Geek Moment: Shiny New CrunchBang Linux

CrunchBang Linux is an operating system based ona philosophy of lean code and usability. It doesn't aim to be the easiest version of Linux, but for someone with a moderate amount of computer ability it's straightforward and not bloated.

The upcoming version switches to the proven and stable base of Debian. This is version 10, named “Statler,” (naming is based on Muppet characters) and the alpha version available now has been receiving an enthusiastic reception from the CrunchBang community - a number commenting that it's more stable than many distros' final releases.

Now, while I'd love to see a stable Linux distro that works for everybody, a version that works extremely nicely for semi-geeks like myself is very, very welcome.

via Release Notes - CrunchBang Linux 10 Alpha 2 ~ CrunchBang Linux Wiki.

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Appropriate software design

It makes sense to have an option only if an unsophisticated user can understand what it does and how to set it.  Otherwise you should Do The Right Thing for those users.

That's a comment from an LXDE developer on their mailing list. LXDE is a Linux desktop environment (i.e. user interface) with a focus is on lean code, and a level of usability appropriate to new users. Principles like the one above are central to what makes the project work so well.

Of course it can be more complex - it can be good to have advanced options, as long as they're marked as such, and the default is suitable for regular users.

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Usability in blogs and stoves

Design prototypes in Myanmar. Which is cooler?

Over at 3brick design, a project spawned from Stanford's Extreme Affordability class, they take user-centered design seriously, and respect the dignity of the people they're trying to serve. The examples they've displayed so far look elegant and functional - I'll be interested to see what they come up with.

One thing is sure: it's unlikely to be a single design. As the context changes, the appropriate technology for the situation tends to change as well. Do the users mainly frying or do slow cooking, for example?

Showing that they think about their users in more than just a cooking context, the project has chosen a nice lean blog skin for WordPress called Darwin, designed to be fast-loading and easy on the eye. Good work.

Picture credit: "3 bricks. Many users." at the Stanford Cool Product Expo blog.

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Lean browsing – and a plea to Mozilla

An essential part of lean code is lean browsing. Web browsers are often the most resource hungry program running on a personal computer, and a leaner web browser will mean less power used, less heat, less greenhouse gases produced, less crashes, and less need for CPU speed, RAM, and cooling.

Flyweights

There are a bunch of very lightweight browsers for Linux, such as Midori, Dillo, Hv3 and w3m. These prove that a browser can be well under 1 MB, be lightning fast to load, and still successfully browse. Unfortunately they are seriously lacking in features.

W3m is the most basic of these - it's a text browser (and there are others to choose from, if you're in the market). Text browsers are not something most users ever need to know about, but they do have niche uses. On to more practical choices (for most of us).

Midori, at about 350 kb, seems to do the best job of displaying pages the same way Firefox does - but it doesn't seem to save any cookies, and doesn't offer to remember passwords. You'll be logging in to your favorite sites every time you start Midori.

Nice idea, but not very usable, in my view. You can try them out if you're keen - if you run a mainstream Linux distro, they should be in your distro's repositories (except maybe Hv3).

Lightweights

There's a big jump here - the code for one these browsers is roughly 20 to 50  or more times the size of the flyweights.

Opera is an established, full-featured browser. It's claimed to be lighter than the mainstream browsers such as Firefox, and it might be, but to be honest I don't notice a huge difference - I can easily get it to 90 MB once I have a good number of tabs open.

It's not open source, and it doesn't quite manage everything as nicely as Firefox. I use this as a backup browser, e.g for checking secondary accounts without logging out of my main account.

Then there are browsers based on the same technology as Firefox, e.g. Kazehakase and Epiphany - again, they're likely to be in your Linux distro's repositories. But I wonder if the reason that these are faster is mainly that they don't have all the addons that we've installed on our Firefox?

I still find these to be a compromise - you're definitely giving up a fair bit in usability to have a lighter browsing experience - though Opera comes pretty close to Firefox in usability and fancy features.

If Midori would just save cookies, I'd say Midori was a much better trade-off than most or all of these.

