// why am I so n00b?

Recently, I’ve made the switch from KDE being my preferred Linux desktop environment/window manager, to i3, a tiling window manager, for both my work and private development environments (my home desktop is still Windows 7, since I do still game enough for it to become painful to dual-boot - so I do most of my development within a VM these days).

I really like it’s absolutely minimal approach - essentially it does nothing itself, it provides a simple window manager, and near limitless configurability. This has proven an excellent learning experience for me, since it’s forced me to get a lot closer to system components usually “hidden” behind sliders and widgets in KDE or Gnome, as well as a host of alternatives to applications those environments provide by default. It’s also resulted in a much cleaner and faster system, containing only the applications and services I actually want.

We recently installed fresh new desktop machines at work, so I thought I’d share some of my setup, in case it’s of some value to anyone else (and my own future reference!). The following steps assume you know how to operate a basic Debian system. I’m not going to go too deep into any usage details for i3 either, since there’s an excellent user guide and comprehensive FAQ system which should answer any questions you may have.

I’d also advocate using “aptitude” as an alternative to “apt-get” for all package installations, updates and removals.

The Basics

I always start off with a Debian “netinst”. Post-install, this provides an incredibly basic bare-bones OS with a few system utilities (during the installation, de-select the pre-configured “Desktop”, “Web Server”, “Mail Server”, etc. options, just keep the “Standard System Utilities”).

First thing to to after installing is install sudo and add your user to the sudoers group, to avoid having to be root to get things done. Now’s also a good time to install vim.

I also like seeing Aptitude’s “visual preview” of changes when doing package management, so to avoid having to call $ aptitude --visual-preview install ... on every invocation, we can edit root’s aptitude config:


Aptitude::CmdLine::Visual-Preview "true";

Upgrade to Unstable/Sid

Perhaps a bit reckless, but I’ve honestly never experienced any crippling issues running Debian Unstable (“sid”). You’ll only need to modify /etc/apt/source.list and replace references to “wheezy” or “testing” with “unstable” or “sid”, and disable the updates and security repositories, leaving you only the main deb and deb-src repositories (I’ve enabled non-free and contrib, since I want to install FlashPlayer and nVidia drivers later):


deb http://cdn.debian.net/debian/ unstable main non-free contrib
deb-src http://cdn.debian.net/debian/ unstable main non-free contrib

After saving the above changes, execute the following:

$ sudo aptitude update
$ sudo aptitude dist-upgrade

The dist-upgrade step will upgrade all installed packages to whatever’s newest in unstable.

Desktop Install

With the base system as up-to-date as it can be, it’s time to install the desktop environment.

$ sudo aptitude install xorg lightdm i3-wm i3status suckless-tools

After installation, I’d reboot and ensure a nice graphical login prompt appears. After login, you’ll be asked some initial i3 setup questions (which are easy to change later) and land in the default i3 workspace. Press Mod+Enter (Mod being whatever you selected in the aforementioned setup questions - likely “windows” key, or Ctrl) to open a new terminal window. It’s probably xterm, which is sort of OK, but I switched to lxtermial - it’s nice and lightweight but still has a fair number of configuration and convenience features (like URL detection - useful for IRC).

If you install another terminal, and opening more terminals results in more xterms rather than your installed terminal, do the following to set your preferred option:

$ sudo update-alternatives --config x-terminal-emulator

Desktop Tweaks

Before digging too deep into installing additional software, it’s a good time to configure some additional options to make life a bit more pleasant.

Look and Feel

In order to make sure your eyes are not offended by the default GTK theme which you may end up seeing a lot of, set up the GTK theme and icon theme:


include "/usr/share/themes/Adwaita/gtk-2.0/gtkrc"

In addition, I found it a lot cleaner and space-maximising to disable i3’s window titles and thin it’s borders down, by addition the following to ~/i3/config:

new_window 1pixel
new_float normal


Install python-pip via Aptitude, and then $ sudo pip install py3status. I use py3status since it provides some nice additional modules, is more flexible, and is fully compatible with the default i3status configuration. It’s also a good time to check out the i3status configuration documentation and do some tweaks, since a couple of the default entries here are likely not too useful.


Randomised (of fixed if preferred) wallpapers can easily be achieved by installing feh (which makes for a good i3-friendly picture viewer in general) then adding the following to ~/i3/config:

exec --no-startup-id feh --recursive --randomize --bg-fill ~/Pictures/wallpaper/

Incidentally, the imgur wallpaper gallery is a good place to find some wallpapers.

File Management

Sometimes a GUI file manager can be useful, and for this, a nice light-weight alternative to the bigger desktops’ Nautilus and Dolphins is PCManFM, installed as pcmanfm.

A nice companion application for (compressed) archive management is xarchiver. You may need to install additional tools (such as zip, unzip, unrar-free, etc, depending on the files you commonly work with).


