Minimalist Linux to Confuse the Masses

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
[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
[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?
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.

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