Linux tips

In today's world of global free software, the operating system is not as important a concept as the distribution: While the operating system and its kernel provide the technical base for the computer applications, the distribution affects software installation and updates, overall system stability and concistency. At the moment, I suggest Debian GNU/Linux distribution for any computer system.

There is so much free software available, that the problem is often more in finding the software and selecting the best for the task. That's why also I list applications I've found best.

There are so many custom configurations and needs that the supplied and preconfigured software can never give a perfect system. Luckily there are many net pages that list individual tips and tricks including circumventing known software bugs and limitations until the problems are fixed.

Debian distribution

The power of Debian distribution lies in its software package technology and the high quality package base. To install any established and most emerging free software packages, all an administrator has to tell a Debian system is to "apt-get install package-name" and the newest version and its dependency libraries are downloaded, installed and mostly automatically configured. To upgrade all installed software packages - security and important bug fixes included - the admin can simply command "apt-get update && apt-get upgrade".

Debian currently distributes about 4 000 free software packages. You can search for applicable packages by name, description or included file's name. You can choose to run your system with stable, testing or unstable packages, depending on how much your system needs stability or bleeding-edge features and on what stage of software testing you want to collaborate on. Bugs should be reported at the Debian bug tracking system and major bugs are resolved quickly. Debian packages ship with fixes and features by package maintainers, and these are exchanged with upstream software authors.

The downside of thorough testing and tailoring needed to include software in Debian is that the versions included of most software lag behind the upstream releases. In change there are less bugs and the software is guaranteed to run on any of the supported hardware platforms and operating system kernels.

Good applications

The apps are included in Debian or can be found at

Typing international and special characters

A key can be set to act as a Compose key: when you press the Compose key, the following two characters are combined if possible. 'A' and quote form , 'c' and comma form . After this works, you can make "dead keys" like '~' of European keymaps to work as normal keys, and use 'Compose' '~' 'n' to produce .

At least in Debian, the right window key is set up as Compose. Other general positions include the right control key and Scroll Lock.

If Alt and Meta are different keys, the left window key is used as Meta in Debian.

Peripheral access permissions

The preferable way to allow normal users access to peripheral devices such as modems, sound cards and CD-ROM and DVD drives is to use vigr to add the users to the groups which the respective device files in /dev belong to.

Extra "funny keys" on laptops and special keyboards

To see how the extra keys work, you can use showkeys on the console or xev in X. If the keys don't generate any events, you need a kernel patch or some configuration utility tool to enable them. For example, I needed for my HP Omnibook XE3 laptop (for volume buttons and GC model you need the omnibook kernel module as well).

Once you can generate keycodes, you could assign them to free key symbols like F13 onwards, or use a tool like hotkeys which can be run in X session to grab the keycodes and run configured actions.

Nice actions include volume control, xmms commands to control playing music, xscreensaver-command to activate screensaver, powersave features control, running apps such as a terminal window, browser or email client.

Sawfish and Services

Sawfish is a nice window manager, I have included my configuration file here. For all the requirement statements to get fulfilled, you'll need to install the named modules as well.
© 2002 Tuukka Hastrup (

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