A lesson in humility

August 27, 2008

Yesterday I came back from work, put myself in front of the PC, and put on some music. I didn’t hear anything.
Tracking down the problem proved to be challenging. It wasn’t just a Rhythmbox problem, because Totem didn’t play anything either. Alsa was up and running. The volume wasn’t muted. I had played a music CD before, so I was thinking along the lines of a blocked audio output, but rebooting the PC didn’t do anything either. This was frustrating.

Then I noticed that my speakers weren’t switched on. Ghaa.

The sad thing is, this has happened to be before. I just don’t learn.


I want Gnome: Arch or Ubuntu?

August 26, 2008

A couple of days ago I came to a realisation: I run so many gnome applications I might as well try to use Gnome again, instead of Openbox. It’s not that I think Metacity is a better window manager than Openbox, because it isn’t, but configuration is (a bit) easier, and I’ve had so many trouble lately with burning software, I wanted to check if the desktop environment makes a difference. It doesn’t, but that’s another matter.

I was a bit tired that day, and I had a copy of Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron) lying around, so I thought, why not? I love Arch, but it can be a bit time- and energy consuming to set everything up. I decided to keep my old Arch+Openbox partition, and install Ubuntu on the partition I normally use to test distributions.
Before I go on, I want to stress that I like Ubuntu very much. I think it provides a high-quality solution for people who want an OS that isn’t Windows or Apple. I’m not one of those Linux users who have to be elite and snub Ubuntu for being to noobish. Yes, it’s aimed at people who don’t want to tinker with their OS. That’s just fine. Most people are like that.

The Ubuntu-CD I found was an alternate-install CD (instead of a Live CD), so I just fired up the installer. Install took longer than Arch, which didn’t surprise me, but also seemed to take longer than previous Ubuntu installs. All in all, I guess it took 25 to 30 minutes. Anyway, it may have been slow, but it did the job just fine, and after rebooting the familiar desktop was visible in all its glory.
Okay, it was a bit slow, but not much compared to Arch with Gnome. And yes, it’s brown, but I guess I’m one of the only people who doesn’t mind that. I do prefer the Human-Murrine to the normal Human theme, but the difference is minimal. I liked how my fonts looked out of the box (I can make Arch fonts look better, but it needs some configuration, because without it, Arch fonts look horrible), I liked the easy installation of things like restricted drivers (nvidia), codecs when trying to play an mp3, and flash from within Firefox when visiting a site that needs it. Those little details really add up to a great user experience. Last but not least, I LOVED how adding the printer was just a matter of switching it on. I had just tried and succeeded to get that printer to work in Arch plus Openbox, but this was a lot easier.


Ubuntu is fragile. As soon as you start messing around with the settings, things can go wrong. It’s just that sometimes I have to mess around. When I check out all the processes that a default Ubuntu installation starts, I get shivers down my spine. I don’t need bluetooth support. I have no bluetooth using hardware anywhere. I don’t have wireless either, so I don’t need that. I opened System > Preferences > Sessions, unchecking everything I thought I didn’t need, including gnome-power-manager. Next thing I know, clicking the Shutdown-button doesn’t do anything for ages, and then pops up the wrong window. Understand, at the time I didn’t link my actions with the sudden weird behaviour. How could I? What does gnome-power-manager have to do with showing the logout options?
Well, apparently, it’s a known bug. There are quite a few threads about it on ubuntuforums.org, but it took me some time to find the bug report. By that time, I had already installed Arch again, with Gnome, and made it look like KDE4, just because I could.

I just don’t dare to mess around in Ubuntu like I can in Arch. In Arch, I know what I did when I installed it. In Ubuntu, I don’t, because everything has been taken care of for me. Which is great if it actually works.
Another thing is that the people on ubuntuforums.org are, sometimes, less knowledgeable than those on the Arch forums. There are a lot of Ubuntu users who know very well what they’re talking about, but they are outnumbered by the enthusiasts, who can give you some very bad, or outdated, or dangerous advice indeed. I think Ubuntu is the victim of its own success here. It was inevitable, but I think Canonical should put some serious thought into managing the forums and the wiki a bit more strictly.
And if you want an idiot-proof OS, the ideal number of bugs would be zero. Of course it’s impossible, but I can dream… . By the way, this bug has been around since July 2007, has 13 duplicates, is well documented, graded Medium, and is still around.

So for me it’s still Arch. And yes, the Brasero habit of crashing and spitting out coasters is still there, even in Gnome. So I’ll just use Serpentine for audio-cds and nautilus cd-burner for isos. Whatever works.


