Protesilaos Stavrou
Philosopher. Polymath.

Introduction to Prot's Dots for Debian

Prot's Dots For Debian - Book index

The purpose of this book is to help you reproduce my custom desktop session on Debian 10 ‘Buster’ (the current Debian “stable”). The set of configurations that make up my system shall hereinafter be referred to as “my dotfiles” or other notions that are described in context.

My dotfiles apply to a BSPWM session. That tiling window manager is the core package. Complementing it, are programs that draw a system panel at the top of the viewport, display desktop notifications, set the wallpaper, perform live theme changes to the terminals and graphical applications, and the like. The idea is to have a lightweight yet perfectly functional desktop environment by combining small, specialised tools.

A short description of my custom desktop session:

  • Debian because I prefer longer-term predictability over novelty.
  • bspwm for fine-grained window management, with my custom scripts for added features.
  • tmux to make the terminal power user even more powerful (no plugins).
  • vim because I need an efficient text editor (no plugins).
  • True minimalism: no complex status lines, no fancy prompts, no decorative elements that add no functionality whatsoever.
  • Carefully-defined font configurations to complement my hardware and satisfy my aesthetic preferences.
  • Full integration of my Tempus themes for considerate colour contrast and easy live theme switching for the entire session.
  • The superb Maté desktop environment as a fallback option and provider of some important programs and system-wide base configurations.

A book, not an install.sh

Some of PDFD’s chapters or sections thereof can, at times, be read as a shell script with extensive inline documentation. While I could have provided a script to automate the installation process, along with some basic guidelines on how to use it, I have opted to use this format instead. It is to ensure that no random user attempts to install something they do not fully understand, both in terms of its content and scope.

A book makes the installation process fully transparent to the user. You can read what I am doing, inspect the relevant files and, if needed, make changes on the spot.

By following the steps in Prot’s Dots For Debian (PDFD), you will develop an intimate understanding of my dotfiles, which will help you further customise the environment to your liking.

This is important and ultimately good for all parties involved, due to the highly personalised nature of dotfile management.

Prepare to adapt things to your liking

Please understand that my dotfiles have been designed with my use case in mind. There are bits and pieces you might find surplus to your requirements or outright unsuitable to your needs. Hopefully this manual will help you identify them at an early stage and address them accordingly.

By sharing my work, I do not purport to be an expert on the matter. I am just a regular user who has spent enough time documenting their practices. If you happen to identify areas in my setup that could be improved or altogether reworked, your contribution shall be taken into consideration.

Not for hipsters

The target audience for this book is the experienced GNU/Linux user who wants to run Debian 10 ‘buster’ as a desktop OS. PDFD may also appeal to existing BSPWM users of other distros who would like to test my custom desktop session in a virtual setup or cherry-pick features for use in their setup. Newbies are welcome as well, provided they are willing to learn and understand who this book is for.

You do not need to be a programmer to follow the instructions in PDFD—I am not one either. Though it is recommended you have at least some knowledge of shell scripting: it is required to make certain adaptations to programs such as the one that controls the system panel.

Why Debian and not some rolling-release distro?

Exactly because I do not need the latest version of every package ever released. I was an Arch Linux user for a good amount of time. While I did learn a lot and consider that distro my second favourite, I did not find any compelling reason to cling on to the rolling-release model for the entire operating system.

Perhaps paradoxically, Debian is exciting because it is predictable. It takes a very conservative stance towards introducing breaking changes. It does not chase new technology trends for innovation’s sake. Debian is reliable. Simple and super effective.

This is precisely what we need for the custom desktop session: a stable OS that we can expect to remain constant for at least another couple of years. Else we are trapped in a state of flux where we need to track every changelog out there in order to keep our custom desktop environment in good working condition.

If I were using a rolling-release distro, I would not be writing this book. Things change all the time and it is impossible to maintain documentation such as this: I do not want this to become some full-time occupation.

Here is a rule that is based on my experience: in an ever-changing OS, the broader the scope of customisations, the greater the chance of experiencing breakage or minor annoyances that require manual interventions.

For someone like myself, who tends to document the various types of functionality that affect my setup, with this book being a prime example, it simply is too much trouble to constantly update everything for whatever marginal benefit there is to be gained from a fresh package version.

Speaking of “fresh”, we should avoid thinking of packages in terms of groceries. That is a pernicious metaphor. Programs remain relevant for as long as they work and receive security fixes (where appropriate). The criterion for evaluating a program is not its recency or the hype around it, but its serviceability. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Programs that fall in that category do not become “stale” just because their last upstream release was a few months or years ago.

Stability means predictability and peace-of-mind. This is the constant against which one may develop habits to meet their computing requirements. Having a stable basis means that you ultimately treat customisations as a means to the end of a more efficient workflow. You do not care about incessant “ricing” per se; constantly tweaking things for the sake of fitting in with the cool kids. You are interested in a custom desktop session that behaves the way you intend. Every customisation, every minute refinement, every careful tweak, serves the purpose of minimising perceived friction, of shortening the distance between your mind and the machine. Nothing more, nothing less.