April 30, 2008

Linux Quickies

Filed under: Emacs, Linux, Tech — Chris @ 8:31 pm

The upgrade from Ubuntu Gutsy to Hardy Heron (cool logo, right?) was relatively uneventful. Some minor points…

  • I always thought the main Ubuntu servers would farm my downloads off to an appropriate mirror, but apparently that’s not the case. You’re likely to get better download times if you choose a mirror in System -> Administration -> Software Sources. If you choose “Other…”, there’s a “Select Best Server” feature. Oddly, my best response times were from New Zealand… maybe because they were all asleep when I tried it.
  • The “ugly fix” for the infamous hard disk annihilating bug stopped working after I upgraded. This new, different (but still ugly) fix worked for me. It would be really great if the Ubuntu team could find a way to make the OS stop trying to kill my hard disk by default.
  • My WiFi light stopped working after the upgrade. This is very easily fixed by installing the package linux-backports-modules-hardy.
  • etckeeper is a great idea: it puts all the config files in /etc under Git, Mercurial, or Bazaar source control and forces APT to commit before and after any upgrade, so it’s easy to isolate and revert changes. (As a side note, using Bazaar for a few weeks makes it physically painful to be forced to deal with CVS.)
  • Anti-aliased fonts in Emacs are really nice. On Ubuntu Hardy, install emacs-snapshot-gtk (on prior releases, downloads “Pretty Emacs”), then run emacs-snapshot instead of emacs (or run update-alternatives to set emacs-snapshot as the default). You should then be able to run, e.g., emacs --font "Monospace-10" and get pretty, pretty (lick-able, as they say) fonts. Other reasonable choices are "BitstreamVeraSansMono-X" or "LiberationMono-X", where X is your desired point size. You can also invoke M-x set-default-font and type your choice interactively, but for some reason the TrueType fonts above won’t tab-complete—if you type a non-existent font, Emacs will silently use the default system fixed-width font (see System -> Preferences -> Appearance -> Fonts). I’ve added the following to my .emacs:

    (if (>= emacs-major-version 23)
    (set-default-font "Monospace-10"))

    (The conditional is necessary if you may come into contact with earlier versions of Emacs, which will barf on TrueType fonts.)

  • In my experience, the fonts in your web browser will look better if you don’t use Microsoft’s gratis TrueType core fonts (package msttcorefonts in Ubuntu/Debian). In particular, the Trebuchet font (which crops up frequently, including at the top of this page) tends to look pretty bad with subpixel rendering turned on. Red Hat’s Liberation fonts (package ttf-liberation) are designed as drop-in replacements for the Microsoft fonts, but I haven’t seen much value in installing them.
  • The instructions I gave last month for hooking up to a projector aren’t complete, because they often won’t let you run the projector at a resolution greater than 640×480. This led to a rather embarrassing scene in front a class of undergraduates, where simply refused to operate at such a pathetic resolution. This problem can be solved by the methods presented here, though it requires a bit of tweaking to get things just so. I haven’t yet discovered a minimal solution—first I need to crack the meaning of the X11 “MetaModes” option. When I do, you’ll be the first to know.


  1. Ubuntu? I didn’t know you were a Celtics fan?!?!

    Comment by AC — June 5, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

  2. Interesting.

    Comment by Chris — June 5, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

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