The entire setup to this point should not have taken more than 1-2 hours, depending on download speeds (really, most time is spent just waiting for downloads…), so you can get this kind of environment running with minimal effort and downtime.

I haven’t included anything about multimedia, custom key bindings, lock screens, or others here, but there are loads of other resources around which can fill you in on those and the myriad ways you can configure your i3 environment.

Your next step, if you’re new to i3, should probably be to take a read through the i3 user guide, which is impressively comprehensive.

Well, shit happens, and unfortunately OOE 1.1 hasn’t as I’d planned. I HOPE to be able to have this going by next week….

I’ve wanted something to make browsing through largish JSON objects a bit easier for work for a long while now, and suddenly got the idea that 01:00 on Saturday morning would be a good time to create such an application.

The result is the rather simple but effective JSON Explorer.

Yay, on Friday, I decided to take the plunge, and install Debian on my laptop. I’ve always wanted to try working in a Linux desktop environment, considering I do practically no Delphi development any more, everything’s either PHP or Python. Since Debian has plenty of support for both of these, it seemed quite ideal.

I’m not dumping the existing Windows install though, so I had to partition my drive. Now, partitioning drives is about the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done, no matter what software I’m using, no matter how little data I stand to lose, I’m always scared as hell something will go wrong. Doubly so on this laptop since I use it constantly for work, and it’s the default installation HP put on, which I’m not really eager to bugger up. Luckily, that all went smoothly though :D.

When it came to installing Debian though, I had a problem with the netinst installer I was using, in that a package or two would not install due to missing some authentication files or something. So, since that installer didn’t work, it was suggested that I try an older Sarge installer and upgrade to the Unstable branch from there.

As expected, that installation went without issue. Unfortunately I just had to try my best to keep the machine cool while waiting for the installation to complete and the ACPI applications to kick in so the fans would do their thing. Thanks Korpse for warning me about that in advance ;).

So anyway, after the base installation was done, it was trivial (as I have come to expect from Debian,) to get Gnome, X.org and GDM installed and running. Apache, PHP and the rest were even easier. I was very pleased to see that the Firebird SQL server (open source’d Interbase fork thingey) was available in Debian right away, so I plonked that in as well. All that was left was to install Subversion, and check out my work stuff. Once done, I was 100% ready for work :D.

There are a few things not working yet - I haven’t had much luck with the wireless LAN. Gnome’s wireless LAN configuration applet thing is missing WPA-PSK authentication options (which I’ve configured my wireless AP to use), it only supports WEP. I also can’t seem to get the WPA tools (wap_supplicant) to work correctly. Based on the output I’m getting though, it *looks* like it’s connecting to the access point - it manages to find the AP’s MAC address and everything just fine, and it reports the authentication was successful, but beyond that, I can’t actually ping anything, and all traffic still seems to be trying to go through eth0 (wired LAN) rather than eth1 (wireless). Guess I need to learn a bit more about Linux networking… heh.

Another thing that’s not quite working is Bluetooth. Again, it *seems* to be working, the hardware is detected, and is working fine. My phone can pair with the laptop fine, using the PIN I’ve defined, but I can’t seem to transfer files or anything in either direction. I’ll admit that I haven’t played with this much yet, but I’m not really sure where to go next. I haven’t even tried looking into infra-red yet :).

And yes, I do use all these things, that’s why I spent so much on this laptop :P.

I also haven’t installed the ATI drivers yet, it looks like it’s going to be a bit of a mission on it’s own though.

Along the way I’ve also discovered some interesting new applications I haven’t seen or heard of before. gDesklets seem like a nice way to waste some CPU time and memory if you like to keep your desktop busy. Beep Media Player seems like a very nice alternative to XMMS, seems a lot more stable, and the general feel integrates better with Gnome. RapidSVN looks like it’s trying to be a nice enough SVN front-end, however I find the good old command-line a lot more friendly and efficient (and it crashes less). Sylpheed is a rather nice little mail client, and works well as an alternative to Thunderbird - assuming you’re unhappy with Thunderbird though. ibWebAdmin is a neat web-based tool for managing your Interbase databases, not as feature-packed or good looking as phpMyAdmin, but it does what it needs to do pretty well.

All that’s left now is to give it a shot at work tomorrow, and see how it all goes :).

I decided it might be a good idea, from a debugging and administrative point of view, to save the reports people were viewing in my application at work. Since users are distributed all over the country, and I have to communicate with them over the phone with on-the-spot problems, it’s hard and very time consuming to get them to tell me all the parameters etc they’re using to generate a report which they are having problems with (mostly, the data looks like something they weren’t expecting).

Anyway, I thought saving the exact report they are viewing is much easier for me to simply call up while someone’s on the phone, than doing the whole ‘which options did you use?’ thing.

