Tuesday, December 31, 2013

XFCE annoyances

XFCE is a great Linux desktop and ideal for replacing Windows XP on older computers (security updates are of course gong to end for XP next year, so there's no time like the present for trying Linux on XP machines). I've been using it for about six months on this 2005 laptop, as well as on a 2003 laptop. XFCE is noticeably less taxing on the more modern laptop than Gnome 3.10, which I tried recently in the Fedora 20 beta, especially when switching quickly between different applications.

XFCE shares the same desktop paradigm as Windows XP (panel, menus, window buttons etc), so it's an easy switch to make, except for a few annoyances which may put off new users. I'm going to detail theses annoyances and how to get round them here.

Problem panels

After installing XFCE and logging in to your account, you are prompted to set up a panel. However, if you don't save the session after logging off, the next time you log on, you will not see any panels. You can get them back by right clicking on the desktop and going to Applications>Settings>Panel. However, you may see a popup window with the following error message as described on the Arch Linux forum:
The panel cannot be edited while running in kiosk mode.
Solution: Drop out of XFCE with Ctrl + Alt + F1, navigated to ~/.cache/sessions/ and delete the contents with the following command:
rm -rf *
Restart, log in to XFCE, set up panels as required and save the session on exit to see your panels appear at next log on.

Unwanted saved sessions

Having saved your session to save your panels, you may decide that you don't want to have every application you had open at shutdown reappear when you next log on. The solution to this is to close all applications, log off saving the minimal session, log back on and disable saved sessions.

However, you may be puzzled to find that applications are still reopening at logon.

Solution: be aware that only the logout GUI respects the preference to not save sessions. (See this post on the XFCE forum.) The Action Buttons panel plugin seems to use a shutdown method that does not respect session preferences, so if you're wondering why applications autostart when you've chosen not to autosave sessions, Action Buttons may be the culprit.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Debian Sources List Generator

Ever wondered what your sources should be in Debian? Debian Sources List Generator will generate a sources list for you.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Firefox's new look

Firefox's new look (the Australis GUI) can now be seen in the Firefox Nightly build. Without more ado, here it is, on Debian XFCE:

A lot of negative opinion on the internet, but quite like it myself, no objections certainly, and tabs definitely look nicer.

Firefox Nightly can be unpacked to the home directory and run from there. However, it's probably a good idea to use a separate profile, to avoid the risk of making changes to an existing profile that are not compatible with the existing version of Firefox (or Iceweasel, in my case).

Debian Bits And Snips explains how to do this. I ran into a problem in that when I'd closed Firefox Nightly and launched Iceweasel again, it was using the new profile. I had to use Profile Manager again to switch Iceweasel back to the default profile, but after that I used the launch command given and Firefox Nightly used its own profile and left Iceweasel using the default profile.
/home/username/firefox/firefox -P "new profile" -no-remote
no-remote means Firefox uses the new profile independently of the profile set for Iceweasel and without changing the profile set for Iceweasel- indeed it can run at the same time as Iceweasel with this command.

Profile manager can be launched with the following terminal command in Linux, if Iceweasel is using the wrong profile:
firefox --ProfileManager

Open magnet links in Transmission

One way to do this is to copy the link and open it as an URL in Transmission, but I recently came across some instructions for making magnet links clickable and open in Transmission.

Instructions are at transmissionbt.com.

After that, make sure Transmission is set to handle magnet links in the Iceweasel Content type menu, as described on the Crunchbang forum.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Browse files on Android from Thunar

If you try to browse an Android device from Thunar in XFCE over Bluetooth, it will try to launch Nautilus, which of course isn't installed in XFCE.

The Arch Linux Wiki has a useful script to allow Thunar to browse files on Android over Bluetooth. The script uses obexftp, which must be installed.

obexftp must also be installed in Android. I've read that some Android devices have the service running, but mine didn't.

Bluetooth File Transfer and ES File Explorer File Manager both install the service.

To be honest, I didn't have much success browsing files. In particular, image files from the phone's camera took a long time to browse, and half way through the folder, Thunar would give the same thumbnail to every file.

But I thought I'd document what I did in case I need to come back to it, or in case somebody else finds it useful.

