CrunchBang 11 Interlude

[If you don’t know who or what these (*) are, check the Glossary page]

First Pothole

I hit my first CrunchBang 11 pothole last night. I sat down to do some work on Defiant*. I wasn’t happy with the speed of the trackpad. The pointer was moving too fast for my taste, so I Googled it and came up with a page from the CrunchBang Wiki. We’ve used a lot of lx**** stuff with good results. While TheFrog* likes command line, I prefer nice, tidy, easy-to-use GUI* utilities. The CrunchBang Wiki page told me that if I loaded lxinput I’d get a GUI utility that allowed me to adjust mouse and keyboard settings. Terrific! Using a terminal window, I installed lxinput. (Can also be done with Synaptic: Settings->Synaptic Package Manager, search for lxinput.)


sudo aptitude update

sudo aptitude full-upgrade

sudo aptitude install lxinput

sudo reboot


This can be done in one line:

sudo aptitude update && sudo aptitude full-upgrade && sudo aptitude install lxinput && sudo reboot

[&& means AND]

I did an update and upgrade before installing lxinput, then rebooted. It probably wasn’t necessary to reboot, but as a survivor of the Windows 3.1 era, I always feel more secure after a reboot.

My login window came up…I entered user id and password…and:

failed to execute login command

Tried again with the same result. With growing feelings of trepidation and despair, I realized that I needed to get RoboFrog* involved. (Don’t get me wrong. TheFrog is able to fix most of our problems, but wow! It’s usually pretty ugly. HE can’t help tinkering. I just want to get some work done.)

“What’s up?”

“I broke Defiant. I can’t log on.”

“Really,” said TheFrog. “Cool! What did you do?”

Cool! See what I mean?

“I updated her and loaded lxinput.”

“What did you do for?” HE’s giving me that look. (Not that look; the other one.)

“I wanted to change the mouse speed. The pointer is too sensitive.”

“Why didn’t you say something?” said RoboFrog. “I could have fixed that without lxinput. Did you reboot before you loaded lxinput?”

“No…after.”

“So you don’t know whether the update or lxinput broke Defiant?”

“I guess not.” This conversation wasn’t doing much to cheer me up.

“Let me see her.”

Hands shaking, I handed Defiant to TheFrog. HE* sat down with her, tried a few reboots without success. Then HE switched to a console window (Ctl+Alt+F4) and logged on (It really is handy to know CLI*); poked around in a few configuration files, then loaded something and rebooted.

“Here.” He handed Defiant back to me. “She’ll work now. Tomorrow I’ll figure out what happened.”

Mouth hanging open, I blinked a couple of times and said, “That’s it? What did you do?”

“Not much. Slim’s not working, so I loaded gdm. I’ll fix her tomorrow.” (sudo aptitide install gdm3)

[Slim and gdm (Gnome Display Manager) are display managers. They manage your login when you start your system. CrunchBang 10 uses gdm as its default display manager while CrunchBang 11 uses Slim. Debian Wheezy (testing), on which CrunchBang 11 is based, uses gdm as its display manager. I suspect that’s how TheFrog knew it would work. Also, I suspect that the CrunchBang team switched to Slim because its a much lighter-weight display manager than gdm.]

I tried logging on.

“It’s still not letting me log in.”

“What does it say in the login session box?,” asked TheFrog.

“Default session,” I reply.

“Click on the drop-down box and set the session to Openbox.”

I did, and sure enough, everything was fine. Other than having a different login screen, I couldn’t tell the difference. And…I got a lot of work done. For once, RoboFrog simply fixed the problem without tearing the machine apart. Now that was cool.

Good to HIS word, by the time I got to the RFCC* this morning, RoboFrog had Defiant completely restored to her pre-lxinput condition. Apparently, HE wasn’t interested in worrying about what lxinput did. HE confirmed, though, that is was lxinput and not the system update that caused the problem. HE reinstalled CrunchBang 11 and restored my backup.

If you’re running CrunchBang 11…DO NOT…install lxinput!

