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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Fri, 30 Nov 2012

Steady improvements in Debian Wheezy -- and a smooth transition from Squeeze

Debian is boring. Releases happen every two years, give or take. Developers spend months and months chasing bugs while other Linux distributions crank out release after release.

But Debian gets better as it inches toward release. And if you're running the Stable distribution (Squeeze instead of Wheezy, still in Testing) you can enjoy the goodness for the next two years -- or three if you wish, as Stable gets an extra year of security patches as Old Stable after a new Stable version is released.

Debian isn't quite as boring as it is conservative. Even though Debian's Testing is more stable than many other distributions' actual releases, you can expect some bugs. And if you follow Testing, as I am at the moment, you get to see some of those bugs get fixed.

Read the rest of this post

Tue, 27 Nov 2012

Set the Xfce Clock the way you want it

Before:

After:

Using the Clock app in the upper panel of the Xfce 4.8 desktop in Debian Wheezy, I didn't like the stock way date and time was displayed as just time only in the default:

08:23 AM

Luckily when you right-click on Xfce's Clock in the panel, left-click on Properties and choose "Custom Format" under Xfce's Clock options, you can use anything that the Unix/Linux date command switches offer. Go to man date and study up for every single option.

At first, I used the easy %c, which is one of a few options in date that bring a whole lot of information into your clock:

%c
Fri 02 Nov 2012 08:23:27 AM PDT

That's good but not exactly what I wanted. I spent considerable time looking at man date. This is more complicated but gives me output more like I want:

%A, %B %-d, %Y - %-I:%M %p %Z
Friday, November 2, 2012 - 8:23 AM PDT

I now have the full day of the week, full month, 12-hour time and time zone -- all with no "leading zeroes."

Lately I've wanted to save a little space, so I use %b instead of %B:

%A, %b %-d, %Y - %-I:%M %p %Z
Friday, Nov 2, 2012 - 8:23 AM PDT

Explanation: All of these parameters are explained in man date. You use a minus sign to remove the leading zeroes in dates and times when they are in single digits: %-d and %-I instead of %d and %I

Spending some time with man date is the best way to get exactly the output you want in your Xfce (or any other Unix-based) clock application.

Also: If you want to go from 08:23 AM to 8:23 AM -- removing the leading zero, use this:

%-I:%M %p
8:23 AM

I pretty much included this last one so I'll remember it. But if I didn't, man date is my friend.

Wed, 21 Nov 2012

Is touchpad sensitivity to blame for erratic behavior?

I'm still trying to get to the bottom of the erratic cursor movement when the Alps touchpad in my Lenovo G555 laptop is in tap-to-click mode.

Having found that this happens only rarely in GNOME, I've tried to find the differences between touchpad configuration in GNOME 3 and Xfce (version 4.8 is what I'm running in Debian Wheezy).

Running a diff on the files has produced a few differences, but nothing that affects sensitivity.

So I've been delving into the many settings of Synaptics and Alps touchpads -- all accessible through interfaces meant for Synaptics touchpads, by the way.

In most modern Linux distributions, you can control the touchpad through the synclient utility. While man synclient helps in figuring this out, you need to look at man synaptics much more closely. That's where the keys to the touchpad-controlling kindgdom really lie. They tell the truth, but that's where they are.

One thing I did was write a couple of scripts that turn tap-to-click on and off. I don't think these needed to be in /usr/local/bin, but I put them there anyway. They did need to be executable. In Xfce I made program launchers on the desktop that call both of these scripts so I could turn them off and on, using the touchpad's tap-to-click when I want and turning it off when it's annoying me.

There are usually system utilities that can help you do this, but they're usually a few menu clicks away, and Xfce in Debian Wheezy -- at least the way I have it set up -- doesn't offer to toggle this behavior for me. And the scripts with launchers are faster anyway.

I'll go into detail about all of this in the near future when I have all of the settings more set.