Open Source applications: Recorder

August 20, 2008

There’s no good GTK burning application. Well, at least for me there isn’t. I don’t know what it is, but neither Brasero, nor Gnomebaker or Nautilus CD Burning work well with my Philips CD burner. Brasero just hangs at 0%, then throws an error and spits out the CD, which has become a coaster. Last time I tried GnomeBaker it just kept on crashing. And Nautilus CD burner always throws an error, saying that burning has failed, even when it hasn’t. In the end, I just gave up and installed k3b, which is of course a Qt-application, but at least it works well.

Enter: Recorder. As you might know, I use Arch Linux as my main OS. Arch users are pretty knowledgeable (I don’t include myself 😉 ), as shown by this post:


The last week, on my spare time, i coded a small frontend in pygtk for cdrecord, mkisofs and growisofs. It’s based on PyBurn by Judd Vinet. Just a small utility.

False modesty. Recorder is fast, lightweight, looks good, and works well. Sometimes. More on that later.

Recorder, a GTK burning utility
Recorder, a GTK burning utility

I haven’t tested burning to DVD, because I don’t have a DVD lying around, but have tested writing an audio cd and writing an image (Slitaz) to disk. Novice users could be intimidated by the text scrolling past when it’s burning a CD, or by the need to enter the path to your CD drive yourself in Preferences, but autodetection of drives is in the works. Another downside is that, unless you’re an Arch user, you’ll have to compile it from source. However, it’s not a large program and the dependencies are listed at the website, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

Those are the downsides. The upsides, for me, is that it’s very light (the source tarball measures only 29,8 kB, which is ridiculously small for burning software), and the dev, who goes by the name of icrave, welcomes any input and frequently adds features that are requested on the Arch forum.

At the moment, icrave isn’t really sure if he should put Recorder on GnomeFiles, wondering if it’s stable enough. Unfortunately, I’d have to say no. While many Arch users have had no problem with Recorder, burning an iso didn’t work well for me. I thought I burned the Slitaz iso just fine, but upon booting my pc speaker became nuts and almost deafened me before I could reboot. Next time, at a slower speed, X wouldn’t start. I suspected the Slitaz iso, but after burning it with Nautilus CD burner (which gave me the familiar error message), I’m typing this from a fully working Slitaz live Cd, and I’m forced to conclude that Recorder was at fault here.

Fast readers of my blog may have noticed that the first draft of this article was much more positive. My bad, I should have tested the burned iso before I started raving. I still think Recorder has a lot of potential, and I’ll keep an eye on it in the future.


Zenwalk 5.2 GNOME Edition (beta)

August 12, 2008


Since 1995, when Patrick Volkerding announced that he would no longer include GNOME in Slackware, people had to rely on projects like GWARE, GNOME Slackbuild or Dropline to enjoy their favourite desktop environment on the oldest Linux distribution around. Or, of course, build GNOME yourself. This has been the case for three years, and despite the popularity of GNOME-based distributions like Ubuntu or Fedora, not one of the many Slackware derivates jumped at the opportunity to combine the simplicity and stability of Slackware with a good looking GNOME desktop. Until now.

Zenwalk, formerly known as MiniSlack, has been around for quite a while now, and is something of a fan-favourite. It focuses on stability, speed, and rationality, meaning one application per task. It’s latest offering, Zenwalk 5.2, has been getting positive reviews. By default, the Standard Edition comes with XFCE. Now, there’s the GNOME Edition, and while it’s still a beta, I’m very impressed.


Unlike the Standard Edition, Zenwalk Gnome is not a Live CD. I’ve said before in my Pardus 2008 review that to me, that’s not a big deal, but it may be to others. The install isn’t very pretty, but it’s easy enough for someone who has used Linux before. Mind you, it’s not Mandriva or Ubuntu easy. You do have to know something about your hardware, like the partitioning of your hard drive, and what kind of graphic card you have (the installation of restricted drivers doesn’t happen automatically).

At first boot, you can configure your system further, and this is why installing Zenwalk is easier than installing Slackware. Here, you’ll have to add a user, set up sound, locale and numlock, and agree to some licences. Afterwards, you end up with a very familiar looking desktop, because it looks exactly the same as Zenwalk’s standard XFCE layout. According to the Zenwalk devs, “[t]he looks are not xfce-like, they are Zenwalk-like. The way XFCE looks in Zenwalk is far from the default xfce looks in the first place.[…]We have chosen that layout for XFCE and gnome because we believe that it’s the best layout for a desktop PC.” I guess that makes sense.

Zenwalk Gnome Edition

Zenwalk Gnome Edition

Configuration and documentation

Zenwalk doesn’t provide the standard Applications – Locations – System panel layout that a Gnome distribution traditionally has, but the Gnome Configuration Center, with all the familiar modules, is available from the menu and the bottom panel. There’s also the Zenwalk System Tools manager. I’ll provide a screenshot, because listing all the options would take too long.