Middleweights

SwiftFox and SwiftWeasel are two tweaked versions of Firefox, to improve speed and reduce memory usage. I haven't noticed a huge difference in speed, but there's a significant reduction in the RAM used by both of these, and that's A Good Thing. They're also very compatible with Firefox - I find I can install the same addons, and have had no problems with them at all. This is lighter browsing without compromising usability.

The main difference between these two projects is that SwiftFox is trademarked and the binaries are proprietary. If I've got it right, then in theory, the guy who packages SwiftFox might be doing something sinister. That's unlikely, but since I use this for my internet banking, I'm going with the security of a fully open source package, which means SwiftWeasel.

Unfortunately, they're only in Linux, and they're not in the repositories of most Linux distros. Installation can be confusing for a newbie, especially for SwiftWeasel (in brief: ignore the "source" packages, and install the latest "non-source" package, which is a compressed binary. Unpack into your home directory, and run the "swiftweasel" shell script. It needs an installation guide like the one for Flock.)

Light heavyweight

Firefox - the premier browser on all mainstream operating systems today. If you've got the resources, and/or don't share my bad habit of having way too many tabs open, this is a practical option. The only serious contenders for a better all-round browser, in my view, are those in the previous section, tweaked versions of Firefox.

Version 3 is a big improvement, and memory management was one of the areas they worked hard on. I still find it suffers from inflation of the amount of RAM used when it's been open a long time, but nowhere as badly as version 2 did.

But Mozilla people, please - could you please make it easier for us to tweak our installation of Firefox to make it less resource hungry? There are instructions out there, but relying on random blog posts and forums for instructions is dangerous. I broke my installation of Firefox that way, which is when I gave up on Firefox and tried SwiftFox, then SwiftWeasel. Really, I'd rather be able to keep using Firefox, and supporting the Mozilla Foundation for all your good work. So - could you please make it easier for us to be light and green in our browsing?

For now - SwiftWeasel is my recommendation for the average Linux user. But if you're a newbie or semi-newbie, make sure you've got support, from a Linux User Group or a geek friend - that might save you some hassles in installation.

Browsers for Windows

This is outside my experience (I used Firefox when I was last a Windows user, and it was all-round a better browser than Internet Explorer), but there seems to be talk on the web about lightweight browser for windows.

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Lightweight Linux

A fellow Appropedian asked me about options for lightweight Linux distros, for using on old hardware. Thought I'd share my response here.

My knowledge is limited, but what I've learnt:

