Category Archives: Debian

All for fun, and fun for all

I used to distro-hop — a lot. Not out of any sense of dissatisfaction, although there were some distros even just five or six years ago that were making grandiose claims of “lightweight-ness.”

No, usually I was just interested to see how different communities packaged their Linux experiences. It was a good way to learn the ropes, test different systems and see how different distros stacked up against each other. In most cases, it was a harmless but educational experience.

I don’t distro-hop much more, mostly because I feel like I reached a logical extreme with in the pursuit of lightweight installations when I managed my day-to-day workload with a 150Mhz Pentium running Crux.

On top of that, after a while I couldn’t see much difference between systems, only in the software they installed by default. Unless a distro went completely haywire and built up its own desktop just out of spite (ahem, Unity), the only real differences between distros were the default arrangements, and the software that came on the ISO. Beyond that, with a little elbow grease, a decent internet connection and a few hours time, you too could make a default Fedora desktop look and behave like Ubuntu, or vice versa.

But I got hold of the LinuxBBQ “Cream” ISO the other day — the one with 72 (76? 78?) different window managers installed and configured by default — and I have to say it: I haven’t had that much fun since I was 8 years old and found US$6 in a parking lot, and blew it all on Battlezone.

It’s a fantastic collection of nonstandard desktops and window managers, from the completely outlandish and esoteric like spectrewm and yeahwm, to the mainstays and favorites like i3 or Fluxbox, to those usually relegated to full distros, like Enlightenment or Openbox or xfwm4. It’s an amazing collection to say the least.

And if none of those grabs you, there are tmux and framebuffer sessions as well.

Beyond that though, someone — some saint, I expect — has taken the time to set up each window manager, so you’re not just jumping into a blank suite of empty menu lists or unconfigured software. Hotkeys are working, menus are fleshed out, and the included software is nothing to scoff at.

The whole business is installable too, and is based on Debian Sid, so even if you’re not keen on 75 out of the 76 (?) available window managers, you’re still getting a Debian system at the core.

I don’t have any screenshots to share, but even if I did, it would be a paltry addition to the gallery available at the home page.

How does it compare to other full-fledged distros? I don’t really know. How does it perform on outdated computers? I’m not sure. I didn’t jump into it to be a critic, I just wanted to try out some unique and unusual window managers without getting my hands too dirty. All for fun, in a manner of speaking.

The trailing edge of the wave: The CTX EzBook 800

For as many times as I’ve introduced old laptops on this blog, you’d think I’d have a formula or a template page tucked away somewhere.

But I don’t, and here we are again with another underdog to report. I hope it’s not too dull for you; if it’s any consolation, I have three or four other laptops that I haven’t bothered to mention, because I imagine it to be terribly boring for you.

This one though, I feel is noteworthy. Not because it’s a cherished acquisition, like this one is, but because it’s such a curmudgeon that I have a feeling someone, somewhere down the line — probably me — will need information about it in the future. So I put it here, to avoid slogging through all the quirks again. And because that’s what this site was originally for. ;)


This is a CTX EzBook 800, the top-of-the-line model for EzBooks of 15 years ago. It’s a pure K6 machine, meaning it lacks a lot — and I mean a lot — of the requisites that most people saw in the computers of a decade ago, let alone now.

I got this as a castoff from a friend, who is also a bit of a technophile and prefers to work with out-of-date machines for a number of reasons. My friend is primarily a Windows person though, and I have a feeling this was such an underperformer that he was glad to see it go. I know he considered putting Linux on it and even asked a few questions online, but was out of his depth and didn’t see much future in it.

Apparently he paid about $1 in an online auction for it, plus the cost of a new power adapter. Not bad.

This is not my first EzBook, and that was one of the reasons I agreed to adopt it. I have had 700 and 700E models in the past, and if I remember right, that 700E was one of my first test runs with Linux. It didn’t go well, but I lacked the experience then to make it work.

And it seems that I still lack some experience now, given my rather lackluster success at getting the 800 version to sing along. Not that I have terrifically high expectations, but I do have a reputation to preserve. :???:

Here’s a rundown on the guts, and I can explain the implications later.