By the way, TheFrog also fixed my mouse pointer speed. That’s a story for another time.

More CrunchBang 11

[If you don’t know who or what these (*) are, check the Glossary page.]

At The Robotic Frog, we’re still very much in love with CrunchBang 11 (Waldorf). It has a couple of small warts, but from our point of view, it’s performing brilliantly.

CrunchBang isn’t a Linux distribution that we would recommend to a complete Linux newbie. If you’re brand new to Linux, RoboFrog* recommends Xubuntu 12.04 or Linux Mint. (TheFrog prefers Xubuntu.) If you’re at all comfortable with using command line and a text editor, with a little persistence, you should be able to get CrunchBang to look and feel the way you want. It’s worth the effort.

CrunchBang 11: Apple Extended Keyboard

Wired Apple Keyboard

Wired Apple Keyboard (Photo credit: Jalada and Sefran)

I love the Apple Extended (aluminum) Keyboard. The touch is just right, the keys are large, and they’re well-spaced for my hands. I like the short keystroke too.

Fair warning: RoboFrog’s aunt has the same Apple Extended Keyboard and she hates it…because of the size of the keys and short keystroke. Go figure.

There are a couple of problems with it, though. First, it doesn’t have an Insert key. I use Freemind (mind-mapping software)…a lot. The keyboard command to insert a new node is…you guessed it…Insert. Some have recommended the Enter key on the number pad for this function, but Enter doesn’t do the same thing as Insert. Enter adds a new node to the root node…no matter which node is highlighted. Insert adds a new node to the highlighted node. With Numlock turned off, the Zero-key on the number pad will produce the Insert command. It’s a minor irritation, though, to remember to turn the number pad on and off each time I use Freemind. I prefer to have the number pad always turned on.

The Apple keyboard has several unused keys (in the Linux world): F13-F19. Those function keys are just sitting there taking up space…unless we give them a job. F13 looks like a good candidate for Insert…if we can figure out how to assign the Insert command to it.

Google It!

We talked last time about the power of Google (search engines) and man pages. Here’s how we used those tools to solve our Insert-key problem.

A Google search is almost always the best place to start solving a problem. We’re not the most sophisticated searchers; we keep it simple. First, think about what kind of information you want. In this case, we have an Apple Extended Keyboard; we want to assign the Insert command to an unused key; and, we think F13 (the F13 function key) is a terrific candidate since it’s near the location that we expect the Insert key on a PC keyboard. So here’s our Google search:

[apple extended keyboard insert f13]

As you can see, it’s simply a bunch of keywords identifying the three things we want to know something about: apple extended keyboard, insert, f13. F13 is a wild guess, but it makes the search more specific…and it does make a difference. The solution we finally choose does not come up if we search without the f13 keyword.

The Google search gives a list of links. The best of all worlds is if we get a link that say, “RoboFrog, here’s how to set the F13 key to Insert on your Apple Extended Keyboard with CrunchBang 11 running on BigDog.” That rarely happens. We’d like a specific solution to our problem, but more importantly, we’re looking for clues. One of the links says, “Apple Keyboard – ArchWiki.” This is from the Arch Linux documentation. Your first impression may be that this isn’t very useful because it’s about Arch Linux. We’re trying to configure CrunchBang Linux. That’s a mistake. We used Arch Linux for a long time and know what’s in their wiki documents. Arch-folk are expected to fix their own problems. To help with that, the Arch Linux community put together terrific documentation that they keep on the ArchWiki. I can’t count the number of problems that RoboFrog has solved with information HE* found on the ArchWiki. So, when an ArchWiki link pops up, we pay attention.

What did we find at the ArchWiki? We’re not going to repeat the wiki here. Click the link to see the wiki page. We’ll point out the sections in which we found useful information.