Monday, November 4, 2013

SD card reader not working in Linux

One thing I've not been able to get working in Linux is the SD card reader on my laptop. The Ubuntu manual sdhci driver page hints at why:
Many of existing SD controller chips have some nonstandard requirements, proprietary registers and hardware bugs, requiring additional handling. 
lspci reveals the name of the SD card reader:
SD Host controller: O2 Micro, Inc. Integrated MMC/SD Controller (rev 01)
dmesg that there's a problem:
mmc0: Unknown controller version (16). You may experience problems.
This is a message I've noticed while the computer is booting, I think for as long as I've used Linux, and in many different distributions.

There are several bug reports for this issue, but I haven't found any "additional handling". To read and write to SD cards, I use a USB card reader from PoundWorld.

One post I came across suggested there might be a fix coming in kernel 3.5, but I'm using 3.10 from Wheezy backports.

In the end I came across a way to disable the SD card driver so that the error message doesn't appear. Add:
blacklist sdhci-pci 
blacklist sdhci 
blacklist mmc_core 
to /etc/modprobe.d/blacklist.conf.


This didn't take effect until I ran:
update-initramfs -u 
Debian forum.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Firefox to run H.264 video

In a previous post I talked about the future of Flash in Linux, and looked at some of the possible alternatives. I mentioned HTML5 video as a possible alternative, and an issue with HTML5 video adoption: proprietary and non-proprietary formats.

Now Cisco has open sourced the H.264 codec (the proprietary codec used to encode most online video) and Firefox will run H.264 video in "the first half of 2014".
In a surprising twist, the future of open and standard HTML5 video is looking a lot brighter today, with Cisco's announcement of the release of a fully open source implementation of the H.264 codec.

 The code makes it possible for any open source project to add support for the video codec without paying any fee or signing any restrictive license with the MPEG-LA, the industry group that licenses the technology.

This is a major development, as the situation around the proprietary codec has been an important source of contention among browser makers to date.

Most video found online is encoded with H.264. That's not a problem for Flash video, since Flash Player supports the codec out of the box.

In theory, it's not a problem for HTML5 video either, as long as browsers agree to license the codec. In fact, the license is even free in many cases. But it is incompatible with open source projects like Firefox.

Mozilla refused to add support for H.264, though it could have afforded to pay the license, because it meant that downstream projects, which relied on Firefox, wouldn't have been able to get the entire Firefox source code under an open license.

Google came up with a potential solution, the WebM video format and the VP8 codec, which it open sourced and made available for free. But, several years after that, most videos found online are still encoded with H.264 and won't work in Firefox without external codecs.
Cisco worked with Mozilla to get this done, so it's no surprise that Mozilla is the first to make use of this new open H.264.

The browser maker has announced that it will be adding full support for H.264 in Firefox in the first half of 2014.

 Mozilla opted not to build the H.264 codec into the Firefox source code. Rather, if needed, the browser will be able to automatically download the binary code that Cisco is making available. Users will be able to disable this feature though.

What this means is that Firefox will be able to run any H.264 video it encounters on the web, plain HTML5 videos or even WebRTC streams, if H.264 becomes part of the WebRTC standard.

This could "widen support for web-based video chat":
WebRTC promises plugin-free video chat in our browsers, but it has been stuck in limbo due to format squabbles -- some companies want royalty-free standards like VP8, while others insist on the wider support of H.264. Today, Cisco is proposing a truce between the two camps. It's planning to open-source its H.264 codec without passing on the royalties it pays to MPEG-LA, effectively making the standard free when used in web conversations.
If all goes well, though, we won't have to fret much over the apps and devices we use for our video discussions.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Nicer fonts in Debian XFCE

In a previous post, I looked at how to improve font rendering in the Chromium browser, which doesn't conform to font settings in the XFCE GUI.

After making these changes, I noticed that font rendering had changed in Iceweasel and other applications too. The only thing in my .fonts.conf file not in the XFCE fonts setting GUI is a setting for lcdfilter. It seems this enables LCD hinting. There is a way to do this without a .fonts.conf file.
LCD Hinting

On some systems LCD hinting results in better fonts. But because this is not working on all system, this setting is not configurable through the interface. You can set it with a simple query.

xfconf-query -c xsettings -p /Xft/Lcdfilter -n -t string -s lcddefault 

Other possible values are lcdnone, lcddefault, lcdlight and lcdlegacy. You can check if the property is set property, run xrdb -query in a terminal. To fully apply the LCD hinting, it is advised to logout and in again (for restarting the X server).
XFCE Docs.

