twm, because what’s old is what’s new

I saw a screenshot for twm last week, and it inspired me enough to swing past it for the a couple days. This was my inspiration:

twm

What I managed to create was:

2014-05-07-6m47421-twm-rhapsody-palemoon-vim

That’s Arch Linux again, and it was not the terribly long and uphill journey you might imagine. If you’ve ever worked with Openbox, you’ll have no problem getting twm to do something similar. And in some ways, twm has an edge.

For one, twm is incredibly fast. Window moving and resizing are exceptionally quick, even on decade-old hardware. htop says it’s taking up less than 0.3 percent of the memory out of 1Gb available, which suggests less than 400Kb, while managing five or six windows. To the side of that machine I have a D830 with 4Gb of memory in it running Musca, and the difference is between the window managers is trivial.

Also on the plus side: Most everything you could want to do with twm — colors, borders, menus and submenus — is done in one configuration file, and in a straightforward arrangement.

You can specify per-application settings, desktop-wide color schemes, and exact per-window cursor behavior. You can even jam theme settings directly into your menu, and twm handles it with grace.

It’s simple, and doesn’t have too many frills to distract you. It keeps things clean and fast, but doesn’t become the tiling window manager du jour.

Of course, there are some things I don’t like about twm, or things that I’m used to that I find it difficult to work without. To wit:

  • First and most obvious, twm’s focus model. I realize this dates back a human generation, but it’s immensely irritating. A window has focus when the mouse moves over it. But that does not raise it, which means grazing the touchpad or bumping the mouse while you type sends commands into the next window … or into the ether.

    Similarly (and this is a little hard to explain), it also means when you spawn windows, they are not necessarily focused. Start an application and you get a ghost frame that you can maneuver into place, then click to drop. It’s a good idea, and makes things very fast for older hardware.

    However, if you click and don’t shift the mouse back over the same window, it doesn’t have focus. Which means you have to learn the habit of spawn-shift-drop-then-mouse-over, to actually use the program.

  • The rules to raise windows are a bit strange too. You can give focus to a window by mousing over it; that we already discussed. You can click on a window, and again, it has focus. But a window doesn’t raise to the top layer until you click specifically on the title bar.

    Unfortunately, that means if you’re like me and you have a tendency to “lose” applications in the stack on your desktop, you might end up shuffling things around to find out what the heck you’ve been typing, and see the whole application. Needless to say, it takes some getting used to.
  • There are no layering options for pinning windows to the top, or trapping them at the bottom. Those are features from IceWM and Openbox that, believe it or not, I need on a daily basis.
  • I’m not a fan of the icon manager. I can’t explain that any more than to say try it, and see if it strikes you as cumbersome too. I’m used to a middle-click in Openbox that shows every window, minimized or not, and you can jump straight to them. Since the iconmanager is not quite a panel, it behaves more like a hidden application that holds all the icons that are running, which has to be unminimized in order to unminimize something else. :???:
  • As best I can tell, twm can’t do xft fonts in borders. I might be mistaken and maybe there’s a patch, but I saw/found nothing to suggest otherwise. Of course, that may be part of what makes it fast. And of course, your applications can use xft fonts, so it’s not a hindrance.
  • There are plenty of options for custom mouse clicks, but I had difficulty getting Mod4+Key hotkeys set up. I don’t think twm was ever really meant to spit out a file manager when I press Mod4+2, or trigger gmrun with Alt+F2. I should really try that again, though.

I know some of these things could be corrected, or at least sidestepped, with a little more time and a little more trial-and-error in my .twmrc file. After a while though, I grew disinterested. I am ashamed. :oops:

I have some other minor complaints, but I don’t want you to get the impression that twm was a bad experience. If you run your Openbox sessions close to the bone, or if you can live without all the doodads that come bundled in IceWM, or if you like tiling window managers but you’re homesick for something with a title bar on it, twm is not a bad option. I might use it again, on something with less muscle.