  • Join a local LUG - look out for days when they help people install Linux. Beware of installing Linux when you won't be face-to-face with Linux geeks for a long time, especially if you're doing something more problematic like installing on a laptop - I made this mistake, and it was a horrible time sink. Online support doesn't cut it.
  • Vector & other Slackware distros don't seem user friendly, and neither does DSL (Damn Small Linux) - I looked into it, but with only about 2 years experience in Linux, I didn't feel up to any of these choices. With more experience, and the backing of geek friends, it may be an option for you. (DSL is also a much older distro, with much older packages a.k.a. program versions, but it works on very limited hardware, and is possibly more reliable than other ultralight distros such as Puppy Linux).
  • I recommend Openbox (window manager) and LXDE (desktop environment using Openbox - meaning Openbox is the lighter of these two light options). These are really nice and lean - lighter than XFCE, but nicer to use. Expect to see these become more popular. You can add them to any distro, but where they're not one of the standard options, in some cases there can be clashes (probably a bigger problem on a laptop).
  • I like to find a distro where it's set up to be lean, but it's easy to use.
  • I'm not hung up on installing "free" (open source) only - I want Skype and I want video codecs. (I install Linux firstly because I want an operating system that does what I need, not to make a statement.) Ubuntu makes for a little hassle with this - you have to add repositories and certain packages (programs and codecs), and the new user doesn't know this - they just wonder why things don't work. Debian makes it really hard work for a newbie, especially if any of your hardware doesn't have a perfectly free (open source) driver.
  • I strongly prefer something that is at least based on a major distro, and uses the package repositories of that distro. There's the potential for better support and in theory for bug fixing (Ubuntu is buggy anyway, in my experience, but it does have good support). It also means far more software choice. This, with the previous points, leaves me with one distro:
  • CrunchBang Linux: it's based on Ubuntu, but uses Openbox, but with some very cool usability tweaks, including partial use of LXDE. It also comes with Skype and video codecs installed. This is the only distro I know that comes with Openbox by default (excluding Debian and Knoppix which I don't recommend - see below). I'm not usually a fan of Ubuntu, for several reasons including bugginess when I used it in the past - but in spite of that, it's working quite well for me at the moment, and it has an active and helpful community. This is the most promising distro I've used.
  • Debian 5.0 comes with with LXDE as one of its standard options, which means it has Openbox - but Debian was unnecessarily difficult for me. When it didn't even recognize the hard disk on my ThinkPad, I thought: if this is a sign of how things work in Debian, I'm trying something else.
  • And Knoppix also comes with LXDE standard.  It's not designed for installation to hard disk though, unless you really know Linux. However, it's apparently a great rescue disk, with a reputation for hardware recognition - the MacGyver of Linux distros - so I keep a Knoppix LiveCD handy, just in case. (I'd try the CrunchBang LiveCD first, but if things are really screwed up and that doesn't work, I'll try Knoppix.)
  • I've heard good things about Puppy Linux - it was flaky when I tried it ~2006, but may have improved. It's also kind of a backwater in Linux development - a lot of non-standard stuff, running as root by default (which sounds like a bad idea to me and to many Linux people), with its own kind of installation, and far fewer packages than a major distro. So unless you need to go super-light (even lighter than Crunchbang) I wouldn't recommend it.
  • I just discovered boxpup - looks like Puppy with Openbox. I'm guessing it's a bit harder than CrunchBang, with less package choices, but probably even lighter than CrunchBang. I would still have some concerns about bugginess, security, package choice and maybe usability, but if you're keen, you could try it out with some help from your LUG.
  • Anything I've said related to something being hard to use (e.g. Debian) becomes much less of an issue if you have geeky friends close by and/or belong to a LUG. My preference though: Get something you can mostly handle yourself. You'll still need help, but there's no need to make it harder than necessary.

So join a LUG, check out CrunchBang, and enjoy Linux!

Thanks to Jon Camfield for his input at the talk page where this started.

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The Virtues of Small Software

I've been blogging enthusiastically on , but here's something better informed, with much more detail, from the Cameroon-based blog, 27 months: The Virtues of Small Software

Lean code #2: Luxury computing


Efficient code is green code, as I blogged a few weeks back. And more than that, efficient code is just really, really nice to use.

I've been using LXDE for a couple of months now. This is a "desktop environment" - that is, the window manager, panel, all the "GUI" stuff, that makes up the top layer of a Linux distribution. I'm using it with Mandriva (and like other major desktop environments, it also works with many other distributions).

And this is a very lightweight distribution - i.e. it's efficient code. It's much smaller than even XFCE, one of the best known lightweight alternatives. But here's what it means to me:

  • Stability. The last time I restarted my laptop was about 20 days ago - in that time I have suspended and woken the machine several times every day, with no hiccups. My browser (Swiftfox, a slightly faster and lighter version of Firefox) has crashed a few times, thanks to way too many tabs, and to a document-viewing site called scribd.com. But the operating system has been rock solid.
  • Speed. I wanted a lightweight distro so that I could just open my laptop and be writing in seconds rather than minutes, before I forget the idea I'm planning to write down. I thought that would be hard to achieve, but it was as easy as installing LXDE. Plus, I rarely get the hangs and long waits I used to get with Windows, and to a lesser extent with fatter Linux systems. (If I do, it's usually because I have a file search going that I'd forgotten about, and that's quickly fixed.)
  • Much more flexibility. I can now keep open whatever programs I want, without upsetting the system. I always have multiple documents open in Abiword and text editors, Skype, often I have two browsers open, plus a PDF viewer and more. Even when most of the memory is in use, when Mandriva with heavier desktops would be slowing to a crawl, Mandriva with LXDE is perfectly happy and responsive. And with its smaller footprint, it's harder to use up the memory in the first place.