It's subjective of course, but I think I prefer the slightly softer rendering of fonts with LCD hinting enabled. Here are some before and after screenshots that illustrate the difference.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

How to post code in Blogger

In my previous post, I wanted to post some XML code, but Blogger kept interpreting it as HTML and displaying it wrongly. Here's a solution I found. It converts characters that are interpreted as code into a format that is not, but which is displayed in a browser as the original character. NB the "friendly" text is posted in Compose not HTML in Blogger.


Reading the explanation page for Postable, I realised that the Blogger friendly encoding will also solve a problem with the < and > characters I've had when posting in Blogger. To get them to display correctly, use the "safe" encoding:
&lt; and &gt;

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Make Chromium fonts look like Iceweasel's in Debian XFCE

If you try out Chromium in Debian, you may notice that displayed fonts are not as nice as they are in Iceweasel.

Here's an example from Iceweasel:

And here's the same text in Chromium:

The first thing I noticed is that Chromium uses Bitstream Charter font whereas Iceweasel uses Serif. (I don't have Microsoft fonts installed.) This is what the text looks like with Chromium set to use Serif:

Next I noticed that Chromium does not seem to use the anti-alias settings in the XFCE GUI. The solution to this is to add a .fonts.conf file to the /home directory:
<?xml version="1.0"?>
<!DOCTYPE fontconfig SYSTEM "fonts.dtd">
 <match target="font">
    <edit name="autohint" mode="assign">
    <edit name="hinting" mode="assign">
    <edit mode="assign" name="hintstyle">
  <match target="font">
    <edit name="rgba" mode="assign">
<match target="font">
    <edit mode="assign" name="lcdfilter">
Here are before and after screenshots:

Now fonts display very much the same in both browsers:

Source: Arch Linux Font Configuration.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Flash in Linux

Flash is of course used for streaming web videos, playing children's games, and displaying annoying web adverts. Most of us have it on our computers, many Linux users too, even though it's proprietary software. Adobe has however abandoned Flash for Linux, so what is the present and future of Flash on Linux?

Google has taken up development of Flash, calling it PepperFlash. PepperFlash is currently at version 11.8, whilst Flash from Adobe is frozen at version 11.2. PepperFlash is only available for the Google Chrome browser, but it can also be installed in the open source Chromium browser available in the Debian repository as described in Debian Bits and Snips. (I found that the archiving utility that comes installed with Debian XFCE wouldn't extract a .deb file, but the file can be extracted from a terminal with the following command:
dpkg -x filename.deb target-directory
Source: Debian Forum.)

Users of Debian Testing can install pepperflashplugin-nonfree.

Firefox is developing a web-native renderer using HTML5 and JavaScript  called Shumway, which will be a project to keep an eye on.

The Opera browser company have been pushing HTML5 as a replacement for Flash. I notice that a lot of BBC video content will play in the Opera Mobile browser on my Android phone now, I suspect because it is being served HTML5 (Flash doesn't work on my phone). On this test page, Opera in Andoid plays the HTML5 proprietary format.

In Debian, Chromium plays HTML5 proprietary format, but Iceweasel and Opera don't; all three browsers play HTML5 non-proprietary formats. This of course hints at some of the issues around HTML5 video adoption.

Opera users in Linux will have to hope that HTML5 becomes the standard format for web video before Adobe gives up security updates for Flash on Linux, or use Firefox or Chromium to watch Flash content.

Finally, there is an open source Flash player for Linux called Lightspark, discussed on the Debian Forum. I tried installing it, but video content was juddery and crashed frequently, and Flash games were missing visual components. This looks like another project to keep an eye on.

So, for the moment, Flash for Linux is still available from Adobe, and security updates will be available for about four years from now. It's available from the Debian Repository, but no longer developed. If Flash content doesn't work, try PepperFlash in Chromium (or Chrome).

For the future, keep an eye on Shumway and Lightspark.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Read boot messages log in Debian

Boot into Debian and you'll see messages scroll down the screen. Sometimes there's an error message you'd like to read carefully but it's gone before you have a chance. To create a boot log to read after the computer has booted, in Debian Wheezy simply install bootlogd.

There is a small bug in that some characters in the boot log are not displayed correctly in a text display command or text editor.

# cat /var/log/boot produces the following:

To see boot messages displayed correctly, use the following command:
sed $'s/\^\[/\E/g;s/\[1G\[/\[27G\[/' /var/log/boot
This produces:

Source: Debian Wiki.

Old boot logs seemed to be archived, so it might be a good idea to delete them from time to time.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Liberate your hardware!

