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Wait, I Thought Command Lines Were More Evil Than Hitler?

Date/Time Permalink: 05/10/09 02:00:33 am
Category: General

You don't need to ponder your answer, you just need to free-associate the first thing that pops into your mind: What is the number-one leading complaint people have about Linux? Go!

The two words now emblazoned in your cerebellum like flaming Elvish writ by hand of Sauron are "command" and "line". Here, try these Google searches:

"linux sucks" "command line" - 5,090 hits
"linux will never" "command line" - 5,630 hits
"linux on the desktop" "command line" - 9,840 hits

See some familiar old flames? It's kind of like a song set to the tune of "The Blue Danube Waltz", only the lyrics go "Whinge whinge whinge whinge whinge... whinge whinge, whinge whinge" whenever the subject of the Linux command line comes up, even among those who claim to love Linux.

But suddenly, Microsoft is including their own command line shell with the next version of Windows, and the pundits immediately change polarity and weep hot tears of joy over the glory of command lines, faster than a Republican trying to pin the crashed economy on Obama. Now you can't look up command lines on the web without being distracted by the waving pom-poms as cheerleaders everywhere rave "YAAAYYYY COMMAND LINES!"

Suddenly, because it's Microsoft doing it and not Linux, command lines are sexier than Twitter.

LifeHacker gasps "What are your favorite scripts and uses for PowerShell?"

BetaNews wets itself and lists PowerShell as #9 in their "top ten Windows 7 features".

NetworkWorld boldly cites PowerShell as a reason why Windows 7 will crush Linux. I hope you had Windex and paper towels handy after reading this one.

PowerShell has an evangelist. Check the comments. Worship, worship, worship. Imagine a Linux blog evangelizing about Linux's command line without attracting a single, solitary troll.

The Windows PowerShell Blog is rolling in hits, with the tagline "Automating the world one-liner at a time." Wow. Just wow. Just because I'm curious to see if these people actually believe themselves that Microsoft invented command lines or if they're just trying to give everybody else that impression, I searched the site for 'linux' and turned up this gem: Appreciation for this "fair" comparison of PowerShell with Bash, as opposed to those other rotten, ungrateful Linux elitists who won't acknowledge that Bill Gates is Jesus.

TechWorld's review of PowerShell muses,

"it’s not the hardest thing in the world to get used to. It’s just a case of learning the keywords and, most importantly, figuring out how to find your way around the help system."

You're very smug, aren't you, Mr. Cartwright? Lucky for you that those aren't new Linux users you're telling to learn keywords and read the documentation, because you would get tarred and feathered and burned at the stake by the blog-o-sphere for that kind of... I believe the word is "elitism".

Yes, the word is 'elitism'. It certainly gets screamed at me often enough for advocating learning and hacking; I think I've been familiarized with it.

Never forget: the only thing free software is doing "wrong" is not being an abusive monopoly. Another of the tragedies of Linux is that half of its own developers fall for this FUD, tearing up their perfectly good work because they've been told there's something wrong with it.

It reminds me of what Gloria Steinem said of the so-called pro-life (anti-choice) movement, "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament." Yes, it's our old friend hypocrisy, again. Now command lines are a sacrament because Microsoft has them. Even Granny and Joe Sixpack say so now.

A completely unrelated ray-trace I did

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Fear and Loathing at Technology Open House

Date/Time Permalink: 05/01/09 03:27:27 am
Category: Geek Culture

My daughter dragged me along last night to her school's event, "Technology Open House". Mainly for the giggle value; if any parent would be fun at this event, it would be me. The event was set up with different activities in different rooms, and you had to run back and forth like cattle in a chute milling from room to room. And I came away with a mingled mixture of appreciation and disgust.

The event was put on by QWest, who are granting $15,000 to Des Moines Public Schools. I heaved a guarded sigh of relief: at least I wouldn't have to pretend to be nice to Microsoft all night, but on the other hand, this is QWest.

First we got to log into the school's own Wiki and talk about how technology impacted our lives. "It's shiny!", I added, "It has lots of buttons and lights up!" My daughter gave me one of those looks so I had to write the boring old practical stuff. But hey, it's a Wiki! ka-ching for open source!