Perfect, huh? Well, not quite. It's a work in progress, and while I'm told everything works well on LXDE with Debian or other distros, I have problems on Mandriva: I have no audio, no flash video, and USB drives and external hard drive don't work at all. I live with this for now, because the speed and stability is letting me get my work done in a way that no operating system - Windows, Mac or any Linux distribution - has ever done for me before. For the occasional backup, I can boot up in Openbox and the USB connection works perfectly. (Openbox is an even lighter option, just the window manager used by LXDE with no "desktop environment", but it's slightly confusing for newbies.)

At some point soon, I plan to bite the bullet and switch to Debian. But whatever system I end up using, one thing is sure - LXDE has spoiled me. I have experienced sleek, efficient code, and there's no going back.

Footnote: In the interests of better documentation, and making life easier for newbies, I've been adding what I learn to the Mandriva and LXDE wikis. Of course!

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Letter to Taiwanese geeks

I sent this to friends in Taiwan, but also want to share it more widely:

You may know already, but in Taiwan on Dec 10 is BarCampTaipei. Joy Tang will be there, talking about wifi (& Linux) for African villages.

Joy is part of the LXDE team - LXDE is an excellent light Linux desktop, made by a Taiwanese hacker, "PCMan" a.k.a. Hong Jen Yee. It works very well with existing Linux distros, and I think is a great step forward. I am supporting LXDE, e.g. helping with documentation, as I think it has great potential to make Linux more usable and make computers more accessible in poorer countries. PCMan won't be at the BarCamp, but a few of the LXDE team will be.

So, I wanted to let you know, to be aware of this great development in Linux that comes from Taiwan, and to get in touch with each other, if you're interested.

Btw, I really liked Taiwan, and I hope to visit next year, maybe in the middle of the year or earlier. Hope to catch you then!

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The world needs lean code!


Efficient code is green code, code that will work better on old or "light" computers used in developing countries, better on the shiny new netbooks (such as the EEE) that are coming out these days - and that will make a fast computer even faster. Efficient code, it seems, has no downside.

Jim Gettys  of OLPC says in a July 2006 interview:

There seems to be a common fallacy among programmers that using memory is good: on current hardware it is often much faster to recompute values than to have to reference memory to get a precomputed value. A full cache miss can be hundreds of cycles, and hundreds of times the power consumption of an instruction that hits in the first level cache. Making things smaller almost always makes them faster (and lower power). Similarly, it can be much faster to redraw an area of the screen than to copy a saved image from RAM to a screen buffer. Many programmer's presumptions are now completely incorrect and we need to reeducate ourselves...

A large part of this task is raising people's consciousness that we've become very sloppy on memory usage, and often there is low hanging fruit making things use less memory (and execute faster and use less power as a result). Sometimes it is poor design of memory usage, and sometimes it is out and out bugs leaking memory. On our class of a system, leaks are of really serious concern: we don't want to be paging to our limited size flash.

In fact, much of the performance unpredictability of today's free desktop can be attributed to the fact that several of our major applications are wasting/leaking memory and driving even systems with half a gigabyte of memory or more to paging quite quickly...

X [the X window manager] does what its told: many applications seem to think that storing pixmaps in the X server (and often forgetting about them entirely) is a good strategy, whereas retransmitting or repainting the pixmap may be both faster and use less memory. Once in a while there is a memory leak in X (generally in the graphics drivers): but almost always the problem are leaks in applications, which often forget the pixmaps they were using.RAM in the X server is just as much RAM of your program, though it is in a different address space. People forget that the X Window System was developed on systems with 2 meg of RAM, and works today on 16 megabyte iPAQ handhelds.

We need better tools; some are beginning to appear. OLPC is sponsoring a Google Summer of Code student, Eduardo Silva, from Chile, who is working on a new tool called Memphis to help with this problem.

Work done on memory consumption will benefit everyone: not everyone in the world has a 2ghz laptop with a gig or two of RAM...

Nuff said.

Confession: I'm not a coder. I help with the development of Linux only by documenting the parts I know, and by reporting bugs. While I join Jim Getty in calling for more efficient code, even much of the bloated code still represents an enormous amount of good work - it just needs some cleaning up to become awesome code.

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