Came across these stickers on Debian Bits and Snips and ordered a couple for a very reasonable €2.10- less than £2 including postage. They arrived very promptly. Quality is excellent.

Stickers from LibreStickers.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Online Chrome theme generator

I've been trying out the Chromium web browser in Debian. Although it has a "use GTK+ theme" button in settings, the appearance of the bowser didn't match other applications- the frame was blue instead of grey.

There are lots of themes available, but none matched my theme. However, I came across an online theme generator at themebeta.com which allowed me to run up a theme for Chromium which matched other applications.

Full screen the Chromium browser with this theme looks like this. (Gnome 3/Adwaita inspired minimalism but in XFCE.)

Friday, August 30, 2013

Sync Orage and Google Calendar

I wrote in my previous post that Orage, the calendar application in XFCE, does not Sync with Google Calendar. This is true, but there is a way to enable Orage to sync with Google Calendar, so that events added to Google Calendar will appear in Orage, but not the other way round.

To sync Orage with Google Calendar, it's possible to download Google Calendar in iCalendar format and import this into Orage.

To download the file, go to calendar settings and right click the green ICAL button next to Private Address.

Select Save Link As (or similar, according to browser) and save the file.

To import into Orage, Go to File > Exchange data > Foreign files, click the Open button, navigate to the saved file (basic.ics) and click Add. Events from Google Calendar will be added to any local Orage events.

To automate the process, we can use a cron command.
wget -N
The -N parameter will overwrite the file if it is newer on the sever, rather than adding files bacis.ics.1, bacis.ics.2 etc etc which we don't want.

To get the calendar URL, right click on the green ICAL button again but this time select Copy Link Location (or similar, according to browser).

Paste the address into a text editor to see it. There is a problem here because the Google email address that the URL contains will have been transformed into HTML URL Encoding,  so joesmith@gmail.com will have become joesmith%40gmail.com (see: Try It Yourself) and the % character will not work in a cron command. Edit %40 back to @, so the full command looks like this:
wget -N https://www.google.com/calendar/ical/joesmith@gmail.com/private-/basic.ics
Now we need to run the command once a day. Corenominal has a cron tutorial which covers this. Note: it may be necessary to specify the full path to wget with this method: /usr/bin/wget. I used a GUI application which uses cron to schedule tasks: Gnome-schedule, where the above command worked OK. Although it's a Gnome app, it installs in XFCE without needing any dependencies, and is simple to use.

The Run button didn't seem to work for me, perhaps because it is a Gnome app and is not properly configured to launch a terminal in XFCE. If you want to check your cron command is working, change Date & Time to Every minute and watch the basic.ics file appear in your home directory, then reset to daily, of course.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sync local calendar with Google Calendar in Debian XFCE

XFCE has a calendar, called Orage, but it doesn't sync with Google Calendar. For those of us with an Android mobile who like to get notifications of events from our PC calendar, there is an alternative in the Debian repositories.

Iceowl is a calendar extension for Icedove (Versions of Mozilla's Thunderbird and Lightning extension) and there's a Google Calendar add-on for Iceowl.

With these packages installed, open Icedove and check Calendar in Events and Tasks.

Navigate to File > New > Calendar and check On the Network.

Open Google Calendar in a browser and click the drop-down menu next to your calendar.

Select Calendar settings, then click on the XML button next to Calendar Address:

This will give you an address to copy and paste into the Location box in the On the Network dialogue box above.

Enter an event in your calendar, click on Synchronize,and it should appear in Google Calendar.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

HP Deskjet 3050 j610 on Debian Wheezy XFCE

Installing this printer on Debian Wheezy was breezy. I went to Settings > Printing and the printer was discovered: all I had to do was choose the connection.

As I'd previously given the printer a static IP address, I didn't use the DNS setting.

This is in contrast to the installation in Debian Squeeze, where I had to install HP Linux Imaging and Printing (HPLIP) from the HP website.

Credit to HP for making support available for new printers in Linux, but it is nice to find that the latest version of Debian comes with that support built in.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Keep system clock up to date in XFCE

There's no GUI in XFCE to synchronise the system with a time server, and synchronisation doesn't happen by default, but the installing the Debian NTP (Network Time Protocol) package will cause the system clock to be kept up do date.

Check system time before and after with the excellent time.is website.

Time in United Kingdom:

Cleaning a Compaq Presario 900 laptop fan

This laptop is ten years old now, so there can't be too many about, but if you do have one, here's how to clean it.