For what it’s worth, and for my own reference later, I’ll drop my .twmrc file here, after the more tag. If you need better ideas or a few other options to spur your interest, try Graham’s TWM page, which helped me build my .twmrc much quicker than picking through the man page. Oh, and of course, xwinman.org has a page on twm and its cousins. Oddly enough, the Arch Wiki page on twm is a bit scant. Perhaps I should do something about that. :|
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Express your individuality, but within these confines

My own personal Two Minutes Hate that came in the wake of the Firefox 29 release last week subsided in just about that much time. I saw enough to know that for my purposes, Firefox no longer fit the bill, and immediately sought out a different solution.

For what I’ve seen around the web, I was not the only one disappointed in a Chrome-like redesign. I’ve tried Chrome, and even used it in the office for a short period a couple of years ago, but I wouldn’t ever adopt it at home.

Chrome, and a lot of modern web-based tools, are quickly slanting toward smartphone users, and I don’t belong to that trend. I’ve had touchscreens and ultralight laptops. I even tried a tablet computer once, but I know what I like. To each his own.

It doesn’t really bother me if Firefox tries to meld with Unity or some other cellphone-ish desktop, or if dropping the window size down below 800×600 causes the WordPress.com backend to contort and grow giant thumb-sized buttons.

I don’t even mind it terribly when someone sends me to a mobile Wikipedia page. It’s an oversight and a slight hassle, but I don’t care. It’s just not something that is aimed at me, so I don’t sweat it.

But I’m not part of that crowd. I do my work at glorious 1600×1200, and smartphones don’t appeal to me. Carving the interface to fit a phone’s dimensions tells me where Mozilla’s priorities are, and I can nod and walk away calmly.

That nonchalance isn’t shared in all corners though. At more than one site that I peruse (under a pseudonym, of course), most questions or complaints about FF29 were met with a lot less tolerance.

People seeking alternatives were told to simply learn to use it. Quit your complaining. Shake it off and move on. I even saw a few threads locked and removed by moderators, who apparently were unhappy with the angle of the criticism.

All that is beside the point, since it’s a sad day for Linux when someone with a legitimate request for a substitute is told to stop complaining and “learn to use it.” Haul in a potential Windows convert, and suggestions on alternate software rain from the sky like manna from heaven.

But express distaste with an arbitrary interface change though … and you’ll just have to get used to it. It’s not that big a difference. This is progress. It’ll grow on you. Keep your mouth shut. Conform. By all means, express your individuality, but keep within these confines.

That’s human nature I guess, and I blame biology more than culture or society. But out of deference to those who might prefer something else, I collected quite a few links on how to fix What Mozilla Hath Wrought.

Provided your machine has adequate muscle, you have the option to pull in a couple of extensions that supposedly give better control over the interface.

  • The Classic Theme Restorer not only allows you to resculpt the UI, it allows you a lot of control that otherwise is only avaiable through about:config. In that sense, it’s worth installing even if you like the new arrangement. This might be your best option overall, especially if Mozilla itself suggests this in their support pages.
  • Australis Slimmr also gives you control over spacing in titlebars and so forth, plus a few other options. I found I didn’t need this as much as I initially thought I would.
  • Tabs on Bottom restores the bottom tab arrangement, which to be honest, I’d be shocked if someone still used.
  • Status-4-Evar is another extenion worthy of including even if you like the new interface. This adds options for your status bar that you probably didn’t even know existed.

There are lots more, but I won’t list them because honestly, my hardware begins to suffer if I bog down Firefox, which is already a pig, with too many extensions. Start times grow longer, basic functions start to lag, and overall performance takes a hit.

Short of overloading Firefox with corrections to Mozilla’s tectonic drift, you could downshift and stick with Firefox 28 — and that was my initial reaction, if I must be honest.

Reinstalling in Arch is as simple as pointing pacman -U at the old package, and for what I hear, life is even easier with Debian and Iceweasel. Ubuntu users should probably read through this for advice.

It’s also worth thinking about complete alternatives. I gave Opera a try during my exodus from Firefox-land, and to be honest, it was quick, snappy and replete with features. If I had taken the time to find analogues for Disconnect.me, HTTPS Everywhere and Adblock Edge, I daresay I would I have stayed there.

But in the end, the browser that shyly held up its hand and stole my patronage was Pale Moon. Everything I had used in FF28 was (more or less) supported in Pale Moon, and I didn’t have to do much more setup than I usually do with a fresh copy of pre-29 Firefox. Extensions all worked, bookmarks obediently shuffled into place, and the UI was what I knew and wanted. Don’t bother wrapping it up, I’ll wear it out of the store.

