Project Zebra or ''Finally getting around to migrating away from Windows''

Project Zebra 2017 month two: slide!

2017-01-16Project Zebra 2017 month one: in nomine imperator


Tags All Personal Tech

I thought I might actually blog this year and do a monthly round up of things I've been doing Linux wise. The last one was written over 2-3 months, and it's a question of whether I want to do a notes file that gets updated as I go or actually draw a line every so often and upload. As it's the latter I'm waving some of this into an editor on my not- phone (it's a Samsung Galaxy A5 demo unit which I got as an easily pocketable phablet, I haven't actually joined the smartphone revolution or anything.)

In this one I wanted to mention some of the other established bigger name players on the distro scene, look back at the earlier years of Linux as an OS, look at what people are saying is coming up for 2017, and dabble a a bit with software I picked out initially and alternatives. (In passing, Google Docs / Google keyboard is rubbish as an editor. It keeps jumping the cursor back into previous words when you go to correct them. I've turned off the word suggestion bar and some of the other auto correct features, though, which seems to have been the main culprit.)

As I may have mentioned before, using a distribution that appears on is a good idea for newcomers to Linux or else it's likely to suffer from a lack of maintenance. Xubuntu, which I'm using, generally does okay – – and is only a step removed from Ubuntu.

To give things a W40K spin, Debian is relatively pure Emperor-derived gene stock and Ubuntu are the Smurfs (Ultramarines) serving as a basis for a large percentage of other distros – lots of people like to rag on them and vary from codex dictates, but they serve to maintain order. And let's hand wave and call Fedora/Red Hat the Blood Angels, SUSE the Dark Angels – both have quirks but are fundamentally heroic – Arch the friendly Salamanders and Gentoo possibly loyalist members of the Alpha Legion playing the long game. Mint is some sort of younger chapter making a name for itself that's nonetheless pretty codex adherent. Where does Slackware or anything else fit in? Look, it's not like this is a good analogy.

Staying close to a major player also provides some stability insofar as you're using their repositories. This is something I'm (perhaps strangely) a bit uncomfortable about, although Canonical do alright commercially and can probably afford the bandwidth.

With Linux reaching its 25 year anniversary lots of retrospective articles are being published, plus a healthy history section in the currently-on-the-shelves Hackers Manual 2017 from the people that produce Linux Format. For a more contemporary perspective I also tracked down Linux Format 1 and Linux Answers, the latter a one shot magazine that appeared the year before in 1999. LXF #1 came thanks to eBay but an "official" PDF of Linux Answers can (still) be downloaded via here:

There's a difference in tone even between the two mags – Linux Answers is more business like and focusing on commercial products, LXF #1 a bit more hobbyist and apparently aimed at a younger audience / written by twenty somethings – the writing style has a little of the Your Sinclair generation tone and one of the articles is literally about a school project. By the present day LXF has met in the middle and still seems more genial (and often irreverent) than the other Linux mags on the shelf, but more professional with it.

Talking about older magazines, the producers of Linux Voice (recently merged into Linux Pro Magazine) apparently make older editions freely available at

Some major distributions potted history –
Looking back at KDE (with some other history)–
Distros 1993 to 2013 –
A diagram worthy of the Mechanicum –

Looking back at Windows too, the possibility of running Office and odd bits of software in a VM under ReactOS had occurred to me. It's a logical extension of Wine into a binary compatible Windows like (currently Windows XP) operating system and it'd be nice to get by without Windows licensing concerns and activation crap. No such luck, unfortunately. Word 2007 launched but Publisher crashed the VM. Sticking with Wine or Windows in VirtualBox with Seamless mode it is then.

I've taken to skimming the Red Hat backed (and again) as well as for news, all of which seem to offer some good Linux coverage.

And the next 25 years look to be starting off in good form – a new desktop compositor is reaching maturity and set to replace X11, new packaging formats have emerged that promote sandboxing of apps, and niceties such as graphical interfaces, the bits that the average user spends most time with, are receiving more attention.

Wayland is a replacement for X11 and has very recently shown up in Fedora release 25, suggesting it's essentially ready for prime time. Looking around it should facilitate less tearing on window redraw, less scope for keyboard logger injections, greater control for window managers (good for those who like consistent window furniture and widgets) and generally better performance.

Flatpak and Snap are a couple of approaches to bundling required libraries with software and segregating them from the rest of the OS for added security (else otherwise applications that chose to bundle older versions of libraries would become a problem). This will tie in with Wayland and reduce potential issues with dependencies.

LibreOffice is getting an optional ribbon-style toolbar, which looks like ribbons done much better than MS Office.

In the meantime, I've installed the libreoffice-gtk3 package for a slightly fresher look (although kept the Galaxy icons). It suits some applications to look a little more conspicuously "modern" on a desktop, in my opinion.

On the vague topic of innovations, I also came across this interview with the guy responsible for the strongly polarising systemd init system that's replaced SysVinit in many Linux distros, as well as some discussion about pros and cons:

Back over in my Xubuntu install, I've bastardised my icon theme by starting with a copy of ‘elementary Xfce' in ~/.local/share/icons/ and overwriting the mime and places folder contents with icons from Faenza. Don't forget to edit the index.theme file to give icon themes amended like this a separate name, or what's in the .local folder will take precedence over what's installed under /usr/share/icons/

Also came across a little cheat: giving Whisker menu an opacity setting (even 99%) gets rid of its drop shadow in xfwm4, rather than it adopting the setting for regular windows.

After reading some good things about PCManFM (such as it having a delete confirmation option) the reality turned out to be a bit disappointing... the side pane seems to offer either a Places view that shows mounted devices or a Directory Tree view that doesn't. If both could exist in the same pane that might be okay, but Thunar is still looking the better of the two file managers as a result. Particularly after tweaking a couple of options for things that niggled me.

Getting around to setting up DeadBeef a bit, I got the latest source for the filebrowser plugin from (what's on Sourceforge is older) and removed the 24px minimum size limit on the icons, which – contrary to a comment in the latest commit – seems perfectly stable using 16px as an option. I'm also now running DeadBeef in GTK3 mode as it's nicer to look at and means the filebrowser plugin remembers the state of open folders in the tree.

Now, if I could figure out how to implement as a DeadBeef DSP plugin (or DB or another plugin implemented either LADSPA or Winamp DSP support) that'd be grand... don't hold your breath as I've never written C++ or C and my math is rusty AF but I'm not dismissing the idea entirely.

GIMP >=2.9.4 has plenty of new features since I last looked (at around the time 2.8 was released and introduced single window mode) including some nice basic stuff such as remove holes and feather for selections. I seem to recall Corel PhotoPaint had these particular features in the 90s, but better late than never.

Packages with all of the libraries were available from the Ubuntu repositories, apart from libmypaint which the official instructions worked fine for:

Unfortunately the newly-built and installed GIMP then silently failed to run, so I uninstalled it and instead grabbed 2.9.5 binaries from

Bizarrely there doesn't seem to be any option to either hide the open documents tab bar (even with only one image open) or turn thumbnails on it off, but on the other hand XFCE has snapping and other window arranging features so single window mode isn't really necessary. As always I want to like GIMP more than I do, but when image editing tasks arise I usually hit up simpler software and these days that's Pinta.

I'm also making a mental note (as well as this actual one) to look at:

Entangle for tethered digital camera usage.
Ardour for more complicated track editing than Audacity.
Hugin (in more detail) for stitching comic scans as well as photos.
Having a proper look at scanning with both of the scanners I've got.
Catfish syntax (if it has syntax) or other alternatives for file searches.

And that seems like plenty for the first month.


Tags All Personal Tech