Not by taking out every screw on the bottom of the laptop, which is what I tried. Just take out the two screws in the back behind the multimedia keys panel and gently pop it out, then the keyboard will lift up to reveal the fan.

Or I should say fans, because there are actually two. There's one conventional fan which blows air through a grill connected to the heat sink, and another small circular propeller-type fan in the back on the right whose purpose was not clear to me.

The heat sink grill was not especially dirty considering it hadn't been cleaned in ten years, but enough to restrict air flow.

It's surprising considering the fact that  laptop fans need regular cleaning how difficult they can be to access, especially when you don't know what you're doing.

With a nice clean fan, the laptop runs Debian Linux just fine, even if it is ten years old. Dig out that old laptop, clean it up and give Linux a spin!

Esoteric mouse pointer issues in XFCE

I rather like the DMZ Black mouse pointer theme, even though it is very similar to the Adwaita theme, which comes installed on Debian Wheezy XFCE. In the optimistic hope that there may be a handful of people among the billions that inhabit the Earth who share the same taste, I'm going to describe a problem and document the solution I found.

After installing the DMZ theme from the Debian repository and choosing DMZ Black in settings, the mouse pointer appears black over some applications and white over others.

The solution is to look in /usr/share/icons/default and edit index.theme:
[Icon Theme] 
As described here.

Liferea dark panel icons

I found some really good monochrome panel icons for Liferea a while ago, but after a recent reinstall, I couldn't remember where, so I made some of my own.
If anybody recognises the icons, please let me know where I found them originally, so I can give credit to the designer.

Meanwhile, here are my icons for anybody who want to use them, and for me if I lose them again.
(Panel icons are elementary-xfce-dark).

Edit: Copy the icons to /usr/share/liferea/pixamps.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Monday, August 12, 2013

Android adware

Zscaler ThreatLab has a interesting report on adware in Android, and the discrepancy in detection rates between AV companies.
Google has plenty of incentive to allow apps with aggressive advertising practices. AV vendors on the other hand have no such incentive but are instead under pressure to show that they are adding value by identifying malicious/suspicious/unwanted content. As such, there is a big gap between Google and AV vendors when it comes to adware. Ultimately, end users are stuck in the middle as they are left to decide if they will keep or delete the apps being flagged.
Zscaler reference Lookout in creating a definition of unacceptable behaviour in adware:
  • Harvests excessive personally identifiable information
  • Performs unexpected actions in response to ad clicks without appropriate user consent (appropriate user consent entails providing a clear alert in the application that the user can accept or decline before any behavior takes place)
  • Collects IMEI numbers, UDIDs or MAC addresses
  • Initiating phone calls and SMS messages
  • Changing wallpaper and ringtones
  • Leaks location information
  • Leaks email addresses
  • Leaks personal information such as contacts, birthdays, calendar appointments, etc
At the moment, as the Zscaler report highlights, Google may be allowing apps that exhibit unacceptable behaviour on Google Play, but AV companies are not consistent in their definition of what constitutes unacceptable behaviour, and it is left to the user to make a decision about what to install.

In relevant other news, Google has acquired VirusTotal, which, coincidentally or not, is now available as an Android app, so the paranoid Android user may check to see if any AV company detects their apps as adware or other malware.

Hat tip: GOT2.ME

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Tor browser served malware

The Tor browser (part of the Tor Browser Bundle) has been served malware on a compromised website as the result of a security vulnerability in the browser, a version of Firefox. US security services are allegedly responsible for the malware, which reports the user's IP address to a third party. The suggestion is that security services are trying to identify child pornography users.

Foss Force has the story, and repeats a claim made on eWeek that the browser in the Tor Browser Bundle was left insecure for weeks. The Tor blog rejects this claim, arguing that a security update was available.

To me it seems that Tor is correct here: only users who had not updated to the secure version were vulnerable. The Tor Browser Bundle had a warning on its start page advising users to get the security upgrade.

My own interest in the Tor network, I should point out, is the evasion of internet restrictions placed on users by countries which do not respect freedom of speech and information. I recently used it to evade a block on Blogger by the country I was staying in, a petty and profoundly undemocratic action, which I felt no compunction about evading. However, out of respect for my host nation, I won't reveal which country it was.

Linux Banking Trojan

With Windows computers beset with banking Trojans, and Linux seen as a secure alternative, it was never going to be long before similar malware appeared for Linux: the user base may be small, but with those users doing their banking on Linux, the reward was likely to be worth the effort.

The RSA blog has the story of the Hand of Thief Linux banking Trojan.

