Minimalist Linux to Confuse the Masses


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By Mackenzie Morgan
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

Sometimes it’s fun to just make people think “WTF?” when they see your computer. That’s “WTF?” in a good way. It’s not hard on Linux to make people say “woah,”, but it’s even easier, if you know the command line, to make people look at you typing away on your laptop and think you’re some kind of crazy hacker having a go at the Gibson.

The first step is to ditch GNOME or KDE. Get a nice, minimalist window manager. I recommend a window manager over a regular tty for two reasons. The first is that even with screen in a tty, it’s inconvenient. The text is huge unless you sit there rebooting over and over trying to get the right framebuffer settings. The second is so you can have a nice wallpaper. I prefer Fluxbox for this. It’s just like Openbox or Blackbox, except it’s got tabbed windows like pwm and a toolbar. Other possibilities include tiling window managers like Xmonad. Ion2 is a tiling, tabbed window manager, based on pwm. I don’t know about the others, but as a Fluxbox user, I can tell you that there is no really useful menu configured by default. Your Fluxbox menu configuration is in ~/.fluxbox/menu and uses a syntax like this, and no the indentation doesn’t matter:

[begin] (fluxbox)
[exec] (Firefox) {firefox}
[exec] (terminator) {terminator}
[exec] (run) {fbrun}  # opens a Fluxbox runbox to launch apps
[nop]
[submenu] (interwebs) # creates a submenu named interwebs
[exec] (firefox) {firefox}
[exec] (finch) {terminator -m -e finch} # opens a maximized terminator and executes finch inside it
[exec] (irssi) {terminator -m -e irssi}
[exec] (deluge) {deluge}
[exec] (lynx) {terminator -m -e lynx}
[end] # ends the submenu
submenu] (fluxbox)
[submenu] (styles) # creates a “styles” (for themes) submenu inside the fluxbox submenu
[stylesdir] (/usr/share/fluxbox/styles) # adds all system themes
[stylesdir] (~/.fluxbox/styles) # adds all themes installed in user’s directory
[end]
[submenu] (tools)
[exec] (fluxkeys) {fluxkeys}
[exec] (fluxconf) {fluxconf}
[exec] (fluxmenu) {fluxmenu}
[end] # end tools submenu
[end] # end fluxbox submenu
[end] # ends the menu overall

There is also a script called ~/.fluxbox/startup that controls how Fluxbox starts and what it auto-executes. Feel free to customize this however you want. It’s well-commented by default. Pay attention to the line near the top about setting your wallpaper. I find that themes often fail to set the wallpaper properly, but changing it in startup is easy enough.

Find a nice, dark theme. FreshMeat is the place to look for themes. There are a ton. Look for ones that use bright contrasting colours in the menu and window borders. If it looks like it just came out of the Matrix, that’s probably a good thing. Also, configure whatever terminal emulator you use to have a dark background and grey, white, or green text. Alternatively, set a transparent background on the terminal so your commands float in front of your wallpaper. Mrxvt and Eterm both handle transparent backgrounds well without relying on GNOME libraries. If you don’t mind using something meant for GNOME, Terminator is a very nice terminal emulator, boasting transparency, split screens, and tabs—much more featureful than the others—and the panes could just add to the look.

Next, replace as many common apps as you can with their command line alternatives. Here’s some replacements for common apps:

  • Instant messenger -> finch.
  • IRC -> irssi
  • Calculator -> bc
  • Web browser -> lynx or links2
  • Text editig -> vim or nano
  • Volume mixer -> alsamixer
  • Connecting to wifi -> iwconfig & dhclient
  • Mail client -> mutt
  • Spell checker -> aspell
  • CD burning -> wodim

Doing these things, I once had a conversation sitting in a internet café that went something like this:

Excuse me, but I have to ask. What are you doing?
Raising the volume.
Oh. Uh…Well, what are you using?
Linux.
Really? I’ve never heard of a girl using Linux.