“Function keys do not work” — (ArchWiki)

It’s not that the function keys don’t work. It’s that you have to use the fn shift key to get to them because the keyboard defaults to the media keys. Here’s an example of a problem we didn’t even know that we had. We really like the media keys and we use them a lot. If you want an interesting exercise, try pressing the fn shift key to activate the function keys while, at the same time, holding down both the Control and Alt keys, then pressing F3 (Ctl+Alt+F3). (Experienced Linux-ers know that this is how you switch to a console window.) You have to be a contortionist to do this. Then, you have to press Ctl+Alt+F7 to return to your graphical environment and that’s even more difficult. It would be much better to shift the media keys rather than the function keys. So in this ArchWiki section, is a fix for this problem for Arch Linux…and, it works just fine with CrunchBang.

“Media Keys” — (ArchWiki)

We keep a utility called Tomboy running on all of our machines. It’s a notes application. A notes application is like having a pad of sticky-notes always available. It’s a terrific tool to have when problem solving. We copy and paste the information from the ArchWiki to a ‘sticky-note’ and continue looking for clues. That way we don’t have to keep going back and forth between web sites.

Reading down the ArchWiki page, we find a few more clues. Under the Media Keys section are the following:

  • ~/.Xmodmap
  • keycode 49 = less greater less greater bar brokenbar
  • “Then run xmodmap ~/.Xmodmap. This command can also go into ~/.bashrc.”
  • xev

That’s quite a lot of information and it took only a few minutes to get it. If your new to Linux, this is probably pretty scary stuff. If, however, you know a bit about configuration files, command line utilities, and shell scripting there are a bunch of clues here.

.Xmodmap is a configuration file and it’s located in the home directory (~/). I checked my home directory and there’s no .Xmodmap. That’s okay; it means that I need to create one.

[keycode 49 = …] When you press a key, it produces a number that the computer reads: a keycode. This tells us that we can take a known keycode (49 in this case) and assign stuff to it. We don’t want to play around with keycode 49, but if we can find the keycode for our F13 key, then this is how to assign a function to it. The information for the assignment is stored in our .Xmodmap configuration file. Apparently, that’s not enough, though.

[xmodmap] appears to be a utility program and we have to feed it the information in our .Xmodmap file. There’s another clue that I missed: “This command can also go into ~/.bashrc." Frankly, I’m a little embarrassed that I missed this one. It’s important, as you’ll see later.

[xev] This is the holy grail. It’s a utility program that displays the keycode for a key when we press it. Now we have a way to determine the keycode for our F13 function key.

We learned a lot. Even though this information isn’t specific to CrunchBang Linux (or whatever your favorite distribution) it’s very useful and applicable. The point is that we should scan links from our search even if they don’t appear applicable to our particular distribution. This is Linux and there are more things, from distribution to distribution, that are the same than are different.

Lazy Robot: Apple Aluminum Keyboard on Linux

You know what? Just as we like Robotic Frogs, we also like Lazy Robots (LR)! Going back to our search list, the third entry is for Lazy Robot. We consider that a good omen. Not only did we get a chuckle from the name, but we also got an exact solution to our problem…almost.

If we follow the link to Lazy Robot, we’re greeted immediately with a picture of the Apple Extended Keyboard. We’re in the right place. Lazy Robot does a terrific job of distilling things down to the essentials.

Scanning the page we see that the keycode for F13 is 191 and LR shows us how to assign Insert to the keycode. It doesn’t get much better than that.

That’s it. It will be enabled when you log in. If you want to enable it immediately, type this:

    $ xmodmap .Xmodmap

Magic. You now have an insert key.

Caveat emptor: I can’t tell you how grateful we are to folks like Lazy Robot for sharing information like this. It’s one of the reasons that we do what we do. But…there’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there? But this is only mostly right for our system. That’s not unusual, so be careful.

Here’s how we configure CrunchBang:

  • create a configuration text file in our home directory (/home/robofrog/.Xmodmap)
  • Add a line to the file: keycode 191 = Insert
  • From the command line execute: xmodmap ~/.Xmodmap

RoboFrog and I are doing high-fives. It works perfectly. Finally, I have an Insert key. No more shifting the number pad on and off. That is until I rebooted. Once I rebooted, no more Insert.

“Insert is gone,” says I.

“Did you add xmodmap to the start up script?”

