Thursday, February 24, 2011

Geek kitch

Somebody else thinks SpaceFun is not amusing:
Did Debian have a contest to redesign its graphics and it wasn’t made public? Did a third grader win that contest? Oh, the hallowed Debian developers must have had a fashion faux pas moment when deciding on a new look because this one makes me think it was designed for children or by children. It’s a good thing that once you’ve installed the operating system, you can change that horrid desktop background to something less kitchy.
Upon booting the CD image, the first thing you notice is the look of the screen. At first glance, you might believe that you’ve selected the wrong ISO from which to boot and install. You haven’t. This is not the K-5th grade distribution. This is the actual distribution. The professional distribution that’s downloaded and installed by millions of anxious users, few of which are under the age of ten.
The other half point subtraction is for those elementary school graphics. And, no I can’t get over it–it cheapens the operating system and its goals to be a “universal operating system.” If universal appeal and acceptance are the goals, then they should have made it look more professional. I might use it but I just won’t tell anyone over the age of ten what it is.
Several of the comments accuse the reviewer of putting style over substance, rail against 'slick' graphics, even sing the virtues of childish artwork.

These are geeks. They have the aesthetic values of ten year olds, making it unlikely that the appreciation of the theme is based on an ironic understanding. A knowing wink that the theme is cool because it's corny, like a 60's science fiction film? I don't think so. More the knowledge that the theme will appeal to non-geeks about as much as Star Wars pyjamas.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Any colour you like- but here's black

Here's my latest attempt at customising the Debian boot sequence using Plymouth and customised Grub and GDM splash screens, this time using the Script Plymouth theme which can be modified by the user- here I've simply set the background colour to black, changed the progress bar to Debian red, and removed the progress bar border. I've done a black Grub background with a grey Debian swirl, and a black GDM background with a grey Debian logo.
Now all of this black doesn't come out very well on a digital camera, but the video above does demonstrate and alternative to the Debian SpaceFun theme- and the background could easily be set to any colour.
Get busy with Gimp or Inkscape! If anybody really wants my background images or to know how to modify the Script theme, leave a comment.
For some reason GDM takes a long time to show the login screen after loading- meaning the Plymouth screen disappears while the progress bar is nowhere near the end and the Gnome cursor timer appears for several seconds.
I've seen videos of Plymouth boots in Ferdora, for example, where the GDM login screen appears immediately after the Plymouth screen, and when the Plymouth progress bar has reached the end, which is a more pleasing handover- it doesn't seem consistent for the Plymouth progress bar to be replaced by the Gnome timer when they are both doing the same job, but maybe this is just my computer.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Space without the Fun

This is Debian booting with Plymouth using the Debian Sunrise theme, by gajm, which is a modification of the Space Sunrise theme by Andre "Osku" Schmidt.

The Grub and GDM splash screens were done by me. They are available here.

There's quite a noticeable delay between Gnome launching and the GDM splash appearing.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Change GDM background image in squeeze

Here is the second post on removing the SpaceFun theme from Debian Squeeze. This time it's the GDM login screen. GDM3 has no easy GUI to change the background image, so a bit of editing is again required. (If only there were an easy way to change the GDM theme, then Debians adoption of a whimsical theme wouldn't be such an issue!)
I found the answer on the Debian Forum.
It boils down to this: edit the file /etc/gdm3/greeter.gconf-defaults, uncomment the line # Use a specific background, and change the file name to the name of the file you want to use. (Drop an .svg image in /usr/share/images/desktop-base.)
Update: other image formats work too, for example .png.

Update 2: If the image file is not displayed (resulting in the GDM screen being a rather unpleasant shade of green), check the file permissions: root must have access (read only).

Change Grub background image in Squeeze

This is the first post of two on how to get rid of the SpaceFun theme. Obviously the first step is to change the desktop background. After that, it gets more difficult. Squeeze uses GDM (Gnome display manager) 3, which unlike GDM2 has no easy GUI to change backround image, and Grub (GNU GRand Unified Bootloader) 2, which also requires a bit of hacking to change the background image.
After following a dead end or two, I found a method for changing the Grub background image that seems to work on the Debian Forum. It involves editing the file /etc/grub.d/05_debian_theme and changing the name of the file in the line set_background_image (not WALLPAPER) as described in the link, followed by running update-grub as root.
I found a grub background image here. (Open the file with GIMP [or Inkscape], resize to fit your monitor and save with a .png extension. Drop the file in /usr/share/images/desktop-base as root and edit the 05_debian_theme file above to point to it.
Next: change the GDM2 background image.

[EDIT: The resize step is unnecessary. I'd changed the monitor resolution in Grub to get Plymouth working, but that proved to be unnecessary. The size for grub images is 640x480. Inkscape is probably a better program for editing the .svg templates/examples on the site above.]

Update: There's another method to change the background image in GRUB that I discovered today (after making an ass of myself on the Debian forum).

Edit /etc/default/grub and add this line:
Changing the location and file name as appropriate, of course, as described here, or use the location used on the Debian forum if you've installed grub2-splashimages and want to use one of those images.