OK, so I’m not a fan of that last comment at all, but it was pretty funny to see someone so intrigued by running alsamixer. For reference, here’s how that looked to him:

Not so freaky, right? It even looks like a normal mixer, except, you know, in a terminal. I have to warn you, though, looking like a power-user on a *nix system has its risks. Some of my friends have been kicked out of libraries for using the terminals that were built-in to the library’s computer. One was just trying to empty his Firefox cache at the command line. Of course, using the command line automatically makes you an evil black hat hacker, right? OK, so maybe using the command line is the mark of a hacker, but that doesn’t make someone a cracker! I blame movies.

Finally, a system monitoring tool adds to the look very nicely, I think. Usually I use Gkrellm with Fluxbox, but there’s also Conky. Gkrellm is nice because its window can be docked and the others told not to overlap it when maximizing. There are tons of plugins for it, and there is a GUI way to configure it. Conky, on the other hand, draws in a borderless window right on the desktop. This means your normal windows will cover it, but it also looks really cool to see the system stats being updated directly on the wallpaper. Conky can be configured by editing a text file (which likely does not yet exist on your system) called .conkyrc located in your home directory. Examples of many .conkyrcs can be found online, but there is a thread on Ubuntu Forums with screenshots and configurations that you might want to check out. I’m pretty sure I got mine from there and edited it. Figuring out how to edit the file isn’t hard, though the syntax is a bit interesting.

I know, this is a rather odd topic, right? Yeah, it’s kind of “how to make your computer make you look like a hacker,” which will of course make actual hackers groan, so I hope you can back up the looks with some real knowledge. It’s really easy to make yourself look like a stupid little script kiddie this way, so be careful! I’m at a hacker con right now, and thus I’m sticking to GNOME and Compiz. I did get one guy asking why I’m bothering with irssi instead of X-Chat to go on the #hope IRC channel though.





77 Responses to Minimalist Linux to Confuse the Masses

  1. Nice tips! I’m not a big fan of the transparent terminal though. It takes an appreciable delay to redraw the screen every time I move the window.

    • Why move the terminal at all? One of my virtual desktops is at all times covered by a maximized konsole, with all the ssh sessions/root shells/python interpreters I might need in its tabs. This is what I found works best for me.

      • I quite like Terminator because it has tabs and panes. You don’t even have to open up multiple terminals and then drag them about so that they don’t overlap.

        • Ditch the need for tabs in your term app. GNU Screen blows all that out of the water, even allowing you to remote into the machine working in the same instance of term apps that you used locally by reattaching to the screen session. Make sure to change the default Ctrl-A escape sequence to backtick first, though.

        • I’ve used screen when in just a TTY/getty before. It’s important to remember (at least if you’re a bash user) to use “logout” and not “exit” after disattaching from a screen session if you want to reattach, though. Doesn’t work if you exit. Irssi + screen is a nice combination for IRC. Need a shell account on which to do it though.

  2. Nice tips! I'm not a big fan of the transparent terminal though. It takes an appreciable delay to redraw the screen every time I move the window.

    • Why move the terminal at all? One of my virtual desktops is at all times covered by a maximized konsole, with all the ssh sessions/root shells/python interpreters I might need in its tabs. This is what I found works best for me.

      • I quite like Terminator because it has tabs and panes. You don't even have to open up multiple terminals and then drag them about so that they don't overlap.

        • Ditch the need for tabs in your term app. GNU Screen blows all that out of the water, even allowing you to remote into the machine working in the same instance of term apps that you used locally by reattaching to the screen session. Make sure to change the default Ctrl-A escape sequence to backtick first, though.

        • I've used screen when in just a TTY/getty before. It's important to remember (at least if you're a bash user) to use "logout" and not "exit" after disattaching from a screen session if you want to reattach, though. Doesn't work if you exit. Irssi + screen is a nice combination for IRC. Need a shell account on which to do it though.

  3. I have no idea why Linux hasn’t caught on with the general public? The Linux interface is so intuitive and easy to understand, much easier than Windows or OS X.

    • Sarcasm, sir, is the lowest form of wit. Although in this case, you’re spot on ;)

      Fluxbox has done Linux no favors. There’s a reason why no one uses computers from the 80s anymore, and primitive window managers in the style of Fluxbox are one of them.