Next it was a podcasting demonstration, which involved speaking into a microphone and hearing your voice played back. Golly, us Iowa yokels were supposed to think, it's black magic. Actually, as I leaned in to look at the operator's screen, it was Audacity. ka-ching for open source!

Then it was off to the videoconferencing demonstration, where half of the family goes to the gym and the other half go to the library. Big screens on the wall used Skype to... well, as Wikipedia says, "Skypecast" between rooms. ka-ching for... oh, well, it's actually freeware. But it's open-source-friendly, sort of! I was determined to see silver linings if I had to paint them myself. The kids get to "interview" their parents; when my turn came my daughter asks "What has impressed you most here so far?" and my looming head on the eight-foot screen said, "A lot of it's open source." in front of the throngs of other bewildered parents.

Then it was to the art room, to get your digital photograph taken and emailed to you. Except, uh-oh, the person taking down everybody's email address is sitting in front of a frozen Windows laptop with an Excel spreadsheet open which she can't save, so she's writing everybody's email down on a sheet of paper. My daughter takes the opportunity to hoot that that never happens to her, because she runs Linux. A murmur ripples the crowd. ka-ching for open source!

Then it's off to the cafeteria, where a kind of virtual cyber-cafe has been set up with rows of laptops running either wireless or ethernet Internet access. We scurry about, me taking advantage of having Internet Exploder 7 in front of me to check out how pages on my site show up. Things mostly run. I couldn't get the Meebo shoutbox on the Doomed to Obscurity page to come up, but then sometimes it doesn't come up for anybody, period.

The laptops: Are some breed of HP Pavilions, fairly bulky but powerful. Newly bought with the grant. The sticker says "Windows Vista" but they're all running Windows XP. Throughout the evening, random Windows machines freeze or crash. My wife frisked me for live Linux CDs before I left the house, so I can't do anything mischievous. We deal with Windows as best we can, which is still better than most of the Windows-natives manage. When I bring up a second tab in IE, which comes naturally to a Firefox user, I have the occasional staff member looking over my shoulder wondering what on Earth I'm doing and whether they should stop me before I do some dangerous HAXORing.

One laptop complains of having not recognized its network hardware, which prevents Windows from even starting. I reboot it a couple of times, thinking if I can just catch it at the boot screen and hit F10 or something I can try to restore a driver. Another parent, a mom, happens upon me and starts reaching over my shoulder to fiddle with it, so I scoot out of the way while she confidently TAKES CHARGE. Then I have to show her how to reboot. Then I have to explain the error message to her. Then she has to give up. I thought she was in charge of the laptops, but it turns out she's just another parent, and confesses to being "an Apple person". My daughter and I both chime in "We're Linux people." and the mom has to wander away embarrassed because somebody pulled rank on her when she thought she'd be able to preen. Don't take it so hard, lady; you're every corporate manager I ever had.

The QWest representative is there having a raffle to give away fiber-optic-decorated pens. I get in line just to ask him whether they're getting better at supporting Linux and Apple. I listen to him go through his rote two lines on the subject, which he probably hasn't had a chance to recall since employee orientation. The nut of the matter is that they don't support non-Windows platforms, but if you decide to run them anyway, they won't actually come out to your house and shoot you.

That's usually what we have to settle for. Like I said, this was for the giggle value. I didn't go expecting to single-handedly bring the Renaissance in one night.

le cubist sigge

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My Linux Personal Lexicon

Date/Time Permalink: 04/24/09 06:15:12 am
Category: LINKS and Lists

In the spirit of Douglas Adams' The Meaning of Liff, this is the little list of words I've come up with to describe aspects of Linux life. They don't have to make sense - I'm just being silly.

"adminland" n. "ad-min-land"
The console. The black text terminal you get by hitting Ctrl-Alt-F[2-6] and return to the desktop from with Alt-F7. For myself, it's a natural environment on my own machine. For the rest of the household, it's that weird thing that dad does to your computer from over your shoulder when you're having a problem. I've gotten so good at adminland, that all anybody sees is sudden black, a flurry of flying text, and the desktop again with the problem fixed.