HE* has that look on HIS* face. You know the one. The one that says, “Did you plug it in?” I just want to smack HIM. Actually, RoboFrog is the most patient of Frogs. Maybe the look is my imagination. Not!

“Try running xmodmap again,” says TheFrog.

I do…Magic!…I have Insert again. What does that tell me? That xmodmap must be run every time my system boots (Of course, TheFrog knows that.). No problem. I do that by putting the command in one of my startup scripts. CrunchBang gives me a simple way to do that.

Settings->Openbox->Edit autostart

Add this line to the Openbox autostart configuration file:

xmodmap ~/.Xmodmap &

Now Insert is assigned to F13 every time my system boots. More problem solving and the Apple keyboard next time.

Linux Newbie

What does ‘secret’ mean?

Obama authorized secret support for Syrian rebels

“WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama has signed a secret order authorizing U.S. support for rebels seeking to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government, sources familiar with the matter said.”

Sometimes you see something that makes your head want to explode. Someone help me out. What, exactly, does ‘secret’ mean? I thought I knew, but apparently, I don’t.

Linux Newbie

One of the biggest problems for new Linux users is figuring out how to…figure out how…to fix or change things. This problem is often lost on experienced Linux-ers. We forget how scary it was the first time something went wrong or didn’t work as expected. I want to hope that newcomers simply need a little coaching in how to get started solving their problems (and the occasional flash of brilliance from old-timers) and they’ll blaze their own trails.

If you’re new to Linux and you want to learn what makes the system tick, you need to learn to use the command line interface (CLI). CLI gives you the potential to fix problems and customize almost everything. Once you learn CLI, you start to get the power-itch. It’s the doorway to making your machine work the way you want it to, rather than the way someone else thought you wanted it to work. It only takes a few things to get started: Learn how to open a terminal window, how to enter commands, and how to navigate the Linux file system (Especially, learn the ls, cd, and more commands). You don’t have to learn everything all at once; just a few of the basics to get started. There’s plenty of easy to understand information on the Internet that describes how to do these things.

Your Search Engine Is Your Friend

Google is our preferred search engine at The Robotic Frog (TRF). When we say Google, we mean use your favorite search provider. We’ve tried a lot of different search engines, but always end up back at Google. There’s a reason people say, “Google it.”

Linux is a child of the Internet and there is an enormous amount of Linux-specific information out there. It’s rare that we fail to find something about a problem we have or a change that we want to make. An Internet search should be the first thing you do when you need help.

Man Pages

If you’re a brand-newbie (maybe even if you’re not so brand new), you may have no idea what ‘man pages’ are. I know I didn’t the first time I saw that phrase. Here, let me help. Bring up a terminal window (You did do a search and figure out how to do that, right?) and type this at the shell prompt ($ , on our system. You don’t type the $. The shell provides it.):

$ man man

The system helpfully brings up a screen of information and under the heading DESCRIPTION, you’ll see this (on a CrunchBang/Debian system):

“man is the system’s manual pager. Each page argument given to man is normally the name of a program, utility or function. The manual page associated with each of these arguments is then found and displayed.”

For the sake of argument, let’s define three Linux users: 1) Newbie, 2) Have-A-Clue (HAC), and 3) Guru. At TRF, we’re HACs (Have-A-Clue Linux-ers). We aspire to Guru status, but we’re still a long way from it. We’ve had a lot of help along the way and we’ll probably need a lot more. The man description for itself (man man) is intuitively obvious to a Guru; a HAC will understand it, but may need to mull it over a bit. To a newbie, it’s unintelligible. Telling a newbie to read the man pages (RTFM) is probably the worst advice we can give. man pages are not written for newbies.

With that said, newbies who want to learn about their system should become aware of the man pages and must start learning how to read them. It gets easier with practice. man pages are the pages of the manual for your Linux system. They live on your hard drive and contain some of the best information about your system and its utilities (programs). Your manual (man pages) are always available. If you have your machine…you have your manual.

Next time, we’ll show you how to use these tools to solve real problems.