      If you really want to impress people with Linux, stick with Gnome/KDE and plugin Compiz Fusion. You can still use those “cute” console apps, and so much more.

      • You don’t need Gnome or KDE for Compiz-Fusion. You can use Xfce to do it! As a matter of fact, that’s what I’m running right now. It’s lightweight and somewhat minimal while still being efficient and Compiz-Fusion works well with it! KDE4 slows things down too much on my system, and I dislike the menu-based interface that Gnome uses (it isn’t confusing, just an eyesore), not to mention the fact that Gnome also slows things down too much. However, Xfce works beautifully with Compiz-Fusion. I just start fusion-icon manually after logging in (eye candy is good, but I don’t want it on 100% of the time), and it is already configured to start with Compiz as the window manager.

        rpgfan3233
        – running Fedora 9 (Sulphur) x86-64

      • You don’t need Gnome or KDE for Compiz-Fusion. You can use Xfce to do it! As a matter of fact, that’s what I’m running right now. It’s lightweight and somewhat minimal while still being efficient and Compiz-Fusion works well with it! KDE4 slows things down too much on my system, and I dislike the menu-based interface that Gnome uses (it isn’t confusing, just an eyesore), not to mention the fact that Gnome also slows things down too much. However, Xfce works beautifully with Compiz-Fusion. I just start fusion-icon manually after logging in (eye candy is good, but I don’t want it on 100% of the time), and it is already configured to start with Compiz as the window manager.

        rpgfan3233
        – running Fedora 9 (Sulphur) x86-64

      • what about those countries where low end hardware is all that is available. Hence the OLPC project and the netbook industry in general.
        An up to date OS that is capable of making these low end hardware useful is most certainly appreciated by many who can’t afford a more high end computer.

  4. I have no idea why Linux hasn't caught on with the general public? The Linux interface is so intuitive and easy to understand, much easier than Windows or OS X.

    • Sarcasm, sir, is the lowest form of wit. Although in this case, you're spot on ;)

      Fluxbox has done Linux no favors. There's a reason why no one uses computers from the 80s anymore, and primitive window managers in the style of Fluxbox are one of them.

      If you really want to impress people with Linux, stick with Gnome/KDE and plugin Compiz Fusion. You can still use those "cute" console apps, and so much more.

      • You don't need Gnome or KDE for Compiz-Fusion. You can use Xfce to do it! As a matter of fact, that's what I'm running right now. It's lightweight and somewhat minimal while still being efficient and Compiz-Fusion works well with it! KDE4 slows things down too much on my system, and I dislike the menu-based interface that Gnome uses (it isn't confusing, just an eyesore), not to mention the fact that Gnome also slows things down too much. However, Xfce works beautifully with Compiz-Fusion. I just start fusion-icon manually after logging in (eye candy is good, but I don't want it on 100% of the time), and it is already configured to start with Compiz as the window manager.

        rpgfan3233

        – running Fedora 9 (Sulphur) x86-64

      • what about those countries where low end hardware is all that is available. Hence the OLPC project and the netbook industry in general.

        An up to date OS that is capable of making these low end hardware useful is most certainly appreciated by many who can't afford a more high end computer.

    • Give a list of words you don’t get, and someone will respond with definitions…can’t guarantee it’ll be me as I’m travelling, but I know there are other Linux users reading.

    • Give a list of words you don't get, and someone will respond with definitions…can't guarantee it'll be me as I'm travelling, but I know there are other Linux users reading.

  5. I'm told that awesome is the minimalist WM that non functional language people use (otherwise it's Xmonad as you've already mentioned).

  6. Ubuntu? Not even gentoooo or at least arch? Not debian? And I’d suggest a bitchx for irc, it’s fantastic. *shrugs*

    • All of my computers run Ubuntu, and one already had that setup. I didn’t feel like going to the trouble of redoing one of them with a more “1337” distro. Ubuntu was the most common distro I saw at HOPE though, and that’s a place full of hackers, so…take that as you will.