"Appleshock" n. "app-el-shock"
The surprise of unzipping a received file which you expect to be from Windows and instead it's from an Apple user. Oh, yes, there are alternative systems out there, aren't there? So now instead of dealing with spaces in file names or all-uppercase DOS-isms, you're dealing with folders that begin with a double-underscore and duplicate files with a dot in front of them for no apparent reason.

"bootpanic" n. "boot-pan-ick"
The sudden realization that you have to struggle to remember the passwords to the machine you're booting, because it's been running for so long. At least one thunderstorm + power blink per year gives me bootpanic on at least one machine.

"decrappifier" n. "de-crap-i-fye-er"
Any script you bang out in anger to solve some stupid problem that shouldn't happen, regarding the output file of a program. Examples include fixing the bloated output of ABIWord when you save to HTML, converting "smartquotes" and "smartdashes" in a file saved from the web to normal ASCII, stripping the usable text out of a Microsoft ".docx" file, and so on and so on. Always saved with a name like "de-*expletive*-izer.sh", with no comments. Months later, you stumble upon these kinds of scripts and have no idea what they do.

"distromacy" n. "dis-tro-mass-y"
The diplomatic politeness with which you treat another Linux user's distro choice when discussing Linux in a face-to-face meeting, after having experienced the thrill of meeting another Linux user in real life. "Oh, you use Linux too! I'm a __! Oh, you use, ah, use _. Yeah, that's a good one too." Later when walking away and out of earshot you remark to your significant other marveling how anybody could use a crap distro like that.

"grepwords" n. "grep-words"
Any word-based game, e.g. Scrabble, Jumble, crossword puzzle. I cheat by using the 'grep' command and some regexp-foo on /use/share/dict/words to turn up all possible words fitting certain letters and space lengths, which actually turns the word game into a hearty regexp puzzle instead.

"McMove" - v. "mick-move"
From the command line, trying to move a file with 'mv' only to accidentally fire up Midnight Commander by typing 'mc' instead. I do this all the time, the keys are right next to each other. And I hate Midnight Commander, I can never remember how to exit it. On at least one machine I've gone so far as to remove the Midnight Commander package and alias mc to mv in .bashrc.

"mntveto" v. "mount-vee-toe"
To override any Linux distro's own eccentric scheme for mounting removable media. Look, Linux distros, bloody-well put the floppy in the /mnt/floppy/ directory, the CD in the /mnt/cdrom/ directory, the thumbdrive in the /mnt/usb/ directory. Alright? By definition, removable media is going to travel from machine to machine, so being able to quickly find the files on a (usually unfamiliar) machine should be a priority. Yet there are 1000 Linux distros with Borg-like consistency in where they put everything else, and yet all 1000 of them have to come up with their own unique, zany little scheme when it comes to mounting removable media. Stop it, you're not funny!

"mousephony" n. "mouse-fo-ney"
The ungodly noise you can produce by catting /dev/mouse to /dev/dsp (the speakers) and then wriggling your mouse around just to hear the squeals and static. Only works on desktop boxes, and only certain machines. If you're really brave, you can produce some infernal growling static with /dev/urandom going to your speakers. An activity for the extremely bored and braindead. (By the way, you stop this with Ctrl-C. You're welcome.)

"schrodinpackage" n. "shrode-in-pack-age"
Any package which you never use but keep installed anyway because some other program on your system might need it. Removing it might break the system, or it might not. Or it might only stop you from doing something you only rarely ever do, but will be nonetheless distressed when you can't do it any more.

"tabslap" v. "tab-slap"
To quickly close a newly-opened Firefox tab whose web page is threatening to crash Firefox. Misbehaving Flash and Javascript are the chief targets for tabslap.

"user" n. "uz-er"
How I pronounce the Unix standard major directory "/usr/", as in "user share", "user local", etc. Yes, I know that "/usr/" actually is an acronym for "unix system resources" and when I found that out, it struck me as daft. It's the user directory - things that users need go in there!