I've been looking into the nature of /etc/grub.d/05_debian_theme and /etc/default/grub, what they do and which might be the best method to change the GRUB background image. Here's what I found:
The standard way of changing the configuration is execution of shell scripts in directory (such as /etc/grub.d)... Many distros provide a centralized configuration file (e.g. /etc/default/grub), but shell scripts are free to use any means to draw their information or defaults.
GRUB Wiki Manual
/etc/grub.d/ - This is the directory that contains the GRUB script files. When you run update-grub these scripts generate grub.cfg
/etc/default/grub - This file contains menu settings that are read by the GRUB scripts. It is here that you would change the default timeout.
Howto: Customize your boot menu in GRUB 2
Set a background image for use with the ‘gfxterm’ graphical terminal. The value of this option must be a file readable by GRUB at boot time, and it must end with .png, .tga, .jpg, or .jpeg. The image will be scaled if necessary to fit the screen.
GRUB Manual

In my Debian Squeeze /etc/grub.d/05_debian_theme file, the script looks for a GRUB_BACKGROUND image in /etc/default/grub, and if it finds one, will not use the set_background_image in /etc/grub.d/05_debian_theme, which means that an image set in /etc/default/grub will have priority over one set in /etc/grub.d/05_debian_theme.
However, /etc/grub.d/05_debian_theme scripts seem to vary a lot between Linux distributions and versions. Bear in mind the quote above: shell scripts are free to use any means to draw their information or defaults.
In the event of this guide failing- consult appropriate distro guide or forum.

The boot

Debian is the only major Linux distro I've used to still have a verbose boot, as opposed to a graphical boot- a black screen fills with lines of text informing the user about what is going on during the boot process. The text scrolls up the screen so fast that most of it is illegible; most of what you can read would mean something to only a Linux geek.
Distros like Mandrive, Fedora, PCLinuxOS and of course Ubuntu show you a logo and an indicator of how the boot is going, on a colourful screen with a nice background image.

Here's an example from YouTube (with slightly comical messianic musical accompaniment).

I'm sure that new users of Linux would be more comfortable with a graphical boot. Even quite experienced users like me can't get much from it.
But Debian is first and foremost a stable distribution (graphical boots can be unreliable), and aimed more at experienced Linux users than "newbies", so a graphic boot is not a priority, or even disdained by some users.
I looked into the possibility of a graphical boot in Lenny some time ago, but it seemed to require a lot of hacking, which I'm not really into.
Something yesterday reminded me of the graphical boot program Plymouth, and upon checking, I found it in the Debian repository.
I installed it and rebooted- still the old text-based boot.
I really hate hacking Linux- because the solutions you find on the internet are often out of date and don't work any more, and trying different solutions designed for older packages or configuration settings can mess up a system. The beauty of Debian is, after all, stability.
However, I did manage to get Plymouth working. Here's how.
I came across this post on the Debian forum which says that if you're not using a propriety graphics card driver, all you need to do is install plymouth. OK, sounds promising, but didn't work for me.
Then I found the Debian Plymouth Wiki, which looked a bit off putting, but was simple enough to follow.
All I really needed to do was to edit my Grub configuration file and change my screen resolution:
Modify this line to add splash:
[Update: going back and checking, it seems only the second step below was really necessary.]

And then update Grub using this command as root:
Upon rebooting, I had a graphical boot screen (and the change to the screen resolution setting had fixed a problem with the Grub background image!)

There doesn't seem to be a GUI for selecting and previewing Plymouth themes in Debian (located in /usr/share/plymouth/themes). The Wiki link above gives the command line method of changing themes. Probably the best way to preview themes is to look on YouTube: there seems to be a video for just about every theme on every major distro.

[Update: Ubuntu users have a nice GUI available. See this YouTube demonstration.
I found a useful command to preview Plymouth themes in the readme file of the theme below.]

It's easy to install new themes too. I ended up using this simple dark theme from

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A theme is for life, not just for Christmas!

I'd been using the beta version of Debian Squeeze for some time before the final release last weekend. The new theme (Spacefun) arrived before Christmas last year. It's sparkly spaceship trail was very Christmassy. But over the coming weeks, the new theme began to offend, as welcome as the carcass of the Christmas Turkey when it hangs around too long.
Somebody on the Debian forum said it looks like something a ten year old might have on his bedroom wall, which sums it up exactly.
Opinion I've come across is divided, with some liking the new theme and some hating it.
Put me in the second camp, obviously. The theme is juvenile, nerdy, and in stark contrast to themes used by Mandriva, Fedora and of course Ubuntu, which try to be aesthetically pleasing and professional.
Spacefun seems to appeal to those Debian users who are nerdy and dismissive of attractive themes and even GUI's in general. These users are probably happy if new users are put off using Debian by the childish theme- they prefer it anyway as a more elite operating system, used only by the nerdiest of nerds.
Now there a lot of Debian users like that- the level of emotional intelligence among many contributors to the Debian forum is strikingly low.
But Debian is a very usable operating system, and there's no reason it shouldn't look professional and attract new users. Standby for a series of posts on how to make it so- first of all of course, bye bye Spacefun!