CrunchBang Linux 2

[If you don’t know who or what these (*) are, check the Glossary page.]

It’s Not a Job…It’s an Adventure!

In the morning, I have a routine. I’m an early riser; I come downstairs, grab a cup of tea or coffee, go to my computer (BigDog*), and check out the morning news. It’s quiet in the house, just me and the dog…and that’s the way I like it. Once I have my dose of legal stimulants and make sure that the world hasn’t blown itself to hell overnight, I’m ready to leap tall buildings with a single bound. I hope you infer from this, that for me, this might not be the best time for big surprises. This morning, I power up BigDog and here’s what greets me: !!! This isn’t Xubuntu 12.04.

What in the world did TheFrog do? We have an agreement here on the LilyPad. I need at least one machine that always works…one machine that RoboFrog keeps his hands off. BigDog is supposed to be that machine. HE comes in; without a word, HE sits down at Untouchable* and starts tinkering.

We spent months trying Linux distributions before Xubuntu 12.04 was released. It was like an answer to our prayers. Other than the problem with Thunar (file manager), it just worked…and it’s beautiful. If we were recommending Linux for a newbie, Xubuntu 12.04 would be it.

“What did YOU do!?”

TheFrog continues tinkering with Untouchable.

“Try it. You’ll like it.” HE doesn’t even look up.

I take a big breath and look at BigDog. Clearly, we’re not in Kansas anymore. It is attractive, though. What is it? CrunchBang!

“I though YOU had a big problem with CrunchBang.”

“Yeah, I did,” HE replies. “But I fixed it. I loaded CrunchBang on all of our machines.”

“!!!!!!…What!?” I’m trying not to scream.

“Try it. You’ll like it; I promise.” HE still doesn’t look up.

For RoboFrog, it wasn’t an issue at all. For me…well, I was doing everything I could not to crawl under my desk, and thumb-in-mouth, curl up into the fetal position. The last time I talked with TheFrog, HE had a deal-breaking problem with CrunchBang. Now, HE had loaded it onto every machine we have and I was supposed to take it in stride. Wow!

Problems in CrunchBang-ville

TheFrog loaded CrunchBang 10 onto Dellbert* and it exceeded all of our expectations. Then, HE moved on to Untouchable. That’s where the problems began. HE tried the same tests HE did on Dellbert (previous post).

RoboFrog couldn’t get a movie to play properly on Untouchable. Untouchable would transfer part of the movie, play it, stop and think for awhile, transfer some more, play it, stop and think for awhile, and so on. Totally un-watchable. TheFrog decided to copy the movie file (3.1 GB) to Untouchable and try playing it from the local hard drive. At 1 hr 5 min, HE shut it down. The transfer still hadn’t completed. It should have taken 5 or 6 minutes. Clearly, there was a problem with NFS (Network File System). Dellbert had done a phenomenal job. Untouchable was a much more capable machine. Why was it taking so long to transfer the file?

RoboFrog decided to start with Debian 6.0.5 and work HIS way forward from there. Debian 6.0.5 had the same problem. HE tried transferring the 3.1 GB file. HE stopped it at 1 hr. It was transferring, but at a glacial pace. The problem was with Debian 6, not CrunchBang. What was the difference between Dellbert and Untouchable? 32-bit vs 64-bit version. TheFrog’s conclusion was that there’s something wrong with the 64-bit version of Debian 6 with respect to NFS. Xubuntu had worked perfectly. We used NFS for all of our backups and for access to our movie library. This was a deal-breaker. CrunchBang 10 (Debian 6.0.5) wasn’t going to work for us.

The wheels were turning, though. When TheFrog wants something, HE’s not easily put off. HE was smitten with CrunchBang and…NO…simply wasn’t an option. Then it came to HIM. Debian 6 was timing out. They were well along the way with Wheezy (Debian Testing). CrunchBang had to be well along the way with a Wheezy-based distribution as well. HE poked around the CrunchBang web site, and sure enough, there was CrunchBang 11 (based on Debian Testing). HE downloaded CrunchBang 11, loaded it onto Untouchable, and repeated the file transfer test.