Best of all, it seems lighter and snappier than FF28 was, on the same machine. I call that a bonus.

Arch users can get this with the AUR package; others might have to wrangle a little bit to wedge it into place. From my perspective, it’s worth it.

So there it is then. You’re allowed to have choices, and you’re allowed to ask for directions when the status quo becomes untenable. Nobody will shout you down or tell you to live with the changes.

And maybe if you’re lucky, the new kid in town will end up being an improvement. ;)

Animated gif previews of video files

A few months ago I won some bonus points with the boss, in a way that deserves keeping a note here.

Our office keeps a large collection of training videos on a networked drive, as part of the orientation program. New employees walk through them in sequence as part of their introduction, and I expect other companies may do something similar.

The files are named with a complex numbering system though, and it doesn’t lend itself to the actual topic of the video. We’ve mentioned that to the training staff and IT specialist, but it’s rather far down the list.

I took the initiative one afternoon and following a lead by Prashanth Ellina, found a way to thumbnail a video frame, and use that as a preview.

Prashnath’s command works like a charm for run-of-the-mill AVI files.

ffmpeg  -itsoffset -4  -i test.avi -vcodec mjpeg -vframes 1 -an -f rawvideo -s 320x240 test.jpg

My only addition would be the -y flag, which overwrites old images; that really only comes into play while you’re testing the output though. ;)

A picture is worth a thousand words, so a six-frame animated gif is probably worth about 6,000 — and that’s my contribution to Prashanth’s trick. You’ll need imagemagick for this part:

for i in {10..70..10} ; do ffmpeg  -itsoffset -${i}  -i test.avi -vcodec mjpeg -vframes 1 -an -f rawvideo -s 320x240 test-${i}.jpg ; done ; convert -delay 75 -loop 0 test-* test.gif

And the end result is a simple, six-frame looping gif that shows the content of the first minute or so of the video.

Since our videos all incorporate the same 10-second intro before showing a title screen and opening the lecture, this gives us a snapshot opening frame, followed by a few moments of content. It’s easy to see what the topic is, and remember where you are in the sequence.

You could adjust that loop to start at the 60 second mark and snap a frame every minute, or however you like. It’s convenient and flexible, and the end result can be seen in a browser or an image viewer, so it doesn’t rely on specific software.

The only downsides that I can see involve how ffmpeg tracks to those points in the video: it runs out to the 10-second mark, then snaps. Then restarts, spins out to the 20-second mark, and snaps. Then 30, 40 and so forth, taking a longer time to track out each time.

I don’t know if there’s a way to adjust Prashanth’s original command and just loop through once, and snap at every 10-second interval. I leave that to higher minds than mine.

But it might be inconvenient if you have a lot of videos to gif-ize. In our case it was about 50-60 videos, which was easy to loop through but took about half an hour to process. The end results were worth it though.

This worked for me in Arch, but I don’t see how it wouldn’t work with almost any other Linux flavor that includes ffmpeg. And since Prashanth’s command dates back to 2008, I think earlier releases would be fine as well. For what it’s worth, I’ve used this with Flash videos too.

And that … is everything. For now. :mrgreen:

A late realization

Using this machine every day, while outdated and by most standards underpowered, has brought to light a small note worth mentioning.

The oddball thing about that Nvidia card is, the proprietary driver was always just a hair shy of complete. It worked well enough, but if you didn’t make one small change to your xorg.conf, you got a blank, dead screen.

Which is what I got, when I tried to use the 96xx-dkms drivers in Arch, out of the city repo. And that’s probably still what I would have now, if I hadn’t made that one small note on this site, seven years ago almost to the day.

And that’s the realization: that even if I shifted the bulk of the content off this site, I still rely on it as a reference tool — sometimes on a weekly basis, sometimes more often. But there’s always some silly gimmick that I annotated here, that I end up digging after to solve some problem that I have run into. Sometimes more than once.

And apparently some other people still find it useful, since this site still gets twice the traffic of the other, despite falling silent for years.