The Trojan's sales agent (yes, there is such a person) has very kindly let Linux users who bank online know what to watch out for.
[I]n a conversation with the malware’s sales agent, he himself suggested using email and social engineering as the infection vector.
I suppose the usual suspects will claim that this shows the need for an anti-virus program on Linux (again), but I still don't believe that is necessary. Not installing Linux executables from untrusted sources remains the key to security, and I have no information yet about detection rates for this Trojan.

Update: the avast! Blog has an analysis of the Trojan,  with links to a VirusTotal analysis, showing which AV programs detect the malware (avast! being one , of course).

Saturday, June 29, 2013

10 things to do after installing Debian Wheezy XFCE

Debian Wheezy is a great operating system, and XFCE is a great desktop environment- especially for older computers, and for people who prefer a traditional desktop paradigm- but it does have a few quirks. I've just installed it on my old Presario 900 laptop, and I'm going to mention a few things I did after installing to make the computer more usable and nicer looking.

1. Install necessary firmware

Debian doesn't come with non-free firmware installed by default. On booting after installation, I noticed some warnings about firmware not found. Enabling the non-free repository and installing the firmware-linux package and its dependency firmware-linux-nonfree got my graphics card (such as it is) working.

2. Put a volume control icon in the panel

I don't know why this isn't there by default, but it's easy to rectify: right click on the panel, select Panel and then Add New Items, and add the Mixer. Click on it and then on Select Controls. Tick Master or PCM- whichever works best for you.

3. Sort out screensaver and power management

XFCE in Debian Wheezy comes with two applications capable on controlling power management, which can result in some perplexing behaviour.
  • The screensaver comes on, but the screen doesn't shut down after the set period.
  • The screen blanks, but the backlight stays on, leaving a ghostly illumination.
  • VLC is set to disable power management, but the screen blanks 10 minutes into a video.
I suspect that Power Manager works if a screensaver (set in Screensaver) is off, but if a screensaver is set in Screensaver, it doesn't, except in VLC. If a screensaver is set in Screensaver, then the power management settings in the  Screensaver Advanced tab are the only way to shut down the screen.

Confused? You should be!

There's more. A random screensaver is enabled by default, but not all of the screensavers selected are installed, meaning that sometimes a screensaver will start, some times the screen will blank.

Practically, if you want to use a screensaver, enable power management in Screensaver (note that all three settings, Standby, Suspend and Off are the same- this sems to be fine for a laptop anyway) and make sure the On AC > Monitor > Put display to sleep when computer is inactive for: value is greater than that set in Screensaver.

[Update: although this originally worked for me, my screen started going blank while watching videos again a few days ago. I don't know why, because the settings seem to be the same and I haven't had this problem for months.  Setting the XFCE Power Manager slider to Never seems to have fixed it. Not sure why I didn't do that in the first place.]

If you don't use a screensaver, Power Manager Monitor settings can be used to shut down the screen.

4.  Create some special folders icons for the Tango icon theme

Tango is the default icon theme for XFCE, yet it has a very annoying bug: it has no icons for special folders in the home directory, meaning that these folders are displayed with an icon from the Gnome icon set. You can of course use another icon set that does include special folder icons, but I rather like Tango. The only solution I have found is to copy the default folder in the Tango theme and rename it for all the special folders. (Well, actually creating symlinks would be a more elegant solution, come to think of it...) You can see what I've done in this screenshot.

Of course what is really needed is for somebody to produce some special folder icons for Tango...

[Update: if changes don't take effect, update the icon cache,
gtk-update-icon-cache /path/to/theme/directory/
as described on XFCE Docs.]

5. Enable anti-aliasing

If fonts look bitty, go to Settings > Appearance > Fonts and enable anti-aliasing. Experiment with the level of hinting for the best appearance.

[Update: also see this post on enabling LCD hinting (it's not a GUI option).]

6. Enable the compositor

Go to Settings > Window Manager Tweaks to enable compositing. XFCE has its own fairly minimal compositor. It provides windows shadows and transparency, and will enable docks that require compositing to run.

Although the compositor on XFCE is very minimal, I found that video lagged severely with compositing enabled on this laptop. Watch out for this issue on older hardware (10 years in this case).

7. Enable multimedia

Enabling multimedia in Debian used to be a big issue, but not any more. Debian now has multimedia support. Wheezy plays my music and video files out of the box. There are only a couple of things to mention here.

Install flashplugin-nonfree if you want to view Flash content on web pages.