It took only 4 min 50 seconds to transfer the 3.1 GB file from Whitestar* to Untouchable. That was more like it. HE still had CrunchBang 10 loaded on Dellbert, so HE tried the file transfer with Dellbert: 6 min 10 sec. CrunchBang 11 worked almost perfectly on Untouchable. In addition, we got lots of updated applications. There was one minor problem with CrunchBang 11.

CrunchBang 11 experienced the same problem with Thunar (file manager) that plagued Xubuntu. We verified that it was a Debian/Xfce problem, not CrunchBang. Thunar was a minor problem because HE simply replaced Thunar with PCManFM. Problem solved.

It was at this point that RoboFrog got the bright idea to switch all of our machines over to CrunchBang. For now, HE was leaving Dellbert on CrunchBang 10. Everything else had been converted to CrunchBang 11.

Here’s a look at CrunchBang 11 on Untouchable. Now that I’m over the initial shock of having all of our machines converted to CrunchBang, I’m looking forward to giving it a try. TheFrog says “Try it; you’ll like it.” We’ll see. Next time…How HE transformed an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan.

CrunchBang Linux

[If you don’t know who or what these (*) are, check the Glossary page]

CrunchBang 10

It only took RoboFrog about half an hour to have CrunchBang 10 installed and running on Dellbert*. I blame ZACHARiAS for that. RoboFrog thinks that ZACHARiAS is HIS new best friend. ZACHARiAS left us a comment on our last post recommending CrunchBang. Never one to pass up an adventure, TheFrog hopped right to it. We tried CrunchBang once, but TheFrog can’t remember why we decided not to use it.

More Than a Pretty Face

In fact…this is a face only a mother could love. It’s butt-ugly. The CrunchBang team are the ultimate function-over-form-folk. RoboFrog isn’t put off by ugly; HE tends to be a function-first-amphibian. Also, HE knows it’s easy to change the look of a Linux GUI (Graphical User Interface).

But first…HE wanted to figure out why we aren’t using CrunchBang. CrunchBang 10 is derived from Debian 6. Debian 6 isn’t an exciting distribution, but it’s rock solid. That’s what we were running on Dellbert before TheFrog decided to take ZACHARiAS’s advice and try CrunchBang.  (HE can never leave well enough alone! All HE needed was and excuse.)

Debian 6 was working extremely well. I crossed my fingers and hoped the TheFrog could get everything working again with CrunchBang. And you know what? There were no problems whatsoever. It took a few minutes to figure out how the GUI worked. After that, everything worked perfectly. RoboFrog got the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) server working. Except for the user interface, everything appeared to work the same as Debian 6. The GUI, though, was a big deal for TheFrog.

The GUI (Openbox) is crisp…even on Dellbert…and efficient. I could see TheFrog starting to vibrate. HE decided to see how far he could push Dellbert. HE compiled a C program. No problem. An Objective-C program. No problem. HE ran a couple of Perl programs. Again, no problem. Okay, that’s fine, but what about multimedia?

We’re movie freaks here at TRF (The Robotic Frog). We have a huge external hard drive attached to Whitestar* with all of our movies on it. All of our computers access that drive through NFS (Network File System). We like NFS because it’s easy to set up. We’re able to watch movies on any computer, anywhere in the house. Very cool. RoboFrog wanted to see if Dellbert could play a movie acceptably. Surely, this would bring him to his Pentium III knees.

Using VLC Media Player, TheFrog brought up a movie. Watched the entire movie. Dellbert did a great job playing it. I don’t want you to think that Dellbert performs as well as some of our more capable machines. We’re writing this, using Dellbert…and frankly…he’s sluggish. I have to give him his due, though; he has performed well beyond our expectations.

I Think TheFrog’s in Love!