Zenwalk Configuration

Zenwalk Configuration

To be honest, Zenwalk didn’t need much configuration. Most of the stuff that can be changed in the Tools manager was already taken care of during first boot, and working well. I added my favourite key shortcuts in the Gnome Configuration Center, and that was it.

Package management is taken care of by Netpkg, which is simple and works well. Of course, if you base your distribution on Slackware, there will always be the problem that there aren’t as many packages available as for, say, Debian. Normally, Slackware is perfectly suited for users who want to compile their own software, but Zenwalk is aimed at another kind of computer user. That means the bigger the repositories are, the better. And the Zenwalk repositories, while extensive, show at least one curious hole. For a Gnome edition, the omission of Rhythmbox is at least curious. It’s not even available as an alternative. Banshee is, but the version in the repositories isn’t the new 1.2. Instead, we get gMusicbrowser. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but in my opinion it suffers from an overabundance of (unneeded?) options, and some strange playlist handling…in short, it’s not my favourite choice. I understand their one-application-per-task policy, and gMusicbrowser is indeed a lighter application than Rhythmbox and Banshee, so it makes sense that it’s the Zenwalk default. Still, I’d have liked an alternative to be in the repositories.

gMusicbrowser and Netpkg

gMusicbrowser and Netpkg

Any distribution that has a Wiki and an active user forum gets brownie points from me, and Zenwalk has both. In the Wiki the HOWTO section is particularly useful, but the newsletters aren’t very current. I guess you can’t really expect it to be when the latest one introduces itself as “your hopefully monthly update on the Zenwalk GNU/Linux OS and the community around it.” 🙂 The fora are very active, which to me is a sign of a distribution’s health.

Using Zenwalk

Zenwalk was a joy to use. It must be one of the most beautiful distributions I ever installed, but don’t ask me why. The default theme is Clearlooks, which is nothing special, but the icons are a modified Discovery set, which look very nice. At first sight, the desktop background is the typical blue swirl, with the Zenwalk logo, but even that looks great in my opinion. After I installed the nvidia drivers and switched on the Metacity compositor things looked even better.
I expected the unusual panel layout to be irritating, since the bottom panel is twice the hight of a normal Gnome panel, and it leaves a lot of room unused at the left and the right of the screen. Immediately after that thought, I forgot all about it, so I guess I was wrong.

As I mentioned before, the choice of applications is a bit different than what’s “normal”. It’s a mix of standard Gnome software like Brasero, Gimp, Totem, Pidgin and Evince with light-weight software like Asunder (for CD ripping), Leafpad, the aforementioned gMusicbrowser, Galculator, htop, Gnumeric and Abiword. Browsing and email are handled by Iceweasel and Icedove (the rebranded versions of Firefox and Thunderbird). OpenOffice isn’t installed by default, but available from the repositories.

Multimedia support is fairly good out of the box. I could play all my audio and video files, but to play DVDs you have to jump through a few hoops. Firefox Iceweasel handles embedded media with the Totem plugin, but flash has to be installed seperately.

I never, ever felt like I was using a beta release. Literally everything worked as it should have, and the only app that crashed was xscreensaver, and then only the first time. It didn’t cause a lock-up, and it didn’t happen again. I guess that one of the many screensavers that xscreensaver provides just didn’t work.
It wasn’t just stable, it was speedy too. Even with the Metacity compositor turned on, it didn’t slow down. It felt only a little slower than my Arch installation, but that one uses Openbox instead of Gnome, and no compositor. I was very impressed.


I didn’t expect to like Zenwalk this much, but I do. It’s stable while being a beta release, it’s speedy, it just works and it does all of this while looking good. Without the installer, which requires a bit of knowledge, it would a be perfect for a Linux newbie. But as soon as it’s installed, it’s a pleasure to use. Since I installed Arch, thee’s not a single distribution that has tempted me so much. I never knew Gnome could be this fast, or look this good. In my opinion, the only thing that’s needed to make it perfect is to expand the repositories a bit.

The best thing about this distribution, is that it finally brings Gnome to Slackware fans. It has taken some time, but it has been worth the wait. Zenwalk 5.2 GNOME Edition is one of the best Linux distributions I’ve ever installed. Try it out.


Amarok 2: a first look

August 8, 2008

With all the hoopla that has been surrounding KDE 4, I’d almost forget there’s another major piece of software working on a milestone release. Okay, maybe not as major as KDE, but Amarok is arguably the best and most popular media player on the linux desktop. KDE’s move from QT3 to QT4 pretty much forced all other independent QT applications to do the same, but obviously the Amarok developers didn’t want to stop at merely porting their media player. Amarok 2 will use the new KDE 4 technologies, “like Phonon for audio and Solid for device interaction, along with extensive use of SVG and Plasma for the new interface” (quote from Wikipedia). It’s shaping up to be as radically different from Amarok 1.4 (the current stable release), as KDE 4 is from KDE 3.5. And that’s a very good thing indeed.

