December 21, 2011

Therefore, install Linux

Early this past term I partitioned my MacBook hard drive so I could install Linux on (part of) it---at least in part because I was telling my students to do this, and I needed to make sure I knew what I was talking about. But also, the Mac system I'm running is aging and I really did not want to be giving more money to Apple.

At the time I installed Kubuntu (the KDE variant of Ubuntu). It was okay, but KDE has always felt sort of heavy to me. On my work desktop I'd installed straight-up Ubuntu, with Gnome, but that has been a bit of a fiasco the last year or so; I used to like Gnome okay, although almost as heavy as KDE, but Gnome 3 and Ubuntu's layer atop it (called Unity) are hard to use, harder to configure, and seem geared towards mobile tablets and pads as much as desktop and laptops. I actually went so far as to install fvwm on that machine, which was an improvement over Gnome/Unity (really!), and definitely very nostalgic, but it was not well integrated and ultimately was a decade or so out of date.

So one of my winter break projects was going to be to reinstall my laptop's Linux partition with other Linuxes to find one I was happier with. Having done some previous research, a likely desktop environment seemed to be Xfce (which may have been founded by former fvwm users, but in any case seemed to be the refuge of choice for several high-profile OSS folks who were fleeing Gnome/Unity). I was actually leaning towards Linux Mint Xfce edition, but was momentarily stymied by the distro ISO being DVD-targeted (my laptop only has a CD burner), so I went with Xubuntu instead, and so far I'm pretty happy with it.

Coming from decades of Mac use, and more recently two or three different Linux installations, I actually kind of feel like installing Xubuntu was like being led to the promised land. It really is the modern update of the power user's Unix/Linux environment that I came to love during college and grad school; I have access to all the crazy configuration options that Gnome and KDE have slowly been eroding or hiding away, but with a nice, fresh front end that doesn't make me feel like it's 1999. It has some of the very nice Mac-isms that I've long admired, like a dock (well, it's a "panel", and I had to do some configuration to make it match my Mac dock, but that's ok :), but it also has fixes for some of the things that Apple has broken (like good virtual desktops, which Spaces never managed to be). And I didn't even have to go diving into the text config files to turn on focus-follows-mouse---and I could turn on FFM without also activating autoraise.

There were just a few configuration issues that I had to go hunting for, which I'll document here for my own future reference as well as for anyone else installing Xubuntu (or, probably, any other Xfce-based Linux distro) on a Macbook. (For reference: currently it's Xubuntu 11.10, on a Macbook 4,1.):

  • If you don't want tap-to-click, there seems to be no place in the GUI configuration to turn it off. You need to run this command:
    synclient MaxTapTime=0
    
  • If you do want to be able to use the two-finger swipe motion to do horizontal as well as vertical scrolling, as you can on a Mac, you need to run this command:
    synclient HorizTwoFingerScroll=1
    
    (Vertical is on by default, but not horizontal.)
  • The default trackpad configuration in Xubuntu (Kubuntu too, as I recall) is way less sensitive than on the Mac side, with the effect that you have to use the pads of your fingers instead of the tip in order to use it. If that bothers you as much as it bothered me, you probably want to run this command:
    synclient FingerLow=9 FingerHigh=13
    
  • Finally, the MacBook's headphone jack is a dual analog/optical port, and when it's in optical mode it shines a red LED; and for some reason, this is turned on by default in Xubuntu (and apparently the other Ubuntus), with the effect that you have a red light shining out the side of your laptop. To turn this off,
    amixer set IEC958 off
    
  • Since each of these need to be run each time you start up, you probably want to automate this. Put all of them in a file that starts with the line
    #!/bin/bash
    
    and which is set to be executable (using chmod); then in the setting manager, go to Session and Startup > Application Autostart and add the file you just created, which will then be run every time you log in.

Happy Linuxing!

"The living people who call themselves Jedi may know with great certitude that Luke Skywalker never existed, but that doesn't keep them from being passionately devoted to what they believe are his ways, investing as much into their fandom as some folks invest in Christ. That they choose this as their religion has NOTHING TO DO with the literal reality of the story. Same goes with my belief in Christ." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 9:44pm on 21 Dec 2011
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