      And that’s a very *big* resource for .conkyrcs, so why not use it?

      GKrellm is the thing in the screenshot.

  7. Ubuntu? Not even gentoooo or at least arch? Not debian? And I'd suggest a bitchx for irc, it's fantastic. *shrugs*

    • All of my computers run Ubuntu, and one already had that setup. I didn't feel like going to the trouble of redoing one of them with a more "1337" distro. Ubuntu was the most common distro I saw at HOPE though, and that's a place full of hackers, so…take that as you will.

      And that's a very *big* resource for .conkyrcs, so why not use it?

      GKrellm is the thing in the screenshot.

  8. Well … to each his/her own. I recently switched my desktop from WindowMaker to Gnome/Compiz. I suppose if I had been able to figure out how to configure WindowMaker/Compiz, I’d still be on WindowMaker. But really … impressing shoulder surfers is all about eye candy in my book, not command line.

    Don’t get me wrong — I run Cygwin on all my Windows system just so I can *have* a command line! :) But it’s a contrast thing — command line on Windows and eye candy on Linux. ;)

  9. Well … to each his/her own. I recently switched my desktop from WindowMaker to Gnome/Compiz. I suppose if I had been able to figure out how to configure WindowMaker/Compiz, I'd still be on WindowMaker. But really … impressing shoulder surfers is all about eye candy in my book, not command line.

    Don't get me wrong — I run Cygwin on all my Windows system just so I can *have* a command line! :) But it's a contrast thing — command line on Windows and eye candy on Linux. ;)

  10. Hands down the best non Gnome/KDE terminal is XFCE's Terminal. Some curses apps break on the lightweight terminals mentioned so far, particualrly if you are using UTF or non-English languages.

    Terminal (an unfortuante name, makes it impossible to google for) only requires a few megs of XFCE libraries, does tabs and does transparency/dragging/resizing/updating faster than anything I've seen. It is light enough to be the only xterm I use on an old Pentium 2.

    http://www.xfce.org/projects/terminal/

  11. I’ve been using Linux for 8 years now. I’m blind, and I do everything
    in a tty. This comment is being posted with a tool called edbrowse. It
    is a reimplementation of the venerable /bin/ed line editor. Among other
    things, it contains a web browser and a mail client.
    edbrowse even does a fair job with JavaScript, thanks to the Spidermonkey
    interpreter.
    If that isn’t minimalist, I don’t know what is!

  12. I've been using Linux for 8 years now. I'm blind, and I do everything

    in a tty. This comment is being posted with a tool called edbrowse. It

    is a reimplementation of the venerable /bin/ed line editor. Among other

    things, it contains a web browser and a mail client.

    edbrowse even does a fair job with JavaScript, thanks to the Spidermonkey

    interpreter.

    If that isn't minimalist, I don't know what is!

  13. I find I get the exact same response! I personally use awesome for my window manager, and I practically live in the terminal. (That’s often terminals though hehe…)

  14. I find I get the exact same response! I personally use awesome for my window manager, and I practically live in the terminal. (That's often terminals though hehe…)

  15. I'm told that awesome is the minimalist WM that non functional language people use (otherwise it's Xmonad as you've already mentioned).

  16. Hands down the best non Gnome/KDE terminal is XFCE's Terminal. Some curses apps break on the lightweight terminals mentioned so far, particualrly if you are using UTF or non-English languages.

    Terminal (an unfortuante name, makes it impossible to google for) only requires a few megs of XFCE libraries, does tabs and does transparency/dragging/resizing/updating faster than anything I've seen. It is light enough to be the only xterm I use on an old Pentium 2.

    http://www.xfce.org/projects/terminal/

  17. Ah, XFCE … That was one step on my quest for freedom from KDE/Gnome … the one that ended up on WindowMaker. The XFCE folks lost me somewhere in the transition from 4.2 to 4.4.

    As far as terminals are concerned, I was perfectly happy with xterm on WindowMaker until I read a piece on the Internet that said it was the slowest, and both Konsole and gnome-terminal were faster. So I put them both on the machine, but mostly used gnome-terminal.