Keep in mind that, at the moment, Amarok 2 is in very heavy development. The current release is Alpha 2, which means nothing has been finished yet; not the feature list, not the looks, and there are still a lot of bugs to be squashed. That means that sometimes it works surprisingly well, and sometimes it doesn’t. For example, in the nightly build of August 5th I lost the ability to add anything to the playlist (I didn’t build it myself, but it was available in the KDEmod “playground” repository). I solved it by deleting all the configuration directories. Another thing: I can’t make a song stop. It just fades out, then restarts. I blame Rihanna, because the first time I noticed it happening, Amarok was playing “Don’t stop the music”. Fair warning: use it at your own risk, and don’t expect it to be a replacement for 1.4 just yet.

Amarok 2

Amarok 2

Let’s start with the looks. Amarok 2 has chosen an unusual  3-pane layout. The left pane depends on what tab you’ve chosen on the left side, and can be your sorted collection, various internet services like Magnatune and Last.fm, your playlists, or a file browser. Anyone who ever used Amarok 1.4 should be familiar with this.

The middle pane is new though. It’s called the Context View and provides information about the music you play. By default, it shows some standard information about the current song, like the Artist and Album tags, how many times you’ve played the song, the rating you gave it, etc. But you can add applets here, like a Wikipedia applet or a Lyrics applet, or whatever people can think of. You can have different Context Panes too. When one is full, the next applet simply gets added to the next. You switch between them using the monkey wrench button at the bottom. At the moment, there aren’t many applets and there are even less that actually work. Of course, at the time of the release this will be fixed.

The right pane holds your playlist. In Amarok 2 it groups songs of the same artist, or album together. This saves space, but that means that all your mp3s which have a “Various Artists” or “Unknown” tag are thrown together too. The old way of showing playlists will be available too, but at the moment it’s not quite finished yet. Something that also didn’t work for me was importing my old .m3u playlists. The only way I could save them in “My playlists” was to click “Add Media…”, open the m3u file, then save the playlist again.
Amarok 2 also expands on the Dynamic Playlist feature that is already present in the current stable release. In Amarok 1.4, it can populate your playlist with completely random songs, or add new ones that match the current playing one (as far as I can remember, it uses last.fm for that). The new Biased Playlists (link points to the developer’s blog) take the whole concept even further, and even works with propability percentages. For example, there can be a 50% chance that the next song is RnB, 30% that it’s Gothic Rock, and the remaining 20% that it’s a song by Dusty Springfield. Or maybe you want a mix of French songs with country music and songs that have “dawn” in the title. It’s all possible.

Biased Playlist

Biased Playlist

For more information, there’s the Amarok 2 FAQ. At the moment, it’s definitely not better than the current 1.4 release, but it certainly will be when it’s finished. According to the webpage, that will be somewhere between KDE 4.1, and 4.2, and it will be available for Linux, OS X and Windows. I’m looking forward to it.


KDE 4.1: some corrections

August 4, 2008

This article is an add-on to my previous article about KDE4.1. The comments I got made it clear that I missed some things.

  • There is some task manager configuration. I was right-clicking the panel, instead of the task manager. I guess I’m still getting used to the “everything’s a plamoid” reasoning. In any case, it’s possible to show only the applications of the particular virtual desktop you’re working on.
  • Making the panel transparent is indeed a matter of choosing the right plasma theme. Downloading and installing new themes is actually very easy. It can be done from Desktop Settings, where you can also download new wallpapers from KDE-look.org. Here’s a screencast that should clarify things.
  • There’s a “Show Desktop” widget that can be added to the panel. However, I still haven’t found how to achieve the same thing with a keyboard shortcut. As a matter of fact, I haven’t figured out how to add new keyboard shortcuts, period.
  • After some hours of fiddling and working things out, this is how my KDE4.1 looks:

    KDE 4.1

    KDE 4.1

    It looks just fine, but I still won’t be using it, I’m afraid. The biggest issue for me is a certain slowness I attributed to the known problems with the official nvidia driver The KMenu plasmoid remained flaky, and the system tray still forgot to show icons sometimes. I also noticed some crashes and weird behaviour when using Konqueror. I still don’t think that’s a very good browser, but that’s just me.


    Arch + Openbox screenshots: August

    August 3, 2008

    New month, new screenshots. This month I made quite a few changes. I started using QT applications, and to maintain a uniform look with the GTK software, I changed the theme to QtCurve. I replaced pypanel by LXpanel, switched to the Oxygen icons, and of course, I changed the background.





    Why so serious?