"VDADD" n. acronym: "Virtual Desktop Attention Deficit Disorder"
The tendency to abuse Linux's multitasking muscle by having way too many programs running in multiple virtual desktops or consoles. You end up flipping back and forth reading a line here, editing a line there, watching another five seconds of a video clip, and eventually coming to Emacs with a window-full of code open and asking, "What was I going to do with this?" Having multiple windows open on one desktop doesn't have the same effect, since it's all there at once where you can't forget any of it.

"Windowwart" - n. "win-dow-wart"
Any misfeature which was stupid design the first time it happened on Windows, and is carried over to Linux just to make Windows immigrants feel at home. Should we also install a clutch pedal in all cars with automatic transmissions so that stick drivers will feel at home when they switch to automatic?

cloudy sig

Sanity checks:
Midnight Commander - by dumb luck, I happen to have F9-F12 hotkeyed to open my most commonly used programs; F10 is what I have Fluxbox opening Firefox under. So I have to exit MC via menus.

Mounting - I can recall at least /mnt/removable/, /mnt/media/, and /media/, plus some distros name the media's folder sda1, and I also remember /mnt/thumb/ once. Add to that the other variables - some distros automount, some don't, some require root, some don't, some even pop open a program automatically, which may or may not be the program you were intending to use right now.

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Google Similar Image Search Brings Me Weird Hits

Date/Time Permalink: 04/21/09 09:25:28 pm
Category: LINKS and Lists

Uh, in case you've missed it, Google has released Similar Image Search, a function which allows you to find images similar to the one you're looking at.

And for those of you saying "That's like TinEye!", well, no, since TinEye performs real-time image analysis with an uploaded image and is designed to uncover cases where an image was copied and filtered and reused. Sorta.

The part where my mis-aimed fame comes in? Apparently, one of the favorite ways to test it that most people think of first is to type in "XKCD" - and lo, there in the second result is the parody image I drew for a closing sig on a blog post a year and a half ago. Next thing you know, I'm getting tons of hits.

Oh, well, I think I'm still in the clear, unless Randall Munroe has a copyright on all stick figures or something.

But while everybody's looking for stick-figure comics similar to XKCD, well, I do have a steady webcomic to offer. One that explores the hidden frontier beyond stick-figures! Imagine a universe where people have shapes! Where women have boobs and faces have expressions! Yes, it's all possible with the miracle of modern vector editors...

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America Needs a Renaissance

Date/Time Permalink: 04/16/09 07:18:03 am
Category: General

Yet another big technology corporation is bemoaning the lack of engineering talent for hire in the United States. This time it's Google. With a money-quote from Craig R. Barrett, the chairman of Intel: "We are watching the decline and fall of the United States as an economic power - not hypothetically, but as we speak."

And who is taking our place? Three of the nationalities mentioned as producing prominent engineering talent are Chinese, Indian, Russian. Now, keep those three countries in mind. Let's take a look at a possible indicator, by checking Google Trends for keyword 'Linux', discovering who in the world has Linux on their minds enough to search for it.

Linux trends region

By region, Russia and India are the top 2.

Linux trends city

By city, Russia, China, and India are in the top 3.

Linux trends language

By language, Russian and Chinese are in the top 5.

The US isn't even in the top ten for region, has only one city in the top ten (San Francisco, where all those "libruls" come from!), and English was only tenth for language and dropped off by the time I could snag the screenshot.

Note that Google Trends will change from time to time, but this is a snapshot of today. It's a typical example.

Now, I know the fashionable thing to do at this point is to shout, "Correlation does not equal causation!" Well, no, but it does indicate a tie between events. I don't have to explain that the more engineering knowledge a person has, the more likely they are to have heard of Linux, do I?

I do... but only to Americans. Americans are the ones saying of Linux (and engineering in general), "It's too complicated, it's only for elitist geeks. We have to dumb it down so Joe Sixpack can understand it."

Funny thing is, other countries don't seem to be having problems understanding Linux... or computing in general. Could it be, is it at all possible, that maybe the problem is not that Linux is better suited to engineers than Joe Sixpacks, but that the United States has too many Joe Sixpacks and not enough engineers?

Other countries are happy to do the learning that Americans refuse to do. And, holy smokes, they get more work that way! Wow, what a revelation!

I see this all the time in my freelancing work. Something like 90% of my clients are outside the United States, mostly in the UK, Australia, and Canada. Since my work is in web-related business, for somebody to need my services they have to at least be aware of the existence of an Internet and have at least owned a computer and gotten some ways towards starting a website.

I notice my own little trend: people from other countries are surprised to find somebody like me - living in the heart of the US and yet very tech savvy. I can both deal with the technical side of a website, and write content for the website in good American English. That last part is important, because when it comes to consumers as opposed to producers, Americans are still number one.

At least... until recently. Recently, just this year, I've been seeing more job postings that specify "UK English". And now I install EN-UK spell-checkers. More and more I say 'petrol' instead of 'gas', 'chips' instead of 'french fries', and 'coach' instead of 'bus'. As if I weren't enough of an alien in my home country already.

That's why I giggle when some redneck barks at me, "If you don't like it, why don't you leave?" Hey, I'm the son of an immigrant, my late father having migrated to the USA from Yugoslavia when he was a teen. Where did my interest in computers come from? From my father, who was the first to put a computer in my hands, way back in the 80s. He saw it coming.

And now, every day when I sit down in my home office to work, I already HAVE left America. Professionally, I am a citizen of the world. I could almost declare an embassy zone around my desk. Last American client I had went broke before he could get his business going, and the one before that, too.

The skills are coming from other countries. You want to pass laws to prevent those rowdy foreigners from taking American jobs? Fine, then, the jobs will move to other countries. So now America is going broke. Well, then, the customers will be in other countries, too. There you go, America! You'll be hopping over the south fence to pick lettuce for Mexicans at this rate, but at least thank God you didn't have to join those rotten elitists!

Even that one glimmer of hope I was talking about a couple of posts back, "A Little Start-Up Success Story"? That freelancer he hired was from the Ukraine (hint: it's close to Russia), and the eventual staff of 20 employees he assembled were from five different countries.

America needs a renaissance, and it isn't going to get one. The Old World Dark Ages ran for a good 500 years; America is just starting its own. There is no easy fix; there aren't even any hard fixes. The problem isn't the economy or education or government, but culture. The United States has developed a culture of entitled laziness, and other countries do not. It's as simple as that.

This is part of the reason why I've been blogging less and less and focusing my efforts on new horizons. To get more engineers, first we need young people who want to be engineers. To have that, first we need a culture of encouragement for those young people to grow up in, where learning is honored instead of spit upon. That culture exists in other countries, but not in the United States.

It's never happening here in my lifetime, so I'm going to stop hoping for it. End of line.

end of line

Update: And lo, it came to pass, that the testimony of Penguin Pete was echoed by a top Indian CEO. Americans are unemployable.

"Many American grads looking to enter the tech field are preoccupied with getting rich, Vineet said. They're far less inclined than students from developing countries like India, China, Brazil, South Africa, and Ireland to spend their time learning the "boring" details of tech process, methodology, and tools--ITIL, Six Sigma, and the like."

Got that now? What Mr. Vineet means, but is too polite to say, is that Americans want something for nothing ("preoccupied with getting rich") and don't want to WORK ("spend their time learning") !!!

I wish I could just beat this into people's heads. Americans are throwing themselves in the trashcan. None of them heed what any of us around the world are trying to tell them. They're too busy being rednecks screaming "Were numbur WON!" and denouncing you as unpatriotic or elitist if you tell them that they do ANY wrong at all at all.

The country that was so precious, it was worth spilling the blood of hundreds of patriots for only 230 years ago is now not important enough to think about for one minute. Never was something won so hard with so much toil and then wasted with so much apathy.

Update two I go to bed and get up, and there it is as currently the top submission on Reddit. Did the Americans respond the way I said they would? Of course they did!

Update 9/7/09: I like this quote I just saw: "No, this is the latest battleground, because America, its discourse and its governance has, to put it as tersely as possible, become all but enslaved to the stupidest, most uneducated, trashiest, most fanatic, most incompetent, most mentally unbalanced, most flat out fucking dumb set of people to ever manage to walk upright." - That's even more to the point of what I said, without as much sugar-coating.

Where do you think that quote's from? No, not some 2-bit political ranter, but the Daily Kos.

Sheeeeesh! Nobody ever should accuse me of being radical again.

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Showing My face In A Few New Places

Date/Time Permalink: 04/14/09 04:26:23 pm
Category: Site News

Where the whiskey drowns, and the beer chases, my blues away...

Oh, hi there. Anyway, I've branched out to a few new sites, the better to spread my tendrils of influence across the web. These will be a supplement to my own site.

In the first place, I've made an account on Yahoo Answers. Can't exactly link to it right now, because Yahoo's doing something there where it's all caddywumpus, but then that's pretty much Yahoo all the time. I figure that a lot of my blog's post archive answers some questions that people ask over and over again, so I might as well pounce on a question there if I can help.

I'm also now an Ezine Articles expert writer, a title not nearly as lofty as it sounds. From time to time I'll be dumping an article over there. The purpose of the site is to provide stock articles for e-zines and other use, and anyone can use them as long as the block at the bottom is included (which you can have link back to your own site, soapbox for your cause, etc.). It's a way to dump out those odd topics I like to natter about which don't fit on a site "about free and open source software and the wonders thereof".

I'm also now a Deviant Artist. Deviant gives you a nice little gallery space to dump images, and that's just what I'll be doing. This is a venue to find a home for all my doodles which don't necessarily fit into a blog subject, as well as a way to resurrect dusty old pieces for a second run. Sometimes an image has a story to tell, so I can post an image and chatter about what went into it, too. I'll be posting lots of experiments and works-in-progress there, as well as proper works, so drop there by every now and then.

Oh, and I've also got a Delicious account. I'll be dropping bookmarks there from time to time, just like you'd expect a Delicious account to be used. In 15 years on the web I've amassed tons of bookmarks to stuff that's interesting, but not even tangentially related to open source or even software, so this is a place to shovel some of that clutter out of the attic.

Now, what else? There's also been some added features to the page for my webcomic Doomed to Obscurity, if you haven't been by to check it lately. It's got an archive now at the bottom (happy now, Rainofgods?), a Meebo chat to act as a shoutbox, and an AddThis button for social bookmarking.

Ah, that's better! Now I'm set up for Spring cleaning... whenever Spring decides to grace us with its presence. Ta ta.

by popular demand

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A Little Start-Up Success Story

Date/Time Permalink: 04/11/09 04:50:55 pm
Category: General

Hosted by, of all places, Time.com.

Now before I start, I'd like to answer a question that might be on some of your minds: "Why aren't I sticking more to pure FOSS topics?" And the answer to that is, that tech start-ups tie into open source, especially when they're Internet-based. Open source is a unique enabler for entrepreneurs. Get it free, run it free, let it teach you and you can work on it for practice, and when you're ready, launch a business for darned near nothing.

The way I see it, the more Linux geeks I can guide towards being the next Sergey Brin, the more Linux wins. If we are to replace a ten-billionaire who runs a global monopoly, we must replace him with ten thousand millionaires scattered across the globe.

So, the story is Get Rich Slow and the interviewee talks about how he has this idea for a car review website (I was just lamenting the lack of such a site this month), so he went idea-shopping at 37Signals (I dunno about that Ruby, look out for the scale!), hired freelancers off of Elance and RentACoder (Hi, mom!), and got the site live in January and has now reached a modest profit point.

Due psalms are sung to Paul Graham in the article, and so on. What I like, though, is the snugly portrayal of freelancers and entrepreneur, with one offering a lower fee in exchange for a bite of the company profits. The Time article goes on about how a lean economy forces you to be smart and safe. If you can make it right now, you'll prosper when the fat times come again.

Your humble author can attest that the global online market right now feels just that way. Gone are the bubble-heads who are so stoned with bliss over their huge venture capital checks that they no longer care to drive the business. It's down to the lean, mean, and cautious now. There are fewer clients, but those few are also very serious business people. Less ego and more skill.

This is how FOSS wins, too. Not by being a charging elephant. But by being a million nimble, determined penguins.