HE had that moonie-eyed, short of breath look. I’ve seen it before. HE had it when we first looked at Xubuntu 11.10. HIS feelings went mostly unrequited until Xubuntu 12.04 came out, but like now, it was obvious that Xubuntu 11.10 had turned TheFrog’s head. And, it’s obvious now that CrunchBang 10 has turned HIS head as well. It’s at moments like this that I become most afraid. When HE’s in love, everything gets either really good…or everything goes to-hell-in-a-hand-basket . There’s no inbetween. What was it going to be this time?

TheFrog looked up at me and said, “I’m going to load CrunchBang on all of our machines.”

My voice broke and I almost screamed, “No your NOT!”

Xubuntu 12.04 is the best thing that’s happened to us since Fedora 14. If I had any influence on HIM at all (unlikely), I was going to push this in a different direction.

“We searched for months to find a distribution that we like. You can’t just chuck everything for this ugly duckling.”

“Okay, we’re not using Untouchable* right now. How about I test CrunchBang on him and if everything’s good…then we’ll switch everything over to CrunchBang?”

That’s uncharacteristically magnanimous of TheFrog. Usually, I walk into the RFCC (RoboFrog Computing Center) and HE’s simply had HIS way with it. It’s enough to drive a man to drink.

I replied cautiously, “I’m not sure about switching everything, but I can live with Untouchable.”

“Good. I’ll get to it.”

I think you can see there’s a lot more to this story. Here’s a summary: We’ve loaded CrunchBang 10 onto Dellbert and it is working well beyond our expectations. Apparently, whether I like it or not, we’re moving to another level with CrunchBang. Next time…Untouchable.

Dellbert 2

[If you don’t know who or what these (*) are check the Glossary page.]

Dellbert* is a rescue computer. My guess is that he’s about 14 years old. By today’s standards, he doesn’t have much computing horsepower. The thing that intrigues us about machines like Dellbert is that they’re free. Most of the folks who know us here at The Robotic Frog (TRF) know that we like tinkering with computers. A couple of times a year someone offers us an old computer that they just want to get rid of. It was fun collecting them until they came up on MsRoboFrog’s* radar. MsRoboFrog doesn’t appreciate our treasures (junk) as much as we do. We’ve negotiated a loose treaty with HER, the conditions of which are that when we bring a machine home, we get rid of a machine. We don’t think SHE knows about Dellbert and Old Blue yet, but in the spirit of upholding our agreement, we got rid of a couple of dead computers that we raided for parts.

Firefox

Initially, Dellbert had 128 MB of RAM. We had no problem loading Debian 6.0.5 (XFCE GUI), Debian Testing (XFCE GUI), and Ubuntu 12.04 Server (LXDE GUI) even with this limited amount of memory. Interestingly, we were not able to get Lubuntu to load. Go figure. The distributions would load, but things were sluggish and there was a lot of disk swapping. Where things really came to a grinding halt was when we tried to get a browser working. Knowing that we were extremely short of memory, we decided to stick to lightweight browsers.

Our favorite lightweight browser is Midori. Midori wouldn’t run at all (even with 384 MB). Next, we tried Arora. At least Arora tried to run, but there was so much disk swapping that Dellbert was effectively locked up. Time for something really light. Our third try was Dillo. Dillo ran very well. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that we’re used to, but it was acceptable. As we searched the Internet for lightweight Linux browsers, we came across one article that surprised us. The article recommended Firefox. We assumed (you know what that gets you) that Firefox was a heavyweight. We simply hadn’t considered it, so we gave it a try. Firefox performed very well…and that’s the browser we’re using with Dellbert.

Memory, memory, memory!

Last time I told you that we raided an old, blue Candy-Mac for a couple of memory boards that…to our surprise…worked perfectly with Dellbert. Dellbert now has 384 MB of RAM (random access memory). Did it make a difference? You bet it did! Most of the disk swapping is gone and everything works faster. If you’re going to play with an old computer and you want to do one thing that will make a big difference…add memory!

So…Now what?

The purpose of our two rescue computers is to determine whether old computers are of any practical use today. We’re using Debian 6.0.5 on Dellbert because it’s rock-solid and there aren’t a lot of updates. We’ve set up a LAMP (Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP) server to experiment with hosting a web site. More about that another time. We’re working our way through a book on HTML and using Dellbert as our test-dummy. It’s surprising how well Dellbert is performing. We’ll give you a peek once we figure out what we’re doing.