Option one was saving each report to a PDF file on the server, but, that’s pretty inflexible, and also, people can view more than just PDF files with my reporting options (emails can be send direct, zip files can be downloaded, and data can be downloaded in csv format), so that wouldn’t always work out.

So I looked into serializing the actual report object used to generate any of the above report types, since that object contains absolutely all data, totals, titles, info, etc.. Unfortunately, PHP’s built-in serialize() and unserialize() functions don’t work too well with complex data structures (arrays within classes, multi-dimensional arrays, etc, etc), and I couldn’t really work around all that without writing a few GBs of code onto my report class.

SO, I turned to XML. As it turns out, the PEAR ‘suite’ of scripts contains a rather useful XML serialization class -XML_Serializer, which can turn any data structure into an XML string, and for reading those strings back to usable PHP variables and objects.

It’s really quite simple:

$object = new SomeClass();
$object->var1 = "Hello World";

$serializer = &new XML_Serializer(array("indent" => "  ", "typeHints" => true));
$xml = $serializer->getSerializedData();

$xml now contains the full definition of $object in XML. You can write $xml to a file, save it in a database, whatever you like.

You can then come back later, and load the file/database record/etc into a string, and deserialize it…

$unserializer = &new XML_Unserializer();
$object2 = $unserializer->getUnserializedData();

echo $object2->var1;

Quite fun actually :D. You can obviously do a lot of error checking, and other things, but that’s just the basics.

I must say, I’m rather disappointed with my “SmoothWall experience” so far. I’ve been tasked with setting up a SmoothWall firewall/proxy machine at work, and from what I’ve read, it’s like the best thing since sliced bread.

Unfortunately I cannot agree.

The installation tends to go fine, it partitions the hard disk by itself, installs fairly fast, then steps through a simple setup ‘wizard’. Here we are prompted if we want to enable or disable ADSL. Now, I want SmoothWall to connect via our ADSL line. BUT, it seems the developer’s idea of “ADSL” is in fact “USB ADSL Modem”.

Anyway, after figuring that one out, and after much shuffling of subnets and IPs between the router, SmoothWall, and my PC, I finally get it to use the router as a gateway. I try visiting some sites - DNS lookups fail. I take a look in all the log options on SmoothWall, and find the firewall is blocking DNS traffic, and is trying to route everything through the same (“Green”) NIC, rather than the second (“Red”) one.

Sooo, turns out I can fix this by running the “setup” tool again, and ‘pretending’ to change the IPs, so it resets everything (re-writes the firewall rules maybe?). Cool, everything’s working again. Not quite.

Seems after that, the proxy magically stops working altogether, so from the web interface, I just disable it, and re-enable it. Cool, everything’s working now. Riiiiight.

A few hours later, suddenly the internet is dead. Hmm, seems the firewall is blocking all traffic again and routing though the same NIC. Sooo, I repeat the whole IP change/reset, proxy reset, etc, and everything’s cool.

A few hours later I find myself repeating the whole procedure again.

This is seriously lame, having to practically reboot the entire machine every few hours. So I think maybe I’ll try to set up a PPPoE connection. So I go and configure the router correctly, test ‘dialing up’ with my machine in XP, all’s cool. Now to set up SmoothWall. Running the setup tool again lets me set the “Red” interface to “PPPoE”, and that seems done. Now where do I put my username and password to dial up?

Apparently the “ppp settings” page of the web GUI is where it’s done. Now excuse my ignorance, but this looks like a modem dial-up page, asking for phone numbers, which COM port my modem is on, etc, etc. A bit of searching around the rather un-helpful support forums, reveals that this is indeed where you need to configure PPPoE usernames and passwords. Just leave all settings alone except for login details.

I give it a shot, tell it to connect, nothing happens. Check the logs, and not surprisingly, it’s trying to connect via ttyS0 (COM1).

Now, apparently there’s supposed to be an option to select the correct interface in the drop-list where you select which port your modem is on, on the “PPP Settings” page, but for some magical reason this does not exist for me.

Unfortunately their forums are also not very helpful it seems, and even after composing a very descriptive help request, I get a rather sarcastic “RTFM” response for a subject not covered in the manual.

Basically the manuals are not up to scratch, the support forums are full of leetbois, the options in both the setup tool and web UI are obscure, and the whole thing is bloody useless, needing a darn reboot every few hours. WTF.

I’d love to send the whole thing to hell, but unfortunately I have to get it to work. *sigh*

I’ve been adding some nifty things to my PHP project at work (cellphone starter pack invoicing, usage tracking [big bro is watching you earn him money every time you use your pre-paid airtime :P], etc). It’s got a lot of pretty nice features. Using client-side JavaScript, it actually pretty much behaves as a normal desktop application, only it lags like hell when you visit other pages (slow web server :P).