There is a sad corollary to that realization: For the two or three years that it’s been grayed out, I’ve missed the opportunity to fill in more details that, with all likelihood, I’ll be searching for in the future. Two-plus years of continuing to tinker with Linux, but not making proper notes in an accessible format. Tsk, tsk. :(

That was always the original intent of this site, and the second blog simply took on the task of whittling away at the gargantuan list of applications I had collected. They each have their own focus.

The moral of the story is that I’ll try to add specifically to this site when I can, and when there’s enough reason to. Unlike the other site, I’ll try to keep this technical, and not so much the Sisyphean task of wading through a list of a thousand console apps.

Keeping notes of your Linux adventures is a habit I endorse mightily, because you never know how far down the road you’ll be looking for the answer to a dead screen problem. :shock: You might as well learn over again, from yourself. ;)

P.S.: I also plan to rearrange these pages, and get away from that 2008 look. It’s time. ;)

It’s like 2002 all over again

This long and rather rambling observation has its roots in a small, but innocent mistake I made about five years ago. And believe it or not, I documented that mistake here.

I have a lot of favorite machines that stick out in my memory years after they’ve passed on to new owners or the digital afterlife. There is an obligaory parade of forgotten machines, but some are definitely easy to remember.

This was one. And this one, while it was a whipping boy, was not easily forgotten. This one met with an unfortunate end that no one was to blame for. And for my money, there are still not many computers better than this one.

The mistake though, and the domino effect that brings me to this page, was sending this machine on to a new owner.

Like them or hate them, the 8000-series of Dell laptops from the turn of the century were some of the last ones to really tickle my technophile funny bone.

An 8000-labeled machine could handle a mid-market Nvidia GeForce4 440 card at 1600×1200, which in 2006 was more than enough to run Compiz in Ubuntu, or Neverwinter Nights at native resolution in Linux. (Don’t try that with Ubuntu now. :evil: )

The 8000 could hold a Pentium III chip up to 1.4Ghz, if I recall correctly. And the top-of-the-line 8200 machine, with a BIOS upgrade, could wrangle with the manly 2.6Ghz Pentium 4 — and, rumor has it, a 64Mb Nvidia Quadro4 Go GL.

On top of that, removable side and front media bays, support for dual hard drives, and the alternative to connect an external drive by parallel cable. Plus the option for not-just-one-but two batteries, a mini-PCI expansion slot (think: Intel wireless card) … and maybe best of all, the unspoken ability to handle 2Gb of PC2700 memory, although Dell wouldn’t document it.

Even the palmrests could be swapped out for six or seven different colors. :lol:

Short of building your own laptop out of a whitebox, the 8200 was probably the best you could expect to get from a mainstream computer company. You’d need to move into desktops to get something more flexible.

Getting into and out of an 8000-era machine was a piece of cake too. Four screws and the keyboard came off, putting you within striking range of the processor and video card. Three more screws and the screen was off. A few more, and the entire business unfolded like a string of paper dolls.

Dell followed the 8200 with a complete redesign — a shift into the silver casings and slimmer, lighter forms of the 8500 and others. The 5150 was released in 2003, the 8600 soon after. I’ve owned an 8600, and while it was smaller and lighter, it wasn’t nearly as much fun to tear down and build back up.

Around five years ago I decided it was time to part with my 8000, for reasons that sounded good at the moment. Many times since then I’ve wondered if I did the right thing. About six months ago I started thinking that the uncanny valley of computer pricing might put an 8000 back in range, and I started watching auctions.

And about a month ago, I came across an 8200 that was seemed clean and complete, without undue wear and tear, and the price was right … all of about US$60. :shock:

I did not misplace my investment. The seller claimed the machine was clean, but s/he didn’t say it was museum quality. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect specimen. Impeccable screen, not a scratch anywhere, 1Gb of memory, carrying case included. I’ve even been inside the machine twice, and I can’t find any dust. The only sign of use is a small worn spot on the touchpad. (Well, of course the battery had failed. :roll: )

2014-04-22-6m47421-portrait

It’s like 2002 all over again. ;)

I’ve since done the final BIOS update and dropped in that beastly 2.6Ghz chip, as well as a 64Mb GeForce4 440. It’s got a proper wireless card now (I won’t patronize Broadcom, even in a 12-year-old laptop) and a second hard drive. I’m waiting for a DVDRW and a pair of sparkly green palmrests. :roll: And ironically, the system drive it is using right now is the same one I bought years ago, for my original 8000. Imagine that.