Side note: And open source is small-business-friendly, unlike some software corporations.

jest lahk gramma uzeta makit

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Eight Reasons Why Fluxbox Is My Favorite Desktop

Date/Time Permalink: 04/05/09 04:06:31 pm
Category: Reviews

It happened again, this time at Tech Republic. They ask the question "Which Linux desktop would you show to a new user to impress them?" and the answers are limited to 3 versions of KDE, 2 versions of Gnome, 2 variations of Enlightenment... and Fluxbox once again is left lurking in the shadowy anonymous depths of the dreaded option "other".

What the hell does Fluxbox have to DO to get some love around here?

Fluxbox logo

For that matter, what does Window Maker, FVWM, iceWM, and the other diverse Linux-native desktops have to do? You occasionally find somebody who stumbles upon the inconceivable notion that XFCE exists alongside KDE and Gnome, but basically Linux desktops suffer from the same misconception that plagues the rest of technology: binary thinking. There is a maximum of Two (2) choices in any topic, because one brain can't seem to handle the complexity of thinking about more than two. (Microsoft or Apple, Mac or PC, Visual Basic or C++, Democrat or Republican, Coke or Pepsi, God or Devil) Even Linus Torvalds seems to not be aware of anything beyond KDE and Gnome.

Well, bust that. If you haven't tried Fluxbox yet, you don't know what you're missing, and here's why:

#1: FAST!!!

There's a very good reason why Fluxbox is the default desktop in lightweight Linux distros like Damn Small Linux: It is one of the fastest desktops out there. You can't appreciate what a difference this makes until you try the same program on either system. You know when you start Firefox on KDE and you have a few minutes to twiddle your thumbs while the system crunches until it displays Firefox? That doesn't happen on lightweight window managers like Fluxbox. Click - BAM! - it's open. Fluxbox is also ideal for old hardware and new hardware with limited resources, for this reason.

#2: Stylish

Now, point #1 could hold just as well for Blackbox, IceWM, heck, even Ratpoison. But Fluxbox takes the extra step of making the desktop look good. XFCE can look good in a tasteful cute way and KDE always looks good in a flashy, gaudy way, but only the Fluxbox desktop can consistently be described as "sleek and sexy". Fluxbox.org's own screenshots page doesn't even do it justice; check out the shots at DeviantArt, a site which owes its roots to the software skinning community. Box-Look also sports some Fluxbox theme bling.

#3: Simple

With all the complaints you hear out there about Linux being hard to learn, this should be an especially compelling point: you can learn Fluxbox in about a day, period. There's a man page, another man page on creating your own theme, a few text files in your home directory under the '.fluxbox' menu, and that's it. If you want extra features, there's third-party downloads galore. The whole system is set up with the 'plug-in' mentality. It has far fewer features than its competitors, but you can add what you need and not be annoyed by having the features you don't need. The first rule of design is that it is uncluttered, even to having no desktop icons by default.

#4: Easy text file setup

Don't knock the text file method until you've tried it! For example, to make your own menu, you only need to know:

  • System-special commands get square brackets [].
  • Titles for entries get parenthesis ().
  • Programs to be launched get curly brackets {}.
  • System-special commands include [begin] [end] [submenu] [separator]. There's others, but the system includes them by default at the end, and there's no reason to mess with them.
  • You can include program-specific options between the curly-brackets {}. Anything you'd type from a command-line to launch something can go right into the brackets.

An excerpt from my own menu:

      [exec] (xscreensaver) {xscreensaver-demo}
      [exec] (CDplayer)     {gnome-cd}
      [exec] (Totem)        {totem}
      [exec] (pickBG)       {~/code/script/wish/pickBG}
      [exec] (FB_BG.py)     {~/code/python/FB_BG.py}

[submenu] (Office)
      [exec] (Abiword)      {abiword}
      [exec] (Gedit)        {gedit}
      [exec] (Evince)       {evince}
      [exec] (NVU)          {/usr/local/share/nvu-1.0/nvu}

...and so on. Begin a new submenu with [submenu], end it with [end]. There, you've learned menu editing. It even passes the Notepad test. How long did it take you to figure out menu customization in KDE and Gnome, or, God forbid, XFCE?

