Here’s for a small change of pace…

I’d like to talk about a tool I’ve all but forgotten I’m even using (and that’s a compliment to its stability and unobtrusiveness).

dzen is a great little application from the folks at suckless. It’s one of those do one thing and do it well types of tools. It’s probably not useful at all for anyone with a bloated –ahem, excuse me– featureful desktop environment or window manager (or both).

In my case, I’m using just XMonad with its beautiful simplicity. This means, of course, that there’s no out-of-the box… anything.

I’ve already covered some of this from an XMonad perspective, so this post is more about dzen’s general usefulness.


First up, a small visual notification when I adjust my volume:

ossvol screenshot 

It fades in (implicitly thanks to xcompmgr) for just a second when I adjust my volume and gives me that nice, unobtrusive indication of the volume level.

The actual volume adjustment can be done in many alsa or oss specific ways; for my implementation, just see the script as it is live. Completely separate of that, however, we can just use dzen to show the notification:


# we use a fifo to buffer the repeated commands that are common with 
# volume adjustment

# define some arguments passed to dzen to determine size and color.
dzen_args=( -tw 200 -h 25 -x 50 -y 50 -bg '#101010' )

# similarly for gdbar
gdbar_args=( -w 180 -h 7 -fg '#606060' -bg '#404040' )

# spawn dzen reading from the pipe (unless it's in mid-action already).
if [[ ! -e "$pipe" ]]; then
  mkfifo "$pipe"
  (dzen2 "${dzen_args[@]}" < "$pipe"; rm -f "$pipe") &

# send the text to the fifo (and eventually to dzen). oss reports 
# something like "15.5" on a scale from 0 to 25 so we strip the decimals 
# and send gdbar an optional "upper limit" argument
(echo ${level/.*/} 25 | gdbar "${gdbar_args[@]}"; sleep 1) >> "$pipe"

Pretty easy, and about as light-weight as you can get.

Status bar

Little known fact: you can use the ubiquitous conky to feed a simple statusbar via dzen. This means you can also use dzen escapes in your TEXT block to do cool things:

dzen screenshot 

My statusbar has the following “features”

And here’s the conkyrc to achieve it:

background no
out_to_console yes
out_to_x no
override_utf8_locale yes
update_interval 1
total_run_times 0
mpd_port 6600

[ ^ca(1, mpc toggle)${mpd_status}^ca()

  ${if_mpd_playing}- ${mpd_elapsed}/${mpd_length}$endif ]

  ^fg(\#909090)^ca(1, mpc next)${mpd_title}^ca()^fg() by

  ^fg(\#909090)${mpd_artist}^fg() from


  Cpu: ^fg(\#909090)${cpu}%^fg()

  Mem: ^fg(\#909090)${memperc}%^fg()

  Net: ^fg(\#909090)${downspeedf eth0} / ${upspeedf eth0}^fg()

  ${time %a %b %d %H:%M}

Line breaks added for clarity.

The most interesting part is the clickable areas: ^ca( ... )some text^ca() defines an area of “some text” that can be clicked. The two arguments inside the first parens are are “which mouse button” and “what command to run”. Pretty simple and damn convenient.

Then all you’ve got to do is call this from your startup script:

$ conky -c ~/path/to/that | dzen2 -p -other -args

The -p option just means “persist” so the dzen will never close.


This was just two examples of some uses for a simple “pipe some text in and see it” GUI toolkit – there are plenty others.

This echoes one of the great things about open-source: something like this is so small, so simple, it could never have survived marketing meetings, planning sessions or cost-benefit analyses – but here it is, and I find it oh-so-very-useful.

29 Apr 2012, tagged with linux