To enable DVD playback, download and install libdvdcss2 as described on debian.org.

8. Install a nice theme

Debian doesn't pay any attention to making XFCE look nice, but XFCE itself is very customisable. xfce-look.org has lots of themes. Themes need to be set in Appearance and Window Manager. Themes can be placed in /home/user/.themes, but for system applications like Synaptic, they need to be in usr/share/themes. Some themes may require additional engines to display correctly. GTK3 applications like Network Manager will require GTK3 support to display correctly.

Here's my own desktop. Keeping it minimal, this theme doesn't require additional engines. Its a modification of the Axiom theme with added GTK3 support. The icon theme is Tango, but with panel icons from the Elementary icon theme.

9. Enable the Print Screen button

The prt sc button is not enabled by default. The excellent ArchLinux XFCE Wiki describes how to enable it. Add the command as described then press the prt sc key to bind it to that key.

10. Enable quick search in Synaptic

Install apt-xapian-index. Building and rebuilding the index may take some CPU time, but will speed up searches.

Monday, June 10, 2013

debian-multimedia.org now "registered by someone unknown to Debian"

Debian recently got multimedia, but previously to that, Debian users may have added a repository debian-multimedia.org to enable multimedia. This changed to deb-multimedia.org to make clear that it was not part of the Debian project.The debian-multimedia.org domain is now "registered by someone unknown to Debian".

Sound advice I think for Debian users would be to make sure they don't have that repository in their sources files.

A look at XFCE 4.10 on Debian Jessie

4.10 is not a radical upgrade to 4.8 available in Wheezy. XFCE is not in the business of overhauling the desktop paradigm like Gnome 3. It's not so much of a work in progress, more of a finished item, getting a few minor improvements.

I won't bother listing all the changes because that information is available at xfce.org.

I'll just mention a few things that have stuck me in a few days of using 4.10.

The audio mixer plugin for the panel has been updated, and seems a lot easier to set up and less buggy.

4.10 supports a Synaptics touchpad where 4.8 doesn't.

Windows can be tiled by dragging to the edge of the screen.

The application finder has been updated and looks nice. If you have used Gnome 3 and got into the habit of opening an application via a search, the application finder can be a quicker way to find and launch an application than the menu approach.

The biggest change that I noticed in 4.10 was in Thunar, which now has tabs.

The ability to tile windows makes comparing two folders almost as easy as the (now removed and much missed) 'extra pane' feature in Nautilus.

So, is 4.10 an absolutely must-have upgrade to XFCE? Probably not. Is it a useful upgrade that you might be annoyed at having to wait two years in Debian Stable to get? Possibly.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Life with eternal upgrades- XFCE 4.10

So I'm running Debian Jessie, the testing version of Debian, and living life with eternal upgrades.

A day or so ago, a upgrade to XFCE from 4.8 to 4.10 came through. I noticed some problems with theming: the panel loaded grey before turning to my theme-selected colour, panel icons appeared from the wrong theme, before (usually) changing to the correct theme icon, and highlighted text in Firefox was the default colour that is used whenever a theme is broken (a dark greyish blue).

At first I thought there must be a problem with my theme, but other themes had the same issues. Then I thought it must be a bug in XFCE.

While looking around for a solution, I came across a post on the XFCE forum which, while it didn't relate to the issues I was experiencing, seemed worth a try. And indeed, it did solve my problems. Something in the sessions cache was breaking the GTK2 theme.

The solution was to rename the following folder:
XFCE 4.10 is not a radical change from 4.8, but there are some notable differences. I shall write about those in another post.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Firefox UI update to arrive in October

Back in February 2012 I wrote about a planned update to the Firefox user interface. Well it looks like it's finally going to arrive at the end of the year (probably October) in Firefox 25.

Tech Crunch has the details and the Linux version looks like this.


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Debian Stable to track Firefox ESR

Debian has up to now put its own version of Firefox (Iceweasel) into the stable release and maintained that version until the end of life of the release. This meant Squeeze users were stuck for two years with version 3.5, while Firefox had advanced to version 19. Wheezy users were going to be stuck with version 10 for the next two years, by which time Firefox could be at version 35 or more.

However, it seems that under the weight of security updates, and the hard work involved in backporting them to Debian's own version, Debian Stable will now track Firefox ESR (something testing already does, as I reported here).
Multiple security issues have been found in Iceweasel, Debian's version of the Mozilla Firefox web browser: Multiple memory safety errors, missing input sanitising vulnerabilities, use-after-free vulnerabilities, buffer overflows and other programming errors may lead to the execution of arbitrary code, privilege escalation, information leaks or cross-site-scripting.