Anyway, I can’t claim I’ve written all the snazzy features myself unfortunately. Due to time and pressure I’ve been relying on good old Open Source to help me out. There’s actually a helluva lot of stuff out there to make things easier for just about anything you need to do…

  • ADOdb - http://adodb.sourceforge.net/

    Obviously the first thing to get going on any database-aware application, is to actually interact with the database. PHP has an Interbase module, with a whole bunch of Interbase functions. These all work fine, and there’s really no problem with them. ADOdb however makes working with SQL databases so much easier. No need to remember PHP’s randomly named module functions, and it gives you access to a huge assortment of database drivers (of corse all dependent on normal PHP modules). It’s even available for Python now!

  • Smarty - http://smarty.php.net/

    Next you’d presumably like a fancy presentation for your application. You have three options here - painfully output every single line of HTML manually through your code, create yourself a template engine/language, or use Smarty. Smarty is a Template Engine, which lets you define “.tpl” files which are bascally just HTML files with a couple of variable placeholders and smarty function calls. But it’s not just the simplicity of creating a Smarty instance, assigning variables to it, and then just calling display(), it’s the functions you can put into your template files. Looping through customer listings, building tables or drop lists, check lists, etc, etc, etc. One of the most useful things I’ve found is the ability to define your own smarty functions, allowing you to add custom functionality to your templates and the output they generate.

  • PHP pdf / PDFClass - http://ros.co.nz/pdf/

    One of the requirements of this project was that reports had to be generated in user and printer friendly PDF format. At first I looked into the option of having Smarty generate tabular reports, and get an HTML to PDF processor (there are several PHP options available) to turn my HTML into the PDFs required. Unfortunately, for the most part, these converters are heavily buggy, and didn’t give me very much control at all over the output (ok, I had full control over the output, but things like page headers and footers, page numbering, etc, etc are required for nice reports). Anyway, so I set about using PHP’s PDF functions. Unfortunately, that turned out rather risky across different versions of PHP, and was generally a pain to work with. Enter this package. It doesn’t require any of PHP’s PDF modules, so it’s free from cross-version and cross-platform bugs and stuff. It also has a bunch of nice functions for headers, footers, tables, etc. It also provides the option to save the output to disk, output direct to browser, or plop the output into memory where I can play with it. I’ve built a very nice reporting class around this package.

  • Code 3 of 9 Barcode Generator - http://www.sid6581.net/cs/php-scripts/barcode/

    Another requirement of the system is the ability to group multiple items into a single item. From the code side of things, it’s fairly simple, but to users, trying to manage these million boxes of starter packs and remembering or creating their own codes for these boxes would obviously be rather difficult. Anyway, I though it’d be nice to offer a barcode people can print and stick to the boxes. Enter this little script. Couldn’t be easier to use, and with the help of a little Javascript, users can even scale the barcodes up and down (by dynamically reloading the image, not just changing the dimensions and possibly corrupting it) before printing.

  • PHPMailer - http://phpmailer.sourceforge.net/

    I’m using this for sending my PDF reports via email. It allows you to easily attach files, or file content (so I don’t need to save the PDF’s to temp files before attaching, just attach the output directly from script). Also supports SMTP, so no need to rely on PHP’s mail configuration.

I’m also using a nifty little ZIP lib that allows me to zip my in-memory PDF reports, and send them direct to the browser for downloadable reports (since a normal PDF will open in the browser). Unfortunately there’s no readme or author URL in the source :)

I did get it from PHPClasses.org though, which has quickly become by first stop for anything I need in a hurry that I couldn’t be bothered, or don’t have time to write myself. Nice rating system and “top 10"s filter out the good stuff instantly, making finding stuff really simple. I highly recommend it to any PHP developers.

Well because I’m apparently not doing any work here… I’m being trekked off to JHB yet again. No idea when I’m even getting back. Lovely 3 days notice I’m given too.

Seems whenever things in my life start settling down and I actually start getting things done, this shit pops up…

Hrm, I just remembered I was supposed to do some work for an old client this weekend too… LOLOLOL…… :-(


Seems I’ve been called off to head office again at literally a day’s notice. I was heading up next weekend though for a LAN with the Avatars (the UT clan I’m in), so I guess it isn’t all bad. Only problem now is carting around my PC, a new LCD monitor which I’ll pick up while I’m there, 2 weeks worth of clothing, and my laptop. Going to have to courier the PC up and have someone courier it and the monitor back after the LAN :(.

Internet is also blocked during office hours in head office, so I’m basically stuffed as I can’t exactly go home and see to things in the evenings. Where I’m responsible for a bunch of projects, websites, etc online, this isn’t exactly helpful at all. Hopefully I can still SSH home every now and then… Can’t even use VNC since my PC’s going to be all over the country.

Should be back by Monday the 28th… They don’t even know where I’m going to be staying while I’m up there.

*sigh* I hate this :(.