For now I'm experimenting with touchpad sensitivity. There are a few parameters that seem to control this, and I began by focusing on FingerHigh.

I raised the number to reduce the sensitivity of taps on the touchpad, meaning it takes a harder tap to actually register a tap.

Here is how I set it in the terminal: $ synclient FingerHigh=35

I think the default value was something like 12. When I got to 40, tapping pretty much stopped working. So I'm working with FingerHigh=35 for now.

Another parameter I've been experimenting with is PalmDetect, which is supposed to ... detect your palm.

Once I get the scripts in better shape, I will both publish them on this site and in a publically available repository.

This kind of command-line tinkering and extremely simple scripting is not at all complicated. It's the kind of hacking anybody can do.

Touchpad sensitivity is a problem I've seen not just in the Lenovo G555 but in Windows 7 as well as in Linux, and the lack of control that users in Windows have over behavior of the hardware is a terrible situation.

Tue, 20 Nov 2012

Fedora 18 with GNOME 3 looks like a very nice release

I've been sampling Fedora 18 -- now in alpha -- via the live images mostly as a way to test and come to terms with GNOME 3.6.

I'm currently running GNOME 3.4.2 in Debian Wheezy, but I've wanted to know what was going to be so different in newer versions of the desktop environment.

I'm grappling with those differences, as you can read in posts right around this one. While it seems like this is time for GNOME 3 to settle in a bit, it looks like that will happen maybe a year from now.

Coming at this as a user of GNOME 3 (and I find myself actually liking the environment that many have avowed to leave behind), Fedora 18 is looking like a very good release for desktop users.

I've been comparing it to the Ubuntu 12.10 GNOME Remix, which is sticking with a less-hobbled Nautilus 3.4 along with a GNOME 3.6 base. So far, Fedora 18 appears to be superior. It handles my hardware (and touchy Alps touchpad) better and seems more solid, even in its current alpha form.

Even though the first Ubuntu GNOME remix is a final release, it seems pretty unfinished, and I expect things to be a lot better if and when the Ubuntu 13.04 GNOME Remix is released.

But for now Fedora 18 looks like a very promising way to run a solid GNOME 3 system. Or as solid as it gets, anyway.

Note: Look at this page from the GNOME Project. It offers an ISO that includes GNOME 3.6. I've heard that it's Fedora with a newer GNOME. GNOME is also hosting ISOs for the Ubuntu 21.10 GNOME Remix.

And on the Getting GNOME page, GNOME recommends not only its own ISO but Fedora proper, OpenSUSE, Arch and Debian.

Mon, 19 Nov 2012

GNOME 3 update: 'Connect to Server' lives in GNOME 3.5/3.6, I rant about features being moved and removed, and I fix my GNOME 3.4 problem in Debian Wheezy

In my test of the Fedora 18 Alpha release, I was left thinking the "connect to server" feature in the Nautilus file manager disappeared in versions 3.5.x and 3.6.x of the GNOME desktop environment.

Thanks to readers, I learned that "connect to server" has moved to a separate application that you call from the shell with the not-so-friendly name Nautilus-connect-server, as seen in the image above.

You can still get to ftp, sftp, secure and unsecure webDAV and Windows shares via this application. Again, it's a separate application from Nautilus proper. And when you do call it and go to a server, Nautilus is the application that opens. It's like using Gigolo with Thunar in Xfce, though Thunar has recently added the ability to go to remote servers without Gigolo's help.

Yes, GNOME is separating a feature from its file manager while Xfce is adding that same feature to its own file manager.

What do you think of that?

I am happy that "connect to server" remains in GNOME 3, but I do have something to complain about:

One thing that seems to be missing from Nautilus in Fedora 18 is the ability to create an empty file from within the file manager with the "Create New Document" feature. I do this all the time: I create an empty file, open it in Gedit and then write the file and name it. It's already in the exact directory where I want it. Without this feature, I have to open Gedit, start the file, name it, then navigate to where I want it to be and finally save the file.

