasn’t using it anyway. For good measure, I uninstalled that one too.

Missing Toolbars

My next problem was a bit, well, noobish. I was having trouble finding windows I’d minimized. I was able to make a key combination in the ~/.fluxbox/keys configuration file like this:


Mod4 Up :ToggleCmd {ShowDesktop} {Deiconify allworkspace originquiet}

This creates a toggle that minimises all the windows on your desktop, then returns them again, when you press <win-up>. It still didn’t return windows I’d minimised to the system-tray, though. I was advised to just ‘use the taskbar’, but what taskbar?

It turns out that there is a taskbar in Fluxbox, and I had accidentally hidden it. An instinctive reaction – see a taskbar, find a way to get rid of it. And in the case of Fluxbox, this is very easy. Just right click on it, and select ‘visible‘. The problem then becomes, how do you get it back again?

This is actually very easy too. Right click anywhere on the desktop to get the root menu, then Configuration>ToolBar>Visible. I felt very silly after that was pointed out to me!

Transparency

One of the things that attracted me to Fluxbox (I’m a sucker for Eye-candy) was screenshots of translucent menus. This is actually done with ‘fake transparency’, which means that a picture of the relevant part of your desktop background is basically pasted onto the menu. It still looks good though!

It’s easy to setup. From the Root menu, select Configuration>Transparency. Make sure Force Pseudo-Transparency is enabled, then adjust the Alphas for the relevant elements you’re interested in. The main one is probably Menu Alpha. Click the left mouse-button to reduce the Alpha, and the right mouse-button to increase it. The lower it is, the more ‘see-through’ the menus will be.

Keyboard Layouts

Another problem I had was with keyboards. LinuxOwns mentions how to make sure the correct keyboard layout always loads on startup, from within the xorg.conf file. Open /etc/X11/xorg.conf in your favourite editor, using sudo. Find the section with:


Section “InputDevice”
Identifier “Keyboard01” #or something similar
#etcetera – they may be more below, there wasn’t on mine.

Look for a line like the one below, if it’s there, or put it in this section, if it isn’t:

Option "XkbLayout" "<your-layout-here>"

LinuxOwns tells us that you can use “be” for the azerty, or “us” for the american layout. My problem was that I have an English keyboard, so I need the UK layout. However, the code is not, as many often use, “uk”, but instead it is “gb”. So I need my line to read:

Option "XkbLayout" "<gb>"

Embedded Terminals

Once I’d finally got the code right, my keyboard worked properly again. Without it, I had no <win> key, and had been unable to use my keyboard shortcuts.

Finally, I having set up my keys, my startup apps, my icons, my theme, my desktop background, and my Conky, (never forget the Conky!) I set about trying to work out how to create my beloved Embedded terminals. You can do it all from within Fluxbox, through the config files, without having to resort to extras such as Compiz (you can’t run Compiz in Fluxbox.) It took a bit of fiddling to work out how to do it, as I couldn’t find a clear How-To, as there is for Gnome. However, I have finally achieved something that (I think) works, and I will write my own how-to about it later.

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1000 Hits! Thanks to Everyone

Less than a month after starting my adventures in Linux, and deciding to write a Blog about what I’ve learned, I’ve hit 1000 total views! Thanks for the support of everyone who has stopped and made use of what I’ve written!

Lusule

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Music and Music Players in Linux

A priority for any user of a new system is probably getting their music up and running. When using Windows, I was an ITunes user. This was not because I particularly liked ITunes, or its way of doing things, though I got used to it eventually. However, I have a large ipod, and I have not found another way of organising it so well, which was pretty much all I used ITunes for.

When switching to Linux, therefore, I needed another player that could organise my IPod. Since I could no longer use ITunes, I was going to have to look at other systems I may not like so well, but that also gave me more flexibility to look for something that actually plays and organises music in a style I like.

I’ve tried xmms and winamp in the past, and though I was once a great fan, I have to say that I no longer particularly like it. I’ve found that organising music purely through folders is useful in terms of keeping them organised, but clumsy in terms of playlists. To play an album requires making a play list for it. The newer versions have worked on this, and now have libraries that can be organised in a very similar manner to ITunes, but I still found I don’t like them. Therefore, this time I didn’t look at this style of player at all.

I started off using Amarok, which is supposed to be a good player if you like ITunes. Indeed, I found this to be pretty accurate. It does seem to be an excellent player for people who like ITunes. Unfortunately, I don’t like ITunes, and have been looking forward to getting rid of it. I moved on.

Next I tried Quod Libet. I really like this player. It’s based on an entirely new way of organising things, focussed around tags and searches rather than folders or libraries. It also works with your IPod – though it does take a long time to load the IPod song list. It can often appear to have crashed while doing this, but it does get there in the end so have patience with it! You can add songs from your music library by right clicking, and choosing ‘copy to device’. You can do the same with playlists. If you prefer a GUI music player, this is definitely the one I would recommend.

Quod Libet

Quod Libet

MPD

As I have mentioned before though, I’ve been experimenting heavily with Command-prompt programs, and if you want command prompt music, there’s only really one application worth looking at; MPD. MPD stands for ‘Music Player Daemon’ and is intended to facilitate running music over a network, or even over the internet. It can also be used for a personal desktop music system very effectively.

You can get MPD from the Ubuntu Universe repository; just apt-get install mpd. The website gives good instructions on configuring MPD here, and on getting started here.

MPD is just the back-end of a music-playing database. In order to use it effectively, you also need a client. You can find a list of the main clients on the MPD website here. The basic command-line client is MPC, which can be installed from the Ubuntu repository also, but does not come packaged with MPD. A slightly more graphical command line client is NCMPC, which makes it easier to visualise and manipulate your playlists and music database. If you prefer a GUI interface, Sonata is excellent. All of these can be downloaded from the repositories.

NCMPC client for MPD

NCMPC client for MPD

Sonata Graphical client for MPD

Sonata Graphical client for MPD

The beauty of MPD is that the clients just give the orders. It’s MPD that plays the music, and it runs happily in the background regardless. This means that you can load Sonata to organise your music, tags, and playlists, if you find its GUI interface easier. However, if you’re working in a terminal but don’t want to shift your train of thought, you can quickly type out a command to MPC. You can use whichever client suits your mood, or all of them at once! It also means that your music keeps playing even while you’re not in X-Windows. And of course, it can be used across a network, receiving commands remotely.

GTKPod

The drawback, for me, is that MPD does not have any IPod support, and there are no plans to implement it. This means that I cannot use MPD to manage my IPod. However, it can be used to create .m3u playlists, (I found ncmpc very effective for this). Quod Libet doesn’t seem able to create or read .m3u lists (please correct me if I’m wrong about this) but GTKPod, a program specifically created purely to manage and maintain ipods, can. This means that you can create playlists with MPD, then add them into GTKPod to add to your IPod. GTKPod can also deal with all the other major IPod tasks that I can think of, managing podcasts, photos, choosing ‘skip shuffle’, an essential for me since I have a lot of audio-files that I don’t want shuffled in with my music.

GTKPod IPod Manager

GTKPod IPod Manager

I haven’t yet decided which i prefer, MPD or Quod Libet, and in reality they are probably not truly comparable. However, the MPD/GTKPod combo does seem quite powerful for my needs, and as I’ve said before, I do like my Command Line apps. Don’t go for Rhythmbox or Amarok unless you really like ITunes.

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IRC clients and IRSSI

Anyone who wants to really get anywhere with Linux quickly learns the power of IRC as a source for help, advice, and plain friendship. A good IRC client is therefore important.

I’ve tried a few since starting my Linux experiment a month ago. I started with the Pidgin IRC mode. It’s pre-installed with Ubuntu, it’s easy to find, and not too difficult to set up. However, I quickly found that it was not only simple, but also clumsy, and I didn’t feel very comfortable with it in general.

So I decided to move to Xchat, which was highly recommended to me by several people. I really liked this client. It was logical, clear, and I found it easy to understand and follow what was going on, even in several different windows. You can choose between a tabbed system and a chatroom-tree for displaying your different windows, and the colour scheme makes the different parts of the conversations nice and clear. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who prefers using a GUI.

I have recently decided to make a break for more of a command-line based system, though, and for my command line IRC I have chosen IRSSI.

Compared to some command-line programs, I found IRSSI surprisingly easy to set up. To start, with, I found this extremely good and clear guide on setting up IRSSI to connect to Freenode, so I won’t bother to write my own. I just followed the guide, and was up and running in no time.

Unlike xchat, you don’t get to use the mouse to move around IRSSI, and that’s probably it’s main difficulty. It’s also its main strength, since once you get the hang of the keyboard, moving around is actually a lot faster.

Once you’ve joined the channels you want, you need to know how to switch between them. This is actually quite easy – just hit alt-(1-0) to switch between tabs 1-10, and alt-(q-o) to switch between tabs 11-19.

There’s a lot of settings you can configure, dictating aspects such as whether a new tab opens when you get a private message, whether tabs automatically close when you /part from a channel, and so on. For a full list of options, type /tab or look at the IRSSI site here.

One of the settings you can configure is the colour scheme. I haven’t yet dived into making my own scheme, but there’s a lot you can download here and here. Download them into your ~/.irssi folder, then in IRSSI type /set theme <filename>.

Other useful commands are /msg <nick> to send someone a private message. /part leaves a channel, /wc closes it. /quit quits IRSSI altogether. There are plenty of other commands, but those should cover the major points. If there are any important commands you think I’ve missed, feel free to add a comment!

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Embedding Terminals

Following on from my love of Conky, I’ve been playing around with embedding other applications into the desktop. One of the most useful tricks with this is to embed a terminal that’s always there for a quick command or two.

An easy way to get an embedded terminal is with Screenlets, which can be downloaded and installed through Synaptic if you’re using Ubuntu. The terminal screenlet can be downloaded from the website, and installed within the screenlets manager. It can be set to transparent, with its own colour scheme.

If you’re using screenlets anyway, this may be a good system, but I found it slightly buggy, and since I’m not using another other screenlets, it’s just another program to start up.

Instead, I found this guide on how to embed gnome-terminal windows, if you’re using gnome and Compiz, perfect for us Ubuntu users.

I followed the guide, but hit a problem with specifying the geometry dimensions of my window, as I didn’t like the dimensions the writer had used for his window.

The solution is in a handy little command-line tool, xwininfo. Set up a terminal exactly the size and shape you want your embedded terminal to be. Then type:

xwininfo | grep geometry

This will give you a little mouse pointer. Use it to click on the window you want the information about, in this case our terminal window. It will return the exact size and position, which you can then use for your start-up script.

The result of all this embedding is a desktop that looks like this:

A minimalistic look with Embedded Terminals

A minimalistic look with Embedded Terminals

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The power of Vim

Anyone who wants to actually get to grips with their Linux system and get the most out of it is going to spend a lot of time in text-editors. Ubuntu provides gnome’s gedit for this purpose, and it’s pretty good.

However, I thought I would just mention Vim, a terminal-based editor (with GVim for those who prefer a GUI). I’d heard about it and decided to give it a try, and I have to say I loved it. It’s powerful, quick, and highly configurable. I’m even editing this blog with it, through a plugin called vimpress.

There’s no point writing a lot about Vim, since it’s been around since the dawn of time (it feels like) and is well documented elsewhere. However, it has a very steep learning curve that can be quite daunting to the new user. It’s still very much worth getting to grips with though, so I thought I would put together a quick collection of good places to look if you want to learn to use Vim properly.

The best place to start is probably with Vim’s own tutorial. To run this, simply type vimtutor at the command prompt (you need to have Vim installed, of course!). It should take about 30 minutes to run through

http://www.vim.org/

Vim’s home page is another good place to get information, with extensive documentation and guides. However, I found it quite daunting.

http://tnerual.eriogerg.free.fr/vim.html

For me, this is the best reference I found. Once you start to understand the basic principles of Vim, you can use this to learn the rest. I printed off a copy which I keep by my desk, literally for quick reference, with highlighting for the commands which I find most useful. It takes a little effort to get the hang of the symbology, but it’s well worth it.

http://heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/~matloff/UnixAndC/Editors/ViIntro.html

I also found this guide helpful. It takes less time than the Vim tutor, and its reference list is smaller and easier to understand than the quick reference. However, it is only a basic guide and you can do a lot more with Vim than is listed here. I started off with this guide, and moved onto the quick reference later when I had begun to get the hang of things a bit more.

Another source of help if you really can’t find what you’re looking for online is the #vim IRC channel on Freenode. I’ve found the people here are extremely helpful with good response times. They also have a handy Topic message with a few more links you might want to check out.

If none of these suggestions really help, there are literally hundreds of guides out there on the web for Vim. A quick google search should set you up with plenty of helpful material.

If all else fails, remember that Vim isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. There are plenty of other options out there that you can use instead, emacs, gedit, kedit, kate, to name but a few. If you do like Vim, though, don’t forget, you can also get it for Windows!

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Total Installations: 10

By the time of my fourth install, I was really beginning to feel I was getting the hang of Linux. Through IRC, I’d met plenty of really nice and friendly people who were happy to help me through these early learning stages. I’d been invited to a couple of more private channels, where I could get more immediate help on several matters, enjoy more general chat, and hopefully one day, learn how best to help people in return.

I began to get a bit frustrated therefore, when I kept having this problem with X-Window applications refusing to open. I received many different ideas about what could be causing it, and many different suggestions about how to result it, including turning on (or off?) noapic and nolapic in my Gnome session options. I still haven’t worked out what that would have done, because someone else came up with the idea to mv ~/.gnome2 ~/.gnome2.backup, and that seemed to fix it, at least temporarily. However, it erased many settings, and the problems kept coming back again. I tried reformatting a couple of times, but still the problems returned.

All this reformatting made me a genius at installing Ubuntu and setting it up quickly, using my back-up files, but it was still frustrating. Eventually, after one experienced Linux user after another gave up on trying to find the cause, I decided to just stop deleting the last Gnome Panel. I have it seethrough and auto-hidden instead. It’s not ideal, but I haven’t had the X-apps problem since, so I guess that was indeed the problem.

After 7 installs, I finally began to feel like I was getting somewhere. From knowing nothing about Linux, I had learned how to install it, and set up the graphics. I had made plenty of friends in IRC who were happy to give me support when I messed things up (no matter how often I messed things up!) and I had learned to thoroughly customise my desktop to exactly the way I wanted it. Whichever way I wanted it. I was feeling pretty good. I decided to do one last install, to ensure I had a clean slate with everything working properly.

Fluxbox

Once I had my system set up again I decided to give Fluxbox a try. The fact that I couldn’t delete that bar was still bugging me, and I’d heard that Fluxbox is a good, simple Window Manager. Where I went wrong, I suspect, is in performing this particular experiment at one o’clock in the morning. I followed the instructions that LinuxOwns posted here.

It installed fine, I logged out of gnome, changed session, and logged into Fluxbox. Maybe because I was so tired, I didn’t really take to it. It didn’t feel comfortable and the menus felt unwieldy. Maybe with more patience and research I would be able to customise it to a way that works better for me, but at that time of night I decided I wanted to be back in Gnome, so I logged out, changed sessions, and tried to log into Gnome again.

This is where it all started going wrong again, as Gnome wouldn’t load. It just got stuck and hung. So I tried going back into Fluxbox. That didn’t work either. I decided to go to bed and worry about it the next morning.

It didn’t look any better the next morning, so I set about trying to fix it. I couldn’t get into my GUI desktop, but I could still fiddle and experiment using the virtual terminal, which is one of the things I love about Linux. I tried a few things, uninstalling Fluxbox, trying failsafe mode, deleting my .gnome2 folder again, but nothing worked. In the end, I backed up my files and installed yet again. Next time, I am going to have to learn to fix things properly!

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