00:00.0 Host bridge: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. IT8330G (rev 03)
00:10.0 VGA compatible controller: Neomagic Corporation NM2160 [MagicGraph 128XD] (rev 01) (prog-if 00 [VGA controller])
00:12.0 ISA bridge: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. IT8330G (rev c1)
00:12.1 IDE interface: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. IT8330G (rev 11) (prog-if 0a [SecP PriP])
00:12.2 USB Controller: Integrated Technology Express, Inc. Unknown device 1234 (rev 03) (prog-if 10 [OHCI])
00:18.0 CardBus bridge: Texas Instruments PCI1131 (rev 01)
00:18.1 CardBus bridge: Texas Instruments PCI1131 (rev 01)

The hard drive is a Fujitsu MHD2032AT, and the optical drive is a TEAC CD-220EA. My friend maxed out the memory at 128Mb, which complements the 300Mhz K6 quite nicely. I’ve had good success with NeoMagic cards (better than the Tridents, that’s for sure >:( ), and having USB ports on a machine this old makes it an absolute treasure. Phoenix made the BIOS, which is important because the USB ports and a few other things are enabled or disabled through that.

There are some critical points in there, if you’re fighting with a similar machine or one from this era. Please bear with me, and I’ll work through them slowly.

My friend said he could get no modern version of Linux to work on it, and even though I suggested both Slackware and Debian, he still claimed no success. I can attest to that now: Both Debian 7.x and Slackware 14 ran into problems either locating the CDROM or hard drive, or both. You can add these to that list:

  1. Alpine Linux 2.7 for x86, which boots and will configure itself to the live CLI environment, but can’t find the hard drive.
  2. Puppy Linux, slacko in the non-PAE version, which spit out errors demanding a CPU with cmov.
  3. TinyCore, in its newest version, which reached text mode but couldn’t find the hard drive or CDROM.

In most cases, those were dealbreaker attempts, because the live or installation environment couldn’t find hardware I would need to move forward. Here are some others that fell flat, but for slightly different reasons.

  1. Crux Linux 2.7, which was the last i586 rendition. Refused to boot past connecting to the CDROM and ended in the jaws of the mythical “can’t access tty; job control turned off” error.
  2. Debian 5.1, which installed but boots into a soft lockup and seems content to spend eternity reporting its hopelessly frozen state at 90-second intervals.
  3. *buntu versions after 6.10, which usually didn’t get so far as Debian 5.1, and reported no hard drive or no CDROM or both.
  4. Slitaz, the 4.0 release, which booted into text mode and would allow me to install, but locked on boot.

Just out of curiosity, I also tried:

  1. ReactOS 0.3.16, the live rendition, which amazingly worked better on that machine than any other I’ve tried in recent years. I reached a Windows-esque blue desktop and a brief show of some wallpaper, but then it hung and became unresponsive. That may have been a low-memory complication.
  2. FreeDOS 1.1, which took an exceptionally long time to install, and would boot with the assistance of the installation CD. From there it would need the obvious additions of useful software and perhaps a graphical desktop.
  3. Clonezilla in recent 486 versions couldn’t find the hard drive, which is only important because it means any system I build on there will have to be dd’d off via USB1.1 for backups. :shock: Oh well, it’s not the first time. …

The real plot twists come here:

  • Ubuntu 6.06.1 and Xubuntu 6.06, both of which would find the hard drive and CD drive, and install over the course of an hour or so. The resulting desktop was forced into 800×600 (on a 1024×768 screen), and was marginally useful. I tried hand-editing the xorg.conf file but only managed to bork the display so badly as to require starting over. No network access through the PCMCIA port, which sounds familiar.
  • DSL 4.4.10 would of course work, but I ran aground again with the system freeze on wireless insert bug, which I blame on the 2.4 kernels. I used to suspect the PCMCIA-to-CardBus switchover for that, but it seems even CardBus PC cards inserted into a CardBus bridge will trigger it. My only orinoco-based card just doesn’t respond with DSL. :(
  • Crux 2.4 for the i586, which includes kernel by default but could have a newer one implanted. Booted, found CDROM, found hard drive, and installed without major incident.

For me, what is at issue here is the evolution of PC hardware away from ISA-based components to the standards which are more common now. Along with that, there was the shift away from the old kernel support for PATA hard drives to the newer SATA-style code. Add to that an ATAPI CD drive, and it’s easy to see why some distros just didn’t work, and others worked reasonably well.

You can almost pick out a month and year when the trailing edge of the wave fell away. This machine seems to have ridden the far edge of that crest, and as a result finds itself drifting on the other side. :sad:

My proof for this is in the kernel configuration for Crux 2.4, where the old-style ATA options are enabled and all the drives are found. That should correspond to the mid-2000s versions of Ubuntu, where the last support for those same drives is found. After 6.10 or so, the machine falls off again.

I can’t account for Lenny’s soft lockups though, and I don’t see much help online for that particular issue. I tried the old noacpi gimmicks from a decade ago, but whatever plagued the 5.x versions of Lenny persists.

But all is not lost. If I absolutely gut Crux’s kernel, I can compile it in about 45 minutes at 300Mhz, and best of all, I can boot to a graphical desktop with blackbox, which comes by default. (Now you understand my recent affection for blackbox. ;) )

In fact, short of getting a CardBus network adapter to respond, the entire machine works fine.

And depending on how CDs I’m willing to burn, I could conceivably hopscotch my way up from 2007 to circa 2011. The bulk of those packages is precompiled and available on the ISOs, with the exception of the contrib ports. And I have time these days to babysit it, as it churns away at the code.

There’s a little voice in my head that keeps telling me to yank the hard drive and install it externally, and then replace it. Usually there’s another little voice right after that one though, that says I’m too clumsy to get the case open on this without cracking or scratching the body somehow, and it’s too pretty as it is.. And of course, there are no service manuals online any more. … :(

So while all is not lost, this is definitely on the verge of falling through the cracks. And let’s be clear: I have no aspirations of bringing this machine into the 21st century, or for that matter, playing a YouTube video with it. Those days are over, friends. We have the Internet to blame for that.

I can’t deny it’s a terrific challenge though, and I am enjoying smacking my head against the screen for hours on end. But it does feel good when I stop. ;)

Another gray area: Ascii Sector

Speaking of gray areas, I never know whether I should jump for joy or just raise a minor ruckus when I find a game that runs in textmode under SDL.

Dwarf Fortress is one example, although Dwarf Fortress qualifies as something beyond “game.” The complexity and detail and variety push it to something … something beyond “game,” anyway.

Ascii Sector is probably another, although this one incorporates a striking amount of action — more than I would expect from a textmode game, anyway.

As I understand it, Ascii Sector attempts a faithful rendition of Privateer, which you might remember as an evolution of Elite … which I have now mentioned twice in the space of a month.

I’ll be honest and say I only played Privateer well after its heyday, and at the time didn’t see much that hadn’t been touched on when I was still using a C64.

Ascii Sector amuses me though, mostly because it captures a lot of the space trading genre, without ever needing much in the way of graphics.

And of course, any time you can strip away graphical requirements and still have a speedy game with depth and action, I’m all for it.

Which makes this one a lot like Dwarf Fortress to me: It relies on a measure of graphical power to run — to wit, SDL and therefore Xorg. Your mileage may vary, but I’m thinking something even as slow as a Pentium III can do this.

But there’s another reason Ascii Sector (and Dwarf Fortress, of course) is dangerous: It’s far too engrossing to be left alone with. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. … :twisted:

Debian and Arch

I’ve mentioned two or three times now that I have been spending a lot of time in Arch and Debian these days. I hold both distros in equally high regard for being fast, light and good starting points for outdated machines.

Debian gets points for reaching all the way back to the 486 generation, which means I can use it on my very very old systems. At the same time though, I find myself floating back to Arch more often than not.

On a machine that postdates the Pentium, Arch’s flat configuration is just more to my liking. I appreciate Debian 6 for picking up things like Grub2, but I strongly dislike the need to edit /etc/default/grub, then run an updater, if the configuration files are in a different place completely.

I don’t know the rationale for that, so it might be something inherited from the developers of Grub2. All the same, it’s a little inconvenient, particularly if you only want to change one digit.

If I can continue being honest, I also dislike the update-alternatives system for determining things like a default window manager, or a default terminal emulator in X.

Again, I don’t know how or why that’s in Debian, but it seems like a huge obfuscation. I have tried to learn the system over the years and sometimes it will actually work in my favor, but more often … not.

I think my underlying dislike for it is similar to my complaint about Grub2 — why is there another whole layer of configuration, just to trigger which emulator springs into view when I press Super-L-plus-Enter?

That, to me, is something that should be configured in the window manager’s files, edited directly and not relying on links, names, paths and priorities. And so I usually do just that — configure the window manager and ignore the alternatives system.

But I’m probably not being fair, since Debian has more uses and applications that I can even dream of. No doubt that system works well for someone else who needs Debian for more than just resurrecting an old Pentium I.

If I have to be honest though — and I might as well, since I’ve been dangerously honest up to know — those two things and a few others like them are what keep me from using Debian on my newer, faster machines.

For those, it’s just quicker and easier for me to set up Arch, and tinker directly with the software. To each his own, I guess. :|

Oddly enough, ‘Five gets it right

I just realized something odd: I have a drive that is occasionally reported at the wrong size — it’s a 120Gb drive, one that fell out of the sky on me, years ago.