Dellbert

[If you don’t know who or what these* are, check the Glossary page.]

I told you that RoboFrog rescued two old machines that were on their way to the computer graveyard. I’ll tell you about the “other” computer another time; for now…Dellbert*. Dellbert is the “newer” of our two castaways. He’s still a wimp by today’s standards, but he has the best hardware: 128 MB memory, 13 GB hard drive, 500 MHz Pentium III processor. I haven’t been able to pull TheFrog away from Dellbert. (For me, that’s a relief. If HE’s* tinkering with Dellbert then HE isn’t messing up our other machines. I like stability; TheFrog just can’t help asking, “What happens when I do this?” Notice that’s not “…if I do this?”) The big thing on TheFrog’s mind is,”These computers were free; are they good for anything?” HE set out testing Linux distributions to see if HE could get anything to run acceptably.

RoboFrog’s first attempt was Lubuntu 12.04. (We’re running Lubuntu on Whitestar* and we love it.) The problem was that Lubuntu wouldn’t load onto Dellbert. After that attempt, HE started trying server distributions. HIS reasoning was that server distributions don’t automatically load GUI’s*. You end up with a command line interface that needs a lot fewer resources. HE tried the following (in no particular order): Ubuntu 12.04 server, Debian 6.0.5, Debian Testing, Slackware 13.37, Vector Linux 7.0-lite, Knoppix 6.7.1 (not a server distro, LXDE GUI), FreeBSD 9.0 (worked very well). I’m sure that HE tried something that I’ve forgotten, but the bottom line is that all of the server distributions (and Knoppix) loaded without any problems.  HE considered experimenting with Slackware, but since everything else we have is running one of the Ubuntu’s, HE came back to Ubuntu server.

“We have command line Ubuntu and apt-get (package manager),” mused TheFrog. “What happens when we do: apt-get install lxde gdm?” (You don’t need gdm, but we prefer it.)

I think you get the picture of what’s happening. HE’s not looking to me for an answer; HE knows that I don’t know. Rather, HE’s musing to HIMSELF and has already executed the command. TheFrog is simply passing time until HE gets HIS answer. But notice, too, that there’s no sweat rolling down my face (as is usual in these situations). HE’s doing this on Dellbert! First, even if it doesn’t work, it can be undone. Second, it’s not the machine I work on…so…”You go Frog!” Third, Dellbert was free. Even if he goes up in smoke, it’s no big deal (at least to me…TheFrog? That’s another story.).

Amazingly, it worked. RoboFrog rebooted. HE had a functioning Ubuntu 12.04 LXDE system. And frankly, it worked better than expected; it was sluggish, though. TheFrog was hopping off the walls. I haven’t seen HIM that excited for a long time.

TheFrog wanted to to see if HE could get a browser to work. HE was already pushing Dellbert pretty hard, so HE needed something light. That usually means Midori. Midori takes some getting-used-to, but we like it…a lot. HE had a long frown on HIS face when Midori turned its toes up and died. That’s the first time that’s happened to us. So what next? HE did some research and finally came up with Arora. Arora tried to run, but there was so much disk swapping that it essentially locked up Dellbert. Next, TheFrog tried Dillo. It ran pretty well; it’s not our favorite browser, but if you’re really low on resources, give it a try. It’ll get the job done.

There’s more to where we are with Dellbert, including a big surprise. Next time.

Linux Newbie

RoboFrog sits around worrying about the oddest things. HE’s concerned about how to get newbies into Linux safely (without destroying their current system) and with a gentle learning curve. Then, how does one move from newbie to moderately competent Linux-er (whatever that is). TheFrog feels that HE’s hit a plateau with what HE knows about Linux. HE wants to figure out how to get to the next lily pad. There’s no one answer to either of these issues, but our two computer refugees suggest one possible approach. We’re going to tinker in both of those directions for awhile: Linux Newbie and The Next Lily Pad.