2014-04-22-6m47421-icewm-firefox-audacious

It’s a good feeling. It’s one part nostalgia and one part having the luxury of rebuilding a machine to its practical summit at a price that isn’t astronomical. I said once a long time ago that technology prices follow a strange curve, bottoming out after about 8 years and then spiking back up when people start to attach the word “vintage” to it. And nowadays, it feels like the 8000s have reached the trough of that curve.

So putting together everything I’ve described — even with a machine that really ought to have been twice as much as what I paid — has barely broken US$150. And yes, that includes the sparkly green palmrests. :roll:

Welcoming the new encumbrance

The bulk of my daily “work” is done on a 12-year-old Pentium 4 machine. I’ll save the gory details for later; suffice to say that it is a bit of a classic, and one I enjoy using immensely.

I have noticed though, that in spite of running svelte and light, as you would expect me to do, that there are some significant slowdowns.

Originally the machine came equipped with Windows XP, a meager 1.6Ghz processor and a lowly 1Gb of memory. Nothing to write home about.

I upped that to 2.6Ghz and 2Gb with Arch Linux, not so much because it needed it, but because it’s cheap now, and the machine itself is easy to upgrade.

And it handles most everything I need it for — surfing, online transactions, browser-based word processing or data analysis, and perhaps running VICE for a distraction or two. ;)

In fact, short of intrinsic hardware improvements — like more processor cores or finer screen resolutions or solid state drives — there’s not a whole lot that has really changed between this and most “modern” laptops. Sure, mine is a little slower by necessity, but all the same core parts are there: motherboard, drive, video adapter, display, and so forth. Twelve years have been rather patient with this machine.

But there are specific times when it’s definitely moving slower than, for example, the weatherbeaten Dell D830 I keep on the desk nearby. Not on the start, and not in file management or music playback or even 3D animation. Heck, I get something like 2000fps in glxgears. And that’s with a mid-market video card that was obsolete in 2004.

But there’s a lurch or a drag now that, to be honest, I don’t remember seeing even five or six years ago on a lowly 1Ghz Pentium III.

And the culprit is … the Internet. :shock:

Navigating the web is hands-down the biggest, densest chore, and at its worst, it’s almost spine-chilling. Long page redraws, fans at full tilt while rendering an image. Not just on this machine, but on others too.

And that’s where the cold sense of impending doom creeps in, because there’s not much remedy for it. It’s outside our control.

Six years ago I insisted those slap-happy lightbox effects were a drudge. More than once, in fact.

But six years ago I would have chalked up a slurred effect to the operating system — blame Windows, that was obviously the problem. If you couldn’t get tip-top performance out of a machine as powerful as a Pentium 4, then your bloated operating system was at fault.

And the core of that issue was easy to read: Microsoft makes no money unless you re-buy their product. It’s defective by design. It’s programmed obsolescence. Create a product that self-destructs over the course of two or three years, and you have a chance to glean a little more revenue, periodically. Just like light bulbs, or televisions. This is nothing new.

Only now I’m not sure that’s the source of the problem. Yes, Microsoft and Apple are still sticking it to the uneducated consumer. And yes, John Q. Public still thinks computers are like brake pads that have to be bought over and over again, over time.

But this new limiting factor — bogging down the web with clutter and flair — that’s the wave of the future.

It doesn’t matter any more what operating system you run, if it has two cores or four, if it has this much memory or more. If the new Web-based culture is the least bit impeded by Firefox’s degrading ability to show pictures of cats. … Well, then: Time for a new computer.

To me, this makes a lot of sense. The PC market is dying, a generation of smartphone users are reaching the age of majority, and the contract-and-renewal system embraced by the cell phone industry is far more appealing than the traditional slap-and-dash shiny-new-desktop re-buying gimmick.

So long as the content is dragged to a crawl by lightbox effects and worthless glitter, then declining performance in online applications and cloud-based computing become the new delimiter. Can’t get to your Facebook status quite so fast any more? Maybe it’s time for a new gizmo.