Sometimes operating systems, to include Linux, report it at only 40Gb. Arch does that, and so does Debian 6.

But not Debian 5. El cinco reports it at its full dimensions, and will partition it normally.

I wonder why that is. :|

And then there was one

I’m going to close out this little three-day foray into the maelstrom of console-based software with one I really like, and have been using quite a bit since I installed it: sc.

Now it’s true that I am a teapot fan — I like teapot for being unconventional and at the same time easy to figure out. sc, however, is like a comfortable old jacket … it just feels nice as soon as you put it on.

It’s about the size of a pin, as easy to run as a pencil and paper and has a history way, way back in days of *nix past. It does exactly what you expect, when you expect it, how you expect it.

And yes, vi fans, it has some similar keystrokes. :roll:

That shallow learning curve, coupled with the onboard help, will probably have you up and calculating in no time. Which is good. If that’s not enough, check out this recent rundown from Linux Journal.

Downsides are that it’s not Excel or Gnumeric or whatever spreadsheet Apple users get, which means about 99 percent of the planet is going to be hesitant.

And it is a little naive when it comes to file formats, although you can export to asc or something like tab-delimited too. I am sure a savvy computer user like you can get your data converted somehow.

And that’s really all I’m going to say about it. I know there is a successor, slsc, but I don’t see it in the Debian repos and so I might need to build it myself. I am not afraid. :twisted:

But for now, sc does almost everything I need in a spreadsheet. Life is good. :)

A mix of six was suffering from some technical glitches over the past few days, so some of the posts I had planned out over three days got glommed together.

That’s a good thing really; I realize there is more than enough material out there to do a “cli-app-a-day” blog for at least a year or two without having to duplicate posts.

So if you’re in the mood to take on such a project, let the world know. People seem to dig it. In the mean time, here’s another mixed half-dozen that might give you reason to pause.

First, here’s yapet.

Password “wallets,” as I am tempted to call them, are not something I usually pursue. I rely on traditional cellulose-based methods … which is to say, a pencil and a piece of paper.

But this might enthuse you as something that can encrypt and retrieve passwords, as well as generate them and protect them from casual view.

I have to mention though, that at very low speeds — like 120Mhz — the screen refresh for yapet was horrific. I am afraid I can’t use this one because just jumping between text boxes caused the screen to flash three or four times over the course of two or three seconds, with each key press.

I don’t know why that is, if it’s a side effect of the way the program was written or if it’s something oddball about Debian’s version, but I’ve never seen that in other text-based applications. :|

Next is pdmenu, which also falls in the useful cyan gadget category:

This I like very much, because in conjunction with Debian’s menu utility, you have arrow-key access to the bulk of the software that’s installed on your machine.

Not that I need help with that; I don’t have many more than about seven or eight discrete programs that I use on a daily basis. I’m not likely to be surprised by anything pdmenu happens to find.

But for anyone else who might be, say, chained to my desk chair and forced to use a Pentium with only text-based software on it … well pdmenu might be what saves them from a short screaming fit. :D

Next up are two file managers, lfm on the left, and vfu on the right.


lfm is strikingly similar to mc and the traditional two-pane file manager genre, being distinct in its relative freshness (last update was May 2010 for the Debian Squeeze version, I believe) and its python underpinnings.

lfm also includes a little something called pyview, which stands as a text or hex file viewer, independent of lfm or cued by it. Two for one, in a manner of speaking.

vfu is strikingly different from lfm or its mc heritage, by being almost completely text, without any sort of graphic adornment save color bands.

In a way I like this one, and you might too. It shows almost all the pertinent information for a file, up front and immediate, and you don’t have to manage panes or trigger info displays.

If you ever wish you could pan through the results of an ls -lha --color=auto command, this might be the application you’re looking for.

And now, sports fans, it’s time for a little action. First is asciijump.

I giggled as I tried it, and while I haven’t figured out all the commands, I can tell you it runs relatively quick on a 120Mhz machine that’s simultaneously accessing and controlling a second computer, and running about eight different applications at the same time.

Which isn’t too shabby. Invariably I crash as I land, but the judges don’t seem to mind, so I’ll stick with this one for a little while.

Last is a aajm, which is half sports, half science.

I didn’t know juggling was such a detailed and mathematical event, but I have now been schooled. I’ll give you a hint — start with aajm -s 453 to get the results you see there, but after that you’ll have to research siteswaps.

That’s good for today. I shall finish this “series” off tomorrow and get back to proper blog materiel. ;)