It's not a huge deal to create the file in Gedit, then save it where I want it. But this is another case of a feature ("Create New Document") disappearing in Nautilus because the developers feel it's no longer needed. It's absence adds an extra step to my workflow.

I use "Create New Document." I will miss it. It's absence is not a huge inconvenience. But this removal of functionality doesn't help me, or anybody else, in any way.

In this same vein, I'm glad you can still "connect to server" in GNOME 3, but why take the functionality out of Nautilus proper and put it in a hard-to-find, poorly named Nautilus-connect-server? The feature didn't die, but it's harder to access. How does that help?

Heading back to GNOME 3.4.2 in Debian Wheezy, I did fix my problem with not having a desktop at all when I logged into the system. After countless reinstalls of gnome-session and gnome-panel, which sometimes worked for a brief time but usually didn't at all, I followed some advice:

  • I created a new user account in my system.

Surprisingly (or not), that account had a working desktop. And a much faster desktop. When my original user account worked, logging in used to take a full minute or more. Now I could log in and have a working desktop in a few seconds. And the shell responded faster to commands. Or so it seemed.

With this knowledge in hand, I went into my original, non-working account in a virtual console using ctrl-alt-F2, logged in and got rid of the entire .config directory in my home directory:

$ rm -r .config

OK, that wasn't the first thing I did. First I tried to get rid of everything in ~.config that might have had something to do with GNOME. That didn't bring back my ability to log in and use GNOME Shell.

Only killing out the entire .config brought back my GNOME 3/Shell desktop -- and with all the speed that my "new" account had.

Sure, I lost more than a few settings. But I now have a working, seemingly faster user account in GNOME 3 in Debian Wheezy.

Yeah, I thought GNOME 3.6 had a lot of speed improvements over GNOME 3.4, but I think cobwebs in my ~.config ~/.config directory -- possibly due to changes over the Debian Testing cycle -- were killing my desktop performance. In any event, I'm happy enough with GNOME 3.4.2 as implemented in Debian Wheezy to stay there for a good long while.

And despite all the amputations in Nautilus, GNOME 3.6 is looking pretty good -- but not good enough to dump Debian Wheezy for it.

Note: My Chromium browser settings were also in ~.config ~/.config, but since I do sync them over privacy-robbing Google I was able to log in and get all of my bookmarks back in seconds. I lost all of my gPodder settings, which was more of a pain because my sync with gPodder.net was old and incomplete. I also lost my Gigolo setting (that sounds worse than it is).

Now that I've had time to think about it, the way to go about this is to change the name of .config -- maybe to config (with no dot). Then log out and log in. Then you haven't lost anything. GNOME will generate a new .config, and you can then move back in things like your Chromium, gPodder, Gigolo and other configurations that I lost in my haste to fix this GNOME Shell problem.

Another note for command-line newbies: In case you're not on board with all of the bash shell conventions, The "~" in ~.config ~/.config means that what follows it is in my home directory, e.g. /home/steven/.config, since my user name is steven. The ~ is a shortcut for "my home directory" that you can use in the shell to get there:

$ cd ~

is the same for me as:

$ cd /home/steven

Correction note: Thanks to reader Thor in the comments for fixing my syntax with "~" -- you always need a "/", which I have done above, striking through the original type and underlining the new. I should have tested this out before posting it. Like some or many of you, I'm still learning all this.

Sat, 17 Nov 2012

Xfce in the Fedora 18 Alpha

I'll get the disclaimer out of the way early: I'm very aware that Fedora 18 is currently in alpha, that we're more than a week away from the beta, and that Fedora 18 won't see a release until 2013.

Those are all things I'm aware of.

But the state of Nautilus in the Fedora 18 alpha's "main" GNOME 3 edition sent me scurrying to the Xfce build, where -- in contrast to the fail of Nautilus -- I'm already using Xfce's Thunar file manager to work directly over FTP and write onto a web site with the Leafpad text editor.