#5: No default keys

This is a pet peeve I have with other desktops. A, well, kind of flaming pet rage, actually. Especially with KDE, whose developers are absolutely DETERMINED to define a default action for EVERY possible keyboard combination you could ever think of, no matter how piddling and pedantic that action is. Alt-shift-tab-SysRq? No, they thought of that one too. That's the command to make it unmount all USB media while changing the desktop icon theme to Pumpkin Pie while whistling "Singing in the Rain" and readjusting your monitor to 640x480. Here, look at this screenshot from a recent KDE system:

Somebody's a real smart-ass

I've never seen a keyboard in my entire life that has an F13 key, but if we invent one, Trolltech has already pounced on it and demanded first dibs. You know what happens when we define every action for the desktop? There are no keys left for applications. I can't hit a key in a program without KDE going, "Oh! He wants to change the theme! Quick, stick a big, fat, slow dialog in his face on top of his application!" You know what it takes to disable keyboard shortcuts in KDE? Click each one and then confirm the "Are You SUUUUURE?" dialog one at a time for all 16,491 key combinations. You could replace waterboarding with this.

Fluxbox doesn't do this to me. So I'll just have to get my abuse the old-fashioned way, from paying a dominatrix.

#6: Tabs

Another pet peeve I have is programs which don't understand the concept of tabs. Gnome is better about this; both Gnome Terminal and the text editor GEdit use tabs for opening multiple sessions/ files. For those programs which haven't joined the 21st century yet, Fluxbox has this little tab it sticks onto a window, which you can drag onto another window's tab and poof, they become one united super-window with as many applications or files as you want. It can also let you specify windows to auto-group whenever they open. Here's an example of the Gimp, with tool options tabbed to the main panel and six image files tabbed together:

500% smarter than other window managers

Considering how many people out there complain about multiple windows being opened, this is quite a perk. That's Fluxbox design in a nutshell: so smart, it even makes up for the shortcomings of other programs.

#7: The Slit

Let me try saying this with a straight face: Do you want to see my slit? Here it is:

Surprisingly clean, isn't it?

The slit holds dockapps, those cute little square programs that also run in the panels of Gnome, KDE, and XFCE desktops and in the Window Maker dock. With Fluxbox, the slit can be hung from any edge of the desktop space in any direction, can be themed, can be made transparent, and can be made to auto-hide and pop up on mouse-over. Once again, it's smartened up with a minimalist design with plug-ins you can add.

For those who will ask: The slit is showing pclock (clock), wmmemmon (RAM monitor), cputnik (CPU monitor), wmhdplop (disk read/write monitor), wmnet (network monitor), and wmix (sound volume control). Also before anyone asks: Dockapps are a mess! Some are packaged with distros, some have to be compiled, some need to be updated... You're on your own! Until either Dockapps.org gets updated or somebody whacks together a one-stop distribution point that's as easy to use as Firefox's add-on site.

#8: It gets out of your way!

What other annoyances doesn't Fluxbox have? It doesn't take extra time to start up with a splashy opening. It doesn't declare 1000 dumb sounds for every trivial event (KDE, 1000 confirmed dialogs to disable, waterboarding, dominatrix), it doesn't require a whole suite of programs to go with its environment... it does exactly what so many interface pundits out there say they want: it's happy to be invisible. Two days into your first Fluxbox trial, and you will forget it's there!

PS: While I'm on the subject, there is the XWM Guide I have on this site. It's about three, maybe four years out of date by now (since I ported it from an old site). It's badly aged and on my list for an overhaul. So, yeah.

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April Fools Flash Tutorial: Embed a Sound File

Date/Time Permalink: 04/01/09 10:14:22 am
Category: Flash

What, you don't know how to play a song from a Flash file in SWFTools? Easy stuff. Takes a minute.

Make a source.sc file with this in it:

.flash bbox=50x50 fps=36
  .sound SONG "./AFD.wav"
    songFX=new Sound();


swfc -o AFD.swf source.sc

Where 'AFD' is the name of whatever .wav sound you want to play for your April Fool's Day joke. Then embed the Flash file somewhere on your web-page, with small height and width arguments, or hidden with a CSS trick, or buried behind an image - whatever it takes so the user cannot possibly find it to shut it off!

Bonus Buck Today and today only I support the grassroots effort to save Internet Explorer 6.

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