    There are a *lot* of minimalist window managers. I probably tried them all. The one I *almost* went with was IceWM. I probably would have picked it over WindowMaker if I had been able to figure out how to make the fonts big enough for me to read.

    Another one that I tried was AfterStep. I couldn’t figure out how to use it, whereas WindowMaker was very intuitive.

  18. Ah, XFCE … That was one step on my quest for freedom from KDE/Gnome … the one that ended up on WindowMaker. The XFCE folks lost me somewhere in the transition from 4.2 to 4.4.

    As far as terminals are concerned, I was perfectly happy with xterm on WindowMaker until I read a piece on the Internet that said it was the slowest, and both Konsole and gnome-terminal were faster. So I put them both on the machine, but mostly used gnome-terminal.

    There are a *lot* of minimalist window managers. I probably tried them all. The one I *almost* went with was IceWM. I probably would have picked it over WindowMaker if I had been able to figure out how to make the fonts big enough for me to read.

    Another one that I tried was AfterStep. I couldn't figure out how to use it, whereas WindowMaker was very intuitive.

  19. Most screenreaders have a “key echo” feature, so one can hear keystrokes
    as they are typed. I use it, but not everyone does.
    That said, I’m not a bad touch-typist. In the early 1990s, I had to type
    my homework assignments on an electric typewriter.
    So it is possible to type with relatively few errors, even if you have no
    feedback at all.

  20. Most screenreaders have a "key echo" feature, so one can hear keystrokes

    as they are typed. I use it, but not everyone does.

    That said, I'm not a bad touch-typist. In the early 1990s, I had to type

    my homework assignments on an electric typewriter.

    So it is possible to type with relatively few errors, even if you have no

    feedback at all.

  21. What did you do? Read through my whole site and include every tool I normally use and write about?

    Geez. So I’m a green PC users who recycles other people’s discarded desktop machines and hence has to use minimalist programs to conserve computing power. Excuse me all to Dallas.

  22. What did you do? Read through my whole site and include every tool I normally use and write about?

    Geez. So I'm a green PC users who recycles other people's discarded desktop machines and hence has to use minimalist programs to conserve computing power. Excuse me all to Dallas.

  23. Awesome post. I’ve been meaning to get rid of compiz fusion from my machine for a while, and get something lightweight for my oldish PC. It’s running blisteringly fast now I’ve got Fluxbox running.

    You should check out emacs. You can do most of the stuff on your list inside it. Running as ‘emacs -nw’ will make it a bare text app too, so you can look as cool as you want in your transparent themed terminal. But I run it with as a full X app, with xft fonts which are easier on the eyes.

  24. Awesome post. I've been meaning to get rid of compiz fusion from my machine for a while, and get something lightweight for my oldish PC. It's running blisteringly fast now I've got Fluxbox running.

    You should check out emacs. You can do most of the stuff on your list inside it. Running as 'emacs -nw' will make it a bare text app too, so you can look as cool as you want in your transparent themed terminal. But I run it with as a full X app, with xft fonts which are easier on the eyes.

  25. I actually like Fluxbox more than one of the heavy Desktop Environments. I have nearly everything useful mapped to the keys, which makes things both easier and more confusing for people who try and use my computer without my knowing. Plus, it lets me use way more of my screen space and have way more processor time to spare.

    If you really want to look crazy, use a tiling WM like DWM. Or just use the ttys all the time. They are actually quite good for some programs and if X crashes.

  26. I actually like Fluxbox more than one of the heavy Desktop Environments. I have nearly everything useful mapped to the keys, which makes things both easier and more confusing for people who try and use my computer without my knowing. Plus, it lets me use way more of my screen space and have way more processor time to spare.

    If you really want to look crazy, use a tiling WM like DWM. Or just use the ttys all the time. They are actually quite good for some programs and if X crashes.

  27. this is awesome! except I have bad memory, so I’d just put a quick reference in the background

    also good way to practice using the bash

  28. this is awesome! except I have bad memory, so I'd just put a quick reference in the background

    also good way to practice using the bash