We're changing the approach for security updates for Iceweasel, Icedove and Iceape in stable-security: Instead of backporting security fixes, we now provide releases based on the Extended Support Release branch. As such, this update introduces packages based on Firefox 17 and at some point in the future we will switch to the next ESR branch once ESR 17 has reached it's end of life.

Debian Wheezy users can expect to see an update from Iceweasel 10 to 17 (and one from 17 to 24 at the end of the year). So Debian Stable users can now have (reasonably) up to date features as well as stability.

And Debian Wheezy users who would like to try out the latest features in the release version of Firefox (currently 21 at the time of writing) can get that too, as described here.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

United Kingdom localisation of Iceweasel from Debian Experimental.

I've wondered for a while why Iceweasel did not use British spelling in this install of Debian- I'd selected British English as the language when I'd installed it.

I noted in my previous post how a localisation package is available for LibreOffice. Well, there's one for Iceweasel as well, but it wasn't installed by default.

As I'm using Iceweasel from experimental, I had to get the language pack from experimental too.
 # apt-get install -t experimental iceweasel-l10n-en-gb

British English spell check in LibreOffice.

I noticed recently that LibreOffice was not checking my spelling. I solved the problem as I've done before by installing an Open Office British English dictionary. After an update to LibreOffice 4 in Debian Jessie, the spell-checker stopped working, and I had a look for a better solution.

The problem seems to be that LibreOffice says it's using Hunspell, but there is no British English dictionary available for Hunspell: you have to use Myspell.

In addition, the British English package for LibreOffice had not been installed by default, so I installed that as well.

These are the packages required:
Here are some screenshots illustrating that LibreOffice clearly thinks spelling is handled by Hunspell when it isn't.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The first web page

Following on from The first web server and The first web browser here's the first web page.

(Well not quite, but an early copy. 'Demonstration' is misspelt because, as I noted in the first browser post, the original web page could edit pages as well as display them, and Tim Berners-Lee was demonstrating this.)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Best Linux Distro For a New User?

Foss Force recently asked the question. One Linux distro was conspicuous by its absence.

My wife and four year old daughter both use Linux. They don't know it's Linux, let alone what distribution it is, yet they both use it without problem, and the reason they use it without problem is that it works and it's stable and bug free. And the reason it works and it's stable and it's bug free is it's Debian they're using.

So why isn't Debian on the list?

Multimedia used to be one objection to Debian, but as I noted in a recent post, multimedia now works out of the box in Debian, except for Flash, which is a simple install.

Another reason may be non-free software. Debian has a philosophical commitment to free software, but pragmatically makes non-free software easily available to users. ('Free' here means free as in open source, with the freedom to change, edit and add to, rather than free as in not costing money.)

As I noted in another recent post, this meant that I had to enable some non-free firmware before my video and wifi cards would work in Debian. Not a very difficult task in my case, but as this quote from a post on the Debian forum points out, it can be difficult and off-putting for new users.
Newbies, in particular... who then require a proprietary graphics driver, for example, will be at a loss as to how to find it.
Other distributions make the installation of non-free software easier, or come with it already installed, so there is probably a distinction here, between the best distro for a new Linux user, and the best distro for a new linux administrator.

If I were going to install a Linux distro for a novice Linux user to try out, Debian would be at the top of my list, but if I were going to recommend a distro for a novice user to try installing, it might be a distribution that makes the use of non-free software easier.

A final reason why Debian might not be on the list is community support. The Debian documentation contains excellent support advice, but naive user questions on the Debian forum are likely to receive the answer rtfm. Similar questions may receive a more sympathetic answer on the forums of linux distributions which encourage new users.

Despite these objections, I believe new Linux users should be encouraged to try Debian. The easiest way to do so is by trying a Live System, bootable from CD or USB. There is a version stable+nonfree that contains non-free software which may make enabling computer hardware easier.

We were all new to Linux and some point. Debian works and it's stable. The documentation is excellent and makes installing non-free software an achievable task even for a non-expert user.

I reckon it's one of the best distributions for a new user, if they have some help with installation.

And if the learning curve is a challenge not an obstacle, why not try installing it?

Update: ZDNet has an article on Debian Wheezy, which details some of the issues with non-free software encountered when installing Debian on various computers.