Except that Leafpad isn't cooperating and saving the file back to FTP.

I'm also looking for distributions that handle my Lenovo G555's squirrely touchpad without random cursor leaps, text highlighting and subsequent accidental deletion.

Is that so much to ask?

Add to that a new cupful of fail in Debian Wheezy's GNOME 3 desktop -- that fail being that I'm not getting a desktop at all half the time in the 3D version of GNOME 3. I just get wallpaper. And I can log out with alt-F4.

That's it. GNOME Classic works just fine. But regular GNOME Shell? It's gone half the time. I can reinstall gnome-panel and gnome-session and everything returns, but am I going to be happy doing that every day or so?

So I'm testing everything I can get my hands on in hopes of finding a Linux-distro port in what has become a very turbulent storm. (Or I could just reinstall Debian and hope my problem disappears.)

My first impressions of the Fedora 18 Xfce Alpha -- knowing, again, full well that this is only an alpha -- are that the desktop is slow to redraw, the FTP in Thunar only half works (this is a problem I've experienced before), and Gigolo is not in the default.

I'll hope that these problems will be fixed before the final release next year. Otherwise Fedora 18 with Xfce is looking pretty solid.

My new, old WordPress blog

Update: "Connect to Server" isn't gone, it just moved. Thanks go to readers who led me out of a non-networked Nautilus desert.

Here is the original post before I was brought to my senses:


If this is what awaits users of GNOME 3.6, I don't blame Ubuntu for sticking with Nautilus 3.4 and Linux Mint for forking the file manager and creating Nemo.

The GNOME developers have got to be kidding.

They take a file manager and REMOVE perfectly good features? They could have HIDDEN the features but left them intact.

Right now I can't figure out how to get the Nautilus in the Fedora 18 Alpha to open an FTP site. This is basic Nautilus functionality that this particular file manager has included for years and years.

And now it's gone?

I know this is a Fedora Alpha, but will the ability to browse FTP/SFTP and WebDAV be gone in future versions of Nautilus?

You can go to other machines on your network (which I never do, by the way) but not to FTP/SFTP and WebDAV (which I do all the time)?

Words fail me.

Even if the feature is really, really hidden, the fact that as a longtime GNOME and Nautilus user I can't find it -- and I do believe it's completely gone -- is so very, very wrong.

Will Gigolo allow me to browse networked files in the "new" Nautilus? Even the Thunar file manager doesn't need Gigolo anymore in Xfce 4.10 -- you can go directly to an FTP site and work directly in the file manager.

Unless I'm missing something, GNOME is screwing the pooch pretty good here.

Again, I know this is the Fedora Alpha, and right now it looks like it's running the development version of GNOME -- i.e. 3.5 instead of 3.6. But this is my first exposure to what Nautilus is supposed to become in 3.6 and thereafter, and I'm stunned. Not in a good way, either.

It looks like more Debian users are turning to Xfce

Going by what I read, Linux and BSD users are abandoning GNOME and Unity for ... Xfce.

They hate GNOME 3/Shell, they don't like what Ubuntu's done with Unity, and they're not crazy about KDE, either.

Enter Xfce. Back in the GNOME 2 days, I found that on a fast machine you really didn't gain much in desktop speed by picking Xfce over GNOME. But on slow, old hardware, Xfce sure could make a difference.

That means on new computers it all boils down to what you like. If Xfce does the job for you, use it.

With GNOME and Unity throwing out the "old" desktop paradigm for a new one that ostensibly helps the tablets and touchscreens none of us are using work better, anybody who wants to keep working in the same way they've been doing for decades is probably looking at Xfce and LXDE as the way going forward.

Some don't want any change, but most want evolution instead of revolution, and they don't want nonexistant tablets to dicate how they use their mouse-and-keyboard computers.

I get that.

Even Windows users are in this. Windows 8 probably won't throw out so much baby with bathwater, but the changes in the Microsoft desktop would ordinarily send geekier users scurrying toward Linux. Unity and GNOME 3 might be too much of a shock.

Enter Xfce.

It has more than enough features. It's fast. It's not undergoing a cataclysmic transformation. It doesn't care about tablets, touchscreens, smartphones or TVs. It's not trying to sell you services or get you to buy shit. It works like a desktop you know. (Like GNOME 2.)

Personally I haven't soured on GNOME 3. I still like it. But I also like having something I know will be there when my hardware isn't so new. A workhorse desktop.

It's here.

Xubuntu 12.10 with Xfce 4.10

Already I like what I see in Xubuntu 12.10.

  • The new Xfce 4.10 desktop environment with a network-friendly Thunar file manager

  • Nice defaults and design (which you usually get in a distribution's "native" desktop environment but not so often without it)

What I don't like:

  • The Alps touchpad in the Lenovo G555 is jumpy

Onto the next ...

Could I be happy in Ubuntu 12.04 with Unity?

Increasingly my litmus test on whether or not I can live with (and maybe embrace) a given Linux distribution on my Lenovo G555 comes down to one thing:

  • Does it keep the cursor from jumping around the window and randomly deleting things when tap-to-click is invoked for the touchpad?

It's a sad commentary on the lousy Alps touchpad in this laptop, the state of operating system software and drivers (Windows 7 is among the OSes that can't deal) and my obsession with a machine that doesn't eat my work.

If I could only figure out how Debian Wheezy with GNOME 3 (but not with Xfce 4.8, or Ubuntu 12.04 with Unity does it, I could take that information with me to make the touchpad work well in any damn Linux distro. I used the output of synclient -l in Debian Wheezy with GNOME 3 and Xfce 4.8, doing a diff and using a synclient script to compensate for those differences in Xfce. I still get a jumpy Alps touchpad on the Lenovo G555. So GNOME is doing something else that doesn't show up in synclient. But what?

I can tell you that the Ubuntu 12.10 GNOME Remix does not possess this secret touchpad sauce. I have to check Xubuntu 12.04 and 12.10, Fedora 18 (GNOME and Xfce).

Just this moment Ubuntu 12.04 suddenly highlighted this whole post and deleted all the text in a single keystroke. I used ctrl-z to bring it back, but Ubuntu 12.04 exhibiting this same disturbing behavior would mean that Debian Wheezy with GNOME 3 stands alone in the "didn't eat my homework" department. More testing is in order.

Things in Ubuntu 12.04's favor are its LTS status -- it'll be around through 2017. I can't see myself using any release that long, but it could come to that, and the ecosystem around an Ubuntu LTS is formidable.

Sure I could turn off tap-to-click and make this whole problem go away. Since I use an external (generally wireless) mouse most of the time, this isn't as much of a deal-breaking problem as I'm making it out to be.

I'm in the Ubuntu 12.04/Unity live environment right now, and it looks pretty nice.

The menus appearing in the upper panel instead of in the application window is a "feature" of Unity that continues to disturb me. It doesn't help my productivity one little bit. I don't use Macs all that often, but Apple does this better.

The other design elements are less offensive. There's a refreshing attention to detail that for the most part helps more than it hurts.

The Dash is very responsive. In 12.04 it doesn't drill into application menus like it's supposed to do in 12.10 (I haven't tried it, hence the supposed reference) and basically re-implements what GNOME 3 does with it's desktop search for applications and files.

While the best outcome would be my figuring out the secret touchpad sauce and using it on any distribution in any desktop environment, I'd like the option of using GNOME, Xfce and even Unity without suffering from the cursor-jumping problem.

Right now I'm liking Ubuntu 12.04 with Unity. Given all the controversy over shopping lenses in 12.10, I expect that it'll have more users than it might have had otherwise.

A stable system with GNOME 3.6.x and/or Xfce 4.10 is also something I'd like to park on this laptop.