Personally, I welcome this new encumbrance with the same aplomb as I have in the past, when 800Mhz machines were called old, or hyper-threading P4s were castoffs. Your loss is my gain. I have bought Vista-era dual cores in perfect condition for less than $50, and received outstanding performance at the cost of no more effort than clicking a few buttons in Linux Mint. Albeit there was that same dragging effect, when rendering pictures of cats. :???:

It’s a little disconcerting that this new trend places the burden beyond the reach of the computer user, in a place where there’s not much they can do about it. But it’s a big world and we have a lot of time stretching out in front of us. I’m sure someone will come up with a solution. In the mean time, you can send your leftover core duo machines to me. :twisted:

Any colour you like

I’m going to break radio silence a little bit, and drop a post here for the first time in years.

I’ll say up front that if these screenshots offend you, I won’t apologize.

2014-04-06-l3-b7175-luna-simple 2014-04-06-l3-b7175-luna-complex

Nor will I apologize if you find these somehow irritating.

2014-03-26-lv-r1fz6-r 2014-03-18-lv-r1fz6-pure-ftpd

In fact, if you don’t like them, I really don’t care at all. Simply because what I use on my computer is not your business.

Horrified at the thought that someone might still use an interface that was designed before you were born? Deal with it. Can’t believe someone wouldn’t find the Luna-esque Windows XP themes oily and kitsch? Tough. Think I’m a troll if I claim Windows 2000 was the last good Microsoft operating system? Suffer.

The thing is, I still use desktops like that from time to time, maybe just to irritate readers like you, but maybe because it’s what I like.

I got a lot of traffic over the weekend to an old page I drew up a few years ago, about massaging IceWM to follow the look of the old Windows XP Classic theme. The referring site linked to my page, and to another that wasn’t mine, that offered some themes intended to XP-Luna-ify Lubuntu. That’s what you see in the top photos.

I knew it would happen. Unless I’m mistaken, Tuesday was the death knell for Windows XP. Some well-meaning Linux enthusiasts are pushing the OS of their choice, with an XP makeover, as an alternative to buying the newest slop out of Redmond.

And surprisingly (to me, anyway), the majority of the feedback on that referring site was negative. Don’t lull a Windows user into using Linux. You’re doing them a disservice. Tell them to adapt or perish, now as ever, as is nature’s inexorable imperative.

Take a step back for a second. Try to think like you’re not the geek that we both are. ;)

There are a lot of people — a lot — for whom a computer is not a hobby, not a passion, and not the locus of their waking hours. For them, computers are just tools, probably in the same way cars are for other people. Or microwave ovens for others, or bookkeeping for others … or you name it for whoever.

A computer to them is just an object. It’s a thing. It doesn’t hold any great curiosity, it’s not interesting to pull apart, and it doesn’t enthuse them beyond what they need to get a job done. A car gets you from point A to point B, and a computer gets you from point C to point D.

I can sympathize. I have a lot of dis-interests like that. You could talk to me all day about laptops and free software, and you’d lose me the second you changed the subject to real estate or the stock market. It just doesn’t grab me.

So for those folks who need something that behaves how they expect, and does what they need, and looks the way they know … I fail to see the harm in setting up a desktop that is arranged the way they want it.

And if that doesn’t squelch your quasi-insurgent anti-establishment justifications for Ludovico techniques, consider the possibility that Lubuntu rearranged to look like the original Windows XP startup screen might just be what they like.

About five years ago I put fingers to keys and pounded out a list of four hideous reasons to adopt Linux, the last of which was “duress.” Actually, looking over it now is a good reminder of how things were, and what they’ve become.

I won’t retract that last item though. I still think being “forced” to use Linux, either through deceit or the expiration of a 13-year-old operating system, is a bad idea.

But I can’t see the harm in giving someone a newer, or even a different operating system at their request, and then rearranging it to resemble what they know and expect. Or just plain like.

And now, one more, to see if I can trigger a gag reflex in that last tiny segment of the audience who actually read this far:

2014-04-06-g60-125nr-mate-xp-classic

Linux Mint Petra, MATE edition, done over to look like XP. Why? Because I like it that way. :twisted: